Featured post

Sidmouth Manor Pavilion Theatre - An Inspector Calls (with James Pellow)

Folks who know me very well often say, kindly I think, that I should get out more. I’m a grumpy old sod at the best of times and in the ...

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Major Barbara (Shaw's Corner) / The Man From Aldersgate


Major Barbara (Shaw's Corner) ****
(Ayot St Lawrence - Fri 23rd June 2017)

The Man From Aldersgate****
(Harpenden Methodist Church - Sat 24th June 2017)

 
I have had a heavy weekend of religion, or theatre depending on your point of view. All I know, and I do not know much, is that God figured an awful lot in both of them. Salvationists and Methodists all and, theatre aside, you cannot help but admire the commitment and unwavering belief in both. It all happened by accident. Not the plays, merely my juxtaposing of attendance. George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara is a play rich in wit and satire, and a plethora of bloody long speeches, but bares in abundance his thought provoking polemic trademarks. Woolly charitable efforts to feed and clothe the poor are all very well but money and industry do it a damn sight better. Even if that money, as it often does, arises from the sweat of whisky distilleries and armament manufacturers. Pass the smelling salts someone, or at least an opposing political tract. It is an absorbing argument, amplified here by cynical businessman Andrew Undershaft and his feisty Salvationist daughter Barbara. If I did not totally buy in to the underlying family dramatic plot, only foundlings inherit this worthy gunpowder business, I was bowled over by the central performances in Michael Friend’s production for the National Trust Shaw Corner Festival. Chris Myles was beautifully clear and commanding as Andrew Undershaft, this was an outdoor production on a windy evening, and invested all of his speeches with delightful variation of tone and he was well matched, or should I say sparred, by Maryann O’Brien as the zealously religious daughter Barbara. Whether in her upper class day clothes or her austere Salvationist’s uniform you were always acutely conscious of a woman rich in misguided warmth and commitment. Good as these two actors were, they did have the two meatiest parts and expertly wolfed them down, they were given splendid support by William Keetch as the ineffectual son Stephen, Derek Murphy as the etonian beau Charles Lomax, full of engaging ‘don’t yer knows’, and. most notably, Laura Fitzpatrick as beleaguered upper class mother Lady Britomart. Miss Fitzpatrick had that silken serenity of a woman always destined to be obeyed, or so she thought, and a honeyed voice which conveyed it exquisitely. So all in all an excellent evening of theatre, albeit a typical Shaw long one, only slightly marred by scene placing against the trees and wind in Act One. Not their fault but most of the later scenes were, mercifully, fully in front of the house. A large cast and I can’t single them all out but Molly Waters was an impressive young Salvationist and Paul Thomas the engaging silly ass Adolphus Cusins. Not a totally believable character, not his fault, but played with a great sense of Charles Hawtrey fun. My one main caveat, other than occasionally poor placing of actors, was Paul McLaughlin’s portrayal of the rather nasty Bill Walker. A strong performance but a little too strong for my taste. But then in the famous film Robert Newton took on the part. And he was no fading wallflower.
B J Johnston was equally no fading wallflower in his one man portrayal of John Wesley at Harpenden Methodist Church the following night. This was his five hundredth performance of The Man From Aldersgate and if the other four hundred and ninety nine were given as much rich drama and commitment as this audience then it has been a long treat for many. Mr Johnston is a Methodist preacher but he is also a skilled actor to his fingertips. Over an hour and a half he creates a rich picture of the life of the man who founded the Methodist movement in the eighteenth century. We learn about his relationship with his devout mother, his rescue from a fire as a child, his finding of his true religious self, his lack of interest in money, his confrontation with a highwayman, and his battles with the establishment. All writ large in the engaging performance of an actor totally immersed in his role. The greatest compliment I can pay Mr Johnston is that at times I actually thought I was watching and listening to John Wesley and that his horseman was really outside getting water from the wrong part of the stream. Engaging the audience can be risky and dangerous but, generally, he pulled it off. Folks of a religious bent will have been enthralled by Mr Johnston’s mixture of theatre and religion. But even cynical old farts like me, there purely for the biographical and theatrical bent, will have left uplifted by both the message and the performance. Well worth catching when number five hundred and one comes along.
Roy Hall


 

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Jamaica Inn - St Andrews Players (World Premiere)


Something rather unusual is taking place at St Andrews Church this week. There is no swirling fog on bleak moors, this is Luton after all, but gothic ambience is being lovingly created behind closed doors. A world premiere, no less, and we do not get a surfeit of those in these parts. Richard Cowling’s musical adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s famous Jamaica Inn gets the first airing of what I reckon may be many. To use my favourite, some say tortuous, horseracing analogy the nags are either bloody or brilliant, the jockey on top only does the steering. A pensioned off critic, sneaking in on a dress rehearsal, has a duty in such circumstances to separate the two. I have never read Jamaica Inn, gothic dramas are not really to my taste, but musically Mr Cowling has done a first rate job on this one. A nag of the first order. Collectively and individually the songs have a depth and passion which easily engage the senses and please the theatrical heart. Especially in the first act. I left thinking this is a work that would justify a wider audience on a more ambitious stage. Given a few second act musical and narrative tweaks, Jamaica Inn deserves to open its semi operatic doors again. In the interim enjoy this first production of eighteenth century Bodmin Moor folk and wallow in the excellent singing of Michael Niles and Ellie Turton in the central roles of Joss Merlyn and Mary Yellan. You could have more wasted evenings. Roy Hall

 

Jamaica Inn

St Andrews Church Luton

Wednesday to Saturday

17th – 20th May 2017

Box Office 07778 241457

Tickets £10 - £12

Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Ride Down Mt Morgan (COT - Full Review)


****
'Powerful performances in slick and strong production.'

Arthur Miller’s The Ride Down Mt Morgan is a funny old play. By funny I don’t mean it’s a bundle of laughs, it ain’t, but funny in the sense that it has little plot and the bit it has regularly bangs you round the narrative head. In essence a man should be free to do what he likes, even if this includes two simultaneous wives, and hang the consequences. In fact in the tortuous mind of central character Lyman Felt there aren’t any consequences, merely benefits to all. Depending on your point of view it is an idea, or premise, that both attracts and repels. You don’t just mislay your moral compass; you willingly and joyfully fling the bloody thing into the nearest ocean. As my old mother used to say, it will all end in tears. Or in old Lyman’s case a car crash down the slopes of Mount Morgan.
It all very conveniently puts him in a hospital bed close to death and, inconveniently, brings those same two wives rushing to his side. Both in imagination and reality they combine and clash in the waiting room. Happens all the while at the L and D some say. On a simple but effective set, geometric acting areas clearly defined, the past and present of the rich and likeable bigamist is played out. I say likeable because although his morals may seem loathsome, to some the man himself had an uneasy charm. He had success, money, women, and a sympathetic lawyer and you don’t get all of those if you are a one hundred per cent total shit. It struck me, watching Andy Mills’ powerful and engaging performance of Lyman, that here was a man who wanted his essential inner truth so much he was prepared to act out an outrageous marital lie. His worst fault, in Miller’s writing, was his attempts to justify it. Why make one woman miserable when it is possible to keep two happy. As an exercise in self delusional narcissism it takes some beating.
As the older wife, superficially discarded, Shelley Bacall as Theo turned in a very strong portrayal that improved as the drama progressed. Her early scenes seemed a little strident, hardly surprising given her discovery of the consummate betrayal, but fleshed out in later scenes to a woman of sensitivity and depth. Her suggestion that Lyman had tried to kill her on one occasion stretched credibility in the flashback enactment, but that was the clear intention. As was the contrasting overt sexuality of Jo Emery’s Leah, a second wife rich in female swagger and fecundity. Who wouldn’t want her, she seemed to say, much as Miller himself probably said about Monroe.
St Alban’s Company of Ten is one of the best around and the sextet in this one played as a slick and strong team. It took me a while to attune to the harsh American accents and Miller’s wordy tract but, combined with director Angela Stone’s seamless scene linking, they pretty soon won me over. Helen Miller was a no nonsense but sympathetic nurse, David Bailey a refreshingly quiet and gentle lawyer with a steely edge, and Amber Williams an emotionally wired daughter. Her Bessie seemed an underdeveloped cipher in this drama, mainly underpinning mother Theo’s views, but Miss Williams blended her scenes with a great deal of skill. Florentia Chelepsis’ set impressed for its dramatic simplicity, vital in such an episodic piece, and Don Hayward touched all the right switches in pleasing lighting. But I reckon all will forgive me if I say that my lasting impression was of a man deeply flawed with dubious morality, and an impressive portrayal of him by Andy Mills which engaged and intrigued from the moment he first amplified his outrageous views. No man flies to a concupiscent future whilst clinging to a desiccated past. If he does then, as surely as God made those little green apples, he will one day ride down his own Mount Morgan. Roy Hall

Monday, 24 April 2017

The Ride Down Mt Morgan - Company of Ten


Go and see Arthur Miller’s The Ride Down Mt Morgan with your other half and I almost guarantee there will be some healthy squabbling on the drive home. The central character, Lyman Felt, is both a self centred shit and a man who redefines personal integrity. Whether you sympathise or despise, this bigamist rich in self justification will set you thinking. Flashbacks from a life changing car crash are simply staged and cleverly interweaved in Angela Stone’s absorbing production of Miller’s wordy tract and Andy Mills, in a bravura performance of the highest class, leads a pretty strong Company of Ten cast. Requires intellectual stamina but worth getting a ticket. Roy Hall

Abbey Theatre St Albans
Box Office 01727 857861
Runs to Saturday 29th April 2017

Full Review to Follow

Monday, 20 March 2017

Shingle Bells - A Winter of Discontent


Just had a quick look at this blog. Haven’t posted a thing since Company of Ten’s magnificent London Wall.  That got more hits than a mad machine gun at a big barn door, so pretty happy. But six months ago? Come on, I ain’t died or lost the plot totally, so what has happened. In a word, shingles. That’s my excuse anyway. Six weeks of pain and six months of rashes, the latter still lingering, had blunted much of my limited social activity and some of my irrepressible humour. What? Never made me laugh, some say. Except his racing tips and, a la Harold Hobson, frequently barking up the wrong theatrical tree. Google him if you must but bear with me on the horseracing, much my main entertainment through cold months bereft of theatre and other pleasures. It culminated in a beloved Cheltenham Festival which gathered more returns than a demented polling officer at a dreary election count. A couch potato lifestyle has its compensations.

Wish I could say the same about TV in general but, showing my age, the more channels there are the less there seems to be to watch. The Moorside was very good with a couple of excellent female leads and Appletree Yard with the superb Emily Watson eminently watchable. But SSGB frustrates for its undeveloped characterisation and wavering plot, I will ignore the sound, and Broadchurch still seems to me to be little more than glorified soap. And I say that having nothing but praise for its two spiky leads. But The Killing and The Bridge they aint. None of them. So I watch Only Connect, University Challenge, and Masterchef and yearn for those days when we had three channels and a plethora of real plays. Dennis Potter, Alan Plater, Jack Rosenthal, where are you?

Given that I am a five star grump with eyesight that would challenge Mr Magoo, my general inactivity has resulted in even more book reading than usual. Putting aside The Cheltenham Festival Guide, sadly now out of date, the best of these has been Anna Keay’s The Last Royal Rebel, a riveting history of Charles II’s bastard son the Duke of Monmouth. A must read for anyone interested in the Stuart era and overfull of the Tudors. Val McDermid’s Forensics, a fascinating insight to science in murder, Michael Blakemore’s Stage Blood, wonderful lively spats at the National under Olivier and Peter Hall, and Diana Preston’s absorbingly detailed book, Wilful Murder, on The Sinking of the Lusitania, head my list of the rest. All different, all beautifully written. I could also recommend Peter Longerichs’s fascinating insight into Goebbels, based on his diaries, but I doubt if anyone other than me or obsessive students of twentieth century German history would read it. No novels, not generally my thing in reading, except on holiday when Agatha Christie, Robert Goddard, Val McDermid and Mark Billingham figure fairly high. But not Martina Cole. Love her factual murder programmes on TV but her books and unsympathetic characters leave me cold.

So having shingles has had its compensations. I have wide reading tastes, from The Beano to Fifty Shades of Grey, no don’t ask, and they and the horses have manfully filled the void of theatre. I will scribble again in the near future, whether some want it or not, probably because most of the evening TV fare is enough to drive anyone with half a brain out of the house. Saturday Night Takeaway anyone?

 

Roy Hall

 

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

London Wall (Full Review) - Company of Ten


****

I like those inter war year plays. Priestley dramas, Coward comedies, Ben Travers farces, even Agatha Christie potboilers if done well. All have charm, elegance, innocence. Terence Rattigan’s classic murder play, Cause Celebre, appealed as much for its period setting as it did for the real life drama. And Ronald Mackenzie’s The Maitlands remains a neglected masterpiece of the age. I yearn for a revival by somebody. John Van Druten’s social comedy London Wall may have slipped under my wavering radar but its 1930’s office setting ticked an awful lot of my boxes. St Albans Company of Ten diligently tantalised and, thankfully, gave the play a Sunday matinee airing. As I told my long suffering, I had to go. Besides, apart from a small foray at Sidmouth my unwelcome oar hasn’t stuck into anything for a while.
I am glad I did. The Abbey Studio setting, against the backdrop of an impressive brick wall, ideally created the dreary and fusty atmosphere of long gone legal office life. Not a lot happens on stage, we get two deaths off it, but the play’s sheer ordinariness was part of its charm. The company drew you in both for strong narrative and rich characterisation and for the occasional glimpse of hectic activity. Usually at the end of the day when telephone bells summoned sundry personnel and unfinished post stretched to some trivial, but vital, deadline. Office life was ever thus.
And like all office life, then and now in some ways, it has its distinct pecking order. At the bottom of the hen house is Miss Milligan (Cate Brooks). This impoverished ingĂ©nue was beautifully played by Miss Brooks and all her confusions, professional and private, were internalised with consummate skill. She took her cue from the older and sadder Miss Janus, an excellent Helen Miller signalling a destination of frustrated old age. Husbands were clearly a precious commodity and you felt that this was one secretary already eyeing up the shelf. No such uncharitable thoughts entered one’s mind in regard to colleagues Miss Hooper (Katy Robinson) and Miss Bufton (Helen Goaley). The one flashed a ring and a walk with style and triumph, and the other, one supposes, flashed everything else. Both turned in rich and well crafted distinct characterisations and Helen Goaley particularly impressed for playing to the hilt, as my old mother would have said, a girl no better than she ought to be.
But good quality productions need a cast that bat long and, generally speaking, this lot did. I personally would have welcomed a little more projection from Tom McKeown’s otherwise sensitive and gentle Hec Hammond and a little bit more variety in playing from Daniel Robert Leigh’s supercilious office rake but these are tiny points. Mr McKeown’s thwarted beau of Miss Miiligan displayed beautiful stillness when surrounded by end of day office chaos, and Mr Leigh had the thankless task of playing the only unlikeable character in Van Druten’s play. And believe me he was not just unlikeable, he was odious. One of those people who think they are God’s gift to the earth and most of the rest of us would shed few tears if he was under it.
Joe Wackett was an engaging junior, swaggering with panache, and added much to the overall office ambience and Peter Bryans a commanding Mr Walker, the big legal boss with clear and concise ideas on personal and professional conduct. Not a man to be messed with. Except possibly by the daft and dotty elderly Miss Willesden. Providing a sub plot of sorts the beautifully costumed Angela Stone was simply magnificent. A performance so joyful you wanted to wrap it up and take it home. But then much of this production was. Opening scene music was a bit muted but in this London Wall it was a rare false note. Director Tina Swain had a good cast and she had drilled them with style and realism. A little old fashioned theatrical gem on a Sunday afternoon. Roy Hall

 

 

Sunday, 9 October 2016

London Wall - Company of Ten (St Albans)

Some cracking performances in John Van Druten's  social comedy of 1930's office life made for an absorbing and entertaining two hours. Cate Brooks and Helen Miller admirably lead a strong legal and secretarial cast, paced with panache and realism by director Tina Swain. An absorbing glimpse of a yesteryear in which men still ruled but women were beginning to find their feet. Light on message but rich in characters including a delightfully dotty one from Angela Stone's fiscally flush Miss Willesden. A production so good you could almost smell the inkwells. Go see. Roy Hall




Runs to Saturday 15th October 2016   8.00pm


Abbey Theatre Studio, St Albans    Box Office 01727 857861


Full review to follow