The Reluctant Debutante – February 2011

7/10

By: William Douglas Home

Directed by: Belinda Lang

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Tuesday 15th February 2011

Despite a quiet start, this became a rollicking good comedy, with a marvellous final act leaving us well pleased with our evening. The performances were all fine, although I find Jane Asher doesn’t manage scatty or neurotic very well – she always seems so organised and self-contained. Even so, the part came across well enough, and with good performances from the younger actors, and a great comic turn from Clive Francis as the reluctant father-of-the-debutante, we had a great time.

The set was a large sitting room in a London apartment, hired for the season by the Broadbent family, father, mother and seventeen year old daughter, Jane. Colours were basic cream, there was a table on the right and a sofa and chair on the left. The front door was off back right, bedrooms off back left, and the door to the kitchen was on the left behind the sofa. The telephone was prominent, sitting by the back wall beside the wide entrance to the sitting room. The costumes were naturally splendid, as befits a summer season with young ladies being presented at court.

The story worked itself out nicely. Jane isn’t keen on the young men she’s had to spend time with at the numerous balls and events so far. In fact, to her mother’s great concern, she doesn’t seem interested in young men at all, preferring her horse, Thomas, instead. Since William Douglas Home is a safe pair of hands, we can be fairly sure there’s no likelihood of lesbianism making an appearance, and sure enough it simply needs a misunderstood rakish sort with a preference for water and biscuits to change Jane’s mind. She’s fortunate enough to have two men after her though, both of them called David, the aforementioned rakish type and a Guards officer whose conversation is limited to car routes, and who has a nasty habit of grabbing young woman to try and kiss them. He’d tried it on before, at a weekend party, and when the young lady in question fled his embrace, she sought help from Jane’s other suitor, leading to the misunderstanding which brands him as a ne’er-do-well. Fortunately, he’s also the heir to an Italian Duke, and when his great-uncle dutifully pops off, leaving him with a title, Mr Broadbent soon takes advantage of the situation to change his wife’s mind about the Italian gentleman’s suitably as a husband for their daughter. We’re left with Mrs Broadbent, blissfully ignorant of the young man’s change of fortune, telephoning the new Duke to invite him to dinner, positively gushing in her excitement at Jane landing such a great prospect. I wonder what her expression will be when the Duke turns up for dinner.

I enjoyed a lot of the comments about the debutante production process, with references to the white slave trade and cattle markets. And the obvious mistaken identities were good fun too, along with Jane’s precocious understanding of sexual relationships, although she doesn’t quite grasp the idea of a ‘working girl’, probably to her father’s relief. Steve felt the audience were slow to get going, finding himself laughing at a lot of lines pretty much on his own; I just felt it was a bit of a slow-burner in the first act, but I still found several funny lines which weren’t getting the recognition they deserved. Anyway, it all turned out well in the end, so we went home happy.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Our Man In Havana – August 2007

8/10

Adapted by Clive Francis from the novel by Graham Greene

Directed by: Richard Baron

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 24th August 2007

This version of Our Man In Havana was great fun. I was vaguely aware of the story, though I haven’t seen the film nor read the book, so I was very open to see what they would do. This wasn’t the first performance but it was the second, so I wanted to give as much response as I could to help them get the feel of it. Also, one of the cast had had to be changed at short notice – Clive Francis came on at the start to make an announcement about it – so the replacement actor had only had a few days to learn lots of parts. Poor chap.

The set was really amazing. There were slatted screens across the back, which could be turned into doors, the side walls of a toilet cubicle, etc. Various desks and tables slid on and off and the cast were very good at bringing on the extras – chairs, drinks, etc. For one scene they even made the changes while dancing! Another panel to our right could be a shrine or Wormold’s desk, and there were so many variations that within a few seconds we could be anywhere we liked. There was even a map of that part of the Caribbean which came down every so often and a model plane on a stick which flew across from one side of the stage to the other – the sort of thing I really enjoy. I did find the lighting a little awkward at times – it left the actors’ faces in shadow a bit too often during the early stages – but hopefully they’ll sort that one out as they go.

It took about twenty minutes for the play to really get going – the first part obviously introduced all the characters and set the scene. It wasn’t a bad start, but there was so much to take in and my headset wasn’t working, so I had to concentrate to keep up. Also I found the amount of scene changing a bit distracting at first but that soon settled down. Once we got to the start of the fake agents, though, the whole performance took off. I loved the way the other actors came on and played out Wormold’s fantasies as he developed his list of agents.

From here, it’s a wonderful ride through the intricacies of Wormold’s web of deceit. The idea of senior Whitehall officials being fooled by large scale pictures of a vacuum cleaner was hugely entertaining, and I felt genuinely moved when Dr Hasselbacher died. Oh, and the dog that got poisoned was another great moment, as were Hawthorne’s (Clive Francis) reactions as he realised what Wormold had been up to, but felt he couldn’t expose him as he was receiving congratulations all round for finding him. Clive also had a great deal of fun with his portrayal of Teresa the stripper, as did we.

There’s too much to write it all down, so I do hope they produce a text for this. Other than Simon Shepherd, who was only Wormold and helped with the narration, each actor played a massive number of parts, and they got across the changes very well. Their adrenalin levels must be through the roof during each performance, as they have a lot to do and they all did the various roles extremely well. I certainly didn’t notice that one of the company was any less well rehearsed than the others. I hope we get a chance to see this again.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Hound Of The Baskervilles – March 2007

6/10

By: Arthur Conan Doyle, adapted by Clive Francis

Directed by: Robin Herford

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 19th March 2007

We’ve seen a number of Sherlock Homes adaptations recently, and enjoyed the way so few actors could represent so many characters. This promised to be the same, but with Peter Egan and Philip Franks as the two leads, we were having to dampen our expectations, so as not to get too excited.

The production was being done by the same folk who did The Woman In Black – I wasn’t sure what this would mean, but we soon found out. The stage was almost filled with two large screens. On the front one, a view of an open book was projected, with a blank page on the left, and the start of the story on the right. The text was blurred – Steve suggested this was to stop the audience reading the book, and getting to the end before the play did. The screen behind wasn’t visible at first, but as the action moved from place to place, the technical effects came into their own. The first screen “cleared”, and behind it we could see a bridge, with rocks around it. The second screen then gave us the backdrop – hills, hallway, etc – and these, together with the lighting, created a lot of atmospheric settings. We also had glimpses of Holmes from time to time – one item to note was that the violin playing was all done by Mrs Hudson (the actress playing her, that is).

In front of the screens, on what was left of the stage, were four “piles” of books and papers – these served as seats, tables, railway carriages, and anything else required, being shunted around as needed. The backdrop on the front screen changed regularly, which was very helpful in establishing where we were. The billiards table was invisible. So much for the set.

There were three other actors filling out the cast for this play, and they each covered a number of parts. Hattie Ladbury, as well as giving us her violin-playing Mrs Hudson, was the Baskerville housekeeper, Stapleton’s sister/wife, and the woman Stapleton proposes marriage to. Andrew Harrison was mainly Sir Henry Baskerville, but doubled as a cabbie and a postmaster, while Rupert Mason did just about everything else – Barrymore the butler, Stapleton himself, Mortimer the neighbour, plus station porters and a coach driver. I did find myself wishing they could have stretched to another actor to help spread the roles out a bit more, although I don’t intend to fault any of the actors for either their performances or their quick changes. The difference between the bit parts and the leads was noticeable, however, and it would be nice to see the other actors get more of a chance to flesh out their roles, rather than simply differentiating them.

The story is well known, so I won’t go into details. I wasn’t aware of anything missing, although there were some descriptions in the opening scenes which I think were taken from other stories and books. The hound was created by special effects, and worked very well, and the whole evening had a distinctly “Clive Francis” feel to it – slightly camp and pleasantly entertaining.

The main bonus was the two fine central performances. I enjoyed seeing Philip Franks on stage again, and his portrayal of Watson was fine. It didn’t stretch him much, but he gave us a good version of the affable sidekick who’s always that bit behind the main detective, but mainly because he’s working with such a supreme genius. His caring and his emotional reactions, so essential for the audience to relate to, were warming and funny. Peter Egan as Holmes was excellent. He carried such authority, and showed the unpleasant side of Holmes as well – not caring for anything except the mental stimulation and challenge, but so brilliant that people forgave him. It was easy to spot him in disguise, of course, which is another reason an extra actor might have helped for anyone not familiar with the story. Still, it was a classy performance, and one of my favourite Holmes representations.

Finally, I enjoyed the way they finished the play, with Mrs Hudson announcing another visitor who refuses to go without seeing Holmes – Professor Moriarty. The lights go down on Holmes and Watson sharing a look of astonishment. Good fun.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Three Men In A Boat – October 2006

Experience: 6/10

By Clive Francis, adapted from the book by Jerome K Jerome

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 2nd October 2006

This was good fun, but needs some more work to iron out the creaky bits. Clive Francis, Neil Stacy and Simon Ward were fine as the three men going for a constitutionally refreshing trip on the Thames. Although longer in the tooth than the originals, their combined experience helped the piece along. I suspect this performance was early in the run, and there were wrinkles – some hesitancy about the lines, some lines failing to get a laugh, and some clunkiness due to the surprisingly elaborate set, using a boat on a revolve. Mostly, the actors moved fluidly (sorry!) from place to place and character to character, but the boat, graphic though it was, did hamper things a bit. It was nice to see, but perhaps there’s a better way to represent it.

There wouldn’t be a better way to represent Montmerency, though. His invisible presence, indicated only by occasional yapping and his ability to pull various characters all over the stage via his lead, was excellent. The best trained dog in the business. And no little messes to clean up afterwards.

My favourite part was the scene where, in total darkness, all three men attempt to sleep in the same bed, having blown out their candles by mistake. Even though we couldn’t see a thing, the dialogue was so good, it was clear what was happening, although at first I didn’t realise all three had landed on the floor. Very funny.

I wouldn’t mind seeing this one again, once it’s has a chance to bed down.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me