Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Ellen by Alison Mead, Henley Fringe Festival, July 21st 2009, directed by Kirrie Wratten.

Ellen Terry is perhaps the most celebrated English actor of the 19th century. On the stage from the age of eight, she was a rebellious young woman, passing through much emotional turmoil - including a failed marriage to the artist G.F. Watts, and a longer relationship with the architect Edward Godwin.

As the acting partner of Henry Irving, Terry achieved her greatest distinction in Shakespearean roles most notably Portia and Beatrice. Universally admired she achieved one what we now call 'celebrity'.

So here we have a fascinating and remarkable woman and surely a life deserving a grand operatic scale?

Nevertheless, it is to writer Alison Mead's credit that she has grasped this magnificence and effectively translated the feeling and the emotion to the stage with just four actors.

These four, directed by Kirrie Wratten, handled eleven roles between them with veracity and conviction. Maggie Turner and Kate Willoughby brought warmth to both the older and the younger Terry. Maurice Byrne's Irving, that absolute if benevolent dictator, had enough charm to convince that there may have been more than a professional relationship with Terry. His presence at first seemed arrogant but changed into something more loving and tender.

In addition, J P Turner as George Bernard Shaw, a possible love rival, commanded the stage through the power of Shaw's writing convincingly and slowly conducting "a paper courtship...perhaps the pleasantest and most enduring of all courtships".

Furthermore all of this was achieved in the rather confined space of the 'King's Arms Barn'. Having visited previously, I had my doubts as to its theatrical viability but credit to the design team and the actors for successfully working the cramped and intimate space.

Kirrie Wratten agrees. In an addition to the programme, she acknowledges her 'extraordinarily talented team…who have seen the possibilities of this beautiful venue, rather than the problems of adapting a non theatre space to the needs of a play and audience'. Let us pray that any future visitors have the wherewithal to achieve the same result.

Ellen whetted my appetite to know more of Terry's gifted career and life and definitely deserves a wider audience.

It is educational, well written and above all enjoyable. A credit to all involved.

Originally published at Remotegoat

Friday, 24 July 2009

Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton, Kenton Theatre, Henley On Thames, June 2009, directed by Rachel Johnson.

Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight, first performed in 1938, is set against the backdrop of a gloomy and unfashionable Victorian London, at the time that the author calls 'the zero hour', the period 'before the feeble dawn of gaslight and tea.' Even though it may lack some credibility as a thriller, it radiates a certain period charm that still appears to satisfy both audience and players.

This unsettling drama explores the life of Bella and Jack Manningham. While Jack (Alex Nicholls) goes out each evening, Bella (Susanne Sheehy) remains at home alone slowly sinking into an abyss of fear and loathing. It is evident from the start that Bella's husband has complete control over his wife, slowly convincing her through a complicated web of deception that she is delusional and falling into madness.

However, the appearance of a former police detective by the eponymous name of "Sergeant Rough" shows that there is more to the tale than first expected. He brings to the quaking Bella, a sense of order that bullying Jack strives to undermine. Rough exudes a roguish confidence and resolve from the moment he enters the parlour brusquely advising Bella 'You are up against the most awful moment of your life and your whole future depends on how you act in the next hour.'It is also probably fair to say that Robert Booth brought to the part a much needed touch of humour and insobriety that contrasted with the otherwise suffocating Victorian set. Even though the final confrontation between despicable Jack and Rough did lapse into risible melodrama, the fault lies solely with Hamilton's text.

In addition, praise to Jennifer Rae as Nancy and Polly Mountain as Elizabeth who although minor characters represented a brighter normal life beyond Bella's 'prison'.The set was naturalistic and suitably 'heavily draped' with a 'dingy profusion of the period' hinting at 'poverty, wretchedness and age.' Nevertheless more could have been made of the flickering gaslight and the ghostly footsteps that so perturb Bella as she sits alone at night. They are after all a major factor in Bella's descent into madness.Overall, a professional production from Oxford based Tomahawk in Henley's bijou theatre from a strong and accomplished cast under the direction of Rachel Johnson.

(Originally written for Remotegoat )