Smack Family Robinson – April 2013

Experience: 7/10

By Richard Bean

Directed by Richard Wilson

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 11th April 2013

Richard Bean rewrote this play specifically for this venue, relocating the drug-retailing family to Petersham and including lots of local references which some of the audience found particularly amusing; presumably we weren’t the only non-residents attending the performance who didn’t understand all these jokes, although we got the gist most of the time. Aside from the local stuff, there were a lot of very funny lines, though not enough to make this more than a patchy comedy at best, but as the funny stuff was well worth the trip we’re not complaining.

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One Man, Two Guvnors – July 2011

9/10

By: Richard Bean, based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldini

Songs by Grant Olding

Directed by: Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Tuesday 5th July 2011

What a difference from the other day! Still a modern reworking of a classic comedy, but this time the period setting (1963 Brighton) and the TV comedy talent (James Cordon) both worked brilliantly, as did everything else about this wonderful production. It did take me a little while to warm to this adaptation, mind you, as we saw another superb production of The Servant of Two Masters many years ago, and it took me some time to shake off the memories and get down to enjoying this performance fully, but I reckon anyone seeing it for the first time would have loved it.

The pre-show was good, too. A four-piece band, The Craze, was on stage doing parodies of the song styles of the 50s and 60s. I didn’t catch all the words, but I did recognise the references to the Kinks and the Beatles in the interval set. They provided music for the scene changes, too, and most of the cast helped out with these numbers at one time or another. The three ladies did a song, all wearing identical pink frocks and blond wigs, Trevor Laird contributed on steel drum for one number with Derek Elroy funking it up beside him, Martyn Ellis was good on the ukulele, singing a song about his dad, and Chris Oliver contributed some horn tooting on the final change. James Cordon did a lovely snippet on the xylophone, but for me the funniest guest spot was Daniel Rigby, who did a musical chest-slapping sequence which was amazing and hilarious. Of course, they did a song at the end of the show to round it off, so we went out both happy and humming!

As I recall, the previous version went straight into the action, with the characters having to explain a lot of the background direct to the audience. This time, there’s an opening scene in Charlie Clench’s living room, where his daughter Pauline and Alan Dangle are celebrating their engagement. It’s clear we’re in Brighton – the silhouette of the pier in the distance helps, if you missed the actual dialogue – and in the 1960s, and the characters involved are not the most scrupulously honest bunch in the world. Charlie has done time, though less than he should have done thanks to his lawyer, Harry Dangle, also Alan’s dad. Also present are Dolly, Charlie’s bookkeeper who’s an emancipated working woman, and Lloyd Boateng, who’s also done time in Parkhurst and has many fond memories of his time there. He runs the Cricketers Arms pub, a pub that also does food, and is not so much a friend of Charlie’s as trying to get the catering contract for the wedding.

Pauline and Alan are very much in love. She’s as thick as two short planks, while he wants to be an ac-tor, and struts around declaiming mangled bits of plays and striking dramatic poses – all very funny. It turns out that they’re only able to get engaged because her previous betrothed, Roscoe Crabbe was killed recently. She didn’t love this Roscoe – it was a marriage of convenience to mask his preference for men – so everyone’s happy that she can now marry the man she truly loves. Until there’s a knock on the door, and Roscoe’s minder turns up to tell them all that Roscoe’s alive, and wanting both his bride and the money Charlie owes him. Oo-er.

This minder is Francis Henshall, played by James Corden, and when he’s not menacing those at the party with threats of Roscoe not being very happy, he’s looking round for some food to scoff, as he’s very, very hungry. He does get hold of some peanuts and throws them up to catch in his mouth. This got a good response from the audience; frankly, as long as the actor doesn’t actually choke himself, it’s always a sure-fired winner. For the final peanut he ends up going backwards over a chair, and claims he caught it when he got up – this is how it’s actually written in the text, which is remarkably detailed for comic business.

When Roscoe turns up, it’s clear to us that he’s actually a she – Rachel Crabbe, in fact, Roscoe’s non-identical twin sister. She uses Roscoe’s reputation to put the fear of god into the group, and claims Pauline, Roscoe’s bride, for him/herself. It’s a strange choice, but Roscoe was killed by her lover, Stanley Stubbers, and both she and he are on the run from the police. Rachel’s just come to get the money Charlie owes Roscoe so she and Stanley can leave the country.

She sends Francis to the Cricketers Arms where she’s going to stay, and after a song and a scene change, we see him outside the pub, still starving, and reduced to drinking off the dregs of several other drinks, after he’s removed the cigarette stub of course – eugh. He’s about to rummage in the dustbin for leftovers when Stanley Stubbers turns up, also planning to stay at the pub, but without knowing about Rachel’s plans. Francis doesn’t know about Stanley either – he thinks Rachel is Roscoe – but when Stanley hires Francis to be his man, Francis sees a chance to make double the money, and presumably eat twice the food. From here on, it’s a helter-skelter ride of mistaken identity and crossed letters, as Francis tries to keep both of his guvnors happy without either of them finding out about the other.

The trouble is that Francis doesn’t have a very good memory, and both Stanley and Rachel have identical trunks. It’s much too complicated to explain all the twists and turns, but each one ends up thinking the other’s dead, and heads off to the pier to commit suicide. But as they’re both there at the same time, they find out the other one’s alive and it’s a lovely happy ending for them, as it is for Pauline and Alan, who can now get married. Francis, on the other hand, has some explaining to do, but by getting each guvnor on their own, he manages to wangle two weeks paid holiday in Majorca, and a decent bit of spending money into the bargain. Then all he has to do is persuade Dolly to go with him, and he’s in heaven. Naturally she says yes, so happiness for everyone, including the audience, and a rousing song to finish.

The performances were all great, and after the situation had been set up in the opening scene, the humour came thick and fast. James Corden had plenty of comic business to keep us all amused. Apart from the peanut-throwing, there was a very heavy trunk to move after Stanley had employed Francis. Far too heavy, as it turned out; Francis couldn’t move it at all. So he asked for help from the audience, and brought a couple of gents on stage from the front row. Despite their great strength – they almost managed to lift it even with James Corden sitting on it – it took a while to get it off stage, and we had a lot of laughs in the process.

In the first half, possibly before the trunk bit, Francis is going on about how hungry he is, and asks if anyone has a sandwich he can have. Several people in the audience offer him theirs. Despite looking bemused by the whole thing, I assume he’s had to deal with this response before, so we had an entertaining few minutes while he found out what the sandwich fillings were, making funny comments about the situation all the while. Eventually he got things back on track when another character came on stage – he’d been glancing over that way as if desperate to be saved – and the sandwiches were spared.

The meal scene was absolutely brilliant. This is where both Stanley and Rachel, as Roscoe, are having a meal in the Cricketers Arms in different private rooms, and Francis’s job is to serve both of them. He’s helped by the pub’s own waiters, Gareth and Alfie. Gareth is the senior waiter, but even though Alfie’s the new boy – it’s his first day – he looks like he’s got more than one foot in the grave. A lot of the humour came from his attempts to carry the food up the stairs without spilling anything, and the poor man took a lot of knocks for the sake of comedy.

We also got our second dose of audience participation in this scene. Francis is keen to have a food stash for later – a little bit from each course that he can indulge in after the bosses have dined. He starts with the remains of the soup by handing the tureen over to a lady in the front row, Christine Patterson. As the courses go by, and more and more food is being put in the tureen, he brings her up on stage, and then has to hide her behind a cut out figure of a cricketer. Later he tries to shove her under the table, and by this time, both Steve and I had spotted that the lady in question was not an innocent member of the public, although the actress did good job with her small part. At the end of the scene she has water thrown over her and gets sprayed by a fire extinguisher, so that’s when they take the interval. All good fun, and well set up by the earlier audience participation.

The second half started really well too, with Francis pointing out that in commedia dell’arte terms, the Harlequin character needs some new motivation to drive his actions now that his hunger’s been satisfied. Just after he tells us that we have to try and spot what that might be, Dolly walks on, and we’re all immediately clear on the subject. There was also a lot of emphasis on the non-identical twins theme, with Rachel even going into great technical detail in the final scene about monozygotic and dizygotic twins. It wasn’t the funniest thing all the time, but that last episode paid for all, with a lovely pause from Charlie before he said ‘What’s your point?’

The whole ensemble worked really well together, and it didn’t feel like a star vehicle, despite the focus on James Corden’s role. Oliver Chris was superb as Stanley Stubbers, the posh boy who’s an accidental murderer, Fred Ridegway was excellent as Charlie Clench, and Daniel Rigby was brilliant as Alan, the wannabe posh actor, whose accent slips under pressure to reveal his true origins. The rest of the cast weren’t far behind, and the band was excellent too. A magical afternoon of comedy.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

England People Very Nice – March 2009

8/10

By Richard Bean

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 3rd March 2009

Set: dominating the stage at the start is a big rectangular block of boards. Actually, it’s a double-decker set of doors, with six across the top, and the two on the right hand side of the bottom row turned horizontal. I expected something like the top one opening up to become a stall or some such, and I wasn’t far off. In front of these doors there’s a bigger raised area of floorboards. To the right of that and round the front are the wide black floorboards, while on the left the stage seems to be bare – I could see the line of the revolve quite clearly.

Behind the doors, many of which are open at the start, a mesh fence spreads across the stage from wing to wing, with two openings, one on each side. Through the fence and the open doors we can see rails of clothes, presumably costumes, and possibly some of the props. A set of stairs runs up behind the doors. There’s a drum kit to the right of the doors and some other musical instruments in that corner, and a red plastic chair, standard issue, centre stage. The whole effect is stripped down, as if the production is laying something bare.

Before the start, the cast gradually drift onto the rear of the stage, though one chap does come and sit on the red plastic chair. He’s working on his laptop and then he puts it aside and looks at some papers – photos perhaps, or artwork. Then there’s an announcement, telling the cast to assemble on stage, and we’re into the action for real.

Or not, as it happens. The play uses a framing device; all these people are at a detention centre, either working there or potential immigrants. They’ve been devising a play about the English response to successive waves of immigrants since the Romans, and they’re just about to give us their dress rehearsal. First though, the director, Philippa, gives some notes, and this gives us a chance to meet some of the “real” characters, as well as prepping us very nicely for some of the jokes, particularly the “fucking _____” gag, which worked particularly well, and the “wagon” joke, which only worked because it didn’t.

The director’s priceless pearls are regularly interrupted by an annoying man who turns out to be a Palestinian, Taher. He’s unpopular with everyone, and is banned from mentioning Israel – I sensed the backstory involved a lot of aggravation during the rehearsal process. Despite the interruptions, and the shock discovery that the “Imam” has shaved off his beard the night before the performance (he stuck it all back together to make a fake one), the dress rehearsal goes ahead as planned.

It’s at this point that the multimedia aspect of the production becomes apparent. We’ve been told that Elmar, the chap with the laptop, has done some animations for their play (he regularly won a silver something-or-other in Azerbaijan), and these are projected onto the block of doors and the back wall throughout the play to add to the story. The first section deals with the original Brits, living their primitive lives, and being taken over by the Romans, who kill the man and ravish the woman (they didn’t have a lot of original Brits to work with). Then the Roman soldiers are killed by the Angles and Saxons, and it’s all much the same thing. This is all done to a jolly song, while the animation shows these successive invaders running up behind the previous lot, and then the next lot of actors come on to hew and slash, before shagging the woman. As the dead bodies mount up, the animation shows them filling the screen. We both liked this use of multimedia from the word go, as it didn’t distract from the performance at all, just gave it a more immediate effect as well as adding to the humour.

This quick series of invaders slows right down when a town crier announces from the upper storey that the French king has kicked the Protestants out of his kingdom, so there will be a lot of “frogs” coming London’s way. As the Huguenots are skilled cloth manufacturers, the local weavers are soon up in arms about the detrimental effect they’re having on local workers, while the French build themselves a church, and plan to civilise the English. This church, and the subsequent synagogue and mosque, are drawn in animation, with the appropriate symbol appearing physically above the roof. There’s the beginning of an eternal love story which echoes through the ages when Norfolk Danny, a silk weaver in Spitalfields, is persuaded to give shelter to a Frenchwoman, Camille, and her brother, also a weaver. The situation gets ugly when the weavers guild find this out, and when they interrupt Danny’s coitus to smash his loom, he stabs one of the men who attacks Camille, leading to his eventual hanging (and the “wagon” joke). This was shown on the screens behind, a good use of the film media.

Meanwhile, another set of characters have been introduced to us who will also echo down the years. The lower horizontal door slid forwards and becomes a bar, a table and chairs are brought on to the left of the stage, and we’re in the generic pub, with Fred Ridgeway as the landlord Laurie, Sophie Stanton as the barmaid Ida, and Trevor Laird as the pub regular Rennie, latterly from Barbados. Ida is the source of the “fucking ______” jokes, with the blank being filled with “frogs”, “Micks”, “yids” and a few other derogatory terms. The humour was in Sophie’s delivery of the lines (excellent), especially in the second half, when she holds a long pause after the “fucking”, gets the laugh anyway, and then compounds it by adding “yanks”. If we hadn’t guessed before, we knew at that point that we were up to the Second World War.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This first time it’s the “frogs” she’s upset about. Rennie tells us a number of French folk have moved in above him, and provides the insider’s view of life with the French (too unsavoury to repeat here). He’s an unlucky fellow, because the same thing happens when the Irish turn up (keep pigs), the Jews, and the Asians. (The Irish don’t build their own church, by the way; they have to worship in secret at “art appreciation classes”.)

Anyway, things come to a head when war breaks out between Britain and France. The leader of the French community changes his accent and starts talking colloquial English, and then I think they all move to Redbridge(?), leaving room for the new incomers, the Irish (but I might have got that wrong).

When the Irish arrive, Ida is now the granddaughter of a French immigrant, and we get to see how these groups have assimilated themselves, and laugh at the funny side. Later on, this same point is made about the other groups, but I think it came across most strongly this first time, possibly because that early tranche of immigrants was too long ago for anyone to get upset about now, unlike some of the later groups. The cycles repeat themselves, with the previous set of immigrants complaining about the new lot, and the only variation I could see was that the English Jews were equally as unhappy about the Jewish incomers as the non-Jewish residents.

The final group are the Muslims, and here the tension rises a bit as some of the Muslim community become militant, and start aggressively attacking the parts of British culture they don’t like (most of it, from what I could see). The play does show that not all Muslims take this hard-line stance; there are clear references to the Wahibi sect as the cause of the problem, and the Imam who arrives to take over from his more tolerant predecessor has two hooks for hands. This is the final wave of immigration they can show, and brings us up-to-date, with a pair of twins being born to a Pakistani man and a British woman from an adulterous relationship. The idea of the children, especially the boy, being our hope for the future was floated, but couldn’t be resolved within the scope of this piece.

The overall idea of the play within the play was that love conquers all, and can bring disparate and even warring communities together. Despite this happy ending, the context play ends with the guard handing out letters to the immigrants to tell them if they’ve made it into Britain. Some do, some don’t, and some don’t get a letter. This had a sobering effect, and I found myself, in the final moment, recognising that the director can walk out of the “detention centre” and go wherever she likes, while even those who have been accepted by Immigration will be limited in what they can do to begin with. Those turned down have few, if any, choices.

I didn’t find the play particularly racist, but then I don’t have the sensibilities of some people or groups, nor a readiness to take offence. I don’t know how I would have reacted to jokes about the Scots or Welsh, mind you. I do think this play had a specific scope – to show the effects of immigration on English culture and society over a long period, using a particular area, Spitalfields, to focus the drama, and then widening the focus to show us the reality of today. I appreciated the humour, and I suspect some of the critics were taking it (and themselves?) too seriously, as some folk did with Till Death Do Us Part, thinking that Alf Garnett was speaking up for the racists when he was actually a figure of fun. I’m certainly happier that plays like this can be staged, especially at such a high-profile venue, and I only wish more writers with different experiences and points of view would take up the challenge of showing us these subjects from another perspective. We can only hope.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The English Game – May 2008

8/10

By Richard Bean

Directed by Sean Holmes

Company: Headlong

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 12th May 2008

This was the sixth public performance of this new play, if our calculations are right, and also the press night. There were probably a large number of friends and family in as well, as the early laughter from some parts of the audience, some of whom were right behind us, seemed over the top for the action on stage or the dialogue. I always find this off-putting, as it distracts me from my own enjoyment, but fortunately this play was good enough to have me warmed up by the end of the first act, so it wasn’t too much of a problem.

We did manage to get ourselves into the wrong seats at the start, though. We hadn’t realised that the entire first row had been taken over by the cricket pitch, so instead of being five rows from the front, we were only four. Still, it’s only the second time that’s happened in all our years of going to the theatre, so that’s not bad.

The whole stage (including the first row) was covered in grass, with a few bits of concrete off to our left to represent a burnt down pavilion, a few trees behind that, a litter bin far right, and a big juicy dog turd in the midst of the grass. Simple, but effective. The action took a while to get going. First Will arrives, with his father Len, who’s well past his prime and needs a lot of help to get about. Len’s put down in a folding chair to our right, and shows us his character from the off. After demanding a cup for his water, he waits till the filled cup is in his hand, and when Will’s back is turned, tips it onto the grass.

Gradually the other players arrive for the match, and with one replacement player – Gary’s neighbour, Reg – we get to know who everyone is through the introductions and greetings. The banter is good fun; Thiz (the aging rock band member) tells some entertaining jokes, and all the elements of an amateur Sunday team were present. The first act takes us up to the start of play, the second covers the lunch interval, while the third skips nimbly through the team’s innings and the packing up afterwards.

All the performances were excellent. The various relationships were pretty clear from the start, though there were some interesting developments as the game progressed. In particular, a number of people found loud mouth Reg easier to get on with once he’d scored some good runs for them. There’s a long debate on the LBW rule, but mostly the conversation is about their friendships, wives, children, jobs, etc. Towards the end of the match, it’s discovered that Len has finally gone to the pavilion in the sky, and some of the players help Will to get the body off the pitch and back into the van. At the end of the play, the set is as empty as it was at the start, and minus one dog turd.

I enjoyed this play very much. It reminded me of Steaming, the Nell Dunn play which looks at the relationships between a group of women using the setting of an old-fashioned steam bath. This was the male equivalent, all the more so because women were banned from the team, so the men had to provide their own sandwiches and tea. Never having been part of an all-male group, I don’t know for certain how realistic this was, but it seemed pretty accurate to me. Along with the laughs, there were some moving bits, but it never got too heavy, and left me feeling I’d spent an entertaining evening in the company of people I might never have met otherwise.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me