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 – Peter and the Starcatcher, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 20th December 2016

Peter and the StarcatcherWhen they announced many months ago, that the Christmas play in the Royal this year would be Peter and the Starcatcher, my little heart was filled with joy because I had heard super things about this from its New York run a few years back. Huge kudos, of course, to the Royal and Derngate for producing its UK premiere. Not the first time they’ve done such a thing and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

evelyn-hoskinsEveryone knows the story of Peter Pan, but do you know how it was that Peter became Peter, and how he ended up with the lost boys? Or how Captain Hook lost his hand? Or how Tinkerbell was created? Or why there is a crocodile and how it swallowed a clock? Wonder no more. In this very cleverly created and imaginative story all is revealed.

michael-sheaYou arrive at the theatre to see the Royal stage exposed in all its backstage rawness – ropes, bricks, painted signs – as well as an intriguing band layout fronted by a beautiful grand xylophone. All of a rush, the cast assemble on stage, Nicholas Nickleby-like, to begin the intricate exposition of the story of two associated ships, The Neverland and the Wasp, on a mission to take the Queen (God bless her)’s treasures to the distant country of Rundoon. The good Lord Aster is on board the Wasp to ensure the safe delivery of the trunk of jewels; he is father to young Molly, who is also sailing with her nana, the very alliterative Mrs Bumbrake. Subterfuge causes the precious cargo and a dummy cargo filled with sand to get mixed up; orphan boys are sold to one of the ship’s captains; Molly escapes her nana’s clutches and discovers one of the boys – named Boy, because he hasn’t a name – and after that, things start to get complicated. If I tried to write more of a synopsis we’d be here for hours.

peter-upside-downThough linguistically brilliant, it’s a very densely written script and you really have to concentrate hard to understand everything that’s going on. In all honesty, I don’t think either Mrs Chrisparkle or I followed every twist or appreciated every nuance. For the most part, that’s not a problem, because you have a hugely committed cast who can carry you through any gaps in your understanding simply by their bright characterisation and lively ensemble work. It’s quirky, creative, and at times very surreal – as in the opening scene of the second act, where “starstuff” has done its magic and created a music hall act of mermaids; or on Fighting Prawn’s tropical island where every command or insult is an item of Italian food or drink. And I’d love to say that the show is a total success. Really I would, because the effort and commitment that’s put into this production is tangible. But, sadly, I can’t.

peter-umbrellasIt’s one of those occasions where you find yourself really enjoying a play, engaged by the characters and their activities, tuned into their sense of humour, and laughing at all the jokes – but then you realise that no one else is laughing. Because, for whatever reason, the spirit and humour of this play just doesn’t transmit itself into the auditorium. It’s like someone has erected an invisible Brechtian barrier and it won’t get any farther. The cast are working their socks off for comic – and indeed emotional – effect, but for 90% of the audience (as it seemed to me) they may as well have been in another room. This must be so hard for the cast to keep going with all their enthusiastic on-stage shenanigans to get so little response back. There are a few adult-only lines (to be fair, probably fewer than in most pantos nowadays) for example where Mrs Bumbrake asks Alf, who has just admired her beauty, to accompany her to the ship’s lower decks with the words “take me below”. Mrs C and I sniggered with our best schoolboy smut-appreciation, but no one else did. And I think that’s the problem – most pantos/Christmas plays try to cater for both children and adults so that it is accessible to both, with enough fun and games to keep the youngsters entertained and enough wink-wink to keep the adults on song. But I think that of all the Christmas plays we’ve seen at the Royal this is the one that treads the most uneasy balance between its two target demographics. The publicity states it is suitable for 7+ but I think you would have to be considerably older to appreciate (and assimiliate) the adventures of the story. It simply falls between two stools.

peter-stache-and-smeeWe last saw Greg Haiste as a wonderfully warm Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol four years ago. This time he gives us a marvellous central comedy performance as Black Stache, channelling his inner Lord Flash-Heart. How tempting it must have been for him to come up with some Rik Mayallisms – there are a few opportunities for off-the-wall script adjustments so I really was expecting one. His comic gems flow so freely at times that it’s almost impossible to keep up with him. But we thought he was brilliant.

miles-yekenniMolly is played by the spirited Evelyn Hoskins, once again portraying a thirteen-year-old, like she did in This Is My Family three years ago in Sheffield. She absolutely gets that girlish quality of boastful bossiness without ever becoming a stereotype or a Violet Bott-type pain in the rectum, and it’s a great performance. She is excellently matched by Michael Shea’s Boy – later to become Peter – with his brilliantly observed naïve other-worldliness, that conveyed possibilities of both heroism and “just wanting to be a boy”. Given this is his first professional stage engagement since leaving LAMDA I reckon he could be One To Watch. Together he and Ms Hoskins give us a touching insight into first love that is genuinely moving; I very nearly had something in my eye at one point.

molly-and-the-lost-boysIt’s a brilliant piece of ensemble acting, although other stand-out performers (for me) were Marc Akinfolarin as the sometimes kindly, sometimes villainous Alf; Tendayi Jembere (whose strong performance we remembered in the riveting Mogadishu) playing a very as the pork-dreaming Ted; and Miles Yekinni as the whip-cracking Bill Slank; never has an actor looked as though he will corpse at any moment as Mr Yekinni does when he is cavorting in a mermaid’s outfit.

peter-and-the-stageDespite the hard work that the audience has to put in to get the best out of the play, we both really enjoyed it; but were also fully aware that large numbers of our colleagues in the stalls didn’t seem too impressed. It wasn’t the warmest of receptions at curtain call, but I’d definitely recommend it, because you might, like us, find its quirkiness and surrealism irresistible. Even better, leave the kids at home and learn about young Peter without worrying whether they’re understanding any of it. It’s on at the Royal until 31st December.

P. S. We witnessed an unfortunate example of theatre rage being played out in the bar during the interval. A man was taking a couple to task because their children were flashing their light sabres during the performance and ruining his enjoyment of the play. I can understand his point. I can also understand theirs – in that the toys were bought at the theatre with the implicit understanding that they will be played with during the show. It’s an interesting question of theatre etiquette; the flashing toys wouldn’t have been half so noticeable in a proper pantomime. That said, the kids probably needed them to divert their attention from what they couldn’t understand was happening on the stage. I’d like to say that their discussion was polite and reasoned; I’d like to…; sorry about that.