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

The Importance Of Being Earnest – October 2011

7/10

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

Hayfever – October 2010

7/10

By: Noel Coward

Directed by: Stephen Unwin

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 7th October 2010

This was a bit disappointing. We were glad to be seeing Celia Imrie on stage, and hoped the production would be better than the one at Chichester last year, which was rather let down by Diana Rigg’s age. Celia Imrie is a better age for the lead role, but her portrayal came across as too schoolmarm-ish at times, and much too self-aware, which reduced my enjoyment somewhat. She did her best, and the rest of the production was perfectly fine with the two Bliss children being particularly good and Alexandra Galbraith giving us the sultriest vamp I’ve ever seen on stage.

The set was the usual eclectic jumble. The stairs were to the right, French windows centre back, door to the library on the left, and there was a pretty landscape visible through the windows. The effects of rain and sun were clearer at Chichester, with the sun coming out almost before the guests had finished fleeing the scene, and overall I find I preferred that production despite its flaws, but we still enjoyed ourselves well enough this afternoon. The writing is still as good, and there are plenty of lines that are almost guaranteed a laugh. I hope they do well for the rest of the run.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Dumb Show – April 2010

2/10

By Joe Penhall

Directed by Stephen Unwin

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 15th April 2010

Dire. Superficial. Banal. I rarely get to use these words to refer to a performance we’ve seen, but today they’re all apt. The second half showed some improvement, but not enough to raise the overall rating, and although there were a few good laughs, for the most part this was a waste of a good afternoon. (Although as it was also the day of the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud closing UK airports, that may a little unfair.)

The story was of Barry, an Asian performer whose show was never clearly specified, being courted for business purposes in a hotel suite by a couple of bankers, who are actually investigative journalists out to get a story for the Sunday sleaze papers about how a well-loved entertainer is actually involved in naughty stuff, such as booze, drugs, improper sexual advances, etc., etc. You know the sort of thing. With a name like Barry, I assume the central character was originally more home-grown, but with Sanjeev Baskar playing the part it was fine-tuned to reflect his background.

The reporters, played by Emma Cunniffe and Dexter Fletcher, want to get more details from Barry to confirm what they’ve already got, and to find even more juicy bits to make the story bigger. They use all sorts of tactics, from bullying to enticements, and it was very clear that nothing they said could be believed. There was a short spell in the second half when Barry stood up to them, but then he went back to being putty in their hands, for no discernible reason I could see. Eventually he left, threatening them with all sorts of lawsuits if they published their story, and the final scene shows Barry meeting again with Liz in the same hotel room so she can tempt him to provide a follow-up story of how much he loved his wife Valerie, now dead from the cancer(?) that she’d been suffering from during Barry’s earlier stint in the room. The play ends with Barry, who’d been going to walk out on her, taking the phone to speak to her editor and after thinking for a long while, asking how much the fee would be.

The story wasn’t new, given how much this topic gets bandied about these days, and from this performance I’d have to say that the writing was pretty weak. There weren’t enough laughs to make it a properly enjoyable piece, and while the superficiality of the writing might be excused on the grounds that these are superficial people, that level of dialogue doesn’t support this long a play unless it’s done entirely for laughs. It takes a much better standard of authorship to make us care about the shallow, conceited, callous folk on show here. The opening was so fast and furious it reminded me of David Mamet’s work, but this was definitely sub-sub-sub Mamet in quality.

However, we’re both agreed that if this play does come around again with a different cast, we might be prepared to give it a go. Emma Cunniffe was fine, and Dexter Fletcher would have been fine if he had projected sufficiently for us to catch more of his lines, but Sanjeev Baskar was just too nice to give the production the darker edge it needed. Far from seeming the alcoholic, cheating husband who snorted cocaine like his life depended on it, he looked more like a man who would be home in good time for dinner because his wife might tell him off in a loud voice if he didn’t. His emotional range was limited, so that, apart from a flash of anger in the second half, his character didn’t seem to be feeling much at all. In the opening scene, when the two journalists are wheedling him into having some champagne, more could have been made of Barry’s alcoholism, and the fact that their pressure makes them seriously complicit in his bad behaviour later, after he’s downed most of the contents of the mini-bar.

That aside, Sanjeev can deliver a funny line really well; if only there had been a lot more of them, we’d have really enjoyed ourselves.

© 2010 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

Born In The Gardens – October 2008

6/10

By Peter Nichols

Directed by Stephen Unwin

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 9th October 2008

The first half of this play seemed to be by Orton out of Beckett. The set was a large room in a mock Tudor mansion, with a billiards light in the centre of the ceiling, a drum kit centre back, a coffin to the left of that, complete with dead body and floral tributes, a suit of armour back right, and a chair front right facing an old TV on a small table, which had its back to us. There were other chairs and a sideboard, plus a bookcase and standard lamp, etc. The coffin was removed for the second half, which gave them a lot more room. The back wall was dark wood, presumably oak, and panelled.

The father of the family has died, and the mother, Maud, and her younger son Maurice are waiting for the rest of the family to turn up for the funeral. It’s a small group. Hedley, the elder son, left home many years ago and made a career for himself as a politician. He’s now a back-bench MP with the Labour party, and still trying to make a name for himself. He has a wife, who from the sound of things is almost as crazy as his mother, two kids whom we don’t see, and a mistress, though we don’t find out about her until the second half.

Queenie, the sister, is also Maurice’s twin. She also left home many years ago to live in America, where she became a journalist. She’s incorporated the trip back for the funeral into a three week assignment travelling through Europe to report on the situation there. This is the late 1970s, and most of Europe is going through political and economic changes (is this the only drama we’re going to get now? Economic doom and gloom? God help us!). She phones her chap back in LA, just before the interval, only to find he’s not being as faithful as he thought.

Maurice has stayed at home with his parents all this while, and has developed some strange habits. He talks to his mother by reporting what the cat says, thus allowing him to be nice to her himself, but seriously catty as the cat. He plays jazz records (still vinyl in those days), and accompanies them on his drum kit. He also deals in second hand books of a pornographic nature, judging by the short extract Queenie read from one of them. I noticed that Hedley was so horrified when he read it that he completely forgot to hand it back and shut it in his briefcase instead. Maurice also spends most of his time winding his mother up. She’s a batty old dear, what with preferring to watch the TV with the sound off so she can talk to the people she sees on the screen. She believes the sound is broken, but we learn that it’s actually fine; it’s just Maurice who’s kept it turned down, presumably so that he can play his drums.

Maud is very much the heart and soul of this piece. Played superbly well by Stephanie Cole, she comes across as old, gullible, kind-hearted, and stuck in her ways. Despite Hedley’s best efforts, he can’t get her to move out of the big mansion into a small condominium in London, so that they can sell the property for developers to do what developers do. She’s adamant that she wants to stay where she is so she can go to the local hypermarket and buy lots of things really cheaply. Like tampons. She keeps lots of packets of soup in the freezer that Hedley bought her, so he wouldn’t feel she didn’t appreciate his gift. She keeps using the old gas boiler for heating the water, even though it might blow up any minute (we hear several loud bangs to reinforce this point). I don’t know what she’s meant to represent in terms of the author’s experience of Bristol folk, but she’s enough like so many people’s older female relatives to stay just this side of unbelievable (but only just).

There’s also an incestuous relationship between the twins, which accounts for Queenie wanting her brother to come and stay with her in the States, and we learn about their father’s sexual abuse of Queenie which Maurice walked in on and which caused her to leave home as soon as she could all those years ago. All in all, it’s not a happy family, but at least Maud and Maurice are content with their lot. The play finishes with Maud chatting happily away to the silent TV people, while Maurice plays his drums to an accompanying song.

While I enjoyed this performance, I find this type of play doesn’t get me as involved as more straightforward storytelling. The surreal nature of the piece distances me from the characters, and although I found it very funny in places, there was little to engage me emotionally or mentally. And as I don’t know Bristol at all well, I didn’t get much from those aspects either. Still, the performances were excellent, and the humour was good throughout, especially the confusion between duplex, Durex, condominium and condom. I’d still choose to spend an afternoon watching a play like this over a lot of other options.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me