Tag Archives: Catherine Russell

“Little Wars”: a rehearsed reading

As a second lockdown begins, there’s still a chance to get close to quality theatre, even if it is online. It’s hard not to be grumpy, though. This rehearsed reading of Steven Carl McCasland’s play makes it painfully obvious how much better a staged production would be. Nonetheless, the history in the piece is interesting and the event boasts an excellent cast.

Set in the home of Alice Toklas and Gertrude Stein, the scenario at first is a dream dinner party or, rather, soirée. Lillian Hellman, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Parker are going to pop by. There’s plenty of wit as well as friction to entertain, led by the somewhat dotty old couple who are as eccentric as they are erudite.

Little Wars quickly takes a more serious tone as a war-time spy drama. Toklas and Stein’s final guest is the brave Muriel Gardiner, who smuggles refugees out of Germany on the very night France surrenders. She’s a fascinating character, capably depicted by Sarah Solemani, so it’s a shame that the role feels like a forced foil – a too obvious moral conscience for the play. Unfortunately, McCasland’s plotting is slow, a flaw director Hannah Chissick cannot disguise, as well as heavy handed.

The superb cast adds some sophistication. Debbie Chazen makes an excellent – drunk – Dorothy Parker (tricky on stage, let alone online). Juliet Stevenson is fantastic as the steely Hellman, a role that, like a too-aloof Christie (Sophie Thompson) needs further development. The real treat comes with our hosts. Ably supported by Catherine Russell as Toklas, Linda Bassett’s performance as Stein is astonishing. Full of fury as much as fun, this “rare kind of bird” is dignified, frightening and inspiring. Bassett makes Stein’s poetry sound natural and the way her cold anger is carefully exposed is brilliant.

It’s no surprise that the evening’s conversation never lacks drama or interest. The talk is crammed with detail about the women’s lives that shows a lot of research. It’s fascinating, but McCasland does not wear his learning lightly. A bigger problem comes with efforts to expand from specific biography to broader experiences. There are highlights: a preoccupation with memory arising from Stein’s potential dementia is very moving. But the battle of ideas that McCasland tries to set up as his finale – with Christie and Hellman coming across as downright odd – falls very flat. At least there’s some fantastic acting to enjoy along the way.

Until 8 November

www.littlewars.co.uk

Photo by john Brannoch

“What the Butler Saw” from the Curve Leicester

While trapped in our homes due to the Covid-19 lockdown, the generosity of theatres all over the country means that we can enjoy shows from venues we might not normally visit. This production of Joe Orton’s classic 1967 madhouse comedy, from the Curve Theatre Leicester, is one of many examples of plays from places I’m afraid I’ve never been to.

A word of warning: the recording is very much for archival purposes, as the camera is static and at the back of the auditorium. It’s a long way from the broadcasts put on for cinemas by NTLive. The sound quality is poor. But, to be positive, it’s closer to your average trip to the theatre – there’s even coughing and chatting from the crowd that you can pretend to shush if you like!

What the Butler Saw is a great play. Orton’s mix of crude farce, Wildean epigrams and just a touch of horror is extraordinary – clever as well as funny. Director Nikolai Foster gives the show the speed it needs, as outrageous characters all descend into a “democratic lunacy”, while a talented cast delivers the often complex dialogue assuredly. 

Rufus Hound and Catherine Russell both give star turns as the unhappily married Dr and Mrs Prentice, who run a madhouse and should qualify as inmates. Hound starts off nicely reserved, although not missing any chance to be saucy, and escalates the action marvellously. Russell ensures her character matches her husband for malice and has a great icy edge. Dakota Blue Richards and Jack Holden acquit themselves well as a prim secretary and a blackmailing hotel bellboy who cross-dress and change identities to great effect. Stealing the show is Jasper Britton as the visiting government inspector, Dr Rance. Britton delivers Orton’s convoluted nonsense superbly, with terrific ravings and delightfully delivered crazy theories. He is, of course, the maddest of a mad bunch.

Best of all, Orton’s play still shocks. The question of how our squeamishness might have changed since it was first written is raised: Dr Prentice as predator is surely more uncomfortable, likewise the jokes about sexual assault and rape. But Orton’s queasy incest theme and satirical highlighting of all kinds of hypocrisy haven’t faded in their power at all. The “pointless and disgusting” subject matter and increasing improbabilities, handled with Orton’s fantastic energy, pose a challenge as well as plenty of laughs.

Available for the duration of the lockdown

https://www.curveonline.co.uk/the-show-must-go-online/