Review – Miss Julie / Black Comedy, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 2nd August 2014

Miss Julie & Black ComedyFor many years Mrs Chrisparkle and I have paid an annual pilgrimage to Chichester, invariably seeing a play at the Minerva in the afternoon and in the Festival Theatre in the evening. This year, it only took one look at the summer schedule to realise that one visit would not be enough. So for 2014 we are having three trips to Chichester – and this was the first!

Rosalie CraigConsidering when I were a lad I did post-graduate research at London University into the effects of the withdrawal of Stage Censorship in 1968, it’s an outrageous confession that I have to make: I’ve never seen a production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie before. In fact, I’m not entirely sure I’d even read it. I devoured Ibsen as a teenager, but for some reason Strindberg was never on the same menu. This new Chichester production was therefore a golden opportunity to put that right. Although it was written in 1888, and despite several attempts from producers to stage it, it didn’t get a licence for a public performance in Britain until 1938. Even then, the censor insisted the word “whore” be replaced with “filth”. But the Lord Chamberlain’s Office couldn’t hold the tidal wave of literary appreciation for this play back any more: “The play may disgust some, but it can corrupt nobody. No footman nor chauffeur need fear the more for his virtue for its passing, not society disintegrate in one glorious orgy in the servants’ hall”. That must have been a relief.

Shaun EvansSo what is (or was) so shocking about this play? Miss Julie comes from noble stock but she acts like a guttersnipe. Her one desire is to seduce the valet Jean, to steal him from under the nose of his virtuous fiancée Kristin. Once she is “maiden no more” the character of Jean changes somewhat. He manipulates Miss Julie to steal money from her father so they can run away to start a hotel together; you can see his cruelty in the “beheading the bird” scene. Once her courage goes and she realises she has no alternative but to end it all, Jean encourages her to slit her throat with a shaving razor. It’s true – it’s not what you’d call a “nice” play. But it’s very powerful – and Rebecca Lenkiewicz’ new version is a rivetingly disturbing watch, even allowing for its wry treatment of the few passages of dark humour.

Emma HandyAndrew D Edwards’ excellent set is very naturalistic (as it should be for Strindberg), with a decent kitchen table and a proper working sink, but otherwise quite bare and comfortless; and Jamie Glover’s direction is taut and tense, letting the words do the work. Rosalie Craig is a very convincing Miss Julie – bewitchingly seductive with more than a touch of the dominatrix in the way she abuses her position of authority. You can just imagine her with her ex-fiancé, her insisting that he jump over her riding whip – you really wouldn’t want to mess with her. But as her plans fall apart she shows great vulnerability too, and the final scene, when she is completely trapped in the web of her own making, is very moving. Shaun Evans (who I’ve only ever seen before as TV’s Endeavour), plays Jean as a great manipulator; very calculating, very deliberate, innately violent – very much the fire with which Miss Julie plays and gets burned. There’s also a superb performance by Emma Handy as Kristin, the cook; a realist who knows she cannot compete with Miss Julie for Jean’s attentions, whether it be because of status or vivacity. It’s a very intense one hour twenty minutes, demanding your full attention but rewarding you with powerful story-telling and a fine production.

Robyn AddisonYou probably couldn’t have a greater contrast for the second of the two one-act plays, even though both deal with infidelity. Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy first appeared in 1965, also at Chichester, with Derek Jacobi as Brindsley and Maggie Smith as Clea. Kenneth Tynan had commissioned the play to be produced by the National Theatre together with a revival of – you guessed it – Miss Julie; so this double-bill could only have been more appropriate had it happened next year as a 50th anniversary production. If you don’t already know – it’s the simple story of Brindsley, an aspiring but impoverished artist, and his squeaky-voiced girlfriend Carol,Jonathan Coy hosting a small party in order to impress a) millionaire art collector Bamberger who just might buy one of Brindsley’s pieces and b) Carol’s blusterful military Colonel father in the hope he will approve of their marriage. To give the flat a more artistic flair, they temporarily nick furniture and antiques from their prissy neighbour Harold (who’s away for the weekend, and who would never let anyone else touch his prize objects). Just before the Colonel and the millionaire are due to show up, a fuse goes, and the flat is plunged into darkness.

Mike GradyOr into light, as it happens, as the whole play is presented the other way round. When they have no power and cannot see, the stage is lit; when the electricity is working and everyone acts normally, the stage is dark. Matches and torches get struck and are switched on, at which time the stage is half-lit. It’s a very inventive construct. Cue for a hilarious farce, with a barking Colonel, a batty old lady, an unexpectedly returned prissy neighbour, an even more unexpectedly returned ex-girlfriend, and a perfect case of mistaken identity between the millionaire art collector and the man from the London Electricity Board. It’s one of those farces where you have to keep your teeth permanently clenched and you peer at the stage between gaps in your crossed hands, so cringe-making are the scrapes that our hero digs himself into. At one stage the elderly lady seated to my left was laughing so much she had to grab hold of my arm to steady herself. It really is an extraordinarily funny play and is given a deliciously funny production, with some great performances and fantastic comic business.

Samuel DuttonAt the heart of it is a brilliantly physical performance by Paul Ready as Brindsley, tripping over carpets, bumping on his arse all the way down the stairs, walking into doorframes and generally wreaking havoc for an hour or so. However, I think the two supreme comic moments were when Jonathan Coy (always an asset to an comedy cast) as the Colonel, sat down on the replacement rocking chair, and Samuel Dutton, as the diminutive Bamberger, “discovered” the cellar. There’s a lovely performance by Marcia Warren as Miss Furnival, who’s played baffled old ladies as long as I can remember, discovering the drinks cabinet for herself; and also excellent support from Robyn Addison as posh totty Carol, whose sweetness turns sour on encountering her rival, and comedy stalwart Mike Grady Paul Readyas the Germanic and artistically enlightened Schuppanzigh. Also taking part from the Miss Julie cast are Shaun Evans as Harold, brimming with tart petulance when he discovers that Brindsley’s been seeing other women, and Rosalie Craig as a thoroughly unpredictable and sparky Clea, intent on making the situation as bad for Brindsley as possible. The cast work together seamlessly to create a great ensemble performance – and the audience loved it. The whole double bill forms a splendidly enjoyable production, balancing out harsh tragedy with uproarious farce. One more week to go – it closes on 9th August.

Marcia WarrenP. S. Mrs C and I thought we would try the Minerva Brasserie for a pre-theatre lunch. What a good idea that was! Three fantastic courses and some cheese, and a top bottle of Chablis, perfectly chilled, all served with a friendly politeness and in a very comfortable setting too. There’s excellent provision for coeliacs too, with plenty of gluten-free choices, including unexpected g-f bread to accompany the cheese, which Mrs C said was really yummy. We’ll certainly be doing that again!

Review – Relatively Speaking, Wyndham’s Theatre, 31st August 2013

Relatively Speaking Hello again gentle reader, it’s been a few weeks since we met. How are you doing? Oh that’s great, me too. Yes, been away, on our travels. I know, what are we like? Right, that’s out of the way. Saturday 31st August 2013 saw the demise of a number of decent shows so Mrs Chrisparkle and I headed off to London to catch a final chance to see a couple of them. Back in May I remember thinking it was a shame that we couldn’t see the new production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking at Milton Keynes because it was on during Eurovision week, the one week of the year when theatre has to take a back seat. Then it transferred to London for a short run and I rather forgot all about it. But there was a matinee shaped hole in our calendar for last Saturday so I bit the bullet and bought tickets. And I’m so glad I did.

Wyndham'sIn the hectic hassle-filled days of 2013, the countryside leafy garden breakfasts of 1967 seem a lifetime away; indeed many people don’t make it to their 46th birthday. Yet whilst there is a definite sense of naiveté to at least one of the characters, the repercussions of extra-marital how’s your father is a timeless theme, and I am sure that any audience member with a few guilty secrets of this genre will experience some squeaky bum moments during this play. This was Ayckbourn’s first really successful work, written at the request of Stephen Joseph (with whose name Ayckbourn’s work will always be inextricably linked), who wanted a play for Scarborough “which would make people laugh when their seaside summer holidays were spoiled by the rain and they came into the theatre to get dry before trudging back to their landladies” – a quote from Ayckbourn’s introduction to the 1968 published edition. I’m sure it succeeded in that venture; and today it succeeds in packing out a Saturday matinee with nice middle class people who can rely on the writer’s and cast’s reputation for humour with a twist, but nothing too risqué.

Felicity KendalThe first scene takes place in Greg and Ginny’s London bedsit; the rest of the play on Philip and Sheila’s garden terrace in Lower Pendon, Bucks. The rather reassuringly Home Counties map that is used as a front curtain helpfully traces the railway route from London out towards Buckinghamshire that Greg and Ginny (separately) take in order to find this rural idyll; and I was delighted to see that the director Lindsay Posner had decided that Lower Pendon is the fictional name for Wendover, where I lived from the age of 5 till I got married. I can indeed endorse that if ever there were an idyllic rural Bucks village with a railway station, you couldn’t do better than choose Wendover.

Kara TointonBut I digress. This is a superb revival of Ayckbourn’s deliciously constructed and tightly written play; fifteen minutes of scene-setting then an hour and a half of full-on non-stop talking at cross purposes which results in a high comedy of misunderstandings; with three people shuffling their guilty secrets and an innocent fourth person crashing into them all. One character’s deceptions appear to be fully revealed; another person you realise has an additional secret that you don’t find out about until the end; and a third person you are always unsure of, and that uncertainty continues post-final curtain. There’s enough suggested intrigue to keep you guessing and surmising long after you’ve arrived home.

Jonathan CoyIt would be hard to imagine more perfect casting for this play. Sheila is played by Felicity Kendal; we’ve seen her in a few plays over the years but I don’t think she’s ever put in such a pitch perfect performance. She is totally convincing with her Home Counties niceness and she reminded me so strongly of the mothers of all my Bucks/Herts middle-class school friends, scattered throughout the Lower Pendon villages. Her comic timing is immaculate and her respect for and understanding of Ayckbourn’s words means they are delivered beautifully, wringing every last nuance out of them. Her character has a natural dizziness and you sense an additional faux-dizziness that she assumes when it suits her; but her genuine confusion at the situation in which she finds herself becomes yet a third layer of dizziness, and the whole combination is a complete winner. Her conversation with Greg about her not being Ginny’s mother still cracks me up.

Jonathan CoyJonathan Coy, lynch pin of many a West End hit show, gives a great performance, accurately portraying the bullying business bighead for whom it’s perfectly OK to deceive but completely unacceptable to be deceived. It’s one of the most hilarious and intelligent performances of a comic hypocrite you’re every likely to see. Kara Tointon is terrific as Ginny, the rather fab 60s girl with a mini-dress stashed full of secrets who thrashes out as a form of defence when things get too tricky, but whose heart is in the right place – maybe. And Max Bennett is superb as the wide-eyed honourable innocent boyfriend Greg who can’t see the blinking obvious when it’s staring him in the face, and whose well-intentioned but ill-advised blunderings cause havoc to all around him.

Max BennettWhen I was a student I wrote to Alan Ayckbourn for his opinion about theatre censorship, which was the subject of my (still-to-be-finished) thesis. He said that it “had very little effect so far as I was concerned, since by the time it was withdrawn in 1968 I was only, as it were, a fledgling dramatist, as yet too inhibited and too unadventurous to write anything that anyone could consider worth censoring”. It’s slightly ironic, therefore, that the opening scene of this production has Mr Bennett emerging from the bathroom naked, his frontal modesty protected only by two bunches of flowers and with no attempt to conceal his posterior. It was all done with great deftness, and it was indeed very funny; but it was another of those “let’s get someone to take their kit off even though there’s no real call for it in the script” moments. I can’t imagine the late Mr Richard Briers, the original Greg, flashing his buttocks to all and sundry; and indeed, I am sure the Lord Chamberlain would not have been amused.

This is but a minor quibble. It’s a terrific production of a play that still has the ability to make a packed audience laugh like drains. Superbly performed and put together, I’m really glad we finally managed to see it.

Review – Racing Demon, Crucible, Sheffield, 19th February 2011

David Hare SeasonI think it’s about eight years since we last visited Sheffield. The approach to the theatre complex now is so smart and elegant, full of welcoming restaurants, with beautifully lit municipal buildings with lovely fountains, and a real walk-through Winter Garden, that I barely recognised the place.

The Crucible too has had a refit since our last visit and it must be now one of the most welcoming and comfortable theatres in the country. Really impressed. All this, and ridiculously cheap tickets too. We had seats three rows from the front but slightly on the side (didn’t matter at all not being at the front because the show was so sensibly blocked, unlike….) and they were only £13 each.

Racing DemonSo we went to Sheffield to get a bit of the David Hare season action. He is a writer I have always admired, and even when his plays are a bit on the dark side, he is still thought-provoking and substantial. Racing Demon is his 1990 play about the ups and downs of a parish team of four vicars, with a wider questioning of the rights and wrongs of the Christian Church. At that time Mrs Chrisparkle and I didn’t see a lot of theatre so this play was brand new to us. And what a play it is. Believable characters, extremely funny, serious issues, heartbreaking moments. It really deserves its reputation as one of the best plays of recent years.

Malcolm SinclairIt’s largely a bare stage with occasional furniture brought on to suggest locations, but the dominating scenery is the Mackintosh-inspired back wall which lights up to create different shapes suggesting a church or a cross, and which conceals doors to the back. It’s very impressive. The play opens with the Rev Lionel Espy apparently praying but really, deep down, arguing with God. It’s a brilliant opening speech and completely sets the scene for the whole play. Malcolm Sinclair’s performance perfectly conveys a man desperately trying to do his best in a job he has been in too long. He wants to succour his flock, but he doesn’t believe the Church is supporting him in the right way – and in truth he is more interested in politicising his sermons and pastoral work with a practical anti-poverty stance, rather than by taking the sacrament seriously. Sometimes he resists the powers that work against him; sometimes he crumbles. It’s a fantastic performance, wholly credible.

Jamie Parker It’s his young curate, Tony Ferris, played by Jamie Parker, possessed of too much of the fire and zeal of the evangelist to be satisfied with Espy’s relaxed form of vicaring, who starts the rift that will ultimately be Espy’s downfall. We saw Jamie Parker in another Hare play last year, My Zinc Bed, and he gave a very convincing performance of the misery of alcoholism. Here his enthusiasm for Christ rides roughshod over all his relationships and his progress towards what you expect will soon become slight insanity is chillingly told. There is a particular scene where he discusses his past relationship with his ex-girl friend, and his emotional disconnection with the real world actually makes the audience gasp. Fantastically well done.

Matthew Cottle The whole cast are wonderful actually – it’s all completely convincing. I loved the contrast between the ways the four vicars are shown in their quiet moments with God. It’s the writing that does it, but Matthew Cottle’s simplistically happy Rev “Streaky” Bacon wonderfully offsets the darker side of religious doubts offered elsewhere in the play. Jonathan Coy Jonathan Coy as the Bishop of Southwark was genuinely scary in his anger – although his main argument is with the ordination of women bishops – it was 1990 when this play came out, and how many women bishops do we have today? Ian Gelder Excellent support from Ian Gelder (who I remember seeing as Private Steven Flowers in Privates on Parade way back in 1978) as the Rev Harry Henderson, outed as gay by a tabloid paper – today that would be redundant but in this play has a greater effect, which is the only sign of its slight “dating”; although even then it becomes a revealing barometer of the times. Paul RattrayMore excellent support from Paul Rattray as his friend, and Jane Wymark of Midsomer Murders fame as Espy’s long suffering wife. She prepares coffees on a tray for Espy and his guest and leaves with a concerned look and the serious question “Are you all right with the pouring?” Jane WymarkWith that line she superbly encapsulates so much of their relationship together.

This definitely deserves a transfer. Important subjects are tackled intelligently and acted beautifully. Daniel Evans’ direction allows the story to develop at a decent pace, with clarity and emotion. It’s a winner through and through.