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 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!

She Stoops To Conquer. Northern Broadsides at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

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Gilly Tompkins as Mrs Hardcastle. Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

I am not a big fan of restoration drama. With one or two exceptions (like The Beaux Stratagem) I think it needs a good kicking before it can really work for a modern audience. Thankfully Northern Broadsides are just the company to do that service for Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops To Conquer. Just lately they have been producing some first rate, award winning, theatre and they have a full blooded, honest house style which I admire very much. This production was not one of their best, but I am judging them by their own very high standards now after watching them for so long. It had all their trademarks, music, dance, speed and fun and while one or two of the performances were a bit too over the top for me there was a lot to enjoy. It worked particularly well in the round at the Stephen Joseph where the audience were in clear view and easy for the characters to talk to directly.

Strangely the most over the top performance of them all didn’t worry me a bit. Jon Trenchard has such confidence and bravura that he can get away with being as loud as he likes and his Tony Lumpkin could have come straight out of a cartoon of the period. I liked Hannah Edward as Kate Hardcastle but the character (not the performance) was rather overwhelmed by all the grandstanding going on around it and would have come over more strongly in a calmer, more traditional production. It is the title role so that was a bit of a shame. The pick of the performances for me, came from Oliver Gomm as Young Marlowe. He allowed me to completely believe in him even while he was playing his silliest moments and that is the age old key to playing farce. I also really enjoyed Rob Took’s contribution, a series of small parts played with great relish and I hope that they give him more to do in the future. It takes real skill to get a laugh on an entrance simply by being there again, in a new role, as he did at one point.

Jessica Worrall has done a great job on the design and I loved the costumes, all animal print and big wigs. Conrad Nelson has directed for pace and maybe sometimes with too broad a brush, but it zips along and we are in no danger of being bored so I am not complaining too much. I had fun. Last time I saw it I don’t remember it being this much fun- even with David Essex, Donald Sinden and Miriam Margolyes to help it along.

The Grand Gesture. Northern Broadsides at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

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All Down the Blind Piper.
Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

“You can’t eat life. Beauty won’t pay the rent.”

The Grand Gesture, Northern Broadsides’ adaptation of the suicide, a Russian play from the nineteen twenties by Nikolai Erdman, is a comedic romp with a dark heart about a young man on the edge of suicide. It sounds unlikely, but it works. Simeon Duff has had enough of life at the bottom of the heap. A loving wife and her caring mother are no longer enough to keep him going after yet another failure ( an inability to learn to play the tuba) proves the last straw. Once that decision is made a lot of people want to get in on the act to further their own ends or boost their own egos and things spiral out of control. It is a play which satirises human greed and self absorption before ultimately coming down firmly on the side of emotional honesty and celebrating life itself- even if that is pretty much all that we have left. Simeon’s little family are a small island of real feeling and honesty among a lot of self serving, shallow people. While he is left wondering whether his soul is going to fall asleep in the arms of Jesus, or simply fly around in its final moments like a burst balloon, everyone around him just wants him to get on with dying. Ultimately Simeon becomes very moving, an everyman figure who we desperately want to come through.

Simeon is a perfect part for Mike Hugo, who has a poignant stage presence and a gift for direct communication with an audience which is particularly powerful in the round at the Stephen Joseph. There is a strong cast surrounding him who keep the play moving and work together with enthusiasm and precision, well directed by Conrad Nelson. It is a real company show where the characters provide a portrait of what is wrong with the society that Simeon wants to leave. I particularly liked Robert Pickavance as Victor Stark, an excruciating would be intellectual self publicist, but all the characters who want a stake in Simeon’s misery are very familiar. The people who Erdman was satirising are still very much alive in another country and another time. Samantha Robinson gave a very honest and sweet performance as Simeon’s wife Mary, an important role as we need to see some genuine feeling for him to set against all the posturing and know that he has something left to live for if only he can see it.

This was a very satisfying and entertaining production which worked really well. At the same time I have a feeling that there is an original play here with an even darker heart and a more truly Russian sensibility. It may not be a great play in the way that Accidental Death of an Anarchist and The Government Inspector are but I would quite like to see that too.


“In the face of death nothing is more precious to a man than his own hands.”

The Government Inspector. Nikolai Gogol. Northern Broadsides at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Scarborough. 18-10-12

Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

A long time ago I saw a production of  Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector. It was very good indeed, but just a bit worthy and ever so slightly dull. It seemed to me like a play which needed a kick up the backside, as we would say here in Yorkshire, and finally it has been given exactly that by our very own Northern Broadsides. Their new production is Northern Broadsides at their very broadest, high farce with a biting edge, with the action transferred to a northern town, the arse end of nowhere.  “Nobody comes here and nobody leaves.”  The inhabitants are not even sure whether they are in Lancashire or Yorkshire, and for those reading this who are not locals that last point is about as good a definition of being clueless as you can get up here.

Jon Trenchard as Snapper and Kraig Thornber as Sidebottom.
Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

The small town is rife with corruption, awash with backhanders and people looking out for the main chance. For some reason the audience found this situation all too recognisable- just as Gogol’s original audiences around 170 years ago would have done- and I am pretty sure it will still be familiar to those watching in 170 years time. The play is quite merciless as it exposes the cruelty of those who trample on the less powerful and take from the needy, and there really is not a single person to sympathise with, not one. When a visiting con man arrives in town, they mistake him for a government inspector who is due in town and he plays them at their own game, rooking them out of as much money, food and overblown attention as he can while we watch them squirm. Every single one of them deserves what may well be coming to them when Gogol finally delivers the kick in the teeth that we have been waiting for, via Deborah McAndrew’s sharp and witty new version.

The genius of this production is that it has the confidence to go way over the top, and because this is backed up by the kind of absurd truthfulness that farce has to have the bite of the satire is not lost. However outlandish the playing may be it is always totally accurate, totally controlled, so that when we are finally shown the cost of the high jinks that we have been laughing at the mood can turn and Gogol’s point is made as sharply as you could wish. This is thanks to some fine work from the cast, but also thanks to some very fine direction from Conrad Nelson. One small but important example of this is the way that when the real government inspector finally arrives he is played by the one actor who has been a still low key presence throughout the play as Councillor Belcher’s chauffeur. It is very much an ensemble piece, fast and furious, with the whole company playing as one, but I’m sure that nobody who has seen it will be surprised when I say that I have to mention Jon Trenchard, who gives an absolute blinder of a performance as Snapper, the con man. He hits the stage at full pelt and never lets up, setting the tone and carrying everybody else along with him. You can only get away with pushing the boat out that far if you are supremely confident that it works and you have the skill to carry it off. It’s a high risk performance, outlandish but at the same time beautifully controlled, and it is great fun to watch and marvel at it.

The set is a pile of muddled, old fashioned bureaucratic files and it has adapted very well to the round at the Stephen Joseph. There is some great brass band playing, which is more than just an occasional accompaniment to a scene change- there are times when the instruments speak and Snapper in particular has a lovely sequence of dialogue with them.

This is vintage Northern Broadsides, it really is. Belly laughs with a sharp edge of truth.