THE 39 STEPS adapted by Patrick Barlow from a concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon
King Alfred's Academy Theatre, Portway, Wantage, OX12 9BY
11-13 April 2019
For some reason, I failed to see Patrick Barlow's comic adaptation of John Buchan's adventure story during its nine-year run in the West End. So I was delighted when Amegos Theatre presented me with the chance to do so.
In this spoof tale of derring-do (inspired by Hitchcock's film version), all the characters are played by just five performers, sometimes with multiple roles in the same scene. Add to that Patrick Barlow's trademark removal of the 'fourth wall' (where the actors come briefly out of character to wrestle with recalcitrant props and so forth) and John Buchan's tale of action and intrigue becomes a very funny and inventive evening of entertainment. It was also very well cast.
Richard Hannay (Rob Thorpe) meets the mysterious Annabella Schmidt (Helen Harrison) at the theatre. They go back to his place where she is murdered by an unknown assailant. In the process, Hannay stumbles across a dastardly plot by a foreign power to smuggle vital military secrets out of Britain. Hannay's adventures in trying to foil the plot take him up to the Scottish Highlands and back to the London Palladium, before the spies and plotters are unmasked. In the meantime, he is abducted by enemy agents (Bill Jestico and Martin Waymark), evades capture by the police, who believe him to be a murderer, and has a romantic encounter with Pamela Edwards (Sam Winskill), who wants to turn him over to the authorities until, that is, she discovers the truth...
Director Lesley Phillips was fortunate in having five such talented performers. Rob Thorpe's rugged, unflappable, pipe-smoking Richard Hannay gave a well paced and understated performance. That's a good thing. It would have been easy to have hammed it up, to have succumbed to what Alan Ayckbourn calls 'waving from the train' at the audience. Rob showed the necessary discipline not to do so, presumably with the odd prod from the director.
Sam Winskill gave us a petulant, feisty and sometimes perplexed Pamela. Her double act with Rob had the right chemistry about it. The will-they-won't-they scene where Hannay and Pamela realise that they have fallen in love with each other was played pitch perfect.
Helen Harrison had only two major scenes. Based on what I saw, it is a pity that her talents were not used more in this production. Her first appearance as Annabella, the foreign beauty with a secret, was well judged without being over the top. Most remarkable was Helen's performance as a corpse, having to remain rigid, while draped across an armchair, for several minutes, until a very funny piece of business (I shan't spoil it) allowed her to relax. But Helen's best and funniest role was as Margaret the Scottish farmer's wife, who takes in Hannay while he is on the run from the police. She soon develops a schoolgirl-like crush on him. Her characterisation was beautifully drawn. There was some hilarious, frenetically energetic comic business with some suitcases, which had the audience in stiches. There was also a final, wistful look from the window, as Hannay runs off into the night, which was a masterful piece of comic timing, deservedly earning a laugh from the audience.
Last, but by no means least, were Bill Jestico and Martin Waymark who played all the rest. They were credited in the programme as clowns. They were, as cricket fans might say, good all-rounders. They probably had the most fun of all the cast, playing an array of male and female roles, from travelling salesmen to Scottish landlady to master villain to policemen. The double act worked very well in the manner of a musical hall act. The physical contrast between the two helped here: Bill the stockier of the pair; Martin wiry and angular.
As well as playing Hannay, Rob Thorpe also built the set. There was an inventive use of walk-in scenery on wheels. So one float was a box at the theatre. Trundled round 180º we were in Hannay's flat. Then there was the ingenious use of suitcases as pieces of furniture. My one criticism is that some of the scene changes in the first act could have been a little slicker.
Patrick Barlow's script has all the promise of a very successful show, as evidenced by its long run in the West End. However, this is no plug-and-play production. The key component was a cast with a feel for comic timing and flow. Lesley Phillips chose well and directed her actors into delivering an accomplished evening of escapist comedy.
MERELY UNIFORMS by Will Hazell
St Peter's Players
Wolvercote Village Hall, Wolvercote Green, Wolvercote, Oxford, OX2 8BD
10-13 April 2019
Merely Uniforms is an ambitious play for several reasons. Firstly, it deals with big, serious subjects. Secondly, it has a large cast (over twenty) on a small village hall stage. Thirdly, it advertises itself as a comedy-drama; always a difficult genre to pull off successfully. How far did the resulting production match up to the high bar they'd set themselves? Actually, surprisingly well (with a number of caveats, of course).
Will Hazell wrote and starred in this rather different take on the home front during the Second World War. It is an examination of the conflicts, rivalries and insecurities thrown up in a society engaged in total war, and how those external forces interact with the pre-existing social and emotional issues troubling individual characters. It also questions the nature of war itself and the tension between society, its institutions and the individual. Oh, and it also throws in some comedy as well. You understand my point about its being ambitious.
It is 1944, and we are in the isolated village of Little Widdle, a community that prides itself on keeping the outside world at a distance. The trouble is, wartime has brought the outside world to the heart of the village in the shape of the Army, the RAF and the US Army. The village pub, the Angry Mallard, has been taken over by the armed forces, and fights and disorder have become the order of the day. Worse still, the outsiders have set up camp on the site of the village festival. This is an event that has taken place annually since the seventeenth century, and represents something very important about the identity and self-confidence of the village. The village committee, under the leadership of Mr and Mrs Caswalden (Andrew Churchill Stone and Yvonne Janacek), decide that something must be done. They hatch a cunning, albeit rather far-fetched, plot to sow conflict and division between the RAF and the US forces, in the hope that the resulting chaos will persuade their commanding officers to remove the troops from Little Widdle. In the end, the plan is successful but redundant, as D-Day intervenes, and all the armed forces leave for Normandy. The festival is saved, but everyone involved has learned something valuable about themselves and others.
The main sub-plot of the play is the burgeoning romance between the awkward, bookish Private Harold Furze (Will Hazell) and Clementine Phillips, the village school teacher (Charley Middleton). Harold is a fish out of water in the Army: geeky, shy and incompetent when it comes to military duties. Somewhat naively, he is surprised that the Army is constricting his individuality! He confides these thoughts to Clementine. She in turn tells him of her cynicism about the war, her repulsion at the death... on both sides. Although these scenes between Harold and Clementine charted the growing together of the two lovers, they tended to be a bit preachy and seemed more taken up with delivering a message rather than revealing a relationship. Nevertheless, the strong performances of Will and Charley drove the scenes along, in spite of some shortcomings in the script.
More successful, I thought, was the conflictual relationship between Harold and his fellow soldier Private George Gibbles (a terrific performance from Isaac Alcock). 'Gorgeous' George is permanently 'on the pull' with female military personnel and regards Harold as 'a posho'. They come from different worlds. Yet their reconciliation, thanks to their comrade Private Roger Rowlands (a nicely understated performance from Tony Bywaters), avoided cloying sentimentality. A simple handshake and a bit of embarrassed foot-shuffling delivered the punch of emotional truth.
The one piece of high emotion that did work was from Clementine's father, Capt. Trevor Phillips (full praise to David Smith for his character's journey from stuffed shirt old buffer to tearful breakdown and back again). Capt. Phillips has always refused to speak about Clementine's late mother, who died in the First World War. Clementine is exasperated and resentful of her father's mute response whenever she raises the subject. Her father's refusal to divulge is driving them apart. It feels as though a part of her is missing, she confides to Harold. The dam breaks at the end of the play, as her father pours out his grief to Clementine, and she finally discovers how her mother was killed by enemy action, leaving the infant Clementine the sole survivor in a bombed-out building.
Surrounding these serious matters was an array of more comic characters, providing light relief from the heavier material of the play. I particularly liked Jane Hemmings' performance as Lady Beatrice Ryder, who holds nightly parties for servicemen at her home, determined not to miss out on the delights of soldiers away from home. This was a well judged, enjoyable comic performance as a predatory Amazon. Her mother, Lady Petunia Ryder (Elizabeth Kirkham), is hardly less restrained in her picking the low-hanging fruit of sex-starved soldiers and airmen.
Lady Beatrice's cousin Squadron Leader Frederick Swallow (Pete Drury) presented us with a Blimpish caricature of the British officer class: utterly out for himself and passing up no opportunity to bed young women. Pitted against him is US Army Major Billy Steelman (Sean Hazell), equally libidinous and confrontational towards his British counterpart. Their stand-up argument at Lady Beatrice's dinner party triggers the conflict between British and US service personnel that has been planned by the village committee.
Co-ordinating a cast of more than twenty actors on a small stage was certainly a challenge for director Pete Welply, but he managed without ever making the place seem crowded. There was adroit use of upstage and downstage areas, especially in the scenes in the village pub. The set design was simple yet effective, and scenery changes were mostly carried out efficiently in the time available (although not always terribly quietly!).
This was a difficult and, in many ways, complex, play to stage, but Pete Welply achieved a production that delivered sufficient emotional impact and entertainment value. Will Hazell's well structured new play set its sights high. Although occasionally falling short of those lofty goals, the resulting production surprised the present reviewer, in a good way, and certainly made the journey to Wolvercote Village Hall worthwhile.
MY FAIR LADY by Alan J Lerner and Frederick Loewe (based on the play by George Bernard Shaw)
Abingdon Operatic Society
Amey Theatre, Abingdon School, Park Road, Abingdon, OX14 1DE
9-13 April 2019
Abingdon Operatic Society should have reason to feel pleased with their latest production, My Fair Lady, based on Tuesday's opening night performance in a mainly full Amey Theatre.
Most people will be familiar with George Bernard Shaw's story from his 1913 stage play Pygmalion. Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, has a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering that, in six months, he can coach Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle and pass her off as a duchess. He succeeds, but then casts aside his creation, as one might a laboratory rat that has fulfilled its usefulness. Despite all the fun, humour and great musical numbers, we are left with an unattractive Higgins. Not so much a man who cynically exploits others, so much as one who is completely dead to the possibility of finer feelings or self-respect among his social inferiors.
Although Shaw's play was a success and is still performed today, his modern day re-working of the ancient Greek myth about the sculptor Pygmalion, who falls in love with his own creation, is probably better known to most through Lerner and Loewe's musical. There was much to enjoy in AOS's production, directed by Joy Skeels. Not least were the leading man and leading lady, Duncan Blagrove as Henry Higgins and Kate Brock as Eliza Doolittle. Both have wonderful singing voices and Blagrove's clipped accent gave more than a nod towards Rex Harrison's famous screen performance as Higgins. Here we had an attractively feisty Eliza, but with the requisite pathos in the final scenes of the production, against an irascible, self-obsessed Higgins who really wasn't interested in anyone but himself. Both Brock and Blagrove handled the humour well without laying it on with a trowel.
Rob Bertwistle's lovable old buffer of a Colonel Pickering was happy to give the limelight to Higgins but was always present in the action. He judged about right the cautious, sotto voce tone of Pickering's friendship. A man willing to bolster Higgins' ego but sound a dissenting note if necessary.
Special mention must be made of Alfred Doolittle (Michael Winiarski), who was one of the highlights of the show for me. As an American, Winiarski was conscious, he told us in the programme, that he should avoid the Dick Van Dyke trap when it came to Cockney accents. He did fine in that regard. More memorably, he came close to stealing the show with his performance of Get Me to the Church on Time. In fairness, choreographer Jess Townsend deserves her share of the credit for this, and other, numbers in the show. Nevertheless, Winiarski brought an infectious energy to this number and indeed to his role throughout the show.
Plaudits also to Paul Bruce as Eliza's besotted suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill and his heartfelt rendition and reprise of On the Street Where You Live. There was a nicely judged performance from Lynne Winter as Henry Higgins' mother. Warmth and partisanship for Eliza and eye-rolling tolerance for her bachelor son's basic lack of social skills when it came to the opposite sex. There were some beautifully delivered comic put-downs of Higgins by his mother.
I also enjoyed Stephen Webb's appearance as Zoltan Karpathy, the snobbish Hungarian whom we meet at the Transylvanian Embassy Ball. Stephen gave us an amusingly physical performance of this comic character. Extra Brownie points to him for hanging on to his beard, as the make-up department appeared to have run out of glue!
I'd forgotten just how many good tunes there are in My Fair Lady, so many of which have become standards. Musical director Mark Denton is to be congratulated on drawing out a top-notch vocal performance from not only the principals but the chorus too. Particularly noteworthy were With A Little Bit of Luck and, one of my favourites, Ascot Gavotte.
Joy Skeels came up with an inventive set design. Imagine blocks the same shape as cereal boxes, but with casters on the bottom and about 15 feet high. These were moved around the stage from scene to scene. So, in the opening scene, they were positioned end-on to the audience, as part of the buildings of Covent Garden market. Then they were turned ninety degrees as a backdrop in Higgins' library. You get the idea. There was even a spiral staircase in one.
The costumes were glorious, especially the black and white theme at Ascot. One criticism on the costume front. Whilst everyone else was wearing clothing that fitted an early twentieth century setting, Henry Higgins seemed to be kitted out in a twenty-first century brown business suit. The cut seemed completely wrong and stuck out like a sore thumb. Also, in the opening scene in Covent Garden, Higgins looked more like a 1950s trench-coated private detective. It jarred somewhat with the rest of the cast's apparel. Given the care that had been taken with other characters, this surprised me.
In all, however, this was a splendid evening's entertainment, although, be warned, it's a show with a longer-than-normal running time (almost three hours plus an interval). Congratulations to director Joy Skeels, the cast and crew on a great musical experience. Can't wait for the next one!
BLACK COMEDY by Peter Shaffer
Abingdon Drama Club (ADC)
Unicorn Theatre, 18 Thames Street, Abingdon, OX14 3HZ
13-16 March 2019
Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy opens with the stage in darkness. This is important – more of that in a moment.
It is London in the mid-Sixties. Aspiring sculptor Brinsley Miller (Rich Damerell) and his debutante fiancée Carol Melkett (Rachel Tranter) are preparing for a visit from Carol's stuffed-shirt father Colonel Melkett (Adam Blake) and millionaire art collector Mr Bamberger (Michael Ward). Brinsley hopes to impress his future father-in-law into agreeing to his and Carol's engagement. He also hopes to persuade Bamberger to buy his latest work of art for a considerable sum of money. But then fate steps in and the main fuse blows, plunging the flat into darkness. For the audience, however, the very opposite happens. The previously dark stage becomes fully illuminated, but with the characters stumbling about in the 'dark'. When a torch or match or cigarette lighter are lit, the lighting dims a little. A simple but ingenious device.
Brinsley so wants to impress Colonel Melkett that he has borrowed some expensive furniture and antiques from his friendly neighbour Harold Gorringe (David Fardon). The ultra-possessive Harold is away and is unaware of what Brinsley has done. Unfortunately, he returns early and enters Brinsley's darkened flat, joining in the social gathering. He chats away to Miss Furnival (Lynne McClurg-Smith), another neighbour, who has sought refuge in Brinsley's flat during the blackout. Brinsley, fearful of Harold's wrath if the unauthorised 'loan' of his possessions is found out, proceeds to remove all the borrowed items right under his nose, in the darkness. So, while drinks are served by Carol, and conversation continues through the blackout, we see the hilarious sight of Brinsley carrying chairs, antiques and a chaise longue out of his flat, weaving round the totally unaware guests, and then replacing them with his own battered furniture.
Theatrical manoeuvres in the dark: Brinsley (Rich Damerell, front centre) conceals a borrowed antique from Harold (David Fardon, back left), while Miss Furnival (Lynne McClurg-Smith, front left) and Colonel Melkett (Adam Blake, back right) down the wrong drinks, watched by Carol (Rachel Tranter, back centre). Picture from rehearsals.
Matters become more complicated as Brinsley's ex-girlfriend Clea (Rebecca Peberdy) first phones Brinsley, then turns up at the flat uninvited, while the blackout continues. Clea is fully intent on getting back together with Brinsley and attempts to seduce him in the dark with the oblivious Carol standing next to them. Brinsley is terrified that Carol will find out and call off their engagement. But all might just work out...if he can keep the flat in total darkness. Colonel Melkett keeps flicking on his cigarette lighter, though, and then the man from the electricity board, a German named Schuppanzigh (John Hawkins), arrives and turns on his torch. Farcical hilarity ensues.
Of course, it was never going to last, and Brinsley is exposed. A furious Harold ends their friendship when he discovers his possessions have been borrowed. Colonel Melkett and Carol are livid at Brinsley's two-timing her with Clea. When Mr Bamberger does turn up, he ends up falling down the the stairs into the cellar. The play ends with the colonel and Harold seizing parts of Brinsley's latest sculpture and proceeding to give him a damned good thrashing with them!
So let's look at the production. Director Susi Dalton was blessed with a strong cast. Full disclosure – I've performed with Rich Damerell previously, but his portrayal of Brinsley Miller is the best thing I've seen him do. He managed to inject the role with the right levels of manic energy and strategic grovelling.
Rachel Tranter was superb as Carol Melkett. She gave us a dippy deb par excellence whose loyalty to Brinsley was rock firm in spite of all the warning signs and the madness. Until the exposé of his relationship with Clea, that is.
Lynne McClurg-Smith's lovely vignette of Miss Furnival must have been fun to play. In one of the many very funny scenes of the piece, the drinks of Harold, the colonel and Miss Furnival were swapped in the darkness, and the teetotal spinster ended up downing several Scotches. Lynne's comic tirade against bikers in leather jackets was hilarious.
The role of Colonel Melkett could have descended into a mere stereotype – a pastiche of a retired army officer. Fortunately, Adam Blake restrained himself and we had a glimpse of his relationship with his daughter and of the colonel as a human being. That was in addition, of course, to his rolling round on the floor after repeated mishaps with a rocking chair that wasn't there before!
David Fardon was a suitably camp Harold Gorringe, whose interest in Brinsley is more than platonic. This was not the full high camp of Sandy and Julian, but it nodded in that direction several times. Full disclosure again – David and I have shared the stage on several occasions, and I've noticed that his recent performances have shown a greater depth and range. I think that finally he is getting some decent direction, so kudos to Susi Dalton too.
Rebecca Peberdy impressed me as Clea. A wonderful counterpoint to Carol, Rebecca's Clea was fun, flirty, bohemian, sexy and not a little crazy: a ball of energy that Brinsley cannot resist.
There were nice cameo performances from John Hawkins as the electricity man Schuppanzigh and Michael Ward as Bamberger. Schuppanzigh, as a fellow German, is initially mistaken by Brinsley et al for Bamberger the millionaire. Schuppanzigh is clearly over-qualified for his job and shares his critical assessment of Brinsley's latest sculpture to everyone's delight. Until, that is, they discover his true identity and rage against him for their own mistake. It's a great role and John appeared to relish every moment of it.
It would be wrong not to mention the set design and construction. Those familiar with the restrictive space of the Unicorn Theatre will know that there is an unused balcony over the stage, normally accessible only by a ladder. What a waste! Thankfully, ADC have bitten the bullet and built a full staircase, stage left, which enabled them to use the balcony as Brinsley's bedroom. Susi Dalton was therefore able to run scenes with simultaneous action on stage and above it. I hope, and assume, that it will be used in future productions.
Black Comedy is a well written piece of theatre, with a strong structure and original concept, but that does not guarantee that it will automatically result in a good production. For that, we need a cast, crew and director who are able to grapple with the complexities of this challenging play. I'm pleased to say that ADC fitted that job description. Well done to all.
Photo credits: ADC
HAIRSPRAY (Book by Mark O'Donnell & Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Whittman & Marc Shaiman)
Our Lady's Abingdon
12-14 February 2019
Full credit to the members of the cast and crew for staging this challenging show, yet it was a somewhat strange choice. Hairspray takes place in a very particular historical setting, the USA in the early sixties, and has as its background the racial segregation of that time. Although the production tries to cast the underlying message of the show in terms of universal values of 'tolerance' and 'acceptance', the specific social circumstances of America in the 1960s, and the powerful sense of place engendered by the music and dress of the time, somewhat undermine that universalism. It therefore runs a risk of becoming a period piece. One work-around is to emphasise, instead, the fun and and fantastical nature of the storyline, and to aim the production's focus on the music, undoubtedly the show's strongest suite. I'm glad that director Dr Elizabeth Lawson chose to do so.
The plot follows the fortunes of schoolgirl Tracy Turnblad (a great performance by Isobel Morris) who desperately wishes to appear on TV in The Corny Collins Show (the show's groovy eponymous star played by Endre Bessenyei). She makes it there and is smitten by the show's heart-throb Link Larkin (Freddie Lee in show-stopping vocal form, especially in the number 'Without Love'). Along the way Tracy comes up against the show's wicked producer Velma Von Tussle (Eve Wright as the ghost of Joan Crawford come back to life) and her daughter Amber Von Tussle (Isabella Allen, convincing as the jealous, petty, pouty, spiteful, rival for Link's affections).
The plots twists and turns in quite unbelievably ways, and by the beginning of the second act, half the cast are in the women's penitentiary, singing the number The Big Doll House, which was a great way to get things going again after the interval. Other individual performances in particular that caught the audience's notice were Scott Burgess Martos, padded out as as Edna Turnblad, Tracy's plus-size mother, and Ellie Chan as the larger than life Motormouth Maybelle. Zephyr Acworth and Enya Hagan also impressed as Seaweed Stubbs and Little Inez
This was a show with a large cast and some big chorus numbers, and the dozens of students each deserve congratulations for their part in some slickly choreographed pieces (as well as some efficient entrances and exits). The performance space itself was not that big. The space was further reduced by the choice to divide the main stage into two locations: the Turnblad household and the TV studio. Accommodating up to sixty actors on stage in such a restricted environment was challenging, but Elizabeth Lawson blocked things so that it never seemed crowded. The construction of a balcony to give a split level both eased the on-stage population density and gave the musical dance numbers a welcome extra dimension. Credit also due to Miss Page for the choreography.
Praise is also due to the show band, who handled some extremely challenging musical pieces with a smoothness and professional sound that belied their years. The music was the core appeal of the show, with a string of great songs, so having such a strong instrumental ensemble as the motor beneath the bonnet was a a great asset for everyone. Well done to musical director Neil Farrow for pulling it all together in a small and overcrowded minstrel's gallery above the stage.
Photo credit: OLA
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.
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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