Review – Peter Pan Goes Wrong, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th February 2015

Peter Pan Goes WrongIt was only last year that the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society showed us their Murder at Haversham Manor and what a thrilling night of drama and suspense that was. Their immensely flexible approach to riding the storm when things occasionally went wrong showed them to be troupers beyond compare, and so to endorse their true spirit of The Show Must Go On, we thought we would return for their Christmas play (not a panto) Peter Pan, which due to an administrative oversight, would be staged in February.

DarlingsFifteen minutes before curtain up things were still – shall we say – falling into place. The stage manager and his ASMs were still searching for a hammer, handing our hard hats, and getting the people behind us to tear paper up into really tiny pieces – because without it, the snowflakes would be too large. Nevertheless, there was still a sense of hope and confidence crackling in the air as one of the stars of the play, Francis Beaumont, joined Mrs Chrisparkle and me for a chat in the stalls. Not just us, he walked around welcoming everyone to the play; a very thoughtful and personal touch. He seemed extremely happy when he discovered a celebrity in the front row, Simon, who apparently had appeared in Skyfall, and we all sang him Happy Birthday, before discovering it wasn’t his birthday after all. Chris Bean, the dactor, that’s a director and actor to you and me, was also scurrying around in a very fetching Pringle top (the woollen mill, not the crisps), before officially welcoming us all from the stage together with co-director, I mean Assistant Director, Robert Grove.

Peter PanIf you’ve seen The Play That Goes Wrong – and if you haven’t you really need to get on over to the Duchess Theatre – you might be asking yourself, do I also need to see Peter Pan Goes Wrong, are they basically the same show in a different setting? Well, the answers are yes and yes. Once again the excruciatingly awful actors of the CPDS are to be seen desecrating the beautiful Royal theatre with their ham-fisted performances, overweening self-belief, and a set that has a mind of its own. This kind of humour is not for everyone. It is hugely slapstick, totally lacking in subtlety, and encourages you to laugh at things that in many respects one ought not to find funny – like an out of control wheelchair. It is also immensely likeable, enormously character-driven, and performed with a degree of accuracy, timing and all-round skill of Bolshoi proportions (if they were doing dance). Which they’re not.

Hooky and the BoysIt may be easy to dismiss the play itself as being just a box of tricks, but actually it’s extraordinarily well written and beautifully structured. Something in the text and performance encourages the audience to shout back and participate in the play in a way you wouldn’t dream of in any other comedy; it’s like a mutual confidence between cast and audience grows organically as the show develops. There’s a wonderful scene where Laurence Pears, playing Dactor Chris Bean, playing Captain Hook, is really losing it. So many things have gone wrong and the audience are laughing at him when he’s not meant to be funny. “Stop laughing at me!!!” he bellows, like the spoiltest brat in the school, which only makes us laugh at him more. He starts picking on individual members of the audience who have heckled in previous scenes, but they only heckled because the play welcomed it. “It’s not a panto!” he exclaims. “Oh yes it is” we all reply. And so on. As we learn more about what they all think of actor Max Bennett, our sympathy for him grows so that eventually his every movement is greeted with enthusiastic support and appreciation – note to audience, it isn’t real, it is just a play. They must have a Plan B for a smaller or less enthusiastic audience, but they certainly didn’t need it last night (the Royal was pretty much full, as it is for the rest of the run).

Tight squeezeTechnically it’s a dream of a show, with so much of the humour depending on the unreliability of the set. From falling trees to collapsing bunks, an overly choppy sea to an amazing revolving set that just refuses to stop, no potential technical disaster is overlooked or under-utilised as a comic weapon. And that’s even before we mention anything to do with flying. Quite rightly the three technicians join the cast on stage for the curtain call – the actors would be lost without them. Everyone works together so seamlessly for the show to succeed – mentally they must be all joined at the hip, if that’s not a mixed metaphor.

Wendy and the CrocJust as in Noises Off, actors play characters playing characters, which gives a double level of fun. The pompous Jonathan (Peter Pan) and the dreadfully over-acting Sandra (Wendy) are in a relationship but useless Max (Nana the Dog and the Crocodile) fancies her something rotten. Added to which, Chris (George Darling and Captain Hook)’s mum appears to have taken up with Robert (Starkey, and for this performance, Michael). Meanwhile, Dennis (John and Jukes) still can’t remember his lines without technical backup, Annie, now upgraded from ASM, (Mary Darling, Lisa, Tinkerbell and Cecco) has too many roles to cope with the costume changes, and Lucy (Tootles) is so traumatised by falling set early on so that she can barely speak and is forced to spend the rest of the performance in a wheelchair. And all that’s before you actually dig down to the Peter Pan level.

Choppy seasThe cast are fantastic throughout, and it would be wrong to single out any individual performer, so I’m going to mention them all! Laurence Pears’ Chris is a fantastic study of finite ability stretched too far, patronising both cast and audience with his self-obsessed status. Cornelius Booth makes an ebullient Robert, with a penchant for parking in the ambulance spots, a marvellously whiskery young Michael, enthusiastically encouraging the boys and girls to cheer (which Chris the dactor finds so distasteful) and is comic genius as the unintelligible Starkey, flapping his boat in all angles to knock down anyone in his orbit. He performs some great physical comedy – I particularly loved the scene where he was constantly trying to pick up his hat, his pipe and his paddle. Matt Cavendish’s boisterous Max, too useless an actor to be trusted with speaking roles, loves to come out of character to take additional bows like an old ham, and Leonie Hill’s Sandra was obviously told she was extremely gifted just once too often in her childhood, with her wonderfully over-the-top gestures.

Cap'n HookJames Marlowe plays a continually perplexed looking Dennis, desperately relying on electronic prompts to remember his lines, no matter how obviously irrelevant they are; Harry Kershaw is a splendidly refined Francis, narrating from the book at all angles and playing Smee as the feyest pirate you’ve ever met. Alex Bartram is a clean cut Jonathan, a spirited Peter Pan with no control over his flying, and Rosie Abraham a resilient and positive Lucy, for whom physical trauma and temporary paralysis are no reason not to tread the boards.

TinkBut I think my two favourite performances were from Chris Leask as the tireless Stage Manager Trevor, with a high enough impression of himself to wear a T-shirt that reads “Trevor”, but is hopeless enough to spill beer all over the mixer desk to completely destroy the sound plot. The running gag of his ever-increasing builder’s bum was brilliantly well done. And I really loved Naomi Sheldon as Annie, on a constant quest to change costume, becoming less sweet and more vindictive with every passing disaster.

CasualtyWe both found it hysterically funny, and I am in absolute admiration for the proficiency and accuracy of the physical comedy of all the performers. It’s a wonderful piece of insanely entertaining stupidity; touring till July, but I doubt that will be the last we see of it. Hurrah for Mischief Theatre!

Production photos by Alastair Muir.

Review – The Pride, Richmond Theatre, 27th January 2014

Richmond TheatreA couple of years ago, I saw that “The Pride” was being revived at the Sheffield Studio, directed by Richard Wilson, and, reading the promotional blurb, thought it sounded like a fascinating play. Unfortunately we just couldn’t fit it in to our busy schedule. “You can’t see everything”, as Mrs Chrisparkle frequently advises me. Then I saw that it was on at the Trafalgar Studio last year, but, again, we couldn’t get around to it – and it now featured one of my favourite actors, Mathew Horne. The post West-End tour wasn’t coming anywhere near us, but the enforced absence of Mrs C on the second leg of her American Business Odyssey meant I would have more time to travel to a distant theatre to see it. Thus is it was I took the long trek by train and tube to Richmond last Monday.

It was also about time that I visited this theatre. It’s extremely beautiful, one of those old Victorian palaces dedicated to the Thespian Muse. As it’s part of the ATG group and I have one of their lovely membership cards that gives you 10% discounts, when I got to Richmond I thought I’d check the theatre out and see if they had a restaurant or a café, as I would be needing some sustenance after my long journey. Alas, no. Just a bar. Do they serve sandwiches, I asked? Crisps, came the reply. So, reflecting sadly on the loss of 10% off my dining bill that night, I sought out the local Pret for a baguette and a coffee; quite a soulless, desolate place as it turned out.

The bar at the theatre is long and narrow, but with a nice range of wines and a surprisingly large number of chairs, tables and benches on which to perch and peruse your programme. Inside the auditorium, the decoration around the stage and the walls is baroquely beautiful, but the chairs themselves are a bit unyielding. The stage is really high, so from Row D of the stalls I did a lot of looking up, but that also meant that if you had a tall chap in front of you, you would still have a very clear view of the action.

The PrideAnyway, the play’s the thing. This is Alexi Kaye Campbell’s first play, originally staged by the Royal Court in 2008 and already coming back for revivals, which must be an indication that it’s going to last a long time. Unlike the Sheffield version, this production is directed by Jamie Lloyd, who also directed it back in 2008. It’s a beautifully written, complexly structured, robust comparison between a 1950s illicit gay relationship between Oliver and Philip (who is married to Sylvia) with a 2000s open gay relationship between Philip and Oliver (whose best friend is Sylvia). They may have the same names, but they are not the same characters; and scenes of yesterday and today criss-cross each other on the stage with remarkable ease and a telling sense of juxtaposition.

Al WeaverThe 1950s affair is a destructive thing. Oliver thinks he’s found true love, only to have his hopes dashed and his newly established self-knowledge ridiculed and exposed. Philip suffers from having that part of him he has been fighting all his life shamefully revealed; and both he and Sylvia have to endure the breakdown of their marriage, she with the added burden of having introduced the two men to each other and dealing with her subsequent sense of abandonment. The 2000s relationship is more positive, even though Philip and Oliver’s relationship is extremely rocky and Philip walks out; but they meet again at a Gay Pride event where they observe the self-confidence of everyone around them, which leads on to a very optimistic ending that looks forward to an accepting, non-prejudicial future. What links the two separate stories is Oliver’s sense of “The Pride”, essentially the ability to be oneself, and what it means to the six main characters (that’s the three main characters, times two).

Harry Hadden-PatonIt’s a very cunning set, with two hidden doors in a glass backdrop, the surface of which looks as though it’s been artificially antiqued like one of those Victorian mirrors that has lost some of its back lining, so that it’s part reflective and part see-through; a visual metaphor no doubt for a mixture of the clearly obvious and the secretly hidden. An almost violent use of light and sound startles and disconcerts you as characters are suddenly revealed or concealed behind the glass. Those are the harsh moments, which are tempered by the softer transitions from scene to scene where one actor will enter the set to assume their place for the beginning of the next scene, whilst the previous scene is still finishing, thereby giving the whole play a great feeling of flowing inexorability.

Philip and SylviaIt’s acted throughout with great commitment and sensitivity by a terrific little cast. I was really impressed by Al Weaver as Oliver – the 1950s version being polite and respectable, with just a hint of those “mannerisms” that Philip would later complain about, then later with a sad guiltiness yet still retaining complete integrity throughout the whole exposure of the relationship. His modern Oliver is 100% out and proud, portraying the character’s addiction to sex with strangers with humour and ineffectual regret, whilst also revealing his lack of self-confidence by his total reliance on Sylvia and his clinging to Philip. It’s a beautiful performance: funny, heart-breaking and dignified. I really enjoyed how he flipped between his two characters with great fluidity in an instant; and throughout the evening he had his hand and wrist strapped up, presumably due to some injury, so to perform like that when not being properly match-fit is remarkable.

Naomi SheldonHarry Hadden-Paton is also superb as Philip, especially the 1950s version – a chummy, confident, sociable gentleman at first, visibly completely wrong-footed by his sudden realisation of attraction to Oliver, stumbling through his cover-up and then taking it out on Sylvia by cruelly over-reacting to her questions. The stress that the subsequent relationship puts on him brings out a surprisingly violent streak, and the horrific impact of the final scene before the interval has you clenching your teeth in shared agony. The modern Philip is perhaps not quite so fully written and you don’t have quite such a grasp of what the character is like – apart from being generally decent and unable to cope with Oliver’s promiscuity. Naomi Sheldon, a brilliant Hermia in last year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is painfully good as the 1950s Sylvia, her beautifully clipped Standard English accent suggesting the epitome of post-war respectability, slowly putting all the pieces together to come to a conclusion about Philip’s odd behaviour. When she finally confronts Oliver about the affair, it’s a fantastically moving speech with so many conflicting emotions bubbling over one another but all kept as quiet and respectable as the times dictated – a really stunning performance. She’s also excellent as the modern Sylvia, trying to juggle her own life and hopes for a new relationship whilst maintaining and managing Oliver’s dependence.

Mathew HorneMathew Horne provides additional light and shade with the three minor roles, all of whom make a big impact on the stage – the Nazi (I shan’t explain how a Nazi crops up in the story, suffice to say it’s both disturbing and hilarious), the Lad’s Mag editor Peter, and Philip’s doctor. I loved his performance as Peter – a riot of Saaf Laandaan laddishness, very jokey, a true cock-of-the-walk; but when it comes to discussing how he saw his Uncle Harry’s eyes for the last time, it really brought a lump to the throat. And he was perfect as the doctor, clinically aloof from Philip’s distraught and self-disgusted voluntary patient at the aversion therapy clinic, as he explains in cold detail the heartless procedure Philip will undertake; a stand-out scene that was just too tragic for words.

Oliver and PeterIt’s a very thought-provoking, emotional play, benefitting from superb performances and an intense, thoughtful production. For their final curtain call, the cast come on holding placards that read “To Russia with Love”, showing that there are still places in the world where the play’s call for acceptance and equality falls on stony ground. There’s only a few more performances left at Richmond this week, but I’m sure this play will continue to resurface every so often – it’s too fascinating not to!

Review – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th April 2013

A Midsummer Night's DreamThe programme notes for this new production of Midsummer Night’s Dream include a quote from Samuel Pepys, who in 1662 described it as “the most insipid, ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life…nor shall ever again”. Well he didn’t know much about theatre, did he? Although I must confess I was a little disappointed when I first heard that this play would be in this year’s repertoire, only because we’ve already seen it twice very recently, and this would become the third time in three years – and indeed, we are also booked to see the Michael Grandage production in London in November. However, this new offering at the Royal and Derngate is such a funny, warm-hearted production, that within about four seconds of its starting I was hooked and after five minutes I remembered that you simply can’t have too much Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Colin RyanThis production is directed by Gary Sefton, who, along with the R&D’s ex-artistic director Laurie Sansom, has provided us with some of the most memorable plays in Northampton since we’ve been here. Travels with My Aunt, Diary of a Nobody and A Christmas Carol all had his hallmark combination of clear story telling and inventively comic staging, with an emphasis on revealing the characters’ own funny little ways. And now we can add his Dream to his Northampton canon; a tight, pacey, eight-strong production that takes a few liberties with Will’s script – and why not – which make the story easier to follow and play it for laughs.

Silas CarsonTi Green has designed what appears to be quite a stark set at first, but as the play progresses you realise it has a life of its own, and the cascading sheets of coloured material that fall from heaven make an excellent visual contrast with the barren darkness beneath. I love the way the set changes at Puck’s behest; walls move, windows descend to his whim, like some mystic orchestra conductor. Although Oberon is the boss I get the feeling that Puck is in charge of this particular Dream. Colin Ryan appears at first as a very Puck-like Philostrate, Master of the Revels, and with a sinister smile he assumes blue surgical gloves to start his “operations”. It was Mrs Chrisparkle who pointed out to me that the blue streaks that appear on the characters faces and bodies once they are out in the wilds of fairyland show that they are under his influence – basically, they’ve been Pucked; a round of applause to her for that insight. Jon Nicholls’s effective music is at times eerie, at times sweet and really enhances the sense of otherworldliness.

Amy RobbinsThe opening scene of this play can sometimes be a bit heavy handed with exposition, but here it’s as fresh as a daisy and crystal clear as to what’s going on. The characterisation is so instantly appealing that you can’t wait to see how these four (potential) lovers sort their relationships out. It’s also a delight to meet the rude mechanicals, the parts doubled up by the actors you’ve already met in the previous scene, with a female Quince, a scouse Flute, a falsetto Snout and an earnest and enthusiastic Bottom. A very regal Titania, a noble Oberon and real young fairies with genuine fairy-dust complete the cast. There were just two directorial decisions we didn’t quite agree with – Mrs C didn’t really like Bottom’s ass projectiling a dump; mainly because for the rest of the scene the actors ended up kicking it around the stage. And I wasn’t that keen on seeing Bottom’s bottom as he walked up the stairs and offstage – yes it’s a laugh, but quite a cheap one and doesn’t add to your understanding of the character or the play.

Naomi SheldonApart from that, everything works like a midsummer night’s dream. Silas Carson’s Theseus is authoritative but kind, dispensing his ducal wisdom and gently mocking the idiotic rural actors. His Oberon is more generally decent than others I have seen, and when he realises his joke on Titania has gone too far he really seems to have trickster’s remorse. And I loved his beginning of Act Two entrance. Amy Robbins as Hippolyta has a great line in charmingly elegant teasing and her reactions to the ghastly Pyramus and Thisbe really made us laugh. As Titania she is both temptress and harridan. When she was tearing strips off Oberon, I thought, you really wouldn’t want to get into an argument with her; but her erotic appreciation of Bottom’s ass was the most convincing and delightful I’ve seen.

Frances McNameeNaomi Sheldon gives a wonderful comic performance as Hermia, the nice little rich girl who has an eye for a bit of rough. There’s a fantastically funny fight scene where she accidentally gets involved, and her physical comedy that follows is just brilliant. She’s also very funny as Mistress Quince, the long-suffering director; traces of Wigan in her clipped accent I thought, and the very embodiment of Wall (isn’t that usually Snout’s gig?) Frances McNamee’s Helena is part sexy secretary, part oafish desperada throwing herself at the uninterested Demetrius and generally being run ragged round the forest; a terrific performance. Her Snug reminded me of a mid 1980s Victoria Wood creation, all introvert and tea and buns for one, until she lets rip as the lion. Well roared, lion.

Oliver GommOliver Gomm’s Lysander is a brilliant comic creation – shifty, snide, and totally lacking in the good grace that Egeus demands for his daughter. When he falls under Puck’s spell and turns his affections towards Helena, he does it with such sudden comic energy it takes your breath away. His Flute sounds like a rustic Steven Gerrard and does a memorable comic turn as Thisbe, with a ridiculous drawn-out death scene that warrants its own round of applause.Charlie Archer Charlie Archer as Demetrius represents all the dull respectability that Lysander isn’t, smug and toffee-nosed but never a caricature, and also bringing superb physical comedy to the role. Stripped to their Long Johns, Lysander and Demetrius have a brilliant boxing scene, and it’s comedy magic. As the high-pitched Snout, Mr Archer plays a hilariously simple soul who can just about portray moonshine, barely.

The role of Egeus is purely functional and doesn’t have much in it to make an actor shine, but as Bottom, Joe Alessi has enthusiastic attack, great comic timing and makes a superb, rather loveable ass.Joe Alessi And finally Colin Ryan’s Puck is slippery and ethereal, dispensing joy and mystery wherever he goes; he looks perfect for the part and gives an eloquent Irish lilt to Shakespeare’s poetry. What you take home with you after this show is a feeling of satisfaction, of intelligent physical comedy, and above all the memories of a lot of laughs, and you can’t say fairer than that.