Love’s Labour’s Won – October 2014

Experience: 9/10

aka Much Ado About Nothing

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Christopher Luscombe

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 29th October 2014

Brilliant. We’d heard from one or two sources that this version of Much Ado had been altered to make it fit into the Love’s Labour’s Lost mould, and that it was less enjoyable as a result. Not a bit of it. We realised early on that the impact of the Great War was being completely ignored, and that the play’s lightness and jollity were intact, even if the text had been well trimmed. The set was basically the same, although there were some different locations, and with the passing of four years, the style of the costumes had altered to fit.

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Love’s Labour’s Lost – October 2014

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Christopher Luscombe

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 23rd October 2014

I was concerned during the early scenes of this performance that I wouldn’t enjoy myself half as much as I had for the previous RSC production (starring David Tennant, and, incidentally, with Edward Bennett as the King and Sam Alexander as Dumaine – both are promoted this time around). We sat by the left walkway a few rows back, and my sightlines were poor; the stage design and blocking meant that I had a great view of several actors’ backs and saw little of the early reactions and exchanges. Don Armado chose to lie down a lot on one or other of the various sofas, so it was hard to see his facial expressions, and the only glimpse I had of Jaquenetta’s face in her first scene was when she turned to give a flirtatious wave ‘goodbye’ to Costard. The dialogue wasn’t as clear as I would have liked either, so I was feeling a bit flat until about half-way through. After that, the comedy built beautifully and I was laughing loud and often until near the end of the evening when the tears started to come as well – more on that later.

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The History Boys – January 2011


By: Alan Bennett

Directed by: Christopher Luscombe

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Monday 24th January 2011

I wasn’t drawn to this play when it was on at the National; no idea why, it just didn’t grab me despite having an excellent cast, and being by a great writer whose work I usually enjoy. I was happy to go to Chichester to see it, though, and at least now I have some idea why I wasn’t keen to see it earlier. Some of the problems were down to this production, one was unfortunately in the audience itself, but some were definitely down to the play.

Firstly, the audience. The couple behind us were determined to have as many ‘chatter’ moments as they could. They cut it pretty fine at the start, almost talking over the dialogue, and they used every scene change to continue their not very quiet conversation, but it was at the start of the second half, when they did carry on over the first lines, that I turned round to tell them to shut up. In no uncertain terms. And thankfully, they kept quiet for the rest of the play, which is probably why I enjoyed it more in the second half.

The next problem was the delivery. I could hear some of the dialogue clearly, and the singing was fine, but I missed a lot as well, including some of the jokes. The accents didn’t help, but I got the impression that this was a proscenium arch production that hadn’t been fully adjusted for the wide thrust stage, and the actors may not have been prepared for how much more they would have to work to get the lines across.  Naturally, that ruined much of my enjoyment. Also, with the proscenium arch staging, I found it hard to see some of the action properly, especially the opening scenes of each half where Irwin, in a wheelchair, was mostly obscured by the furniture. I gather from Steve that the opening scene at least was done by video at the National, so presumably they didn’t want to tour with that level of technology, or else they just wanted to do it differently. Fine, but I wasn’t involved enough at the start because of it.

Then there were the performances themselves. Mostly fine, there were some weaker areas. Much as I love Philip Franks as an actor, with many fine memories of his work through the years, I felt his Hector wasn’t ‘strange’ enough to make sense of the role, and not entirely believable as the closet gay teacher who gropes his pupils’ balls while driving his moped with one hand and much too fast. I say ‘closet’ gay – this was one closet that had lost its doors. Steve reckoned Richard Griffiths was much more eccentric, and that worked better.

Likewise, I found some of the other characters weren’t well drawn enough. The female teacher, Mrs Lintott, while having some of the best lines, didn’t seem to have any particular character, Irwin was very weak, both in delivery and characterisation, and although the main boys were very good, there was a lack of depth in the ‘chorus’ that left me cold. I suspect we may have caught this production very early in its tour, and that it needs some time to get to grips with the play. [Not so; after checking websites, this tour started in 2010] At the moment, it feels like the actors are relying on Alan Bennett’s writing too much, and that just saying the lines should be enough. For me, I want to see more acting as well, and especially I’d like to be able to hear the lines they’re saying as well.

Finally, there’s the play itself. I’m not a boy, my education experience was very different from the one shown on stage, and I found I not only disagreed strongly with many of the opinions expressed, I also felt the thinking in this area seemed very shallow. I didn’t get any real sense of the different attitudes to teaching – Steve says this came across more strongly in the National production – and therefore much of the play seemed pointless. And what exactly is wrong with encouraging students to think for themselves and have a different point of view? I agree it can be used simply as a technique to make someone sound more intelligent and knowledgeable than they are, but it is also a valid way to make a point, and in general, I think it does history, as well as other subjects, no harm at all to have to tackle multiple viewpoints. After all, many of the cultures the British colonised for so many years have had opinions which differed from the accepted British Empire view of history, and these have been and are being assimilated into a greater world view – what’s wrong with that? I certainly agree that much of the TV history presentation is akin to journalism – naturally, since that’s what works on TV. And what’s wrong with journalism exactly? None of this was explained; it just seemed to be assumed that we would all agree on the ‘correct’ standards, and so find the jibes at one or other target to be funny. Well, some were, most notably the emphasis on league tables and the treatment of women in the academic professions. But a lot weren’t which is unusual for a writer of Bennett’s calibre. I can only assume that with so many parents concerned about their children’s education, this play touched a funny nerve, which is why it was so popular.

So not the best evening in the theatre, then. I’m glad I’ve seen it, and I wouldn’t rule out seeing it again, in a much better production. Steve reckoned he would have given the National version a nine or ten-out-of-ten rating, and this one only a six, so clearly there are problems to be sorted out from our perspective. Regardless, I do hope they have a good tour, as many people last night were clearly enjoying themselves more than we were.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Alphabetical Order – May 2009


By Michael Frayn

Directed by Christopher Luscombe

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Saturday 16th May 2009

A is for Actors. This was a decent bunch.

B is for….  Bugger, I hate these alphabetical lists. (And I even had a ready-made entry for W. Witches. How often does that happen?)

This was our first visit to the Hampstead Theatre. I’d seen it under construction for a number of years when visiting a friend in the area, but it’s taken a long time for us to take that final step and actually come here to see a play. I like the look of the place, the ladies’ loos are fine, there’s lemon sorbet on offer at the interval, and the auditorium feels snug and intimate. We joined the Friends scheme on the spot. The only down side to today’s trip was that our seats were right at the back in the mezzanine, row M, and I felt I was missing a lot through being so far from the stage, but we’ll know better when we book next time. And we also managed to make our first visit on the very Saturday the Jubilee line was completely closed!

The play itself is obviously dated, although it took a while for me to suss out the period. Given that it’s set in a local newspaper cuttings library, there would have been plenty of scope for the dialogue to have firmed this up, but it wasn’t to be. Likewise, in the second half, I wasn’t aware of how much time had passed since the first. Not essential, I know, but I felt the overall vagueness as to time had leaked into the production as well, making it less funny than it could have been. I had the feeling that I’d come in part way through, as there was a good deal of laughter in the early stages for no reason I could see. Perhaps I missed a reaction, or just didn’t get the joke. I then found I was laughing at some things pretty much on my own, so the audience was definitely not as one in the early stages.

The set was also pretty dominant, which may have affected my experience. The characters seemed quite small and mostly static against a set of bright blue (verging on turquoise) filing cabinets and cupboards, there were a couple of desks, a lift door with wrap-around stairs, various office accoutrements (kettle, coat stand, etc.) and a mass of papers and folders everywhere. The mess was transformed during the interval to leave the place spick and span. Food could have been eaten off the floor, had one so wished, and assuming Lesley (the tidy one) wasn’t there to stop it. In trays were clearly marked, removed folders had to be signed for, all trace of comfortable nooks and crannies for errant journalists to lurk in had been scrupulously removed, and only Lucy’s desk, now separated, even distanced from Lesley’s and with a marvellous view of a wall, retained that air of total disarray so familiar from the first half. It didn’t stay that way for long.

The first half shows us Lesley’s first hour in her new job as assistant to Lucy, the newspaper’s librarian. Lucy’s the scatty sort, arriving late because she spent half an hour trying to decide whether to buy a fur coat in a charity shop for five pounds. She did buy it, and then spends several minutes in the office trying to decide if it’s really her. Being nice to everyone and finding information in the mess that constitutes her filing system are her two main talents, so it’s no surprise when she invites Arnold, one of the journalists, round for supper. He’s an older bloke whose wife has gone into hospital, leaving him without protection from Nora, the features editor and a predatory widow who’s desperate for company. There’s a garrulous messenger called Geoffrey, the leader writer John, who has been in an on-off relationship with Lucy, and Wally, another journalist or editor who livens the place up by constantly pretending to be about to run off with Lucy.

All of the existing group get on reasonably well, allowing for the usual amount of bitching behind each others’ backs. Lesley on the other hand is the compulsive type, who doesn’t find the current employees as charming or as entertaining as they find themselves. Without staging an actual coup she still manages to take over the library, hence the massive change in the interval. Both Steve and I noticed some signs on the filing cabinets and cupboards in the second half, but we weren’t close enough to read them (no doubt they were instructions from Lesley).

This time it’s John and Lesley who are having the relationship. She wants to buy a house, he’s showing all the usual signs of dithering. Lucy is still there, and nominally in charge, but she’s clearly finding it hard to keep going. Eventually, the news comes that the paper is to close, and with Lesley not in the room, the rest of the cast indulge in a frenzy of clippings tossing. In no time at all, the floor is awash with news cuttings and I could really relate to the fun they were all having.

Then Lesley arrives, and handles the situation remarkably well, I thought. She did point out that there was a meeting to try and keep the paper going by means of a staff buy out, so in fact the cuttings will be needed again. The play finishes with Lucy starting to get the bits of paper back into order while the others have headed off to the meeting, a slightly down beat ending.

I would say this isn’t Michael Frayn’s best work, possibly because of his background in journalism, working for the Manchester Guardian and then the Observer for a number of years. He may have liked and appreciated the characters and story, but that doesn’t necessarily translate well to the stage. I have no complaints about the acting – Penelope Beaumont was a late substitution for Annette Badland, and did a fine job – but the piece was just too slight to really engage me. Even allowing for the way we were affected by our distance from the stage, I wouldn’t consider this one worth seeing again.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at

Enjoy – October 2008


By Alan Bennett

Directed by Christopher Luscombe

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Monday 27th October 2008

I have absolutely no idea how to categorise this play. It was certainly funny; we were amazed at some of the things we laughed at in this play, including a disabled chap with a plate in his head, the washing of a dead body, someone peeing through a letterbox, obvious poverty, etc. It was also very dark in places, and although there was a surreal air to the suited folk who took the house, and in fact the whole street, off to a museum situated in a park, complete with forgetful old woman, the line between realistic and surreal was so fine as to be almost invisible.

The set was the sitting room of an old back-to-back, with the door on the left, kitchen door next to it, and stairs next to that. It seemed ludicrously small in the vast space of the main stage, which added to the fun, and presumably made it easier to take it apart at the end. There was a folding table with two chairs to the left of the door, a sofa between kitchen and stairs, and to the right was the chair that Wilf, or Dad as he was mainly called, sat. He had been knocked down by a hit-and-run driver, so couldn’t walk very well and had a plate in his head. He kept his porn stash behind his cushion, and split his time between reminding Connie, or Mam, of whatever she’d forgotten, praising his daughter to the skies (a PA who was actually a whore), and bad mouthing everyone and everything else, especially the son he claimed he didn’t have, and who’d left them many years ago. Mam, played by Alison Steadman, could have lost a memory contest against a goldfish. I lost count of how many times Wilf had to remind her that Linda, their daughter, had gone to Sweden. The joke had a massive payoff though – when Linda arrived back unexpectedly, it turned out she’d actually gone to Swindon.

So far, it’s been a fairly recognisable picture of family life in those kind of houses, and in any period from the fifties onwards. The play was first produced in 1980, and we reckoned it represented the 1970s, but still seemed as if it had been written yesterday. The attitudes are so old-fashioned, but the references are to the 70s, and the feel is very up-to-date. Quite a remarkable achievement, and perhaps that’s why the play seems to be doing better today than it did when it was first produced.

A letter arrives from the council. They’ve been knocking down all the old houses and re-housing the occupants, but now they’ve realised that they’re wilfully destroying the evidence of a bygone age, and so they want to study the remaining inhabitants so they can preserve a record  for posterity, or some such reason. They want Mam and Dad to allow an observer into their house, a lady who won’t speak to them but will record what goes on. Mam decides to let her in, and it’s obvious the woman is actually a man in a grey skirt and jacket. (S)he takes a seat by the table, crosses her elegant long legs and stays completely silent throughout. Of course, Mam and Dad can’t avoid talking to her, and despite claiming to carry on as normal, their behaviour changes noticeably. The best china comes out for a cup of tea, for example, and Dad’s language improves dramatically. Mind you, it isn’t exactly a normal day they’re having, what with Linda coming back and announcing she’s off to Saudi Arabia to marry a sheikh, and Dad getting hit on the head by a local thug (who brings him his porn mags, but who also likes using the letterbox as a urinal). The thug hits him too hard on his metal plate, and Dad goes unconscious. When Mam returns from doing her shopping soon after (she forgot  she wanted a tin of salmon, so got some loo rolls instead), she thinks he might be dead, and gets one of the neighbours to help her deal with the body. Played by Carol Macready, this formidable lady informs Mam that if he is dead, they’ve only just missed him, and then they decide to wash the body, as the local undertakers is now a paving slab place. David Troughton, who played Dad, had to put up with two women groping him all over, taking his clothes off and putting him on the floor. No wonder Wilf gets an erection! It’s all very tastefully done, but the sight of the two women wondering if this reaction is normal with a dead body, while there are two observers sitting serenely, taking it all in (the neighbour brought her own observer), was utterly hilarious.

Eventually Mam decides that she’s had enough of the old ways, and that the Co-op can take care of it. They put Wilf back in his chair, and Mam checks on the “situation” from time to time. It’s about this time that Terry, their son, reveals himself. Of course we guessed who he was before this, and Connie makes it clear she recognised him as well, though her memory problems mean she doesn’t remember this a short while later. Linda comes back, in a temper, as she didn’t make the shortlist for the sheikh’s new wives. She brings another man with her, her latest client, I assume, and there’s a lovely touch when Mam assumes he’s another one of the observers, and comments on how chatty he is, not like the others. This time, Linda’s off to somewhere else, I forget where, and then Wilf revives. He’s only been unconscious after all. But now he finds he can’t move – the blow to his head must have paralysed him. Connie acts like he’s just making it up, or that it’s temporary, but we can see it’s real, and this is when the play gets really dark.

Terry explains that “they” want to take Connie and Wilf away from this place, and after reassuring them both many times that’s they’re not being put into a home, he tells them they’ll be living in the same house, but with a lot more comfort, in the museum in the park. Visitors will come round and see how bad things used to be in the old days. But Wilf  has to be taken to the hospital instead, as he needs to be taken care of, and he’s both terrified and frustrated that he won’t get into their promised new maisonette. As the suits remove the building, wheeling it off to the wings, Wilf is taken off in a wheelchair and Connie appears, dressed up to the nines, ready to go to her “new” home.  The play ends with each of the three main characters isolated in a spotlight, Wilf still in his wheelchair, telling us how their lives are now. Mam still thinks she’s in a home, Terry spends more time with Wilf, who seems to be reconciled to his situation. It’s a downbeat ending, but it works.

There were great performances all round, and some wonderfully observed dialogue, especially when Terry, alone for a moment or two, tells us what he sees in the house. It’s as if Alan Bennett was talking directly to us, and it’s understandable that the play could seem more autobiographical than it is. So a fine night out, then, even if I’ve no idea what type of play I was watching.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

The Merry Wives Of Windsor – September 2008


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Christopher Luscombe

Venue: Globe Theatre

Date: Wednesday 10th September 2008

This is another production where I need to spend some time describing the set. Two walkways led out from either side of the stage, and each curved round and came in front of the stage, joining up with a large rectangular platform. Each walkway joined this platform at the sides, but staggered, and with stairs leading down to the pit beside them. The centre of the platform was simple wooden slats to begin with, but during some scenes, the central section rotated to bring up a small knot garden, with a love seat in the middle and a small flower bed in each corner. Very pretty. During the interval, the blank side was replaced with the stump of Herne’s oak, which stayed out of sight till the final scenes, so the garden was on view for most of this half. To give access to the small area between the stage and the platform, there were sections of the walkway which lifted up, I think. Apart from this, the stage was bare, but had the usual tables and chairs brought on as required.

We were in the upper gallery for the first time, and well round the side, so our view was much more restricted than I’m used to at the Globe. (We booked too late – again.) We were facing the right-hand pillar, and much of the performance was hidden by this. We couldn’t see the stage on the near side of the pillar at all, unless we stood up and risked falling on top of the people in front of us, and even then we couldn’t get more than a glimpse. The roof over the stage cut off most of the balcony, so I’m glad these seats were cheaper than usual.

This production, in Elizabethan dress, seemed to concentrate more on the two wives and their revenge on Falstaff. Not that the other parts were lacking in any way, but with Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward as the two wives, and Christopher Benjamin as Falstaff, they were able to get full value out of the marvellous writing. This is the first Merry Wives we’ve seen since the musical version back in January 2007, and the first ‘regular’ one since the touring production in the Swan in 2003! I feel sure I’ve missed one somewhere, but that’s what our records say. Anyway, this version was very musical as well, and occasionally I found this a distraction, as the music started playing a few times before the dialogue had stopped and pretty much drowned it out.

It was a fairly standard production, and apart from Bardolph being completely cut, there were no remarkable stagings to mention, but the performances were very good, and had I been able to see more of them I would probably have rated this higher. As it was, I thoroughly enjoyed the tricks played on Falstaff, especially the way the two wives were practically incontinent with laughter as they played their ‘roles’ to perfection. That is, they were so over the top that only a fool like Falstaff would believe them, which made the whole thing much funnier. There was some poking and slapping that got a bit out of hand, but it didn’t ruin the ladies’ relationship in the long run. Andrew Havill as Ford/Brook was also excellent, and did a great job with his tortured expressions as the husband learns of his wife’s presumed unfaithfulness. At one point he ducked behind the far pillar, and although I couldn’t see much of him, it was clear he was throwing a serious strop before returning, much calmer, to continue talking with Falstaff.

Despite the difficulties, the dialogue was generally clear, although I felt some of the actors weren’t always including the upper gallery with their performances. I heard the lines about Falstaff sending his page to Mrs Page for the first time tonight (how did I miss them for all these years?), and Mistress Quickly’s prolonged discourse about Mrs Ford’s many lovers was marvellous, with Falstaff itching for her to get to the point. His “be brief” was said with feeling, and got a good laugh. Later on, during the wooing, his difficulties in getting up and down from a kneeling position were good fun, and I reckoned this story not only gave Queen Elizabeth another chance to enjoy Falstaff on stage, but also had relevance to her as a woman who had rebuffed many suitors herself. She probably wished they’d all been as easy to get rid of as Falstaff.

So, not the greatest view, but still an enjoyable performance, and a much better use of the extended stage. We’ll book earlier next time to avoid disappointment.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Star Quality – June 2006

Experience: 6/10

By Noel Coward

Adapted by Christopher Luscombe

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Thursday 22nd June 2006

This was a reasonably enjoyable evening, marred only by being nearly blinded by a badly positioned mirror in the dressing room scenes. Fortunately, the offending mirror was partly covered as the set was redressed, so I was OK, but the poor chap next to me was still being dazzled. Unfortunate, and it did spoil the end scenes for me.

I find this a wordy and rather arch play – still fun, but nothing like as enjoyable as Coward’s main works. The performances were fine, set design and lighting (with one exception) fine, though not on as lavish a scale as the previous production (seen at Richmond Theatre). I particularly enjoyed Miles Western as the director’s “personal assistant”, and the short scene where the star gets the better of the director at the end, convincing him of her vulnerability. Good fun.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at