I’m moving…

The sweetbowl of life!A quick post to say that I won’t be maintaining this blog for the foreseeable future.

I’ve decided to combine all my interests under one particularly brightly patterned umbrella, and you can now find me at my new home on the web, Curious Pathways.

I will still talk about theatre, but I’ll be mixing it up with other curious and creative pursuits. The general aim is to reawaken the sheer joy of exploring, and open up minds and hearts to new pathways and fresh ideas.

I’d love you to drop by and pay me a visit in my new virtual home – maybe you’d even like to ‘follow’ me there…

If we part ways, I wish you all the best in your travels on the web, and hope that you remain curious throughout your life.

Onwards and upwards!

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Fancy a brew?

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Grove Park TheatreThis coming Saturday I’ve volunteered to run the Grove Park Theatre coffee morning. It’s been taking place for years now and is a bit of an institution! It offers a space for GPT members and the general public to get together over a hot beverage to chat about all things theatrical. Or anything, really.

I used to help out a lot when I was Catering Manager (many moons ago), but I’ve taken a back seat recently – after all, what working person doesn’t like their lie-in on a weekend? But our current Catering Manager, quite rightly, doesn’t want to turn up every week herself; we’re a voluntary society, so we do like to see people volunteer for the odd thing. And so a list remains pinned to the noticeboard for like-minded, helpful souls to tick and commit to doing the odd Saturday. And this week it’s my turn…

Coffee morning takes place in the Theatre’s lounge bar and is open from 10.30am to 12.30pm every Saturday. This coincides with Box Office opening times, so anyone coming in to buy tickets can pop upstairs and grab a quick drink to tide them over before heading back to the shops. Our brews are nothing fancy, but a lot cheaper than some of the chain coffee bars that proliferate in the town. Not to mention there’s the kind of small, friendly vibe you just don’t get in large corporate spaces…

So, what’s on offer? We serve:

  • Filter coffee – quite strong, which suits those like myself who need a good caffeine fix in the morning – but if you prefer something with a little less ‘zing’, we can water it down for you.
  • Tea – basic black tea and a varying selection of herbal/fruit teas.
  • Hot chocolate – at least, I think we do – I’ll check on Saturday!
  • A selection of biscuits and cereal bars.

All coffee and biscuits are Fairtrade, and I’m conscious of my own ignorance that I don’t know whether the tea is too. There’s clearly a lot for me to remember, but I hope that when I hop back into the kitchen on Saturday it will all come flooding back. Cups are one size only (no fancy sounding variations that make you wonder what a ‘large’ is… they’re all large!), and current prices are £1.20 for coffee and 70p for tea. As I said, basic – but sometimes basic is just what you need.

(On a side note, I’d love us to start getting a bit more specialist produce in – maybe some local treats or new Fairtrade varieties. So I’m going to have a nosy around a few outlets and see if I can source anything particularly tasty that will go well with a morning cuppa. Drop me a line in the comments below if you know of something you’d like to see!)

If you’re not a member of the Theatre, don’t feel put off! The coffee mornings provide an excellent way to come along and find out a bit more about what we do. The Membership Secretary often meets new faces there, to show them around and give them an introduction to the people, the departments and the facilities – and there’s usually a good crowd of existing members there for newbies to meet and chat with. It’s certainly a different way to spend your Saturday morning.

So, this weekend sees me getting my (metaphorical) apron on, brewing that coffee and nibbling those biscuits. Will I see you there?

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

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Little VoiceHaving ultimately rejoined Grove Park Theatre for its new season, I thought I’d go along and enjoy its barnstormer of an opening: The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, by Jim Cartwright.

Many people will remember the film starring Jane Horrocks as the titular LV, with stellar support from Brenda Blethyn, Michael Caine et al. It’s sometimes difficult to imagine an alternative performer in a role that has been so undeniably ‘owned’ by a particular star. The prospect of an ‘am dram’ version of this show, which demands not just garden-variety acting but a tour de force of musical mimicry, might make people a little nervous. However, this is unfounded. Just because amateur performers aren’t being paid doesn’t mean they can’t perform.

The particular musical requirements of Little Voice mean that a predominantly ‘straight drama’ society is likely to have to look further than its existing members if it wants a choice of actors for the lead role. I don’t know how many people auditioned for Grove Park’s production, but I can only imagine the search was a tough one: not only does the actor playing LV need to impersonate a multitude of singers’ voices, she also needs to explode into action at the end of the play as LV finally tells her mother what she thinks of her. The shift from quiet mousy girl, who only comes alive when singing, to impassioned, feeling, hurting, SHOUTING daughter has to be convincing – and in Grove Park’s production, Anna Turner simply redefined this moment for me.

I’m actually welling up just remembering this scene. At the time I was sitting there hoping no-one would notice my glistening eyes – but of course they didn’t; they were entirely gripped by what was happening on stage. ‘Wow’, my companion said to me afterwards. ‘Wow’ was about all I could say in return. It was incredible, and Andrew Maskall must be congratulated on his direction in bringing out the true power and passion in this scene.

The supporting cast had less opportunity for scene-stealing, but they still gave it their all. Jackie Ashworth as Mari Hoff was a revelation. I’d previously appeared with Jackie in Ladies Day and Ladies Down Under, where my character Shelley was the loud, brash one opposite Jackie’s more considered Pearl. After experiencing Little Voice we both agreed that Mari was Shelley’s ‘spiritual’ mother! (Or, perhaps, where Shelley would have ended up if she hadn’t met that bloke in the outback…)

Everyone played their parts perfectly; it was real teamwork. But if I can pick out just one character that touched me, possibly even more than LV herself, it would be Sadie. Sadie says very little (usually ‘OK’), and is insulted, brow-beaten and treated like a skivvy by Mari – but she appears to be the one character in the show, apart from Billy, who genuinely cares for LV. Not enough, obviously, to stand up to Mari, but enough to put LV to bed, to stroke her hair, and to keep her company (in blessed quiet) while she sobs. She also appears to be the only one who is genuinely, emotionally captivated by LV’s voice rather than seeing it as simply a talent – or a curse. So a big ‘hats off’ to Steph Phillips for portraying her so sensitively. Really lovely stuff.

If I have one tiny criticism of the production, it would be that Andrew does have a tendency to go overboard on costumes. Whether it’s the adult-film nature of some of the garb in Dracula, or the raiding-the-panto-wardrobe quality of Mari’s clothing in Little Voice… please, Andrew, you can afford to tone it down a bit. I don’t need a giant golden puffball senior-chorus skirt to tell me that Mari Hoff is a an aging, raging slapper; the quality of the acting will do that. We don’t need a sartorial signpost quite that dramatic. Have faith in your actors, and your faith will be rewarded.

So there we have it. At time of writing there are still two shows left to go, although I would be surprised if there are any tickets left. But if you can squeeze in a visit, you will not come away disappointed. Well done all.

Should I stay or should I go?

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Curtain starsIt’s the start of a new season at Grove Park Theatre, and I’m beginning to wonder what I’m really doing there. Don’t get me wrong, I love acting and all things theatre – I just haven’t spent much time in ‘am dram’ land recently and I’m wondering why.

My loosening of engagement started about three years ago when I took a job that was based a bit further away from home – up on the Wirral – and I found I had less energy for anything outside of working hours. All I felt like doing when I got home was opening a bottle of wine, cooking something nice to eat, and curling up on the sofa in front of the TV.

When I left this job it was to go to another one even further away – in Macclesfield. Better money, better management… but a crazy commute (three hours daily). Which didn’t exactly make it easier for me to pick up where I’d left off with the amateur dramatics; I was lucky if I had the energy to even cook most nights.

But eventually this mad life got too much for me and I quit. For the past year and a half I’ve been freelancing, working from home – which means I’ve suddenly got masses more time for extra-curricular activities, right?

Wrong.

For a start, I’ve had to concentrate my mental energies on earning a living. This means that, although I’ve theoretically had more time to spend on what I find enjoyable, there’s also been the awareness that any time spent on something that doesn’t draw in the pennies is time badly spent. So, while I could have been spending every waking non-working moment at the theatre, in reality every waking moment is potentially a working moment – so ‘gallivanting’ on something for fun seems indulgent, to say the least.

But it’s not that I haven’t tried. I’ve auditioned for four plays over the past year or so, and not got a part in a single one. Admittedly, one of these I withdrew from before the end of the audition process, but that still leaves three plays I’ve been unsuccessful with.

Now, because of the reasons earlier in this post, I’ve generally not been too distraught by any of this. I’m looking to create a life that I really love rather than just one that pays the bills, and theatre isn’t the only love in my life. I’m starting to engage with writing again, for instance (hence this blog!). But there is still that hankering for the dramatic, on stage and backstage. It has a certain magic to it that, once tasted, is difficult to give up.

My particular problem right now is that I feel like an outsider, because I’ve not been around very much recently. And feeling like an outsider makes it extra hard work to integrate myself into the group – because it’s not just about productions, it’s about the social life too. When you’re an introvert like me, that’s not an easy job at the best of times; and when you’re not an ‘insider’, navigating those waters is well nigh impossible.

Unlike many people, I’ve found I’m not good at socialising for the sake of socialising; I have to have a reason to be there. And acting is my main raison d’être when it comes to theatre. If I can’t get cast in a play, I’m not going to be around much, and if I’m not around much… well, the vicious cycle of exclusion continues and saps my energy in the process.

So this summer has been decision time for me. Do I continue to try and engage with this group, or do I accept that my life has moved on, cut my losses, and focus on other activities?

I’ve decided to give it one more year. I’ll audition for a few more plays, see what happens, and if I’m still no closer to getting on stage by the end of the season, I’ll consider bowing out gracefully. I’m also going to help out a bit more in one backstage area – catering. This includes interval coffee, Saturday coffee mornings, and last-night food for productions. If I can get some momentum going backstage, this may make up for not being able to perform – or at the very least, it may help me ease myself back into the life of this society. And then I’ll be in a better position to decide whether it’s where I really want to be.

The season is a new one, and there is everything to play for. Bring it on!

The joy of auditions

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Stage lightsAh, auditions. Who doesn’t love auditions? Those wonderful summer evenings when you could be out in a beer garden somewhere, sipping a chilled glass of your favourite refreshing beverage, but you’d so much rather be stuck in a darkened room with 10 other sweaty bodies, all competing over the same parts and yet on the surface trying to be oh-so-nice and devil-may-care about it. ‘Me? Oh, I just thought I’d give it a go! Only just decided, really. Nooooo, I haven’t been psyching myself up for this since it was announced, not a bit, not a bit…’

Or maybe you really, genuinely weren’t thinking about it, you just fancied a night out doing something different, as it’s raining and there’s nothing on the telly, you’re really not that bothered if you don’t get the part UNTIL YOU DON’T GET THE PART >:-|

Well, you are not alone. After an unsuccessful audition for Calendar Girls (concluding next week at Grove Park Theatre),* I started thinking about some of the weird and wonderful excuses (ahem, sorry, ‘reasons’) I’ve been given over the years for not being cast in plays. No-one’s ever actually bitten the bullet and told me it’s because I’m rubbish, so it does make me scratch my little fluffy head and wonder how many other factors are at play when it comes to casting. Ooh, it’s a complicated business, this directing lark, and no mistake.

I then realised that I couldn’t possibly be the only person in the world on the receiving end of such creative knock-backs. There are dozens of ‘am dram’ groups out there, all presumably going through the same agonising decisions and hard choices, the poor darlings. There must be, I figured, others with similar stories to tell… And so I opened up this question to a selection of ‘am drammers’ outside my own group. By crikey! I wasn’t quite prepared for what I got. While many of the themes are common, there are some real stonkers in there that make me feel I’ve perhaps got off fairly easily so far :-S

So read on for our (tall) tales from the audition room. Sometimes whimsical, sometimes shocking, always begging the question ‘is it really so hard to tell me I just wasn’t up to it?’, I hope you will feel that you are amongst kindred spirits here. And if you have any stories of your own to add, please share them in the comments below.

Names have been removed to protect the innocent – or guilty…

You are too well spoken; it would make the others sound bad

[‘for Private Lives‘]

You have flat Northern vowels

[‘told by a man whose lip curled as he said it, so I gave him an example of a flat Northern vowel as my parting shot’]

You could be the best person at the audition, but if, when I close my eyes, your voice doesn’t fit, I won’t cast you

You’re too young

[‘to a 24-year old actor auditioning for the role of a 24-year old’]

You would make the person you’d be cast against look too young

Your voice is too big

[‘at primary school and desperate to be Mary in the Nativity; Mary didn’t have dialogue’]

We were looking for someone a little more naive

[‘I was 19’]

You are too tall – and we really wanted a boy

You could do it standing on your head, but we wanted to give someone else a chance

[‘said person had been in three times as many productions as I had in the past year’]

You’re already a member of this society, so we’ll give your non-member friend the part so they’ll join, and we know you’ll sell the programmes anyway

I can’t quite see you as… [character]

[‘despite my checking out other actresses who’d played the role previously and finding reasonable similarities’]

You have a voice for the professional stage, but it doesn’t work for the subtlety of this amateur production

You were the best person at the audition, but once I’d cast [actress]’s husband in the opposite part, she was just a better fit

[‘they both then dropped out and I was approached to take over; being the sad, stage-hungry whore that I am, I accepted’]

And, to end on, an absolute barnstormer:

Dunno

Enjoy 🙂

* You know the weather we’re having? And you remember that beer garden I mentioned? WELL, WHO’S LAUGHING NOW, SUCKERS?!

Lovers

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LoversAfter prompting for several rehearsals of Lovers with Grove Park Theatre, I finally got to see it in full ‘performance’ mode on the last night of its run. Despite having seen it through its rehearsal stages – I am sure other prompters will agree with me – seeing it with full lights and sound, a darkened auditorium and an attentive audience is an entirely different experience. I was very impressed – and proud.

The decision had been taken not to have a prompter for the performances, leaving it up to the actors to get themselves (and each other) out of any sticky situations that might arise. I have to say, despite being familiar with the text, that although I was aware that the odd passage wasn’t quite as per the script, this would not have been noticeable to anyone with no prior knowledge of the work. The scenes and monologues moved slickly along, building the emotion and carrying the audience along with the individual storylines to their inevitable conclusions. A huge tip of the hat to all concerned.

One thing I need to mention here is the review of the play on Wrexham.com. Whilst it was essentially a positive review, I can’t help feeling that the reviewer entirely misses the point of the differences between the two mini-plays. He states that the second piece, Losers, is ‘more uplifting’ than Winners, purely (it seems) on the basis that – spoiler alert – the characters do not die and there are comic scenes.

Whilst it is true that, in Winners, the characters come to a sad end, I believe they are deemed to be the ‘Winners’ precisely because they have been saved, by death, from a fate worse than death; that is, each being gradually stifled by the other from becoming what they really want and need to be. He desperately wants to study to become a maths teacher, but is trapped and prevented from following his dream by the immediate need to be the breadwinner; she needs someone who can willingly engage with her chatter and her need for company, comfort and sociability, but risks driving him away with her neediness. Their life values are not shared.

The ‘Losers’, while they do survive the action of the play, can only foresee a future where they are trapped in their own unhappiness, unable to escape the situation they so desperately pursued at the beginning. He is sidelined and practically outcast in a home that isn’t even his own; she has turned from enthusiastic lover into naggy duplicate of her infuriating mother; we know by the end of the play that they do not even sleep together any more. As Hanna says, ‘Sure, nobody goes through life singing all the time.’ The truth of her words, despite the initial hope, by the end of the play rings depressingly clear.

There will of course be debate between those who feel that death is worse than an unhappy life, and those who believe the opposite. Maybe I am wrong in my interpretation, and Friel intended the titles of the mini-plays to be ironic. One of the joys of a good production is its ability to spark such debate, and it’s not often I see a view that I can so heartily disagree with – and that’s a good thing!

Does anyone else have their own thoughts on the production? Do you agree that the ‘Winners’ are the winners and the ‘Losers’ the true losers? Or did you come away thinking something entirely different? Comments welcome below!

Blithe Spirit

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Blithe SpiritWell, I’m not exactly turning out to be a regular blogger! Still, better late than never. This time I’m waxing lyrical on Blithe Spirit, the last Tip Top production I saw at the Forum Studio Theatre in Chester.

I have a soft spot for Blithe Spirit, having appeared in it myself at Grove Park Theatre several years ago (I played Elvira), so I was pretty certain I’d enjoy this performance. And so it proved! Directed by Mark Newman and featuring his wife Marian as Madame Arcati, the cast also included Tip Top regular Sally Dillon as Elvira and Bill Robertson as Charles Condomine, plus several others who all fitted perfectly into their parts.

The first thing that struck me was the set. After seeing a couple of productions (Teechers and Equus) that used a minimal set, this was a full-on, wall-to-wall carpeted country house drawing room. The layout of the theatre, however, did allow use to be made of the slightly ‘off-stage’ position close to the emergency exit, where the French doors and their billowing curtains heralded the arrival and departure of the ghost(s). This was a neat touch, marking the ‘boundary’ between the spiritual world and the corporeal.

In a play that deals with the intrusion of a ghostly presence into the lives of real people, themes of colour vs pallor, liveliness vs stiffness, and irreverence vs propriety are always going to be prominent. The first arrival of Elvira flags up the contrast between her self-centred, carefree attitude and the stuffy etiquette of Ruth, a contrast made even more pronounced by the realisation that the live, red-blooded woman is displaying far less vitality than the pale, dead woman. This tension was portrayed excellently throughout the play by the two actresses, with Charles caught in the middle clearly wishing for an easy life and the best of both worlds – which in the end it seems he gets.

In addition to the ‘love triangle’ that forms the basis of the plot, the other notable feature of the play is Madame Arcati, the medium called in to work her ‘magic’. This character is a familiar and much-loved one, and the potential for a portrayal to fail to please is huge, depending on individual audience expectations. I personally loved Marian Newman’s characterisation. Somewhat younger than I’ve seen the character in the past, she nevertheless played the part of the dotty eccentric to perfection, with grand gestures and no fear of using her voice to deliver equally weird and wonderful tones and turns of phrase. The only thing I was slightly unsure about was the suggestion that she was something of a closet man-eater; the flirtation with Charles and even Dr Bradman, whilst it didn’t exactly ring false, felt unnecessary at times. But that is a minor quirk in a performance that was otherwise outstanding.

I can never decide whether sitting close to the stage in the Forum is a good thing or a bad thing. I usually pick a seat close to the front or to an exit, in order not to get caught up in the crowds when leaving, but there have been times recently when I’ve worried that the cast are going to trip over my legs where I sit! On the other hand, sitting that close does make you feel a part of the whole thing; and given that the layout is semi-in-the-round rather than a separate proscenium arch, I generally think ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ and get as close as I can. Time will tell whether I continue to do this or gradually shift further and further backwards…

Sadly it’s too late for me to recommend that you go and see this ghostly drama, but I’m happy to say that it met the usual high standards of Tip Top plays; and when you next have the chance to pay this theatre a visit, I’ll be there – in spirit, at least – urging you on.

Round up: a hat trick of productions at Grove Park Theatre

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I’m shocked to see that it’s a good two months since I last posted here. This is not because I’ve been idle – on the contrary, I’ve been run ragged. But I guess that most of my busyness has been business related (see what I did there?). It’s not that I’ve done nothing theatrical, just that I’ve not managed to find the time to write about it. So this is an attempt to fill in the gaps!

Bootleg Theatre CompanyFirst, I must mention the fab ‘extra performance’ that I saw at Grove Park Theatre a while back: Tales from the Street, by the Bootleg Theatre Company. This was a show comprising four monologues by four different writers reflecting the out-of-office-hours lives of four very different characters. It took place in GPT’s bar and, although the audience was small, was very well received – and deservedly so. The four pieces gave us insights into lives as varied as a homeless lad, a nursing student turned prostitute, an alcoholic, and a burglar doing time.

The monologues were superbly performed, in one instance by the author herself, and provided a fantastic reminder that a fancy set is not necessary to tell a good story. This is something I will undoubtedly come back to in future posts! All that is needed to engage an audience is a story and the ability to tell it. Staging, lighting and sound effects are fab, especially when done well, but at the heart of what I love about drama is the simple story – taking the audience from ignorance through enlightenment to understanding – or, indeed, disagreement. It’s amazing how effective a single person talking can be. More of this, please.

Time of My LifeNext up was Grove Park’s production of Time of My Life by Alan Ayckbourn. I’d almost thought of auditioning for this myself, but didn’t – so it’s always good to see a show where the actors do as good a job (or even better…) than you know you could have done yourself! The action takes place in a typically-for-Ayckbourn confusing setting: one central scene depicting a family birthday meal at a local restaurant, plus two additional plotlines featuring four of the characters’ individual stories, one couple moving forward into the future, the other regressing backwards into the past. It’s a great device for showing how the different relationships have developed and gives the audience an additional level of understanding about how the main ‘present’ scenario has come about – and what is to come.

I loved the set – reminiscent of many a generic Mediterranean-style restaurant – and would also like to give a special mention to Neil Wright, who played the various members of the restaurant-owning family with great attention to detail: all the different characters had their own quirks, beautifully played. And directed by Ade Garratt – what more could a girl ask for? Lovely stuff.

LoversFinally, my most recent involvement with Grove Park has been prompting at rehearsals for their next production: Lovers: Winners and Losers, by Brian Friel. The director, Brian Gilbert (memorably seen as King George in The Madness of George III), has decided not to have prompters for the run of the play – a decision taken by more and more directors at GPT these days – but he felt it would be a help at rehearsals. I’ve been sharing this job with a new-ish member, Gill Lewis, and, never having prompted before, have found it to be a mixed bag of fun!

In the early rehearsals the prompter’s role is much greater – only to be expected, as it takes a while from putting books down to being totally familiar with the lines. As the rehearsals have progressed, my input has been less needed. You become familiar with the pauses, the long pauses, and the veeeery loooong pauses, and at this stage it’s only when an actor says ‘prompt’ or ‘line’ that you realise they’ve gone blank and need help.

We’ve had fabulous rehearsals and terrible rehearsals, but now, with just over a week to go until opening night, I can happily say they are ready for an audience. I will blog again once the production is underway (and I have a chance to see it as a regular audience member), but I would urge you to buy your tickets now if you don’t want to miss out. Again, it’s a simple but effective set, and the stories of two couples are told with breathtaking, heartbreaking pathos by an extremely talented cast. Go see it 🙂

Next on my list: Blithe Spirit at the Forum Studio Theatre… Can’t wait!

Equus – and thoughts on reviewing

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EquusI’ve been delaying writing my review of Equus for a few days, for various reasons. I’ve been so keen to say how brilliant I found it, how well it was staged, how convincing and nuanced the cast were, how engaging the script… the list goes on. Because all these things are absolutely true. Despite the play’s fame these days for being ‘the one where Daniel Radcliffe got his kit off’, I knew very little about it before taking my seat, so perhaps I was able to come to it with fewer preconceptions (and expectations) than others.

Whatever the reason, I was hugely impressed and I loved it. It was a cold, icy night when I came out, and I was beginning to wonder why I hadn’t just stayed at home in the warm, but the minute I entered the Forum auditorium and saw the sparse, striking set, I was reminded of all that I love about the theatre. And as the show started, developed, picked up pace, and drew to its conclusion, I thanked my lucky stars I’d made the effort. I really cannot praise the show highly enough.

But my problem is that I have now written four play reviews (this will be the fifth), and they have all been positive and enthusiastic. Genuinely so, I should stress. Now although this sounds like a good thing, I’m aware that this kind of reviewing style is not particularly helpful for anyone looking for an objective critique of a production. People look to reviews to make up their minds as to whether to spend their hard-earned cash on a night out, and if I write incessantly upbeat reviews of everything I’ve seen, people will no doubt begin to question whether I’m capable of giving a truly objective opinion of a piece; this is especially likely to be the suspicion when I’m reviewing amateur productions where I often know the people involved. Perfect circumstances for accusations of bias to take wings and fly!

Add to the above difficulty my nagging sense of pointlessness at even giving an opinion in the first place, as one person’s ‘brilliant’ can easily be someone else’s ‘awful’, and reviewing really does begin to seem like a thankless task. There are many reviewers out there who are more experienced and have more knowledge of theatrical techniques than I do, who are better qualified to state whether or not a particular performance or effect was categorically ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I’m not claiming to be able to make a judgement of this nature. I am merely able to say whether or not I enjoyed the experience and whether or not it was worth leaving the house for. You could say that, as I am an introvert who finds it quite taxing to be in the company of others for any length of time, any ‘thumbs up’ has got to be high praise! But then that is just my personal opinion; who knows whether you will agree with me if you take my advice and go to see a show on my say-so?

I find this all very difficult. On the one hand, I’m not driven by any desire to be nice for the sake of it; I’m a ‘thinking’ rather than a ‘feeling’ person, and am more likely to unintentionally upset someone than to inadvertently help them out. However, at the same time I’m generally a pretty positive person, so it’s rare for me to come across a production that I think is absolutely terrible. I can sometimes be underwhelmed with aspects of a play but, even then, there’s usually a much greater number of positives that I take away from the experience so, if anything, I’m more likely to ‘damn with faint [or no] praise’ and focus on the bits I really enjoyed. In other words, if I’ve spent my money on something, I’m determined to find something I can take away from it that makes it worthwhile. My bottom line for giving a positive review is whether I feel that someone else is capable of finding that worth too – and I frequently belive that they can.

So – should I carry on reviewing? Is there any point in being relentlessly positive? What happens when I do have to say something deeply uncomplimentary about a production? What does it say about me that I like to focus on the good and avoid the bad? Do I need psychiatric help?? Answers to that one on a postcard please… but be nice about it 🙂

I have a temporary answer, which I think is as much as I’m going to manage for now. One of the things that I most enjoyed about Equus was that it made me think about issues. Themes. Concepts. Specifically, the relationship of religious worship to perceptions of insanity and ‘life purpose’. What happens if we believe devoutly in something that divorces us from reality? What happens if we remove the fake idol and revert to workaday life that then has no meaning for us? Yes, we may be living a more ‘real’ life, but what if we can no longer find any passion in what we do? As a ‘thinking person’ (see above) this spoke volumes to me; it also reminded me of Peter Shaffer‘s other work Amadeus (coincidentally my favourite film), in which similar themes of madness versus pragmatism are set to a magnificent musical score.

I feel significantly more comfortable discussing themes in a play than commenting on whether the cast/direction/staging was good/bad/indifferent. Already I’m wanting to take the theme of the previous paragraph and run with it in the direction of the BBC3 show Being Human, whose final episode I caught up with last night and which made similar thoughts pass through my head. Because that’s what my brain likes to focus on. You can almost guarantee that I’ll be off now subconsciously musing on this for the rest of the afternoon.

So in the future I think this is what I will do. I will not claim to be pronouncing on whether a show was technically ‘good’. I will say whether I liked it (and, if there were any aspects of the production that stood out for me, I will say so from the viewpoint of a ‘layperson’). I will say whether it was enough to drag me out on a cold night and whether, by the end of the evening, I was glad I’d come. And I will not be shy to talk about the themes that particularly caught my interest. I may even delay writing a review if a play inspires me to go out and read more of that author’s work, to get a better feel for what (s)he is trying to say. Or I may not! I make no promises.

I can’t finish this post without a last word for all those involved in Equus, who may feel disappointment that this review is not the overwhelming approbation they were hoping for. It is precisely because I knew that I was never going to be anything other than utterly complimentary about it that I felt the need to explain that this is not just the latest in a series of ‘puff pieces’. This show, perhaps more than any other I’ve seen recently, revived my belief in my own love of theatre, and that is no mean feat. If you can take a grumpy, knackered, middle-aged hermit, and present her with a pretty stark show about a boy and a man both torn between losing their faith or losing their link with reality, and make her feel that she’s actually gained something in life, then you really have achieved something extraordinary. Be very proud of yourselves.

The Witches

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The WitchesIt’s been a while since I saw a Youth Theatre production, so I was a little trepidatious as I took my seat in the audience for The Witches at Grove Park Theatre. I was surrounded by children, parents and other relatives of the actors who were no doubt giddying about in the wings preparing for curtain up.

There was much rustling of sweet wrappers (seriously, there must be a gap in the market for non-rustly wrappers, no?), leaping up and down, and flashing of mobile phones. Help, I thought, what am I doing here?

And then the show started, and I remembered exactly why I was there.

This was not just a performance of The Witches; we were given a whistle-stop tour of some of Roald Dahl’s other works, including Little Red Riding Hood (from his Revolting Rhymes) and The Ant-Eater. This was an inspired decision, as not only did it introduce us to the character of Dahl himself (giving us an insight into how and why he wrote his stories), but it also allowed more children to take on leading roles in their own little segment. (My personal favourite? Cara Hammond as the Grandmother in George’s Marvellous Medicine.)

Then The Witches itself started. From the off it was full of energy, and pathos too; the scene was set and the plot developed with no laborious padding. Mary McBain-Cass as the orphaned Boy and Del Evans as his Grandmother drove the story along until the arrival of the witches themselves for their annual conference, and from there the mayhem simply grew and grew. I loved the variety of the witches’ costumes and crazy wigs, and the actors were clearly having great fun portraying this group of characters; this was particularly noticeable when they ventured into the auditorium to sit on steps and between rows, thereby involving us all in the Grand High Witch’s conference address and making us feel a part of the production. Thankfully, however (from my perspective anyway), it stopped just short of actual audience participation.

I had not read the story beforehand, so had no idea of where it was going. However, I knew enough about Roald Dahl to realise it would not be a sugar-coated ending. The first half ended with the Boy and his friend Bruno being turned into mice by the witches, and the second half pursued the Boy and his Grandmother’s revenge by performing the same trick on the witches themselves (by means of the Grand High Witch’s magic potion). One of the highlights of the second half, for me, was the semi-slapstick scene involving the chefs in the hotel kitchen, featuring a star turn by Nathan Edwards as the Head Chef. Brilliant, funny stuff. I also enjoyed the choreographed waiters, led beautifully by Harriot Sloane as Head Waiter.

As the play drew to a close, we naturally saw the witches get their come-uppance (even if the Boy did remain a mouse till the end of his – significantly shortened – days), and here a special mention should go to Catherine Eve, who, as Grand High Witch, was the only adult actor in the cast. She was truly scary, and, given that her last appearance was as the naggy Mrs Bramson in Night Must Fall, I’m beginning to wonder if Cath is carving out a new niche for herself playing vicious old biddies… An excellent performance, however, and a true piece of teamwork with the younger actors.

I cannot end this review without praising the director, Andrew Maskall, and all the backstage cast and crew who helped to make this show a success. (A particular shout-out must go to Huw Sayer, whose set painting was uncannily similar to the style of Quentin Blake, whose original illustrations sat alongside Huw’s own creations.) I’ve helped out with the odd Youth Section show in my time, and it is one of the most rewarding activities I’ve been involved in at GPT. The amount of dedication required, particularly by the director, to manage that number of actors and pull an enthusiastic, energetic performance out of them – when they have so many other conflicting demands on their time – is no mean feat.

As I write this, there is one night left to go of this run, but sadly (for those of you without tickets, anyway) it is sold out. However, if you are kicking yourself for missing out, then make a note now that next year’s Youth Section production is The Jungle Book. Details will be posted on the Theatre’s website in due course. Please make sure you don’t miss out!