Brief Encounter – The Watermill – review

An enjoyably theatrical show based on Noel Coward’s iconic romance


★★★★

Production photo of Callum McIntyre & Laura Lake Abedisi in Brief Encounter at The Watermill Theatre in Newbury
Callum McIntyre & Laura Lake Abedisi in Brief Encounter at The Watermill. Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

If you’re expecting to see a straightforward stage adaptation of the film Brief Encounter, you may be disappointed. If you’re expecting to see Emma Rice’s legendary multimedia production of Brief Encounter, you may be disappointed.

If you go without ever having seen the film, or at least without any expectations, you should enjoy an evening of humour, passion, poignancy and great theatricality.

Let’s take the lack of similarity to the film first. Part of the issue here is that in writing this play, Emma Rice has combined elements of Noel Coward’s screenplay with his original short play Still Life on which the film was based. A great idea but this means it isn’t pure Brief Encounter.

As to Emma Rice‘s adaptation, the original Kneehigh production from ten or so years ago,included a big screen with a movie showing that imitated the David Lean version but featured the stage actors, who then interacted with it. In this production, the screen has gone.

The story of the chance meeting of two married people in a railway station buffet and their subsequent, hesitant, guilt-ridden affair is still centre stage in this production of Brief Encounter but, there is much more about the relationship between Myrtle the café manager and Albert the station guard than you see in the film.

This is especially true in the first act where their flirtatious and at times vulgar chatting up is given almost equal weight with the more reserved and cautious romance between Alec and Laura. There is a strong and, I suggest, elitist suggestion that middle class equals repressed and serious, while working class equals liberated and comic. Indeed Kate Milner-Evans and Charles Angiama are funny as Myrtle and Stanley, and the former is a particularly strong singer.

As well as those two couples, there is a third romance going on between a more innocent younger couple Beryl the waitress and Stanley who sells food from a tray on the platform. There are nicely judged performances by Hanna Khogali and Oliver Aston. Although the ‘compare and contrast’ is very interesting, this made the first act very bitty. It was quite a challenge to get to know Alec and Laura.

Although the screen has disappeared, much of Emma Rice’s inventive adaptation remains in this production directed by Robert Kirby. Songs and dance are used to dazzling effect, with all seven actors singing and several playing instruments as well. The songs are by Noël Coward, sometimes his music and lyrics, sometimes his lyrics with music by  Eamonn O’Dwyer. They are well chosen to reflect the mood of each moment. For example, Beryl sings an appropriate Mad About The Boy and, at the end, to match the poignancy of the parting, Alec (Callum McIntyre) sings A Room With A View with lines like ‘A room with a view / And you / And no one to worry us / No one to hurry us / Through this dream we found’. And beautifully sung.

There is also mime and dance. It is pure theatre, which I mean it couldn’t be done in any other medium and it is what we love about being at a live performance.

The Watermill stage is small so Harry Pizzey’s set design leaves it open and cleverly uses a few pieces of scenery to convey the locations. The café counter doubles as a piano; armchairs and tables roll smoothly on and off as the scene changes from the café to a flat to Laura’s home. Which is where we meet her husband Fred, also played by Charles Angiama. You can see why she might want someone less solid, a lot more exciting.

There may be no big screen but the production does use a nice and very amusing device to remind us of its cinematic connection, namely sound effects. As Myrtle mimes pouring tea, one of the cast in the corner pours water into a jug in front of a microphone.

The second act is much more focused on Laura and Alec, and the better for it. This is a classic love story and well told in this version. Their blossoming romance, their growing love that becomes increasingly reckless, the agonising over the rights and wrongs of their affair, the ecstasy and the heartbreak.

As Laura says at one point, their love has made her ‘a stranger in her own home’. The most interesting, because the most conflicted, character is Laura. Played by Laura Lake Abedisi, it is the more difficult role because she has to express herself from behind a mask of repressed feelings and the kind of strangulated accent that you will be familiar with from films of the 1930s and 40s, or  the Queen in The Crown. Ms Abedisi does a splendid job and, by the end, I was totally in tune with her anguish.

Callum McIntyre is excellent as Alec Harvey, combining charm, confidence, humour and profound feeling.

This may not be what you would expect if you love the film, but if you accept that it has been taken apart and reconstructed as a piece of theatre, I think you will have a great evening.

Brief Encounter continues at The Watermill in Newbury until 13 November 2021

One Minute Theatre Reviews was supplied with a press ticket by the producers

Watch this review on the One Minute Theatre Reviews channel on YouTube

 

 

 

The Beauty Queen Of Leenane – review

Martin McDonagh’s early work hints at greatness to come.

★★★

Production photo of The BEauty Queen Of Leenane at The Minerva Thetare Chichester showng Orla Fitzgerald and Ingrid Craigie
Orla Fitzgerald and Ingrid Craigie in The Beauty Queen Of Leenane (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

We’ve come to know Martin McDonagh very well over the last 25 years. Revivals of his plays The Cripple Of Inishmaan with Daniel Radcliffe and The Lieutenant of Inishmore with Aidan Turner were West End triumphs and confirmed his status as a leading playwright.

He continues to dazzle with hits like Hangmen and A Very Very Very Dark Matter. Then there are his films In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and more.

His work is notable for unpredictable storytelling, humorous dialogue and sudden violent shocks. And that’s all here in his first play The Beauty Queen Of Leenane, revived in a co-production by Chichester Festival Theatre and the Lyric Hammersmith.

The play centres on the relationship between 70 year old Mag, played by Ingrid Craigie,  and her 40 year old daughter and carer Maureen (Orla Fitzgerald). The pair are isolated in a run-down Irish village in the mid-1990s. They only have each other, and this dependency has led to a toxic, indeed abusive relationship in which each torments the other in petty, or occasionally significant, ways.

Mag empties her chamber pot into the kitchen sink each morning to the annoyance of her daughter, Maureen only buys biscuits her mother dislikes. It reminded me of the co-dependent parent-child relationship that formed the heart of the classic TV sitcom Steptoe And Son.

Mag schemes to undermine Maureen in order to keep her at home. She destroys important notes and letters. The mentally unstable daughter, having apparently sacrificed her life to perform her filial duty, crosses from care to cruelty. The relationship is dark, sinister even, but the interplay between them is also amusing.

Both actors convince in the ease of their conversation, which sounds like they have been having the same exchanges for the last 20 years, much like a Becket or Pinter play. I particularly enjoyed the animation and barely contained look of triumph that Ingrid Craigie gave when her character had secret knowledge about the truth of a situation, and mischievously led Maureen on in her lie about it. Orla Fitzgerald was tremendous whenever she tried to lord it over her mother, stepping out with hips swaying.

An absorbing look at a toxic relationship

The co-dependency is threatened when Pato appears on the scene. Although a local, he is also an outsider, having emigrated to London. England is always seen as a malign influence in this play. The country that has destroyed Ireland and continues to ruin this village. It’s a relationship perhaps not dissimilar to that of Mag and Maureen.

Pato forms a liaison with Maureen, whom he calls his beauty queen, and threatens to take her away to the promised land of America. Not if Mag has anything to do with it.  A violent and unhappy end seems inevitable.

Production photo ffrom The Beauty Queen Of Leenane at The Minerva Chichester showing Orla Fitzgerald and Adam Best
Adam Best and Orla Fitzgerald in The Beauty Queen Of Leenane (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

Adam Best is moving as Pato, a sad lonely man set apart from the English by his Irish village origins and by the prejudice and dangers of London’s building sites. At the beginning of act two, he writes a letter to Maureen about his life and wishes that is truly heartbreaking.

The fourth member of the cast is Kwaku Fortune who portrays Pato’s brother Ray. His main role is that of a miserable messenger but in his short scenes he convincingly illustrates the dead end nature of life in Leenane, which for him lies mainly in an obsession with Australian soaps and a surly attitude.

The set by Good Teeth Theatre was so dingy you could almost smell the urine. The rainy monotone backwall projection was appropriately bleak. The set was spread out with Mag’s armchair and a stove on one side and Maureen’s chair and kitchen area on the other. This suggested a boxing ring in which each protagonist had their corner. The sound by Anna Clock that accompanies the scenes breaks was equally desolate.

Martin McDonagh certainly has a way with words, and if The Beauty Queen Of Leenane isn’t as laugh-out-loud funny nor as original in its subject matter as his later work, it is still absorbing. Rachel O’Riordan’s production does it proud.

The Beauty Queen Of Leenane is performing in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre until 2 October and then at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre from 6 October to 9 November 2021

Click here to watch the video of this review on YouTube 

South Pacific in Chichester – review

I’m In Love With A Wonderful Production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s anti-racist musical


★★★★★

SOUTH PACIFIC by Rodgers, , Director - Daniel Evans, Set & Costume Designer - Peter McKintosh, Choreography and Movement - Ann Yea, Lighting - Howard Harrison, Chichester Festival Theatre, 2021, Credit: Johan Persson
Julien Ovenden & Gina Beck in South Pacific. Photo credit: Johan Persson

I don’t think it was simply my euphoria at being back in a theatre but this Chichester Festival Theatre production of Rodger and Hammerstein’s South Pacific filled me with joy.

South Pacific was written in 1949 before Rodgers and Hammerstein settled into their, and their audience’s, comfort zone. It has all the features of the best of their work, features they in fact pioneered. One being the use of songs that reveal character and feeling and move the story on- take the many different ways, and therefore implications, in which Some Enchanted Evening is sung at various points. As was their way, the composers packed this musical with the most wonderful songs: A Cockeyed Optimist, There Is Nothing Like A Dame, Bali Ha’i, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair, I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy, Younger Than Springtime, Happy Talk– these songs are part of our DNA.

Another feature is realism, seen both in the characters’ behaviour and Hammerstein’s down-to-earth lyrics. Top marks to director Daniel Evans for keeping this production so grounded in reality.

But what makes South Pacific stand out is that Oscar Hammerstein II was determined to face racism head-on in this musical. You’ll remember that it’s set on a Pacific island during the second world war where American GIs and nurses interact with local people, a nurse falls in love with a French plantation owner, a lieutenant with a local girl. There may be effervescent melodies from Rodgers that fill you with warmth but there is also a story that pits love against hate, love at first undermined by acquired racial prejudice before it finally triumphs. At a time, following England’s Euro final, when we have been reminded of the overt racism that still shames our country, it was uplifting to experience this powerful anti-racist musical.

I cannot fault this production. Daniel Evans has done justice to the seriousness that underlies the musical’s ‘cock-eyed optimism’. It feels like the perfect tribute to the passionately anti-racist Oscar Hammerstein. Happy Talk is no throwaway comic song here but a poignant moment of desperation.

And the director is supported by an excellent cast and creative team.

The two leads Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck are superb in voice and acting ability. Ovenden as Emile the plantation owner, conveys both an overflowing heart and a broken heart with equal conviction. Beck also runs a range of emotions as naive Nellie Forbush from Little Rock but is never better than in I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy which overflows with almost child-like exuberance.  (From August, Alex Young will be sharing and then taking over the role of Nellie, because Gina Beck is pregnant.)

Others also deserve a mention. Joanna Ampil as a believably vulnerable Bloody Mary below the tough exterior. Of the GIs, Rob Houchen as Lieutenant Cable has a beautiful tenor voice which is more than a match for the soaring heights of Younger Than Springtime, and Keir Charles stands out as the scheming but ultimately compassionate Luther Billis. One of the qualities of this musical is seeing the Americans’ wide-eyed confidence come up against the realities of racism and war.

Julien Ovenden & Gina Beck in South Pacific Photo Credit: Johan Persson
Gina Beck and cast in South Pacific. Photo: Johan Persson

The choreography by Ann Yee is magnificent. Sometimes she fills the stage with exhilarating choruses- in a scene that Busby Berkeley would have been proud of, the women take to the showers while Washing That Man Right Outta their Hair. Then there are the quiet moments, like the beautiful solo ballet by Sera Maehara that opens and closes the show.

The see-through revolving wooden sets by Peter McKintosh set the mood of Pacific island life, while leaving the stage open for the big numbers.

And I can’t forget the superb orchestra led by Cat Beveridge featuring the original score with some new orchestration from David Cullen. The glimpses of repeated melodies throughout the show do exactly what a musical should do, evoke complex feelings that words can’t express.

A word of praise for Chichester Festival Theatre who were terrifically well organised and made us feel safe to be back in the theatre. And from the rousing cheer that greeted the first moments, I’d say we were all pretty pleased to be there.

South Pacific is performing at Chichester Festival Theatre from 5 July to 5 September 2021. Performances will be streamed on 4, 9, 14, 18, 21, 26 and 31 August and 3 September.

Click here to watch Paul’s review on YouTube

Angela by Mark Ravenhill – review

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

★★★★★

Photo of Mark Ravenhill as a child with his parents
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. 

Angela was played on 2628 March and 1 & 2 April 2021 as part of pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com  It can be heard on BBC Sounds.

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


★★★

Production photo of Fionn Whitehead in The Picture Of Dorian Gray
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


★★★★

Production shot of Crave at Chichester Festival Theatre
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

Production shot of erin Doherty in Crave at Chichester Festival Theatre
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

★★★

Production photo of Emmet Byrne and Lily Nichol in Lorca's Blood Wedding retold by Barney Norris at Salisbury Playhouse
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.

Production photo of the cast in Lorca's Blood Wedding retold by Barney Norris at Salisbury Playhouse
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

★★★

BREAKING THE CODE by by Hugh Whitemore ; Directed by Christian Durham ; Set & Costume Designer James Button ; Lighting Design by Chris Davey ; Sound & Music by Michael Scott ; Voice and Dialect Coach: Sian Radinger ; Casting Director: Gabrielle Dawes CDG ; Salisbury Playhouse ; Wiltshire Creative ; Salisbury, UK ; 5 October 2019 ; Credit and copyright: Helen Murray
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

BREAKING THE CODE by by Hugh Whitemore ; Based on Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges ; Directed by Christian Durham ; Set & Costume Designer James Button ; Lighting Design by Chris Davey ; Sound & Music by Michael Scott ; Voice and Dialect Coach: Sian Radinger ; Casting Director: Gabrielle Dawes CDG ; Salisbury Playhouse ; Wiltshire Creative ; Salisbury, UK ; 5 October 2019 ; Credit and copyright: Helen Murray
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 

BREAKING THE CODE by by Hugh Whitemore ; Based on Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges ; Directed by Christian Durham ; Set & Costume Designer James Button ; Lighting Design by Chris Davey ; Sound & Music by Michael Scott ; Voice and Dialect Coach: Sian Radinger ; Casting Director: Gabrielle Dawes CDG ; Salisbury Playhouse ; Wiltshire Creative ; Salisbury, UK ; 5 October 2019 ; Credit and copyright: Helen Murray
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

★★★★

Production photo of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins at The Watermill Newbury UK
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.

Production photo showing Eddie Elliott in Assassins at The Watermill Theatre
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

★★★★

Production shot from Kiss Me, Kate at The Watermill Theatre Newbury
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.

Production shot of Rebecca Trehearn & David Ricardo-Pearce in Kiss Me, Kate at The Watermill Theatre
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.

Production shot of Kimmy Edwards in Kiss Me, Kate at The Watermill Theatre
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