Tag Archives: The Original Theatre Company

The Original Theatre Company

Artistic director Alastair Whatley has had a good lockdown. His Original Theatre Company started by filming its productions, The Croft and The Habit of Art, when denied a live audience back in March. Since then, three online productions, including the acclaimed Birdsong, have been enjoyed on the theatre’s own streaming site. Currently two shorts are generously available for free.

Watching Rosie

For personal reasons, I normally shy away from theatre about dementia. But this short film, first screened in August, is a wonderfully sensitive and inspiring piece with an important purpose.

Highlighting the plight of dementia sufferers, and their careers, during current times, Louise Coulthard’s video call scenario is moving and sweet. It focuses on loneliness as much as failing faculties.

Miriam Margolyes, Amit Shah & Louise Coulthard in Watching Rosie Original Theatre Company
Miriam Margolyes, Amit Shah & Louise Coulthard in Watching Rosie

Coulthard also stars as Rosie, who is calling her nan, and while the pain of the situation is clear there’s also humour. Miriam Margolyes plays the elderly Alice to perfection, showing the frustration and fear that this cruel condition brings.

As the title indicates, it’s Alice who is watching out for Rosie. Matchmaking in lockdown, with a volunteer who is bringing food, a date is arranged for her granddaughter! Reminding us of what Alice can still do manages to suggest possibilities as well as problems.

Mrs Goldie vs The World

A new addition, Nicky Goldie’s piece, which she wrote and performs in, follows similar lines. This time a middle-aged carer recounts looking after her mother during lockdown. Cooking and having a glass of wine as she asks “permission to rant” makes for a sociable and intimate feel that Goldie (pictured top) sustains with ease.

Mrs Goldie may claim to suffer from dementia herself, but she’s as sharp as they come. Sometimes, a little too sharp for her daughter so that, presumably based on real life, the piece has a frank and honest tone. This is a vivid, enjoyable, depiction of great affection. Mrs Goldie is a character you long to hear more about.

Aided by Goldie’s impersonations, a “grumpy old woman” comes to life with her independence and eccentricities. That she’s a touch snobbish is easily excused – anyone who corrects Julian Fellowes is fine with me – and it’s sincerely hoped that she is as “indestructible” as her daughter describes.

Coming next…

Apollo 13: The Dark Side of the Moon is also available to view. This new online play written by Torben Betts boasts strong reviews. And there’s a Christmas treat in store: from 17 December Philip Franks has adapted an MR James ghost story that should be perfect for dark winter nights. Tickets are available at a special pre-order price of £12.50 now.

www.originaltheatreonline.com

“Birdsong” from The Original Theatre Company

While wanting to get out of my living room and into a real auditorium as soon as possible, this online show is a fantastic effort at producing theatre during lockdown.

Adapting her previous stage production for the internet, Rachel Wagstaff has an intelligent eye on what works on screen, using letters and prayers for effective solo scenes to camera. The film’s editor Tristan Sheppard benefits from the effective sound design (Dom Bilkey) and subtle backgrounds by David Woodhead, carefully focusing attention on fantastic performances.

If the final result is uneven, its problems are shared with the source material – Sebastian Faulks’ hit novel – exacerbated by Wagstaff’s slightly reverential approach to the text.

Faulks is closely involved with the project, serving as a narrator. That’s quite a coup… but not a successful one. As good his writing is, Faulks is not a performer and it might have been better to get a cast member to read his work. But the story is great and this World War I drama, focusing on soldiers who tunnelled under enemy trenches, is gripping stuff.

Max Bowden as Tipper
Max Bowden

The production makes the most of the show’s two leads – sapper Jack Firebrace and lieutenant Stephen Wraysford – leading to magnificent performances from Tim Treloar (pictured top) and Tom Kay, respectively. Credit to directors Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters, who have done fantastic work with both leads and supporting cast, especially Max Bowden and Samuel Martin. Jack is the hero, and Treloar makes him a valiant figure. Meanwhile, Kay’s exploration of Stephen’s quirky edge adds intrigue, even danger, to the character.

Tom Kay and Madeleine Knight
Tom Kay and Madeleine Knight

The love story told alongside the battle of the Somme isn’t such a success, in truth it drags a little. While Madeleine Knight’s final scene is wonderful, Stephen’s adulterous romance with her character, Isabelle, has little chemistry. It’s hard when the performers can’t be in the same room. Isabelle’s cuckolded husband proves more interesting, as Stephen Boxer proves expert with the character’s threatening and dismissing remarks.

Maybe because the love affair feels hollow, having both the war and the romance described as a “crime against nature” doesn’t have the impact intended. Instead, it’s the characters journey into darkness that interests – more credit in particular for Kay – and provides the emotional power the show undoubtedly boasts. For all the technical accomplishment, that this comes from performances makes it cheering to note how much better Birdsong would be live.

Until 4 July 2020

www.birdsongonline.co.uk

"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