Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Man Inside @ Landor Theatre, London – March 2014

The Man Inside, with music by Tony Rees and book and lyrics by Gary Young, is a reworked, smaller scale version of Jekyll, the musical based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous tale of dual personality that was staged back in 1996 at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley. Jekyll was an all-singing, all-dancing production; this is a shorter, stripped down chamber piece, a three hander which provides more of an overview of the story and lends itself perfectly to the atmospheric intimacy of Clapham’s Landor Theatre.

Under the slick direction of Robert McWhir, the three actors play out an extraordinary chapter in the life of Henry Jekyll, the doctor who, as part of his research into the darker workings of the human mind, decides to start drinking his own concoctions and morphing regularly into Edward Hyde, his demonic alter ego. All three performances are strong and believable throughout with Dave Willetts on commanding form, in terrific voice and handling the transition between his two characters admirably. Particularly skilful is his management of the trickier moments when Hyde becomes increasingly out of control and pervades Jekyll’s civilised (and frankly, quite boring) life with his fiancé, the resolute and staid Katherine (Alexandra Fisher). Lizzie is both feisty whore and tragic love-seeker, representing the Hyde side of the protagonist’s personality, embodying his sinister, lustful desires and baser instincts. Jessie Lilley embraces the role with zest, with one of the show’s punchier numbers giving her the chance to really strut her stuff and shine.

Overall, there is much to commend here. Martin Thomas’s superb yet simple design sets the scene perfectly, tripling up as study, lab and Victorian street and Matheson Bayley’s astounding musical direction and piano accompaniment is surely worth the ticket price alone, wringing every possible bit of emotion from a score that isn’t always as strong as it could be in places.

However the condensing of such a complex, involved and arguably hackneyed work into just 80 sung-through minutes is a challenge and a half, and whilst the company face this passionately head on, something is definitely lost. The piece seems too fleeting, relying heavily on prior knowledge of the original story and its issues to make its impact. What does work beautifully is the ingenious twist at the end, which throws Stevenson’s universal themes, as important and relevant today as they were then, into sharp focus, and puts everything into context.  I’d like to have seen more of this innovative flash in place of some of the sickly and quite unnecessary romantic exchanges that happen between Dr Jekyll and Katherine, for example.

There is no doubt that this is still very much a work in progress, designed to test the water and see where it can go. Whether it has legs remains to be seen, but, for now, it is a bold, true-to-itself take on a much-loved classic which is well worth a look.

Blue Remembered Hills @ New Diorama Theatre, London – March 2014

Blue Remembered Hills was originally a television play written by Dennis Potter and commissioned by the BBC in 1979 as part of its “Play for Today” series. It starred Michael Elphick and Helen Mirren, broke interesting new ground and won awards galore.

This stage production by New Rep Theatre is just their fifth and comes to the New Diorama fresh from a nomination for a Peter Brook Equity Ensemble Award. The fact this is adapted from television makes perfect sense; this is a one-act play running for just 65 minutes.

The action comprises seven West-Country children playing together in the Forest of Dean one afternoon during the summer of wartime 1943. We see a range of characters from a shy and nervous stutterer, a swaggering bully, a bossy little girl with a pram to a cry-baby simpleton. As the children fantasize and fight through the afternoon all of the elements of typical childhood play are present – soldiers in combat, mothers and fathers, a bit of animal cruelty and some good old-fashioned bullying. The absence of parents is overriding and we are reminded of a time when children were left completely to their own devices; no computers, no social media, just the great outdoors and young, exciting naivety. Yet there is a darker subject matter lurking beneath and the play’s conclusion sees Potter explore what happens when too much freedom is allowed and games descend into unspeakable tragedy.

There are many positives here and most of the elements necessary to make for an enjoyable theatrical experience are present. All of the actors work incredibly hard to exude just the right amount of convincing youthful energy needed to portray children and their accents are spot on throughout. Paul Harnett’s Raymond does well to invoke pathos and Christopher York’s Donald Duck is downright, suitably weird. The set is simple, featuring a beautiful forest backdrop design by Paul Wallis and moveable wooden structures which all combine well to aid the imagination.

Yet, the hour that precedes the chaos that descends as Donald meets his fate is surely designed to build up to this one, devastating episode and whilst it is well-acted, it just doesn’t hit hard enough. I was honestly more concerned about the stamping to death of the squirrel near the beginning– not necessarily a bad thing, since this was an example of one of the play’s grittier, more successful moments, and it isn’t that the piece does not succeed on many levels. It just left me with the feeling that this is perhaps one of those works which does not convert that well from the format for which it was originally intended or at least loses some of its intended impact in translation.

 

Rachael’s Café @ Old Red Lion, London – February 2014

Having had one or two bad experiences with painfully long and badly written one-handers in the past, It was admittedly with some trepidation that I went to review this London premiere of Rachael’s Café at the Old Red Lion. The subject matter sounded rather hit and miss too – potentially disastrous in the wrong hands.

I needn’t have worried.

Rachael’s Café is the heart-warming and inspiring tale of Eric Winiger, a 6ft tall, middle-class, churchgoing husband and father of three from sleepy Bloomington, Indiana, who, about 7 years ago, took the incredibly brave decision to live as a transgender woman. The shock and lack of acceptance in the local community was such that, unable to gain employment, Rachael started her own business, Rachael’s Café. Whilst struggling with no funding at the outset, the café is now a great success, a warm, welcoming and creative place which banishes any form of segregation and where Rachael strives to uphold the ethos “everyone is welcome, no exceptions”.

Lucy Danser’s script recounts Rachael’s story in the form of an hour-long monologue and Graham Elwell’s delivery and portrayal of the protagonist is perfect. The actor creates an immediate bond with the audience with eye contact, direct address and interaction, drawing us into the tale, exuding just the right level of endearing and gentle gawkiness. Moments of extreme sadness and difficulty in the shape of memories of rude and hurtful visitors to the café are intermingled with more joyful moments of kindness, the most touching of which is a phone call from Rachael’s youngest daughter, Gracie, who invites her to attend a school presentation as Rachael, not Eric, for the first time. This loving and innocent acceptance of a child set against a backdrop of adult fear, ignorance and prejudice is perfectly pitched, incredibly moving and just one highlight in an excellent script which delivers some great moments of humour, too.

Martin Thomas’s set design is straightforward and works well. We are simply visitors to a friendly little café one evening, listening in as the proprietor busies herself clearing up after a day’s trade and gets a little lost in her fascinating memories. Effective use of lighting by Owen Evans tracks the mood changes of the piece well, for example the darkened moment when Rachael switches from her calm, genteel self to portray the misdirected anger and over-inflated masculinity and prejudice of a Texan visitor.

This debut by Lucy Danser simply gets it right on every level. You will leave feeling enriched, encouraged and, above all, safe in the knowledge you have spent an hour of your life well.