Review – Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, Chichester Festival Theatre, 29th October 2016

Love's Labour's Lost & Much Ado About NothingRestricting ourselves to just two Shakespeare comedies on the same day seems like a mere bagatelle in comparison with the Young Chekhov trilogy we saw in Chichester this time last year. An interesting contrast in fact; because everyone thinks of Chekhov as being dark and dismal, whereas Platonov, in particular, was a complete riot; and everyone thinks of Shakespeare comedies as being heaps of lightweight fun resulting in multiple weddings, whereas these two plays have more than their fair share of sinister undercurrents and both leave you at the end with a certain degree of discomfort that unsettles your laughter.

rebecca-collingwood-as-hero-in-much-ado-about-nothing-at-chichester-festival-theatre-c-manuel-harlan-137I mustn’t walk before I run. Our Chichester weekends are always a celebration of love, life and having a good time. Thus, we were joined not only by Lady Duncansby and her butler Sir William, but also Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters. The six of us ate and drank our way through lunch at the Minerva Brasserie (I can’t tell you how recommended that experience is), late night dinner at Cote (always a pleasure) followed by the gorgeous gluten-free fry-up breakfast at Spires on Sunday morning. All this and we even got to see a couple of plays too – Love’s Labour’s Lost in the afternoon and Much Ado in the evening – sounds like the story of my life. They’d been playing in repertory for the previous four weeks; in fact, we saw the final performances of both plays in Chichester; but worry ye not, they will be returning, no doubt revitalised, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in time for Christmas.

lisa-dillon-leah-whitaker-paige-carter-rebecca-collingwood-loves-labours-lost-cft-c-manuel-harlan-40We’d seen the Oxford Shakespeare Company’s Love’s Labour’s Lost earlier in the year. I’m very fond of this play, and for some reason, feel very well acquainted with it. By contrast, I’m not at all familiar with Much Ado About Nothing; I’ve only seen it performed on stage once before, a semi-professional production at the Pendley Festival in Tring in 1995. We did, however, catch the delightful film version three years ago. The film probably isn’t much help in preparing you for this production by Christopher Luscombe, as it’s already a very modern take on the original. Mr Luscombe’s double-header of Shakespeare was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2014 and I’m not surprised it’s come back with a vengeance because it’s an absolutely first rate production.

the-company-in-much-ado-about-nothing-at-chichester-festival-theatre-photo-manuel-harlan-240We’re no longer in the sixteenth century, for Mr Luscombe has transplanted these plays to the twentieth, with Love’s Labour’s Lost set in the summer of 1914 and Much Ado at Christmas 1918, like two bookends either side of the First World War. Simon Higlett’s fantastic set serves both plays, appearing more like an Oxbridge college in LLL and a gentleman’s club in Much Ado. The flexible set glides in and out over the stage, sometimes lingering on the end of a scene as it slowly retreats into the back darkness, giving additional emphasis to whatever final image was presented. Nigel Hess’ incidental music, played with West End show stopping aplomb by Bob Broad’s excellent band, comes across a little incongruous at first, but gradually provides a Hollywood movie-type accompaniment to every dramatic development. It works really well, although it’s not really 1910s in feel, more 30s-40s. There are also a few songs scattered throughout the plays – they don’t quite make them into musicals as such, but again they help to provide a vintage, retro feel to the whole thing.

peter-mcgovern-nick-haverson-roderick-smith-in-much-ado-about-nothing-at-cft-c-manuel-harlan-124The two plays have been associated together for this production because there is reason to suggest that Much Ado is, in fact, the missing Shakespearian play Love’s Labour’s Won. Personally, I haven’t delved into the analysis of how likely this is, but I do appreciate that the two plays make an excellent pairing. In LLL a very funny story of love developing between four young and rather charming people comes to a sudden and sad end when the news of her father’s death forces the Princess to retreat into mourning, thus requiring her followers to do the same – sorry if I spoiled it for you there. If after a twelvemonth of hermit-like abstinence, the King still feels the same way about the Princess then he is invited to renew his wooing (and his followers can do the same.)edward-bennett-benedick-in-much-ado-about-nothing-at-chichester-festival-theatre-photo-manuel-harlan-75 However, in a throat-chokingly moving final scene, we all realise that the likelihood of that renewal of affection in a year’s time is comparatively unlikely. In Much Ado, the fortunes are reversed; an honourable but gullible soldier is tricked into believing that his beloved is inconstant with her affections – indeed, it’s alleged she’s having it away with all and sundry. But the plot against him is discovered, the lovers are reunited (there’s an awful lot of forgiveness that has to take place) and together with the infamously bickering Beatrice and Benedick, all four get married and live happy ever after Or so we presume.

edward-bennett-tunji-kasim-sam-alexander-in-loves-labours-lost-at-cft-photo-manuel-harlan-Both productions make the most of the comic opportunities that arise from both the text and Mr Luscombe’s vision of what’s really going on. For example, Much Ado features the extraordinarily funny scene where Benedick is hiding in order to listen in to Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio’s conversation about how Beatrice adores him. On the one hand, you have the challenges facing the three conspirators of how best to spin their yarn so that Benedick is hoodwinked, whilst trying to come up with these ideas off the top of their heads. On the other, you have Benedick, allegedly hidden, popping up at odd angles within the ostentatious Christmas tree that has been standing with enormous pride in the corner of the stage, enduring every humiliation under the sun that could be associated with Yuletide Alpine foliaged concealment. It’s a combination of brilliant comic timing and slapstick and works a treat.

steven-pacey-nick-haverson-chris-mccalphy-peter-mcgovern-john-arthur-in-lll-at-cft-c-manuel-harlan115There are also some moments when your laughter catches in your breath as you realise the stark awfulness of someone’s suffering. Normally I would dread the performance of a character such as Dogberry, the hapless constable who’s always just a slapstick figure of fun. It’s the kind of thing you’d think had them rolling in the aisles in the 1590s but today seems immensely tedious. This is precisely what you expect to see in this production too, with Dogberry’s malapropisms and nervous tics; an almost cartoon version of reality. The prison scene, where Dogberry gets the criminals in front of the Sexton to finally hear their case, starts off as classic slapstick comedy but develops into something that really digs deep into the heart of Dogberry. It’s a stunning coup de theatre that genuinely arises from the characterisation and the plot development, and I was shocked. There’s a similar, but lighter, exposé in LLL, when Dumain joins the other three lads on the roof secretly to declare his love for his lady. I think there are few things more rewarding in a modern Shakespeare production than the sight of a cuddly toy. It’s very funny indeed – and deep down, ever so slightly disturbing.

edward-bennett-lisa-dillon-in-loves-labours-lost-at-chichester-festival-theatre-c-manuel-harlan-Mr Luscombe has brought together a superbly talented cast to create two fantastic shows that bring these old stories to life with all the freshness and relevance as if they were written yesterday. At their heart are two effervescent performances by Edward Bennett as Berowne (LLL) and Benedick (MAAN). We’ve seen Mr Bennett a few times – notably when he stood in as Hamlet whilst David Tennant was indisposed, and also in Plenty at Sheffield – but I think with his current performances he really secures his position as one of our finest practitioners of Shakespeare. Even if the language is a little intractable, you still understand every nuance of what he says; his amazingly gifted facial expressions tell a thousand tales. He’s master of all the moods; not only can he bring the house down, as in the Christmas Tree scene, but he can also deliver, with perfect solemnity, the regretful speeches of Berowne, after the Princess’ father has been reported dead. He can also create the passionate and stirring sentiment that encourages the other three students into full-time pursuit of their ladies. Opposing him – and a perfect match for him – are his Rosaline and Beatrice, in the form of Lisa Dillon. Like all the LLL ladies, Ms Dillon’s Rosaline is coquettish but ruthless, fun-loving and emotional in her coping with her suitor. As Beatrice, she’s on fire from the very first scene where she spars with Benedick; but she also conveys the perplexed Beatrice – who overhears the others say the Benedick is in love with her – with a beautiful mix of comedy and warmth. And there’s a true chill in her voice when she demands reparation for the harm Claudio has done to her sister’s reputation.

nick-haverson-centre-co-in-loves-labours-lost-at-chichester-festival-theatre-photo-manuel-harlan159Sam Alexander is excellent in both his roles, perhaps particularly in the more rewarding role of the King of Navarre in LLL, as he has further to fall in embarrassment when his hypocrisy is found out. His Don John is – literally – a tight-lipped evil bastard, sourly looking on with his bandaged leg and crutches – is being wounded in the war sufficient reason for him to be bitterly vengeful against Claudio and Hero? Mr Alexander portrays him as a cold fish who doesn’t show his hand, and it’s very convincingly performed. Tunji Kasim also gives us two enjoyable performances as the wet-behind-the ears Dumain and the slightly more noble but only slightly less wet Claudio, where his refined nobility shines through, albeit devalued by his feeble lack of perception. There were some gasps from audience members – who obviously didn’t know the story – in the church scene when he renounced Hero and delivered his blistering invective against her. It’s as Dumain though that we remember him fondly as he still clings on to his bedside teddy through thick and thin.

sam-alexander-leah-whitaker-in-loves-labours-lost-at-chichester-festival-theatre-c-manuel-harlan-1One of my favourite actors, Steven Pacey, is back on the Chichester stage in the roles of Holofernes in LLL and Leonato in Much Ado. Magnificently pompous as the erudite Holofernes, one of the comic highlights of the production is his reaction to John Arthur’s Sir Nathaniel, when he offers him the back-handed compliment, learned without opinion. A great portrayal of an utter windbag. His Leonato, though, is stunning ; we joyfully laugh along when, with his other conspirators, he is teasing Benedick in the Christmas Tree scene; but we’re shattered by his realisation that Hero’s reputation has been besmirched by Claudio – here’s a man torn between love for his daughter and traditional respectability, and with nowhere to go but to cry his eyes out in the pews.

paige-carter-leah-whitaker-lisa-dillon-rebecca-collingwood-in-ll-l-at-cft-c-manuel-harlan-124Leah Whitaker gives a strong performance as the Princess of France, relishing her job as chief tease to the suitors, and loving her mockery of the King of Navarre for his idiotic pomposity; then giving way to dignified grieving when Marcade brings the news her father has died, which absolutely signifies the end of celebrations. Even the final song of Icicles hanging by the wall has at truly mournful feel to it; the words of Mercury have totally put paid to the songs of Apollo. John Hodgkinson provides an enjoyably melodramatic Don Armado, bringing out all the traditional humour of the role (emphasising the J’s as H’s, calling his learned companions “men of piss”, and so on) – which contrasts with his very plain and straightforward playing of Don Pedro: respectable, hearty, uncomplicated. It’s a generous performance of quite a bland role against which he allows the other more interesting characters to shine.

the-company-of-much-ado-about-nothing-at-chichester-festival-theatre-photo-manuel-harlan-43The other truly stand out performance from both plays is from Nick Haverson as Costard and Dogberry. His Costard is a slovenly but over-confident wretch who embodies the comic spirit of the “lower orders” – and he plays a brilliant scene with Berowne as he compares emolument with remuneration like a mischievous Jack Russell. His Dogberry, however, bears hard his responsibilities and frustrations and shows the signs of a life that is only faintly succeeding. When he is pushed just that little bit too far as he tries to bring the villains to book, his reaction astounds and overwhelms you. I’ve never seen a Shakespearean clown figure portrayed in such a light before. It knocks you sideways.

edward-bennett-lisa-dillon-in-loves-labours-lost-at-chichester-festival-theatre-photo-manuel-harlan51All the cast give excellent ensemble support throughout; Rebecca Collingwood is a very moving and despairing Hero; Peter McGovern in fine voice as Moth; Chris Nayak insidious as the manipulative Borachio; Chris McCalphy delightfully dull as Dull; William Belchambers a snide Conrade; Jamie Newall a prissy Boyet; Paige Carter a charming Maria. It would be tedious to mention the entire cast, but everyone played a vital part in creating the magic of this double-header production.

Their season at the Theatre Royal Haymarket begins on 9th December and continues to 18th March. Two fantastic shows that I couldn’t recommend more strongly!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Travels with my Aunt, Minerva Theatre Chichester, 7th May 2016

Travels with my AuntA spot of late Spring sunshine was just the perfect welcome as we arrived in Chichester for the first of this year’s two theatrical weekends Sussex-style. We were joined, in their inaugural visit to the Chichester Festival Theatre, by Mrs Chrisparkle’s aunt and uncle, Professor and Mrs Plum. Naturally, we started with a swish lunch in the Minerva Brasserie – one simply just has to, you know. I’m delighted to say that both the brasserie and the bar and grill upstairs have had something of a facelift since we last visited and they both look fantastico.

Patricia HodgeTravels with my Aunt – which was our matinee treat – is of course originally a novel by Graham Greene, but we have seen a wonderful play adaptation at the Royal and Derngate back in 2010, and now there’s this new version, reincarnated as a musical, with book by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, music by George Stiles and lyrics by Anthony Drewe. The story consists of a huge amount of daftness – this is it in a nutshell: Henry Pulling is an old-before-his-time gentleman who has devoted his life to growing dahlias. Aunt Augusta is his septuagenarian aunt who acts half her age, was a prostitute in her youth and even today runs all around the world doing shady deals. She has a much younger lover – Wordsworth – from Sierra Leone, but is also selling everything to pay off the ransom for the true love of her life, Mr Visconti; and this is where she enlists Henry’s help. Henry travels with her, round Europe and South America, on the search for this mysterious man, unwillingly encountering adventures on the way. They find the human dynamo that is Visconti; and all this excitement eventually rubs off on Henry, who, much to his surprise, finds out that survival by illegal import/export trade based in Paraguay has more flair to it as a lifestyle than daily dahlia-tending.

Patricia Hodge and Steven PaceyAs you take your seats, Colin Falconer’s set beautifully recreates a 1969 railway station, complete with swanky lit destination signs just like they used to have at Baker St station (maybe they still do?), dingy waiting room, comfortless wooden benches, a ticket collector’s booth, and many other late 60s railway reminders. With a little movement and relighting, the waiting room turns into many other indoor scenes such as Augusta’s flat, a pub, and a compartment on the Orient Express. The costumes are perfect for that 1969 vibe, with Tooley wonderfully decked out as a pot-smoking hippie, the girls in the ensemble as bright blue stewardesses straight out of Boeing Boeing, and Wordsworth in relaxed splendour in the style of a Rhythm of Life dancer from Sweet Charity.

Travels CastThe show opens with a couple of terrific scenes: Henry, on the point of being executed, comes out of character and addresses the audience in a matter of fact style, and, with his delightfully upper crust accent, instantly creates a surreal atmosphere of quirky comedy. We then see the railway station transformed into a chapel for Henry’s mother’s funeral, which is where we meet Aunt Agatha, who sings a hilariously disrespectful song to the effect that life’s too short to waste time saying goodbye to the dead. It’s a really positive start to the show. But then something rather odd happens for the next quarter of an hour or so. It all seemed to lose energy, it got bogged down in exposition, and it felt a bit twee. I had thought that, as it is a rather bizarre story, one might expect the artificiality of the musical genre to work well with it. But it appeared that it was just going to become bland.

EnsembleFortunately, I was wrong! Before long there is a scene where the ensemble are sweetly dancing to a jolly song with cutesy lyrics but in the middle of the stage sits Aunt Augusta, the amount of her ransom money found wanting, getting physically assaulted by the scum of a lowlife who’s demanding the cash. That really uncomfortable juxtaposition between the musical matinee sweetness and the physical violence really pulled me up short. Perhaps this isn’t going to be as Women’s Institute-like as it first appeared? Indeed it isn’t. Once it really gets going, the show uses the musical format to excellent purpose, playing up the surreal and frequently questionable nature of the subject matter, like sugar sorbet icing on bitter aloes. The tunes are fun, the lyrics witty, and the performances are extremely good.

Jack ChissickAunt Augusta is played by the brilliantly no-nonsense Patricia Hodge, and you couldn’t find a more suitable pair of hands to play this unpredictable and exuberant character. She shows that she still has an excellent singing voice, great comic timing, and a terrific aura of dignity about her. In many ways she is perfect casting, as Augusta is meant to be in her 70s but acting much younger; well Miss Hodge isn’t quite in her 70s yet but certainly behaves like a flirtatious girl, which is just what you want from the character. A most enjoyable performance.

More ensembleBut at the heart of this production is the fantastic portrayal of Henry by Steven Pacey, an actor who never fails to delight. We’ve seen him as an avuncular Sir Politic Would-be in Volpone, a hilarious Peter in Relative Values (opposite Patricia Hodge) and a wonderfully gruff Sir Francis in the Menier’s Charley’s Aunt. But I think his Henry is his crowning glory. You really get the sense of Henry’s journey from gardener to guerrilla (well, not quite that bad maybe), his changing relationship with Augusta, his awakening of the romantic side of life when he meets Tooley, and his natural heroic decency. He brings out all the comedy of the role without ever overplaying his hand, and you really feel that you know Henry deep down as a person. It’s a brilliant performance.

Steven PaceyThere are some very good supporting performances too: Hugh Maynard’s Wordsworth is a larger-than-life 60s retro character, almost a parody of himself as a groovy lurve machine; he wouldn’t have been out of place in an Austin Powers movie. Although we felt the characterisation belonged almost too much to a pre-political correctness age, his enormous sense of fun at the centre of the song and dance routines was irresistible. Haley Flaherty is a rather sweet and impressionable Tooley, surprising herself by her feelings for the older man; and Jack Chissick enjoys himself hugely in his dual roles as the vicious Colonel Hakim and the humorously ineffectual Mr Visconti. The ensemble give us loads of energy with their dance sequences and character vignettes, and the whole vibe is one where the cast come together to tell us a story of war criminals, art theft, violence and adultery, but keeping it light at the same time. We all enjoyed it enormously. It runs at the Minerva until 4th June. As Miss Hodge might say under other circumstances – such fun!

P. S. As a very minor aside, I’ve never seen such unconvincing onstage smoking. Nothing was ever lit, no little glow of heat ever appeared at the end of a cigarette, no smoke ever emerged. It may be healthier that way, but it did look a little silly!

Production photos by Tristram Kenton

Review – Volpone, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, 5th September 2015

VolponeFor the third weekend in a row, we met up with Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters for an afternoon of culture and drama. It was the Countess who was particularly keen on seeing this production, immersed as she is in all things literary and old, and that’s not just her husband. I’d read the play when I was younger but none of us had actually seen it on stage, so it was about time we got ourselves some education. So if, like Mrs Chrisparkle, you thought Volpone was Ben Jonson’s more successful prequel to Volptwo, maybe it’s time to reacquaint yourself with some Jacobean dramatists. Whilst Shakespeare continues to make his presence felt in every outdoor summer venue and traditional theatre space at least once a year, his Elizabethan and Jacobean contemporaries sometimes get overlooked. For at the same time that Shakespeare was whacking out King Lear, Jonson was proposing a very different kettle of fish in the guise of Volpone.

Henry GoodmanGuise is a good word in the circumstances, because Volpone – the man – is the ultimate dissembler. In reality a hale and hearty manipulator of idiots and lover of riches, to the outside world he is a feeble old man, languishing on his sickbed, dribbling incontinently into a spittoon. When not creating that illusion, he might be pretending to be Scoto the Mountebank, or a courtroom official, or any number of bogus creations. With its carefully chosen Italianate names for its characters, Jonson created the classic satire on greed. It’s set in Venice, where Volpone (the fox) with his co-conspirator servant Mosca (the fly), attempt to outwit the wealthy Voltore (vulture), Corbaccio (raven) and Corvino (crow), to prove that fools and their money are indeed soon parted, preferably in Volpone’s direction. Innocents are drawn into his web of deceit, like Corbaccio’s son Bonario (kindly) and Corvino’s wife Celia (heavenly). In a subplot, we are introduced to Sir Politic Would-Be (at the time politic meant “scheming” or “sly”), his garrulous and airheaded wife the Lady Would-Be, and the traveller Peregrine, whose name means…er… traveller. In a very moral resolution, the good, the bad and the foolish are all shown to be precisely what they are, with the wrath of the courts coming down heavily on the transgressors; with liberation and exoneration as the reward for the wronged.

Miles RichardsonWith its completely original plotline, many consider this to be one of the finest Jacobean plays – certainly of the comedies. It is, however, rather long-winded. Structurally it starts with an elaborate opening scene where Volpone and Mosca fleece and con the three fools individually, and I sense that the more you emphasise the differences between these three characters, the funnier it is. It then breaks away to the street scene where Sir Politic and Peregrine have their conversation, giving Volpone and his entourage time to re-create themselves as Scoto and his team, which gives rise to a lengthy performance by Volpone-as-Scoto, encouraging his audience to buy his amazing cure-all oil. Finally, Volpone wins the attention of Celia – which is what all this has been leading up to. Benjo allows Scoto to rule the stage, and extemporise at length – and I really do mean at length. My own feeling is that it was because the original Volpone was played by Richard Burbage who was the Laurence Olivier of his time; the longer he was on stage, the happier the audience would be. Once Corvino has taken his revenge on Celia for her sassy behaviour but nevertheless agreed to offer her to Volpone for sex – yes this is quite an adult Jacobean comedy – humiliation and disgrace is the inevitable outcome for all concerned.

Geoffrey FreshwaterTrevor Nunn has created an updated version of Volpone for the RSC. No sense of Venetian gondolas and canals remain in this stark modern environment, where entrycams show us who’s knocking at Volpone’s door, video projections display the allegedly sick Volpone’s feeble heartbeat and erroneous blood pressure readings, and with a click of a button we can even see the stock exchange figures scroll past whenever Volp wants to play the markets. Overhead cameras show the sexy modern bed on which he plans his liaison dangereuse with Celia – you can just imagine that he would threaten to upload a coital video to YouTube in order to extort extra dosh. Sir Politic Would-Be points out how many followers he has on his iPad; and Lady W-B is followed everywhere by a camera crew. For me, the most effective use of the camera was during the court scene, where Volpone stops the proceedings to have a little private soliloquy whilst everyone else stands stock still as if frozen in time. The camera that was targeted on the judge also freezes and goes from colour to black and white, then resumes in colour again when life carries on. A relatively simple effect perhaps, but really arresting.

Matthew KellyNot only is this a modern, technological age Volpone, it’s also a world where celebrity rules, which gives plenty of opportunities for telling juxtapositions between the 17th and 21st centuries. The programme credits translator and updater-extraordinaire Ranjit Bolt with “script revisions”. There are certainly plenty of these, most notably perhaps in the Scoto scene where the majority of Jonson’s original text has been replaced by a brand new speech. Fair enough; that’s in keeping with it being a cadenza-like sequence where the words and gestures play to the actor’s strengths and allow him simply to entertain to the full. However, I think it’s regrettable that Mr Bolt decided to retain Jonson’s original concept of this being a long scene. Funny and innovative as it is, it really does go on too long for no apparent plot progression benefit. It’s like one of those interminable drum solos in a concert that shows off the performer’s skills and range, and is very entertaining whilst it lasts, but then when you move on you can hardly remember it. As an aside, I realised when watching this scene the derivation of the word mountebank – because Volpone sets up a bench/table (bank) and stands on top of it (mounte) to deliver his spiel. You probably knew that already.

Steven Pacey, Guy Burgess, Colin RyanBut where the production and its technological vision really works is with the characterisation of Lady Would-Be. A vacuous glamour-puss from the Katie Price/Made in Chelsea stable, she preens and pouts her way through the show whilst always ensuring the camera gets her best side. Her attendants are make-up girls and hair stylists, haute couture-shopping bag carriers and minders. Living life for her reality show, everything is captured on film until such time as she might be seen in a bad light, when she turns off the charm (such as it may be) and the cameraman gets the unsubtle call to “cut”. A great source for humour, and totally in keeping with the modernised version of the character, it was particularly funny in the courtroom when Lady W-B realised the trial was being televised, and thus kept bobbing about like a Hallowe’en apple trying to remain in shot. You can even follow her on twitter @LadyP_W.

Annette McLaughlinAt the heart of the play is a bravura performance by Henry Goodman as Volpone. He is perfect for the role, being very experienced at playing the dominating central character of many a fine production. We saw him in Chichester as Arturo Ui and he was mesmeric. In the course of this play he has to perform many parts, all of them Volpone. His transitions from one to another are seamless. It’s particularly enjoyable in the opening scene where he quickly changes from the fit-as-a-fiddle fox to the invalid in his domestic hospital bed. In a split second he ages about forty years; in “All the world’s a stage” terms he goes from the fifth age of the Justice in fair round belly, to the seventh, sans everything, in a snap. But all his characterisations are rounded, individual, and well considered to give maximum comedy value. It’s a very fine performance.

Annette McLaughlin and Henry GoodmanBuzzing around Volpone is Mosca, the fly, or, as more pejoratively termed, his parasite. Mosca is a constant presence, reliably assisting Volpone with his mischief and crookedness, darting here and there to serve and to misrepresent. He is His Master’s Voice where it comes to liaising with the three fools, trying to out-donate each other where it comes to adding to Volpone’s collection of riches. It’s an assured and cheeky performance by Orion Lee on his RSC debut, very believable as Volpone’s Rottweiler in his dealings with the outside world; just maybe when the tide turns and Mosca is in the ascendant, trying to outwit his master, he lacks a certain gravitas in the courtroom scenes.

Ankur Bahl, Jon Key and Julian HoultOf the three dupes attempting to get their mitts on Volpone’s legacies, I was most impressed by Miles Richardson as Voltore the lawyer, with a good level of pomp and decency, which gets blown apart in the courtroom scenes where he is run ragged by attempting manipulation after deviation. He gives a great comic performance. A chip off the old block, he has much of his father Ian Richardson’s slightly lugubrious stage presence which is perfect for the humiliation of his general unravelling. Matthew Kelly is a very stern and unyielding Corvino, which works very well when he’s dominating his wife, but I felt there wasn’t a lot of light and shade in his performance. Geoffrey Freshwater’s Corbaccio is a deaf and doddery old thing, and, despite it being a good performance it makes you realise that, as a character, it’s something of a one-trick pony. Once you’ve laughed at his deafness a few times, there’s not a lot left to laugh at.

Volpone castThere are, however, some terrific other performances. The always excellent Steven Pacey as Sir Politic Would-Be is an avuncular and persuasive presence in his rich but tasteless clothes, stringing out fanciful plots and nonsensical concerns to the mild amusement and subsequent deep annoyance of Peregrine, an energetically youthful portrayal by Colin Ryan. In this modernised version, Sir Politic doesn’t get disguised in a tortoise shell but is squeezed into one of his wife’s outfits, make-up and beard at sixes and sevens, looking like Conchita Wurst after a hard night on the town. Mr Pacey carries off his shame with a nice mixture of anger and resignation. He is matched by the wonderful Annette McLaughlin as Lady Would-Be, capturing all that essential hollowness of a wannabe reality star, a bitch when thwarted, control freak par excellence, the true definition of beauty being skin-deep. Her stand up argument with Peregrine is theatrical bliss.

Richard Rees and Nav SidhuJon Key, Ankur Bahl and Julian Hoult give good outlandish support as Volpone’s triumvirate of servants, representing the full range of humankind – you have to ask yourself, why Volpone does choose to be surrounded by a dwarf, a hermaphrodite and a eunuch? What was in the person spec for those job descriptions? Their mini-shows to entertain Volpone are well performed but, rather like the Scoto scene, tend to act as a pause-button to the play as a whole rather than driving on the drama – but that’s Jonson’s fault. Andy Apollo and Rhiannon Handy as Bonario and Celia don’t have a lot to do apart from outraged indignation, but they do it very well.

Orion LeeYou come away from this production part impressed, part exhausted; the modernisation works well provided you don’t mind liberties being taken with a sacred text – not that it’s that sacred – and it offers several excellent performances. On the other hand, the play lasts three hours ten minutes, which is quite an ambitious project if you’ve just had a nice lunch with a bottle of Chablis, and you do get the feeling that there were some self-indulgences that could have been stripped away to bring it in at a more reasonable two and a half hours. But nevertheless it’s enjoyable and inventive, and when everyone gets their come-uppance at the end, you feel that justice has been done. Only a few more performances left, so you’d better get in quick.

Production photographs by Manuel Harlan.

Review – Relative Values, Harold Pinter Theatre, 14th June 2014

Relative ValuesI’ve seen some great Coward, I’ve seen some iffy Coward, but for the most part you can rely on him to provide you with a sophisticated comedy of manners, probably involving at least one maid, some aristocrats and an outsider to shake things up. His most renowned comedies are from the 20s to the 40s, and as he got older I think it’s fair to say that on the whole the quality went down – at least, that’s what my experience of Volcano tells me. Relative Values, however, is from 1951, when he still definitely had “it”, whatever “it” was.

Patricia HodgeEven though it had been six years since World War Two had ended, it was a time of austerity. There was still meat and sugar rationing; we think times are hard now – it must have been very much worse for that generation. “Things were changing” too, generally speaking. Five years after Relative Values, John Osborne gave us angry young Jimmy Porter as a reaction against the drawing room comedies of Coward and Rattigan. But actually – Relative Values is a forward-looking play for its time and has its finger on the pulse of the changing society. Countess Felicity is best friends with her lady’s maid and looks on her butler as a senior member of the family. Certainly, there are still reactionary stick-in-the-muds, as represented by Admiral and Lady Cynthia Hayling, Caroline Quentinbut the young Earl Nigel is moving with the times sufficiently to want to marry someone whose celebrity status derives from films and glossy magazines rather than country estates with horses and hounds. The traditional statuses of aristocrat and servant are further confounded by the realisation that, if Nigel and Miranda marry, the new Countess will be the sister of the present Countess’ lady’s maid. Still, noblesse oblige, and all that, and the only person to whom this is an insuperable problem is the maid herself. Cue for some fantastic comedy that blurs the lines between the classes and has the maid pretending to be an old family friend/companion – and that’s actually way funnier than it sounds.

Neil MorrisseyThis is a production from the Theatre Royal Bath (don’t they do some good stuff) that first saw light of day last year but only transferred to London for a brief run this spring. It’s the kind of play and production that sits so elegantly and beautifully in a West End theatre, a space it occupies as to the manor born. Looking at the photo in my French’s Acting Edition, designer Stephen Brimson Lewis has very accurately revived the original 1951 set, and all the costumes are suitably functional or sumptuous, depending on which character we’re talking about. Director Trevor NunnSteven Pacey has interspersed the different scenes with mock Pathé newsreels showing 1951 in the raw – some of the footage is real, but I recognised the narrator as Rory Bremner, who played Crestwell the butler until a few weeks ago. This all helps to contextualise the play to its time whilst still being eminently 21st century as it features members of the cast in its black and white clips. We’re not allowed to have two intervals anymore, so this classic three act play is broken up halfway through the second act, which is a slight shame as it not only reduces the impact of the tremendous line with which Coward ended Act One and which got a spontaneous round of applause, but also introduces the interval with much less of a cliffhanger.

Leigh ZimmermanNevertheless, it’s a fantastically entertaining show, with some absolutely superb performances. Patricia Hodge plays the Countess and she’s every bit as splendid as you could imagine. Cut glass accent with a sneaky touch of warmth to it, decorous eyes that have seen it all but are far too polite to react to indecorous behaviour, and unsurpassable comic timing all make for a memorable performance. Her maid and best friend Moxie is played by Caroline Quentin, who is fantastic as the no-nonsense but heart of gold servant – loyal, traditional but never servile; and whose conversation, when she’s upgraded to companion, is a stroke of comic genius. Her transformation from drudge to socialite is devastatingly hilarious. She brings the house down as she blisteringly patronises Lady Cynthia – one of the funniest moments I can remember in a play for a long time.

Ben MansfieldYou need a really good cast to balance the rest of the play when you’ve got two such superb performers acting their socks off, and, delightfully, that is exactly what we have. I’ve not seen Neil Morrissey live before but I’d forgotten what an excellent comedy actor he is – all those Men Behaving Badly days shared with Caroline Quentin seem an awfully long time ago, but they still have a terrific rapport together, and you can see he’s really enjoying himself too, which encourages the audience to do so too. Steven Pacey, superb in the Menier’s Charley’s Aunt a couple of years ago, has a fantastic mischievous twinkle in his eye as Countess Felicity’s nephew Peter, revelling in the hilarity of all the scrapes they get themselves into, and belly-achingly funny when he has his sexuality challenged by sudden proximity to the hunky leading man, staying just on theSam Hoare right side of cliché to maximise the humour. Leigh Zimmerman is perfect for the role of film star Miranda Frayle, stunningly tall and elegant, disdainfully making up stories about the poverty of her childhood, much to Moxie’s disgust – another example of the somewhat skewed look at class that Coward creates in this play. When she meets up again with old flame Don Lucas, dashingly played by Ben Mansfield, and Lady Felicity catches them “at it”, it’s only a matter of time before she’s a lamb to the slaughter and no mistake. There’s also excellent support from Amanda Boxer whose Lady Cynthia is as crusty as a vintage port, and Timothy Kightley, an excellent old stick of a retired admiral, who never quite knows when to shut up. Sam Hoare’s Earl Nigel is a chinless dimwit manipulated by every woman he meets, and Rebecca Birch is a nicely irreverent housemaid in the best Coward tradition.

The play and production delivered so much more than I was expecting of it. Mrs Chrisparkle and I absolutely loved it, and I’m so glad we snuck in to see it just before it closes next week. If you can get yourself down to the Harold Pinter Theatre (that’s the Comedy Theatre in old money) before Saturday 21st June, you won’t regret it.

Review – Charley’s Aunt, Menier Chocolate Factory, 7th October 2012

Charley's Aunt 1977Charley’s Aunt – from Brazil – where the nuts come from; the phrase is the stuff of legend. I saw sure I had seen a production of this in my youth at the Young Vic but my memories of it were hazy. I did a bit of online research and it revealed nothing. But the irritation of not being able to bring it to mind started to get too much…So there was nothing to be done for it, I would have to search my theatre programme collection. And there it was – a production at the Young Vic that I attended on January 3rd 1977 when I was still sweet 16. It was directed by Denise Coffey and had a great cast – Lord Fancourt Babberley was played by Nicky Henson; Jack and Charley were Ian Gelder and Simon Chandler; Amy Spettigue was Natasha Pyne (from Father Dear Father) and Ela Delahay was a young Miss Janine Duvitski. I remember thinking at the time that, for such an old play, it was still very funny.

Charley's Aunt 2012That would have been its 85th anniversary production – if you care to look at it in those terms. The current production at the Menier celebrates its 120th anniversary, and it is still as fresh as the proverbial daisy, or indeed Sir Francis Chesney’s wandering carnation. You get an instant high as you enter the auditorium from looking at the beautiful, versatile and (by Menier standards) extremely large set designed by Paul Farnsworth. We loved the gargoyle effects and the dreaming spires, the way the outside courtyard transformed into Spettigue’s house, and how by removing or reversing panels you can create what was outside, inside, and vice versa. And from our vantage point of Row A, you feel so close and involved in the action. Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt like imaginary seventh and eighth people attending the Act One lunch as the dining table was almost within arm’s reach of us.

Mathew HorneI did however want to dash across the stage to where Jack was writing his opening scene letter and replace the book he was leaning on with something genuinely from the period. They’re using a 1970s red leatherette Readers Digest book godammit! Why not use an old anonymous brown leather bound tome, you could get one off Ebay for £3.50. Tsk!

Jane AsherAnyway I think that’s my only criticism of the play dealt with. Apart from that, it’s a dream. The packed audience laughed all the way through – sometimes hysterically; sometimes having to fight the urge to exclaim back at the cast at the onstage larks. There’s a moment when Lord Fancourt Babberley is hiding behind the piano, and when he is discovered, there is an almighty thud suggesting he’d walloped his head against the back of the piano. Not only was I laughing my own head off, I ended up cradling it in sympathetic agony too. There were pained groans from all over the audience. I must say that the moments of comic business littered throughout the show are all done marvellously.

Charlie Clemmow“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive”, the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle used to warn, and this play could almost be the dictionary definition of that old saying. Jack and Charley want to progress their chances with their sweethearts Kitty and Amy, but propriety requires a chaperone. Fortunately Charley’s rich aunt Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez is expected from Brazil (where the nuts come from) so the girls agree to risk the naughtiness of proximity to the boys provided she is there to stand guard. Unfortunately though, her arrival is delayed; so Jack and Charley convince their fellow undergraduate toff Fancourt Babberley to disguise himself as the aunt so that their separate loves may be professed to the girls before the latter go to Scotland, for apparently what was going to be a helluva long time. Naturally things get out of hand; the aunt’s finances attract amorous advances; the real aunt turns up; farce ensues.

Dominic Tighe It was first produced in 1892, the same year as Lady Windermere’s Fan, and almost exactly in the middle of Georges Feydeau’s career as farceur magnifique d’Europe, which is definitely reflected in its content. However, it also has quite a Shakespearean structure to it. Cross-dressing, old fools making an idiot of themselves over love, a humorous servant and with four engagements to be married before the curtain comes down. No wonder people were falling over themselves to procure tickets for it back in 1892. This production is, appropriately, absolutely faithful to Brandon Thomas’ original text and I really liked the fact that they have gone for two intervals. I know it’s not trendy to do so, and that frequently directors look for a cliffhanger moment in the middle of act two just to chop it in half for simplicity’s sake; but three-acters were written for a reason, and it gives audience and cast alike a chance to pace themselves.

Benjamin AskewWhen it was first announced that this production would star Mathew Horne and Jane Asher my immediate thought was that it was perfect casting; and so it is. Mathew Horne is brilliant at taking those “put-upon” roles – whether it be Gavin, or Nan Taylor’s grandson – where the source of the comedy is elsewhere but requires the visible suffering of an innocent everyman figure. Nan Taylor reminds me of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle so I’ve always identified with Mr Horne in those scenes. Mind you, Lord Fancourt Babberley isn’t that innocent; he does try to nick the four bottles of champagne after all. Cue a perfect example of Mr Horne’s acting eyes; when after some undergraduate horseplay he lands chest down on the bag containing the bottles and you hear that agonising clink of glass on glass, with one glimpse of his anxious expression, the audience groaned and shared his alarm. He has an extraordinary ability to convey that “I don’t believe what just happened/I just heard/they just did” emotion with a fractional eye movement.

Leah Whitaker Brandon Thomas is very clear in his stage instructions that “Fanny Babbs” should be in no way effeminate as Donna Lucia; and Mathew Horne catches that ridiculous set-up perfectly. He has to veer towards the pug-ugly and behave like a bloke so that the attractions of Spettigue are even more absurd; and a lot of the comedy comes from the juxtaposition of Donna Lucia’s presumed gentility and FB’s chummy Etonian boisterousness. That all works really well in this production. His genuine distress at being put in this embarrassing position is real and funny; and when he dissolves into a puddle of love at the prospect of Miss Delahay, I actually found it quite moving. It’s a great performance, full of physical comedy, technically spot-on and not a word garbled or hard to hear, so hurrah for that.

Ellie Beaven Of course it’s great to see Jane Asher on stage, giving a wonderfully balanced performance based on the refined but warm character of the real Donna Lucia and her comic teasing of the fake Donna Lucia. She has super stage presence, which lends itself perfectly to the dignity of her character, but also with a very light human and comic touch. Her little utterance of excitement after she has re-established contact with Chesney Senior is a moment of delight. She also made a very good double act with Charlie Clemmow, as Ela, both of them giggling in a co-conspiratorial way at the depths to which the young men are digging holes for themselves. I liked Miss Clemmow’s performance a great deal, as she brought life and depth to the character of Ela, rather than her just being the “third girl”, which it easily can be.

Steven Pacey All the actors are splendid though, and the show’s got a great ensemble feel. Dominic Tighe (excellent in Barefoot in the Park earlier this year at Oxford) as Jack is thrusting and imperious as a bossy toffee-nosed undergrad, who goes all matey with his dad when there’s money in the offing; and he too has a very strong stage presence and a crystal clear voice. 1892 is a long time ago; if I’d addressed my scout like that in 1978 I’d have been rusticated. Benjamin Askew’s Charley is a delightful duffer with something of a toned-down version of Harry Enfield’s Tim-Nice-But-Dim to him; he also makes a very good puppy dog when in Amy Spettigue’s presence. As their wannabe girlfriends, both Leah Whitaker and Ellie Beaven are perfectly matched to their chaps; Miss Whitaker credibly providing the bolder approach to proposals, and giving a perfect visual response to being told she’s a brick.

Norman PaceSteven Pacey makes a strong impact as Sir Francis, full of vitality and spark, absolutely the old Indian Colonel and really relishing his lines. “That’s not the way an old soldier makes love” brought the house down. Norman Pace’s Spettigue is a great creation; bombastic at first – Mathew Horne’s giving him short shrift for his rudeness is hilarious – and then later a picture of ridiculous besottedness as he admires and adores every move the fake aunt makes. Fancourt Babberley describes him as looking like a boiled owl and somehow that’s precisely how Mr Pace manages to make himself look. Brilliant stuff. Finally Charles Kay – whose performances I have enjoyed dozens of times over the years – is excellent as Brassett the scout, doing his best to answer the call of His Master’s Voice when necessary but pompously facing down effrontery when required.

Charles Kay It’s a wonderful production, one of the best things we’ve seen at the Menier, and we laughed about it on the train home, which is always a good sign. It surely deserves a transfer after its spell at the Menier. Take the opportunity to catch a great cast do justice to a classic comedy!