Tagged drama


Remoulded: From Marriott to Molehill

To adapt the lament of Withnail and I’s Uncle Monty: “It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life when one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself ‘I will never play the Mole.’”. Fortunately for this young actor, that tragic moment will never come. In just under two weeks’ time, I will take to the stage to embody literature’s most famous subterranean rodent in a new production of Wind in the Willows.

The mole had an illustrious history, even before Kenneth Grahame launched it to international fame. Loyal Jacobites toasted the “little gentleman in black velvet” after every meal as their hated enemy King William III died after his horse stumbled on a mole hill, throwing the king to the ground.mole

As a newcomer to the Oxford theatre scene (save an undistinguished stint as ‘attendant’ in A Man for All Seasons), I was little prepared for the whirlwind life of a thespian. I had dreamed of fame, fortune, and hoards of admiring fans. The reality is somewhat less glamorous. Valuable hours that should be spent cramming for essays are spent in rehearsals or learning lines. The part also elicits remarks from friends like “so you’re playing a mole, yeah I can totally see that!” Are these comments positive assessments of my method acting skills? Or should I be concerned about the implied similarity between me and a rodent?

My forays into method acting have been markedly unsuccessful. Daniel Day-Lewis I am not. Heading out into Uni Parks to build mole hills resulted only in the ire of the gardeners. My diet of grubs and weevils caused an unhappy night of projectile vomiting. The final straw came when I found myself chased out of a field by a local farmer threatening to shoot me and hang me from a gate post.

There is nothing like a good script to make an actor’s life easy. Shakespeare famously gives his actors a helping hand with the rhythms of his iambic pentameter. Unfortunately Britain’s greatest poet was unavailable to write this adaptation of The Wind in the Willows. However, Stephen Hyde, the ‘Bard of Merton’, has produced an excellent script that brings out all the subtle emotional complexities of the famously psychologically intense rodent.

Will my efforts to embody this iconic character end in success? Will I single-handedly destroy the century long legacy of one of the best loved creations of children’s literature? Find out in the Master’s garden of St Peter’s college this 5th week!

Find out more at https://www.facebook.com/events/375224469262117/


sons of anarchy

Could Sons of Anarchy be nearing an end?

sons of anarchyFX’s dark and dirty drama about renegade Motorcycle Club The Sons of Anarchy roared back onto UK screens this February, and if the opening episodes of Season Five are anything to go by, the end is nigh for Charming town. After four seasons in the back seat, season five sees Jax finally taking the gavel as President of SAMCRO – no small task given the chaos upon which season four closed. The threat of mutiny hangs heavy in the air as truths and half truths about Clay’s murder of fellow member, Piney, continue to fester, and internal tensions are only exacerbated by the club’s imbroglio with the sinister Damon Pope, and rival gang the One-Niners. If Season Four was (as series creator Kurt Sutter has suggested) act two for the club, then Season Five marks the beginning of its third and final phase, and the threat of imminent destruction is one that simmers ominously throughout these opening episodes.

Things begin innocently enough: Jax muses, as ever, on his tempestuous relationship with the club, but his comments about holding onto “the simple moments…there aren’t many of them left” seem bleakly prophetic, and sure enough, the Sons are locked into a fatal shootout within moments. It’s a violent start to an episode which, even by Sons standards, is particularly brutal, and while this kind of intense, adrenalised action undoubtedly makes for compelling viewing, one can’t help but wonder if the Sons of Anarchy have got a little lost. Recent series have tended to forego the sense of camaraderie and brotherhood that made SAMCRO such an appealing prospect – not only for its members, but for audiences, too – replacing it instead with increasingly convoluted storylines that have seen the club disintegrate as the body count accumulates. It’s a dramatic formula that is beginning to drag as the show rumbles on, and as Jax continues to spout the same lines about “saving” SAMCRO, one finds oneself doubting whether there is, after all, that much worth saving.

This, though, is a criticism that is quickly dispatched with the introduction of the Sons’ new nemesis, Damon Pope, a supervillain on the offensive after the accidental murder of his daughter. Bent on bloody revenge and smart enough to get it, Pope is a baddie after the old school, and the queasy pragmatism with which he dispatches and ordains the new leader(s) of the One-Niners is provocatively juxtaposed against the Sons’ democratic voting in of new members, making SAMCRO seem idyllic by comparison. Paradise it ain’t, though, and the drama comes thick and fast in these early episodes. The season premiere comes to an  extremely sickening climax in a scene which packs real emotional punch, as Pope exacts vengeance on Tig – though it relies more on sheer horror for pathos than Kim Coates’s slightly too understated performance. Elsewhere, Tara and Gemma continue to lock horns, and it’s nice to see Tara developing into a more dynamic character as she takes on the club matriarch. The conflict, then, doesn’t seem likely to let up, but as long as the temptation to resolve all with ‘get out of jail free’ reprieves from the CIA – as has been the case in earlier seasons – is avoided, it could make for some genuinely interesting drama, and a strong fifth season for The Sons of Anarchy.


A Little Night Music Preview

Set in fin de siècle Sweden, A Little Night Music is Stephen Sondheim’s Tony award winning musical which, under the helm of the co-directors Griffith Rees and Jack Noutch, already promises much for the Oxford Playhouse in sixth week. This preview was shown in the crowded environs of Somerville College Chapel but, despite the lack of atmosphere granted by this 1930s, white-washed building, the mood of the musical was immediately present as the lieder chorus began to tune up – all part of the overture – and the orchestra started to play. The lieder act somewhat like a Greek chorus, commenting on the events of the musical as it goes along and of course providing fuller harmonies in the big numbers. Although some of the vocals were a little shaky, that was more than excusable in the morning and with a further two weeks to go; the tuning was almost perfect, which is definitely the most important thing.

The main cast of this production are set in motion by the tuning fork of Madame Armfeldt – a character given in this production a mystical responsibility to guide the characters. They all work seamlessly with the lieder chorus to bring out the story of Fredrik Egermann, a lawyer who has married a younger, ‘trophy’ wife to discover that she is unwilling to lose her virginity even to her husband, propelling him back into the arms of his former lover Desiree Armfeldt. Things are complicated by Desiree’s new, jealous lover Count Carl-Magnus who begins to suspect Desiree is not attentive to him alone, whilst his wife Charlotte looks on scathingly.

These four actors work together wonderfully, delivering well the humour of their situation – especially a scene involving Fredrik in the Count’s bathrobe – whilst also aided by the orchestra in building tension. Aleksandr Cvetkovic displays impressive vocals and gravity in the soldier’s uniform of the Count, sparring particularly well with Richard Hill as Fredrik, a character I wish that I could perhaps have seen more of in the preview. Claire Parry as Charlotte brings bitter humour along with the sadness of her role as the cheated wife and raised several laughs, whilst Georgina Hellier was totally natural in her role, playful and daring as a woman having to fight for her survival. The entire cast came together to sing ‘A Weekend in the Country’ which, with its complicated polyphony of lines and multiple stories happening together, was performed with real passion to end the first act.

Finally, to the core of this production – the orchestra was fantastic as the ever-present background music leading the musical onwards. They blended perfectly with the singers despite this being their first rehearsal with both the orchestra and the actors, something I only discovered after the preview. I was not given the name of the conductor, but I offer him my praise! This musical has much potential and I will certainly be going to see the finished product in the Playhouse.

A Little Night Music plays at the Playhouse until Saturday of 6th week.

PHOTOS/Anatole Oudaille-Diethardt
PHOTO/Richard Simmons

Diagnosis Kafka: A Country Doctor, BT Studio

Kafka. The name alone is usually enough to send shivers through you. Personally, the addition of a creepy groom, a raped girl and a dying boy seemed completely unnecessary, if it was a scare you were after. You could just as well have stood in the middle of the stage with no lights or props, whispering ‘Kafka, Kafka, Kafka; Kafka’s on your set texts’, and I’d have been in pieces.

But they didn’t do that, of course. Instead the production went full-throttle at the weirder elements from the original story, the mysteriously appearing groom, the exact nature of the boy’s illness, the fate of Rose. Though running at only 45 minutes, this production doesn’t exactly leave you feeling short-changed. There are enough set moments crammed in amidst unsettling lines to leave the audience with the sense that they have been told a full, if incomprehensible story. Where the production was particularly clever was in their use of elements of the original script, combined with moments more typical of Theatre of Cruelty. The audience was on the one hand lulled by the repetitive, sometimes sing-song nature of the dialogue and then thrust out somewhere new and unknown.

There were some problems though. The production often seemed to have been so delighted by the chance do to something ‘odd’ and ‘different’ (as the program tells us) that they forgot that things have to be weird and new for a reason, not just for the sake of it. Whilst enthusiasm is great, it did mean that the play ended up being stuffed with just about everything odd and different they could think of, just in case the audience didn’t get just how new and different they were. Minute silences; chanting; half-singing. We got the works.

Overall the performances themselves were a little mixed: Charles Davies and Alex Wilson really left to carry the production between them whilst the others erred on just the wrong side of forgettable. Unfortunately, a decent script was strongly affected by the feeling that these were just a bunch of A-level drama students, keen to show off everything they’d learnt in as little time as possible. It’s the problem with looking back to find something new to do (the original story was written in 1919); what was once boundary-pushing now looks a little heavy-handed; what was once impressive is now just a little bit irritating.

*** (3 STARS)

A Country Doctor plays at the Burton-Taylor studio until Saturday.


Cold-blooded Blue-bloods: Isobel at the BT

Watching Isobel was much like meeting the kind of aristocratic poseur it parodies. Prepare for a play straining for effect; proud of its insincerity; and vacuous at its core. As with the self-styled toff, the ‘irony’ is obvious, advertised, and a little painful to watch.

Like much new writing, Isobel has a simple conceptual premise: take the Brideshead stereotype of Oxford to an absurd extreme. When you first meet Jack (Frederick Bowerman) – oozing aristocratic finesse as he lolls about in red corduroys – you might not take his oh-so-casual nihilism all that seriously. But there is in fact nothing metaphorical about the back-stabbing in his blue-blooded clique. Jack turns out to be the cold-blooded reptile he claims to be – a serial, unapologetic murderer with a disturbing fetish for grey-hounds. Until the end, the play taunts us with the prospect of peeling back the mask. And in a sense the final act does – only to reveal that there is no face beneath the mask: horror of horrors – ‘Jack’s face is the mask’. What a coup (not least metatheatrically) – until you realise how boring that mask is – as you realise you have been watching a soulless caricature for the whole of the play.

Interest is sustained by Jack’s marvellous voice (think purr not plumb), though unfortunately there rather too much time to enjoy its modulation between caressing sibilants and plosive relish, in what becomes Jack’s audio-book autobiography. Except for the arbitrary flash-back of the second scene (acted out seemingly only because it involves a small number of characters) – the whole of the action of the play is relived through Jack’s myrrh-lifluous tones, as he lounges around an uninteresting set.

It’s a tribute to Frederick that he can sustain the endless monologue – given the story he has to tell. The leaden-footed references to Agatha Christie only go to show up how boring this play’s murder is. Sorry – but this isn’t the kind of plot I need to spoil. The unsatisfying conclusion – symmetrical as it might be – left the audience unsure when (and perhaps whether) to clap.

But the play’s one-dimensionality may actually be for the best. For dialogue comes out all contrived – albeit with the odd flash of brilliance (Oxford politics – the ‘petri-dish of rich and mediocre’!). Quick and slick witted as the characters are – they need to at least make a show of listening to each other if their exchanges are not to sound rehearsed. There’s a problem with the script too – which pedantically points its own wit out to the audience rather than allowing conversation to flow.

Clever as parodying a parody might seem – it turns out that blowing up the already rather boring toff stereotype to ludicrous proportions makes for dull and unsympathetic theatre.

** (2 STARS)

Isobel plays at the Burton-Taylor Studio at 9:30pm until October 27th. Tickets £5.00

IMAGE/Red Herring Productions


Love and Information at the Royal Court

Love and Information at the Royal Court is a new play by Caryl Churchill which essentially appropriates the quick-fire format of sketch comedy for dramatic purpose. The play is divided into seven acts of around seven scenes each, with themes blossoming across each act – one focussing on memory, another playing with methods of communication. However, beyond these vague themes there’s no dramatic through line; no two characters are the same, no scene recurs and there is nothing that brings them together into anything as obvious as a ‘A Central Idea’. Repetition, an element that can make or break sketch comedy, is entirely absent from this sketch play and without the hope that a favoured character might return it is that much harder to engage with others who are glimpsed only for a few seconds.

However, those glimpses are compellingly realised. No matter if the scene lasts for ten minutes or just one, there’s a clear commitment to portray a convincing snapshot of real life, from the dialogue replete with repetition and unfinished sentences, to the masterful direction by James Macdonald which brings out every inflection and interpretation through some excellent staging choices. The cast are superb, each playing several different characters easily and without cliché. One particularly moving scene contained eight short lines of dialogue as a man with severe memory problems (Rashan Stone) played the piano, having forgotten that he ever could.

The set, a white cube that looks like a containment cell from a sci-fi film, perfectly articulates the disjunction between the realism of the scenes and characters and the strangeness of the sketch show format. Between scenes black screens block off the set like a camera shutter while loud sound effects or music conceal the noise of the set changes, which are for the most part accomplished quickly and brilliantly. A set piece clearly intended to dazzle included a grassy knoll that was placed vertically rather than horizontally, so that one of the actors engaged in the stargazing scene delivered all his lines upside down.

Throughout the play there existed a tension between the realism of the writing and performances and the aggressively artificial construction of the play and set, which in a majority of scenes emphasised the natural comedy in everyday miscommunication. In the more abrupt or darker scenes this tension was more uncomfortable and made me long for something more than a shared stage and cast to pull the abstract moments together into a more comprehensible whole. The instinct is to treat it as a comedy, taking the unavoidable Depression scenes (highlighted by Churchill in the script as essential to the play, a seemingly deliberately provocative
instruction) as they come but otherwise finding laughter in everything else. Certainly that’s an enjoyable approach to a play that deftly
captures the ridiculous and true cadences of everyday speech.
 However, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a greater intent behind
the play that falls flat. Churchill has written half an hour of superb sketch comedy, half an hour of average sketch comedy, and half an hour of something completely different. So many parts can’t make a whole. 

*** (3 STARS)

Love and Information is playing in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at the Royal Court until October 13th.


PHOTOS/Stephen Cummiskey

The Oxford Student

One Step Ahead Since 1991