The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – December 2011

6/10

By CS Lewis, adapted by Adrian Mitchell

Music by Shaun Davey

Directed by Dale Rooks

Company: Chichester Festival Youth Theatre

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 27th December 2011

This is the first Chichester Festival Youth Theatre production we’ve seen, and it’s not a bad standard overall. They had the advantage of a Simon Higlett set, which worked really well and looked fantastic. The opening set had the façade of a building, with a couple of flying buttress platforms to either side; between them they allowed for all sorts of rooms, and a twisting dance through lots of doors. The central double doors became the doors of the wardrobe, and each time the children went through them, the two halves of the set opened up and were swung round – good old elbow grease – to reveal a magical winter set, with two snow-covered slopes, frosty trees, etc. Other locations were simply set up with a table and a few chairs, while the White Witch’s front garden was chock-a-block with frozen statues.

With a large cast, there were plenty of winter sprites about the place, and all the usual characters for this magical story. I was a little disappointed with Aslan at first; he was played by three young lads, two of them holding shields on either side for the body, while the front one held the face and mane and did the talking. Once I got used to it though, I thought it worked very well. We particularly liked Mr Tumnus (Joel Banks), Mr and Mrs Beaver (Sam Peake & Alice O’Hanlon) and the White Witch (Georgina Briggs – very good evil laugh), though there was plenty of talent on show all round.

The performance started with a group mime of the evacuees’ train journey, and I was finding it a bit dull until the train got going. The children with their suitcases were all lined up across the stage at this point, and as the train whistle blew, the suitcase of the lad in front let out a puff of smoke, while the suitcases behind gradually started to move like train wheels – very effective, and it got me laughing as well. The rest of the audience seemed a bit quiet though, and I did feel they could have responded more – they were doing enough on stage to deserve it. Even so, I enjoyed myself and had the mandatory sniffles in the later stages, so not a bad end to the year’s theatregoing.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Winslow Boy – June 2009

8/10

By Terence Rattigan

Directed by Stephen Unwin

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 12th June 2009

This was another Simon Higlett design, which we’d seen previously at an afternoon talk at the Rose Theatre. The whole set was encompassed by a huge picture frame, set at an angle. The sitting room itself had double doors to the left with a glimpse of the hall through them when they were opened, another door on the right to the library and French windows centre back. The furniture was simple but of good quality, with a sofa to the left of the double doors, a table in the middle and Mr. Winslow’s chair to the right near the front.

No need to go into the story here. The performances were excellent, among the best I’ve seen. The dialogue was wonderfully well delivered and I don’t think I’ve seen another production get so much humour out of the play. In particular, I loved the underplaying of many of the reactions which made each situation funnier. For example, when Ivy inadvertently breaks the news that Master Ronnie has returned home early despite everyone else conspiring to keep Mr. Winslow in the dark, there was very little obvious reaction amongst the characters but we got the point loud and clear (and laughed loud and clear as well).

The whole ensemble performed brilliantly, but I will just mention two of the cast. Timothy West was superb as Mr. Winslow, showing a wide emotional range as well as delivering some wonderful lines to perfection. Adrian Lukis played a more oily version of the QC Sir Robert Morton than I’ve seen before, but it worked very well. I found myself wondering what it’s like to make your first entrance towards the end of the first half,and to build up so quickly to such a magnificent exit line. I didn’t feel he and Kate would be so likely to get together this time round, but you never know.

Finally, I must mention that interrogation scene just before the interval. The interruptions by the family were spot on and I was able to feel their concern along with them. The climax was just as good as ever, and I had to wipe away a tear in the interval. I do like Rattigan’s work.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Glass Menagerie – October 2008

6/10

By Tennessee Williams

Directed by Braham Murray

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Wednesday 8th October 2008

I was a bit tired after a long day which involved a trip back from Stratford amongst other things, but although that might have lessened my enjoyment of some parts of this production, I still feel it was too unbalanced to do this play full justice, the excellent cast notwithstanding.

Firstly I’ll describe the set. Designed by Simon Higlett, the rear wall of the set leaned drunkenly against the side of the stage, the windows equally skew-whiff. The rest of the set had come home early from the party, though, and so was much better behaved. We sat just off the centre aisle, so to our left was a day bed with jonquils rather absurdly flowering beside it (they looked like daffs to me, but from their use later in the play I deduced what they were meant to be). Near that was a small table which had a typewriter and books, further back was the dresser and dining room table, and the space extended back to create an exit to the (unseen) kitchen. Above this, along the back wall ran a walkway with a metal railing. At the right hand side it became a stairway down to the apartment, with the central props of the railing perpendicular to the angle of descent. To the right of the stairs was another chaise longue, and beside that was the gramophone and records. In front of these was the semi-circular three-tiered stand that held the glass figurines, and above it there were five strands of wires suspended, with copies of the glass animals attached. I suspect this was to make it clear to everyone in the audience, not just those at the front, what was in Laura’s collection, and this symbolic yet practical touch was echoed by a short cascade of boxes down part of the rear wall, towards the corner. When the lighting was bright enough, I realised these had shoes tumbling out of them, representing the boring job that Tom does to support his family, and a nice diagonal counterpoint to the dangling glassware. Later, when it lit up, I spotted the Paradise Club sign to the left of the back wall – it was just too dark over that way to spot it earlier. There were rugs and cushions and knick knacks all dotted round the place, entirely in keeping with the period, and during the interval those kind stage crew folk came and spruced the place up, ready for Laura’s “gentleman caller”. The typewriter and books were cleared away, there were bright new chintz covers for the chairs and even the cushions on the dining chairs, and the table was covered in a beautiful cloth. The ladies’ clothes changed to match. It was very detailed and created a strong sense of the period and specific location, though not necessarily the wider setting.

I hadn’t seen the play for a long time (1998, according to our records), so I’d forgotten that Tom narrates the story. It started with him lighting up the first of many cigarettes (statutory notices adorned every available door on the way in), and telling us that this was not a true story, because it was based on memory, and then giving us the social context of the period, the 1930s. The mention of economic catastrophe inevitably got a good laugh from the audience, and it was certainly a good opening; getting a laugh while connecting us to these characters’ circumstances is an excellent way to get an audience involved – well, it works for me, anyway. Sadly, things didn’t go so well after that.

For me, Brenda Blethyn as Amanda wasn’t believable enough as a woman who had been a real southern belle in her youth. This meant that her character’s grieving for past glories, and mourning over missed opportunities for happiness was transmuted into vanity and fantasy, lessening the emotional impact, and turning her into a thoroughly unpleasant harridan with no redeeming or sympathetic features whatsoever. This was coupled with Emma Hamilton’s  rather robust portrayal of Laura, which underplayed her timidity and suffering, and left me feeling that Laura was essentially fine if only her mother would shut up for a bit. Again, I found it difficult to engage with her character, and with that of her brother Tom. He was another unpleasant chap, driven to drink and extended cinema attendance (or so he claimed) by the dreadful behaviour of their mother. I don’t blame him, but then I wouldn’t want to spend time with him either. Only Jim, the gentleman caller, showed us some degree of recognisable normality, and it was in his scene with Laura that the performance began to find its feet. Jim was able to show his natural self, instead of the life-and-soul-of-the-party persona he’d been demonstrating till now, while Laura was finally able to express some of her feelings to someone not in her family and feel accepted, liked and even loved, at least for a brief moment. I liked this scene very much, though without the build up from the rest of the play it couldn’t be as moving as I’ve experienced before, but it did show us some nice subtle touches in the two performances.

I thought the main problem was the uncertainty as to how accurate Amanda and Tom are about Laura’s problems. This meant I had to consider the play intellectually, to figure out the clues I was being given, rather than being able to engage emotionally with the characters and their situations. This isn’t Pirandello, for heaven’s sake! But it certainly had some sense of playing with reality, presumably based on the opening narration. I also got a whiff of Chekov, in that instead of going into the heavier emotional aspects of the play, the production seemed determined to give us a lighter version, almost a comedy take on the play. There is humour in it, but I’m not convinced the play can take a comedy emphasis to this extent.

I was also aware of how close in time this play was to Arthur Miller’s first efforts, and could see how he might have been influenced by this, especially in relation to Death Of A Salesman. It’s still a good play, and there was enough to enjoy in this performance that I didn’t feel I’d wasted my time, but I do hope I’ll see a version that involves me more than this in the future.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Doll’s House – September 2008

10/10

By Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Stephen Mulrine

Directed by Peter Hall

Company: Peter Hall Company

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 11th September 2008

This was a marvellous production, with wonderfully detailed performances.  The set design was excellent, courtesy of Simon Higlett, whom we heard giving a talk at Chichester. The set was a cubic frame, with a screen for the back wall. This allowed us to see through to the entrance hall and door, and a corridor running off to the right – Torvald’s study was the first door along. The room itself was sparsely decorated, with a sofa, several chairs, some tables, a small stove, an item which looked like a large candleholder but turned out to be a lamp stand, and an upright piano. A chandelier hung from the right hand side of the ceiling, and there were three doors, one in each of the three invisible walls. (The doors were definitely visible.)

The performances were all excellent. I knew the story well enough now to appreciate some of the finer details. Catherine McCormack as Nora was all edgy nervousness. She got across that character’s attractiveness as well as her childish inability to grasp the way things work. She lives through her emotions; if she feels something strongly, it must be right, and the rest of society must be wrong. Finbar Lynch as Torvald was one of those men who’s tremendously sure of themselves, creepily so, and although he’s fond of Nora, she’s right when she compares herself to a doll that he plays with. Admittedly, he couldn’t possibly know exactly what she’s been up to, but his smugness is just asking to be taken down a peg or eighteen. I loved the way he swung from total anger when he first discovers the truth, to almost ingratiating happiness when the incriminating piece of paper turns up. After her disclosure, Nora was both remarkably still and remarkably quiet, and I could see her growing up and realising how far apart they were as she stood there. There were some other lovely touches, such as Torvald clearing some waste paper off the floor onto the sofa, only for Nora to sweep it all back again so she can sit down. Her action and his reaction told us a lot about both their characters and their relationship. Later on, Torvald wagged his finger to warn Nora not to ask Mrs Linde to stay.

At first I thought Anthony Howell as Krogstad was a bit too honest-looking, but as the plot unfolded I realised that he had to have a fundamentally good character, otherwise Mrs Linde wouldn’t have fallen for him in the first place. She has to talk him round to marrying her in a very short scene later on, and persuade him to return the bond, so if he’s a complete scoundrel, or totally corrupted by life’s hardships, that bit isn’t going to be believable. In the end, I think Anthony Howell judged it just right.

Susie Trayling as Mrs Linde had an unfortunate mismatch between her hair piece and her natural hair – I’m not sure if it was a deliberate mistake to show us the character’s poverty, or accidental. It distracted me a bit during the first act, but I found I could ignore it better after that. She’s an invaluable character, as she allows Nora to tell us what she’s done early on so that we’re in the know, and also counterpoints Nora’s own way of dealing with financial hardship. While Nora broke the law to take care of her husband, Mrs Linde has worked hard to support hers, and with little thanks, it would seem. Nora’s childish glee at how well off she and Torvald will be once he starts his new job in January shows a complete lack of sympathy on her part for her friend’s situation, but it also allows us to see how the people around Nora tend to forgive her.

Christopher Ravenscroft as Doctor Rank did an excellent job. His attraction for Nora was more clearly expressed than I remember seeing before, and the poignancy of the dual conversation after the party was very moving. For once, we got to see the children, although not for long, but it helped to make this a much more rounded production. The presence of the children in the early stages lets us see their importance to Nora, and emphasises the way she cuts herself off from them later on, after Torvald’s hugely judgemental pronouncement about Krogstad’s criminal activity, which mirrors Nora’s own.

This was a very satisfying production to watch, and made me appreciate the sort of impact this play had when it was first staged. I could see why polite Norwegian society would have been shocked, but I could also see how readily other playwrights took up this way of presenting ‘real life’. I recognised Chains Of Dew (April 2008) as a response to this play, and even saw echoes in Dangerous Corner, with the husband’s insistence on finding out the truth no matter the cost. Maybe I’ll see more connections and influences in the future. At any rate, I’ll be interested to see the Donmar’s version next year.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me