Indebted to Chance
Old Red Lion Theatre
Reviewed – 8th November 2018
“an ingenious play about an extraordinary woman”
Mercurius Theatre’s Indebted to Chance explores the true story of Charlotte Charke, an 18th century actress, writer, and businesswoman who defied societal expectations of femininity and obedience. Known for “britches roles” (women playing male characters), Charke also frequently dressed in men’s clothing off-stage, and occasionally passed as a man. Author Charlie Ryall has mined Charke’s autobiography and come up with a funny, fresh, irresistibly interesting story about a woman who persists in doing what she wants, and being who she is, in spite of the considerable forces aligned against her.
Indebted to Chance interrogates the volatile relationships Charke (played by Ryall) has with her father (Andy Secombe) and her husband (Benjamin Garrison), and sheds light on her perhaps not-so-platonic feelings for the enigmatic Miss Brown (Beth Eyre) of her memoirs.
This is smart, fun, irreverent theatre. It is consistently funny and entertainingly self-aware. Ryall is canny in knowing when not to shy away from silliness (there’s nods to Monty Python and a memorable fish-slap). In an age where dark drama reigns, it’s a delight to find a performance that’s intelligent, relevant, opinionated, and doesn’t take itself too seriously.
As the play mainly takes place in the theatre managed by Charke’s father, Ryall and director Jenny Eastop playfully approach the play-within-a-play scenario. The actors interact with the audience, cleverly acknowledging that we are both their 18th century audience, and their modern audience.
The performances are strong throughout. Ryall wins the audience over easily as the stubborn, acerbic, exasperated Charlotte Charke. There’s a genuineness to her that pulls you in. Garrison is convincing as the charming, emotionally abusive husband, and Lydia Bakelmun (playing Betty Careless), has wonderful comedic presence.
Eastop and designer Sunny D. Smith are highly efficient with the small space, minimal props, and a sparse set. Dangling ropes are creatively used to create a jail cell. The costuming is effective, and does the heavy lifting in transporting the play to the 1700s.
Some issues overall involve abrupt transitions that can be disorienting as the story jumps backward and forward in time, and weak central narrative. Indebted to Chance is more like a patchwork of scenes than a progressing story. It’s a testament to the strength of the characters and dialogue that the play never feels like it’s dragging.
Those wary of plays set pre-1900, due to the density of the language, needn’t be put off. The dialogue is calibrated for a modern audience, and is anything but dry. It’s skilfully written, clever, and very funny. The intermission break is a surprise – the first hour sails by. This is a two-hour performance that earns its runtime.
Indebted to Chance is an ingenious play about an extraordinary woman who refused to play by her society’s unfair rules. It’s sharp, it’s current, and it has an excellent sense of humour.
Reviewed by Addison Waite
Photography by Chris Marchant
Indebted to Chance
Old Red Lion Theatre until 1st December
Previously reviewed at this venue:
The Biograph Girl
Reviewed – 24th May 2018
“Occasional ripples stir up the action but the whole staging needs a good shake up”
Commissioned as part of the Finborough’s ‘Celebrating British Music Theatre’ series, “The Biograph Girl” is playing on the London stage for the first time since its 1980 premiere. With book and lyrics by Warner Brown and music by David Heneker (the composer of “Half A Sixpence”) it is a celebration of Hollywood’s glorious era of silent film, charting the fifteen years during which the industry transformed itself from its disreputable, ‘fleapit’ beginnings through to the birth of the first talking pictures and its glamorous multi-million dollar prime. In 1912, no self-respecting actor would appear in the “flickers”, as they were referred to, but by 1927, those same artistes, with the help of trail blazing moguls, laid the foundations of the movie business and launched the Hollywood star system.
The show is a nostalgic reminiscence of the silent movies, a tale of the heartbreaks and triumphs of the key players, concentrating on the flawed genius of director David Wark Griffith, along with Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, both of them great silent film stars. Mary Pickford was known as ‘The Biograph Girl’ – after the studio – though this telling of the story fails to justify her having the titular role. This is very much Griffith’s story, played with a cool assurance by Jonathan Leinmuller. Sophie Linder-Lee’s Pickford, while emulating the original character, replaces her outward innocence with petulance which distances her from the audience’s sympathy. Instead Emily Langham quietly pulls focus with her sensitive portrayal of Lillian Gish – the ‘First Lady of American Cinema’.
The intimate space of the Finborough captures the ad hoc feel of early cinema where everything was done on a shoestring and sets were often cramped and improvised, and in this way the piece certainly lends itself to the confined dimensions of the theatre. The almost total lack of set however, whether a deliberate concept or one dictated by budget, strips the play of any sense of location. Likewise, Holly Hughes’ choreography abandons any perception of the period.
What does capture the moments of nostalgia and hold our attention is Warner Brown’s book and David Heneker’s music. The tunes are sophisticated yet still memorable. One particular highlight is Joshua C. Jackson’s heartfelt rendition of ‘Rivers of Blood’, a politically charged number that was cut from the original production. The cast deliver the ensemble numbers with a collective poise that emphasises Heneker’s skills as a composer, while Musical Director Harry Haden-Brown calmly navigates them through the score. Sometimes too calmly.
And there lies the problem with this production: there is no turbulence. Occasional ripples stir up the action but the whole staging needs a good shake up. Director Jenny Eastop has missed a whole bag of tricks and has merely delivered a monochrome product that should be fizzing with flashes of light and shade. It is a gift of a story, and a much more innovative staging is needed to do justice to this hugely talented cast too. The subject matter (and Heneker’s music) is too important. In his heyday, poetic beauty was something David Wark Griffith most wanted from the screen. He felt that the motion picture industry was losing sight of that, declaring later in his life: “We have taken beauty and exchanged it for stilted voices”. Eastop should take note.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Lidia Crisafulli
The Biograph Girl
Finborough Theatre until 9th June
Previously reviewed at this venue