Review – Gaslight, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 21st October 2015

GaslightHot on the heels of the superb Brave New World comes another well-known British work of the 1930s which has completely passed me by. I’d never seen the play of Gaslight, nor any of the film adaptations; my parents used fondly to recall Fanny by Gaslight but that’s another thing entirely. Patrick Hamilton, the author, was also responsible for the play Rope, famously adapted for the memorable Hitchcock film. Although written in 1938, Gaslight is set in 1880, and so I was expecting a spooky Victorian psychological thriller with a touch of melodrama thrown in – and to a large extent, that’s precisely what the production delivers.

Tara FitzgeraldJack and Bella Manningham lead a rather gloomy and austere life in a gloomy and austere house in London. She is obviously a nervous wreck, desperate to please her husband and play the role of the good Victorian wife; he is a controlling, ruthless, unkind Victorian husband, languishing at home by day and absent who knows where in the evening. And the key to the success of this play is not knowing anything more about it in advance, so that’s all the plot summary you’re getting.

There’s a huge amount to admire and enjoy in this production. William Dudley’s set is amazing, offering so many opportunities to accentuate Bella’s paranoia, including opaque walls that let you see what’s happening in the next room, and a very surprising extension that takes your breath away. At portentous moments, mysterious music will just gently seep its way into your consciousness to add to the general eeriness. This is all strongly juxtaposed with the realism of the costumes and props; I appreciated the scrupulous attention to detail here, I especially liked the Victorian bone china tea set, and the very clear sound effects from the street outside – you could almost smell the horses.

Jonathan FirthHowever – and for me it’s quite a big however – I found this an extremely curious play. In fact, it’s almost two plays dovetailed in together. There’s the classic dark thriller, where a husband mistreats his wife with psychological game-playing; and there’s an almost farcical comedy struggling to get out, based on the character of the police inspector Rough, a self-confessed dandy whom you suspect could just as easily turn into Clouseau as Holmes. Thanks to good old Youtube, I’ve had a quick flick through the film and see that the characterisation of Rough there is also somewhat larger than life. In this production he is played by Paul Hunter, an actor and director of immense talent and experience, so I am completely certain that this isn’t a case of miscasting or accidentally getting it wrong.

Paul HunterBut whereas the contrast of fantasy and realism works very well with the set and effects, I found the difference of characterisation of the inspector sat ill-at-ease with everything and everyone else. I just didn’t find him remotely believable. I didn’t get a sense that he was in the same period as the other characters – he felt too modern, too unconventional. Mrs Chrisparkle and I both agreed that the scenes between Jack and Bella were superb; a really fantastic study of the chilling domination of one person over another. We also loved the interaction between both characters and their servants, and the unexpected way in which the servants’ relevance in the story develops. But as for the inspector? We just didn’t get it, I’m afraid. In the interval, we both thought it was going the way of An Inspector Calls – apparently J B Priestley was a great admirer of Patrick Hamilton’s work – and Gaslight predates Inspector by seven years, so it would be Hamilton influencing Priestley and not the other way round. But no – whilst there may be all sorts of psychological games going on, Inspector Rough is indeed proper flesh and blood. Yes, at times he makes you laugh, and you might well feel that a laugh nicely breaks up the heavy atmosphere; but all I can say is that the characterisation wasn’t to my taste, and that’s not Mr Hunter’s fault – it’s a disconnect between me and the play.

Alexandra GuelffTara Fitzgerald is simply brilliant as Bella, conveying immaculately her mental fragility, her desire to be loved, her awkwardness with the servants, and her fighting spirit too. There’s an extremely moving moment when she discovers a hidden letter, which really moved me to tears. I enjoyed how she portrayed the character opening up to the police inspector as if he were a kind of therapist – it’s an all-round amazing performance. Jonathan Firth is also superb as the calculating and cruel Jack, really using the pace and control of his voice both to dominate and to lull Bella into a false sense of security. It’s a beautifully understated characterisation of evil – it wouldn’t surprise me if he committed any appalling act he wanted.

Veronica RobertsAlexandra Guelff takes on the role of Nancy the maid with great gusto, subtly sneering at her mistress and becoming more challenging – and forward – as the character grows in confidence. Veronica Roberts gives great support as Elizabeth, particularly in the delightfully suspenseful scene where Jack goes in and out of his dressing room. And Paul Hunter is very funny and very charismatic as Rough, a character that I just feel deserves to be in a different play.

The suspense lasts right until the very end and it’s an extremely rewarding, as well as thoroughly moral, climax. It was a pleasure to see the Royal so full for a Wednesday evening, and I’m sure this is going to do great business. I just think it’s a very strange play!

Review – Every Last Trick, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 25th April 2014

Every Last TrickAmong the great names of theatrical comedy, Georges Feydeau is still worthy of a very high place. During a phenomenally successful career spanning more than thirty years he wrote 38 farces, not only popular in his native France but translated all over the world. They also lend themselves very well to modern adaptation, and I remember hooting with delight at Leonard Rossiter in 1977 when a schoolmate and I went to see “The Frontiers of Farce” at the Old Vic, the first act of which was Feydeau’s “On Purge Bébé”, concerning the plight of a manufacturer of unbreakable chamber pots – which broke; and in 1988 when the newly married Mrs Chrisparkle and I took our parents, again to the Old Vic, to see “A Flea in her Ear”.

The Whole CastMy memory of those shows is that they were standard revivals rather than re-workings. Many of Feydeau’s plays are good enough simply to translate them and get on with it. But that’s not the kind of thing one has come to expect from Spymonkey on their regular visits to the Royal and Derngate. They’re back – well half of them – and working with Told by an Idiot’s co-artistic director Paul Hunter, and two fresh but equally wacky cast members, on a modern re-telling of Feydeau’s Le Système Ribardier, sometimes translated as Every Trick in the Book, but here, in Tamsin Oglesby’s version, as “Every Last Trick”.

Toby Park and Adrien GygaxThe result is a brilliantly hilarious evening at the theatre, not quite in the usual Spymonkey tradition of an improvised, entirely original, surreal, abstract hotch-potch; but with a proper script, in a proper recognisable setting, and with proper characters. To give you a clue as to what goes on: Juan is Angela’s second husband, he a roué with a Spanish accent, she paranoid about the infidelity of men – Juan in particular – as her first husband, Jacques, had obviously put it about a bit. Juan is a member of the magic circle and has found a way of carrying on affairs behind Angela’s back – he hypnotises her every time he goes out and has his way with the wine merchant’s wife, then wakes her up on his return. Unless you know the magic words that will make her sleep and wake her up, you’ve got no clue as to how it happens. Hence the trick of the title. Into this deception stumbles Tom, who has carried a candle for Angela for many years, as he has heard that she is no longer married. But he didn’t realise she’d already married Juan, so, deeply disappointed, he prepares to head back to Burma/Borneo on his elephant. But, not so fast, they want him to stay – which he accepts, in the hope himself of a spot of hows-your-father with Angela, and by the time we’ve got to that stage of the plot, the only way out is completely nonsensical – not that there’d been much sense this far.

Aitor BasauriYou can’t understate the brilliance and comic inspiration of the team when it comes to creating ludicrously funny situations and following them through to their illogical conclusions. Whether they do it to music, or by involving the audience, or using ham magic, the lengths to which they will go knows no bounds. At least in this show they do manage to keep their kit on, which is not something you can always guarantee. It’s virtually impossible – and not very helpful – for me to attempt to explain some of the things they do; it’s much better if you go and see it for yourself and allow yourself to be stunned and marvelled at their ridiculous exploits.

Adrien GygaxI can tell you though that the cast of four are just superb throughout. Spymonkey boss Toby Park is Tom, arriving in England in his jungle outfit, hot off the elephant, the very embodiment of stiff upper lippishness, which means he can be both noble and a prat at the same time. Sophie Russell is wonderful as the paranoid and magically narcoleptic Angela; she’s also delightfully frightfully English, juxtaposing nicely with her tap dancing eccentricities and surprising tendency to bully the menfolk. Spymonkey’s Aitor Basauri is just sensational in his clowning, which can be deft and subtle, or outrageously overblown. He has the ability to render the audience helpless with laughter with just one twitch of an eyebrow, and he sets up such a brilliant rapport with us that you sense you know precisely what he’s thinking all the way through. I think he may have become my favourite comedy actor after this performance. The final member of the quartet is Adrien Gygax, who also gives a splendidly funny physical comedy performance as the dipsomaniac servant Gus. They all work together so well though, that the whole show is a complete team effort.

Toby ParkSpymonkey just get better and better each time you see them. Whether it’s the collaboration with Paul Hunter or the fact they’ve got a more tangible script to deal with, I don’t know; but I think this particular show has absolutely brought the best out of them all. They’re having so much fun out there themselves, that it really spreads to us in the audience. There were a large number of corpsing moments last Friday night – which in a production like this just adds to the general hilarity – and you’ve got absolutely no idea whether they’re intentional or not. That’s the magic of live theatre – no two performances are ever identical – and I would imagine that rule applies to this show more than most. It’s on at the Royal until 10th May – and if you like an evening of blissfully stupid comedy, you can’t go anywhere better.

Sophie RussellP.S. The programme alerts us to the fact that Spymonkey regular Stephan Kreiss is currently under the watch of heart surgeons, which Mrs C and I were very sorry to read. However, I have it on good authority that he is well on the mend and will be back with more lunacy soon. We wish him all the very best for a speedy recovery!