The Anniversary - Review

A couple of seasons back the New Venture introduced us to the hostess from Hell in that excellent production of Dinner. Not to be out done Jerry Lyne has chosen to let us meet the mother from that infernal place.

Bill Macllwraith's black comedy revolves around an annual family gathering that celebrates a wedding anniversary, albeit that the husband is absent from it. In fact he is deceased but it is Mum's wish that she has all her family with her to celebrate the occasion and to take part in the toast to Dad.

Mum is a truly monstrous creation and the family assemble unwillingly to attend this ritual for they know from past experience that, like other rituals, victims will be sacrificed before the night is over. Rebellion is in the air and all are fearful of their mother's reaction.

Jerry Lyne, making a return to directing after too long an absence, ensured that the production flowed well with a tautness that was never lost. The realistic stage setting and choice of music ensured that the sixties, the period that the play took place in, was fully evoked. For many of us the evening had more than a touch of nostalgia.

And what a cast he picked! Not only was it strong in talent but it also was one that had bonded together during the rehearsal period and were finely tuned in to each other.

As Tom, the youngest son, Matthew Lawson, exhibited both the character's bravado and vulnerability. His act of rebellion was to introduce to the family on this sacrosanct occasion, Shirley, and to announce their engagement. Emma Hallworth's performance as the fiancée was beautifully rounded. A fluffy exterior harboured a feisty determination. Her fight back against Mum was wonderful in its viciousness.

Son Terry and wife, Karen also had some unwelcome news to impart — they were planning to go off to Canada. Jim Calderwood impressed by giving another of his portrayals of a neurotic character. Angst and ulcer ridden, forever trying to put off the moment of making the announcement, he was a soul in torment. As his long suffering wife Tessa Pointing was almost Lady Macbeth like as she urged her unwilling husband on. She had some wonderful caustic speeches which she delivered with vitriolic spleen.

The remaining son Henry is unmarried and is the apple of his mother's eye. He poses no threat and is content to be controlled. She indulges him in his habit of wearing women's clothes and uses his brush with the law to manipulate his brothers. It was good to see Mike Chowney back on stage again and his quiet playing of Henry was in sharp contrast to the hysteria of his two brothers.

But it is Mum who is the central character and what a part it offers a gifted actor and they do not come more gifted than Sheelagh Baker. Her acting skills are consistent and she has given some exceptional performances in the past but here she surpassed herself.

Watching her destroy her family and partners was like seeing a praying mantis devouring her victims — there was repulsion but also fascination. The mood swings were lightning fast — a vicious attack segued into charm but always there was an undercurrent of malevolent cunning.

I recall that when I saw The Beauty Queen of Leenane I was so incensed by the cunning and wicked mother created by Janet Hewlett-Davies that I wanted to hit the woman. Baker's performance was so powerful that I could have murdered her. Such was the emotion generated by the production that it was difficult to resist cheering the family when they all turned on Mum and one felt that she had at last been defeated. Imagine the free fall of elation when she played her last trick and won again.
On leaving the theatre, still quivering with intense emotion and exhilaration, I reflected that the fine direction and quality acting placed this high, if not first, on my list of finest NV productions.

Barrie Jerram
27 June 2008

Mojo - Review

Set in a Soho Club in the late '50s, Mojo tells of a nightmare weekend following the abduction of Silver Johnny, a singing sensation, and the subsequent discovery of the two halves of the club owner's body.

It is a study of the ever shifting relationships and loyalties of the five friends who barricade themselves inside the club fearful of their own safety. Fuelled with drugs and alcohol they argue, whine and insult each other. Each of them trying to ingratiate themselves, where appropriate, and being quick to denigrate others, if it is to their advantage.

Having enjoyed a production of one of Jez Butterworth's other plays — The Night Heron — at the New Venture a few years ago I was looking forward to this one. Although the Night Heron was not without its faults it was a much better play — one that excited and gripped one's interest. Seeing this play was a disappointment for me. The disappointment lay with Butterworth's writing and not with the performances.

It was his first play, written in the early '90s and reflecting the style of writing that was so popular then -– shock value and the tedious use of expletives. Here the writing was so overblown that the build up of tension, especially in the first act, was frequently interrupted. As I remarked in my review of American Buffalo, if the writer had been less generous in the use of coarse language and imagery, which only served to pad out the story line, we could all have gone home much earlier. The story would have been told more succinctly therefore benefiting from the taughtness that this script lacked. It would have been the tight and tense thriller intended.

However the story line did contain some neat twists in the second act and was not without humour, albeit black comedy.

The production had a strong cast all giving excellent performances but they deserved better material.

Mathew Houghton and Sam Wolstenholme, following up their previous successes at NVT continue to impress. They made up a fine double act -– Houghton as Potts, a man on the make, and Wolstenholme as Sweets, his dim sidekick.

Newcomer Ben Keyworth really got under the skin of his character –- Skinny Luke (pun not intended). A snivelling but crafty wretch –- one could almost smell the fear, sweat and halitosis. His death produced a clever coup de theatre with blood exploding everywhere.

Janna Fox played the small part of Silver Johnny, appearing briefly at the beginning and at the end of the play. This meant a lot of hanging around especially in the last scene, played suspended upside down from the ceiling -– this time the pun is intended!

Darren Cockrill is another actor who has been seen to good effect in recent productions. As Baby, he skilfully managed to convey the character's schizophrenic persona -– the childlike simplicity erupting into violence and with a quiet chilling control over the rest of the characters.

Tim Blissett gave a performance that mesmerised. His menacing authority, asserted by understated playing, was a quiet oasis in the midst of hysteria. His long drawn out stare down with Baby was a bold piece of direction by Frank McCabe.


Barrie Jerram
4 April 2008

Strangers on a Train - Review

Over recent weeks Brighton audiences have had the chance to see stage adaptations of two classic Hitchcock films. Whereas The 39 Steps, at the Theatre Royal, was a hilariously staged spoof, the NV production provided a tense and chilling evening. Both, in their different ways, were examples of theatre at its very best.

Two men meet by accident on a train and end up committing murder. Charles Bruno, an idle alcoholic who is kept on a tight financial rein by his father, and Guy Haines, an architect with an unfaithful wife. Bruno proposes a deal that he will kill the wife in exchange for Haines killing the father. But only one of them is serious – the other thinks that it's a joke. After completing his part psychopath, Bruno, returns, like Faust, to haunt the other man into honouring the bargain. Through charm and menace he worms his way into Haines' life and proceeds to wear the man down. In order to escape the continual persecution he eventually caves in and carries out the murder. However, there is no escape. Bruno, desperate for love and friendship is obsessed with Haines and cannot stay out of his life.

Pat Boxall's tight direction ensured that this psychological thriller kept its audience gripped and on the edge of their seats throughout. One could almost feel the concentration given and the silence that it generated.

The director and her technical team had the difficult task of staging 17 scenes with a dozen different locations. These were successfully realised on a minimalist set with walls and floor painted to represent architectural blueprints thereby delineating the various locations. In addition the subtle use of lighting and projected images played a major part in solving this problem. The action was often played in full or semi shadow, adding to the tension that was underscored by Edward Gamper's eerie and brooding music. Gamper's score was as important to this production as were the soundtracks of Bernard Herman to Hitchcock's films.

The excellence of the staging was matched to perfection by the acting of the whole cast. There were solid performances from John Adam and Sean Williams in the minor roles of Guy's colleague and college friend respectively. Tim Blissett gave another of his fine performances as the private detective. His understating of the part conveyed the doggedness of Columbo without the annoying mannerisms.

The two female roles shared the common bond of love. Maggie Clune captured both the coquettishness and the vulnerability of Bruno's doting mother whose love shrivels when she realises what her son has done. This is contrasted by the all forgiving love of Anne, Haines' new wife when the truth is revealed to her. Kirsty Harbron developed well the character's change from a naïve shallowness to a mature strength. The final scene where she silently extended her hand to Guy spoke volumes.

The brunt of the play fell upon the actors playing the two strangers. Matthew Lawson, as Bruno, was mesmerising as he oozed charm and menace. The actor was blessed with the required baby faced innocence that belied the evil that lurked within. A highlight of his performance was the long monologue when he described how he killed the wife and the feelings he experienced. His speech was counter pointed by the facial acting of Matthew Houghton, as the horrified Haines, as he listened in silence. Every eye movement and grimace was totally convincing and controlled. Houghton's portrayal of the man's torment and gradual disintegration was excellent.

If required to find any fault a case could be made out to criticise the writing. There were a couple of scenes where the dialogue could have been trimmed. But that really is nit picking.

On the way out someone remarked that this production was the best that they had ever seen at the NV – a sentiment that many would have been hard pressed to disagree with.

Barrie Jerram
31 January 2008

Frankie Says Laugh - Review

The first of three nights under the banner of Comedy@Bedford Place had the theme of improvised comedy, a difficult and dangerous art form. In the wrong hands it can prove to be disastrous and fall horribly flat.

Therefore it is pleasing to report that this bold attempt was a success albeit a qualified one.

The first half took its cue from television's “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” enabling the talented quartet of actors to enact scenes and provide ad lib jokes from situations/lines suggested by the audience. The results were hilarious.

All the actors, in turn, took on the role of Frankie, the chairman who announced each round and handed out the suggested information. Each did so by giving their Frankie a different persona, - an American dumb blonde; a loud, brash and over enthusiastic master of ceremonies; God's gift to women, men or animals and El Bandido, a lively creation from Paul Wilson complete with roving false moustache.

Rounds played included the incorporation of a given line within a suggested scenario; a party hostess having to guess the unspoken quirk of her guests, characters from a Film Noir being played in various other film styles.

There was quick fire wit in the game where they dived in to boxes containing props and hats and came up with superb one-liners. Music played its part in the evening's proceedings. Lyrics had to be made up for a Hoedown and to fit differing song types on the nominated subject of Cheesy Feet!

The format changed after the interval when the cast, in the role of a quiz show panel and with the aid of audience participation, poked fun at game shows. The Price is Right; Blankety Blank and Family Fortunes were some of the targets.

However this segment, lacking tightness, came across as ragged with humour merely amusing as opposed to the belly aching laughter achieved before the interval. This may have been due to the actors having to interact with volunteers from the audience instead of with each other. They moved away from the comfort zone of knowing each other's humorous way of thinking and into the unknown and unpredictable reactions of the volunteers.

Newcomer to the NVT, Janna Fox provided the female perspective to the proceedings with comedic skills that had a frenetic edge to them. One looks forward eagerly to seeing her again in May.

There were many fine comic creations from Darren Cockrill who also provided the musical accompaniment with his guitar.

In contrast to the serious dramatic skill that he showed in American Buffalo, Ben Pritchard displayed his considerable talent for making people laugh. He has that ability to generate humour effortlessly with just a facial expression or slight body movement.

He was matched in his zaniness by Paul Wilson whose performance had echoes of the lunacy of Spike Milligan.

All four are to be commended for providing an entertaining evening full of wit, a touch of vulgarity and plenty of camp fun. Also they must be praised for their bravery in taking on the challenge of improvised comedy.

Barrie Jerram
23 February 2008

Plays for Coarse Actors - Review

There was a cracker of a Christmas treat to be had at the New Venture. Not for them the usual festive fare of Pantomime or Dickens instead a hilarious look at the world of amateur dramatics.

Three short plays were enacted by the inept drama group that rejoiced under the name of the Celia Ramsbottom Amateur Players (C.R.A.P. for short).

The Cherry Sisters turned out to be a parody of Chekov. The ineptitude of C.R.A.P and its director was swiftly established as the play opened to Lara's Theme from Doctor Zhivago with one of the characters reading the Morning Star newspaper – both being post rather than pre revolution references.

In order to establish the oppressive ennui of Chekov's world, director Brandon McGuire was bold enough to allow several moments elapse with nothing happening on stage apart from bird song and the occasional sigh. Eventually dialogue broke out with the three sisters voicing their dreams of making it to Moscow with the coming of the railway.

With the arrival of stock Chekhovian characters the solemn mood was punctured as mayhem took over with the samovar springing a leak. This led to some wonderfully choreographed business with every character having to balance innumerable cups whilst the old servant, Piles, (a delightful study in decrepitude from Carl Boardman), struggled to stem the flow.

Streuth lampooned the world of the Who-Dunnit with everything that could go wrong, going wrong. The detective pointing to a body that was not there – a dummy was then flung on from the wings and began to fall apart as the action continued. In addition to falling scenery, the French windows could not be opened resulting in the vicar making his entrance through the fireplace.

Shakespeare's history plays were wickedly sent up in Henry the Tenth (Part Seven). Playing the king gave Martin Nichols the opportunity to go over the top in the manner of the old actor managers. Sir Donald Wolfit lived on!

The usurper to the throne, the Earl of Wolverhampton complete with a Black Country accent, was one of three excellent portrayals from Sam Wolstenholme. His bad actor's monotone staccato delivery and jerky body movements in Streuth contrasted well with his goose stepping and heavily accented Russian soldier, Sodov.

The running gag with the Herald always bearing bad news and getting beaten up was simply a joy. Sean Williams extracted the maximum humour from this as he did with the role of James, the butler in Streuth, played in the manner of Rocky Horror's Riff Raff.

An inventive feature was Peta Taylor's two monologues as the Chairwoman of C.R.A.P. The characterisation and the content of the dialogue were hilarious.

With such a strong cast of excellent actors, many taking on multiple roles, there is not space to mention other outstanding performances. Everyone succeeded in the difficult task of reproducing bad acting and maintaining straight faces whilst the audience howled with laughter.

I don't know who came up with the idea of the Christmas Stamp at the end of the show but they are to be congratulated for it. It was a lively and cheeky melange of dance styles that managed to include the Haka, Irish dancing and the cast's own interpretation of Stomp.

For the second production running that rarest of visitors to the New Venture was heard – laughter!

Barrie Jerram
28 December 2007