Reviews of Local Shows
Love’s Labours Rocked, you could call Black Ram Theatre’s Love’s Labours Lost (Diss Corn Hall), a mix of Shakespeare and High School Musical. Whereas the Branagh film used 1930s music, this production features pop songs from the 50s to Lady Gaga. A haunting line like ‘Did not I dance with you in Brabant once?’ falls oddly at the high school prom. You have to remind yourself that the popular blonde over there is the princess of France. But, after the initial raising of eyebrows, it works well. The story of the young men who abjure women for three years of study, until these girls turn up, is timeless. One critic called the play ‘a feast of language’. The delete button accounts for chunks of it, with even the ‘greasy Joan’ epilogue being replaced by a Buddy-like finale. But what remains, like Berowne’s ‘And I, forsooth, in love!’ speech, is acted with relish. The masquerade of Muscovites, even when acted in leather jackets and shades, has something about it. With no programme available I could not identify the actors; but was impressed by their commitment, speaking and singing. I could imagine William Shakespeare doing high fives in his grave.
Mary Russell Mitford’s play Charles I (Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmunds) was suppressed as incendiary in Georgian England. A script about a king’s execution was a touchy subject when the establishment held sway by flogging, publicly hanging and transporting people. The French Revolution was still too fresh in the national memory. Bury Theatre’s Restoring the Repertoire project presented the play as a rehearsed reading. The actors, both professional and local, gave an almost impromptu performance in jeans and shirt sleeves. So we had a glimpse of work in progress, how a production might be after a day’s rehearsal. The play is a sub-Shakespearian melodrama, with an eye-catching part for the queen (Janet Greaves). I am quite sure that she never kissed Cromwell’s boots to beg for mercy. If led blindfold to the theatre and asked to say who the characters were, you would not guess that they were Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. Gary McKay’s Cromwell seemed a thoroughly nice chap, rather than the leader of the Roundhead army. Further rehearsal would, no doubt, have fleshed out the parts. Script In Hand sessions were also planned for John Bull: or An Englishman’s Fireside, by George Colman the Younger; and a double bill of The Factory Lad by John Walker and Reform by William Thomas Moncrief.
The Two of Us (Diss Corn Hall), Michael Frayn’s quartet of two-handers proved another winner for Bury Theatre’s touring policy. As in many of his plays, noises off are significant, while the humour comes from the pains of real life. In Black and Silver, a grizzling infant puts his stamp on the parents’ holiday and night’s sleep. The New Quixote is a morning-after play, with the girl wondering what possessed her to sleep with a nerd who won’t leave. Mr. Foot is like an up-market version of Shirley Valentine, with the wife pouring out her thoughts to a husband engrossed in a book. Gnomes features a dinner party in Ayckbourn land, with aching social embarrassment and off-stage mayhem. Babies, relationships, marriage, socialising – the audience laughed because it was all so recognisable. All the parts are played by just two actors, Alys Torrance and Simon Nock who are completely captivating, under Abigail Anderson’s direction.
One of the best publicised local shows of recent years turned out to be one of the best. Quasimodo (Redgrave Church Heritage Trust), a musical by Steve Humfress and Andrew Rapps, directed by Felicity Humfress, achieved an astonishing standard. The Victor Hugo characters, known more from films than his Notre Dame de Paris novel, lived again in a score at least as good as Les Miserables. Those history book words teeming and turbulent came to mind as medieval France was re-created, down to the authentic gargoyles. Sam Ward gave a still, poignant dignity to the hunchbacked bellringer who made the Elephant Man look handsome. Eva Mason’s Esmeralda, a young enchantress, part-gypsy, part-angel, would win the hearts of any audience in the land. Julia Bunbury, as Paquette, and Gary Stodel, as the monk Frollo, gave impassioned performances. Leslie Dumbell’s jolly G&S judge was a gem. All sang wonderfully well, both principals and chorus. A number called Pay, sung by the Parisian peasants, had an in-your-face, barricade-storming intensity that made the hairs rise. With a splendid orchestra, led by Keith O’Gorman, and a totally committed company, this was one of the great evenings.
In Moscow they drop in to see how the Three Sisters are getting on. English audiences might feel the same about The Rivals, Sheridan’s evergreen 1775 comedy (Theatre Royal, Norwich). Mrs. Malaprop will still be mangling the language. Young ladies flirt and read novels. Soldiers are officers who never do any soldiering. Such a play, with TV stars Peter Bowles (Sir Anthony) and Penelope Keith (Mrs. Malaprop) renewing an old acquaintance, can hardly fail with an older audience. Peter Bowles is to the breeches born but is not just the bluff, charming 18th century squire. He gives a subtle and intelligent reading, without ever coasting. Penelope Keith rolls off her malapropisms with the conviction of someone who knows what she is talking about. 18th century Bath is cleverly suggested by the set, obviously inspired by the well-known Royal Crescent. Peter Hall’s production comes from that city’s Theatre Royal and celebrates its spirit. But would all that public kissing in the final scene have been socially acceptable?
In berets and hooped shirts, lacking only onions, two stage Frenchmen entertain in Meutre, Mystere et Mutilation. A change of hat or wig here, a puppet there, the characters come and go in this travelling production. Alan Huckle’s ‘tragic comedy’ is like an extended Footlights sketch inspired by detective fiction. But Huckle makes you chuckle. This was another project by EyesWrite, the Eye based organisation that encourages new writing. The actors, Peter Sowerbutts and David Blood, of Headless Teddy Productions, were directed by Mark Finbow. Peter Sowerbutts’ career has gone from The Mousetrap and other West End productions, to pantomimes and TV and a spell as director of the Norwich Maddermarket Theatre. David Blood, lately turned pro after many years as an amateur, numbers stage combat among his skills. Between them they gave the audience an evening of light-hearted entertainment, with odd moments of seriousness when Samuel Beckett came to mind.
A young Englishman of mixed race goes back to Nigeria to find his roots in Palm Wine and Stout (Eastern Angles, touring production). Playwright Segun Lee-French has drawn on his own life in telling this story. The young man finds corruption, superstition, dangerous driving, robbery, kidnapping, murder – just like here. But he also experiences the warmth, humour and vitality of the African people. In the main role Joe Jacobs has a starry presence. You enjoy his company and his startling singing voice. Antoinette Marie Tagoe (what wonderful names black people have) reminds you of Eartha Kitt. She has that same primordial face that can be young or old in a moment. She never takes the stage, as a collection of pesky African relatives, without charming you silly. Zachary Momoh, as the half-brother, and Helen Grady as the mother, give their all in those parts and any others they are required to play. Under the direction of Ivan Cutting and Kate Chapman, the four actors create a cross-cultural experience that holds as it entertains.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (EyesWrite/The Keeper’s Daughter, touring production) came in that late flourish of Gothic literature in the 1890s. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Turn of the Screw all date from that period. So does Freud. All have translated to the stage and screen and shown that the Gothic never really goes away. From previous productions you can see that actor/director/adaptor Mark Finbow’s tastes veer in that direction. His adaptation is a none-too-serious version of the novel, with white faces and cackling laughter. But there are moments of intense theatricality, when the power of the original is harnessed. All the actors play Dracula at some point and narrate the hero’s journal, making theatre out of an epistolary text. Mark Finbow is joined by Ben Willmott, Stephan Drury, Alice Mottram and Joanna Davey in an evening of macabre laughter.
Look Back In Anger (SM Productions, Diss Corn Hall) was the 1956 play that made the ironing board a theatrical symbol. Would Jimmy Porter now come over as a nagging husband? Would a post-feminist wife have clocked him one with the iron? 10 or 15 years later, when divorce had become commonplace, she would not have stood and taken such vituperation. The effect of John Osborne’s play on English theatre was out of all proportion to its quality. Jimmy Porter was unlike any previous theatrical hero – volatile, enigmatic, hectoring, unlikeable but curiously attractive – a graduate who runs a sweet stall. Richard Melchior, who also directs, extracts every ounce of those qualities in a high octane performance. Annie Marler is moving as the wife for whom the words long-suffering might have been coined. The playwright may have seen Alison as more of a cut-glass English heroine and thus more of a foil to Jimmy’s spleen. Tom Bailey’s Welsh cuddliness, as Cliff, keeps him at bay. Heidi Svoboda is spot-on as Helena, with the chic of a 1950s actress. In Jimmy and in Alison’s father, Colonel Redfern, the new and old theatre come together. Roger Lee’s speech about his regimental days in India hangs in the air, as something gone. The production brought home both the misogynist and feminine qualities of the play. It is like Holmes and Watson having to live with a woman; but it is as much Alison’s play as Jimmy’s.
It was “one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history.” Thus Arthur Miller described the Salem witch trials, the subject of his play The Crucible (Black Ram Theatre, Diss Corn Hall.) It was a metaphor for McCarthyism and given extra spice by turning the children into pubescent girls. The affair between the then 11 year old Abigail Williams (Clare Harlow) and the middle-aged John Proctor (Jonathan Sidgwick ) was imaginary. Ross McGregor’s production has a feeling of America just a generation after the Pilgrim Fathers landed. We know from saints’ lives that piety in the wilderness can produce phantoms, caused by repressed instincts. Seeing the cast in black and white, both in costume and belief, sets the tone. Film is deployed, with a thundering rock score, and Miller’s explanatory notes used as narration. The hysteria is crackling. When Proctor recites the commandments, forgetting the one he has broken; and when his righteous wife (Venetia Twigg) has to tell a lie, theatre happens.