Tag Archive | "Sam Dowson"

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Review: How To Be Happy

Posted on 12 October 2011 by Tiffany Stoneman

One would imagine that a man who wrote a book entitled How To Be Happy would be a guru of finding joy amongst life’s anxious moments. But Paul is in the same miserable state as the rest of the world. This is the angle of writer and director David Lewis’ new play of the same name, looking into what truly makes us happy and providing an intuitive insight into the front-room conversations of middle-class Britain.

The stark black and white set, designed by Sam Dowson, provides an ironic backdrop as the characters struggle with the ‘grey’ areas of life and try make some sense out of several messy relationships. Paul Kemp takes the writer’s role as grumpy misanthropist and makes him a completely dislikeable character and yet 100% relatable to the audience. His fluctuating desperation and frustration are relevant to young and old alike and make this character both annoying and sympathetic; Kemp taps in to that dormant feeling of suppression and expresses what we are all thinking in a way that is not patronising but rather liberating.

Similarly, Kate Miles’ portrayal of Emma is at times difficult to watch as she does a complex and in-depth character real justice – a divorcee struggling with a technology-obsessed husband and moody teenager, whilst constantly at odds with ex-husband Paul. You cannot envy people in such circumstances, and yet at the same time Miles gives a stark picture of her private moments on the sofa. The things we never let others see.

Kate Lamb was a very strong teenage Daisy without playing it too young or being condescending, And Carolyn Backhouse showed hints of sitcom in Katy, but as a woman attempting to put on a front in the face of impending poverty, this falseness was both necessary and well performed. Steven Elder was the most subtle member of the cast as Graham who is always trying to appease Emma in spite of her anger and stubbornness. The audience is drawn to sympathise with him and makes his final exit wholly acceptable as we watched him find no peace in his home.

How To Be Happy is realism at its best, whilst making great use of the Orange Tree space by creating split scenes over the mutual sofa in a way that never detracted from the speech. Lewis evidently has a real talent for picking on life and recreating it with ease, making this play both enjoyable and enlightening to an audience of any age.

How To Be Happy is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 5th November. For more information and tickets, see the website. Photo by Robert Day.


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Review: Mary Broome

Posted on 22 March 2011 by Tiffany Stoneman

Allan Monkhouse’s 1911 play Mary Broome follows one emerging ‘mobile family’ of the late Victorian era – upper-middle class people who were able to hire servants. The Timbrells are preparing to celebrate the marriage of the eldest son Edgar; however it is discovered that the younger son Leonard has entwined himself with the housemaid Mary. An hour of Victorian comedy, awkward silences, and unexpected twists ensues.

Katie McGuinness creates a wonderful characterisation of Mary that never loses its heart and soul, drawing on charm and simplicity in such a way that the audience can do nothing but sympathise with this basic but honest woman. Although her thick Yorkshire accent made some of the dialogue a little hard to understand, I feel this emphasised the situation onstage in which Mary struggles to comprehend her flamboyant husband Leonard and his strange world. McGuinness builds from a naïve, manipulated young maid into a strong, self-assured woman who asserts herself in a way not dissimilar to  Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, a triumph for both character and audience.

Without a doubt, Jack Farthing provided the perfect portrayal of the Oscar Wilde-esque Leonard Timbrell, charming and with a constant look of mischief and false sincerity that makes him endearingly aloof. Acting almost as the fool in Monkhouse’s piece, Farthing brings the script to life, playing on the idiosyncrasies of Victorian life in a mocking way, that kept the audience audible throughout. It is in the last scene that he reveals he is more than jokes and immaturity, and his desperate, lonely truth is almost heart-breaking as he watches his wasted life unravel.

In an unexpected turn of events, Eunice Roberts comes to the front of the play as Edward’s devoted wife and loving mother of Edgar and Leonard, but is later shown that she is an empty, abandoned woman who finds solace in her encouragement of Mary. Beginning as the stereotypical middle-class woman, Roberts evolves into an open and free friend of her new daughter-in-law. Although never reaching the same extremes as Mary, the audience are rewarded with Roberts’s admittance that she is no longer needed by her sons and she is now able to live again as a woman, not “just a mother”. In a tender, subtle performance, Roberts exposes the nature of Mrs Timbrell and the early signs of independent 20th century women.

The Orange Tree Theatre provides a fly-on-the-wall atmosphere for Sam Dowson’s intimate living room set. Simple but effective direction by Auriol Smith allowed the words to express themselves for the audience, telling a story of life in an unobtrusive but revealing way. Once again, this unusual venue provides a platform for theatre to be experience in a completely new way.

Mary Broome is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 23rd April. For more information and tickets, see its website here.

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Review: Once Bitten

Posted on 19 December 2010 by Julia Rank

For the festive season at the delightful Orange Tree Theatre, Artistic Director Sam Walters offers a kind of grown up pantomime in the form of a totally lightweight French farce. I don’t think any kind of theatre makes me as nervous as, in my experience, farces tend to be either glorious or unbearable. Reggie Oliver’s translation of Alfred Hannequin and Alfred Delacour’s 1875 farce (a prototype in the genre) Once Bitten offers something in the middle: apart from some elements of snobbery that mark it out as very much of its time, the piece has its heart in the right place and the Belle Epoque costumes are delectable, but the writing isn’t consistently funny or frantic enough to sustain nearly two and a half hours.

As Reggie Oliver explains in the programme notes, farce developed in early nineteenth-century France as light entertainment for the emerging bourgeoisie who wanted to see elements from their own society on stage. I wonder if the new middle classes really were as rich and idle as the people who inhabit these plays and the attitude towards servants almost makes one wonder if the Revolution actually happened. I may be reading into something that isn’t there, but it did leave (to this reviewer at least) an aftertaste of smugness and snobbery.

The would-be lawyer Fauvinard is planning a rendezvous with his mistress Cesarine using his friend Tardivaut (a debonair Mark Frost) as his alibi, but nothing goes according to plan, especially when his interfering mother-in-law (played by Briony McRoberts with echoes of Endora from Bewitched) gets involved. An evil poodle also wreaks havoc and several hands have to be bandaged along with wounded dignities and egos.

David Antrobus’s high energy performance gives Fauvinard an appealing sense of an essentially decent man motivated more by a desire to escape from the home that his mother-in-law dominates than by lust (a pity that his wife Angele is such a nonentity). Michael Kirk has a small but rambunctious cameo as an officious Commissioner of Police and I liked Rebecca Egan in the brief role of a wronged wife in a potential divorce case, bringing a touch of stillness and poignancy amidst all the silliness.

Sam Dowson’s glamorous design makes full use of the Orange Tree’s unique space (I saw some children who seemed enchanted by the idea of being able to walk through the set at the interval) that acts as Fauvinard’s study, Cesarine’s boudoir and the study again. Sam Walters ensures that the cast embrace their characters’ one-note personalities and they mostly remain likable, which is no mean feat considering how limited they are. For frivolous escapism, it’s a show that’s mildly diverting, but not excessively so.

Once Bitten runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until February 5th 2011. For more information and to book tickets, please click here.

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Review: The Thunderbolt, Orange Tree Theatre

Posted on 06 September 2010 by Julia Rank

The Thunderbolt

Arthur Wing Pinero (1855-1934), a contemporary of George Bernard Shaw, is not exactly a household name these days in spite of being one of the most prolific and popular playwrights of his time with an oeuvre that included light farce, sentimental comedies, and ‘problem plays’ about contemporary society. Like Shaw and Ibsen, Pinero had a particular interest in the role of women in Victorian and Edwardian society, the most famous on the subject being The Second Mrs Tanquery, which was referenced by Hillaire Belloc in his poem about Matilda who told such dreadful lies (indeed, I never realised that it was a real play before doing my research for The Thunderbolt). The female characters in this play are shown to be grasping vultures (but no more so than their husbands), desperately nervy and almost too good and forgiving to be true. It is the illegitimate daughter who has far more class than any of her ‘legitimate’ relations.

The Thunderbolt could probably be best described as a family drama filled with unpleasant and desperate characters satirising greed, petty rivalries and the desperation of keeping up appearances in the fictional Midlands town of Singlehampton. At nearly three hours long, some of the long-winded passages could be trimmed, but it refrains from the tedious philosophising that certain Ibsen and Shaw plays suffer from and has an agreeable lightness of touch.

This play works beautifully from being presented in the round as the audience steps through the late Mr Edward’s library (designed by Sam Dowson) to get to their seats. Set changes are deftly handled by the cast re-arranging the furniture to create a whole new room. The dining room table in Act II is revealed to be three separate cabinets that form part of Mr and Mrs Thad’s drawing room. Very simple, but so effective.

The Mortimores have to be one of the most ghastly families in fiction. The sudden death of the eldest brother Edward Mortimore, a wealthy brewer who was estranged from the rest of the family has his three surviving brothers and one sister and their spouses descending en masse, calculating what they believe to be their rightful inheritance as next of kin to the last penny. The introduction of Edward’s lovely illegitimate daughter Helen (Grainne Keenan) temporarily complicates the celebrations. Helen refuses to accept an allowance from her newly discovered relations, determined to make her own living as an artist through the invaluable education that her father ensured she received, in spite of being deeply hurt not knowing whether her father meant to provide for her or not. The Mortimores are only too happy to respect her independence.

The acting amongst the entire cast is impeccable, including Geoff Leesley as bluff family spokesman and property developer Mr Jim and David Whitworth as local newspaper editor and insufferable pedant Mr Stephen. Brenda Longman and Julie Teal make the most of their roles as their sour wives. The sole sister Rose (Janet Spencer Turner) is an aspiring London society hostess and her husband Colonel Ponting (Osmond Bullock) might actually be the most avaricious of the lot.

The society of Singlehampton is one in which to be a grocer’s daughter is a fate worse than death, evidenced in the abuse that youngest brother Thaddeus’s wife Phyllis receives from her in-laws. Natalie Ogle excels in the role of this complicated woman who is deeply vulnerable and scarred from the years of cruelty. She is well supported by Stuart Fox as her husband. The very fact that Thad and Phyllis love each other and had the spirit to rebel by getting married sets them apart from the other Mortimores.

While I am not entirely sure if The Thunderbolt is a lost ‘masterpiece,’ it retains its power to expose the timeless themes of greed, hypocrisy and social snobbery in a quietly angry way. It is impossible not to feel indignant when Mr Jim grovels to Helen, stretching her generosity to the limit. It could hardly be better served by Sam Walters’s stylish production and the flawless ensemble cast. I am still not certain as to whom (or what) the ‘Thunderbolt’ of the title refers- perhaps it is the way in which the Mortimores’ smug complacency is suddenly threatened by public scandal. Of course they’ll never appreciate Helen’s compassion that protects them from this, but Pinero must be suggesting that she is the richest in the end, being the only one who can move forward with a clear conscience and build a life to be proud of.

The Thunderbolt is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond until October 2nd 2010. For more information and to book tickets, please visit

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