Angela by Mark Ravenhill – review

Pam Ferris & Toby Jones perfect in audio play about a mother with dementia

★★★★★

Mark Ravenhill as a child with his parents. Credit: Mark Ravenhill

I’ve listened to audio plays all my life, mainly on BBC radio, so, believe me, it means a lot when I say I have never heard a better audio play than Mark Ravenhill’s Angela. It works perfectly as audio because it’s about his mother who had dementia and it takes place almost entirely inside her head.

Why, in the throes of dementia, does she forget she has a son, why does she think her husband is trying to kill her, why does she become violent? In the course of the play, we hear what led her there: her memories of her unpleasant childhood, her ambitions to be an actor, her miscarriages and the profound effect of losing her first baby, a girl.

There is much about how her love of theatre and encouragement of her son Mark is at odds with her working class background and the cause of conflict with her husband and her sister. Central is a moment from Mark’s childhood, when we see how she copes and doesn’t cope with her son. Together they see the ballet film The Tales Of Beatrix Potter. Mark becomes obsessed with dancing the role of Jemima Puddleduck. Angela identifies with Jemima, someone who is threatened by the world and has her children killed or taken away.

It’s sad, painful even, but not depressing. It’s beautifully written and sensitively performed. We gain insights into dementia- the disorientation, the imagined world, the confusion of past and present- but what is fundamentally important is that Angela remains a person, a human being with thoughts and memories and feelings.

And there’s the gentleness with which her son- and her husband- interact with her is heartwarming.

The dialogue and the acting in Angela are pitch perfect. I can’t speak to the art of getting it right but I’ve heard many times when it’s been wrong, the dialogue stilted, the acting stagey. But here when the older Angela says, for example, ‘I bled the girl away. I was made all wrong’, it sounds natural and is spoken with understated passion by Pam Ferris.

The other cast members also get the balance of clarity and believability just right. Toby Jones as her gentle husband,  Matti Houghton as the younger Angela gradually beaten down by life, Jackson Laing as the young Mark bright, loving but oblivious to his mother’s anguish even as she supports him, Joseph Millson as the adult Mark, caring, and understanding how her past shaped her and himself. ‘We’ve all got muddled, imagined things, got angry with each other,’ he says.

‘Natural’ is rarely achieved naturally, so Polly Thomas, a hugely experienced director of radio plays, deserves her share of the credit for making this one work.

The sound too is just right. The minimalist piano music by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite is dreamlike and ever so slightly disorientating, as befits a story that shows the effects of dementia.

There’s much more to Mark Ravenhill’s cleverly constructed play: Angela’s mother, a parent who undermines her child; her relationship with her sister who has two boys and is insensitive as to how that might make the (at that time) childless Angela feel; the attachment of blame; the devastating hole left by a miscarriage and the way it is unexpectedly filled by her love of acting when two people with dementia meet.

The play begins and ends with a middle aged man taking a ballet class. No prizes for guessing who this is.

I appreciate this play may mean more to those of us who have experienced at first hand the effects of dementia on a loved one but I can assure you that, even if you haven’t, you will be moved by this play and be thinking about it for a long time afterwards.

Angela is part of a new season of audio plays from Sound Stage, co-produced by Pitlochry festival theatre and the Edinburgh Royal Lyceum in collaborartion with naked Productions. Still to come are new plays by John Byrne, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Roy Williams and more. 

You can hear performances of Angela from 2628 March and 1 & 2 April 2021. Tickets are available from pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com and lyceum.org.uk

Click here to watch the review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Paul received a free ticket from the producers to review Angela.

The Picture Of Dorian Gray with Fionn Whitehead – review

Joanna Lumley & Alfred Enoch add gloss to digital Oscar Wilde


★★★

Fionn Whitehead in The Picture Of Dorian Gray

Despite it being co-produced by five regional theatres with the involvement of many more, The Picture Of Dorian Gray is not theatre. It’s not filmed theatre. It’s not a theatrical film. It’s not a theatre-film hybrid. It’s a film. A bit of an avant-garde film maybe, but a film. So here’s my film review.

The adaptation by Henry Filloux-Bennett of Oscar Wilde’s novel brings us into the present day where Dorian Gray has been transformed into a social media star by a new digital filter that makes him incredibly attractive.  He is corrupted by his obsession with fame and his number of followers. ‘Your followers meant more to you than I did,’ his girlfriend says, or, as he says himself, he chooses ‘aesthetics over ethics’. While the filter keeps his digital face in the bloom of youth, his actual face starts to deteriorate rapidly.

Recalling what they remember of him and of what happened to him are Joanna Lumley silky-voiced as ever as an amoral Lady Narborough and Alfred Enoch as a believably bad influence called Harry, both speaking to an Interviewer played by Stephen Fry.

Their performances are excellent, and also Russell Tovey as Basil the man who invents the filter, although he appears less than the story would seem to demand.

A great deal of the film is in the form of people in isolation giving interviews or making calls or posting online, but it’s not some fuzzy set of zoom calls, it’s beautifully filmed in proper settings and from varied angles. There are cleverly cut sequences when Flashbacks are required, the main one conveying a party atmosphere very well. In fact, I found the filming and the cutting hypnotic, thanks I assume to director Tamara Harvey.

So far so good but here’s where my enjoyment started to buffer.  Because, pleasant looking and charming in demeanour as Fionn Whitehead is, and good actor as he undoubtedly is, I just couldn’t understand why the other characters feel in love with this Dorian Gray or why he would attract hundreds of thousands of followers. I admit this may indicate my lack of understanding of the kind of people who do attract a massive following on Instagram and the like.

Of course, I speak as someone who has hundreds rather than thousands of followers on social media- and I did take to heart Basil’s declaration that ‘youth is one thing worth having.’  I thought ‘Okay, let’s try a theatrical suspension of disbelief’, but the problem was that, whether he was talking to his followers or to his friends, what came out of his mouth was vacuous and spoken in a flat voice. It may have been meant to indicate the innocence of youth but to me it was just dull.

I could have written this off as my lack of appreciation of things youthful except that I did find Emma McDonald who played Sybil, another rising social media star, entirely convincing in her voice and looks, and that was as much to do with her expression as the basic tools she was working with.

As a warning against the dangers of social media, Henry Filloux-Bennett ’s script covers a well-clicked search, and has little new to say. The novelty of the way it says it soon wears off but the acting and filming make it worth a view.

The Picture Of Dorian Gray is streaming from 16-31 March 2021. Tickets from pictureofdoriangray.com

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Paul was given a review ticket by the producers

Crave by Sarah Kane at Chichester – review

CFT production goes to the heart of Kane’s scream of despair


★★★★

Crave at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

Four actors are standing on four travelators which are in reverse so their characters are constantly having to move forward. While in constant motion, they face front and speak, usually in a staccato sound, often in short single sentences or phrases, some of them repeated. It sounds like a spray of bullets from a machine gun.

They seem to be talking to you but they may also be talking to each other or to no-one. The travelators keep them separate, even if they are communicating, so the effect is of isolation.

Is it all the stream of consciousness of one person? Are they all dead or on their deathbeds facing a form of judgement day? There is no plot, no clear relationships, not even clearly defined characters. As someone says at one point: ‘If this makes no sense, then you understood it perfectly’. So I think I must have understood it perfectly. No matter. I certainly found it engrossing.

Chichester Festival Theatre’s artistic director Daniel Evans talked in his interview with me about seeing Crave in a new light because of the isolation we are all feeling at the moment. I’m sure this is true, but the director Tinuke Craig seems to have got beyond the lockdown resonance to the very heart of this play, because it’s not only about the loneliness but also the darkness of human existence.

When she wrote the play Sarah Kane offered no help in how to stage her text. It has been done in many ways, for example with the characters together in a room, but Tinuke Craig’s decision to stage Crave in this way, both in concept and the realisation in Alex Lowde’s set is genius, even if it may have been triggered by the requirements of social distancing. These anonymous traumatised characters are truly isolated and stuck on their own relentless path. “Here I am in the darkness again,’ says one. ‘On the edge of nothing’ comes the liturgical response.

You wouldn’t be surprised if this was a play by Samuel Beckett except there is none of the hope and courage that his characters show in the face of their futile situations. Here there seems to be only despair at the human condition.

I found myself deeply disturbed by this bleak view of life but could perhaps have been more moved if Kane had made her characters more like real people that I could connect with. However, I hesitate to call this a failure on her part as I assume it was a deliberate decision to disconnect them emotionally from those watching, just as they have no names, only letters A, B, C and M.

So much of what they say you might generously call aphorisms, like ‘no-one

Erin Doherty in Crave. Photo: Marc Brenner

survives life’, and there are echoes of other works, which is not a criticism. The borrowing reminded me of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. I think the poetry of this piece- and it is a poem- is not only in what is said but how it’s said. During the play someone describes poetry as ‘language for its own sake’ but the language of this poem has a kind of jagged beauty because, within its cadence, telling words about need and rejection constantly jab at you. And every so often a line really brings you up short, like: ‘What I sometimes mistake for ecstasy is the absence of grief.’

The actors were impressive. Neediness and desperation pervaded all that they did. Some of what they talked about was very upsetting. Erin Doherty‘s character referred in a sometimes strangulated voice to the rape and abuse she had received and talked about her poor self image. Jonathan Slinger’s character first announced he was a paedophile which then coloured a subsequent long and touching monologue about love which itself was later contradicted by his nasty cynicism. A mentiuion too for Alfred Enoch and Wendy Kweh. It was a bravura performance by all concerned.

‘A horror so deep only ritual can contain it’

The sound, composed by Anna Clock, comprised sawing, disjointed, low notes played on, I think, a cello. It was discomfiting but in just the right way. And Ravi Deepres’ back-projected film of images of the characters, sometimes negative or blurred, added rather than distracted. I was particularly struck by a close up of Erin Doherty’s face and the words ‘What have they done to me’ gradually appearing in writing on her skin.

When one character talked of ‘a horror so deep only ritual can contain it’, I thought of the horrors that were being contained on this occasion because they were being presented within the ritual of a play. And when I say ‘contained’, I mean only just. At the end, in quite biblical language, the characters embrace the freedom of death, and the play ends with a blackout. I was left totally wrung out.

About the screening. The process of logging in to view the event was straightforward and I was pleased that I was able to sit back and watch it on my telly with good picture quality rather than on blurry Zoom or the small screen of my laptop. The live broadcast went without a hitch when I saw it. We had front views, side views and close ups but in a way that enhanced the performance. The way the production was done had the advantage that, although it was a theatre show, it didn’t look like a film of a stage play because it could also be a movie about four people trapped in any empty space. Congratulations all round.

Performances of Crave was live streamed in November 2021. cft.org.uk

Click here to watch this review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Erin Doherty is currently playing Princess Anne in the Netflix series The Crown.

Lorca’s Blood Wedding at Salisbury Playhouse – review

Barney Norris brings home the power of love

★★★

Emmet Byrne and Lily Nichol in Lorca’s Blood Wedding. Photo: Helen Murray

Wiltshire becomes a metaphor for today’s Britain in Barney Norris‘ retelling of Lorca’s Blood Wedding at Salisbury Playhouse. The blood feud of the original is replaced by laddish drunkenness and Mediterranean passion by English reticence in which ‘Sorry’ is the most used word.

That may sound like Lorca-lite but this is a good play in its own right. The characters are well drawn and the dialogue feels real. That’s partly because it is so strongly rooted in Wiltshire. There is longing, fate and disconnection in this story of an ill matched bride and groom whose tragic fate is sealed when another man stirs the bride’s heart.

What works particularly well in Alice Hamilton’s production is the feeling that these characters are trapped. They are limited by poverty. None has moved far over the years, yet they are all slightly displaced from their origins. This combination of roots and disconnection is a powerful parable for our times: England has one foot in the past while being uncertain how to step into the future; we still have bigotry but as it says in the play ‘bigot’ is now a pejorative term.

They are even trapped in an unchanging set- a beautifully constructed exterior of a once proud community hall now dilapidated. Sitting in Salisbury, watching a play so rooted in Wiltshire, adds to that feeling of being trapped.

The atmosphere of the Moonraker county is strong but the story of Lorca’s Blood Wedding is universal.

As in the original, we have a Bride and Groom. Georgie is about to marry Rob, for whom the title ‘lad’ might have been invented. He’s a four years younger than her but seems like a different generation, such is his childishness. He’s infatuated with her; she just wants to get married.

Georgie and Rob are played by very promising young actors. Reece Evans’ goofy expressions, loud jokes and wide-eyed innocence are just the right side of caricature. Lily Nichol conveys Georgie’s discomfort with the situation as if it were a physical burden.

When she meets her old flame Lee, whom she previously rejected because he’s an Irish traveller, her feeling that real love is missing from her current relationship is crystallised. Both feel, as he says, there must be more to life. After the interval, it’s time for the wedding reception and an inevitable catastrophe.

Lee too has a loveless marriage with Georgie’s old school friend Danni, now the mother of Lee’s child and pregnant again. There is a deeply moving moment when Danni, continually asking him whether he loves her, says with sadness, ‘If you did, I wouldn’t be talking now.’

An impressive look at the complex lives of ordinary people

Tensions mount until the situation explodes but, in keeping with the original, the ‘blood’ of the blood wedding is shed offstage. Although, at this point in the production, the use of a kind of one man Greek chorus high up is undoubtedly dramatic, I found it too histrionic for this tale of ordinary people. I would have preferred the description of what has happened and the explanation of its significance to have been contained within the natural conversations. In other words, show rather than tell.

The set, designed by James Perkins, is crowned by a huge moon, another Lorca reference, that underlines the feeling that there are greater forces that control the fate of mere humans.

The rest of the cast shine. Jeff Rawle plays the hall’s caretaker Brian with a white beard and a benign smile that give him a Father Christmas look as he dispenses sage advice. A perfect choice for the part. Teresa Banham is totally believable as Rob’s edgy, sensitive mother. Emmet Byrne convinces as the spirited but nervous traveller desperate to be free who sparks passion in Georgie. The confusion and desperation Eleanor Henderson beings to the role of Lee’s wife Danni is touching.

It may lack Lorca’s passion but Barney Norris‘ version of Blood Wedding is an impressive look at the complex lives of ordinary people in Britain today.

Lorca’s Blood Wedding at Salisbury playhouse. Photo: Helen Murray

Lorca’s Blood Wedding is performing at Salisbury playhouse until 22 February 2020. Tickets from Salisbury Playhouse

[This review was edited on 15 February 2020: the order of some of the text was rearranged to make it more coherent.]

Paul was given a review ticket by Salisbury Playhouse.

Click here to watch the video of this review on YouTube

Breaking The Code – Salisbury Playhouse

Turing play still packs a punch

★★★

Edward Bennett in Breaking The Code. Photo: Helen Murray

We know a lot more about Alan Turing, the subject of Breaking The Code, than we did when Hugh Whitemore wrote the play in the mid 1980s. His once secret work on breaking the Enigma code during World War Two, possibly saving millions of lives, is now well publicised. The government has apologised for the appalling treatment he received because of his homosexuality and he has been pardoned for his ‘crime’. He has been the subject of an excellent film The Imitation Game and his face will soon be appearing on the £50 note.

Unlike the aforementioned movie, Breaking The Code concentrates on the prejudice against homosexuals. It does cover the wartime code breaking but the code he is breaking in this play is society’s code which dictates how we are supposed to behave. And while homosexuality may now be legal in Britain and widely if not universally accepted as natural, there are always unfair rules imposed by the society we live in and the play is a plea for valuing those people- scientists, artists, whoever- who question and break those rules. The story of this brilliant mathematician adds up to a beautifully written play. 

Hugh Whitemore’s play is beautifully written

Joey Phillips & Edward Bennett in Breaking The Code. Photo: Helen Murray

Turing’s arrest for gross indecency, his prosecution and punishment run parallel with his life story. His school friend and love of his life Christopher who died young is constantly present in his mind as inspiration and is often on stage in the background. We get a glimpse of Turing’s genius when he talks about science. He explains that even mathematics that most logical of sciences may not always be right or wrong. This parallels with his personal life where he doesn’t see behaviour as right or wrong but a matter of choices based on one’s feelings. He enjoys gay sex. He doesn’t see it as wrong. He is open about it. In many ways, he is a man for today. But his honesty was his downfall in those days.

We are told in some detail about the horror of his treatment, punishment and subsequent suicide. It is as shocking as a punch in the guts and all the more so because in the course of the play we get to know the victim, not only the great scientist but the eccentric, humorous, compassionate human being. He could be describing himself when he says a computer could be ‘kind, resourceful, beautiful, friendly, have a sense of humour, tell right from wrong, make mistakes, fall in love, or enjoy strawberries and cream.’

Turing is on stage the whole time and must have as many lines as Hamlet. So the play stands or falls on the performance of the lead actor.

An enchanting portrayal by Edward Bennett 

Edward Bennet & Caroline Harker in Breaking The Code. Photo: Helen Murray

Edward Bennett is very good. I was enchanted by his portrayal of Alan Turing. If I have a reservation, it’s that he was too nice. After all, this is a person who chained his mug to the radiator pipe to prevent it being stolen or says in another prickly exchange: ‘Am I in for a lesson in morals?’ I would have liked to have seen a bit more of that spikiness in the interpretation.

This Salisbury Playhouse production directed by Christian Durham makes a good stab at telling a story once so revelatory but now so well known. It is presented in the round which give it intimacy. The lack of a set not only means the action can flow quickly and seamlessly between the past, present and memories, but also suggests the anonymity of Turing’s secret work. James Button’s excellent design uses coding sequences on the floor and boards with mathematical equations hanging above.

I particularly liked Louise Calf’s warm portrayal of Turing’s female colleague and friend Pat, and Ian Redford’s police officer Mick Ross, a subtle combination of sympathy and duty.

Breaking The Code runs at Salisbury Playhouse until 26 October 2019

Click here to watch Paul’s video review of Breaking The Code on YouTube

Paul Lewis was given free review tickets by Salisbury Playhouse 

10.10.19: Edited slightly to avoid repetition

 

Assassins at The Watermill – review

Production of Sondheim’s musical hits the target

★★★★

Assassins at The Watermill. Photo: The Other Richard

Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is one of his lesser known musicals. Having seen this production of it at The Watermill, I understand why. There’s no story, no engagement with the characters and, like the would be assassins, it’s hit and miss. On the plus side, you do get a fascinating look at men and women who attempted and sometimes succeeded in assassinating American presidents. You are also treated to some great music and amusing lyrics and, in the case of this Watermill production, an entertaining performance that hits the bullseye.

In this fantasy musical with a book by John  Weidman, all the would be assassins get together at a funfair where they are given their own special guns and cajoled into going for the big prize if they shoot a president dead. The musical is an exploration of what that prize is. The answer, and this is not a spoiler, is fame.

We learn something about each of these would be assassins, first John Wilkes Booth who killed Abraham Lincoln, finally Lee Harvey Oswald who shot John Kennedy. It’s by no means chronological and the various stories intertwine. We see them as failures, mentally unstable nobodies who have been let down by the American Dream which promises that everyone can succeed.

Although we never sympathise with this unhinged bunch of people, we do hear some great tunes. Peter Dukes as Leon Czolgosz (who killed President McKinley) sings one of the best- The Gun Song which describes the number of hands involved in the manufacturing process. Generally Stephen Sondheim’s score offers pastiches of various forms of traditional and popular American music. It carries us and the assassins along with the joy of America while contrasting with the grubby truth revealed before us and through his lyrics.

Another National Anthem sums it up: ‘There are those who keep forgetting That the country’s built on dreams.’ Or as another song says: ‘Everybody’s got the right to be happy.’

It’s a fast moving, slick production from Bill Buckhurst. The Watermill has a small stage but the 15 strong cast manage to fill and move round it with military precision, choreographed by Georgina Lamb. They also play instruments, so to say they are talented is an understatement.

Eddie Elliott in Assassins at The Watermill Theatre. Photo: The Other Richard

I don’t like to pick out individual performances from this excellent ensemble, but I’m going to. Eddie Elliott is the delusional but hyper confident Charles Guiteau who expects to become ambassador to France and shoots dead President McKinley. Mr Elliott plays him with great pizzazz, jumping around the stage and shaking hands with the audience and rushing to the scaffold with a joyful gospel I’m Going to The Lordy. Lillie Flynn as the Balladeer, a kind of narrator, has the strong punchy voice of a classic musical singer. Sara Poyzer’s neurotic Sara Jane Moore gets a lot of laughs as her mind and her gun fire in all directions.

Inevitably on a stage as small as The Watermill’s, the set is minimal but Simon Kenny has cleverly created a fun fair feel particularly by showing the presidents’ faces like targets in a shooting gallery.

When it comes to the climax- the assassination of JFK- the back of the set spins round to become the windows of the famous Book Depository. All previous assassins led by Wilkes Booth (a chilling portrayal by Alex Mugnaioni)  gather to nudge the suicidal Oswald to pick up the rifle.

The previously black comedy becomes serious and even sentimental which makes the end inconsistent with what leads up to it. Presumably Sondheim and Weidman decided this particular assassination was still too raw in their and our minds. Perhaps, unlike Oswald, they lost their nerve. 

Assassins is performing at The Watermill in Newbury until 26 October 2019 and then transfers to Nottingham Playhouse where it runs from 30 October to 16 November.

Click here to watch the YouTube video review of Assassins

Paul Seven Lewis was given tickets to see Assassins by The Watermill Theatre

This review was amended slightly on 7 October for consistency.

Kiss Me, Kate at The Watermill – review

Oti Mabuse energises fun-packed Cole Porter musical

★★★★

Kiss Me Kate at The Watermill. Photo: Pamela Raith

Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate is a gift to performers. It has a great story- a play Taming Of The Shrew within a play in which the lead actors in conflict on stage are at loggerheads behind the scenes. It has tuneful songs with clever lyrics. It has strong characters. It is a perfect musical comedy. Changing it would destroy it. Like putting lipstick on the Mona Lisa. You’d think.

Paul Hart, The Watermill’s artistic director, has decided to take the risk and adds more comedy in the form of farce by making it a kind of Kiss Me Kate Goes Wrong plus a dose of sexual politics.

Most of the time he pulls it off. But not always. Petruchio famously spanks Kate but having her spank him as well, in the cause of sexual equality, takes the edge off the subsequent joke that she can’t sit down. That’s one bum note. 

Another is making so many things go wrong from the start because this takes away from Lily’s belligerence being the factor that brings down the previous order of the theatrical production. If it falls apart without her help, that removes one of the golden threads that is woven into the cloth of this glorious musical. 

In a similar way, if the actor manager Fred is a loveable idiot from the start, his descent from a big headed authoritarian to broken fool is lost.

Rebecca Trehearn & David Ricardo-Pearce in Kiss Me, Kate. Photo: Pamela Raith

And yet, there’s no denying the added farce is very funny. The chorus has to improvise an encore when the curtain fails to rise. Actors leave the stage on the wrong side and have to scurry across in the background. The witty lyrics are still given full weight, so this an evening in which the laughter rarely stops.

It helps that there are some terrific performances. Rebecca Trehearn and David Riccardo-Pearce as the lead actors Fred and Lilli have strong, pure voices that both soar and express pathos. They are engaging performers. Fred running round the auditorium buttonholing members of the audience as he asks Where Is The Life That Late I Led? had the audience in stitches.

Kimmy Edwards in Kiss Me, Kate. Photo: Pamela Raith

The highly talented Kimmy Edwards as Lois/Bianca does justice to both her big numbers- Tom, Dick Or Harry and the showstopper Always True To You In My Fashion. The latter climaxes with her skirt ripped off and Edwards high kicking in true showbiz style, using drumsticks like majorette batons.

Sheldon Greenland and Robert Jackson make amusing gangsters who become enchanted by the theatre, eventually exhorting us to Brush Up Your Shakespeare. Jay Perry is a charming Bill and Andre Fabian Francis is a stupendous dancer.

Talking of the dancing, Oti Mabuse does an excellent job as choreographer. Given the small space at The Watermill, there’s no opportunity for big chorus line numbers but there are quite a few energetic ensemble numbers that are all the more thrilling for squeezing flamboyant movements into the limited room.

Finally, the piece de resistance: all the actors play instruments which gives the show an added sense of excitement and makes the music seem like an extension of the acting.

So, while I may have small reservations about this production, I found it a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

Kiss Me, Kate can be seen at The Watermill Theatre until 21 September 2019

Click here to watch the review on YouTube

This Is My Family – review

Sheila Hancock and James Nesbitt are the leading lights and Kirsty MacLaren shines


[usr=4]

James Nesbitt, Scott Folan, Kirsty MacLaren & Clare Burt in This Is My Family. Photo: Johan Persson

There’s a lot to like in This Is My Family which is directed by Daniel Evans with a light comic touch.

This is the second of CFT Artistic Director Daniel Evans‘ ‘greatest hits’ from his days at the Sheffield Crucible to be revived at Chichester. I wasn’t so keen on Flowers For Mrs Harris but I’m delighted he brought this show south with him.

Nicky, our narrator and the daughter of the family in question, sees that her family is falling apart. Her mum and dad are hitting midlife crises, they bicker and don’t seem loving any more, her brother is moody and withdrawn, her grandmother is beginning to lose her mind. Nicky’s solution is a camping holiday back where mum and dad first met.

Put like that, it sounds quite predictable and in truth there’s not much to challenge the audience but Tim Firth has written a beautifully observed comedy about family relationships through the generations. There are some very witty lines, the best of which go to Grandma (‘Love is when you’ve sucked off all the chocolate and there’s the nut left’) and Mum’s libido driven sister Sian played by Rachel Lumberg. The latter part is, unlike the others, more of a cariacature but it’s all the more funny for that and her song comparing lovemaking to driving a car is hilarious.

Sheila Hancock in This Is My Family. Photo: Johan Persson

This is My Family is a musical play rather than a musical musical which may be why I didn’t find the songs memorable. There are no show stoppers or vocal stretching moments- they’re more like words accompanied by music, almost recitative, and this may be the point because Tim Firth‘s many lovely metaphors would be too poetic or emotional for spoken dialogue.

Kirsty MacLaren is magnificent as Nicky. She holds the show together and is one talented young woman, living up to the promise she showed in Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour. Scott Folan as the lovestruck brother is good too and their antagonistic but loving sibling relationship feels spot on.

At the other end of the age scale, Sheila Hancock is fabulous as the grandma who’s frightened of what she’s losing but finds peace in the past.

James Nesbitt and Clare Burt are a pleasure to watch for their comic acting.

This Is My Family. Photo: Johan Persson

The set by Richard Kent is clever. This is the Minerva so mostly it’s three-sided space but at the back in act one there’s a kind of slice through the middle of a house, filled with domestic details, which then spins round to form a wood in act two.

In the end this is a hopeful view of the family that we can all recognise. As I said, there’s a lot to like about This Is My Family. It’s been a while since Chichester had a West End transfer, this feelgood musical deserves to be the one.

This Is My Family is at Chichester Festival Theatre until 15 June 2019. Click here for tickets

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Note: Minor changes made on 17 May 2019 to the order of the paragraphs and to the spelling of Clare Burt’s name and the title of Our Ladies OF Perpetual Succour.

Handbagged – Regional production – Review

Handbagged by Moira Buffini in a new production directed by Jo Newman

[usr=3]

Handbagged takes us through the major events of Margaret Thatcher’s reign as British prime minister. I use the word ‘reign’ deliberately because the story is told through a series of meetings between an increasingly regal Thatcher (Eve Matheson) and the actual Queen Elizabeth (Caroline Hacker).

Handbags multiply as those two are overseen by older versions of themselves, played by Sarah Crowden and Susan Penhaligon. Much of the humour stems from the characters commenting to the audience on what is said. Typically: ‘I never said that’.

Handbagged at Salisbury Playhouse Photo: Helen Murray

Because the play is speculation, no-one knows for sure what was said and the characters are aware that they are performing this version of events for an audience.  ‘Whatever we say, it must stay within these three walls,’ says the Queen. What we are presented with is a conflict between the ideological, deaf-to-compromise, humourless Thatcher (‘No’ being her favourite word) and a more compassionate, ethical and wryly amusing Queen. It’s no surprise who ends up the winner in this handbagging contest.

The author Moira Buffini clearly thinks Mrs Thatcher’s premiership was bad news. If you agree, you’ll get a lot of pleasure in hearing the Queen being upset by the effects of her government’s policies- dividing the nation, creating a greater gap between rich and poor, encouraging greed. ‘We lost the feeling that had persisted since the war,’ she says, ‘That we are all in this together.’ ‘Is she a socialist?’ asks Mrs T.

I never really felt I got beneath the skin of the two women in power, despite the poignant moments of shared sadness at the IRA bomb attack on Mrs Thatcher in Brighton and the assassination of Lord Mountbatten.

I found the history lesson got a bit boring at times but there is plenty of fun to be had in the conflict between these two women in power. All the women do good impressions of the protagonists but Susan Penhaligon is uncannilly believable as the older Queen and- perhaps because we nearly all have this well of affection for the real queen- she gets the most laughs.

Supporting the four women, two men play actors who have been hired to play all the other parts- Denis Thatcher, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Neil Kinnock, Michael Hesletine, and so on- and who also address the audience with their ‘own’ left wing views, in case we found the Queen’s opinions a little oblique. Andy Secombe and Jahvel Hall provide a lot of knockabout comedy and almost steal the show.

On the whole the performance I saw seemed a little hesitant which, for me, dampened the laughs. I expect, after a few more outings, it will be much sharper.

Handbagged can be seen at Salisbury Playhouse until until 20 April 2019 then tours to York Theatre Royal (24 April – 11 May) and Oldham Coliseum Theatre (14 May – 1 June)

Click here to watch the review of Handbagged on YouTube

Agatha Christie: The Mirror Crack’d – Touring production – review

Rachel Wagstaff’s triumphant adaptation of classic Christie whodunit

[usr=5]

Watch the YouTube review of The Mirror Crack’d-

The Wales Millennium Centre and Wiltshire Creative touring production of Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d, adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff,  received its premiere at Salisbury Playhouse.

Katherine Manners in The Mirror Crack’d
Photo Credit: Helen Murray

This could have a standard Agatha Christie whodunit but this production is far above standard. Rachel Wagstaff has provided an adaptation that is faithful to the plot and characters, necessarily simplified for a two hour stage show, but with unexpected depth added.

It’s still a story of Miss Marple investigating the death of a villager who expires after drinking a famous film star’s daiquiri.The original shows  Miss Marple concerned that she’s being marginalised by her old age and the changing times (it’s set in the early Sixties). In this story, she is also temporarily disabled to add to her feeling of being ignored.

Susie Blake in The Mirror Crack’d. Photo: Helen Murray

Apart from putting a contemplation of the invisibility of old age centre stage, this play concerns itself with the loneliness of older people.  It also dwells on memory- both the way in which memories affect who we are but also, integral to the plot, the unreliability of memory.

We see the same scene re-enacted on numerous occasions, each time slightly different depending on who is telling the story. Melly Still‘s pared back production with a simple, appropriately dark set by Richard Kent keeps the story moving between flashbacks and changes of scene.

Rachel Wagstaff’s dialogue is also more dynamic than Agatha Christie’s and more robust, by which I mean there’s some swearing.

Susie Blake & Simon Shepherd in The Mirror Crack’d. Photo: Helen Murray

Susie Blake has some big acts to follow in the role of Miss Marple but she more than holds her own with a mix of quiet determination and sly humour. The rest of the cast, and there are eleven altogether, provide humour and weight. Simon Shepherd is amusing as the pompous, patronising Chief inspector Craddock. Suzanna Hamilton is the fragile film star and Julia Hills is amusing and slightly sad as Miss Marple’s snobbish but empathetic friend Dolly.

The Mirror Crack’d has an entertaining plot with some welcome depth, like biting on a soft chocolate and finding a chewy centre.

The Mirror Crack’d continues at Salisbury Playhouse until 9 March 2019 then visits The Gaiety Theatre Dublin (12-16 March), the Arts Theatre Cambridge (19-23 March) and New Theatre Cardiff (26 March-6 April).