Woman-in-Black-2016-courtesy-of-Tristram-Kenton_10-e1471808736783For 27 years, I have passed on this one mainly because ghosts and horror are not really my thing. Not for the first time, I have been terribly wrong. Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, written in Gothic style, is ingenious and literate. It is very different from the original and from the film version, being uniquely theatrical and indeed partly about the structure and presentation of a work of theatre. Defying expectations, there are very few superficial shocks and only basic special effects. The tension emanates from the writing and the performances. Enjoyment of the production was the icing on the cake, because the main reason for my attendance was to meet the actors who will be taking the play on tour, two very welcoming and genial gents indeed. Here is my account of the meeting, originally written for The Reviews Hub

INTERVIEW: David Acton and Matthew Spencer talk about taking ghosts on the road

David Acton and Matthew Spencer are not the first actors ro appear in the stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. Over the last 27 years, shows have come and gone at London’s famous Theatre Royal Drury Lane, but, across the road from its stage door at the Fortune Theatre, this one production has been scaring audiences out of their wits throughout that time and it continues to go strong. Now another production of it is about to embark upon a long national tour, the two actors having already stepped into their roles in the West End. Stephen Bates went to meet them after.

The actors’ 34-venue marathon will take them from Inverness to Exeter, Belfast to Norwich and most places in between. When the tour ends in Cardiff, it will be mid-Summer 2017. They had never met prior to rehearsals and both admit that their prime concern when signing up for the tour was that they would not get on, in which case. Spencer says: “the next nine months would feel like two years.” Happily, their fears were unfounded and they are happy that the essential on-stage chemistry is there.

This is quite a scary play, so does performing it give them nightmares? Spencer confesses: ” I had a few nightmares while we were rehearsing this…I find that, especially if you’re dealing with plays that have a kind of dark theme, the rehearsal process is the time… you’re doing it all day for two or three days in a row, that’s the time when you can have nightmares and I did have a few nightmares about squeaky things. I mean I had the usual actor’s anxiety/nightmares, but also things from the play, definitely.”

Asked if they believe in ghosts themselves, Acton replies quickly “No, I don’t think I do” adding later:”but I think I’d like to, it’s one of those things I’d never rule out…I’d love to see one and then I would prove myself wrong.,,it’s hard not to believe that they don’r exist somewhere, somehow”. Spencer nods agreement.

Acton delights in telling how this production first emerged, almost by accident, from the bar in Alan Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough in 1987. Few could have predicted then that it would have a West End run that is second only to The Mousetrap for non-musicals. So how do the actors explain its longevity? Both are clear that the secret lies in the fact that it offers far more than merely superficial thrills. Acton thinks that it is a very literate play, adding: “it’s about theatre, it deals with themes of loss and death, I think it’s a very sad story”

Hill’s novel has been turned into a film, but people find the stage version very different, Spencer explaining: “what I love about this version is that, even if people know the story, it’s a reimagining of that story and told in a different way, so, even if you know it intimately, you’re offered something new in the form that it’s told.” The novel is now on GCSE syllabuses and the actors are expecting that students will help to fill seats on the tour, which includes some very large houses.

Acton, a seasoned Shakespearean, is returning to the role of Arthur Kipps that he first played here at the Fortune for nine months, four years ago, he quips: “still playing the old man, no chance of playing the young one, that’s gone”. He adds: “I loved doing it so much the first time that I wondered would it be nice to do it again?…and when the opportunity came up, I did jump at it, because it’s on tour, playing different theatres with someone new… and, actually it is such a pleasure to play and…from the inside of the play, just in terms of the quality of the writing, it’s a joy to speak and a joy to play.” He continues to enthuse: “it is seamless, with with bits of Susan Hill being lifted out (from the novel) going into bits that Stephen Mallatratt has invented,,,he has got her tone absolutely spot on.”

The programme reveals it, so nothing is given away by saying that the production is a two-hander, Mallatratt’s ingenuity having compressed ten or so characters from the novel. Ironically, Acton has neither met nor even seen the person who appears uncredited as the woman of the play’s title. A suggestion of the supernatural perhaps?

Lighting, sound and fog effects play a big part in the production, but they have not given the actors any problems so far. Spencer says: “there’s actually not really many special effects…I’ve done plays that are far more technically complicated and intricate than this, but what’s wonderful is that it feels like it’s complicated and intricate even though it isn’t”. He was in the original cast of Headlong’s 1984, so he is well placed to judge how technically difficult a production is.

Becoming the modern equivalent of vagabond actors may have its drawbacks, but a month’s break during the panto season will allow Acton and Spencer to renew acquaintances with loved ones. They relish the prospect of what is in store for them. Acton enthuses: “I love touring, I love train journeys, my motorbike, airports…landladies and you can leave them after a week”. Spencer admits that there are pros and cons to touring, but says “the doing of the show I find much more satisfying on tour…you get to know a show very well and the audiences will be different everywhere you go.”

Performance/interview date: 18 August 2016

Photo: Tristram Kenton

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red shedMark Thomas has a talent for constructing and presenting shows that go beyond the stand-up comedy with which he is normally associated and I greatly enjoyed his Cuckooed, a story of intrigue and personal betrayal, seen on this same stage two years ago. His political allegiances were obvious in that show, but they hardly mattered as his themes were universal. However, this time he falls flat on his face with a show that is politics and little else.

The title refers to Wakefield’s Labour club, but the show’s subject is the 1984/85 Miners Strike. Yes, after more than 3o years, he is till going on about it, peddling that stale old distortion of events in which many of the key facts are overlooked, Margaret Thatcher is depicted as an antichrist, the prime villain of the piece is not even mentioned by name and the word “defeat” is never uttered. Come on Mark, it may also be nice to pretend that England did not lose to Iceland in June this year, but is it not healthier to accept the truth and move forward?

The conceit is that Thomas is trying to retrace his steps in a 1985 march by miners back to work. As he shows no other outward signs of dementia, his claim, that the event is engrained deeply in his memory and yet he cannot even remember the name of the town in which it took place, stretches credibility to its limits. Inevitably, Thomas throws in a few neat ad-libs, but, otherwise the show is almost a humour-free zone and he has to rely on the feeble device of getting audience members on stage to hold masks in front of their faces to keep any sort of interest alive. It is all presented with the smug, patronising air of a Londoner newly discovering that intelligent life exists north of Watford.

Notwithstanding all the piffle, there are a couple of times when Thomas gets it right. In a long statistics-based rant, he highlights the ongoing plight of former mining communities. It is indeed a national disgrace that areas blighted by industrial change must wait decades for action to revive them, but Thomas cannot see beyond blaming the demonic Thatcher. As Neil Kinnock has pointed out forcefully, blame in the 1980s for failures to deal with the effects of pit closures lay jointly with the Thatcher government and the afore-unmentioned trade union leader. Failures have continued with subsequent administrations, including 13 years of Labour government. Afflicted areas now need fresh, 21st Century ideas, clear strategic planning and sustained investment. Nobody seems to have a clue where these things may come from, least of all Thomas.

The second time that Thomas hits the nail on the head comes when he talks about voters in the EU referendum declaring a plague on the entire political establishment, but he does so with pride rather than alarm. History has taught us that, whenever the disadvantaged disconnect from those who exist to represent them, they become prey to those who seek to exploit them. As voters turn away from a Labour party that they see as no longer fit for purpose and towards UKIP, Thomas and his like continue to perpetuate myths about the Miners’ Strike and cling to a vision of Socialism that is at least half a century out of date. They are not helping to find solutions for people in real need, they are making themselves part of their problems.

Performance date: 12 August 2016

Allegro**** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: August 20, 2016 in Theatre

allegroIt is not often that an audience can go to see a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical without being able to hum the tunes as they walk into the theatre. Here we have that rarity, a R&H flop that managed to run on Broadway for just a few months in 1947/48 thanks largely to advance sales generated by expectations lifted by its two predecessors – Oklahoma! and Carousel. This production marks the show’s European professional premiere.

We know now that, if anyone is going to give the kiss of life to a lost musical, it is the team of producer Danielle Tarrento, director Thom Southerland and choreographer Lee Proud and that their choice of venue is likely to be Southwark Playhouse. This must have been by far their biggest challenge and turning the show into what we see here could well be their biggest triumph. The story is an affirmation of small town American values in the early decades of the 20th Century; it takes in the realities of life and alludes to the hardships of the great depression, perhaps a musical equivalent to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. However, it can never escape from being cloyingly sentimental and every turn in the plot becomes obvious at least half an hour in advance (except for the refreshingly staged first half hour of course).

With the exception of the tune of Mountain Greenery (written by Richard Rodgers for another show several years earlier), which is heard in a dance sequence, none of the songs is familiar, although some of them are lovely. Perhaps the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II are so well integrated into his own book that it has been difficult to find a context for the songs outside the show. This is often the case with the songs of Stephen Sondheim, something that comes to mind because the staging here is rather like that frequently given to his shows, which encourages seeking out elements of Sondheim’s style that could trace back to his mentor.

The story rates to Joseph Taylor Jr (Gary Tushaw), the grandson and son of small town doctors who becomes a small town doctor until he is lured to the bigcity by his ambitious lady love. In common with several other R&H musicals, the first half is much stronger than the second, but the glory of this production is Southerland’s staging, adopting the traverse configuration used in this space for Grand Hotel last year. With stepladders, elevated planks and platforms being moved around, the production is packed with vibrant energy, dazzling dance routines and outstanding ensemble performances, all of which are enough to transcend shortcomings in the show itself.

Performance date: 16 August 2016

Therese-Raquin-3040This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Taken seriously, Thérèse Raquin, Émile Zola’s Paris-set tale of a woman struggling to break free from her shackles, can be seen as an early cry for feminist causes. However, there is little that asks to be taken too seriously in this new production.

Published as a novel in 1867 and turned into a play by Zola a little later, the story centres on a ménage à trois involving Thérèse, her sickly husband Camille and Laurent, Camille’s best friend. Seb Harcombe’s production cannot be described correctly as Victorian melodrama only because of the technicality that Victoria did not reign in France, but it often comes close to Grand Guignol as it alternates between sending us gently to sleep and scaring us half to death.

The narrative has only one thread and is relatively straightforward, but over-elaborate and laboured staging, particularly in Act I, stretches the running time to a few minutes short of three hours (including interval). A rather good adaptation, seen at the Finborough and Park theatres in London not long ago, condensed the same story into a much shorter time and it was able to fit in songs.

Appearing firstly in silhouette at a window, pleasuring herself, Lily Knight’s sullen and usually silent Thérèse smoulders with suppressed passion, turning fiery as the story unfolds. The target of her lust is Matthew Hopkinson’s Laurent, bearded, long-haired and manly. He is an artist, painting a portrait of the egocentric, boyish Camille, who is pampered by his mother (Alis Wyn Davies). Sam Goodchild makes Camille so irksome that it seem irrational that Thérèse and Laurent would be able to wait until almost the interval before bumping him off.

The dialogue tells us that the setting is Paris and the characters repeatedly say things such as “bonsoir” and “madame”, but Northern English accents suggest that we are in somewhere like Manchester and, when the incontinent Camille announces that he needs to “spend a penny”, it feels natural that it would not be a centime. The exception is the old-Etonian sounding Michaud (Freddie Greaves) who turns up regularly at the Raquin residence with his niece Suzanne (Venice van Someren) for games of dominoes.

The only writing credit is given to Zola, with no mention of an adaptor or translator. This could give a clue to the creators’ priorities, which, it seems, lie less with making the original script fit for purpose than with exploiting the potential in the piece for physical theatre. Camille’s long-delayed murder is staged with aplomb, in slow motion and with a neat nod to 1980s horror flicks. It gives the first signal that things could be about to improve when Act II turns to grief, guilt and retribution.

Sure enough, Harcombe’s production excels as it builds to its ferocious climax. Thérèse and Laurent clash in scenes that are raw and brutal, Camille reappears in ghostly form and shocks to jolt us out of our slumbers come thick and fast. It is still melodrama, but now it is compelling and, although all this does not atone fully for what has gone before, it offers significant compensation.

Performance date 15 August 2016

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two kittensThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Christopher Wilson tells us that he has always dreamed of releasing his inner diva, but the Canadian writer/performer does not follow up with a Whitney or a Madonna. Instead, we get a story about a mini diva, a 10-year-old black girl, always referred to as “Kidlet”, who lands on his doorstep and becomes his foster daughter.

Kidlet moves in, Wilson’s husband moves out to start a relationship with a woman and their kittens (completely incidental to the story) stay on. The girl is the neglected child of drug-abusing parents. Inevitably, she brings baggage with her, but she has spirit and a positive outlook. Wilson takes us through parenting problems in the years that follow – hair styling, skin care, menstruation, etc – as Kidlet moves from childhood through adolescence.

Directed by Ryan Kelly, the show consists of Wilson telling us about incidents in his life with Kidlet and performing songs, accompanied by Quinton Naughton on piano. However, the incidents are no more than mildly amusing and neither the tunes nor the lyrics of the songs are particularly memorable. It all becomes a bit of a drag and what is really needed is for Wilson to spice things up with the other sort of drag, by doing a turn as one of his beloved divas.

Packaged with more flair and wit, this bitter-sweet story could have become both heartwarming and heartbreaking, but, as it is, a 45-minute bundle of unremarkable anecdotes and mediocre songs does not make much of a show and Wilson’s amiability is the strongest factor going for it.

Performance date: 12 August 2016

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mr_incredible_updatedThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

They say that it takes two to Tango. A relationship works when the parties have compatible visions of their life together and for the future, but Camilla Whitehill’s new one-hour play, directed by Sarah Meadows, examines what may happen when all the pieces that make up a relationship start to come apart.

The play is a monologue told by a man and, interestingly, both the writer and the director are women. Whitehill has commented that she wrote it because she wanted to come at an issue from the opposite side and because “the patriarchy harms everyone”. It is a provocative play, intended to stimulate debate by looking at gender issues from a male viewpoint, yet it feels as if the female perspective is integral to it throughout.

Adam is 31 and his four-year relationship with Holly, five years his junior, has just ended. Holly claims that he smothered her. Talking to an unseen person, perhaps a counsellor we think, he goes on to describe how the couple met, came to live together and drifted apart. Adam needs the security of a family that was denied him as a child and he wants children, but Holly wants to develop a career as a journalist and grasp at the opportunities available to young women in the modern world, When she becomes pregnant, she opts for a termination.

Whitehill is presenting us with characters whose aspirations are the opposites of those of their equivalents in earlier generations and her play suggests that we, as a society, are still not comfortable with changes that have come about. As played by Alistair Donigan, Adam betrays the play’s title by being Mr Credible, unexceptional in every sense, but loving and compassionate, perhaps the model of a modern man. Adam’s anxiety as he tells his story is conveyed very effectively by Donigan.

The play is low-key and moves along slowly at times, but it has a sting in its tail that will widen debates further. There are two sides to every story and the writer has given us Adam’s, but, strangely, it feels as if she has also given us Holly’s. This is one to see and talk long about afterwards.

Performance date: 12 August 2016

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a tale of two citiesThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Plain wooden chairs fill the width of the stage in rows six deep. We await the arrival of an audience to face an audience, but the chairs remain vacant as if in a deserted church hall, leaving an eerie emptiness to be filled by just seven actors. They will bring to life Charles Dickens’ vision of a London, rife with greedy bankers and preying lawyers, looking across nervously at a Paris of post-revolution anarchy in which the innocent fear for their lives.

It is not a new idea to strip down a classic novel to its basics and reconstruct it for the theatre, but writer/director Jonathan Holloway finds inventive ways to trim all the fat from Dickens’ meaty work and replace it with striking images, sounds and atmosphere. The result is that the story’s core themes of revenge, passion and sacrifice shine through thrillingly. Voices echo from the back of the stage, haunting music (composed by Sarah Llewellyn) punctuates the action and subtly changing lighting takes us to dark places.

There are difficulties at first. Without period costumes or sets to point the way, we wonder who the characters are and whether they are in England or France, but confusion evaporates as strong performances replace it with clarity. Nicki Hobday’s Mme Defarge is fearsome, turned inhuman by grief and revenge following the loss of her child. The aptly named Cruncher, a bank porter who moonlights as a body snatcher, is played to chilling effect by James Camp who doubles as Charles Darnay, incognito heir to French nobility.

Graeme Rose’s surly Sydney Carton conveys perfectly the obsessive nature of a man who is an outsider, a hard drinking barrister so consumed by his love for Lucie Manette (Abby Wain) that he deludes himself to believe that one night spent with her will be enough to satisfy him. But Lucie is already betrothed to Darnay and the affair sets Carton on the path to the story’s famous climax that is played out here without cliché and with beautiful simplicity.

A co-production by Hong Kong’s Chung Ying company with the UK’s Red Shift Theatre Productions and Seabright Productions, Holloway’s adaptation is unconventional and memorable, not necessarily a far far better version than the original, but a vivid and stirring reimagining of it.

Performance date: 12 August 2016

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