The Man Of Destiny – February 2014

Experience: 6/10

By George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Michael Friend

Michael Friend Productions

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Friday 28th February 2014

This little-seen Shaw play was paired with another one-act piece by the same author, The Fascinating Foundling. They were both amusing, and while the Foundling was like a Gilbertian mini-farce, Man Of Destiny had a bit more to it, and we could certainly see the influence of Arms And The Man in the discussions between Napoleon and the Strange Lady. We were glad to have caught this performance, especially as we’re not likely to see these anywhere else.

The set consisted of a wide swathe of green carpet, suggestive of grass, a backdrop showing a large house with one wing coming forward on the left side, a doorway in the appropriate place on that side and a table with two chairs in the middle of the stage; the table was laid with some plates and a glass. There was a bench on the left with a bottle on it and another bench tucked away in the far right corner. I wasn’t sure if the space was indoors or outdoors – the program specifies the courtyard of an inn, which would account for the ambiguity.

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Easter – April 2012

7/10

By August Strindberg

Directed by Michael Friend

Michael Friend Productions

Venue: Mill Studio, Guildford

Date: Friday 20th April 2012

I was keen to watch this Strindberg play, one we haven’t seen before. The play is set over an Easter weekend, on Good Friday, Saturday and the Easter Sunday. The family set up is quite complicated, but we learned most of the details early on, and although some of the exposition was a bit clunky, it was very necessary. Elis Heyst, a teacher, is living in a house on a small town with his mother, his fiancée Kristina, and one of his students, Benjamin, who has to live with them because his family’s money was embezzled by Elis’s father who has been jailed for fraud. Elis’s family are themselves in debt, up to their eyeballs and beyond, to Lindqvist, a man who arrived in the town years ago, penniless, and who worked his way up to a position of wealth and prominence. He apparently owns their house and contents (the exact nature of this contract wasn’t fully clear), and Elis had to suffer the double whammy of a former pupil being rewarded as a result of stealing Elis’s own work, together with the possibility of a visit from Lindqvist to throw them out of their house.

Things don’t work out quite like that, of course, and with the theme being Easter, forgiveness and reconciliation are likely to be the order of the day. There’s plenty of suffering before the conclusion, mind you, mostly on Elis’s part and mostly brought about by his own silly attitudes, and while this isn’t the most negative Strindberg I’ve seen, it certainly paints a bleak picture of life in Sweden at the time. We also meet his sister Eleanora, who turns up out of the blue after being apparently released from her asylum; she buys a flower in such a way that it seems to be have been stolen – there was no one in the shop at the time, so she just left some money which wasn’t discovered at first – and the threat of being discovered and arrested hangs over her for the second half of the play.

The set was pretty basic, as usual with Michael Friend productions, but nicely done all the same. The front door was far left, with a window at right angles beside it. There was a table to the right of that with a typewriter on it, and further to the right was a dining table with a couple of chairs. The exit to the kitchen was far right. Front and left was another table with two chairs, and there were a few other items giving a homely feel to the place.

The performances were fine. Richard Jackson as Elis had to deliver most of the exposition, so his character took longer to establish than the others, and I didn’t get so much of a feel for his emotional journey. The other characters were more rounded, and I particularly liked the detail in Liz Garland’s Kristina and also Roger Sansom’s Lindqvist – not a lot of stage time for him, but he made an impact even so. It was a good performance – this company always punches above its weight – and we enjoyed catching this less well known piece.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Baby Makes Three – February 2009

6/10

By Georges Feydeau

Directed by Michael Friend

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Friday 27th February 2009

This evening’s entertainment comprised two one-act plays by Georges Feydeau.  The first was titled An Interesting Condition, and started with a husband and his very pregnant wife marching up and down the dining room carpet making noises – all the variations on “ooh” and “aah” you can think of. She’s suffering all sorts of agony as the baby is apparently due that day, although it’s one month early. The husband is just trying to have a little dinner, but somehow that simple desire brands him as a selfish bastard who doesn’t care a jot for his wife, despite getting her into this condition. Good job she’s not the complaining sort!

Her mother arrives and soon takes her daughter’s side. Between them, they manage to get the husband to put a chamber pot (unused) on his head (it was a dream the wife had had). The wife retires to her room.

Then the midwife arrives and starts bossing everyone around, demanding food (there’s only macaroni cheese) and wine (she settles for champagne). The wife’s father also arrives, annoyed at being dragged away from a game of cards at his club, and the exasperation of all parties mounts until finally the midwife announces that it’s all been a lot of fuss over nothing. The wife has had a phantom pregnancy. Aspersions about the husband being too useless to get his wife pregnant lead to references about his chamber-pot-wearing predilections, and the lights go out just after the husband has put the chamber pot on the father’s head so we miss out on the final punch up. But we can tell it’s going to be fun.

This was quite a funny one act play, though if we judged by the mortuary audience they had in tonight you wouldn’t have known it. The couple behind us spent the early stages scraping ice cream tubs and squeezing coffee cups, another woman leapt about a bit before settling down (she was in the front row, so it was a bit distracting) and the audience in general seemed indisposed to laugh. I thought the performances were all good and I would have rated this experience higher if the atmosphere had been more conducive to merriment.

The second piece was called Going to Pot. Another husband and wife have a number of altercations, mainly about the wilful refusal of their daughter, Toto, to take a laxative. She’s been constipated for, ooh at least three hours, so it’s obviously a major concern. All this while the husband is trying to convince an official from the Department of Defence to buy umpteen thousand chamber pots, soldiers, for the use of, which he believes will make him a fortune. One slight drawback is the tendency of the ceramic pots to smash when thrown on a solid floor. The other drawback is the presence of the wife, still en déshabillé, and the rebellious daughter, who contrives to get both the official and her father to drink the unwanted laxative while she munches on the sweeties.

It’s very funny, especially when the idea of the husband wearing a chamber pot on his head is briefly mooted, a nice echo of the earlier piece. It starts with the husband not able to find ‘les Zebrides’ in the encyclopaedia, under ‘Z’. It took me a few moments, but then I realised he was looking for the Hebrides. His wife comes in and corrects him pretty quickly, telling him he won’t find them under ‘Z’. He has to look under ‘E’. For ‘les Ebrides’. More laughter. The audience had finally warmed up, relocated, and shut up too, so this half was much more enjoyable than the first.

At long last the wife finds the entry under ‘H’, where the husband had sarcastically suggested she look. Cue an argument about whose idea it was to look there. And this was just the warm up. As the battle over the laxative heats up, the wife becomes ever more crazed, eventually forcing the official to drink a dose to show their daughter that it’s OK. He has a nervous stomach so it doesn’t do him much good. When the official’s wife and her male cousin turn up, the wife rashly informs the official that he’s a cuckold, as the closeness between the two cousins has been common gossip for some time and the rumour mill has done its worst. With that threesome storming off, the husband dashing to the loo (he took a glass of fruit salts by mistake) the daughter can pretend to her mother that she actually drank off the glass of laxative, and the play closes with mother and daughter in a fond embrace, happy at last.

Again, we liked all the performances, with Keith Myers, who played the husband both times, and Raymond Daniel-Davies (father-in-law and official) just nosing in front of a very good field. The set was straightforward, though tight for space, and the costumes were all fine. Even with the lukewarm audience response, this was still a good evening out.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Millionairess – September 2008

6/10

By George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Michael Friend

Company: Michael Friend Productions

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Friday 5th September 2008

The set for the first scene comprised a green baize floor, several straight-backed chairs, with three in a row along the back, a desk to our right with a telephone and box file, and behind it was a part wall with a window made up of small panes. The only other thing I could see at the start was a big wastepaper basket under the desk. This was the office of a solicitor called Sagamore, and he was visited in the opening scene by a series of people whose lives were intertwined. The first was Epifania, a rich heiress, who nevertheless considered herself a pauper. Her father had been worth over 100 million pounds, but lost a lot of his money before he died, so she was left a measly 30 million pounds. Enough for most people, but a real come-down for her.

She’s totally spoilt, but savvy about money, and she wanted to make her will before committing suicide. Sagamore made no pretence to know anything, but managed to persuade her to give up her plan to kill herself by giving her explicit instructions on how to make a lethal cyanide potion. Her husband Alistair and his preferred woman, Patricia, arrived and join in the discussion, if I can call it that, followed by one of Epifania’s favourite’s, Adrian. The scene unfolded in an erratic way, as most of the characters ended up forgetting what they came to see Sagamore about originally.

Not that that was a problem for us. We learned about the reason why Epifania married Alistair, and why she was determined to kill herself and curse him by leaving him all her money. Her father, whom she totally revered, told her to test any man who wanted to marry her, in order to weed out undesirables. She was to give them two hundred and fifty pounds, and tell them to come back in six months with fifty thousand. Some had tried and failed, some had refused even to try, but Alistair, a good looking boxing champ who also played tennis, managed it. Unfortunately, he did it through a con, and as they spent more time together it became very clear that they were not at all compatible, although his good looks and her money obviously helped. He took to seeing Patricia, and Epifania spent a lot of time with Adrian, although it might be more accurate to say he spent time with her, as he liked his meals and she had a very good cook.

The con that Alistair used wasn’t entirely clear to me, but it seemed to involve writing cheques for money that Alistair and his partner-in-crime didn’t have, then writing more duff cheques to cover those, until the money started rolling in and they could cover all their initial outlay easily. Their project was putting a musical on the London stage, and, miraculously, they managed to find one that made money. Not as easy as you might think, looking at the West End listings nowadays. Anyway, that’s how Alistair got fifty thousand together in such a short time, although if he and his partner had been caught out, he’d have been in jail for a long time. One other thing we found out was that Epifania was a judo expert, and that Alistair had punched her in the solar plexus in self defence after she attacked him.

The second scene was set in a tatty pub, the Pig and Whistle. The wall and windows were moved over to our left, and turned round to reveal the pub sign and a seat underneath the window. The table was brought back on with a cloth, and another chair completed the setup. Adrian threw a minor strop because the food wasn’t too good, and Epifania used her judo skills to throw him down the stairs. This led to her meeting with an Egyptian doctor, a Muslim, or Mohammedan as they were then called, who works in a hospital in order to earn just enough money so that he can treat poor Muslims for free. She took a fancy to him, but it turns out his mother, on her death bed, made him promise to set a test for any woman who wanted to marry him. He was to give her 200 piastres (about 35 shillings), and with only that and the clothes she stood up in, she would have to make her own living for six months. Epifania accepted the challenge – she had to get her chauffeur to sub them both – and was confident that she’ll succeed. (The chauffeur had just returned from taking Adrian to the local cottage hospital, so that his injuries could be treated.)

The third scene, immediately after the interval, showed us the workshop of a couple who were employing a bunch of women at sweatshop wages making clothes. Epifania wants a job, but at first they took her for an inspector, and offered to pay her two and six a week if she left them alone. She was willing to take their money, although she bargained the price up to five bob, but when she found out how the system worked – a lorry brought them cloth and took away the finished goods – she realised she could buy out the middlemen and the business could start making some real money. The wife didn’t want anything to do with her new-fangled ideas, but the husband, possibly because he was used to being bossed about by strong women, decided to take the risk. From Epifania’s behaviour, it’s clear she learned a lot from her father, and she certainly knew her employment law. We could be confident that she’d change their fortunes before the play was out. She reckoned she only needed to spend an afternoon a week with them, so she set off to get a paying job for the rest of the week – a scullery maid at an hotel, for example.

The final scene was back at the pub six months later, only this time it was called something different (The Cardinal’s Hat?) and looked a lot posher. Alistair and Patricia were staying for a holiday, and asked the hotel manageress what had caused the changes to the place. She told them the following story. Her parents and grandparents, going back generations, had always run the pub on old-fashioned lines, and although it suited them, she felt it was too seedy for her taste. One day, about six months earlier, a woman had turned up and insisted on becoming a scullery maid with them. On her first day, she broke several plates, and the mother had complained. The scullery maid went off somewhere and came back with a whole service of beautiful plates, for next to nothing. From then on, she gradually took over the place, suggesting improvements, changing the décor, the clientele, and finally buying the manageress’s parents out altogether. They were able to retire, but at a price, with one of them having had a stroke, and both of them missing the way things used to be. She stayed on as manageress, and was really happy with the ways things were now. She let slip the name of the new boss, and yes, you’ve guessed it, it was Epifania. Alistair was horrified, and wanted to leave immediately, but Patricia calmed him down, and the manageress insisted that Epifania was rarely there these days. However, two other guests did turn up. One was Adrian, finally able to get about again after the most appalling problems with his various treatments, and the other was Sagamore.

Despite the manageress’s assurance, Epifania did indeed turn up, as we knew she would. It’s time for her to meet up with the doctor, who was also there but was shown up after all the other guests. At first Epifania was threatening to sue Patricia for taking her husband away – alienating his affections – but Patricia manageed to defeat that by pointing out that as she has no money, Epifania wouldn’t be able to get any from her, and she’d be only too happy to declare her love for Alistair publicly, so that people could see that she’d taken such an attractive and successful man from the richest woman in Europe. Backed up by Sagamore’s astute observations on the futility of such an action, and her own vanity, Epifania gave way, but then turned her attention to the doctor. She told him of her success, and he tried to counter with the story of his abysmal failure. He took the money and gave it to the widow of his old mentor, a chap who developed some technical thingummyjig which he didn’t patent, and so now private companies were making lots of money from it. He negotiated with these companies to give the old woman a pension, but with the costs of the funeral, the old dear was two hundred and fifty pounds short, hence the gift. Epifania counters this by reckoning that with the invention making so much money, she could consider the gift as a retrospective investment in the development of the whatever, so he’s actually passed the test. To the doctor’s own amazement, he realised he may have to marry her after all. However he did have one consolation. When he first got there, he checked her pulse, and found it to be one of the strongest he’d ever known. So wonderful was this pulse that he found it seductive in the extreme. At least he’ll get to feel it every day once they’re married.

This was a hugely enjoyable play, wordy, as with so many of Shaw’s, but with lots of good lines, and some interesting observations on the social conditions of the time. I don’t know how far into their tour this was, but there were a few fluffed lines, so I assume it’s early rather than late. I was very impressed with the performances, which seemed of a pretty high standard, and despite the low budget, the set and costumes were very effective. I wasn’t sure at first if Amanda Sterkenburg was putting on an accent as Epifania, but from her CV she’s Dutch, so I guess that was either her basic accent, or a general European one. I don’t remember if we’re told where Epifania comes from originally, but there are a number of references to her being European, and she reminded me a lot of Bluntschli from Arms and the Man, the Swiss hotelier. Like him, she has a clear-eyed view of the world and tremendous organisational skills, though I don’t think he was quite as enamoured with money as she is.

We had a good time, and would certainly see other productions by this company, as well as other productions of this play.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me