Review – A Passage to India, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th January 2018

Passage to IndiaGentle reader, if you know me IRL, as the young people of today like to say, you’ll know that Mrs Chrisparkle and I are both Indophiles. We try to go there every year if possible, and there’s something about the country and its people that is beyond magical. So if there’s anything ever on offer that involves the concept of “India”, it’ll instantly grab my attention.

PTI11Thus I was excited at the prospect of this new adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Passage To India, a book I was required to read at school when I was nothing like mature enough to understand it properly. But I have fond memories of the film, with Peggy Ashcroft struggling in the heat as Mrs Moore becomes oppressed with the caves and the echoes. You don’t need me to tell you that Forster was not only a superb writer but also had an amazing ability to write books that cry out for being made into films. PTI1And indeed plays – this is not the first time the book has been dramatised for the stage, with a play hitting the West End back in 1960 before transferring to Broadway two years later.

But that is a different play from the one currently on offer in Northampton before it embarks on a brief tour. This has been adapted by Simon Dormandy, and, for the most part, I would say it is pretty faithful to the original and, wisely, eschews the trappings of modern stage design by conveying caves, courtrooms and the teeming world of India with thePTI8 help of just a few packing cases and some bamboo rods. You wouldn’t believe how creatively you can present the illusion of an elephant, with ladies riding in the howdah, using just a few boxes, some sticks and a length of material. There’s a lot of psychology and imagination at work in the book, so it’s entirely appropriate for the audience to have to employ their own imagination fully to appreciate the setting for the play.

PTI2It’s 1910, the British Raj is in full control and there are some voices of dissent from the local people. The majority of the Brits in India are a snooty bunch who have no desire to integrate nor any intention of doing so. Furthermore, if they see any crossover between the two sides they do their best to dissuade any form of contact; using soft, persuasive tones on the polite English ladies, and barking cruelty to any native-born Indian who presumes to have Ideas Above His Station. One such man is Dr Aziz, respected in his own community but distrusted by the ruling magistrate, tax collector, chief of police and the like. Only one British man, Cyril Fielding, principal of the Government College to educate Indians, treats Aziz and the other local people with anything approximating common courtesy.

PTI5Mrs Moore and Miss Adela Quested, who’s in line to become engaged to Ronny Heaslop, Mrs Moore’s son, arrive in India with a refreshing curiosity to see the place and not merely to be fobbed off with a life simply confined to the Britishers’ Club. The local beauty spot – and all-round location of intrigue and fascination – the Malabar Caves, is a short distance away and Dr Aziz promises to show the ladies around it, much to the mistrust of the local Raj supremos. The caves are dark and mysterious, and any sound creates an extraordinary echo that disconcerts visitors and plays on their fears and imaginations. Mrs Moore can’t take it, PTI10the place gives her claustrophobia and she makes an early departure. Miss Quested, on the other hand, seems lost inside the caves and when Aziz tries to find her can only spot her abandoned field glasses. When she is eventually found Miss Quested accuses Aziz of attempted rape (only expressed in much more Edwardian language) and the justice system slowly wheels into action. He denies it of course, but only Fielding among the Brits gives his story any credence. What tenuous relationships there are between the two sides break down and life will never be the same again. And did he do it? You’ll have to watch the play to find out.

PTI4The production is at its best when it is working on our imagination; such as meeting the aforementioned elephant, creating the Malabar Caves out of bamboo sticks, suggesting a full and antagonistic courtroom with a few boxes and half a dozen people. Although, to be fair, I thought the depiction of two rowing boats on the water and their collision was less successful – there was simply too much happening on stage at one time to take it all in. Gauzy material strips, dangling down in front of the back wall, part conceal, part reveal the people who walk behind, giving the impression of thronging multitudes in all their colours. PTI6Slightly offstage musicians Kuljit Bhamra and Asha McCarthy deliver trickles of Indian music at moments of suspense and intrigue and it really augments the atmosphere. But the most impactful sound in the play is the ensemble’s often repeated mumble grumble bumble aboom aboom aboom of the echo in caves. It unsettles the audience just in the same way that it would have disconcerted Miss Quested. It’s not – actually – enjoyable to listen to. It’s quite irritating, repetitive, potentially silly and childish; annoying even. Just as it would be to the English ladies. So I guess it’s doing its job properly.

PTI12However, I got thoroughly confused towards the end. One of us lost the plot – was it me, or was it the production? The story has moved to the province of Mau where Aziz has made a new life for himself. He is (largely) reconciled with Fielding; but then it all seems to go off-piste. What was all that bouncing around between the two men, being trapped by a ribbon at the side of the stage then flung out into the centre again by two teams of villagers? It was like a rogue episode of Jeux Sans Frontières had rocked up in Kashmir. I half expected Eddie Waring to introduce the Fil Rouge. It felt like the ending of the story had become unnecessarily complex and that consequently it was failing to portray it clearly. The curtain suddenly falls on darkness and silence and everyone in the audience wonders – is that it? I suppose if the creative team are taking the earlier emotions of disconcertion and carrying them on to the bitter end, then it was successful; otherwise, I have to confess, it didn’t do it for me.

PTI7At the heart of the play is a very engaging performance by Asif Khan as Aziz. A beautifully enthusiastic delivery, revelling in the linguistic details of all his lines, superbly portraying that essentially Indian characteristic where you want to pull out all the stops to impress your guests. Once the shine has gone off the relationship, he also conveys that bitterness of disappointment and a refusal to pander to others’ whims. I also loved the natural dignity that accompanied every aspect of the personality he was playing. A really excellent performance.

PTI3He is matched by a cracking performance by Richard Goulding as Fielding, exuding generosity and decency, and tangibly hurt when it isn’t reciprocated. Liz Crowther is also splendid as Mrs Moore, a character who is so much more than just an archetypal little old lady. I enjoyed Nigel Hastings’ performance as Turton the Collector, ostensibly amiable and reasonable but powerfully showing his vicious and vindictive nature. Edward Killingback also gives a strong portrayal of how a baby face can conceal a really nasty personality! But everyone gives a good performance and there are no weak links in the cast at all. Inventive, creative and thoroughly enjoyable, my only concern with the production is in how it seems to lose its way in the final furlong. After its brief run in Northampton it travels on to Salisbury, Bristol, Liverpool, Bromley and finally with five weeks at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park.

Review – Mr Whatnot, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th & 6th April 2013

Mr WhatnotAbout a hundred years ago, gentle reader, when I was but a lean and callow youth (well, not particularly lean), I was trying to put together a thesis about the withdrawal of stage censorship in the UK in 1968. This was long before the advent of emails and Google, so I wrote letters to many splendid dramatists of the day to ask them if they’d ever had a run-in with the censor. One of those to whom I wrote was Sir Alan Ayckbourn (although he was plain Alan in those days). He kindly responded by saying that he was (and I quote) “in those days a fledgling dramatist as it were and never wrote anything remotely worth censoring”.

Cal McCrystalCertainly his “Mr Whatnot”, which first saw the light of day in 1963 and was barely heard of again after its disastrous brief London run in 1964, doesn’t grapple with any of the meaty subjects of its illustrious contemporaries. Pinter’s Homecoming, Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, for example, you would have thought were from a completely different era. So reviving this early Ayckbourn is a fascinating experiment in showing a perhaps ignored side of the sixties drama scene.

Liz CrowtherI knew nothing about the play in advance, other than the fact that it had been a flop, which is something you rarely associate with Ayckbourn. I was, however, impressed with the fact that it was being directed by Cal McCrystal, whose CV includes the physical comedy direction of the wonderful One Man Two Guvnors. Alas Mrs Chrisparkle and I were away for much of March travelling round South East Asia (blog posts will appear in due course, I trust) so we missed all the excitement of the opening of this production, and in fact just managed to get back home in time to see it on its final Friday night. We enjoyed it so much, that the next day we actually booked to see it again, at the matinee, and took Lady Duncansby along as a surprise treat. I don’t think, in 45 years of theatregoing, I’ve ever gone back to see the same production so rapidly. I also can’t think of another play where the eponymous hero doesn’t say a word. Godot doesn’t count because he never appears; Joe Egg (as in A Day in the Death of…) is a mute child throughout apart from when she skips onto the stage to introduce the interval. If you can think of one, please let me know!

Russell DixonAt first, I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it, as it presents itself as something so different from “your average play” (whatever that might be). We are introduced to the piano tuner, who goes through his usual domestic morning chores of making a cuppa and attending to his pussycat. This person is, we discover later, Mr Whatnot; a man who does everything in mime, to a range of informative sound effects. Once Mr Whatnot has settled down with his morning paper, we meet the upper class residents and guests of Craddock Grange – and it was at this point that I began to worry a little. They were all very stereotype characters (lord, lady, posh girl, wet fish boyfriend, hearty country lady) but without the stereotype set of an elaborate drawing room/country mansion – you feel that the set of The Mousetrap would be perfect for it. But as the silliness of the play kicks in, you realise that the strength of the production is in the way the audience’s imagination fills in all the gaps, and that the largely blank stage is vital to its success. By the time the lisping toffee-nosed Cecil was getting excited about the sight of “duckth” in the pond I was in seventh heaven of comic entertainment.

Antonia KinlayThe show has so many experimental aspects that really excite me in the theatre. I love the way it breaks the fourth wall; it has elements of burlesque, the plot goes completely off tangent a couple of times into ridiculous flights of fancy and then gets brought back sharply to reality (such as it is); and all this is in the context of a very simple comic story of an outsider wreaking havoc in a domestic environment. There’s not an ounce of cynicism, harshness or sadness in the plot; it’s simply an experiment in finding the comic light and wallowing in it.

Charles HuntEvery member of the cast puts in a delightful performance. Liz Crowther’s Lady Slingsby-Craddock is a marvellously comic blend of the refined and the randy, and the way she gets dragged and spun around on the floor is almost balletic! Russell Dixon as his Lordship has immaculate comic timing, and can extend a belly laugh for ages with just one resentful glance at a misbehaving family member. The scene where he merely utters a four-letter word is comic genius simply because of its terrific shock value.

Flick FerdinandoAntonia Kinlay plays Amanda, the rather sweetly thick heiress to the Slingsby-Craddock estate, and she’s superb. She really gets the 60s vibe in her appearance and trendy dancing, and is delightfully provocative to the smitten Mr Whatnot. Her awful beau, Cecil, is played by Charles Hunt and he makes a brilliant priggish spoilt brat of public school idiot.

George KeelerFlick Ferdinando (what a splendid name) is hilarious as the back-slapping tweedy lady, feverishly competitive at tennis and with no inhibitions where it comes to afternoon tea – and also as the bottom-swinging, flamenco dancing maid; and George Keeler’s performances as all the other minor characters are full of wonderful physical comic business and he invests them all with their own special individuality.

Juanma RodriguezBut Juanma Rodriguez as Mint (or Mr Whatnot) has to take the plaudits for his incredible performance. His face is so expressive and his physical comedy so inspired that you simply can’t stop watching him. You could say there is a similarity to Mr Bean – only to an extent though, because Mr Rodriguez’ performance never strays into the grotesque and is always completely believable. You also (well I did at least) really identify yourself with him, and want him to succeed in all his little subversive plans to get the girl. Technically faultless on both performances we saw, his bio in the programme suggests he normally works in Spain, but I really hope we get to see him again in the UK.

It would be a tragedy if this wonderful production were never to see the light of day again. It was a privilege to see it.