Foul Pages ~ The Hope Theatre

Foul Pages stays at The Hope Theatre until 17th March 2018 – book your tickets here: The Hope Theatre Box Office

Guest Reviewed by G.Wood 

Star rating: ****

In Foul Pages there are two moments where male characters, actors who play women, cry as a result of the same single act of brutality; both crying for different reasons, but the effect is the same; they are merely pawns in the political game that is the theatre. No matter how talented or charming or attractive they are, they are always at the mercy of the machinations around them. It strikes a bold note, especially in the current climate where the abuse of power is so in the public eye. When Alex (an impassioned Lewis Chandler) begs to hold on to the part of Rosalind, possibly Shakespeare’s greatest female creation, he stands for all the actors who pass their sell by date and are lost to the whim and fancy of their producers, benefactors, or public (I immediately thought of the hundreds, from Rose McGowan to Robert Lindsay to many other unknown talents, who fell foul of Weinstein.)

With MeToo and TimesUp, there is perhaps now hope that things are finally changing but Foul Pages, Robert Hooper’s play of political, theatrical and sexual intrigue, is a timely reminder of how much the world is driven by the ego of those who hold the power. Lady Pembroke (a nicely layered performance by Clare Bloomer) has brought Shakespeare’s Company to Wilton House to perform “As You Like It” for King James, a brave move to appeal to the King’s forgiveness and stay the execution of Sir Walter Raleigh. Through the multiple plot strands the evening at one moment takes us to laugh out loud comedy, and the next enters the realm of the high stakes thriller. The writing is both erudite and irreverent, cleverly weaving witty farce with tragedy and courtly politics in its short ninety minutes. If I had one criticism it is that Hooper sometimes pushes his scope a little too far and what starts grounded firmly in theatricality, a complete homage to the power of the word, later aspires to be more of a cinematic adventure; the writing starting to feel fuzzy with almost too many themes crowded into the rapid fire proceedings.

So it is a credit to the creative team that they pull off the evening so effectively, and keep us engaged throughout. Rachael Ryan’s designs, specifically her edgy and anachronistic costumes, create a world that feels just shy of steampunk, accentuated by a pulsing techno beat that frames the many short scenes. Matthew Parker, The Hope’s artistic director, draws us convincingly into this world, guiding us across unsteady ground with always a firm grip on the entertainment, each individual section deftly struck.

Parker is aided in this by a really sensational cast. The venue’s reputation guarantees that its in house productions never fail to draw in some quality acting, but here it surpasses even itself. So rare on the fringe to see such a large cast be so note perfect; Ian Hallard is effortless as the exasperated Shakespeare, artful manipulator of all around him (not least the comic interfering of his benefactor) but also reluctant stooge for those who hold the real power (Tom Vanson milking every moment as a King torn between his faith and his lasciviousness). Elsewhere Greg Baxter’s grounded Ed nicely compliments the simple understated hopefulness of Thomas Bird’s magnetic Rob and full credit must be given to the three perfectly judged performances that act as an outsider’s channel into this world of power politics; Olivia Onyehara sublime as the no nonsense maid Peg who both admires and is frustrated by this acting fraternity, Jack Harding nicely brooding as the bodyguard Mears trying desperately to keep some sort of balance as the events unfold, and finally James King as the dog Chop (yes, the dog). Whether it is his joyful physicality or his narrative quips, King lands every beat he is given as he moves effortlessly from the hilarious to the heartfelt.

A thoroughly engaging evening of comedy and insight, capped off with a little post curtain bonus that feels like both a nod and a glorious two fingers up to the historical form. Joyous.

Photo Credits: LHPhotoshots

And Then There Were None ~ Stoke Repertory Theatre

And Then There Were None was produced by United National Productions Limited, they will be producing further pieces at Stoke Repertory Theatre in 2018. Watch this space…

Star rating: *****

Having reviewed The Hollow at Stoke Repertory Theatre earlier this year, also care of United National Productions Limited, and thoroughly enjoyed the exceptional staging of one of Agatha Christie’s masterpieces – I anticipated great things from their version of And Then There Were None. I was not disappointed, in fact the production blew me away and had me on the edge of my seat with a constant eye on the mantelpiece!

The story chillingly centres around the Ten Little Soldier Boys rhyme and involves ten individuals arriving at a grand house on a remote island in Devon. Aside from the servants (who are married), none of the ten are related to one another or have prior knowledge of one another, or do they? The upshot is that there’s a murderer on the island who knows a piece of information about each one and he’s got a plan. A plan which includes the demise of each soldier figurine as the death toll rises.

In my opinion, it’s one of Christie’s most translatable stories as I have read the book, seen a few television adaptations and now I’ve seen it on stage – none of the mystery, intrigue or tension is lost at any point in any of the versions I’ve encountered. Its testament to Director, Robert Marsden and his cast that this production has lived up to that expectation, though.

There’s a set which lends itself to the comings and going of a fast-paced whodunit and also represents the grandeur of the building to which each ‘soldier’ has been summoned. The lighting provides an eerie tension in itself and the scene transitions are minimal yet seamless.

The cast boasts an impressive ensemble of actors at the top of their game; John Highton has one wondering if it was the butler whodunit with a bizarre air of mystery surrounding him as Thomas Rogers. Deborah Cornock (who impressed me as the murderer in The Hollow) played a timid yet assertive Ethel Rogers. Ashley Andrew was perfectly cast as Vera Claythorne, elegant, occasionally allowing fear to seep through while appearing far too calm considering the circumstances. Chris Wollaton cut a dashing figure as Philip Lombard, flirtatious and flippant, while in contrast, Patricia Jones was quiet, considered and disapproving as Emily Brent. Steve McTigue put in an excellent performance as the troubled General MacKenzie, equally James King was an ideal choice for the short-lived role of Anthony Marston – far too jolly and a speed demon. David Bowen captivated me as William Blore, his energy and verve were spot on and he drew my attention throughout, as did Ray Johnson as Justice Wargrave – a commanding presence indeed. A special mention must go to our Break A Leg Awards nominee Nigel Peever who played Dr Arnstrong. Peever was undoubtedly one of the stars of The Hollow, for me personally and his performance still resonates. However, as Dr Armstrong I felt that he was an even better fit (if that’s possible!) he underplayed his part and brought the character to the fore only when it was necessary.

Five stars for a piece which has become one of the highlights of my theatre critiquing year! Well done United National Theatre Productions Ltd, you’re putting Stoke on the map as a producer of amazing theatre.

 

 

 

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