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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)

NODA review of Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime

On entering the auditorium at the Phoenix Theatre, you have time to appreciate the set before the actors grab your attention. With the open stage on the flat in front of the raised seating, everyone has the opportunity to see just how much detail is given to each production and Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime was no exception. The props were absolutely of the period, even down to the stick telephone that was used in Act 2. The pictures on the wall, the silver items, the fire place and mantle with ornaments and the furniture were all in keeping too. Amanda Smith was responsible for the props as well as directing the play and did a great job. I love the way that the double doors upstage open onto what appears to be a hall with another portrait hanging on the wall to give an impression of depth. The set construction team always provide such an amazing set that you are immediately transported back to the chosen period.

As for the drama, well that was exactly what it was. It was a typical Oscar Wilde story of confusion, intrigue and comedy, mocking the aristocracy and somehow their vanity too. Constance Cox had adapted this brilliantly into the play which was a delight to watch. The notion that Lord Arthur could ‘bump’ off a family member was ludicrous but it was portrayed in a way that made it all seem quite natural…
The cast were chosen well. Robin Haig (left), as Sir Arthur, came across as an eccentric, rather vague aristo who had great enthusiasm for his upcoming nuptials to Sybil. It was very funny when he was referred to as a young man and gave an ironic smile to the audience who had broken into a unanimous chortle. Age aside, this was a very credible performance and the period seemed to suit Robin well. Baines, Lord Arthur’s manservant was played by Brian Jackson (above right) who looked and acted the part extremely well. His deference to his Lordship was evident throughout with the exception of when he felt he should have the 1st class ribbon for anarchy, for his suggestion on how to dispose of the aunt. Brian remained in character throughout and was very convincing.

Diana Tubb and Jane Bovell, playing the Lady’s Beauchamp and Windermere, were wonderful as the aunts and came across as genuinely maternal but with a touch of eccentricity, in true Wilde style. Alison Clarke (above left) as Sybil the fiancé, gave a strong performance as the determined young thing who couldn’t wait to be married. Her domineering mother Lady Julia Merton was brilliantly played by Suzanne Hill (above right) whose facial expressions and body language spoke volumes. Her cutting ‘one liner’s’ were hilarious and they were delivered in such an autocratic way that she was totally believable.

Tim Betts as the forgetful Dean of Paddington gave a solid performance as did David Pollard as the thoroughly unlikeable Mr Podgers, who we knew was a wrong ‘un from the very beginning. Alan Chacon (above centre) was very funny as the anarchist Herr Winkelkopf and I loved his creeping escapades. Penny Field complimented the ensemble with her performance as Nellie the maid, giving just the right amount of subservience and flirtatiousness to be noticed without overplaying the role, very well done.

I often compliment the costumes in the productions that I am privileged to see, but on this occasion they were almost the star of the show. The gentlemen’s attire was exactly right for the period and it was impressive that Lord Arthur could make a complete costume change in a relatively short space of time. However, the ladies gowns took my breath away: they were stunning. Each lady had at least three costume changes and with each new gown, they had matching hats, gloves and bags which were in the most beautiful colour, fabric and style. These were made in house by Lynn Tait, Marjorie Stephenson, Jennifer Wood and Ella Dean who should all take a bow, as they truly deserve a huge round of applause.
Another fabulous production from Phoenix, which I enjoyed enormously.  Thank you.

Louise Hickey

Review of Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime

Razor sharp wit and scathing criticism of the privileged classes are the hallmarks of Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy about the hapless Lord Arthur who is tricked by a bogus palm reader into thinking that he needed to commit murder before marrying his fiancee Sybil. This was a stylish production by the Phoenix Theatre Company with a great cast, lavish costumes and a fine set. Robin Haig was perfectly cast as Lord Arthur playing opposite Alison Clarke as Sybil. Sybil’s mother Lady Julia Merton was played by Suzanne Hill who spoke her lines in a manner reminiscent of Lady Bracknell in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. David Pollard as the the palmist delivered his lines in his customary measured manner and Brian Jackson as the butler gave another of his polished performances as he colluded with Lord Arthur to identify and then assist him in his murderous attempts. Penny Field was nicely cast as the flirtatious maid. For me the standout performance came from Alan Chacon as Herr Winkelkopf, the bungling anarchist, who attempted to assist Lord Arthur with various explosive devices including an umbrella, clock, and a bomb. The tension and humour rose with the sequence of failed attempts on his various victims, played by Diana Tubb, Jane Bovell, and Tim Betts, delaying his impending marriage to Sybil. Amanda Smith can be pleased that her first attempt at directing was such a well-deserved success. Mention must be made of the costume ladies Lynn Tait and Marjorie Stephenson who did a marvelous job in dressing the ladies of the cast with such a wide range of period costumes. A quotation from the play reads: “The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast” could not be further from the truth in this excellent production of the Wilde classic.

Rachel Divine

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

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)