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.

Broken Biscuits. Paines Plough and Live Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough.

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Production image from Paines Plough.

It’s a shame that there are not more plays like Tom Wells’ Broken Biscuits. It is a warm,touching piece of theatre that tugs at your heartstrings without ever tipping over into sentimentality. Thanks to his gift for writing strong, vernacular dialogue it all feels completely real and absolutely believable and there is also a strong structure which comes from the counting down of the weeks as the three would be band members rehearse for a Battle of the Bands contest and their relationships ebb and flow. They are sixteen and about to leave school after having an undramatically unhappy time. They have never been the cool kids- this is their chance to arrive in college with style and gain new respect from others, but also, above all, from themselves. They are a gay lad, Ben, who is trying to work out what this means for him and whether he will ever fit in anywhere, Megan, a loud, overweight steamroller of a girl who doesn’t understand how to work with others and lead but desperately wants to, and Holly, a geek, who is pretty and clever but held back by being a gentle soul with no confidence. They are an unlikely threesome who have only come together in Megan’s shed simply because there is nowhere else where they can find friendship and acceptance. They are all very touching characters, especially for someone looking back at teenage years from quite a distance.

I am guessing that the three actors must be a little older than sixteen but the first thing that impressed me was how believable they all were as teenagers; vulnerable, raw, well meaning, and so likable that you really felt for them and wanted them to succeed. I particularly loved Grace Hogg-Robinson as Holly. There were many times where you could see what she was thinking and her performance of her song about the lad in the supermarket was a real highlight. It had been cleverly written by Matthew Robbins, good enough to work as a song but not so good that it wasn’t credible for Holly to have written it. Faye Christall also had some nice moments as Megan, so anxious to be a leader, prove her worth and have friends but with no real idea how to achieve this and Andrew Reed as Ben was a delightful mixture of vulnerability, eagerness and misery waiting for his chance to grow. This is a coming of age story for all three of them and we have all been there in our different ways. It is rare for the average theatregoer to have teenage characters put in front of them and that in itself was refreshing, but when they are as well written as these three it is a absolute joy.

The set, Megan’s shed, is an old style slice of realism, meticulously designed by Lily Arnold, and there are a lot of small clever details and changes through the course of the play that mark the passage of time. The play moves forward quickly and has plenty of pace thanks to the direction of James Grieves and the fast, sassy dialogue which the three actors are able to relish. All in all it was a real treat and we were lucky to see it on its short tour. The group of teenage girls in the audience who were there in their school uniforms, chaperoned by their teacher, loved it and came out energised and talking to each other about it. It might have been an afternoon of nostalgic reminiscence for me but for them it had been a slice of the life that they were living right now and that’s probably the best compliment Tom Wells’ writing could get.

And Then Come the Nightjars. Theatre503 and Bristol Old Vic at the Stephen Joseph theatre. 20-10-16

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David Fielder as Michael.

We were very lucky to have the chance to see Bea Roberts’ award winning play, And Then Come The Nightjars, up in Scarborough. Usually new plays disappear quite quickly, however good they are, and this revival was part of a short two month tour from Bristol Old Vic. Its roots are firmly in the West country so we are a long way from its home but country people up here understand the devastating subject matter all too well. It is set during the foot and mouth outbreak which swept the country in 2001 and describes an unlikely friendship between a veteran dairy farmer, Michael, and his local vet, Jeff, who is battling a drink problem and the break up of his marriage. When the farmers healthy herd of pedigree cows has to be culled, by law, to help form a buffer against further spread of the disease it is Jeff who is called on to do it. This appalling crisis both deepens and challenges their friendship and there is great sensitivity in both the acting and the writing as the plot plays out. It is moving, tender and heartfelt with a welcome dry wit running through even this darkest of times.

I’m sure that Nigel Hastings, who did a fine job as Jeff, will not mind me saying that David Fielder was astonishingly good as Michael. It is a lovely part and he grabbed it with both hands. He was tough, funny and open hearted- much like some Yorkshire farmers who I met when I was teaching up in the Yorkshire Dales. He meant every word- his every thought was clear as a bell. Playing a two hander of this kind is intense and difficult and the two of them worked together quite beautifully. It was delightful to watch in a small space like the McCarthy.

During the question and answer session after the matinee that I saw the two actors said how delighted they were with the set and I don’t wonder. It was completely realistic in every detail, a ramshackle cow barn, designed by Max Dorey, and nothing else would have worked. It was also beautifully lit by Sally Ferguson, so beautifully lit that there were times when you could sit there and just take pleasure in the changing light as it fell through the roof slats. Quite simply this production gets everything right, and it’s not often you can say that. It had to. There are some subjects that you stay well away from unless you can do justice to people who went through terrible times and lost so much. I know some of them so there was gratitude mixed in with my admiration. They have been given the play that they deserved.

Henceforward. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 29-09-16

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Bill Champion as Jerome. Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

I saw the first production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Henceforward at the Stephen Joseph in 1987 when I was in my twenties. A lot has happened to both me and the theatre since then. The revival at the SJT this year is quite a brave thing to do in some ways. The play was very successful both in Scarborough and in London where it won the Evening Standard award for best comedy when it transferred to the West End with Ian McKellen and Jane Asher. It would have been easy to leave it safely in the past, resting on its laurels, but I’m glad they didn’t. It made a big impression on me at the time. It was the first time that Ayckbourn had introduced science fiction into one of his plays- I loved NAN300F- Barry McCarthy was great as the lead character, Jerome, along with Serena Evans as Zoe and I still have a strong flashbulb memory of the ending in the original production. That doesn’t always happen. I saw plays thirty years ago that I can barely remember now. Every now and again if they have revived an Ayckbourn that I didn’t like nearly as much I have grumbled that they should give Henceforward another production- this made seeing it again a bit like high noon- how is it after all those years? Was my young self right? Was I going to be disappointed?

It remains a very clever idea- more successful still, for me, than some of the later futuristic Ayckbourn plays. It is set in a dystopian future where the streets are under mob rule and even opening the front door is dangerous. A composer, Jerome, is trying desperately to find his creative energy again and write, holed up in a tower block with only a faulty robot nanny for company. Throughout the play the world outside remains very real- a clear and present danger brought to us by videophone and entry security screens. Jerome has asked a young actress up for an interview, hoping that she will play his wife, allowing him to provide a semblance of normality and persuade his real estranged wife to allow him to regain contact with his daughter Geain. He is also desperate to find fuel for his creativity, given his isolation, and he does this by recording sounds- everything in fact- that he hears in the flat to sample in his work. There is both comedy and some heartfelt emotional writing and it is the second aspect that I think has stood the test of time best as the plot plays out.

Bill Champion is very good as Jerome. He is a very intense, truthful actor and you certainly believe in his Jerome as a difficult, gifted man. I liked Laura Matthews as Zoe too. That character needs to bring some lightness and airiness into the room with her to counter everything else that is going on and I particularly liked her first scene where she is clearly both falling apart after being attacked and also desperate to hold onto some normality and do the interview that she has come to do. I loved Jacqueline King as NAN300F but in spite of some very convincing acting as Corinna I didn’t think that the production had really got that character right this time. You need to feel that she and Jerome are meant to be together- that there is still something there, a warmth underneath Corinna’s outer skin of bitterness and frustration, and I didn’t quite.

It was fascinating to see the play again in my middle age. The heart of it has certainly stood the test of time- maybe the character of Mervyn has dated a little but not much else has. Henceforward certainly deserves to stay on stage alongside some of Ackbourn’s better known comedies and I am glad that my wish to see it again has finally been granted.

The World Goes Round. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 17-08-16.

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Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

Kander and Ebb have written two masterpieces of musical theatre, Cabaret and Chicago, and a lot else besides including the New York anthem, New York, New York. Their work is an absolute gift for a songbook show. It is funny, dramatic and sassy with a heartbreaking humanity and truthfulness at the centre of it all- much like life. Very American and very Broadway. Who would have thought that five performers in a small provincial theatre out on the coast in the north of England would ace their songs with such talent, confidence, joy and conviction? Well they did. The Stephen Joseph’s summer musical offering this year is an absolute corker. All the cast are hugely experienced. We don’t often get to see musical theatre performers of this quality in Scarborough- if ever- and I was left wondering how we had got so lucky. Maybe they just wanted to have a chance to sing great songs.

The show was originally conceived by David Thompson, Scott Ellis and Susan Stroman and staged off Broadway. It has been beautifully directed at the Stephen Joseph by Lotte Wakeham. Each song is a small drama, rather than a song, and the acting is every bit as important as the singing. The cast are very generous towards each other in this, playing supporting roles alongside each performance with great timing and commitment. Marry Me, from The Rink was a fine example, with Shona White listening to Nigel Richards as he proposed and showing us her every thought. I loved Phoebe Fildes and Laura Jane Matthewson’s version of Class from Chicago- perfectly done- and they also did a great version of The Grass is Always Greener from Woman of the Year together. Nigel Richards does a heartrending version of I Don’t Remember You from The Happy Time. He has great warmth as a performer- not something you can teach- and a beautiful tone. I’d love to have heard him do a full out, complete version of the title song on his own rather than just one of the snippets that we heard throughout as a kind of refrain. It was a pleasure to watch Ashley Samuels move- both on roller skates and off- and it would have been good to see more of that as well as hearing him sing. Shona White was best in the songs relishing Kander and Ebb’s sassy humour and it was a joy to see the mostly older audience chuckling away at her in Arthur in the Afternoon, from City Lights. That was one of the less well known songs which it was interesting to hear alongside those which have become standards. The title song from Cabaret could easily have become a cliche, but a stunning arrangement made it seem new and fresh as well as something which just had to be there.

It was one of those times where the set fitted both the show and the space in the round perfectly. This is not always easy. It was simple and made a flexible background for the performers while providing enough Broadway razzamatazz to be going on with. A job well done by designer Simon Kerry.

The matinee that I saw was a relaxed “dementia friendly” performance. Even though it was poorly attended, one look at the shining eyes of the man waiting to be led into the lift behind me would have been enough to make it clear that the whole thing was worthwhile. If anyone had been put off by being told this in advance and thought that their afternoon would be spoiled they needn’t have worried. Those of us who were there behaved impeccably as great songs worked their magic and the very talented cast still stormed it for us. We loved it. There was also free cake in the interval- something that I think should be available at all theatre performances from now on. Well done to the SJT. I hope that they do this again and allow the idea to grow. Theatre is for everyone. When the West End comes to Scarborough and it costs £10 for a front row matinee ticket you’d be a fool to miss one of the few remaining performances.

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.

German Skerries. Up in Arms and Orange Tree Richmond at the Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough.

 

Howard Evans and George Evans in German Skerries. Production photograph by Manuel Harlan.

Robert Holman’s play, German Skerries, an award winning play from 1979, is a subtle, realistic look at Britain through the eyes of three characters on a hillside overlooking both the sea and the industrial heart of Middlesborough in the North East of England. There is plenty going on offstage, as a middle aged teacher and a young couple talk, think, watch birds, boats and industrial unrest through binoculars and a small telescope but not a lot of action on stage. They talk, flirt, argue, and work through their own thoughts and concerns while we watch. It is a portrait of the times seen through a the microscope of a small group of people. We are shown the impact of the wider world on their lives through gentle dialogue and delicate interaction- all very English- rather than high drama. In fact the only time that something dramatic does happen to a fourth character on stage it is perhaps the least convincing scene in the play when set against the gentle realism of the rest.

The actors have to be very good to make writing of this kind work. There is no chance for them to grandstand or rely on events to bolster a performance. The only way to make it work is to show real, vulnerable people on stage- to be convincing as a character from the inside- and the cast of this first major revival from Up in Arms and the Orange Tree Theatre Richmond do exactly that. Howard Evans is a very recognisable type, one which I have met often, a likable, well meaning, ageing teacher and Katie Moore and George Evans are a convincing young couple, bickering sometimes but very much in love. There is a lot of warmth to enjoy.

The set is realistic and beautifully made, a small shed, a path and a patch of hillside, and it sat very comfortably in the round at the Stephen Joseph- a perfect backdrop for a tiny slice of life.

I enjoyed my afternoon very much, but theatre is a strange, organic business and on the afternoon I saw German Skerries from the back seats of a small audience it didn’t quite seem to take off. The round at Scarborough is a strange, unforgiving space and there is a sweet spot which makes things work, a kind of chemistry between what is happening on stage and the audience who are clearly visible. When this comes alive in the hands of a company who really know the space it is magic and when it doesn’t it is sometimes nobody’s fault.