Friday, 17 June 2016

An Audience with Lucy Worsley The Concert Hall, Reading 22 May 2016

There has always been an obsession with murder and for many years, especially during the days of capital punishment it was a mainstay of the popular press. In addition, even before we had a national press it was ‘promoted’, through theatre, ballads, and broadsheets, ‘crime as art’ one could say. Even Dickens one of our great novelists used his experience as court reporter to flesh out his characters.

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Lucy Worsley, local educated, Reading and Newbury, is by day the Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, yet probably better known as a prolific writer and television presenter.

As an opener to the talk, she quoted from the eminent essayist, George Orwell. ‘It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war… You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. … the fire is well alight. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about? Naturally, about a murder.’

Her subjects spanned the centuries and included The Red Barn Murder, the notorious 1827 murder of Maria Marten, shot dead by her lover, William Corder. As with other famous murders such as ‘The Road Hill House Murder’, and ‘The Radcliffe House Murder’ It became the staple of broadsheets and dramas, i.e. ‘penny gaffs, short, theatrical entertainments staged anywhere and a staple of melodramatic thespians. Corder is still with us. One can see his preserved scalp in Bury St Edmunds’ Museum. Lucy has handled it and had an image to prove it.

She also briefly mentioned Reading’s own murderous celebrity, Amelia Dyer, the ‘Baby Farmer’. However, she there was no detail. If you are curious about Dyer, look at local author, Angela Buckley’s recent book on the subject.  
Nevertheless, it was not always about the distant past and towards the end of the evening we came back to Orwell’s period with Lucy displaying a rampant passion for the ‘Golden Age’ of Crime Fiction, most notably the author of Dorothy L Sayers
Overall, the presentation, backed by PowerPoint, was a detailed yet brief view of this historical obsession with murder, and both erudite and entertaining. Of course, she is no stranger to this approach if anyone has seen her broadcasts or read any of her books.

She ended the evening by fielding questions from her enthusiastic and appreciative audience, before signing copies of her popular books. If you missed her, there’s a chance of seeing in June at The Goring Gap festival where she will be delivering a talk 'If Walls Could Talk - An Intimate History of Your Home'. Especially if you have ever asked yourself, ‘Why did medieval people sleep sitting up?’ It should be an entertaining talk.

An edited version of this  article was originally published in Newbury Weekly News, June 9th 2016

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Beth Flintoff’s Henry 1, a preview, reviewed at S Bart’s Church, Reading. April 2016.

The event was only an introduction of a major work in progress and not the finished play. You will have to wait until November to catch the ‘world premiere’

Reading Between the Lines declares a commitment to the area and its history and wish to see the town put on the cultural map. They have already performed extensively and, in addition, have encouraged new writers.The Stage wrote of their Much Ado that it was an ‘ambitious production’ and displayed ‘regional professional theatre at its very best’.

Based on this short preview I believe we will be in for a spectacular treat in November. It was an insight into the creative process and how the finished piece is painstakingly put together to achieve a final well-balanced polished production.

Often as theatregoers, we forget all those that contribute, for instance the writers, the musicians, and most importantly, in this case, the research team who ensure the historical accuracy.
This is where Reading University came in under the guidance of Professor Lindy Grant her students unravelled the mysteries and mores of the period, even down to using Reading Museum’s famous reproduction of the Bayeux Tapestry.

From the five extracts that I saw, I believe it will be a disturbing play, conscientiously portraying the cruel machinations of Henry’s court and the lustful ambitions of his family. As the youngest son of William the Conqueror, Henry was no saint. After all, he founded Reading Abbey in 1121 possibly out of guilt for the suffering he had imposed during his life.

Even though the actors played without costume, set or props, they confidently and expertly conveyed the events that led to this. As they admitted it is going to be quite a task to bring many of the historical events to life, but having seen their past productions I have no doubt that it will be a success.

It was said earlier this year that there would be a search for the monarch’s bones later in the year using ground-penetrating radar in the area around St James’ Church.  

This could coincide with both the play and the series of events around it, bringing the play to a wider audience, an audience who sometimes may be daunted by historical drama. If it does, it is another coup for RBL.

Shadowlands by William Nicholson. Hexagon, Reading, 3rd May 2016

Shadowlands is a stage adaptation of William Nicholson’s award-winning television play, a tender story of inhibited writer C.S. Lewis and the American poet Joy Gresham. It is set in nineteen fifties Oxford. The relationship that initially starts out as a two-year transatlantic correspondence develops into something deeper when Joy arrives in Oxford.

To ‘Jack’, as Lewis called himself, it is a revelation as he warms to her intellectual assertiveness much to the chagrin of his university colleagues. From the tentative and timid beginnings, their relationship develops into a deep abiding love that grows even stronger when he recognises that Joy has a terminal illness. Not having read the play I was at first concerned that an evening of deep philosophical debate was about to be thrust upon us.

The opening scene addressed to both his students and the audience sees Lewis stating that ‘The subject of my talk tonight is love, in the presence of pain and suffering.’  I should not have been so hasty. We see later that this is just a marker, a hint of what is to be a major tenet of the play’s theme. Professor Lewis has yet to face his trial.

As Jack, Stephen Boxer is never dry and shines with wit, cordiality, and charm in contrast to his colleagues. To them, any change to their closeted and cloistered community, especially if it involves women, is a disturbing and fearful prospect.
The set, modest yet flexible, captured these inner sanctums, totally disregarding life beyond the University’s walls. Quite fittingly, because we begin to realise that Jack’s life is the world of sitting rooms, studies, and college High Table. That is until Joy’s appearance.

Joy played by a spirited Amanda Ryan, is both exciting and mischievous and the catalyst that affects all of their lives. She is a breath of fresh modern air breezing through Mathew Arnold’s ‘sweet City’ and ‘dreaming spires’.

Director Alistair Whatley and the cast capture perfectly the feelings of all the characters without mawkishness, even adding touches of humour that complements the narrative without throwing a veil over the main message.
In the end, an exhausted Jack having loved and lost comes to appreciate that life is not a rehearsal but something that must be lived albeit with its pain. It may not have a successful conclusion for him, but somehow it felt to me, as a spectator, both plausible and satisfying. 
Nevertheless, I am sure many of the audience left with a tear in their eye, or maybe even an ache in their heart though still feeling suitably enchanted by the performance’s fine acting and production.

Shadowlands is Birdsong production in association with Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Friday, 5 February 2016

Sherlock Holmes and the Ripper Murders. Reviewed at The Hexagon, Reading, 27th October 2015

This is another production from the prolific talking Scarlet Company written by the late Brian Clemens. There are many theories about The Whitechapel Murders and the identity of Jack the Ripper. For his story Clemens has followed very much the theory laid down by Stephen Knight in his 1976 book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution.

Clemens’ plot certainly has something for everyone out there whether they are ‘ripperologists’ and their determination in uncovering the murderer’s identity, conspiracy theorists, or just plain fans of the Sherlock Holmes canon. It explores only one avenue of thought as to the identity of Jack the Ripper yet it is still a suitable way of introducing a whole host of conspiratorial characters including Andrew Paul as reputable physician Sir William Gull, a man who may have had blood on his hands and his possible accomplice, Netley, played with menace by Michael Kirk. There is even a touch of spiritualism in the guise of Lara Lemon’s Kate Mead.

However, let us turn to those two most enduring literary characters, Holmes and Watson. It is good to see that we have now ditched that entire Inverness cape and deerstalker nonsense that has plagued the consulting detective since Sidney Paget’s illustrations in the Strand Magazine. It’s a welcome departure and eagerly embraced here by Samuel Clemens’ Holmes who plays it straight and without the theatrical flushes that dogged Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone.

His Holmes is logical yet somewhat vulnerable, maybe even possessing a heart and provides a perfect foil to George Telfer’s witty and strident Watson. Telfer adds both humour and a vitality that sharply contrasts to the disturbing thread of the onstage action.

There is little in the way of a set, a couple of chairs, a table and a couple of platforms. Locations are illustrated by back projections on what looked like mighty curtains. It somehow worked but did not lend itself satisfactorily to the intimidating Hexagon space. 

Overall, though, it was a rewarding performance. It was erudite and cunning and offered up another strand in the ongoing fascination for the perpetrator of those vicious late nineteenth century crimes. I am sure there will be others who will follow, new theories, new disputes but the moment let’s leave it with Brian Clemens and the team at talking Scarlet.

CLASSIC GHOST STORIES Reviewed at The Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke. 22nd October 2015

The Waiting Room by Robert Aickman
Adapted by Francis Evelyn
Designed & directed by Michael Lunney

The Signalman by Charles Dickens
Adapted by Francis Evelyn
Designed & directed by Michael Lunney

The first piece in this performance is by the lesser-known author and canal enthusiast, Robert Aickman. He described his work as simply a “strange tales"
The Waiting Room sees Pendlebury, played by Jack Shepherd, stranded at the end of the line, and forced to stay in the station’s waiting room. Not an easy night as he is dogged by ghostly phantoms of soldiers and their lovers. One already feels it’s not going to turn out well for him.
I found it clich├ęd in parts, especially its misty-eyed view of the ‘Great War’. For example, did we really need a rendition of “Keep the Home Fires Burning”? Did we really need a performance of “Keep the Home Fires Burning”? On the other hand, when Aickman wrote his story, his ideas were probably still fresh. Nevertheless, it did not feel right. My suspicions were aroused when however I read how his story had been adapted for the stage.

Francis Evelyn writes, “Knowing that he was born in 1914 and that his life was very much influenced by the First World War, I took the liberty of weaving a narrative of that sort into the original script.”
 I am not sure here if it did work. I found it rather dull and felt little empathy. Furthermore, it lacked the ghostly atmosphere that one expects in such a tale.

The second piece, The Signalman by Charles Dickens, however, made up for my initial disappointment. He has become synonymous with the classic English ghost story, most notably his eerie tale A Christmas Carol. However, most readers may have gone no further than the novel. It’s a pity as he produced other works such as this. It is a well-crafted piece and a joy to see it brought to the stage.

Jack Shepherd shines as the tormented signalman haunted by visions of impending disaster on his isolated stretch of line. Richard Walsh’s anonymous ‘Traveller’ listens with intensity and slight scepticism to the Signalman’s tale of a ghostly spectre haunting the nearby tunnel, each sighting indicating impending disaster.

It was far more satisfying in its execution and atmosphere than The Waiting Room. It brought a chill to the stage and invoked a ghostly sense of dread that was sadly lacking in the first half.
Therefore, for me one worked and the other disappointed. I found it especially hard, as I am something of an Aickman devotee. However, on the plus side and despite my reservations it is good to see that such works are still valued and worthy of being brought to the stage by companies such as Middle Ground.

This first appeared in The Newbury Weekly News 29th October 2015