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Tag Archive | "Simon Harrison"

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Review: The Man Who Pays the Piper

Posted on 19 March 2013 by Kirstie Ralph

The Man Who Pays the Piper

The Man Who Pays the Piper is staged in-the-round, making for an intimate and thought-provoking production of GB Stern’s popular 1931 play. The stellar cast bring charm to some of the more humdrum domestic scenes, with the two principal characters Daryll Fairley (Deirdre Mullins) and her boyfriend Rufus Waring (Simon Harrison) capturing the challenges for both men and women of the post-war era.

The play demonstrates well the cultural shift of women’s increasing political agency. The opening scene sees softly-spoken patriarch Dr Arthur Fairley (Christopher Ravenscroft) scolding his daughter Daryll upon her late return home. The interplay between these actors is both playful and petty, highlighting the extreme economic dependency of a young daughter on her father during this period. These Victorian values are presented as endemic across middle-class households like this at the time. The set is appropriately naturalistic, evidently benefiting from a creative team with a keen eye for detail. Daryll implores her father to let her work for a friend of hers in the booming fashion industry, flitting expertly between negotiation, cheekiness and protestation. The production presents a welcome breakdown in cultural norms, yet challenges the audience to think of practical solutions to the challenges the characters face.

The mother (Julia Watson) is ditzy and entirely unable to cope with the death of her husband in the war. The family pecking order is soon subverted, with noise and activity on stage representing the chaos of a household turned on its head. The moments of rebellion from the eccentric Fay (Daryll’s younger sister, played by the versatile Emily Tucker) and her posse bring some much needed energy into a plot-heavy play. The actors remain in character during the complicated scene changes, which are impressively slick. Mullins assumes the authoritative position over the cast, demonstrating well her relentless working habits, despite the character’s fatigue.

The romantic sub-plot between Daryll and Rufus is inevitably realised, with a soul-crushing decline of Daryll’s status of head of the house into simply a housewife. I could tell almost all the younger audience members were outraged at this, yet the play thankfully does not end here. Waring heart-warmingly portrayed the ‘modern man’, offering his wife economic and personal liberty. Both are painfully aware of their roles after marriage and adhere to them. When this expires, the stage is fraught with dilemma that deeply affected audience members. This sort of tension would have best happened much earlier in the night, instead of having two acts running at well over two hours.

The twist that comes at the end of this production was unexpected. Our palate as a modern audience was tested, resulting in surprise within myself when I felt this was not the best resolution either. Despite being long and somewhat laboured in places, this is due the play’s era rather than its performance. The cast had good chemistry, with a solid ensemble to provide the foundation for the showcase of two dazzling actors in Mullins and Harrison. Upon leaving my head was buzzing with feminist thoughts and social conditioning, to the credit of a well-rounded production.

The Man Who Pays the Piper is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 13 April 2013. For more information and tickets, see the Orange Tree Theatre website. Image by Robert Day.

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Review: The Conquering Hero

Posted on 30 April 2012 by Peggitty Pollard-Davey

Imagine yourself back to 4 August 1914. Germany’s strength is increasing and everyone is anxious. Archduke Ferdinand of Austria is dead. The French and Russians are already mobilising troops against Kaiser Wilhelm II. Britain, as of midnight, will be at war with Germany. Everything will change.

Following on from the Orange Tree Theatre’s production last year of Monkhouse’s Mary Broome (also directed by Auriol Smith), in Allan Monkhouse’s The Conquering Hero we see how the declaration of WWI affects one family, the Rokebys. Son-in-law Frank (Jack Sandle) is already enlisted and in uniform, and Margaret, his wife (Claudia Elmhirst), wants every able-bodied English male to follow her husband’s example. Steven Rokeby (Jonathan Christie), a son and a pastor, speaks out against war from his pulpit. Christopher Rokeby (Simon Harrison), another son and a writer and poet, is caught in agonising indecision. “Why won’t you enlist?” asks his militant sister Margaret. “Do you think yourself too clever to be shot?” His fiancée Helen Thorburn (Miranda Keeling) shows him Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s On Refusal of Aid Between Nations and asks “You’ll go if the poets lead?” “There are German poets, too”, is Christopher’s answer.

Eventually Steven signs up to serve in the Red Cross, despite his objections to the conflict. Christopher is left – the black sheep of the family – with all the pressure of expectation upon him. When even the family butler Dakin (Christopher Heyward) enlists, Christopher is suddenly galvanised. He pushes to the head of the queue – “using the last of my aristocratic privilege” – his name is down and he is off to France.

The Conquering Hero enjoys one standout feature, at least for me; I have never seen a play set so very much in the dark. The first act opens in a  – deliberately – ill-lit room and act two opens, again deliberately, in an almost pitch black barn. In this scene what little light there is reveals the fact that Megson, the English-soldier-on-the-battlefield, is actually the Rokeby family butler doubling up on roles. There is other doubling with minor parts, but as Christopher Heyward was instantly recognisable in his new role, it confused the scene. Another slight issue, although this time spatial, is that on a small stage like the Orange Tree’s – which I otherwise enjoy immensely – it is difficult to fit up to eight actors (and quite a lot of furniture) without some section of the audience being blocked; I had to lean, a man to my right had to do some (really very noticeable) leaning and another man in the opposite bank of seats was also on a significant tilt. The text is intense and generally wordy; played here at an insistently high emotional pitch, it really helps the audience’s focus to see the character’s faces.

A small point – noticed by a companion – to investigate: in Act One, before anyone has gone anywhere near a battlefield and before any fighting has started, one of the characters refers to ‘trench warfare’. We were unaware that there had been trench warfare in any conflict preceding WWI. Writing well after the event, is this a textual inconsistency by Monkhouse?

There was a lapse of several years between the end of the conflict and any cultural output dealing with it. The Conquering Hero appeared earlier than others of the most famous World War One works, coming out in 1923. R.C. Sherriff’s play Journey’s End was not published until 1928 and neither Remarque’s novel Im Westen Nichts Neues (in English as All Quiet on the Western Front) nor Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms came out until 1929. The way Monkhouse takes up his topic, although engaging enough, presents nothing earth-shaking. We see that war is bad and that it ruins lives. There are some interesting moments of tension created by setting the action within the one family as son is pitted against fiancée, against father, against sister, but I don’t feel it increased my understanding of WW1 in the way that, for example, Remarque’s novel did. Perhaps the effect on Monkhouse’s contemporaries was much stronger coming, as it did, prior to much of the other WWI literature.

To adapt a phrase from Lady Romer (Joan Moon), The Conquering Hero is mainly a play about “ordinary people seeing things in an ordinary way”. Simon Harrison as Christopher Rokeby gives a well-judged performance of a tricky part – the only character who tries to break away from ‘seeing things in an ordinary way’ – and Paul Shelley is an endearingly good-tempered Colonel Rokeby. This is a solid production of a good, if slightly wordy, play. Although amusing and pathetic in its family-scale tragedy, it probably won’t set your imagination on fire.

The Conquering Hero is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 9 June. For more information and tickets, see the Orange Tree Theatre website.

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