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NODA review of Night Must Fall

Phoenix did it again! This psychological thriller was another brilliant production from the small cast who ‘do’ these types of play so well. I was not familiar with the piece at all and was delighted by how funny it was, as well as being subtly sinister. As usual the set was perfect: it was supposed to be a bungalow and it definitely had the appearance of one. The furniture and additional props were just right; for example, the flowers being changed between scenes to identify different days was a lovely touch. The costumes too were so appropriate for the period and the nurses costume was identical to the district nurse I recall from my childhood. Amanda Smith (below right) played the Nurse and although not a large role, made her presence felt in a no nonsense sort of way, typical of the character she was playing.

The cast of eight had been carefully chosen for their roles and were spot-on with their individual interpretation. Suzanne Hill played Mrs. Bramson, the owner of the home that the story is set in, and she was formidable. Her management of the wheelchair she was supposedly bound to was amazing considering the limited space that she had to circumnavigate. Her ease and professionalism when bumping into doorways and furniture was so natural that it was totally believable. Suzanne’s haughty delivery towards her niece and staff was believable but when she became besotted with the attentions from an interloper her giddiness and coyness was also perfectly carried off. Her histrionics leading to her untimely death was balanced and somewhat humorous, but I’m pleased to say that the actual death scene, with protracted, made it truly believable. Extremely well done.

Nigel Patrick as Hubert Laurie was the archetypal ‘gentleman’ whose unrequited love for Olivia, the niece, was conveyed in a matter of fact way which belied the landed gentry. His naivety and pomposity were portrayed in equal measure. Penny Field (above left) was the gullible Maid, Dora, who had fallen for the charms of the pageboy at the local hotel and from their one and only encounter found herself in the family way. Penny was so funny and gave a great interpretation of someone who was timid one moment and accepting of the situation she found herself in the next. The way that she moved was subservient and her mannerisms matched the turmoil she was going through.

Tony Hearn was Inspector Belsize and he just looked the part! It was not a huge role, but it suited him perfectly and he had a presence about him that made it obvious from his first entrance that he was in charge. Dianna Tubb was brilliant as Mrs. Terence the housekeeper. Her quick retorts and quips aimed mostly at her overbearing mistress were hilarious and had the audience laughing out loud. Suzanne and Dianna bounced off each other in such a natural manner it was a joy to watch.

Michelle Cooper as Olivia and Tim Betts as Dan must be commended on their performances as these were, by far, the most intense in this slick production. Michelle played the niece whose circumstances meant that she had to live at the beck and call of her aunt, but who was too proud not to take the easy way out by marrying Hubert. She was more astute than her aunt thought her and whilst she knew that Dan was a ‘wrong un’ she too was captivated by the mystery that surrounded him. Her breakdown was heartfelt and credible, even though I for one, felt that she should have had more sense. As for Tim, he was amazing. His psychotic moments were very dark, and his body language matched this portrayal accurately. His instantaneous transformation back to the happy-go-lucky Lothario was sinister and creepy and yet, like Olivia, I too felt sorry for him; testament to his performance.

What made this a fantastic production was the pace at which it moved along. There were no uncomfortable silences, the quips came fast and furious in a natural way that made it so believable. I have to say that I felt completely drained at the end of it and felt as if I had been on a rollercoaster of emotions, which is just what this play was all about. Thank you, Phoenix, for another wonderful experience.

Louise Hickey

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

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