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.

Venice Preserved by Thomas Otway at RSC

I wasn’t at all sure what to expect from this performance. I knew it had received some good reviews but I haven’t been very well and couldn’t be bothered to read them or much of the blurb I’ve received from RSC by email.

The play is a restoration tragedy written in the late 17th century at a time of political uncertainty and upheaval. I can understand why the RSC thought it might be a good time to stage it!

The plot isn’t particularly complicated:

  • Girl weds man her father disapproves of
  • They live happily for 3 years when everything goes wrong and they lose everything
  • Man asks father for help and is refused
  • In his anger man joins group of malcontents threatening to overthrow the senate, handing over his wife as surety for his untried loyalty
  • Wife’s jailer tries to rape wife
  • Man and wife turn states evidence on promise of clemency from senate
  • Senate break their promise and execute man and his friends
  • Wife is left alone to go mad and die

I liked the staging and the costumes for this production. The decaying grandeur of the Venice I remember visiting in my teens was well conjured up with the set: I kept expecting bits to drop off the screen/mosaic that hung from the musician’s gallery.

The costumes were a great evocation of the 1980s. At the beginning, when people were rushing around the stage like commuters in the rain, my heart skipped at the remembered sense of anticipation and excitement when I caught a glimpse of someone dressed exactly like a forgotten crush from my late teenage years. At Aquilina’s nightclub I could pick out the clothes in styles I wore back in those times.

Weaving memories into the fabric of the play certainly helped me to feel that this play was set in familiar territory; a place I knew and could understand.

The first revelation in the acting department was Les Dennis. I expected that the cheesy game show host persona would intrude whilst watching him in this play. Actually, it was until there was a pause just after he’d left the stage that the thought pinged into my head “oh, that was Les Dennis”. Hat’s off to him for having reinvented himself.

Jodie McNee, as Belvidera, and Michael Grady-Hall, as Jaffeir, both acted their roles well. You understood the depth of love they felt and the mixed joy, angst and pain it caused. My problem is that whilst I understood this depth I didn’t feel it was for each other. For all the physical contact they had with each other there was just no spark between them, no sense of deep connection.

John Hodgkinson and Natalie Dew seemed to be having great fun with their parts providing the light relief to the general gloom of the play.

Did I leave really caring about the fate of the characters in the play? No. But I did come away thinking about what it says about where we, the UK, is as a political nation right now. There is a quote in the programme that says “the only truly successful way to escape disillusion during the civil wars was to get killed in them”. I’m not advocating death but I do think we’re a nation riven apart, will disillusionment on all sides and a sense the main political parties will do what is expedient to keep power. What is the right thing? Who is prepared to do it? Who knows?

The Provoked Wife by John Vanbrugh at the RSC

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a play written by the architect responsible for Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. The blurb from the RSC suggested it would be funny and, listening to Jonathan Slinger and Rufus Hound talk about it, it sounded as though the actors were enjoying it.

In some respects this is a typical restoration farce: you can tell a lot about the characters from their names. The main protagonists are Sir John Brute, his wife Lady Brute, Constant the would-be lover of Lady Brute, his friend Heartfree and Lady Fancyfull.

It is, essentially, the story of the Brute’s loveless marriage and ends with the situation unresolved. This makes it sound grim, and the abusive attitude of Sir John to his wife makes for an uncomfortable underlying theme, although there are a lot of laughs on the journey.

The women were particularly funny and well played by Alexandra Gilbreath, Caroline Quentin, Natalie Dew and Sarah Twomey. I always forget what good comic actors Gilbreath and Quentin are and in this production they seem to enjoy working together. My partner particularly enjoyed being flirted with by Lady Brute!

Of the male actors I thought Jonathan Slinger played a good Sir John. Most recently we’ve mainly seen him in more serious roles and I’d forgotten that he also does comedy well. John Hodgkinson was also good as Heartfree, with most of the best one-liners. Rufus Hound on the other hand was a bit disappointingly wooden. He just didn’t seem to inhabit his character, unlike when he played Sancho Panza, and at no point did I believe he was in love with Lady Brute.

There were also a number of named parts in the play who seemed a bit surplus to requirements. It almost felt as though their parts had been cut to the point there was little point to them. They were a short interruption into the main storyline and could have been dispensed with. Weird!#

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the play but I think that the fact I had the time to be interested in and notice the fabrics of the costumes and how they were made tells you how little impact it made on me.

Sorry Sir John Vanbrugh, your plays may have been very popular when they were first produced, but I think you were a better architect than playwright!

The Tempest performed by The Handlebards

Another week, another theatre production. This week’s was a much more informal event at the Merchant Adventurer’s Hall in York.

We first discovered The Handlebards last year when some friends invited us to join them on a “picnic in the park” type event at Howsham Mill. This year the same friends organised a larger group of us and it was an indoor event.

The Handlebards describe themselves as an outdoor touring theatre company. I’d describe them as two slightly bonkers groups of actors who cycle round the UK delivering Shakespeare in small venues. All their props and costumes have to be carried on the bikes so most are improvised and rely on the imagination.

This version of The Tempest, delivered by the girls, was unlike any other version I’ve seen. I’d describe it as anarchic and funny without losing the essentials of the plot.

I enjoyed this performance but not quite as much as last year’s Twelfth Night. This was down to 2 main factors. Firstly, I spent the day driving to Coventry, sitting down in a forum for 6 hours and then driving back up to York. Way too much sitting down to be followed comfortably by another 3-ish hours of sitting on not very padded seats. It would be fair to say I had a numb bum and the fidgets from about mid-way through the first half.

Secondly, whilst the Merchant Adventurer’s Hall is a wonderful medieval guild hall it has a lot of pillars supporting the roof and these have a tendency to get in the way. And doesn’t it always seem that a critical bit of action happens at the point you can’t see what’s going on!

The venue though did give me a strong sense of belonging to, and being a small link in, the chain of history. People must have been gathering in this place to watch strolling bands of players, possibly playing The Tempest, for centuries.

In terms of the acting the group are competent and funny. If I paid to see a staged, theatre production I might have been disappointed but in this context it worked well. And I take my hat off to those people who were foolish enough, or were seeing Handlebards for the first time, and sat in the front row. Several of them were co-opted as extras, including 3 brave souls who ended up on stage, and several of them had wine/G&T/olives nicked.

In summary, not great theatre but a great, fun night out with friends.

Click here to find out more about the Merchant Adventurer’s Hall

Click here to ind out more about The Handlebards