Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
‘Albion’ by Mike Bartlett
The Guildburys at the Electric Theatre, Guildford
23rd —26th March 2022
The Guildburys carry off a complex performance: more than social comment, this is an evening about romance, loss and reality.
In Albion Mike Bartlett adopts a Chekovian approach to plot and emotional theme, reminiscent of The Cherry Orchard, where a rural setting and its inhabitants are portrayed with an allegorical undercurrent. We meet Audrey Walters (Cheryl Malam), a wealthy middle-aged entrepreneur who has bought a stately pile fallen into disrepair, and who is determined to restore its gardens to the glory that she remembers from her childhood, when she spent idyllic holidays there with her uncle, who then owned it.
She expects her weak, complaisant husband Paul (Jonathan Constant) and her disaffected teenaged daughter Zara (Sophie Walker), to fall in with her plans without compromise. Paul loves her enough to comply; Zara longs to be free to grow, and to return to London. Consultation is foreign to Audrey’s modus operandi; this character is consistently strident, self-centred and unempathetic towards everyone around her, including Anna, the partner of her dead son. She destroys Zara’s self-esteem and creative aspirations along with the girl’s lesbian affair with her own old friend, Katherine (Gilly Fick). Her single-minded fixation on her vision of a vanished past takes priority over all other considerations: she is willing to sacrifice all else for it.
The play was first performed in 2017, during the hiatus between the Brexit referendum and subsequent diplomatic negotiations aimed at fulfilling the ‘Leavers’ dual aspirations to ‘restore’ British culture to the status of an imagined historical ideal and at the same time to create vibrant change. Audrey’s garden project results in her alienating everyone close to her (except Paul) as well as her neighbours in the community, through her selfish, possessive and ungenerous behaviour.
But if you’re expecting overt political comment, you won’t find it here. I came away from this complex play with the sense that it was a portrait of a central character embodying much of the worst of English moneyed class entitlement and arrogance, who spreads destruction while believing that she is being creative. Loss, grief and broken relationships result from her inability to consult with others or to accept changes that are beyond her control.
In the dialogue there’s wit and telling references to the realities that Audrey’s rigid mindset is discounting: for example, climate change means the garden’s flower beds can’t be restored to their original plan; her son’s death in Afghanistan, which she frames as a glorious patriotic sacrifice, is seen to have been pointless in the light of subsequent events there.
Cheryl Malam sustains stridency and controlling self-possession throughout the play; it is hard to feel sorry for Audrey when in the last scene she insists that she will ‘go on’: we see how her attitudes will lead to further losses and alienations. However much we dislike her, she is a tragic hero in the dramatic sense. Jonathan Constant lends an endearing mildness and humour to the character of Paul. As the two ‘old retainers’, Barbara Tresidder and Kim Fergusson lighten the relentlessly tense atmosphere among the family members; Claire Howes as the bright, assertively self-confident Polish cleaner/entrepreneur is an effective foil for Audrey’s self-indulgent romanticism and Zara’s unhappy search for a meaningful role in life. Gilly Fick is colourful and strong as Katherine, Audrey’s old friend who offers Zara a role as a creative lesbian partner and whom Audrey forces to her will —and loses.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare — Guildford Shakespeare Company
Holy Trinity Church, Guildford until 23rd February 2022
Freddie Fox is a dynamic, volatile Hamlet — a wonderful evening of theatre in an amazing setting.
GSC are renowned for their productions in places other than purpose-built theatres, and with this month’s production of Hamlet they have again rendered the lack of a ‘home’ theatre a positive asset to their creativity. Holy Trinity Church in Guildford High Street becomes the stage on which Hamlet, Prince of Denmark struggles with his grief, his hatred for his murderous uncle Claudius and his disgust for his mother who has married her brother-in-law, a disgust which leads to his rejection of Ophelia and his accidental killing of her father, and the final complex denouement that leaves four characters dead onstage.
Holy Trinity’s beautiful interior is enhanced by imaginative lighting by Mark Dymock that creates ghosts, battles and the castle of Elsinore with minimal need for props. Directing the play, Tom Littler says that he set out to use all the opportunities that a church building offers, and this includes live music, which is woven throughout the play: organ music; the cello, played beautifully by Rosalind Ford as Ophelia; and even a recorder played ironically by Hamlet like a penny whistle, as well as exciting thunderous and atmospheric sound effects designed by Matt Eaton, that hold together the fabric and changing moods of the scenes.
Freddie Fox’s interpretation of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, is febrile, passionate, ironic, brooding and ferocious by turns. He dominates the stage and the rest of the cast, whenever he appears. His delivery of the memorable speeches is intense and powerful: even that old chestnut, ‘To be or not to be’, comes alive in his mouth. We believe in his suffering and understand his cause. Equally strong is Rosalind Ford as Ophelia. Her stage presence is as powerful as Hamlet’s; her depiction of Ophelia’s descent from elegant self-possession into madness and suicide brought tears to my eyes.
Claudius (Noel White) is somewhat overshadowed by his angry nephew and appears as a rather weak character who depends on tricks and schemes to seize and hold on to power; Gertrude (Karen Ascoe) seems less in love with him than some productions would have us believe; Horatio, Hamlet’s friend, is played by Pepter Lunkuse: the casting of so feminine an actor somewhat weakened the character’s role, I felt.
Edward Fox (Freddie’s real father) plays the ghost of the dead King Hamlet as a disembodied voice over an evocative light display that changes the church’s furniture into flickering, supernatural images. This was a brilliant piece of theatre. Other original moments are provided when Hamlet, pretending madness, appears in a bishop’s costume intoning nonsense from the (real) pulpit, and the reduction of the ‘play within the play’ to a few moments of flickering blue light shone from behind the audience —only the reactions of Claudius and Gertrude, sitting on the stage, show what they’re watching.
This is an exciting and original production of Hamlet. It’s on until 23rd February — seats are reduced In number for pandemic reasons, so book your ticket as soon as you can.
As You Like It’ by William Shakespeare
Guildford Shakespeare Company
Racks Close. Guildford,
19th – 31st July 2021
What a pleasure to sit in a lush clearing in Rack’s Close woods as the sun goes down, the lights go up on actors’ expressive faces, and Shakespeare’s timeless comedy of love at first sight plays out under towering trees. The Guildford Shakespeare Company has struck gold with their ‘As You Like it’ this week.
Some of Shakespeare’s most memorable speeches shine like jewels in this plot of warring brothers and a cross-dressing maiden, spiced with glorious comic business by all of the cast. The eight members of the company between them play fifteen characters, and with brilliant direction they carry all of them off con brio.
Given that the plot involves peremptory exile by the absolute authority of a ruler, the setting of this production in the authoritarian state of Germany in the 1930’s makes sense. Matt Pinches is very much at home as Touchstone, a Weimar cabaret clown for most of the play, scoring points, flouncing, teasing and occasionally sulking hilariously, in black tights, tinsel mini-skirt and red high-heels.
As Jaques, the philosopher in the forest community, Sarah Gobran’s moving delivery of the famous speech known as ‘The Seven Ages of Man’ holds us spellbound. She’s terrifying as the cruel Duke in the first act, and comically charming as Phoebe, a shepherdess who falls in love with Rosalind thinking she’s a boy. Tom Richardson, as Phoebe’s rejected swain Silvius, is lovably gullible, and Corey Montague-Sholay as the other bucolic lover, Audrey, brings out all the comic potential of his rustic overalls when he’s teased by Touchstone.
Rachel Summers and Natasha Rickman bring giggly girlishness to the roles of the two best friends, Celia the Duke’s daughter and her cousin Rosalind, who run away together to the forest after the Duke throws Rosalind out. Comparing notes about boys, they fill the woods with their enthusiastic screams, see-saw moods and lively scamperings. Natasha Rickman with Rosalind’s passionate, barely held-back longing creates a steamy connection to James Sheldon’s confused Orlando who believes she’s a boy. Her comic timing is faultless.
Robert Maskell’s accomplished performances as the banished Duke Senior and separately as Corin, the shepherd who tries his wit against Touchstone, are very engaging: he brings both joyfully to life.
Memorable moments include the scene when Rosalind, still disguised as a boy, tells all the tangled would-be lovers that they will be married tomorrow but she herself ’will marry no woman’ — the choreography of this scene is irresistibly funny.
Don’t miss this wonderful chance to enjoy live theatre in a beautiful glade — The Guildford Shakespeare Company have again filled warm summer evenings with laughter and magical art. Tickets and information about the cast are here.
This review was first published by Essential Surrey online magazine
Comedy with bite, farce with an edge, a great night out after so long away from live theatre.
Only Alan Ayckbourn can make me writhe with embarrassed laughter — and recognition — with each turn of phrase and plot. ‘Absurd Person Singular’, written in 1972, presents us with three consecutive Christmas Eves and three of the couples from whose social pretentions, misogyny and sheer mutual incomprehension Ayckbourn has so often derived farce and ironic tragi-comedy.
Christmas Eve — the kitchen of Jane and Sidney Hopcraft (Felicity Houlbrooke and Paul Sandys) is the control room of Sidney’s strategic cocktail party, which should set him on the path to financial success, from the low base of his small corner shop. He is the commander and Jane the cringing subordinate responsible for all practical arrangements. ‘Don’t let me down, Jane’ is his bullying refrain. Jane struggles farcically to cope with the pressures of ‘keeping up appearances’ while entertaining social ‘betters’ on whom their ambitions depend. Timid, humiliated and scorned, she develops in the final act to become, literally, a gleeful echo of her husband. Paul Sandys as Sidney brings out all the nastiness and amorality of the character whom we will experience with amused horror in the last act.
In the Hopcrafts’ kitchen we meet Eva and Geoffrey Jackson, clearly not in control of their lives. Geoffrey is amoral and ambitious, played with flexible ease by John Dorney. Eva (Helen Keely) is broken by Geoffrey’s womanising and, as we later see, desperate for affection from her selfish, facile, drunken husband. By the third act we understand that she is now the stronger of the two. In between, her breakdown is played for laughs — she sits traumatised trying to compose suicide notes while the other couples acknowledge her only with conventional noises, talking and pursuing their own lines of thought and action in parallel with each other, everyone disconnected. Great ensemble acting as a kind of temporary teamwork is orchestrated by the ostensibly weak Hopcrafts.
By Act 3 we’re starting to understand the plight of Ronald Brewster-Wright and his wife Marian (Roseanna Miles). He’s ably played by Graham O’Mara as the least obnoxious of the play’s characters, mystified and confused by his relationships with women. Marian, a patronising snob, becomes a helpless drunk; I found myself worrying for her as the Hopcrafts become winners and avengers, calling the tune in the social game Ayckbourn sets up for his characters.
This is comedy with an edge. Despite the many moments of sheer farce, if we didn’t laugh so much we might cry for the characters in this parable.
The original stage play of ‘Educating Rita’ (1980) is a brilliant two-hander. There may have been some in the audience at the Yvonne Arnaud who expected to see a clone of the excellent 1983 movie of the play (I sat next to one such person) but to adapt the script for the cinema Willy Russell included 20 extra characters, who are present in the theatre script but not onstage. The dialogue between Frank and Rita conjures up the situation between them and the social conditions outside the study where they speak with poignant and sometimes highly comic effect. This is wonderful writing.
The scene is the room in a respected university where Frank, a middle-aged professor of English, meets with Rita, a young Liverpudlian hairdresser who has applied to follow an Open University course. Rita wants to “know everything” and so to move her life out of the track in which she feels her family and social class have trapped her from birth. Their relationship swings back and forth in “snapshots” of their successive meetings. His wonder and somewhat patronising perception of her naïve and emotional responses to the books the course demands her to read, and her awe for his middle-class academic world, give way to a more complex relationship as she begins to see herself as “educated.”
This is a sparkling comedy as well as an exploration of class and gender conflicts. It’s full of wit and irony from both student and professor: Rita’s sharp Liverpudlian humour bubbles and sparks in every scene, while Frank’s ironic view of himself and his own weaknesses is a great foil for her edgy, nervous self-deprecation. The process of educating Rita changes the lives of both, in ways that finally remain open to the audience’s speculation.
And so the cast of two are onstage for the duration of the play, and in this production they seem to me to bear that responsibility admirably. Stephen Tomlinson is not Michael Caine and makes no attempt to emulate him. He is the cynical, tired lecturer who has found himself divorced from his first love of literature; he glimpses in the uneducated, raw reactions of Rita a charm and honesty that the students who come to him through the traditional education system learn to suppress, in favour of learned responses from ‘recognised sources’. Jessica Johnson is Rita, spontaneously affectionate, easily overawed but made gradually confident, above all by mixing with other students at the OU Summer School which is part of her course. Her stage presence is joyfully active, veering from literally bouncy when Rita is happy, to angrily sullen when she feels put down, so that her physical equilibrium at the end of the play tells its story.
The play was written forty years ago, yet it hasn’t dated. The English class system remains rooted in 2020 as in 1980 and academic mores also endure. And in spite of advances in gender equality, many women’s options remain as limited as Rita’s, without a conventional education.
This review was originally published in Essential Surrey Magazine https://www.essentialsurrey.co.uk/theatre-arts/theatre-reviews/educating-rita-review/
What I heard on the Last Cassette Player in the World
Ben Ray (Indigo Dreams)
Ben Ray’s second collection is a medley of experimental poems alongside absurd, surreal propositions apparently thrown out ad lib, and sincerely felt and expressed meditations on political, environmental and existential themes.
He is a master of the sustained metaphor, as in ‘The day they decimalised the words.’ He plays with the historical event of currency decimalisation in Britain in 1971, showing how cultural change impinges on meaning. With the currency of old words suddenly devalued, the elderly struggle to adjust, are confused and disenfranchised:
“The older generation, they didn’t understand –
they cried when they opened their mouths
and their old, familiar sounds wouldn’t work.”
And even young people feel a “nagging, empty sadness / for everything that had been left unsaid” and the “now-strange symbols” they see when they find old words “tucked in between the leaves of books / or carefully hidden on stained shopping lists.”
Foreign places and past times inspire other poems that deal with change. In a sequence entitled ‘A short guide to Sengoku period Japanese pottery’ Ray follows the violent evolution of Korean pottery into traditional Japanese porcelain design through the enforced abduction of 20,000 Korean craftsmen and artisans by the Japanese, in the Ceramic Wars of 1592 –1598.
This is a very beautiful poem, with the understated grace of an oriental art work. An artisan tells of the violent uprooting of their life in stanzas named for the processes of their craft: ‘Throwing’; ‘Centring; Opening up’; ‘Firing’; Glazing’; ‘The finish’.
In ‘Throwing’, the opening stanza, the narrator. totally in tune with their art, describes how “When first placed on the wheel of Korea / I was thrown most delicately”: “clay ran like love in my family’s veins.”
In ‘Centring’ the war approaches until there are “soldiers/ wading through shards of villages.” The potters’ disturbance in their work is ironically shown:
“When you make a bowl
and you are briefly distracted
by, say, a dog in the workshop
or the murder of one’s mother…”
And so the story goes on: “Twenty thousand pieces taken from their home / is a rape, a murder.” The Korean craftsmen were taken “in the hope that some of us could be reshaped /and learn to echo the contours of this strange new island.”
The assimilation is almost completed, as the pot is fired and glazed: “The longer a pot is dipped in the glaze / the more the colour settles,/melting into grooves now familiar.”
“And now, here we are
not quite Kinsugi but nearly there –
the shine on us has set hard…”
The narrator keeps his pride as an individual artist, however: the ceramics are now exported globally as traditional Japanese art but the narrator insists:
“I like to think
that they were not born of Korea or of Japan
but of us…”
Welsh places have inspired some of the best poems in the collection. One is another sequence: “Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal”. In six segments Ray maps the changing nature of the canal and its banks in engaging detail, from its beginning
“poured out of the Brecon basin
in a feisty swirling shaking liquid rush”
until in stanza 6:
“Like all empires, the canal does not lead to glory
it leads to obscurity and silence and rubble…”
‘The Landsker Line’ plays with “the distinct linguistic and cultural boundary between the Welsh-speaking areas of northern Pembrokeshire and the English-speaking areas of southern Pembrokeshire.” (Ray’s epigraph) This is not about the landscape, but a map of the dialects that remain as traces of historical skirmishes, military and linguistic, between the English and the Welsh cultures:
“Brandy Brook an anglicised battle line
the next beach north a fighting statement: Pen-y-cwm.
To trace it you will need a phrasebook
and the voice of your grandfather time clots
and cloys in the breaths between sentences.”
“Morning After” carries a cynical epigraph from Rainer Maria Rilke about the city of Rome. In Ray’s response, the extant remnants of the Roman Empire are redrawn as the features of an aged actress, irrelevant to the present day, though still demanding attention:
“Time, the great undresser, long ago
got wise to your amphitheatrics
and confiscated your frescoed chic –
left with mosaic rashes, like old tattoos…”
Ray’s enjoyment of sounds and mild punning is in the rhyming of “amphitheatrics” with “mosaic rashes” – it works for me in this poem. though not in all.
Not beyond politics and environmental themes, but encompassing them, the narrator’s personal memories leaven the collection: I enjoy ‘Hay Bluff’, a memory of a climb with his father to look down over the River Wye; ‘The Gift’, a memory of his father’s humanity; the bleak “Winter at the Sands Café, Newgale. In “Some Other England”, a memory of Morris dancers (“Morris with a darker touch,/ faces that interchange like birds in flight”) who seem to “solve this internal conflict / and reach into some other England” picks up again the dominant theme in this varied collection: the fall of empires and how human beings adapt to cultural change.
First published on https://www.writeoutloud.net/public/blogentry.php?blogentryid=97913
“Ten Times Table” by Alan Ayckbourn
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
I laughed a lot! This ‘romp’ takes a side-swipe at extremes of class and politics, highly relevant today.
As a huge fan of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays, I came to “Ten Times Table” expecting surprises, wit and playful baiting of the English class system. The play’s scenario is perfect for that: a self-appointed committee in a small English town, planning a ‘festival’ to celebrate an 18th century local confrontation between land-owners and land-workers. Over the course of their weekly meetings the team-work their optimistic, peace-making chairman hoped for falls into chaos and farce ensues. (I assume that the title of the play refers to their ten meetings round the table in the dilapidated ballroom of the Swan Hotel.)
The cast of characters is pure Ayckbourn: the fussy, pedantic ex-lawyer Ray (Robert Daws); Eric, the weak “lefty” school teacher with a chip on his shoulder (Craig Gazey); Lawrence, the drunken businessman with a failing business and a breaking marriage (Robert Duncan); Helen the Thatcher-like virago, (Deborah Grant); young, susceptible Sophie (Gemma Oaten) and Philippa (Rhiannon Handy), and the chirpy, peace-making chairman of the committee, Donald (Mark Curry). Add to this list Audrey (Elizabeth Power), the ancient deaf lady assigned to take minutes, and Tim (Harry Gostelow) the aggressive right-wing ex-military farmer who’s co-opted to move the planning forward when the committee’s stymied as such committees often are, and the stage is set for the confrontations of politics and class that Ayckbourn uses to poke fun at all the stereotypical views of his caricatures.
Some of the funniest moments of the play are provided by Mark Curry as the hapless chairman of this dysfunctional committee. His balletic body-language and almost operatic delivery of attempts at reconciliation between warring committee members are brilliant – “We-e-e-e-e-ll … no-o-o-o-w!”
Elizabeth Powers as Audrey is also a delight: necessarily side-lined by deafness, her attempts to understand what’s going on are touching, familiar and funny.
I enjoyed the evening and laughed a lot. I did feel that the play itself was a little static visually, until the last scene presented the farcical outcome of the deliberations of the committee. That said, the performances of all the cast were suitably exaggerated, in keeping with the author’s evident aim of presenting the characters’ stereotypical responses to the situation and to each other, so the pace didn’t drag.
Alan Ayckbourn says of this play, “In more innocent days, it would probably have been subtitled a romp”. First performed in January 1977, with Margaret Thatcher poised to become Prime Minister three years on and several years of social and union unrest behind, Ayckbourn takes a sideways swipe at both ends of the political spectrum and all levels of the English class system, positioning himself as “the man in the middle” of the chaos. And yes, it is a romp!
“The Lovely Bones” based on the novel by Alice Sebold.
A wonderful life-affirming evening.
Charlotte Beaumont is the teenager from heaven!
It’s not often that I feel that an adaptation of a book I’ve enjoyed has gained a lot in the process of adaptation for the stage, but at the end of the first half of “The Lovely Bones” that’s just what I was telling myself. This is a highly inventive, imaginatively conceived, beautifully staged production.
The story is of the unsolved rape and murder of a fourteen-year-old girl by a serial killer. As in the novel, it’s told by the victim herself, who’s looking for release from the unfinished business that her violent early death has left. She haunts the people from her short life and place where she was killed, trying to make them find her murderer.
But this is no ordinary ghost story. Susie (Charlotte Beaumont) is a feisty young teenager with all the energy, capriciousness, love of fun, music, dancing, and awareness of boys, typical of living girls of fourteen. Her pleasure when things go right is expressed in dancing and radiant smiles; her frustration at being unseen and unheard brings hissy-fits and glowering pouts, when things go wrong; she’s as impulsive, brave and strong-willed in death as in life. Charlotte Beaumont is perfectly cast: utterly charming, she moves the story on with joy, humour and verve (there’s a lot of laughter in this play.)
In the second half, when the focus of the play moves to relationships within Susie’s grieving family and among her old friends, now maturing adults, the pace slows somewhat.
Fanta Barrie as Lindsey, Susie’s gifted younger sister, gives the role moving depth as, still grieving, she develops and matures. Their father, Jack (Jack Sandle) is obsessed by the need to find the killer. In grief her mother Abigail (Catrin Aaron) is desperate to keep the rest of her family together by returning to “normal” life but Jack’s obsession drives her to leave him.
Meanwhile, the psychopath, Harvey (Nicholas Khan), remains totally unforgivable – no extenuating circumstances are suggested for his appalling crimes. He is a weak, unhappy man who excites no sympathy: we’re as relieved as Susie when his fate catches up with him.
This play is comparable with “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time” for originality. The staging is remarkable. Using a huge reflective surface extended above and semi-transparent layers behind it, space becomes multi-dimensional. Susie is “trapped” in heaven with a caring “transitioning officer” guiding her but she’s still with her family and friends on earth, though she can only watch as they grieve and develop their relationships without her. This aspect of the story could become mawkish, but it’s saved from over-sentimentality by the vigour of the writing and acting, as well as by the wonderful evocation of a meld of heaven and earth and different kinds of time enacted simultaneously: Susie’s “transition guide” points out that “on earth their time is so short.” (I paraphrase.)
This entertaining play lightly carries the life-affirming message that lives must be lived, that grief must be borne and that we must play the cards we’re dealt, however hard or unfair they seem. For Susie, her spirit moves on when she learns and understands the life and people she lost on earth.
I thoroughly recommend “The Lovely Bones”, both this play and the book.
Wonderful theatre, in Guildford pre-West End.
I can’t praise this production highly enough – Shakespeare at his most accessible, entertaining and thought-provoking. Hannah Morrish's performance as Helena was a triumph.
Enjoy the GSC's unique interpretation of Shakespeare in the beautiful setting of St Nicholas Church, Bury Street, Guildford (the church with the green roof across the bridge at the bottom of the High Street, in this picture.)
13th October – November 2nd 2019
By the end of the first scene of the GSC’s production of “All’s Well that Ends Well” we knew that we were enjoying the work of a first-class team: the adaptation, set, beautifully integrated musical arrangements and above all the actors all operating at a high level of excellence. This is one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’, which leave the audience with unresolved issues allowing directors to interpret its meanings creatively. David Littler, the director of this production, has taken up the challenge magnificently.
The story is about love, honour, betrayal, lies, trickery, and the mix of goodness and weakness that makes up the human soul. There’s a buffoon (Parolles) who makes us laugh and is punished for his shallow boasting and weak character. There are fairy tale tropes – rings that unravel a deception; a low-born character who receives a high-born marriage partner as a reward from a ruler.
But in this story the low-born is female: Helena, a deceased doctor’s daughter, who falls in love with Bertram, the son of her guardian, Countess Roussillon. The Countess loves Helena as her own daughter. Bertram, conscious of his own inherited status, rejects Helena on the grounds that she’s beneath him, and goes off to Paris to fulfil his social role as a gentleman. When Helena goes to Paris too, with a successful cure for the dying French Queen (a gender reversal from the original), she is rewarded by being told to pick one of three marriage partners, and of course she chooses the reluctant Bertram. He is furious and refuses to consummate the marriage into which he is forced by the Queen. He leaves the court next day with his friend Parolles, to join an army against insurgents. He writes to Helena telling her that she will never be his wife until she wears his ring and carries his child. Since he is staying away from her, this seems impossible. But Helena is resourceful and single-minded, and with the help of Diana, a young virgin, tricks Bertram into unwittingly consummating their marriage, rendering it an unbreakable social and legal bond. The dénouement is a win for Helena, but we are left in some doubt how happy the marriage may turn out to be in the long run. Her most rewarding relationships seem, in this production, to be with the three female characters who have supported her plans: the Countess, now a loving mother-in-law; the Queen; and Diana, the virgin who helped her to snare Bertram. We wonder, has all really ended well?
Hannah Morrish as Helena brings to the part all the nuances of love, fear, disappointment, joy and hope that the complex narrative demands. Her delivery of Shakespeare’s lines render them her own, as comprehensible to our modern ears as they were to the Elizabethans’. Robert Mountford’s interpretation of Parolles is a delight: a leggy, round-eyed, flamboyantly expressive character who can puff up with braggart’s pride and deflate comically with fear or humiliation next second, when confronted. Miranda Foster plays the Queen with tremendous spirit and the Countess with all the warmth that one would wish for in such a loving mother-in-law.
The music must be mentioned: the theme from Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” in the original and as a piano theme running through the play; Patti Smith; Joni Mitchell, and Chrissie MacFee’s beautiful “The Songbird” stay in my memory of this enchanting evening.
This review is also on Essential Surrey's Reviews page https://www.essentialsurrey.co.uk/theatre-arts/alls-well-ends-well-review/
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/