No mystery as to why Winton Players are so popular


Murder on the Nile (Winton Players)

Festival Hall, Petersfield

Saturday, October 14 2017

Audiences were transported to Egypt for this Agatha Christie whodunnit with a very impressive set designed by John Chapman; I loved the way the water rippled and the backdrops were beautiful. Sound effects were good too; water birds and music, and Imams calling the faithful to prayer. It set the scene nicely.

The trouble with this 1944 play is its rather cringeworthy portrayal of foreigners, particularly the hawkers at the start, peddling their wares and offering donkey rides. Cindy Graves and Brian Wheble did their best not to make these ‘Johnny foreigner’ caricatures but they couldn’t help the script. As the Egyptian steward, Mike Cox had an easier time of it and we felt great sympathy as fingers were clicked and “Boy! Boy!” shouted at him to attend guests and bring drinks. Accents across the board were a bit hit and miss, from French to German to Egyptian, which sometimes made the words a bit tricky to hear, but for the most part voices were clear and I didn’t miss much.

Of course, being a murder mystery, the play has a lot of words, as backgrounds are detailed and red herrings are planted. There were a couple of prompts and falters, but the majority of the play rattled along a a fair pace. Well done everyone for remembering all those lines!

It’s great fun trying to work out who the murderer is and there was a loud “ooh” from the audience at one point when an essential bit of information was revealed. I was convinced it was the oh-so-saintly Christina Grant, played by Emily Watts, then I started to wonder whether Canon Ambrose Pennefather, played by John Edwards in measured style (“from Shropshire… well a little bit west of Shropshire” was a nice touch – John is Welsh) had done the dirty deed.

Could it be the German Dr Bessner, played by newcomer to Wintons, Gabriel Hearst? Did Kay (played by young Lucy Davies) kill herself? Did the French maid Louise (Joanne Stephenson) shoot her mistress? Was the socialist Smith (Simon Stanley) not quite what he seemed…? Oh the chatter at the interval about motives and methods…

Several deaths later and it all came together neatly. The well-cast Ryan Watts as Simon Mostyn showed how much stagecraft he’s been learning over the past couple of years in local theatre – well done for a performance demonstrating a lot of hard work. Meanwhile Penny Young showed her stage experience as the ridiculously named and very pompous Miss ffoliot-ffoulkes, capturing the character well and giving the play some humour.

I particularly liked the performance by the striking Monika Jankowska as Jackie – with excellent poise and the cut-glass voice of that era. I look forward to seeing her in future productions.

Next up for Winton Players is the traditional panto, Dick Whittington, in January.

Kat Wootton

McKellen returns to play Lear in crystal clear production


 ‘King Lear’ by William Shakespeare

Minerva Theatre, Chichester

The first season with Daniel Evans and Rachel Tackley in charge of Chichester Festival Theatre is crowned with a memorable production of King Lear in the Minerva. Any doubts about staging yet again one of Shakespeare’s bleakest, bitterest and bloodiest plays are removed by Jonathan Munby’s exemplary direction and a fine ensemble cast, led by Sir Ian McKellen.

This production marks another return to Lear in the last few years. These include: Frank Langella’s superb performance at the Minerva in 2013, the somewhat disappointing National Theatre version with Simon Russell Beale in 2014, and Anthony Sher in Gregory Doran’s RSC production last year. In the current programme notes, written by the actors and production team, Sir Ian says that he welcomed the chance to play Lear again when he himself was a similar age to the character, in his eighties.

“I’m not the first actor who has wanted to return to this play, as if unfinished business. Perhaps it’s just that the closer you get to the king’s age, the more telling it becomes; for some, more a therapy than a job.” Sir Ian was a highly praised Lear directed by Trevor Nunn at the RSC 10 years ago, and this was turned into a TV film. Sir Ian also wanted to perform in the intimate surroundings of the Minerva.

King Lear embraces authority and chaos, misjudgement and madness, age and infirmity, betrayal and brutality, justice and injustice. At the end there is reconciliation but only when Cordelia lies dead in the arms of her father who is briefly finds humility and sense. But Britain is left in ruins, without government. At the end of the play Edgar speaks to our time, when untruth has become so significant in our world: ”The weight of this sad time we must obey; Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

At first Lear is an unsympathetic character. A quick-tempered authoritarian, used to absolute power, he is removed from knowing or understanding himself, his children, his court or his circumstances. Haunted by his age and a fear of madness even in Act 1, Lear is fevered with his lack of self knowledge: “‘Tis the infirmity of is age; yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.”

And he also has a sense of his own senility: “Oh! Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven; Keep me in temper; I would not be mad.”

For a start, Lear was mad to believe that he could surrender his power to his daughters while keeping their love and support, and retaining his authority without responsibility; that he and everyone else would be happy with his retirement hunting and roistering with his 100 knights; and that power would not corrupt his children and turn them against him. “Does thou call me fool, boy?” He asks his Fool, who replies: “All thy other titles thou hast given away; that wast thou born with.”

Lear’s anguish is mirrored by that of his servant Gloucester, an adulterer who trusts his bastard son Edmund rather than his natural heir, Edgar. The engrossing action works well within the close confines of the Minerva, whether Lear is celebrating at table with his knights, or out on the bleak, cold, rain-lashed heath. We were warned before the play began that there would be two hours before the interval but the production did not drag for one moment and time passed swiftly. This is a tribute to the work of director Jonathan Munby. His production is far bigger than the sum of its parts and he brings great clarity to this complicated work.

Phil Daniels exemplifies this as a Fool who looks and performs like a cross between Eric Morecambe and Elvis Costello; he is both witty and wise, whereas sometimes the character seems crass and convoluted. Some of the playing is uneven, and that includes Sir Ian. Neither Goneril (Dervla Kirwan) nor Regan (Kirsty Bushell) completely convince as the evil sisters. Damien Molony does not seem devilish enough as Edmund. But Danny Webb makes a convincing Gloucester and Michael Matus earns his laughs as the servant Oswald.

While it is a surprise to find the Earl of Kent/Caius played by a woman, Sinéad Cusack brings great vitality to the part of a noble who is both loyal to the king and outspokenly blunt (especially when disguised as Caius after his/her  expulsion from court). These minor criticisms should not detract from an extremely high-class exposition of King Lear, which runs at the Minerva until October 28.

Nick Keith

Forgotten playwright offers a work to remember

The Stepmother, by Githa Sowerby

Minerva Theatre, Chichester

It is always a joy when a new playwright bursts onto the theatrical scene. It is equally thrilling when a forgotten author is rediscovered. Githa Sowerby’s excellent 1923 play ‘The Stepmother’ has been revived at Chichester under the unerring guidance of Richard Eyre, director of the National Theatre from 1988 to 1997.

Her first play Rutherford & Son’ was staged in 1912 under the name K G Sowerby, which people presumed was a man, and it ‘caused a sensation. Originally programmed for four matinee performances, it was such a success that it transferred to the West End and later to America, with translations in many different languages. Although Githa Sowerby was hailed as the ‘new Ibsen’, success seems to sent her into her shell; and her second play, ‘The Stepmother’ was not finished until the 1920s and staged in 1924, but for only for one performance in a private club. Her third and last play has remained unpublished.

‘The Stepmother’ was revived in 2008 by the Shaw Theatre in Canada. Eyre extols it as “very much a play for our time. It is underscored by a passionate belief in the massive injustice of the position of women. The play embraces the topics of money, sex [gender], and class.”

Shy teenager Lois Relph (Ophelia Lovibond) has come to live with the family of businessman Eustace Gaydon (Will Keen) after the death of his sister Fanny (who had taken her under her wing five years before). The clearly shifty Gaydon is aghast to discover that his sister has bequeathed her small fortune to Lois, as he had been eagerly expecting the money to underwrite his losses on speculative ventures.

In the second act the story has moved on 10 years and Lois has become Mrs Gaydon and the stepmother to Gaydon’s two teenage daughters, Monica and Betty. Lois has entrusted her inheritance to her husband – apparently this was common practice at the time – and she does not enquire what he has done and is doing with the money. She also working hard to sustain a successful fashion boutique she has set up in London.

Monica (Eve Ponsonby) is in love with and secretly engaged to Cyril Bennet (Samuel Valentine), whose father was once Gaydon’s solicitor and knows all about his dodgy dealings. Mr Bennet (Simon Chandler) had begged Lois not to trust Gaydon with her money and does not want his son to marry Monica.

This simmering concoction of money, gender and power boils over when Lois tries to force Mr Bennet’s hand by offering him £10,000 as a dowery for Monica to marry Cyril. Will Gaydon be exposed or will his continuous machinations succeed?

Will he retain his power over his wife through secrecy, lies and manipulation? Or will she discover the truth and recover her money and power? Will the lovers marry?

Will Keen and Ophelia Lovibond in The Stepmother. Photo by Catherine Ashmore

While this may seem like plain melodrama, the way Sowerby manages her plotting and characterization is brilliantly dramatic. Many scenes brought sharp intakes of breath and knowing laughter from the audience. All the key characters are clearly and carefully drawn and the result is memorable and thrilling theatre, thanks to Eyre’s skillful direction and some splendid acting.

It is a pity that there is only one other Sowerby play to savour, and that has been revived at the National Theatre in the last 10 years. ‘The Stepmother’ deserves an extended run in this revival and hopefully this production will not disappear from view after Chichester.

Nick Keith

Railway Children play at steam heritage railway

THE Mid Hants Railway (MHR) Watercress Line at Ropley Station will play host this month to an open air production of E Nesbit’s classic story The Railway Children.

To be performed by Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Youth Theatre, it is full steam ahead for this captivating new adaption, which tells the story of Roberts, Peter and Phyllis as they get up to adventures surrounding the steam railway near their home.

Woodies Mountford, marketing manager at the Watercress Line: said: “We are delighted to be working with the Yvonne Arnaud Youth Theatre on its production of The Railway Children. This will be the first time we have had an open-air theatre production here at the Watercress Line, and we’re encouraging people to bring picnics and come along for a wonderful family afternoon.

She added: “Showing such an iconic tale about the nostalgia of steam railways surrounded by the real sights, sounds and smells of our railway will be a truly immersive theatrical experience for visitors of all ages to enjoy.”

Nick White, head of youth and education at the Yvonne Arnaud Youth Theatre, believes Ropley Station will provide the perfect setting for the production. “When we were looking to find venues for our upcoming production of The Railway Children our first approach was always going to be the Watercress Line.

“The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre recently produced some training videos for Network Rail that were filmed on the line and it was then that we fell in love with the idea of bringing a touring production to the railway. We are delighted that the team has embraced the idea so whole-heartedly.”

Performances of ‘The Railway Children’ will be held at 12.15pm and 2.15pm on both Friday and Saturday, August 18 and 19. Tickets can be purchased online at or call 01962 733810.

Rain never stopped play for fifth Petersfield Shakespeare Festival

Petersfield Shakespeare Festival

Outdoor theatre space, Bedales School, Steep

July 2017

Hey ho, the wind and the rain. The fifth Shakespeare festival braved the open-air space at Bedales just as the backlash after the heatwave struck – but gales and lashing rain were a trifling matter for the hard-working cast.


Company in rehearsal before the rain cover had to go on!

The main event, As You Like It, directed by Jake Smith and Chris Cuming, and starring a number of local performers, was a very agreeable torrent of colour, music, comedy and general bonkersness.

The costumes, from the slick blacks and greys, leather and tailoring of the court attire to the hippy/90s grunge-glam multi-coloured flamboyance of the forest-fest crowd, were excellent – well done Nicole Small for design and Eve Oakley as wardrobe mistress.

The production rolled along a fair old pace, interspersed with lively musical numbers, and it was good to see people taking a number of roles, including some scene-stealing sheep! The shearing was an inspired touch, adding extra laughs to a scene between Audrey (Katie Solly) and William the countryman who is pursuing her (Freddie Wride).

Several cast members were also proficient musicians – jumping onto the drums or grabbing a guitar when not required onstage.

It feels unkind to single out actors as everyone was so good, but Twyla Doone as Rosalind gave a very strong performance, engaging and expressive, as did Laura Peterson as Celia.

Twyla Doone as Rosalind

The night I watched it was Sam Hollis playing Orlando – and he did very well as the young lover, as did young Crispin Glancy as Silvius, mooning after Phoebe, played by Freya Sollis, the youngest cast member. It was easy to forget just how young many of the cast are.

William Bedford-Russell played Touchstone as a rangy, bewhiskered hedonist, rude and rough. He reminded me of a film character but the name escapes me.

Albert de Jongh as Jaques had great stage presence and the PYT gang of Adam Young, Fred Hughes-Stanton, Tom O’Kelly and Susie Coutts brought out much of the comedy, as well as pitching in with the singing and dancing.

Meanwhile, representing both the more mature section of the cast, and Petersfield’s Lion and Unicorn theatre group, were Simon Mackarness as Adam and Norman Stewart as Corin the old shepherd, providing some calm in the midst of the feverish goings-on.

Ed Taylor-Goodby added his solid professionalism as both boo-worthy Oliver and the drunk priest, with David Podger as the Duke bringing it all together, and Nada Sharp as Duke Frederick (not sure why the part was played by a woman but it didn’t make a jot of difference to the story).

Dannie Pye as Hymen the god of marriage, as a silver-clad drag act, leading the singing at the end, pushed the whole thing completely over the top as everyone crowded onto the little circular stage in a melee of sound and colour and movement.

The wind threatened to drown out the voices, and whisk away the sheet which protected the stage, and the rain lashed down on the poor cast, but they battled on regardless. I hope they each got to have a hot bath after the show! Well done all – great fun.

Shakespeare’s Lost Women is a new play by Greg Mosse with onstage music by John Gleadall. It is a one-woman, one-act show about an actress, Deirdre Compton, who has made a career playing the milkmaids, victims, fools and clowns – Shakespeare’s bit-parts – while her mother mourns a fading career playing the leads. Harriet Benson swept us along with her as she told us the tale of these female characters, which she fleshes out with empathy and good humour. She moved adeptly from character to character, bringing the women to life, with songs revealing their ‘back stories’. A clever, inventive and interesting play.

The Buried Moon, written by talented young playwright Laura Turner, brings the relationship of Caliban and Miranda from The Tempest, up to date. Set in a Lincolnshire marsh, where teen tearaway Caliban’s tent is pitched as he fishes for eels, and miranda seeks solace after the death of her mother, the play looks at issues of friendship, sex and love, parenting, loss, and being an outsider.

I found the two performers, Georgina Hellier and Michael Kinsey, absolutely mesmerising. The play takes twists and turns, getting ever darker and more difficult, but the pair carry it on their young shoulders, inhabiting these characters completely. These were subtle, mature performances in a thought-provoking, beautifully scripted play.

Kat Wootton

Fiddler on the Roof – another Chichester masterstroke

Fiddler on the Roof

Chichester Festival Theatre

Tuesday, July 18 2017

The lone fiddler, perched atop a black, empty stage, opens the show.

All at once doors open, light spills out and on come the residents of Anatevka, the little Jewish settlement in 1905 Russia where this story is set, for the opening number Tradition.

It sets out the importance of family, of heritage, of clinging hold of beliefs and ways despite being surrounded by a different and often hostile culture. But the tradition so powerfully sung about here (when all the voices are raised together in this show, it’s like a wall of sound – thrilling) is under threat, not only by the ruling forces but also from modern ideas, represented by the student Perchik. These ideas, about women and arranged marriages, politics and faith, disturb the delicate fabric of this mini-society, before the Russians rip it apart wholesale by forcing the Jews to get out of the country en masse.

It all seems very apposite – transpose Islam for Judaism, Syria for Russia, and you start to see some similarities: people ousted from their homes, the fear of ‘aliens’ and their strange customs, mistrust of other faiths and languages, refugees, the fear of mass migration…

As Tevye, the dairyman, Omid Djalili is spot-on casting. The comedian brings a self-deprecating warmth and a wry nod to the audience as if to say ‘families, eh? they’re all the same’.

Omid Djalili as Tevye in Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by Johan Persson

There’s a subtle approach to this production – it seems underplayed slightly; more realistically perhaps than I’ve seen it performed before. The accents do seem a bit, well, varied, but that’s a minor quibble.

Tracy-Ann Oberman plays Golde his wife with assurity.  The three main daughters – Simbi Akande as Tzeitel, Emma Kingston as Hodel, and Rose Shalloo as the bespectacled Chava all seem a little unsure of themselves – I wasn’t really feeling the emotion if some of their scenes. But they’re young, which might explain it.

Omid-Djalili, Tracy-Ann Oberman and company. Photo by Johan Persson

The dream sequence was, in complete contrast, totally prog rock, over-the-top, panto style with flames and smoke and Thriller zombies – Laura Tebbutt screeching and wailing as the butcher’s dead wife. Very funny.

Some highlights for me include Gareth Snook as a really creepy Lazar Wolf the butcher – “but I liiiike her…”; the Russian soldiers’ dancing and the ridiculously extended note sung by one of them (apologies for not recalling which of the actors); the ensemble scenes when the vocal power could have knocked over an army; the beautiful Sunrise, Sunset song which had me in tears, and the incredibly poignant final scene with the cast tableau in front of huge photographs of the actual Jewish emigrants trying to start a new life in America, in ragged clothes, with haunted dark eyes, staring ahead. A waterfall in front of them represented… what? A barrier? A veil? A clean start? A sea of people, little droplets falling together to make a huge stream? Whatever it meant, it was very effective.

This a production that will no doubt head for the West End, as so many Chichester shows have done. There was a standing ovation on the night I attended – well-deserved. Get a ticket if you can.

Kat Wootton


Guildburys’ Nell Gwynn – a delightful feelgood evening

Nell Gwynn (Guildburys Theatre Company)

Waverley Abbey

Wednesday, July 12

Welcome to the witty, bawdy romp that is Nell Gwynn – Jessica Swale’s award-winning play set in 17th century theatre world. The playhouses have reopened after years of Puritan rule, and there’s a king back on the throne, making hay while the sun shines.

This is a lovely play; as open and warm yet as knowing about human frailty as Nell herself. There’s no sub-plot, no turgid passages pontificating about weighty issues; just rags to riches, real romance, a bit of earthy humour, some memorable songs, and a lot of laughs. Just the sort of play Nell would have liked. It’s a little bit Love Actually in fact.

Best known as the orange-seller who stole the heart of King Charles II, Nell Gwynn was also one of the first female actors on the stage. There is much discussion in the backstage scenes of the play about real women not being able to play women on stage, and about there not being good parts for women when they do get the chance to act.

Director Laura Sheppard must have thanked her lucky stars when Amy de Roche auditioned. She’s perfect as Nell; cheerful, expressive, cheeky – she seems great fun, the kind of person you’d want to hang out with. And she can sing and dance. (The ‘I can dance and I can sing’ ditty will not get out of my head!)

Playing her Charlie is Jason Orbaum, quietly regal and delivering the drily witty lines with elegance and warmth. Phill Griffith as Lord Darlington provides a nice bombastic contrast.

Ally Murphy as the Queen Catherine, her torrent of invective in Portuguese about the king shaming her by forcing her to meet his mistress, was very impressive; as was Tessa Duggleby as said mistress, the ambitious Barbara Castlemaine, looking upon Nell as a rather stupid lamb about to be eaten by a lion. Jemma Jessup as Louise de Keroualle, angling for the king’s affections in order to secure French interests, is also excellent.

In the theatre scene, Andrew Donovan plays the increasingly harassed-looking theatre owner Killigrew; Graham Russell-Price is Dryden the uninspired playwright, Tim Brown is the likeable Charles Hart who first trains Nell for the stage, Michael Thonger is Ned the unassuming young actor, and Eddie Woolwich plays the female impersonator Edward Kynaston – furious that an actual woman has stolen his roles. One of the funniest scenes is where he has created a ridiculous back story for his character, who has but one line to say.

We were also in tears – with hysterical laughter – when Nancy the dresser has a go at acting in the absence of Nell. Her obvious discomfort and desperation to get offstage, much to the exasperation of the other actors and the director, were hilarious. It would be so easy to overplay this, but the timing and expression were spot on and it was one of the highlights of the show. Well done to Pam Hemelryk.

Rose Hall as Nell’s sister Rose was suitably grimy and guttersnipy, while Old Ma Gwynn played by Gilly Fick, has her Doolittle moment to remind Nell where she came from.

The whole production, on a simple but effective set, with lovely costumes and the beautiful backdrop of Waverley Abbey, makes for a very entertaining and feelgood evening. Well done all.

Nell Gwynn is at Waverley Abbey until July 15, then at Haslemere Museum July 27-29.

Kat Wootton

Nell Gwynn, performed at Waverley Abbey by the Guildburys

Headley Theatre Club predicts a Riot!

Riot! cast outside the gates of Headley workhouse (now Headley Grange)


In November 1830 a mob of several hundred men stormed the dreaded workhouses at Selborne and Headley and laid them waste.

This year Jo Smith’s play called Riot!, performed by members of Headley Theatre Club, brings the action to life again as a team of actors visit local venues to tell the story with music, words and action.

The production runs over two weekends from July 14-22, visiting Alton Assembly Rooms (8pm Friday 14), Liphook Village Hall (2.30 and 8pm Saturday 15), The Rural Life Centre, Tilford (2.30pm Sunday 15), The Triangle Liss (8pm Friday 21) and Headley Village Hall (2.30 and 8pm Saturday 22).

Tickets can be obtained from the individual venues, or centrally by visiting the Headley Theatre Club website or by ringing 01428 717358.


Petersfield Youth Theatre summer workshops

Petersfield Youth Theatre is offering five-day summer workshops to both members and non-members in August.

Summer Fun for 5- to 10-year-olds involves three workshops each day led by professional theatre practitioners.

Summer Stage It for 11- to 14-year-olds involves musical theatre, working with a Director/Choreographer and a Musical Director. You will work towards a presentation for family and friends on the final day.

The summer school will be held at Bedales School, Steep, August 21-25, 10am-3pm. The cost for PYT members is £85, non-members £105.

See for more details and to book.

 The seminal story of two girls who fled Ireland for freedom


The Country Girls, by Edna O’Brien

 Minerva Theatre, Chichester

The first novel of Edna O’Brien, ‘The Country Girls’, was banned in her native Ireland and criticized by the church when it was published in 1960. This seminal coming-of-age story mirrors her own experiences of growing up in a highly conservative Roman Catholic country where women struggled to make their feelings and voices heard. Her domineering mother despised literature and even tried to burn the books Edna was reading.

In 1954 O’Brien married an Irish writer, who was disliked by her parents, and they moved to London. Her groundbreaking book was published in her 30th year, and it changed the tone of Irish writing.  She later adapted it for the stage, and has since won international acclaim.

The heroines are charming Kate (Grace Molony) and her bubbly best friend Baba, short for Bridget (Genevieve Hulme-Beaman).  We meet the girls in drab convent school uniforms, white socks and sandals. They feel troubled and trapped in their west of Ireland convent, although they are befriended by one of the nuns, Sister Mary.

This matches Edna O’Brien’s own experience in county Clare where she grew up. As a girl before the War and as a young adult, she lived in a deeply  deprived country where women were particularly oppressed. In 1951 Noel Browne, the Health Minister, tried to introduce the free Mother and Child Scheme to protect young women. This was opposed by the church and the medcial profession, and the Minister had to resign. Books were banned, films were censored, and there was no TV, or mains water for many people, until the Sixties.

Against this real life claustrophobic background, we find the two teenage girls in the story trying to find their way. Baba is constantly breaking the rules in search of fun and leads Kate astray. Out of school, they meet a couple of spiv businessmen. Kate rejects their advances as she is being courted by an older married man, known simply as Mr Gentleman (Valery Schatz). Baba is expelled from the convent after going off with her beau, and the two girls are separated for a while.


Kate is flattered by the attentions of the older man and shows a growing affection for him, although he is married. However, the two girls are reunited and Baba persuades Kate, with some difficulty, to leave Mr Gentleman and go with her to London. Kate battles with the demands of her drunken widowed father. In leaving home she overcomes her innate sense of duty, but only with the help her wayward friend Baba. For them, that marks the start of a brave new world as they move from childhood to womanhood, suitcases in hand.

The theatrical version of Edna O’Brien’s tale works well. The innocent rebelliousness of the girls within the confines of their strict social straightjacket rings true. The setting by Richard Kent of bleak stone buildings against a green floor provide the stern background for life in Ireland in the first half and London in the second act. ‘The Country Girls’ is at the Minerva until July 8 and you can enjoy a play with good writing, deft direction, and two fine young lead actors.

Nick Keith