Tag Archives: Henry Bell

The National Joke: a stereotype too far

Hot on the heels of two excellent plays, The National Joke is a decent play – but an avoidable flaw stands in the way of a hat trick.

The three women from The National Joke, staring at the sunPerhaps I’d set my expectations too high. At the start of this year, I’d seen one good play and one so-so play from Torben Betts prior to 2016, and then I saw two great plays earlier this year: his adaptation of Get Carter for Northern Stage, and the Original Theatre Company’s tour of earlier success Invincible. It was the latter play that gave me the most hope: Invincible was a comedy that sharply observed the attitudes some middle-class socialists hold of the real working class which was funny and astute without getting preachy. Work this magic on this play, this time set at the other end of a political spectrum, and there’s be every reason to believe this should be such a success.

And for the first three quarters of the play, I kept the faith. Out goes a grotty northern street and in comes the home of a Tory MP so extravagant it makes moat cleaning and duck islands look positively frugal. Still, that’s all so last decade. How Rupert St John-Green MP really stands to grab the public’s attention is a performance that could have been scripted by Andrew Mitchell himself. Taking a break from watching a solar eclipse in his home, he wanders on to the nearby beach and ends up giving a most, shall I say, “memorable” exchange with a group of disaffected constituents. Rupert of course strongly denied calling them “proles” – he insists he used nothing stronger than “oiks” – but luckily it’s been filmed and put on YouTube so that the entire country can make up their own minds. Continue reading

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SJT at 60: spoilt for choice

All the eyes of the theatre world might be on Edinburgh at the moment, but for those northerners who’ve stayed at home there’s been another big thing: the 60th anniversary of the legendary Stephen Joseph Theatre. Sadly, I didn’t make it to the day when all three theatres (their current site and their two predecessors, the library and Westwood) were open for celebrations, but the main attraction for me was the plays. I even had to do some complicated and cunning travel plans to fit them into my busy summer schedule.

This year, their summer season consists of reprises of some of the famous theatre’s greatest hits of the last six decades. And Cox and Box. Oh. But never mind, the rest of the line-up looked very tempting. And with the three headline shows done over the summer, let’s have a roundup. I’m not going to do a detailed critical analysis of these plays because they’re all huge successes that don’t need my help, but I’ll quickly chip in what I thought.

If you only had time to see one show, I think the prime choice has to be The Woman in Black. Even against the high standard of this season’s offerings, this one wins by a convincing margin. After Alan Ayckbourn, this is probably the biggest impact the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s had on the wider world. It originally began as a studio play commissioned to an unknown Stephen Mallatratt, back in the Westwood era when the studio theatre doubled up as the restaurant, and even then only really served the purpose of filling the programme. Who’d have thought? Continue reading

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Roundelay: Ayckbourn back to his best

Scene from Roundelay (the Judge)

Five one-act plays performed in a random order might look like a novelty, but the interlinking in Roundelay makes this the best thing Alan Ayckbourn has done in nearly five years.

Observant readers to this blog have noticed that, so far, I have never put an Ayckbourn play at the SJT into my What’s Worth Watching recommendations. Which might seem a bit odd to people who know that I’m a big Ayckbourn fan. There are two reasons for this, and the first is that every new Ayckbourn play gets loads of publicity and I prefer to concentrate my plugs on more obscure writers who need the attention. The second reason, however, is that it’s difficult to tell which new plays will be the must-sees. Alan Ayckbourn’s not had any totally new ideas for some time, but that’s okay because he keeps putting together old ideas in new ways and can still produce masterpieces, the last one being My Wonderful Day in 2009. Since then, however, we’ve have plays with ideas that didn’t quite work out, plays that did work out but had obvious derivations from old ones, and combinations of the two.

Truth be told, I was sceptical about Roundelay. This was billed as five one-act plays, so already I wondered if we were headed for a re-hash of Confusions. The difference from its predecessor was that the plays are to be performed in a random order, with the plays interlinked in a way that works in any order. I wasn’t sure about that at all. We know from Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests trilogy that he’s the master of interlinking – and yet, for all the cleverness of linking three plays with a concurrent timeline and the same casts, I was never convinced that made the plays much better for the audience. Would Roundelay be a piece that took great writing skill yet provided a mediocre play? Would the random order just be a novelty? One might think so if the lukewarm reviews in the broadsheets are anything to go by, so I’m going to stick my neck out and say this is the best new Ayckbourn play I’ve seen for nearly five years.

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Summer at SJT: Screenplay, Boy Who Fell Into a Book, and Cox and Box

Poster image from ScreenplayTurning my attention to my backlog of post-Edinburgh reviews, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, as always, has had a busy summer, with three plays on the go over August. This visit was a memorable one, not least because – in the theatre – someone managed to mistake me for Alan Ayckbourn. I kid you not. (I won’t embarrass the individual concerned by saying who he was or how this misunderstanding came about.) But enough of that, back to the plays. One is a new venture going in the right direction, another is a tried and tested venture, but the third is going in the wrong direction.

I’m going to start this roundup with Screenplay, which may not be the most high-profile of their shows, but it is the most interesting – and arguably the most important. This is the flagship event of the new writing programme from recently-appointed associate director Henry Bell. This arose from a script call last year, and a group of short-listed writers were invited to write a short play with an over-arching theme of cinema since the opening of the original Scarborough Odeon. (It also had to use the cast of Cox and Box, which I will get to later.) From this, four ideas were chosen, developed into four plays (either as four stand-alone lunchtime pieces or a quadruple bill), and here we are. So, how does it do?

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