Review – The Hypochondriac, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 3rd October 2023

HypochondriacA new production of Moliere’s final play, translated and adapted by Roger McGough, with a rhyming script like the original? Sounds a complete hoot. And at times, it is! And at times, it isn’t. Of course, Tuesday night’s performance was a preview, so one must make all sorts of allowances. In fact the first person to enter the stage was Sheffield Theatres’ Associate Artistic Director, Anthony Lau, who reminded us that this was indeed a preview and that things were still taking shape; as well as the fact that Oliver Birch, the show’s composer, had stepped in to play Cléante at the last minute due to company sickness, script in hand, so that the show could go on. This made me very worried as to what I was about to receive. However, let me state here and now that Mr Birch is indeed one of the show’s highlights with a delightfully funny and confident performance, and were it not for the fact that he had to occasionally check the script you’d never know he was an understudy.

Edward HoggThere’s quite a Moliere-shaped gap in my theatre experience, which was one of the reasons I was keen to see this production. Tartuffe, of course, reappears everywhere, most successfully recently with that brilliant RSC adaptation set in Birmingham. I had to read Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme as part of my French A Level; I don’t think I enjoyed it much. Moliere’s Wikipedia page lists 36 plays under the heading Major Works, so you can think of him as being pretty much level pegging with Shakespeare as far as output is concerned. Le Malade Imaginaire (1673) was his final play; largely because, one night whilst playing Argan, the eponymous hypochondriac, he had a coughing fit during the performance and died later that night of a haemorrhage. You couldn’t make it up.

Chris Hannon and Zweyla Mitchell dos SantosMoliere’s original is a sprawling, unfocussed play.  Argan argues with his maid Toinette, his doctor Purgeon, his wife Béline, and his brother Beralde; he arranges for his daughter Angélique to marry a man she doesn’t like without knowing that she wants to pursue another suitor (Cléante). Eventually he becomes convinced that there is nothing wrong with him, and celebrates this fact by wanting to become a doctor himself. All this is broken up with little songs and dances (such was the way of Moliere’s comedies-ballet). There’s little pretence to making any serious points – it’s all done for the comedy. And Roger McGough’s adaptation is largely faithful to the original storyline and to the concept of rhyming, singing and primarily doing it for the laughs.

CompanyColin Richmond has created a tremendous set, reflecting Argan’s salon, piled high with receipts and notes, with stacks of paperwork tumbling almost out of the sky. The costumes are classic 17th century French bourgeoisie; the harpsichord compositions feel like they could be lost works by Charpentier who wrote the original music for the play. However, McGough’s translations are distinctly 20th century, if not 21st; and whilst the enforced corny rhymes amuse at first, it doesn’t take long for them to pall. The trouble is, your ears get so used to expecting the rhymes that your brain starts to disengage from the words themselves and their meanings. And as soon as you recognise a rhyme, you’re waiting for the next one, and so on; becoming obsessed with the speech rhythm but not the content.

Edward Hogg and Jessica RansomConsequently, it quickly becomes tiring, especially as there is no depth to any of it. The triteness of the lyrics was a major problem with the recent production of The Third Man at the Menier Chocolate Factory. In The Hypochondriac, that triteness is taken to a new level. McGough manages the musical element of Moliere’s original by creating his own little passages of originality, such as the speech all about the benefits of having an interval – cue time for the Interval; or indeed what would Moliere do here? or a verbal reference to the Scaffold’s very own Lily the Pink, at which everyone laughs in I see what you did there kind of recognition, but is as far away from the 17th century setting as you can get. A little bit knowing and clever-clever for my liking.

Garmon Rhys and Chris HannonEdward Hogg is a wily, wiry, whiny Argan, a self-obsessed wretch who likes to manipulate but is easily manipulated himself. It’s not a domineering performance; even though the play revolves completely around Argan, it doesn’t feel like the production sets Mr Hogg up as its main source of energy. That comes more from the other members of the household: Jessica Ransom’s insincere Béline, Saroja-Lily Ratnavel’s flustered Angélique, Zweyla Mitchell dos Santos’ irrepressible Toinette, and perhaps best of all Chris Hannon’s boisterous Beralde. Garmon Rhys steals the show with his beautifully over-the-top performance as unsuitable suitor Thomas Diaforius, reciting his compliments from memory and flourishing his ostentatious bow like a stampeding rhino.

Saroja-Lily Ratnavel and Jessica RansomIf you’re expecting anything subtle or poised, I think I’d recommend booking for a different show. It’s certainly fast and furious; but on Tuesday night it felt rather ragged and a little over-hectic; hopefully it will gain a little more slickness over time. I have to say the audience gave it a massive cheer at the end. Some good performances, some overplayed enthusiasm and some tiresome language creates something of a mixed prescription for me. I can only be grateful that doggerel doesn’t quite rhyme with b*gger all.


Production photos by Manuel Harlan

3-starsThree-sy Does It!

Review – Sunny Afternoon, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th & 11th January 2017

Sunny AfternoonYes, gentle reader, you did read that title correctly. I loved the new touring production of Sunny Afternoon so much that I had to go back to see it again on the matinee the next day. The only other time that we were so overwhelmed by a show that we had to see it the next day was for the brilliant Mr Whatnot – if you were lucky enough to catch it, give yourself a huge pat on the back in self-congratulation.

sa9Mrs Chrisparkle and I went to see Sunny Afternoon in London two years ago, and, for my reflections on what the show’s about, its structure and so on, I can’t do better than to refer you to my original review. I could finish there, really, but seeing as you asked so nicely, I’ll continue. The show tells the story of The Kinks; how they formed, their early days, how they put together those iconic guitar riffs, how their success exploded under their posh management duo, Wace and Collins; how they got into trouble in America, how they interacted with one another, and how their relationship with their managers ended. All this to the accompaniment of Ray Davies’ beautiful, melancholic, introverted, enthusiastic, heart-warming lyrics and melodies.

sa16They didn’t rip out the first few rows of seats at the Derngate to create cabaret tables like they did at the Comedy, I mean Harold Pinter theatre. They did, however, have that very useful apron that allows the cast to catwalk into the auditorium, and if you’re seated close to it you get an exciting sense of extra stage dimension. It really enhances the relationship between the performers and the audience, and is also a great view for appreciating the 1960s Pan’s People-type choreography. I’d say the ideal place to sit would be centre stalls, one row further back from where the apron ends. You’re welcome.

sa10Having a different cast performing in different theatres inevitably sometimes changes the emphasis of the show. This time round, I was much more struck by the irony of the group’s prohibition from working in America; working class lads being caught out by the intricacies of union dues. When Mr Sinatra’s representative tells them to look after their teamsters, they (unsurprisingly) haven’t got a clue what he’s on about. There’s a nice nod to McCarthyism with the suggestion that both Ray Davies’ wife Rasa (Lithuanian) and their baby (a baby) must be communists. Ray’s retort that the UK gave her refuge when she and her family were in need sounds (sadly) like historical rhetoric in these post-Brexit days. When they’re in America, they’re very uncomfortable fish out of waters.

sa7The other aspect of the show that was more pointedly highlighted in this production is the extreme youth (but not naïveté) of Dave Davies. He can’t sign the agreement with the managers because he is only 16, so his father is required to do to it for him. And when the band starts to do well, and the fans start throwing themselves at them – well, Dave instantly has girls on tap, and there’s no doubting that he enjoyed more than his fair share. Easy access to drugs and drink clearly isn’t beneficial to Dave’s health. But the show is very forgiving of him – he’s “just Dave” – and with all that self-indulgence, the show would have you believe he simply had a pretty darn good time. His big on-stage fight with drummer Mick really did happen; it’s presented in the show almost as a pantomime, with the copper running after him, wagging his truncheon almost Benny Hill-style, but in reality, he needed sixteen stitches to the head.

sa3So why did I enjoy this revisiting this production two years on so much that I had to go again the next day? Primarily, I think, it was because of the music. That early scene, where Ray and Dave are perfecting the guitar intro to You Really Got Me, got my goosebumps jumping like Mexican beans; and it gets louder, and it gets rawer, and it gets unruly – and I really loved it. I think I already knew at that stage I had to come back. In the second act, Andrew Gallo, as Mick, gives us a truly exciting and delightfully reckless drum solo, that really stands out. At the other end of the scale, Lisa Wright performs I Go To Sleep with the most painfully poignant expression; you can almost feel the emotional gulps in each word – and it’s a stunning arrangement by Elliott Ware. Her performance as Rasa is outstanding throughout the whole show. That’s definitely one of Sunny Afternoon’s strengths – how it takes an original Kinks song and then covers it in a truly creative way. The acapella performance of that lovely old song, Days, for example, puts a strongly emotional slant on it, the five guys singing barbershop style, led with beautiful clarity by Joseph Richardson as Robert Wace.

sa13Of course, any production is going to rely heavily on the actor playing Ray, and in Ryan O’Donnell, they’ve come up with an absolute cracker. Not only is he the spitting image of the young Ray, he sings like him, recreating his phrasing perfectly; he portrays the character’s quiet determination, his artistic imperative to create the best recording possible, and his emotional vulnerability. Ray isn’t all about sparkly charisma and showbiz pizazz, he’s the guy who observes the crack up in the ceiling, who quietly gazes on Waterloo sunset, who’s not like everybody else. Mr O’Donnell carries it off brilliantly. As his madcap and uncontrollable brother, Mark Newnham plays Dave like the school misfit, mischievously contrary whenever he can be, playing the idiot because it gets him the best attention. He handles the guitar like a dream, and is out to screw the last remaining jot of pleasure out of anything and everything (and everyone) he does – which probably is a very good representation of the real Dave.

sa15Garmon Rhys’ Pete is the perfect downtrodden sidekick; completely unsuitable for a world where he is on show, a simple man thrust into a complex limelight, and he doesn’t like it. When he tells Ray why he wants to leave the band, it’s very hard for the audience not to respond with a big pantomime “aaaaah”. Andrew Gallo’s Mick is an unsophisticated bruiser but his heart’s in the right place; but, primarily, provider of great drum accompaniment. Joseph Richardson and Tomm Coles as Wace and Collins are a great posh boy double act, and Michael Warburton brings a steely edge to his role as music publisher Kassner. I also really liked Robert Took and Deryn Edwards as (amongst others) Mr and Mrs Davies Senior, the decent, respectable but poor people living on Dead End Street.

sa1When they all come out for the final rock concert scene, with a mix of All Day, Lola, and You Really Got Me, it’s such an exhilarating and feelgood sensation to be upfront close to that performance. I absolutely loved it. So did Mrs C, who was, frankly, jealous of my return trip the next day. No need for you to be jealous – go and see it! The tour continues into May, visiting Cardiff, Nottingham, Oxford, Liverpool, Llandudno, York, Bradford, Bristol, Dublin, Canterbury, Norwich, Wolverhampton, Belfast and Plymouth. If you remember the Kinks with affection, or want to appreciate a chance to revisit their songs in a new setting, this show is definitely for you. And if, like me, you saw the original London show and think there’s no need to see it again, think again – this new cast is an absolute knockout!

Production photos by Kevin Cummins

Review – The Secret Adversary, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 25th March 2015

Secret Adversary 2015I’ve always been a huge fan of Agatha Christie. As a child, she was my next step up the reading curve after Enid Blyton. I used to swap Christies with a rather attractive and well-developed girl at my school called Julia, and it was a splendidly sneaky way of engineering a conversation her. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle took me to see The Mousetrap when it was only in its 17th year (work that back) and the creepy tension in it scared me to death. However, since then, we’ve only seen a few Christies on stage and on the whole, don’t think they work that well; and certainly the kindest thing you can say about The Mousetrap now is that it’s a creaky old historical artefact (but you just have to see it once, to prove you’re alive).

Secret Adversary 1922The Secret Adversary was only Christie’s second novel and introduces us to Tommy and Tuppence, a game pair of young scamps – well they were in 1922 – full of derring-do and no aptitude for a 9-5 job, who become “Young Adventurers”. They dreamed of hiring themselves out to anyone who needs an escapade performed but doesn’t have the sheer lack of a sense of self-preservation to do it themselves. They’re among Christie’s less well-known detectives, but they’re good fun and full of character, cheek and bravery; seemingly innocent and naïve but with nerves of steel. There was a terrific TV series in the 80s – Partners in Crime – where they were played by Francesca Annis and James Warwick; sophisticated, methodical, good taste and keen as mustard. And I still carry the mental image of those two whenever I think of the characters.

TuppenceAnd so to this production, from the Watermill Theatre; I probably should have noticed that before I booked, as it would almost certainly mean an adaptation of an Agatha Christie mystery involving actors playing their own instruments. They love a bit of that down there in Newbury. Miss Marple on the harp? Poirot on a tuba? Fortunately those characters don’t play a part in this tale of our heroic couple searching for a mystery woman with secret papers that would compromise the government, which search in turn leads on to another search, of the mystery man who’s masterminding the whole skulduggery. Tommy and Tuppence get into various scrapes all across London but manage to come up with the solution and even get engaged on the last page. It’s a good story, rather far-fetched and full of coincidences but an enjoyable escapist read all the same.

Tommy and TuppenceThe adaptation by Sarah Punshon and Johann Hari has very cleverly taken the majority of the elements of the original book and stitched them back together in different sequences and in different locations, which works well as an exercise in itself but for me made the play largely unrecognisable from the original book. The play is mainly set in a nightclub. I’ve had a very good flick through the book today and can’t find any reference to it in Christie’s original – that’s not to say it’s not there, but even if it is, it doesn’t form the central location on which to base the story. The mystery woman has undergone a name change, presumably to support a visual gag in one of the early scenes where a fish lands on a dessert (also not in the original). There’s a medley of songs involving the word “Money” (I’m pretty sure Christie never heard the Flying Lizards), and I surprised myself by realising how much of a Christie Purist Snob I had become.

Morgan PhilpottIt’s a shame because there were many elements to the production that were very inventive, very funny and very effective. We both laughed a lot at the primitive PowerPoint presentation of the sinking of the Lusitania; there was an amusingly clever representation of what Tommy saw through the keyhole; there was some magic – always like a bit of magic, I do; and there were moments where the cast addressed the audience, much to our surprise. I loved the clever staging of the scene where the villains are meeting at a table, jutting up from the stage at an angle of 135 degrees with Tommy staring down at them from the grille above their heads. All these elements were performed with a nice sense of fun and an appreciation of the ridiculous.

T & TBut we both felt that the whole show was so overwhelmingly tongue-in-cheek, so completely camped up and over the top, that it lost any serious pretence to actually tell the story, or to present characters that weren’t caricatures (I thought only the character of Tuppence herself came close to having any real identity). When the audience returns for the second act, one of the characters asks us if we’re enjoying ourselves and are we following the plot (with a facial expression that implies it’s a pretty tough plot to follow). If the show is doing its job properly, there should be no difficulty in understanding what’s going on. It’s as though the whole thing has been sacrificed on the altar of The 39 Steps but, regrettably, few things are that funny.

Taxi RideWe did enjoy the performances on the whole. I liked Morgan Philpott’s rather supercilious array of waiters, MC’s and villains – and I did enjoy his spots of magic. One of the cast members referred to him as “Philpott” during the show – couldn’t work out if that was an intentional “out of character” moment or an epicfail. Emerald O’Hanrahan played Tuppence with a sense of spirit and cuteness which was rather charming. I’ve seen Garmon Rhys before – he was an excellent Wilfred Owen in Regeneration last year – so I know he’s a terrific actor, but I’m afraid I found his Tommy rather one-dimensional. I enjoyed Elizabeth Marsh’s very stagey Rita (straight out of Sunset Boulevard) but sighed with dismay when she donned a beard to play Kramenin – just not enough respect for the original work, I felt.

Mind the gunI think the show went down pretty well with the majority of the audience, but it just wasn’t for us. It wasn’t the show I was expecting to see, and my flexibility biorhythm must have been at a low ebb. I was expecting a classic whodunit; instead we got a 1920s semi-musical end-of-the-pier-show of a whodunit. Purists beware; others may well enjoy. The tour continues to Eastbourne, Ipswich, Derby, Coventry and Kingston, up to May.

P.S. When the interval came we agreed that we were bored by it all; Mrs Chrisparkle proposed taking our coats with us when we went for our interval drinks so that we didn’t have to go back in to the auditorium if we didn’t want to. That was code for I want to go home. However, I didn’t think it quite warranted half-time abandonment, on the grounds that there were some amusing moments and some proficient performances, and I normally only give up on a show after the interval when a play is so bad that it’s not funny. This wasn’t that bad. So we compromised. We went back in, and Mrs C decided to sleep through the majority of the second half. Fair do’s.

Review – Regeneration, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th September 2014

RegenerationBack to the charming Royal Theatre for another of this year’s Made in Northampton productions, Nicholas Wright’s adaptation of Pat Barker’s Regeneration, the much loved novel about World War One, and indeed a Booker Prize nominee. It’ll probably come as no surprise, gentle reader, that neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I have read it, nor seen the film, nor knew anything of what it’s about. So we came to the theatre with no prior knowledge and no preconceptions. Of course, I knew of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Graves. But I’d never heard of Craiglockart Army Hospital, and certainly didn’t know that Sassoon and Owen were both patients at the same time.

Soldier's DeclarationThe action takes place between 1917 and 1919. Second Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon makes his “Soldier’s Declaration”, and refuses to return to duty, because “the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest”. Instead of receiving a court-martial, he is sent to Craiglockart to undergo psychiatric treatment at the hands of the enlightened doctor Captain Rivers. Rivers’ somewhat bizarre task is to treat his shell-shocked patients and make them well again – so that they can go back to the front. That is his military, if not medical, brief. It sounds like something straight out of Catch-22. Whilst at Craiglockart, Sassoon meets Wilfred Owen, who idolises the older man for his war poetry, and before long there’s a certain spark between them too. Part fact part fiction, the story includes many other patients including the non-officer class Billy Prior, and the play follows their progress through the war years, as well as Captain Rivers’ own personal and career development. To tell you more than that would spoil the plot for you.

Stephen BoxerRegeneration – it’s quite a cynical name for the play. Apparently, the title refers to Rivers’ research into what he called “nerve regeneration”. The OED defines regeneration as being brought again into existence, of being reborn. It’s true that Rivers, and other doctors like the sadistic Yealland, are trying to bring their patients back from their muteness and other mental incapacities; but not to reintegrate them back into a more normal society, but just so that they can be more cannon fodder. The name also implies that the concerns of this play continue to be relevant throughout the generations – through the Second World War, to the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns of our own time. Certainly the play makes you feel uncomfortable about the effects of war and the treatments available, both then and today. When you see how fragile humans are, how we crumble when exposed to the excesses of war, when you know the level of cruelty with which man can treat his fellow man on the battlefield, it makes you despair that we still haven’t learned a better way to solve ideological and territorial differences. In amongst all this, Regeneration also brings us close to the War Poetry of the time; gut-wrenchingly heart-breaking, classically beautiful, idealistically noble, with death a terrifying inevitability. It may well send you back to your poetry books to rediscover the works of Wilfred Owen – I’d forgotten quite how devastating they are. It’s a very emotional play, and a very sad one; although it has a lightness of touch throughout that brings out the humour and the positivity in the characters and by extension in all of us.

Technically it’s a solid, classy production. The simple set works on our imagination to recreate not only Craiglockart but also the Conservative Club (class differences are very nicely observed in this play), the picnic field, and Yealland’s comfortless electro-shock therapy room. The military uniforms that were compulsory at the hospital are a permanent reminder of the wartime background and the deathly threat that awaits any recuperating patients. The lighting and the music combine to punctuate each scene and create some very eerie moments, including one major sudden shock that had Mrs C reaching for the Shiraz.

Tim Delap and Garmon Rhys There are some fantastic performances. Stephen Boxer is overwhelmingly good as Captain Rivers. Quiet, unassuming, but with a steely glint that cuts through the crap and continually analyses patients, colleagues, situations, anything he comes across. Mr Boxer is a master of the throwaway line, with immaculate timing to both comic and tragic effect. This Captain Rivers would be an amazing boss to work for. Tim Delap brings us all the natural authority of Siegfried Sassoon’s self-confidence and aristocratic demeanour, but also his tangible moments of anxiety, and, in the last scene, an immense sense of resigned anguish. Garmon Rhys also gives a great performance as Wilfred Owen, enthusiastic, idealistic, desperate to please his mentor Sassoon, failing to conceal the huge mancrush he has on him. Their final scene together, which starts so warmly and ends in disarray, was superbly riveting throughout. Never has a ten pound note been so disappointing. In addition, I must point out that it is extraordinary how similar these three actors, when in character, resemble the vintage photographs of Rivers, Sassoon and Owen themselves. Quite remarkable! I was also really impressed with Jack Monaghan as Billy Prior, his working class accent standing out like a sore thumb against those of the officer class with whom he is hospitalised, his war trauma deeply felt and expressed with complete conviction.

Tim DelapThe rest of the cast are also great – I particularly liked Simon Coates’ “chastising” Dr Yealland and Lindy Whiteford’s kind and strict Sister Rogers. But the whole team give a crisp, unsettling and emotional performance. Also – a simple note of appreciation but one that is genuinely meant – I heard every word that every actor spoke. That doesn’t always happen; but when you don’t have to fight to understand what’s being said it really does enhance your enjoyment of an evening at the theatre!

Jack MonaghanOn the night we went, it was followed by a Post-Show Discussion with members of the cast. Mrs C and I are happy quietly to follow such conversations rather than pitch in with any observations we might have – we know our limitations. But I was really impressed with the obviously intelligent way in which the cast have prepared for the play, their own background reading, the insights they have into their characters, their thoughts about what the play should do and how we should receive it. It’s an intelligence that really pays off on stage. This is a thought-provoking, hard-hitting and very dignified production and I would whole-heartedly recommend it to you. After Northampton it embarks on a three month-tour to York, Edinburgh, Bradford, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Richmond, Wolverhampton, Darlington, Oxford and Blackpool. Catch it if you can!

P. S. Can I also recommend you visit theatrecloud for much more information about the production? It’s an excellent additional resource!