The Monstrous Heart. Traverse Theatre/Stephen Joseph Theatre. 10-10-19

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Production still by Mihaela Bodlovic. Christine Entwistle as Mag

I was looking forward to Oliver Emanuel’s new play The Monstrous Heart as I have seen some fine theatre at the Traverse in the past, but in spite of two deeply committed, intense performances from Christine Entwistle as Mag and Charlene Boyd as her wayward daughter Beth it didn’t really work for me.

Mag has fled to a remote cabin in Canada with her granddaughter after considerable heartache and a lot of bad behaviour from her daughter who is completely out of control. When Beth turns up on the doorstep, having tracked her down after being released from prison, there is a long, violent recrimination in which taunts and resentment from the past come thick and fast, forming the action of the play. We are shown a story of addiction anger and bitterness and I just couldn’t quite take it in and believe in it. It was all too sudden, too fast and furious to take in. I needed time and changes of pace, breathing spaces which are not there in the performances, the writing or the direction, so that I would be able to take in the situation and the characters properly and invest in them. It is a short play with no interval and there is no respite. The one quiet moment was when the dead bear on the kitchen table (waiting to be taxidermied) speaks in a disembodied voice. If the play as a whole had worked for me this could have been a powerful sequence- the play is asking the question who is the monster here- but the writing, particularly for the mother’s character, is a little heavy handed and didn’t always avoid cliché. I just didn’t quite buy it. High melodrama is difficult to bring off and there are no half measures. It either works brilliantly or not at all. The lady next to me slept through it. It was all a bit much for her I think and the decent sized matinee audience were also clearly very unsure at the end. It should have been a gripping heartstopper of a play leaving me feeling wrung out after a shocking ending rather than being left as a slightly bewildered observer.

None of these problems were the fault of the two actors. They had a lovely set to work on but apart from that I felt that they deserved better from their writer Oliver Emanuel and their director Gareth Nicholls. He gave the play some nice moments but didn’t quite make the whole thing work for me. A missed opportunity.

Build a Rocket. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 14-09-19

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Serena Manteghi as Yasmin. Production photograph by Sam Taylor.

It’s not often that a local play which isn’t by Alan Ayckbourn returns to the Stephen Joseph as an award winner on two continents. Build a Rocket by Scarborough writer Christopher York has just done exactly that. It won the Holden Street Theatre Award and the Sunday Mail best female solo show award on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018 and an Adelaide Fringe Best theatre award in 2019.

It may not be the most innovative piece of writing you would hope to see, as it treads a well worn path- that of the flawed single mother desperately trying to turn her life around after a poor time at school and an early pregnancy- but as someone who has worked in Scarborough and lived close by the town for a few decades I can tell you that it rings true to its setting and the central character, Yasmin, who has to hold the stage on her own for an hour and a quarter was instantly recognisable to me. There are many young women very like her walking the streets around the theatre bringing up their children with dedication in difficult circumstances. After hearing the Brocklehurst cup mentioned I think I can even hazard a guess at which of the town’s primary schools Christopher York went to.

It takes enormous energy and concentration to turn in a solo performance as good as the one that Serena Manteghi gives as Yasmin. She never lets the pace drop and she is both fierce and touching. It is her performance that allows the play to take flight and her conviction lifts the writing and gives it force. She makes us believe in Yasmin’s struggle and also plays other characters along the way deftly as Yasmin tries to keep going, stay strong and build her rocket to lift her out of her predicament. I admired her performance very much.

One thing did sadden me. There was no interval and two people walked out very prominently by climbing over the centre of the front row while the play was in full flow. It was the height of rudeness. I presume it may have been because hearing the f word and some of the subject matter was too much for them. It was a small Saturday matinee audience and I went home wishing that some of the young people- especially the young women- who would have lapped it up if they had only been made to sit in front of it could have been shepherded in from the streets. It’s the kind of theatre we need in Scarborough, locally made, high quality and absolutely heartfelt and something needs to be done about getting the word out when there is a chance to see something like this. A play like When We Are Married may sell out the main house but the people who want to see it will not be there for ever and if theatre in Scarborough is to have a future this is it.

Season’s Greetings. Stephen Joseph theatre. 19-08-10

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Leigh Symonds and Mercy Ojelade as Bernard and Pattie. Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand. — Mark Twain

The middle of August is a good time to watch Season’s Greetings, one of Alan Ayckbourn’s best plays. Away from the overindulgence, family togetherness, starlight and tinsel we can happily admit that in reality Christmas can sometimes be a bit rubbish. Relationships which are rubbing along fine when they are not put under pressure are forced, limping, into the spotlight, people who really don’t like each other much are forced to spend long periods in the same room and somewhere far away there is a perfect Christmas happening. A Christmas which nobody within your own gathering is quite living up to- still less the hosts themselves.

All this is perfectly captured by Alan Ayckbourn’s classic Season’s Greetings. It is one of his best plays and well overdue for a revival at the Stephen Joseph- this is the first since the original production in 1981. It is beautifully constructed and the set pieces- particularly those at the end of each act- are well earned and perfectly set up. At his best Ayckbourn captures a searing blend of poignancy and laughter- we laugh out loud and wince in the same moment- and it takes real skill from his cast to put this across. This isn’t simply comedy and it would be too easy to just play it as that. Bernard, the hapless doctor who really only wants to be liked, beautifully played by Leigh Symonds, is a perfect example. We begin by ridiculing him as we watch him in one of Ayckbourn’s best set pieces, rehearsing his annual puppet show- a treat that nobody wants to see- and end by wincing at his searing self knowledge while still laughing. There is a lot of quiet desperation in Ayckbourn’s women characters and in Season’s Greetings it takes the form of Rachel, Belinda and Pattie. Rachel is in a futile relationship with writer Clive and Belinda- the hostess- also longs for him. She just wants someone to notice her and think about her, as her husband certainly doesn’t. Pattie is pregnant again with a child that she really doesn’t want and a husband who isn’t interested in the children that they already have let alone another one on the way. Rachel Caffrey, Frances Marshall and Mercy Ojelade are all very touching in the roles as they work hard to keep things together and search for a happy ending that is never going to come. In contrast the quiet desperation of Bernard’s wife Phyllis, a nice performance by Eileen Battye, has been eased by self medicating with booze. Alongside the laughter gender injustices within the family are laid bare, well before the era of me too. The men are in charge here and they have done little to deserve it. It is far more telling to lay this bare through laughter than in a feminist rant.

Of course the direction is flawless as the play has been staged by Ayckbourn himself. The pace is kept up and everything runs like clockwork. The set shows us three rooms on stage simultaneously with cut off walls and this allows our attention to move from room to room quickly as the focus changes. This is a really well thought out revival, sharply funny and as relevant as ever. We have all known Christmases like this.

Stepping Out. Stephen Joseph Theatre. Summer 2019.

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Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

I remember the success of Richard Harris’ Stepping Out, written thirty five years ago, back in 1984 but I never got to see it so I knew straight away it would be a good choice as the centrepiece of the Stephen Joseph’s summer season. I know the usual Thursday matinee audience there quite well- quite a few of them have become familiar faces- but many of the crowd who arrived buzzing and ready to have fun at Stepping Out were new to me. They were mostly women, with a few rather gloomy looking men tagging along. They were waving cheerfully to each other, singing along to Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and words like prosecco, The Full Monty and Mamma Mia were being bandied about. It was all a bit girly but they were certainly up for a good time and we got one.

Stepping Out is the story of a group of women- and one brave man- of varying characters and abilities who come along to a weekly tap dancing class and end up performing a routine in a local show. All of them have lives which are unsatisfactory in one way or another and we get to know them and root for them as they rehearse. No spoilers- I won’t tell you whether they succeed or not- but you can probably guess. Although it has become a period piece, written well before reality TV and celebrity dancing contests the hook is the same. Everybody loves stories like this where we can watch ordinary people- people like us- trying hard and supporting each other as they learn a skill that they never knew they had. It’s not real life but who cares- we see enough of that. People don’t change. I overheard someone behind me asking her companion, “which one do you think I am?” and that is at the heart of its appeal.

I think the character that took me back to the early eighties most powerfully was Fenella Norman as the rehearsal pianist Mrs Frazer. While everybody else would be immediately recognisable to young people today she is a type that I don’t think you would find in quite the same way now. Religious, judgemental and probably not as much of an old bat as she would like to think. Those women were throwbacks even in my childhood. There were flamboyant characters given plenty of easy comic hits joyfully taken- especially by Claire Eden as Sylvia and Suzanne Proctor as Maxine- but the two performances I enjoyed watching most at close quarters were David McKechnie as gentle, well meaning Geoffery and Alix Dunmore as clever, anxious and repressed Andy. Those two performances were subtle and perfectly thought through and when you are only a few feet away that shines out. Joanne Heywood held the whole thing together beautifully as Mavis, the dance instructor who has a heart of gold and really wants her little group of nobodies to find their feet and their self esteem and it was good to see her given her own moment in the spotlight as well as her pupils.

This is such a clever play, popular theatre which knows what people will respond to and gives them it in spades. The director Paul Robinson had made the most of its strengths and this revival was thoroughly deserved. It worked really well in the round, a space which is always at its best when it can be up close and personal, and I was very glad to see it after all this time! After all I had waited almost half a lifetime!

Much Ado About Nothing. Northern Broadsides/New Vic at the Stephen Joseph theatre.

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Isobel Middleton and Robin Simpson as Beatrice and Benedick. Production photograph by Nobby Stiles.

Much Ado About Nothing is a delightful play, mainly because of Beatrice and Benedick- two older sparring partners who clearly have a history of some kind together. Everybody knows that there is a spark between them and they should be together- finally- but they just haven’t seen it yet. “Will they or won’t they” is the oldest trick in the romantic comedy playbook and it has always worked. When set against Hero and Claudio, a second young, idealistic couple anxious to start a life together in the face of opposition you have a play that zips along, both funny and touching. It still works beautifully after 400 years and remains completely intelligible in the way that Shakespeare comedy sometimes doesn’t, time is no barrier to universal human feelings and dilemmas.

Northern Broadsides have done a good job in their current co-production with the New Vic. They have set the play at the end of the second world war when troops are returning and normal life is being resumed. Long separations are ending and the start of peace offers a tentative second chance as people find their way back into normal life. There is a feeling of lightness and joy that suits the play perfectly. Wrongs are being righted and we can relish watching this happen. Everything will be all right in the end.

Isobel Middleton and Robin Simpson are a fine Beatrice and Benedick. A land army girl and an RAF pilot who are used to the kind of banter and ribbing that gets you through hard times. I particularly liked their playing of the later scenes, there was a real sense of something serious being revealed that had been behind the word play. It mattered that they showed each other how they felt and admitted what they might have lost. Sarah Kameela-Impey and Linford Johnson are charming as Hero and Claudio- two lovely, open hearted young people who deserve to be together. This quartet are the heart of the play- get them right and you are home and dry. There is plenty of fun, dance and music from the period which the company relishes in typical Broadsides style, and some great gags. This is a full hearted and gutsy production which flies by.

Good Dog. Watford Palace Theatre at the SJT Scarborough.

Goodness gonna mow you down and swerve round them.

The boy in Arinzé Kene’s play Good Dog has been told by his now absent dad that all he has to do is be good, help his mum, work hard and stay out of trouble, and good things will come to him. He is holding onto that but life is hard and sometimes it seems a long wait. The play is the story of his awakening to the fact that being good is not always enough- sometimes you have to do what is right for you in order to keep your self respect and walk with your head held high. Along the way he describes for us a whole community. We hear their voices as he listens and get to know the shopkeepers, the what what girls and the smoking boys who surround him, and we come to know and like him. He is a decent young man who has a basic naive goodness and charm. When he finally snaps at the end of the first half we feel for him. It has been a long time coming.

Kwaku Mills graduated from RADA last year and he has a big job on to play the boy. He succeeds wonderfully. It is a long one man play- both technically and emotionally difficult- and a real tour de force. Anyone who sees this play on his CV will know that he has serious talent. The range needed is impressive. We believe in him absolutely as a young, well meaning, vulnerable teenager and when he appears, high up on the set at the start of the second half, it is immediately clear that he has been hardened by life and is now a man. He is now prepared to take action and stand up for himself in order to keep the self respect that life has tried so hard to take from him. While it is sad to see him drawn into direct action and violence we are carefully shown the reasons and it is clear that the bedrock of his character has not changed. Being good is complicated and there are more ways of being a decent person than he had understood as a young boy.

Technically the play is beautifully put together. The sound and lighting design is crucial and needs to be perfectly timed. The direction from Natalie Ibu keeps things moving well and adds variety and pace. There is a lot of good, well structured writing from Arinzé Kene but sometimes I did feel a bit of editing would have sharpened the points he was making. The set, by designer Amelia Jane Hankin, is impressive, a giant climbable cube made from weathered slats and it is used to full effect.

It was great to see a slice of London life in far away Scarborough. It isn’t the sort of play which will gather an audience easily here but when theatre is as good as this it needs to be seen so I am glad that the SJT invited it up. I don’t think this is the last I will hear of Kwaku Mills.

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.