Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – February 2018

Experience: 6/10

Adapted by David Edgar from the story by Robert Louis Stevenson

Directed by Kate Saxon

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 15th February 2018

This was a decent attempt to put Stevenson’s story on the stage, but suffered from the usual problems of such adaptations – having to shift scenes very quickly as well as coping with visual changes which are done much more easily on TV and film. The cast did a reasonable job overall, and Phil Daniels created two clearly distinct performances as Jekyll and Hyde. The addition of a singer for this production was largely wasted on me, and I found the gloomy lighting a problem at times, as with increasing age I need more light to see by, not less. But this performance certainly kept my attention much better than the afternoon’s offerings, for which I was grateful.

The set had to accommodate several locations, and while it wasn’t the most sophisticated I’ve ever seen, it did the job pretty well. An upper balcony stretched across the centre of the stage, with a spiral staircase at the left side. Underneath was a filler wall which could be either the doors to Jekyll’s sister’s garden or the fireplace of Jekyll’s flat. For other locations it was usually left open. There were doors at either side of the wide stage, and an additional door, coloured bright red, in Jekyll’s lodgings, this being the door to the lab. Once through this door, a tall rack of glass bottles containing coloured liquids masked the right-hand door, while a table and overhead light took centre stage. With all of the furnishings removed, the stage became a gloomy London street.

The costumes and décor all contributed to the murky nature of the production. Dark clothes and dark paintwork made for dismal surroundings, but the cast did their best to keep things moving, and for the most part it worked quite well. My main problem was with the maid, Annie. It took me a long time to adjust to her accent, probably because it travelled round the British Isles at a fair lick. If it had settled down in one place, I would have been alright. Steve and I heard hints of Irish, Scottish and West Country, and that, combined with a tendency to gabble her lines, meant I got very little from her part at all. Since she was the one in the lab with Jekyll/Hyde at the end, when the final revelations were being presented, I lost most of the connection I’d had with the plot and found myself looking at my watch more than once. Even so, we enjoyed ourselves well enough, along with the rest of the audience.

© 2018 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Romeo And Juliet – March 2015

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Sally Cookson

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 19th March 2015

One of the lovely things about the number of Shakespeare productions being put on these days is that we get a chance to compare and contrast performances much more quickly than before. This is a fairly typical case: an early performance of one production followed a few weeks later by a completely different version with a reprise of the first one close on its heels. There were some interesting similarities amongst the many differences, and both had a lot to offer with their individual take on the play.

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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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Rutherford & Son – March 2013

Experience: 9/10

By Githa Sowerby

Directed by Jonathan Miller

Company: Northern Broadsides

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 21st March 2013

This was an excellent performance marred only by some seriously inconsiderate coughing from a large number of audience members, particularly during the first act – get some cough sweets! Having said that, the audience were nicely responsive to the play, gasping a bit when two characters had an unexpected kiss and when Rutherford senior came out with some of his more outrageous comments. We applauded warmly at the end as well, and Steve and I left feeling very uplifted and happy – a marvellous experience.

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The Vortex – February 2013

Experience: 7/10

By Noel Coward

Directed by Stephen Unwin

Venue: Rose Theatre

Date: Monday 18th February 2013

This is another good production by the Rose. It was a controversial play when first put on stage, but after nearly ninety years the adultery and drug-taking seem more appropriate to a soap opera, so the tension has to come from the relationships, and that depends heavily on the characterisations. The choices made in this production seemed to emphasise the comedy at the expense of the darker side, so while I accept this interpretation, I felt it was weaker than other productions we’ve seen. Still, it was an enjoyable evening, and I do think they deserve better audiences.

The set was nicely done. At the centre of the stage was a large square platform made to look like a blank canvas, thrust forward a few feet into the pit area. There were large studs round the sides and streaks of blue paint on the edges around the central acting space. Two corner pieces of a large picture frame were positioned above and behind – the one on the right leaned a little drunkenly inwards – while a small piece of frame was positioned just behind the platform at ground level.

The opening scene was set in Florence’s drawing room at the Lancaster’s town house. The furniture was rampantly 1920s Art Deco, with a red lips sofa, chairs and enormous stool seat. A gramophone and some records stood on the floor front left, and there were double doors standing in splendid isolation centre back. Other furnishings included a female nude lamp stand, period telephone and lots of cigarettes.

The second act was a similar room in the Lancaster’s country house, and the difference was telling. An old-fashioned fireplace stood centre back with two small padded stools in front, there was a piano on the right and a table with two chairs on the left. The style was much older and suggested a more traditional household. The third act, in Florence’s bedroom, was more flamboyant, with lots of cushions and throws. The bed was in the centre, with a dressing table to the right and a window back left.

The simplicity of the set was refreshing, and certainly allowed for quick changes, although as they took intervals between each act that wasn’t really an issue. I notice that many of the Rose’s own productions tend to use picture frames in one way or another, which raises the question in my mind of whether they’re truly comfortable with such an open space yet? Having said that, I’ve liked the sets very much, and while I prefer period pieces such as this play to have more elaborate sets, this one did the job very well.

The performances were all fine too. David Dawson was nicely nervy as the son, Nicky, while the young lover Tom, played by Jack Hawkins, was suitably virile. The two ‘sensible’ women, Helen and Bunty, were well portrayed by Rebecca Johnson and Sophie Rundle respectively. Coward packed this play with minor characters whom we don’t really get to know, and although the weekend party in the country would have been a bit thin without them, the poor actors don’t get much to do.  Even Florence’s husband is hardly to be seen, although William Chubb got across this poor chap’s unhappy personality very well in his short time on stage.

I felt the main weakness was in the portrayal of Florence, Nicky’s mother. Kerry Fox was fine with the early scenes, showing us her character’s shallowness and need to be admired by all and sundry. In the final scene, however, I felt there was no discernible change. She’s meant to be so shaken by discovering Tom’s ‘unfaithfulness’ (and just how can a lover be unfaithful to an adulterous wife?) that she almost breaks through her delusions to a more truthful existence. This just didn’t happen from where I was sitting. We seemed to be going through an interminable closet scene from Hamlet, with the arguments going round in circles and not reaching any definite resolution.

Both Steve and I felt this was a valid interpretation of the scene, showing a vicious circle in which nothing would have changed, but it wasn’t as strong a version as we’ve seen before. We didn’t feel the son was near to killing himself, so the tension just wasn’t there; perhaps they’ll tighten this up during the rest of the run.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Second Mrs Tanqueray – October 2012


By Arthur Wing Pinero

Directed by Stephen Unwin

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 25th October 2012

As Steve remarked, you wait years for a Pinero and then three come along at once! (The Magistrate at the National and Trelawney of the Wells at the Donmar are the other two – we’ve booked.) We saw this play thirty years ago at the National, with Felicity Kendal and Leigh Lawson playing the Tanquerays alongside a classy support cast. The story had faded; all I could remember at this distance was that Felicity Kendal was a troubled woman with a past, that I felt sympathetic towards her, and that we enjoyed the play. Not a lot to go on, but enough to make us keen to see this revival at long last.

The set had another picture frame straddling the stage, a slim one which didn’t intrude too much into the acting space. The opening scene was set in Aubrey Tanqueray’s rooms at the Albany, at the end of a meal with two of his friends; the dining table with appropriate debris was on the left of the stage with a cabinet behind it, a wide doorway screened with a curtain was centre back and a chair, sofa and fireplace were on the right hand side. For the rest of the play, the location was Highercoombe, Mr Tanqueray’s country house. The second act was in the breakfast room while the final acts took place in the drawing room. The breakfast room had the table on the right of the stage with a different sofa and chair on the left and no curtain over the doorway. The change took a little time, and Mrs Tanqueray had already turned up before it was complete. She waited, looking somewhat bored, while the servants completed their task, then sat down to wait for the start of the scene. During the interval the furniture was completely changed, with a circular seat over on the left, a sofa on the right with a piano behind it and various tables and cabinets. Everything was in period style, as were the costumes, and despite the sparseness of the design it worked well for this production. Not as sumptuous as the National, of course, but better for this space.

The plot was relatively simple, but there was some back story we had to be told during the first act. Mr Tanqueray was a widower with a daughter in a convent whi was shortly due to become a nun. The following day he was to marry again, and his wife had a past, which was why he hadn’t mentioned the impending nuptials earlier to his friends. There was a good deal of discussion as to the social consequences of marrying such a woman, both in terms of Tanqueray himself and in relation to Sir George Orreyed, who had himslef only just married another scarlet woman, much to his mother’s distress.

We learned a lot of this from the conversations between Tanqueray’s friends; Tanqueray obligingly took himself off to write some letters – the 19th century equivalent of sending a few texts. To avoid being disturbed, he went into the next room, so his friends could gossip freely, and what fun it was! Cayley Drummle, Tanqueray’s closest friend, stayed after the others had left to get more information about the bride-to-be, and this was followed by a visit from the lady herself, so by the end of the first act we were pretty well acquainted with the situation. The future Mrs Tanqueray had made her living by associating with a series of men, not actually married to them but adopting their names and being a charming hostess to all their friends. Aubrey was convinced that she’d been treated badly by each and every one of these men (the brutes!) but I wasn’t persuaded so easily. With Tanqueray’s young daughter Ellean (pronounced Ellie-Ann) returning home after receiving ghostly guidance from her deceased mother, there was very little likelihood of this second marriage ending happily, and so it proved. We’d both forgotten the dramatic conclusion to the play, but it was not unexpected given the circumstances.

The picture of Victorian marriage painted by Pinero was certainly unflattering, and possibly more accurate than not. Many of the social niceties of those times no longer apply, of course, so I had to be patient occasionally as characters went through agonies over some trivial difficulty which wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today. But there was plenty to enjoy as well, and we laughed often throughout the performance. I felt that this production was taking a deliberately lighter tone than the National’s, making it more of a melodrama. The emotions were more exaggerated, and while we felt kinder towards Paula during the second half, she wasn’t a sympathetic character this time with her temper tantrums and shallowness. (Felicity Kendal, just post-The Good Life, was an angel, of course, and entirely sympathetic – how dare these men think anything bad about her!)

Laura Michelle Kelly showed us Paula’s nervousness and waywardness along with some of her charm and intelligence, but I wasn’t always clear why Aubrey found her attractive. Her dignity started to show through in the later scenes, and there was a sense that but for misfortune she might have been both a decent human being and acceptable to Victorian society. James Wilby did reasonably well as Aubrey Tanqueray, but despite his ability as an actor he seemed to be rushing his lines so much that I missed many of them – very puzzling. Rona Morison was suitably priggish as Ellean, with a noticeable change when she arrived back from Paris, and Joseph Alessi gave perhaps the best performance as Cayley Drummle, Tanqueray’s confidante, gossip-monger and the life of the party. There were good supporting performances from the rest of the cast as well, and the production was nicely balanced.

It was good to see this again, and I hope we don’t have to wait so long for our third opportunity.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Our Country’s Good – February 2012

By Timberlake Wertenbaker

Directed by Alistair Whatley

Company: The Original Theatre Company

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 2nd February 2012

We saw this play many years ago at the Royal Court (1988) where they played it paired with The Recruiting Officer, the play being rehearsed by the convicts. The casts were the same, so we had all the fun of seeing the actors rehearse as convicts and then play the same parts for real. As it happens, we’re going to see The Recruiting Officer in a few weeks, as Josie Rourke has chosen that play to start her Donmar reign; although the actors won’t be the same, it will be interesting to see the combination again.

The Recruiting Officer is a very funny play; Our Country’s Good makes full use of that comedy to lighten the darkness it’s exploring – our treatment of convicted criminals a couple of centuries ago, which just happens to be very similar to current events in many ways. Even if we hadn’t seen the play before, we had plenty of advance warning that it was a serious piece as we groped our way to our seats through thick fog. (Oh alright, it was only a light mist, but I have to keep my spirits up somehow.)

The set was evocative; there were two wooden frames which dominated the stage, and one of them had some pulley tackle attached which could have been on a ship or part of a construction site, both appropriate for the play. There were wooden boxes scattered around the place as well, and these performed a number of roles – mainly furniture, but they even stretched to a rowing boat at one point. A table was brought on from time to time as needed and there were blankets for the stage curtains; that was about it. The convicts were in tatty clothes of the period, while the officers wore splendid red coats and wigs. There was also a Reverend dressed in sombre black. As almost everyone doubled up at least once, the women all played officers as well – one played the parson – and they all did a very good job.

During rehearsal

Our Country’s Good

The opening scene is set on the ship taking the convicts out to Australia. As one chap was being flogged by a couple of the officers on the central frame, the other convicts huddled on the front of the stage, singing a song. The image of brutality was very clear. The next scene introduced us to the Captain and some of the officers. Their conversation covered the nature of the penal colony they were now running, their differing attitudes on punishment vs. rehabilitation, and the unusual flora and fauna to be found in this strange land. Despite professing some enlightened views about providing a civilising influence on the convicts, I noticed it was the Captain himself who was the first to shoot something.

We then met Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, a young officer missing his wife back home terribly and keen to find some way of earning his superior’s approval and preferment. One of the men suggested to him that he stage a play using the convicts as his cast, and he decided to act on this. The rest of the play showed us the casting process, the convicts’ different attitudes and abilities, the response from the officers, especially those who objected to the play being put on, and the developing relationship between Ralph and Mary Brenham, his lead actress and one of the few convicts who could read. The final scene showed the start of their performance, with the stage audience on the other side of the curtains as we watched the back stage preparations. From the reactions we could hear, this was going to be a total success, and rightly so.

There was so much meat to this performance that it’s hard to know where to begin. The story was told very clearly, and at times it was difficult to watch. The abuse of these people, treating them as sub-human when they were mostly ill-educated and poor, was beyond moving. These were harsh times, and people were being transported for stealing a loaf of bread. The number of lashes needed to be effective was being discussed by the officers at one point, and two hundred seemed to be a reasonable amount to them – it’s clear they never expected to be on the receiving end. I soon found myself longing, as the prisoners did, for the relief of a rehearsal scene; even so, the author cleverly increased the tension by having the most unpleasant officers invade the final rehearsal we see and, overriding Ralph’s protests, abuse the convict actors horribly. It only stops because one of them, the most enthusiastic actor of the troupe, starts performing and the others join in, a brave choice in the circumstances but the only possible one if the play was to go on.

From time to time throughout the play, one of the natives came on stage and commented on what he saw. At first he thought these strange white people were part of a dream, but it didn’t take him long to realise they’re no dream; nightmare more like. Just before the final scene, as they were setting up the stage, the native appeared again but this time he was covered in sores from the diseases the white folk have brought with them. This oblique referencing of the natives’ experience was very powerful, as it emphasised both the impact which the new arrivals had and their disinterest in the native population – two hours of soapboxing wouldn’t have been so effective.

I want to remember so much about this play that I know I won’t be able to get it all down in time. There were so many layers that I’m still discovering things as I write. The discussion among the officers showed us their brutality, and with the doubling, it emphasised for me that the officers and men were just as brutal and uncivilised as the prisoners, but with the power they had they could express it more easily. There were educated prisoners as well such as Mary and John Wisehammer, who was also interested in Mary but had to watch as she and Ralph gradually became an item.

Our Country’s Good

Harry Brewer represented the guilty conscience, as his obsession with the ghost of a man he’d hanged on ship eventually drove him to madness and death. His relationship with Duckling Smith, in which he wanted some kindness and she withheld it until it was too late, showed the difficulty for women in those conditions. They were expected to provide ‘comfort’ for the men, but how could they then have any affection or tenderness in a relationship?

Ralph’s gradual change from dedicated husband to Mary’s lover was nicely done, and there were many lovely moments in the performance. I did find it hard to hear the lines occasionally – Liz Morden’s story was particularly quiet – but it didn’t stop me understanding what was going on. The music was good – we like traditional folk songs – and the cast did a fantastic job. It’s still early in the tour, so it may even improve, though we were very happy with our experience.

It’s a dark piece covering a difficult subject, and it’s a shame there weren’t more people in the audience to appreciate this excellent production. I can understand the difficulty, but this is definitely a modern classic – should be done in schools if it isn’t already – and I wish them every success with the tour.

The Original Theatre Company website – www.originaltheatre.com

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Lysistrata – November 2011


By: Aristophanes, adapted by David Stuttard

Directed by: James Albrecht

Company: aod (Actors of Dionysus)

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Tuesday 8th November 2011

This is the no-nooky play, or ‘How the Greek women won the Battle for Peace’. We’ve seen it done before, in masks, and with an all-woman cast. This version, which uses modern dress and (very) contemporary references, had a cast of five – three women, two men – and was a lively romp through the sexual farce and political arguments of the original. They want to tour it, and although we found it patchy, I do hope they get the chance to show it to a wider audience.

The set was nice and simple. There were three plinths of varying sizes dotted round the stage, and a stepped dais with two pillars centre back. A couple of large banners were attached to the balcony – only one of them unfurled today – and there were various props at the sides of the stage – Zimmer frames, shopping trolleys, etc. When the Treasury sit-in started, placards were slotted into the plinths on either side, and the women strung crime scene tape between them and the pillars to create the sense of a barrier. There was also a folding lounger, an inflatable mattress, a pillow and a sheet used in one of the scenes – more on that story later.

The story was told in a succession of scenes, some of which worked better than others. Before the start, we could just make out a news broadcast talking about the war between Athens and Sparta. Unfortunately, many in the audience didn’t realise that this was relevant and kept chattering, which made it hard to hear. We did make out some of the information, including the scheduled summit meeting, and then after the news section there was a brief mention of a new play opening in Athens that night – Lysistrata by Aristophanes – a nice touch. With the news bit starting up again, at a much louder volume, the lights went down and we were into the opening scene.

Lysistrata, or Lucy as she’s called here, entered on her own, and started pacing up and down on the stage, looking at her watch. After the clock struck several times, she told us how disappointed she was that no one else had turned up. She’d summoned all the women of Greece to meet her here at this exact time, and nada. Nobody’s bothered to turn up. Well, actually one woman did turn up a few seconds later – Cleo. Fanny arrived a few minutes later, and then success! The Spartan women turned up, accompanied by the Thracian women. We only got to see the leader of the Spartan women though, played by Joseph Wicks (times are hard) and as she posed on a plinth we can see she’d been working out. She looked rather fetching in her red top and shorts; she was well padded in the tits department but her midriff needed some serious waxing.

With all the women gathered, Lucy was urged to tell them all her proposal. After making sure that all the women were keen to see not only their husbands come home from the war but also their lovers, Lucy finally screwed her courage to the sticking point (they used a lot of Shakespeare quotes in this section) and suggested they all withhold ___ from their husbands. What, they all asked? She was too nervous to get it out the first time, and they had to work really hard to persuade her to have another go. They swore they’d make all sorts of sacrifices to get their men back safely. But when she did finally explain the details of her plan, it was a step too far for these ladies. Give up cock? No way! I even found myself agreeing with Cleo that we couldn’t do without sex (sitting next to an aisle can get you into all sorts of trouble). Still, these women weren’t getting enough as it was, and they did want their men folk back….. Eventually Lucy inspired them to see it through, and when they heard the signal that the Treasury had been taken, the revolution was well and truly under way.

The next section involved a couple of elderly men bringing sticks and a bin on stage to make a fire and smoke the women out of the Treasury. It ended in ignominious defeat for the lads, as the women fought them off with frying pans and plastic doodads (including plastic ducks). I couldn’t make out much of the dialogue in this bit, but it seemed to mainly involve the two men saying dick instead of stick and suchlike.

I think the next scene was a debate between Lucy and an official, where the male view was that women were incapable of serious thought, never mind running the treasury! Lucy did her best to argue against him, but couldn’t overcome the ingrained attitudes of the ancient Greek mind. Despite the modern dress, the prejudices were distinctly old-fashioned, though still depressingly present at times today.

The biggest challenge to the women’s position came in the shape of Dick himself, Fanny’s husband, sporting a massive erection in a tasteful shade of pink. Having seen The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus years ago, we weren’t surprised by the size of the member, though it was used in an unusual way. Wrapping a cloth around it, Dick claimed it was Fanny’s baby which needed her help. She had to come down from the balcony, but of course it was a trick. Mind you, she handled the situation very well, despite her own sexual yearnings. She worked Dick up into a frenzy of sexual excitement (and he wasn’t far off it to begin with) then delayed the moment of pleasure by insisting on a bed, then a mattress, then a pillow, then a sheet. At the end, when she couldn’t delay anymore, she tied her bra over his face, and while he was waiting for her to get on with it, she snuck off back to the treasury building. How cruel! (and very funny)

Eventually the total lack of action got to the men, and they started to consider giving the women what they wanted – peace. The Spartan and Athenian representatives came together to discuss the problem, and their problems were so ‘up front’ they could compare sizes as well (Sparta won). With every incentive to sign a treaty, the men still held off until finally Lucy forced their hand. This was done in the form of a game show, with the ‘contestants’ asked a series of questions, and then given an ultimatum – sign the peace treaty or else. They didn’t fancy the ‘or else’, so they signed, pronto.

There was another scene with two old couples before this, but I couldn’t make out much of it, and I don’t remember how they ended the play either; as I said before, it was patchy. But we did enjoy enough of it to feel happy with our afternoon, and since this was only their second performance, I’m sure it will come on fairly quickly if they get a reasonable run at it. Compared to the Carry On brand of sexual innuendo, the humour was more direct, and I reckon this worked better with so many teenagers in the audience. Nothing wrong with innuendo, of course, but it’s refreshing to have the knob jokes so ‘in your face’, as it were.

There was a short post-show afterwards, and the problem of updating the piece was discussed; the cast found it hard to deal with some of the events, such as the men who signed the treaty being allowed into the Treasury to have sex with any woman they want. The pressure of having so many quick changes made it harder, but also gave the production extra energy; in one scene, the two male actors played two parts each, dragging their own injured characters off stage. And they said men were no good at multi-tasking!

There were plenty of references to Greece’s current financial problems – very topical – and the two or three scenes that worked well made up for the ones that didn’t. I do hope they get a chance to continue with this show.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Importance Of Being Earnest – October 2011


By Oscar Wilde

Directed by Stephen Unwin

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Saturday 29th October 2011

This was the Rose’s own production, and they made a good stab at this old favourite. Unfortunately the audience wasn’t ‘in the giving vein’, so some of the humour fell flat. We enjoyed ourselves and although it wasn’t the best we’ve seen, it was a well-balanced production with good performances all round.

The set was by Hayden Griffin but looked like a Simon Higlett special, with the large picture frame straddling the set. The frame’s distressed gilt finish was picked up on the door frames to left and right of the stage, and along the front of the stage as well. Algernon’s flat was furnished with a sofa and tables on the left and a heap of cushions with an upright chair and drinks table on the other side. Double doors at the back and plenty of rugs on the floor completed the scene. The garden had the table and chairs on the right – Merriman had a larger table brought out for the tea things – and a hanging branch behind the frame on the left. Cecily used a real watering can to water imaginary flowers, and the Canon and Miss Prism strolled off through the auditorium for their little perambulation. The drawing room had the usual seats, while a large bookcase centre back held the necessary reference works. It was all nice and simple and, with the elegant costumes, very effective.

Kirsty Besterman gave a lovely performance as Gwendolen; she’ll be as tough as her mother in no time. This was Jenny Rainsford’s first professional role, playing Cecily, and she did a fine job, matching the rest of the cast perfectly. Daniel Brocklebank and Bruce Mackinnon as Earnest/Jack and Algernon were not picked for the similarity of their looks – Daniel is shorter and dark, with regular features, while Bruce is much taller with lighter hair and an agile face made for comedy. Even so, their performances worked very well together.

Ishia Bennison as Miss Prism and Richard Cordery as Canon Chasuble gave nicely detailed performances in these minor roles, while Walter Van Dyk gave Merriman a Scottish accent and slicked down hair to contrast with Lane, who had fluffier hair and an English accent. I always enjoy Lane’s little dig about ‘ready money’ – this was no exception.

Of course the big question hanging over this play is how Lady Bracknell will be played. Jane Asher is almost too good-looking to play such a battleaxe, but her performance overcame that minor difficulty very well. She skipped nimbly over the ‘handbag’ hurdle to get a good run up to the ‘railway station’, which she delivered with astonishment bordering on distaste. Her predatory instincts regarding a prospective suitor’s qualities, especially those which are ‘in the funds’, were great fun to watch.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Hamlet – May 2011


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Conrad Nelson

Company: Northern Broadsides

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Saturday 28th May 2011

It was interesting to see this only a couple of days after Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. The set had two ramps slanting across the stage at right angles, with stool-steps behind, for easy access as well as seating. The back of the forward ramp, which ran right to left, had an inbuilt piano, which was used to good effect, while the ramp on the left, which ran roughly back to front, included a nifty two-door grave, reminiscent of an Andersen shelter (more on that story later). Around the back were some strange wire thingies – several pairs of wires stretched floor to flies, with a large trapezium of white material between them at about the level of the balcony. A strip of dark gray Lurex was wrapped around the base of these wires, with some grouped together and some pairs done individually. Only the central group was different – the fabric was plain black, and for the second half it was pulled up to form the arras behind which Polonius hid; the rest of the strips only came up two or three feet. There were a couple of chairs for Claudius and Gertrude during the play scene, and various other implements were brought on as needed, but that was pretty much it.

I have no idea what the wire and cloth arrangements were meant to be, but at the start, we soon realised we were in the Second World War period. It started with a public service announcement about switching off all phones, done in the plummy tones and formal language of such things, and then the opening scene was preceded by an air raid siren; this made me think that the wire sculptures might represent search lights, but apart from that fleeting thought, nothing much came of them. There was also a piper at the start – fine playing, but no idea why.

The first scene was done in near darkness, with torches, and Francisco was standing right beside me for his few lines. The strong northern accents were well to the fore from the off, although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were Scottish, and Hamlet had spent so long in Wittenberg that he often lapsed into RP with odd flashes of ‘up north’. For once, it’s Horatio who asks what all the warlike preparations are for, and Marcellus or Bernardo who tells him – this makes much more sense than the usual format. The ghost appears on the balcony, wearing a fetching white cape and a fencing mask, while waving his sword around in slow motion. Although it gives the lie to the later reports to Hamlet about the ghost’s expression, etc., this staging did have the advantage of allowing them to show the ghost flitting around a lot with the use of some poles and duplicate capes and masks – the ghost appeared on either side of the stage before disappearing altogether.

The next scene began with a lively jazz number, which perked things up no end. Actually, it started with one man coming on, hat pulled down, with his jacket slung over his shoulder. He walked slowly to the end of the ramp on the right, lifted the piano lid, sat down, and played a chord. Slowly, deliberately, repeating it once. I thought, oh, it’s the death march, and then he picked up the beat, the tune began to swing, and as the lights came up the rest of the band came on stage to treat us to a great little jazz number. Ophelia, in a gorgeous evening dress with more swags than a Palladium curtain, stood at a microphone on the ramp in front of the pianist, and sang the songs from her mad scene – ‘valentine’ and ‘how should I your true love know’ – all nice and lovely in this context. Gertrude arrives on the other ramp, and sashays about a bit, to applause from the court. Turns out Claudius was the piano player. Hamlet played double bass, Polonius the cello, and the rest all seem to be playing anything and everything from time to time. Talented bunch. This upbeat start to the scene makes Claudius’s speech much lighter in tone, and he comes across as a pretty good guy. Cornelius  has become Cornelia again, while Fortinbras is referred to as ‘she’ – I wasn’t sure I’d heard it right first time round, but we even get to see and hear her in this production, so there’s no mistake.

All this while, after the music stopped, Hamlet has been sulking over near us, sitting on the corner of the ramp. When he gets involved, he simply stands up to say his lines, putting some heat into the “Tis not my inky cloak” bit, but otherwise seeming a bit static. Left to himself for the “too, too solid flesh” speech, he does start to move around, dropping to his knees and other signs of suffering. The dialogue came across well enough, though.

The scene with Horatio was fine, as was Laertes’s leave-taking. Ophelia can be quite snappy in this production, and it comes out here as well as in the mad scene. Polonius needed to refer to a little notebook for some of his precepts, a reflection on the character rather than the actor, but judging by Laertes’s reaction to the contents of the envelope Polonius gives him, he’s a generous man to his children.

The platform scenes had some problems, mostly in the second phase, when Hamlet talks with his father’s ghost. The ghost appeared on the balcony at first, and disappeared quite quickly, but came through the rear entrance onto the ramp almost before Horatio and Marcellus had finished making their exits that way. Whenever the ghost was on stage, they played church-type music in the background – organ playing, choir singing – but this time it was loud enough to drown out a lot of Hamlet’s lines. Of course, it didn’t help that his back was turned to us for most of this scene, but one way and another I hardly heard a word he said. The ghost was loud and clear, and mercifully short compared to usual. Hamlet is much different after this encounter – much more lively and energetic. He also has his father’s sword, which the ghost gives him – strange ghost, this – which is handy for the swearing scene. He also scrawls something in chalk on the right-hand ramp which I couldn’t see, but it related to “meet it is I set it down”, so I assume the word ‘villain’ was in there at least. Nobody else seems to see this, or the other stuff he writes later, and I wasn’t taken with it as a staging choice.

Polonius sends Reynaldo off to France with the usual instructions, although he doesn’t mention drabbing as a potential slur on Laertes’s character, whether from brevity or morality I couldn’t tell. Ophelia’s report on Hamlet’s mad appearance was OK, and it started to bring out the lack of physical contact between father and daughter, unlike her fond embraces with Laertes earlier on. Polonius was more disturbed by the error he’s made in cutting Hamlet off from Ophelia than I’ve seen before, and his concern seemed genuine.

Now for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and if you couldn’t tell them apart before, you wouldn’t have had a hope this time around. Apart from their suits – one a light tan, the other grey – they were identical. Twins or brothers, I’m not sure, but since I focused on their outfits I was fine. Claudius gets it wrong (again!), then we hear from the ambassadors, and finally Polonius struts his stuff with Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia.

For Hamlet’s next entrance, he’s carrying a fishing basket, rod and stool, and wearing a waterproof and hat. He dumps this stuff at the bottom of the ramp, and he’s busy getting things out of the basket while talking to Polonius. The fishmonger reference is therefore apt, though I felt it was a bit contrived. Still, it was fun. He also has a book, which is used for the “Words, words, words” bit, and he chalks “gone fishing” on a small blackboard and props it on a stool, which got a laugh.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have the usual tough time of it, and then Polonius introduces the players. They’re very jolly. One chap in particular is keen to give a speech himself, but it turns out Hamlet wants one that’s not his to give – I thought he looked a bit disappointed. Hamlet’s intro was significantly helped by a prompt from the lady player, and the rest of the speech was very well delivered. I was aware of Hecuba snatching up the blanket to cover her naked body, and I had an unexpected glimpse of a physical aspect to her relationship with Priam. The player wasn’t at all bothered about Hamlet’s request for The Murder of Gonzago, so the general public obviously aren’t suspicious of the succession.

I wasn’t sure when the interval would be taken – not at “the play’s the thing” this time – so we continued with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reporting to the king and queen on their lack of progress. Then there’s the setting up of the confrontation between Ophelia and Hamlet, and then the big one – “To be, or not to be”. OK, everyone wants to find their own way of doing it, but this choice just wasn’t that good. Hamlet uses the chalk again, and scrawls the question on the top of the left-hand ramp. I could see the writing this time, but that really didn’t improve things. He treated the first part of the speech like a pros and cons list, writing under “not to be” such things as “die”, “sleep”, “dream”; all this writing was done with his back to us and it felt more like an old-fashioned classroom talk than a vibrant dynamic speech about Hamlet’s internal philosophical wrestling. He recovered a bit with the latter part of the speech, but on the whole this was not a good version of this important section of the play.

The meeting with Ophelia was much better, with Ophelia being a little snappy again when she tells him “Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind”. She’s also very upset at Hamlet’s ranting, sobbing and distraught and in need of a hug when her father and Claudius re-emerge. Polonius isn’t keen, and avoids her altogether. I wasn’t sure if Hamlet was aware of Polonius’s presence after “Where’s your father?” – it just wasn’t clear.

The advice to the players was fine, and with Claudius and Gertrude sitting on the left-hand ramp, the play got underway. The opening mime sequence was a very fresh take to my eyes. Two players brought on a wheelbarrow, placing it well up on the right-hand ramp, and they were wearing smocks. With some music and ‘effects’ – they used a watering can, I think – first one row of flowers stood up in the barrow, then the next, and finally the man sorts of leans down and rests his head on the flowers to have a kip. The woman leaves, and another chap comes on with the poison, and actually invites Claudius to come on stage and pour it into the sleeping man’s ear! It was all very jokey, and I could see why Claudius wouldn’t be too worried by it. In fact, it was entertaining enough that I wasn’t watching the court’s reactions at all. When the dumb show king dies, he literally kicked the bucket. Yes, literally! There was a bucket on the ramp, he stood up, staggered about a bit, then stopped to deliberately kick the bucket off the ramp, and then collapsed and died. It was very good fun.

For the second part, the players did a lovely version of Brief Encounter. The loving couple were Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard to a T, including the little fur stole she wore and the clipped accents, which sounded strange with Shakespeare’s dialogue, but the reference was worth it. When the poisoning happened, Claudius reacted strongly and stalked off, calling for a light. The rest of the scene was pretty standard, and then the interval.

The second half started with the short scene between Claudius and first Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and then Polonius, followed by the attempted reconciliation with heaven. Fine Time Fontayne, as Claudius, gave one of the best performances today, and this speech was particularly well done, leaving him sitting on the front ramp in the appearance of prayer when Hamlet arrives on the scene. Standing close behind Claudius, he’s ready to strike, but has second thoughts. It’s one of those odd things; why should he think that Claudius would go to heaven when he’s committed murder? And a brother’s murder at that? The belief that forgiveness is always available for repentance must have been very strong for the doubts to stand any sort of chance in Hamlet’s mind. Anyway, we want the rest of the play, so fortunately Hamlet decides against taking this perfect opportunity, and heads off to his mother’s room. Claudius is then free to tell us how ineffective his efforts have been, and also leaves the stage.

Hamlet is soon with his mother in her chamber, with Polonius ensconced behind the arras, partially visible to us. This scene seemed a bit flat to me, although the dialogue came across well enough. Gertrude was certainly upset by the whole thing, but I didn’t get any sense that she realised that Claudius was a murderer. And she must have had excellent eyesight, because the two pictures Hamlet was holding up for comparison were rather small, and he was standing several metres away from her during that bit, though of course, she would be able to remember what each man looked like. The ghost was fine, but for once I wondered if it would be possible to drop the physical presence and just hear the ghost’s words, so that the audience could relate more to Gertrude’s point of view, assuming the production has decided that she doesn’t see the ghost, of course. For once, Hamlet doesn’t bid his mother not to do the things he tells her to do, but he does drag Polonius’s body away, thankfully.

Despatching Hamlet to England doesn’t take long, and then we meet Fortinbras and her army, followed quickly by Ophelia’s first mad scene. This wasn’t too bad, with Ophelia throwing papers around and singing snatches of the songs she sang at the start of the play. There’s more menace in her threat that “my brother shall know of it” than usual. Then Laertes arrives, and when Ophelia returns she has a small bunch of flowers in her hand to distribute. She’s already thrown the papers about, and also drops a lot of the flowers, so the stage is beginning to look rather untidy, and gets more cluttered as the play continues.

Horatio reads the letter from Hamlet standing in the balcony, and then Claudius and Laertes seal their pact to kill Hamlet down below. Gertrude reports Ophelia’s death, and then the gravedigger comes on to prepare for Ophelia’s funeral. He opens up the doors to the Andersen shelter, and starts pulling skulls out of it (why are there never any other bones?), leaving one of them perched on his spade, leaning against the wall. Hamlet and Horatio walk on behind him, and as they talk, the gravedigger tosses fresh skulls over his head which they catch. The skull on the spade is Yorick’s.

The funeral is very brief, just a quick up, down and across, and the priest is done. Hamlet and Horatio are crouched by the end of the right-hand ramp, and Hamlet is pretty vigorous in attacking Laertes over who loved Ophelia the most.

Now we’re into the final phase, and Hamlet recounts his adventures at sea to Horatio. The sequence with Osric was good, with Osric’s hat being bent out of shape so that he looked ridiculous when he put it back on. Osric and Reynaldo were one and the same, by the way – Andy Cryer did very well with this part. Osric’s fussiness was clear, and he obviously had a prepared speech – he checked his clipboard from time to time – and was easily flustered by Hamlet’s responses.

The fight scene worked fine. The poisoned cup was set on a stand to the left, the combatants had fencing gear on, and the fighting itself was reasonably good. Hamlet is standing with his back to Laertes, who’s on the ground, when Laertes cuts him on the back of the leg, and then Hamlet’s furious and unstoppable in his determination to get back at Laertes. Even without a sword, he overcomes Laertes and cuts him in return. The queen has already drunk the poison, and it’s all going horribly wrong from Claudius’s point of view. It gets worse. Hamlet stabs him, pours some drink down his throat, then carries the cup over to Laertes to exchange forgiveness with him; Laertes dies before Hamlet can complete his side of the bargain.

After that, it’s a quick trot to the end of the play, with Fortinbras turning up and making her claim to the throne. All jolly good fun, and despite some dubious choices in the staging, and a dreadfully sparse audience, we gave them a warm reception at the end. I felt the Second World War theme was underused, and the performances were sometimes patchy, but on the whole it was the usual sound, well-spoken no-nonsense Northern Broadsides production. The music was lovely, and well-chosen, although I’ve already made it clear that the ghost’s accompaniment was a bit too much.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me