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.

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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.

Geordie Sinatra. SJT and Live Theatre Newcastle at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 31-05-12

Anthony Cable as Geordie.
Production photograph by Chris Auld.

Geordie Sinatra highlights an important subject, that of Altzheimers disease, something which is not talked about enough. It is a brave choice. Geordie has been a Frank Sinatra tribute act in his younger days. He never made the big time but he had talent and he wowed them in the Sands, Whitley Bay. He is still there now, living in the faded remains of The Sands with his partner Joan to care from him. His grudging daughter Nancy is helping out while she visits. As the Altzheimers takes hold his mind is drifting away from reality back into his own past, and that of Frank Sinatra himself. There is a lot of love and care around him, even if it isn’t always expressed well, but the arrival of Sonny, one of his band members from the past, opens up old wounds and hidden secrets. This ultimately moving story is played out with a succession of vintage Sinatra songs which are sung and played live with panache by the cast and the musical director Richard Atkinson. The songs comment or reflect on what is happening, and this structure is the greatest strength of the piece, along with the performances.

Heather Saunders and Anthony Cable.
Production photograph by Chris Auld.

Anthony Cable is a very experienced musical performer and he is both touching and believable as Geordie. When he (inevitably) sings My Way it is both moving and uplifting, and without his talent there would quite simply have been no play. It is his show and he does it justice. The rest of the cast, Jill Myers, Heather Saunders and Kraig Thornber, provide nice support, playing a variety of parts. I particularly liked Heather Saunders in her incarnation as Ava Gardner and Jill Myers is very moving in her care and concern for Geordie.

The set, designed by Jan Dee Brown, sits beautifully in the cabaret configuration of the round and makes those members of the audience sitting in the table seats at the front, feel that we are actually in the Sands. The design is clever, a faded cabaret bar, just right for the period when The Sands would have been built, and it has just the right faded seaside aura. There is a wealth of well thought out detail to enjoy from the front seats.

The writing, by Fiona Evans, has its strong points. I love the echoes of the Pennies From Heaven style surrealism that pop up in the musical numbers now and again- I would have liked a lot more of that- and the basic idea works very well. The dialogue is good when it stays close to reality and there are some nice moments, but I could have done without the plot revelations later in the play if I am honest. They don’t completely ring true and there is enough of a story there in Geordie’s fight, with the help of his family, to stay true to himself and perform one last comeback gig as Frank. There is a great play to be got out of this material, not just a capable one which is given a very good production by Chris Monks and his talented cast. All the same, I give Fiona Evans full credit for tackling it. It is a brave effort at a subject which needs to be talked about more, given our ageing population. It’s just a pity that it wasn’t even braver.

YOUR LAST BREATH. Curious directive at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough.

Russell Woodhead as Christopher.
Photograph copyright Murdo Macleod.

Your Last Breath is the first of six projects by curious directive which will eventually lead to a total of 132 hours of science inspired theatre touring nineteen venues and festivals throughout the country. Seven scientists will be collaborating with the creative team and it’s an ambitious and original concept for a small scale regional theatre company (based in the east of England) to undertake. It has come to the Stephen Joseph in the final stages of a Spring tour mostly based in the south of England after earning a fringe first award at last year’s Edinburgh festival.

It is a clever, compact and economical piece of work lasting just over an hour. Four separate stories, linked by a common theme, are woven together across a time scale of a hundred and fifty years. Looking back at what was packed into it I am amazed that the company is able to make it work within such a short time scale but they succeed beautifully. You do need to concentrate as there is information coming at you all the time, both visually and verbally, and it certainly helps to know in advance from the programme what the four scenarios are, just to give you a way in. In 1876 a young man has left his family to map the mountains of Norway for the first time, in 1999 an extreme skier’s body has frozen after an accident but when she is warmed her heart begins to beat again, in 2011 a young woman travels to Norway to scatter her father’s ashes and in 2034 a young man explains a medical breakthrough in which a body can be suspended in animation. These stories are told simultaneously, cutting in and out of each other, so that we can feel the resonances between them. If it were not done well it would be horribly confusing but the acting, writing and direction (by Jack Lowe) are all sharp enough to make it clear if you look and listen carefully.

Elizabeth Holmes as Anna.
Photograph copyright Murdo Macleod.

In some ways this show reminds me of the work of theatre director Katie Mitchell and it has some of the same strengths in that it is richly imagined, physically bold, visually satisfying and very original. It also has the same intellectual coldness that her work has, a certain lack of warmth. This shows particularly in the burgeoning love affair between Freiya and her guide which is beautifully acted by Karina Sugden and Gareth Taylor but sometimes their human story struggles a bit against the style of the production. There are some fine visual moments.  I especially enjoyed the wonderful images of map making conjured out of lengths of coloured string and there is some accurate and telling movement work too, especially from Elizabeth Holmes as the skier Anna. Lighting is used well to help define times and moments and technically the whole thing is a tiny marvel of light, sound, movement and speech. There is no time or space to get anything wrong.

I am always glad to see theatre that is original and inventive, there is not enough work around that is truly theatrical, and I have no doubt that this project is going to grow and develop into something very interesting indeed as 2012 progresses. The idea of linking science and the arts is a fascinating one and there is plenty of new territory for the company to explore.

I am very grateful to Chris Monks and his team for programming this show into the Stephen Joseph’s Spring season. It is the kind of theatre which they should be showing us and I really hope that the small audience it gathered (just over twenty) at the matinee which I saw doesn’t put them off inviting them back. This says far more about the town of Scarborough than it does about this talented and innovative young company.

Carmen. Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough. 18-08-11

A small scale production of Carmen is a brave undertaking but Chris Monks has made something of a speciality out of this kind of thing and the talented and hard working company in the Stephen Joseph theatre’s summer production make it work. This is a Carmen for today, set in a shopping mall, and it works very well. Love and desire don’t change over the centuries and this is a timeless story of obsessive passion and reckless self will which is never going to end well whenever it happens.

The production takes a while to lift off and the early scenes in the mall seem a little thin, but once the main characters are established and the plot kicks in, the claustrophobic small scale personal scenes work well in the round and it becomes both moving and chilling. Some of the dialogue and recitative doesn’t quite come off but the best of it is great. I loved the moment where Carmen explains her name away by saying that her mum got pregnant in Ibiza and the transformation of bullfighter Don Escamillo into an Italian stallion premiership footballer, Tony Amor is pitch perfect. This is a rhyme that sent a chuckle around the audience at the start of the toreador’s song and I should have seen it coming. There are some nice directorial touches throughout, making the most of the new setting and using the cast cleverly to keep things moving and vibrant. The costumes are very well judged and help to define the characters well when the cast are doubling. I’m not sure that the video snippets worked for me, they were a bit cheesy and really needed to be more believable, but I can see why they were needed, not just to cover scene changes but to provide a context for Tony’s character.

The strength of the production definitely lies in the performances. This is a talented cast who have to work incredibly hard throughout. In a space so small that you can see every detail of every performance that kind of commitment shows. Caroline Keiff as Carmen looks stunning and sings beautifully. The wildness of the character was underplayed, thankfully, but it was there when it needed to be and it was in her eyes the whole time.  Neil Moors gives a delightful performance as Tony which is utterly believable. He charms the socks off the audience as we understand the kind of man that he is sending up without it ever being allowed to descend into parody. I also liked Gareth Kennerley’s performance as Johnny Jay (Don Jose) very much.. It was both truthful and moving, a clear portrait of a man who was potentially good and loving being destroyed by his obsessive love for someone who didn’t deserve it. Johnny is offered love, and a way out of danger by Michelle (Michaela) but can’t bring himself to accept it. If only love was always given where it is deserved things would have been very different. Michelle was beautifully played by Jennifer Rhodes who has a lovely stage presence and a great voice. She did a lot more besides during the course of the production and I was full of admiration for her.

Finally, you have to take your hat off to Georges Bizet. The music is irresistible, full of melody and passion. Any song which can get a midweek matinee audience in Scarborough clapping along to it after around 130 years, just because they can’t help it, as the reprise of the toreador song in the club shop did has to be a major achievement.

A Dish Of Tea With Doctor Johnson. Out of Joint at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough. 28-02-11

A Dish of Tea With Dr Johnson is like a rich fruit cake stuffed full of wit and bon mots. It has been adapted by the two performers, Ian Redford and Russell Barr, along with the director Max Stafford Clark for Out of Joint theatre company and it delivers exactly what the title promises, never a bad thing. We are welcomed into Dr Johnson’s household and allowed to eavesdrop on the conversation of the great man and his biographer James Boswell. As they talk, sometimes to each other and sometimes directly to us as guests of the house, we are drawn into Dr Johnson’s life and times and allowed to get to know a complex and difficult man with a large heart, a sharp wit and a mighty intellect. It is a clever script, fast paced, funny and touching, and just about manages to get away with cramming in more of Johnson’s familiar quotes into an hour and a half than it has any right to.

The acting throughout is very good. As well as playing Boswell Russell Barr also plays other people who were around Dr Johnson, including King George III, Lady Flora MacDonald and Oliver Goldsmith. The most touching of these other characters is Mrs Hester Thrale, his closest friend and confidante. People wondered then exactly what was going on between them, and we are still left wondering now. All of these characters are sketched in quickly and skilfully with the smallest of details and he does a very good job. Ian Redford is a large warm irascible presence as Dr Johnson, bringing him to life convincingly, not easy when he is asked to play a man who was very definitely a one off, one of the most remarkable men of his time.

There is a third performer on stage and I know that at least one of the actors won’t mind her taking up part of this review as she belongs to him. Katie is an elderly black and white Jack Russell who Russell Barr rescued from a difficult time stuck in a tower block and she is adorable. It has to be said though, that while she is blessed with great stage presence, playing Hodge the cat is a bit too much of a stretch for her- well outside her range. She performed with great enthusiasm for us in Scarborough, eating her dinner with impressive attention to detail and even part building by managing (after some effort) to get up onto one of the chairs, gaining a round of applause and enjoying an unintended moment in the spotlight.

A small treat of a show with more substance to it than this kind of theatre sometimes has. It is so good to see theatre of this kind in Scarborough. Chris Monks, the artistic director of the Stephen Joseph is obviously making a big effort to broaden the range of shows that come here and allow us to see touring shows that we might not have been able to see in the past. I really hope that he is able to continue this policy in the current financial climate as it is enormously welcome.

Boston Marriage. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 06-05-10

David Mamet’s 1999 play Boston Marriage centres around two women, Claire and Anna, who are living together in a lesbian relationship at the turn of the last century. Their intense, sparky relationship is threatened when the younger of the two, Claire, finds a new love and Anna’s relationship with a married male lover, a relationship which is purely there to pay their bills, is in danger of being discovered. How they try to extricate themselves from this situation using all the wit and ingenuity which they can cobble together is the basis of the play. There is a wealth of fast moving, cruel, quick fire dialogue as the two women test their relationship and the strength of their long suffering maid with little thought for anything but their own comfort and convenience and no warmth for anyone or anything but each other. They are both deeply unlikable, cruel and selfish, able to change their mood without warning and inflict pain just for the hell of it,  producing flowery apologies to each other afterwards which mean nothing. The pleasure of the play comes from a kind of shocked delight at their cleverness and virtuoso bitching rather than any empathy with the two women.
I saw the Stephen Joseph Theatre production at the single preview performance- the cast’s first time in front of an audience- so this needs to be taken into account, as the production may well develop as it beds in, but at the same time I did pay for my ticket and need to give my honest opinion of what I saw on the night. Julie Jupp and Lisa Stevenson as Anna and Claire hadn’t yet got the dialogue up to speed. It needs more pizzazz, sparkle and a sheer delight in word play and a brazen ability to use words to inflict cruelty. It isn’t yet funny enough and this will only come when the two leads find the rhythm of the dialogue, crank up the pace and let go more. Too many of the potential laughs were missed. Claire Corbett as the maid needs to find more truth in her performance and make us believe that she has suffered from these two harridans and knows more about their situation than she is letting on. There could be a kind of watchful dangerous quality to her performance alongside the surface ditsy ness which would add a lot. Then the laughs would come from something more substantial than just pulling faces and milking an overdone Scottish accent.
I don’t know whether the writing is partly to blame, as it certainly isn’t one of David Mamet’s best plays, but at least at the preview, this was still a party waiting to happen. It seems a strange play to choose for Scarborough audiences too, even if they do need shaking up a bit. People around me were a little uncomfortable and weren’t sure what to make of it. I am a huge supporter of what Chris Monks has been doing since he took over, but there is so much great modern repertoire out there that we haven’t got to see here yet and I’m sure that there would have been a better choice.