The Well - Review

The Well, by local writer Jonathan Brown, weaves fact with fiction telling of the digging the 900 foot Woodingdean Well a task that took four years. It also relates Jack Tompkins’ search for the truth about his mother who died when he was a child – a search that uncovers corruption and lechery when he becomes obsessed with, Bella, a local prostitute.

The production, also directed by Brown, provided a powerful example of physical theatre with the cast called upon to play not only the characters but also the scenery and props. This they achieved with some spectacular imagery, aided by creative lighting. Amongst the many excellent images created, the flooding of the well and the subsequent drowning sequence were particularly stunning. The walls of the well, bedroom furniture and even a pub bar where created by the moulding of the actors’ bodies. All of this played on a bare stage in front an edifice made up of scaffolding and ladders that provided multi-level acting areas. Accordingly the audience had a part to play by using its imagination and accepting the production style of more than one person playing the same character. This device needed to be tightened up at times to ensure an even transition. Any fraction of a second lapse broke the rhythm.

The hardworking cast, Ali McKenzie-Wilcox, Warren Saunders, Paddy O’Keefe, Julie Monckton, Mark Green, Leanne McKenzie and Jonathan Brown – invidious to single out any particular performances - demonstrated well the requirements of multi-role acting skills with the exhausting physical demands placed upon them. The production was enhanced by the acapella singers, Jo Mortimer, Christine Heaton and Ross Adamson, whose rendering of the folk style songs underlined and punctuated the action.

But there was a fault with the script and the production – it was far too long and verbose. Brown, in addition to writing, directing also performed, was overstretched and failed to appreciate this. It needed a detached view to stop the pudding being over-egged. Often a good image was created and then its effectiveness weakened by too many words or repetitive action. For example the climb out of the flooded well – visually stunning- suffered by the over long litany of objects floating past. Likewise the action in the dream sequence of crawling out from under a landfall was repeated too many times – the scene lost its initial impact.

These reservations apart there was much to enjoy and be impressed with – particularly the actors and the quality of their performances.

A point for future consideration by Front of House- the lack of an announcement in the programme or in the studio regarding an interval caused some confusion. The actors walked off and the audience, thinking it was the end of the play as it could have been, waited for their return to take bows. After a fair time the penny dropped and people drifted out.

Barrie Jerram
6 March 2011

Speed-the-Plow - Review

A guest review by Barry Hewlett-Davies

Though I’ve been going to plays at NVT for 20 years. I cannot claim to have seen everything so you can fault my judgment for being incomplete. That aside, it seems to me that this production ought to be acknowledged for what it is – a quite considerable achievement in acting and direction, a show to be remembered for years.

The title is an old fashioned wish for rural prosperity. David Mamet chose it to reflect the cynical motives of the American film industry, looking to create success at the Box Office for profit alone and the hell with art. Mamet would have put that more strongly but I don’t want to upset anybody.

He knows a great deal about art v profit. When he wrote the play more than 20 years ago, it was his contribution to the American theatre’s attack on the cinema – a Hollywood script about a Hollywood script.

The attack began long ago with a Broadway musical called Once In A Lifetime.

With an eye to the main chance, Hollywood seized on it and turned it into Singing in the Rain with Gene Kelly. Thanks to successful TV deals, it is still a hot property. Dog swallowed dog wholesale and the accountants cheer as the money keeps rolling into the bank. Speed-the-Plow !

Mamet is not easy to be with. For one thing, he writes in uniquely American English. And the relationships he creates are not only expressed by words, they grow out of them.

The production is directed with a great deal of insight by Steven O’Shea. He also plays Charlie Fox. Opposite him are Robert Cohen, as Bobby Gould, his boss, and Marie Ellis, his apparently warm-hearted and apparently naïve temporary secretary. All three behave like and accuse each other of being whores.

All three turn in superb performances, impeccably timed.

Forgive my dreadful play on words, but for a lot of the evening, I was convinced Steven O’Shea was, indeed Charlie, the Twentieth Century Fox. But the fox is Robert Cohen with a performance worthy of Volpone, cunning, greedy, a cynic with the most persuasive eyebrows I’ve seen in ages.

“I wanted to do Good”, he wails at the end, “ – but I became foolish.” To which you can only answer: “Oh yeh ?!”

Gaby Goes Global - Review

Local writer Judy Upton’s comedy tells of Gaby Johnson, an employment adviser whose transfer to the Brighton Job Centre leads to her becoming an on-line and media celebrity.

Although lacking in self-esteem Gaby always looks for the best in others. And it is this naivety that is easily exploited by some of her long time unemployed artist clients. Seeking to promote their artistic skills but unaware of their deviousness and the extreme entrepreneurial paths that they are prepared to tread she is persuaded to make a documentary with them.

What follows is a snowballing series of events that make up an amusing comedy with farcical and satirical elements. The world of modern art is sent up with digs at the Turner Prize and of changing fashions – here close-up paintings of genitalia and secret lavatorial videos prove to be the money spinners that they hit upon.
Also the shallow world of chat show programmes come in for some wicked ribbing when Gaby appears on The Coffee With Kate programme – great fun as the two swap jibes between false smiles.

As the innocent Gaby, who eventually becomes corrupted by success and money, Hannah Liebeskind successfully accomplished the character’s transition from the mousey down trodden clerk to the hard nosed business woman seduced by fame and money. The changes in facial expression and body language were remarkable.

Sarah Lauridsen gave a fine performance as her bitchy ice-maiden boss, Kay – switching from mean prissiness to girlish simpering whenever a male came near. Moog Gravett and Dan Walker played two long term unemployed brothers – Matt, a wheeler dealer whose talent lay in sculpting and Jed, a photographer who comes up with the idea of the documentary. Gravett brought out the opportunistic, Jack-the-Lad nature of the character whilst, in contrast, Walker made Jed a more introverted and self-centred person.

Nick Green played Larry, a visitor to the Job Centre who was actually looking for work. He gets drawn into the money making venture and raises Gaby’s romantic hopes.

Debra Wallis, an agoraphobic artist who paints from the soul, was in the very capable hands of Imogen Miller Porter – a truly comic portrayal of a person whose principals can be easily bought by a new Paula Rosa kitchen. Although playing two small roles Sarah Garbutt had great success as Marjorie, an elderly visitor to the Centre and with the chat show host, Kate - highly contrasting characters played extremely well.

Play and players combined to provide a fun and entertaining offering. However I did feel at times that some of the performances were a little hesitant. This I put down to the fact that I saw it very early in the run. No doubt subsequent performances improved as the play bedded down.

Ian Black’s direction was sound and his choice of play was ideal for a studio production – a minimum set of desks and chairs were sufficient. I liked his idea of creating a pre-play atmosphere with the bar area having a stand with jokey job adverts pinned up. I understand that for performances after the one I attended there was to be a busker in the room as well.

Barrie Jerram

The Steamie - Review

Once again the New Venture’s festive offering proved to be a cracker of a show. This play with songs takes place on New Year’s Eve in the 1950’s and is set in a Glasgow washhouse where four women are working hard to get the washing that they take in finished in time.

While they work the audience is privy to their gossiping, dreams and fears. What comes out depicts the hard life that working class women were subject to in an environment that offered little leisure. Whilst the subject matter may have appeared depressing the show was far from it and proved to be sheer delight. It was full of wonderful fun and, like a seasonal punch; it was a warming mixture of friendship, humour, pathos together with the fiery spirit of survival.

The action was sprinkled with songs – some highlighted the previous scene and were delivered with the character stepping out of the action whilst others remained within and were sung whilst they worked. The singing of Roses of Picardy led to a comical debate as to where Picardy was. A reminiscence of cinema visits segued to The Big Picture, a number that gave each character a chance to express a personal comment. Labour of Love was a cynical number describing a women’s working day - the hardship endured and the suffering engendered through their men folk and drink.

Whilst the writing was remarkable it was the talents of the quartet of actors who breathed life into the women and made them so believable. Laura Scobie’s Doreen was bright and bubbly with a youthful optimism that looked to the future – a house in a better area with new labour saving gadgets of which she’s heard. This was well expressed in the number Dreams Do Come True. By contrast Sheelagh Baker’s Mrs Culfeathers, lonely, exhausted through old age and a lifetimes’ hard work, looked back to golden days of neighbourliness. Baker’s performance was magnificent – one could almost feel her exhaustion and her loneliness. She also provided comedy with the character often being out of sync with the conversation of the others and in sequences that involved the telling of tales regarding mince and taties and the taking of a peat bath.

There were equally well defined performances from Sarah Davies and Charlotte Grimes as Dolly and Magrit. Dolly is a chatterbox who is slightly dim and Davies gets this across to superb effect in the scene that looked forward to owning telephones. A conversation, using scrubbing brushes as phones, took on a life of its own and ended with her believing the conversation to be real. Magrit, having to support a drunken husband, is cynically realistic and Grimes brought this out well. Her delivery of Labour of Love proved to be one of the production’s highlights. Again a good sense of comic timing uplifted the bleak side of the character.

Ben Pritchard completed the cast as the token male who provided the butt of the women’s jokes. The part, written as a caricature, lacked the reality afforded to the women. Pritchard did well within this limitation but his drunken scene, notoriously difficult to get right, could have been improved with a little more subtlety.

The production’s direction was exceedingly well handled by Leanne McKenzie with the assistance of Mark Green who, I believe, was responsible for designing the set. It was one of the most realistic accomplished within the constraints of the Studio. The individual washing stalls with their rusty water tanks were realised well and, along with the period props, soon had one believing that they were inside a steamie. Congratulations to the construction team.

Barrie Jerram

Of Mice and Men - Review


Seven Characters in Search of a Production

The original title of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was “Something That Happened” and something unexpected happened with this production.The director,Tim McQuillen-Wright, decided to have seven characters played by one man – Carl Boardman. It’s a bold decision, brought about, perhaps, because it’s easier to find one first-rate actor than seven. If I’m wrong about that, I apologise. The decision is valid artistically as well.

It works. More or less.

Carl is the entire staff of the Californian ranch in the American Depression of the 30s which is the setting for the action.

He is in the position (does anyone envy him ?) of having to talk to himself, has to help himself up off the ground,and finally rounds himself up into a lynch mob. He does this by changing gloves, hats, walks and voices, and, thanks to his being brilliantly confident, he doesn’t come over at all like a quick-change artist in old time music hall.

Whether the audience kept up with him at the performance I saw, is another matter. It is asking a lot, after all.

Of Mice and Men is one of those plays where disaster is inevitable. You know from the onset that no-one is going to win. This is its strength and the reason why it has lived and breathed so healthily for more than 70 years. George and Lennie’s talk (George’s mostly) about the good life just round the corner is not going to happen. It is the dream that keeps them alive. A dream that keeps us all alive,at the moment, come to think of it.

When I told a friend I was going to see the show, she sighed.“I couldn’t bring myself to go,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking !” She’s right. It is. But the grief is not depressing.

Andy Hutchison and Andy Bell are the two leads, Andy Hutchison the “tough” one. The thing about his performance is that he isn’t tough.

His relationship with his feeble (autistic?) mate is tender, supportive, generous,and not looking for gain, When he kills Andy Bell to save him from the lynch mob,you accept there is nothing else he can do. It is the ultimate gift. His performance has genuine beauty and a remarkable stillness. You know exactly what he is thinking. Andy Bell, big, blubbery and rabbit-fixated, does not go out out his way to ask for sympathy. He attracts it naturally and deserves it.

Hannah Brain has a pretty thankless job, the empty-head whose intrusion wrecks the lads’ chances by accident. Hannah,voted Best Newcomer at the end of last season, is obviously an actor to watch.

Tim McQuillen-Wright gets a good atmosphere going in the studio. The final moments of his production are masterful.

John Steinbeck’s dog ate the first draft of the play. Not a reliable critic, though he was responsible for Steinbeck’s giving it a better title.

by Barry Hewlett-Davies