It is unfair to compare performances in small theatres with those in large theatres but in this case, Michael Pennington’s astonishing performance in Dances of Death would not have been out of place on the stage of the Olivier. Howard Brenton superbly edited Strindberg’s play to include the rarely performed second act – this really should have gone on to the West End. As usual, the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond was dependably first class, most notably The Stepmother starring the superb Katie McGuinness (and Christopher Ravenscroft who was also in Dances of Death). The slightly larger St James Theatre was more variable but Rutherford & Son and The Room Next Door were both excellent. A final word must go to the Old Red Lion Theatre for another astonishing play by Philip Ridley – The Fastest Clock in the Universe. He is clearly one of our greatest playwrights and I’d never heard of him until last year.
To many of us, there is something intrinsically funny about the idea of twitching, or obsessive bird-watching. This play plays on this and certainly has some funny moments and one extremely funny scene, but there are also darker undercurrent. David Lewis both wrote and directed the play but, as the amusing dialogue between the writer and director in the programme makes clear, he has successfully kept the two roles distinct from each other.
The play looks at two therapists, each counselling one partner of a failing marriage while one of the therapists also goes through a marital crisis. I will not explain further as I don’t want to spoil it. Therapy is perhaps over-used by writers to allow characters to open up their inner feelings – I have never met someone in real life who attends this type of therapy – but when written and acted this well it works. After laughing during the play, I left the theatre thinking far more about the dark, underlying theme about the impact on the parents of losing a child which slowly emerges. Funny and thought-provokng: what more can you ask from a play?
This is a hilarious play in which the title says it all. It portrays an amateur production by the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society in which everything that can go wrong does, starting with an apology to those seated in the wrong Trafalgar Studio who thought they’d booked to see James MacAvoy’s Mabeth in the theatre upstairs.
This simple concept is transformed by performances which had me laughing more than I’ve laughed at anything since Ayckbourn’s Taking Steps at the Orange Tree. The play cleverly builds up, moving to ever more absurd situations with tremendous comic effect, terrific slapstick and perfect timing. I last saw Henry Lewis in the awesome Mercury Fur at the same theatre and it is difficult to imagine two more different parts but he pulled this off sublimely – definitely an actor to watch.
Some people may think it is odd that I can rate a travelling company such as Vienna Festival Ballet more highly than the obviously much more skilled Royal Ballet. As I can’t go out much at the moment, I decided to look at the very different experience of big and small theatres and venues.
Skill levels. Obviously the big companies can draw on more highly skilled actors and dancers than the little ones but sometimes the very best actors love working in small theatres (e.g. Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins in “All That Fall” last year) and some small theatres can draw the very best actors, such as the Orange Tree in Richmond. It also takes a different sort of skill to work on a big stage in a big theatre – OperaUpClose can get extremely good singers who may not have the power to fill the Coliseum or ROH.
Musical scale. Most of the best concerts I have been to have been in small venues such as the JACK Quartet playing Xenakis’s astonishing Tetras Quartet at the Wigmore Hall or the amazing Japanese band Nissennenmondai at Upset the Rhythm. You can never see that level of virtuosity in a symphony orchestra or in a stadium, unless it is on the video screens.
Practice makes perfect. Travelling companies will recruit for a specific production and then play it night after night, raising their performances to levels they would not initially be able to achieve. Oddly, the use of pre-recorded music can help too as it is absolutely the same every night. I love the use of a full orchestra by the Royal Ballet or English National Ballet but the tightest performance by the ENB I have seen was their collaboration with Flawless in “Against Time,” a touring production danced to a recorded backing.
Friendliness. Small theatres and venues offer a far more intimate experience than the bigger venues and sharing the experience with a few dozen people can make you feel a part of something very special whereas larger places can become very impersonal.
I have been a Friend of the ENB for a couple of years (really good value if you are over 60) but only just got round to attending one of their open days. I should have done so earlier: it is an astonishing experience to be part of a small group (limited to ten) sitting in the rehearsal studio at Markova House while they practise. I was lucky enough to see a number of principals in duets from Sleeping Beauty, followed by Shiori Kase rehearsing for her performance in Diana and Acteon at the Emerging Dancer awards. To have dancers so close that you find yourself moving your feet out of the way (probably unnecessarily) is a very different experience to seeing them on stage (especially if you sit as far away as I usually do). Despite my comments on the importance of the music in ballet, it hardly matters in these circumstances that there is just a piano to accompany them. I also thoroughly recommend going to small theatres to see opera and plays. OperaUpClose, usually at the King’s Head but also touring gave an excellent, very involving performance of Britten’s Turn of the Screw a year or two back, whilst I’ve already said how much I enjoy plays at the Orange Tree and Pentameters.
Katie McGuinness was again superb as the title character after similar successes in Nan and Mary Broom (both also at the Orange Tree), whilst Christopher Ravenscroft plays a much nastier and more complex character than the nice DI Burden he played in Inspector Wexford. As it was the first preview, a couple of slight glitches in the first part are easily excused, especially as the director, Sam Walters, was in the audience ready to pick them up and make sure they are sorted by tonight. There was not a single fault in the second part which was sheer joy, the plot and performances picking up and driving forward to a perfect (but not predictable) ending.
I used to live closer to the Orange Tree Theatre, going regularly, and still try to go when as often as I can. Sam Walters specialises in finding relatively unknown, well-constructed plays from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a crime that this play, written in 1924 by Githa Sowerby, has never been performed in the UK. As with many of his other finds, what surprises is not how dated these plays are but how they resonate with our current time. It may seem odd that the only purpose-built true theatre in-the-round that I know of in London should offer such a good home for 100 year old plays.