Torch Theatre Company presents Brief Encounter

This review originally appeared in issue 121 of The Pembrokeshire Herald, published 23 September 2015

“I’m a happily married woman. Or rather I was until a few weeks ago. This is my whole world and it’s enough, or rather it was until a few weeks ago”

It all started “just through me getting a little piece in my eye” at Milford Junction railway station. Brief Encounter is a romantic drama set in 1940s Britain, during World War II. The action centres around the aforementioned railway station where the two main characters, middle class housewife Laura Jesson and respectable doctor, Alec Harvey, have a chance meeting. Although both characters are married to other people, there is a strong connection between them, and after a short while, they become more than friends. In time, they realise they must face the harsh reality that – according to the social codes of the time, when divorce was seen as scandalous and could ruin a woman’s reputation – their love affair is not only painful, but unacceptable and impossible. Brief Encounter traces the steps of this delicately managed, liasion from beginning to end, from release to agony and despair.

Its writer, the playwright, wit and composer Noel Coward, was a gay man at a time when open expressions of homosexual love were not only unacceptable according to the morals of the time but also a criminal offence. He understood the nature of forbidden love. This is why he is able to portray this romance with such empathy and tenderness.

The play originates from Noel Coward’s one-act Still Life, which Coward was prompted into developing into a feature film after a successful tour. This became Brief Encounter, directed by David Lean, which premiered in Britain in 1946 and went on to become synonymous with a certain kind of great British romance and one of the best loved romantic dramas of the twentieth century.

In bringing Coward’s great British romance to the stage, the Torch Theatre Company have drawn heavily for inspiration from Kneehigh Theatre’s recent stage revival, which is a composite of the screenplay and Coward’s original play Still Life, and expands greatly upon the source material in order to bring to the stage a truly immersive experience that adds extra colour and dimensions to Coward’s love story.

Yes, this a true multimedia experience, with film footage integrated into the live action through ingenious use of back projection and a silver screen, and several of Noel Coward’s popular songs of the day worked into the script not unlike a West End musical. The stage set itself, is an innovative composite setting, which amalgamates various locations (railway refreshment room, a lake, a living room, a café) in a manner that complements the play’s blending of a variety of media – quite appropriate given that the production is a hybrid of stage play and film screenplay. It also allows the action to switch scenes with a televisual fluidity, complete with segues and low-lighting cross-fades.

At times the production ventures into the realms of the fantastical, with moments of intense passion signalled by brief, impressionistic interludes where the characters flail as if thrown across the sea against stock footage of crashing waves – this presumably represents our lovers consumed by the raging tides of passion threatening to burst out onto the surface of this tightly controlled romance, but (to this audience member, at least) evoking memories of how, in the days of restrictive censorship, filmmakers would cut, at moments of high passion, to heavily symbolic, Freudian imagery of crashing waves, firework explosions and steam trains!

As star-crossed lovers Alec and Laura, Matt Wilman and Laura Penneycard skilfully evoke the mores and characteristics of their time and social strata – complete with middle upper class, cut-glass accents – without it feeling like a spoof, fully embodying the beating heart and emotional conflict beneath the stuffy tweed and social conventions of their class and time, and they’re ably supported by a true ensemble cast, whose cast (including Torch regulars Ollie Wood, Liam Tobin and Lloyd Grayshon) double up in various roles, including much of the supporting cast of railway station staff.

In the play, time to shine is also given to the budding romances between two pairs – charlady Mrs Bagot and porter Albert, and waitress Beryl and cake-seller Stanley. The goings-on of the working class characters provide an effective contrast to Alec and Laura’s clandestine romance and show the different forms of romance that can take place: unlike the main characters, both couples are free to pursue their affairs, are less stifled by the social mores of the middle class, and the innocent vivaciousness of Beryl and Stanley’s corny flirtation provides an effective contrast to the stiff upper lips and simmering passions of Alec and Laura’s illicit affair.

It is the scenes with the railway station staff that provide much of the tension release, offering light relief from the fatal intensity of Alec and Laura’s tightly controlled, delicate romance. At times it veers into the realms of vaudeville – there are moments of high farce, including a homage to Victoria Wood and Julie Walters’ “Two Soups” sketch that met with familiar laughter from the audience – not to mention stage musical, as many of Noel Coward’s songs (eg A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square) are performed ‘in character’ by the supporting cast, ranging from solo performances to full-on numbers, complete with a pit band straight out of music hall or the Threepenny Opera.
The effect is not unlike that of the great television playwright Dennis Potter’s acclaimed serial Pennies From Heaven, which used the popular songs of the period to act as a kind of running commentary on the situation and the characters’ feelings, not unlike a modern-day Greek chorus.

These crazy, tonal twists from barely repressed, passionate romance and a climactic moment of near-suicide to broad comedy and song & dance might not to be to the taste of purists who hold the simmering passions and monochromatic textures of David Lean’s classic movie dear to their hearts (the “selkie” interludes with the crashing waves, too, may have been a bit too ‘experimental theatre’ for conservative theatregoers, if such a breed exists), but it does well to prove that all human life is present and correct in this interpretation of Coward’s world, and to remind oneself that, while one can be swept away by the grandeur and passion of a high octane affair, life and romance itself is full of crazy, tonal twists!

By the close of the play, ending wordlessly as Laura pounds out the grand, sweeping, romantic theme of Rachmaninoff at the piano, one feels like one has been carried away with our ill-fated pair through the highs and lows a relationship from beginning to end in a handful of hours, feeling both drained and satisfied, emotionally and dramatically. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I have something in my eye…

Absolutely Anything

This review originally appeared in issue 115 of The Pembrokeshire Herald, published 11 September 2015

MrPVA

Suppose you were gifted with the power to do absolutely anything with a mere wave of your hand, what would you do with that gift? What ethical dilemmas would it present? What unforeseen circumstances might such a phenomenon create? And – because this is set on Planet Romcom – how could it aid and abet your desire to snare the girl you’ve been admiring from afar?
This is the basic premise of Absolutely Anything, the new movie written and directed by Monty Python’s Terry Jones. As one-fifth of the surviving Pythons, Jones has assembled an impressive cast featuring go-to everyman and king of geek chic, Simon Pegg, the luminous Kate Beckinsale, Python fanboy and genius stand-up Eddie Izzard, not to mention guest roles for all five of the surviving members of Monty Python and the late Robin Williams, in his last role before his tragic suicide last year.
For all that stellar casting, Absolutely Anything is a modest, small-scale romantic comedy that reflects the whimsical, kind-hearted nature of its creator. A conglomerate of aliens (voiced by the five Pythons) bestow a wish-fulfilment power on one poor sap (Pegg) to assess the worthiness of planet Earth before deciding whether or not to destroy it. This leads to, in time honoured fashion, an escalating series of events that pile-up “with hilarious consequences” until our hero is forced to take stock of the responsibilities and consequences his new powers have created, before he can (again, as convention dictates) get the girl in the final reel.
As this scenario would imply, this is not a reinvention of the wheel, although some of the predictable tropes are gently subverted, the issues of actions and consequences are acknowledged, and there are a good many of laughs along the way. It’s very much the epitome of the light, frothy, feelgood rom com, and it is to its credit that it does not outstay its modest 90 minutes runtime (It was a delight to watch a film that does not outstay the endurance of the average human bladder, in this day of bloated blockbusters).
Pegg turns in one of his more assured and likeable performances in a non-Edgar Wright-directed movie, although he’s fairly by-the-book, and one would like to see him stretch himself more as these roles have become very much his stock in trade – it’s basically the same character he’s played in Run Fatboy Run and other mainstream movies of that ilk.
It’s not a Monty Python film despite the team’s group billing on the posters – Cleese is officious and stentorian, Palin is cuddly, Idle pops up to cash his cheque, and Gilliam is the grotesque – and that’s to its credit: I was one of the thousands who got to witness the Python team’s successful reunion at the 02 last summer, and for me this another cherry on the cake. Having reclaimed their rightful status as the Beatles of comedy, this is another victory lap, and is harmless and inconsequental enough to not be a stain on their legacy.
Major props go to Robin Williams, who voices Pegg’s puppy Dennis – I’m very soppy about dogs and Williams’ faithful mutt articulates every doggy’s endearingly devoted qualities. Cleese’s alien nails it when he observes, “I like the dog. It’s the humans I can’t stand.”
There’s a few nice nods towards the cast’s legacies – a brief zombie interlude reminds us of the classic Shaun Of The Dead, the “cult of Ray” (No relation to the Frank Black album) is a nice nod towards the misguided devotion of the gourd-worshippers in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, while the sci-fi interludes with the Pythons (inhabiting a mothership that resembles the Nestene Consciousness on the cover of a certain late 70s Dr Who paperback) has a flavour of Douglas Adams, who collaborated with the Pythons before becoming the greatest hitchhiker in the galaxy.
Despite its A-list cast, it doesn’t feel like a “Big” movie which is perhaps why it recieved a lukewarm critical reception. In fact it feels more like something BBC2 would show on Boxing Day, when you’re full of minced pies and cold mini sausage rolls and in the mood for some feelgood fare.
All in all, Absolutely Anything is nothing earth-shattering or revolutionary, but by the same token it’s something that is welcome in our cinematic diet – a benign, daft, frivolous, soppy slice of entertainment that makes you forget about your cares for ninety minutes.

Oh Hello! at the Torch

This review originally appeared in issue 110  of the Pembrokeshire Herald, published 7 August 2015

s as Charles Hawtrey in Oh Hello! (credit Karen Lewis)

s as Charles Hawtrey in Oh Hello! (credit Karen Lewis)

THE CARRY ON team entertained generations with their saucy seaside postcard antics and seemingly endless retinue of double entendres. However, beneath the cameraderie was a dysfunctional family of misfits, many of whom were struggling with their own personal demons behind the joker’s mask. The much-loved Kenneth Williams’ mood swings and self-hatred is well documented in a series of posthumously published diaries and letters, but an equally tragic figure is Charles Hawtrey, the Carry On series’ weedy, effeminate stooge.

Over the course of what appears to be one evening, but in fact traverses the course of the last 25 years of Hawtrey’s life and career, Jamie Rees expertly takes us through the many moods and lives of Hawtrey, from the flamboyant, cravat-wearing lush with an exaggerated sense of self-importance (due to his early career as a child star), gleeful gossip from the heyday of Ealing, Elstree and Pinewood, delusions of grandeur during the Carry On years (a falling-out over his billing leads to his exile from the franchise), through to his sad decline, tragically unable to come to terms with his loneliness. It’s a sublime character piece, that carefully sidesteps cheap laughs and heavy-handed pathos.

Drink figures heavily in ‘Oh Hello’, as well it might. A key element of the play’s sparce set dressing is the ever-present drinks trolley, front-loaded with gin, spritzers and whiskey, with a lower deck containing Hawtrey’s beloved mixer, R. White’s Lemonade. Rees’ Hawtrey frequently treats himself to a tipple or three as he regales the fourth wall with his glorious child star past, infarctions with cast and crew of the Carry On team, heavy-handed name-dropping of Larry (Olivier) and Johnny (Gielgud) and bitchy, bitter swiping at his colleagues and the notorious skinflint, Carry On producer Peter Rogers.

It’s all vicious, vituperative banter, shot through via Hawtrey-Rees’ waspish, camp persona, holding court in a facsimile of his Deal living room. Ultimately what comes through in the writing and performance of this play, is a tragic figure, an easy man to like but a difficult man to love, wrapped up in delusions of grandeur as he sees out his days, gin-sozzled in Kent as the offers for work dry up. This is not a happy piece but it is an involving piece, and Jamie Rees absolutely becomes Hawtrey before your eyes, in body and soul, in what can only be described as an exquisite performance.
This performance was both a homecoming and a lap of victory – Rees originally essayed the role at the Torch earlier this year, to sell-out audiences and rave reviews, and after this performance would be taking the one-man play to Cardiff’s prestigious Chapter arts venue and then on to a 7 day residence at the legendary Edinburgh Fringe. One can safely say, then, that this production is a total success.

The standing ovation that ended this performance was truly well earned. As Hawtrey, the puckish Rees had the audience in the palm of his hand from the get-go – delighting, appalling and saddening the audience in equal measures: As Rees’ alter ego sublimely described his spiked tonic water – “From the outside, innocent, and inside – delightfully wicked.”