Review – Desire Under the Elms, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 30th September 2017

Desire Under the ElmsI must have been a very mature teenager. Why else would I have read voraciously almost all Eugene O’Neill’s plays during the long summer of 1976? I’d seen Olivier’s famous Long Day’s Journey Into Night on TV and thought to myself Now That’s What I Call Drama, Volume One. There was a revival of The Iceman Cometh by the RSC that year – I didn’t see it, although the title intrigued me so much – so I decided to read up on O’Neill’s back catalogue. No one else I knew was reading him. Mourning Becomes Electra became my favourite. Eugene O’Neill sure knew how to create a fancy title.

DUTE EphraimO’Neill’s introduction to Desire Under the Elms states that it’s set in a New England farmhouse in the year 1850. No coincidence this date, as it’s the beginning of the Gold Rush to California, the newest state to join the United States, and as much a beacon of hope and inspiration as Moscow is to Chekhov’s characters. The play opens with brothers Simeon and Peter fantasising over what it would be like to leave the miserable farm behind and go hunting for gold in Californi-a (pronounced Californ-eye-ay). But their father, 75-year-old Ephraim, is out west and they feel they have to stay at home until he returns.

DUTE Simeon and EbenThey share the farmhouse with their half-brother Eben, who’s lamenting the death of his mother, and has no love lost for his father. When Ephraim returns with a young wife, Abbie, less than half his age, it’s clear she’s got her eye on inheriting the farmhouse. Simeon and Peter sell their shares in the farmhouse to Eben and head off to Californi-a to seek their fortune. This just leaves Eben and Abbie at the farmhouse. With Ephraim out working all day long, Abbie falls pregnant, and Ephraim assumes it’s his, but the truth may be somewhat different….

DUTE Peter and SimeonLike many of O’Neill’s plays, it’s based on Greek tragedy; in this case Euripides’ Hippolytus. Phaedra attempts to seduce Theseus’ chaste son Hippolytus, but when she fails she commits suicide, not before having left a letter accusing Hippolytus of rape. Theseus banishes Hippolytus as a punishment, but Hippolytus is killed by a bull, after which Theseus discovers the truth. Unlike Phaedra, Abbie’s attempts to seduce Eben are perfectly successful (not that he was chaste anyway) and it isn’t suicide that she considers but murder.

DUTE Abbie and EbenIt’s actually a very simple plot and could easily have been written for just three actors. Simeon and Peter are purely introductory characters helping to set the scene, and the other villagers are just there to fill the stage and act as Rumour. As I remember from my teenage years, Desire Under the Elms is one of the more difficult of his plays to read, because O’Neill wrote it in that interminable North American dialect drawl. Everything is “purty”, parents are “Maw” and “Paw”, they eat and drink “vittles” and “likker”. On the page it’s dry and dusty, but on the stage of the Crucible it really comes to life. I don’t have the sharpest ear, but the speech patterns came over (to me at least) as though they were from the Southern states – I clearly don’t know my American accents. By contrast, all Mrs Chrisparkle could hear was an Irish twang, which would, at least, probably accurately reflect the characters’ heritage. But none of that matters when you’re dealing with the raw emotions of an inevitable love triangle, and someone who commits an unlikely crime passionel to resolve it.

DUTE Abbie and EphraimWhen you enter the Crucible auditorium, there’s a huge visual impact from the amazing set that Chiara Stephenson has created. Long tufts of grass, wheat maybe, lurk in the distance, suggesting fields or dunes; sand covers the foreground. The simple mechanism of sweeping sand away in straight lines creates separate acting areas on the stage; most notably a demarcation wall separating the farmhouse from its grounds. Jon Clark’s moody lighting suggests different times of day and different emotional impulses at work. Nick Greenhill’s portentous sound design evokes the most realistic and invasive thunderstorm since poor Tom was on the blasted heath. There’s even a working water pump at the very front of the stage – which I have to say somewhat obstructed the view from seats B20 & 21, especially when people are seated at the dining table.

DUTE FiddlerMatthew Kelly is a fantastic Ephraim. He looks every inch the grizzled old man, wayward hair and beard unkempt through so many years of toil. If this is how he’s smartened himself up for scoring himself a 35-year-old woman, heaven knows how ragged he must have appeared before. Bellowing at the world for all its failings, and belligerent towards Eben for his perceived weakness and inadequacy, this is a man with a strong sense of his own importance and not a clue about how pathetic he really is. This is captured in his grotesque over-the-top final Act dance; he’s got a lot of life in him but no ability to shape it into something positive. It’s a mark of Mr Kelly’s great performance that you can both despise and feel sorry for him at the same time.

DUTE Matthew Kelly as EphraimMichael Shea plays Eben as a man with few principles – a thief, user of prostitutes and happy to steal his father’s woman off him for the pleasure and the power. You feel that he has so much pent-up anger inside him that he will explode at any moment. He’s a wretch, though; and Aoife Duffin’s Abbie is no better, instantly falling for this grim chap with no ambition or style. Ms Duffin really brings out all Abbie’s remorse, confusion and horror at what she’s done at the end of the play. She and Mr Shea make a truly agonised and agonising couple, as the horrendous consequences of what’s happened dawn on them. I also really liked Sule Rimi and Theo Ogundipe as Simeon and Peter, very convincing as the old hands who’ve seen it all and can’t wait to get away to a new life. In a sense, it’s a shame that we never find out what happens to them; on the other hand, that just proves how focussed O’Neill is on his menage à trois.

An excellent opportunity to catch a great cast perform a hidden classic. It’s important to keep Eugene O’Neill’s creative spirit alive! Desire Under the Elms plays until 14th October.

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Review – To Sir With Love, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th September 2013

To Sir With LoveYou remember the film, of course. Sidney Poitier tames an unruly bunch of Swinging Sixties East London teenagers and Lulu sings “To Sir With Love” to him at the end of term disco. Possibly you don’t remember the original book, the semi-autobiographical work of E R Braithwaite (who, aged 101, attended the Northampton press night all the way from his home in New York), about the erudite and suave West Indian immigrant, Ricky Braithwaite, and his experience of school teaching under an experimentally liberal headmaster.

Ansu KabiaAyub Khan Din’s adaptation of the novel returns the story back to its late 1940s setting, a time of poverty and deprivation for many; a post-war era where the indigenous white population were learning how to live side-by-side with new black neighbours. Ricardo Braithwaite has had a successful war in the RAF where he faced no prejudice; but out on Civvy Street three years later, life is very different. Like his creator, Ricky wants to use his degree to get a good job in engineering, but despite his academic qualifications, no employer will give him a chance.

Matthew KellySo he approaches Greenslade school to see if teaching might be an option; and within a few hours of observing the place finds himself hired and in charge of the terrifying senior class who will be leaving at the end of the year. Of course, he faces disruption, disobedience and distasteful behaviour from his students, who are the complete opposite of him in terms of education and demeanour. But egged on by his very forward-looking headmaster he finds other ways to gain their confidence, and progress is made. In the unlikely event that you don’t know how it all turns out, I’ll say no more.

Paul KempIf ever there was a play that shows how harmful and hurtful casual racism is, this is the one. There were many gasps of shock and amazement from the audience at some of the comments made by the world-weary cynical teacher Mr Weston, which you could take to be the attitude of the “old guard” as it were. There’s also the anti-Jewish comments made by one of the students, so close to the Second World War, which Braithwaite is quick to condemn. The effects of racial discrimination are painfully sharp, shown in the attitudes of both local working-class families and nice middle class people from Berkshire. It both disturbs and disappoints you. Because of the way it highlights and shames racism, Mrs Chrisparkle thinks the play should be compulsory viewing for all schoolchildren.

Nicola ReynoldsIt’s not just about racial prejudice of course; it’s a very interesting look at a progressive educational system (not without criticism), the effects of poverty and the class structure, the nature of bullying, and about friendship and love. At two and a half hours, it’s quite a long play by today’s standards but it certainly doesn’t feel it. We were both totally engrossed by the story and the performances that it absolutely flew by. Mike Britton’s set makes good use of the traditional school blackboard, and effectively recreates the comfortless, hostile environment of the old Victorian school room.

Peta CornishAt the heart of the story is Ricky, played by Ansu Kabia. He is perfect for the role, with his dignified bearing and crystal clear authoritative voice. It’s a superb performance from someone you can absolutely believe is that teacher, doing his best to rise above adversity to make a difference in the world, but who is only human too and reacts emotionally to injustice and personal slight. And what a trooper! After being knocked off his bike, breaking a finger and injuring his hand, he performs the play with his arm in a sling. The show must go on, and Mr Kabia’s devotion to duty is pretty goddam remarkable.

Mykola AllenMatthew Kelly, who we last saw playing another “unusual” teacher in The History Boys, is the maverick headmaster Florian. Whereas Hector was a law to himself in the classroom and lacked support from the powers that be, Florian is the man with the real authority, which Mr Kelly portrays with quiet, confident reason. It’s a really well thought through performance, and his conversations with “Sir”, helping him to establish a rapport with the children, are beautifully judged and constructive.

Harriet BallardPaul Kemp plays the irascible Weston, a pipe-smoking little bigot of a man who would really get under your skin if he were a colleague of yours. Mr Kemp gives him a brilliant weedy, whiny voice which helps emphasise his smallness of mind and vision. Weston gets his come-uppance, in a scene which Mr Kemp plays superbly well – you could hear a pin drop during his discomfited speech. The character is one of many who develop into different people at the end of the play from that which they were at the beginning. Nicola Reynolds is great as Clinty, the domestic science teacher – a good-hearted, no-nonsense character whom she really makes come alive. Unlike Weston, she’s the kind of character you really would like to have as a colleague. She has excellent comic timing in many funny scenes but also creates a lot of pathos where it’s needed. Peta Cornish is the other teacher Gillian, inexperienced at both teaching and at life, who falls for Ricky and very sweetly conveys the tentativeness and embarrassment of her emotions, and is simply lost when it all goes wrong.

Kerron DarbyThere are some great performances from the young actors too. I was really impressed with Mykola Allen as Denham, the most disruptive of the class, whose power base starts to ebb away as Sir becomes more popular. A more sour-faced difficult kid you could never hope to meet, it’s a very intelligent study of someone set in their own ways who refuses to change even when it’s the obvious thing to do; it’s also a great portrayal of a bully who gets what he deserves. His final scene is played with superb controlled emotion. Harriet Ballard, too, gives a great performance as the boisterously difficult Monica, all pretend effrontery and a challenge to anyone’s teaching skills, and whose visible softening is very believable and heart-warming to watch. Kerron Darby gives a very touching performance as Seales, troubled by his own racial heritage; his reaction to bad news really tears at your heartstrings;Heather Nicol and Heather Nicol gives an excellent performance as Pamela, the girl with a crush on Sir, making the best of all the situation’s potential for comedy and heartache. It’s a shame that the programme lists the rest of the cast as “ensemble” as they are distinctly different individuals with their own lines, characters and scenes. True, they did work together seamlessly as scene-shifters and dancers, but I think they should have been individually credited to their roles. I’m sure Sir would have thought each would deserve their own recognition.

Anyway, it’s an excellent production and a thoroughly enjoyable, funny and moving play. It’s the first in a new series of co-productions between the Royal and Derngate and Touring Consortium Theatre, of which we will see one a year for the next three years – sounds like something definitely to look forward to. After it leaves Northampton, it’s touring the country until the end of November. Go see it!

Review – The History Boys, Sheffield Crucible, 8th June 2013

The History BoysHere’s another play that most people know something about but which Mrs Chrisparkle and I had never seen; and the film passed us by as well. The National Theatre’s original production in 2004 had tremendous reviews and a rather brilliant cast, by the sound of it; but I’m delighted to say that the recent revival by Michael Longhurst at the Sheffield Crucible, the last night of which we saw on Saturday, also has a brilliant cast and was a very enjoyable, although not quite flawless, production.

Matthew KellyA simple set greets you on entering the auditorium – the floor of a school gym, that slightly uncared for parquet flooring that I remember all too clearly, and with sketchy well-worn sports court tramlines painted on top. That gym floor has the power to bring back all one’s own school memories in an instant. Scary! The school staffroom, and the movable glass encased pod that becomes the Headmaster’s Office, get wheeled on and off the stage along with school desks and chairs in a sometimes frenzied manner by the boys en masse, acting as scene setters whilst apparently doing sports training or performing one of the musical numbers that the eccentric teacher Hector has taught them. These scene changes work incredibly well; they help the show proceed with great pace and it maintains the humour even whilst we are waiting for the next bit to continue.

Edwin ThomasWhilst it is all very inventive and clever though, the staging is a problem from time to time. Sometimes the shape of the Crucible stage can really work against the audience. Much as when we saw Macbeth last year, depending on where you sit, some important scenes can get masked, and important character reactions can become invisible. From my seat (B16), whoever was sitting opposite the headmaster in his office was completely obstructed by the glass edged corner frame. Admittedly, the door was left open, and the reflection of the person could be seen in the door, but I didn’t feel that made up for the poor sight. The setting of the classroom scenes were rotated so that everyone got a different view in each scene, which sounds fair; but whenever a teacher had their back to you, it was a) hard to hear what they said, and b) impossible to see or hear the actor who was facing the teacher. I heard other people grumbling about that on the way out of the auditorium. That always makes me very frustrated – when you’re centre of Row B, you really ought to have a great view!

Nicholas DayWhilst I’m on the subject of frustration, I was also very disappointed to discover that they had run out of programmes for the final performance. To someone like me, who has kept all their programmes (and ticket stubs) going back to 1968, who likes to read the programme from cover to cover, including the bios of the cast and creative team, and who refers back to them on and off throughout the years to see the photos of the cast, and of the rehearsals (they’re often in programmes nowadays), I found the lack of a programme a slight mental barrier to bonding with the production. It also means I can’t illustrate this blog with photos from the programme – instead I have borrowed some photos from the Internet. I hope you don’t mind.

Julia St JohnI was, however, very impressed with the play itself. Funny, sad, taking very believable characters and making them just slightly larger than life; dealing with big questions about the nature of education and trust, and that sometimes perilous interaction between virtually adult pupils and teachers. It’s full of accurate, instantly recognisable characterisation: everyone knows a teacher like Hector, who believes in education for life rather than exams; everyone knew a boy like Dakin, more sexually precocious than is good for him; everyone knows an administrator like Headmaster Felix, keener on statistics than real life and only happy when he can label and categorise people and events.

Oliver CoopersmithMatthew Kelly gives a very entertaining performance as Hector, profoundly useless at preparing the boys for Oxbridge but creating a bond with them in an appreciation of everything that nourishes the heart, mind and spirit. Hector and the boys are a team; he’s the leader but he also allows himself to be dominated by the team dynamic if he sees fit. Hector comes across as both the stereotypical “tweedy jacket with elbow patch” teacher, and the surprisingly leather clad rebel on his motor bike, looking for a likely lad pillion rider for thrills and a grope on the way home. It’s a fascinating character because he’s human, he’s far from being 100% good; and you ask yourself the question, how much bad behaviour are you prepared to tolerate from one person for the greater good? The play’s answer is, quite a lot. If you’re familiar with your 1970s British drama, I’d say Hector makes a very interesting comparison with David Mercer’s unorthodox and unpredictable vicar, Ossian Flint. Anyway, Matthew Kelly gives a great performance of schoolmasterly bluster, kindly counsellor, personal rage and emotional outpourings.

Tom Rhys HarriesIt’s an excellent contrast with the cool and reserved performance of Edwin Thomas as Irwin, the graduate new recruit brought in to sharpen the boys’ brains for the rigours of applying for Oxford and Cambridge. As Irwin attempts to break into the Hector/Boys club, it becomes a very interesting study of what happens when an outsider interrupts a cosy set up. Loyalties are tested, judgements called into question. The play’s two acts both begin at a later moment in time, when Irwin, now a presenter of History TV programmes, is filming an episode which will be interrupted by one of the boys. Irwin’s perhaps unsurprising bitterness is clearly revealed in a very effective use of dramatic irony, and I thought Mr Thomas’ performance here became disquietingly sinister. Brilliantly done.

Joshua MilesI very much enjoyed Nicholas Day’s performance as the Headmaster, clearly intellectually outsmarted by his colleagues but secure in his power of status and seniority. Alan Bennett gives the character some of the best lines in the play and he makes the great use of them. Julia St John as Mrs Lintott, the third teacher, also gives an excellent performance, treading a sensible path between the extremes of the others and amusingly giving voice to Bennett’s subversion of the rules by virtually coming out of character to revel in the fact that she’s the only woman in the play. Great use of shock language! I was reminded of the character of Maria Feletti in “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” turning on the writer, Dario Fo, for his sexism in making her the only woman in his play. I also loved the scene where the three teachers coach each of the pupils on how to be interviewed for Oxbridge. It’s a hoot, and really heightens the differences between the characters.

Will FeatherstoneThere are superb individual performances too from the actors playing the boys. Both Mrs C and I agreed that Oliver Coopersmith as Posner was outstanding. In Posner’s own words, being small, Jewish, homosexual and from Sheffield notwithstanding, he gives a superbly subtle performance of being discriminated against and vulnerable but also incredibly defiant and unsentimental. His singing was immaculate, and his comic timing fantastic. I also really liked Tom Rhys Harries – who gave great support in the Menier’s Torch Song Trilogy last year – as Dakin, the good-looking popular boy on a mission to spread the boundaries of sex as much as he can dare; a really confident and insightful performance. Joshua Miles, brilliant in Bully Boy, here plays the outspoken Lockwood, again excellent, although I was a little disappointed that we didn’t see more of him as it isn’t really a major part. Will Featherstone’s Scripps was another no-nonsense portrayal of a character who knows he’s going to have to make lots of sacrifices in his life, a surprisingly moving and very believable performance. The rest of the cast give solid gold support and in particular the eight actors who play the boys put in an amazing overall ensemble performance – you can see that they’ve got a fantastic working relationship and it gives tremendous drive to the whole production. Thought provoking, funny, and very satisfying – this was an excellent revival and I’m glad we got the chance to see it.