Theatre Reviews by Janice Dempsey
The Government Inspector (Nikolai Gogol) at Merrist Wood, Guildford (17 - 20 July 2019) and touring to the Minack Theatre, Cornwall, 26 - 30 August 2019
Open Air Theatre by the Guildburys
This fast-paced comedy is another triumph for the Guildburys – brilliant individual and ensemble acting and wonderful comic timing.
Ian Nichols and the Guildburys continue their record of choosing high quality, brilliantly entertaining plays for their summer season of open-air theatre. Alistair Beaton's adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's The Government Inspector still carries a punch today, 180 years after it was first staged in Tsar Nicolas I's authoritarian Russia. Civil servants and provincial officials are mercilessly lampooned, to hilarious effect. Satirical, farcical and cynical, it was nevertheless read and admired by the Tsar himself.
The story has no heroes. Khlestakov is a foppish, conceited young man who is travelling Russia with his servant Osip, wasting his father's money, gambling and drinking. They find themselves stranded in a town inn, without money or credit. The Mayor of the town is seized by the idea that this stranger is a high-ranking inspector from central government, come to find out what he and his deputies have been doing. He is fully aware that he is guilty of extortion, wasting public funds and mistreating the townspeople he should be serving, The Postmistress, Commissioner for Health, Magistrate, Superintendent of Police, Director of Education and Doctor are equally terrified. To protect them all, the Mayor insists that Khlestakov and Osip stay with his own family, plies Khlestakov with vodka and flatters him until he feels so important that he almost believes that he is indeed a powerful man from Petersburg. He's quick to realise the opportunities for making money, too, accepting "loans" that the guilty dignitories offer him (all except the Superintendent of Police who has his standards to keep up – he only takes bribes, never gives them!) The dénouement is a masterpiece of comic choreography: I won't spoil it by revealing all.
We laugh delightedly at the jokes and wonderful clowning. But we also hear subtle echoes of the threat of the collapse of responsible government and shortage of honest, reliable leaders on a national scale, today.
Photos by Phill Griffith
This review was first published in Essential Surey Magazine https://www.essentialsurrey.co.uk/events/the-government-inspector-review/
What would have happened if Romeo had woken up a few minutes earlier at the end of Shakespeare’s tragedy and the ‘star-cross’d lovers’ had survived? How would the fourteen-year-olds’ romantic dream have stood up to the test of time, ageing and the stresses and routines of married life? Ephraim Kishon’s play, brought to the Electric Theatre stage this week by the Guildburys, sees the situation thirty years after their survival: Juliet as a discontented, frustrated wife and Romeo a seedy middle-aged husband with money worries and mother-in-law problems, battling with each other over the disappointments and disillusionment of it all. And who do they blame? The author, literally, of their troubles: William Shakespeare himself!
That’s where it gets surreal, for Will himself is haunting them. Written as iconic romantic lovers, now they’re locked in an archetypal marital conflict. Only Will can solve their problems and he’s much more interested in strutting like a peacock, declaiming in blank verse (unlike the rest of the characters, he’s forgotten how to speak prose except at moments of great stress), and attempting to seduce their own fourteen-year-old daughter, Lucrezia. Lucrezia, a modern “daughter from hell” is totally up for it; according to Juliet’s old Nurse, now a friend of the family, she takes after her mother Juliet at that age!
This a rumbustious take on Shakespeare, and incidentally a romp through the text of several plays. Friar Lawrence is senile and keeps thinking he’s in ‘Hamlet’ and Shakespeare himself is prone to declaiming from Macbeth, Julius Caesar and the history plays, in his conversations with the unhappy couple. We’re the groundlings, and at one moment the Bard invites our questions – so you might want to come to the play with an inquiry he can answer from the grave – for instance, who did he leave his very best bed to?
As always, the Guildburys have brought all their enthusiasm and dramatic skills to bear on this production, directed by Steffen Zschaler. Jonathan Constant is a wryly humorous, hen-pecked Romeo, harried by Danielle Buckett, his shrill, disillusioned Juliet, in scenes of marital discord that may strike a chord with many middle-aged couples. But their mutual support against Shakespeare also rings true. After all, they’re in the position of discontented children complaining to a parent, ‘I didn’t ask to be born!’
Ian McShee as the preening ghost of Shakespeare is brilliant. His dancing, self-congratulatory body language and swift changes of oral tone and register are a delight. Tuuli Albekogliu is Lucrezia, a tall streak of defiance who transmutes to a capricious temptress when Shakespeare is about. Tina Wareham gives a memorable, humorous and professional performance as the old Nurse, and Graham Russell-Price’s interpretation (in faux-Irish) of Friar Lawrence in our “Me Too” age is very funny. And Tautvydas Kuiiesius, the guitarist, deserves an accolade for his amazing cockerel impersonations!
This satire was written after Kishon had survived Nazi concentration camps in Poland, and three marriages. He clearly learned much in his long life – above all, how to laugh!
This review was first published online at www.essentialsurrey.co.uk/theatre
This brilliant play was at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, in the week beginning 12th March 2019 and my review of it appeared in Essential Surrey magazine that week.
We’re all aboard the SS Italian Castle for an evening of outrageous overacting, hilarious sight-gags, running gags, puns and misleading conversations sparklingly interwoven in the masterly way that fans will recognise from other Tom Stoppard comedies. This is a pastiche of musical comedy that really works.
The story is based on a play by the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Moulnar, “The Play’s the Thing”. In Stoppard’s version two playwrights and three of the cast of the play they’re writing are all cooped up together on a liner crossing from Cherbourg to New York, trying to complete the script. But a love triangle involving the leading man, the leading lady and the pianist is constantly interfering with the progress of the plot they’re trying to finalise.
Enter Dvornichek, the cabin steward (Charlie Stemp) who is quickly renamed by Turai (John Partridge) and Gal (Matthew Cottle) the writers, and becomes the character who explains all the details of the present situation onstage, for our benefit, as if the action so far hasn’t made it clear enough. Gradually the writers’ power over their play becomes shared, and then taken over, by the rest of the characters: Natasha, the passionate female lead and ex-lover of Ivor Fish (Simon Dutton), Adam (Bob Ostlere) her present fiancé and Dvornichek, now called Murphy the Irish policeman for the purposes of the play within the play. In the tradition of all musical comedies of the first half of the twentieth century, all the knots, both among the characters and in Turai’s play, are satisfactorily untangled and the evening ends with some spectacular dancing by Charlie Stemp and John Partridge, and an unexpected musical performance by Issy van Randwyck as Natasha.
The set is dazzling: we could almost smell the sea air. The costumes and dancing are a delight, the songs and dance routines are beautifully and satirically performed. The whole cast delivers Stoppard’s intricate counterpointed dialogues, full of wordplay and misunderstandings, with perfect dramatic timing. The running jokes are irresistibly funny: the steward, new to the sea-board life, is mysteriously staggering to a ship’s roll when the SS Italian Castle is in dock, yet in a storm he stands steady as a rock while the passengers are being thrown helplessly around the deck. And we wonder, will Turai ever actually be served with the brandy he keeps ordering and that Dvornichek keeps faithfully bringing? (No spoilers for that running gag.)
It’s no surprise to read later that in 1953 PG Wodehouse also created a version of Moulnar’s 1926 play, setting it in a castle, with Dvornichek a Jeeves-like butler. Stoppard’s 1984 version has the same appeal as Wodehouse, and this slick comedy hasn’t lost any of its appeal in the twenty-first century. For an evening of fun and laughter, don’t miss it!
Janice Dempsey 12/3/19
A waspish, clever, successful writer challenged by his past. Sounds familiar? But “A Song at Twilight” is not autobiographical, says Noëi Coward, its author. He based Hugo Latymer, his main character, on another writer, Somerset Maugham, and on Max Beerbohm the nineteenth-century theatrical entrepreneur. In old age, Beerbohm had the experience of a former lover returning; Maugham was well-known for his caustic wit and sarcasm. Yet in hindsight, it’s easy to assume that Coward was speaking through his characters about his own troubled relationships.
So, an arrogant, demanding elderly writer suddenly receives a call from Carlotta, a woman with whom he had lived “half a lifetime ago” as he says, who now has a request that he allow her to use letters he sent her at the time in a biography of him that she’s writing. He indignantly refuses, but the ensuing conversations between them reveal that the erstwhile lover has a bargaining chip that he has not foreseen.
This is not the wistfully romantic comedy laced with sardonic humour and Coward’s classic songs that I was expecting. It has its comic moments as Hugo (Simon Callow) blusters his way through the first act and the well-preserved ex-mistress (Jane Asher) coolly parries his verbal thrusts and gibes, but the third act, in which Hilde, Hugo’s long-suffering, nurturing German wife, intervenes, is the strongest part of the play.
The voice of Hilde (superbly played by Jessica Turner) is one of reason and kindness, cutting through the selfishness and “romanticism” of the British characters. It’s a welcome reframing of British cultural stereotypes. This last act rings with honesty. The first half of the play, an over-long, visually static battle of clever insults and threats, didn’t prepare me for this display of wisdom or this depth of understanding.
Coward portrays the contrasting characters and predicaments of the female characters with sympathy, allowing them to express their differing ways of dealing with their relationship with Hugo’s domineering ego. Both are able to stand up to his demands, now that both are no longer young. Coward’s insight into their contrasting attitudes and behaviour is one of the strengths of the play.
In the third act, too, Coward expresses the painful repression of homosexual feelings that has clouded all the social relationships of many men of his generation. Clearly set out in the voice of Hilde is a new acceptance of homosexuality in Britain. Coward must have felt that it was at last safe to be so honest; the Sexual Offences Act was passed in 1967, decriminalising sex acts between men over 21 years old. But this is not the only, or even the main theme of the play, which is the nature of love, tolerance and kindness.
“A Song at Twilight” made its début in 1966, with Nöel Coward in the role of Hugo. I left the theatre last night with a warm feeling towards Nöel Coward’s complex character. This is a rewarding, often funny and immensely entertaining night out.
Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
Dates: 26 February - 2 March 2019
This review was first published on Essential Surrey Magazine:
A moving, ultimately inspiring exploration of the resilience and courage of the human spirit in the face of tragedy.
Alice is a Harvard professor of cognitive psychology. Aged fifty, her career is at least as successful as her scientist husband, John’s. They lead active, healthy lives, even if she feels they’re somewhat disconnected from each other by the demands of their careers. Their two grown-up children are on the verge of consolidating their lives. The family has everything to look forward to. When Alice begins to experience unaccountable lapses of memory and disorientation, her doctor diagnoses early Alzheimer’s disease. The changes in all their lives, but particularly in Alice’s, are, of course, profound.
Originally a novel by Gina Genova, herself a Doctor of Neuroscience, the story was adapted for the stage by Christine Mary Dunford and premiered in Chicago, following a film in 2014 starring Julianne Moore. Dunford’s stage adaptation was premiered in Britain this year in Leeds, directed by David Grindley. Wendy Mitchell, herself for the past three years a sufferer of young-onset dementia, advise the cast and designer on how best to express the world as Alice experiences it over the course of the three years covered by the play’s chronology. Her contribution has led, for example, to the gradually changing character of the set, from conventionally organised, through more chaotic, random arrangement, to a pared down, almost empty stage in the last scenes.
The most striking theatrical device introduced by Dunford is the character of “Herself” (Eva Pope), a younger version of Alice (Sharon Small) who shadows Alice as her inner voice, sharing her decline but supporting and encouraging her to remember who she is, who she has been, and what she can still do despite the disease that is inevitably destroying her mind and body and will kill her, probably before she can see her family achieve what she hopes for them. Alice is a rational person, to whom the loss of control is most distressing; personified, her “used-to-be-self” helps her to cope with the present moment, comforts her in the darkest times, counters the patronising encounters with doctors who talk about her as though she isn’t in the room, teaches her to value what she still has and to learn emotionally. Sensitive direction and beautiful performances by Pope and Small create a memorable narrative of the inner life of Alice. The moments of humour (and yes, there are those) arise from their shared dialogue and commentary.
The family are faced with life-changing decisions through Alice’s illness; Martin Marquez as John moves from a husband used to taking his wife for granted to a more actively caring partner; their son and daughter pursue their own dreams but seem closer to their mother because of her new and growing vulnerability. Alice is still Alice when she addresses an audience to tell them how she will live now: in every moment, enjoying every sensation and experience she can to the fullest, for as long as she lives.
I won’t deny that I cried. But this is a play everyone should see.
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.