Angela Hardie

In Other Words

01/03/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

‘A play about dementia set to the music of Frank Sinatra.’

On paper, it doesn’t sound like the most appealing proposition, does it? But this clever piece, written by Matthew Seager, is an affecting study of the ways in which dementia, that most insidious of illnesses, can gradually overtake someone’s life. It also examines the pressures placed upon partners, who increasingly find themselves becoming carers. I have some personal experience here, because the last ten years of my mother’s life were affected by Alzheimer’s – and watching the way Arthur (Seager) and Jane (Angela Hardie)’s close and  loving relationship is gradually destroyed by the inexorable onset of dementia is, of course, tragic and compelling.

We first encounter the couple at their clumsy introduction in a bar, back when they were young and carefree – and we watch their first tentative dance to the titular Sinatra song, the one that is destined to become a touchstone in their lives – but, almost immediately, we slip forward to their harrowing present as Arthur deteriorates before our eyes, transforming into a mute, quivering figure in a chair, the unpalatable reality signalled by a flickering standard lamp and ominous, echoing sound effects. The performances from the two leads are exemplary, and the simple but effective staging works well, snapping me backwards and forwards in time without ever confusing me. It’s poignant to see present day Arthur suddenly transform to his younger, more vital self.

If there’s anything missing from the story, it’s a look into the the characters’ external lives. We learn very little about what they do outside of their relationship. Where, for instance, do they work? What are their interests (other than the music of Mr Sinatra)?And there’s only one brief scene that has a passing reference to any friends they might have. Perhaps Seager wants to concentrate all his attention on the couple’s mutual dependency, but it’s harder to mourn what’s been lost when we haven’t been shown a full picture of it. I’m also a little unsure of how old Arthur is supposed to be when he first begins to exhibit signs of the illness.

But there’s no doubting the sincerity of the story or the fact that it tackles a very important subject with sensitivity and understanding. Seager first became interested in the idea when he worked alongside people with dementia and noticed how regular exposure to music served to calm their mounting terrors. I also know from personal experience that people in the grip of dementia can be perfectly lucid about events that happened decades earlier, but have no memory of what happened minutes ago – a condition that is expertly conveyed here. I cry quite a lot during this performance as it evokes personal memories.

After this brief showing at the Traverse, In Other Words moves on to The Tron Theatre in Glasgow. See it if you can and be prepared to weep.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Belle’s Stratagem

21/02/18

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The chances are you may not have heard of playwright and poet, Hannah Cowley. I certainly hadn’t until I read the programme for the Lyceum’s latest offering. Back in the 1700s, however, her work was in great demand and, in 1780, her biggest success, The Belle’s Stratagem (a witty repost to George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem), was selling out the 2000 seater Drury Lane Theatre in London. Over the ensuing centuries, her name has passed into obscurity, so it’s particularly satisfying to see her work brought once more to the public attention in this sprightly adaptation, written and directed by Tony Cownie. The action has been relocated to Edinburgh, where the New Town is taking shape, and where the villainous Deacon Brodie is gleefully helping himself to the belongings of its inhabitants.

The belle of the title is Letitia (Angela Hardie), who is betrothed to the wealthy and handsome Doricourt (Angus Miller), much to the delight of her father, Provost Hardy (Steven McNicholl), who welcomes the financial advancement this will bring. But though Letitia is head-over-heels in love with Doricourt, he seems quite indifferent to her charms, so she devises a devious stratagem that will make him fully appreciate her qualities. The first step, however, is to make him despise her…

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a single-strand narrative. There are subplots aplenty, not least the story of Sir George Touchwood (Grant O’ Rourke), who has been deliberately keeping his naive wife, Lady Frances (Helen Mackay), away from the distractions of high society. There’s the newspaperman, Flutter (John Ramage), an unabashed gossip-monger, who loves nothing more than writing about the outrageous events of the well-to-do and who has no compunction in inventing much of his juicier material, and there’s Mrs Racket (Pauline Knowles), who is adept at arranging and organising the running of everyone’s lives from behind the scenes.

Cownie handles his material with a deft touch, consistently bringing his audience to gales of laughter as the various blunders, pratfalls and witty one-liners are unleashed. The production looks ravishing too, the brightly-hued costumes blazing against the simple monochrome set. Though many of the cast double up on their roles, there’s never any doubt about who is who at any given time and, as the events hurtle towards the delicious possibilities of a masked ball, the stage seems to virtually pulsate with energy. Fast, furious and frenetic, this is a real crowdpleaser. It’s also strangely prescient, as the women in the story refuse to conform to the conventions they’re constrained by, and forge their own paths towards happiness and fulfilment.

Don’t miss this – its a riotous and gleeful experience that will send you on your way with a great big smile on your face.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Sneak Peek at: Dead Dog In A Suitcase (and Other Love Songs)

Dominic Marsh as Macheath in Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) at Liverpool Everyman (c) Steve Tanner (2) Sarah Wright in Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) at Liverpool Everyman (c) Steve_Tanner

It’s an exciting opportunity… not to mention a real privilege, to be allowed a sneak preview of a theatre company rehearsing for their latest production. But that’s exactly what I get from Kneehigh who are currently prepping their production of Dead Dog In A Suitcase (and Other Love Songs) at Home, Manchester. The show opens there officially on the 11th of September and then heads out on tour around the UK.

As I settle into a front row seat I’m presented with a view of the entire thirteen strong company. To my left, there’s a band, featuring guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and a whole plethora of assorted instruments. To my right stands a traditional Punch and Judy theatre and a veritable menagerie of creepy looking puppets (always a good sign) including a row of rosy faced babies in a cot, who, we’re assured, are the ‘bastard offspring of Macheath.’

Director Mike Shepherd and musical director Charles Hazlewood stand up and say a few words. The show is, of course, an adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay, (1728) itself radically reworked by Bertholt Brecht as The Threepenny Opera in 1928. ‘This version,’ says Shepherd, ’gives the Beggar’s Opera back its teeth.’ He tells us that the story is a musical satire, prescient for our times, and that it’s a perfect reflection of an age of austerity and outrage – ‘a cathartic production in every sense of the word.’

Hazlewood adds that it’s been a wonderful privilege working with Cornwall-based Kneehigh Theatre Company, and says that their marvellous generosity of spirit has injected a sense of humanity into what is, at heart, a bleak and harrowing storyline.

‘The play begins with the contract killing of the city Mayor,’ says Shepherd. ‘Which will give you some idea of how dark the story is.’

Then without further ado, we’re treated to a ten minute selection. The band punch out a lively reggae rhythm, the cast leap into action, there is singing and dancing and movement and puppets – and I sit there mesmerised by the way the show is coming together, after only a relatively short rehearsal time.

Afterwards I ask if I might have a quick chat with MacHeath (Dominic Marsh) and Polly Peachum (Angela Hardie), so we seek out a quiet space where I can record their answers without too much background noise. I begin by pointing out that the pair are about to take on one of the most infamous duos in theatrical history. How do they feel about that challenge?

Angela: It’s very exciting to be able to take on these characters, because there are so many dimensions to them. They’re not just good or bad, weak or strong, they have the full run of humanity with all its glory and ugliness and for young actors that’s just an exceptional opportunity.

Did they have any qualms about taking on the roles?

Dominic: No, I think that one of the healthiest things about the rehearsal process is that deference is left outside the door. The Beggar’s Opera is called the longest running musical and all those juke box musicals in the West End that we’re so familiar with these days probably stem from it. But there were no qualms at all.

I point out that there are a lot of different disciplines to master in this show – acting, singing, dancing, musicianship, puppetry. It must be a tall order trying to perform so many of them to the best of their abilities. Exhausting too, I shouldn’t wonder.

Dominic: It is an incredibly tiring, but very rewarding way to work, but a lot of Kneehigh projects are like that, they’re these big, chaotic shows that create a whole world on the stage. Everything’s so visceral and powerful, there’s light and shade, dark humour, wonderful romantic moments, everything you could possibly want.

What qualities, I wonder, do the actors think they share with their onstage personas? Does Angela identify with Polly?

Angela: Oh yes, I hope so! I get to do such a great journey with this piece, I start out naïve and find out about life the hard way. I think anyone who’s ever had their heart broken… and I have… will identify with her. Mind you, I haven’t quite graduated to running a gang yet, but I suppose there’s still time…

And Dominic? MacHeath is surely nobody’s idea of a positive role model?

Dominic: He is rather dark. I’m not sure I identify with him on many levels, but we all have within us the kernel of good and evil, we’re all capable of being misunderstood and I think that MacHeath has his own valid reasons for going down the route he goes down. He’s almost like a Robin Hood figure, shining a light on the corporate conspiracies that are going on all around him, which we all know are happening all the time. When we started rehearsing this there was that stuff about MP’s expenses and… well, you just have to look at what’s happening now…

For both of them it’s their first appearance at Home, Manchester’s hub for the performing arts. What do they make of the place?

Angela: It’s lovely, it’s such an exciting place to work, it’s all brand new. We’ve been bowled over by how friendly and accommodating everyone is.

Dominic: There’s such an exciting buzz about this piece and also about the venue. I think the two of them will slot together really well.

So they’re both looking forward to opening night?

They tell me that they can’t wait.

Well, I assure them, that makes three of us.

(Our review of Dead Dog In A Suitcase will follow soon.)