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.