Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 by Max Hastings – book review

 

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The Ubiquitous Huey Cobras on Patrol

I was a young child living in America from 1965- 68. Although too young to make an informed judgement myself, nonetheless, the Vietnam War created an indelible impression on me. Every television and radio bulletin carried a butcher’s bill of the number of American , and North Vietnamese Army/ Viet Cong, casualties that day. The number was invariably high.

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And in action

Television news carried colour footage of B52 / Superfortress bombing raids in which sticks of high explosive tumbled lazily out of bomb bays, of missile traces from F1-11’s and Phantoms, of vast artillery barrages, the gunners muffling their ears from each round delivery as a toddler might mask their ears at a firework display, and, of course, of the ubiquitous Huey Cobra helicopters sweeping into, or away from, action, infantrymen’s legs dangling , catching the cool air.

The peace movement was gaining traction. The popular reflex response was to brand anti -war demonstrators as traitors and commies.

Back in the UK in ‘68 I was struck by how the war was covered so prominently by the British News corporations. Although I did not appreciate it at the time, it was the first televised war to which the Americans afforded a level of journalistic freedom which they, and no-on else, would ever repeat.

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LBJ

Anti- war demonstrations also spread from America, to London and Paris. The March ‘68 Grosvenor Square demo in London was the tipping point in the UK against a war which Harold Wilson had wisely refused to become involved in, a snub which festered for years, and manifested itself in the US’s refusal to assist Britain in the Falklands War conflict.

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An accident of language meant that the “Hey hey LBJ, how many kids have you kicked today,” and “Ho, ho – ho chi min” chants resonated and stuck in the chants of protestors, and were difficult to ignore.

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Ho Chi Minh

Khe San, the Battle for Hue, the Tet offensive, the Ho Chi Minh Trail ,all ingrained themselves into my childhood consciousness and remain to this day.

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The Siege of Khe San

At 650, densely packed pages, working your way through this book can sometimes feel like hacking your way through the jungle. Completing the book feels like fighting the entire campaign. But with a difference. For the protagonists there were no victors, for the reader a profound sense of satisfaction at having completed the work.

Hastings has been assiduous in his sources, far beyond the obvious in North and South Vietnam and America. First person testimony from American CIA operatives, and Russian Advisor veterans, as well as recently declassified Chinese material all adds to the mix.

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The Ho Chi Minh Trail – Low Tech Solution to a High Tech Enemy

I was surprised by his antipathy, and occasional hostility to Kissinger. The evolution of the US, and world, anti war movement is inadequately covered, no mention of Grosvenor Square London, or Paris, protests is made. Yet at some point in any book you have to make decisions about how much any reader can digest in one tome. That subject is a book in itself.

Hastings writing has the air of authority of a man who was there – he was. His style is not as easy as his contemporary history rival, Antony Beevor, instead we have a dense, fact heavy, analysis, a journalistic report rather than a critical overview, which is not to say that he does not make numerous, cogently argued, arguments.

His case that militarily the US did well, but politically it was doomed, is well made. His description of a dysfunctional, corrupt, incapable South Vietnamese regime is compelling, as is his point that the differences between South Korea and South Vietnam were slight, but one prospered, and one failed. The tight, secretive, disciplined, regimented, focussed approach of the North ensure that few of their failures or shortcomings became known within their own country, let alone beyond. In the South, the liberal, lazy, undisciplined, but open, regime unwittingly became PR for the North as every setback was beamed back into American and world living rooms on evening television news broadcasts.

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The Photo That Lost the War? – Children flee a napalm attack

There are numerous vignettes which ease the readers’ journey. The image of an Aussie soldier, caught mid defaecation, returning fire with his trousers down is a memorable one, as is the Australian minefield efforts being undermined by their opponents simply digging them up, and using them against their erstwhile owners.

The logistics of the war are fascinating, The Americans had more aircraft carriers than the rest of the world combined. B52 raids were made from Thailand which was political sensitive but practically welcome. The raids from Guam involved eighteen hour round trips from a base operating at four times its designed personnel capacity.

This is a journalist’s take on a military campaign. He is uncompromising in his condemnation of an American regime which allowed thousands of Americans and Vietnamese to die when the futility of the endeavour was beyond doubt. Intriguingly he reveals that neither China nor Russia were as ideologically committed to Vietnam as the Americans thought, their influence much less than the Americans imagined.

Wartime Saigon is meticulously, and fondly, described. Awash with American war dollars, contraband, hustlers, US materiel, political intrigue, whores, brothels, liquor and drugs. The seamy side of the conflict is not dodged , fragging, drug addiction, cowardice , racial tension and corruption grew as the futility of the war became more apparent. But so also is the heroism of many recorded, on all sides. A significant number of American soldiers steadfastly did their duty. The North Vietnamese stoically accepted an appalling attrition rate of 10:1 knowing that each American body carried a far greater political value than numerical value, rightly confident that they could carry their losses, while the Americans could not carry theirs.

Hasting’s point that the open access that the Americans afforded the world media juxtaposed with the minimal, strictly controlled access that the North Vietnamese afforded the media, damaged the United States and put them at an unfair disadvantage is well made. If the cruelty and privations of life in the North had been better known, the resolve of the South to resist, and the compliance of the North’s citizens may all have been affected.

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A Viet Cong Informer is Executed

The Americans lost the war, yet post unification, the result was not as had been feared. After the inevitable blood-letting, the North’s organisation was welcome, the South’s more laissez faire modus vivendi embraced quietly, but with enthusiasm.

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The Last Chopper form the American Embassy – The Final Humiliation

For practical purposes Hastings has written the definitive history of the Vietnam military campaign.

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The Band – Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

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*****
Although not a fan club member,I have been always aware that Take That were “there”, and can recognise most of their songs. That is a good start point for a Juke Box Musical. The music needs to transcend the established fan base to reach a broader audience if it is to endure, and Take That’s back catalogue is ubiquitous.

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As the years have rolled by, so perceptions have changed of the band. Robbie Williams has become one of the biggest solo acts around, Gary Barlow one of the most distinguished songwriters, his career diversifying to include film scores and musicals.
Writer Tim Firth also has a distinguished pedigree. A Cambridge Graduate, he has had a string of theatrical successes, most notably with “Calendar Girls”, and has worked with Gary Barlow previously. It quickly becomes apparent that this has the ingredients to be a little more than a Take That greatest hits cash in. The television casting show series for the production gave it, and Gary Barlow, exposure which money cannot buy. The stage was set. But would it fly?

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What the show isn’t is a concert show of Take That’s material. Nor is it the story of Take That. What it is, is a celebration of the lives of five young Take That fans, and their first ever Take That concert in the 90’s, the story of whom is reprised a quarter of a century later as they join up to see a reunion concert. It is about female friendship and fandom.
Right from the opening scene, the calibre of Firth’s script stands out. Authentic, humorous , warm with several good jokes, and a faithful sense of period, there is also a nice visual gag as the cover shot of “Progress” is visualised on stage. “Top of the Pops”, “Smash Hits” and cassette recordings of radio and tv programmes all take music fans on a trip down memory lane.

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There are several musical highlights, all of which are ballads. “ Back for Good” is performed as a duet between the teenagers and their adult selves , poignant, tender and moving. “A Million Love Songs “ becomes an elegy to a lost friend, the imperious “Patience” seals a middle aged relationship. Throughout, the songs are skilfully arranged ,or rearranged, to fit the mood of the narrative, rather than vice versa.

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A show which had the audience gagging to get up and dance finally unleashed the hordes when the omnipresent Dave invoked the crowd to do so with the exhortation, “It was your show all along”. And so it was.

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An unexpected star of the show was the physical stage, and staging. The band appearing from nowhere in schoolgirl Rachel’s bedroom was just the first of many clever surprises. Back projection screens combined with physical stage props deftly and effectively, never more so than when a passenger airliner took off directly over our heads. The music is played live, adding to the vibrancy of the event, the musicians largely discretely appearing behind illuminated gauze screens.

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The young Rachel and her four school friends , Debbie, Claire, Zoe, and brassy Heather (the subject of a cracking joke about the Duke of York) ) plot to dupe their parents to enable them to see the band at the Manchester Apollo in a heart-warming feel good start, which is abruptly interrupted when tragedy strikes.

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Twenty five years later , the girls are reunited when Rachel wins tickets to a reunion concert in Prague, a device which skilfully facilitates some shrewd, and telling reassessments of life, achievements, failures, and personal identity. Alison Fitzjohn is particularly strong as the older version of the once lithesome Claire. Emily Joyce also excels as the older ex-siren Heather matching the sterling efforts of Katy Clayton as her younger self. It is those juxtapositions which make the show. Revelations about each other’s lives abound as the four become reacquainted.

 

 

Take That and their co-producers David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers with writer Tim Firth, have created a gem of a show that makes you laugh, cry and sing along to the soundtrack of a distant youth. It succeeds in transcending their large, but niche fanbase, winning over men who had dutifully accompanied their partners to relive their own schoolgirl dreams. Slick, with a big budget, big cast and many costume changes, this is a show which combines supreme professionalism from all involved in crafting the show with a beating brave heart. A feel -good musical needs to make you feel good as you left. I felt good.

Gary Longden

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Poems 2019

FILES-US-AEROSPACE-SPACE-MARS

Opportunity

“And Its No Nay Never”
An elegy upon the expiry of Opportunity , the veteran Mars explorer, 2003 – 2019

It is lonely
One hundred and fifty three
Million miles away

Your friends at Toyota and Amazon
But memories

Yet you roved, and roved
A long, lonely, twenty eight mile walk
Determined to do your duty until the end

Still talking the talk
After fifteen years

“My battery is low
And it is getting dark”
Your final remark
Funereally, Nasa said
You were dead

Enveloped by red dust
Never to rust

Doomed to be a metallic feature
Until far off galaxies declare you
An extra -terrestrial creature.

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Viv Albertine

Viv Albertine
It seems we have parted
Prematurely
There were chapters to play out
Words unread
We did not go as far
As I had hoped
Our relationship had promise
Unfulfilled

You were hot, funny,

Interesting
But I lost you
I don’t know how
It was not expected
Maybe I will find you again
And we can pick up
Where we left off.

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Caroline’s Kitchen – Derby Theatre

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Following the highly successful run of “Invincible” at Derby last year, this year, playwright Torben Betts, and the Original Theatre Company, present a new, recently commissioned work, “Caroline’s Kitchen”. Tonight’s opening night at Derby was the first night for a new national tour, with a new cast, which finishes on 13 April 2019 at The Mercury Theatre, Colchester.

 
Ostensibly, this is about fictional celebrity chef Caroline Mortimer ( Caroline Langrishe) projecting a veneer of perfect cooking, from a perfect kitchen, in a perfect north London house, with a perfect family. Unsurprisingly, underneath, it is not so. A single set, comprising the eponymous kitchen, dominates throughout, as a family get together provides the crucible for the action.

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Caroline Langrishe

Betts is a vibrant force in contemporary theatre with a distinguished artistic lineage. In 1999, he 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’ himself studied in Liverpool, home of the best social dramatist of the eighties, Alan Bleasdale. His writing combines those former influences in comic farce, with the latter’s dark social satire.

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Torben Betts

The play is divided into two punchy halves, each around fifty minutes long. Setting the scene, the first half is a little uncertain in its treatment of a well -off celebrity, and her family woes. Few of us have to worry about paparazzi intrusion into our indiscretions during a return from a booze fuelled night out. The competing humiliation of whether the story is to run in the print , or online only, platforms of the Mail on Sunday, are not something that trouble most theatre audiences.

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Aiden Gillet

Fortunately Langrishe holds the fort admirably before the cavalry arrives in the shape of her husband Mike (Aiden Gillet). Gillet is the star of the show, fusing the repressed frustrations of John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty, with Richard Wilson’s bombastic, grumpy, Victor Meldrew in a role he clearly revelled in. A retired banker, Mike, is now a golfer and sometime lothario, and dominates the stage with a brilliant character performance.

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Jasmyn Bailey

Jasmyn Banks, as PA Amanda, is feisty and fun, boasting the shortest pair of shorts and the longest pair of legs I have seen in a long time without having to do too much to move the plot along. Son Leo (Tom England) eschews his privileged education to help refugees in Syria, a course of action which may strike a chord in Islington, whereas in Derby, the Syrians come to us.

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Elizabeth Boag

Elizabeth Boag offers a powerful supporting performance as Sally, an unhinged, cheated – on, wife. James Sutton is strong as odd job man Graeme who admires more than just Caroline’s souffles.

James Sutton

James Sutton

The second half of the show is darker, and more sure footed, pacey, and with some good one liners, the best received of which was Mike’s observation that; “Vegetarianism is Neolithic for shit at hunting”.

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Tom England

Director Alastair Whatley positions the action adroitly with Langrishe the pivot around which all else rotates in a draining, nuanced , entertaining, and hugely satisfying personal performance. The evening combines satire, black comedy, and straight forwards humour in equal measure. A suitably climactic ending was greeted with enthusiastic applause from a very well- attended opening night which augurs well for the tour. If you don’t have a ticket yet – why not?

 
“Caroline’s Kitchen” plays at Derby until 26th January, then continues on national tour, for details: http://www.originaltheatre.com/portfolio-item/carolines-kitchen/

Gary Longden

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Behind the Arras Theatre Review of the Year 2018 by Gary Longden

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Theatre continues to be very strong locally, both professionally, and amateur. I count myself fortunate to be able to see so much of it. I write almost all of my reviews immediately after I have returned home from a production, so as well as being factual, they are also an emotional response to what I have seen. It has been a delight to trawl back through those reviews for this piece, fond ( and not so fond) memories rekindled. The following awards simply relate to what I have seen. Inevitably others of merit will have evaded my critical gaze.
Derby Theatre continues to set the pace artistically in the region, unsurprisingly winning in the “Most Innovative Production” category. The Birmingham Hippodrome continues its position as the theatrical Dreadnought, putting on the biggest and most expensive productions on a stage that few in the West End can rival, Sutton Arts Theatre continues to be a beacon for amateur productions of the most consistently highest order, and I am pleased to report that the amateur Grange Theatre in Walsall survived closure due to building’s dilapidations and successfully reopened.
Show of the Year – Mathew Bourne’s Cinderella , Birmingham Hippodrome – a masterpiece.

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Best Pro Play – The Kite Runner, Birmingham Rep. Visceral, compelling, funny, and tragic, an international story that had me spellbound.

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Best Am Play – The Perfect Murder, Sutton Arts . A decent formula thriller lifted above its station by a superb cast, and skilled direction.

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Best Pro Musical – Spamalot , Derby Theatre. A riotously funny Monty Python outing performed lovingly by the cast, with the love and laughter returned in spades by an appreciative audience.

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Best Am Musical – All Shook up, Lichfield Garrick. I tried to resist Elvis’s music, I tried to resist the cheesy script, I tried to ignore the joyful dance numbers, I tried to stop my feet from tapping and my fingers from clicking. I failed.

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Best Pro Dance/ Ballet – Cinderella, Birmingham Hippodrome. An immense slice of theatrical genius in the ballet dance genre, by Sir Mathew Bourne, in which the Café de Paris is blown up on stage before your very eyes.

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Best Pro Comedy – Private Lives Derby Theatre. A trusty old war horse of a show, brilliantly reimagined, but faithfully staged

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Best Am Comedy – Boeing Boeing – Highbury Theatre, Sutton Coldfield. Amongst the best farces ever written, the company threw themselves into the show, the audience threw themselves around in laughter.

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Best Children’s Show– Morgan & West Magic for Kids, Derby. Children’s shows are tricky. The children have to like it, obviously, but the parents who bring them along, and pay for the tickets, need to like it too. Morgan & West delivered that crossover, delighting children and adults alike, in a period magic show which had me wondering how they did it- let alone the children!

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Most Innovative production- Two, Derby Theatre. The stage was extended and converted into a working pub serving beer to the audience and enabling the cast to interact with those seated around them. Brilliantly acted and executed, playwright Jim Cartwright himself was present, and declared it one of the best realisations of the play he had ever seen.

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On stage for “Two” with a working bar!

Best Male Professional Performance – From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads, Derby Theatre, Alex Walton is stunning as Martin, a Bowie fan who follows in his idols footsteps to find his hero, and himself. A one man tour de force.

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Best Female Amateur Performance – Dick Whittington, Sutton Arts. Phebe Jackson as Fairy Bowbells. Her energy and singing brought sunshine whenever she appeared. Confident, assured and professional, she set a standard for the rest of the cast to aspire to.

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And with 2019 almost upon us the schedule for the year is taking shape. Torben Betts is bringing the dark comedy “Caroline’s Kitchen” to Derby in January, Mathew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” comes to the Birmingham Hippodrome in February, as does “Les Miserables” in April. “Avenue Q” tours at both Wolverhampton Grand and Derby. I can’t wait!

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Beauty and the Beast – Sutton Town Hall, Sutton Coldfield

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*****

The Beauty and the Beast story has been popularised in modern times by Disney. However, the original folk story, was written in 1740 and set in France, by Gabrielle- Suzanne de Villeneuve. Popularised in this version for pantomime by Daniel O’ Brien, it is a strong morality tale which resonates with children. It encourages its audience to look beyond superficial beauty and have empathy for outsiders.

 

Director Colin Blumenau does not shirk the French connection, even risking a few Brexit jokes, the best of which was that the audience split 52/48 percent on which character’s team sang the best- which was not sufficient for a decisive victory! The show is presented by The Production Exchange, and from curtain up the values of the production were clear. The single stage set was basic, but adequate, the costumes lavish, the choreography unusually strong, the singing excellent. Theatre has been performed on site at the Town Hall for at least a century , when productions used to be staged for World War 1 veterans. For Beauty and the Beast, the stage had been brought forwards, providing capacious space for actors and musicians.

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What distinguished this show was not only that there was a live band on stage, but that they also held principle acting positions, were multi-instrumentalists, and accomplished musicians at that. Seren Sandham-Davies as Beauty was superb on trumpet, sang beautifully and choreographed the show as well, I hope she picked up three wages!

 

Indeed, the principles were uniformly strong , Pete Ashmore excelling as the Dame. He eschews the camp, and instead plays a pretty impressive female as a man. Comic, sympathetic, but always lifting the energy levels whenever he came on. Playing opposite was Sue Appleby as the evil Enchantress. Dressed and made up like Siouxsie Sue from the Banshees, she took the boos and the hiss(es) as well as playing her fair share of music in the band. A perfect off-beat, villain, very effectively reprising the classic “I Put A Spell On You” to great effect.

 

Some pantomime companies cynically use children in the chorus to boost ticket sales. But here they were an integral, talented and disciplined part of the show. The Petals team were on duty for this performance and I could not help but notice the efforts of Daisy Violet Fitzpatrick who shone like the little star she is, her dance steps, movement and expression, impeccable.

 

The jokes entertained, enough simple gags to amuse the children, but with a sufficiently literate script for adults to be entertained too. I brought along Beau aged seven and Sol aged four, the latter for his first ever panto.

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Beau & Sol enjoying the show

They loved the section where the cast had a water pistol fight amongst the audience, with plenty in the audience taking a squirting too. Both halves lasted around an hour which was perfectly timed to retain the children’s interest. A song and dance were never far away to keep the pace moving . Producer Florrie Whilby has done an excellent job in assembling a first rate cast delivering a show which retains all the tradition of pantomime, but with some fresh ideas too, full of vim, brio and fun.

 

Beauty and the Beast runs until 31st December

 

Gary Longden

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Preview of Caroline’s Kitchen, by Torben Betts, Derby Theatre, 24th- 26th Jan 2019

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Strong modern comedy in theatre is at a premium. 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.

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Torben Betts

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 impressive. 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.

 

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Caroline Langshire as Caroline

 

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                                                                                        Aden Gillet as Mike

 

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James Sutton as Graeme

 

 

Almost exactly two years ago Betts and Original Theatre brought “Invincible” to Derby Theatre. It was a fabulous production that played to deservedly enthusiastic audiences and reviews. From that cast, Elizabeth Boag, who played sassy dental receptionist Dawn , returns as does Alistair Whatley to Direct.

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Liz Boag as Sally

The remainder of the cast comprises:
CAROLINE LANGRISHE (Lovejoy, Judge John Deed), ADEN GILLETT (The House of Eliott), JASMYN BANKS (EastEnders), TOM ENGLAND (Death Trap) and JAMES SUTTON (Emmerdale, Hollyoaks).

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Jasmyn Banks as Amanda

 

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Tom England as Leo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caroline Mortimer is the Caroline of her eponymous kitchen, a kitchen to die for, or die in, during this contemporary piece which starts off as comedy before descending into tragedy.

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You can be assured of razor sharp writing, great acting and a sense that this is happening now. Traditional enough in format to satisfy the established comedy audience, sharp enough to establish a new one. Do make sure that you catch this on its UK tour prior to its New York transfer.

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Gary Longden

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