Winter Solstice. Actors Touring Company and Orange Tree Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 5-4-18

Roland Schimmelpfennig, one of Germany’s most performed playwrights, wrote Winter Solstice during 2013 and 2014 as a response to the rise of the new right in Europe. It is the story of what happens when Corinna, a naive, lonely older woman invites Rudolph, a plausible stranger who she has met on a train, into the family home of her daughter Bettina and her husband Albert. They are educated liberals, a film maker and a writer, whose marriage is under strain. It is Christmas and Rudolph doesn’t leave. To start with he is delightful in the eyes of everybody but Albert, until slowly his true nature is revealed, although we are never sure how much of what follows is real and how much is happening inside Albert’s over-medicated head.

You have to think hard to keep up with what is happening as this is a thoroughly Brechtian play, full of artifice. How the story is told is every bit as important as the story itself. It starts in a production meeting for one of Bettina’s films and we are never allowed to forget that we are in a theatre as the cast both play their characters and narrate the action. There is no set and the jumble of props and metal trestle tables from that original meeting are moved around with great speed and accuracy throughout the play to tell the story and used to signify whatever might be needed. The whole production is very cleverly directed and devised and makes some powerful and timely points about the insidious nature of populism and political manipulation- this is a play which is designed to make you think rather than touch the heart. It must have packed quite a punch when it was first seen at home in its original language. It fitted in the round at the SJT beautifully with the cast opening it out and sometimes speaking directly to the audience. I was more in awe of their technical skills than their characterisation as I watched them at work, delivering lines in and out of character at speed, making sure that everything was there in the right place at the right time and finding drama and humour in quick succession.

This was clearly a really well made piece of theatre, recast and redirected from a production that won four off West End Awards but, while I am very glad to have seen it, it wasn’t really for me any more than Brecht is. Having said that, it is the first time that a stranger has seen me in the audience, recognised me the following day and stopped me in Filey wanting to talk about a production, so they must have been doing something right. I think Roland Schimmelpfennig would probably be quite happy about that.

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Napoleon Disrobed. Told by an Idiot at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 22-03-18

Production photograph by Manuel Harlan.

Napoleon disrobed, a “comic alternative history” of what happened to Napoleon after he fell from power is a playful and inventive piece of theatre, typical of the work of Told by an Idiot, directed by Kathryn Hunter who knows a few things about theatre. It takes risks and asks its audience to go with it. It is the kind of telling that only works on stage which is always a good sign. As we see Napoleon attempting to come to terms with his loss of power and wondering who he really is, we are asked interesting questions about status, power and control in a lighthearted, absurdist way. There is a lot to enjoy, above all two technically accomplished and focused performances from Ayesha Antoine and Paul Hunter. They have to think fast and keep their timing perfect, both vocally and physically. Paul Hunter engages with the audience and has some moving moments where we see him as he once was while Ayesha Antoine plays a number of parts with style and charm. I was delighted to see her back here again. Kathryn Hunter has asked a lot of them- the direction is fast and often quite technically demanding. The audience are part of the action throughout and playing a character and managing the physical demands of the show while keeping it moving forward must feel a bit like juggling.

The stage itself, designed by Michael Vale, is a wooden platform which can be rocked or raked and have things hidden under it via trapdoors- a wonderful tool which the production makes full use of- and the backdrop is made of three coloured lengths of cloth forming a tricolour. It’s a clever and versatile setting.

This is a very good production- it has worked well elsewhere and it will work well again- so why did I feel that the performance I saw didn’t quite take off at the SJT? Firstly, to allow for the staging, part of the round had to be screened off so we were on three sides rather than in the round. The round at the Stephen Joseph is never a comfortable space when that has to be done. There is a sweet spot, a connection with the audience, which is lost and what is a very special space seems to sulk. Napoleon Disrobed relies on that connection and on this particular afternoon too many of the matinee audience I was part of were uncomfortable with it rather than delighted. From my seat I was looking across at the tiered audience on the other side so I didn’t have to guess about that. They were wondering what was going on rather than allowing themselves to follow a flight of theatrical fancy. It was their loss. Maybe they hadn’t read the words “comic” and “alternative” in the tag-line. The one moment which they really made work was when those who had been given paper Napoleon hats were asked to stand up,look at Napoleon and copy what he did. As they pointed and put on their hats they were serious and uncertain and the effect was genuinely eerie. If only the audience had worked as hard as the cast things might have been very different.

A Brief History of Women. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 14-09-17

Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

Alan Ayckbourn has had a long and productive career and produced over seventy full length plays. The best of his works are accepted as classics of their time, still widely produced, and in his late seventies he is still writing. One of the great pleasures of seeing his latest play, A Brief History of Women, “a comedy in four parts about an unremarkable man and the remarkable women who loved him, left him, or lost him”, is being able to see how his work has changed over the years. There is a gentle, wistful tone which has replaced the sharp edge that skewered the middle classes so expertly and produced some of the funniest visual comedy of the last century. This brings both gains and losses, as change always does. The comedy in A Brief History of Women is sometimes the weakest element. While the matinee audience enjoyed joining in with the panto section the off stage children in rehearsal didn’t really convince me in the way that Ayckbourn’s off stage characters have in the past and it all seemed a bit broad brush and derivative. At his best the pin point accuracy of Ayckbourn’s comedy makes you laugh and wince at the same time. In contrast there is sometimes great delicacy in the writing, particularly when the central character, Anthony and the woman who will become his wife fall in love, and in the final scene. There is real heart, an elegaic quality to the writing at times, which I really enjoyed.

Having got the losses out of the way I am going to concentrate on the gains as there are plenty of them. When I took my seat and looked down at the set it felt as though I had come home. Four areas of a large house, a house which almost becomes an additional character, were marked out on the floor of the stage in a way that we have seen often over the years, cleverly characterised without being cluttered. The action of the play sees the house go through several changes over the lifetime of the central character, and as time progressed this was marked by small telling set changes- one of which drew a round of applause after it was completed. It was a small space set out with great skill to tell a story by designer Kevin Jenkins, working alongside someone who knows the SJT better than anyone else will ever know it. We were in safe hands. Ayckbourn’s own direction was exemplary- it was a joy to see the accuracy with which the action tracked the hired servant who was moving from space to space and the fast moving scenes had a filmic quality as the lights rose and dimmed, following him, while the action in other areas went on unseen. The actors movements and the sound effects of doors as they opened and closed were beautifully synchronised and what could easily have been messy and confusing in lesser hands rang out clear as a bell. That may sound like a small detail but trust me it isn’t. There were some lovely sequences between scenes later in the play, when the big house had become a school, which were almost dance like in their precision and music was used to set a mood and underscore emotion right through the play in a way that really worked.

The actors work beautifully as a company. Each of them plays contrasting parts during the course of the play, held together by a charming, truthful, central performance from Antony Eden as Anthony Spate. This is a gentle, dignified man, a good person, and it takes an actor of real quality to play goodness. There is nothing to hide behind- you just have to be. The play would not have worked without him.

I came away from this production feeling quite nostalgic, looking back at changes, both at the SJT and my own life, and counting myself lucky to have been able to see a new Ayckbourn play one more time.

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.

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.

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.

Henceforward. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 29-09-16

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Bill Champion as Jerome. Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

I saw the first production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Henceforward at the Stephen Joseph in 1987 when I was in my twenties. A lot has happened to both me and the theatre since then. The revival at the SJT this year is quite a brave thing to do in some ways. The play was very successful both in Scarborough and in London where it won the Evening Standard award for best comedy when it transferred to the West End with Ian McKellen and Jane Asher. It would have been easy to leave it safely in the past, resting on its laurels, but I’m glad they didn’t. It made a big impression on me at the time. It was the first time that Ayckbourn had introduced science fiction into one of his plays- I loved NAN300F- Barry McCarthy was great as the lead character, Jerome, along with Serena Evans as Zoe and I still have a strong flashbulb memory of the ending in the original production. That doesn’t always happen. I saw plays thirty years ago that I can barely remember now. Every now and again if they have revived an Ayckbourn that I didn’t like nearly as much I have grumbled that they should give Henceforward another production- this made seeing it again a bit like high noon- how is it after all those years? Was my young self right? Was I going to be disappointed?

It remains a very clever idea- more successful still, for me, than some of the later futuristic Ayckbourn plays. It is set in a dystopian future where the streets are under mob rule and even opening the front door is dangerous. A composer, Jerome, is trying desperately to find his creative energy again and write, holed up in a tower block with only a faulty robot nanny for company. Throughout the play the world outside remains very real- a clear and present danger brought to us by videophone and entry security screens. Jerome has asked a young actress up for an interview, hoping that she will play his wife, allowing him to provide a semblance of normality and persuade his real estranged wife to allow him to regain contact with his daughter Geain. He is also desperate to find fuel for his creativity, given his isolation, and he does this by recording sounds- everything in fact- that he hears in the flat to sample in his work. There is both comedy and some heartfelt emotional writing and it is the second aspect that I think has stood the test of time best as the plot plays out.

Bill Champion is very good as Jerome. He is a very intense, truthful actor and you certainly believe in his Jerome as a difficult, gifted man. I liked Laura Matthews as Zoe too. That character needs to bring some lightness and airiness into the room with her to counter everything else that is going on and I particularly liked her first scene where she is clearly both falling apart after being attacked and also desperate to hold onto some normality and do the interview that she has come to do. I loved Jacqueline King as NAN300F but in spite of some very convincing acting as Corinna I didn’t think that the production had really got that character right this time. You need to feel that she and Jerome are meant to be together- that there is still something there, a warmth underneath Corinna’s outer skin of bitterness and frustration, and I didn’t quite.

It was fascinating to see the play again in my middle age. The heart of it has certainly stood the test of time- maybe the character of Mervyn has dated a little but not much else has. Henceforward certainly deserves to stay on stage alongside some of Ackbourn’s better known comedies and I am glad that my wish to see it again has finally been granted.