Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Wise Children, by Emma Rice @ Storyhouse, Chester

“We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue 
And then we'll take it higher …
Oh we gonna rock down to Electric Avenue”

Or were we? As the tune rocked out and the audience jigged along in their seats, all the lights went out! As this was an Emma Rice production, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a part of the show. But several seconds later and a few quips from the actors, the audience realised that this was an ironic blip to what had been a highly charged and entertaining evening.

“Oh and we were just getting to the good bit!” quipped Gareth Snook – aka Dora Chance. A few minutes later, someone had obviously shoved 50p in the meter and the lights came back on…actors hurriedly rushed back to their places to carry on as though nothing had happened…and then the runaway caravan developed a mind of its own and nearly pushed poor Lady Atalanta who was sat in her wheelchair off the stage! I don’t know why I was giggling…I was in the front row and nearly had the cast sitting in my lap!

These technical glitches apart, Wise Children was a totally different theatrical experience to what I am used to. I always think that I’m not a fan of musicals…but then I can merrily rattle off a list of the musicals I’ve actually rather enjoyed. Whilst Wise Children is not advertised as a musical, there are a number of songs and routines throughout that keep the production moving at a high tempo. At the interval I said to my friend that it was a shame there wasn’t a soundtrack to buy as the cast sounded exquisite and there were occasions I found myself wanting to sing along (despite not knowing the lyrics!)

Wise Children is a book by the acclaimed novelist Angela Carter, it is also the name of the theatre company Emma Rice created upon her well-publicised departure from The Globe in London. Shakespeare purists lamented her appointment and proclaimed she had destroyed Shakespeare. I can’t possibly comment. I have never seen a play performed at The Globe and I’m most definitely not a purist when it comes to Shakespeare. In fact, the only times I’ve ever truly enjoyed his work have been when actors and directors have stepped outside the box and put a new spin on it (Andrew Scott in Hamlet being a perfect example of this!)
Some might have thought Emma Rice would disappear without trace from this “fall from grace,” but in Wise Children she has shown herself to be innovative, brave, bold and an obvious lover of the late Angela Carter, who herself was not one for sticking with tradition.

 “Happy Birthday to us. We used to be song and dance girls.”

Wise Children could be regarded as a love letter to the theatre. It is April 23rd, Shakespeare’s birthday, and in Brixton twins Nora and Dora Chance (Etta Murfitt and Gareth Snook) and celebrating their 70th birthday. They have been invited to their father’s 100th birthday party; himself the greatest Shakespearean actor of all time and also a twin!
On the stage, acrobats, clowns and performers are limbering up. An old style caravan sits upstage and two young girls arrive, skipping, laughing and dancing. The performers head towards them but are stopped in their tracks as the girls start singing:

“I have sharp teeth within my mouth, inside my dark red lips. And polish bright hides my sharpened claws, in my fingertips…”

These are not girls to be messed with, and the carnivalesque air starts to show a darker side, that there is more to the girls than meets the eye, then the door of the caravan opens and we are transported to 49 Bard Street Brixton, the home of Nora and Dora Chance. This is their life story, through the highs and the heartbreaks of love and mistaken identities, this is a roller coaster of emotions celebrating all that is good about showbusiness, family, hope and the need to forgive.

Nora and Dora know who their father his, but he has never acknowledged the fact – that is, until they receive an invitation to his 100th birthday party. This is their chance to tell their story and although time may have aged them, Murfitt and Snook are playful and sassy as they chronical their lives.

It becomes clear that Dora is the one with the common sense as puppetry and a talented cast take us back in time to pivotal points in Nora and Dora’s tale as share their dreams, their hopes, their ambitions with us. Katy Owen (Grandma Chance) brings the twins up in her own unique style and she is ever much the scene stealer as the over-the-top streetwise gran!  (Think Catherine Tate’s “gran” character and you’ll be both shocked and having hysterics as she teaches you a thing or two!)

There are various musical numbers such “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “Electric Avenue” that make you want to get up and sing. And there are various beautiful touches of genius, when the cast are waving flags to represent flames, or Peregrines “Rupert Bear” trousers fading in colour as he gets older, to butterflies flying around the stage. This was a production full of imagination, storytelling, fun and laughter, and perfect for transporting you away from the drudgery of the day.

Storyhouse - 19 March 2019 - 23 March 2019
Richmond Theatre - 26 March 2019 - 30 March 2019
Belgrade Theatre - 02 April 2019 - 06 April 2019

Friday, 8 March 2019

The Verdict - Theatr Clwyd

Based on the 1980 novel by Barry Reed, this edge of the seat thriller, adapted by Margaret May Hobbs, will have you gripped from start to finish. Ian Kelsey (Emmerdale, Doctors) stars as the washed-up lawyer Frank Galvin. This once promising attorney has been given a lifeline by his friend and former teacher Moe Katz, a malpractice case representing the family of Deborah Ann Doherty. It’s Frank’s job to prove that the hospital owned by the Catholic Church was negligent in the care of Deborah, a normal healthy 27-year-old, reduced to a vegetative state following complications over her third child’s birth.

“Better three hours too soon than a minute too late.” – William Shakespeare

I made my way into the theatre a little earlier that I usually would and took my seat at the front. The curtain opened on the figure of a man sleeping on the floor of his office. A further few minutes before the real “curtain up” was due, a siren sounded, waking up the sleeping Galvin, and he started slowly moving about, getting ready for the day ahead. Removing his old shirt and throwing it into his filing cabinet and taking a fresh shirt off the radiator he proceeds to re-enter the living world - starting the day as he ended the night before…with a glass of whiskey!

This subtle scene, which set the tone for Galvin’s character, was lost by many of the people sitting near me as they sat chatting with their friends, oblivious as to what was happening on the stage. As the lights in the auditorium were dimmed, a quiet hush took hold as we heard a sound-over of a hospital emergency room issuing a “Code Blue” and the sounds of CPR being performed.

“Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here…” The Guardian Angel Prayer

Cut back to Galvin’s office and the entrance of his client’s mother, Mrs McDaid. She is happy to reach an out of court settlement, she just needs some money to ensure her daughter gets the best medical care possible, and that her three grand-children will not go without. But once Galvin has visited Deborah at The Holy Ghost Hospital and sees her shrunken body kept alive by drips and tubes…a body in a vegetative state that blinks once for yes and twice for no…he decides that that the case should be heard in a court of law. The last entry in Deborah’s diary is that of the Guardian Angel Prayer, and it compels Galvin to become her guardian angel, in place of the one who let her down.

“How the hell are you going to stop them? They’ve got God and Colcannon on their side!” – Moe Katz

Bishop Brophy arrives at Galvin’s office with a $300,000 cheque in what he believes is a generous settlement so that the case does not have to go to court. Frank sees this as a derisory offer and declines without checking with the family first. Mrs McDaid finds out and is furious with Frank, slapping him in the face before storming out of his office. Moe, is equally stunned and curious as to why Frank is trying to commit further professional suicide by taking on a case against the Catholic Church…no one can win this battle, given the large US firm of lawyers that they use. After this, Galvin won’t even be “ambulance chasing” anymore, circling the obituary notices in the daily paper for new cases.

Loose lips sink ships

Frank cuts a lonely figure as he makes his way across town to the local bar. Here he meets the new barmaid Debbie, and after one too many whiskies he tells her about the big case he has taken on, and how he has managed to find a expert witness who is willing to testify that the doctors at The Holy Ghost had administered the wrong type of aesthetic to Deborah, which resulted in her choking on her own vomit, depleting her brain of oxygen and leaving her a vegetable for the rest of her life. Life is looking good for Frank and his day in court…that is until his star witness suddenly disappears.

As the case moves to the court room, there are some dramatic twists which leave the audience gasping…sometimes in shock, sometimes in horror and sometimes in disgust! This is a play which really tugs at the heartstrings.

Earlier in the story we watched Concannon, attorney for the defence, conduct a dress rehearsal with the doctors who were to stand trial. He coached them in what to say, and how to say it, ensuring there was a connection between them and the jury. 

Dr Towler was performed beautifully by Paul Opacic (Hollyoaks, Emmerdale.) Whilst there was just the right level of arrogance in his manner as he explained in simplistic terms what medical procedures had taken place at the hospital, it was obvious he felt he was demeaning himself in oversimplifying terms. “I don’t have to explain myself to ignorant oafs. Do you have any idea of my stature in the medical community?” This is a man who thinks he is infallible and above the law! It showed why Moe Katz had not wanted Galvin to go up against the establishment. This was a time for the doctors to stick together and turn a blind eye to any misdemeanours.

Ian Kelsey will get all the plaudits for this play, and they will be well deserved as his role is pivotal to the story and his performance is consistently solid throughout; but the supporting cast in The Verdict is an especially strong one and should not be overlooked. Richard Walsh (London’s Burning) stands out by delivering two outstanding performances which are completely different, as both Bishop Brophy and the Judge. Michael Lunney is unrecognisable as the amiable Irish bartender and then the odious Dr Crowley, and Holly Jackson Walters provided a stark contrast to the doctors when she took to the stand as the former admittance nurse, Natalie Stampanatto. Her performance pulled at your heartstrings and you believed every word she uttered. This was a woman who knew right from wrong, and as scared as she might be, she was brave enough to stand up to the old boy’s network.

The jury is still out on a few of the attempts at American accents which weren’t that convincing, and there were some occasions where the acting was rather wooden, but that didn’t detract from an enjoyable night. In summing up, there was conclusive evidence that fans of the five-time Oscar nominated film The Verdict, will be thrilled and entertained by this compelling courtroom drama which has made its succesful transfer to the stage.

The Verdict continues at Theatr Clwyd until Saturday 9th March and then heads to the following venues:

Tues 12th – Sat 16th March ….. Coliseum Theatre Oldham
Tues 19th – Sat 23rd March ….. Theatre Royal Winchester
Weds 27th – Sat 30th March ….. Jersey Opera House
Tues 9th – Sat 13th April ….. Grand Theatre Blackpool
Tues 16th – Sat 20th April ….. Gaiety Theatre Dublin
Tues 30th April – Sat 4th May ….. Kings Theatre Edinburgh
Tues 7th – Sat 11th May ….. Eden Court Theatre Inverness
Tues 21st – Sat 25th May ….. Theatre Royal Plymouth

Friday, 22 February 2019

The Man Who Sees Ghosts – Friedrich von Schiller

 “THE EVENTS that I here set down and to which I myself was for the most part a witness will for many seem beyond belief.”

No, I’m not about to divulge more “tales of orchestration,” of “accidental” Tom encounters or secretive jaunts that “the others can’t know about!” Instead, these are the opening lines of Schiller’s one and only novel, The Man Who Sees Ghosts. Despite its title, the book is not a ghostly, supernatural tale, but more a tale of intrigue and political games. There are some supernatural elements to the story, but they do have a reason and an explanation. Whether serendipity led me to this book following recent eye-opening events, or it’s just the simple fact that it is a novel by Schiller and has a Venetian style drawing on the front which I was rather taken with, I will leave to you to decide!

“At nine o’clock he died!” In the opening chapter of Schiller’s book, a mysterious figure known as The Armenian delivers a prophetic message to an unnamed Prince. The opening sequence of Schiller’s novel is heavily reminiscent of the doom-laden witches of Macbeth, but both prophesies related to the present, and not the future. The Prince, the hero of the book, will discover that his cousin did die at nine o’clock and consequently he now stands to inherit the throne. As the pages unfold a plot of dramatic proportions, the reader is left remaining unsure of what is real, and what is a clever game of political gain.

From Cult to Conspiracy…

In a lot of Schiller’s work, nothing is what it first seems, many character’s appearances bring a show treachery with them. Venice becomes the perfect backdrop for a tale of games and duplicity; it is a city famed for its masked inhabitants walking the streets and squares, people who impersonate the characters they adopt so flawlessly; like diamonds they sparkle and entice those who witness them. Venice was also of course a political powerhouse at the time the book was published, and The Man Who Sees Ghosts, gave rise to the creation of “lodge novels” exemplifying the fascination with secret societies during this period. Of course, it is easy to see the central theme in these books relating to these secret societies is to “guide” and seek control of the hero and enlist him, in this case The Prince, for the societies purposes; whether those purposes be good or evil.
Schiller’s novel sticks to the Gothic tradition of questioning the moral behaviour of The Church. The book came out in Germany during a period when the sect of the Illuminated was beginning to rapidly expand. The ignorant or superstitious were targeted and seduced by stories of incredible supernatural powers. In 1789 when the book was published, the theme of the occult was becoming highly fashionable, and Schiller’s haunting narrative is a darkly dramatic questioning of the freedom and will of people, as the net is cast in this tale of political intrigue and religious conspiracy which will head towards its climatic violent ending.

There is a beautifully haunting cinematic quality to Schiller’s writing, and this novel screams out for some talented writer to bring it to stage or screen.

The book is split into two parts, in the first part The Prince finds himself stuck in Venice, waiting for money to be sent to him so that he can return home. He has been living a quiet, unobtrusive life until he crosses the path of a masked man, The Armenian. After The Armenian delvers his cryptic message regarding the death of someone The Prince’s life starts to unravel. He attends a séance, a theatrical event designed to show the power of The Armenian, the show however, is quickly dispelled as a fake. At the stroke of midnight, The Armenian disappears – is it a cheap conjuror’s trick or is he part of something much darker and dangerous? Only “The Sicilian” (apparently modelled on a well-known occultist of the era) a conjuror with ties to The Armenian knows the truth, but The Prince is impressed with the spectacle he has witnessed, despite his conflicting emotions of incredulity.

A second séance, lacking the theatricality of the first, describes a flashback to another time when a young man mysteriously disappeared before his wedding day. But this was no ordinary wedding, it was a wedding of status and great importance, so his family engage the Sicilian conjuror to connect with the ghost to confirm he his death…and what befell him. “…my neighbour pointed out a Franciscan monk standing as motionless as a stone pillar…you realise now that all three, the Russian, this monk and your Armenian are now one and the same person.” A dead body of the groom is discovered at the bottom of a well, his brother the murderer, but then fate plays its part and takes revenge, the brother has a fit and dies.

Torn between superstition and scepticism – both The Prince’s need to believe in what he has witnessed but still retaining that reality of doubt – The Prince becomes an innocent abroad. He is not the type of person to tell a tale one week and deny all knowledge of it a week later. But by the time he hears the tale of the second séance, The Prince is not so easily fooled as he was at the first séance, he rejects the actions of a charlatan, and he slowly descends from disbelieving in the supernatural, to losing his faith – both his religion and of those around him. As he becomes more sceptical of all he sees, his moral behaviour takes a downward descent towards indifference, to gambling and women. By the second part of the book, we hardly recognise The Prince. But then he falls in love. It is the love of a woman which seeks to turn him back, to convert him back into being a believer, a man with a soul. Love is a dangerous thing, and once again The Prince is The Armenian’s victim, and by now it is apparent he is an agent of the Inquisition.

The Devil Walks Amongst Us

Sadly, Schiller never finished his one and only novel. It seems unusual for someone of his calibre to give up, so we do not know for sure whether The Prince would have been converted back permanently, or whether he would once again turn into a degenerate. The Armenian set out to destroy The Prince’s faith in the supernatural in the same manner that we are led to believe that the Devil does not exist, making it easier for him to walk amongst us, destroying all that ventures in his path. In his various works, whether plays or short stories, Schiller has always examined people, he has tried to explain us to ourselves. He looks at gender, identity, love, exile, the things that matter to people. His words are still relevant in todays society, the books are not to be thrown in a corner gathering dust, we can learn a lot from what he writes. Lies, deceit, the manipulation of people exists today in the world of politics – and political agendas are not just found in the halls of Westminster…they are found in day to day life where people feel they have a need to have power over someone else, for whatever their shallow reasoning might be.

Maybe Schiller had difficulty in finishing the novel because he had his own doubts. For someone who had spoken out for humanity (despite its cruelness, violence and egotistical flaws) maybe he hoped by writing The Man Who Sees Ghosts he would find the right path to follow…but maybe he also realised there is no correct path, that humanity does what it desires. The audience has therefore been granted the power to decide what the outcome is in this mysterious tale of adventure and deception…did The Armenian win his game over The Prince, or was The Prince just a victim of his lack of principals?

The Man Who Sees Ghosts is published by Pushkin Press