National Velvet writer created play based on experience

REVIEW

 The Chalk Garden, by Enid Bagnold

 Chichester Festival Theatre

June 3 2018

Enid Bagnold was the author of the children’s novel National Velvet, the 1944 film version of which made Elizabeth Taylor a star at the age of 12. She wanted to achieve equal success as a playwright, and after an inauspicious start with her first play Gertie she sat down to write The Chalk Garden, seen at Chichester Festival Theatre.

This was set in her own home at Rottingdean in East Sussex. In married life Enid Bagnold was Lady Jones as her husband was Sir Roderick Jones, the former boss of Reuters. The Chalk Garden was based on her own real-life experience. On returning home to North End House, Rottingdean, from a trip to the US she found that all the staff had quit, and that Sir Roderick’s son Timothy, his young wife Pandora and their three-year-old daughter Annabel had moved in.

To find a governess for Annabel, Enid Bagnold put an ad in the local Sussex papers and was inundated with replies. On a whim she hired an eccentric woman with white hair who stayed aloof from family conversation and strove to wrap Annabel in an inner world of silence. The writer invented a back-story for the governess and the plot thickened when Judge Sir James Cassels told the tale of a strange woman at a lunch party.

Much of this has found its way into the plot of The Chalk Garden. Mrs St Maughan (Penelope Keith) needs a companion for her arsonist teenage granddaughter Laurel (a sparkling Emma Curtis), so she has placed an ad in the local paper. At the start we are introduced to three of the applicants in the lovingly detailed drawing room of Mrs St Maughan’s Sussex home.

The singular Miss Madrigal seems reluctant to take the job when she is appointed. But she soon shows high-flown horticultural skills in giving advice on the lime and chalk garden, where Mrs St Maughan is floundering as she takes bad advice from her retired butler. He too lives in the house with a nurse and, although he remains unseen, wields an unfortunate influence on what happens, and goes wrong, in the garden.

Add to this list of characters Maitland (Matthew Cottle), the ever-busy valet who has served time in prison; Olivia (Caroline Harker), the estranged and re-married daughter who has come to take back Laurel; and the Judge (Oliver Ford Davies), who comes to lunch. There is clearly a history between the Judge and Miss Madrigal, who insists on having her lunch on a separate table with Laurel.

The Chalk Garden was initially rejected by British theatre, but found a place on Broadway through Irene Selznick, daughter of movie mogul Louis B Meyer. It opened in October 1955, the day before Enid’s 66th birthday, with Hollywood star Gladys Cooper as Mrs St Maughan and Siobhan McKenna as Miss Madrigal. The sets and costumes were designed by Cecil Beaton.

The play was a critical success and immediately producer Binkie Beaumont, who had originally rejected it, cabled and offered to stage it in London. A year later it opened at the Haymarket. Edith Evans played Mrs St Maughan (as Enid had wanted for the Broadway production); Peggy Ashcroft was Miss Madrigal; and the play was directed by John Gielgud. Since then The Chalk Garden has become established in the theatrical calendar – with a film in 1964, directed by Ronald Neame, starring Edith Evans, Deborah Kerr, Hayley Mills, and John Mills as Mrs St Maughan. Miss Madrigal, Laurel and Maitland respectively.

This Chichester production is good, old-fashioned Festival fare, with Penelope Keith on form in a role which is both jaunty and wistful. Amanda Root is dark and enigmatic; and Matthew Cottle is ebullient as the valet. The set is splendidly Sussex with great attention to detail. It has been said of Enid Bagnold that she links Oscar Wilde with Alan Ayckbourn. And this play, is assuredly Ayckbournish.

www.cft.org.uk

Nick Keith

Ribald Restoration comedy comes with pace aplenty

The Country Wife

Minerva, Chichester 

June 2018

William Wycherley was an extremely ribald playwright in Charles II’s Restoration England. Indeed his 1675 play The Country Wife, which opened at the Drury Lane Theatre (newly restored by Christopher Wren), was banned for 171 years from 1753 because it was thought to be too risqué. It was performed again in London in 1924, and the first American production was in 1931.

So it seems adventurous for Chichester of all places to revive it at the Minerva, where it runs from mid June to early July. However the prospects are tempting for the modern theatre-goer, with direction by Jonathan Munby, who directed the acclaimed King Lear with Sir Ian McKellen (which transfers to London’s West End in July).

Horner, a wicked womaniser, decides that his affairs with married women have become too well-known to husbands. So he determines to hide his pursuit of wives by faking impotence, to convince husbands that their womenfolk are safe in his hands, so to speak. So, egged on by his laddish companions, his sexual escapades continue unabated with willing wives such as Lady Fidget (Belinda Lang).

Horner is unequivocally sexist, and shows little respect for the women he seduces: “I’d advise my friends to keep [women] rather than marry,” he says. And “Tis my maxim, he’s a fool that marries; but he’s a greater that does not marry a fool.”

THE COUNTRY WIFE at CFT Photos by Manuel Harlan

His attention is caught by a pretty young country wife, Margery (Susannah Fielding) who has been brought to the big city by Pinchwife, her much older husband. Pinchwife goes to great trouble to keep his new wife out of mischief and away from the new thrills of city life, which she is eager to experience. At one point, he even dresses her up as a young man, in cap and blazer, but Horner is not fooled and makes unabashed advances to the ‘lad’.

Pinchwife’s sister Alithea (Jo Herbert) provides a counterpoint to all this naughtiness. Although engaged to Sparkish (Scott Karin), she is pursued by Harcourt (Ashley Zhangazha) who is determined to win her as his wife.

Certainly, the pace, performances and dialogue are all fast, in every sense of the word. Double dealings and double entendres abound; there is much entering and exiting the stage at speed through different doorways, and hiding people in nearby rooms and closets.

Lex Shrapnel plays the lead role Horner with the speed and energy of James Corden in One man two guv’nors, and the whole cast throw themselves into this sexual melting pot with abandon. But context is important too, and it is somewhat regrettable that the play is set in the 21st century.

Although fakery is part and parcel of today’s society, in a sense modern manners and behaviour seem more negative and introspective than the crude confidence of the 1660s and 1670s. In those days, the married women were far from MeToo; indeed they connived with and actively took part in the sexual proclivities of the men.

It might have been sensible to set the play 200 years later in the 1960s and 70s, when there was another sexual revolution; when men wore colourful clothes and frilly shirts; and when people spoke in tongues, often fuelled by drugs and alcohol. OK, that is still around today, but with much less joie de vivre and optimism. Nevertheless, it must be said that this production has a lot going for it and is great fun.

www.cft.org.uk

 Nick Keith

PTG try something different – Sweet

REVIEW

Sweet Charity (Petersfield Theatre Group)

Festival Hall

Thursday, May 24 2018

Petersfield Theatre Group is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year and in the forward to the programme, chairman Mark Perry explains that producing amateur theatre is becoming very challenging. Costs of hiring the theatre are rising, yet audiences are smaller. What to do? Stick to the tried and tested? Or try something a bit different?

Sweet Charity isn’t your usual romantic musical – it’s pretty dark, without the typical happy ending. The main character is a taxi-dancer in a seedy club. It’s set in the sixties, where ideas of free love come up against the stark reality that men, however nice they seem to be, can still have shocking double standards when it comes to expectations of women’s sexuality. Charity is an innocent – she’s trusting, good-hearted, childlike, and as a result, taken advantage of.

An unusual and simple set greeted us – almost in the round, played on the floor of the hall. This is very new for the Festival Hall. It worked well for the most part, and having the band right at the back meant we could hear the singers more clearly. I would also say that if you’re going to perform in the round you need to play to the people at the sides as well as in front. We got a lot of views of people’s backs and some cast were masking others. It’s a tricky thing to do. I liked it though.

Newcomer to the group Heidi Hodgkinson captured the sweet, open, childlike nature of Charity and can sing well, although I think she struggled with the dancing (the tight dress and ill-fitting shoes didn’t seem to help there).

As her fellow dancers and friends, Emma Lumb and Emily McCubbin (also choreographer) were very strong – some excellent performances from both, with soaring voices in their duet.

Another stand out for me was newcomer to PTG, Tony Johnson as Oscar – the ‘stuck in the elevator’ scene was wonderful – his contortions and rising hysteria were hilarious. Through all his scenes, his every changing emotion could be read. A sudden burst of frustration and anger had us all suddenly sitting up in our seats. This man can act!

Meanwhile, the ensemble numbers, as is always the case with PTG, were great. The voices together are a powerful thing.

Some parts jarred a bit. The weird all-in-white nightclub scene with the Austen Powers style sixties dancing was a bit odd and there were a few too many dances, but it was certainly memorable! The Rhythm of Life scene, with Geoff Wootton as the long-haired, fringed-jacket-wearing hippy preacher Daddy, slightly missed the mark. It should be trippy and frenetic, a seething mass of bodies, but partly because of the, ahem, advancing age of many of the cast, it seemed a little bit comical instead.

I do feel the show lacked the dark edge it needed. The comedy was fully realised, but everyone was very nice, and I didn’t get the sense of seediness and the mean streets, to provide the contrast to and the unlikely backdrop for Charity’s cheery little personality. It often felt as if people were saying the lines just to get to the next song, where they felt more secure.

That said, it was a really entertaining show, the costumes were outstanding, and the audience definitely enjoyed it. Well done to director Mark Perry for the vision. It must have been great fun to do.

Kat Wootton

Darling Buds was perfick for Winton Players

REVIEW

The Darling Buds of May (Winton Players)

Festival Hall, Petersfield

Friday, May 13

It was bound to be a surefire hit: a gentle comedy with loveable characters, in a countryside setting of hay barns, gymkhanas, bluebells, strawberries and warm beer.

Many people remember the television version with David Jason as Pop Larkin, the wheeling dealing happy family man; a larger than life character who finds the good in everything and everyone, giving the tweedy village ladies a quick thrill and a cheeky cocktail, and shaking his head in wonder at the toffs and their daftness.

Simon Stanley did a very good interpretation of the character while Sarah Dove made a lovely, warm, Ma Larkin (making an entire pie and knitting during scenes didn’t faze her at all) – good casting there.

The younger children were all great – well done Nikolai Gibbons, Jacy Martin, Libby Bridges, Faith Parker and Alisha Jenkins – they all looked very natural onstage.

Sarah Melville as Marietta and Lawrence Cook as Mr Charlton (showing a nice bit of comedy drunkenness) made a good couple.

The rest are caricatures but great fun to play. Sue Port had em rolling in the aisles as tweedy Miss Pilchester getting all weak at the knees for a Pop snog, while Roamy Terry had enormous fun as Angela Snow, the toff with a twinkle in her eye, Phill Humphries as the Brigadier and John Edwards as Sir George Bluff-Gore didn’t overplay their characters, while Joff Lacey, Julie Blackwell and Amy Perkins were obviously enjoying themselves.

The set was outstanding, conjuring up a warm summer’s afternoon with rolling fields in the distance and a tree shaded table in the garden, leading to a cosy kitchen. Perfick.

Kat Wootton

We kept the Faith

Faith – The George Michael Legacy

G-Live

Wednesday, May 9 2018

George Michael fans were thrilled as tribute act Wayne Dilk’s and his talented eight-piece band brought George’s legendary music to life at G-Live. The theatre was jam-packed with a lively audience visibly excited to relive their youth and be part of a musical journey of 35 years of hit records.

There was no mistaking who Wayne was trying to impersonate as he entered the stage in George’s signature dark glasses and bouffant hair. The crowd went berserk and were up on their feet instantly to ‘I’m Your Man’. There was a clear similarity in Wayne’s voice but as he rightly said: “There is only one George Michael”. His fast-paced energy lasted throughout the whole show covering classics such as ‘Club Tropicana’ and ‘Fast Love’. He maintained fantastic interaction with the crowd who never stopped dancing and singing along.

However, the best singing came in the slow tracks with a wonderful rendition of ‘Father Figure’ and of course ‘Careless Whisper’ to finish up.

Wayne is a self-confessed super fan himself and was clearly honoured to impersonate his role model as his career. He shared the history of George and his music including where certain songs were written and where the inspiration came from. Videos played throughout the show on the screen behind the stage, some of which were quite random but whenever footage of George came up the crowd went wild.

Fantastic entertainment from a superb tribute act which made hundreds of people very happy and celebrated George Michael’s legacy expertly.

Alex Ashbee

Treasure chest of talent graces the Minerva Theatre

REVIEW

Double bill: random and generations (by debbie tucker green)

Minerva Theatre, Chichester

A wealth of theatrical talent, probably unknown to most theatregoers in the south-east, graces the Minerva Theatre until June 2. Chichester Festival Theatre deserves great credit for choosing random and generations, two one-act plays written by debbie tucker green, an Oliver-award winning playwright, who also acts and writes screenplays.

She adapted random into a Channel 4 screen version, which won the 2012 BAFTA award for Best Single Drama. Her work is familiar to audiences at the Royal Court, the Young Vic and the National Theatre, And second coming, her follow-up feature film, won an award in Rotterdam and was BAFTA nominated.

Petra Letang, the star of random, has appeared at the Young Vic, the National Theatre and on Broadway. And she gives a searing solo performance with wit, wisdom and pathos as the oldest daughter in the day in the life of a household, which starts mundanely but ends in tragedy. Amusing take-offs of her parents, her teenage brother and her workmates turn to despair when the family is brought to its knees by a random act of violence. Never trouble trouble til trouble trouble you’ is a memorable line doomed to haunt the storyTerrific.

The first play in the double bill, generations, concerns a South African family, where Mama and Dad, Grandad and Nana, Boyfriend and Girlfriend, and Junior Sister discuss family cooking skills. Characters disappear in turn, starting with the youngest, as the dialogue is refrained in a subtle circular fashion, ripe with nuances.

Cleo Sylvestre (Nana) has also played Mary Seacole, Rosa Parks and Jospehine Baker, and appeared at the NT and in the West End. As a schoolgirl she made a record with the unknown Rolling Stones, and still performs regularly with her blues band, Honey B Mama and Friends. Also watch out for Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo, who made her debut as Girlfriend, Lauretta Essien (Mama) and Derek Ezenagu (Dad).

The director Tinuke Craig, on her Chichester debut, won the 2014 Genesis Future Director Award, and her credits have included debbie tucker green’s dirty butterfly at the Young Vic. The performance is superbly supported by the South African Cultural Choir, who lit up the Minerva with their capella singing and rhythmic Zulu dancing.

www.cft.org.uk

Nick Keith

CFT’s Coward classic bound to take Hound to the West End

The inestimable Noel Coward is a safe choice for CFT to launch their 2018 programme. However, this production, directed by Sean Foley, has veered away from traditional roots of suave sophistication and smooth style, and chosen to go down a slapstick farcical route. This has been well trodden, or rather stumbled over, by the star of this Present Laughter, Rufus Hound.

This well-known comic actor and stand-up comedian gained true public recognition when he followed James Corden in One Man, Two Guv’nors (about to be performed in an amateur production in Petersfield) on tour and at the National Theatre. In build, demeanour and style, Hound is no Noel. At first that was disconcerting, but the manic mood of farce and quick wit soon prevailed, driving away all memories of mannered mischief, while retaining Coward’s clean dialogue and sharp dramatic lines.

Photos by: Johan Persson 

The programme has kindly pointed out that Essendine is an anagram for Neediness, and that becomes all-apparent in Garry’s dealings with the constant stream of admirers and hangers-on, who are bound to hound many stars. Written in 1939 but delayed for three years because of the War, Present Laughter hangs loose on morals, with women keen to get Garry into bed. And the dress code for the evening involves mainly silk dressing gowns, another of Coward’s personal hallmarks.

The first seductress is young Daphne Stillington (Lizzy Connolly) who is eager to further her career on the stage, and in Essendine’s bed, having met Garry at a recent party. She appears one morning from a bedroom at the top of the stairs in a silk dressing gown, claiming she had to spend the night in the star’s home because she did not have her house keys.

From then on, doors open and close at rapid intervals, ushering people in and out of sight of one another.

A constant source of calm is provided by his ex-wife Liz Essendine (Katherine Kingsley), the only character who knows exactly what she is doing and what Garry wants, and needs. Another character who remains almost in charge of an ever-changing situation is Monica (Tracy-Ann Oberman), his secretary of many years, who has control of his diary – and most of his movements.

Into the giddy mix add his comic in-house staff, Fred (Delroy Atkinson) and Miss Erikson (Tamsin Griffin), who is ageing awkwardly; would-be playwright Roland Maule (Ben Allen); Garry’s theatrical promoters, Henry Lyppiatt and Morris Dixon  (Richard Mylan and Emilio Doorgasingh); and a gorgeous temptress Joanna Lyppiatt (Lucy Briggs-Owen) who is married to Henry but seems to have bedded all and sundry.

Naturally, Coward is not content with pure physical farce, and the play is leavened with witty lines and real pathos as several of the characters reveal their frailties to Garry and their friends and colleagues. The whole performance works sublimely well in a great set (designed by Alice Power), with excellent timing for both the dialogue and the pratfalls. It will be a big surprise if this production does not end up in the West End, so get to see Present Laughter before it leaves Chichester on May 12.

www.cft.org.uk

Nick Keith

Time-travelling Ayckbourn play delivers

REVIEW

COMMUNICATING DOORS

Cheriton Players

Cheriton Village Hall, Cheriton

Friday, April 20, 2018

After a tentative start, the cast were soon going at full-throttle, making sense of Ayckbourn’s mind-boggling, time-bending plot, where three women, from different eras, come together to thwart evil and defy the predictions of time.

In the feminist script Ayckbourn emphasises the strength, wit and compassion of the female cast – the original “girl-power”. Fiona Mackay (Poopay) plays the role, full of the teenage vulnerabilities that have led to her dubious career as a dominatrix, in contrast to sensible, stoical Helena Gomm (Ruella), the backbone of the trio. Last and certainly not least, as their performances were a total delight, were Isobel Wolf and Rebecca Leadley (Jessica). The chaps – David Cradduck and Charlie Hellard (Reece) and Tim Conway (Julian) are commensurate baddies and Sam Griffiths (Harold) is solid as the hapless concierge.

The set was cleverly constructed (with revolving doors, the very latest in time-travel) so that all the action was visible on the small stage and subtle lighting changes defined the eras.

The energetic entertainment meant that 40 years passed in a shot!

Rebecca Case

Poets, performers and songwriters – showcase your work in Petersfield

Write Angle poetry and music cabaret returns on April 17 to The Townhouse in Petersfield, with guest performer Cam Brown.

Cam Brown

Founder of Write Angle, Leah Cohen, said: “Cam’s first time with Write Angle was so successful, we had to ask him back – it’s his third time! He’s guaranteed to give you an evening of fun.

“Cam’s an accomplished musician who plays a mean guitar and harmonica, sings non-stop, and involves the audience – you can’t help liking the guy or laughing at the lyrics!

“Since age 16, when he sang at the ‘Epsom Folk Club’ (Paul Simon topped the bill that night), and heard the traditional comic, non-PC folk song genre along with the more contemporary music of Jake Thackray, George Melly, Paddy Roberts etc, that’s become the core of his repertoire.

“For 50 years, he’s continued strumming at pubs and folk singers’ clubs, as well as currently running a successful open mic night at The Chelsea Arts Club, London.

“His extensive repertoire of witty and funny songs is organised into themes, including social attitudes, drink, love, relationships, and more. He also includes traditional ballads and poems picked up in those early folk club days; then embellishing, rewriting and setting them to his own tunes, Cam is a very talented guitar player who loves entertaining, and it shows. He’ll have you beating your seats – if you can keep up with him – and singing along. He’s an irresistable charmer!

“As well as his amazing ability to hit the strings with fingers flying at the speed of light, he sings in a blues band called SCRAM, as well as forming an Americana trio, Blazing Saddlers, performing three-part harmony material from the fifties and sixties (think Lonnie Donegan meets the Everly Brothers), and having just completed two very successful evenings at the Claygate Music Festival, he produced iis first CD, titled Cam Brown Sings vol 1′ in 2013.”

Write Angle is at The Townhouse, High Street, Petersfield on Tuesday, April 17. Doors open at 7.15pm for a 7.30pm start. There will also be an open mic spot for anyone to read, play or perform their work to a supportive audience. Admission costs £6. See www.petersfieldwriteangle.co.uk to find out more.