Monthly Archives: September 2014

Fully Committed – Menier Chocolate Factory

It’s not often I’ll give a standing ovation.  But last night’s performance of Fully Committed fully deserved one – for various reasons.

Sam (Kevin Bishop) is an out-of-work actor working the phones in the reservations office at the hottest restaurant in NYC. When he’s not playing musical tables trying to accomodate (or fob off) the relentless string of phone calls from Sheikhs, celebrities and senior citizens, he’s getting it in the neck from his colleagues, trying to salvage his flagging acting career and find time to talk to his recently bereaved father. Only Kevin is playing every single one of these characters (a ballpark guess of 30ish?) at the other end of the phone or intercom as a one-man whirlwind of vocal chameleonship.

Kevin Bishop.  Photo by Alastair Muir.

Kevin Bishop. Photo by Alastair Muir.

It took me a couple of minutes to get used to the style of the play (it is a man on a stage putting on lots of different voices).  New characters are introduced in a very haphazard order – some fleeting, some more recurrent – each individual and with distinctive body language. There are points where it’s incredibly funny yet the audience are silent because we’re listening so intently to try to keep track of who’s who. Eventually it becomes safe to laugh without worrying you’re going to miss something crucial.  But once we’ve got used to the melee of voices and mannerisms, something as simple as a facial expression or a change of posture will tell you who’s just called.

It’s one hell of a juggling act – flitting between a plethora of nationalities, ages, genders and personalities.  Everyone from his disdainful French boss (Jean-Claude) to a coke-addled Australian (Bryce) to his ageing father.  It has the illusion of being utter chaos, whilst being very slick and well-timed.  The relentless maelstrom of calls threatens to overwhelm Sam – in those nanoseconds between answering each line, there is a flicker of a man who hates his job and is about to crack under the pressure, but it’s the only thing bringing in any money and keeping a roof over his head.  It’s amazing how much you can glean about Sam’s life and background in the gaps between some very well observed caricatures.

So why the standing ovation?  The performance alone pushes to the limits what can be achieved by one person on a stage – but in addition to this, the evening was slightly marred by a drunk woman in the audience trying to chat to her partner during the show.  Initially I thought she’d realise and settle down, but In the middle of a particularly tangled exchange of characters, she had become very disruptive and ushers came in to physically eject her from the theatre – in a venue as small as the Menier, there was no option but for the show to pause.  She did not go quietly.  When staff had finally taken her out the door, Kevin Bishop took a moment to gather himself and launched straight back into the jumble of voices as though nothing had happened.  Sheer brilliance.

(Thanks must also go to the staff of the Menier Chocolate Factory for their actions – there was the potential for the rest of the show to be ruined, but it was handled very well).

Fully Committed is on until Saturday 15th November 2014 at The Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark Street, London, SE1 1RU.  For tickets and more information, click here.

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Doctor Scroggy’s War – Shakespeare’s Globe

100 years ago, men found themselves fighting in the early battles of WW1 and women were staffing the field hospitals, receiving the first casualties of mechanised warfare. Men either died, or were left permanently disfigured. Medical techniques of the time were woefully inadequate for repairing the damage caused by shelling and machine gun fire, particularly to the face. A century later, we live in a world where plastic and reconstructive surgery is widely available, innovative, versatile and generally safe – for that, we can thank pioneering medic, Harold Gillies.

It’s 1915: the play follows Jack Twigg (Will Featherstone), a working class lad bright enough to go to Oxford who signs up along with his university friend, Lord Ralph Dulwich (Joe Jameson) as a young officer. Both bright eyed and bushy tailed, with illusions of going off to “smash the Hun”. A chance meeting at a party at the Ritz sees Jack accidentally take Ralph’s promotion (and has a night of passion with Ralph’s friend, Lady Penelope Wedgwood – a rather feline Catherine Bailey) and sets both men on 2 different courses.  We see many sides of Jack throughout the play: his initial gusto, his outspoken nature when he sees a flaw in the plan of the smug Field Marshall John French (Paul Rider) when planning the ill-fated Battle of Loos, his fear that to press the issue may cost him his position, and his discomfort amongst the upper classes.

James Garnon as Harold Gillies. Photo by Mark Douet.

We also meet the affable and slightly eccentric Major Harold Gillies (James Garnon – a regular face at Shakespeare’s Globe), a surgeon trying his best to find a way to repair the terrible facial wounds of injured soldiers brought back from the front. He is wonderfully flippant – he knows that the men he treats are so gravely injured that if he doesn’t operate, they’ll die anyway, so he might as well try to repair the damage and give them a chance at life – although his early attempts are unsuccessful as he tries to do too much at once. He slowly refines his technique, but survival brings other repercussions in the form of mental trauma. So at night, the mysterious kilted and bearded ‘Doctor Scroggy’, (Gillies’ alter ego) tiptoes through the wards, dispensing jokes, mischief and Champagne to the convalescing soldiers.

The play snaps in and out of little asides to the audience. There are occasional moments where it’s not exactly clear whether they’re speaking to us or to another character, and it often darts between the two – but it is seamless. It’s a great way to convey the inner thoughts. There’s something haunting when Jack kneels down to say “you all know what’s going to happen to me, don’t you?”, the sense of dread that he too will have his face shattered beyond recognition. The nurses (Holly Morgan, Catherine Bailey and Daisy Hughes – all slightly squeamish to begin with) graphically describe the process of hot, spinning shrapnel taking off a man’s jaw, ear, nose…. and Jack is whisked away to Gillies’ hospital.

Rhiannon Oliver as Catherine Black and Will Featherstone as Jack Twigg. Photo by Mark Douet.

There is a perfect illustration of ‘before and after’ of the healing process, which made me want to laugh and cry simultaneously. As the wounded Jack is wheeled in, mumbling that he wants them to end his life, the heartbreaking devastation is broken by 3 bandaged patients in fancy dress boisterously chasing each other through the ward. There is hope. There is life after trauma. But it is a slow process. One of my favourite lines was Gillies asking Jack “what sort of nose do you want?… I’m going to give you a new one, so you might as well be happy with it.” The play is smattered throughout with black humour and little gems like this.

But Gillies knew that it was not enough to repair the face – he had to heal the psychological damage as well. James Garnon is delightfully impish and warm as Doctor Scroggy, with a real tenderness when attending to the soldiers experiencing disturbing flashbacks and as he counsels them through the catharsis of admitting that they miss the fear, the bodies, the dirt and the horror.  That they would do anything to go back, the feeling that the opportunity to do their duty has been snatched away from them.  The play is very poignant, partly because these issues are still very present today; as young men and women return from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with physical and mental scars, medicine moves forward. The advances in identifying and treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as micro-surgery. But overall, it is the fortitude of the human spirit that shines through. Well worth a watch if you can catch it.

Dr Scroggy’s War is playing until Friday 10th October 2014 at Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London, SE1 9DT. Contains strong language.  For tickets and more information go to http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/whats-on/globe-theatre/doctor-scroggys-war

Forbidden Broadway – Vaudeville Theatre

My face hurts.  This is a good thing.

I fully intended to see Forbidden Broadway when it was at The Menier Chocolate Factory earlier this summer.  But I was performing in a play myself and tickets were like gold dust, so that plan was scuppered.  It was a huge relief that they transferred it to the West End – right on the doorstep of the very shows it parodies.  I like musicals (rather than love them).  Well, some of them.  I prefer plays.  I’m not systematically trying to see every musical in order to tick them off some sort of list.  Some of my more musical-obsessed friends are horrified that I haven’t seen Les Mis, Phantom, Cats, The Lion King etc.  So in some ways I’m a pretty good litmus test on how well the jokes in Forbidden Broadway work.

Ultimately, this is a spangly satirical revue which gleefully tears several strips off showtunes with wit and perfect mimicry.  Our talented and versatile cast of 4 are Christina Bianco, Anna-Jane Casey, Damian Humbley and Ben Lewis, with Joel Fram at the piano – they contort their voices into all sorts of styles, impersonating everyone from Idina Menzel to Liza Minelli to Hugh Jackman.  The show bounces along at a merry pace with a relentless stream of costume changes (all with a deliberately low-budget look) to complement every single scene.  The format has been running off-Broadway since 1982, but this version has been tailored for the West End and its current shows in residence – it appears there may have been some minor updates since the transfer in response to current events (e.g. the casting of Ronan Keating in Once).  Whether you like, love, hate or haven’t seen many musicals, there is something in this show for you.

We begin with “Everybody Thinks They’re A Critic” – aimed squarely at people like me who take it upon themselves to write about theatre (I smiled a wry smile), neatly followed by a reworded Matilda song “Exploiting Children” about pushy stage parents and merciless producers.  There’s a riff on the tongue-twisting lyrics of Sondheim, a tribute to Wicked in “Defying Subtlety”, and a whole section on Les Miserables which takes a pop at the fact that it’s been cluttering up the Queen’s Theatre for so long.  In spite of having not seen Les Mis, I was cackling helplessly at them shuffling round and round in a circle (I’m assuming they use the stage revolve quite a lot).  No musical is safe – not even West End must-see The Book of Mormon.  If you’ve seen the musical in question, you’ll get the references straight away – if you haven’t, the content is generally accessible enough for you to get the jist.

Anna-Jane Casey, Ben Lewis and Damian Humbley. Photo by Alastair Muir.

Most of it is an affectionate send up of the West End – e.g. “Can You Feel The Pain Tonight?”, a nod to the cumbersome headdresses in The Lion King, and “Walk Like A Man, Sing Like a Girl” from Jersey Boys, but there are a couple of skits which really don’t pull their punches.  I adored Once when I saw it (that music haunted me for days after), but their ruthless attack on the angsty-yet-subtle melodies elicited several pained “ooohhhs” and sharp intakes of breath from the audience around me rather than the belly laughs.  Clearly London audiences have taken Once to their hearts!

But perhaps my favourite guilty pleasure was when they took several chunks out of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory: “…Come with me, and you’ll see, a show with no imagination…”.  Sorry Sam Mendes, but they are right – beyond the song pinched from the film, the score is completely unmemorable.  I howled with laughter (no one else did) at their take on the great glass elevator, which was plagued with technical difficulties in the early shows.  I saw Charlie in preview, when they simply had to do without their showstopping set piece – they sat on a black stage all but for a generous scattering of twinkling fairy lights and sang “Pure Imagination”.  It was simple, beautiful, classy and a piece of understated theatrical magic.  When I saw it a second time, the same scene was completed with a hideous glowing turquoise phonebox which juddered clumsily out over the audience, with about as much elegance as a bloated walrus.

Overall the show is well judged – acerbic without being too malicious.  There were a few scenes which were utterly lost on me (I just didn’t get the references), but in some ways, it was nice to have a few minutes respite in amongst the relentless torrent of hilarity just to give my cheeks a break from laughing.  An evening well spent.

Forbidden Broadway is playing until Saturday 22nd November 2014 at the Vaudeville Theatre, 404 The Strand, London, WC2R 0NH.  For tickets and more information, go to http://www.nimaxtheatres.com/vaudeville-theatre/forbidden_broadway/

Civil Rogues – Pleasance Theatre

I still haven’t been to the Edinburgh Fringe.  Ever.  (Summer 2015 I will be there, come hell, high water or Scottish Independence).  So I am always keen to see shows which get a run in London post-festival.  I came across Civil Rogues completely by accident (Thank you Battersea Arts Centre – your retweet of their show was well timed), and loved the idea.  It is 1649: the king has been executed, the Puritans are closing the theatres.  Halfway through that evening’s performance of Romeo & Juliet, 3 male actors are forced to go on the run from the authorities – still in their dresses, petticoats and stage make-up.

Laurie Davidson and Elliott Ross. Photo by Daniel Swerdlow.

We begin with Romeo (Ed David) and Juliet (Elliott Ross) trying to continue with their scene, in spite of the hammering at every door. In a desperate bid to give the audience as much of the play as possible, they up the speed and the romance of “but soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” is delivered with machine gun pace and the tenderness to match. It is quite a skill to speak that fast and Ed David had me helpless with laughter barely 30 seconds into the play. As Oliver Cromwell’s henchmen storm the theatre, the actors scatter in a rush for freedom. The script does go a little overboard on the swearing (I always think less is more), but the soldiers are more panto-villain-inept-sidekick than genuinely menacing and this fits in well with what is intended to be an evening of lighthearted fun.

The 3 actors who successfully escape – the naive Charles Hart (Elliott Ross), the diva-ish William Gascoigne (Laurie Davidson) and the acidic Richard Baxter (Sam Woolf) – find themselves blagging their way into the house of a Royalist supporter and persuading the other servants that they’re “the new girls” while they lay low and figure out what to do. They each flip between 3 identities, often within a split second: the male actors running for their lives, their Shakespearean characters, and their newly assumed feminine disguises.

This is very much a play for a theatrical audience with lots of references to other Shakespeare plays – the Henry V line “We few. We happy few. We band of brothers.” was very apt.  When the lady of the house, the brightly optimistic Lady Margaret Cavendish (Kate Craggs) wants to lose a lot of money very quickly to stop Cromwell getting hold of her riches, she and her maid Phoebe (Danielle Winter) hatch a plan to stage a play (still a very expensive venture) and pour the money into the pockets of actors. The 3 new laundry girls, Cordelia, Bianca and Regina hint that they know the whereabouts of some actors who would be interested in performing again. But Regina (Sam Woolf) melodramatically insists that she shall never allow her daughters on the stage.

This wouldn’t be a farce without a heap of mistaken identities, disguises and hiding in laundry baskets, and it has this in spades. Baxter (as Regina) fiendishly tells Lady Cavendish that Mr Gascoigne the actor is here to see her, sending Gascoigne (as Bianca) into a panic as he/she tries to work out how to be both people in the same room at the same time. He persuades her to wear a blindfold and leaps around the room switching voices. Laurie Davidson makes this look both laboured and slick, exactly as you’d wish. Two of Cromwell’s cronies are mistaken for the other actors and one of the male servants, Daniel (Ed Davis again) falls in love with Cordelia/Charles Hart. Baxter deliberately engineers it for Daniel to play Romeo and Hart to play Juliet, only Daniel can’t get his head around it being “a man in a dress”. The moment before they kiss is hilariously awkward.

I felt that there was room for the play to have gone further with the farcial element – I was expecting to see the two soldiers unwittingly cast in the play and for one of the actors to find themselves having to switch genders at least once during the abridged Romeo and Juliet. Instead the play went largely went without a hitch and soldiers stormed the house as the starcrossed lovers lay dying. If they decide to revive this at a later date, they have a great concept to work from – I’d just like to see them tangle it up even further. But still, a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Civil Rogues is on at The Pleasance Theatre, Carpenters Mews, North Road, London N7 9EF until Saturday 7th September 2014.  For tickets and more information, go to https://www.pleasance.co.uk/event/civil-rogues-london#overview 

A Fine Bright Day Today – the directing begins….

About a year ago, I was shelf-browsing in Samuel French on the hunt for plays for my theatre.  I’m part of the production committee at The Miller Centre Theatre in Caterham, Surrey and each year, we read about 40 plays in order to put together a (hopefully balanced?) season of 9 productions – comedy, drama, thriller, modern, period, and everything in between.  It’s incredibly shallow of me, but I like an interesting title or a front cover that grabs the eye.  One of the plays I picked up was A Fine Bright Day Today by Philip Goulding.  I flipped onto the back to read the blurb:

“Since the death of her trawlerman husband -“

“Oh God, that sounds miserable” was the first thought in my head.  But I carried on reading.  In spite of the sombre tone, there appeared to be something hopeful in the reviews:  “Philip Goulding’s play is an enticing piece of understated but effective writing. Leaves you with an optimistic sense that everyone deserves a second chance at happiness.” Guardian.  So I bought a copy in the hope that it might be worthwhile.fine bright

I fell in love with it on first read.  I knew at once how I’d stage it, how I thought the set should look and what music I’d like to use.

It is a warm and gently funny play about love, loss and second chances. Milton, an American artist, is visiting a quiet English seaside town to paint the local coastline. He rents a room in a small cottage belonging to Margaret, a woman for whom life has stood still since the death of her trawlerman husband 30 years previously. Over several weeks of shared stories, meals and bottles of wine, an unexpected mutual bond slowly draws them closer together.  The characters are well drawn and there is something wonderful in the ordinary-ness of two people finding each other when they least expect it.  It’s not going to win Romance of the Year, but it is full of heart and far more believable than any depiction of love that the Disney machine might conjure up.  That is precisely why I love it.

Fast forward several months and with the thumbs up from the rest of the production committee for this to go on the season along with 8 other brilliant plays, the next task was finding directors.  I jumped at the chance to take this one.  (Almost – I did rather like the part of the daughter).  

But on the condition that I had a mentor.  

While I have very firm ideas on some aspects, there is more to directing than telling people where to stand, when to move, how to say a line.  There is people management, diplomacy, finding out what is and isn’t feasible, knowing when to push for something and when to let an idea go, solving problems, being able to step back and see things from an audience perspective, the logistics of getting props on and off stage, costume changes, working out what the hell to do when one of your cast suddenly goes down with tonsilitis or that snow has snarled up all the roads and no one can go anywhere (we start rehearsals in early December and performances are in February – snow is a possibility).  Quite honestly, just doing justice to the play itself.

I first directed panto at university (when I should’ve been writing my dissertation) – it was a lot of fun, but also incredibly stressful – not least for losing Alice Fitzwarren at the dress rehearsal because she’d neglected to tell me she couldn’t do the second performance because her Dad was picking her up that morning for her to go home for the Christmas holidays.  The second time was in 2009 and I had been given a murder mystery/thriller.  It was a steep learning curve directing people twice my age (who weren’t perpetually drunk).  We discovered late into rehearsals that one of the cast had to work on one of the performance nights, so I had a mad scramble to find someone who could rehearse immediately and cover that one night.  In addition to this, I was at the mercy of side effects from some very strong medication (I’d been diagnosed with ITP a few months before) and made redundant the week before we opened.  All things which would have tested some of the most experienced directors I know, and I was very grateful for all the support I received to ensure that the show went on.

So with my impending 3rd directorial experience looming, I have outright asked for help.  Not to mollycoddle me through every little thing, but just to be on hand when I need advice, a second pair of eyes, an honest opinion – the reassurance that I’m on the right track.  So I am filled with a mixture of anxiety and excitement as the days tick down to the various milestones along the way.  But this time around I’m older and wiser.  I’ve seen a lot more theatre.  I’ve drawn inspiration from unlikely places.  I’m armed with a script that I absolutely adore and a story that I want to tell.

I should probably get my audition notice finished…..choosing excerpts is hard. I can just ask them to do the whole play, right?

‘A Fine Bright Day Today’ will be on at The Miller Centre Theatre, Caterham from 5th-14th February 2015.  Tickets on sale from 10th November at http://www.millercentretheatre.org