Ladies in Lavender – Grange Players, Walsall

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*****

 

Although a successful film release at the cinema in 2004, the stage adaptation is recent (2012) . This has the disadvantage that it is unfamiliar, but  the advantage that it provides a pretty blank canvas for a Director.

The plot is simple enough. Set in isolated  Cornwall a storm disrupts the home shared by two elderly sisters and their housekeeper. As the storm abates, a mysterious young man is found washed up on the beach.  They take him in to convalesce, his musical talent emerges, and a love story unfolds until he moves on. Fairly inconsequential stuff. But in the hands of Grange Players, and Director Rosemary Manjunath, the sparsely placed dots are gloriously connected, and the empty spaces filled, by a raft of fine character performances.

In coastal Cornwall, a crisis is when a decision has to be made as to whether biscuits may be taken mid-week, drama centres around whether a Vaughan Williams movement was played a little fast, and conflict resolution is effected by an extra sugar in a cup of tea. Character development is vital, and Manjunath has been skilled, and fortunate, in her choice of cast.

The stage adaptation and script is by Shaun McKenna. Good dialogue is always a premium commodity in the theatre, McKenna is a skilled practitioner. On stage he has written for Lord of the Rings and adapted work by Terry Pratchet and Henry James, on the radio his work includes Home Front, and Le Carre, and Winston Graham adaptations. It shows. Easy on the ear, amusing, entertaining and engaging, the laconic, languid soundscape is never allowed to drag, the character pieces never outstay their welcome.

 

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Photo: Alastair Barnsley

 

Set just before the outbreak of World War Two, the sceptre of Hitler, and distrust of foreigners in general, and Germans in particular, strikes a chord in post Brexit Britain that McKenna could not have anticipated, giving the script an unexpected, and not unwelcome, edge in parts.

Mary Whitehouse (Ursula) and Sandra Haynes (Janet) star as the hospitable sisters, neither of whom have been lucky in love. They bicker, and fuss, and circle their patient with sincere but awkward, enthusiasm. I recall as a teenager my octogenarian grandmother being hospitalised after a fall. A frail, slip of a woman, I was incredulous when she remarked to me that although on the outside she knew she was a decrepit wreck, on the inside she still felt as she did when she was eighteen years old. It is that sense of youth which McKenna taps into with the sisters, as he does with the elderly Dr Mead, superbly played by Paul Viles.

David Smith gives an assured performance as the shipwrecked Andrea Marowski, childlike as he recovers and learns English, before leaving to seek his fortune with equally mysterious Olga Danilov, confidently played by Leah Solmaz. Mary Whitehouse opposite Smith, and Paul Viles opposite Solmaz produce touching vignettes of cross-generational love and attraction which cannot be. Lightening the tone, Jill Simkin’s housekeeper Dorcas is a delight, always on hand to bring everyone down to earth, bake a cake, or make a cup of tea, and  with a very creditable West Country accent. The crystal- clear diction from all of the cast was much appreciated too.

A nostalgic, elegiac feel results, and is all enveloping, warm , soft and comforting, just like Ursula’s bedside storytelling of the prescient “ Little Mermaid”. The dulcet tones of the shipping forecast, the simple pleasures of listening to the radio, a good sandwich, somehow these seem to be all you need for a few hours.

Manjunath’s vision for this production has been satisfyingly realised with the help of a fine company. A sold- out house offered  well-deserved rousing applause at the final curtain, with excellent word of mouth ensuring that only a handful of tickets are available for the remaining shows to Saturday 25th March.

 

 

 

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A Streetcar Named Desire – Sutton Arts Theatre

****

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This multiple prize winning drama from Tennessee Williams rightly remains a favourite with audiences and theatrical companies alike. It is also hugely challenging. Its reputation guarantees a good house, but the roster of actors who have taken parts, including Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh ( directed by Sir Lawrence Olivier), Alec Baldwin , Jessica Lange, and more recently Gillian Anderson, sets an acting standard of the highest order.

Seventy years old this year, its visceral nature and smouldering sexual tension scandalised a contemporary theatre going public and was too much for the film censors in 1951 who insisted on numerous cuts. The compact , bijou, Sutton Arts theatre physically is an ideal cockpit for the claustrophobic drama that unfolds. I should make it clear that this review is not under the Behind the Arras banner, and is not a paid for “puff piece”, just my own call.

Bringing the production to stage had generated a drama of its own as original Director Claire Armstrong Mills dramatically withdrew from the role, leaving Debbie Loweth to bring the show to stage amidst a whirl of intrigue which probably deserves its own play. Claire had previously directed Emily Armstrong  and Debbie Loweth in “Steaming”, a production which trumped the professional production which had recently toured, and in which Emily had shone. It was a shame that  Claire’s vision of the show was not to be tested.

I was expectant to discover how this production would shape up. The film was seductive and intense. Benedict Andrews’ magnificent stage revival a few years ago , which I was privileged to see, had Gillian Anderson as a bird of prey, smouldering, in a contemporary setting. Loweth opts for the original period, taking no chances with audience expectation.

Upon entering, the audience is greeted by an open stage set, a dry ice induced heat haze, and players already on stage. There are no closed walls, everything is open, any secrets must out. Set designer Mark Nattrass should feel immensely proud of the space he created, even if his set building team were numerous enough to rebuild the entire theatre, let alone a stage set.

Stanley Kowalski’s role is pivotal to the success of the show, and in Robbie Newton we had a man, and a physique, up to the task. Gore Vidal memorably claimed that Kowalski was the first erotic male role written in an American drama. Newton’s Kowalski is brutish, basic, and primeval, his guttural drawl oozing menace and threat in a fine characterisation.

Phebe Jackson is outstanding as Kowalski’s wife Stella. An emotional foil to sister Blanche, and physical foil to husband Stanley, she convincingly portrays the paradox of the beaten wife who still loves her man, without sentimentality or melodrama.

Dexter Whitehead offers a thoughtful and nuanced dimension to Stanley’s poker buddy Mitch, a beacon of decency amongst the brawling, mewling poker players. Originally the play was to be called “Poker Night”, only to be pulled by the agent who thought the name too closely resembled the Western genre, even though its association of bluff and deception is perfectly apposite.

However any production of “Streetcar” hinges on the role of Blanche Dubois, taken by Emily Armstrong. Emily tears into the role with energy, commitment and swagger in an emotionally draining interpretation ( she looked shattered at the curtain call). My friend and colleague, Critic Roger Clarke, called it a “dream performance”.

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I had a few quibbles. The first act came at a frantic pace. The deep south American accent is a slow, languid drawl, Emily’s  quicker, staccato , North Eastern seaboard delivery meant that some great lines became rushed, or lost. Early on, Stan takes off his shirt in a display which should be one of tense, drawn out eroticism. It was rushed. When Blanche asks him to zip up her dress, and he ham-fistedly obliges it should be a case study in feminine seduction versus male force. It was rushed. When Blanche toys with a young door collector,  we need to believe she could do it, it is what caused her to lose job at school. It was rushed. In short, on occasion, desire was in shorter supply than I would have liked. I was surprised that the coquettish grand entrance through the audience was not reprised by a similar exit at the end . But that is what makes this play so demanding, the unwritten acting demands are as great as those of the words themselves.

Loweth cleverly presents  the characters in such a way that it is difficult for the audience to take sides. Blanche mixes attitude and front, with deception and despair. Stanley mixes thuggery and insight in equal measure. Mitch is self -effacing, but a bit of a dupe.  Stella tries to help everyone but herself.  All the main characters deceive, yet all offer truth at various times.

Sutton Arts succeed in presenting  a credible interpretation of this most demanding of shows, bringing alive writing which still shines after all these years. “ A Street Car Named Desire” runs til Saturday 18th march. Hop on board.

Gary Longden

 

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Anita and Me – Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

anita-and-me

****

There were two home fixtures in Wolverhampton on Tuesday night. The first was at Molineux, where Wolverhampton Wanderers were at home. The second was at the Grand, where Meera Syal’s play was opening for the first night of its 2017 tour.

Set in the fictional Tollington, based just outside of Wolverhampton, an unusually, and welcome, ethnically diverse audience turned out to support a production that tells the tale of a young Sikh, Punjabi girl, Meena,  and her family, growing up in the West Midlands in the 1970’s.Black Country accents were going to be under unusually intense scrutiny.

Syal’s story has flourished as a book, film and stage show. Its ingredients are nostalgia, xenophobia and humour, racism and song, family, growing up and love. Although the reality of the problems faced by the immigrant community are never dodged, this is no didactic polemic, instead a joyful celebration of the human spirit.

The outdoor set, depicting terraced houses tightly packed, crouches around the stage as a community has to deal with economic uncertainty, a new transport link, and a school closure, all depressingly familiar forty years later. Seventies references abound, not least with the ubiquitous chopper bicycle, and Jackie, the magazine for teenage girls, which sold over half a million copies a week, with its rabidly read ” Cathy and Clare” problems page, essential reading for dealing with  life’s  challenges for young girls.

Set and costume designer Bob Bailey has done a wonderful job in creating the stage and vibrantly coloured costume , as have Ann Yee and Sara Green in bringing the movement and dance alive. Inevitably  Coronation Street and Loose Women star, Shobna Gulati, attracts the most interest as Daljit, Meena’s mother, but it is Rina Fatania as grandmother Namima who grabs the limelight with her larger than life characterisation and comedy.

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The mini -skirted Laura Anamayo shines as the eponymous Anita, unlikely and sometimes unsuitable friend to Meena (Aasiya Shah), her boyfriend Sam ( Sam Lowbridge) brings a realistic dark edge to proceedings with his anti-immigrant views and behaviour. Inevitably a stage adaptation of a book has to precis and simplify , Tanika Gupta is up to the task. the show will not disappoint those familiar with the book and film. Anita is rough, her backstory an explanation for, but not an excuse for, her actions. The violence meted out by her and her boyfriend is mirrored by the violence her mother is experiencing at home. Gupta has quite a lot to cram in.

Director Roxana Silbert has skilfully balanced  competing themes to produce a feel good show which transcends age, gender and race. The impromptu song and dance numbers always entertain, and are sometimes unexpected. Yet the fact that the show is neither a  full blown musical, nor straight play, is part of its charm. An enthusiastic audience offered a rousing reception at the final curtain, something I suspect will become routine as this show, which runs till Sat 18th , continues its tour to Cheltenham, Blackpool, Nottingham, Bradford and Edinburgh.

Gary Longden

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Monstersaurus – Derby Theatre

****

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A stage adaptation of this hugely popular story , written by Claire Freedman, can only be judged by the reaction of the children in the audience. They loved it.

Featuring Monty, his Mum, and invented monsters, the performance culminates with the appearance of  the large but not too scary, Monstersaurus himself. A simple set, bright monsters, and easy to follow story,  work well for youngsters  around 3 to 5 years old. Audience members are invited to contribute ingredients into Monty’s monster making machine, and there are song and dance routines to entertain, engage; and delight. When a toaster walks, the children roared with delight, as they did at a rogue robot, and sausages.

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The Big Wooden Horse Theatre Company had previously produced the successful Aliens Love Underpants, they certainly know how to keep young children entertained. At fifty minutes, with no interval, every child’s attention was held, the performance did not outstay its welcome.

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Pantomime is the traditional introduction for children to theatre, this show is complimentary to that experience with its audience participation sections, silly songs, and dances, to have even mums and dads, grans and grand dads dancing in the aisles in an almost sold out main auditorium.

Monstersaurus, finishes on Tuesday 14th February and continues on tour nationwide.

 

 

 

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What Do Serious Poets Do?

I am fortunate. I have been Staffordshire Poet Laureate, I curate the long running Poetry Alight in Lichfield and my poetry has taken me from  Malvern to Stornoway, from Shrewsbury to Leicester. Along the way I have met some fabulous poets, some fabulous people, from manual workers to senior academics, from bedroom scribblers to nationally, and internationally famous, published poets.

I am often asked what you have to do to be published, mainly dewy eyed enthusiasts who believe that a published book is the route to fame and fortune. hand the notebook over and someone else will do the rest. It doesn’t work like that. To demonstrate the hard yards which need to be put in I would like to use a recent news item, on an old school friend.

In those first days of secondary education, when your class has had an influx of new pupils, it takes time to get to know the new kids. One instantly stood out for me, slight in nature and with a shock of tousled, tangled, curly black hair. He was bookish, reserved, and had another worldly quality about him. I resolved to find out more. Over time I discovered that he had read the complete works of Alexander Pope by the age of eleven, his uncle was Robert Bolt who had written “A Man for All Seasons”, his aunt was Sarah Miles, the actress. I subsequently discovered that his father was a Professor at Cambridge University. I guess it is no surprise that he has gone on to be an ward winning playwright, a specialist in French and Classics translations into English for which he was awarded the OBE, and a rather good poet. His name is Ranjit Bolt.

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Despite his august literary credentials, he rediscovered the joy of humorous verse- and the limerick. In an interview with the Guardian he revealed what happened next:  With a growing body of work, Bolt did what poets have always done: he published himself in handmade editions. Taking photocopies of his latest limericks, he stapled them together and bound them in pink or green cardboard from Ryman. From 2014, armed with a pedlar’s licence and a certain poetic chutzpah, he began to sell his poems in Cambridge market square. On a good day, at £1 a throw, he would trade 10 copies an hour. Selling your own work, he says, “is quite a nice way to spend the time. I became just another Cambridge eccentric.” 

Bolt says his handmade books “sold like hot cakes”. New media kicked in. It wasn’t long before a London publisher, Martin Rynja of Gibson Square, found Bolt’s limericks on Facebook. “I fell in love with his limericks,” says Rynja. “They always make me laugh, and I got in touch to see whether he might have more.” He did, and A Lion Was Learning to Ski became the title poem:

A lion was learning to ski

In the Alps just outside Chamonix.

But he ruined his hopes

Of mastering the slopes

When he had his instructor for tea.

Word-of-mouth has sustained the latest edition of Bolt’s work. This “most dexterous of wordsmiths,” says Simon Callow, can “make anapaests do headstands.”

In these dark times, the poet has a message for his readers. “Escape through anarchy into a surreal world. The joy of the verse is the contrast between the discipline of the form and the ludicrous nature of what’s being described. Funny poems can be seriously ludic.”

There are a few morals to this story. Firstly, if your believe in your work, do something about it, no-one will do it for you. Secondly, there is no shame in self-publishing. Thirdly, if it is good enough, it will be discovered anyway.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/22/limericks-ranjit-bolt-literary-success

 

 

 

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The Problem With Poetry

I like poetry. I like it best read aloud, maybe in a pub or café. Sometimes I enjoy reading it when I am alone. Yet I hear, and read, much poetry that I do not care for much. I don’t mind not liking “bad poetry”. However when I do not enjoy poetry others deem good, I feel bad. I feel that my intellect is not up to it, or judgement is poor, or both. I feel inadequate.

Recently I had an exchange on Social Media with someone who declared that any such judgement of good and bad on poetry was subjective, and therefore worthless. I understood her point. But I know good poetry when I see it,  read it, hear it. At a live performance those poems which enrich, delight, entertain, challenge stand out. They do not have to be funny to shine. I do not even necessarily have to “like” a poem to appreciate its value, if I see that value in it. So when others eulogise about the work of someone, and I do not appreciate that which they appreciate, I am wracked with doubt, every time. Have my critical faculties deserted me?

Poets who stand up and read their own work are brave. The words are their own. There is no character to inhabit, nor costume to don. They are not offering or interpreting the work of a third party. It is them. I heard an eminent psychologist once offer the view  that nothing that we say is neutral. It all has a purpose. She was right.

As a poet I want you to like what I write, to appreciate the gravitas, insight and skill of my work. But I crave a response. With a witty, humorous, poem, that feedback is instant. You can see the attentiveness, the smiles, hopefully the laughter, the swelling applause at the end of the poem an instant hit. That does not happen with serious blank verse, the response id more nuanced. Of course you still see attentiveness, but sometimes the silence can be a sign of great reflection and appreciation, a post coital lull, or, it can mean complete indifference.

And so I give in. Too often falling back on humour, light rhyming ,and contemporaneous satire, to secure my quick fix. Too uncertain to gamble with the silence. To continue the post coital imagery, are they thinking “Wow, I am speechless”  ? Or ” Thank God that’s over, whatever you do don’t encourage him”.!

Which is not to say that serious poetry cannot be powerful, compelling and capable of evoking immediate reaction. One of my favourite practitioners is Fatima Al Matar, a Kuwaiti, poet who performs in a hijab. Controlled, soft, mesmerising. her trick is to lower, not raise her voice so that the entire audience strains forwards to catch every last syllable. Helen Mort and Liz Lefroy are similarly strong. But I think the task is much tougher, the safe laugh and smile easier – so I capitulate

 

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Inside the Unity Chapel where we held our Peace Vigil at Coventry Cathedral

 

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Outside of the Unity Chapel

Last  weekend I was flattered to be asked by the  formidable Coventry War Poet ,Antony R  Owen to read some of my poems at Coventry Cathedral as part of an all day  Peace Vigil. Panic set in. “Six hours of blood torment and anguish – I won’t be able to compete with the best of that” I thought to myself. So I went light, obtuse, and a poem about words and truth  went down really well, so well I proudly performed it at Poetry Alight a couple of days later, and I read it awfully, from the heights of satisfaction to the depths of despair in three days. To compound the issue I gave a non-humorous, but fey, poem of mine, Café Blend, to a young woman, Emily Galvin, to read out. She did so beautifully imbuing it with qualities which I had not found myself.

That is the problem with poetry.

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“Invincible”, by Torben Betts, the Original Theatre Company, Derby Theatre

****

invincible

Derby Theatre is to be commended on bringing this relatively new play (2014) by the highly acclaimed playwright Torben Betts, produced by the Original Theatre Company, to the city. A strong first night house augurs well for the rest of the run, reaffirming the appetite of the Derby theatre going public to give something new a chance.

Of late, I have lamented the lack of strong modern comedy in theatre. Ayckbourn and Benfield penned productions still endure, albeit to an ageing audience , drawn on themes which are forty to fifty years old, and feel it. Even the odd Brian Rix farce still surfaces from time to time. In  1999, Torben Betts’s was invited to be resident dramatist at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre by Alan Ayckbourn. Ayckbourn in turn had worked as an actor under Brian Rix’s direction. Betts’ dramatic lineage is a credible one, and he studied in Liverpool, home of the best social dramatist of the eighties, Alan Bleasdale. Betts’ writing combines those former influences in comic farce, with the latter’s dark social satire.

“Invincible” is multi layered. It presents a middle- class couple, laid-off civil servant Oliver and his partner Emily, a Marxist/Buddhist painter (Alastair Whatley and Emily Bowker) down-sizing and recapitalizing by moving to the north of England, and the culture clash that provokes as they invite their new neighbours, Graham Brookes’ portly postman Alan ,and Elizabeth Boag’s busty  dental receptionist Dawn, around for drinks. Olives and anchovies versus a case of beer. I suspect that the sympathies of the audience may shift depending upon where in the country the production is playing. In Derby, the audience was on the side of Alan and Dawn.

Emily is an Islington Socialist who doesn’t really like the “worker” bit in Socialist Worker, with an unflinching commitment to her view of what honesty and truth mean.  Oliver’s Liberal values are in a constant state of reassessment, his patience constantly tested by his wife. Betts skilfully weaves traditional farce material, in this case in the guise of a dead cat, with contemporary political debate . The comic potential of the North/South divide is ruthlessly exploited, having fun with the stereotypes as they are deconstructed, before a more sombre, reflective finale.

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Alan ( Graham Brookes) shares some Northern neighbourly cheer with Emily ( Emily Bowker)

The motor mouth, socially awkward, but benevolent, Alan has to deal with the brassy, taciturn, but quiet Dawn, in a relationship whose weaknesses, and strengths, emerge as the story unfolds.  Oliver, in turn, has to deal with his tactless, self-centred, myopic, emotionally high maintenance, wife. And as  social moral matters of the day are dissected, so is the matter of what abstract art loving Emily thinks of  Alan’s cat paintings. The paintings of his cat “Vince”, named after HMS Invincible, giving the play its title, may lack polish, but  his instincts are true and sure, unlike those of his  hosts.

When Emily piously attacks politicians who send “misguided, ignorant” soldiers to war, the play turns on a sixpence, and in a dramatic gear-shift, their guest’s personal stake in the issue is revealed, grounding her esoteric deliberations in an instant.

The play opens revealing Victoria Spearing’s single set with toys scattered around the stage and a remotely controlled toy train skirting the stage’s perimeter, yet no children. “Das Kapital” sits on the bookshelf, Emily’s abstract art garnishes the walls.

Stephen Darcy’s direction, after Christopher Harper’s original direction, is pacey, fluid, and imaginative. Max Pappenheim’s music choice is eclectic and assured- from William Byrd, through Parry/Blake’s “Jerusalem”, to David Bowie’s “Heroes”. Scenes are divided by surreal dance sequences which work surprisingly well.

Written pre-Brexit, it now shines a post -Brexit light on Southern liberal values versus Northern realism. Trump’s visceral populist zeitgeist also surfaces in Alan’s simple, genuine, nationalism. It is Graeme Brookes characterisation of Alan which creates the greatest impression, from bumbling buffoon, through honest nationalist, to bewildered husband and father. A wonderful performance. Elizabeth Boag undertakes an equally significant, but diverging path, as his comely wife. Starting as a voluptuous, lady in red, scarlet woman, her broken second half persona is equally as compelling, and touchingly poignant.

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Dawn (Elizabeth Boag) shows Oliver ( Alastair Whatley)  one of the better Northern sights

“Invincible” combines a comedy of manners, borrowing from the modern tradition established by Mike Leigh in “Abigail’s Party”, with knock- about humour, and hoary jokes. It drags traditional late 20th century social comedy into the 21st century without abandoning its antecedents. It was reassuring to see the veteran Ayckbourn element in the audience well counter-balanced by a younger crowd too.  Together we laughed out loud, offered spontaneous applause, and hushed silence for the dramatic twists, for a well written script and fine ensemble performance.

Playing till Saturday 4th February at Derby, then continuing on nationwide tour until 5th April

http://www.originaltheatre.com/

Gary Longden

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