Review – The Lyons, Menier Chocolate Factory, 27th October 2013

The LyonsHaving just seen a hard-hitting black comedy with a dysfunctional family and a cruel mother (Leicester Curve’s production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane), the next day we went to the Menier Chocolate Factory, where we witnessed a hard-hitting black comedy, with a dysfunctional family and a cruel mother. Is there something in the water that’s causing this? “The Lyons” is a 2011 Broadway hit by Nicky Silver, being seen for the first time in the UK in this production. It’s sharp, snappy, very funny, somewhat anarchic and probably not to be recommended if you’ve had a recent bereavement.

Isla BlairHospital style drapes form the traditional theatre curtain and get swished away with unsentimental briskness to reveal Ben on a drip in a hospital bed, with his wife Rita reading a magazine, and a nurse doing the usual checks. But you quickly realise this is no normal hospital visit. Not only is the patient terminally ill with cancer – very terminally, as it turns out – but his beloved visitor can’t stand the sight of him. Gaining inspiration from a glossy magazine, she is planning a makeover on the living room so that all traces of him will be eradicated from her home once he’s shuffled off this mortal coil; a pure charmer, if there ever was one. Add to this mix their two children, both saddled with a lot of baggage; an alcoholic daughter who picks unsuitable guys, and a gay son fantasist. There’s sibling rivalry; there’s also sibling secrecy, and by entrusting secrets to each other, both children have unwittingly given the other a huge amount of ammunition to be kept in reserve for the time they can both do most damage. That’s enough plot revelation; suffice to say, this is not a family you would want to live next door to. As it progresses you realise that this is actually a very nasty play, full of nasty people; but you kind of don’t want it to stop either.

Nicholas DayIt is a beautifully written, cunningly structured play; if you were to take away the bad language, some of the subject matter and the violence, you would be left with pure Ayckbourn. Nicky Silver has written a play that makes you laugh, and then instantly regret the fact that you found such a dreadful situation funny. Despite the fact that the action takes place over approximately one week and there are only two different locations, you get the feeling that this play has a very wide range; the unseen characters only mentioned in the text all have their own identities too and they all take on quite vivid personalities in your imagination. There are a number of neat twists in the story which keep you topped up with surprises right through to the end, and it’s all told in a concise and punchy one hour and fifty minutes, which even includes a (somewhat brief on the Sunday matinee) interval.

Charlotte RandleThe cast of six give great performances, full of electricity that sparks off each other and keeps the momentum cracking. At the centre is the ghastly Rita, played with huge relish by Isla Blair. Savage, self-centred, mean and cruel, nevertheless she successfully keeps up a dignified persona so you could easily assume she was as nice as pie. She delivers Rita’s spiteful lines with such comic brilliance that you sometimes have to look away to cringe. Nicholas Day (whom we last enjoyed as the Headmaster in The History Boys in Sheffield) is the exasperated Ben, finally telling his wife and family what he thinks of them and fondly reminiscing about his father. For every vicious volley that Miss Blair thwacks at him, Mr Day ricochets it back with suitable venom. They make a lovely couple.

Tom EllisCharlotte Randle is excellent as the daughter Lisa, all smiles and sympathy one minute, all self and self-destruct the next. Her performance is a cunning blend of being sweetly assertive and outrageously manic. I really liked Tom Ellis as Curtis, with his hilarious but sad secret; the plot unexpectedly concentrates more on him in the second act, and he is very convincing as both fantasist and impatient patient. Ben Aldridge appears in just one scene but very nicely conveys the surprisingly complex character of the Estate Agent; and Katy Secombe’s nurse is a delight, dispensing friendliness to those she considers deserve it, and aggression to everyone else; or should that be the other way round. Even her use of the anti-bacterial gel oozes contempt.

Ben AldridgeThis savage play is not for the delicate; nor, as I said earlier, if you’ve been recently bereaved because I think the blackness of the humour would cross over into being positively upsetting. But it’s a great look at a woefully unpleasant family, using terminal illness as a turning point in their relationships. Crisply directed by Mark Brokaw, it’s another winner for the Menier.

Katy SecombePS. Do you ever wonder how much the cast observe the audience during a play? In a big theatre, when the house lights are down, I expect they don’t see much. I’ve no idea – I’ve never been in that situation. But in a small place like the Menier, where you can basically stretch out from the front row and touch the stage, it might be different. There was one point in the second act when Isla Blair was completing a speech which meant she turned from the character she was talking to and looked towards the audience. She then looked down, and glanced up at us again in a double-take. Both Mrs C and I noticed it. Then of course she carried on as if nothing had happened. What on earth was she looking at, we both wondered. Then the penny dropped. Mrs C was wearing the most sensational pair of colourful Doc Martens. That might not be how you imagine her (she’s not a bovver girl), but suffice it to say these boots are florid purple and with a soft fabric like a 70s Indian Restaurant wallpaper. I can only think that Miss Blair caught sight of them and her brain said “What the hell are those? Check them out again!” And, you know, Miss Blair gave us both a devilish twinkle in her eye during curtain call.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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