The End of the Beginning - Review

The title’s Irish, to start with. How can there be an end before a beginning? It’s a clue to the reversal of the norm, the expectation confounded, an inversion of the natural order: and it’s the point of Sean O’Casey’s comedy. Then there’s the balladeer singing in the bar as the audience wait to take their seats upstairs. Patrick Hannigan sang his lilting Irish folk tunes to the gentle accompaniment of clinking glasses and everyone joined in the chorus of Molly Malone. We could have been in Dublin. In fact, we were in Bedford Place, Brighton, to celebrate the opening of The Theatre Upstairs in The New Venture Theatre.

The play was a marvellous choice to launch theatre in the brand new spaces upstairs. Like all the best comedies, it is rooted in comprehension of character, and, like all the best comedies, it is not an entirely comfortable experience. My husband wriggled with recognition as Darry overwound the clock, hit it to make it go again and admired his biceps in the mirror. Do I quote that ‘ men just work ‘til set of sun whilst woman’s work is never done’? Probably.

Darry, irritated with his wife Lizzie, bets he can do her job better than she could do his. Mowing the meadow? Child’s play. You try cooking, washing, feeding the pigs, and managing the household. Telling Darry not to forget the heifer which slips its halter, Lizzie stomps out. Darry practises calisthenics to a hilarious keepfit record for the doubtful benefit of local crumpet until his singing friend Barry appears with a mandolin. Both men are equally inept and Barry can’t see, with or without his spectacles. Disaster piles upon disaster and a fine mess they get each other into before a grand finale when the heifer, tied to a rope through the chimney, heaves Darry off his legs and up into the stack.

Director Rod Lewis first saw the play in German whilst working in Berlin more than twenty years ago. He thought it was one of the funniest shows he had ever seen – and he didn’t speak German. There is a great deal of silent mime as Darry struts about in his braces, alone on stage, trying to exercise his torso or wash up and failing in both. Des Potton is sublimely inept, an Oliver Hardy figure of macho uselessness yet somehow infinitely touching and vulnerable. His Stan Laurel sidekick manages rather better with the gymnastics and rather worse with the dishes in a sidesplittingly funny performance by Carl Boardman. And then, just as any woman would write the pair of them off completely, they sing a charming duet ‘ Down where the bees are humming’, accompanying themselves on the mandolin. Men, says O’Casey, may not be much use in the kitchen – but they can make your heart sing when they want to.

Meanwhile, comic tension grows as we await Lizzie’s return. We guess the meadow will be perfectly mown, offstage. Anticipating Lizzie’s reactions to the chaos, in a Casey coup de theatre, is largely left to our imagination and the curtain comes down, metaphorically, in The Theatre Upstairs. Poor Janice Jones, more than a match for Darry or Barry, has to be shrill and competent, yet we love her independence and her feisty courage. Her stance might not seem so heroic today, but Sean O’Casey wrote the play in 1937, in a rural Ireland where gender roles were written in stone. Is Lizzie a metaphor for Ireland itself, in those days of bitter struggles for national identity and freedom? Even if she doesn’t represent a nation, she does stand for a sex oppressed by tradition and prejudice, something beautifully represented by Janice Jones in a performance both touching, tough and funny.

Huge credit to the creative team under the clever direction of Rod Lewis: the vintage set in particular was memorable for Bakelite props, and lace antimacassars (who remembers those?) Another round of applause for dialect coach Paddy O’Keeffe; I would never have known that Des Potton, Carl Boardman and Janice Jones were not native Dubliners, a ruse highlighted by their clever Gaelic-ised names in the theatre programme. Manager Pat Boxall clearly overcame all the inevitable hiccups of a first night in a new theatre and the production looked as smooth as a swan gliding across a lake - if it was paddling furiously underneath, none of us in the audience would have known. Besides, we were laughing fit to burst.

Afterwards, there was Irish music off stage as Louise Wells and Adam Mould played the fiddle and the bodhram in the bar. Let’s be having yous, then.

by Louise Schweitzer


Kvetch - Review

Vaudeville Punch and Judy


I sat through most of Kvetch with a great big grin on my face. And now I feel horribly guilty because almost everything you see and hear is appalling. It's one of those awful dreams where you say dreadful things to very important people – like your wife, your mother-in-law, your best friend and your company's best customer.

Berkoff's idea is so simple, you wonder nobody thought of it before.

Using a freeze-frame cinema technique, he stops the action every few moments for the actors to let us know what they are aching to say. And do. And then they go on and do it. And say it. With such grossness and violence, it is all appallingly funny.

The line "Let guilt go fuck itself" comes up several times as a hopeful catharsis and that seems to work most of the time. Until the big surprise turns up, that is.

If your Yiddish is as shaky as mine, "kvetch" is anxiety carried to the ultimate where vast inescapable guilt usurps everything.

The kvetcher-in-chief is Frank, head of the household. Here, he is Andrew Allen, managing to look remarkably like Jim Carrey and with all his comic timing and clown face. The scene early on when he murders his mother-in-law by shooting, strangling, blowing up by high explosive and, apparently, decapitation,is one of the funniest things I've seen in ages.

Janice Jones, his stupid failure of a wife (so Frank believes) is compliant and belligerent by turns. Alistair Lock, Frank's suicidedly uncertain friend, shares some great comic moments with her at the supper party. In an amazing turn-around in the plot, he also turns out to be unexpectedly accommodating in quite another direction. The play has even darker moments, believe it or not. They are still hilarious.

Liz Stapleton is mother-in-law, landed with some pretty disgusting table manners, poor soul, and dealing with them brilliantly. Culann Smyth, the smart-ass businessman, is not quite the smooth operator he presents. No surprise there, then.

Steven O'Shea directs and finds the right idiom and pace from the start. He works with the aggression of a vaudeville Punch and Judy show and that's exactly what's needed.

The big surprise turns out to be that it doesn't work when you tell guilt to eff-off.

It makes you feel guilty.

Review by Barry Hewlett-Davies


Iron - Review

Reviewed by Barry Hewlett-Davies

If you were to believe what some of the papers say, you’d think being sent to prison is like finding yourself in a holiday camp – regular meals, central heating, counselling, education classes, recreation and TV, all with daily exercise. It’s really rather like what happens in Porridge on TV, isn’t it ?

The only answer to that is “NO!”

Rona Munro’s play is set in the regime of a Glasgow gaol. Though she is not primarily concerned with polemics, she tells her story in such immediate human terms and so without sentimentality that what she says hits you hard and straight in the stomach.

She presents four very real people – a woman doing life for sticking a knife in her husband; her daughter who has spent most of her life not knowing the truth; a female prison officer who may be evilly-intended; her male colleague apparently dedicated to doing a nasty job with kindness and understanding.

You feel you get to know all of them very well and very quickly. But how do they deal with one another ? Are their relationships what they seem ? Are they all behaving truthfully ? What is truth when you are confined and disorientated ?

Jerry Lyne’s cast deals with the situation with confidence and style, a great team and brilliant ! They are Sandie Armstrong, Erica Thornton, Alistair Lock and Laura Scobie. I won’t discuss them individually because they work so successfully as a group.

When I was younger, I was in and out of prison regularly. I do not have a criminal record.I was part of a Home Office Press team responsible for explaining the work of the then Prison Commission to the world at large. From that experience I know how accurate this production is. Unfortunately.

The way the play looks is crucial. Bleak and stark are the keys. Light is important and Strat Mastoris designed it well. The studio is black with few props, the only colours the red cover on the prison bed and the few flowers in the garden. The lighting gives it the depth it needs.

At first sight, you might think you’re in for a a dismal evening but in fact, it’s a valuable experience in the theatre. It comes with all the noise of a prison but not, thank God, the smell.

Talking Dog - Review


On a cold and mean December afternoon, I can’t pretend there was much of a spring in my step as I arrived at the theatre to see an improvised (devised script -ed) play about talking dogs.

I need not have worried. The show is full of tenderness and charm – no hint of the sentimental whimsy I thought we might be in for – given what people say about doggy behaviour.

[Declared interest: I am a cat man.]

The cast of four has an easy confidence. They engage at once with the audience, eager to make eye contact. There weren’t many of us in the studio but they played as if we were a full house – professionalism in action. In fact, professional is what they are throughout, not only with their acting but with puppetry, mime and mask work.

The show takes about an hour and a quarter. In that time we go to the circus which has funny conjuring and a flirtatious French poodle, to a party political dog rally, and to a cinema where there isn’t a dog in sight . We are even in on the start of World War II with Neville Chamberlain’s strangely-elocuted voice announcing that the balloon’s gone up. Running in the background to provide the framework, is the story of an ordinary family. It’s all done in a permanent set well-suited to quick changes of locale.

There is a real-seeming stick puppet dog [a Boxer ?] made by Anita Sullivan. He has a surprisingly expressive face. The people in the show who aren’t dogs, wear masks from the Trestle Theatre Company.

The ensemble is Claire Armstrong, Mark Green, Frank Leon and Leanne MacKenzie.

The run-up to Christmas is arguably not the best time to offer an improvised show. Theatre-goers want something they can trust without having to work too hard. It doesn’t have to be a pot-boiler - how about a Priestley ? Or Ayckbourne or Goldsmith ?

Which is why I hope this talented group will keep their production together and offer it again in a slot where audiences are more likely to take a gamble. Improvised theatre is always a risk. On this occasion, one worth taking.

If this is what going to the dogs is like, count me in.

Review by Louise Schweitzer for 'The Critic'
Reproduced by kind permission of The Argus

Against the measured tones of Beethoven’s op 26, we meet Mr and Mrs Wilson, their son Marty and their dog Eddy. It is around 1939 and war soon shatters the domestic scene, violence foreshadowed by galloping horses and a Clint Eastwood western. Marty is fatally shell-shocked, his father dies and Mrs Wilson, traumatised, has only Eddy – two legs bad, four legs good – for company.

But Eddy has an inner life: Eddy dreams. He joins CATS – Canines Against Tyrant Society and teams up with a feisty chihuahua who strips for a living. He goes to the circus and watches magic as well as a performing terrier who pushes the chihuahua in a pram, but escapes.

Yet nothing can escape the shadow of death and when the crows tell Eddy that Mrs Wilson is dying, he knows he cannot live without her. He loves his human family and leaves this world when they do.

Surreal, magic, moving theatre, stunningly acted by the tiny cast of Claire Armstrong, Mark Green, Frank Leon and Leanne MacKenzie, with minimal props and bare set.

Stuffed model Eddy was a convincing alter-ego for Frank Leon on all fours, while masks, mime, music and lighting produced limitless dramatic effects.

The play was written by Sarah Davies, who could never have expected in her wildest dreams such a vivid and imaginative recreation of her original idea, nor that four gifted young actors could quite so realistically scratch, wag their tails and bark.

 Review by Barry Hewlett-Davies

The Servant - Review

by Robin Maugham
Directed by Ken Potter

The Servant is a nasty story, told slowly in this production and there’s the rub.

The performances are first-rate. But since the flow of the action is broken by painstakingly careful scene changes, the actors lose a lot of the suspense they work so successfully to achieve. The narrative is often concerned with sexual tension, so it’s like watching momentum interruptus.

All the casting is spot on.

From the word go, Colin Elmer, the unspeakable Barrett, the servant, is nastiness personified. Colin has the ability to make you believe he has just stepped out of a fridge. A sign reading “Grandma for Sale” might as well be hanging over his head. As he progresses from glacial to near-hysterical by way of drunken false penitence, he offers a performance which makes it impossible to take your eyes off him. Great !

Fifty years on from when the play was written, social drama is no longer presented in such big black capital letters. The world Maugham wrote about has gone. Few people can afford (or need) a Jeeves. It is to Matthew Houghton’s credit as the victimised employer, that he makes us believe what is happening to him, close to melodrama though it is.

His self-destruction, a cheerfully-maintained insouciance defeated by a great deal of whisky, is heart-breaking. Matthew’s performance is impressively sustained, though you wonder why people walk all over him so easily.

His concerned friends, Arabella Gibbins and Terence Drew, who try to rescue him, have considerable style. Arabella is glamorous, haughty, full of common sense; Terence, practical and down to earth, knowing when to accept the inevitable.

Sarah Charsley and Sarah Deeas are the imported low life. They are involved in the only moments where there might be a chance to draw breath and laugh. Both are excellently cast.

Comparing the play with the later movie version (Losey, Pinter and Bogarde) is irresistible. To some extent, Maugham was restricted in what he could get away with by state censorship (the Lord Chamberlain’s office.) The film censors allowed a more subtle journey into depravity. This had the effect of smoothing out some rough edges.

It is not a comfortable evening for the audience, any more than it can be for the actors, because I can’t help but feel that the staging gets in the way of what they are doing. The sets look good – it is moving them around too often that upsets the applecart. The accompanying gloomy music on a loop doesn’t help.

I don’t believe we need to see Barrett at the beginning, spot-lit in a menacing hat, looking as if An Inspector is about To Call. He needs a trailer no more than the audience needs to be told in advance that something nasty is about to happen. Time after time.

Actors: 10; production 8+

Reviewed by Barry Hewlett-Davies