An Ideal Husband

It seems like a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest comes along every five minutes; I really wish someone would put on a professional revival of one of his other plays. In the meantime, I need to rely on amateur dramatic groups for my Wilde fix. Charm Offensive’s Acting Gymnasium is presenting a three-play season at Theatro Technis in north London, and I attended a performance of An Ideal Husband.

This play tackles themes of blackmail and corruption, honour and morality, as Sir Robert Chiltern is blackmailed by Mrs Cheveley for something he did several years ago. While it sparkles with Wilde’s wit, it sees the amusing playwright in a more serious mood, asking whether it is appropriate to castigate someone for a mistake they made in the past. I would love to see a professional production of this play.

Still, this amateur production, adapted and directed by Gavin McAlinden, was an enjoyable one. Slightly overshadowed at the beginning by the too-loud music playing, distractingly, throughout the first act, it gave a positive impression overall with well-drawn characters and plenty of laughs. I was particularly impressed by the actors playing Lord Goring and Miss Mabel Chiltern, whose courtship provides a lighter subplot, but the protagonists did a good job too. If you would like to see this rarely-seen Wilde play, you could do worse than this production.

Creditors

You don’t see any Strindberg for ages, then two come along at once. I went to the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre to see Creditors, a short play adapted by Neil Smith from Strindberg’s original. It is set in a hotel room in the midst of riots as Adolph (Tice Oakfield), an artist, awaits the return of his wife, Tekla (Rachel Heaton), a novelist. As he waits, another character, Gustav (Paul Trussell), stands by and encourages him – but is he all he seems?

The small space of the Jack is ideally suited for this tense and claustrophobic play. There is a sense that something is not quite right: Gustav’s motives are questionable and Adolph is clearly mentally unwell. The characters are all flawed, and well drawn, Tekla’s in particular: her relationship with Adolph is fascinating.

The play could be seen as a modern-day revenge tragedy, as a calm start hurtles to a powerful and tragic conclusion. Exploring the relationships between men and women in a similar way to The Father, which I saw the night before, it is a powerful piece which delivers a strong impact.

The Father

August Strindberg’s 1887 drama The Father comes to the smaller of the Trafalgar Studios in a new production by Laurie Slade, directed by Abbey Wright. Shortened to an hour and forty minutes, it is an intense experience, but a worthwhile one.

Since one of the major issues explored in the play is paternity, it makes sense that this production keeps the original 19th century setting, as a modern-day version would beg the question “why doesn’t he just get a paternity test?” Having said that, I found the 20th-century blues songs playing in between scenes to be incongruous given the setting.

We are introduced to Adolf (Alex Ferns), an army captain, as he chastises (albeit in an indulgent fashion) a young soldier who is supposed to have got a girl pregnant. The soldier raises the point that no one can prove he is the father, so he shouldn’t have to support the child. Later, this theory is twisted by Adolf’s wife Laura (Emily Dobbs): at loggerheads with her husband over the future of their daughter, she proceeds to sow doubt in his mind that he is in fact the father, claiming that if this is the case then he doesn’t have any rights over the child.

The battle between the husband and wife is ugly and unpleasant: I found myself wanting both to put their feelings to one side and ask their daughter what she wants for herself, rather than trying to score points. For all that, I sympathised more with Adolf: he wants his child to get an education, unlike her mother who wants her to stay at home and her grandmother who is a firm believer in spiritualism. As Laura builds up her attack, maintaining that her husband is going mad and taking steps to have him sectioned, I found it impossible not to feel for him.

And yet, Strindberg’s play isn’t as straightforward as all that, suggesting that Laura is the way she is at least partly because she has been kept down by her husband for so long. The play looks at the role of men and women in a patriarchal society in a way I find particularly relevant to the present day.

This production isn’t perfect, but it made an impression on me, and I would be interested in seeing more of Strindberg’s work. Funny I should say that…

Harvey

This seems to be my week for seeing shows that were made into famous films that I’ve never got round to watching. This time it’s the turn of Harvey, Mary Chase’s 1944 Pulitzer Prize-winner that was made into a 1950 film starring James Stewart. It’s probably just as well I’ve never seen the film, as I’m sure no star actor could live up to Stewart. Seen on its own terms, I did enjoy the play, which I saw thanks to Official Theatre.

Socialite Veta and her daughter Myrtle May are reluctant to entertain guests at their lavish home in case any of them run into Veta’s brother, Elwood P. Dowd. Affable and charming, Dowd has just one, rather large, problem – he is friends with a giant (six feet, three-and-a-half inches) rabbit named Harvey, and has a propensity to introduce his invisible friend to unsuspecting guests. At the end of her tether, Veta finally decides that her brother must be locked up, but when she tries to explain things to the sanatorium doctor he decides that she is the one who needs treatment. Cue a frantic chase around town as the head doctor and his assistants try to find Dowd, who has wandered off along with Harvey.

Directed by Lindsay Posner, with a lavish and beautifully designed set by Peter McKintosh, the play exudes period charm and there is never any real sense of threat. Apparently Chase wrote the play to calm and reassure audiences in the shadow of the Second World War, but I couldn’t help thinking that there was a much darker play here waiting to get out (something like Donnie Darko perhaps?) Nevertheless, taken on its own terms it is an appealing piece.

James Dreyfus plays Elwood P. Dowd with charm and appeal. He invests the character with warmth and an interest in everyone around him. Seeming perfectly “normal” except for the business of the invisible rabbit, his character has a relaxed approach to life that the other characters could learn from (and many of them do). Maureen Lipman displays bite and excellent comic timing in her role as Veta, combining a selfish preoccupation for her social standing with genuine concern for her troubled brother. Ingrid Oliver is also good in her role as the less likeable Myrtle May: like Veta she is worried about her social position, but unlike her she shows no real concern for her uncle’s welfare. There are strong performances too from David Bamber as the head doctor, Chumney, Jack Hawkins as his junior, Sanderson, and Sally Scott as nurse Ruth Kelly.

I thought that some parts of the play were a little slow, but other scenes upped the pace and were very funny. Overall, while Harvey does not break new ground or revolutionise theatre, it’s a gentle, warm play with strong performances which is well worth seeing.

Insights: The Royal Ballet in Rehearsal

Not so much a review, as an observation. The Royal Opera House operates an “Insights” programme allowing audience members a backstage glimpse into the work needed to put on their magnificent productions. These are usually held in the Clore Studio Upstairs. I attended a Royal Ballet in Rehearsal insight and was able to watch dancers Luca Acri and Tristan Dyer rehearse Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée, under the expert oversight of Christopher Carr, Guest Principal Ballet Master. Having only ever seen fully-rehearsed, movement-perfect dancers on stage, it was fascinating to see how they learn new steps and I was left with an even greater respect for their ability and hard work. Also, after spending an hour watching the rehearsal and listening to Ferdinand Herold’s music, I decided that I just had to go and book a La Fille mal gardée ticket.

The Sound of Music

Confession: I’ve never seen the film The Sound of Music. Appalling, I know: the lady sitting next to me when I saw this new touring stage production in Wimbledon couldn’t believe it either. This boded well for the show, since I would have nothing to compare it to; but it was so good that I am sure I would have loved it even with an acclaimed film as a point of comparison. Certainly everyone around me – most of whom would, I am sure, have been familiar with the movie – cheered loudly in appreciation at the end.

Central to the show is the cheerful and optimistic novice nun Maria Rainer, played here by Danielle Hope. Hope is perfect for the part: friendly, appealing, full of personality and with a gorgeous singing voice. The scene in which Maria bursts in front of the audience singing “The Sound of Music” has been much copied and parodied over the years, but performed by Hope it feels completely fresh, stirring and powerful. My only slight criticism is that her speech is a little over-enunciated, however in this case it only serves to add to Maria’s charm.

Hope is aided by a capable cast: Jan Hartley as the kind-hearted Mother Superior, whose rendition of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” is soaring and beautiful, and Stephen Houghton as Captain Von Trapp, the ex-naval man whose children Maria is sent to look after and with whom she falls in love. The seven Von Trapp children deserve praise too, working brilliantly together as a team and displaying their own different personalities.

The story, which sees would-be nun Maria sent away from her Austrian convent as a governess to decide if a nun’s reclusive life is really for her (hint: it’s not), only to fall in love with the father of the children she cares for and, with her new family, cope with the growing Nazi threat, is richer and more layered than many musicals, and still resonates with audiences today. Memorable songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein decorate the piece like jewels in the beautiful Austrian setting. Even though I’d never seen the film, I was familiar with many of the songs.

Despite being a touring production, I thought the set was fairly impressive, showcasing the lavishness of the Von Trapps’ home, the beauty of the convent and the grandeur of the mountains. The orchestra sounded pretty amazing, too.

Whether you’re a fan of the movie, or new to the story, The Sound of Music is a must see – a fantastic production that’s memorable, powerful and moving.

The Chair

The Chair is officially a children’s show, currently playing at the Unicorn Theatre’s smaller Clore auditorium, but that’s never stopped me before, and in any case, I attended the Saturday evening performance designed for adults (although there were still several children in the audience). Written and directed by Lewis Gibson, it is about a barber who proceeds to tell us stories about his life.

The Clore space has been redesigned so that audience members enter down a narrow corridor, ducking under a wooden sign to enter the auditorium which is laid out with ramshackle chairs and benches. In one corner, beneath a mirror, barber O.D. Sawyer (a charismatic Gary Lagden) is performing a discomfiting tooth extraction on his assistant Lars (Christopher Preece). Once the audience is seated, he begins to tell his stories.

Sawyer’s tales were magical, compelling and frightening – some of the children were genuinely spooked, while the adults were drawn into the performance too. Every now and then a child was selected from the audience to perform some task or sit in the barber’s chair, and I thought that the piece struck just the right note between lighthearted and scary. Having said that, I would certainly be interested in a much darker, adults-only version of the show.

The effects are ingenious and music is used to great effect. All in all, I enjoyed this show very much – another cross-generational hit from the Unicorn.