Journey’s End, Duke of York’s Theatre

Editor’s Rating

R. C. Sherriff’s 1928 tale of life in the trenches at the tail end of World War I was, remarkably, his first professional work, despite feeling like a master storyteller at the top of his game. Part of the reason it feels so viscerally realistic is that Sherriff drew directly own experiences: in the programme notes, he is quoted as saying that he “merely had to write down what people said.”

In the play, a small platoon takes over a trench for what is supposed to be a week, but they soon realise that the Germans are planning a major offensive in a few days’ time – and while nobody will say it outright, there’s realisation that few, if any, of them are expected to survive. New to the platoon is 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh (Graham Butler), an eager young pup who was a childhood friend of the platoon’s commander, Captain Stanhope (James Norton).

After three years in the field, though, Stanhope is not the devil-may-care pal of Raleigh’s youth: while he is absolutely, utterly respected, indeed loved, by those in his command, his only real friend is found in a bottle.

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Journey’s End, Duke of York’s Theatre5Scott Matthewman2011-07-26 17:05:52R. C. Sherriff’s 1928 tale of life in the trenches at the tail end of World War I was, remarkably, his first professional work, despite feeling like a…

Big Finish Drama Showcase: Unintelligent Design

Regular readers of my blog will recall that I’ve been reviewing Big Finish’s Drama Showcase series of audio dramas, released at roughly monthly intervals. The fourth and final release in the current series, after an unforeseen delay, has just been released – and, in my opinion, Unintelligent Design is the best of the lot. Listen to the trailer, which explains absolutely nothing:

Unintelligent Design: Listen to the Trailer (MP3)

A full review follows – but first, links to my earlier reviews of the Drama Showcase series:

  1. Not a Well Woman
  2. Pulling Faces
  3. In Conversation with an Acid Bath Murderer

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Proof, Limelight Theatre, Aylesbury

Editor’s Rating

Last night turned out to be a pleasant change from reviewing London fringe and West End shows, with a visit to Aylesbury’s Limelight Theatre, which is part of the Queen’s Park Arts Centre.

The original Broadway production of David Auburn’s Proof won the Tony Award for Best New Play ten years ago, and tells of Catherine, who is struggling to come out of her mathematician father’s shadow at the same time as worrying that she may have inherited the mental illness that plagued him for years.

Although the play is set in Chicago, director Nikita Strange wisely has the three actors who play the central family retain their English accents, so they can concentrate on the tensions and the humour that come with familial bonds. It does on occasion mean that the slightest difference in idiom sounds wrong, but it brings more benefits than problems.

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Proof, Limelight Theatre, Aylesbury4Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 12:36:45Last night turned out to be a pleasant change from reviewing London fringe and West End shows, with a visit to Aylesbury’s Limelight Theatre, which is…

Big Finish Drama Showcase: In Conversation With an Acid Bath Murderer

For the third in its series of Drama Showcase plays on CD, Big Finish has turned away from the lifestyle dilemmas that characterised its first two releases, Not a Well Woman and Pulling Faces, for a dark tale of murder based on historical events.

In Nigel Fairs’ In Conversation With an Acid Bath Murderer, Fairs himself plays John George Haigh, who was hanged in 1949 for the murder of at least six people. Presented as a monologue in which Haigh directly addresses us, the audience, he relates events that led to his incarceration – from developing his own twisted sense of morality as a byproduct of being raised by parents who were part of the Plymouth Brethren, through a series of convictions for fraud, through developing his method of murder and disposal of the evidence.

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Big Finish Drama Showcase: Pulling Faces

The second drama in audio company Big Finish’s Drama Showcase series (after last month’s Not a Well Woman) is a more conventional affair than Katy Manning’s solo tour de force. While Not a Well Woman took the concept of a one-woman show to its extreme, with Manning playing every single role, Pulling Faces brings in several other actors to allow the main performer, Louise Jameson, to concentrate on the central performance of Joanne Taylor, a former TV presenter who, in her mid-fifties, is finding it harder to get new work without going under the knife.

Written by Helen Goldwyn and performed on stage by Jameson as a one-woman play, the production has a history before this CD production. But following presenter Miriam O’Reilly’s high profile discrimination case against the BBC, which threw a spotlight on ageism and sexism within the television industry, it gains an extra level of relevance.

The issues of women’s beauty – or, at least, TV executives’ impression of it – is handled deftly. Goldwyn plays Joanne’s daughter, who acts as the voice of reason, saying that her mum looks great and ageing, being a natural process, is something that should be celebrated rather than avoided. It helps sell Joanne’s ongoing temptation with cosmetic enhancements, from the gateway drug of Botox to a full-scale facelift.

Also featuring a cameo role from Colin Baker as a small and slight surgeon (yes, yes, I know – but it’s audio, and it does really work), Pulling Faces easily stands on a par with much of BBC Radio 4’s output – I could easily see it being serialised as the daily Woman’s Hour Drama, for example. And in many ways that’s also its main problem – there is so much drama of this type on Radio 4 (both in the WHD slot and the daily Afternoon Play) that the purchase price of this one-off drama seems high by comparison.

Sweet Engineering of the Lucid Mind, Hen and Chickens

Mitch Féral’s play Sweet Engineering of the Lucid Mind started life as the winning 15-minute entry in last year’s Offcut Festival. Now expanded into a full length piece – running at 1 hr 20 min, without an interval – it combines high-minded philosophical ideas about quantum physics and the nature of existence with the practical, heartbreaking reality of caring for a spouse with early onset dementia.

Simon Nicholas is the (unnamed) man who is living his life in disjointed fragments. His mind jumps from moment to moment, living life in permanent flashback, while his wife (Debra Baker) struggles to keep up.

Both the script and the performances convey the messy conflict of emotions that such a debilitating disease can inflict. Seeing the couple relive some of their more romantic moments is joyful, but as the wife grows increasingly tired at her husband’s incessant demands on her time, the joy turns to despair.

In a lucid moment, the husband expresses his wish, fuelled by his passion for quantum physics and astronomy, to be a time traveller, which only serves to highlight the cruel injustice his brain disease inflicts – fulfilling his wish in the cruellest way.

The devastating effect of dementia on the carer is made clear as the play progresses. “For better or worse?” his wife muses. “This isn’t worse. It’s worse than worse.” But thanks to Baker and Nicholas’s gut-wrenching deliveries of Féral’s clever, touching, funny and tragic script, this play is better than better.

Sweet Engineering of the Lucid Mind runs until April 2

Big Finish Drama Showcase: Not a Well Woman

Audio production company Big Finish is deservedly best known for its science fiction and fantasy releases, most notably its range of original Doctor Who dramas and associated spin-offs, as well as audiobook dramas with TV tie-ins from Stargate to Robin Hood.

Recently it has been spreading its wings a little further. From the beautiful translation and full cast dramatisation of Phantom of the Opera (one of the best audio dramas of recent years, easily on a par with the top flight of the BBC’s output) to short story compilations by Robert Shearman, there’s a clear desire for the company to expand its dramatic horizons.

The latest venture is a series of original plays being released under the company’s new Drama Showcase brand, the first of which, Not a Well Woman, has just been released.

And while there has undoubtedly been a lot of involvement from others in the production of this play – Toby Hrycek-Robinson’s sound design alone is far deeper and richer than most radio dramas, capitalising on the experience Big Finish has acquired on its sci-fi ranges – this is a tour de force by one woman, Katy Manning.

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Wolfboy, Trafalgar Studios 2

Teenager Bernie has been admitted to a secure hospital after trying to commit suicide. In the next room, former rent boy David thinks he’s a werewolf. Initially, the pair take out their pain on each other, but their abusive relationship gradually becomes one of trust, of friendship and love.

Crafting a musical around such dark material (originally a play by Canadian author Brad Fraser) means that there’s no danger of this work, by Russell Labey and Leon Parris, being mistaken for the usual frivolity one associates with the genre. And it’s just as well: there are none of your typical ‘show tunes’ here, no breakout eleven o’clock number that stays with you on the journey home.

Instead, we get an intense and claustrophobic tale, with an atmosphere helped by the diminutive size of the Trafalgar Studios 2 space. As the teenage patients, Gregg Lowe and Paul Holowaty spark off each other with such energy that, at times, it feels almost voyeuristic to be in their company.

As Bernie’s older brother, Christian, Daniel Boys is light years away from the adolescent sauciness of Avenue Q. Given perhaps the hardest role of the four cast members, not least because nearly all his musical numbers consist of singing to an unseen doctor, or to his unresponsive brother, he goes some way to showing that he’s capable of more than the usual ‘musical theatre leading man’ template provides.

The musical numbers were spoilt slightly on the night we attended by a lack of balance between the haunting pre-recorded backing tracks and the amplification of the live vocals. At one point, too, Holowaty lost both the tune and the tempo of one of his key solos. Given the discordant, disconnected nature of both play and music, such a slip didn’t feel as out of place as it would have done in any other production, but it was still the weakest point of the night.

As a fourth character, former Hollyoaks actress Emma Rigby’s nurse is an odd one. The only one of the four cast members to not sing, her character instead provides comic relief, often acting in ways that no nurse would ever do. But she shows a fine sense of comic timing, and a knack for finding just the right emotional pitch in a line to either underline or undercut a scene. In her first stage role, Rigby shows that she is capable of far more and I look forward to seeing how her career progresses from here.

The final scene descends into grand guignol territory, as Bernie’s quest to find his inner strength takes a terrible, and overly melodramatic, turn for the worse. But it works, thanks to Lowe and Holowaty’s commitment, and draws to a close a production that is not afraid to leave questions unanswered. You may not leave the theatre singing a tune, but your mind will be buzzing in other, more demanding ways.

La Bête, Comedy Theatre

Written in 1991, Peter Filichia’s comedy is a satire on, and tribute to, theatre in the age of Molière.

A troupe of actors, led by the purist Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), is desperate to retain the royal patronage of Joanna Lumley’s Princess. So when she insists that they admit the vulgar populist Valere (Mark Rylance) into their midst, the company is torn between principle and security.

The undoubted highlight of the production is Rylance’s performance. From the minute he staggers onstage, the worse for the wear after over indulging at a royal banquet, it becomes Rylance’s show. Valere’s opening monologue lasts for a good 25 minutes. It starts off funny, quickly becomes hilarious — but then becomes infuriating. At which point it starts to become all the funnier, because every point at which we think he is drawing to an end, he starts up again. Throughout, Hyde Pierce’s role is reduced to dumb reaction: but it’s the role that ten years on Frasier has shown he was more than capable of.

It’s not just the duration of the monologue that creats such mirth, though. The content — poking fun at actors, at critics, at pretension in general — takes profusive aim and generally hits every target.

In truth, once that monologue does draw to a close, the quality of the play dips substantially, becoming a poor imitation rather than the pastiche it wants to be. It never quite regains the heights of that monologue, and by the time the closing curtain comes there’s much more a feeling of relief than there should be.

Tracy-Ann Oberman: Playing the diva

“I didn’t want to be in this,” admits Tracy-Ann Oberman. “I’d suggested Catherine to the producer, I thought she’d be brilliant. But I didn’t want to be in it at all, so I was a bit nervous when the producer came to me and said Radio 4 would really like me to be.”

Oberman is talking about Bette and Joan and Baby Jane, her new play for Radio 4 which documents the bitter struggles between actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during the making of Robert Aldrich’s classic 1962 psychological movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.

Davis is played by Catherine Tate, a long time friend of Oberman’s (they performed together in the second series of the BBC2 comedy sketch show Big Train), with the role of Crawford taken by Oberman herself.

The interview is taking place just after a full-scale photo shoot promoting the play and the pair have been dressed in the iconic make-up and costumes from the film.
It is quite disconcerting to discuss Davis and Crawford with a woman who, her trademark blonde locks secreted under an impressively accurate wig, looks for all the world like Blanche Hudson, albeit one tucking into a chicken salad and sipping mineral water in a photographic studio in west London.

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