Saturday, 23 February 2013

Chess - Union Theatre, Sunday 17th February 2013


The World Chess Championship is about to take place in Merano, Italy. The American is defending his title against a new challenger, The Russian The American gives a press conference at his hotel at which he behaves petulantly and aggressively, denouncing his opponent, every other Soviet and the press with equal vigour. His performance is watched on television by the Russian and his KGB-employed second, Molokov, in their hotel. Molokov is inclined to dismiss the American as a nut. The Russian concedes that his opponent is eccentric but realises that every outrageous move made by the American is a calculated one. The Russian reflects upon his own rise to the top

The American stages an effective and insulting walkout during the Arbiter's lengthy recap of the match regulations immediately after the Opening Ceremony. None are more insulted than his own second, Florence Vassy, who is left to defend her player’s indefensible behaviour to a sneering and pompously protesting Molokov. During this exchange she meets the Russian player for the first time. The Russian shows some sympathy for her situation. Florence confronts the American back at their hotel, telling him that she can not tolerate his treatment of her for much longer. We learn that she was born in Hungary, left that country when only two with her mother in 1956 during the uprising and is now a naturalised British Citizen.. She has never discovered what happened to her father who 'disappeared' when the Hungarian uprising was crushed. She is determined to find out.

The first game of the contest begins with an atmosphere of mutual loathing hanging over the proceedings as the two players make their first moves. Tension builds as much offboard as on with both men resorting to underhand tactics to distract or enrage the other. Suddenly, high drama as the two players fling the board up in to the air. They walk out after nearly coming to blows. Florence and Molokov have an unofficial meeting to discuss the collapse of the match. Florence takes the initiative and tells Molokov where and when he is to deliver his player for a secret, off the record, meeting between the two contestants, in order that the match can resume without either party losing face. Molokov attempts to rattle Florence at one stage by implying that he knows some Hungarian history she might want to learn about.

Florence and the American arrive for the secret meeting. The Russian is late and the American leaves the restaurant in mock disgust. Almost at once the Russian and a junior member of his back up team arrive to find no opponent waiting for them, only his opponent's Second. During the conversation that follows, the Russian and Florence are quickly attracted to each other, the almost romantic mood rudely interrupted when the American returns. Some days later, the American and Florence are discussing the progress of the match. Things are going badly for the American who is unpleasantly agitated. He blames Florence for his failure and as they hurl abuse at each other, she tells him that she is going to leave him after the match, even if by some miracle he won it. The American is devastated and alternates between fury and pleading with her to stay. His paranoia about the Reds surfaces - he is convinced that the Soviets have something to do with both his loss of form and Florence's desertion, At an unidentified Western embassy some days later, the Russian, the newly crowned World chess champion, asks for political asylum.

The following year, The Russian is to defend his title against a new challenger from the Soviet Union in Bangkok. Florence and the Russian who have been lovers since his defection, are in Bangkok. They discuss his new opponent and wonder why the American is in town, as he has played no serious chess since his defeat in Merano. They also talk about the refusal of the Soviet authorities to let his wife out of the U.S.S.R.

Molokov and his team are confident that this time around they have a player who is totally trustworthy and can be relied upon (a) to win and (b) to stay in Russia. The Russian is interviewed on Thai TV. To his amazement he discovers that his interviewer is the American who proceeds to ask him about his personal life, about Florence and about his politics - never about chess. The American finally tells him (on the air) that arrangements have been made to fly his wife into Bangkok in time for the match. Enraged, the Russian storms out.

The Russian and Florence watch his wife (Svetlana) on television arriving in Bangkok. The event brings the tension between them to a climax. Florence is left alone with the TV still showing Svetlana's image. She recalls how well she knows the lover who has just left her. Svetlana recalls how well she knows her husband

The American forces his way into the Russian's quarters to offer him a deal. Despite the personal pressures already weighing heavily on the Russian, he has begun the match in great style, winning the first two games. The American now says that if his winning streak should suddenly come to an end then Florence will not be given information he claims to have received from the Soviets about her father. The American then approaches Florence, suggesting that if she would only return to him, not only would they be once again the best chess team ever witnessed, he also would be able to provide her with news (he does not say whether it is good or bad) she has always wanted to know about her past. She too rejects his offer. The deciding game in the match begins. Molokov and the American have a conversation which reveals them to have been in league against the Russian, albeit for very different reasons. Florence, watching the match, although not knowing that her lover been put under pressure to lose, sees his obsession with victory destroying his ability to care for her.

The Russian, defying everyone, plays like a dream and annihilates his opponent. He rejoices in his victory, but even as the crowds acclaim him and as his wife vainly attempts to make some kind of contact with him, he almost immediately feels a sense of hollow anti-climax. He despises himself for the narrow selfish ambitions and desires that satisfy him. So does Svetlana; any chance of reconciliation between them is gone. Florence and the Russian reflect simultaneously but separately, on their story that they thought was a very happy one; like the game of chess the game of love can be played in an almost limitless number of variations. Perhaps this was just one of many games that end in stalemate.
Florence – Sarah Galbraith
Anatoly – Nadim Naaman
Freddie – Tim Oxbrow
Svetlana – Natasha Barnes
Molokova – Gillian Kirkpatrick
Arbiter – Rhys Barlow

Creative Team
Directed by Christopher Howell and Steven Harris
Musical Direction by Simon Lambert
Musical Arrangements by Christopher Peake
Lighting by Ben Rogers

Bugger this production – I’ve spent the last couple of days humming One Night in Bangkok while I do the washing up (note: the song is not called One Night in Bangkok While I do The Washing Up) and trying to work out whether my vocal range would be better suited to the Elaine Page line or the Barbara Dickson line in I Know Him So Well. If you are of a certain age, this song will take you back immediately to the late 80s and hearing it on the radio on what seemed like a 15 minute loop; it was regularly on Simon Bates’ Our Tune on Radio 1, which they had on constantly at work and which used to do my head in even then. What does my head in even more is Him Indoors screeching Pity the Child around the place all the time.

I admit that I wasn’t really in the mood to go and see this; three times a week is more than enough for any man, and it being Sunday, I would rather have been curled up on the sofa with a cup of coffee in that semi-somnolent state which descends on you after Sunday lunch. After a certain amount of hilarity caused by Him Indoors’ complete and total inability to read a map properly (I swear that if he had been born Scott of the Antarctic, he would have spent quite a few years crawling round in the mosquito-infested mangrove swamps of equatorial Guinea muttering “I could have sworn it was this way” and kicking the huskies) we arrived at the admittedly unprepossessing Union Theatre and proceeded to freeze our nipples off for ¾ of an hour waiting for the auditorium to open. Whatever you do, go to the toilet before leaving home; there is a poster in the foyer thanking people for making donations towards a new piano but I think the money would have been much better spent doing something about the loos because even the thought of them makes me walk around saying ick ick ick. There’s something about these loos that puts me in mind of that film Quatermass and the Pit – I don’t know exactly what that big, green, glistening patch on the wall is but I swear its bigger every time I see it.

This is a well-enough directed show – even though it does go on a bit; 2 ¾ hours is a long time, and even then there have been cuts. There are some clever bits of staging and direction – but you can’t see very much of it because the place is just too damned small for it. During dance numbers here I’m always terrified that a dancer’s foot is going to take my eye out or that someone being lifted up on the shoulders of another dancer is going to crack their head painfully and messily on the lighting grid. Often you get someone standing on the stage with their nose less than six inches from your own, desperately trying not to make eye contact with you while they sing, and Chess is no exception Its crying out to be performed in a bigger space with better sightlines. Too often your view of the performers is obscured by another cast member’s backside, people are cramped together and only the lucky people in the front row of the middle block of seats (they’re arranged in a double row around three sides of a square) can actually appreciate the direction and choreography of a lot of the show. (Note to punters: after the interval, you are supposed to return to the seat you occupied during the first half. Two old dears decided to swap sides after the interval; cue lots of quietly outraged honking from the people they displaced when they returned to find their seats already occupied).

The black and white colour scheme is really overdone, as well. I know its relevant to the show, and makes good design sense when you are costuming on a limited budget, but when the entire inside of the theatre is painted black, watching black and white clad people on a black floor surface for nearly three hours, all brightly lit from above, is really, really tiring on the eyes because you get starved of visual stimulation. One is likely (if one is me) to start looking at small things in too much detail in order to keep your eyes occupied – for some reason, there are some really odd shirt collars on display and I can’t tell you how much I ended up being irritated by them. Semicircular scoops seem to have been cut out of them – perhaps for another show – and they look really very strange indeed. I noticed that the wheeled light box used for one of the final numbers – nice touch, very inventive, perhaps could have been used for more than just that one scene – needed a damned good cleaning, and when the member of the cast using it began to gob liberally all over it while singing at the top of his voice it was as much as I could do not to lean over, proffer my handkerchief and suggest that a good wipe might not go amiss. Perhaps I should have offered it instead to the chap in the front row who, during one of the quiet bits, began to clean his friend’s glasses using the bottom bit of his jumper and showing 2/3 of the theatre six inches of hairy navel.

Star of the show is undoubtedly Sarah Galbraith as Florence, who can belt with the best, but I did wonder why, if she was playing an American, all her vowel sounds were quite so Julie Andrews (getting toooo noooooe you, getting toooo nooooeee awl abouuwht you). No trace of an American accent whatsoever. No, I know Elaine Paige didn’t do one either, but that’s no excuse. Nadim Naaman is suitably morose as the Russian, and Tim Oxbrow almost literally screeches his tits off getting some of the high notes (must be a hell of a role to sing six or seven times a week for three weeks. One wonders if he will ever be able to sing again after this show. Rhys Barlow is a bit weedy to play The Arbiter, and I wondered why in this version he doesn’t sing One Night in Bangkok. I also wondered what the reasoning was in turning the role of Molokov into a female part, as it does rather unbalance the power-play aspect of the show. There is a lot of very impressive choral work going on in the concerted numbers, a great deal of which is unfortunately drowned out by the sheer volume of the orchestra. Performing a very loud show in a very small space does rather leave the audience somewhat frazzled – I spent most of the journey home feeling like there was someone sitting on my left shoulder playing a pair of cymbals. The music is pleasurable enough in that 1980s sung-through fashion (you will undoubtedly be humming a lot of it in the days following the performance; those ABBA boys knew how to put a good tune together. But the whole thing needs a bigger home in order that the direction can be fully appreciated. And the entire Russian/American plot now feels subtly dated and a little tired.

What the critics thought:

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Trelawny of the "Wells" - Donmar Warehouse, Friday 15th February 2013


Trelawny of the 'Wells' tells the story of Rose Trelawny, a popular star of melodrama plays at the Barridge Wells Theatre (a thinly disguised Sadler's Wells Theatre). Rose gives up the stage when she decides to marry her sweetheart, Arthur Gower, in order to please his conservative family. She finds life with Arthur's grandfather and great-aunt, Sir William and Lady Tralfagar, unbearably dull and they detest her loud and unrestrained personality.

Rose runs back to the theatre, abandoning Arthur. But her experience of the 'real world' has killed her talent for melodrama, and she cannot recapture the liveliness that had made her a star. Meanwhile, Arthur has secretly run away to become an actor at the Bristol Old Vic. The problem is solved when Rose encounters Sir William again, and she reawakens his memory of admiring the great actor Edmund Kean as a young man. Sir William offers to help Rose's friend Tom Wrench, an aspiring playwright who dreams of staging plays in a more realist style than the melodramas that dominate the stage. Tom stages the play with Rose as the star, and her newfound seriousness fits his style perfectly. Tom secretly arranges for Arthur to play the leading male role, and the lovers are reunited on stage.

Mrs Mossop/Sir William Gower - Ron Cook
Mr. Ablet - Jamie Beamish
Tom Wrench - Daniel Kaluuya
Imogen Parrot/Clara de Foenix - Susannah Fielding
James Telfer/Charles - Peter Wright
Ferdinand Gadd - Daniel Mays
Augustus Colpoys - Fergal McElherron
Mrs. Telfer/Trafalgar Gower - Maggie Steed
Avonia Bunn - Aimee Ffion Edwards
Rose Trelawney - Amy Morgan
Arthur Gower - Joshua Silver

Creative Team:
Written by Arthur Wing Pinero
Director: Joe Wright
Designer: Hildegard Bechtler
Lighting: Jon Clark Disclaimer: review of Preview performance

I am sometimes criticised for reviewing preview performances, presumably on the basis that it is unfair to do so before the production has had a chance to warm up and settle in. To my critics I would respond that its Him Indoors who generally books the tickets, I have little say in when we will be going and that if you would care to donate a pair of opening night tickets to me I will be more than happy to go along at your expense and put in a First Night review along with the “legitimate” critics. So there.

Certainly it appeared that the cast do need a good settling in period for this. There seemed to be plenty of mishaps occurring relating to props refusing to do what they should, some of which I couldn’t really see due to poor sightlines from my seat (we were sitting in what I call the “Jury Box” seats right up near the roof). At one point a backcloth came crashing down from its moorings and I’m still not entirely sure whether this was supposed to happen; there was a kind of ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod hiatus on the stage for a good few seconds and then everyone carried on regardless. Certainly the cast seemed to be very slow in picking up on their lines, mostly during the first half, meaning that it felt very slow and not nearly snappy enough. There was a kind of feeling of tired acceptance by the audience for most of the evening, with laughs rather sparse and thin, even at some of the more obvious jokes until a good way into the second half when things seemed to pick up substantially and it all started to come together. I also missed a lot of the dialogue because nobody on stage seemed to be raising their eyes (or their voice) up towards the circle.

I think many of the longeurs were a result of the direction, which is rather self-consciously theatrical, and certainly I for one didn’t pick up on this for a good long while. Once I realised what was going on, of course, it all made a lot more sense, and I think this was a feeling shared by a lot of the audience. Some people may not have picked up on what was going on at all, hence the odd feeling in the auditorium. We are, of course, watching a play about actors; actors used to performing in the slightly over-the-top declamatory style that preceded the arrival of realistic acting on the stage. And hence everything they did was in said over-the top style, even when they were off-stage. For example, the actors assemble in the first scene for a celebratory dinner, and I was confused that there were bits of obviously prop food (a ham, a raised pie of the kind that would make Mary Berry envious, a dish of hard boiled eggs) being passed round enthusiastically but remaining completely untouched, and no liquid in the jugs or glasses, and I thought “That looks really, really silly”. But of course, this is how contemporary audiences would have seen a meal would being “eaten” on stage at the time. Its an “in joke” and of course if you don’t get the joke, you think that its just odd. Even the way the table is laid is a reference to theatrical tradition (the plates are all stuck to the tablecloth, so it can simply be shaken out and hey presto, the table is fully laid). Several roles are doubled and again, this is how a small cast of late 19th century actors would have taken on a play with a large number of characters. But to those audience members who don’t pick up on this, its mystifying. It can cause hilarity – as when “Mrs. Mossop” announces that “Sir William Gower”.is waiting outside, and is told to go and fetch him – because both roles are being played by the same person. I fully suspect that many people aren’t going to understand the director’s intentions.

There are some good performances going on. Much as I dislike Ron Cook generally, I have to admit he played the crusty Sir William admirably, with great delivery of lines such as “Save your tears for the bedroom, Madam. This is Whist!” And there is a touching sense of faded grandeur about Maggie Steed’s Mrs. Telfer, particularly in the second half when she and her husband, previously great stars, are reduced to the job of wardrobe mistress and bit-part player respectively. Her exit line “My child, if we are set to scrub a floor - and we may come to that yet - let us make up our minds to scrub it legitimately and with dignity” was almost unbearably touching in its delivery and resonated long after she had left the stage. In her doubled part as Trafalgar Gower, she gets probably the biggest laugh of the night with “William! Your ankles!”. Amy Morgan certainly looks the part of the quintessential romantic lead of the Victorian stage, even if her characterization is a little thin (but then its not a very well-written role), and Aimee Ffion Edwards is nicely goggle-eyed as Avonia Bunn. On the downside Daniel Mays is merely irritating, Joshua Silver fails to register above cardboard cutout as Arthur and Daniel Kaluuya seems uncomfortable in the role of Tom Wrench.

Costumes are wonderful, with the ladies spectacularly arrayed in full period get-up – Maggie Steed looks like a ship in full sail in her scarlet bodice and crinoline – and there is more than a hint of Scarlett O’Hara’s dress made out of curtains in Susannah Fielding’s costume, although the sleeves looked a little short and could have done with false white cuffs to cover her wrists, as would have been done in reality at the time. The panto costume worn by “Avonia Bunn” just has to be seen to be believed. And Rose Trelawny is soberly yet immaculately turned out throughout the entire production.

Its an amusing night out, which needs more work before opening night. It’s a difficult piece to get to grips with, and I suspect is not going to find huge favour with either critics or audiences. Which is a shame.

Only one so far; more published after opening night.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Great Expectations - Vaudeville Theatre, Thursday 14th February 2013


Pip, an orphan who is about six years old, encounters an escaped convict in the village churchyard while visiting the graves of his mother, father, and siblings. The convict scares Pip into stealing food and a file to grind away his shackles from the home he shares with his abusive older sister and her kind, passive husband Joe Gargery, a blacksmith. The next day, soldiers recapture the convict who is returned to the prison ship he escaped from.

Miss Havisham, who lives in the dilapidated Satis House, arranges for Pip to play with her adopted daughter Estella. Pip begins to visit Miss Havisham and Estella, with whom he falls in love with Miss Havisham's encouragement. Pip visits Miss Havisham multiple times, and during one of these visits, he brings Joe along. During their absence, Mrs. Joe is attacked by a mysterious individual and lives out the rest of her life as a mute invalid.
Later, when Pip is a young apprentice at Joe's blacksmith shop, a lawyer, Mr. Jaggers, approaches him and tells him he is to receive a large sum of money from an anonymous benefactor and must immediately leave for London, where he is to become a gentleman.

Years later, Pip has reached adulthood and is now heavily in debt. Abel Magwitch, the convict he helped, who was transported to Australia where he eventually became wealthy, reveals himself to Pip as his benefactor. There is a warrant for Magwitch's arrest in England, and he will be hanged if he is caught. Pip hatches a plan for Magwitch to flee by boat, and discovers that Estella is the daughter of Magwitch and Mr. Jaggers' housemaid, Molly, whom Jaggers defended in a murder charge and who gave up her daughter to be adopted by Miss Havisham.
Pip learns that Miss Havisham's fiancé jilted her, resulting in her strange behaviour and desire to avenge mankind by using Estella to break Pip's heart. He confronts Miss Havisham with Estella's history. Miss Havisham stands too close to the fire which ignites her dress. Pip is burned while saving her, but she eventually dies from her injuries, lamenting her manipulation of Estella and Pip.
Police capture Magwitch and jail him, although dies shortly before his execution. Pip is about to be arrested for unpaid debts when Joe pays off Pip's debts. Realising the error of his ways, Pip returns to the forge to propose to Biddy, Joe’s housemaid, only to find that she and Joe have married.
Eleven years later, Pip visits the ruins of Satis House and meets Estella, lately widowed after fleeing her abusive husband. She asks Pip to forgive her. Pip takes Estella's hand and together they leave the ruins of Satis House forever.
The Players:
Adult Pip – Mr Paul Nivison
Estella – Miss Grace Rowe
Miss Havisham – Miss Paula Wilcox
Young Pip – Mr. Taylor Jay-Davies
Joe Gargery – Mr. Josh Elwell
Mrs. Joe – Miss Isabelle Ross
Wopsle/Wemmick – Mr. Vaughn
Magwitch – Mr. Chris Ellison
Camilla Pocket – Miss Allen
Cousin Raymond/Bentley Drummle – Mr. Glen
Biddy – Miss Susan Robertson
Jaggers – Mr. Jack Ellis
Herbert Pocket – Mr. Warrington

Creative Team:
Adapted for the stage by Miss Clifford
Directed by Mr. McLaren
The dresses by Miss Gosney and Mr. McLaren, with couture elements provided by Signor Giovanni Bedin
The lighting effects by Mr. Kai Fisher
The musical accompaniments by Mr. Slater

“Marley was dead, to begin with” I had already used, most successfully. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” I had also pressed into service, and it would have been churlish to expect my readers to swallow it again. “To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I recall that I was born” did indeed have a certain noble ring about it, and yet it seemed to me that although it would be indeed a splendid beginning for a tale narrated in the first person, it would perhaps be better set aside for a time for a novel as yet unpenned. And so I chewed my pen some more that winter afternoon, as the coals settled ever more comfortably into their fiery bed and thought some more, eventually deciding that the opening phrase of the latest addition to the line of fine, leather-clad volumes marching their way across my bookshelf like a regiment of soldiers in the service of Literature would be
'My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip'
And so it began, my latest novel, each page the progenitor of a brood of followers eventually numbering over 600. And this blotted and scribbled bundle of papers was wrapped in cloths and smuggled from the house during the quiet, owl-haunted hours of the night as if it were the misshapen bastard of the under-housemaid, delivered into the kind, patient and trusted hands of the surgeon-editor, by whom my child would be cossetted, primped and snipped and finally dressed in fine, new clothes, and brought forth into the world in a presentable fashion to be admired by its loving, literary papa. And then, having no other use for it, for it had served its purpose of confirming me in the admiring minds of the British novel-reading public as their household god of the written word, I turned it into a play, whereupon it became sickly and weak, and I finally cast it from my bosom and thought of it no longer, for I was almost at once occupied with with the tribulations of producing yet another ink-blotted and scribbled child.

And then, many years later, a lady writer of the name Jo Clifford looked full and pensively at my child and wondered if it might be suited for a career upon the boards of the stage once more, enduring the wretched, unending sleepless nights of any parent as the pale moonlight streamed thought the latticed casement, cutting and shaping and reforming and discarding, until my little child was set down upon once more amongst the mummers and the greasepaint and the baskets and backcloths of a theatre in the city wherein it took its first faltering steps. And as I sat there in the warm and comforting darkness of the auditorium, surrounded by the rowdy restlessness of the cloth-capped ruffians, doxies, confidence tricksters and latecomers who had paid their pennies for the gallery, a variety of thoughts pursued their paths across my mind. For this child of mine, in it first and original raiment, was a long and complicated fiction, peopled in the main by a throng of finely yet briefly sketched puppets alongside their more important, fully-fleshed fellows, whose complicated lives twisted and turned and and struggled through many pages and chapters. And,with the ferocity of the surgeon’s scapel, Miss Clifford had excised them all, rending them bodily from the page, lopping their limbs and heads and arms until, if they remained at all, they briefly flitted across the stage like so many ghostly wraiths issuing from their graves yet disappearing the very instant they had appeared, their small parts in this complex and many-layered history reduced to a gasp of breath, if breath they kept at all. Indeed, any person there present who had not familiarised themselves with my narrative in advance of seeing it portrayed thus upon the stage may well have become somewhat obfuscated as to many of the scenes being played out before them. And yet, it seemed to me, denuded of much of its corpulent flesh, the very bones of the story stood strong and firm and white, as if saved from the charnel house and set upon the living stage. For indeed, I saw that I had brought forth into this world a story capable of surviving such harsh and unforgiving treatment at the hands of others writers less magnficient than I.

And indeed, their brief home upon the stage was decked in such lordly raiment as would befit a far greater child, for eschewing the difficulties encountered by changing the scenery as often as the moon changes her ghostly visage across the span of the hours, the lady writer saw fit to cleverly set the entirety of my tale within the picture most often brought to mind by those who have read my child; the ghostly and spider-whiskered dining room of perhaps its most memorable character; the poor, jilted, heartsick chatelaine of Satis House, doomed forever to stare at the rotting bride-cake among the timeworn ruins of her ill-fated wedding feast. For indeed this is a wonderous thing in all its decaying beauty, its mouldering mint and granulating gold, with great gaps in the rotten walls for my puppets to appear from and use as doorways into their brief world, lit by the guttering candles festooned with webs placed around the room like so many cadaverous footmen around the rotting feast. And wonderous and enchanting use was made of the table upon which the ghastly banquet was set (notably of the fateful journey down the dark and treacherous waters of the Thames), and of the fine mirror set above the fireplace from which my Miss Havisham made her first entrance, a knowing and cunning reference to the way in which she would make her untimely exit from this world. And the music which played upon the scenes sparkled like the freshest dew upon the mornng leaves, and the design of the lighting was as wonderous as the the daily rising from the east of the chariot of Apollo. The clothes in which my characters were arrayed were fine and trim, bedecked with the webs of the spiders that scuttled through the mouldering wainscotting, giving the impression that they had been called forth from the dark recesses of their literary graves by the recollections of Master Pip and Mistress Estella who had returned to the dining room of Satis House to call forth their memories of the adventures that had befallen them there so many years before. Indeed, there was a ghostly, almost gothic atmosphere about the entire proceedings, giving the work a fine flavour of doom, and dust, and decay, which I confess seemed to be somewhat missing from my original manuscript.

The clever actress Miss Wilcox, portraying my Miss Havisham, gives a remarkable and affecting performance, although it did seem to me that she was in possession of rather more of her wits than in my novel; for here she is somewhat lucid and calculating an oh! how it does irk me not to see her clothed in the appropriate wedding attire – for my poor Miss H, having intended to sail forth upon the sea of matrimony bedecked in the finery appropriate during the time of the old Regency, is once again clothed in the “modern” style of the mid 1870s. Her ward, Miss Estella, is played competently enough by Miss Rowe although indeed does try much too hard to make her one onto whom we might bestow our sympathies; my original is colder, brittle and hard like a sheet of ice that stealthily creeps across the silent millpond during a dead of winter’s night, shining invitingly that one might don one’s furs and skates, and take a single treacherous step upon its surface. Mr. Ellison shows the heretofore undsicovered humanity of the wicked criminal Magwitch (and indeed his climatic scene was portrayed in such affecting stillness as to silence even the fishwives and their ruffian consorts who had constantly gossiped and fidgeted through much of the performance to my chagrin. The young Mr. Jay-Davies makes a sterling portrayal of my young Master Pip and there is much to recommend Mr. Ellis who storms the stage and wraps the entirety in webs of legalese as the cunning lawyer Mr. Jaggers. Indeed so clever is his portrayal that, though but a relatively minor character, we leave the theatre duly impressed with the idea that Mr. Jaggers is indeed the puppet master making the dolls upon the stage dance as he wishes them to. My sympathies are directed towards Mr. Nivison, playing the older version of Pip, who is given little enough to do save at the very beginning and the very end; having set the wheels of my plot in motion by reminiscing about times and adventures past, he is forced to linger upon the stage like some untimely ghost denied the solace of Christian repose through lack of decent burial.

There is, in short, very much to recommend about Miss Clifford’s adaptation of my work for portrayal upon the stage, save for the somewhat murderous butchery necessary in pursuance of cramming my enormous, unwieldy child into the brief compass of a duo of hours. Indeed, it may be thought wise to pursue a thorough study of the story beforehand that one may follow the perigrinations of the story and not become most thoroughly bewildered. A fine evening, my masters and mistresses of the theatrical arts, whether those of you visible to the paying crowd or those who serve their particular muse in the dark and imp-haunted corners of the theatre.

The author extends his thanks to the fine Mr. Brick (who possesses such an interesting name that I do believe I shall find use for it to christen some future offspring of my fertile mind within an as yet unwritten tome) and his excellent company of ShowsInLondon for bestowing the wherewithal to attend this production and entertain you, dear Reader, with these poor wandering thoughts which are offered for your consideration and delight. The author’s companion, a fine lady of no small experience of the theatrical profession herself, graciously extends her thanks to your esteemed organisation and bids me express them to you on her behalf.

What the critics said:

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Top Hat - Aldwych Theatre, Wednesday 30th January 2013

An American dancer, Jerry Travers, comes to London to star in a show produced by the bumbling Horace Hardwick. While practicing a tap dance routine in his hotel bedroom, he awakens Dale Tremont on the floor below. She storms upstairs to complain, whereupon Jerry falls hopelessly in love with her and proceeds to pursue her all over London.

Dale mistakes Jerry for Horace, who is married to her friend Madge. Following the success of Jerry's opening night in London, Jerry follows Dale to Venice, where she is visiting Madge and modelling/promoting the gowns created by Alberto Beddini, a dandified Italian fashion designer with a penchant for malapropisms.

Jerry proposes to Dale, who, while still believing that Jerry is Horace, is disgusted that her friend's husband could behave in such a manner and agrees instead to marry Alberto. Fortunately, Bates, Horace's meddling English valet, disguises himself as a priest and conducts the ceremony; apparently, Horace had sent Bates to keep tabs on Dale.

On a trip in a gondola, Jerry manages to convince Dale and they return to the hotel where the previous confusion is rapidly cleared up. The reconciled couple dance off into the Venetian sunset.

Jerry Travers: Tom Chambers
Dale Tremont: Charlotte Gooch
Horace Hardwick: Martin Ball
Madge Hardwick: Vivien Parry
Alberto Beddini : Ricardo Afonso
Bates: Stephen Boswell

Creative Team:
Music and Lyrics: Irving Berlin
Adaptation: Matthew White and Howard Jacques
Director: Matthew White
Choreography: Bill Deamer
Set: Hildegard Bechtler
Costumes: Jon Morrell
Lighting: Peter Mumford
Hair and wigs: Campbell Young

If you want depth, go elsewhere, because this musical makes a puddle look deep. If you want a paper-thin “plot”, a few good laughs, great costumes, chorus members giving it so much welly during a tap routine that they make the stage quake and some good old-fashioned escapist entertainment, put on your Top Hat and shuffle on down to the Aldwych. Pinter it ain’t, but when the skies are dark and cold, the country is fucked and the spectre of ruin looms, you can forget your troubles for a couple of hours and smile – as long as you don’t mind sharing the auditorium with hordes of grey haired oldies up from some god-forsaken outpost of Empire on a coach trip. Doris, Hilda, Stan, Ruby and Doug are likely to be your companions for the evening, and they will probably have brought their tea with them wrapped in bits of tin foil and located right at the bottom of a capacious plastic bag, underneath fold-up umbrella, spare cardie (in case), paper bag of postcards, hair spray (in case of wind) and spare TennaPants for Stan (well, you know what happened last time; I’ll never be able to look Hilary Gossington in the face again). They will have had an afternoon’s shopping in Oxford Street (all of which they will have brought with them to the theatre because the coachdriver looked a bit shifty, if you ask me) and they will consume their food with gusto (but generally before the curtain goes up) and they won’t have a mobile phone to bother you with during the quiet bits. They will have stopped short of bringing a portable gas stove and a camping kettle, but they will have purchased a six-pack of small cartons of juice which they will slurp with great relish – and if last night’s lot are anything to go by, Muller Fruit Corners will be consumed in the interval and they will suck humbugs loudly through the second half. They will stick their head into the orchestra pit to count the musicians and exchange witty banter with the conductor. They will in all likelihood hum along to all the choonz (and possibly sing along), and they will certainly jiggle their leg up and down in time to the rhythm. At various points in the action, one of them will forget they are not sitting in their comfy chair at home in front of the TV and say (loudly) “Ooooooh, aint that a lovely dress?” They will laugh at all the jokes, however thin or non-PC, they will clap all the dance numbers and then they will all pile on the coach home afterwards and agree that it was “smashing”.

And, in the main, they would be right. They would have had seen a well staged, completely escapist show of the kind that always pops up in abundance when times are hard. Top Hat is good fun. Even this old cynic enjoyed it (even though wild horses would probably have to drag the admission out of me). Sure, I could carp about some bits, but then when have you read one of my reviews when I haven’t?

Mr Chambers (who will be on the point of leaving the show for a damned good sit down by the time you read this and I don’t blame him because just watching him made my feet ache) is the modern equivalent of Fred Astaire – quite bland and unassuming but with a certain debonair panache that allows him to get away with quite a lot. He can hoof it really well, but his flaws are exposed to a certain extent when surrounded by people who have been doing the Time Step since they were in nappies. You can tell that he’s a relative newcomer to dancing. There’s something indefinable missing, and I think its called “years of experience”. He is most certainly outdanced by Charlotte Gooch, who is the embodiment of the phrase “legs that go all the way up to her tits”. Neither, quite honestly, can he act terribly well. Oh, he’s OK in this role, but it doesn’t demand an awful lot of psychological depth. I don’t think he would cope very well with Shakespeare. And he has a terrible tendency to deliver some of his lines almost direct to the audience as if in panto, and there is an occasional rictus grin rather than a natural smile. Mind you, if he’s been doing 8 shows a week for the last 18 months I’m amazed he can still stand up, let alone dance. My little trotters would be down to nubbins by now. Neither, to be frank, has he got a great singing voice. But he looks good, can put across a song, and hoofs it with style and conviction, and that is really all the part requires.

Charlotte Gooch manages “the triple threat” of dancing like a goddess, acting a stupid, bland role really well and singing like a dream. Did I mention that she has fantastic legs that go all the way up to her shoulders? She must be a costume designer’s wet dream.

Gooch and Chambers are given sterling support by Vivien Parry, Mermanising and delivering wisecracks with the timing of a Swiss watch. Stephen Boswell does a truly memorable job with the role of Bates, the hyper-efficient valet, and Ricardo Afonso almost, almost walks away with the entire show clutched between his shapely thighs in the “comedy foreigner” role of Beddini, a part which seems thankless in the first act but dominates the second, pushing Chambers very much into the background. The chorus hoof away from the word “go”, working as a great team and tapdancing with such gusto that bats practically fall out of the roof.

Costumes are, as Craig Revel-Horwood would say, “FAB-U-LUS”, displaying the height of the costume designer’s art, recalling the sheer glamour of the age of Fortuny and Schiaparelli. Period lines, styles, details and cuts are all correct – and what’s more, they’re all beautiful to look at, even when worn by “the fuller figures” on stage. Ms. Gooch (did I mention that she has legs that go all the way up to her teeth?) looks like she has just stepped out of an issue of Vogue, circa 1936 in a number of beautiful creations. I will nitpick that men in the late 1930s would have worn long socks rather than the little ankle-jobbies some of the principals are sporting and I will also nitpick that the bloody suitcases were empty again!

It’s a good, old fashioned, entertaining night out. You can take Granny to see it and she will have a ball. Your parents will like it – your mum probably loves Tom Chambers anyway and your dad will enjoy looking at Ms. Gooch’s fantastic pins which go all the way up to her ears. Doris, Hilda, Stan, Ruby and Doug haven’t had such a good time in years, (Stan didn’t need the TennaPants, btw) and will reminisce all the way home about the times when all West End shows had a chorus of 24 tapdancers dressed in top hat and tails (that production of King Lear must have been a riot) and whacked the stage to buggery with their canes. Who knows, secretly, under that gruff exterior, you might love it too. Don’t expect depth, a decent plot or subtle humour and you won’t be disappointed. It could run for years – but only as long as the chorus’s feet hold out – or until all that dancing scrapes a hole through the stage and everyone falls into the orchestra pit.