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 Importance of Being Earnest. Stephen Joseph Theatre. Scarborough. 31-12-12

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Production photograph by Carl Andre Photography Ltd.

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Production photograph by Carl Andre Photography Ltd.

The Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest was my third chance to have a look at Oscar Wilde’s best known play. The previous two were an amateur production which is best forgotten and a National Theatre production back in 1982 directed by Peter Hall with Judi Dench, Zoe Wanamaker, Anna Massey, Nigel Havers, Martin Jarvis, Elizabeth Garvie, Brian Kent, John Gill and Paul Rogers which was probably just about as good as this play is ever going to get. So good that, if I’m honest, I wasn’t that worried about seeing it again. Two things brought me along to spend News Year’s Eve in its company. Firstly the fact that I was lucky enough to win a pair of tickets by posting a photograph of my handbag on the SJT’s facebook page and secondly the fact that one of my favourite actresses, Becky Hindley, was cast as Lady Bracknell.

Any production of The Importance of Being Earnest is so full of well known epigrams that have to be negotiated and made fresh that it is not an easy play to get right. The quartet of characters at its heart are four vibrant, silly but good hearted young people who are doing what privileged young people have always done, skating through life happily, without taking themselves too seriously, falling in love and enjoying themselves in spite of the efforts of the older generation to rein them in. They are not simply standing around in impressive costumes spouting bon mots. This lightness and youth and its conflict with the older generation (none of whom are quite so staid and upright as they appear at first) is at the heart of the play. It is a souffle, clever and inconsequential, which makes its points about society and human nature by stealth, under the cover of laughter. There is never any doubt that everything is going to work out right in the end, but along the way Wilde enjoys poking fun at the pomposity and ridiculous nature of the society he sees around him. It needs speed and a lightness of touch and a skilled cast who can deliver the carefully pointed and complex dialogue both accurately and naturally- not an easy job. Wilde has set it down exactly as it should be and there is no room for manoeuvre. Get the line right and it works perfectly. Mistime it and it doesn’t. Much, much harder to perform than it looks.

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Production Photograph by Carl Andre Photography Ltd.

It was all great fun, just as it should be, and the heart of the production was in the right place. The four young people were suitably young, likable and eager and there was plenty of charm on show. The relationship between Algy and Jack is a nice portrait of male friendship between two contrasting characters and Charlie Holloway and Simon Bubb made the most of this. The two young ladies who catch their eye, Cecily and Gwendoline were also very well played by Beth Park and Naomi Cranston and they also worked together well, female jealousy being transformed into female solidarity as they realised what has been going on. The older couple, Canon Chausible and Miss Prism, were very nicely done too, by Paul Ryan and Maria Gough. Maria Gough looked perfect and her facial expressions were a joy. It’s a good part and it’s a pleasure to see a character role played as well as that. The standout role, as far as the general public are concerned is the formidable Aunt Augusta, Lady Bracknell, who the young people have to overcome in order to find happiness, and thankfully we had Becky Hindley to bring her to life. Becky Hindley has considerable presence on stage, looked great, and this meant that she was able to make her effects without overplaying the role, something which is to be avoided when you have lines to say ( you know the one I mean) which are still remembered in folklore by people who have never even seen Edith Evans in the role. For the record we had a long pause beforehand and an understated delivery of the line which suited me just fine. It was a well judged and natural performance. Not a dragon, thankfully.

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Production Photograph by Carl Andre Photography Ltd.

I have already mentioned the costumes twice and they were lovely- Jan Dee Brown’s work- as was the direction by Chris Monks, although I could have done without the interlude during the second interval while the set was changed. That didn’t quite work for me.

I came away after having a very good time, feeling much more pleased to have seen the play again than I thought I would be. One of the best free rides I have ever been granted.

We Are Three Sisters. Northern Broadsides at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Scarborough.

Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

You have to feel for the Bronte sisters in Blake Morrison’s new play for Northern Broadsides. They are surrounded by the most appalling collection of people, an egotistical headmaster who continually publicises his petty little school memoir, a drunken older doctor who embarrasses them, a curate who talks continually without ever once stopping to think whether he means what he says, a father who means well but really doesn’t know his daughters, Lydia, a woman who is shallow and selfish and clearly looks down on them, and worst of all the brother who is having an affair with Lydia without caring for the consequences. He is their former idol, the brother who they wrote with and dreamed with as children, and he is squandering his future and his talent. Worse still he is treating them with open contempt. And that’s before you even get started on their health. At the time of the play two of the sisters have not long to live. They only have each other, three sisters whose considerable talent and worth is completely unrecognised by those around them. They are secretive about their writing and it is easy to see why. When Charlotte finally manages to get her father to understand that she has written a novel and it has been published, which takes her quite some effort, the highest praise that she ever gets from him is that it is better than you might expect. Books are not women’s work for him, or for the society of the time. In order to be published they have to pose as men.

Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

All of Blake Morrison’s play is based on truth. Events have been conflated and moved around but not invented. This was the reality that the sisters lived with. What saves it from being the theatrical equivalent of a misery memoir is the strength and spirit of the sisters themselves. Nothing stops them writing. Their talent demands to be expressed and with each others support they live their lives as a strong unit, supporting and encouraging each other when nobody else will. In spite of everything they live out their lives to the full. As Emily points out at the end of the play; “Think how we might have lived, just sitting there with our embroidery and the clock ticking. We’ve read, we’ve written, we’ve imagined, we’ve picked blackberries and wild flowers, we’ve walked the tops in sunshine and snow.” For all the insults that are hurled at them, both by insinuation when they are patronised and belittled by those around them, and by the more direct jibes of their brother Branwell, the one criticism that really hurts is when Charlotte inadvertently lets out the fact that she had mentioned to the publisher that the novels of Emily and Anne were “rough hewn” in comparison to her own. That hurts and as soon as the three of them are alone they turn on her and demand an explanation. That threatens the very basis of their lives as three sisters. Those lives are an absolute gift of a subject, which fascinated Chekhov and influenced his play The Three Sisters, the parallels which can be drawn are no accident. I am glad that it was Blake Morrison who ended up writing it and Northern Broadsides who got onto it and staged it. It is a perfect vehicle for Blake Morrison’s delicate, economical writing and Broadsides full hearted passionate style. Plays of this kind are a difficult trick to pull off, both he and the company have done themselves proud.

The three sisters themselves are beautifully played, three distinctly different characters whose close relationship is the bedrock of the play. Catherine Kinsella sparkles as Charlotte, the one of the three who is physically and mentally the strongest, Rebecca Hutchinson gives a nice portrait of Anne, a woman whose tiny frame and outward sweetness hide a character which is stronger and cleverer than anyone ever suspects. The plum role is that of Emily, and Sophia Di Martino understands her perfectly.There is never any doubt that this woman could and did write Wuthering Heights. She is difficult, formidably determined and clever, and as Charlotte says she has “poured her whole being” into her work. That kind of force and talent had to go somewhere, given that she understands human passion perfectly without having any other form of release for it in her life. She is the only one still prepared to offer love to Branwell who no longer does the slightest thing to deserve it and that understanding of his passionate nature is the reason why.

Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

The other characters are all very well drawn, with no over playing or lack of detail and reflect the world which the sisters are fighting against as well as providing real believable characters for them to bounce off. I loved Becky Hindley’s Lydia Robinson, a bright green parrot of a woman, preening herself and caring nothing for anyone, and Eileen O’Brien gives a touching performance as the elderly housekeeper Tabby. It is easy to see why the sisters love her and while it is a part that some actresses might be tempted to overdo she never ever does. Gareth Cassidy is a real force of nature as Branwell. He is breathtakingly unpleasant and selfish, dominating his surroundings and expecting admiration without ever doing anything to deserve it. It is a very forceful performance but also one which is fully under control and carefully thought out.

Barrie Rutter has done a very good job on the direction (as well as playing the headmaster) and the story is simply and straightforwardly told making the characters the focus. With characters such as these that is a great strength. I am a great admirer of Blake Morrison’s writing and this is some of his best, you just wouldn’t want to try to count the pitfalls of writing a play of this kind and he avoids them all. He is also a perfect dramatist for this company. This is his sixth play for Broadsides and I hope that there are many more.

Hamlet. Northern Broadsides/New Vic Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. 22-03-11

Northern Broadsides/New Vic theatre production of Hamlet is an interesting and truthful account of a great play. There are some terrific performances to savour, some clever direction, and it is a joy to see a company use the space of the Stephen Joseph so cleverly. The company knows the space very well now and it shows. Hamlet is an impossible play to get completely right, which it is one reason why it is worth going back to it over and over again, as there are always gains and losses however you approach it, but this is an absorbing and intelligent production which sets out its ideas clearly and economically. It would be a great way to see Hamlet for the first time, and there are also fresh insights there for someone who has seen a few Hamlets come and go. It is a delight to see it in a small space where nothing is lost and the audience can see and relish every detail.

I’ll start with Hamlet himself. Whatever choices are made about a character who is all things to all men, that performance is the one thing that absolutely has to ring true, and thankfully it does. Nicholas Shaw gives us a young, dynamic, angry and funny Hamlet, who is struggling to understand both himself and the sickness at the heart of the Danish court. He begins as an isolated figure, the only one who is not buying into the new regime. His mother has let him down and remarried, betraying his beloved father’s memory, his love Ophelia is there at the party afterwards singing her heart out for the happy couple and it only needs his father’s ghost to confirm that his father was murdered for him to be pushed over the edge and start on a journey that is never going to end well. He shares his thought processes with the audience throughout, making eye contact and bringing the soliloquies to life with great clarity, using chalk to help him organise his thoughts from time to time, carrying the audience along with him. He is desperate to revenge his father, but terrified of the eternal damnation that will come from murdering even a guilty man. His inactivity is born of turmoil, not lassitude or lack of will. This ability to engage the audience and allow us to understand him so well makes him the most likeable Hamlet that I have seen. He is fast, young and witty. A bit of a catch!

Ophelia is a hard part to get right, and I can now finally say that I have seen an actress who completely makes sense of her. Natalie Dew’s Ophelia is warm, young, loving and kind, a victim of her own innocence and the self absorbed and unscrupulous people at court. She is left to face the chaos around her with no support and finally comes to the end of her resources. Not mad, exactly, but in extreme emotional distress which leads to suicide. There is a wonderful moment where she gives Claudius his flowers, spitting out her words with great venom. She understands him. She has not entirely lost her wits, just her strength to carry on.

Becky Hindley gives us a clever, somewhat narcissistic Gertrude, who also spends the play trying to work out what is going on. It is a fine performance, the best Gertrude that I have seen, and when she is finally forced to face up to the reality of what has happened it is incredibly moving to watch her fall apart. This is all the more impressive given that Shakespeare gives Gertrude few lines to spell this out in the later part of the play. There is a moving moment where Claudius tells her to come with him, oblivious to her distress, and she starts towards him after he leaves, before realising that she can no longer follow him and making her own way off stage; the shaking wreckage of the stylish woman who we watched shimmy down the ramp at her wedding at the start of the play.

There was some lovely work from the rest of the cast. Andrew Price was terrific as the Ghost, Barnado and the player king. It was a lovely touch when Hamlet was giving his famous advice to the players to have them clearly resentful of someone who was trying to tell them their job. As the ghost he was a completely believable father for Hamlet and spoke with great force and clarity. Playing the gravedigger was obviously a complete gift for Phil Corbitt and he made the most of every word. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were played by brothers (twins perhaps?) David and Richard Colvin and they worked together beautifully.

If I had to pick holes, and picking holes in any production of Hamlet is such fun, I would have to say that I think there is perhaps more in Claudius and Polonius than Fine Time Fontayne and Richard Evans found. They both gave good solid performances, but I would have liked to see the persona which Claudius has built up at the start of the play self destruct more clearly and there is a native cunning in Polonius as he clings onto a job he is no longer quite up to which I didn’t quite get.

Conrad Nelson has done a great job as director. The space was used beautifully and there was a clear understanding of the play behind everything that happened on stage. I love the way that music was used throughout to heighten mood and atmosphere, played and sung by the cast, and the 1940’s period set against the eerie wildness outside court worked very well. The stage design gave plenty of levels for the cast to work with and provided a suitably sombre setting.

I have been watching Northern Broadsides since their first production. This production of Hamlet is one of the best things that I have seen them do. They are a unique and very well loved company and I hope that they survive the current recession and continue to go from strength to strength. There is nothing else quite like them.

The photographs of Andrew Price and Nicholas Shaw, Becky Hindley and Fine Time Fontayne, are production stills used with the kind permission of Northern Broadsides. They remain the copyright of Nobby Clark.