Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Twelfth Night performed by Reading Between the Lines at Reading Minster. Reviewed 25th October 2012 for Newbury Weekly News.

Twelfth Night is the last of Shakespeare's romantic comedies. It encompasses and refines many of the themes and elements explored in earlier works. We have a shipwreck and identical twins. However against a romantic idyll we witness the cruel prank played on the ‘geck and gull' Malvolio. It is a tale says Feste the Clown that were it 'played upon a stage now' would be condemned 'as an improbable fiction'.
As the 'notoriously abused’ Malvolio Adam Napier drew out all the complexities of the character and quivered with rage and later madness as he slowly crumbled. Although exploited by the malicious triumvirate of Maria, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek his dreams mark him out as a socially ambitious man rather than a domestic tyrant. It is quite touching and his key speeches met with audience approval.
Unfortunately Joe Marsh as the intemperate parasite and exploiter Sir Toby does not elicit the same understanding. He has a casual sense of malevolence despite his waggish nature. As Director Hal Charles says we are in 'uncomfortable territory'.
However although bitter and cruel it is in a dramatic sense fun to watch. It offers a much-needed contrast to the cross dressing nonsense and the courtly moping lovers that fill the rest of the story.
In terms of staging, the Reading Minster was exploited to the full – the beautifully lit nave, aisle and even pulpit were used to great effect, coolly representing all locations. Entrances could be made effortlessly and dramatically helping the action to move at a cracking pace. To the delight of the audience Aguecheek arrived by bike cycling the length of the nave to arrive at the basic stage – a carpet and an abandoned dinghy. The production team are all to be commended however Composer and Musical Director Rosalinde Steel is singled out for her terrific direction. Music flowed seamlessly whether in scenes of contemplative reflection or rousing late night revelry. Acoustics as one would expect from a church were excellent.
RBL is a professional theatre company in Reading sourcing local talent and serving the community. They launched earlier in the year with "Off the Block” that commissioned four new works. This was the first step in their aim to deliver a mix of new writing, classical and modern theatre to Reading.
They have now ticked the classical box with this production, a production that was both exciting and moreover accessible. It is a rare opportunity for a local audience to see a professional Shakespeare production.  

This first appeared in Newbury Weekly News.
Reading Between the Lines

Monday, 16 July 2012

The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter. Reading Rep, in residence at Reading College’s Performing Arts Centre. 9th July -21st July 2012. Reviewed 12th July 2012 for Newbury Weekly News.

Despite a recession and drastic cuts to Arts funding Reading has seen two new professional theatre companies take-off this year.  Reading Between The Lines came earlier in the year with their first production Off the Block lauded as a “brilliant and heroic birth”. Now we have Reading Repertory Theatre with their inaugural production, Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter directed by Paul Stacey Reading Rep’s Artistic Director.  
Two armed hit men, Gus and Ben, kill time in a windowless two bedded basement room in Birmingham while waiting for their superior, the unseen Wilson, to tell them of their intended target. And to complicate matters, a dumb waiter in the upstage wall keeps rumbling and surreally delivering food orders that the men have no chance of satisfying.

Gus from the start is insecure and restless. He tries to elicit answers from the calmer Ben. It is only later that we understand Ben’s reticence in responding to Gus’s demands. Gary Richens as Ben offered a staid controlling factor in contrast to Rick Romero’s frenetic Gus. Although there was opportunity, neither actor resorted to caricature.  It illustrated the underlying importance that gesture and attitude can play in drama. From the outset, the contrasting attitudes establish a tension that is to escalate before reaching the final revelatory conclusion.

The performance play runs at just over an hour and at first felt painfully slow. However, it gained pace and delivered a gripping and, at times, very funny play. This production had humour in spades and it was a delight to hear an audience so appreciative of Pinter’s skill.
On the other hand, the tension did carry elements of Pinter’s sense of menace. The small theatre space in itself felt confining and mirrored in some way the room that held Gus and Ben. An expected feature of the evening came from the heavy rain hitting the sixty-seat theatre’s flat roof and unexpectedly augmenting the oppressive gloom of the protagonist’s predicament.

It was an excellent and ambitious start for the new company whose aim is to be ‘a regional theatre with a national reputation’. Maybe it’s too early to comment but I really hope they can achieve their goal in what must be a very demanding economic environment.
Furthermore, they have announced that we can look forward to further productions this year and next with performances of A Christmas Carol, Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Strindberg’s Miss Julie. 

Whatsonstage Review

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Creation Theatre's The Merchant of Venice at The Said Business School Rooftop Ampitheatre, Oxford, OX1 1HU Until end August.

As a 'comedy', The Merchant of Venice has possibly attracted more modern critical comment than any other of his plays has. Much of this hinges on the characterization of Shylock, the usurious Jew, resolved to extract vengeance on the wet melancholic Antonio. It is clearly then, an awkward play to stage.

So how do you present the recalcitrant lead as other than a negatively cheap caricature of the moneylender yet remain true to the dramatic themes? An actor must be aware of not playing him too villainously by emphasising his 'Jewishness' and resulting in a fusillade of moral outrage. It is a challenge facing any production.

Glad to say, Creation succeeds in confronting the complications, achieving a gratifying fusion of romance and tragedy. No longer is it just about Shylock but more an examination of late sixteenth century culture and mores with all its subtleties and complexities, however fantastical. 

Set against a Thirties dockland backdrop with suitable musical punctuation it neatly balances the excesses of Shylock and his enemies, leaving neither party blameless. Shylock may indeed be appear ruthless man but derided mercilessly by the merchant Antonio and furthermore destroyed by the loss of daughter Jessica (Fiona Sheehan) who can blame him? His desire for 'a pound of flesh' is the bitter result and to his credit, Jonathan Oliver's portrayal of Shylock is caustic yet dignified. His crushed pride at the treatment he receives from the court after the defeat is intense and tangible. 

On a lighter note and in contrast to the Venetian political arena, a romantic sub-plot endures in the idealised marginal world of Belmont. Overseen by Portia (Leila Crerar) and her confidante Nerissa (Louise Callaghan) it offers an opportunity to emphasise the comic aspects. The best illustration of this is the handling of the casket scenes. We witness the outrageous self-regard of Portia's two failed suitors Gabriel Fleary's Morocco and Scott Brooksbank's Arragon. Their superb capacity for physical and verbal comedy punctuates the darker realms of the play. Both are far more effective than Shakespeare's 'official' clowns Lancelet and his 'sand blind' father. 

Overall, Creation's open air and 'weatherproof' production directed by Natalie Abrahami is a rewarding and gripping contemporary reading. It is imbued with the right amount of comic elements so that we can reclaim it, as I guess it was meant to be, as a 'dark comedy'. 
It is still however an unsettling illustration of an unforgiving Renaissance society and something we have to accept however unpalatable to our modern sensibilities.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Troika Theatre's Taming of the Shrew, Oxford Castle Courtyard, Oxford.

The Taming of the Shrew's elements of cruelty and violence have become the subject of considerable controversy. With such a misogynist text and a vein of unremitting cruelty running through the play it begs the question of how a company can make this harsh feast palatable to an informed modern audience. Troika Theatre believes it can.

As with most contemporary readings, their production dispenses with the "drunken tinker" sub-plot (the "Induction" that sees the action as a fantasy, a play within a play) and dives straight in with the arrival of Lucentio (Ben Bateman) and his servant Tranio (Ashley Harvey). Such swiftness allows little time for moralizing or hand wringing and offers up a 'comedy'. We forget that we are watching a world dominated by greed and lust. If we had time to reflect, we would be enraged rather than amused by Petruchio's treatment of Katharina. 

As "bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst" Monica Nash takes a vigorous approach making the farcical sub plot of Bianca and her suitors look vapid in comparison. At the start, she may be unlikeable and sour but through an arresting performance, she grows on us.

Moreover, when she meets Petruchio, played with wit and cocksure insolence by Adam Potterton, we see she has met someone as unconventional as herself. Despite his objectifying of her, he offers an escape from her undeserving father, Baptista.

All this action is set in the "sixties" judging by the dress and the music. Sadly, in order to conform to this style it meant the axing of Biondella's comments on Petruchio's outrageous dress as he returns to Padua. Not for us "a new hat and an old jerkin; a pair of old breeches thrice turn'd" but slippers, silk pyjamas and dressing gown. Nevertheless, the minimal staging and period design worked and did not detract from the acting. In addition, I am glad to say the acoustics were good. A couple of years back in the same venue, I found myself straining to hear the nuances of a play's language. Had I not known the play I would have been completely baffled.

Finally, despite reservations about the validity and the moral tone of the play, I enjoyed this performance. Credit goes to all the cast and the Director (Rachel Johnson) for turning a work defined by George Bernard Shaw in 1897 as "altogether disgusting to modern sensibility" into a well-rounded and humorous drama.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Off the Block, South Street Arts Centre,Reading, 26th April 2012

"Reading Between The Lines" is Reading's new professional theatre company whose ambition is to bring "accessible, exciting theatre to the people of Reading" and to launch the company they came up with this audacious and courageous concept "Off the Block" by commissioning four new works by four different writers. Each writer had only 24 hours to create his or her piece inspired by the ending of the last. The actors were to receive their scripts for the first time only hours before opening.

The strict timetable saw the first writer Bea Roberts accepting her 'starting block' i.e. her 'inspiration' at 7am on the Sunday. The following morning she passed her 'ending point' on to the next writer and in turn, this was 'relayed', with the final writer meeting the deadline of 7am on the Thursday. On that day, the directors received scripts at 7.05am; the actors arrived for rehearsals at 9am and finally, the audience took their seats at 7pm.

It all seems such a daunting task for a new company if you factor in the four writers, the four Directors, the 16 actors and the four Assistant Stage Managers. If the concept had failed, it could so easily been a disastrous and demoralizing debut. However, it worked and the whole company deserves the credit for that.

As an opener, a short piece "On Hold" written by Chris Lambert that engaged the talents of the four young ASMs 'recruited' from various local theatre groups. It is also worth pointing out that Chris Lambert had won his place as part of a local writing competition Find a Reading Writer with his winning entry "The Stranger" - the final piece of the evening.

"The Vigilant by Bea Roberts, Jim Rastall's Melanie, Angus Barr's Imposters and finally "The Stranger" swiftly followed. Each play was unique and explored a number of dramatic techniques - physical and verbal comedy, farce, tragedy and even surrealism in the writing of Chris Lambert. Moreover, where we saw comedy we were aware of the underlying tensions and terrors that haunt us. 

By restricting everyone to a timetable, it generated freshness and spontaneity that showed through in the actor's delivery. It was all new and untainted by preconception.

Furthermore, it was a brilliant and heroic birth for the new company and, given the time constraints, well produced. One could sense the enthusiasm by all those involved in the five pieces. 

All they need to do now is raise the finance to fund their next production in October. Based on this performance they deserve your respect, your loyalty and your money.

by David Stockton for remotegoat on 28/04/12
See more production shots at Ian Legge, Photography 

Saturday, 7 April 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles – Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke, 28th March 2012. An Oldham Coliseum and IMITATING THE DOG production.

It appears that we now find ourselves in the middle of a Sherlock Holmes revival with two recent Hollywood ‘blockbusters’, an acclaimed  television series and most interestingly, Anthony Horovitz’s novel ‘The House of Silk’. Undeniably, these and many others have taken liberties over the years with Doyle’s original but they certainly endure, entertain and can still pull in an audience.

This current adaptation of Conan Doyle’s 1901 novel The Hound of the Baskervilles by Clive Francis turns out to be remarkably faithful to the original to the extent of omitting Holmes for much of the narrative. Don’t forget that Holmes had been dramatically ‘killed’ in 1893’s The Final Problem as a result of Conan Doyle’s personal displeasure so may explain his absence in this tale.

So we see very little of Gwynfor Jones’ sullen Holmes but a lot more of Doctor Watson. It however shows a flaw in the writing/acting as Watson comes across in this relationship, not as an exasperated friend and emotional prop to Holmes but more as a servant at his disposal. In the original stories, this was never the case. Moreover, while we are at it – please ditch Holmes in a deerstalker – it never happened.

As the reliable narrator, Leigh Symonds’ Doctor Watson takes centre stage, aided by Amy Embank, Steven O’Neill and Robert Simpson, and drives the plot against the rather stunning effects of film and projection. Conceived by Theatre Company IMITATING THE DOG these visuals however, ‘stunning’ could so easily be an example of ‘form over content’.

However it’s good to say that this twenty-first equivalent of ‘smoke and mirrors’ did not entirely overpower the five actors.  Moving smoothly and with conviction between IMD’s interior and exterior worlds of smoggy London, 221b Baker Street, Baskerville Hall and, most eerily, ‘Grimpen Mire’ they  attempted to realise Director Kevin Shaw’s aim of combining ‘the power of live performance’ and ‘revolutionary theatrical techniques’.

Whether it fully achieved this aim is debatable. However, it is early days on the tour and I believe the odd inconsistency will dissolve away and the actors and the narrative flow will become greater than the technical wizardry that often dominated this performance. 

An edited version appeared in The Newbury Weekly News, April 5th 2012.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Our Country's Good. The Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke, Thursday 26th January 2012. Now on tour till 26th April 2012.

Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good concerns a group of English convicts and their hated naval gaolers sent to the 'new colony' of Australia in the late 1780s. It follows Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark's attempt to put on a production of George Farquhar's Restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer with his motley crew of captives or as Major Robbie Ross RM calls them 'vice-ridden vermin'. It's a noble endeavour that meets resistance from Ross (Adam Best) who holds the view that the theatre 'teaches subordination, disobedience, and revolution' and that it is absurd to think otherwise.

However, the intellectual and perceptive Governor, Captain Arthur Philip (Aden Gillet), maintains that the convicts are there to 'create a new society'. Their involvement in theatre would act as a humanising force and offer hope of redemption in a barbaric world. He further claims that theatre is an 'expression of civilisation'.

Nevertheless, even in this cruel world there is humour. For instance the rehearsal scene that ends Act 1. The convicts display a range of misconceptions about acting and despite their apparent sincerity results in some of the best comedy, especially Jack Lord as Robert Sideway who steals the scene. His display of grandiose theatrical affectation, attributed to having once seen David Garrick, lifts the spirit and lets the humanity shine through. You begin to see these convicts as worthy of opportunity.

It is probably not an easy drama to produce given that it has twenty-two roles and, in this performance, only ten actors. However, The Original Theatre's production shows the actors' skill as they seamlessly move from one character to another, doubling, and in the case of Philip Whitchurch and Rachel Donovan even trebling. Never once do we doubt or question their dramatic authenticity as they rapidly and emotionally switch roles.

On a simplistic level, we have a play debating intellectual arguments for and against theatre but more importantly, we have a play that questions human frailties and cruelties. This satisfying and entertaining performance does not aim to answer all the questions but gives the audience enough evidence to make their own conclusions.

On tour until 26th April 2012. For further details see The Original Theatre Company website.

Friday, 20 January 2012

The Circus of Horrors. The Ventriloquist. The Anvil, Basingstoke, Thursday 12th January 2012

The Circus of Horrors came about by an encounter between ‘ringmaster’ Dokter Haze and circus veteran Gerry Cottle at, ironically, a funeral. Haze had toured a version of the show but felt he had gone as far as he could. Realizing the gap in the market for an alternative rock’n’roll circus he went ahead by recruiting the bizarre and the fantastical.  The devilish new company hit the road to great acclaim.This latest show, The Ventriloquist, set in 1921 is a modest yet hellish tale of a travelling ‘vampire circus’ descending on the unsuspected citizens of Berlin.

However, this is no conventional show but a phantasmagoria of cabaret, burlesque and gothic rock opera. A walk on the ‘dark side’ inhabited, amongst others, by sword swallowers, a glass eater,  a knife thrower, various tumblers and acrobats  and a remarkable contortionist who manages to squeeze into a bottle.
As the audience peer through half closed eyes in fearful anticipation it is evident that the whole enterprise is firmly tongue in cheek and no one is really getting hurt. It is first-rate knockabout circus in the best tradition.
I last saw the show back in 2005 and if my memory serves me, it had more of a sadistic evil edge and less comedy. It’s now been on Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night, Richard and Judy and most recently Britain’s Got Talent. That could be a concern but  just to be clear, Haze, no fawning pussycat in the horror department, has said of the Britain’s Got Talent appearance that it served the purpose of increasing their profile and absolutely ‘nothing more’.

The Circus of Horrors is not an experience to repeat unless you take unknowing friends and note their reaction as sword swallower Hannibal Helmurto, a tattooed maniac, plunges his sword deep into his body. Add to that the bow-and-arrow-firing contortionist who twists her body into positions you would not think possible of any ‘human’ and you have a show offering up thrills that we rarely get the chance to see these days.
A jaw dropping evening of diabolic proportions but for the over delicate or easily shocked note this sound advice from the ‘Circus’: Their show ‘contains some nudity & language of an adult nature, is not suitable for children, people of a nervous disposition’ and furthermore ‘chavs & sissies’. Don't say you were not warned.

For  Newbury Weekly News published 19th January 2012

http://www.circusofhorrors.co.uk/ for full details of the Circus and the current tour.