Di and Viv and Rose. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 24-08-17

Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

“I’ve gone back to fish on Fridays and not being a lesbian.”

Amelia Bullimore’s play Di and Viv and Rose, first seen at Hampstead theatre in 2013, is a piece of popular theatre with some heart and depth and three truthful and engaging characters who are easy to identify with- especially if you are a woman of a certain age. It’s the kind of theatre that there should be more of. A long friendship between three women who meet at university is explored and we are shown how the vagaries of life impact on their relationships. It is solidly rooted in character and doesn’t particularly try to make any points about the wider world or the changing politics of the times so we are made to focus directly on the three women and it is all the better for that. It makes it a very personal, heartfelt play which is easy to relate to and easy to like. The scenes move along quickly, establishing time and character with a clever shorthand, especially at the start, in a way that never feels rushed- the communal phone in the early scenes worked particularly well in the round. The music is perfectly chosen and has the power to take you right back to the era it represents- especially if you heard it first time around. Women’s friendships are communicative and confessional but they can also be volatile and this is captured perfectly as the play progresses.

The three women are nicely contrasted. Rose is lively and outgoing, ready to make the most of her first taste of freedom. She is naive, well meaning and promiscuous in a kind of open hearted innocent way. Margaret Cabourn-Smith plays her with a lively stage presence and a natural warmth. Viv is the hardworking, focused academic who knows exactly what she wants and ends up getting it. Grace Cookey-Gam has great style and becomes very moving in the later stages of the play. My favourite of the three women, and the one who I think is given the strongest story and develops most as time goes on, is Di. Di is a sporty, gay woman. She is socially awkward to start with but gains style and maturity as time goes on and she finds her confidence along with a certain bitter knowledge of life. Polly Lister plays her beautifully. One of her speeches in particular was utterly heartbreaking and it will stay with me for a long time. I won’t spoil it by giving away the context but I doubt you will ever see it done better. They all work together well and become a believable threesome, helped by naturalistic dialogue that flows easily.

Lotte Wakeham’s direction has given the production it’s speed and this is important in a play that moves through time with a lot of short scenes and the design by Jason Taylor gives an appropriate sense of transience as life moves on. Lighted packing boxes are used imaginatively and props are used to call up a setting quickly and easily, but it was the acting which impressed me most. I came away with those characters in my head and that is down to three very good performances and some great teamwork on stage. It’s not a play which will necessarily go down as a classic but it’s a clever, heartfelt piece of writing and we need more like it. The middle ground is not well enough served in theatre- the space between a pot boiler and a challenging cerebral workout- and we need more plays like it. If we are honest that is where most of us are and we need to see ourselves reflected back from the stage.

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The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 06-07-17

Serena Manteghi as LV. Photograph by Sarah Taylor.

The Lancashire playwright Jim Cartwright’s play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice premiered at the National Theatre in 1992 to great acclaim, but it is a very Scarborough play ( the film was shot in the town) and a perfect choice for the showpiece of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s summer season. The writing is fresh, sharp and solidly based on character and because of this it hasn’t dated, even though it looks back at a very different world. Little Voice (LV) is a touching, birdlike character with a great talent, marooned amongst louder, coarser people who do not see her personal worth, only a talent which can be used for their own ends. She is vulnerable, easy to manipulate and potentially damage, hidden in her room grieving over her dead father’s record collection. She has little connection with the outside world until her gift is discovered by chance and a local theatrical agent on the make and her out of control, needy mother, push her into performing. She deserves so much more from life and as we watch her story play out and become darker we long for her to get it.

LV is a great part, an unusual one which must be quite hard to cast. It is the kind of part which can make a career take off, as it did for Jane Horrocks in the original production, and it demands a lot of the actress playing it, in particular great truth which needs to shine out in a grotesque and unforgiving world. Serena Manteghi gives us a delicate and subtle performance which does this perfectly, lighting up the small space and also providing a welcome relief from the performances around her which are all very good indeed but sometimes a little overplayed for the space that they find themselves in. The Stephen Joseph has its own very particular and unusual dynamic and this is all too easy to do. Less is more.

I found LV’s mother Mari Hoff almost as hard to take as she does. Polly Lister takes the part by the scruff of the neck and shakes it mercilessly, until she is finally made to face her self deception and vulgarity. It is a brave performance and it needs to be. I liked Sean McKenzie’s performance as Ray Say more and more as the play went on. Ray begins as a cliche but the writing gives opportunities for the actor to go beyond this and he made the most of some great moments. Gurgeet Singh was quietly touching as LV’s admirer Billy, a young telephone engineer who is as shy and awkward as she is, and the ending between the two of them, where he encourages LV to find her own voice, was gentle, satisfying and perfectly played.

I have been seeing shows at the Stephen Joseph for over thirty years now and it was a great pleasure to see how Paul Robinson, the new artistic director, used the space, placing LV’s bedroom hideaway up above one of the voms and sending Billy up into the lighting rig and control box. This kind of invention is very much in the tradition of the “old” Stephen Joseph before the theatre moved to its current site in what was the Odeon cinema and we have not seen enough of it lately. It is the kind of creativity which has always been possible here- one which can float a cabin cruiser in a tiny space or make a house with two stories live in two dimensions- and it is what will keep the SJT alive in difficult times.

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.