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.

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The Memory of Water. New Vic Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 03-04-14

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Production photograph by Andrew Billington.

“I look at you and I see myself.”

Shelagh Stephenson’s play The Memory of Water is a thoughtful and perceptive look at family relationships, particularly mothers and daughters and sisters. Three very different sisters are forced to confront their shared past after the death of their mother and face the fact that our own memories are never quite the whole truth. We see things from our own perspective and construct our own story from the past, a story that is more interested in providing us with a way of making sense of who we are than telling the truth. We may not even know that it wasn’t as we remember it………… until someone else who was also there confronts us with an alternative version. Given that their perception is no more reliable than our own where does the truth lie? A major bereavement forces you to attempt to find out and this is the meat of the play. Death is a great uncoverer of secrets.

Anyone who has faced a major bereavement will see themselves in this play. The immediate aftermath is desperately sad, obviously, but it is also sometimes funny, wild and surreal. This is all there in Shelagh Stephenson’s heartfelt and honest writing- particularly for the women characters. Caroline Langrish, Amanda Ryan and Mary Jo Randle as the three sisters give the writing the truthful, emotional performances that it deserves and as their dead mother, Lynn Farleigh gives a stylish, brittle portrayal of the mother who has damaged each of them in their own ways, without ever really meaning to. All mothers do that, along with the lavishing of astonishing amounts of commitment and care, not just the few who are neglectful. It goes with the territory and is passed on down the generations. I particularly liked the scenes between Mary, the over achieving doctor whose cleverness her family had never managed to accept, and her mother.  A fascinating subject for a play and a perfect antidote to the saccharin view of motherhood that the advertising industry projects. Motherhood is a deeply complex and heart wrenching business. It is good to see a writer tackling these issues so fearlessly as they are often swept under the carpet.

The set for the New Vic’s production is absolutely beautiful and perfectly lit, a sparse setting in a pale winter landscape. The opening is a revelation which sweeps us back into the past before a word has been spoken and uncovers a setting which is strange to both us and to each of the characters in its own way. The direction by Nikolai Foster is fast and nicely paced and mixes truth and theatricality without ever becoming overdone.

The Thrill of Love. New Vic, Newcastle Under Lyme at the Stephen Joseph Scarborough. 14-03-13

Is it a very short walk?

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Faye Castelow as Ruth Ellis.
Production photograph by Andrew Billington.

The story of how Ruth Ellis came to shoot her lover David Blakely at point blank range on Easter Sunday 1955 is a heartbreaking one, full of drama and high emotion. It caused huge controversy at the time, and the echoes of the tragedy continued through her family in the years which followed. Ruth was quite calm and sure of herself afterwards. She played her moment in court to the hilt, composed and immaculate- every inch the blonde bombshell nightclub hostess. It was only very late on that she admitted that her lover Desmond Cusson had driven her to the murder scene and given her the gun. She accepted that she was the one who had committed the act and held onto her idealised memories of the passion that she and David Blakely had felt for each other. She never appealed or asked for any special consideration, though there were others who considered the killing a crime passionel and campaigned on her behalf to no avail. She was the last woman to be hanged in Britain, the case received enormous comment and publicity, and the widespread disgust at the savage treatment of a vulnerable young woman who had fallen into the hands of an unpleasant and violent man helped bring about the abolition of the death penalty. It’s a huge story, full of intense emotion, set in a world of damaged people still reeling from the aftermath of the second world war, highly charged material for a play, perhaps too easy to patronise and turn into melodrama if you are not careful. You don’t get that here. The writer of the New Vic’s The Thrill of Love, Amanda Whittington, has written some terrific dialogue to back up the strong, economical structure of her play- some of it provided by Ruth Ellis herself who knew how to play a scene. It’s a fine piece of writing.

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Faye Castelow as Ruth Ellis.
Production photograph by Andrew Billington.

Amanda Whittington has made some key decisions in the script which pay off handsomely. We never see David Blakely, just feel his looming presence, and the exposition which we need is cleverly given by the detective Gale in a mixture of soliloquy and fast paced interactions within scenes which keep the plot moving. The why is what matters, both to him and to the audience as the story unfolds. Ruth and her friend Vickie (a lovely performance from Maya Wasowicz, both tough and elegant) are doing their best to survive by servicing the needs of men in what was a harsh and misogynist world. All they want is a bit of glamour and sparkle in their grim little lives and this leads them inexorably into dangerous territory. Katie West provides the other side of the coin, the good girl who understands that she has to be content with less, rather than happy, and will always be there to pick up the pieces if she can. Hilary Tones provides a chilling portrait of what Ruth and Vicki would have become if they had lived longer. She has learned how to survive and has no illusions left. Mark Meadows has a difficult and in some ways thankless task as the detective. A lot of the pace and effect depends on his split second timing, backing up the emotion of the four women and he is an impressive figure, representing both his own character, our own questions, and even perhaps the shadowy figure of all the men who are out there, threatening.

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Faye Castelow as Ruth Ellis.
Production photograph by Andrew Billington.

The play really belongs to Faye Castelow who plays Ruth quite wonderfully. She is damaged, vulnerable, childlike, wild and wrong headed and you believe in her absolutely. The Stephen Joseph Theatre is a small space and I was on the front row within a few feet of her so I can say beyond any doubt that this performance is one which she has found deep inside herself and delivers with real emotion and truth. The moments when she is really on the edge are quite shattering to watch. She also looks perfect, which matters for this story.

This kind of writing needs a good director to help it find it’s speed and James Dacre has done a good job. He has asked a lot of his actors and they are absolutely on song now. The Billie Holliday soundtrack which runs through the play fits it like a long elegant glove of emotion and the costumes are perfect- more perfect than theatre costumes usually are when you see them from within a few feet. The look of the time is there.

Small companies producing work of this quality are absolute jewels bringing real class to people far from the West End. They should be admired and treasured- and funded properly. The New Vic never lets us down and I really think this is the best thing that they have done.

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.

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 is one reason why it is worth going back to it over and over again. 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.


Bus Stop. New Vic Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 10-03-11

The New Vic’s production of William Inge’s 1955 play Bus Stop is an absolute gem. It is beautifully cast, beautifully directed and sincerely and skilfully acted. The company has given a piece of delicate, heartbreaking, wise and humane writing the production which it deserves. There is nothing that I would change. Nothing at all.
I have been going to the theatre regularly for over thirty years now and I have never seen a production of one of William Inge’s plays. I can’t even remember turning down the opportunity to see one, which suggests to me that he has been unfairly neglected here in the UK. This is strange, since he had enormous success as a writer of both plays and screenplays in his day, winning a Pulizer prize and an Oscar. He always remained an outsider as a closeted gay man, and vulnerable to depression and when his work finally fell out of fashion he committed suicide at the age of 60. While this vulnerability must have been hell to live with it gives his work a compassion and heart that shines out now as strongly as it ever did.

Bus Stop, one of his great successes, is set in a small café beside a greyhound bus halt. The characters are small town people who work in the café, live nearby, or come in off the bus when it is forced to spend a much longer wait than its usual twenty minutes thanks to a snow storm. All of them are “people of the wind” looking for love and comfort in a world that can be rather forlorn. There is little plot, we are simply allowed to get to know them and slowly their weaknesses and foibles are made clear before the storm clears and the bus leaves. It is a small detailed slice of Americana, shot through with the attitudes and mores of its time. There are no bad guys, and no heroes. People and life are more complex than that and William Inge has the insight and compassion to explain this to us.
The central relationship which is explored is that of Cherie, a sweet blonde nightclub singer, and her would be husband Bo.  Cherie is looking for love and beginning to wonder if you have to “find out for yourself that it doesn’t exist”. She has no illusions, life has already swept them away.  She knows that she will probably finally settle for second best and end up in Montana with the young cowboy who has slept with her and who is now trying to persuade her, ham-fistedly, into marriage. Louise Dylan, a young actress fresh out of drama school, provides a beautiful, heartfelt portrait of Cherie’s enthusiasm and insecurity. She understands the character perfectly and thanks to her subtlety so do we. It is a lovely moment when she puts on her nightclub costume and performs That Old Black Magic. You can see straightaway both why she was given the job in the club and why she has absolutely no future as a singer. She is delightful. Louise Dylan is a star of the future if ever there was one. It needs real talent if you are to take on Marilyn Monroe and win, creating a living breathing woman of your own. She can be very proud.
Her would be husband Bo is also beautifully played, by Phillip Correia. He is a rough diamond, a good hard working, loud mouthed cowboy who has absolutely no idea of polite behaviour unless it involves horses. He is travelling back to his ranch with an older cowboy Virgil who has been a surrogate father to him since he was orphaned at the age of ten. Virgil ( played sensitively by Simon Armstrong) has done his best to show him why his way of treating people doesn’t provide him with the results he’d like but Bo still insists on going through life like a bull in a china shop. His is probably the most touching journey in the play as his love for Cherie, a love that he has trouble even recognising, let alone expressing, leads him towards maturity. When he says to her, “I love you just as you are. I don’t care how you got there” the barriers between them come down and it is a moment of pure joy.
The owner of the café Grace, played with heart by Abigail McKern has settled for a lonely life, on the basis that it is less lonely than the one she shared with her husband before she kicked him out. She keeps going by looking forward to her thrice weekly visits from her lover, Carl, played by Brendan Charleson, the married driver of the bus. It’s not much of a life but she keeps busy and finds time to think of others, especially young Elma who helps her in the café after school. This is a performance full of promise from Beth Park who is another young actress fresh out of drama school. Elma’s innocence and untainted ability to see the good in everybody is dangerous to her and you watch her youthful openness with great pleasure, while at the same time knowing that she has no choice but to lose it. The type of letcherous old drunk who preys on young women, represented by Doctor Lyman, will not hoodwink her so easily after she has spent a couple of terms at college. He has squandered all his chances in life and is no longer able to take comfort from her pure hearted admiration for him. Patrick Driver manages to be both quite loathsome and also ultimately moving in the part, which is a credit to him.
The only character who has no real journey during the play, there to provide a kind of unchanging moral centre, is the local sheriff Will Masters, played with the right kind of authority by Tom Hodgkins. There is a world outside the café, which has enormous bearing on what happens inside it, and he is the link.
The staging is perfect for the round at the Stephen Joseph. We are able to admire the attention to detail which has gone into Libby Watson’s design, relishing the original 1950’s newspapers and magazines that are on set, and the colours and dowdy modernism of the time are perfectly reproduced. The director James Dacre clearly had a deep understanding of the play and the characters and did absolutely nothing to get in the way which is just as I like it.
I began by saying that this production is an absolute gem. Just to clarify, by gem I mean diamond. Beautifully cut with all the facets reflecting a really classic piece of writing that deserves to live forever. If it keeps getting productions like this it will.

The photographs are production stills from the New Vic production taken by Andrew Billington.