Review – A Passage to India, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th January 2018

Passage to IndiaGentle reader, if you know me IRL, as the young people of today like to say, you’ll know that Mrs Chrisparkle and I are both Indophiles. We try to go there every year if possible, and there’s something about the country and its people that is beyond magical. So if there’s anything ever on offer that involves the concept of “India”, it’ll instantly grab my attention.

PTI11Thus I was excited at the prospect of this new adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Passage To India, a book I was required to read at school when I was nothing like mature enough to understand it properly. But I have fond memories of the film, with Peggy Ashcroft struggling in the heat as Mrs Moore becomes oppressed with the caves and the echoes. You don’t need me to tell you that Forster was not only a superb writer but also had an amazing ability to write books that cry out for being made into films. PTI1And indeed plays – this is not the first time the book has been dramatised for the stage, with a play hitting the West End back in 1960 before transferring to Broadway two years later.

But that is a different play from the one currently on offer in Northampton before it embarks on a brief tour. This has been adapted by Simon Dormandy, and, for the most part, I would say it is pretty faithful to the original and, wisely, eschews the trappings of modern stage design by conveying caves, courtrooms and the teeming world of India with thePTI8 help of just a few packing cases and some bamboo rods. You wouldn’t believe how creatively you can present the illusion of an elephant, with ladies riding in the howdah, using just a few boxes, some sticks and a length of material. There’s a lot of psychology and imagination at work in the book, so it’s entirely appropriate for the audience to have to employ their own imagination fully to appreciate the setting for the play.

PTI2It’s 1910, the British Raj is in full control and there are some voices of dissent from the local people. The majority of the Brits in India are a snooty bunch who have no desire to integrate nor any intention of doing so. Furthermore, if they see any crossover between the two sides they do their best to dissuade any form of contact; using soft, persuasive tones on the polite English ladies, and barking cruelty to any native-born Indian who presumes to have Ideas Above His Station. One such man is Dr Aziz, respected in his own community but distrusted by the ruling magistrate, tax collector, chief of police and the like. Only one British man, Cyril Fielding, principal of the Government College to educate Indians, treats Aziz and the other local people with anything approximating common courtesy.

PTI5Mrs Moore and Miss Adela Quested, who’s in line to become engaged to Ronny Heaslop, Mrs Moore’s son, arrive in India with a refreshing curiosity to see the place and not merely to be fobbed off with a life simply confined to the Britishers’ Club. The local beauty spot – and all-round location of intrigue and fascination – the Malabar Caves, is a short distance away and Dr Aziz promises to show the ladies around it, much to the mistrust of the local Raj supremos. The caves are dark and mysterious, and any sound creates an extraordinary echo that disconcerts visitors and plays on their fears and imaginations. Mrs Moore can’t take it, PTI10the place gives her claustrophobia and she makes an early departure. Miss Quested, on the other hand, seems lost inside the caves and when Aziz tries to find her can only spot her abandoned field glasses. When she is eventually found Miss Quested accuses Aziz of attempted rape (only expressed in much more Edwardian language) and the justice system slowly wheels into action. He denies it of course, but only Fielding among the Brits gives his story any credence. What tenuous relationships there are between the two sides break down and life will never be the same again. And did he do it? You’ll have to watch the play to find out.

PTI4The production is at its best when it is working on our imagination; such as meeting the aforementioned elephant, creating the Malabar Caves out of bamboo sticks, suggesting a full and antagonistic courtroom with a few boxes and half a dozen people. Although, to be fair, I thought the depiction of two rowing boats on the water and their collision was less successful – there was simply too much happening on stage at one time to take it all in. Gauzy material strips, dangling down in front of the back wall, part conceal, part reveal the people who walk behind, giving the impression of thronging multitudes in all their colours. PTI6Slightly offstage musicians Kuljit Bhamra and Asha McCarthy deliver trickles of Indian music at moments of suspense and intrigue and it really augments the atmosphere. But the most impactful sound in the play is the ensemble’s often repeated mumble grumble bumble aboom aboom aboom of the echo in caves. It unsettles the audience just in the same way that it would have disconcerted Miss Quested. It’s not – actually – enjoyable to listen to. It’s quite irritating, repetitive, potentially silly and childish; annoying even. Just as it would be to the English ladies. So I guess it’s doing its job properly.

PTI12However, I got thoroughly confused towards the end. One of us lost the plot – was it me, or was it the production? The story has moved to the province of Mau where Aziz has made a new life for himself. He is (largely) reconciled with Fielding; but then it all seems to go off-piste. What was all that bouncing around between the two men, being trapped by a ribbon at the side of the stage then flung out into the centre again by two teams of villagers? It was like a rogue episode of Jeux Sans Frontières had rocked up in Kashmir. I half expected Eddie Waring to introduce the Fil Rouge. It felt like the ending of the story had become unnecessarily complex and that consequently it was failing to portray it clearly. The curtain suddenly falls on darkness and silence and everyone in the audience wonders – is that it? I suppose if the creative team are taking the earlier emotions of disconcertion and carrying them on to the bitter end, then it was successful; otherwise, I have to confess, it didn’t do it for me.

PTI7At the heart of the play is a very engaging performance by Asif Khan as Aziz. A beautifully enthusiastic delivery, revelling in the linguistic details of all his lines, superbly portraying that essentially Indian characteristic where you want to pull out all the stops to impress your guests. Once the shine has gone off the relationship, he also conveys that bitterness of disappointment and a refusal to pander to others’ whims. I also loved the natural dignity that accompanied every aspect of the personality he was playing. A really excellent performance.

PTI3He is matched by a cracking performance by Richard Goulding as Fielding, exuding generosity and decency, and tangibly hurt when it isn’t reciprocated. Liz Crowther is also splendid as Mrs Moore, a character who is so much more than just an archetypal little old lady. I enjoyed Nigel Hastings’ performance as Turton the Collector, ostensibly amiable and reasonable but powerfully showing his vicious and vindictive nature. Edward Killingback also gives a strong portrayal of how a baby face can conceal a really nasty personality! But everyone gives a good performance and there are no weak links in the cast at all. Inventive, creative and thoroughly enjoyable, my only concern with the production is in how it seems to lose its way in the final furlong. After its brief run in Northampton it travels on to Salisbury, Bristol, Liverpool, Bromley and finally with five weeks at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park.

Review – Henceforward…, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 7th February 2017

HenceforwardAt the ripe old age of 77, you could describe Sir Alan Ayckbourn as a veritable playwriting machine with 78 full length plays to his name and more awards than you can shake a stick at. I always think of him as pretty much unassailable when it comes to creating a well-made play that pleases its audience by bringing comedy and tragedy within spitting distance of each other and then seeing who comes out on top. Even in the early years, where his comedies seem much more classically “drawing-room” or “polite sex farce”, there was always that hint of menace lurking somewhere beneath the sheets.

jerome-and-nanA few of his plays have been referred to as his “science fiction” comedies. The excellent Communicating Doors involves time travel between twenty years ago and twenty years in the future. The hilarious Comic Potential is set in a time where androids perform in soap operas. For me his worst play (that I’ve seen anyway – controversial!) Improbable Fiction deteriorates from the relative sanity of a writers’ group to a fantasy imagination trip where the fictions of the first act become the facts of the second.

zoe-and-nanBut the first of these experimental plays was Henceforward…, which was first performed in Scarborough (naturally) in 1987 and moved to the West End in 1988. Set some time in the near future, composer Jerome lives in a rough neighbourhood of London where violent vigilantes the Daughters of Darkness (I wonder if Tom Jones demands royalties?) have replaced the police as the only law enforcement agency. Neurotic wannabe actress Zoe has been hired by Jerome from an escort agency for purposes that are unclear at first. Jerome has had “composer’s block” ever since his estranged wife Corinna took his beloved daughter Geain away (that’s Jane, but with added pretentiousness) four years earlier. If only he could convince the authorities that he and his home are suitable for looking after a child, his worries would go away and he would become artistically fecund again. In the meantime, all he has for companionship is NAN 300F – a robot nanny, obsessed with washing people’s faces and bringing them milky drinks because she is automatically programmed to recognise everyone as a child. Jerome hatches a devious plan that uses all his available resources to convince the authorities and Corinna that he can take responsibility for Geain again. What is that plan, and does it work? You’ll have to watch it to find out.

zoe-and-jeromeIf you put aside the science fiction element, you’re left with a fairly standard tale of a sad lonely man advertising for female companionship, which moves on to a Pygmalion-style farce of trying to impress the family with a beautiful girl who has no social ability unless it’s learned by rote. The science fiction element, however, gives it a fascinating window-dressing, which, with the benefit of hindsight, Ayckbourn got pretty spot-on. Giving NAN verbal instructions back in 1987 on how to do the housework could be replaced today by people asking Alexa to tell them jokes or put a record on. Unsurprisingly, when Jerome is confronted with choosing between real life or a robot, it’s not an easy decision for him to make. The Hi-tech composing board, camera security system, portable phones and oven facilities were all basically available back then (although, no doubt, cutting edge) but today are commonplace. The suggestion that a character is developing into a transgender identity must have been fairly surprising in 1987, whereas today it’s a phenomenon that most people accept without question. Plus ça change, etc.

zoeWhat I feel the play lacks – a little – is that great Ayckbournian crunch between the comic and the tragic. In this play, the tragic elements are kept at arms’ length off-stage: the dystopian society; Jerome’s mate Lupus, constantly ringing in seeking support from his old friend which is never given; the physical assault Zoe receives on the way to the flat. We the audience don’t really come into contact with these elements. What we see instead is either hilarious, or neutral; and I felt the first act in particular was too long with its scene-setting and the general disengagement of the character of Jerome. There’s no question that you can set all that to one side once the second act has begun, but it does take some patience and indulgence towards the author to get that far.

zoe-and-jeromeHowever, the play does benefit from an excellent cast. I thought Laura Matthews as Zoe was absolutely first rate all the way through. A really bright presence on stage, conveying all that nervousness of the young actress in a strange man’s house, needing a job but with no knowledge of what it would entail; crying, then laughing, then crying again within a split second or two. Her second half performance requires a completely different skillset and she performs it admirably! Bill Champion is required to be downbeat as Jerome throughout much of the first act but he comes back to life vigorously in Act Two and his alternating portrayal of self-satisfaction and frustrated disappointment is very enjoyable to watch.

corinna-jerome-and-zoeJacqueline King is brilliant as the no-nonsense, no-warmth Corinna, dominating much of the action in the second half whilst seeking to catch Jerome out any way she can; very ominously coming out of character occasionally in the first act, to add that vital ingredient of menace. Nigel Hastings makes an excellent job of presenting us with the pettiness and vanity of the pernickety safeguarding supremo Mervyn; and Jessie Hart gives us a brief but extremely effective portrayal of Geain, proving beyond any doubt how a child can change in four years.

zoe-and-geainThis production, directed by Ayckbourn himself, started at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, and still has Windsor and Cambridge to visit. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and the science fiction/robotics angle can act as a barrier to understanding the humanity lurking beneath. But it is there, the second act shenanigans are extremely funny, and at the end it’s satisfying to see everything fitting into place. Is it an optimistic ending? No, it’s as bleak as hell. But it’s right.