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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A Warning To The Curious – May 2013

Experience: 7/10

By M R James

Performed by Robert Lloyd Parry

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Thursday 9th May 2013

A companion piece to A Pleasing Terror, this evening’s stories performed by Robert Lloyd Parry were Lost Hearts and A Warning To The Curious, one of M R James’ best known stories; it’s certainly been done on TV at least once to my knowledge, and a very scary story it is too.

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A Pleasing Terror – October 2012


By M R James

Performed by Robert Lloyd Parry

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Thursday 4th October 2012

Robert Lloyd Parry basically narrated two of M R James’ ghost stories, one in each half, and yet it was a very enjoyable evening in the theatre. The set was very simple: a chair, a table, some candles and a coat stand behind were all that was needed – the actor did the rest. He sat in the chair before the start and waited there under a blanket until the start of the performance, then he emerged and began to tell us the story of Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book, in the role of the young Cambridge antiquary who experiences the strange events of the story. The lighting was dim, and as the story progressed he snuffed out a candle from time to time, making the stage a fraction darker. It was a very atmospheric re-telling; not as dramatic as the modern horror film genre but still enthralling and spine-tingling.

The second story, The Mezzotint, was connected to the first by the Cambridge man referring to the strange behaviour of some Oxford men he knew; this strange behaviour included spending time on the golf course and then having long conversations about the game afterwards. It was nice to have these touches of humour lightening the tone. The story of a picture which changed to show the details of a gruesome event from the past was just as atmospheric as the first, and although these tales may seem old-fashioned, I prefer this gentle building of tension. The consummate skill of James’s story-telling came out well in this splendid performance, and we bought the two DVDs to allow us to recapture the pleasure in the future.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Easter – April 2012


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

The Truman Capote Talk Show – December 2011


Written and performed by Bob Kingdom

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Friday 16th December 2011

I loved this performance from the word go, when Truman Capote appeared at the side of the stage, posing by the curtain while the music played and Frank Sinatra sang (New York, New York, as I recall). Bob Kingdom did a very good job of impersonating Truman Capote, at least as far as I could tell, and we were soon hooked into the life story of this unusual, talented writer. He structured it round the four stages of fame –

1. Who’s Truman Capote?

2. Get me Truman Capote.

3. Get me someone like Truman Capote.

4. Who’s Truman Capote?

His delivery made it very funny.

The life story was mostly new to me, but it was very interesting, and told with a dry, bitchy humour that was very refreshing. I felt there was a lot more humour than the audience responded to, even though the man sitting next to me was clearly a Truman Capote fan, as were one or two others in the audience. It’s even inspired me to check out Breakfast At Tiffany’s and one or two of the short stories.

The lighting changes and sound effects worked very well, and I liked the fact that he talked to us as the ghost of Truman Capote, knowing full well that he was dead. He refused to go into details of the afterlife, which left more time for the important stuff we’d come to see – him, basically. At the end, he did a trailer for his new piece about Dylan Thomas, and I’m torn. I’m not a Dylan Thomas fan, but this performance was so good, even I might be converted. Or at least entertained. For now, though, this was a good evening out, and I hope it comes round again, for all that it’s been advertised as a farewell tour.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Call Mr Robeson – November 2011


By Tayo Aluko

Directed by Olusola Oyeleye

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Thursday 24th November 2011

I knew very little about Paul Robeson before tonight – black singer and actor, politically active, married a white woman (wrong, they were only ‘close’ friends) which angered both the white and black communities in America; that was about it. Turns out I knew more than many Americans do about this amazing man, who stood up for the rights of black people, but even more strongly for the rights of all working people, regardless of skin colour, and whose powerful influence was so cruelly wiped out by a hostile American government that his name is largely forgotten amongst many of the groups who ultimately benefitted from his contribution.

His life story was compellingly told by Tayo Aluko, who also wrote the piece. He had been ignorant of Paul Robeson’s existence until a chance remark by someone at a concert he performed at.  He had unknowingly sung a song performed by Robeson, and the person commented on this. Once he’d heard the name, the Paul Robeson biography pretty much threw itself at him in a library, and he was hooked. He wrote this play not just as a tribute to the great man, but to make people more aware that he existed, and to promote a passion to fight for a better world for all, a passion which Paul Robeson exemplified.

The set was interesting. At first it looked a bit of a jumble, with boxes, flags, books and photos everywhere. The piano was far left, draped with what turned out to be the flag of one of the International Brigades, and we were entertained as we entered the auditorium by Michael Conliffe, a talented pianist who accompanied Tayo for the evening. As I sat and looked at the objects, I realised there was a pattern. The centre of the stage had an irregular piece of an old record, a single of Going Home, much enlarged. Then I registered that there were other sections of broken record placed around this, with some hanging up at the back, and the pattern fell into place. The flags which were draped over some of the boxes – USSR, Wales, USA, titchy little Union Jack – represented places that were important to Robeson, and the photos were part of his story too. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was a great lover of books, reading a great deal and with a ‘yearning for learning’ – the books represented that aspect of his personality.

When the lights went down, the singing started off stage – I forget which song. Gradually the voice came nearer, and then we saw him, standing but bent under the weight of a heavy load (he had a plain chair upturned on his shoulders), coming from the back of the small acting space to place the chair down on the centre of the record. The lights had come up gently, and when this entrance was complete, we could see a tall, dapper man in a smart, slightly flashy suit. He started into Ole Man River, and was well into it when he was interrupted by his wife, who didn’t want him singing ‘that darn song’ anymore. From here on he told us his story in a blend of narration, acting and singing that was very effective. There were recorded sound effects used as well, and one of these related to the title of the play: ‘Call Mr Robeson’ was the effect used when he was being summoned to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

He covered some aspects of Robeson’s youth, especially his American football career and the attack on him by not just the opposition but his own team as well. This story brought out his father’s encouragement that he should stand up for what he believed, and to set an example which would help every black boy who came after him. Other events, such as his mother’s death (in a fire?) were glanced at, but he avoided the detail while showing us Robeson’s emotional reaction – a very compact form of storytelling, and I very much liked this layered effect. I feel I could watch the play several times and come away with some new aspect of his life that I hadn’t realised before.

The story continued for about 75 minutes, covering Robeson’s hugely successful early career, the unfortunate remarks which were misinterpreted quite viciously in the American press, the government’s suppression of his work by keeping him a prisoner in his own country, the suicide attempt, his appearance before the McCarthy hearings, his all too brief reprieve and travel abroad, and the final ignominy of being unrecognised by a journalist who asked him for his views on the Civil Rights movement as he walked through Harlem. The final song was Going Home, and he reversed the entrance by taking the chair up on his shoulders again and walking off. It was a fitting end to the evening’s performance, but we weren’t done yet.

After we’d applauded for a while, Tayo interrupted us to say that he was happy to answer any questions we might have, unless we needed to leave, which would be fine. Nobody left. The questions were mainly specific ones about Paul Robeson’s life, but we also found out about Tayo’s discovery of the man (see above) and learned that he is hoping to perform the show at Carnegie Hall on his 50th Birthday next year – good luck with that. He’s also planning some new plays, including one on the exploitation of the Congo – sounds interesting.

It was a powerful evening all round, and the chance to ask questions afterwards was the icing on the cake. I felt moved by the story many times, and the section describing Robeson’s treatment by the US government was hard to listen to. This stifling of his talent was a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ for such a man, not to mention robbing the world of its enjoyment of his talent. No doubt his popularity would have waned in due course as new styles of music came along; good as the songs were, and the singing, they were simpler than the modern taste prefers. Still, in his time he was the biggest star, and for him to speak up as he did was perceived as a threat by the people in power at that time – we can only hope we don’t see such events again, but don’t hold your breath.

I enjoyed the story of the Welsh miners singing in London during the 1930s, and I liked the shift in Robeson’s awareness to a recognition that working people all over the world were being oppressed, not just black folk. After the show, Tayo told us a story from a time he’d been in Wrexham and someone had pointed out the hotel (no longer there) where Robeson had sung from a balcony to raise money for a local mining disaster. His feeling for the ordinary working folk came over very strongly, and was probably the most attractive aspect of his character.

Not that he wasn’t attractive in other ways. He had a succession of ‘close’ female friends throughout his life, but always returned to his wife Essie, who acted as his agent and manager. His fulsome praise for the Soviet Union was unfortunate; they may have treated him as an equal, but we now recognise that their workers weren’t as free as they claimed under Kremlin rule, so his views now seem politically naïve. Even so, his compassion and caring for his fellow human beings shone through.

His deteriorating mental state was signalled by Robeson interrupting himself and looking around, as if there was someone there. This had happened with his wife in the early stages, so I wasn’t concerned at first, but eventually it became clear that Robeson had become paranoid about being spied on (presumably he was being spied on?) and his breakdown was very difficult to watch. Apparently Robeson had some ECT treatments in England which may have been at too high a dose, and this may have led to his inability to resume his career afterwards. It was a sad end to a remarkable life, and sadder still that his name has been largely forgotten by so many. Steve and I are old enough to know of him, and I suspect most of tonight’s audience did, but in America his reputation appears to have been virtually obliterated. Hopefully this play can change all that.

For more information and to check out tour dates:

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

The Dumb Waiter – May 2011


By: Harold Pinter

Directed by: Tim Astley

Company: Apollo Theatre Company

Venue: Mill Studio, Guildford

Date: Saturday 7th May 2011

It was interesting to see this play again. I’d enjoyed it at school; although I don’t usually ‘get’ plays just from the text, the unsettling atmosphere of menace came right off the page with this one. The venue tonight supported this feeling, with the small space and brick walls adding their own sense of dilapidated claustrophobia. The set itself comprised a back wall with a door far left and a doorway far right. There were two single cot beds either side of the central dumb waiter door, which was quite small and square. The speaking tube was to the right of that door, but lay on the floor underneath.

The actors were on stage when we entered. Ben was reading the paper on the bed on our right, while Gus was lying on the left-hand bed until close to the start, when he took his time putting his shoes on. Simon Cotton’s portrayal of this character was on the fussy side, bordering on camp. I wasn’t sure how this would work, but the tension built up pretty well, so no complaints there. Ross Ericson was fine as Ben, with just enough bluster to his authority until the final moments.

This was a reasonably good touring production, which got a very good response from the audience – friends and family, perhaps?

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Mr Maugham At Home – April 2011


By: Antony Curtis

Directed by: Ninon Jerome

Venue: Mill Studio, Guildford

Date: Friday 15th April 2011

I’m getting very fond of one-man (or woman) shows at the Mill Studio. We’ve seen some lovely performances here, and although historical accuracy can’t be guaranteed, I’ve at least gained additional information and insight into the lives and times of some very interesting people.

Tonight it was the turn of W Somerset Maugham. Of course, I knew the name, and I’ve seen several of his plays (The Letter, The Circle), but I haven’t read any of his novels, and I knew very little about the man himself and his life. The writer, Anthony Curtis, actually met/knew Maugham, having fallen in love with his work at an early age, and since he has been closely involved in documenting Maugham’s life and work, I suspect this piece could be described as accuracy tempered with great affection. I certainly enjoyed it, and that was partly down to the writing, and partly due to an excellent performance by Anthony Smee (you don’t have to be called Anthony to work on this production ….).

The set had an ironwork bench to the left, with matching table and chair in the centre, and a desk with a seat and a comfy chair to the right. The desk had books scattered in it, plus a doctor’s bag and microscope – these became clear when Maugham was describing this part of his life – and there were assorted jackets placed here and there, as well as several hung on the coat stand behind the central table. To the right of that hung the famous Sutherland portrait of Maugham, and we learned that this was the first portrait Sutherland attempted; after that it became a trend.

The story was told in a mixture of time frames. As we entered, Maugham was sitting at the table, drinking tea and occasionally dealing the cards for the game of patience he was playing. At other times he would look around, not completely ignoring us, but not engaging with us either, and his expression would register a prissy fastidiousness from time to time. It was no surprise when spoke directly to us, as visitors to his villa in the south of France. He was a charming host, entertaining us with the story of his life, from his birth in the maternity unit of the British embassy in Paris in 1874, through the death of his mother followed two years later by his father, then the unpleasant spell with his religious aunt and uncle, and so on. The phone rang from time to time, and, apologetically, he answered it. From his side of the calls we gleaned two pieces of information; one, that he had a companion called Gerald whose gambling and absence were a great trouble to Maugham, and that WWII had just broken out.

As we moved through the different time zones of his life, Maugham changed jackets to reflect the styles of the time and his own personal choices. This helped a great deal, as the ongoing ‘current’ story shifted from the start of the war through his leaving France and returning to Britain, then his time in the US, followed by much foreign travel and his final, temperamental old age with the post-Gerald companion, Alan. The older story was also woven into this; his time at Heidelberg university, his abrupt decision to study medicine – that got laughs – his impulsive White Knight marriage, his stint as a medical orderly at the start of WWI, followed by a secret mission to Russia, which ultimately failed, but appears to have made him popular with those in power. And, of course, there was also the writing success, fame and friends to squeeze into this packed biography.

Not having seen much of Maugham before, I couldn’t tell how accurate Anthony Smee’s portrayal was, but it seemed both detailed and sympathetic to me. He caught the stammer, often no more than a hesitation, perfectly, and as Maugham commented on this himself, that was fine. He certainly didn’t hold back with the temper tantrums at the end, showing us an old age filled with insecurity, which isn’t unusual, sadly. Still, the overall impression was of a man it would be pleasant to spend time with, whose talents led to a rich, full life and a large body of interesting work. A very enjoyable performance.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Hanging Hooke – March 2011

Rating: 7/10

By: Siobhan Nicholas

Directed by: Siobhan Nicholas and Chris Barnes

Venue: Mill Studio, Guildford

Date: Thursday 3rd March 2011

This was a  very interesting one man show covering the life of Robert Hooke, an amazing member of the scientific community in England right at the time science was being developed on the basis of experimentation rather than philosophy. His contemporaries included Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton, and but for the latter’s apparent hostility to Hooke, we might all know his contribution to science much better than we do. Fortunately, a collection of his papers was discovered back in 2006; their discovery and possible auction triggered the writing of this play.

The first half was narrated by a painter and friend of Hooke, who knew him as he was growing up, mentored him, and brought him to London so he could develop and use his considerable talents. Unfortunately, his friend also became involved in the Rosicrucians, a secret group dedicated to the discovery of hidden knowledge, and the oath he took at that time caused him to betray his promise to support Hooke. Isaac Newton was also a member of the Rosicrucians, and eventually became its Grand Master, and there the troubles began. Newton disliked Hooke intensely, and Hooke’s achievements threatened to eclipse Newton’s, so Newton instructed this friend to spy on Hooke and pass on details of what work he was doing, what he was investigating, etc.

The second half showed us Hooke himself, who gave us his version of events. He was well aware that his erstwhile friend was working for Newton, and because of this he became ever more fearful of his work being stolen or worse still, destroyed. Hence he hid a bundle of papers away secretly, the same bundle that was rediscovered a few years ago. The halves were topped and tailed with sounds from the auction room, and I found myself getting quite tense about who would buy the papers and how much they would fetch. In the end, they were bought privately by the Royal Society who have had them transcribed and put on their website for all the world to view. This was tremendously good news, all the more so because Hooke believed in sharing knowledge and being open with his discoveries, unlike Newton who wanted to keep things secret until he could claim credit for them.

The biggest story of the night was Hooke’s realisation of gravity as the force by which the planets keep their places in the celestial dance. He sent his ideas to Newton, hoping the talented mathematician would collaborate on developing the theory, but was dismayed to find Newton publishing the theory of gravity as his own discovery several years later. With the finding of these papers, scientific history will have to be reassessed. In fact, Chris Barnes, after taking his bows at the end, pointed out that, with the work that’s been done on Hooke’s papers, some of the play’s lines will have to be changed. Never mind.

This was an interesting play which gave me a greater insight into the life and work of this most fascinating man. Chris Barnes’ dual performances as the painter and Hooke were marvellous, and there was a good deal of humour, which is so necessary for a subject like this.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

My Darling Clemmie – April 2010


By Hugh Whitemore

Directed by Gareth Armstrong

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Friday 30th April 2010

This was a lovely one-woman show which took us on a brisk trip through the life of Clementine Churchill, and particularly her marriage to Winston. In fact, the play opened with her first sight of the man, and ended with a memory of that moment. I sniffled a great deal, though as we were in the front row, I tried to do it as unobtrusively as possible.

The set was very simple. A rug in the middle of the stage, a writing table and chair to the left, and another chair to the right. The lighting didn’t change much, so it was entirely up to the actress to keep us involved for over an hour and a half. And this she did. Rohan McCullough gave an excellent performance as Clemmie, very upright, delicate and refined. I never knew the woman, of course, but this portrayal seemed in keeping with the little I know of her.

And of course we have the letters. Hers to him, his to her, and a few others thrown in along the way to round out the story of this famous couple, as seen from the wife’s point of view. It was funny, entertaining and moving, and a very enjoyable evening in all ways.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at