Stepping Out. Stephen Joseph Theatre. Summer 2019.

211550359.jpg.gallery

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!

Advertisements

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

1_SWB_STO_060219much_05JPG

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.

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.