A View From The Bridge – Headlong – review

Headlong’s version of Arthur Miller’s classic is well acted but over egged

★★★

Jonathan Slinger & Katy Bushell in A View From The Bridge. Photo: The Other Richard

A View from The Bridge is a modern classic. Rooted in ancient Greek tragedy, it was written by Arthur Miller, a man who has a claim to be the greatest playwright of the twentieth century.

When you produce a new version of a classic play, inevitably some of your audience will have memories of previous productions. In Britain, Alan Ayckbourn’s 1987 National Theatre production with the great Michael Gambon and Ivo Von Hove’s 2014 Young Vic production starring Mark Strong both loom large as benchmarks. They may be hard acts to follow, but theatre demands new productions. Of course, you can watch a film of the Young Vic production, but a stage play is designed to be a unique nightly collaboration between actors and us the audience.

So I looked forward to Headlong’s production, which has been co-produced with Chichester Festival Theatre, Octagon Theatre Bolton, and the Rose Theatre. Thanks to the accomplished well-directed cast, Headlong’s A View From The Bridge is worth seeing, but, in an over egged production, the director doesn’t allow the play to speak for itself.

Let’s start with a brief summary of the plot. Eddie Carbone is a longshoreman or dock worker in New York. He lives in an Italian American community, just below the Brooklyn Bridge. And Miller tells us that title refers to us- the middle class audience with our modern outlook- observing from the bridge this normally out-of-sight working class community rooted in a more ancient culture.

Eddie and his wife Beatrice have brought up her dead sister’s daughter Catherine who has now arrived at that moment when a child becomes an adult. (It’s around 1950, so we must accept that kids grew up more slowly in those days.) Eddie still sees her as the little girl he needs to protect but that feeling is now coloured by an unacknowledged sexual attraction.

Then two of Bea’s cousins arrive from Italy. The brothers are illegal immigrants, what we might call today economic migrants who have escaped the poverty, in Rodolpho’s case to become an American citizen, in Marco’s case to earn money to support his family.

Things start to go wrong when Catherine and Rodolpho fall in love. Eddie is jealous but hides this by implying that Rodolpho is really gay and is tricking Catherine into marrying him in order to gain US citizenship. Eddie’s inner conflict and how this inarticulate working class man deals with it is the core of the tragedy of this play.

The cast are uniformly excellent and Holly Race Roughan’s production gives them the space to savour the language of the play. Jonathan Slinger as Eddie brings out the frustration, ignorance and anger required in the role, as he swaggers, slumps, stares and rages.

Rachelle Diedericks as Catherine starts naïve, barely recognising her own sexual power. She matures until by the end of the play she is confident enough to shout down Eddie. It’s a subtle blossoming that marks Ms Diedericks as an actor to watch out for.

Eddie’s conduct is appalling and it’s hard to feel sympathy for him but he presents a challenge for Catherine and Beatrice, who both love him, and are in many ways the play’s ultimate victims.

Bea is possibly the most interesting character. She clearly envies Catherine and encourages her to take advantage of opportunities she never had. Kirsty Bushell imbues Bea with an inner strength and confidence which give her a power over Eddie, and for much of the play she is able to subdue his more extreme behaviour.  She is frustrated by Eddie’s lack of sexual interest in her and her constant revealing of her legs can be taken as a sign of her own active sexuality.

Why is Eddie not interested in her? It is not simply that he is distracted by Catherine. The text hints that he may have, again uncoinscious, homosexual leanings, which adds another layer to this complex play. Maybe Eddie is even attracted to Rodolpho.

It’s possible that Arthur Miller would have developed this more, if he’d written the play today, but this production decides to do the job for him by featuring a fantasy male ballet dancer performing homoerotically in front of Eddie. I don’t know why Holly Race Roughan, who us s talented director, felt we needed this aspect of the play marked with a fluorescent pen. Just as earlier, when we first see Catherine, she is on a children’s swing, a prop that seems to clutter the stage and serve no purpose except to underline her adolescence. It’s as if the director doesn’t trust the text to make the point without underlining it.

The Headlong production of A View From The Bridge

As for Rodolpho,  Luke Newberry plays him as artistic, sensitive and passionate, but without any obvious sign of him being gay. Like the modern American he aspires to be, Rodolpho sees the value in the virtues of compromise and forgiveness.

By contrast, his brother Marco, in a beautifully restrained performance by Tommy Sim’aan, is strong and silent except for the moment when he dramatically takes centre stage to show Eddie who is the alpha male.

The conflict between the rule of law and the code of the Italian community is another major theme. And Eddie’s self-inflicted downfall comes from his breach of the code, and his recourse to the law. This makes the part of the lawyer Alfieri pivotal in raising questions about the limits of the law in providing justice, particularly in a community which in the past has sorted out its own forms of justice. Nancy Crane takes on this role, possibly the first time a woman has played the part. She is authoritative and sympathetic, in a way appropriate to someone who is also a narrator-cum-Greek chorus, a role designed to remind us that we are outsiders viewing the unfolding tragedy.

The austere set by Moi Tran comprises a claustrophobic shiny black wall and stage, with an oppressive neon sign saying Red Hook, the name of the neighbourhood, that might have looked good in an art gallery but was over the top for this family drama. A staircase and high walkway are a further indication of how low this family are. The main props are a number of wooden chairs. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time to make the chairs double as the heavy bales the longshoremen carry, but it didn’t really work.

I regret I have one more criticism to make of the directing. During the final moving final tableau, a very large member of the cast stands at the front of the stage, blocking the view of a significant part of the audience. This is frankly unforgivable.

Having got that off my chest, let me say that, generally, Holly Race Roughan has put together a decent version of A View From The Bridge. It has light and shade, variations of pace, and dollops of tension. But, if the creative team had done less, they could have achieved more.

A View From The Bridge opened at Octagon Theatre Bolton on 8 September 2023. It can be seen at Chichester Festival Theatre until  28 October and at Rose Theatre from 31 October to 11 November 2023.

Paul was given a review ticket by the theatre.

Watch this review on the YouTube channel Theatre Reviews With Paul Seven

Rock Follies – Minerva Chichester – Review

Legendary TV series returns as a musical

Three female actors standing in a line raising their right arms in a scne from Rock Follies at the Minerva Theatre Chichetser in July 2023
Zizi Strallen, Angela Marie Hurst & Carly Bawden in Rock Follies. Photo: Johan Persson

Back in 1976, when Rock Follies first appeared on the nation’s screens, TV was very different to today. There was no satellite or streaming, not even recorders, so whereas nowadays 3 million viewers is considered a success, back then Rock Follies had 15 million people watching live.

Consequently, many older people will remember it well, however anyone under, say, 60, may be puzzled as to what the fuss is about. So first, a bit of background. It’s hard to imagine now but in the 1970s, women were rare in the British pop charts and female groups were non-existent. The pop industry was dominated by men both on and off stage. Rock Follies imagined the fate of a female singing group.
And that fate at that time was always likely to be one of chauvinism and exploitation. Equal pay for women had only come into law a few months before the series began. The assumption was still that women in the music industry would be secretaries or groupies. It was a very different world, although the Me-Too movement has shown that less has changed than we might hope.
The title Rock we understand, but why Follies? I’m not sure. Perhaps the creators wanted to reassure an older audience who might be wary of a TV drama about rock music that it would be in the tradition of the spectacular song and dance ‘Follies’ from the early part of the 20th century. Or maybe it was meant to be an ironic suggestion that the idea of a female rock group was a foolish fantasy.
In fact, there’s a lot of irony involved in Rock Follies. Given the way the three singers are treated in the drama, it’s ironic that the people who actually came up with the original idea were also three women but it was used without payment or credit by the television company. Only after a court case are Diane Langton, Gaye Brown and Annabel Leventon getting the recognition they deserve, including a credit in the programme for this new musical version at the Minerva Theatre.
And,  although it is a story of three feminist women who challenge the male world by writing and singing their own songs, the original screenplay and lyrics were written by a man, Howard Schuman. That’s not a criticism. Mr Schuman created great characters and a compelling story. The songs were also composed by a man, the talented Andy Mackay from Roxy Music.
In the current production, the backing musicians are all men. A good band, by the way, led by Toby Higgins.
So when the women call themselves The Little Ladies and then have to explain ‘it’s ironic’, the question is always there: how ironic is it when they are patronised, abused and exploited by men from the music industry, and manipulated into being something they don’t want to be? The women also encounter chauvinist journalists, drugs and messy personal relationships. They do try to stand their ground and some of the best moments are when the men are put in their place.  Eventually, they are driven apart by internal rivalry and differences. (By the way, a lot of young male pop artists were also abused and exploited.)
It’s been the job of Chloë Moss to take all the riches of ten hours of TV drama and reduce them to a two-and-a-half hour musical, while integrating nearly all of two albums worth of songs. On the whole, she does a good job, retaining the essential elements, and making a few changes for the sake of a much shorter story arc. Where I think she could have done better is to have slowed the pace a little. We rush through scene after scene. This is partly because there are over 30 songs to fit in. Good as they are, and often accompanied by some delightful choreography by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille, they don’t tend to advance the story or reveal character.
Consequently, there is even less time to get to know the characters and be involved in their experiences. The dialogue is often a brief exchange that can sound stilted. Having said that, the musical could have done with the women performing more than one song in a row, maybe at the end. That way, they could have got the audience clapping along and appreciating the women united in ‘girl power’.

Strong singers

Philippa Stefani and cast in Rock Follies. Photo: Johan Persson

The main characters are well drawn. Dee is a strong feminist and the driving force of the group. Played by Angela Marie Hurst, she has, and is meant to have, the best voice- a stirring top note-hitting soul sound. Anna, played by Carly Bawden is the intellectual. She’s thoughtful but also unable to cope with pressure. Zizi Strallen is the funny, privileged Q, who avoids confrontation, and has, as someone says, splinters in her bottom from sitting on the fence.

The two people who try to guide them with some degree of care are Harry, played as kindly but weak, by Samuel Barnett and Kitty, a plain speaking, forceful American, played by Tamsin Carroll, who probably gets the most laughs. Philippa Stefani, a late addition to the group, is a plain-speaking Geordie called Roxy who adds another powerful voice.
The others are pretty much one dimensional but, in the time available, it would unfair to expect them to be anything more. The cast including Fred Haig, Stephenson Ardern-Sodje and Sebastian Torkia bring them to life.
Designer Vicki Mortimer makes clever and appropriate use of flight cases (those black boxes with metal edges that are on wheels and contain sound equipment) to represent all the furniture as needed- dressing tables, chairs, even a bed. They roll easily on and off and around the otherwise empty stage floor with the minimum of fuss but the maximum of effect.
In such an open space, lighting plays a vital part. Paule Constable‘s design is excellent at conveying the varying atmospheres of a pub, an office, a recording studio, a dressing room, a TV chat show, and of course a concert stage.
For me, Rock Follies didn’t quite work in the Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva Theatre. It’s an intimate theatre with the audience on three sides. There’s no reason why a musical shouldn’t work there. I recall a brilliant production of The Pajama Game. But it does require the actors to play to all three sides.
Unfortunately, the back of the stage is filled with a structure that accommodates the live band at the top and a small stage for the occasional song sung at a concert. I don’t doubt this was brought about by necessity but it has the effect of forcing the cast too far forward into the open space.  Director Dominic Cooke moves the cast around in a smooth flowing performance but they inevitably pitch too much of the show to the centre with their backs, or at best their sides, often being all that can be seen from the extreme edges of the seating. If you do decide to see this show, I strongly recommend that you sit in that centre block.
Nevertheless, Rock Follies is an entertaining musical blessed with some very good performances.
Rock Follies runs at the Minerva until 26 August 2023
Paul was given a review ticket by the producer

Assassins at Chichester – review

Assassins looks and sounds great but misses its target

★★★

Danny Mac seated on a bale of straw with smoke around him while playing John Wilkes Booth in the Chichetser Festival Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins in June 2023
Danny Mac in Assassins.Photo: Johan Persson

Chichester Festival Theatre’s reputation as musicals producer is second to none but its latest revival is, for me, a rare mis-step.

Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins may not rank as one of his greatest works, but its reputation has grown since its premiere in 1990. The bleak musical comedy, with book by John Weidman, shows how the American Dream- that anyone can be a success- has become a nightmare. Its bleak view is that celebrity has become a replacement for real achievement, and that one particular short cut to fame is assassinating a President.

A string of would be assassins follows the precedent set by John Wilkes Booth, who shot Abraham Lincoln, and leads ultimately to the traumatic loss of John Kennedy at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald. However, we gain little understanding of the individuals beyond their desire for fame for themselves or their cause (if they have one).

There is a lot to enjoy along the journey. There are songs for a start, which are mainly pastiches of various kinds of popular American music. They may not be Sondheim’s finest tunes but the use of popular music styles to talk about murder is horrifying. There’s the jaunty anthem Everybody’s Got The Right, the right to their dream that is, that bookends the show; and Gun Song, a romantic love song to a killing weapon; and Something Just Broke, a hauntingly sad reaction to the death of Kennedy.

The show originally used the device of a fairground shooting gallery in which contestants are given a gun and invited to take a shot at a President for the prize of fame if they succeed. It’s a metaphor that serves well the concept of the randomness of celebrity. As each takes his or her shot, they sink into oblivion, forming a disappointed community until together they encourage Oswald to commit a presidential assassination that shocked the world.

So where did the Chichester production go wrong?

Not with the performers, who are excellent. The characters they play do not have much depth, but are nevertheless given performances both vivid and amusing. Peter Forbes is suitably authoritative and sinister as The Proprietor or host; Danny Mac, with a strong singing voice, is the handsome and manipulative John Wilkes Booth, who you can believe would inspire the others; Harry Hepple is outstanding as the easy-going Charles Guiteau, who killed President Garfield because he believed he should have been made French ambassador; Sam Oladeinde shines as Leon Czolgosz, the shy, angry killer of President McKinley; Nick Holder as Samuel Byck wanders around the auditorium in a soiled Santa Claus outfit ranting about President Nixon (and Leonard Bernstein, for that matter) in a funny but frightening performance; Amy Booth-Steel is Sarah Jane Moore, the would be assassin of President Ford whose inability to shoot straight gains the most laughs; and Samuel Thomas is a chilling Lee Harvey Oswald, a man so feeble in his resolve as to make you squirm in your seat at the arbitrary nature of Kennedy’s death.

Why improve the perfect musical?

For me, the problem with the production was the way director Polly Findlay updated the concept to cover the modern cult of celebrity, starting with a reference to the recent celebrity President, Donald Trump. So, the on-stage band wear red baseball caps, and, as the audience enter, there are actors in animal mascot costumes encouraging Mexican waves.

The host looks very like Mr Trump. But why is the President handing out the guns? Trump may have encouraged the storming of the Capitol building, but this updating means you straightaway lose the distinction between people who achieve their dream of celebrity through assassinating a President and the Presidents themselves, who achieved their fame through a political and fairly democratic process.

Assassins at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

In support of this change of emphasis, Lizzie Clachan’s wonderful set places the Oval Office rather than a fairground in the centre. Giant video screens on either side show the choice of targets, turning the original shooting gallery concept into a game show, suggesting the way TV turns nonentities into household names. Three TV news reporters replace the single Balladeer to provide the commentary. They hold their mics like guns, perhaps indicating the media’s contribution to the cult of celebrity killers. It’s certainly a long way from the fairground. This is all the more surprising since Stephen Sondheim once said he couldn’t think how to improve Assassins.

This is a musical that takes a superficial meander through various would-be Presidential assassins. It’s loosely held together by a concept that they are a corruption of the American Dream. Its fabric is too delicate to accommodate the tacking on of references to modern day celebrity. The Watermill Theatre production of 2019 didn’t stray from the fairground concept until the death of Kennedy, and was, in my opinion, the better for that single focus.

That quibble aside, Assassins is a musical worth reviving and Chichester Festival Theatre has come up with a fabulous looking production with superb performances.

Assassins can be seen at Chichester Festival Theatre until 24 June 2023.
Paul received a complimentary review ticket from the theatre.

Click here to watch this review on our YouTube channel Theatre.Reviews With Paul Seven

 

Alex Jennings in The Southbury Child – review

Powerful play by Stephen Beresford about tradition versus populism

★★★★

Production photo from The Southbury Child by Stephen Beresford at Chichester Festival Theatre and The Bridge Theatre London showing Alex Jennings June 2022
Alex Jennings in The Southbury Child. Photo: Manuel Harlan

What timing! The Prime Minister’s ethics advisor resigns and here’s a new play about sticking to your principles. A child has died, a child with the surname Southbury. The mother wants the church to be festooned with Disney balloons; the vicar says this is inappropriate for a church service. It becomes an unlikely cause célèbre and a test of wills that involves the whole community. What follows is an interesting, funny, emotional play about a battle between tradition and modernity.

The stage is a place for conversation. Creators of TV and cinema feel the need to keep us interested by constantly adding action or changing shots or putting on loud music. In a theatre play, the main currency is talk. So Stephen Beresford‘s The Southbury Child has lots of conversation exploring conflicts within today’s society, and, of course, conflict is the basis of drama. Physical acts whether violent or loving have all the more power for being rare.

The play looks at the importance of the past versus the need for change, principles versus populism, minority religion versus a secular society, a patrician elite versus the masses. Such rich content. The obvious comparisons are with Ibsen’s Enemy of the People and Chekhov‘s.. well, anything by Chekhov. I was also reminded of those drawing room plays of the mid 20th century that explored matters of morality, like T S Eliot’s The Cocktail Party or JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. In some ways, the dialogue could come from one of those plays. There’s an old fashioned feel to the way that the characters don’t mumble or pause or talk over one another, but it still sizzles. And there is a 21st century feel about the casual swearing and the popular references to Waitrose and Kerplunk.

The specific argument is over what a funeral is for. The vicar David Highland takes the high ground and says he won’t give the mother what she wants but what she needs. I’ve been to plenty of secular funeral services- I’m sure you have- where we’ve celebrated with lighthearted fun a life that has now ended, but, for those of faith, death is not an end but a beginning, and the funeral service offers hope of resurrection as well as a tried and tested way of dealing with grief. His decision throws up far more moral questions.

The vicar himself is far from moral. He’s had an affair, he drinks too much, he’s been in a drunken car crash. So is he a hypocrite? ‘You’re not exactly the poster boy for unshakable principles,’ says his curate. But do we expect too much of our leaders? After all, they’re only human, and isn’t it supposed to be what they represent that we respect, be it a spiritual post or a political position of power? Should we take their lead, even if we disagree with it, or should leaders follow the people?

There’s a lot of emotional conflict going on then, but the dialogue is full of humour. One character says, ‘These days you’re expected to be happy, like you’re expected to be hydrated’ or something like that. David imay be flawed but he seems kind, and well-meaning (which does make his stand against the balloon seem odd).

Alex Jennings gives a towering performance as the vicar. He employs a slightly higher voice than his usual rich voice which means he almost slips into an almost Alan Bennett impression, which is just right for some deliciously waspish sarcasm, like imagining heaven would have a branch of Waitrose. (He did play Alan Bennett in The Lady In The Van.) It’s not exaggerated so there is still warmth and authority in his impeccable middle-class speech.

Production photo from The Southbury Child y DStephen Beresford at Chichester Festival Theatre and The Bridge Theatre in London showing JackGreenlees and Jo Herbert June 2022 Greenless
Jack Greenlees and Jo Herbert in The SDouthbury child. Photo: Manuel Harlan

His is the only character given real depth. The others seem to be there to expose or test him. Nevertheless, the sketched outlines of these characters are clever enough to suggest that they have depth. His daughters are both following in his footsteps, in a way. Susannah is a teacher, and his verger, but not fitting well in the world. Her awkward but efficient character is played by Jo Herbert.

The other, Naomi, is an adopted black girl (providing an opportunity to criticise patronising white people). She’s become an actor and, by the way, much is made in the play of the way church services are like shows and priests like actors. David says that the annual blessing of the river is ‘the biggest house I play to’. Racheal Ofori gives a strong performance as the rebellious and somewhat wild young woman.

David’s wife Mary buttons up her feelings and finds it hard to cope with today’s touchy-feely world until it all comes spilling out in one tremendous moment. I did enjoy the way Phoebe Nicholls was able to hunch her body into a shy stiffness.

Craig, the new curate and the candidate for succeeding David, is played by Jack Greenlees. He may be holier than thou or indeed holier than David, but he is a gay man who is required by the church to deny his partner in order to pursue his vocation. Yet another cause and conflict thrown into the mix. As well as the interesting conversations- well, you might call them duels- with David, the other characters also have moments when they bounce off each other. There’s a lot going on.

One character David doesn’t spend much time with is the girl’s mother Tina, played by Sarah Twomey. She is the spark that started the fire but, to give more time to her grief would probably have unbalanced this largely sympathetic look at the way the vicar’s life spirals out of control.

The key opposition from the dead child’s family comes not from Tina but from the child’s young uncle Lee, played with a snarl by Josh Finan. I found myself shuddering every time he was on stage. Lee’s a nasty piece of work without any obvious redeeming feature, yet David as a Christian will not reject him. Lee returns again and again to challenge and needle the vicar.

The play takes place entirely in one room, maybe a drawing room. I don’t know much about the Church of England, however I do know that vicars are not well paid but they are often given a big house to live in. So there’s an appropriately shabby middle-class feel about Mark Thompson‘s set. There’s always a potential problem at Chichester, or any theatre using a thrust stage with an audience on three sides, iun that you can’t have much in the way of scenery. So, apart from a window and a few other pieces at the back, Mark Thompson‘s inspired main features are an image of the church at the back that towers over proceedings and a long wooden table that comes out towards the audience. Around it are 14 odd chairs, symbolic of the broad church perhaps.

Not that people sit down very often. This is a production showing the firm hand of director Nicholas Hytner in which people stand a lot, because that’s more aggressive than sitting, and stride around creating distance or nearness, as the conversation ebbs and flows.

You may find it hard to believe such a conflict could arise from something so trivial seeming, even though the play is apparently inspired by a real incident, but the beginning is nowhere near as contrived as the ending. Be that as it may, the grief at the loss of a child finally comes to the centre stage. And the final scene confirms that this is a play about loss of many kinds, both personal for many of the characters and for society, in terms of our traditions and heritage.

The Southbury Child performed at Chichester Festival Theatre until 25 June 2022 (tickets cft.org.uk) then at the Bridge Theatre from 1 July – 27 August London SE1 (bridgetheatre.co.uk)

Click here to watch the video review on YouTube

The Unfriend by Steven Moffat, dir. Mark Gatiss, starring Reece Shearsmith – review

Triumphant comedy debut from Doctor Who & Sherlock writer


★★★★★

Production photo from The Unfriend at the Minerva Theatre in Chichestershowing Amanda Abbington Frances Barber and Reece Shearsmith May 2022
Amanda Abbington, Frances Barber & Reece Shearsmith in The Unfriend. Photo: Manuel Harlan

What connects Doctor Who, Sherlock, The League Of Gentleman and No 9? The answer is The Unfriend, a new laugh-a-minute comedy that’s just opened at Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva. I’ll give you all the connections in a moment.

For now, let’s just say that Steven Moffat, writer and show runner for Doctor Who, and creator of Sherlock, has finally got round to writing a stage play, at the age of 60. It’s encouraging for we older folk to think it’s never too late, but I doubt there are many playwrights of any age who could make such a triumphant debut. It’s a long time since I laughed so much at the theatre. The man has comedy bones. He knows how to make old jokes sound fresh and natural. He understands how to give the actors the opportunity to use their faces and their bodies.

And what actors. Frances Barber is a loud confident American who turns out to be a serial poisoner, Reece Shearsmith and Amanda Abbington are the couple she befriends and who then can’t get rid of her, because they’re too polite. Although much of the praise should go to Frances Barber’s bravura performance, I loved Reece Shearsmith’s comic timing and panic-stricken face.

First the connections. Steven Moffat is probably best known as a writer and eventually showrunner for Doctor Who during the first decade or so of its new incarnation. He then created the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock which was co-written by Mark Gatiss who directs The Unfriend and we know him from The League Of Gentlemen, which also starred Reece Shearsmith, who cowrites Inside No.9, and stars in The Unfriend, which also stars Amanda Abbington who was Watson’s wife in Sherlock and Frances Barber who played Madame Kovarian in Doctor Who when Steven Moffat was the show runner. So they know one another and they work well together.

When Elsa arrives at Peter and Debbie’s suburban English house, you get a glimpse of their front door which has the number 9 on it. A little in-joke maybe, but it’s a hint that we shouldn’t be surprised that it turns out she’s no simple pain in the neck. They soon discover she’s a serial murderer- and they’re  still too polite to chuck her out. You might think this a stretch but it’s absolutely believable, not least because they’re aware of their own embarrassment. This is a comedy of manners, literally.

It’s non stop laughter with Frances Barber, Reece Shearsmith & Amanda Abbington

mandaI suspect how much you like it may depend on how much you identify with the self-defeating politeness and embarrassment of our suburban English couple. If you are happy to complain about the service in a restaurant, talk to your doctor about intimate infections, and barter with salespeople, you may well find this plot unbelievable.

You might also refuse to suspend your disbelief because the characters seem too much like stereotypes. The overly polite Brits who won’t say what they’re thinking; the brash American who makes jokes about a woman who is obese. But the thing is, the whole world is divided between people who are non-confrontational person and those who are blunt-to the-point-of-rudeness. But, there’s more than that, because Steven Moffat subverts each stereotype. Peter is actually quite rude but he doesn’t express it verbally- for example, he ignores his neighbour even when he’s in the room talking to him. And our call-a-spade-a bloody-shovel American may be a killer but she has a positive effect on this disfunctional family. The previously grunting son and negative daughter- two more stereotypes who turn out to have depth, and beautifully played by Gabriel Howell and Maddie Holliday, become happy chatty loving kids. ‘She’s Murder Poppins,’ says Debbie.

Production photo from The Unfriend at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester showing Maddie Holliday, Frances Barber & Gabriel Howell in May 2022
Maddie Holliday, Frances Barber & Gabriel Howell in The Unfriend. Photo: Manuel Harlan

By the way, the neighbour is a classic bore, but he too serves a more subtle function by reminding us of the claustrophobia of suburban life with its low level, passive-aggressive (as Elsa says) rankling about boundary walls and parking spaces, and therefore why residents of estates might need to be overly polite just to prevent all hell breaking loose. The neighbour is played to droning but sly-eyed perfection by Michael Simkins.

We also meet a police officer who is not a stereotype, not in the sense of the hard cops you so often see in TV dramas. He is another character subject to shyness and embarrassment, and given a scene-stealing performance by Marcus Onilude.

Although it’s his theatrical writing debut, Steven Moffat hits the boards running. His understanding of the stage is impressive. The Unfriend has structure, varying pace, and flowing comedy.  You know how comedies sometimes crowbar the jokes or the situation or particular characters into the story? Not here. The jokes flow naturally (for example, Peter is so uptight, Elsa says he would sever a proctologist’s finger at the joint.) In fact, Mr Moffat doesn’t force anything. He gives room for Reece Shearsmith to contort his face with surprise or embarrassment, or Amanda Abbington to express purse-lipped annoyance.

The story doesn’t develop much in the second act, but the laughs keep coming, so I certainly didn’t worry about that. I assume a lot of credit should go to director Mark Gatiss for the comic timing and the exemplary way the stage is used by the actors.

The set by Robert Jones is a triumph. It can’t be easy to create a suburban middle-class home, when you have an audience on three sides. However, with wooden flooring, a staircase, an L-shaped sofa and see-through areas at the back for kitchen and lobby, combined with a projection of the exterior of the house, Mr Jones does just that.

In the second act, we continue on tenterhooks about whether Elsa will poison again. The funniest scene is triggered by the fact that Peter’s embarrassment inevitably extends to talking about toilet matters (I too am bending over backwards to be polite). So, there is an extended scene involving him trying to find a reason to examine the (what shall we say?) product of someone in the loo, in case they’ve been poisoned. Of course, our embarrassment as an audience is almost as acute as his.

If you do go to see The Unfriend, you might be anticipating the punchline long before it arrives, but you’re still likely to be applauding when it does.

The Unfriend performed at Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva until 9 July 2022 and transferred to the West End for the first three months of 2023

Paul received a complimentary press ticket from the producers.

Click here to watch this review on the One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube channel

The Taxidermist’s Daughter – Chichester – review

Kate Mosse’s first play provides a dramatic opening to new Chichester season

★★★

A production photo from The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse taken on 8th April 2022 at Chichetser Festival Theatre
The Taxidermist’s Daughter at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

The opening of this year’s Chichester Festival Theatre season could not be more dramatic. I’ve rarely felt such goosebumps as when the lights went up on The Taxidermist’s Daughter began: an initial jump at the loud discordant sound and disturbing lighting, churchgoers frightened by hanging dead crows, a chilling recitation of Who Killed Cock Robin.

This play has Chichester running in its veins. It is written by Chichester resident and Festival Theatre stalwart Kate Mosse, and set in nearby Fishbourne. I don’t know how much of the credit goes to Kate Mosse and how much to director Roisin McBrinn, but this is a play designed for the Festival Theatre space and the production works perfectly there.

Unfortunately, the gothic horror story doesn’t quite live up to the production. The evocation of a bygone time and place, and the sense of the past contained in the present are excellent. However, Kate Mosse has made the decision to turn her original mystery story into a revenge play while retaining a question mark over the whys and wherefores of what’s going on. The belated explanation means that I for one found it hard to understand or sympathise with the revenge that a mystery woman is carrying out.

The play lacks the tension of the best thrillers: the killing spree doesn’t even begin until the end of act one. And the mystery doesn’t grip enough to justify the delay, despite raising many questions:  who are the women who have escaped from the local asylum, who has hung dead crows in the church, what happened all those years ago, why are people being killed, are these connected? Spoiler alert- yes they are!

Connie Gifford can’t remember the details of a traumatic event in her childhood.  She is trying to continue her drunken father’s tottering taxidermy business and is troubled by both the past and present. Daisy Prosper conveys well her sweet disposition and vulnerability.

We eventually learn that a group of leading men from the community committed crimes and, because of their position in society and because the crimes were against women, they have got away with it. ‘The men charged to protect us are the ones we must fear the most.’

The message is perennial. Inevitably we will think that not enough has changed a hundred years on, when powerful men like Jimmy Savile and Jeffrey Epstein get away with crimes against women and girls for years. But, for audiences of revenge fiction, taking the law into one’s own hands is a cathartic response to the failures of the system.

The stars of the show are the creative team

The Taxidermist’s Daughter is not as spooky as The Woman In Black nor as bloody and grand guignol as the recent production of The Lieutenant Of Inishmore which starred Aidan Turner. Nevertheless, it does a decent job in both those genres.

In this, the play is helped enormously by the creative team, who are the real stars of the show. Sinead Diskin’s frightening music and sound and the stark, flashing lighting designed by Prema Mehta. Paul Wills’ set design keeps the stage bare. Sinister black-and-white projections proliferate- on the back wall, the floor and on hanging screens. These often take the form of extraordinary videos by Andrzej Goulding, which show us fragments of faces, dark foliage, water- oh yes, the water. I’ve seen a lot of water on this stage over the years but this projection of splashing water onto the floor was more convincing than any real water I’ve seen.

And water is significant because Fishbourne is marshland and it’s 1912, the year of the great flood, and the action takes place as the deluge begins. So the mystery woman may be seen as washing out evil from the community.

The production uses every square inch of the stage. There are entrances from all directions, and pieces of set- often stuffed birds in display cabinets- rise from a multitude of holes in the floor. It does what theatre does best: it inspires the imagination. In fact, the scariest moment is probably when we finally see the crime, and that’s because we don’t actually see it, but are given all the information we need to imagine it.

Production photo of Pearl Chandra in The Taxisermist's Daughter by Kate Miosse at Chichester festival Theatre in 2022
Pearl Chandra in The Taxidermist’s Daughter. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Many of the characters are sketched rather than detailed portraits. Pearl Chandra as the mystery murderer is passionate and energetic without going over the top.  Forbes Masson does well as Connie’s father Crowley Gifford, a man plagued with guilt about what happened in his past, who is now barely holding himself together.

We also meet a nice man: Harry, a gentle young artist, played by Taheen Modak. Although the play focuses on the position of women in early 20th ventury society, men too had to know their place, so it’s good to see at least one young man whois nice and gentle and breaks free from the chains of a professional career to become an artist. It’s not overtly stated in the play but it’s hard not to remember that this young man is only a couple of years away from being sent to the slaughter of the first world war, a victim of powerful old men, in a war that will change the village more than the flood.

But maybe that’s putting too much weight on what is in the end an enjoyable gothic horror story in a glorious production.

The Taxidermist’s Daughter can be seen at Chichester Festival Theatre until 30 April 2022. Click here for tickets and information.

The reviewer was given a press ticket by the producers.

Click here to watch this review on the One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube channnel

 

South Pacific in Chichester – review

I’m In Love With A Wonderful Production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s anti-racist musical


★★★★★

SOUTH PACIFIC by Rodgers, , Director - Daniel Evans, Set & Costume Designer - Peter McKintosh, Choreography and Movement - Ann Yea, Lighting - Howard Harrison, Chichester Festival Theatre, 2021, Credit: Johan Persson
Julien Ovenden & Gina Beck in South Pacific. Photo credit: Johan Persson

I don’t think it was simply my euphoria at being back in a theatre but this Chichester Festival Theatre production of Rodger and Hammerstein’s South Pacific filled me with joy.

South Pacific was written in 1949 before Rodgers and Hammerstein settled into their, and their audience’s, comfort zone. It has all the features of the best of their work, features they in fact pioneered. One being the use of songs that reveal character and feeling and move the story on- take the many different ways, and therefore implications, in which Some Enchanted Evening is sung at various points. As was their way, the composers packed this musical with the most wonderful songs: A Cockeyed Optimist, There Is Nothing Like A Dame, Bali Ha’i, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair, I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy, Younger Than Springtime, Happy Talk– these songs are part of our DNA.

Another feature is realism, seen both in the characters’ behaviour and Hammerstein’s down-to-earth lyrics. Top marks to director Daniel Evans for keeping this production so grounded in reality.

But what makes South Pacific stand out is that Oscar Hammerstein II was determined to face racism head-on in this musical. You’ll remember that it’s set on a Pacific island during the second world war where American GIs and nurses interact with local people, a nurse falls in love with a French plantation owner, a lieutenant with a local girl. There may be effervescent melodies from Rodgers that fill you with warmth but there is also a story that pits love against hate, love at first undermined by acquired racial prejudice before it finally triumphs. At a time, following England’s Euro final, when we have been reminded of the overt racism that still shames our country, it was uplifting to experience this powerful anti-racist musical.

I cannot fault this production. Daniel Evans has done justice to the seriousness that underlies the musical’s ‘cock-eyed optimism’. It feels like the perfect tribute to the passionately anti-racist Oscar Hammerstein. Happy Talk is no throwaway comic song here but a poignant moment of desperation.

And the director is supported by an excellent cast and creative team.

The two leads Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck are superb in voice and acting ability. Ovenden as Emile the plantation owner, conveys both an overflowing heart and a broken heart with equal conviction. Beck also runs a range of emotions as naive Nellie Forbush from Little Rock but is never better than in I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy which overflows with almost child-like exuberance.  (From August, Alex Young will be sharing and then taking over the role of Nellie, because Gina Beck is pregnant.)

Others also deserve a mention. Joanna Ampil as a believably vulnerable Bloody Mary below the tough exterior. Of the GIs, Rob Houchen as Lieutenant Cable has a beautiful tenor voice which is more than a match for the soaring heights of Younger Than Springtime, and Keir Charles stands out as the scheming but ultimately compassionate Luther Billis. One of the qualities of this musical is seeing the Americans’ wide-eyed confidence come up against the realities of racism and war.

Julien Ovenden & Gina Beck in South Pacific Photo Credit: Johan Persson
Gina Beck and cast in South Pacific. Photo: Johan Persson

The choreography by Ann Yee is magnificent. Sometimes she fills the stage with exhilarating choruses- in a scene that Busby Berkeley would have been proud of, the women take to the showers while Washing That Man Right Outta their Hair. Then there are the quiet moments, like the beautiful solo ballet by Sera Maehara that opens and closes the show.

The see-through revolving wooden sets by Peter McKintosh set the mood of Pacific island life, while leaving the stage open for the big numbers.

And I can’t forget the superb orchestra led by Cat Beveridge featuring the original score with some new orchestration from David Cullen. The glimpses of repeated melodies throughout the show do exactly what a musical should do, evoke complex feelings that words can’t express.

A word of praise for Chichester Festival Theatre who were terrifically well organised and made us feel safe to be back in the theatre. And from the rousing cheer that greeted the first moments, I’d say we were all pretty pleased to be there.

South Pacific is performing at Chichester Festival Theatre from 5 July to 5 September 2021. Performances will be streamed on 4, 9, 14, 18, 21, 26 and 31 August and 3 September.

Click here to watch Paul’s review on YouTube

This Is My Family – review

Sheila Hancock and James Nesbitt are the leading lights and Kirsty MacLaren shines


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Production photo of James Nesbitt, Scott Folan, Kirsty MacLaren & Clare Burt in This Is My Family at Chichester Festival Theatre in May 2019
James Nesbitt, Scott Folan, Kirsty MacLaren & Clare Burt in This Is My Family. Photo: Johan Persson

There’s a lot to like in This Is My Family which is directed by Daniel Evans with a light comic touch.

This is the second of CFT Artistic Director Daniel Evans‘ ‘greatest hits’ from his days at the Sheffield Crucible to be revived at Chichester. I wasn’t so keen on Flowers For Mrs Harris but I’m delighted he brought this show south with him.

Nicky, our narrator and the daughter of the family in question, sees that her family is falling apart. Her mum and dad are hitting midlife crises, they bicker and don’t seem loving any more, her brother is moody and withdrawn, her grandmother is beginning to lose her mind. Nicky’s solution is a camping holiday back where mum and dad first met.

Put like that, it sounds quite predictable and in truth there’s not much to challenge the audience but Tim Firth has written a beautifully observed comedy about family relationships through the generations. There are some very witty lines, the best of which go to Grandma (‘Love is when you’ve sucked off all the chocolate and there’s the nut left’) and Mum’s libido driven sister Sian played by Rachel Lumberg. The latter part is, unlike the others, more of a cariacature but it’s all the more funny for that and her song comparing lovemaking to driving a car is hilarious.

Production photo of Sheila Hancock in This Is My Family at Chichester Festival Theatre in May 2019
Sheila Hancock in This Is My Family. Photo: Johan Persson

This is My Family is a musical play rather than a musical musical which may be why I didn’t find the songs memorable. There are no show stoppers or vocal stretching moments- they’re more like words accompanied by music, almost recitative, and this may be the point because Tim Firth‘s many lovely metaphors would be too poetic or emotional for spoken dialogue.

Kirsty MacLaren is magnificent as Nicky. She holds the show together and is one talented young woman, living up to the promise she showed in Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour. Scott Folan as the lovestruck brother is good too and their antagonistic but loving sibling relationship feels spot on.

At the other end of the age scale, Sheila Hancock is fabulous as the grandma who’s frightened of what she’s losing but finds peace in the past.

James Nesbitt and Clare Burt are a pleasure to watch for their comic acting.

Production photo of This Is My Family at Chichester Festival Theatre in May 2019
This Is My Family. Photo: Johan Persson

The set by Richard Kent is clever. This is the Minerva so mostly it’s three-sided space but at the back in act one there’s a kind of slice through the middle of a house, filled with domestic details, which then spins round to form a wood in act two.

In the end this is a hopeful view of the family that we can all recognise. As I said, there’s a lot to like about This Is My Family. It’s been a while since Chichester had a West End transfer, this feelgood musical deserves to be the one.

This Is My Family is at Chichester Festival Theatre until 15 June 2019. Click here for tickets

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Note: Minor changes made on 17 May 2019 to the order of the paragraphs and to the spelling of Clare Burt’s name and the title of Our Ladies OF Perpetual Succour.

Copenhagen – Chichester Festival Theatre

Copenhagen by Michael Frayn at the Minerva is rich in possibilities

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Click here for the YouTube review of Copenhagen in Chichester on One Minute Theatre Reviews

Production shot from michael Frayn's Copenhagen at Chichester Festival Theatre showing Paul Jesson, Patricia Hodge and Charles Edwards
Paul Jesson, Patricia Hodge and Charles Edwards in Copenhagen by Michael Frayn at Minerva Theatre. Photo: Conrad Blakemore

So what is Copenhagen about? Ostensibly it’s about what happened at a mysterious meeting that took place in the Danish capital during World War Two between two of the great quantum theorists- Heisenberg, he of the Uncertainty Principle, and Bohr, who united the two main theories of quantum mechanics. Yes, but what’s it really about?

On the face of it, the play is about three dead people, ghosts if you like- Heisenberg, Bohr and Bohr’s wife- trying to work out between them what happened back in 1942. They keep going over the same ground with different results, and reveal all sorts of interesting things along the way. Appropriately to a play involving Quantum Theory, there are possibilities, probabilities and, above all, uncertainty. In fact the fluid time and colliding dialogue of Michael Frayn‘s play and Michael Blakemore’s bare production which makes the characters seem like protons in the nucleu of an atom give us insights into Quantum Theory.

So here are my thoughts on the possibilities, probabilities and uncertainty of what I saw.

Looking at it one way, the play is about history and science and how the two interlink. Quantum Theory led to nuclear fission which led to the atomic bomb- and a race between Germany and the Allies to create it.

Looking at it another way, it’s about the moral dilemma felt by a theoretical scientist wanting to help win a war but working on a weapon of mass destruction to achieve that victory. Did the meeting affect the outcome of the war?

Then again, the play is about how time and memory work: what happened is always gone and replaced by an unreliable memory influenced by subsequent events. And the impossibility of seeing yourself and your life objectively because you are the centre of your universe.

 

 

Production shot from Copenhagen at CFT
Copenhagen by Michael Frayn at CFT’s Minerva Theatre. Photo: Conrad Blakemore

 

You could say the play is about how people and relationships affect history and science. How jealousy, rivalry, fear, ambition and personal tragedy play their part. Charles Edwards as Heisenberg gives us a moving account of a life under the Nazis. Patricia Hodge and Paul Jesson are his equal in acting power.

You might come out thinking mainly about how impressive it is that an intelligent well written drama can put across all the above.

To go back to quantum theory, Copenhagen could be about how the act of observation changes what’s being observed. My experience might have been different on a different night but when I observed it, I thought Copenhagen at the Minerva Theatre deserved five stars.

Copenhagen is at the Minerva Theatre until 22 September 2018

This is my review of Copenhagen on YouTube

The Chalk Garden with Penelope Keith – Chichester

The Chalk Garden by Enid Bagnold at Chichester Festival Theatre directed by Alan Strachan with Penelope Keith

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Watch the review of The Chalk Garden on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Penelope Keith in The Chalk Garden at Chichester Festival Theatre
Penelope Keith in The Chalk Garden at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

1956, the year Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden was first performed in Britain, was also the year in which Look Back In Anger exploded upon the British stage and made all those upper middle class drawing room comedies like The Chalk Garden with their standard formats and neat conclusions seem irredeemably old fashioned. On the strength of this Chichester Festival Theatre production, you can understand why.

Which is unfair on The Chalk Garden because it’s an intelligent mysterious drama about mothers and daughters, old age, death and the human need for love. There’s also much consideration of old age and death which should put it right on the wavelength of Chichester’s baby boomer audience.

There was no pace to the production which wasn’t helped by Simon Higlett‘s enormous, naturalistic set. It was impressive but the actors spent a considerable time getting from a to b. I did go early on in the run and it may be that once the actors bed down into their parts, the pace will improve.

There’s a lot of witty dialogue cloaking the deep sadness of some intriguing characters’ but on this occasion, for the first half at least, all I heard of this witty dialogue was blah blah blah.

The epigrams scattered throughout which should rival Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward just didn’t flow with the conversation and ended up sounding far too pleased with themselves. I suspect Bagnold aspired to be like Wilde and Coward but lacked their ability to incorporate bon mots into dramatic dialogue.

Photo of cast of The Chalk Garden at Chichester Festival Theatre
The Chalk Garden at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

We’re presented with an unhappy mistress of the house Mrs St Maugham, played by Penelope Keith, who is directed or rather misdirected by a fearsome unseen dying butler (for which read ‘old testament god’?). She can’t control her granddaughter nor can she make anything grow in her garden. Dame Penelope captures the Lady Bracknell-like imperious entitlement wonderfully but much less so the emptiness at her heart. Emma Curtis plays her troubled granddaughter with energy.

Then there’s her mysterious new companion Miss Madrigal, whose contained passion was beautifully conveyed by Amanda Root, understands both the granddaughter and the garden but is hiding something devastating from her past.

After a somewhat monotonous first half, the second half with its revelations and resolutions was much more involving. Even so, there is far more to be got out of this play and its characters than Alan Strachan’s production managed.

The Chalk Garden at Chichester Festival Theatre ends its run on 16 June 2018

Here’s the review on the youTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews