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