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Ghost Bell

by on 2 October 2019

Pints and Prejudice

Ghost Bell

by Steve Webb

This Is Us Productions at OSO Arts Centre, Barnes until 5th October

Review by Andrew Lawston

There’s an undercurrent of mild embarrassment at the OSO tonight. Due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, there has been no technical or dress rehearsal, so this evening’s production of Ghost Bell, by Steve Webb, has been declared a preview. We’re told this on the door, and again by a member of the production team before the play – which gets underway perhaps a little later than advertised. Thankfully, the cast gamely rise to the occasion, apparently word-perfect and with Cornish accents in place as required. While they will no doubt pick up the pace a little as Ghost Bell’s run continues, the only visible mishap is a projected backdrop being reset while the cast carry on regardless.

GhostB1

Set in a pub garden over a bank holiday weekend, Ghost Bell tells the story of a collection of regular drinkers in The Griffin. Joey, a troubled 40-something who “was going to go to drama school”, drives much of the play’s action through his drunken and drug-fuelled antics, and David Shortland pulls off a subtle performance that captures the inherent sadness in this grown man who knows he’s still acting like a teenager but can’t quite work out how to do anything else.

GhostB2Joey’s antics drive his childhood best friend Debbie to distraction. A teetotaller who still always seems to be in the pub, Zoë Arden is powerful in perhaps the most emotionally demanding role in the play, and is ably supported by Danielle Thompson as her younger more carefree sister Hally. Meanwhile, Debbie’s boyfriend Matt (Scott Tilley, left out of the programme, but an imposing presence on the whole production) encourages and even funds Joey’s lifestyle.

GhostB3Debbie, Matt and Joey are surrounded by the rest of the Griffin’s regulars, and owners. Andy Hewitt’s Brendan remains rooted in the corner playing chess against himself, sipping pint after pint, and occasionally chipping in with a classic film quote with exquisite timing. Harry Medawar’s Burling also provides frequently welcome comic relief, as he wanders through the action with quaint tales of murdering the local wildlife, looking faintly bemused when anyone tries to involve him in the play’s plot.

GhostB4Publican Alan is played with a twinkle in his eye by Nigel Cole, handing out sage wisdom to his regular customers, and enjoying a tempestuous relationship with his wife Pauline. Pauline is literally a character of two halves, she opens the play snapping at all and sundry, before Alan shouts at her halfway through and she, literally, lets her hair down and becomes sweetness and light for most of the rest of the play. Liz Williams (also the play’s producer) plays both versions of the character well, but the contrast between them is… striking, and I’m not sure the message that shouting at your wife will turn her into a nicer person is one that makes for a comfortable evening’s theatre.

Finally Roberta Cole gives great gusto to a brief appearance as Barbara, just before the interval, and her breezy no-nonsense attitude provided a great contrast with the slightly drunk or stoned demeanour of much of the rest of the cast; it would have been great to see her again at the conclusion.

The set is an ambitious recreation of a pub garden in the OSO space, and Malcolm MacLenan’s lighting design captures the various times of day perfectly, from the midday sun to the mellow evenings and bright moonlight. Wearing two hats, Designer and Director John Buckingham makes sure his cast move with ease and pace through the artificial turf of his set. John Pyle’s sound conjures up wind, waves, and occasional bursts of music from inside the pub.

In short, Ghost Bell is a well-acted and sumptuously designed production which more than overcame its lack of final rehearsals. Unfortunately, it can’t always plaster over problems with the script. A lengthy foreword from playwright Steve Webb in the programme makes it clear that large amounts of the play are grounded in autobiography, which is always a tricky proposition. Truth is indeed often stranger than fiction, but reality has a shaky grasp of dramatic structure.

The play wants us to root for Joey, but he opens it by killing a cat with a golf club. It’s hard to come back from something like that, and the audience is given precious little reason to try, beyond Debbie’s clear concern for her old friend. Later we learn that he’s been caught trying to steal a penguin, and that’s the sort of quirky drunken crime that an audience can get behind. But we already know that a brutal cat clubber lurks behind the cheerful penguin pilferer.

Matt gradually emerges as a villain of sorts, keeping Joey trapped in his addictive spiral by supplying him with money and drugs, apparently so that he’ll always have someone to go to the pub with. When he takes a more active role in sabotaging his friend’s happiness by literally burning a lifeline, it’s all a bit melodramatic. “You’re not going anywhere, Joey. Not yet,” he purrs, and in an otherwise naturalistic play, this streak of soap opera intrigue that sets up the plot for the second half just doesn’t ring true.
Being set in a pub garden, the play’s dialogue is naturalistic in that it features a huge amount of swearing, and everyone drinks, smokes, and tokes their way through the play. Which (smoking ban notwithstanding) isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does mean that the play’s climax, in which revelations come thick and fast and loose ends are resolved, essentially descends into people screaming at each other to “eff off”, without resolving a great many of the loose ends.

The performance I attended also highlighted the big problem with filling your play with quotes of other people’s best material: you’re relying on people having seen that material. While the audience tittered dutifully when Brendan chipped in with familiar James Bond lines, they were a little more hesitant about The Usual Suspects. Finally it became very obvious that I was the only person in the audience who’d ever seen Withnail And I – which was a shame as it was quoted often, extensively, and in plummy-voiced character, to the audible confusion of much of the audience.

A strong cast, on top of the material and well-directed, have breathed life into this stunningly-designed production, but their best efforts can’t disguise a play in need of a bit more polish, and a little judicious pruning.

Andrew Lawston
October 2019

Photography courtesy of This Is Us Productions

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