Review – Kiss Me, Kate, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 5th January 2019

Kiss Me, KateEvery New Year, Mrs Chrisparkle and I treat Lord and Lady Prosecco to a post-Christmas outing: a weekend in Sheffield (bear with me) to stay at the lovely Mercure Hotel, have some scrummy meals and to see both the Crucible’s Christmas musical AND the Lyceum panto – and we’ve not had a duff experience yet. Over the last couple of years, we’ve taken to seeing the panto in the evening – the weight of a few extra wines and a more end-of-term atmosphere always helps. Which left us this matinee with the prospect of seeing Cole Porter’s fantastic, and now grammatically correct, Kiss Me, Kate.

edward-baker-duly-and-the-company-of-kiss-me-kate.This was one of the Dowager Mrs C’s favourite musicals and I was brought up on a diet of Always True to You Darling in my Fashion and From This Moment On; not a bad way to be brought up, to be honest. But this is only the third time I’ve seen it; once in 1987 at the Old Vic with the redoubtable Nichola McAuliffe, and at Chichester in 2012 where Hannah Waddingham attempted to rule the roost over Alex Bourne. That London production was great; the Chichester one a little disappointing. But I’m going to throw my hat into the ring and say that this new production at Sheffield by Paul Foster tops them both.

edward-baker-duly-and-rebecca-lock-as-fred-and-lillI’m sure you know the story – a touring production of The Taming of the Shrew is the vehicle for an on-and-off love story between the two leads, Fred Graham (playing Petruchio, also the producer of the show) and Miss Lilli Vanessi (playing Katherine, the star attraction). Lilli senses that their romance is back on track (they are already divorced at the beginning of the show) but when she discovers that the flowers she received from Fred were actually meant for cabaret starlet Lois (playing Bianca), she gets into a Katherine-type rage and takes it out on him on stage. He, being not entirely a true gentleman, gives as good as he gets, and she spends most of the rest of the show unable to sit down because – well, because, gentle reader, he gave her a damn good spanking. It happens in Shakespeare, so why the hell not here. Only one way to tame a shrew; women respect it. (That was a joke, by the way.)

dafydd-emyr-as-harrison-howell-and-rebecca-lock-as-lilli-vanessi.Lilli’s plans to abandon the rest of the run are brought to an abrupt halt by the persuasions of two gangsters who (erroneously, as it happens) need the show to be a success so that Fred can pay his dues to their Mr. Big. Her new beau Harrison Howell arrives to take her away – but, will she find true love with him, or with Fred? If you don’t know the answer to that by now, you never will.

dex-lee-centre-and-the-company-of-kiss-me-kate.It’s true; in the current climate, some aspects of this show have dated to become ever so slightly worrying. The physical animosity between Fred and Lilli does border on domestic violence (even though it’s played entirely for laughs) and the subjugation of women’s will to men’s is still as clear as it was in Shakespeare’s day – you have to feel a cringe coming on when Katherine/Lilli sings I Am Ashamed that Women are So Simple. But this is distinctly a period piece, with no attempts (quite right, I think) to update it to the 21st century. Porter’s showtunes are still as 1940s jazz as they can be; the gangsters are still the same Chicago thickos they always were. Porter’s brilliant lyrics anchor the show in his own era; when one of the funniest lines in any of the songs is “he may have hair upon his chest, but, sister so has Lassie”, there’s just no point trying to update it. Provided there are audience members who remember Lassie, the joke works.

layton-williams-and-the-company-of-kiss-me-kate.We’ve been used over the years at Sheffield to seeing the big choreography routines by Alistair David, who made such a mark in shows like My Fair Lady and Show Boat. For this show, the choreography is by Matt Flint, and I have to say I’ve not come across his work before. But he’s terrific! His style is much more intimate and involved; he sets up scenes with so many varied things happening in different parts of the stage all at the same time, then brings them all together for a big impact. The second Act opens with his fantastic staging of Too Darn Hot, led with immaculate artistry and precision by Layton Williams as Paul; it’s one of those classic dance sequences when you know you’re seeing something special and you never want it to end. As an aside, our performance was captioned – a great innovation, imho – and it was fascinating to read the lyrics to Too Darn Hot (as well all the other songs) – it’s easy to overlook just exactly what this song is all about!

cindy-belliot-and-layton-williams.Elsewhere, the show is peppered with memorable moments, mainly involving the big numbers. Paul Foster has concentrated most of his efforts into getting the maximum entertainment out of the songs, so there is no attempt to shorten any of Cole Porter’s mammoth efforts. I guess a downside to that is that if you don’t like the songs much (then why are you here?) you probably won’t enjoy it much. The show opens with (fittingly) Another Op’nin’ Another Show, at first fronted by Lilli’s dresser Hattie (a beautiful, warm-hearted performance by Cindy Belliot) but then it opens out to a wide-ranging musical examination of all the cast and crew arriving at this new theatre, with all the tensions and excitements that can contain – and it’s an exciting and exhilarating start.

joel-montague-and-delroy-atkinson-as-the-gangsters-in-kiss-me-kate.Other highlights include Amy Ellen Richardson’s Lois/Bianca teasing routine with the three suitors for Tom Dick or Harry – one of these, Dex Lee, plays Bill/Lucentio and I always admire his brilliant, acrobatic dancing; Rebecca Lock (a brilliant Katherine/Lilli with a stunning voice) throwing herself around in fits of fury during I Hate Men; Edward Baker-Duly (also brilliant as Fred/Petruchio – I loved his ham, and then even hammier, vocal performance as the stagey actor) ripping through the memories of all those women in Where is the Life that Late I Led; Amy Ellen Richardson’s funny and flirtatious performance of Always True To You Darling in my Fashion; and the simple but oh so effective staging of Brush Up Your Shakespeare by Delroy Atkinson and Joel Montague as the two theatrical gangsters, occupying the spotlights – Mr Atkinson in particular gave a brilliantly expressive physically comic performance. I also appreciated the fact that, for much of the performance, James McKeon’s orchestra was hidden at the back of the set, but for the songs that belonged to Taming of the Shrew, it was on view – a very nice touch, I thought.

amy-ellen-richardson-as-lois-lane-in-kiss-me-kate.The only thing that slightly disappointed me was the staging of one of my favourite songs from the show, From This Moment On. It’s a difficult one. The song was never written for Kiss Me Kate; Porter wrote it for another show from which it was dropped at the last minute, but it was obviously too good to waste, and Cole Porter was an expert musical recycler. From This Moment On appears in the film version of Kiss Me Kate, where it works perfectly as a number between Bianca and her three suitors; but the dramatic usefulness of that has already been taken by Tom Dick or Harry. So nowadays the custom is to have it sung by Harrison Howell and Lilli before he sweeps her away to the magicless life of a military wife – or not. Structurally, it makes perfect sense to have it there; but in practice the characters are too old and the situation too cynical (ouch! Sorry!) for the song to work properly. It’s a young person’s song – a starting out in life song – filled with genuinely great expectations, and I’d prefer to give the song back to Lois and Bill. In characterisation and acting, Dafydd Emyr made an imposing Howell, but, for me, it just didn’t work.

simon-oskarsson-and-the-company-of-kiss-me-kate.But this is one small quibble in an otherwise excellent show that thrilled us all, and we continued to talk about it later that evening and all through the next. One of those productions to savour and recall with happiness for years to come. It’s on until Saturday 12th January. Would be a crime to miss it!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – The Crucible, Final Year Actors at the University of Northampton, Jacksons Lane Theatre, Highgate, 7th June 2018

The CrucibleFor the second production of our day seeing all three of the Acting Students’ final plays in London, they gave us their performance of Arthur Miller’s 1952 play, The Crucible. This piece is one of the defining moments in the history of 20th century drama. Perceptive, shrewd, and enormously powerful, it took the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s and presented them to its 1950s audience as a reflection of the Macarthyism that was decimating American society at the time. In these current days where, once again, society is being tested on both sides of the pond, there couldn’t be a more appropriate time to revive it.

Ceara Coveney as Elizabeth ProctorAs it is such a significant play, and almost uniquely amongst the best drama created in the last 100 years, I think there is a tendency to treat The Crucible with great reverence. I’ve seen it a few times now, both on stage and on TV, and it always comes across exactly the same; dark, portentous, gloomy, – a true recreation of the 1690s in all its desolate desperation. There’s a huge temptation to concentrate on the supernatural spookiness of witchcraft as a force for evil and the triumph of darkness over light; to be honest, I’m not sure if it is possible to do it any other way. Certainly, Nadia Papachronopoulou’s production is as traditional as ever.

Alexander Forrester-ColesSadly it also felt very static; which is no way to describe the escalation of events that happen during the four acts of this play. We go from childish pranks and secret relationships, through the questioning, distrust and imprisonment of various innocent bystanders, to individual acts of heroism and unjustified instances of capital punishment; that hardly sounds like a static play. But I got very little sense of plot progression and I must confess at times I found it very hard to stay focussed. Farrah DarkTrue, it wasn’t helped by the noisy chattering and giggling of a group of students in the audience. It may well have been their first experience of live theatre; no better time then, to learn how to behave when you’re out. But I just felt that the production was a little risk-averse and very predictable; it might have benefited from some big, bold, unexpected statement that never quite happened.

Oliver FranksNevertheless, there were some good performances; I very much enjoyed Farrah Dark’s portrayal of Abigail Williams, a defiant woman although still little more than a child herself, concealing past indiscretions by employing the old tactic that attack as the best form of defence. Oliver Franks also gave a strong performance as the grim Reverend Parris, a man driven by self-interest, way in excess of any Christian love. The main role of John Proctor was given a determined and powerful performance by Alexander Forrester-Coles, bringing out both the character’s nobility and fallibility. His wife, Elizabeth, was played with immaculate sensitivity by Ceara Coveney; Naomi EllD B Gallagher gave a truly menacing performance as the wicked Judge Danforth; and there was a nicely understated performance by Naomi Ell as Ezekiel Cheever, the diligent but essentially kindly court clerk. Surprisingly, a few cast members seemed a little imprisoned by their roles rather than liberated by them – which was unfortunate because I know they’re great actors from their previous performances! There were also a few instances where some lines were garbled and just weren’t delivered in the assured manner that I would have expected.

Not an outright triumph, but nevertheless enjoyable, and it told its story clearly and with some memorable scenes.

Review – Desire Under the Elms, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 30th September 2017

Desire Under the ElmsI must have been a very mature teenager. Why else would I have read voraciously almost all Eugene O’Neill’s plays during the long summer of 1976? I’d seen Olivier’s famous Long Day’s Journey Into Night on TV and thought to myself Now That’s What I Call Drama, Volume One. There was a revival of The Iceman Cometh by the RSC that year – I didn’t see it, although the title intrigued me so much – so I decided to read up on O’Neill’s back catalogue. No one else I knew was reading him. Mourning Becomes Electra became my favourite. Eugene O’Neill sure knew how to create a fancy title.

DUTE EphraimO’Neill’s introduction to Desire Under the Elms states that it’s set in a New England farmhouse in the year 1850. No coincidence this date, as it’s the beginning of the Gold Rush to California, the newest state to join the United States, and as much a beacon of hope and inspiration as Moscow is to Chekhov’s characters. The play opens with brothers Simeon and Peter fantasising over what it would be like to leave the miserable farm behind and go hunting for gold in Californi-a (pronounced Californ-eye-ay). But their father, 75-year-old Ephraim, is out west and they feel they have to stay at home until he returns.

DUTE Simeon and EbenThey share the farmhouse with their half-brother Eben, who’s lamenting the death of his mother, and has no love lost for his father. When Ephraim returns with a young wife, Abbie, less than half his age, it’s clear she’s got her eye on inheriting the farmhouse. Simeon and Peter sell their shares in the farmhouse to Eben and head off to Californi-a to seek their fortune. This just leaves Eben and Abbie at the farmhouse. With Ephraim out working all day long, Abbie falls pregnant, and Ephraim assumes it’s his, but the truth may be somewhat different….

DUTE Peter and SimeonLike many of O’Neill’s plays, it’s based on Greek tragedy; in this case Euripides’ Hippolytus. Phaedra attempts to seduce Theseus’ chaste son Hippolytus, but when she fails she commits suicide, not before having left a letter accusing Hippolytus of rape. Theseus banishes Hippolytus as a punishment, but Hippolytus is killed by a bull, after which Theseus discovers the truth. Unlike Phaedra, Abbie’s attempts to seduce Eben are perfectly successful (not that he was chaste anyway) and it isn’t suicide that she considers but murder.

DUTE Abbie and EbenIt’s actually a very simple plot and could easily have been written for just three actors. Simeon and Peter are purely introductory characters helping to set the scene, and the other villagers are just there to fill the stage and act as Rumour. As I remember from my teenage years, Desire Under the Elms is one of the more difficult of his plays to read, because O’Neill wrote it in that interminable North American dialect drawl. Everything is “purty”, parents are “Maw” and “Paw”, they eat and drink “vittles” and “likker”. On the page it’s dry and dusty, but on the stage of the Crucible it really comes to life. I don’t have the sharpest ear, but the speech patterns came over (to me at least) as though they were from the Southern states – I clearly don’t know my American accents. By contrast, all Mrs Chrisparkle could hear was an Irish twang, which would, at least, probably accurately reflect the characters’ heritage. But none of that matters when you’re dealing with the raw emotions of an inevitable love triangle, and someone who commits an unlikely crime passionel to resolve it.

DUTE Abbie and EphraimWhen you enter the Crucible auditorium, there’s a huge visual impact from the amazing set that Chiara Stephenson has created. Long tufts of grass, wheat maybe, lurk in the distance, suggesting fields or dunes; sand covers the foreground. The simple mechanism of sweeping sand away in straight lines creates separate acting areas on the stage; most notably a demarcation wall separating the farmhouse from its grounds. Jon Clark’s moody lighting suggests different times of day and different emotional impulses at work. Nick Greenhill’s portentous sound design evokes the most realistic and invasive thunderstorm since poor Tom was on the blasted heath. There’s even a working water pump at the very front of the stage – which I have to say somewhat obstructed the view from seats B20 & 21, especially when people are seated at the dining table.

DUTE FiddlerMatthew Kelly is a fantastic Ephraim. He looks every inch the grizzled old man, wayward hair and beard unkempt through so many years of toil. If this is how he’s smartened himself up for scoring himself a 35-year-old woman, heaven knows how ragged he must have appeared before. Bellowing at the world for all its failings, and belligerent towards Eben for his perceived weakness and inadequacy, this is a man with a strong sense of his own importance and not a clue about how pathetic he really is. This is captured in his grotesque over-the-top final Act dance; he’s got a lot of life in him but no ability to shape it into something positive. It’s a mark of Mr Kelly’s great performance that you can both despise and feel sorry for him at the same time.

DUTE Matthew Kelly as EphraimMichael Shea plays Eben as a man with few principles – a thief, user of prostitutes and happy to steal his father’s woman off him for the pleasure and the power. You feel that he has so much pent-up anger inside him that he will explode at any moment. He’s a wretch, though; and Aoife Duffin’s Abbie is no better, instantly falling for this grim chap with no ambition or style. Ms Duffin really brings out all Abbie’s remorse, confusion and horror at what she’s done at the end of the play. She and Mr Shea make a truly agonised and agonising couple, as the horrendous consequences of what’s happened dawn on them. I also really liked Sule Rimi and Theo Ogundipe as Simeon and Peter, very convincing as the old hands who’ve seen it all and can’t wait to get away to a new life. In a sense, it’s a shame that we never find out what happens to them; on the other hand, that just proves how focussed O’Neill is on his menage à trois.

An excellent opportunity to catch a great cast perform a hidden classic. It’s important to keep Eugene O’Neill’s creative spirit alive! Desire Under the Elms plays until 14th October.

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Review – Of Kith and Kin, Crucible Theatre Studio, Sheffield, 30th September 2017

Of Kith and KinMothers-in-law, eh? We’ve all got them. Well, no, I realise we don’t all have them. I have one, and she’s a queen amongst mothers-in-law (she’s reading this). Mrs Chrisparkle had one; and like most mothers-in-law, the Dowager Mrs C had her moments. Daniel and Oliver both have mothers-in-law, in Chris Thompson’s new play Of Kith and Kin, currently playing at the cosy Studio theatre at the Sheffield Crucible. We never see Daniel’s mother-in-law; but we do meet Lydia, Daniel’s mum, a woman who can extinguish all hope out of both her son and his husband, with her subtle manipulation, deliberate use of gently antagonistic language and both hurt and hurtful expressions.

OKAK James Lance and Joshua SilverOf course, she doesn’t feature that highly in Daniel and Oliver’s domestic arrangements. They’re much more focussed on the fact that they’re expecting their first baby any minute now, courtesy of their friend and surrogate-mother-to-be, Priya. Priya’s already been a surrogate for another couple so she knows the ropes. However, when Lydia arrives unannounced at the baby shower, tempers flare, things are said that can’t be unsaid, and the general stress of the situation causes Priya’s waters to break.

OKAK James LanceSo far, so good; a modern family situation deftly created by Chris Thompson, with lots of comic moments and perhaps room for an underlying tragedy lurking somewhere ahead. Come Act Two – still before the interval, it’s a traditional three Act play and the cliffhanger moment comes at the end of the second act – and we suddenly realise the play has gone in a direction that’s completely unexpected. That black comedy of the first Act has turned into challenging and thrilling drama that doesn’t let up until the end. Think you’d got to know the characters quite well? Think again.

OKAK Joanna BaconIt’s hard to discuss the play in depth without giving away the plot and I’ve no wish to ruin it for you, gentle reader. Anyone can have a bad mother-in-law day, when she identifies your weak spot, pushes all the buttons and detonates an explosive response. However, not many people would experience the same disastrous fall-out as Daniel and Oliver, which is the main substance of the plot development. The play is full of fascinating and compelling themes like honesty in relationships, manipulative behaviour, loyalty, and “doing the right thing”. It’s a very grown-up piece of writing, in that it never criticises or casts doubt on the desire of a gay couple wishing to have their own child through surrogacy; not even Lydia sneers at that. It raises the issue of the inherited nature of abusive relationships, and subtly explores it in an unexpected way. In the end, only one character actually gets what they want; and it’s a very revealing insight into that kind of character.

OKAK Chetna PandyaBut there was just one thing we didn’t understand in this play – and it’s quite a big one: Priya. Priya makes a number of decisions through the course of this play and we could not understand her motivation for any of them. Maybe it’s because the play is very much written from the perspective of the character of Daniel, and perhaps Oliver too, that there’s no real attempt made to get inside her brain and emotions and examine her motives. Still, at least it makes for an unexpected and constantly surprising play.

OKAK Donna BerlinIt’s beautifully acted throughout, with James Lance as Daniel and Joshua Silver as Oliver forming a very convincing couple, bright and relaxed on the surface, bubbling with tension on the underneath. Chetna Pandya’s Priya comes across as a sensible but fun-loving best friend, although her anxieties begin to show toward the end of the first Act. Joanna Bacon turns in two superb performances, both as the sullen and difficult Lydia and the hard-nosed, manipulative Carrie; and I really enjoyed Donna Berlin’s performance as Arabelle, a character in a position of authority but with a devilish streak of unconventional humour.

OKAK Joshua Silver and James LanceIt’s certainly a play to make you think; and you may come away wondering how you’d ever trust anyone ever again. This smart production runs at the Crucible Studio for one more week until 7th October and then plays the Bush Theatre in London from 18th October till 25th November. Very enjoyable, but also uncomfortable viewing!

Production photos by Mark Douet

Review – Julius Caesar, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 27th May 2017

Julius CaesarJulius Caesar was the first Shakespeare play I studied at school. I expect that was true for a number of people. It’s a superb introduction to Shakespeare because it’s very accessible, it’s got loads of everyday phrases that it’s fun to recognise, it helps you with your Latin History; and it’s got some famous characters, and a ghost, and a soothsayer, and a baying mob, and lots and lots of deaths. What more could a fifteen-year-old schoolboy want?

CassiusMuch to my own irritation, I’ve had to wait all these years to see it on stage. For years it seemed like no one would touch it with an SPQR standard, and now suddenly everyone’s doing it. The RSC are staging it this summer; I’ve already got tickets to see the new version at the new Bridge Theatre in London next February, and now it’s popped up at one of my favourite theatres, the Sheffield Crucible. So I was really keen to see this new production.

Caesar and CalpurniaI’m sure you know the story; in brief, Julius Caesar is in charge of Rome, a noble man but a bighead, who likes nothing more than to strut his stuff and let the power go to his head. Around him are several politicians whom he believes are all loyal, but insurrection is brewing. Cassius (who has a lean and hungry look) is assembling allies to do away with Caesar For The Good Of Rome and nothing whatever to do with their own personal fortune, of course. Many sign up, but the big name they want is Brutus, and Brutus is an honourable man. Nevertheless, Cassius convinces him to join the merry band of murderers and assassinate Caesar on the Ides of March (nasty). But no one has really taken into account Caesar’s pal Mark Anthony, and how he will react to the dirty deed… which is with mob-altering oratory.

BrutusIn these days of political intrigue, elections, referendums, Brexit, and what have you, this play seems more relevant than ever. In the UK, with so many of the political parties now led by women and with women in some of our highest governmental positions, it seems a good idea for some of Caesar’s male associates to be played by women: Casca, Metellus Cimber, Trebonius, Popilius, as well as one of the post-Caesar triumvirate, Octavius Caesar. And, of course, Cassius, who thinks too much. These gender changes not only add an additional level of sexual intrigue (just how friendly are Cassius and Brutus?) but they also really help to modernise the story, and, coupled with Ben Stones’ modern staging, this is very much a Julius Caesar for the 21st century.

Mark AntonyWhen you enter the Crucible auditorium, for a split second you think you’ve come at the wrong time and they’ve laid the stage out for the snooker championships. But no, that’s not a snooker table, but a fine old board table, suitable for grand dining, or devious conspiracy. And the knives laid out upon it are more for cutting a Consul than slicing a steak. This adds an instant inevitability to the whole thing. As soon as you see Cassius and her friends observing Caesar’s showbizzy entrance with distaste, you know his number’s up. The other knock-out design feature is how the front row of the theatre has been converted into UN-style governmental seating, with a phone, a mic, a lamp, a writing pad and a plush chair at every station. This then perfectly represents the Senate House when Caesar deigns to call and pontificate; and just as Caesar thinks he’s as constant as the northern star, he’s dead for a ducat (wrong play, sorry). The sight of all the senators dipping their hands in Caesar’s blood is gruesomely effective, because today we only think of that phrase being figurative, not literal. Other visual highlights include Mark Anthony grabbing the dead Caesar from out of his coffin and the mob tearing the meek and mild Cinna the Poet to death. Never was anyone more in the wrong place at the wrong time.

LigariusNew Artistic Director of the Crucible, Robert Hastie has really set the bar high with this, his first Sheffield production. The staging is stirring and on a grand scale, using parts of the Crucible that you never knew existed, like the balcony above the stage, or the removed Row E from the seats. The splendid vision for the play deserves some excellent performances and fortunately, this is what it gets. Jonathan Hyde’s Caesar is proud and vain (but not excessively so), mature and a little world-weary; I particularly enjoyed his scene with Calpurnia when she was trying to prevent him from attending the Senate and so at first he declines the invitation to go and get murdered but when he is convinced to do so by Cinna he mockingly turns on Calpurnia for fussing so much. It was like a little snapshot into a private domestic tiff. But she was right. Mr Hyde also turns in a very chilling performance as the ghost.

Brutus and PortiaThe splendid Samuel West is a very thoughtful and dignified Brutus, quietly listening and weighing up all the evidence; not vacillating as I am sure the role might sometimes be played. Once he has decided to join with the conspirators he is as gung-ho about the project as anyone, but he still retains his innate honourable status. Even more gripping, Zoe Waites makes a fantastic Cassius; edgy, pushy, manipulative; with an eye for the main chance and not afraid to back track when she’s in trouble. She has a terrific stage presence and a voice that rings out in the darkest depths of the rear stalls. And Eliot Cowan is a magnificent Mark Antony, switching from lager lout in his first scenes with Caesar, through the great oratory scene where he brings the mob on his side by manipulating their emotions as the King of Rhetoric, to his triumvirate appearance where he’s more militant than Labour in the early 80s. All the other roles are played powerfully and intelligently – there’s not a weak spot anywhere. Members of the Sheffield Casca and CinnaPeople’s Theatre act as the mob and a fantastic job they do of it.

I really loved this production – it was everything I hoped it would be; relevant, exciting, memorable, and brought superbly up to date with its staging and casting. Congratulations to everyone involved!

Production Photos by Johan Persson

Review – Annie Get Your Gun, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 7th January 2017

Annie Get Your GunFor the second part of our Sheffield extravaganza, Lady Duncansby, Sir William, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by our esteemed friends the Sheriff of Shenstone, Lady Lichfield and the young Baron Brownhills. It’s always a pleasure to spend time with friends and family around the New Year, seeing what musical theatre delights the Crucible have arranged each year. In the past, we’ve been spoilt by seeing Company, My Fair Lady, Oliver, Anything Goes, and Show Boat; how will this year’s offering Annie Get Your Gun compare?

agyg1I hadn’t seen this show before. It was always a favourite of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle, having seen it at the London Coliseum not long after the war. I remember her singing You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun with alarming enthusiasm at inappropriate moments. The show is jam-packed with show toons that are long-lasting standards, but I’d forgotten the rare beauty of I Got the Sun in the Morning which I hadn’t heard for decades. I also realised this was the first time I’d seen a musical written by that much-renowned composer Irving Berlin. It would be fascinating to compare his style with his contemporaries like Cole Porter and Rodgers/Hart/Hammerstein.

agyg2Production values, as always at the Crucible, would be high. The choreography is by Alistair David, who had added his touch of magic to all those previous Crucible Christmas shows. Playing Annie is Anna-Jane Casey, who’s always a hit whether she’s lampooning others in Forbidden Broadway or stuck in a rut of a relationship in Company or hoofing her way into the talkies with Mack and Mabel. Feisty and dynamic, but also a brilliant singer and dancer, there’s probably no better fit for the role of sharp-shootin’ Annie Oakley.

agyg3Ah yes, Annie Oakley. I guess this was the aspect that I had overlooked when I enthusiastically booked all those months ago. Annie Get Your Gun tells the story of the romance between Annie Oakley and Frank Butler, the original sharp-shooter from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. So the setting is pure Cowboys and Indians, Chief Sitting Bull of the Sioux tribe, and much talk of redface and paleface. And then you have the arguments. Oh my God, the arguments; they’re so tedious. The show predates Porter’s Kiss Me Kate by two years, but the structural similarity between having cantankerous, nay bitchy, arguments between the two leading characters in both shows is obvious. In real life, Annie and Frank had a long, harmonious marriage. The show, however, is powered by the imagined antagonism between the two caused by jealousy.

agyg4I may as well confess it; I really, really wanted to like this show for so many reasons, but I’m afraid I really, really didn’t. It’s not the production’s fault – on the whole – although I think a little more set design might have helped explain and contextualise a few of the scenes a bit more. No, it’s the fault of the show itself. It survives on discord and rivalry. Anything you can do, I can do better, as the song goes. But it’s not portrayed like a schoolyard chant, a little silliness where two assertive people each want to have the last word; it’s portrayed as a serious, permanent rift in a relationship. In Kiss Me Kate, you just know that Fred and Lilli have a powerful physical attraction that’s going to knock everything else sideways. But by the time you get to Anything You Can Do, and Annie and Frank start reopening old wounds yet again, you just want to knock their heads together and tell them to grow up.

agyg5That’s at the end – but let me go back to the beginning. The lights dim, and a disembodied voice from the back starts to sing There’s No Business Like Show Business. Eventually your eyes locate Frank at the back of the auditorium, singing it with pompous gravity as though it were a hymn. The ensemble come out on stage and sing and dance as the number progresses – but there’s no set so you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who they are, and you wonder why the show’s big song gets such an early airing – surely it’s wasted in this warm-up position? They’ve got a solution to that – repeat it ad nauseam a few more times during the evening. [If you’re interested, it wasn’t the opening number in the original 1946 production; the song sequence changed with the 1999 Broadway revival] Maybe it’s a note of respect to the daddy of all 40s musicals, Oklahoma!, and its unconventional opening with Curly offstage singing about a beautiful morning. That works brilliantly, because we all understand the appeal of a beautiful morning without any further context. There’re no people like show people, on the other hand, just comes across as arrogant and self-aggrandising. We’re show people – you aren’t – therefore we’re better than you. You have no context within the show as yet for this outrageous statement but even so you already resent the characters for their big-headedness.

agyg6Now I accept that the first scene after this opening number shows cast members from Buffalo Bill’s show being turned away for accommodation at Wilson’s hotel because they’re showbiz types. They can’t be trusted, so the implied glamour of that overweening first number is turned into a sweet and sour rejection. There’s no business like show business is maybe ironic, after all. But that idea doesn’t get taken any further. Just occasionally, Anna-Jane Casey lets us see a little of Annie’s sensitive side. Ben Lewis, playing Frank, however, gives us a one-dimensional sharp shootin’ suitor, with precious little insight into his motivations or character. Shame – having seen him in Forbidden Broadway and Candide I know he’s capable of much more.

agyg7To mirror the front row disharmony between Annie and Frank you have second row friction between the two show manager rivals, Nicolas Colicos’ Buffalo Bill and Mike Denman’s Pawnee Bill. Mr Denman has a go at bringing a little characterisation and magnetism to his role but Mr Colicos gave me no insight into his character at all. Of the other cast members, only Maggie Service seemed to have any real sense of occasion, portraying Dolly as a lovelorn, overlooked but will-stop-at-nothing type who is both villain and object of sympathy. The ensemble gave it all they’d got though, which really helped me get through it, and their dancing was excellent. But, all in all, I’m afraid I found the show quite boring and lacking in theatrical magic. When Annie’s sharp-shootin’ at balloons, one of them failed to burst, which really did nothing for the overall effect. Nevertheless, it was only the presence of Anna-Jane Casey that made the whole show watchable.

agyg8It really split our group too – Mrs C and the Sheriff agreed with me that it was lacklustre and dated; Lady L quite enjoyed it but couldn’t get into it; Lady D, Sir William and the young Baron all enjoyed it. You might very well too, and it’s on until 21st January. A good enough production but I think the show should be consigned to the history books. Disappointed!

Review – Camelot The Shining City, Sheffield Crucible (and beyond), 11th July 2015

Camelot the Shining CityWhen we go to Sheffield, gentle reader, we always like to go for a double-header – seeing a play in the afternoon and in the evening. With the Crucible, the Studio and the Lyceum all within a pixie’s bootie of each other, it’s not normally a challenge to find a suitable date on the calendar where at least two decent shows collide. I had really wanted to see The Effect – and I’m glad we did, because it was excellent. But what to combine it with? The only real option was Camelot The Shining City, which sounded intriguing with its promise of a cast of 150, with the audience following the action on foot from the Crucible theatre and onto the streets of Sheffield. Done well, it could be magic.

Outside the LyceumA co-production between Sheffield Theatres and Slung Low, specialists in open air/unusual places theatre, you quickly realise what a major undertaking this venture is. On arrival at the Crucible, friendly helpful ushers give you a mini-training session on how to use your headphones, as you will need them to hear what’s going on when you go outside for Acts 2 and 3. I’d already checked online in advance, and there were precious few seats left unoccupied – and indeed, when we entered the Crucible auditorium, headphones around our necks like DJs, umbrellas and coats at the ready for a potentially inclement Sheffield shower, I saw that the auditorium was fuller than I’d ever seen it before, even for major productions like My Fair Lady or Oliver! So the production is definitely tapping into some Zeitgeist or other.

Lyceum and Crucible togetherThe story begins. Bedivere is returned (from somewhere, to somewhere) and subjected to water torture and quite a lot of roughing up. We meet Bear, an attitudinal young lady who questions everything but joins a group of other young people sitting in a circle; representative of the Round Table, methinks. Bear has a tutor, Michael (I’m presuming he’s like a Merlin figure) who has a tough time keeping Bear on her books as she has visions of greatness, of leading her people into the fray and returning Sheffield to those bright days of yesteryear. She swears herself to chastity, which must be a bit of a disappointment to prospective boyfriend Luke; and she kills her General father. Michael has a degenerative disease and declines from active teacher to Stephen Hawking-lookalike within forty minutes. In amongst all these activities, every so often the stage is invaded by groups of soldiers, children, and other citizens, who march, stand, stare, look gloomy, then march off.

Fires are burningWithin about five minutes of the play starting, I was already totally confused. I understood that it was a modern take on the Arthurian legend (the clue was in the title), but even so, I didn’t get what was going on at all. I whispered to Mrs Chrisparkle, “I hope you’re following this?” to which she looked at me with bemused eyes and whispered back, “not a clue”. The speeches were all portentous and imbued with heavy significance, but lacked simple dramatic clarity. This became even more evident in the later acts when, now with our headphones in place, there were much wider spaces to look at, and whilst you were listening to someone speaking, you were looking here there and everywhere to find which actor was mouthing the same words.

War is ragingAs a result, new characters were being introduced, but you weren’t always able to identify them amongst the other 149 people around and about; and, to be honest, I couldn’t tell who half of them were. I got Galahad – I understood him. But there was another woman – who by process of elimination and clever use of the programme (but only after it was all over) – must have been Elaine, but her part in the story I never comprehended. There may have been yet another extra woman too, we weren’t sure. It struck me, whilst listening to the disembodied voices intoning these heavy, undramatic speeches, and without seeing who was talking, it was like listening to one of those really pretentious Radio 3 afternoon plays. You know the type – it probably has some literary merit if you want to look for it, and the characters speak with immaculate Standard English pronunciation, and it’s as tedious as all hell.

Bear is tyrannicalThere was also a real hotch-potch of events and elements to the play, especially in Act 2, where it seemed like the creative team just wanted to throw as much at the production as possible in the hope that some of it sticks. At times it was like watching a village fete, with the local children’s dancing teams being put through their paces; at other times it was like watching a hard hitting Channel 4 police drama, as a mob smash through the windscreen of a taxi. By the time we get to Act 3, it’s all-out war. A word of advice to anyone going to see the show – it’s vital that you position yourself for a good view of what’s going on when you get out and about onto the streets. You want the front row by the central railings in Act Two – as central as possible; and the front row of the raised lawn edge for Act Three. Don’t make the mistake we did of getting our coats on inside the Crucible when leaving Act One for Act Two. By the time we’d politely joined the queue to get out, all the decent places were taken.

BlastTia Bannon, who plays Bear, has a great stage presence, a lovely clear voice, and could melt your heart at twenty paces. This is her professional stage debut and I think she could well be One To Watch. She portrays pretty convincingly Bear’s journey from idealistic heroine to loopily self-aggrandised tyrant. I also liked Ed MacArthur as Luke – especially in Act One – you can really identify with how he surprises himself by striking it lucky to get the top girl, and he nicely brought out what little lightness and humour there was in the script. I don’t know if Oliver Senton, who played the General, had some kind of throat problem, but I felt that vocally he was underpowered. The majority of the rest of the cast are amateur/semi-professional and all gave a good account of themselves. It was just the ponderous ploddy script that let it down. So badly.

more warHalfway through Act Two I received a text. It was from Mrs C, standing in front of me. It read: “do we have 2 stay 4 the 3rd act?” I replied: “Ermmm”, although primarily my concern was her sudden decline into textspeak. I didn’t want to stay either; but the alternative would have been just drinking yet more Rioja than is probably good for us. So I vetoed the early departure, if only so I could see whether Act 3 would have more dramatic quality than Act 2. Answer: fractionally. We did however both agree it wouldn’t have been worth getting rained on for.

More blastsI’d loved to have loved it. And I’m more than happy to recognise the enormous effort that went into creating and performing it. Mrs C quoted back to me my old saying that I prefer to see a brave failure to a lazy success. True. However. There are limits. We don’t often hate shows, but this was one of them.

Review – The Effect, Studio at the Sheffield Crucible, 11th July 2015

The EffectLaughing in the face of M1 roadworks, we drove up to Sheffield for the third time this year for yet another Crucible-based theatre weekend. And what could be a more enjoyable and sociable way to start than by meeting up with Lady Lichfield and the young Duchess of Dudley at Wagamama for a yummy lunch of warm chilli chicken salad followed by white chocolate and ginger cheesecake. Add some Sauvignon Blanc into the mix et voilà! Instant delight.

The trialAll four of us headed off to the versatile little Crucible Studio, one of the best small acting spaces anywhere, which, rather like the Menier, lends its own personality to any production lucky enough to take place there. The Studio’s current offering is The Effect by Lucy Prebble, which won the Critics Circle award for Best New Play in 2013, when it was originally produced by the National Theatre. This is the first time I’ve seen anything by Ms Prebble – we missed ENRON, much to our dismay. But I can verify she is a writer of great wit and imagination, and that The Effect is a fascinating, thought-provoking play that intrigues, amuses and horrifies in equal measure.

Ophelia LovibondI’ve never been involved in a drug trial. I don’t think I know anyone who has been involved in a drug trial. And, having seen The Effect, I’m not sure I would ever want to. The scene is a science lab, where Connie and Tristan, amongst unseen others, have volunteered for a trial of a new drug, which will require their undivided presence and compliance for four long weeks. No mobile phones, no outside contact, and oppressed by near-constant supervision. Once Dr Lorna James, who’s in charge of the trial, has satisfied herself that the volunteers are indeed suitable for the task ahead, the experiment commences. Small dosages at first, followed by regularly rising dosages of the drug on trial appear to create side effects that the doctor and the Pharmaceutical company were not expecting; and Connie and Tristan fall in love. But is the trial all it seems? Is the doctor as in control as she seems? Is the pharmaceutical company as open about the trial as they seem? And is the future rosy for the two young lovers?

Henry PettigrewThe play is so beautifully and subtly written that you can interpret many of its events in different ways. For example, there’s the question of the placebo. If one of the clinical study participants is taking placebo rather than the drug, then it can’t be the drug that’s causing the side effect – can it? But maybe no one’s on placebo. Maybe it’s not only the drug that’s on trial here. And what happens if someone accidentally overdoses? Supposing one of the candidates hasn’t been fully truthful about their medical history? Supposing the pharmaceutical company and/or the doctor in charge have their own private agenda? How scientific can any trial be when you’re dealing with people, because people have their own emotions, foibles, secrets; and nothing can ever be 100% watertight. Can it? You’ll go on asking these questions for hours.

Interval time leftDaniel Evans’ direction suggests the audience are minor participants in the trial too. The stark white chairs on the stage are the same as the stark white chairs on which the audience sit. The computer readings are displayed on large screens in all four corners of the auditorium so no matter where you sit you can see them. The fifteen minute interval is counted down on a screen both inside and outside the auditorium, daring you to be late back after your half-time Pinot; nobody was, as we didn’t want to face short shrift from Dr James. All in all, you get a great sense of everyone participating in the same experiment; it’s a real shared experience.

Priyanga BurfordThe cast of four give outstanding performances, fully inhabiting the intricately drawn characters that Lucy Prebble has created. Ophelia Lovibond is simply stunning as Connie. Careful to conceal aspects of her current relationship and resentful of questions that she considers are too personal, she appears nevertheless willing to play the clinical trial game to the best of her ability. But you never quite know what her attitude to any event, any question, or any situation might be. You can read in her eyes as she processes new items of information, that she is working out what her reaction is going to be. My guess is that in every performance she is probably understanding anew each time what her character is going through; and you, the audience, are accompanying her on that rather savage journey. Emotional, anxious, uncomfortable; Ms Lovibond takes Connie through a gamut of reactions, before finally becoming a changed person; one with a purpose in life that she had previously lacked.

Stuart BunceShe is matched with an equally brilliant performance by Henry Pettigrew as Tristan. Where Connie is initially reserved and careful, Mr Pettigrew presents Tristan as an instantly self-confident, flirtatious charmer; a natural rule-breaker (not the kind of person you’d really want on a clinical trial!), a pusher of boundaries, a loveable rogue, with more than a side-dish of lock up your daughters about him. Mr Pettigrew interprets him as a really credible, adult version of a naughty schoolboy, encouraging other classmates to skip lessons and sneak off into an out-of-bounds area where they will get up to no good. MemoryTogether the two have a wonderful chemistry, and you’d swear they were either in love in real life or really, really good actors. As the play progresses and the balance of power between the two characters changes, so that Connie is more in control and Tristan’s fortunes have declined, the love still continues, albeit more in an “in sickness or in health” vein. Nevertheless, I note with amusement the first appearance of a stagey “masturbation under the bedclothes” scene since Miss Julie Walters did it to the late Richard Beckinsale in Mike Stott’s Funny Peculiar back in 1976; although if I remember rightly, her provision of erotic stimulation wasn’t limited just to her hand. You can’t beat a good “providing sex to a patient” scene for shock comic purposes.

Falling in loveConnie and Tristan are not the only twosome to have their problems in this play. There’s obviously been some history between Dr Lorna James and Toby of the Pharma. It’s never made totally clear quite what went on between them, but as a result Dr Lorna has something of a tenuous grasp on sanity; and, like Tristan, but in her own way, she too falls foul of the Pharma client. In a slightly heavy use of symbolism, Toby continues on, wrecking lives one way or another, where you might otherwise traditionally expect the drug company to look after people’s wellbeing. Priyanga Burford gives a mesmerising performance as Lorna, the doctor with a steely eye for the accuracy of the trial but who begins to fray around the edges as her ability to control comes into question. The aftermathAnd Stuart Bunce is splendidly disconnected as Toby, ostensibly reasonable and professional, but hurting too; and with just the right lack of empathy not to notice the trail of destruction in his wake.

A fascinating play, with first class performances in a stunning production. What’s not to like? It’s running until Saturday 18th July – unmissable.

Review – The Absence of War, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 21st February 2015

Great use of colourFirst produced in 1993, David Hare’s The Absence of War centres on a pleasant but unconvincing leader of the Labour party who fails to win a general election – again. Is this ringing any bells? In the previous year, the pleasant but unconvincing Neil Kinnock snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the general election – again, having failed to win as Labour leader in 1987 as well. And here we are in 2015, with the Labour party led by the pleasant but unconvincing Ed Miliband, and there’s a general election due on 7th May. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the nine-venue tour that starts this week in Norwich will finish on 2nd May.

Rally speechGeorge Jones, the aforesaid (fictitious) Labour leader has a natural ability to rise to the top through his sheer strength of personality, but he has surrounded himself with a team of advisers who tell him what he can and can’t say (people like the word “fairness” but they’re not so keen on “equality”), what he should and shouldn’t believe, and what he must and mustn’t do. He’s running around on auto-stifle. There’s something of the Shakespearian tragic hero about him; he has vision, sociability, kindliness and bravery; he is decent to the extent that it works against him, maintaining loyalties where he should be suspicious. And despite all his good works and good intentions, you know that, at the end, he will be found wanting. There is no surprise, victorious ending; he is destined to fail. For him, it is a personal tragedy. Jones is a cultured man, a charismatic man, an inspirational man; but in the final analysis he lacks the ruthlessness and sheer hunger for power that a successful party leader requires.

Reece DinsdaleIt’s more than a little appropriate that this co-production between Sheffield Theatres, Headlong and the Rose Theatre Kingston should start its life at the Crucible. For it was in Sheffield that Neil Kinnock held his famous pre-election rally, culminating in his over-animated, over-passionate and over-confident appearance at the podium, where he shouted interminably “We’re Alright!” several times before saying anything of consequence; and it is widely held that that is where he lost the election. But George Jones is no Neil Kinnock. When he is encouraged by the election campaign manager to deliver a powerful, sincere, no-notes, from the heart speech from his podium, he starts off all emotional and idealistic, giving the rally just what they want. Then he just blanks; he can’t think of another fire in the belly thing to say; he scrabbles around for his notes and looks totally incompetent. If this were a job interview, and he was required to do a presentation as part of the selection process, he’d be back on the dole faster than you can say Downing Street. It’s a brilliant piece of theatre, mind you; your toes curl in cringing embarrassment.

Helen RyanDavid Hare’s play is immaculately structured, starting and ending with the traditional Armistice Day ceremony at the Cenotaph; at the beginning with Conservative PM Charles Kendrick leading the floral tributes, followed by George Jones; and at the end, Kendrick is still the PM, but is Jones still the leader of the opposition? We’re then taken to Jones’ private office, where new publicity officer Lindsay Fontaine is bursting at the seams to make him electable, despite the distrust of other members of the team, including his intimidating political adviser Oliver Dix and his personal minder Andrew Buchan. A TV switched permanently to the Ceefax page (what a wonderful trip down memory lane to see one of those again) flashes political news, including the sudden announcement of the General Election, which catches the Labour party unawares; George Jones is rightly furious that it means he will have to miss seeing Hamlet that night. The Ceefax page also occasionally shows the weather, which is a nice touch. TV cameras concentrate on the pompous Prime Minister, always accompanied by his silent wife, at his side like a faithful hound, and we too see the simultaneous TV broadcast of him outside No. 10 (another nice touch). A campaign strategy is rapidly assembled; old hands like Vera Klein (she’d probably be the equivalent of a Barbara Castle figure) turn up to the dismay of the entire team (except of course that George Jones is far too decent and polite to kick her into touch); no one really knows what they’re doing, but somehow things fall into place. We go into the interval with a sense that the campaign has started, and, despite complete disarray backstage, it’s not looking at all bad.

Barry McCarthyAfter the interval Sauvignon Blanc, you quickly realise that all the positives that have been mounting up in Act One are about to get knocked down in Act Two. A thrilling “live” TV debate with Rottweiler broadcaster Linus Frank goes badly wrong as Jones is side-swiped with a question about Mortgage Interest Relief at Source. Remember MIRAS? So many things in this play remind you of the good old days; Gordon Brown abolished it in 2000. There’s a riveting showdown between George and his (allegedly) faithful cabinet colleague Malcolm, where George finally realises that his blue-eyed boy isn’t as faithful as he had thought – the scene got its own round of applause. Then there’s the end-of-campaign rally, where everything falls apart, and the final ghastly defeat, where the Labour leader even has to endure the humiliation of being rounded on by the tea lady.

James HarknessJeremy Herrin’s production is crisp and entertaining, making great use of the apparently “old technology” (like the Ceefax screens) and TV cameras; projecting the live rally action against the Labour banner is visually a very powerful effect. Bold colours on the backdrop fill the stage with a real sense of life and vigour, as well as reminding us of the association of specific colours with specific political parties. The cumulative excitement of the election campaign is well paced and full of dramatic power, even though you know it’s as doomed as Private Fraser in Dad’s Army. Mike Britton’s useful set relies on a few office desks, suggesting functionality rather than lavishness, and uses screens and blinds to suggest further activity at the back of the stage whilst largely leaving the front free as a big acting space. And there’s an excellent cast who all portray their roles very convincingly.

Cyril NriReece Dinsdale plays George Jones with charm, integrity and honesty, and just that touch of being flawed, as every good tragic hero should be. It’s a strong, serious central performance, and he really shines out in those big scenes like the showdown with Malcolm and the disastrous rally speech. But David Hare’s text provides many of the other characters with some of the best quips, as they pass judgment on the action, and their leader, from the side-lines. Cyril Nri plays political adviser Oliver as a hardworking, quick to ire, slightly larger than life character – you’d imagine he’d be a difficult boss, and you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him. Another solid performance, maybe a little underplayed at times, but very credible as a result. I really enjoyed James Harkness’ good-humoured performance as Andrew, George’s minder, projected into a world of cut-throat high flyers from what you sense is a very ordinary background: “Croissant? I’m from Paisley!” He very nicely gives the impression of someone who enjoys playing with the big boys, occasionally to get brought down a few pegs just to show he’s not as significant as he’d like to imagine.

Charlotte LucasCharlotte Lucas is excellent as publicity adviser Lindsay Fontaine, the new broom attempting to sweep clean in what she sees as a very backward looking office, and of course coming up against a lot of resistance en route. Gyuri Sarossy plays Malcolm as an untrustworthy cold fish – not inappropriately – he and his minder Bruce, played by Theo Cowan, coming across as the new brand of Labour, riddled with posh school mentality. They are the complete opposite of honest working class George, and Bryden, his campaign co-ordinator, played with down to earth gusto by Barry McCarthy. Maggie McCarthy (any relation?) gives great support as the long-suffering diary secretary Gwenda, as does Don Gallagher playing a number of roles including the condescendingly slimy PM, and the irascible argument manipulator Linus Frank. Amiera Darwish is a busy and sincere press secretary Mary, Helen Ryan excellent as the seen-it-all-and-would-rather-see-no-more veteran politician Vera, and Ekow Quartey gets some of the best laughs in the play with his deftly delivered vignette as George’s Special Branch protector.

Maggie McCarthy“Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.” So said the 17th century philosopher Spinoza. If this play is about the Absence of War, then is Hare arguing that it does not represent peace or benevolence, confidence or justice? And about what? The Labour party? Modern Britain? Democracy? Or just the flawed character of Jones? You decide! It’s an excellent, thought-provoking play, produced at a most timely moment, and performed with great conviction. We saw it on its last day in Sheffield, but now it goes on to Norwich, Watford, Bristol, Cheltenham, Liverpool, Glasgow, Oxford, Kingston and Cambridge, before we see whether George’s fate presages that of Ed Miliband in May.

The Absence of WarP.S. Pet hate time. Last day of the show and they had run out of programmes! As Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, as I let out a disgruntled squawk, the usher who handed me a photocopied cast list beamed his most appeasing of smiles; but, for someone who’s kept all their programmes as far back as 1967, it’s a resource lost. I was tempted to rename the play The Absence of Programme, but that’s probably taking it a bit too far. Just one of my first world problems!

Review – A Taste of Honey, Sheffield Crucible, 10th November 2012

A Taste of HoneyIf, like me, when you hear the words “a taste of honey” your first thoughts turn to Sugar Puffs, you may be in for a bit of a surprise if you’re not familiar with Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 semi-autobiographical play about Jo, a young girl, and her experiences of early adulthood and family relationships; because there’s not a lot of sweetness in evidence. That, of course, is the deliberate irony – the characters all get a taste of honey, but it’s barely enough to cover a slice of bread. One thinks of the trendy 60s version of the song by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, or the plaintive emotion of the Beatles’ version, and both are at odds with the subject matter of the play. The juxtaposition of cool jazz, played by an excellent live trio at the back of the stage, also suggests a sophistication and glamour that’s noticeably lacking from the reality of Jo’s existence. By the way, the leitmotif of “My Favourite Things” from The Sound of Music, nicely ironic though it may be, shatters the time integrity; “A Taste of Honey” appeared a year before the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage show.

Eva PopeNevertheless, Polly Findlay’s new production is clear, crisp and unsentimental. The set accurately portrays Jo and her mother Helen’s miserable flat, with its tatty furniture and basic kitchen, and I like the way it revolves between scenes to suggest the passing of time but not a change of location; its almost pointless revolving emphasises the stasis of their situation. Running water cascading over a white tarpaulin at the back of the stage represents an almost permanent rainfall – perhaps a slightly over-cynical view of its Manchester setting – and the costumes and props are all accurately chosen with its era and location in mind. I really admired the attention to detail with the Woman magazine from which Helen reads out the cinema listings; when she leaves the magazine open, we could clearly see, from our vantage point in Row A, that she was reading from a cinema listings page – admirably realistic. I was a little critical of the Crucible’s recent Macbeth from the point of view of obstruction of sightlines; in this production too, the rather large foldaway table at the side of the stage blocked our view of the sofa in the set’s opening position, and a couple of times later in the play, which meant you could not see the face of the person (usually Helen) sitting on the left side of the sofa. I wish they would consider some of these problems a bit more seriously sometimes.

Katie WestIt’s still a very powerful play – it can certainly be considered as one of the 1950s seminal kitchen-sink dramas, and you can easily make a case for Shelagh Delaney to be the original “angry young woman”. With its grimness and dour characters, superficially it feels a thoroughly pessimistic play; alternatively you can look on it as showing indomitable spirit and the ability to survive despite everything, which in itself is rather optimistic. The programme notes offer a useful timeline to show its relevance to contemporary domestic and world events, which help you contextualise its mores and attitudes to prejudices that we would now consider historical. Helen, whom Delaney describes as a semi-whore, has used sex as a tool to make her way in the world but nevertheless she goes all prudish when confronted with what she considers a “pornographic” advertisement in “Woman” – very 50s. She is inter alia racist and homophobic, whereas Jo embraces (quite literally) the concept of the black boyfriend and the gay companion, which you can interpret as being a positive direction for society; but at the same time she has inherited her mother’s abilities to ridicule and destroy when it comes to personal relationships, which is going to limit her chances of future happiness. The bulbs that she brings when they first move into the flat with the hope of growing into something beautiful get forgotten and are left to rot; what will become of the baby that Jo is expecting – will it flourish and develop, or will it suffer the same fate as the bulbs? That sweet and sour combination, so cleverly encapsulated in that innocent-sounding title, is in every element of Jo’s life and you must make your own mind up as to whether or not it’s a positive conclusion.

Andrew KnottThere are some excellent performances on offer. I loved Eva Pope as Helen. Irrepressibly strong, selfish, bigoted, and with the ability to turn her mood on a sixpence – it’s a very believable performance, of an admittedly superbly written role. She looks perfect for it – an unscrupulous and well-presented slut, and I mean that kindly. Katie West’s Jo is suitably angry and frustrated, and is splendidly unpredictable in both her meanness and kindness. Both Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt she was a bit shouty; the youthfulness and exasperation of the character would probably make Jo quite a shouty person but it did come across a little tiring from time to time. I wondered if there could have been a little more subtlety in her approach; however it’s still a perfectly credible reading of the role.

Christopher HancockI really liked Andrew Knott as Peter, Helen’s latest “unlucky man” – a pompous, arrogant and bitter lowlife who rides roughshod over anyone who gets in his way – which includes the women in his life. He was contemptible and loathsome and you really feel hatred for his character. He was vile. It was great. There was another excellent performance from Christopher Hancock as Geof, tentatively coming to terms with himself and then growing into the role of support for Jo as her pregnancy wears on, only to be dismissed by the self-seeking Helen after his misjudged attempt at a family reunion. His hapless attempts to stand up against the prejudice and protect his friend were heart-warmingly sad. Nice support too from David Judge David Judgeas Jimmie, a glimmer of exotic hope in an otherwise cruel world – even if the character turns out to be all mouth and trousers in the end.

It’s a well-crafted and effective production of a play that can look drab on the page but that comes to life on the stage. It’s definitely worth catching for some excellent performances and authentic northern grimness.