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Dec 16th

Kaufman and Hart's You Can't Take It With You at Manchester Royal Exchange

By Caroline May
you cant takke it pic.jpg

Manchester Royal Exchange is the only game in town for adult theatre-goers this Christmas.  Their Yuletide offering is always an out-and-out comedy, whether that be traditional English farce (See How They Run, 2008), European classic (Cyrano de Bergerac, 2006), or, as with 2005’s Harvey, an American screwball comedy perhaps better known in a black-and-white film version starring James Stewart.

Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You is an absolute fit for the latter category, although this co-production with Told by an Idiot Theatre Company is so extraordinarily physical and theatrical it completely dispels all sepia-tinted memories.  The madcap household of thwarted balletomanes, aspiring playwrights, xylophone-playing printers and exotic animals would be matter enough, but when you throw in a Russian émigré dancing master, an unexpected tax inspector, and most worryingly of all an amateur firework-maker, you can expect things to go with a bang.

Apart from the pyrotechnics, flying ballerinas and animatronic snakes, director Paul Hunter almost turns the play into a Busby Berkeley musical with scene changes re-imagined as dance sequences from The Great American Songbook.  There are endless bits of slapstick and comic business that would have done the Marx Brothers proud, as well as occasional moments of disaster that might just be deliberate.

Outstanding among the frenzy of (deliberate) over-acting are Golda Rosheuvell as the best stage drunk I’ve ever seen, Maggie O’Brien playing Grand Duchess Olga, an exiled aristocrat who now waits tables with sneering condescension, and Miltos Yerolemou in an electrifying performance as the terrifying maitre de ballet.

Paul Hunter takes full advantage of the proximity of the audience to involve them directly in the action - the people in the cheapest seats (the banquettes at the front) probably had the best night of all, which is entirely appropriate for a play that cocks its snook at materialism and wealth.

On the face of it an anti-capitalist screwball comedy might seem a real play for today.  But You Can’t Take It With You fails to answer the paradox at its own heart: true, it takes a swing at Wall Street bankers like Mr Kirby (Martin Hyder with a comb-over hairdo that deserves its own programme credit), but has nothing to say about Grandpa Vanderhof (an avuncular Christopher Benjamin) who maintains his family’s unconventional lifestyle by living off the substantial rents of his buy-to-let property portfolio; and his elaborate tax evasion scam is more or less eulogised, the dirty plutocrat!

Laura Hopkins’ set-on-wheels and Sian Williams’ choreography are at the heart of the show’s success.  Judging by the queues at the box office on press night, this is Manchester’s answer to One Man, Two Guvnors.  Smug in the knowledge that I’m already booked in again for January, I advise you to buy your tickets at once.

YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU is on until Saturday 14 January 2012
Prices £9-£33
Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm
Matinees: Wed @ 2.30, Sat @ 4pm
Christmas & New Year performances vary - see website
Box Office: 0161 833 9833
Dec 15th

Grotto by Chris Dance at the Lass o’ Gowrie, Manchester

By Caroline May
Has Manchester’s fringe theatre scene ever been in finer fettle?  A testament to its vigour is that among the numerous pantomimes, musicals and children’s shows which infest the city’s venues at this time of year there is still an enthusiastic audience for a brand new play, presented in the tiny space at the top of The Lass o’ Gowrie by young company Hazel Tree Productions.

Playwright Chris Dance puts a cynical spin on the season of goodwill by setting his comedy in Britain’s grottiest Santa’s Grotto, where put-upon shop-girl Laura (endearingly played by a starry-eyed Hazel Earle) is contractually obliged to wear the stripy stockings, fluffy red boots and pointy felt hat of one of Santa’s Little Helpers.

Her peaceful lunchtime sandwich among the sacks of presents, stuffed reindeer and fairy lights is interrupted by co-worker Julie (hilariously lairy Emma Laidlaw), who has disguised herself as an elf and fled the lingerie department for a natter with her friend, even though their manager has already tried to separate her from Laura for being a “bad influence”.

Chris Dance explores the girls’ fundamentally different natures with tart characterisation and plenty of wit - Julie is the party-loving singleton who stashes gin, brandy and half-eaten kebabs in her handbag, while romantically-thwarted Laura is the kind of person who revises for a game of Trivial Pursuit after the Queen‘s Speech.  Their tête-à-tête is interspersed with fleeting appearances from Father Christmas himself - David Slack’s downbeat northern Santa is straight out of The Last of the Summer Wine, and his white curly wig wouldn’t disgrace Lady GaGa.  And Mike Seal as Clive, the unworldly Elvis-obsessed busker, tops and tails the story beautifully, ending with a rousing sing-along.

Director Jake Murray - late of The Royal Exchange, where he was responsible for the excellent Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and A Conversation - makes a welcome return to Manchester with this sweet and funny production.

Early booking is recommended, as tonight was sold out.  May I also advise bringing a shoe-horn and a plunger - one for squeezing into your seat with at the beginning, and the other to extricate yourself at the end.

Grotto is on at The Lass o’ Gowrie, 36 Charles Street, Manchester M1 7DB until Saturday 17 December 2011
Tickets:  £6 from
Performances: Thurs & Fri @ 7pm & 9pm; Sat @ 4pm & 7pm
Dec 7th

The Wind in the Willows - Manchester Library Theatre Company at The Lowry

By Caroline May
Reviewed by Richard Howell-Jones

What does Christmas mean to you? Jingling bells, mingling smells, toffee and coffee and caramels? Crisp snow, pointy trees, goodwill and seasonal fuzziness? Redemption’s happy dawn? Or perhaps lazing down a river in a small boat well-filled with the makings of a summer afternoon’s picnic, the sun glinting off the murmuring waters? In this weather? You must be crackers!

So The Wind in the Willows is not, then, a Christmas show, despite its placing in the calendar, a quick burst of In the Beak Midwinter notwithstanding. It’s entertaining, jolly, funny in places, but doesn’t have that feelgoodwilltoallmen factor generally associated with shows held at this time of year.

But then if you thought Kenneth Graeme’s classic woodland tale included Dasher, Dancer and Rudolph in the cast, you just haven’t been paying attention. So is it a good production?

If we’re honest, the opening is not promising. Assorted actors wander not-entirely-convincingly onstage, their various gaits denoting wildlife of some description, eventually identified through dialogue delivered with all the brio one associates with Boxing Day. But after all, this isn’t a panto, it’s a play, so hearty thigh-slapping isn’t suitable; realism is what we need, of course.

So it’s encouraging when Mole appears, complaining, as they do, about spring-cleaning. Sophie Gajewicz’s character is to be our touchstone, our guide through this odd tale of calm and chaos, and she plays with consistency, intensity and innocence her whole Mole role.

Wince if you must, chuckle if you like; this is the type of humour Alan Bennett has injected into the story. And as he regards the characters as ‘relentlessly nice’, he has injected something else too.

Into the tale floats Rat, played with a hint of the late John Le Mesurier by Christopher Wright. As they leave, two of the woodland walk-ons briefly discuss the new friendship in terms that made disquiet stir sleepily in the back of my head. But out of nowhere, Otter arrives, injecting some much-needed comic energy into events, ably assisted by her nervous daughter. Having fulfilled this important function, like a kingfisher darting across a stream, they immediately leave and are never heard from again, even in the programme.

Happily, before things slow down again: enter, Toad. Paul Barnhill is a deserved favourite with the Library Theatre and here he seems to have been given his head. The result is not easy to describe: everything Toad should be, of course, larger than life, irrepressible, bumptious, enthusiastic, a powerball in a tumble-drier; but there’s something else – perhaps it’s the green wig and giant red  glasses – that made me imagine Laurence Olivier in his thirties doing an impression of Elton John in his twenties. Clearly both Barnhill and the audience had tremendous fun, especially with his ‘front of curtain’ pieces.

Which made his near-upstaging all the more remarkable; though I’m certain upstaging wasn’t intended. Albert the Horse, played with beautiful understatement by Jason Furnival, had the funniest lines in the show and got laughs on all of them, apparently without trying, sometimes without moving.

And finally, the production began to hit its stride. Alun Saunders’ Chief Weasel could have been a nastier wide-boy, but not much; Tarek Merchant’s Fox was a tad too Bambi-esque in his movement but certainly sly; and the supporting ‘Bennett team’ students realised that acting was required of them too, and demonstrated that they could do it after all. (To be fair, portraying a woodland creature without drawing criticisms of this kind is almost impossible.) And then came the darkness of the Wild Wood, where dwelt stoats, weasels and, scariest of all, Badger.

Again to be fair, much of Badger’s scariness lies with Alan Bennett. In a doubtless well-meant attempt to ginger up the story, he created a little sub-plot where Rat and Badger not-so-subtly vie for Mole’s friendship and companionship. Unfortunately, the result here is just creepy. I’m sure Robert Calvert means to be avuncular, but he came across as the kind of elderly gentleman whom everyone thinks has, or should have, signed a certain register. It isn’t helped by his repeated enthusiastic references to Mole about ‘keeping your little toes warm’, nor by the heaviness of his costume making him sweat noticeably. Rat looked nervous, and I totally agreed. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m certain my ten-year-old son would have felt a slight perplexity too.

But the show goes on and things improve. This dubious sub-plot is happily forgotten in the action that follows, as courts are fixed (one of the best scenes), cars stolen, trains hijacked, Toad capers happily across the stage in a variety of outfits, and Rene Krupinsky’s final fight for Toad Hall is all one could wish for.

Mention must be made of the set which was simple, rustic and entirely suitable, though attempts at multi-media using a cloth for projected backgrounds were irrelevant and could easily be omitted without loss. The trucks for railway engine (with engaging steam), motor car and occasional pieces of set seemed to move by magic, though Rat’s boat had to make do with his feet. There was even what appeared to be a live campfire onstage; even more remarkably, no-one got their ears, tails or costumes so much as singed!

Music was provided live by the minor woodland creatures, together with some effective, if occasionally shrill, harmonies; though why Jeremy Sams thought that the show’s happy finale ought to be in a minor key is unclear.

Sadly, the overall feeling was disappointment. Despite Barnhill’s biggest and best efforts, the production seemed too small for the story, the space and the time of year. Opportunities for gags missed, characters played too realistically, not enough joie de vivre. Not a panto; not a Christmas show; and only a fair production. It’s the season of goodwill, I know, but . . . sorry.

Chris Honer directed.

The Wind in the Willows, the Manchester Library Theatre Company,
at the Lowry theatre until 14th January.

Tickets: 0843-208 6010
Nov 17th

Beautiful Thing by Jonathan Harvey at Manchester Royal Exchange

By Caroline May
Beautiful Thing, Jonathan Harvey’s 1993 play about working class teenagers exploring their sexuality, has become a modern classic over the last two decades.  It was a breakthrough piece at the time, but not because of the subject matter.  In the late 1980s there had been no shortage of films and plays about gay schoolboys (EM Forster and Merchant Ivory were rife throughout the land) - but the school was always Eton, the period pre-war (the First War), and the setting sepia-tinted. 

Small, skinny Jamie has a massive crush on his sporty neighbour Ste, the local Adonis.  Although their relationship seems like a non-starter they are thrown together by circumstances.  That’s about as far as the story goes, but the joy of the drama is in the exploration of the growing relationship between the lads and how it’s handled by Jamie’s mum (Sandra), Sandra’s latest boyfriend (Tony), and the oddball girl-next-door (Leah).

The rough south London housing estate where Jamie and Tony live still seems contemporary, even though there aren’t any mobile phones and no one says “innit” all the time.  Liz Ashcroft design makes the most of the in-the-round setting by creating a public space almost like an arena, a mixture of run-down children’s playground and private balconies.

Matthew Tennyson’s performance as Jamie is quite extraordinary – even though he’s just graduated from LAMDA he really looks and behaves like a shy 15-year-old, veering uncertainly between emotional extremes like a frisky foal trying to find its feet.  Tara Hodge is equally amazing as Leah, the bolshie, gobby neighbour who is obsessed with 1960s singer Mamma Cass.  And Claire-Louise Cordwell’s tough but tender Sandra channels Alison Steadman to great effect.

Sarah Frankcom’s production is very strong on comedy, but springs an emotional surprise at the end when the massed ranks of Manchester’s Lesbian and Gay Choir come onstage to sing “Dream a Little Dream of Me”.  Lovely.

BEAUTIFUL THING is on until Saturday 3 December 2011
Prices £9-£33
Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm
Matinees: Wed @ 2.30, Sat @ 4pm
Box Office: 0161 833 9833
Oct 24th

Habeas Corpus by Alan Bennett at Bolton Octagon

By Caroline May

Here in Manchester theatrical farces are as thick on the ground as autumn leaves.  Last week the National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors sold out at the Lowry, and this week Bolton Octagon is reviving Alan Bennett’s clever comedy about the permissive society.

The household of Dr Wicksteed is, superficially, a respectable middle-class establishment.  However, while the insatiable doctor slakes his lust on his prettiest patients, his wife, son and sister are all quivering with sexual frustration.  But when a colonial widow, the widow’s nubile daughter, the president of the BMA, and a trained fitter of bust-enhancing appliances all arrive in town, the skeletons in Dr Wicksteed’s cupboard come home to roost.

Although Habeas Corpus is one of his earliest stage works, the classic Alan Bennett traits are already well-established.  The characters regularly vent their “inner voices” in a self-conscious manner that goes way beyond an occasional “aside” to the audience.  And the playwright’s arch northern tones and slyly tweaked literary references are also present and correct.

The concept of the production is truly brilliant - a Donald McGill postcard brought to life - and Ciaran Bagnall’s pared-down yet stylish design has “award-winning” written all over it.  Colourful beach huts along the back of the stage provide nine different entrances, with the characters popping in and out of them like demented cuckoos from their clocks.  Another stroke of genius is Howard Ward’s boater-wearing seaside organist, whose musical accompaniment (and knowing winks to the stalls) is just this side of Les Dawson.

Russell Dixon plays Mrs Swaab – and not for the first time, having performed the same role at the Library Theatre in 1976 (although it was Alan Bennett himself who originally dragged up for the part).  There are hints of Russell Dixon’s Lady Bracknell in Mrs Swaab’s pursed-lipped disapproval; and Francesca Ryan’s Lady Rumpers is another interpretation of Lady Bracknell, only in khaki.

Rob Edwards’ performance as the dodgy Dr Wicksteed occasionally resembles a pop-eyed Prince Andrew; Eve Steele is very good as the doctor’s under-developed sister Connie, sporting a range of over-the-top expressions worthy of a Carry On character; and Colin Connor is on his usual excellent (and versatile) form as the trouser-less Mr Shanks.

This was only the second night of David Thacker’s production, and when the pace has speeded up it will be a real treat.

Habeas Corpus is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 12 November 2011
Tickets: from £9.50
Performances: Mon-Sat @ 7.30
Matinees: Wed & Sat @ 2pm
Box Office: 01204 520661
Oct 24th

You're Never Too Old by Steve Wood - presented by Organised Chaos Productions

By Caroline May
Steve Wood’s new play is a poignant portrayal of two lonely people trying to find some meaning for their existence.

The scene  opens with an elderly woman, Ada, sitting on a park bench eating a takeaway: “One pound twenty for a penn’orth of chips – they want locking up”.  A formidable handbag is gripped tightly across her chest as both shield and weapon, and we can tell her emotions are buttoned up as tightly as her coat. 

The entrance of a whiskery tramp, Tommy, shouting and swearing as he swigs from a bottle, does nothing to improve Ada’s mood.  Despite her rebuffs Tommy seems determined to strike up a conversation, and as the two mismatched pensioners tentatively swap details about their empty lives a fragile bond forms between them. 

The ebullient and energetic David Milne makes Tommy – initially an aggressive and unappealing old wino – into a funny, charming and sympathetic figure.  His uninvited overtures of friendship hide a desperate craving for companionship; he even chats to the local stray dogs.  It’s a shame that his character is underused, lapsing into a sounding board for Ada’s monologue.

Pat Brocklehurst’s authentic local accent and deadpan delivery are perfect for Steve Wood’s warm and amusing northern dialogue, although Ada’s attitudes to decimalisation, cappuccinos and public phone boxes are so out of date I thought she must have been in prison for the last forty years.

Director Laura Vorwerg does an excellent job of making an everyday conversation into a moving drama, and designer Victoria Vernon has magically transformed the basement of Taurus Bar on Canal Street into an autumnal park.  As well as the typical wooden bench and green slatted rubbish bin, there’s a thick carpet of leaves which covers the entire floor.  As the musty smell of leaf-mould perfumes the room and the leaves crackle underfoot you really feel as if you’re in that park with Ada and Tommy.  It’s indicative of the company’s attention to detail that they go beyond mere set decoration to create a sensually immersive experience for their audience.

You’re Never Too Old
Presented by Organised Chaos Productions
Touring to Levenshulme Festival (31 October) and
Smiths Restaurant, Eccles (30 Nov & 1 Dec)
Tickets: £7.50/£5.50 (conc)
Further details from:
Oct 18th

GOOD by C P Taylor at Manchester Royal Exchange

By Caroline May

C P Taylor’s extraordinary 1981 play tries to explain how a harmless German academic finds himself reluctantly caught up in Hitler’s rise to power, and how he unwittingly becomes an instrument in the atrocities at Auschwitz.

John Halder (Adrian Rawlins) is a devoted family man who teaches German literature, hates the Nazis and whose best friend is a Jewish doctor.  In 1933 he can’t believe that the new National Socialist government will be able to implement its outrageous policies.  Meanwhile his home life is disrupted by his needy, neurotic wife and a blind mother with dementia; and at work he’s distracted by an attractive blonde student who can’t see the relevance of Goethe’s Faust. 

John tries to be good but is torn between conflicting interests, not least his own desire for an easier life.  He tries to comfort his Jewish friend Maurice although he won’t help him; he loves his musical wife but abandons her for the charms of the pretty philistine; he wants to help his disabled mother but hasn’t the patience to care for her properly.

John’s sense of chaos is mimicked by inter-cutting, overlapping scenes, by his confidential asides to the audience, and by frequent interruptions from a troupe of invisible singers and musicians.  Jazz standards, operatic arias and religious cantatas pop out at him from drawers, handbags and coffee pots wherever he goes.

Adrian Rawlins’ Professor Halder is a typical rumpled intellectual, weak but well-meaning – however his selfishness and vanity allow him to be seduced firstly by the  lovely young Anne (Beth Park) and later by the Nazis and their smart SS uniform. 

The entire play revolves around John but he risks being overshadowed whenever Kerry Shale’s charismatic, caustic and comical Maurice takes to the stage.  In fact the entire cast excels, with most of them playing several characters as well as a variety of musical instruments.  James Cotterill’s minimalist design allows for fluidity between the scenes, while throwing in Faustian pyrotechnics and a stunning ending that redefines the opening scene.  Polly Findlay’s direction of this strange musical hybrid of Berthold Brecht and Dennis Potter is pacy and well-characterised.

An accomplished production of a fascinating modern classic.

GOOD is on until Saturday 5 November 2011
Prices: £9-£33
Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm
Matinees: Wed @ 2.30, Sat @ 4pm
Box Office: 0161 833 9833
Oct 2nd

All the Way Home - a world premiere by Ayub Khan-Din presented by Manchester Library Theatre at The Lowry

By Caroline May
All The Way Home press pic 25[1].JPG


Families in confined spaces have been a staple of entertainment since the ancient Greeks, and probably before. You, who know far more than I, can effortlessly reel off a dozen stories told in various media about parents, children and blood relatives who, closeted together by circumstance, run drooling audiences through the entire spectrum of emotion before detonating in a non-nuclear finale.

So is this just another theatrical soap? We-e-ll, yes, BUT as Wodehouse said, the treatment is everything. Happily, Ayub Khan-Din gives us some memorable characters, enabling Mark Babych to guide the actors into providing memorable performances.

The production is claustrophobically set in a single room, the ground-floor back of a two-up two-down terrace in less-desirable part of Salford which is being regenerated. We’re reminded of this throughout the performance by the ceiling, which consists simply of a grid of bare beams, as if the house is already part-demolished. Being able to see through the ceiling also keeps in our mind the presence of the dying brother, Frankie, in his room upstairs, as does a baby alarm kept on the kitchen table, the display of which rises and falls with the sounds of his difficult breathing. It’s a little odd, therefore, that the volume on the device is only turned up enough to be audible when a member of the family wishes to make a point about him; the rest of the time it’s silent and ignored. Only one scene takes place elsewhere, half-way up the stairs in an almost-demolished house – a lovely example of a set providing an insight into a character.

This character is Sonia, one of the three sisters in the family, and what one might consider to be the stereotypical Salfordian. Her opening line drew a delighted gasp of shocked laughter from the audience, and is quite unrepeatable here, but it (seemed to have) told us all we needed to know about this feisty woman. But as the play progresses, we come to understand a great deal more about her as she becomes one of the most sympathetic characters. Julie Riley plays her with all the right notes and in the right order; that she wasn’t able to make us laugh and cry within a minute was due more to the length of a speech than her delivery of it. Those better acquainted than I with darker Salford tell me she was too well-spoken and her ‘trackies’ too neat, but correcting this, I suspect, would lessen her dramatic effectiveness.

Her youngest brother, Philip, is particularly close, and this is shown mainly in the background, but most entertainingly; at times, they’re almost a double act. Paul Simpson’s good-natured but educationally sub-normal lad has many excellently-delivered comic moments, notably with a camera, but lacks sufficient gravitas to convince when trying to stand up for or to someone – exactly the difficulty that kind of young disadvantaged man might have. He was clearly an audience favourite.

Another audience favourite was the formidable Auntie Sheila, sister of the siblings’ late mother. Auntie Sheila would like to be the matriarch of the clan and conducts herself as such, but can’t quite pull it off owing to a lack of social skills and a fondness for advocaat; but she has Judith Barker’s expert timing and delivery, and evident experience, to power her attempts to control everyone else. Perhaps, as the run progresses, Auntie Sheila will be able to control Judith Barker’s fondness for a responsive audience. Her daughter, Samantha, was the archetypal wearer of shell-suits, right down to the occasional baby; difficult to play without appearing to nod to Little Britain, but flawlessly achieved by Naomi Radcliffe.

Of course, in an ensemble piece, everyone benefits from a responsive audience, even those whose characters are less vividly drawn. Vital (and I mean vital) contributions come from Susan Cookson and Kate Anthony, the two elder sisters Janet and Carol. Janet is the quiet hub of the family, having given up her life (it seems) to care for Frankie in his final illness. Although the character has much to say in the second act, it’s a challenge to make her anything other than on-stage management in the first, but a challenge which Susan Cookson clearly accepted and overcame, portraying a determinedly caring and tolerant anchor to the tempest-tossed barking of the others. Meanwhile, Kate Anthony as Carol provided a valuable touchstone for those less used to Salford ways, a woman who’s successfully escaped material poverty in bleaker Salford to find emotional poverty in her marital home in comfortable Didsbury village; a realistic but domitable Hyacinth Bucket.

Finally, the little piggy who went to market, and made himself a fortune, is called Brian. In a play where there is so much need for unity within the cast, portraying the brother who is now almost a stranger might be hard to accomplish, yet Sean Gallagher shows us how Brian is torn between concern for his siblings and desire for his new celebrity life – with the pull not being as even as the others would like. Gallagher smoothly delineates his wavering and the emotional confusion he endures, and plays some engaging comedy with Philip as they try to bond after all this time.

So it’s the performances and the production which entertain, while the play underpins them but shows us nothing we didn’t already know. But it has a genuine air, as far as I can tell at least, of the kind of cheeky self-assured arrogance in a Salford scally that appeals to our secret rebel, that desire to be right on our own terms and f**k the authorities. Perhaps this is best shown by the inclusion of Mickey (James Foster, seriously under-used), a character with two lines who’s on stage for perhaps a minute – a distinct impression of a Salfordian snook cocked at arts funding cuts.

There’s much emotion, light and dark, shown in this production, and as an evening’s satisfying entertainment, it cannot be bettered. The destiny of the play itself, however, is less clear. It’s fine as far as it goes, but whether it really does go all the way home remains to be seen.

All the Way Home by Ayub Khan-Din

The Manchester Library Theatre Company
at The Lowry, Salford Quays until 15th October

Eves: Mon-Sat @ 7.15pm
Matinees: Sats & Thurs 13 @ 2.30pm
Tickets: £12-£19.50 (booking fees may apply)
0843 208 6000 or
Sep 25th

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Bolton Octagon

By Caroline May

I know for a fact that I’m not the only northern theatre-goer who was so peeved at missing Kevin Spacey’s Richard III at the Old Vic that she went to see him in Horrible Bosses at the cinema as some kind of consolation prize (which it wasn’t).

Well, there are occasional causes for theatrical rejoicing north of the Watford Gap, and this in-the-round production of Edward Albee’s caustic drama is one of them.

Set on the campus of a small American college, the famously booze-fuelled shenanigans of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? take place in the middle of the night after a faculty party.  Although this is New Carthage, the goings-on are straight out of Ancient Rome.  And the classic Greek dramatists would certainly have approved of the preservation of the unities of time and place, as two apparently smug and prosperous middle-class marriages are torn apart in a suburban living-room over the space of three hours.

George Irving gives a subtle and under-stated reading of the hen-pecked cuckold, also named George.  He shambles around like a stooped and bewildered pensioner, but when he lets his mask slip, and we see the look of amused self-satisfaction on his face as he manipulates and tests the other characters, we realise he is as scheming and controlling as any crook-backed Plantagenet king.  And his symbolic click of the fingers as he casually kills a number of inconvenient off-stage characters illuminates aspects of the play I’d never noticed before.

Octagon regular Kieran Hill is fresh-faced and naïve as Nick, the new biology lecturer, but I missed the sense of the power in the room shifting  when he challenges George in Act 2.  However I loved Tammy Joelle as Honey, Nick’s infantile little wifey, whose quiet descent into drunken existentialism is done with absolute truth and conviction.

Margot Leicester is brave and exposed, in all senses of the word, as the gin-soaked, barely-dressed Martha.  With her lack of vanity, and a surprising absence of malice, she makes Albee’s iconic character less of a monster and more of a disappointed wife than usual.  This is the third time George Irving and Margot Leicester have teamed up at the Octagon and this is their best outing yet, as his mastery of Albee’s speech patterns and her extreme naturalism exploit the text’s potential to the full.

Mick Hughes’s lighting is surprisingly bright, as if the house were trying to push back the boundaries of the night.  As a result the audience is partially illuminated and becomes drawn into the action - an alarming experience when you’re already so close to these social atrocities.

Patrick Connellan’s recreation of a Sixties living room is nicely done and, more importantly, unobtrusive.  I loved the sly touch that although George’s bar is well-stocked with bottles, decanters, glasses and ice, it doesn’t include a single mixer; not even a soda siphon.

Director David Thacker hasn’t gone for a conventionally grandstanding, over-the-top reading of the play, but he uses the intimacy of the Octagon’s main stage to mine the work’s oppressive limitations and show its subtleties in detail.  It’s also very, very funny.

With a true classic of the drama, a magnificent cast on top form, and a first-class production like this, who needs the West End?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 15 October 2011
Tickets: from £9.50
Performances Mon-Sat
Eves @ 7.30
Matinees @ 2pm
Box Office: 01204 520661
Sep 13th

Marlowe's Edward II at Manchester Royal Exchange

By Caroline May

After the death of his overbearing father, Edward, Prince of Wales ascends the English throne, intending to be a very different kind of king.  But his obsessive love for a commoner upsets the status quo and eventually leads to the loss of his crown. 

Tales of the Royal Family’s doomed passions seem to be flavour of the month, with Madonna’s cinematic take on Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson premiering at the Venice Film Festival, and now Marlowe’s Edward II opening at Manchester Royal Exchange.  Although both works feature flamboyant, spendthrift monarchs who don’t mind flying in the face of public opinion, the main difference between the two versions is that Edward II’s paramour is a man. 

The film received a critical drubbing, but I can’t believe it is as turgid as the play.  Anyone who thinks Shakespeare and Marlowe are the same person needs to have a serious word with themselves. 

Director Toby Frow threw every conceivable theatrical device at his production of Dr Faustus last autumn, but his decision to go for post-war austerity this time merely results in an off-stage jazz band, wine bottles with candles stuck in their necks, and a handful of leather jackets: hardly indicative of a court revelling in vice, luxury and unbridled sensuality.  Chris New was witty, cynical and satirical as Joe Orton in the stage version of Prick Up Your Ears, but seems less enthusiastic about Edward’s moral turpitude.

What Edward II requires is some daring choices, as Marlowe’s colourless characters are mainly mouthpieces delivering exposition.  Certainly a fine troupe of actors play the clique of peers credibly, and the crowd scenes have a real feeling of the Establishment en masse, but as individuals there is nothing to distinguish one from another.

Only Samuel Collings’ creepy Lightborn – neat and almost camp in his linen suit and panama hat, yet as cold and controlled as the assassin he is – injects any emotion into the play, and by then it’s all over.

Edward II is on until Saturday 8 October 2011
Prices £9-£33
Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm
Matinees: Wed @ 2.30, Sat @ 4pm
Box Office: 0161 833 9833