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.

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.

The Winter’s Tale. Northern Broadsides at the Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough. 22-10-15

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Mike Hugo as Autolycus. Photograph by Nobby Clark.

There was a lot to enjoy in Northern Broadsides new production of The Winter’s Tale. The first half of the play is cold and dark as a tragedy starts to unfold and then opens out into something quite different as Shakespeare allows what will be a happy ending to come out of nowhere. We never quite know how sunlight and forgiveness is allowed In, but the moment when Leonte’s folly and anger is repented of and then wiped away, by the sight of a statue which lives and breathes, bringing him what he most longs for is one of the most moving moments in all his work. It is a play which moves between low comedy and delicate beauty and it is not easy to get right.

Nowhere is this more true than in the character of Leontes. Sudden irrational jealousy directed at his good and faithful wife, Hermione, which comes on him out of nowhere has to be made sense of and a deeply unlikeable man has to gain our sympathy and earn his second chance for the ending to work properly. Conrad Nelson does a fine job, never overplaying the anger and jealousy- there is no need as it is all in the violent unpleasant language which Shakespeare gives him- and returning to us in the latter part of the play as a broken and contrite man, full of self knowledge, who is unable to forgive himself. He is helped by his own direction and two really good performances from Hannah Barrie and Jack Lord as Hermione and Polixenes. Polixenes, the visiting king of Bohemia,is a real charmer and Hermione- who is marooned in a grey austere court with a husband who is a difficult man- is glad of the chance for some warmth and fun. Leontes has real cause to worry, whether it has come to anything yet or not. Seeing Polixenes provide his wife with that warmth that he can’t give her tips him over the edge. He will listen to nobody, and the playing out of the consequences of his outraged retaliation towards his baby daughter and his wife, and the death of his young son, make for a grim first half. Only the mercy of Camillo, in a lovely performance by Andy Cryer, allows a thread of hope for the plot to hang on in the second half.

When we arrive in Bohemia sixteen years later things brighten up. Leonte’s daughter Perdita, a charming performance from Vanessa Schofield, is now a kind, lovely young woman, happy and in love, living in a rural idyll. There is dancing, laughter and knockabout humour and a terrific performance from Mike Hugo as the trickster Autolycus. He has a great rapport with the audience which always works very well in the round and he introduces himself with the best parody of a cut price Bob Dylan that you could ever hope to hear. There are obstacles to face before happy endings can be found for everybody but Mamillius the poor dead son, but finally, magically, they are swept away. The last scene is beautifully and simply done with handbells and candles for atmosphere and once again the play has worked its magic. Judged by their own very high standards, in recent years particularly, I didn’t feel this was Northern Broadsides at their absolute best but, as we say up north, they will do for me!

Jack Lear. Northern Broadsides/SJT. SJT Scarborough. 6-11-08

First off I have to say that reworking one of the storylines in King Lear in bad blank verse is not a good idea. Shouldn’t be allowed to happen.

The main reason it shouldn’t be allowed to happen is that it completely fouled up two performances of genuine star quality from Becky Hindley, playing Freda, and Andy Cryer playing Edmund. They deserved better. I particularly admired Andy Cryer as the SJT was almost empty for this matinee and he had to work the audience quite a lot. He needed to have enormous confidence to make that work. It made me feel very old when I read my programme in the interval and realised that I had seen him in The Winslow Boy when he was twelve. He is now a very good looking guy in his late twenties I guess, who is a dead ringer for David Cameron. Not that I wish to imply that I find David Cameron good looking. 🙂 The very idea.

This could have been amazing…………… such a shame. I hate seeing really good actors fighting with a duff script more than anything else. I hope that those two get the parts they deserve in the future. They will have sold one seat for anything which I find out that they are in anyway.

There was also a great song from Mike Waterson which was rather wasted at the beginning and the end. Barrie Rutter needs a good director to stop him being so self indulgent and make him vulnerable. His was the weakest perfomance of the five for me. I admire him in lots of ways for what he has built up with Northern Broadsides and I have had a few good chats with him over the years. He is a theatre man to his fingertips, so I am not meaning to snipe.

I may have criticised this production but its heart was in the right place and that counts for a lot.