Tuesday, 26 May 2020

THEATRE REVIEW: Anno Domino (radio version) - The Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

Recently we have been reminded that in similar trying times in history some of the world’s greatest artists have produced masterpieces, including Shakespeare, who in quarantine wrote 'King Lear'; and Edward Munch, who during the 1918 influenza pandemic produced several paintings, including a much famed self-portrait. Now during lockdown in a bid to raise much needed funds for his beloved theatre in Scarborough, the Stephen Joseph, celebrated director and playwright, Alan Ayckbourn has written and made an audio recording of a new play, which he also performs in with his wife, actress Heather Stoney.

In the play, Ayckbourn and Stoney play four characters each, with an age range of 18 to mid-70s. It is the first time that they have acted together since Ayckbourn’s last appearance on a professional stage, in William Gibson’s two-hander 'Two For The Seesaw' at the Rotherham Civic Theatre in 1964. Since then Ayckbourn has written numerous plays becoming one of the world’s most performed and prolific living playwrights.

'Anno Domino' looks at the break-up of a long-established marriage and the effect that this has on family and friends. Listening to the play is a bit like putting on a CD of Ayckbourn’s Greatest Hits. The characters are instantly familiar from many of his previous plays, especially 'Absurd Person Singular', 'Bedroom Farce' and 'Taking Steps'. In Anno Domino, Ayckbourn creates situations that will be recognisable to many who know his work, during the course of the play his characters discuss extra marital affairs, lock themselves in outdoor sheds and respond in differing ways to varying degrees of adversity. The play begins with everyone’s golden couple, Sam and Millie preparing to host a party to celebrate their Silver Wedding Anniversary. In the lead up to the event, Sam’s elderly father Ben, (by far Ayckbourn’s best performance in the play), declares, “After the first 25 years, you grit your teeth and then stagger on to the finish line.” At the party Sam and Millie drop an enormous bombshell announcing that they are splitting up. Sam’s younger sister and parents struggle to make sense of this and the rest of the play focuses on how they cope with the repercussions it has on their own lives and those around them.

At two hours long, the play could do with some judicious editing, some scenes go on for a little bit longer than they need to and I am sure that if this play was adapted for the stage Ayckbourn would put this right. Putting this quibble aside the play is a real joy to listen to and the performances of Ayckbourn and Stoney are a delicious treat. Hopefully after this return to professional acting after a gap of almost 60 years, Ayckbourn might be persuaded to record other parts that he has created, in particular it would be marvellous to listen to him and Stoney perform some of his marathon play cycle for two actors, 'Intimate Exchanges'. Recorded in Ayckbourn and Stoney’s own home, Paul Steer’s sound mix, given present day restrictions and limitations is first-rate. 'Anno Domino' may not be one of Ayckbourn’s greatest plays, but it has a lot in it, including his customary wit and frankness that will please his many admirers. 

'Anno Domino' is available as an audio recording exclusively on the SJT’s website, www.sjt.uk.com from 25 May to 25 June. The recording is free to listen to however subscribers are kindly requested to make a donation to support the theatre through the current crisis.

Reviewer - Richard Hall

on - 25/5/20

Monday, 25 May 2020

THEATRE REVIEW: Magnificat - online filming The Chorus Of Women, Poland.

There is nowhere I can find where it might say the location of the performance in this recording, but since the company are based in Warsaw, Poland, I can only assume it to have taken place in a local theatre.

The Chorus Of Women (or in Polish, Chor Kobiet) are a group of female performers of all ages and backgrounds who come together under Marta Gornicka's direction and tutelage to perform her self-devised choral speaking episodes.

This one, Magnificat, is a 36 minute rant exploring (for 'exploring' read 'denouncing') the Catholic Church's claims over the bodies and fates of women. Gornicka has taken texts from multifarious sources including The Bible, Euripides' The Bacchae, Polish poets, The Liturgy, newspaper articles, sacred music, pop culture and recipes! and turned the whole into a piece of performance choral speaking. A cocophony of rythmic words, sound and movement empowering women, gloryfying feminism, and attacking Catholicism all in one fell swoop.

It's angry, it's powerful, it's from the heart. Starting with a guttral whisper, these 25 women speak in unison, in groups, individually, they move as one in military precision, and sometimes they even sing too, and when they do their voices are pure, clear and harmonic.

Directed live whilst they are performing is Marta Gornicka, making the whole seem either like an orchestra with a conductor, or a rehearsal. The rehearsal idea is further enhanced by their costumes. All of them wear dressed-down, comfy rehearsal gear (t-shirts and jean shorts or similar) but all in different shades of blue. And they are all barefoot. I am uncertain what message this idea of costuming was meant to represent: individualism or conformism; ordinary or unique. But it looked ragged.

The performance however was not ragged, but a polished and skilful presentation which grabbed you by the throat and made you stay and listen. Using ideas of plainchants and responses from the Catholic mass, as well as choral snippets putting a contemporary slant on them all; this whiuspering, wailing, screaming, singing, non-stop, full-force declamation won't let you exhale until they have finished telling you what they intended telling you!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 24/5/20

ONLINE CONCERT REVIEW: The COLEction - The Arden School Of Theatre, Manchester

A two-part online concert recorded in isolation / lockdown by final year students on the MA Musical Theatre course at The Arden School Of Theatre in Manchester. The concert, cleverly called 'The COLEction' celebrated two of American Musical Theatre's greatest names. In the first half it was the music of Cole Porter, and the second, Cy Coleman.

The students were self recorded via their computers or mobiles in their own homes and had piano backing tracks to sing along to. Obviously the sound quality of such a concert is not going to be optimal (ditto lighting, costuming etc), and singing in an empty room with no atmosphere is absolutely not the easiest thing to do. I take my hat off to all of them for being able to cope with such things seemingly so easily.

For each song the students had been given a short (or in some cases not so short) dialogue lead-in to their number, which added greatly to the characterisation and placing of the song, although I feel of further benefit to the viewer, naming the Musical from which the song was taken would have been a nice idea. Fortunately there were only 3 songs in the whole concert which were new to me and couldn't place the Musical, but others would not have been so fortunate / knowledgeable.

Under Ian Good's direction and Robert Purves's musical tutelage (perhaps also his piano playing), these songs and characters were brought nicely to life, despite the circumstantial drawbacks. The first half (Cole Porter) started well with 'Why Can't You Behave' (Kiss Me Kate) sung by Lucy Appleyard, followed by the first of the three songs which stumped me. This was a fine song and given a lovely interpretation by Megan Smart. It was 'Primitive Man' from 'Fifty Million Frenchmen'.  There were 13 Porter songs in all, so I'll simply mention my 3 favourites, which were 'So In Love' (Alessia Ragno), 'Goodbye Little Dream Goodbye' (Rebecca Crookson), and 'The Right Guy' - the second song I had never heard before! (Megan Holland). Also in this selection they performed a song which I had only ever heard previously sung by a female, 'Be Like The Bluebird' given a lovely comedy run for its money by Ryan Davenport, and my all-time favourite Cole Porter song; 'Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye' sung by Olivia Hargreaves.

In the second act we moved over to the music of Cy Coleman (and no, before you ask, my all-time favourite Coleman song was not included sadly.. it's 'The Colours Of My Life parts 1 and 2' from Barnum). Again 13 songs, but this time 14 singers as we had one duet. Again, here are my favourite three from this section: 'Baby Dream Your Dream' (Sweet Charity) sung by Tilly Smith and Isabella Eades-Jones, 'Nobody Does It Like Me' (Seesaw) sung by Sarah Bailey, and 'Never' (On The Twentieth Century), sung by Megan Davies-Truin. The whole evening was nicely rounded off by another excellent performer (channelling Bernadette Peters) singing 'Lost And Found' from 'City Of Angels', (Kathryn Moon).

A very difficult ask under trying circumstances, excellently acheived. Thanks for keeping us all entertained in lockdown, and hope to see you all soon.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 24/5/20