A MORE PERFECT WORLD by Tony Green
Abingdon Drama Club
The Unicorn Theatre, Medieval Abbey Buildings, Checker Walk, Abingdon, OX14 3JB
11-14 April 2018
Tony Green's thoughtful and engaging new work A More Perfect World, about the experiences of those who participated in the First World War, had about it the flavour of what academic historians call the historical method. This is the standing back from events, the careful sifting of evidence on both, or all, sides of an argument, and the drawing of a conclusion that tries to avoid the hyperbole of 'all-or-nothing' thinking. So the revelation in the programme notes that Tony had read for an MA on the First World War came as one of those 'ah, yes, of course' moments.
Don't get me wrong, this play was far from a dusty academic treatise. It was an evening's entertainment that I'm pleased I took the trouble to see. It was an attempt to construct a story of three people's experience of the Great War that avoided cliché and the myths that have clung like barnacles to the popular 'memory' of that conflict. It was also a piece that wanted to entertain us, using empathy and humour to make its points.
Complex structures that fascinated and impressed were the order of the evening, both in the three-plays-in-one arrangement of the story and the set design that rivalled the ingeniousness of an Elizabethan priest-hole builder, more of which below.
Our three main characters are Wil [sic] Fowler, who served as a private soldier in the trenches, Colonel Rennett-Chalmers, who joined the General Staff during the war, and Samantha ('Sam') Talbot, a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), who were auxiliary nurses and carers. We see them over two time periods: during various episodes of the First World War, and in 1978 as they are about to record their memories of the war for a television programme commemorating the 60th anniversary of the conflict. But the play opens in the present day (2018) with a history professor (played by Colette Lardner-Browne) also preparing to speak in a television interview to mark the centenary of the war's end.
Over the course of the war, Wil (Harry Rowe), Rennett-Chalmers (Tom Atkinson-Seed) and Sam (Charlotte Griffiths) lose their innocence, but not their decency, as, respectively, the brutality of the trenches, the high casualty rates and the suffering in the hospital wards affect each of them. The young Rennett-Chalmers starts to question the strategy that is costing so many men's lives for so few yards of territory. But it is a court-martial on which he sits that affects him most deeply and enduringly. The older Rennett-Chalmers (Jon Crowley) is still pained by the sentence of execution for desertion that he and his fellow officers handed out. By contrast, the older Wil Fowler (Keith Hales) has survived emotionally much better from the experience, ironically so, as he saw more frontline action than the other two. The older Sam (Geraldine Hobson) likewise presents a more emotionally grounded figure. For both Wil and Sam, the war appears to have had the unintended consequence of personal growth and rounding of their characters.
There is a tension through the play between popular conceptions of the the war, moulded by establishment and media political agendas, and the evidence of the participants' experience of actually fighting the war, and it is this (to me, at least) fascinating conflict of ideas that forms the spine of the play.
We see it in the conversation between Private Wil Fowler and Corporal Bramley (Kieran Piggott) about the former's attempts to write poetry about the war. Bramley opines that it would make more sense to write verse about women because that is certainly what occupies his mind all the time. It is also a challenge to the notion that the War Poets such as Owen and Sassoon are the only authentic voice of the fighting man.
We also see this tension between myth and reality in the picture painted of the officer class. This was one of the most noteworthy and brave aspects of the play. To challenge the 'lions led by donkeys' trope that dominates depictions of the conflict is to challenge the 'authorised version' of the First World War. Such narratives are underpinned by ideological views about class and war itself that are, in 2018, seen as de rigeur in polite company. The older Rennett-Chalmers' revelation that over 200 generals were killed or wounded in the war (it's true, I checked), and that, as a member of the General Staff, he tried to visit the battlefront as frequently as possible, as did other senior officers, drops a bomb (no pun intended) on that particular myth. It reinforced the view of the history professor in the opening scene (set in 2018) that Field Marshal Haig was not the mythical monster who sent thousands to their deaths with never a second thought. Interesting too was the argument young Rennett-Chalmers has with his C.O., Colonel Mead (Dave Cassar), over the Battle of Verdun. Mead is allowed to put forward a strategic justification for the British involvement, and large casualties, in aiding the French that is not mocked or sneered at, or of which the audience is invited to disapprove. This is a view of history without the pantomime heroes and villains.
It is the final speeches of the three principal characters in 1978 that pack the most punch however. Rennett-Chalmers, we learn, not only felt guilty about avoiding most of the danger as a staff officer, and preserving his life where others lost theirs. He subsequently lost his own son, who was killed as an airman in the Second World War. An ironic twist of the knife which he has borne with quiet dignity all this time. Wil Fowler, a normally jolly character, becomes angry about how the myth-makers have started to rewrite history and present a different version of events from the one he lived through. Another theme surfaces again – the notion that the views and testimonies of ordinary men and women who served in and experienced the First World War can be discounted as ill-informed, uneducated, even stupid. Sam Talbot addresses the position of women during and after the war, but again challenges the myth-makers. Yes, she says, women had the opportunity to do things they had not had before. Yes, their self-confidence grew. But, she says, she won't be giving a speech about liberation and emancipation. What actually happened was that women rejoined their men (those who had survived) and just 'got on with life'.
The final scene is back in the present day with the history professor. She chats with the production assistant (Lissy Coppock) about the desire of the popular media to make 'sexy' history. As if to prove the point, after the professor's departure, the assistant is told by the voice of her unseen director (Lin Crowley) that the film footage of Rennett-Chalmers' 1978 interview will probably not be used because it doesn't fit the narrative (of WWI officers as 'pompous conservative figures').
This was a production blessed with a strong cast. The actors playing Wil, Rennett-Chalmers and Sam in both their young and old incarnations (named above) turned in assured performances. There were also strong showings from Kieran Piggott as an avuncular Corporal Bramley, Lucy Wilton as Sam's jolly fellow VAD Elizabeth Copperington-Cook and Dave Cassar as Colonel Mead. There were one or two first-night wobbles with lines in a couple of the longer speeches, but the actors concerned covered effectively and carried on. This was generally a confident effort all round.
Michael Ward deserves praise for his set design. This was an arrangement with hinged walls that brought us the trenches, a hospital ward and a television green room all with a few pushes and pulls by members of the cast. There was also the gauze-walled 'crying room' (my name for it, not his) where nurses would retreat after having a soldier die in their care, used to great effect in one scene with the young Sam.
There were the obligatory shell blasts and machine gun fire effects, of course, but this was not a play that was about blood, gore and slaughter; it was, as Tony Green wrote in the programme notes, an attempt to create characters who were people not simply victims. Director Maria Crocker deserves credit for bringing to the stage a piece that tackles some difficult themes and a view of the Great War that seeks to humanise all its participants.
GODSPELL by Stephen Schwartz
Musical Youth Company of Oxford (MYCO)
Oxford Playhouse, 11-12 Beaumont Street, Oxford, OX1 2LW
4-7 April 2018
Godspell is, in the words of MYCO director and choreographer Guy Brigg, 'chock full of iconic songs and toe-tapping tunes', and the talented youngsters of this amateur group with professional standards did full justice to the song and dance numbers. Perhaps the best-known songs are Day By Day and Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.
The original Godspell was set in a circus with the character of Jesus played as a clown. In MYCO's production, the location moves to a post-apocalyptic dystopian city whose setting and characters reminded me of Walter Hill's 1979 movie The Warriors. The change was certainly for the better.
There is always a challenge in staging any play or film with Jesus, as he is an unplayable character. Any attempt to play him with the emotions and foibles of a mere mortal inevitably diminishes him. This was the conundrum that Franco Zeffirelli discovered when filming Jesus of Nazareth. Actor Robert Powell, who played Christ, recounts that they made a decision that he should be played without any characterisation at all, as far as possible; that the words would simply be delivered, and the audience would then project on to Powell their own image of Christ. The ruse worked in spades. Godspell suffers from the same problem. As a clown, the figure of Jesus was trivialised. In the present production, Jesus (Zakkai Goriely) is played as a rather soppy youngster prone to hissy fits when his disciples don't 'get it'.
It's probably best to get my other quibbles with this production out of the way now, so we can get on to the aspects of the show that merit praise (and there were plenty of those). First, cross casting no longer shocks, in fact it's rather 'last month'. Nevertheless, there should be a dramatic justification for it. The director doing it 'because he can' isn't good enough. John the Baptist (or Jay TeeBee) was played by a female performer (Ellie Grieve), but with no explanation why and no immediately obvious reason. Ellie sang brilliantly, her clear tones ringing out Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord, but, to use a rather tired biblical metaphor, hers was the voice of an angel, not that of a prophet. Second, the original show courted some controversy by not having a Resurrection. In MYCO's production, Jesus does appear to rise from the dead, appearing for the finale dressed in white, but...accompanied by Jay TeeBee, also in white. The director's programme notes gave no clue as to the rationale behind that decision, neither did they mention why Judas (a wonderfully weasily and cynical Isaac Jackson) does not hang himself and is in fact forgiven by Jesus. Given that this show touts itself as based on the Gospels, a playing against the original text, so to speak, in such a significantly symbolic way, demands more than silence.
Whatever plot and casting reservations the present reviewer may harbour, the ability of the cast to deliver powerful song and dance numbers is not in doubt, and the audience was intensely appreciative of the sheer vocal and physical talent on display on stage. MYCO adapted a piece originally intended for ten performers into a show with five times that number on stage. The mere size of the on-stage numbers impressed, even overwhelmed, but in a good way. Congratulations are due to choreographer Guy Brigg and assistant choreographer and dance captain Eleanor O'Connor for designing and co-ordinating such complex routines that were slick, polished and intoxicating. Praise also to musical director Julie Todd for drawing out of the cast of teenagers some extraordinary vocal performances.
The show was set in a scrapyard-cum-urban wasteland and was meant to symbolise the disaffection and chaos of a grey, dystopian world, into which Jesus enters as a sign of hope. The set designed by Guy Brigg and Liz Nicholson made use of a two-tier structure, and the relationship between the large balcony and the main floor was well exploited. The Sermon on the Mount used this to powerful, and even comic, effect. Members of the crowd above took turns to shout out 'Blessed are...etc.' to Jesus standing below, who had to improvise the various tag lines, 'For they shall...'
A thumbs-up also to Ashley Bale for his excellent lighting design. It's a show that can provide a lot of fun for the lighting department and they rose to the occasion. Maybe I was in the right mood, but I kept noticing how well matched the lighting arrangements were to the moods of the scenes.
It is impossible to single out individual actors in such a strong ensemble performance, but standout numbers included Turn Back O Man, with the lead sung by Sonia (Saffi Needham, vamping it up in a bravura burlesque performance) and Bless the Lord (Ellis Lovett as Joanne in an amazing vocal performance that was, unsurprisingly, reprised as an encore to appease the cheering audience following the curtain call). But in truth, there were no weak links amongst the principals who all delivered their solos with a maturity that belied their teenage years.
This is the first time that I've seen a show by MYCO, but it won't be my last.
OLIVER! by Lionel Bart
Jigsaw Stage Productions
The Beacon, Portway, Wantage OX12 9BX
4-7 April 2018
Cornerstone Arts Centre, 25 Station Road, Didcot, OX11 7NE
26-28 April 2018
Lionel Bart's musical version of Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist premiered in London's West End in 1960 and has been drawing large and enthusiastic audiences ever since.
When I spoke to director Gill Morgan ten days before the opening night, she described it as containing 'music that everyone knows' and 'a toe-tapping show'. If this production was meant as a crowd-pleaser, then the verdict comes in two words: mission accomplished. The crowd on the evening I attended was indeed well pleased.
Jigsaw Stage Productions had two teams of children, who alternated between performances. On the Saturday night I was there, Team 1 was on stage. Opening a show is never an easy task, but the orphans made a generally confident start with their rendition of Food Glorious Food. A slight quibble in an otherwise solid first number – the first word of several lines was lost – a result of nerves, I'd say.
The production took off for me with the duet between Mr Bumble and Widow Corney (Paul Bowers and Karen Brind), I Shall Scream!, where the beadle, starved of physical affection, attempts to plight his troth to the amply-resourced widow. We saw some lovely comic moments from both performers.
We also had some nice characterisation from Mr Sowerberry the undertaker (Charlie East) and Mrs Sowerberry (Chris Jones) who take in Oliver as an apprentice and treat him appallingly, but the musical number that ends the scene (That's Your Funeral) was a little lacking in energy for my taste. A bit more oomph was needed.
The stage then emptied leaving Oliver (Thomas Hulme) alone to sing Where Is Love? I was impressed by the performance of this young actor, who brought the requisite pathos to the part. The other main children's part, of course, is the Artful Dodger and Felix Potter made a strong start in the role with his rendition of Consider Yourself. Praise too to Karen Brind for choreographing the dance routine that followed (and for many other numbers in the show, particularly Who Will Buy?) as well as to her dancers.
Edmund Bennett clearly relished his role as Fagin and gave us a rogue with a warm, avuncular affection for his gang of thieves. Pick a Pocket or Two came over well as a parlour game for the benefit of the newly arrived Oliver, and his final song Reviewing the Situation saw Edmund doing justice to what is a difficult song to perform, both in technical terms and comic interpretation.
Fagin lives in fear of Bill Sikes, and hardly surprising when played as a brutal, irredeemable thug by Chris Palmer. There is nothing good to be said about the character of Sikes: he is a criminal, he beats his wife, is possessed of a demonic malevolence, and glories in the fear that the mere mention of his name brings to others. Chris brought a brooding physicality to the role and made us believe he was truly a nasty bit of work. I particularly enjoyed his performance of the song My Name!
For me, the three best numbers in Jigsaw's production were It's a Fine Life, Oom-pah-pah and As Long as He Needs Me. Not by coincidence did they all include Helena Kerswell playing Nancy, who gave a truly fantastic musical performance (my goodness, that gal can sing...and act the songs!). It's a Fine Life lifted the show to a higher level and As Long as He Needs Me was given the sympathy and gusto so vital to a torch song such as this. It drew loud cheers from the audience and deservedly so.
Congratulations are due to the other members of the cast, young and old, all of whom contributed to a thoroughly enjoyable performance of a well known and well-loved show, into which director Gill Morgan injected a dose of freshness. On a practical note, the cast doubled up as stage hands, shifting scenery and props as soon as they had stepped off stage (no black-clad stage ninjas for Jigsaw). The arrangement worked well with no hiccups that this reviewer could see.
A final pat on the back goes to musical director Jevan Johnson Booth and other members of the band who gave a professional sound to an amateur production.
Oliver! transfers to Didcot's Cornerstone Arts Centre at the end of April. Get yourself a ticket if you want to give your evening a bit of oom-pah-pah!
Photo copyright Howard Hill
IN REHEARSAL: 'Oliver! The Musical' by Lionel Bart (Jigsaw Stage Productions), 4-7 April and 26-28 April 2018
WHERE TO GO, HOW TO BOOK:
Oliver! The Musical by Lionel Bart
Jigsaw Stage Productions
4-7 April, 7.30pm, plus 2.30pm matinee on Saturday
The Beacon, Portway, Wantage, OX12 9BX
and 26-28 April 2018, 7.45pm, plus 2.30pm matinee on Saturday
Cornerstone Arts Centre, 25 Station Road, Didcot, OX11 7NE
TICKETS from www.beaconwantage.co.uk (4-7 April performances)
www.cornerstone-arts.org (26-28 April performances)
wegottickets.com/jigsaw (all performances)
Brett's Pharmacy, Grove (all performances)
Enquiries 01235 767509
Helena Kerswell plays Nancy, Bill Sikes' girlfriend, in this new production of Lionel Bart's hit musical Oliver! I catch her during rehearsals, less than two weeks before the show opens for its first four-night run at The Beacon in Wantage (there's a second run at Didcot's Cornerstone Arts Centre later in April). I ask her what the part of Nancy has going for it. 'She's got some good songs...' Helena pauses, '...and she gets murdered. It's my first time being killed on stage. Looking forward to that!' she laughs.
Adults and children mill around the hall, preparing for a Sunday afternoon run-through of the whole show. Helena is already in her costume, ready to start. She's been doing musicals for several years now. After studying musical theatre at college, she spent some years working in the holiday entertainment business in the Mediterranean and back in England. But she decided to get 'a proper job', as she puts it, and now does musical theatre in her spare time. It's a story many amateur theatre performers will recognise. An ambition to act, sing or dance, which 'real life' frustrates, but you end up scratching that itch in amateur theatre. It's given am-dram some great performers.
I ask Helena how the show is coming along. 'It's getting there. It takes a while when you're watching it. You think “have we actually got a show?” But last Sunday, when we did it on the stage, and you saw people in their costumes, all of a sudden, you see that it is coming together.' About half the cast are children. 'The kids are doing amazingly,' Helena continues. 'Oliver and Dodger, they've got a lot to learn, but they're doing really well. All the children are.'
The show has an experienced captain at the wheel with director Gill Morgan having directed musicals for 20 years. The cast has two teams of children, a dozen in each, who alternate between shows, plus twelve adult actors. They are also using dancers from the Karen Brind School of Dance in Wantage. Gill regards that as a smaller cast and seems to take it in her stride. At this stage, there are still many things to sort out, but Gill gives every impression of being on top of it all.
I recognise Edmund Bennett from a previous show with another theatre group, and sidle up to him. He has landed the role of Fagin, which he is delighted about. He tells me that he's wanted to play the part for quite a while now, and that he is now the right age to do so! 'Somebody involved in the last Jigsaw production said, “Oh, you know they're doing Oliver!, you should go for Fagin.”. So I went along to the audition.' He reckons that he got the part because all the other chaps were far too good-looking. I've seen Edmund act before, but how is he at singing? 'I've been taking lessons for this part, unusually. I have sung in pantomime and musicals before, but I wouldn't say I was a strong singer, but I can sing in tune. Some of the Fagin tunes are a bit challenging, because there's a lot of modulation, especially in Reviewing the Situation.' I saw Edmund sing You've Gotta Pick a Pocket or Two later in the afternoon, and the lessons had clearly paid off.
Chris Palmer is far too nice to be playing violent villain Bill Sikes. 'It's a great part and it's a great play,' he tells me. 'I'm particularly enjoying playing a nasty piece of work. It's something to get your teeth into.' This is his second stage role for Jigsaw Stage Productions. His first was last year in Made in Dagenham in which he played multiple roles. In that show he spent, in his own description, a lot of time popping into the wings to change hats. With Oliver!, he's enjoying being able to focus on just one role. He got involved with Jigsaw through his daughter, who starred in their production of Annie two years ago. Chris was persuaded to work backstage. A couple of shows later and he was asked if he'd like an acting role. This time, director Gill Morgan asked him to play Sikes. Chris was delighted, but, he laughs, 'I don't know what that says about me!' I ask him why audiences should come and see the show. 'It's good fun, it's got a moral, it's a good story – one that's lasted many, many years through the strength of the storyline and the great characters in it, and it's excellent fun to watch.'
Oliver! opens on Wednesday 4 April 2018 at The Beacon in Wantage (booking details at top of this post).
Photos copyright Mike Lord
THE ODYSSEY by Homer, adapted by Kerry Frampton and Ben Hales
Hagbourne Village Hall, East Hagbourne, nr. Didcot
21, 23 & 24 March 2018
If we are living in an age short on heroes, then there is no comfort to be found in Kerry Frampton's and Ben Hales' comic adaptation of Homer's The Odyssey. Odysseus himself never appears, except as a wooden spoon with a smiley face drawn on it.
Not only is it a heroic tale with no hero, it is a mythological tale without any gods. Director Mary Hands highlights this in her programme notes. 'The gods do not feature in this play,' she explains. 'This is significant because the idea of gods controlling people's destiny, or helping them out or punishing them is such a feature of Ancient Greek stories. But not this version.' Frampton's and Hales' intention appears to have been to write a tale in which the idea of deities is deemed irrelevant and in which the notion of heroic men is deconstructed and gently mocked. The female characters, by contrast, are granted a quiet heroic status, and taken absolutely seriously without a whiff of parody. This happens most notably with Odysseus' wife Penelope (a fine, nuanced performance by Liz Holliss of a noble character) and Calypso (Maya Griffiths, convincing as a broken-hearted nymph).
Instead of calling on gods and goddesses to help Odysseus and his men, the narrator (the Old Man of the Sea, of which more in a moment) announces a series of obstacles that the men had to overcome. This put me in mind of a self-help book, aimed at getting you to achieve your goals, which was probably not the writers' intention.
The original production of this adaptation was written for three women who play all the roles. An enticing prospect for the three lucky women, but not ideal for an amateur theatre group with plenty of willing performers chomping at the bit. HAMS rather sensibly re-adapted the play so that 24 actors could play the 24 parts.
They say that good things come in threes, and that was certainly true of HAMS' production, not once, but three times three. Our narrator, the Old Man of the Sea, is played simultaneously by three performers (Andy Stocks, Jemma Craperi and Becca Warrington), identically made up in grey knitted beards with matching beanies, and silver face paint, and talking to themselves ('Yes, myself,' 'Thank you, myself.'). This device worked well and represented the conscious use of a chorus in the Greek tradition. It was a structural and comedic success.
Instead of Odysseus we had three of his warriors lead us through each adventurous episode. Their characters were written as bragging yobbos one moment, and abject cowards the next. If Frampton and Hales had spoken to even a couple of servicemen who had seen recent action in Iraq or Afghanistan, then perhaps we would have seen a fairer and more realistic picture of what real men feel in combat situations. As it was, this was mere caricature with, one suspects, a soft political purpose. I said good things came in threes. Notwithstanding my mixed feelings about the writing, we had terrific performances as the warriors from Kelly Stewart, Doug Amos and Martin Redhead. They were a thoroughly energised ensemble that proved to be the anchor of the show. They deserve congratulations.
The final threesome that tickled me were Antiphantes, the Giant Chief, and his wife and daughter. Director Mary Hands had them played as reality TV celebs, being interviewed in front of the cameras about how they'd eaten members of Odysseus' crew. It was a comedy tour-de-force by Rob Dew, Jean Elliott and Jane Bell.
Polyphemus the Cyclops was played as a sympathetic shepherd by David Cooke, whose costume consisted of a single giant eyeball that obscured the whole of his face. It worked to great comic effect and there was some nice interaction with the audience. His caring relationship with his flock of sheep (Di Duff, Vivien Stocks and Susan Proctor) made for some fine business, and further built up the audience's sympathy for him when he had his eye put out by Odysseus and his men. There were 'aaahs' as he limped off at the end. The fact that he'd provoked this by snacking on Odysseus' warriors seemed almost by the by.
This was a production that lent itself to cameo performances, which the actors made the most of. Whether it was Craig Barfoot's Aeolius, King of the Winds, complete with Rod Stewart wig, or Karen Carey's sensuous and voluptuous mistress-cum-sorceress Circe, the hilarious quartet of Penelope's suitors (Yen Rickard, Di Duff, Iain Duff and John Lawson, playing up to the crowd), or Scylla and Charybdis (Muriel Stanley and Richard Elliott with very silly wig and litter pickers, and rubber ring respectively), the audience, and the present writer, enjoyed it enormously.
Full marks for the decision to use a very spare set design, which consisted of a black backdrop with a washing line draped across it. From the line were hung banners announcing which aspect of Odysseus' character the current scene depicted. So we had Odysseus the Killer, Odysseus the Powerful Leader, Odysseus the Victim, etc. Flanking the backdrop were paintings of scenes from The Odyssey by Yen Rickard and the Pavilion Painters.
There was intelligent use of mood music and songs, including an original song composed by Julian Gallop and Doug Amos, to enhance the drama.
There were one or two moments where performers either forgot their lines or jumbled them. However, no prompts were required and those responsible dug themselves out and pushed forward. Phew!
Mary Hands should feel quiet satisfaction at having taken something of a gamble over the choice of show and pulled it off. HAMS offered us an entertaining evening that was somewhat different from much amateur theatrical fare and sent their audience away chuckling.
'The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society Production of a Murder Mystery - Murder at Checkmate Manor' by David McGillivray & Walter Zerlin Jr. (ACTS)
THE FARNDALE AVENUE HOUSING ESTATE TOWNSWOMEN'S GUILD DRAMATIC SOCIETY PRODUCTION OF A MURDER MYSTERY (MURDER AT CHECKMATE MANOR)
by David McGillivray & Walter Zerlin Jr.
ACTS (Aston and Cote Thespian Society)
Aston Village Hall, Aston, Nr. Bampton, Oxon, OX18 2DU
8-10 March 2018
Murder at Checkmate Manor is a murder mystery evening put on by the fictitious Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society. They're not very good. They miss their cues, they forget their lines, parts of the scenery fall apart, and they come out of character and talk to each other while on stage.
Playing the fictitious am-dram society are the actors and actresses of the very real Aston and Cote Thespian Society (ACTS). They have a challenging time doing this, for sure. Messing up in rehearsal is something that all of us who tread the boards do with remarkable regularity when the director isn't asking us to, but deliberately playing something 'wrong', and making it look like a mistake, is surprisingly difficult. Add to this mix some really complicated business requiring split-second timing and an awareness of what other performers are doing and you have the potential for the 'mistake' being messed up and the joke being lost. Bit of a minefield then. I'm pleased to say that ACTS avoided stepping on any metaphorical explosives and turned in an ensemble performance that had pace (in spite of the deliberate awkward pauses) and a sense of fun. The audience, a full village hall, certainly enjoyed it.
Playing a character who is playing another character requires a certain level of mental gymnastics from the actor. During my visit to their rehearsal last week, director Valerie Crowson told me that she had told the cast to play the murder mystery characters as members of the Farndale Avenue drama group, and not as members of ACTS. From what I saw last night, she succeeded in achieving that subtle difference from her cast.
One of my favourite moments came in the second act when members of the cast had to move chairs around between scenes on stage. Each actor clearly had a different idea of where certain chairs were supposed to go, and so we had an extended (two minutes?), and very funny, sequence of seven performers taking off, moving or bringing back the chairs in question. With never a word exchanged. Beautifully choreographed and flawlessly executed by the cast. The laughter built as the layers of absurdity were piled on to the competitive chair shifting.
Every actor's nightmare was cleverly presented in a scene between Daphne Bishop (Vicky Fuller) and Inspector O'Reilly (Mark Goss) in which their Farndale Avenue characters got stuck in a script loop, endlessly repeating the same short sequence of lines over and over, unable to remember what comes next. The cherry on the icing was when they swapped lines. Mark played 'Desmond Jones', a last-minute replacement, with an appropriate 'fish out of water' characterisation, non-plussed with the whole on-stage experience, which hit the spot.
The show opened with 'Mrs Reece', the chairwoman of the Farndale Avenue society, introducing the play and making various 'housekeeping' announcements to the audience, before going on to play several roles in the murder mystery. Gill Long played this straight and seemed to inhabit the character of Mrs Reece with the right mix of pomposity and lack of self-awareness. The only moment the mask slipped, momentarily, was when the faintest of smiles flickered across Gill's face after delivering a line about moving towards the climax we've all been waiting for. This after her perfectly po-faced talk about the butler's tool.
Jan West, who played 'Audrey' and Vicky Fuller, who played 'Thelma' pulled off some nice double acts as Lady Bishop and her daughter Daphne, and later as spinster aunt sisters, Violet and Rose Bishop, dressed in grotesque costumes. Overall, both Jan and Vicky got that 'worst possible am-dram' feel to their characters, with Jan's switching from being Lady Bishop to 'Audrey' particularly well done. Vicky gave us Daphne à la Joan Hunter-Dunn as played by clueless thesp Thelma.
Netty Lings' Farndale Avenue character 'Felicity' as Pawn the butler (this was Checkmate Manor, after all) had the only true character arc in the play (not that we were expecting character development in a piece of this genre). She went from the only one on stage keeping things together in the first act to bored and distracted in the second. The latter mood swing was the basis of one of my favourite scenes in the show. Pawn the butler stood with a silver tray and discovered that she could reflect the stage lights on to the audience. Despite being told not to repeatedly by 'Gordon Pugh' playing Mr Goodbody the solicitor (Steve Neal), the butler persisted in acting like a naughty schoolboy. A great running gag.
Another highlight was Laura Bradley's 'Gloria' as Regine the French maid, who was part of possibly the most ridiculous murder of the whole play (and there was stiff competition) – setting herself up for being pushed out of the window and then falling in slow motion, cartoon-like.
One scene in which, uncharacteristically, things weren't quite as convincing as they could have been came early on. Some of the Farndale Avenue actors are supposed to start laughing on stage ('corpsing' in actorspeak). This didn't really work. The laughter lacked the spontaneity of the real thing and seemed stiff and unnatural. When an actor genuinely laughs on stage when he's not meant to, the audience quickly 'catch' the laugh and that didn't happen here.
Checkmate Manor is a comedy with elements of farce. The key to success is two-fold: making believable the idea that a character is playing another character...badly, and getting the timing of the physical comedy right. Valerie Crowson's direction achieved both aims successfully. Compliments also to those who built the set and props (much of which had to be collapsible) and to the backstage crew who were, it seems, kept as busy as the cast during the show.
Photos courtesy of Valerie Crowson
CONTINUING OUR SERIES OF INTERVIEWS WITH FIRST-TIME DIRECTORS IN OXFORDSHIRE
In December 2016, after over twenty years in amateur theatre, I appeared in my first panto - Aladdin for Dorchester Amateur Dramatics Society (DADS). But I was not the only one doing a 'first'. Ann Winslet, another long-time performer, was making her debut as a director. It was a fun production to take part in, and one of the main reasons for that was having Ann at the helm. However, I wanted to find out a little bit more about her own experience in her new role, so we met over a coffee in Ann's home in Dorchester, which she shares with her husband and fellow DADS member Richard.
How did she come to be the director, I asked. 'Well I had my arm severely twisted, perhaps!' she laughed. 'No, in fact, I think they [DADS] were desperate to get people to come along and direct, and Rachel [Ann's daughter] and I said “we could give that a go, couldn't we?” and she got a play and I got the pantomime.'
So had she had a long background in theatre – had she done much drama before? 'I've always done acting, right from school all the way through, on and off,' she tells me. After Ann and her family had moved to Oxfordshire, Rachel, who had already become a member of DADS, heard they were looking for a prompt and persuaded her mother to volunteer. So she prompted several plays for the group.
After a while, someone suggested she turn to acting. The first show she performed in was 'Fiddler on the Roof'. She was in Australia on holiday at the time and received an email saying, 'we hear you're interested in doing it!' and she landed the role of Golda. 'I'm not a singer, but I did get the part, and it was lovely. I really enjoyed it. And I've been in and out since then.'
First-time directors will often have a mentor. Was that the case here? 'Well, I was supposed to have a mentor, and the two weeks I was away on holiday, she filled in for me. Other than that, I think I asked her the odd thing. But I pretty much followed my own course.'
Ann confided to me that she didn't initially have a vision for the play at the beginning of rehearsals, but she developed this as she went through. The whole directing thing presented quite a challenge. 'Never having done it before, I really struggled at the beginning. Not having a musical director, I had to find the music, the songs, and sort all that out. Russell, thank God, was brilliant as the pianist. So I had that all to do, and I had a hand in the costumes as well to begin with.'
We talked about her working relationship with the cast. She was aware of her own lack of directing experience. 'I didn't want to appear bossy or unco-operative, and I wanted to be able to hear what they had to say, and maybe not take up every suggestion, but try if I could.'
What were the most difficult aspects that she had to grapple with? 'We had to go over and over certain bits, particularly the sand dance towards the end, we really had to get to grips with that one. That was really tricky. It was good fun though.' The sand dance referred to was the classic fez and nightshirt routine made famous by Wilson, Keppel and Betty, that also incorporated a bit of stage magic too. It turned out to be the hit of the show, so the hours of hard work paid off.
'Getting a crew together was quite a challenge, because although the producer's supposed to do that, as the director, you've got to know that you can do it to start with, and getting the crew together is vital. I had a good crew, I was lucky I had a brilliant producer, Richard, if he's listening [Ann's husband Richard was out of earshot]! And that makes a huge difference. I'm not a singer and I'm not a dancer, but I had to choreograph everything as well, and although there wasn't that much, you have to put it all together. I was standing in my kitchen, putting bits together, thinking “will that work?” We got there in the end, but it was tricky. It was a challenge, but people have said it will go down in DADS history and, touch wood, I think it will.'
At the end of the production, what did she get out of it? 'I was thrilled that I'd actually done it. Great satisfaction, really.'
I asked Ann if she had any advice for budding directors. Her reply was forthright: 'Don't do it!!' she laughed. But then she revealed that she will, in fact, be directing the DADS Christmas show, The Slipper and the Rose, in November 2018. Any other tips? 'Look into it first, really go into it and realise what you're getting into, because it is not easy.' Maybe so, but the experience has taught Ann a lot, and I have a feeling that everyone will notice the difference with her second show.
IN REHEARSAL: The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society Production of a Murder Mystery (Murder at Checkmate Manor), 8 to 10 March 2018
WHERE TO GO, HOW TO BOOK:
The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society Production of a Murder Mystery (Murder at Checkmate Manor) by David McGillivray & Walter Zerlin Jnr.
ACTS (Aston and Cote Thespian Society)
8, 9 & 10 March 2018, 7.30pm
Aston Village Hall, Aston, Nr. Bampton, Oxon, OX18 2DU
TICKETS from Aston Stores or via email from Popps Hoskins: Hoskinsnick at aol.com
(£7 for Thursday, £8 for Friday & Saturday performances)
'It's hilarious! It's a really, really funny play. And also there's a lot that happens on the stage that adds to the hilarity of it. I was pleasantly surprised. From reading it through to actually doing it, it's very funny.' Vicky Fuller started performing for Aston and Cote Thespian Society (ACTS) at the age of 16. She was the back-end of a pantomime horse. Now a grown-up mum she gets major roles in the annual plays put on in Aston Village Hall.
The play that she's chatting to me about, as rehearsals begin, has a very long title, but don't let that put you off from coming to see it. It runs for three evenings from Thursday 8th to Saturday 10th March 2018 inclusive.
I speak to the director Valerie Crowson who explains the basic plot. 'Murder at Checkmate Manor' is a murder mystery evening put on by a fictitious am-dram group (the Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society - FAHETGDS), who are not terribly good, and things do not go as planned. In fact, they end up going disastrously. Furthermore, each member of the fictitious FAHETGDS plays several roles in the murder mystery evening, leading to general chaos.
So - each cast member of ACTS is playing a character who in turn is playing multiple parts. Hasn't that been fiendishly difficult to learn? Jan West, another ACTS performer, describes it as 'quite challenging'. There are many costume changes and further complications with dialect. 'We are supposed to have bad Northern accents, which we forget sometimes,' she says. And there's plenty of cleverly comic wordplay. 'Sentences are twisted round and spoken the wrong way and then they correct themselves.' Plus, I'm told, other monkeying around with lines that has had the cast laughing through rehearsals.
Jan and Vicky are about to change into their costumes for the rehearsal. In this scene they are playing 'Audrey' and 'Thelma' playing the two spinster sisters Violet and Rose Bishop in what has been dubbed 'the wheelchair scene'. Jan chuckles: 'We're going to look hideous in what we're about to put on.' She promptly dons a purple wig to prove the point.
Director Valerie has taken the unusual step of listing the off-stage crew, including the props, costume, lighting and sound people, directly with the cast in the programme, because in this production they play such a crucial and continuous role with timing being critical.
Valerie tells me that ACTS has acquired a big following from outside the village of Aston (near Bampton) from two main sources – the Oxfordshire Drama Network (the umbrella organisation for amateur theatre societies in the county), and through word-of-mouth recommendations.
I stay and watch part of the rehearsal and leave with a broad grin on my face. I shall be back next week to see the finished performance. You can read my review on this blog then.
THE FIRST OF AN OCCASIONAL SERIES ON FIRST-TIME DIRECTORS ON OXFORDSHIRE'S AMATEUR THEATRE SCENE
Kerrie McCormick co-directed Banbury Cross Players' production of David Haig's play, My Boy Jack in February this year, which certainly impressed this reviewer (you can read my review here). It tells the story of Rudyard Kipling and the loss of his son Jack in the First World War.
I spoke to Kerrie at her home in the village of Hook Norton, which she shares with her husband John, who acted in the play. How had she come to direct a stage play for the first time, I asked. 'Well, I was on play selection,' she replied. 'That's what we do, we pick the plays and do excerpts for the members. [My Boy Jack] was one of the plays that came up, and because it was a First World War play, and being the hundred year anniversary, we really wanted to get it done. Luckily the members said yes.'
So Kerrie was made co-director, the first time she'd ever done that job. Had she had any acting experience before, I wondered, a common route in amateur theatre? Apart from a bit when she was at school ('but that was a long time ago,' she chuckled) and a role in the village panto, no, she hadn't. I was curious to learn more about what knowledge and experience she drew on as a director. As part of the play selection team for BCP, Kerrie had immersed herself in literature. 'I read a lot of books and plays,' she said, pointing to the bookshelves crammed with volumes all round their sitting room. 'This is not all of it. We've got books all over the place. I really enjoyed it and got to look at a lot of things I wouldn't have looked at before. I'm also in a literature group in the village, and we go and see plays.'
I asked Kerrie about working with a co-director and she explained that they divided the scenes between them and each worked on their own. I wondered whether she was mentored or shadowed, but Kerrie was left to her own devices and had the freedom to develop her own scenes as she wished. I was impressed for two reasons. The quality of the finished work was high and you couldn't see the join (between the work of the two different directors).
We talked about her relationship with her actors. 'I wanted to talk more about the scenes, at the start, and then explained what the audience is meant to feel, what the writer wants them to feel. I like to get their opinion, the actors, because they've got an imagination as well. I don't think it's just a case of “stand over there and turn 45 degrees to the right”. It was a collaborative effort in as much as if one of them asked, “what should I do?” I would say, “well, what do you think you would do in that situation?” and go for that, what feels natural for you, because I think that works better than getting them to do something that feels really false.'
What about developing the characters, how did she approach that with the actors? 'We talked about it and had suggestions, but, especially at the start, I wanted to let things go without me having to say “let me stop you there”. Things would work themselves out. I think if you're stopping them all the time, you make them feel nervous and you lose the flow. We really enjoyed it, we had a lot of laughs, but worked hard. It's got to be fun because, for a start, they're volunteers, they're not getting paid for it. It's not penance!'
So what did she get out of her first play as a director? 'I loved it. The satisfaction of seeing something that you've worked on come together and also when the reviews come out, that they're good! Because you think you've done all right, but there were things that we could have done different. There were a couple of the scenes that I thought detracted from the ending, where the wedding came in and that flashback – I think we could have cut those and it would have been more powerful. But that's looking back.'
Kerrie casually drops into the conversation that she contracted pneumonia in the two weeks leading up to the performance. By this time, John her husband has come into the room and points out that such had been the work Kerrie had put into rehearsing that they, the actors, would have felt ready to perform it to the public two weeks before curtain up if they'd had to. All the main work had been covered and that final fortnight simply required a little tweaking. I'd see that as a tribute to Kerrie's thoroughness and ability to inspire her actors.
So what tips would she give to other beginning directors in amateur theatre? She paused to think for a moment before saying: 'Definitely to go for it. Have confidence in yourself. I was open to change but I knew what I wanted to do.' She certainly did.
I ask her about future plans, other plays in the pipeline. She would love to do Simon Gray's Quartermaine's Terms next, but the decision about that is in the hands of the other members of BCP, but if Kerrie's first effort with My Boy Jack is any indication, they could have another success on their hands.
Photo copyright: Mike Lord
ROMEO AND JULIET by William Shakespeare
Our Lady's School, Abingdon
6-8 February 2018
In the programme notes to this superior school production of Shakespeare's play, director Dr Elizabeth Lawson recalls the impact that Romeo and Juliet had on her as a girl. Specifically, Romeo and Juliet in its film incarnation starring Leonardo DiCaprio. For her, as a teenager, Shakespeare, post-Leo, became cool. A previous generation had a similar experience with the same tragic tale of love in Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, and it was to a gang war in contemporary New York, this time in Manhattan, that this slick production turned for its setting. The name Manhattan has syllables than scan identically to Verona, the original location of Shakespeare's story, which is a happy happenstance that preserved the rhythm of Shakespeare's lines intact.
With a cast of 53, and well over two dozen backstage members, this was not a production that did things by half. Combining Shakespeare's text with musical dance sequences gave the whole evening a lavish feel not a million miles away, in spirit at least, from the aristocratic families of 16th century northern Italy. Music was very effectively used throughout, between scenes and during the choreographed crowd set-pieces. Current dance and hip-hop tracks were the main fare, but I caught a few snatches of older pieces, including a sample of the intro to Minnie Riperton's 1975 hit 'Lovin' You'.
The play opened with a title sequence of the main characters projected on to a back screen ringed by LED lights, with each actor taking a bow as his or her character's name appeared. It was a clever device to avoid the audience scratching their heads later over who's who, when they should be concentrating on the plot.
We then went straight to the opening street brawl between the Montagues and Capulets. They squared up to each other, armed with quarterstaffs, with which they rhythmically banged the ground with deliberate menace to a musical track. A well choreographed fight sequence followed, in which quarterstaffs clashed perfectly in time together, like so many merry men, to be broken up by the NYPD. The cops were led by Prince Escalus, played by Enya Hagan, who bawled at the crowd in possibly the loudest voice of the evening. You wouldn't want a parking ticket from her. It set the flavour of the production.
With a cast of such epic numbers, it's not possible to mention all, but here are some brief reflections on a few of the principals. Ben Murray was an engaging Romeo who used a facial expression that said, 'I know this lurve thing is awkward and my mates are taking the Mick, but what the heck?' Bethan Corley's Juliet was the good girl knocked for six by Cupid's arrow, but wanting to do the right thing. Mercutio is, in my opinion, the best part in the play. He's sympathetic, gets some great lines and plenty of gags, plus the actor can head off to the bar for the second half of the play. John Gildersleeves was well cast, delivering the humour without milking it, and made a good team with Benvolio (played in appropriately laddish fashion by Freddie Lee) to rag Romeo.
Tybalt was a nasty piece of work. If this had been a Martin Scorcese film, he would have been the Joe Pesci role. I felt no regret when Romeo despatched him, so kudos to Dominic Warburton, dressed in black, who played the role. My personal favourite of the evening was Caitlin Stone's Nurse, who showed some brilliant comic timing and gave us plenty of business without going overboard. Danann Kilburn was cast as Friar Lawrence, but in this production the character was a trendy lady vicar, who wore tinted round sunglasses borrowed from Ozzy Osbourne. She also got to play with the blue LED cross on the gates to the friary. Oh, and there was also some decent acting going on in the meantime. I also liked the sartorial contrast between the heads of each feuding family. Tom Wellesley's Lord Capulet in white linen jacket over Hawaiian shirt versus Endre Bessenyei's Lord Montague in business suit.
Designing costumes for so many cast members was a Herculean task, but that didn't seem to mean any drop in quality. The Hawaiian shirts versus all-blacks theme provided a clear contrast between the two families, while keeping the gang setting in mind. The costumes at the party where our hero and heroine meet also impressed. The set was well designed with obligatory balcony that was nicely integrated into plenty of other scenes. It was dressed with New York street furniture and even a carousel (the location of Romeo and Juliet's first verbal exchange). Congratulations too to the sound crew who had to cue many dozens of music tracks, all of which appeared on the night I went, to come in on time. Well done to the lighting crew for enhancing the atmosphere through all the levels from party to funeral.
OLA's Romeo and Juliet showed that focused imagination, flair and sheer hard graft will pay off in a great theatrical experience for audience, cast and crew alike. We all had a great time.
Photo Attribution: Our Lady's Abingdon
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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