Stevie

Last week we had a short break in London. We travelled down on the Monday so  that we could see the play about the poet, Stevie Smith, starring Zoe Wannamaker at the Hampstead Theatre.

The delightfully eccentric bard of Palmers Green, Stevie Smith, commutes to the West End to her work as a secretary at a publishing company. Her evenings are spent at home with her beloved Aunt – a world of Battenberg cake, gossip, Ginger Nuts and sherry in tiny glasses. But at the same time as leading this seemingly mundane suburban existence, she is writing the piercing poetry and prose that will one day make her famous.

(Photo source: Wikipedia)

Stevie Smith was a writer and poet, best known for her poem Not waving but drowning. She was born in Hull but moved to Palmers Green in North London when she was 3. She led an unconventional life, living with her Aunt and working as a secretary in Covent Garden, writing in quiet moments at work! The play suggests that she was something of a feminist, rejecting marriage and the constraints that would put upon her. Best known for her poetry, she also wrote three novels, the first of which, Novel on Yellow Paper, is due to be re-released by Virago later this month.

On first reading her poems can seem slight,eccentric, even whimsical. But a more careful analysis reveals deeper meanings. According to a Times Literary Supplement critic

“Smith’s most distinctive achievement.” The critic elaborated: “The cliches, the excesses, the crabbed formalities of this speech are given weight by the chillingly amusing or disquieting elements; by the sense of a refined, ironic unhappiness underlying the poems; and by the variety of topics embraced by the poet’s three or four basic and serious themes.”

The play, by Hugh Whitemore, which incorporated extracts from Stevie’s work, was a three hander with Zoe in the lead role, Linda Baron as her aunt with Chris Larkin playing the male roles. All three were very good. The role of Stevie was demanding, dominating the dialogue and with lengthy monologues. A feat of memory for Zoe Wannamaker. 

There was an article by the writer Amy Jenkins in the Guardian Review on Saturday. She writes

Smith is much undervalued, in my opinion. She is one of those writers who is always ripe for rediscovery – is intermittently rediscovered and then never quite catches on because, although she is very funny, she is also tricky, to say the least.

Hamlet at the Royal Exchange

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I’m a bit late getting round to writing this up, but a couple of weeks ago we went to see the latest production at the Royal exchange – Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most well known plays. I’ve never seen a production of the play before and only had a sketchy knowledge of the plot as it wasn’t one of our set plays when I was a school. I knew that Hamlet was the Prince of Denmark, but the Royal Exchange had well known local actress Maxine Peake playing the lead role. She played the part as a man, though. However there were a few gender changes in the cast – Ophelia’s father had become her mother, one half of Rosencratz and Guildersterm was female as were the two gravediggers. These changes, increasing the number of female roles, didn’t seem to affect the story although, so I’ve been told, there were some omissions from the story with no mention of the war with Norway and Fortinbras, the King of Norway didn’t appear at the end to claim the crown when (spoiler alert!!!!) all the main characters had killed each other (or themselves). The latter was no surprise really, it was a Shakespeare tragedy after all.

The production is pretty much a sell out. We couldn’t get the tickets we wanted for a Saturday, our usual night for the theatre, so we had to settle for Tuesday night which meant going over to Manchester straight from work. I got something to eat before the play and as it was a long production I had a dash to the car park to make sure I was able to pay the discounted price –it goes back to the normal exorbitant cost after 5 hours. I made it with a few minutes to spare and would have been quite annoyed if I had to missed the deadline by just a few minutes. The charge would have more than doubled from the £5 discounted cost for theatregoers.

As usual a great production with an excellent cast. Barbara Marten, who was recently on TV in The Mill as Gertrude, John Shrapnel as Claudius were particularly strong. But the star was Maxine Peake. It’s not the first time a woman has played Hamlet – that honour probably goes to Sarah Bernhardt. But Maxine put her own stamp on the role. She played it as a man,nt a woman, and came across as a very convincing young man. Mad as a hatter, I thought, but was he?

Around the World in 2 hours

On Saturday we went to see the latest production at the Royal exchange in Manchester – a new adaption of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, a favourite book of mine when I was young having read it when I was about 10 years old ( a very long time ago).

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I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but it turned out to be an excellent evening’s entertainment. The rest of the Royal Exchange’s recent season have been more mainstream plays, but this was a boisterous, light hearted production  with lots of mime, slapstick, acrobatics and at several points, they even managed to involve members of the audience. It was rather like a summer time pantomime at times. It was performed at a frantic pace by a small cast of only 8 who played over 200 parts whizzing us around the world in a tad over 2 hours. With minimal props they managed to convincingly portray various modes of travel by train, ship, wind powered sled and even an elephant.

All the cast were good. Michael Hugo was marvellous as Passepartout. Dennis Hardman an oily Inspector Fix and Andrew Pollard a tongue in cheek Phileas Fogg. 

Last Days of Troy

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Last Saturday we went to see the latest production at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. The Last Days of Troy  is a new play by the poet Simon Armitage – a reworking of the legendary story told in the Illiad by Homer, so no surprise ending!

We enjoyed the play – a good production, well staged and with some excellent acting. The characters were warriors – Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles -  Helen, Hector’s wife and gods (one male, three female). Helen was played by Lily Cole and as I was sitting at the end of one of the rows and the cast enter and leave by the same passageways as the audience (the Royal exchange is in the round) at one point I was about a foot away from a supermodel. I wondered how she was going to perform. I thought she actually did quite well putting her lines across. But she did pale a little against some very strong performances from other members of the cast, male and female.

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The author had to condense Homer’s monumental tome (supplemented by extracts from others as some key, well known elements of the story such as the Wooden Horse, are not mentioned in the Illiad) into just short of 3 hours of performance. The 400,000 plus participants in the Trojan War were reduced to a cast of 12. The numerous gods who feature in the original story are limited to Zeus, Hera, Athene and Thetis (the mother of Achilles) in the play. And the character of Odysseus is an amalgamation of several high-ranking nobles in the Greek army.

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The play raised some interesting points and there were certainly parallels with today. One theme was that Helen’s abduction was really just an excuse. The real motivation of the Greeks was plunder and annihilation of a rival state, which, of course they achieved. And what has changed? Often the alleged reason for starting a war is a smokescreen – a cover for the real motivation. The invasion of Iraq being a case in point. And the First World War come to that. Other themes included suspicion of foreigners. And with the Gods being major characters, there was an interesting point made about how their existence depended on humans worshiping them. Not dissimilar to the theme of Neil Gaiman’s book "American Gods" that I started reading recently. consequently Zeus appeared as both a washed out seller of mementos in the modern day and the regal king of Olympus during the war. An excellent performance by Richard Bremmer who was convincing in both “roles”. Colin Tierney as Odysseus, Jake Fairbrother as Achilles, Gillian Bevan as Hera and Clare Calbraith who played both Andromache (the wife of Hector) and Thetis, all impressed.

Twelfth Night at the Everyman

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It’s a while since we’ve been to see a production at the Liverpool Everyman theatre. For the last two years it would have been difficult as the buidling has been completely demolished and rebuilt. It reopened a few weeks ago and the first play was Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The run finished on 5th April but we managed to catch it a few weeks ago. And very good it was too.

An excellent production with some outstanding performances. Mathew Kelly as ‘Toby Belch’ was extremely good as was Nick Woodeson as “Malvolio”, Adam Keast as the pompous as “Sir Andrew Aguecheek” and Paul Duckworth whose performance as “Feste” reminded me of Lilly Savage. But the cast as a whole were very good.

I wasn’t familiar with the story of Twelfth Night – my study of Shakespeare at school concentrated on tragedies and history plays, except for Midsummer. Night’s Dream we didn’t study any of the comedies. Janice knew the play but I told her not to tell me anything so I could experience it afresh. And. I enjoyed it very much. The beginning was little contrived. I couldn’t understand why Viola wanted to dress as a man. But that didn’t really matter. It was a device.

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The production was excellent right from the beginning with Viola and the Sea. Captain appearing on stage through a pool of water. A very dramatic entrance. The main comedy scenes were extremely well done. They were funny. Slapstick, with excellent timing by the team of actors. And some improvisation too. At one point they brought out a trolley of cakes and jellies and started dishing them out to the front row. They also involved one of the ushers in the scene who ended up with a custard pie in her face (I spoke to her at the interval and she told me she wasn’t expecting that). The improvisation occurred when one of the audience put a couple of empty jelly cases back onto the trolley. Suddenly the actor playing Malvonio (well known TV actor Nick Woodeson) pointed at him and shouted "leave those jellies alone" and the other members of the cast then played along. Excellent!

After the applause at the end the cast came back on and started to dance around the stage in a choreographed routine with the audience all joining in by clapping along. This routine lasted for several minutes and finished with balloons and party streamers descending from the ceiling. Then it all ended. No one actor singled out for particular applause as is usually the case, but a recognition that this was an ensemble piece. Very democratic and very right too.

Orlando at the Royal Exchange

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Last Saturday we went out to see the latest production at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. The play is based on Orlando, a novel by Virginia Woolf, a gender bending time travel story, adapted by the American playwright, Sarah Ruhl. I read the novel many many years ago,so I was particularly interested to see how they handled the story as the book is not exactly a straight forward narrative.

At the beginning of the story Orlando is a 16 year old nobleman in Elizabethan times who is whisked off to court by Queen Elizabeth herself. He falls in love with a Russian princess and after an unhappy conclusion to their affair and being pursued by the unlovely the Archduchess Harrie, runs off to Constantinople to act as the English Ambassador. It is here that he is transformed into a woman. A series of adventures follows, racing through the Centuries until “the present day” while our hero/heroine only ages slowly.

The story is based on the life of Vita Sackville-West, a bisexual with whom Woolf had a passionate relationship, and who often adopted a male personna in her liaisons with women.

The lead character was played by Suranne Jones who was very good in an androgynous role. She made a convincing boy in the first half and an even more convincing woman in the second.

Sasha, the Princess (Princess Marousha Stanilovska Dagmar Natasha Iliana Romanovitch) was played by Molly Gromadzki. I wasn’t quite convinced by her accent but she exhibited excellent acrobatic skills, flying above and around Orlando, spinning and whirling around the stage on a wire. She had an androgynous aspect to her character too. Feminine but something masculine about the way she moved and dressed.

Other roles were played by a “chorus” of three male actors who took on a number of roles as the story advanced through the centuries – including a very unflattering Queen Elizabeth.

It wasn’t a straightforward play with dialogue between characters. More a narration by several voices with a little conventional acting. Even the principal character mainly narrated what he/she was doing and thinking in the third person. Very modernist, and well done I thought.

Although Orlando has been described as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” it raises questions about the role and position of women in society throughout the ages. A particularly poignant point was made when Orlando returning to England after his/her transformation attempts to regain his property but is told that it’s not possible for someone who is dead or for a woman (“which amounts to the same thing”)

Here’s an interview with Sarah Ruhl about the play (although not the RE’s production).

A night at the Threepenny Opera

Last Wednesday I went to see Bertold Brecht’s and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. It’s always good to get out of my hotel room at least one evening when I’m staying away and it’s a chance to catch up with a bit of culture. I had a good seat – five rows back and in the middle of the row – which I’d booked the week before over the internet.  I was lucky as on the night the the theatre was pretty full. It seems to have been a popular production with the run extended to the middle of November.

This savage satire on bourgeois society tells the tale of the villainous but irresistible Macheath (‘Mack the Knife’) a notorious thief, pimp and murderer, and his entourage of criminals. The Threepenny Opera caused an immediate sensation when it opened in Berlin in 1928, changing the shape of musical theatre forever. It is now one of the best-loved musicals of all time. (Gate Theatre website)

I’m not a fan of musicals, but this play is different being a political fable and Weill’s music is anything but run of the mill – some catchy and memorable tunes (I think most people are more than familiar with the opening song Mack the Knife) but quite challenging at times. Today I guess we can’t appreciate how revolutionary it was but it’s influence is evident in some later musicals – Cabaret in particular.

Coming out at the end, I overheard two elderly (probably 10 years older than me!) men, who were with their wives, discussing the play. One commented that “it was a thin storyline and the characterisations were black and white“. Well they clearly don’t know much about Brecht. Of course he’s not big on complex storylines, they’re always simple and didactic moral tales and political fables, intended to change the audience’s view of the world. ‘Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality but a hammer with which to shape it.‘ As the Irish times put it in their review, the play is “bourgeois bashing with catchy tunes

I also disagree with their statement about the characters being black and white – they’re all quite dark. Nobody comes across as “white”, although Brecht’s skill is to bring out the better aspects of some of his characters, showing how they are products of their environment and circumstances.

So

The Threepenny Opera highlights the cruel, ruthless nature inherent of living within a capitalist regime – a system which drives individuals to do anything in order to make money (Aoife McGrane in the production programme)

The characters and their actions may be immoral and obnoxious to us, but they simply reflect the world we live in. As MacHeath says towards the end of the play

What’s the burgling of a bank compared to the founding of one?”

But Brecht isn’t to everyone’s taste. It’s not straight acting – characters are caricatures; they don’t talk in a “natural” way and the action can be slapstick and cartoonish at times. He didn’t want to create an atmosphere of “make believe”. Brecht also wanted it to be absolutely clear to the audience that they were in the theatre. In this production there were many scenes were the actors stood on the edge of the stage directing their speeches directly to the audience while addressing another character stood to the side and behind them.

Mark O’Regan was a very slimy and unctuous Mr Peacham very ably assisted by Jackie Marks, with a strong singing voice, as his wife. David Ganly made an impression as a streetwise Mac the Knife and all the other principle female characters – Charlotte McCurry as Polly, Hilda Fay as Low Dive Jenny and Ruth McGill as Lucy Brown – were very good.

It was interesting that although the play is set in London, the production had most of the actors speaking in quite broad Dublin accents (luckily I am getting used to that now!). But the story could just have easily taken place in Ireland’s capital and any other reasonably sized city. The translation also had plenty of Dublin street wise language as well – liberally dosed with profanities and swearing. I don’t know how true that is to the original script but it certainly made the production realistic in this respect, at least.

In the original script the action is set at the time of Queen Victoria’s Coronation, but in this production a king is about to be crowned. Although not made clear I reckon it was Edward VII. But the theme and the story are timeless. It could even be set today (other than no coronation is planned just yet).

On the night, the audience took a little time to warm up and weren’t sure whether they were supposed to applaud at the end of the songs. I suspect some of them didn’t know what to make of it at first and that some may have thought there were coming to a straight musical. But  the atmosphere warmed up during the performance.

Brecht did say theatre should be about education rather entertainment, but for me he often achieves both. And for me, with this production, Brecht, ably assisted by the Gate Theatre Company, did just that.

“All My Sons” at the Royal Exchange

I know you’re no worse than most men but I thought you were better. I never saw you as a man. I saw you as my father.”

ALL MY SONS Poster Image

Last Saturday we went to see the latest production at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester – Arthur Miller’s play “All my sons”. As with most of Miller’s plays the story was a critique of capitalism as well as a study of human emotions, relations and motivations. It’s based upon a true story – the supply of faulty aircraft engine parts to the US army during the Second World War. I’d seen the play before a few years ago at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, so it was interesting to compare productions.

The most notable difference, other than being played in the round rather than on a traditional stage, was that the Royal Exchange cast were all black actors, including Don Warrington, best known for his role in the TV series Rising Damp. I wondered what the significance of this was, but there wasn’t really one the colour of the actors’ skins was immaterial and very soon I stopped noticing it.

It was an enjoyable production with some strong performances from Don Warrington as Joe Keller, the father figure, Doña Croll as his wife Kate, and Chike Okonkwo as their son, Chris.

Blood and Chocolate

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We had a short break in York a couple of weeks ago while en-route to a family wedding in the North East. Checking out what was on at the local theatre beforehand, we spotted an advert for a production that was due to start on our second, and final, night in the city. Blood and Chocolate was a play set in the city during the First World War, inspired by the true story of how the Lord Mayor of York arranged for a chocolate tin, designed and made at the Rowntree’s factory, to every soldier from York who fought at the front. A little ironic as the city’s chocolate making firms, including the Rowntrees, were established and run by Quakers

A collaboration between the Pilot Theatre, Slung Low and York Theatre Royal companies it was a “a promenade performance around York”. There was a a cast of over 200 involved – mostly local amateurs. Intrigued, we decided we’d go along so bought a ticket for the first night performance on our first afternoon. Just as well we did – by the next afternoon all the tickets for the whole run had sold out.

After a fine morning, in the late afternoon it started to pour down with rain. We thought we were probably going to get drenched, but, luckily, the rain stopped and held off during the performance.

We weren’t sure what to expect when we turned up at 7 o’clock outside the City Art Gallery. We queued up to be presented with a set of headphones, a radio receiver and a small tin, a replica of that sent out to the soldiers, containing a couple of locally made chocolates.

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We hung around for a while then the performance started with a video of a dance projected onto the front of the De Grey Rooms building facade interspersed with speeches by actors playing various characters. We could hear the dialogue through our headphones but other people passing through the streets (they weren’t cordoned off) must have wondered what was going on.

Then a troop of soldiers rushed out of the small park to our right and shortly afterwards we were participants in a jingoistic parade following a brass band and guided by a crowd of locals dressed along the streets all decked out with bunting towards the Minster. Now I’m one of those who believe that the First World War was a senseless imperialist struggle, but parading through the streets it was easy to see how people at the time got all wrapped up in the jingoism and allowed common sense to go out of the window.

Blood and Chocolate

Picture source the Guardian

Arriving at the Minster we watched several more scenes before setting out again. This time we ended up at the Mansion House

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And we gradually worked our way around the city centre

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At one point we were shepherded inside All saints Church on Ousegate where we were given a welcome cup of hot chocolate before sitting down to listen to a choir and then more actors

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Finally we were paraded through the streets down to the green in front of Cliffords Tower for the finale.

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Although everything generally went surprisingly well, there were some problems when scenes played out at ground level were difficult to see due to the mass of bodies, especially as there was a large element of “everyone for themselves” selfish behaviour with tall people forcing their way to the front and people generally pushing and shoving into any gap that appeared during the promenade which meant we kept getting separated. And there was one gentleman who insisted on talking loudly – we moved to get away from him at the beginning of the performance as we couldn’t hear what the actors were saying because of him. He also had to be “shushed” by other participants while in the church. These problems could have been solved to some extent if all the scenes had been performed above ground level and if the many volunteer stewards had been more firm with Mr noisy.

I thought the play itself was rather superficial. Inevitable I guess with a production of this nature. They tried to get across the different aspects of the war – the initial jingoism, the lives of the troops at the front and the women left behind – who had to take on work and roles previously reserved for men. The pacifism of the Quakers and the persecution of conscientious objectors was touched on but I thought this wasn’t portrayed particularly sympathetically. And the aftermath of the war – the grief of those who lost loved ones, how the troops didn’t exactly return to a “land fit for heroes” and how women had to revert to their previous roles – was touched on but like other aspects of the story couldn’t be explored in any depth.

Nevertheless, it was a great experience and I’m glad we decided to attend. I’d recommend it – except you probably won’t be able to get you hands on a ticket!

The Accrington Pals at the Royal Exchange

THE ACCRINGTON PALS

Last Thursday evening we drove over to Manchester to watch the latest production at the Royal Exchange, Peter Whelan’s “The Accrington Pals” directed by James Dacre. It’s set in Accrington during the First World War and all the characters are ordinary working people, mill workers and the like – the same sort of people as my ancestors, some of whom came from Darwen in East Lancashire. The production has been very popular. We’d normally go along at the weekend but couldn’t get two seats together for any of the Saturday night performances. And the theatre was almost full on Thursday.

The Pals were units of volunteers drawn from a particular community or, sometimes, profession. The idea was that this would generate a spirit of camaraderie as they fought together and that it would be easier to recruit men to serve alongside their friends, neighbours and workmates. But they also died together and many communities were devastated when that happened to a large proportion of the volunteers in the slaughter that took place in the trenches of northern France and Belgium.

Accrington is well known as the smallest town to recruit a Pals Battalion. In fact only one company, a quarter of the battalion, were from Accrington. Another company was composed of men from outlying smaller towns in the district, one from Burnley and the fourth from the town where I grew up, Chorley (the Chorley Pals). The Battalion was involved in the first wave over the top during the Battle of the Somme and they were slaughtered.  584 men out of 720 were either killed, wounded or missing.

About 7 years ago we visited the Somme during an Autumn break in North East France. We visited the part of the front at Serre where the Accrington  Pals (including the Chorley Company) were stationed. It was very moving to see the little graveyards create in No-mans land where the men were mowed down by the German machine gunners. There were remnants of the trench system and also a monument to  the Accrington Pals, made of Accrington red brick for which the town is famous (and a small monument to the Chorley Pals).

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The play itself was mainly set in the town, and featured a small group of men who had joined the Battalion and their women in their lives. The first act covered the period before the Pals left the town, their departure for training in Carnarvon in Wales and the lead up to them being transferred to France to take part in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

The second act was mainly set in the town and concentrated on the lives and reactions of the women “left behind”. There were a few short scenes featuring the Pals in the trenches and going over the top during the Battle of the Som
me. The play showed how lives and ideas were changed by the experience of war. It showed the strength of the women, (to be truthful Lancashire has always been a matriarchal society) how they became involved in “men’s jobs” and how they rebelled in a small way when , after the Somme, nobody would tell them what had happened to their husbands sons etc. They stormed the Town Hall to demand information and, finally got it (the initial rumour was that only 7 men had survived). The play also showed how the need to work together in the battalion caused some of the men to start to become politicised and question the status quo of Edwardian England. One of the Pals, the sensitive artist, Tom, talked about how there wasn’t a need for the money economy and how work should be shared with everyone doing their share of both interesting and tedious work.

THE ACCRINGTON PALS Production Photo 1

(Image source: Royal Exchange Theatre)

The production was very good too as it always is at the Royal Exchange. There were no big names, but the acting was of high quality. And all though none of the cast were from Accrington they all did a good job of talking with an East Lancashire accent. The set design was very good – reproducing a typical cobbled street from the period. And the actors had to endure being soaked by the regular “rain” showered down on them (it was meant to be Lancashire, after all) and I’m amazed that none of them slipped on the wet cobbles, particularly as some of them were wearing the clogs that were worn by Mill town workers during the early decades of the 20th Century.

Emma Lowndes was outstanding as May. She reminded me in terms of her looks, the way she talked and her presence of Jane Horrocks, who comes from Rawtenstall in the Rossendale Valley, East Lancashire, not too far from Accrington. Sarah Ridgeway as Eva was also good.  Rebecca Callard, as Sarah, and Laura Elsworthy, made a good double act introducing a little light hearted comedy into what is a serious story, and had some of the funniest lines. Of the men, I thought Gerard Kearns was particularly good and Simon Armstrong was a convincing Sergeant Major.

So another good night at the Royal Exchange, well worth braving the cold January night.