Theatre Reviews by Janice Dempsey
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)
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.