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

8/10

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 ilovetheatre.me

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

The Truman Capote Talk Show – December 2011

7/10

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 ilovetheatre.me

Call Mr Robeson – November 2011

8/10

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: http://cmr.tayoalukoandfriends.com/

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Dumb Waiter – May 2011

6/10

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 ilovetheatre.me