Waiting for Godot at Bury Theatre Royal

Last night we went to the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds to see Waiting for Godot.

The play is one of my favourites but it was new to W. Fortunately, it was a very entertaining, well-paced production that maintained a lightness that complemented the dreamy surrealism of Beckett’s text. Michael Cabot has directed dozens of touring shows of which I have only heard good things but this was the first that I have seen. I will watch out for London Classic Theatre in future.

In some ways Bek Palmer's set design contained both my favourite and the most annoying aspects of the show. A heap of slates stands on a maze of stepping stones with a three trees hanging with their twisted roots visible. The stepping stones provide an inherent constraint on the characters' movement that provides subtle visual reward without resorting to acrobatics or dance. The whole effect is of a marshy wilderness. All this wonder, however, was fractured for me by the presence of some half a dozen darkly patinated mirrors in tarnished gilt frames. These alien objects made explicit the designer's view that the play is in a dream world whereas the text is deliberately ambiguous and part of its appeal is the duality of reality and imagination. Are we seeing a physical world or a shared fantasy inside a character's head? And which character's fantasy are we living? Both Vladimir and Estragon have unreliable memories.

Peter Cadden (Vladimir) and Richard Heap (Estragon) conveyed this uncertainty and the fractious love between the characters with magnificently understated clowning. They delivered Beckett's eloquence with complete conviction and an engaging air of bewildered frustration. When Pozzo arrives (played by Jonathan Ashley) he had the manner of a ringmaster whose sanity is fragile at best. It was a smart counterpoint to the bumbling intellect of the two tramps. Michael Keane gave a masterly performance as his servant Lucky but this too was a design and directorial misstep. Lucky's whiteface makeup, his absurd wig, and the extremity of his trembling were too obviously absurd for my taste. Keane's delivery of Lucky's rambling monologue was, however, the zenith of the show; his verbal energy and striking determination to complete his disturblingly incoherent yet comprehensible speech was a tour de force. Even the fifth member of the company (the oft overlooked messenger boy played by Sonja Zobel) gave a finely observed performance.

During the interview and after the show we discussed its meanings and values with two ladies in the row before ours. They had both seen it before about fifty years ago and they were still delighted by its mysterious contradictions and wilful obscurity. As was I.


Sweet Charity

I went to see Sweet Charity, the musical, at the New Wolsey Theatre. W saw it last week and loved it so I had high hopes but a couple of people (who are not keen on musicals) had been dismissive. The lead was played by Katie Birtill, who was new to me but has real star-quality. She grabbed my attention whenever she was on stage as the eternally optimistic unlucky Charity. She was, by turns, vulnerable, funny, and resilient. There really were no weak links in the casting. I liked James Haggie's rendition of her anxious swain Oscar, and Dan De Cruz's exuberant cult leader when leading The Rhythm of Life. The show's songs are now better known than the musical as a whole: most people know Big Spender and If My Friends Could See Me Now. Cy Coleman's music is masterly and it was pleasing to notice a little snatch of melody that would emerge as the song Love Makes Such Fools of us All in Barnum, about fourteen years after Sweet Charity. The use of actor-musician has become a rather tired trope of Peter Rowe's shows at the Wolsey but here it gained a new lease of life by confining such roles to minor parts and by having the instruments on the main stage only occasionally. With an unusually large cast of seventeen, this was very effective. Libby Watson's set design uses large electronic displays to generate bright illuminated advertising-style displays redolent of Times Square. The costumes were striking but unobtrusive and the realisation of the lake in the park that is the setting for some critical scenes was technical genius. On the whole this was a creative masterclass in all departments. Neil Simon, Cy Coleman, and Dorothy Fields provided magnificent material and the Wolsey team have imbued it with glittering witty brilliance some fifty years later.


Hercules: A Dance Cabaret

Recent shows at the New Wolsey Theatre have grabbed my attention from the very start but this one took a while to grow on me. I was expecting a comedy dance revue but instead got pantomime. The show opens with a misunderstanding and a discussion between the small cast as they try to resolve the problem. Thirty years ago I wrote a show based on a similar premise: two very different shows trying to coexist ('at the same time on the same stage' as we used to say). In my case, Syrup the Stunt Bear was attempting to set a new world record at the same time as a company rehearsed a variety show. In this case the two company principals had different opinions about the show they were due to stage. The solution was a mashup of dance cabaret and a retelling of the Labours of Hercules with occasional quotes from Homer* and lashings of physical comedy. There was audience participation and no end of skillful presentational acting but this polished addressing of the audience was at odds with the stilted delivery of the dialogue between the principals as they played the actor/directors. This was probably affected clumsiness but it came before the performers' skill had been established.

For the rest of the show there was a comic tension between narrator Tom Roden's attempt to deliver classical Greek poetic drama and Pete Shenton's physicality as both Hercules and as the impressario arranging the cabaret. The twelve scenes were cleverly staged and funny; I will never know if it was the performances that got stronger or my response that grew more generous. At the interval I had enjoyed the first part but saw it as nothing special; afterwards I found almost all of it to be very funny. Perhaps someone dropped something in my pint of Aspall's or my adult reserve is alcohol soluble.

The New Wolsey stage surface is too rigid to be ideal for dance but the company seemed unfazed by this. They were energetic and appealling. The audience cheered, laughed and hollered at the fun; hula hooper Tiina Tuomisto got the greatest applause as Hippolyta. Three of the scenes were performed by amateur dancers from Ipswich; a different troupe for each scene amounting to 27 local people. I love this kind of community engagement and I admire Mary Davies' ability to coach the troupes to such excellence. The performances were further enhanced by Lucy Bradridge's witty costume designs. I particularly liked the absurd feet of the Stymphalian birds and the incongruity of the Hydra heads. By contrast to this delightful silliness, her simple versatile set was a sophisticated contribution to the experience.

At risk of marquee quote cliche, this was an evening of fun for all the family or for any lighthearted theatregoer.

*Not that Homer told of Hercules' labours.

Pulse Festival 2015

For ten days at the beginning of June China Plate curated the annual festival of new theatre at the New Wolsey Theatre and its satellite venues in Ipswich. Of the fifty shows, we saw nine. More than half of these were among the very best pieces of theatre that I have ever seen. To see more would have been to sup the fire hose. My reviews of each of those shows are behind the links below.

That is all you need to know
Births Deaths & Marriages
Every Brilliant Thing
Fat Man
I, Malvolio
Wot? No Fish!!

Wot? No fish!!

"Have you ever had gefilte fish?" asked a middle-aged man as he proffered a Tupperware container of fishballs on cocktail sticks. We were among the first into the New Wolsey Studio for the last show of Pulse Festival. He produced more containers and arranged for other members of the audience to pass them around as they took their seats. As a child I remember boiled balls of fish, onion, eggs and matze topped with slices of carrot. This time we were being offered the tastier fried version with a small dish of chrain sauce in which to dip them. "Have you tried chrain? Can anyone tell me the three ingredients of chrain?" People were still being seated as the answers came back: horseradish, beetroot, and love. I had forgotten the love and was too busy trying to decide whether his third ingredient was sugar or salt. Love was the most important ingredient of Shabbat for me as my gentile family ate with reform jewish friends.

With his audience seated and enjoying their fishballs and chrain, Danny Braverman stepped into a pool of light and told us how these foods were significant to him by telling us a story that introduced us to his parents and his wider family of East London Jews. He told us how his great great grandparents came to Dalston to escape the pogroms and how his great-uncle Abs Solomon had married the girl across the road in 1926. Abs was a shoemaker and every Thursday when he made up the wage packets for his employees he also prepared one with the week's housekeeping money for his wife Celie. On the outside of each packet for Celie he drew a picture derived from the events of the week. Every week he did this for over fifty years. When Ab's son died childless the boxes of drawings were discovered by Danny's mother and she gave them to him. There are thousands of them but he has selected about a hundred and uses them to illustrate a retelling of the story of Abs and Celie's life together and of that part of his family and his own life.

The drawings grow in assurance over the years. Drawn on office stationery, it feels like outsider art but Ab's childless son was Jeffery Solomons of Fischer Fine Art and it seems improbable that Ab was unaware of the currents of contemporary art. For me there were echoes of Ardizonne, Searle, and my mother. I even saw echoes of sketches by Daumier and Lowry. Of course, I do not imagine any of these were influences; my point is that his style is not primitive

With an overhead projector to cast images of the original packets on a screen, white gloves to protect these precious fragile things, and a sense of narrative honed in over thirty years of theatre work, he weaves a sensitive portrait of his family, their Judaism, their aspirations, and their frailties. He reveals the challenges that faced Abs and Celie: financial worries, the institutionalisation of a son on the autism spectrum, and the hazards facing their other son who was a gay man at a time when this was illegal and widely deplored. Like all family histories this is a social history but it is a living thing as he creates his own metaphors and reveals his own concerns about compromising the privacy of his dead family. Much of the story is speculative because Braverman can only work from the illustrations, the memories of his mother and his own recall of these lovely people. These speculations allow him to highlight the love that runs through all of this. In the gaps betwen the pictures I found the affecting power of this performance and the humanity that makes it so much more powerful than the book that would be a more obvious vehicle for this wonderful assemblage.

I, Malvolio

The New Wolsey Theatre auditorium had been constricted with black cloths. Raked seating filled back stage and in this small draped space we looked down on the apron in a reversal of our usual positions. Upstage right stood a man in a stained onsie; it seemed to have been soaked in blood at the top and in urine at the middle. On his feet were grotseque yellow stockings and cross garters, on his head a horned cap, and under his chin the wattle of a turkey. It is Malvolio from Scene IV of Twelfth Night. He has been imprisoned in a dark room by tormenters who pretend he is insane. None of this is made explicit and it is not necessary to know Twelfth Night to enjoy the show but the context adds another layer to our appreciation.

There are four characters on stage in this one absurd figure. There is the man Malvolio, created by Shakespeare. There is the actor playing Malvolio in a performance of Twelfth Night. There is Tim Crouch, the writer, and there is Tim Crouch as himself in the present. They offer at least five layers of understanding. There is the text of Shakespeare's play. There is Malvolio's view of Illyria, the world of Twelfth Night.  There is Malvolio's view of us, the audience and the modern world that we inhabit. There is a commentary on Shakespeare's play. There is the process of performance. All this complexity is hurled at the audience with a blunt immediacy that makes it accessible but uncomfortable.

Before we are even seated we are unsettled by the curious gaze of Malvolio as he puzzles over a letter and then stares at our arrival. The costume is absurd but repellant. His gaze is an intrusion. He is not connecting with us. He is examining us. Might he be judging us? Is this supposed to be funny? "Not mad", he tells himself several times. This is an assertion he makes several times in the original play and there it is true but here we cannot be sure. His manner and dress are not those of a stable man. Abruptly, he steps towards the audience and launches into a tirade of invective railing against our manners and our morals. "Do you find this kind of thing funny?" he demands as he singles out individals for personal criticism. With the fourth wall in shards at his feet he appears to return to the script, reprising the first lines sotto voce. Malvolio, the puritan, hates the theatre and disdains the audience; disdains us. He derides the cruelty of our mocking laughter then offers us increasingly ferocious slapstick to expose the visciousness of our humour.

This is a tour de force of subversive theatre. Not only does it upend our expectations and provoke long reflection, it delivers a masterclass in characterisation, narrative, comedy, and audience engagement. By the end of the hour we understand more about Twelfth Night, more about Malvolio, more about theatre, and more about ourselves.


John Kelly first caught my attention as a lead singer in productions by Graeae Theatre Company where he displayed an engaging wit and a rough charm. I was, therefore, excited to learn that he was bringing a band to Ipswich as part of the Pulse Festival. I had been planning to go to Hove to see Pete Atkin launch his new CD this evening but I was having doubts about the three-hour drive home after that gig and the opportunity to see Rockinpaddy tipped me towards staying in Ipswich.

Each night of the Festival, after the last stage show, there was free live music in the New Wolsey Theatre bar. Kelly and his band had one of these slots. The bar was busy enough to be lively without being crowded and the space is sufficiently small for personal interaction between musicians and audience. With his South London accent and infectious glee there is an informality to Kelly's performance that is perfect for small venues even though his personality is big enough to fill a stadium. Delighting in his Irish heritage, his enthusiasms embrace folk, rockabilly, rock and roll, ska, metal, reggae and punk. And all of that was on display in an exuberant set interspersed with chirpy patter. My friends with physical disabilities all tend towards advocacy* so it does not surprise me that Kelly is such an articulate supporter of disability rights. In among the covers of favourite hits from the past forty years are his own melodic protests on behalf of the disabled and pleas for inclusion and equality of treatment for everyone. He is passionate about equality and humanity but never solemn. One moment he is mourning the imminent ending of the Independent Living Fund that has given him the freedom to work; the next he is teasing the New Wolsey's Jamie Beddard for the grandiosity of his 'Agent for Change' job title (which, incidentally, I love!). When he is heckled for 'only having four friends' after he name checks some of the audience he responds 'I left you out, Simon'. It is as warm and natural as the music. I feel sure that Ian Dury would have been proud of him.

Next to Kelly the versatile virtuoso Helen Jackson-Lyall sits bopping to the beat when she isn't playing the flute or the saxophone or scatting, singing or clapping. And when she isn't dissolved in laughter at Kelly's banter. Next to her, beneath his shock of heavy metal hair, David del Cid is doing something very special on guitar. They are skillful, talented, and (as becomes apparent when I speak to them after the show) modest. "I am glad you liked it" said David "but you should hear it when we are all here". And, one day soon, I hope to do just that.

*It may be that I simply like outgoing passionate people irrespective of their capabilities.

Fat Man

Stage right a fat man in a crumpled suit slept in a pool of light beside a small table bearing a carafe, a glass, and a donut box. He slept on as the audience took their seats and only awoke when we were settled. He seemed disoriented then suprised and angry as he realised that he, Orpheus, was going to have to retell his tragic story to an audience of gods for their entertainment and his punishment. He addressed some of the gods individually. A fat bearded middle-aged man on the front row became Zeus. A couple on the other side were Hades and Persephone. Behind them sat Cupid and the Fates were at the back of the New Wolsey Studio for this Pulse Festival performance.

His story is set in modern London. He meets Eurydice on a bus. The greatest of musicians fronts a rock band. He tells the classical story with panache and personal commitment. We believe in his love, in his arrogance, and in his grief. There is knowing artifice here. The format is stand-up comedy. Martin Bonger, the writer/performer, reacts to audience responses with the spontenaity of a comedian and parts of the show are very funny for all of its awfully sad narrative. Not all the artifice seems necessary, however. Why would an actor born in Bramfield, Suffolk, affect an American accent to play the Greek bard on Mount Olympus?

We are never told why Orpheus might be forced endlessly to recount his tale. A passing allusion to Prometheus might be a hint but it is well-hidden among a broader list of things that stopped when living Orpheus sang. Now, however, he is dead and mourning the terrible loss of Eurydice; comforting himself with overeating and drunkeness. The carafe proves to be an inexhaustible bottle delivering just a single shot of spirits at a time. Like Rosencrantz's straight run of 92 heads when flipping a coin, the magical bottle tells us that we are outside our normal reality but it is real to Orpheus and hecomes steadily intoxicated as he drinks a shot at the beginning of each segment. This is a man falling apart as he recalls his own decline. His wordplay and witty allusions to the Greek legends within which he lived comfort him no more than his over-consumption. Eating a donut becomes a metaphor for grieving and later he demonstrates the power of inevitability by licking sugary lips.

As a child I was deeply affected by my mother's large painting of the moment that Orpheus loses Eurydice by breaking Hades' injunction not to look back. That melancholy image was about Orpheus and his loss; Eurydice was merely a shade. The Orpheus legend has attracted creators for millennia but it was only in the twentieth century that Eurydice became more than a minor supporting character. I read texts telling the story from Eurydice's perspective and thought more about its effects upon her and on Hades. Here Bonger continues that exploration of her personality and her attitudes as Orpheus recounts their life together and tells stories about her. He does not merely say that loved her or even that he loved her deeply; he shows us why he felt that love.

At the end of an hour Orpheus has lost his life, his love, his figure, his sobriety, and his dignity but he has gained the affection and respect of his audience. I last saw Bonger five years ago in his ingenious play Keepers. This show is much simpler than that but it continues to address themes of mortality, loss, and resilience. I look forward to seeing what he does next.

Every Brilliant Thing

As we entered Ipswich's High Street Exhibition Gallery (HEG) for Every Brilliant Thing, a man ahead of us asked wearily "Are we going to be read to again?" Like us he had just come from Stand and, as it turned out, we were going to be read to again. Indeed, we would be doing some of the reading ourselves and this experience was going to be very different indeed.

HEG was built as an extension to Ipswich Museum almost a century ago. It has its own entrance from the street and is accessible from within the museum complex. For a long time it was used for museum storage but a few years ago it was opened up as a performance space; the New Wolsey Young Associates are based there and the New Wolsey uses it to stage shows that need flexible informal seating. For this show there were two rings of seats; all were brightly lit and as we chose our places an unremarkable man in unremarkable clothes (oh alright then: jeans and an untucked open-necked white shirt) was handing out well-worn pieces of paper. Each page bore a number and a handwritten phrase. The pages were varied: torn feint ruled note paper, post-it notes, plain papers of many weights. They were inscribed in many inks. The friendly tubby man asked us to read our phrase when he said our number. This was not a member of the technical crew or the front of house team. This was the star of the one-man show, the co-writer of the script: it was Jonny Donahoe.

When we were settled Donahoe started to tell an intensely personal story of the first time that his mother attempted suicide. He explained that his first experience of death had been the euthanasia of his pet dog. This man in his mid thirties became a seven year old boy. Here the performance made its first step into the remarkable. A member of the audience was asked to provide his jacket as a prop for the ill dog and then to enact the lethal injection of the pet as little Jonny held it in his arms. It could have been bathetic but the scene was touching. When the volunteer vet was too aggressive at his first attempt, Donahoe gently directed him to a more appropriate action. This would be the tenor of the show: apparently unsophisticated mechanics, profound events, repeated grounding of the audience through the fourth wall*, and a gloriously cathartic sense of the absurd.

Other members of the audience became in turn, Jonny's dad, a school counsellor, a lecturer, the girl who would become his wife (and then, sadly) his ex-wife. Jonny explains how he started to make a list of every brilliant thing as his innocent attempt to help his mother ward off depression. It does not work but the list becomes an obsession continued into middle age. It spirals up to a surreal total of a million things. Even had we not been engrossed we would have been driven to pay attention by the knowledge that our turn would come to read an item and, because no show could sustain a million readings, not every number would be called. Often, Jonny would comment on an item after it had been read but at other times the simple sequence carried the narrative.

Every aspect of this performance was a masterwork. I find it hard to believe that it is entirely a work of fiction but I trust author Duncan Macmillan when he makes that assertion and I know that it has been born of a long process. About five years ago I was told about an installation at Latitude Festival where people were encouraged to read aloud from a list of feelgood catalysts pinned to the wall of a tent. I remembered the phrase 'feelgood catalysts' but it was only as I started to write this that I realised that what the man in the pub had described was a precursor to this show. [ETA: A quick Google reveals that it happened at Latitude 2009].
Donahoe's style is extempory; it feels entirely spontaneous. Yet I know that he has performed this script over a hundred times. He is a stand-up comedian who has never been in a play before. He uses his stand-up skills to improvise, to interact directly with individuals in the audience, and to remember just where everything is located. Some of the apparent variables can be constant across the many tour venues but with most dates being single nights there must be huge variations in the staging. In Ipswich the show was in the round but this is not possible everywhere and the shape of each venue will be different. Within all this technical constraint Donahoe delivers an intense emotional journey. As I type about it my throat tightens at the memories even as I feel a smile curling my lips. My distress flowed from parallels with my own life experiences and it was clear that many of us were deeply moved in some way. I saw and heard tears among the rich shared laughter.

In the moment I was entirely absorbed in Jonny's story but upon reflection I realised how privileged we were to see randomly selected people improvise within the framework. They were so good that they could have been plants but these were neighbours and New Wolsey regulars that I recognised. There were safety nets built into the structure: the redirection of the vet's injection, the advice to read the blurb on the back of a book rather than improvise a description of it. The audience performances were excellent. Jonny's girlfriend was delicious in her affection and the school counsellor who used a sock puppet to talk to the child must have worked with children in real ife. This did not feel like 'audience participation'. The audience was involved in a natural way and it is a testament to Donahoe's skill that we saw none of the embarrassed awkardness that is such a common response.
Another key component of the invisible structure was the use of music. Aspects of music feature on the list. Jonny's dad is defined through Jazz and his suicidal mum is characterised by Soul. Some of the music was prerecorded but Donahoe also sang and played keyboard. He was last seen in Ipswich in April fronting Jonny & the Baptists (a comedy band) so his musical ability was no surprise.

Some fifteen years ago I saw Mark Little in his wife's production of Defending the Caveman. There too a gifted comedian delivered someone else's lines as if the one man show was his own spontaneous thoughts. We saw it several times. It would be on my own list of brilliant things. Little toured that show for about a decade and I hope that Donahoe can do the same with Every Brilliant Thing. I never read the text of Defending the Caveman. As we left the theatre, making our own lists, we were offered a copy of Macmillan's playtext for just three quid. I declined. I have enough books and I hope to see the show again because my own list includes 'Every Brilliant Thing performed by Jonny Donahoe'. [ETA: After thinking about the show repeatedly I decided that I did want to read the text. It's cover price is £9.95 and even with my trade discount I had to pay more than twice the theatre price so buy it at a show if you get the chance.]

Commissioned by rural Shropshire theatre group Pentabus for the Ludlow Fringe Festival in 2013, Every Brilliant Thing toured the UK tour in 2014 and was received enthusiastically at the Edinburgh Fringe. It then transferred to New York for the first quarter of 2015 before a big UK tour. The odds are high that you can catch it somehwere near you if you are in the UK. And, to my mind, you really really should.

*Just where is the fourth wall in theatre in the round?