Wednesday, May 4, 2022
After the film version, starring the inimitable Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings, was released in 2015, 'The Lady in the Van' has become a double edged sword for stage performance. On the one hand, it's a hugely popular and beloved title which guarantees bums on seats. On the other, you raise the spectre of audience members expecting mere impressions of Alan Bennett and the Great Dame herself.
The Rickmansworth Players production, running at the Pump House Theatre until 7th May, manages to tread the line between those expectations beautifully, presenting a wonderful evening of gentle comedy suffused with cerebral asides and thoughtful reflections. You leave both thoroughly entertained and perhaps a touch wiser.
Sarah Rodrigues direction is careful and unobtrusive, allowing Bennett's witty language the space and time to be fully enjoyed. The projected backdrops are pastel-shaded watercolours that are easy on the eye and suggest a relaxed 'tweeness' that is readily associated with Bennett's style. The lighting and sound are subtle and slick, never overwhelming the action or drawing focus. The only competitor for the audience attention is the van itself, whose magnificent entrance is an evening highlight.
That's not to say the car is the only star! The two Bennetts, Roger Saper as the elder and Matthew Knowles as the younger, carry the story forward confidently. Saper has the Bennett voice down almost to the syllable, while Knowles deserves an award for his facial choreography that captures, with a well-measured touch of comic exaggeration, Bennett's distaste for intimacy and general human contact.
The energy and pulse of the show flows through Miss Shepherd, and Julie Lilley brought her to glorious, gorgonesque life with dazzling aplomb. Her voice was a operatic foghorn, simultaneously melodic, controlled and painfully penetrating. Her enunciation would have satisfied the very strictest of old-school LAMDA teachers and worked cleverly in playing up the humorous contrast between the well-to-do Northern tones of Bennett and Shepherd's scruffy Southern superiority.
However, for me the thematic resonance of the night was not so much the North-South divide or reflections on class, but the comments the play had to make about a Britain facing the cost of living crisis. Questions about ownership and community, helping or ignoring those in need, and obsessing over property prices felt sadly pertinent. These themes are subtly drawn out through Bennett's exchanges with his neighbours, the self-assured suburban alpha male Rufus (played by Steve Bold) and his gossipy wife Pauline (played by Penny Merlin-Woods). Similarly, themes of social responsibility, honesty and integrity become apparent with the storyline concerning Underwood, played with chilling menace by Alistair Park.
Overall, the Rickmansworth Players presented a delightful evening of gentle comedy that eschewed simple nostalgia to tell a fresh and truthful human story. Highly recommended!
Saturday, October 2, 2021
Clean! A Feminist Musical
Going Straight to Gay... Or Something In-between is an hour long comic monologue delivered with gusto by actress Henriette Laursen. The topic is exactly as the title indicates. Laursen shares with the audience the highs and lows of her tempestuous love life, a life which just happens to involve falling in love with both men and women.
There are countless comic routines built around the traditional coming out story, so much so that in recent years it's become it's own subgenre. Some of Laursen's material focused on those old worn cliches, such as the father who struggles to talk openly about sex, and the frustration of family members delaying and interrupting her planned dramatic revelation. What made this evening special, and indeed exciting, were the parts that explored the particularities of her coming out as bisexual, not just to others, but to herself, recognising the impact of that identity on her own life and interactions.
It was fascinating listening to Laursen outline how differently she is treated when she's in public with a male partner as opposed to a female. She riffed on the peculiarities of going on a date with a woman, as a woman, having been socialised into dating the opposite sex. With two women, who buys the first round at the bar? How do you avoid the manipulation spiral? And worst of all, what do you do when you and your partner are the same size and she wants to 'borrow' your favourite jeans? Laursen mined every opportunity for comic potential, fully exploiting her actor training to deliver mini sketches and dialogues of her multitudinous relationship wrangles.
Laursen articulated confidently her unique perspective of experiencing the world both as a woman who others saw as 'straight' and fully conforming to the stereotypes of her gender, and also as a woman who others saw as 'gay', challenging those same conventions. This is a rarely explored point of view, and it gave her some fascinating insights into straight privilege, gender assumptions and the importance of Gay Pride which should be compulsory viewing for bigots everywhere.
Though her acting skills were an asset to the evening, the downside was that the comedy often felt forced. There was too great a dependence on the script and a resistance to spontaneity which made her relationship with the audience less intimate than it could have been. She often delivered a joke and then reversed it, breaking us out of the story she was spinning. I would have loved the monologue to be a bit shorter, so that time could be given at the end for a question and answer session where her idiosyncratic insights into life and love could be shared with a greater sense of direct connection. She's started an incredibly important conversation here, a conversation I'm sure many more people will be delighted to join.
Thursday, September 30, 2021
One of the wonderful aspects of the Watford Fringe Festival is the way boundaries of performance and expectation are challenged and stretched. Although audio drama is by no means a new medium, it's inclusion in a fringe festival is a brave and intriguing treat.
So it was with curiosity and keenness I approached 'Spaces', an anthology of audio plays where each immersive story draws you into a different location. There are five plays in total, exploring ordinary spaces from a car to a corridor, with a toilet somewhere in between. I dipped my toe into the hydrophobic landscape of just one of them, 'Hello Agnieszka', set in a bath.
Written by Anna Whealing, the 20 minute drama explores the story of a first-time mother struggling to come to terms with her pregnancy and the way it changes her body, her relationships and her sense of identity. She describes pain with resignation and clarity, her changing body as a 'lumpy marinating potato', and the fleeting nature of memory and love with delicacy.
There is clearly character, and to a lesser degree plot, driving this piece forward, but what I found truly arresting was the simple power of the soundscape to utterly envelope the listener. Beautifully rhythmic drips from a bath tap created a claustrophobic atmosphere, aural bars to a self-imposed cage. A rich bed of hypnotic synthetic sounds created a meditative tone which took my imagination to a spiritual place. And the English narration of expectant mother Camilla (played with careful understatement by Elizabeth Grace), complimented with asides from the Polish speaking grandmother, brings you back into the earthly, human story.
In all honesty, I would struggle to tell you precisely what that story was. But what I can say without any struggle is that 'Hello Agnieszka' was one of the most arresting, perplexing and delightful 20 minutes I've spent at the fringe. Poetic, charming, and hauntingly atmospheric. Camilla remarks that crying is the same in Polish and in English. Similarly, this was an experience that bypassed traditional narrative storytelling and tapped straight into deep emotion.
Your ticket purchase provides access to the full collection of audio plays. If they're anything like the bath, they'll be worth the visit.
Sunday, September 19, 2021
Pieces of PeeVira: A 10 Year Retrospective
For anyone who's a fan of PeeVira, also known as The Fringy Mime Queen, this is a must see retrospective. The opening exposition creates a rather reverential tone from the outset, which is perhaps surprising for an act associated with challenging stereotypes, breaking convention and sticking two (or more) fingers up to authority. PeeVira's early years are narrated by a formally toned, serious-voiced female which makes it hard to switch from dry biography to outrageous humour. The visuals, an ethereal scene of rather foreboding clouds, don't really help, suggesting the substance of the 20 minute video will be a spiritual if somewhat turbulent journey of someone trying to find their place in life.
The journey is indeed a triumphant one, overcoming adversity to reach the heights of success. We're given a powerpoint style list of PeeVira's many achievements, including several first place victories in illustrious drag competitions and even a cameo appearance on America's Got Talent.
However, the highlights of the show are the 3 or 4 set piece performances where PeeVira (named after her idols Pee Wee Herman and Elvira) recreates some her most popular sketches. The trouble from the perspective of a viewer like me who doesn't know her work already is these performances felt like the minority of the video. And in the face of the formal documentary style narrative, they couldn't really generate the sense of comedy, fun and naughtiness that she must evidently create in her more natural live setting. Definitely not one for the kids, her parody of Rocky Horror Picture Show and It's A Small World give a delightful glimpse of her cheeky humour and downright drag rudeness.
Written, performed, directed and created by AJ Pratts, perhaps another hand on board might have balanced out the conflicts of tone. This is a show which summaries CV like the many achievements of a drag success, but doesn't do enough to actually replicate the magic and sense of fun that made her a success.
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