Review – Private Lives, Chichester Festival Theatre, 17th November 2021

Private LivesA wise man once said, and I know he did because I was there when he said it, “every time Handel’s Water Music is performed, someone hears it for the first time – think how lucky that person is.” Judging from the average age of the theatregoers at Wednesday night’s performance of Private Lives at Chichester, I would hazard a guess that none of them was seeing it for the first time. As far as we could work out, there were no younger people at all. Is Noel Coward now confined to being entertainment for the middle class and elderly?

I’ll leave you to ponder that question as I tell you about this inaugural production of the Nigel Havers Theatre Company that started touring a few weeks ago in Bath and will continue its rigorous schedule through to April next year, with a December break for Nigel to do his regular stint at the Palladium panto.

Hodge and HaversI’m sure you know the set-up (unless you are one of my much prized younger readers!) Elyot (Nigel Havers) and Sybil (Natalie Walter) are on their honeymoon in Deauville, as are Victor (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) and Amanda (Patricia Hodge). In fact, they’re in adjacent rooms in the same hotel. Elyot and Amanda are on their second marriages; and, here’s the rub, they were formerly married to each other. Imagine the horror when they bump into each other on their adjoining balconies. It doesn’t take them long to dump their new spouses and flee to Amanda’s posh flat in Paris. Will they live happily ever after this time, or will their old cantankerousness get in the way? And will Victor and Sybil stand for it? If you weren’t there for that first night that opened the brand new Phoenix Theatre in 1930, with Coward and Gertrude Lawrence as Elyot and Amanda, and some unknown chap called Laurence Olivier as Victor, I’m not going to tell you, you’ll have to catch this production and find out!

With its timeless story and glittering script, this is a deceptively difficult play to get absolutely right and a dangerously easy one to get quite wrong. It’s very easy for the star turns who inevitably play Elyot and Amanda to hog the limelight – Coward naturally made them the stars of the show and underwrote the parts of their new love interests to keep all the attention to Gertie and himself. So the play can feel quite unbalanced. In this production, it’s quite hard to imagine how Elyot and Sybil might have originally fallen for each other – I didn’t feel like they were natural bedfellows, so to speak; but you can easily see how Victor and Amanda did, which gives the story a little more depth.

Havers and HodgeThe show is 100% played for laughs, which is fair enough; but it does mean that you occasionally have to catch your breath when the arguments turn into plain and simple physical domestic abuse. Face-slapping, a 78rpm being smashed over a head, and a considerable punch to the chops all elicit slapstick laughs but it’s a startling shock to see how things were very different in 1930. From a technical point of view, by the way, the stage combat between Havers and Hodge is outstandingly realistic – fantastic work!

Simon Higlett’s design for Act One is functional but perhaps those balconies are not quite as glamorous as one might expect for such hoity-toity guests at a top class resort. The design of the Paris flat though is exquisite, a veritable flambé of velvety reds and art deco delight, and elegant furnishings without overdoing the decadent. In a nice touch, the accompanying music is all composed by Coward pre-1930, to give it an extra hint of veracity. You’d say Coward was being big-headed, but there’s no indication in the original text that the music played was his, so it’s generations-later, second-hand big-headedness!

P Hodge N HaversI think most people will have booked to see this to see for themselves how the two leads work, tussle and entertain together – and they do an absolutely splendid job. Nigel Havers cuts his usual refined figure and is a perfect voice for Coward’s witty, roué, spiteful charm. He is superb in those moments where the elegant façade shatters and the rather grubbier character comes to light – such as in his cowardly lack of resistance to Victor’s understandable aggression or when he gets his leg trapped after a spot of sofa-athletics with Amanda. Patricia Hodge is, of course, a natural for Amanda; she makes the character’s words come alive with effortless ease, and brings the house down with her complaint against Elyot’s love-making that it’s too soon after dinner. The pair share an immaculate stage presence and they work together like a dream.

Mrs Chrisparkle thought it was ageist of me to wonder how credible it is for two such theatre veterans to be playing roles that Coward would have imagined to be around thirty years old. I was only thinking out loud. But there is some relevance to the point in as much as Coward would have envisaged Victor being older than Amanda – that’s definitely not the case in this production. But it’s pretty easy to forget the age differences and take it all at face value.

Victor and SybilMs Walter and Mr Bruce-Lockhart give excellent support as the wronged other halves, Ms Walter in particular squeaking in frantic fury at the way she has been treated, only then to turn her ire on Mr B-L in the final reel. Aicha Kossoko plays Louise the maid with a sumptuous French accent. The very full midweek Chichester audience threw itself into enjoying the performance, with several long laugh moments and applause breaks for whenever Ms Hodge decided to sing. That rather old-fashioned, respectful matinee-style appreciation for a star performer or singing moment almost underlined how very dignified and classic the whole experience felt.

If the future for Coward is to attract older patrons to enjoy a nostalgia trip rather than encouraging younger theatregoers to discover his wonders, at least that’s good box office news for now, as this production is selling like hot cakes wherever it goes. Long term though, I’m wondering if his appeal will last. Things change, then change again; but Coward doesn’t, he’s constant as the northern star, being too recent to survive drastic updating but probably too historical to attract the young. Time will tell! In the meantime, this is a delightful production, riddled with expertise, delivered by several safe pairs of hands, and fully worthy of your theatre-going funds.

Production photos by Tristram Kenton

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

Review – The Long Song, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 23rd October 2021

The Long SongI’m not familiar with the works of Andrea Levy, but, judging from the riveting story told on the stage of the Chichester Festival Theatre last Saturday night, that’s definitely my loss. Fortunately Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with seven of our nearest and dearest, were there for the final night of this short run but which, if there is any justice in the world, is not the end of the line for this production.

Cornet and GodfreyThe Long Song was Levy’s final novel, published in 2010; winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and a Booker Prize finalist. Suhayla El-Bushra’s adaptation takes us to 19th century Jamaica, to Amity sugar plantation and the birth of little July to her mama Kitty. We see how July was taken as a slave/maid to Caroline Mortimer, how she had her own baby, and how she saw her way through war, rebellion, the transition to freedom, and finally to old age – and somehow come out of it relatively unscathed. The play is seen through the eyes of Old July, as the refined young Thomas Kinsman encourages her to tell her story, suspecting she may be his mother – not that Old July would give away information so vital that easily – at least, not without several servings of cake.

Old JulyFrankie Bradshaw’s simple but highly effective set comprised of a backdrop of sugar cane, suggesting the fields outside the plantation house, through which workers can emerge after a hard shift, or fleeing victims can escape; and a large trap on stage that opened and closed to reveal a much-used dining table. Michael Henry’s incidental music for the show is just that – not over-emphasised, but appears in occasional short bursts that always leave you wanting more.

Caroline MortimerMuch of the play revolves around the household of Caroline Mortimer, with her well-to-do and pompous guests who look down on her almost as much as they look down on their slaves, and with Caroline’s own domestic servants, who include an unpredictable cook, a crotchety head servant, and young July trying her best to survive without making too much fuss about anything.

Ghastly GuestsScattered throughout the script are a few telling moments that say so much about the relationships between master and slave – better than words can ever express. For example, Caroline makes July her own by ignoring her real name and calling her Marguerite; that’s a simple way to dominate and eradicate a slave’s own identity. When two of the slaves are playing music to entertain Caroline’s ghastly guests, they meander tunelessly and talentlessly through some violin piece that just sounds appalling. But once they’re “below stairs” as it were, they pick up the tempo and rattle out some great music for each other’s pleasure. When “freeman” (much good it does him) Nimrod is being used as a scapegoat for murder (to cover up the suicide of Caroline’s brother) and flees for his life, all Caroline can think is not to kill him yet as he hadn’t finished doing her garden. When Caroline requires old Godfrey to endanger his life to fulfil her wishes, he won’t do it without payment – and he makes that abundantly clear to her. It’s these several minor details that highlight the dreadful reality of slavery and frequent instances of humour are used to reveal the humanity.

Robert GoodwinAnd there’s also the salutary tale of the new overseer, Robert Goodwin. Genuinely excited and inspired by the introduction of freedom for the slaves, he’s full of zeal for change and for treating the ex-slaves with respect. As his time in Jamaica continues, he falls in love with July – and it’s truly touching to see. But then he marries Caroline – because that way, he says, he can be with July more easily. But his zeal doesn’t last as he gets bogged down in what he sees as the workers’ unreasonable demands, and in the end he turns against them, and his own child’s mother, with full emotional cruelty.

July and NimrodCharlotte Gwinner has assembled a cast that acts together as a brilliant ensemble, but each of whom also gives a star performance. Llewella Gideon is simply superb as Old July; initially crusty, untrusting and grumpy, unwilling to dance to the tune of her upstart host; but as her memories unfurl, so does her true personality. Offering witty asides and knowing looks as her story is revealed before us, she has an amazing stage presence, a wonderful feel for comic timing, and also the gravitas to confront the harshness of her past. It’s an amazing performance.

JulyTara Tijani – on her professional debut – is also fantastic as young July, encapsulating all the worries of the enslaved with a nervous need to please, trying not to catch the eye of anyone who might harm her. But as July grows with confidence in company with Goodwin, so too does she blossom and inhabit that strange, uncertain world of a slave/servant with privileges and recognition. Olivia Poulet is brilliant as Caroline, totally wrapped up in her own needs and concerns, paying lip service to a modern, wannabe-enlightened manner of dealing with slaves, but still thinking only of herself. As her world starts to fall apart, she gives a great performance of someone clinging both to the wreckage and to the past. Leonard Buckley also gives a magnificent performance as the initially idealistic Goodwin, trying to force his own terms and conditions on the suspicious ex-slaves, falling head over heels for July but then failing to have the personal integrity to follow through on his promises.

Miss ClaraElsewhere in the cast, I really enjoyed the performance of Syrus Lowe as the delightfully-spoken and privileged Kinsman, carefully trying to work out how to pin old July down into telling the truth without pressing her too hard lest she withdraw co-operation. He’s also great as Freeman Nimrod, with his cocky turn of speech and arrogant conduct with the other slaves. Cecilia Appiah is excellent as the vain Miss Clara, playing up to her claim of prettiness whilst bullying the other slaves; Trevor Laird is a great Godfrey, the cantankerous old retainer who refuses to be pushed, and Rebecca Omogbehin breaks your heart as July’s mama Kitty. But the entire cast do a tremendous job and the story-telling skills are second to none.

Miss ClaraThere was a fairly unanimous standing ovation at the end of the performance which I was more than happy to join. Gobsmackingly brilliant from start to finish, this stunning show brings the day-to-day horrors of slavery into sharp focus and plays strongly on our emotions. I know that some members of our party (not me of course, ahem) had something of a tear in their eye at the end of the show. I’d love this production to be picked up and given another lease of life somewhere else soon – it so deserves it. Absolutely magnificent.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Five Alive, let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Home, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 23rd October 2021

HomeA double Chichester theatre day for a party of nine of us, which began with the compulsory lunch in the Minerva Brasserie accompanied by two bottles of Wiston sparkling English wine which is just yummy. I think if I lived in Chichester I’d rarely move from that restaurant.

Harry and JackDavid Storey’s Home (really? I didn’t know he’d been away – sorry, I made that joke countless times on Saturday; it wasn’t funny then and it isn’t funny now) originally opened at the Royal Court in 1970 with the enviable casting of John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson as Harry and Jack, Dandy Nichols and Mona Washbourne as Marjorie and Kathleen, and a young Warren Clarke as Alfred. It transferred to the West End, and to Broadway; it won both the Tony Award and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. Gielgud wrote in his autobiography that he didn’t understand the play at all.

Marjorie, Harry, Kathleen, JackI was going to outline a plot summary, but the play is so slight that there isn’t much to say. Two men chat idly at a table in the garden of a big house; later, they are joined by two women and the chat continues. Much more central to the story is to work out exactly where the characters are – at Home, presumably, although what kind of home? – and to work out why they are there. Is it a mental institution? A correctional institution? Voluntary attendance or mandatory? Kathleen constantly complains that she is not allowed laces or a belt – is that for her own protection or the protection of others? Jack is always referring to a wide range of friends and family who have done this or done that – are they genuine or in his head? There are many questions to be asked about these four people, and – rather à la Beckett – answers are few and far between.

Kathleen, HarryThere’s no doubt that the play is delicately and intricately written; the opening conversation between Jack and Harry is a delightful interweaving of non-sequiturs and half-uttered thoughts, showing that though communication can seem simple, in reality, it’s anything but. A lot is said, but hardly anything is understood. Sophie Thomas’ marvellous set is a piece of precision faded-gardening, with its clumps of bleached flowers, dry dying patches of dusty lawn, hidden used drink cans, and so on. It’s a superb reflection of what could be a beautiful expanse of grounds, but it’s been left to wither – a perfect comment on the content of the play, in fact. Alex Musgrave’s complex lighting suggests the dappled effect of moving clouds obscuring and revealing the land, which you sense has a symbolic significance, but you’re not quite certain what.

Full castDaniel Cerqueira and John Mackay make a good partnership as Harry and Jack, both respectable and respectful of each other, with a mature, distant, middle-class friendship that probably isn’t based on anything other than their both being in the same place at the same time. They embody the stiff-upper-lip of the day, having survived the war and its unspoken horrors, and they do their best to rely on that British reserve to get through the day-to-day existence they’re now forced to endure. It’s no surprise that as the play nears its end that they’re both prone to tears.

AlfredThe partnership of Hayley Carmichael as Kathleen and Doña Croll as Marjorie is based on the more traditional friendship of two working-class women who understand each other well, with Ms Carmichael excellent as the gormless, giggling Kathleen who finds it hard not to show men her legs and Ms Croll strong as the hard-nosed Marjorie. All four actors work off each other extremely well – it must be demanding for them all to follow Storey’s frequently half-formed sentences and half-realised ideas and try to make sense of it all. Leon Annor gives good support as the chair-lifting, furniture-stealing Alfred, whose only dramatic purpose seems to be to disrupt the potential cosiness of the other four characters.

Jack and HarryIt’s a very good production, but, on reflection, time hasn’t been kind to this play, and you just feel you want more from the scenario than merely piecing together the clues that Storey gives you as to what’s going on. Maybe we’re simply more impatient today than fifty years ago. Maybe it demands (and no reflection on the cast) theatrical knights of the realm to give it an inner gravitas. At the end, you feel you’ve been teased with some dramatic titbits, but nothing has truly been revealed.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

3-starsThree-sy does it!

 

Review – South Pacific, Chichester Festival Theatre, 25th August 2021

South PacificA mere 18 months after we originally booked it, after the first Covid cancellation, then a further enforced rearranged date because theatre social distancing didn’t keep up with Johnson’s unfurling summer road map, seven of us eventually descended on our favourite stately Sussex city to see Daniel Evans’ new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 musical.

Joanna Ampil and Seabees“South Pacific? Isn’t that a cheesy old show that has no relevance to today?” I hear you ask. You’d be so wrong. My only previous exposure to the show was seeing a plucky amdram performance 25 or so years ago and a couple of well known scenes from the film; plus, of course, Morecambe and Wise’s iconic addition to the Nothing like a Dame archive. As one of our group remarked during the interval, when you see There is Nothin’ Like a Dame in the full context of the show, you realise it isn’t a cheeky and oblique comment on how nice it would be to have a bit of feminine company around you to cheer the place up. It’s actually an observation that these guys are sex-starved and desperate for a damn good rogering.

Joanna AmpilAnd that’s at the heart of why this show feels so relevant today. What, on the surface, seems rather coy and polite, conceals an undercurrent of harsh reality. When the female ensigns sing that they’re gonna wash that man right out of their hair, what they’re actually proposing is breaking up relationships and depriving children of a mother on a whim. When Bloody Mary sings of the beautiful mysterious island Bali Ha’i to Cable it isn’t just a travel advert for sun, sand and palm trees, it’s an entrapment to get him to meet her daughter Liat in the hope that they will hit it off. And when she then encourages him to talk Happy Talk to her, she’s beseeching him to agree to an arrangement between them that will rescue Liat out of their war torn Polynesian island and provide her safety in the good ol’ US of A. When he reveals that he cannot marry her because of his conservative upbringing and that a dark-skinned woman would never be accepted by his Princeton-funding family, the confirmation that Mary and Liat are second class citizens leaves both them and the audience disgusted and furious.

Gina Beck - wash that man right outa my hairBut this isn’t the main focus of the racism in this show. Our heroine, Nellie, with whom we laugh, whose spark and spirit we love and admire, whose singing enthrals us, and whom we trust will have a great loving relationship with Emile and settle down happy ever after, stuns us with her use of the C word just before the interval. No, not that C word, but one even more powerful. Discovering that Emile has two children from his Polynesian first wife, she realises that he must have had sex with a “Coloured” woman; and you can feel her shudder with disgusted horror. The realisation that she is racist drops like a bombshell before we all go out for our interval Merlots.

Dramatic openingThe show makes us re-evaluate what we assume about it right from the start, when Liat’s innocent dancing is dramatically overtaken by the American invading forces, descending from their helicopters, and running around the island, literally stamping their authority on idyllic foreign soil. No wonder Oscar Hammerstein came under the stern scrutiny of the state, who questioned his allegiance and loyalty to the United States. There is a stunning and eloquent song, You’ve got to be Carefully Taught, which explains with great simplicity how racism isn’t a natural thing but something you learn from your youth. This questioning of traditional American values was seen as Communist sympathising in some quarters, and pressure was brought on Rodgers and Hammerstein to withdraw the song from the show, but they refused. It was central to what they wanted the show to say; without this song they would have withdrawn the show. It stayed in.

Thanksgiving FolliesDaniel Evans’ masterful production uses the great space of the Festival Theatre to its best advantage, emphasising both the grand scale of some of the bigger numbers and the lonely solitariness of its more introspective moments. Peter McKintosh’s versatile and constantly evolving (and revolving!) set immaculately recreates scenes such as the makeshift stage where the Ensign girls present their Thanksgiving Follies, or their simply constructed shower huts. Ann Yee’s choreography is exciting and fun in those big numbers, and Cat Beveridge’s sky high band whacks out those sumptuous tunes with a beautiful richness. Everything about the production feels like you’re truly privileged to be witnessing it.

Julian OvendenPreviously sharing the role of Nellie with Gina Beck is Alex Young, now playing her full-time. Ms Young is among my favourite performers, who never fails to bring wit and emotion to all her fantastic roles. Here she makes light work of I’m in love with a wonderful guy, Wash that man right outa my hair, Honey Bun and those delicious duets with Emile and Cable. She’s an effortless star with a great stage presence; it’s because she’s so good on stage that she still takes the audience with her on the rest of her journey after the end of Act One bombshell. She is matched by a brilliant performance from Julian Ovenden as Emile, who performs Some Enchanted Evening as though it were a brand new song that we’ve never heard before, and completely steals the show with the goosebump-creating This Nearly Was Mine, which encapsulates the heartache and havoc that idiotic racism causes. I think it’s also fair to say that he made all the ladies in our party go completely weak at the knees.

South Pacific companyRob Houchen is superb as the clean-cut, heroic Cable, giving us a stunning performance of Younger Than Springtime, and delivering the essential message of You’ve got to be Carefully Taught with devastating clarity. Joanna Ampil is a delightfully caustic streetwise Bloody Mary, nevertheless creating a beautiful vision of Bali Ha’i with her exquisite voice; and her performance of Happy Talk is one of those musical theatre revelation moments when a song that you think you know like the back of your hand is turned inside out with completely new meaning and nuance. It’s as far away from Captain Sensible as you can get.

Luther chargedIt’s essential for a production of South Pacific to cast exactly the right person for the comic-tragic role of Luther, and Keir Charles gets him down to a T. He manages to convince us that Luther is both a scamp and a villain; a conman with maybe a heart of gold – it’s hard to tell, because it’s never been tried. Mr Charles brings something of a lump to our throats with Luther’s unrequited love for Nellie; but he’s the cat with nine lives, you always know he’s going to thrive and survive somehow. All this, and fronting the Seabees’ big numbers and Honey Bun-ing it with Nellie en travestie. A fantastic performance.

SeabeesDavid Birrell and Adrian Grove bring warmth and a touch of humour to what could otherwise be the hard military presence of Brackett and Harbison; Sera Maehara is a beautiful and elegant Liat; Danny Collins (another of my favourite performers) and Carl Au give great support as Professor and Stewpot; and, on the performance we saw, Emile’s children Jerome and Ngana were enchantingly performed by Alexander Quinlan and Lana Lakha in fine voice and exuding confidence. All the very talented and extended ensemble put their hearts and souls into amazing vocal and dance performances.

Wash that Man!This is one of those rare productions where every aspect was pitch perfect. To be honest, I’d never considered South Pacific to be one of musical theatre’s greatest hits, but this production removes the veil from our eyes (and ears!) to give us a challenging, heart-warming, and massively entertaining show, and the most thrilling return to a big musical show for the Chichester Theatre. It’s only on now until 5th September, but if you can’t get to Chichester, there are still two streaming performances available on 31st August and 3rd September. In any event, I can’t imagine this will be the last we will see of this immense production – West End Transfer Please!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Not Quite a Review; or Half a Macbeth is better than None – Chichester Festival Theatre, 28th September 2019

71563150_757734678019221_7876332965544853504_nOne of the big attractions of this year’s Chichester Festival has been the prospect of John Simm as Macbeth. One of my favourite actors, he was brilliant in Sheffield’s Betrayal a few years ago and packed a whacker of a punch in one of the recent Pinter at the Pinter season productions. With Dervla Kirwan as his Lady M and Christopher Ravenscroft as Duncan, what could possibly go wrong? So it was with excited feet that Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with our friends Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Professor and Mrs Plum, dodged the raindrops down to the Festival Theatre last Saturday night. We had already enjoyed the new production of Hedda Tesman in the afternoon, and were looking forward to a bit of Out Damned Spot and Infirm of Purpose over the course of the evening.

Duncan on that glass floorAmong the most notable aspects of this production is its glass stage. Set a little bit on high, it consists of several panels joined together which allows for an extravagant lighting plot to create multitudinous effects; and also you can see the rough earth beneath, perfect for opening up grave space with all those deaths. However, sadly, I can’t really review this production for you, gentle reader, because we only saw the first half. Macbeth’s hired murderers were just about to do Banquo in when one of them placed his foot at what must have been a million-to-one wrong angle and KERSHATTERCRASH! the glass panel beneath him cracked into a million tiny shards. At first we all thought it was a magical effect. Maybe each time Macbeth hath murdered sleep, a fairy dies on a glass panel. But no. Once Banquo had sunk into the ground and the Weird Sisters (I blame them) gave us a moody tableau, the lights went up for the interval and a host of backstage and front of house staff huddled around the offending glass panel looking severely worried.

Absolutely ShatteredUndeterred, we went out for our interval Tempranillo, where a slightly perplexed audience was mingling, half in hope and half in disappointment. We wondered how quickly they could get Autoglass to come out and repair…. probably not until Great Birnam Wood shall come to Dunsinane, which is Monday at the earliest. After a longer than usual interval we resumed our seats and awaited developments. The offending panel had by now become a star feature of many a theatregoer’s selfie; the usual warning against taking photos had gone right out of the window.

Lady MEventually someone, I believe the theatre’s deputy executive officer, who was obviously otherwise watching Strictly at home but was on emergency callout,  came on to the stage and apologised but the show just couldn’t go on – it simply wouldn’t have been safe for the cast and she wasn’t prepared to take that risk. We all applauded – it was clearly the right decision. Audience members would be welcome to transfer their tickets to another performance, or, (as in our case) receive a full refund – sadly Chichester is just too far for us to pop down midweek.

MurderersJudging from the first half, it wasn’t shaping up to be the best Macbeth I’ve seen, but it certainly wasn’t the worst. Mr Simm was a trifle light on the evil side but I think that was building up. Ms Kirwan was a little over-pretty in her characterisation and, generally throughout, there was a lot of declamation, a little like the respectful delivery you’d expect at a worthy middle-class school production. Christopher Ravenscroft is, however, a very dignified and beneficent Duncan, although I was surprised how huggy everyone was with him. Not so much Yes My Liege on bended knee, more like Come here me old mucker.

Macbeth and Lady MOn the good side, the staging for Duncan’s last-night dinner, behind the screen whilst the Macbeths were plotting his murder, was incredibly effective. However, the screen was, I fear, overused, and when some of Lady Macbeth’s words appeared written on it as she was speaking, I couldn’t contain myself from bursting out “Oh What???” in barely contained fury at the gimmickry of it. The best performances – as at half-time – were definitely from Stuart Laing’s loyal Banquo and Michael Balogun’s precise and upright Macduff. However, as I haven’t seen the rest of the play, please ignore all my comments as to the show itself!

Weird SistersA great shame. I trust the manufacturer of glass panels is insured against coughing up what I would imagine would be at least a £40,000 claim for refunded tickets. Once again, the Scottish Play turns out to conceal a nightmare up its sleeve. Nevertheless, there’s always a silver lining; now that the Minerva Grill has stopped doing their late-night sharing food platters (BOO!!!!) we had longer to linger over our late-night curry at the Marsala City – highly recommended!

Review – Hedda Tesman, Minerva Theatre Chichester, 28th September 2019

71483760_244922176426745_4329428812208013312_nHenrik Ibsen is one of those playwrighting gifts that never goes away. He’s currently enjoying a revival which, by my workings-out, has been going on for at least sixty years. The challenge to make him relevant to today, whatever that means, is there if you want to take up the reins, although plenty of excellent Ibsen revivals play them straight, plucked out of the 19th century in all their dark and dismal glory, and they work as well as they ever did. On the other hand, there’s a trend to produce updated versions of our dour Norwegian hero. Only last week Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw the excellent revival of Peter Gynt by David Hare at the National, which set him in modern-day Scotland, in a very effective time and place transformation. A couple of years ago the National Theatre toured with a “modern” version of Hedda Gabler adapted by Patrick Marber, which made the purists wince and was, on reflection, probably too clever-clever by half.

HeddaAnd now Cordelia Lynn has also adapted Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s possibly most performed play, featuring his disturbed protagonist fighting for breath in a life where she feels stifled. Where the title of Ibsen’s original stressed her inability to escape from the manipulative hold on her exerted by her late father the General, Ms Lynn’s apparently more conventional title, regarding her as Hedda married to Tesman, emphasises the stress on her from her marriage.

 Hedda Julie and TesmanMany of the changes that have been made to the original work extremely well. This Hedda is a much older woman, one whom you sense is more regretful of the past rather than fearful of the future – more of this later. Thea is no longer her friend but her daughter, which reveals a relationship where Hedda has never truly supported her child. Thea’s infatuation with Elijah brings him more closely into the family circle; perhaps, as a result, the sideline attentions of Judge Brack feel less intimidating or significant in this telling of the story than I have seen in previous versions. Bertha the maid is now a cleaner, employed by an agency; a professional woman on her own right who one feels can dictate her own terms much more positively than a mere servant, which adds just a little extra zest to the household. It’s a very successful repositioning of the play into modern times and does, indeed, retain the relevance of today.

TesmanHowever, as with freedom of speech, with freedom to update comes responsibility. By making these changes, the audience has to suspend its disbelief because modern technology renders quite a number of Ibsen’s structural markers outdated. It’s impossible to imagine, for instance, that when Tesman spent his night on the tiles with Brack and Elijah, and they weren’t going to make it back home, that Tesman wouldn’t have texted either Hedda or Thea to explain. No need for his daughter to wait up all night unnecessarily. Similarly, when Hedda cruelly (there’s no other real justification for this act) destroys Elijah’s original document through fire, it’s ridiculous to expect that he hadn’t already downloaded it onto his laptop; after all, when Thea proposes that she and her father should try to recreate Elijah’s work, the laptop is their first port of call. For me, those two problems make it very hard to accept that the story could happen, in the way it is presented, today.

Thea and ElijahWhilst we’re on the subject of inconsistencies, a couple of things really annoyed me – I think I am definitely turning into a grumpy old man. Thea and Tesman are working hard in the back-room area of the stage with the laptop, trying to re-write Elijah’s words. Tesman enters the living area saying they can’t work out back there because it’s too uncomfortable, with all the boxes around. You look up at the area to see where they have been working; and there are no boxes. Sorry, what? Similarly, at the beginning of the play Bertha starts to vacuum clean the floor. At the end of the play, she takes a mop and bucket to the same floor. Really? Mop and bucket on the carpet?

BrackAs a linguistic aside, this production might be the final hammer blow that makes the C word virtually acceptable – or pointless, your choice. Hedda uses it twice in the same speech and it has the extraordinary effect of drastically reducing both its meaning and its impact. I don’t think that was the intention; I think the intention was to shock, and to show how vicious Hedda is towards her own daughter. But, strangely, Hedda’s sentiments would have had much greater impact without using that word.

Hedda Get Your GunThat said, Haydn Gwynne is superb as Hedda; a tired, defeated, misunderstood figure, suffocated by the good intentions of her husband, and jealous of the freedoms and achievements of the younger generation. Nevertheless, I’ve never seen a Hedda whom I thought was less likely to take her own life. There’s no sense of mental instability; although she may be unhappy with life, she really looks like she has it under control, and, if anything, you’d simply expect her to self-medicate on gin. So when that final, lethal, moment comes, it’s quite a shock, as I had completely forgotten that’s what was going to happen!

JulieI particularly enjoyed Natalie Simpson’s performance as Thea, with her scarcely concealed mixture of contempt and dislike for her mother (learned behaviour, I’m sure) but her wide-eyed appreciation for every step Elijah takes. There’s excellent support from Anthony Calf and Jacqueline Clarke as Tesman and Aunt Julie, and (maybe) slightly underpowered performances from Jonathan Hyde as Brack – who seems to lack relevance in this production – and Irfan Shamji as Elijah. Rebecca Oldfield’s Bertha is a bright spark who cheers up the stage whenever she comes on, bringing her positive, get on with it mood into the oppressive household.

BerthaWe saw the last matinee of its run at Chichester – and I was surprised at how undersubscribed it was. As a co-production with Headlong and The Lowry, the production now moves on to a run at The Lowry from 3 – 19 October. Book now – the inventive changes that have brought it into the 21st century make it definitely worth seeing.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Oklahoma! Festival Theatre, Chichester, 27th July 2019

OklahomaThere’s a bright golden haze on the medder, sang Curly, all by himself, at the very beginning of Oklahoma! on its first night at the St James Theatre on Broadway in 1943, and its audience was gripped. It was the first time a big musical had opened with a lone voice rather than a group number; the first time Rodgers and Hammerstein had collaborated; and the first time that a “dream ballet” sequence showed us the secret fears of a lead character. You can only imagine the excitement of that first night crowd. In Britain, at that time immersed in the Second World War, we had to wait until 1947 to see it for ourselves, but I am sure it was worth the wait.

Hyoie O'GradyIt was also the first time that the book of a musical and its songs were fully integrated so that the music progressed our understandings of the characters. That was a development that had started with Show Boat; maybe recession and/or war kick start the creative spirit and encourage writers and composers to devise a work to bring us out of the gloom and into a happier place. Certainly those early audiences for Oklahoma! would have had their troubles, on both sides of the pond. You can envisage the theatregoers at the St James, the rows filled with uniformed servicemen either on leave or preparing for war, clinging on to a vestige of normality before being transported to who knows where for who knows what. There’s a revealing and rather heart-warming story mentioned in the programme, where the writer John Hersey told Richard Rodgers that “on a gritty battlefield in Sicily, a GI had awakened one morning and poured some cold water in his helmet to shave. Suddenly he began singing “Oh, what a beautiful morning” […] There was a fair amount of irony in his singing and his pals laughed”. To be honest, if I had been that GI, I would have done the same.

Amara OkerekeSo there’s a number of reasons why Oklahoma! (you have to include the !, otherwise it’s just a state) isn’t going away yet. A handsome young suitor courts a pretty young girl, but she’s made promises to another guy, so the two men are rivals; that’s a story as old as the hills. Surrounding them are the good influences of a kindly aunt, a pragmatic judge/lawmaker, a best friend who cain’t say no and the well-meaning but rather hopeless young chap who’s in love with her. In the background, we’re in early 1900’s Native American country, with its diverse ethnic spread, racial tensions, and itinerant immigrants; social division is everywhere – even the Farmer and the Cowman aren’t necessarily friends – and instead of churning butter, Aunt Eller is first seen cleaning her gun, setting the tone for the whole show. Will has just come back from Kansas City, where he saw astounding modern advancements, the like of which couldn’t be imagined in underdeveloped Oklahoma. Nevertheless, those hopeful aspirations are palpable; keep moving forwards and maybe soon they’ll also be part of that great United States of America. Work hard and be lucky; slack and you lack. You’re doing fine, Oklahoma.

Josie Lawrence and CompanyApart from the still relevant and contemporary nature of the story, it has a fantastic score without a duff note or a weak lyric, and some colourful, sparky, memorable characters creating a fine balance of comedy and pathos. Jeremy Sams’ new production takes all the show’s ingredients and creates a high impact treat, both visually and musically, which never shies away from the darker side of what’s going on, and there are a couple of moments where you shrink back in your seat in horror….

CompanyRobert Jones’ set and Mark Henderson’s lighting intertwine throughout the evening to make that golden haze, that Curly sings about in the first moments, a reality; enhanced by Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes. Light brown jackets and waistcoats, together with golden bales of wheat and tan saddles, all add to that colour scheme, whilst the backdrop and ceiling are bathed in blue to create a strong sunshiny feel. By contrast, Jud’s black dungarees and Ali Karim’s lurid green jacket and red trousers demonstrate that they’re outsiders.

Isaac Gryn and CompanyWhen I first saw Oklahoma! on stage, at the Palace Theatre back in 1980, I remember being thoroughly bored by the dream ballet sequence, regarding it as an antiquated construct that had no place in contemporary theatre. What an arrogant little brat I must have been. The (relatively) recent national tour production had the benefit of being choreographed by Drew McOnie, whose star has continued to rise, and transformed what could otherwise be a dull interlude into a fantastic set piece, incorporating other routines from the rest of the show. And in this new production, choreographer Matt Cole has also risen to the challenge of the dream ballet, working with the lighting and costume design to create a vivid fantasy nightmare for Laurey, that contrasts the romance of being pushed by Curly on a garden swing, and the white dresses of a perfect wedding day, with the black and red of Parisian strumpets doing scandalous Fosse-type routines reflecting Jud’s predilection for postcard porn. At the end there’s a fight where Jud floors Curly and kicks him into a pit surrounded by flames. No one falls asleep during this dream ballet, I assure you.

Emmanuel KojoThe fantastic fire-ography continues in the second half, when the usually happy, primary-coloured rousing title song turns from a celebration of everything that’s good about life into a torch-wielding, white supremacist lynch mob, about to go hunting for Jud. With those few, terrifying, staring seconds at the end of the song, they create a sinister, violent air; and, sure enough, Curly kills Jud (sorry for the spoiler), maybe accidentally, maybe not. Judge Andrew dispenses justice quickly and pragmatically in favour of Curly, and you take a step back from the scene and realise that this is a complete stitch-up against Jud. There’s a guilty red stain on the medder…

Scott Karim and Isaac GrynIt’s vital for a successful production of Oklahoma! that the two young lovers are performed by likeable actors; and Hyoie O’Grady as Curly and Amara Okereke as Laurey are not merely likeable, they’re totally adorable. As far as I can see both have had only limited experience on stage to now (although both are graduates of the Les Miserables cast change challenge) but they are superb. Mr O’Grady boasts a fine line in slightly vulnerable brashness; he’s the kind of guy all the men in the audience want to be, and all the women in the audience (and some of the men) wish their men were. Ms Okereke gives a beautiful and intelligent performance as the confused Laurey, reflecting the simplicity of the character’s life till now, her rightly judged self-esteem and her fears for the future. Both are natural exponents of the art of musical theatre, Ms Okereke in particular filling the vast Festival Theatre with her spectacularly emotional and rich voice. Two young actors who are definitely on the One To Watch list!

Josie LawrenceJosie Lawrence, whom we last saw in the brilliant Edmond de Bergerac in Northampton earlier this year, brings all her warmth and comic timing to the role of Aunt Eller; her on-stage chemistry with Curly and, particularly, Laurey, works beautifully as she acts as a kind of Pandarus between the two. She also has a delightful glint in her eye as she takes her place in the thick of all the dancing cowboys; it’s no surprise that she turns up in Laurey’s dream ballet as the brothel Madame. There’s another excellent partnership between Isaac Gryn as Will and Bronté Barbé as Ado Annie; he, fresh-faced and willing, if a trifle thick and she, wide-eyed, openly semi-promiscuous and easily influenced. Miss Barbé has a growing reputation as one of our new stars of musical theatre, and Mr Gryn is another new find who is already sensational at fronting a big dance number.

Isaac Gryn and Bronte BarbeThere’s a tour de force from the terrific Emmanuel Kojo as Jud, portraying him not as the grotesque pantomime ogre that he is sometimes played, but as a realistic, believable man – a loner, a victim of circumstance, but with plans and ambitions that are as valid as anyone else’s. His chilling scene with Hyoie O’Grady for Pore Jud is Daid, where Curly tries to sing Jud into taking his own life with the rope, plays to Mr Kojo’s strengths as he remains assertively immune to Curly’s suggestions, purely concentrating on his own wants from life. There are also great comedy turns from Emily Langham as the cackling Gertie Cummings and Scott Karim as the exotic wide boy Ali Hakim, expensively extricating himself from an unwanted marriage in a beautifully funny auction scene. And there’s a fantastically talented supporting ensemble in great voice, who bring Matt Cole’s stunning choreography to life.

Hyoie O'Grady and Josie LawrenceThere are those who maintain that musical theatre is an inferior form of the art and that it can achieve nothing more than moderate light entertainment. To those people, I say Phooey! Oklahoma! is proof that you can reflect and convey the full range of emotions of human existence and still come out singing People will say we’re in love. That takes some skill indeed. This is a fantastic production that went down a storm in the theatre; if it doesn’t transfer, I’ll eat my cowhide.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – The Deep Blue Sea, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 27th July 2019

The Deep Blue SeaOne of our favourite annual treats is to enjoy a weekend in Chichester with friends and family, seeing a couple of shows, having a lovely lunch in the Minerva Brasserie, followed by late night sharing boards in the Minerva Grill, and a scrummy Sunday breakfast at the Spires Café. Well, we did all of those things last weekend. It was great.

Hadley Fraser, Gerald Kyd, Nancy Carroll, Deep Blue SeaYou want more detail? I guess I should be more specific about the plays we saw. For the matinee, we had tickets to see Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. Perhaps surprisingly, this is the second Chichester production of this play in eight years; we saw Philip Franks’ production in 2011, and it was thoroughly engrossing; a simple tale, told simply. But I have a memory that it was swamped by the largesse of the Festival Theatre; would a more intimate production in the Minerva be more successful? (Answer: Yes.)

Nancy Carroll Deep Blue SeaThe play was first produced in 1952, at a time when Britain was still attempting to shake off the drabness of Second World War rationing, drabness and general gloom. Men had come back from the war with what we would now know as PTSD, many struggling to find a way to fit back into life and with many women accordingly finding it difficult to cope with their menfolk. Clearly, unless you were a) well-off and b) remarkably well adjusted, it was a tense time for all. Whether it was in a sudden blaze of passion or a slowly-burning sense of growing desire we’re never really sure, but what we do know is that Hester Collyer had thrown away her life as a judge’s wife, with all its comfort, status and solidity, and run off with a ne’er-do-well alcoholic, Freddie Page, who’d been a pilot in the war.

Hadley Fraser Deep Blue SeaBut when the fun, danger and ardour of their affair starts to wane, there’s not much left for Hester to enjoy in life, and the play, famously, starts with her being rescued from a suicide attempt (by gassing herself in front of the fire) by her landlady and neighbours. If she’d had put a shilling in the meter, she’d be dead. The rest of the play examines Hester’s life over the course of one day; from a semi-reconciliation with her husband, desperate niggling arguments with her boyfriend, and reaching an understanding with another of the residents, Mr Miller (not Doctor, please), in whom she sees a fellow recipient of life’s great booby-prize. When it’s time to turn the lights out at the end of the day, will she resist the temptation to make good her suicide attempt of the previous night? If you don’t know the answer to that, I’m not going to tell you!

Hadley Fraser, Laurence Ubong Williams Deep Blue SeaThis is one of those plays that it’s impossible to update; in fact, the stronger you can build up that distinct post-war, 1950s poverty-filled London gloom, the better. Peter McKintosh’s set successfully conjures up a claustrophobic prison of a flat at the top of the stairs in a big multiple-occupancy house, where the landlady Mrs Elton (a nicely judged performance by Denise Black) spends morning, noon and night in pinny and housecoat, perpetually attending to the needs of her tenants, hearing their secrets and then blabbing about them to the neighbours. The all-important gas fire sits starkly against one side of the stage, an ugly, functional installation with no pretence to homely cosiness, quietly reminding us all of its power to end a life.

Nancy Carroll and Ralph Davis Deep Blue SeaThis new production stars Nancy Carroll as Hester Collyer, in an excellent performance that makes you feel that, if only the stars had aligned slightly differently, this Hester would have had a life of glamour and refinement. With an air of calm, resigned resilience, it’s a remarkably spirited portrayal of a suicidal character – she seems to get over it all rather quickly, and rises to the challenges of the day with surprising strength. By contrast, Hadley Fraser’s Freddie Page cuts a much more pathetic figure; a spoilt brat of a wastrel who’s relied on his looks to get him through but when times get tough has no inner resources to back it up. It’s another excellent performance, bringing out all the character’s immaturity and irresponsibility, as he organises long drinking sessions with his mates and refuses to take the blame for his contribution to Hester’s unhappiness. When the first Act finished I wanted to shout down to the stage, Leave him, Hester, he’s not worth it, hun, but I’m not sure if she would have taken my advice.

Matthew Cottle Deep Blue SeaReliable Chichester stalwart Matthew Cottle gives a strong, unsentimental performance as Miller, the once-doctor who still helps with medical advice in the household despite no longer being allowed to practise; although in seedy 1952 North West London, a resident medic would always be in demand. There’s also a toe-curlingly enjoyable scene between Hester and Ralph Davis’ Philp Welch, one of those agonisingly patronising moments when a younger man tries to explain to an older person where they’ve gone wrong in life and what they can do to turn things around. Keeping a lid on her frustration and annoyance, you sense it’s all Hester can do not to stuff the gas tube up his nose and shove a shilling in for good measure.

Helena Wilson Deep Blue SeaThis production received generally excellent reviews and I can see why. Although the pace of the play is quite slow, the attention to detail is impressive, and the commitment and dignity of the performances is a delight, even if the horrors of what they’re going through isn’t. Its final performance was last Saturday night and I don’t know if it’s going to have a life hereafter…but it was a very enjoyable and thought-provoking production.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Flowers for Mrs Harris, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 22nd September 2018

Flowers for Mrs HarrisI remember reading about Flowers for Mrs Harris before it opened in Sheffield a couple of years back and finding that it failed to pique my interest much. Paul Gallico is a writer whose work has never drifted my way, and the bare bones of the story – post-war London charlady goes to Paris to buy a Dior dress – sounded horribly rooted in class and stereotype as well as sentimentally mushy. But then I read the reviews, and admitted to myself that I must have made a mistake.

FFMH1Now that Daniel Evans has taken over the reins at Chichester, I’m not surprised to see Flowers for Mrs H revived in the Festival Theatre, and the timing was right for Professor and Mrs Plum, Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Mrs Chrisparkle and me to incorporate it as one of our theatrical weekends. The Countess had actually read the book in her youth; I don’t think she rated it much, so it was bold of her to consent to attending.

FFMH3London, 1947; free from the tyranny of war, but not of its austerity consequences. Widowed Mrs Harris and her next-door neighbour friend, widowed Mrs Butterfield, just about scrape a living by cleaning the houses of a variety of clients, from posh Lady Dant to wannabe actress Pamela, from a cantankerous retired Major to desperate writer Bob. But it’s when Mrs H goes to Lady D’s to clean (rather than Mrs B, who’s her usual daily) that she espies a Christian Dior dress hanging up in her wardrobe; FFMH2and it’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen. She goes home, chats to the spirit of her dead husband (as you do) and decides then and there that she must have one. Trouble is – it’s £450 – that’s £12,500 in today’s money. It’s going to take her years and years to save. But if Mrs H is one thing, she’s tenacious. She has her dream and she’s not going to let it go. But what happens when Mrs ‘Arris gets to Paris (to almost quote the US name of the book), and just how welcome is une femme de ménage at the exclusive Dior showroom?

FFMH9The book has been adapted into this production by Rachel Wagstaff, who also adapted Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong for the stage; and given a musical score by Richard Taylor who had composed the music for the Royal and Derngate’s production of The Go-Between in 2011. To my mind this is a much more successful venture than either of those previous shows. You won’t find any linguistic or musical fireworks on display in this production; I’ve heard comparisons with Sondheim in the composition department and, personally, I think that’s way off the mark. This is not remotely Sondheimesque; there are no glitteringly memorable tunes nor starkly powerful lyrics that set your teeth on edge at the truths they reveal. But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy them. They create a mellifluous wash-over experience, accompanying the stage actions and the storytelling, but never taking over your attention or your senses.

FFMH4Sentimental? Most definitely yes. Mushy? Surprisingly no. The characterisations throughout are very strong and it’s written with honesty and integrity so that the audience fully appreciates the motivations for what takes place. However, the story itself is delicate and sensitively told. We didn’t quite get a tear in the eye on a few occasions in the second act, but it wasn’t far off. What you do come away from this show with, is a sense that kindness and decency go a long way in making the world a brighter place; the more you give, the more you get. Despite the lack of welcome she receives in Paris, the kindness she gives spreads out like ripples in the water. Happy ending? That’s up to you to decide, depending on your own priorities in life. The colour and light that comes into her world at the end (and indeed, on to the Festival Theatre stage) are unmistakeably heart-warming and life-enhancing.

FFMH8As you would expect, the creative team have gone all out to make this a show to please all the senses. Tom Brady’s ten-piece band deliver Richard Taylor’s score with passion and depth. Lez Brotherston (who else?) has created a deceptively simple set that utilises a revolving track to create the illusion of space, distance and movement brilliantly; and the modest furniture of Ada’s London kitchen drops in and out of view with satisfyingly technical precision. There’s some very inventive use of the staircase, and – no question – some stunning frocks on display in the Paris showroom. And don’t forget those flowers. All those flowers. How can flowers be so emotional?

FFMH5At the heart of the show is a great performance by Claire Burt as Mrs Harris; battered by life’s experiences but incredibly resilient and hugely generous of spirit. Having seen Miss Burt earlier this year as Miss Littlewood, I know that she has an incredible stage presence and a wonderful way of connecting with the audience. Ada Harris doesn’t have the same brash self-confidence that Joan Littlewood does, so Miss Burt channels all her stage efforts to reflect the character’s good nature and innate decency. I must say, we were all a little concerned at the beginning because Miss Burt hit quite a few bum notes in the first ten minutes and I wondered if she was suffering with a virus; however, as the show warmed up, so did she and in the end she gave a beautiful vocal performance.

FFMH6The rest of the cast create a true ensemble, with different roles in both London and Paris. Claire Machin is particularly good as Violet Butterfield, Mrs Harris’ hot-headed friend who only wants the best for her even though she can’t always express it. Joanna Riding is an exquisitely refined Lady Dant and a beautifully flawed Madame Colbert, struggling with the status of her position in conflict with her natural warmth. Laura Pitt-Pulford is wonderful as the lovely Natasha in Paris and suitably irksome as the difficult Pamela. Louis Maskell receives the Best Wobbly Legs on Staircase Award for his brilliant performance as Fauvel, and there are also a series of enjoyable cameos from an otherwise underused Gary Wilmot. The rest of the cast all give sterling support and high-quality performances.

FFMH7I’m not sure what my expectations were of this show – but I feel that they were exceeded. In the simplest terms, it’s just all very lovely, very sweet, and very heart-warming. You’ll leave the theatre with a love for your fellow man that you might not have noticed on your way in. It’s on until Saturday 29th, but I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to discover it appearing on some other stage in the not too distant future.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Copenhagen, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 22nd September 2018

CopenhagenIt’s with happiness tinged with sadness that I reflect that this was our last Chichester weekend of the year. It’s a privilege to be able to visit this influential and creative theatrical hub a few times throughout the summer, mixing it in with sensational lunches at the Minerva Brasserie and an enjoyable wind-down post-show with the excellent sharing boards in the Minerva Grill; unless, like me, you don’t share your board – I have the Vegetarian Board all to myself and it’s fab!

C 8For our final visit to Chichester this year we were spoilt for company, as we had Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Professor and Mrs Plum to enjoy it with us. And for our first theatrical extravaganza of the day, we saw a revival of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, his highly successful play about an imagined get-together by quantum physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, together with Niels’ wife Margrethe, after they’d all died. They looked back at a meeting between them all in 1941 in Copenhagen.

C 7What was the purpose of their meeting? Ay, there’s the rub. The essential elements of what brought them together are played out a number of times as the characters try to get to the truth of exactly what happened and why. I’m no quantum physicist, as you’ll soon see, but apparently – according to Michael Frayn’s introductory note in the programme – the act of observation changes what’s being observed. That’s one of the implications of quantum mechanics that Bohr and Heisenberg formulated in the 1920s. Therefore, every time we go back to re-observe, Groundhog Day-like, the events of that meeting, those events, by their very nature, have changed. Have I lost you? I’ve certainly lost myself.

C 3It’s not often that a play totally bamboozles me, but I confess this one did. Mr Frayn was in the bar later that evening; we really should have asked him to tell us what it was all about, but then we would have looked completely foolish. I take comfort in the fact that more intelligent souls than me, not to mention highly experienced drama and literary critics over the years, have emerged from theatres showing this play saying, in a highly intellectual way of course, “my brain hurts”.

C 2There’s no doubt that this meeting actually happened. In 1941, Bohr’s Denmark had been invaded and subjugated by Heisenberg’s Germany, so it wasn’t the most auspicious of times to meet, even though the two had been old friends from way back. It makes small-talk difficult; when Heisenberg tactlessly suggests a skiing trip to his place in the German mountains, the Bohrs look at him like he’s completely lost his marbles. Most commentators agree that their meeting was to debate the morality of scientists working on the creation of nuclear weapons. Heisenberg was in charge of the Nazi nuclear weapons project; Bohr was a natural peacemaker who despised the thought of science being used in this destructive way. But what actually went on between the two of them, we’ll probably never know. A number of letters were written, and discovered, over the years that complicate the opinions of these protagonists. Frayn’s play is therefore an attempt to clarify, or at least suggest, how the whole meeting might have played out. I think. But I’m not sure.

C 1I was left merely to enjoy the interplay between the characters, the high-quality acting, and convincing arguments being made on stage that you think you understand and follow – only to discover you’ve been left behind on a new strand of arguments and you’ve already forgotten what the first one was about. I think it probably does help if you’re a quantum physicist yourself; none of us is, although between us we do have a number of first-rate intellects who can form an opinion on most things. Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt like we should be wearing dunce caps in the corner.

C 6Maybe one of the problems with this very wordy play is the lack of action. Three actors, three chairs and a lot of sentences doesn’t necessarily make for great drama. Fortunately, Michael Blakemore (still directing at the age of 90, goodness me!) assembled a terrific, committed and intelligent cast who convert Frayn’s text into believable conversation and reminiscence. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Paul Jesson as Bohr; a reasoning and reasonable man but quick to ire and susceptible to bluster, as older authoritative figures frequently are. C 4He delights in pointing out where his Young Pretender’s calculations and assumptions have gone wrong – he is the Master Lecturer, after all. Charles Edwards’ Heisenberg is more measured in tone, calmer in argument, with a little of the smugness you get from being on the winning side of a war (at least at that point). Umpiring the two is Patricia Hodge’s Margrethe, a solemn, contemplative character who chips in with a few pointed remarks but largely keeps her thoughts to herself unless she can see the two men completely going up the wrong path.

C 5The play has long been a success, and it has certainly succeeded in making me curious to know more about these men and their theories. Alas, its short season has now ended, but this powerful, if static, production certainly exercised our brainboxes!

Production photos by Conrad Blakemore