A double Chichester theatre day for a party of nine of us, which began with the compulsory lunch in the Minerva Brasserie accompanied by two bottles of Wiston sparkling English wine which is just yummy. I think if I lived in Chichester I’d rarely move from that restaurant.
David Storey’s Home (really? I didn’t know he’d been away – sorry, I made that joke countless times on Saturday; it wasn’t funny then and it isn’t funny now) originally opened at the Royal Court in 1970 with the enviable casting of John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson as Harry and Jack, Dandy Nichols and Mona Washbourne as Marjorie and Kathleen, and a young Warren Clarke as Alfred. It transferred to the West End, and to Broadway; it won both the Tony Award and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. Gielgud wrote in his autobiography that he didn’t understand the play at all.
I was going to outline a plot summary, but the play is so slight that there isn’t much to say. Two men chat idly at a table in the garden of a big house; later, they are joined by two women and the chat continues. Much more central to the story is to work out exactly where the characters are – at Home, presumably, although what kind of home? – and to work out why they are there. Is it a mental institution? A correctional institution? Voluntary attendance or mandatory? Kathleen constantly complains that she is not allowed laces or a belt – is that for her own protection or the protection of others? Jack is always referring to a wide range of friends and family who have done this or done that – are they genuine or in his head? There are many questions to be asked about these four people, and – rather à la Beckett – answers are few and far between.
There’s no doubt that the play is delicately and intricately written; the opening conversation between Jack and Harry is a delightful interweaving of non-sequiturs and half-uttered thoughts, showing that though communication can seem simple, in reality, it’s anything but. A lot is said, but hardly anything is understood. Sophie Thomas’ marvellous set is a piece of precision faded-gardening, with its clumps of bleached flowers, dry dying patches of dusty lawn, hidden used drink cans, and so on. It’s a superb reflection of what could be a beautiful expanse of grounds, but it’s been left to wither – a perfect comment on the content of the play, in fact. Alex Musgrave’s complex lighting suggests the dappled effect of moving clouds obscuring and revealing the land, which you sense has a symbolic significance, but you’re not quite certain what.
Daniel Cerqueira and John Mackay make a good partnership as Harry and Jack, both respectable and respectful of each other, with a mature, distant, middle-class friendship that probably isn’t based on anything other than their both being in the same place at the same time. They embody the stiff-upper-lip of the day, having survived the war and its unspoken horrors, and they do their best to rely on that British reserve to get through the day-to-day existence they’re now forced to endure. It’s no surprise that as the play nears its end that they’re both prone to tears.
The partnership of Hayley Carmichael as Kathleen and Doña Croll as Marjorie is based on the more traditional friendship of two working-class women who understand each other well, with Ms Carmichael excellent as the gormless, giggling Kathleen who finds it hard not to show men her legs and Ms Croll strong as the hard-nosed Marjorie. All four actors work off each other extremely well – it must be demanding for them all to follow Storey’s frequently half-formed sentences and half-realised ideas and try to make sense of it all. Leon Annor gives good support as the chair-lifting, furniture-stealing Alfred, whose only dramatic purpose seems to be to disrupt the potential cosiness of the other four characters.
It’s a very good production, but, on reflection, time hasn’t been kind to this play, and you just feel you want more from the scenario than merely piecing together the clues that Storey gives you as to what’s going on. Maybe we’re simply more impatient today than fifty years ago. Maybe it demands (and no reflection on the cast) theatrical knights of the realm to give it an inner gravitas. At the end, you feel you’ve been teased with some dramatic titbits, but nothing has truly been revealed.
One of our favourite annual treats is to enjoy a weekend in Chichester with friends and family, seeing a couple of shows, having a lovely lunch in the Minerva Brasserie, followed by late night sharing boards in the Minerva Grill, and a scrummy Sunday breakfast at the Spires Café. Well, we did all of those things last weekend. It was great.
You want more detail? I guess I should be more specific about the plays we saw. For the matinee, we had tickets to see Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. Perhaps surprisingly, this is the second Chichester production of this play in eight years; we saw Philip Franks’ production in 2011, and it was thoroughly engrossing; a simple tale, told simply. But I have a memory that it was swamped by the largesse of the Festival Theatre; would a more intimate production in the Minerva be more successful? (Answer: Yes.)
The play was first produced in 1952, at a time when Britain was still attempting to shake off the drabness of Second World War rationing, drabness and general gloom. Men had come back from the war with what we would now know as PTSD, many struggling to find a way to fit back into life and with many women accordingly finding it difficult to cope with their menfolk. Clearly, unless you were a) well-off and b) remarkably well adjusted, it was a tense time for all. Whether it was in a sudden blaze of passion or a slowly-burning sense of growing desire we’re never really sure, but what we do know is that Hester Collyer had thrown away her life as a judge’s wife, with all its comfort, status and solidity, and run off with a ne’er-do-well alcoholic, Freddie Page, who’d been a pilot in the war.
But when the fun, danger and ardour of their affair starts to wane, there’s not much left for Hester to enjoy in life, and the play, famously, starts with her being rescued from a suicide attempt (by gassing herself in front of the fire) by her landlady and neighbours. If she’d had put a shilling in the meter, she’d be dead. The rest of the play examines Hester’s life over the course of one day; from a semi-reconciliation with her husband, desperate niggling arguments with her boyfriend, and reaching an understanding with another of the residents, Mr Miller (not Doctor, please), in whom she sees a fellow recipient of life’s great booby-prize. When it’s time to turn the lights out at the end of the day, will she resist the temptation to make good her suicide attempt of the previous night? If you don’t know the answer to that, I’m not going to tell you!
This is one of those plays that it’s impossible to update; in fact, the stronger you can build up that distinct post-war, 1950s poverty-filled London gloom, the better. Peter McKintosh’s set successfully conjures up a claustrophobic prison of a flat at the top of the stairs in a big multiple-occupancy house, where the landlady Mrs Elton (a nicely judged performance by Denise Black) spends morning, noon and night in pinny and housecoat, perpetually attending to the needs of her tenants, hearing their secrets and then blabbing about them to the neighbours. The all-important gas fire sits starkly against one side of the stage, an ugly, functional installation with no pretence to homely cosiness, quietly reminding us all of its power to end a life.
This new production stars Nancy Carroll as Hester Collyer, in an excellent performance that makes you feel that, if only the stars had aligned slightly differently, this Hester would have had a life of glamour and refinement. With an air of calm, resigned resilience, it’s a remarkably spirited portrayal of a suicidal character – she seems to get over it all rather quickly, and rises to the challenges of the day with surprising strength. By contrast, Hadley Fraser’s Freddie Page cuts a much more pathetic figure; a spoilt brat of a wastrel who’s relied on his looks to get him through but when times get tough has no inner resources to back it up. It’s another excellent performance, bringing out all the character’s immaturity and irresponsibility, as he organises long drinking sessions with his mates and refuses to take the blame for his contribution to Hester’s unhappiness. When the first Act finished I wanted to shout down to the stage, Leave him, Hester, he’s not worth it, hun, but I’m not sure if she would have taken my advice.
Reliable Chichester stalwart Matthew Cottle gives a strong, unsentimental performance as Miller, the once-doctor who still helps with medical advice in the household despite no longer being allowed to practise; although in seedy 1952 North West London, a resident medic would always be in demand. There’s also a toe-curlingly enjoyable scene between Hester and Ralph Davis’ Philp Welch, one of those agonisingly patronising moments when a younger man tries to explain to an older person where they’ve gone wrong in life and what they can do to turn things around. Keeping a lid on her frustration and annoyance, you sense it’s all Hester can do not to stuff the gas tube up his nose and shove a shilling in for good measure.
This production received generally excellent reviews and I can see why. Although the pace of the play is quite slow, the attention to detail is impressive, and the commitment and dignity of the performances is a delight, even if the horrors of what they’re going through isn’t. Its final performance was last Saturday night and I don’t know if it’s going to have a life hereafter…but it was a very enjoyable and thought-provoking production.
It’s with happiness tinged with sadness that I reflect that this was our last Chichester weekend of the year. It’s a privilege to be able to visit this influential and creative theatrical hub a few times throughout the summer, mixing it in with sensational lunches at the Minerva Brasserie and an enjoyable wind-down post-show with the excellent sharing boards in the Minerva Grill; unless, like me, you don’t share your board – I have the Vegetarian Board all to myself and it’s fab!
For our final visit to Chichester this year we were spoilt for company, as we had Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Professor and Mrs Plum to enjoy it with us. And for our first theatrical extravaganza of the day, we saw a revival of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, his highly successful play about an imagined get-together by quantum physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, together with Niels’ wife Margrethe, after they’d all died. They looked back at a meeting between them all in 1941 in Copenhagen.
What was the purpose of their meeting? Ay, there’s the rub. The essential elements of what brought them together are played out a number of times as the characters try to get to the truth of exactly what happened and why. I’m no quantum physicist, as you’ll soon see, but apparently – according to Michael Frayn’s introductory note in the programme – the act of observation changes what’s being observed. That’s one of the implications of quantum mechanics that Bohr and Heisenberg formulated in the 1920s. Therefore, every time we go back to re-observe, Groundhog Day-like, the events of that meeting, those events, by their very nature, have changed. Have I lost you? I’ve certainly lost myself.
It’s not often that a play totally bamboozles me, but I confess this one did. Mr Frayn was in the bar later that evening; we really should have asked him to tell us what it was all about, but then we would have looked completely foolish. I take comfort in the fact that more intelligent souls than me, not to mention highly experienced drama and literary critics over the years, have emerged from theatres showing this play saying, in a highly intellectual way of course, “my brain hurts”.
There’s no doubt that this meeting actually happened. In 1941, Bohr’s Denmark had been invaded and subjugated by Heisenberg’s Germany, so it wasn’t the most auspicious of times to meet, even though the two had been old friends from way back. It makes small-talk difficult; when Heisenberg tactlessly suggests a skiing trip to his place in the German mountains, the Bohrs look at him like he’s completely lost his marbles. Most commentators agree that their meeting was to debate the morality of scientists working on the creation of nuclear weapons. Heisenberg was in charge of the Nazi nuclear weapons project; Bohr was a natural peacemaker who despised the thought of science being used in this destructive way. But what actually went on between the two of them, we’ll probably never know. A number of letters were written, and discovered, over the years that complicate the opinions of these protagonists. Frayn’s play is therefore an attempt to clarify, or at least suggest, how the whole meeting might have played out. I think. But I’m not sure.
I was left merely to enjoy the interplay between the characters, the high-quality acting, and convincing arguments being made on stage that you think you understand and follow – only to discover you’ve been left behind on a new strand of arguments and you’ve already forgotten what the first one was about. I think it probably does help if you’re a quantum physicist yourself; none of us is, although between us we do have a number of first-rate intellects who can form an opinion on most things. Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt like we should be wearing dunce caps in the corner.
Maybe one of the problems with this very wordy play is the lack of action. Three actors, three chairs and a lot of sentences doesn’t necessarily make for great drama. Fortunately, Michael Blakemore (still directing at the age of 90, goodness me!) assembled a terrific, committed and intelligent cast who convert Frayn’s text into believable conversation and reminiscence. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Paul Jesson as Bohr; a reasoning and reasonable man but quick to ire and susceptible to bluster, as older authoritative figures frequently are. He delights in pointing out where his Young Pretender’s calculations and assumptions have gone wrong – he is the Master Lecturer, after all. Charles Edwards’ Heisenberg is more measured in tone, calmer in argument, with a little of the smugness you get from being on the winning side of a war (at least at that point). Umpiring the two is Patricia Hodge’s Margrethe, a solemn, contemplative character who chips in with a few pointed remarks but largely keeps her thoughts to herself unless she can see the two men completely going up the wrong path.
The play has long been a success, and it has certainly succeeded in making me curious to know more about these men and their theories. Alas, its short season has now ended, but this powerful, if static, production certainly exercised our brainboxes!
The second of our three Chichester weekends this year saw Mrs Chrisparkle and me meet up with Professor and Mrs Plum for our usual fantastic lunch at the Minerva Brasserie – I can really recommend the Whiston Blanc de Blancs for a beautifully tasty sparkling English wine; it would perk up any social event! And the chicken is a real winner.
As usual it was to be a double-header at Chichester, and our first stop was at the Minerva for The Meeting. I think it’s fair to say that unless you are a Quaker, or are personally acquainted with a Quaker very well, you’re unlikely to know much about them. You don’t stumble across and visit their places of worship like you pop into an English Country Church in the Church of England tradition, for example. There aren’t big versions of their Meeting Houses like there are Cathedrals. And you don’t learn about their worshipping traditions, because, as far as I can make out, there aren’t any. The pinnacle of a great Quaker Meeting is to stay as silent as possible for the longest time.
That’s what makes Charlotte Jones’ new play, The Meeting, which has just finished its run at the Minerva theatre, so very intriguing. Set in a Sussex Quaker community in 1805, this small group of people get along by very much keeping themselves to themselves, marrying within the community, not venturing into “the town”; committed to the sanctity of human life, so they cannot fight at war; believing in equality so that even the most junior in the community would not address the most senior with any kind of reverent title. They are a Society of Friends and Friends are always equal. I learned a lot.
But just because this is a community of Quakers, it doesn’t mean they’re not subject to the same emotions, temptations, and desires as the rest of us. Take Rachel, for instance, living with her deaf mother Alice and her husband Adam, a stonemason; three sons she has borne him, each one stillborn or died at birth, each one named Nathaniel in the hope that they might eventually have a survivor. Biddy, on the other hand, married to James, the Elder of the community, is as fecund as the Indus Valley. I lost count how many children they had, but there’s a baby in tow at the moment and older daughter Tabitha is on the lookout for a husband.
One day, Rachel meets a soldier; a young man apparently invalided out of the army, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. His name? Nathaniel. Adam has only recently said he needs a young apprentice, as his strength and eye for detail are on the wane; Rachel sees it as a sign, and suggests that Nathaniel come back with her to meet Adam to see if he thinks he would be a good apprentice. Trouble is, he’s not a Quaker; but Rachel will teach him and encourage him, and, as far as she’s concerned, it’s just a little white lie for The Greater Good. But you know what might happen if an attractive older woman and a handsome young man start living under the same roof….. The gasp of shock from the audience at the final tableau before the interval told its own story!
The play very satisfyingly lets us in to see the secrets of this closed community, that few of us to this day know much about, so it piques our interest initially on the simple level of widening our general knowledge. But then we see the community face the age-old problem of a love-triangle, something we see in many plays and films over the course of a lifetime; and maybe indeed personally experience its pain and complications. It’s a very familiar event in a very unfamiliar setting. At times – as when Adam encouraged Nathaniel to accompany Rachel to keep her company – it reminded me of the previous play we’d seen at the Minerva, The Country Wife – although of course, much less raucous. Adam’s blissful ignorance about Nathaniel’s intentions towards Rachel and Lord Fidget’s similar encouragement to Horner to spend time with Lady Fidget are not a million miles apart.
It’s a fascinating play, beautifully and sensitively written, with much to say about friendship and faithfulness; forgiveness and redemption; expression and suppression. Dry stonewalls provide the backdrop to Vicki Mortimer’s simple but flexible set, a circular mosaic floor providing the setting for the meetings, where the attendees sit around on simple chairs in a circle; when the meeting is over they simply hook the backs of the chairs to a circular roof that descends and ascends to take the chairs out of the way. The costumes are uniformly puritanical grey and drab; I had to cut myself a little chuckle when Tabitha displays her “beautiful” wedding dress which is only fractionally less grey and drab than everything else the women wear. The only exception is the bright red of the soldier’s jacket which must, perforce, be hidden; let’s hope nobody finds it…
Charlotte Jones has written two great parts for women. Lydia Leonard is superb as Rachel; trying her best to be dutiful, bursting forth at the Quaker Meetings because she is full of ministry – or, in her case, emotion and expression which desperately needs an outlet; powerless to fight the attractive force that is the new young man under her roof. And Olivia Darnley is also brilliant as Biddy; on the one hand, the comedy gossip role, always irrepressible with good humour and accentuating the positive; on the other hand, with a past full of resentment and bitterness that she too finds it hard not to revisit.
Gerald Kyd plays Adam with stolid dignity and quiet assertiveness; he is a man whose emotions will always only be revealed behind closed doors. And there’s an excellent, assured performance from newcomer Laurie Davidson as Nathaniel, the seemingly decent and honest worker who turns into something of a sneak and a louse. There’s also the meaty role of Alice, powerfully performed by deaf actor Jean St Clair, eloquent in her sign language and amazingly articulate facial expressions. And there’s great support from Jim Findley as the well-meaning and responsible Elder James Rickman and Leona Allen as his enthusiastic and surprisingly self-confident daughter Tabitha.
We saw this on its final matinee after its three-week run, and sadly the theatre was only about 60% full, which isn’t a great audience turnout for Chichester. Those of us who were there really enjoyed it and were thoroughly carried away by its great story-telling and emotional charge. Whether or not there could be a life for this play in the future, I’m not sure. But I’m very pleased we managed to catch it, as it was a very rewarding and thought-provoking play.
William Wycherley’s The Country Wife was first performed in 1675, slap bang in the middle of the period when all the theatregoing public wanted was sex – the bawdier, the better. They’d had enough of those puritans, spreading misery and restraint; what they wanted was a damn good laugh, and it had better be a filthy one too.
It’s a rather neatly structured and tidy example of the Restoration Comedy genre; cuckolded husbands, rampant fornicators, foppish twerps, licentious servants, as well as a story of true love and an interesting contrast between the ways of the town and those of the country – including the pun in the title, which I’m sure you’ve grasped.
We first meet the roguish Horner in conversation with his quack, who has let it be known that Horner has been diagnosed as impotent as any eunuch in the orient – so much for patient confidentiality. Horner’s plan is that this will make him irresistible to women because they will either feel safe in his company, or they will want to try to put him to the test. Either way, he wins. His first sortie is to convince Sir Jasper Fidget to get access to Lady Fidget, her sister Dainty, and their constant companion Mistress Squeamish. Easy. As an additional bonus, he gets to cuckold the men of the town in a warped, power-mad desire for dominance; the cuckold dance at the end of the play signifies the complete fruition of all his effort. He has a retinue of mates who love the sound of all that extra-marital hoo-ha, including the foppish Sparkish, who is to marry Alithea, the sister of Margery. She is herself newly married to the wretched Pinchwife, who hides her by locking her in her bedroom so that scurrilous menaces like Horner can’t winkle her out and have their wicked way with her. Does Horner indulge in a little Ladies and Gentlemen with every woman in the town? Does Pinchwife successfully preserve Margery’s virtue? Does Sparkish get to marry Alithea? As the play’s been around almost 350 years now, I’m sure you already know the answer.
This very modern version of the play – drinks trolleys, pizza boxes, neon-signed nightclubs, Ann Summers shopping bags – puts less emphasis on the fun aspect that the original 1675 audience would have relished, and more on the sordid nature of Horner’s life and game-playing, and its wider effects on those about him. We have no sympathy for Horner; we don’t identify with him and aren’t jealous that he gets all the girls. He’s a loathsome wretch, waking up on the sofa in a post-alcoholic stupor; adding more notches on his bedpost simply because he can, and because there’s nothing much else for him to do that he’d be good at. The final scene shows him back on his sofa, still knocking back the remnants of last night’s booze. He has progressed not an inch. Pinchwife’s just as bad, threatening his wife with violence, locking her away like a caged bird; and at the end of the play it’s Margery who is visibly broken by the entire experience, the true victim of all that has gone before. So, whilst it’s a lively and enjoyable production, you’re never far from having something of a dirty taste at the back of your throat.
Soutra Gilmour has designed a dark and functional set, very bachelor pad in its creature comforts; the reversable back wall has three doors, useful for highlighting the Feydeau Farce aspect of the play, and a Restoration Comedy word cloud is projected onto the back wall from time to time, just in case you forget the naughtiness of the era. There’s a lot of zaniness going on at each scene change, with chairs, beds, and what-have-yous all being swirled around in circles on their way on or off stage, as though to highlight the uncontrollably madcap nature of Horner’s world. The costumes are perfect, from Lady Fidget’s business chic and Sir Jasper’s staid old codger’s suit to the trendiest clothes you can get in H&M for all the young people. Musical man of the moment, Grant Olding, has composed some mind-joltingly harsh techo-jingles to accompany the scene changes and Jonathan Munby’s direction is slick and unsentimental.
There are smart performances throughout: Lex Shrapnel’s Horner is very believable as that lowlife swine who looks on the world as something to be wrung out to dry for his own benefit, a professional manipulator who doesn’t even need much in the way of charisma to get what he wants. John Hodgkinson’s Pinchwife is a tetchy mass of nervous energy, constantly on his guard against unwanted approaches; it’s an excellent portrayal of a man brought to the brink of anxiety by his own selfishness, whose only fuel left in his tank is to attack the one he loves. Belinda Lang is a delightfully over-the-top poseuse as the affected Lady Fidget; Scott Karim gives a good account of the foppish Sparkish, including the most insincere chuckle you’ve ever heard; and there’s excellent support from Ashley Zhangazha and Jo Herbert as Harcourt and Alithea, the genuine young lovers caught up in all this nonsense.
The night, however, belongs to Susannah Fielding, who is superb as Margery, with wonderful wide-eyed innocence mixed with her sad, suppressed and frustrated expressions as she languishes pointlessly alone on her bed. There’s a wonderful scene where Pinchwife has to lead Margery through the town so she is disguised as a man – or in this case, a schoolboy, nevertheless pretending to be Pinchwife’s brother – much to the amusement of the onlookers. You’ll never think of Wee Jimmie Krankie in the same way again. An immaculate performance bringing out all the pathos and humour that befits the role.
This was a preview performance, so there was always a possibility that some things might change before press night. It’s a little long at just under three hours, but it’s difficult to see where any further cuts could be made. Certainly, the second part of the play feels more rollicking than the first, which was a shame for those dozen or so people who decided to leave at the interval; a harsh judgment on their part, I thought. It’s a powerful, relevant production, perfect for introducing a new generation to the wicked world of the Restoration.
P. S. As it was gone 10.30 pm when it finished, it was too late for us to pay our usual homage at the Cote Restaurant in Chichester; it’s a town that likes to go to bed early. So for the first time we stayed behind at the Minerva Bar and Grill and had some of their sharing plate suppers – and they were absolutely delicious. A bottle of Merlot and terrific service eased our way almost into the new day. Definitely recommended as a brilliant way to finish your evening at the theatre!
Hurrah for our second Chichester weekend of the year! This time Mrs Chrisparkle and I were accompanied by the sophisticated and intelligent Professor and Mrs Plum, who were desperate for some proper erudition and a slap-up fried breakfast in the morning. They weren’t disappointed on either count.
Do you remember a TV programme from a few years ago, gentle reader, called Life Laundry? It was where people who weren’t coping with aspects of their life for whatever reason just started piling up junk inside their houses so that they could barely move? They needed the help of expert advisers to start understanding their problems and then give them advice as to how they could start reclaiming their home. It was fascinating and frequently very moving to watch.
Welcome to the home of the Angelis family: sister Peppy (short for Penelope), brother Daniel (short for Daniel). By the sound of it, it’s probably in quite a decent area; certainly their slimy neighbour Gareth is interested in expanding his ownership. But it is The House They Grew Up In, and never left; although Peppy went to Cambridge, apparently; to study art, I would imagine. Peppy’s now looking after Daniel as best she can, but he doesn’t help himself, just sitting there, with music constantly going through his headphones, hoping to be fed every now and then. She tells him things but he hardly takes them in because he’s never using his listening ears. He’s probably autistic. His only friend – not that he really thinks of him as a friend – is next door’s boy Ben. He’s only eight, but he takes an interest. Peppy’s not keen. She doesn’t like people coming to the house.
And the Life Laundry connection? Their house is crammed, top to bottom, with junk. Trying to find anything is a nightmare. Trying to navigate around the living room is nigh on impossible. Designer Max Jones must have had a field day acquiring all the detritus that dominates the set. It really takes your breath away! Not only has the stuff accumulated over the years simply because Peppy and Daniel live such a private, reclusive life – Uncle Manny at Christmas seems to be their only other link to the outside world – but it also reflects the mess that their lives have gradually become; and the mess that gets steadily worse through the course of the play.
Although it has the now standard format of one interval in the middle of the show, structurally it feels to me like an old-fashioned three act play. Act One is largely scene-setting, getting to know the characters and their way of life; Act Two is them struggling with the outside world imposing itself on them, in a very extreme and unpleasant way; Act Three is the resolution to the problem and the happy ending. Yes, gentle reader, it has a happy ending, and one that will quite possibly make you gasp with approval, as it did on last Saturday’s matinee. And it is a totally brilliant, satisfying, heartfelt, revealing play that will make you laugh and it will make you cry. At times you may wonder if it is ever going to get “really funny”, and the answer is – no. But you do have that happy ending to look forward to. If you arrive wondering why the foyers of the Minerva are bedecked with bunting, you’ll know before you go home.
This fantastic production sports some great performances but none as much as Samantha Spiro as Peppy. She must be exhausted by the end of the play. She’s constantly messing and fiddling and searching for things and begging Daniel to wear his listening ears. You can tell at once there’s something wrong with her but it takes a good while to draw your conclusions as to quite what. It’s an incredible performance because she’s both endearing and irritating at the same time, just as big sisters often are. She absolutely gets to the heart of this nervous, patronising, helpless, frantic, loving soul. You can see her trying to be open and communicative, and then when things get too invasive, or awkward, or deep, you can see her start to close down, and block out the outside world. Simply superb.
Daniel Ryan’s Daniel, on the other hand, is in many ways the complete opposite. He appears to be calm and content to be left alone, although he can fly into a flash fury when he can’t express his inner feelings. It’s another excellent performance, full of hidden anxieties and repressed emotions; and he beautifully shows how a person on the autistic spectrum can accidentally fall foul of society’s accepted norms of behaviour. He appears – as you would expect – appropriately devoid of empathy, but he has some great surprises up his sleeve. He also brings the house down with the occasional, simply delivered, hilarious rejoinder – watch out for the reason he no longer goes out gardening. A beautifully controlled, funny and sad performance.
For our matinee, we had Leonardo Dickens in the role of Ben and what a little star he is! Technically perfect throughout, not a fluffed line nor a missed cue, brilliant delivery of his comic lines, and totally at ease with a cast of adults. Even at this young age, he’s got to be One To Watch. I also really enjoyed the performances of Michelle Greenidge as the WPC who arrives at the house thinking it’s just another job and then slowly realises that she’s bitten off more than she can chew, Matt Sutton as the detective who has to question the unpredictable Ben, and Philip Wright as the flesh-crawling chancer of a neighbour, trying to browbeat Peppy into a rash decision.
It’s a fascinating play, totally engrossing, brilliantly performed, expertly brought to stage and we all absolutely loved it. This ought to have transfer written all over it. It’s only got a three week run, on until 5th August, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.
P. S. Sir Derek Jacobi was in the house. He’s looking great. We were only talking about him in the Minerva Brasserie for lunch, and he was there all along. Spooky.
P. P. S. I usually take a photograph of my programme as the first illustration of a theatre review. However, torrential downpours of rain rendered it soggy and no longer fit for purpose. Fortunately I had the wit to take a picture of the poster outside the theatre. I’m sure you won’t mind.
Edna O’Brien is one of those very famous authors whom absolutely no one I know has ever read. “What play are we seeing for the matinee in Chichester?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle showing surprising interest a couple of hours before curtain-up. “The Country Girls”, I replied, “it’s an adaptation of that book by Edna O’Thingy…” She looked blankly at me, but I don’t think she would have been any the wiser if I’d remembered her surname. “It’s a very famous book” I added, although by then Mrs C was back on the Guardian website.
You are, of course, much better informed, gentle reader, and will be aware that The Country Girls was Edna O’Brien’s debut novel back in 1960 and she’s written around 40 books in all, including short stories, poetry, non-fiction as well as her best-selling novels. The book was banned by the Irish censor upon publication, so it must be doing something right. Set in the West of Ireland in the 1950s, the first act introduces us to Kate and Baba, two girls subjected to the full convent regime of education and repression; we see Kate’s friendship with the young Sister Mary; and the girls’ shameful expulsion when some sexual teasing goes wrong. The second act sees the girls in Dublin, freed from their shackles and finding their own way; meeting unsuitable men and struggling to pay the rent. Whilst the story really builds beautifully in the first act, and you really get to understand the main characters and their motivations very well; for me the play rather fizzled out in the second act, as whatever relationships they had came to nought.
Nevertheless, it’s still a very entertaining play, which gives you a very good insight into what life was like in Ireland in the 1950s, and how very different the country and the city life were. Fathers were either kind and helpful or drunk and violent; nuns were either warm-hearted or sadists. Similarly, girls were either like Kate – ambitious and innocent, or like Baba – reckless and sinful; and both were equally entertaining for the audience to watch. Little moments, like when Baba buys an ice-cream when they first arrive in Dublin, speak volumes and paint a much bigger picture than the words of the play alone can do. Isobel Waller-Bridge has composed some very elegant but inevitably sombre music which recurs throughout the piece and for me had the effect of bringing the mood down, as if preparing us in advance for some great tragedy. Call me shallow, but I’d have killed for a little fiddle and a tin whistle.
The play is dominated, wonderfully, by the brilliant performance of Grace Molony as Kate. From the very first scene she captures your heart and you spend the next two and a half hours willing her to succeed and survive at everything life throws at her. Both as a gullible girl and an out-of-place young woman, Ms Molony expresses so much about Kate’s character without even having to say a word. Her conversations with Mary are charming – a delightful performance from Jade Yourell; and as she opens up to Rachel Atkins’ superbly Germanic Joanna you see her becoming an independent woman, holding her own opinions whilst still being kind and thoughtful. It’s a beautiful performance.
Genevieve Hulme-Beaman’s Baba is an amusingly irreverent character; the archetypal naughtiest girl in the school, always chirpy with an answer for everything. She longs to lead Kate astray in Dublin, but when she finds she cramps her style, it’s easy for this Baba simply to dump her. Again, it was a very realistic presentation of a spirited young woman, desperate to make her way without any restrictions, and it was a joy to watch her; even though we thought her re-appearance at the end of the play was rather improbable. The remainder of the cast give a great ensemble performance to suggest the stifling backwardness of the countryside and the diversity of Dublin.
I’d have liked the story to have a bit more oomph in the second half, but that’s not to say it wasn’t a very enjoyable, intelligent and rewarding piece of drama that leaves you much better informed about Ireland in the 50s. It’s on until 8th July.
Still in the company of Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters, Mrs Chrisparkle and I got up early to take the scenic drive to Chichester for our final visit there this year. Normally we only go once a year but this time the Summer Programme was too good not to wallow in it to the max. We arrived in plenty of time for our yummy lunch served at the Minerva Brasserie, the perfect start to a self-indulgent weekend of theatre overload.
Taken At Midnight, the final play in Chichester’s Hidden Histories season, concerns Hans Litten, the lawyer who subpoenaed Adolf Hitler in 1931 and subjected him to open cross-examination in the criminal trial of four Brownshirts – the Stormtroopers who handled Hitler’s dirty work with such evil gusto. I’d never heard about Hans Litten, but it’s not surprising – as neither western nor communist governments found his activities useful for their cold war propaganda. Historically, his was a low profile for many years and it wasn’t until 2008 that the first biography (in English) about him was written.
Litten’s nifty questioning humiliated Hitler, causing him to attempt to defend the indefensible; and it would be an experience Hitler was not going to forget or forgive in a hurry. On the night of the Reichstag Fire in February 1933, Litten was arrested and from then on was kept in concentration camps till the end of his life. Mark Hayhurst’s play follows Litten’s imprisonment through the eyes of his mother Irmgard, a constant thorn in the flesh of the local Gestapo, never allowing her son’s predicament to be forgotten.
This is a very dramatic and sombre play given a suitably intense production by Jonathan Church’s lucid direction and Robert Jones’ stark design. Plush padded leather chairs and well-made desks brought on and off centre stage give an illusion of elegance and decency in Nazi Germany; contrasted with the barren dormitory and brutal guards of the concentration camp setting against the back wall of the stage. Harsh lighting and sound plots emphasise the horror of the Third Reich, nowhere witnessed with greater impact than in a hard-hitting scene where Litten, along with his two co-prisoners, Ossietzky and Mühsam, are suspended by their wrists and whip-lashed during questioning – all done by stage effects. But the real power of contrast in this production comes from the juxtaposition of the quiet purity of Irmgard’s speech and behaviour, and the violence of the society that surrounds her.
Penelope Wilton’s performance as Irmgard is a thing of beauty. Reserved yet assertive, elegant yet punchy, she is dignity personified in the face of extreme provocation. Her plight as the mother of an imprisoned man, whom she cannot see and whose wellbeing or otherwise she can only guess at, is beautifully and movingly presented; and the way she just hangs on to her politesse whilst sparring with the SS in the shape of Dr Conrad makes you curl your toes with shameless pleasure. The scene where she finally does get to see her son again after so many years is simply a masterclass of understatement.
Martin Hutson’s portrayal of Litten is of a man who never loses his sense of self and his knowledge of what’s right and what’s wrong, but whose understanding of the situation in which he finds himself gets progressively less optimistic as the years go by. It’s very moving to see his youthful dynamism get broken by the prison system and his appearance in the penultimate scene when he finally sees his mother again is heart-breaking in his resignation to his fate.
Although its tone is dark, and ultimately very sad – we all know what is going to happen in Germany during the 30s and 40s – structurally the play leaves us with a sense of victory. There’s no doubt about what’s destined for Litten – a savage light and sound effect shows us with horrific clarity; but we still get to see his courtroom moment of glory – for which he eventually paid the ultimate price – bestriding the court like a Colossus and making mincemeat of Hitler, whilst his mother looks on adoringly. It’s a very positive finale.
This is a splendid ensemble production and all the cast give great performances. Particular plaudits to John Light as Conrad, seemingly reasonable and refined, playing a defensive bat to keep Irmgard at bay until he has no alternative but attack; David Yelland as Lord Allen, ostensibly the great hope that a member of the British House of Lords might possibly hold some sway with Hitler in negotiation, but in reality ineffectual and powerless; and Pip Donaghy as the spirited Erich Mühsam, always maintaining a bright opposition to the cowards who imprison him, unwavering in his taunting of the Nazis, even in the face of imminent death: “Goebbels? He’s just not a funny man…”
A very strong, emotional play with a stunning central performance by Penelope Wilton and terrific support from the rest of the cast – this is an experience at the theatre that stays with you long after curtain down. It continues at the Minerva until 1st November, and I would recommend it without hesitation.
Time for our annual pilgrimage to Chichester, and this year, for the first time, we visited the Minerva Theatre as part of our weekend. Whereas I always find negotiating the foyers of the Festival Theatre a privileged joy, I didn’t get the same feeling at the Minerva. Once upstairs and in the circle area outside the auditorium entrance, I found the atmosphere stuffy and hot; and the bar area, which is the back side – if you’ll pardon the expression – of the bar in the Brasserie, was unattended – twenty minutes before curtain up at the matinee – not a good sign. We went into the Brasserie to get attention of the bar staff on that side, to be met with a bunch of guys who looked quizzically at our attempt to get a little glass of wine, as if it were a great inconvenience in their “clearing-up-after-lunch” routine. Come on Chichester, you can welcome your punters better than that!
Mrs Chrisparkle and I haven’t seen a lot of Brecht, but this is one play I have always wanted to experience in a theatre. I read it years ago, during the time when I basically read every play I could get my hands on. Written rapidly in 1941 whilst Brecht was in exile in Finland, and unperformed until 1958, the play portrays the rise of an infamous Chicago gangster from the kind of guy people used to laugh at when he came into the room to the kind of guy who could manipulate entire populations to his own wicked ends. It works well on two levels – as the story of the gangster taking over the vegetable trade in Chicago and Cicero; but of course chiefly as an allegory of the rise of Nazism under Hitler from 1929 to 1938. The original UK production didn’t take place until 1967 when Ui was played by Leonard Rossiter. I bet he was brilliant in the role.
The Minerva is a little like a miniature Festival theatre – Roman amphitheatre-shaped, and you have to walk down onto the stage area and around and back up again to find your seat. It’s rather cramped, and not terribly comfortable – at the interval plenty of people were apologising to the person in front for kneeing them in the back during the first act – but the sight lines are perfect. As you enter the auditorium, the stage is set up as a speak-easy, with a group of musicians giving it some 1930s style jazz round the piano; and the tables are beset with hoodlums, all sucking on stage cigarettes which, I have to say, smell repulsive when you’re that close – they’re like cannabis just with a shorter odour life. The play begins in Brecht’s finest tradition, with his breaking down the scene by having an MC address us directly and introduce the gangsters on stage individually, so you know precisely what to expect from them throughout the play.
In many respects it is an extraordinary work, in that it takes the dreadful events of 1930s Germany and re-presents them in a different country under a alternative scenario of lawlessness, but there is no mistaking whatsoever Brecht’s allegorical intentions. His original version of the play has each scene preceded or interrupted by a some written words which tell you precisely the events in history that the scene is meant to represent. In Jonathan Church’s production, he has tried to make it not quite so Brechtian by demoting these information pieces to a double-page spread in the programme. Mrs C and I didn’t discover this until the interval, which is a shame as it would have given the first half scenes an added dimension for us. The play is also written in verse, another distancing Brechtian device, making it on the one hand slightly less realistic but also giving it oddly more gravitas.
It’s also a very nasty play. In this cityscape, if you’re not a gangster, a murderer, a swindler or a thief, then you’re a victim of at least one of the above. There’s no scope for concealing the mental and physical violence; and it brilliantly shows you how a population can get caught up in thrall to an evil man through fear, intimidation, greed and cowardice. Brecht certainly did the world a service when he wrote this play, and if it alerts just one person to the possibility of a new Ui rising to the top of some dunghill who somehow acts to prevent it, then who knows how many lives it could save. The final scene of the play is horrifyingly well done and grimly looks to a vile future. The play ends with a brief epilogue as Ui slowly starts to come out of character and take the voice of the actor playing him, warning us not to be complacent as the bitch that bred this bastard is still breeding.
And that actor in question is Henry Goodman, whom I believe we haven’t seen before, but I have heard a lot of Good Things about him. His performance is nothing short of remarkable. Ui completely consumes him from head to toe, inside and out. He starts off as a wretched little man, the butt of jokes, sunken inside himself like a warped parody of Uriah Heep, but without the apparent humility. As his fortunes improve he visibly swells in height and breadth; his clothes become smarter and better fitting; his confidence grows; his enunciation clarifies and he just becomes a bigger entity until finally he is the full-grown monster. All along, of course, his appearance develops slightly more Hitleresque nuances scene by scene; with the addition of an insignia on his armband, his arms and feet movements as taught by the actor, his sleeked hair, his military clothing, his violent voice, his manic jackboots. It’s horrifying and fascinating, and really drives home the message that this is how evil can come to power. It’s an incredible performance. He also makes the best out of the stylised humour of the play, which personally I found hard to appreciate. The characters are so vile that to laugh with them is to demean oneself. Nevertheless, the majority of the audience found the humour in the role borderline hysterical. Maybe that in itself is evidence of how a charismatic approach can sweep people along in its path.
The acting throughout is of an extremely high quality. The performances of Ui’s three main henchmen are all first class. David Sturzaker as Givola in particular conveyed the “Best Supporting Evil” role, with his vicious ruthlessness cushioned in his otherwise soft and polite floristry trade. You can see how he is the essential nice guy turned bad, and boy is he bad. Michael Feast also gives a superb performance as Ui’s lieutenant, Roma, and his eventual come-uppance almost makes you feel sorry for him – but not quite. Joe McGann’s creepy Giri with the hat fetish is a chilling assassin. His doubling up as the decent investigator O’Casey gives him another meaty scene. The doubling up of William Gaunt as both the corrupt Dogsborough – as whom he is very convincing – and the judge didn’t quite work so well for me as it looked simply as though Dogsborough had landed the prime job of being the judge; particularly as the judge is clearly also corrupt and legitimises the trumped up case against the wretched defendant Fish. I didn’t get the sense of there being two different characters. Amongst the other supporting roles, I was really impressed with the performance of Rolf Saxon as Clark, devious leader of the Cauliflower Trust, another extremely good realisation of a character that on the face of it is laudable and trustworthy but underneath is a dissembling villain.
It is an excellent production of an unpleasant play. I can’t actually say I enjoyed it, but it probably should be compulsory viewing for all young people reaching voting age. Freedom is fragile, democracy easily manipulated. Brecht’s allegory is as relevant today as it ever has been.
P.S. As befits the first sunny weekend in what feels like a decade, Chichester was looking lovely. The matinee of Arturo Ui chucked out at 5.25pm and with a 7.30 start for Kiss Me Kate looming, we didn’t have much time to idle over choosing a dinner location. With the new Marcos having too-expensive-a-menu for simple people from Northampton to contemplate, and with the George and Dragon pub being fully booked, we decided to chance the first place that looked remotely suitable. This turned out to be Clinchs restaurant (there’s no apostrophe in their name, whether that’s right or wrong) and it turned out to be a fairly bizarre experience. After a friendly welcome we sat at comfortable seats on a nice big table and quickly received the menus. We ordered a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and it was very good, nicely chilled; and a recognisable label from supermarket shelves. Ordering took a while; but not as long as the meal did. In the meantime we were amused by the amateur service; a waitress, arms piled high with freshly prepared meals, standing in the middle of the restaurant shouting back to the kitchen “GINA! Where am I taking this lot?” Plates were getting taken to the wrong tables; people were waiting to be served whilst the waitresses were chin-wagging with friends in the garden. We were starting to get a little anxious but at 6.40 it arrived. The food was superb. We scoffed it and asked for the bill, and fifteen minutes later, with no bill presented, just went to the cash desk to pay. The area behind the till was awash with half open bottles of lemonade, wine, juice etc, all bearing Sainsbury’s labels and looking as scruffy as your own kitchen at 2.30am after a long hard party. This new restaurant has the makings of something good, but needs professionalising up a bit!
The next morning we awoke bright and early and headed off in search of further sightseeing delights. What we didn’t realise was that a mere minute walk to the left out of our hotel was a Coeliac shop! Not selling coeliacs, no, but just gluten-free food. Mrs C was therefore able to stock up on gluten-free versions of those delicious wafers and other snack goodies. It’s only a little shop, so if you’re in need of gluten-free food in Bratislava, do drop in. It’s at Medená 19 and is called Bezlepkový svet.
We thought we would walk all the way to the Slavin Monument and then wind our way back to the Old Town. The Slavin Monument is dedicated to the soldiers of the Red Army who died in the liberation of the Slovak lands in World War II. You might read on trip advisor about people walking there who said it was a hard slog and it takes ages. Hmmm; these people can’t be very fit. I think it took us about 45 minutes to walk up the hill from the Old Town, past all the posh houses and ambassadors’ residences, and get to the site. I’m sure you can manage it.
On the way up we found a little cemetery off Sulekova, which made for an interesting fifteen minute detour; quite higgledy-piggledy, with functional and elegant rather than over-ornate graves. We were surprised that very few of the graves contained a photograph of the dead person; very different from our memories of Austria.
When you get to Slavin, it’s very peaceful and respectful, quite rightly. Neat lawns (brown) are surrounded by 278 small gravestones, each bearing the name and rank of their late soldier. With my faltering understanding of Russian in Cyrillic, I could pick out a Smirnoff, and some Captains, Lieutenants and Aviators. The view over the city is splendid. I found it quite moving. A few locals were paying their respects, side by side with some skateboarders taking advantage of the wide approach to the monument.
We took a long set of steps down to Namestie Slobody (Freedom Square) which looks like it was once very grand and is now a bit of an anachronism; very wide, very 60s, and with a central fountain that doesn’t seem to work. Opposite it is a very attractive building, which I now discover, with the use of an online translator, is the Cabinet Office. No wonder it looked quite high security. A little further along and you enter the gardens of the President’s Palace – the Grasalkovič Palace. The gardens are elegant but simple, but the back of the building isn’t anything special. It’s much more attractive from the front, with its proud flags and swish gates. Police were cruising as we took our photos, but we had purely tourist motives, honest.
It was too early for a heavy lunch – all meals in Bratislava are heavy – so we found a really smart place to have tea and play with the wifi, – Café Dias on Poštová. Very comfortable, good value and nice toilets too. Two English Breakfast teas, including a little pot of honey and a sweet creamy profiterole come in at under 4 euros.
We checked out the baroque Church of the Trinitarians on the corner of Zupne namestie, but it was closed. We then dropped down to the SNP Namestie, which has nothing to do with Scottish Independence, but commemorates the Slovak National Uprising, the anti-Nazi resistance movement. It features some quite stirring statues and a big block of Slovak text engraved on a grey stone wall.
Following a tip-off that Obchodná is “where it’s at”, we wandered down that street which in the cold light of day is rather drab and run-down. It has all the signs of being the kind of place that comes to life at night – but still didn’t look particularly welcoming. We took a couple of pictures and moved on.
Round the corner we discovered a church that was open! It was the Church and Convent of St Elizabeth on Spitálska. It was nothing special on the outside but boasted baroque splendour inside, including a stunning ceiling. We carried on back into the Old Town, past the Primaciálny Palace, and into the Hlavné Namestie, where we took funny pictures with the Napoleonic guy who leans against a bench.
Definitely time for lunch now, and we wandered into this place called the Minerva, on Michalská. It’s underground and very atmospheric. The service was very friendly and the food was good – Mrs C and I both ordered the Grilled Trout and it was massive. A large Krusovice and a white wine for the lady. We met a couple of very nice American girls who sounded relieved to hear some other English voices. Everyone seemed to have a good time – ideal for tourists and locals alike.
There’s nothing you can do after a heavy lunch but sleep it off. But we couldn’t rest too long as we were due at the National Theatre for Eugene Onegin. It was a very enjoyable evening, more of which elsewhere later.
When you emerge from the theatre at 9.45pm food is a desperate requirement. We decided not to look too far, and picked Carnevalle on Hviezdoslavovo Namestie. We knew that it would be expensive and potentially a tourist trap, but it was a risk we were prepared to take. We found the service extremely friendly but polite; we sat in the conservatory area adjacent to the square which was comfortable and warm; we went for the Garlic Lamb Shank which was delicious, sharing some rosemary potatoes and grilled vegetables, washed down with the waiter’s recommended wine, the Dunaj, which, at 29 euros was quite expensive, but was also the cheapest of the Slovakian red wines on offer, and was completely yummy. In the absence of a gluten-free dessert on the menu, the waiter suggested to Mrs C a fresh-fruit salad, and it appeared massive and exquisitely fresh and tasty. I had the Lemon Meringue pie which was very nice. I’d have no hesitation in recommending this restaurant if you’re after a less pubby type of atmosphere. It was the most expensive of our meals in Bratislava but certainly no more than you would pay for something similar in London.
We ended up at the 17s bar again afterwards for a nightcap. You probably think we have a drink problem.