Review: The Incredible Doctor Guttmann, Aylesbury Waterside Theatre

There can’t help but have been a sense of local pride in the Aylesbury area this summer. While the Olympic and Paralympic Games took place in the East End of London, the latter has its roots very firmly in this small town. In Stoke Mandeville Hospital to be precise, whose spinal injuries unit created the first Games for the Paralysed under the leadership of Doctor Ludwig Guttmann.

The BBC took a pass at telling the story of Guttmann and the birth of the Paralympics with Lucy Gannon’s The Best of Men (you can read a piece by Gannon about that production on the BBC Writersroom blog). Featuring a remarkable central performance by Eddie Marsan, it helped get the story of Guttmann out to a wide audience.

In contrast, Karen Simpson Productions’ telling of the story, with a script by Nicholas McInerny and directed by Charlotte Westenra, is intended to tell the story to much smaller audiences – after this weekend at the Waterside, it will tour to local communities for the next month. And while there’s an inevitable amount of overlap between the BBC’s story and this stage one, I have to admit that I found the theatrical retelling to be a far more involving and emotional take on Guttmann and his legacy.

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South Downs/The Browning Version, Harold Pinter Theatre

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South Downs stars Alex Lawther (Blakemore) and Jonathan Bailey (Duffield)

Originally staged at Chichester Festival Theatre, this double bill saw one of Terrence Rattigan’s most enduring plays, the one-act The Browning Version, revived as part of the tributes to the playwright’s centenary year (cf. revivals of Cause Celebre, Flare Path, etc.

Rather than pairing it with Harlequinade, the other Rattigan one-act play it had originally been played with, though, CFT prefaced the play with a new, companion piece from contemporary playwright David Hare. South Downs, like The Browning Version, is set within the walls of an English public school. Change is similarly encroaching: in Hare’s story, it is of the forthcoming Wilson government and the socio-economic change from the white heat of technology, whereas the world outside Rattigan’s school is still embroiled in war.

The two pieces complement each other extremely well – far more than I would have expected, and I suspect far better than a revival of Harlequinade could do.

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South Downs/The Browning Version, Harold Pinter Theatre5Scott Matthewman2012-04-29 17:36:24
South Downs stars Alex Lawther (Blakemore) and Jonathan Bailey (Duffield)

Origi…

Song of the Seagull, Menier Gallery

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[media-credit name=”Patrick Dodds” align=”aligncenter” width=”584″]Vera in Song of the Seagull[/media-credit]
Persia Lawson as Vera in Song of the Seagull, Menier Gallery
Any playwright who tries to take on the life of Anton Chekhov must surely be on a hiding to nothing, as their work is most likely going to compare to the Russian dramatist’s own work. Writer/director Linnie Reedman, whose Dorian Gray I enjoyed at the Leicester Square Theatre in 2009, thus has her work cut out.

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Song of the Seagull, Menier Gallery2Scott Matthewman2012-03-16 13:10:50
Persia Lawson as Vera in Song of the Seagull, Menier Gallery
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The Railway Children, Waterloo Station

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Of all the children’s books and/or television adaptations that I devoured as a youngster, it is E. Nesbit’s works, including The Phoenix and the Carpet and Five Children and It, which have aged the least well. For me, it’s a combination of how episodic the novels tend to be – ideal for bedtime reading, maybe, less so when rereading as an older child (or even adult). The characters also tend to be quite flatly drawn, with each child possessing one character trait and one alone.

That The Railway Children rises above the Nesbit formula is down in no small part to the glorious film starring Jenny Agutter and Bernard Cribbins. And the stage adaptation, which has returned to its site-specific location on the old Eurostar platforms at Waterloo station, is as much a tribute to Lionel Jeffries’ wonderful movie as it to the original book.

If anything, the theatrical environment allows for an ever better evocation of the tales of the three Victorian children forced to relocate with their mother to Yorkshire from London when their father is imprisoned on suspicion of espionage, and the family income dries up. Amy Noble, Tim Lewis and Grace Rowe are childlike adults, retelling and recreating incidents from their younger life. This allows for a gentle nod to the film’s casting, where Jenny Agutter and Sally Thompsett was far older than their characters, but also partly explains away the episodic nature of the story. And Mike Kenny’s script is gloriously self-aware in places, not afraid to poke a little fun at itself without ever overstepping the line into self-parody.

As kindly porter Mr. Perks, Marcus Brigstocke is on great form, mixing comedy and pathos with a huge dollop of charm. Ably assisted by Elizabeth Keates as Mrs. Perks, it’s an accomplished performance from a performer not known for his stage work.

But however good the actors, they all make it quite clear that they know that the other visual elements are just as much the stars of the show. The stage itself, two thin traverse spaces running either side of a railway track upon which blocks of staging glide in and out, allows the many scene changes to take place without slowing down the pace of the story. But it is the arrival of the Stirling Single, a perfectly preserved steam locomotive, which produces the biggest applause from an audience which has been quite rightly enraptured throughout.

The Railway Children, Waterloo Station4Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 12:31:33Of all the children’s books and/or television adaptations that I devoured as a youngster, it is E. Nesbit’s works, including The Phoenix and the Carpe…

Thriller Live 1,000th performance, Lyric Theatre

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Okay, by my reckoning I’m about four blog posts behind in terms of theatre and/or drama CDs, so I’d better crack on…

Thanks to Kevin Wilson PR, I was invited to the celebratory 1,000th performance of Thriller Live at the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. I’ve never been before, and now having seen it, it solidifies my reasons why: it’s not a theatre show, but a series of tribute acts. Not my thing at all.

And yet, I couldn’t help but enjoy myself.

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Thriller Live 1,000th performance, Lyric Theatre3Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 12:43:05Okay, by my reckoning I’m about four blog posts behind in terms of theatre and/or drama CDs, so I’d better crack on…

Thanks to Kevin Wilson PR, I…

Operation Greenfield, Soho Theatre

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When so many people extol the virtues of a theatre company with the ferocity, frequency and enthusiasm with which people have told me about Little Bulb Theatre, there is always the worry that expectations are being set impossibly high.

With Operation Greenfield, which opened last night at the Soho Theatre after a run at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe which garnered them a Stage Award nomination for Best Ensemble, I shouldn’t have worried.

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Operation Greenfield, Soho Theatre5Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 12:43:10When so many people extol the virtues of a theatre company with the ferocity, frequency and enthusiasm with which people have told me about Little Bu…

They Came to a City, Southwark Playhouse

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I’m not all that familiar with JB Priestley’s works, other than An Inspector Calls and, to a far lesser extent, The Good Companions. Apparently not many people have had the opportunity to get to know They Came to a City, as according to the programme it has only been staged three times since its original premiere in 1943.

After seeing this new production in the vaults at Southwark Playhouse, I can quite understand why.

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They Came to a City, Southwark Playhouse2Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 12:43:33I’m not all that familiar with JB Priestley’s works, other than An Inspector Calls and, to a far lesser extent, The Good Companions. Apparently not ma…

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

My Beautiful Laundrette, Above the Stag Theatre

When adapting films for the stage, it helps to start with the right source material. Haneif Kureishi’s story of My Beautiful Laundrette, directed in 1985 by Stephen Frears in a version that made stars of Daniel Day-Lewis and the fledgling FilmFour, is the sort of intimate character piece that could very well have been adapted from a play in the first place.

The story centres around Omar, a young man who is struggling to free himself from the yoke of caring for his alcoholic, infirm father, and so who joins his uncle’s business. As a test, his uncle gives him a rundown, loss-making laundrette to run, and with the help of his old school friend Johnny and the cash generated by stealing, and selling, some drugs from an unpleasant work colleague, the enterprise becomes a success.

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A Rude Awakening, New End Theatre

An allegorical fantasy set in a far future where homosexuality has become the norm and straight people are barely tolerated as genetic freaks, what A Rude Awakening loses in subtlety it gains in some good performances and one or two killer one-liners.

Jonathan Woodward leads an able cast as the homophobic politician who, upon being revived in the far future, finds himself ostracised because of his heterosexuality. It is through his conviction that the early scenes, set in the present day, escape being regarded as a crudely drawn depiction of US politics in which even a gubernatorial candidate describes their part of America as “the South”.

The production is somewhat thrown off-kilter by video inserts which are by turns either preposterously surreal or hilariously comic. Sarah Wolff’s performance in the news parodies are especially noteworthy, but they sit oddly with the otherwise dramatic tone of the live performances.

Ultimately, though, Barry Peters’ first play is hamstrung by a lack of clarity of the satirical message he is attempting to convey. Rather than questioning modern-day prejudices, or even suggesting that a majority’s dominance over a minority is in itself the catalyst for bigotry, the impression the play leaves behind is that, whatever the century, you just can’t trust a politician.

* Reviewed for The Stage

Author:
: Barry Peters

Management:
: New End Theatre

Cast:
: Genevieve Adam, Chris Barley, Sean Browne, Morgan Deare, James Le Feuvre, Lucy Newman-Williams, Sarah Wolff, Jonathan Woodward

Director:
: Olivia Rowe