Romeo and Juliet – The Handlebards at Kiplin Hall

Woohoo, hurray, hurrah, and lots of other positive, shouty noises. I finally got to see a live theatre performance yesterday evening.

For the last 3 years going to a Handlebards performance has become a bit of a summer tradition. It’s Shakespeare but not as you’d see it in an actual theatre.

The Handlebards usually have 2 touring companies – 4 women and 4 blokes – who cycle round the country to the Edinburgh Festival and back performing Shakespeare plays in a variety of venues.

Because of lockdown, this year has been somewhat different but 3 of the actors, who happen to live in the same house, decided to do a touring production of Romeo and Juliet.

We went to see them at Kiplin Hall near Richmond in North Yorkshire. The Hall was built in 1619, so it’s easy to imagine that touring troops of actors have performed Shakespeare’s plays on the West Lawn since it was built.

I don’t imagine that many of those productions have managed to be quite as anarchic as this one though!

It must be a challenge stripping a play as well known as this one back to its essential components so that it can be performed by 3 people. That they managed to do this is credit to the skill of the actors and director. I’d like to name check them to give them credit, but I can’t find any where on The Handlebards social media channels that tells me who they are. The actors may be Lucy, Paul, and Tom. Please, Handlebards, give them some public acknowledgement.

It reminds me why I always buy a programme when I go to the theatre. I understand why programmes weren’t available, but it’s the first time since I was 11 years old that I haven’t had a programme from a production I’ve seen.

Anyway, back to the production.

This was always going to be Romeo and Juliet played for laughs; you can’t play it serious when both Juliet and Romeo have to get up to play other parts when they’ve just died! Actually, I think the laughs, and laughing at death, is exactly what we needed whilst we are living through such uncertain times.

Extra laughs were provided as Michael tried to put on a plastic poncho as the drizzle started to settle in! I didn’t really it was such a complicated job. Not only did our party get the giggles but a few others sitting around us too.

For me, open air theatre will never replace going to see a production in an actual theatre. I miss the buzz and chatter as people start taking their seats. That expectant silence that falls as the house lights go down is magical to me. And staying dry when it’s raining outside is always a bonus.

But, since I can’t go to an actual theatre, and since I love the anarchy of The Handlebards, I’ll take what I can and recommend you do the same and get out to see them.

Click here to find out more about The Handlebards

Click here to find out more about Kiplin Hall

The photograph at the top is by Rah Petherbridge

The Whip by Juliet Gilkes Romero for RSC

I suspect I may have to come back to this. I went to see the play on Thursday and I’m still thinking about it and what it’s saying.

The play is set in London in 1833 as the House of Commons is debating the Slavery Abolition Bill. It centres mainly on 6 people: Lord Maybourne, the Home Secretary; Lord Boyd, Chief Whip of the Whigs; Edmund, Boyd’s ward, formerly a runaway slave; Horatia Poskitt, Boyd’s housekeeper come to London away from the cotton mills and the death of her daughter; Bradshaw Cooper MP, campaigner for working people and grandson on a cotton mill owner; Mercy Pryce, runaway slave and campaigner for the abolition of slavery.

The play considers idealism versus pragmatism in politics: is it better to compromise, think of the bigger picture and get things done than to hold out for the ideal solution?

It shows how much social and political change was happening in Britain in the 1830s: the abolition of slavery, the Factories Act, poor law reform, to name but a few.

Above all the play considers private versus public morality. Should we judge someone by what they achieve for the greater good and how much of that praise or condemnation should be tempered by how they behave in their private life?

How much of what was happening then is relevant to today’s politics and politicians?

I thoroughly enjoyed this play. I’m interested in history and this is an era I know little about so I learned a lot and it has made me want to learn more.

A gentleman we got talking to in the theatre suggested it would make a better documentary than a drama; that it was all speaking and little action. I get his point and I suspect the party of school children who had gone to see it would agree but it’s a long time since I saw something that made me think as much as thins and which has made me want to think and understand more.

I definitely recommend going to see this play if you get the chance.

And I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

Ian McKellen On Stage – Harold Pinter Theatre & Ian McKellen, the biography – Garry O’Connor

I went to see Ian McKellen On Stage ages ago, back in October, but knowing I’d also got the biography to read I thought it would be interesting to do both reviews together as they cover a lot of the same ground.

It odd really that we ended up going to see the On Stage performance in London and at the end of the year. I had plenty of notice about the original 80-date tour from RSC, where I’m a member, and from four of the Yorkshire theatres, where I’m on the mailing list. Somehow I never quite got round to making a booking and the dates came and went. I quite pleased when I found out that there was going to be a further 80 shows and I made sure I booked as soon as I heard about them.

The performance was in 2 parts. The first half was autobiographical and the second a trip through the complete works of Shakespeare. The only person on stage was Ian McKellen and, initially, the only things on stage were a rug, a chair and a large prop box.

I liked the idea of the prop box. It was like a larger version of Mary Poppin’s bag and you wondered what might be coming out of there next.

Ian McKellen is a good story teller and obviously enjoys playing to the audience. Not all of the stories were new to me – I’d heard them on chat shows and read about them in newspapers or magazines – but there was enough new stuff to keep me interested. What was a bit odd is that quite a few of the stories are also in the programme! Perhaps not everyone reads their programme cover to cover before a performance but I’m equally sure I’m not the only who does.

In the second half, McKellen pulled out a set of paperback Shakespeare texts, sorted them into piles and asked the audience to call out the names of the plays. He chose a play from those that were called out and told us a story of anecdote about a performance he remembered of that play. The idea was great but I would rather he was honest about the order in which he wanted to do the plays. I shouted out Coriolanus, as did another member of the audience, and he just kept ignoring us even though we were both the first to shout out and the loudest. If you don’t want to talk about that play until later at least tell us that so we don’t feel ignored!

Someone who definitely didn’t feel ignored was a boy sitting in the same row as us. At the beginning Sir Ian asked for a child to come onto stage to help hold Gandalf’s sword. The boy was too far into the middle of the row and not quite quick enough.

At the interval I was chatting the lady next to me when a face loomed in front of us asking for the child. None other than Ian McKellen, who then sat and had a proper conversation with the boy until he had to go back stage again. What a lovely thing to do.

All in all, I’m really glad I eventually got to see the performance.

A less lovely thing to do was to read Garry O’Connor’s biography. It was probably the wrong thing to do to read it relatively soon after going to see the man himself talk about his own life. It meant there wasn’t much that I hadn’t heard before and I hadn’t even had time to forget bits and to be reminded by the book.

Some of the theatre anecdotes were good and the photo selection was wider than in the theatre programme. But…

O’Connor is a friend of McKellen from university, so has known him a long time. He has been an actor and director as well as being an author. He has had good reviews for biographies of other people. But…

I would call this a hagiography rather than a biography. And there is way too much self-satisfaction in the way O’Connor writes about “my friend, Sir Ian McKellen”.

I get that if you are writing about a friend you might be a bit careful so as not to damage your friendship but if you have to go to these lengths you should shelve your book until the subject isn’t here to fall out with!

What a waste of a good book token!

Sleeping Beauty – York Theatre Royal

The first “annual bit of rubbish” at York Theatre Royal without Berwick Kaler as the Dame and I wasn’t sure what to expect.

The rest of the cast remained more or less the same, just moved around a bit with varying levels of success.

I enjoyed my evening out. I had a good laugh and I enjoyed the nonsense and the usual rounds of cast member’s corpsing, spectacularly when Darth Diva bashed Evil Diva with his beak!

But…it didn’t have the sparkle that I expect from York Theatre Royal panto.

I think this is down to a number of factors.

Firstly, I think some people were miscast. Martin Barrass as the queen, for example. I think Barrass is a great stooge but he doesn’t have the physical stature or diva qualities to make a good dame. I stick to what I said last year when speculating who might replace Kaler, AJ should have played the queen and Martin the king. Together I think they could have made a funny couple.

I also thought Jack Lansbury didn’t quite pull off the romantic lead. I kept expecting Princess Beauty to run off with Darth Diva instead!

Sadly, Suzy Cooper also lacked energy as Princess Beauty.

Secondly, there are a lot of rumours circulating about the future of the pantomime. There was a report in the Press that Kaler was reconsidering his retirement. A petition on Facebook to “save our pantomime” and at the end of the performance Barrass suggested that not all the cast would be back next year. My partner had also been told that 10 years ago the theatre used to sell 50000 tickets to the panto. This year they sold 30000.

It will be sad if the tradition doesn’t continue but part of me, possibly a slightly cynical part, thinks that this might just be a publicity stunt to raise the profile and generate a bigger audience for next year. Otherwise, I can’t quite see how Martin Barrass keeps his job when he openly challenges the decisions of theatre management from stage.

To finish on a more positive note, I thought David Leonard did his usual sterling job as the baddy and this year he was given more space to develop it.

Newbie Howie Michaels was a good addition to the cast too.

York Theatre Royal pantomime has always been a wonderful retreat from the angst and stress of real life. I hope it continues and that the theatre allows it to evolve rather than throws the baby out with the bath water.

But please, think about how you play to the strengths of your cast.

A Museum in Baghdad – Hannah Khalil for RSC and Royal Lyceum Theatre

I don’t quite know where to start writing this review, in part because I was coming down with a head cold the day we went to see the play and in part because I really don’t know what I think of the play.

With this last set of RSC tickets I have been going to the theatre on a Thursday evening; it’s one of the joys of no longer working full time that you can go to distant theatres mid-week – better ticket availability at cheaper cost, easier to book tables at nice restaurants and a slightly different audience.

What I hadn’t anticipated was audience demand on a rainy Thursday, close to Christmas, for a new play about a relatively unknown subject. Or distinct lack of demand!

I have never been in a theatre in Stratford with so few people in it before. My estimate is around 50 people in the Swan and probably around 45 came back after the interval! It was a slightly unnerving experience and it felt quite exposing; with so few people to act to, would the actors have higher awareness of our individual reactions?

The play was about The Iraq Museum in Baghdad and set in 2 eras; 1926 when Gertrude Bell was setting up the museum and preparing it to open and 2006 when Ghalia Hussein was trying to recover looted artefacts and reopen the museum.

Both eras were depicted on stage at the same time with the stage setting the same for both. The staging worked well. It looked like a functional museum office from the 20s as well as after a period of conflict and looting. There were no faffy scenery changes and nothing to get in the way of the acting.

The quality of the acting from Emma Fielding, as Gertrude Bell, Rasoul Saghir, as a world-weary Abu Zaman, and Houda Echouafni, as Layla Hassan, was good.

At the interval I was confused. What was the play about? Why were certain parts being repeated? Who was the goddess and what did she represent? I can understand why people might have given up on the play and just gone home. Not feeling very well I could have easily been persuaded to do the same. Living with an accountant who wants his money’s worth, this was never going to happen and I’m pleased it didn’t. Whilst the play is never going to be a favourite I’m glad I saw its resolution.

Ultimately, the play asks questions about what nationhood means. Does evolution of the state really works or is revolution necessary to sweep away old ideas? Why are artefacts seen as so important and why do people work so hard to preserve them? Who are museums for? Why do we feel a need to preserve an extinct culture? And, ultimately, shouldn’t we spend all our time and effort on preserving lives?

Do I know really what the play was about? No. Did I enjoy it? Not really. Would I go see the play again? No. If I’d known when I booked tickets what I know now about the play I wouldn’t have booked them. Am I pleased I did go to see it? Yes…sort of. It does me good to see something so different once in a while.

King John – Shakespeare – directed by Eleanor Rhode for RSC

We last saw this play in 2006, when it was set more or less in period and delivered fairly straight.

This version was definitely different, worked in some parts and confused and distracted in others.

The different bits that worked well were Rosie Sheehy playing King John – you forgot that she was a woman most of the time – and Katherine Pearce who was a brilliant manipulative and cynical Cardinal.

The first half, set in the 1960s worked well. I enjoyed the colour, the costumes and the music. And then, in the second half it didn’t seem to know which era it was set in and at the end seemed to have reverted well into the past. Confusing! I have a view that if you’re setting something in a recognisable time or location you need to stick to it or it’s distracting.

Another distracting thing was King John wearing a frock in one scene. Distracting in part because it reminded us that King John was being played by a woman, who up until that point had mainly worn trouser suits. Also, distracting because of the fabric it was made from: it had a fabulous shimmering almost liquid quality to it and I got side-tracked watch it move, making me lose my way in the plot a little.

The food fight at the wedding scene was fun. I liked that King John was holding a cake that looked destined for someone’s face and yet she just carefully put it back onto the table. On the other hand I was slightly appalled by the fact that the foil balloons spelling out “Just Married” were being popped to spell “Just Die”. I get the point being made but it doesn’t seem ecologically sound to have to keep using more and more plastic foil. I’m hoping the bangs came from elsewhere and the intact balloons were smuggled off-stage for reuse.

My final grump is the diction of the actors during the argument/fight scenes. Their lines were quite hard to hear and keep up with. Slowing it down by even half a beat would have made a huge difference to the clarity.

I can’t say I loved either this play or this production. I’m pleased I went to see it though; it reminded me that good acting can make you forget who is playing a part and that humour and laughter can be found in even grim stories.

Gym & Tonic – written and directed by John Godber

It’s ages since I’ve seen a John Godber play and I’ve never been to Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough so when a friend suggested a group of us went I jumped at the chance.

If you’ve never come across John Godber before he writes funny plays that have a serious message at the heart of them. They are usually based around working class people in the north of England.

Stephen Joseph Theatre is a smallish theatre and it’s “in the round” – seats on all 4 sides with a space in the middle for the stage. I like theatres like this. They are intimate and you tend to get more involved in the play.

This play is set in a smart Spa hotel where Don and his wife Shirley have gone to celebrate his 40th birthday. Don doesn’t really want to be there and thinks they can’t afford it. Also, his marriage is failing and he is uninspired and trapped by the family business he works in, although he can’t see it.

The premise of the play may be gloomy but there were laugh’s aplenty. If you’ve ever been to a spa, whether for a day or a longer break, and not been quite sure what to do whilst everyone else seems confident and comfortable you will recognise the setting!

At the end of the play the group I was with spent some time discussing what the ending meant and I think we all took something different away, which is interesting and causes discussion but is a bit unsatisfying.

There were 4 actors, all but Peter McMillan who was Don, playing 2 parts. Stephanie Hackett and Jacqueline Naylor were really good as Shirley/Cloe and Gertrude/Gemma. Robert Angell was less successful with Keith/Ken as there wasn’t enough differentiation between the way he spoke and moved each character.

As a group of friends we had a fun night out with the play as part of it. If I gone out just to see the play I think I would have been a bit disappointed.

Measure for Measure – Shakespeare at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

I’m not quite sure why we decided to book tickets for this production as we went thinking we didn’t like the play and, despite the excellent reviews, no expectations of an enjoyable evening.

Still, money was spent on tickets so along we went…and I’m so glad we did.

The last time we saw this play was 2003, in the middle of the Complete Works festival/programme sandwiched between some more frivolous and fun productions. It was in the old Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which was a more traditional stage and so you watched the play rather than being engaged with it.

This production was set in 1900s Vienna and brought it within a period of moral ambiguity we have some resonance with. And this is a morally ambiguous play. There are no clear goodies or baddies here.

Lucy Phelps, Sandy Grierson and Antony Byrne were excellent as Isabella, Angelo and Duke of Vienna. You could understand why Angelo and the Duke would fall in love with Isabella and empathise with her anguish trying to do the right thing for her and her doomed brother.

The set worked to emphasise the ambiguity too, with mirrors along the back of the stage that sometimes reflected back and at others could be seen through.

The humour was provided by Lucio, who said what he thought people wanted to hear, Elbow the constable with his malapropisms and the bawdy house scenes. I don’t know the play well enough but I suspect some of their sub-plot stories had been trimmed from the play to arrive at the compact production we saw.

My one niggle with the production was some of the diction. When actors were turned away from me I struggled to hear the lower pitched voices. This may be because I’m more used to the smaller Swan Theatre and it’s acoustics. It may be, in part, due to problems with my left ear but…

Overall, I loved this version of the play. I’d go and see it again if I get the chance. And I recommend anyone who wants a play that makes them think and provokes discussion go see it.

 

Twelfth Night – Lunchbox Theatrical Productions – Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre York

One of my favourite Shakespeare plays delivered in a period-type setting with plenty of audience involvement.

This was, again, a great theatre experience. I love this type of production where the cast get in and amongst the audience and we become complicit in the action.

The 1920s setting worked well and it’s always interesting to see how the musical director will interpret the songs in the play. Wreh-asha Walton has a great voice and made a believable lounge singer.

Clare Corbett, playing Feste was excellent and Cassie Vallance very funny as Fabian, Olivia’s hapless, slightly dippy servant. In fact I thought the cast was good overall.

There was plenty of humour for everyone: slapstick, wordplay, jokes, take your pick. And the more sombre parts of the play didn’t drag down the overall atmosphere: the taunting of Malvolio was cruel and made its point but had been cut down so it didn’t become seat-squirmingly uncomfortable. And Sir Andrew came across as a generally cheerful buffoon who would bounce back from being gulled by Sir Toby.

If you haven’t been to the Rose Theatre and you’re near either York or Blenheim give it a go. And I’d definitely recommend this production.

Grease: the musical – Grand Theatre Leeds

A friend booked tickets for a gang of us to go see so long ago I’d almost forgotten we were going! Four of the five of us were old enough to remember going to see the film at the cinema 3 or 4 times – possibly more! – so, this was a bit of a nostalgia-fest.

It’s sometimes scary how many words you still remember to songs you haven’t heard for years. And how differently you see things as you grow older.

From a production point of view the cast were good: they could all sing and dance and were generally more credible than John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as school-age teenagers!

The set was good. It was fairly minimal and moveable to allow the creation of different locations.

It was colourful, well-paced and I enjoyed singing along to most of the songs.

Overall, I had a really good evening.

But…

…from the perspective of a 53 year old woman the narrative in my head was saying “Sandy, why are you wasting your time on this loser? In 5-years’ time you’ll have outgrown him and he’ll bore you.” “Both of you, if you have to change yourself for the other to admit they love you they aren’t worth it!” Oh, the cynicism of age and experience.

I’m now in a weird place where the 2 films that dominated my early teens have swapped places. I’ve outgrown the teen love-story that is Grease and grown into the more adult themed Saturday Night Fever.

I still love the music from both. They both still evoke a sense of nostalgia. And I’d go and see either or both again.