Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The Winslow Boy - The Lowry, Salford

Isn’t it surprising how a bit of sunshine, a theatre trip and a catch up with a friend over dinner can reset the lethargy button?

 It’s not that I haven’t done anything since my last entry, quite the contrary my dear reader, however, whilst the doing was fun, the write up seemed too much of a chore. What originally started as something cathartic had started to get shoved onto a mounting pile of half-finished things that needed dealing with (included play reports!) So, now the doom and gloom of Winter is on its way out and Spring is (supposedly) on its way in…let’s get some writing done! (Although saying that it's still taken 3 days to actually post what I'd written!)

The Winslow Boy is one of my favourite Rattigan plays. It is based around a true story of a father’s fight for justice against the Admiralty when his young son is accused of stealing a postal order. We had originally intended to see he play in March at Birmingham Rep, however, the theatre cancelled the performance last minute due to heavy snow. This was a double whammy for me (well triple actually.) 1. I was missing a play I had long looked forward to seeing. 2. I was missing out on a weekend catch up with a friend I’d not seen since before Christmas. 3. Tom Burke was reading poetry in London which I hadn’t got a ticket for because of my prior engagement. But there was light on the horizon…The Winslow Boy was heading to Salford and my friend and I were able to rearrange, so whilst there may have been a delay, at least points 1 & 2 could be rectified.

Whilst Rattigan fell out of favour with the critics for being old-fashioned, in the late 70’s after his death his work started to become popular. Modern audiences engage with his realistic characters whose everyday problems are deeply moving. Society likes to believe it has moved on, but many issues of the 40s, 50s, 60’s and 70s when Rattigan was writing are still just as prevalent today.

“Let right be done”

In the case of the Winslow Boy, Rattigan shows that standing up for oneself, that fighting for justice and what is right is important. Principles and morality are an important part of the human condition, and what are we without them? What if we let the establishment run over the little man?

The play is based on the case of Archer-Shee v the King. 13 year old naval cadet George Archer-Shee was accused of stealing a five shilling postal order from the locker of another cadet Terence Black. An internal enquiry at The Admiralty decided that George had gone to the post office to buy a postal order for 15 shillings and sixpence, and whilst there is also cashed Terence’s postal order. A graphologist, Thomas Gurrin, confirmed that the handwriting on the postal order was that of George, and on this evidence The Admiralty wrote to George’s father requesting that he remove his son from college on the grounds he was a thief.

George’s father engaged Sir Edward Carson as his barrister, a man of reputation who did not fear taking on the Crown. He subjected George to a three hour cross-examination, after which he was convinced of George’s innocence and agreed to take on the case. It was a case which would drag on for nearly three years and even hold up an important debate in the House of Commons for three hours. The trial eventually began Tuesday 26th July and on the fourth day the trial ended dramatically when the solicitor general delivered a statement accepting the evidence that George Archer-Shee was not guilty and he should be exonerated of any wrongdoing.

“If ever the time comes that the House of Commons has so much on its mind that it can’t find time to discuss a Ronnie Winslow and his bally postal order, this country will be a far poorer place.”

The play takes place in one room of the Winslow’s home and by doing this, Director Rachel Kavanaugh invites us into the family home to hear first-hand the trials and tribulations of a family sticking together to ensure that young Ronnie Winslow has his name cleared from the injustice the “untouchable” Admiralty has thrown at him. Whilst we are watching a period room, the themes and the issues of the play could be encountered in a modern setting – it could just as easily be set in someone’s kitchen, but there’s something heartening about keeping the play in Rattigan’s era.

There are captivating performances by the whole cast however there are three performances worthy of specific mention. Aden Gillett (The House of Elliott) begins the play as the archetypal Edwardian authoritative father that a son should be respectful of. His booming voice juxtaposed with Rattigan’s wit makes him a figure to be wary of, however, it quickly becomes evident that he worships his son and will do anything for him. Both his deteriorating health and wealth make him an endearing character as his softer side is allowed to show through in his sacrifice for his son.

Dorothea Myer-Bennett also delivers a strong performance as Ronnie’s equally strong-willed suffragette sister. She will not listen to those around her who keep telling her it is a waste of time to fight for women being given the right to vote, or to try and clear the name of her brother. She is stuck in the middle of a changing world, the anchor of the family with the voice of reason. Should she sacrifice her values at a time when women married for practical rather than emotional reasons? With the current political climate for female equality with the #MeToo and Times Up movements, Catherine resonates as a strong and powerful female voice for our time.

Sir Robert Morton, the arrogant barrister engaged to represent Ronnie’s case is magnificently performed by Timothy Watson; his interrogation of Ronnie at the start of the play is edge of the seat drama as he reduces the poor boy to tears. Rattigan’s comic genius is shown as Sir Robert’s demeanour slowly wavers as he falls under the spell of the captivating and moralistic Catherine!

Michael Taylor's beautiful Edwardian set and costumes bring the period to life, but also the clever removal of furniture and less quality clothing show how much the family wealth is depleted as more and more money is pumped into the trial. All of this adds to the authenticity of the piece and whilst the show is a slow-burn, it does keep you entranced until the end, wondering how much more the family can take as they await the verdict.

And so what happened to the little boy who started it all this rumpus? The real Winslow Boy, George Archer-Shay worked in America for a short time before returning home at the start of World War One. He died in the first Battle of Ypres in 1914 at the age of 19. He was a young man who will forever live on via Rattigan’s play because of the case of a father who showed that where there is injustice, you have to fight it head on; a message that doesn't go amiss today.


Sunday, 11 March 2018

The Great Gatsby - Theatr Clwyd (The Dolphin Pub - Mold)

The roaring twenties; an era of decadence, drinking bootleg whiskey and dancing the night away without a care in world.

Welcome to J Gatsby’s party. Put your dancing shoes on and let the fun begin!

The Dolphin in Mold is a dilapidated black and white building that used to be a pub until July 2013. Since then it has lain empty falling into disrepair. It seems a long way from Long Island, New York and the sumptuous surroundings of Jay Gatsby’s mansion, but don’t let that put you off. Knock on the door, say “moonshine” to the person behind the shutter and you’ll be welcomed into a whole new world…so long as your name is on Gatsby’s guest list!

This co-production of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby between Theatr Clwyd and Guide of Misrule is a spectacle to behold. You are encouraged to dress up in 1920’s gear, and thankfully nearly everybody took this on board. As you make your way to the bar to order Gin Rickey’s or Mint Juleps, men donning spats and trilbies are arm in arm with ladies in evening dresses, making it hard to differentiate between who is in the cast and who is a fellow theatre goer!

Jazz music plays in the background as people mill around chatting to each other, just as you would at a party, and then suddenly, one voice is heard louder than the others, Nick Carraway (Michael Lambourne) has started telling his story to a group of people, there is a hush is the room as people stop their conversations to listen to him. The evening has officially started!

Don’t worry about the steps, your way is cute!

The parties of the mysterious Jay Gatsby were notorious affairs. Our host for the evening was just as much as a mystery to Nick Carraway, our narrator for the evening, as he was for us as we were ushered from the bar to the dancefloor and learnt how to Charleston with Daisy Buchanan (Amie Burns Walker) and Jordan Baker (Zoe Hakin). “Right foot forward, back, left foot back, forward, and do it again and add a swivel…or just do what you’re doin…it’s cute!” My brain and feet just did not want to co-operate…well not until I woke up next morning and tried again in the kitchen whilst making breakfast! But it didn’t matter, this was an evening of fun, not a dance competition, so we all just threw our hands in the end and let our feet do the best they could!

It does help to know the Gatsby story before you attend the evening, because you don’t sit and watch the story from beginning to end as you do with traditional theatre. Each person who sees the show ends up with their own version of the story and their opinions of the characters, as you would with a real party. In the book it is hard to like many of these socialites, but after having a one on one conversation with a person you start to see things from their point of view, so whilst you still may not like them, it’s hard not to empathise. You might be involved with Myrtle and Tom’s story, whilst other people are invited to go upstairs with Gatsby to help him pick out a suit from his wardrobe, or head off with Jordan to talk about golf.

Why do girls think the toilet is the best place for a heart to heart?

I was ushered upstairs to a private party at Myrtles where a group of about 15 of us played spin the bottle. This was where I almost regretted sitting in prime place on the sofa. Later in the evening Myrtle (Bethan Rose Young) grabbed me and two other ladies to go to the loo with her so she could have a private girl to girl chat for advice. Just why women find the toilets the best place to air their worries will always be a mystery to me, but as we put the world to rights, other bemused theatre goers walked in thinking we were normal folk queuing for the toilet!

At the “interval” I went to the bar to get a drink and a few moments later Tom Buchanan (Jake Ferretti) had come up to me to ask if I knew anything about a business card he presented to me, or how Gatsby had made his money. This kind of immersive theatre is not for everybody, but if you relax into it, it becomes a surreal but highly enjoyable experience. Having done it once, I’d happily do it again and probably gain even more from the experience.

Snatches of overheard gossip, coupled with Nick delivering various narratives and some of the more iconic moments of the film and book all piece together like a jigsaw until you get a sense of who your host for the evening really is. For those who don’t know the story, gaps will appear; although there are set-piece scenes everyone bears witness to, to ensure that the main plot remains clear. If you’re not in the right place at the right time you could miss out on the background of some of the relationships and how their stories unfold, but his doesn’t distract from the night at all…because just like a real party, there’s always someone to tell you the bit of gossip you’ve missed!

As we reach the climax of the story, we listen on in a hushed, almost embarrassed silence as the drink fuelled night leads to the excellent cast throwing recriminations at each other. The party is over, we must say good bye to our new friends, Daisy, Jordan, Nick, Tom and indeed Gatsby. It’s time to go home.

Immersive theatre is not everybody’s cup of tea, but this is an exciting new way of storytelling. I’m so used to sitting and watching a play thinking “that looks like fun” that this gave me the opportunity to be part of something without having to be centre stage! I got to dress up (and have fun making a costume for the night) dance in the party scenes and chat with the characters…just like actors get to do... I just didn’t need to worry about remembering my lines! 

Bundle of fabric
Finished dress
Close up

The Great Gatsby is on at The Dolphin Pub until 25th March 2018. So get your glad rags on and say “Hi” to Mr Gatsby!

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Great Expectations - Theatr Clwyd, Mold

As a child one of my favourite board games was “The Dickens Game.” I hadn’t read anything by
Dicken’s at the time, but I soon learnt about him with this game. Players moved from inn to inn collecting characters to complete 6 chapters of one of Dicken’s novels (Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield or Great Expectations.) No-one I knew enjoyed playing it and so I spent most of my childhood making the cat and two teddy bears pit their wits against me. I always collected the cards for Great Expectations and they never argued with me!

"So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.”

The tale of Great Expectations commences Christmas Eve 1803. The young orphan Pip is visiting the graves of his parents. Here he meets with the criminal Abel Magwitch who he agrees to help. This meeting will have a profound effect on the rest of Pip’s life.

A year after the meeting, Pip is invited to Satis House, the home of the wealthy spinster Miss Havisham. Locked in a time warp, she plays games with Pip. It is here where he encounters the beautiful Estella and whilst he falls in love with her, she treats him unkindly, teasing him, making him fall under her spell more and more. After several years, Estella is sent away and Miss Havisham puts a stop to Pips visits. She has finished toying with him, as a cat would toy with a mouse.

Pip becomes the blacksmiths apprentice, but after four years into his service, he is visited by a London lawyer named Jaggers; Pip is to go to London to become a gentleman of good fortune, but just who is his mysterious benefactor?

Tom Burke as Bentley Drummle
The BBC did a fabulous adaptation of Great Expectations in 2011 with Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham, David Suchet as Jaggers and Tom Burke as the villain of the piece…the dastardly Bentley Drummle!

It was a wonderful TV production, but whilst it had an extraordinary cast, it also benefitted from filming in numerous locations to add weight to Dickens’ great tome. Could a lengthy, well-known book and TV adaptation, do well on stage, or would it be butchered beyond repair?

The creative team should be justifiably proud of themselves, especially James Turner’s clever story box set. Whilst at first glance the box on the stage looks very simple, it does make you feel (with the use of a little imagination) that you are visiting the locations from the book.

At its smallest it shows the tightly-knit space of Joe’s forge, and being cast in metal it linked in with the idea of Pip’s apprenticeship. Extending the metal sides echoes the spacious houses and offices of London; but most impressively, opening of the wooden doors at the back reveal the decaying fairy-tale interior of Satis house, complete with ragged curtains and uneaten wedding cake.

I also loved the integral cupboard of sound effects; it was like a “reveal” into the world of the radio play, and the inbuilt climbing frame which allowed the actors more movement about the stage.

Nichola McAuliffe (Surgical Spirit, Cheri) inhabits Miss Havisham with echoes of Gillian Anderson’s portrayal about her. Jilted on her marriage day, humiliated and feeling betrayed she suffered a mental breakdown and never left Satis House again. She wore her wedding dress for the rest of her life and eventually ordered her lawyer, Jaggers, to adopt a girl for her.

“Who am I, for God's sake, that I should be kind”

She wanted to prevent Estella from suffering at the hands of a man as she had once suffered but things changed, Miss Havisham became set upon revenge. Rather than being a mad eccentric, she was devious, plotting and used Estella to break young men’s hearts. Pip becomes the victim of her callous scheming, and it is only seeing the result of her work that she realises revenge achieves nothing. Nichola McAuliffe’s demeanour encompasses all these nuances of Miss Havisham’s character as we journey with her from protector, to revenge seeker, to repentance. At times it is quite terrifying seeing how easily she grooms and manipulates each of the children. 

Sean Aydon as Pip is believable as he grows seamlessly from the young Pip to the London bound gentleman. His scenes with Edward Ferrow as Joe Gargery are amongst some of the most emotive in the show and offer a tenderness that counters that of Miss Haversham’s callousness.

This is a faithful but innovative production of Dicken’s classic, and being true to the novel requires a multitude of characters. Six actors take on the roles of approximately 24 characters plus ensemble, switching accents, costumes and demeanour at break-neck speed. All should be highly commended for being able to switch persona so quickly, however, there is only one person who can ever bring the full range of Bentley Drummle’s dislikeable character to life (Tom Burke) but Daniel Goode did give him a good run for his money!

Great Expectations is a Tilted Wig and Malvern Theatres production. It is currently touring nationwide until 23rd June 2018.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Brief Encounter - The Lowry, Salford

Brief Encounter was voted the twelfth best British Film by Time Out magazine in 2017. The 1945 romantic drama shows Laura, a wife and mother, have a chance encounter with a handsome stranger on a railway station that she falls in love with.

The film starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard started life as the play Still Life by Noel Coward. The Times critiqued it as “a serious and sympathetic study of humdrum people suddenly trapped in love”. Ten years later, Noel Coward's play was brought to life on the big screen by David Lean. It became one of cinemas masterpieces, nominated for three Oscars and for a number of years it was voted one of the best films ever made.

Released just after the end of WWII, it showed the British stiff upper lip in all its glory. Focusing on the day to day drudgery people went through, shopping, returning library books and taking some solace in a trip to the cinema; it also showed underneath the façade that a generation of people who had survived the war were only just about holding things together.

Unlike most tales, there aren’t good people and bad people in this story. This story works because everyone is essentially good, but trying to make hard decisions. Trying to make the right choice is never easy; today it is often hard to go with what we want and what society will allow. This is probably why it is a film that despite its age will never grow old.

I wasn’t sure how Emma Rice could bring this classic film to life on stage, but she has waved her magic wand and created a wonderful image of a story which echoes the film. She hasn’t pushed the classic film to one side; she has incorporated it into her play, made it an important part of the production. Sitting in the theatre, looking at the red stage curtains, as the lights go down and the usherettes pass amongst the crowd, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were about to watch the film.

‘I’m a happily married woman. Or rather I was until a few weeks ago. This is my whole world and it’s enough, or rather it was until a few weeks ago.’

Housewife Laura (Isabel Pollen) bumps into married GP Alec (Jim Sturgeon) at a railway station café. She has something in her eye and Alec comes to her rescue, removing the piece of grit and embarking upon a magical romance. But this production highlights not only the romance developing between Alec and Laura, but also the throws of young love between Beryl and Stanley and the last chance romance between Myrtle and Albert. Each relationship is given the stage time it needs to exhibit the magic and the heartbreak that love can bring.

Beryl (Beverly Rudd) and Stanley (Jos Slovick) bring an air of carefree fun as they steal a kiss and a cuddle after work before heading off to the chippy. Rudd’s charm and comic timing is impeccable and she takes your breath away as she belts out several musical numbers. Then there is Myrtle (Lucy Thackeray) who brings a warm charm as she dishes out cups of milky tea and freshly baked buns to the customers of the railway café, making sure there’s always an extra something special for stationmaster Albert (Dean Nolan).

In amongst the mirth and merriment there is the growing love story between the quintessentially British Alec and Laura. As the lovers head out in a rowing boat (that very romantic British pastime) they literally fall into the brink. The scene cleverly switches from a black and white movie of the actors on a screen to becoming real life colour as a boat on wheels is moved around the stage.

‘That’s how it all began. Just by me getting a little piece of grit in my eye.’

The majority of the play takes place at the station. From a toy train being pulled around the stage, to a black and white projected train pulling into a platform, to a smoke machine covering the stage as the steam train rattles on by; it was inspiring to see just how many different incarnations of a train arriving and leaving a railway station that there could be.

This is theatre at its best. It is a memorable show which embraces the original film with dazzling performances from a multi-talented cast who not only sing but play big brass band numbers throughout the show.

Following a run at the Birmingham Rep Theatre and The Lowry, Salford, the play moves to London for a six month run in the West End. (2nd March to 2nd September 2018.)

Friday, 16 February 2018

The Weir - Conor McPherson - Theatr Clwyd (touring)

Connor McPherson is currently receiving huge plaudits for his West End hit, Girl from the North Country; a play that weaves the songs of Bob Dylan into a tale about the lives of several people living in a Minnesota guest house in the grip of the great depression of 1934. However, it’s always been his ability to tell a great ghost story that has made me admire his work.

It is 20 years since The Weir made its debut at the Royal Court, but it is still a tale that haunts and enthrals its audience when it is told. I remember travelling around Southern Ireland about 20 years ago. I packed my little car (a blue Yugo called Fergus – very unreliable with only four gears, a tape player and windows that didn’t wind down) with no idea where I was going, or more importantly where I’d be spending each night. I would just drive and end up somewhere, usually on the outskirts of town, knocking on a B&B door hoping there would be room for me. It was in these smaller villages I’d go to the local pub, and around peat fires the locals would either be having a sing-song, or a telling a good yarn!

What I love is the simplicity of the play. It is set in a small bar in the back of beyond (I love the small details in the set design, including the boxes of Tayto cheese and onion crisps!) Jack walks in and there is no one else there, so he goes behind the bar, helps himself to a beer and pops the money in the till. Only in your local bar would you feel comfortable doing that. And that’s what it is, a familiar place to go to, where you feel at home; a place of warmth and comfort if you’re feeling isolated and lonely. 

This rural pub is where the locals gather for a bit of companionship; to swap the stories of the day, to see a friendly and familiar face over a pint. They are so used to it just being themselves, barman Brendan ( Sam O’Mahony), mechanic Jack (Sean Murray) and Jim (John O’Dowd) that they’re aghast that local businessman, Finbar (Louis Dempsey) has taken it upon himself to show a newcomer from Dublin around, Valerie (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) and he’s even bringing her to their pub! This is ruinous to the natural order of things!

At the start the boys don’t know how to act with Valerie. It’s obvious no women ever frequent the bar. A simple request for a glass of wine causes problems. Brendan goes to track a bottle down in the house; when he reappears, he pours the wine into an ordinary tumbler after a desperate search under the bar reveals no wine glasses! As the beer flows on a particularly windswept night, the boys relax and start swapping spooky tales, starting with strange goings on at the property Valerie’s renting. Tales of fairies, local stories and dead men appearing at gravesides start to grow darker and Finbar is worried the boys are scaring Valerie; but her story is far more unsettling than any of theirs.

It would be easy to just dismiss The Weir as a play of several spooky stories, but it isn’t, there are hidden depths to each character. For all of their differences, these people are just normal folk. Each character, in their own way, is isolated and what starts as sharing stories to titillate the newcomer, end up with them all  revealing their hidden anxieties and true natures.

Ireland has always given rise to a great storyteller. We’ve all sat at home when the wind has played tricks on us, we’ve heard a noise and just for a second we’ve been too scared to move. We know there’s nothing…but what if? It’s part of being alive to wonder what happens when we’re dead, so if we can open up about that fear, why can’t we open up about the other fears we face. Why is one more tolerable than another?

This revival by English Touring Theatre and Mercury Theatre Colchester has emotionally charged performances throughout; however, there are areas where its slow pace makes the night stretch a little too much. There are some beautiful lighter moments peppered throughout the play, but they get lost, almost glossed over. The most captivating parts of the play are when the characters are most out of their comfort zone. Jack, the quietest of the gang, taking centre stage to tell of his strange tale, and Finbar, the confident business man suddenly spooked as he turns back the hands of time in his mind. But the play is at its most poignant when Valerie finally opens up and finds herself no longer the outsider, but now bonded with the group.

The Weir isn’t a bunch of ghostly tales whiling away an evening, but a play of bonding, of community, of the lonely and isolated. People held together with their sharing of stories, and maybe a drink or two! 

Sunday, 11 February 2018

An Assured Principal Refuge

It’s 7am on a bitterly cold grey Saturday Morning. The wind is blowing a hooley and the rain is coming down in buckets. What I want to do is roll back over and pull the duvet over my head – instead I crawl downstairs, make a cup of tea (Assam – something strong and punchy) and head back upstairs to get dressed before driving to Manchester to tour a hotel. Yes you read that right – 7am, Armageddon outside and I’m driving to Manchester to tour a hotel!

The Principal Hotel has a commanding presence. It is a large red brick building standing on the corner of Oxford Street and Whitworth Street. When you walk out of Oxford Road railway station, The Palace Theatre stands on one corner and The Principal Hotel with its imposing clock tower stands on the other. Now I know it’s strange for me to travel somewhere and ignore the theatre, but here’s the thing, I met friends and had lunch at the hotel in December. I was blown away by the interior of the hotel and the original circa 1900 glazed tiles that adorned the walls and Romanesque pillars. My friend then casually dropped into the conversation that she’d worked with people who had done a tour of the hotel. A quick search of the internet threw up Jonathan Schofield tours. We were soon booked in for 10am Saturday 3rd February, for a history lesson and hopefully some nice photographs of the building.

The first thing to remember whilst taking the tour is that the building was not originally a hotel. The size and grandiose nature of the building works perfectly as a bespoke hotel, but from 1895 to 1987, this magnificent Grade II listed building was the home of The Refuge Assurance Company Ltd. It was an English company specialising in life insurance and pensions; as the company grew, so did the building.

The first phase of the building, the part directly on the corner of Oxford Street and Whitworth Street, was built by the Victorian architect Alfred Waterhouse during 1891 -1895.

Waterhouse was a well-established name, having built the Natural History Museum in London, Manchester Town Hall and Owens College (now Manchester University). There were 900 clerks working in the building, but as the company grew, they needed to expand the building. They purchased the land adjacent to the building in 1905, however, Alfred Waterhouse died in the same year and so the company turned to his son Paul to complete the works. Paul Waterhouse had worked alongside his father and so he turned his hand to doubling the Oxford Street frontage as far as the River Dart, matching his father’s existing style, scale and materials. He added a 220ft clock tower in the centre of the building and this became the new front entrance. On each of the quarters of the clock face there is a stylised Manchester Bee. Throughout the building, both inside and out, there are countless symbols and imagery, reminders to the workforce what they were there for.

As you walk through the doors to enter the main reception of the Principal Hotel you pass by the statues of Thrift and Industry. You suddenly get an immediate sense of just how formidable the building is and what it must have been like to work there. Staring up at the large ornate dome that dominates the inside of the building you feel like a tiny ant in comparison. It was here, in reception that I met with another 30 or 40 like-minded people. Who would think a tour of a hotel could be so popular?!

We were blessed to have Jonathan Schofield take us on the tour (his website pre-warns that he doesn’t always take the tours). He is a charismatic fellow with a wealth of information about Manchester, its buildings, its history, its industry, all brought to life with anecdotes and interactions with those on the tour.

The tour starts outside, standing on windswept, rainy corner, looking at the buildings of Alfred and Paul Waterhouse. Even on this dismal day there is grandness to the building, although it would be enhanced by a bit of blue sky and some sun bouncing off those small, red bricks! Back inside to the reception area. Originally it was open to the elements, you can see the original gutters inside the entrance doors, and if you look carefully you can see it was designed as a porte-cochere, or coach gate; a structure through which a horse and carriage would pass (later a motor car) arriving through one arch and departing through the other. This allowed occupants protection from the elements. This all stopped once the dome was built. 

Inside the walls are covered with lighter tiles to allow light to diffuse through the building. Originally in the centre was a cenotaph, but this was the only original feature that Refuge Assurance took with them when they left the building for their new office in Wilmslow in 1987. In its place a large statue of a horse commands attention. It was sculpted by the great great granddaughter of Charles Dickens (Sophie Dickens) and so there are some quotes from Dickens surrounding the horse which is made of iron and is about 1.5 times the size of a real horse. The horse symbolises strength and loyalty, nice virtues for the hotel which commissioned it to have.

A trip down into the vaults takes you back in time to why this building was built. There are many vault rooms on the lower level of the building, each filled with a number of lockable, heavy doored cabinets for storing paper policies (not cash.) Everything back in the day was done in triplicate (which took me back to my first days of working at NatWest.  I worked in the investments arm, not a banking branch, and whilst I worked in the days of the computer, my colleagues all remembered the days of the white top copy, the green file copy, and the blue reminder/diary copy. To this day, even though I no longer work for the same company, any letters I diarise for a response at work, I still call my “blues”.) The top policies – the most expensive ones – were held under lock and key in the vaults; this included the policies of the Churchill family who were clients of the Refuge Assurance Company Ltd.

During WWII the vaults had a secondary purpose. The Refuge constructed two reinforced air raid shelters in the basement; one for the general public, one for staff. The building never received a direct hit during the war; however it did suffer small amounts of damage from incendiary bombs. Roof lads were employed to “sweep” any bombs that landed on the building onto the road beneath, and due to the close proximity of St Mary’s hospital across the road, The Refuge housed many patients when the air raid sirens wailed. As you walk out of the vaults past the gate and a huge safe door and a further cage gate, you can see one of the reinforced walls with a blast door which was inserted during the war.

The Refuge is home to what is now the largest hotel ballroom in the North West. In the 1930’s, the directors of the company were concerned about the theatres that were popping up and the drunken debauchery they would bring with them. A ballroom was built with its own fully functioning stage with full drops and wings. There were music hall societies, a Gilbert and Sullivan society, a Shakespeare society and most importantly, no alcohol! About four inches below the carpeted floor lies hidden a fully sprung dance floor, like the one at the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool. Modern functions mean tables and chairs dragged across the floor would destroy it, so it lies hidden, secreted away alongside the old games/pool room of which only part of the entrance doors can now be seen on either side of the stage.

In the days of the grand old houses, servants and their employers would have their own staircases. The Refuge Assurance Company Ltd was no different. Whilst designing the second phase of the building, Paul Waterhouse also designed the Directors Staircase. It is a strange and highly elaborate affair of bronze and different marbles, including the most expensive Carrara marble from Tuscany. At the bottom of the stairs are two “gothic” lamp posts which wouldn’t be out of place on a vampire movie; as you climb the steps, stained glass coats of arms of the various places Refuge Assurance had ties with dominate, the largest being the Manchester coat of arms, complete with sailing ship for a global outlook, and a globe with seven bees atop. Seven bees for the seven seas on which a trade ship would sail!

The bees also feature behind the brass lamp fittings that illuminate the way to the top. On your way up, if you feel the waft of a draft pass by, it could be that of one of the ghosts of the buildings has passed you. There is a memorial in Wilmslow to the 570 Refuge Assurance men who served in WWI. 285 served and returned, 285 died and are remembered on that memorial. In WWII many more lives were lost; whilst working at The Refuge, one fiancée learnt that her future husband had died in the trenches. Distraught at the news, she ran to the top of the Directors Staircase and threw herself off the top.

The stairs take you to the Directors suite of rooms. You would only find yourself in these rooms if you were a Director, a guest, or about to be fired. The rooms were used for boardroom meetings or elaborate dinners and there were liveried staff who cooked for and waited on the Directors. Around the walls yet more imagery can be seen, verses in Latin, castles (every man’s home is his castle) sit atop the heads of carved figures and scallop shells, the symbol of wellbeing, are dotted about. If you look carefully at the swags that hang at cornice level, they are not elaborate plasterwork, but painted fabric which requires careful washing to keep clean and bright.

As you head down through the arches into the old banking room, which is now the bar, you get a sense of the hive of industry. That great space would have been full of men sitting at lecterns taking details for assurance policies. This is part of Alfred Waterhouse’s original 1893 building. The internal loggias, reminiscent of large Roman arched buildings take the centre stage in terracotta and faience. (Ceramics which can be glazed or unglazed, but in the casting processes are so dense that the soot and smoke of Manchester’s industry cannot penetrate the tile. This process makes the tile almost self-cleaning with just the aid of water/rain.) The flower on the columns is a Trillium, symbolic of Christianity. The three petals on the flower represent the Holy Trinity. Each triangular tile is a complex mathematical equation as it circles the pillar which taper towards the top. There are numerous messages in the tiles written in Roman numerals. Doors with clocks have yet more castles housed above them in the colour of a Werther’s Original sweet!

In the 1960’s The Refuge got their first mainframe computer. It was housed in the area that is now the dining room and it became a thing of wonder. People would visit the building just to see the computer, thinking that with this advancement in technology, it would put an end to the paper systems and form filling. Move forward to 2018 and the building is still a destination point for the visitor. Unusually for a hotel, it’s still a destination location with many people visiting for a few hours to take advantage of the dining area, or to meet friends and sit in the large airy bar…or for some, it’s a chance to visit a unique building with a history to tell!

To book a tour, visit

All photographs ©2018 S V Rogers

Friday, 2 February 2018

The Play That Goes Wrong - Chester Storyhouse

Dry January; the latest global fad to get people to stop drinking for a month. Other than the occasional catch up with friends and a few festive drinkies, I don’t drink an awful lot, so dry January wasn’t much of a challenge for me; but what if I gave up theatre for a month instead?

December became too busy for me to write up my Christmas trip to London, taking in plays, exhibitions and the annual Operation Smile Carol service, so I haven’t been on here for a while. (A big thank you to those who asked me if I was OK – I never knew you cared!) During "Dry January" I spent the month watching films and burying my head in a multitude of books. I know I should have shared my thoughts about them, but lethargy had kicked in. If I was honest with myself, it was going to be hard to get back into writing mode after a two month break. The long daily commute in and out of work during inky darkness was catching up with me and I couldn't be bothered with much at all.

Laughter is often a great medicine, so my cure for the blues was a trip to Storyhouse Theatre in Chester to see The Play That Goes Wrong. 1st February 2018 my bum was back where it belonged…a theatre seat! This was my first trip to Storyhouse Theatre, and for another first, my partner accompanied me. (He’s not a theatre lover, but I told him this was Monty Python meets Fawlty Towers, not Chekhov or Pinter, so he was happy to give it a go.)

We are normally late for everything, so to make sure my first trip back to theatreland wasn’t wasted by not being allowed into the auditorium, I said we needed to be sat down by 7pm. (Ticket said 7:30 but I wasn’t showing him that.) As we sat down, a couple of traumatised stagehands ran past asking if we’d seen a dog. Never mind the dog, the sound/lighting technician had lost his Duran Duran CD, I think they needed to sort their priorities out!

Welcome to Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s production of “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” Before the play even begins, you know that all is not running smoothly for these hapless students. The stagehands have built a beautiful set which is held together by gaffer tape. As an unwitting member of the audience tries to help them fix things in time for the production, the proud Director Chris Bean (played by Jake Curran) takes time to welcome the audience to his directorial debut.

I must admit, I’m not a massive fan of farces. I find that they can get a bit tired and silly and I end up embarrassed and twitchy rather than relaxed and chortling with the rest of the crowd. I do like physical, cleverly written comedy. I can watch Fawlty Towers time and time again because it has both of those elements, cleverly crafted comedy with perfectly executed timings which never go stale.  

This cleverly created “play within a play” has all the hallmarks of the perfect Agatha Christie murder mystery. Every murder needs a body; in this case Charles Haversham (Steven Rostance) is found dead on the eve of his engagement party at the home of wealthy Thomas Collymore (Kazeem Tosin Amore) and his sister Florence Collymore (Elena Valentine). Of course we will need a longer list of suspects, enter the butler Perkins (Benjamin McMahon) and Cecil Haversham (Bobby Hirston) and a great detective to solve the crime, Inspector Carter (Jake Curran). As Inspector Carter tries to take control of the incident, the amateur dramatic students try their level best to remember their lines whilst executing a range of emotions with exaggerated theatrical mannerisms in amidst the chaos of the incompetent and visible “backstage” crew.

Annie, the shy stage manager (Catherine Dryden) is hilarious as she creeps across the stage, one hand covering her face so she can’t be seen by the audience, trying to fix wonky bits of set. Obviously Annie can’t have seen the script as the props required for the performance haven't been laid out properly and an attempt at improvisation is required by these poor, would be, thespians, so that they may forge ahead with their play!

It takes great skill by talented actors to make an audience roar with laughter and make them feel sorry for the poor drama students whose performance is crumbling around their ears. Despite their best efforts that “the show must go on” each Act goes from bad to worse. A collapsing set, "stars" losing consciousness, an AWOL lighting/sound technician and an understudy who doesn't know their part...can it get any worse for Cornley Polytechnic? 

Usually there is a standout performance in a play, but this time I think everyone involved is worthy of the plaudits attributed to this production.  They have managed to cover every aspect of watching an amateur dramatic show. From the pouting, posing Florence Collymore/ student Sandra; Perkins/Dennis who is unable to read the prompts written on his hand; Cecil Haversham/Max who keeps smiling and playing up the audience every time he gets a laugh; to the poor reluctant understudy Annie being forced on stage, every character made my face and side ache with laughter.

Poor Chris Bean’s directorial debut of The Murder at Haversham Manor might have fallen apart, but The Play That Goes Wrong was undoubtedly a hilarious night out and a work of genius. No wonder this play has been taken up by the West End, Broadway and is back on tour. If you get a chance to see it, please do so. As Audrey Hepburn was reported to say “I love people who make me laugh. I honestly think it’s the thing I like most, to laugh. It cures a multitude of ills. It’s probably the most important thing in a person.” 

Laughter may not put the world to rights, or cure ills, but just for a couple of hours, it lets you forget about reality; and that has to be good for the soul.

Tour dates: Until Oct 6th 2018
London shows:  Until Sept 30th 2018