You really had to arrive with the right mind-set to get into the spirit of this comedy thriller with its implausible but fast moving plot, creaky jokes, quick character changes and inventive but minimalist representational set. Of course, it’s all a splendid spoof on John Buchan’s classic novel “The 39 Steps” but more especially the 1935 film version directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
This comic version, adapted by Patrick Barlow in 2006, ran successfully in the West End and used only four actors to cover the thirty-odd different characters portrayed. This means the play can work on a number of different levels. Firstly, there’s the straight forward telling of Buchan’s rip-roaring story. Secondly, there are the laughs from seeing the manic attempts of the cast to create a series of fast changing and representational sets for the action and finally, the laughs from seeing the actors valiantly switching characters while struggling with quick costume changes.
Director Liz Ness had to face a number of hurdles in bringing this production to the Claygate stage. There had been some difficulties in casting the original production scheduled for September and “The 39 Steps” came in as a very late replacement. So congratulations must go first and foremost to Liz for managing to get the show together and up and running on stage. Liz also had to step in herself as an actor at very short notice since Jilly Moss (Mr. Memory among many other parts) had to undergo an unexpected major operation a few days before opening night. Jilly, a long-time member of the Society is now recovering well and we all wish her well.
Despite these setbacks, Liz nevertheless created an evening which appeared to be much enjoyed by the audience at the Thursday evening performance I attended. The creation of a cabaret style layout with tables for the audience (complete with a “ploughman’s” supper) meant the evening became more of an event than just a play and it created a pleasant social atmosphere.
Liz marshalled her crew with excellent precision and I must start by complementing the production on the quality of its sound, lighting and stage management. There were an extraordinary number of sound and lighting cues (unfortunately no names were credited in the programme) which to my ear and eyes were executed seamlessly. During the scene in the Professor’s study, the noise of music intruding from the next room each time the door was opened, was beautifully timed. Overall, the choice of music was excellent including the opening Dick Barton type music and all the subsequent tension-building thriller music. I also thought Tina Mastrocola managed her backstage crew expertly and they all showed great agility in choreographing the many fast moving set changes. The set was also remarkably inventive in its simplicity – I especially liked the Forth Bridge (two step ladders and a plank), Waverley Station and the flying aeroplane. I also enjoyed the two-sided revolving door, the sheep in the road and the hand-held window frames – corny but funny. So what to make of this production? Interestingly, as already mentioned above, in the original spoof there were only four actors to play the thirty-odd parts. In this version there were nine – more actors meaning less doubling-up. Yet the doubling-up was one of the fun elements of the original production and I felt that, with nine actors, the humour involved in the quick and frequent changes of character and costume were somewhat diluted. Indeed, I found the humour of these frantic changes only really came alive later in the show when Robert Edenborough magically changed from the dour Scottish Sheriff to the inarticulate politician MacQuarrie.
Yes – there were some good laughs – but also a few cringes. But of the gags my favourite was, after a bible in our hero’s breast pocket stopped a bullet aimed at his heart, the Scottish Sheriff says “Some of these hymns are terribly hard to get through." As for the acting, Brian Hulme was suitably droll as the unflappable hero (Richard Hannay), complete with stiff upper lip, and I especially enjoyed his patriotic rant accompanied by “Jerusalem” playing in the background. Belita Charrington (Pamela) put a great deal of energy into her performance and the scene where she removed her stockings while handcuffed to Hannay was very funny. However, I would have liked to have seen rather more chemistry in the relationship between Pamela and Hannay. Among the individual performances I particularly enjoyed Juliet Bagnall’s numerous roles and especially her Mr. Memory (including an amazing delivery of a long and complex scientific formula), the Scottish hotel keeper Mrs. McGarrigle and the crofter’s wife Margaret. The scene in the crofter’s cottage between Margaret and Hanney worked extremely well. Of the six roles undertaken by Robert Edenborough I thought his funniest interpretations were the Scottish crofter and the Professor, complete with fez, smoking jacket and cigarette holder.
Among the many characters portrayed I also enjoyed Liz Ness as the maid Mrs. Higgins with her silent scream, when discovering a dead body, coinciding with the dramatic sound of a thundering steam train. Newcomer to CDS, Louise Fox, played the femme fatale spy with a great degree of fun and a wonderfully suitable foreign accent. A series of other characters were played with great gusto by Kim Groom and Nick Stock and the voice of Sue Wall came across as a very proper BBC radio announcer. Finally, I’m sure I also glimpsed a sight of Bobbie Watson on the platform at Waverley Station.
A lot of energy was put into this production by cast and crew and the evening worked well. However, there were moments when the pace dropped but this is an extremely difficult production to mount. Rather like farce – by which I mean a play involving stock characterisation and a ludicrously improbable plot – it takes a huge amount of rehearsal time to get the timing absolutely right. While I feel the technical aspects of sound and lighting were excellent I felt the acting was, at times, over-played and needed to be more polished. Did the audience enjoy it? I’m pretty sure the answer to that is a resounding yes.
Steve Mackrell 17 September 2016
Claygate Dramatic Society’s production of “Who Killed the Vicar,” by Chris Martin, was not so much a play in the traditional sense but more of an inter-active game played out between the audience and the cast. Indeed, the evening was promoted as a “murder mystery” with a fish and chip supper. The audience were seated at tables (named after TV and film detectives) in groups of up to eight per table. Comprehensive paperwork was provided including a list describing the possible suspects, a “whodunnit” answer sheet to name the murderer and their accomplice plus, for good measure, a quiz. I have to say that this gave the hall a very convivial atmosphere and an expectation of great fun to come.
The format of the evening was well constructed – the first act introduced each of the murder suspects who gave explanations of their possible motives. This was followed by the build-up to the dastardly deed itself. There then followed a 30 minute interval (with fish and chips) during which each table considered and discussed who exactly could possibly have “dunnit.” The second act introduced the two investigators who interviewed all the suspects but – before they revealed all – there was a ten minute interval for the audience to finalise their “whodunnit” answers which were then collected from each table. Finally, in act three, all is theatrically revealed by the sleuths to the accompaniment of various “oohs” and “ahhs” from both cast and audience. And to finish the evening our Master of Ceremonies, Susanne Tunnicliff, announced the name of the winning table who had correctly guessed the outcome and yes – there were prizes for the winners. An interesting and very different format to the usual productions we see at the theatre.
As for the play itself – by definition it had to be clearly formulaic driven with a ludicrously contorted plot which rammed in as many clues and red herrings as possible. Nevertheless, it delivered what the format required – a dead body, six suspects and a host of motives for the audience to ponder. On the downside however, I found the script spectacularly unfunny – as an example I recall one particularly excruciating line delivered by the church organist who despairs that “his organ was in a terrible state.” Nevertheless, even this tired humour failed to dim audience enthusiasm who seemed to remain faithful to the concept of the evening. In a sense we were experiencing a theatrical version of the game Cluedo – which also has six suspects – and in which we are required to solve a crime by deducing that it was carried out by the equivalent, so to speak, of Professor Plum in the Conservatory with a lead pipe.
So what of the production?. I think director Belita Charrington played it exactly right – the style was deliberately over-played and for me was reminiscent of an old fashioned melodrama full of larger than life characters. For example, I especially liked the opening fifteen minutes where each character directly addresses the audience with a brief explanation of their raison d’etre, after which they assume a fixed pose gazing out at the audience. Again, in the scene where the sleuths are summing-up who could have “dunnit” – there were some wonderful over-the-top reactions by the suspects which all added to the enjoyment of the piece. There were also some good performances to sustain our interest and it’s always good to see so many CDS stalwarts on stage. Juliet Bagnall, as narrator, opened the play and introduced us to the prospects ahead. Our murder victim, played by Brian Hulme as the vicar, made an appropriate “man of the cloth,” striking a believable figure as a hesitant and rather fuddy-duddy father figure.
Of the suspects, I particularly enjoyed Liz Ness as the housekeeper fussing over her tea making and wonderfully clad in slippers and pinny. Jilly Moss made for a formidable matriarch as the local do-gooder excelling at making the best jam tarts in the village. Of all the suspects, I felt the character of the church organist, a serial groper, was the least stereotypical and therefore the most difficult to portray, but Ian Royce did a sterling job in giving substance to the role. The local scoutmaster, Greg Moreton, managed to get most of the laughs while Alexander Anderson made an excellently funny curate - his mannerisms were amusing and he was directed in a way that was both camp and awkward at the same time. I understand Alexander took on this role at very short notice so congratulations must go to him for taking on the part. Congratulations also to the youngest performer, Rowan Moreton, who made a very credible interpretation of her role as the “outsider” in the form of a passing rambler. I should add that all the cast coped extremely well with what were some very improbable lines.
As for the sleuths, it was good to see Robert Edenborough in fine form again – this time as a rather dim-witted and plodding detective-inspector. However, I thought the strongest performance was from Vicky Mastrocola as the Bishop’s envoy. She held the stage well, looked very confident and turned in a robust performance. I should add that in the sleuth’s summing up, both characters had to recite a long resume of possible motives and red herrings which was accomplished magnificently.
So – what not to like? Well, given this was the first public performance on Thursday, there were a number of errors. Firstly, there were too many prompts. Secondly, I sensed somewhat of a technical faux pas in the murder scene – an explosive sound effect which didn’t happen combined with a lighting error at the critical point. I’m sure these technical glitches will be sorted out by the Friday performance given the experience of Mikey Helen and Nick Stock. More difficult to correct is possibly some of the comedy scenes which I felt simply didn’t work. For example, the comedy timing seemed hopelessly amiss in the scene where the organist is frightened (by an imaginary bomb) into revealing he doesn’t really have an injured foot.
ever, returning to the positives, I found the set excellent and congratulations must go to Ray Moss for his design and his team for the set build. I thought the attention to detail on the set was first class. Maggie Wrightson again excelled with wardrobe and I found all the costumes appropriate to their characters. As mentioned earlier, Belita Charrington’s direction was in keeping with the style of the murder mystery genre and she kept the pace of the production at full tilt throughout the performance. The few misgivings I had were greatly outweighed by an enthusiastic and, it seemed to me, happy audience.
Despite some critical shortcomings, this production lived up to its billing as a murder mystery. It was a very competent production and gave the audience exactly what they paid to see. This could be a format that could be used successfully again in the future, given the enthusiasm with which it was greeted by a more than satisfied audience. Well done to all involved.
Steve Mackrell 29 April 2016The Snow Queen November 2015
Claygate Dramatic Society’s festive production of The Snow Queen was not a pantomime in the traditional Christmas sense, but a musical story based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy story of the same name. With book by Colin Wakefield, and original music and lyrics by Kate Edgar, we followed the story of Gerda’s epic mission to save her friend Kay from the evil clutches of the Snow Queen in her mystical Northern ice palace.
Something of a surprise to see this production slotted into a mid-November slot which, apart perhaps from contributing to low audience numbers, didn’t seem to matter too much because, not being a traditional pantomime, there were no opportunities to shout “oh no he isn’t” and “behind you.” which would have seemed rather strange so early in November. However, there were many opportunities to boo the baddy – in this case the evil Snow Queen – and this was done with due gusto by adults and children alike on the Saturday evening performance.
Among the performers, I should start with Ellen Fermie, who gave a convincing portrayal of the Snow Queen in a strong and spirited performance which combined glamour with evil. She captured the high-minded arrogance of the Snow Queen deriving humour in her periodic put-downs of her rival, the good Spirit of Spring, played by Vicky Mastrocola. Vicky gave a mature and nicely judged performance as the “good fairy” figure and executed her many monologues to the audience with warmth and sincerity.
Michelle Hood had a double role combining a kindly Grandmother figure with a highly contrasting evil Robber Woman. Both roles had musical numbers – firstly, “Seasons of My Life,” performed charmingly with the two youngest children and, secondly, the rumbustious comic song “Kill, Kill, Kill” which was good fun and performed with great energy and enthusiasm by Michelle and the ensemble.
The parts of Gerda and Kay required three actors each to reflect the passing of time – the young child, the older child and finally the adult. The youngest Gerda and Kay were played by Charlotte Lootens and Emily Kinnear, who delivered their lines with great strength and sang their songs with confidence. The middle children were played by Antonia Reynolds and Rowan Moreton who had the difficult task of acting out the “change” in Kay’s behaviour – they managed this most effectively and their scenes were very convincing.
The adult Gerda was played at very short notice by Emma McGuiness who stood in for the original actress who was taken ill. Although Emma had to use the book, this was not particularly apparent and congratulations must go to her for taking on the part. She managed to make the character of Gerda totally believable and had the conviction to make the audience feel sympathy for her plight.
There must now be a word of praise for the costumes which were colourful and stunning throughout the show and managed by Maggie Wrightson with help from Ann Baulch and Gill Robinson. I mention this at this point because the costumes came into their own during Gerda’s journey to find Kay, where she met some rather fascinating characters, including Gill Robinson’s Kingfisher, Sarah Greenland’s Hummingbird and the butterflies of Liz Ness and Juliet Bagnall. All little gems and beautifully dressed. Sarah seems to land up with all the best one-liners – in this case, as the Hummingbird, when she declared her favourite song was “Humm-pty Dumpty” and later on, as the Reindeer giving directions, “go left at the lights..…the Northern Lights.”
Another amusing cameo was provided by a pair of crows played by Greg Moreton and Belita Charrington. Their duet, “We’re The Crows,” got one of the biggest cheers of the evening. Apart perhaps, from Bobbie Watson, as “The Lapp Woman,” who sang a reprise of “Farewell” in great voice and without a radio mic. Another excellent reprise of “Farewell” was sung by Harriet Crossingham as the Robber Girl and finally, Mikey Helen, as hard-working and enthusiastic as ever in his double role of the Hobgoblin and The Prince. Some really good performances to enjoy.
And not to be outdone, some solid chorus work from the ensemble and from the young dancers in their two musical numbers the “Snowflake Ballet” and the “Penguins Tap-dance.” The Snow Queen, in one of her more evil moments, snarled “cute choreography just isn’t enough” – but not to worry girls – it was good enough for me!! This was a bright production full of vitality and with much spirited enthusiasm shown by the performers.
And all these elements were brought together by director Dawn Lacey who expertly marshalled a huge cast of 19 principals, 8 adult ensemble, 12 dancers and at least 20 crew and backstage helpers. Her direction was brisk, setting a good pace throughout and the production moved quickly along with hardly a dull moment. Dawn also made an unexpected appearance on stage, due to cast illness, as The Princess, so all-in-all what a trooper!!
Musical Director, Simon Douglas Lane, and percussionist Tim Shaw, kept proceedings moving along at just the right tempo and the lively musical numbers generally worked well. Sound was again expertly handled by Colin Hansford and, on this occasion, lighting design was provided by John Hart.
The open set was a good concept and the two flats in front of the main curtains at each side of the stage painstakingly painted by Lee Jones – depicting the Snow Queens’s icy home and the green pastures of the Spirit of Spring – were effective. Graphics, created by Colin Swinton and projected on the back screen by Brian Hulme, gave a good sense of place and mood although the images were sometimes difficult to see when the stage was bathed in light.
All in all a good evening’s entertainment and I judged most of the audience went home happy. Disney’s “Frozen”, which was also based on The Snow Queen, may have had the better songs, but for me this production had the better real life entertainment. Well done to all involved for giving an enjoyable experience to both young and old.
Steve Mackrell 22 November 2015
Plays by Alan Ayckbourn are always popular, and the audience who came to see Claygate Dramatic Society’s recent production of “Ten Times Table” laughed so much that at times I expected to see tears rolling down the cheeks of audience members! This was a play about what happens when a team falls apart and, while that was very well portrayed, behind it lay the strength of this production – everyone in the cast (including the backstage crew and the director) worked as a team to support the greater good – the production. The success of this show is proof of how well this hidden element worked. Every member of the cast played an important role –even if they had no lines – Michael Helen and Greg Moreton were perfectly cast, and delivered their roles with perfect timing and confidence. I have seen productions that were let down by the minor characters- this play was strengthened by them- well done!
It easy for the audience to identify with characters we have all met in real life (such as Donald, the boring councilor, very well played by Robert Edensborough, who kept going on monotonously about procedures and the Highway and Byways Committee, which added to the comedy of other action on stage). Some characters, such as Ray played by Brian Hulmes, elicit comedy by remaining the same and he delivered the part in an appropriately pompous manner. Similarly, John Taylor, as Tim, delivered a strong performance of a rigid military character who focused only on the needs of the moment and not on other people – with comic results and a well deserved round of applause on exit. We all also enjoyed John Bellamy’s portrayal of the sometimes drunk and falling asleep Lawrence, thinking only of himself and his divorce and not about the meetings, and Juliet Bagnall as Helen, whose upper middle class, bossy character remains the same throughout the play but gave us all a delightful moment when she is kidnapped by Blunt and then returns disheveled.
There are characters who are entertaining by their nature – and Jilly Mess as the whispering Philippa gave a suitably entertaining performance, in a part that could have been over-played. But in Ayckbourn, perhaps the more interesting characters are those who develop as a result of what happens in the play. Belita Charrington gave a performance that showed depth as Sophie moved from quiet obedient sister to adoring girlfriend of Eric (who already had a girlfriend) and at the end, no longer a girlfriend, showed signs of having grown. Eric himself, a left-wing comprehensive school teacher, is driven to show all his Marxist tendencies by this committee and to lead a subgroup. I was surprised to read that Richard Barrett had only recently returned to acting, as he gave a strong and convincing performance, and I’m sure will go from strength to strength. However, to me, the character who stole the show was Bobbie Watson as Audrey. who showed excellent comedy timing throughout; her interjections, and particularly her sprightly exits to the bar, brought the house down! She was perfectly cast and never faltered in her performance.
Liz Ness faced a challenge as director of “Ten Times Table” as, by its very nature it can be a static play until the last scene. She held the audience’s interest through the first scenes around the committee table and achieved a strong contrast with the chaos of the last scene. My congratulations to everyone.
Directors Tony and Sue Wall managed to put some broad smiles
on the faces of a near capacity audience with their revival of the 1939 classic
black comedy “Arsenic and Old Lace”. Despite its implausible plot, this
successful revival delivered a feel-good factor and demonstrates that CDS is
still able to fill the Village Hall over 3 evening performances and send the
audience home happy. However, to achieve this, the play has to be the right
choice, the direction needs to have pace and the cast have to work together as
a successful ensemble. All these ingredients were present the night I attended
and congratulations must go to all concerned with this production.
Tony and Sue Wall displayed great affinity for this play,
written by Joseph Kesselring, and their enthusiasm could be seen shining
through in this production. Looking at the programme notes, the play appears to
have a special place in both their hearts – Tony even being in the 1966 West
End revival with Sybil Thorndyke and a very young Richard Briers. However, this
is a difficult production to produce, containing quick entrances and exits and
calling for eleven male roles – a hard ask in today’s world of amateur theatre.
The script, now some 75 years old, at times lost some of its momentum, but
nevertheless, is peppered with lines which still amuse and there were certainly
a lot of laughs and positive audience reaction.
The play revolves around the very “odd” Brewster family in Brooklyn
with the hero Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic, trying to hold his weird
family together while worrying about whether to marry the girl he loves. His
family includes two spinster aunts, whom he believes to be sweet and innocent,
but who are murdering lonely old men by poisoning them with home-made
elderberry wine mixed with arsenic,
strychnine and a “pinch” of cyanide; a brother Teddy who believes he’s
President Theodore Roosevelt and another brother, Jonathan, who’s a sadistic psychopath
who keeps having face transplants to evade being arrested for his crimes. His plastic surgery is performed by an ageing alcoholic
surgeon, Dr Einstein, who has made him look like the 1930’s horror-film actor Boris Karloff (who incidentally played the part originally on
The key male role was played by Jon Constant (Mortimer
Brewster) who is at the centre of most of the farcical situations and he displayed
excellent comic timing throughout. His character is pivotal in maintaining the
momentum of the play, which admittedly is now showing its age, but Jon Constant
kept the pace moving quickly.
The two “poisonous sisters” were played with great eccentricity
and charm by Juliet Bagnall and Liz Ness and, despite their murderous
intentions, were somehow very believable as the sweet, timid and very innocent
sisters – where even a “fib” is regarded as far more sinful than mere murder.
Susanne Tunnicliffe, as Mortimer Brewster’s love interest Elaine, brought great
zest to the role and her reactions to the events going on around her were
excellent: I particularly enjoyed her “authentic beauty” scene where her
infatuation for Brewster was excellently and amusingly portrayed.
Richard Williams gave a measured performance as the sinister
brother Jonathan without going over the top and managed to combine evil intent
with just the right amount of comedy. Steve Infield, as the third brother
Teddy, showed his usual energy in his eccentric portrayal of the dotty brother
who thinks he’s the President of the USA as well as seemingly constructing the
Panama Canal in the basement. Robert Edenborough played the mysterious Dr
Einstein, the German surgeon who specialises in facial reconstruction, with a
fiendish enthusiasm which put me in mind of a sort of mad Max Wall. The
“business” involving the switching of bodies from the window seat “coffin” was
a highlight of the evening.
Of the other roles, I enjoyed John Bellamy’s Reverend Harper,
effortlessly played and with just the right amount of reverent sincerity and also
Barry Rocard’s Mr Witherspoon, who provided the last laugh of the evening as the
latest victim about to be poisoned by the two sisters. Also an accolade must go
to Michael Robinson who had a cameo role as Mr Gibb, the unsuspecting tenant
seeking a room under the roof of the poisonous sisters – a very funny scene
which Michael played with relish.
Of the police characters, Michael Helen and Nick Stock were
effective “stooges” while James Edenborough’s Office O’Hara was played with
great enthusiasm as an aspiring playwright, especially in the scene where he
describes the plot of his newly written play to drama critic Mortimer Brewster.
However, Barney Donaghy struck the best New York, or rather Brooklyn, accent of
any of the cast. I have to admit that
accents among the cast were somewhat varied but such inconsistencies mattered
little to the audience.
The production was enhanced by a remarkably good set, designed
by Ray Moss, and indeed one of the best dressed sets I can ever recall seeing at
Claygate, and the opening applause was well deserved. Costumes, by Maggie
Wrightson, also deserve great credit especially given the large cast of 14 to
dress. I especially liked the detail of
the police uniforms, even right down to the folded white gloves tucked under
their belts. Lighting was faultless and well controlled especially in the more
“sinister” scenes – sound, Colin
Hansford and Lizzie Lattimore, was also spot-on and I especially liked the “creaking” window seat. The background music was apt ranging from “Bless
This House”, suitably ironic for such a dysfunctional family home, balanced
with Mozart’s Turkish March (Rondo) which provided the subsequent “comedy” link
between the later scenes.
This was an excellent show and clearly a lot of hard work
was put into this production by many different people to create an end result which
was clearly enjoyed by Claygate’s theatregoers. And, of course, the last word
should go to Tony and Sue Wall for making such magic happen. Congratulations.
7 May 2014