Friday, 25 May 2012

REVIEW: 'One Glass of Cider and She's Anybody's' - Abigail's Party, Wyndham's Theatre, London, 21/05/2012

For a theatre fan, living in London truly is a blessing. Not only are you able to pick and choose from the best quality performances and productions in the world on iconic stages graced by some of theatre's finest, but if you happen to miss something special, you can bet your bottom dollar that you'll be presented with the chance of seeing it very soon. This was the case for me and 'Abigail's Party', written by Mike Leigh. It was playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory last year, but the play is so well known and so well done that it sold out too quickly for me to get a ticket. Needless to say, when I discovered that due to popular demand it was being reprised at the Wyndham's Theatre, I snapped the hand off the internet ticket vendor (so to speak), and thanks to a great cast and production team I couldn't be happier to have done so.

The play is a satirical comedy set in 1970s Essex, focusing on the three different tiers of the middle class. Beverly Moss and her husband Laurence are aspiring social climbers, who invite their new lower-middle class neighbours, Angela and Tony, over for drinks, along with upper-middle class neighbour Sue. Sue's daughter Abigail is having a house party, which is the cause of much discussion and distress throughout the night. Whilst the gathering starts off quite stiffly and cold, it soon livens up with flowing alcohol, music and flaring tempers and frustrations. Over the course of the night Beverly flirts more and more overtly with Tony, and argues more passionately with Laurence, ending in a fatal last scene. Through the conversations shared between the characters the  prejudices, competitiveness, fears and hopes and obsessions of the protagonists revealed to the audience.

The set design by Mike Britton was absolutely spot on, so credit is most definitely due. Picture a typical 1970s living room: garish orange and brown patterned wall paper, white rug, leather sofas and wooden storage shelves. There was even a colour changing fibre optic lamp. Tacky and distasteful, the set wonderfully reflected a social climber's view on what can be considered classy. The lighting, it must be said, was also very appropriate, subtle and warm, inviting the audience into Beverly's living room.

Now on to the cast. I've had the pleasure of watching Jill Halfpenny before in Legally Blonde at the Savoy Theatre, so I was expecting a great comical performance. She didn't disappoint. Far from it, she really let loose and had fun on stage, and that reflected in the audience's reaction to her Beverly. Humorous, bossy, slightly intimidating, and far from classy, the highlight of the performance was most definitely when Beverly starts dancing around the living room, making a fool of herself to everyone else but herself. Her constant nagging and berating of Laurence is both funny and irritating, but I have to admit that I actually felt quite sympathetic towards the character, who is definitely putting on a facade. Beverly is a character who aspires to climb the social class ladder, and perhaps feels a little unfulfilled by not having children, which Jill Halfpenny managed to subtly play to perfection. The bright green dress was an excellent costume choice too. Beverly's character is always seeking to be the centre of attention and with that on, she most definitely was.

Andy Nyman's portrayal of Laurence was a fitting opposite to Jill Halfpenny. Irritable and at times hilariously erratic, it was a pleasure to watch those two quarrel and attempt to score points against each other. There was something about the way Nyman played the role that made you pity him, being stuck with Beverly, but on the other hand it was evident on stage that deep down the characters have great affection for each other, even if they drive each other around the bend. I do feel however, that his performance in the final scene was a little too melodramatic for the rest of the play, and moved far too quickly for the audience to really feel any sympathy.

I found myself laughing most at Susannah Harker's character, Sue. Divorced and bringing up a rebellious teenage daughter, Harker brilliantly conveyed Sue to be a bit of a walkover really, who, despite large amounts of alcohol, remains uptight and quite prudish and proper to the end. Evidently intimidated and overwhelmed by Beverly, there was a slight but not overly obvious tremor in Sue's tonality which I thought was a touch of genius by Harker. Obvious discomfort in being invited to the party, and greatly dominated by Beverly throughout the play, Harker more than held her own on a stage packed with great talent.

Natalie Casey is definitely an actress to be watched. She caught my attention as soon as she walked on stage, playing the role of Angela. Uncouth, unrefined and slightly clueless, Angela is such a frustrating character, however amazingly this is never irritating. Quite the contrary, this trait is what makes her so humorous. Frankly, Natalie Casey did a wonderful job playing the still quite young Angela, who I feel is seeking acceptance into the lower middle class she has recently joined. Casey delivered her comical lines seamlessly and was so watchable on stage. Like Andy Nyman, I felt that she was a little overexcited and thus extreme in the final scene of the play. However this can be forgiven by her consistent performance throughout the rest of the production.

Joe Absolom's role was the smallest, but that doesn't reflect the talent that he contributes to the production. The character of Tony is a man of few words or strong opinions, but from Absolom's performance I felt that this perhaps that is because he is overshadowed by his wife Angela, an interesting revelation to me half way through watching the show. The problem with Tony is that he marries too young and what Absolom conveyed so well was a silent and untold feeling of a lost youth, resulting in Tony's apparent resentful and brooding nature.

The beauty of this play is that, as a situation comedy, it is able to effectively keep the atmosphere and attention of the audience whilst the action remains in one place. The actors on stage played off each other extremely well and that shows in the lack of a stand out performance; they were all just so well suited to each other. I'm giving this production of 'Abigail's Party' four stars out of five. Mike Leigh's writing is without a doubt truly funny, without being crude or forced as some comedies can be, but the manner of the production means that, I feel, it is only really at home in a more intimate theatre. The play and its characters are so relatable because they reflect the lives, problems and aspirations of so many of Britain's middle class not just in the 70s, but today also. I understand why this production sold out so quickly at the Menier, and it is more than worthy of its West End run. I implore you to go and see it while there are seats available, or you will most definitely regret it!

Thursday, 17 May 2012

In the Spotlight: East 15 Acting School - 11/05/2012

Last Friday afternoon, (11/05/2012) I received a message from a friend of mine, who is in his final year of studying Contemporary Theatre at East 15 Acting School in Loughton, Essex. The message was a last minute invite to the showcase performance the final year students were giving at the East 15 theatre, involving two 15 minute scratch performances, one a play, the other a musical both written by current students, and 30 minutes of improvised theatre based on the suggestions and shout outs from the audience. A few months ago, I travelled to see the play my friend had written be performed by some of the students and I had been very impressed with the talent and professionalism I had seen on display, so I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to see some more! Rather than writing a review of what I saw, I think it best to write more of a report, explaining what was on show, who was performing, and generally celebrating the talent that is still pouring out of Britain's drama schools today.

The evening began with a 15 minute two-man play called 'The 8th Wave', written and directed by student James Ernest. Set in a hostage situation, Mathew (Nasi Voustas) is tied to a chair by Brian (Luke Clarke). Watching the play we see the relationship between captive and kidnapper develop over a conversation about smoking habits. Edgy, slightly scary yet at times comical, it's amazing how in just 15 minutes of watching someone eating beans on toast and chatting almost amiably with a hostage about cigarettes can be so captivating.

The next 15 minutes was quite different in comparison, this time I was watching an exert of a musical called 'Young at War' by Anthony Stephen Springhall, Daniel Brewerton, Matt Wall and Matt Lapinskas. The music was original and fitted well with the theme of the plot. After a rousing rally in the town hall a young man (Adam El Hagar) enlists in the army and sets off for war in 1914. The goodbyes were moving and the musical arrangements and harmonies were pretty. The full musical is proposed as a production to take part in the 100th anniversary national remembrance of World War One in 2014, and if the 15 minute snippet I saw is anything to go by, I think it'll be greeted very warmly.
The final 30 minutes of the evening was by far the most exciting, as we got to see the students completely improvising based on audience suggestions. All of the third year contemporary drama students present on the night took part, and they managed to create ideas that were funny, original and energetic, if at times a little mental. In the final moments we had both Jesus King of the Jews and Shesus King of the Shoes on stage singing in 'Drug Trafficking the Opera'. Each new concept was introduced by Head of Contemporary Acting Uri Roodner, who was very helpful in explaining dramatic styles, as well as encouraging the audience to really challenge the performers. I thought they all did really well, even making 'Meerkat Manor' fun and interesting. The improvisation skills weren't just evident in the acting though, with some of the students taking instruments on to the stage, managing to create music on the spot which completely fitted the stories and songs being created on stage.

As I said before, this isn't a review, just a report of what I saw, and it was a great learning curve for me as an amateur critic to be invited to see the makings of some of Britain's future talents and stage performers. It was an enjoyable experience, and the students at East 15 Acting School really should be commended for their talent, energy and obvious passion for their field. I imagine many will go on to be very successful in their careers, and I wish them all the best of luck as their final year of training comes to an end

The performers on show were:

Daniel Ainsworth
Patricia Blixen
Luke Clarke
James Ernest
Adam El Hagar
Aiden James
Melissa Johns
Lily Levin
Daniela Pasquini
Richard Perryman
Nicola Rainford
Anthony Stephen Springhall
Jessica Stone
Louise Trigg
Nasi Voustas
Jasmine Woodcock Stewart

Pictures taken from the East 15 website

Monday, 7 May 2012

REVIEW: 'Love should be used, not fallen into!' - Dangerous Liasons, The Oxford Playhouse, Oxford, 04/05/2012

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine suggested that we take small trip up to Oxford for the evening, see the University of Oxford Student production of Dangerous Liaisons and get a few drinks to escape the stress and hopelessness of exam revision. I'm very glad she did, an enjoyable evening was had by all and I have been presented with the opportunity to write my first review of a straight play on Theatre Focus. I therefore feel obliged to open this review with a brief thank you to Gabs Kofi for such a lovely idea you "totes" awesome person, (sweeping the fact that she mentioned on several occasions throughout the night that I had to give her a public thanks). So, now that the formalities are out of the way, on to the review.

 Set in the 18th century, shortly before the French Revolution, Dangerous Liaisons is based on the epistolary novel of the same name by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. The book one of the most controversial novels in European literature, on a par with Lady Chatterley's Lover and Lolita, and was in fact banned for quite some time. The story is one of manipulation, seduction and revenge, using the ideas of love and sex as weapons, which ultimately ends in demise and tragedy. The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, two rivals and ex-lovers, use sex as a weapon to humiliate and degrade others, as a part of their cruel and dangerous games. The Vicomte wishes to seduce the Marquise, who as a result manipulates him into seducing innocent women as sport. The Vicomte gets a young girl named Cécile pregnant, and comes to the realisation that he has fallen in love with his other conquest, Madame de Tourvel, and yet under the jealous instruction of the Marquise, he rejects her, leaving them both heartbroken. The Marquise reveals to Danceny, a young boy in love with Cécile that is was the Vicomte who got her pregnant, resulting in a dramatic duel to the death.

As a supporter of amateur productions, I was quite intrigued as to how well the student production would run. Whilst there were patches of weakness overall I was quite pleased with the show. As the audience entered we were greeted on stage by an elegant and typical French salon, however it was not in the model of 18th century France, but 1938 pre-war France. Chairs and tables at either corner of the stage suggested we would be watching a split stage, and I wasn't wrong. The staging aptly reflected the luxuriousness and privilege of French wealthy classes, and I didn't mind how it sometimes felt a little claustrophobic, as it tied in well with the manipulation and traps in the plot. I was however, relieved when the set was opened out during the duel scene. Not only shifting from and inside setting to an outside setting, I truly felt as if the secrets, the manipulation and the deceit of the plot was being let out with it, allowing for the dramatic and enthralling climax.

Interestingly, the Musical Director Nicholas Howley was on stage from start to finish, sat at a grand piano, but unfortunately whilst Howley is undoubtedly a talented musician, the atmospheric music being played before the play started was washed away somewhat by the anticipation and buzz of the audience. What's more, in between almost every scene, a small piece of incidental music would be played on the piano, greeted all too often by a black out or a semi-blackout, which I admit grew a bit irksome and tedious by the end of the show. I found myself crying out for a different device to be used during the transitions of scenes as the pacing seemed to be thrown down a couple of pegs each time.

I want to briefly mention that this particular production is a completely new adaptation, written and realised by Director Christina Drollas. Credit where credit is due I think she did a very good job at bringing together a script that was both humorous, ambitious, engaging and at times cheeky. Her jump to 1938 France didn't detract from the overall plot, in fact, it reflected how such activity and immorality can be seen in any societies or class in all eras.

I have to say I was very impressed by the sheer wealth and quality of talent that was on display in this production, although I also feel that the male performances slightly overshadowed those of the females. The highlight of the production was without a doubt Ziad Samaha, whose portrayal of the Vicomte de Valmont was at times so natural, he had my two friends admitting to falling and I quote, "hopelessly" in love with him themselves. Charming, provocative, persuasive and extremely watchable, his natural manner and comfort on stage was evident for all to see, and I would go so far as to say that he wouldn't look out of place treading the boards in a professional production one day. Iago immediately springs to mind! The other actors did a pretty good job too. Daniel Draper as the noble, valiant and altogether rather endearing Danceny was another strong performance. As was Jordan Waller, who managed to tackle the sickly sweet and over-attentive Belleroche with good humour and charm.

There were some good performances by the actresses as well.Whilst Alice Porter did well as the Marquise de Merteuil, at times she seemed a little forced and overwhelmed in her scenes with Samaha. The Marquise is a character who should be deliciously seductive, manipulative and evil. I picked up on the manipulation well, but for me the character just wasn't played with enough bite or allure. For once I felt it needed to be sexed up a little bit, but she did well in her scenes with Cécile, playing the doting friend yet secretly plotting her ruin. I was particularly impressed with Claudia King's Cécile de Volanges. She captured her naivety, innocence and girlish beliefs in love well, and dealt well being on stage with the show-stealing-Samaha. In fact, most of the performers did well not to be too outshone. Ella Waldham as Madame de Tourvel was able to embody her character's turmoil and resistance before bravely shifting to dependence and heartbreak, an ability that I wasn't expecting and was pleasantly surprised by.

All in all, the production was very well done and definitely deserves three stars. The cast dealt well with the explosive themes in the play, and were able to capture the audience and lead them down the path of manipulation until the play's climax. It was done so well, in fact, that I found myself almost disappointed when the Vicomte met his untimely if somewhat deserved comeuppance, as he was the character I found to be most engaging and entertaining. The production provided humour, and was genuinely fun to watch. While I do feel there were elements that could be improved, for an original student adaptation, it felt quite professional and polished, and I was very impressed.