Thursday, 23 March 2017

Northanger Abbey - Theatr Clwyd

"I get a huge kick about going to play Macbeth in North Wales in this theatre that seems in the middle of nowhere" Owen Teale

I love heading down to London to meet friends and watch theatre, but I also know that I’m incredibly lucky that I have the opportunity to see great theatre back at home in North Wales.  The renowned West End actor Owen Teale once said of Theatr Clwyd in Mold "I get a huge kick about going to play Macbeth in North Wales in this theatre that seems in the middle of nowhere and you sell out, it's extraordinary. You get 500-600 people a night, it's fantastic."

He's right, it is extraordinary. It's a 15 min drive for me to pop down the road to get my "fix" and for a theatre in the middle of nowhere, it has a fantastic programme year on year. It keeps me entertained in between visits to London and I was especially looking forward to seeing Northanger Abbey. It therefore made me nearly laugh out loud when Isabella Thorpe, a character in the play, announce that the theatre in Bath was terrible and she couldn’t wait to be back in London.  I could feel the eyes of my friend boring into me in a manner of mirth that suggested I could just as well be Isabella! (Although I have to say I've been to the theatre in Bath too, and it was a most enjoyable evening!)

That wasn’t the only similarity in the play though; the heroine of the piece, Catherine Morland, was entranced by Gothic fiction, and Jane Austen’s masterpiece set out to poke fun at what was a hugely popular genre 200 years ago. I have always enjoyed the Gothic genre, but watching this made me realise just how ridiculous it can sometimes be.

Catherine is an unworldly young lady of about 17 who lives with her parents in a small country village, and she lives her life through the pages of the romantic heros and heroines of her novels, ostensibly The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe.

Catherine’s neighbours, Mr and Mrs Allen, take her to the city of Bath for six weeks in order for her meet and mingle in society circles. This commences the awakening of Catherine from her dream world, as she mixes with the elite in The Bath Assembly Rooms, her desperation to be with her beloved books blurs her take on life of what is fantasy and what is reality.

As in all great romantic novels, Catherine is pursued by two men, the dashing Mr Henry Tilney, and the awful brother of her new friend, John Thorpe. John is hopeful of marrying Catherine as he believes that in doing so he will inherit an enormous amount of wealth from her, Henry however has true romance in his heart. He invites her to stay at Northanger Abbey with his sister and father, and Catherine automatically becomes excited at the thought of staying in an abbey. What sinister things could be taking place at the abbey? Staying there would surely be like a storyline in The Mysteries of Udolpho!

I wasn’t sure how this novel could be transformed to the stage, but the simplistic, cleverly manufactured set, allowed the audience to enter into Catherine’s imagination. Screens allowed for the simple elegance of the dance floors of Bath to be transformed into the Gothic arches of the Abbey by basic projections. As passages were read out from Catherine's favourite book, the characters seemingly came to life around her, only for them to fade away and turn into the real people surrounding her in the Assembly Rooms in Bath.  It was an incredibly effective way of entering Catherine’s world. Whilst it was a strong cast all round, Eva Feiler as Catherine really stood out. She had such a charming innocence yet youthful exuberance. The characters from her books take over her life, in a manner not too dissimilar to many people today, who live through the soap operas that they watch on TV.

The tone of the play was lighthearted and very tongue in cheek about Gothic literature, however the play never overstepped the mark. It didn't become too contrived or stupid, it had a straightforward effective charm which made for an enjoyable evening.

Tour dates in 2017 are as follows:

Mar 8 - 11 The Haymarket Basingstoke
Mar 14 - 18 Theatr Clwyd Mold
Mar 20 - 25 Theatre Royal Windsor
Apr 3 - 6 Northcott Theatre Exeter
Apr 10 - 12 Derby Theatre
May 2 - 6 New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich
May 9 - 13 The Dukes Lancaster

Friday, 17 March 2017

Frankenstein (Box Clever Theatre) & Lost Without Words - National Theatre

This weekend my travels to London were taking me on an unexpected journey. I had received an invitation to attend a read through of Box Clever Theatre’s latest play. I was intrigued. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I knew it would be enlightening and not an experience to miss. Another opportunity I realised I now had, was that I could go and see Anna Calder-Marshall in Lost Without Words at The National Theatre. She had mentioned it when I saw her in Birmingham after a production of the play Love. Lost Without Words is only an hour long and so it didn’t warrant the expense of a special trip to London, but if I was already there…

I got up bright and early on Sunday morning. I had had my hair styled a few days earlier, but it needed a wash, and I thought “I’m going to blow-dry it like my hairdresser does.” So I sectioned my hair off and started curling my hair up…and then disaster struck. I telephoned my neighbour. No reply. I texted my neighbour “ Please don’t laugh…I’ve got my hairbrush stuck in my hair. Can you rescue me?” “OMG!!! That’s hilarious!!!Of course hun.”

Hilarious???? I trotted round to next door with hairbrush stuck in hair and endured 20 minutes of my saviour slowly untangling my unruly mane with the aid of fabric conditioner. “I think” she said “you might want to wash your hair again hun.” Not only did I have to suffer the indignity of being covered in fabric softener, but no-one in her household looked at all surprised that their next door neighbour had suddenly appeared with a brush spot-welded to her scalp.

Hair washed for a second time that morning, and allowed to dry naturally (a ball of frizz then) I drove to the station hoping that the day would get better. I parked and had most of a train carriage to myself…so the day was starting to look up. To round it off I met my two wonderful friends and we headed off to our usual hotel for a much longed for catch up session and dinner at The Swan (by The Globe.)

Fearless Friends Enter Frankenstein’s Lair.

A bright sunny Monday morning dawned, not the type of day to encounter Gothic horror, but Box Clever was about to take me on an absorbing journey into a dark and atmospheric voyage of discovery. I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein some 20 years ago as part of my English Literature degree. Whilst I couldn’t remember the entire plot, I did recall that it was a long book containing a multitude of characters.

I was given a warm welcome by Michael Wicherek, the Artistic Director of Box Clever, who gave a brief explanation about what to expect during the morning. Box Clever had been working with several schools near Manchester, Lincolnshire and Kent to turn Frankenstein from the text they knew, into a 60 minute play. The play had to be written for only three actors, yet still remain true to the original story. They discussed what the play meant to them, some questioning what a book published in 1818 could offer them in this modern age.  It was then reiterated that this was a read-through, the actors were not to do too much acting; we were to concentrate on the play. What worked, what didn’t, what we liked, what we didn’t.

Three actors took to the floor, two male, who were to play Frankenstein and his creation/monster and one female who would play the writer of the story. I sat transfixed. The entire tale was told in just over an hour. We bore witness to Frankenstein’s obsession with trying to create life. We saw the result of his work and the destruction of people in the process. We saw a creature, rejected at birth, desperate for love and affection yet receiving indifference and hostility. All of this was woven around the writer, whose job it was to pull the tale together, to give it sense and meaning.

All good Gothic tales need a rumble of thunder....

The writer sets a scene of classic Gothic horror, the sound of the rain has to be just right. There has to be thunder, and there has to be a reason we find ourselves where we do. The best place to do that is to go back to the start, to a young Frankenstein, back to when he first saw lightening and wondered about its power and potential. Once his creator is born, Frankenstein bears witness to what he has done, and the writer questions his actions. Why did he do what he did? What has his obsession achieved? The ultimate question then has to be asked, who is the real monster? The creature, or the creator? This question is put directly at the audience. This is not a play where you sit back and let your mind wander, this is a play designed to engage you, make you question the text, question the characters and what motivates people in general. Do people ever think of the consequences of their actions and the pain they can cause to others?

Afterwards there was an opportunity to discuss the play in an open forum, and it was heartening to see some of the students who had come down to watch the play. They engaged with it and opened up the discussion as to whether the writer should be played by a woman. Of course the original writer, Mary Shelley, was a woman, and so an interesting debate ensued. We then withdrew for tea and coffee and an opportunity to chat with Michael, the actors and some of the other trustees/friends of Box Clever about our views about what we had just seen. I really enjoyed the light and shade of the piece. It started on a light and jovial note and plunged headlong into the darkness of the obsessive nature of Frankenstein. We were then let up for air before being horrified by the effect that people’s attitudes had on the creature. It was difficult and emotive viewing watching this creature that was desperate for love, learning, like a child learns, that society has cast him aside. But of course the question remains, is it nature or nurture that has made him this way? Was it society that made him a killer, or was he always destined to be a killer? Great conversations were had by all parties and it really made me appreciate the work that goes into taking a text and turning it into live theatre.

This was a really emotional and powerful piece of writing, and all parties should be proud of their work. I cannot wait to see what a director will do with the piece, there is certainly some great material there for him to work with, and for me, autumn cannot come quickly enough for me to see how the final play turns out. 

Lost Without Words - National Theatre

Frankenstein had left me lost for words, but now I was about to see another completely different side of theatre, an hour of improvisation.

When I was younger I loved watching Whose Line Is It Anyway? I enjoyed watching comedians think on their feet, some being more successful than others! Tonight, the National Theatre placed five actors on stage for an hour, gave them a keyboardist, a lighting technician, a sound technician, and two directors. What they weren’t given was a script!

It was an hour where anything could, and would happen. Five great stalwarts of stage and screen, all in their 70’s and 80s, took to the stage; Anna Calder-Marshall, Georgine Anderson, Lynn Farleigh, Tim Preece and Caroline Blakiston. The Director said the theme was "lost" and Anna Calder-Marshall took centre stage and showed her wicked side by turning a tale of two old friends bumping into each other, into a story of remembering how they would play in the woods as children. Then it transpired that Anna was really a witch, turning her unsuspecting friend into a frog…and making her hop across the stage. It was like watching a live episode of Inside No 9!

Georgine and Caroline then took to the stage as mother and daughter, mother deciding she was going to take her daughters new car for a spin. It was great watching the director pop up and tell them to just be a passenger, don’t do anything, it was giving a little glimpse into the secret world of theatre, just as the read through at Box Clever had done earlier in the day.

It has to be said, that whilst all of the actors played their parts perfectly, Anna stole the show. In another “round” the actors were told they were not allowed to say the letter “S”. If they did, the forfeit was to act in pain. Watching Anna and Lynn desperately try not to say the letter “S” was edge of the seat theatre. You could feel the audience willing them through the sketch, and when Anna delivered a fantastic speech and was nearly at the end before saying the word “saw” you could hear the groans of the audience as they showed both their appreciation and disappointment that she had slipped up; watching her writhe in pain added to the hilarity of the piece though.

We then met the Gracious family…a card plucked at random gave the whole ensemble a chance to work together, all of them having to act graciously throughout. It was pure genius, even the directors could be seen laughing at the ludicrousness of it all. But the night wasn’t all about hilarity. The final piece was a heart rending spot where Anna Calder-Marshall took to the stage, slumped in a chair. The director placed a basket at the side of her chair and told her to reach down and imagine taking something out of the basket. Anna chose a kitten, and as she stroked and talked to it, she became more and more distressed about who she was. She was directed to change direction, to move towards an operatic scenario, and so she sang softly about who was she, was she young or old. Suddenly someone walks towards her claiming to be her sister. She then walks back off. Anna returned to her seat and her kitten, smiling serenely at the thought that she has a sister that she could not remember. It was a very poignant ending to what was a fantastic theatrical experiment. It’s one I think worked very well, and I would love to see some more shows like this.

Lost Without Words runs at The Dorfman Theatre until 18th March 2017

Friday, 10 March 2017

NT LIVE - Hedda Gabler

While the cats away, the mice will play! My other half has gone to America for a week, leaving me home alone. It’s amazing just how liberating it feels. Strange I suppose when it’s clear that I spend most days doing what I like anyway, but this time it feels different. I’ll usually say “oh you don’t mind if I go to London next week do you?” Or, “I’m heading out for tea on Thursday with the girls after work.” They are general statements marking my intent, and politely informing him of my movements.

Ruth Wilson was extraordinary in the lead role of Hedda. She brought the character up to date, and showed that a story written over 100 years ago still has so much resonance today. When you think of Ibsen, you might think of corsets, a historical tale, enjoyable to watch, but set around the past. This modern interpretation by Ivo Van Hove sees Hedda wandering around a vast stage barefoot, clothed only in her dressing gown or night slip. It adds to the feeling of entrapment and inner turmoil that Hedda is going through.

Ibsen purists would probably complain that turning it into a modern masterpiece detracts from the fact that he wrote the play at a historically important time for women. The 1890’s was the time of the New Woman, a feminist movement where women’s voices become more vocal and confident, and this uprising of the strong confident woman is somewhat obscured by the plays modern setting. It is also interesting that Ibsen called the play Hedda Gabler, rather than her married name of Hedda Tesman, but we have little concept of her aristocratic heritage in this version, the issue is mentioned, but little emphasis is placed on the fact she was more an aristocratic daughter than the wife of her husband that we see. But this said, this abridged version of Ibsen’s play conveys the most important messages that he was writing about.

The play commences with Hedda slumped over a piano, playing a mournful tune, whilst life goes on around her. Every step Ruth Wilson takes shows Hedda’s despair and desolation. Idly playing with the blinds, letting light and then dark play on the walls of the room she feels trapped in, shows the boredom and lack of fight she has in her depression. As Brack appears, a judge who has helped her acquire the home of her dreams, there is a poignant moment where Hedda tells him she has confined herself into a meaningless marriage. She is admitting it is better to be in a loveless marriage than left on the shelf.

Left on her own, however, Hedda is strong, feisty, almost demonic, as she grabs handfuls of flowers and throws them about the flat with such force and venom. She lets all of these feelings out, but not when anyone is watching her. She liberally decorates the wall with flowers she picks up from the floor, stapling them to the walls in a frenzy. Wilson conveys the secret side of Hedda, she gets inside Hedda’s mind and shows this wild spirit trapped inside her.

Whilst the play focuses on Hedda, it is worth pointing out that this version has a strong supporting cast. Kyle Soller plays her husband Tesman as an enthusiastic, vibrant personality. He enjoys what he does, he has an interest in the world, in books, in learning, but he is not a dry old crusty academic. His interest in life is the dynamic opposite of Hedda’s disinterest. There is even a point in the play where Hedda confirms she has no interest in anything he says; what lights up Tesman’s life throws Hedda’s into darkness.

Soller’s Tesman is a passionate person, and this is shown by his enthusiasm to reconstruct Lovborg’s manuscript that Hedda, in a moment of pure devilment burns to pieces. She knew what the manuscript meant to Lovborg, to Tesman, to Mrs Elvsted, but still she took sheer delight in burning those precious handwritten pages. Unlike Hedda’s privileged upbringing, Tesman has had to work for what he has achieved; he has known what it is like to struggle. He is hard working and decent. Hedda is full of melodramatic romanticism, constantly repeating the phrase “vine leaves in his hair,” with a sense of melancholy.

It is a play full of opposites, that when added together form a whole community. Judge Brack, a confident character, manipulative, aware as a judge of the criminal mind and careful to conceal his corruption of Hedda’s often unstable mind. Lovborg, a romantic figure who lives life to the full, is heading down a path to destruction. Mrs Elvsted, a woman bullied by Hedda at school, but who has grown, who has the strength to leave her husband and fight for what she wants. Aunt Julie, full of duty, dedicated to Tesman, and committed to others, which is refreshing in a play where everyone else is so self-absorbed.

This might not have been the historical version of Ibsen’s play, but it opens the audience’s eyes to see that even now, with so many options available to women, there are those that still feel trapped, helpless, and are ultimately boring themselves to death with a life less lived. 

So whilst at times this was a difficult play to watch, it was a great, unplanned, way to spend my evening!

Nell Gwynn - The Lowry, Salford

Nell Gwynn, the humble orange seller, actress and stealer of the King’s heart. A woman famed in history, but in reality very little is known of her life before she attended the court of King Charles II. No accurate records were kept of the working classes in the 17th Century; as can be seen from my recent post about The Fatal Tree, this was still the case in the 18th Century too.

So what is known of Eleanor “Nell” Gwynn? She was born in 1650 and died in 1687. Hereford, London and Oxford all lay claim to be the birthplace of Nell; tales tell that she grew up in Coal Yard Lane, a slum off Drury Lane in London. Her mother kept a brothel, and it is likely Nell worked as a prostitute until she began selling oranges in the pit at Drury Lane. Somehow she made it on the stage, and whilst she was unable to read, she made a success of becoming a popular and successful actress. Her sharp wit, and beauty caught the eye of King Charles II and she became his favourite mistress. Unlike the Kings other mistresses, Nell never involved herself with politics nor asked for a title, it seems she had truly fallen in love with the King. The feeling seemingly reciprocated in the Kings dying words “Let not poor Nellie starve.”

This production of Nell Gwynn does not purport to be a historically accurate portrayal of her life, nor does it tackle the serious issues of the time, instead it is a humorous and entertaining homage to the quick witted, sharp tongued Nell played with great aplomb by Laura Pitt-Pulford. Key events of her life are mapped out by a talented cast who joyously break into song and dance routines. Sitting high up on the balcony are four musicians playing instruments of the period, which give the play a sense of 17th Century England.

A special mention must be given to Esh Alladi who plays Edward Kynaston, the actor famed for playing women’s roles. Whilst Shakespeare wrote about women in his plays, actresses hadn’t been seen on the stage, their parts were played by men. Kynaston is furious at the notion of a woman being on stage, “It’s ridiculous, that’s what it is. It’ll be the death of theatre, I tell you!” No-one could ever play Desdemona as well as he could…especially a woman. What did women know about all 372 attitudes, or the 21 varieties of grief expressed by the left eyebrow? The play becomes a play within a play…the teaching of acting. It is hard to believe that such lessons go on at RADA, but it was hilarious watching Hart tutoring Nell in the art of showing terror, love, despair, and of course anger…something that apparently comes easily to women!

Nell does have a few speeches stating that plays need to feature stronger female roles, and whilst it pays lip service to the talents of women it’s only a light dusting of seriousness in a Carry-On style play that is heavily laden with innuendo. Even the harder parts of Nell’s life, trying to take on court life, the death of her mother and having to choose between King and stage are given a liberal sprinkling of party dust so that we don’t lose that upbeat mood.

It is certainly not a play full of gravitas; it is a play full of fun showing the rags to riches story of a character that was popular with the people of her day. It charts the rise of the theatre, something King Charles II wished to popularise following Cromwell’s earlier closure of this popular public pursuit. It shows the changing attitudes to women being seen on stage. But most importantly, it gives an entertaining evening out that doesn’t require intense debate afterwards, it’s simply a play to be enjoyed!

(Whilst this play has now finished at The Lowry, it's still on tour... click below for details.)

Friday, 3 March 2017

The Fatal Tree - Jake Arnott

It’s not often I’ll pre-order a book, even more rarely that I’ll devote the weekend to reading it, but having read The House of Rumour a couple of years ago, I was really looking forward to Arnott’s latest offering.

The House of Rumour introduced the reader to some infamous faces of the twentieth century such as the occultist Alexander Crowley, Naval Intelligence Officer and James Bond novelist Ian Fleming and Nazi politician Rudolf Hess. Arnott cleverly weaved a tale of fiction around real life events and people, and whilst the book wasn’t perfect, and possibly a little contrived in places, I really became absorbed sifting through the fact and fiction!

History may have forgotten them, but at the time, they were the celebrities of the day.

When I realised that Arnott’s latest book was going to take me back in time to the 18th century and the thieves and whores of London I was more than a little intrigued. Whilst the book is a work of fiction, the central characters of Elizabeth Lyon, Jack Sheppard, Joseph ‘Blueskin’ Blake and Jonathan Wild are real. Whilst the exploits of legends like Dick Turpin remain in modern society, Jack Sheppard and friends have fallen by the wayside.

“Some blame the serpents, some Eve for the fall, but who planted the evil sapling that grew with the heavy fruit of its branches hanging so low and so tempting? The same cruel God who decreed His one and only Son should be strung upon a wooden gibbet.  It was He who cursed us with conscious thought.”     The Fatal Tree – Jake Arnott

An anonymous writer is compiling the story of Elizabeth Lyon from Newgate Gaol in 1726. She tells him the story of her adventures, from simple servant girl, to her arrival in London and the misfortunes that beset her for her to become the notorious thief and whore Edgworth Bess. She made the fatal error of falling in love with the first man who showed her attention, a mistake she wouldn’t make again, or so she thought.

Told in her own words, and using the street slang of the day, Bess tells the tale of how she was cast from the apparent safety of her home in the country, to falling onto the mean streets of London where she met Mother Needham. Before she could fall under the ruin of Mother Needham, she is rescued by Punk Alice and meets Jonathan Wild, the thief-taker, for the first time. Has Bess been saved, or has she just gone from the frying pan into the fire? This is not the tale of how someone escapes the ruin of the city, but how to survive through it.

“In a bad world there is little point in being good”

Most of Elizabeth’s notoriety has lasted due her involvement with the gaol breaker Jack Sheppard. His life has been written about numerous times, and in these books Bess does not come out of the tale as a likeable person. She is deemed responsible for Jack’s downward spiral into a life of crime. It was Bess who convinced him they should live together as man and wife. She convinced him to steal for her, and once he was introduced to Joseph ‘Blueskin’ Blake, the crimes became greater and more frequent leading to Jack’s arrests.

In The Fatal Tree, Bess is shown with more soul than her previous incarnations, but she is still a whore and a thief; she has not been idolised. In a world of love and betrayal, Arnott has thrown fuel onto the fire as to how an ordinary girl could fall onto hard times and end up in a life selling herself on the streets. Very little is really known about Elizabeth Lyons, most of her life is known solely through her involvement with Jack Sheppard and the scholarly texts of his life, but, for what is known of generic sex workers of the period, the tale of Bess is a well-constructed and believable one.

Oranges and Lemons say the bells of St. Clements…

As a child I never paid much attention to the lyrics. There have been many variations of the song/nursery rhyme, different churches mentioned, some added, some removed, and so it is difficult to say with certainty what the meaning of the song is. One thing is for certain, the song in all of its variations embodies a long forgotten past.  Looking into the history of the churches unlocks that past, and so does Arnott’s book in a skilfully weaved text of fact and fiction.

I have recently started visiting a pub called The Flying Horse on my various trips to London. My first encounter of the pub was through Robert Galbraith’s novel The Cuckoo’s Calling.  Her protagonist, Cormoran Strike, drinks at The Tottenham Pub (which is what The Flying Horse was known as for a period of time.) I thought it would be an interesting place to visit, and whilst I enjoyed it for its good selection of beer and gin, I was also mesmerised by its historic interior.

Behind the wooden bar is a simple notice, advising patrons of the sites past.
“The Flying Horse sits on the site of the St Giles Circus Crossroads which until the 15th Century was the location of the gallows where prisoners were kept in a large metal cage.”
It was hard to visualise this modern day busy crossroads, where people stream out of Tottenham Court Road tube station and head to the songs and starlight playing at the Dominium Theatre, as an area where public hangings took place; but that was the entertainment of the day back then. It was harder still to think that the gallows were moved and The Fatal Tree, the Tyburn gallows, was situated where Marble Arch now stands. I’ve wandered around Drury Lane and Covent Garden and now realise the secrets those streets could tell; I wonder how many shoppers on Oxford Street can say the same.

The Fatal Tree might be a work of fiction, but it allows the reader to enter a time gone by, to use imagination with a liberal sprinkling of fact. Whilst I read the book, as various characters and locations appeared, I looked them up on the internet. The past is quite fascinating. And as Jake Arnott say’s at the end of his book, if anyone else has knowledge of Elizabeth Lyon, it would be nice to know!