Thursday, September 21, 2017


Mercury Theatre, Colchester


for The Reviews Hub

“It's just people talking,” is how the playwright modestly sums up The Weir.
And so it is. But Conor McPherson's compelling chamber piece has proved popular at home and abroad over its twenty year life, picking up an Olivier for best new play along the way.
The Weir is the name of the bar where all this talking goes on. Conversations in a pub. The barman shares his day with Jack, and later with Jim. The talk turns to Valerie, a Dubliner, a new incomer to this rural village. When she shows up – with Finbar – the banter and the shared memories take on something of the supernatural, and Valerie is moved to share a tale of her own …
That spare summary ignores the richness of the writing, and the finely detailed characters of these storytellers. In Adele Thomas's atmospheric production, the listening carries equal weight with the speaking: each time a ghost story emerges from the casual conversation, the ripe banter, the faces of the listeners, so many still figures in a careful, painterly composition, add weight to the tale. The feel of the pub is largely naturalistic. Madeleine Girling's set accurately recreates this unremarkable, out-of-the-way hostelry, almost entirely devoid of character. But the lighting and the soundscape hint at a different world. And when the pub is deserted once more – the show runs for an hour and three-quarters without a break – the characters and their stories seem to linger for a moment in the stale air of the bar.
The acting is naturalistic too, even in the heightened other-worldly atmospheres of the ghost stories, and those rich Irish accents – dialect coach Hugh O'Shea – take a while to tune in to, and a few words might go missing along the way.
Sean Murray has the best role: Jack, the cantankerous curmudgeon, pouring his bottled Guinness, man-spreading like a leprechaun on his bar stool. His voice coloured by countless Silk Cut, he tells the first tale, “relishing the details”, of a house built across a Fairy Road. And several pints later, in an armchair by the turf stove, he tells the last - ”not a ghostly story” -  revealing the roots of his loneliness, a guest at the wedding of the woman he loved and lost. The two other “single fellers” are barman Brendan (Sam O'Mahony), who is denied a story to share, and Jim (a very convincing John O'Dowd), the quiet man with “more going on in there than you might think”, whose gravedigger's tale is perhaps the most spine-chilling.
Except, that is, for the story that Valerie tells. Inspired by listening to these fanciful tales of the supernatural, in which the boundaries between life and death seem blurred, she calmly reveals the all-too-real tragic events that led to her separation and her arrival in the village, seeking peace and quiet in the countryside. A heart-rending performance from Natalie Radmall-Quirke: hesitant, understated, emotionally drained beneath her sociable façade.
Her guide to the village is Louis Dempsey's Finbar, who left for Carrick to make his fortune. Married but playing the field, he stands in stark contrast to the other three, accentuated by his cream-coloured suit and his ready smile.
“We'll all be ghosts soon enough,” says Jack. And we wonder for a moment if these five, taking refuge for a while from the wuthering wind outside, are perhaps just spirits. But the bar is haunted, not by the dead, but by feelings of loss, of loneliness, of lives unfulfilled.
This production, a collaboration between The Mercury and English Touring Theatre, is by no means entirely melancholy – an earthy profanity and infectious Irish charm ensure that our evening spent in the Weir is enjoyably entertaining as well as poignantly moving.

production photograph: Marc Brenner

Sunday, September 17, 2017


at Shakespeare's Globe

Here's the history play Shakespeare wishes he'd written. He would certainly know the legend of the warrior queen. He might even have seen Fletcher's Bonduca, a fanciful romance staged in 1613, which was possibly the Boadicea play that was originally scheduled for the Prologue Season here at the Globe.
Tristan Bernays' play is Shakespearean in many senses. It's largely written in verse and in early modern English [“marry”, “needs must”] unlike Charles III, where the pentameters are concealed in contemporary dialogue. Not at all easy to pull off, it works surprisingly well, though some advice from the Globe's many experts would have avoided the occasional infelicities, and eradicated the bizarre insistence on using a nominative pronoun after a preposition: there it is in the publicity pull-quote - I’d rather walk in blood than walk a slave / For he thy Emperor!
There are many contemporary echoes – the nature of nation – the Roman who was born here and has never seen Rome – the evils of military occupation. Brexit too, perhaps.
It mixes drama and comedy – here it's the Roman military providing light relief, comedy enemies like the Nazis in 'Allo 'Allo.
It plays fast and loose with history, giving prominence, and names, to Boudica's two daughters. Cunobeline [Shakespeare's Cymbeline] is resurrected; many of the scenes are reminiscent of Lear.
And it sits very well on the Globe stage, even in the shared light of a rainy matinée. The space is imaginatively used in Eleanor Rhode's powerful production. Soliloquies, battles [always mention the numbers], visceral violence, a funeral and audacious abseiling.
The setting is stark. Upright boards screen the frons scenae. Later they're highlighted in gold, later still they fall forwards with a gunshot crack, and for the second act become trees swaying in the breeze.
It's a story about strong women, and they are excellently cast. Anna-Maria Nabirye is Andraste, the gold-brassarded goddess of war who gives the prologue and epilogue. The title role is played by Gina McKee, with a strong stillness which contrasts with the powerful anger of her two daughters: Joan Iyiola's Alonna, who seeks peace with the Romans, and Natalie Simpson's Blodwynn, the more violent sister, overlooked by Boudica as her heir. After Boudica's death - “Sweet goddess you have come for me,” she whispers as she took belladonna – the girls fight and weep together, as Alonna, too, foresees the future of her native land.
Broad characterizations for the men: Abraham Popoola's imposing, belligerent Badvoc, king of the Belgi [wasn't aware that his name existed outside Rory McGrath's Chelmsford 123], Samuel Collings' effete Catus, Clifford Samuel's sympathetic, noble Suetonius, the Roman Governor. And, most successful with the text, most at home in the Globe, Forbes Masson as a very celtic Cunobeline.

As if afraid that the audience would not engage with this piece of ancient history, the grisaille of the Globe is obscured by banks of speakers, The Clash provide the music for the jig and the opening of Act Two. But in truth the writing, despite its flaws, the movement and the bold performances could have wowed the groundlings at any point in the Globe's history, from the Burbages to Michelle Terry.

production photograph; Steve Tanner

Tuesday, September 12, 2017


Chichester Festival Theatre at the Minerva

As seems to be the fashion on both sides of the road here, the stage is stygian as we walk in. This time, Tim Hatley's set – walled-off from the audience to dado height - is concealed in a black gauze box, which serves as an Act Curtain for this traditional well-made play.
The space inside becomes, with neatly choreographed changes of furniture and props, the house in Surrey, an office and a gentleman's flat in Albany.
It's the world of Galsworthy, Shaw or Somerset Maugham.
And also the world of Githa Sowerby; the difficult “second play” which followed her successful Rutherford and Sons.
It has scarcely been seen since its première in 1924. Too old-fashioned, melodramatic even, for the big boys, too difficult for the amateur stage. Also to blame, perhaps, is the very misogyny that this powerful drama exposes.
Miss Relph, Lois, is left a fortune by the woman whose companion she's been. Nineteen and naïve, still grieving, she's easy prey for the woman's brother, who believes the inheritance should have been his. “Fanny never liked me,” he whinges. He prevents the solicitor from seeing her, and welcomes the girl into the house, at first as governess to his two little girls.
Ten years pass.
Lois is now a successful businesswoman, using her skills as a seamstress to run the Ginevra couture house. But the repellent Eustace has lost all her money in risky investments, and it becomes clear that there is nothing left, save the income from the dress shop.
All the men involved, it seems, have conspired to keep the truth from her. “I hate talking business with a woman,” complains the family solicitor [Simon Chandler]; he will try his utmost to prevent his son [Samuel Valentine, resplendent in full dress uniform] from wedding Eustace's elder daughter [an excellent Eve Ponsonby].
As the monstrously manipulative Eustace, Will Keen gives a memorably reptilian performance, trembling with barely repressed violent rages, but managing to “smile and smile and be a villain”. His opposite in almost every way is kind dependable Peter, neighbour and financier, played with a fine sense of period by David Bark-Jones.
Ophelia Lovibond is Lois, movingly progressing from naïve, tearful teenager to capable business-woman to bruised, broken victim.
There's strong support from an outstanding company, including Joanna David as the aged Aunt Charlotte, Sharon Wattis as a moody maid, and Macy Nyman contributing a touching study of the dumpy younger daughter who goes to pieces as she learns of her stepmother's plight, her father's wickedness and Lois's infidelity.
Richard Eyre's immaculate production is probably more physical than the original of almost a century ago; it is shockingly brutal in its portrayal of the masculine mores of its time, by no means irrelevant in our own era.
Act One ends with a tender moment of love-making by the embers of the drawing room hearth. Act Two with tea for three, and countless questions unanswered: will the awful Eustace use Lois's £200 to start anew in the Antipodes – like Abel Magwitch ? Will Monica marry her Cyril, and will Lois find happiness with Peter, her rock, whose last awkward telephone call sends his love only as an afterthought …

Friday, September 08, 2017


at Brentwood Theatre

A record nineteen awards at this year's Brents – the glittering evening celebrating community theatre, and rewarding the best of the shows staged here over the past year.
It's a slick operation, with thesps and luvvies, dressed to kill, packing the tables. Live music, a la Academy Awards, provided by Tonality, directed by Andy Prideaux. And, new this year, we were treated to a brilliant musical curtain-raiser from some familiar Brentwood talent, including the new Theatre Manager, Jon Hare.
It was good to see outgoing manager Mark Reed and technical supremo David Zelly rewarded with Brents of their own: the Mary Redman Award for 2017.
Peter Taylor, another backstage hero, was recognised in the Jo Stoneham Award.
Other individuals in the spotlight included Lloyd Bonson, for his Pooh-Bah in Shenfield Operatic's Hot Mikado, Kerry Cooke for her Katisha in the same show.
Darren Matthews won Best Actor for his Joe Pirelli in the latest RoxyKrasner for The College Players [the Best Play this year], and Juliet Thomas was crowned Best Actress in a Musical for her Rita in the excellent Made in Dagenham from Brentwood Operatic, which also won Best Musical.
A strong showing from the younger generation; two very young performers – Summer Hicks and James Nash, won Brents for their roles in The Music Man, from Billericay Operatic. And the Margaret Hutton Youth Group Award went to BOSSY's Hairspray.

full list of nominees and winners here

thanks to Claire Collinson Photography

Wednesday, September 06, 2017


The National Theatre at the Olivier

The eagerly awaited NT Follies – latest star-studded revival of Sondheim's 1971 masterwork.
It must be almost 40 years ago that I saw what I think was the UK première – a production by students of the University of Southern California, in the cavernous, faded splendour of the auditorium of Portobello Town Hall.
Dominic Cooke's production, with designs by Vicki Mortimer, uses the depth and height of the Olivier stage to recreate the derelict Weismann Follies, inspired perhaps by the iconic photograph of Gloria Swanson in the ruins of the Roxy Theatre, reproduced in the lavish souvenir programme.
The ravages of time are central to his interpretation – the older characters are contrasted with their younger selves, forever walking through conversations or shadowing the movements of half-forgotten numbers. So, as in Merrily We Roll Along, we are reminded of the fate of the glowingly optimistic young things. The young lovers watch from atop the rubble as their older selves reminisce and fight. The showgirls – beautifully dressed – appear like ghosts or angels on the rusty fire-escapes – the closest we get to a walk-down staircase. The 21-strong band [MD Nigel Lilley, in white tie] are glimpsed in the upstage shadows.
The 37 cast members include excellent chorus – Bill Deamer's choreography is wonderfully well served – and some of the best musical theatre performers in the land. Janie Dee is Phyllis, unhappily married to Ben, stylishly sung [not for the first time] by Philip Quast. She flirts passionately with a callow waiter [Jordan Shaw] and gives a near-definitive Could I Leave You, very simply staged. Peter Forbes is Buddy, whose dowdy wife – from Phoenix AZ – is the legendary Imelda Staunton, already Olivier-laurelled for three other Sondheim leading ladies. Her Losing My Mind is unbearably tragic, and she brings the same sad despair to much of her dialogue.
Her younger self is Alex Young; Phyllis's Zizi Strallen.
Superb characters from Di Botcher as the chain-smoking Hattie – Broadway Baby; Tracie Bennett, flaky, heavily mascara'd, gives a manically, despairingly defiant I'm Still Here.
The role of Roscoe is key to setting the tone [with Beautiful Girls] – good to see the excellent Bruce Graham given space to make an impression.
Any Follies production needs a legend or two to underline the nostalgia and the theme of showbiz survival. I fondly recall Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson in the 1987 Shaftesbury Theatre show. Their dancing double act is nicely done by Norma Atallah and Billy Boyle, whose résumé includes a long list of West End musicals as well as the Basil Brush show. But the real legend here is Dame Josephine Barstow as the operetta star Heidi Schiller. She duets beautifully with her younger self, soprano Alison Langer.
Loveland – and the follies which follow – is suggested by gauze and chandeliers, and a diaphanous front cloth for Buddy's superbly guyed vaudeville routine.
No interval, but the two and a quarter hours didn't seem a moment too long. At the end, we're left with the quartet of youngsters, and a last look back from Gary Raymond's wonderful Weismann as he stands in the doorway.

Di Botcher as Hattie - images by Johan Persson