Thursday, May 25, 2017


Theatre at Baddow at the Parish Hall

This was Dennis Potter's favourite of his plays. Famously, it was kept off the BBC for years, and this theatrical version was made to get it in front of an audience.
Forty years later, it still has the power to shock and offend. The callous abuse, and the nationalistic bigotry, still all too recognisable in our society today.
It is not often staged, so we should be doubly impressed that this enterprising group have selected it, and presented it so well.
The setting is the 70s – brown wallpaper – convincingly furnished, even if the lighting could more subtly have suggested the darkness of these blighted lives: “We live in the shadows...” says Tom.
John Mabey's thoughtful production benefits from a strong quartet of players. Jean Speller is Amy, weariness and distress etched on her face as she smooths the moth-eaten knitted throw. She still clings to the hope that her severely disabled daughter [a convincing performance from Vicky Wright in a very challenging role] will one day come back to them. Her husband – Bob Ryall – is sceptical. Drawn to the fascist National Front, he speaks tellingly of a dog in the distance, and of his nightmare of impotent paralysis. He is convinced that the ingratiating stranger who invades their private lives is “up to something”.
In Andy Poole's chilling performance, "Martin" has the air of a doorstep evangelist, with his easy charm and oleaginous smile. As often with Potter, religious references abound. There's a “whiff of sulphur” - the brimstone of the title – about this helpful saint, who offers a smitten Amy “all the kingdoms of the earth”. Luke 4:5.
The production has many telling moments: in the Glenfiddich-fuelled final scene the two men talk their fascist talk literally over Amy's head. Martin's reaction speaks volumes as Tom longs to go back to the way things were. The mealy-mouthed prayer is done in a stylised spotlight, and Potter would surely have loved the shocking “seduction”, choreographed to the folle farandole of Piaf's La Foule.
The ending, genuinely shocking, raises more questions about the events which precede the play, and the cathartic role of the malevolent Martin.
It's possible to imagine a funnier take on the play, or a more nuanced Good Samaritan. But this is an impressive production of Potter's savage parable, just as provocatively offensive as it was back in the more innocent Seventies.

Image: Barry Taylor

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


Talking Scarlet at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford


Jean Sablon on the soundtrack speaks the period and the setting in a way that the décor – a generic rustic cottage – fails to do, despite some evocative detail.
The lighting too, while often effective, could enhance the mood better – the kitchen seems overlit from the front.
But the company do a fine job with Brian Clemens' period thriller, from the first appearance of the huge hunting rifle through the door to the final declaration of war, with a surreal swastika and a deluge of poppies.
Lara Lemon is Suzy, the only character who is just what she seems – living the Provençal idyll with the moody “Peter” [Gary Turner], agricultural labourer and Sunday painter. The other woman – much less convincingly written, is Chief Inspector Miller, played in elegant trousers by Corrinne Wicks. Andrew Fettes is the amnesiac Josef, from the hovel next door. And Brian Capron is outstanding as Ross – subtly altering the character between the acts. The Chateau Latour scene with Turner is brilliantly done – a tour de force of twists and turns. Not all the scenes grip us as much, and there's a good deal of sign-posting, with clues and hints thickly scattered. Peter, for instance, is rarely without a scary kitchen knife in his hand.
The piece is directed by the playwright's son, Samuel Clemens, best known perhaps as a film maker, and he has the action underscored like a movie, with impressive music composed by Edward Patrick White.
Not a packed house, alas, perhaps punters were deterred by the title, which suggests a much less interesting drama. But those who missed this intriguing piece in Chelmsford can catch it at the Mercury in Colchester, or the Palace in Westcliff.

Sunday, May 21, 2017


London Classic Theatre at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester

Missed this at the start of its run back in February – now just managed to catch it on the last day of this national tour up the road in Colchester.

The imposing set is a warmly wooden study just off the Finchley Road. The action begins shortly before the Second World War. Sigmund Freud, refugee from Austria, is asleep in an armchair. He is close to death. Kindly Doctor Yahuda [Moray Treadwell] will ease his passing, warning of possible hallucinatory side-effects. Freud seems to regret some of his earlier pronouncements on hysteria, and an evening spent watching Rookery Nook. Salvador Dali – and this much is true – visits, and notes the doctor's bicycle, with hot-water-bottle and snail attached.
From these strange elements, Terry Johnson makes a crazy farce and a serious play about the perils of psychoanalysis; in Michael Cabot's impressive production, surrealism and feminism battle it out as scanties are shed and trousers dropped. It's a brilliant combination, demanding much of its audience and of its actors.
At the Mercury matinée, I felt the actors did better than the audience, though the farce and the quips were well received. John Dorney's Dali was superb – physically expressive, throwing his head back to make his resemblance to the artist even more striking. Ged McKenna made a thoughtful Freud, with a gentle Austrian accent. Language something of a problem, perhaps. Yahuda, a fellow Jew [berating Sigmund for doubting Moses' ethnic credentials] was historically widely travelled, but here has no accent. Nor has the mysterious Jessica, who comes in from Freud's rainy garden, claiming to be his “anima”. Dali, who actually had no German, or English, speaks with a Spanish accent straight from the cod caricature Manuel manual.
Summer Strallen, as Jessica, moved skilfully between her various roles – the discussion of Seduction Theory in Act Two was especially well handled.
The ending – a last gasp for surrealism – featured all sorts of strange events; the lobster telephone made a brief appearance, before Freud settled back to sleep in his armchair again, and there was another urgent tap on the french windows.
The piece is textually very rich, the ideas both timeless and – child abuse, recovered “memories” - startlingly contemporary. All credit to London Classic Theatre for taking this modern classic out on the road, from Yeovil to Aberdare, from Malvern to the Mercury.

Friday, May 19, 2017


Ad Hoc Players at Brentwood Theatre

Ad Hoc Players chalk up twenty years in 2017, and this quirky comedy, written for them by Eddie Coleman, was one of the first they brought to Brentwood Theatre.
So this revival is a celebration, with veterans joining the playwright in a warmly receptive audience for the opening night.
The play centres on Martin [Liam Mannix], whose love for his new-found girlfriend, “Miss Gorgeous Adorable” Carol, baffles his friends and family. “A man, a midget or a transsexual” they could have accepted, but this ??? Their reactions, and ours, vary uneasily from mockery – sexist banter and tasteless joshing – to sympathy. Most successful in the former is Andrew Spong with assured comic timing as work-mate Jason, and in the latter Candy Lillywhite-Taylor as sister Alison, who vows to follow her brother to the edge, and in the final scene, as the story comes full circle, prepares to introduce her own controversial lover to family and friends …
Hilary Martin is the formidable mother who dares to say that the emperor is naked, and there's a nice cameo from Paul Ganney as the shrink who sees Martin's predilection as his ticket to psychiatric fame and fortune.

Ayckbourn it's not, or Orton, though the play has moments of both. Wendi Sheard directs, as she did in 2000; the set is impressive, with a fitted kitchen, two lounges and a dinner table set for six. There are some neat comedy moments – the rugby tackle, Martin Wilderspin's Dave appearing from behind the sofa. The characters step into the spotlight to share their thoughts – Ganney has some of the best of these monologues, including one with Martin's hands tightening around his throat. There's a tender heart-to-heart in the deserted street, leading us to hope that Alison and Jason might find happiness together. And so they do, but not quite as we might have expected.

Thursday, May 18, 2017


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court

Nick Payne's two-hander allows us to eavesdrop on three brief encounters between Leonard and Violet, spanning six decades. Beginning in 1942 – an illicit night in the Hotel Regina before he goes unwillingly off to war – then 21 years later – a painfully awkward meeting in a Bath park – and finally in the 21st century – in Leonard's lonely Luton home.
These are carefully drawn characters, ordinary people leading lives superficially banal but with emotional hinterlands they struggle to express. Laura Bradley and Lewis Schaefer give performances of exceptional subtlety and understated sentiment. They wisely avoid caricature as they age; Violet's chatter about washing machines and Wimpy Bars places her in the 60s in middle age, while Leonard's restless hands and lips movingly suggest the ailing octogenarian.
Ria Milton's production is near flawless, with sound and light, music [Isaac Dunn the talented cocktail pianist] and staging combining to excellent effect. The only criticism, the sight-lines, especially when the actors were sitting on the bed/bench/sofa.
And there's a bonus – a seamless prologue, with chorus dressed for the 40s, giving us a mixture of the tragically appropriate When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone by Galway Kinnell and some Shakespeare sonnets, Leonard's wartime gift to Violet. Some of the most effective being those audaciously delivered by two or three actors: Sonnet 36 as a duo or Sonnet 106 a la Andrews Sisters.
A wordless epilogue, too – the chorus leaves the stage, the audience leaves the auditorium, while Leonard and Violet linger with the book of sonnets and a lifetime not shared …

Production photograph: Tom Tull