Before The Party – April 2013

Experience: 9/10

By Rodney Ackland

Directed by Matthew Dunster

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Wednesday 10th April 2013

Based on a Somerset Maugham short story, this is a brilliant play in an excellent production. The performances from the cast were all flawless, and even though our seats were far enough to one side for me to miss the odd line here or there, it wasn’t enough to diminish my enjoyment. I would happily see more of this writer’s work if we get the chance.

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The Sacred Flame – October 2012


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

Children’s Children – June 2012


By Matthew Dunster

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Monday 11th June 2012

The title of this play is meant to reflect the concern over what sort of planet we’re leaving to our children’s children, but apart from a long speech about the oil industry ruining parts of our planet – the environment and the people’s lives – this wasn’t really what the play was about. It concerned the relationships among a group of people, several of whom had been friends from their younger days, and charted the ups and downs in their relationships as the wheel of fortune turned. At times it was very funny, at times it was a bit dull, but although it could easily be criticised for a number of reasons, the overall story arc was strong and compelling enough to keep me in my seat for the second half – not everyone felt that way judging by the gaps after the interval.

Each act was introduced by a monologue from one of the characters, with a final monologue rounding the play off. For the first act we heard from Louisa, Michael’s second wife and the outsider of the group. Michael had previously been married to Clare, and with the other couple, Gordon and Sally, they had all gone to drama school together. None of them had made it big until a few years earlier, when Michael suddenly became ‘Mr Saturday Night’ through TV presenting, rather than acting, and after a couple of years not seeing much of each other, Gordon and Sally are visiting Michael and Louisa for lunch. Also included are Ellie, Gordon and Sally’s daughter and Michael’s god-daughter, and her boyfriend Castro, a wannabe film director.

The set was a stylish modern sitting room, with shelves on the right and windows to the left, doors either side, and prints of comic characters (Flash, Green Lantern, Iron Man) on the walls. The bottom shelf held a vast array of alcoholic drinks, the second shelf was mainly books, while the top shelf had a big ‘WOW’ along with some pottery. The colours were plain but strong, and the overall effect was of money and success. Louisa was a nervous talker, frequently changing direction, while Michael was a typical alpha male, dominating the conversation and giving excessive amounts of detail about the way sherry is made – his latest thing. Gordon was an unpleasant straight talker, while Sally was clearly having a lot of problems coping with their situation, which became clearer as the scene played out. Castro was a nice lad, almost the only decent character in the play in some ways, but there were already signs that he wouldn’t actually achieve anything despite his strong desire to address social problems in his films. His African background – his family were Zambian – gave him an interest in the exploitation of that continent’s natural resources and people, hence his knowledge of oil exploration and gas flaring later on.  Ellie was the most obviously obnoxious character from the word go; a sulky, spoiled brat, she didn’t like anything much, and although her father’s violence and threats towards her were shocking to watch, I got the impression that she was too far gone to respond to anything else.

After some initial chat, Gordon makes it clear that he wants to talk with Michael alone, so the others are hustled out of the way. Gordon spins Michael a real sob story about his financial difficulties, and Michael is broadly sympathetic. He’s made it big, the money’s no big deal to him, lifelong friends, etc. Gordon finally produces a figure of £50, 000 – enough to clear his immediate debts, and Michael is fine with that. Then the figure gets bumped up to include all the debts, and Michael’s suggesting £100,000. Then there’s the need for Gordon to set himself up in his own business, making use of his gardening skills – he’s had no acting work for a long time – so it’s up to £175,000. And finally Gordon plays his trump card; Ellie’s pregnant, Michael’s her god-father, so before you know it, the total sum is £250,000, and in cash! (So the banks won’t get their hands on it.) At this point, it looks like a generous gesture from one friend who’s had huge success, towards another friend who’s completely out of luck.

The second act began with Sally’s monologue, when she told us how important Dorset was to her. Apparently she and Gordon had been joined on their honeymoon by Michael and Clare, with the group getting so smashed on the wedding night that Sally fell asleep in wedding dress on the floor while the other three ended up in the bed together. What larks! The set had been changed to show a garden setting, with the walls swung round to give the French doors and a garden wall, a table and chairs, lounger and a swimming pool at the back. This was the house in Dorset which Michael mentioned he was buying in the first act, which was close to where Sally and Gordon got married. They were now staying at the house from time to time, usually when Michael and Louisa weren’t there, and much more often than Michael and Louisa knew about. On this occasion Ellie and Castro, along with their baby (whom we never see) were also staying, and it was during the family rows that I started to nod off a bit, family rows being much the same wherever you go. It’s fine to show these things in all their natural awfulness, but they don’t necessarily have dramatic value nor do they create any tension or sense of jeopardy. Still, once Michael and Louisa turned up, there was plenty of both.

The end of Sally’s monologue had hinted at a change of fortune for Michael, and so it was no surprise when he and Louisa turned up unexpectedly at their country retreat to avoid the press. Michael had finally been accused of sexual assault and harassment by a couple of women at the TV studio, and although Sally talked convincingly of his innocence, Louisa was clearly not sure. Michael was in a very bad temper, understandably, but did calm down enough to share with Gordon that, while he intended to tell Louisa the truth, he wasn’t sure yet which truth it would be – it depended on how many women came forward. He started to put pressure on Gordon over the money he’d given him, the investment in the business, and when he could expect to get some of it back; Gordon fobbed him off as best he could, but it was clear he hadn’t put an ounce of effort into setting up a business. The act ended with Sally getting a call from her agent about an audition, with the prospect of a TV series; the wheel of fortune was taking another turn.

They took the interval after act two, which gave the stage crew plenty of time to set up the third act set – a fancy modern kitchen with a table and chairs to our right and the appliances and work island to the left. The door was roughly in the middle. The monologue this time was done by Castro, who expressed his dislike for Ellie and the whole family. He felt he was caught up in their lives and seemed to want to get free, but would he actually have the nerve?

Since act two, Michael had gone to prison and lost everything, including Louisa. Gordon had died, and act three took place after the funeral. Louisa was there, and with both of their menfolk out of the way, she and Sally came across as stronger people. Sally had been successful at the audition, so this new house was entirely her doing, while Ellie’s looks had resulted in modelling work, and she had also produced a range of clothing for mothers and daughters – completely identical clothes. She was also adept at using the social media as part of her marketing strategy, so although she was still vain, self-centred and thoroughly unpleasant to everyone, she was at least making a success of her life commercially. Castro was very unhappy about this, but despite his strong convictions, the world had yet to see any visible results from his film-making.

This act did develop the attraction between him and Louisa. We’d seen it during the first two acts; she’d been uncomfortable about it because of his relationship with Ellie, especially once he was the father of her child, but she was also the only person who seemed to be really interested in his ideas and passions. The result of this was a ten minute monologue about the damage being done to the environment and local cultures by the oil giants, Shell in particular. He even talked about how people in the West found these subjects boring, and tuned out of any discussion of them, which was true of most of the audience tonight. But it showed us the positive side of Castro, a side we hadn’t been able to see before because the other characters were always shutting him up, and it also allowed Sally to change her attitude towards him; she’d been heavily into charity work when Michael had lots of money to give away, so she had both empathy for Castro’s ideals and an understanding of how often the talk wasn’t converted into real action.

The changes and character development were interesting enough, but then Michael turned up, looking like he was sleeping rough, and demanding that Sally repay the £250,000 he had lent to Gordon years ago. Ellie was so angry that he’d even turned up that she went for him and had to be restrained, while even Sally, up to now the most tolerant of people, had the most vicious rant at him and the other two in their original group, Clare and Gordon. All her resentment of the way they’d treated her, all her suspicions of betrayal came pouring out in an almost incoherent torrent of words. She grasped the work island and was bent almost double as she relieved herself of all the bile and bitterness she’d stored up. And in a wonderful touch of black comedy, when she turned around and saw Louisa standing in the doorway, she became apologetic for having said all those things in front of her.

The reactions to Michael wanting his money back were interesting. Sally and Ellie disclaimed all knowledge of the £250,000. They had been told, by Gordon, that he’d got £10,000 from Michael to pay off the mortgage, and nothing else. (I wasn’t sure if that had been paid back to Michael or not.) The rest was news to them, and when Michael said he’d paid Gordon in cash, he suddenly looked like the biggest idiot in the world. Louisa knew about the loan, but she wouldn’t confirm or deny anything; she was still angry with Michael for throwing away the good life they both had, and was focused on getting him out of the house. She told Ellie to call the police and tell them that Michael was in the house and was threatening them; given his background, the police wouldn’t be happy with that situation. This led to the funniest bit of the play; after Ellie had called 999, she yelled into the phone that ‘Michael fucking Stewart was in her house and she wanted him fucking out’ or words to that effect. After a pause, she said, quite calmly, ‘police, please’ – we all knew what the rest of the conversation had been. [I checked the text later – that wasn’t in the original script.]

After Michael left, the act soon finished, and then the play was rounded off with a monologue from Ellie, again expecting, twins this time. She was ever so proud of her daughter’s first blog (not that her daughter was actually writing it, of course), and she spent some time telling us about the naming options they’d come up with for the twins, one boy and one girl. The girl was easy – there were lots of African names which had beautiful meanings. She had wanted to name the boy after her father, but Gordon? Although it wasn’t the most clear-cut ending, this speech did round off the play well enough, and could be seen as an upbeat ending in some ways.

While it kept me watching, I wasn’t entirely satisfied by the play. I can’t put my finger on the reason for it, but it just didn’t fully engage me. It’s fine to pose the questions without having any answers, but what questions was this play posing exactly? It’s still enjoyable enough, and the performances were all absolutely excellent, but I wouldn’t expect to see it again anytime soon.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Love The Sinner – June 2010


By Drew Pautz

Directed by Matthew Dunster

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Thursday 17th June 2010

This play set its stall out very effectively, but in a misleading way. The opening scene was set in a meeting room somewhere in a posh hotel in a major African city – I didn’t catch any names, and I got the impression it was meant to be generic. The attendees were all clerics, dog collars well to the fore, and since one was a woman, I assumed this was an Anglican shindig. The initial point being clarified was who wanted what to drink. It emerged later that this group had sequestered itself away to thrash out an agreement which included a wording about accepting different lifestyle choices (i.e. homosexuality), and for all we know that may have been the sole purpose of the meeting. The African delegates were having none of it, the lone woman was the only one who dared to speak up for the European and American congregations, and the archbishop, Stephen, was trying to encourage them all to play nice. Some hope! When I talked about them ‘thrashing’ out an agreement, it wasn’t entirely metaphorical.

When the coffee arrived, the group all closed their eyes, so as not to be influenced by any outsider. There was some humour in the way they chatted with the waiter, and he was certainly surprised to find everyone had their eyes shut. Only Jonathan Cullen’s character Michael opened his for a short spell near the end, as he tried to give the waiter a tip from the general contributions. After he left, the arguments went on, and showed no sign of doing anything but entrenching the opposing views even deeper.

This was good stuff, and since there were no program notes to give us a clue as to the overall direction of the piece, we naturally assumed that the themes of reconciliation, attitudes to homosexuality, and the way the west treats the rest of the world and vice versa, would be given a good airing. But no. The next scene shows us Michael and the waiter, Joseph, after they’ve had sex. Joseph wants Michael to take him back to England. Michael is appalled at the idea, and there’s a very stuttering conversation which darkens into menace and even violence, when Joseph shows Michael that he’s taken Michael’s wallet and passport. He refuses to give the passport back, but Michael is saved by the arrival of Daniel (yes, they all had tediously obvious biblical names, apart from Shelley, Michael’s wife). This scene felt very dated. Homosexuality may not always get an easy ride still, but it is talked about more openly than was shown here, and if all we were meant to understand from this scene was Michael’s discomfort with his own actions, then we could cheerfully lose about three-quarters of the dialogue, as we got that point very early on.

The next scene, which took us up to the interval, was set back in England, in winter, in Michael and Shelley’s house. I must confess to dozing off a bit at this point – there was so little to keep me awake. Basically, they dodge and spar around three subjects – at least Michael does the dodging – but they’re both showing the wear and tear of a problematic relationship. The subjects are their difficulty having a child, Michael’s recent obsession with reading the Bible at home, even on weekdays, and the removal of a squirrel family from their loft. I have no idea what we were meant to get from this, none whatsoever.

The second half also began with a good scene, this time Michael having a management meeting at the envelope-making company which he owns. He wants to add church donation envelopes to their range, what with the reduction in letter sending, but his team aren’t enthusiastic. They’ve clearly had enough of his attempts to sanctify the workplace by removing the porno calendars and putting up religiously symbolic pictures of light shining through clouds instead. One chap was brave enough to point out that they didn’t know what to expect when he came into work – nice Michael who was considerate and understanding, or money-man Michael, all nose to the grindstone and telling the staff off if they made a mistake. When Michael asked what they thought he should do, the lone woman (again) suggested he kill off one of the Michaels, so that at least the other one would have a chance to make things work, a very funny moment.

Shortly after this, Shelley arrives. She wants to know who Joseph is, Michael is reluctant to tell her, they bicker (the staff have left the room by this time), and before you know it, they’re getting ready to have sex on the table. The scene ends with a knock on the door at a most inopportune time. Very funny.

I think the next scene is the final one. Daniel and Stephen, the nice Archbishop, turn up in the basement of Michael’s local church, to prepare for some speech that Stephen will be making shortly upstairs. They discover Joseph hiding out there, with Michael’s help, and the whole story unravels. Daniel, who appears to be some kind of spin doctor for the Archbishop, is totally wound up at the prospect of a gay liaison being uncovered at a local church, and while the Archbishop is actually there! Stephen seems to be more concerned about the welfare of Michael and Joseph.

We also get to see the scars on Joseph’s back, so we know just how bad things were for him back in Africa. Other than that, there’s not a lot to this scene. It ends with Joseph, smartly dressed in a suit, heading up the stairs to the main body of the church, but to do what, we hadn’t a clue. Michael is left, cringing in despair in the basement, but again, we’ve no idea why. The music swells, the light shines through the stained glass window, and all to no effect as far as I was concerned.

With plays like this, I feel I miss out because I was never brought up in an organised religion. I’ve learned a few things along the way, but sometimes the arcane methods and practices of these groups are so obscure to me that I reckon a lot of the subtler points miss me by a mile. I have no idea why we were being shown these things, or what we were supposed to get out of the piece. We both felt there was a good play in there, with some moments that work very well on stage, but it needs a lot of work to make the grade from our point of view.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at

Troilus And Cressida – September 2009


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Matthew Dunster

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe

Date: Wednesday 2nd September 2009

“War and lechery” is what this play’s usually about, and we got plenty of that today. We also got a good reading of the central relationship, and a running time of less than three hours for which my behind was very thankful.

The set projected forward of the stage again, with a curved edge. A narrowing channel ran from the ground level at the far side of the stage up at an angle almost to our side, with the slope allowing additional access to the stage. There was a square platform in front of the regular balcony, draped with cloth above and with curtains at each pillar below. The two main pillars were also concealed behind cloth wraps which made them look like, well, pillars, and the whole floor seemed to be covered with gray tarpaulin which had been painted with the odd bluish streak to resemble marble. It looked odd to begin with, but we were soon caught up in the story and the well wrapped set, with its hidden surprises, soon became an important part of the performance.

The unfolding of fabrics was a key part of this. While there were some armour storage solutions brought on from time to time, the main changes were brought about by drawing curtains, lifting up cloth to make the top of a tent, displaying a map of Greece, and using a long piece of green material to wrap around a pillar for Pandarus’s orchard. There may have been other things I’ve forgotten now, but the best bit was probably near the end. When Troilus comes on shouting about Hector’s death (Hector’s body is lying in the channel, with a decent-sized trickle of blood running down from it) black streamers fell down each pillar in the auditorium, simultaneously, and so abruptly that the audience gasped. It was a good effect, and overall it was one of the most active sets I’ve seen here.

The story was pretty active too, with plenty of sword fighting to keep us amused. Thersites’ initial description of the situation was illustrated with soldiers from both camps – Greeks in blue and Trojans in purple (makes a nice change from red). They didn’t fight, but did some practice manoeuvres (i.e. dances) instead. They didn’t hold back when it came to the actual battles, though.

The love story between Troilus and Cressida developed nicely, with Matthew Kelly as Pandarus giving a tremendous performance. I could hear every word and understood most of it too, even without the occasional lewd gesture to help it along. His own affection for Troilus was pretty clear, and I noticed how much he was concerned for that young man rather than his niece when the news of the exchange arrived. He made the most of every funny line, and was the best thing on the stage.

Cressida seemed a bit too lively at the start, running around all over the stage for no apparent reason, but at least this time we knew what she really felt about Troilus. As the story developed, particularly when she was first brought into the Greek camp, she came into her own and her vivacity and wit fell into place. I felt sorry for her, and I was very aware of a sense of menace in her situation in the Greek camp; she seemed to be looking towards Diomed for protection, and although she regretted being unfaithful to Troilus I couldn’t see what other choices she had.

Troilus was manly enough and not as silly as I’ve sometimes seen before. The Greeks were all fine, with the exception of Thersites, who delivered his lines in such a straightforward way that much of the humour disappeared. However he did add in one or two bits of his own, such as picking up debris from the battle and declaring “Trojan war memorabilia” then trying to sell it to the audience. Ajax was wonderfully full of himself, and it was good to see Jamie Ballard again, this time playing Ulysses, the crafty Greek who manipulates Achilles so well. These machinations were good fun, especially with Ajax strutting his stuff. I found Trystan Gravelle’s Achilles a bit wimpy myself – he clearly needed the benefit of his dip in the river Styx to be able to survive in battle. I also find that the Globe’s policy of letting each actor use their own accent contributes to the lack of clarity in the dialogue, as it not only takes me longer to tune in to a variety of accents, but some accents just don’t work so well in delivering Shakespeare’s lines. However on the whole the lines came across reasonably well this time.

The ending of the play was extended by having Pandarus give us a reprise of many of his lines from the play, as if from his grief and loathing. As he did so, the rest of the cast gradually came on stage with drums; in place of the usual dance we got a drum chorus instead, and very good it was too. Not the best production I’ve seen, but they kept the pace up and gave us a good performance.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at

Testing The Echo – February 2008


By David Edgar

Directed by Matthew Dunster

Company: Out of Joint

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Tuesday 26th February 2008

This is a new play, dealing with the experience of becoming a British citizen. In a number of short scenes, we follow the difficulties and successes of a varied group of people, some who are taking a language class and integrating their citizenship training within that, and some who are studying individually. We also get to know their reasons for wanting citizenship, although I realise I’m completely unsure of the motivation of one of the most important characters in the play, Nasrim. She’s the hijab-wearing Muslim woman who finds great difficulty in adapting to the British approach to life, objecting to even looking at a picture of a cooked breakfast as it contains pork. She eventually makes a complaint against the teacher of the class, Emma, and succeeds in driving her out of that school, and possibly out of teaching altogether

This was one of the good aspects of the production – it didn’t try to preach or moralise about the rights and wrongs of any situation, but did its best to let the characters tell their stories and leave the audience to take from it what they would. At the time, I felt that Nasrim was sincere in her beliefs, but without more information on her point of view, other than her holy book says this, or her culture says that, I’m left feeling that her character is ultimately the loser, as she remains ignorant of other possibilities for relating to people. I’m also in the dark as to why she wanted citizenship in the first place, and therefore it’s hard to assess her responses. If she wanted greater freedom and equality, then she needed to learn that other people are free too, free to choose what they want to do. It’s difficult to balance the operation of a tolerant society when there are those within it who are intolerant of those liberties – and that applies as much to our politicians as it does to immigrants or existing citizens. Still, it obviously got us thinking, and that’s no bad thing.

To help the audience understand the new citizenship test, there were lots of information snippets through the play, more at the beginning and less later on as the characters developed and their situations took over the play. I did find some of the info stuff a bit boring. It was more like a lesson than a play at times. There was a screen along the back of the acting area, and a couple of times they used this to demonstrate the difference between the original citizenship manual “Life in the UK – A Journey to Citizenship”, and the second edition, which had been “simplified”. I suspect the excerpts used were meant to make a point, but I just found them confusing, apart from a couple of comparisons in the second set, which did at least make a small joke. It wasn’t always clear how the second version had been changed from the first, and so the effort was wasted on me.

Apart from the screen, there was only the acting space, eight actors, lots of chairs and a couple of tables. The actors carried off numerous parts really well, and as their stories started to emerge, I began to enjoy the performance. At first it was dry and rather dull, but there were some interesting observations. The personal stories gave me more of an insight into some of the difficulties faced by immigrants who don’t know English particularly well, and whose cultures do nothing to prepare them for ours. One chap was constantly teased at work by his colleagues, who took his test book and kept asking him questions and poking fun at him. But they were silenced when he turned out to know a lot about football. And when one woman got her citizenship certificate, she was finally able to negotiate a better deal from her partner, who had been treating her more like property than a person. The fact that incomers to this country even have to be told that it’s an offence to be violent towards their partner is a shocking indictment of the treatment of women worldwide, and one reason why I still consider our culture more advantageous than some on the planet. We’re not perfect, but at least we seem to have learned some valuable lessons; I hope we don’t unlearn them in trying to treat all other cultures as equal to ours.

We also attended the post-show discussion, but although there were some interesting comments, I didn’t learn more about the production than I’d already seen. Sadly, I didn’t think to ask what the title meant, so I’ve no idea how that relates to the play. On the whole I enjoyed it, but there were dull moments.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at