Tag Archives: Philip Franks

"The Croft" from The Original Theatre Company

This online offering from a touring company, something I wouldn’t normally have the pleasure of seeing, is a thriller from playwright Ali Milles.  With a remote location that has a tragic history, there are plenty of details to spook, including flickering candles, slamming doors and no phone signal. But it’s the play’s focus on female stories that makes it stand out and, to an extent, smart and fulsome.

The Croft is driven by the romance between Laura and her older lover Susan – an interesting, intriguing and convincing relationship that Lucy Doyle and Caroline Harker both grab for all its considerable worth. The couple have problems. Laura mourns her mother, while Susan is still married with children, and their weekend away in Laura’s old family holiday home is fractious from the start. But their affection is persuasive and the characters appealing: Cain is excellent with explosions of anger, while Harker shows her character as outwardly calm yet full of panic. If the play is downhill from here, it’s a high starting point and the descent is not precipitous.

Plot is Milles’ strength, and introducing Laura’s past and the dark history of the cottage – a parallel story of two women, also of different ages, pitted against the patriarchy – is a hefty idea. Without overstating her case, Milles brings out ideas of autonomy and society nicely and keeps the action engaging. Although the result isn’t as potent as it could be – too much else gets in the way – director Philip Franks keeps matters moving, aided by Max Pappenheim’s strong sound design, which I would have loved to have experienced live.

The Croft from the original theatre company credit Charlotte Graham
Drew Cain

Problems come from too many additions. The story of Laura’s mother, and a battle for dignity against cancer, fits in thematically but slows down the play – fatal in any thriller. And it makes an unhappy second role for Harker. Likewise, all the roles for men feel a touch superfluous. A scene with Laura’s father could easily be cut (despite Simon Roberts’ efforts) and, while Drew Cain has a strong presence, his roles carry the burden of too much exposition.

The Croft from the original theatre company credit Charlotte Graham
Lucy Doyle and Gwen Taylor

Since the story of the cottage’s previous tenants, Enid and Eilene, is strong in its own right, The Croft can still be recommended. There’s a sense that Gwen Taylor, as Enid, isn’t given enough to do, while Eilene makes a strong dual role for Doyle despite having fewer appearances. But a story crying out for further exploration is an exciting proposition. Suggestions of spirits and witchcraft all lead the way and prove haunting rather than just creepy.

Available at www.originaltheatre.com

Photos by Charlotte Graham

“The Habit of Art” from The Original Theatre Company

Just about to start a tour as theatres began closing due to coronavirus, this revival of Alan Bennett’s 2009 play was recorded at a closed performance on what should have been its opening night. With special thanks to those who made this happen, justly keen to show off their hard work, Philip Frank’s production makes an excellent case for the piece by carefully playing to its strengths.

Using the device of a play-within-a-play, an imaginary meeting of poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten is rehearsed by a none too happy cast and crew – full of the excitement and tension surrounding live performance we’re all missing so much at the moment. Franks does an excellent job with the behind-the-scenes feel – Adrian Linford’s design deserves credit, too – getting the most from Bennett’s comedy.

Right from the start, Veronica Roberts and Jessica Dennis, as the show’s stage managers, share Franks’ appreciation of Bennett’s humour. And taking the leads as those playing Auden and Britten respectively, Matthew Kelly and David Yelland do an expert job: their characters are a couple of old hams, as you might expect, hitting every aside perfectly. Of course, it’s a shame not to experience this live, as Bennett can really make an audience howl – and hearing just the laughter from a few crew members is a little sad. But nobody would miss this more than those on stage, and yet each joke still lands. Even better, lines are frequently tinged with a melancholic edge that shows deep appreciation of the text.

A wistfulness within The Habit of Art, coming primarily from the elderly characters – skilfully written and expertly conveyed here – becomes an unexpected problem. At this moment in time, the play shows its age to its detriment. Acknowledgement of Britten’s attraction to young boys, along with a male prostitute who features within the play being put on, sit uncomfortably with current concerns. It should be pointed out that Bennett wants these “boys of art” to be given some kind of due; but the argument for, and nature of, this acknowledgement feels confused and the issues passed over too lightly.

Such problems were clearly not at the forefront of Bennett’s mind when writing. Instead, concerns about creativity were the job at hand. Questioning sincerity and authenticity in ‘art’ and combing humanity with grandeur in the ‘artist’, both the historical subjects and Bennett’s own fictional creations are fully utilised. It’s a mix of high-falutin’ ideas and jokes about genitals that few could manage.

The balance is seen in the performances, too. While Kelly’s character struggles with his lines, he still manages to show what a pro he is, making Auden’s obsession with time very moving. Meanwhile, Yelland does a brilliant job of hinting at his character’s haunted past. No stranger to acclaim himself, this look at the great (if not so good) of ‘art’ could be cold and abstract. But Bennett, with the help of all in this skilful revival, makes it alive and vital. The habit referred to in the title focuses on the labour involved in making art. Here, that effort, while as thought provoking as intended, is made to seem both easy and enjoyable. And that’s a job well done.

Available at http://www.originaltheatre.com/

Photo by Helen Maybanks

“The Comedy of Errors” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

The Comedy of Errors is perfect for Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Shakespeare’s comedy of mistaken identity benefits from being set in London’s most charming venue. It is surprising, then, that this is the first time in 14 years the play has been performed here. Philip Franks’ production is well worth the wait.

Ephesus is transformed into glamorous 1940s Casablanca. As the merchant Egeon roams the town under threat of death, his twin sons and their servants (separated at birth as Shakespearean twins often are) cause havoc as their lives overlap. Daniel Weyman and Daniel Llewelyn-Williams play the twins as matinee idols and do it swooningly well. Joseph Kloska and Josh Cohen as their servants add some delightful comic touches.

During their years of separation the twin living in Ephesus has married. His wife Adriana (Jo Herbert) shows outrage at her husband’s (actually his twin’s) odd behaviour but charms us with her obvious affection for him. After the interval, things really take off as she heads a posse in a slapstick chase to capture him, thinking he has gone mad.

At the risk of sounding blasphemous, Shakespearean comedy can drag a little, and over familiarity with the plot can lead to frustration with characters unable to work out that something is glaringly amiss. Philip Franks keeps the pace fast to avoid the worst of this and has plenty of engaging digressions. With the role of the Courtesan adapted into a nightclub hostess we get some great music – any excuse to hear the fantastic Anna-Jane Casey sing is a good idea. She adds a touch of eccentricity that embodies this colourful, pleasing production and crowns a fine night out.

Until 31 July 2010


Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 30 June 2010 for The London Magazine