Friday, 17 June 2016

An Audience with Lucy Worsley The Concert Hall, Reading 22 May 2016

There has always been an obsession with murder and for many years, especially during the days of capital punishment it was a mainstay of the popular press. In addition, even before we had a national press it was ‘promoted’, through theatre, ballads, and broadsheets, ‘crime as art’ one could say. Even Dickens one of our great novelists used his experience as court reporter to flesh out his characters.

Image result for lucy worsley
Lucy Worsley, local educated, Reading and Newbury, is by day the Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, yet probably better known as a prolific writer and television presenter.

As an opener to the talk, she quoted from the eminent essayist, George Orwell. ‘It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war… You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. … the fire is well alight. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about? Naturally, about a murder.’

Her subjects spanned the centuries and included The Red Barn Murder, the notorious 1827 murder of Maria Marten, shot dead by her lover, William Corder. As with other famous murders such as ‘The Road Hill House Murder’, and ‘The Radcliffe House Murder’ It became the staple of broadsheets and dramas, i.e. ‘penny gaffs, short, theatrical entertainments staged anywhere and a staple of melodramatic thespians. Corder is still with us. One can see his preserved scalp in Bury St Edmunds’ Museum. Lucy has handled it and had an image to prove it.

She also briefly mentioned Reading’s own murderous celebrity, Amelia Dyer, the ‘Baby Farmer’. However, she there was no detail. If you are curious about Dyer, look at local author, Angela Buckley’s recent book on the subject.  
Nevertheless, it was not always about the distant past and towards the end of the evening we came back to Orwell’s period with Lucy displaying a rampant passion for the ‘Golden Age’ of Crime Fiction, most notably the author of Dorothy L Sayers
Overall, the presentation, backed by PowerPoint, was a detailed yet brief view of this historical obsession with murder, and both erudite and entertaining. Of course, she is no stranger to this approach if anyone has seen her broadcasts or read any of her books.

She ended the evening by fielding questions from her enthusiastic and appreciative audience, before signing copies of her popular books. If you missed her, there’s a chance of seeing in June at The Goring Gap festival where she will be delivering a talk 'If Walls Could Talk - An Intimate History of Your Home'. Especially if you have ever asked yourself, ‘Why did medieval people sleep sitting up?’ It should be an entertaining talk.

An edited version of this  article was originally published in Newbury Weekly News, June 9th 2016

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Beth Flintoff’s Henry 1, a preview, reviewed at S Bart’s Church, Reading. April 2016.

The event was only an introduction of a major work in progress and not the finished play. You will have to wait until November to catch the ‘world premiere’

Reading Between the Lines declares a commitment to the area and its history and wish to see the town put on the cultural map. They have already performed extensively and, in addition, have encouraged new writers.The Stage wrote of their Much Ado that it was an ‘ambitious production’ and displayed ‘regional professional theatre at its very best’.

Based on this short preview I believe we will be in for a spectacular treat in November. It was an insight into the creative process and how the finished piece is painstakingly put together to achieve a final well-balanced polished production.

Often as theatregoers, we forget all those that contribute, for instance the writers, the musicians, and most importantly, in this case, the research team who ensure the historical accuracy.
This is where Reading University came in under the guidance of Professor Lindy Grant her students unravelled the mysteries and mores of the period, even down to using Reading Museum’s famous reproduction of the Bayeux Tapestry.

From the five extracts that I saw, I believe it will be a disturbing play, conscientiously portraying the cruel machinations of Henry’s court and the lustful ambitions of his family. As the youngest son of William the Conqueror, Henry was no saint. After all, he founded Reading Abbey in 1121 possibly out of guilt for the suffering he had imposed during his life.

Even though the actors played without costume, set or props, they confidently and expertly conveyed the events that led to this. As they admitted it is going to be quite a task to bring many of the historical events to life, but having seen their past productions I have no doubt that it will be a success.

It was said earlier this year that there would be a search for the monarch’s bones later in the year using ground-penetrating radar in the area around St James’ Church.  

This could coincide with both the play and the series of events around it, bringing the play to a wider audience, an audience who sometimes may be daunted by historical drama. If it does, it is another coup for RBL.

Shadowlands by William Nicholson. Hexagon, Reading, 3rd May 2016

Shadowlands is a stage adaptation of William Nicholson’s award-winning television play, a tender story of inhibited writer C.S. Lewis and the American poet Joy Gresham. It is set in nineteen fifties Oxford. The relationship that initially starts out as a two-year transatlantic correspondence develops into something deeper when Joy arrives in Oxford.

To ‘Jack’, as Lewis called himself, it is a revelation as he warms to her intellectual assertiveness much to the chagrin of his university colleagues. From the tentative and timid beginnings, their relationship develops into a deep abiding love that grows even stronger when he recognises that Joy has a terminal illness. Not having read the play I was at first concerned that an evening of deep philosophical debate was about to be thrust upon us.

The opening scene addressed to both his students and the audience sees Lewis stating that ‘The subject of my talk tonight is love, in the presence of pain and suffering.’  I should not have been so hasty. We see later that this is just a marker, a hint of what is to be a major tenet of the play’s theme. Professor Lewis has yet to face his trial.

As Jack, Stephen Boxer is never dry and shines with wit, cordiality, and charm in contrast to his colleagues. To them, any change to their closeted and cloistered community, especially if it involves women, is a disturbing and fearful prospect.
The set, modest yet flexible, captured these inner sanctums, totally disregarding life beyond the University’s walls. Quite fittingly, because we begin to realise that Jack’s life is the world of sitting rooms, studies, and college High Table. That is until Joy’s appearance.

Joy played by a spirited Amanda Ryan, is both exciting and mischievous and the catalyst that affects all of their lives. She is a breath of fresh modern air breezing through Mathew Arnold’s ‘sweet City’ and ‘dreaming spires’.

Director Alistair Whatley and the cast capture perfectly the feelings of all the characters without mawkishness, even adding touches of humour that complements the narrative without throwing a veil over the main message.
In the end, an exhausted Jack having loved and lost comes to appreciate that life is not a rehearsal but something that must be lived albeit with its pain. It may not have a successful conclusion for him, but somehow it felt to me, as a spectator, both plausible and satisfying. 
Nevertheless, I am sure many of the audience left with a tear in their eye, or maybe even an ache in their heart though still feeling suitably enchanted by the performance’s fine acting and production.

Shadowlands is Birdsong production in association with Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Friday, 5 February 2016

Sherlock Holmes and the Ripper Murders. Reviewed at The Hexagon, Reading, 27th October 2015

This is another production from the prolific talking Scarlet Company written by the late Brian Clemens. There are many theories about The Whitechapel Murders and the identity of Jack the Ripper. For his story Clemens has followed very much the theory laid down by Stephen Knight in his 1976 book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution.

Clemens’ plot certainly has something for everyone out there whether they are ‘ripperologists’ and their determination in uncovering the murderer’s identity, conspiracy theorists, or just plain fans of the Sherlock Holmes canon. It explores only one avenue of thought as to the identity of Jack the Ripper yet it is still a suitable way of introducing a whole host of conspiratorial characters including Andrew Paul as reputable physician Sir William Gull, a man who may have had blood on his hands and his possible accomplice, Netley, played with menace by Michael Kirk. There is even a touch of spiritualism in the guise of Lara Lemon’s Kate Mead.

However, let us turn to those two most enduring literary characters, Holmes and Watson. It is good to see that we have now ditched that entire Inverness cape and deerstalker nonsense that has plagued the consulting detective since Sidney Paget’s illustrations in the Strand Magazine. It’s a welcome departure and eagerly embraced here by Samuel Clemens’ Holmes who plays it straight and without the theatrical flushes that dogged Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone.

His Holmes is logical yet somewhat vulnerable, maybe even possessing a heart and provides a perfect foil to George Telfer’s witty and strident Watson. Telfer adds both humour and a vitality that sharply contrasts to the disturbing thread of the onstage action.

There is little in the way of a set, a couple of chairs, a table and a couple of platforms. Locations are illustrated by back projections on what looked like mighty curtains. It somehow worked but did not lend itself satisfactorily to the intimidating Hexagon space. 

Overall, though, it was a rewarding performance. It was erudite and cunning and offered up another strand in the ongoing fascination for the perpetrator of those vicious late nineteenth century crimes. I am sure there will be others who will follow, new theories, new disputes but the moment let’s leave it with Brian Clemens and the team at talking Scarlet.

CLASSIC GHOST STORIES Reviewed at The Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke. 22nd October 2015

The Waiting Room by Robert Aickman
Adapted by Francis Evelyn
Designed & directed by Michael Lunney

The Signalman by Charles Dickens
Adapted by Francis Evelyn
Designed & directed by Michael Lunney

The first piece in this performance is by the lesser-known author and canal enthusiast, Robert Aickman. He described his work as simply a “strange tales"
The Waiting Room sees Pendlebury, played by Jack Shepherd, stranded at the end of the line, and forced to stay in the station’s waiting room. Not an easy night as he is dogged by ghostly phantoms of soldiers and their lovers. One already feels it’s not going to turn out well for him.
I found it clich├ęd in parts, especially its misty-eyed view of the ‘Great War’. For example, did we really need a rendition of “Keep the Home Fires Burning”? Did we really need a performance of “Keep the Home Fires Burning”? On the other hand, when Aickman wrote his story, his ideas were probably still fresh. Nevertheless, it did not feel right. My suspicions were aroused when however I read how his story had been adapted for the stage.

Francis Evelyn writes, “Knowing that he was born in 1914 and that his life was very much influenced by the First World War, I took the liberty of weaving a narrative of that sort into the original script.”
 I am not sure here if it did work. I found it rather dull and felt little empathy. Furthermore, it lacked the ghostly atmosphere that one expects in such a tale.

The second piece, The Signalman by Charles Dickens, however, made up for my initial disappointment. He has become synonymous with the classic English ghost story, most notably his eerie tale A Christmas Carol. However, most readers may have gone no further than the novel. It’s a pity as he produced other works such as this. It is a well-crafted piece and a joy to see it brought to the stage.

Jack Shepherd shines as the tormented signalman haunted by visions of impending disaster on his isolated stretch of line. Richard Walsh’s anonymous ‘Traveller’ listens with intensity and slight scepticism to the Signalman’s tale of a ghostly spectre haunting the nearby tunnel, each sighting indicating impending disaster.

It was far more satisfying in its execution and atmosphere than The Waiting Room. It brought a chill to the stage and invoked a ghostly sense of dread that was sadly lacking in the first half.
Therefore, for me one worked and the other disappointed. I found it especially hard, as I am something of an Aickman devotee. However, on the plus side and despite my reservations it is good to see that such works are still valued and worthy of being brought to the stage by companies such as Middle Ground.

This first appeared in The Newbury Weekly News 29th October 2015

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Review. The Inaugural University of Reading Town Hall Lecture. Stephen Fry on Oscar Wilde. Reading Concert Hall. Thursday 4 June.

There is no doubt that Stephen Fry is both eloquent and erudite and so clearly the best choice to present this inaugural lecture. However, my first concern was whether Fry's large celebrity presence would eclipse the true subject, Oscar Wilde. 

However, I am glad to state that on the night all was well. He demonstrated his enthusiasm and love of Wilde's poetry, prose, and drama to his rapt audience.He blended his own life into the sad tale of ‘Oscar’ by recounting how after coming across The Importance of Being Ernest he found himself overwhelmed by the play’s brilliant use of  language. This led him to the local mobile library, in his native Norfolk, to look further, first the play itself and then, the Complete Works. It led to many discoveries both literary and personal.

Although the plays had been the initial trigger for him, he spoke of Wilde in the broader sense, seeing him as more than a playwright and poet but as a true philosopher. As examples, he made particular reference to Oscar’s other writings such as the Soul of Man under Socialism and De Profundis.

De Profundis was written between January and March 1897, very close to the end of his incarceration at Reading where he was serving a two-year sentence. At the prison, Wilde was merely ‘Prisoner C3.3.’ He later used that as a pseudonym for his other eminent poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The ballad recounts the tale of his fellow prisoner Charles Thomas Woolridge; a former soldier tried before Berkshire Assizes, sentenced to death, and finally hung in July 1896.

The prison looms large in Reading, still casting its sinister shadow over the Abbey and the Kennet. Wilde’s cell is intact and Fry was lucky enough to have visited it the day of the lecture. I hope that one day we may have that privilege, as it is a significant part of literary history and a dark episode in the town’s history.

He finished his lecture and took a few questions from the audience. His responses further demonstrated his passion for his subject. The evening was no dry academic treatise but an entertaining, enlightening, and best of all, accessible. One could feel the enthusiasm. I feel sure that many will have gone away with a new respect for Wilde, to see the man in a new light and maybe to look beyond his plays, and make new discoveries. I sincerely hope so.

This review first appeared in the Newbury Weekly News.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Review. Much Ado About Nothing. Reading Between The Lines Theatre Company. St James’Church, Reading. February 2015

Much Ado About Nothing has long been celebrated as one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies. The central relationship, between Benedick and Beatrice, is wittily combative and reluctant until love prevails.

Moreover, that ‘combative’ is appropriate to this here  as we are not in Shakespeare’s Sicilian Messina but in a more poignant post Afghanistan garrison town, ‘Messina-Upon-Thames’. The returning soldiers, weary from fighting, pass their newfound leisure time in devising schemes and sharpening their wits on each other. A contemporary setting is sometimes difficult to pull off but here it worked perfectly. It certainly added an edge to the play, a play that on the page relies on verbal dexterity and wit.  Without the reinterpretation and enthusiastic approach, it could so easily be dry and challenging.

Furthermore, choreographed by Sammy Fonfe and music by Benjamin Hudson it resulted in an exciting, modern and accessible production.

I have one concern though. The drama takes place ‘in the round’ making the most of St James’s Church. Yet, on several occasions, I was unable to appreciate some of the nuances or even at times fully hear some of the dialogue. Actors standing four-square in front of me blocked my view. For example when Beatrice, eavesdrops on Hero and Ursula I was unaware of her reactions to the ‘false sweet bait’ that they lay before her. How did she react? Was it with scorn or with baffled amusement?  It would have helped in my understanding, especially as I came relatively new to the work.

All the performances were spot on especially the protagonists, Max Roll’s Benedick, Dani McCallum’s Beatrice, Lucy Grattan’s Hero and finally Phil Dunster as Claudio. To be fair, the rest of the cast ably supported them including the ‘interns’, those ‘aspiring professional actors’ who took on the lesser roles.

This was the third Shakespeare they have produced and it is to their credit that the company are bringing professional theatre to Reading. Something we desperately needed. I am not the only one saying this and it was good to see that even The Guardian chose Much Ado as one of its ‘top tickets’ this week. Praise indeed.

This is an edited version of a review published in The Weekly Newbury News, February 12th 2015.

Image © Ian Legge

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense at The Hexagon, Reading, 29th October 2014

There is no doubting the popularity of P G Wodehouse’s characters, appearing on our screens as far back as Dennis Price and Ian Carmichael’s Jeeves and Wooster to the later pairing of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. However, it appears that last year Perfect Nonsense became the first theatrical outing for Wodehouse’s prevailing couple.

In this touring production, James Lance plays our guide and narrator, Wooster. Gordon Sinclair as Jeeves and, the play’s cowriter, Robert Goodale as Seppings make up the trio. The latter take on several comic roles including Gussie Fink-Nottle, Madeline Bassett, Sir Watkin Bassett, Dahlia Travers, Roderick Spode and Constable Oates. Some achievement and, as you can guess, it often goes deliberately and hilariously wrong.

Adapted, quite loosely from The Code of the Woosters, it is a play within a play. The often-incoherent plot is immaterial; it serves only as a hook upon which to hang a series of witty exchanges and engaging sight gags. Nevertheless, some brief explanation may be in order. Bertie has been encouraged to a one-man show relating an adventure of mayhem and misadventure at Totleigh Towers, the home of the imperious Sir Watkin Bassett. From the outset, it becomes clear to the ‘mentally negligible’ Bertie that he cannot go it alone but needs both Jeeves and fellow butler, Seppings, if he is to succeed in telling his tale.

I was immediately drawn to the Goodale’s characters especially his Roderick Spode, a ‘Big chap with a small moustache and the sort of eye that can open an oyster at sixty paces’. However, I felt Gordon Sinclair, in the latter half, came to dominate as the striking and hugely farcical Watkin Bassett.
I have always found Wodehouse a bit of a strain. My allegiance lies with his contemporary Evelyn Waugh. However, in the context of this production such an affectation is meaningless. The play stands on its own. Wodehouse’s characters stand only as props for skilled playwrights Robert and David Goodale to expand and build upon. In this, they were supremely successful.

Initially it seemed as it was going to be an evening of knowing smiles not riotously funny farce.  The audience seemed reticent. Although, I have to say, one nearby audience member was often in paroxysms of laughter. However, by the second half, I am happy to say, were the rest of the audience. 

This review first appeared in the Newbury Weekly News, 13th November 2014

Monday, 1 September 2014

Macbeth. Creation Theatre. 1st August -13th September 2014, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

From the outset, it should be made clear that Creation Theatre’s Macbeth, adapted and directed by Jonathan Holloway, is not a ‘literal rendering’ of the text. In the programme notes, it specifically states that the production ‘re-imagines the play’ and crosses the line ‘between reality and imagination’.

The ‘stage’ is Lady Margaret Hall and its grounds. It is without doubt a striking backdrop. On the other hand, it occasionally overwhelmed. As such a large ‘space’, it took a while to concentrate the senses.

From my position, as a guest at the banquet, with other audience members, I found myself looking centre stage, towards the sound, only to turn right and see Laura Murray’s Lady Macbeth at a first floor window of the college. It was quite unsettling at first.

Nevertheless, as dusk fell, this no longer became an issue as the lighting directed us to the action. It achieved the sinister and ghostly elements that were lacking in the earlier scenes. With the production running until September, and the nights closing in, future audiences will be amply rewarded.

If there is to be a ‘star’ of the show, it has to be Ashley Bale’s seductive and ethereal lighting design. It both intensified and complemented the drama, sometimes touching, sometimes disturbing.

Finally, if you are going, do not expect to see ‘weird sisters, hand in hand’, cackling over a bubbling cauldron but something more theatrically and creatively inspired and more importantly, accessible. To some it may be disquieting, to others, exciting and innovative. 

This review was first published on The Flaneur website.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer presented by Creative Cow, at The Haymarket, Basingstoke.

A classic comedy of manners, Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer has played audiences for over two centuries. The play is a boisterous tale about two young ‘blades’ , Charles Marlow and George Hastings and their attempts to woo  Kate Hardcastle and her friend Constance Neville.

However, as one would expect from a comedy it’s never going to be that easy if the two pending marriages are to conclude happily. What follows is what one would expect: an evening of devious plot twists, dissembling, comedy, and confusion. It keeps its 18th century setting yet brings naturalism and artifice to the stage. A nodding wink there, an aside there contributes to the fun.

Moreover, if it all gets too much, the programme has a synopsis for the faint hearted. The company were in fine form and although at times I found Hastings and Marlow wearying, it was not the case with the parents of Kate Hardcastle.

 In Katherine Senior’s Mrs Hardcastle, we had a vain and seemingly corrupt social climber bored by the country. In contrast, her husband, Mr Hardcastle (David Summer) who has matrimonial plans for his daughter is content in his rural ways. Although incensed by the behaviour of the two young men who mistake him for an innkeeper he holds it together amongst this gallery of misfits and caricatures.
Joe Bateman as the schemer, and not so dumb, Lumpkin provided the bawdy in response to the supposedly genteel household.

The set was simple and innovative and suiting the play and Creative Cow’s stated aims, to be simple, direct, and entertaining. They pride themselves on being able to present their work anywhere, adapting to ‘any space’. The set on this occasion consisted of four large gold picture frames, along with some minimal furniture. It subtly complemented the action, never distracting from the fertile language.

Sadly, if I had to find fault I would point out that it appears to be a rather lengthy production. Mistaken identities etc. can only be theatrically rewarding for so long. However, we are not looking through eighteenth eyes and it could the case that we overlook the finer subtleties and nuances of the play and only witness the farcical elements.Despite these reservations, it was still a rewarding and pleasing performance and a credit to the company.

This review first appeared in the Newbury Weekly News.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Spirit. A new album by Deborah Bonham on Spectra Records.

This I believe is Bonham’s fourth album and marks her move to US label, Spectra Records. Recorded in Chichester, England and Nashville, USA, mixed by Mike Poole, and co-produced by Glenn Skinner, it features twelve tracks. They vary in vocal and musical style but most definitely veer towards a late sixties, early seventies West Coast aesthetic.

The album opens with ‘Fly’, featuring mandolin, cello and soaring vocals. However, I felt some unease with this opener and questioned whether it should have been the introduction to the album. However, despite this, track two, ‘Painbirds’ blew me away. An outstanding track and one that must be brilliant live. For the remainder of the album one senses Debbie’s influences. The Eagles inform on ‘Take me Down’, with its distinct ‘Take it Easy’ vibe and The Byrds possibly inspire ‘I Won’t Let You Down’.

 Of the others, ‘ Stop Now’ with its superb guitar playing perfectly complements Bonham’s soulful voice and ‘Killing Fields’ with its  strong rhythm and a rumbling bass line further strengthens the album. ‘What it Feels’ sees special guest Robert Plant throwing in a fine piece of blues harp and ‘I Need Love’ displaying Bonham’s soulful voice at its best whilst the blues of ‘Good Times’ has some great haunting slide guitar. Final track ‘Lay Me Down’ shows the Nashville influence and is quite distinct from the earlier rockers yet it’s a fine ending to the album.

 Overall, an impressive album but I have to admit that it took a lot of listening to reach that point. Apart from ‘Painbirds’ nothing really struck me on the first few listens. I felt it patchy and lacking. However, in the end, she won me over and I now look forward to seeing her live.

This review was published on The Flaneur website 
Deborah Bonham's Official Website for news and tour dates.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap 60th Anniversary Tour reviewed @The Hexagon, Reading, 10th February, 2014.

The Mousetrap is the world’s longest running play according to The Guinness Book of Records. It opened in London in 1952. It is both a country house mystery and a drawing room drama set in the post-war world.

Mollie (Joanna Croll) and Giles Ralston (Henry Luxemburg) have turned their home Monkswell Manor into a guesthouse. Various bizarre guests arrive, trailing their baggage – both literally and metaphorically. It was a slow start and during the first two acts, I found myself admiring the set, a brilliant period wood panelled lounge, with roaring fire, warm lighting, and snow falling gently against leaded windows.

It is only with the arrival of the uninvited ‘Sergeant’ Trotter, that we get to the heart of the drama, with its twists and turns, and of course its red herrings. Classic Christie. Potter, played by Jonathan Woolf, unravels the lives of this disparate bunch of guests, uncovering their secrets and rattling their nerves. It leads, as one would expect, to the identity of the killer.

At the end, the audience is asked to keep the murderer’s identity a secret and it would be morally wrong for me to expose the ending. A crime in fact. Agatha Christie said of her play: ‘It’s not really frightening. It’s not really horrible. It’s not really a farce.’ Well, that’s certainly true and maybe why it’s starting to show its age. It lacks pace and the comedy is lacklustre. It’s not even as if it’s one of Christie’s best plays.

Despite my reservations, the audience loved it. Drawn I expect from Christie’s reputation and curious to know why this old warhorse has endured. Even Christie herself predicted it would only ‘last eight months.’ Nevertheless, here we are, more than sixty years on and it is still going. A mystery?  Certainly.

This review was first published on The Flaneur website.