All My Sons, by Arthur Miller

The Bacon Theatre is in Cheltenham, in the grounds of a school. It’s a lovely airy building, with comfortable seating, and I’ve seen some fine live shows there. Still, it’s not quite the space where you might expect to find Sally Field, Bill Pulman, Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan on stage.

These, though, are the days of ‘live recordings’ being broadcast in cinemas and theatres across the country. Some of the top plays, operas and ballets from top theatres are now available in tiny local venues at affordable prices.

I’d be happy to shake the hand of the person who brought this dream to life, because the effect is that I get a best seat in the house. I wish I’d seen more but I’m generally slow off the mark, and those shows sell out fast in the provinces, too. This one was booked by my friend Claire. She’d not tried theatre on the screen before.

‘That was amazing,’ she said, as the lights came up at the end of act I, ‘nothing like I expected. It really is almost like you’re there.’

I nodded. ‘Despite being projected onto a screen.’

‘And this play finished in London, last spring, but it feels as if it’s all happening right now.’ We looked up at the screen, where the National Theatre audience were milling about the auditorium, eating popcorn and ice-creams, chatting and taking photographs. ‘I wonder if they realised they were being filmed…’ said Claire, sipping her cup of tea.

The timer in the corner of the screen counted the seconds down, and I heard the bell by our door being rung, then the light in our auditorium went down, and the on-screen stage began to brighten. In a moment I had slipped back into my place as interloper in the garden outside the Keller’s house, just in time to witness Chris Keller sawing through the trunk of the fallen apple-tree.

It was a beautifully produced and acted production. I believed in all of the characters and nearly everything I saw. I forgot that I was sitting on a cushioned bench and that the talk came from lines that had been learned. I felt joy and pain and fear, and believed in the interior of the house, and that when someone went out of sight they were doing what they said they would.

The only thing that jarred me out of my belief probably says more about me than the production. It was that fallen apple-tree, which was surrounded by apples of at least two varieties.

Half looked like either Red Delicious, or Jonathans, and the others looked like Braeburns or Jonagolds. I tried to ignore it, but at moments when the action centred on the tree I began to speculate. Maybe it had two or three varieties grafted onto its trunk. Since the tree was symbolic, could the mixed apples be of obscure visual significance?

Luckily, before I became fixated on this, Chris and his dad cleared the evidence away. I slipped back into the human action.

An hour or so later, when the curtain calls had been taken, Claire said, ‘I’ve always loved Sally Field, but I never realised she could act like that. Wasn’t it amazing?’

‘It was. They all were.’

‘Yes. How do they do it, night after night?’ said Claire, ‘Not just saying a few lines, picking up laughs. This was emotion, real emotion. You could still see it in their eyes when they took the curtain call.’

Claire’s in a band. I knew she was comparing the way she feels after a gig. We’ve talked a few times about the buzz of being on stage, and how she feels in the hours afterwards.

Do I need to add that if you haven’t tried out ‘live broadcasts’ yet, you should give them a try? Too late, I have.

My thanks to the Lassington Oak Mummers for a fine Christmas experience.

‘Here be I, the writer, a-scribbling and a-dribbling my thoughts on the page in style derived from ancient sage, of what time I observed the mumblings of some fine fellows, who did deliver amusements to a select gathering at the cost of some small refreshments, in a rustic hall, this Wednesday night last.

mummers-2-wi-2016‘Twas a seasonal tale of light and dark, delivered, in humorous garb and tone, by a band of merry wanderers.  To such extent that there was much splitting of the sides amongst their audience by virtue of the bantery and larking, jollily performed.  That matter, which included some stomping, and posturing with swords, and multitudinous winks and nudges, were a right good story, stoutly told.  How be, I do thoroughly recommend, should the chance occur, that you do partake of this brief and riotous entertainment.’

So as my seasonal greetings to you, I submit this tantalising glimpse of the Lassington Oak Mummers*, who delivered to us a skilled buffoonery: actors portraying amateurs, performing an economically artful script.

I wish you all the best festivities over the coming days, and as I’m taking a week off blogging for Christmas, I hope we’ll catch up again in the New Year.  Season’s Greetings, fellow bloggers, writers and readers.  See you on the second of January, 2017 to compare resolutions.


*If you want to know more about the history of mummers and the particular short play that I saw, you won’t do much better than click on this link for Lassington Oak, where there’s a fine, concise account of both, and a heads-up on where they will be performing in the near future. 

Junior-school Shakespeare

bottom and titaniaI went to see my niece and nephew in their end of term play this week.  It was a modern-English version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I’ve had hard things to say about adaptations in the past, and the dumbing down of stories to make them suitable for readers who are too young.  I stand by them, for books.

Midsummer Night's dream, norton school. 3 JPGWhen it comes to plays though, I’m a convert.  To see a school so joyfully engaged in a story is wonderful.  The children didn’t just perform a series of scenes, they’d investigated it, finding out what a theatre would have looked like when the play was written, what sorts of costumes were worn, and checking out what the big words in the script meant and how to pronounce them.

Whoever reworked this play for the junior school did a lovely job (and no, the writer’s weren’t credited in the programme).  It kept closely to the plot and therefore the spirit of the play, using several songs to condense the action and move the story on.

Despite nerves, the children clearly loving being on stage.  They all seemed to glow with excitement.

All of the years were included in this cast, but the key roles are always offered to the oldest class.  It’s a kind of leaving present for them, and most have been looking forward to taking part for a several years.

I’ve been to a few of these now, but usually they’ve been adaptations of musicals – songs and dance are, of course, an obligatory part of the end-of-year play.  The youngest classes have chorus roles, and sit on mats at the sides of the stage; the middle classes make up the walk-on parts and boost the singing.  They sit on chairs to the side of the stage, ready to provide crowd scenes.

What I liked about this production was that whoever cast it had thought carefully about matching the actor’s personalities to maximize the effects of the roles. Puck seemed naturally full of mischief, and the four romantic characters were nicely balanced.

Peter Quince, Snug, Snout and Bottom were played by girls.  Snug was the timidest, most fragile-looking lion imaginable, and a hush needed to fall to hear her soft roar.  While Flute was played by a sturdy boy, which meant that when the time came to play Pyramus and Thisbe we had the full comic effect.

Actually, when Thisbe strode on stage, still trying to straighten his large bubbling blonde wig and not managing to control his flowing blue cape, the audience pretty well collapsed in howls of laughter.  The rest of the cast caught the infection, and for several minutes the story was delivered in giggles.

‘We couldn’t help it,’ Rose said later. ‘He’d never had that outfit in rehersals.’

Midsummer Night's dream, norton school.2 JPGA legend, it seems has been made.  We all should have such a triumph to look  back to.

Shakespeare, these children have been taught is fun.  Later it might get serious, but for the moment, all of the school, including the infant classes, who had watched the dress rehearsal, have been involved in a live performance.  They’ve also got to grips with the basic plot of a piece of classic literature.  Live performance, they’ve learned, is magic.

Every so often, when I looked around that audience, I saw not just pride, but engagement.

Midsummer Night's dream, norton school

The lights went down, the curtains opened, and it was not children we watched, it was actors, re-creating stories of other times and beliefs.

So here’s me modifying my ideas.  After this, I’m all in favour of adaptations when the outcome is to whet the appetite for more.

Under the spell of imaginative people

Sometimes, words just get under my skin.  It may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s, but IClywd theatre put it down to the power of poetry, and the sign of a good production, that even though it is some years since I read, saw or heard Under Milk Wood, while watching a matinee performance by the Clwyd Theatre Cymru on Thursday, I found myself not just anticipating most of the lines, but holding my breath for them.

Left to my own inclinations, I might have passed up on going to see the play again.  It’s been a busy month and I have a copy of the Richard Burton audio production that makes me weak-kneed.  Luckily, though, I have a friend who invited me to go with her.

Anyone who’s interested in imaginative writing should go along to see how a show that was written for the radio, that world-within-the-mind medium, can take place upon a stage.  It was a good reminder that nothing, or to put it in the colloquial, bugger-all, is impossible with fiction.

set photo by Catherine Ashmore

set photo by Catherine Ashmore

The whole geography and community of Llareggub was played out on the small stage of our theatre.  Within a curve of  space were included all of the long sloping streets, the huddles of houses, the hills, the sea, and its shore, and all the busy, lazy, cheating, peeping people who inhabit them.

Theatre, I believe, is magic.  Able to transport me not just into the world of other people, but into my past.  Holding my breath for the slow black, crow black, fishing boat bobbing sea, I not only followed the firm hold of the cast on their roles, but recalled different versions.  Does theatre happen only on the stage? No, it’s in my minds eye too.

I remembered again that school trip, was it in the third or fourth year?  Winter though, because it was dark as we gathered after tea-time to wait for the coach.  I must have been studying the text for literature, but seeing the play was what made me fall in love with it.  That was my first experience of minimal theatre.  Acting can work without scenery and props?  Wow.

The actors were in contemporary dress.  We were out of uniform.  Remember how that felt, to be of school, and yet at odds with it at the same time, and the teachers: in not quite front-of-class mode.  It was a moment of flux, when I experienced something that was outside of the ordinary and was aware of myself growing.  Late nights on a coach, those were the days.  Dusty seats, steamy windows and hushed voices before we stumbled down the steps and made our ways home.

We may have gone to somewhere quite close by, but it seemed to me like another world, and that was just how I felt on Thursday afternoon, walking out into the sunshine.  It took a moment to get into step with the outside, to master paying for parking tickets and head home.



Theatre Reveiw – The Royal Shakespeare Company Christmas Show

Okay, so it’s nearly the end of January now, and your thoughts have left the festive season behind, but I was a bit late booking for Wendy and Peter Pan.  Here’s a tip.  If you’re interested in getting seats for a small group to see a show at the RSC during the holidays, and want to learn by my mistake, you should start organising before the end of November.

Although now that we’ve done this late the once, I’m tempted to say I’d repeat it.  It was good to gather the family together again, post festivities.

The observant amongst you may have wondered if I’ve got a bit muddled about the title of Peter_Pan_1915_coverthe play we saw.  No, it’s not a typing error.  This is an adaptation of JM Barrie’s, Peter Pan and Wendy.  Ella Hickson has reversed the order of the two names to reflect the changes she’s made to the story (don’t worry, she’s not so much fiddled with the plot as shifted the focus to include more of Wendy).    If you’re interested, you can read more about that, and a whole lot more other information on the RSC website.

Okay, it’s their show: they’re bound to rave.

What did our party think?  Fab.  That’s all of us, from the youngest (who is five, two years younger than the recommended age, but he didn’t want to be left out) to the oldest (not me, Granny).

Settling down before the show

Settling down before the show

The set and costumes were amazing, and full of surprises.  The scenes shifted seamlessly. The underground home of the lost-boys opened up out of the stage floor as if it were the top of a clam-shell, looking brilliantly den like; Captain Hook and his crew sailed the Jolly Roger back and forth across the lagoon, pursued by the ticking crocodile, and the cast bounced effortlessly off the ground, the walls, the furniture and the rafters.

In addition though, the story had enough depth to be delivering entertainment on all our levels. This version is not just about boys being able to run wild, it opens up questions about what part girls do, and should have, in that.  Hickson’s version of the play is a fusion.  The setting, and a lot of the references are Edwardian England, but the twenty-first century keeps seeping in.

‘Come on girls, we’re going to up and at ’em,‘ shouts Tinkerbell, clumping heavily out of the den to lead the battle charge, in her off-pink frilly dress and sturdy leather boots.

Tradition has been updated.  All around me the audience drew in a collective breath as Peter appealed for us to save Tink.  ‘Could we help?’

‘Yes,’ called a child’s voice, and then there were others, not just one or two voices, the answer echoed across the auditorium.

Theatre, huh?  When it comes right down to it, there’s something magical about watching a drama played out on a stage.  The engagement of the imagination; that act of suspending disbelief is such a special experience, and sometimes, thanks to this oh so realistic digital society, we forget that there are other ways of discovering truths about ourselves and the world around us.

My wish is that every child could have the opportunity to visit a show like this.  If nothing else, it’s got to be good for them to see grown-ups who can let go and imagine.  But on so many other levels too, theatre seems to me to broaden our horizons.

You don’t need to have children to enjoy this show.  There were unaccompanied adults in the audience too, looking just as dazed as the children when the lights went up and we had to step back into the mundane business of going home.

If you’re anywhere near Stratford-upon-Avon, this show is on until March 2nd and in case you haven’t realised, I’m thoroughly recommending it.