Much Ado About Nothing at the Rose Kingston review ****

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Much Ado About Nothing

Rose Theatre Kingston, 20th April 2018

Come on fellow residents of the Royal Borough of Kingston and London Borough of Richmond – both upon Thames. Get your collective arses over to the Rose Theatre to see this new version of Much Ado About Nothing, celebrating the 10th anniversary of your local theatre. There are plenty of tickets left for the last handful of performances. It is not perfect but when it is funny, it is very funny, the setting is intriguing, there are a handful of strong performances, including the star turn Mel Giedroyc, and, in John Hopkins’s Benedick, there is Shakespearean comic acting to rival the very best.

Now I will admit that the main draw for BD, LD, myself, and latterly MS, was Ms Giedroyc herself. Obviously she is a national treasure and we have collectively seen her memorably translate her inimitable style, arch covers it, to the reading of Agatha Christie. Play, proximity and support for the local theatre was enough justification for me, but LD especially needed the hook of her off the telly. LD is probably a bellwether teen, suspicious of Shakespeare, unless forced to consume at school, and then normally pleasantly surprised when Dad mugs her into coming along, usually through vague subterfuge. And she thoroughly enjoyed this. It doesn’t mean a trip to an uncut Lear is just round the corner. Just saying that if it is good enough to entertain her it is good enough to entertain anyone who might be dubious about the Bard.

Moreover, this production, jointly staged with Granville and Parnham and Antic Face, rattles through the action so that we are all done and dusted in under 150 minutes inc. interval. That’s including a several minute intro as we are, just so we know, introduced to the resort hotel in a set shrewdly realised by Naomi Dawson. This is modern day Sicily and Leonato’s estate is now a luxury spa to which Peter Guinness’s suitably intimidating mafioso Don Pedro and crew have retired for a bit of rest, relaxation and intimidation. Suffice to say it looked nothing like the bucolic MAAN in the drawing above.

Director Simon Dormandy’s ideas do, fitfully, generate some insight, notably in the way that Kate Lamb’s Hero and Calam Lynch’s Claudio are so precipitously thrust together, in the fancy dress party which permits the romantic plotting, in the wedding scenes and, especially, in Hero’s fake funeral. Here the juxtaposition of modern sophistication with older, deeper, paternalistic traditions is most striking. We love Sicily, (well I do especially), but Sicilians are a wary bunch, unsurprising given colonisations by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Muslims, Vikings, Normans, Germans, French, Spanish, Italians, Mafia and Tourists. Mind you that is what is makes it endlessly fascinating to the outsider.

On the other hand there are times when the hotel set is a limitation, most notably for the Watch, though frankly that never works, even with Stewart Wright doing his very best as Dogberry. And, let’s face it, most people see MAAN for the comedy, specifically Beatrice and Benedick sparring. Mel, as customer services manager for the hotel and Mr Hopkins, as an unlikely consigliere to Don Pedro, deliver. Ms Giedroyc, is funny, we know that, and exactly the right sort of funny, and doesn’t hold back from mugging to the audience. When she needs to show Beatrice’s independence, and specifically her revulsion at the patriarchal conceits around her, she also shows she can seriously act. John Hopkins however is a cut above, the physical humour matches his brilliant delivery of the text. Their early disdain for each other is done snappily enough, with some evidence of their back story, but it is when they get serious about each other that they hit the heights. Mel’s immediate retort of “kill him” when asked by Mr Hopkins what Benedick could do for Beatrice to right the wrong Claudio has inflicted on Hero, got the laugh, but the audience was palpably nervous. It is their respective eavesdropping scenes which still the show: pure farce, but why not if it makes us happy.

We were taken with young Calum Lynch as Claudio on his professional debut, especially LD, and especially when his top came off. There was a harsh streak in him, where required, to balance the skittish wooing. Kate Lamb presented an initially diffident Hero but bristled wth anger as her reputation was impugned. Peter Bray, rather disconcertingly played Don John as a somewhat dim East London thug; in contrast his Clerk was more Home Counties solicitor. David Rintoul as Leonato, now hotel manager, was alternately brutal and oleaginous. Fine support elsewhere includes Nicholas Prassad as Borachio and Victoria Hamnett as Margaret conjuring up a saucy scene involving Hero’s wedding dress that provides a not unreasonable explanation for the mistaken identity window scene which leads to Hero’s “disgrace”.

There have been, and will be, sharper, richer versions of MAAN, Christopher Luscombe’s recent RSC production for example, but if you want some straightforward easy on the ear and eye Shakespeare comedy, Kingston, for the rest of this week, is the place to be.

 

 

 

Murder She Didn’t Write at the Leicester Square Theatre review ****

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Murder She Didn’t Write, Degrees of Error, Something for the Weekend

Leicester Square Theatre, 25th March 2018

Flushed with success from our previous outing to the LST for a bit of class improv, BD, LD and the Tourist slope off to see Degrees of Error and Something for the Weekend and their commended show Murder She Didn’t Write. If this was as anything like as good as Austentatious we were in with a treat (Austentatious at Leicester Square Theatre review ****).

Well, I can report, it is,  and we were. You wouldn’t think to look at kindly Agatha Christie that she could have such a devious and sly mind. For how else to explain how she re-wrote the rules on whodunnit plotting. Which delights in exposing human cruelty. Take a look at Sarah Phelps’s riveting adaptations courtesy of the BBC, Ordeal By Innocence on now, Witness For The Prosecution and And Then There Were None, if you want to see how Christie should be done.

Agatha Christie is, by some margin, the most famous product of Torbay. If the Tourist, who is similarly scion-ed, is to catch her up he needs to come up with something sharpish. This blog, with its still pitiful double digit readership, is not it. Her holiday home, Greenway House, is well worth a visit, and happens to be just down the road from the Tourist’s alma mater.

The classic Christie tropes, the grand locations, the secretive characters, the class divisions, the disguises and assumed identities, the clues and red herrings, the inspired investigator, the big reveal, are as amenable to spoofing as they are to cracking drama. So it’s not really a great surprise to see an improvisation troupe alight on Agatha as a source for its entertainment.

That is not in any way to decry the skill which Degrees of Error bring this to the stage. DoE are an improv theatre company based in Bristol and have been taking Murder She Didn’t Write to Edinburgh and on tour since 2013. So they know what they are about. Even so, as with Austentatious, improv comedy theatre on this scale, (we got around 90 minutes of action for our 15 quid each), is a tough gig. So they wisely help themselves in a number of ways. One of the company, (I think Tom Bridges but with no cribsheet I can’t be sure so forgive me if I am mistaken), plays the detective, who guides us through the “plot” with occasional interjections to give his “acting” colleagues time to pause for breath and to suggest scenarios which might add to the gag quotient. He also recruits a member of the audience to be his sidekick, Jerkins, who picks out both victim and murderer. Our cast is “colour-coded” Cluedo fashion to assist in the process. Jerkins also ultimately decides on the location and event for the murder mystery based on audience suggestions vetted by the Inspector.

All this buys a bit of time for cast to prepare and to fit the classic Christie tropes to their characters. Even so, early on, there are a few awkward diversions and cross-talking, but after the first 20 minutes or so the direction is set and the cast can settle into the flow. Then they start making it look easy. After the interval you would barely know it was improvised.

It is very, very funny. Our setting, a wine tasting, and location, a wine-glass factory worked a treat. I don’t know how much they might have squeezed in from previous improvs but nothing ever feels forced or less than spontaneous. Watching the comic ideas coalesce is delightful and seeing the cast grinning when they hit the comedy jackpot makes the whole thing even funnier. That is the shared joy of improv.

I think the cast was Peter Baker, Lizzy Skrzypiec, Tessa Gaukroger, Caitlin Campbell, Rachel Lane and John Lomas, but I can’t be sure as I say. No point singling out anyone in particular, the whole ensemble was fabulous.

If this even slightly piques your interest I strongly encourage you to take the plunge. The London gigs at the LST are at 4pm on a Sunday. What else are you going to be doing then FFS? This is one of those outings where you absolutely can take your mates along without worrying they won’t enjoy it and you will look like a tit, and there is, for a couple of hours at least, no question of FOMO or phone-withdrawal kicking in.

http://www.degreesoferror.com/tour/

 

 

Milton Jones “Is Out There” at Shanklin Theatre review ****

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Milton Jones: Is Out There

Shanklin Theatre, 16th February 2018

The sunniest place in Britain is Shanklin. Fact. Don’t be deceived by imposters on the South Coast claiming this accolade. It is Shanklin. And, as any fool knows, the Isle of Wight is a paradise on Earth. Beautiful scenery, fascinating history, plenty to do, loads of places to eat, proper British beaches.

Now I admit Shanklin itself is not at the cutting edge of holiday fashion. But if you like crazy golf, amusement arcades, ice-cream, fish and chips, sand between your toes and brutalist lift structures, (to take you down to the front), then this is the place for you. And not too far away is, IMHO, the best eatery in Britain, in the form of the Taverners in Godshill.

Shanklin Theatre, like the town itself, and the IoW, is a bit rough around the edges. That’s why I like it. It’s a proper old style theatre which does a nice line in am-dram, tribute bands and, especially, comedy, and serves the town well.

So, as this is the Tourist’s home away from home, this is where he the SO and LD chose to see the unique wordsmith that is Milton Jones. The regular reader of this blog may be aware that the Tourist’s tolerance for stand-up comedians is low. Milton Jones though is on the approved list along with Lee, Christie, Kitson and Vine. Most of then are just way too lazy in their choice of material. This is not a criticism that can be levelled at Mr Jones. The madcap exterior belies a fierce intelligence. In this latest show he adopts the device of an off-stage publicist putting him up for all suits of unsuitable comedy job opportunities. That is the, admittedly, tenuous thread that holds the show together.

Oh that and Brexit. Now for those that know Milton Jones from previous shows or from his turns on the telly might be surprised that he incorporates the issue de jour. However there is, and has always been, a layer of absurdist satire beneath the wacky wordplay and he puts it to good use here. Which, in the context of the IoW, a firm Leave bastion, created a little bit of enjoyable frisson in the air. This was helped by some adept put-downs from support act Chris Stokes aimed at a bone-headed heckler. Livened his act up immensely and even gave Milton Jones something to work with.

Now the real pleasure in an MJ show, in addition to his brilliant ideas, is hearing the audience react. I get the majority of the jokes, but there are a few that get away, and some that require a little time to sink in. Multiply these reaction times by a few hundred, combined with the pace of MJ’s delivery, and it means that, with a few pauses, the laughter is pretty much continuous. I can’t pretend that many of the lines stick, blame the Tourist’s faltering memory, but no matter, when the pleasure is in just being there.

There are still a couple of months left on the tour. If he is coming anywhere near you just go. You will be hard pressed to find a funnier 90 minutes or so of entertainment anywhere else.

The Open House at the Print Room Coronet review ***

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The Open House

The Print Room Coronet, 27th January 2018

Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, Sam Shepherd, Lillian Hellman. All succeeded at writing a Great American Play, or in some cases Plays, about dysfunctional families. In an entirely naturalistic way. It is the meat and drink of American drama.

I am no expert but I suspect there have also been multiple attempts to subvert this staple. That is what writer, Will Eno, is about here. Open House is another collaboration with Bath Theatre Royal’s Ustinov Studio, which has proved fruitful to date. I was reeled in by the Bath reviews, by the concept, but most of all by Greg Hicks, who is a marvellous actor IMHO. His Richard II at the Arcola was one of my favourite turns of last year. And, all things considered, I am glad I went along, though I have to confess this is a play that delights rather more in its central idea and its structure, than in its characters.

Father, (yes it is one of those trendy no-name jobs), played by the aforesaid Mr Hicks, is a cantankerous, misanthropic, sarcastic bully. Confined to a wheelchair post a stroke he pokes, probes, belittles and demeans the family that has gathered to celebrate a wedding anniversary. Long suffering wife and Mother Teresa Banham (last seen by me in the rash Dessert at the Southwark Playhouse) tries hard to blunt his barbs and smooth things over but her heart isn’t in it anymore. Son (Ralph Davies) and Daughter (Lindsey Campbell) make nervous family small talk but are constantly shot down by their irascible Dad. Finally Uncle (Crispin Letts) seems lost in his own world, still grieving from the loss of his wife. So far so miserable. It is on occasion very funny, in that cringey, lemon-sucking way, Mr Eno has an ear for the rhythms of this painful family gathering and the cast lap it up. Tom Piper’s set along with Madeleine Girling’s costumes, Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and Andrea J Cox’s sound all contrive to create an atmosphere of utter blandness. Colour is absent.

Food is needed and Daughter volunteers to head out to the deli. And one by one, for various reasons the family leaves. And one by one the family returns, but in a different guise. Daughter is now a realtor who is set to sell the house. Son is a handyman come to fix a couple of things, Uncle a prospective buyer, Wife his partner. Father is last to leave and is mystified by what is going on, (despite prompting the shift by revealing he wanted to sell up), until he returns as the buyer’s friend and lawyer. And, with all this coming and going, colour and light seep in. The conversations more from pained recrimination to upbeat geniality, focussed on the here and now and the future, not the past. In short from pessimism to optimism. It is a gratifying watch, replete with clever touches to support the inversion, but it doesn’t seem to say much beyond the central conceit and doesn’t really interrogate the characters.

Mr Eno is apparently a one for formal innovation and that is no bad thing. But he also seems to have the comic touch and in some ways the satire on family life here may ironically have been more acute if this had been structured in a more straightforward way. Still, it intrigued and made me laugh, and Michael Boyd’s direction, is, as you would expect, entirely sympathetic to the project.

 

 

 

Daisy Pulls It Off at the Park Theatre review ***

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Daisy Pulls It Off

Park Theatre 200, 16th December 2017

Funny thing the memory. Even more curious is consciousness itself. It used to be that clever folk conceptualised consciousness as a kind of “theatre of the mind”. Apparently now the cutting edge of neuroscience, psychology and philosophy says this dualism is claptrap and tends towards a more functionalist explanation. As the bard said “there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. A very clever man, and great admirer of Mr Shakespeare, a certain Mr Tom Stoppard even had a crack at writing a play about The Hard Problem.

Anyway the point is that I distinctly remember really enjoying Denise Deegan’s play Daisy Pulls It Off at the Globe Theatre, (now the Gielgud), when it was such a smash hit in the mid 1980s. As did the SO. It was very funny. Or so I thought.

This latest revival at the Park Theatre was OK. Occasionally funny, but quite often a bit of a chore. Daisy Drags It Out. Now as I understand it this production, directed by Paulette Randall, presents pretty much the original script. It reverts to the original seven strong cast, which means some doubling or trebling up for all but two of them. Which, in my view, led to some of the more amusing moments in the play. Ms Randall and her creative colleagues have chosen to cast the production in a largely age, colour and gender blind way. Anna Shaffer, who debuts as Daisy, was most age appropriate. In contrast, Freddie Hutchins doubled up as Belinda alongside his Mr Scoblowski, Pauline McLynn was a plucky Trixie and Claire Perkins revelled in her roles as Monica, Mr Thompson and Mademoiselle. The rest of the cast, Lucy Eaton, Melanie Fulbrook, Shobna Gulati, are all excellent actors, based on other stage and TV performances I have seen, and it was hard to fault their industry or execution here. The production was played moreorless “straight”, as intended, with any hamming up emerging largely from character or costume changes and not from an overly arch, or slapstick, delivery. Libby Watson’s set and costumes were on the money and, in the hockey match and the rescue scene on the cliff-top, the cast conjured up some fine visual drama from inventive movement, using only minimal props.

So why was this such a disappointment, for me, and for LD, who gamely agreed to come along, despite being somewhat suspicious about Dad’s big build up. Well, as I say, I don’t think it was the production, or the cast. I see that some, though by no means all, other proper reviewers got a real buzz out of this. Three possible explanations then. Either it wasn’t as good as I though it was first time around, (though, with the magnificent Lia Williams, alongside Samantha Bond and Kate Buffery, this production did launch some extraordinary acting talent). Or I, and the world around me, has moved on, such that reverent spoofs such as this are no longer novel. Finally it may be that my memory has, to coin the vernacular, “played tricks on me”. This third explanation is likely scientific fact, and not just doddery middle age, the second explanation probably has a great deal to do with it, but I worry that the first may actually bear the bulk of the responsibility. It just may not be as good a play as I thought it was.

I wouldn’t put you off from seeing this if you are new it. There are laughs, (though apparently, to my surprise, there is nothing amusing about the words “frightful muff”), some spirited performances and some fine stagecraft. It does warm up in the second half but never really takes off. The underlying message, snobbery can and will be routed, is so gentle as to be barely perceptible and, it turns out, the whole thing is just a little too in thrall to its sources.  An A for effort, a C for achievement, I am afraid to say.

The Hound of the Baskervilles at Jermyn Street Theatre review ****

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The Hound of the Baskervilles

Jermyn Street Theatre, 10th December 2017

Everyone likes Sherlock Holmes right. And everyone can see that the stories are ripe for comic treatment. Indeed you have probably seen this done on numerous occasions. Even the amazing Cumberbatch/Freeman/Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock, which is regarded with reverence in the Tourist’s household, mines the humour in Conan Doyle’s stories. So if a comedy version of Holmes takes your fancy then you simply must get along to this. A Christmas treat. Take the kids. Any age will do.

It is adapted by Steven Canny and John Nicholson. Mr Canny writes and produces for the Beeb and has worked with Complicite. Mr Nicholson is part of theatre company Peepolykus, which specialises in this type of comedy, though he has plenty of other comedy writing and directing credits to his name. This Hound of the Baskervilles was first performed in 2007: this version is a co-production with the English Theatre Frankfurt. (I’ve been there, its great, who says Frankfurt is dull, not me). The creative team of Lotte Wakeham (director), Derek Anderson (lighting) and Andy Graham (sound) have done a marvellous job in bringing this to life but my hat goes off to Louie Whitemore who has adapted David Woodhead original design to fit the tiny JST space. If you go and see this you will understand just how clever Ms Whitemore has been here. This comes on top of her fabulous design for Miss Julie in the same space recently.

Now you will know the plot, or you can find out. A few liberties are taken to make this work but most of the key scenes remain. Suffice to say a fair few characters pop up along the way and one of the biggest joys in this production is seeing how writers, director and the three strong cast cope with getting them on and off the stage. It is acted at a furious pace: now wonder they needed an interval. Simon Kane plays bumbler Watson and is a moreorless continuous, and very amusing, presence. Around his bluff, dull-wittedness, Max Hutchinson plays Holmes in mordant fashion, and Shaun Chambers is an ebullient Sir Henry Baskerville. However, on top of this, Mr Hutchinson plays Stapleton, sister/wife Cecille (with frightful wig and dress), and the servants, Mr and Mrs Barrymore. All I can say is he must be knackered at the end of each performance. Mr Chambers enters as Sir Charles Baskerville, does a fabulous turn as Scottish Mortimer as well as a Cabbie. All three have various stints as Yokels of some description. And, if the logistics are stretched too far, then a couple of dummies appear.

Like I say the comedy derived from movement, props, costumes and accents, (even the ones that don’t appear), is delicious. So is much of the script. In particular the occasions where the fourth wall is broken, especially at the beginning of Act 2, are hilarious. I laugh out loud when I find something funny. BD and the SO who came along, (LD had to bail out which is a real shame as this was right up her Baker Street), are less animate but there was many a chuckle and smile from both. There are a few knowing lines, mostly to do with the bromance between Holmes and Watson, but there was enough for the youngsters in the audience as well.

So if you find the forced entertainment of panto at Christmas a bit wearing but you still yearn for something to do with all the family, I heartily recommend this. It is on this week (to 20th December) and then again from the 8th to the 13th January. There are tickets available as I write.

 

Rules For Living review at the Rose Theatre Kingston ***

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Rules For Living

Rose Theatre Kingston, 13th November 2017

The Tourist loves the Rose Theatre. Admittedly it helps that it is just a hop, skip and a jump, (well brisk walk), away from him. It does serve up some interesting theatre though, in amongst the music and comedy, and it does a grand job for the local community, notably for the young people. Understandably most of the theatre it produces is shared with other venerable regional houses but this makes eminent economic sense. And by and large, when it has nabbed something for itself, the decision has paid off. All this is achieved without an Artistic Director or commissions. Given the size of the place, 900 seats, comparable with the Lyttleton say, or the newly opened Bridge, this seems to me a laudable strategy.

Over the last couple of years we have had the excellent productions of My Brilliant Friend (My Brilliant Friend at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****) and The Good Canary, the outstanding Junkyard, (Junkyard at the Rose Theatre review *****), which was a massive positive surprise for me and BD, a pretty good recent revival of The Real Thing (The Real Thing at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****), the ambitious and largely successful Wars of the Roses, a fine All My Sons and decent productions of Toast, The Herbal Bed, The Absence of War and Maxine Peake’s Beryl, (looks like the marvellous Maxine will end as good a writer as she is actor). Oh and we got the Play That Goes Wrong before the West End.

Coming up we have a new production of Much Ado About Nothing with Mel Giedroyc, (which means BD and LD are already signed up), as Beatrice, (dying to know who will be Benny), and a Don Carlos, (shared with the Nuffield Southampton and the Northcott Exeter so LS will be instructed to attend), in which Tom Burke, (you know him off War and Peace), will partner again with the fancy-dan Israeli director Gadi Roll. A bit of Schiller should wake up the good burghers of Kingston.

Right that’s the puff piece over. What about Rules for Living? This play by Sam Holcroft premiered at the National Theatre in 2015 where it was, by and large, well received. Brothers Matthew (Jolyon Coy, last seen by me in the somewhat different Little Eyolf at the Almeida) and Adam (Ed Hughes) have returned to the family home with, respectively, partner Carrie (Carlyss Peer) and wife Nicole (Laura Rodgers), for Christmas Day. Matriarch Edith (Jane Booker) is marshalling the troops ahead of her husband Francis (Paul Shelley) coming home from hospital, after, it transpires, having had a stroke. Last, and probably least since she is off stage in bed until the end, is Emma, the fragile daughter of Adam and Nicole.

So far, so middle class sitcom. Carrie is a flighty actress, who wants successful lawyer Matthew to pop the question. Adam was a cricketer whose career was ignominiously cut short when he froze on his Test debut. He is now a provincial solicitor. Adam and Nicole’s marriage is on the rocks. Dad Francis was a judge and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Under Edith’s direction the festive activities are run with military precision. 

Now the twist, because, as it stands, this cracker would be more Poundland than Waitrose.  Each of the characters has to follow a rule to govern their behaviour. This flashes up above Lily Arnold’s lovely doll’s house set. The detail of this rule is expanded through the play. So, for example, Matthew has to first sit down, and then eat, when he tells a porkie. I will refrain from trotting out the other rules in case you chance to see this. You get the picture I am sure. Ms Holcroft took learnings from cognitive behavioural therapy as the inspiration for the play and cleverly ensures each of the rules matches the characters faults, frustrations and personalities.

This then is the catalyst for the hilarious goings-on and, initially, at least, there is much humour in this conceit. Having weaved this into the plot though, Ms Holcroft then doesn’t see to entirely know what to do with it, so we veer off into a quasi-farce which ends with a food fight. Amusing yes, and it bears comparison with the master it emulates in Alan Ayckbourn, but it felt to me that the idea was too clever for the execution. The conceit boxed the characters in and didn’t leave enough room for the pathos which was needed to balance the farce.

The cast entered into the spirit of the venture with energetic enthusiasm, even Ed Hughes and Carlyss Peer whose “rule’ was the trickiest to pull off without being annoying. Jane Booker had the pick of some very funny lines and Paul Shelley, with no lines as such and precious little stage time, was a hoot. Laura Rodgers probably dug deepest though her “rule” gave the most opportunity for nuanced development. Director Simon Godwin, who has had some notable successes at the NT, especially his Twelfth Night, chose to anchor proceedings in the family home and play down the “game-show” context of the original production.

All in all then like a game of family charades. A really good idea when it kicks off but wearing after an hour or so. We are going to try doing massive jigsaw maps in silence for Xmas this year. Yo ho ho.

PS. I see that Sam Holcroft is writing a play for the Bridge based on the novel The Black Cloud by astrophysicist Fred Hoyle. Blimey. There will be some big ideas in that for sure.