The Accrington Pals - 14-17 November 2018
In this landmark centenary year of the end of the Great War, I have already been privileged to review a fair number of tribute productions, ranging from concerts to revues. This immensely moving and powerfully directed and acted production written by Peter Whelan and directed by Meg Bray, really hit the spot. A key part of the whole play was the prominent, but not oversized, large screen portraying war footage. The action onstage captured very well the horror of war and I found the cutting back and forth between stage and screen acting real and appropriately chosen. A great plus to the whole, in fact.
The stage itself was cleverly split to include three separate locations, Accrington, two army camps and the Somme. It was clear from the outset that a great deal of thought had been given to bringing out the humour, the pathos and the sheer horror of war and also the wonderful camaraderie of the decent British soldiers. Though essentially about war, this moving play was both a microcosm of the life in Accrington (and elsewhere) a century ago and a timeless tribute to the essential goodness of the common folk everywhere.
Its ultimate triumph was the invincibility of our human spirit over grief and evil. Ewhurst Players boast a real depth of acting talent and many of the actors have proven this to me on many occasions. However, it was heartening to see some relatively new arrivals also reaching this high standard.
Stirring classical and taped film music was used to heighten the emotion. All were well chosen, but I found some almost too moving for comfort at times; Adagio in G minor (from the film Gallipoli); Pachelbel’s Canon and Fugue; Adagio for strings (from the film Platoon); “Oh peaceful England” (Edward German); and Nimrod Enigma variations (Elgar). I confess that a moist eye was never far away!
Lighting and sound effects were extremely well used and much enhanced the whole. Nick Graham (lights), Ian Kay (sound) and Chris Gates (video and technical support) all deserve an honourable mention. Chairman Chris Dews constructed the realistic set and Fee Fraser used her eagle eye on wardrobe. A real Ewhurst team effort all round in fact.
The whole play was shot through with emotional highlights and yet with the sheer ordinariness of the everyday life of the folk in Accrington; the knocker-up man with his long pole to knock the terraced window; the carrier pigeon and basket, boys playing conkers; gas lamps on the kitchen table; the nosebleed and how common such ailments were; the CSM shouting at his men (well done Matt Thomas); Tom falling for the decade older May (Daniel Williams and Catherine Strange) showing vulnerability and passion so skilfully too; Ralph (Simon Fraser) and Eva (Jo McInnes), a superbly believable couple.
The fruit stall, with brass weighing scales, showed how everyday life proceeded despite the horror of war with the absence of regular news from the war being hard to bear. The stoicism of the people was painted so beautifully and director Meg Bray had sculpted a masterpiece, though it must be said that she had some very special ingredients with which to work.
I must add that in plays I routinely award each player a mark out of ten with six being average and seven good. In this play all players earned either and eight or a nine. Praise indeed!
Other names not specifically mentioned thus far – all of whom must surely feel proud of the important role they played in this wonderful play – were Sarah (Nicola Payne), Bertha (Sophie Shickell), Annie (Tricia Cooper), Arthur (Martin Sworn) and three special much younger boys. Reggie was the cheeky son with the nosebleed and the troubled mother (Annie) – well done, Luke Elms. Hamish McInnes with his clear voice and obvious stage presence was the paper boy. Harley Boatswain sang nicely as a choir boy.
The coup de gras was kept to the very end, however, with the final tableau with the back screen lit in red with poppies all round and the men with rifles silhouetted. The audience were momentarily stunned into silence. Tom as a ghost in white captivated the senses.
Frankly the whole production was exceptional and the only slight niggle I had was that one or two scene changes were a little on the long side.
I must mention the programme too; a welcome full page about NODA and another full page on “Help for Heroes” (the charity chose by Meg and the cast and to which the raffle proceeds were donated).
My visits to the warm, hospitable and talented Ewhurst Players, though my longest by road, are always ones I much look forward to and the warmth, dedication, obvious team spirit and sheer talent in this delightful “jewel in the crown” in rural Surrey once again delighted me. I salute you all, each and everyone!!
NODA Area 19
A Bunch of Amateurs
Ewhurst Village Hall – 19th May 2018
This Ian Hislop / Nick Newman comedy drama had a surprising depth which became more apparent as the story unfolded. The plot concerned an egotistical, fading Hollywood film star cast as King Lear at Stratford. Unfortunately for Jefferson Steel – played with marvellous depth by Peter Bradley – Stratford St. John is in deepest rural Suffolk and not, as he thought, in Shakespeare’s Stratford upon Avon.
This eight-hander, set in the present, had many twists and turns in the plot and the eventual recognition by the play’s egotistical central character of his own nastiness and contempt for “lesser talented players”, thus enabling him to gain internal peace at long last, was a sort of “Damascus” conversion. That he eventually fulfilled his “destiny” to play King Lear at Stratford-upon-Avon and be accepted as a valued member of The Stratford Players (Suffolk) provided a redemptive and heart warming denouement to this fascinating piece.
Director Meg Bray, assisted by Mike Richardson, had clearly invested enormous effort into the characters and casting. An experienced cast featuring only one distinctly young player brought a wealth of stage experience to bear, which must gladden the eye of any director, even one as richly experienced as Meg.
An innovative and humorous insert into the programme proper, was the faux programme given by The Stratford Players featuring a production team of such gems as these:-
Prompt Justin Tyme
Vocal Coach Ivor Lisp
Costumes Will Ittfit
and several others in similar vein. To my mind this is one of the (many) joys of watching amateur theatre. One would not find this done at Chichester or The National, more is the pity!
The set, designed by Chris Dews, was simply, but skilfully arranged as the rural Barn Theatre, with a real farm feel to it. Other scenes such as Mary’s B&B were simply but effectively set out with good use of lighting by Carl Osborne, no connection with “Phil Terr”!
Anne Lyth’s costumes were effective and realistic. Top class sound design and effects were courtesy of Bill Pilcher. These featured a number of themes from famous films, including “Superman” and “Jaws” among several others, equally well known.
Peter Bradley as Steel was hardly off stage throughout. His was a monster of a part, which he will long enjoy having played. Peter’s performance was among the very best I have seen this year. And I have seen some corkers, you may be sure!
Tricia Cooper as the tough resourceful Lear director Dorothy Nettle was a marvellous foil, her refusal to give an inch to the American tyrant providing fascinating theatre, Molly Fraser as Steel’s daughter Jessica, modern, talented, humane and with an ability to best her father in so many ways, gave a peach of a performance in this rewarding role.
Jamie Boyes’ character Nigel Dewbury was a little more one dimensional and therefore less rewarding to play than some. However, Jamie provided the Tweedle Dee to Steel’s Tweedle Dum and their constant bickering and sword versus umbrella fight provided much of the high drama to the play. A skilfully played role!
Wendy Davies as the jealous Mary Plunkett brought her considerable stage experience to this role. Mary exudes charisma on stage and I saw her give yet another in a string of fine performances I have witnessed. Chris Dews was the somewhat star struck, slow witted Denis Dobbins and bumbling stage manager, and most convincing in the role. Jay Garland played Lauren Bell, the local brewery’s advertising manager and effectively, via her husband, the show’s financial backer and a resourceful and able character. Anne Lyth played herself as the King Lear wardrobe mistress.
All in all, this was a fast paced and highly enjoyable production and I commend it, not least the excellent diction throughout.
NODA Area 19
Ewhurst Village Hall January 2018
Whatever should a company do when it boasts two Idle Jacks? Why, start the show with them both on stage in a comic repartee scene of course, what else! Barry Harrison-Fudge (Fudge to all) was Idle Jack in this instance and his “brother” Chris Dews shared the run. Fudge was a mesmeric presence throughout this production, showing professional polish, comic timing, in fact the lot!
Dick Whittington was well played by Jo McInnes giving a sterling performance. Molly Fraser as Alice Fitzwarren, in love with Dick, was also a splendid Alice. The pivotal Dame part of Sarah the Cook was played in charismatic style with good timing and vocal clarity by Charlie McLean, whose sole previous acting experience apparently was playing a dead body! Where have you been hiding your talent all this time Charlie? And why?
Tom the Cat, athletic and heroic with feline grace was excellently played by Sophie Shickell, radiating stage presence and making a marvellous foil for Dick. The spitefully horrible Queen Rat – no less effective for not being a King Rat – was given frightening reality by the capable hands, and tail, of Nicki Payne. Rats got a hard time from we humans. Well this one gave the humans on stage a hard time and the show was much the more enjoyable for it.
Julia Allan Patel and Sharon Welland were the comic bad double act Rot and Stench respectively, showing good comic timing and much comedic acting. The scene in the sea with the driftwood was top class.
Julia Heathcote was a delight as Fairy Bow Belle, her Dame Edna spectacles, pink ballet tutu and droopy wand, together with an excellent comic flair meant that she really stood out in what was a special performance.
Barrie Heathcote as Alderman Fitzwarren and living firmly in Old London Town, long before the days of easy travel, was nevertheless from “oop North” and “reet gradely” he was too. His accent brought some distinct character to what is usually a less rewarding part to play.
Two highly experienced actors – and it showed – in Wendy Davies and Peter Bradley, played Dora and Harry with practised ease.
Some amusing antics were charismatically played between Louisa Worby as Queen Megabazooma and Fee Fraser as the High Priestess “red-carded” by the Queen for overacting. In panto! I suppose, had she been underacting – as I see to my horror all too frequently upon the amateur stage – she would have won a medal. Great comedy and, of course, actually a compliment. How I despair though at those who don’t act enough! There were none in this show, I am pleased to report!
Fabian Cole did well as the ship’s Captain. Julie Edwards made a distinct impression as the horrible Stenchess and also doing well was Lucy Payne as Rat. Rosie Bishop, Lottie Welland and William Wood in chorus parts added sterling support.
The singing was enthusiastic, mostly tuneful, well put over and, most importantly, of all featured well-known tunes. Not all amateur pantos obey this important rule. Some energetic and well-rehearsed routines were set by the choreography team of Wendy and Sophie.
Musical Director Simon Fraser, who wrote and adapted many lyrics, together with his three piece band, gave sterling support to the enthusiastic singers, some of whom were more talented at singing than others, but the overall standard was a good one.
Experienced show director Marian Heathcote had packed plenty of enjoyable comedy business in this rattlingly good production. How good to see slosh in an amateur panto; always an essential part of traditional panto, but sadly often lacking these days. I loved the rats' comic dialogue while clinging to some driftwood upon the sea. Sarah’s false beard and seagull in her blue wig was good panto as was the marvellous under the sea scene. Most effective!
The South Sea Island scene was a real highlight with colourful frocks and fabulous feather headdresses. Bright colours and glitz is so necessary and in this show we had it in all its glory. I also much liked Jack’s red with green trim costume with his baseball cap worn backwards. As if there is any other way! The dramatic storm scene was well carried out and more real drama was achieved in the hypnosis scene. As ever and in true panto tradition , Dick and the beautiful Alice fell in love in mere seconds.
Lighting by Carl Osborne and sound with full effects by Bill Pilcher added much to the overall effect. Anne Lyth made sure all costumes were correctly well fitted. Hair and make up, some of it quite special, was in the capable hands of Nicki and Sophie. Well done all you ladies!
Meg Bray stage managed and with her willing team the many set changes ran smoothly.
A special word of praise for the informative programme with quality pics and, glory be, a comprehensive page devoted to NODA and our aims. This is enough to gladden the heart of any NODA rep!
In all, this production was a pacy, colourful and well enacted show ensuring that traditional pantomime is very much alive and thriving in deepest Surrey.
Death and the Maiden
Ewhurst Village Hall – 16th November, 2017
Ewhurst Players have chosen a three-hander of two men and one woman to carry the flame for their main autumn production. In choosing this gripping if somewhat uncomfortable-to-watch play, they have for me, as a NODA rep. at least, broken new ground using merely three players.
Right from the start, seeing Paulina hide out of sight as her husband Gerardo welcomed his (car breakdown) rescuer Dr. Roberto Miranda in for a late night drink, the obvious tension was amply displayed. Izzy McLean as Paulina Salas was all angst, suspicion and wanting vengeance. Her body language perfectly captured the turmoil of her character and as the plot unfolded and she herself became dangerous to both her “tormentor” and indeed her husband, the tension rose to near boiling point.
Simon Fraser, as the initially bewildered Gerardo Escobar, who then became very angry with Paulina and enraged that she would blithely take justice into her own hands, had a wonderful role to play and did so with great skill. His relationship with Paulina was laid bare when his long ago affair with another woman was revealed. It was clear that Paulina still had never got over it or really forgiven Gerardo.
Paulina, in painfully real style, strove to torment Dr. Roberto Miranda, her former tormentor who captured and raped her many years ago. Izzy’s playing was that of a clearly gifted actor. When Dr Miranda appeared, bound and gagged, sitting helplessly in a chair, having been knocked unconscious by Paulina in the night, it was difficult to fully know how we in the audience felt, as the author Ariel Dorfman clearly intended. This deeply painful play certainly succeeded on many levels in examining our own ethics, emotions and views on several areas of life and this was in fact the true richness and depth of this multi layered play.
Ben Aveyard, as the suffering Dr. Miranda, portrayed both his physical and emotional pain, anger, bewilderment and guilt – if indeed he even was guilty? – in beautifully nuanced manner. Sitting in his underwear with bare feet and a flimsy T-shirt, it was difficult not to sympathise with his predicament, whether guilty or not.
The gun was prominently used, a key prop. obviously, but I thought it rather odd how Gerardo clearly had the chance to seize it from his wife, but did not. I could not decide whether or not this hesitance was intended by the plot, or indeed the director. Presumably others in the audience would have thought the same.
I have to say the whole idea of a confession, forced by threat, I found a tad unconvincing, even though this was a key part of the plot. The idea of Paulina inserting some inconsistencies with which to trip up the Doctor – as she admitted not being one hundred percent sure he was in fact the rapist – seems to my mind a writer’s device which, though superbly well portrayed by all three players, jarred somewhat for my liking. On the other hand, one could say that the lack of total certainty on Paulina’s past, prior to the confession, pointed towards a degree of mental frailty, beyond which one might expect and leaving one to draw conclusions about the truth or otherwise of her own past life. I have tried to look at it both ways, which is probably exactly what was intended by the author and skilfully interpreted by the excellent director George Yates, assisted by Victoria Helstrip.
All in all, I found myself unsure as to Roberto’s guilt, as doubtless others have, over the years. Did he or didn’t he? We will never know and the huge mirror, designed for the audience members to look into their own reflection and hearts provided a powerful but somewhat frustrating penultimate scene.
At the final scene at the concert when the play’s title “Death and the Maiden” by Schubert was played, Paulina and Roberto – or was it merely his image? – stared at each other as the lights faded. An enigmatic conclusion to a thought-provoking play.
A word of praise for the effective set of a wooden cabin set in an unnamed South American country. Oars, a lifebuoy and predominance of wicker furniture perfectly set the remote setting. Good sound effects by Bill Pilcher for the truck arriving and leaving among others made a realistic impression. Even better lighting by Carl Osborne added much to the overall effect. Anne Lyth did sterling work on wardrobe and George Yates, who together with Chris Dews designed the atmospheric set, deserves a distinction for creating this realistic cabin.
Despite my comments about the confession, I found this a top class play of professional standard by all three players and director. Challenging productions and Ewhurst Players clearly go together like fish and chips. Tasty and wholesome!
NODA District 19
Ewhurst Village Hall, 19th May, 2017
Ronald Harwood’s beautifully observed study of former professional opera singers from the Carla Rosa company now in residence at Beecham House retirement home for musicians in rural Kent, is one of the finest vehicles for mature players to showcase their acting talents. Opening on a hot June late morning in a splendid set of a music room with posh furnishings and a patio leading to the gardens with birdsong and pictures of composers on the walls.
Wendy Davies as Cissie perfectly captured the essential amiable, but forgetful early stage dementia of Cissie, who for reasons unknown thought everyone had just returned from Karachi. Wearing headphones she sat listening to “Rigoletto” oblivious to all else, especially the saucy talk from Wilf. A highly experienced actress is Wendy who never disappoints in any role.
In stark contrast George Yates played Reggie with truthful intensity. Reggie craved order and routine and had barked at the unfortunate matron who substituted apricot jam for his usual breakfast marmalade. A nicely observed portrayal of a decent but reserved man putting up with he pitfalls of old age, except when confronted by the arrival of his ex-wife, with whom he eventually remade a sort of bond. A great role to play and apart from one or two stumbles done supremely well.
As different as chalk from cheese was the sex-mad Wilf all eager to talk dirty to the hard of hearing Cissie. Peter Bradley referred to the prostate, piles, cataracts, teeth falling out and spoke in coarse terms of how he hated the ageing process. Nevertheless, an engaging character was Wilf, dovetailing perfectly with the more refined Reggie. Peter relished playing this role, and how it showed! By comparison with what is all too common in modern theatre and in stand-up comedy routines Wilf’s language was relatively mild, but his obvious enjoyment of “talking dirty” made it seem at least mildly shocking and all the more enjoyable for that.
The imminent arrival of Reggie’s hated ex-wife Jean really put the cat among the pigeons and when, in the form of Patsy Mortimore, she finally arrived all “Grande Dame” and diva-like bemoaning her “fate” of having to live among the lesser lights, the story began to take a more interesting shape. Reggie could not bear to be in the same room with her and, when at last, they had meaningful conversation, old resentments quickly came to the fore.
Cissie, having been the butt of Jean’s cutting and insensitive comments about excess weight then reminded Jean that Verdi translates as Joseph Green. Jean of course was fully aware of this but dotty Cissie had probably already mentioned this fact a many times, we may assume. Jean, walking with a stick was bemoaning awaiting her new hip operation. Jean actually moaned a great deal about many things and Patsy really got inside her character. The question arose as to the proposed annual performance of the quartet from Rigoletto to mark the anniversary of Verdi’s birth on October 10th, just over three months away.
The luncheon gong sounded, and Wilf announced “lunch” and on their return and following scene the very next morning. Jean was still being adamant that she would not sing Gilda as she had lost her singing voice after having a child in her 30s. She was refusing all entreaties, terrified of people saying and thinking she was way past her pomp. Patsy played this strong willed yet highly vulnerable character with consummate skill.
Scene two was set next morning and all had changed costumes. Jean was still adamant in her refusal to play Gilda.
Now, in Act Two some three weeks later in early morning, with a slightly rearranged set (sofa moved against the wall and a rail of costumes upstage, with a trunk of Rigoletto costumes in front of this), all appeared in their night attire except the suited Reggie. The men’s and women’s dressing rooms were either side of the rail. Jean, having finally been persuaded to sing Gilda, they were all preparing themselves to practice the quartet. Very interesting and revealing dialogue took place between the two men and two women, in their respective dressing rooms with prominent make up mirrors either side of the rail, with effective use of the fourth wall. Reggie was resplendent in Rigoletto’s red and green tights (his costume was provided by a company in Manchester – Woodland Community Players)
The final scene took place front of cloth with the four “singing” their hearts out to a recording of “Bella figlia dell’amore”, well marshalled by Musical Director Bobby Swanson (played from the floor by Simon Fraser) ending to rapturous and well deserved applause. Some extremely impressive miming, one might have thought they were all actually singing this beautiful quartet. Simon also played operatic highlights before the performance and during the interval, unobtrusively.
The stage set was an impressive one all in all and was built by Chris Dews aided on painting / decorating by Rachael Edmondson, Victoria Helstrip, Jeannie Metcalf and Nicki Payne. Effective lighting was provided by Carl Osborne and Sound was well handled by Bill Pilcher. Anne Lyth did sterling work on wardrobe which was well fitted and apt. The rail of costumes was colourful and one could quite believe they were those of ex-professional opera singers.
Jean Metcalf gave just two prompts on the night I attended in a very wordy play. The diction throughout was clear and the characters highly believable. Ewhurst Players were fortunate to be able to call upon all the mature and experienced players of this standard, from which I am sure that any watching less experienced members would have gained much in studying timing, pauses and body language.
Meg Bray, the play’s director, should feel highly satisfied with the way her characters played their parts and of the warmth, emotion and interplay between her actors. She was faithful to the spirit of Harwood’s masterpiece. A clear success for Meg!
With the customary impressive front of house team again providing warm hospitality and a tasty meal I have to conclude that Ewhurst Players fully maintained, even enhanced their already impressive reputation as a rare theatrical jewel in deepest Surrey.
Jon Fox – NODA District 19