Friday, 27 November 2015

"The Importance Of Being Earnest", 24/11/15, Glasgow Theatre Royal

Unexpectedly written for Backstage Pass:

"The Importance of Being Earnest" brims with the wit and humour for which Oscar Wilde is famous and class, social standing and identity are key elements in this famous comedy with Simon Brett's 'framing device' of a group of aged amateurs staging a revival of their most successful production allowing some of Britain's most respected middle-aged actors to play parts usually reserved for those half their ages.
What we witness is a rehearsal for their forthcoming production taking place in the home of leading lady "Lavinia Spelman" (Siân Phillips) which also turns out to be the perfect setting for this interesting take on Wilde's comic classic. All cast members take the role of a member of the "Bunbury Company of Players" and portray either the actors rehearsing or the crew supporting them. Brett's 'backstage' material hints at shenanigans between the company members which could be really quite humorous but his material is left sadly underdeveloped. Brett's conceit is a little uneven and there are moments when it intrudes on the play proper to negative effect, although this is by no means a constant issue and it is ultimately unfortunate that the framing device isn't followed through to the very end of the production. Indeed in the second half it is very easy to forget the play-within-play concept and enjoy Wilde's play for what it is.
Lucy Bailey's direction is assured, elegant and witty and her unfussy work allows the cast to shine fittingly. Bailey keeps the pace driving along for the most part and, although there are one or two moments which feel a little slack, the momentum continues on like the proverbially oiled wheel and there are some lovely and well staged moments throughout. The humour and wit inherent within both Wilde and Brett's material is drawn out almost effortlessly and to great effect by Bailey and the excellent cast she directs.
William Dudley's set design is opulent and detailed creating a space of great value to the production adding to the wonderful lustre of the production as a whole and his costumes are equally excellent and perfectly attuned to the production both on and off the Bunbury stage.
The jaunty music and sound design of Tom Mills is equally appropriate and unobtrusive and the lighting design by Oliver Fenwick is subtle yet mood-appropriate and compliments the setting gloriously, especially in the latter half where the effect of colour and shadow is sublime.
The cast is uniformly superb, equally adept at portraying their Bunbury character and, where appropriate, their Wilde character. Nigel Anthony as "George", husband to "Lavinia", is underplayed to perfection and his dual Wilde roles of "Lane" and "Merriman" have some lovely, humorous moments. Likewise Rosalind Ayres whose "Wendy" plays the essential part of "Miss Prism" whose interactions with the "Rev. Canon Chasuble" of David Shaw-Parker (as "Paul") are engaging and charming. Her ultimate reveal at the climax is wonderfully timed and performed.
Carmen Du Sautoy as "Maria/Gwendolen Fairfax" and Christine Kavanaugh as "Ellen/Cecily Cardew" capture the spirit and energy of their roles and they shine appropriately, performing with abandon and to perfection, taking no prisoners with their delivery of sharp and witty lines especially in their face-off over the titular character(s). They also manage to capture the perfect balance between real acting and the over-acting attributed to amateur companies (often mistakenly) such as the Bunbury Company. It is this juxtaposition that is a little unsettling in Brett's concept but, regardless, they - and everyone else - perform it quite brilliantly.
Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis both sparkle in their parts and they are ebullient, spirited and youthful, demonstrating the prowess of true talent and they effervesce as "Dicky/Algernon Moncreiff" and "Tony/John Worthing" respectively. Theirs is clearly a job they love and enjoy doing making the audience's enjoyment all the more fulfilling.
Special mention must be made of Carole Dance's prop-lady, "Sasha", and her escapades involving cucumber sandwiches: a wonderful addition by Simon Brett captured brilliantly by an under-used actress.
But the production belongs, appropriately enough, to the glorious Siân Phillips whose theatrical magic still burns bright and who delivers a stellar performance epitomising the ideal of stage presence. Exuding class and sophistication she deftly switches between the Bunbury character of "Lavinia" and Wilde's indomitable "Lady Bracknell" commanding the stage with the slightest of movements, effortlessly conveying the wit of Wilde's work with deliberate effect and completely inhabiting the theatre with her complete performance. It is a joy to watch her in such an entertaining and well written role and she continues to prove what a great and talented actress she really is.
Much like Phillips, the whole production is redolent of class and style and is in stark contrast to a number of recent touring productions where such strong production values are not so evident. "The Importance of Being Earnest" is full of verve and energy and is a chance to see some great actors at the peak of their craft and, although not a perfect production, one could do worse than to experience such a wonderfully superb cast working with some of the strongest material ever written for the stage in one of the most beautiful productions seen for a while.


Friday, 6 November 2015

"An Inspector Calls", Glasgow Theatre Royal, 3/11/15

Written for Backstage Pass:

23 years since its premiere at the National Theatre this touring production of Stephen Daldry's production of J B Priestley's "An Inspector Calls" still retains its awe-inspiring magnetism whilst remaining ever more politically relevant. First produced in 1945 in Moscow, Priestley's play is a treatise on social responsibility illustrating how one person's acts can have significant consequences.

Daldry's production created a mini-revolution when first presented with its theatricality, from lighting to set design, releasing Priestley's text from the confines of the somewhat dated drawing room drama it had become. From the arresting air-raid siren that announces the opening of the play through to the pregnant expectation of the final still moments, the drama unfolds in a stirring whirlwind of revelation as one by one the Birling family, celebrating the engagement of Sheila Birling to Gerald Croft, are presented with the events that culminate with the suicide of a young woman apparently known to all present. Interrupting their celebrations, the mysterious Inspector Goole proceeds to relentlessly coerce each individual to confront the truth of their part in the tragedy, unravelling the hypocrisy of the façade they each present along the way.

Director Daldry, whose work also includes "Billy Elliot" (both movie and stage musical), together with Ian MacNeil's design and the lighting of Rick Fisher, establishes an environment that crystallises the fragility of the Birling household surrounded by the bleak landscape of a reality they purposefully choose to ignore whilst the musical score by Stephen Warbeck is evocative, dramatic and suitably underscores the emotional impact of the events unfolding onstage. Daldry's total use of staging, design and text epitomises the trend of "director's theatre" with each element combining to create a whole that only an assured, confident director with a clear "vision" can execute with such surety and he never allows his cast, nor Priestley's text, to become a secondary factor. Everything functions to serve the drama and the cast that conveys it and they remain the primary focus in a production that could easily have been overwhelmed by other elements. Daldry's greatest achievement is in stripping away the barriers of time so that the themes resonate to a modern day audience; whilst the events of the play are set in 1912, Daldry establishes an audience of "Supernumeraries" (in 1940s dress) to bear witness to the Birlings' confessions whilst also having moments where the theatre audience is addressed. Time is blurred but the relevance is not.

The cast are uniformly excellent and perform in a slightly heightened aspect that is entirely appropriate to the nature of the production whilst remaining completely honest and real throughout. Liam Brennan's "Inspector Goole" dominates proceedings and his wonderful voice is only one aspect of his commanding performance whilst Caroline Wildi's "Sybil Birling" is a model of control and regality. Tim Woodward as her husband, "Arthur", offers a contrasting attitude. As the more socially-aware younger "Birlings", Katherine Jack and Hamish Riddle are spirited but equally as fragile as they are self-aware. Matthew Douglas' "Gerald Croft" presents an assured confidence that even the truth finds difficult to shake at times and Diane Payne-Myers, as the predominantly silent maid, "Edna", establishes a complete performance with her constant scuttling about the stage, subtly reacting to the eventual unravelling of the Birling family around her.

Every action performed by every actor serves to further events and there is virtually nothing that is presented as a triviality.

There are few socially relevant plays which are as thrilling and exciting to witness as this theatrically stunning production and it is a testament to the writing of J B Priestley and Stephen Daldry's execution of it that the play remains a relevant and powerfully thoughtful one especially given the political times in which we reside.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

"The Smallest Show On Earth", Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 26/10/15

Written for Backstage Pass:
Based on the 1957 British Lion comedy, The Smallest Show On Earth is the story of a pair of penniless newlyweds, 'Jean' and 'Matthew Spenser' (Laura Pitt-Pulford and Haydn Oakley) who learn they have inherited a cinema in Sloughborough. After setting out to view what they hope will be their financial salvation they discover that the 'Bijou Kinema' is anything but. Faced with stiff competition from a rival cinema run by 'Ethel' and 'Albert Hardcastle' (Ricky Butt and Philip Rham) they set out to restore the 'Bijou' to its more successful days. Faced with its quirky staff, including alcoholic projectionist 'Mr Quill' (Brian Capron - of 'Coronation Street' fame), and sabotage attempts from the 'Hardcastles', the 'Spensers' must formulate a plan to make their little flea-pit into a success before it is bought out and turned into a car-park.

It seems an odd juxtaposition that the British plot should be united with Irving Berlin but the marriage is a happy one and his songs are used to serve and further the story which has undergone some happy adaptation from the original film: Thom Southerland and Paul Alexander's script captures the feel of those Ealing-period British comedies and is peppered with great one-liners and develops some appealing relationships not necessarily in the original film.
Musical supervisor/arranger Gareth Valentine and Orchestrator Mark Cumberland ensure that the songs are weaved into and around the dialogue and the sound produced by the six-piece orchestra is spot on. All of these elements consolidate to create a fully formed piece of musical theatre that feels organic and sincere. Of course, it was not unusual for composers to create new musicals from their own back-catalogue and Berlin was amongst those who elected to pick and choose numbers when creating a new musical for stage or screen, so the idea of using pre-existing numbers is not a new strategy here but it is a successful one.

David Woodhead's set and costume design is elegant and witty and is beautifully complimented by Howard Hudson's lighting design. Thom Southerland's direction is energetic, tender and precise and he is adept at creating interesting, exciting transitions whilst never neglecting his cast with whom he creates some lovely sequences although some tightening could be undertaken in places. The musical staging is entertaining and the choreography by Lee Proud is perfectly suited to the style and nature of the piece, evoking an age long since past.

The cast are led by Liza Goddard as 'Mrs Fazackalee' and Brian Capron as 'Mr Quill' and both are pleasing to watch whilst also providing some of the more moving moments in the production. Laura Pitt-Pulford and Haydn Oakley have a delightful and believable chemistry as the newlyweds and both are blessed with glorious vocals. Christina Bennington and Sam O'Rourke are unrelentingly charming as the youngsters from opposing families whose sweet, adolescent relationship adds a youthful energy and warmth to proceedings whilst Matthew Crowe, as reluctant solicitor 'Robin Carter', has some of the most fun onstage; he proves to be a truly entertaining all-round performer and gleans all he can out of one of the most amusing parts in the show. The supporting ensemble is strong in all aspects and the entire company shines consistently.

"The Smallest Show On Earth" is a charming, amusing and ultimately entertaining heart-warming little show that harkens back to a more nostalgic time and it is a bit of a dark horse amongst the more monolithic productions that are also currently touring. The theatrical equivalent of a hearty Sunday roast this understated yet tenacious and robust production is perfect fare for many an audience member and the opportunity should be taken to enjoy it while you can: It is a lovely little show.