Reviews

A Number - Review

This short play put two actors within a set that was a representation of a DNA helix- an appropriate symbol as the play deals with the controversial subject of human cloning. It also suggested a prison in which the protagonists were trapped.

The play debated the issue of nature versus nurture regarding the development of people.

A young man confronts his father after discovering that he has been cloned 21 times. Unsettled by this he demands to know how this has happened and if he is the real son. His father's explanations keep shifting.

A second son appears again taking issue with the old man over the cloning. Whilst physically identical to his brother there is a contrast in temperament - the first, fearful, whilst the second is angry and homicidal.

A third identical son arrives who is calm, happy with his life and contented over the cloning issue.

The play is enigmatic with unfinished sentences as the characters interrupt each other. To be effective the cast had to be spot on with timing and they were. This said I have to confess that this is a style of writing that does not appeal to me.

I saw this play at Chichester last year with Timothy and Sam West in the two roles and found the play frustrating and unsatisfying. Therefore it's to the credit of director, Strat Mastoris, that his production proved to be more entertaining. His characters seemed more vibrant and less sterile. Between him and his actors a great deal more humour was found in the text.

There were several fine directorial touches in addition to the clever set. Having the father watch a video of his young son or listening to the child's night time cries was a deft way of linking the scenes and denoting time changes.

As the father Tom Robinson brought out the edginess of the character with his constantly shifting eyes that evaded the gaze of his sons. His performance brought to mind a dodgy car dealer.

Paul Wilson had the opportunity to show off his acting skills by playing all the sons and did so well. He managed the three different personalities with fine distinction.

Congratulations to both actors for giving strong performances that intrigued as well as entertained.

 

Barrie Jerram
2 October 2007

Our Country's Good - Review

Based on true incidents, Timberlake Wertenbaker's play is set in 1789 and looks at life in a penal colony in Botany Bay. It shows that life for the prison governor and the guarding soldiers, with its shortage of food, the hostile climate and conditions, was as punishing for them as it was for the convicts.

The play gives an insight into the structure of the class system within the prison camp and offers varying viewpoints on relationships and other issues such as religion, hanging and sex for sale as well as for love.

It depicts the conflict between the liberal Governor and some of the military officers who believe in brutal authoritarianism and harsh discipline.

Within this framework lies the real strength of the play. Wertenbaker has the prisoners rehearse a play, attempting to show that the theatre has a redemptive power. It is in these scenes that the imagination is captured and the drama is at its best. For the prisoners are more colourful than the soldiers and provided the actors with some meaty roles.

The production was a little slow at the beginning due to its scene setting nature but once under way Mark Wilson's direction gathered momentum and elicited some exciting performances from his players.

Matthew Houghton, as the officer rehearsing the play, George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer, captured well the internal conflict within this puritanical man as he gradually fell for the prisoner, Mary Brenham, a gentle portrayal from Kirsty Harbron.

A contrasting relationship between an officer and a convict was the tempestuous one between Harry Brewer and Duckling Smith. Matthew Lawson had the difficult part of a man highly strung to the point of neurotic. His obsessive jealousy led to some dramatic clashes with his lover. As Smith, Lyn Fernee gave a fine performance that called for contrasting emotions – indifference, anger and grief.

Sparks also flew in the interchanges between Melody Roche, Meike Broad and Anna-Marie Hiscock as three of the convict women chosen to take part in the play.

Andy Bell's comic performance as Sideway,a convict with theatrical pretensions, was up to his usual reliable standard.

Amidst all these fine performances there was a small cameo role that almost stole the show – Janet Hewlett Davies played Meg Long, an old prostitute, and demonstrated once again what a consummate actor she is.

For me there was a downside to the production and that was the cross gender casting of the play – and issue that I am not usually happy with. Whilst I acknowledge that Mark may have had difficulty filling roles with such a large cast the idea of the Governor and soldiers being played by women did not work for me.

I was also disappointed in the staging of the scene where the officers debated the putting on of the play. It lost effect due to the intrusive background conversations distracting from the main dialogue. Surely mimed talking from the subsidiary characters would have been better.

A minor quibble would be that the women prisoners looked too clean and wholesome for the conditions that they were supposed to be under.

 Barrie Jerram
21 July 2007

American Buffalo - Review

American Playwright, David Mamet, has the knack of providing his characters with dialogue that is naturalistic, albeit heavily seasoned with expletives.

The rhythmic patterns of speech that he gives to his often inarticulate characters are reminiscent of Pinter – the repetition of dialogue, the questioning is all there but with no time for the pauses –the dialogue fairly crackled.

Set in a junk shop, three criminals plan a robbery involving a coin collection. Whilst the play deals with the lead up to the robbery it really examines the dynamics between the trio and the effect that business deals have on friendship.

The New Venture has a fine reputation for its presentation of modern American drama and this production enhanced it. There was taut direction from James Newton who extracted three excellent and contrasting performances from his cast. None of them would not have looked out of place in an episode of The Sopranos.

Jim Calderwood had the difficult task of portraying Teach, a highly neurotic and unstable character. At first his delivery was a little too fast and lacked clarity but once settled he gave a performance that brought out the different facets of the man’s personality – venomous in venting his spleen and always with the underlying threat of danger.

As Don, the junk shop owner and leader of the group, Tom A Robinson inhabited the role and produced a fine characterisation of an intriguing figure. His relationship with the third character, Bob, was enigmatic. Was there anything behind his over protectiveness of the young lad?

Ben Pritchard did well in displaying the duality of Bob’s personality – a simple soul yet cunning enough when it came to self interest.

Deserving of special mention was the realistic setting of the junk shop, full on items with tiny little price tags on them including items of clothing that some of the characters wore – a humorous touch.

The production presented an evening of raw theatre at its best.

An idle thought on the way home – if all the expletives had been deleted the play could have been performed in one act instead of two!

Barrie Jerram
22 May 2007

Splendour - Review

The construction of Abi Morgan’s play is difficult, yet fascinating and challenges both cast and audience.

Set in an Eastern European city at the time of civil war, four women await the return home of its dictator. As they drink and talk the veneer of each character is peeled away, revealing themselves in different lights.

The challenge is that this meeting is told several times with each telling offering variations on previous dialogue and switches in time. The variations are sometimes subtle, other times quite glaring. In addition the characters speak their thoughts out loud.

Whilst the main action takes place within the set – an excellent piece of construction and design – there were times when the audience’s imagination had to come into play as characters left the room and spoke off set with no props.

The production was fortunate in having actors who could do justice to such a complex and baffling text. It surely was a Herculean task just to learn lines that were not just repetitious but also carried slight variations. There was also the burden of having to deliver them in differing emotions.

Due acknowledgment must be made to director, John Norris, for guiding his cast through the labyrinth of the text and extracting the fine performances.

As Micheleine, the dictator’s wife, Sylvie Carter captured well the conflict within the woman. Trying to maintain a calm exterior and play the hostess, while all the time worrying about the absence of her husband. At the end she displayed an icy calm as she ignored the impending rout of their mansion from the victorious insurgents - refusing to leave her moment of history.

Her old friend, Genevieve, was given a sensitive portrayal by Kathrin Zeisberg. It was a touching portrait of a woman grieving for her dead husband and the rejection by her children.

Amanda Urwin-Mann’s war photographer, Kathryn managed to convey both the hard boiled exterior of the character as well as an inner vulnerability. She displayed the frustration and unease of a person who, used to being in control, finds her self at the mercy of the translator, Gilda.

Gilda provided Debbie MacKenzie with a wonderful character part – uncouth, sly and thieving yet at times almost childlike. A tough outsider full of envy and covertness yet ending up afraid and desperate.

By the interval I was coping with the spoken thoughts and the time shifts but was uncertain as to the relevance of the repetitions. On learning that these repetitions would continue I faced the second act with dread. In the event I found myself being drawn in – the subtle changes began to fascinate and became almost mesmerising - not an easy piece of theatre but one that was well worth persevering with.

 

Barrie Jerram
24 June 2007

The Interview / Agape's Excess - Review

This double bill, by Robert Hamilton, explored love, and the extremes that people were prepared to go to be loved.

The first play however, Agape's Excess, proved to be a tedious disappointment. It explored how far someone had to go to prove their love – in the first scene it was to the point of death for one person. The next scene featured a couple, sat at their computers, corresponding on line. In the background were a "virtual" couple and between the four of them the same dialogue from the first scene was repeated. In this scene love was not terminated by death but by abandonment when one partner closed down her computer.

The dialogue which started as playful lover's talk, quickly turned into an irritating mantra.

As an acting exercise it produced some fine performances but as a play it failed to satisfy. It was sad that the quality of the acting was not matched by the writing.

Luckily the second play, The Interview, rescued the evening.

When successful novelist, Desiree Martin, encounters a writer's block she interviews Rosalind Seeley, a "resting" actress, with a view to using her as a creative flush.

By participating in a series of improvisations it is hoped that the creative juices will flow again.

That was the opening scenario that playwright, Robert Hamilton, presented. It soon became apparent that there was a much darker and sinister sub plot.

Games, both mind and physical, are played out as the plot twists and turns. The writing shifted easily between black comedy, metaphysical debate and sexual violence climaxing in a splendid piece of Grand Guignol theatre.

Jenny Bridges, as Rosalind, managed well the transition from assured interviewee to terrified victim. But it was Jet Tattersall, as the deranged Desiree, that gave the performance of the evening. She was magnificent, never letting the character's paranoia descend into ludicrous farce.

In addition to giving direction that served the play exceeding well, Helen Caton, also organised the playwriting workshop with Robert Hamilton that followed the end of the run.

 

Barrie Jerram

1 April 2007