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Ten Times Table

History Repeats

Ten Times Table

by Alan Ayckbourn

Classic Comedy Theatre Company at Richmond Theatre until 25th January, then on tour until 28th March

Review by Claire Alexander

Anyone who has ever sat on a committee or attended a meeting will recognise the challenges and little annoyances posed in Alan Ayckbourn’s Ten Times Table – the challenge of finding a convenient date for everyone for the next meeting, the freezing hotel meeting room with its unpredictable electricity supply, the list of apologies, the budding romances and the broken marriage spilling into the meeting’s purpose. Coupled with Ayckbourn’s unparalleled ability to turn unassuming domestic humdrum into witty entertainment, Ten Times Table is a clever script, not as often produced as many of his other works.

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A small ill matched group of people are meeting to try and plan an inaugural pageant to bring their small town of Pendon together and provide a focus for the summer. Led by Ray, local history enthusiast, they take inspiration from an obscure story of the ‘Pendon 12’ a local uprising of farmers 200 years ago, whose only crime seems to be exuberant behaviour and throwing people into the air! Our committee is made up of ever patient TenTimes5Ray and his expensively dressed snobbish wife Helen, pedantic local councillor Donald and his deaf elderly mother whom he has invited along to take the minutes, permanently drunk Laurence who is drowning his sorrows for the troubles in his marriage and two local teachers Eric and Sophie. Not a particularly inspiring idea for a play you may think, with all but its final scene set around a committee room table. But it is in good hands with Ayckbourn with his wickedly sharp observation of characters and situations. Conflict is inevitable from the first moment Eric and Helen meet when it becomes evident that they are from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Left wing Eric quickly interprets the ‘uprising’ as the local people suppressed by the elite of the community, and sees the opportunity to turn an innocent light hearted town pageant into a political rally and a golden chance to recruit people to his political cause, turning the leaders of the Pendon 12 into latter day political heroes.

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Perhaps reminiscent of the politics of the late 1970s, when this play was written, Eric quickly musters his resources of like-minded thinkers, turns the ‘pageant’ into a ‘rally’ and keenly takes the chance to play the leader’s role himself, producing tee-shirts and a song to market his cause. The rest of the committee members get caught unawares and struggle to keep up with their side of the organisation – the ‘military’ who are sent to quell the uprising. The final scene is set for a clever and farcical denouement of ‘art imitates life’ as the day of the pageant arrives and Helen and her pitifully few supporters face Eric and his apparently well organised locals!

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The play is set entirely in the drab hotel room where committee meetings take place over the course of the eight months it takes to organise. As such, this could be a very static production, but in the able hands of director, Robin Herford, the action moves along swiftly never losing our interest.

In the role as chairman of the committee, Ray, Robert Daws keeps his committee in order with pleasant long suffering! I personally didn’t like the occasional vocal affectations to make a point, but his performance was pacy and assured. Similarly Deborah Grant, as Helen, portrayed her exasperation with Eric and his ideas with a controlled and believable performance never losing the naturalism. As Marxist Eric, Craig Gazey was a concentrated presence on stage and you could see the cogs ticking over in Eric’s psyche as his initial condescending boredom turned slowly into strategy and opportunity. His was an entirely recognisable portrayal of late 20th Century left-wing activism and could be equally relevant today too! I loved Elizabeth Power’s watchable performance as the elderly mother Audrey, bought in to take the minutes, not hearing much of the action but with wonderfully natural interjections and never overplaying the comedy. Mark Curry as TenTimes6detail-obsessed councillor Donald who is more concerned with dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s in the minutes, is entirely recognisable as typical of such characters in committees the country over. And Robert Duncan gave a magnificently sustained performance as drunk Laurence never falling into the trap of caricature. Add to this Gemma Oaten as Sophie, subtly seeking romance with Eric, Harry Gostelow as her military, dog obsessed, over controlling husband Tim, and Rhiannon Handy as Eric’s diminutive wife Philippa (both the latter bought in to help in the organisation) and this production was entirely enjoyable and never overplayed the comedy.

There were a couple of set pieces it didn’t need, such as Helen’s realisation that Tim could come to her rescue in her part of the organisation, at the end of Act One. I would also like to have heard a little of Philippa’s frightened utterances – I know she was meant never to be heard but it was frustrating that we couldn’t actually hear!!

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But the farce of the final scene as this motley group try to organise their pageant-rally was played with care and didn’t descend into pantomime which would have destroyed the ending! The constant soundscape of Audrey’s piano playing of typical English folk tunes just added to the absurd atmosphere. I think this was played live. If it was a recording it was incredibly well executed. And there were also many details that I loved, especially in set and costuming, that brought this production alive.

Ayckbourn’s text is so cleverly observed that it can tell itself. But this experienced group of actors, many well known for their TV roles, gave us an entertaining and believable evening without falling into the trap of stereotype and caricature.

Claire Alexander
January 2020

Photography by Pamela Raith

Long Day’s Journey into Night

Complex and Intense

Long Day’s Journey into Night

by Eugene O’Neill

Richmond Shakespeare Society, Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham until 25th January

Review by Eleanor Lewis

It would be flippant to wonder whether three weeks after Christmas, the period during which families spend more extended time in each other’s company than they usually do, attending a performance of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night is a good idea. Flippancy aside however, if you’re going to see Long Day’s Journey into Night, RSS’s present production is the one to go to.

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The play is set in the summer home of the Tyrone family on the Connecticut coast in 1912. It is a largely autobiographical work in which the Tyrone family of four (broadly representing O’Neill’s own family) attempt to deal with what we would today call ‘their issues’ with almost equal degrees of success and failure. What saves them, broadly, is their love for each other and their wish to redeem each other despite the odds.

Mary Tyrone (Dorothy Duffy), following a difficult labour many years ago and the advice of a semi-competent doctor, is addicted to morphine and refusing to admit it to the family. Her husband James (Francis Abbott), formerly a successful actor, is a kind, affable man who drinks too much and spends too little on his family. Edmund, their son, is ill with consumption. His brother Jamie is following their father into acting and also drink, but with additional womanising. The turmoil and general angst the Tyrones go through while they analyse themselves, each other and their past and possible future forms the basis of the drama.

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With this to work with, considerable credit must be given to director Simon Bartlett and his cast of five actors for presenting an amateur production that is as near professional as you can get without actually being professional. There are vast amounts of lines to be learnt for this work and at no point did the interaction between characters lull, drag or lose the pace of an actual conversation. Each family member was convincingly related to the others, the overall pace of the performance was brisk, and every actor on stage delivered his or her role in manner that indicated they fully understood everything they were saying and the position in which their character found themselves. This, for a complex and intense work of just under three hours’ length was very impressive.

Dorothy Duffy was superb as Mary Tyrone. She was a fragile mix of despair and keeping up appearances, her small, barely noticeable mannerisms – fiddling with the frill on her blouse, fixing her hair – a clue to the fragmenting woman beneath the beautifully presented exterior. When she talked about her long evenings alone in hotels, waiting for James when they were younger, you felt both the strain she felt and the toll it took on her.

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Francis Abbott succeeded in presenting the whole of James Tyrone rather than just the older, drunker result of a difficult life lived. Similarly, both George Abbott and Luciano Dodero as sons Edmund and Jamie were fully rounded individuals. Early 20th century damaged, middle class sons are easy for actors to stereotype (O’Neill, or not) but George Abbott and Luciano Dodero’s performances were well thought out and effectively rendered. Luciano Dodero was particularly poignant as Jamie, a man who knows he is losing control and cannot stop but must not show panic and must also save his brother.

The Tyrone’s maid Cathleen was played by Fiona Poole with great attention to detail. Whilst it must be said (must it?) that Cathleen had evidently toured both Ireland and Scotland before settling in the US, Fiona Poole was very endearing as Cathleen. Even if you view Cathleen only as light relief, punctuating the family traumas, this was, again, a real woman, a woman you might want to talk to. No actor in this production had an easy job.

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As the title suggests, the action takes place over the course of one day, from early in the morning to around midnight the same day. Junis Olmscheid’s set – an elegant conservatory-type room, looking out onto painted sand dunes and the sea beyond – was perfectly atmospheric. Slightly jarring though were what looked like the heads of two single bed frames over two of the windows. These were both weird and mesmerising as the legs are also to be found, I think, on set. However, I understand that the actual room in O’Neill’s house was in fact constructed using some of the remains of a shop that had been on the property when it was bought and this, coupled with the fact that Tyrone does not spend what he does not have to, could explain the bed heads, but they are still something of a distraction.

Adding to the professionalism of this production was Ralph Blackbourn’s sound design: quiet piano inserts during set changes and understated sound effects, a fog horn out at sea, a car drawing up outside, Mary moving around upstairs. Subtle lighting (save for the intentionally unsubtle room light when required) by Andy Mathieson and Sarah Hill contributed gently and significantly to the overall picture. The soft changes as the fog swirled in and out outside were almost characters in themselves.

Costumes (John Gilbert, Miriam King and Junis Olmscheid) were great. The small changes and additions throughout the day were particularly effective.

Long Day’s Journey into Night, deeply loved by many people, is a play you have to commit to. Family pain is not an easy watch. O’Neill himself did not want it performed, or in fact published until 25 years after his death. It was his widow, Carlotta Monterey who insisted it was performed in 1956 (in Stockholm) and from that point onwards it met with acclaim and success. RSS have done it full justice, this is a very impressive production, well worth seeing.

Eleanor Lewis
January 2020

Photography by Pete Messum

Dial M for Murder

Blackmail and Brandy

Dial M for Murder

by Frederick Knott

Simon Friend and Gavin Kalinat at Richmond Theatre until 18th January, then on tour until 18th July

Review by Andrew Lawston

It’s a stormy night in Richmond, perfect for an evening of blackmail, deception, and murder. Frederick Knott’s Dial M for Murder, made internationally famous by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film adaptation (from Knott’s screenplay), plays out almost like an episode of Columbo. The audience knows the truth behind a murder from the outset, and the play becomes a suspenseful psychological thriller as the question becomes how, or even if, the true culprit might be unmasked.

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This production at Richmond Theatre updates the play’s setting slightly from the 1950s to 1963, and this is mostly reflected in the stylised décor of the spacious set that depicts Tony and Margot Wendice’s comfortable flat, as well as in the stylish and well-cut costumes that generally emphasise the characters’ physicality. Both set and costumes were designed by David Woodhead, and as a result they complement each other well. The set is full of details that inform the audience’s view of the characters before the play even begins: a shelf of tennis trophies can be seen very much on display, but not prominently, and several of them look tarnished and neglected, or are partially hidden behind other bric a brac. The record player’s lid is kept open throughout, suggesting heavy use. Pride of place is given to a drinks trolley, and indeed characters make themselves drinks almost constantly throughout the show. These are all neat and thoughtful touches that make the set look like a real home for much of the play.

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Dial M for Murder is the story of Tony Wendice’s scheme to have his wife murdered in order to inherit her money, a scheme that goes very wrong. Wendice himself is played by Tom Chambers in a wide-ranging performance that is charismatic enough that you can never truly hate the character, despite his ruthless scheming. His Wendice is a charming host, and maintains a convincing façade as a devoted husband. Sally Bretton shines as Margot Wendice despite her character often being more of a plot device than a real person. Michael Salami makes the most of his part as TV writer and Margot’s love interest Max Halliday (who’s recently returned from New York, where he wrote a murder a week for a full year), and provides real energy to a very wordy script.

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The cast is rounded out by Christopher Harper, in a dual role as Captain Lesgate, a petty criminal in an audaciously unconvincing fake moustache, and Inspector Hubbard, a deceptively placid detective who unravels, together with Max, Tony’s deadly plot. Harper was undoubtedly more effective as Inspector Hubbard, but was highly engaging in both roles.

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The performances are uniformly strong, despite a few night stutters and jitters, and the play moves at an assured pace. For a play in which the action hinges on such minute details as the position of latchkeys, mud on the parquet, and the whereabouts of stockings, there was however one curious choice.

After Tony Wendice has coerced Lesgate into murdering his wife, in a scene where he establishes his alibi by leaving for a party with Max, Lesgate could clearly be seen crossing the stage behind the French windows, and could be seen taking up position behind the curtain and waiting for several minutes in order to carry out his attack. This was confusing for many in the audience as Wendice’s plan, and subsequent dialogue, made it clear that he supposedly entered through the front door. It was unclear whether the curtains should have been closed and we weren’t supposed to have seen him (the spectacle of Lesgate sneaking through the door and tiptoeing behind the curtain might have looked awkward). Or whether there was a problem backstage and he simply used the alternative entrance. Perhaps it could even have been a deliberate piece of misdirection on behalf of director Anthony Banks. In any case, it seemed to be a slip that caused some audience confusion in an otherwise assured performance.

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With a naturalistic set, stylish period costumes, and brutally realistic fight sequences courtesy of Alison de Burgh, this new production is a slick, taut, thriller that provoked much engrossed conversation among audience members as we all filed back out into a dark and stormy Richmond night.

I ought to make the shameful admission that I’d not previously seen the play or film of Dial M for Murder, and so I was genuinely and completely gripped by the psychological drama that unfolded as Tony’s lies began to unravel, slowly but surely, throughout the second half. I was almost certainly in the minority in the auditorium with that omission, however, and it certainly seemed that familiarity with the material had made no impact on the audience’s enjoyment.

Andrew Lawston
January 2020

Photography by Manuel Harlan

A Christmas Carol

Uplifting Festive Tale

A Christmas Carol

by Charles Dickens adapted by Emma Louise Tinniswood

Step On Stage Productions at Hampton Hill Theatre until 11th January

A review by Milly Stephens, one of our younger reviewers (aged 14)

Step On Stage’s production of A Christmas Carol performed by its Youth Theatre was extremely engaging with scenes from festivity and laughter through to death and poverty.

In Act One, due to the nature of the show, there is more need for chorus than action, but I think that Step On Stage overcame this obstacle very well, as the narration was very strong and engaging. Hampton Hill Theatre is a very big space, but the actors managed to project their voices exceptionally well and there wasn’t a word that I couldn’t hear. The set and costume were outstanding and creative.

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Cast of A Christmas Carol with Adaptor and Director Emma Louise Tinniswood

I really loved all the singing and I thought that the Christmas carols were very tuneful and even though it was a short time after Christmas, it still put me in a Christmassy mood, looking forward to next year’s Christmas.

The scene based at the Cratchit family’s house was one of my favourites, as it was realistic and had very good dialogue and atmosphere that made me feel included into a real family’s Christmas lunch. I also loved the scene at the feast with the Fezziwig’s as there was joy and dancing all the time. When the cast sang Five Gold Rings, the Ghost of Christmas Present broke the fourth wall, encouraging the audience to participate and sing along.

At the start of the play you see Scrooge – in this performance played by Scarlett Gladstone, who is a talented young actor, being glum and miserable even though there is so much Christmas merriment, especially at this time of year. (Alice Bray plays Scrooge on alternate performances).

Then Marley, who has been dead for the past seven years, comes to visit Scrooge to give him a warning. Daisy Diamond played the character of Marley extremely well, captivating the audience and leaving them on the edge of their seats. The creative use of haze, clanging chains and echoing microphone heightened the tension.

The first Ghost of Christmas to visit Scrooge was Laura Bergin, as the Ghost of Christmas Past. I thought that Christmas Past was acted very well, as she was delicate with her movements and that she had very good characterisation.

Then the Ghost of Christmas Present came to see Scrooge. I thought that Charlotte Williams brought a great sense of humour to the part and that it was a superb contrast to Scrooge who hated Christmas.

The last Ghost to appear before Scrooge was the Ghost of Future, played by Eli Rogers, who was cold, serious and foreboding and made Scrooge realise he had to change in order to be loved by everyone, not hated.

After the spirits had warned Scrooge of how he was viewed, he changed his ways and began to be generous to the poor and needy, especially the Cratchit family. Scrooge became a changed man.

I would highly recommend this show, as you can never be too young or too old to enjoy this festive tale with its uplifting moral ending. Congratulations to all the cast and creatives from Step On Stage.

Milly Stephens
January 2020

Photography courtesy of Step On Stage Academy

Once

Craic and Broken Hearts

Once

by Enda Walsh, music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, based the film by John Carney

Adam Spiegel, Robert Bartner, The New Wolsey Theatre and Queen’s Theatre at The Ashcroft Playhouse, Fairfield Halls, Croydon until 11th January, then on tour until 25th July

Review by Mark Aspen

Restraint is a word used much more than once in the wonderfully romantic piece of folk whimsy, Once. If restraint seems unapt a word for a musical, especially one that starts pre-show with full-on foot tapping folk rock band, then think again. Think Riverdance meets Brief Encounter.

In various manifestations, Once has jigged its sprightly way around five continents over the last decade. It started life as an Oscar winning film by John Carney, which had originally been released in 2007. In an adaption by Irish playwright, Enda Walsh, it then took off as a stage musical and it has rapidly developed something of a cult following. Croydon is debuting its first ever UK Tour and the some of the audience at the press night were showing off fanfolds of tickets to follow it throughout 2020. Certainly for these aficionados once is not enough for Once.

Once is a gentle love story, it is about taking courage and believing in oneself, it is about the power of music.

If music is the driving force of the plot of Once, it certainly gets a turbo-charged start. Cast and audience immediately enjoy the craic at a pre-show party that extend from stage to stalls and on, as sixteen musicians burst a lively fire-cracker of Irish folk music, the fidgeting fiddles set against soothing squeeze-boxes, pounding feet against honeyed harmonies, humming and keening against whoops and shouts, joyous and jolly. Remarkably, though, these talented musicians are also the talented actors who will tell us the story of Once.

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The lights fade down, but the party continues; then with the house lights out, the fiddles become violins, the music lyrical and the soft story starts. The basis of the plot is fairly simple: boy meets girl, but both are already committed to another; they fall in love; girl helps boy to fulfil his aspirations, boy helps girl to regain security; both regain their committed significant others; boy and girl part, their love unconsummated. What make this simple plot special is the gentleness; that the two never lose their place in their own cultures, and they remain bound together by a common love of music. In fact, to paraphrase, they make music, not make love.

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That music surrounds the pair’s attraction is the consummately presented theme in both director, Peter Rowe’s concept and Libby Watson’s design. The musician-actors are always there, a physical presence “greyed-out” from the action when not active in it, always there to play music, dance or sing; and more importantly, always there as their cultures, their communities, always ready to support each other. (Were all communities so supportive!)

Watson’s set is a corner of a Dublin pub, the music corner, adorned with framed music memorabilia and gig posters. It is the sort of pub where the locals often have an impromptu “Trad Sesh” where folk music and indie rock combine, mics are open, and everyone contributes. Other settings are created within the arms of the pub, by trucking or carrying on features for the interior of a flat or a shop. In the ceiling of the pub are roof-lights, but the whole roof may lift off to reveal the wide world of a night sky. Projection designer, Peter Hazelwood, creates some wonderful skyscapes, including a soulful crescent moon, and Mark Dymock’s lighting design is so precisely integrated to the whole that lights dance with the ensemble and a floor mounted starcloth becomes Dublin by night.

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The plot is so much a boy-meets-girl story that the pair are called Guy and simply Girl. As the opening ceilidh dies down, we see Guy as lovelorn and dispirited, singing Leave, a lament for his lost love, now living in New York. Girl approaches him and brightly, if disarmingly, asks him “Do you enjoy being Irish”. We discover that she is a Czech émigré from a musical family, whereas his business is “hoofers”, he runs a vacuum cleaner repair shop with his “Da”. Soon a deal is struck, he will repair her old upright Hoover, and she will pay him by playing him music on an old upright piano in the music shop above which she lives.

Once 2Daniel Healy is a natural as Guy (and has also been a composer and a busker), a man a crossroads in his life. His slightly husky tone works brilliantly with the melancholia of his songs. You can hear the catch in his voice in Leave. The elfin Emma Lucia plays Girl with a vivacious direct charm. She sings her own solo The Hill with such appealing clarity that it leaves the audience mesmerised. The centrepiece for many in the audience is the Oscar winning duet Falling Slowly, and their richly complementary voices leave all enthralled. It is almost as if the audience falls for these characters before they realise that they are falling for each other.

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The music shop is owned by the fiercely protective eccentric Billy. Billy is not so much a loose cannon as a whole wonky ordnance. The loose-limbed Dan Bottomley has great fun playing up the loveable fire-eater. With his not-yet-perfected karate, Billy is willing to die for his friends. He has two pet hates, Corkonians and bankers. When he meets his seeming nemesis, Bank Manager, who comes from Cork, sparks fly. A superb violinist, Samuel Peverley plays Bank Manager not so much as gravel-voiced as tarmac-voiced, but has the great comic virtuoso solo, Abandoned in Bandon, which rescues the character from being merely the stooge to Billy.

There is a lot of, albeit big-hearted, stereotyping, especially when Girl introduces Guy to her extended Czech family. The ex-pats are learning (Irish-) English from RTE television sit-coms, so to help the audience their words are projected as surtitles … in Czech, a nice reversal of norms. The Czech family offer a host of wonderful cameos. Reza is a brazen go-getter in a scarlet mini-skirt (woolly leggings under), willing to use her charms in winning ways, for example to get Billy to use his shop as rehearsal space for their scratch music group when they are preparing to help Guy make a demo-disc. Ellen Chivers has a superb singing voice and she plays the part of Reza with great aplomb, tossing her blonde pony-tail to move the music and tease the men. Svec is the stout-hearted oak of the family, a heavy-metal drummer willing to sacrifice his art to the folk style by using his trousers to muffle the drums. With giant stage presence, Lloyd Gorman seizes the role of Svec, plus he gives us a rousingly impressive drum solo. The matriarch of the family is Baruska. Susannah van den Berg, who last exhibited her coloratura locally as a larger than life Queen of Hearts (in the Rose Theatre’s Alice in Winterland) excels as Baruska, pushing Guy’s pre-business-finance visit to a fine melodrama, culminating in “Those how live in fear, die in their graves!” She is also a very accomplished accordion player. Rosalind Ford, who plays Guy’s Ex-Girlfriend, dances and sings whilst playing a cello that seeming floats with her.

However, it does seem a little disingenuous to praise up individual performances from what is a seamless ensemble, which is constantly engaged with the storytelling, a benign Greek chorus. The ensemble is not only multi-talented but generous in its common creativity, seamless in its faultless acting, seamless in its dancing (unobtrusively choreographed by Francesca Jaynes), seamless in musicianship and seamless in its singing. The a cappella reprise of Gold was another show-stopping highlight.

Once 5Nevertheless, in this now-you-see-it now-you-don’t, but never-to-be love affair, the most intense moments are quieter, reflective ones, when the poignancy that marks out this musical as being special comes into its own. These are moments of discovery between the two would-be lovers, and the revelations. Girl has a husband who has gone back home leaving her with their young daughter (played with great confidence on press night by Isabella Manning). Guy asks why he left, but Girl ignores the question to say Miluju tě, untranslated but meaning I love you.

Loneliness lurks just around the corner, but the demo disc is in the bag and the airline ticket in the pocket. Why complicate matters?

“It’s a complicated thing, this love” says Billy. But don’t you show restraint, for this bittersweet and idiosyncratic musical is one you should see once … then you will want to see Once once more.

Mark Aspen
January 2020

Photography by Mark Senior

Le Corsaire

New Age for This Flamboyant Ballet?

Le Corsaire

by Anna-Marie Holmes after Marius Petipa and Konstantin Sergeyev; music by Adolphe Adam and others

English National Ballet at the London Coliseum until 14th January

Review by Katie Hagan

Ah, Le Corsaire, what a joy you are! Ballet’s majestic romp took to the high-seas last night, with a triumphant first performance of its 2019 run at London’s indisputably splendorous Coliseum.

Performed by a hot cast of English National Ballet’s lithe dancers, Le Corsaire returns to the capital after a successful stint in 2016. A firm favourite, it will no doubt mesmerise its audiences once more with its romance, luscious choreography, luxurious set and costumes, not to mention the swelling music of English National Ballet’s Philharmonic Orchestra.

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It would be false of me to deny the show has been missed. Delivering on spectacle and stunning virtuosic dance, it is easy to see why this ballet is loved by new and old enthusiasts. Not only does Le Corsaire have the visuals to keep the eyes stimulated, audiences can be strangely charmed by its bombastic, unbelievably believable turn of events. Of course the protagonists, Medora and Conrad, went unscathed and survived the final hurdle! Only in this illusionary ballet can a ballerina keep her tiara on during a ferocious storm at sea.

As an audience member, it is vital to suspend all your beliefs when embarking on the escapist Le Corsaire. Try to abandon all desires to follow a narrative, and just sit back and absorb the magnificence that this classical production has to offer. This extravagant feast, staged by the talented Anna-Marie Holmes, has been revised many a time, but was initially based on Jules-Henri de Saint-Georges and Joseph Mazilie’s libretto, itself an interpretation of the poem The Corsair by the 19th Century’s resident bad-boy Romantic poet, Lord Byron.

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Divided into three acts, Le Corsaire follows the story of the heroic Conrad (Francesco Gabriele Frola), who is heading towards the Ottoman Empire to rescue his belle, Medora (Erina Takahashi) from the wretched hands of slave-traCorsaire 4 Mackder, Lankendem. Played by guest artist Brooklyn Mack – who looks completely at home onstage – Lankendem plans on selling Medora for a hefty price to the bumbling governor, the Pasha, played by guest character artist, Michael Coleman.

Act One opens with a cargo of bodies on a busy stage, perfectly encapsulating the hustle and bustle of a popular citadel. This first scene is a real medley of ENB’s talented principals and soloists, all of them throwing down gauntlet after gauntlet with their jeté-ing and pirouetting. You wouldn’t have thought a significant change to the two main characters had occurred only hours before the curtain rose.

Corsaire 3 AdamsSuch an opening sustains the first act’s momentum. The Odalisque pas de trois is a memorable section, containing Precious Adams’s lightening-speed beats and oozing upper body extensions, as well as Julia Conway’s fluttering chaine turns. Whilst exhibiting herself to the Pasha, Medora’s friend and fellow enslaved girl, Gulnare, danced by Shiori Kase, flitters around the stage with the determination of a single-winged, wounded butterfly.

Although Le Corsaire has previously come under scrutiny for its negative representation of women, Gulnare moves with a force  to be reckoned with. During her pas de deux with Lankendem she is resolute and does not engage with him as he vaingloriously parades her in front of the Pasha. It is an interesting characterisation which definitely paid off.

Corsaire 5 WoolhouseLe Corsaire’s subplots come to the fore in Act Two, as we follow Birbanto’s sabotage of Conrad’s plans to save Medora. Jealous of Conrad’s bond, Birbanto tells Medora to give Conrad a rose which is, unbeknownst to her, poisoned. Played by Erik Woolhouse, his hair standing on end, Birbanto goes from trusted friend to enemy. Whilst his characterisation often veered on the sulky, frustrated school-boy, I was impressed with his maverick movements. It is rare to see a dancer splay their hands and sweep around the stage with a slightly hunched back, all the while looking roguishly enigmatic. There has definitely been a conscious effort to tread deeper into Le Corsaire’s characters and I applaud ENB for this decision.

Corsaire 7 CirioConrad’s jumps are a wonder and so are his pal Ali’s – played by Jeffrey Cirio – split leaps. The buoyancy and vitality of this cast is affectingly infectious. All of this promise was narrowly jeopardised during Medora and Conrad’s pas de deux, however. The signs of their late casting showed during their strained final lift. Although still met with rapturous applauds, this anticipated duet unfortunately frayed at the seams.

Perking himself back up, Frola continues to barrel-turn and straddle jump into Act Three as he seeks to reconcile himself with Medora, who was once again *sigh* abducted by Lankendem. After the crisp and fresh Enchanted Garden section, the farce kicks into acceleration for the final time, until Birbanto is exposed for his misdeeds and Medora and Conrad are happily reunited.

In this staging, Anna-Marie Holmes has tried to do away with Le Corsaire’s sinister undercurrents of racism and sex-trafficking. Whilst the female roles have indeed grown stronger, and there is thankfully no yellow-face to be seen, the black ballet dancers are too token-y; either cast as the ‘comic’, ‘villainous’ or secondary character. Yes, it is encouraging to see three black dancers onstage. I just hope one day we see one in the lead role.

But change does not occur overnight. As far as I am concerned, Anna-Marie Holmes has done a sterling job at meticulously unpicking Le Corsaire. With a superb cast and an opulent aesthetic, the great outweighs the weak in this ballet.

Katie Hagan
January 2020

Photography by Laurent Liotardo

Blast from the Past

Impetuous Blasts with Eyeless Rage

Blast from the Past and Stage Door Blues

by Marc Harris

Barnes Community Players at the OSO Arts Centre, Barnes, 7th January

Review by Eleanor Lewis 

The subject of ageing and coming to terms with the life changes accompanying it is currently a hot topic for dramatists. Marc Harris has taken up the theme in his new play, Blast from the Past.

The story is that of Tim Horton, a successful actor who has reached retirement age where he is struggling with the loss of his wife and some issues with his memory, but otherwise living a reasonably happy life. Tim has been offered an audition for a small part in a very decent, upcoming film and he’s nervous about going to it. In five distinct scenes Horton, played by Rodger Hayward-Smith, converses with his brother to whom he is close, his twin daughters and his young neighbour who invites him to dinner and the prospect of friendship across the generations. The play takes us through the usual themes of how the generations interact (quite positively in some cases) and how families function, or don’t, particularly when faced with an ageing parent. One of Tim’s daughters urges him to remove his late wife’s clothes from the house, something he cannot do, and a small row follows. This rift is eventually repaired with help from the other daughter. Tim’s family is in fact a happy and supportive one, (which does of course reduce the potential for drama).

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The play itself is efficiently constructed and progresses steadily through its five stages, broken by an interval, and reaches a satisfying, if slightly hackneyed, conclusion. Its strengths are in the accessibility of its subject matter – it seems everyone in the developed world is seeking comfort and help with ageing – and the gentle, generally positive way in which the story is told.

Blast from the Past does need a boost of dramatic adrenalin though. The five scenes are long and whilst the dialogue is natural and on the whole believable, there is a great deal of it and at times this felt like listening to people actually making small talk. The first scene between Horton and his brother is particularly lengthy and would benefit from paring back. Given that each scene consists of people talking to each other, what is on view is mainly static: people sit down with each other and pretty much stay there, a little movement would be good, or else this becomes a radio play. Tightening the dialogue would also show off the vein of humour running through the work and it would be good to bring this rather more to the fore. There is for example a ‘running gag’ about pears, and whilst this shouldn’t be overdone it could be extended a little, I only noticed it twice. Blast from the Past clearly isn’t meant to be a laugh-a-minute-comedy, nor do I think it should be one, but even so a little humour tends to increase audience concentration.

Blast4Accompanying Blast from the Past was a second, short sketch rather than a play, (it’s about ten minutes long) entitled Stage Door Blues. This involved a couple waiting at the stage door for one of the actors from the first play. It’s cold and they are sniping at each other but there is a little plot twist to entertain the audience and this worked reasonably well on Tuesday evening. Whether the entirely clichéd 1950s-style Actor character, complete with camel coat draped around his shoulders, was deliberately written, directed, or just misguided remains to be seen but it reduced the comedy somewhat, there was enough in the writing, the costume was overkill.

Tuesday night’s performance was a rehearsed reading rather than a performance so the fact that there is scope for change, improvement and finessing goes without saying. That said, there were costumes, props and scenery, semi-staging in fact, and Barnes Community Players rendered their roles effectively, giving life to the script while reading from files. Rodger Hayward Smith particularly deserves credit for being on stage most of the time and giving an endearing performance as Tim Horton. All in all, Blast from the Past with some tweaking and tightening could well make another dramatic source of reassurance for families and individuals trying to deal with the last phase of life as we know it.

Eleanor Lewis
January 2020

Photography by Courtney Everett