King Lear – October 2017

Experience: 9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Jonathan Munby

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 5th October 2017

We’re so glad that Sir Ian McKellen decided to have another go at this part. We found the earlier production, part of the RSC’s Complete Works season, rather dull, but there was no lack of tension and excitement in tonight’s performance. The emotional aspects of the various characters were fully developed this time, while the staging was brisk and the story-telling clear, all of which made for a much more enjoyable and fulfilling experience.

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Wendy & Peter Pan – January 2014

Experience: 5/10

Adapted by Ella Hickson from the novel by J M Barrie

Directed by Jonathan Munby

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 22nd January 2014

Steve and I are firmly in the ‘kids of all ages’ category, and we’ve enjoyed many a show that’s been aimed at children or a family audience; Swallows And Amazons and The Heart Of Robin Hood spring easily to mind. So we were a bit disappointed to find that this version of the Peter Pan story was sadly lacking in the fun department, with the writer’s feminist agenda making for an uneven and often boring play. We didn’t clap for Tinkerbell (die, bitch, die) but there were enough who did for her to spring to life again. Our fondness for Guy Henry meant that we preferred Captain Hook to the Lost Boys, and although I sniffled a bit during the final scene when Wendy and her mother made an emotional connection over the dead brother/son, this was not enough to make up for the rest of the evening. Once more we will be returning tickets for a second viewing; unusually for us, an evening in front of the telly would be more enjoyable than seeing this production again.

I want to make it clear that my criticism is entirely about the writing; the actors did a splendid job with the material they were given, the set had some magical aspects and I’m glad to say that there was some response from the audience at times, especially during the Tinkerbell poisoning incident. Even so, this is not a production that’s likely to be revived anytime soon. The second circle was empty and there were gaps in the stalls, so word has clearly got round.

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She Stoops To Conquer – April 2008

7/10

By Oliver Goldsmith, additional material by Bryony Lavery

Directed by Jonathan Munby

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Wednesday 2nd April 2008

This was a superb production of this play, with some hugely entertaining updates and a very good cast. To start with, there were three musicians playing on the stage when we entered the auditorium. Dressed in period gear, they were playing a sit-down drum, a violin and a stringed instrument. It was very pleasant. There were also two ushers at the bottom of each aisle and a stage curtain with the name of the play on it.

The musicians finished their set, and then the two ushers started arguing. Apparently the woman wanted the man to go out with her that evening, and he was reluctant. It took me a moment or two to realise these were the two leads, and by this time they were on the stage, and had launched into an updated version of the prologue. During this, the man scarpered, leaving the woman to finish off by asking for a method to teach this guy to be more affectionate towards her in public. Up goes the curtain, and she’s off to get changed.

The set was unusual. It had the requisite three walls and various doors, but the floor was curved, as if the floorboards had sagged over the years. It was also raked back to front, so it must have taken some getting used to. Anyway, we start off by getting to see Mr and Mrs Hardcastle at some meal, possibly breakfast. Colin Baker and Liza Goddard gave us a very good husband and wife. This was obviously a second marriage by a social climber who lost no opportunity to remind everyone of her first husband, Squire Lumpkin. Her affectations were prominent, as were her intentions of keeping her niece’s jewels in the family by marrying her off to her son, Tony Lumpkin, whose age is being kept a secret. Mr Hardcastle is a kindly gentleman, with a bit of a temper at times, but more of the cuddly sort than otherwise. I remember seeing Tom Baker playing him years ago, and choosing to leap around in a very odd way. This was a much more believable performance.

The plots are being set up nicely. The usherette turns up, in a lovely green frock (the couples were colour-coded), and we get a moment of her admiring the gown she’s  wearing before the character of Kate Hardcastle takes over, and she and her father are explaining the situation. She wears what she likes during the day, but dresses more plainly in the evening, to please him. From here on, it’s a jolly romp through all the misunderstandings and manners of the period. Tony Lumpkin misleads the suitors into thinking they’re at an inn when in fact they’ve arrived at their destination, and the confusion gives us some lovely scenes.

I particularly liked the first conversation between Kate and Marlow. She was intelligent and lively, while he was hugely embarrassed and almost incoherent at times. In fact, it’s surprising how well he does manage, although she does help him a lot once they’re left alone. Both of these performances were excellent, and for once I found it believable (just) for a man to be so brash and arrogant with those he considers his inferiors, and so tongue-tied when a posh bird comes along.

I also liked the scene in the garden. Trees were lowered down to create the setting very effectively, and Mrs Hardcastle, all mired with mud and her dress in tatters, was wonderfully funny. Later she tries to use her fan, realises it’s falling to bits, and closes it again with a grimace. Beautifully done.

Jonathan Broadbent as Tony Lumpkin was the best I’ve seen in this role. He’s not so much stupid as uneducated and high-spirited, with a native cunning that will probably get him through life without too much difficulty. He may have caused a lot of the problems that the various couples face, but he’s quick to sort things out when he learns that he is of age by renouncing his cousin immediately, and letting her marry the man of her choice and keep her jewels.

There was a dance to start the second half, one much loathed by the company apparently. I enjoyed it, though others in the audience weren’t sure what it was about. I reckoned it was a kind of reprise of the action so far. At the end of the play, we were treated to another dance, and then an updated epilogue, with some entertaining references. All ends happily, as the bashful usher arrives with some large sheets of card to save him having to speak his words of love out loud. Ah.

All the performances were to the same high standard, and it made for a very enjoyable evening. The director had decided to add the musicians, and they contribute a lot throughout the play, especially when covering the scene changes as well as livening up the tavern scene. The lines came across very clearly, and the dialogue seemed very fresh for once. At the post show I asked if they had cut it much, but apparently they had only dropped a few obscure references. The freshness must have been down to the standard of the production, which was definitely the best I’ve seen of this play.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Number – November 2006

Experience: 8/10

By Caryl Churchill

Directed by Jonathan Munby

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Friday 17th November 2006

This play deals with the subject of cloning – a wonderfully open area for speculation and exploration, as yet largely untouched by dramatists. (I suspect sci-fi writers have already had a field day.) A father is confronted by three versions of his son – the ideal one, the original, flawed version, and another copy who’d been brought up without knowing his origins. The mother had died in an accident, and the original son had suffered from the loss of his mother, or from his father’s subsequent behaviour, or more likely from both – the father treats his son abominably, leaving him alone for hours on end, presumably beating him badly, and the like. Then the father decides to try and get his original “sweet” son back, to replace the monster he’s now got. So he opts for cloning, and gets back a lovely little baby, who turns out to be a “good” son. The other has been shuffled off into care. Unfortunately, the people doing the experiment, either for scientific research, or because they have to have some spares in case some don’t take, produce around twenty clones of the original, all of them still living. It’s this revelation that the “good” son brings to his father at the start, and the whole story unravels from there.

This production was immeasurably helped by the casting – Timothy West as the father and Sam West as the son. It did make one change of emphasis – when the son asks the father “Are you my father?”, we know the answer – it’s staring us in the face. With other casting, it might be possible to leave even more doubt in the audience’s mind about the relationships going on here. But this is not a complaint, merely an observation.

The set was minimal – a square floor, two chairs, lights that swept back and forth as if “scanning” the characters, and a vast array of test tubes hanging from the ceiling like a modern light fitting. This play is so tightly scripted, that we really don’t want anything too fussy to take attention away from the dialogue. And the performances tonight were excellent. There’s a lot of half-sentences, words tailing off into nothing, that say more than the words could do, and all of this was meat and drink to two such skilled actors. It took me a moment or two to tune in to the accents, but then I found the play almost Pinterish in its intensity and compactness. Not a word is wasted. The three sons are easy to distinguish, and the unfolding relationships are very compelling to watch. It’s a short play – only 50 minutes long – but it packs a lot into a small space. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

We did have one distraction the night we went. A lady in a wheelchair was taken ill towards the end, and several people were helping her – it looked like a doctor came down from the side seating to help out. She was taken out, and an ambulance was arriving just as we were leaving the theatre. I hope she was OK. Although it was visible to at least one of the actors, they carried on superbly, and we were able to keep our focus mostly on the play. There was also an appeal at the end for an actors’ charity, so buckets were to the fore on the way out.

I did miss some of the dialogue at times, which is the problem with theatre in the round – they’d put seats at the back of the stage as well this time, so the actors had to keep moving. Overall, though, it was a really good piece of theatre, and raises some interesting questions.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me