Review – The Girl on the Train, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 25th April 2019

The Girl on the TrainFirst you get the book. Then you get the film of the book. Then you get the play of the film of the book. Sometimes you get the musical of the play of the film of the book. And somewhere in the middle of all this, new creativity gets suffocated in a cynical desire to rehash the same material just to make money. I ask you, is that right?

Rant over. I’ve not seen the film of The Girl on the Train, but I did buy the book for Mrs Chrisparkle as a Christmas present, in 2017. She hasn’t read it yet. And now that we’ve seen the play, there’s probably no point. However, I got the feeling that the majority of the (nearly full house) audience on Thursday last had indeed either seen it, or read it, or both. Experiencing the same story in a second, third or even fourth format must be like the Arts equivalent of comfort eating. You don’t need it to nourish you, but it can be especially satisfying. So I guess that answers my question in paragraph 1, above.

Rachel has a drink problem. She wakes up one morning on the kitchen floor with an unexplained injury to her forehead and puke in a pizza box. Ex-husband Tom calls to warn her that a witness saw her overnight in the area where a young woman, Megan, was last seen before going missing, so the police might ask her about it. Before long, Rachel has tracked down Megan’s husband Scott, pretending that she and Megan were old friends, and has set up an appointment with Megan’s therapy counsellor. The trouble is, the further that Rachel gets involved with the investigation, the harder it is for her to extricate herself from it…

The first thing that struck me about this story, whilst I was watching it, was its similarities to the Bridge Theatre’s recent production of Alys Always, where the central character finds herself the only witness to a death and then manipulates the truth to her own advantage and financial benefit. Both Mrs C and I thought that the way that Rachel infiltrated Megan’s life, by befriending her husband Scott and challenging the professionalism of her therapist Kamal, was extremely far-fetched. Comparisons are odious, but Alys Always felt the much more realistic of the two plays. However, in the realm of stage thrillers, we both thought Girl on the Train was much more successful than the similarly structured Rebus: Long Shadows that toured a few months back. Most importantly, the final denouement is genuinely exciting and surprising, as your suspicions as to whodunit flip between three people over the final fifteen minutes, until your doubts are finally confirmed.

As can sometimes happen with a touring play, the Derngate stage is much wider than required for this production, and my guess is that if you’re sat on the extreme sides of the auditorium you might spend a lot of the evening looking at blank, black walls. Although, to be fair, the wide stage worked well for the tableau image that starts the second act, with Matt Concannon’s unnamed police officer staring very officiously at us as we made our way back into the auditorium after the interval. Apart from that, James Cotterill’s set is decently flexible, with Tom and Anna’s nice pad stacked neatly behind Scott’s lonely living room, which in turn is stacked behind Rachel’s rather sordid kitchen. Two office chairs dangle in and out to represent Kamal’s therapy suite, and the various train effects, including a bright strip of white light at the end, work dazzle with effectiveness.

Samantha Womack once again omits her Eurovision appearance from her programme bio, but us fans have long memories. She plays Rachel with superb sullenness, a confused, distressed person looking for clues not only to what happened to Megan, but also to pin down her own identity. There’s not a lot of light and shade in her character, but you do make a kind of journey of redemption with her throughout the course of the play. Rachel isn’t a likeable character by any means; but you’ve got to admire her survival instinct.

There’s an ensemble feel to the rest of the cast as their characters drift in and out of Rachel’s life, but I particularly enjoyed John Dougall as D I Gaskill, a meddling little man who delights in leaving his detective work at his front door, and Lowenna Melrose as Anna, Tom’s new wife, who becomes progressively more aggravated at constantly bumping into Rachel everywhere she goes. Oliver Hipwell plays Scott as a cool cucumber, easily manipulated and surprisingly unaffected by his wife’s disappearance; Adam Jackson-Smith is an apparently thoughtful on the surface Tom, but with secrets of his own; Naeem Hayat is convincing as the counsellor Kamal who doesn’t need much to break patient confidentiality; and Kirsty Oswald is an appealing Megan, a free spirit caught up in others’ power games, and whose red dress steadily turns black from the bottom up during the course of the evening. There must be a symbolic reason for this, but I’m blowed if I can work it out.

All in all, a smart little production, that perhaps delivered more than it promised, and I was certainly fully rapt in trying to be one step ahead in solving the crime from my seat in Row F. The company has a gruelling tour that carries on until November, with Newcastle, Dartford, Coventry, Nottingham, Shrewsbury, Dublin, Belfast, Brighton, Sheffield, Norwich, Guildford, Oxford, Canterbury, Birmingham, Aberdeen, Bradford, High Wycombe, Cambridge, Plymouth, Swindon, Bromley, Malvern, Woking, Eastbourne, Cardiff and Blackpool all still to come. If you enjoy a good stage thriller, this is for you!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Macbeth, Sheffield Crucible Theatre, 15th September 2012

MacbethOver many years of theatregoing you get to see quite a few productions of Macbeth. Not surprising really, being the magnificent play that it is; I can think of only a few possible rivals for the title “Greatest Play in the English Language”. Naturally, every director wants to do it differently. I’ve seen it done in 20th century dress; I’ve seen it heavily abridged; I’ve seen it with a male Lady Macbeth. In fact, it’s not often you see it without a modern twist of some sort – and that’s one of the things that makes Daniel Evans’ new production at Sheffield stand out – it’s incredibly faithful to Shakespeare’s original. They’ve even kept the Hecate scene in – only the second time I’ve seen it. Although it was a bit odd that Macbeth nips in after Lady Macduff and her boy have been slain and nicks her baby out of the cot; and whenever we see Macbeth towards the end of the play he’s cuddling a mewling infant. Treachery, regicide, homicide, and now cotnapping. Not a nice Thane.

Daniel Evans has staged the play in the round. Instead of the Crucible’s normal backdrop behind the stage, a couple of extra banks of seats recreate a full amphitheatre effect. This adds to the visual impact of some circular images; the witches’ dancing round in a circle, for example; the round centre of the stage at different times becomes a cauldron, a magnificent large round table for Macbeth’s ill-fortuned feast, and a pit from which the apparitions can emerge. It all looks great.

Unfortunately the “in the round” nature contributed to some blocking issues. From my vantage point of seat C17 there were a number of times when a character was speaking and my view of them was completely obscured by actors in front of me. The most irritating example of this was when the aforesaid apparitions are spooked into reality by the witches in a strong ray of light centre stage, which would clearly be a stunning visual effect. At least I think that’s what happened; as First Witch had stubbornly plonked herself in my view line and the only way I could catch a faint glimpse of this coup de theatre was by lunging across Mrs Chrisparkle’s lap, which was the same course of action for the young lad in B17 and the gentleman in A17 and I expect for the person in D17 and so on. Not that they all landed on Mrs C, but you get my drift. It’s a shame because the Witch could have moved just twelve inches to the right and she wouldn’t have obstructed anyone.

Whilst I’m on the subject of technical imperfections, I was also rather disturbed by the off-stage noises during Saturday’s matinee. C17 is the last seat on the row before a handrail and a gap, and below you on the right is one of the entrance and exit paths on to the stage. There really was an awful lot of muttering, clattering and rustling from time to time as actors were getting into position for their entrances down there. Particularly irritating was when they were getting ready for their “Dunsinane” entrance, disguised under twigs and branches, it was incredibly noisy and distracting.

You would think I was very grumpy about this production – I’ve done nothing but complain about it. Well, to conclude this section in this vein – Malcolm is the squeaky clean new hope for Scotland at the end of the play and is often portrayed as a bit wet behind the ears; but this Malcolm is so wet he is positively runny. I’m afraid I didn’t get much sense of kingliness about him. The other characters that lacked credibility for me were the three witches. Indeed they looked the part very well, but to me they sounded like they’d come straight from a RADA enunciation class. They were far too posh to be dressed as hags and dispensing eye of newt and toe of frog; instead you would expect their cauldron to be filled with Waitrose Organic supplies.

Geoffrey StreatfeildApart from all that, it’s really good! Macbeth is played by Geoffrey Streatfeild as quite a decent chap at first; quiet, noble, honourable – which makes his first aside, that of his jealous reaction to Malcolm’s becoming Prince of Cumberland, stand out as being a huge character-leap. His duplicity is really well brought to life. One extremely good view I was lucky enough to share involved Mr Streatfeild’s faux-kindly eyes looking straight at me as he exchanged farewells with the trusting Banquo and Fleance, whose honest faces were also turned to me, with Macbeth’s in between them. It was one of those little theatrical moments when a look said it all; it said, “with this smile I send you to your deaths”, and it gave me a shiver down my spine. I also loved the sharp contrast of his change from beaming host to unhinged madman at the sight of Banquo’s ghost – that whole feast scene is brilliantly staged and acted and is definitely a highlight of the production; by the way, the Ghost’s unexpected entrances take your breath away.

Claudie Blakley As Lady Macbeth, I knew Claudie Blakley was going to be superb, and I wasn’t disappointed. We loved her in the National’s Comedy of Errors earlier this year, and as Lady M she packs exactly the punch you’d expect. This is possibly the most feminine Lady Macbeth I’ve ever seen – not in her dress sense, but with some light flirting and her deceptively charming voice you can really see why Macbeth would fall for her. She makes both a convincing hostess but also a damn good bullying wife. All her scenes are immaculately performed, and the final “out damned spot” speech was sufficiently moving actually to make you feel sorry for her. Normally I sense that Lady M gets precisely what she deserves, but with this portrayal you genuinely feel there is a real person suffering there. Good stuff.

Andrew Jarvis The roles of Duncan, Old Man and Siward are all performed by Andrew Jarvis with splendid Shakespearian gusto. As Duncan he was grandly regal, the kind of old man that both a nation and family could love as one – like a benign Lear. As Siward he was stirringly warrior-like, and as the Old Man he reacted very credibly to Macbeth’s weird behaviour at the dining table, trying not to catch his eye, and rescuing bits of his meal off the floor that Macbeth had flung there. Very enjoyable attention to detail.

John DougallAnother performance I really enjoyed was John Dougall’s Macduff. We’d seen Mr Dougall before in Propeller’s Henry V giving a great performance as the vain French King laid low by England’s might. As Macduff he’s superb – particularly in the moving scene where he slowly realises his little chickens and their dam have been slaughtered, and which develops into very classy belligerence in his fight with Macbeth. You have to hand it to him; during the scene where Ross tells him his family is slain I was already caught up in his excellent delivery when, horror of horrors, a mobile phone went off; both persistently and noisily. Appalling timing! But Mr Dougall did not register it a nanometre. An earthquake could have happened and he was so “in the zone” that he’d have carried on. Brilliant work.

David GanlyDavid Ganly’s Banquo is a gutsy, hearty soul who put me in mind slightly of Brian Blessed after a diet. It’s a perfect reading of the role but he absolutely comes into his own as the Ghost. His empty mouth’s voiceless lamentations and accusations are spine chilling. It’s only a tiny role, but Sophie Roberts’ Lady Macduff filled her five minutes with clarity, humour, and terror and was absolutely spot-on. Her murder made the audience gasp with horror – so that worked a treat.

Sophie RobertsThere was quite a lot of doubling-up of roles, all of which worked fine, but special mention has to be made of Christopher Logan who took seven roles and gave each of them their own identity and dynamic. He was brilliant as the porter – that scene can sometimes be incredibly irksome – but he made it genuinely funny and nicely eccentric; not over-the-top, but perfectly convincing. Heroically noble as the Bleeding Captain; gormless as one of the murderers; compromised as the doctor; and even a suggestion of drag-queen as Hecate, he is a lynch-pin of the production and makes a superb contribution.

Christopher Logan I noticed that the programme acknowledged the assistance – inter alia – of our very own Royal and Derngate here in Northampton. I can guess what their contribution was; when Macduff finally appears with Macbeth’s head on a stick, it had all the hallmarks of The Bacchae’s head of Pentheus which his mother chomps away at in cannabilistic ecstasy. Suitably gruesome and realistic.

So, a few technical issues aside, on the whole this is a very good production and I would recommend it for some excellent performances and a clear reading of the plot. This was possibly the largest audience I’ve seen for a show at the Crucible, so hopefully it’s doing good business, which can only be great news for everyone.

Review – Henry V, Propeller Theatre Company, Milton Keynes Theatre, December 1st 2011

Henry VThis was our first experience of the Propeller Theatre Company, of whom I had heard Good Things, and I can understand the hype. They tackle the text head on, making those Shakespearean words as meaningful as possible; and involve the audience and indeed even the theatre building itself as much as they can, which gives the play instant impact and keeps it relevant to today. The programme describes the company as “an all-male Shakespeare company, which mixes a rigorous approach to the text with a modern physical aesthetic”. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

I loved the ways this production broke down barriers: physical ones. Members of the company dressed in terrorist style combats infiltrated the bar and lobbies of the theatre before the show starts. The company accessed the auditorium through the public entrances, emerging on to the stage from behind the audience rather than coming on from the wings or the back. They sang songs in front of the box office during the interval. They chatted with audience members from the stage and from the aisles at the beginning of the second half. It’s all very involving and inclusive. You felt that the actors actually realised we were there with them, and took us personally into account when they performed. Obviously, it’s all rehearsed but nevertheless it has a spontaneous feel to it. Director Edward Hall and the company must all have a terrific relationship together, providing a strong ensemble element to the production whilst the individual actors still all have their own separate and well-defined characters.

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart Nowhere is this better utilised than in Henry V’s Chorus. A difficult one to get right, I feel. Is it an everyman character? Perhaps a lone soldier? A courtier? The Chorus plays an important role in moving the play forwards, stage by stage, location by location, and keeps explaining the progress of the play in a most helpful manner. In this production, the entire cast take on the role of the Chorus, each taking individual lines. It’s a good way of introducing the main players in each scene, and commenting on what will unfold in each act. In Act Two, for example, the Chorus identifies the three traitors who will be executed, and the three actors who play the traitors, don their costumes as they are introduced, making it visually clearer what is going on. A Brechtian approach, 300 years before Brecht.

Chris Myles The use of music within the production is also strong and telling. Many of the performers are skilled musicians, and more barriers are broken by use of modern songs – I loved the use of the Clash’s London Calling, for example. And then there is the depiction of violence. In an era where computer games have created “death-lite” and its horror is losing its impact, this production aligns the violence in the play with an additional visual device, making it slightly less violent in reality but not in effect.

John DougallFor example, when a soldier is being attacked on the battle field, the attacker is shown hitting a punchbag at the side of the stage, and at the sound of the impact, the victim falls or reacts to the punch centre stage – but there is no actual violent act depicted on the actor himself. The most effective use of this device was the beheading of the three traitors: the executioner dramatically wields his axe into a wooden stump, and at the sight and sound of the blow, the three traitors behind all drop down in instantaneous lifelessness. Really different – and a really stunning effect.

Nicholas Asbury I felt there were only two aspects of the production that could have been improved. One of them is Shakespeare’s fault. This is a play about a warrior nation, led by a warrior king, and there are lots – and lots – of battle scenes. About halfway through the second half, it all began to get a bit samey. As we had been treated to so many visually intriguing devices and characterisations, maybe we had been a bit spoiled by what had gone on so far. The continuous battlefield stuff just got a little dull for me. In fact Mrs Chrisparkle allowed herself forty winks during this period. But I blame Shakespeare. He didn’t always get it right.

Gunnar Cauthery The other slight problem for me was the performance of Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Henry V. There are at least four aspects to the warrior king – the warmonger, the negotiator, the magnanimous victor, and the ham-fisted lover. Working backwards, the final “love” scenes with Katherine were light, gauche, awkward and extremely funny. Mr Bruce-Lockhart was perfectly cast for that aspect of the part. As the magnanimous victor, he was also extremely convincing; a very noble king, keen to hear the names of the fallen in battle and that their names should be given due reverence. His refined bearing helped enormously in giving the impression of fairness in battle, and decency in triumph. As a negotiator with the French King and the Herald, his diffidence didn’t always quite make sense to me. I didn’t get a sense of his motives or the justice behind his claim. And as an actual warrior, I’m afraid I wasn’t really convinced at all. His voice and characterisation was for me too mild. I didn’t get the feeling that he would motivate me on the battlefield to go off and do his bloody work for him. I think maybe he was just a bit too nice.

Karl Davies Other members of the cast though hit exactly the right note. I particularly liked Chris Myles as the Duke of Exeter, a purposeful soldier with a touch of Field Marshal Montgomery about him, shrewd eyes pointing withering looks to the French Herald. John Dougall’s French King had an excellent superior disdain in his dealings with the English in the early scenes and had diminished nicely to vanquished status by the end. Nicely stated supporting performances by Nicholas Asbury as the effete French Herald Montjoy, Gunnar Cauthery as the Dauphin, but particularly good I thought as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Karl Davies as Scroop and Katherine, all gave the production additional power and resonance.

A strong production performed by an excellent ensemble, touring into next summer. I recommend it.