The delightfully intimate Jack Studio Theatre reopens in front of a socially-distanced audience with this charming two-hander by Stewart Pringle. Last seen live-streamed from the Maltings Theatre, the production is directed by Matthew Parker. Jilly Bond reprises her role as Denise, the sinewy Zumba teacher, who meets weekly with retired widower Harry played by Timothy Harker.
Our scene is one end of the Billingham Temperance Hall with its stark entrance, a stack of black plastic chairs and the ubiquitous trestle table at centre stage. There is just enough clutter in and on top of a cupboard to represent the paraphernalia that such community spaces attract and an appropriate selection of posters (almost certainly out-of-date) on the community noticeboard.
Numerous mini-scenes flash by, one week apart. Harry’s committee meeting finishes before Denise’s Zumba class starts and in the few minutes’ hiatus, beginning with a misunderstanding, we see their friendship – if not a relationship – develop and blossom. There is small talk and the sharing of sandwiches, and little by little personal information leaks out. But can we believe these short meetings can develop into romance? Denise talks of the steamy scenes she is reading but she does not follow such talk into action. Harry is too content with his mundane unchanging routine to risk the turmoil of change.
Harker excels as the fastidious Harry, with his shuffling of papers and bumbling manner, in a tweed jacket and sleeveless woollen sweater, and a flat cap to remind us of his Yorkshire-ness. When appointed Chairman to his board he buys his own gavel on eBay but sheepishly admits he has never had to use it in a meeting. But he mimes with it when no-one is looking.
Denise is brash, and confident enough to run both an exercise class and a book club, but she is unable to confront a man who makes comments on her eating a banana in the library.
The well-rehearsed movement between the couple in the confined space is slick and easy. Entrances and exits through the one small door are timed perfectly. Only when the couple attempt to sit on the table does the fluency stutter; Harker (or Harry) can’t hide his doubts that the trestle is sufficiently stable.
There is no full blackout between scenes so that we can see the reset for the next meeting. Tedium from the repetitive actions of stacking and restacking the chairs and the repositioning of the trestle table is narrowly avoided. Only the continuous opening and closing of Harry’s briefcase becomes a bugbear. And it jars when the trestle is incongruously left standing in some later scenes as the premise of the play is surely that the table has to be moved for Denise’s Zumba class.
Both Bond and Harker play the comedy gently and convincingly. It is light and comfortable viewing – the potential source for a Sunday evening TV sit-com – but the personal stories lack depth and, whilst we learn that even older people can get muddled in their efforts to forge relationships, the journey our couple make is not long enough.
Shakespeare in the Garden – The Turk’s Head, Twickenham
Reviewed – 25th September 2020
“The cast is definitely not short of energy and enthusiasm, and, as an audience, that is infectious”
Open Bar have been putting on Shakespeare productions in pub gardens since 2015; their mission statement, clearly set out in the digital programme, is ‘to create fun, clear reinventions of the Bard’s best’ which both ‘Shakespeare aficionados and first timers’ can enjoy. Six actors take on the multiple roles, with all the fast and furious costume changes you’d expect. The text is sprinkled with contemporary references and direct address, and the actors steer the Shakespearian ship with barrels of ‘lets-all-have-a-great-time’ gusto. The cast is definitely not short of energy and enthusiasm, and, as an audience, that is infectious. The problem lies with the fact that frequently the actual play gets lost in the fun.
Given that the rambunctious approach is clearly Open Bar’s brand, The Tempest seems an odd choice. The late plays are all a good deal more cerebral in tone, and The Tempest is no exception, taking on such mighty themes as colonisation and the nature of power and forgiveness; it is also, in many ways, Shakespeare’s examination of his own art, and the power of theatrical magic to transform. Whilst a pub garden on a chilly Autumn night may not be the right place for a deeply political take on the play, there could have been a lot more made of the magic, and, highly skilful though it undoubtedly was, Ariel’s aerial athletics were no substitute for the astonishing conjuring tricks of the language itself. Nicky Diss’s direction relied heavily on Vicky Gaskin’s movement direction, and too often the text was lost in the physicality of the performance. At times, this meant a lack of clarity with regard to plot, and at others, lack of poetry. At no point in the production did ‘the enchanted isle’ genuinely seem a place of wonder.
That said, there were some terrific moments, and some fine performances too. Special mention here to Jessica Alade (Miranda/Antonia) who spoke the verse with subtle poetry and exceptional clarity, and to Adam Courting, who’s Prospero, although perhaps lacking in power, was a highly engaging and charismatic mischief-maker. The Tempest’s comedy duo – Stephano (Thomas Judd) and Trinculo (Nathaniel Curtis) – worked well together, though Trinculo’s mincing campery made somewhat uncomfortable viewing in 2020 and did seem a jarring directorial choice.
Seeing theatre at the moment is a headier and more complex pleasure than in pre-COVID times. The joy of being there at all is, of course, intensified, and it was and is heartening to see so many people swathed in blankets under a September moon to share the experience of live performance. That experience is bitter-sweet however. The Open Bar team worked social distancing and hand sanitising into their production with their trademark rollicking good humour, but there’s no denying that theatre loses an awful lot without touch. Similarly, although we, of course, all need escape and entertainment in these turbulent times, we ignore theatre’s power to help us understand ourselves, and our human predicament, at our peril.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography by Headshot Toby
Fuller’s Shakespeare in the Garden continues at various locations until 1st October. Click on image below for details.