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Review: London Pride and Audience with the Ghost Finder

Posted on 14 May 2013 by Lauren Mooney

London Pride

Blackshaw Theatre runs a regular new writing night in Lambeth and is committed to nurturing budding playwrights. As part of the Wandsworth Arts Festival and Fringe, they have now brought two pieces of new writing to Tooting – and what they’ve got is a show of two halves so completely different, that it seems almost impossible they were produced by the same company.

First up is London Pride by Katie McCullough, a soap opera-style drama about a brassy London pub landlord, her one employee and her most loyal customer. As Shelly, Fiona Skinner succeeds in bringing a fair measure of warmth and even honesty to a character who nonetheless struggles to become more than a stereotype. All three of the characters feel slightly like cut-outs, in fact: there’s the no-nonsense barmaid with a heart of gold,  the Polish cleaner trying to make a better life for himself and the yobbish football fan who likes to treat himself to a bit of casual xenophobia whenever he goes to the pub.

The cast do the best with what they have, and there are a couple of lovely exchanges, but the territory is too familiar to really showcase McCullough as a new voice. There is also something uncomfortable about watching Shelly being hit upon quite ruthlessly and constantly by two men she has openly rejected, but who refuse to take no for an answer. If this is supposed to make the audience feel a little desperate, it succeeds, but never quite has the pay-off you are waiting for.

Tom Slatter turns in a very watchable performance as Shelly’s Polish employee, Pavel, who is probably the play’s most interesting character – he has an intriguing complexity, both likeable and flawed. Martin Behrman, meanwhile, works as the slightly under-written Joe, but you come away feeling that the relationship between Pavel and Shelly is so much more compelling that the play might actually work better as a two-hander.

After a brief interval and a set change, it’s time for the second of the two plays: M. J. Starling’s Audience with the Ghost Finder, based on William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki series of books. Carnacki is an upright Edwardian gentleman and an investigator of the paranormal, who seems to owe a little to Sherlock Holmes, right down to the sidekick who accompanies him.

As with Watson, or Bunny in E. W. Hornung’s Raffles books, Dodgson is the more ordinary friend of the extraordinary man, the audience’s ‘way in’, and Starling has structured the whole piece as a series of flashbacks as Carnacki tells Dodgson about the events that have led them to this point.

Ceridwen Smith multi-roles as every character in the story besides Carnacki, which she does with real aplomb, one minute a young woman troubled by a curse, the next an upright rationalist gentleman. I couldn’t help feeling that too many directors would always have cast a man in a role that requires both male and female characters, but Ellie Pitkin matches her taut direction with strong casting throughout the evening. Smith is a joy to watch, both funny and surprisingly affecting.

Meanwhile Alexander Pankhurst, as Carnacki, pitches the great investigator somewhere between Sherlock Holmes and the Doctor; there is something a little inhuman about his Carnacki, generally played for laughs but occasionally quite unsettling, and Pankhurst has quite enough charisma to carry the whole thing off with a smile.

Starling’s script is silly and fast-paced, and although his inexperience as a playwright shows every now and then, this is still a production capable of being both funny and, at times, even rather creepy. Of course, it is a slightly unusual genre, so your enjoyment of Audience with the Ghost Finder probably depends on your appetite for this kind of thing: having been raised on a diet of  ’70s sci-fi and TV repeats of The Devil Rides Out, I had a whale of a time.

Even if it’s not your cup of tea, you have to appreciate what Blackshaw Theatre is doing here, and both plays feel well-loved and well-intentioned. With Pitkin’s direction and  Zahra Mansouri’s set and costumes added to the mix – beautifully understated and realist in London Pride, then all kinds of madly inventive fun in Ghost Finder – you can’t help but come away from the evening feeling that this is a company who really care.

London Pride and Audience with the Ghost Finder are playing at the Selkirk Upstairs from 8-10 and 15-17 May. For more information and tickets, see the Blackshaw Theatre website.

Lauren Mooney

Lauren Mooney

Lauren graduated with an English degree from the University of Liverpool before moving to London. Aside from reviewing for AYT and her day job at Free Word, she also writes for Exeunt and TheatreGuide London, and helps make the London Horror Festival happen.

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Review: The Clock Master

Posted on 20 June 2011 by Elinor Walpole

As the audience entered the intimate theatre space of the Rosemary Branch Theatre, a hidden gem atop a quaint pub full of stuffed stoats and model airplanes, the air was filled with the kind of music that you might expect to hear from a Lotte Reineger film. My expectations were immediately raised for the performance of Sparkle and Dark’s The Clock Master that was to follow. Lawrence Illsley, the ‘shop minstrel’ played guitar, and Ceridwen Smith (who also plays the Clock Master’s assistant) played the flute throughout the piece, with lovely musical interludes within the stories and to create dramatic sound effects.

The Clock Master (Dewi Evans) himself began the proceedings, introducing us to his assistants, two mute creatures who transform themselves into anything that his stories demand (played by Ceridwen Smith and Sophie Wyburn). We were given warnings about stories and whether to trust a storyteller, but before we become too involved with the Clock Master’s whimsical monologue the action is halted by a spoilt child (played by Louisa Ashton) entering the shop with a “broken, bust and boring” pocket watch. Convincing the girl of the worth of her pocket watch becomes the larger story that frames several delightful original tales we are treated to inbetween, each with an interesting moral and a few up-to-date gags to crack a knowing laugh from the audience. The tension between the Clock Master’s eccentric and seemingly forgetful character and the upfront and brash little girl was well-played, with some hilarious and skilfully delivered heated interchanges entirely in rhyming couplets.

Children and adults alike will be amazed by the puppets and all the other wonders there are to see on stage; rich tapestry hangings that create the backdrop, a treasure chest full of bits of stories waiting to be brought to life, and a hypnotic animated projection of grinding cogs to set the scenes within the Clock Master’s workshop. All the props, set and puppets are made from reclaimed materials, most incredibly in the puppet of the Clockwork Girl, who is a work of art. Completing the handcrafted look, the characters are dressed in steampunk-like attire, with cracked goggles, cogs and eccentric waistcoats aplenty.

An array of different kinds of puppets bring each story to life, and these are handled with skilful adeptness from the mute assistants who are invisible when they are needed to be, but wonderfully vibrant when they are called upon to play a part in the Clock Master’s tales (look out for the reluctant flute-playing monkey). The puppets are also wont to go wandering astray from the stage, allowing the audience to ‘meet’ and admire them at close quarters. One lucky audience member was given a ‘flying dream’ prop to take away and keep.

The show is advertised as being “for ages 5 to 105″, and although when I saw it there was only one child in the audience there were lots of smiling adult faces leaving the theatre. A charming and wonderfully imaginative show with a few wicked twists along the way, and a feast for the eyes (and ears) for those who love storytelling.

The Clock Master is now on tour. For more information on Sparkle and Dark, see their website here.

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