Review – Great Expectations, Royal and Derngate Actors Company, Royal Theatre, Northampton, 15th July 2017

Great ExpectationsI wonder if Dickens might go the way of Shakespeare before long, and prove himself worthy of modern adaptations, where the story is set in a different era and characters who were originally male become female and vice versa. One always associates Dickens with those foggy London streets or bleak Yorkshire Moors; but with Shakespeare, it’s different. It’s been ages since I’ve seen a Shakespeare play that was actually set in the 16th or 17th century and in the locations that Shakespeare specified; and with last summer’s The Tempest featuring (inter alia) a female Prosper, and with Glenda Jackson recently playing Lear, for example, his works are ripe for a spot of gender-bending.

GE1Erica Martin’s production of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s adaptation of Great Expectations for the stage features a female Magwitch. Now that’s something to conjure with. Traditionally he appears as a menacing brute, primarily because of that first, terrifying meeting with the young Pip, where he threatens to cut his throat, and makes him promise to get him food, and a file to cut off the iron chain on his leg, “or I’ll have your heart and liver out”. For sure, those are the words of a brutish man more than a brutish woman, although I had several female teachers in my youth who would have queued up to deliver those lines.

GE3The humiliation that the older Pip suffers when he realises that his financial benefactor has been Magwitch all along, and not Miss Havisham, remains the same; it’s the integrity of the person (or rather lack of it) that offends him, rather than the fact that she’s a woman. However, as Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, it’s very hard to believe that a convict woman, in the early 19th century, would have made good in New South Wales, as a sheep farmer and stock breeder, and become rich. It may just have been credible for a man, but a woman? Not in those days; it’s hard enough today.

GE4I digress. We’ve seen the Actors Company a few times now and they always astound us with the excellence of their performance. Whether set in today’s times, like The Revenger’s Comedies and Market Boy, or in olden days, like Our Country’s Good or, now, Great Expectations, they take a play full of depth and character and bring it to life with superb conviction. Meryl Couper’s terrific set created a decent acting area at front whilst devoting other parts of the stage to the Gargerys, Miss Havisham’s house, and so on. It provided a suitable sense of Dickensian gloom without being overwhelming; as did the excellent costumes. The lighting was efficient and atmospheric – in fact you wouldn’t know this wasn’t a professional production.

GE5The structure requires that all the actors are on stage more or less the whole time, acting as both chorus and the inner thoughts of Pip, taking alternate lines from the book very much in the style of David Edgar’s adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby that was a huge success for the RSC back in 1980. I like this approach; although you get a lot of information flung at you at first, and it’s hard to take it all in, you get a strong ensemble feeling that everyone is fully involved in the story-telling task. And when different actors are speaking lines that are the thoughts of one character, that also gives the impression of all the different voices that are going on inside his head – a very effective technique. Whilst I felt that there was quite a lot of scene-setting in the first act and that it was maybe a trifle long, the story really gets going after the interval and it was riveting stuff.

GE6Centre stage for much of the final two-thirds of the play is Davin Eadie as Pip (adult version). With a commanding stage presence, and very authoritative vocal delivery, I really enjoyed his performance of this Everyman character with whom we all identify. Ben Webb, as his younger version, employed just the right amount of wide-eyed innocence (in his dealings with Magwitch), trust (with Joe) and vulnerability (with Miss Havisham and Estella). Other superb performances came from Sue Whyte as Miss Havisham, who gave her a splendid gruff grandeur that commanded both fear and respect; Will Adams as the pompous and meddling Pumblechook; Vicky Kelly as a wonderfully terse (when at work) and garrulous (when at play) Wemmick; and Ryan Chambers delightfully over-the-top as the thespian Wopsle.

GE7Salli Belsham had the difficult task of creating a credible “Ann” Magwitch, but as the performance developed I thought she drew out the character’s finer points very convincingly, and the scene where she confronts Pip and Herbert and reveals herself to be the benefactor was one of the best in the play. But for me the stand-out performance was from Stewart Magrath as Jaggers, the lawyer, stabbing out his carefully planned words with a natural authority, conducting his affairs cordially but precisely, appearing to be a friend, but only if he is paid. A very striking and memorable performance.

Some very strong scenes and performances made this a very rewarding production; the Actors Company can chalk up another hit!

Review – Market Boy, Actors Company, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 22nd July 2016

Market BoyTime for another production from the Royal and Derngate’s Actors Company, whom we have seen a few times now and have always carried off a good show – until now…. This time they gave us a sensationally good show! David Eldridge’s Market Boy, which was produced by the National Theatre in 2006, is a funny, thought-provoking, heart-warming and nostalgic play about growing up in and around Romford Market in the late 1980s, at a time when the impetus to work hard for yourself and be successful was at its Thatcherite height. I know – because even Mrs Chrisparkle and I briefly caught the bug.

The Market Boy himself, Brian, but known by everyone as “Boy”, starts life as a wet behind the ears 12-year-old, who gets taken under the (mainly) affectionate wing of shoe trader (known, you guessed it, as Trader), and his three laddish assistants, who show him how to become both a proper market trader with all the patter and how to chat up girls (with similar skills). Romford Market is a fairly rough-and-ready community, with plenty of aggression and rivalry as well as some (but not many) decent relationships and mutual respect. We see all these various lives intermingle as Boy finally gets round to going out with “Girl”. In the second act Boy gets too big for his boots, throwing his weight around, riding roughshod over those he cares about – as does Snooks, one of the assistants, who gives up the market work to work in the financial markets instead – and both come a-cropper as they fly too close to the sun. Their rise and fall is brought sharply into focus as it mimics that of their great inspiration, Margaret Thatcher, who looms over the market like a free-trade spectre, dispensing dogma and platitudes as she goes.

CastIt’s a great choice of a play because there’s so much going on all the time and the text gives everyone a moment where they can shine. Jesse Jones’ cast grabs it all with relish and brings out both the humour and the dark side of market life and the individual subtleties of the characters who populate it. Meryl Couper’s simple but very effective design draws our eye to the centre of the stage where the Trader’s van (MKT 130Y, nice touch) occupies the centre of his stall. The stalls either side of the stage lurk together to give an impression of tight-knit closeness and everyone being in everybody else’s business, creating a nice illusion of compact claustrophobia.

IbizaIt’s a wonderful production that uses the Royal auditorium at its best, with characters entering from within the auditorium, scenes being acted in front of the safety curtain, characters appearing in the boxes, and so on. It also has fantastic use of music, bringing a huge sense of nostalgia to the show; you just can’t go wrong when you’ve got Frankie Goes To Hollywood appearing as a leitmotif throughout the evening. Mrs C is always a bit iffy when it comes to watching an amateur production but as soon as Relax started up she was tapping her feet up and down to the rhythm; then the curtain opened to reveal twenty other pairs of feet all doing the same, and she beamed with delight at the shared experience. She said later (and I concur) that the beginning and end scenes featuring the entire cast en dansant were amongst the most entertaining moments of individual staging she’d ever seen.

ShoesI could now write at length about everybody in the cast, because absolutely everyone gave an excellent performance and contributed some magic to the entire evening. However, that would probably end up being very repetitive and dull. So I’m just going to mention a few people who I thought made a particular difference to the success of the show as a whole. But, bear in mind, omission here does not mean it was not a fine performance – they all were!

At the heart of the show is a genuinely top class performance by Tom Cocker as Boy. With his early appearances showing his wide-eyed innocence, looking like a very young Daniel Radcliffe or Harry Enfield, he exuded that awful teenage uncertainty tempered with the desperate need to fit in. As the character grows in confidence, Mr Cocker acquires great “market flair”, thus becoming a half-and-half adult – with great self-belief in his ability to do well on the stall, but then shrinking down to be just a little boy when it comes to talking to the girl. Later on, when he oversteps the mark and becomes pig-headed and over-confident, you really want to give him a great big slap. He’s completely believable the whole way through – an excellent performance.

Spanish girlI also really liked Alice McCracken as his “Girl” – conveying all the hard-nosed exterior the character would need in order to survive in that environment, but with all the soft-centre that lurks not that far under the surface. I also thought that, technically, she gave the most perfect performance of the entire cast; every line delivered immaculately, every movement assertively achieved. I’d seen Adam Kozuch in a few productions before, including Town My Town and Our Country’s Good, but here, as Mouse, he performed with even more natural ease and comfort, and he really let us in to the more vulnerable side of the character.

You asked for itI loved Will Adams’ Meat Man, a bit of a fuddy-duddy but obviously a decent sort; he plays a beautiful scene where he comes to Boy’s rescue when he needs advice about buying steak to impress Girl on their big date. The Land of Hope and Glory accompaniment was a touch of genius. The character’s eventual downfall was very movingly portrayed. I also loved Vicky Kelly as Fat Annie from the tea stall, luring with her gently lascivious tone as she tries to get into Boy’s good books (and pants). Zoe Smith’s Thatcher oozed superiority and detachment as she condescended her way across the stage; and Stewart Magrath’s Market Toby was a fantastically ogreish creation, bullying and fleecing his way around the market, terrifying the life out of the front row of the Stalls with his barking warnings. And I enjoyed the smartarse but moving performance of Ben Webb as Snooks, showing off as a shoe trader, arrogantly going off to work in the city full of Thatcherite zeal, returning some time later with his tail between his legs, genuinely broken.

Quite possibly the best amateur production we’ve ever seen – of anything. A shame it only entertained for three performances, but I’m sure if you saw it, you won’t forget it in a hurry! Oh, and if I’ve got anyone’s name wrong, apologies, but it’s difficult matching performers to names without a more detailed programme!