See award-winning COCK – you won’t regret it

REVIEW

Cock by Mike Bartlett

Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Mike Bartlett is a master of dialogue, especially in triangular relationships where visceral emotions surface. Anyone knows that if they became immersed in the recent BBC TV series Dr Foster. This revival of his earlier award-winning play Cock, first produced at the Royal Court in 2009, lights up Chichester’s Minerva stage with coruscating brilliance.

On a bare stage, with no props, scenery, or furniture, John and his seven-year boyfriend quickly introduce us to their strong gay relationship, which has become strained. John insists to his partner that he loves everything about him and living with him, but he feels put down and unable to express himself.

Matthew Needham and Luke Thallon in COCK by Mike Bartlett at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo by The Other Richard

Soon we learn that John has met a woman, they have had sex, he has fallen for her, and wants to leave M (that is his partner’s name in the programme, where only John is named). He says that he and the woman have met on the street regularly on the way to work, and, in time, one thing led to another. Before long, however, John wants to come back to M.

The play then recalls John’s meeting and rapture with the woman (known as W), who has become single after a broken relationship and effectively seduces him with her feminine wiles. The account of their sexual fulfillment is cleverly told in words and body language without any physical engagement.

Thus John has a dilemma. He loves both his partners in different ways, but is indecisive and cannot choose between them. A dinner party is arranged between the three of them, and this is just as fraught as the one in the first series of Dr Foster. John promises to announce his decision over the pudding. The inevitable early awkwardness at the beginning of the dinner party is interrupted by the arrival of M’s widowed father (F), who has been secretly invited. The intricate dance between the trio becomes a convoluted quartet.

The father insists that John makes his son happy, has been gay for many years since coming out at university, and needs to stay in his established gay relationship. The woman retorts that John is the only man for her, and he admits that he has felt more liberated as a person with her and enjoyed heterosexual sex more. Asked by the others to decide who he is, John is torn asunder and cannot make up his mind. While there is a sort of resolution, you are left unsure whether he has made the right choice, or even made a final decision at all.

Mike Bartlett says that Cock is as much about love as about sex. And, language warning – the theatre is blue with four letter words for most of the evening, a 90-minute one-piece staging of the play. Relationships and communication are all-important in Cock. The problem for John and his two partners is not even gender specific. The questions are: whether to stay with his difficult and overbearing partner who does not allow him to grow up and truly find his identity, but he knows and loves; or whether he should take the risk of moving into new sexual territory, which is unfamiliar but where he may just have a chance of finding himself. This is gripping stuff, beautifully played by Luke Thallon (John), Matthew Needham, Isabella Laughland and Simon Chandler (the father); and tightly directed by Kate Hewittt (named in 2017 as one of Variety’s ’10 Brits to Watch’).

This production of Mike Bartlett’s marvelous play is certainly well worth watching, and you can see it until October 27.

www.cft.org.uk

Nick Keith

The Old Ones – sorry, but Vulcan 7 is a damp squib

Vulcan 7, by Adrian Edmondson and Nigel Planer

Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford

Monday, September 24

Oh dear. I was so looking forward to a good laugh. But this didn’t deliver. It had moments of fun and I did laugh out loud on a number of occasions, but this could have been so much more.

Set in a trailer on an active volcano in Iceland during filming of a sci-fi film, Vulcan 7 is really about two ageing actors and their historic rivalry. Both having trained at Rada, one is a former hell raiser who can’t forget lines from the many performances he’s been in (Adrian Edmondson), the other always playing second fiddle (Nigel Planer). Now they’ve been reduced to an alien in an awful costume (Edmonson) and a series of butlers with upper-crust accents (Planer).

Meanwhile, the young runner Leela, played by Lois Chimimba, tries to keep the two from drinking themselves to death (Edmonson) or killing each other as they find themselves trapped in a tipping trailer on the wrong side of a widening chasm as the volcano becomes far more active than they’d like. This young woman may or may not be the daughter of either of the two actors.

So. While Edmonson does his best to keep the sitcom style play afloat, Planer is ponderous, almost apathetic in his performance, and gives little for the others to play off, forcing Chimimba to ratchet up her performance to overdone levels.

The whole play is just a bit dull and dated – it doesn’t say anything new about what it is to be old in the film industry, and there were moments of downright amateurishness (in the worst sense) such as when Planer can be seen in front of the window before suddenly rushing on for his next scene.

The set was fun – the trailer tilting to alarming angles during the course of the play. It was probably the best part of the show. But the set can’t save the play.

It’s all about as sad as the lives of the two old actors they’re portraying. I can’t be the only one in the audience to have been thinking ‘oh if only Rik Mayall had been involved…’.

Maybe the actors were thinking it too… hence the lacklustre performances. Or perhaps they’re just knackered.

I’m so disappointed. Guys, you’re better than this.

Kat Wootton

Standing ovation at CFT for new musical

REVIEW

Flowers for Mrs Harris

Chichester Festival Theatre

British theatregoers love a musical. As long as it has a heart-warming story. strong voices and good acting, it doesn’t even need a memorable song. ‘Flowers for Mrs Harris’ ticked all these boxes and the Chichester Festival Theatre audience took it to their hearts.

Mark Meadows as Mr-Harris, Clare Burt as Ada Harris in CFT’s Flowers for Mrs Harris Photo: Johan Persson

Festival Theatre artistic director Daniel Evans has reprised his award-winning production in Sheffield two years ago when it won several awards, including best musical. The story is from a sugarcoated novella by Paul Gallico. The music is by Richard Taylor, who has composed for West End shows, the National Theatre and the RSC; and the Gallico story was adapted by Rachel Wagstaff, who re-worked Sebastian Faulks’s novel Birdsong for the West End.
Ada Harris (Clare Burt) spends her widowhood arranging flowers and keeping her Battersea home clean in the imagined company of her husband Albert. She is a saintly daily, supporting neighbours and her cleaning clients. Without demur and without any thought for herself. But most people take her altruistic efforts for granted. Her aspirations and her life change when she spots a beautiful Christian Dior dress in a brochure, and she determines to find a way of getting to Paris. The first act shows how she helps people and scrimps and saves to raise money for her dream ticket to Paris, with a little help and guidance from her friends.

Clare Burt made a marvellous Mrs Harris, reprising the role for which she had won an award in Sheffield. Support from the likes of Joanna Ridding and Gary Wilmot was strong, and the cast performed parallel roles in the Paris part of the show.

It was rather disappointing that the evening lacked a memorable song, with recitative prevailing, and some of the lyrics were drowned by the loudness of the music, so a minus mark for musical director Tom Brady. Spoiler alert: there is a happy ending, and the CFT audience rose as one to give the production a standing ovation.

www.cft.org

Nick Keith

Cynthia will smash it at Write Angle poetry night

Be prepared for the very highly commended poet, Cynthia Hamilton, at September’s Write Angle in Petersfield.

Cynthia is a comic performance artist who began while still at the University in Liverpool. She became the Allcomers Slam Champion at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature and went on to perform for BBC-TV, Channel 4 and Central Television.

Performance poet Cynthia Hamilton

She’s had poems published by Poetry Review and has performed with John Hegley, Stewart Lee and John Cooper Clarke – who described her as “metrically sound” – and she’s also the proud author of one of Benjamin Zephaniah’s favourite love poems. In addition she has done work for the BBC World Service and was published in The Bloomsbury Book of Love Poems, The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain and Moving Voices: Black Performance Poetry. She’s also had two plays produced by Radio 4. 

In addition to performing, Cynthia currently works in publishing where she likes to “mix things up”. She has promoted books for authors from the Archbishop of Canterbury to Frank Bruno and knows a surprising amount about the lesbian witchcraft book market…

Write Angle poetry and music cabaret is on Tuesday, September 18, at 7.30pm, at the Townhouse, 28 High Street, Petersfield.

Admission costs £6 and there will be the usual open mic spot for anyone who wants to share their work with an enthusiastic audience. 

See www.petersfieldwriteangle.co.uk

Explosive dialogue as Frayn trains his searchlight on scientists at war

REVIEW

Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn

 Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Ten years have passed since Michael Frayn’s cerebral play ‘Copenhagen’ made its debut at the National Theatre. This marks the playwright’s take on a famous meeting in 1941 between two of the world’s leading physicists, Werner Heisenberg from Germany and his one-time mentor Nils Bohr from Denmark. “Exactly what happened, and what Heisenberg’s intentions were, have been endlessly disputed,” Frayn notes in the programme.

The third protagonist is Bohr’s wife Margarethe (Patricia Hodge), a vital witness to events as her husband’s secretary who had to transcribe his many drafts and re-drafts when he was preparing a scientific paper. The three of them are all dead and, from their heavenly vantage point, they set out to offer various scenarios of what was said and what happened at the meeting, with some ‘live’ reconstructions.

Copenhagen by Michael Frayn at CFT

Heisenberg  (Charles Edwards) was half-Jewish but he was roundly condemned after the War because of his perceived Nazi sympathies, and because of the suspicion that his visit to Copenhagen was to wheedle information out of Bohr about making an atomic bomb and to discover how far the Allies had got with their research. But that is shrouded in mystery in Frayn’s telling of the story, as he lets Heisenberg tell his side of things, for which he was criticized when the play went to New York.

In Frayn’s account the meeting between the two men starts amiably (although Margarethe is more suspicious), but quickly provokes a rupture. Bohr (Paul Jesson) was Heisenberg’s mentor when they worked together between 1924 and 1927 and is referred to as ‘the Pope’ by his German protégé. “If I am the Pope, then Einstein is God,” jokes Bohr.

It is a remarkable coup de theatre that Frayn’s dialogue fizzes with intensity and interest in long discussions over electrons, photons, neutrons, Quantum mechanics, fission, reactors and chain reactions. Heisenberg never says openly what he wants, but the dark shadow of the war hangs over their discussions, and he hints that his role has been to hide the weapons of mass destruction from the Nazis. At the same time he expresses his love of Germany where he and his children have been born and raised and have prospered.

His Danish hosts try hard to get Heisenberg to say what he wants but his line remains that producing an atomic bomb would have been too difficult. And he insists that his goal is to build nuclear reactors to create energy. The two men often return to discussions of mutual sporting pursuits in sailing, table tennis and skiing. Heisenberg was proud to be a fast and fearless skier and based his scientific methodology on his fast instincts, while Bohr was more careful. Sailing brings bad memories for the Bohrs as their son was drowned at sea.

The discussions take place against a bare set with only three wooden chairs, but the stage is filled with fine words, and subtle activity as the two men pace round in memory of their frequent walks. The dialogue never flags and Margarethe often raises a laugh as she gently (or firmly) contradicts the two men for their false memories and scientific contradictions. Frayn explores dilemmas for scientists when their nations are at war and lucidly explains the scientific challenges of producing a nuclear weapon. If Germany had won the race to create the Atom bomb, who knows what would have happened.

The actors maintain a fast and furious pace and, for me, the diction was clear (although I heard one theatregoer complain that Jesson had mumbled in the first act). There is crisp direction from Michael Blakemore whose long experience has included directing ‘Noises Off’, Frayn’s famous and enduring farce, and the original production of ‘Copenhagen’ during his time at the National Theatre. There is theoretical and actual  explosive material in this production which merits five stars.

www.cft.org

 Nick Keith

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