Review – The Herbal Bed, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th February 2016

The Herbal BedIf you’ve ever got a spare weekend, gentle reader, you could do no better than to book into a nice hotel in Stratford on Avon, and visit all five of the Shakespeare Properties. My recommendation would be to start off at Shakespeare’s Birthplace, then take in Hall’s Croft and New Place (although that’s currently closed for renovation) – and maybe with a side visit to the Holy Trinity Church. Then after spending Saturday night feeding your face silly and getting rat-arsed, continue the culture pilgrimage on the Sunday with a morning visit to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and then, after a light lunch, drive out to Mary Arden’s House before heading home. We’ve done it a couple of times and it’s enormous fun.

Jonathan Guy Lewis and Emma LowndesWhilst at Hall’s Croft you can see an exhibition of 17th century medicine and of course Dr Hall’s physic garden where he grew the herbs that were used to create his magic health cures. John Hall was a most respected physician and he married Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna in 1607. Peter Whelan’s The Herbal Bed takes the true story of how their marriage was threatened by an accusation of adultery, made by a local ne’er-do-well John Lane against Susanna, accusing her of infidelity with the family friend Rafe Smith. The accusation knocks John Hall for six, and although Whelan allows us to see what he imagines did go on between Susanna and Smith, I’m not sure if you’d call it adultery. As history relates, the Halls refute the allegation and take Lane to the Ecclesiastical Court, where the case will be heard by the Bishop’s interrogator, Barnabus Goche. And I shan’t tell you what happens next – even though it is a matter of history and not Mr Whelan’s invention. Suffice to say, Susanna’s made her herbal bed – so she has to lie in it.

Philip CorreiaIt’s a fascinating, beautifully written play, with real, believable characters created out of what might otherwise just remain faceless names in a courtroom record book. It examines reputation, motives and loyalty, questions the nature and definition of infidelity, and above all shows what happens when you defy a greater authority than yourself – be it the local doctor, or the Ecclesiastical Court. It’s a little like You Can’t Fight City Hall – 1610s style. It looks at expectations of social behaviour within class, religious and professional codes; and there is a wonderful moment towards the end of the play when the value of telling the truth – or not – is explored.

Matt WhitchurchThis play has been produced by the Royal and Derngate as part of its Made in Northampton season, and co-produced with the Rose Theatre Kingston and English Touring Theatre. Director James Dacre has assembled a committed and exciting cast to create a really first class production that had Mrs Chrisparkle and me gripped all the way through. Jonathan Fensom’s simple but evocative set brings Hall’s Croft to life, and it’s amazing how the sudden appearance of one window can create the illusion of a cathedral. Valgeir Sigurðsson’s haunting music makes subtle appearances to increase the sense of danger and suspense. And there are a couple of other people that definitely merit a credit. It’s not often that I would pick out the role of “fight director” for special mention, but Terry King did something incredibly right in this production as the fight/scuffle scene, albeit brief, was the most believable and immaculately performed I have seen in a very long time. Similarly, Charmian Hoare did a great job as dialect coach as the accents were (IMHO) totally spot on and maintained perfectly throughout the whole evening.

Philip Correia, Emma Lowndes and Jonathan Guy LewisAt the heart of the production is a stunning central performance by Jonathan Guy Lewis as Hall. Authoritative but kindly, it’s a sterling portrayal of an honourable man whose decent life is within inches of collapsing, and the most he can do is to face the challenges head on, as best he can. With something of the Trevor Eve about him, he gives it great intensity with a sense of fairness – a very fine performance. Emma Lowndes is also excellent as Susanna, prim and mannerly in public, matter-of-fact and business-like with her husband, an excited little girl with special guests. You can see her eyes darting all about her head as she thinks on her feet how to extricate herself from her mess, and it’s glorious to watch her retain respectability by the skin of her teeth.

Charlotte Wakefield and Matt WhitchurchMatt Whitchurch makes a splendid young roué out of the role of Jack Lane; just one of the lads in many ways, but seeking revenge when puritanical motives turn against him. Philip Correia, who really enjoyed in The Pitmen Painters a few years ago, gives a good account of the character of Rafe Smith; seemingly puritanical yet not denying his younger, more laddish past; ashamed of his personal fallibility where it comes to earthly matters, but powerless to turn away from temptation. Charlotte Wakefield, brilliant as Laurey in last year’s Oklahoma!, brings depth and insight to the character of Hester the maid, whose evidence will be so vital during the trial. Patrick Driver is the Bishop who’s as honest and as decent a man that you could expect to find in the role.

Patrick Driver and Emma LowndesBut if I gave a Chrisparkle Award for Best Supporting Actor (and I don’t) it would very likely go to Michael Mears for his ruthlessly pious portrayal of Barnabus Goche, itching to ask difficult questions, prurient antennae attuned to discovering dirt, sniffing out scandal where it isn’t, and verging on violence with his interrogational tactics. He gave a stand-out performance in A Tale of Two Cities a couple of years ago; he’s an amazingly talented and watchable character actor. In common parlance, in the penultimate scene in the cathedral, he smashed it.

Charlotte Wakefield and Michael MearsA very exciting and engrossing play that held our grip throughout. Beautifully produced and performed, it will continue to delight audiences for the next few months as it tours Cambridge, Liverpool, Exeter, Brighton, Salford, Bath, Oxford and Kingston. Highly recommended!

Review – The Pitmen Painters, Leicester Curve, 15th June 2013

The Pitmen PaintersThis National Theatre production has been around and about for five years now, including a spell in the West End, so it was high time we saw it. The story of the Pitmen Painters was new to me. The play by Lee Hall is based on William Feaver’s book about a group of miners in the 1930s from Ashington in Northumberland, who decided to start an art appreciation group and from that discovered an extraordinary ability to paint.

Nicholas LumleyLike Lee Hall’s rather better known work, Billy Elliot, the play is set in the world of working-class, ill-educated people who struggle to accept the presence of creativity and artistry where traditionally there has only been hard graft. But whereas Billy Elliot has self belief and his problem was with his traditional, unimpressed father and brother, the only people that the Pitmen Painters have to convince is themselves. Embarrassed at their own ability, when the local wealthy P&O heiress takes a shine to their work they have no idea how to behave; and the play grapples with fascinating subjects like patronage versus independence, loyalty within a group, and the place of art in the fight for improved conditions for the working man. It also takes a good humorous look at the nature of groups and societies, how they develop, their rules, and how they react to outsiders; and at the nature of art itself – what does it mean, and how do you appreciate it.

Philip CorreiaIt’s no serious treatise however. It’s extremely funny, with the humorous, class-based contrast between the well-educated, posher art crowd and the Geordie bluntness of the miners; and also the relationships between the group members themselves, each one of whom is convinced they know the best way forward. Lee Hall’s script is beautifully written, and is full of good lines that not only give the audience a good belly-laugh but also reveal the truth about the fascinating individual characters that make up the artists’ group.

Donald McBrideGary McCann’s set is unglamorously dark and foreboding, and there are just a few ramshackle old school chairs to suggest all the different locations of the story. To understand what the characters are discussing when they examine works of art, there are three projection screens at the back of the stage, which show the close up picture details. Even though it sounds a bit stagy and artificial, this device works extremely well and you quickly forget its essential lack of reality. The screens also explain the place and time for each scene, which is useful for a play with a number of short scenes that gradually spans 13 years.

Joe CaffreyThe whole cast give a great ensemble performance and do justice to the memory of the real people they are portraying, with an entertaining blend of older and younger too. Nicholas Lumley is superb as George Brown, the authoritarian retired miner who runs the local Workers Educational Association and is never without his rulebook to hand. Short-tempered, world weary, pernickety, but essentially good-hearted, it’s a really well-rounded performance and totally believable. He has great comic timing too.

Riley JonesThe young, idealistic element of the group is best seen in the character of Oliver Kilbourn, played with absolute conviction by Philip Correia. Kilbourn was one of the more gifted artists and Lee Hall depicts him as having a genuine artistic brain; for instance, he is the only one who can appreciate Ben Nicholson’s “circle in a square” creation that has so entranced the heiress Helen Sutherland played by Suzy Cooper. When Mr Correia talks about art appreciation it is like listening to a young child learning how to make sense of something new, and he brings a freshness and excitement with his growing understanding. Helen offers to pay Kilbourn to stop working at the pit and just paint, which causes him considerable anguish and pressure to make the right decision. His subsequent showdown with Helen is dramatic and vivid, and his anguish is palpable and painful; as is the atmosphere between them afterwards. The two actors work together really well here.

Suzy CooperDonald McBride plays Jimmy Floyd as a humorously intellectual lightweight who apparently only lives to work robotically down the pit and to provide as good a home for the wife as he can; unless his working class tenets are threatened, and then he turns surprisingly confrontational; another very good performance. Joe Caffrey is excellent as the ruddy-faced Marxist Harry Wilson, always on the lookout to improve the lot of the working man and to spout Communist bon mots, but who clearly believes in a Utopia that will be everyone’s saving grace, is genuinely furious at inequality and becomes moved to tears by the Miner’s Hymn. Riley Jones is also very effective as the “young lad”, the nameless character who appears to be George’s nephew, ungainly, socially awkward, out of work but nevertheless with an ability to get to the heart of an argument when needed. He also turns in an excellent silly-arse-accented Ben Nicholson, in a very significant conversation with Kilbourn that alters his opinion about Helen and changes his life forever.

Louis HilyerThe catalyst for the development of the miners’ artistry is the character of Robert Lyon, the lecturer engaged to take the Art Appreciation Course and who suggested they have a go at painting, as his approach and their approach to art appreciation didn’t have any common ground. Louis Hilyer takes to this role with huge enthusiasm, his Home Counties gentility creating a hilarious first scene as he tries to understand the locals. Did he unfairly profit from his association with the group by exploitation? That’s another question the play poses and that you must decide. There’s a superb scene between him and Mr Correia when Lyon invites the now more mature Kilbourn to criticise the sketch he has created of him; talk about the boot being on the other foot. And there’s very good support from Catherine Dryden as Susan, Lyon’s pupil who wants to earn a little extra cash from posing nude, much to the hilarious alarm of the highly traditional miners.

Catherine DrydenI confess I wasn’t – and still am not quite – sure about the final scene, where discussion about Kilbourn’s idealistic banner for the Labour Party results in the rendition by the entire cast of Gresford, the Miner’s Hymn, which certainly some members of the audience also knew as they were singing along in the stalls; not entirely appropriately, I felt. The scene trod a fine line between genuine sentiment and mawkishness, but I think the majority of the audience appreciated it. What I am sure is that it is a very thought-provoking and entertaining play with a terrific cast and I am not remotely surprised at its continued success. Touring until August, and definitely worth catching if you can.