On Religion by Tower Theatre

The following is a guest review from a London based reviewer.

It was with high hopes that I attended the final performance of ‘On Religion’, as produced by Tower Theatre at The Bridewell Theatre. The word on the street was that this was a real gem. Craven’s recent directorial vision on Talking Heads with KDC, starring two of the four actors from this production, had received similar praise. And the subject matter: a thinking play about religion but a feeling play about a family locked in battle over their differences was very appealing. How many plays really have an intention to make you both think and feel?

The story is simple. Grace (Anne Connell) is a university lecturer and prominent atheist (sorry naturalist). She is married to Tony (Ian Recordon): a Jew. Her son, Tom (Thom Petty) is a lawyer and has a girlfriend Ruth (Sharita Oomer), who the family seem to approve of. Conflict arises in the family when Tom decides to give up his job as a lawyer as he is feeling a calling from God to be a man of the cloth.

Of course any play with a cast of just four normally gives the actors something really juicy to work with, and all four actors in this production have moments to shine, but really the story is that of Grace. We really journey through everything with her, and Anne Connell’s performance is outstanding. From the very first scene, in which we cannot even see her eyes because they have been covered up by ping-pong balls for a scientific experiment to help her have a ‘religious experience’, we get to know a fully-realised, three-dimensional woman, her sarcastic wit actually covering up how humourless she can be if you get her talking about anything to do with religion. A C Grayling called the character a ‘female Richard Dawkins’ in his Q&A session after the performance and that was clear to anyone who knows anything about modern theology. Connell played Grace as a formidable woman, who will stop at nothing in her aim to change the world for the better by eradicating religion. Every scene she was in, you couldn’t help but be drawn towards her. Her stage presence was electric.

The cause of all the contention, Tom, was a less vocal, less sure of himself, less confident character. His changing views on religion didn’t even seem solidified as he took on the role of vicar. Thom Petty, in only his second acting role, played a sensitive and realistic portrayal of the man who had been torn in so many directions. His pivotal scene with Connell at the end of Act One was a great shift in the character and Petty gave an intelligent performance that showed there was more than one side to the character of Tom.

Ian Recordon’s Tony, patient, accepting and tolerant of his frankly intolerable wife, was incredibly natural in all the scenes at home. You really felt like he was living in the scenes at the dinner table and in the lounge with his newspaper. Often the voice of reason in amongst all the other drama around him, Recordon showed his experience as an actor, by playing down the unshowy-part, which really helped to hammer home the range of characters in the play.

The character of Ruth, drawn into this dysfunctional family was a hard one to pin down. Tony at one point refers to Ruth as ‘scary’, but there certainly no indications of this early on in the play, possibly because of the ferocity of Connell’s performance as Grace. Oomeer seemed quieter, shyer and more reserved and I was concerned that she wasn’t playing the part as confidently or assertively as the character demanded. Then along came a pivotal scene in the Second Act, between Oomeer and Connell which literally blew me away and any doubts as to the range that Oomeer might have were thrown away.

Such a fine cast can only produce the level of performances that these four actors did with a superb vision and driving force behind them and Victor Craven as the director must take a huge amount of credit for that. A play that could get bogged down in wordy speeches, it never ever dropped pace and the family unit was set up with such realism that you could believe these were real people, despite the somewhat contrived set up in the writing (an atheist married to a Jew with a child who becomes a vicar?) If the intention was to make the audience think AND feel, then that was certainly achieved. My religious views are probably closest to the character of Grace’s, but the compelling argument that Tom makes in the second act for the existence of God as a force is a fascinating watch. And the scene in the church between Ruth and Grace brought a tear or two to these eyes as both women captured the pain that the last two years had brought them with incredible intensity. Craven knows when to change the gear from thinking to feeling for the audience and had a great ability to move between the two types of theatre without the audience even realising.

Mention of Craven cannot end there. His projection and sound design, along with Phillip Ley’s set design was one of the big highlights of the play. The sets were simple but effective, but added to by the most incredible projections at the back of the stage. These were used to great dramatic effect and the sound that accompanied the breaking of the music to go into each scene gave a feeling of foreboding that suited the play perfectly.

In my time I’ve seen a lot of theatre, both professional and non-professional, but this play really was one of the best nights that I have ever had at the theatre. It is a huge shame that the run is over because I could not recommend it highly enough and am extremely excited to see what Victor Craven is looking to produce next. One thing’s for sure, I’ll be in the audience!

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Blackadder Goes Forth by CTW

This is a guest review from http://www.behindthefootlights.blogspot.co.uk/

Blackadder Goes Forth was performed at the Ol Court Theatre in Chelmsford, Essex.

In this climax of CTW’s succession of productions bringing iconic episodes of the Blackadder TV series to the Old Court stage, we are greeted by a well decorated dug-out complete with sandbags for their interpretation of Blackadder Goes Forth.  Such a celebrated and beloved programme, originally performed by some of the comic greats of television, Dean Hempstead gives himself a real Directorial challenge in achieving performances that the audience will recognise and enjoy, encouraging his actors to both interpret but also undeniably imitate the characterisations that the capacity houses will expect to see.

As per CTW’s previous Blackadder productions, the title role is performed by David Chilvers.  Poker-faced and suave, he delivers the biting sarcasm, extended similes and sneering cynicism of this character with poise and clarity, achieving the nasal vocal quality of the original but perhaps requiring more of a range of facial reactions.

His disgusting yet lovable sidekick Private Baldrick is once again played by CTW veteran Mark Preston.  Gormless and innocent, his characterisation is sweet and bumbling with enough of a nod to Tony Robinson but also managing to make the part his own.

Bruce Thomson joins this cast as the hopelessly effervescent Lieutenant George.  His constant good humour, naivety and simplicity is well portrayed, and although Bruce’s bouncing physicality was often fitting, a bit more stillness occasionally would have given the excitable movement more impact.

Captain Darling is taken on by Harry Sabbarton, gurning and squirming his part with delightfully sycophantic adoration and efforts at one-upmanship over Blackadder.

General Melchett is portrayed by a booming Steve Parr, playing the pompous, childish warmonger with relish.  Despite needing a straighter posture to help command a more defining stage presence, he is particularly funny during the “Major Star” episode, but there’s not enough “Baaah!” throughout for me.

Among the supporting cast there is a sweet cameo from Ruth Cramphorn as Bob, a gloriously smiley portrayal of the soft Corporal Perkins from Matthew Martin and an enjoyably shouty Corporal Jones, leader of the firing squad, played by Martin Robinson.

Costumes are all excellently detailed, managing to achieve distinctive differences despite most characters clearly being in uniform throughout.  Props too are well chosen and fit the period and requirements well.  I especially liked the cardboard cricket bat, and Speckled Jim looked very good with an hilarious feathery effect as he met his sticky end.

The only element of this production that really works against the success of the comedy is the frequency of the scene changes.  As can often be the case when trying to so loyally recreate scripts written for television, the writing allows for short location-based scenes switching quickly and seamlessly from one to the next – far more difficult to achieve live on stage.  As excellent as CTW’s dug-out looks, it is quite roomy for a space in which the men would have been living on top of one another, and perhaps a split stage created with lighting effects could have allowed for the variety of locations with a smoother, pacier change between them.  As it is, the well-constructed set pieces with ingenious flappy flats look great, and the stage management was organised and swift, but the laughs are still lost between the too-numerous scenes.  That said, the innovative staging of the famous finale of “Goodbyeee” is absolutely brilliant, achieving everything it should by bringing a sudden lump to the throat of the silenced audience.

The intelligent, witty Blackadder scripts achieve a singularly insightful parody of the ludicrous truths of each of the historical periods they explore, but this final series set during WWI also manages to maintain an utter respect for the soldiers who risked and gave their lives in this horrific war.  A difficult juxtaposition to pull off, achieved with both hilarious and heart wrenching success by CTW in this worthy production.  I hope their multiple fundraising efforts have achieved as much success for The Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes.

Suessical by Springers AODS

This is a guest review from http://www.behindthefootlights.blogspot.co.uk/
 
Suessical was performed at the Cramphorn Theatre in Chelmsford, Essex
 
From the moment the audience enter the Cramphorn auditorium this week, the “Wow!” factor is waiting to greet them.  An exuberant, imaginative and well-constructed set covers the whole stage and climbs the back wall towards the band, without ever inhibiting the relatively limited acting space.  Immediately setting the mood for this surreal musical, the programme is also wonderful with some excellent imagery throughout, thoughtfully designed to fit perfectly into the style of the show and whetting appetites with beautifully simple adverts for Springers next events.
 
With the mood well and truly set, there are some lovely off-stage successes elsewhere too – the lighting is suitably colourful, with a brave attempt at follow spotting in the studio-style theatre mostly well executed, and the sound levels were spot on.  As far as I could tell voices were not miked, but the excellent live band did not overpower the vocals – a difficult balance in such a small space.  There were successes with the costumes too – the birds were full of gorgeous chorus girl glamour with an excellent contrast between Gertrude and Mayzie, The Cat in the Hat looked like he had stepped straight out of the book, the General looked perfectly smart and authoritative and the colour theme for the Whos worked very well.  For me, a few of the characters looked a little unfinished – Elephant ears attached to Horton’s hat, Monkey tails trailing out from the Wickersham’s trousers or a Turtle shell backpack on Yertle.  Only small additions, much like the pouch on the Sour Kangaroo, that could have stepped these costumes up a notch – worth the effort forsuch a visual show.
 
Mat Smith played the iconic Cat in the Hat, cheekily creeping about the stage causing mischief and narrating us through events with humour and charm.  Young thinker JoJo was given an excellent portrayal by Aaron Crowe who remained entirely in character throughout, complete with cheesy grins and wide-eyed innocence, and sang with clarity and control.  Horton, the naively lovable elephant, was skilfully played with notable physicality and a very strong voice by Ian Pavelin.  Deborah Anderson was eminently watchable as Gertrude, with superb characterisation and a beautiful singing voice.  Melissa Smart strutted in her beautiful costume as Mayzie Labird, bringing class and glamour to the stage as well as a pretty singing voice and considered characterisation of the selfish party bird.  Natalie Petto belted her soulful number as the Sour Kangaroo and her sour pout was well maintained, although her facial expression could have gone even further into a grimace to suit the over-the-top style of this exuberant show.  Embracing the outrageous on the other hand, Barry Miles was gloriously audacious as General Genghis Khan Smitz – face contorting and eyeballs rolling continuously.
 
This is a deceptively difficult show to sing, and the cast coped admirably with the tricky changes in timing and pace throughout the production.  The group numbers were sung with a smooth mix of vocals, and were well choreographed so as not to make the stage seem over-full – especially during the final court scene. 
 
With the curtain call taken at exactly 9.30, the performance times remain accessible for families with children to attend the weeknight performances – an essential consideration with the target audience for this show. “When can we come here again Daddy?” was the question on the lips of the cute little girl who left the theatre on her Dad’s shoulders just in front of me – what higher praise can there possibly be?

Private Fears in Public Places by RBS Theatre

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Some might say Alan Ayckbourn is somewhat of a “marmite playwright” – Rather than being seen as “just alright,” he always tends to be in the “liked or loathed” camp. I have been told that he’s a one trick pony and that his humour can be seen as a little self indulgent but for every negative comment I’ve heard, there have been a lot more positive ones. I firmly put myself in the very pro-Ayckbourn camp and I was looking forward to seeing RBS Theatre’s production of “Public Fear in Private Places” at the Network Theatre in Waterloo.

Upon entering the theatre I was immediately impressed with the staging of the play I was about to see. It was clear that the director had chosen to display all his locations in one set and as someone who is very anti set change, I thought this was an excellent choice! This could have been seen as a brave decision but in my opinion, you have to assume that the audience will have the focus and imagination to concentrate on what the actors are doing without being distracted by what’s going on across the rest of the stage.

The play opened with all the actors entering and exiting from different directions and then appearing again from other entrances. This really gave the impression that every character was as important as the next and set the tone well for what became an insight into the lives of the six characters.

Kat Malseed and Nick Edwards kicked things off as Maleed’s Nicola was looking for a new home whilst Edwards’s Stewart was charged with being the estate agent trying to convince her that a “one and two half’s” bedroom flat was actually a three bedroom.

Both actors showed their hands early as far as characterization goes. Nicola, uptight, high maintenance and formal. Stewart, geeky, humble, friendly and far too weak to be good at his job. With some snappy dialogue and strong acting the opening scene enabled me to relax and it wasn’t long before we had been introduced to the six main characters in the show.

Stewart lived with his sister, enjoyed games of scrabble on a Sunday, had a crush on his office manager and accepted his lot in life without much thought or ambition. Nick Edward’s did an excellent job in the choices he made portraying Stewart. The fidgets, the nervous laugh, the shocked and mischievous facial expressions were all warmly received by the audience and I would imagine he quickly became something of a mums favourite. I had some issues not always being able to see what he was thinking due to him not being open enough to half the audience but that is nitpicking more than anything.

Grace Ross played his sister Imogen.  We were led to believe early on in the script that Imogen was probably of a similar vein to Stewart. Imogen stayed home to play said games of scrabble with her brother and despite her efforts often struggled to get dates. Despite a nice opening scene, which even hinted at an incestuous relationship with her brother, it became clear to me that believing this was the Imogen in the script was going to be a big ask.

Not that there was anything wrong with Ross. She acted well, she was cute when she had to be cute, she was feisty when she had to be feisty, she did a fairly decent job of being drunk and her general delivery was fine. In my opinion she was just in the wrong play. Perhaps it would have been as simple as a change of costume and a bit of direction to make her more like her brother but the fact was that the actress I was watching was too young, too good looking, too modern and too cool for me to believe she would struggle to get dates and that she would spend every Sunday playing a board game with Stewart.

Stacie Hassler played Charlotte. Charlotte was a colleague of Stewarts, was deeply religious and had a rather kinky alter ego. Hassler was very focused throughout the show and what stood out for me was her constant eye contact with the other actors. This may seem a trivial thing but it is things like eye contact that make any relationship on stage all the more believable to the audience. Too many actors look around or down in dialogue with other actors as they struggle to lose their inhibitions but I didn’t feel that was the case here.

On the negative side I didn’t really like the way Charlotte’s “big reveal” came about. All the evil smiles at the end scenes with Stewart became a little boring and when we finally saw her in her bondage gear it didn’t really have much of an impact. I also struggled to believe that she was in conflict with herself over the two sides of her personality. Something was missing for me in this portrayal and although I can’t really fault Stacie’s delivery I do feel there were some weak choices made by either the actor or the director in how some of her scenes played out.

Ambrose worked as a bartender in a hotel. His job was an escape from his life as the son of a bed ridden and aggressive father. Left to care for him after his mother’s death we see both sides of him as the ear to the world at work and as a lonely middle aged man at home.  Paul Eckersall played the role as a man who was so used to his routine that he took everything in his stride and without fuss. He was a likeable character and although the actor had a few issues with his lines on this particular night his delivery and manner was generally quite believable. I did find though that his scenes at home with Charlotte slowed the play down and out of all the scenes these were the ones where I became slightly disengaged from the play. I did however enjoy his straight man bartender role opposite Will Gunston’s more clownish Dan.

Dan was one of my favourite characters in the play although it was much more the character I enjoyed rather than his role. The actor appeared to me to have taken two of Harry Enfield’s most popular characters and morphed them into one. Part Kevin the Teenager and part Tim “nice but” Dim, Gunston’s portrayal was warm, funny, energetic and even charming. Did I believe he had been an army officer? Not a chance. Did I buy into his relationship with Nicola? Not for a second. Did I think Imogen would have fallen for him? Not in a million years but the truth is I didn’t care. This would probably be seen as negative from a director’s point of view and I am almost annoyed that I am prepared to let the lack of believability slide but on this occasion, it worked.

As it happened the fact that I could never see Dan and Nicola together worked out quite nicely as she ended up throwing him out on his ear. Kat Malseed grew into the play from an acting perspective and it would have been interesting to see her later in the run. At first I thought she was overplaying the character and trying too hard to be the bitchy unforgiving woman that we were meant to be seeing. In the second act though she visibly softened and her performance improved tenfold. As this was only opening night I would imagine she got better as the week went on.

There was actually a seventh character in the play as Ambrose’s dad, Arthur was played from offstage. Most of his lines were insulting towards Charlotte and they were delivered with enthusiasm from Jonny Lyons and provided the audience with some funny moments.

As a director I saw a lot of pluses and a few minus’s in Edo Avraham’s choices for this production. I thought the set choice was excellent and worked well. I like the choice of music and although there were a few cue issues it wasn’t overused and was served primarily for transitional purposes. I thought the blocking worked very well and wasn’t confusing. Smart choices were made with the television and Charlotte’s offstage scene and the lighting was very good too.

My problem was that it was more style than substance. As much as I enjoyed the play it would have been so much better if I believed in some of the relationships between the characters.  I would go as far as to say that despite enjoyable individual performances some of the actors were possibly either miscast from a chemistry point of view or the relationships took a backseat to the staging of the play. Despite this though it was a good production and I look forward to seeing what the company has to offer in the future.

As usual just remember this is only one blokes’ review of one performance.

Until next time.

The Bloke

Dracula by KDC Theatre

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Every so often a theatre company attempts a play which is high risk. A play that is so famous and so familiar to so many people that attempting to do it justice and win over any pre conceived ideas the public may have is a big challenge.

KDC Theatre, one of London’s premier amateur dramatic groups recently attempted this by staging Liz Lochhead’s adaptation of Dracula. In my opinion, despite some valiant efforts by the cast, this challenge was not quite met.

Dracula is a strange beast. It is one of the classics no doubt but Lochhead’s stage adaptation lacks pace in its storytelling and has scenes that are just too long. That may be unfair to the author as I have only seen one version of the stage play and I have read review’s from other companies performances to suggest that, with the right direction, the play can indeed be a success.

KDC’s version started promisingly as Catherine Kolubayev’s Lucy Westerman took to the stage. It was akin to sending out your best player first in a Davis Cup tennis match. Get the points on the board and hope that the rest of the team can chip in.

Kolubayev seemed comfortable in her role from the start as the naughty but nice Westerman. Lucy show’s a range of emotions throughout the play and Kolubayev portrayed them pretty effortlessly. I always look at an actor’s focus and especially what their eyes are doing and she didn’t switch off for one minute. She believed everything she was saying and feeling, even when she became a vampire and her overall performance was very good.

The same can be said for William Baltyn who played Dr Arthur Seward. Baltyn has stage presence and although this was the first time I have seen him act I could tell how versatile he is as an actor. He was consistent throughout but possibly lost his way a little towards the end and became a little one dimensional. I don’t really see this as a fault with the actor but more the writing and the direction.

Marcus Mollen played Renfield with a believable but safe portrayal. His role in Lochead’s version of the story is much larger than in the traditional text. Mollen certainly made the most of his stage time and some of the finest moments in the play were when he was alone on the stage. He is an impressive actor and one could tell how much thought he had put into the role, but just occasionally, he failed to get across the tension, fear and internal conflict that this complex character demands.

Of the other leads Anna Marx as Mina gave a competent performance which will probably improve as the run continues and she relaxes more into the role. It probably didn’t help that Kolubayev was so strong in the scenes they shared together but it was steady portrayal of the older more sensible sister.

Jimi Odell was very likeable as Jonathan Harker and seemed to play the role with in a slightly camp nature. I wasn’t sure if this was an intentional choice by the actor but it gave a much needed warmth and humour to the play. On the flip side it made his relationship with Mina slightly more unbelievable but I enjoyed his portrayal overall.

Kate Moore as Florrie grew into the role. It took a while for her to get going but by the end of the play she was one of the stronger performers. Her performance during the emotional scenes was better than during the comedic ones.

Of the rest of the cast Chris Stooke made the most of some shocking dialogue in his portrayal of Van Helsing and was a much needed boost to the energy of the play. Su Vigus as Nurse Grice was steady but missed the chance to make more of role that, played right, is asking to be a show stealer. Fiona Thomas and Mark Ewins as Doyle and Drinkwater did what was asked with the right amount of effort and fuss.

I have left the role of Dracula until the end as I feel guilty about how I perceived Alan Maddrell’s portrayal of this iconic figure. Guilty because I had so many issues with it but I don’t feel I could necessarily blame the actor. I am an actor myself and consider myself to be of a high standard but would never try to tackle that particular role. The role demands a presence. It demands fear, sex appeal, passion and the ability to leave people hanging off your every word. Every man woman and child has an image of Dracula in the same way they have an image of a James Bond or a Fagin. It is an extremely hard role to cast and as hard as Maddrell tried it just didn’t work for him tonight.

He had no help from those behind the scenes. His make up was overdone and only went as far back as the front of his ears. I could not understand how the crew made Lucy look so convincingly pale before her death with simple white make up yet made Dracula look like he had gone to a Halloween party but couldn’t really be bothered to go the whole hog. His hair was too modern and he was let down in the costume department by wearing what seemed to be a mixture of clothes from various eras, none of which suited the role. The fact the actor was wearing unconvincing make up, had nice hair and was wearing random clothes never really gave him a chance.

In truth his delivery wasn’t bad. His accent was decent although monotone at times but his stage presence was underwelming. I felt sorry for him as the way he looked was always going to make it extremely difficult for him to convince me in his role and his performance wasn’t strong enough to make me change my mind about my first impression.

At the end of the day he was miscast in the role and out of all the actors I would like to see this one in another show as he does not deserve to be judged from this outing. I hope if he reads this review his confidence isn’t dented. Alan, it wasn’t your fault!

My big problem with this play was the direction. The decisions that Duncan Moore made at times turned the show into a parody of itself. My first big beef was the choice of a soundtrack throughout the show. There is nothing better in theatre than an actor building tension through carefully delivered words cutting through the silence. It seemed in this show that the director did not trust his actors enough to build the atmosphere that the show needed. Every time there was anything slightly dramatic, on came music from some 1970’s Latvian horror movie to remind us all that we should be feeling a bit scared.

I felt so sorry for Mollen and Kolubayev who both could have had the audience eating out of the palm of their hands at times if they had been allowed to generate the tension through their acting skills rather than those of the sound engineer. Mollen in particular had him limelight taken from him on more than one occasion by this obsession with music.

Speaking of lights, that was my other big issue with the direction. The decision to use endless scene changes on 2m black boards on wheels instead of lighting was a poor one. I must have seen about 50 scene changes yet nothing of significance really changed apart from the addition of the odd bed. If you are going to have a minimalist set then trust the audience to focus on the actors at hand, use utility furniture, get your entrances right, and get creative with your lighting.

Scenes were played in front of screens whilst a set was clumsily created in the background for all to see. Quite simply the director tried to cram too much in when there was no need. I honestly felt that he did not trust his actors at all and it made an already long play feel endless.

I am a big fan of amateur theatre and will often argue that a lot of shows are amateur only in name. I am afraid however, that the things that were amateur in this show, gave the cynics plenty of ammunition.

Most of these actors will go on to better things and I will look forward to seeing them in a show that lets them showcase their skills better than this production did.

One thing I will say is that I know how much effort goes into amateur theatre. To many it is a hobby and should be enjoyed for what it is. I don’t like to write negative things about anything but as an actor myself I always appreciate honesty.

I have heard that the show has sold out for every night of the run so for that I congratulate the theatre group and maybe that just shows that I don’t know what I am talking about!

Just remember this is only one blokes’s review of one performance.

Until next time.

The Bloke