Play review

First Night Review – Latin! or Tobacco and Boys ***

Latin! or Tobacco and Boys is a play by Stephen Fry set in the fictional Chartham Preparatory School. Although lacking in some aspects, Manywhere Productions  is successful in transporting the audience back to school, specifically to the Latin lessons led by Mr Clarke, ensuring they remain amused at all times.

In a neat piece of staging, some of the audience are invited to sit on benches onstage, becoming the pupils stuck in Mr Clarke’s Latin class: exercise books are handed out to the audience members as they inadvertently become the targets of his wickedly droll verbal abuse: Barnabas Iley-Williamson was extremely effective in playing out the witty dialogue and keeping spirits up. The consistently funny performances of Barnabas Iley-Williamson and Louis Fletcher, who play schoolmasters Mr Dominic Clarke and Mr Herbert Brookshaw, soon managed to thaw the audience.

In his non-sequitur explanation of the merit and demerit system, Louis Fletcher achieved many moments of laughter from the audience, but he did not match Iley-Williamson in sustaining the animated mood. Struggling with projection, there was no middle ground when it came to his vocal and physical expression: it seemed he could only go from the manic highs of jumping on desks to the extreme lows of being barely audible. The effortless humour of the script is perhaps a hindrance at times, because it allows the actors to rely on it too much and become complacent; but it might just be the stress of opening night.

The lighting was at times a bit puzzling with certain choices that were unnecessary and annoying, such as a few too many blackouts and superfluous dimming. The only time the dimming of the lights seemed to be effective was when Mr Clarke confesses his secret relationship with the 15 year old Cartwright. The gravity of the subject of a teacher-pupil affair is handled well by Iley-Williamson’s Mr Clarke, as he explains himself through a longing for his boyhood and his lifelong sense of disbelonging.

Instead of an interval, the audience were drawn further back into the world of school by the replacement of break-time: sounds of the playground accompanied the delicious distribution of Chelsea buns. When Iley-Williamson’s Mr Clarke reads out the class’ Latin exam results with comical attacks on each pupil, it was another warm reminder of schooldays long gone – a point that describes the whole play.  Nostalgia for the long-gone days of school was successfully created in this production and brought a smile to one’s face that it was hard to keep off.

3 stars

Latin! or Tobacco and Boys is on at the Burton Taylor Studio this week from Wednesday until Saturday at 7.30pm, tickets £6 (£5 concessions)

For the trailer, please follow the link:

PHOTO/Adam Levy

Something rotten in the state asylum of Denmark

I was not even meant to go and see it, but with a few hours to spare in London I looked up current plays in London and called up to see if there were any spare tickets for Hamlet: luckily, the Young Vic had an empty seat for the night and I was definitely glad I bought the ticket. So many people take a Shakespearean play into a modern setting, but it is extremely rare and special for a production to pull it off entirely: but the Young Vic’s production of Hamlet with Michael Sheen in the starring role has accomplished this daunting task. Eerie, fresh, innovative and exciting this completely trumped any Shakespeare play I have ever seen.

On the phone, I was told to arrive at least thirty minutes before performance time to experience the mysterious ‘pre-show journey’: I was intrigued and keen not to miss out on anything that fully immersed me in the theatrical experience so thought, why not? It turned out that the pre-show journey was an interesting way of firmly establishing the cold and clinical setting of a mental asylum in the minds of the audience members. On arrival, the first fifty of us audience members were taken round the back of theatre and led through pale green corridors adorned with notice-boards: eerily quaint music accompanied us in our journey as we passed soundproofed windows, looking into a gymnasium where men in blue scrubs were playing with a ball. An announcement telling us to turn off all electronic devices due to their interference with ‘treatments’ was a phrase that stood out as an unusual take on the conventional ‘please turn off your mobile phones’.

Wily, electric and energetic, Michael Sheen’s Hamlet is a mental patient who is refused leave from the asylum by James Clyde’s therapist Claudius who charmingly manipulates everyone around him in his Joker-like purple suit. The hexagonal shape of the theatre-in-the-round performance space was well-suited to the confidential manner of Sheen’s soliloquies, making the audience wonder whether they themselves are extensions of Hamlet’s state of mental delusion. The ghost of Hamlet’s father was in fact an illusory figure created from Hamlet’s psychological derangement and when Gertrude proclaims that she cannot see the ghost, Hamlet’s slow realisation of his own insanity is poignantly illustrated by Sheen.

Due to Benedict Wong’s strong performance, his Laertes was the first with whom I have actually been able to empathise. Female actors, Eileen Walsh and Hayley Carmichael play the roles of the normally male Rosencrantz and Horatio which gave new, interesting dimensions to both characters: the intimacy of Horatio’s relationship with Hamlet became more touchingly apparent; whilst together with Adeel Akhtar’s Guildenstern, Hamlet’s unfair change in his regard for his friends was more sympathetic towards them.

The whole setting of a mental asylum worked brilliantly: Michael Gould’s Polonius became a well-meaning, bumbling doctor armed with a tape recorder and Sally Dexter’s smiling pill-popping Gertrude was wonderfully away-with-the-fairies. Normally, Ophelia’s descent into lunacy is not performed effectively, but Vinette Robinson executes this superbly: the scene in which she is desperately singing as she’s become confined to a wheelchair was one the most moving scene in the play. Best of all, was the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy where Hamlet’s grapple with the human condition and with himself was clearly and powerfully conveyed by Sheen. The exceptional standard of acting by every single cast member was equalled by the adventurous use of the set, above all the large rectangular pit that was created from a chunk of the stage being flown out in the second half. At the end of the play, young Fortinbras and his men came dressed in black with masks to take over the asylum and do a clean-up, covering the pit now full of all the dead bodies with crime scene black liner. When young Fortinbras removes his mask, the audience are left wondering whether the whole experience has been a purging process of Hamlet’s troubled mind and the corrupt surrounding which has driven him to madness.

Five stars to an outstanding production that is an illuminating experience of Shakespeare’s finest play.

PHOTO/Gage Skidmore

Pretty well-Maid

With a basis of sadomasochism and lesbianism, this appeared to fit the bill as to what constitutes a successful production in Oxford.

Based on the chilling story of the Papin sisters, Genet sheds a new light on the plot, keeping the main features of it but altering the final outcome. Genet can be seen to actively try and draw the audience into the created illusion before abruptly dispelling it, leaving the audience with a distinct sense of dissatisfaction.

This production has all the components to be successful; chatting to the cast after it is clear they have done a lot of research into the Papin sisters and understand fully what they are trying to express.

However at points they were unable to fully immerse the audience into the drama, resulting in less of an inquisitive wonderment and more of an absolute confusion at what is taking place.

Both Frances Hackett and Rachel Dedman were solid in their performances, portraying the servants’ state of mind successfully, as well as exploring the role-play of Madame in an enlightening manner. However, it was Roseanna Frascona who pulled the whole performance together, her strong portrayal of Madame making sense of many prior allusions and offering a new dynamic to the piece.

It is possible that more regular changes of pace could distinguish between fantasy and reality more distinctly. Genet is a playwright who enjoys the muted explosion of an anti-climax more than most, but this doesn’t quite come through yet in their portrayal.

Whilst aspects of the play seemed to lack a distinct edge, all the actors were impressive in their expression of individuals who have twisted logic and brutal desires.

All that needs to be found is that je ne sais quoi that will draw the whole production together: this has the potential to be a fantastic play, trapping the audience in the claustrophobic confines of the human mind, but for now ‘potential’ is the operative word.

A bit of an alchemiss

The Alchemist
Ben Jonson
O’Reilly Theatre
Weds-Sat 7.30pm

Rating: 2/5

Ben Jonson’s classic play is a tight, well-structured satire depicting and dissecting the follies and weaknesses of Renaissance England.

The vices it portrays, however, such as greedy credulity and superstition, are truly timeless, shown through the two charismatic conmen, one of whom poses as the titular alchemist, swindling the mercantile classes of London.

The entire play, therefore, rests on the shoulders of the actors portraying the characters of Subtle and Face, in this case William Tyrell and Aiden Russell. Unfortunately, in this case, they simply can’t support it.

There is a particular sort of performance, usually reserved for plays-within-plays, that is consciously stilted and slightly forced, distinguishing between the act and the more naturalistic “non-play” play. This is how they deliver every line.

It is not clear whether this is a deliberate directorial decision, but it means that, since there are many points when the characters have to assume other personas or put on acts of their own, this reaches an almost pantomime level of unnaturalness, except it isn’t fun.

The delivery also renders many of the lines extremely difficult to understand, with strange emphases and pauses.

This is a real shame, because most of the supporting cast are very good. Claire Morley is an excellently soothing force on the pair as prostitute Dol Common, while Stephen Greatly and Frances Avery work well as the charmingly naïve victims of the scam.

It ends up working against the production, though, as their performances mean the audience ends up being far more sympathetic with those who are intended as the point of the satire.

The costumes are lovely, though being OUDS wardrobe regulars, you may recognise them from every other period piece in Oxford.

A lot of potential here, but ultimately a disappointment.

A truly gore-ious play

Titus Andronicus
Corpus Christi
Weds-Sat 7.30pm
Rating: 4.5/5

It is a brave student that chooses to put on Titus Andronicus.

Shakespeare’s tragedy is a melting pot of everything horrible. There is rape, murder, dismembered limbs, cannibalism, insanity, decapitation and a whole load of nasty characters. T.S Eliot once proclaimed that it was “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written”.

With sentiments such as this, the challenge for anyone putting on a production of it is to use the ghastliness Shakespeare imagines in an intelligent, inspired way.

Set in ancient Rome, the story centres on the various families trying to out-atrocity one other. It is a confusing plot and unfortunately the cross-casting of key roles Titus and Marcus does not make it any easier to understand what is going on.

Not that these roles give disappointing performances; on the contrary, the commitment and intensity is incredible. Naomi Setchell, playing Marcus, gives a nuanced performance that evokes both sympathy and admiration, while Chelsey Little is harrowing, almost animalistic, as the handless and tongueless Lavinia.

The Goths are suitably cultish, arrogant, sexual, weird and evil. David Cochrane, as Aaron, is all of these things and worse. He creepily enjoys the pain and destruction. though his casually sociopathic behaviour does lower the intensity of scenes he is in.

This production has to be careful not to rely on the power of the performances of its lead actors, though. It is a fairly large cast of ten and some of the more minor characters lack focus, with a tendency to be carried away in the gory spectacles.

Helen Slaney, the director, has been innovative with this production,  transposing Titus Andronicus into something of a post apocalyptic world.

She has definitely made the most of the Corpus Christi auditorium, with its stone alcoves and cavernous atmosphere. She has also cleverly overcome the obvious logistical problems this play presents, like a prop list that includes a decapitated head. The only hurdle left is trying to make some distractingly fake blood look more realistic.

This is not a comfortable production to watch. Shakespeare’s play contains one atrocity after another and watching it is a draining and intense experience.

It is this intensity, however, that is the greatest achievement of the production. They successfully sustain an atmosphere of horror with a few accomplished performances.  No offence Eliot, but this production is neither stupid nor uninspired.

I dreamed a dream…

Goodness, has director Chelsea Walker ended up with a talented cast. This eclectic mix of Oxford stars is probably worth the ticket price alone: James Corrigan, of The Odyssey fame, this time swaggering as the profligate Demetrius; fellow Somervillian Lindsay Dukes as the hot-tempered Hermia; James Carroll (of Rent), Alex Khosla (Blood Wedding) and Ollo Clark (The Magic Toyshop) make up only a few of this all-star, eight man cast.

The Dream has been four days in the making, and already you can see how much it is pulling together as a piece. Fresh out of finals, the cast don’t seem to be feeling the strain of day-long rehearsals.

To call this an ‘adaptation’ of Midsummer’s Night’s Dream is misleading. What Walker has actually done is to rearrange and abridge Shakespeare’s epic play into a much more palatable hour-long performance, to fit the Burton Taylor’s late slot. She has also set it in a rubbish dump.

A strange choice, perhaps, but one that Walker insists “will bring out a more sinister side to the fairies. You just wouldn’t get that with a pastoral setting.”

In all honesty, there was very little of the ‘more sinister side’ in this production. This has the makings of a fun summer performance of a classic piece: sexy, funny, and well acted, The Dream offers not so much a twist on the original, as an enjoyable retelling.

Best of all, the characters actually enjoy what they’re doing. Some of the more classic insults (“you painted maypole!”, “rash wanton!”) were thrown around with spirited anger. The play fighting was fun and frequent – there was hardly a moment when one of the characters was not hair-tugging and pinning another to the floor. I felt like a little child on the sidelines, wanting to join the fun.

One almost wishes this was to be an outdoors performance: glass of Pimm’s and a sunlit lawn would complete the gay, frolicy feel of this piece.

Nonetheless, The Dream will do very nicely in the round. Ollo Clark gave a particularly subtle, glowering performance as Puck – something that would be entirely lost on a larger stage. The interplay between characters is going to suit the intimate feel of the Burton Taylor.

With just a little more polishing will really light up seventh week drama. I can’t sell it as particularly innovative or unusual piece – it’s not. What The Dream is, is good theatre. And if the idea of James Corrigan being used as a footstool by Puck doesn’t tickle your fancy, this clearly isn’t your production.

Not Russian into anything

Uncle Vanya
Anton Chekov
Merton Gardens
Weds-Sat 7.30pm
Rating: 4.5/5

There is a consensus among the Merton Floats players that this staging of Chekov’s comedy/tragedy should be, above all, funny. Meg Bartlett, the director, took it upon herself to synthesise a new translation of the play that suited this vision.

Fundamentally, Merton’s take on Vanya is that it is too often misconceived as exclusively miserable, when it has a real comic side. There is no doubting this is an ambitious project, but does it work?

Certainly the Merton actors are able to bring out the melancholy side. Tim Smith-Laing is wonderful as the eponymous Vanya: he even looks a bit Russian. Smith-Laing starts off un-naturalistic, but very soon starts to convey an increasingly believable sense of desolation, until he seems truly immersed in despair.

Sonia (Lizzie Hunter) does very well at conveying unrequited love, worrying about her ‘plainness’ and obsessing over Dr. Astrov – depressing watching. Yeliena (Meredith Kerr) is truly fantastic. She conveys elegance but also an ineffable sadness, a quiet resignation, which is both immersive and compelling. She finessed the role brilliantly; her performance is such a tangle of conflicting emotions – a excellent actress for this part.

So the play is sad. But is it funny? The Mertonites (and potential audience) will be pleased to learn now that as well as all this misery, the humour of the play is successfully brought out. Gout-ridden Serebriakov gives off a David Mitchell effect, making his scenes feel like a 19th century Russian Peep Show, with a darkly compelling voyeurism and humorous atmosphere.

The standout mixture of comic/tragic is Astrov (Bevil Luck), who can veer from the comic drunk, which he plays brilliantly (“I have flans for the future – plans for the future…”) to depressive and disaffected: two character types which should be all too familiar to Oxford students. When Astrov moans about his shallow friends and his intellectual contemporaries (they’re hypochondriacs, they self-analyse, they’re introspective) it hits close to home.

In all, Meg Bartlett and the Merton players have achieved what they set out to do, and this is an admirable achievement. Not all is perfect: the actors are hard to hear at times and occasionally there was a tendency to either gabble or face away from the audience, meaning whole lines were lost to the birds.

In spite of this, though, Merton Floats will certainly be able to float this well-conceived interpretation on the Oxford play market.

Buy, buy, buy.

French fancy par excellence

Dangerous Liaisons
Christopher Hampton
Trinity Lawns
Weds-Sat 7.30pm
Rating: 4.5/5

The Dangerous Liaisons cast is clearly a close, dynamic bunch of thesps. Combined with the acerbic and oddly timeless script, this should have made for great theatre.

It was clear, too, as they watched their compatriots act, that they love this play to bits. They have good reason to, because Rachel Bull’s Dangerous Liaisons is fantastic.

The plot concerns the sexually predatorial Marquise de Merteuil (Chloe Courtney) and her equally depraved “friend” and notorious rake Vicomte de Valmont (Alex Krasodomski-Jones).

It becomes clear throughout the piece that, trapped in a world where women are powerless, Merteuil has turned and utterly surrendered to her one escape: pleasure.

This comes out best in a speech which really showcases her considerable talent as an actor – Courtney fairly smoulders, and all her performance drips with cruelty, completely inhabiting the self-loathing, nihilistic world of the play.

Her counterpart, Krasodomski-Jones, might as well have been assembled specially for the play, a louche Lothario whose body language means he effortlessly fills the stage with a dreadful charisma. The only possible fault is on occasion his dialogue seems a little forced.

The kinks are minor, however, and the dialogue flows more and more readily as the play progresses. By the end, despite the “proper” language of the Ancien Régime, the dialogue ends up curiously naturalistic.

The rest of the cast members are equally good. Mademoiselle Volanges (Freya Willets) is perfectly cast as the virginal target of Valmont’s techniques – prim and proper and quiet.

When Volanges comes to her as she sleeps and refuses to leave her room, the tension is palpable. In what is already a very disquieting scene, Willets says to Valmont “Please, don’t,” so piteously that you actually feel uncomfortable watching it. It’s a scene that should remind the audience that this is not a man you can love to hate: he is a predator.

Similarly, the real object of Valmont’s affections, de Tourvel (Charlie Mulliner) is wound up and repressed, but her sudden outbursts of emotion, which could be jarring, come across as very believable.

Ultimately, they are all fooling themselves and are thoroughly miserable – the cast portray these empty, complicated people very well.

The set is minimalist, but effective, and if it ends up raining it likely won’t translate so well to an indoor venue. These are minor points, nonetheless and can’t detract from a very well staged, well acted interpretation. Definitely one to watch.