Alfie. Octagon Bolton/Stephen Joseph/ Oldham Coliseum/New Vic at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough. 22-03-12

Barbara Hockaday as Gilda and David Ricardo-Pearce as Alfie. Production photo by Ian Tilton.

“You never know with a bird where it’s been, or what it’s done.”

Alfie Elkins was a bit of a sixties phenomenon. Bill Naughton first created him for a radio play and this led to his appearance in a 1963 stage play, and in the 1966 novel Alfie, which became the fastest selling novel of the 1960’s when it was published alongside the iconic film starring Michael Caine. The original stage play is now on tour again, almost fifty years later, so we have a chance to look back at it and see what it was that fascinated everybody. It was quite strange to realise that many of the audience who were tapping their feet and drumming their fingers to the sixties beat music that played before the matinee at the Stephen Joseph Theatre started would have been in their prime at roughly the same time as Alfie. How time flies.

Isabel Ford as Lily Clamacraft. Production photograph by Ian Tilton.

You have to start by talking about the central performance in this play as everything revolves around it. David Ricardo-Pierce is utterly believable, full of confidence and clearly enjoying himself in the role. Alfie talks directly to the audience throughout, allowing us into his thoughts and feelings and he does this brilliantly, letting us see his often less than admirable selfishness and narcissism without questioning himself. “You have to look after yourself in this life” is one of Alfie’s mantras and he certainly does that while causing major damage to those unfortunate women who cross his path. He thinks of them as objects for his own convenience, “see how it scrubs” and is totally unable to see anyone else’s viewpoint or act consistently in support of anyone but himself. He does make attempts to support his girlfriend when she insists on having his child and keeping it (a huge decision back then) but when push comes to shove he will always run. He begins as a likable Jack the Lad, letting us eavesdrop on his top tips for playing fast and loose and getting away with it. He gets plenty of laughs, in spite of his outrageous lack of respect for women, but finally we have to stand alongside him as he shares his feelings about the moment he finds the aborted foetus of his baby son when he returns home after leaving the vulnerable older woman who he has got pregnant to give birth alone. This is a horribly moving scene but as with every other setback Alfie moves on and decides it is time to settle down with one of his other conquests. Whether he would have managed to do more than buy a bunch of flowers for her we will never know because when he turns up she is with another younger man and we leave him with his options rapidly diminishing and absolutely no idea how to find a new way forward in life now that the old way isn’t working any more. He has had his chances and he has blown every one of them. There may not be many more. He has finally found out that actions have consequences but it may well be too late.

David Ricardo-Pearce as Alfie. Production photograph by Ian Tilton.

The rest of the cast provide extremely solid support surrounding Alfie and there are some very touching performances showing us the care and vulnerability which are so lacking in him. I particularly liked Barbara Hockaday’s performance as Gilda and Vicky Binns as Annie, two good young women who deserve better than Alfie can give them. Isabel Ford is heartbreaking as Lily Clamacraft. It is very important that we feel for these women and that the actors give them real depth as they do not get the chance for an interior voice. We hear Alfie’s viewpoint relentlessly and they have to provide a counter balance for this without speaking to us directly. I also found John Branwell chillingly believable as Mr Smith who induces the abortion. His performance was an object lesson in restraint and truth on stage.

The SJT was the perfect venue for this production as there were lots of set changes, done by the cast, which they managed with great speed and precision. Alfie, in particular, had to do many scene changes while he was talking to us in character and this takes great concentration and skill. It is the kind of play which needs the eye of an experienced director and it has found one in David Thacker.

This is a rather dark, quite chilling play, a lot darker than the chirpy cockney image which those who only saw the film years ago will probably remember. It is very much a portrait of its time, and makes you feel for the women who had to negotiate a complex shifting world with new morals, dangers and opportunities. It certainly wasn’t all freedom and fun. Some women of the time paid a high price. Alfie was written in the same year that the Beatles released their first LP and Valentina Tereshkova blasted off into space but it was also the year of the Great Train Robbery and the Profumo scandal. Fifty years is a long time and this play gives us a chance to look back at what has become another country almost without us noticing.

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The Price. Bolton Octagon/SJT/Hull Truck at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 6-4-11

There is a moral heart, and a humanity to all Arthur Miller’s work that makes me full of respect for the man himself, never mind his talent. Thankfully David Thacker met the great man many times, at length, and worked with him, and the insight that he gained has borne fruit in many productions. As part of the sterling work that he has been doing at Bolton Octagon he has directed a production of The Price. Last time he directed it he had Miller beside him, and you can still tell that very clearly in this new production years later. It’s a great play and he and the cast have done it full justice.

The scenario is a familiar one to many of us who have reached middle age. The detritus of a father’s life is waiting to be disposed of by two brothers, Victor and Walter Frantz, after many years of avoidance, estrangement and indecision. The arrival of a long retired Jewish antique dealer, the enigmatic Gregory Solomon, to value the goods sets in motion a train of events where the version of the past which each character has held inside their heads is challenged and overturned. We all rewrite our past and attribute motives and feelings to others which we can never really be sure of, and this play takes a long hard look at that tendency and examines its consequences. There is plenty of humour here, and real vibrant characters, it is by no means a dry moral treatise, but this is what underpins the writing. There are no villains, each person has their own viewpoint, and their own agenda, and we feel for them all. As the excuses, misunderstandings and evasions of the past are stripped away and the tension mounts you reach the point where you can almost see the ghost of the manipulative old father sitting in his favourite chair enjoying the spectacle. All of the three Frantz’s, Walter, Victor, and Victor’s wife Esther, have a grudge to work out and exorcise. Nobody is free of responsibility or guilt. The tinder is ready to light.

Tom Mannion gives a moving and sincere performance as Victor. He has spent a long unhappy working life as a policeman and taken on the responsibility of looking after his father, and he has always resented the fact that his brother escaped to what he has imagined as a rich, fulfilled and happy life. When he finds that his father was by no means as helpless as he pretended, and certainly not as penniless, his world comes crashing down around him. His sacrifice was for nothing. He lashes out, trying to shore up his assumptions as the tide of reality brought in by his brother Walter sweeps them away.

Colin Stinton is very plausible and likable as Walter. This is important as we need to see that the old Walter has been destroyed by a breakdown and his divorce. When he tells us that he is a new person we need to believe him, so that the tragedy of Victors failure to accept the opportunity for friendship and prosperity which he brings carries its full weight.

Suzan Sylvester is very striking as Esther, Victor’s wife. She has good taste, she likes nice things and her loyalty to Victor has denied her the kind of life that would have made her happy. She is still hanging in there, keeping herself smart and attempting to be cheerful and bright with the help of an odd drink or two. Her desperate attempts to get Victor to be honest about the past and accept his brother’s friendship are all the more moving because they are to no effect. She has always known the truth, as he has, and it is painful and frightening for her to admit it.

All this would be more than enough but just for good measure we get to meet Gregory Solomon, one of the most vivid and engaging characters that Miller ever wrote. This part is a great gift for any actor in the later stages of his career ( Solomon is 90 years old) and Kenneth Alan Taylor relishes every moment. He is sharply precise, funny, moving and completely believable in a part where a lesser actor might be tempted to go over the top. Solomon is an enigma, whose phone number has been found by accident in a very old phone book, almost a mythical character, four times married, who claims to be a former vaudevillian acrobat. He is a catalyst and a truth teller. It has to be one of the best character parts in theatre, and it was a joy to see an actor who clearly enjoys acting without getting carried away playing him!

The Price will never get stale or old, so long as there are human beings living, making mistakes, and trying to come to terms with and make sense of their past.

Well done Bolton Octagon! Well done David Thacker! Arthur Miller would have loved it. We can be sure of that because he left instructions for its future with a great director who admired him enough to carry them out to the letter.

The photograph is a production still from the Bolton Octagon production and it remains the copyright of Ian Tilton.

Comedians by Trevor Griffiths. Bolton Octagon. 29-04-10.

Trevor Griffith’s play Comedians is a great play, a highly influential modern classic from 1975 which is still being revived after thirty three years. Time has transformed it into a period piece (it happens to us all) which gives a hard nosed, sometimes shocking portrait of the mid nineteen seventies through the comedy of the time. A lot has changed, but perhaps not as much as we would like to imagine. It is a traditional three act play, packed with ideas, which challenges you and makes you think. It may be of its time, but the themes which it explores are causing as much controversy as they ever did and the same questions are still being fought out in spite of a new era of political correctness. A Jimmy Carr gig will allow you to hear jokes every bit as eye popping as Bernard Manning ever used to tell, and Russell Brand and Frankie Boyle are capable of getting themselves into a great deal of trouble for being offensive without losing their audience. A light dusting of irony doesn’t always hide the fact that age old themes are being trotted round the block all over again.

Comedians explores all these issues at some length. It is a pleasure to have a play which is the equivalent of a full roast dinner, as many modern plays are not attempting to be more than a really good sandwich, however well written they may be. The first act explores the philosophy of comedy and the morality of stand up through the final session of an evening class in comedy led by a veteran comedian Eddie Waters. For him comedy is about much more than getting laughs, “A real comedian – that’s a daring man. He dares to see what his listeners shy away from, fear to express. And what he sees is a sort of truth about people, about their situation, about what hurts or terrifies them, about what’s hard, above all about what they want.” He tells his class that comedy is medicine, not “coloured sweeties to rot teeth with”. Sadly Bert Challenor, the agent who is coming to see Eddie’s pupils perform, the one who “knows where the door marked in is”, absolutely believes in doling out sweeties, and as many of them as possible, without caring whose teeth are left to rot afterwards. A few of the carefully taught principles which Eddie has been teaching his class are going to have to be ditched if they are to achieve the success that they are so eager for. During the second act we see the men perform and find out who is prepared to pay this price for a toehold on the club circuit, and the third act shows the consequences. It is a masterly structure where everything that we see builds on what has gone before and throws it into a new light.

The Bolton Octagon has more than done it justice. It is an ensemble piece, with two star parts, and the whole cast work together with sensitivity and great truthfulness. Richard Moore, as Eddie Waters, gives us a compassionate portrait of a man who has great wisdom learned through bitter experience ( we find out exactly how bitter in the final act). It is a great part and needs an actor who can match up to it, one who has the bravery and presence to be understated and truthful. He is a joy to watch. Gethin Price, Eddie’s star pupil, is played brilliantly by Kieran Hill. The part is a perfect showcase for a young, charismatic and daring actor and he is quite terrifying in the second act when he lets go and performs his act as he wants to. He tells Eddie afterwards, “Some say the world will end in fire. Some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire, I hold with those who favour fire, but if I had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate to say that for destruction ice is also great and would suffice. It was all ice out there tonight. I loved it. I felt … expressed.” There is no doubt at all that  the audience in the Octagon had felt that ice and been left speechless. To see Eddie and Gethin hammering out their differences in the third act is stunning, it is a playwright and two contrasting actors absolutely at the top of their game. The rest of the cast are also excellent- perfectly drawn characters who contribute unselfishly to the play as a whole, I particularly liked John Branwell as Bert Challenor. They are all very familiar types to anyone who was around in northern Britain in the mid nineteen seventies, and their faces are ones that you almost seem to recognise from the time. All of them have their moments and seize them with sometimes toe curling effect.

The setting is exactly right, a seedy classroom that transforms into an equally seedy small club, and it fits the small intimate space of the Octagon perfectly, allowing the audience to transport themselves back in time without any effort.

The direction is meticulous, and that’s important- a play of this kind with a large cast of contrasting characters who are all on stage together benefits more than most from an outside eye. I really hope that the audiences in Bolton treasure David Thacker and the revival that he has brought to a small theatre in one of England’s more deprived boroughs, a northern town which has really suffered from the loss of industry. Towns like Bolton deserve first class theatre but they rarely get it and the Octagon is lucky to have him.  Lear next please, with Richard Moore as Lear and Kieran Hill as his fool.

The photographs of Kieran Hill as Gethin Price, Richard Moore as Eddie Waters and John Branwell as Bert Challenor are production stills from the Octagon production taken by Ian Tilton.