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Abigail’s Party Reviews

NODA Review of Abigail’s Party

Once again, Phoenix Theatre Company opened their small, but beautifully formed, theatre for us to join them in the living room at the home of Laurence and Beverly. My sister actually gasped and commented that we could have been sitting in her first home, as the furniture was practically identical. The iconic drinks cabinet and low light over the dining table also featured in my parent’s home and instantly took me back to that era. The layout worked perfectly and allowed the cast to move around freely. The set and lighting designers/technicians must be commended for their attention to detail: I loved how the wall and overhead lights worked, which enhanced the ambience of the set; even the artwork on the walls was indicative of the 70’s and added the finishing touches nicely.

Sandy MacNeill played Beverly, the bored wife and hostess of the drinks party, who was resentful of her overworked and stressed husband and was frankly irritated by him. Beverly was looking for something to spice up her life and Sandy’s subtle use of body language throughout the play emphasised this frustration. Her long lingering looks at the new man in the close, touching him at every opportunity was brilliant. Even the way in which she spoke to Tony, with inuendo’s in abundance, held a seductive note that had the audience tittering. Sandy’s prowess at poring fresh drinks every five minutes for each of the cast, whilst continuing her dialogue, was superb. Remembering who was drinking what and in which glass throughout was amazing and had me mesmerised. Not once did she miss a beat or drop the persona she was acting.
Tom Lee-Hynes played Laurence, the overworked and slightly supercilious husband. Tom was excellent as the Estate Agent who put his house sales first even to the point of leaving Beverly alone just as the neighbours she had invited for drinks and nibbles were about to arrive. He was instructed to get extra drinks whilst he was out and probably one of the funniest moments of the play was when he returned emptied handed only to walk on see the neighbours say ‘bugger’ and turn around and walk off again. Tom’s timing was impeccable and his exclamation heartfelt which had the audience in stitches. Whilst Laurence was not the most likeable of characters, with Beverly as the nagging wife, you could sympathise with him and this was down to Tom’s portrayal of the irksome man.

Lucy Davies played Susan, the mother of the never seen Abigail who was having a party! Susan was the very nervous, whilst wanting to be a good mother, type. She wanted to give Abigail freedom but with Beverly’s constant unhelpful suggestions about what could be happening, was struggling to remain calm. Lucy played this role with a confidence that had us believing that her daughter really was running riot. When Susan has too much to drink at Beverly’s insistence, there ensued a riotous few moments which many of the audience I am sure, could relate to. Susan’s discomfort at being in Beverley’s home and having too much to drink became more evident as the play went on with subtle facial expressions from Lucy showed her longing to escape.

Phil Field was Tony. For three quarters of the play Tony’s interaction with the cast was in monosyllabic responses to comments made by his wife or the seductive hostess. Phil was a master of timing and tone of response! He may only has said one word, but it spoke volumes and did have everyone laughing out loud. His quick interjection of ‘8 months’ was especially humorous. Tony seemed to have fallen into the husband role out of expectation rather than undying love of his wife and became more flattered by Beverly’s advances as the evening went on, a change in his responses was proof of this and when asked to go with Laurence to see how Abigail’s party was going on, relished the task, in more ways than one.
Michelle Cooper played the final cast member, Angela. Angela was a nurse whose aspirations were firmly fixed on marrying well, having a nice house and rosy future. Although delighted that they had managed to buy their home for two thousand less than the asking price, she was slowly becoming jealous of her neighbours and conscious of her husband’s mediocre job. Whilst Angela had a naivety that was mainly due to lack of experience she wanted very much to be part of the Beverly crowd. Michelle had this character off to a tee. Her quick put downs of Tony were perfectly timed, and her dizzy blond moments were endearing. She desperately wanted to appear as sophisticated as Beverly but didn’t quite have it. I loved and admired the way in which Michelle managed to eat, talk and react all at the same time, again without missing a beat. However, the crowning glory for me was when Angela, having failed to revive Laurence, flung herself backwards with her leg in the air suffering from cramp… This too I can relate to and it was hysterical and a fitting and humorous end to what had become a sober moment.

I thoroughly enjoyed the stagecraft of this production, the direction and acting from the cast was perfect as was the characterisation of their role. It was a fabulous production which you should be very proud of. Thank you, Phoenix, for inviting me, it was privilege to be there.

Louise Hickey (NODA)

Review of Abigail’s Party at the Phoenix Theatre

Last week the Phoenix Theatre Company staged a revival of Mike Leigh’s classic play Abigail’s Party. The play is a satire on the aspirations and tastes of the new middle class that emerged in Britain in the 1970s and made Alison Steadman, who played Beverly, a household name. Beverly, a would-be social climber, and her estate agent husband Laurence have invited new neighbours Angela and Tony over for drinks together with Susan whose daughter Abigail has taken over her house for a party. The gin and tonics and cheesy pineapple chunks are being passed around and Jose Feliciano is on the record player. As the evening progresses tensions escalate exposing the marital strain between Beverly and Laurence. Susan’s anxiety surfaces as Abigail’s rock music permeates the room. The evening culminates in hilarious and embarrassing revelations.

Reprising a well-known play is fraught in that comparisons with the original will always be made even though 40 years have passed since the first broadcast. The Phoenix Theatre Company avoided direct comparison by bringing a fresh interpretation to the play under the astute direction of Renee Field. Key to the originality was the role of Beverly played with absolute conviction by Sandy MacNeill. The dynamics with her down-trodden husband Laurence, played by Tom Lee-Hynes, were in marked contrast with the palpable sexual chemistry between her and ex-footballer Tony played by Phil Field. Although he had very few lines, his one liners in reply to his socially inept wife Angela, were heavy with sarcasm and had the audience in stitches. Michelle Cooper played Angela to perfection, aided by the simple addition of goofy glasses and heavy lipstick, and had the audience cringing at her naive comments. Abigail’s mother Sue, played by Lucy Davies, is in the middle of the sparring couples and has to endure being force fed with gin & tonic, cheese nibbles and a cigarette whilst being quizzed on her divorce. Angela clumsily remarks “So you were getting divorced as we were getting married”. Beverly’s and Laurence’s interests are poles apart. Whilst Beverly likes to swoon to Jose Feliciano and Elvis, Laurence on the other hand, prefers classical music and attempts to engage Sue in a conversation about art much to the annoyance of Beverly. As the evening wears on the tensions reach boiling point when Beverly goads Laurence with an erotic painting he hates. The final scene is superbly played out with enormous energy by Tom Lee-Hynes who eventually collapses with a heart attack. Although a trained nurse, Angela’s attempts to revive Laurence are futile and, to the strident chords of Beethoven’s Fifth emanating from the record player, the play ends with Sue on the phone shouting “Abigail, Abigail!”

Mention must be made of the set which, with a backdrop of gaudy wallpaper, a room divider and a fibre light, shouted 70s at us. This was a stunning piece of theatre where an old play was brought to life with great effect and further enhances the reputation of the Phoenix Theatre Company.

Rachel Divine

Gaslight Review

Gaslight
Phoenix Theatre Company
Director: Brian Jackson
Venue: Phoenix Theatre, Ross on Wye

I want to start by mentioning the set for this production as it was as much a star of the show as the cast themselves. I always feel that, due to the size of the auditorium, the audience is a silent participant in the action at the Phoenix and this was no exception. The set was everything I remembered of the old black and white film I saw many years ago. The working double doors at the rear opened to expose stairs and a hall and was used well. The sitting room was dressed in the most tasteful manner with even a chenille tablecloth over the dining room table and a fireplace with mantle on which ornaments had been placed. On either side of the mantle were two strategically placed gas lights (electric obviously) which were controlled simultaneously as the actors turned the lights up and down; timing and acting in perfect sync. The lighting was just right, adding to the atmospheric gloom that the title depicted.

The small cast moved the play along at a great pace. Amanda Smith convinced me that, as Bella Manningham, she was a wife who was slowly going mad because of the devious machinations of her manipulative and menacing husband, superbly played by Gareth Wigg. As their portrayal of tormenter and victim unfolded, the audience felt both uncomfortable and outraged in equal measure. Michelle Cooper added to this tension as the parlour maid Nancy who openly ridiculed the wife and had a brilliant sneer that was aimed at the wife but seen face front by the audience. Jacky Bedford as Elizabeth the Housekeeper, acted in a nice and gentle way that showed the empathy she felt for her mistress. Rough, the retired Police Inspector, was played by Brian Jackson who, having directed the play, stepped in to take on this role himself just two weeks before the show opened and Brian was perfect for the part. He was utterly convincing as the man who was going to protect the vulnerable Bella. His timing and delivery, particularly in the final scene, when unveiling his knowledge of the history of the house and previous owner, was brilliant.
The cast performances were slick, polished and a joy to watch. I loved the production in its entirety and the attention to detail was spectacular. Thank you Phoenix.

Louise Hickey (NODA)

Reviews of Arsenic & Old Lace

The November production of the classic comedy Arsenic & Old Lace at the Phoenix Theatre, performed by the resident amateur group the Phoenix Theatre Company, was very well received and played to full houses. Set in a quiet neighborhood of Brooklyn in the early 1940s live two old ladies – Abby and Martha Brewster. Underneath their air of respectability lies a dark secret. Twelve bodies in the cellar! These are their gentlemen, single elderly men who are given a glass of elderberry wine laced with a cocktail of poisons to help them on their way.

The Brewsters were played to perfection by Suzanne Hill and Jane Bovell who brought their vast range of acting talents to their roles. Orchestrating the disposal of bodies in the cellar was Teddy Brewster who thinks himself to be Teddy Roosevelt. This was a cameo role played with extreme enthusiasm by Les Davis. Some sanity does exist in the Brewster family in the form of Mortimer a sometime theatre critic played by Tony Hearn making a welcome return to the Phoenix. Tony has good stage presence and a range of facial expressions that can reflect an extreme range of emotions. The look of incredulousness on his face as he discovers the bodies in the window seat was a treat.

The play takes a menacing turn at the entry of long-lost cousin Jonathan Brewster. Jonathan is a gangster who has his identity protected by frequent face lifts carried out by his side kick the german Dr Einstein. The portrayal of Jonathan by Gareth Wigg as a very nasty piece of work was the highlight of the play. Shaven-headed with a couple of operating scars and eyes that pierced through the audience, Gareth commanded the stage. His measured delivery and menacing threats cowered Dr Einstein into submission to his deadly plans. Performed with a stoop and a spot-on accent Tim Betts had a lovely time as Dr Einstein.

Where there are villains there are also cops and quite a lot of them! On came some of the dumbest officers you are likely to see, played by Nigel Patrick (again returning to the Phoenix), Sam Callen and Tom Lee-Hynes overseen by Lieutenant Rooney played by Jacky Bedford, another nice cameo. I was pleased to see Gordon Brigg on stage as one of the Brewster ladies potential victims. Gordon is a vastly experienced actor and director. Brian Jackson makes an entrance towards the end of the play as Mr Witherspoon, the director of a home for the mentally ill, and being single, elderly and unattached – he is last to be seen holding up a glass of elderflower wine! The play opens with the Rev Dr Harper played by Roger Williams and we are soon introduced to his daughter Elaine played by Zoe Hutton. Zoe has come into the senior ranks as a product of the Phoenix Youth Theatre and has a promising acting career ahead of her. It is a joy to watch her face reacting to every changing situation on stage.

If there is to be any criticism of David Pollard’s direction, then it has to be the inability to see all the actors when a large cast is on stage. If an actor is on stage then they must not be masked. Difficult with a large cast I know. For me the set was a slight disappointment. I appreciate how much effort goes into staging a play, particularly in a tight space such as at the Phoenix, but the set lacked character and didn’t suggest a room occupied over many years by a couple of old ladies. There should have been more clutter and memorabilia in my view. I also felt the overhead blue light which outlined the tops of the actors heads quite distracting, a point made by others sitting near me. Should Jonathan’s photo be in colour?

Overall an excellent production with great performances that delighted the audiences.

Rachel Divine

*****

I was almost not looking forward to attending this production, as it is one of my all-time favourite films. In addition to its being a film it was a Broadway play, so I was anticipating a different interpretation to my much-loved film. I needn’t have worried, as the Phoenix Theatre Company kept it very true to the version I know and love so well.

The set was absolutely amazing, with every door and window used as working entrances; the furniture was of the period and the props were the icing on the cake. Although the set remains the same throughout the play, this did not stop the additional props used emphasising every stage of the day. The costumes were fabulous, and the three lady’s outfits were gorgeous. The stairs leading to the upper landing were good. However, I did feel that if the door had opened the other way around it would have allowed it to be slammed better, thus giving more credence to Teddy’s battle cry.

Suzanne Hill and Jane Bovell, as sisters Abby and Martha Brewster, were brilliant and their accents strong throughout. They portrayed in equal amounts, their innocence and eccentricity with great comic timing. The part of Mortimer Brewster was played by Tony Hearn and although I felt he wasn’t trying to be Cary Grant, he did use some of his mannerisms. His affection for his two elderly Aunts was nicely done and his interaction with his brother Jonathan and his girlfriend Elaine nicely paced and humorous.

Gareth Wigg was a very menacing Jonathan Brewster and his scary face worked very well. Les Davis as Teddy Brewster, the even more eccentric brother, was true to the original character and his use of the word ‘bully’ and ‘charge’ were very funny. Zoe Hutton, though not as mature as the original film version of Elaine Harper did well. Tim Betts was exceptional as Dr Einstein; he was so like Peter Lorre it was uncanny. Not only with his mannerisms but his voice; it was amazing.

There was great support from all the other cast members, the police officers in particular did very well; Tom Lee-Hynes, as Officer O’Hara, played this with the right amount of complete incompetence; it’s a lovely part.

Most of the cast had really good American accents, which they managed to maintain throughout the play which is not easy, so well done to you for the attention to detail. This was a well-directed production; the full use of the ‘stage’ and the fluidity of movement from everyone kept the audience’s attention focussed throughout. This was another great production from Phoenix Theatre Company which I thoroughly enjoyed, thank you.

Louise Hickey (NODA)

Wendy & Peter Pan (Phoenix Youth Theatre)

For years one of the highlights of the London pantomime season has been ‘Peter Pan’. This week’s production by Phoenix Youth Theatre was far more challenging. In taking on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version the company’s director, Sarah O’Neill, raised the bar for her young cast. Far removed from panto it is more a fantasy drama, presenting challenges in staging; from the children’s bedroom to Neverland and the pirate ship. As with previous PYT productions creative sound effects helped to establish changes of mood and location. The flying sequences were brilliantly achieved by clever lighting through the theatre’s newly acquired gauze. Huge challenges for the backstage team but clever costuming also contributed, as in Peter’s first appearance trying to find his shadow, (black from head to toe, mirroring Peter’s every movement); from the Edwardian elegance of the parents to the flamboyant swashbuckling style of a superb Captain Hook played by Dan Canham.

The show belonged to Sarah’s young cast. They delivered their lines with faultless assurance and I must mention a few. Lucy Roberts, such an accomplished young actress playing the mother, Mrs. Darling, a role she took on at less than four weeks notice, then switching character to double as Tiger Lily. The fairy Tink, an hilarious characterisation by Lily Hampson, straight out of Coronation Street! The audience loved her. Is Lily from the Forest? – hard to believe; Rochdale for me! Peter Pan superbly played by Eben Harris. Eben has everything, pace, agility, stage persona, clear diction. Eben simply was Peter Pan.

The scenes when the cast of pirates and ‘lost boys’ filled the stage was suberbly managed. And so we come to the final scenes. The reconciliation of Mr and Mrs Darling played with such maturity by Lucy Roberts and Ollie O’Neill; and the touching reunion between Wendy (The delightful Maggie Hearne who also took on the role at four week’s notice!) and her mother with Peter hovering wistful and unseen beyond the window. The audience applauded and cheered; two curtain calls were demanded. In the foyer as they left some of the audience were seen weeping, so emotional was the climax. ‘A wonderful show’ they said. Phoenix Youth Theatre continues to go from strength to strength.

Brian Jackson

Review of “Their Greatest Hits” (Phoenix Theatre Singers)

 

If you didn’t manage to buy a ticket for the Phoenix Singers latest concert ‘Their Greatest Hits,’ then you missed a treat.

The programme began with the full company singing Judy Garlands’ hit, ‘That’s Entertainment’ and that’s just what the Singers provided us with for the rest of the evening. It was a delight to be cajoled by a new Master of Ceremonies, Di Hughes, who was informative, amusing and set the tone for the performance.

The full company performed exceptionally well, especially when singing without the words in front of them! I particularly liked the Ladies’ Chorus rendition of the highlights from Chicago. Their black cocktail dresses were stunning and the movement and singing was enhanced by them. The men, on the other hand, were completely bowled over by the ‘Pretty Woman’ who appeared in their midst! The Bohemian Rhapsody is particularly difficult to sing without copies and the Company performed it magnificently.

The overall impression of the evening was one of colour, enthusiasm and vitality. I must, however, mention some of the soloists. Kevin Passey’s Al Jolson’s medley had us all joining in with him and his empathy with the audience was excellent. ‘Elvis’ seems to get better with every performance! Michelle’s acting skills came into play with her rendition of Barbra Streisand’s ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ and the strength of Sandy’s glorious voice was evident when she sang ‘At Last’. Mary always does justice to Ella Fitzgerald’s works and ‘My Funny Valentine’ was no exception.

However, I think the highlight of the evening for me was Gareth Wigg’s ‘Nessun Dorma’. Fittingly, this week is the tenth anniversary of Pavarotti’s death and had he heard Gareth singing ‘his’ song he would have been proud of him.

None of the concert could succeed without the indefatigable playing of talented Richard Watson. He really is a star who works so hard for the Singers and they would be lost without him.

Finally, a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s entertainment where Mary and her Singers are to be congratulated once again.

Judith Landau

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