Review – The Wind in the Willows, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 30th December 2013

Wind in the WillowsIt’s become something of a Christmas tradition that we take a group including Lady Duncansby and our nieces, Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra, to the festive season play at the Royal, as they are always a yuletide treat, and a bit different from panto – not that there’s anything wrong with panto, but sometimes you need a change. Thus eight of us monopolised Row C of the stalls last Monday teatime to witness Ratty and Mole messing about in boats, Toad being a menace on the roads and the weasels committing a most appalling act of aggravated squatting.

Gavin SpokesI never read “Wind in the Willows” as a child, so you might consider me deprived as a result; but I did play Ratty in a Saturday morning drama school abridged version of Toad of Toad Hall when I was 10, which hopefully makes up for it. Toad is a boastful, brash and insensitive oaf whose only goal is to satisfy his own need for thrills and spills and doesn’t really deserve the loyalty of his faithful riverbank friends. The story makes some interesting observations on the class Christopher Harpersystem – when Toad is in prison, he initially turns his back on the helpful suggestions of the jailer’s daughter simply because she is of a lower class than him. His friends Ratty, Mole and Badger are all distinctly middle class, and his enemies, the weasels, are frankly guttersnipes. But the moral, I guess, is that you should behave properly, don’t boast, don’t speed, and do what policemen tell you. The ideal is to be the perfect, law-abiding citizen, and that’s no bad thing for kids to learn.

Sion LloydIt’s an inventive and satisfying set, full of secret doors, panels and tunnels, just as you would expect from the directorial imagination of Gary Sefton, who has given us such local gems as Travels with my Aunt, Diary of a Nobody, A Christmas Carol, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mr Sefton really knows how to make the most of a small acting space, and this production is a highly entertaining addition to his Northampton oeuvre. The revolving stage comes to good use depicting the river current, and the use of theKaty Phipps area in front of the stage makes for surprisingly cunning passageways and underground shenanigans. Bringing Toad’s car to life, with its squeaky windows and putt-putt sound of the engine, is a real feast for the imagination and you can easily imagine kids everywhere going home and playing pretend cars as a result. Turning the courtroom scene into a burlesque is a spot of genius, and the train chase, with policemen getting battered by the wind on the roof, is both thrilling and hilarious. We all particularly liked how the direction and design combined to depict Toad drowning in the river, Jennie Daleeven though we thought it was odd that, as an amphibian, he would have had problems in this department; but then he is a thoroughly useless toad. In addition, the show has a few good songs, some of which you end up singing to yourself not only on the way home but a few days later too. The costumes are, somewhat curiously, based on a series of woollen onesies, which actually works better than it sounds.

Cherrelle SkeeteIn the production we saw, Toad was played by Gavin Spokes, full of fun and confidence, a noisy spoiled brat with a touch of the Alan Carr about him – I think it was the glasses that did it. He is accompanied by a splendidly suave Ratty played by Christopher Harper (hilarious in Sheffield’s The Village Bike in 2012), Siôn Lloyd’s Brian Blessed-like Badger, Katy Phipps’ rather cute Mole (I loved the slight hint of potential romance between her and Ratty), Jennie Dale’s fabulous Judge, and Cherrelle Skeete’s bombastic clerk. But for me the star of the show was a brilliant physical performance by Stuart Angell as the Chief Weasel,Stuart Angell as well as a very dour Albert the horse and that poor policeman assaulted by the elements. And finally, but certainly not least, there were the children! We saw “Team A” perform and they were amazing. Witty, smart, convincing; scary as weasels, malicious as “hang ’em and flog ’em” court witnesses, irksome as train commuters, they didn’t put a foot wrong and were very funny indeed.

Another superb Christmas play at the Royal!

Review – The Village Bike, Sheffield Crucible Studio, 15th September 2012

The Village Bike “Was that the most masturbation you’ve ever seen in a play?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle, on waking the morning after seeing last Saturday’s preview of “The Village Bike”. “On stage, yes, I think” I replied, erasing distant memories of the 16 year old me seeing “Oh Calcutta” with a pal. This bright and breezy award-winning comedy by Penelope Skinner started life last year at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs and fits perfectly into that adaptable and stimulating space, the Studio at the Sheffield Crucible. They’re staging it in traverse, which always adds to the intimacy of a play because there is no hiding place on that stage and you really feel part of the action.

Amy CuddenBecky and John are expecting their first baby, and whilst John is thrilled at the prospect and launches himself 100% into pre-natal research, the effect on Becky is simply to switch her randiness thermostat to boiling point. Newly moved into a village, Becky buys a second hand bike, ostensibly to explore her new surroundings and keep her pregnancy fitness levels up, but it ends up being the vehicle for her to widen the circle of her friends, in many ways, as it were. I won’t spoil it for you with any more plot revelations.

Christopher HarperIt’s a delightfully creative set by Fabrice Serafino, with fully functioning kitchen, bedroom with apparent ensuite, overactive plumbing, a video wall, and even an inventive way of representing the open road pouring with rain. That’s pretty good going for a space that small. The kitchen chairs were those clear Perspex ones that Mrs C has always had a fondness for – a nice touch suggesting youthful domestic aspiration. The play itself is rather beautifully written and constructed – with one slight quibble, more of which later; it doesn’t shy away from some awkward subjects, it absolutely connects with the audience (a lot of laughter of recognition) and basically it’s very, very funny. The words are juicy enough to give the actors clear insight into the characters they are portraying, and it’s all rather lovingly directed by Jonathan Humphreys, who gave us his excellent Happy Days last year at the same theatre.

Caroline Harker The acting is of a uniformly high standard throughout. Absolutely central to the play is Becky, played by Amy Cudden. She’s hardly ever off stage and her whole performance is a delight, whether she’s squabbling in bed with her husband or tripping over her words with some lousy (and hilarious) come-on type chat with the plumber or the bike seller. She has great timing too – I noticed quite a few occasions when she waited for the audience’s guffaws to die down before carrying on, something I always appreciate. And it would be hard to ignore the fact that she deploys her feminine charms in a pleasingly subtle way, if I may refer you to Mrs C’s opening comment.

David Bark-JonesI must tell you about two other especially superb performances. Christopher Harper as her eco-warrior husband John gives a wonderful comic performance, interlaced with perfectly pitched pathos. Splendidly earnest, and blind to a woman’s needs as only a husband can be, he has some great set piece scenes like where he gives Becky her “surprise” from Amsterdam, and when he is lying innocently on the bed reading a breastfeeding manual whilst Becky is “otherwise engaged”. I loved his ways of coping with his wife’s mood swings – that slightly patronising tone and mealy-mouthed smile; we’re all guilty of it. Mind you, he really is helped by Penelope Skinner’s script in these scenes, which is perfect to a syllable. Perhaps his best scene is where you think he is going to find out about her infidelity but, typically, he misses the point – really very funny.

Sean McKenzieThe other superb performance is from Caroline Harker as Jenny, the “experienced mother” neighbour who always wants a chat at inopportune moments and is frightfully well-meaning, yet has a surprisingly humorous innocence about her too. At times she was a bit like Margo Leadbetter meets Miriam Stoppard, heartily dispensing baby advice with lots of middle class girl-power. She got some of the best laughs of the night. The rest of the company are all very good, and extremely well cast. David Bark-Jones as the former owner of the bike, Oliver, hits the right level of sleaziness and ruthlessness. Sean McKenzie’s Mike the plumber is amusingly bemused throughout, and Alice Selwyn makes the most of her brief but wittily written part as Alice.

Alice Selwyn My only quibble with the play is how it ends. The final 30 seconds for me did nothing to add to the understanding of the characters or their plight, it wasn’t particularly funny and, in fact, it verged on the embarrassing. I’ve thought about it more over the past couple of days, and concluded that it just doesn’t work. Omitting it wouldn’t work either, as the scene before has a quiet and introverted ending, so it definitely needs a final punch – but this isn’t it. More like a whimper than a bang. But don’t let that minor aspect bother you because it really is a very funny play with a bright and thoughtful production and some star performances. Highly recommended.