Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Curve Leicester. Abigail's Party. Review

“I told you nobody'd like olives Laurence.” says the lead character Beverly to her put down husband. He retorts, “Not nobody Beverly: I like olives. And that's twenty-five per cent of the assembled company” In such cleverly written lines throughout Leigh's comically tragic masterpiece, Abigail's Party, we recognise 1970s affluent pretension gone horribly wrong. The fact that we still laugh at the play is not a hark back to lesser cultural times but the fact that all the bickering and one-upmanship we witness on the stage still holds in society today.

The Curve production is set in their studio space which, for the first time ever, has been turned into a theatre in the round and Suba Das's wonderful production does a fantastic job of almost inviting you, as the very close audience, directly into the increasingly uncomfortable action. The square space is raised slightly and covered in a terribly brown, red and black 1970s carpet and a huge curved brown leather sofa with matching leather chair opposite. In two corners are Laurence's desk and opposite a drinks cabinet with a record player and record collection. Various lamps create a homely feel.

If nobody walked on to the set to act you would feel very at home on designer David Woodhead's set even if it lacks a television. But as the lights dim and the 1970s radio programme playing softly in the background fades away - in sways the hostess Beverly. Natalie Thomas plays Beverly to perfection. Initially she looks drop dead gorgeous in her long red dress, her lustrous shoulder length hair flicking seductively from side to side and resting on her exposed shoulders and back. Beverly dances confidently around the living room alone, arranging little touches for her small party, and playing her favourite music. Then her over-worked estate agent husband Laurence comes home stressed and starts making business calls instead of getting ready to meet his guests. At this point the true voice of Beverly is heard – at times seductive – at times irritated and at times rising to a very high pitch. Much later in the play she is reduced to screaming at her husband. The beast of the beauty is revealed through that voice with it's Walthamstow suburban twang. Thomas simply commands the stage with her often mis-placed sexuality and cosmetic vibrancy. She is also extremely funny.

Two exits are used to take the actors on and off the set and throughout the play we get to see young couple Angela and Tony (Emily Head and Cary Crankson). Head brilliantly bordering on vacuous and very amusing with it. Crankson in a beautifully studied role as Tony – a man with so little to say that it is a shock when he comes out with a short speech. Head and Crankson work very well as a couple invited into a party from hell. Not even Beverly's husband Laurence, subtly played as a man on the edge of cracking yet trying to retain his dignity in immensely trying circumstances, by Patrick Moy can save this social disaster from sliding into the proverbial flames.


Lastly we see Sue, an older neighbour and divorcee, whose teenage girl is having a party, arrive with a bottle of red Beaujolais that Beverly whisks off to be put to chill in the fridge much to the amusement and gasps of the audience. Sue is played by actress Jackie Morrison as a slightly nervous character and certainly the most sober and less garrulous of the group; that is until constant drinks are forced upon her by the unthinking Beverly. Morrison adds depth to Sue as the story unfolds and she goes from nervous and stiff to standing her ground whilst all around becomes chaotic.

Abigail's Party at Curve is one of the funniest and well observed performances I have seen of the play and many of the laughs came not just from the wit, drawn from social embarrassments, but from the unsaid and pauses. The scene where they all blow smoke rings is a classic moment. As I left my seat I heard another audience member say “I didn't expect that to happen” referring to the play's tragic end. I just goes to show that the plays that you think everyone knows can have a brand new audience appreciation. Highly recommended.

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews.
Abigail's Party runs until Saturday 8th November 2014 at Leicester Curve.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Costumes for Greetings from The Trench

"Mystery is the essence of woman " so wrote Coco Chanel and so we have this exemplified in a smart design for Emma Brown's costume for the ghost story set in the 1960s- my play Greetings From The Trench. Emma plays my character's daughter Madeleine and various other roles in the play and this sketch shows off her beautiful and stylish, authentic 1960's outfit, worn in the play. It is a short chequered black and white jacket with Chinese style collar and an array of ten military style buttons. This is completed with a chic knee length black skirt, stockings and stylish period shoes.

My own costume features smart black trousers with a peach coloured, button down collar shirt, and an old fashioned waistcoat and a black, silk lined, Pierre Cardin jacket. The boots are workaday and the scarf through away creative hinting at old school values coupled with inventive abandon. The butcher's apron is authentic English style with enough apron string to make a traditional front tying butcher's apron. The cane is circa 1950.


During the main part of the performance my character, Frank Philips, is dressed as below in trousers, waistcoat and peach coloured shirt.  Image posed with Greetings from The Trench book used throughout the play. His beard is grey and trimmed to be reasonably smart for his television appearance. His sight is poor and glasses are necessary to read.

At the beginning of the play Frank Philips poses in a butcher's apron. This is a BBC publicity shoot because of his famous book and The Two Butchers Poem for which he is well known across the world. Frank Philips exudes confidence outwardly but has an inner fear of failure in his time of greatest need to succeed.


Friday, 17 October 2014

Derby Theatre rehearsal blog of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

I was invited to attend an hour of Derby Theatre's rehearsal of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice on Tuesday this week and was given the opportunity to interview two of cast (LV) Rebecca Brierley and (Ray Say) played by Kevin McGowan plus Derby Theatre's Artistic Director Sarah Brigham.

It was a fascinating hour and a part of the rehearsal was spent exploring a theatrical practice (Seven States of Tension) originated by Jacques Lecoq. Director Sarah Brigham led the process with the cast. The scene was placed as the main cast are returning as an inebriated mass - high on booze and high on LV's singing success at working man's club hosted by Mr Boo who is also in attendance. The scene is chaotic, funny and each character has their particular state as they enter the room. The states are never static throughout but remain in flux.

The seven states are:

Exhausted: a heavy state, comatose, no tension in the body at all. If they have to move or speak it is a real effort. Typical of this state is the character who has a severe hangover.

Californian: Laid back. Everything you say is 'cool' but probably lacking in credibility. Not an uncommon state. Floating about the space in a care-free way. All seems like a bright sunny day.

Neutral:'economic' as it is known in contemporary dance. It is what it is. Nothing more and nothing less. Totally present and aware. State of being before something happens. Movement with no story behind the movement.

Alert: Something about to happen. Short attention span. Slightly tense. In farce it would be a state of curious and possibly comical.

Suspense or reactive: Narrow but strong focus. Connect with people. Have to think and make decisions. All the tension is in the body – between the eyes.

Passionate or Opera: Tension has exploded out of the body creating anger, fear, despair. Everything is dramatic like walking into a room and finding a live wolf growling at you.

Petrified: Bomb is about to go off. Can't move. The body is solid tension.

Sarah asked the assembled actors to walk around the space on the rehearsal set and on instruction adopt one of these seven states. She included herself in the game. When the proper scene was rehearsed it was evident that some of the seven states were demonstrated in the short but raucous scene.

The cast and technical team broke for lunch and Kevin McGowan, Rebecca Brierley and Sarah Brigham retired to a smaller meeting room for the interview with Derby Theatre's Heidi McKenzie in attendance.

There was a fair amount of traffic noise from Green Lane so I kept the interview relatively short. As it turned out it was full of fascinating insights into the actors and director's worlds.

Phil: I was interested Sarah in your director's process of talking the story through with the actors where you are looking at the inner story of the play and what the actors, in character, felt about situations they were faced with. Could you talk us through this.

Sarah: Yeah Phil, it's a couple of things really. It tends to be before we set up the scene. Here we are talking about the given circumstances of where the characters have been. This is so that when the actors enter the stage they enter with a life. They've not just walked on from the wings. They've come from something. At the moment we're at the stage of just talking through the scene and the shapes of it. Specifically with this script, because the language is so beautiful we are just highlighting moments where the language just needs to 'zing out' because Cartwright gives us some really great lines.

There are also moments of “What's your intention there? Why are you here? At the moment it's just a general conversation just to take us through the process. When we get on to next week then it's more about nailing that down and making some really hard core decisions. Presently, the options are all there so we could play it this way or that way and we also have to get the actors to the end of the play so that they know their characters properly. Then when we come back we can go 'no actually, that decision I made yesterday isn't right because now I realise that is wrong - where my character ends up. It makes more sense that he would do it this way or she would do it that way. It's a lot of exploratory stuff and leading, If the actors are in it they can't always see everything that's there. They need the opportunity to just try it and then for me to coach them and say 'why don't you try this way...?'. Then they can feel whether it works for them.

Phil: Thank you Sarah. As actors how did you feel that the exercises you did with the seven states worked in terms of identifying a particular feeling or mood within the body of that section that you did coming back from the club?

Rebecca: (LV) It's really helpful for me. I chatted to Sarah quite a lot about Little Voice because she doesn't say much and I didn't want to fall into just being … stood still. You don't want to just do nothing or give nothing. She's got so much emotion going on so it's finding that physically. So, for me, that was really interesting to find what state she's in because she's there a lot of the time even though she's not vocal, so it's finding it physically.

Kevin: (Ray Say) Er, it's a good exercise. And going back to what Sarah was saying – at the moment it's the mad part of the rehearsals. Well I think it is. From an actor's point of view you've got a script – you kind of know the words and you are analysing the words, what they me to you and what they mean to everybody else. You're thinking about where you are gonna move and you're thinking about how you are gonna move and you're thinking about all the practical considerations. So even though it's a mad time, certainly in my head at the minute, it does move on, as Sarah was saying 'where you have the words at your fingertips'. Then, you start to play the scene properly. This actor's giving me this – I'm gonna give them this! And they're not giving me this – I WANT this! So at the minute it's the kind of hard confusing time and I think – next week we begin to play.

Sarah: It's the cauldron at the moment isn't it? Basically you pour everything in and you just try whatever comes to hand and eventually the right things will float to the top – almost.

Kevin: The movement that we did before, about the scene, is a good way to get into the physicality of how you feel and how everybody else feels.

Phil: And have you done a similar exercise in other parts of the show?

Sarah: It depends on what the scene is and where we are at at that point. It's also, I think, a little bit, from a director's point of view, about easing the actors into it. I think if you go straight in there on day one and go (claps hands sharply) “Right! Here's an exercise!” it's not so good. Really what most actors want to do is get on to the words and they want to get into the script and they want to feel like they've at least got some semblance of character before you start throwing those 'other things' at them. So it has been, thus far, a lot about the scenes and working out the basic chronology. Actually what is the journey of these characters practically? Where have they gone to? Also about talking about the belief system of the characters. Eg: If I believe that I am invincible then that effects how I speak to everybody. If I believe that I am desperate then that too effects how I speak to everybody.

Phil: And that too would affect the reaction to your own self belief.

Sarah: Absolutely.

I paused for a moment to look through a pile of notes I had made during the rehearsal. I said to the group that I was knowledgeable about the show having seen it a couple of times and I had a distant familiarity with the scene I had witnessed in the rehearsal earlier. It is one that LV has exposed her raw talent in front of an audience without hiding and was now at home exhausted. I expressed how I liked what the cast were saying about each one waiting for that desperate moment where their lives were suddenly turned around and finally, they had a chance to escape their shitty existences somehow. I turned my attention to Rebecca who plays LV.

Phil: Your character, Rebecca, being, if you like, the meekest of the characters, that doesn't show many strong emotions until certain points; what would your 'getting out of the shit' moment be? Is it getting away from the whole terrible family.... apart from Sadie who seems to like you.

Rebecca: You mean what would I want? I think she doesn't want to get away from them necessarily. She just wants it to be different. He mum and her clash so much as they're really different people and she's really doing it for her Dad but also for her Mum. She thinks 'if I do this this then I make Mum happy – maybe; then Mum'll see me as something great. Mum in the play has got a very tough job and I do play her up as LV because I am so awkward. I think LV could have made more of an effort but I don't see that written or suggested in the play.

Phil: What does LV's dead Dad look like?

Rebecca: My Dad? I've been looking at pictures because I have this sort of fuzzy image in my head of him. I've not come to a specific photograph of someone and thought 'this is him' but I imagine him as kind of – glasses – erm, he's a bit awkward. He's not necessarily the most handsome man but to me – he's my Dad and I think he is beautiful. I wear his jumpers in the show and I imagine him as being quite a woolly jumper dress down, casual sort of man. I've not got a person there yet … I'm still searching for him. We've been working on memories and going back and times I've spent with him. I suppose it's like real life memories. You know when somebody's gone and you are losing sight of them a bit. They're in your head and I'll see snapshots. I'll see his shoes. I haven't got an exact description of him yet but I am getting there!

Phil: (to Kevin) Ray Say, with your relationships, what were some relationships like before you met her Mum?

Kevin: I like to think that he was in love once and that was one of the things that he lost. I think he was probably treated quite badly and that kind of soured him. From then, you know, at the end of the scene we just did with Mr Boo saying “The meek shall inherit the Earth” and he's like “What? No that's not the way it goes. Be tougher! Be the top! And … use people cos people will use you.” Simple, but that's it and that's the way that he approaches it.

We ended the interview there as the traffic roared by outside. Interesting thoughts to ponder further on.

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice runs at Derby Theatre from Friday 31st October to Saturday 22nd November.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Greetings from the Trench. Exciting progress on my play.

Over the last few weeks I have been continuing my Skype rehearsals with Emma Brown and starting to put together my show 'Greetings From The Trench' ready for its European premiere in Karlsruhe in early December. As it is mostly a very well rehearsed reading it means that Emma and I need to have the books in the format that we will be using on stage. This is the character Frank Philips' famous book that he and his daughter Madeleine (Emma Brown) use to tell various stories in the play.

Yesterday I reformatted the script so that it is a larger font and readable without squinting and with one small exception no sentence goes over to the next page. Emma and I discussed this as a practical point to make the reading and acting aspects easier for ourselves and to give the piece a natural flow.

They have been ring bound with a card back and a clear acetate cover. The image on the book cover is designed by me and I wanted a 1960s look and type face as this is the period that the action takes place in.

I made up the name of the German publisher and Verlag is what appears on some of the books published in Germany. Verlag means publisher.

I also designed the poster for the show in Germany and plan to get it published through Instaprint in Nottingham as they made a good job of the books and they have a few offers on at the moment. I can't afford to spend a lot on publicity but it does need to sell seats and be promoted the same as any other play. We are hoping for a sell out two days. I have spoken to Carsten Thein at the Jakobus theatre and he has an idea of promoting the work through schools in Karlsruhe. I am currently working on other methods of promotion via the internet. The show is mainly in English with a fair amount of German and a small amount of French. It also has live and recorded music and singing.

I have had help with making sure that the German language in the play is correct and suitable for its often poetic use. My friend Thorsten Feldman has been especially helpful in this. Recently I made a short video in German to encourage my German audience to be interested in the play that I have especially written with the people of Karlsruhe and my friends at the Jakobus theatre in mind. The video can be seen at the bottom of this blog post.

My co-star Emma Brown currently lives in Holland and next week I will be going over to the city of Leiden for a week to rehearse with her and be the director as well as actor/author. Should the play see a life in England and Emma Brown not be able to join me in such a production I have been in touch with another actress also called Emma to act as understudy. Emma Nash and I had read through and discussion at the Broadway Media centre a few weeks ago and I have created a cd for her with the correct pronunciation for the German words and sentences. Both Emma's have been kind enough to send me some feedback on their work with me.

" Working with Phil on his play “Greetings from the Trench” is a real privilege. The play is beautifully constructed, combining different themes ranging from butchery and urban planning to comradeship and creative inspiration. I was allowed to observe Phil's craftmanship as the play came together. He had a clear, organised approach to the structure of the play, and paid attention to small details such as the nuances of each character's speech. The result is a moving and entertaining piece, and I am very much looking forward to help bring it to life in Karlsruhe this December." Emma Brown.

"The horrors of war are touched on in this heart warming and honest story of two butchers from separate sides of Europe who build an unexpected, touching and joyful friendship after meeting in the trenches in World War One. I thoroughly enjoyed an evening of acting and discussion with Phil, the writer, on Thursday; which allowed me an insight into the layers of emotional storytelling in his work.” Emma Nash

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Nottingham Playhouse. Propaganda Swing. review.

Language is a fascinating and peculiar thing. The versatility of its nature; its power to shock, to educate, to impose doctrines, establish cultural values and to amuse continually informs our perceptions of human existence. The language of music even more so and in this production of Peter Arnott's Propaganda Swing – a co-production between The Belgrade Theatre Coventry and Nottingham Playhouse uses both to great effect.

In Nottingham Playhouse's Propaganda Swing we are introduced into a forbidden world of jazz and swing in the city of Berlin at the time of the so called phoney war. The then Nazi regime dictate that jazz music is a degenerate and hateful thing, culturally and ethnically impure and a target for their racist attitudes and comments. Over the years leading into the Second World War the jazz movement is driven underground and forbidden by the dictatorship. Unless of course it could come in useful as a weapon of propaganda by changing the lyrics to popular tunes and broadcasting them.

They say that forbidden fruit always tastes sweeter and those band members of the time that survived, many of Jewish origin, bravely carried on playing the sweet sounds of jazz and swing often literally – underground. Others like Charly's Band in the play found their musical talents perversely corrupted in order to generate propaganda through the airwaves. Human survival can drive people to strange perceptions of the right thing to do in extreme circumstances such as war.

In Peter Arnott's fascinating play we see the ludicrous racist ranting of William Joyce's Lord Haw Haw brilliantly portrayed by Callum Coates in one of the most authentic performances I've seen on the Nottingham stage. His character is at once laughable and chilling given that whilst the majority of the radio listeners of the time would have found his extreme attitudes untenable there would also have been those who were in accord with his anti-Semite and generally bigoted views.

This play engages on many levels. The multi-talented cast give their all through their acting, period dancing and playing of live jazz music and we are absolutely drawn into their characters lives as they live, love and try to make sense of a world that was at war. It is not without a great deal of humour throughout. The very human story has a various threads of humour woven into the fabric of its telling with a particularly strong thread of satire. In such a manner it reminded me of the musical Cabaret. The fabulous set designed by Libby Watson gives the show a stylish and cohesive whole and clear sense of place.

Most humorous of all was the warm portrayal of Otto Stenzl by Chris Andrew Mellon and his barbed stand up comedy routine, pin sharp and mesmeric is a highlight of the show. His defiant routine aimed squarely at the Nazis truly puts the camp into concentration camp.

The rest of the small cast were exemplary including Richard Conlon as Bill Constant the world weary American journalist and Miranda Wilford as romantically elusive jazz singer La La Anderson giving exceptionally strong performances as a couple destined never to fall properly in love.

An intriguing play highlighting a little known aspect of an era where just as you think everything has been covered you uncover a theatrical gem like Propaganda Swing that sparkles like a diamond glittering underneath a lamplight whilst buried in the dust and rubble of wartime Germany. Highly recommended.
Propaganda Swing plays at Nottingham Playhouse until 18th October 2015

Photo credits: Robert Day.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Review. First Do No Harm by Hilary Spiers at New Theatre. Nottingham University.

Along the back wall of the stage at New Theatre Nottingham University hang four banners for the Tea and Tenacity Theatre Company's production; a touring play named, 'First Do No Harm' by Hilary Spiers. The most intriguing of the four is emblazoned with a cat face cartoon and the words 'The Cat and Mouse Act.'

We are theatrical witnesses to a historically based drama hosting two almost forgotten events in British History, these being the torture of Suffragettes and the controversial positioning of 'panel doctors' among the rigidity of the then medical profession and society in general. These are inspired by real events and the stories unfold through the relatively unsympathetic opinions of Mrs Rachel Ridgeway beautifully portrayed at various stages in her life by Bella Hamblin.
Like her stuffy husband Dr Ridgeway (Howard Scott Walker) she finds the major changes in the medical industry extraordinarily hard to swallow and even more unpalatable are the actions and seemingly radical opinions of the Suffragette movement. The women of the Suffragettes were perceived to be dangerously flying in the face of the commonly received nature of femininity. In fact the whole play is a cat and mouse act with one faction of society teased and angered in aggression towards each other in this close knit small market town in The Fens. If theatre is a thought-provoking mirror into status and the status quo and historical retrospection, then Spiers' intelligently written and performed work 'First Do No Harm' is a first class example.

'The ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ itself came into being in 1913. It was introduced to weaken the Suffragettes and led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. At the time the Liberal government of Asquith had been highly embarrassed by the hunger strike tactic of the Suffragettes. Many of the more famous Suffragettes were from middle class backgrounds and were educated. While society as a whole expected certain behaviour from them (which was not forthcoming), society also held certain values on how the government should act with regards to when these women were in prison, and therefore under the jurisdiction of the government.

The logic behind this was simple: a Suffragette would be arrested; she would go on hunger strike; the authorities would wait until she was too weak (through lack of food) to do any harm if in public. She would then be released ‘on licence’. Once out of prison, it was assumed that the former prisoner would start to eat once again and re-gain her strength over a period of time. If she committed an offence while out on licence, she would be immediately re-arrested and returned to prison. Here, it was assumed that she would then go back on hunger strike. The authorities would then wait until she was too weak to cause trouble and then she would be re-released ‘on licence’.
The nickname of the act came about because of a cat’s habit of playing with its prey (a mouse) before finishing it off.'

Hilary Spiers' play is a great of example of 'teaching not preaching' as we too discover the stresses of a new doctor in town in the form of the 'panel doctor' Dr Harold Leggett. The language of the text is totally believable garnered from a society where reading was a main passion, dialogue had an innate intelligence and a good vocabulary was a treasure to be valued. Initially, Leggett's position in the town is uniformly rejected by the medical establishment but gradually he wins over the town folk for his genuine compassion and willingness to heal regardless of cost. Lee Garrett's depiction of Dr Leggett is totally convincing as a man of medical science and deep compassion for his patients in a time when non payment meant no treatment. His feisty wife, Maud Leggett played in an eternally optimistic style by Miriam Edwards is a theatrical light in a world populated by dark opinions.

The whole cast work hard to create a community through several different characters, local and well known.


Eloquently directed by Caroline Frewin this work entertains and illuminates in equal measure and gives the audience an understanding and appreciation of the origins and eventual application of The National Health System and Women's Rights without any hint of patronisation through the lives of not so ordinary folk.


I look forward to witnessing more of Hilary Spier's totally absorbing plays in the future.

Phil Lowe