Swallows And Amazons – January 2012

7/10

By Helen Edmundson and Neil Hannon, based on the book by Arthur Ransome

Directed by Tom Morris

Company: Children’s Touring Partnership/Bristol Old Vic

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Friday 20th January 2012

I think I would have been better off not to have re-read the book shortly before going to see this wonderful adaptation. It took me a fair while to adjust my ideas, much as I loved some of the staging choices, and I would have probably found it an 8/10 experience if I’d warmed up sooner. As it is, I was thoroughly hooked by the end, joining in the shouts of ‘plank’ with enthusiasm. The cast all did a great job, and I hope they have a great time on tour.

The stage was littered with all sorts of objects before the start, some of which didn’t become clear until they were used. There were four tall irregular-shaped pillars along the back of the set, which each had a large band of white on them – I noticed during the interval that these were painted, and looked like brick. There was a picture frame hanging centre stage, and some musical instruments over in the far right corner, including a piano. I don’t remember anything else specifically, and they brought so much other stuff on during the play that I’d be misleading myself to attempt any more detail.

The play began with an old lady walking on to the stage, and sitting on a chair in the middle. She’d been carrying a pair of secateurs and a feather duster with bright red, green and yellow sections, and put them down to one side of the chair. As she looked through an old album of photographs, the characters of the Walker family started appearing on stage, with Mother and Father posing together in the central picture frame, Mother holding Fat Vicky, and other picture frames being held up for the rest of the family to pose behind. The old lady herself turned into Titty, and the feather duster and secateurs became the parrot. So now we had the four children, the baby and their parents. Father sailed away, and the action began with Roger arriving, breathless, with the telegram which would give them Father’s answer – to sail or not to sail.

Before I go any further, I must point out that the casting was weird and wonderful. Roger, the youngest child, nearly eight, was played by the tallest actor, and there aren’t many eight-year-olds with a beard! This worked really well, and gave us some humour from the start. The other ‘children’ were mostly to scale, although Susan was a bit on the small side. I always find the telegram a bit sniffly – “Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers won’t drown” – so this got me going early on, and then they were soon through the planning stage and off to the island. This was a musical, and the songs were pretty good, although I couldn’t always make out the words. The packing phase was done to music, and Swallow herself was a prow, a couple of wheeled dollies, a mast with a sail, some ropes and some ribbons – blue ribbons which other members of the cast held out and moved around to represent the water.

The story was told briskly, and while some bits were dropped – going to the farm to get the milk, for example – we didn’t miss much, and it made for a good piece of theatre. Other characters came on as needed, and there was plenty of music all the way through – this is a really talented bunch. Titty’s experience near Cormorant Island was staged as a dream sequence, with lots of pirate types carrying lots of boxes and singing a song, while the two ship’s companies and Captain Flint found the box the first time they searched the island. For the attack on Captain Flint’s ship, they passed out sponges to the audience, and we were told to throw them on the command ‘attack!’ which we did, and a fine old mess it made of the auditorium – great fun. When Captain Flint begged for mercy we were merciless, calling for the plank as loudly as we could (told you I was well into it by then). He dropped down through a trapdoor for this bit, and when he came back up and all was forgiven, they were about to head off for a feast on shore when he decided to give Titty a present for finding his book. The parrot was duly handed over, and with a final rousing song we were done.

The Amazons were also very good; two women with war paint and feathered headdresses. Peggy in particular had a great voice, and Nancy was all scowls, even when you’d expect her to be happy! Titty’s spell alone on the island came across better than the book for me – the way she read out her log entries was very funny. When anyone used the telescope, a round frame was held up and showed what they were seeing, whether it was Captain Flint sitting at his desk writing or Mother on her way to the island. Captain Flint’s ship was represented by a massive prow at the back of the stage, and it had a large mast too which may have been lowered down – I lost track a bit during the busy times. The reed beds were very well done, with the spare cast members holding long sticks and moving around the Swallow to show the way the reeds separated and came together again. The charcoal burners were included, but only to give the message about Captain Flint’s ship needing a lock – we didn’t get to see the snake – and this also allowed us to see John’s embarrassment at being called a liar when he tried to deliver the message to the Captain. It was good to see the way these children learned from their experiences, and from each other’s way of handling things. I also liked the way they meshed their fantasy versions of the lake and its islands, with Nancy recognising that Rio was a good name for the town and the Walkers accepting the Blackett’s name for the island.

Susan was much more priggish than I remember from the book, but it worked well enough for me, and the storm came early in this version, during the night raid on the Amazon’s boat shed. The sailing terminology was used sparingly – terms like ‘leading lights’ were demonstrated down at the harbour – so although it didn’t feel quite as inspiring in terms of the sailing, it still had that sense of adventure and freedom to use one’s imagination which is so strong in the book. The cormorants were quite scary. They were made out of bin bags and garden shears, and flew around in an intimidating manner.

Quite a few of us older children stayed behind for the post-show, and there was much praise from all sections for their performance. There were many stories of children young and old being introduced to the books and loving them; one chap has only got one more book before his wife divorces him, apparently – I hope for his sake that she’s a slow reader. It all went quite well until one man asked a rather hostile sounding question about what they were doing to take this sort of show to disadvantaged kids who might never see a play or read many books. The cast handled it very well, explaining the purpose of the Children’s Touring Partnership, and we finished on a lighter note, thankfully.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

War Horse – March 2009

Experience: 9/10

By Michael Morpurgo

Directed by Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 17th March 2009

This was a very emotional experience. I sobbed when Joey the foal gave way to Joey the horse, then when Joey gave his all to win the ploughing competition, and I wasn’t entirely dry-eyed during the first, traumatic cavalry charge. And this was just the first half. After the interval, I deployed tissues on a number of occasions; Topthorn’s death didn’t move me quite so much, but there were plenty of other opportunities to increase the profits of Kleenex – Joey volunteering to pull the ambulance for one. The finale, with Joey saving his own life by responding to Albert, was almost embarrassing as I struggled to keep quiet and avoid disturbing the neighbours. But it was a marvellous release of all the emotions stirred up by this powerful piece.

I suspected there had been a few changes, and checking last year’s notes has confirmed this. The biggest change, apart from most of the cast being different, was that Emilie, the little girl in France, was played by an actress this time instead of a puppet, and magical though the puppet was I feel this version worked even better.

From our backstage tour last summer, we had learned that the horses were being rebuilt to make them lighter as well stronger and hopefully better able to take the wear and tear of regular performance. I certainly noticed the difference – the animals seemed lighter, and Topthorn was carrying a lot less condition this year. Steve reckoned they got him in from the paddock earlier this time. Maybe because of this, or perhaps because we were a lot closer, I noticed the horses moving around a lot more. They seemed to be more flexible and more responsive to whatever was going on.

The other puppets were much as before. The goose was just as annoying and the nasty crow had competition for the eyeballs this time. The cast changes didn’t affect the performance too much. I preferred Angus Wright as the German officer; Patrick O’Kane played the part reasonably well but his performance occasionally seemed over the top, with much larger physical movements than necessary. They might have been intended to carry to the back of the auditorium, but then why weren’t the other actors to scale? Albert was played by Kit Harington this time and I found it harder to spot him in the crowd initially. His father was in competition with his own brother – a definite change from last time – which made his father more sympathetic this time, I felt. Still unpleasant but understandably so, as he was the one excluded by his family. Albert’s mother was evidently an Irishwoman who had married into a Cornish family, and had picked up a few traces of the Cornish accent but still used her original brogue whenever possible. The Song Man was the understudy today but I didn’t notice any drop in quality in that department.

An excellent revival and I wish it well for the West End run too.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour – February 2009

6/10

By Tom Stoppard and Andre Previn

Directed by Felix Barrett and Tom Morris

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Friday 13th February 2009

Actually, much of this short play with orchestra merited an 8/10 rating, but then there was the overlong dance interlude, and being dance illiterate I found it dull and pointless. Otherwise, this was an interesting and entertaining look at the Soviet Union’s treatment of dissidents in the 1970s (and even now according to the program notes) through the experience of one man, who had spoken out against the state hospitalizing sane people. This is coupled with another man’s experience of an imaginary orchestra (in which he plays the triangle). Neither man can be released until he denies that which he knows to be true. The dissident is prepared to die for his truth, going on hunger strike and refusing to surrender even when his son pleads for him to say what they want to hear. The triangle player is also quite willing to state that he hears no orchestra, provided the doctor can get them to stop playing! The impasse is resolved by the gaudily uniformed KGB Colonel, sorry, doctor, marching into their cell, sorry, ward, and asking some simple straightforward questions. He asks Alexander Ivanov if he thinks a Soviet doctor would ever commit a sane man to a lunatic asylum, to which the triangle player responds ‘no’. The Colonel/doctor then asks Alexander Ivanov if he hears an orchestra, to which the dissident replies ‘no’. The Colonel/doctor decrees that both men are fit to be released. So, when the Colonel/doctor put two men with identical names in the same room, was he being extremely stupid, or was this a shrewd manoeuvre to get two ‘patients’ off his books? As Steve said, it looked like the first, but was actually the second.

The layout for this performance (I can’t really call it a set) was probably less complicated than it looked. On the revolve sat the orchestra, violins to the left at the start as usual. They wrapped around the conductor’s podium, which was in the centre of the revolve, but there was room at the front for two hospital beds, one occupied by the triangle player (Toby Jones). A light coloured wooden path led from the back wall, in a zigzag pattern, to the side of the beds, and along this path comes the dissident (Joseph Millson). There’s a school desk off to the right, forward of the revolve, and as the revolve turns during the performance, we see another desk, the doctor’s, snuggled in amongst the musicians. There are numerous banks of lights high up around the back wall, and a couple of double bass players are off to the right, also outside the revolve.

The orchestra, after the usual tuning up rituals, began to play silently as Toby rose from his bed, took out his triangle and little metal stick (what do they call those things, anyway?) and listened to the music, waiting for his cue. Gradually, the sound came in, and it was lovely music; in a modern style, with some slight dissonance giving it a bit of an edge but without scaring the horses. The triangle player had to stop them at one point, and told them to restart from the tympani bit, which they did. He strikes the final note on his triangle, and turns around to find a new person is in the room. The dissident has been quiet all this while, trying to figure out which of the two rumpled beds is meant to be his, and eventually plumping for the one Toby’s just left. Triangle player is keen to know what instrument the dissident plays, and isn’t put off by his total lack of experience with any musical instrument. He interrogates him avidly, in between complaining about the standard of the orchestra, and it’s a very funny scene, with lots of clever word play.

From here we get a mixture of music and dialogue, with the dissident explaining in a couple of speeches how he got arrested, and what he’s experienced in prison and hospital, which is what the authorities want to stop him talking about. We also see his son having difficulties in school because he doesn’t conform – his teacher tells him off because he played more notes on his triangle than were in the score – and find out that the doctor is also a part-time violinist in his own orchestra, which all adds to the fun. Then there’s the dance bit, with what looks like various members of the orchestra standing up and dancing a version of kicking the crap out of each other. It may have been good dancing, but it didn’t tell me anything about either Ivanov’s story, or the orchestra experience, so I can only assume it was inserted as some sort of special offer – you get the band, the dancers come for free.

There wasn’t much more after the dance, just the Colonel’s magnificent cure technique and the son finding his father, and then we were done. The orchestra had been leaving their seats gradually during this last bit, so I assume the music was pre-recorded, as I don’t see how they could have kept it going so strongly otherwise, but I’d be happy to learn differently.

And so we return home, reasonably happy with our evening, and hoping the signal failure at Haywards Heath won’t make us too late back. [12:30 a.m.!!! @*&%$£@!!!]

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Matter Of Life And Death – May 2007

5/10

Based on the film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, adapted by Tom Morris and Emma Rice for the National Theatre

Directed by: Emma Rice

Company: Kneehigh

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Thursday 31st May 2007

I enjoyed Kneehigh’s Cymbeline so much, that I probably expected too much of this production. There was a lot to enjoy, but some of it was just plain dreary. Even so, I cried buckets, and felt happier when we came out, so I’d obviously had a good time.

First off, I tried out the audio devices for the first time here. Although we were in Row E, and I would have expected to hear most of it anyway, I wanted to find out what it was like. The headset is quite nifty, and certainly gave me a louder and clearer listening experience than without it. I found the pressure in my ear a bit uncomfortable, verging on painful, so I may have to investigate other options, but for now this will be a great way to get more out of the many plays we see. I also realised I would have to avoid wearing my pendant, as it kept clattering against the base of the headset. (Audio assisted experiences marked (headset) after seats.)

Before the start, the Olivier stage was bare. At the start, the panel at the back slid open (up and down), and the musicians were wheeled on, on a rectangular bandstand with a white arch at the back. The music was not particularly pleasant – rather wailing and loud – and it went on for far too long, in my view. As the music got under way, the whole stage became awash with the cast – cycling nurses stopping to light up a fag, hospital beds with pyjama-clad military patients, etc. Various people were reading aloud from books, and at one point there was a blaze in the middle of one of the beds – why? They’d already discovered torches under the bedclothes, and strung them up, and then the blaze, and then some fire buckets were brought on and set alight, and I have absolutely no idea why any of this was going on.

Then one of the pyjama men, dressed in a natty pair of star-patterned pj’s, started us off with the description of the universe. This was where it first started to engage me. As this was going on, another arching staircase is brought on, and Peter, the airmen who causes all the trouble, is being set up on it. Then we’re into the famous dialogue between Peter and June, and I cried and cried.

When Peter jumps out of the plane, he’s held aloft by wires for a while, and then comes down on a newly-cleared stage with a (photographic) beach scene plastered all over the back wall, and a couple of sand patches deposited on the floor. This was very evocative. He chats with a small girl, who’s playing in one of the sand patches, then along comes June, and the great romance gets underway.

Meanwhile, up in heaven, or at least the waiting room, Peter’s crewmate is waiting for him. The angels, all in nurses’ uniforms, are booking flyers in, but so far, there’s no sign of Peter. The chief accounting angel has no sooner explained that mistakes aren’t made, but that if one were all the alarms would go off, and that hasn’t happened for over 600 years, than the alarms go off, and it’s all hands to the pump to get that day’s soul receipts balanced.

This is where we’re introduced to Conductor 71. He’s a Norwegian, not that long deceased, who used to be an escape artist, but who suffered the most embarrassing death, as the trick that went wrong was the first one his mother had ever turned up to see. Judging by his completely unsuccessful attempts to vanish in front of everyone’s eyes, she was right to be unhappy about his chosen profession. He claims that the thick fog prevented him from snatching Peter’s soul from the jaws of life, and so he’s sent back down with orders to put things right.

Back on Earth, Peter and June are shown in a more sexually liberated 1940’s Britain than usual. They’re snuggled up together in bed, minus some clothes, and having a swinging time. Literally. The bed is swinging from side to side of the stage, and as Conductor 71 comes along, he show us his gymnastic skills by hanging on underneath. Eventually he emerges, and causes time to freeze, so he can speak to Peter. Spare company members hold the bed in place, while Peter tells Conductor 71 where to go.

The story unfolds as expected – the doctor at the hospital who’s in love with June tries to sort out Peter’s medical problems, and eventually gets caught up in helping him fight his case in heaven. All is resolved happily (yet still I cried!), and I left feeling cleansed. So, what else to say about the staging?

Wheeling the beds on and off was occasionally distracting, but overall, I felt the production settled down into a good rhythm. There was a lovely sub-plot with a wounded airman who’s obviously very affected by his experiences. He’s playing Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as staged by the doctor, and for ass’s ears, he’s got a couple of bedroom slippers strapped to his head. He hangs himself, which was distressing. Later, he sings a lovely song, which was actually a poem written by a deceased airman in the war; it’s quoted in the program notes.

While the doctor and June wait to see how Peter will go, they play ping-pong. This is done by having a ball on the end of a long pole, with one of the non-visible cast members moving it backwards and forwards between the players – great fun.  Finally, the bike crash was well done, with Douglas Hodge, the doctor, being lifted away from the wreckage.

Overall, I enjoyed this well enough, but wouldn’t particularly want to see it again.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me