The Weir – January 2018

Experience: 7/10

By Conor McPherson

Directed by Adele Thomas

Companies: English Touring Theatre and Mercury Theatre Colchester

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Wednesday 31st January 2018

Irish drama isn’t usually my thing, but I was glad I went to this performance. Steve had seen the play some years ago (the revival at the Donmar) and this was certainly as good as that production, and better in at least one role. It’s not an earth-shaking drama – it doesn’t have to be, of course – but it did create a nice sense of the otherworldly, together with a gentle ambiguity which led to more discussion afterwards than many another more straightforward play.

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The Sacred Flame – October 2012

8/10

By W Somerset Maugham

Directed by Matthew Dunster

Company: English Touring Theatre

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 26th October 2012

It was an interesting choice by ETT to put on this neglected Maugham play. The style of the production was equally interesting, and although I didn’t care for some aspects of the staging, the play itself and the performances quickly had me engaged and involved.

The set was spartan but effective. Blank walls demarcated the space: there was a bedroom centrally placed at the back, a wide space in front of it, a door to the garden back left with some gravel in front of it, and stairs leading up to a balcony on the right. There was a door up there to the upper rooms, and some shelves to the left of the bedroom for the drinks tray, books, etc. The furniture was equally Spartan – apart from the hospital bed for the invalid there were a few chairs and several large fans which were in action at various times; I found the noise a bit distracting, and as there was no reason for them other than the occasional references to hot summer weather, I could have done without them altogether. The costumes were also in period, the late 1920s.

The story and style were both unusual. The story concerned Maurice Tabret, a WWI pilot who was severely injured either during or after the war, and who was completely bedridden, paralysed from the waist down. His young wife, who had married him only a few months before his injury, was doing her best to stay both cheerful and faithful, but it was soon obvious that she was actually in love with Maurice’s brother Colin, who was back on leave from his plantation. Mrs Tabret, Maurice and Colin’s mother, also lived with Maurice and Stella, his wife, and they were visited regularly by Dr Harvester and the recently arrived Major Liconda. Nurse Wayland looked after Maurice daily and lived in, and it was her insistence, after Maurice’s death, that he had been poisoned which created the whole drama. The first half of the play set up the situation and the characters, while the second half dealt with the fallout from the nurse’s assertion about the missing pills.

In dealing with the question of murder or assisted suicide, Maugham is much more explicit about female sexuality than usual, even nowadays. Stella’s difficult situation and her needs, the passionate affection felt by the nurse and the mother’s love for her son are all explored in a somewhat clinical way, yet I found I was engaged with the characters and emotionally involved. There was some lovely humour too; the Major had a very entertaining expression on his face when Mrs Tabret was exposing his feelings for her from many years before, and her dismissal of any current prospects for him were equally amusing.

The play’s language is formal and heightened, like a Greek tragedy, and this was emphasised by the stark nature of the set. This created a claustrophobic atmosphere, entirely suitable for the nature of the accusations which were being flung around. Although this wasn’t a murder mystery as such, we were still keen to know the truth about Maurice’s death, and the final revelation was very satisfactory on that score. The nurse’s decision was also believable, given the circumstances and her personality, and when it finished I was very glad that we’d caught this on tour – it’s a good play, though I can see why it might not be revived very often.

The performances were all very good. Robert Demeger is an established favourite with us, and his Major Liconda was very enjoyable. Margot Leicester was an imposing presence as Mrs Tabret, and she was matched by Sarah Churm as Nurse Wayland. Al Nedjari gave a strong performance as the doctor, and although I found Beatriz Romilly a little lightweight as Stella, overall the rest of the cast were fine.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Eden End – June 2011

6/10

By: J B Priestley

Directed by: Laurie Sansom

Company: English Touring Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Tuesday 28th June 2011

From tonight’s performance, I would guess this is an early Priestley play which draws very strongly on Chekov, a kind of Uncle Vanya meets The Seagull in a remote Birmingham suburb. I have still to read the plentiful program notes, as theatres are too gloomy and font sizes too small for my eyesight these days. The performances all seemed fine, with one very good one, so we’re not sure if it was the rather predictable writing or something about the staging that just wasn’t right tonight. To be fair, the sudden heat wave didn’t help, as the theatre was so stuffy I found myself ‘resting my eyes’ a few times during the first half. Also, there was an unusual amount of noise from the audience, not just coughing but also a lot of creaky chair sounds, so perhaps we weren’t seeing this production at its best. Even so, I feel there’s more available from this play, and we’d both like to see it again if we get the chance.

The set was clearly for a touring production, with a circular platform holding the drawing room furniture, a set of stairs leading off from the centre back to the right, some steps front right leading to the garden, and a screen of wires hanging behind all this with a rectangular hole for the doorway. There were lots of lights hanging down just in front of this see-through screen, but apart from a bluish glow once or twice, neither of us could figure out what this was meant to represent. There was also a raised platform behind the screen, on the left, which was used for occasional tableaux, such as the opening section, and later when we saw Lilian, clearly upset, brushing her hair in her room. The furniture was period, which the dialogue told us, with a good deal of emphasis, was 1912, and one of the play’s themes was the juxtaposition of the characters’ bright hopes for the future with our knowledge of what’s just around the corner – very Chekhovian.

The house, Eden End, is the home of Dr Kirby. Apart from the two children currently under his roof – Lilian and Wilfred – there’s another daughter, Stella who ran away to be an actress some years ago. There’s also a housekeeper, Sarah, who’s the usual common sense, unconditional love for the children type of character, and visitors include Geoffrey Farrant, a former flame of Stella’s on whom Lilian is pinning her hopes, and Charles Appleby, Stella’s husband, another actor with a not-so-great career.

The opening scene was a bit dull, but it did establish who was who, that the mother had died, that Wilfred was working out in Africa, and the general political situation with the suffragettes vying for top billing with home rule for Ireland. The new-fangled telephone came in for a bit of use, and was clearly dividing opinion much as mobile phones do now.

Things really kicked off when Stella arrived back, leading to the family’s relationships and attitudes being re-examined and changed. Lilian makes the call that brings Stella’s husband down for a short stay, out of jealousy and a desire to reclaim Geoffrey for herself – never going to happen. Stella is hoping to find a safe haven back in the house she loved, amongst her family, and finally realises it’s not what she imagined all those years while she was on the road. Dr Kirby confides to her that he’s not long for the world, and with Wilfred heading back to Africa and looking forward to a promotion in say, 1916, Geoffrey leaving to make a new life for himself in Australia or similar, and Stella and her husband heading back to London, it looks like a lonely life for Lilian, with only Sarah for company once her father passes on. Bit of a downer, really.

In fact, it’s only the humour of the clash between the characters expectations of a better world in the making, and our own knowledge of the coming horrors of WWI, that keep our spirits up; that, and the lovely comedy of Daniel Betts’ performance as Charles Appleby. The scene where he and Wilfred stagger home, very late at night, trying to be quiet so as not to wake the household, and pinching Dr Kirby’s brandy, was very funny. Just before this, Charles and Wilfred did a song in front of the curtain, a music hall number about the army, I think, which set us up nicely for the next bit.

I found I was out of sympathy for a lot of the characters in this play. I was concerned that the doctor chose only to tell Stella about his illness – if she hadn’t turned up at that point, would he have told anyone? – and while Lilian’s behaviour wasn’t ideal, I felt that Stella complaining that Lilian didn’t understand the suffering she’d been through all those long years on tour, etc. etc., was all pot, kettle and black. Stella wasn’t taking into account the suffering she’d caused by her actions, particularly as she’d hardly bothered to keep in touch with the family during her absence – they hadn’t even known she was married! As often happens, the servant was about the only one I’d give tuppence for, which does make plays less engaging, I find. Still, there was enough of interest to keep me watching, and as we’re fond of Priestley, we still hope to see this one again, preferably in a more substantial production.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Where There’s A Will – March 2009

6/10

By Georges Feydeau, adapted by Nicki Frei

Directed by Peter Hall

Company: English Touring Theatre

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 6th March 2009

This was a good adaptation of a Feydeau farce, with perfectly good staging and performances. It took the audience a while to warm up to the production and I felt there was a lot of humour going unrewarded in the early stages, but after the interval the laughs came more readily and it ended up as a good evening’s entertainment.

We’d seen this play before and recognised it within a few minutes of the start. Angèle’s second husband is finding it very difficult to put up with his wife’s obsessive suspicion that he’s having an affair. Her first husband cheated on her left, right and centre, but she was very naïve and trusting, so it came as a terrible blow when she discovered his infidelity. Now she’s gone the other way, convinced that every man cheats on his wife, and armed with her first husband’s journal of excuses, she’s determined to catch husband number 2 in flagrante, even if it means embarrassing him by interrupting an official meeting (he’s a politician).

Despite her watchfulness, her husband is still managing to see his mistress whenever her husband goes away on business. He does this by hypnotising his wife, leaving her asleep in the sitting-room with the lights turned down and the doors locked. He gets an opportunity to do this during the play (lucky for us, eh?) but what he doesn’t know is that the coachman and the maid have taken to using the sitting-room for their trysts when everyone is out, as signalled by the room being dark. There’s an extra complication (they can never keep it simple, these farceurs) with the arrival of an old friend of Angèle’s first husband, who had himself fallen in love with Angèle (unreciprocated) and to spare his friend had left for the Far East. Now he’s back, and the news of his friend’s death fills him with hope that Angèle will finally be his. When he finds out he’s too late, he’s distraught, but he hangs around long enough to discover the new  husband’s trick and to try and make use of it himself. With the husband arriving home early, being chased by his mistress’s husband, the scene is set for a lot of fun as each character struggles to come out on top, or at least not get killed.

The performances were all good. Tony Gardner as the first husband’s friend turned out to have a talent for physical comedy, getting himself into all sorts of funny poses as well as delivering his lines really well. His realisation that Angèle, believing her experiences to be a dream, was about to reveal to her husband his own impassioned declarations of love, was wonderfully expressed through his body language and judicious use of “ooh la la”.

The set was as it needed to be for this piece, with double doors to a balcony centre back, double doors to the room back left, two chaises right and left of the middle, assorted furniture appropriate to the setting, and doors either side at the front. Very much as we remembered from the past.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Far From The Madding Crowd – November 2008

6/10

By Thomas Hardy, adapted by Mark Healy

Directed by Kate Saxon

ETT and Exeter Northcott

Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Tuesday 11th November 2008

Oh, the perils of expectations! We had seen this same creative team do a wonderful production of The French Lieutenant’s Woman back in September 2006. I had also read this book and seen the film, plus another adaptation, so I clearly didn’t manage to reset my expectation meter to zero before the off. It’s a pity, as I would probably have found it more enjoyable, though not hugely, I suspect. The adaptation and production were pretty good, much higher than my rating for the performance, but there were problems above and beyond any I brought with me.

To begin with, the set was good, similar to The French Lieutenant’s Woman, with a raised platform to the right, and a lower platform to the left. This had an area with removable covers which held water for washing, sheep dipping, etc. There was one large arch which spanned the stage diagonally and suggested a barn, and other poles and planks with tree trunks interspersed among them, so there was plenty of scope for the different locations, though not always enough clarity, I felt. For the fire scene and the saving of the hay ricks from the storm, the cast brought on ladders which could be inserted into holes in the stage to keep them upright as the actors clambered all over them, while sound and lighting effects suggested the rest. I found these bits very effective. There were also some chairs, tables and benches brought on as required, but mostly the action was pretty free-flowing, with actors in one scene moving amongst the actors in another scene quite effectively.  Sheep were not present, either actual or fake, so the actors had to do a lot of miming, but again this worked well.

We may have felt less involved because we were too much to one side, but on the whole I think the main difficulties with this production were the lack of sparkle, and the casting of the main part. Bathsheba Everdene simply has to stand out in a crowd. It doesn’t always have to be down to looks, although some beauty is preferable, but her personality must command the stage. Ensemble acting is all very well, but this is one part that requires a kind of star quality, and tonight we just didn’t get that. I felt that this Bathsheba wouldn’t have stood out in a crowd of three, and that meant I couldn’t feel for her plight in being a guy magnet. The other actors did their best – Phil Cheadle as Gabriel Oak was the best for us – but the whole performance was generally dull. Also, the accents being used were no doubt very accurate, but I lost at least half of the dialogue because of it, and even Steve had difficulties following it all. There was little humour, which always helps things along, and some of the little dances they did to symbolise something or other left me cold. I suspect this adaptation could work better with stronger casting and perhaps a less cluttered set, but I also recognise that these kinds of stories, as well as being incredibly difficult to condense into a manageable length for the stage, are not my favourite type of tale. So, some good points, but overall a bit dull.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Changeling – November 2007

8/10

By: Thomas Middleton and William Rowley

Directed by: Stephen Unwin

Company: English Touring Theatre

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Thursday 1st November 2007

We attended a pre-show talk by Stephen Unwin, which gave me a very clear picture of what he sees in the play and why he was interested in doing it. I was also able to clarify the plot in my mind – although I’ve seen this one a couple of times before, I tend to get this one, The Duchess Of Malfi, and Venice Preserv’d confused with each other (it’s not difficult, honest).

With the benefit of this chat in mind, I still have to say that this is undoubtedly the best production I’ve seen of this play. It was clear to me who all the characters were, what they were about, and what was going on, something of a miracle where Jacobean drama is concerned. Although I don’t find the language nearly as good as Shakespeare’s (an inevitable comparison), the plot was good, and there was a lot of humour, which isn’t always on show. But the biggest plus was that, being a touring production, they couldn’t afford a whole asylum full of lunatics, so we were spared the gruesome spectacle of the gibbering, drooling wretches who so often claim the stage in major productions of this play, doing their best to make the audience feel entirely uncomfortable at the thought of staying past the interval. It was a godsend to have only the two false lunatics for the bulk of the performance, with the other actors dumbing down for the loony tunes group dance.

The set was a good mix of gothic castle and Victorian institution. This allowed for some very quick shifts between locations, which speeded everything up. The tragedy part, with Beatrice-Joanna showing Lady Macbeth a clean pair of heels, contrasted nicely with the care home for the mentally challenged, run by the should-be-cuckolded Albius and his servant Lollio. Although they never diminished the horrors of what was going on in these places, Lollio (David Cardy) in particular made the most of his part, bringing out much more of the humour than I’ve seen before.

All the performances were very good, but a special mention must go to Adrian (we remember the porter) Schiller, who made Deflores believable and partly sympathetic, while still being capable of butchering half the countryside to get the woman he wants. Another reminder – this is the play where Alsermo has a bottle of liquid with which he can test whether or not a woman is a virgin, involving gaping, yawning, and laughing. Why he feels he needs this stuff, and why he leaves his closet unlocked at precisely the wrong time, is something we’ll just have to ask the dramatist. Anyway, this was a great evening, and I’ll certainly look out for Stephen’s other work, though not necessarily for Middleton’s.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me