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

7/10

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

6/10

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