The Man Who Was Hamlet - Review

If you did not get to see this one man show then you missed a theatrical treat.

In telling the story of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, George Dillon gave a tour de force performance as he brought to life not only the Earl but also the various characters interwoven with his story.

There was no set, just the bare studio walls and floor with a sword and skull on it together with a couple of spotlights that emphasised changing moods. The atmosphere was further enhanced by the use of original music played by Charlotte Glasson, seated to the side of acting area. This music complimented the narrative but on a couple of occasions I felt it intruded – a minor quibble, however.

Dillon's account of De Vere's childhood started with him secretly observing his father's company of players performing before the visiting Queen Elizabeth, recounting the death of his father and the remarriage of his mother one month later. And so the parallels with Hamlet started to appear.

Being made a Court Ward he was sent to live with and under the guidance of Lord Cecil, an old man much given to spouting words of wisdom to the young boy. Whilst at fencing practice in the gardens he heard a noise behind the bushes and thrust his sword into it thereby killing a cook, possibly one of Cecil's many spies.

The narrative went on to depict life at court where his skill at dancing made him a great favourite of the Queen. His stately impersonation of Good Queen Bess was delightful. For convenience he married Cecil's daughter Anne but promptly went off to fight in Europe. A later dalliance with a lady of Court, whom he made pregnant, ended up with the pair of them imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Particularly amusing were the two encounters with a Warwickshire yokel named Shake-speare to whom de Vere helped with a sonnet to send to his wife!

Dillon's performance was astonishing as he displayed exceptional acting skills combined with great dexterity of movement – be it dancing or fencing. As a monologue it was full of drama and spiced with humour. It gripped the audience and held them spell bound until the very end.

Having also written the piece, that undoubtedly had been extensively researched, Dillon wisely handed over the direction to Denise Evans, thereby ensuring a dispassionate view of the piece.

It is understood that this is still a work in progress and I, along with many others I suspect, would welcome a later viewing.

Barrie Jerram

True West - Review

The contemporary American playwright, Sam Shepard, has produced a substantial number of plays that look at life in America, often using unconventional dramatic styles. He has been described as the poet par excellence for drawing on his country’s mythic imagination and its debased frontier mentality.

I well remember Jerry Lyne's excellent production of Fool for Love back in 2003 in which Shepard introduced a surreal touch by the use of an on- stage narrator who also entered into the action. True West is an earlier play and to my mind is a less satisfying piece of writing.

It tells of two brothers, Austin, a successful screenwriter and Lee, an alcoholic drifter who thieves to survive. They meet up when Austin is house-sitting while their mother is away on vacation. He is working on a project prior to completing a deal with his producer when his peace is shattered by the arrival of Lee who then proceeds to hi-jack the project. He has an idea for a contemporary Western and manages to persuade the producer to take this up whilst rejecting his brother's.

This turn of events results in a reversal of roles with Lee, now struggling over the typewriter and Austin, taking to the bottle and turning to burglary – although his bizarre choice of electric toasters ensures some amusing comedy.
The play, depicting the two sides of American life and emphasising that one side is never far behind the other, ends with the two protagonists in a menacing stand-off - each person being the mirror image of the other.

Unlike some of his contemporaries Shepard can write dialogue and does not have to rely on continuous expletives to pad out the writing. In this play the bulk of the dialogue is concerned with anger and menace which came across in Calolm MacGregor's production as one long rant. Not only was it hard on the ears but soon became tiresome. Attention should have been given to the provision of more shading to the outbursts. It is possible to bring subtlety to convey anger rather than rely on continuous sledge hammering.

The play is virtually a two hander for Jack Bridgewater and Sam Parsons as Austin and Lee with a couple of brief scenes that featured their mother and the producer.

As Mom, Sandra Ventris did the best she could with a part that seemed to add nothing to the play other than to add confusion and comedy. Her arrival back home had more than a touch of lunacy as she looked on one son strangling the other and chided them from fighting in the house and suggesting that they fought outside like they did when they were children.

Andrew Thomas's performance as Saul Kimmer, the producer, seemed a little weak and did not come across as convincing. Maybe the fault lay in the writing – a caricature whose only function was to demonstrate Lee's skill as a con man.
Bridgewater taking on a leading role for the first time was successful in establishing Austin's soft nature and managed the character reversal reasonably well. The successful playing of a drunken scene is notoriously difficult to achieve and on this occasion the performance did not completely hit the mark – it appeared stilted.

As Lee, Parsons brought out all the feral qualities of a man who was happiest living in the desert with only himself for company. Most of the play's ranting fell to him and his performance would have benefited from the guidance mentioned earlier regarding variation of delivery.

Jeff Driver designed a substantial set that provided a realistic kitchen/diner and I liked the touch of the healthy plants being substituted by withered ones for the second act.

Barrie Jerram

Three Tall Women - Review

On entering the studio theatre the audience could be forgiven for thinking that they had strayed into the world of Salvador Dali. Some of the usual seating had been removed and replaced by a variety of chairs each with a label attached. From the ceiling an assortment of chandeliers hung down lighting up a white line motif on the floor that gave the impression of a cracked mirror. On one side of the acting area stood a wardrobe with half a mirror embedded into it whilst on the other side a chair jutted out from the wall. This bizarre stage set, designed by NVT newcomer, Matt Johnson, appropriately reflected the surreal content of Edward Albee's play. As with several of his other later plays this work reflected his interest in the surreal and in experimentation.

One's eyes, having adjusted to the setting, then notice that the stage is already peopled. An old lady sleeps fitfully in a bed. A nurse/carer is sitting at a table playing patience whilst a young lady, later identified as a solicitor's clerk, sifts through documents.

The old lady wakes and begins a monologue, with only occasional interjections from the other characters, that skilfully depicts the confused mind of the 92 year old woman as she struggles with reminiscences of her life. The first Act ends with her having a stroke and slipping into a coma.

In the second act the bed is occupied by a mannequin wearing an oxygen mask and is watched over by two women. They are joined by the old lady, now sprightly and coherent, and it gradually transpires that they are in fact one and the same. They represent the old lady at different ages of her life – at 70, 52 and 26. Between them they question and examine the reminiscences and statements delivered in the first act. Sex, life and death are discussed and we learn that the woman is a person who has become hardened through the burden of having to be strong for the whole family.

The complex yet intriguing semi-autobiographical play was directed with assurance by Ian Black and superbly acted.

The part of the old lady is particularly challenging, especially in the first act as it is almost a monologue. Janet Hewlett-Davies' performance was yet another one that demonstrated her capacity for great acting. It was full of subtle nuances and fully captured the many facets of senility — self pitying tears, frustration, lightning switches from comic cunning with triumphant cackling to childlike dependency. She was equally as good in the second act as the rational seventy year old and greatly amused with her telling of her husband's generosity with jewellery and his bizarre and sexual way of presenting it to her.

Emma Prendergast gave strong contrasting portrayals with her two roles. As the nurse she was full of gentleness and patience that gave way, in the second act as the 52 year old, to a volatile nature. She was splendid in her anger regarding the rejection of her son, who she turned out of the house many years ago when she could not accept his homosexuality. He silently enters the room and sits at the bedside of the comatose figure, seeking the acceptance that will never come. Kieran Burke played this non-speaking role.

I was a little disappointed with Janna Fox's performance as the solicitor. She adopted a casual, throwaway style of delivery that I found difficult to hear. It did not help that she was static for most of the time on the other side of the stage with her back to me. No such reservations about her contribution in the second act. As the young alter ego she had the part nailed. The insecurity of youthfulness was there with the repeated assurances that she was a good girl. So was the hopefulness for her future that contrasted with the cynicism of the older pair. One felt her pain as she wailed "Are there to be no happy times" as she learnt from the others what was to befall her.

The play concludes with the old lady telling her that the happiest moment is "When it's all done. When we stop. When we can stop."

Barrie Jerram
20 July 2008

What All The Rabbits Are Doing - Review

The play's shock element start had all the promise of a political thriller as the establishment ruthlessly covers up the consequences of a prison rehabilitation experiment gone wrong.

However what followed was a philosophical debate about the nature of evil and the possibility of redemption.

Raymond, a violent psychopath, is assigned life-drawing classes under the scrutiny of watching scientists. His life model is Marianna, an optimistic charity worker who forms an extraordinary bond with the prisoner.

Their scenes together depicted a slowly developing friendship as Raymond questioned her motive for being there and Marianna trying to get him to express his feelings.

These scenes were interspersed with bizarre exchanges between the snipers who are on stand by, ready to intervene if the girl is in danger.

The snipers were dressed in black and wearing lights on the head that spot lit only their faces. This gave a comic aspect to them and at times suggested masks that led me to believe that their purpose was to maybe fulfil a role similar to the Chorus in a Greek tragedy. However, surreal elements were added by one of them moving in a balletic way and carrying a black fan rather than rifle and the shifting sexual tension between the three of them. The games that that played smacked more of a school playground rather than a surveillance team. This aspect of the play was its weakest and detracted rather than added any value to the piece. It was a pretentious mish-mash.

There were strong performances from Rhys Lawton as Raymond and Zoe Hinks, Marianna. Hinks had a remarkably expressive face that she used well – at times enigmatic, mocking and even flirtatious. Considering that she spent the whole play totally naked it was incredible that one was to drawn to the face rather than to the body.

In addition to staring in the play Hinks also wrote and co-directed it and with her co-director also playing one of the roles it was the usual case of a production suffering from not having a detached and dispassionate view of the play's weaknesses.

By a strange co-incidence this was the second play in a week where the staging was such that the audience were made to feel as though they were also in prison. The previous play at the Barn, Southwick, contained a powerful performance from Andy Bell, a NV stalwart.

Barrie Jerram
26 October 2008

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