Review – Girl from the North Country, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 26th January 2023

Girl from the North CountryI’d heard great things about Girl from the North Country, and it got a slew of five star reviews when it first hit the West End back in 2017. It’s been touring the UK and Ireland since last summer, so I thought it would be a good plan to check it out and see what all the fuss is about. I’m not a massive Bob Dylan fan, but I know what I like and I like what I know (most of the time). Not a ringing endorsement but I was looking forward to hearing a few familiar tunes. As it turned out, of the twenty songs listed in the programme, I only knew three – I Want You, Like a Rolling Stone, and Hurricane. However, you know that old saying, if you’re going to do a cover version, make it totally different from the original so that there’s a point of doing  it. As far as I can make out, all the songs in this show are very different in sound and style from Dylan’s originals. So that’s a plus in my book.

CastThe place: Duluth, Minnesota; the time: 1934. Nick Laine is the proprietor of an old guesthouse, but it’s not making money and the banks are getting restless. His wife, Elizabeth, suffers from dementia; their son Gene is alcoholic; and their nineteen-year-old daughter Marianne is five months pregnant with no sign of the father. Nick’s having an affair with one of the guesthouse residents, Mrs Neilsen; also living there are the once wealthy Burke family, now down-at-heels due to their failed business, and their son has learning disabilities. Marianne is being romantically pursued by Mr Perry, a good fifty years her senior; there’d be no real relationship if they got married but it would make her “respectable”. One night, sheltering from a storm, arrive the Reverend Marlowe, who makes his money out of selling bibles, and Joe Scott, an ex-boxer with nowhere to go.

Mrs B and the DoctorSounds like a cross between a soap opera and the set-up of an Agatha Christie murder mystery! And that’s one of the stranger things about this production; much of it reminded me of something else. It seemed to me to struggle to find its own identity. In an attempt to forge links between Bob Dylan’s back catalogue and to create a credible dramatic storyline to deal with these various characters, it kind of falls between two stools. The music imposes itself on the action rather than growing organically from the plot; in this regard it reminded me of the recent hit Standing at the Sky’s Edge, but the relationship between the music and the story was much more balanced in that show. The structure of the play element starts with a side character, Dr Walker, introducing us to the people and their environment, and ends with him winding up events, telling us when and how they died, and how their fortunes fared. In that regard, it reminded me of the lawyer Alfieri in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, who bookends proceedings with an introduction and a wrap-up.

SingersI thought it was also revealing that the list of Dylan songs in the programme (always helpful to see in a musical) also tells us the year each song came out, and which album they’re on, presumably so that people can then follow up on the original recordings should they wish at their own leisure. Bizarrely, what the programme doesn’t tell us, is which characters/performers sing which songs. This sends a signal that the presence of the songs and their heritage is more important than the actual show. It’s almost as though it’s subtly disrespecting itself.

Elizabeth and Mr BThe overall result is a very melancholic show; there’s very little light and shade with the portrayal of the characters, all of whom are having various degrees of a rotten time, and none of whom get what they want from life. I’m not saying I want a happy ending – that wouldn’t be realistic; but perhaps neither is it realistic that not one of the characters has anything positive or pleasing happen to them.

MarianneHowever, where the show does succeed is with the musical performances – and, indeed, the performances in general. There are some tremendously beautiful arrangements in that score, courtesy of great work by Musical Supervisor Simon Hale. The music is all played live on stage, in part by the cast as a whole, but mainly by four musicians who are mostly restricted to one corner of the stage, out of sight, out of mind. Musically, it is a superbly talented cast who harmonise fantastically and come out with some amazing solo singing. Standout performances for me were from Justina Kehinde as the robustly individual Marianne, Joshua C Jackson as the majestically voiced Joe Scott, and Frances McNamee as the dementia-suffering Elizabeth, finely revealing how someone with dementia may be incapable of controlling their own behaviour but they were a strong and powerful person in their past. At our performance, the part of Mrs Neilsen was played by understudy Nichola MacEvilly and her singing voice is sensational.

Duquesne WhistleOther highlights include the wonderful staging of the song Duquesne Whistle, with Ross Carswell’s Elias dressed in other-worldly white, and Gregor Milne’s plaintive performance of I Want You as Gene loses his childhood sweetheart to another, less hopeless, man. And it’s always a delight to see one of my favourite actors, Teddy Kempner, as the awful Mr Perry, constantly proffering a measly bouquet that gets more manky day by day. Among the ensemble, Daniel Reid-Walters stood out as being a powerhouse of dance and enthusiasm.

Reverend and EliasThere’s no question that this is a generally enjoyable show, whose musical element satisfies, soothes and intrigues. It doesn’t leap out at you as being a show to love; instead, it’s a very reserved experience, not wishing to draw attention to itself. Quality, yes; but for me there is something lacking. Joe ScottThe tour continues to Bristol, Birmingham, Belfast, Aberdeen, Norwich, Leicester and Wimbledon.

P. S. I haven’t a clue why the show is called Girl from the North Country. Yes, there is a song of that name, that features briefly in the show; but I don’t get its overall significance. Mind you, the story itself is somewhat nebulous so no other title leaps out of your imagination; so it might as well be called Girl from the North Country as anything else.

Production photos by Johan Persson

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – The Lavender Hill Mob, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 14th January 2022

Lavender Hill MobEight of us descended on the Chichester Festival Theatre on Saturday night for the last night of Phil Porter’s stage adaptation of the famous Ealing Comedy The Lavender Hill Mob – or at least, the last night of this leg of its UK tour, which started last October and continues for a few more weeks before they all finally get to put their feet up.  And it was with a great sense of curiosity that I attended, as I have read some extremely positive comments about the show, and also one comment (from someone whose opinion I respect) saying it was one of the worst shows they’ve ever seen. It must be Marmite!

Gold!But first, allow me to offer you a little history lesson, gentle reader – do you remember the original film? It was released in 1951, starred Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, and featured a very young Audrey Hepburn; and the British Film Institute ranked it the 17th Greatest British Film of All Time. That’s some reputation! Mrs Chrisparkle and I had never seen it until a few weeks ago when, knowing that we were going to be seeing this new stage version, thought we ought to take a look at the film so that we would be able to make those invidious comparisons between the two that you should never do. And, indeed, it is a charming and very well-made comedy caper which we both enjoyed – although I’d never put it anywhere near the 17th Greatest British Film of All Time. Not considering Genevieve is only listed 86th and Shirley Valentine doesn’t appear at all.

Aamira ChallengerIn case you don’t know – and I’m sure you do – Henry Holland is an unambitious London bank clerk, in charge of supervising the Gold Bullion deliveries from the Royal Mint. Enlisting the help of a slightly less-than-honest manufacturer of tourist trash – specifically miniature Eiffel Towers – and a couple of other petty crooks, he hatches a plan to steal the bullion bars and, using his accomplice’s workshop, convert them into Golden Eiffel Towers. But, of course, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, and the main emphasis of the film (maybe slightly less of the play) is on the comedy ensuing from their failed attempts to get away with it.

Death by baguetteSo is it Marmite? Well, yes. Four of us really enjoyed it, the other four (including myself) found it a bit meh. On the plus side, I was very impressed how faithfully it reflected the original film, taking us to Rio whence Holland has fled to escape the Metropolitan Police hunting for the Brains (?) behind the big gold bullion heist. Whereas the film then flashes back to London and shows the main story, the play stays in Rio, where Holland coaxes all the ex-pats at his Club to enact the story of the crime – and they don’t need much coaxing. The film has the marvellous twist that the person to whom Holland is recounting his story throughout the film is in fact the police officer come to arrest him – whereas that twist is missing from the stage production, resulting in rather a lame ending.

Ooh la laThat said, there are plenty of laugh out loud moments – my favourite was the delightful “Calais to Dover” scene where our anti-heroes get thwarted at every attempt to follow the bunch of schoolgirls who have unknowingly purchased six genuine Golden Eiffel Towers. There’s a lot of physical comedy, but some of it seems just a trifle half-hearted. Francis O’Connor has constructed an excellent set that frames many of the elements of English country life that you might well miss if you were an ex-pat in Rio, but which adapt very nicely into the story. I loved how the two palm trees at the back of the stage became the Eiffel Tower – very innovative!

Justin EdwardsAnd there’s a very charming ensemble feel to the whole staging; one of our party thought the show felt very Am Dram, which is true but is also probably exactly what the creative team intend. These Rio Brits are not actors, they’re retired knights of the realm or ambassadors, or well-to-do Ladies; and they take on the roles of the crooks with a nice blend of their own characterisations and those of the people they are portraying. Quite clever really; but it is that sense of amateurism that basically overshadows the whole production, leaving you feeling a bit dissatisfied.

Miles JuppIs it basically a vehicle for Miles Jupp to present himself as a rather posh, well-educated, upper middle class sort of chappie, without having to do that much acting? Probably. That said, he’s very entertaining as Holland; there are also nice performances from Justin Edwards, Tessa Churchard and John Dougall as locals-cum-Londoners. Tim Sutton brings a fine touch of magic (literally) to the role of Sammy, and Aamira Challenger’s Fernanda lends a hint of what feels like Genuine Rio to the production. EiffelI felt rather sorry for Guy Burgess in the unrewarding role of Farrow the police officer, constantly having to be the onlooker and rarely taking part in proceedings.

However, I came away from the show feeling that it was all a little underwhelming, although I’m not sure that they could have done anything better with the material at their disposal. Nevertheless, there was a lot to enjoy and a lot of laughs – if not quite as many as one might have expected. It’s certainly not bad – and it’s certainly not great. The tour continues to Cambridge, Guildford, Glasgow, Bath and Truro.

Production photos by Hugo Glendinning

3-starsThree-sy Does It!

Review – Mrs Warren’s Profession, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 1st December 2022

Mrs Warren's ProfessionYou’ve heard the phrase, gentle reader, The Show Must Go On; well, the Chichester Festival Theatre took that to new heights last week during their turn to show the Theatre Royal Bath touring production of Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession. The big selling point for this show is that real-life mother and daughter Caroline and Rose Quentin are playing fictional mother and daughter Mrs Kitty and Miss Vivie Warren. The family likeness and the real-life connection between the two would give extra frisson to Shaw’s sparring exchanges between Kitty and Vivie.

Mrs WarrenGreat in theory; however, sadly, last week Caroline Quentin was indisposed with some horrible lurgy. Good news: she had an understudy. Bad news:  the understudy was also off sick. Tuesday’s performance was cancelled, but the cavalry arrived in the form of Charlie Ives, who is the understudy for the part of Vivie, who boldly saw the show through, book unobtrusively in hand, enabling us all to enjoy a great night at the theatre. Yes, we had to suspend disbelief that this young actor was old enough to be Vivie’s mother, but theatre’s all about pretence, isn’t it? And I really commend the Chichester Theatre for giving patrons the option of swapping their seats for a performance later in the week or having a credit or refund. That’s going beyond the call of duty. There’s never a guarantee that any one performer will be able to appear at any one performance. So Bravo to Chichester, and a huge Bravo to Charlie Ives. More of the performances later….

Mrs-Warren-1“Shaw, who understood everything save the human heart.” That was the title of the essay I had to write in my first year at university, trying to work out where Shaw’s strengths and weaknesses lie. It is odd how Shaw pussyfoots around the subject of sex; he’s perfectly comfortable with second-hand allusions to the extra-marital how’s your father between Kitty and the Reverend Samuel, because we don’t have to see it. But when it comes to Frank and Vivie, together in front of our noses, he goes all coy and childlike, with Frank’s most explicit suggestion being that they cuddle up together under a pile of leaves. No wonder Vivie’s unimpressed.

MWPThe ”human heart” element apart, this remains a thoroughly engrossing and ever relevant play, with Mrs Warren’s actual profession never being explicitly mentioned – but clearly, she’s a madam of a brothel with branches all over Europe and an excellent businesswoman to boot; making enough money to drag herself out of childhood poverty to pay for a fine education for her daughter. That fine education has created a Thoroughly Modern Vivie, who admires her mother for her tenacity and resilience, and can even tolerate knowledge of the profession itself. What she can’t take is that her mother is still active in the business. Rather like Shaw’s treatment of the past liaison between Kitty and the Rev, it’s ok whilst it’s in the past, but not ok when it’s in the present.

MWPThere’s an enormously telling speech from the horrendous Sir George Crofts where he reveals to Vivie, “do you remember your Crofts scholarship at Newnham? Well, that was founded by my brother the M.P. He gets his 22 per cent out of a factory with 600 girls in it, and not one of them getting wages enough to live on. How d’ye suppose they manage when they have no family to fall back on? Ask your mother.” Everything has its price, and there’s a price to pay for everything. Prostitution is/was an ugly word, ugly enough to cause the censor to prohibit the public performance of the play for over thirty years. But it pays the bills. And today there are tens of thousands of people in proper jobs but not earning enough to live on. Plus ça change…

Kitty and CroftsDavid Woodhead has designed an effective but relatively simple set (great for touring) with the first three acts set firmly in the outdoors, with Vivie’s house and the Reverend Samuel’s church both almost comically tiny and bijou, to be replaced in the final act by the very workaday and unglamorous offices where Vivie works. Anthony Banks directs the play with laudable straightforwardness – Shaw’s words do all the talking in this piece.

Sadly, as you will realise, I can’t comment on Caroline Quentin’s performance, but Rose Quentin (who looks remarkably like Caroline did in Men Behaving Badly), is terrific as Vivie, direct, determined, but occasionally letting us see the vulnerability she strives to conceal. Simon Shepherd is excellent as the slimy Crofts, oozing his way around the stage in the hope of attracting Vivie, and the ever-reliable Matthew Cottle is also great as the Reverend who is full of fallibility. I thought Stephen Rahman-Hughes struggled a little to find the role of Praed; it’s not an easy role because Shaw doesn’t give you much to go on. But Peter Losasso is superb as the likeable but wet Frank, a waster and a parasite but such pleasant company.

MWPBut in our performance the night belonged to Charlie Ives. Taking on the role of Kitty with such short notice, she threw herself into the play with gusto, giving us all the character’s brassy confidence, mother-from-hell-type bossiness, but still with a great sense of humour and a definite twinkle in her eye; 80% of the time you totally forgot that she wasn’t Caroline Quentin and was reading the script and she definitely held the evening together, rather than her supporting cast holding it together for her – if that make sense. I admit, we were tempted to cancel seeing the show, and taking the theatre’s generous offer of a credit. But I am so glad we didn’t. A very good production of a still very relevant play, it continues its tour through to April 2023.

Production photos by Pamela Raith

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Local Hero, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 8th October 2022 (First Preview)

Local HeroAfter the matinee of the excellent Woman in Mind, it was time for another long-awaited premiere, Daniel Evans’ production of Local Hero, the stage version of that much loved 1983 film, starring Burt Lancaster as the stargazing oil tycoon Happer and Peter Riegert as his emissary Mac, sent to the Scottish Highlands to negotiate the purchase of an entire village so that it can be turned into one giant refinery. But as Mac grows fonder of this magical remote environment, and its quirky, lovable inhabitants, he starts to wonder if he’s doing the right thing.

The CastI should state that the performance we saw was the first preview, and it is possibly unfair to judge the show with what you might see today now that it’s more bedded-in. It was a little slow at times and a little cumbersome moving from scene to scene, all of which I am sure will have been tightened up now. Of course, its plot won’t have changed over the past week – and it’s a story with obvious, timeless appeal. If environmental worries were a big thing in 1983, they’re off the scale now. And with the world worrying about how it’s going to pay its next fuel bill, this new version, that inter alia questions the value of the oil industry (and other similar industries), couldn’t be more appropriate.

A Barrell of OilBut what does the new musical show give us, that the original film doesn’t? Sadly, the answer, I fear, is nothing. In fact, there’s something strangely sterile about this show. Rather than bringing the story right into the present time, it encapsulates and preserves it somewhere in history. Perhaps it’s the reliance on the phone box – there were no mobile phones in 1983, and it’s increasingly hard to imagine a world without them. Perhaps it’s the oddness of the set – an ugly steel backdrop onto which projections can be made, and with a beach coastline that has to be dug up by the cast from underneath the flooring of the Houston office. The steel backdrop works well for the opening number, A Barrel of Oil, as the Texan executives and traders scamper around to a scrolling back projection of 1983-style computer graphics, adding up to a suggestion of millions of dollars being flung here and there. But it feels out of place when virtually all the rest of the show is set in the sleepy natural environment of Ferness. In another interesting staging decision, most of the band are perched to the side of the audience in what appears to be an extension of the seating, thereby creating a distraction from the action on the stage – more than once did I find it more interesting to watch the keyboard player singing along to the songs rather than the cast.

Lillie Flynn and Gabriel EbertSo, yes, it was the first preview and allowances must be made; but you can’t change the set and you can’t change the score, wherein lies the show’s biggest weakness. When you get down to the nitty-gritty, any musical succeeds or fails on the strength of its score. And I’m sorry to say that Mark Knopfler’s new songs for the show contain no show-stopping numbers, or even anything mildly memorable. The catchiest song is Filthy Dirty Rich, which is what the villagers sing when they realise they could make a fortune from selling the village to the oil company; but it’s only memorable because that title phrase is repeated mantra-like so many times that it’s impossible to get it out of your head (and not in a good way.) Apart from that, I found the music uninspired and the lyrics depressingly uninventive and repetitive. As an example, Viktor, the visiting Russian boatman/capitalist, has a short song which, if I remember rightly, comprises of his repeating his name several times. We’re not talking Cole Porter here.

Gabriel EbertThe lead role of Mac is taken by Tony award-winning Gabriel Ebert on his UK stage debut. Mr Ebert has an impressive CV as long as your arm, although he’s completely new to me. He has a genial stage presence and weaves the story along nicely but I felt his voice was a little tentative to be carrying the lead role in a musical. Paul Higgins is very good as Gordon, the village entrepreneur who does everything from running the pub, doing everyone’s accounts to probably painting and decorating your house too. I wondered if it was a coincidence that visually he has the look of the young(-ish) Denis Lawson who took the role in the film. Either way, it’s a confident and enjoyable performance.

Hilton McRaeStealing the show in every scene, however, is the esteemed Hilton McRae as Ben, the beach-dweller who refuses to sell. There are few roles that Mr McRae can’t excel in, and here he is terrific with the character’s well-reasoned stubbornness and admirable adherence to the old values. Such as shame that Mr Knopfler has given him the bland and repetitive Cheerio Away Ye Go as his main song. The rest of the cast work well as an ensemble, and there are some entertaining moments; the beginning of the second act, for example, really gives you a feeling of what it’s like to have the mother of all hangovers.

Paul HigginsBut without a decent score to get your teeth into, and without any modernisation of the plot, the best this production can do is to offer you a different way at looking at a familiar old story; and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why you would need to do that. However – and this is a big however – I note that for the last week Twitter has been surging with love for this new production, so I completely accept this is more my problem than the production’s. It would be a sad world if we all liked the same things.

 

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Two Disappointing for More!

Review – Woman in Mind, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 8th October 2022

Some plays, gentle reader, hold an immense and hugely significant place in a person’s heart. I can cast my mind back to December 1986, when Mrs Chrisparkle (Miss Duncansby as she was then) and I saw Woman in Mind, starring the perfectly cast Julia McKenzie and Martin Jarvis, at London’s Vaudeville Theatre for her birthday treat. We needed the time together as the previous weekend we had got engaged but the Dowager Mrs C had a pink fit at the news and spent the next X weeks/months/years taking it out on us. Sigh. The play was memorable not only for the insight into the mind of the leading character, Susan, but also my mother’s; no wonder it’s always been a significant play for us. And that is why I had been looking forward to seeing this revival all summer long!

Jenna RussellSusan is found, dazed, possibly concussed, definitely confused, in the garden, by semi-retired Doctor Bill; he’s clearly concerned that her mind is not working as it should be, although she is perfectly confident that there’s nothing wrong at all. He goes off to get her some tea, and she is joined by her husband, brother, and daughter, all impeccably turned out for an afternoon of champers and tennis; they also reassure her nothing is wrong – all that happened was that she had stood on the garden rake and knocked herself out like some Tom and Jerry cartoon – what is she like??!! But if that’s her impossibly handsome husband, with her impossibly handsome brother and impossibly beautiful daughter, who is this grumpy old vicar with his crotchety old sister who keep barging in on her in the garden? We quickly learn that all is not well in Susan’s mind, and you can’t trust anything that you, or she, sees.

Matthew Cottle, Jenna Russell, Nigel LindsayAlan Ayckbourn has written so many extraordinary plays in his lifetime that you can’t restrain him to just one masterpiece. But of all his masterpieces, this is surely one of the most masterful. His intricate plot weaving, his fooling with the audience as to what is real and what isn’t, his extraordinary understanding of a mind under pressure, of a disappointing marriage and of just how delicately to tread the balance between total hilarity and ghastly cruelty create a work of amazing tenderness and insight. It flips between pure joy and pure hell, even within the course of a sentence. Dismiss Ayckbourn as a serious writer at your peril – this is the real deal.

Orlando James, Jenna Russell, Marc Elliott, Flora HigginsThe special trick with this play is how Ayckbourn depicts the fact that a troubled mind can take individual facts, words, phrases, or ideas that one comes across in conversation and mix them together in an attempt to make some unified sense of them all. This enables the play to come to a riotous final scene of absolute mayhem as Susan’s subconscious pieces together nuggets of information to create a ludicrous whole that makes us laugh but disturbs her deeply; hence that perilous balance between joy and hell.

Jenna Russell, Matthew CottleSadly Anna Mackmin’s exquisite production has now closed, so you can’t now go and see it for yourself. If you did miss it, you really do need to kick yourself! Lez Brotherston (who else?) created a set that suggests a small patch of lawn as part of a much larger, glamorous garden; alternatively it could just be a small patch that hasn’t been nurtured and cared for as much as it deserved. Mark Henderson’s lighting creates a deep warm glow whenever Susan’s mind veers into the fantastical and returns to unadorned daylight with the harshness of reality. It’s a helpful key if you’re ever unsure as to whether what we’re seeing is real or not.

Nigel LindsayJenna Russell was superb as Susan; the character is never off stage, as she showed us all Susan’s bewilderment, frustration, sarcasm, and the sheer hell into which she is descending; but also all the light, warmth, and kindness of the character that is being lost as her own grip on reality is declining. Nigel Lindsay was also excellent as her (real) husband Gerald, a vicar with little sense of kindness or tact, and who had given up on their relationship to spend hours researching the history of the parish.

Marc Elliott, Flora HigginsLong-time Chichester regular Matthew Cottle was perfect as the kind but ineffectual Doctor Bill, seemingly oblivious to the fact that his own marriage was on the rocks but determined to do the best for his temporary patient; a kindness that Susan responds to as Bill starts to become part of her extra-marital fantasy. Stephanie Jacob was hilarious as the morose and vengeful Muriel, constantly imagining that her late husband Harry was sending her signs from Heaven that he still loved her. And there was excellent support from the rest of the cast including Marc Elliott as the idyllically desirable Andy – loving, handsome and a dab hand in the kitchen – and Flora Higgins as “daughter” Lucy, on her professional stage debut.

Matthew Cottle, Orlando James, Marc ElliottMrs C’s eyes weren’t the only ones in the theatre that were a little moist at the end of the show. A production of a first rate play, staged with great conviction, wonderful understanding, and terrific performances. A privilege to have seen it – and it would be brilliant if the production could have a life after Chichester.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

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!