Dirty Dusting at Devizes Arts Festival

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Dirty Dusting, a tale of three elderly cleaners threatened with redundancy who start up a sex chat line, hit the stage at the Corn Exchange on Wednesday night.  The play premiered in South Shields in 2003, and is currently performed by Crissy Rock, of Benidorm fame, Leah Bell, Dolores Porretta, and Andrew Green.

The audience were vociferously amused from the outset, and by the end were overtaken with mirth.  After all, sex is funny, and we British do like our innuendo.  Think seaside postcards and Carry On.  Think Les Dawson and Mrs. Brown’s Boys.  Toss in a bit of slapstick and stick slapping and more references to coming than in the Festival publicity, and there have you have it.  Dirty Dusting.  A riotous smut fest.

Leah Bell as Glad (‘all over’) aka Madonna is the star of the show, and it is the late flowering of her sexuality and physical comedy that provides the most laughs.  Crissy Rock is the worldly wise and weary Elsie (Kylie), Dolores Porretta plays Olive (Marilyn), whose sexless marriage was once punctuated by an affair with a Scoutmaster called Arthur, and Andrew Green is the arrogant boss with a furtive secret.

It’s a whole new world (hole, even) for the Telephone Belles from the minute the phone rings.  There are misunderstandings about water sports, references to hand puppets, and revelations relating to crotchless panties.  It’s a steep learning curve.  Good times for Glad, as she and the previously disappointing (‘You could time an egg by him’) Billy reap the rewards of her re-energised libido, but bad times for the boss (domestic suction devices; don’t do this at home, kids) as his unusual fetish is exposed.  The story ends with the ladies emerging victorious and the whole cast appearing in comedy S&M gear.

I’ve never heard an audience laugh so much and so often in the Corn Exchange.   People absolutely loved it.  They spilled out of the Ceres Hall with happy smiles, saying things like ‘Brilliant, really clever’, ‘A laugh’, and ‘Best thing I’ve seen for a long time’.  To see that people enjoyed our Festival event so much was wonderful.

I laughed twice.  Something just didn’t sit right for me.  In the interval I talked to Lesley Mills, who voiced her concerns about the clichéd negative portrayal of older women and their sexuality in the show.  We both found a couple of the jokes a bit gross, particularly the one about things dangling out of the aforesaid crotchless thingies.  Which surprises me because neither of us are prudes, and I have a reputation for mildly vulgar poetry.  We also struggled to place the play in a particular time.  The characters seemed to come from the 70s, but even though the phones were old fashioned there were references to Google, credit card payments, and the odious Trump.

‘You realise it was written by men’ said a gentleman from the Festival committee, quietly.

Get over yourself, some might say.  It’s just a bit of fun.  There’s nothing serious about it.  Lighten up a bit, for goodness sake!  Fair enough, but this is 2018, and we are currently revising our view on what is and isn’t acceptable regarding what and how things are said about whom.  If this play had been written in, or firmly set in, the 70s, I would have understood it as being of its time and enjoyed it more.  But it wasn’t.  And it wasn’t ironic either.  Which left me feeling slightly uncomfortable and confused.

Sorry to be a party pooper, people.

But I never did like Mrs Brown’s Boys.

© Gail Foster 17th June 2018

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Ann Widdecombe at the Corn Exchange, Devizes; a review

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Ann Widdecombe at the Devizes Arts Festival

On Thursday night, the Devizes Arts Festival kicked off with ‘An Audience with Ann Widdecombe.’

Ann is famous for her 23-year career in Parliament, her appearance in Strictly Come Dancing, and her right wing Victorian views.

In her rider she has asked for a glass of water and a sandwich.

She arrives on time, sporting a rather fashionable mustard coloured jumper.  It is immediately apparent that she is not up for wasting syllables on irrelevant chat.  She’s come to do the job, and flog some books, and entertain.  ‘She’s dead professional’ says one of the new boys at the Town Hall, as we watch her cracking on with the soundcheck.

The doors open to the public, and Ann appears, dressed as a Victorian opera singer.  The effect of the light catching her ash blonde hair and sequins is startling.

She’s up for signing books before and after the show, and in the interval.  She’s written seven; five fiction, including a self-published detective novel, one autobiography, and a religious book about penance.   She’s polite with the public.  She makes herself accessible.  She’s happy to have photos taken, happy to be in selfies, happy to nip upstairs for a random appearance on Fantasy Radio.  She’s a good sport when something goes wrong (don’t ask).  ‘Always see the funny side’ she says.  Phew.  But she’s not touchy feely at all (and why should she be?).  She’s brisk, and formal.  And there’s something of the…what about her?

Ann is, on stage, quite funny.  ‘Do blondes have more fun?  All I can say is that I noticed men were talking to me much-more-slowly’ she quips.  She kicks off with talking about her recent celebrity appearances, or ‘non-political television’, as she calls it.  She doesn’t do social media.  Television is, in her view, still a good way of reaching the masses.

When Ann left Parliament in 2010, she drew a line.  She was an ‘Admiralty child’.

‘The subconscious lesson of that childhood,’ she says, explaining how she moved from school to school, constantly having to make new friends, ‘was that when something’s gone, it’s gone.’

‘The day I left Parliament,’ she says, ‘I realised that I no longer owed anyone any duty of time and dignity.’

Friends warned her off Strictly, worried that if she did it she would lose her gravitas.

‘What would I want it for?’ says Ann.

Ann does panto these days and has worked with Basil Brush.  She disagrees with hunting, doesn’t agree with abortion, and is in favour of the death penalty.  She’s said Yes to Graham Norton, and No to Jonathan Ross.  She seems a bit thick with Anton from Strictly.  ‘The less time you spend with your feet on the floor the better’ – Anton.  People laugh a lot.

After the interval, a cheeky glass of water and some more book signing, Ann returns for a Q&A.  Questions are, in the main, unchallenging.  Would you pay £16 to heckle Ann Widdecombe?  Probably not.  This is the meat and bones of Ann’s talk for me, and probably for the lady outside who said ‘She’s brilliant, erudite, and feisty, but I don’t feel she’s giving her best, and I’m really not that interested in Big Brother.’

Ann answers all the questions.  Sort of.  She’s up for it, that’s for sure.  Assertive is the word.

She blames the closure of libraries on the internet.  Margaret Thatcher was, while Ann had huge respect for her, ‘a bit remote’.  She talks about her memories of Thatcher and Major walking through the lobbies, how the Red Sea parted for Thatcher whilst Major would stop and have a friendly chat.  She has a Ten Commandments story.  She thinks the quality of MPs in Parliament has gone down due to selection procedures, and that governments suffer from oppositions taking opposition habits into government, and governments taking government habits onto the opposition benches.  She voted for Brexit.  She says she said the ‘something of the night about him’ thing to a couple of people and it just caught on.  She really doesn’t agree with abortion and thinks that there is divisive political skullduggery going on in relation to the issue.  She has always been comfortable with herself.  50 Shades of Grey is ‘quite the dirtiest book I haven’t quite read’.  She had 800 people on her Christmas list when she was in Parliament.  Ann talks about changing demands on the NHS in relation to new scientific medical discoveries, and how Bevan’s original vision is out of odds with the current demand for services.

‘What would we want the NHS to look like if we started it from scratch?’ she asks.

A bit more book signing and ‘bon homie’, and Ann is ready for the off.  People have enjoyed her, and if they didn’t they kept their opinions to themselves.  She’s done everything she signed up for.  She didn’t eat the sandwiches.

‘Good luck with your Festival!’ she says, as she walks out the door.

Something of the…what about her?

Something of the Right, obviously.  But also something I can’t quite put my finger on.

Ann is working it, and good luck to her.  The woman has balls, even if her views are objectionable.  She answers to no-one.  She’s a good speaker.  She’s intelligent.  There are things to admire about her, for sure.  But she is a bit odd.  A bit chilly.  There’s a wall around her.  Maybe you have to build such walls when you are a child being moved from pillar to post, or when you are trying to hold your own as a woman in Parliament, or when you have your knickers showing in the celebrity spotlight.

Who can say.

© Gail Foster 1st June 2018

Devizes Musical Theatre; Jekyll and Hyde

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On Tuesday night I went to the dress rehearsal of Devizes Musical Theatre’s production of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, at Dauntsey’s School.

‘Jekyll and Hyde’ is a contemporary pop rock musical, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’.  Stevenson’s book was published in 1886, during the decade when Freud began to practice, and Victorian dinner tables buzzed with talk of psychology, new scientific discoveries, sex, and religion, in the light of new understanding.  The musical was written by Leslie Bricusse, with score by Frank Wildhorn, and first hit the stage in 1990, before ending up on Broadway in 1997.

You know the story, right?  Scientist gets confused about good and evil, as you do, and a bit bothered about his dark desires, and makes a major blunder getting his hit together, as a consequence of which one part of himself behaves really badly and things go rapidly downhill.  Oh yes, and it’s an exploration of duality within the human psyche and of what can happen when the ‘natural’ instincts within man are allowed to go unchecked.  Take some dignitaries, a mad scientist, a dodgy potion, a sweet girl, a bad girl, a few hypocritical society types, and a brace of prostitutes, chuck ‘em all together and…what could possibly go wrong?  ‘Murder, Murder’, that’s what…

Devizes Musical Theatre have got a bit serious over the years, since their inception in 1965, and the Dauntsey’s stage is the best in the area.  This show is directed by Matt Dauncey, with a 16 piece orchestra conducted by Susan Braunton.  I know that I’m enjoying a show when the thought of an egg sandwich doesn’t cross my mind till afterwards, so we’ll see how we go.

The set is minimal, with dramatic lighting to emphasise the suspense and Gothic horror of it all, and, whilst ‘comments on style should never be made by those who have none’, the Victorian costumes (Jen Warren) are authentic and beautiful.  It is my observation that in some amateur productions you have a few glorious ones and everyone else has had to see what they could do with a table cloth and a tea towel, but there’s none of that here.

Jekyll (Hyde) is a massive part, and a huge test for any actor.  It’s all about the transformation (think American Werewolf in London, but less hairy), and keeping the parts ‘definite and opposite’, that quote coming from Gareth Lloyd, who plays Jekyll and Hyde but who is tonight in the audience, watching his understudy, Andrew Curtis, who will be playing the part in the matinee, on the stage.  One is amused by the fact that there are two Jekylls and two Hydes in the house, and I’m interested in how Gareth plays Hyde, and the differences between his and Andrew’s interpretation of the part.  Various quotes on his version include ‘playfully evil’, ‘anarchic’, and ‘physically animated’.  ‘Go on, give me your Hyde’ I say, and Gareth flops his hair over his eyes and looks at me with the only scary wild eye I can see.  Woah!

Andrew’s performance is tense, restrained, and quietly creepy, and his transformation is utterly believable.  I have five shiver moments during this show, and the one I get when he is ‘stroking’ Lucy during their dark and very well played duet, ‘A Dangerous Game’ is the least pleasant.  His Hyde gets more mad, twisted, contorted, tortured and frightening as the show goes on.  Whilst I prefer his acting over his vocals, there’s nothing that jars or disappoints, and I can’t take my eyes off him while he’s on the stage.

The other four shivers are as follows; the first ensemble number, ‘Façade’, when I realise that the orchestra and cast are rocking a Big Fat Sound, and that the show is going to be a) exciting and b) good; Lucy’s (Laura Deacon) first solo (so clear and powerful) ; the prostitutes’ dance (oh my eyes!) in ‘Bring On The Men’; and Emma (Naomi Ibbetson) and Lucy’s wonderful rendition of ‘In His Eyes’.

All of the parts are played well, but the truly shiny performances come from Laura Deacon and Andrew Curtis, and Naomi Ibbetson, whose voice can always be relied on.  There’s not a huge opportunity in this script for anyone else to shine much, to be fair, but Ian Diddams deserves a mention for his brutal brothel keeper, Spider, even if that beard does make him look a bit like Super Mario, and Sam Fillis for Stride.  And there’s no sign of that phenomena, present in more than a few amateur productions, that I call, rather bitchily, the lumpen chorus.  That’s people just hanging around looking like they’re thinking about egg sandwiches, and what day is it anyway, and oh, is it me now?  There’s none of that, there are all sorts of little cameos going on in the background, everyone’s on point, and no-one attracts the attention of my critical eye.

It’s a great show.  It’s scary, (maybe too scary for little kids), suspenseful, engaging, atmospheric, sexy and spectacular, and Devizes Musical Theatre should be pretty pleased with it.

And that was just the dress rehearsal…

Eight out of ten, and I didn’t think about an egg sandwich once.

Go along, if you can.

© Gail Foster 11th April 2018

(Creepy fact:  the Jack the Ripper murders started within weeks of Richard Mansfield’s performance and production of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in London, in 1888, and finished shortly after its short run came to a close…)

 

 

White Horse Opera Spring Concert

 

White Horse Opera’s Spring Concert, at the Town Hall in Devizes; a review

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On Friday night, I went to see White Horse Opera’s Spring Concert in the Town Hall.

White Horse Opera formed in 1990, with the aim of bringing high quality opera at affordable prices to Devizes and the surrounding area.  Since 1990 they have performed over 20 operas, including Aida, La Boheme, and Carmen, and in October they will be putting on Mozart’s intriguing opera, The Magic Flute.

One always hopes that these things are going to be good, in the full knowledge that amateur productions are seldom flawless.

I end up sat next to Andy Fawthrop.  Andy is, like myself, a cynical poet.  It could be an interesting night.

Stage set.  Grand paintings in golden frames.  Glittering chandeliers.  One pianist (Tony James), one Musical Director (Roland Melia – check out his impressive international CV), eleven sopranos, four altos, four tenors, and four basses (all dressed to kill), three quarters of an audience (more publicity next time, people), two cynical poets, and a programme of Mozart, Mendelssohn, madrigals, Stanford, Rossini, Donizetti, and little bits of Bizet.

They start with ‘Down by the Sally Gardens’.  Sweet.  Then Morley’s ‘Now is the month of Maying’.  Lively.  Then Stanford’s ‘Bluebird’, sung by Jessica Phillips.  Oh.  I look at Andy.  Andy looks at me.  A tear has sprung unexpectedly to my eye.  That’s beautiful.  So pure.  Quality.

And so it goes on.  ‘Fair Phyllis I Saw’, and ‘The Silver Swan’, and then, from The Magic Flute, a superb solo from Lisa House in ‘Love I Fear Has Gone Forever’, Charles Leeming’s deep and resounding ‘Sarastro’s Aria’, and to end the first half, Barbara Gompels, singing ‘The Queen of the Night Aria’ from The Magic Flute.

Now there’s a test of a soprano, if ever there was one.  Andy has raised an eyebrow, and I am overwhelmed by Barbara’s magnificent performance of such an intricate song.  Amazing.

By the interval Andy and I are stunned into silence. Neither of us can find anything to be cynical about.  It’s unusual, and I have to go out and have a cigarette to get over it.

The second half starts and ends with The Magic Flute, and there’s a lot of chorus action.  Stephen Grimshaw gives an expressive rendition of ‘Monostatos’ Aria’, and Barbara sings ‘Micaela’s Aria’ from Carmen (White Horse Opera are touring Carmen this year, and you can book them, you know.  Just saying).

Then it’s ‘The Chorus of Fairies’ from Midsummer’s Dream (nice wands), ‘Chorus Maria Stuarda’, ‘Chorus Santo Imen’, and Donizetti’s ‘Chorus L’Elisir d’Amore’ (bit of surreptitious jigging in the audience to this one – steady), a lot of cheerful hey-nonnying in Stanford’s ‘Sigh No More’, from Much Ado About Nothing, and then Bizet’s ‘Carmen Chorus’ (pinch me, are people actually tapping their feet?), and, finally, ‘The Magic Flute Chorus’.

I look at Andy.  Andy looks at me.  Both of us raise an eyebrow.  That was superb, and neither of us have a single bad word to say about it.  The individual performances were impressive (I’d like to give Chrissie Higgs a mention for her contribution), the whole chorus worked well together, there was a liveliness to the whole thing, and the acoustics in the Town Hall were wonderful.  Andy remarks afterwards on the quality of the pianist, and that the simple and unfussy arrangements complemented the singers perfectly.  Everyone seems to have enjoyed it, and lots of people look pleased.

On the way out, I accost a random stranger, and pester him for a quote.  ‘A lovely, relaxed, and charming evening’ he says, smiling.

It really was very good indeed.

When I was a kid my neighbours rang up my parents and politely requested that I desist practicing ‘Toreador’ on the piano.  From that point on, until White Horse Opera’s ‘Iolanthe’ last year, I have enthusiastically given opera a miss.

I think White Horse Opera may have changed my mind.

I look forward to The Magic Flute.

*

© Gail Foster 12th March 2018

In To The Woods at The Wharf

The Invitation Theatre Company’s performance of ‘In To The Woods’; a review

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I was delighted to be invited to the dress rehearsal of TITCO’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘In To The Woods’ at The Wharf, directed by Peter Nelson.  TITCO are a quality act, and I always enjoy their shows.

I watched.  Cute.  Fun.  Some great duets.  Haha! Ian Diddams as the cow.  Woah, Jemma Brown as a bitchy witch (be afraid, be very afraid!).  Neat cape, Tracy Lawrence.  ‘Scrumptious carnality’?  Goodness me.  Love the screen device, and the sepia film.  Clever.  Nice birches.  Ooh, blood.

And then Happy Ever After.

?

As I rode off on my bike I couldn’t help but feel there was something missing.  Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

That would have been Act Two.  Thought it was a bit short.

So, Monday, opening night, and I’m back again.  Ah, there it all is.  The finishing touches have been put to the stage and it’s all pretty with birch and blossom and soft greens, with a backdrop that leads to…who knows.  And someone has clearly been working hard in the Mojo department, because TITCO are bursting with a confidence and enthusiasm that I just didn’t see on Sunday…

It’s a moral tale of good versus evil, this, set in a dark and mysterious wood where anything could happen.  It’s a mash up of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, starring Cinderella, Jack of Beanstalk Fame, Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel.  It’s a quest for a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.  If only we could find these things then the curse would be lifted and all would be well…

Be careful in the woods, and be careful what you wish for.  ‘Nice is different than good’, after all.

I’m used to TITCO being good.  One can’t enthuse enough really.  These people work together really well, and they’re all worth watching.

As far as acting goes, however, a few performances stand out for me.

Lottie Diddams plays Little Red as Violet Elizabeth, or Queenie from Blackadder, all foot-stamping and pouty, with great comic timing.  Paul Morgan as The Wolf is superbly sinister.  Jemma’s Personality Disorder Witch is terrifying.  Ian Diddams chews cud really well, the Victorian Ugly Sisters are witty, and there’s real tenderness shown in the performances of Naomi Ibbetson as Cinderella and Teresa Bray as the Baker’s Wife.

But TITCO shine brightest when they sing, and in this show it’s the duets that shine the most; The Witch and Rapunzel (Lucy Burgess), Little Red and The Wolf, and anything involving Princes (Mari Webster and Simon Hoy) in particular.  As far as ensemble songs and choreography go, well that’s all good too, and it’s impossible to fault the complex ‘Your Fault’, in which Jack (Lewis Jackson) gets to find his voice.

It’s dark in The Woods, don’t you know.  And it gets darker.  People die.  People reveal the worst and best sides of their natures.  Some of it is positively Freudian.  Just when you think it’s a Happy Ever After…it isn’t.  There be giants and stuff, really good special effects and scary bits.  And there be also, and perhaps most terrifyingly of all, randy Princes…

My award for ‘Man of the Match’ without doubt goes to Mari Webster, for her startlingly sexual thigh-slapping performance as ‘Cinderella’s Prince’ and her hilarious duets with Simon Hoy and Teresa Bray.  Whilst ‘In To The Woods’ is not a pantomime, she plays the part in classical principal boy fashion.  She’s well timed, hugely witty, great to look at, and utterly fascinating to watch.

In summary; In To The Woods, at The Wharf…

Slightly confusing, as plots go, but deliciously entertaining.

Looks cool.

Good performances all round.

Lots of laughs.

Great singing.

Mayhem.  Magnetism.  Mirth.

Moral tale?  Fairy tale?  Musical?  Not-quite-a-pantomime?

You decide.

Call it whatever you like, but don’t miss it.

It’s a fun frolic.

And it is well good.

Nicely played TITCO.

Again.

© Gail Foster 6th June 2017

PS And after this, if you’re hungry for more excellent Devizes entertainment, why there’s Devizes Arts Festival…

…and they all lived happily ever after 😊

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