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.

The World Goes Round. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 17-08-16.

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Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

Kander and Ebb have written two masterpieces of musical theatre, Cabaret and Chicago, and a lot else besides including the New York anthem, New York, New York. Their work is an absolute gift for a songbook show. It is funny, dramatic and sassy with a heartbreaking humanity and truthfulness at the centre of it all- much like life. Very American and very Broadway. Who would have thought that five performers in a small provincial theatre out on the coast in the north of England would ace their songs with such talent, confidence, joy and conviction? Well they did. The Stephen Joseph’s summer musical offering this year is an absolute corker. All the cast are hugely experienced. We don’t often get to see musical theatre performers of this quality in Scarborough- if ever- and I was left wondering how we had got so lucky. Maybe they just wanted to have a chance to sing great songs.

The show was originally conceived by David Thompson, Scott Ellis and Susan Stroman and staged off Broadway. It has been beautifully directed at the Stephen Joseph by Lotte Wakeham. Each song is a small drama, rather than a song, and the acting is every bit as important as the singing. The cast are very generous towards each other in this, playing supporting roles alongside each performance with great timing and commitment. Marry Me, from The Rink was a fine example, with Shona White listening to Nigel Richards as he proposed and showing us her every thought. I loved Phoebe Fildes and Laura Jane Matthewson’s version of Class from Chicago- perfectly done- and they also did a great version of The Grass is Always Greener from Woman of the Year together. Nigel Richards does a heartrending version of I Don’t Remember You from The Happy Time. He has great warmth as a performer- not something you can teach- and a beautiful tone. I’d love to have heard him do a full out, complete version of the title song on his own rather than just one of the snippets that we heard throughout as a kind of refrain. It was a pleasure to watch Ashley Samuels move- both on roller skates and off- and it would have been good to see more of that as well as hearing him sing. Shona White was best in the songs relishing Kander and Ebb’s sassy humour and it was a joy to see the mostly older audience chuckling away at her in Arthur in the Afternoon, from City Lights. That was one of the less well known songs which it was interesting to hear alongside those which have become standards. The title song from Cabaret could easily have become a cliche, but a stunning arrangement made it seem new and fresh as well as something which just had to be there.

It was one of those times where the set fitted both the show and the space in the round perfectly. This is not always easy. It was simple and made a flexible background for the performers while providing enough Broadway razzamatazz to be going on with. A job well done by designer Simon Kerry.

The matinee that I saw was a relaxed “dementia friendly” performance. Even though it was poorly attended, one look at the shining eyes of the man waiting to be led into the lift behind me would have been enough to make it clear that the whole thing was worthwhile. If anyone had been put off by being told this in advance and thought that their afternoon would be spoiled they needn’t have worried. Those of us who were there behaved impeccably as great songs worked their magic and the very talented cast still stormed it for us. We loved it. There was also free cake in the interval- something that I think should be available at all theatre performances from now on. Well done to the SJT. I hope that they do this again and allow the idea to grow. Theatre is for everyone. When the West End comes to Scarborough and it costs £10 for a front row matinee ticket you’d be a fool to miss one of the few remaining performances.

The National Joke. Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. 23-06-16

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Cate Hamer and Catherine Lamb as Olivia and Charlie. Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

Seeing Torben Betts’ new play in which a rich Tory politician- one who is a bit of a monster underneath his suave exterior- sees his life implode on what might have been a quiet family gathering to watch a solar eclipse is an interesting way to spend the afternoon of EU referendum day. The National Joke allows us to watch as both national and family divides are played out. It is billed as a state of the nation play and while I don’t think it ever reaches those heights it is very well acted and has some clever writing. A play set in the present day can’t ignore mobile phones, even though they are inherently undramatic, and Torben Betts uses them to great effect. Phone conversations are used to heighten irony, speed things along and provide a kind of shorthand, mingling scenes. A single sentence can bring to mind a whole situation that we are not able to see. This is not easy to do and it is not easy for actors to time. I was impressed. There are some powerful scenes in the second half and Philip Bretherton as Rupert St John-Green and Cate Hamer as his second wife Olivia both give believable and heartfelt performances, relishing the chance to let rip some emotion. Annabel Leventon as Olivia’s mother is an interesting character, all surface elegance with little warmth, who finally hears some home truths from her daughter. Charlie the young adult grandchild of the family has brought her married, socialist boyfriend along with her is trying desperately to escape both her family and her relationship. She knows that there will be trouble. She has suffered badly and needs to get her life back on track. Catherine Lamb plays her with a touching honesty, not easy when the most dramatic part of her story is in the past. The final character, Charlie’s boyfriend, was played by Torben Betts himself on the afternoon that I saw the play, using a script on a small tablet. As you’d expect, being the writer, he timed the dialogue very well and in a play with mobile phones as part of the action it was easy to forget that he was working from a script. He made the boyfriend both understated but strong and this was a nice contrast to all the emoting going on elsewhere.

It’s the kind of play that really needs a good director and Henry Bell has clearly done a good job as the play speeds along and the dialogue- even across two different scenes playing out at the same time- is clear and sharp.

This was an interesting afternoon. Some of those scenes will have been difficult to write and difficult to stage. It is a play with a lot of ambition and it doesn’t quite achieve everything it hopes to achieve but that’s good to aim high and I’m glad I saw it- especially the second half. I like Torben Betts’ writing very much.

The Merry Wives. Northern Broadsides at the Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough. 28-04-16

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Becky Hindley and Nicola Sanderson as Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. Production photo by Nobby Clark.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is not a great play. There is an early tradition that another Falstaff play was requested from Shakespeare by Elizabeth I, who loved the character, as did most of her subjects. The company would have also been very happy to have another money spinner of a play with one of the most popular characters he ever wrote making another appearance. We can’t know for sure whether this is true but it certainly feels like Shakespeare was writing to order rather than from the heart. The Falstaff in the Henrys is a much darker, more rounded character than the one in Merry Wives and while a lot of the other names are familiar, Bardolph, Pistol, Nym, Mistress Quickly and Justice Shallow, they are not fleshed out and made real. If you have seen Henry IV parts one and two you can’t help but feel short changed. Merry Wives is a light hearted romp, probably swiftly written to order, and the best parts are the new characters, especially Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, who have a wonderful time running rings round the men while keeping their dignity and pointing out a few home truths. I am pretty sure that Elizabeth would have liked them very much. There is no harm done, just a few pretensions made fun of and a few egos punctured. It’s all good fun and nobody takes anything too much to heart- not even Falstaff who is the butt of most of the jokes.

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Barrie Rutter as Falstaff. Production photo by Nobby Clark.

Nevertheless I was glad to see the play again as it isn’t often done. I enjoyed it twenty three years ago when Northern Broadsides performed it outdoors in Valley Gardens, Saltburn. It was only their second production and they have come a long way since. The new production takes a while to get off the ground- the play’s fault rather than the company’s I think- but once it does it is well paced and there is a lot of laughter and some nice set piece moments which probably work now in exactly the same way that they did for it’s first audiences. I shall remember the fat woman of Ilkley running for her life for a long time. With apologies to Barrie Rutter, who is a natural Falstaff and the backbone of the production as actor and director, I have to say that my two stars were Becky Hindley as Mistress Ford and Nicola Sanderson as Mistress Page. They work beautifully together and they are a real pleasure to watch. You understand exactly what they are thinking and get behind them, willing them to succeed. I also liked Andy Cryer very much as Ciaus. He gave an over the top, full blooded performance which did a lot to help the play along- especially in the first half. It was all great fun and there is not enough of that in the world.

German Skerries. Up in Arms and Orange Tree Richmond at the Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough.

 

Howard Evans and George Evans in German Skerries. Production photograph by Manuel Harlan.

Robert Holman’s play, German Skerries, an award winning play from 1979, is a subtle, realistic look at Britain through the eyes of three characters on a hillside overlooking both the sea and the industrial heart of Middlesborough in the North East of England. There is plenty going on offstage, as a middle aged teacher and a young couple talk, think, watch birds, boats and industrial unrest through binoculars and a small telescope but not a lot of action on stage. They talk, flirt, argue, and work through their own thoughts and concerns while we watch. It is a portrait of the times seen through a the microscope of a small group of people. We are shown the impact of the wider world on their lives through gentle dialogue and delicate interaction- all very English- rather than high drama. In fact the only time that something dramatic does happen to a fourth character on stage it is perhaps the least convincing scene in the play when set against the gentle realism of the rest.

The actors have to be very good to make writing of this kind work. There is no chance for them to grandstand or rely on events to bolster a performance. The only way to make it work is to show real, vulnerable people on stage- to be convincing as a character from the inside- and the cast of this first major revival from Up in Arms and the Orange Tree Theatre Richmond do exactly that. Howard Evans is a very recognisable type, one which I have met often, a likable, well meaning, ageing teacher and Katie Moore and George Evans are a convincing young couple, bickering sometimes but very much in love. There is a lot of warmth to enjoy.

The set is realistic and beautifully made, a small shed, a path and a patch of hillside, and it sat very comfortably in the round at the Stephen Joseph- a perfect backdrop for a tiny slice of life.

I enjoyed my afternoon very much, but theatre is a strange, organic business and on the afternoon I saw German Skerries from the back seats of a small audience it didn’t quite seem to take off. The round at Scarborough is a strange, unforgiving space and there is a sweet spot which makes things work, a kind of chemistry between what is happening on stage and the audience who are clearly visible. When this comes alive in the hands of a company who really know the space it is magic and when it doesn’t it is sometimes nobody’s fault.