Season’s Greetings. Stephen Joseph theatre. 19-08-10

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Leigh Symonds and Mercy Ojelade as Bernard and Pattie. Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand. — Mark Twain

The middle of August is a good time to watch Season’s Greetings, one of Alan Ayckbourn’s best plays. Away from the overindulgence, family togetherness, starlight and tinsel we can happily admit that in reality Christmas can sometimes be a bit rubbish. Relationships which are rubbing along fine when they are not put under pressure are forced, limping, into the spotlight, people who really don’t like each other much are forced to spend long periods in the same room and somewhere far away there is a perfect Christmas happening. A Christmas which nobody within your own gathering is quite living up to- still less the hosts themselves.

All this is perfectly captured by Alan Ayckbourn’s classic Season’s Greetings. It is one of his best plays and well overdue for a revival at the Stephen Joseph- this is the first since the original production in 1981. It is beautifully constructed and the set pieces- particularly those at the end of each act- are well earned and perfectly set up. At his best Ayckbourn captures a searing blend of poignancy and laughter- we laugh out loud and wince in the same moment- and it takes real skill from his cast to put this across. This isn’t simply comedy and it would be too easy to just play it as that. Bernard, the hapless doctor who really only wants to be liked, beautifully played by Leigh Symonds, is a perfect example. We begin by ridiculing him as we watch him in one of Ayckbourn’s best set pieces, rehearsing his annual puppet show- a treat that nobody wants to see- and end by wincing at his searing self knowledge while still laughing. There is a lot of quiet desperation in Ayckbourn’s women characters and in Season’s Greetings it takes the form of Rachel, Belinda and Pattie. Rachel is in a futile relationship with writer Clive and Belinda- the hostess- also longs for him. She just wants someone to notice her and think about her, as her husband certainly doesn’t. Pattie is pregnant again with a child that she really doesn’t want and a husband who isn’t interested in the children that they already have let alone another one on the way. Rachel Caffrey, Frances Marshall and Mercy Ojelade are all very touching in the roles as they work hard to keep things together and search for a happy ending that is never going to come. In contrast the quiet desperation of Bernard’s wife Phyllis, a nice performance by Eileen Battye, has been eased by self medicating with booze. Alongside the laughter gender injustices within the family are laid bare, well before the era of me too. The men are in charge here and they have done little to deserve it. It is far more telling to lay this bare through laughter than in a feminist rant.

Of course the direction is flawless as the play has been staged by Ayckbourn himself. The pace is kept up and everything runs like clockwork. The set shows us three rooms on stage simultaneously with cut off walls and this allows our attention to move from room to room quickly as the focus changes. This is a really well thought out revival, sharply funny and as relevant as ever. We have all known Christmases like this.

Stepping Out. Stephen Joseph Theatre. Summer 2019.

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Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

I remember the success of Richard Harris’ Stepping Out, written thirty five years ago, back in 1984 but I never got to see it so I knew straight away it would be a good choice as the centrepiece of the Stephen Joseph’s summer season. I know the usual Thursday matinee audience there quite well- quite a few of them have become familiar faces- but many of the crowd who arrived buzzing and ready to have fun at Stepping Out were new to me. They were mostly women, with a few rather gloomy looking men tagging along. They were waving cheerfully to each other, singing along to Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and words like prosecco, The Full Monty and Mamma Mia were being bandied about. It was all a bit girly but they were certainly up for a good time and we got one.

Stepping Out is the story of a group of women- and one brave man- of varying characters and abilities who come along to a weekly tap dancing class and end up performing a routine in a local show. All of them have lives which are unsatisfactory in one way or another and we get to know them and root for them as they rehearse. No spoilers- I won’t tell you whether they succeed or not- but you can probably guess. Although it has become a period piece, written well before reality TV and celebrity dancing contests the hook is the same. Everybody loves stories like this where we can watch ordinary people- people like us- trying hard and supporting each other as they learn a skill that they never knew they had. It’s not real life but who cares- we see enough of that. People don’t change. I overheard someone behind me asking her companion, “which one do you think I am?” and that is at the heart of its appeal.

I think the character that took me back to the early eighties most powerfully was Fenella Norman as the rehearsal pianist Mrs Frazer. While everybody else would be immediately recognisable to young people today she is a type that I don’t think you would find in quite the same way now. Religious, judgemental and probably not as much of an old bat as she would like to think. Those women were throwbacks even in my childhood. There were flamboyant characters given plenty of easy comic hits joyfully taken- especially by Claire Eden as Sylvia and Suzanne Proctor as Maxine- but the two performances I enjoyed watching most at close quarters were David McKechnie as gentle, well meaning Geoffery and Alix Dunmore as clever, anxious and repressed Andy. Those two performances were subtle and perfectly thought through and when you are only a few feet away that shines out. Joanne Heywood held the whole thing together beautifully as Mavis, the dance instructor who has a heart of gold and really wants her little group of nobodies to find their feet and their self esteem and it was good to see her given her own moment in the spotlight as well as her pupils.

This is such a clever play, popular theatre which knows what people will respond to and gives them it in spades. The director Paul Robinson had made the most of its strengths and this revival was thoroughly deserved. It worked really well in the round, a space which is always at its best when it can be up close and personal, and I was very glad to see it after all this time! After all I had waited almost half a lifetime!

Much Ado About Nothing. Northern Broadsides/New Vic at the Stephen Joseph theatre.

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Isobel Middleton and Robin Simpson as Beatrice and Benedick. Production photograph by Nobby Stiles.

Much Ado About Nothing is a delightful play, mainly because of Beatrice and Benedick- two older sparring partners who clearly have a history of some kind together. Everybody knows that there is a spark between them and they should be together- finally- but they just haven’t seen it yet. “Will they or won’t they” is the oldest trick in the romantic comedy playbook and it has always worked. When set against Hero and Claudio, a second young, idealistic couple anxious to start a life together in the face of opposition you have a play that zips along, both funny and touching. It still works beautifully after 400 years and remains completely intelligible in the way that Shakespeare comedy sometimes doesn’t, time is no barrier to universal human feelings and dilemmas.

Northern Broadsides have done a good job in their current co-production with the New Vic. They have set the play at the end of the second world war when troops are returning and normal life is being resumed. Long separations are ending and the start of peace offers a tentative second chance as people find their way back into normal life. There is a feeling of lightness and joy that suits the play perfectly. Wrongs are being righted and we can relish watching this happen. Everything will be all right in the end.

Isobel Middleton and Robin Simpson are a fine Beatrice and Benedick. A land army girl and an RAF pilot who are used to the kind of banter and ribbing that gets you through hard times. I particularly liked their playing of the later scenes, there was a real sense of something serious being revealed that had been behind the word play. It mattered that they showed each other how they felt and admitted what they might have lost. Sarah Kameela-Impey and Linford Johnson are charming as Hero and Claudio- two lovely, open hearted young people who deserve to be together. This quartet are the heart of the play- get them right and you are home and dry. There is plenty of fun, dance and music from the period which the company relishes in typical Broadsides style, and some great gags. This is a full hearted and gutsy production which flies by.

Good Dog. Watford Palace Theatre at the SJT Scarborough.

Goodness gonna mow you down and swerve round them.

The boy in Arinzé Kene’s play Good Dog has been told by his now absent dad that all he has to do is be good, help his mum, work hard and stay out of trouble, and good things will come to him. He is holding onto that but life is hard and sometimes it seems a long wait. The play is the story of his awakening to the fact that being good is not always enough- sometimes you have to do what is right for you in order to keep your self respect and walk with your head held high. Along the way he describes for us a whole community. We hear their voices as he listens and get to know the shopkeepers, the what what girls and the smoking boys who surround him, and we come to know and like him. He is a decent young man who has a basic naive goodness and charm. When he finally snaps at the end of the first half we feel for him. It has been a long time coming.

Kwaku Mills graduated from RADA last year and he has a big job on to play the boy. He succeeds wonderfully. It is a long one man play- both technically and emotionally difficult- and a real tour de force. Anyone who sees this play on his CV will know that he has serious talent. The range needed is impressive. We believe in him absolutely as a young, well meaning, vulnerable teenager and when he appears, high up on the set at the start of the second half, it is immediately clear that he has been hardened by life and is now a man. He is now prepared to take action and stand up for himself in order to keep the self respect that life has tried so hard to take from him. While it is sad to see him drawn into direct action and violence we are carefully shown the reasons and it is clear that the bedrock of his character has not changed. Being good is complicated and there are more ways of being a decent person than he had understood as a young boy.

Technically the play is beautifully put together. The sound and lighting design is crucial and needs to be perfectly timed. The direction from Natalie Ibu keeps things moving well and adds variety and pace. There is a lot of good, well structured writing from Arinzé Kene but sometimes I did feel a bit of editing would have sharpened the points he was making. The set, by designer Amelia Jane Hankin, is impressive, a giant climbable cube made from weathered slats and it is used to full effect.

It was great to see a slice of London life in far away Scarborough. It isn’t the sort of play which will gather an audience easily here but when theatre is as good as this it needs to be seen so I am glad that the SJT invited it up. I don’t think this is the last I will hear of Kwaku Mills.

Tobacco Factory Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 11-10-18

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Production images by Craig Fuller.

I had been looking forward to the Tobacco Factory Theatre’s production of Henry V and I wasn’t disappointed. They are one of the best small scale theatre companies doing Shakespeare in the country and we are lucky to be able to see them up in Scarborough, a long way from their home in Bristol. The round at the Stephen Joseph is a perfect space for them- a home from home which reflects their own Factory theatre- and the production energised the space beautifully. Even within a relatively small matinee audience I could feel the tension ramp up and the temperature drop as we watched the devastating final scenes. Put simply- it worked.

While more could have been done with the characters of the bunch of renegades who went to war with Henry all the cast worked hard and delivered well. There were three performances which were outstanding for me. Ben Hall gave us a Henry who was clearly still struggling for control of himself, his dissolute past never far away. This was not a king who had shrugged off his past and chosen the route of leadership and duty easily without looking back. He is no hero, his route to becoming a great king throughout the play is fraught and costs him dear. In a small space every expression, every small gesture, is seen in detail, there is nowhere to hide, and this was a performance with great truth. He is young and relatively inexperienced and I hope that someone from one of the national companies has taken note. When he had scenes with Heledd Gwynn, another relatively inexperienced actor, the play really caught fire. I absolutely loved her performance, both as the Dauphin and Katherine- I doubt I will see anyone I like better in that role. She was full of fire and energy, a true warrior who wore her pain and outrage as a badge of honour. It was a masterful idea to combine the two roles and transpose the scene where Katherine learns some English onto the battlefield over the body of Orleans. It made the later scene where Henry has to persuade her to marry him absolutely electrifying. There was pain, resentment and anger but at the same time she knew what she had to do. It was quite different to the way that scene is usually played and it was a revelation. I shall be looking out for her in anything she does in the future- I have a feeling there will be plenty.

It was a great pleasure to see an experienced actor alongside those two shining young people playing the Chorus and Burgundy. Joanne Howarth was excellent, drawing us in and speaking directly to us in exactly the way that the round loves. Every word was thought through, engaging and accurate. She knew exactly what she was doing and there is no better feeling for an audience than having a close connection in a small space with an actor who you know is not going to let you down. You don’t develop that kind of skill overnight and it was a pleasure to see. The chorus is one of the most important parts in the play. It provides an ironic and lyrical voice to comment on the action and drive the play forward and it really matters that it is done well.

I have already praised the direction and Elizabeth Freestone’s considerable experience showed throughout, both on a large scale, allowing pace and clarity, and in small details like the way that French and English armies were able to transform into each other instantly with subtle changes of attitude and costume. Lily Arnold’s set and costume design worked perfectly, mesh boxes and rubble for a set and weathered military jerkins that crossed the centuries, creating an archetypal world that could be anywhere, anytime. Exactly right for a play that will never lose it’s relevance while people still fight and those who are caught up in the carnage- not least the leaders- have to attempt to deal with the damage.

A Brief History of Women. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 14-09-17

Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

Alan Ayckbourn has had a long and productive career and produced over seventy full length plays. The best of his works are accepted as classics of their time, still widely produced, and in his late seventies he is still writing. One of the great pleasures of seeing his latest play, A Brief History of Women, “a comedy in four parts about an unremarkable man and the remarkable women who loved him, left him, or lost him”, is being able to see how his work has changed over the years. There is a gentle, wistful tone which has replaced the sharp edge that skewered the middle classes so expertly and produced some of the funniest visual comedy of the last century. This brings both gains and losses, as change always does. The comedy in A Brief History of Women is sometimes the weakest element. While the matinee audience enjoyed joining in with the panto section the off stage children in rehearsal didn’t really convince me in the way that Ayckbourn’s off stage characters have in the past and it all seemed a bit broad brush and derivative. At his best the pin point accuracy of Ayckbourn’s comedy makes you laugh and wince at the same time. In contrast there is sometimes great delicacy in the writing, particularly when the central character, Anthony and the woman who will become his wife fall in love, and in the final scene. There is real heart, an elegaic quality to the writing at times, which I really enjoyed.

Having got the losses out of the way I am going to concentrate on the gains as there are plenty of them. When I took my seat and looked down at the set it felt as though I had come home. Four areas of a large house, a house which almost becomes an additional character, were marked out on the floor of the stage in a way that we have seen often over the years, cleverly characterised without being cluttered. The action of the play sees the house go through several changes over the lifetime of the central character, and as time progressed this was marked by small telling set changes- one of which drew a round of applause after it was completed. It was a small space set out with great skill to tell a story by designer Kevin Jenkins, working alongside someone who knows the SJT better than anyone else will ever know it. We were in safe hands. Ayckbourn’s own direction was exemplary- it was a joy to see the accuracy with which the action tracked the hired servant who was moving from space to space and the fast moving scenes had a filmic quality as the lights rose and dimmed, following him, while the action in other areas went on unseen. The actors movements and the sound effects of doors as they opened and closed were beautifully synchronised and what could easily have been messy and confusing in lesser hands rang out clear as a bell. That may sound like a small detail but trust me it isn’t. There were some lovely sequences between scenes later in the play, when the big house had become a school, which were almost dance like in their precision and music was used to set a mood and underscore emotion right through the play in a way that really worked.

The actors work beautifully as a company. Each of them plays contrasting parts during the course of the play, held together by a charming, truthful, central performance from Antony Eden as Anthony Spate. This is a gentle, dignified man, a good person, and it takes an actor of real quality to play goodness. There is nothing to hide behind- you just have to be. The play would not have worked without him.

I came away from this production feeling quite nostalgic, looking back at changes, both at the SJT and my own life, and counting myself lucky to have been able to see a new Ayckbourn play one more time.

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.