Review – Cymbeline, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 3rd May 2023

CymbelineIn a fortuitous combination of celebrations, not only is this the 50th production directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company by its Artistic Director Emeritus, Gregory Doran, it’s also 400 years since the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio, without which we might not have had several of the great man’s plays, including Cymbeline. Tucked away near the bottom of the list of plays in most collected editions of Shakespeare’s plays, poor old Cymbeline has been overlooked for a century or more. Relatively rarely performed or studied, I managed an entire summer term reading Shakespeare at University and not once did it come into my orbit.

Cymbeline and young PosthumusWhen I was about thirteen, gentle reader, one day I decided I would count the lines in each of Shakespeare’s plays and create a list of how long they all were, to see which was the shortest and which was the longest. What an insufferable little prig I must have been. However, fifty or so years later it remains one of the most useful pieces of research I ever did. Whilst Comedy of Errors heads the list as his shortest play, Cymbeline weighs in at a hefty 3,286 lines, beaten only in the length department by Coriolanus, Troilus and Cressida, Richard III and Hamlet.

Cloten and PisanioI mention this because there is something of an elephant in the room with this production, or rather in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre; it’s a long play. Including an interval and a five minute pause (which doesn’t really feel long enough to achieve the double whammy of the Gents and the Gin and Tonic), the show lasts for the best part of three and a half hours. Surely, it could be cut back a bit? No. Shakespeare has packed this play with so many fascinating characters and so many plot elements, that’s it’s hard to see how you could pare it back at all, without depriving it of a vital part.

Royal householdThe initial set-up of the play is a little complicated. Cymbeline is King of Britain; he is married to the Queen – she seems to be just called Queen. However, previously he was married to another queen, who gave birth to Imogen. Imogen has given her heart to Posthumus Leonatus, an orphan whom the King brought up but has no royal lineage, and so is considered an unsuitable match for Imogen. Meanwhile, the Queen was also married once before, and that marriage bore a son, Cloten, a foolish braggart, who has been earmarked to marry Imogen. The Queen is not to be trusted, by the way; she asks her doctor Cornelius to supply a bottle of poison because she plans to murder both Cymbeline and Imogen, However, Cornelius hands her a bottle of harmless sleeping potion instead because he can see right through her little game. Oh, and Cymbeline also had two other sons, Guiderius and Arviragus, and they were stolen away as babies, apparently by the banished Lord Belarius, but you needn’t worry about them yet. I hope you’re taking notes, there will be questions later.

Iachimo and his gangPosthumus is also banished, to Italy, where he meets a nobleman, Iachimo, who wagers that he could seduce Imogen with ease. Riled, Posthumus accepts the bet, always convinced that Imogen would remain faithful. And so she is, as Iachimo is disappointed to discover. This leads him to some subterfuge, hiding in her bedroom so that he can report back on the artwork on the walls, and, more tellingly, the mole on her left breast, of which he sneaks a peek. Then follows a sequence of events, including Posthumus instructing Pisanio, his servant, to murder Imogen (he doesn’t), and Imogen having to go rogue and disguise herself as a boy, Fidele, who by chance pals up with Belarius and the two boys (remember them?) living rough outside Milford Haven. I’ve been to Milford Haven; this part of the story is entirely believable.

By JupiterI’m going to stop there; but there’s so much more plot to follow. Shakespeare must have had a field day incorporating all his favourite plot twists and characterisations that had proved successful in the past. A girl dressed as a boy, a wicked Queen, a beheaded villain, a chaste woman tested, a sleeping potion that makes people think you’re dead, a banished Lord, even a Deus ex Machina (if you’re going to have one, it might as well be Jupiter, voiced by Patrick Stewart). There are themes of honesty and betrayal, forgiveness and redemption, noblemen foraging in the wild, and foolish fops at court. It shows beautifully how if a common man commits a murder he will die for it, but if a Royal figure does it, that’s ok. There’s a stunning scene – spellbindingly clear and simple – when Posthumus holds Iachimo’s life in the palm of his hand, but rather than choose a path of revenge, responds: “the pow’r that I have on you is to spare you; the malice towards you to forgive you. Live, and deal with others better.” For me, the most telling moment in the entire play. It even asks questions about Britain’s identity; is it part of the Roman Empire or a solo state, refusing to pay the tribute to Rome, because Britain can thumb its nose at Europe? Where have we heard that before? I can just imagine that tribute sum written along the side of a bus.

Final sceneBut what makes this play unique in all of Shakespeare’s works – I think – is the way all these tiny elements and themes become convincingly but hilariously resolved in a riotous final scene that makes your toes curl with pleasure. The play is famously considered uncategorisable. Is it a tragedy? Certainly not in the classical sense. Is it a history? Although the character of Cymbeline is based on Cuneboline, King of Britain from AD 9 to 40, the play owes far more to Holinshed’s Chronicles than any history book. I always think of it as a comedy, but with most of the laughs kept back for that final scene.

Imogen in bedThe Royal Shakespeare Company has developed something of a reputation for pushing the boundaries as far as experimental productions of Shakespeare’s Classics is concerned. Setting them in different times; gender-swapping on major roles; using the powers of the audience’s imagination rather than simply conveying plot and character as they were written. As always, this sometimes works brilliantly, and sometimes fails; experimental ideas can go wrong, and you’ll never know unless you try them. But Gregory Doran’s production is – for the most part – tradition and simplicity itself, unadulterated by unnecessary directorial distractions or clever-clever interpretations. And it feels as fresh as a daisy and as clear as daylight as a result. No need for any stage furniture, other than Imogen’s bed and the chest in which Iachimo hides; no need for a complicated sound plot, other than Ben McQuigg’s band’s simple musical accompaniments and a little rainfall. Matt Daw’s lighting design is effective without being intrusive; there is some occasional use of puppetry which works extremely well.

Cloten and his lordsThe performances are first-rate throughout; some are outstanding. Peter de Jersey makes for a gruff and blustering Cymbeline, physically imposing if with some weakness of health (which becomes clear in that all important final scene), quick to ire but essentially generous of spirit. There’s an element of the pantomime villain in Alexandra Gilbreath’s Queen, but none the worse for that, as she shares her devious plans quite openly with us. Amber James is superb as Imogen; stoic, gracious, and full of pluck. Conor Glean’s Cloten is thuggishly foppish, bombastically arrogant; an excellent portrayal of someone who is all façade and no substance.

Imogen and her two new brothersThe always reliable Mark Hadfield puts in a tremendous performance as Pisanio; the character’s thoughts and feelings being conveyed not only by Mr H’s superbly clear delivery but he also has that enviable ability to express a whole range of emotions with the simplest of facial gestures. Jamie Wilkes chillingly captures all Iachimo’s Lothario-like wretchedness, including how deflated he is when the truth comes out – like all bullies, he is pathetic. There are a couple of terrific double acts, in Scott Gutteridge and Daf Thomas’ Guiderius and Arviragus, and Barnaby Tobias and Tom Chapman as the two lords who attend on Cloten. Jake Mann makes the most of Cornelius’ two scene-stealing appearances, and Theo Ogundipe’s incredible enunciation invests the character of Caius Lucius with huge authority. Perhaps best of all, Ed Sayer’s Posthumus Posthumuscommands the stage with every appearance; lowly-born though his character may be, he truly makes you understand what nobility really means.

The Press Night audience gave it a rapturous reception – quite rightly so. Gregory Doran leaves the RSC with a magnificent legacy of work, and Cymbeline is right up there with the best. It’s on at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 27th May, and if you’ve never seen this hidden gem of a Shakespeare play before, I couldn’t recommend it more strongly.

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Wuthering Heights, Inspector Sands, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th April 2023

Wuthering HeightsIt’s traditional when I review a show based on a famous book that I have to confess that I haven’t read it. Well, gentle reader, it will come as no surprise that I’ve never read Wuthering Heights – which is a disgrace for someone with an English degree – nor have I seen any adaptation; neither film, nor TV, not even the Northern Ballet’s dance version. My only familiarity with the book was leafing through the Wikipedia entry to get the gist of it, deciding it was quite complicated, and leaving it there.

Lua Bairstow Leander DeenyYou, on the other hand, will be fully aware of the complexities of Emily Bronte’s landmark 1847 novel of three generations of Yorkshire folk out on the wily windy moors and their faithful old retainer, Nelly Dean. Inspector Sands, in co-production with China Plate, the Royal and Derngate and the Oxford Playhouse, have taken the main substance of the story, modifying the language a little, whilst retaining its early Victorian character. Johanna Mårtensson’s costumes are authentic 1700s, as are the cast’s Yorkshire accents, and I suppose Ben Lewis’s sweary text is in keeping with the desperate life experiences of the characters – although personally I felt the four letter words jarred and were unnecessary. Let’s face it, there’s more to modernising a script than just adding in a few f***s.

Ike Bennett Nicole SawyerrNevertheless, there’s a lot of good in this production. Primarily, it’s the plot; it captures the audience’s imagination and keeps you fully engaged through the best part of three hours. Lucinka Eisler’s direction puts the story-telling to the forefront, and the saga of the Earnshaws and the Lintons, together with the outsider Heathcliff, is presented with great clarity and power. An ensemble of six actors portray eleven characters, each of whom are extremely well drawn and identified; the actors deftly switching from one to another with just a quick costume change or a new vocal tic. The characterisations are both thoroughly entertaining and extremely convincing; Edgar’s whiny weediness, Hindley’s crass bullying, and Cathy’s teenage hot-headedness, for example, are all superbly conveyed.

Lua-Bairstow-Ike-Bennett-and-Giulia-InnocentNot only does the production tell the story well, it also creates an excellent atmosphere of brooding, of fear, and of the supernatural. Ben Ormerod’s lighting design, and in particular Elena Peña and Dan Balfour’s sound design constantly bombard us with unsettling intrusions. We all recognise how disconcerting the strange noises that a house can make all by itself at night in the dark can be; this production illustrates this beautifully. Some of the noises you can explain, others you can’t. If I were a resident of Wuthering Heights, there’s no doubt I’d be a nervous wreck after a few hours.

Giulia-Innocenti-and-John-AskewThere are some superb directorial moments that stick in the mind, for example the brilliant way that the physical violence dished out by Hindley and Heathcliff is frequently implied rather than real, using sound and distance to achieve the same effect. There’s some fantastic knifeography when blades are being chucked around the stage willy-nilly. I loved the simple device of passing the greatcoat from one character to another to denote who has the power in the household at any one time – a very effective visual signal. There are some moments of musical anachronism, which is something that normally irritates me, but here they strangely work as a subtly ironic nod of the head between the production and the audience. Playing out to an easy listening version of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights is a nice reminder of the wide influence the original book has had on so many other creative works.

Ike-Bennett-and-Lua-BairstowSo, what is achieved by telling the story in this more experimental, stylised manner, and with a semi-modernised text, that couldn’t have been achieved by giving us a straightforward, more classic presentation? By far the most powerful and memorable aspect to the production is Emily Bronte’s story itself, her characters and their dilemmas, the injustices they face and the sadnesses they endure. These elements should be present no matter how the story is presented. Sometimes an experimental production simply puts your back up and you resent it from the start. However, that’s not the case here. This is an engaging production; experimental perhaps, but it’s an experiment the audience is willing to risk, curious to see if it ultimately succeeds. We suspend our expectations and allow ourselves to be carried along in its direction of travel; and that eventual outcome is one – pretty much – of all-round satisfaction.

Giulia-InnocentiCertainly much of the strength of the production comes from the excellent ensemble who work together seamlessly. In particular, Giulia Innocenti’s Nelly is the lynchpin of the cast, hardly ever off stage, acting as both narrator and chorus, the still point in the turning world, as Eliot would have it. Likeable, fallible, wholly unsentimental, it’s a fantastic performance. I also really enjoyed Leander Deeny’s characterisations, especially as the gruff old Earnshaw and the milksop Edgar; and Nicole Sawyerr is terrific as the prissy Isabella, spoilt Frances, and belligerent Cathy.

Lua-Bairstow-and-Ike-BennettAn experimental presentation, but – with a slight cavil regarding the swear words – it’s an experiment that works; and it does full justice to Bronte’s novel and gripping story. The production enjoys one more week at the Royal and Derngate, before embarking on a tour to the Oxford Playhouse, Warwick Arts Centre, Rose Theatre Kingston and Northern Stage, Newcastle.

Production photos by Alex Brenner

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – The Commitments, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th April 2023

The CommitmentsHere’s another of those shows were you can sit your grandchild on your knee and say, you know little one, I can remember all the way back to the day when I first booked to see The Commitments, as they gaze open eyed at you in wonder. 2019, I think it was, when this touring production of the musical inspired by Roddy Doyle’s novel (and of course the film of the same name) first raised its head above the parapet. Since then, a lot of water’s gone under that old bridge, as Brenda Lee might say. But finally it arrives in Northampton to considerable excitement and anticipation.

RehearsalMy usual confession: I’ve neither seen the film nor read the book, so I came to the show fairly ignorant as to what I might expect. In a nutshell, not a lot happens. Jimmy decides to create a band; they rehearse, do a few gigs, fight among themselves and then split up. There’s not really a lot more to tell, plot-wise. But I know the film – at least – has a big place in many people’s hearts and memories, so there’s got to be more to the appeal than its story. And there is – it’s the music.

Hells HoleApparently, you can’t refer to The Commitments as a jukebox musical, because the music is diegetic. In other words, the characters know the music is being played and performed as part of their real life experience. In most musicals, the characters don’t know they’re singing – it’s just what the genre imposes on them. But in The Commitments, all the songs are sung and performed knowingly, deliberately. If the show had a searing, intense storyline, the diegetic music would probably slow it down and make it very stop-starty. However, with little plot, it doesn’t matter. And certainly, the show crams in loads of soul classics from the 60s and 70s, and who doesn’t love a reminder of that?

Checking out albumsThere is a downside, though, even to the music; the first act largely sees the band being created and going through its early rehearsals before Jimmy decides they’re good enough to play in public. As a result, a lot of the music performance in the first half has a genuine sense of rehearsal – which is fully in keeping with the story. But it nevertheless still feels like a rehearsal to the audience, lacking polish and accuracy, all a bit haphazard. This doesn’t help the feelgood factor of the show to get going until the second half, when the music is all played at true performance standard. For me, only one musical number in the Deco and the girlsfirst act stood out – What Becomes of the Brokenhearted. Once we’re in the second half it’s a very different matter, and the performance (and subtext) of, for example, Thin Line Between Love and Hate works incredibly well, giving you goosebumps. The main substance of the show ends abruptly, to lead into a twenty minute concert-style ending with everyone on their feet. There are a couple of showstoppers here, but it also ends with Try a Little Tenderness, which I thought gave it a surprisingly downbeat finale.

DrinkersThe Commitments group themselves are a disparate bunch of characters, with Jimmy as a kind of central Everyman figure who does his best to unite them all together. His two mates are Outspan – who seems reasonably normal – and Derek, who’s sex mad but with little experience of it. The audition scene is nicely staged as they witness a long line of no-hopers coming to their door, none of whom is suitable. So Jimmy tracks down the other members, to include an egghead research student, James, an older Bible basher (who nevertheless loves the ladies) Joey, and the jazz-leaning Dean. He brings in three young women, Imelda, Natalie and Bernie, to act as backing singers, much to Derek’s delight. He also recruits Mickah, a skinhead bouncer who causes much more trouble than he prevents.

DecoInto this mix Jimmy invites the central character of Deco. The lead singer of the group, Deco is a troubled soul. He’s disrespectful, aggressive, arrogant, and a general nuisance. He turns up late, barges onto the stage, grabs the microphone from whoever is covering for him and makes it all about him. He causes frictions between the group members. They put up with him because of his amazing voice, but if he was in your gang, he’d be the one you’d seek to avoid because, in common parlance, he’s just a complete prick. A time bomb waiting to go off, the characterisation of Deco is very convincingly portrayed. So it then becomes very difficult for the audience to see him as the hero, which is what the concert aspect of the show requires us to do. If it is designed to be an alienation technique it works very effectively. But I don’t sense that it is.

Da's houseTim Blazdell’s set is both functional and atmospheric; it creates spacious bar/performing areas, it suggests the drab balcony walkways of council flats, and it implies the cramped living conditions of the house that Jimmy shares with his Da. Jason Taylor’s lighting design is effective, if unsubtle; and Adam Smith’s backstage band chucks out the tunes with brashness and energy. Sadly, Roddy Doyle’s book is underwhelming; and the prime cause of what I particularly felt in the first act, and what is the unforgivable crime of the theatre – it got rather boring.

BillyThere were also a couple of moments that completely jarred with me. There’s no reason for Deco’s  gratuitous underpants revelation, that just encouraged some members of the audience to whoop with lustful fervour. And I wasn’t enamoured with Jimmy’s introduction to the concert section when, having established if there were any Irish people in, he welcomed them warmly, but then to any English people in he just thanked them for their money. Yes, I know it’s meant to be funny. I didn’t think it was.

MickahFortunately the evening is livened up by some excellent performances. Despite the above, James Killeen is terrific as Jimmy; a long-suffering visionary who wants the band to reflect his own politics. Michael Mahony and Guy Freeman create a good partnership as Outspan and Derek, with a nice sense of goofy fun. Ryan Kelly is very good as the defensive and slightly belligerent drummer Billy – excellent live drum playing – and, understudying the role of Joey, Ed Thorpe brought a convincing element of older religious hypocrisy. Ciara Mackey, Eve Kitchingman and Sarah Gardiner bring terrific vocals and a general touch of class to the proceedings. And Nigel Pivaro is great fun as Jimmy’s Da, shouting either encouragement for his son’s managerial style or to turn that racket down when he’s trying to watch TV.

PerformanceBut the plaudits certainly deserve to go to Ian McIntosh for his performance as Deco. A superb stage presence, and a terrific voice; an unsettling sense of unpredictable menace when Deco’s on the warpath, mixed with a cheeky grin when he’s out of character. Musically it’s a very strong show, but it’s light on story and slow to develop. An odd mix – but the majority of the Press Night Patrons seemed to have a good time!

Production Photos by Ellie Kurttz

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – Quality Street, Northern Broadsides, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th April 2023

Quality StreetIt’s a welcome return to the Royal and Derngate to director Laurie Sansom, who provided us with some memorable productions when he was Artistic Director a few years back. His innovative Private Fears in Public Places as part of the Ayckbourn at 70 season, with the audience seated on the stage; his exciting Young America season with rarely performed plays by the young Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill; his breathtaking Duchess of Malfi, his beautifully understated Eden End, his intense Blood Wedding, the gripping Bacchae his superbly lucid Hedda Gabler, and his Royal and Derngate swansong, One for the Road. He returned with the triumphant James Plays in 2016, and I was also lucky enough to see his Kiss of the Spider Woman at the Menier in 2018. I am, unashamedly, a fan.

Brown and PhoebeWe also saw his lighter side in the hilarious Alice in Wonderland, and it’s that ability to create a light-hearted ensemble that once again comes to the fore in this current touring production of Northern Broadsides’ (of whom he is the Artistic Director) Quality Street, yet another of these shows that was suspended a few years back because of the dreaded Covid. Co-produced by the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle Under Lyme, and written by J M Barrie in 1901, it’s set roughly a hundred years earlier at the start of the Napoleonic era. In what you could describe as an early rom-com, a young woman, Phoebe, believes she may have won the heart of a dashing soldier, Valentine Brown. But when she realises she is mistaken – and out of money – she sets up a school with her older sister Susan, that drags both of them down with tiredness and the resulting lack of gaiety – no balls to attend. Ten years later Brown returns from the wars, and in attempt to show him that she still has that certain something, Phoebe pretends to be a fictitious younger niece, Livvy, to win his attention. But it doesn’t go entirely to plan…

FeedbackAs a Laurie Sansom show, though, it has to have something of a twist. It was the original success of the play that provided the name for the famous brand of chocolates that we still all love to gorge on today. Quality Streets are manufactured in Halifax, which also happens to be the home base of Northern Broadsides. So they invited five workers from the factory to attend rehearsals, get their feedback on the play and the production, and also to get their recollections of decades of faithful service to Mackintosh’s Chocolates. So insightful and entertaining were their comments that they decided to incorporate them into the production itself. Thus, not only does this production of Quality Street feature Phoebe, Susan, Brown and the rest of Barrie’s characters, but also Mac’s Lasses Jo, Sandra, Brenda, Barbara and Lotte from Halifax! Of course, they’re not the real people, but played by doubling up members of the cast.

Patty and PhoebeThe jury’s out as to the extent that this device is successful. On the one hand, their contributions are indeed frequently very funny and revealing, and they’re clearly lovely people. They serve the production as part Greek Chorus part Gogglebox, also appearing as the stagehands changing the set between the Acts, and they provide the bookends for the show, both as an introduction and a post-play wind down. And they help to juxtapose the three eras – the early 1800s when it was set, 1901 when it was written, and today – and put the content of the play into some form of modern context.

SusanNo doubt that they add a je ne sais quoi to what is otherwise a charming but relatively insignificant play. However, on the other hand, it does feel to me rather artificial and contrived. After all, the only association between these people and the play are the two words Quality and Street; it’s not even as though the chocolates were the inspiration for the play. You might just as well ask the staff at Interflora for their opinion of a box of Cadbury’s Roses. The more cynical might say they are used as padding; I couldn’t possibly comment.

Ensemble DanceMuch is made in the piece of the attractiveness of the blue and white room which the Misses Throssel inhabit, but Jessica Worrall’s set keeps this to the minimum, concentrating more on blank space and gates, perhaps suggesting a kind of imprisonment, away from the glamour of the ball or the clamour of a war. However, I delighted in the appreciation that the ball dresses, in all their colourful satin glory, reflected the different colours of the wrappings in a Quality Street box – nice touch. The play itself builds slowly but sensibly, eventually descending (or do I mean ascending?) into farce but of the most genteel kind – nothing Brian Rix-like nor even Feydeau here. Barrie was writing at the end of the Victorian era and it’s curious to see a farce that never remotely touches on the subject of sex. The biggest laugh of the evening comes from the “removal” of Miss Livvy from the stage; a classic piece of comic business superbly delivered in all its – literally – fantastic glory.

Brown and PattyThe performances are all first-rate. Paula Lane takes the central role of Phoebe/Livvy and throws herself into it wholeheartedly; she has a striking stage presence and uses her strong clear voice to terrific advantage. Louisa-May Parker is excellent as the spinsterish Susan, always putting herself second but also brooking no nonsense. Aron Julius makes a superb Valentine Brown, bestriding the stage heroically, fully wrapped up in himself with an underplayed arrogance that gradually falls away with his own self-understanding.

Fanny, Mary and SusanGilly Tompkins steals many a scene as the domineering maid Patty, and also the endearingly gossipy Barbara; and I really enjoyed the performance of Alicia McKenzie as nosy neighbour Mary Willoughby, with her upright puritanical behaviour. Alice Imelda is amusingly bossy as Charlotte, and there’s excellent support from Jelani D’Aguilar as the equally nosy Fanny, Alex Moran as the feeble Ensign Blades and Jamie Smelt as the ghastly wannabe suitor to Miss Livvy.

PattyIt’s gently entertaining and wry rather than slap-your-thighs hilarious, but it’s a rare opportunity to see an out of fashion play that was once the talk of the town. Bringing in the Mac’s Lasses is a fascinating experiment, and there’s plenty to enjoy, especially after the interval. After it leaves Northampton the tour continues to Richmond, Bolton, Leeds, York, Sheffield, Hull, Scarborough, Guildford, Keswick, Blackpool and Halifax.

Production photos by Andrew Billington

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Tom Houghton, Absolute Shambles, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 1st April 2023

Absolute ShamblesI remember when Tez Ilyas came to Northampton for a gig and within the first five minutes he’d mistaken the town for Peterborough (not a good move) and said that we didn’t have any cricket clubs here (an even worse move). Fortunately we were a kindly bunch and forgave him, but only after we insisted on a grovelling apology.

Tom Houghton started his show last Saturday in a similarly winning fashion. Good evening Nottingham! he yelled from off stage, which was met with the appropriate level of jeering. I think it was a genuine error. If he starts all his gigs with mislocating himself for comic effect it could be a very risky business. Fortunately Northampton and Nottingham are not known for any local rivalries – primarily because they’re not remotely local to each other.

Tom HoughtonPerhaps Absolute Shambles isn’t a bad name for the show, because he also proceeded to tell us that normally he would have a support act on first to warm us all up – but, basically, he forgot to book one. Thus his support act was – Tom Houghton! No problem, of course, because The Honourable Tom has got more material than you cram into a wardrobe, so he started off by looking for posh people in the audience. Nobody confessed; but in the interval there were conversations about how I wasn’t going to mention I went to private school and nor was I, too perilous an admission to make.

Tom saw through us though, and worked out who the posh people were – including the four sixteen-year-old girls in the third row who came in for a lot of gentle jibing. Tom’s big thing is his posh background, having only recently moved out of the family home in The Tower of London. But lockdown affected both the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate, and we got a little insight into the fact that his mental health suffered during those dark days of 2020. Other nuggets that he shared with us included a surprisingly lucrative sideline in selling pictures of his feet to foot fetishists, and his experience as being part of the reality TV programme The Circle.

Tom HoughtonHe has a warm and likeable persona which endears him to the audience, so even when he’s being very cheeky with us – and occasionally rather insulting! – we still lap it up. The show runs at a good pace and, even if it occasionally feels slightly aimless and wandering, there’s always lots to enjoy and plenty of belly laughs to be had. And there’s no doubt, he is an extremely safe pair of hands, and the total master of the art of the callback. The show was sold out, but Mr H is returning to Nottingham, I mean Northampton, to do it all again on 30th June – this time in the Royal Theatre. Recommended!

Review – Warning, Flash Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA Acting Students, Northampton Playhouse, 31st March 2023

WarningThis is how Warning is described online: “When is enough, enough? A naturalistic piece following a journey of survival. Showcasing themes of illness, euphoria and death, the audience don’t find out what the threat is until the end. This piece focuses on substance abuse and is rated R, audiences are encouraged to take discretion and prioritise their own well-being.”

Elly and Toby have a loving, if occasionally bickering, relationship. When Elly gets frustrated at Toby’s addiction to watching the news, she searches online for the truth behind some of the news stories – but when she finds out something sensational, her phone dies – and then all her history is lost. This happens again and again. The next time it happens, the phone gets red hot and gives them a shock. Convinced that the government are after them and confined to the one room, their siege mentality steadily grows until one day Toby is no longer to be found. Elly is devastated; and it’s only then that we find out the truth.

This is a curious piece in many ways. As an idea for a story, it’s very inventive and extremely cleverly structured. It has a real twist in its tail and I for one had no idea how it would resolve itself – and it’s a perfect resolution that ties up all the odd threads that emerge over the hour. However, I must say that most of the conversations between the two characters, though well written in themselves and very well performed, felt aimless and unengaging, to the extent that quite a lot of the play was sadly rather boring to watch. It felt very introverted and lacked that magic sense of “drama”. It would probably work much better as, say, a short story.

George Pavey is excellent as the occasionally grumpy Toby, but I thought Jess Eddy was superb as Elly. Word perfect throughout, and bringing loads of emotion to the character, she always delivered her lines with clarity and conviction. Performing a long scene, virtually by herself, whilst lying supine on the sofa, must have been a very difficult task vocally but she absolutely nailed it. Two superb performances – I just wished the play had been more stimulating.

Review – Silenced, Lavender Productions, Flash Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA Acting Students, Northampton Playhouse, 31st March 2023

SilencedThis is how Silenced is described online: “Four friends play a game with a Ouija board that takes a turn for the worse when the spirit they summon fights back.”

Blake OliverWhat happened to Emma? Ava, Noah, Isabelle and Robin decide to hold a séance with a Ouija board to see if they can summon up her presence. Isabelle thinks it’s going to be hilarious, Ava is terrified and wants no part in it, whilst Noah and Robin turn up for the banter and the munchies. At first it’s all light-hearted, with Isabelle probably pushing the planchette that picks out the letters on the board. But then there are noises… Erin Hamiltonand lights flicker… and suddenly it’s not so light-hearted anymore.

There’s no doubt that this is a spooky production, with definite scary moments! All four of the characters become zombified at times, as the spirit of Emma takes over their bodies. Shannon LambertThe changes of facial expression and voice for when each person was affected worked very well, and there was quite a lot of stage violence/combat which was for the most part extremely effective. In particular, Blake Oliver as Noah was an especially scary zombie as he hurled the other characters around the stage with effortless ease. Erin Hamilton was very convincing as the reticent Ava, Will Merryleesand Shannon Lambert was excellent as the bossy Isabelle. Will Merrylees played the oafish Robin as a fine specimen of toxic masculinity.

Given that it’s not a long play, I found it a little repetitive as each character goes through the Emma-cycle, without much being added to our understanding of the situation with each one. I also thought that some of the banter between the two guys was a bit more in-your-face than I expected – even though it was perfectly realistic. Additionally, congratulations to all the cast for carrying on regardless in the face (or rather the sound!) of an unexpected fire alarm; they didn’t flinch an inch. And I really enjoyed the “possessed” curtain call!

Review – The Little Princess, Out of the Box Theatre, Flash Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA Acting Students, Northampton Playhouse, 31st March 2023

The Little PrincessThis is how The Little Princess is described online: “The story begins with a planet. A planet so small you need two telescopes to see. It is the story of an Astronaut, a Princess, and a Sunflower. The story of a world in peril, of problems unsolvable. Of cowardice and cynicism, and of courage and compassion. Of talking and of listening.”

A bedtime story comes to life as four youngsters are told the tale of an Astronaut who lands on a distant planet, where he meets the Little Princess. But she is worried, because the Sunflower, that bestows all the light and heat on the planet is clearly suffering – and she wants to know why and how the Sunflower can be made better again. As they travel around all the poles of the little planet, they meet the Minister, the Chairman and the Scientist; but will the Little Princess and the Astronaut find the solution to the Sunflower’s problems?

Hannes KnischewskiA thoroughly relevant story that highlights ecological issues such as limited resources, blame-shifting politicians, unregulated industry and ignored experts, all told through the rather charming device of a children’s story, presented with endearing naivete and an excellent sense of humour. I really appreciated how the Minister’s response when he was cornered about his hypocrisy and inactivity was to blame the foreigner – where have we heard that before?! The five characters were all very believable, even though they were deliberately presented as over-the-top stereotypes, all of which added to the jollity of the piece.

Alan JagielloConnor Dadge has great stage presence and was excellent as the bullish Minister, eager for photo opportunities, and even more eager to take no responsibility for anything. Hannes Knischewski’s scientist was appropriately mad and gabbling, and reminded me fondly of the days of Magnus Pyke (Google him if you don’t know!) Sophia Foster brought a wide-eyed innocence and simplicity to the role of the Little Princess, Saim Shafique gave a good performance as the Astronaut – I loved his watered down expletives, very funny – and Alan Jagiello was very convincing as the business-fixated manufacturer of everything.

Funny, lively, and very amusingly staged, this was an excellent way of conveying a serious problem through humour. Great work!

Review – The Mayflower, Clock In Theatre, Flash Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA Acting Students, Northampton Playhouse, 31st March 2023

The MayflowerThis is how The Mayflower is described online: “Our story follows the lives of two young people during the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Set in The Mayflower, a local karaoke pub, we follow our two protagonists though the highs and lows of adapting to adult life and the ever growing pressure of a looming epidemic.”

Kira GarnerMaggie has lost her parents, and all she has now in the world is the family pub, The Mayflower, which she continues to run as an LGBT venue. One day a first year student, Adam, plucks up the courage to go in but he’s really uncomfortable. Maggie convinces him this is a safe space, and over the months he grows in confidence and self-awareness, and the two have a great friendship. But Maggie is concerned about the stories of this unexplained virus that’s been affecting people in America; she specifically wants Adam to stay safe. But Adam thinks it’s all a load of nonsense. The pub is losing money, and Adam is drifting apart from Maggie because of her constant worrying. Will there be a happy future for all three of them?

Charlie FranklinA strong story, superbly told, with two likeable actors playing two highly credible characters. Kira Garner is excellent as Maggie, capturing all her “mother hen” aspects, and the slow rising fear that AIDS might come to Britain. Charlie Franklin plays Adam with a wonderful feel for both the humour and the pathos of the character. They work together extremely well, with word-perfect heated exchanges, and some nicely re-enacted shared karaoke moments. I really appreciated that the choice of music was fully in keeping with the implied era of the show – nothing later than 1985!

It’s a witty, sensitive and emotional piece of writing that completely holds the audience’s attention. You smile and laugh with the characters, but are also fearful for their future. The highly emotional ending was extremely well portrayed. Definitely one of the best Flash Fringe shows this year!

Review – Bound by History, The Yesteryear Assembly, Flash Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA Acting Students, Northampton Playhouse, 30th March 2023

Bound by HistoryThis is how Bound by History is described online: “After several years apart, a group of friends reunite and travel to Bulgaria to complete their Professor’s historical research when his health suddenly declines.”

Meg MayersOld friendships and rivalries are renewed as four ex-students of archaeology, devoted to their Professor, who is now in a dementia home, agree to travel back to Bulgaria to find a hidden artefact in a dig before homes are built over the site. But there’s no guarantee that the artefact is there. If they find it, their names will go down in archaeological history. If they don’t, a lot of time, energy and money will have been wasted. Ellis ReynoldsThe four were obviously thick as thieves back in the day, but a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. Can they keep their rivalry and personal issues at bay long enough to find the treasure?

This is an extremely well imagined story, in that it takes the fairly standard situation of a reunion of old friends and workmates to see if they still get on, but transports them into the highly original setting of an archaeological dig in Bulgaria. With jobs, businesses, and parental responsibilities to contend with, Katie Blundellit’s unsurprising that they get tetchy at times and have to juggle their lives, sometimes at the expense of the others. But it’s a good examination of a group of people working together at close quarters in a controlled environment. Luis DiasSadly, though, the play did feel a little long, and I thought that many of the conversations lacked depth and drama.

That said, from the acting perspective, I thought this was the best intertwined ensemble performance of all the Flash Fringe shows I’ve seen so far. The four actors – Meg Mayers, Ellis Reynolds, Luis Dias and Katie Blundell – dovetail together beautifully and perform with great trust and understanding of the others. In particular, I thought Mr Dias and Ms Blundell gave first class performances, with superb clarity of diction, stage presence and perfectly placed confidence. That stage punch that Mr Dias dealt out to Mr Reynolds was a stunner!