Thursday, 8 December 2016

Review Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty

by Eric Potts
Director Chris Jarvis
Choreographer Katherine Iles
Musical Director Pierce Tee

The Wake Up Call

"Turn off your mobile phones and turn up the volume of your children," booms an off-stage voice at the start of Richmond Theatre's Sleeping Beauty. And the assorted kiddies in the stalls within our sight range certainly seemed enchanted with this traditional picture book version of the fairy tale at a glorious Frank Matcham theatre.

Maureen Lipman, channelling her back catalogue of Agony, Joyce Grenfell, BT adverts with a nod to Mozart and a current political leading lady,  is the star attraction for adults in sparkling slinky black, slit to the thigh, but additionally doing the business for the children as wicked fairy Carabosse.

Cbeebies' Chris Jarvis, who also directs, as Chester The Jester ably corralls the audience into fits of laughter, along with Nursie, Matt Rixon (who last year was an ugly sister with his Dad Matthew Kelly) as dame, cracking those groan-inducing jokes with verve.

It's probably fair to say this family-friendly show is squarely aimed at the Cbeebies' age group, with  topical and Richmond-based gags added for others. The costumes are delicious as if the characters had just stepped out of a lavishly illustrated picture book.

A villager - part of the dance troupe - somersaults in the first few moments of the show during an energetic routine choreographed by Katherine Iles with the faery tale towers in the background. A  blonde pretty-in-pink princess - Lauren Hood - and a valiant prince - Dan Partridge - even if he is a bit of poseur, both display strong voices and nifty footwork.

The usual bit of audience participation, in this case gently done, adds spice for a panto equally gently drawing on some of the golden age of variety and vaudeville. A touch of the Max Wall drum rolls in a hide and seek scene. The Bandwagon's Triplets in the nursery scene and even some Will Hay mortar boards during a schoolroom scene.

There's also a fair sprinkling of time travelling songs, accompanied by a live orchestra, among them a Whitney Houston standard, a Rocky Horror Show hit and even drawing on the 1920s  for the opening sequence of the second act. This is the kind of panto where sketch comedy scenes, ticking all the boxes of panto, drive the plot.

The little girls, at least the little girl sitting near me with her Mum, will adore the pink and white and glittery princess dresses. Nursie also goes through her own fashion time machine, a pink wellie Glastonbury grunge outfit or a 1960s' blond(e) beehive compete with glittery pink mini skirt amongst others.

Tania Newton also hit all the right notes, as Queen Britney. A commoner consort for old codger and straight-out-of-a-playing-card-set, King Hector - Graham James. While Tilly Ford as the Lilac Fairy mitigates the evil spell with graceful aplomb.   

The spontaneity of the four kiddie audience volunteers - Hermione, ad-libbing Solomon, Sapphire and the little lad whose name I didn't quite catch - brought a different kind of delightful energy on stage, skilfully compèred by Chris Jarvis.

For me, the panto felt a little template-ish with turns neatly inserted. At the same time, it's still a magical introduction to live theatre for children in a TV and internet age and the chance to see the ever-popular Maureen Lipman.

Cheerful about all the generations from the Sugar Plum Fairy dance of the toys sequence to a zimmer frame oldies' routine,  it obviously aims to fit like a comfortable slipper (to mix our panto metaphors).

So with singalongs, boomeranging toilet rolls (not guaranteed every night but you might strike lucky!),  jokes ranging from those darn corny Christmas cracker puns through twerking to Honey G and, inevitably, Donald Trump, it's an amber light for an altogether wide-awake sunny midwinter treat of a Sleeping Beauty

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Review Thebes Land

Thebes Land
by Sergio Blanco
Translated and adapted by Daniel Goldman
Based on a literal translation by Roberto Cavazos 

An Immodest Proposal

Before the days when TLT had her own little theatre reviewing jalopy to transport her, she well remembers the trudge to Belmarsh from Plumstead station. At the time, TLT was a press agency reporter and Belmarsh is not only a high security jail but also part of a complex including Belmarsh magistrates' and Woolwich crown court.

So that shows TLT is well-qualified to review a show created by Franco-Uruguayan playwright Sergio Blanco which centres, in this translation and adaptation by director Daniel Goldman, on visits to a Belmarsh Prison inmate. And you should of course take every one of TLT's words as gospel. 😇

Thebes Land, we are told, originated as an attempt to give an authentic audience experience - a lifer convicted of murdering his father, on stage in a cage at the Arcola Theatre after a commission by an off-stage character called Mehmet Ergen.

That authenticity apparently was eventually undermined by the authorities withdrawing permission. So an actor Freddie replaces prisoner Martin (both embodied by actor Alex Austin) to act out a script put together by the increasingly odd and fussy playwright "T" (Trevor White).

If it sounds somewhat far-fetched, well we think it's meant to be. Imagine the headlines in the newspapers if a serving prisoner, a murderer to boot, were allowed on a London stage, given a platform to voice his views, even pre-scripted, and then paid a fee. Compare the uproar over possible profits for Mary Bell, the family of Fred West and fee-charging government public servants out of literary exploitation. 

As you may have guessed, and will definitely realise if you are sitting in the audience, this is all a fiction with "T", a forty-something career playwright, serving as the unreliable narrator, inquisitor, and maybe even implicit self-ordained father figure.

Not only unreliable but as the piece goes on (and it does go on for about two and half hours), he and his presentation to us of Martin definitely gets weirder and weirder, imbued by an over-active literary and art history imagination. The writer "T" may well be totally bonkers.

In fact, read this carefully, we will say this only once - this play seems constructed so that "T" seems less a writer - even if he draws on, amongst others, Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, Franz Kafka, an apparent Wikipedia entry on the fork, Whitney Houston, a popular Mozart piano concerto, a song by the Foals. a quote from French philosopher Georges Bataillea paraphrasing of FIBA basketball rules, the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, Roland Barthes, Freud and Sophocles's Oedipus plays  - but an actor taking on the persona of a writer and still succeeding in the playwriting world of the play.

So "T" tells us he meets prisoner Martin at Belmarsh in court. Not one of those courts to which TLT used to trudge, but a basketball court. In a cage. Watched on cameras by prison wardens.

Does HMP Belmarsh have a basketball court or is it purely a snatch from American television prison dramas, we indeed wondered? After a google on the internet, yes indeed, since at least 2014 HMP Belmarsh has a basketball court. They've obviously watched those American serials as well.

However we are quite willing to countenance also that there is maybe something to be said about the gambling competitive tactics of the sports field and the adversarial nature of courts, if that is the reason for placing the meeting there. But in any case we are in danger of overweening pride in our ability to google and our multi-faceted superior knowledge of human nature 😉.

So we have to confess: We have read Crime and Punishment but not the Brothers Karamazov and didn't know until we googled that its author, Dostoevsky, suffered from epilepsy; We didn't know the origins of the fork; We've never been overly keen on Whitney Houston; We'd never heard of the Foals; We'd only vaguely heard of Georges Bataille and, we hang our head in shame, our knowledge of basketball rules was formerly confined only to the Harlem Globetrotters cartoon.  

"T", who admits his moniker is deliberately Kafkaesque (Hurrah, we possess and have read the Penguin complete short stories and novels!), nevertheless doesn't admit to a sense of humour, Kafkaesque or otherwise. Even though we are invited to laugh at his asssumptions and pretensions as he whips out his notebook to note down his subject's (or is it his object's?) words.

There's a glance at the tug of war between the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice (although it leaves out the ambiguous feudal role of the Lord Chancellor). The constant mention of the governor, we realised, is a tease in itself. There are various types of governor in a prison. So without actually lying, our playwright is possibly hoodwinking us into thinking his contact is the highest in the hierarchy. But to what end? 

The problem with any such satire, for that is what it surely is, is that it is in danger of becoming that which it seeks to deconstruct especially as it relies on a certain background knowledge.

The unreliable narrator, the playful undermining narrative, the attempt at documentary authenticity is of course nothing new. It's the stuff of many a centuries' old novel and many a students' conversation into the wee small hours.

But we're now in the age of the internet, of "fake news",  where we can be suspicious and gullible, trickster and tricked, all at the same time. And it made us wonder whether this play was fundamentally anti democratic. Surely in our times it is possible to find a new form or adapt an old structure in a manner rather more generous towards its audience and less secretive about its politics and literary allusions than in a previous more censored age.

Of course in the old days of Cold War censorship, pre-internet, it was much simpler. The audience of the oppressed was more homogenous, shared a common vocabulary and metaphors could bring a satisfying urgency, immediacy and catharsis.

We don't know, naturally, how much is Sergio Blanco and how much has been added and subtracted in translation and adaptation. The acting is committed, detailed and altogether excellent but the premise feels well-worn and, despite a glance towards digital content at the end, rather dated in its concept.

We did perk up at the mention of press censorship, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice.

We were waiting for some clever development of this and also the possible influence of American dramas. reality TV and television drama in general on the justice system.  Which may be there but, if so, it's vastly diluted in an overlong piece.

As it is, the play seems to remain very much mired in the process and drawbacks of verbatim playwriting and workshopping, a certain type of bureaucratic artistic creation (fuelled, in part, some would say, by the turning of writing and acting into over-subscribed, impossibly competitive mass graduate professions).  In other words, not particularly engrossing for a general audience, unlike, for example, Edmund White's prison drama Terre Haute which we remember enjoying some years ago and which, we suspect, would stand the test of time.

We guess if the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (gosh, we had to google hard to find that latest incarnation of the old Department of Trade and Industry!) had put pressure on us to award our most coveted rating for the sake of cheap oil, we would have had to submit for the sake of the nation. 😉  As it is, it's an amber light for a play, the content of which would have been far more persuasive if it were shorter and any wit compressed. 

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Review Sleeping Beauty

By Susie McKenna
Music Steven Edis
Musical Director Mark Dickman
Choreographer Carl Parris


Kick Ass In Fairyland

Panto time! Oh, yes it is! 😁

Hackney Empire triumphs in its unashamedly musical theatre-slapstick-mixture take on Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm's Sleeping Beauty with Alexia Khadime as Tahlia, the princess with powerhouse finger tips and vocal chords.

An auditorium of big and little kids (and one tinsel-trimmed baubled automotive reviewer) settled down to watch, cheer, boo and sing along with the citizens and Royals of Hackneytonia headed by benevolent widowed King Eric the Undecided (Tony Whittle).

Along with a trio of powerhouse fairy godmothers (Sharon Ballard, Georgia Oldman and Kiruna Stamell), King Eric and Dame Nanny Nora (Gavin Spokes) stick together to defy the curse on the unwitting princess by an uninvited naming ceremony guest ... OK, you probably know the broad brush strokes of the story.😉

We loved the Arthur Rackham combined with Disney-style set design by Lotte Collett,  sliding  on the deep Hackney Empire (architect Frank Matcham) stage during seamless scene transitions.

There's a vampish and vampire-ish villainess in the maganificent Sharon D Clarke as wicked fairy Carabosse with a Caribbean accent and a penchant for a, however reluctant, toyboy prince Gabriel (Wayne Perrey) who luckily enough has a princess to rescue him ...😊

Yes, there's a bit of politics (what's a kingdom without politics?!) but even this remains (no pun intended!) just about all-inclusive. Dame Nora's final costume wittily encompasses all sides of the Brexit question and still has enough bright colours and humour to keep even the littlest kiddies in a fit of giggles and engaged in the performance.

There's Denzil (Kat B) a cute orange and red dragon audience favourite who, like a missing character from The Wizard  Of Oz, is searching for his puff. An exremely ogre-ish ogre (Leon Sweeney) and a wonderful time-lapse growth and cutting away of those pesky thorns enveloping the sleeping kingdom (oh dear, have I given the plot away? 😜!!)

By the end of a fast-moving evening, a quick ongoing unofficial referendum amongst the kids in the stalls - whether any of them were sleeping, crying or seemed bored - drew a thumping majority of wide-awake youngsters. Helped of course by the optional glittery, illuminated merchandise sold at a stall tucked away discreetly at the back of the stalls.

It's a loud (the Hackney Empire is a huge, cavernous purpose-built music hall), brash and breezy production with lots of song, dance and spectacle.  There are some impressive sets of pipes ringing the rafters, from Alexia Khadima, Sharon D Clarke, Wayne Perrey's Prince Gabriel and an unusually sweet-voiced Dame Nora from Gavin Spokes. So it's a rootin', tootin' green light for a scrumptious seasonal feast of fun, frolics and a princess with superpowers. What's not to like?!!! 😊

Review Buried Child

Hidden family and state-of-the-nation secrets combine in Sam Shepherd's American Gothic comico-tragedy to give Francis Beckett a thrilling and disturbing evening.

Buried Child
by Sam Shepherd

Secrets and Lies 

Buried Child is a powerful play by Sam Shepard, an American theatre writer who knows his business, and director Scott Elliott gives it a production at the Trafalgar Studios that plays to its strengths, together with an almost perfect cast.

First produced in 1979 and set in Illinois, the state of Shepard’s birth, the play is being sold as a political commentary on the seventies in the USA, but is just as relevant about the dark heart of middle America, as it was then and is now.  

It’s a long play – three acts, two intervals – with a transfixing first act, establishing the loneliness and nastiness of life on a failing farm in the middle of the vast American continent, confined in the small living room of husband and wife Dodge and Haile. The play never leaves that room, and Dodge, unable to walk, cannot even leave the sofa.

You have, right from the start, the claustrophobic feeling of being cooped up in that horrid, ugly room, with the sick and dying old man, his brittle wife and his two sad and useless grown up sons.

The second act offers us menace in that small space, as the rain comes down in great sheets outside. A new person is in the room: a young woman from the city, Shelly, who cannot escape the two strange sons and their strange, crippled father.   

In act three, the rain stops, and the young woman grows in confidence and forces the family to face its darkest secrets.

The play confronts us with a Middle America which has lost its soul and its humanity.  The old man fights furiously over a blanket with one son, the son who has lost a leg, punching him viciously and repeatedly with all his failing strength. He fights over a bottle of whisky with the other son, who has lost his way, his nerve and perhaps his reason. 

“You think just because people propagate they gotta love their offspring?” Dodge growls. It’s not true among animals, he says, so why should we be different?  And in that small room, the difference has indeed disappeared. 

Yet even after the dreadful thing we learn of him in the last few minutes of the play, we do not believe Dodge is entirely a bad old man. He is just lost amid the dust and poverty and misery and rain and hopelessness. 

A fine cast is headed by Ed Harris (for whom Shephard wrote Fool For Love) as Dodge. It's a wonderful, draining performance, dominating the play, beginning to end, from the sofa, except for the moments when he is on the floor.   

Amy Madigan puts in a fine performance as his wife Halie, with only her piety to stand guard between her and the squalor around her. Barnaby Kay and Gary Shelford are convincing as the two sons, Bradley and Tilden. 

Jeremy Irvine does the best an actor can do with Dodge’s grandson Vince, hampered because the playwright’s convenience requires Vince to behave in occasionally inconsistent ways. Jack Fortune makes the most of a nice cameo part as Halie’s priest.

But apart from Ed Harris, the acting honours of the evening belong to Charlotte Hope as Shelly, turning slowly from dippy city girl to the strong catalyst who makes this dysfunctional family finally face what they have done to themselves and each other, and what America has done to them.

The first two acts are marvellous. The third makes a few too many demands on our ability to suspend our disbelief – among other things, Vince has to go from roaring, fighting drunk to sober and reflective in a very few minutes. And the loose ends are not satisfactorily tied up.

But leave any awkwardnesses in the storytelling aside, for the end remains very troubling. For me it is not, despite the theatre’s publicity, saying that Middle America was like this in the seventies.  It is saying: this is Middle America, get over it.  

The last few moments with Vince – I will not spoil it by telling you what they are – seem to imply Dodge will be replaced by someone just like him.  The bestial patriarch’s grandson will be the next patriarch. 

In our current times, the play left me with a vision of the dark heart of  Middle America. A great, grey, soulless centre of a vast continent, loathing the rest of the world, and even the rest of its own nation, filled with hopelessness and hate, which has now given us all a Donald Trump presidency, even though it knew in its heart that it had nothing to gain.A green light from me.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Bianco: Here Be Dragons

Bianco: Here Be Dragons
Nofit State Circus and Firenzi Guidi

Walking In The Air

Bianco is a human circus of aerial acrobatics that grew out of the 2012 Eden Project. Its Big Top has now landed at the Southbank Centre's Winter Festival with its unique cluster of solo and group performances.

We must admit this was the first outing to a circus act since TLT cried in terror when a clown offered her a giant comb many years ago or maybe we can count the Harrogate inland end-of-the-pier show around the same time with acrobats tumbling into a swimming pool in between turns by comedians.  

But back to Bianco. It's strenuous and spirited and bills itself as an immersive, promenade spectacle designed by Saz Moir with Adam Cobbley on lighting.

So it's standing room only to watch this group of 17 travelling players, along with a certain amount of corralling around the mobile towering scaffolding by good natured roadies who occasionally engage in a friendly word. Punters can wander off to the bar but once the show  begins, most, if not all, stayed, drink in hand, to watch.

At times, narrative strands seem to be winding themselves into a story, only to be disrupted by a new scene with other performers at its centre. In truth, there's little story - only a reflection of the performers' lifestyle as a modern vagabond group.

There's certainly plenty to watch. Hoopwork reminded TLT and her own automotive flying machine of Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man. Meanwhile there's aerial acrobatics, tightrope walking, juggling, fire-eating, trampolining and contortionism with a variety of props.

That swimming pool tumbling act TLT saw as a youngster in Harrogate was extended and aerialized (is there such a word?) but still with the Edwardian-style swimming costumes and sense of fun.

Live music is provided by a five-piece band headed by Dave Murray with original material. Our main gripe is that it felt over long, especially without a progressive narrative thread.

Bianco's Here Be Dragons feels still very much a work-in-progress but that's often more a virtue than a criticism, as there's an endearing studiousness combined with a joie-de-vivre. It's an amber/green light for   a democracy of performers and performances capped by a breathtaking finale of spectacular winter wonderland beauty. 

And, in a break from tradition, going along with the spirit of the show, here's a list of the performers:
Augusts Dakteris, Blaze Tarsha, Cecilia Zucchetti, Delia Ceruti, Edd Casey, Ella Rose, Felipe Nardiello, Francois Bouvier, Jani Földi, Jess O'Connor, Junior Barbosa, Lee Tinion, Lyndall Merry, Topher Dagg, Danilo de Campos Pacheco, Enni Lymi, Joachim Aussibal

Review Dr Angelus

Dr Angelus
by James Bridie

The Ladykiller

Set in 1919, but written 28 years later, Dr Angelus is a comedy thriller about a Glasgow family doctor with murder in mind.

Originally conceived by James Bridie (the pen name for doctor turned playwright and screenwriter Osborne Henry Mavor) as a vehicle for character actor Alastair Sim and Sim's protégé George Cole, it was a big success and was even recorded the following year for the BBC.

Based on the real-life 19th century case of Dr Edward William Pritchard, but updated to 1919 in the play, Dr Angelus (a suitably flamboyant and sinisterly humorous David Rintoul) has just taken on a new English junior partner, George Johnson (Alex Bhat in a nicely-judged performance).

While George is grateful for the partnership, there are niggles, shared by a seductive lady patient in a seemingly unhappy marriage, Mrs Corcoran (Lesley Harcourt) whose businessman husband has had dealings wih Dr Angelus over share dealing and insurance policies.

Nevertheless, George, eager to make a success in his first position as a general practitioner suppresses any disquiet he has about the plain weird behavour of the senior partner.

However he still finds himself embroiled in suspicious circumstances when Angelus's off-stage mother-in-law and then his wife (Vivien Heilbron) die in quick succession and, in a Dr Shipman-like twist, Dr Angelus asks the young medic to sign the death certificates.

A psychological thriller, Dr Angelus is as much about the mentality in a medical profession built in hierarchy and, in the case of general practioners, where money was usually needed to buy into a practice

The consultant Sir Gregory Butt and the police inspector McIvor (Malcolm Rennie playing both roles) only serve to underline the oddity of a self-regulating profession and the curious calculations of a constabulary when it comes to medical malfeasance. 

We found it interesting that this beautifully-constructed play was written on the cusp of the introduction of the National Health Service in  the year a separate National Health Service (NHS) bill was passed for Scotland. Dr Angelus himself, we learn in passing, had refused to join the previous government National Health insurance scheme (covering mostly working men and excluding married women).

Set the year after the First World War's end, it's also reasonable to assume Johnson may have served in the armed forces. So the play seems deliberately positioned to echo the position of 1947 ex-soldier-doctors and welcome the National Health Service with the Secretary of State taking over ownership of medical records and giving a degree of supervision over GP practices.

At the same time, this is an enjoyable old (post) war horse - including a deliciously duplicitous serving maid cum lover (Rosalind McAndrew) - with some strange, fascinating twists and a kind of social conscience contrasting the explicitly explained help given to the young doctor and the implicit fate of the servant.

Despite the elements of Gaslight-style  melodrama, Dr Angelus seems ripe to be considered as a predecessor to some of the major Ealing Comedies. Not least for the overblown character of Dr Angelus himself and the identification with issues about the welfare state consensus. Jenny Ogilvie's production perhaps could do with a little more pep and confidence in the first act, but it's an amber/green light for a solid revival of an interesting play.     

Review The Children

The Children
by Lucy Kirkwood

Even Little Boy Gets Old

 In 1945 the nuclear bomb which devastated Hiroshima was famously called Little Boy. Whatever the morality or justification for its use, it initiated the start of the nuclear age, the source of seemingly limitless electricity. And then it came back to bite us with disquiet over the building of reactors in the Middle East, part of the road to war.

The retired nuclear scientists in Lucy Kirkwood's new one-act, nearly two-hour play, The Children, directed by James McDonald, have more immediate concerns. Robin (Ron Cook), who now farms, is a little boy grown old who is apparently intent on saving his cows.

He and his wife, earth mother Hazel (Deborah Findlay), who met in the lab, now rent, amidst power cuts and cliff erosion, a coastal cottage. Why? They've been forced to leave their farm - and the cows with their soulful brown eyes - after an earthquake and tidal wave causes a Fukushima-type nuclear disaster irradiating the surrounding area.

Ron returns every now and then, at some risk, to the farm in the exclusion zone, he says, to tend the cows while mother of four Hazel has settled down to her life, listening on a wind up radio to Radio 4, continuing with her yoga, fielding telephone calls from their seemingly needy 30-something eldest daughter and dealing efficiently with the lack of power.

Even this strange existence can become routine in the golden glow of a basic but comfortable country kitchen in which we meet first Hazel and an unexpected visitor, glamorous childless Rose (Francesca Annis). Rose has returned from the United States and is looking up her former colleagues.  Only blood is trickling down her top.

It turns out when she came up behind Hazel, the latter inadvertently bashed her on the nose. An accident but it sets up a tense dynamic between the two women who, it emerges, have a past rivalry.

We enjoyed the sparky dialogue which provided plenty of laughs from the start of the play with a witty and touching performance from Deborah Findlay as the wife who finds her routine and peace of mind shattered by the arrival of Rose.

There were times it felt overly long, as if there were an agreement to go from A to B to C etc, one point to another and some of the bits in between felt a little like padding. The relationship with almost middle-aged daughter Lauren, whose character and conversations are reported rather than verified by the audience, finally seems introduced, only to be short-circuited. 

Still, there was definitely enough in it to make us wonder whether Rose, even after supposedly revealing her reasons for surprising her erstwhile colleagues was far more deceitful and  had different plans. And to have question marks over her exact current relationship with Robin - neatly played by Ron Cook.

We only have Rose's word that her health problems needed surgery and were not the cosmetic vanity and fear of an ageing single woman. Indeed, for a play which does indeed have two juicy parts for women, the gender politics  could be interpreted as retro as the ountry kitchen - a male bull and two cows circling him.

Yet we did sense an intriguing incipient theme of fake, imitation and reproduction, especially in the final moments, between Rose and Hazel. It's an amber/green light for a play which got somewhere in the end with many sweet moments.  

Monday, 28 November 2016

Review Sheppey

by Somerset Maugham

Jesus Wept

It seems Charlie Chaplin's barber in 1940 movie The Great Dictator was at least third, possibly fourth in line, in introducing a barber with a revolutionary streak. His own brother Sydney before that had created a barber who takes on an oppressive regime. And Charlie Chaplin himself settled out of court with a writer who claimed plagiarism.

But in 1933 Somerset Maugham wrote his last play bringing to the stage Sheppey (John Ramm in this production, while originally, some would say, miscast with Ralph Richardson directed by John Gielgud).  Sheppey's a Camberwell barber in this deceptively gentle piece with a razor sharp subtext.

Sheppey's only vice, apart from the more than occasional drink in a neighbouring pub, is buying a ticket produced by printers for the Free Irish State-government-sanctioned Irish Sweepstakes.

Although not spelt out in the play, this was ostensibly raising money for Irish hospitals but was eventually exposed as often lining private pockets.The sweepstake was illegal in Britain and the United States but the authorities turned a blind eye, even so far as allowing the results to  appear in newspapers.

Well, Sheppey has one more barber shop vice, although some would call it a commercial virtue,  persuading customers to buy a German hair restorer, sold at the Jermyn Street premises of his boss (Geff Francis) where he dreams of one day becoming a partner. Promising a medical miracle, he's got a neat line in salesman patter to persuade gullible hair-challenged clients to part with their cash. 

His other modest ambition is to lodge his family in a cottage on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. A happy-go-lucky long-term employee, he nevertheless finds himself troubled when asked to be a witness in a Police Court case where he suddenly develops a social conscience, believing the assortment of criminals he sees in the dock being victims of circumstance during an economic slump rather than villains.

When his Irish Sweepstakes' ticket comes up with the princely sum of over £8,000, he, perhaps unwisely for an illicit operation, allows himself to receive publicity in the press but also determines not to keep the winnings for personal profit but to follow the example of Jesus, who as he points out was only a carpenter, just as he is a hairdresser, and distribute them to the needy in his local parish.

He gives a home to petty thief Cooper (Tom Peters) who inspired his channelling of money for relief of the poor. Prostitute Bessie LeGros (Dickie Beau  giving an added frisson to the female role), his drinking partner, also enters the household - is her name a sly dig at Hollywood actress Joan Crawford, originally Lucille LeSueur?

Yet Sheppey's plan goes horribly wrong when his prospective son-in-law, county council teacher and aspiring politician, Ernie (Josh Dylan), with a very different view of community, and daughter Florrie (Katie Moore), who has quit her job in the City to be married, dragging along Sheppey's wife Ada (Sarah Ball), conspire with family doctor (Brendan Hooper), presumably a pre-NHS panel doctor, who makes it clear his motive is commercial, profit rather than welfare.    

Sheppey has the construction of an old fashioned play - it may move a little slowly for some tastes now  - but with very modern concerns and a twist in the tale late on worthy of the much later musical Cabaret in Paul Miller's production.

John Ramm makes a convincing Sheppey, almost coming across as a more benevolent Alf Garnett in his rhythms and justifications.  Katie Moore as the upwardly mobile typist daughter Florrie nicely combines lurking vulnerability with  steely determination that nothing will get in her way. Sarah Ball's Ada manages the tricky balance between loving, long suffering wife who still gives way to the plot against her husband without losing our sympathies. .

Director Paul Miller retains the three-act structure in a careful production, aided by Max Pappenheim's sparingly and effectively used soundscape.Simon Daw's design neatly conveys the tiled barber shop with advertisement billboards above the in-the round stage area, while a subtle use of phrenology gives added resonance in the second and third act set.

There's a touch of the supernatural reminiscent of HG Wells's short stories combined with the sharp satire of Saki, while other literary references are explicit.

Certainly the audience doesn''t need to know the history of Irish Sweepstakes to be drawn into a secular fable of gambling, greed and then altruism brought down. Even so,  it becomes far more double-edged and reflective with an understanding of the subtext of 1930s' world politics, economics and possibly the abuse of parish-based mental asylums when national public scandals rise to the surface.

This is a well-cast seemingly simple piece of a certain pre-World War Two genre,  but also accompanied by a more complex undertow. It's an amber/green light for a precise production with a sting in its tale.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Review The Tempest

The Tempest
by William Shakespeare

Braces, Soil And Tears

For its first foray into Shakespeare, The Print Room, itself a magical, eccentric theatre capped by a cupola, has chosen one of the most magical of the bard's plays, The Tempest.

This production of The Tempest, directed by Simon Usher, certainly has its eccentricities and, on rare occasions, brings magic to the Notting Hill venue. Yet at other times, it remains as solidly earth-bound as the soil covering the ragged stage.

The story is archetypal - a Duke, usurped by his brother but saved by a courtier, is washed ashore on an island where he brings up his daughter, unware of her noble lineage, while exercising his power over two supernatural creatures. For this Duke has long made a study of a (never appearing) book of spells and possesses a magical cloak and staff with which he can control his island domain.

Fate - or is  it magic? - intervenes and the play starts with the conspirators, those also who acquiesced to the coup, albeit an innocent prince among them, and the faithful courier shipwrecked on the island 12 years after the enforced exile of the rightful Duke of Milan.

Yet we feel the abstract representation of the shipwreck, with a rope laid on the floor and heads ducked in buckets of the water, may have totally befuddled those who are newcomers to The Tempest.  The concept behind this version of the play remained elusive for us, although we noted how the director references Italian and Swedish translations and performances of Shakespeare in the programme.

It's the younger generation who emerge in the sharpest focus in the lens of The Print Room's production, even if this attractive interpretation is rather thrown away by the play's end. 

Bearded Kevin McMonagle, clad at first in muted gray high waisted tweed trousers, braces and shirt before he dons his enchanted seaweed cloak, is a strangely subdued. softly spoken Scottish Prospero. He's almost bureaucratic in his influence on the course of events, rather than enchantingly transformative.

Indeed further on in the play, we did wonder whether we were inhabiting the psychic space of Prospero, an old man imagining his island realm. Certainly there is a mash up in the costumes spanning the centuries and, we think, in acting styles.

Charlotte Brimble, her tones strictly received pronounciation with maybe the slightest trace of her father's burr, is at first a sturdy, Robinson Crusoe-like Miranda in grubby shorn denim trousers and top, a child of the earth. She's unused to the male gaze until the arrival of scarlet-jacketed Ferdinand (Hugh John who brings a much-needed clarity and vitality), the guileless King of Naples' son.

Unless that is, we include the unwanted attentions of Caliban (Billy Seymour), himself the monstrous "mooncalf" child of a witch and dubious paternity.

Prospero's treatment of Caliban, who comes over as a vulnerable, almost Frankenstein-like innocent, also seems wholly dubious in this version with the previous kindly treatment of Caliban betrayed by his  attempted sexual assault of Miranda downplayed.

The other supernatural creature on the isle is the enslaved Ariel pleading for her liberty - Kristin Winters in pure white tunic as if stepped out of 1920s' abstract art. As the tale unwinds, she seems more and more drawn into an early silent movie, all of which comes into its own at the beginning of the second act in a stunning visual effect.

Indeed with consistently beautiful lighting from Ben Omerod and a backdrop of waves and sky, easily becoming an embedded stage within a stage, from set designer Lee Newby, there are some gorgeous moments, particularly the masque sequences.

However the moments of beauty sometimes suffer then from over-playing and too often strike one as parachuted in. Some of the relationships also are not clear. For example, while Antonio (Callum Dixon who doubles as washed-up butler Stephano) is obviously the man who deposed Prospero, for someone who doesn't know the story, it's less than easy to understand that they are brothers.

Still, while some of the verse speaking seems to take too literally Ariel's promise to carry out Prospero's demands "- to - the - syllable", there are some pleasures.

John as Ferdinand sparks the play into more supple patterns of speech. Stephen Beard's white-haired professorial Gonzalo, Prospero's saviour years before, also has a naturalness in his delivery, overcoming the somewhat cryptic staging around him.

Paul Hamilton (who doubles as Alonso, King of Naples) also makes the cut as gangly beanie-wearing jester Trinculo. Community actor dreadlocked Herman Stephens has a distinctive, lucid debut on the professional stage as the mariner finally bringing good news.

But themes embracing, for example, the complexity of freedom and oppression, which should be distilled in a famous short episode where Ferdinand and Miranda suddenly appear playing chess, often feel truncated.

So it's an amber light for a curious curate's egg, rather muffled production redeemed by a few interesting design and staging choices and several engaging performances.  


Friday, 25 November 2016

Review After October

After October
by Rodney Ackland

The Wolves of Hampstead

At the end of the "The Wolf of Wall Street", an ex-rogue trader holds up a pen and invites the multicultural participants in his global touring seminar to invent a good story to sell the product. (32 seconds into the video link).This scene popped into our thoughts as we watched Rodney Ackland's 1936 play, After October.

Of course, the recent movie is about financial wheeler dealing and only one off-stage character in Ackland's screwball comedy is a convicted thief, although there is some 1930s' product placement.

Still, this two-act semi-autobiographical piece is filled with stories and plots brought to the impecunious Hampstead household by the widowed, still attractive Rhoda Monkhams (a nicely judged performance of grace under pressure by Sasha Waddell), a former Gaiety Girl, and her children including playwright son Clive (boyishly intense Adam Buchanan).

The play follows the trials and tribulations of the debt-ridden family. This includes Clive's sisters Joan (Allegra Marland), a would-be artist currently the lover and secretary of hard-drinking married text book publisher Alec Mant (Jonathan Oliver);  and Lou (Peta Cornish), whose musical theatre ambitions have melted into the reality of being a taxi dancer while her charming but lightweight husband Armand (Andrew Cazanave Pin), cast adrift by his family, serves in a wine shop.

All their hopes are pinned on Clive, a Grub Street hack  and aspiring playwright, whose anti-war play is about to be put on. Even if, in a play set in 1935, during the Spanish Civil War, when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia and Winston Churchill warned about Nazi Germany, it's perhaps not the most auspicious time.

If Clive succeeds (strange as it may seem now, a West End hit at that time could turn a struggling writer into a millionaire) it could also trigger a chain reaction in other directions.

The career of his working class fellow writer,  dark and brooding poet Oliver (lugubrious Patrick Osborne), could also twist around if Clive follows through on his promise to be his financial guarantor. As it is, he's reduced to selling bristle brushes door to door and has a penchant for entering the Monkhams's home through the bay window like a spy or a burglar.

Their housekeeper Mrs Batley (Josie Kidd in a finely tuned understated performance) appreciates her treatment by Rhoda for whom she keeps unpaid tradesmen sweet. But she has her troubles, retreating to the cinema to avoid her bullying Mussolini-loving son-in-law, and could find a new role if Clive succeeds.

It's only eccentric Marigold Ivens (Beverly Klein), seemingly the woman least likely, who appears to be coyly laying little claim on Clive. He enjoys her company, even if she harbours her own, apparently vague, thespian ambitions.

Now we admit to having a soft spot for Clive, especially as he's left-handed like your very own reviewer and his chaotic paperwork with orange Allen Lane Penguin paperbacks scattered round his writing space reminded us of something closer to home.

Clive himself would like to join the moneyed rentier class, with his name up in lights over a hit play. He would also be able to marry the lodger, the  manicurist Frances (Jasmine Blackborow), whose rent helps supplement the family's meagre income, grabbing her away from stick-in-the-mud retired colonial civil servant Brian (Stephen Rashbrook). 

The snug Finborough space is transformed cleverly by designer Rosanna Vize into a light and airy Hampstead living room complete of course with bay window. After October is fluently directed by Oscar Toeman with only a few lapses of pace, perhaps owing to the almost cinematic nature  of the piece.

There's a feel of Noel Coward's Hay Fever and, transatlantically, George Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family while retaining its own feather-light individuality.

For, despite the the superficial frothiness of the plot, there are clever meaningful literary pastiches and a subtle gender mash up. One character when told Clive has written a drama even innocently asks if it's a musical comedy or a detective story. Plus ça change ...

This proves to be far from a playwriting equivalent of a quota quickie, even if Ackland himself seemed to have suffered the burdens of and enjoyed little of the success of his illustrious playwriting circle. With its acute grasp of the entertainment industry's line of dependency and sly, sharp but humane sense of the ridiculous, After October sold itself to us and it's a TLT green light.