I'M AN IMPROVISER - GET ME OUT OF HERE!
House of Improv
Michael Pilch Studio Theatre, Jowett Walk, Oxford OX1 3TS
30 January to 2 February 2019
I'm an Improviser – Get Me Out of Here! is the latest show, made up on the night as they go along, from House of Improv. The setting this time was a reality TV show along the lines of Big Brother. The contestants had been in the house for the past six weeks and now we had reached the final evening. Who would be the winner?
But first, just who were the contestants and what was the grand prize? What else would one do in an improvised show but ask the audience? So, before the show began, we all had to scribble down our suggestions and put them in a variety of hats being proffered by cast members.
The prize they were all competing for was to be President of the Moon, and the characters turned out to be Augustus (Emma Hinnells), know as 'Stus' for short. He described himself as having attended a rough, deprived, inner-city London comprehensive called Westminster School. Emma has a gift for bringing cheeky insouciance to her characters and gave us a Stus who was utterly without scruples. A memorable moment was when Stus voted out of the house Sebastian (Eliza McHugh), with whom he'd just that moment been to bed, describing the experience, while standing next to Sebastian, as 'unsatisfying'.
Sebastian the Angry Vegan, to give him his full name, was clearly someone with unresolved issues. He believed that animals were superior to humans, and vegans were superior to the rest of the human race. Eliza's characterisation of Sebastian started angry, but became more desperate and demented as the show went on. This was a ball of uncontrolled energy that raised more than a few laughs.
Then there was Jane Doe (Vidy Reddy) who had lost 'her' memory following an accident. Jane soon decided to change her name to Janice, and fell romantically for Buttercup (Kilian Lohmann), a southern belle from Georgia, USA, whose delicate, high-pitched voice turned into a sinister gravelly roar when she was roused. Kilian is a tall guy, and this clashed in a gloriously comic way with the obviously demure character of Buttercup. I enjoyed the Jekyll and Hyde nature that he brought to the part.
Steve the Dragon (Amy Kennedy) was the online handle of a Dungeons and Dragons fanatic. Steve was the geeky sort of character you'd expect, with a sympathetic naivety about him.
Dave Burns (William Jefferson) was an Australian health and safety guy, obsessed with writing lists, and clearly unable to interact socially, other than through reading out lists and making rules for everyone else. He also proved the ancient Roman adage 'nomen est omen', as he liked to burn things, a disturbing habit that William turned to fine comic use throughout the show. But even Dave found love... with Janice after her split up with Buttercup. Finally, Hannah Williams was the host and presenter of the show. She had the job of interacting with the audience and providing some structure and shape to the performance.
Before getting into the action of the last night in the house, we had a flashback to the contestants' auditions, and yet another flashback to the highlights of the past six weeks. We had the locations you'd expect in a reality show set in a house: the diary room, where frustrated contestants vented their fury at their house mates. The kitchen, where Dave Burns pinned up his list of rules. The jacuzzi, where couples looking for a bit of love action constantly had others walking in on them right in the middle of... Most inventively, there was the Moon Room, a zero-gravity chilling out space. Stus and Sebastian rigged a competitive game in the Moon Room by placing weights in the other contestants' shoes. This cheating provoked Dave Burns to burn their things on a bonfire, assisted by Buttercup, who thereby discovered the joys of pyromania. In the end, Stus became President of the Moon, his ego bloated even more by the utterly undeserved honour!
To expect a well-structured credible plot from impro is asking a bit much, so you won't get it retold by me. It also misses the point about the nature of the form: the comedy often derives from the inspiration of the moment, albeit a practised and rehearsed inspiration, and the chemistry between performers who can play to each others' strengths to produce occasional flashes of comedy magic. Well deserved pats on the back to co-directors Emma Hinnells and Hannah Williams for enabling this collaborative effort. Praise also to Matthew Kemp on keyboard who jollied the whole thing along in the manner of a silent movie accompanist.
The audience clearly enjoyed the show, which succeeded in maintaining its surreal momentum right through its hour and a quarter run. That's no mean achievement with improvised comedy. The danger with this format is that there will be a sag in the energy and inventiveness somewhere in the middle. House of Improv avoided that trap and provided some laugh-out-loud moments for the present writer and his fellow audience members.
SISTER ACT (Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Glenn Slater, Book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner)
OXOPS (Oxford Operatic Society)
Oxford Playhouse, 11-12 Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2LW
21-26 January 2019
Sister Act the musical is based on the 1992 film of the same name, starring Whoopi Goldberg, but with a lot more songs and dancing. The plot is simple enough. Night club singer Deloris Van Cartier (Katie Bedborough) witnesses crime boss boyfriend Curtis Jackson (Tim Younger) shooting a gang member whom he thinks has squealed to the police. Deloris goes to the police and tells Officer Eddie Souther ('Sweaty Eddie', played by Luke Saunders). Eddie knows Deloris from high school (where she was plain Doris), and the crush he had on her then revives. As number one witness to the killing, Deloris's life is in danger, should Curtis ever find her. On police advice, therefore, she hides in a convent, disguised as a nun until Curtis's arrest. A raunchy nightclub singer is about as different as you can get from a nun, which, of course, is the whole point: the clash of opposites. That gives us our springboard for comedy and drama.
Each of the main characters has a conflict to deal with. Doloris comes to realise that the love and support of friends (the community of the nuns) is worth more than the fame and fortune she has been pursuing as an entertainer. Sweaty Eddie leaves behind his wimpish past and becomes the hero who takes down Curtis Jackson. The Mother Superior (Marilyn Moore) is faced with the forced closure of the convent, but comes to accept that the change brought about by Deloris's arrival might offer an opportunity for the community to survive. Sister Mary Robert (Laura O'Mahony) wonders whether she really has a vocation as a nun.
Most of all, however, Sister Act is a vehicle for big musical numbers, led by the impressive voice and stage presence of Katie Bedborough and backed up by a talented company. Katie's Deloris is sassy and speaks as she finds, but is insecure deep down. If there was any criticism I would make of the production in general it would be that there could have been more of a character arc for some of the principals. Had they really been changed by their experience? One notable exception was Marilyn Moore's Mother Superior. This was a sensitively drawn character performance. The Mother Superior is not at all impressed by the changes wrought by Deloris's arrival in the convent, especially in the musical life of the community. It would have been easy to present the Mother Superior as some sort of stick in the mud, but Moore's sympathetic portrayal made me stop and think: hmm, maybe she has a point.
Luke Saunders gave us a 'nice guys come second' version of Eddie, which was well judged. After wounding Curtis Jackson and bringing about his capture, it would have been good, however, to see more of a transformation. He doesn't get the girl, but perhaps more confidence and even a little bit of swagger? Maybe something for director Dave Crewe to ponder. I was left with the impression that Sweaty Eddie really wasn't suited to his police job. Still, Saunders drew the audience's sympathy and played the comic moments well. My favourite was the number 'I Could Be That Guy' in which Eddie has three different costumes. Luke entered the scene looking a little bulkier than before. The reason soon revealed itself, as the company tore off his outer layers (a police uniform) to reveal a white and scarlet flared disco suit. This was ripped off him in turn, marking the end of the fantasy sequence and returning him to a police uniform once more.
Talking of Curtis Jackson, which I was at the start of the last paragraph, Tim Younger did a solid job at portraying the baddie, together with a remarkable pair of shiny 1970s flares. Suzannah Neal was terrific as the effervescent Sister Mary Patrick – naïve, bubbly and loving. Always looking on the bright and joyful side of things. At the opposite end of the character spectrum was Sister Mary Lazarus, the crusty old director of the convent choir. Jo Lainchbury made the most of the cameo comic moments for Sister ML that peppered the show. At odds with the Mother Superior over an unspecified choir dispute in the past, Sister Mary Lazarus embraces the changes brought by Doloris as a way of getting back at her boss. Her character arc was there for all to see. Finally, a word or two of praise for Laura O'Mahony as Sister Mary Robert, especially her solo singing performance of 'The Life I Never Led', full of doubts about whether she should progress from being a postulant to taking vows as a nun, or simply leave for another life outside the convent walls.
Compliments are due to musical director Julie Todd for some excellent vocal performances by both principals and chorus, and to choreographers Kerry Hudson and Rachel Haydon.
Dave Crewe the director can feel justly proud of a production that appears to have been playing to sell-out houses at the Oxford Playhouse. Katie Bedborough deserves full credit for her role as Deloris – a storming performance. There were enthusiastic roars of approval from the audience on the evening I attended for those musical set-pieces, delivered with a zest and energy worthy of a cast full of Sister Mary Patricks. Well done to all.
Photo credits: Simon Vail
WHITE CHRISTMAS (Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin, Book by David Ives and Paul Blake)
Kenton Theatre, New Street, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 2BP
5-8 December 2018
The song 'White Christmas' first appeared in the 1942 movie, 'Holiday Inn', starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Such was the success of the song that, in 1954, there was a sort-of remake, this time called 'White Christmas', based very loosely on the same story, again starring Bing Crosby, and co-starring Danny Kaye. It is on this 1954 film that the stage musical is based.
Bob Wallace (Ryan Stevens) and Phil Davies (Nick Brannam) were buddies in the US Army in WWII, but have since teamed up to become a famous song-and-dance act. One evening, they meet up with sisters Betty and Judy Haynes (Sally Sharp and Gemma Hough), another song-and-dance act who are struggling to get their careers off the ground. Phil falls for Judy, but Bob and Betty decidedly do not like each other. At all. Phil is so smitten with Judy that, when he discovers that the sisters are off to Vermont for a Christmas booking, he decides to go there too. Bob and Phil are actually due to go to Florida for Christmas, but Phil fools Bob into getting on to the Vermont train instead. When they arrive at the Columbia Inn in Vermont, they discover that it is run by their old WWII army commander, Major General Waverley (Barrie Scott). He has fallen on hard times, as the hotel is doing badly. Bob decides to put on a show to help the general, inviting all his old comrades from his army days. Meanwhile Bob and Betty have fallen for each other. However, Betty hears about Bob's plan to help the general, but misunderstands his intentions. She thinks Bob is planning a sneaky takeover of the hotel. In the end, the misunderstandings are resolved and Bob and Betty are reconciled.
Director Jennifer Scott served up a polished production of this ever-popular story. Ryan Stevens and Nick Brannam worked well as singing and dancing duo Bob and Phil, who fool around and spar with each other. Their performance of 'Sisters' (in the absence of Betty and Judy) was perfectly pitched for comic effect. It would have been easy to over play the comedy of the piece and ham it up, but Jennifer Scott's direction reined them in just enough.
Ryan's Bob up against Sally Sharp's Betty Haynes convinced as a couple who loathe each other, with regular eye-rolling and sardonic put-downs. We could all see their falling in love coming a mile off, but the transformation was, nevertheless, touchingly portrayed. Gemma Hough's bubbly, bouncy good-time girl Judy Haynes hit the spot and was well paired with Nick Brannam's Phil.
The singing of the principals was accomplished. Betty and Bob's performance and reprise of 'How Deep is the Ocean' was a gorgeous sound, as was Betty and Judy's own performance of 'Sisters'.
Barrie Scott pulled off a believable portrayal of General Waverley. Physically, he was right for the part, but he managed to bring us a military man who will not allow standards to slip, with a softer man inside, who has come to recognise his limits. Ginnie Freeman gave comic sparkle to the role of Martha Watson, the general's secretary, who spars with her boss and is in no way intimidated by the former military commander. Some good comic timing from Ginnie.
We had a couple of brilliant cameos from Samantha Riley and Nicola Gordon as showgirls Rhoda and Rita. They have their eyes (and a lot more, if they had their way) on Bob, openly flirting with him in front of Betty, causing the expected jealousy. Bob can't quite give them up, even with Betty around. With Samantha and Nicola's infectious energy and charm, who could blame him?
The general's grand-daughter Susan was played by two different child performers on alternate evenings. On the evening I went, the role was taken by nine-year-old Sophia Newborough who gave a quite remarkable performance. Her solo of 'Let Me Sing and I'm Happy' drew deserved cheers from the audience.
Congratulations are also in order to Gemma Hough as choreographer and John Timewell as musical director, who drew some slick routines and performances from the members of the chorus.
The Kenton Theatre is fortunate enough to have flies, so scenery backdrops can be dropped and raised easily. It was a facility that was made full use of. I especially liked the backdrop in the barn at the Columbia Inn.
Jennifer Scott should feel a sense of satisfaction at bringing us a version of this Christmas favourite that had energy, humour and seasonal sparkle.
Photo credits: Julie Huntington
ATLANTIS, THE PANTO by Paul Reakes
St Peter's Players
Wolvercote Village Hall, Wolvercote Green, Wolvercote, Oxford, OX2 8BD
5-8 December 2018
St Peter's Players served up an enjoyable evening of fun with this rather different take on the traditional panto.
The evil sorceress Surpia (Yvonne Janacek) arrives in the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, imprisons its King (Nancy Hillelson) and Queen (Jane Hemmings) and takes power for herself. However, The king and queen's baby daughter Princess Coral has been whisked away to safety by her nursemaid, escaping the evil clutches of Surpia, who vows to track her down, however long it takes.
It is twenty years later, and we are in the Cornish fishing village of Portaloo. The Princess Coral, we learn, was rescued by mermaids and adopted by local widow Florrie Flotsam (Richard Gledhill in fine dame form) and is now a beautiful young woman (Charley Middleton). She knows nothing of her true parents and believes she is plain Faye Flotsam. Enter Lord Valentine (Zehra Kelly) who sees 'Faye' and falls in love with her. However, the evil Surpia discovers that Faye is really Princess Coral and spirits her away as a prisoner to her secret lair in Atlantis. Lord Valentine sets sail to rescue her, accompanied by Florrie Flotsam, her hapless son Frankie Flotsam (David Smith) and his girlfriend Lilly (Mary Drennan). After many adventures, all ends well with Surpia meeting her much deserved end at the hands (or tentacles) of the Kraken that she has summoned up to devour her enemies. Lord Valentine weds the princess and all live happily ever after.
This was a production that caused much mirth for the audience and was good clean fun (with a few double entendres thrown in for the grown-ups to get). There was a magnificent chorus of young children who sang and danced really well, better in fact than most of the adults! I particularly enjoyed their rendition of 'Portaloo' (to the tune of Abba's 'Waterloo').
Yvonne Janacek was suitably evil and hammy as the sorceress Surpia and interacted with the audience nicely (if that's the right word). She was assisted by her sidekick Croak, half-man, half-frog, played with suitable sliminess by Isaac Alcock. Richard Gledhill was a world-weary, sardonic dame as Florrie Flotsam, bantering with the audience. His performance reminded me of the late, great Roy Barraclough. David Smith was stretching his playing age range somewhat (!) as her gormless son Frankie, but with his mum being played by a bloke, I'm not sure that even counts as a criticism. David struck up a lovely double-act with Mary Drennan as his girlfriend Lilly. Shades here of Kevin the Teenager and Perry. A great cameo role from Sean Hazell as Captain Capstan, Lord Valentine's skipper. With a Cornish accent that was so thick sometimes, that you could barely understand what he said (neither could some of the other characters), and good comic timing, Sean turned this into a bigger role than you might have expected. Charley Middleton was the suitably damsel-in-distress princess. Charley had by far the best singing voice of the cast and it was a pleasure to listen to her during the musical numbers. Zehra Kelly made a dashing Lord Valentine, but could, perhaps, have brought a little more feeling of gung-ho and derring-do to the part. I think she slapped her thigh but once during the whole show. Tony Bywaters played Zardoc, the king and queen's mystical magician, wearing a long blond wig and a permanently serious, thoughtful expression. Tony's character bore a remarkable resemblance to Neil from 'The Young Ones'. Finally, Jane Hemmings and Nancy Hillelson were suitably regal and distressed parents as the Queen and King of Atlantis. I especially liked Nancy's beard that had a touch of the Mesopotamian or ancient Persian about it.
Mention must be made of the brilliant scene on the seabed. Top marks to director Clare Winterbottom for this imaginative section in which not a word was spoken, and the scenery and staging were superb. The stage was lit by ultraviolet light, which made everything luminous. Members of the chorus were sea creatures from the bottom of the ocean. They wore black umbrellas on their heads from which were hung long streamers in fluorescent colours that glowed in the ultraviolet light, and which were gently twirled around. Fish, also glowing, swam by. The backdrop was painted to resemble sea weed in fluorescent yellows, purples, red and whites. Then the lights came up and and the principal characters appeared, wearing deep-sea divers' helmets. All communication between them was mimed, in slow motion, of course, as befitted the weightless environment. Young members of the chorus Joe and Sam Churchill Stone deserve mention as Surpia's sharks, Snip and Snap, who chased Frankie, Lilly and Florrie round the seabed.
The Kraken, at the end of the play, was a wonderful comic creation. Three long tentacles, reaching from out of the wings, grabbed Florrie, Frankie and Lilly, and eventually did for Surpia. It's amazing what you can do with a length of elephant tubing and lick of paint, plus some hammed up, over-the-top performances from the players!
So well done to everyone, but one constructive criticism. With the notable exception of Charley Middleton's princess, none of the principals had loud singing voices. This meant that it was difficult to hear them above the band. I am generally not a fan of microphones, but this would have been one occasion when wiring the actors for sound would have enhanced our experience. By contrast, the children sang loud and clear.
Well done to all concerned for an enjoyable evening out, with much silliness to go round.
THE CRUCIBLE BY ARTHUR MILLER
Abingdon Drama Club
Unicorn Theatre, 18 Thames Street, Abingdon-on-Thames, OX14 3HZ
28th, 29th November and 1st December 2018
Like millions of others, I have been aware of Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible, and its subject matter, for many years, but had never before seen an actual performance. That speaks volumes, not so much about my own personal tardiness, but rather the cultural influence of Miller's piece. That gap in my knowledge has now been filled, thanks to Abingdon Drama Club's spare, claustrophobic production in the well suited intimacy of the Unicorn Theatre.
For those who do not know, The Crucible dramatises an historical event, the witch trials of 1692 that took place in Salem, Massachusetts. A group of town girls are caught dancing in the forest by the local Puritan pastor and immediately suspicions and accusations of witchcraft abound. The girls' collective hysteria leads them to accuse, first each other, and then a widening circle of townsfolk, of witchcraft and communing with the Devil. The motives: to exonerate themselves of guilt by turning state's evidence and to settle personal scores against their neighbours.
The lead character is John Proctor (Terry Atkinson), a morally compromised man who has had a short-lived adulterous affair with Abigail Williams (Emma Bouffler), a servant in his household. Repenting of his sin, he has returned to his wife Elizabeth (Kate Brock), but Abigail is intent on revenge against the innocent and wronged woman. She accuses Elizabeth of witchcraft, a charge that is palpably false, given Elizabeth's character and the circumstances of the alleged crime. But this is not an environment in which due process and the principle of innocent until proven guilty hold sway any more. The accusations of the girls fit too neatly into the ideological agenda of the judiciary and the clergy to be dismissed as nonsense. The principle followed by the judges and clergy is 'believe the woman', no matter how fantastical or contradictory her accusation.
Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible in response to the 'witch-hunts' of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s in the McCarthyite era. But, to a 21st century audience, perhaps more obvious parallels of the Salem witch trials are to be found, also in the US Congress, in the recent hysterical accusations made during the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh as Supreme Court Judge. Due process and 'innocent until proven guilty' are the defence of all generations against the hysteria and madness of crowds that can afflict any age. It is a tribute to the enduring strength and universal allegorical nature of Miller's play that it still has relevance half a century later in a very different world.
The matinee performance that I saw was without the actor playing Deputy Governor Danforth, and the part was read, at short notice, by the director Michael Ward. I must admit that my heart sank slightly at the news, and I wondered if the tension of the play would be compromised by someone reading from a script. I need not have worried; Ward's performance was a strong one, and the presence of a folder with the script in fitted happily with a character who acts as a judge through the second half of the play.
Terry Atkinson's John Proctor was an ordinary man placed in extraordinary circumstances at a vulnerable point in his life. The audience had no trouble in believing that he was torn apart by his conscience. He wished to save himself, but finally chose the path of truth, even at the cost of his own life. The intimate exchanges between Atkinson's Proctor and Kate Brook's Elizabeth Proctor convinced as a tale of marital reconciliation in the most trying of situations. Brook's wronged woman who forgives and loves her erring husband was one of the strongest aspects of this production. It sung out emotional truth.
Duncan Blagrove played the pastor Samuel Parris as an opportunistic but ultimately weak man. He was initially cautious over accusations of witchcraft, but too easily gave in to the temptations of siding with the current of events.
Arthur Blake turned in a splendid performance as Rev. John Hale – a clergyman who initially supports the accusations of witchcraft, but who changes his mind and tries to save the lives of John and Elizabeth Proctor. He is a man riven with guilt at his own part in their downfall. The only way Proctor can save his life is by perjuring himself with a false confession to witchcraft. Hales sees the irony of trying to achieve good by means of what is morally wrong, as he urges Proctor to lie to the authorities. Blake gave us first a cold, puritanical servant of Calvinistic godliness and then a sympathetic advocate of mercy.
Millie Pallavicini was well cast as Mary Warren, a girl in thrall to the hysteria of her friends, who tries, but fails, to do the right thing. Having decided to testify to the innocence of Elizabeth Proctor, the lies of Abigail Williams draw her back to the madness of the group of young women and she condemns an innocent woman in spite of herself. Pallavicini gave an entirely credible portrayal of a woman who knows she is doing wrong, hates it, but cannot stand up against evil.
There was also a fine ensemble performance by members of ADC's youth group as the girls accused of witchcraft. Full marks to director Michael Ward for choreographing these scenes and visualising how group hysteria turns individuals into a blob where personal agency seems to be abandoned.
A word of praise for the set design, a model of economy and appropriate atmosphere. This was essentially a black box production, but with black wooden panels instead of curtains, and doors and windows varying from scene to scene. The use of a single, powerful source of light in each case (through windows or doors) gave the play a strongly chiaroscuro appearance. This black and white design not only chimed in with the black and white of Puritan dress, but also the black and white moral outlook of the hunters of witches. It was also remarkably claustrophobic and airless (the set, not the auditorium!) again fitting the play well.
Perhaps the nicest tribute to the production was the stillness and focus of the audience, certainly during the performance that I attended.
Congratulations to all concerned on a compelling reworking of a modern classic.
CRAZY FOR YOU (Music by George Gershwin, book by Ken Ludwig)
King Alfred's Academy Theatre, Portway, Wantage, OX12 9BY
25-27 October 2018
Crazy for You is a re-write of a 1930 Gershwin musical called Girl Crazy.
The story starts in New York at Zangler's Follies, a music hall run by Hungarian-born impresario Bela Zangler (Mark Smedley). Bobby Child (Michael Dukes) is the son of a wealthy banking family. Since leaving Harvard, according to his mother (Elizabeth Dobson), he has achieved nothing. But Bobby has dreams of joining Zangler's Follies and becoming a song and dance star. Rejected after auditioning for Bela Zangler, he is sent by his mother to deliver a foreclosure notice on behalf of the family bank to a theatre in the Nevada desert. Once there Bobby falls in love with Polly Baker (Lauren Anderson-Smedley), the feisty tomboy daughter of the theatre's owner Everett (Edmund Bennett). Polly rejects Bobby's romantic overtures when she realises why he has come to Deadrock, Nevada. Hoping to win Polly's heart, Bobby tries to save the theatre from closure by putting on a show to pay off the mortgage. He summons the chorus girls from Zangler's Follies and turns up disguised as Bela Zangler. Hilarity ensues as he recruits the local cow-hands into joining the chorus. All is going like a dream, but then disaster strikes: Polly falls in love, not with Bobby, but with Bobby disguised as Bela. What to do? The plot twists and turns with Bobby's fiancee Irene (Helen Harrison) arriving from New York, and the real Bela Zangler turning up in Deadrock to sow confusion all round. All ends well, of course, with the lovestruck couple reconciled.
True enough, it's a plot of stuff and nonsense, but an excellent excuse for some famous Gershwin standards (I Got Rhythm, Someone to Watch Over Me, Embraceable You, Nice Work If You Can Get It) and high-energy dance routines. Lauren Anderson-Smedley proved herself a right old clever-clogs by taking the female lead and choreographing the whole show as well. She served us up with a series of imaginative, funny, high-octane ensemble pieces that had the last-night audience cheering and whooping. Musical director Chris Fletcher-Campbell led the boys and girls of the orchestra with punchy, brassy renditions of those Gershwin tunes, with more than a whiff of a Weimar Berlin cabaret band added for good measure. Given the characters and plot set-up, the comedy was not meant to be subtle, but director Lesley Phillips' experienced hand ensured that the comic punches were delivered smack on the nose. Lesley Phillips' and Rob Thorpe's minimalist set design made good use of the wide studio space of the King Alfred's Academy Theatre and its long gallery above the stage.
This was a production that offered some terrific song and dance set-pieces, interlaced with a comedy romance. What's not to like? AmEgos Theatre have gathered together a company of talented and committed amateur performers who presented an evening of semi-professional standard theatre to the good people of Wantage. Crazy for You just about sums it up!
TOP HAT (Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin, book by Matthew White and Howard Jacques)
Abingdon Operatic Society
Amey Theatre, Abingdon School, Abingdon, OX14 1DE
23-27 October 2018
There are no two ways about it, Abingdon Operatic Society's latest production Top Hat is excellent and provided us all with a cracking evening's entertainment.
Based closely on the 1935 movie starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Top Hat the stage musical boasts a wealth of fine musical numbers written by Irving Berlin, including Puttin' on the Ritz, I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket, Cheek to Cheek, Let's Face the Music and Dance and of course Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.
The plot is a light romance based on mistaken identity where a series of misunderstandings make it seem as though the boy and the girl will never get together. They do of course, eventually. We always knew they would, but it's the journey that's the enjoyable part. Along the way we are treated to some terrific song and dance numbers interspersed with comedy.
It was the dancing, not just of the principals, but of the company, that impressed and delighted me most about this production. Full marks go to choreographer Judy Tompsett for giving us tap dancing of such a high standard. In a memorable evening, stand-out routines included Top Hat, White Tie and Tails and The Piccolino. The latter a complex multi-part set, staged in a hotel courtyard in Venice.
Musical director David Hebden also deserves praise for drawing out some wonderful performances from the cast and the orchestra.
Director Andrew Walter had a strong cast of principals at his disposal. Tom Draper-Rodi as a cheeky and impudent Jerry Travers brought a sparky brilliance to his dancing which matched his wonderful singing voice. From Kerry Callaghan as Dale Tremont we had the Hollywood romantic heroine, frustrated and outraged by Travers' apparently appalling behaviour. The glamour was spot-on, as was Kerry's singing and dancing. My favourite was Rob Bertwistle's Horace Hardwick. This is a gift of a comedy role that sees Horace sparring, first with his friend Jerry Travers, and later with his wife Madge (a feisty, funny performance to relish from Ann Turton). Rob's characterisation and comic timing were expertly delivered and he clearly had a lot of fun with the part. Iain Launchbury drew laughter from the audience for his set-piece musical number Latins Know How, as Italian costume designer Alberto Beddini. Top marks for creative use of Italian tricolour boxer shorts. But Iain's portrayal of this larger-than-life comedic character was strong throughout. In the programme notes, Kevin Pope, playing Jerry's butler Bates, hints at a slight reticence in taking on a non-singing role for the first time. He need have nothing to regret. This was one of those smaller parts that just grow with time until the audience is drooling with anticipation each time he appears. Kevin's dry, sardonic delivery was just what was needed. The audience's applause at the curtain call spoke volumes.
Stuart Beesley deserves praise for his lighting design which enhanced the glamour of the production and Andrew Walter's set design. Well done also to Joy Skeels for co-ordinating some terrific costumes – it must have been fun.
This was a production which provided a brilliant evening's entertainment, full of musical lollipops and some of the best dancing that I've seen so far in an amateur production. The audience billed and cooed their way out of the Amey Theatre afterwards.
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
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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