Review – The Country Wife, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 9th June 2018

The Country WifeWilliam Wycherley’s The Country Wife was first performed in 1675, slap bang in the middle of the period when all the theatregoing public wanted was sex – the bawdier, the better. They’d had enough of those puritans, spreading misery and restraint; what they wanted was a damn good laugh, and it had better be a filthy one too.

Lex Shrapnel as HornerIt’s a rather neatly structured and tidy example of the Restoration Comedy genre; cuckolded husbands, rampant fornicators, foppish twerps, licentious servants, as well as a story of true love and an interesting contrast between the ways of the town and those of the country – including the pun in the title, which I’m sure you’ve grasped.

Belinda Lang as Lady FidgetWe first meet the roguish Horner in conversation with his quack, who has let it be known that Horner has been diagnosed as impotent as any eunuch in the orient – so much for patient confidentiality. Horner’s plan is that this will make him irresistible to women because they will either feel safe in his company, or they will want to try to put him to the test. Either way, he wins. His first sortie is to convince Sir Jasper Fidget to get access to Lady Fidget, her sister Dainty, and their constant companion Mistress Squeamish. Easy. As an additional bonus, he gets to cuckold the men of the town in a warped, power-mad desire for dominance; the cuckold dance at the end of the play signifies the complete fruition of all his effort. He has a retinue of mates who love the sound of all that extra-marital hoo-ha, including the foppish Sparkish, who is to marry Alithea, the sister of Margery. She is herself newly married to the wretched Pinchwife, who hides her by locking her in her bedroom so that scurrilous menaces like Horner can’t winkle her out and have their wicked way with her. Does Horner indulge in a little Ladies and Gentlemen with every woman in the town? Does Pinchwife successfully preserve Margery’s virtue? Does Sparkish get to marry Alithea? As the play’s been around almost 350 years now, I’m sure you already know the answer.

John Hodgkinson as PinchwifeThis very modern version of the play – drinks trolleys, pizza boxes, neon-signed nightclubs, Ann Summers shopping bags – puts less emphasis on the fun aspect that the original 1675 audience would have relished, and more on the sordid nature of Horner’s life and game-playing, and its wider effects on those about him. We have no sympathy for Horner; we don’t identify with him and aren’t jealous that he gets all the girls. He’s a loathsome wretch, waking up on the sofa in a post-alcoholic stupor; adding more notches on his bedpost simply because he can, and because there’s nothing much else for him to do that he’d be good at. The final scene shows him back on his sofa, still knocking back the remnants of last night’s booze. He has progressed not an inch. Pinchwife’s just as bad, threatening his wife with violence, locking her away like a caged bird; and at the end of the play it’s Margery who is visibly broken by the entire experience, the true victim of all that has gone before. So, whilst it’s a lively and enjoyable production, you’re never far from having something of a dirty taste at the back of your throat.

The CompanySoutra Gilmour has designed a dark and functional set, very bachelor pad in its creature comforts; the reversable back wall has three doors, useful for highlighting the Feydeau Farce aspect of the play, and a Restoration Comedy word cloud is projected onto the back wall from time to time, just in case you forget the naughtiness of the era. There’s a lot of zaniness going on at each scene change, with chairs, beds, and what-have-yous all being swirled around in circles on their way on or off stage, as though to highlight the uncontrollably madcap nature of Horner’s world. The costumes are perfect, from Lady Fidget’s business chic and Sir Jasper’s staid old codger’s suit to the trendiest clothes you can get in H&M for all the young people. Musical man of the moment, Grant Olding, has composed some mind-joltingly harsh techo-jingles to accompany the scene changes and Jonathan Munby’s direction is slick and unsentimental.

Scott Karim as SparkishThere are smart performances throughout: Lex Shrapnel’s Horner is very believable as that lowlife swine who looks on the world as something to be wrung out to dry for his own benefit, a professional manipulator who doesn’t even need much in the way of charisma to get what he wants. John Hodgkinson’s Pinchwife is a tetchy mass of nervous energy, constantly on his guard against unwanted approaches; it’s an excellent portrayal of a man brought to the brink of anxiety by his own selfishness, whose only fuel left in his tank is to attack the one he loves. Belinda Lang is a delightfully over-the-top poseuse as the affected Lady Fidget; Scott Karim gives a good account of the foppish Sparkish, including the most insincere chuckle you’ve ever heard; and there’s excellent support from Ashley Zhangazha and Jo Herbert as Harcourt and Alithea, the genuine young lovers caught up in all this nonsense.

Susannah Fielding as MargeryThe night, however, belongs to Susannah Fielding, who is superb as Margery, with wonderful wide-eyed innocence mixed with her sad, suppressed and frustrated expressions as she languishes pointlessly alone on her bed. There’s a wonderful scene where Pinchwife has to lead Margery through the town so she is disguised as a man – or in this case, a schoolboy, nevertheless pretending to be Pinchwife’s brother – much to the amusement of the onlookers. You’ll never think of Wee Jimmie Krankie in the same way again. An immaculate performance bringing out all the pathos and humour that befits the role.

Jo Herbert as AlitheaThis was a preview performance, so there was always a possibility that some things might change before press night. It’s a little long at just under three hours, but it’s difficult to see where any further cuts could be made. Certainly, the second part of the play feels more rollicking than the first, which was a shame for those dozen or so people who decided to leave at the interval; a harsh judgment on their part, I thought. It’s a powerful, relevant production, perfect for introducing a new generation to the wicked world of the Restoration.

Ashley Zhangahza as HarcourtP. S. As it was gone 10.30 pm when it finished, it was too late for us to pay our usual homage at the Cote Restaurant in Chichester; it’s a town that likes to go to bed early. So for the first time we stayed behind at the Minerva Bar and Grill and had some of their sharing plate suppers – and they were absolutely delicious. A bottle of Merlot and terrific service eased our way almost into the new day. Definitely recommended as a brilliant way to finish your evening at the theatre!

Production photos by Manual Harlan

Review – Oklahoma! Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 19th February 2015

OklahomaWhen it comes to writing the annals of the development of Musical Theatre, few productions are more significant than Oklahoma! Based on Lynn Riggs’ play Green Grow the Lilacs, this was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first partnership. It wasn’t foreseen that R & H would be a dream team together, even though they’d had considerable successes in previous partnerships (Rodgers and Hart, Hammerstein and Kern). Given that the source play had been a flop on Broadway, chalking up only 64 performances, and that Oscar Hammerstein had had a string of disasters throughout the 30s, commercial backing was hard to come by. Few people thought a folksy musical set in historical Indian Territory would be The Next Big Thing. But those few people who did, laughed all the way to the bank as the original Broadway production of Oklahoma! ran for 2,212 performances (at the time a Broadway record) from 1943 to 1948, and the West End production didn’t do badly either, opening in 1947 and running for 1,543 performances. In London, Curly was played by a young Howard Keel – so young, in fact, that at that stage he hadn’t yet changed his name from Harold Keel. And there was the film version too, directed by Fred Zinnemann in 1955 – I expect that made a few bob.

Ashley Day and Charlotte WakefieldBut it’s not only as a commercial success that it’s significant. Stylistically it was way ahead of its time. Usually musical shows would open with a big ensemble number to get the mood swinging – after all, the musical is the perfect vehicle for upbeat, uptempo, comic, all-singing and all-dancing theatre. The original production of Oklahoma! (like Oliver! you must never forget the exclamation mark) started with an old woman churning butter and a young cowboy singing Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ offstage, on his own, with no accompaniment. From glitzy and glamorous to minimalist in one fell swoop, you couldn’t get a more reserved, introverted start. In this new production directed by Rachel Kavanaugh, Curly does actually come on stage before he starts singing, and Aunt Eller is washing shirts rather than churning butter, but I guess that’s progress.

Charlotte WakefieldThen there is the subject matter. Forget your Irving Berlin and Cole Porter fripperies of the 1920s and 30s, here we have a tale of survival, of ruthlessness, of potential violence. In its exploration of adolescent love there’s an element of Spring Awakening; in the character of Jud Fry you have a brutal sex pest, the cause of which may be due to his mental deficiencies; with his murder at the hands of Curly, you have the heroic young male lead killing off his rival in love. There were certainly elements of the story with which Mrs Chrisparkle wasn’t comfortable. There’s a scene where Curly shows Jud how easy it would be to hang himself, using a rope tied round a conveniently protruding beam end. The song Pore Jud is Daid is a fantasy about how, after he has died, everyone realises what a great bloke he was (he wasn’t) and how much they will miss him and weep for him (they won’t). Where else would it be acceptable to laugh at a scene where a young man tries to convince his mentally challenged rival to top himself? It’s definitely the stuff of Orton or Bond – hardly what you would expect from a jolly Rodgers and Hammerstein musical from the 1940s. But that is the power of the musical – it can explore such difficult material whilst retaining the veneer of light entertainment.

Belinda LangSo it’s great to welcome this new production of Oklahoma! to the Royal and Derngate before it embarks on its national tour. The performance we saw last night was its first preview before opening on Monday and you could almost taste the excitement from the stage as the cast gave it all they had and seemed to have a great time in the process. Francis O’Connor’s set slowly opens out in the first few moments as the back flies up to reveal a hint of the bright golden haze on the medder; Aunt Eller’s front porch looks poor but hospitable; the ever revolving windmill sail keeps on turning and it’s easy to imagine yourself taken back to the Indian Territory of 1906 before it is assimilated as the 46th state of the USA as Oklahoma. Stephen Ridley’s ten-piece band plays the amazing score like a dream (there isn’t a duff song in the show, although occasionally some of them end a little more suddenly than you expect), and the volume amplification is set to just perfect (something that’s so easy to get wrong nowadays).

Gary WilmotThe choreography is by Drew McOnie, who basically seems to have choreographed every show we’ve seen recently, and is a joy to watch. You can see that a lot of it is inspired by the action of getting on or off your horse, with a sense of cowboy machismo running through it like a stick of rock. Typical of these early-mid twentieth century musicals you’ve also got a dream ballet sequence to contend with. As an audience member, if you’re not attuned to the choreographer’s style than these can be anywhere on a scale from dull to excruciating. But Mr McOnie has created an exciting, dynamic piece of modern dance, including aspects from other numbers and routines elsewhere in the show, and really bringing to life the tangibility of Laurey’s dream, with its sensual delights and terrifying horrors in equal measure. No dull dream ballet this, but a riveting dance drama, fantastically performed. Oh, and there’s dancing with bales of hay. Where else would you find that?

James O'Connell and Lucy May BarkerThe show is blessed with a talented and likeable cast who give some tremendous performances. At its heart is the on-off love interest between Curly and Laurey and you really need to believe the relationship between these two for the show to work – and they express that relationship magnificently. Early in the show Charlotte Wakefield’s Laurey is to be found moping on Aunt Eller’s porch, sending off hostile vibes to Curly; but she has a glint in her eye from the start and really captures that sense of a young girl being swept away by her emotions. She is a brilliant singer, and brought a massive amount of warmth and affection to the role. She was perfectly matched by Ashley Day as Curly (who we last saw as one of those nice Ugandan missionaries in The Book of Mormon) at first feigning cocky confidence over his wanting to take Laurey to the box social that night, but soon unable to conceal his true feelings for her. I can imagine there’s a considerable sense of responsibility in delivering the iconic Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ by yourself, right at the beginning of the show, but Mr Day carried it off with ease. Vocally the two blend stunningly. I really enjoyed the whole Surrey with the Fringe on Top routine, and they did more than justice to People Will Say We’re In Love, a song I learned in my infancy, it being one of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourites. These are two young actors to watch – they’re definitely on course for a great career in musical theatre.

Charlotte Wakefield in rehearsalThere are also a couple of actors who are already at the peak of their fantastic careers, and these performances will do no harm to their CVs either. Aunt Eller is played by Belinda Lang with amazing conviction. She’s on stage a lot of the time, even if she’s just washing shirts or observing conversations. We both loved how she expressed the kindliness of the role with very little sentimentality. It was a harsh world in those days, and you can see it in Miss Lang’s eyes. She also turns on the comedy with a great deftness, particularly in the Act Two opener, The Farmer and the Cowman, wielding a rifle that’s almost bigger than she is. And of course there is everyone’s favourite song and dance man, Gary Wilmot, as the Persian peddler Ali Hakim, with a comic performance that’s part pantomime, part music hall, whilst never going over the top or losing sight of the genuine concerns of his character. We’ve seen Mr Wilmot a few times recently – in the Menier’s Invisible Man, the Birmingham Hippodrome’s Snow White and in Radio Times at the Royal, and if ever there was a born entertainer, it’s him.

Belinda Lang in rehearsalThe ensemble boys and girls all sing and dance with great verve and enthusiasm and brighten up the stage whenever they are on. But there are also some great performances from other members of the cast. I was very pleased to see that one of my favourite performers was in this show, James O’Connell as Will Parker, the not-overly intelligent suitor to Miss Ado Annie Carnes, who has been told to save $50 before her father will agree to their marriage; and who every time he amasses $50, he spends it. We saw Mr O’Connell in Chichester’s Barnum a couple of years ago and he’s a great combination of character actor and dancer. What I particularly admire about him is how nifty he can be on his feet without being one of the more svelte members of the cast. I’m sure he’s also going to have a great career. Lucy May Barker was Ado Annie, and gave us a brilliantly funny I Cain’t Say No. It’s a great fun role, being hopelessly attracted to every man she meets, and Miss Barker does it with great aplomb. There was also excellent support from Kara Lane as the horrendous Gertie Cummings, laughing hideously as she gets more and more attached to the unfortunate Ali, and Paul Grunert as Ado Annie’s inflexibly stern and protective father Andrew – who also allows Curly to get off scot-free at the end.

Nic GreenshieldsAnd that nicely brings us to Nic Greenshields as Jud, which has to be one of the most serious roles in all musical comedy – and maybe thankless too, as the audience doesn’t like the character even though you’re not a typical stage villain. Mr Greenshields has a fantastically imposing stage presence, and he creates the most expressive and moving performances of the songs Pore Jud is Daid and Lonely Room. There is a fine line to be trod with the character of Jud – part thug, part bumpkin; the kind of guy who will line the walls of his living room with the equivalent of Page 3 Girls, and fantasise about gadgets that will kill a man without his having a clue he’s in danger; but who on the other hand is simply desperately lonely and in need of some female company. Mr Greenshields treads that line perfectly – I thought it was a tremendous performance.

Gary Wilmot in rehearsalOklahoma! is scheduled for a national tour from now until the middle of August. Whilst it may be a little old fashioned for some people’s taste, nevertheless when you have a score as rich and entertaining as this, as well as an excellent cast, great singing and dancing and plenty to think about on the way home, I unhesitatingly recommend it as a terrific revival of one of the most significant shows in American musical theatre. Oklahoma, OK!

Publicity photos by Pamela Raith

Review – Ladies in Lavender, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th April 2012

Ladies in LavenderNeither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I can actually remember seeing the film of Ladies in Lavender, so seeing the stage production was certainly a chance to appreciate the story for the first time. There was a big “oooh” of excitement when it was announced at the subscription season launch that this production would star Hayley Mills. I was certainly responsible for one of the “oooh”s. My only concern at the time was they would need to cast another actress of sufficient clout to keep it balanced – but I needn’t have worried as they have in the form of Belinda Lang.

And what a palpable sense of 1937 Cornish claustrophobia they really do conjure up. From the moment the curtain rises on their unravelling wool whilst listening to the wireless, meticulously planning the timing and the construct of the evening’s cocoa, you understand that, by today’s standards, and using Shirley Valentine’s phrase, these are two little lives inhabiting a very little world. But the storm that scares them into an early night also provides them with the biggest shake-up they’ve probably ever experienced – the discovery the next morning of a young man washed up on the beach. By the time he’s been rescued, seen by Dr Mead and put to bed under the protection of Aunt Elizabeth’s counterpane, their lives will be changed forever; as, for good measure, will the mysterious young Andrea’s too.

EnsembleWhat must the world have been like in 1937 – a pretty scary place, I would imagine. The local community would be highly suspicious of an eastern European, fluent in German, suddenly appearing in their community. Added to which, another foreigner, Olga, unexpectedly moves to the area, allegedly to improve her painting skills, but she wants to make contact with him. Are they spies? Was his sudden appearance on the shore somehow staged? Are the genteel Widdington sisters in any danger? Surely not, you think – but as the plot opens out there is a nagging doubt in the back of your mind. In the end you realise your concerns were unfounded – the truth was much simpler and more honest because what the story is all about is the simple attraction Ursula feels for Andrea.

At first, the sisters are competitive in his fascination for them, vying for the privilege to assist his bedside needs, childishly arguing over who saw him first. But it is Ursula rather than Janet who lingers, reads him the story of The Little Mermaid, and for whom the fascination develops into love. Of course, this love is unrequited for a gazillion reasons – mainly age difference, background, ambition – and of course the simple reason that he doesn’t actually fancy her. Dr Mead is also smitten with Olga – one gets the feeling that the late Mrs Mead wasn’t really a party animal – and his approaches are also ignored. When he’s trying gently to chat her up on the beach he points out a local folly – then goes on to describe it as not really a folly, as it was built by a local worthy to escape from his wife. That’s the metaphor for the play – this love for unsuitable, younger people may seem like folly, but in reality it’s not; it’s an escape, but it’s also likely to be unsuccessful.

The heart-warming thing about this story is that no one really criticises Ursula for her love. Why shouldn’t she love Andrea? There’s a beautiful penny-drop moment when Andrea sees Ursula crying outside in the garden – that’s when he understands the truth, and there’s no denying the strength of the emotions between either of them from that moment. The story ends as it must with Ursula, Janet and the Doctor, all listening to the wireless, together but separate, and coping with their various levels of sadness; the final hand-holding between the two sisters suggesting they will return to their previous existence, supporting each other as needed.

Hayley MillsIt’s a fantastic production of a charming play. Hayley Mills and Belinda Lang present you with an acting masterclass that’s so natural you completely suspend belief that they’re on a stage. Hayley Mills becomes a girl again as she loses herself to the mysterious Andrea, helping him learn the language by sticking English words on pieces of furniture like a game, and getting selfish and defensive when presented with the prospect of his moving on. Of course she’s demurely well behaved; serene and controlled on the exterior, but with emotions working nineteen to the dozen under the surface. She has a beautiful, expressive voice combining clarity and vulnerability in a riveting way; an infectious enthusiasm, and a look that can drive you to tears. As you would expect, it’s a superb performance.

Belinda LangKeeping her in check as much as possible, Belinda Lang as the slightly bossier sister Janet is superbly well cast. She brings out all the excellent “no nonsense” nuances of the character, but even her defences get breached as the arrival of Andrea brings to mind her lost Peter, who went to war and never came back – that whole element of the plot is so beautifully and subtly written, incidentally. I very much enjoyed her snooty reaction to the appearance of Olga on her land, and her otherwise hearty good nature brings out a lot of the humour of the story as she too gives an exceptional performance.

Carol MacreadyThere is a third member of the household, Dorcas, played by Carol Macready, who acts as cook, maid and general factotum, never missing an opportunity to puncture any pomposity or reveal a hypocrisy. Kind hearted but brusque, hers is a great comic turn, and she makes the most of the comedy opportunities that the script generously provides – we particularly loved her gentle awakening of the hungover Andrea. It was very enjoyable to see her on the Royal stage again, as she was excellent in Eden End last year.

Robert DuncanRobert Duncan’s Dr Mead has nice stiff-upper-lip bluster but convincingly allows us to get under his skin to see his inner sadness and his wish to partner up again – maybe with the lovely Olga, maybe not. His brief silent appearance on the beach when he espies Andrea apparently serenading Olga with the violin spoke volumes. A very thoughtful and affecting performance.

Robert ReesAs the mysterious Andrea, to be honest Robert Rees doesn’t have a great deal to do in the first half of the play except speak in a Polish accent and look either surprised or delighted. But as the role develops he also gives a very good performance, with his innocent pleasure of Olga’s company, his childish rage when he realises the sisters have prevented him from seeing her, and his tender reaction to his understanding of Ursula’s feelings for him.

Abigail ThawThe final member of the cast is Abigail Thaw as Olga, a cool customer with Dr Mead, an interloper in the sisters’ garden and the eventual encourager of Andrea’s talent, all of which she performs with spirited aplomb and that slight air of mystery that just makes you wonder if she has an “agenda”. Another really good performance.

The story takes place in four specific locations – the beach, the sisters’ front room, the garden and the upstairs bedroom. The Royal only has a little stage! But the set inventively uses every possible space and successfully squeezes in all the locations; and combined with simple but effective lighting it works a treat. Nitpicking, I only have two slightly critical observations: violins have to be played during the course of the play and – although I’m no expert – I’m not entirely sure Mr Rees’ arm movements with the bow could actually make the sound the violin was purporting to emit. His movement was very smooth, slow and regular even when the tune got a bit funky. Secondly, I think the very final scene would be improved if we didn’t see the figure of Andrea playing the violin in the distant corner – it detracted from what was otherwise a fully realistic presentation all the way through, and as an image it was totally eclipsed by the movingly stricken expressions on the faces of the rest of the cast in that final tableau.

But it’s an ace production of a very charming play, acted magnificently and a real spellbinder throughout. It would be a crime if it were not to be seen elsewhere after it finishes its run in Northampton and its time at the Oxford Playhouse in May. We were actually wondering if it might – just might – have something of the “End of the Rainbow” in its future. All the ingredients are there to make it a potentially huge success. Definitely recommended!