Classic Ghosts – April 2014

Experience: 7/10

Directed by Michael Lunney

Middle Ground Theatre Company

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 14th April 2014

This was a double bill. The first play was an adaptation by Margaret May Hobbs of M R James’ short story Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad, accompanied by The Signalman, adapted by Francis Evelyn from the story by Charles Dickens. We’ve enjoyed M R James’ work before – A Pleasing Terror and A Warning To The Curious were both good, chilling fun – and we were keen to see how this tale would work adapted into a play; the earlier performances were both narrations of the stories.

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The Virgin In The Ice – March 2013

Experience: 6/10

By Ellis Peters

Adapted, designed and directed by Michael Lunney

Company: Middle Ground

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Friday 29th March 2013

Fortunately I’m already a fan of the Cadfael books, as this rather choppy adaptation of Ellis Peter’s The Virgin In The Ice wouldn’t have encouraged me to become one. Middle Ground did their best, but it’s hard to transpose detective fiction successfully to the stage – Agatha Christie adapted several of her own books to make sure they worked – and despite the clever use of video for backgrounds, maps, etc., there was still a lot of stage furniture to be wheeled on and off between quite short scenes. Even with the help of an abundance of monks, this took some time and inevitably lost momentum.

I won’t go over the story again; they were pretty faithful to the book, and the scene at the robbers’ stronghold was very well done. With so much of the action being on the top of a tall structure we couldn’t see it very well, but the dialogue was clear enough. Gareth Thomas was fine as Cadfael himself, and there was good support from Paul Hassall as Hugh Beringar and Daniel Murray as the young man, Yves Hugonin. But with so much story to tell, the other characters were sketchy at best, although I wouldn’t criticise any of the actors as I did feel they weren’t helped by the adaptation.

We enjoyed ourselves well enough – as I said, we’re fans of the books – and I did have a few sniffles at the end when Cadfael came face to face with his son. A good effort, but not Middle Ground’s best work.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

On Golden Pond – March 2012

6/10

By Ernest Thompson

Directed by Michael Lunney

Company: Middle Ground

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Wednesday 14th March 2012

          This is not our preferred type of entertainment; nothing wrong with the production or performances, but the story itself is on the bland side. An elderly couple spending the summer by a lake are visited by their daughter and her new partner. The parents end up taking care of the partner’s 14-year-old son while the younger couple have a holiday in Europe, and in the course of the summer some attitudes are changed and a major rift starts to be healed. It’s very predictable, and if it wasn’t for the good performances and a regular dose of humour, the evening would have been a complete snooze fest.

          The story actually stood the test of time pretty well. The slang of the late seventies had dated a bit, of course, but the sense of an out-of-the-way location and the effects of getting old were still understandable, while difficulties with relationships are never likely to lose their relevance, sadly. A good effort, and despite the modest size of the audience I felt we responded well both during the performance and at the end.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Holly And The Ivy – November 2008

5/10

By Wynyard Browne

Directed by Michael Lunney

Company: Middle Ground

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 21st November 2011

This was a revival of an earlier Middle Ground touring production which we’d seen at the Connaught several years ago. We’d enjoyed the previous performance well enough, and tonight was a similar story.

The set was as before. A large sitting room with a sofa and chairs, a window at the back showing us the local church, doors off back right (vicar’s study), back left (kitchen and dining room), and an entrance lobby front left, with access to the stairs. The time is 1947, Christmas Eve, so there’s a Christmas tree and some decorations.

When the play starts, Jenny is finishing the decorating, but is interrupted by her friend, David, and her father the vicar, who needs to get to a school for some pre-Christmas event. From these conversations we learn that a group of people are expected for Christmas, including a couple of aunts. David wants Jenny to come away with him when he leaves for South America at the end of January, but she feels she can’t leave her father. There’s another sister, Margaret, who could come home and look after him, but it seems to be generally accepted in the family that that’s not going to happen. Jenny’s brother Michael arrives unexpectedly – he’s doing his National Service and managed to wangle some leave by making out it could be his last Christmas with his father – and he helps David to decorate the room while Jenny gets on with the dinner.     Then the aunts arrive, and they’re well worth the price of admission. Aunt Bridget is Irish, the vicar’s sister, I assume, as he’s also Irish, and she’s as outspoken as you could wish for. Aunt Lydia was presumably married to Bridget’s other brother, long since dead, but she’s still part of the family. Both women have all the instincts of the most intuitive vulture, and they soon figure out that David has sort of proposed to Jenny. So their next task is to arrange for a happy ending by getting Margaret to take over the job of caring for her father so that Jenny can get away with her young man. Aside from all this, aunt Lydia has a nice line in offering to help, but sinking happily back into the sofa when the offer is turned down, while Bridget insists on sitting in her preferred spot on the sofa, and she only has to stand and look, for others to realise their mistake and move. They were very good fun.

A chap called Richard turned up – Margaret’s godfather, otherwise not sure what his connection with the family was – but he hadn’t brought Margaret with him from London. She had the flu and couldn’t come. Nevertheless she turns up shortly afterwards, and appears to be the career woman type; smart suit, acts superior, and appears rather unemotional. During a chat with her sister, which starts out as a confrontation and ends up as a heart-to-heart, she confesses that she’d had a child by an American soldier she’d fallen in love with during the war. The soldier died, and after a few years the child also died, of meningitis. As she was an unmarried mother, she felt she couldn’t tell their father, and so she rarely came to visit. Her problem now is that she can’t face the prospect of coming back to stay with her father and living a lie for the rest of her life.

After dinner, Margaret and Michael head off for the cinema, while the others sit around and ‘chat’. Lydia and Bridget have decided that for Jenny to find happiness, the vicar will have to retire. He’s not keen on that idea, so they have to tell him about Jenny’s situation. To add to his troubles, Michael and Margaret come home well sozzled; she faints and is taken up to bed. Michael tries to cover it up, but it’s no good. He makes some comment about nobody being able to tell the vicar anything, and also heads for bed.

The next day, Christmas, brings more revelations. The vicar persuades Michael to reveal all he knows (Margaret spilled the beans to him the night before in the pub), and so the scene is set for the final showdown between father and daughter. It goes quite well, remarkably. Since he already knows the story, it’s more a case of sorting out their relationship. It’s clear that personal relationships have never been his strong suit, and he’s aware that his parishioners don’t get as much pastoral care from him as he feels he should have been giving. With Margaret on the point of leaving (they had trains on Christmas day back then!), he finally manages to connect with her, and for the first time in their lives, they actually talk to each other like normal human beings. This changes her attitude so much that she’s quite happy to stay now and take care of the old man, and when David turns up to get Jenny’s final answer, she can give him the ‘yes’ they both wanted.

It’s an interesting play, though not the best written. The dialogue is stilted at times, and the structure feels unbalanced; we get to know Jenny so much more than Margaret, yet Margaret and her experiences are really the key to the whole piece. The vicar’s attitudes are also very important, but again I don’t feel they come across strongly enough for the final confrontation to be as moving as it could have been. I was very moved to realise that this man has only just found out that he had a grandchild and lost it as well, but this was only a passing thought, when it could have been more prominent. The play is still enjoyable, but not as strong as some.

In terms of the performances, the aunts and cousin Richard (now I’ve checked the program I know how he fits in) were the strongest and most entertaining. The others were mostly fine, but Philip Madoc, fine actor though he is, didn’t seem able to get the lines across clearly in the Irish accent he was putting on. Not that there was anything wrong with his accent as such, though at times I sensed the lilting Welsh straining to burst through, but his delivery was so abrupt that I couldn’t distinguish the words. When he spoke more slowly, as he did after the final scene with Margaret, it was fine. It’s always a shame to lose so much dialogue, and I would like to see this play sometime with the father’s part more strongly cast, though as it’s not the greatest play I’m not sure who would put that on. So on the whole I enjoyed the evening, our last but one up at Guildford this year.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Importance Of Being Earnest – October 2007

6/10

By: Oscar Wilde

Directed by: Michael Lunney

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Tuesday 16th October 2007

This seems to be the year for multiple productions. This production was very enjoyable, and gave us a good balanced version of the play. The two men attempting to be Ernest were well acted, with good reactions between them. Ernest/Jack was indeed very earnest, and even aspired to noble poses once or twice, while Algernon was an aristocratic ne’er-do-well, with charm and not much else. The ladies of the Ernest fan club were a bit more muted, but still well performed, with Cicely showing less sophistication in her manner, and Gwendolyn being all elegance.

Lady Bracknell was a good match for these youngsters. She carried her part off with authority, and dealt with the handbag monster by being so shocked she couldn’t even speak the word – Ernest/Jack had to do it for her. This worked very well. She recovered sufficiently after Miss Prism’s revelations to actually speak the word for Ernest later on. Miss Prism was a bit underpowered, and Tony Britton as the Reverend Chasuble appeared to be having difficulty remembering his lines fluently, which slowed things up a bit in their scenes. Still, they got across the fanning of tiny embers of love very well, and Miss Prism’s confession was still good fun. Merriman and Lane were played by the same actor, who gave Lane a predilection for sherry, and Merriman a shaking hand and a touch of deafness. The shaking hand was useful when pouring tea, and also when Jack and Algernon had a hand-gripping contest, leading them to do their own hand-shaking till Merriman appeared.

The set was simple but effective, with a doorway at the rear, and two disconnected walls or balustrades either side. The backdrop gave us the setting each time, with the London scene being particularly impressive. The costumes were excellent, especially Lady Bracknell’s blue travelling number.

I was impressed with the detail in the production. When Algernon is chatting with his aunt on one sofa, Ernest/Jack and Gwendolyn are on the other, sitting as if they don’t have a thing to say to each other, and making it quite clear that they’re longing for a rampant clinch as soon as possible. They tried sneaking their hands together, but Lady Bracknell was ever alert, and soon stopped their canoodling. There were various examples of this extra working, and I had to be on my toes to get it all. No nodding off tonight! Algernon’s piano playing was also very good, in that it was so obviously bad. The first piece I didn’t recognise, but his attempts at The Wedding March were pretty atrocious, scarcely recognisable, and much enjoyed. One of the better productions at the Connaught this year.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Dial M For Murder – June 2007

6/10

By: Frederick Knott

Directed by: Michael Lunney

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Thursday 7th June 2007

This production had toured before, but had been largely recast, so we thought we’d give it another visit. It was still enjoyable, only now the emphasis was more on comedy. James McPherson as Tony Wendiss gave a lovely over-the-top turn as the pantomime villain; allowable as his character is playing a part for most of the play. He calmed down when he was enlisting the killer, but otherwise it was seriously “dramatic”.

The other characters were in line with this. I found the accents a bit too cut-glass at first, then realised that was the style they were going for, and relaxed into it. It all worked pretty well, and as the plot is so well known, it must be difficult to find new ways to do this play. Michael Lunney reprised his role as the Inspector, giving him a strong Birmingham accent and deadpan delivery which again brought out the humour. I remembered the use of film and the screen in the door to show us the climactic discovery, and overall, I enjoyed myself reasonably well.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me