Theatre Reviews by Janice Dempsey
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)
Airswimming by Charlotte Jones.
The Weird Sisters Theatre Company.
Directed by Stephanie Goodfellow.
This play moved me by turns to laughter, outrage, pity and finally real tears. It was staged this week at Farnham Potteries, Guy Hains’s wonderfully atmospheric arts centre on the outskirts of Wrecclesham, near Farnham, Hampshire.
For me, the spare setting and intimate performance space of the beautifully restored Pottery added an extra dimension to the play’s narrative. In 1924, when the play opens, “Asylums for the Criminally Insane” were full to overflowing with people who had been “put away” by their families and the judicial system as deviants from the social norms of the time. Many lived out their whole lives there, cut off from the outside world, without hope of release. “Airswimming” was written in 1997, only 25 years after cases like those of Persephone (“Porph”) and Dora (“Dorph”) were brought to the eye of reformers and inmates were released into a world where they no longer had a place.
When the play opens, we meet two young women as they begin their friendship in “St Dympna’s Asylum for the Criminally Insane”. This proves to be the only human relationship that they will have for the next fifty years. As their conversations develop, we learn what “deviance” has brought each of them to this place. We’re privileged to watch their different characters emerge and inter-react as they endure years of isolation and incarceration. Prey to hopes, fears and memories, driven to the edge of despair, their occasional cruelty, their fantasies, their struggle to retain their own identities, their need for love and fulfilment, are all concentrated in this one mutually dependent relationship.
Alison Nicol as Porph (Persephone) is the girl who never grew up, the girl who loved dancing and cries easily. Her fixation on Doris Day, at first an anachronism, becomes clarified as the escapist dream ideal of the twentieth century woman (no matter that Doris Day was in life herself an abused woman whose home life was very different from the happy family milieu her films sold to the public).
Tanya Chainey’s Dorph (Dora) has her own escapist fantasy: she has retreated to a military persona, long before women had any such active role in the army. She is keeping discipline, a stiff upper lip, never breaking ranks. Yet even this escape doesn’t make her safe from incipient breakdown.
The contrast between these two fine performances is extremely moving. Even while laughing at the silliness of Porph’s absurdities and Dorph’s grudging acceptance and reluctant involvement in them, we know the pain that gives rise to them and feel respect and pity.
We were sitting within a metre of the actors for much of the play, totally absorbed. For an hour and a quarter we were witnesses to the miracle of endurance and love that is Persephone’s and Dora’s dynamic relationship. Emotions flickered and flowed across the actors’ faces, as strength and weakness alternated between them. Every facial expression, every gesture of hand and head, was perfectly conceived and inevitable to the moment and the role. These are bravura performances in a play that is not just about lives wasted by an iniquitous social system, but about being human.
The cast includes Jessie Wallace and Paul Bradley, both well known from EastEnders and other television shows, as well as on the stage. Bradley plays the would-be murderer with gusto and a shambling humour that allows his comic potential full rein. Jessie Wallace is sadly under-used in her undemanding role (we remember her as Marie Lloyd and other vivacious characters on stage and screen). The star performance is by Beverley Klein as Helga Ten Dorp, the neighbour whose clairvoyant skill both reveals and muddies the plot at various moments throughout. Her over-the-top caricature had the audience rocking with laughter. Sam Phillips portrayed the young writer in all his suspicious innocence and Julien Ball completed the cast of five as an unimaginative lawyer.
The direction is excellent. The static setting of the Bruhls’ living room caused criticism of the cinema adaptation by Sidney Lumet (1982 starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve). Here on the stage, scene transitions are enlivened by minute-long showings of relevant movie clips from classic crime thrillers, which also serve to keep the audience second-guessing the play’s plot.
Ira Levin also wrote Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives. No wonder that the writer Stephen King is a number-one fan of his works. Levin’s achievement is to create suspense, horror and humour all at once, with clever, intelligent psychological writing, but a minimum of gore or physical violence.
Deathtrap is a masterpiece of audience misdirection. It’s a psychological rollercoaster that keeps its pace and humour right to the last minute. Second-guessed and wrong-footed, we gasped and laughed through the evening and emerged into the real world the richer for having been immersed in this fantasy.
This review also appears in the online magazine Essential Surrey.
Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swales
Guildbury’s Theatre Company
Two and a half hours of sheer delight, playfulness of a high order
This joyful romp is the story of Nell, the daughter of a brothel-keeper and hawker of oranges in Cheapside who became one of the first female actors on the English stage. She rose to the status of favourite mistress to King Charles II, the “Merry Monarch”, after he regained the crown following Oliver Cromwell’s repressive decade of rule. This was the era when women were for the first time allowed onstage. Keeping broadly to historical facts, Jessica Swales has subverted history to create a rip-roaring musical comedy set in the pleasure-loving court of Charles II and the revitalised theatrical milieu of the 1660’s.
The star, in the several plays-within-the-play, and of the whole Guildbury’s production, is Amy de Roche as Nell Gwynn. Her beautiful smile, her unflagging energy and charisma and her lovely voice (as well as the other charms that her seventeenth century dresses reveal) enable her to carry off this demanding role with huge success. But every one of the cast turned in a great performance, from Edward Kynaston as the affronted male diva usurped as a player of female roles, to Pam Hemelryk as Nancy, the dresser attempting to replace Nell in a rehearsal and driving the director (Andrew Donovan) to distraction with her ineptitude, in one of the funniest scenes.
Jessica Swales has written a winning play, combining historical fact, great songs, some amusing references to current contemporary issues and gentle fun at the expense of the theatrical profession in general. More seriously, Nell in Swales’ play represents an ideal of modern woman as an independent, pragmatic person, who values herself and is valued for her sexuality but also for her honesty and her talent.
This is an excellent evening’s entertainment by this accomplished Surrey company. If you can get tickets, either for the production at Waverley Abbey, Farnham, on Saturday 15th July (matinée or evening) or at Haslemere Museum 27th - 29th July, don’t delay - you won’t regret it!
Showing at Waverley Abbey, Farnham, 15th July at 2pm and 8pm
at Haslemere Museum 27th -29th July
Photographs © Phill Griffith.
Tickets available at http://www.guildburys.com
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, says Puck. And there we were, in a real forest a stone’s throw from Guildford High Street, transported by the Guildford Shakespeare Company’ magical (and hilarious) production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is a tale of young love (which never did run smooth, as young Lysander points out), dysfunctional marriage in the faery and the mortal worlds, trickery, sorcery, and the equally illusory world of the workers’ dramatic society.
Director Lotte Wakeham has set this production in Guildford, and the date is 1967, with all the fashion fun, timeless musical favourites (and some emerging feminist angst) that the sixties engendered! Oberon is a preening rock star with a huge ego, a beautiful brocade coat and John Lennon glasses; Hermia, the ‘pretty one’ of the four lovers, is a rock-chick in kinky boots. The mechanicals’ play is put on by the Dennis Factory Amateur Dramatic Society and the young people are all students at the new Surrey University (which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary.)
These local references drew us very willingly into the play, and so did the actors’ frequent breaking of the ‘fourth wall’, as when a member of the audience is beckoned to hand Helena (the ‘plain one’) her crutches as she slips on the grassy bank up to the ‘stage’. Those crutches came to feature large in the quarrels among the lovers: as weapons, as wings, as defences – the business and the invention were endlessly comic! As Helena, Meghan Tyler was splendidly cross with the boys she believed were teasing her, and fiercely Celtic when she came to defend herself in the battle royal that Oberon stirs up among the young people.
Sarah Gobran as Hippolyta, the reluctant bride of starchy, arrogant King Theseus, and as Titania, has an excellent line in lip-curling scorn and beautiful floaty dresses. Ailsa Joy is a fiery, passionate Hermia, with brilliant dance and fight skills as well as great comic timing.
The Mechanicals, as always, steal much of the show. Matt Pinches is irresistibly comic as Bottom, whether officious at the drama rehearsal, confused and braying as Titania”s bewitched lover, or playing Pyramus in an outsized breastplate astride a furry hobbyhorse. His talent for rendering ordinary lines into side-splitting gobbledegook never ceases to surprise and delight.
Emma Fenney as Puck, Oberon’s tireless secretary and fixer, is a light-footed but down-to earth spirit, sometimes wrong-footed, forever perky, who holds all these worlds together.
This ‘Dream’ is a masterpiece of fun, invention and imaginative comic business,, all set in a world that’s new to most of the audience: the beautiful hidden depths of the forest behind Rack’s Close. If there are tickets left, go quickly to the GSC’s website and snap them up for a wonderful evening’s entertainment.
This review also appears on the Theatre page of Essential Surrey Magazine.
Tickets at https://www.guildford-shakespeare-company.co.uk/booking-start.php
A standing ovation in Woking for this fantastic, warm display of colour, dance and camp comedy with an edge of social comment!
La Cage aux Folles at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking
(Original farce by Jean Poiret; musical by Jerry Herman with script by Harvey Fierstein, 1982)
Directed by Martin Connor
The curtain at the New Victoria rises to reveal another proscenium stage, the gilt and crimson plush of the Cage aux Folles in gay Paris. And here come the dancing girls in all their ostrich feathers and satin glory, with legs to die for and energy and style that sets the mood of the evening. There’s a story, too, that blossoms in the second act into a moral parable for the times (one question is: just what makes a mother?). And in telling it, there’s high, raucous camp comedy, farce, and joyous celebration of love, life and diversity.
It’s a simple story: Georges and Albin are partners in life and in the Cage aux Folles, a successful Parisian drag club. Jean-Michel, Georges’ son by a previous heterosexual relationship, arrives home to announce that he wants to marry Anne, who turns out to be the daughter of an influential and prudish local bigwig who would like to close the club. Their ensuing machinations to try to solve the problem are hilarious.
John Partridge as Albin is certainly the star of the show, as well as of La Cage: beautiful, lithe (he originally trained as a ballet-dancer), with a singing voice of incredible range and purity, a talent for comedy and a way of working the audience that had everyone joining in and laughing with him. Partridge is a great partner to Adrian Zmed as Georges, in their scenes of pathos and tenderness as well as high comedy. A memorably camp comic performance by Samson Ajewole makes the character of Jacob both ridiculous and lovable: he got a special cheer from the audience on each appearance in the second act!
The high-kicking chorus, all at least six feet tall in their six-inch heels, are extraordinary: the costumes by Gary McCann are lush and the dance sequences are a treat for the eyes.
La Cage aux Folles was something of a landmark in the history of gay rights when it first appeared as a film in 1978 and as a musical in 1982. It’s full of double entendres but also of emotional and societal dichotomies, making the case for love of all kinds and between all genders, against prejudice and selfish unfeeling. The theme songs I loved best sum up the show’s message: Now is the Time, and I am What I Am.
Don’t miss it! It will cheer up your whole week!
This review will appear on Essential Surrey's theatre page http://www.essentialsurrey.co.uk/theatre-arts
The show is on at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking, all this week until Saturday 10th June Book tickets here: http://www.atgtickets.com/venues/new-victoria-theatre/
Bethan Nash's Emma is captivating. She beautifully portrays Emma’s manipulative charm, which dissolves into adolescent tantrums or self-congratulatory smugness in private as she reviews with Mr Knightley the results of her machinations. Her snobbishness, her shallow concern for appearances and her lack of empathy for the feelings of people less well-off than herself (despite her ostentatious “good works”) are flaws that can be forgiven by Mr Knightley (Phillip Edgely), in the face of her open, childlike nature. Knightley is the steadying influence in her hectic world of small-town gossip and intrigue..
If Emma is snobbish, Mrs Elton (Hannah Genesius) shows how London society “does” snobbishness and social control. This is another spirited performance; the bitchy interactions between the two women are very funny.
Kate Copeland (Miss Bates) also turns in a memorable performance as the pitiable spinster, whose social status has fallen with her finances. Polly Misch as Harriet, Emma’s even more vulnerable seventeen-year-old protégé, is touching in her naivety and silliness. Georgie Oulton as Jane, at risk of ruin by an untrustworthy suitor, completes Austen’s parade of the plight of women without money of their own in Regency society. Nicholas Tizzard, George Kemp and Rhys Jones play the other male characters: the fragile anxious invalid Mr Woodhouse, Mr Elton who wants a wife in a hurry, and Frank Churchill, the handsome cad.
Emma is set in Surrey., which added to the fun: the Leatherhead audience found references to trips to Epsom, a visit to London for a haircut (‘sixteen miles on horseback’) and the reassurance that ‘the scarlet fever has stopped at Cobham’, quite comical.
This adaptation of Emma is authentic and accessible even to those who haven’t read the novel or seen the films. The staging is original and imaginatively designed. And you will surely fall in love with the flawed and charming character of Emma Woodhouse! As Miss Austen herself said, through the character of Mr Knightley: ‘Emma is faultless, in spite of her faults.’
I saw Emma at Leatherhead Theatre; from Tuesday May 30th to Saturday June 3rd it's at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford. Definitely a five-star show.
You Give Me Fever by Jack Lynch
The Back Room of the Star Inn, Quarry Street, Guildford, GU1 3TY
23-27 May 2017 at 8pm
A re-telling in modern terms of the classical Greek myth of Theseus, Ariadne and Phaedra, seamlessly incorporating a score of well-loved hit songs performed by Pippa Winslow in a cabaret setting. An imaginative, engaging piece of musical theatre.
In the small, intimate setting of the Star’s Back Room this week, there’s a show that surprised and delighted us with its wit and smooth presentation. The lush range of Pippa Winslow’s voice, both technical and emotional, and her perfect feel for pace in the narrative, translated a little-known ancient myth into a tale that everyone could relate to.
Effortlessly moving from spoken narrative into jazz singing and back again, Winslow held us entranced. She’s able to change register with lightning speed. We particularly enjoyed Zing Went the Strings of my Heart, her bitchy portrayal of a lisping Ariadne through the jealous eyes of Phaedra: a masterly piece of comedy. We loved Comes Love in the voice of Daedelas, the man who made wings for Icarus. Her original interpretation of Girl from Ipanema, was also a highlight. She could hit a note of pathos, too, as in One for my Baby. Sensuality dripped in every note of I am in Love and many others of the songs in this rich score.
The accompanying guitarist, James Shannon, gave the musical numbers sensitive support with his arrangements. He did emerge from anonymity once, memorably, but no spoilers!
You Give me Fever was at the Yvonne Arnaud Mill Studio last year, and we’re very glad of a second chance to see it as it tours the South East. It’s a short show of two 35-minute acts, with an interval, a great addition to a night out. The fast pace, witty writing and character acting and brilliant musical performances make it a go-see.
Tickets for this week can be purchased from http://www.guildfordfringe.com/events-archive/you-give-me-fever-the-phaedra-cabaret/
the black market and to the Germans, and in danger of deportation to the concentration camps or summary execution, such resistance as they could muster had to be small scale, undercover sabotage.
A family left without their menfolk, Jeanne Becquet, her young teenaged daughter Estelle and her daughter-in-law, Lily, are preyed upon by Major von Pfunz. Their spirited attempts at self-defence are shown to be puny in the face of his power as the occupier. Estelle vents her anger and the frustration they all feel, with rebellious challenges to von Pfunz’s face, small acts of personal sabotage upon him, and an attempt to invoke the supernatural against him.
When Lily finds and brings home to nurse a man on the point of death, who has no memories of his identity and speaks English and German equally fluently, Estelle names him Gabriel, like the angel, believing her symbolic rites have worked.
The cast is very strong. Belinda Lang is magnificent as Jeanne, her cutting remarks and desperate insolence dominating the first half of the play. The character of Estelle is equally powerful, excellently portrayed by Venice van Someren as teenage angst writ large and focused in rebellious tantrums and a wild belief in the power of good to triumph over injustice.
Paul McGann manages to transform his appearance and stage presence into the unattractive, complex and ultimately evil von Pfunz, to the extent that he is virtually unrecognizable from his screen reputation in Withnall and I and Dr Who.
As in all Buffini plays, there are moments when the characters discuss the morality of their situations. The dogmatic, merciless attitude of diehard Nazis towards ‘inferior races’ is exposed by von Pfunz’s description of Lily (‘a cancer in your family’) and his definition of war as ‘force versus chaos – law no longer applies’ are chilling and apt in today’s global crises as they were in WWII.
This is an enjoyable and thought-provoking night at the theatre, well worth seeing.
This review is also published on the Essential Surrey website,: http://www.essentialsurrey.co.uk/theatre-arts
There’s a hilarious comedy at the Yvonne Arnaud this week. I hardly expected to laugh and cry so much on a Tuesday night, at a play about aging people marginalised in a private nursing home – and most of the tears were of laughter!
We meet Diana Trent (Nichola Auliffe) grumpily breakfasting in ‘Bayview’ Home for the Elderly, and in the first few minutes of the play we quickly realise that she is more than a match for the frankly creepy staff who try to patronise and control her.
With a quick-fire series of withering glares and killer put-downs Diana shows her contempt for Harvey, the inadequate, narcissistic manager and Jane, his assistant, whose inept attempts to cajole her like a fractious child she elbows aside, metaphorically and physically (making excellent use of her walking stick at key moments!) Her view of aging as a bad joke played on humanity, her cynicism and her indomitable energy are an inspiration to all of us!
Enter Tom (David Benson), a new and, in his own way, an equally rebellious inmate, and a story begins to unfold, as Diana finds herself and romance is born, without sentimentality or euphemism, at Bayview. The end is surprising – though, on reflection, to be expected.
This is an amazing piece of entertainment, successful on all levels. The strong cast play perfect stereotypes: Nichola Auliffe the feisty ex-war correspondent who won’t lie down and die quietly; Jeffrey Holland as Tom, who rebels by retreating ad lib into rich private fantasies; Samuel Collings as Harvey, the vain, neurotic manager, whose body language and sometimes acrobatic stage presence is horribly mesmerising and Emily Pithon, who embodies all badly educated carers as his pathetic, wheedling, downtrodden admirer, Jane. Diana’s niece, Sarah, is played vigorously by Joanna Bending as a chip off the old block that is her aunt.
Michael Aitkins originally conceived the idea for Waiting for God as a stage play in 1990 but instead it became a successful TV series between 1990 and 1994. Now Aitkins has revived and rewritten it for the modern stage, bringing it up to date with sparkling, witty dialogue and a fast pace, reinforcing the attitudes that the aging generation of today recognise: resilience, self-respect and a refusal to give up life without a struggle or to lose their sense of humour.
Director James Seabrook has produced a winner – do go and enjoy it!
This review will also be published on the theatre review page of Essential Surrey online magazine