Sand in the Sandwiches at Oxford Playhouse on Wednesday 26th October,
The Upton Theatre Group spent a delightful evening watching Double BAFTA
winner Edward Fox starring in this one-man performance, bringing John
Betjeman’s poetry and his vivacious personality to life. What a tour de
force, all those words, and Edward Fox brought it to life with all the charm
and presence you would expect from such an actor.
Betjeman is one of the nation’s favourite poets. Sand in the Sandwiches
celebrated a man famous not only for light verse and laughter, but for his
passions, his sense of purpose and his unforgettable poetry. The Arrest of
Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel and Trebetherick were two of the fabulous
poems included in the performance.
Through his boyhood, adolescence and on to life as Britain’s Poet Laureate,
the performance embraced Betjeman’s delight for nostalgia and delicious
irreverence. The evening gave us a hugely entertaining insight into the world
of this much-loved poet. There were moments of laughter, naughtiness and
also great poignancy as his relationship with his father was explored. We
looked at his love affair with Elizabeth Cavendish, despite his marriage to
Penelope, and his amazingly positive view of his Parkinson’s and his uplifting
view looking towards the end of his life.
It was also an interesting ‘spotlight’ on how society and attitudes have
changed which gave rise to some interesting discussion on our journey home.
There was, I feel, an issue with the sound in the first act. I heard others
discussing this at the interval; however, it seemed better in the second act.
Had I grown used to it, or had they fixed it at the sound desk? Who knows!
On a slightly different level, the refurbishment of the theatre is wonderful,
finished I believe in August, more space, luscious colours, fabulous!
It was a wonderfully entertaining evening and had me digging out my John
Betjeman Collected Poems book as soon as I got home.
Sand in the Sandwiches at Oxford Playhouse on Wednesday 26th October,
Upton Theatre Group visit to the Watermill Theatre to see Untold Stories
Hymn and Cocktail Sticks, by Alan Bennet
On Tuesday 7th June, 14 of us had a very enjoyable visit to the Watermill Theatre, 12 having the pre theatre buffet meal. The weather was warm & dry as we arrived so it was pleasant to wander down to the stream to see the sculptures and watch the antics of the ducks. During the interval it poured with rain so some of us got a little wet!
Untold Stories is a double bill of memoirs based on his 2005 collection of diaries, recollections and essays. In Hymn, a play set to live music by George Fenton, Bennett, played with thoughtfulness by Roger Ringrose, recalls the hymns and music that underscored his childhood. It was a reflection on the gentle way things were then and a childhood and youth long past.
A live string quartet played while Bennett remembered his disappointment at his failure to play the violin despite his father’s mastery of the instrument, with no encouragement from his own father. Bennett’s passion for music was activated by his weekly trips to Leeds Town Hall to see the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra, launched in 1947. A customer of his father’s butcher shop , the Entertainment Officer of Leeds City council, would pass on a couple of complimentary tickets to the Saturday night concerts. His father would accompany music played on the radio with his violin. As a member of the church congregation Alan felt that he belonged to a group, whereas he usually felt an outsider, looking in on other people’s lives, not really sharing.
Glimpses of his early life with Mam and Dad are shared in Cocktail Sticks, as Bennett in dialogue with his fictionalised versions of Mam and Dad bemoaned the lack of a “proper childhood “ with the right kind of trauma to equip him as a writer. “Well we took you to Morecambe”, replied Mam. Lucy Tregear was brilliant and sympathetic as Mam, depicting both the eager excitement at the anticipation of living the style and social fashion shown in her womens magazines and the doubt and confusion caused by her son’s lack of warmth and appreciation of her efforts to please him. Dad too (Richard Gibson) retreated into shyness when he realised that his best just wasn’t good enough for his clever son. Bennett looked back, after their death, with love and affection but pain too at the little everyday things that his parents had given him, including source material for this funny and witty play.
Here’s a riddle – how long does it take for a one-off to become a tradition? I don’t know the answer, but I’m rather hoping that because we have now twice had a dramatic reading of a Christmas story we are near to establishing it as an annual event.
Four years ago, I was sitting in St Michael’s Church in Blewbury enjoying a spirited reading of “The Wind in the Willows”, when it occurred to me that Upton had the talent to do something similar. In the past we had intermittent entertainments on a theme, a selection of readings and often music brilliantly devised by Peter Gardiner, and of course made all the better by home-produced food, In the mists of antiquity we had even had a revue or two, and even a selection of one-act plays. But the time and energy required to repeat such occasions seem no longer to be available; surely reading a story to a sympathetic audience was worth a try.
The first choice was obvious – an abridged adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, to be produced around the pantomime season. Despite the willingness and energy of the Burrows, we failed to produce even a cast in the first year, and abandoned it. In 2014, it happened, and although we knew we were under-rehearsed, and although it exhausted Hatty and Richard and their family, it was an undoubted success. We were inundated by requests from at least two villagers for the date of the next performance.
I set about finding a suitable story. Thanks to the world wide web, I was able to research a huge number of possibilities. I wanted to keep to the Christmas period still, so that limited the subject matter. Many I rejected because they were patently religious, and I was looking for a broader base; some I abandoned because I didn’t think we had enough readers who could manage the accents; some I felt too serious, others not serious enough. Eventually, I returned to the collection of stories usually titled the “Christmas Books”. There I found “The Cricket on the Hearth”, apparently more popular than “A Christmas Carol” when it first appeared, and with all the sentiment and humour and suspense expected of Dickens. It had been made into at least two films, but I did not trace a stage adaptation, so that I had to do myself. The original was 80 pages long, and I abridged about 3 pages a night – do the division! But a script was produced, which, much more by luck than talent, could be read aIoud in about 90 minutes.
Casting and Rehearsals started in good time, but were plagued from the start. The only time all of the readers were present together was on the night of the performance! Three of the cast were on crutches on the night, one after an accident, one after an operation, one because she always is. Three original cast had to drop out through illness – one returned to take a smaller part. One role was eventually played by our third volunteer; another took over a part without ever being able to attend a rehearsal.
So it could have been chaos. And yet, thanks to the quality and talent and dedication of all involved, and thanks to an audience who willingly suspended disbelief and allowed themselves to be entertained, it worked. We made over £200 for the Friends of St Mary’s, the readers delighted in performing, and everyone who spoke to me enthused over the whole project. Granted, those who didn’t like it probably kept quiet!
There are three more tales in the Dickens collection, and I’m reading at the moment a newly published book which the reviewer says is good for all children aged 9 to 90. So perhaps we shall be back in 2016 – and will our story-telling then be one of Upton’s Christmas traditions?
UPTON VILLAGE THEATRE GROUP
Watermill, Bagnor Tuesday 27 October 2015
The production of “The Ladykillers” at the Watermill Theatre just outside Newbury was as enjoyable for the environment as the performance; the Watermill is a lovely 220-seat theatre and restaurant located in a disused corn mill dating back from the 1830s. The restaurant offers an excellent pre- or post-theatre hot and cold buffet; in the summer, dinner in the conservatory or outside on the lawn would be extremely agreeable. As it was, on the cold and drizzly Tuesday that the Upton Theatre Group visited, the Watermill Restaurant provided a warm and sociable environment for dinner.
The play was staged on a tiny, precariously sloping set which managed to ingeniously host an ailing parrot, four murders, two car chases, a string quintet and its audience, a rooftop chase and a railway line. The small stage area required almost balletic choreography as the cast dodged and ducked around each other, cramming themselves into tiny spaces and juggling an improbable amount of luggage. There were many elements of classic farce in the production blended with the character-based comedy.
The script, adapted by Graham Linehan from the original film screenplay by William Rose, was similar in style to Linehan’s most well-known work, Father Ted and The IT Crowd. The quirks and tics of the oddball villains were hilariously realised by the cast, particularly the winking, twitching Major (Dermot Canavan) and obsessively polishing Harry (Harry Katsari). The moral of the original screenplay, that “in the worst of men, there is a little bit of good that can destroy them”, applied to all of the gang apart from the smooth, psychopathic ringleader Professor Marcus (played by the gangly and almost rubberised Paul Mundell) who was only undone by his choice of accomplices and scarves.
Having seen the 2004 Coen Brothers film which is quite good but is unfortunately rather less than the sum of its parts, I wasn’t expecting the manic, laugh-out-loud, sometimes breathtakingly ingenious production that was the Watermill Ladykillers. Combined with the very enjoyable (albeit a little expensive) dinner, it was an excellent evening and I will be keeping an eager eye on the Watermill What’s On web page for future opportunities to repeat the experience.
2 November 2015
“Man and Superman” at Cineworld, Didcot Thursday 14 May 2015
As it unfortunately turned out, only 13 of us made it to Cineworld to see the live screening of Shaw’s “Man and Superman” from the National Theatre. Not very many other cinema-goers joined us – indeed, we were told that a mere 50 tickets had been sold. Who knows why? The reviews had been very complimentary, and the theatre performances had sold out.
I agreed with the critics and the audience that gave the play a standing ovation. It is immensely long – 3 hours 40 minutes even after cuts – but it did not pall. It’s a play of ideas and fulsome, but witty, speeches, but the sets and the characterisation captured and then held the attention. It’s a bit weird, with an apparently superfluous scene about Don Juan – who doesn’t feature in the rest of the action, though he gets a number of mentions – in Hell, but there are plenty of clever jokes about the relative merits of Heaven and Hell, and full use was made of the facilities of the Lyttleton stage. The plot, which also takes in a London house in mourning, along with European bandits and a seaside resort, is well crafted but hard to swallow, yet moves at such a pace that you have no time to quibble. It’s not so original a story either (whatever Shaw himself claimed) with distinct echoes of Beatrice and Benedick or Petruchio and Katharina but it is delivered with such verve and panache that you can almost persuade yourself that the unlikely couple weren’t going to get together at the end.
Amongst the actors, pride of place must go to Ralph Fiennes as Jack Tanner, an anarchic philosopher who finds himself unexpectedly the guardian to a dead friend’s daughter. Apparently, the part is one of the longest in the repertoire, but Fiennes’s delivery was masterly, often fast but always intelligible, and at the time so utterly credible. But he was perfectly supported by the rest of the company, none of whom I had heard of before; even the tiniest roles were neatly differentiated, and at the level of a romantic comedy, convincing.
Add to that the fact that the camera directs your gaze, so you don’t miss anything important, and affords you fantastic close-ups never possible from the back of the circle. I’m a total convert to live screenings – how else am I going to see productions from the Met? – and I had a thoroughly entertaining evening. Such a pity that so many missed a real treat.
22 May 2015
Upton Theatre Group had a very enjoyable evening at the New Theatre Oxford on Tuesday 24 February watching the National Theatre Touring Production of ‘One Man Two Guv’nors’
The Show originally featured James Corden in the London Production and is now very ably led by Gavin Spokes in the Lead Role as Francis Henshall who, when fired from his skiffle band, becomes minder to Roscoe Crabbe. However, Roscoe is really Rachel, posing as her own dead brother, who has been killed by her boyfriend Stanley Stubbers
The show is a brilliantly funny classic British farce with all the usual constituents of slapstick humour, immaculate timing of ‘inevitable events’, with some excellent supporting roles from Shaun Williamson and Emma Barton from East Enders and in our show some very well crafted ad-libbing from Gavin Spokes about food from the audience!!
The Production is wonderfully supported by the live skiffle band ‘The Craze’ who are all dressed in early 1960s maroon suits with thin black ties, quiffs and ‘Buddy Holly’ glasses, and who entertained the Audience pre-show and at Interval as well as making a key contribution to the performance overall where all the cast at one stage or another joined in
The audience were at times besides themselves with laughter even though ‘farce’ by its very nature is predictable. The pantomime effect of the ad-libbing encouraged one of our own gathering even to call out the immortal line, ‘ Oh yes it is!’.
The reviews say the show is so good and consistent that it’s funny every night and based on our experience I would certainly agree – do go and see it if you can!
The Upton Village Theatre Group recently enjoyed another of their regular outings, this time to the Mill at Sonning on Thursday 18th September. The Mill is a superb small theatre seating 215 people very comfortably. All seats in the amphitheatre have a perfect view of the stage
First they had an excellent two course buffet supper served by local sixth formers, who were most attentive. All food was home-made and really delicious, representing good value for money while the atmosphere in the beautiful old Mill was most convivial. Even the programmes were complimentary.
After the tasty supper they watched the highly acclaimed production by Dwina Murphy-Gibb (who was actually sitting in the audience that evening).
This was a hilarious comedy detailing the escapades of the loveable rogue Patrick Lynch who is now on his death bed. His final wishes are to make amends with his fellow villagers before he passes away. Problems follow when he doesn’t actually die.
The play only had a cast of six, but was brilliantly acted out with the audience in stitches on many occasions.
.Thanks, once again, to Malcolm for booking and organising another memorable evening.
BRING UP THE BODIES
Swan Theatre, Stratford
Monday 24 February 2014
Why on earth were two stage adaptations of two prize-winning fictional biographies so amazingly popular that we had to buy tickets over six months in advance? I gather that tickets were even selling at well over purchase price on e-bay. Admittedly, the novels were adapted by Mike Poulton, who had several very successful versions to his credit – most notably for us The Canterbury Tales – and it could have been interesting to compare this presentation of Henry VIII with those on TV, and even by Shakespeare. We were limiting ourselves to the second in the series, retailing the downfall of Anne Boleyn, but it could have been appallingly adapted, it could have been a travesty of the Mantel original, it could have been abysmally acted.
It wasn’t. The ecstatic reviews were justified. I recollected passages of dialogue and certain incidents from the book brought to vivid life on stage. I enjoyed the slick movement from scene to scene, effected with little in the way of props in a very Shakespearean manner, so that three hours passed without longeurs. The Swan is splendidly equipped for this sort of production. I thought the language excellently convincing, a touch of Tudor without being obscure, and verging at times on the poetic. It was even much funnier than expected, given that it is about the intrigue and dishonesty needed to bring a queen to trial. Above all, it was, through uniformly exceptional acting, a delight to see characters brought to complex and credible life. Special mention has to go to Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell, not only because the part is enormous, but also because he made this Machiavellian fixer somehow forgiveable and even likeable. The portrait of Henry was similarly much deeper and more multi-faceted than the lustful fat man of cartoons, while the three women in his life (thus far) Queens Catherine and Anne, and queen-to-be Jane, were wonderfully differentiated and believable.
We went on talking about it on the way home in the mini-bus; I don’t think anybody had found the show wanting. How soon before Mantel finishes the trilogy and the RSC depicts Cromwell’s demise?
16 March 2014
THE STRANGE CASE of DR JEKYLL and MR HYDE
Watermill Theatre, Bagnor Tuesday 28 May 2013
There were some very last minute worries about whether we would manage to sell all the tickets, and even then somebody didn’t make it because of illness. Nevertheless, all drivers arrived in good time and the Watermill worked its usual enchantment – not quite a balmy summer’s evening but an enjoyable occasion and an excellent production.
Quite why anyone would want to make Stevenson’s horror story funny might be debatable, but the Rhum and Clay Theatre Company (all three of them) worked with Beth Flintoff to create a breath-taking, eye-dazzling and rib-aching show. It was intended as something completely different, and the three talented young actors conjured the essence of a Victorian adventure with colourful costumes and versatile set. Versatility indeed – one actor played Jekyll-cum-Hyde, the other two played the rest of the cast – friends, servants, townsfolk, victims, with an array of minor costume changes, an enviable variety of accents, and such inventive mime and improvisation it was almost exhausting to watch. We were seated in the front three rows, so could easily appreciate the split-second timing and constant pace of the action. And somehow, despite the undoubted, even slapstick, comic moments, the serious moral commentary on a man giving way to his darker impulses was not shirked.
This trio were recommended by the Box Office when I booked the tickets. They are certainly well worth watching.
The Upton Theatre Goers went to the Oxford Playhouse in November to see Rough Justice with Tom Conti as James Highwood and a small supporting cast. The author is Terence Frisby. Who he? Well he had a career of writing for the cinema and screen and Rough Justice is the creation of a master craftsman. It is a courtroom drama, with the clever and occasional insertion of the Courthouse cell where we are privy to the thoughts of James and his wife, and their solicitor.
We were gripped from the start. Tom Conti takes the part of a television journalist who has made a career of challenging the British Justice System. Now it is he who is challenged. He stands in the dock as the result of the death of his youngest child. Aged two years the child Is catastrophically handicapped as a result of congenital brain damage. The outlook for his future is grim. James enters a plea of Manslaughter. He describes the evening he placed a pillow over his son’s body, and presses down until the child is still.
The battle for the outcome is for a sentence of Life or Leniency. The Judge, the prosecuting Q.C. and Highwood representing himself are the protagonists.
The Judge stresses that the sentence whether Murder or Manslaughter is entirely in the hands of the jury. Then we find that the audience Is to be the jury.
It is the last twist of a truly dramatic evening.