BOATMAN TOWN at Isis Farmhouse
“a delightful evening, skilfully performed by a great ensemble, proof positive of the magic of theatre”
The moon was full and the air icy as we made our way back to the car tonight. Thick mist was rising towards us and angry water swirled beneath our feet as we crossed the river. Few theatre trips are quite as atmospheric as a walk to the Thames-side Isis Farmhouse in Oxford, one of several pubs in Oxfordshire, Hertfordshire and London chosen by Creation Theatre company for their bold and engaging new play, ‘Boatman Town’.
Creation are Oxfordshire’s largest producing theatre company, specialising in adapting classic texts in unusual locations. They employ a cast of full-time actors.
Award-winning poet, playwright and librettist Glyn Maxwell wrote this contemporary story as a response to the medieval play ‘The Summoning of Everyman’. In the late 15th century original, Death summons Everyman, who stands for all of us humans, to give an account of his life as he must face final judgement in Heaven. Everyman asks for companions on their journey, but who amongst their friends will choose to go with them?
This religiously inspired morality play has been inventively transformed by both Glyn Maxwell and the company into a pacey tale of a group of boozy holidaymakers stuck in an English-themed bar on a mysterious foreign island. Tonight it was performed in the centre of one of the pub’s function rooms by a strong cast of seven, with us audience members very much part of the story. Director Helen Eastman and seven fine performers ensure that even in this unusual space – without stage lights or sets – our attention is always held.
Anna Tolputt as Yvonn opens the evening with a beautifully written and rendered monologue which immediately sets up the proposition for a show which runs for just over an hour. It might not have been immediately apparent to all watching, but she is the central character of the medieval original: Everyman, or Anyone as the playwright describes her.
Highly experienced movement director Sam Rayner has a pivotal role as the mysterious waiter who gives orders as much as he takes them. Ailsa Joy gives a spirited performance as Amelia. Alongside Herb Cuanolo as the big man Denny she discovers that something about the English Pub is not quite what it seems. Miranda Foster is the older woman Elaine and Nicholas Osmond the money-minded and enigmatic businessman Nick.
Every one of the pub’s customers – both the characters and their audience – will be tested in this captivating show which demands our active engagement. It was a delightful evening, skilfully performed by a great ensemble, proof positive of the magic of theatre.
BOATMAN TOWN at Isis Farmhouse
Reviewed on 24th February 2024
by David Woodward
Photography by Geraint Lewis
Boatman Town is touring pubs in Oxfordshire and London – click here for full details
Other Creation Theatre shows:
All’s Well That Ends Well
Jermyn Street Theatre
Reviewed – 8th November 2019
“Ceri-Lyn Cissone steals the comedic limelight with her natural gift and assorted accents”
“All’s Well That Ends Well” has always been one of Shakespeare’s least performed works. Classified as one of his ‘problem plays’ it shifts between comedy, fantasy and psychological drama. The evidence that Shakespeare intended it to be a comedy is in the happy ending, as the title would suggest. Criticised as being a rather contrived and truncated conclusion, Tom Littler’s inventive production at the Jermyn Street Theatre adds a subtle twist that instils a touch of much needed pathos.
The action is transposed to 1970s London, Paris and Florence. When his Bertram’s father dies, he rejects his friends, abandons his mother, and flees his childhood home. But the orphaned Helena, in love with him since childhood, refuses to give up hope. Following in her father’s footsteps, she becomes a doctor, saves a monarch’s life, and crosses half of Europe in the passionate pursuit of her happiness.
This is an intimate production, scaled down to a cast of six. The setting is evoked more by the soundtrack than Neil Irish and Anett Black’s slightly baffling set design. Predominated by Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ album from the mid seventies, the music is intercut with live piano accompaniment – a leitmotif echoing the iconic riffs of the recorded music. Stefan Bednarczyk and Ceri-Lyn Cissone duet and duel on a pair of upright pianos, seamlessly weaving in and out of the action. Bednarczyk’s arrangements underscore not just the dialogue but the emotional core of the characters that is often lost in the delivery.
The crux is persuading the audience why Helena should be so in love with the outwardly unloveable Bertram. Gavin Fowler shows us a chink in the armour of his roguish indifference to Helena that sheds a ray of hope. We’re not sure that Helena sees this, but her dogged determination to bag her man is matched by Hannah Morrish’s solid performance. Multi-rolling Miranda Foster delivers the most emotional punch as Helena’s newly widowed mother and the ailing Queen (normally a king) of France. Cured from her illness by Helena, Foster is like a starry-eyed convert before reclaiming her steely grasp on the proceedings.
But all in all, much of the musicality of Shakespeare’s language is missing, and the rhythm often fails to ignite the frequent tongue-twisters and tricks of the dialogue. The plot is slight so it’s all in the text which doesn’t always match the magic created by the musical atmosphere.
But what does shine is the comedy, and the torchbearers are the peripheral characters. Robert Mountford’s swaggering Parolles is a gust of fresh air as he relishes his cowardly downfall, while Ceri-Lyn Cissone steals the comedic limelight with her natural gift and assorted accents.
With themes of social mobility, deception and sexual misconduct that are still relevant today, this is a play that mixes dark fairytale with light humour; but, despite moments of magic, the peaks and troughs are never fully reached.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Matt Pereira
All’s Well That Ends Well
Jermyn Street Theatre until 30th November 2019
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: