“Jack Studio Theatre excels at taking calculated risks but here its bets are hedged with top talent”
In Matthew Townshend’s refresh of Harold Brighouse’s Mancunian masterpiece, the shift to 1958 makes surprising sense. Victorian throwbacks like Henry Hobson, obstreperously played by John D Collins, were still hanging on alongside the Teddy Boys, and despite the illicit pleasures of dancing to Rockabilly, the crushing sense of entrapment is still there in the narrative as the alcoholic shoe shop owner dictates the fates of his two younger daughters, Vickey (Kelly Aaron) and Alice (Greta Harwood).
In a time of youthful rebellion, it’s all the more telling that it’s the ‘over-the-hill’ daughter, Maggie (Rhiannon Sommers), judged by Hobson to be too sensible to be married off, who actually rebels. Through wit and willpower not music and make-up, she forges a romance with illiterate cobbler Willie Mossop, kept below stairs like a dog, who then flowers as a commercial rival to Hobson himself, under her beneficent control.
This gem of the Northern canon, whose meticulous characterisation recalls a lost world of music hall monologues and mercantile culture, has an enchanting and subversive plot in which the success of a shoe shop is at stake against the backdrop of a gritty and hard-working love story. To amplify this with irrepressible 50s music and dance, care of Ben Goble and Natasha Cox, as well as Martin Robinson’s technicolour outfits and clever set design, is to defy the accepted, grim aesthetic of David Lean’s 1954 film of the play and all other things Northern.
The Jack Studio Theatre excels at taking calculated risks but here its bets are hedged with top talent. While not being the wretched physical specimen portrayed by John Mills in the film version, Michael Brown copes just fine with the touching and funny role of Willie Mossop. And although it’s tough to be truly terrifying as a suffocating patriarch in an era where youth is taking over, the buoyancy of the show is undeniably aided by the illustrious John D Collins. Rhiannon Sommers has no such problem in adapting the role of Maggie for the 50s. Her rendition of steely character and the cheerful conviction that hers is the only choice for all the men and women that surround her, feels heroic and outshines all. Natasha Cox, meanwhile, almost pulls off a theatrical coup in her cameo as the arrival of Nurse MacFarlane, the embodiment of the NHS as cavalry coming to save – and forgive – the ills of society.
A touch of political relevance never goes amiss in a theatre, but if this play preaches anything it’s that in reality, it’s wit, charm and entertainment that get you through the tough times.
“the fussy details and the gentility of the acting make this production thought-provoking but lacking impact”
It is a rarity to find Brecht performed in a pub in South London but it is here where director Rachael Bellis parallels 1930s Nazi Germany with the possible consequences on our modern, global society, of having voted for Brexit and Trump.
Bertholt Brecht wrote ‘Fear and Misery of the Third Reich’ while in exile in Denmark. Inspired by a visit to Moscow, his first openly anti-Nazi play has no plot but is a series of scenes knitted together, depicting the breakdown of normal relationships under the Nazis. The 24 sketches illustrate the gradual distrust, suspicion, deception and betrayal that grew between friends, colleagues and even family. The Aequitas Theatre Company’s version is an insight into what might happen if society succumbs to its oppressors, but emphasising the importance of resistance. Brecht’s drama is brave and gritty and although there is no doubt that his message is relevant today, the fussy details and the gentility of the acting make this production thought-provoking but lacking impact as a piece of drama.
After an original start, leaving the audience off-balance, the production struggles to maintain the tension. There are quality performances from Clark Alexander – in particular in Scene 3 – and Faye Maughan, both of whom convincingly shape a diversity of characters, and accomplished moments such as Hugo Trebel’s fluid staging in ‘The Chalk Cross’, and Rhiannon Sommers’ Scene 9 monologue. However, of the 11 chosen playlets, the few which stick in the mind are the longer ones as these allow the audience time to engage with the script, rather than the muted staging. The shorter scenes need more theatrical variety beyond the change of accents by some of the cast, to mark their own moment.
A simple, functional set designed by Afke Laarakker twists and turns like a thread through the play and the actors transform their everyday clothes with minimal accessories. Initially, the lighting (Chuma Emembolu) invites the audience into a dim underground environment, but misses opportunities to enhance subsequent scenes. Apart from the effectual and interesting use of radio coverage and a handful of effects, the uniformity of the sound and music (score by Clifford Hughes) is lulling rather than troubling. By adding a more challenging individuality to each vignette, the scenes would weave together rather than melt into each other.
Despite the contemporary details on and off stage, this remains a play about Nazi Germany with some far-from subtle references to current affairs. As such it is a bold idea expressed through a production that feels strangely unfinished.