Butterflies are Free – Bijou Theatre Productions

Butterflies are FreeI’m guilty of going to see ‘Butterflies are Free’ on opening night. I’ll be honest, I went because I wanted to support director, Maggie Campbell, with whom I had many a laugh in her production of ‘As You Like It’ a few years ago (here’s a link to the performance diaries if you don’t believe me). I knew nothing of the play, and I thought going on the opening night would give me the chance to dodge posting a review under the excuse that it isn’t fair to judge any production on the first performance.

Well blimey Bijou Theatre Productions have slipped something special under the radar here, and if you don’t get to the Palace Theatre, Paignton, this week (the play runs from Wednesday 10 to Saturday 13 February 2016), then you can’t say I didn’t try to get you there.

This is a coming of age story, with a bit of romance, a bit of heartbreak and a taste of a world very few of us have to think about. The stand out performance comes from Peter Hubble as Don Baker, a man described in the programme as having more than his fair share of problems. No spoilers here, but this character is a gift of a part for any young man wanting to take on a role that offers the chance to showcase his talents, and Hubble seizes the opportunity with both hands. Local actors will want to see this sensitive, warm and groovy character.

Don’s world is turned upside down when his neighbour, Jill Tanner, played by Katie Daymond, arrives on the scene. The first act is virtually a two-hander, as these two meet and begin to get to know each other. It is all very young, very funny and very absorbing. You’re taken into their apartment and the story never sags. The energy is wonderful and the pair have a great chemistry on stage.

In the second act we see the consequences of the arrival of Don’s mother to events. Mrs Baker is played by Anna Reynolds, who brings a mixture of some of the best laughs to the night, together with those scenes that always get me, as mother cuts the apron strings – agony to watch and beautifully played.

There’s a wonderful cameo from Joe Mortlock as Ralph Austin, who enters the apartment for such a short while, but that he is blind to what is going on around him only adds to the humour. His exchanges with Mrs Baker are a treat and he makes the most of them.

It’s a small and capable cast who offer value for money with great material. I can’t help but think that my week is better for seeing this.

Last review for Bijou Theatre Productions: Quartet

Last review from the Jolly Lion: Angels in America

Angels in America – Exeter University Theatre Company

Angels in AmericaMisery came when I realised that I hadn’t seen EUTCO perform since 2012. That’ll be years of top quality student theatre that I’ve been missing, just because I’ve been too lazy to drive up the road. But with the bypass open, there’s no excuse. And blimey, the standard remains high.

The Exeter University Theatre Company staged ‘Angels in America’ by Tony Kushner at the Northcott Theatre between Wednesday 20 January and Saturday 23 January 2016. Directed by Caroline Lang and Isobel Knight, the company took big issues seriously and offered a night out that will leave a lasting impression.

Set in New York of the 1980s, we find couples dealing with difficulties with physical health and mental health either by guilt or sickness. The whole cast delight in the coarse humour that spills through the production, and the audience respond to every opportunity to laugh out loud in readiness for the next devastating moment to strike.

I could have watched Sophy Dexter’s Harper slip deeper into her fantasy world all night. The deterioration of Harper’s mental wellbeing is heartbreaking and the characterisation was so interesting throughout, even when she wasn’t the focus of the scene. If there’s a point at which you punch the air, it’s when Harper meets Prior, played by Henry Smith, two characters that can only meet in a hallucination between their worlds. As, in my view, the two characters easiest to sympathise with, and that get most of the funniest lines, the meeting is one of many triumphs on stage.

As Prior deals with the onset of AIDS, one of the most powerful sequences takes place immediately after the interval, as he starts to cough and ends on the floor in a pool of blood. Very uncomfortable viewing and all the better for it.

It has taken me a few days to realise just how much I appreciated Nick Cope’s performance as Joe, Harper’s husband, fighting his upbringing as a Mormon to accept the empty relationship and ready himself for life with a man. It shows how some parts of society have shifted so much since the 1980s that this is now a period piece. On first impressions I found Joe irritating and weak for not accepting his sexuality earlier, but it’s 21st Century eyes that see him that way. The struggle with faith and sham marriage is a reminder of how far we have come, and it is a credit to the performances that they have stayed with me and kept me thinking about them – I’m only sorry it took me time to realise how well realised it was.

This goes for all of the five central characters, as Oliver McLellan’s Louis deserts Prior when he needs him most, then explores different ways of living with the guilt of leaving his partner when he is most needed, through to Jason Pallari’s Roy, a lawyer hiding his sexuality and his ill-health to protect his position and his reputation. These are distinct characters, who each have stories that unravel in a mixture of good humour and tragedy. They aren’t always easy to like, but they are delivered with a humour that keeps you watching.

Whether minor characters are bursting out of sofas or sliding out from under hospital beds, drinking soup over burning bins or waiting to be picked up on a park bench there are a lot of cheerful cameo roles that actors make the most of. The staging is slick and the sound and visuals add to the experience.

There are certainly faces in this production worth keeping an eye on in the future in what was a powerful, thoughtful and haunting play. I suspect I’ll be worrying about Harper for weeks to come – somebody give me the script for the second part quickly, as I want to know what happens to everyone. If I gave scores at the end of my reviews, this would have the highest.

Last review from the Northcott: Sister Act

Last review of an EUTCO production: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Night Must Fall – TOADS Theatre Company

Night Must Fall - TOADS Theatre Company2016 at the Little Theatre, Torquay, opened with a psychological thriller in the form of ‘Night Must Fall’ by Emlyn Williams. Directed by Jill Pettigrew for the TOADS Theatre Company, the production ran from Monday 18 January to Saturday 23 January.

These days we expect our crime drama to come with many a twist and turn, and ‘Night Must Fall’ will disappoint anyone hoping to spend an evening trying to second guess the action, as that really isn’t the point in this story, where the killer is highlighted from the start. Instead we venture into a world where anyone who has something to hide can expect to be uncovered and receive their comeuppance by the end of the night and our fun comes from watching a household fall apart.

This is the story of Olivia Grayne, for whom hard times have forced her into the household of her elderly ailing aunt. Her only hope of escape comes in the form of the daily visit of a suitor so boring she would prefer to stay and read to her aunt and medicate her by the chime of the clock. Any dreams of excitement are met when Dora the maid gets pregnant by a young Welshman, known only as Dan, who happens to have killed a lady and disposed of most of the body in the grounds of the bungalow. When Olivia fails to persuade everyone else that Dan has a dark side, she helps to cover up his antics, rather than expose him, but not everyone gets out alive.

There are so many different styles of performances in this production, it could easily have seemed quite chaotic, but every character is defined by their interaction with Mrs Bramson, the aunt, played by Janet Downer, and this keeps a balance between the comedy, the melodrama and the introspection. Whether playing the hard taskmaster, delivering the jokes or persuading you there is frailty beneath the surface, the performance succeeds and brings everyone else together.

Carolyn Bavister delights as the mousy Olivia, carrying a strange dignity as she slowly falls for a killer and picks away at him to find the truth. Dan, played by Matt Brown, is the kind of villain you want to “Boo!” from the moment he is first mentioned. As he ingratiates himself into the house with a creepy charm, Brown gives one of the most disturbing performances I have seen at the Little Theatre. You want everyone to see what Olivia can see, but having eyes too far apart or a history of womanising isn’t enough to persuade anyone of his sinister intent. As he gets steadily drunk, biblical and carried away with a cushion, the performance goes beyond unsettling into dangerous. They certainly put the thrills into this thriller.

The rest of the cast had lovely moments humour, but Fiona Humpreys stood out as Mrs Terence, venturing out of the kitchen to give as good as she gets from Mrs Bramson and getting all the best one-liners.

Finally, special note goes to the hatbox, as it took me a while to cotton on to the implication of what it contained. Gloriously dark.

I open and close my thoughts on this play by wanting to scream at the script for not being what we get today from this genre, but that isn’t to knock the cast and crew in what they brought to life. Perhaps I’m just of the wrong generation, preferring the CSI or Sherlock misdirection of storytelling to a stylish character piece. Shame on me, well done you.

Last review from the Little Theatre: Neighbourhood Watch



Secret Invasion

Secret InvasionSecret Invasion – Tales of Eldritch Horror from the West Country

Some dear friends of mine have produced a horror anthology that I must take a moment to recommend to you.

There seems to be two aims behind this book, firstly to raise money for Mind, the mental health charity and secondly, to bring the south west of the United Kingdom to fifteen stories inspired by the weird storytelling of H P Lovecraft. Terrifying!

Follow this link to donate to Mind and find out how you can download your copy of Secret Invasion


Sister Act – Exeter Musical Society

Sister ActThere aren’t many shows that can get a matinee on their feet. The only times I’ve seen it locally have been with ‘Blood Brothers’ and ‘Sister Act‘. The Exeter Musical Society production of the show kept that up, proving there’s life in the matinee audience yet…

The tale of wannabe singer Deloris Van Cartier having to enter witness protection in a convent after seeing her gangster boyfriend kill a man is a great set up. The clash of worlds between disco and the convent is a constant source of humour as Deloris turns a choir of nuns into the next big thing, struggling to keep a low profile and putting her own life and the lives of the nuns in danger.

Kat Brooks makes a fabulous Deloris, giving a performance full of soul, energy and holding the focus of the audience whether singing alone or with a whole convent of nuns. There was plenty for Musical Director Simon Carter to get his teeth into, and the nuns don’t let him down with some lovely toe-tapping numbers including ‘Take Me To Heaven’ and ‘Sunday Morning Fever’.

The Mother Superior, played by Penny Daw, keeps a level of dignity in her convent and makes sure faith is never far from the centre of the story. ‘Here Within These Walls’ sets the scene beautifully and ‘Haven’t Got A Prayer’ went down very with the audience.

The stand out number from the first act came from James Billington as Eddie Souther, who during ‘I Could Be That Guy’ pulled off two costume changes and he was the only chap to give the nuns a vocal run for their money. Choreographer Mai-Lin Hagiwara must be delighted that the sequence worked so very effectively, but also be proud of her nuns, who moved as one throughout the show in a number of songs which have more than a dozen on stage dancing.

Come the second act, it was Molly Emmerson’s Sister Mary Robert that broke me, and the emotion of ‘The Life I Never Led’ seems to get me every time. The tone of the show changes here, quickly followed up with Kat Brooks delivering the title song, ‘Sister Act’ where you’re left wanting her to go back to the convent. As these two songs get a reprise, I hope we’re all punching the air as Sister Mary Robert stands up to Mother Superior, Mother Superior stands by Deloris, then one by one every nun steps out alongside her.

Sister Act 2Then, just when you think it can’t get any better, Joe McNulty puts in a cheerful cameo appearance as the Pope, giving the director a chance to see his delighted audience! By the time the Queen of Angels Cathedral finishes a chorus of ‘Spread the Love Around’ we’re all on our feet and the Northcott is dancing. This remains a sure sign that the production has been a triumph. Holy Smokes!

And so when I reviewed a version of Sister Act in 2012 I concluded by saying that I’ll never be a sister in any sense of the word. Time passes, and as Mary Robert sings, “I’m either a sister or nothing at all.” I’m a bloody sister and I want to go back to the convent.

Visit the Exeter Musical Society website or follow them on Facebook

Last Review from the Jolly Lion: The Man Jesus

John Challis in Jack and the Beanstalk – Theatre Royal, Plymouth


John Challis as Fleshcreep in Plymouth

My first Theatrical Who Spot of 2015 is John Challis, who has been appearing as Fleshcreep in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth this Christmas and New Year.

To many he will always be Boycie from ‘Only Fools and Horses’, but to the world of Doctor Who fans he is better known as Scorby from ‘The Seeds of Doom’, where he starred alongside Tom Baker in the 1976 adventure.


John Challis as Scorby, holding Tom Baker at gunpoint

You could tell that Challis drew much for his 2015 performance on his time in Doctor Who. For a start, both Fleshcreep and Scorby are villainous henchmen. Second fiddle to madmen with big houses and plenty of money, the characters are both mercenaries who turn a blind eye to the sanity of their paymaster.

In ‘The Seeds of Doom’ Challis had to do a fair bit of gun-wielding and tying up Sarah Jane Smith. Challis had clearly learned that neither guns nor ropes were effective in the 1970s, as for the Plymouth pantomime he carried a whip and learned that your damsel is less likely to escape if you tie her up with chains rather than rope.


The Beanstalk grows to Giant’s Kingdom…

The most striking parallel between the two is the way Challis has mastered working with ridiculous botanicals.

When you have to persuade a family audience you are a man with magic beans that might grow into a giant beanstalk that reaches into space, you have to draw on all the acting faculties at your disposal. Thankfully, Challis has the advantage, as in ‘The Seeds of Doom’ he had to steal alien seed pods that grow into a giant monster from space.

And so, what a pleasure it was to get to ‘boo’ and ‘hiss’ at John Challis in pantomime. The singing and dancing between dancers in tight costumes was not reminiscent of anything seen in his work on Doctor Who, but was still highly enjoyable. The masterful disguises Fleshcreep demonstrated were not in Scorby’s repertoire, and so I have to accept there is more to the career of Mr Challis than his days working with Tom Baker.

Still, they both had the same moustache, and I’m sure that’s all that counts.

The Man Jesus – Theatre Royal, Plymouth

The Man JesusWhen I booked my seat for ‘The Man Jesus’, I can’t claim to have been feeling particularly Jesussy. To be honest, I haven’t been very Jesussy for a number of years.

Having said that, I did have a scamper through Colm Tóibín’s ‘The Testament of Mary‘ at the start of the year. In a sense, my reaction to that novella and my reaction to ‘The Man Jesus’ are very similar, as I find myself wondering who the desired audience is for each, given that I’m pretty sure it isn’t me.

I didn’t go looking for Jesus. I went looking for Callow. I had enjoyed his ‘Being an Actor’ and wanted to see one of his one man shows. Here he takes on a number of familiar characters, from Mary to Pilate via Judas and John the Baptist. A turn of a body, a change of accent, a jacket removed, a sleeve rolled up, and he becomes a new person. It is gripping stagecraft.

The only role he doesn’t take on is Jesus, although we hear his words through the words of those who met him. And so we are taken on a journey through the gospels and we meet the man who repeatedly disappoints.

He doesn’t talk enough for his brother. He doesn’t send the right message for his cousin. He does not seize the moment where he could make the difference for his friend. He does things his way and his way makes a surprising amount of sense.

The stage contains Callow and a pile of chairs. The chairs reminded me of the end of my own church-going days. Exactly the same wooden seats were being removed to make space. Or to make the space look less like a room of empty seats.

Callow reminded me of everything I love about theatre. That you can stand, one man alone, and command a room. You can be anyone and tell any story and get a good few laughs along the way.

And so I come back to Matthew Hurt’s script and wonder who is it for? It holds back from any declarations that the man was the son of God. It doesn’t go quite as far at the Tóibín novella to set him up as a wild revolutionary, although it is the path he is walking, they do both capture a Mary who is more sympathetic a character than her son.

I can only assume that the piece is for those who enjoy performance, because at the end of the evening, I have no more wonder for Jesus the man, but was in awe of what Callow had achieved. As I come away from the theatre, I know that I loved it and could have watched Callow move from character to character all night. I also wonder if I completely missed the point. Shame on me.

Last Review from the Theatre Royal, Plymouth: Legally Blonde

Neighbourhood Watch – TOADS Theatre Company

IMG-20141005-00198The Little Theatre, Torquay,  maintains the tradition of having the most impressive sets locally for this week’s Alan Ayckbourn comedy ‘Neighbourhood Watch’. Designed by the production’s director, John Miles, the living room of brother and sister Martin and Hilda Massie is on a lovely angle that more than hints at a world beyond the boundaries of the stage.

Freshly decorated, the siblings are having a house warming that soon develops into a creation of a neighbourhood watch come middle class vigilante movement. Before long the estate is being protected by high fences, a checkpoint and internal security, which perhaps goes to show the impact new neighbours can have in a short space of time.

The stand out comedy performance comes from John Hall as Rod Trusser, who has a matter of fact way of explaining the problems of the area and how they can be resolved. His frustrations in dealing with the police is one of the highlights of the first act, as he recounts the story of a stolen hedge trimmer, whilst his efforts to protect his security team from the police in the second act are very funny indeed.

Strangely, the most likeable characters in the piece are Amy Janner, played by Amy Burton-Smith and Luther Bradley, played by Paul Duffield. Something does not sit right that the most sensible characters appear to be the promiscuous lady and the wife beater who are said to be having an affair from the outset. Yet their reactions to what goes on around them is the most normal and understandable. Amy Janner hates committees and just wants to enjoy life away from her husband, who locks himself away in the shed. Meanwhile, Luther Bradley doesn’t want all the new security measures, refuses to carry an ID card, and gets very frustrated with his new neighbours when they suggest he is violent on the strength of gossip from around the neighourhood. They become our viewpoint characters, commenting on the madness of everything that is happening.

Nichola Winstanley delivers a strong, clear performance as Hilda Massie, superficially sensible compared to her brother Martin Massie, played by David Warren, but together they build such a peculiar empire, it would be difficult to want a happy ending for either. It is flagged up from the outset that we are being told a story of how this empire collapses, and the pair get the bulk of the laughs, Winstanley for Hilda’s enjoyable scheming and Warren for Martin’s physical comedy.

There are three endings that satisfy to differing extents,  each building on the previous and ensuring that there is a good roar from the audience when the curtain comes. A long night with regular laughs.

Last review from the Little Theatre: She Stoops to Conquer 

Bazaar and Rummage – Shiphay Amateur Dramatic Society

Bazaar and Rummage - Shiphay Amateur Dramatic SocietyThe new season opened for SADS with Sue Townsend comedy, ‘Bazaar and Rummage’, directed by Linda Dilley. At £6 per ticket, they remain the cheapest amateur theatre locally. Running from Thursday 9 to Saturday 11 October 2014, this production brought the inside of a church hall to St John’s Church Hall, Torquay.

In all honesty, I love this kind of setting, as those who saw my staging of ‘Love Me Slender’ back in 2009 at the same venue will understand. It brings the audience straight into the scene, because it looks just like an extension of the room you’re sat in.

At the time I thought that it would be easier in the amdram world to find an all female cast (those good old myths about there being a shortage of men have never quite gone away), only to have two parts cast very late in the day, ladies were just as hard to find! The programme notes suggest that nothing has changed on that score, with one late addition to a pivotal role and the director having to step in for a small turn near the end.

As an audience, we are taken back to the 1980s and a self-help group for agoraphobics, who are holding a rummage sale. As each member of the group arrives, so we are reminded that you can label people, but they will never be the same, and you cannot assume that they will get on simply because of a mutual condition.

Katrina is played by Pat Bidder, in one of her funniest performances on the Shiphay stage. The character may be timid, but she makes an impression and delivers the running gag every time somebody leaves the room, “I can’t stand her, can you?” to the ever increasing delight of the audience.

Jo Matthews plays Bell-Bell, a lady who cleans her house from top to bottom daily in a battle against germs, never quite finishing the job to be able to go out into the world. Potty-mouthed Margaret is played by Pat Cook, another part that had the audience in stitches.

The group are led by Gwenda, a recovered agoraphobic played by Pat Gillies. The level of that recovery comes into question as the story progresses. Alone she has a tendency to stroke her late father’s standard lamp, and one scene is beautifully upstaged by her marching up and down at the back quietly working her way through four verses of ‘If you’re happy and you know it’. Priceless.

To bring some sanity to the room we have trainee social worker Fliss, played by Suzanne Green. It’s a tough job playing the straight role while everyone around you gets the pick of the funny lines, but the laughs she gets are well deserved.

Of course, it isn’t all laughs along the way. Each lady confronts her demons and those are some very dark areas indeed. SADS have never hidden from edgy material, and although this script may have been doing the rounds for a long time, it keeps coming back because the issues are just as relevant today. We still see people labelled and medicated before the causes of their problems are addressed.

It’s not a nice play, but it is dealt with sensitively, showing the serious moments appropriate respect before breaking the tension with some decent jokes. Uncomfortably funny.

Last review from Shiphay Amateur Dramatic Society: The Farmer’s Wife

Quartet – Bijou Theatre Productions

Quartet - Bijou Theatre ProductionsA nice piece of rebranding from Bijou Theatre Productions makes this my first review of a ‘Non-Professional Production’ – as the Palace Theatre, Paignton sees Ronald Harwood’s ‘Quartet’ staged between Wednesday 8 and Saturday 11 October 2014.

Directed by Ruth Bettesworth and picking from the best of local talent, the production team make it look like it would be hard to go wrong with what has been labelled ‘A funny yet poignant play’.

The audience is taken to a country house converted into a home for retired opera performers. Having never made their fortune in the arts, they are looked after comfortably in retirement with the support of charity, and are determined to see out their days there in comfort among friends.

There are problems along the way, as the threat of losing one’s marbles is a path to being removed from the home, the organised activities are not to the taste of every resident, the staff appear to go out of their way to make breakfast a daily disappointment, and the next new arrival may be a blast from the past one resident has been trying to forget…

‘Quartet’ reminds you of the wonderful pleasure it is to meet anyone of a certain age. You get both the joy of who they are now, and the gentle revealing of who they once were, as they gradually feel comfortable talking about the past. There is a clear message about the importance of living in the present and taking pleasure in what delights life can bring from day to day. It also makes you consider how best to demonstrate respect for your past and whether you can ever recapture the moment that you were at your best in whatever you do.

The audience are introduced to four characters who make up the Quartet. Liz Lee plays Cecily, a lady who has thrown herself into life in the home, she is part of the events committee but is protected by the other residents as she shows signs of behaviour that could see her taken away. Wilf is played by Richard Bearne, a widower who appears to revel in being suggestive at every opportunity and delivers a lot of the humour in the first half of the play.

We meet Reggie, played by Colin Baker, the quiet man who takes comfort from his routine, he is prone to outbursts, more often than not directed towards the staff. The last to make up the quartet is Reggie’s ex-wife Jean, played by Suzy Miles, a lady who is only too aware that her best days are behind her, but  will talk about how wonderful she was at every opportunity.

All four characters have layers that are uncovered to show that these old friends all have secrets, nobody is quite the persona they are trying to present, but together, as they move towards a special performance celebrate Verdi’s birthday (that’s perfectly timed for those in on the Friday night!) all will come together in the end.

If the first act introduces us to four characters that it is easy to care about, the second act takes us on an extraordinary journey. The last scene asks for such concentration of the four performers as they dress and redress, hold multiple conversations that cover a range of emotions and ready themselves for  a final performance unlike anything else you will see on stage this year.

I can understand the rebranding away from amateur. This may be a non-professional production, but it is certainly of a professional standard. Simply sublime.

Last review for Bijou Theatre Productions: Revenge