This was my third consecutive festival, having attended and reviewed all seven shows in 2011 and 2012. Last year was dominated by a couple of grim and heavy plays while this year was much more about the comedy. It worked on one level but the scheduling was hampered by companies dropping out. I think this impacted the shape of the week, though there were a few excellent productions contained within it.
Sunday - Behind Closed Doors
This play, set in the 1980s, tells the story of Sandra (Emma Legg) and Tarquin (Jonathan Cook) who meet at university and come from very different families. Both of their mothers, though, are victims of domestic violence. The play is therefore a fairly dark one but there are some humorous moments throughout which lighten the mood. Pearl (Jane Walker) and Eddie Heptinstall (Alan Galway) are the more obvious couple of the piece - he's a binman who is handy with his fists when things aren't going his way. Meanwhile, Vernon Pollock (Lester Cooke) is a successful businessman who has exacting standards of perfection which his wife, Harriet (Leisa Cooke), could never live up to. Pearl invents a fantasy man, Thomas (Seb Goss), to cope while Harriet drinks but matters come to a head when the families meet.
The contrasting representations of domestic violence worked well and Alan Galway provided some much-needed light-relief as Eddie, a character we can understand even while he does horrible things. Lester Cooke had a more difficult job with Vernon and I think it showed. On the female side, Jane Walker's accent wasn't quite there but I have nothing but admiration for Leisa Cooke, an understated performance when it needed to be. I'd say that some of the cast were definitely stronger than others. There were some lighting decisions which I didn't agree with and the bottle of 'vodka' that was spilled at the end detracted my attention from the action as I watched it float down the stage. However, overall, this was a compelling piece of theatre, a little heavy to start the week on, perhaps, but well acted and reasonably well put together.
Monday - Playhouse Creatures
Kismet Theatre Company jumped in at very short notice to perform this play that they've done before but in a very different theatre. The transition caused some problems but, considering they'd only had a week to prepare it was an extremely good production. Set during the Restoration, Playhouse Creatures shows a group of actresses through their highs and lows, including the notorious Nell Gwynn (Emma French). There are two other young actresses, Mrs Farley (Dawn Cowan) and Mrs Marshall (Kerry Greenwood), and one stately actress, Mrs Betterton (Jeanne Bain), who has been in the theatre for far longer. Rounding out the cast is Doll Common (Paddy Johnson), stage hand and general cynic.
I think the play suffers from being a little episodic but, that said, there are some wonderful little moments within it. The concept allows the actresses to transform themselves into various stage roles and the Cleopatra is particularly entertaining. It's an excellent period piece, accessible to modern audiences but still with the taint of Restoration London on the dialogue. There were excellent costumes in this and, though I was initially disappointed with the limited set, the three boards they used to distinguish the bits of stage action worked well.
There are a couple of things I particularly enjoyed about this production. Firstly, Emma French was an excellent Nell and she and Paddy Johnson carried the piece. Jeanne Bain's Mrs Betterton had some wonderful scenes, especially her final ones and she was the character I felt for most. However, she also provided the 'clock' method of acting that had people in stitches. Despite Nell Gwynn and Doll Common (and a rather horrible abortion scene), that 'clock' is the thing I'll remember most vividly.
Tuesday - Hobson's Choice
Henry Horatio Hobson (Keith Lowe) owns a boot-shop which is run primarily by his three daughters, the bulk of the shop work being taken on by his eldest, most capable daughter, Maggie (Liz Brooks). When he tells her she's past marrying age she retaliates by taking up with her father's best cobbler, William (John de Tute), taking trade from him and arranging things for her sisters while she's at it. Unfortunately, this leaves Henry isolated but will he back down or remain obstinate?
This was excellent, utterly hilarious with some fantastic performances thrown in. Liz Brooks's deadpan delivery made her a favourite with the audience and the first time we see her - when she's manipulating one of her sisters' suitors into buying a pair of boots when, really, he just came in to see her sister - sets up the rest of the play. Equally, John de Tute's hunched portrayal of the cowardly William is beautiful, enhanced by his transformation at the end of the play. The other actors were very good, yes, but these two stole the show for me. (They took home the 'Best Actress' and 'Best Actor' awards at the end of the week, rather proving my point.)
The set was carefully planned and wonderfully executed, very detailed and appropriate. Overall, this was a beautiful production, appreciated by the audience and obviously enjoyed by the actors themselves.
Wednesday - Side Effects
I had high hopes for this one. Set in a convalescent home, it tells the story of the cantankerous Frank (Ray Taylor), booked in for respite, alongside the Reverend Paul Latimer (Peter Horner). The vicar has been given a new heart and is acting very strangely, particularly around the mysterious Tracey (Esther Dyson). Paul's wife, Sarah (Karen Slater), is alarmed by her husband's behaviour while Frank's wife, June (Sally Davies), is irritated by her husband's enjoyment of the situation.
However, this production didn't do the script justice. Written by the man behind Rising Damp you could almost imagine it needed an overblown central character with more presence than this production offered. I think he needed to be far more despicable, creating more of a surface for other characters to bounce off. This worked to an excellent with June, his wife, who had some of the best lines of the night and delivered them well. However, the laughs were thin on the ground because, for some reason, the piece seemed to lack conflict and pace. It seemed too leisurely when there was far more anger in the writing than was displayed on the stage.
Thursday - Without Fear or Favour
Set in a Yorkshire police station in the 70s, this tells the story of a group of officers and support staff in the run-up to Christmas and the closure of their station. Very much an ensemble piece, this has a large cast which occasionally makes it difficult to keep track of who's who. This became less of a problem and there are some very memorable characters within the piece and some fantastic moments.
It's difficult to summarise the plot of this one so I'll just have to say it's hilariously funny with some poignant moments in it and the twist just after the interval definitely surprised me. Every one of the actors brought something individual to their roles but my favourites were Hayley Harris as WPC Margaret Ward, who managed to keep my attention in scenes that weren't about her due to subtleties of movement, Rob Atkinson as DC Malcolm Skidmore, a thoroughly believable performance, and Gail Rogers in her brief role as dementia sufferer Agnes Parrish.
The detail in the set and the script were excellent and I was glad to be part of an audience that appreciated every line of dialogue and every little look. Definitely one of the highlights of the week.
Friday - The Grocer's Daughter
This one-woman play stars Mary Creasey as Connie, a shopkeeper reminiscing as she packs up her things to leave. I went into this with a few distinct advantages to most people my age - I grew up watching and enjoying repeats of Coronation Street from the 70s on Granada Plus, I've had an obsession with Victoria Wood-type Northern humour since my mid-teens and I've watched a fair amount of old films so I understood more of the references than I might have otherwise. I can imagine without these advantages I would've found the piece a bit incomprehensible.
As it was, I enjoyed it for the most part. Most of the characters Creasey transforms herself into are amusing, though they are difficult to recall individually afterwards. I wasn't really keen on the songs she threw in but they did alter the pace somewhat. One decision I was uncertain about was the melancholy end to the first act - while that particularly story is one that resonated with me, it was an odd way to leave the audience for the interval. All in all, this was a good play; better, I suspect, if you're over a certain age. Full credit to Mary Creasey for what must have been an exhausting show.
Saturday - Death and the Maiden
This is a heavy play and, as such, I'm not sure it was the best work to conclude the week, especially after a schedule packed with comedy. It tells the story of Paulina Salas (Julie Johnston), a woman who was captured and tortured years ago. She now lives, still troubled by her experiences, with her husband Gerardo (Andy Rea). One night a man arrives on their doorstep who she becomes convinced was one of her captors. But is Roberto (Mike Bellenie) innocent or guilty and does it matter?
I struggled with this one. Although I initially liked the set - furniture covered with sheets, high windows at the back and a little veranda area - it became a little cumbersome as time went on and characters were travelling between the living room and the veranda. In addition, the piece felt overblown sometimes and too underplayed at others - I'm not sure they got the balance right. It's a difficult play to convey and I don't think the ambition of the company paid off this time. While there were a few stand-out moments, overall, I found this one difficult to warm to which, in all fairness, may have been a result of the dark subject matter.
I think this year was marked by two phenomenal local productions - Hobson's Choice and Without Fear or Favour - which, between them, took home 11 out of the 12 awards (the only one they missed was the one they couldn't possibly win - third place!). I came out of Hobson's Choice convinced it was the play of the week and, though Without Fear or Favour briefly shook my resolve, I couldn't help but cast my vote for it in the 'Audience Award'. I hope other companies don't think this was a Wakefield whitewash - it just so happened that this year the local companies excelled themselves.
All I can say is that St. Austin's Players and Wakefield Little Theatre thoroughly deserved their accolades this year. In addition, I enjoyed Playhouse Creatures and it was a worthy recipient of the award for third place. It was certainly a year of diverse plays - some worked, some didn't. Everyone involved should feel proud and congratulations to the winners.