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Night Must Fall

On a cold November night, anyone lucky enough to have tickets for the Phoenix Theatre Company’s latest production would not have been disappointed. Emlyn Williams’ play “Night Must Fall” starts slowly and ramps up the tension over three acts. Trevor Jones’ subtle lighting and sound cannot alone create and maintain the suspense. This is left to a strong cast who gradually peel away the layers of their characters revealing the emotions, prejudice, and deceit that inevitably lead to the dark place implied by the title. Transporting an eighty-five year old play to the present day has its problems: dialogue and pace need adjustment. However, director Brian Jackson’s deft touch eases the transition and his set creates a sombre and unsettling environment of faded affluence and indulgence. Graham Russell and team’s brown and understated set construction is atmospheric: it cements the bungalow in the wood in its decade and fixes its incumbents’ morality. This thriller is more psychological than ‘who dun it?’ Indeed, most of the audience think they know the identity of the killer at an early stage.

But are their assumptions about Dan, the Welsh bell-boy, correct? Dan, played by Tim Betts (above), oozes charm and menace on demand and the play revolves around how the other characters react. Dan inveigles himself into the confidence of Mrs Branson – well characterised by Suzanne Hill (above right). She plays a wheelchair bound hypochondriac who treats servants and family with equal contempt and is mutually despised. Michelle Cooper (above left) plays Olivia, her intelligent, manipulative niece, who also falls under Dan’s spell, but becomes suspicious when a girl’s headless body is found. Indeed, the chemistry created between Dan and Olivia is compelling but stutters at times. The play has strong supporting roles: Nigel Patrick (top left) plays Hubert, Olivia’s ever hopeful and pompous suitor with panache; Penny Field is suitably dotty as Dora, the sullied, pregnant maid, whilst the comic relief is provided by delightful performances from Diana Tubb (top left) and Amanda Smith as the straight talking housekeeper- Mrs Terence- and quirky Nurse Libby. In addition, the imposing figure of Inspector Belsize played by Tony Hearn (top middle) provides an air of cynical suspicion and a link to the real world. All these performances counterbalance the three main characters. By the final act, the balance of influence in the household has shifted towards Dan, as the besotted Mrs Branson fails to recognise his psychotic undertones and malignant intent. Cast and audience watch in consternation as night approaches and the inescapable clash between evil and passion takes its course. The audience leave the theatre and move from one chill to another.

Peter Hall

NODA Review of With a Song in My Heart

From the moment the Phoenix Theatre Singers took to the stage it was evident that we were in for an excellent evening’s entertainment. Before I talk about the programme, which was delightful, I want to say how immaculately stylish the singers looked throughout the concert. Just the right shade of red for the ladies’ tops, not a variation of a theme that is sometimes the case and which can cause glaring clashes, and the men in pristine white shirts, black trousers and the colourful ties. The splashes of colour by adding different scarves for the ladies and the addition of waistcoats and bow ties for the men kept the stylish accents running through the event. Even the waterproof ponchos for “It’s Raining Men” were colour coordinated over the beautiful array of pastel coloured tops and white trousers for the women. It really was tastefully done and added even more polish to the extremely polished performance.

The lovely arrangement of “With a Song in My Heart” intermingled with “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” as the opening number got everyone’s toes tapping and we were off. The ladies then sang “The Sound of Silence” so beautifully that you could have heard a pin drop.

This was followed by Sue Nicholson performing “I Wish I’d Looked After My Teeth” and gosh, she sounded so like Pam Ayres. It was amazing and had the audience laughing out loud in appreciation. Natalie Smith then stepped onto the floor to sing “The Power of Love” which is quite a power ballad and although had a nervous beginning came through at full throttle at the end.

I have to admit that when I saw on the programme that the men were then going to sing “On the Street Where You Live” my heart sank a little as I have heard this sung many times with varying degrees of tunefulness (or not in many cases). So I was absolutely delighted when the men gave a faultless harmonious and simply gorgeous performance and had me smiling like the proverbial Cheshire Cat. Jacky Bedford sang “Lilac Wine” with gusto and put a lot of emotion into it.

Yet another beautiful arrangement in four-part harmony of “I Write the Songs”, made famous by Barry Manilow, and I can only describe it as ‘graceful’. From one extreme to the other, we then heard the Singers give their interpretation of the Jungle Book’s “I Wan’na Be Like You” and “Bare Necessities” which was great fun.

Mary Brigg (music director) and Richard Watson then gave a brilliant rendition of “The Song That Goes Like This” from Spamalot and the audience whooped and cheered showing just how much they had enjoyed the intentional send-up by them both. It was hilarious.

The finale of the first half took us through some of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals and what a treat this was. Medleys from Jesus Christ Super Star, Evita, Cats, Phantom of the Opera and finishing with “Love Changes Everything” from Aspects of Love. It was sublime.

The second half saw more wonderful performances including a nod to the late great Doris Day, but the opening selection from Blood Brothers was pure joy. Yes, there was the momentous “Tell Me It’s Not True” sung beautifully by Sandy MacNeill, but it was nice to hear snippets from the less well known songs that aren’t usually concert favourites.

Di Hughes sang a completely unknown (to me) Doris Day number “My Ship” and it suited her voice. She added lots of light and shade and it was lovely. Rita Bingham followed this with “Sentimental Journey” which was really good and gave Richard Watson an opportunity to show his prowess on the keyboard.

The group came back together to sing “The Impossible Dream” and “The Winner Takes It All” again to arrangements that pushed the Singers to excellent effect. And then for something completely different, Sandy MacNeill and backing Singers belted out with complete assuredness and confidence “Suddenly I See” by K T Tunstall which was fabulous. It was then taken down a notch with the nicely paced and melodic “Sway” sung by Owen Fitzpatrick, only to be taken back up to the heights with the Ladies and Andrew Doyle raising the roof with “It’s Raining Men”, much to the pleasure of the audience.

Mary Brigg invited the audience to join her in “Que Sera, Sera” and some did but Mary’s version was just so lovely, it was a shame to spoil it. Michelle Cooper and Andrew Doyle then performed the lovely duet “Rewrite the Stars” and certainly did it justice, and as the penultimate song, was just right.

The finale, “Best of the Beach Boys”, was a mix of the less well known and the really famous songs which ended the show on a high. The lighting came into its own and lit the stage and pastel shades beautifully giving a ‘glow like’ effect which was a suitable ending to a perfectly wonderful evening.

Louise Hickey (NODA)

NODA Review of Harvey

It is always a pleasure to take your seat in the auditorium and have time to appreciate the brilliant set that you know will become a great part of the production, and this was no exception. The living room with two sets of bookshelves and sideboards and chest which, became an office with the bookshelves turned round and moved over to become tall cabinets and the space they uncovered becoming two working doors, and the chest was just a shell, that when lifted away covered a two drawer filing cabinet; ingenious! However the opening of doors and drawers by unseen means stole the show, it was absolutely brilliant.

The costumes were divine as usual too, so true to the period and so, so glamorous and looked fabulous.

Penny Field played Myrtle May Simmons, the embarrassed and frustrated niece who wanted her life to be ‘normal’ without her uncle and his Pooka preventing her to lead a normal life. Penny had the right mixture of indignation and petulance that the situation was causing and at one time, all that was missing was her stamping her foot. Her frustration was tangible.

Diana Tubb (below) had the lovely role of Veta Louise Simmons who, as the sister, was torn between loyalty and love for her brother and the need to give her daughter the life she thought she deserved. Diana was very funny and threw herself into the role, quite literally, with her disheveled appearance after her experience in the sanitorium. I really did feel that she was torn between her brother and her daughter and her revelation that she too could see Harvey was brilliantly delivered.

Les Davis (above right) was quite simply Elwood P Dowd… his performance was so convincing, with a natural spacial awareness of where he thought Harvey was. Les was totally at ease in the role and played Elwood as a really ‘nice’ man who had made a conscious decision to be exactly that. So keen to make his sister happy that he would have allowed himself to be incarcerated into the sanitorium, although thankfully this didn’t happen. His conviction that he had been blessed to be given the Pooka Harvey was tangible and quite normal and so was totally unembarrassed to introduce him around town. A lovely performance Les.

Lucy Davies played the lovelorn nurse Ruth Kelly in a manner of one who had seen it all before and wasn’t fazed by the patients that were admitted. Nathan Cole, as Duane Wilson, had a few comical moments when he met Myrtle Mae. The audience enjoyed his antics. Tom Lee-Hynes played Dr Sanderson and gave a convincing confused performance. His feelings for Nurse Kelly were conveyed well and it was a relief when they both succumbed.

Steve Banner (above left) was the Sanitorium Director Dr Chumley who having spent time with Elwood and Harvey realizes that he too can see the Pooka and sets about trying to ensure that Elwood is admitted so that he too can benefit from Harvey’s predictions. Steve’s portrayal of this character was slightly more aggressive than I had remembered from the film version, but it worked. His wife, Betty, played by Jane Bovell used facial expressions that spoke volumes, and were extremely funny. Laurie Pegrum had the supporting role of E J Lofgren a taxi driver, who was determined to get his fare paid, in a very comical exchange between him and Veta Louise.

Alan Chacon was also very relaxed in his role of Judge Omar Gaffney who, as a family friend and lawyer, tried to unravel the situation, reminding everyone how kind Elwood was. The Judges interaction with Veta Louise was very natural and flowed nicely.

This production was well paced with fascinating and precisely executed set changes and affects, that made them a big part of the play.

Thank you, Phoenix, for a most enjoyable performance.

Louise Hickey

Review of Harvey

Welcome to the whimsical world of Elwood P Dowd, a mild eccentric and head of the family whose behaviour is driving his staid sister, Veta Louise, mad. For Veta Louise aspires to shine in the women’s Societies of American middle-class suburbia. But Elwood is a thorn in her side, with his clubs (in reality, bars and drinking dens) and transient friendships. Particularly his best friend and confidante Harvey, for Harvey is a rabbit. Not an ordinary rabbit you understand but a six-foot invisible rabbit. So Veta Louise decides Elwood must be committed permanently to Dr Chumley’s Institution. But Dr Chumley decides Veta Louise should be incarcerated instead of Elwood and here the fun really starts.

This was a most delightful comedy in which a very strong cast playing to their strengths gave us an array of believable characters. Les Davis excelled as the eccentric Elwood. Benign and charming while the family raged around him, Les gave us a forerunner of Forrest Gump (will he ever return to reality after this?). Diana Tubb as Elwood’s sister Veta Louise was outstandingly manic in the face of Elwood’s unnerving calm. And Steve Banner – a Phoenix newcomer – played the fearsome Dr Chumley MD to perfection.

From the moment he burst from his office onto the stage we knew we were in safe hands and Elwood was in trouble. Other parts were played with equal strength, developing their own interwoven dramas; the playing of Lucy Davies (the institution’s lovesick Nurse Kelly) against handsome Junior Doctor Sanderson (Tom Lee-Hynes); the sadistic Duane Wilson (Nathan Cole); I could name all the characters, all played to perfection in a beautifully balanced cast.

The set was challenging, requiring a re-set from the drawing room of the Elwood home to the offices of Dr Sanderson’s clinic. It meant the comfortable furnishings of middle-class America had to be sacrificed for a sparse domestic setting, but the set changes and special effects were managed efficiently by the practiced crew supporting the production backstage and it’s a small criticism. We were treated to a most enjoyable ‘feel-good’ evenings entertainment, and the cast were rewarded by shouts of acclaim at the final curtain.

Brian Jackson

Reviews of And Then There Were None

It is not surprising that the Phoenix Theatre Company’s production of “And Then There Were None” was sold out a week before opening night. Christie’s intriguing and twisting plot line, and an excellent cast, produced a riveting and enjoyable night out in Ross. Michelle Cooper’s directional debut was a joy: it is difficult enough to create, maintain and build an atmosphere of suspicion and fear over three acts, but the players certainly achieved this. Christie incarcerates her ten flawed characters on Soldier Island and we watch their inevitable demise.

Tony Hearn’s tall figure commanded the stage, and we watch him morph from a pillar of the establishment to everyone’s worst nightmare. Phoenix newcomer Hannah Vaughan was also outstanding as the attractive and flirty secretary whose descent into panic and hysteria gripped the capacity audience. Graham Russell’s set was opulent yet sparse and allowed the large cast to move around freely whilst giving the impression they were hemmed in by their surroundings and their past. This, coupled with Jan Sheldon’s back drop and Trevor Jones’ lighting and sound, transformed the mood from sunny to sinister scene by scene. Christie’s characters have depth and scope which the cast interpreted well. Brian Jackson’s Cornish boatman and Howard Owen and Amanda Smith’s loyal and agitated domestics, set the scene. Tom Lee-Hynes’s punchy boy racer contrasted with Alan Chacon’s senile General, whilst Tim Bett’s plodding detective clashed with Phil Field as the adventurer and love interest. The ladies were 30’s chic. Sandy MacNeill superbly played the doctor suppressing her alcoholic past whilst Suzanne Hill’s prudish, uptight religious zealot certainly merited her fate. One of the characters called Soldier Island “a haven of peace”. This production was a piece of heaven.

Peter Hall

This well-directed play started with darkness and soft atmospheric music which had the audience anticipating suspense! As we sat in the dark, I was waiting for something to happen which would make us all jump. It didn’t happen there but the shots later in the performance nearly had me sitting on the lap of the poor man next to me. I mention this now as this is how engrossed we all were; we could see that the gun was going to be fired, but it still made us all jump.

For those of us that know the story of Agatha Christie’s novel it is always interesting to see what version is going to be chosen and therefore can never assume we know who did it, until the end.
As expected, there were eight house guests and two staff who slowly get killed off leaving the final couple to solve the mystery. The principals were well cast, and each made the character their own. Howard Owen and Amanda Smith were the butler and cook respectively and Amanda’s near hysteria was very well portrayed and Howard came across as the slightly bewildered man who was just following instructions.

Hannah Vaughan (above left), I thought, stayed in character throughout as the nervous and anxious secretary who had falsely been accused of letting her young charge drown. Phil Field played the slightly supercilious hero and whilst he too was innocent of his supposed crime, came across as someone who didn’t care what anyone else thought of him. Tom Lee-Hynes wasn’t on for long as he was killed off early on, but he portrayed the rich spoilt young man who, having caused the deaths of two children, blamed them for daring to get in his way. A thoroughly unlikeable character well played. Tim Betts was the guest who turned out to not be South African (good accent) but a retired detective who had been hired for the occasion but who too was bumped off. His portrayal of the slightly officious working-class man came over very well. Alan Chacon played the pompous General who could justify his appalling behavior but who you felt deserved his comeuppance. I liked his bumbling pontifications. Suzanne Hill (above right) was excellent as the haughty and rather unpleasant old maid who treated people ‘as they should be’ and had no remorse for the death of a young maid she had turned out when she had got herself in trouble. A perfect performance.

I particularly enjoyed the transformations of Sandy MacNeill (left centre) as the Doctor and Tony Hearn (left) as the Judge. As the play progressed Sandy’s character became more manic and her hair and dress accentuated this in a subtle way. Whilst Hannah remained nervous all of the time, Sandy slowly unraveled before our eyes from the very accomplished ‘nerve’ doctor to the slightly unhinged patient. Tony Hearn, likewise, started out as the voice of reason and whose character who was going to solve the mystery, but who then became the mad man who had coldly set out to right the wrongs of everyone, except himself. His actions and mannerisms were quite chilling and we were all glad when he was shot (another jolt of the heart) at the end.

As always, the set at the Phoenix was just as much a part of the play as the actors themselves and it felt as if we were sitting in the drawing room with them. They didn’t have to raise their voices too much which made it feel as if we were listening to a conversation, rather than watching a constructed performance. Well done to everyone.

My final mention is for Brian Jackson who had a very small role as the Skipper. Great accent and delivery and we were all pleased to see him at the end. Thank you, Phoenix, for another great play.

Louise Hickey (NODA)