Review – Fallen Angels, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th February 2014

Fallen AngelsWay back in the spring of 1980, dazzled with success at having directed a superb student production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome (a new translation no less) my friend Sue wanted to direct a summer production of Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels. I’d really enjoyed doing the Stage Management on Salome and I’d have been happy to have continued to refine that skill on Fallen Angels; but instead Sue insisted that she wanted me to play Willy. Gentle reader, I am no actor. We had some rehearsals and we struggled along, but in the end it all came to nothing. To this day I maintain that we could have been awesome except that we had the funding withdrawn; but really it was because we were useless.

Jenny SeagroveAnyway, as a result, I’d always been keen to see a proper production of Fallen Angels, but they don’t seem to come round very often. The last Coward revival we saw, Volcano, was a terrible disappointment. However, out of the ashes of that lamentable lava, a couple of years on, here’s a revival of Fallen Angels directed by Roy Marsden (who directed Volcano), starring Jenny Seagrove (who starred in Volcano) and featuring Robin Sebastian (who featured in Volcano). I guess they must all be friends. I was concerned when I realised the extent of the extinct Volcano in this production, but I needn’t have worried. Whereas we thought Volcano was pretty awful, Fallen Angels is absolutely magic.

Sara CroweIt’s a simple tale of two friends who have both been married for some time to their respective and respectable boring husbands, who love them for sure but the spark has definitely gone out of the relationships over the years. The prospect of renewed excitement comes when they hear from the mysterious Maurice, with whom both ladies were amorously occupied in the earlier flushes of their youth. Overcome with passion they fantasise about him; then they decide they can’t possibly meet him as it would jeopardise their marriages; then they decide they don’t really care about their marriages much anyway; and then they end up waiting for his arrival so long that they get dead drunk. Finally Maurice arrives (bad timing) when the husbands are back from the golf trip – so how are the wives going to extricate themselves from that mess? Considering Coward was still in his early twenties when he wrote this play, it shows very insightful understanding about relationships between partners and friends, both in and out of wedlock. All in all, it’s a delightful piece of writing.

Tim WallersPaul Farnsworth’s design has great feeling for the period with terrific costumes and a refined set, all with an excellent attention to detail. Jenny Seagrove’s Julia is a classy lady with natural quiet authority and 1920s chain-smoking sophistication. She exudes comfort and middle-class boredom with every languorous pose on the chaise-longue, and it’s a delight to watch her attempt to retain dignity as she loses her grip on her friendships and her sobriety. But the absolute highlight of the play is the sensationally funny performance by Sara Crowe as Jane, seething with pent-up frustration, getting bitchier as she gets progressively more inebriated; and you’ve never seen anyone get more of a sexual frisson out of remembering how attractive someone’s teeth were.

Robin SebastianThe second act is an incredible tour de force from both performers, as they grapple with the stresses of awaiting Maurice’s arrival, taking too much Dutch Courage on an empty stomach, indulging in highly competitive one-upwomanship, degenerating into verbal catfights, hurtling over the settee like horses at a gymkhana and engaging in some very silly shenanigans involving a pineapple. With its expertly timed and performed physical comedy it reminded me in part of the second act of Noises Off. It’s a wonderfully memorable and funny scene.

Gillian McCaffertyAdded to all that there are excellent supporting performances by Tim Wallers and Robin Sebastian as the rather pompous and easily fooled Fred and Willy, and Philip Battley as the cosmopolitan but slimy Maurice; you could almost smell the stereotypical garlic. There’s a great scene where Maurice greets Fred by kissing him on both cheeks, and Mr Wallers’ utterly horrified reaction is completely hilarious; a simple comic device, but it works brilliantly. Finally there’s a superb comic performance by Gillian McCafferty as the know-it-all maid Saunders, who can play the piano better than her mistress, understands the intricacies of golf clubs better than her master, knows perfect French, and who’s been there and done that with all sort of subtle superiority over everyone else in her orbit. Coward really knew how to write an off-the-wall maid, and this is one of the best.

Philip BattleyThe whole production is a comic triumph and left the very full audience at the Royal helpless with laughter. It’s touring till the end of March and I can absolutely recommend it not only as a really funny evening out, but also as a splendid example of how what might be regarded as a dated drawing-room comedy can still have relevance and pack a magic punch.

PS From our seats in Row C of the stalls, I’ve never felt such a rush of cold air into the auditorium as when the curtain went up at the beginning of the play. The cast must have been absolutely perishing!

Review – Radio Times, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th September 2012

Radio TimesTo celebrate the 50th anniversary of the corporation, the BBC brought out a double album in 1972 (remember those days of vinyl?) containing two hours of nostalgic clips – mainly radio – from a variety of broadcasts from the 1920s up until the “present day” – which if I recall rightly was Till Death Us Do Part and the Moon landings. I loved that record, and felt from an early age that the Beeb must have played an enormous role during World War Two in boosting morale and keeping spirits high. A major element of this was their cheery comedy and musical wireless shows like ITMA and Bandwagon, and it’s this kind of show that is lovingly resurrected in “Radio Times”. This production, a washed-and-brushed-up version of an original 1990s show, was born last year at the Watermill in Newbury, and is in the early stages of a tour throughout England which I’m sure will keep the home fires burning until Christmas.

Christian EdwardsI was very uncertain about booking for this show, as on paper (or on computer screen) it didn’t appeal to me that much, save for the fact that it stars Gary Wilmot, who is just about the most reliable name you can have on a stage to guarantee a good time. But I did think it would only appeal to old fogies, would shamelessly wallow in nostalgia, and have twee written through it like a stick of rock. Well, I was completely wrong. It’s a superbly entertaining show, with a funny script, great music and some fun performances.

Gary WilmotThe show never lets up in its attention to detail, which is a major source of the fun. Even before you go in, the ushers are dressed as ARP wardens, and guide you to your seat with little torches as in the Olden Days. The set itself absolutely conjures up how you would expect a 1940s radio broadcast from the Criterion Theatre to have looked; the costumes and styles are spot-on; and the use of language and comedic delivery capture perfectly those radio stars of the time. An essential element is that rather strange BBC radio comedy hallmark of a posh-voiced announcer interwoven with all the comic activity – pure Round The Horne – and this show kindles that happy memory delightfully.

Sara CroweThe whole cast are great. A major secret of its success is having the performers play the instruments as well, a Watermill trick that eliminates that sense of a band segregated at the back somewhere. The Grosvenor Girls, who replicate the Andrews Sisters’ sound brilliantly, not only sing and look good but also play brass and strings. When guest hunk Gary Strong offers to chip in to the musical numbers with his ukelele, you soon understand why they all roll their eyes. And Jeeps the sound engineer creates so many different sound effects with a myriad of props, as well as his own voice, that heaven knows how Christian Edwards, who plays him brilliantly, keeps up with everything that’s going on. He must be utterly exhausted by the end of the show.

Vivien CarterGary Wilmot, as Sammy Shaw, the cheeky star of Victory Bandwagon, is precisely as entertaining as you would expect him to be. He has such an easy, relaxed style; his presence is a reassurance; his every gesture, word, song makes you smile. He is the Olympic Gamesmaker of musical theatre; every household needs a Gary Wilmot to make the day pass more smoothly. Sara Crowe is excellent as his long-suffering girlfriend and co-performer Olive, who elicits some of the sadness out of her songs but a lot of the humour too.

John ConroyVivien Carter plays Ann Chapman, the lovely young singer and receiver of the “Dear Girlfriend” letters, and she completely captures the era with an immaculate performance and superb vocals. But arguably the topmost laughs are from John Conroy’s stiff-and-starchy BBC producer Heathcliffe Bultitude whose character, shall we say, endures the biggest journey of the night. It’s a great role and shows off a number of Mr Conroy’s entertaining talents.

Ben Fox There were a couple of minor hitches; a few lines got garbled here and there, and Mrs Chrisparkle felt it was a little overamplified for a theatre as small as the Royal. True, I did occasionally have difficulty deciphering some of Wilf’s lines (the very funny Ben Fox) because his microphone was drowned out by the sound of the musical instruments, especially in the first act. But that’s not what you remember from the evening. You take with you the memory of some wonderfully funny musical numbers – Ali Baba’s Camel, I took my Harp to a Party, for example; you remember how the show created a convincing wartime vibe, and you revel in some first rate performances that made you laugh and smile all the way through. Abi Grant’s book is really funny and well written, and the whole thing is basically a delight. Don’t think that this show is just for Oldies – it’s irresistible entertainment for everyone and I’d definitely recommend it.