Review – The Narcissist, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 7th September 2022

The NarcissistThere’s a moment about five minutes into Josh Seymour’s excellent production of Christopher Shinn’s deeply fascinating The Narcissist, when the main character Jim, a writer and political adviser, explains why the last American election was lost by the Democrats. “To win, a candidate has to understand that the average voter is angry, scared, selfish, petty, perverse probably – but most of all […] pessimistic.” His advice is to ignore all those traditional attitudes of “we will do it better…” “you can trust in us…” or (as very recently in the UK) “I – will – deliver”, because no one will believe you. And I confess I was completely swept away by this brilliant political analysis-in-a-play, with its cynicism, insight and study of power and ambition.

Harry LloydBut Jim has a private life too, and to say it’s messy is an understatement. Every waking minute is spent juggling his temporary engagement by The Senator to get her through a series of TV debates and addresses; he’s also co-writing a book with his best friend, dealing with the end of a long-term relationship with Emma, managing a domestic battlefield between his mother, his brother and his girlfriend Harry Lloyd and Stuart Thompson(most of whom don’t like each other), plus setting up some online sexual shenanigans with The Waiter (Jim is bi, and rather actively so, it would seem). With so much activity going on, it’s inevitable that he takes his eye off the ball occasionally – and he does, with at least two dramatic consequences.

Stage podsTo emphasise the constant interchange of conversation with all the various people in Jim’s orbit, Shinn has constructed this play to give equal weight between not only interactions with others in real life, but also text messages and phone calls. At the back of Jasmine Swan’s splendidly modernistically designed stage, are various text pods; little boxes that light up when the person housed inside them is having a text conversation with Jim. Which of us can hold their hand up and say they never text others whilst having a real-life conversation with someone else?Claire Skinner I know I can’t. This presentation perfectly depicts the tricky balance between holding real life conversations and text chats at the same time, and how one’s tone can change instantly from one interaction to another. It shines an insightful light into the intricacy of this modern form of communication.

Caroline Gruber and Harry LloydIt also creates an immense challenge for the actor playing Jim – Harry Lloyd – who deals with the multifaceted conversations with effortless ease, being, for example, business-like with the Senator’s Aide, long-suffering with his mother, flirtatious with the waiter and pleading with his friend/co-writer all in virtually the same sentence. Mr Lloyd manages to make us (largely) identify with Jim as we accompany him through all these different types of conversational relationships, feeling his suffering, admiring his wisdom and abilities. He’s hardly ever off stage and puts in a tremendous performance.

Paksie Vernon and Harry LloydHe’s supported by an excellent cast; Claire Skinner’s Senator reminds you strongly of Hilary Clinton even though she’s clearly a different person, crisply requiring instant answers in words of 300 or less because she hasn’t time to waste, and steadfastly refusing to open up to let the electorate see the real her until Jim eventually succeeds at just slightly cracking her veneer. Caroline Gruber is excellent as Mom, pretending helplessness, picking at self-pity, weak until tragedy means she must either buckle under or survive. Paksie Vernon is great as Jim’s friend and co-writer Kara, balancing her own domestic crises with her workload, realising she’s always going to play second fiddle to him until she too finds herself a voice of assertiveness.

Jenny WalserStuart Thompson is also excellent as the carefully spoken Waiter, gently probing at the possibility of a sexual relationship with Jim but not standing for any nonsense from him; and Jenny Walser is also superb as the demanding, unreasonable, and petulant Cecily. There’s also great support from Simon Lennon as Jim’s wayward brother Andrew and Akshay Khanna as the Senator’s aide.

Simon LennonThe Narcissist is an interesting, perhaps curious title for the play; you might enjoy playing “spot the narcissist” as the plot develops, although to be honest, there are at least two of them, and conceivably five or six amongst the eight-person scenario. The play is red-hot where it comes to politics, interacting with the electorate, and the pitfalls of social media on both a public and private level. It also comes with a surprisingly optimistic ending, which is a pleasant bonus. I’m not quite sure the play succeeds as well with mixing Jim’s political work with his private life. There’s one, rather long, but very important scene where Jim is at home and is visited by The Waiter for a little “home-servicing”, where the energy strangely drops at first, and I found myself hanging around waiting for my interest in the story to resume. Harry Lloyd and Stuart ThompsonNothing at all wrong with the performances, or indeed the direction – the two of them chasing/retreating each other around the sofa was beautifully and funnily done – so I think the writing might just get a little bogged down there. But overall this is a fascinating and relevant modern work that has a lot to say about political and Internet discourse. Very enjoyable!

P.S. The cast seemed curiously ill-at-ease during the curtain call, as if asking each other was that all right without actually saying anything. I note that the show finished after about 2 hours 10 minutes, whereas the programme suggests it should be 2 hours 20 minutes, so I wonder if they might have an unwittingly missed a chunk of the show out! If they did, don’t worry – you got away with it!

Production photos by Johan Persson

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

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

3-stars

Three-sy Does It!

Review – Crazy For You, Festival Theatre Chichester, 23rd July 2022

Crazy For YouJust as the ecstatic applause at the end of the first act was dying down, Mrs Chrisparkle turned to me and said This is the kind of show you usually hate – and she’s totally right. I like my musicals to be meaty. To pose problems. To issue challenges. To delve deep into the heart of humanity and winkle out nuggets of truth so that you come out of the show a different person from the one you went in as. Crazy For You does absolutely none of those things. And it is, quite simply, a glorious delight from start to finish.

Bobby and the GirlsDirector and choreographer Susan Stroman, who had worked on the original 1992 production, was already making plans for a revival of this Gershwin extravaganza way back when none of us had ever heard of Covid. Then, with all the theatres shut, and not much hope for the future on the horizon, it naturally retreated to her back-burner. That is, until the fickle hand of fate prompted Chichester Artistic Director Daniel Evans to ask her if she would bring the show back to Sussex. And, with a superbly talented cast and production team to bring it to reality, this early juke-box musical (it feels like it should be from the 1930s but it isn’t) is gracing the stage of the Festival Theatre, and sending its audiences on their merry way home with a spring in their step and pretend tap-shoes on their feet.

Irene, Bobby and LottieAs I indicated at the beginning, the plot is very simple. Theatre-mad Bobby Child is sent by his bank-owning Mamma to Nevada to foreclose the mortgage on an inactive little theatre way out west. But it’s not in Bobby’s nature to ever close a theatre down, especially when it’s owned by the father of the only girl in the town, the feisty Polly, with whom Bobby instantly falls head over heels in love. The rest of the show revolves around his attempts to both woo Polly and also impersonate Bela Zangler, the impresario, in a last-ditch attempt to stage a show so that audiences can return and the theatre can become financially solvent again. But I wouldn’t worry too much about the plot. It’s really not important.

Bobby and the BoysThe show takes Gershwin songs from a number of their Greatest Hits, including I Got Rhythm, Someone to Watch Over Me, They Can’t Take That Away from Me, Nice Work if You can Get it, Embraceable You, and plenty of other showtoonz. Musical Director Alan Williams leads a fantastic 16-person band – which is a pretty big quantity of musicians – and you can instantly tell how full and rich the sound is. Before any action takes place, during the overture, Ken Billington’s lighting design puts the shimmering front curtain through its paces with a range of warm exciting colours, preparing you for the visual feast to follow. All these visual and audio cues really gee you up in expectation of a great show, so the audience is truly buzzing even before the performance truly gets underway.

Slap That BassAnd it’s a show of sheer enjoyment. Ken Ludwig’s book is full of fun; silly jokes that hit perfectly, rewarding routines, such as the two Zanglers mimicking each other in a mirror, cartoon effects like the tweety-bird sound when a character hits their head, and there’s an early contender for the Best Performance in a Musical by a piece of tumbleweed award, as the aforementioned stage contraption merrily makes its way across the Deadrock landscape. Each piece of comic business, each interactive musical moment, each comic characterisation goes towards making the show a thing of total bliss. And, to be fair, yes, the substance of the show is lightweight and fluffy and doesn’t make you think again about the Human Condition. However, unlike some juke-box musicals, the structure actually works, and the choice of songs does largely make sense, with many of them either forwarding the plot or giving us a further insight into the singer’s character. And there are plenty of reputable musicals that don’t achieve that.

The FodorsAs you would expect from Susan Stroman, the choreography throughout is dynamic, thrilling, inventive, comical, and passionate, and makes big demands on the star performers who rise to the occasion superbly. Chichester had already taken Charlie Stemp to its heart after his rise to fame and fortune in Rachel Kavanaugh’s Half a Sixpence six years ago, so it was no surprise that he received a star round of applause on his typically ebullient first entry on stage. Mr Stemp is a master (if not THE master) of song-and-dance on stage, and responds to Ms Stroman’s demands with all the brilliance you’d expect. But he is more than matched by a fantastic performance by Carly Anderson as Polly, who has a dream of a voice and wonderful comic timing, and together they are pretty much matchless.

PollyThere’s also an impressive physical comedy performance from Tom Edden (you’d expect nothing less from him) as Bela Zangler, Merryl Ansah is a delightfully tricky Irene, with a terrific surprise up her sleeve that comes later in the second act; Gay Soper is wonderful as Bobby’s frosty mother Lottie, and there’s excellent support from Mathew Craig as the grumpy Lank Hawkins, Don Gallagher as Polly’s living-in-the-past father Everett, and from Adrian Grove and Jacquie Dubois as the frightfully British Fodors, unexpectedly arrived to review Lank’s Hotel. The boys and girls of the ensemble are also fantastic, Belawith many hilarious and endearing vignettes, as well as brilliant singing and dancing skills. Sadie-Jean Shirley, Kate Parr, Mark Akinfolarin and Joshua Nkemdilim in particular stand out, but everyone pours their hearts and souls into delivering a magnificent performance.

Like The Unfriend a few weeks ago, Chichester have come up with another tremendous triumph that is totally West End-ready. We went as part of a group of eight and every single one of us adored every minute of it. That’s got to be a good sign!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – The Southbury Child, Bridge Theatre, London, 6th July 2022

The Southbury ChildHere’s another of those plays that has spent a long time in coming to fruition, battling its way through the rigours of Covid and Lockdowns and all the other ghastly things that flesh is heir to over the last couple of years. But, as always, good things come to he who waits, and Stephen Beresford’s The Southbury Child is a fascinating, at times hilarious, at times tragic play, chock-full of trigger warnings and difficult subject matter.

CraigThe premise is very simple. Local vicar David Highland is to conduct the funeral of a child – young Tyler Southbury. Her mother’s simple wish to make the ceremony less funereal is to have the church full of balloons. Tyler loved balloons. She loved Disney. So Disney balloons would be best. David Highland is no high-and-mighty po-faced clergyman; he’s had his own share of escapades, including a drink problem and having an affair, so you might expect him to be more on the side of the experimental and flexible wing of the Church – if it’s going to make the family more able to face the awful process of a child’s funeral, what’s the harm in some balloons?

DavidHowever, David has his principles – specifically where it comes to church traditions and practices – and balloons are a step too far for him. Cue a massive backlash against David and his family from the villagers. How could he be so heartless? The local bishop decides he needs to send in a new curate, Craig, as a kind of troubleshooter-cum-support mechanism but he can’t prevent things from getting truly out of hand. Will David suspend his principles just this once, for the sake of the village and the affected family? You’ll have to watch the play to find out.

Tina and LeeAlcoholism, the death of a child, infidelity, car crashes, racial prejudice, revenge; Stephen Beresford pulls no punches where it comes to dealing with the trickier subjects. And he makes those subjects hit hard by employing a devilish sense of humour, which makes the two and a half hours of this play absolutely fly by. Mark Thompson’s domestic set has the presence of the local church looming threateningly over it as a backdrop; no matter where you go in this play you can’t escape the Church. And those principles… do they strengthen the Church, and the relationship between the church and the parishioners, or do they drive a wedge in between them, showing the Church to be anachronistic and out of touch? That’s a question for you to decide.

Mary and DavidNicholas Hytner has assembled a brilliant cast who really get to grips with their characters and give us moments of high drama as well as dishing out the comedy with enviable deftness. Alex Jennings is superb as David Highland; an amiable, good-humoured kindly man but one for whom the red mist descends when the tensions get high. Phoebe Nicholls is also excellent as his long-suffering but humourless wife Mary; together they paint a very credible picture of a couple who tolerate each other but could have wished for better. I really enjoyed the performance of Josh Finan as Tyler’s uncle Lee, negotiating the details of the funeral, getting strangely inspired by the vicar but then furious with his stance over the balloons; he too has his own deep regrets to overcome, and Mr Finan shows us expertly the anguish that a few misplaced lies and misjudgements can create.

NaomiJack Greenlees is extremely good as the curate Craig, finding his way in a strange and strained environment, trying to balance his religious needs with his family life; Racheal Ofori sparkles (literally) as the party-girl, ex-actress daughter Naomi who gets a kick out of teasing anyone who’ll stand still, just to get a reaction; and Hermione Gulliford injects the character of the doctor’s wife Janet with just the right amount of snobbish dislikeablility. There’s also great support from Jo Herbert as the frustrated daughter Susannah, Holly Atkins as local police officer Joy and Sarah Twomey as the grieving mother Tina Southbury.

Lee and DavidI hope I’m not giving the game away by revealing that the final scene of the play depicts the final preparations for Tyler’s funeral, tiny white coffin and all. Mrs Chrisparkle found this scene highly emotional. I must say that I didn’t. I thought it simply depicted an event that would have been best played out in our own minds; although it was delicately done I still feel that it lacked subtlety, and that as a result the play ends with a bit of a soggy bottom. Just my personal opinion – you may well not agree. This co-production with the Chichester Festival Theatre continues at the Bridge Theatre until 27th August.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Murder on the Orient Express, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 4th June 2022

Murder on the Orient ExpressI was in two minds about seeing the new play adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. On the one hand, I’ve read the book several times, seen the movie (Albert Finney, not Kenneth Branagh), and remember clearly both the crime and the (admittedly exciting) denouement and solution. So this wasn’t going to give me any of those suspenseful thrills that come from seeing a brand new murder mystery. On the other hand, I was sure that Chichester would put on a brilliant production, that Henry Goodman would be a superb Poirot, and we were going to be in town anyway to see The Unfriend so it seemed churlish not to!

Poirot at the denouementYou all know the story, I’m sure. Poirot needs to return home from Istanbul and his friend M. Bouc, who manages the Wagons-Lit Orient Express insists he takes a first class compartment as his guest. What a very good friend M. Bouc is! The first class compartment is unusually busy though; and his travelling companions include the Wagons Lit conductor Michel, plus a Hungarian countess, a Russian princess, an English governess and her military beau, a Swedish missionary, an extravagant American woman and the businessman Samuel Ratchett and his secretary. Ratchett – a loudmouth bully with more money than taste – wants to hire Poirot’s services and is willing to pay big bucks. But Poirot is not interested in this brute and will not take the job.

Poirot and BoucThe train encounters a snowdrift and pauses near Belgrade with no expectation of moving for hours, perhaps days. And at (maybe, maybe not) 1.15am the next morning, Ratchett is murdered by multiple stab wounds. Bouc beseeches Poirot to solve the case before the Yugoslavian police catch up with them – the reputation of the train company is at stake. But Poirot’s first interest would always be justice. When he identifies the guilty party – not if, but when, this is Poirot we’re talking about – he will insist they are handed over to the police, non? But sometimes justice isn’t quite as easy to define as Poirot makes out…

BedroomsRobert Jones’ design for the show is simply terrific. From the opulence of the Istanbul hotel, to the train station, and the individual compartments and dining tables, the whole thing looks stunning. There’s a wonderful optical illusion of the train moving through tunnels that works incredibly well. The costumes are superb, with some evening dresses to die for, and Christopher Shutt’s sound design is full of evocative effects and sometimes blood-curdling shocks. Whether intentional or not I don’t know, but Adrian Sutton’s music frequently put me in mind of Richard Rodney Bennett’s soundtrack to the 1974 film.

Countess AndrenyiAs a Christie fan, and knowing the book intimately, I was very impressed by Ken Ludwig’s adaptation. He has taken out some of the more minor on-board characters/suspects, given the role of the doctor to the Countess Andrenyi so that she is both assistant and suspect, and enhanced the moral question that Poirot must face at the end of his investigations. He has also removed some of the clues, such as the scarlet kimono, and Mrs Hubbard’s sponge bag, and added a terrific surprise just before the interval curtain which is completely different from Christie’s original but works extremely well – I’ll say no more.

PoirotThe big challenge of the play is to make the denouement exciting even though most of the audience will already know whodunit. This it achieves perfectly; the denouement takes up at least the last half hour of the show if not more, and as Poirot goes through his suspects and his reasonings, you can hear a pin drop in the auditorium. The circular stage of the Festival Theatre revolves very slowly, with each of the suspects sitting on chairs, their backs to the audience, spaced out equally, so that you can witness each of them squirming in turn facing interrogation. It also irons out any blocking issues!

PoirotAt the heart of the story, and the production, stands the dapper and slightly diminutive figure of Henry Goodman as Poirot. None of the caricature or pantomime dandy that some characterisations have invested in him, this Poirot is gently arrogant, takes pride in his appearance, has a swishy moustache and all the other attributes that you associate with him – but they’re all extremely believable. He Frenchifies up his accent quite a bit – so that you get 60 seconds in a minoote, or a suspect leaves a fangerprint on a clue. But he’s riveting throughout; and you can completely believe that those little grey cells are working dix-neuf á la douzaine within that intricate brain of his.

MichelPatrick Robinson gives excellent support as the hearty and positive Monsieur Bouc, doing his best to look on the bright side and desperately hoping that Poirot can get him out of trouble. One of my favourite actors, Marc Antolin, gives a superb performance as Michel the conductor, delicately extricating himself from Mrs Hubbard’s clutches and handling the princess with the kiddest of gloves. Sara Stewart is brilliant as the aforementioned ostentatious Mrs Hubbard, appallingly flirtatious and ruthless, sparring magnificently with Joanna McCallum’s haughty and dismissive Princess Dragomiroff. Philip Cairns and Taz Munyaneza weave great intrigue together as Arbuthnot and Mary Debenham, and Timothy Watson is terrific as the mean, snarling Ratchett. But the whole cast work together as an ensemble extremely well, and keep the suspense and entertainment going right up to the final minute.

Dragomiroff and OhlssonThe show has now finished its run at the Chichester Festival Theatre but will be playing at the Theatre Royal Bath from 9th to 25th June. If you’re a Christie fan, you’ll love it – and if, somehow, you don’t yet know whodunit, attendance is compulsory!! Enormously entertaining and totally gripping.

 

Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive let Theatre Thrive!

Review – The Unfriend, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 4th June 2022

The UnfriendWe’ve all been there. You get chatting to someone on holiday, and you get on fine. Maybe go for a drink with them or a meal. You think, what a nice person. Then someone says, we must keep in touch once we get home. And then sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t. More often you don’t. This salutary tale will make sure you never consider this reckless activity in the future!

Frances BarberWhilst on a cruise holiday, Elsa from Denver, Colorado, gets talking to Peter and Debbie from suburban England. She clings to them like a limpet, and they’re too polite to discourage her. Elsa demands that they visit her in Denver when they’re next there (which would be never, obvs.) However, she corners Debbie to surrender her email address, which she triumphantly and ominously waves in the air after Debbie’s left. Would Elsa come all the way to spend a week or more in England? You betcha.

Amanda Abbington and Reece ShearsmithWhat could have been a gently amusing comedy of manners highlighting the behavioural differences between the brash, dominating American and the overpolite reserve of the English, has been transformed into a riotous comedy by a plot masterstroke. On a whim, Debbie checks Google, only to discover that Elsa is a mass-murderer. What on earth can they do now?! Peter and Debbie do everything they can to deter her, but Elsa’s more than up to the task. Are they and their family at risk of being wiped out? If not, who else will Elsa eliminate? You’ll have to see the play to find out.

Elsa with the kidsSteven Moffat’s The Unfriend is two hours of unalloyed comedy bliss. There’s the successful, busy couple who self-medicate on wine to get through the day; two obnoxious, petulant teenagers who hate their parents almost as much as they hate each other; a dull-as-ditchwater neighbour who’s so boring that whenever he speaks you stop listening; and a well-meaning local bobby who treats their house as though it’s his own. Into this mix comes the bold as brass, unpredictable Elsa Jean Krakowski who – on top of everything else – has amazing insight and the ability to convince anyone of anything. A potentially lethal insight into what people are really like, in fact.

Michael SimkinsIt is without doubt one of the funniest plays of the 21st century and sits perfectly among the best of Ayckbourn, Frayn or Nichols as a work that not only gives you a belly-laugh a minute, but also reveals the ridiculousness of English middle-class angst and the hoops that people will jump through in order not to offend, even to their own detriment. It also shows the unexpectedly positive power that a visitor can have by shaking up the comfortable rut into which a family can otherwise stagnate.

Junkin, Peter and DebbieThe structure and plotting is of the first order, and the dialogue is crisp and hilarious. There are so many ecstatically brilliant moments that turn on the inspired use of just one word. Go to see this show and you’ll be laughing at the use of “vaccinated” and “particles” for days. Mark Gatiss’ direction is razor-sharp; every one of the characters’ gestures and movements has meaning and is never wasted. Next time you want someone to sit down because you’re going to give them a good talking-to, you’ll find that you’re giving them a grand, slow arm gesture in the direction of the chair. It’s a gesture that takes on a life of its own in this show.

ElsaAll the performances are staggeringly good. Frances Barber is wonderful as Elsa, always maintaining a slight air of mystery, her eyes and voice occasionally revealing the dangerous threat that lurks just a little beneath the surface. Delightfully dominating but never a grotesque caricature, it’s a fantastic comic performance. Amanda Abbington is great as Debbie, mouthing anxious messages to her husband, collapsing on the sofa without spilling a drop of wine, trying to keep order in the house when the odds are so against her.

Gabriel HowellThere’s a fantastic double act from Gabriel Howell as son Alex and Maddie Holliday as daughter Rosie, whining and grumping their way around the stage as the Kids from Hell, until Elsa’s influence turns them into hilariously unbelievable sweetness and light. Michael Simkins is brilliant as the tedious nameless neighbour who is too easy to ignore, moaning about a property boundary issue. And there’s a fantastically funny performance by Marcus Onilude as PC Junkin who accidentally becomes the target of one of the funniest misunderstandings I’ve ever seen in a comedy.

Reece ShearsmithWhich brings me to Reece Shearsmith as Peter, in an outstanding comedy performance with remarkable timing and gloriously understated physical comedy. The sequence where he’s outside the toilet door makes your toes curl with embarrassment and your stomach cringe with agony but it’s the funniest scene I’ve seen in years. I wish I could give you more details but I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises!

the CastThe run at the Minerva Theatre is virtually sold out now, but there’s no way this production isn’t going straight into the West End; and with its many nuances, so many brilliant lines, deft deliveries and glorious gestures, it demands to be seen again. Up there with Noises Off and One Man Two Guvnors for longevity potential. As you might be able to guess – we loved it!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Five Alive let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Doubt: A Parable, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 29th January 2022

DoubtIn these strange times of uncertainty, with contrasting opinions on the seriousness of the pandemic and how it should be handled, and our political leaders constantly being exposed as liars and scoundrels, it’s not inappropriate that we should turn to a parable for help. My OED defines a parable as “a saying in which something is expressed in terms of something else […] a narrative of imagined events used to illustrate or convey a moral or spiritual lesson”.

Father FlynnWhat better time for the Chichester Festival Theatre to give us – all too briefly – John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable, winner of the 2005 Tony Award for Best Play and Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Ninety minutes of uncertainty and suspicion crammed into one act; the original cast apparently described the second act as the audience deciding who was right and who was wrong on their journey home. And so it still is; we sat in the pub for hours afterwards debating the whys and wherefores of it all.

Sister AloysiusThe play is set in a Catholic school and church in New York in 1964. Head nun and principal Sister Aloysius is a stickler for the old style of education – the children are all terrified of her and that’s exactly how she wants it. She takes naïve young teacher Sister James to task for being too enthusiastic and forward thinking in her teaching style; but also takes advantage of her honesty by asking her what she feels about the charismatic Father Flynn, who teaches the boys sport and who has taken a shine to one particular boy, Donald Muller. Sister Aloysius is convinced there is something unnatural about his interest in Donald, and seeks to expose it. Father Flynn is appalled at the suggestion; but then he would be, wouldn’t he.

Father FlynnLike feathers wafted from a torn pillow, gossip spreads uncontrollably; and once they’re out there, you can’t gather those missing feathers and stuff them back in the pillow. Is Sister Aloysius right? Is he a danger to the children? Or is Father Flynn right, and is his care purely pastoral? And what does Donald’s mother make of it all? I was going to say you’ll have to watch the play to find out, but there are no easy answers to these questions, and you’ll have to spend your own second act working it all out to your best conclusion. At the end of the ninety minutes, you simply don’t know what to believe. Sister Aloysius has the last word and the last gesture, as you would expect. Does she have doubt?

Mrs MullerIt’s a beautifully crafted and written play, with a sparse elegance, relatively simple plot line (but watch out for the twists) and riveting characters. Joanna Scotcher’s comfortless design reveals a world of Spartan harshness, where the patchy and scratchy gardens are precisely like those where the seed falls on stony soil; there’s another parable for you. The nuns’ plain black habits make a telling contrast with the colour of the Father’s vestments and his white sports kit, and Mrs Muller’s formal but smart outfit. Looming over everything at the back of the stage is a cross in reverse; light streams through a cross shape that has been cut out of a black background, suggesting that perhaps an absence of organised religion sheds more light on the world than its presence.

Flynn and AloysiusCentral to the whole production is a thrillingly controlled performance by Monica Dolan as Sister Aloysius; her clipped, well-chosen words cutting through any pretence of kindness or supportiveness. Listening to others’ opinions, her facial muscles quiver with anticipation at her next well-planned and killing rejoinder. Ruthless and driven, she didn’t get where she is today without enormous self-assertiveness. But are her actions justified in protecting the children? Maybe.

Three clergyShe’s matched by an excellent performance by Sam Spruell as Flynn, his relaxed eloquence and caring, measured tones making a complete contrast with Sister Aloysius, until his fury is lit by her accusations. Is his personal, hands-on style a reassuring presence in Donald’s life? Maybe. Jessica Rhodes is also excellent as Sister James, desperately hoping that the unpleasant situation would just go away so that life can be happy again. Is her innocent, generous attitude protecting the children? Maybe. And Rebecca Sproggs gives a brilliant performance as Mrs Muller, weighing the balance of good versus bad, seeing the situation from a broader perspective from outside this cloistered existence, with a sense of practicality and realism. Is she looking after her child’s best interests? Probably.

Two SistersA stunning production from Lia Williams and four superb performances make this a truly riveting drama. Sadly it was only scheduled for a very brief run at the Festival Theatre, where it closes on February 5th. Do yourself a favour and see it.

 

Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

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!