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.

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Hamlet. Royal Shakespeare Company at Hull New Theatre. 15-02-18

Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet. Production photograph copyright RSC.

The RSC, only an hour away, with a production of Hamlet set in Africa that I had wanted to see in 2016 and missed, and Paapa Essiedu, who I had admired as Romeo for Tobacco Factory, playing Hamlet. It is fair to say that I was excited as I made my way to the New Theatre in Hull on the train.

I liked Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet very much. I believed in his grief and his anger. He was warm and engaging- a nice guy- and in better times he might have been a happy and uncomplicated young man. He handled the soliloquies beautifully with fine timing and a clear understanding and made a real connection with the audience. I missed some of the humour and the sense of danger that I feel Hamlet should have but he had clearly looked inside himself and found the part which is what every actor playing Hamlet needs to do. If an actor is brave enough to do that for you in some ways you can have nothing to complain about- each person will find something different.

The rest of the cast were new for the 2018 tour. Lorna Brown looked wonderful as Gertrude- plenty of style and hauteur- and Clarence Smith was a convincing Claudius although I didn’t really feel the turmoil as their world fell apart later in the play. Mimi Ndiwene was very moving as Ophelia. She had real warmth in the early scenes and delicacy and grace as her mind weakened. The other cast member who really impressed me was Ewart James Walters as both the ghost and the first gravedigger. He had great presence and authority.

The African setting brought with it plenty of colour, some exciting drumming, and a fine stage fight at the end, but while I can easily imagine the events of the plot transposed to a small corrupt country on that continent I’m not sure I really felt the reality of corruption and threat at the heart of Elsinore as strongly as I would have hoped. It should have worked much more strongly than it did. That has to be down to the direction from Simon Godwin. I would like to have seen the original production as a comparison. There was a bit of awkwardness in some of the stage positioning too which perhaps came from adjusting to a fresh venue, although I liked the way that the auditorium was used, especially for the ghost.

It was a great treat to be able to to see the RSC so close to home in East Yorkshire and while there were plenty of empty seats- money is tight for many of us on the East coast- those of us in the audience were delighted to see the company. There were young children in the audience who were completely enthralled and people standing at the end. It is always easy to come away from Hamlet musing over what you didn’t feel was quite right, this is one of the things that makes it worth coming back to see it again, but nothing should take away from the fact that the RSC had come to Hull. I really hope that they come back. We need them.

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.

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.