Tag Archives: Debbie Chazen

“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

"The Girls" at the Phoenix Theatre

It’s right that the arrival of a new musical should be a positive, optimistic occasion. The opening night atmosphere for Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s show was extra electric. With a crowd this committed – including the original, real-life ‘Calendar Girls’ who are the show’s inspiration making a trip to the West End – it’s hard to gain an objective impression. But it’s clear that this is a fun and engaging night out, with lots of heart and plenty of brains behind it.
Firth has already written up the story, of Women’s Institute members who posed nude for a calendar, for stage and screen. Here, the plot is simplified, which works well, and the script more youth friendly, which works less well. Big emotions arrive quickly. Annie, grieving for her husband, and her friends, led by school chum Chris, decide to raise money in his memory. They fight stuffy conventions to make this a feel-good, grown-up show that’s sentimental but effective.
As with many a British musical of late, the show removes us from London. Here, it becomes a paean for Yorkshire (it’s canny of the tourist board to sponsor the programme). The view is idealised, but the team have clearly worked closely with the community to develop the show. And, with its admiration for women of “a certain age”, Firth’s focus is on an under-represented demographic without patronising it… too much.
The cast makes a lot out of roles far from complex. In the leads, Joanna Riding and Claire Moore hold the stage and their chemistry leads to both funny and sad moments. The turns provided for other WI stalwarts are contrived and slight, but superbly performed and entertaining. Sophie-Louise Dann and Claire Machin bring strong voices to their roles, while Michele Dotrice and Debbie Chazen show off impeccable comedy skills. The finale, of the group disrobing for the cameras, takes guts, and handling it so lightly is a big achievement.
The music is a collaborative effort from Barlow and Firth. It’s an understatement that the former can write a good tune and there are plenty here. It would be too generous to say that they are memorable but all the songs are enjoyable, and there’s a nice mix of comedy and pathos. A variety of musical styles are included, somewhat studiously, and there’s a satisfying distance from any pop-song fodder. The lyrics are the best and boldest bit, basking in the prosaic, everyday details that embody the show’s down-to-earth nature and generous spirit.
Until 22 April 2017
www.thegirlsmusical.com
Photo by Matt Crockett, Dewynters

"A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur" at the Print Room

Even a cursory knowledge of Tennessee Williams’ women raises expectations of this rarely performed play, which has no fewer than four female characters. A group of middle-aged singletons gather in cheap accommodation on a hot afternoon in St Louis, so you can imagine how the writer of Blanche DuBois and Maggie the Cat might go to town on them. But the most intriguing thing here is Williams’ restraint.

Debbie Chazen, Julia Watson and Hermione Gulliford
Debbie Chazen, Julia Watson and Hermione Gulliford

Bodey is a mother hen, portrayed brilliantly by Debbie Chazen, who makes the character easy to root for as she clucks over her roommate Dorothea (Laura Rogers), who has fallen for her no-good boss. They are joined by their depressed neighbour, a difficult role, mostly in German, that Julia Watson does well with. And paying an urgent visit is Dorothea’s colleague Helena, a “well dressed snake” and snob, seeing “absolute desolation” in the homely apartment. If the waspish lines, delivered impeccably by Hermione Gulliford, please the crowd, there’s also a touching monologue about her loneliness. True, these women have agendas. But they aren’t all devious or downright delusional (a common Williams trait), with hopes, dreams and a self-awareness that are entirely down to earth.
Laura Rogers
Laura Rogers

The production appreciates what might even be called a prosaic streak. Director Michael Oakley has crafted a tight domestic drama, with grandeur coming from Fotini Dimou’s impressive set and the appropriate shabby-chicness of the venue itself. Dorothea comes closest to a standard Williams heroine: we are warned she has a “Southern Belle complex”. Whether Rogers’ performance is wary enough of this is debatable. The play’s anticlimactic revelations and speculation on “the long run” (the future obsesses these women) may seem like small beans from a writer who usually dealt with higher stakes, but this play has a quiet appeal all its own.
Until 7 October 2016
www.the-print-room-org
Photos by Catherine Ashmore