Another Country - Review

Julian Mitchell's play, set in a British public school in the 1930s, explores the link between sexual identity and political awareness following the suicide of one of its pupils. In its two principal characters, Guy Bennett and Tommy Judd, one sees the fictionalised Cambridge Spies, Burgess and Philby. Its final scene attempts to explain, through Bennett, Burgess's justification for his treachery that forced him to serve "another country".

It is in the rarefied atmosphere of the public school that these two outsiders struggle to survive. They are not helped by their rebellious natures –- one sexual and the other political –- for which they both pay a heavy price.

Although the play is an impassioned plea against bigotry and hypocrisy, some wonderful comic lines to which the cast do full justice lighten its seriousness. A particular comic highlight in the play is the scene of the tea party that follows a lecture by the uncle of one of the pupils. Dennis Evans was wickedly funny as the predatory uncle.

Kieran Burke, as the gay Bennett, delivered a hilarious performance albeit a highly camp one when perhaps a more fey and subtle one would have been sufficient. In contrast Chris Nunn's Judd was a more down to earth performance –- a crusading but dull social reformer. The character may have been dull but he was provided with some comedy lines that were executed with superb timing. It is indeed encouraging to see these two actors move up from the Youth Section and take on major roles.

These central roles were complemented by exceptionally strong support from the rest of the cast. One appreciates that casting difficulties may have necessitated one or two of the actors looking a little too mature for their parts as schoolboys. That said they gave fine performances.

I understand that Laura Bennett was making her directorial debut with this play. If this is the case then I look forward in eager anticipation to her next production.

Barrie Jerram
18th December 2004

Dealing With Clair - Review

Martin Crimp's play, set in the 80's, is in the main a commentary on the culture of greed that existed at that time but it also contains the elements of a thriller with its allusion to the disappearance in 1986 of estate agent, Suzy Lamplugh.

Mike and Liz want to sell their house but they want to do it in a morally responsible way - not for them gazumping. However their morality is seduced by Clair, the estate agent, with the prospect of greater profit and there was a fascination in watching their hypercritical justifications for each rise in the selling price. The writing and the acting of Neil Tollfree & Marina Norris captured well the married life of a middle-class couple wanting to move up the property ladder.

With the arrival of James, a potential purchaser, the play takes on an uneasy edge. Despite a cultured and charming persona he exudes a degree of creepiness that intensifies as the play progresses. From the amount of knowledge of her living arrangements it should have rung warning bells for Clair but one supposes that she too was blinded by greediness in wanting to close the deal and earn her commission. James becomes more and more controlling of Clair as she loses her self-assuredness and becomes trapped like the proverbial rabbit in headlamps. There were convincing performances from Piers Halliwell and Hope Henderson in these two roles.

As the Italian nanny Samantha Green maintained a convincing accent and I was impressed by her use of body language and her expressive eyes.

Paul Rowlinson was given the chance to show his acting skills with three small but diverse roles.

The play moved at a good pace under the direction of Karl Rhys and the set that provided the three locations of the action was most effective in its simplicity.

If there is anything to be negative about it is probably the length of the play itself. It was felt that the writing was a little overblown for a stand-alone play and would be better as part of a double bill. Its 1 hour 40 minutes needed to be cut in order to increase the tension. For example, unless its significance was missed by me, the scene with Ashley, the window repairer, added nothing to the plot.

Barrie Jerram
20 October 2004

The Birthday Party - Review

Let me declare at the outset that I am not a great fan of Harold Pinter and subsequently was not looking forward to reviewing this play.

However this high quality production of an early work by Pinter would have pleased admirers of his style of theatre, with its enigmatic dialogue, air of menace and motives that are left to the imagination of the audience. For the rest of us it was an opportunity to sit back and enjoy a feast of acting talent.

Stanley, the only resident of a boarding house run by the batty Meg and her withdrawn husband, Petey, is visited by two sinister strangers who arrange a birthday party for him. The party follows on from a mentally brutal interrogation by the strangers, Goldberg and McCann, in which Stanley is left in a state of frozen terror. The next morning he is led away by the men to an unknown destination. The play's final un-revealed mystery.

The director, Pat Boxall, wisely decided to emphasise the humour of the piece and appeared to have removed many of the lengthy pauses that have become Pinter's trademark. She elicited from all the cast acting of an exceptionally high standard.

Particularly outstanding was Janet Hewlett-Davies who, as the fey Meg, turned in a comic performance of sheer delight. Her relationship with Stanley fluctuated between the motherly and the flirtatious. This performance was matched by that of John Griffiths as the loquacious Goldberg forever trotting out clichés, homespun philosophy and anecdotes of family life that often contradicted themselves.

Jim Polkey-Calderwood, as Stanley, moved convincingly from the tormentor of Meg, at the start of the play, to the subject of terror himself. Nik Hedges gave yet another chilling performance this time as McCann, a figure of brooding menace.

Last but by no means least there were fine performances from Loren O'Dair, as the flirtatious Lulu, and Peter Milner as Petey.

For one who is not a lover of Pinter I found the evening highly entertaining. It may not have been my kind of Party but I was glad that I had been invited!

Barrie Jerram

Copenhagen - Review

Michael Frayn's play is a cerebral and at times a poetic piece that is an exploration of scientific responsibility and is based on an actual event.

In 1941 Werner Heisenberg, the pre-eminent Nuclear Scientist, left his native Germany to visit occupied Denmark. Whilst there he meets up with his old mentor, Niels Bohr, and his wife, Margrethe at their home. It is known that the two men took a long walk at the end of which they parted in anger. What was said during their conversation was never revealed and the play is Frayn's speculation.

It is cleverly constructed with several versions of what happened unfolding like the layers of an onion and being enacted by the three protagonists looking back and trying to recall the event. Was it merely to reminisce about their early days together when they developed their theories or was it to discuss morality? Perhaps it had a more sinister motive – that of eliciting advice on using atomic energy for use as a weapon.

The play has strands of gentle humour amidst the serious debate and is full of references to quantum physics and mathematics. At times though the bombardment of facts made one feel an affinity with an atom being split.

In this imaginative production, use was made, from time to time, of two video cameras set amongst the audience. Images of the actors were projected on to the set the intention being to reinforce the multi-layered construction of the play. However apart from a couple of occasions I felt that the images were an intrusion and a distraction from the dialogue, the complexity of which required full attention and concentration.

The quality of the writing was matched by tremendous performances from the three actors. Gary Blair, as Bohr, all smiling bonhomie until provoked into anger whilst John Adam - the fervent Heisenberg – forever embarrassed by the Nazi occupation and apologising for it. It fell to Margrethe, played with the right degree of cool restraint by Eleanor Gamper, to act as the outside observer and commentator, adjudicating and correcting, where necessary, any faulty recall that the men made.

Director, Carl Boardman, in addition to drawing out such quality performances, must also be given due recognition for attempting such a complex play and for striving to present it in an understandable way. I particularly liked the triangular relationship of the characters being reflected by the triangular bounds of the acting area.

Barrie Jerram

Jump - Review

Jump, subtitled to love and to loathe till death us do part, is a duologue, performed by one actor, that portrays both sides of a marriage in crisis. Sandra Ventris, played both Julia and Jack in a short play that depicted their courtship, wedding and the disintegration of their marriage with tragic consequences.

Through changes in voice and posture the two characters were brought to life –- Jack, being an alcoholic and psychotic wife abuser who strutted and swaggered about the stage whilst Julia, a gentler and insecure creature who so desperately needed to be loved.

Sandra Ventris, a fine actress who I found impressive in The Woman a couple of seasons ago, gave a brave performance although the switch from one person to another was not always clear- cut. As Julia, she was particularly touching but there were times when her voice was so soft and gentle that the words were lost and one had to strain to hear them. One hopes that these points were picked up by the director, David Allen, who also wrote the piece, and put right for the rest of the run.

As to the merits of the play itself I had mixed feelings. There were several occasions when the dialogue lapsed into a formal, not natural style that irritated. As an exploration of victim and domestic abuser one learnt little that was new and was nowhere as powerful as w@rn that was performed a year or two back. It came across as more of an acting exercise. Maybe it would have worked better as a radio play for two voices.

Barrie Jerram