Jane Eyre. National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic at Hull New Theatre. 28-09-17

The ensemble. NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg

Jane Eyre is one of the best loved heroines of a nineteenth century novel. She has been read and admired ever since she first appeared in 1837. She is strong minded and plain and she suffers deeply, overcoming obstacles to find happiness, allowing nothing to stop her. It’s a formula which has stood the test of time and writers have been using Charlotte Bronte’s template ever since. If you are going to put the book on stage in front of a sharp audience who know the book backwards (as one elderly lady sitting near me said when refusing a programme) then you had better get it right. Add to that a mass of plot and a novel which is written in the first person and you have a big job on your hands. Above all the central character needs a strong performance and we must never feel that we have come to the theatre to see a 3D version of a Sunday night classic television serial. There is nothing wrong with those if they are well done- and Jane Eyre has been quite beautifully put on screen- but they have no place in a theatre. It’s a big ask.

The National Theatre/Bristol Old Vic production has been brought back thanks to the huge success it had three years ago. It was devised by the original cast, with the director Sally Cookson, and its biggest achievement is its theatricality and playfulness. The set immediately brings to mind a children’s playground. It is a series of ladders, slopes and platforms and all of it is used at speed with great accuracy during the course of the play. There are some lovely moments of pure theatre throughout like the one that opens the production where baby Jane’s birth is announced and the baby is unfurled into a dress which is then put onto Nadia Clifford who plays Jane. This is storytelling and we are asked to become complicit in whatever the cast show us, whether it is a moving carriage journey conjured up from the co-ordinated movement of cast members standing shoulder to shoulder and stamping their feet or a dog who is nothing more than a flexible whippy tail in the hand of Paul Mundell. Nothing more is needed other than an actor who gives his whole self to the task so that we believe in him. The music is lovely, with some beautifully sung songs from Melanie Marshall as Rochester’s poor deranged first wife and it was a very moving device to show her wandering the stage in a blood red dress like a ghost. It made Bertha a constant presence- as she should be. I wasn’t as sure about the way Rochester was portrayed. This was absolutely nothing to do with Tim Delap’s performance, perhaps more to do with the Rochester I already had in my head.

Nadia Clifford (Jane Eyre) NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg

Nadia Clifford (Jane Eyre) NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg












Of course at the centre of everything is Jane herself. If that character doesn’t work then nothing else matters. A lot is asked of Nadia Clifford, both emotionally and technically. She gives us a fierce, uncompromising Jane who knows her own mind. She has a lot of injustice to be fierce about and we watch her grow up painfully and learn to master herself and grow in dignity and strength. It is a fine performance. I loved the way she was both fully emotionally present and also technically precise. There was a lovely moment towards the end of the first half where she was put in an adult dress for the first time and her whole stance and demeanour changed without a word being said. There is a lot going on in this production around her and it needed great strength and presence to keep us focused on her. Sadly she was unable to continue thanks to injury so Jenny Johns took over as Jane for the second half. This was fascinating to watch as she made the part work in a completely different way. The two actresses are very different physical types and this was a more measured, elegant Jane which I enjoyed for its own sake, as well as being full of admiration for the fact that she was able to slot into a very technical, fast production without missing a beat.

I loved this show and I am grateful for the chance to see it so close to home thanks to Hull being City of Culture. Jane Eyre is one of my favourite novels and I would not have been slow to tell you if I hadn’t.


Sea Fret 3.

We walk in shadows,
flitting in and out of the light,
half seen by a pale white sun,
half known, misunderstood.
Faint wanderers.
Going nowhere.

We have stumbled
into a a chilled grey world,
a place of clinging secrets,
where unseen waves turn.
We walk among distant possibilities,
a mystery, even to ourselves.

I look up into the soft sky,
and examine the shades of grey
as they sharpen and fade,
begging for a burst of blue,
a blaze of light,
and life restored.

So close.
So far away.

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.

Short Story: Best Mates.

Carly held out the chips to Suzanne. It wasn’t fair. Suzanne always said she wanted some and then changed her mind.
“I’m not eating them all.”
Suzanne shrugged. She liked watching people eat. Carly chose one of the biggest chips and threw it at a seagull.
“I forgot my mother would be working. We should have gone to Wally Whalers.”
“She’s all right your mum.”
“She bloody isn’t. You don’t live with her.”
“Look, at least she’s not like mine. God she is a total embarrassment. She went out in one of my skirts last weekend. I was like, you cannot do that.”
There wasn’t a lot Suzanne could say to that. Carly’s mother really was an embarrassment. She had bleached blonde hair, wore tops that showed her stomach and high heels she couldn’t walk in. Every two weeks she spent a fortune on pointless manicures, and insisted that they call her Fiona. Not what you really wanted from a mother. Carly had told Suzanne before how she would borrow her clothes, even though they only just fitted her, and sometimes if Suzanne was round Carly’s and they wanted her ipad, Suzanne would have to fetch it from downstairs because her mum had borrowed it.
“That is pretty sad, wearing your stuff,” Suzanne admitted.
“I think she’s after another bloke as well,” Carly said gloomily. Suzanne groaned.
“No! She’s not bringing him home and stuff is she?”
“Not yet. Not while I’m there anyway.”
They walked round onto the seafront and ate the chips huddled onto one of the benches in the wooden shelter at the end of the Valley Gardens. It was getting chilly so they soon finished them and let the two seagulls who were across the road glaring at them have the scraps. The birds flung themselves onto them angrily, beating each other off with threats and open beaks.
“Those chips were crap.”
“What do you expect? I told you we should have gone to Wally Whalers.”
Suzanne began to hunt in her bag for her phone.
“I’d better text Jack.”
Carly rolled her eyes and sighed. Any time that she was out with Suzanne she ended up being forced to watch her texting Jack. Just because she could. Sometimes she would read the texts out loud and want to know what Carly thought about them. Then if Jack replied she would be forced to look at the message- usually something sick making- and put up with the sight of Suzanne’s fat face being smug. Well not today. She wasn’t going to give her the chance. Carly was fed up. The shelter smelled of wee, there were no lads about, and she was well hacked off. She hurled the polystyrene tray into the bin and dug her hands into her pockets.
“Right I’m off then. See you.”
Suzanne didn’t even ask why. She just nodded and fiddled with her mobile without looking up. She was texting Jack. Well for once she wasn’t going to have an audience.
“Call for you tomorrow?”
Suzanne nodded again, her face lit up by the blue light of her phone screen.
“If you like. Take care.”
Carly shrugged and walked off across the darkening grass.
When Carly felt like this she usually went to see Breezer, and that was what she did now. Breezer was one of the beach donkeys. She had been helping Matty and Dot for nearly four years now. It had started off because being with the donkeys calmed her down when her mother had a go at her. They had still quiet faces, and soft ears, and they just stood there on the sands with their eyes half closed until they were asked to walk up and down. She knew all their names, and which ones were the stubborn ones. Breezer was her favourite donkey. He was almost all brown, with a few white markings on his face and legs, and he was the most awkward of the lot. Carly had to watch him if some kid screamed out or poked him, and if you let him get in front of Miss Molly he would kick out. Miss Molly had nipped him once and, like Carly, he didn’t forget. He was up at the top of the field, but when she shouted for him and clapped her hands he came down, ambling slowly, tearing at the grass, taking his time.
“Now lad.”
He lifted his nose end to see what she had. Carly stroked the dark line on his back and pulled gently at the bristly hairs on his mane. He snuffled damply, and nudged her wrist.
“I haven’t got any,” Carly told him. He was after carrots. She generally begged some that were starting to go soft from one of the fruit and veg shops, but not today.
“You’re a monster you are.”
She pulled some of the good grass from over the fence where he couldn’t reach it and held it out on the flat of her hand. He took it gently, using his lips to get as much as he could.
As she watched him eat, Carly thought that she could easily go on one of the daytime talk shows her mother liked. She began making up the strap lines they could run along the bottom of the screen while she was being interviewed, and telling them to Breezer.
That was true as well. She didn’t even care that she got loads of stick at school about it. Stuff them. Simon Cooknell had once called her donkey face in front of his mates and she had told him the donkeys had a bloody sight more sense than he had. It had shut him up.
That would make them switch up the volume and listen all right. She could imagine the cose ups of her mother, sitting there backstage, crying and shaking her head, while she, Carly, told them of her years of torment. Well, not torment to be honest- but indifference definitely. As for her dad his contribution would have to be a two minute phone link. They’d never get him to leave his circuit diagrams for longer than that. Carly wasn’t exactly sure what her dad did, but she knew that it took a hell of a long time, and you couldn’t try to talk to him while he was doing it or you got some serious grief.
Matthew Perriman. What had she been thinking about? What was she still thinking about? He had been hanging around in the farthest park shelter with Jenna Maxwell for weeks now. He wasn’t exactly breaking his heart was he? He didn’t even have the guts to dump her face to face. Bastard. Bastard was a good word. Carly said it loudly several times as she wobbled Breezer’s left ear.
“You know what Breezer? If donkeys lived as long as humans I’d swap places with you. I would, honestly.”
He looked at her, chewing calmly. She wondered if donkeys ever dumped each other. Probably not. She could imagine some horses she had seen dumping each other- highly strung thoroughbreds or something like that maybe- but not donkeys. Donkeys were good at putting up with stuff. She had seen donkeys abroad, on television, carrying huge loads on their backs through five lanes of traffic and never once giving up, never once saying sod this for a lark, I’ve had enough. If you were going to be with someone, learning to put up with stuff was more important than anything else. She had seen enough of her mum and dad as she grew up to know that. God, they could be foul to each other. Carly had watched them carefully, and decided several years before that she wasn’t going to put up with anything like that, ever. She was going to run a wildlife reserve on an island somewhere, where nobody was ever allowed to come. There would be a few cows, chickens, and pigs, and donkeys. A small herd of donkeys who would be able to roam anywhere they wanted to find the best grass, and never have to carry anything on their backs ever. She would have her supplies, the ones she couldn’t grow herself, dropped by helicopter once a month, and she would have a gun. Just in case.
Carly watched Breezer’s nostrils rising and falling. It was a real shame she wasn’t on that island now.
“Would you come with me Breezer?”
He turned slowly round and wandered back across the field.
“Oh, thanks.”

Shards of remembrance.

Each time we remember,
we remake.
Each time we drift back,
we renew.
We are fragile,
like glass.

My childhood lies
broken around my bare feet,
clouded with dust,
shattered by time.
Jagged windows
which lead me back,
teasing out lost thoughts,
showing me myself,
reflecting me home.

Tiny diamond splinters,
shards of remembrance,
sink into my soft skin,
cutting, needling,
glinting in the past.
Some things are gone.
Only their brightness remains.
Familiar, forgotten moments
which fit together,
indistinct, incomplete.
Telling me lies,
even as they record the truth.
Was I really there?
Did I really see?
I hold each piece up to the light,
polishing it with my breath,
paying it attention,
allowing it to shine.

Each time we remember,
we remake.
Each time we drift back,
we renew.
We are fragile,
like glass.

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.