Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
Alan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art” is based on topics of which he has enormous experience: playwriting and the world of theatre itself, fame, and the private lives and loves of artists. It’s about sexual relationships between men in an era of legal repression of homosexuality, and about aging and the passing of time. It’s about loyalty to old friends and fear of loss and death, and about the way that an artist can’t give up “the habit of art”, however much he has had to debase or trivialise it in order to earn a living or cater to the expectations of the public as a “national treasure”.
Set behind the scenes on the stage of a provincial theatre, we meet the cast and author of “Caliban’s Day”, a play about an interview by Humphrey Carpenter (a respected BBC interviewer in the 1960’s) with the elderly poet WH Auden, and about his relationship with the aging composer Benjamin Britten. The actors struggle in and out of role in a wonderful tapestry woven of reality and art. The author looks on, at times despairingly, for the actors and director are bringing their own interpretations to bear on his play’s agenda.
There are very funny moments, as when John Wark, playing Donald (playing Humphrey Carpenter) rebels because the script doesn’t allow him enough stage presence – “A device, a narrator, that’s all I am in this play!” Donald’s attempt to add to the Carpenter role results in a lovely farcical moment. There’s more subtle humour in the voice, graceful movements and exquisite comic timing of Alexandra Guelff as George, the Assistant Stage Manager. We also smiled at the tact and patience of Company Stage Manager Kay (Veronica Roberts) in keeping the rehearsal on track.
The performance of Matthew Kelly as Fitz playing Auden is superb. The roles of fictional actor, Fitz, and the “real” Auden (who in Bennett’s play is, of course, a construct of the fictional author’s play) are entangled and melded, so that Auden, the grand old man of poetry in his era, can also be understood as a fallible, vulnerable artist and flawed human being. Kelly portrays this dual role with tremendous understanding and empathy. David Yelland as Britten is also vulnerable: his elegant manners mask his fear that his illegal sexual liaisons will destroy the reputation that he has built through his art. Both are haunted by time. In the play-within-the play, “Auden” accuses Britten of dishonesty and has no illusions about his own sexual mores. These are demonstrated by his conversations with “Stuart”, called up from an agency. Space prevents my discussing the role of Tim, meta-playing “Stuart” (Benjamin Chandler). Perhaps this is appropriate, for Neil explains that Stuart represents the ordinary folk who long to touch fame but who, in the scheme of things, are left out of history.
This was an evening of absorbing theatre by a master of the medium: thought-provoking, moving, funny, witty, sharp and highly enjoyable.
This review was first published on https://www.essentialsurrey.co.uk/theatre-arts
There are two plots: Orsino, played by Marcus Knight-Adams, bursts on to the scene in full manic flood to introduce the first: the tangled romances of two young rich couples. Knight-Adams’s full-on delivery starts the play with an explosion of energy that is sustained by the whole cast throughout the evening. Joe Peden is a powerhouse of comedy and vitality as Sir Toby Belch; he launches the sub-plot: the hilarious activities of the servants and dependants in Olivia’s household.
The whole cast is superlatively dynamic and their assembly acting in the set pieces is absolutely brilliant. Jonny Wiles as Malvolio, Olivia’s stuffed-shirt equerry, is wonderful: his disdain and disapproval of Sir Toby and his friends, the drunken hangers-on in Olivia’s house, is palpable; as we laugh at their comical roaring and drunken antics, his arrogance and conceit seem to justify the cruel trick they play on him. I loved his attempt to connive with the front row of the audience to interpret the cryptic note that seems to offer him the status he craves.
But nothing is morally clear-cut in “Twelfth Night”. Susanna Townsend plays Feste as a wistful, knowing outsider; part of the conspiracy to humiliate and break Malviolio, Feste brings his ambiguous commentary to this situation: he seems to show pity for the protesting, weeping Malvolio but then reminds him of his arrogance and past insults to Feste himself: “ ’I am not mad’ – but do you remember?” Townsend sings Feste’s songs in sweetly haunting interludes.
The female characters are equally strongly played. Daisy Hayes as Viola has an excellent line in shocked expressions and flinching as she sees herself getting more and more entangled in a situation of identity confusion that she herself has set up. Kate Weir as Olivia’s maid Maria is a kittenish, clever, rather viciously intelligent girl who won’t let anyone get away with dissing her. Olivia, played by Chloē Delanney turns from haughty dismissive object of Orsino’s unwanted attentions into an archetypal sixties chick when she falls in love with “Cesario” (actually Viola). Her flirty, sexually aware persona is put on with the flaming red dress she wears to try to catch “him”!
This is Shakespeare as we want to see it: the well-known lines delivered in natural, joyful realisation of their universal meaning in human relationships, tropes rendered fresh: “Patience on a monument”, “Like a worm i’ the bud” heard as if for the first time. Unmissable!
This review was first published on Essential Surrey online magazine's Arts and Theatre page on 30th August 2018.
The story has some of the elements of legend or fable: a young boy, Albert, acquires a talented horse, Joey, and forges a close relationship with him. Albert’s drunken spendthrift father sells the horse to the British army when war is declared in 1914. The boy goes in quest of his lost horse and, after much suffering for both, they are reunited at last. Along the way there are strong messages about the cruel way that horses were used by both sides in WW1, and about the possibility of reconciliation among individuals who discover their common humanity, regardless of their nationality.
But the most striking thing about “War Horse” is not the story but the production, every aspect of which is supreme. The horses, the main characters in the drama, are played by wonderful full-scale puppets supplied by the Handspring Puppet Company. Each is operated by three actors who have clearly observed horses very well. I began by wondering at the mechanics of the puppets but quickly suspended my admiration of the technique and became immersed in them as creatures in their own right, with thoughts, fears and wills of their own.
The scenes of battle and destruction are marvellously sprung upon us using lighting, sound and a minimum of props. A farm hurdle becomes the rail of a troopship, a plough becomes an abandoned gun-carriage. Above and behind the action, a graphic commentary is projected. The designer Rae Smith’s drawings represent the sketchbook of the officer who took Joey into war: drawings of locations, weather and bombardment. In a succession of images, first neat pencil sketches but later close in style to the Vorticist work of war artists, she succeeds in graphically plotting the descent into despair and chaos of the men sent to the battlefield.
I also enjoyed the linking of scenes by Bob Fox’s unaccompanied singing, setting mood and moving the story on. The lighter moments of banter and stage business were a foil for darker scenes. The pace of the play was excellent; as Rae Smith says, documentary realism would not work in this play (and in my opinion was a weakness in Speilberg’s film of the story). The play truly achieves “poetic” realism and moves with “the speed of the audience’s imagination.” (Reg Butler in the programme)
The packed audience left the theatre buzzing with satisfaction after an enthralling evening. And a lot of us were talking about a scene-stealing puppet goose, who took its final bow with the human actors and needed chasing off the stage!
"War Horse" is at the New Victoria Theatre until 18th August 2018. Book tickets here:
Bullying, insults, extortion of confessions through fear and betrayal of trust, all are timeless techniques employed by the powerful in a society divided by inequality. The politics of gender, money, power and religion were equally responsible for the severing of Anne Boleyn’s head from her body, as the sword that cut through that “little neck”. Sarah Gibbons is a beautiful, charismatic Anne who develops from a wilful teenager of nineteen into a focussed young woman who prizes her own honesty and perseverance above all, holding her own among the bullying men who rule Henry VII’s court. Her cowed and fearful female friends betray her despite their love for her, when they're beaten and threatened with torture. "I want to stay alive", moans Lady Rochford (Claire Rackleyft) to Anne afterwards.
As far as the status of independent-minded women is concerned, nothing has changed in James's time. But does he intend to use his autocratic power in a new way that will bring the country together? Has Anne’s attempt to promote Protestantism changed the balance of power in religion? Did James’s English translation of the Bible based on all the disputing factions in the English church heal the rifts he (and Anne before him) saw in British society?
James's dealings with the clergy verge on torture: they're locked in a room for hours without food or drink, and expected to "sort it out among themselves". They emerge, weakened, but standing fast in opposition to any attempt to make worship more "democratic": there must always be a barrier between the elite clergy and the congregation. The absurdity of the scene where altar-rails are seen as a vital matter on which there can be no compromise or agreement is only in the minds of us, the future audience.
As Anne says, the “demons of the past” wouldn’t recognise the minds that we, “demons of the future”, bring to the questions this play asks. And Howard Brenton doesn’t pretend to offer answers, other than Anne’s simple prayer for kindness.
Not that this is a depressing account of Elizabeth Taylor’s chaotic life. Over and over again humour breaks through after the most intense moments, as Taylor proudly gathers up her strength and presses on along the turbulent path that she has chosen. Glorying in her sexual magnetism, unashamedly hedonistic, she commands the stage, And yet this is not a portrait of a stereotypical diva. The performance at Leith Hill Place was intimate and close-up: we sat a few feet away and through Claire Malcomson's intense recreation of Taylor were introduced gradually to the complex, warm human being as well as to the larger-than-life, dramatic personality.
The production by Darren Cheek and Tony Earnshaw (Damn Cheek Productions) is a tightly choreographed and disciplined 70 minutes with no break. Music is in the air at times, redirecting to another era, another filmset, another place, a change of mood. The pace is excellent and uninterrupted by scene or costume changes. Claire Malcolmson's rich and nuanced performance provides all that's needed beyond a chair, a nightstand and a drinks trolley.
We meet Elizabeth Taylor in middle age, distraught and wailing for a drink after losing the love of her life. She looks back on her journey from early child-stardom in “National Velvet”, through six marriages before the age of thirty-two, a glamorous Hollywood career, a spiral into addiction, cure and relapse. She speaks directly to us, sometimes as “all of you out there”, but more often as “Michael”. Listening to her memories and reliving her highs and lows, we deputise for Michael Jackson, whom Taylor recognised as a kindred spirit, equally damaged by an unhappy childhood and equally ready to use his wealth to escape into “Neverland”. Their strange relationship became legendary after the death of her other soul-mate, Richard Burton. But it seems to be Mike Todd, the father of her children, whose death she’s mourning in her opening lines.
“Sex is what drives us, friendship is what rescues us,” says Elizabeth. We learn that not all her relationships with men were based on sexual love: in the 1980’s the death from AIDS of Rock Hudson helped her to raise awareness and fund research into its cure, and she admits that she loved him as her very dear friend, not her lover.
Her long, passionate and mutually destructive relationship with Richard Burton was quite another matter. The harrowing emotional rollercoaster of it, the addiction to alcohol and drugs that accompanied it and her grief at his death brought tears to my eyes.
This woman who was in films as a child actress (“I never had a supporting actor with fewer than four legs till I was sixteen!”), and who felt her life circumscribed by fame, learned to use her power to help others at the last. Sex was a language she mastered, but friendship gave her life its meaning.
Tony Earnshaw's well-researched and thoughtful play sheds light on this life, at once so successful and so personally tragic. It's one more in Tony Earnshaw's oeuvre of successful plays which are launched from Surrey and have the legs to carry them on. "Doors", produced last year in Dorking, subsequently played New York for three weeks, as well as London and a national tour. "Sex is Another Language" with Claire Malcolmson has had its debut at Leith Hill and in the Guildford Fringe, and will be back in Surrey after the summer break. After that, many more audiences should see this original production. We loved it and gave it five stars without hesitaion.
Joe has managed to deny blame for himself but the gossip is that he should be in gaol too. When Chris announces that he intends to marry Ann, Deever’s daughter, who had been engaged to marry his missing brother, emotions run high.
The excellent cast are fully immersed in the play and engage us every moment that they are onstage. They superbly carry the characters’ passionate discussions of honour, honesty, responsibility and the role of money and materialism in times of war. Mark Ashdown as Joe Kellar, the confident, jokey family man, develops under pressure to show the deeply dishonest side of his character: cowardly, selfish, betrayer of his friend and of the men who died when he valued his own personal gain above their lives.
Steve Graham as Chris Kellar is a calm, gentle man, supportive of his parents. He has learnt honour as the leader of men in the war – and carries guiltily his memory of losing them in action. His unbearable distress when that honour is compromised is very moving.
Laura Sheppard as Kate Kellar is a strong figure, pitiful in her obsessive belief that her other son still lives, powerful in her obstinacy and refusal to allow Chris her blessing on his plan to marry Ann. Her grief at the end of the play is mythical: her world is torn apart, her hands clawing her face, a mask of despair. My own eyes were overflowing with the enormity of her emotion.
And, not a bystander but a catalyst, the character of Ann Deever (Catherine Ashdown) interacts with this needy family. Her slightly awkward grace in a new dress and high-heeled shoes, her warmth towards Chris and her tact and firmness with her prospective in-laws is always engaging and always meaningful.
This is a wonderful play, timeless in its discussion of personal, family and patriotic honour and loyalty. And this is a wonderful production, directed superbly by Robert Sheppard. It’s on every night until Saturday 14th April - not to be missed!
FIVE STARS - unmissable!
This review appeared earlier on the theatre/arts page of Essential Surrey online magazine
Be prepared to be intrigued and mystified!
Until this final moment of bathos and dissipation of dramatic suspense, we had enjoyed an evening of rising tension, as Sandor, a powerful, sinister and obviously neurotic character manipulates Joe, a vulnerable young man whom he holds in thrall to his will, with undercurrents of sexual ambiguity, violence and romantic interest to leaven the whole. Dean Smith plays Joe as an endearing weakling caught in the web of Sandor’s obsession, with moments of absurdity and humour that leaven the sense of dread in the first half of the play. Changes in the power dynamic among the characters of Sandor (Joe Eyre), his mother (Karen Drury) and Joe’s “sister”, Tilley (Rachel Hart), skilfully kept us in expectation of an exciting crisis throughout the first half of the play.
It’s after the interval that inconsistencies of characterisation and plot arise to erode our credibility in the story and the characters. Suspended belief is challenged when the would-be kidnappers are allowed to escape, for example. These are the script’s faults rather than the director’s or the actors’, of course.
I enjoyed the evening despite these reservations about the play’s plot and construction. It’s full of suspense and I found myself intensely curious as to what the outcome would be. Dean Smith brought Joe to life as Sandor’s psychological captive; Rachel Hart was sluttish and funny in the role of Tilley; Paul Opacic as Paul was a decent man trapped in the dilemma of choosing between his daughter and a lover. Perhaps Eva Sayer as his daughter was a little shrill but Florence Cady was beautiful and aristocratic and Karen Drury’s portrayal of Sandor’s neurotically possessive mother was faultless.
This is a good night out at the theatre. Be ready to be mystified!
This review also appears on the Theatre and Arts page of Essential Surrey Magazine today. /www.essentialsurrey.co.uk/theatre-arts/review-gallowglass-yvonne-arnaud/
“One Night in November” builds suspense slowly in the first half, with the burgeoning relationship between the young couple (Sarah Martin and James Martin) taking centre stage. Coventry, an industrial city with the problems of aging factories and slums, is effectively evoked in the projected images that accompany all the sets. In dialogue among the Stanley family and with the air-raid warden (Ken Widdows) we understand Coventry’s community spirit.
Michael, a Jew, meets Kate’s family and flinches at the traditional anti-Semitic prejudice of her parents (Barbara Tresidder and Jonathan Arundel); Michael’s official work as a German translator doesn’t help. The attitudes of many young women to the opportunities for excitement and self-assertion presented by wartime Britain are exemplified by Joan, Kate’s sister (Ally Murphy) and indeed by all the young women characters: Michael’s co-worker, Sheila (Cheryl Malam) relentlessly pursuing James for a sexual involvement; the female journalist (Jemma Jessup), photographing the ruins of Coventry, while remarking to Michael, “You’re rather pretty, aren’t you!” (or words to that effect.) We also meet hard-bitten leaders of the intelligence services, played by Derek Watts and John Martin in scenes set in 1940 and in a forward flash to 1976.
The most effective and moving part of the play comes after the interval. It’s a matter of historical fact that Coventry was devastated by the Luftwaffe on the night of 14th November. The atmosphere of fear and chaos created by Simon Price’s sound effects and Robert Sheppard’s lighting is tangible. References to looting and rape by opportunist criminals in Coventry add to the horror. The sense of the waves of attack, which lasted hours, is relentless and terrifying. It’s achieved without strobe effects, thankfully for those with medical concerns.
The Guildburys deserve much praise for the staging of this moving drama. Were I to pick out one performance to praise above others, it would be Ally Murphy as Joan, for her relaxed portrayal of this engaging character. But all of the cast succeed in bringing to life this tragic episode of recent British history.
The catastrophe allowed Coventry to be renewed, rebuilt not only by its survivors but also by injections of money from the US. But we’re reminded that seventy-seven years ago, one night in November saw 1500 citizens killed in the worst Luftwaffe attack of WWII on a British city outside London.
How the Other Half Loves
by Alan Ayckbourn
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford.
A hilarious farce and and a remarkable piece of theatre - Alan Ayckbourn and director Alan Strachan achieve the impossible – a play in four dimensions!
Two adulterers involve an innocent third couple in their attempts to avoid discovery by their spouses. The resulting mayhem involves two dinner parties (that familiar Ayckbourne scenario) fraught with embarrassments, disasters and comic misunderstandings. The social fallout keeps the audience on the edge of their seats and laughing, the only ones in the know.
And all of this takes place in two different houses, on two different evenings - but simultaneously on one stage set! The staging, design and acting require master skills. The characters in both houses cross and pace the stage, playing out the events separated by theatrical time and space, but to the audience’s view, only missing collisions by inches. There are very funny moments at key points when the two realities seem to converge!
The cast are superb. All are experienced actors on screen as well as stage: Charlie Brooks appears regularly on EastEnders, as “Janine Butcher”. Here she plays Teresa Phillips, a feisty proto-feminist, with alternate ferocity and pathos. Leon Ockenden as her husband is determined to survive as an energetic, unreconstructed male.
In contrast, Matthew Cottle and Sara Crowe as Mr and Mrs Featherstone have a marriage that might have been made in Victorian England. Their cringing class-consciousness allows us to laugh heartily at a generation where having to ask to go to the toilet could be an acute social embarrassment. Sarah Crowe, speechless in the presence of “her betters”, and meekly accepting of her husband’s patronising “protection” is a brilliant caricature.
The hard, elegant brightness and ruthlessness of Caroline Langrishe as the boss’s wife, Fiona Foster, may have touched a chord for many in the Guildford audience, as she struggles to make her doomed dinner party “work”! Robert Daws as her cuckolded husband creates a sympathetic character despite (or for the audience, because of) his endless rambling, painful narration of half-remembered anecdotes and jokes. He is Ayckbourne at his most Pinteresque.
This is one of Alan Ayckbourne’s early plays, first staged in 1970. Much of the fun hinges on phone calls between the houses being intercepted, so the play has to be set in its original era, before personal mobile phones. In any case, the action and dialogue depend very much upon that time’s social mores of marriage, divorce and gender relationships. In common with all of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays, this play comments without preaching on those issues, as well as being a brilliant farce. I loved it. The theatre was very full on Monday night – get tickets if you can.
The Legend of King Arthur
written and directed by Caroline Devlin
for the Guildford Shakespeare Company
Another smash hit for all ages, 7 to 107 – never a dull moment in this tale of knights, dragons, magic and a ‘Divine Unseen’ in the voice of Brian Blessed!
Here is the Arthurian legend brought up to date and performed with enormous panache and glee by the talented GSC. Once more they have erected the gorgeous Speigeltent from Belgium in Challenger’s Field, within easy reach of both the Spectrum and Challengers’ parking areas, and used its circular stage and amazing pop-ups and trapdoors to the full.
It’s a tale that almost all British adults know, of how Arthur Pendragon is guided by the magician, Merlin to pull out a magic sword from a stone to prove himself rightful king , how he founded the Fellowship of the Round Table where all his knights had a voice in government, and his conflict with the wicked witch Morgana.
But Caroline Devlin has researched and included many details of the legend that i wasn’t aware of before. The origin of Morgana’s black magic, the myth of the White Dragon versus the Red Dragon and the vengefulness of Mordred, the son of Morgana, are all included here.
It’s more than a simple retelling. From the moment that Merlin first swirls his wonderful swinging coat and raps his magic staff like thunder on the boards of the stage, we’re treated to shape-shifting, flashing coloured lights, huge sharp-looking swords, roaring dragons and fierce sounds and smoke of battle.
And interspersed with the battles, the inspired clowning of Simon Nock, as Fen and four other characters, two of them female! Shape-shifting is a theme: the cast of five actors play twenty-one roles, with the attendant swift costume changes.
Noel White, reporting to the voice of Brian Blessed, the Divine Unseen (the irritable overlord of the gods) plays Merlin with the bravura and casual elegance of Dr Who and the face of Brian Cox. As the Archbishop of Canterbury he shape-shifts to an ancient avatar of Leonard Rossiter; as the leader of the Wolfmen he is sinister, threatening and unrecognisable!
Simon Nock is absolutely the best comic this side of pantomime, whatever the gender of the role he’s playing. There’s brilliant character acting by Alexander Varey as Arthur and King Uther, Emma Fenny as Mordred, a vicious young man – and also the dignified lady of the Lake - and Emily Tucker as Morgana (and Guinevere, and two knights!). It’s a miracle of theatre performance and direction.
The patriotic and humanist sentiments of the last few scenes are heavily emphasised and of course appropriate to this tale of a good king overcoming evil. There’s a lot of strobe lighting during battle scenes, which sufferers from some medical conditions need to know.
The night I went, the audience was perhaps one-third young people and two-thirds adults. All of us joined in the flag-waving and gasped at the magic. This is a great evening for theatregoers of any age – don’t miss it!
The Spiegeltent, Challenger’s Field, Stoke Park, Guildford.
13th October – 5th November 2017
Box Office 01483 304384
This review also appears in Essential Surrey's Theatre and Arts pages (click here)