'Three One Act Comedies: Heroines, Hamlet and a Couple of Slices of Ham' by Rae Shirley, Phil Mansell and Nick Warburton (St. Peter's Players)
THREE ONE ACT COMEDIES: HEROINES, HAMLET AND A COUPLE OF SLICES OF HAM
MERRY REGIMENT OF WOMEN by Rae Shirley, POOR YORICK by Phil Mansell and MELONS AT THE PARSONAGE by Nick Warburton
St. Peter's Players
Wolvercote Village Hall, 1 Wolvercote Green, Oxford, OX2 8AB
11-14 April 2018
This was an imaginative selection of one-act plays which, coincidentally, according to the programme notes, all reference Hamlet in some way. Despite that, these were three very contrasting pieces.
In Merry Regiment of Women by Rae Shirley six of Shakespeare's female characters are called to a meeting by Lady Macbeth (Clare Winterbottom). The aim is to protest to Shakespeare about the lack of women's roles in his plays. It was an amusing premise, and what was further impressive about the writing was that it used Shakespearean style language without sounding hackneyed. This authenticity even extended to characters exiting on a rhyming couplet.
I liked the rivalries between several of the female characters: Juliet's Nurse's (Elizabeth Kirkham) constant, catty put-downs of Cleopatra (a fine debut with the group by Zehra Kelly) as a monarch of loose morals, and Kate the Shrew's (Jane Hemmings) sneering disdain of love, as expressed by Juliet (Charley Middleton), and the rather more lustful longings of Desdemona (Nancy Hillelson) and Cleopatra. The onstage lovey-dovey canoodling of Juliet and her Romeo (Will Hazell) was funny in its over the top way and had Kate's eyes rolling.
In the end, love conquered all, and Lady Macbeth's plans came to naught. Even Kate the Shrew, her staunchest ally through most of the story, was eventually talked round to love by Petruchio.
The main opposition to Lady Macbeth, however, came from Henry V (Tony Bywaters) who delivered the sort of heroic speech one would expect of Hal.
My main critique of the performance is that it could have benefited from a little more energy. There are some sparkling exchanges here, ripe for the comedy picking, but they came across occasionally as underpowered. Henry V's speech, for example, needed a bit more swagger. Yvonne Janecek was directing on her own for the first time, so this is maybe something to bear in mind next time. I would also like to have seen a bit more use of the stage space, as the characters were standing in a row a bit too much in some sections. On the plus side, however, Yvonne drew some great characterisation from her actors, for which she deserves to be congratulated and is a not inconsiderable achievement.
Poor Yorick by Phil Mansell was my favourite of the three plays on offer. I understand that it was originally performed at Stratford as part of the RSC's programme to encourage new talent. Hamlet's jester Yorick (Andrew Churchill Stone) has not died; he has left Elsinore Castle to develop a career in a new type of comedy called stand-up, but it's not going very well. He is persuaded by his girlfriend, tavern wench Bess (Zehra Kelly) to go back to Elsinore and ask Hamlet (David Smith) for his old job back. But things have changed and Claudius is now king. Yorick is drawn in against his better judgement to help Hamlet to kill Claudius and claim the throne, by means of a gunpowder-filled whoopee cushion. It all goes horribly wrong and Yorick is back to square one.
First-time director Annette Jaggard made an inspired casting decision for the title role. Andrew Churchill Stone's performance held the piece together with drive, beautiful comic timing and a characterisation that kept reminding me of Tony Hancock. Not in his voice, but as the little man battling against an unsympathetic world, only to see his plans come to nothing. The opening comedy set with Yorick performing to a hostile tavern crowd contained some great material that had the real (Wolvercote) audience laughing out loud. Zehra Kelly's sparky Bess was the perfect foil for this dreamer ahead of his time. David Smith brought us a wonderfully depressed Hamlet with a hangdog expression. Top marks by the way for the set design of Hamlet's room, festooned with teenage posters that were actually Pre-Raphaelite and other paintings of young women, and empty beer cans on the floor. His revelation to Yorick that he actually liked his new material and was tired of the pig's bladder routines of other jesters brought us a discussion by the two men that sounded rather too close to a certain brand of 21st century stand-up comic, who invests his or her role with a tad too much cultural importance. A moment to savour for the audience. Tony Bywater's Ghost of Hamlet's Father presented us with an utterly fed-up hen-pecked husband.
One of the funniest devices was that Hamlet's mother Gertrude (Yvonne Janacek) had reacted to the grief of her first husband's death by turning Jewish. This was an absurd idea with a lot of comic potential, but I feel a bit more could have been made of this. An over-the-top Yiddish momma accent might have helped. But there were some great lines that were delivered well.
Finally, St Peter's Players presented Melons at the Parsonage by Nick Warburton. This was the tale of two amateur theatre groups who tie for the main award at a drama festival and are obliged to go through a bizarre process to decide the winner. First, they have to reprise a scene from their own production and then perform a scene from the other group's piece. Warburton set this up nicely by have sharply contrasting drama groups: one performing a pretty appalling murder mystery at a country parsonage (Pete Welply, Annette Jaggard and Jane Hemmings); the other an experimental theatre group called Frantic Jam doing a surreal performance about rats trapped inside a melon to pulsating music and strobe lighting (Will Hazell, Aaron Percival and Charley Middleton dressed all in black, natch). Each side continually tried to undermine the other's performances with what in cricket would be called sledging.
The piece contained a lot of physical humour and director Clare Winterbottom clearly worked her cast hard to get these routines and melées fluent, which was one of the reasons why the audience seemed to like this one best. The final tie-breaker round, in which both sides had to recite Hamlet's 'To be, or not to be' soliloquy quicker than the others turned into a scrum that kept its energy levels high and focus on the moves pin sharp. A lot of sweat went into this piece and the result was an audience in stitches.
One plea to the amateur theatre community of Oxfordshire. This is the third production I've seen within the past month that takes as its subject matter amateur drama groups who mess up. Although I enjoyed each play, the phrase 'too much of a good thing' comes to mind. Just a thought.
St. Peter's Players did well to bring together such different comedies in one performance. Given that many of the actors appeared in more than one (and in three cases, directed and acted in different plays), their stamina and commitment is to be commended. For myself, this was an evening in which I laughed out loud many times. The programme said, 'We hope you all enjoy the three plays on offer and leave the hall with a smile on your face!' I certainly did, and I was far from alone.
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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