Woman in Mind - Review

Alan Ayckbourn's Woman in Mind –- a fantastic journey

Who Shot the Dog ?

By Barry Hewlett-Davies


On my way out after seeing Woman in Mind, I said thank you to a young member of the cast. He asked me if I had enjoyed it. I said "No!" It didn’t seem to be the sort of show you could claim to "enjoy." My reaction was over the top and I had better apologise. I had fallen (again) for Ayckbourn's craftsmanship and a truly successful production of one of his darkest comedies.

The story seems straightforward enough. We are in classic Ayckbourn middle class territory – vicar's wife becomes totally disorientated as her marriage falls to pieces around her. The action takes place mostly in her head as a fantasy family takes over from her real one. That the imaginary people are just as nasty as the real thing makes her situation even more heartbreaking.

Ayckbourn says the more fond of people he becomes, the more amusing he tends to find them. You have to hang on to this idea in Woman in Mind: as we tread deeper and deeper into the clumsy way the family treat each other, the more horribly comic they are.

Everything about Pat Boxall's production feels right. The show is good to look at and she has a first-rate cast.

Their strength is in their consistency. No matter how unlikely their situation, they always remain in character. The final alarming fantasy when the wedding turns into a race meeting has the authenticity of one of those dreams where impossible events are accepted without question.

Tessa Pointing is the vicar's wife. To say it is her evening, is not to cut down anyone else's achievement and her performance is entirely truthful. At the show I saw, she had several members of the audience in tears. Her "real" husband, the vicar, is David Peaty, a self-regarding obtuse pomp of a man you long to pour a bucket of water over. Lovely !

Much the most real of the "real" people is Dan Walker, the son. Though we've heard some weird things about him before he arrives, he turns out to be the most sympathetically normal of the lot and you feel grateful to have him for his ordinariness. The imaginary family, Nik Hedges, Myles Locke, and Sarah Lauridsen, come over as a smug gang who might have stepped straight out of an out-of-date romantic novel, and are a joy.

There is a bewildered out-of-his-depth GP, played by Bob Ryder, whose well-meaning botch-ups lead only to further disaster, and an irritating sister-in-law (Tess Gill) dispensing uneatable food before turning into an unbelievably pregnant cocktail waitress, both of them first-rate.

The production is dedicated to the memory of Jill Felix – a good evening in the theatre, one of NVT's best for some time, and a very good example of successful ensemble playing.

The play dates from 1986.

I never have been certain who shot the dog.

Four Play - Review

In complete contrast to its first Brighton Festival contribution, All My Sons, came this second offering – emotional drama replaced by comedy; believable characters by caricatures.

The title was a play on words – four being the number in the cast. Just four actors were required to portray seventeen characters, a feat that involved over 120 costume changes. If that was not enough they had to be prepared to act out one of four endings chosen by the audience at the interval and only revealed to them about 15 minutes from the end of the play.

The script was very funny and proved to be a skilful piece of writing in its construction with precise timing needed to ensure that the character changes flowed almost seamless. The mechanics of the piece and the need for precision brought to mind that classic comedy, Noises Off.

What resulted was a frenetic farce, with many moments of inspired lunacy sending up the genre of the country house mystery murder with its gamut of stock characters. All were played as cartoons but with a nice mixture of overacting and underplaying.

There was plenty of clever word play, puns and in-jokes revolving round the size of the cast and the need to get off stage to change roles. Having a butler called Gardener and a gardener named Butler gave rise to plenty of confusion jokes – probably too many as the joke began to wear thin.

Sam Anderson, Sarah Charsley, Phillip Hill and Frank Leon worked their socks off as the pace quickened and events got out of hand. The furious build up to the interval left both cast & audience breathless. Not only were their acting skills successfully tested in switching roles but they also demonstrated a talent for ad-libbing in covering up the occasional gaffe.

Anderson’s comic contributions included the dominant Lady Angkatell, a black widow now on her seventh husband, Sir Henry, and Fiona Damask, a sexual predator. A drunken actor; rustic gardener; straight laced vicar and Arab con man allowed Hill to go to town with these diverse characters. In contrast there was delightful underplaying by Charsley as Sir Henry’s twin daughters, the chauffer, the vicar’s wayward daughter and the wife of the village philanderer.

It fell to Frank Leon to play Sir Henry, his long lost son, his butler and the philanderer with one of the highlights being the three way conversation he was required to deliver, off stage whilst changing costumes. Like his colleagues he often found himself in physical and manic situations that called for controlled restraint. All managed to do this – never letting their performances get out of hand.

A word of praise has to be given to the realistic set and those who constructed it.

Writer and director, Andrew Allen, has created a fine show, albeit overlong, that can become a great one with judicious cutting. It is appreciated that this would not be an easy task. It is not a case of just ditching sections of dialogue as so much of it needs to be timed to allow for costume changes.

Barrie Jerram
29 May 2011

Fake & Lie with Me - Review

This double bill of premiered plays shared the common theme of lying.

In Fake the audience are part of a live show at which celebrity TV medium, Steve Eldritch, relays messages from “beyond the veil”. Before the performance, in an attempt to create the right atmosphere, the production team provided a novel touch. A trailer was shown in the bar area before the performance, featuring the medium in his dressing room preparing for the show and previous subjects providing testimonials of how they had been helped. Unfortunately at the matinee performance I attended, daylight made it impossible for a clear image to be seen. The trailer was rather long and the loss of clarity meant that the attention span waned and interest was lost.

Also before the performance I was approached by Michael Graney, who wrote the play, with the request not to reveal any of the surprises that may occur during the performance – like The Mousetrap, he did not want future audiences to be aware of any surprises. I am happy to go along with his request.

Suffice it to say that with appropriate fanfares and announcements Eldritch enters and with suitable warm up patter begins to select subjects/victims and provides them with “messages” A drama ensues that calls into question his validity – is Eldritch genuine or fake? Hugh Stockdale delivered a spot-on portrayal of the smarmy Eldritch – all spray tan, sparkling teeth and squirming sincerity. As his “selected victims” Vincent Youngman gave a quiet understated performance of a recently widowed young man whilst Emily Gallichan’ Eve was played very young and nervous – however the constant clutching and fiddling with her skirt soon became irritating. Phillipa Watt played Bright, a lady full of neurotic emotion – a strong performance that would have been bettered by bringing more light and shade into her delivery. Having started on such a high note she continued on one long plateau.

Lie With Me, devised by Steve Coulson, is homage to Mike Leigh and his improvisational style of working. A series of short scenes worked out with the cast revealed the overlapping lives of four characters and the lies that they tell in order to protect themselves or to live out their fantasies. Debbie shoplifts jewellery that she passes off as gifts from imaginary boyfriends; Darren is a middle aged man with low self esteem whose wife has left him; Sarah is in the midst of a crisis with her soon to be husband ending the relationship and Sian, a feisty youngster who resents her mother’s constant nagging.

Succinct dialogue and sharp, seamless scene transitions soon captured the imagination and engendered a fascination as the lives of each character impinged on the others. There were no weak performances. Anthony Dale, as Darren, began suitably downtrodden and became another person as his relationship with Sian developed. Emma Prendergast’s Sarah was full of internal emotion as she could not accept that the wedding was not going to take place – a fact she could not bring herself to admit to her mother. Dan Walker gave a competent performance in the small role of her fiancée as did Christine Laurence, playing Sian’s mother.

But it was the performances of Danielle White & Miranda Morris that stood out. White invested Sian with a certain charm despite her truculence and foul mouth. The bonding between her and Darren was intriguing to watch as each built confidence in the other.

Morris gave a remarkable performance as Debbie, one of the great unloved. Having met and, in her mind, claimed Darren as her own it was fascinating to watch her mood swings as she reacted to others intruding. She quietly brought out the desperation of a woman, living with her mother, desperately seeking love and someone “to lie with”.

Congratulations to Ulrike Schilling for taking over the staging of this play when Coulson had to drop out for health reasons.

Barrie Jerram
27 March 2011

All My Sons - Review

Arthur Miller’s play that questions the ethics of war profiteering has been described as an Ibsenian drama. It also bears the inevitability of a Greek tragedy with a family doomed to be torn apart.

Successful business man, Joe Keller, knowingly allows defective aircraft parts to be supplied during World War II resulting in 21 dead pilots. Released through lack of evidence he lets his partner take the blame and receive a prison sentence. A guilty secret that Kate, his wife, is having to live with. The play is set some three years later when the truth begins to unravel with tragic consequences.

Also overhanging the Keller household is the loss of son, Larry, a war pilot missing in action. His absence has an effect in the play through his mother's insistence that he is still alive, despite Joe and the other son, Chris, believing the contrary. It also overshadows Chris’s love for Larry’s childhood sweetheart, Anne, the daughter of the imprisoned partner.

Miller’s emotionally gut wrenching and powerful writing provides actors with roles that require performances to match and in James Newton’s spell-binding production they exceeded expectation. As well as giving sensitive direction Newton managed to inspire his entire cast to achieve perfection. Based on the company’s previous Miller productions the anticipation was of good acting but what was delivered reached beyond the level of excellence.

Tim Blissett effortlessly slipped into the role of Keller as though it was tailor made – he captured all the bluff heartiness and smugness of the self made man as well as the delusion created by the self-centred justification of his action. As his wife, Kate, Lyn Fernee, gave what was probably the best performance I have seen from her. She attained a glorious balance of neurotic helplessness and steely resolve. Her final scene was heart wrenching.

Equally magnificent were Mathew Lawson and Emily Gallichan. As Chris, Lawson gave us a man truly desperate to break free from his brother’s suffocating shadow. He fairly shone with idolization of his father and one felt for his devastation when he found out the truth about what Joe had done. His anger was beautifully tempered with his moments of loving gentleness with Anne. Gallichan’s Anne was delightfully charming and brought a refreshing uplift to the stifling tension within the Keller home.

Daryl Buckley gave a strong performance as George, Anne’s brother, whose arrival late in the play is the catalyst that produced a magnificent, turbulent last act – the emotion discharged by the actors was almost suffocating.

Four other actors completed a fine cast by providing contrasting cameos. Kirsty Elmer was able to lighten the drama with the humour she obtained from playing the sexually predatory and money obsessed wife of the local doctor – a role naturalistically underplayed with spot on sensitivity by Alistair Lock. Humour also came from Moog Gravett as a well meaning but geeky neighbour with his astrological charts whilst Louise Preecy, as his wife, sweetly turned matronly homeliness to girlish flutter when George, a childhood sweetheart arrives.

Barrie Jerram
8 May 2011

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