Monday, 22 April 2019

Orpheus Descending – Tennessee Williams - Theatr Clwyd

The Greek God Apollo gave his son Orpheus a lyre; which he played to such perfection that nothing could resist the music he played. He fell in love with Eurydice, a woman of exquisite beauty. They married and for many years they were supremely happy. One day Eurydice was wandering in the forest when a shepherd called Aristaeus saw her and became beguiled by her beauty. He chased her, she tripped, was bitten by a snake and died. Orpheus took to lamenting his grief by playing his lyre until Apollo told his son to travel to Hades and visit his wife.

Orpheus took to the stygian world and upon finding Hades played his lyre and poured out his grief to him. Hades was moved by the sound and told Orpheus he could have his wife back. She was to walk behind him and he was not to turn to look at her until they had both exited the underworld, or she would have to return to Hades. Orpheus was nearly at the exit when he thought he had been duped by the Gods, so he turned, saw Eurydice, and then she returned to the underworld forever. Orpheus tried to re-enter the underworld but could not as a mortal. He died and the Muses saved his head in order that the living would remain enchanted by the beauty of his song.

This Greek myth formed the basis for Tennessee Williams’ lesser known play Orpheus Descending, which is a co-production between my local theatre in Mold, Theatr Clwyd and The Mernier Chocolate Factory in London.

There is often a reason why some plays are performed lass than others. Looking back at the reviews of past productions, the play is not met with much enthusiasm. It has been described as long-winded…it plods along with an extensive cast of superfluous characters wafting in and out of this slow-paced play. It was therefore with some in trepidation that I went to watch this latest attempt to bring this play to the masses. It didn’t help that as I took my seat, an usher came over to me to apologise for forgetting to say the first act was “rather long…it lasts 1 hour 40, but after the break the second act only runs for 40 minutes!”

I need not have worried. Tamara Harvey may not think that she is a genius, but I was completely engaged throughout the first 1 hour and 40 minutes. The time flew by as I was whisked away to the Deep South, to watch a story about life and death, love and loneliness, prejudice and narrowmindedness. It is a reminder of the current climate of hate that seems to constantly occupy news headlines these days.

The stage is at ground level, so the front row of the audience and the actors are on the same level. As the lights go up, Uncle Pleasant (Valentine Hudson) sets the scene for our tragic tale. We are in the centre of a Mississippi store; the owner Lady Torrance is bringing her husband home who is recovering from an operation. Local gossips Beulah Binnings (Catrin Aaron) and Dolly Hamma (Laura Jane Matthewson) are setting up a welcoming party. As they chat and unpack the hampers, we realise Lady was the daughter of an Italian man who sold liquor to some blacks. A group of locals found out and torched his home, his vine yards and his garden filled with little white arbours where folk would drink and party the night away. He died in the middle of the fire; and his daughter did not know that she married the man responsible for her father’s death.

The gossip is interrupted by the arrival of Carol Cutrere (Jemima Rooper) a woman who is too strong-willed for this backwater. The locals have run this bad girl out of town, but here she is, turning up like a bad penny, all dressed up in leopard print, red lipstick and high heels. There was something in the defiance of this character that I loved. It didn’t matter what people said about her, what stories they made up to manipulate feelings and bad will amongst the rest of the community, here she was, head held high, carrying on regardless. There was an inner strength that we sometimes forget we possess, one that stops us being the victim of abuse, one that encourages us to fight for what we believe in.

If the townsfolk didn’t like the appearance of Carol Cutrere, it was nothing to their reaction of seeing the stranger Valantine Xavier (Seth Numrich) rocking up with his guitar and snake-skin jacket. To them he’s just trouble, and you already know in a backwater full of jealousy and hatred, it’s not going to end well for him. This type of townsfolk can’t bear to see anyone happy, but Lady (Hattie Morahan) can see a flicker of hope with the arrival of the young man. She dares to dream he could be her ticket to liberation, but she is constrained by her domineering husband and the community, so anything she tries to do won’t be easy.

Williams’ rich dialogue is sometimes hard to listen to in these modern times. Referring to wops and niggers as though they are second-class citizens, dehumanised from the rest of society, but this racial viciousness is necessary. It shows the pettiness, the malice, the hatred of anyone different in the community. This language makes you want to rally against this small-minded clique, to rise up and give them a shake, to tell them to stop being so blinkered. But it also makes you realise that a lot of those narrow-minded, insular prejudices are still in existence, nearly 80 years after William’s first draft was written. Just take a quick flick through Twitter, or even closer to home, private messages full of tittle tattle of mythical proportions, creating melodramas within small circles of friends because people are so insecure of themselves. They have to try to cut down the Carol Cutrere’s of this world to stand half a chance of survival.

The first version of this play called Battle of Angels bombed. It was rewritten but the newer version’s exploration of the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and the evil, material world of darkness still failed to meet with a positive reception. In order to succeed, the play requires a fast-pace, which keeps the poetic nature of William’s writing, but allows us to engage and then move on from each character. This production delivers that. Parts of the play which could become farcical instead become a spiritual lesson in humanity.

Those who have enjoyed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire or Summer and Smoke should not be put off by this lesser known work and instead embrace the poetry of William’s writing and the all-encompassing staging of the play where the actors and audience become one.

Orpheus Descending

Theatr Clwyd Mold  15 April - 27 April 2019
Transfers to Menier Chocolate Factory, London 9 May – 6 July 2019

Monday, 15 April 2019

Kiss Me Quickstep - Theatr Clwyd

I love Strictly Come Dancing. I’m not one of those mega fans who can recite who appeared in each series, nor can I tell you who won each year, but as a piece of easy watching entertainment as the winter nights draw in, it ticks many boxes for me. Fabulous costumes, dancing, great music (although some memorable tunes have been reduced to screeched pastiches by the in-house singers) and a host of people (many of whom I have never heard of) trying to learn a new skill. 

When I was at school, I made costumes for the dance troop in my spare time. I think my teacher hoped I’d have a career in fashion or costume design, but sadly my school didn’t offer A-Level Textiles, plus my confidence in my artistic abilities plummeted during my 6th form at school. There were people out there far more talented than me and I had no-one telling me to believe in myself or pointing me in the right direction, so sewing became a pastime for pleasure. 

When I saw a play called Kiss Me Quickstep at Theatr Clwyd, I felt I would be spending a night blown away by fabulous costumes, music and dancing. I arrived to take my seat and was told I would have to wait until the safety curtain was raised. I was a little bemused. I thought the stage was going to be traverse style…which to be fair it was…I just thought I’d be sat below stage level…not actually on it! Once I got over the initial shock that I would be sat on the stage, on the front row with the rest of the audience able to see me I settled down to take stock of my unusual viewpoint. I felt as though I was one of the judges, ready to hold up my score card each time a couple danced! I tweeted a photo of where I was sat and someone responded by sending me one from the's looking back atcha!

Kiss Me Quickstep takes you into the world of ballroom and Latin dance competitions. We are transported to the Blackpool Winter Gardens and the National Amateur Championships and the private battles three couples have in their quest to raise the winning trophy. There are the reining champions, Lee and Samantha; the new partnership of Luka and Nancy; and the ever-hopeful Justin and Jodie who up until now have danced in the shadow of Lee and Samantha. Just like at real competitions, the actors sat on the stage changing from their track suits into their sparkling dresses. But it seemed they also brought some excess baggage with them too. 

Watching you, watching me!
Samantha is still mourning the loss of her mother and is unable to compete without slyly drinking vodka from her water bottle. Justin and Jodie arrive at the competition despite their car falling apart and breaking down enroute, and it seems that they are so deep in debt the chances of them being able to fix the car or buy a more reliable mode of transport is as much a pipe-dream to them as winning the competition. Poor Nancy is trying to have success in the shadow of her bullying father who has recently paid for Luka to come over from Russia to become her new dance partner as the last one wasn’t good enough!

All of this makes for the premise of a great story, but despite sitting in the thick of the action I found the play a bit dull. The characters were rather wooden and one dimensional. It seemed that their trials and tribulations were a bit boring and there was no underdog to root for. Everyone seemed to be on an equal footing, each with their own revelation that you’d already worked out for yourself. There wasn’t enough chemistry for the audience to believe that Samantha and Jodie had been best friends at school, or that Luka and Lee are clearly gay. This was skirted around, and bearing in mind the furore that has beset Strictly Come Dancing about same sex couples, this would have been the ideal ground to explore this narrative.

When we get to the quarter finals a couple is eliminated and Nancy’s dad continues to interfere in her routines on the basis that he is trying to ensure she doesn’t win the competition. It all seemed rather confused and dreary which is a shame as there were some really good dance routines, but they were too short and crammed into the second half. The chorography extended beyond the Jive, Foxtrot, Paso Doble etc as crew members wheeled dress racks in a routine across the stage to create dressing rooms for the contestants, and it was nice to see local community dancers take to the stage to give the impression that there were more dancers in the competition, but this didn’t salvage the play.

I enjoyed the dancing and the costumes, and it has to be said the cast gave superb performances from this lacklustre text, but I found the story rather insipid and not full of the glitz and glamour I was expecting. In the words of former Strictly judge Len Goodman, I would give this production a kindly “Severrrrn!”

Ian McKellen on Stage - Theatr Clwyd (18/03/2019)

Sir Ian McKellen...with an 'E' a legend of stage and screen. I thought I was blessed to be able to see him in London (on my birthday!) playing the titular role of King Lear, but that wouldn't compare to seeing him treading the boards of my local theatre in Mold.

It's Sir Ian's 80th birthday year and he's celebrating in style, visiting 80 theatres up and down the country which have a particular meaning to him. As soon as I received the email that he was coming to Theatr Clwyd I told my hairdresser to get a move on so I could rush home and book a couple of tickets. By the time I got home I'd missed the front row seats, but I managed to purchase two seats on row BB, and the way the seats were arranged, technically you were kind of on the front row view-wise!!

Later that evening I told my other half I was seeing Sir Ian and that my friend Nikki would be joining me. Now everyone on here has probably gathered that my OH isn’t a theatre goer, but I had committed the cardinal sin. "But, but, but, that's Gandolf he exclaimed!" Oh dear God, there would be no end to it if I couldn't get him a ticket, so back online I went. I was stunned, the tickets were not on general sale and within 12 hours were practically sold out on both evenings. I found a seat on row A for him which he was happy with...and so he should have been, it cost nearly three times as much as my ticket (a £10 bargain!)

"You shall not pass.”

So the evening I'd been waiting ages for arrived. Nikki, OH and I went to the Glasfryn for dinner and Nikki and I got tipsy on a bottle of Prosecco! We excitedly sat down. All we could see on stage was a large funny it would be if he burst out of the box we giggled. Suddenly the lights went off, we were sat in a pitch-black auditorium, and the sound of Sir Ian’s voice boomed through the darkness…”You shall not pass”…Gandolf was suddenly in the room with an enraptured audience. He held the great tome aloft as he quoted its contents. I was stunned…remembering lines for a play was one thing, but remembering great swathes of text? I sat feeling a little ashamed that I have never read the Lord of the Rings, or indeed The Hobbit. It turns out I’m in good company…neither has he!

We were then regaled with tales from filming Lord of the Rings. All the people that have told him they religiously read the text every year; including Christopher Lee, and just how fond he was of Legolas when he saw him. Ahhh Legolas...the only reason I watched the entire franchise!!

"Being an actor was never the plan, I just fell in love with the magic of the theatre. I had to be around it and the rest just followed.

And so we progressed onto Sir Ian's life. His childhood, his dream of becoming an actor after watching the magic of Peter Pan come to life on stage. His early days of acting up in his hometown of Wigan. How back in the day you had a touring box, hence the box on stage, which would contain all you needed...props, costumes etc to go on stage. And that of course was why he couldn’t jump out of the was too full of what he required for the evening's entertainment. I smirked at how well he knew the minds of his audience.

I thought he had chosen Theatr Clwyd as he must have performed there, but no, that night was the first night he had trod the boards of the Sir Anthony Hopkins Theatr. So why choose Mold...a theatre in the middle of nowhere, in a town no-one has heard of.  Well it turns out that as a child he remembered holidays down the road in Conwy, and his father walking the nearby Snowdonia Range. He had spent the day reminiscing in Conwy...and I think that set him up for an excellent evening of storytelling.  

"Has anyone here been to Buckingham Palace?"

A cheeky glisten is in his eyes as he good-naturedly enquires of the achievements of the audience. He’s not showing off; he’s sharing an intimate moment of when he received his knighthood. There is no pretentiousness in his tale, he is still the down to earth person he was growing up in Lancashire, but he is someone who has stories most of us can only dream about, and here he is, in his armchair recounting tales that are very personal to him.

Sir Ian launches into a rendition of Gus the Theatre Cat by T S Eliot while sitting in his foldaway chair. It always chokes me when I read it, ever since I was a child and I got Andrew Lloyd Webbers stage play on Vinyl! Sir Ian is playing the voice of Gus in the new film version of Cats which is set to grace the cinema screens in 2019. His ability to recite poetry is sublime, this is continued with his reading of Sir Edward Manley-Hopkins’ The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo – the lament for lost beauty and youth which brings the first half of the show to a close. (Whilst it was wonderful to listen to, I must be honest and say I still prefer listening to Richard Burton’s rendition!)

"Go to Flint Castle; there I’ll pine away"

After the interval it was time to bed down with Shakespeare. Sir Ian has had an extraordinary career as a Shakespearean actor. He invited us to shout out the names of all of Shakespeare’s plays, curious to know if we could remember them all, including the obscure ones. He did note there were some members of the audience who having directed Shakespeare and should know them all...and were therefore not supposed to shout out!!! Just to illustrate how many plays Shakespeare wrote, he rummaged in his box and brought out copies of each text! As a title was shouted out, he would pick up the relevant book and give an insight into a story whilst  he had performed the play, or indeed at times he’d put the book down, give a withering look and say “I have nothing to say about that one!”

I was sat wearing my Macbeth t-shirt...hmm should I shout that out? Maybe if I did the theatre would fall know what theatrical folk are like...maybe I'd be better shouting the Scottish play...but then what if he's not superstitious?  By the time I'd finished deliberating someone had beaten me to it (the Scottish play they called out)...and his anecdotal response made me realise that it turns out not all the acting fraternity are particularly superstitious after all!!!!

I then started thinking obscure plays... Troilus and Cressida...yes I'll shout that. But then I thought...did Shakespeare write it?? Deep down I knew he did...but what if he didn’t...hmm maybe I shouldn’t have had that Prosecco. So I remained tight-lipped, and as we got further through the plays I couldn’t remember everything that had already been shouted out...I didn’t want to duplicate an I left it to the folk sitting near the director to continue shouting out! Self-doubt...a terrible affliction, but then I don’t pretend to be a master of Shakespeare, or indeed any playwright.  I also know that I have a terrible memory for best to shut up, enjoy the evening and indulge in watching others have fun. (You don’t always have to be the gobshite to be part of an evening’s entertainment!)

I thought that Sir Ian would restrict his local anecdotes to the earlier part of the show, but as he picked up a copy of The Tragedy of King Richard II, he said, “you know this has particular relevance to this theatre?”

He then started to recite from the end Act III, Scene II.

By heaven I’ll hate him everlastingly
That bids me be of comfort anymore.
Go to Flint Castle: there I’ll pine away;
A king, woe’s slave, shall kingly woe obey.
That power I have, discharge; and let them go…

Act III, Scene III – Wales, before Flint Castle

So that by this intelligence we learn
The Welshmen are dispers’d and Salisbury
Is gone to meet the King…

Flint Castle is just down the road from the theatre in Mold.  This was a master at work. A man with a long life in the theatre, but with no heirs and graces, just a great memory, and the ability to share the most pertinent pieces of literature with his audience.

And then the evening drew to a close...Sir Ian stood on stage with his big yellow collecting bucket. “The money you have paid for your programme will go to this theatre, and the money you put in this bucket will go to the theatre too.” How amazing of him...each performance would benefit the theatre he was playing at. An extraordinary gentleman was standing in front of us. He had entertained us with tales of his youth, his career, his sexuality for two and a half hours. It was hard to believe that this man standing in front of us was in his 80th year.

As I walked towards the bar I could see a great crowd surrounding him. I could have barged through all those camera phones to have a word with him, but was it really necessary? People were wanting selfies… (I'm not a huge selfie queen as you all know) and his hands were full with a collecting bucket so making him put it down to sign a programme would be rude. If I introduced myself would it really matter? He won’t remember me, he can already see the delight in everyone’s faces so he knows he’s entertained everyone. If I gushed at him “Oh I loved your rendition of Gus, it made me shed a tear” it would be more for my benefit than his…a sense of entitlement almost. So instead I sat at the bar with Nikki and my OH and we watched the crowd, and we watched Sir Ian, and we were content. There is a time and a place for chatting to an actor, and for me, this wasn’t it.

"An Invitation to Dinner"

I don’t know if you have ever played the game "who would you invite to dinner?" I have, and unsurprisingly most of the people I would like around my table are actors! Sir Ian is on my list, obviously Tom Burke (and his parents as I imagine they have some great tales to tell), David Suchet, and the late, great, Alan Rickman (who Sir Ian paid homage to in tonight’ show.) I think they get a seat around my table because they lead extraordinarily fascinating lives, (although I suspect most of them think their lives very dull and normal.) Couple this with the fact that they know how to deliver a tale so that is highly entertaining, it makes sense to invite them round your table…no-one wants a dull dinner party! Whilst the spirit of the game is just a bit of fun, I have been blessed to listen to Tom telling hilarious anecdotes and after an evening of Sir Ian McKellen on stage, I felt that I had spent an intimate evening amongst friends, and Sir Ian was at the head of the table!

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

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

The Lady Vanishes - Theatr Clwyd

The Lady Vanishes is one of Hitchcock’s greatest movies; so, would a screen to stage adaption retain the magic of the various adaptations, or would it be a bridge too far bearing in mind nearly all the action takes place on a train?

The hush of the auditorium is broken by the fanfare-like strains of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries and this sets the tone for the rest of the production. As the curtain rises, we are transported back to Nazi Germany, soldiers and passengers throng a dreary railway station, swastika flags hanging down towards piles of suitcases. A stern Nazi officer barks in German at the confused and frustrated passengers who are waiting for their train to Zurich which has been delayed by an avalanche.

On the platform we are introduced to the characters of the play, and Juliet Mills steals these first few moments as the lady in tweed, Miss Froy. Even though she is only sitting, calmly reading her newspaper and eating a sandwich, whilst the rest of the passengers get more and more irate by their delayed journey, you can’t help but be transfixed by her presence.

The screenplay was originally adapted from Ethel Lina White’s novel, The Wheel Spins, but Hitchcock radically revamped the tale into the well-loved story we now know, creating two of cinema’s most loved comic duo’s, Charters and Caldecott, the two English gentlemen, so ensconced in their love of cricket, that they are blissfully unaware of most of the events happening around them. Both Robert Duncan and Ben Nealon add an air of daft fun as they charm their way through the play with witty cricket banter and dismay of the interruptions that may cause them to miss the final day of the test match at Old Trafford.

As the train is set to depart, Iris, receives a knock on the head. As she makes her way to her train compartment, she is looked after by the mysterious Miss Froy.

The sides of the station cleverly fold in on themselves to form two train carriages of Morgan Large’s imaginative set. This is where the majority of the action will take place, however, when the doors of the carriages are closed, they create the windows of the dining car, whilst tables and chairs are placed in situ for some of the most important scenes in the play.

As drunk by a million Mexicans!

Miss Froy suggests that Iris takes tea in the dining car with her. Miss Froy ensures she has a cup of her favourite Merriman’s Herbal Tea, as drunk by a million Mexicans, and she pulls a packet from her bag to hand to the steward. Iris has difficulty hearing Miss Froy’s name as she introduces herself, so she writes it in the steam on the train window. These seemingly innocuous acts add to the twists and turns as the journey progresses. Following a nap, Iris awakes to find Miss Froy has disappeared on the moving train…but no-one else aboard the train can remember ever seeing the old school governess on board.

Of course, railways have been synonymous with romance and seduction (think Brief Encounter or a trip on the Orient Express) so of course, Iris must bump into someone she can share an intimate moment with! Max, a musicologist, travelling around the Balkans collecting folk songs could be her ideal beau, however, Iris is traveling to the UK to marry an aristocrat so will not entertain the idea. Instead the couple bicker and argue in a humoristic British fashion as Iris (Lorna Fitzgerald who EastEnders fans will know as Abi Branning) tries to convince Max that she has not gone mad…Miss Froy really did exist.

Dr Hartz (Maxwell Caulfied formerly of Dynasty fame) blames Iris’s confusion on the blow she sustained to her head, but Max, played by Matt Barber, finds evidence to suggest that Iris is not insane and together they try to find out what really happened to Miss Froy.

A first class thriller!

The first half of this production is as fast paced as the train thundering down the tracks in this remarkable production, directed by Roy Marsden, who many will be familiar with in his role as Adam Dalgliesh in the ITV series by P D James. The second half becomes even more thrilling, and this is where I started to regret sitting on the front row, a hairs breadth from the stage!

The sword fight that went on in the luggage compartment had me sitting back in my seat for fear that I might lose an ear, but I needn’t worry, the choreography led to a stunning fight scene in which you waited to draw breath. As the thriller bowled along, the last fifteen minutes become physically charged with a tense shoot out and me jumping out of my skin every time a gun-shot rang out (and there were many!)
The actors bring together a play full of warmth, energy, tension and humour which keeps you gripped to your seats throughout.

It’s a first-class thriller and one you should try to catch as it rumbles into town!

Remaining 2019 UK Tour venues

Edinburgh Kings Theatre, 18 – 23 February
New Brighton Floral Pavilion Theatre, 25 February – 2 March
Blackpool Grand Theatre, 4 – 9 March
Richmond Theatre, 11 – 16 March
Malvern Festival Theatre, 19 – 23 March
Bromley Churchill Theatre, 25 – 30 March
Chesterfield Pomegranate Theatre, 1 – 6 April
Stoke Regent Theatre, 8 – 13 April
Inverness Eden Court Theatre, 15-20 April
Barnstaple Queen’s Theatre, 23 – 27 April
Doncaster Cast Theatre, 3 – 8 June
Llandudno Venue Cymru, 10 – 15 June
Lichfield Garrick Theatre, 17 – 22 June
Aberdeen His Majesty’s Theatre, 24 – 29 June
Glasgow Theatre Royal, 1 – 6 July
Crewe Lyceum Theatre, 8 – 13 July
Cardiff New Theatre, 15 – 20 July
Leeds Grand Theatre, 22- 27 July.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Snow Dragon - Fortnum & Mason

F&M may have disappointed with their tea advent calendar (see earlier post!) but with this brew they are onto a winner.

This was a present and after trying it, I rationed its use because I didn’t want it to run out too quickly…and I’m too bone idle to visit F&M when I’m in London!

The tea is somewhere between a silver needle and a green tea and you do get that asparagus, grassy essence of a green sencha tea, infused with the honey notes of the silver needle when you taste it.

The tea comes from the Yunnan province of China; young leaves are picked during the last frost, then they are seared in a wok and dried into long, snake-like (or dragon-like) leaves. As you can see from the photograph, the leaves range in colour from dark, twig like browns, through to pale, almost silver twists. The tea has a fresh scent, but it is more reminiscent of forest leaves than grassy fields, mixed with the warming scent of honey or vanilla.

I have no pictures of the tea leaves when they have unfurled into full, bright green leaves; nor the pale golden liquid that the tea produces, which has the slight shimmer you would expect from a silver needle. (I forgot to take any until I'd drunk the last of my supply!) As you would expect, this light, fresh tea is not overpowering, and therefore perfect for those hazy summer days!

Ripe Pu-Erh Snow Chrysanthemum Cake - by Yunnan Sourcing

Authentic Pu-erh tea comes from the Yunnan province of China. It can be found as loose-leaf tea or processed into round cakes or bricks. As well as the well-known traditional dark red tea, it can also be found as white or green tea variants. Pu-erh is particularly special because it can be aged like a fine wine for decades. As time marches on, it develops a more complex depth of flavour which is often very rich and earthy.

As Pu-erh tea is supposed to be good for the body, eliminating toxins and fat from it, and being a good aid to digestion. It is supposed to reduce cholesterol and clear the arteries of a plaque build-up. It is even supposed to be good for those who may have a hangover, and if you look at it after it has infused, it does look like a good strong cup of coffee! After the over indulgences of Christmas, is it any wonder I’ve gone back to drinking it!

The tea packs a punch, it is strong and earthy with a scent and taste of the autumnal forest. The smell of mushrooms, damp soil and leaves, combine well with the addition of chrysanthemum flowers in this blend. The flowers have added detoxicating benefits and a sweet, floral scent, which makes for a rich, complex sweet and spicy taste.

Pu-erh tea is also good value for money, as you can get several infusions from the same tea. You do need to take care when brewing however, as if left too long, the tea can gain a bitter, coffee-like after taste, so all the beautiful complex flavours are lost. Stored properly in a dark, dry environment, Pu-erh tea can last for many years.

Prince Edward Lavender Green Tea – by Pluck

This green tea mixes grassy and floral notes to produce a pale green tea which is refreshing but still helps you to relax and unwind after a long day. It contains a hint of ginger, but it is the scent and taste of lavender which makes this tea unique.

Pluck is a speciality tea company based in Toronto, Canada, so without the generosity of my Canadian friend, I would never have sampled this tasty delight. The name comes from the fact that high-quality tea is plucked by hand, rather than cut by machine.

Pluck work with local growers, and the Prince Edward Country Lavender farm, near Toronto, grows the Hidcote lavender which is dried and then blended to make the Prince Edward Lavender Green Tea. 

My top tips:

It’s a delicious tea to serve with warm Lemon Curd Madeleines made with lavender sugar as a Sunday afternoon treat!
Alternatively, try baking with it! Infuse butter or warm milk with the tea and make shortbread or fairy cakes with the infused milk or butter.