Bury Fair

Bury Fair is a play by Thomas Shadwell, a raucous Restoration comedy dating from 1689. This new version by John Baxter (who also directs) was performed by students at LAMDA; as part of the ‘LAMDA At Large’ programme the performance took place at POSK, the Polish Social and Cultural Association, in Hammersmith.

The play is set at the time of the Bury Fair in Bury St Edmunds, a town Shadwell, a former Poet Laureate, clearly knew well as he was educated at Bury St Edmunds School. It is a satire involving a young woman disguised as a boy, another woman frustrated with her stepmother, a pair of friends and love rivals, and a scam involving a tailor disguised as a French count.

The play is often very funny and the young cast give strong performances, but the whole thing moves on at such a breathless pace that I was a bit overwhelmed. Still, it’s an amusing glimpse into the Restoration theatre world.

Travesties

The revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1974 play Travesties (directed by Patrick Marber) has transferred to the West End, which is good news for me as I couldn’t afford to pay Menier prices. The Apollo Theatre is small but has a bigger capacity than the Menier, and although I did end up squeezed into a Dress Circle seat with extremely limited legroom, at least I didn’t pay a fortune for it.

How to describe Travesties? Set in Zurich in 1917, it blends World War I, James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, Lenin, and Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest in a rich tapestry of humour, farce and general surrealism.

On a stage covered with pieces of paper, Tom Hollander as Henry Carr has a commanding presence, both as the elderly man looking back on his past and as the self-important official who is relegated to the sidelines as history happens all around him. Freddie Fox, Peter McDonald and Forbes Mason are also excellent as Tzara, Joyce and Lenin, as areĀ Amy Morgan andĀ Clare Foster as Gwendolen and Cecily.

You do have to pay attention, but it would be unfair to say you have to have knowledge of the historical events and cultural figures to get the most out of this play. I am familiar with The Importance of Being Earnest which helped, but I’d never heard of Dadaism before I saw this play. If anything, it’s made me want to go and find out more about the people concerned – which makes it a success in my book.

I think this story would work particularly well as a novel, but as a piece of theatre, it’s funny but also poignant: I don’t want to reveal too much but Henry Carr is not necessarily who he seems. Travesties is certainly a play worth seeing.

The Philanthropist

When The Philanthropist was first announced, I was interested because of the cast. Simon Bird from The Inbetweeners, Matt Berry, Lily Cole, Tom Rosenthal and Charlotte Richie sounded like an impressive list. It is directed by Simon Callow, too, not exactly a stranger to the stage.

Christopher Hampton’s 1971 play, set in a university during that period, opens with a shocking first scene that – unfortunately for the rest of the play – is the best thing about it. From then on, nothing else is quite as exciting. The play is concerned with Philip (Simon Bird, who shines in the role), an awkward but likeable academic who is supposed to be engaged to Celia (Charlotte Richie), but whose plans are scuppered when Araminta (Lily Cole) sets her sights on him.

If you can get past the sexism and the cod psychology, there are some genuinely funny moments in The Philanthropist, but it has too many flaws to really allow me to warm to it. Matt Berry, who I do like as an actor on TV, seems awkward and subdued during his scene, and one actor, playing the unfortunate Liz, doesn’t have anything to say at all. A background subplot concerning a terrorist attack on Members of Parliament seems confusing, pointless and also in rather bad taste.

The title of the play confused me, possibly as my understanding of a philanthropist is someone who gives large amounts of money to charity. It is, however, meant to refer to Philip, whose philanthropy is more moral, a nod by Christopher Hampton to Moliere’s The Misanthrope.

Sometimes, I am reminded that a starry cast does not necessarily make a play worth watching. Sadly, that is the case here. In better news, the second entrance into the auditorium at the Trafalgar Studios (next to the first few rows) has been reinstated – meaning a lot less pressure on the upstairs toilets. Hey, these things are important.

La Gioconda

Ages ago, I was wandering around Waterloo when I saw an advert for the Midsummer Opera company, who were going to be performing a couple of operas in the nearby St John’s Church. I made a note of this and booked to see La Gioconda, which I hadn’t seen before.

La Gioconda is an 1876 opera by Amilcare Ponchielli set to a libretto by Arrigo Boito, based on a play by Victor Hugo. It has a complicated plot based around a woman, Gioconda, who is in love with the nobleman Enzo, but puts aside her own feelings in favour of her love rival Laura after she saves her mother’s life.

Stupidly, it didn’t occur to me that the opera would naturally be sung in its original language, Italian, and unlike at the Royal Opera House, there would be no surtitles. Frankly, I had no idea what was going on half the time. Having said that, there was enough to keep me interested. The performers sung beautifully, and I particularly loved the chorus, who were full of energy and vitality. I enjoyed the music and even recognised a couple of the melodies; from where I have no idea.

I do wish I’d known before going in that the opera was going to last four hours (including two intervals), as I was absolutely starving by the time I left. The venue was beautiful, an elegant Georgian building, but I wish those involved in the prepration had managed to find some chairs that didn’t squeak. Still, you can’t have everything.

A Man for All Seasons

A Man for All Seasons is a 1960 play adapted by playwright Robert Bolt from his earlier radio play. It was later made into an Oscar-winning movie. I’ve actually been curious about this play for years, ever since my history teacher mentioned it during A Level History (we were studying the Tudors). Recently, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have offered a different interpretation of similar events, so I was even more interested in seeing this play.

The work is about Sir Thomas More, the lawyer and statesman executed for refusing to support Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Bolt’s More is a man of faith and principle, with a lawyer’s sharp mind and a shrewd ability to size up the situation. His personality is contrasted with the complacent, satisfied Cardinal Wolsey, and the slippery and unprincipled Thomas Cromwell – very different from Mantel’s later portrayal.

This production by the Mitre Players in Croydon is ostensibly an amateur one but compares very favourably with many professional productions I have seen. Warwick Jones is particularly superb as More, while Paul Grace is also impressive as the ‘Common Man’ who in the guise of various servants, innkeepers and gaolers offers a running commentary on events. I’m glad I finally got a chance to see this play, and pleased that it was in such a good production.

Peter and The Wolf

Streatham Hill Theatre have put on an unusual kind of show for Easter – a panto. Based on Prokovief’s Peter and The Wolf, the show has many elements of Russian folklore, including a wood demon, a firebird, an ice queen, Cossacks and Bolsheviks, and even a mad monk called Disputin. Not forgetting a pre-interval dance to Boney M’s ‘Rasputin’.

The show, which followed Peter Pyotrovich’s search for the wolf supposedly terrifying the village, was amusing if a tad too long. It felt strange to be seeing a pantomime in the springtime, but the setting – the theatre at the British Home in Streatham – was a good one.

Nunsense: The Mega-Musical Version

The original Nunsense (1985) is a musical comedy with a book, music, and lyrics by Dan Goggin. A new version named Nunsense: The MegaMusical Version is a remake of the original featuring additional songs, lines, and characters, performed by CADOS based at Mornington Hall in Chingford.

The musical is staged by a group of sisters from the Little Sisters of Hoboken nunnery. The rest of the nuns have died of botulism after being served soup prepared by a less-than-competent cook, and four of them still need to be buried – so the Mother Superior and the surviving nuns have set up a talent show to raise the money.

The show was pretty much as bizarre as it sounds. One of the songs involved the nuns explaining how they were formed: they worked in a leper colony near France but had to leave after some of the nuns developed leprosy. There are dance routines, Broadway-style musical numbers, puppetry and even an audience quiz. The nuns include Sister Mary Amnesia, who lost her memory when a crucifix fell on her head; Sister Mary Leo, who hopes to become the world’s first ballerina nun; Mother Superior Mary Regina, a former circus performer; and her second-in-command, Sister Mary Hubert. The performers were strong, although the sound meant that it was sometimes difficult to hear some of the lyrics. I liked the catchy songs and enjoyed the various Broadway parodies.

Full of more nun-based jokes than you can shake a stick at, Nunsense is highly amusing and well worth seeing if you can.