Monday, 20 September 2010

Von Ribbentrop's Watch Premièred at Oxford Playhouse.

Marks and Gran's Von Ribbentrop's Watch is a departure for Oxford Playhouse with their team taking the script 'from first draft to its world premiere' finally delivering a 'domestic drama with historical and religious debate'.

Main protagonist Gerald Roth (Nicholas Woodeson) inherits a watch from his father. However, he later discovers that this is no ordinary watch. It is a watch with history - a dangerous and dark history. It transpires it once belonged to Joachim von Ribbentrop, a notorious Nazi and the first man hanged at Nuremburg. This is particularly distressing as Gerald is Jewish. Should he sell it to a possibly 'dormant Nazi' and betray his heritage? Laurence Marks based the narrative on his own experience - an experience that must have played on his conscience as it certainly does with Gerald.

Taking place on the first night of Passover, the drama is about family and despite its original shocking premise is unashamedly a 'comedy'. 'Jewish' humour is something that people get excited about and I do not deny its influence yet I have to admit to personal misgivings. However, on this occasion I found myself warmed by the quickfire broad humour of the matriarch Mrs Roth (Barbara Young) who delivered the best lines whilst sparring with her 'shiksa' daughter-in-law Ruth (Gwyneth Young). The humour was gentle and never bitter, unlike the herbs served at the Passover meal.

Unfortunately, the rhythm of the first half was somewhat let down towards the end of the second with the inclusion of a fantasy sequence that broke the tension. This crude plot device could so easily be excised without marring the overall sweep of the drama. A fellow reviewer felt the same yet added that the play was 'cold, bland and rather empty'. However, from where I was sitting, I saw rather the opposite. It may not be Ibsen or Chekhov and surely, no one would expect that from the writers of Birds of a Feather. What the two writers have achieved, however, In Von Ribbentrop's Watch is a story with both depth and warmth and all expertly delivered. Most importantly, it is presented with humour and without recourse to bullying didacticism that is so often the case with 'issues'.

by David Stockton for remotegoat on 20/09/10

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery, Murder at Checkmate Manor’ performed at Henley Fringe Festival.

Set in the drawing room of a country house, Murder at Checkmate Manor involves an eccentric family gathering for the reading of Sir Reginald Bishop's will.
However, someone else has designs on the Checkmate fortune and they will stop at nothing to get their hands on it. A string of grisly murders ensues, where everyone has a motive and everyone is a suspect in a classic whodunit farce.
This is play the Farndale women believe they are about to perform however from the outset it is obvious that they are total incompetents and utterly oblivious to their lack of talent. The ‘fictitious’ Farndales, a cast of four aided by their inept stage manager Gordon, are required to play all 14 roles with varying degrees of awfulness.
From the start, their production is doomed. The falling scenery, misplaced sound effects, the ham acting and missed cues define the feel of a terrible amateur play.
The cast handle their material with a brilliant knowing wit as they construct this drama within a drama - a very clever conceit that without such polished actors could go seriously awry. It must take great skill to ‘act’ so badly and keep the audience on your side. There were no doubts as to the actors’ overwhelming competency at this performance set in the conservatory of Bom Dia. From the very start, they had the audience both laughing and convinced.
For anyone with the slightest interest in theatre Conway Clarks Productions’ of Farndale mysteries are highly recommended and highlight the meticulous planning that must accompany any production if it ‘is to be alright on the night’. That’s something the ‘Farndale actors’ will never achieve and that’s why we as audiences treasure them.

An Act of Will - The Secret Life of William Shakespeare, performed at Henley Fringe Festival.

Michael McEvoy as Will
It is 1613 and the now retired Shakespeare is at home in Stratford on Avon reviewing his career. A career that in which he has played ‘many parts’
It ought to be a time to look back with satisfaction on his life's work. However, the man is seemingly unsettled and has something to reveal to his audience however reluctantly.
As he gains our trust he recounts his early relationships with ’Kit’ Marlowe, Ben Jonson and the heady world of Elizabethan London. All very informative yet somehow unsatisfying and he recognises the audience’s disquiet.
So far he has defined his life as ‘whining schoolboy’, poacher, actor and playbroker. So why does he omit ‘playwright’? Why is he so disinclined to reveal why he has not chosen that as the apex of a varied career?
As Will, Michael McEvoy teases and slowly reveals his secret - the ‘true’ authorship of the plays. It is an argument that he has no difficulty in backing with plausible evidence. In one instance he quotes rival Greene, who stated that it was presumptuous of a "mere actor" to write a play and that ‘Shake-scene’ was ‘an upstart crow’ and not the author of ‘blank verse at its best’
Mc Evoy argues that Shakespeare was certainly unschooled in the classics and eventually states the view that Marlowe, in the role of ‘ghostwriter’ actually wrote the plays after feigning his death.
Nevertheless, is it just a twisting of truth by a master of deception or even an ‘improbable fiction’? McEvoy’s persuasive argument and accomplished delivery leaves the departing audience perplexed or maybe indignant that no man except William Shakespeare could ever write such wonderful poetry.
Whatever the answer McEvoy’s mesmerising performance, under the direction of Steve Cann, was altogether informative, thought provoking and of course, let not get too serious, great fun.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Barnstaple by James Saunders. Kings Arms Barn, Henley Fringe Festival.

Written in 1959 as part of the trilogy Ends and Echoes, Barnstaple is a one-act play that takes place in the drawing room in an English country house one spring morning. As becomes clear the backdrop is a stagnating post war Britain still scarred by war and blighted by Suez.
Saunders, a contemporary of Pinter, catches the spirit of the ‘absurd’ – a world where lives are governed by outside forces that the audience and the protagonists never quite get to grips with. Although there are constant references to the title ‘Barnstaple’, we are never sure of who or what it could be.
On the whole  it is a conversation piece and its love of language certainly suited to the intimacy of the ‘Barn’. Leading actor Jeremy Child said last week that he regarded the venue as a challenge. Fortunately, for us, he resolved any such issues. and directed by Caroline Hunt delivers a superb lead performance as obsessive doctor Charles Carboy.
Whilst  the other Carboys, Helen (Jane Trainer) and Daphne (Sally Nesbit)  meander through the trivialities of their lives, arranging flowers and drinking  tea with the Reverend (Richard Howard)  a somewhat malignant force is turning their world on its head.  Furthermore, no one seems to be aware or even care that the maid Sandra (Faith Flint) is going insane. Is she really mad or just more ‘savvy’ than her employers?
In this aspect, it quite closely resembles Sarah Waters’ recent novel The Little Stranger by addressing the same post war issues. The shots that ring out and the crumbling house act as rather crude metaphors for class erosion. By the end of the piece, the Carboys sit amongst the rubble still somewhat oblivious to the monumental changes to their lives.
However, it worth noting that early in his career Saunders told an interviewer: "If there's any theme that runs through my work, it's the absurdity of finding logic in anything at all."
So should we leave it at that? It is after all only theatre and despite its brevity Barnstaple is still a thought provoking piece that begs more questions than it answers. Whether Saunders should be remembered as one of England’s better dramatists and worthy of revival is another matter. 

Originally published Henley Standard, Henley On Thames, England.

Creation Theatre's Romeo and Juliet, Said Business School Amphitheatre, Oxford.

It must be quite difficult for a company to breathe originality into such a well-known play as Romeo and Juliet as audiences will be familiar with the 'pair of star-crossed lovers'. No slackers in addressing such issues, Creation Theatre have certainly achieved 'originality' in this tremendously exciting production.

Creation's approach to their raw material is to imbue it with extreme physicality and energy. From the very outset, Director Charlotte Conquest's production is overwrought with a sinuous anxious power that animates the Capulet and Montague rivalry that plagues the streets of Verona. Even the masked ball takes on a Dionysian significance creating, as actor Gordon Cooper said, a 'sort of tribal, ritualistic style party'.

However, as we are aware, the omnipresent spectre of death haunts 'fair Verona'.
The prologue has already defined the action and, as an audience, we know that Romeo (Patrick Myles) and Juliet (Amy Noble) cannot escape their fate. It concentrates the mind on the rather more appealing aspects of the drama.

Although some may be aroused at the stately poetry of love, there is still energy within supporting roles that adds a succinct brand of mocking comment. Benjamin Askew's bawdy, effusive Mercutio and Nicky Goldie's garrulous Nurse are perfect examples and are paramount in keeping the drama descending into maudlin romance. Mercutio's street scenes are both sensuous and energetic, every action bursting with innuendo that constantly mocks notions of romantic love. When Mercutio dies, we sorely miss his presence.

The Business School's amphitheatre superbly complemented Matt Eaton's sound designs whilst Ashley Bale's lighting added a tingling spectral unearthliness to this outdoor production. As a venue, it far surpasses Oxford Castle where a recent Twelfth Night was marred by indifferent acoustics and languid exits and entrances.

Finally, I have to admit that having seen so many mundane productions recently I was losing the will to live. However, Creation Theatre has now restored my faith in live drama and I can only look forward with immense anticipation to their future work.

by David Stockton for remotegoat on 22/07/10

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Twelfth Night, Oxford Castle Courtyard.

Twelfth Night is the last and arguably the finest of Shakespeare's romantic comedies. First performed on Candlemas Day 1602 it encompasses and refines many of the themes and elements explored in earlier works. Along the way, we have the shipwreck and identical twins both found in the Comedy of Errors, and like Verona's Julia, Viola disguises herself as a boy and more specifically acts as page and emissary for someone that inspires her love. Further parallels exist and it would be too crass to state that this fine comedy is in somewhat uninspired. It is a tale as the fool, Feste (James Studds), says 'were played upon a stage now' would be condemned 'as an improbable fiction'.

Tomahawk's production although heartfelt probably suffered by setting it within a 'twenties/thirties' environment that jarred against the magnificence of Oxford Castle's Courtyard. At times, the sheer size of the arena distracted by causing prolonged exits that often left a gaping gap in the proceedings. Moreover, the acoustics left younger performers insufficiently projected so that nuances of speech were lost to those in the audience not confident with the narrative. 

This of course is the last of the 'happy' comedies and revels in its good humour even though Olivia's court is in mourning. In this production, unfortunately Feste, a key driver, lost the spirit. Singing "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" is no substitute for the witty and acerbic. Do not forget that when Shakespeare created his next Fool, he would drive him out into the wind and rain along with Lear and all the other 'poor naked wretches'. So let's make the most of this one.

So definitely slow at first but marvelously brought back to life by Alexander Rogers' Malvolio, the 'notorious geck and gull' that Sir Toby Belch points is so 'virtuous' as to believe there will no more be 'cakes and ale'. The tricking of the 'Puritan' is bitter cruelty yet in a dramatic sense fun to watch. It offers a much-needed contrast to the cross dressing nonsense and the courtly moping lovers that takes up the rest of the story. 

Admittedly there may have a few niggles throughout the evening but Sir Toby (Alex Nicholls),Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Chris Gladwin) and Maria (Samantha Knipe) overrule those concerns and offer all the best reasons for seeing Rachel Johnson's production.

by David Stockton for remotegoat on 26/06/10

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Alabama 3 at Reading's Sub89

It is said that Alabama 3 is one of the oddest musical outfits to arise from late-'90s London, but also one of the most original offering an eclectic set of styles including acid house,blues,soul and a good helping of 'Southern good ol' boy' all wrapped up in a dynamic and theatrical performance.

This current tour, supported by singer -songwriter David Ford, coincides with the launch of their eighth album 'Revolver Soul' [HOSTRECCD1] and their own label 'Hostage'. The album is they say 'deeper, darker and stronger and stranger' than anything, you have heard them do before.

Clearly, they are embarking on a new chapter in their career and shoutin' all over the land as their website proclaims 'Alabama 3 is no longer a church. It's an Army. It's your mission. It's Online. Start Thinking Soldier.'

No mistaking their stance at this performance as they struck the stage in army fatigues and shades while Larry Love hit us between the eyes with "I'm a soldier in the army of love," From this point, the performance never lost its momentum as the electro dance beats and nerve-shattering bass caressed even the sweetest of music.

Back catalogue visits were met with undying enthusiasm as they powered amongst others 'Up Above my Head' from 'Outlaw', and 'Too Sick to Pray' and "The Thrills Have Gone" from 'La Peste'. From 'Exile on Coldharbour Lane' they gave us 'Hypo Full of Love (12 Step Plan)' and of course, what must be now one of their most familiar tracks, 'Woke up this Morning'.

New material from 'Revolver Soul' included 'Bad to the Bone', 'She Blessed Me' and the most dazzling piece of the night the agitprop anthem 'Vietnamistan' that introduces Country Joe's 'Feel Like I'm Fixing To Die Rag - danceable, topical and political in one soulful bag!

They may sing 'the devil has all the best tunes' yet it's pretty obvious that he gave some of them back to the Alabama 3 and one day may have to pay with their soul.