Review – An Enemy of the People, Chichester Festival Theatre, 7th May 2016

An Enemy of the PeopleAfter a much needed afternoon nap, Mrs Chrisparkle, Professor and Mrs Plum and I wandered back to the Festival theatre for our evening main event. Of course I had heard of An Enemy of the People, but I had never seen it before. Nor had I read it. I have three volumes of Ibsen from my teenage years and it doesn’t appear in any of them. In fact, I’ve only seen Ibsen three times – each one a Hedda Gabler. That doesn’t say much for the variety of contemporary approach to Ibsen, does it?

William Gaminara and Hugh BonnevilleRather like Barker’s Waste that we saw last Christmas, An Enemy of the People is still enormously relevant to today’s audience even though it was written way back in 1882. In a little Norwegian spa town, whose wealth comes almost exclusively from tourists flocking to take the waters at the town’s baths, local doctor Tomas Stockmann has discovered that the water there is in fact riddled with bacteria and could do terrible damage to anyone in contact with it. The only safe solution is to close the baths down and have the water source safely reconstructed. The Mayor, an arrogant, pompous man who happens to be Dr Stockmann’s brother, and who pours scorn on his attitudes and activities whenever the opportunity arises, demands that the doctor withdraw his report because the cost of repairing the baths would be extortionate. Will the townspeople agree with the doctor that health and safety must come first, or with the Mayor that their taxes should be protected? Aye, there’s the rub. Although it starts Hugh Bonneville and William Gaminarawith issues of how to deal with whistle-blowers, and the rights and wrongs of public funding, the argument moves on to discuss themes of intellectual superiority, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. It’s a very meaty, satisfying play, which really gets you involved, challenging one’s own sense of justice, and making oneself ask the question, what would you do in Stockmann’s shoes? I make no bones about it, I found the play absolutely riveting.

It’s a perfect production for the Festival stage, with Tim Hatley’s gloomy but not austere set creating a very believable, moderately grand house for Dr Stockmann, with an ever-stocked dining room and homely soft furnishings; which transforms superbly to the offices of the local newspaper and even more so to the house after it has undergone some changes at the end. Howard Davies’ direction is clear and pacey, and by the interval I was buzzing with excitement to see how the situation would resolve itself. The remarkable fourth act (being Ibsen it’s a five act play) where Stockmann speaks at a public meeting had me literally open-mouthed in awe. Cast members filled the auditorium, lining up the steps, shouting back to the stage, whilst others sat in seats in front of the audience, themselves watching what was happening on stage. I thought it was astounding. Public meetingI ended up shouting at the stage too, even though Mrs C had to remind me it wasn’t actually a pantomime. I was jealous of people sat at the end of the row, because they were handed copies of the Mayor’s wicked statement and I just wanted to shove it back in their face saying it was rubbish. On reflection, maybe it was just as well I wasn’t sat there. After the high drama of the fourth act, when the final set emerged reflecting the sadness and defeat of Tomas and his household, I actually let out an involuntary cry of sympathy. That’s how much the stagecraft of the whole production took me along with it, making me acutely sensitive to the Stockmanns’ plight. Even before considering the performances, the combination of play and production had me on the edge of my seat. I absolutely loved it.

Hugh BonnevilleFrom a popular culture point of view, they’ve rolled out the big guns in the form of Hugh Bonneville in the part of Dr. Stockmann. Apparently this is Mr Bonneville’s first stage role in twelve years, and no doubt a sizeable number of the audiences will be there to see Lord Grantham in the flesh. (They may recognise another member of the Downton cast as well – under-sub-minor-footman Andy, played by Michael Fox.) I’d certainly never seen Mr B on stage before, and I was most impressed. He’s certainly one of those actors who looks and feels so comfortable on the stage, who is technically so reliable, and whom you look forward to their next entrance. I really enjoyed the way he captured all of the good doctor’s different aspects: the integrity, the family man, the self-appointed hero, the smugness, the misplaced vanity, the devastation. It was all there.

MobHe is matched in snide villainy by William Gaminara playing his brother Peter, the mayor. We saw Mr Gaminara in the extraordinary The Body of an American in Northampton a couple of years ago and he is a very fine actor. His totally credible characterisation of the measly mayor, thin in spirit and generosity, was really striking, and I spent most of the play wanting to throw things at him, he annoyed me so much. There’s a really strong supporting performance from Abigail Cruttenden as Tomas’ wife, wrestling with the opposing desire and obligation to support her husband but also to make him see sense and not cut off the entire family’s security. Adam James plays newspaper editor Hovstad as keen as mustard to screw the mayor once and for all, with Michael Fox as his supporting sidekick vindictively adding his “bloody right”s, only for them to turn cowardly when it comes to the crunch – which was dramatically highly effective. For me the best supporting performance of the night was from Jonathan Cullen – Jon Cullenwhom I remember as a magnificent student actor when we were at Oxford – as the wheedling Aslaksen, who turns coat at the whiff of an extra penny in the tax and becomes a paragon of parsimony. Finally, hats off also to young actors Alfie Scott and Jack Taylor, as Dr Stockmann’s sons Ejlif and Morten, who stayed completely in character throughout, Abigail Cruttendenand whose appalled reactions, from sitting out in the audience and looking back at the stage when their father was being roundly abused by the town, were genuinely agonising to watch.

I appreciate that if I had seen other productions of this play before – McKellen at the National has been brought to my attention – I might not have been quite so blown away by this one. But I hadn’t. And I was. It’s on until 21st May, and I would urge you to see it at once!

Review – Benefactors, Crucible Studio Theatre, Sheffield, 17th March 2012

BenefactorsAn ambitious young architect has a great vision for social housing in some decaying corner of SE15, something that will provide decent accommodation whilst enhancing community spirit. His kindly wife keeps open house for their needy neighbours, whilst doing his admin and looking after the kids. The two guys were obviously at college together and the other chap has gone into journalism, whilst his wife, a sometime nurse, has gone into some form of depression.

Simon WilsonBut all is not as it seems. The friendships and marriages are fragile. Petty jealousies and rivalries come to the fore; and roles and values change. As the reality of dealing with planners, builders, utilities and so on gets progressively harder, the great vision for social housing becomes a little eroded. Compromises are made. Low rises become high rises. High rises become very high rises. Decent community housing becomes a mere tool for getting a job done; and something breaks between the four of them. I won’t tell you more of the plot because it’s an intriguing comedy and as it develops, the characters become more honest and the true nature of their relationships gets revealed.

Andrew WoodallSimon Wilson plays architect David, and his journey from noble visionary to cynic is very credibly done. It’s a solid central role, a character who sometimes can’t see the blindingly obvious, and his internal battles of self-confidence versus growing defeatism are nicely judged. His old friend and later rival Colin is played by Andrew Woodall, whose apparent reverse journey of cynic to visionary is also very well portrayed. His deflated disappointment with a life, a job and a wife none of which he rates particularly highly, all contribute to his being rather a nasty piece of work, and he carries it off well.

Abigail CruttendenHowever, I enjoyed the performances of the two women rather more. David’s wife Jane is played by Abigail Cruttenden, bringing out all the comic nuances of being nice as pie to Colin and his wife Sheila whilst actually finding the open house situation drives her mad, really disliking Colin and being frustrated with Sheila. When Colin manipulates her in the second act to a position of working against her husband, her distaste for what she is doing is both sad and funny, and her enthusiasm for how her role subsequently develops is also very amusingly done.

Rebecca LaceyAt first you think Rebecca Lacey’s Sheila is going to be a mousey mute but her journey of self-development is extremely well portrayed. When the mouse eventually roars it’s a very telling moment. With something of the 1970s Prunella Scales about her, during the course of the play step by step she pieces back together again something of a new life, courtesy of her benefactors. It’s another excellent performance.

The creatively flexible space that is the Crucible Studio is given over to a simple kitchen set, with just a few kitchen implements and bits of crockery and a functional kitchen table big enough to feed the neighbours and to spread out architectural drawings. It’s a straightforward set for a straightforward production that lets the text do the talking, and weaves an entertaining tale of what happens when you are practised at being good to others. It’s a very cleverly constructed play – I liked how it’s Jane who takes the confessional role in the first act and David who assumes that role in the second. But I still feel that the play’s vision is a little cramped – perhaps I was comparing it too much with the broad brush of “Democracy” that we saw earlier that day – and whilst it’s a good play, I don’t think it’s a great play. However, Mrs C enjoyed it somewhat more than I did and feels the characters’ journeys are very provocatively portrayed and that it says a lot about the nature of relationships and idealism versus reality. I’ll leave it up to you to decide who is right!