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.

Fiddler on the Roof. Liverpool Everyman. 11.03.17

Patrick Brennan as Tevye. Production photograph by Stephen Vaughan.

Fiddler on the Roof is a great show. It has one of the greatest opening numbers- Tradition- and one of the greatest lead characters- Tevye- and it draws you into the heart of a small, tight knit community before breaking your heart as you watch that community being torn apart. In a world where we have been watching this happen too often in recent years it has great resonance and poignancy. It’s a wonderful choice for the opening production of the Everyman’s new repertory company, popular and familiar without being trite or hackneyed and perfect for a small, intimate space- especially when it is set up in the round. Great writing doesn’t date and nor do characters whose humanity and relevance still remain strong. It is just over fifty years since it opened in New York, won nine Tony awards and went on to become what is still the second longest running show on Broadway. It is set in Imperial Russia in 1905, but the kind of human tragedies that it deals with have never gone away and they never will and this truth has led to it being performed all over the world ever since.

Production photograph by Stephen Vaughan.

There are no great West End voices here and no star performances- that would have unbalanced a delicate, spare production set in a small, intimate space. It is an ensemble piece by the newly formed repertory company and it is this company- and above all the theatre itself- which is the star. The actors know their characters perfectly and their energy and conviction is both charming and utterly believable. At the heart of the show is Patrick Brennan’s Tevye, a fine performance which shows us a real, conflicted man whose humour and warmth sits alongside a deep, uncompromising faith. He has the best lines, especially when talking to his God, and we are allowed to see what he is thinking.

The staging, by director Gemma Bodinetz, is simple and direct and the audience is close to the action, so close that we can almost feel part of the community that we are watching. This is not musical theatre as spectacle, where we watch from afar and marvel at lumbering stage machinery and great set pieces, it is musical theatre with heart and soul where people sing because words are no longer enough and we see the concerns of real human beings- our own concerns- reflected on stage.

Production photograph by Stephen Vaughan.

This is the first production in the new, award winning theatre by a company who have big boots to fill. Last time the Everyman had a rep company it produced a group of young actors and writers who became household names and the delight of the audience was obvious. Even for those who had been regulars at the old theatre this will still have been one of their first sightings of the new space in action and there was a real sense of joy in the air as they found that their beloved rep company had been given back to them in a theatre made magically young and beautiful again. For those involved in that process it will have been a delicate task, but they have given Liverpool back one of its treasures. It was very moving to be part of the standing ovation at the end, an ovation for the cast and the show- of course- but it was also a welcome back for the Everyman rep from a delighted city of Liverpool.

Pygmalion. Headlong/West Yorkshire Playhouse/ Nuffield theatre Southampton at Liverpool Playhouse.

Production photograph by Manuel Harlan.

I love Bernard Shaw’s work so if you are going to play with the text and leave out/ rewrite/ distort whole scenes of one of his best known plays, Pygmalion, and expect me to like it you are on dangerous ground. I haven’t read the reviews of the co-production I saw at Liverpool playhouse between Headlong and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, but I’m quite sure that some people will not like that idea at all, however well it is done, and if the production hasn’t worked it will sink without trace. It’s a brave thing to do and the director Sam Pritchard has expected a lot of his actors and laid himself on the line. Once or twice it made me lay back my ears a bit but it still managed to carry me along and kept me onside.

Shaw himself was not afraid of comparing himself to Shakespeare and part of me thinks that he would be outraged at not being able to hear every word of his precious script. Another part of me imagines that the man who campaigned for a new phonetic alphabet would have been delighted at the playfulness and attack of the cast as they juggled accents, lip-synched recorded voices and distorted their lines in the opening scene. He would also have been delighted that his best writing was still there exactly as he wanted it and shone as brightly as ever. Doolittle’s great speech, Mrs Higgins disastrous at home- a comic masterpiece- and the moving scenes at the end between Higgins and Eliza were all (literally) showcased and given full weight allowing the actors to fly. Natalie Gavin and Alex Beckett were both heartfelt and true to the original characters and it was this that held the show together. Without their belief and commitment there would have just been two hours of a director enjoying being clever. Audiences need to have people on stage that they can relate to and understand. My heart lifted at the end when the two of them were given space to spark off each other and show some real emotion as that always impresses me far more than directors imposing their own ideas on a play. I also liked Liza Sadovy as Mrs Higgins and Raphael Sowole as Colonel Pickering very much.

The design by Alex Lowde works very well, especially the giant vitrine on stilts, which forms the set for Mrs Higgins front room and later her conservatory. It was both beautiful and appropriate for a play which is all about appearances and social conventions.

In short they were flying close to the wind to make this work- we even heard a bit of My Fair Lady from Eliza as she rode in a taxi on screen- but thanks to some truthful acting and the fact the fact that they left the best of Shaw’s writing alone they got away with it and this is a really interesting and thought provoking new look at a play that is over a hundred years old.

Broken Biscuits. Paines Plough and Live Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough.

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Production image from Paines Plough.

It’s a shame that there are not more plays like Tom Wells’ Broken Biscuits. It is a warm,touching piece of theatre that tugs at your heartstrings without ever tipping over into sentimentality. Thanks to his gift for writing strong, vernacular dialogue it all feels completely real and absolutely believable and there is also a strong structure which comes from the counting down of the weeks as the three would be band members rehearse for a Battle of the Bands contest and their relationships ebb and flow. They are sixteen and about to leave school after having an undramatically unhappy time. They have never been the cool kids- this is their chance to arrive in college with style and gain new respect from others, but also, above all, from themselves. They are a gay lad, Ben, who is trying to work out what this means for him and whether he will ever fit in anywhere, Megan, a loud, overweight steamroller of a girl who doesn’t understand how to work with others and lead but desperately wants to, and Holly, a geek, who is pretty and clever but held back by being a gentle soul with no confidence. They are an unlikely threesome who have only come together in Megan’s shed simply because there is nowhere else where they can find friendship and acceptance. They are all very touching characters, especially for someone looking back at teenage years from quite a distance.

I am guessing that the three actors must be a little older than sixteen but the first thing that impressed me was how believable they all were as teenagers; vulnerable, raw, well meaning, and so likable that you really felt for them and wanted them to succeed. I particularly loved Grace Hogg-Robinson as Holly. There were many times where you could see what she was thinking and her performance of her song about the lad in the supermarket was a real highlight. It had been cleverly written by Matthew Robbins, good enough to work as a song but not so good that it wasn’t credible for Holly to have written it. Faye Christall also had some nice moments as Megan, so anxious to be a leader, prove her worth and have friends but with no real idea how to achieve this and Andrew Reed as Ben was a delightful mixture of vulnerability, eagerness and misery waiting for his chance to grow. This is a coming of age story for all three of them and we have all been there in our different ways. It is rare for the average theatregoer to have teenage characters put in front of them and that in itself was refreshing, but when they are as well written as these three it is a absolute joy.

The set, Megan’s shed, is an old style slice of realism, meticulously designed by Lily Arnold, and there are a lot of small clever details and changes through the course of the play that mark the passage of time. The play moves forward quickly and has plenty of pace thanks to the direction of James Grieves and the fast, sassy dialogue which the three actors are able to relish. All in all it was a real treat and we were lucky to see it on its short tour. The group of teenage girls in the audience who were there in their school uniforms, chaperoned by their teacher, loved it and came out energised and talking to each other about it. It might have been an afternoon of nostalgic reminiscence for me but for them it had been a slice of the life that they were living right now and that’s probably the best compliment Tom Wells’ writing could get.

When We Are Married. Northern Broadsides at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. 27-10-16

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The three couples. Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

JB Priestley’s When We Are Married, the story of three deeply respectable Edwardian couples, Yorkshire chapel folk, whose silver wedding celebrations are interrupted by the news that they may not have been properly married at all, is a northern institution for amateur performers- especially those of a certain age. I have seen it before and been in it twice. It has characters who the audience can identify with and solid writing with clearly defined jokes based on character- easy for someone who is well cast to have a go at even if they are not very experienced. Looking back and even remembering line readings from the past as I heard the dialogue again, I was surprised how close the first production that I was in had come to getting it right in a small village hall all those years ago. In short this play is pretty much bombproof- it works. I know it too well. So well that I wasn’t really looking forward to seeing the play itself again after a gap of twenty years or so but since it is an obvious choice for Northern Broadsides, one of my favourite theatre companies, to show off what they do best, I went along. The Thursday matinee that I saw was sold out and the audience loved it. There is clearly still a lot of affection for the play in Yorkshire as well as the company, the couple sitting next to me had already seen the production in York and come back for more. I quickly realised how glad I was that I had not missed it. So many memories of the first time that I was in it, playing Ruby Birtle, the Helliwell’s young maid, came rushing back. I was delighted to see her again. Ruby only has one worthwhile scene with the drunken photographer Henry Ormonroyd, but it is a cracker. This Ruby (Kate Rose-Martin)was very good indeed. I mouthed her lines along with her and waited for every laugh. I even forgave her for missing one very big laugh that I know is there, as she did my memories proud.

The real joy of the play is seeing Annie Parker and Herbert Soppit stand up to their bullying spouses Albert and Clara. Both parts were beautifully played, by Sue Devaney and Steve Hulson, drawing real sympathy and gasps of delight (yes really) from the audience. The laughs may be there but sometimes they also have to be earned by really good timing and theirs was perfect. Kate Anthony and Adrian Hood as Clara and Albert had also done a good job of setting up these moments early on by showing us clearly what Annie and Herbert had to put with. The Helliwells, gracious hosts whose marriage is threatened by an old flame who hears the rumours that Joe is now available, were also nicely played by Geraldine Fitzgerald and Mark Stratton. All three couples worked very well together throughout. The difficulty of living alongside someone else has not changed and this is why the the humour of the play still resonates so powerfully, even in a time where not being married is no longer much of an issue.

When We Are Married will always remain a period piece and the production designer Jessica Worrall has done a fine job. The costumes were wonderful and this really matters in the Stephen Joseph where there is little set and they are seen close up.

As we clapped along to I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside at the end (very Scarborough and not very Priestley, but he was far more experimental than you would imagine from this play and I don’t think he would have minded) it was so good to be part of a sold out audience who were enjoying a play that has such fond memories for me and to know that it still works like a dream.

And Then Come the Nightjars. Theatre503 and Bristol Old Vic at the Stephen Joseph theatre. 20-10-16

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David Fielder as Michael.

We were very lucky to have the chance to see Bea Roberts’ award winning play, And Then Come The Nightjars, up in Scarborough. Usually new plays disappear quite quickly, however good they are, and this revival was part of a short two month tour from Bristol Old Vic. Its roots are firmly in the West country so we are a long way from its home but country people up here understand the devastating subject matter all too well. It is set during the foot and mouth outbreak which swept the country in 2001 and describes an unlikely friendship between a veteran dairy farmer, Michael, and his local vet, Jeff, who is battling a drink problem and the break up of his marriage. When the farmers healthy herd of pedigree cows has to be culled, by law, to help form a buffer against further spread of the disease it is Jeff who is called on to do it. This appalling crisis both deepens and challenges their friendship and there is great sensitivity in both the acting and the writing as the plot plays out. It is moving, tender and heartfelt with a welcome dry wit running through even this darkest of times.

I’m sure that Nigel Hastings, who did a fine job as Jeff, will not mind me saying that David Fielder was astonishingly good as Michael. It is a lovely part and he grabbed it with both hands. He was tough, funny and open hearted- much like some Yorkshire farmers who I met when I was teaching up in the Yorkshire Dales. He meant every word- his every thought was clear as a bell. Playing a two hander of this kind is intense and difficult and the two of them worked together quite beautifully. It was delightful to watch in a small space like the McCarthy.

During the question and answer session after the matinee that I saw the two actors said how delighted they were with the set and I don’t wonder. It was completely realistic in every detail, a ramshackle cow barn, designed by Max Dorey, and nothing else would have worked. It was also beautifully lit by Sally Ferguson, so beautifully lit that there were times when you could sit there and just take pleasure in the changing light as it fell through the roof slats. Quite simply this production gets everything right, and it’s not often you can say that. It had to. There are some subjects that you stay well away from unless you can do justice to people who went through terrible times and lost so much. I know some of them so there was gratitude mixed in with my admiration. They have been given the play that they deserved.

Hamlet. Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory at the Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough.

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Alan Mahon as Hamlet. Production image by Mark Douet.

Any production of Hamlet where Polonius stands two feet away from my front row seat in the round at the Stephen Joseph and speaks one of the most famous lines in the play directly to me- “though this be madness yet there’s method in’t”- gets my vote. This production by the Tobacco Factory theatre company works a treat- it was a very good place for the young people who were lined up along the back row to start. It is clear, fast and well edited and it zipped along in the small space like a thriller. The company know how to use the round to full effect and it showed.

Alan Mahon has had very good reviews for his performance in the title role and I am happy to add to them. He reminded me that Hamlet is young, naive and untried- the actor is only 23 himself and it is unusual and refreshing to see someone so young in the part. By chance I had just watched two great Hamlets, Simon Russell-Beale and Adrian Lester, talking about playing the part and they had agreed that Hamlet was naive. I hadn’t thought about this properly before and then the very next day along came a Hamlet who showed me exactly what they meant. More than ever the death of this particular sweet prince was the loss of someone with potential, someone who might have done great things. He is clever but he has been too busy studying rather than developing social skills. He doesn’t really understand about the unpleasant realities of the world until they kick him the face and he is forced to face up to them- a steep learning curve that he first tries to avoid and ultimately doesn’t survive. Alan Mahon also worked on the cuts made with the director, Andrew Hilton, so some of that fast moving thriller quality that I saw is partly down to him. I am glad that he was given his chance. To see the soliloquies spoken by Hamlet alone in the centre of a small space was very moving. Some of the quiet, thoughtful qualities that can be there in Hamlet were not so evident but that was not what was being played so I didn’t mind. Every Hamlet is different- especially the really good ones- and that’s what keeps you coming back.

There was good support from the rest of the cast too. I particularly liked Laertes- I always do- Callum McIntyre was suitably dynamic and good looking and the sword fight at the end was terrific. Isabella Marshall was a heartfelt and gentle Ophelia and I enjoyed the fatherly qualities that Alan Coveney brought to his Horatio, who was older than usual. I felt that there can be more to Claudius and Gertrude than we were shown by Paul Currier and Julia Hills but I am not complaining about anyone in the cast. The speed of the production and the cuts perhaps made it harder for the characters who surround Hamlet to make their mark. There are always gains and losses in any approach.

I don’t often praise directors- unless it is to say that I am glad that they have not done too much- but I was full of admiration for the detailed work that Andrew Hilton has done to make this production so clearly told and speedy and give us the Hamlet that he and Alan Mahon wanted. The whole show was almost entirely without props or furniture and it ran like clockwork. I also had the pleasure of a close up view of some very beautiful Elizabethan costumes designed by Max Johns- a more unusual sight in a production of Hamlet than you might think. I was very happy.