‘Last Night at The Conductor’s Arms’

The Invitation Theatre Company at The Bear, Devizes

 

 

It’s the early 1950s, and time for the very last pint to be pulled at The Conductor’s Arms.  Business ain’t what it used to be, and even the Music Hall next door is closing down.  As Albert the landlord (Ian Diddams) sits supping at the bar, he looks back over the history of his family; his grandparents’ escape from the Irish potato famine and their acquisition of the pub, meeting his wife, the birth of his children, the death of his son in the first World War, and victory in World War Two.  So many memories.  So many faces, come and gone.  So many tunes…

Oh, The Invitation Theatre Company had a good time with this one!  For one night only, sorry, three, the ballroom at The Bear became an informal and intimate old time music hall forward slash East End pub, with dancing girls, banging tunes, Pearly Kings, poignant tear jerkers, and cheese.  Lots of cheese.  A succulent smorgasbord of cheerful cheese, and the kind of sad songs that would have the stoutest customer weeping into their gin before closing time.

Devised and directed by Ally Moore and Liz Schorah, and ably compèred with alliterative acuity by Peter Nelson, ‘Last Night at The Conductor’s Arms’ was simply a good excuse to sing (‘Sing along!’ they said, so we did) all your gran’s favourites from ‘Danny Boy’ to ‘No Business Like Show Business’.

The problem with writing reviews for TITCO is that everyone is good, they get better each time they work together, the music is always spot on, and no one likes a sycophant.  But really, other than the fact that perhaps the performance space was a little small for the lively choreography, it’s hard to pick fault with this show.

So I’ll go with highlights, which, for me, were as follows; Ian Diddams’ acting.  Mel Coombs, Liz Schorah, and Viv Kyte‘s chirpy versions of ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ and ‘Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree’.  All of the men singing ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart.’ Paul Morgan singing ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’ (the ladies I met in the churchyard today particularly liked that one).  Mari Webster singing anything.  And all of the ensemble pieces.

Moments of brilliance?  The whole cast singing the heart-wrenching ‘Keep The Homes Fires Burning’, with its rich and complex harmonies (I cried, and I wasn’t the only one).  Lottie Diddams producing a couple of notes of unearthly beauty in ‘Secret Love’.  Ian Diddams again, with his heartfelt delivery of ‘Brown Boots’.  And, for which she received the most rousing cheer of the evening, Jemma Brown, hilariously channelling Hyacinth Bucket, in a performance of the musically challenging ‘I Want To Sing In Opera’ that had some of us questioning our continence.

‘Last Night at The Conductor’s Arms’ was an uplifting, moving, and endearing show; no pretence at great art, just a wild ride through the music halls of memory on a pantomime pony, with the odd pitstop for a tear.

And cheese.

And the final verdict from behind the aspidistra?

Hit me with a feather boa, that was fun.

Nine out of ten.

© Gail Foster 19th November 2017

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Green Tears for Beauty

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for jemma brown and the invitation theatre company
on the occasion of anthony brown’s production
of ‘war of the worlds’, at st. mary’s in devizes

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a mellifluous light

cello ripe and butter sweet

slides through the silence

a river of silver

flute bright and sugar spun

streams through the shadows

forever the autumn’s

melancholy melodies

play on the heart strings

suddenly remembering

past loves and passion plays

men become young again

 …

envious angels

up in the rafters weep

green tears for beauty

 *

© Gail Foster 20th November 2016

The War of the Worlds at St. Mary’s; a preview

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The Invitation Theatre Company rock ‘War of the Worlds’ at St. Mary’s, Devizes

On hearing of this production my thought process went something like this; War of the Worlds, that’s that old 70s album, right?  The Invitation Theatre Company, didn’t they make Jesus Christ Superstar kind of interesting?  St. Mary’s, oh, visuals, now you’re talking.  Steampunk?  Sold.

It was the very end of the nineteenth century when HG Wells penned his tale.  Men have a habit of fearing the apocalypse at these times, and Wells gave those fears form in this science fiction story of war between Martians and humanity.  It took till 1978 for Jeff Wayne to pick up the ball with his album, and until now for Anthony Brown to take a chance and run with it in Devizes.

I’ve been to the tech rehearsal.  I’ve been to the dress rehearsal.  I have been playing the album all day.  I want to go again.  Sold to the barking poet.  Utterly.

The visuals first.  It’s a medieval church for starters.  There are Martian lights in the lofty arches, soft reds and greens tickling the pinnacles, shimmers of Victorian velvet and shifting shadows on the walls.  Above the main arch the conductor’s shadow moves like a demon possessed, and the Red Weed (just say no, kids) doth spill across the stone like blood.  A lightfest, so it is, a delicious smorgasbord of colour.  The set; minimal, just the narrator’s chair on high and a tall tower o’ drums on the other side of the stage.  And cogs.  Massive wooden cogs.  No Martians.  No one dressed as aliens.  Thank goodness for that.  All conveyed with lights, it is, with lights, and sound, and a well placed stare.  Clever.

The band take up over half the stage.  There are (deep breath) four keyboards, four guitars, four violins, viola, cello, a big fat double bass, percussion, drums, and a conductor.  It’s a wonderful score, besides which everything else is mere illustration and tableau, beautiful but secondary to the sound.  The band are great, despite the fact that they have played together less times than the fingers on my hand.   Flutes from keyboards, sweet violins, drums, and old stone walls drowning in sound.   Nice.  Very nice indeed.

So nice in fact that when ‘The Eve of War’ kicks in I experience a sudden ‘wild trembling exultation’.  I do hope no one noticed.  Although one is prone to these reactions it is surely only a man with no soul or rhythm who would not shift a little in his seat at some point during this production.  Or shiver at Jemma Brown’s voice.  Or at some point during ‘Forever Autumn’.  Or at the haunting ‘No Nathaniel, no’ refrain, so sweetly sung by the elegant Mari Webster, in ‘The Spirit of Man’.  Oh dear, now I am listening to it again.  I blame TITCO.  Help me.

Opportunities for serious acting are thin on the ground in this show, but what parts there be are played very well indeed.  There’s real talent here.  Paul Morgan’s voice of the journalist is reminiscent of Burton and old wirelesses; perfect, archetypal.  His reading provides the cues for the music so his timing has to be right.  Safe hands, methinks, safe hands.  Jonathan Paget; excuse me but is he actually from this century; great look.  Chris Worthy as the Artillery Man giving ‘Brave New World’ everything he has…er, why isn’t he acting and singing professionally…just asking.   And Ian Diddams, channelling the angst of all humanity with a look, a stance, a hammer and a melodious tone; presence, man, presence.  All good.  All really good.  But my prize for best actor goes unreservedly to Sean Andrews, as the demented and religiously deluded Parson Nathaniel.  His duet with Mari Webster is stunning.  When he raises his cross and the light hits it…well, what can I say.  ‘Tis a moment, to be sure.  Well done, that man, take a bow.

What else?  Oh yes, great backing vocals, particularly in the chilling ‘Ulla’ Martian song of death.  And the women look gorgeous.  When you’re done with the dresses, if you’re stuck for somewhere to store them, I might have a bit of cupboard space.  Top hat and ribbons?  Why thank you, I don’t mind if I do.

Tricky moments?  The odd sticky mic.  And, to call a spade a spade, moments in the choreography that could do with tweaking.  It’s all so complicated, with so many factors to co-ordinate, and very little space.  Fingers crossed it will be alright on the night.  No, I’m going to stick my neck out and tempt fate by saying that it’s going to be more than alright on the night.  It’s going to be glorious.

Special mentions?  Anthony Brown, ably assisted by his partner in crime, Jemma, for being brave enough to direct and conduct such a complex production.  You may have played a blinder here, sir.   And behind the scenes, Tracey Lawrence and her crew; so much sourcing, so much sewing, so much work, and all so very beautiful.

And, finally, the band.  That’s some sound you’ve got going on.  Thrilling.  But also rather challenging, methinks.  So break a leg, bow, drumstick, whatever.  For you and the sound guys hold this whole show in your hands.

No pressure…

War of the Worlds at St. Mary’s, Devizes, in a nutshell?

Just go.

For yea verily, it is seriously spot on.

© Gail Foster 15th November 2016

Little Voice at the Wharf Theatre, Devizes; a review

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It’s many years since I watched the film of Little Voice.  I had dim memories of Jane Horrocks giving Shirley Bassey some serious welly in a bedroom ‘up North’ somewhere, and an expectation that Jemma Brown’s production would be well worth a watch.  I expected to be impressed by Lottie Diddams’ voice, and a well-chosen cast, and to come away feeling that my money had been well spent.

But…what’s this?  This isn’t just about a voice (but oh that voice!).  This is hilarious and emotionally devastating; about love, and loss, about mental health, alcoholism, and coping strategies, about ageing and falls from grace and exploitation.  This is something else, that’s what this is.

Jim Cartwright’s witty and poignant play, ‘The Rise and Fall of Little Voice’, unfolds in the early 90s, in the home of Mari, a single woman who is past her prime and determined to catch herself a man.  Mari lives with her daughter, LV, who spends all day in her bedroom listening to her dead father’s records and perfectly impersonating her favourite divas for amusement and psychological escape.

Allison Moore, as the drunk and desperate Mari, all ‘liquor and lacquer’ and ‘personal Mother’s nerves’, conveys the mood swings and behaviours of her alcoholic character to perfection; the false brightness, the wailing self-pity, the blaming, the ‘dancing’ round the living-room with the ironing board.  Her lines are ripe with innuendo (just what is a ‘twat bone’, exactly?), her comic timing and physical comedy are right on the button, and the monologue she delivers on realising the extent of Ray’s deception is tragic and heartrending.

Her fall guy is the bovine but supportive Sadie, acted with humour and tenderness by Claire Warren, who provides the perfect balance to her drama.  It’s not much fun to be sick and sit with it running down your shirt, and it’s no mean feat to play a ‘patient fat get’ with sensitivity, without tipping into unbelievable farce.  Sadie, along with Billy and LV, uses her silences well, leaving her body language to speak volumes.

Paul Morgan, as the manipulative and seedy Ray, slides slickly through his scenes (and Mari’s knickers) with persuasive oily grace, turning on the charm to lure LV to the stage with honeyed tales of bluebirds, intending only to exploit her talent and line his pockets whatever the cost.  His rejection of Mari is brutal, and his subsequent downfall both well-acted and well deserved

Ian Diddams, in his first role at the Wharf, plays the cheerful telephone man, and the bluff Mr Boo, the owner of the local club, with characteristic ebullience.  There is more to Mr Boo than meets the eye; he sees through Ray and Mari’s treatment of LV, and articulates perhaps the most significant line of the whole play; ‘Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the Earth. But when, eh? When?’

At the very heart of the story is the tentative and sweetly portrayed story of the friendship between Billy and LV.  These two young actors play it to perfection, with blushes, with awkward pauses and self-conscious hesitancy.  Will Sexton’s performance as Billy, the thoughtful geeky lad who is obsessed with lights, and who genuinely cares for LV, is simply wonderful.  It’s the timing, the subtle movements, and the silences, again, that make the dynamic between the two characters so believable.

Lottie Diddams as Little Voice…oh, that voice!  When she first sings the entire audience holds its breath.  That voice appears from nowhere, comes as Judy Garland, as Edith Piaf, as Marilyn; smooth and sweet, raucous and in your face, without a dropped note or a single rasp; appears from the shy silence to flower into sound, transforming Little Voice into the divas of her dreams.  That voice, suppressed for so long, explodes with rage when LV discovers that Mari has smashed her precious records, in a devastating scene of such emotional power that it is reputed to have reduced the cast to tears when they first rehearsed it.  Lottie’s notes are pure and true, and her voice control is frankly awe inspiring; she keeps us captivated from her first song to her last, and when she is standing on the ladder singing, as Billy’s happy lights whirl all around her, our hearts soar with hers.

My only (small) criticism of this play relates to the brevity of the fire scene, which I missed because I blinked.  I also have to add that every time I have seen a balcony scene at The Wharf I have felt distinctly nervous about people leaning on the scenery.  Oh, it’s OK, I thought to myself as Billy dangled on his pulley in front of LV’s window, at least he’s roped up…

Special mention also has to be made of the magnificent Curtain, a device of some complexity invented by Chris Greenwood, that rolled down at the front of the stage to make the backdrop for the club.  The Curtain had its moments during the show’s run, and may have achieved minor fame in its own right in the annals of The Wharf, and in more than one verse.

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice was a triumph of a play, amusing and emotionally challenging, the impressive result of the hard work and talent of a fine cast given good direction and a superb script to work with.

It was also a fitting expression of the love that Jemma Brown has felt for Little Voice since she first saw it in the West End.  ‘When I saw it in 1993’ she said ‘I could barely breathe.’

It left us, the audience, breathless more than once, and one particular audience member crying all the way home…

Well played, methinks.  Very well played indeed.

*

© Gail Foster 2nd October 2016

photograph of Lottie Diddams reproduced with the kind permission of Jemma Brown