The Crucible - Review

Continuing its unofficial role as the Arthur Miller Repertory Company the New Venture Theatre once again dipped into the canon of the great American playwright and chose what is undoubtedly his finest work.

This powerful play is about the notorious witchcraft trials in Salem in 1692, brought about through the hysteria created by adolescent girls. It tells of greed and superstition and the bearing of false witness against neighbours, with those charged with witchcraft saving them selves from hanging by denouncing innocent people. It’s interesting to recall that the play was written in 1953 at the time of the hearings of the Un-American Activities Committee where accused actors and writers were encouraged to make similar denunciations.

To do justice to such a great play first-rate acting was needed and luckily this production was blessed with such from every member of the cast. Director Mark Wilson kept the audience on the edge of their seats right from the start. He devised an opening atmospheric prologue in which, through an eerie mime, the girls were seen dancing in the woods and taking part in some form of ritual. The tension that this created was maintained throughout the play until it reached a highly charged and emotional climax.

The main protagonists in the action are John Proctor, a bluff and honest farmer and his former servant, Abigail Williams, who being in love with him accuses his wife of witchcraft and sets in motion the tragic chain of events. As Proctor, Andy Costello was superb and along with Tessa Pointing, as his wife, created a most moving and heart-wrenching scene towards the end of the play. Frances Tongue excelled as Abigail managing, as she did, to show the two sides to her character –- the manipulator of the girls through aggressive bullying and of the judges by acting the sweet innocent. She was moving in her declaration of love for Proctor and would have been far more so if she had not dropped her voice so low that at times she was inaudible.

With such a feast of high quality performances there is a temptation to mention them all but by doing that the review would fill up the whole Newsletter! However I would mention just a few more. Eileen Miller’s Rebecca Nurse was a study in honesty and quiet dignity and Serena Brand captured well the torment of Mary Warren, torn between telling the truth and giving into Abigail’s threats. There was a truly chilling performance from Nik Hedges as Danforth -– a religious zealot with the inflexible heart of a bureaucrat.

It is now several days since I saw this production but its effect has not left me. Every time I think about it I still feel its power and am moved by the emotion that it generated. Congratulations to all involved.

Barrie Jerram

The Good Woman of Setzuan - Review

Bertolt Brecht's moral fable tells a complex tale of an individual goodness strugling to exist in a world of greed and heartlessness. Three gods search the Chinese province of Setzuan seeking one good person who will give them shelter. The only person prepared to do so is Shen Te, a prostitute, who seeks to leave the way of life that poverty has forced her into. The gods reward her kind act and she is able to start up a tobacco business. Greedy friends and neighbours exploit her goodness and she is forced to disguise herself as a male cousin in order to carry out the ruthless actions needed stop the exploitation.

In choosing this epic and difficult work the young cast set themselves a challenging task and, on the whole, achieved a creditable production.

The main acting burden fell upon Helen Hudson who was delightful in the title role and captured well the natural goodness required for Shen Te. In contrast she successfully managed the transformation to the businesslike and ruthless male cousin.

The large cast gave good support with several performances deserving special mention. Sophie Carr-Gomm, Christelle McCracken and David Gandey were particularly strong and assured in their portrayals and I enjoyed very much the engaging humour that Arthur Adaope found in the role of the Policeman. However, in some cases, greater care needed to be taken with diction, as lines were lost through being hurried or voices dropped. Hopefully Director, Nick Beeby, picked up on this during the run and worked on it.

The least successful aspect of the production, I felt, was the songs. Brecht's text is always difficult, often strident and the singing, in most cases, lacked the necessary power and emotion. The most successful was the one delivered by David Gandey with emphasis provided by the stamping of the foot.

Brecht, ever the advocate for ensemble work, would have been pleased with this production. For in addition to acting many of the players also provided the musical accompaniment and built the charming set.

Barrie Jerram

The Night Heron - Review

The showbiz tradition of "the show must go on" was upheld by director, Jim Polkey-Calderwood when he successfully stepped into the shoes of one of the main characters, Griffin, when Andy Costello had to withdraw through illness. Having been told that Jim only had three days to learn the part and that he would be carrying the book for part of the evening it was with the feeling that the play would not be seen at its best that seats were taken. However such fears were never realised. Jim's assimilation into the cast was virtually seamless. The book was only needed as security like a comfort blanket. He gave a tremendous performance.

Set on the edge of the Cambridgeshire Fens The Night Heron is an intriguing play that unfolds gradually to reveal the secrets behind the main characters, Jess Wattmore and Griffin, unemployed & hard up gardeners living in a shack on the marshes. When they are forced to advertise for a lodger Bolla Fogg, a most unorthodox girl, enters into their lives with disturbing ramifications. Throw in local superstitions and a religious cult and you have a brooding atmospheric evening that kept you on edge and wanting to know what happened next. In the main the writing was excellent although the climax of the play was weakened to some extent by the religious mumbo-jumbo of the local cult. Also there were a few loose ends that could have done with clarification.

Jim's fine performance was matched by quality portrayals of the other two main characters. There was a sensitive one from Tony Scola, who captured beautifully both the pathos and religious fervour of the weak and tormented Jess. Whilst Peta Taylor, as Bolla, extracted the maximum humour from her role yet managed at the same time to convincingly convey the two extremes of her character -– tough yet vulnerable. They received excellent support from the rest of the cast.

As ever a fine set, lighting and terrific sound effects achieved the atmosphere so necessary to the play.

A commendable feature of the production was the attention given to the accuracy of the accents of the cast. All had mastered the Fenland dialect that the script required.

Barrie Jerram

Antony and Cleopatra - Review

In staging Shakespeare's epic tale of tragic love and imperialistic war, director Martin Nichols sought to give the play a topical edge by having the cast in modern dress. The tale of the doomed lovers is told against the backdrop of military action and constantly changing alliances.

The structure of this play is that it is made up of over 40 scenes, some of which are quite short. This episodic approach leads to a jerky narrative rather than a free flowing story. As many of the scenes are reports of how a battle is progressing they tended to remind one of sound bites from a television news channel. As such they fitted in well with Martin's staging.

Not only has the text so many scenes but they are also set in 37 locations! –- a major problem for any director and his technical crew. In this production stage dressing was kept to a minimum and the location changes cleverly achieved through skilful lighting changes and sound effects.

In addition to directing the play Nichols also took on the role of Antony and gave a full blooded and passionate performance. However Marina Norris's performance of Cleopatra started off a little bit lightweight –- she was too skittish and lacking in majesty, more Princess Di rather than a Queen — but as the play progressed, when she eased up the body movements and let the words take over, Marina gave us a sensuous and imperious woman. The scenes leading up to and including her death were most powerful.

Amongst a large cast Gary Blair stood out as Enobarbus as did Robert Maloney in a variety of roles. However, I found it difficult to accept Michael Weedon's portrayal of Octavius Ceasar. Both his body movements and vocal delivery were too mannered and lacking in naturalism.

The production was a brave effort to tackle a difficult piece and provided the opportunity of hearing some of Shakespeare's finest love poetry.

Barrie Jerram

The Last Resort - Review

How refreshing it was to be sitting in the main theatre on the opening night of "The Last Resort" and to be surrounded by the sound of sustained laughter.

This home grown Pantomime provided an instant sunshine tonic that banished the post-Christmas Blues. There was not a Pop or Soap personality to be seen nor was the story a conventional one. Instead there was a talented cast 40 strong that had spent the last year devising a show set in Brighton with local characters, both present and historical. The company, under the guidance of Dermot Keaney together with writers, Eleanor Gamper and Nik Hedges, came up with a glorious and witty production that was original yet retained many of the elements of traditional Panto. It contained plenty of groan worthy puns, cross-dressing and audience participation with music and lyrics specially written by Eleanor.

In a story that wickedly lampooned such targets as reality television, makeover shows and celebrity chefs the audience witnessed a race against time to save Brighton from doom in a plot masterminded by the evil Baron Hooch Smuggle. The race is undertaken by Phoebe Fingerspoon, who finds herself in a world where time and space are confused, where the Prince Regent employs Llaurence Llewellyn Beau Legs to makeover the Royal Pavilion and Jammy Oliver to run the kitchens. A fairy godmother, Old Mother Brighton, and two trainee fairy godfathers aid her in her quest.

Her adventures lead her into some unusual locations, such as inside the Royal Pavilion, under the sea and even on a ghost train. The logistics of how all this was achieved in the small area backstage, together with the large cast and the frequent costume changes was mind boggling.

A pleasing aspect of the production was the involvement of the NVT Youth Theatre who, in particular, shone with their musical number involving rhythm produced from kitchen utensils. Likewise it was encouraging to see many new faces amongst the cast, several of whom were making their debut, I learnt later.

With such a large and hardworking cast, all of whom contributed to the show's success, it really is not possible to mention all the performances but I am going to mention a few that gave me particular pleasure anyway. The experience of seeing Carl Boardman in drag was one that will not be forgotten for a long time! He clearly relished the opportunity, as did the audience. Laura Bennett's Mrs Fitzherbert was an extremely comic creation as was that of Nik Hedges and Robert Maloney, the fairy godfathers. Congratulations to the rest of you.

The evening was sheer delight for the audience but must have been a nightmare marathon for Eleanor, Nik and their entire team.

Barrie Jerram