Volpone – July 2015

Experience: 8/10

By Ben Jonson, with script revisions by Ranjit Bolt

Directed by Trevor Nunn

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 23rd July 2015

This fantastic production was a joy to watch. There was so much going on that I couldn’t take it all in first time around, so I’m already looking forward to our next viewing which will be tomorrow’s understudy run. The performances were all excellent, and apart from a couple of the accents being a little harder to tune into than the others, the dialogue was crystal clear, including some modern additions.

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The Waltz Of The Toreadors – July 2007


By: Jean Anouilh, translated by Ranjit Bolt

Directed by: Angus Jackson

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Monday 9th July 2007

This performance was all knees, shoulders, and trips to the loo. As a result, I missed some of it, and couldn’t focus well enough on the rest, so I’m giving it a six star rating overall, allowing for distractions.

Our seats were prime, I thought, central and not too far back. This was until I found I needed to lean back to get comfortable (I prefer more upright seats), and found the knees behind were almost permanently jammed into my shoulders.  The people attached to them moved around a fair bit as well – obviously they had less leg room than was comfortable – so not a good advert for the theatre’s designers. For the second half, I was able to move into the seat the other side of Steve, and the lady behind me there was so small that there was no chance of her knees reaching anywhere near me. Thank goodness. Then I felt a need to dash just before the final scene, and again during the post-show, but we won’t go into details on that one. Suffice it to say that the screen outside the auditorium came in very handy, and the staff were very solicitous – thank you.

Three paragraphs in, and now I can start to talk about the play. It’s a “gritty” comedy, one that Anouilh intended to have a darker edge to it, making for uncomfortable viewing. (I don’t think he intended the discomfort to be quite as literal as I experienced.) The play tells the story of an older couple, a soldier and an actress, whose love has disintegrated over the years and now they spend their time tearing each other to shreds. There’s a long-lost lover, a newly discovered child, a couple of ugly sisters and a sensible doctor. It’s like a cross between Chekov and Molière.

Peter Bowles had been ill just a few days before and they’d managed to cover for him, but he was back now and in fine form, although not fully recovered yet. Even so, his performance was excellent. He played the husband, General St Pé, whose cynical and often cutting observations on marriage, his wife and his two daughters, provided most of the humour. This is a man who can loathe his wife and at the same time be enraged at the idea of any other man enjoying her. He keeps trying to challenge the doctor to a duel over her, as he believes the doctor has had an affair with his wife. Actually, it turns out she’s had lots of affairs, none of which he knew about.

The wife, Amélie, was played by Maggie Steed, and this was another brilliant performance. We don’t get to see her for some time, as she spends the first part of the first scene screeching at her husband from her bedroom next door. She’s convinced he’s off rogering some maid or other, while he’s just trying to get a few moments of peace and quiet to write his memoirs. Eventually, he shuts the door on her – she’s unable to leave her bed – but his day doesn’t get any better.

At first, I felt a bit more sympathy for the husband here. He seems to be stuck with a horribly nagging wife and gets little peace. But then we find out about his former lover who has waited seventeen years for him to be free, seventeen sexless years, and who now arrives to suggest they get started on their relationship. Then, later, we learn from his wife about her loneliness as he flirted with everything in a skirt, and how she went home from a dance, escorted by another officer, and started her string of affairs that very night. It’s the same night the General, then a junior officer, met his lover, Mlle Ghislaine de Ste-Euverte, and they danced to The Waltz Of The Toreadors. By this time my sympathies are with no-one, as they’ve both shown how unpleasant their possessive love can be, and I could just sit back and watch the plot unravel.

The lover, Ghislaine, tries to kill herself by throwing herself out of the window, but falls instead on top of the General’s secretary, who carries her upstairs. At the same time, the General and the doctor bring Amélie back in her wheelchair – turns out the inability to walk was a sham; she’s been skipping round the neighbourhood like a perky lamb as soon as everyone’s back was turned. There was an uncomfortable moment tonight when the General got Ghislaine’s hair caught in his over-abundant braid. Catherine Russell, playing Ghislaine, found it very funny, but composed herself, and Peter Bowles finally managed to detach himself without help. We did wonder whether the secretary was meant to carry Amélie off, or if that had been a quick bit of recovery.

Left alone with the secretary, Ghislaine finds out just what she’s been missing all these years, and although at first she thinks it’s the General who’s kissed her, she soon finds out, and decides to go for the younger model who’s more like the General was when she fell in love with him. With other revelations, it all ends happily enough for the average comedy, but with the darker aspects of this one, I’m not sure any of this lot are going to be happy for long.

All the performances were excellent. The set was simple, but did have to be changed a couple of times. Two walls festooned with crossed swords (handy for such a temperamental dueller), a desk, chaise longue, chairs and carpet for the study, and for the bedroom, the other sides of the walls, the same desk (too difficult to move?) a bed and bedside tables.

I don’t remember all the funny bits, but one is worth a mention. When the General finds out his Ghislaine is now attached to his secretary, he naturally challenges him to a duel, but can’t get the swords down off the wall. He actually asks the secretary to help him, then realises how inappropriate that is.

In all, this was a very funny piece, but I felt the darker aspects were never explored enough to be interesting, so they fell a bit flat for me. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again, but hopefully in more comfortable circumstances.

The post-show brought out some interesting information, mainly about the way the parts had been covered while Peter Bowles was out of action. Nicholas Woodeson had played the General, the Curé had played the doctor, and someone from the mass of actors available in Chichester this time of year had popped in to play the Curé. When asked about how they felt having the audience so close to them, Catherine Russell confessed she’d been really worried when she saw the layout, but in fact, once they were playing the piece, she saw how well it worked and now she liked it. They were also asked how they coped getting on and off stage in the blackouts, and referring to the earlier question, one actress pointed out how handy it was to have the audience so close, as they could always feel for the front row’s knees, and grope their way out!

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Merry Wives The Musical – January 2007 (2)


By: William Shakespeare, adapted by Gregory Doran, music by Paul Englishby, lyrics by Ranjit Bolt

Directed by: Gregory Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Saturday 31st January 2007

This was the last time of seeing this musical this time round, and one of the last times we’ll see a play in the main house as it is. Boo hoo. Although, as we were in the Gods, and the seats were neither as comfortable nor gave us as good a view as what we’re used to, the regret isn’t too strong – we’ll manage.

This was not just as good as before, it was even better. Firstly, we knew what to expect – we’d seen such a great performance at the Winter School. Secondly, we had a completely different view, and although we lost some of the detail, especially seeing the expressions, on the other hand we got a much better overview of the action, which helped enormously when there was a lot of action on stage – the final fairy scene, for example, was much clearer, and I suspect it was more due to our position than any change in performance, though of course I can’t be absolutely sure.

Thirdly, knowing this was our last time, and that we’re getting towards the end of the Complete Works Festival, and the end of the main house as we know it, made it all a bit more emotional. I noticed some changes in the performances – as if the cast have relaxed even more into their parts, and with relatively few performances left, are going even further with the business. There was more detail with Mistress Page and the first letter, and I noticed a number of other “upgrades” as we went through, though none I can remember for these notes, sadly – maybe they’ll come back to me later. One point I must note down tonight – the houses rotating into haystacks – I’m not sure if I noted that down before.

Our seats were quite uncomfortable in the first half – less room and less cushioned than downstairs. However, the couple next to us moved for the second half, so we were able to spread ourselves out and it was much easier to relax and enjoy the show. I still think they need to introduce the “Merry Wives” tune in the overture – it’s the main theme, and the one everyone’s going to come out singing or humming to themselves.

The audience seemed quite quiet for the first half – I wasn’t sure if we just weren’t hearing them so well up with the Gods, but they livened up for the second half, so maybe it just took time for them to get warmed up.

I’m still impressed by how well all the characters are introduced. It’s a complicated play, with lots of sub-plots, and although the priest and doctor never get round to exacting their revenge on the landlord of the Garter, everything seems much more straightforward in this version. I like the way Anne Page and Fenton are introduced to us in the traditional way of musical lovers, so we know they’re going to get together at the end. And the introduction of Henry IV dialogue in places makes the Mistress Quickly/Falstaff storyline work much better. So, apart from the quibble about introducing the main theme earlier, I find the whole adaptation pretty brilliant, and I do hope they revive it sometime soon – perhaps when they have the new main house?

One final point – I must remember to have a hanky ready if I see this again – I was sobbing heartily during Ford’s song asking forgiveness from his wife. Lovely.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Merry Wives The Musical – January 2007 (1)

Experience: 10/10

By William Shakespeare, adapted by Gregory Doran, music by Paul Englishby, lyrics by Ranjit Bolt

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 5th January 2007

Another big change. This time, the cast seem to have got to grips with the production and given it a good shaking out. Everything gelled tonight. I could hear more of the words, the music fitted with the dialogue better, and the weaker singing voices had strengthened up. I thoroughly enjoyed the first half, and although the energy drops a little in the last quarter, I still found the whole experience much better than first time around. In fact, the musical aspects had improved so much that the “Merry Wives” song no longer seems the highlight that it was!

Specific changes to performances: Slender had developed even more in small touches, including kissing Mr Page when they meet for the first time. Alistair McGowan as Ford seems to be getting more expression into his performance, and his voice has definitely come on. His song to Mrs Page asking for forgiveness was very moving tonight, and I was reminded of The Taming of the Shrew in reverse. We had been warned that Judi Dench did something different every night when coming on at the back of the stage, but tonight was the same as we’d seen before – reacting to the size of the buildings with surprise and confusion.

Our seats were to the right of centre this time, across the aisle, and I actually preferred this, as I found I could see the whole of the stage in one glance, which is absolutely vital in a production where so much goes on. I spotted a lot more detail, although I still missed Dr Cauis’ performance between injecting himself in the neck and falling into the buck basket – if we get to see it again, I must look out for that. I saw so much that I hadn’t before, but I can’t be sure what was new and what I simply missed, so I’ll just include it all in the first set of notes.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Merry Wives The Musical – December 2006

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare, adapted by Gregory Doran. Music by Paul Englishby. Lyrics by Ranjit Bolt

Directed by Gregory Doran (does the man ever sleep?)

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 13th December 2006

This was great fun. I tried not to have too high expectations, but it was difficult. The cast was to drool over, Merry Wives can be such fun, and it has the added frisson that this is one of the last two productions we’ll see here before the main house closes for redevelopment. All in all, a mouth-watering, highly charged prospect.

This adaptation and production didn’t disappoint. There’s definitely room for improvement, but it’s off to a good start. We chose to see the winter plays now, and again as part of the Winter School, and we’re already looking forward to seeing this one again. I suspect it will come on for the extra three weeks or so.

The set was lovely. It’s definitely an Elizabethan setting, all gables and oak beams. There are two houses on either side of the stage at the beginning. Chez Page is to our left, while the one opposite may be the Ford’s, though that’s not clear. To make this stage Windsor look more populated, there are false perspective houses towards the back. I was thinking that the actors would have to be careful not to get too close to them, and then a few scenes later, Mistress Quickly (Judi Dench) came on from the back. She did a lovely double take over the size of the buildings compared to her – very entertaining. Just about every part of the set moved to create the other locations; the interior of Ford’s house, the tavern, and the forest. The forest was basically the remaining wooden uprights when the rest of the set had been taken away – a nice, simple way to evoke a wood. Costumes were by Elizabethan out of the 1950’s – an interesting mixture of doublet, hose, and billowing skirts with layered petticoats. It all looked gorgeous.

Performances – all very good. Some quibbles. Judi Dench didn’t entirely convince as Mistress Quickly – a bit too intelligent. But her performance was good, especially the interaction with the houses. Simon Callow as Falstaff was excellent. It’s hard to believe he hasn’t worked here before. He made a great deal of the Shakespearean lines especially, which brought out how entertaining his character can be to others. And his comments on other people’s use of the English language were quite reasonable, given his command of it. Alistair McGowan’s performance as Ford is shaping up very nicely. I would like to see him do more with Brooke, though. Given the range he’s capable of, I would prefer to see more differentiation of the two “characters”, and more of the jealous reaction to Falstaff’s stories. But maybe this wouldn’t fit in with the overall feel of the piece. Haydn Gwynne and Alexandra Gilbreath were fine as the two wives, and took full advantage of the operatic (and even melodramatic) aspects of their roles. Simon Trinder – best Slender I’ve seen, helped by an extra drinking song to open the second half. Paul Chahidi was OK as Dr Cauis – didn’t always get his mangling of English, though. Brendan O’Hea was the best Pistol I’ve seen. Dressed like Russell Brand on a bad hair day, his part came across clearly, and his wooing of Mistress Quickly (they pinched bits from Henry IV part 2 to pad out the story) was great fun.

The music and lyrics were fine, though again I didn’t get all of them. We bought the CD afterwards, so we’ll probably be listening to it a bit before the second viewing. The best songs were the second half opening (a drinking song, where Simon Trinder as Slender gets royally pissed) and the Merry Wives song -a  bit of a hoe-down, catchy tune, and good lyrics. They could do with using this song more in the piece, to pull it together.

I realised there can be problems mixing the musical format and Shakespeare’s language – different rhythms means it can be confusing at first to go from one to the other. Also, I enjoy the original so much, it was a wrench to miss out on some of the dialogue and have to put up with a song instead. Although they did it well, the first gulling of Falstaff lost a lot through being sung, for me. Also, it invites comparison of the writing skills – dangerous territory.

Couple of points to remember – individual eyeshades on Brooke’s sunglasses, and Falstaff and cronies arriving on a half-timbered motorbike. Roll on January.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Marriage Of Figaro – November 2006

Experience: 6/10

By Beaumarchais, translated/adapted by Ranjit Bolt

Directed by Jatinder Verma

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 20th November 2006

This was a novel experience. The original play by Beaumarchais has been turned into an Indian extravaganza, complete with music. It ends up looking much more like a Brian Rix farce set in India (this is not a criticism). It took a while to get used to the characters dancing on and dancing off, as well as occasional bursts of dancing in the middle, but it was good fun, and the Indian hierarchy seemed to work just as well as the old European one.

The set was relatively simple – two walls at an angle to the front of the stage, with four or five doors. The musician sat to one side, playing a variety of instruments, mostly drums, I think, but the music blended in so well I can pay it the compliment of saying I didn’t notice it too often. There were only five actors, and more parts than that, so some characters were played with masks, allowing any spare actor to represent them. One of the masks seemed to be an ear, another a nose, etc. This mostly worked very well, but in a few scenes, actors had to slip away and leave their mask to be held by another character, so I might have preferred one or two more actors in the cast, just to make it easier on everyone, including the audience.

The plot came thick and fast. In fact, about the only criticism I have of the performances was that some of the dialogue went like the clappers, and what with trying to pick up on the different cultural references, I found it hard to follow at times. But I did get the gist (after all, I have seen the opera), and some of it was hilarious. References like “the rupee’s dropped, at last!”, and “pardon my Hindi”, after a brief bit of swearing, went down very well. It was a shame the audience wasn’t as full as usual, and the sheer volume of plot permutations did get a little trying at times. But this was a good fun production, very well performed, and deserves a lot of success.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me