THE MONKEY'S PAW
THE HORRIBLE THING IN THE GARDEN
The Phoenix Theatre Company
Christchurch Hall, Chelmsford
Mary Redman was in the audience ...
Can it really be six years since I saw a Phoenix production? The attrition rate has been high with many of their former prize fighting thespians having transferred their loyalties elsewhere in the amateur world; although a joint Dream is promised for the summer.
Under their former name of Moulsham Lodge Amateur Dramatic Society they built up a reputation for the weird and wonderful with some stirring Grand-Guignol productions, so they should have been at home with WW Jacobs's tale of horror and a “macabre comedy” by Mary Neild.
The enormously wide stage and even bigger hall at Christchurch doesn't make life easy when your play is set in the living room of an old cottage on the outskirts of Fulham in the early 1900s. From the projection point of view it leaves your characters talking into a void rather than intimately to each other and occasionally your audience left out. This got better when they all huddled round the fire to hear the increasingly drunken tale of Geoff Hadley's excellent Sergeant-Major Morris. The incredulous White Family gradually realised that the paw might work to their advantage, despite its habit of wreaking vengeance on those who dared to make a wish with it.
Syd Smith's father was cautious but Richard Langley's Herbert, a youth much endowed with a magnificent head of hair contrary to the customs of the times, had no such qualms. The result of egging his father on was a fortune laced with tragedy, thus breaking his mother Julie Lissamore's heart. Les Leeds made an appropriately spectral bearer of doom-laden news
The performance as a whole felt a bit quiet. Then I realised it was the second night of the run which is when unwary actors give in to a sense of thank goodness the first night is over and give rather subdued performances when they really need to give it some welly. To conquer that immense stage, a false exterior to the cottage would have brought the sides in and the cast forward, thus increasing the intimacy between cast and audience. Oh, and in the days of coal fires and poverty we didn't leave interior doors open in our houses – “Were you born in a barn?” being the usual sarcastic comment.
All was sweetness and light and Come Into The Garden Maud at the start of The Horrible Thing when the cast gave us a much more out front production. This very short play gave its cast plenty of opportunity to have fun with their genteel characters Miss Violet Throstle (Helen Langley); and Miss Rose Throstle (Angela Gee's vision of blonde loveliness with red roses running riot all over her dress plus decorated wellies); the horror story-addicted char Mrs Honeybun (Joan Lanario) and sensible travelling hairdresser Marlena Honeybun (Leila Francis) respectively.
Of course it all turned out to be a scarecrow causing a storm in a bone china tea cup but it was an amusing treat for the audience.
Tricia Childs directed both plays. Now there's a Titania for you – the dramatic, beautiful looks combined with dramatic experience.