House of Improv
Michael Pilch Studio Theatre, Jowett Walk, Oxford OX1 3TS
17-20 October 2018
Mention impro to most audiences and they will think of short-form pieces lasting a few minutes, centred around a single idea - in other words, improvised sketches. House of Improv boldly goes into the less widely explored realms of long-form impro – in this case a 70-minute show with no interval, based entirely on suggestions made by that evening's audience. The words 'pants', 'seat', and 'flying' spring to mind. That approach can be both terrifying and liberating for the performers, and entertaining for the audience. But it can also have some potential drawbacks, of which more below. Some of last night's audience had watched long-form impro before. For me, it was a new experience, and I'm happier for having seen it.
House of Improv are seven performers led, if that's the right word, by director-producers William Jefferson and Sofia Castello y Tickell. The first ten minutes of Family Secrets had Will and Sofia making introductions and warming up both cast and audience with plenty of shouty interaction. The audience was asked to call out suggestions for the story, centred around the basic premise of a family saga of some sort. Then we all had to cheer loudly for our favourite.
The result was a story about the Woofingtons, a family of dog trainers, who were facing a crisis with the impending trial of a family member. The story then unfolded in a series of two- and three-handed scenes, to musical accompaniment by Christopher Magazzeni.
We met Josh Woofington (William Jefferson), who was accused of stealing a dog. Although Josh protested his innocence, it soon became apparent that he had previous form and was a regular guest of Her Majesty's. A nice running gag was the discovery, by other family members, of dogs stolen by Josh hidden in cupboards, kitchen units and bins all over the house. William reminded me facially of a young George Cole, and Josh had a geezer-ish quality to him that grew more dodgy and shameless as the show went on.
Lord Woofington (Emma Hinnells), Josh's grandfather, was a famous lawyer, specialising in canine legal cases and jealous of his professional status. It was his job to defend Josh in what appeared to be an increasingly hopeless case. A lovely bit of impro turned into a running gag was Lord Woofington's habit of 'reading some law' in Latin to whoever happened to be in the room at the time. This was given a further twist later when it was revealed that Lord Woofington's wife Bernadette (Eliza McHugh) got an erotic kick out of it. Indeed it revived their flagging marriage. I was impressed by Emma's good comedy sense and strong stage presence. She projected a winsome knowingness that put me in mind of a young Sheila Steafel or Helen Lederer (that's praise indeed, by the way).
Professional rival to Lord Woofington was Joan (Sofia Castello y Tickell) the other lawyer in the family. Joan was one of the principal characters driving the story along - a pacemaker to keep the energy up. An inspired bit of impro came when the two lawyers competed for status by standing on chairs during a business meeting, each trying to be the tallest. Later in the show, Joan developed a crush on Sarah (Hannah Williams), much to the delight of Lord Woofington.
Kilian Lohmann played Matthew, one of the grown-up children of the Woofington family, bringing to the show a nice sense of comic timing and quietly understated humour.
Bernadette (Eliza McHugh) was skittish and kooky (her word), turning into an elderly eccentric in the second half of the show, dressed in a sparkly emerald green raincoat. Eliza's double act with her stage husband (Emma Hinnells as Lord Woofington) started to blossom towards the end of the show, and I would have liked to have seen more of this earlier on, as it was one of the characterisation highlights of the piece for me.
Daughter Sarah (Hannah Williams) was played as a stereotypical soap-opera heroine, overwhelmed by her emotions and worries about the family. If there was a sympathetic character amongst the oddballs of the Woofington family, then Sarah was it.
Josh's sister Beatrice (Amy Kennedy) was by turns guilt-ridden and empathetic, and Amy proved herself a quick-thinking performer.
Credit also to Vidy Reddy for some nifty lighting changes on the fly.
Family Secrets started and finished strongly, but experienced a dip halfway through. After about 40 minutes, the scenes started to get a little stale and bogged down, and the story needed to be moved forward. In the final 15 minutes, with the need to wrap up the show into some sort of conclusion, the plot took off again with a series of 'I'm Spartacus!' moments. First Bernadette then Beatrice offered to take the blame for the dog theft and go to prison in Josh's place. Finally, a piece of video tape evidence of Josh's misdemeanours came into the hands of Joan and Lord Woofington. A family meeting was called and Bernadette's dog urinated to order on the video tape, destroying all evidence of the crime.
House of Improv's aim was to perform a 70-minute piece – a tall order for a wholly improvised show. Impro combines the functions of actor and playwright in one person at the same time, and that presents a mighty challenge. The performer has to remain 'in the moment', yet plotting and characterisation require a stepping back from the action. This tension between process and content is often resolved in the relative neglect of the plot line. In this case, the show thankfully received a kick in the pants about 15 minutes from the end and the piece took flight again, ending on a high note. The audience on the night clearly enjoyed the show, as did I.
Impro is very hard to do, never mind do well. These performers, we were told, had been doing it for less than a year, and did extraordinarily well. Congratulations to all concerned.
Photo credits: Amrita Khandpur
KING CHARLES III by Mike Bartlett
Oxford Theatre Guild
Wesley Memorial Church, New Inn Hall Street, Oxford, OX1 2DH
24-29 September 2018
Queen Elizabeth II has died and, after decades of waiting, Charles has finally become king and is anticipating his coronation in a few weeks' time. Into this future setting Mike Bartlett sets his story about an imagined political and constitutional crisis that endangers the very future of our constitutuional monarchy as we know it.
A parliamentary bill that will bring in draconian restrictions on the freedom of the press has passed both Houses of Parliament and is awaiting Royal Assent. But Charles refuses to sign, fearing serious consequences for freedom of speech. The Labour Prime Minister protests that the King is obliged to sign. The Conservative Leader of the Opposition agrees publicly, but plays a more subtle game in private. A constitutional stand-off results: Charles remaining stubborn in his refusal; the Government threatening to legislate to remove the requirement for Royal Assent for all future bills. Charles attempts to use his theoretical power to dissolve Parliament and call a general election. A divided Parliament (mainly) refuses to disperse, and rioting and civil disorder break out across the country, splitting the nation down the middle. In the end the Duke of Cambridge forces Charles to abdicate and the newly crowned King William V promises to sign the bill, thus ending the crisis and preserving the last vestiges of royal authority.
Into this inventive political thriller, Bartlett weaves a family crisis of father against son, exploring the personal characters and tensions of those most intimately involved - figures who are normally protected behind a wall of protocol. Thus we have a hesitant, cautious Charles (Andrew Whiffin) who finally makes a public stand on a matter of principle; a loyal Prince William (Ian Nutt) who is forced to betray his father for the greater good of the kingdom and the monarchy; a rather devious and scheming Duchess of Cambridge (Kelly Ann Stewart), who sees her chance to exercise political influence through her husband; and a disaffected Prince Harry (Chris Cooper), who wants to escape the gilded cage of his life as a royal where he is without any immediately obvious role in life.
One aspect of the play that marks it out as unusual in contemporary drama is that it was written in iambic pentameter. This is a deliberate aping of a Shakespearean history play and it succeeds as such. I found that the verse raised what could have been a ranty, wordy and worthy play to a higher realm where human drama and genuine dilemmas of high principle can be considered separately from the cut and thrust of party politics. It's amazing what heightened language can achieve.
Director Dan Whitley chose to stage the piece in traverse (for the uninitiated, that is where the audience sits facing in on either side of a central stage area, in this case, the central aisle of the Wesley Memorial Church). This was an inspired choice, as it enabled the production to exploit the very long, grand space between the audience seating areas in many different ways. The distance from one end to the other was far longer than any distance on a conventional stage, which was a gift, given the grand scale of settings such as Westminster Abbey, the House of Commons and royal palaces. But the narrowness of the stage area simultaneously gave the performance an intimate feel to it, appropriate to the family saga being presented to the audience.
Chris Cooper's lighting and sound design exploited the venue well, and enhanced Dan Whitley's vision in a smooth, seamless fashion. The music was an unsurprising selection of British pieces for royal occasions, but was not laid on with a trowel and avoided feeling cliched.
Amber Slaymaker's costume design included some wonderful military uniforms for Charles and his two sons to wear, but the opening funeral procession was perhaps the best opportunity to see her well judged work on full display. The aisle of the venue was a perfect catwalk.
So we come to the performances of the principals. The director was fortunate to have such an array of talent at his disposal. Andrew Whiffin's King Charles brought us a sympathetic portrait of a well-intentioned but tortured individual who finally tastes the cup of kingship only to be disappointed and disillusioned. It was a splendid performance that gave us a view inside the King's mind: an idealist who is perhaps too naive; a gentle soul who stands firm on a point of moral principle.
Ian Nutt's Prince William displayed his father's caution, and was convincingly appalled when asked to counsel The King to change course, seeing it as a show of disloyalty. This prince was quietly spoken and diplomatic, but in the end showed his steel. We felt his sorrow at his betrayal of his father - not a crowing usurper, but a fond son.
The Duchess of Cambridge was played by Kelly Ann Stewart, who was a convincing doppelganger for the real Kate. In fact, there was a slight ripple through the audience when she first appeared. Appearances aside, Kelly gave us a Kate who stands not only by her man, but behind him too, giving him a hefty shove towards the crown. Warm and charming, mixing an acquired royal confidence with the down-to-earthness of her previous life, this Kate was likeable until...until she went a bit Lady Macbeth in a wonderful soliloquy that envisaged two crowns at the coronation (one for William and one for her). She told us how she would build her own power from behind her husband's. There was a Macchiavellian glint in the eye. A lovely transformation. It was at this moment that the play felt at its most Shakespearean to the present writer.
Chris Cooper's rebellious Prince Harry was a likeable, frustrated and vulnerable protagonist in the play's bitter-sweet comedy-romance sub-plot. Falling for Jess (a feisty performance from Eliza Burrows), a young woman with strong republican sympathies, Harry sees her as his escape vehicle from the Royal Family to a new, ordinary life with a regular job, mortgage and family home, free from princely titles and a straightjacket of protocol. Well, they say the grass is always greener... But it ends badly when Harry has to give up Jess for the sake of his brother and re-establishing the stability of the family firm. At the coronation, Jess arrives and asks Harry where she is sitting. A mortified Harry has to explain that there is no place for her. Chris's tortured expression and body language nailed the moment with stillness.
Two other actors deserve especial praise. Liz Bishop turned in a brilliant performance as Francis Evans the Prime Minister. Here was a politician at home with the horse-trading and banter of political life up against a man for whom she had to maintain diplomatic respect, even as he presented an obstacle to her political ambitions. Liz was particularly good at slow-burning, suppressed annoyance. A very strong performance.
Finally, Paul Clifford as James Reiss, the Palace press secretary - a wonderful Sir Humphrey-esque figure. Here was a smooth operator, never lost for words, always three steps ahead of the other side. The ultimate troubleshooter for the King. Paul seemed to inhabit this character and it was clearly as much fun to play as it was to watch.
King Charles III is a play that I had wanted to see for some time and I am glad that I have now done so. Oxford Theatre Guild can feel proud of themselves for offering us an intelligent political and personal drama, sensitively played and imaginatively staged. God Save the King!
Photos courtesy of Oxford Theatre Guild
THE COMEDY OF ERRORS by William Shakespeare
The Players' Theatre, 3 Nelson Street, Thame, OX9 2DP
10-14 July 2018
I'm going to start this review in an unusual way by praising the set designers, Martyn Ross and Doug Taylor, and their team of set builders. The set grabbed the attention of audience members as soon as they entered the auditorium. Here was the market square of the sort of Greek town that many will have visited on a holiday to the Aegean. A taverna, with tables and chairs spread out in the square, a gift shop with an array of beach hats hanging over the door, a town house with a balcony, a large, arched, heavy wooden door - the entrance to a convent, a brothel, and large, irregular flagstones. Before curtain up, the stage was already populated by characters from the play, eating, drinking and conversing in the square. Clearly a significant amount of time and labour had gone into designing, planning and constructing this intricate urban set and, for me, it counted as one of the characters in its own right, deserving of a separate curtain call.
The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare's funniest comedies, and director Martyn Ross was blessed with a strong cast. We'll come to the principals in a moment, but I must praise Adrian Vickers' performance as the Waiter, which tickled me, and the rest of the audience, all through the play. He had only a few lines, but spent a considerable amount of time on stage, clearing away dirty glasses, rearranging the tables and chairs in his cafe, and observing and eavesdropping on the conversations of the other characters. There was some splendid business and character acting here, and it was a text book example of how to take a relatively small role and make it memorable, sometimes, but not too much, upstaging the actors with speaking roles.
As I'm sure you'll know, The Comedy of Errors tells the tale of two sets of twins, separated at birth, who both end up in the same city, unbeknownst to each other. Hilarity ensues. In short, it is the comedy of mistaken identity.
I particularly enjoyed the performances of Richard Potts as Antipholus of Syracuse and Richard Roach as his servant Dromio of Syracuse. This is not to take anything away from Andy Dale as Antipholus of Ephesus and Carolyn Ross as Dromio of Ephesus, who both excelled. In fact the cross casting of the second Dromio (with the twin brothers played by male and female performers respectively) had me wondering at first - both Dromios as female, yes, that's consistent, but one of each? But in fact both Richard and Carolyn drew out the characters' clown-like qualities that distracted from this potential issue. It also has to be said that Carolyn very effectively mimicked a male physicality. In other words, great acting.
In fact, the physicality of the cast was pretty much spot on throughout the play. The heightened movements and expressions flowed naturally from high energy levels and focus from each performer. Cues were picked up snappily and fluently, and this led to some razor sharp exchanges. Well done to the director for drawing these performances from his cast. Not a little repetitive drilling, I'm guessing, went into achieving this accomplished teamwork. Often amateur productions tend to be low in energy, or dip at various points, but the pace never slackened here.
This meant that the slapstick humour, appropriate to this farce, when it came, was a joy to watch. We all enjoyed the arrest of Antipholus of Ephesus by the police officer (Dom Stanway). Handcuffing himself to Antipholus, the incompetent policeman fails to realise that a cafe chair has become entangled in the cuffs, and spends the rest of the scene dragging his prisoner around (or being dragged by him) with annoying chair in tow. And the comic potential was mined assiduously.
Full marks to choreographer Tina Hine who gave us a Greek dance routine at the end of the show that had the full cast of 17 weaving between and around each other on a pretty small stage. Tina also deserves praise for the great warmer-upper at the start of the second act with the Waiter then Dromio of Ephesus doing their Zorba the Greek dance to the laughter of the audience. Adrian Vickers shamelessly milked it, and, frankly, why not?
As mentioned at the beginning, this was a strong cast, but special mentions are deserved by Anne Lankester as Antipholus of Ephesus' wife Adriana and Georgina Castle as her sister Luciana. I was also impressed by Tim Shepherd, cast as Balthasar (a Greek Orthodox priest in this production) and Dr Pinch the conjuror and exorcist – another performance with few lines but whose presence was nicely enlarged with some comic business (and a few conjuring tricks).
The play was set at some unspecified point in the twentieth century, which gave the wardrobe department plenty of scope and nothing jarred or looked out of place. I liked the military uniform of Duke Solinus (Victor Gaultney), dressed up to appear like the local dictator (although, whisper it softly, this Greek ruler was wearing a Soviet Army hat). The colourful costumes of both Dromios reinforced their clown-like characters and the camel-coloured suits of both Antipholuses made the two quite un-twin-like actors look like brothers.
The play was broken into two very asymmetrical acts, the first lasting a mere 35 minutes, followed by a much longer second act. On paper, I'd have blanched at such a division, but actually having the second act longer, against conventional theatrical wisdom, worked out all right. Much of that was down to the momentum of the performance that I've alluded to already.
This was my first visit to the Players' Theatre in Thame, and I loved its intimate space which did not feel at all crowded. More than that, I thoroughly enjoyed this production, which was clearly the product of much hard work by all conerned.
Photo credit: Thame Players
FLARE PATH by Terence Rattigan
Abingdon Drama Club
Unicorn Theatre, Checker Walk, Abingdon, OX14 3HZ
4-7 July 2018
Wartime usually produces a heightened loyalty to one's country. Ironically though, it often ends up undermining other loyalties in the process. Loyalty to one's spouse is one such. Terence Rattigan's superbly crafted World War II drama, written in 1942, examines the fragile, changing affections of actress Patricia Warren (Laura King) towards her new husband Flight Lieutenant Teddy Graham (Dave Cassar) and her lover screen star Peter Kyle (John Hawkins).
Pat has hastily married Teddy on the rebound from the suave but already-married Kyle, but almost instantly regrets it. When Kyle arrives at a hotel near Teddy's aerodrome, now divorced, Pat seems on the verge of leaving her new husband and running off with the film star. Yet Kyle's attitude towards love is tainted with a selfish neediness and he sees his intended marriage to Pat as something with which to fix his life. His acting career as a romantic lead is waning (he has turned 40) and he needs Pat to shore up his ego. Pat is willing to go along with the plan and escape her boring, young and naïve husband who displays a stiff upper lip and refuses to open up to his new wife. By contrast the emotional and passionate Peter Kyle seems like the antidote.
But the war comes to the rescue, so to speak. Teddy and his crew go on a particularly risky bombing mission and he pilots the plane back to its Lincolnshire base with its tail shot to pieces, having barely escaped with his crew's lives. Teddy's emotional breakdown hours after his return reveals a new side to him that Pat has never glimpsed before. Her husband is no longer the baby-faced boy that she married, but a man with a courage that he does not even fully appreciate himself. He is the polar opposite to Kyle's self-obsessed luvvie. In his vulnerability he has revealed a bravery and nobility that wins Pat's heart, and she chooses to stay with him and reject Kyle.
Rattigan has given us a wonderful study of how war affects people – airmen, their wives and lovers, and those around them. The three principal players (John Hawkins, Laura King and Dave Cassar) gave us some beautifully judged performances that expressed the inner conflict of their characters as part of a wider military one.
A touching sub-plot involved the relationship of local girl Doris (Maria Crocker) who had married Count Skriczevinsky (Zoltan Kollo), a pilot serving with the Free Polish Air Force. Pat and Kyle view the marriage as a case of a naïve girl being cynically deceived by a serviceman away from his home, and predict Doris' being cast off at the end of the war. But their cynicism is proved wrong and the warmth and affection between Doris and the Count proved one of the most touching strands in the play.
Tony Green gave us a down-to-earth version of Sergeant 'Dusty' Miller, Teddy's trigger-happy rear gunner (willing to shoot at trains when there aren't any German planes around). Dusty's relationship with his wife Maudie (Louise King) is functional and matter of fact. They argue and worry and grumble. They are free from the romantic pretensions of Kyle and Pat and the actual romance of Doris and the Count. Their relationship has acquired that transactional character of many mid-life marriages, with love still visible if you dig deep enough. These were both believable performances by the actors that avoided drifting into cliché.
Away from the couples I enjoyed the supporting roles presented to us by Terry Atkinson as Percy, the young barman who is still slightly more excited about the specifications of the different bombers on the local aerodrome than the human tragedies unfolding over the skies of Germany, and by the ever-dependable Jon Crowley as Squadron Leader Swanson.
The play uses a single set, which was well designed and allowed subdivision of the stage area, albeit being a single room. One howler, that I cannot let pass, however, was the use of highlighter fluorescent yellow and pink cushions on the sofa in the residents' lounge. In 1942? Come on now.
Lin Crowley presented us with a production that showcased Rattigan's wartime morale booster instead as a deeper study of how war affects people and their relationships. In different hands, perhaps, this could have been played more for laughs, particularly with some of the secondary characters. Thankfully, directorial restraint was the order of the day, and we got something better: a 70-year-old drama that scrubbed up as fresh and relevant now, as when first performed.
Photo credit: Abingdon Drama Club
Faringdon Dramatic Society
Buscot Park Theatre, Buscot Park, Faringdon, SN7 8BU
13-16 June 2018
Farringdon Follies was devised by members of Faringdon Dramatic Society to mark two important anniversaries: it's 800 years since Faringdon was granted its market charter, and 70 years since the founding of Faringdon Dramatic Society itself.
Conscious that their audiences wanted to be entertained rather than given a history lecture, FDS decided to combine scenes from the town's eight centuries of history with a re-enactment of how FDS actually came up with this show. So after the rather catchy opening song (This is Our Town) we found ourselves watching a discussion between the actors and director, at an FDS rehearsal, about what should be included in the show – the show we were actually watching. I must admit that, after this scene, my heart sank somewhat and the following thought passed through mind: are we in for two hours of this? I'm happy to report that it improved and my worst fears were not realised.
The play-within-a-play structure is one that's been successfully used many times in drama over the centuries of course. One reason why I had initial reservations about this production, however, was because I've recently seen too many amateur productions that feature an amateur drama production within the play itself. That genre is in danger of being done to death. Fortunately, FDS gave us plenty of other fare during the evening.
The English Civil War featured more than once, and understandably so, given that Faringdon, a Royalist stronghold, was besieged by Cromwell's troops, during which it lost its church spire to Roundhead artillery. One of the cast, Peter Webster, had, we learned, previously written a play called Colonel Lisle's Decision. This was re-presented to us. It was the story of two townsfolk, childhood sweethearts, who had manned the town's defences and fought heroically against the Cromwellian attackers. But they had been seen exchanging kisses whilst on active duty – a serious breach of regulations. In the end, justice prevailed and the young man and woman had their offence dismissed by their colonel on condition that they married soon.
I also enjoyed The Ballad of Hampden Pye, the story of a man who got his head shot off by a ship's cannon, thanks to the plotting of his step-mother, and whose headless ghost haunted Faringdon churchyard for many years.
We had the story of the monks who founded a monastery in Faringdon at the time of the town's market charter in 1218. Their history was sung to us, amusingly, in mock plainchant, as four grey-cowled monks processed around the stage.
We also learned about the terrible lives of those condemned to spend their years in the Faringdon Union Workhouse in the nineteenth century. Photographs of the awful place were projected on to a back screen. This was performed as a song, to the the tune of There's No Place Like Home. The irony was further emphasised by having a middle-class Victorian couple gathered at their drawing room piano, singing the song, while a young woman in workhouse clothes sat downstage, tearfully singing an alternative version that told of her miserable existence.
The second act focused on twentieth and twenty-first century events in the town. There was an engaging piece about Faringdon Folly, that told the story of its construction by the eccentric Lord Berners and gave us accounts by townspeople of what the Folly meant to them. For those not in the know, the Folly stands on top of a hill surrounded by woods, and is regularly open to the public. It's a favourite place to walk humans and dogs alike.
I was quite taken by a re-imagined scene from Lord Berners' life: a weekend at Faringdon House with house guests that included Salvador Dali and Noel Coward. It had the feel of a scene from a Noel Coward play: light, frothy and witty.
The 'rehearsals' of the FDS that peppered the evening started to establish a pattern, with one or two running jokes. They were also used to tell episodes of the town's past and the history of the dramatic society itself, which worked well, I think, because, apart from any other consideration, the actors were not there principally to act as themselves (which they had been in the opening scene) but assumed imaginary versions of themselves.
What I would have liked to see in the show's printed programme was a list of which roles each person played, instead of the bald list of names in order of speaking. This is probably a selfish complaint by the reviewer, but it means I cannot name names and give credit where it is due.
The set design was simple, relying on furniture, props and lighting to establish the mood and place. Given the very limited dimensions of the delightful, but bijou, Buscot Park Theatre, that seemed an eminently sensible approach. There was good use of projected photographs, particularly in the Memories of the Folly section and the workhouse scene already mentioned. This highlighted the considerable research that must have gone into sourcing those pictures from local residents.
Faringdon Follies was something different – a genuine piece of community theatre celebrating local identity and a strong sense of place and rootedness. The danger of presenting such a topic is to descend into gentle self-mockery or sentimentality, so that the subject itself becomes degraded. Co-directors Debbie Lock and Carolyn Taylor avoided these pitfalls and gave this non-Faringdonian an entertaining and informative evening.
RAISING THE ROOF
Kennington Amateur Dramatic Society (KADS)
Kennington Village Centre, Kennington Road, Kennington, Oxford, OX1 5PG
7-10 June 2018
Raising the Roof was an evening of well-known show songs designed to delight and entertain the audience.
In the first half, the cast brought us musical numbers staged in full costume, which drew heavily on KADS' past catalogue of productions. Among the shows included were Beauty and the Beast, West Side Story, Les Miserables, The Wizard of Oz and Cats.
The staging was well executed, and although scenery was necessarily kept to a minimum, Dan Ebberson's lush lighting maintained the feeling that we were being given a treat. Staying with lighting, the use of follow spot (Scott Powles) for the entrance of musical director Alan Cobb was a nice bit of tongue-in-cheek showbiz glitz for a man who usually keeps his profile low. The follow spot was used again, and effectively, for Hannah Peel's entrance, through the audience, as Cosette (Les Miserables) before she gave a very accomplished rendition of Castle on a Cloud (with excellent duet partner Leigh-Anne El Barhdadi).
It seems slightly unfair to single out individuals for praise when there were so many strong ensemble performances, but it's my blog, so here are my favourites. Andrew Phelan's performance of This is the Moment (as the Beast in Beauty and the Beast) came near the top of the show and set the standard for others to follow. This was a number that, more than any other in the production, was acted as well as being interpreted as a song. Hannah Peel's solo has been mentioned already but impressed me from such a young performer. And Leah Long gave us that innocent wonder that we expect from Dorothy in Over the Rainbow.
In the second half, the costumes and sets were abandoned. The cast donned black and we had a straightforward concert of chorus, ensemble and solo numbers. This contrast worked rather well, I thought. If the first half was a celebration dinner, we now had the coffee and after-dinner mints.
Choreographer Jess Ebberson deserves mention, so let's talk about the number that tickled me most. Black and White Dance performed by Eve Cullimore, Gemma Helm, Grace Dodgson, Livvy Dyer, Molly Barron, Sophie Chatterton and Sophie Smith. To the strains of Mambo No. 5, the girls stood in a close chorus line performing a complicated series of high kicks. What gave it that little twist was the black and white costumes they wore. Each dancer had one white leg and one black leg, but not all on the same side. The effect was of two multi-legged creatures, one black, one white, performing simultaneous dances. Brilliant.
Other stand-out moments were brother and sister Lewis and Paige Morley's performance of Always/Goodnight, and David Buckmaster's, our jolly MC for the evening, and Hannah Quinn's working of Anything You Can Do. I also enjoyed Leah Long's and Sarah Duke's beautiful duet of the Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah. Finally, I couldn't not mention Pat Giles' superb versions of two Cilla Black hits Anyone Who Had a Heart and You're My World.
There weren't many things to quibble about, but the sound was one of them. The system suffered from feedback a little too often. It didn't spoil the show, but was an irritant and it's the sort of thing that should have been spotted and fixed. The radio mics also failed to come on for performers a couple of times.
This was an evening of lollipops which were licked with relish by the Kennington audience. Louise Cobb, director and member of the company to boot, pulled together some impressive singing talent from all age groups and presented us with an enjoyable highlights reel of a show.
9 TO 5 THE MUSICAL by Dolly Parton (Music) and Patricia Resnick (Lyrics and Book)
Oxford Operatic Society (OXOPS)
New Theatre Oxford, George Street, Oxford, OX1 2AG
29 May-2 June 2018
9 to 5 The Musical is the stage version of the 1980 film that marked the movie debut of country music star Dolly Parton.
Set in 1979, it tells the story of three downtrodden female office workers who decide to take revenge on their horrible boss (repeatedly described as a 'sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot'). Owing to a bizarre series of events, they end up kidnapping him and holding him prisoner while they gather evidence of his embezzlement of company funds. It also gives them the chance to run the company the way they want and becomes something of a manifesto for feminism-lite.
Director Nicky Robinson was well served by her four principals (Frankie Alexandra as wannabee manager Violet Newstead, Nicola Blake as office newcomer Judy Bernly, Saffi Needham as blonde bombshell Doralee Rhodes and Dave Crewe as boss-from-hell Franklin Hart Jr.). The storyline of the three very different women coming together to face down a common enemy draws on archetypal, mythical stories as old as the hills. This is a revenge fantasy taken to farcical limits with a happy ending, with the villain, ironically given the political message underlying the show, despatched by his male boss.
There were some lovely performances from the supporting roles too. Nicola Jones as Roz, Hart's devoted PA gave a storming comic-tragic rendition of '5 to 9' in which we learned of her unrequited love for Hart. Guy Grimsley earned a thumbs-up too for his portrayal as Joe, the rather too good to be true younger man who pursues, and eventually wins, the love of Violet. Alex Williams gave, I thought, an interesting, nuanced version of Dick Bernly, Judy's philandering ex-husband. Although a 'baddie' for his adulterous behaviour, Alex brought a charm to the role that helped us understand how he was able pick up young women, despite being a louse.
With a plot such as this, not the strongest ever, the heavy lifting in the show falls on the song and dance numbers, and here OXOPS came into their own. With strong vocal performances from the principals and chorus alike, musical director Chris Payne deserves praise. Choreographer Amanda Isard showed her talents best in the three dream sequences where Violet, Judy and Doralee envisage the various ways in which they'd like to do away with Hart. The other dance sequence which drew my admiration was the opening scene of the show depicting that daily commute.
There was no credit in the programme for set design, but whoever he or she was, the set designer deserves mention. We certainly got the feeling of a large, faceless corporation building with a yellow and silver colour theme, and I particularly liked the 'fold out and tuck it away again' scenery sets for Hart's office and the ladies bathroom.
This was a big production with multiple scene changes, all of which were accomplished smoothly and quickly, so all credit to the cast and to stage manager Phil Rumsby and his team. There was only one slight hiccup on the evening I went. Dave Crewe (Hart) took a tumble off the swivel chair on which he was being enthusiastically wheeled across stage, as he reached the wings. It gave us all a chuckle!
A review wouldn't be a review without a couple of niggles, so here goes. Several times, the action took place way upstage. Prime culprit was Hart's office, which left a vast amount of empty stage between us and them with nothing going on there.
There was also the use of 'shadow dancers'. From the director: 'But I wanted to explore the reasons WHY the girls do what they do – the thought processes, emotions and feelings they go through that influence their actions. We have therefore added a 'Shadow' double for Violet, Judy, Doralee and Hart – a character that portrays, through dance, some of these inner thoughts and feelings, giving us a deeper insight into the motivations behind their actions.' A nice idea in theory, but in practice it failed to achieve its goal. In fact, the shadow dancers often acted as a distraction, once or twice physically blocking the real characters, while adding little to our understanding. It also begs the question – inner feelings and motivations: isn't this what the actors are supposed to portray? Also 9 to 5 the Musical doesn't have a huge amount of subtext. It's pretty much 'on the nose', so those inner motivations are spelled out for us anyway.
9 to 5 The Musical has plenty of great musical numbers and OXOPS did justice to them. This talented cast and crew certainly pleased the audience on the evening I saw them, so well done to all.
Photo credits: Simon Vail
DEATHTRAP by Ira Levin
New Beaconsfield Hall, Station Road, Shipton-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire, OX7 6BQ
26-28 April 2018
Deathtrap holds the record for the longest running show on Broadway, and its devious characters and plot twists and turns certainly draw in the audience, and keep them asking, 'What next?'
Sidney Bruhl is a playwright of thrillers who has not had a hit in years. He receives a script in the post from Clifford Anderson, a student at one of his workshops, that has great commercial potential. Sidney tells his wife Myra that he is jealous and might just invite Clifford over to murder him and publish the script as his own. Clifford duly arrives, is apparently strangled by Sidney, much to Myra's consternation, and Sidney buries him in the garden. Later, Clifford, bloodied but not dead, bursts through the french windows and apparently batters Sidney to death. Myra is so shocked, she has a heart attack and dies. But Sidney is not dead – it has all been a plot between Sidney and Clifford to kill Myra. But suspicion and jealousy poison Sidney and Clifford's professional relationship, and twist follows twist, ending in each killing the other in a bloody climax.
An extra layer is added to the play by Ira Levin, in that the play refers to itself as a play within a play. 'Deathtrap' is not only the title of the play we see, but of the script that Clifford originally sent Sidney, and again which Clifford starts to write after Myra's death. These plays within plays follow the plot of the main play that we, the audience, are watching.
This is a show whose script does much of the heavy lifting, but the cast certainly added to the play's success on the evening I went to see it. Aram Gregory played Sidney Bruhl with a laconic drawl, relishing each joking, murderous reference to his wife Myra (Joanna McKerlie) for the chilling effect it had on her. Here was a man who never broke into a sweat, who had it all covered. Except he didn't, meeting his match in Clifford Anderson (Richard J Hartley convincing as student writer in awe of his hero Bruhl). Hartley was also heckled (in good humour) by friends of his in the audience, which could have demolished that fourth wall. Hartley and Gregory, however, carried on without cracking so much as a smile. Well done, chaps.
Candida Richards had a peach of a cameo role as Helga Ten Dorp, the Dutch psychic who lives next door, and who has an inconvenient habit of predicting murders and other crimes in the vicinity, and feels called to come and warn Sidney about them. Candida played it up nicely, while resisting the temptation to milk it.
Joanna McKerlie as Sidney's wife Myra is given a character to play who is mainly reactive and mainly uncomfortable with most of what is unfolding. She is a follower, not a leader. Joanna resisted the easy option of stock reactions and played each new development and provocative remark by Sidney in a fresh way. Her character certainly gave no justification for Sidney's bumping her off, other than an assumption that they had 'irreconcilable differences'.
Finally, Ralph Wears appeared as Sidney's lawyer Porter Milgrim. Cool and laid back, Ralph played Porter as a professional who has developed an almost friendship with his client, and who is happy to tell it like it is, knowing all the while that he's charging by the quarter hour! Porter is the stiff in the suit, who doesn't fit into Bruhl's literary world, but actually quite enjoys dipping his toe in, before retreating to his urban legal world.
Ben Curran and his helpers built a great set – one of those groovy apartments seen in American sitcoms of the 1970s – with an impressive array of weapons ancient and modern mounted on the walls. On such furniture-filled sets there are limited options in terms of movement by the actors, but director Julie Downing made the most of what she had. In any case, this was a dialogue heavy piece where the audience's attention was on following the lines of the actors to pick apart the clues, so a more sedentary style was appropriate.
One unusual feature was the curtain call in which backstage crew and director took their bows as well. A nice touch.
Wychwood Players have given us an assured production of a play that is something of a crowd pleaser. That doesn't mean that success is guaranteed. There are long, long speeches here that test the mettle of an actor in maintaining that narrative drive and emotional freshness through each scene. Julie Downing's band of players did not disappoint.
GYPSY (Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Jule Styne and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
Henley Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society (HAODS)
Kenton Theatre, 21 New Street, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 2BP
25-28 April 2018
Don't be fooled by the title, this musical is not really about the life of Gypsy Rose Lee (aka Rose Louise Hovick), the American burlesque performer: it's about her mother Rose. Here we see the story of the archetypal show business mother, the possessive mother, the devouring mother. She says she's pushing her children onwards to fame and success for them, but in reality she's doing it for herself (and lying to herself about her motives).
First of all, Momma Rose (Caroline Hopkins) pushes her daughter June (Elanor Mitchell-Luker) as the vaudeville star in the making, but June elopes with Tulsa (Peter L. Phoenix), one of the young men in her mother's troupe of performers. Rose cuts her first daughter out of her life: betrayal deserves no mercy! Next, her second daughter Louise (Katie Healy) becomes the focus of her ambitions, but Rose's efforts for her are no more successful than for June. She has failed her daughters and is on the verge of giving up. When Louise agrees, reluctantly and against her mother's wishes, to become a stripper, and, what's more, becomes very successful at it, her mother's jealousy becomes too much and emotional fireworks result.
There's a common pattern that I'm starting to see with many musicals staged by amateur companies. Their singing and dancing are usually of a high standard, but the spoken scenes are often a bit sluggish by comparison, and that was the case, to start with certainly, with the present production. For me the show really took off in the second scene when Rose sang the number 'Some People'. Caroline Hopkins' soaring, expressive voice made me sit up and think: it's going to be good after all.
In truth, the non-musical scenes got better as we went through, and towards the end of the first act, we started seeing what this obviously talented cast was capable of. The final showdown between the now confident and successful Louise and her jealous, resentful mother was a scene that crackled with the high octane telling of home truths. The acting easily matched the best of the musical performances. Bringing that level of focus and commitment from the actors in from the very start would have elevated the production to the next level.
This is a show with some great musical numbers, and the cast did them justice. I particularly enjoyed 'Mr Goldstone', a great group number that had energy, focus and some great singing and choreography. Top marks also to 'If Momma Was Married', sung by June and Louise – Elanor Mitchell-Luker and Katie Healy really captured the chemistry between the two sisters. Stephen Sondheim's lyrics to 'Small World' brings us the ironic perspective of two people who've been round the block a few times, looking at love without the rose-tinted spectacles, and recognising a need is still there - despite everything. Caroline Hopkins' Rose and Mark Wilkin's Herbie caught the downbeat, world-weary, what-the-heck mood of the number nicely.
One question stuck in my mind after the show. According to Caroline Hopkins' biography in the programme, she's been with HAODS for 22 years, but this is the first leading role she's had. Why has it taken so long? Caroline has a terrifically expressive voice, ranging from warmly maternal to gutsy fighter, and she has stage presence. I hope this won't be the last lead that she's given.
Credit also to Katie Healy for a Louise who starts off mousey and submissive, and ends up finding herself and her self-confidence. A great transformation. Mark Wilkin as Herbie was the easy going fool for love who finally sees in Rose's ruthless ambition the deal-breaker for their impending marriage. Here was Herbie played as a big softie, a nice guy who realised he was too nice for the woman in his life. Elanor Mitchell-Luker's talent as a singer and dancer gave the character of June as her mother's great hope the credibility it needed. It was possible to believe that June really could have been a star, if it hadn't been for her mother!
Finally, one random member of the cast, plucked out the hat, whose several support roles I personally enjoyed was Piers Burnell. He brought us grit, cynicism, the right physicality and (in one case) campness to the various backstage showbiz manager characters he played.
The orchestra pit at the Kenton Theatre is, bizarrely, in the middle of the stage, so well done to all members of the cast for not falling in, especially during dance routines! Well done also to musical director Jonathan Heard and his band, who were in the pit, for giving us a thoroughly vaudeville sound to the show. Congrats also to choreographer Emma Broadway.
I've seen several sets recently that use hinged walls that fold out and in again, all to good effect. We saw the technique in action for Gypsy. Director Phil Couch and co-set designer Steven Allender came up with a quick and tidy way to transition from scene to scene.
Gypsy is a show close to the heart of director Phil Couch and, clearly, inspired by his love of the piece, a lot of work has gone into this production. This is only Phil's second show as a director, and it was an ambitious choice, so extra marks for the higher level of difficulty. In many ways, it's a tricky show to direct. Everyone knows what Louise ends up doing (the famous bit!), but first we have to 'get through' the rest of the story, so to speak, and it's a long first act. That's not to diminish the dramatic importance or entertainment value of the story up to June's departure, but it is an issue for any director. Generally, however, I think HAODS was successful in its efforts and I for one enjoyed my time in the Kenton Theatre. Well done to all.
PEOPLE by Alan Bennett
Banbury Cross Players
Mill Arts Centre, Spiceball Park Road, Banbury, OX16 5QE
25-28 April 2018
Alan Bennett's waspishly humorous farce takes the rise out of the National Trust's recent transformation into a corporate entity that infantilises visitors to its historic properties. It was being bombarded with information from all directions, and being sprung upon by guides in every room at Trust properties that was the original impetus for Bennett to write this 2012 comedy.
The story of People centres on two sisters, Dorothy and June Stacpoole (June Ronson and Hilary Beaton), who live in their ancestral home, Stacpole House, but cannot afford to maintain it. June favours donating it to the National Trust, while Dorothy resists and explores other options. These include selling it to a shady consortium of investors who wish to have it relocated, stone by stone, to Wiltshire, and hiring it out as a film location to an old flame of Dorothy's who shoots porn films.
The contrast between the two couldn't be greater. Dorothy hates the idea of crowds tramping through her lifelong home, and abhors it being turned into a museum by the National Trust for people to interact with. Why, she asks, can't it just fade into obscurity and pass unremarked as 'just another country house', instead of being transformed into an exhibit.
June is an ambitious archdeacon at the local cathedral, with one eye on the bishop's job. In Ralph Lumsden (Dave Candy), the man from the National Trust, she senses a kindred spirit: he motivated by a corporate vision of increased footfall at properties, underpinned by a zero-wage volunteer workforce; she impelled by a managerial approach to church matters that sees no ethical impediment to, or plain inconsistency in, selling off Winchester Cathedral to the same shady consortium she previously condemned for bidding on her and Dorothy's family home.
Dorothy is despairing of the future, but the arrival of Theodore (Dave Smith), her former amour, and his circus of a film crew, breathes new life into her, and the sparkle for life temporarily returns. The filming of the 'adult' movie is pure farce and had the audience laughing. Central to the scene's humour was a sub-plot involving male porn star Colin (Alex Nicholls), who was unable to rise to the occasion and who required 'chemical enhancement' and 'literary' input to meet his professional obligations. His Latvian female co-star Brit (Hana Ayers) merely mocked his predicament. At the moment when the pair are being filmed on the four-poster bed, June enters with the bishop (Terry Gallager) on a tour of the house and proceeds to talk about the room as moans emanate from behind the curtains of the bed. There were some lovely cameos from Jem Turner as ever-so-camp assistant director Nigel, and from Kate Groves as Louise, the production assistant who makes Dorothy feel cared for after so many years of recluse-like life in the house.
June Ronson gave us a sympathetically drawn portrait of Dorothy, a woman backed into a corner, for whom life has lost its zest. At the end, with the National Trust in possession of her home, she puts a brave face on it, but the sadness breaks through, and she reveals that she hates this new order. The change of mood and tone was deftly done.
Dorothy's companion Iris gets plenty of witty lines, which were delivered by Brenda Williams in a deadpan Nora Batty style. A pleasing bit of character acting.
I thought Hilary Beaton gave a terrific interpretation of June, capturing both her frustration at her sister's repeated refusal to see 'sense', and her confident Anglican managerial enthusiasm.
Dave Candy's Ralph Lumsden was a nicely drawn personification of the Trust's descent into management-speak and corporate agendas. Everything was enthused about, no obstacle was insuperable. Particularly good was his reaction to the revelation that Iris was in fact Dorothy's and June's half-sister – the result of a scandalous dalliance by their father with a village girl. Instead of respecting the privacy and discretion that Iris and Dorothy wanted, and without missing a beat, Lumsden drooled at the marketing potential, seeing only a colourful detail in the house's history that must be shared with visitors. This has proved somewhat prophetic given the National Trust's new attitude towards its benefactors' private lives. Candy gave a convincing portrayal of a man so focused on his corporate mission that normal human sensitivites are set aside.
One negative aspect of the evening that does merit mention is the significant number of prompts that were needed by performers, whose identities I will not be so mean as to reveal. A couple of prompts on opening night can be discounted, but this was rather more. Nuff said, I won't labour the point.
Director Ray Atkinson reveals that one of the reasons he came to direct People was because, 'I'm a strong supporter [of the National Trust] and believe in their Forever for Everyone vision'. This had me scratching my head, as the National Trust comes in for plenty of criticism from Alan Bennett, and one's view of the organisation certainly isn't enhanced after seeing the play!
People is not one of Alan Bennett's best plays, but there is still plenty here to please an audience, not least Bennett's trademark wit, and Ray Atkinson and Banbury Cross Players have made a decent attempt at bringing it to the stage.
About the Author
Mike Lord has been involved with amateur theatre for over twenty years, mainly as an actor but also, more recently, as a director.
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