Volcano – June 2012

7/10

By Noel Coward

Directed by Roy Marsden

Venue: Richmond Theatre

Date: Thursday 7th June 2012

Both Steve and I were strongly reminded of a Somerset Maugham play when the curtain rose on this set: the tropical island setting, the sound of the insects and the sense of the heat, although the couple in a sexual clinch on the ground was perhaps a tad unusual. The similarity was enhanced because Jenny Seagrove had been in The Letter, a Maugham play we saw back in 2007. In this current production she played Adele, the widow of a plantation owner on the fictional island of Samolo. She was attracted to Guy Littleton, a married man who’d been spending time on the island for business reasons, and to enjoy her company, but her past experiences have left her reluctant to become involved in such a liaison. His wife Melissa arrived on the island to check up on this possible affair, and her visit coincided with the arrival of one of Adele’s friends, Ellen, a fresh young thing whose own recent marriage was running into trouble. With Guy finding Ellen more amenable than Adele, Melissa had a tough time of it, and her jealousy led them all into danger when she refused to leave Adele’s house until Guy and Ellen returned from a trip up the erupting volcano on which Adele’s house is built.

After the eruption, Ellen’s husband Keith finally turned up, and we learned what a small world it is; Guy and Keith were at school together, with Keith hero-worshipping Guy above and beyond. The relationships eventually resolved themselves, and Adele was finally left to enjoy her solitude and run her plantation.

There were good performances all round and a lovely set, but somewhat ropey effects during the eruption itself which caused some sniggers from the audience. We enjoyed ourselves well enough, and although this isn’t Coward’s best work, it’s still worth reviving from time to time.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Salome – May 2010

3/10

By Oscar Wilde

Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Company: Headlong

Venue: Richmond Theatre

Date: Wednesday 26th May 2010

We saw a production of this many years ago at the Barbican (1989). That one was directed by Steven Berkoff, who also played Herod, and the design was strongly black and white art deco with everyone except John the Baptist in evening dress. The cast moved in a smooth and stately manner, almost slow motion, and when sitting, they were almost completely still. I didn’t find it Wilde’s most enjoyable work, but it was interesting to see it staged, and there was one gem that has stayed with me. When Herod was trying to persuade Salome to take some reward other than the head of John the Baptist, he went through a long, long list of all the riches, especially the jewels, which he owned, to tempt her to change her mind. At one point, he mentioned two large emeralds, and from the look Herodias gave him at that moment, it was clear she hadn’t been brought up to speed on those particular items. Until now. It was a very subtle reaction, given that none of the actors were moving much physically, but it spoke volumes.

This was another stylised production, but today’s theme was the oh-so-fashionable industrial grunge. We both hope that directors and designers get past this phase as soon as possible. It works sometimes, but so often it just seems to be out of kilter with the play, and this was one of those times. They even used the cliché of a gangsta rap, done by one of the white boys, the lad who was attracted to Salome.

The stage was almost filled by a raised platform, which made it difficult for us to see the action properly (no complaints from us), and it was surrounded by lighting racks – like we need to be reminded we’re watching a theatrical performance. The ‘action’ started early, with actors coming on stage one at a time and prowling round, climbing the lighting racks, etc. Presumably they knew what this was meant to be about, but nobody told us. It went on so long, I started to giggle as the thought went through my head that this might be all there was. One hour and twenty-six minutes of prowling actors. Then there was a loud noise, and two blasts of steam shot in the air. Unfortunately, from where I sat, this just looked like two of the cast had done a special effects fart, so again I had the giggles.

It took me a while to settle into the performance, but after about ten minutes I started to enjoy myself a bit. The grunge disappeared into the background, and the dialogue was coming across clearly. Salome came on and pouted her way around the stage for a bit, finally demanding to speak to John, or Iokanaan as they were calling him. Her behaviour was a bit peculiar throughout this performance, very twitchy and nervy and with lots of sexual posturing. I haven’t spent much time with drug addicts, so I don’t know if that’s what they were trying to suggest, but it’s the only explanation I can come up with. Admittedly, Herod’s court had a reputation for decadence. Trouble is, if you reduce the royal court to a bunch of boozy cokeheads, it takes away from the effect of their actions.

Still, she gets some quality time with John, which she mostly spends blowing hot and cold about his physical attractiveness. I couldn’t make her out at all in this section – was she scared, was she aroused, was she angry? I haven’t a clue. Her promise that she would kiss John’s mouth was mildly chilling, but then we knew the story ahead of time.

Herod and Herodias turn up, and this is where I found sleep getting the better of me. I grasped that Herod was infatuated with Salome, and that Herodias wasn’t happy about that, and then I mercifully missed a chunk, coming to shortly before Herod asked Salome to dance for him, which she agreed to do despite her mother’s objections. Steve has confirmed I didn’t miss much.

Steve and I have pondered this version of Salome’s dance, and we’ve come to the conclusion that it was done this way to show just how much Herod was obsessed by Salome. Not only did he jerk off to her pitiful attempt at dancing (we assume he was miming) but for some reason we are probably too old to understand, Salome had done herself up in a black gauze dress, pink undies, pink makeup and a vivid pink wig. The beatbox was fine, though her attempt to turn the raising of the aerial into a seductive movement left a lot to be desired. She jerked her way unevenly between bits of a dance routine, finally going for a strip (forget the tease), and only kept her panties partially on because Herod had already come in his pants. Like I say, we weren’t complaining about the restricted view.

After this, she claimed the head of John as her reward, and after Herod’s offered her everything else he can think of, he orders his men to give her what she wants. Herodias was delighted that her daughter held her ground – no reaction here to the jewels, but then I think that part was cut. As the stage lights were turned out, the final image, held in the light of several torches, was of Salome kissing the lips of the severed head. Gruesome.

As usual, the performances were fine, we just didn’t care for the way this design choice appeared to have been used for no good reason. I also found the high-pitched voice of Herod off-putting. Steve said it reminded him of the childish gods in the first Dido he saw many years ago; he didn’t like that one, either.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Rain Man – October 2009

8/10

Adapted from the screenplay by Dan Gordon

Directed by Robin Herford

Venue: Richmond Theatre

Date: Wednesday 28th OCtober 2009

This was a very good adaptation of the screenplay and the performances, particularly of the two leads, were excellent. I cried. What more could I ask for?

The story included all the main points from the film though some scenes were dropped, such as the actual driving, and some were condensed or reported, so that for example the burning scene in the flat was mentioned at the court ordered review of Raymond’s situation. We still got the wheeling and dealing at the start, the delivery of the bad news to Charlie (not that his father’s dead, but that he just gets the car and the rose bushes) the kidnapping and attempted flight via, well, flight, the road trip and visit to Las Vegas and the final review meeting. All the way through both Neil Morrissey as Raymond and Oliver Chris as Charlie gave us perfectly judged performances. Raymond had lots of twitches and a tendency to look up and away, while Charlie was a seriously unpleasant bastard to start with but gradually softened as he discovered who Raymond really was to become just an average bastard by the end. And on the way Raymond gets some decent clothes, a dance with a beautiful woman, a kiss and a chance to drive his father’s car. He does miss out on a date with a dancing hooker, of course, but that’s probably for the best.

I don’t remember the film giving me such a strong sense that Charlie has actually done his brother some good by taking him out for a while, though as with the film we could see how Charlie benefited from his anger coming up against an immovable object. The adaptation had also been updated to include more recent plane crashes including one of the ones that hit the twin towers, which really got Raymond going. From memory, I think Qantas has now lost its perfect record on accidents so updating the dialogue is a double edged sword, but it still worked fine on stage.

The set was very flexible, with panels sliding on and off for walls and the ‘spare’ cast doing furniture removal duty. It all went very smoothly, and it was nice to see the understudies actually get something to do as extras in the public scenes. We both enjoyed this very much, and as I said before, I cried. Brilliant.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Caucasian Chalk Circle – October 2009

3/10

By Bertolt Brecht, translated by Alistair Beaton

Directed by Nancy Meckler

Company: Shared Experience

Venue: Richmond Theatre

Date: Wednesday 21st October 2009

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. This wasn’t advertised as a schools matinee but that’s effectively what it was. The vast majority of the audience, at least in the stalls, were teenagers. This made the audience unbalanced and at times I felt completely out of touch with most of the people around me, which didn’t help me to feel involved with the production. For example, there’s a short scene where a senior soldier tells off a junior soldier because although he restrained and beat up the husband while the senior man raped the wife, he clearly didn’t enjoy it as a good soldier should. The kids screamed with laughter at every use of the word ‘dickhead’, they gasped and squirmed when the soldier very coarsely mentioned raping the wife, but the humour about the standards of the common soldier, which we found funny, evidently passed them by. They continued to laugh at every sexual innuendo, verbal or physical, and while I found some of it very funny myself I also felt at times that I was at a pantomime with a lot of little kids.

With all these distractions it took till nearly the end of the first half before I fully engaged with the story. The first section, the prologue, was very good, with an official type talking to villagers returning to their war-ravaged land, and trying to persuade them that the land should be given to those who could make the best use of it. Only in this case, he’s referring to consolidation of the small subsistence plots into big enough farms for the agri-businesses to move in and make a killing. The villagers aren’t sure what choice to make, so they decide to put on a play which deals with all of the issues being debated, and which will help them come to a conclusion. It’s called The Chalk Circle, and since they’re in the Caucasus, it becomes The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

The story then unfolds of a rich and important man, who has a wife and a baby son. He lives in a country which is at war, and seems to have been at war for a very long time, but he’s doing very nicely for himself all the same. One Easter Sunday, some rebels rebel, he’s captured and killed, and his widow runs for her life, leaving their baby son Michael behind. Actually, the widow had to be carried away kicking and screaming because she couldn’t bring along five large suitcases full of fancy clothes. She spent so much time trying to get her servants to pack properly, she nearly got caught herself. It’s clear where her priorities lie, and it’s not with the baby.

Realising that the rebels will want to kill the baby as well, all the other servants run off, leaving Grisha to look after him. They’ve told her to go as well, and abandon the baby, but she can’t. Eventually, when the soldiers arrive, and it’s clear the baby will be killed if it’s found, she runs off, taking little Michael with her. The rest of the first half is the story of how she evades capture, including the brutal bashing in of the rapist soldier’s head (she’s vicious when she’s protecting the baby), and an arranged marriage with a man from the next valley along from her brother. This poor chap is on his death bed when the extremely drunk Welsh priest ties the knot, and the wedding party is busily turning into funeral wake when news comes that the war is over, and that they won’t be taking away any more of the young men to be soldiers. You’ve never seen a dead man recover so fast. Oops. Now Grisha’s married to one man, in love with another (a soldier wooed and won her before the trouble broke out), and bringing up a baby that’s neither hers nor either of theirs.

So ended the first half. I started to enjoy myself from the wedding scene onward – the Welsh priest was such joy to watch – even though I’d spent most of the first half wondering if I should just cut my losses and go for a coffee while Steve finished the play for both of us. Talking it over with him afterwards, we decided it was mainly the audience that gave us the difficulties, and given that things improved in the second half that may well be true. The youngsters certainly seemed to have calmed down a lot, though we noticed a lot of gaps in the stalls where older audience members had been sitting. The story picked up again, too, though in a strange way. We followed Grisha and Michael a bit further, with Michael being played by a lovely little dark-skinned puppet – an example of colour-blind casting even in the puppetry department. We saw how unpleasant Grisha’s husband was (squeals from the youngsters as a man, naked but for a pair of underpants took to the stage), then she met her soldier again across the river, and just as she’s trying to reassure him that the baby isn’t hers, she has to claim it is to stop the soldiers taking it. But they do, nevertheless.

Now the play switches back to that Easter Sunday two years ago when the rebels struck and Grisha had to take Michael away. Only this time, we’re going to hear how one man became their judge. He’s a local scoundrel, an intellectual who can’t be bothered doing a proper job so he poaches rabbits and suchlike instead. He helps the Grand Duke to escape, mainly because he didn’t like the policeman he could have handed him over to. When he’s brought in for poaching, he makes an impassioned speech to the soldiers, assuming this is a popular uprising on behalf of the working man. Turns out it was actually a coup by the fat prince (yes, that’s what it says in the program) to take power, and now he wants to get his son or nephew voted in as the new judge. The soldiers, for all he paid them to kill the revolting peasants, reckon he’s only giving them a vote because he’s not yet securely in power. So they decide to take advantage of the situation and hold auditions for the post of judge. The scoundrel plays the part of the Grand Duke for the purposes of a mock trial, and his impersonation is so good it gets all the soldiers laughing (and us). He then speaks in the Grand Duke’s defence, making all the political points Brecht wanted – the aristocracy don’t take any of the risks themselves, they send other people’s sons off to fight while making fat profits from their military contracts, they don’t even supply a lot of the equipment they’re being paid for, etc., etc., all too depressingly familiar from current events. The soldiers boot out the fat prince’s relative, and elect the scoundrel instead; at least when he takes bribes from the rich he helps the poor with the money and his judicial decisions.

But two years go by, and now the war is over the Grand Duke and Michael’s mother are both returning to claim what’s theirs. There’s a long wrangle over who should have the baby, with two lawyers arguing on the biological mother’s side. One of them lays on the sentiment with a trowel, only to be completely undercut by the other one pointing out that she needs Michael as his father’s son and heir to allow her to gain control of her dead husband’s money and land. Finally the judge opts for the chalk circle test. A chalk circle is drawn on the ground, the puppet is put in the middle with each ‘mother’ holding a hand, and the winner is the one who can pull the baby out of the circle. They have two goes at it, as Grisha complains that she didn’t have a proper grip the first time, but both times she lets the child go so as not to hurt him. I sobbed. (The audience laughed.) Naturally the judge awarded Grisha custody of Michael, and for good measure, ‘mistakenly’ authorises her divorce from her husband, so that she can marry her soldier (instead of allowing an old couple to divorce, who been out of love with each other since they met). I would have sobbed some more, but I’d run out of tissue and the young folk were groaning and ‘eugh’ing at the loving reunion between Grisha and her true love.

So, with a final moral from the judge, who’d returned to being the singing narrator again, about how everything should be given to those who can look after it best, including the land, we were done. Thankfully.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Pirates Of Penzance – September 2009

10/10

By Gilbert and Sullivan

Directed by ??

Company: Carla Rosa

Venue: Richmond Theatre

Date: Wednesday 16th September 2009

Let’s face it, any G&S is 10/10 as far as I’m concerned, and it would have to be a pretty naff production to get a lower rating. Today’s Pirates wasn’t as good as last year’s Mikado but I still had a wonderful time, sniffling from the get-go and loving every minute.

During the latter part of the overture, and behind the see-through curtain with the picture of a skull and crossed pistol and truncheon, we saw the Major-General sitting in the cove on a deckchair. Then they raised a sheet (dark green?) to represent the sea. A cut-out pirate ship sailed across from right to left (good laugh) and then we saw the Major-General doing his calisthenics before popping in for a swim (more laughs). The pirate ship appeared again, giving him a fright (even more laughs) and when the sea sheet was lowered he was back on the beach to grab his things and head off before the pirates landed, which they did shortly afterwards. The prow of their ship appeared on the left of the stage, with Ruth acting as the figurehead, and then we were into the opening song.

There were good reactions from the chorus throughout. The Major General made a chuckle out of “e-e-e-e-e” in the orphan song. They added a governess, tea stand and changing hut when the girls arrived. Karen Dunbar was good as the head police(wo)man, giving the audience a bit of geeing up. I felt the stage was a bit cramped, even for the reduced numbers on this tour, and as I couldn’t hear the words so clearly this time I found myself thinking we might see it again at Chichester, opportunity permitting, to see what sort of difference the more open stage made.  (Any excuse.) [Didn’t manage to fit it in, sadly]

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Prick Up Your Ears – August 2009

8/10

By Simon Bent, inspired by John Lahr’s Biography and the dairies of Joe Orton

Directed by Daniel Kramer

Venue: Richmond Theatre

Date: Saturday 29th August 2009

There was an additional bit of humour for this audience only, or for most of the audience anyway. The play was about to start, with Matt Lucas as Kenneth Halliwell alone on stage, when an elderly gentleman, still to find his seat in row B, held proceedings up for a few minutes. The natives were getting restless, but with a few little expressions, a glance at his watch, and some slight head shakes, Matt had us in fits of laughter and still got us back for the actual start of the piece. Masterly. (The elderly gentleman did try for a reprise at the start of the second half, but apart from a few people snapping at him he didn’t make as much of an impact.)

Now for the set. There was an outside brick wall with two windows fronting the set before and between the acts. A road sign bottom left told us this was Noel Road, Borough of Islington, and by the end of the play a blue plaque had appeared in the middle of the wall to commemorate Joe Orton’s time there (I didn’t spot it any earlier). Once lifted, the bedroom of the flat was revealed in all its sixties splendour. The ceiling was tiled in alternating pink and yellow, like a ferocious Battenberg cake, and with a central ceiling light. The door was centre back, giving the occasional glimpse of the bathroom and access to the kitchen (off right) and front door (left). The walls were mostly bare, though behind Halliwell’s bed a collage of pictures was taking shape. This collage grew and grew, taking over the other walls, and finally the ceiling was lifted up to show another level covered with pictures. (I assume this represented the ceiling itself, as it was too tricky to replace that.) The two beds were against the back wall (Halliwell’s) and the left wall (Orton’s). There was a large stereo player to the right of the door, a mirror on the wall to the right of that, and loads of shelves and books. Near the right front was a desk with the typewriter and later the telephone. Clothes were kept on the floor or tidied away in the drawers under the beds.

The play covered the relationship between Orton and Halliwell from their early work to improve the drab lives of library book borrowers in their neighbourhood through Orton’s success and Halliwell’s increasing insecurity to the expected bloody ending. I felt the writing was sympathetic to Halliwell though not blind to his difficult temperament, and made it clear that he did contribute to Orton’s success, at least to some extent. I’ve no idea how accurate any of it was, but the play worked well on stage, all the performances were good and we had a very enjoyable afternoon.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Sign Of The Times – April 2009

6/10

By Tim Firth

Directed by Peter Wilson

Venue: Richmond Theatre

Date: Wednesday 29th April 2009

It’s a while since we’ve been to Richmond theatre and it was nice to be back. According to the program notes, the play started life as a one-act piece for lunchtime diners, was revised for the stage and now has a second act, set five years after the first, to complete the story.

There are two characters; Frank, an older man who’s head of installation at a company that makes illuminated signs and Alan, a young YTS lad, who seems to have no ambition in life other than to play in a rock band and have tea and biscuits on a frequent basis. The first act shows the two men putting up a sign on the roof of the company’s own building. A new retail park is being built on the other side of the main road, so it’s an ideal time to advertise Forshaws work. Only trouble is, the letters are all wrong; they don’t spell Forshaws, and it takes some time for Alan to realise they’re meant to spell ‘For Sale’. That’s when Frank realises he’s not head of installation anymore, and that the absence of the rest of the staff is due to a relocation conference that he’s not been invited to. The act ends with Alan telling Frank to go across the road to get a view of the sign, then rearranging the letters to say ‘Frank’ and lighting it up. It’s a nice gesture, and a crafty piece of design.

The second act is set the other way round – same building, but in the top floor office looking out onto the roof. It’s now an electronics store with lots of individual illuminated letters outside and the usual storeroom jumble plus desk and flipchart inside. When Frank arrives for an interview, he’s amazed to find the deputy assistant manager is none other than Alan. Frank scrapes through the not-too-demanding entrance exam, which involves making a sales pitch for a mid-range toaster, and is rewarded with a name tag, clip-on tie and a chance to shine on the sales floor. Meanwhile Alan practises his next ten minute inspirational lecturette, a pithy, meaningful alphabetical deconstruction of the word ‘pride’ (‘p’ is for… etc.). Frank returns to have his lunch and uses the toaster they were practising with earlier, which he’d taken over to the returned goods department. Unfortunately, the toaster was faulty and smoke is soon pouring out of the next office along. Trapped in Alan’s office and with no reception on the walkie-talkie, things soon get a lot worse. The fire causes a short circuit which blows the fuses on the lights outside, and one of them, the ‘o’, sails across the roof. Trying to stop it, the pair find themselves lassoed by the letter as it continues to spark. It’s live, Frank tells Alan, and with enough volts running through it to fry them both to a crisp. There’s a lovely bit of comedy as Alan uses his mouth to get a special pen-cum-screwdriver out of Frank’s jacket, only to drop it when he responds to Frank’s query, ‘Are you ready?’ Turns out they’re not in danger; Frank was having him on – payback for a similar trick Alan played on him in the first act. The play ends with Frank realising he should have gone to the other electronics retailer over the road for his interview, and Alan deciding to leave with him to get on with his music and art.

It was good fun all the way through, with lots of humour and nice details in the writing and performances. Frank wants to be a writer, and we hear him dictating his spy thriller into a Dictaphone when Alan’s off stage. One of his school friends is now a famous writer, and we eventually find out that a childhood incident when Frank rescued his friend has been successfully used as a source for the other man’s books, while for Frank it seems to be a block. He never had someone rescue him, so he never gets further than that moment in his dictation, desperate to figure out whose hand his hero is clutching. It’s not sentimental, but it is poignant. Alan, on the other hand, is good at his art but lacks the encouragement to go to college and develop his talent.

It’s an interesting and enjoyable odd couple comedy, which still has relevance in today’s job market, sadly. Good performances from both Stephen Tompkinson and Tom Shaw, and a very enjoyable afternoon.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me