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

7/10

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 ilovetheatre.me

The Madness of George III – November 2011

8/10

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 ilovetheatre.me

The Deep Blue Sea – August 2011 (1)

10/10

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 ilovetheatre.me

First Episode – July 2011

7/10

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 ilovetheatre.me

Rattigan’s Nijinsky – July 2011

6/10

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 ilovetheatre.me

The History Boys – January 2011

4/10

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 ilovetheatre.me