Temple Review – by Peter McGarry

Conflict lies at the heart of all drama and it comes in many forms.

This remarkable play looks at conflict in the context of conscience and how it decides or dictates a person’s decisions and deeds.

It fictionalises what could have taken place behind the scenes of a real event – the 2011  occupation by austerity protestors which actually caused the closure of St Paul’s Cathedral. But this is not so much about that flag-waving gesture as the mental turmoil inflicted on the clergy hierarchy indoors. As such it’s a daring and courageous piece of theatre for a local company to tackle.

The skill of this fine Loft production is its ability to examine what could be seen as a word-heavy script by maximising its potency as powerful theatre coupled with flashes of delightful humour.

There are no pat answers to the problems facing the Dean, the Bishop and the Canon Chancellor. Sue Moore’s subtle direction and a splendid set of actors enable us to understand their frustrations. Although the protest issue is not even concerned with religion, the unanswerable question revolves around which side deserves the true moral right of resolution.

The agony of the dilemma is revealed in another stunning performance by Phil Reynolds whose Dean readily admits his own lack of leadership flair but holds fast to his self-belief. Battering at his sensibility are Michael Barker’s strongly rebellious Canon Chancellor and Jeremy Heynes’s fluffy, old-school Bishop.

These characters are vividly brought to life, along with others inextricably caught in the crossfire and delivered in style by Kate Willis and Cathryn Bowler.

On the fringe of the clergy clashes, there is delicious work from Elizabeth Morris whose portrayal of an eager-to-please PA prompts memories of the great Joyce Grenfell.  And Richard Moore’s stately Chapter House set design stamps its authority with lasting effect.

We might never know what actually went on behind those closed clergy doors. But this interpretation offers very digestible food for thought.

Peter McGarry

All My Sons Review – by Peter McGarry

ALL MY SONS

Loft Theatre, Leamington, until February 18

Reviewer: Peter McGarry

Rain teems down, thunder cracks, lightning flashes. A lone figure cries out in anguish.

This portentous and brilliantly conceived opening heralds a theatrical experience of truly intense proportions. The play is Arthur Miller’s earliest triumph. The production – 70 years on – is a triumph for the Loft. It pinpoints the frailties of human emotions through issues which remain remarkably relevant today.

Having set the scene in the back yard of an Ohio family home, Gus MacDonald’s production allows the storm clouds of conflict, passion and betrayal to develop with grim relentlessness. The mood is achieved carefully and with subtlety, enabling the writer’s tight dialogue to be expressed with maximum force and no distraction.

It is wisely left to a string of fine performances against the background of Richard Moore’s evocative set to eke out the fearsome disintegration of the family. This is triggered by revelations of businessman Joe Keller’s culpability in the deaths of servicemen through faulty aircraft design.
From disbelief to disillusion, Joe’s son, through a superb performance by Jimmy Proctor, is seen to fall apart in the face of ultimately lost ideals and shattered loyalties. His good nature and optimism are touchingly realised in his feelings for his dead brother’s girlfriend – played with a stylish mix of sweetness and strength by Julie-Ann Randell – before the axe falls.

Miller’s play further twists the knife as Joe’s wife constantly refuses to accept the wartime death of her other son. In another stunning portrayal by Mary MacDonald, she is an outwardly bright but innately tragic figure inhabiting a fantasy world.

Joe, of course, is the catalyst for the fall and the eventual victim of devastating pressures. His gradual descent is beautifully realised by Tom O’Connor as he struggles to retain dignity in the face of overwhelming guilt. And there is some eye-catchingly good work from George Heynes as the angst-ridden son of Joe’s betrayed partner.

The cause of political upheaval in its day by flouting the American dream, the play still stands as a monument to the best of drama. As does this version which is a credit to local theatre.

Oliver! Review – by Peter McGarry

By its sheer weight of tuneful songs this remains one of the most popular musicals. The exclamation mark in the title could also be seen to reflect the enormity of staging it.

Dickens’s evocative tale of the orphan lad’s progression from Victorian workhouse through the grimy environments of back-street London to eventual long-overdue happiness demands numerous set changes and a great many faces.

Tim Willis’s bold production tackles them all head-on and if it tends to be a bit stop-start in the early stages, this will be smoothed out as the run continues.

By the time Oliver sings Where is Love? (hauntingly performed by Oscar George, who alternates the role with Megan Bignall), the emotional tug of Lionel Bart’s superb show is becoming evident. And when act two opens with the rampantly full-blooded Oom Pah Pah, we’re more than into the swing.

This show-stopping number is magnificently performed by Louise Woodward who so effectively etches the character of Nancy between bouts of bubbly high spirits and sad reflection (As Long as He Needs Me). There is eye-catching work too from Flo Hatton as her tag-along friend Bet.

The Oliver Twist story will, of course, always centre on the raw, brash humour and chill factor of Fagin’s den of thieves and here the splendid Steve Smith once again delivers a master-class in rich characterisation, investing the wily old villain with a heady mix of comedy and pathos. His young gang members respond well, despite looking a little too clean-cut for their back-alley lifestyle.

This hardly applies to the fearsome nastiness embodied in Chris Cortopassi’s compelling Bill Sikes, a well-judged essay in cold ruthlessness, and there are fun elements in Benjamin Wellicome’s undertaker and John Fenner’s Mr Bumble.

The austerity of the locations is significantly captured in Richard Moore’s set design which works wonders on a limited stage, and Matt Flint’s musical direction does full justice to those evergreen songs.

With a little more refinement along the way, this will be a worthy tribute to Bart’s brilliant adaptation. Even Oliver himself could hardly ask for more.

Peter McGarry

the-entertainer

The Entertainer Review – by Peter McGarry

Better to be a has-been than a never-was – one underlying theme from this play which could be seen quite cynically to reflect a broad context of Britain today.

Such ambiguity presents a formidable challenge to a theatre company in reviving John Osborne’s penetrating drama about disillusion and bitter self-appraisal.

It dates back nearly 60 years but yields a startling relevance to modern times of internal political upheaval, controversy over military forays into foreign lands and even Brexit.

William Wilkinson’s intense production focuses on lost British glory in terms of the good old days of music hall and its social lifestyle, reflected by the last-gasp efforts of a fading stand-up comic facing a new order of society. This role, once a non-Shakespearean landmark for Laurence Olivier, is undertaken by Phil Reynolds with courageous vitality.

He conveys the downward spiral of Archie Rice who is forced to be funny and in so doing he successfully delivers a stage act of outdated patter and wearyingly contrived songs. His performance is extraordinary in its credibility before a ‘real’ audience.

Behind these scenes Archie emerges with the practised superficiality of a joker constantly citing the joys of draught Bass and reviling the taxman, aspects again finely tuned in Reynolds’s central performance.  He is brilliantly matched by Wendy Morris as wife Phoebe, oozing cosy amiability as she sinks further into an alcoholic stupor – a portrayal that so cleverly blends hilarity with a sense of tragic hopelessness.

For all its basic power, the play’s construction is occasionally dated, notably in the static nature of the first 20 minutes. Lengthy pauses in a ‘waiting for Archie’ sequence seem to hamper the early stages of the piece as well as Steve Smith’s development of Archie’s once-famous dad which becomes so well realised later.

It remains, however, a notable achievement for local theatre.

Peter McGarry