Mercury Theatre, Colchester
for The Reviews Hub
“It's just people talking,” is how the playwright modestly sums up The Weir.
And so it is. But Conor McPherson's compelling chamber piece has proved popular at home and abroad over its twenty year life, picking up an Olivier for best new play along the way.
The Weir is the name of the bar where all this talking goes on. Conversations in a pub. The barman shares his day with Jack, and later with Jim. The talk turns to Valerie, a Dubliner, a new incomer to this rural village. When she shows up – with Finbar – the banter and the shared memories take on something of the supernatural, and Valerie is moved to share a tale of her own …
That spare summary ignores the richness of the writing, and the finely detailed characters of these storytellers. In Adele Thomas's atmospheric production, the listening carries equal weight with the speaking: each time a ghost story emerges from the casual conversation, the ripe banter, the faces of the listeners, so many still figures in a careful, painterly composition, add weight to the tale. The feel of the pub is largely naturalistic. Madeleine Girling's set accurately recreates this unremarkable, out-of-the-way hostelry, almost entirely devoid of character. But the lighting and the soundscape hint at a different world. And when the pub is deserted once more – the show runs for an hour and three-quarters without a break – the characters and their stories seem to linger for a moment in the stale air of the bar.
The acting is naturalistic too, even in the heightened other-worldly atmospheres of the ghost stories, and those rich Irish accents – dialect coach Hugh O'Shea – take a while to tune in to, and a few words might go missing along the way.
Sean Murray has the best role: Jack, the cantankerous curmudgeon, pouring his bottled Guinness, man-spreading like a leprechaun on his bar stool. His voice coloured by countless Silk Cut, he tells the first tale, “relishing the details”, of a house built across a Fairy Road. And several pints later, in an armchair by the turf stove, he tells the last - ”not a ghostly story” - revealing the roots of his loneliness, a guest at the wedding of the woman he loved and lost. The two other “single fellers” are barman Brendan (Sam O'Mahony), who is denied a story to share, and Jim (a very convincing John O'Dowd), the quiet man with “more going on in there than you might think”, whose gravedigger's tale is perhaps the most spine-chilling.
Except, that is, for the story that Valerie tells. Inspired by listening to these fanciful tales of the supernatural, in which the boundaries between life and death seem blurred, she calmly reveals the all-too-real tragic events that led to her separation and her arrival in the village, seeking peace and quiet in the countryside. A heart-rending performance from Natalie Radmall-Quirke: hesitant, understated, emotionally drained beneath her sociable façade.
Her guide to the village is Louis Dempsey's Finbar, who left for Carrick to make his fortune. Married but playing the field, he stands in stark contrast to the other three, accentuated by his cream-coloured suit and his ready smile.
“We'll all be ghosts soon enough,” says Jack. And we wonder for a moment if these five, taking refuge for a while from the wuthering wind outside, are perhaps just spirits. But the bar is haunted, not by the dead, but by feelings of loss, of loneliness, of lives unfulfilled.
This production, a collaboration between The Mercury and English Touring Theatre, is by no means entirely melancholy – an earthy profanity and infectious Irish charm ensure that our evening spent in the Weir is enjoyably entertaining as well as poignantly moving.
production photograph: Marc Brenner
Thursday, September 21, 2017
Sunday, September 17, 2017
BOUDICAat Shakespeare's Globe
Tristan Bernays' play is Shakespearean in many senses. It's largely written in verse and in early modern English [“marry”, “needs must”] – unlike Charles III, where the pentameters are concealed in contemporary dialogue. Not at all easy to pull off, it works surprisingly well, though some advice from the Globe's many experts would have avoided the occasional infelicities, and eradicated the bizarre insistence on using a nominative pronoun after a preposition: there it is in the publicity pull-quote - “I’d rather walk in blood than walk a slave / For he thy Emperor!
There are many contemporary echoes – the nature of nation – the Roman who was born here and has never seen Rome – the evils of military occupation. Brexit too, perhaps.
It mixes drama and comedy – here it's the Roman military providing light relief, comedy enemies like the Nazis in 'Allo 'Allo.
It plays fast and loose with history, giving prominence, and names, to Boudica's two daughters. Cunobeline [Shakespeare's Cymbeline] is resurrected; many of the scenes are reminiscent of Lear.
And it sits very well on the Globe stage, even in the shared light of a rainy matinée. The space is imaginatively used in Eleanor Rhode's powerful production. Soliloquies, battles [always mention the numbers], visceral violence, a funeral and audacious abseiling.
The setting is stark. Upright boards screen the frons scenae. Later they're highlighted in gold, later still they fall forwards with a gunshot crack, and for the second act become trees swaying in the breeze.
It's a story about strong women, and they are excellently cast. Anna-Maria Nabirye is Andraste, the gold-brassarded goddess of war who gives the prologue and epilogue. The title role is played by Gina McKee, with a strong stillness which contrasts with the powerful anger of her two daughters: Joan Iyiola's Alonna, who seeks peace with the Romans, and Natalie Simpson's Blodwynn, the more violent sister, overlooked by Boudica as her heir. After Boudica's death - “Sweet goddess you have come for me,” she whispers as she took belladonna – the girls fight and weep together, as Alonna, too, foresees the future of her native land.
Broad characterizations for the men: Abraham Popoola's imposing, belligerent Badvoc, king of the Belgi [wasn't aware that his name existed outside Rory McGrath's Chelmsford 123], Samuel Collings' effete Catus, Clifford Samuel's sympathetic, noble Suetonius, the Roman Governor. And, most successful with the text, most at home in the Globe, Forbes Masson as a very celtic Cunobeline.
As if afraid that the audience would not engage with this piece of ancient history, the grisaille of the Globe is obscured by banks of speakers, The Clash provide the music for the jig and the opening of Act Two. But in truth the writing, despite its flaws, the movement and the bold performances could have wowed the groundlings at any point in the Globe's history, from the Burbages to Michelle Terry.
production photograph; Steve Tanner
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
Friday, September 08, 2017
Wednesday, September 06, 2017
A FOX ON THE FAIRWAY
Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch
29 August 2017
for The Reviews Hub
This pacey, undemanding comedy sees rival country clubs resort to desperate measures to take home a coveted golfing trophy.
American playwright Ken Ludwig's last outing on this stage was Lend Me A Tenor, a fast-moving backstage comedy. A Fox on the Fairway, getting its UK première here, also harks back to the golden days of British farce, though the setting is the Tap Room – nineteenth hole – of the Quail Valley Country Club, and many of the jokes are alcohol or sport related.
“Golf and sex are the only things you can enjoy with being good at them,” says Quail Valley's vampish Vice President, setting the tone of the evening early on, in a slightly awkward pre-show string of one-liners delivered straight out to the audience.
Colin Falconer has come up with a stunning set – shades of cream and green, silverware above the bar, crossed niblicks over the doorway. Two swing doors either side of the bar – what farce can do without doors ? – and a general air of moneyed luxury.
A typical American country club, one might think, except that the action has been transposed for the Hornchurch production to the Home Counties, with some success, although the Club cheer and occasional idioms (whole new ball game) betray its origins.
The plot is carefully constructed. The scaffolding is sometimes obvious, the twists predictable. Some very venerable tropes are pressed into service: the birthmark, the wayward PA system, the priceless vase tossed around like a rugby ball. “Just like a Greek play,” opines the gormless waitress, beautifully played by Ottilie Mackintosh – her efforts to conceal her ring-less finger are priceless. She's doing an evening course in Homer, and sees the tournament as a mythical battle of the Ancient World. She also gets to deliver an epilogue, as on the Jacobean stage, before the six actors dance a jig de nos jours to Walk the Moon's Shut Up and Dance.
Her intended is Justin, the newly hired hand who turns out to be the secret weapon in the tournament; he's played with impressive physicality by Romayne Andrews. His pre-shot warm-up, and his melt-down at the crucial seventeeth, are both memorable moments.
His boss is Henry, suave and articulate, played with practised ease by Damien Matthews. His delivery is perfectly pitched - “Oh darling that was our secret ...” he replies, deadpan and unconvincing, to the aforementioned VP, Mrs Pamela Peabody, as she spins lies to get him off the hook. A fine farcical performance by Natalie Walter. Henry's opposite number at the rival Crouching Squirrel Club is Simon Lloyd's Dickie Bell, constantly at risk of being upstaged by his knitwear. A nice character study of an obnoxiously cocky little man, forever mangling his aphorisms. Last to the party is Henry's battle-axe (or Sherman tank) of a wife. A cliché of a character, really, but neatly subverted here in Sarah Quist's larger-than-life performance, earning her an old-fashioned round of applause on her first exit.
The production values are pleasingly high – the scene change in the second act is a wonder to behold. Philip Wilson directs a well-oiled revival of this homage to the innocent days of Rookery Nook and See How They Run. The slapstick is polished, the pace is good, though I could imagine the US version being snappier. Twenty-four hours and eighteen holes all done and dusted in two hours, including the rain break and a twenty minute interval.
There's a helpful links-side lexicon in the programme, and the company were put through their paces at Upminster Golf Club. But you certainly don't need to be an aficionado to appreciate this tale of true love, rivalry, greed and fate.
Sunday, September 03, 2017
THINGS TO COME – CHELMSFORD CITY THEATRES
The autumn season at Chelmsford City Theatres launches this week, with a visit from the acclaimed BBC Big Band, celebrating the centenary of Ella Fitzgerald, and a new show from The Jimmy Hendrix Experience, the first in a long line of tribute bands coming to the Civic over the next few months: Burt Bacharach, Billy Fury, David Bowie, Karen Carpenter and The Police among those honoured.
Music lovers can also enjoy a couple of Tales of Offenbach on October 17, and the first of this year's M&G Classical Concert series, with the City of London Sinfonia on October 29.
Dramatic offerings include A Princess Undone, a new play by Richard Stirling on its way to a London run; opening at the Civic on October 5. It deals with an episode in the later life of Princess Margaret, the Queen's younger sister. And on October 26 London Classic Theatre bring their new production of Noel Coward's Private Lives.
In the Cramphorn Studio, White Feather Boxer [21 September], the story of a boxer who was also a Quaker, a one-man Christmas Carol on December 15, in the style of Charles Dickens' own acclaimed performances, and, on November 10, Mr Darcy Loses the Plot, in which Jane Austen's hunkiest hero rewrites his own story …
Our own non-professional companies bring us three very different musicals: All Shook Up from CAODS opening on 26 September, CYGAMS' Our House – the Madness musical – from November 7, and Soho Cinders, Stiles and Drew's edgy twist on the Cinderella story, presented by Springers in the Cramphorn Studio from November 14.
For the younger audience, the Gruffalo is back in the Civic from September 19, as well as Milkshake! Live on October 24.
Not forgetting the panto, already selling very well – this year it's Snow White, opening on November 29 and running till January 7 2018, with a relaxed performance on January 4.
To book tickets for any of these shows, go to www.chelmsford.gov.uk/theatres, or telephone 01245 606505.
Sunday, August 27, 2017
Monday, August 21, 2017
Saturday, August 19, 2017
Friday, August 18, 2017
Sunday, August 13, 2017
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM
Unfolds Theatre at the Rose Playhouse
for Remote Goat
A Dream to add to the pantheon, to join the “bathroom accessories” and the “30s Hollywood”, both from Shakespeare's Globe.
The theme this time is fairground. It works perfectly in this space, renowned for its chamber Shakespeare in an immersive style.
“Roll up, roll up ...” from the foyer, where you're encouraged to pin the tail on the donkey's bottom, to the intimate performance area, [Sullivan's hymn on the calliope], where there's inflatable hoopla and a card trick in which Verona meets Athens.
Once the main event gets underway, the gimmicks are reined in, with little details – the candyfloss, the inflatable dainty ducks, the goldfish-in-a-bag lanthorn – to bring us back to Dreamland, the name picked out in fairy lights over the water.
Alex Pearson, who has years of experience of bringing the Bard to life within these walls, gives us a lively, physical and very entertaining Dream. The grouping is perfectly planned, the rehearsal sequence wickedly observed. The mischief in the wood is lively and often very funny, the boys wrestling on the forest floor as the girls spar verbally. Theseus and Hippolyta dance cheek to cheek, the lovers sleep on the further shore, which does seem a little less involving after the proximity of the Mechanicals and Titania's bower.
A cast of eight, with much doubling. Not just the obvious Titania/Hippolyta [Cindy-Jane Armbruster] and Theseus/Oberon [beautifully spoken by Ian Hathway], but Robert Hazle, impressive both as an aggrieved Egeus and a fussy Quince, Rhiannon Sommers as Hermia, eloping with her luggage, and a shy Snug, hiding behind her buoyancy-aid Lion. Nick Oliver is a compelling, lustful Lysander, casual in a tee-shirt, as well as Starveling, Clark Alexander Demetrius, formal in a collar and tie, as well as a hilarious Thisby. His Pyramus – their death scene endlessly inventive – is Sydney Aldridge, pulling off the tricky double of Helena, comfort eating when the course of true love runs less than smooth, and Nicky Bottom, done as a sulky teen diva, slurping a slushy, chomping on a carrot as she recalls her dream. A triumph in the role, the most memorable female Bottom since Dawn French's wartime Dream of 2001. Equally engaging is Elinor Machen-Fortune's Puck; she's also an officious Philostrate, introducing the interlude and the Bergamasque jig, before coming back as Robin Goodfellow to bid us goodnight.
The audience is frequently drawn in to the action – as confidants, and, in the case of front-row Ricky, to play a very convincing Wall.
With his new company Unfolds Theatre, producer Pepe Pryke has brought to Shakespeare's Bankside an enchanting summer show for all the family – “swift as a shadow, short as any dream...”
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
for The Reviews Hub
A magical, enchanting Peter Pan to follow James and the Giant Peach and Wind in the Willows onto the Mercury stage in the long vacation slot.
Not just another attempt at the increasingly popular summertime panto, but an adaptation, by Daniel Buckroyd and Matthew Cullum (who also shared directing duties), which manages to seem fresh and child-friendly while still respecting J M Barrie's original.
The nursery furniture is shrouded in dust-sheets as we arrive. Simon Kenny's set is uncluttered and inventive, shape-shifting to the Neverland island and the deck of the pirate ship. Drawers pull out to form beds, the crocodile is suggested by a pair of headlamp eyes before making its spectacular final appearance.
The story – quite complex for the youngest minds – is bookended by a prologue and an epilogue in which the actors tell the story in the time-honoured Nicholas Nickleby style. Their boisterous play foreshadows adventures to come (except perhaps for the farting teddy-bear).They are musicians too, and apart from Wendy (Charlotte Mafham) and Peter, play multiple roles. This doubling is very slickly done – the performers rarely leave the stage altogether – and is often part of the entertainment; the Lost Boys are picked off one by one only to re-enter moments later to swell the pirate band. Particularly impressive character work from James Peake as Nana, a convincing canine in fur coat and flying helmet, as well as Cecco the pirate and the know-it-all Slightly Soiled, and Alicia McKenzie as a feisty fairy Tinkerbell and a peg-leg pirate Jukes.
Peter himself is played by Emilio Iannucci, a winning blend of innocence and bravado, and Pete Ashmore, a familiar face on the Mercury stage, takes on the traditional pairing of Mr Darling and Captain Hook. Not your average old Etonian, maybe, despite his dying words, but he handles his cod-Shakespeare convincingly.
“I do believe in fairies,” whispered one little girl in our row, in a moment of unprompted empathy. The production is aimed squarely at children, as is only right, though there were subtleties to satisfy the most jaded adult palate, and the ingenious costume and scene changes help to maintain our interest. All the magic is that special theatrical kind, where our imagination is willingly co-opted to do half the work. Tinkerbell dances as a light on the end of a long wand; Curly's kite is attached to a stick. And, though there's no Kirby, no Foy, the flying sequences are thrillingly done in the simplest way possible.
It is very pleasing to see several editions of the book on offer amongst the crocodile merchandise. And of course, as Barrie intended, the production will benefit the beleaguered Great Ormond Street Hospital.
The sad and the sinister are not neglected: Peter's unwillingness to be touched, or the “tragedy” of the ending, in which Wendy's daughter assumes her role as mother to Peter and the Lost Boys.
Richard Reeday's music underpins the action – there are few big numbers – and it's fun to see the flute, the tuba and two violins shared amongst the colourful characters.
The final tableau sees Peter framed in the window, still looking out beyond the stars to the Neverland, before the braver children in the audience are allowed to explore the nursery for themselves, try out the beds and peek into the delightful dolls' house where Peter's shadow was hidden.
production photograph: Robert Day