Dear Lupin – May 2015

Experience: 7/10

By Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer

Directed by Philip Franks

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 18th May 2015

This was a sweet, humorous and occasionally moving story about the relationship between a real-life father and son. The son, Charles, was so wayward from an early age that his father Roger named him Lupin after the errant son in Diary Of A Nobody, though from this version of events it’s doubtful whether the original Lupin would have been able to keep up with Charles as he drank, smoked and snorted his way through his schooldays and beyond.

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A Marvellous Year For Plums – May 2012


By Hugh Whitemore

Directed by Philip Franks

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 24th May 2012

This is the second play in the main house this year, and I’m already a little worried that this anniversary celebration of Chichester’s 50 years is recalling the blander offerings of the past rather than the much stronger work of recent years. This new play was enjoyable enough but has some problems, and while it was always likely to appeal to the traditional Chichester audience profile, it’s doubtful whether it would make its mark elsewhere. The cast did their best, of course, and looked relieved to receive a warm response at the end, but the play needs work to realise its potential.

Stories about the Suez crisis are semi-topical in this day and age, but even with such relatively recent history a lot of exposition is going to be necessary, and this can tend to slow things down, as well as leading to some clunky dialogue at times. The set was broad brush, allowing for quick-ish changes of scene, and created a hazy effect of memories surfacing and time being fluid. With the appearance of Eden senior at various times, this style pointed to a focus on one man’s life, the central character in the British involvement in Suez, but the rest of the play didn’t support this take. With the introduction of Hugh Gaitskill, and his affair with the wife of Ian Fleming, author of the Bond stories, the play became about the levels of deceit that were commonplace amongst the political elite at that time, and could have been suggesting that the prevalence of such loose morals was a factor in the decisions that were made. Unfortunately, the play never got round to that sort of suggestion; while I’m all for writers letting the audience make up its own mind about these things, this was so neutral as to be negligent. I was more inclined to see the possibility of Eden’s health problems as a contributing factor, although again that wasn’t given any real consideration.

As a retelling of the story of the events leading up to the Suez crisis it worked well enough, given that Harold MacMillan was noticeably absent, but there was very little sense of tension – we do know the result, after all – and the story was only partially told, with big jumps in the timeline and only fleeting references to the political fallout. With a similar offering from the National in recent years – Howard Brenton’s Never So Good, which told Harold MacMillan’s story – this play seemed very unsure of itself, and would benefit from being tightened up and given a clear focus and through story.

Having said all that, it was still enjoyable enough, despite the structural issues and some awkward staging. The set had a strip revolve which helped with the scene changes, but as the floor was slanted, I did find it funny, and even alarming at first, to see tables and chairs sliding off the stage as if by gravity. The dancing that was used to cover the scene changes was also a distraction; it seemed to signal the time changes, but as the dancers could also be characters, I wasn’t sure if we were meant to get something else out of it. Also, this device was used to much better effect in Never So Good; using it here in such a similar piece was unfortunate – looked like copying, although perhaps it was intended as a homage?

The dates were projected onto the back wall, which was a montage of country estate and London posh, and which was used to show a lot of video footage during the evening, including some large scale pictures of speeches made by Eden and Gaitskill on stage. I’m sorry to report that I spent more time checking the pictures against the reality to see if the video was live or recorded than I did listening to the speeches, which were the usual political blather. (I got the impression they were pre-recorded.)

The play began with some music, and as the chandelier was lit and raised up, there were some dancers gliding across the floor – why? I‘ve no idea what we were meant to take from this. I did wonder if the chandelier had been left hanging low down and raised up so that we would actually notice it, but as it came into play later on that was unlikely. After this puzzling opening, Eden came on and stood near the front of the stage, speaking some words in Arabic, while the script appeared on the back wall. He said the lines in English afterwards – ‘the moving finger writes…’. Unfortunately, in the gloom I saw Eden’s face as being very like Hitler’s, and with the guttural sounds of Arabic being not unlike German, I wondered for a brief moment or two if this was what we were being shown – a speech from Hitler which had been a strong influence on Eden’s life. I suspect that similarity wasn’t intended, and perhaps I’m the only one who saw it this way, but even so this opening was muddled and low-key; not a good start.

The first proper scene was between Eden and Nutting, whose position was never entirely clear but who seemed to be involved with the Foreign Office in an economic role. He was the main sounding board for Eden’s rants about Nasser, and later resigned over the deceit involved in the Suez operation. He also put the case for giving the Arabs, including Egypt, more support rather than less through this transition period. Eden stuck to the old Imperialistic attitudes, lumbering, dinosaur-like, to his doom. Nutting, a married man, was also having an affair, although what that had to do with anything wasn’t clear. He was missing for a large chunk of the second half – resigning your post will do that to a character – and only turned up again for the final flourish, a meeting with Selwyn Lloyd, in which we learn that Nutting has written a book about Suez. It was in this conversation that Selwyn Lloyd also delivered the long-awaited punchline ‘a marvellous year for plums’. Having a good title is all very well, but leaving it to the last minute to show us the connection simply weakened the effect. I would have preferred to use the old standard of starting the play with this meeting, going into flashback, and rounding the play off with the title line – it’s hackneyed, true, but it works. Of course, the interior Eden would have to be shelved in this version, but that’s a price worth paying in my view, as those parts didn’t work for me anyway.

Selwyn Lloyd was involved a lot throughout the play, not just at the end, and helped to hold the story together. A nice performance from David Yelland, this character gave us the legal and political insights of the situation, including the possibility that the Americans would have ‘winked’ at the British and French continuing their attack on Egypt, if it had produced the desired result of removing Nasser from power. History is full of such examples of the importance of deniability.

Hugh Gaitskill and Ann Fleming were ably played by Nicholas le Provost and Imogen Stubbs, although neither was stretched by these fairly standard roles, and I’m not sure what Gaitskill’s involvement was meant to achieve. He did introduce a letter published in the Times which neatly expressed the despair felt by many people who had to watch their country’s involvement in an illegal ‘police operation’, but as the letter was read by the writer herself (up on the balcony), I’m still not clear about his role in the play. Ann Fleming was a close friend of Clarissa Eden, and her involvement was necessary to show us the personal view, while Ian Fleming’s contributions were always enjoyable – a good performance by Simon Dutton – but Gaitskill’s inclusion suggests too much research on the part of the writer, and too much concern to cover all the angles.

Clarissa Eden was played by Abigail Cruttenden, and was all that could be wished for – beautiful, charming, intelligent, and a strong support for her husband. Antony Andrew’s Eden was good, though I would have preferred his vocal delivery to be less accurate, as Eden’s strangulated tones made it hard to hear his lines a lot of the time. He certainly captured the sense of a man out of his time, and struggling to make old attitudes work in a new world. His breakdown on stage was uncomfortable to watch, as it should be, and although he made some terrible choices, it was hard not to like the man, and feel that he was indeed honourable at his core.

Martin Hutson did a good job as Anthony Nutting, and I was particularly impressed as the last time we’d seen him was as the uber-villain Prince John in The Heart of Robin Hood in Stratford. Ian Fleming commented on the importance of a good villain in his stories – how true. The supporting cast all did fine work, the dancers especially, and the costumes were all lovely and suitably period. Daniel Easton did a nice turn as John Prescott, a steward on a cruise ship who was studying history and wanted to go into politics; despite seeming unlikely, I gather that John Prescott was indeed a ship’s steward and did indeed meet Eden when he took his post-Suez cruise in 1957.

I enjoyed this performance well enough; my dissatisfaction is largely based on the sense that there’s a good play in there somewhere, and if they can rework the material enough to get it out, then I would be delighted to watch the result. As it is, this is not one to see again.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

The Madness of George III – November 2011


By Alan Bennett

Directed by Philip Franks

Company: Theatre Royal, Bath

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 15th November 2011

This was a fabulous production with an excellent central performance and strong support throughout. I hadn’t seen the original production at the National so I have nothing to compare it with, but I suspect this production would have stood up against it very well.

The set was very sparse, although that was due to the nature of Chichester’s main stage. A black wall with gaps all along the back, and a square of beige flooring in the middle of the stage – that was it! We gathered from the post-show discussion that in the proscenium arch settings, there are lots of backdrops which are used to separate the rooms; with this open set, they had to work a bit harder to get the locations across, and our response was that they’d done that very well. There were lots of chairs and a desk or two which were brought on and taken off, and the costumes were lovely as well, but otherwise it was just acting, and lots of it.

The story is pretty well known now, and although the stage play is necessarily different from the film, they cover the same ground. We weren’t shown the contents of the King’s chamber pots (mercifully!), but we did have to sit through some of the tortures inflicted on him in the name of ‘healing’ – blistering, purging, and that horrible chair.  Thank God for modern medicine.

David Haig’s performance as King George was superb. He was likeable as the relatively sane monarch, with his little idiosyncrasies and his concern for his people, but as the ‘madman’ it was very difficult to watch him at times, especially with such little understanding on the part of those around the king. With the king’s suffering so clear, he brought a huge amount of compassion out in me, which is no bad thing. He told us in the post-show that he’d started learning his lines months before rehearsals began, as it was the only way he could get all that dialogue into his memory in time. His delivery was fantastic – even the gobbledygook was understandable, if you see what I mean.

The queen was magnificently regal, while the Prince of Wales (are we allowed to hiss and boo?) was wonderfully self-centred and petulant, with a face you just wanted to slap (no offence to the actor). Mr Pitt was sober and careful, the Lord Chancellor sly and politically adroit, and Fox, Sheridan and the Prince’s other cronies creepily reminiscent of recent political events. The doctors were marvellously unconcerned about the efficacy of their treatments with the exception of Willis, who although he showed the most concern for the King as a human being, was equally ineffective with his treatments and received a deserved cold shoulder by the end. At least he wasn’t torturing his Lincolnshire patients to make them better. The servants also did a good job, although their parts were less well defined, and the whole cast did a fine job of adapting to the wide open spaces of Chichester. There was plenty of agony along the way, but plenty of humour to lighten the load as well – a good mix.

From the post show we learned that this was the final week of their tour, before the production goes into London in January. The audience who stayed behind were very appreciative of their hard work, and David Haig in particular was very complimentary about the Festival Theatre as a performance space, with the audience wrapped around the stage. Apparently Alan Bennett doesn’t go to revivals of his plays as he always sees things he wants to rewrite, so he prefers to concentrate on whatever play he’s currently developing. He sends his brother Gordon to see the revivals instead!

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

The Deep Blue Sea – August 2011 (1)


By: Terence Rattigan

Directed by: Philip Franks

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Monday 1st August 2011

Given the intimate nature of Rattigan’s writing, it was a surprise to see that this was being staged in the main house. I wasn’t sure how well it would work, and with a more open set than I’m used to for this play my expectations were kept nice and low. Fortunately, as this is one of my favourites, the performance overcame these conditions to tell the story superbly well. I cried buckets, and of course there were a lot of laughs too, as well as the shocked reaction to the shilling incident. Full marks all round for a great evening.

The set had the room floor clearly marked out, with rubble lying outside the walls, representing the debris still left over from the war. The back wall had the kitchen nook on the far left, main door in the centre, and bedroom door far right. There was a dining table between these doors with a sideboard against the wall behind it. In front and to the right was a chaise longue coming forward, with a chair in the centre and a large footstool to the left. The gas fire and meter were at the front of the stage. There was a coat rack in a corner beside the door, and a picture hanging on the back wall, with several others stacked in odd corners. The overall effect was drab and dingy, if spacious.

On such a large stage, the performances had to be bigger than usual, and as we were nice and close they did seem a bit over the top at first. I soon realised what was going on, and adjusted my own perceptions so as to tone down the effect, and the rest of the production went just fine. The young couple who dominate the first section are meant to be crass in any case, as a contrast to the more sympathetic and understanding characters of Mrs Elton and Mr Miller, so it all worked well.

The individual performances were all very good. Susan Tracy was lovely as Mrs Elton, all concern and sympathy, but completely unable to keep a secret under the slightest of pressure. Faye Castelow was perfect as the nosy young wife, Ann Welch, with just the right gleam of pleasure in her eye at the thought of the potential scandal she was witnessing first hand. Later on, she showed us her character’s vulnerable side, when she admits that she doesn’t like being alone at night. Joseph Drake matched her nicely with his portrayal of Philip Welch, so bossy and manly, and just as judgemental as his wife given the chance. I love the way Hester turns his own pretensions back on him when she locks him in the room, telling him it’s another chance to study human nature. Both husband and wife have a lot to learn, but I like the fact that Rattigan shows us their humanity to soften our feelings towards them.

Ewan Wardrop drew the short straw of playing Jackie Jackson, a sounding-board for Freddie with not much else to do, but he did a fine job with this small part. Anthony Calf was magnificent as Sir William Collyer. When he first arrived he appeared very uptight and angry, but I could see that this was a combination of his formal judicial manner and his great love and concern for Hester.  He never fully unbends, but even so, we get to see what Hester has left behind, the good and the not so good, including their shared friends and experiences. I was very touched by his kindness and reserved expressions of love – he didn’t want to cause Hester any pain, even though he was enormously distressed to be losing her all over again. This was an exemplary Rattigan performance, with the restraint showing us so much more than a direct expression.

John Hopkins gave us a jollier Freddie than I’ve seen before. While he must have been affected by his wartime experiences, he seemed the sort of chap who wouldn’t have been good at relationships anyway. His borrowing of the shilling was more of a temper tantrum than malicious, and I could sympathise with his difficulties to some extent. Pip Donaghy gave us a splendid Mr Miller, the ex-doctor who helps Hester find a way to face the future. He didn’t play the foreign background as strongly as some I’ve seen, but the impression of an outsider who has lost a great deal and seen much suffering was still there. And finally Amanda Root, as Hester, was the lynchpin of this excellent production. She ranged from the rowing ‘wife’ who lashes out in temper to the restrained woman who wouldn’t dream of even admitting to an emotion, let alone one strong enough to kill oneself over. The change at the end, when she says goodbye to Freddie, was noticeable, but as she had her back to us I’ll have to get the detail when we see it next time from a different angle. We’re looking forward to it.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

First Episode – July 2011


By: Terence Rattigan and Philip Heimann

Directed by: Philip Franks

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Sunday 31st July 2011

This was a rehearsed reading of a play which Rattigan wrote with a friend while at university and it was fascinating to see it, even just as a rehearsed reading. No one knows who wrote what, but there were enough of the Rattigan themes to make this definitely one of his. Although they didn’t play the homosexual relationship strongly, the accusation flung at one of the central characters, that he’s a ‘degenerate’, was a clear indicator of the original intention.

The story is mostly set in the sitting room of some student lodgings. Four young men live there – Tony who’s into theatre and is directing a play, David who’s his close friend, Bertie who’s the nerdy one, working hard and trying to follow the rules – he wants his future wife to be ‘pure’, then falls for the easiest woman in town – and Philip who’s pretty laid back and enjoys the good life as much as he can. He’s the one who has a bet on the big race with his bookie (this is set before the bookies were allowed to trade openly on the high street, so telephone calls and aliases were the order of the day), and eventually everyone else joins in; even Bertie, who’s acted all prudish about gambling, has his own bookie.

This is a side issue, though, as the main focus is the three-way relationship between Tony, David and Margot, a professional actress who’s agreed to appear in Tony’s production of Antony and Cleopatra. It’s hard to say who seduces whom; both Tony and Margot are up for it from an early stage, but it’s a temporary thing for Tony whereas she wants more. While visiting her at night to tell her to stay away from his friend, David gets caught by the university beadles, and is sent down.

There’s another romance going on, as Joan, a young woman with an easy-going nature, is also cast in Antony and Cleopatra, and starts off with a crush on Tony. As time goes on, she finds a more sympathetic companion in Bertie, and by the end of the play they announce their engagement. The horse race doesn’t turn out as expected, so David is leaving university with no degree and no money, but still with Tony’s friendship – purely platonic in this version.

The cast did an excellent job with very little preparation. They had a few items of furniture – a sofa, a chair or two and a small table at the front of the stage with the telephone. There was one scene change – to Margot’s hotel room – but the rest of the play was in the student’s room. No costumes of course, though Alex Waldmann did wear a pair of black spectacles as Bertie, which made him look the swotty type. It would be interesting to see a full production, of course, but this may be all we get. It’s still remarkably good for a first attempt.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Rattigan’s Nijinsky – July 2011


By: Terence Rattigan and Nicholas Wright

Directed by: Philip Franks

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Wednesday 20th July 2011

We attended a pre-show talk with the co-author of this piece, Nicholas Wright, which was very interesting. I often find, though, that when I haven’t seen the play, I either learn so much about the production that it spoils my enjoyment, or I don’t fully appreciate the information as I have nothing to relate it to. This one was probably the latter.

The play itself weaves together parts of a screenplay that Rattigan wrote towards the end of his life about the love affair between Nijinsky and Diaghilev – his first overt piece about homosexuality – and a framing piece by Nicholas Wright about the decision Rattigan made to withdraw the screenplay from production due to the threat of being publicly outed by Nijinsky’s widow, Romola. The action of the screenplay appears to Rattigan in his hotel room due to artistic licence and the hallucinogenic effects of a morphine concoction he was taking to dull his pain. (From the pre-show, this potion was introduced to represent Rattigan’s self-medication with the drug when he was in hospital.)

The interlacing of the two plots was well done, and allowed for some fun moments, with Rattigan the only one who could see both ‘realities’. It also allowed him to discuss the screenplay story with Diaghilev directly, and while this was a good way to tie the two stories together, I felt it made the play into too much of drama-doc. Even if Rattigan was writing more openly about a homosexual love affair, he would have done it by showing us the characters, theirs actions and words. Less repressed than usual, perhaps, but still a direct expression rather than via a narrator. This method over-simplified the Diaghilev/Nijinsky story too much for me, and I found it a bit dull as a result. Not the fault of the performers, of course, who all did a great job, often in numerous parts.

My other difficulty with the play was that ballet doesn’t really interest me as an art form, and while I’ve seen a few, and will occasionally watch documentaries on the subject, the characters just didn’t engage me as much as I would have liked. I did find the second half more interesting, as I didn’t know so much of the history after The Rites Of Spring, and I would be happy to watch the program if the screenplay was actually filmed, but overall that part didn’t impress me as Rattigan’s best work.

The framing sections worked quite well, showing us both Romola Nijinksy in her later years and Rattigan’s mother, chatting with him several years after her death – what was in that bottle? – along with Cedric Messina, the producer who wants to film the screenplay. There are a lot of parallels drawn between the two stories. Nijinsky is doubled with a young hotel porter called Donald, who clearly fancies Rattigan and ends up sharing a couch with him. Jonathan Hyde plays both Diaghilev and Cedric Messina, showing us their contrasting production styles. It’s artfully done, but didn’t give me any extra insights to the situation or characters.

What makes the production watchable are the performances, all of which are very good. Faye Castelow is particularly beguiling as the young Romola who sets out to ensnare Nijinsky, and succeeds with the help of a third party. Jonathan Hyde is also excellent as Diaghilev, and I loved Susan Tracy’s cameo as Rattigan’s mother. Malcolm Sinclair is fine as Rattigan himself, and the ensemble support is strong throughout, despite the shortage of lines for many of the small parts. I enjoyed the dancing, even though Petrouchka’s never been my favourite, and the music was very classy, of course. I’m not sure this piece does justice to the screenplay that Rattigan wrote, but it’s an interesting experiment in itself, and for all the polish of this early performance (only the second preview) it may well improve with time.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

The History Boys – January 2011


By: Alan Bennett

Directed by: Christopher Luscombe

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Monday 24th January 2011

I wasn’t drawn to this play when it was on at the National; no idea why, it just didn’t grab me despite having an excellent cast, and being by a great writer whose work I usually enjoy. I was happy to go to Chichester to see it, though, and at least now I have some idea why I wasn’t keen to see it earlier. Some of the problems were down to this production, one was unfortunately in the audience itself, but some were definitely down to the play.

Firstly, the audience. The couple behind us were determined to have as many ‘chatter’ moments as they could. They cut it pretty fine at the start, almost talking over the dialogue, and they used every scene change to continue their not very quiet conversation, but it was at the start of the second half, when they did carry on over the first lines, that I turned round to tell them to shut up. In no uncertain terms. And thankfully, they kept quiet for the rest of the play, which is probably why I enjoyed it more in the second half.

The next problem was the delivery. I could hear some of the dialogue clearly, and the singing was fine, but I missed a lot as well, including some of the jokes. The accents didn’t help, but I got the impression that this was a proscenium arch production that hadn’t been fully adjusted for the wide thrust stage, and the actors may not have been prepared for how much more they would have to work to get the lines across.  Naturally, that ruined much of my enjoyment. Also, with the proscenium arch staging, I found it hard to see some of the action properly, especially the opening scenes of each half where Irwin, in a wheelchair, was mostly obscured by the furniture. I gather from Steve that the opening scene at least was done by video at the National, so presumably they didn’t want to tour with that level of technology, or else they just wanted to do it differently. Fine, but I wasn’t involved enough at the start because of it.

Then there were the performances themselves. Mostly fine, there were some weaker areas. Much as I love Philip Franks as an actor, with many fine memories of his work through the years, I felt his Hector wasn’t ‘strange’ enough to make sense of the role, and not entirely believable as the closet gay teacher who gropes his pupils’ balls while driving his moped with one hand and much too fast. I say ‘closet’ gay – this was one closet that had lost its doors. Steve reckoned Richard Griffiths was much more eccentric, and that worked better.

Likewise, I found some of the other characters weren’t well drawn enough. The female teacher, Mrs Lintott, while having some of the best lines, didn’t seem to have any particular character, Irwin was very weak, both in delivery and characterisation, and although the main boys were very good, there was a lack of depth in the ‘chorus’ that left me cold. I suspect we may have caught this production very early in its tour, and that it needs some time to get to grips with the play. [Not so; after checking websites, this tour started in 2010] At the moment, it feels like the actors are relying on Alan Bennett’s writing too much, and that just saying the lines should be enough. For me, I want to see more acting as well, and especially I’d like to be able to hear the lines they’re saying as well.

Finally, there’s the play itself. I’m not a boy, my education experience was very different from the one shown on stage, and I found I not only disagreed strongly with many of the opinions expressed, I also felt the thinking in this area seemed very shallow. I didn’t get any real sense of the different attitudes to teaching – Steve says this came across more strongly in the National production – and therefore much of the play seemed pointless. And what exactly is wrong with encouraging students to think for themselves and have a different point of view? I agree it can be used simply as a technique to make someone sound more intelligent and knowledgeable than they are, but it is also a valid way to make a point, and in general, I think it does history, as well as other subjects, no harm at all to have to tackle multiple viewpoints. After all, many of the cultures the British colonised for so many years have had opinions which differed from the accepted British Empire view of history, and these have been and are being assimilated into a greater world view – what’s wrong with that? I certainly agree that much of the TV history presentation is akin to journalism – naturally, since that’s what works on TV. And what’s wrong with journalism exactly? None of this was explained; it just seemed to be assumed that we would all agree on the ‘correct’ standards, and so find the jibes at one or other target to be funny. Well, some were, most notably the emphasis on league tables and the treatment of women in the academic professions. But a lot weren’t which is unusual for a writer of Bennett’s calibre. I can only assume that with so many parents concerned about their children’s education, this play touched a funny nerve, which is why it was so popular.

So not the best evening in the theatre, then. I’m glad I’ve seen it, and I wouldn’t rule out seeing it again, in a much better production. Steve reckoned he would have given the National version a nine or ten-out-of-ten rating, and this one only a six, so clearly there are problems to be sorted out from our perspective. Regardless, I do hope they have a good tour, as many people last night were clearly enjoying themselves more than we were.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Collaboration – August 2008


By Ronald Harwood

Directed by Philip Franks

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 26th August 2008

The set was as for Taking Sides, but whole. The wall is unripped, the floor uncracked. There are no suitcases on the balcony or anywhere else, and so we have a door back left. The furniture is period (don’t ask me which one), with elegant legs and lots of lovely wood – piano, tables, chairs. There were two (or possibly three) telephones, a footstool and a radio. Warm orange light shines through diamond patterned windows, casting long shadows across the stage. This represents the Strauss villa, while a curved pattern of light and shadows slanted the other way shows us Zweig’s pad in Vienna.

The title Collaboration is a nice play on words. The story concerns Richard Strauss’s artistic collaboration with Stefan Zweig on an opera, The Silent Woman (based on Ben Jonson’s play Epicoene). We also get to see some of the effects the Nazi government had on artistic affairs, and the pressure that was put on Richard Strauss to collaborate with them. His son had married a Jewish woman, so she and the two grandchildren were under direct threat. This point was hammered home by a thoroughly unpleasant chap called Hinkel, one of those oily young thugs the Hitler Youth was so good at producing.

The story ranges in time from 1931, when Strauss is desperate for a new librettist after the death of his previous collaborator, to 1948, when he had to testify before a Denazification Board in Munich. In 1931, his wife, a practical and formidable woman, suggests he write to Zweig, and the response is both immediate and rapturous. Zweig can’t believe his luck, admires Strauss’s work beyond praise, and already has a couple of ideas for operas. The second one, an adaptation of the Jonson play, is the one that appeals to Strauss, who goes by gut instinct on these things. I was so aware during this scene how familiar educated Europeans were with a wide range of literature, plays, etc., and it reminded me how insular we Brits can be sometimes.

Zweig comes up with a synopsis that greatly pleases the composer, and after a major tizzy when Zweig announces he can’t start on Act 1 for a month (Strauss wants it yesterday), the two settle down to a companionable working relationship. Strauss’s wife has established for us that Zweig has an attractive young secretary who’s devoted to her boss, and an absent wife, so at least one of the plot developments won’t be a surprise.

It’s taken us quite a while to get this far, and although the performances were fine, I was finding it all rather dull; a bit too much biography and not enough drama. The next scene started the adrenalin flowing, with the secretary, Lotte, turning up at Zweig’s house with blood on her head and on her blouse. Although Austria was still independent, the Nazi influence was spreading across the border (Zweig lived close enough to see Hitler’s country retreat up in the mountains), and a couple of young men had tormented Lotte and her friend, with no one intervening on their behalf. It’s the first signs of the brutality to come, although none of that is shown in any great detail.

The Nazis start to control the arts in Germany, and soon appropriate their most famous composer for their own ends. As they’re having a spot of bother with Furtwängler, they appoint Strauss as President of the Reich Chamber of Music, with Furtwängler as his deputy. This is just the first step. When Strauss insists that he must work with Zweig, a Jew, the authorities allow a few performances of The Silent Woman, but do their best to keep Zweig uncredited. Strauss overrules this, and gets into more trouble. He writes a letter which would seem innocuous now, but in declaring himself not to be anti-Semitic, he falls foul of Nazi dogma and has to be put in his place. This is where the threat to his family is spelled out, and it’s also when the wall rips apart. He’s told to resign from the Reich Chamber of Music post, and ordered to write a hymn for the Olympics the following year, which he does. Meanwhile, in Austria, Zweig and Lotte scarper while they still can, and end up in Brazil, where they carry out a suicide pact in 1942. The final scene shows us Strauss, with his wife’s help, giving evidence to a denazification hearing. This covers the rest of the war, and supposedly gives us Strauss’s real feelings, though I would take that with a pinch of salt.

The biggest problem with this play is the lack of dramatic tension. Zweig and Strauss get on so well that there’s none there. They get on so well that they find themselves actually becoming friends, an unusual experience for both of them from what they say. The conflict with the Nazis does improve things a bit, but it’s so one-sided that it doesn’t last. It’s sad to see what happens artistically, of course, but that’s just narration, and we don’t see much of the later horrors as the bulk of the play takes place before the war. So without some gripping focus to the play, what do we have?

Well, it’s interesting to see something of how the Nazis developed prior to the war. It’s always difficult to see this sort of thing clearly with hindsight, as we can’t really know how much the German people knew, what other speculations and rumours were part of daily life, etc., but from this play it seemed to me that only an idiot would have been unaware of the Nazis’ intent, even if the full extent of their activities was hidden. Zweig knows enough to leave ahead of disaster, and Strauss’s own efforts to rescue his daughter-in-law’s family, unsuccessfully, shows that he didn’t believe they were off to some sunny holiday camp where they could get on with their lives without inflicting their sordidness on the pure Aryan race (they did talk some rubbish, these Nazis).

There were some good lines, the running time was only two hours, and from what I saw of the performances, they were very good. The staging, with the two main locations being on the diagonals, had one unfortunate side effect. Particularly at the Strauss villa, one or other character would sit in the chair almost directly in front of us. This meant we had such an oblique view of their profile that they might as well have had their back to us. This is to be expected in this kind of acting space, and it can work as  long as the characters move around. Sadly, once a character was in that chair, they rarely moved, so we found ourselves in some of the worst seats in the house. I admire Michael Pennington greatly, and I would have loved to see his performance when Strauss is being confronted with his family’s vulnerability, but alas, I missed it all. Fine as Martin Hutson’s Hinkel was, seeing only one side of that discussion was not enough.

Of course, Steve has had a moderating effect by explaining his view of the play. In Taking Sides, the difficulties are in the conflict between the two men at the centre of the play, whereas in Collaboration, the two central characters do have a good relationship, but external forces make it impossible for them to work together. It’s a good point, and had the external forces been better represented, and from earlier in the drama, I might have changed my mind a bit. We both felt the play was a bit slow in the first half, but picked up in the second. Had the people at the post-show for Taking Sides not been so enthusiastic about this play, we might have had different expectations and enjoyed it more. As it was, we both felt it was not as powerful as others had made out.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Taking Sides – August 2008


By Ronald Harwood

Directed by Philip Franks

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Thursday 14th August 2008

We saw this play when it premiered in the Minerva back in 1995, with Michael Pennington playing the part of Major Arnold. Tonight he was playing Furtwängler, so apart from anything else it was going to be interesting to see his performance in the other main role. We’ve also seen a touring production which had Neil Pearson and Julian Glover as the two leads; as I haven’t got any notes for these priors, I’ll probably discuss them a bit later on.

The set had a white painted panelled wall across the back, coming apart at the seams – the top was starting to lift away on the right hand side, and the panelling on that side of the wall was disappearing. The balcony on our left held a jumble of suitcases, which also cascaded down onto the set below, covering a doorway on that side. The suitcases were ghostly with dust. There were three desks, filing cabinets, chairs and a phonograph. The grey wooden flooring also had a crack running across it. Things looked bad. The balcony also turned out to be a waiting area for the first two interviewees – we saw them up there when the play started. Delightfully, this set didn’t do anything in the course of the production, it just sat there allowing the action to happen. Much as I like the technological magnificence of all-singing, all-dancing sets, it’s nice to let the play speak for itself occasionally, too.

The story is set in Berlin in 1946, and concerns some interviews conducted by an American major who’s checking up on Furtwängler’s potential involvement in the Nazi regime. Did he support them or didn’t he? Although the play is fictitious, there was an investigation into Furtwängler’s activities at that time, as part of his denazification request. There are no notes or records of the interviews, so this is all guesswork on the author’s part, but I like the result.

There are two other members of the interrogation team. One is David Wills, a young Lieutenant, Jewish, who’s helping Arnold, but whose love of music makes him inclined to help Furtwängler, and the other is Emmi Straube, working as Arnold’s secretary. She’s German, and is the daughter of one of the conspirators who tried to assassinate Hitler but failed.  There are a number of references to that, and to the respect people have for her because of her father’s heroism.

We see two brief interviews before the great man himself enters the room. The first is with Helmut Rode, his second violinist, who praises Furtwängler and tells them the mandatory baton story, and the second is a woman called Tamara Sachs, whose husband Furtwängler saved from the Nazis before the war. Her husband had been the most promising pianist of his generation, but also Jewish, and Furtwängler agreed to help once he heard the young man play. Unfortunately, they went to live in Paris, and when the Germans took over France, her husband ended up in the camps, where he died. She is passionate in Furtwängler’s defence, and has a list of some of the people he helped to get out of Germany. From the major’s response, it’s clear he’s not interested in the evidence unless it points to Furtwängler’s guilt.

When he interviews Furtwängler, things don’t go quite according to plan, and the major loses his temper. Furtwängler is also capable of throwing a strop – he is a musical genius, after all – so the scene gets quite lively. The matter is unresolved when a call comes from the British, informing Major Arnold that they’ve found the archives of a man who helped run the Nazi’s culture ministry, so there’s a chance that they’ll be able to dig up some dirt from those files. Arnold sends Furtwängler away so he can check this out, and hopefully nail him another day.

The second half reiterates the first. First there’s a short scene where Helmut Rode is persuaded (some might say bribed) to turn against Furtwängler and dish the dirt. He does his best, but it’s mostly pretty tame, and I found myself thinking of how unreliable evidence can be when the source is being paid for it. The alleged telegram to Hitler on his birthday, for example, never actually emerges into the light of day. Then there’s a reprise of Tamara Sachs’ evidence, when a large bundle of letters arrives with a covering letter for “to whom it may concern”. These letters are from lots of people whom Furtwängler helped, and Tamara has passed them on as she is back in Paris, and worried that she won’t be able to attend when they hold the hearing in order to give this evidence herself.

Ignoring all the letters, Arnold presses on with the interview. This time, he’s got more specific questions to ask. When he tackles Furtwängler about the birthday telegram to Hitler and Furtwängler denies all knowledge, David helpfully suggests that Arnold produce the telegram, to refresh the maestro’s memory. Arnold has to concede defeat on that one, but soon brings up other information which suggests Furtwängler has less than pure motives for staying in Germany. He had a steady string of women, for example, and has lost count of the number of his illegitimate children, suggesting he’s produced more than a few. He was offered a house and bomb shelter, but refused both. The evidence that he had his competitors and critics sent off to the Russian front was shaky to begin with, and Furtwängler soon deals with Arnold’s botched attacks on these grounds. But now he’s less confident than before, and feels the need to explain, to justify himself. He’s realised how his situation looks to outsiders who haven’t been through the nightmare that was life in Germany under the Nazis, and he tells us about the difficulties of working under a regime that was constantly looking to undermine anyone with authority who wasn’t fully supportive of their ideals and power. He describes himself as naïve for believing that art and politics could be kept separate, but asserts that in his view the importance of music in assisting people to escape from the horrors of their lives took priority for him. Where there’s music and beauty, life can’t be all bad.

This provokes a furious outburst from Major Arnold. We’ve heard earlier that he has actually been at the camps, and seen for himself the horrors they contained. He’s already shown us he has nightmares, and now the terrible effects of what he’s seen come pouring out of him. He’s beyond angry at what the Germans have done to their fellow human beings, and the idea that somehow the playing of beautiful music could compensate for that makes him snarl with rage. This is why he wants to ‘get’ Furtwängler – he wants revenge. He wants to determine who were the ‘bad’ Germans, and who were the ‘good’ Germans, like Emmi’s father. He sees Emmi has her hands over her ears – she greatly respects Furtwängler, and has been distressed by his treatment in the interviews – and he tells her to remove them (the hands, not the ears). She does, but when he goes on about how heroic her father was, she snaps, and lets out an almighty scream, which stops everyone dead in their tracks. Finally, she admits what she’s known all along; that her father only joined the conspiracy when the war was already lost – he was no hero.

Furtwängler himself is overcome with the strain of it all, and has to be helped off stage. With Arnold making a telephone call to confirm that they can mount some sort of prosecution, even if they have to use tame journalists to spread lies about the man, David puts on one of the records of Furtwängler’s work to try and drown out everything else. Arnold yells at him to turn it off, but he just turns it up louder. And so the play fades out.

This was quite a powerful production. As I watched Michael Pennington’s performance, I found the memory of the earlier production became clearer. Daniel Massey had played Furtwängler then, and he kept his character much more imperious and confident throughout. When left with the silence in the first interview (this was Major Arnold’s trick – he left a gap which the interviewees felt compelled to fill; not so Furtwängler) Daniel Massey was calm and self assured. Julian Glover was equally unconcerned. But Michael Pennington played it with more variation. His Furtwängler was slightly nervous, looking around a little before deciding to wait for another question. Not so much guilty as unsure of what he was expected to do.

There were other variations I noticed as well. The first production was directed by Harold Pinter, so naturally the emphasis then was the two men confronting each other in a room cut off from the outside world, having a verbal battle of wills (seem familiar?). It was very intense and powerful. Michael Pennington’s Major Arnold was more focused, more intelligent, and I wasn’t so aware of the war time context, nor do I remember the other characters so well. With the second production, which we saw at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, the proscenium arch stage naturally made the action less intimate and less intense, but I was much more aware of the situation in which these people were working. Julian Glover was just as commanding as Furtwängler, but Neil Pearson’s Major Arnold gave me the impression of a man close to a nervous breakdown, who had been so deeply affected by the sights at the death camps that it was only this work that was keeping him together. I also remember Emmi’s scream from this production – it was the strongest of the three, and had the most impact on me.

What I liked most about this production were the performances from the minor characters. Helmut Rode (Pip Donaghy) was a broken, shuffling man, ready to do whatever it took to survive, as he would have done during the Nazi years. Tamara Sachs (Melanie Jessop) was a strong woman, who had known great love, and who was prepared to go to great lengths to help someone she revered, not only as the saviour of her husband, but as a great man in his own right. Emmi (Sophie Roberts) was a tense, self-contained young woman, who saw much and said little, and David Wills, the young lieutenant (Martin Hutson), was a strong presence, representing the person with an open mind and a love of music, giving an insight into the dilemma that was facing us, the audience, as we tried to figure out right from wrong. Where I felt this production let the play down somewhat was in the relatively unambiguous playing of Major Arnold. He came across as a bully with an agenda, totally unprepared to listen to any point of view but his own, and with absolutely no regard for any evidence that didn’t fit into his pre-arranged scheme. His arguments always seemed slanted and irrelevant; this may be partly due to our familiarity with the play, so that revelations about Furtwängler’s illegitimate children, for example, don’t come across as significant now – the papers are full of these sorts of stories about public figures so we’re not so shocked as we used to be. Perhaps I was also influenced by the pre-show talk we went to, where we learned of Richard Strauss’s greater involvement with and support of the Nazi regime. In this talk, Furtwängler was clearly referred to as not being a Nazi sympathiser, so perhaps that coloured my judgement more than I realised.

But in the end, I still found that the basis of the Major’s arguments was completely unsound, and given the extent of Furtwängler’s help for endangered musicians, I could only feel sympathy for the man. I can still see Major Arnold’s point of view, but it wasn’t presented strongly enough for me this time around. In fact, checking the play text for the order of events, I found myself reading lines that I just didn’t hear during the play. Were they cut, did I miss them, or were they just not delivered clearly enough for me to register them?

There was a post-show discussion, and I find more people are staying behind for these now. Michael Pennington was asked about the differences between the two productions he’s been in, and was very diplomatic, but did point out that while he had a pretty good memory of Daniel Massey’s performance as Furtwängler, given the number of times he’d seen him do it only a few feet away, he found those memories faded quite quickly as he got into the part for himself. The ambiguity of the play was mentioned quite a bit, and the way that everyone is left to make up their own minds was definitely appreciated. Ronald Harwood has obviously been closely involved with both of these productions (see Collaboration later this month), as there were a number of references to his input. When someone questioned the accuracy of the dialogue, we were told that Ronnie had said ‘you know, Richard the Third didn’t actually say “Now is the winter of our discontent”’, which got a good laugh, as well as being a very good point. Although I didn’t enjoy this performance as much as I’d hoped to, I have found it very thought-provoking, and it’s nice to finally get down my rapidly fading memories of the other productions we’ve seen.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

The Cherry Orchard – May 2008


By Anton Chekov

Directed by Philip Franks

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 27th May 2008

It’s always a shame when a theatre like Chichester gets a great cast together, and then fails to do something really tremendous with them, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. To be fair, this wasn’t a dreadful production, and given our experience of the Nicholas Nickleby from the last two years, it may be it just needs more time to settle in.

The set was very sparse, with lots of silvery wood everywhere, stairs down at the back right, and some chairs and tables, together with a bookcase for the nursery scenes. For these scenes, a panel above the stage opened up, like a shutter rising, and a pair of cherry tree branches laden with blossom were displayed. They did look a bit like stag antlers, and there was no actual tree trunk on view, but as a symbol it worked very well, I thought. For the other scenes the furniture was changed much as would be expected, and there was one bright splash of colour for the party, as the curtains screening the rear of the stage were a vivid red.

Sadly, none of the performances were quite as vibrant, except for Jemma Redgrave as Varya, the adopted daughter, who was the best of the bunch. She portrayed someone who worries tremendously, but has a good heart, and who cares deeply for her adoptive family. Her suffering over the non-proposal by Lopakhin was moving, although I did feel they hadn’t quite worked out why he wasn’t going the distance with her. All the other performances were fine, but they didn’t gel into a coherent whole for me.

I enjoyed the magic tricks – Maureen Lipman did very well – and I did get a sense of the inexorable changes that were tearing these people away from the land they felt was theirs, but which they’d become too complacent and corrupt to take proper care of. I also liked John Nettleton’s Simeonov-Pishchik, always trying to get a loan. He reminded me of the choreographer in the ballet novels by Brahms and Simon, who’s always asking people to “’schange small scheque?” Hopefully this production will come on with more performances, but as it is, we were slightly disappointed.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at