The Mousetrap – April 2013

Experience: 8/10

By Agatha Christie

Directed by Ian Watt-Smith

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Thursday 18th April 2013

I very much enjoyed seeing this for the second time. The first was back in 1987, and for a number of reasons it wasn’t a great experience. The play was clinging on by the tips of its fingernails to the West End supported only by its long-running record, the set looked like the original one from the 1950s, and by that time the regular cast changes had brought the performance down to the level of stock characterisations and slightly hammy acting. We spotted some obvious points early on, and if we hadn’t been waiting for more twists to follow we would have nabbed the culprit before the interval.

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Anne Boleyn – April 2012

7/10

By Howard Brenton

Directed by Rachel Tackley

Company: English Touring Theatre (based on the Shakespeare’s Globe production directed by John Dove)

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Thursday 5th April 2012

There was a lot of overlap between this play and Written On The Heart, which we saw this winter in Stratford. Both concerned the writing of the King James Version of the Bible, but came at it from different angles. Written On The Heart looked in some detail at the wider historical context of the changes in religion at that time, plus the theological and political wrangling that went on, while Anne Boleyn focused on the lady herself, and the way in which her likely Protestantism and possible involvement with William Tyndale may have contributed to Henry’s change of heart and the secession from Rome.  This was blended with a framing context of James’s succession to the English throne, and his use of the KJV as a way of bringing together the warring factions within the new Christianity. All of this with a lot of humour, plenty of lively action and tremendous performances.

The play started with some of the cast coming out and chatting with the audience, a much harder thing to do in a proscenium arch setting. In fact the whole performance suffered from being taken out of the Globe and thrust into a non-thrust environment. Apart from the stuffiness of the atmosphere in the Theatre Royal, the energy levels just weren’t up to the liveliness of the Globe, as far as the audience were concerned that is. The actors gave us plenty of oomph, and I suspect a 3D acting space would have made the performance even more enjoyable. Still, I’m glad they’re touring some of their work, as I think it deserves a wider audience.

Anne’s ghost then chatted to us for a bit, and her direct gaze and frank speech made her an attractive heroine for a modern audience. She introduced us to James, Sixth and First, before she left, and immediately we learned of his obsession with Elizabeth’s frocks. James Garnon played him as a very naughty schoolboy who just happens to be king, although his upbringing had made him shrewd as well as rude. He also had a stammer and a tendency to fart, and all in all it was an excellent performance.

The play then alternated between Anne’s story and James’s, with the bulk of the story being about Anne. We saw the beginning of King Henry’s seduction of Anne (or was it the other way round?), through the political attempts to have Henry’s marriage to Katherine annulled, to the final plot against Anne by Cromwell which led to her trial and execution. She also met William Tyndale a couple of times along the way, a speculative insertion by the author but not without foundation. James’s story started with his arrival in London, and combined his sexual romps with George Villiers with his determination to get agreement between the warring religious factions in England – the recently established Church of England, the puritans and the Catholics. Not an easy feat, given the intense hostility that existed between the groups, and so the idea of a new translation of the bible came along, a way of bringing the divided flock together. The play ended with a very drunk James seeing Anne’s ghost; he passed out from the drink leaving her to say her final lines to us, the demons of the future. It was a surprisingly upbeat ending to a very interesting and entertaining play.

All the performances were excellent; I’ve already mentioned James Garnon, and I will also mention Jo Herbert, who played Anne, and gave her all the liveliness, intelligence and passion the part required. But the ensemble worked brilliantly together, and only the deadening effect of the proscenium arch held my enjoyment back to the 7/10 level. I’d certainly see this again, especially if performed in a more suitable space.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Alarms And Excursions – August 2011

7/10

By: Michael Frayn

Directed by: Joe Harmston

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Thursday 4th August 2011

This production consists of a number of short plays by Michael Frayn, all loosely connected by the impact of modern technology on our lives, particularly the difficulties the technology itself causes and our inability to handle them. The set was therefore generic, with lots of flats sliding on and off and furniture trundling hither, thither and yon between each play. None of this was a problem; the set design created each location very effectively, although the actors will no doubt have their own view on all the quick changes they had to manage. With a good crowd, it all made for an enjoyable afternoon.

We missed the first couple of minutes due to heavy traffic in Brighton – we’ll take the train next time – but I don’t think we missed much. We were able to slip into aisle seats as well, so hopefully we didn’t disturb anyone. The first play was called Alarms, and when we arrived it was clear that a dinner party was being interrupted by an irritating beep. It sounded very much like the beep of a smoke alarm with a low battery – the chap behind us recognised it too – but the group having the party didn’t know what it was. While they tried all sort of options, other alarms and buzzers started going off, including the oven timer and a car alarm. The phone system in this house was apparently state-of-the art, which meant no one understood how to work it, so when an urgent call came in for the husband, he couldn’t actually speak to the person on the other end until he’d assaulted the phone out of sheer frustration.

The dialogue was marvellously tailored to the events. The caller was still trying to get the husband to pick up the phone, and saying things like ‘you can’t hide under the table’, while at the same time the visiting wife had accidentally been covered up by the dining table for reasons I won’t go into now. All of this was great fun, and although this is an extreme version of reality, much of it was recognisable in our own lives.

The second play, Doubles, was set in two adjacent hotel rooms. Two couples arrive at almost the same time, and we see their identikit lives play out. The walls are thin enough for sounds to carry, and this leads to some hilarious misunderstandings, with couple one (Serena Evans and Robert Daws) believing they’ve heard couple two (Belinda Lang and Aden Gillet) having sex when they’ve actually been trying to kill a mosquito, and couple two thinking couple one are called Kevin and Sharon, when that’s the names they’ve been using for couple two. It took a little while to set up the situation, but then we had a great time seeing all the variables of social embarrassment play out. The final situation is that both couples are staying in their rooms until they see the other couple get into their car – it could be a long wait.

After the interval came Leavings, the sequel to Alarms, with the two original couples going through the end-of-party process of leave-taking. The husband has fallen asleep, and there’s not much conversation going on amongst the rest of them. After several declarations that they must leave, the visiting couple finally get up to go, but when the husband wakes up, he assumes he’s the visitor and starts to head off himself. We then see all the last minute conversations that crop up at these times. The husbands get into a rambling, pointless conversation about things being unnaturally natural, while the wives are subsequently distracted by some gossip about an affair. This eventually draws the men in as well, and the upshot is that the visiting couple decide to make themselves something to eat as they’re so hungry.

Pig In The Middle is a short conversation between a husband and wife about the message left by a repair man about some thingy that needs fixing. The husband has a rant about the message, because he knew the man would say it was the bit inside that needs fixing when it was always the bit around the back, and the wife gets a bit fed up with being the one to pass on all these messages instead of her husband dealing with it himself. She gets her own back, though. After checking the shopping he’s brought back with him, she points out that he’s got the wrong sort of something. When he claims that they never have the right sort, she tells him he always goes to the place inside instead of going round the back! It was a lovely piece of word play, and Steve and I could both recognise our own liberal use of the word ‘thingy’, although we’re lucky enough to actually understand what we mean most of the time.

Toasters had three of the cast in office outfits, standing next to a plant on a stand and carrying a folder, a plate and a glass. While the company’s boss makes a tedious rambling speech, they have to juggle these items to keep up, opening the folders to all the mentioned pages, raising their glasses to toast some success story, and putting their stuff down when they have to applaud even more success. Or are they meant to toast? Or applaud? The uncertainty had them squirming, and kept us laughing.

Finishing Touches was another short piece, with a husband and wife sitting at a restaurant table at the end of a meal. He has a very slow delivery, with lots of very long pauses, so she finishes his sentences for him. This goes on for a short while, then he starts finishing her sentences as well – it’s the only time he can talk quickly. Their snippiness is evident, and I noticed there was at least one couple who laughed loudly all through this sketch (not us, as it happens). Clearly this situation was closer to home for some of the audience.

Look Away Now was a funny variation on the safety demonstration given at the beginning of each plane flight. The passengers were actually told not to pay attention, but one of the three on this flight was a new boy (reminded me of my first time – the only pair of eyes in a sea of papers) and he was actually watching. He did open a paper to show willing, but because he was listening, he realised the air hostess was actually taking her clothes off! The expression on his face was wonderfully funny. Unfortunately for him, he’d been spotted, and the final part of the announcement was to the effect that he wouldn’t be getting any dessert because he’d peeked.

The final play was called Immobiles, and a voiceover explained to the audience before it started that it was set in the past, at a time when people had to use landlines and public phones if they wanted to talk to one another. We’d seen Alarms And Excursions before, in 1999, and this was the scene I remembered best from the previous occasion. Dieter has arrived in Britain to visit some friends, and calls to leave a message on their answer phone. The husband also calls to leave a message – he’s at Heathrow to pick up Dieter but can’t find him. The wife, when she gets in, uses the answer phone announcement to tell them what to do, and then heads off to pick up Dieter, at Gatwick! She’s forgotten that her mother is also due to arrive, so in a short time we have four people making phone calls, leaving messages and eventually blocking each other’s calls. With so much going on, the poor answer phone blows up, and I don’t blame it. Makes me glad we have mobiles now.

I enjoyed all of these plays, although I do think they might have been better ending the show with Leavings, to top and tail the performance with the same couples. However, it’s only a minor point, and doesn’t take away from the excellent performances. All four actors are superb with this sort of comedy, and we’re glad we saw this again. According to the program notes, Michael Frayn had added some new material for this production; I don’t know which bits exactly, as it all seemed to mesh very well.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Brighton ‘Til I Die – July 2011

10/10

By: Paul Hodson and Dave Blake

Directed by: Paul Hodson

Produced by: The Future Is Unwritten & Fuel

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Thursday 28th July 2011

Crystal Palace fans, look away now. Portsmouth and Southampton fans, read no more. This was an emotional rollercoaster ride through the history of the south coast’s greatest football team, Brighton and Hove Albion, concentrating on their recent difficulties, and culminating in the building of the newest, most beautiful ground in the Championship, nay, the whole football league – the Amex community stadium at Falmer. The audience participated brilliantly, and it was an evening not to be missed.

I’ll come clean right away – my credentials as a Brighton supporter are pretty weak. I saw a few matches at the Goldstone ground – they were mostly boring – including some reserve team matches, then Gillingham was too far for me – well done those who kept going – but I did catch some of the Withdean matches – rubbish again – until the arrival of Gus Poyet. The first match I saw them play under his management was the Tranmere game towards the end of the 2009/10 season, and I was thrilled. This was proper football at last, and with a new stadium on the way, I was hooked. A season ticket for me, please.

The story was told by five characters, starting with two of them, Gerbil (Jem Wall) and Southy (Steve North). Friends since school, they had watched Brighton play from the 70s onwards – well, Gerbil had, Southy took the rest of the 80s off after the 1983 Cup final – and the play was structured around their memories of the highs and, sadly, the deep, deep lows in Brighton’s fortunes.

After Gerbil’s initial attempt to create some kind of chronological order to the piece, Southy’s freer approach saved us from a long lecture on the dry details of Albion’s history. He got into an imaginary car to recreate the tension-filled journey to Hereford for the fateful game in 1997 when Brighton needed a point to stay in the league, and Hereford needed the win. After his initial reluctance, Gerbil joined him, and our journey began. Other flashbacks came thick and fast – their first meeting, the matches they saw when they were kids, getting into the North stand as they got older and eventually being able to see the game once they’d grown up. Still they kept coming back to that trip to Hereford, and the feelings it generated. Would the Albion survive at all if they dropped to the Conference?

As a bit of light relief, Mr Albion (Mark Brailsford) came on in military gear but with a large pair of underpants over his shorts,  barked out various commands to get the other two off his stage, and then proceeded to give us some of the historical information from the beginning of the club to WWII. Gerbil and Southy helped him out at times, and he came on again later to fill in more of the gap between the war and the start of the lads’ story. His helmet was magical; when anyone wore it they became a fount of knowledge about the Albion, so of course Gerbil didn’t need it.

Between Mr Albion and the lads, we got the story up to the 1983 FA Cup final and replay before the interval. Southy went off into fantasyland for a bit, imagining for all of us what would have happened if Smith had scored. This included the decline of Manchester United, who end up ground sharing with Macclesfield, while Brighton went on to win the Premiership title and achieve European glory. Sadly, it’s all a dream, and the others bring him back to reality. By this time we’ve also met Anna (Ann Penfold), Gerbil’s mother, and Susan (Beth Fitzgerald), a friend from their schooldays who marries Southy in one of the funniest wedding ceremonies I’ve ever seen.

Southy agrees to marry Susan on Saturday 16th April 1983, because there’s no chance that Brighton will get to the FA Cup semi-final. When the day arrives, Southy, Susan and Gerbil are in the church and at the reception, while Anna describes the action at the match. Gerbil has his earpiece in, and comes out with the most appropriately inappropriate exclamations during the service and afterwards, including shouting ‘Jimmy Case’ in response to the minister asking ‘If anyone knows of any just impediment…’ etc. His best man speech is seriously affected by comments about blowing the whistle, and his delirious closing statement about these two one-derful people is understood by Southy leading to some raucous celebrations between the two men, while completely ignoring poor Susan. It was hilariously funny, and made me glad I married Steve in the off season.

The second half started with Mark Brailsford singing his own version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, suitably adapted for the Albion. It was a great beginning, and then we were into the post-‘glory’ years followed by The Troubles. Anna was one of those who believed that A____ and B______ (I can’t bring myself to fill in the blanks) were doing their best for the club, and it took some time before she saw the light. B______ eventually accused her of being a troublemaker when she tried to talk to him about the planned changes; she became very angry, and joined the campaign to save the club from Laurel and Hardy, as they were portrayed at a meeting with supporters. Her conversion was complete when she yelled out ‘Fuck off, you fucking bastards’ as the pair drove by a protest line, a sentiment which was warmly received by the audience.

Events came thick and fast now. The ‘riot’ at the York City match was covered, and at last the FA stopped doing FA and actually took some action. The Fans United match v Hartlepool in February 1997 was next up. Lots of club shirts were lowered down at the back, while the cast talked us through the match and the amazing feeling of so many football supporters coming together to show their solidarity in the face of the threats to their clubs – Brighton wasn’t the only club suffering from greedy and inept owners, then or now.

At long last we came to the fateful match against Hereford, and saw it through the eyes of all five characters. Mr Albion became the hitchhiker that Gerbil and Southy picked up on the way to the match, Anna was also at the ground and Susan listened to the match on her radio while sitting in the deserted Goldstone ground along with some other supporters. In some ways, that was the most moving part, hearing her description of the effect the game was having on those lost souls wandering around the old stands. I cry easily, anyway, and this was several hankies worth of emotion on its own.

I gather that the original version of this play ended with Albion’s win at Hereford, but this version brought us up-to-date in a very effective way. Using boxes, signs, placards, etc., and to the strains of Praise You by Fatboy Slim, they covered the final loosening of Archer’s grip from the Albion’s throat, the arrival of Dick Knight, the long years of public enquiry, ministerial approval, public enquiry, etc., etc., leading finally to the building of the new stadium, the changeover to Tony Bloom’s leadership, and the prospect of a better future for the team and us, the supporters. It was a great finish, and with the first big match about to happen at the Amex, a great way to start the new era.

The set was very simple. There were three sets of tiered standing, with the central portion representing the north stand at the Goldstone. Sheets of fabric hung down at the back, and pictures and video were projected onto these, although as there were gaps between the sheets the picture quality wasn’t fantastic. Never mind, it was only done to jog people’s memories of what had happened – this wasn’t Match Of The Day.  For the final sequence, showing the time-lapse building of the Amex, an extra strip of fabric was lowered down so the pictures could be seen properly. Masks were used to represent the various real-life characters in the story, and I did like the relay race where the baton was passed from Dick Knight to Tony Bloom, especially as Knight was reluctant to let go of it at first.

All the performances were absolutely fantastic – congratulations to all involved. The audience response was terrific as well, of course, and I found I was much more involved than I had expected. Although I’d suffered vicariously through the terrible times, I went to this show thinking it would be more for my husband, and that I wouldn’t get much out of it. I was so wrong. The cathartic effect of seeing the story played out, and being able to cheer and boo, was as healing for me as it was for many. I arrived the wife of a Brighton supporter, but I left a died-in-the-wool (or should that be feather?) Seagull fan! Up the Albion!

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Eden End – June 2011

6/10

By: J B Priestley

Directed by: Laurie Sansom

Company: English Touring Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Tuesday 28th June 2011

From tonight’s performance, I would guess this is an early Priestley play which draws very strongly on Chekov, a kind of Uncle Vanya meets The Seagull in a remote Birmingham suburb. I have still to read the plentiful program notes, as theatres are too gloomy and font sizes too small for my eyesight these days. The performances all seemed fine, with one very good one, so we’re not sure if it was the rather predictable writing or something about the staging that just wasn’t right tonight. To be fair, the sudden heat wave didn’t help, as the theatre was so stuffy I found myself ‘resting my eyes’ a few times during the first half. Also, there was an unusual amount of noise from the audience, not just coughing but also a lot of creaky chair sounds, so perhaps we weren’t seeing this production at its best. Even so, I feel there’s more available from this play, and we’d both like to see it again if we get the chance.

The set was clearly for a touring production, with a circular platform holding the drawing room furniture, a set of stairs leading off from the centre back to the right, some steps front right leading to the garden, and a screen of wires hanging behind all this with a rectangular hole for the doorway. There were lots of lights hanging down just in front of this see-through screen, but apart from a bluish glow once or twice, neither of us could figure out what this was meant to represent. There was also a raised platform behind the screen, on the left, which was used for occasional tableaux, such as the opening section, and later when we saw Lilian, clearly upset, brushing her hair in her room. The furniture was period, which the dialogue told us, with a good deal of emphasis, was 1912, and one of the play’s themes was the juxtaposition of the characters’ bright hopes for the future with our knowledge of what’s just around the corner – very Chekhovian.

The house, Eden End, is the home of Dr Kirby. Apart from the two children currently under his roof – Lilian and Wilfred – there’s another daughter, Stella who ran away to be an actress some years ago. There’s also a housekeeper, Sarah, who’s the usual common sense, unconditional love for the children type of character, and visitors include Geoffrey Farrant, a former flame of Stella’s on whom Lilian is pinning her hopes, and Charles Appleby, Stella’s husband, another actor with a not-so-great career.

The opening scene was a bit dull, but it did establish who was who, that the mother had died, that Wilfred was working out in Africa, and the general political situation with the suffragettes vying for top billing with home rule for Ireland. The new-fangled telephone came in for a bit of use, and was clearly dividing opinion much as mobile phones do now.

Things really kicked off when Stella arrived back, leading to the family’s relationships and attitudes being re-examined and changed. Lilian makes the call that brings Stella’s husband down for a short stay, out of jealousy and a desire to reclaim Geoffrey for herself – never going to happen. Stella is hoping to find a safe haven back in the house she loved, amongst her family, and finally realises it’s not what she imagined all those years while she was on the road. Dr Kirby confides to her that he’s not long for the world, and with Wilfred heading back to Africa and looking forward to a promotion in say, 1916, Geoffrey leaving to make a new life for himself in Australia or similar, and Stella and her husband heading back to London, it looks like a lonely life for Lilian, with only Sarah for company once her father passes on. Bit of a downer, really.

In fact, it’s only the humour of the clash between the characters expectations of a better world in the making, and our own knowledge of the coming horrors of WWI, that keep our spirits up; that, and the lovely comedy of Daniel Betts’ performance as Charles Appleby. The scene where he and Wilfred stagger home, very late at night, trying to be quiet so as not to wake the household, and pinching Dr Kirby’s brandy, was very funny. Just before this, Charles and Wilfred did a song in front of the curtain, a music hall number about the army, I think, which set us up nicely for the next bit.

I found I was out of sympathy for a lot of the characters in this play. I was concerned that the doctor chose only to tell Stella about his illness – if she hadn’t turned up at that point, would he have told anyone? – and while Lilian’s behaviour wasn’t ideal, I felt that Stella complaining that Lilian didn’t understand the suffering she’d been through all those long years on tour, etc. etc., was all pot, kettle and black. Stella wasn’t taking into account the suffering she’d caused by her actions, particularly as she’d hardly bothered to keep in touch with the family during her absence – they hadn’t even known she was married! As often happens, the servant was about the only one I’d give tuppence for, which does make plays less engaging, I find. Still, there was enough of interest to keep me watching, and as we’re fond of Priestley, we still hope to see this one again, preferably in a more substantial production.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Communicating Doors – June 2011

7/10

By Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Thursday 9th June 2011

I do like an Ayckbourn, and this one is no exception. It’s an older play, first performed in 1994, and unless the author made some changes, it’s amazing how well it predicted life in 2011. Excellent performances all round, as usual, and the whole time-travel thriller concept was good fun to watch. I didn’t get many of the film references – Psycho was obvious, but I didn’t recognise any others – but this didn’t spoil my enjoyment one bit.

The action all took place in one room on the top floor of a posh hotel. There was a door on the far right to a cupboard, which also had a door into the room next to this one, which was only used for storage. When the characters entered this cupboard, either to hide or to go through to the next room, the lights went down, the cupboard space swivelled round and they emerged into a different time period. We started in 2031, a character called Poopay went back to 2011, and another character called Ruella went further back, to 1991. As a result of this complicated to-ing and fro-ing, lives were saved and one psychopath was killed, twice. The final scene showed us how these changes had affected Poopay’s life, and it was a nice happy ending to finish with.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Crown Matrimonial – July 2008

5/10

By Royce Ryton

Directed by David Grindley

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Tuesday 15th July 2008

This play covers the events leading up to Edward VIII’s abdication from the family’s point of view, and finishes with a final scene set after WW2, when the Duke of Windsor was hoping to come home. The scenes are all set in Queen Mary’s sitting room, so a great deal of the dialogue is reportage. There’s also a fair bit of clunky exposition for those not so familiar with this story, so I found it took some time to get going.

I wasn’t immediately taken with Patricia Routledge as Queen Mary. She didn’t have quite enough authority for me, more of the middle class housewife done up with a load of bling. However, she grew on me as the performance went on. The other actors suffered from the clunky dialogue, cut-glass accents and lack of animation, which suited the characters but was dreadfully dull to watch. There was one good scene when the king turns up for dinner to find one more sister present than he expected. The awkward silence spoke volumes about how the situation was affecting the family, as well as emphasising why David feels the need for Wallis’ company. They could be a stuffy lot, these Windsors.

The scenes in the second half were better as a lot of explanation had already been done and the characters could get on with it more. I found the third scene very moving, where Bertie steps up to take on the role of king, and my eyes were very wet at times. I also enjoyed the earlier scene, where Elizabeth gets to speak her mind about David’s selfishness and how he’s affecting the rest of the family. It’s entertaining, and David does stand up for himself too, but it did go on a bit too long for my liking.

The debates between the characters were occasionally interesting, as they gave an insight into a time when Hitler and Mussolini hadn’t convinced everyone that they were bad news. David came across as an innovator, determined to bring his country and his church into the twentieth century, and even to build up the armed forces to make the country stronger. The opposite perspective is well represented by the Queen Mother and her daughter Mary, who are staunchly in the ‘no change’ camp, and who won’t even meet, or ‘receive’, Wallis Simpson because she’s divorced. Admittedly, her first divorce looks like misfortune, while her second, underway as the characters speak, looks like carelessness. And opportunism. We may never know.

This play was much more charged when it was first produced, as some of the characters were still living. Now that none of them are alive and we’ve had so many documentaries about this issue, it seems a bit stale, not helped by the lack of action and frequently stilted dialogue. There are some good laughs, and the performances were as good as the text would allow them to be, but it may be wise to leave it in mothballs for a good many years to give it more historical interest. Still, it was a good production, and I enjoyed my evening.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me