Sunday, 19 July 2015

Someone Else's Pretty Toys, The Phoenix Theatre Company Chelmsford, Christchurch Hall, London Road, Chelmsford

Billed as a "Drama of Mystery and Suspense" this play by Sam Bate is set in the 1960s. It would appear to have been written back then because as a result of missing curtain up by a minute. I honestly felt I had wandered back into the glorious age of Women's Institute drama with all its innocence and naivety.
So either Mr Bate (I assume this Sam is a he) wrote this some decades ago or his memory is not necessarily as trustworthy as he might hope. Both dialogue and the plot are all too obvious and signalled well ahead of revelations. Plus the writer's time scales appeared at with the casting ages as in my memory it was my mother who had danced to the Black Bottom, not my grandmother as in the script.
There were some quarrels among the costumes too with the Policewoman dressed in a modern costume although the transistor radio and telephone looked of the right vintage and there was a gorgeous black dress for one character complete with correct net petticoat.
Unusually for Phoenix, for the first time they were fielding an all female cast of seven actresses while their husbands and boyfriends looked after the front of house and interval drinks, although the director Chris Wright is male.
One thing casts need to remember about Christchurch Hall is its enormous size from back to front and side to side so that voices get so easily lost. While there is a tendency for directors to underestimate how far upstage they are placing their acting areas. In this case placing of the sofa so far back meant that the cast voices were lost if they were underprojected. 
Sarah Wilson playing Mrs Appleby has a light voice and tended to drop her voice level when talking across the stage. Of course the so far upstage sofa position didn't help her so we  missed some vital clues. The transition from Writtle Cards tiny stage and hall to Christchurch made life difficult for her too.
Jo Fosker playing Nancy was a very strong, level-headed character and full of energy as the older daughter of Mrs Faire the village shopkeeper with a secret. As Judith the depressed teenage daughter Gemma Anthony alternated between the depths of despair and elation. Angie Gee played their mother well except that she appeared strangely unmoved when it came to recounting her husband's imprisonment and the shocking events leading to his incarceration.
As it turned out it wasn't teenage pregnancy that caused Judith to swing from one extreme to another. It was blackmail and drug dealing.
The set could usefully have been made smaller which would have helped with the dropped voices and the upstage left door needed some attention as it refused to stay shut. 
Finally the curtain call was too slow. This breaks the atmosphere that the cast have built up
over the length of the play. With this production I think it was just the wrong play to choose 
for this particular cast.
Mary Redman
July 18 2015.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Out Of Order, Hutton Players, Brentwood Theatre, Brentwood

This would not be an honest review if I didn't mention that I was absolutely dreading seeing again Ray Cooney's umpteenth crude farce, which takes every opportunity to mangle an unbelievable plot. Flaunts the most unsubtle of double entendres imaginable to man (or woman). Even the names of certain characters don't escape the Cooney "magic" touch.
Having experienced it once I really had no inclination to experience it yet again, but "critique oblige" so I took a deep breath, approaching it with hope in my heart.
It was thanks to June Fitzgerald's imaginative direction, excellent ensemble work by the cast, plus the teamwork involved in the spot-on timing of a recalcitrant window refusing to obey orders, that the audience was almost constantly laughing heartily. Even I had a lot of laughs generated by the cast, not the script.
The action opened in Suite 648 of the Westminster Hotel, London within striking distance of Big Ben and the Division Lobbies, where we enjoyed a preview scene of speeded-up mime display reminiscent of a Benny Hill chase as the cast dashed around setting the scene.
Then things really got going as William Wells's thoroughly guilty, married MP set about ordering champagne and oysters for his naughty secretary Jane Worthington played by Romy Brooks. Hardly was she through one of the many doors a good farce needs, than she had disrobed into a mindbogglingly revealing, see-through outfit. This didn't leave very much to the imagination. As one gentleman remarked afterwards he felt "quite refreshed" by this sight.
The sight, however, which discombobulated our "hero" Mr Willey most was that of Justin Cartledge's dead Body stuck halfway through the aforementioned recalcitrant window. Panicking, Willey sent for his Parliamentary Private Secretary in the shape of Gary Ball's naive George Pigden. He then was tasked with body disposal, placating David Lintin's dour hotel manager, while paying off the blackmailing Waiter superbly played by Richard Spong. Richard certainly made an ongoing impact with this role.
Liz Calnan also made the most of her stereotypical non-English speaking, immigrant Maid role by constantly interrupting with simple pleasing smile, offering to make the beds.
Yet more complications followed as circumstances conspired to threaten Willey with public exposure of his marital infidelity. First the Body regained consciousness; or what passed for it, following probable Class A or alcohol intake,as he struggled to remain awake, giving Justin plenty of opportunities for hilarious physical comedy; then Ben Martins as Jane Worthington's muscular and outraged husband turned up all too keen for vengeance; followed by Lindsey Crutchett's nice Mrs Willey who just wanted to surprise her husband, whose excuse for not going home was a late Parliamentary Division and finally Susie Faulkner as a nurse. Just don't ask!
The pace got faster and more furious in this BOGOFF production, in which we had not simply one naked actor but two, both of whom very discreetly yet cheekily exited dropping towels behind them.
 One of the secrets of playing great farce (regardless of the quality of the script) is to believe utterly in what you are doing and the more serious you are about it, the funnier it becomes for the audience.
Director June Fitzgerald asked for and was blessed with this prized quality and a great ensemble spirit from her cast. This included the highly professional manner in which William Wells, blaming anything and everything but himself for his self-imposed woes, while he and Gary Ball's hopeful yet hopeless PPS  worked so easily together batting the lines back and forth at speed. A pleasure to watch. 
This approach cascaded down to Romy Brooks' secretary flaunting her body; the staggering about Body played by Justin Cartledge causing great hilarity; and so forth and so on - impeccable team work. Pace and energy just got faster and faster as the show went on.
Despite the wobbling of some of the flats and the choice of dreadful matt brown paint on doors, plus the lack of a backcloth showing the Houses of Parliament, this production was
excellent entertainment.
Guy Lee ran lighting and sound, Paul Sparrowham designed the programme but there was no mention of a stage manager. When I asked why this was so it turned out that the tech side had been affected by illness so all the cast had taken responsibility for the perfect timing of the window's performance and all other stage management needs.
By the way, if you are looking for another Ray Cooney farce try It Runs In The Family. Set in a teaching hospital a consultant finds out more than he hoped for about unexpected research results.
Mary Redman
July 3 2015 with apologies for the the delay