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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When We Are Married. Northern Broadsides at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. 27-10-16

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The three couples. Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

JB Priestley’s When We Are Married, the story of three deeply respectable Edwardian couples, Yorkshire chapel folk, whose silver wedding celebrations are interrupted by the news that they may not have been properly married at all, is a northern institution for amateur performers- especially those of a certain age. I have seen it before and been in it twice. It has characters who the audience can identify with and solid writing with clearly defined jokes based on character- easy for someone who is well cast to have a go at even if they are not very experienced. Looking back and even remembering line readings from the past as I heard the dialogue again, I was surprised how close the first production that I was in had come to getting it right in a small village hall all those years ago. In short this play is pretty much bombproof- it works. I know it too well. So well that I wasn’t really looking forward to seeing the play itself again after a gap of twenty years or so but since it is an obvious choice for Northern Broadsides, one of my favourite theatre companies, to show off what they do best, I went along. The Thursday matinee that I saw was sold out and the audience loved it. There is clearly still a lot of affection for the play in Yorkshire as well as the company, the couple sitting next to me had already seen the production in York and come back for more. I quickly realised how glad I was that I had not missed it. So many memories of the first time that I was in it, playing Ruby Birtle, the Helliwell’s young maid, came rushing back. I was delighted to see her again. Ruby only has one worthwhile scene with the drunken photographer Henry Ormonroyd, but it is a cracker. This Ruby (Kate Rose-Martin)was very good indeed. I mouthed her lines along with her and waited for every laugh. I even forgave her for missing one very big laugh that I know is there, as she did my memories proud.

The real joy of the play is seeing Annie Parker and Herbert Soppit stand up to their bullying spouses Albert and Clara. Both parts were beautifully played, by Sue Devaney and Steve Hulson, drawing real sympathy and gasps of delight (yes really) from the audience. The laughs may be there but sometimes they also have to be earned by really good timing and theirs was perfect. Kate Anthony and Adrian Hood as Clara and Albert had also done a good job of setting up these moments early on by showing us clearly what Annie and Herbert had to put with. The Helliwells, gracious hosts whose marriage is threatened by an old flame who hears the rumours that Joe is now available, were also nicely played by Geraldine Fitzgerald and Mark Stratton. All three couples worked very well together throughout. The difficulty of living alongside someone else has not changed and this is why the the humour of the play still resonates so powerfully, even in a time where not being married is no longer much of an issue.

When We Are Married will always remain a period piece and the production designer Jessica Worrall has done a fine job. The costumes were wonderful and this really matters in the Stephen Joseph where there is little set and they are seen close up.

As we clapped along to I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside at the end (very Scarborough and not very Priestley, but he was far more experimental than you would imagine from this play and I don’t think he would have minded) it was so good to be part of a sold out audience who were enjoying a play that has such fond memories for me and to know that it still works like a dream.

The Merry Wives. Northern Broadsides at the Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough. 28-04-16

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Becky Hindley and Nicola Sanderson as Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. Production photo by Nobby Clark.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is not a great play. There is an early tradition that another Falstaff play was requested from Shakespeare by Elizabeth I, who loved the character, as did most of her subjects. The company would have also been very happy to have another money spinner of a play with one of the most popular characters he ever wrote making another appearance. We can’t know for sure whether this is true but it certainly feels like Shakespeare was writing to order rather than from the heart. The Falstaff in the Henrys is a much darker, more rounded character than the one in Merry Wives and while a lot of the other names are familiar, Bardolph, Pistol, Nym, Mistress Quickly and Justice Shallow, they are not fleshed out and made real. If you have seen Henry IV parts one and two you can’t help but feel short changed. Merry Wives is a light hearted romp, probably swiftly written to order, and the best parts are the new characters, especially Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, who have a wonderful time running rings round the men while keeping their dignity and pointing out a few home truths. I am pretty sure that Elizabeth would have liked them very much. There is no harm done, just a few pretensions made fun of and a few egos punctured. It’s all good fun and nobody takes anything too much to heart- not even Falstaff who is the butt of most of the jokes.

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Barrie Rutter as Falstaff. Production photo by Nobby Clark.

Nevertheless I was glad to see the play again as it isn’t often done. I enjoyed it twenty three years ago when Northern Broadsides performed it outdoors in Valley Gardens, Saltburn. It was only their second production and they have come a long way since. The new production takes a while to get off the ground- the play’s fault rather than the company’s I think- but once it does it is well paced and there is a lot of laughter and some nice set piece moments which probably work now in exactly the same way that they did for it’s first audiences. I shall remember the fat woman of Ilkley running for her life for a long time. With apologies to Barrie Rutter, who is a natural Falstaff and the backbone of the production as actor and director, I have to say that my two stars were Becky Hindley as Mistress Ford and Nicola Sanderson as Mistress Page. They work beautifully together and they are a real pleasure to watch. You understand exactly what they are thinking and get behind them, willing them to succeed. I also liked Andy Cryer very much as Ciaus. He gave an over the top, full blooded performance which did a lot to help the play along- especially in the first half. It was all great fun and there is not enough of that in the world.

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.

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.

An August Bank Holiday Lark. Northern Broadsides at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 24-04-14

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Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

On the idle hill of summer,
Sleepy with the flow of streams,
Far I hear the steady drummer
Drumming like a noise in dreams.

Northern Broadsides new play An August Bank Holiday Lark, written by Deborah McAndrew, is an utterly charming and perfectly judged piece of theatre with a big heart. It takes its audience into a small community at the outbreak of the first world war. Everything is about to change but the people who are practising their morris steps and preparing to take part in the yearly tradition- the building of a traditional rush cart- have not understood that yet. They are characters who are easy to latch onto, lightly drawn with a broad brush without ever descending into cliché and our hindsight as we watch them gives the optimism and energy of youth an added poignancy.

The chief delight of the play is its immediacy and energy. We are able to watch the tradition played out in front of us. We see the dancing, hear the music, the thwack of the sticks and the stamping of the clogs. Things happen, they are not just talked about, and we can see character developed through them. The building of the rush cart is a celebration of everything that the community holds dear and a slender bulwark against the changes that are already taking place within the community. It will stand no chance against the tragedy which is taking place in the wider world. This window into a community which we are given in the first half sets up the audience perfectly for the darker events of the second half.

This is very much a company show and there is some great team work to admire. Everything is beautifully choreographed, whether it is the dances, the building of the rush cart or the moves- fine direction from Barrie Rutter. He also played John Farrar, the blustering, lonely father with a kind heart, a part tailor made for him, and I particularly admired his performance in the second half. The young people were lively and funny and I really liked Mark Thomas as Herbert Tweddle. He had great charm and you could feel people in the audience respond to it. Lauryn Redding gave us a lovely portrait of a village lass, Susie Hughes, whose character provided a useful note of sourness and humour. The relationship that never quite happened between Edie Stapleton and the gentle young would be poet that she was in love with was very touchingly portrayed by Sophia Hatfield and Jack Quarton.

This is a very clever piece of writing by Deborah McAndrew, restrained and delicate, which tackles a well worn subject with great sensitivity. It could have gone so wrong given the slightest hint of sentimentality or over emotionalism. Sometimes silence is used very effectively when words would not have been truthful or appropriate and simplicity is used to great effect. It also fitted the unusual space of the Stephen Joseph perfectly and when that happens there is no more special theatre to be sitting in. The audience loved it. When Herbert was pulled around the stage, sitting on top of the rush cart as jockey, waving and shouting “hello” to us people were waving back to him happily and at the end of the play people were on their feet, crying. In over thirty years I have never seen a reaction like that from a Scarborough matinee audience before. It doesn’t happen anywhere very often and it never happens by accident. Both she and Northern Broadsides can be very proud of what they have achieved.

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.”