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 for full details of the Circus and the current tour.