King Lear. Northern Broadsides at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 23-04-15

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Barrie Rutter as Lear and Catherine Kinsella as Cordelia. Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

King Lear is an astonishingly flexible play. It can be a great national tragedy set in a society which is deeply flawed or it can be an intimate family tragedy played out in a small space. It works to enormous effect either way when done well. It is the bleakest of the tragedies and while there is hope at the end you have to look pretty hard to find it. I had seen it played out on a grand stage in the National Theatre’s recent production so I was looking forward to seeing Northern Broadside’s production in our small local theatre. They are always very much at home in Scarborough and there was a full house waiting for them along with me.

It is obviously a very good idea to put Barrie Rutter, as Lear and the director Jonathan Miller in a rehearsal room together. His performance begins by being very familiar to those of us who know his strengths but by the final scene he has found an openness and a vulnerability which is not his natural territory and it was deeply impressive and moving to watch. Catherine Kinsella is also very moving as Cordelia. She is simply honest and good and her obvious worth points up the irrational, capricious nature of Lear’s decision, a terrible misjudgment which sets the plot in motion. You can see what she is thinking even when she is silent and I can give no greater compliment to any actor than that. I was also very impressed by Nicola Sanderson’s Regan. She had a very northern face, bitter and self satisfied, and I am haunted by her expressions as she stood centre stage watching the blinding of Gloucester taking place off stage down one of the voms. It takes a pretty special performance to carry that off and make you believe it is actually happening. Jos Vantyler gives a scene stealer of a performance as Oswald, up front but perfectly controlled, making a real person of someone who could easily be just a cypher. and Andrew Vincent made a fine Kent, full of natural dignity. The whole cast was, quite simply, without a weak link.

You can never have everything in a production of a Shakespearean tragedy and there are always gains and losses however you approach it, that’s what makes it worthwhile coming back again and again. I am not sure, for reasons that I don’t think were anything to do with Finetime Fontayne’s performance, which was stylish and precise, that this production managed to completely show the relationship between Lear and his fool. There has clearly been some very perceptive direction in the production as a whole from Jonathan Miller but I would like to have asked him about that.

I have probably been luckier with Lear than any other Shakespeare play over the years and I have seen some great ones. This was a worthy addition to my list.

As a postscript I need to add that there was a long break in the second half due to a medical emergency in the audience and I really wish that I could have seen the production again before writing.

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The Schoolmistress. Stephen Joseph Theatre. Scarborough. 2-1-14

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Richard Teverson as The Hon. Vere Queckett and Sarah Moyle as Miss Caroline Dyott in The Schoolmistress
Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

Arthur Wing Pinero was a major figure in Victorian and Edwardian theatre, both as an actor and especially as a prolific playwright. His comedies were extremely popular and he had a long and successful career. In spite of this his work isn’t often seen today but there was a chance to see The Schoolmistress, one of his early comedies from 1866, at the Stephen Joseph this Christmas and New Year. It was my first Pinero play in well over thirty years of regular theatre going so it was an interesting prospect, even though it probably wasn’t going to be my kind of thing. The story concerns two wives, the schoolmistress of the title and an admiral’s wife who finally turn on their selfish husbands and enjoy some freedom and some delightful young ladies who enjoy being high spirited with their young governess while their schoolmistress sneaks off to a secret life on stage for a while. There is fire, farce and a lot of Victorian pomposity to be ridiculed and while it is slow to start, as plays of this era often are, once it gets going in the second act there is fun to be had. It must have delighted it’s early audiences. In an era when polite behaviour, decorum and status was understood implicitly and closely guarded, a world where there were secret husbands and questionable behaviour would have seemed very daring. I’m sure that the middle class theatre going women, who mostly spent their time dutifully running a household, loved seeing the women on stage giving the men their comeuppance. Some of this frisson has been lost today, and in spite of a very good production the play doesn’t quite work for a modern audience, but it was still an interesting period piece to watch.

There are some delightful performances to enjoy. I admired Richard Teverson as the Honourable Vere Queckett, the feckless husband of the schoolmistress, and Peter Macqueen as Rear Admiral Archibald Rankling very much. Both performances were very cleverly controlled. I loved the moment when Vere got up from his chair, spun round and sat down again- much harder to do than it looks- and a lesser actor would have turned the Admiral into a caricature. Some of the other comedy performances didn’t quite take off but the young ladies, led by Catherine Kinsella’s sparky, fun loving governess looked gorgeous and worked well together. Sadly Pinero makes the schoolmistress of the title, Miss Dyott, who is nicely played by Sarah Moyle, wait too long for her moment but when it came she took it with great gusto.

I just wish this cast and the director Chris Monk had not had to work quite so hard on a play which really didn’t do them justice. I am glad that the matinee I saw was pretty much sold out but a few people left at the interval and I certainly don’t think that this was down to the production but to a play which has probably had its day, however much work you put into it.

Rutherford and Son. Northern Broadsides at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough. 25-04-13

What have I had before I go back into the dark?”

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Barrie Rutter as John Rutherford, Katherine Kinsella as Mary and Nicholas Shaw as John Rutherford Junior.
Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

Githa Sowerby’s play Rutherford and Son was written in 1912 and became a great hit. While she was only known by her initials, G.K. and people thought that she was a man there were comparisons to Ibsen. It is a great play which has a strong economical structure (we see nothing that we don’t need to see and every character has a strong impact) and fine dialogue- especially for the female characters, a real achievement that is now recognised as one of the great plays of the last century after a period of neglect. She never wrote anything else as successful, or as masterly. Perhaps she didn’t need to.

John Rutherford has dedicated his life to building up a glass works. It is this which will be his legacy and nothing has ever been allowed to come before that. Wealth and security (a far off dream to many in Edwardian England and not to be risked lightly) have not come easily- it has been a constant battle to develop and protect what he has made. He is a hard man, and no wonder. His three children are paying the price. They have security but at an enormous cost and there is no space or expectation that they should have their own lives and their own dreams, even simple ones of building a family and finding love. Everything they do must take second place to their father’s achievements and serve his needs. They have been elevated into a section of society only by their father’s hard work and force of personality and they can find no place there on their own merits. It is their attempt to break away from him and, in their different ways, live life on their own terms, that form the basis of the plot. As they do this Githa Sowerby gives us a picture of both a family in crisis and the shifting social sands of Edwardian England, particularly for women. It is a pile driver of a play. Her own family were glass makers so she knew what she was talking about.

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Barrie Rutter as John Rutherford.
Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

It’s a great vehicle for Northern Broadsides who have a real talent for finding material that suits them. More than anything it is a superb central role for Barrie Rutter. If the man who built up a theatre company from nothing into one that has gained respect and love from it’s audiences and done some fine work doesn’t understand a man like Rutherford then nobody will. I really don’t think I have ever seen him give a better performance and I have seen many of them. It would be easy to play Rutherford as a monster but this understanding gives us more than that. He has sincerely felt that he has been doing the right thing by his children and expects them to understand this and give way to him in everything. It will all be theirs one day and it is not his concern that they may need a life of their own in the meantime. If you want his respect you have to earn it the hard way, there is little warmth in him and no compromise. If there had been he would not have achieved what he has. He pushes himself hard and expects those around him to do the same. His only real understanding and care comes for his men, especially his right hand man Martin (nicely played by Richard Standing as a man trapped in the social restrictions of his time) not his family. Any show of softness or weakness is looked down on- especially of a feminine kind. Strength and loyalty are what matter, not love, and actions not words. As his daughter explains to the sweet little working class Londoner, Mary, who her brother has married, “We were made that way- set- and that’s the way we have to live.” During the course of the play Rutherford learns a grudging respect for another kind of strength, and that is his journey.

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Richard Standing as Martin and Sara Poyser as Janet.
Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

There are two great women’s parts in Rutherford and Son and both of them get the outstanding performances which they deserve. Catherine Kinsella is very moving as the warm hearted, ordinary London lass, Mary, who has made what she probably thought was a very fortunate marriage to Rutherford’s son, John Jr, a well off young man with prospects. Sadly she has found that, after three months, her only prospect is that of waiting around being looked down on as an incomer in a cold Northern family who she doesn’t initially understand. Her early scenes are a tour de force of listening as she begins to realise her situation and the truth of her new husband’s character. You can see every thought flash across her face. This sets up what happens later in the play perfectly as both the actress and the character seize their moment. It is astonishing to watch- one of those times where you can feel the temperature inside the round drop. The SJT loves this kind of intense psychological scene- especially when it is done as well as that.

From the minute that Sara Poyser arrives on stage as Rutherford’s daughter Janet, answering back with a sharpness born of bitter experience, it is clear that this is both her father’s daughter and a deeply unhappy woman who has been starved of love and opportunities for too long. She finally has found a fleeting chance of happiness and the scene where this chance is played out to its conclusion really does bear comparison with Ibsen. There are some things in life that you just can’t fight, however hard you try and watching her as she realises this is heartbreaking.

Director Jonathan Miller has brought a real sense of delicacy and psychological realism to the production- not always Northern Broadsides natural style- and this particular play has really benefitted from that. There was considerable excitement when he agreed to do it and it has proved to be justified. The set and costumes are perfectly in period and the lighting is beautiful, delicate and subtle. Whatever edits that Blake Morrison has provided have only served to tighten up what was already a great play. It is over twenty years since this play was last performed at the Stephen Joseph. I was there then and recognised it as a very good play. I now know that it is a great one.

Love’s Labour’s Lost. Northern Broadsides at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough. 15-03-12

Dean Whatton as Moth and Andrew Vincent as Don Adriano de Armado. Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

Love’s Labours Lost is a play that you don’t get many chances to see. This is a shame. It was written around the same time as Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer night’s Dream and there is no shortage of productions of those two to sit through. It may not be the most accessible of Shakespeare’s plays, as it makes no apologies for being in love with the language of the time and some of the contemporary allusions will be lost to us, but it still deserves to be seen. There is some lovely verse along the way and plenty of youthful high jinks. Shakespeare has great fun sending up the nobility and the pompous poseurs of his day before providing a sting in the tail and a sudden change of mood that reminds the characters, and the audience, that life is not all about ale houses and wenching, fun though they are. Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. Love is not just a game, however well you play it. It is serious stuff, and long term commitment has to be earned by possessing more than a sharp wit and a handsome face. The three young men who begin the play by making a long term vow to study and be chaste, vows which are never likely to last, learn the hard way that if they are to get what they want they will have to do it for real.

Clockwise from left: Fine Time Fontayne, Owen Findlay, Kelsey Brookfield, Jos Vantyler and Matt Connor. Production still by Nobby Clark.

Northern Broadsides have provided us with a sparky, fast paced production which helps things along nicely when it comes to understanding and getting past the convoluted wordplay. Andrew Vincent as Don Adriano de Armado makes a fine double act with Dean Watton’s delightful Moth. Even those who do not know the reputation of the Spanish court of the time can recognise an over the top poseur when they see one and enjoy seeing a type who is still out there walking the streets today. The early audiences must have been thrilled to see a Spaniard, the old enemy, being lampooned so thoroughly. Barrie Rutter has a harder job as Holofernes, and takes the brunt of some of the more obscure, pompous Latin flights of fancy but it is a nice part for him, and it gives Roy North as Constable Dull one of the productions biggest laughs when he admits that he hasn’t understood a word of it. Neither did many of us in the audience, and in the end it didn’t matter that much. The play’s broad comedy is a welcome diversion from the wordiness and the production really takes off in the second half when the three young suitors have their pretentious bubbles burst by the three young women who have heard it all before and know from experience that the ardour of these three young men is best taken with a pinch of salt, even when they mean well.

Rebecca Hutchinson, Hester Arden, Andy Cryer, Sophia Hatfield and Catherine Kinsella. Production photo by Nobby Clark.

It is important that not all the young people are rich young poseurs without self awareness or wit as we need to have someone wry, self aware and quick witted to identify with and I was very thankful that Shakespeare has given us Berowne. It is a lovely part and Matt Connor makes the most of it, building up a nice rapport with the audience and making some of the best verse in the play clear and meaningful. It is a charming performance. He has a worthy sparring partner in Catherine Kinsella’s playful and vibrant Rosaline. They are a perfect match, an early sketch for Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado, and one can only hope that they finally get their happy ending. When Berowne says dryly that a year of abstinence and study before they can be together is “too long for a play” one can only hope that it does not prove too long for him as well. Nothing is certain. All the fun and wit which has been on display is just so much dancing towards the darkness and Shakespeare can’t resist pointing that out to the shallow, self seeking aristocrats who first saw it.

Barrie Rutter as Holofernes. Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

I wish that some of the theatre managers who were not sure about booking in this tour of Love’s Labour’s Lost because it was not one of the popular Shakespeare plays had been sitting in the audience at the packed matinee I saw in Scarborough. Listening to those around me in the audience it was clear that many had not had the opportunity to see it before and they were interested and pleased to have the chance. We were all well aware that it is perhaps not his greatest play- of course it isn’t- and we didn’t mind. We still wanted to see it, even the large group of teenagers who were filling the back seats of the theatre who were quiet and engaged all the way through. Thank you Northern Broadsides for giving us the chance.

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.

The Game. Northern Broadsides at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Northern Broadsides apparently rescued the script of Harold Brighouse’s 1914 play The Game from a Canadian University archive (the theatrical equivalent of a skip since plays need to be performed to stay alive) and it is a small treasure. You don’t find the same bravura comic writing that makes Hobson’s Choice (written two years later) such a crowd pleaser that it has been regularly performed for almost a hundred years, but the Game richly deserves to share the spotlight. I am very glad to see that it is out there claiming it’s rightful place. Writers who can combine warmth and humanity without giving in to the temptation to be over sentimental have a lot of charm, and Harold Brighouse is one of them. The Game is a wry look at class prejudices, family obligations and shifting ideas of morality, and the way that the assumptions of the generation brought up in the Victorian era were just beginning to be overturned by a younger generation who were feeling the wind of change in a new century and looking for a new way forward.

Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

It is a perfect vehicle for Northern Broadsides, as it is a play with a warm generous heart, broadly written but believable characters, plenty of ideas and no sentimentality. It is set in a fictional Lancashire town in the Edwardian Era. The well heeled family at its centre are sports mad and the patriarch of the family, Austin Whitworth, runs the local football team. This is just at the point when the professional game is getting on its feet and he has found himself unable to keep up with the costs involved in keeping the team going and forced to sell his star centre forward, Jack Metherell. He needs his team to win the final game of the season, in spite of the fact that Jack now will be playing against them, in order to avoid ruin.  When Jack gives in to the temptation to ask his highly principled former star player to match fix by playing badly and then finds that his independent spirited daughter plans to marry him you can just about say that the plot kicks off. These kind of scandals were by no means unknown in the early days of professional football and this would have been a topical theme for the Games first audiences.

Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

It is very well performed, and there is no over acting which might be a temptation, given the characters, the company style and the intimate setting of the SJT. The writing is heightened for comic effect, which is exactly what is needed, but stays close to the truth and the performances are sensitive to this. The Whitworth’s are a believable warm close family who love and irritate each other in equal measure and the younger members of the family, a son who is a would be poet and two sports mad daughters, are delightful as they run rings round their indulgent father. Catherine Kinsella is particularly good as Elsie, a lively, forthright young lady who has yet to realise that life is full of hard knocks. When she meets her nemesis in her fiancee’s fearsome mother (Wendi Peters acting her heart out to magnificent effect) it is very moving to see her blithe assumption that everything would work out well being slapped down and her happy innocence being eroded. It is a hard lesson for her to learn and you watch her growing up before your eyes. I also liked Jos Vantyler’s performance as Leo, every inch the foppish young poet who was enjoying posing and playing on his youthful indolence for as long as he could get away with it and Phil Rowson as the star centre forward Jack Metherell. He had some of the best comic lines, “I wasn’t a man. I was a miracle!” and could get a laugh by staring into space and showing us his jaw line heroically. The ending is very cleverly written, signalled carefully but not overly obvious, a satisfying conclusion to a well structured play in which you feel that everybody may well get what they deserve, one way or another, even if they may have to wait a while.

A small treasure, one well worth revisiting, which found the right company to do it justice.