Marine Theatre, Lyme Regis
BR Rating ****
Further performances: 13/14/15 July
By John Pownall

First or second night shows can be hard to do and hard to watch, but so confident have the Marine Players become after last year’s success with The Tempest adaptation, that there were no fluffed lines, no false notes, and no missed cues. Not bad for amateurs, or indeed for many professionals.

Historically accurate, this depiction of the West Country rebellion led by the Duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate Protestant son of Charles II whose line ended and so was succeeded by the Catholic Duke of York (James II), provides an entertaining and engaging history lesson.

The complex and vitally significant 17th century rather gets overshadowed by the twin peaks of the Tudors and the Victorians. The history of England is not all about Spitfires, the Armada, or the growth of Empire, it is also about revolts, betrayals and progressive changes to our political system sometimes, as here, abetted by friends and cousins from continental Europe.

The Marine Players, led brilliantly by Anne King as the older Alice, remind us that many of our rights and liberties have been hard won.

There’s a lot to take in in a short period of time, and a lot to deliver. This makes for some hard work from the actors and the director to keep the action flowing, and the focus clear. The production does all it can to provide the back story, and to invite the audience to feel its contemporary resonances. Indeed, the biggest murmur of recognition came when Jeremy Corbyn’s familiar face appeared on the backcloth used for projected images of the recreated rebellion itself, shot through Lyme’s familiar streets, along with interspersed footage from more recent confrontations. This sort of worked, though some of the footage shots were so brief as to be easily missed, and it is perhaps a little too far-fetched to make a linkage between Labour’s 2017 election manifesto slogan, and the words of the rebels. That said, the production plays into a zeitgeist which is more political perhaps than it has ever been, and so in this sense, those parallels are justified.

Musically enriched by flute and guitar (beautifully played), with some clever use of light and effects, the show is bound to capture the imagination of audiences. The performances are all commendable, with some real strengths on show. Declan Duffy is, as ever, commanding, and Georgia Robson is pitch-perfect as the young Alice, dressed as a boy in the rebel army. This entertaining (if brief) sub-plot was reminiscent of Twelfth Night; and Nick Ivins as Monmouth had more than a hint of Count Orsino about him at times in his gradual recognition of Alice’s hidden identity.

The production was well-balanced, and cleverly- paced to ensure that what could have been a stodgy dollop of history on a sultry July night was extremely lively and fun, while not in any way diminishing the seriousness of the subject matter. All in all, another fine achievement from the pen of Andrew Rattenbury, and the direction of Clemmie Reynolds.

By |July 9th, 2017|John Pownall, Theatre|0 Comments

The Owl & the Pussycat’s Treasury of Nonsense

Sat 24 October, 11am & 2pm
Lyric Theatre
£8 / £6 / £25*

Kicking off the half term week, children’s theatre company Soap Soup bring their third production The Owl and the Pussycat’s Treasury of Nonsense to The Lyric, exploring all the wonderful nonsense of Edward Lear in a highly visual and inventive way.

Inspired by the runcible works of Edward Lear, Soap Soup Theatre present a collection suitable for all ages over five of some of Lear’s most loved poems in another feast for the eyes, ears and imagination. Go racing with the Nutcracker and the Sugar-tongs, travel the hilltops alongside the Dong with the Luminous nose, and sail away in a sieve, to the land where the Bong tree grows!

Owl and the Pussycat

With their delightfully unpredictable storytelling style, using clown, object puppetry and magical music, Soap Soup rounds up a collection of nonsense, bigger and better than ever before.

*£8 adults / £6 children aged 5+ / £25 family of 4 (2+2 or 1+3)

Tickets are available in advance from Bridport Arts Centre:
01308 424204 and Box Office Coffee, or on the door if available
30 mins before each showing.

By |October 20th, 2015|Theatre|0 Comments

Pride and Prejudice

Pride and PrejudiceChapterhouse Theatre Company
Bridport Arts Centre 29 August 2015
BR Rating: **

By John Pownall

It ought to be easy, moving inside from the rain. But like all transpositions, something can get lost, and in the case of Chapterhouse’s adaptation of the Austen favourite, which was shifted from the Millennium Green to the Marlowe Theatre on South Street, it seemed at times that a great deal had been. The summer has not been kind.
Aside all else, the sets did not help the actors on the stage. Entrances and exits were all from the central opening between the flats, which no doubt works well in an outdoor setting, but for some reason looked messy in the theatre. The sound was far from compelling, and at one moment there was a bizarre interruption, with modern pop music blasting from the speakers. Clearly a mistake, and hurriedly rectified, but it added to the overall sense of untidiness.

There is a problem with this novel as a theatrical adaptation: it can lack drama. Austen is all about reflection, interiority, and nuance – not easy to telegraph from the proscenium. More than this, the happy ending is writ large from day one and – yes, we all know the story far too well. Perhaps a lesser known Austen might fare better, and it is noted that Persuasion, a more mature work, is also being adapted by Chapterhouse.

As for the performances themselves, there were some strengths. Amy Forde’s Jane was pitch-perfect, capturing well the suppressed heartbreak of her ostensible jilting by Bingley. Ella Sawyers’ Charlotte brought out the restrained embarrassment of being married to a pompous and snobbish prig at a time when divorce was unthinkable, financially and socially. These were measured interpretations, not matched by the representation of the flighty Lydia, which seemed caricatured and too 21st century, striking a false note in a production which worked hard generally not to update the original.

There was a good deal of doubling up of parts, the cast being modest for touring and profit-sharing purposes no doubt, and most of it worked extremely well. Fergus Leathem impressed with his Wickham and his Collins. It was not always easy to shift from Darcy to Mr Bennet, however, despite the best endeavours of the other Fergus in this ensemble, Rees. As for the key role of Elizabeth Bennet (the only part which was not doubled) it did feel as if there was a missing link here, nothing to bridge the gap between the heroine and the audience in the way that Austen brings us close to her in the novel. Elizabeth seemed a distant, somewhat glacial figure for much of the evening.

That said, a couple of her scenes were done very well. Elizabeth’s late confrontation with Lady de Bourgh and her ultimate coming together with Darcy were acutely done, and very faithful to the letter and spirit of the text, as was much of the dialogue. Indeed why modify greatness? The wit and acuity of Jane Austen’s characters’ voices still remain compelling 200 years after first publication, and while this was not the best of the many adaptations of this novel over recent decades, it was nevertheless pretty enjoyable fare for the sizeable Bank Holiday weekend audience.

By |August 30th, 2015|John Pownall, Theatre|1 Comment

Beyond Cragporth Rock

BCR-Haste-Theatre-main-300dpiHaste Theatre Company

Bridport Arts Centre 21 June 2015

BR Rating ***

By John Pownall

The premise of this play is a simple one: six sisters marooned in an old house clinging to the coast, having escaped from a world devastated by an Armageddon brought about by financial crisis. Surely this kind of apocalypse could only be dreamt up post-2008. Interesting how the shadow of the bomb has been replaced by the echo of the crash.

At times, it’s a clever and creative production from a young and adept group of actresses. The initial tableau places the audience after the event, as it were, in sight of the (we later learn) fictitious deaths which they construct for themselves; death actually coming, when it does, with the end of the world, with the walls crashing down, and the house disappearing into the sea.

However, the problem with the play is its lack of emotional focus or force. If the intention was to bring across the psychological impact of impending doom, then the point must surely be that less is usually more. Haste Theatre, with their emphasis on high-energy physicality, fail to carry the audience with them into any despair of isolation or annihilation. Everything moves too fast, so that one comes away with a kind of Keystone-Cops version of the end of the world.

This may, in part, be down to method. The fourth wall simply didn’t exist. The cast each spoke to the audience throughout, to the extent that there was no space for the audience to use any imagination, or to witness the development of relationships on stage. The only attempt to create some kind of nuanced interaction between characters was by Anna Plasberg-Hill, who was compelling as the fragile, eccentric Maggie. Generally, the characterization was not convincing. As each character told her back-story direct to the audience, it seemed to heighten the absence of any individual journey within the narrative. Without that, it is hard for an audience to care.

Another problem seemed to be the effort put in to raising laughter. They key here is if at first you don’t succeed, give up. Some of the humour was just too juvenile even to work ironically, if that was indeed meant. A repeated telling of a darkly humorous anecdote by one of the sisters became tedious after about five minutes. Yes we got it, of course: in the endgame people break down and laugh at crazy things, but not over and over again.

What to like? Well, the group are excellent physical performers. Timing, energy, and choreography cannot be faulted; these actresses have all been trained well, and have obvious abilities. The most touching moment came with a song. Maggie led the sisters in a beautiful harmonization sung through a cleverly-hung sash window; the women’s voices were indeed haunting and lovely. In fact, the music was excellent throughout. But while Beyond Cragporth Rock is all about the finish of everything, it didn’t feel quite finished itself. Work in progress, perhaps.

By |June 21st, 2015|John Pownall, Theatre|0 Comments

The Beaux Stratagem

The_Beaux_Stratagem_poster_notitleBridport Arts Centre 26 May 2015
BR Rating ****

By John Pownall

Serendipitously, the National Theatre’s own production of George Farquhar’s last hurrah opened to the press the same night as Bristol Old Vic’s Theatre School brought its youthful, vibrant version of this late Restoration romp to Bridport. The Old Vic apprentices have brought us wonderful things in the past, but nothing quite so naughty.

The cast and the audience thoroughly enjoyed a production that brought the original vividly up to date with clever use of appropriate pop, rock, and even rap material, such as Stand and Deliver, Poison Arrow, and Gangster’s Paradise. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was just as the interval beckoned and the entire cast mimed and danced to the Manhattan Transfer. Yes, the show took liberties with the original, but was largely faithful to its spirit of good-natured ribaldry.

The theatre was as full as it has been for some time, a testament to the school’s well-earned reputation, as well as the drawing power of high-quality comedy. We were rewarded with strong performances by the four young players taking on the key roles of Mrs Sullen, Dorinda, Aimwell, and Archer. These are not easy parts. Mrs Sullen, in particular, requires comic timing as well as real sensitivity as the wronged, unhappy wife; Alais Morie managed it extremely well, and certainly had the clearest delivery on stage, with the possible exception of the excellent Tom Bailey, as Aimwell, who looked and sounded very much like a young Hugh Grant. All four thoroughly deserved their rapturous applause at the end, as did the great support provided by Corey Montague Sholey, Alexander Hall and Maaniv Thiara.

The visual comedy was played up throughout. We had some clever physical theatre, plenty of dance, and an extremely funny depiction of the gallery scene when picture frames were placed around members of the cast who then froze into the painted figures. Jac Cooper’s semi-naked Venus, complete with splendid blonde wig was uncomfortably convincing in a rather bizarre way. It had the audience in stitches.

Occasionally, perhaps, there was a little too much thrown at us. After the gorgeous Chanson D’amour arrangement, the music changed swiftly to the Benny Hill theme, which gave the cast yet another chance to have some daft fun. It spoilt the end of the first half a little. Sometimes it’s good to know when to quit.

The near destitute Farquhar wasn’t even 30 when he died during the play’s opening run in London in 1707. As with Marlowe, one wonders what the English stage lost with his untimely death. It’s wonderful, and somewhat touching, to see such young actors and actresses enjoying themselves so fulsomely with a script 300 years old, written by a terminally sick Irishman not a decade their senior as the ink dried on the parchment. The tour deserves good turnouts; if you missed it, catch other dates in Dorset late next month as the run nears its conclusion.

By |May 27th, 2015|John Pownall, Review, Theatre|0 Comments