Review – Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 23rd July 2022

Sing Yer Hearts OutOn a truly high buzz having seen the brilliant Crazy For You that afternoon, our party of roving theatregoers turned their attention towards Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads, on its second preview at the Minerva. Most of us are pretty partial to our football, and it wouldn’t remotely surprise me if we consulted our old diaries we would find that at least some of us were dahn the pub on Saturday 7th October 2000, the precise date on which this play is set.

CelebrateI’d seen two plays by Mr Williams before – one I loved and one I pretty much loathed. I loved Soul, his play about the life (and death) of music legend Marvin Gaye. I loathed Days of Significance, his examination of the lives of young people who have been affected by a tour of military service in Iraq. Basically, I reckon I had a 50:50 chance of enjoying Sing Yer Heart Out or not.

Watching the matchOf course, I must emphasise that this was a Preview performance. By the time it reaches its press night all sorts of changes might have occurred – although I would think that was fairly unlikely, especially given the play was produced at Chichester last year in their garden tent – to excellent reviews, which is no doubt why it has been brought back to enjoy further life at the Minerva. I should also point out that the show had to be stopped for about twenty minutes during the first act, when an audience member fell ill. The staff at the Minerva handled the emergency brilliantly. However, it was perhaps a little more unsettling for me than for most of the rest of the audience as the lady concerned was sitting directly behind me and, whilst she was suffering, chucked the water she was presumably drinking all over me. I was drenched. And while – of course – she was in a much worse state than me, I was left a soggy mess throughout the rest of the first half (I managed to dry out in the interval). So it wasn’t the best of circumstances to enjoy the play. These things happen. I hope the lady is better now.

Alan and LawrieThe play is set in a south London pub as it is being set up to watch the vital England v Germany World Cup qualifier match on television. Regulars arrive to watch it. Excitement and enthusiasm turn to disappointment after Germany score. And then go on to win. Kevin Keegan resigns. The play ends. But it’s not quite as simple as that. There are personal undercurrents between many of the characters who have come to watch the match. Racial and other tensions figure highly. Glen, the landlady’s son, tries to ingratiate himself with a couple of young black guys, Duane and Bad T, who respond by attempting to bully him. Landlady Gina’s also had a relationship with Mark, one of the guys in the pub. Another of the customers is Lee, a police officer who’s recently been assaulted, and his brother, Lawrie, is an outright racist yob. One of the older men, Alan, a devoted follower of Enoch Powell, sinisterly tries to influence the younger men to be the same – or to manipulate and outwit the black guys. When the mother of one of the youths arrives to complain that one of the drinkers has assaulted her son (that’s because they went off to find him because they’d stolen Glen’s jacket, hope you’re keeping up with this), policeman Lee takes “control”. And that’s all in the first act. In the second act, things start getting messy.

Barry and MarkLet’s talk about the good things about this production first. The best thing is the staging. The Minerva has been converted into the George Pub with immaculate attention to detail, and when you walk in, you really do feel that you’re in a well-loved, rather downtrodden local pub. The old-fashioned circular bar at the back. The worn, taped down carpet. The pool and bar football tables. The fact that the front row seats have been replaced by bar chairs, tables, and stools. You couldn’t get more authentic. TV screens show us the match while the pub regulars are watching it. Perhaps best of all, above the bar, the scene occasionally moves to the Gents toilet, which you can see through opaque windows. It’s one of the most lifelike, convincing sets I’ve ever seen; even down to the handpump that decided to stop working during the performance with the result that Sian Reese-Williams playing Gina deftly swapped the beer to a lager from another pump. Designer Joanna Scotcher deserves every award going.

Duane, Glen and Bad TAnd then there are the performances – all of them excellent. For a play that has very few sympathetic characters, it’s hard to say that you “enjoyed” them all; but Richard Riddell as Lawrie is a most convincing thug, constantly teetering on a knife-edge of losing his self-control, and Michael Hodgson plays Alan with huge insidiousness; you can really see how his behaviour could needle the most balanced of people. Mark Springer is excellent as Mark, his calm exterior concealing a torrent of upset inside. Sian Reese-Williams is also very good as landlady Gina, showing all that direct assertiveness required for a woman to run an establishment like that. Alexander Cobb’s strong performance as Lee surprises us with the way his character can turn on a sixpence. But the whole cast come together as a seamless ensemble, creating a combined very believable and physical performance.

At the barBut here’s the But – and I realise I’m pretty much on my own here I really did not like the play. Not because of the bad language, the racism, or the violence; all those elements go to create a challenging play, which is something I relish. However, having set up all this aggression and racism, the play then does so little with them. It just tosses them in the air and says look at this isn’t it awful. It doesn’t make us think differently about the world we live in, it merely wallows in the despair of the worst aspects of human behaviour, offering no solutions, no hope, no light for the future. Some of these characters are violent, or racist, or both. Quelle surprise. Many of our party guessed the final plot twist, as all being sadly predictable. You know that things are going wrong when, rather than concentrating on the play, you end up watching the England v Germany game on the television and following Lawrie and Alan’s pool match – Mr Riddell is a ridiculously talented pool player! The production is visually thrilling, but this static play just left us flat and depressed. A game of two halves, one might say.

Production photos by Helen Murray


Three-sy Does It!

Review – The Duchess of Malfi, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 8th March 2018

The Duchess of Malfi“Webster was much possessed by death and saw the skull beneath the skin” says T. S. Eliot. Wasn’t he just? But maybe not quite as much as Maria Aberg, whose visceral and highly stylised Duchess of Malfi opened last night at the Swan Theatre. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a bloody stage in 52 years of theatregoing. If you sit in the front row you will be issued with regulation grey blankets to cover yourselves when you return from the interval. The lady seated next to me told me that she’d heard that on its first performance, blood spurts reached as far as Row H. Fortunately I can advise that the gore has been sufficiently turned down so that it no longer has such a far-reaching trajectory.

Joan Iyiola and Paul WoodsonThere’s not a lot of plot. The Duchess (young, widowed) has been forbidden to take on a second husband by her villainous brothers The Cardinal (not a Mafia nickname even though we are set in Italy) and her twin Ferdinand, who employs Bosola, a knavish and complicitous gentleman, to spy on her. The Duchess knows her own mind and secretly weds Antonio, her steward, with whom she has three children. When the Cardinal and Ferdinand eventually twig that she has gone against their wishes, they have her murdered. And her children. And her husband is killed. And the spy. And themselves. And anyone else within a hundred kilometres of Malfi.

The Company and Joan IyiolaI jest. If you haven’t seen it before, The Duchess of Malfi is a superbly exciting and suspenseful tragedy in the Jacobean tradition, first performed around 1613, written by John Webster from source material by William Painter (his “Palace of Pleasure” from 1567) and loosely based on the true story of Giovanna d’Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi, who died in 1511. The Duchess is a feisty, independent, free-thinking spirit, a bright spark of warmth attacked by the cold rays of her enemies from all angles. Diamonds are of most value, they say, that have pass’d through most jewellers’ hands, she avers; and like diamonds, the Duchess is one tough cookie. Even when there is no hope of her survival she remains dignified and defiant to the end – I am Duchess of Malfi still is her simple self-proclamation that no one can take away from her. The Cardinal, Ferdinand and Bosola, however, show exactly the opposite traits; controlling, manipulative, double-crossing and, in the case of Ferdinand, ultimately weak-willed. The evil characters are all men; the women are all good.

The company HakaI think that’s why the production so strongly centres on the struggle between masculine cruelty and feminine virtue. There is a chorus of officers, gentlemen and other assorted guys who weave in and out of the production; gym bunnies working out and pumping iron, or a rabble of enemies to the Duchess, or a group of madmen whose only purpose is to distress and derange her. It’s as though they arrive on stage, perform a set piece, and then disperse.

Joan Iyiola and Alexander CobbIt’s very unsubtle; but then again, is it a subtle play? Cuts from the original text have certainly made it less subtle, downgrading the influence of Antonio, and removing insights into the motivation of the characters. For me, the regular appearance of the brutal male chorus doesn’t grow organically from everything else we see on stage; indeed, in a rather excellent put-down, Mrs Chrisparkle thought of them as the RSC Haka, limbering up for the next scene. After all, it isn’t as though the portrayals of the Cardinal, Ferdinand, or Antonio are excessively masculine. But there is a balance between the forces of good and evil in this play, and Maria Aberg’s vision seems to me to address the evil too strongly and not concentrate enough on the good. In its attempts to prove certain theoretical points about the nature of masculine cruelty, the actual truth of the play has got lost in places. Rather than illuminating the text, I felt it obscured it at times.

 Joan Iyiola and the CompanyThere are articles in the programme about how the music was written trying to explore masculine and feminine rhythms, and how Naomi Dawson’s set was created from ideas of masculine environments – a gym, a sports stadium and an abattoir. I’m not trying to be obtuse, but can’t women use these places too? At the time it wasn’t clear to me that the design was in part meant to reflect an abattoir setting, but in retrospect it makes so much sense. My copy of the play has as its opening scene a conversation between Antonio and Delio, explaining that Antonio has been in France, and setting the character up as the common thread that links the whole play. In something of a surprise change, the opening scene in this production shows the Duchess single-handedly dragging an oversized animal carcass across the stage; slowly, laboriously, exhaustedly. It’s then plonked upstage left, until the Duchess next appears, when she trusses up its legs and suspends them in the air from a chain.

Joan Iyiola as the DuchessAnd then, for the rest of the play, no one mentions the carcass. It’s like the elephant in the room – although apparently it’s meant to be a bull, but actually, it looks much more like an oversized rubber chicken. Now we know what caused the KFC shortage. I tried to give it the benefit of the doubt and wondered what it might represent, symbolically. The Duchess’s own private burden, perhaps? Her vulnerability? Now I understand the abattoir setting, I suppose it presages her slaughter (although not her being sliced up and served on dinner tables, that’s much more Titus Andronicus.) After the interval, Ferdinand comes on and sticks his dagger into the carcass’s belly. And it starts to bleed. And it doesn’t stop. Which is where I refer you to my first paragraph, gentle reader.

Paul WoodsonAs the actors squelch around on stage, variously murdering each other, the blood just seeps everywhere. Not just the floor but all over the costumes, on their faces, in their hair; I can only assume that the water pressure throughout Stratford drops after the show comes down as about 20 actors all huddle under the dressing room showers. Ferdinand and the Cardinal writhe on the floor together in an exhibition of what I can only describe as Blood Wrestling. Pity the Wardrobe Department; I hope they have lots of one-pound coins for the laundrette.

Aretha AyehSo gruesome is the final twenty minutes or so that the audience starts to laugh nervously, almost hysterically, at a few choice moments that you wouldn’t think of as funny – I guess that’s just a natural, human release of the tension. One poor man in the front row buried his head in his regulation blanket so firmly and refused to look at the stage for about 45 minutes, until his friend told him it was safe to come out again. Oh, I forgot to mention the first act contains a superb performance by Aretha Ayeh of I Put a Spell on you, written by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – approximately 343 years after the first performance of The Duchess of Malfi.

Richard Hurst Amanda Hadingue Joan Iyiola and Will BrownNevertheless, despite the heavy-handed symbolism, the savage cuts to the text, the anachronistic add-ons and the excessive blood, it’s still a strong and powerful production. There are some striking mental images that will stick with you for ages – whether or not you want them to. Orlando Gough’s incidental music resounds with tension and fear, immaculately played by the five musicians up in the sky, and Francis Gush’s superb counter tenor performance unsettles with its eeriness accompanying the madmen scene. The Duchess’s sophisticated dresses, Antonio’s classic clerical grey, Ferdinand’s lightweight pink suit and white shirt combination and the menacing black terrorist outfits of the mob are all perfect for the roles.

 Alexander Cobb as FerdinandJoan Iyiola is a magnificent Duchess, entertainingly conveying her playful aspect, strong in her dignity, and heart-rending in her tragedy. I also enjoyed Alexander Cobb’s jittery Ferdinand; villainous through and through, but thoroughly convincing as the conspirator who denies ever having had anything to do with the plots, and very discomfiting in his descent into madness. Paul Woodson is a splendidly clean-cut Antonio, his gentle Geordie accent serving to distance himself further from the murkiness of the Calabrian court. Amanda Hadingue gives great support as Cariola, and there is decent villainy from Chris New as the Cardinal. I wasn’t quite so comfortable with Nicolas Tennant’s performance in the multi-faceted role of Bosola; to my ear he garbled quite a few of his lines and I didn’t really get a feel of quite how sinned against or sinning he was, although he does snatch the horoscope from Antonio’s back pocket rather than having Antonio accidentally drop it, as in Webster’s original, which is clearly the act of a bounder.

Alexander CobbIn the final analysis, this production is all about the visuals; Grand Guignol goes Jacobean. A feast for the senses in many respects; but you may find you need spiritual indigestion tablets to get over it. Love it or hate it, you can’t forget it. Worth going just to see how squeamish you are! It’s on in repertory until 3rd August.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – Two Gentlemen of Verona, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, October 6th 2011

Two Gentlemen of VeronaMrs Chrisparkle and I love our Shakespeare. He’s big and strong enough to accommodate all modernisations, and it’s rare that an updated version misses the mark completely. And, for the purists, you can always go back to the Original. I think he’s at his worst when his plays are updated a bit, when the director only goes half-hog and not the whole one. Matthew Dunster and RashDash’s modernised version of Two Gentlemen of Verona is certainly a full-on brightly realised production and I applaud it for that.

The stark boxy set lends itself well to representing the different locations. Silvia’s boudoir, a seedy nightclub, Antonio’s guitar emporium, Julia’s clothes shop and the Milanese Fashion House all entertainingly come to life. The lighting, too, is pretty darn fantastic – strong colours and clearly lit acting spaces, not to mention a vivid strobe sequence. The costumes are excellent – full of glitter and pizzazz in Milan, contrasting nicely with Proteus and Valentine’s Veronese plain H&M look. I also admired the great attention to detail with the props. You could read the words on the many letters that get torn up on stage. You could virtually make out the prices on the clothes tags in Julia’s shop.

All this contributes to its successfully telling the story very clearly. It’s not a play with which either of us are that familiar, yet we had no problem whatsoever keeping up with the Shakespearean plot of Proteus’s descent from decent guy into near-rapist, Julia’s attempts to win him back and the machinations at the Milanese Court. The use of music to further the story is partly successful. In this version, Valentine and Proteus are rock guitarists, which gives a nice twist to how you imagine their back-story to be. Unfortunately, the lyrics to their songs sound a bit distorted and you can’t always make out what they are singing. There was also one song where the guitars were frankly way out of tune and it rather destroyed the scene – I recognised the faintest look of terror in one of the actors’ eyes as he heard the “music” they were making. I liked the idea of doing “Who is Silvia” as a rap song – it was just a pity that Malachi Kirby had his back to the audience whilst he was performing it. Didn’t quite understand why that happened.

Alexander CobbThere are a few really good performances. Top of the list must be Alexander Cobb’s Proteus. Resembling an amicable Michael Gove – if you can imagine that – he has a great way of confiding in the audience with his soliloquies, and his vocal clarity expresses every nuance of his inner turmoil. He’s good with the comic bits too. In the dark scene which nearly culminates in his raping Silvia he was maniacally disturbing. Joe Doyle By contrast I found Joe Doyle’s Valentine to be slightly underplayed, looking the part but he garbled a few lines and I wasn’t entirely convinced by his swift acceptance of Proteus back as a friend at the end. Maybe that’s Shakespeare’s fault. I enjoyed much more Vicki Manderson’s Speed, Valentine’s page, who was delightfully sarcastic, deft in movement and crystal clear vocally.

Vicki MandersonAnother excellent performance comes from Matthew Flynn as the Duke. Oozing sexual ambiguity and a fair degree of malevolence he is exactly how you would imagine a too-rich, too-successful couturier would be. Playing his daughter, Silvia, Helen Goalen is appropriately glamorous, and convincingly infuriated, bewitched and devastated as required by the text at different times.

Matthew Flynn Am I sounding as though I’m holding back from full appreciation of this production? That’s because I am. There are several lengthy scenes with no dialogue – for example the introduction to the busy streets of Verona, and lots of catwalk posing and dealing with the difficult Duke boss in Milan – that go on way too long. What starts as being punchy dwindles into self-indulgence as the minutes tick pass. The presentation of the outlaws as four ladies wearing false beards is straight out of Monty Python – any minute I was expecting a “What have the Romans done for us” or a “bloody Vikings” comment. Helen Goalen It’s completely out of keeping with the gritty realism of rest of the production. I know it was meant to be funny, but when they were jocularly hopping about I found it hard to watch. The second half, as a whole, got a bit boring I’m afraid. I think that, by that time, I needed some “less is more” aspect to the production – this is definitely a “more is more” show. You can have too much of a good thing.

Clemmie SveaasAnd then there is the character of Launce, here played by a woman. Launce must be one of the most tedious Shakespearean clowns, talking interminable rubbish about his dog, simply so he can get some “cur” lines in. It must be a huge task to try to make this character and his/her scenes funny, and full credit to the team for coming up with a new idea. However, replacing the traditional clown with a dippy ladette straight out of Legally Blonde merely replaced one irksome character with another. Clemmie Sveaas absolutely did her best to bring life to those words but I found it all immensely tedious. The scene where she was required to relieve herself in a paper cup I felt was excruciatingly embarrassing. The silent response from the audience at these antics spoke volumes.

If you like your Shakespeare racy, it’s certainly worth seeing. Visually, it’s a feast, plus you’ve also got Alexander Cobb’s telling performance to enjoy. If you can ignore the self-indulgences, it’s a good evening out.