Reviews

The Lying Kind - Review

With a reputation built upon serious plays, full of angst or having a strong meat content, The New Venture occasionally it lets its hair down and ventures into comedy. When it does the results are glorious and this production, a wonderful piece of lunacy, was no exception.

Director Ian Black’s choice of play was an inspired one. I understand that Black worked on it whilst working for his Master’s Degree hence his complete understanding of its requirements.

How two inept police constables made the journey from arriving at a house of an old couple to break the sad news of the death of their daughter to performing a striptease is almost too complicated to explain within my allotted word count. Suffice it to say that the journey, full of misunderstandings, included a vicar who was not all he appeared to be and an encounter with Gronya, the leader of a vigilante group known as PAPS – Parents Against Paedophile Scum.

The multi-layers of the surreal plot proved to be farcically hilarious and offered a superb pre-Christmas treat. Its many black humoured twists and turns owed more than a passing nod to Joe Orton. In fact Gronya brought to mind his Inspector Truscott – both believing that the route to justice can only be achieved through inflicting pain.

All good farces need the production to be slick and fast moving and Black’s direction was full on, hardly allowing the audience to draw breath between laughs. However, amidst the humour there were moments of poignancy from Sheelagh Baker’s depiction of an old woman’s mental confusion. Even her penchant for wanting to expose her bottom had its comedy underscored by the degradation of the act. Tom Robinson’s understated performance proved to be a perfect foil to Baker’s eccentricity as he wandered around totally bewildered by the events unfolding around him.

George Trotter and Nick Schofield as the dysfunctional policemen gave manic performances that complimented and fed off each other - with their slapstick and confused crosstalk bringing to mind old routines from the days of the Music Hall or those of Abbot and Costello / Martin and Lewis.

Both Richard Conolly and Emily Gallichan suffered the indignity of having to be manhandled by the policemen. Conolly, having been knocked out with a truncheon, was stuffed into a cupboard whilst Gallichan after fainting was bundled through a window and dumped into a wicker basket. Good performances from both actors.

Almost stealing the show was Louise Gregory’s Gronya. Gregory provided a grotesque figure whose bigotry and viciousness was as frightening as it was funny. Tattooed, clad in black leather, wearing Doc Martens and a studded collar she was the epitome of a certain class of society. All that was missing was the obligatory bull terrier. Her squeezing the officers’ scrotums was so realistic that I found my eyes watering in sympathy.

The only downside to the evening was the member of the audience who, obviously enjoying the production, allowed the constant braying laugh that he was blessed with to intrude. Its loudness distracted and its length often meant that subsequent lines were obliterated.

Barrie Jerram

Bold Girls - Review

One could be forgiven for thinking that a play set in Belfast during the troubles would be a political diatribe with the men as the protagonists.

Such assumptions are wrong for Bold Girls tells of life, during that turbulent time, as seen through the eyes of three women. The bombing, burning and shooting may be going on around them but these act only as the periphery to the story. Each woman is on their own struggling to bring up children and to live a life of relative normality.

Marie’s husband has been killed whilst Norah and her daughter, Cassie, each have husbands who have been interned. As neighbours they support each other and bicker the audience is drawn into their world through their banter. Amidst all this naturalistic chatter there is an underlying feeling of unease.

Into their lives comes a young girl, Deidre, a waif with wild eyes, appearing ghostlike at first as she delivers a liturgy describing the violence surrounding her. Her words have a mesmerising, almost poetic quality. Gradually she takes on a more robust shape as she becomes the catalyst that disrupts their lives and shatters the idyllic dream that has been sustaining Marie. Christine Wood’s performance was a sensitive portrait of the young girl’s vulnerability.

The writing is beautifully crafted with great gusts of humour that withers instantly as a serious note is skilfully introduced – the laughter dies on the lips. The interactive dialogue is suspended from time to time to allow the characters to address the audience. One of the best of these monologues is delivered by a radiant Marie as she describes her wedding day, delayed for two hours by a road block during which time her husband to be waits patiently for her. Amy Holmes, as the good natured and trusting Marie, was delightful - her face radiating goodness. She was heartbreaking in the scene where she breaks down after her illusions are destroyed.

Another moving monologue came from Cassie as she talks of the father she knew and loved – the perception of which differs from that of her mother’s. Claire Armstrong gave a strong performance that mixed toughness with dreams of escaping to a better life. Sparks flew when mother and daughter clashed. Sarah Davies provided a superb foil as Norah – tough as an old pair of boots when it came to challenging soldiers but devastated when faced with the possible desertion by her daughter.

The play was directed by Jerry Lyne with a deft touch that drew out fine performances from all four members of the cast. The Belfast accent was successfully sustained throughout although at times the clarity of the words was lost. Whilst the play generated many laughs most of the cast were guilty of not pausing for them and speaking through them.

The re-arrangement of the set after Scene 3 took a little time and broke the momentum of the play. The use of screens to cover the kitchen set could have speeded things up.

A neat directorial touch was having the action at the end of final scene frozen as the lights dimmed and the closing music coming up. It emphasised that the story was not over but ongoing for the characters.

One final gripe – The NV of late seems to be catching the trend developing in the professional theatre of having the curtain go up after the advertised time. On this occasion the play started ten minutes late.

 

Barrie Jerram
11 November 2009

The Real Inspector Hound & After Magritte - Review

The pairing of these two comedies by Tom Stoppard fitted well together; both being examples of absurdist theatre.

After Magritte, the lesser of the two pieces, acted as an appetiser that introduced the audience to Stoppard's style. It demonstrated his clever use of wordplay – puns and all. Like Orton he has the knack of taking an ordinary incident, utilising stylised language and developing it into something bizarre.

In this play the verbal surrealism of the writing matched the visual surrealism found in Magritte's paintings as four people recount the same incident. It demonstrated to comic effect how differently people saw, interpreted and remembered the same event.

Andy Small and Claire Armstrong capably played the couple whose home was invaded by the police in the belief that it is used as a disorderly house. An easy assumption to make considering that Small is discovered wearing long rubber fishing waders, standing on chair looking about to carry out a sexually simulated hanging instead of merely being in a position to change a light bulb. His wife on the other hand has just been seen giving massage to someone on an ironing board – the someone turns out to be her mother-in-law who has fixation on the works of Magritte extends to her having taken up the tuba. Amanda Urwin-Mann has to be commended for her mastery of this difficult instrument but her performance as the mother seemed a little under par and it is hoped that it developed after the first night.

Darren Cockrill was sufficiently dim as PC Holmes under the command of Tessa Pointing's Inspector Foot - more of her anon.

The second play, cleverly constructed, was a glorious spoof on country house murder mysteries with the theatrical conceit of having two newspaper critics, Moon and Birdboot, watching, commenting and eventually becoming part of the play.

Moon, a second string reviewer, constantly moans about always covering for the leading critic, Higgs, and worries at great length as to whether his position is being undermined by Harrison, the third string. However Birdboot, with a penchant for pretty actresses, waxes lyrically whilst he fantasises over them. John Adam and Steve Mallen gave good contrasting performances one introverted and paranoid, the other ebullient and comic as tries to reassure that he is happily married and that his dalliances are for professional reasons.

The play that they are watching is a parody of the murder mystery genre that provides a comic gem of exaggerated acting, expertly delivered by a talented cast. Jen Bridges was the bright young thing and friend of Mai Elphinstone's Lady Cynthia. For his second role of the evening Andy Small hammed up the air of mystery as the uninvited stranger whilst Brendan Moore was even more mysterious as the wheelchair bound, long lost cousin.

Each of the evening's two plays contained a performance that stole the show. In Magritte Tessa Pointing was superb as Inspector Foot of the Yard – all blustering and bullying ineptitude. The second play had Peta Taylor gloriously overacting as Mrs Drudge, the charlady. Their timing, body gestures and mugging resulted in two hilarious characterisations.

Barrie Jerram
19 May 2009

Art - Review

This production proved to be a salutary lesson in dismissing a play before seeing it. When Art was first performed I read the reviews and synopsis, decided that it was not a play for me so I avoided it every time it surfaced – until now. Loyalty to Charles made me book a ticket in order to review it for the Newsletter. How grateful I am to Tim McQuillen-Wright for showing me the error of my ways with his delightful production.

Art is a simple play without a plot – it is an entertaining and at times an extremely funny play involving three old friends. It is an intellectual squabble that looks at friendship and its betrayal set within a debate as to “What is Art?”

Serge, a modernist, clashes with Marc, a classicist, when he purchases for 200,000 francs a large canvas totally white with barely perceivable “white diagonal scars”. The showing of this purchase is the catalyst that causes an emotional earthquake that shakes the foundations of their relationship. Whilst accepting the view of art experts that his purchase is significant he is desperate for such validation from his friends.

Marc, as one time mentor, feels betrayed when Serge becomes influenced by a circle of other people. It is not really the passion for abstract art that infuriates but his loss of control – his pupil has outgrown him.

Sitting on the fence and trying to act as peace maker is the neurotic Yvan who is having problems of his own involving his forthcoming marriage. He is a shambling disorganised figure that sharply contrasts with his two cerebral friends. But like the others he possesses a volatile nature that is brought to the surface when provoked.

The writer cleverly depicts the shifting alliances formed throughout the play. An example being when Marc and Serge are attacking each other ferociously an interjection from Yvan causes them to unite, instantly, turning their invective on to him.

The play is an actor’s delight giving the three cast members great scope to show off their talent. Matt Cotton played Marc with a combustionable passion that brought to mind an emotional pressure cooker that cannot survive unless its steam is released.

By contrast Colin Elmer’s Serge was more clinical, almost icy at times. One wounded with fire the other with frostbite. Elmer, who impressed in the production of Festen, continued to do so as he endowed the part with a narcissistic element.

It fell to Andrew Allen to provide the bulk of the comedy. His Yvan was a masterpiece of comic creation – a shambolic figure forever twitching with lips trembling to find the right words to say. His monologue regarding the wedding invitations proved to be the comic highlight – his delivery with rising hysteria was masterful.

If this was McQuillen-Wright’s first attempt at directing then he should feel proud. The production was slick with the cast cleverly moved around and placed to satisfy all three sides of the audience. The transition between place and time was beautifully achieved aided by effective and efficient lighting cues.

 

Barrie Jerram
11 October 2009

Festen - Review

One of the meanings of the Danish word Festen is appropriately Festival and this production exceeded its place as a Fringe event – it was worthy of being part of Brighton's main Festival.

The play is a study of the hypocrisy within a large and wealthy family who gather to celebrate the 60th birthday of the head of the family.

It is obvious right from the beginning that there are undercurrents within family life – not the least being the recent suicide of one of his daughters.

During the speeches at the dinner a shocking truth is revealed the eldest son, Christian and its delivery provided a moment of true theatrical magic. What followed were the reactions of the family members to this revelation. The blind eyes, so long turned away, are forced open to devastating effect as the family disintegrates.

One approaches any production that has Pat Boxall at the helm with the highest of expectations and this one did not disappoint. It was a fusion of faultless direction and superb acting. Staging the piece with a large cast, bearing in mind the limited space available, was finely judged. The set was simple yet impressive with its starkness. The long black dining table with subtle overhead lighting dominated and brought to mind a religious comparison – The Last Supper. In fact for this family it would prove to be their last supper as a complete unit. The music used, along with the lighting, created a brooding and eerie atmosphere.

The atmosphere took on a menacing air with the singing of birthday songs as they went from festive jollity to ritualistic chanting. In the programme notes the play is likened to a Greek tragedy and this came out with use of the three servants urging Christian to finish what he had started. They served as a Greek chorus depicting the Furies calling for revenge.

It would be hard to find a better cast as every actor invested their part with an air of naturalism. The many understated performances gave the production its power and provided its audience with a theatrical experience that was riveting throughout.

With such wonderful ensemble playing it is not possible to single out every performance but I would like to make a couple of observations.

Matthew Houghton's Christian was an example of the effectiveness of underplaying – his quiet measured delivery produced a greater shock when he made his revealing accusations. Likewise a controlled performance from Bob Gilchrist made the father believable as he countered the accusations. The man's affability masked the true monster.

Proof that small roles can also make an impact was provided by Emma Cunliffe as Pia, the maid in her relationship with Christian. Her sensitivity showed the girl to be a truly loving friend and not an exploitive servant. A similar impact was made by Peter Milner as Grandfather on the edge of dementia. It would have been so easy to overplay this role and turn it into a caricature. Again the role received sensitive handling and what emerged was a bewildered Chekhovian figure.

Apologies go to the rest of the cast for not mentioning their performances as do my grateful thanks for an enthralling theatrical experience.

 

Barrie Jerram
3 May 2009