Review – The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 25th April 2018

Flying LoversThis intriguing title – The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk – reflects the lives and love of Marc and Bella Chagall; he the famous artist, she the less famous writer. He was a penniless art student when they met; she was the daughter of a wealthy jeweller. They lived in Vitebsk (I’d never heard of it, I’m afraid) which today is the fourth largest city in Belarus. They married in 1915, had a daughter, Ida; they lived in St Petersburg, Moscow, Paris and New York, as his renown and artistry grew. She died in 1944 of a sudden virus infection, easily curable if there hadn’t been a shortage of penicillin due to the war. He went on to marry again and lived till the ripe old age of 97, finally shuffling off this mortal coil in 1985.

TFLOV-prod11The bare bones of a life can look stark, but Emma Rice’s production for Kneehigh brings Marc and Bella to life with such vivacity, colour, warmth, humour and a sense of sheer love that the mere dates and facts of a relationship become meaningless. Even through the hard times they never lost the ability to be playful together, and to delight in the simple things of life – like clocks, and colours, confetti and funny hats. Like all relationships, in the words of Meera Syal, it wasn’t all Ha Ha Hee Hee. There were times when he didn’t provide the emotional support that she needed. Despite his clownish demeanour, Chagall took his painting extremely seriously, frequently to the detriment of his family life.TFLOV-prod1 His baby daughter was four days old before he finally took time to meet her. He tears out a page from the book Bella is writing to make a paper butterfly for Ida. He isn’t remotely interested in the news that the Nazis have overrun Bella’s parents’ jewellery shop. He mocks her attempts to write because she doesn’t let it rule her life. Yet she loves him unconditionally, and always bounces back with a smile, a song and a game. We even discover how forgiving she is after her death. It’s an amazing portrayal of the resilience of the human spirit; if you’re fuelled with love, somehow your tank never runs empty.

TFLOV-prod2The playfulness of their relationship and the fantasy element of Marc’s paintings are beautifully realised by the staging; a wonky platform and frame, off which suspend a surreal clock, phone receiver, buckets and handles – all you need to reflect an unorthodox existence. Other characters in their life are represented by a balloon, or a disembodied voice, while Marc dons an old black lace shawl to provide a hilarious cameo of Bella’s mother. There are two other members of the cast; James Gow and Ian Ross provide the stunningly gorgeous music with their piano, cello and other instruments.TFLOV-prod3 Some of Mr Ross’ compositions evoke traditional Jewish folk music with superb energy. The choreography, by Emma Rice and New Adventures’ Etta Murfitt, is slinky, funny, expressive and highly theatrical for such a confined space. Malcolm Rippeth’s exciting lighting design brings to life the Chagalls’ love for colour and vitality; and Simon Baker’s crisp and accurate sound design creates a web of magic with various effects including a distant telephone hum, and the nagging drip of water in a bucket, a strong juxtaposition of the sound of reality against the vision of fantasy.

TFLOV-prod4And at the heart of the show are two sensational performances from Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood. I didn’t realise these two terrific actors were in this show until I glanced at the programme just before we went in. We’d seen Mr Antolin in the superb Taken at Midnight in Chichester a few years ago, and Ms Maywood was probably the best Bebe in A Chorus Line I’ve ever seen (and believe me, I’ve seen a lot of them!) TFLOV-prod8I already guessed we were going to be in for a treat, but I underestimated how much. Having done a little research on the Chagalls in order to write this review, I’m staggered by how accurately they portrayed their actual physical appearance – a technical masterpiece of hair and makeup, that’s for sure. They also have a fantastic chemistry together on stage that really enhances the love bond between the characters, which made some of the scenes truly emotional – there were plenty of instances of the old wetness in the eye during this show.

TFLOV-prod16Mr Antolin absolutely wowed me with his brilliant clowning skills, with perfect facial expressions, deft fancy footwork, and a fabulous pratfall. Ms Maywood is of course a brilliant singer and dancer, and invested the character with so much love and emotion; not only simply her overwhelming love for her husband but all the torments of those inner repressions when her needs are ignored, or when the evil world out there comes one step closer to threaten her.

TFLOV-prod20One of the achievements of this production was that it made me want to find out so much more about the Chagalls and their work; it really piqued my interest in a character that I knew little about – and that’s got to be a good thing. Primarily, though, it’s an elegant, quirky, loving portrayal of two people in a hostile world, finding a way to make the best life together. Absolutely brilliant. It’s near the end of its tour now, with just Cheltenham for the first week in May and the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina from 24 May to 10 June. Highly recommended!

Review – Rebecca, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 9th November 2015

RebeccaNot for the first time I have to start with a confession – once again, gentle reader, I confess I have never read Rebecca, nor seen the film, nor seen any kind of adaptation; and nor has Mrs Chrisparkle. Several years ago, the Dowager Mrs C was dismayed at this discovery and bought us the paperback to rectify this omission; but neither of us got round to reading it, and it has long ago gone on to a charity shop somewhere. So I thought this new production by Kneehigh was an excellent opportunity to fill this gap in my knowledge – and it would have been for Mrs C too, had she not been called away on urgent business in Italy; so last night was a case of Cornish mystery for one.

Tristan SturrockI have, however, taken the opportunity to read some synopses of the book, fully digested its Wikipedia presence, and taken a look at a students’ crib notes website, and I think I’ve got the measure of it. On which topic, I’ve never seen so many schoolchildren at a theatre, as last night. “Schoolchildren” is probably the wrong word, as I’m sure they were all studying the book for A level. But I would estimate about 60-70% of the (full house) audience were youngsters – evidenced by the ear-threatening levels of noise in the foyers, and the fact that the bars were empty but the queues for ice cream and frozen yogurt almost encircled the building.

Mrs de Winter in that dressAs I had no real knowledge of the book, I didn’t really research the production in advance, but I had no particular reason to suspect it wasn’t a straightforward adaptation of the original. Wrong! Even from my position of ignorance, I was pretty sure that Daphne du Maurier hadn’t included camp Vaudevillian song and dance in her book. Ten minutes in, and I was sighing with disappointment. It brought back to mind the self-indulgent and clever-clever excesses of The Secret Adversary earlier in the year, which I know some friends loved but we found tedious. I guess I was particularly disappointed because I knew this meant I wasn’t going to get the full picture of what the book is about, just some modern interpretation of aspects of it.

Mr and Mrs de WinterHowever, the positive effect of all this side-frilling was to emphasise the serious nature of the protagonists, and that created a huge impact on the proper storyline. Mrs de Winter, Maxim and Mrs Danvers all really stand out as strong characters facing harsh reality; and it’s that juxtaposition of seriousness and frivolity that gives the production its power. The second act in particular was charged with suspense – from the appearance of the coastguard onwards I was riveted to see how it would resolve itself. The first act “dress” scene – even without knowing the story I could see where this was heading – was also very exciting and dramatic, although surely it wasn’t the same dress as Mrs Danvers showed Mrs de Winter earlier on? It looked very different. Minor matter. But I really could have done without all the slapstick running around, and I thought the character of Robert the footman (based on Stan Laurel, maybe?), though executed with humour and agility, made me cringe with embarrassment throughout.

Imogen SageThis is another of those on-trend productions that has some of the cast playing instruments on stage; to its credit, I thought the majority of the live music was really effective and atmospheric (and in particular, beautifully sung), but on the downside, at times, the tension-inducing background music overpowered the conversation on stage. But I really enjoyed Simon Baker’s original sea shanties that gave a true sense of 1930s smugglers’ coves. Leslie Travers’ set manages to encorporate Manderley, the sea, and the old boat house, with very effective compactness. Emma Rice’s adaptation has, I think (from my position of ignorance) done a lot of cutting, and it was only in retrospect – after reading the synopsis of the novel – that I realised that a fire was involved. Maybe I was being dense, or maybe something about the adaptation didn’t make it quite obvious enough. And, linguistically, it definitely takes some liberties. I’m sure Daphne du Maurier didn’t use the F word. It was funny, but so out of place.

Imogen Sage and Tristan SturrockThe production features some terrific performances. I thought Imogen Sage as Mrs de Winter was outstanding. Wide eyed and desperately hoping to be accepted by the household, she is the perfect fish out of water; a picture of innocence in a world of secrets. Her loss of confidence and subsequent growth in influence is beautifully portrayed; and, unsurprisingly, her appearance in “the dress” encouraged some barely concealed gasps of admiration from the audience. Tristan Sturrock is an excellent Maxim, born to a world of wealth and seemingly at home in Manderley, very effective with his anger management issues and very believable when it appears his world is going to come tumbling down. Maybe most impressive of all, Emily Raymond makes a most disturbing Mrs Danvers, silently appearing out of nowhere like a ghost, her face set in rigid determination, her involvement with the late Rebecca too close for comfort. You really wouldn’t want her in your life.

Imogen Sage and Emily RaymondI enjoyed Ewan Wardrop’s sleazeball interpretation of the role of Jack Favell – we saw him in Matthew Bourne’s Car Man fifteen years ago – his acting career certainly answers the question of what do you do when you can no longer dance – and his singing voice is top quality too. Andy Williams is a fine, authoritative Coastguard who dominates the proceedings when investigating Rebecca’s death. He doubles up as Giles, Maxim’s brother-in-law; a spirited performance but I found the whole Giles and Beatrice act just a little too pantomime for my taste.

Emily RaymondSo despite my problems with the vision for this production, I enjoyed it. When it takes the story seriously it’s extremely tense and effective, and the musical interludes are for the most part genuinely stirring. As for the light-hearted moments – well, I must be getting less flippant in my old age! After Northampton, there are just a few more venues on the tour – Oxford, Sheffield and Southampton. Worth seeing for the storytelling – but not for the purist!

Production photos by Steve Tanner