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Cheshire Cats - Rose Bowl Review

Bath Unity Players, Rondo Theatre, Bath. May 2014

 

 

CHESHIRE CATS                            

Bath Unity Players, The Rondo Theatre, Bath

Thursday 15th May

Director: Lez Goodwin

 

 

There are obvious parallels to be drawn between this play and ‘Calendar Girls’. Both are about a group of women who came together to try something outside of their usual range of life style in order to raise money and awareness for a good cause. They are also similar in the way in which they introduce the audience to the reasons behind the ladies being drawn towards this particular project.

 

They are even similar, if not exactly the same, in the split of male d and female roles on offer. Because most local clubs invariable have more ladies than men available for casting the balance of numbers makes this play, like Calendar Girl’ a very tempting proposition. 

 

 

By rights then the two plays should offer a group presenting them similar challenges and similar rewards, but with due respect to author of this play that is not a completely true statement. Tim Firth, the author of ‘Calendar Girls’ is vastly experienced with a string of successful scrip’s for TV, and Films, as well as the stage, and he brought that experience to the writing of that play. In comparison as a playwright Gail Young has nowhere near the same experience, and looking at the overall construction of the two plays that difference of experience showed.

 

I am perfectly aware that first time playwrights, Shelagh Delaney with ‘A Taste of Honey’ written when she was only 18 years old, is a perfect example of a first time playwright hitting the jackpot at their first attempt. She however is the exception rather than the rule, most authors have long list of failed attempts before coming up with a fully workable script.

 

There were some fine passages in this script with a smattering of good ‘one liners’ to raise an immediate laugh, but the overall construction of the play was not sure footed enough to allow the story, and the characters to develop in a natural manner.

 

 

At the end of this production I made the note ‘The Singer not the Song’, a quotation taken from the title of a 1961 film starring Dirk Bogarde and John Mills. In the film an atheist bandit, Bogarde, clashes with a Catholic Priest, Mills, for the control over the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of a small Mexican town. Despite having no respect or belief in the Church the Bandit in the end has to concede because of his belief that the Priest is the better man. It is he says the singer not the song to which he gives way.

 

My feelings, at the end of this production, were similar to those of the Bandit’ I could and did fine far more to admire in the manner in which this production had been performed than the material at their disposal. That the Director and Players had belief in the characters was very evident, and I concede that here we have a clash of ideas about the effectiveness of the writing.  Most certainly all those involved in this production did what a company should always do, treat the material at their disposal with complete respect. No author can ask for more than that, and although our opinions on the merits of that material may differ I could not but fail to be impressed by the commitment shown by this company towards this play.

 

 

On rereading the play since seeing it on stage I can see more clearly the attributes that would, and obviously did, attract the Director and Cast of this production to the play. Some lovely characters emerge from the script, transferring those characters from page to stage is however fraught with difficulties.

 

 

I have up to this point placed the blame for this problem not being fully solved more on the author’s shoulders than the company. The gap has narrowed a little since the reread, and I wonder if despite the successes the play has enjoyed, including that run at the Edinburgh Festival, weather the Author now having seen the play performed by groups not so close to the subject matter as the Guilden Sutton Players had any thoughts about making some subtle changes to the script in order to help them put more flesh on the bones of the characters.    

       

The setting was by choice simple, and as such fitted the style of the production admirably. This style of setting gave the Lighting crew an added responsibility in the creation of changing times and atmosphere within a scene. Without indulging in any flamboyant lighting effects they, with the Sound team, worked neatly in tandem, some particularly nice train whistle effects helping to move the action smoothly from one place to another. Occasionally a solo spot was not quite definite enough; one such place was at the start of Act 2, but such moments apart the always well presented lighting plot proved to be a decided asset to proceedings.

 

 

Stage dressing like the scenery was sparse, but effective, the simple arrangement of tables and chairs for the railway carriage was a fine example of the way in which the Stage Management gave the Director the images required to help scenes reach their full potential.

 

When, like this one, a play has to segue from one scene to another with virtually no interruption a brisk pace is essential, and excluding a few minor interruption for a missed word this production bowled along at a goodly pace. In doing so it ensured that it kept the audience interested changing easily from light-hearted comedy to far more serious themes throughout the evening.

 

The Wardrobe team had researched their task very well giving each character a slight difference in their style that suited them ideally. Particular attention had to be paid to shoes, and although not a trainer footwear person I do not think I detected anybody with unsuitable shoes/trainers on their feet. If there was any other pieces of apparel that looked out of place they can be mentioned under Individual Performances.

 

 

At this moment suffice to say that like the general setting of the play the Wardrobe team enhanced the visual aspect of the production considerably.     

 

           

Individual Performances

 

Hilary


 
Whoever wrote the description of this character in the forward of the script, describing Hilary as being 'Bombastic, middle-aged team leader/organizer', did not do the player who inherited this role any favours. On first acquaintance she does indeed fit that description, but there is so much more to the character, and if the actress concerned left the portrayal on that level she would not capture half of the ladies qualities.
Fortunately you took more heed of the old theatrical saying that if you want to know about the character you are playing underline everything other characters have to say about you within the script. The most telling of those things you would have underlined, following that advice, is Siobhan's speech on page 60 which gives us an excellent insight into the Hilary to be found behind the organisational bombastic facade which you so strongly erected.
Add to that the well-played duo with the same lady at the start of Act 2 and you have the ingredients, which you made fine use of, for a much fuller portrayal.
Had you not shown us the woman behind the facade it would have been difficult for us to understand why this mixed group of ladies put up with your dictatorial attitude and instead found themselves another leader. As it was it appeared to be the natural thing in the world for this group to be content to walk behind their strong organizer.
The character you had drawn fitted ideally into the final moments of the play where  it becomes clear to the audience that this is a  group of individuals who have for this special event been welded into a close team, with you at their head.

 

Vicky 

 

This lady, who literally has to change horses in mid stream, from the supportive friend of Maggie’s to the older women having a fling with Andrew her ‘toy boy’ is not the easiest of roles to play.

When we first meet her, wearing trousers that are defiantly from a more upmarket store than those worn by Maggie, we have a hint, via that remark about truck drivers whistling at her while on her last visit to this spot she was waiting for the others to arrive, that although older than Maggie she is rather more interested in the other sex than her younger companion. The relish shown when to the stains of ‘The Stripper’ you revealed the ‘team strip’ underlined this fact.

The change to the scene with Andrew leaving the others in a ‘freeze position was the first of such changes, and took the audience rather by surprise, because of this the scene; especially the first few lines of script should have been more carefully delivered. Any criticism about this must fall equally on Andrew, and the Director.

The long aside which followed was also the first of such monologues to be undertaken by individual players making you the tone setter for such occasions. Nice as it was performed bearing in mind where it comes in the play I think it would have benefitted from a stronger presentation.

No inhibitions about your costume when you appeared with Andrew at the train station, this was a lady out to make a statement of intent, and the devil takes the hindmost. From here on in, so we discover later it is all a bit of a game, playacting that leads to more genuine affection. This is not the easiest thing to sustain, nor is it easy to so abruptly change to reality, and it says much for this portrayal that it did not look false, or become unbelievable.

 

Maggie 

 

Dressed mainly in rather second rate pink, and physically a good contrast to Vicky, your image helped to underline your somewhat lack of condition. This was confirmed by that lovely feeble attempt to touch your toes. At this stage I wondered if you were going to be merely a involved as light relief, a stooge for Vicky.

Fortunately this one dimensional character was consigned to the bin as a far more rounded person appeared. We hear about your artistic ambitions, and thanks to those blister curing plasters, the relationship with Yvonne progressed in a way that allowed you to show us the loving caring personality within Maggie, not just someone mainly concern with the size of their nether regions, and the trivial side of life.

With that image firmly in place  your sharing of the information on Andrews card with ‘The Girls’, and that very difficult final sequence, became much more acceptable and real.

Because you played this scene with such sincerity, and the whole sequence was approached with complete belief by all concerned it seems almost churlish not to rave about it.

 The reason that I have certain reservations about it have nothing to do with your admirable playing of the scene, or indeed the input from any others concerned, this is a place where for me the balance between sentimentality and pathos was a little too heavy on one side.

The much better balance between comedy and drama was in your portrayal of this genuinely nice lady.

 

 

Siobhan

 

The most level headed of the group Siobhan has few allusions about her fellow team members, but this in no way makes her a cynic. We had our first chance to make a judgment of your personality when you let forth about those lovely sounding ‘Barn Conversions’, and you grabbed the opportunity with both hands. When Hilary interrupted you were in full flow conveying your opinions with great clarity. What was particularly good here was your reaction to the interruption nothing too strong either verbally or in mime only a look that told us how well you understood the interrupter. This close relationship between you and Hilary was brought into even sharper focus at the begging of Act 2 where you beautifully showed kindness and understanding without ever making it appear to be cloying in its intensity.

Although you joined in the chorus of ’He’s a man’ when told that Andrew was joining the group you did not give the impression that you were liable to reject him as a last minute replacement. It would be fairer to say that as long as you felt it was someone who would support the cause and help Hilary there were few people who you would not have accepted to join the team.

If all of that leaves the impression that the Siobhan you skilfully created was a lady who could be classed as a strong friend and supporter then it is a true picture of this characterisation.

 

 

Yvonne

 

This was a characterisation that owed more to your own imagination than that mapped out in the description given at the begging of the script, and it was none the worse for that. 

I am not saying that one interpretation is wrong and the other right only indicating that there was in this case more ways than one to play this role, and you found one that fitted snugly into the physical picture you wanted to present, and the rather world weary lady who went with that image.

The early exchanges with Vicky over the state of your poor foot set the character well, and you kept it firmly in place from thereon in. You nicely decisive quizzing of Vicky about her prospective Boyfriend helped to milk the scene well for some good humour.

When you tried the same positive tactic on Andrew you met with a much more positive reaction, and the rather disconcerted way in which you in turn reacted said much about the way in which you always kept your concentration on the action going on around you. That whole exchange with Andrew on the train over the game of Jenga saw you at your best.

On the reverse side of the coin came that earlier tirade about Andrew joining the team where you allowed your voice to go into its highest register almost immediately leaving you nowhere to go in order to give some variation to the rest of your dialogue in the scene. You were back in top form with another lovely moment which came with that neat touch of the sulky schoolgirl in the exchange with Hilary about who should carry the wand.

The final flourish of this portrayal came with the encounter with the ‘Handsome Drunk’. This was a scene that could easily have got out of hand through overplaying, but with equally controlled playing from Maggie and the ‘Drunk’ a scene which might well have appeared like an isolated incident, put in just to lift the laughter count, slipped readily into the storyline.

From this point on you took your well constructed and sustained character through in grand style to the final scene.

 

 

Andrew

 

The main problem when faced with creating this character is that he has a very important secret, one which must cloud all his actions throughout the play, but one that is not revealed until after your final exit. Just how a disciple of the Method school of acting, a school whose followers are forever searching for the motivation behind their characters, and every word they speak, would cope with this problem I know not.

You set out your stall on your first entry with that lively exchange with Yvonne. There was a great deal of tongue in cheek about your delivery which suited the way you often teased ‘the girls’. It was interesting to see the differing ways in which the ladies responded to your teasing. Yvonne, who mimicked you extremely well, obviously like Queen Victoria ‘was not amused’. Accept for that moment you appeared to have suffered a very painful blow on the head from the underside of the table, she enjoyed that moment enormously, as did we in the audience. Maggie on the other hand accepted you much more on face value, and found you charming.

When you made that entrance in ‘drag’ as it says in the stage instructions ‘you are camping it up big time’. Bearing that in mind there was probably  room for you to play the following scene, especially the ‘snogging ‘ session with Vicky even bigger. Thanks to Yvonne’s reaction which helped to give this sequence the right sort of boost there was still a great deal of fun to found in the scene.

By the time  you and Vicky finally let the cat out of the bag about your motives for taking part in the walk there had been more ‘red herrings’ about your character than a suspect in an Agatha Christie novel. Because of that past history I think the denouement should have been more detailed and clearly presented. No blame attached to you or Vicky for not bringing out the full importance of what was being revealed, this is a place where the fault lies in the writing not the playing.

When you made that final dash off with Vicky we were left with the feeling that however mixed our thoughts about the pairing had been throughout the play we now wished them ever luck whatever the future held for their relationship.

 

 

Boy on Train

 

My Grandmother had several records of Gracie Fields, one of the most popular entertainers through the middle part of the 20th century, who was particularly noted for her comic songs. ‘I took my harp to a party, but nobody asked me to play’ was the one that ticked my Grandmothers sense of humour.

Watching this very presentable young man stoically carrying on amidst the frequently changing scene around him I was reminded of the fate of that most hopeful Harp player who was completely ignored at a party to which she had been invited to show off her skills on the instrument.

In mime and reactions he fulfilled all that was asked of him, but the question remains if he was to be so underused why bring him into the scene at all? This is where you tell me that there was a definite reason for his presence which I have failed to appreciate. If that is so I apologise to all concerned.

As for the young actor he deserves praise for the fine concentration he showed, and the creation of a character which was strong enough for us to be aware of his presence without ever becoming intrusive. Given greater opportunities there is no doubt that this actor would have left a very definite mark on the production.

 

 

Aerobics Instructor

 

As with all characters that have a very short time to establish themselves the Aerobics Instructor has to be painted with broad brushstrokes. Dressed in the ‘right gear’ you attacked the role from the outset presenting the sort of determined organiser who, despite doing a very good job, is irritating to the extreme.

That was the sort of person you created, one who fitted snugly into their place within the storyline at the same time presenting an ideal character for others to respond and react to.

 

 

Marshalls 1/2/3/4

 

These useful characters provided some very necessary mortar between the bricks in the scenes which took place during the actual fund raising walk. Anyone who has ever had anything to do with a fund raising event like the one being depicted in this play would recognise this group of people, volunteers prepared to put up with more than a little discomfort in order to give something to the cause.

When lines came along they were delivered sharply ensuring that the scene bounced along at a merry pace.  

                                                                               7

 

Madge and Ethel

 

This comedy duo was an extension of the Messengers, only on this occasion with the actors given enough ammunition and time to establish more definite characters.

There is the conversation with the voice on the Radio, the exchange with Vicky and Andrew about love, and the running gag about which one of you is the senior Marshall. 

Taken all together that gave you both chances, which you readily took, to create two nicely drawn characters. What you were involved in however did little to advance the play, which was a pity because as such it rather devalued the good work you had put in to create these two pleasant, and potentially far more important characters.

 

 

Handsome Drunk

 

I loved the Scottish costume very dashing, and you wore it with style. Making immediate contact with Yvonne and Maggie you took advantage of the limited opportunities that came your way to enlarge the character. To have pushed it any further would have been to overplay your hand and turn the character into one more suited to a variety sketch than a play.

Having settled into a nice rhythm you played out your limited hand with admirable skill.

 

 

Policewoman

 

By necessity the Policewoman is a bit of a ‘one trick pony’ playing out that road crossing routine. This you performed with the same sort of attention that would be expected of someone playing one of the principal roles.

The way you played the Policewoman underlined the old theatrical saying that there are no small parts only small actors. In size you had a small part in quality of presentation you made sure that no one could point a finger at you and say that it was performed by a small in ability actor.

 

 

Thank you for your kind reception, and choice of seat from which I could scribble away without disturbing the neighbours.

 

Gerry Parker