Noel and Gertie. Frinton Summer Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 20-04-17

Noel and Gertie, Sheridan Morley’s play based on the close working relationship between two of the biggest stars of their age, Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, was a lovely, undemanding way to spend an afternoon at the Stephen Joseph, pay tribute to two great talents and wallow in nostalgia. Sheridan Morley knew his theatre- particularly the theatre of this period- and his show is a carefully selected tribute to the range of Noel Coward’s work. Coward was always known as “the master” and his writing could range from high emotion to sharp light comedy in a single scene without missing a beat, as well as being a gifted songwriter and performer. He could do it all. Gertrude Lawrence, one of the biggest stars of her age, both benefited from his genius and brought her own charm and talent to it which allowed his work to shine even more brightly. They had a close, sparky relationship from the day that they first met as child performers until Lawrence died far too early at the age of 54. This relationship is sketched out in between extracts from their stage performances and forms an engaging thread through the show.

The show arrived in Scarborough as part of a short tour all the way from Frinton on Sea and found a perfect home in front of a mostly older matinee audience who loved it. It was performed with real delicacy and emotion by Ben Stock and Helen Powers who manage to bring two icons back to life. Helen Powers clear soprano voice is particularly beautiful and suits the style of that era perfectly- I loved Come the Wild Wild Weather. The extracts from the plays were a reminder of how much things have changed since Coward was writing. There is unashamed romanticism which we see very little of today and it was touchingly played and very well timed- not easy to do. The extract from Still Life, one of the plays from Tonight at Eight which deservedly went on to be expanded and become Brief Encounter was extremely well done and made me wish that I could see the two of them perform it all. The third member of the trio on stage, Jonathan Lee, who was both musical director and pianist provided some sensitive and witty accompaniment and kept everything moving. In short the show was a real treat, fast moving, witty and heartfelt.

The Winter’s Tale. Cheek by Jowl. Live relay from Silk Street Theatre, London. 19-04-17

Eleanor McLoughlin as Perdita. Production photograph by Johan Persson.

A Cheek by Jowl production is always full on and very theatrical, the company thrives on ideas and effects which can only be done in a live setting, using physical theatre and always prepared to take chances. Their production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale which was live streamed from Silk Street Theatre in London was no exception. I had some reservations- that almost always comes alongside risk taking- but overall it was an exciting and vibrant account of the play which resolved itself beautifully into harmony and forgiveness at the end.

There was no problem with Leontes sudden irrational jealousy in the opening scenes as it was made very clear by both the staging and by Orlando James fine performance that Leontes is suffering an episode of mental illness of some kind. He creates his wife’s infidelity in his own head and this is symbolised by having him create pictures of what he imagines by moving the bodies of Hermione and Polixenes into the compromising positions which he describes. It is a very effective device and Orlando James has extraordinary technical control as he does it while acting at a full pitch of emotion. His son Mamillius also has behaviour problems and Hermione’s quiet attempts to calm both of them- something that is obviously part of daily life in their household- are very telling. It really works, making sense of the difficult opening scenes and drawing us into a family that has been ready to implode for a long time. The first half zips along as we watch that implosion take place. Natalie Radmall- Quirke’s Hermione was especially strong and moving in the trial scene. It’s a gift of a scene for any actress and she made the most of it.

In the second half we were given a more decadent and wilful Bohemia than is usual. You could easily see why Florizel’s father was worried about his son leaving court to spend time there. There was danger, violence and licence at the sheep shearing celebration, these were not just well meaning homely peasants enjoying the simple life. There is always a dangerous side to Autolycus- the picker up of other people’s trifles- but in this production it spills over into brutality. While I liked Ryan Donaldson’s performance I wasn’t sure about that decision. I missed that open hearted freedom of Bohemia which is such a relief after the grey, irrational, claustrophobic court. Thankfully there was a wonderful Perdita, Eleanor McLoughlin, who had a strong, calm presence, absolutely believable as the daughter of Hermione.

The final scene where things are resolved and Hermione’s statue comes to life after all Leonte’s hope has gone and he has learned his lesson after long years of pain have passed was as magical as you could wish it to be. It was simply staged by candlelight, which is all it needs, and the reactions of all the company were true and heartfelt. The calm after the storm.

Declan Donnelan’s direction- particularly in those opening scenes- is masterly. It is always clear what he is aiming for and it never gets in the way of the performances. Cheek by Jowl has a long tradition of getting excellent young actors to work with them and it is easy to see why they would be attracted to the company. Nick Ormerod’s design is stark and simple, three raised wooden stage areas with wooden slatted drop down fronts behind an empty space. They are flexible enough to allow a variety of effects but there is nothing that isn’t needed- Edward Gordon Craig would have been proud. I have never seen the exit pursued by a bear done better.

It was a great treat to be given the chance to see the production by live relay without paying a penny. As ever I wish I could have been there but you can’t have everything.

Roots.

When I was a child
I scrambled along this same track,
my feet skimming these same roots.
I still know the footholds.
I was racing up my life,
eager to wear a new path
into adulthood,
longing to begin.

More than fifty years ago,
not quite a lifetime.

Each step was an adventure.
Grabbing hands,
curling toes
and silent shouts
forged a shortcut,
reaching out,
making an adventure
out of a long, dull trudge
up grey concrete steps,

More than fifty years ago,
in a different world.

Since then new young feet
have kept these roots visible,
as they climbed headlong
into their own lives,
kicking back the traces.
Each new generation has removed the earth,
saving them for the future,
and preserving the past.

It was more than fifty years ago,
but some things endure.

Written in Water.

I walk the edge of the sea,
watching the waves turn,
rolling out the minutes,
aligning the days,
singing the years.

My life has been written here,
my path freshly worn each day,
wiped clean by the tide.
My mark is made in shifting sand,
reflected in a shining sky,
blown out by the wind,
dampened by shivering grey fret.
A moment’s hubris.
It is for now.
It will not last.

Thoughts cast out
across the surface
of a floating world
lie for a moment,
then fade downwards.
Words unspoken, fears refuted,
joys concealed.
Lives lost in the darkness of the sea.
The sea which has heard everything
and says nothing.

I walk the edge of the sea,
rolling out the minutes,
aligning the days,
singing the years,
taking my time.

Here lies one whose name was writ in water. Feb 4th 1821.
John Keats epitaph.

Cyrano. Northern Broadsides and New Vic theatre company. 6-4-17

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Christian Edwards as Cyrano. Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

I’m not sure that Edmund Rostand’s 1897 verse play Cyrano de Bergerac is a natural choice for Northern Broadsides strong signature style. It is- obviously- very French and unashamedly romantic and for some reason the use of strong British regional accents alongside period (1640) French costumes jarred a little for me in a way they never have done before when watching Northern Broadsides. Deborah McAndrews’ previous adaptions of The Government Inspector, The Grand Gesture and Accidental Death of an Anarchist were all set in more recent times than the originals and anglicised and I think that worked better for me. It wasn’t really the Cyrano that I would have liked to see. It is a play with a huge heart and in spite of some really good work from the company- not least from Christian Edwards as Cyrano- I’m not quite sure that the production really managed to reach beyond the humour and swashbuckling to show us that, until we reached the final scenes, which worked just as they would have done over a hundred years ago and were beautifully played.

Having got that reservation out of the way let’s think about the Cyrano that I actually got, because it did work very well and there was a lot to enjoy. There was a typically engaging performance from Michael Hugo as the drunken poet Ligniere, a loathsome Count De Guiche from Andy Cryer, who finally, and very touchingly, learns to be a better man, and I loved Jessica Dyas as Madame Ragueneau. There was also plenty of lively and sometimes poignant music written by Conrad Nelson, which moved the play along beautifully- I was particularly moved by Adam Barlow’s song, as Christian, when the cadets are at war. I enjoyed Christian Edwards performance as Cyrano very much. It was good to see someone younger than usual in the role as it made sense of Cyrano’s feelings of anger in the early scenes, as well as adding to the poignancy of the final scenes when years have passed. He has everything that any woman could want, sensitivity, bravery, loyalty, style, panache- in fact everything but good looks, but as Le Bret tells him, “women- they want it all”.

The direction by Conrad Nelson moves the play along quickly, the production fitted beautifully into the round and there are lavish costumes designed by Liz French from the New Vic costume department. The company are well used to the space at the Stephen Joseph and it shows. I shall remember Cyrano’s final line, spoken as a long white hat feather floated down from the theatre lighting rig for a long time.

“And tonight, when I at last God behold, my salute will sweep his blue threshold with something spotless, a diamond in the ash… which I take in spite of you and that’s… My panache.”

As I said- it really is very French.

A Spirit of Youth.

Ancient wood, gnarled and bent,
crippled with age and many winters,
beset by lichens,
scarred by wind and weather,
drinks deep from the cool waters
that bring rebirth.

Youth springs out,
sprays of grace and hope
leap over every branch,
wearing white as a promise
that tenderness and fleeting gaiety
will never fail.

A rush of beauty
overwhelms the hedgerows,
a fragile delicacy clings
to the ravages of age,
scattering white drops of renewal
and silent joy.

Short Story: Customer Service.

This wasn’t how Daniel had expected his life to work out. School had been easy. He was tall, dark haired and confident- the kind of lad that the girls noticed and the teachers indulged. He had always known what to say and never worried too much about whether it was true or not. People liked him. He had done as little work as possible and smiled his way out of trouble. So how had he ended up here? “Here” being a Cornish pasty shop on a draughty city railway station. Full time. Watching people come and go, watching the pigeons up in the iron railings of the roof, watching the ornate station clock count down the minutes of his shift, listening to the rush of trains speeding away to London or Edinburgh, the snatches of conversation, hellos and goodbyes. He was marooned, alone in the centre of things. Everyone was going somewhere and he was left behind, telling customers what the pasty of the day was, bagging it up and asking them if that was all. Sometimes when people said yes it didn’t sound like they meant they only wanted a pasty. Sometimes he watched them walk out and he knew how they felt. This was not where he should be.
“You going to sort out that trolley or what?”
He froze for a few seconds when he heard her voice, leaving the customer holding out her hand with a five pound note in it. Debbie didn’t like Daniel. She was thick set and middle aged- the kind of woman he had never noticed- and she stared at him when they weren’t busy. She liked telling him what to do and unfortunately he couldn’t stop her as she was in charge. He put down the pasty that he had just bagged on the counter and walked slowly, just slowly enough to make his point but not slowly enough to be rude, out of the serving area and towards the trolley, without asking the customer whether she wanted to order the meal deal. He was obeying orders. Debbie couldn’t complain about that. Let her work the coffee machine. He hated that bloody thing. It snorted and hissed at the back of the shop like some kind of giant alien being, spewing hot water and milk everywhere and demanding a constant round of wiping and polishing. It was dangerous. You had to watch your hands all the time.
The customer ordered her coffee and waited calmly for Debbie to make it for her. She was another older woman- even older than Debbie- and she did the same staring at him as he wheeled the trolley towards her. She was in his way. He stood still, looked her in the eyes and spread his arms out. She moved. The two women raised their eyebrows at each other as money changed hands. They didn’t need to say anything. They just knew.
After the next short rush Debbie turned to him.
“You were rude to that customer.”
“What customer?”
He knew what customer of course. They both realised that.
“You’ve no idea about customer service.”
The fact was that life had taught Daniel that he didn’t need to bother about customer service. Everything had come easily to him, people, things, experiences. So easily that he had never noticed his chances slipping by. There was always a distraction, always someone ready to give praise or suggest an easy option to fall for, and it had led him here.

When she first saw Daniel, Debbie had known straight away that giving him a job had been a bad idea. If she had been manager at the time it would never have happened. She had seen it all coming. The looking at his own reflection in the shining stainless steel of the coffee machine, the way that he would stare straight through her when she had to ask him to do something, the teenage girls taking hours to eat their pasties while they giggled in the corner and stared at him, the absences. It used to matter how well you did your job, now it only seemed to matter how good you looked while you were doing it. And he did look good. She even caught herself staring at him sometimes. It was embarrassing. She just couldn’t dislike him- and she had tried. Time passed more quickly when he was in a good mood, he would tease her, flatter her and teach her fast rhythmic song lyrics that made no sense to her at all. When she asked about the tune he would shrug his shoulders and grin. Other times he just didn’t want to be there and he made that very obvious. Well she didn’t want to be there either. It hadn’t been her life’s ambition to stand on her bad ankle in a pasty shop for hours every day being polite to people. She had been young once, had ideas, and it didn’t seem that long ago. She could still remember. Daniel was lucky. He was young now and he still had choices. He didn’t have to be here. When he finally woke up and realised that the world didn’t owe him a living he probably wouldn’t be. The drop dead gorgeous young woman who had just walked in might cheer him up a bit- that was about the only thing that did. This one would get some decent customer service all right.

Louise wondered afterwards why she had decided to have a pasty on her way to the train. It wasn’t like her to eat pastry- she hadn’t stayed this slim by accident. Maybe it was the meal deal advertised on the board outside. Her mind had rushed ahead to later in the day, when she would be on show so it was a shock to see someone she knew looking back at her from the other side of the counter when she looked up, ready to order. Dishy Dan from school. Everybody’s favourite clown. Her first crush.
“Dan! What are you doing here?”
She could see the thoughts racing across his face as he tried to work out who she was. He wasn’t the first to wonder. No glasses, almost two stone lost, a flattering new hair colour and better skin. Well she certainly had his attention now, and it felt good. Money and effort well spent. At least she was dressed for the meeting in her best heels. It was going to be painfully boring but he wasn’t to know that. She smiled at him.
“It’s Louise- we were at school together.”
“Oh right.”
He still looked confused. She wanted to show off about her new job but she didn’t. It might be tactless. Of course there were all kinds of reasons why you might end up selling pasties on a railway station, but still. Best not.
“How are you doing?”
“Oh you know, getting by.”
So he didn’t want to tell her. and he wasn’t going to ask. She smiled briefly.
“Aren’t we all?”
“You’re looking good.”
“Thank you.”
They stood there, staring at each other. Finally he spoke.
“You haven’t ordered.”
“What’s the pasty of the day?”
“Chicken and chorizo. It always is.”
“OK then. I’ll have the meal deal.”
He flashed her a dazzling smile and suddenly she was fifteen again. Damn. She watched as the middle aged woman waiting by a tower of disposable coffee cups caught his eye, stood to one side with some ceremony and held out her arm towards the coffee machine. What was that all about? It didn’t take long- he was fast.
“There you go.”
“Thanks.”
She gave him the cash, making sure not to touch his hand.
“I’m due a break in fifteen minutes if you fancy a chat.”
She picked up her bag.
“Train to catch I’m afraid. Another time.”
That would never happen. She was not likely to eat another pasty in a hurry. As she turned and walked out she could feel him watching her leave.
His loss.

And so the day wore on, a day like any other. People came and went as the light changed and the trains whipped by, following their predictable paths. Restless corridors of mystery, carrying people on journeys of all kinds- exciting, mundane, unique, routine. The hands on the station clock clicked round and the electronic displays flickered and rolled across radiant screens, full of possibilities. Four hundred and twenty six cups of coffee were sold in the pasty shop. The stuff of life. Our lives.