Strangers on a Train – Cardiff New Theatre

When Charles Bruno (Chris Harper) and Guy Haines (Jack Ashton) meet during a train journey, Charles devises a plan whereby they each murder someone in each other’s lives, Charles’ father, and Guy’s ex-wife. Initially Guy believes it’s just a joke, but he soon finds himself in an impossible situation.

The set in this production was fantastic. Sliding panes were used to reveal different settings in different parts of the stage, and the train set was particularly effective.

Having not read the novel by Patricia Highsmith or seen the Hitchcock film I cannot compare the play, adapted by Craig Warner, to either. However, I would imagine that as it’s directed by Hitchcock that the film is full of tension and thrill which I felt were missing from the play. This wasn’t due to the performances; Chris Harper was convincing as an alcoholic psychopath and Jack Ashton conveyed Guy’s torment effectively, particularly when trying to hide his secret from his wife Anne (Hannah Tointon), but I just couldn’t understand why Guy didn’t go the police immediately.

This is a pleasant enough production with an impressive set, but is unfortunately lacking in tension.


Pressure – Theatre Royal Bath

It’s the weekend before D-Day in 1944, and Dr James Stagg has been drafted in to a military base to advise General Eisenhower on the weather conditions for the landings. Unfortunately, Eisenhower’s own adviser, Krick, doesn’t agree with Stagg’s forecasts, and if Eisenhower decides to listen to Krick, Stagg fears that he could be putting the lives of thousands of men in danger.

A play based around a weather forecast doesn’t sound very exciting but this play successfully managed to maintain the tension, despite the audience having an idea of what the eventual outcome will be. It’s a relatively new play, first performed in 1914, and written by the actor David Haig, who also plays Stagg. It’s evident throughout that Haig has done thorough research while writing the play, and although for a few minutes in the first half I did briefly wonder whether it was just going to be discussions about jet streams for two hours, I was quickly proven wrong as the plot and characters began to develop.

The set was relatively simple, a large office space with maps being rolled up at the back of the room to show the latest forecasts. There were also balcony doors which were used effectively to convey the changing weather conditions, and the blackouts at night. Haig, as well as being a talented playwright, was excellent as Stagg, a little bossy and abrupt at times but also extremely sympathetic when he worries about his wife who is in labour. Malcolm Sinclair also gave a strong performance as Eisenhower, as did Laura Rogers as Kay Summersby, Eisenhower’s chauffeur.

It was great to learn about a little known true story, particularly in a well written pacy play.


The Case of the Frightened Lady – Cardiff New Theatre

When Inspector Tanner is called to the Lebanon family home following a murder at a fancy dress party, it becomes clear that nothing is as it seems. Why is Lady Lebanon so keen for her soon to marry, Isla Crane, a distant cousin, when neither of them are very keen? Why does Dr Amersham visit so frequently? And why does the servant Gilder always seem to be listening in to conversations? Slowly but surely, a family secret is unveiled.

This production by the Classic Thriller Theatre Company was an entertaining evening at the theatre with a silly but fun story. Rula Lenska was suitably authoritative as Lady Lebanon and Gray O’Brien was convincing as Inspector Tanner.

Gallowglass – New Theatre, Cardiff

After Sandor saves Little Joe from jumping in front of a tube train, he tells him that as he saved his life, his life now belongs to him. Sandor begins to tell Little Joe a story about a princess who was kidnapped, but as the story develops it becomes clear that it may not be fiction, and Little Joe realises his role as a ‘gallowglass’, the servant of a chief, in Sandor’s plan.

Gallowglass is based on the novel of the same name by Ruth Rendell, but writing as Barbara Vine. I haven’t read the book so cannot make any direct comparisons, but this play felt very much like an adaptation. What I mean is, a good adaptation should sound and feel like an original whereas this didn’t. Without having read the book, I could tell that structurally it was trying to keep very close to the original narrative, and therefore it didn’t flow smoothly at times. There was a lot of setting up to do at first, and then it also meant that we were given a lot of important information extremely suddenly in the last five minutes, without time to process or receive an explanation for what had happened.

As for the actors there were some good performances byPaul Opacic as the driver, Dean Smith as Little Joe and Rachael Hart as Tilley. Smith and Hart brought some much needed humour at times. However, sometimes it was difficult to hear some of the other actors, and there is no excuse for that as professional actors should be able to project their voices adequately. The set design was clever, with the stage split in half to show two different domestic settings and then a screen coming down in front showing projections for other locations. Some of the scene changes were a little slow and clunky however, and the staging meant that people sitting on the far sides would miss quite a lot of the action at times.

Overall this was underwhelming, There were some plot points I also questioned but as I haven’t read the novel I don’t feel it’s fair to raise them here as I’m not sure whether they’re relevant to the book too and therefore not the play’s fault. It is a good premise for a story, but I feel it could have flowed a lot better. Other book to play adaptations have worked very well, and it’s a shame this fell short of the mark.

A Woman Of No Importance – Oscar Wilde Season Live

A Woman of No Importance is the first production in Dominic Dromgoole’s Oscar Wilde Season at the Vaudeville Theatre in London. It isn’t Oscar Wilde’s best known play, and it isn’t his best by far but there were several enjoyable elements.

Lady Hunstanton (Anne Reid) is hosting a gathering at her home, and among the guests are Lord Illingworth (Dominic Rowan) and a young man called Gerald (Harry Lister Smith) who he intends to employ. Later in the evening Gerald’s mother arrives, a lady who calls herself Mrs Arbuthnot (Eve Best) and it becomes clear that Gerald is in fact Illingworth’s illegitimate child, and he had refused to marry his mother. The play shows how differently men and women are treated when a child is born out of wedlock – Mrs Arbuthnot has suffered, she has been shamed, and had to change her name, leave her home and pretend to be a widow. Lord Illingworth’s life hasn’t been affected at all.

The play begins a little slowly and the plot doesn’t really start until the second scene when Mrs Arbuthnot arrives. However, the dialogue is full of Wilde’s classic witty observations and there were several recognisable quotes. The performances were all strong, particularly Eve Best but Anne Reid was also fantastic, particularly when she sang witty songs from the era during the scene changes.

This isn’t Wilde’s best play but it was an enjoyable evening at the cinema nonetheless.

A Christmas Carol – The Old Vic

In many ways it must be a daunting task trying to think of an original idea to tell such a well known story as A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, but Jack Thorne has managed it excellently for this new adaptation at the Old Vic over Christmas.

Arriving at the theatre, audience members are offered a mince pie and a satsuma by costumed actors which is a lovely touch to set the mood. The stage is set in the rounds, and the set is very minimum throughout, with four door frames onstage and lots of lanterns above as the main design.

As for the story, there are a few changes and additions. The three ghosts are all female, all in some ways echoes of Scrooge’s sister, Little Fan. None are frightening; Marley’s ghost is the only slightly scary apparition, who walks bound in chains along a walkway from the back of the stalls towards Scrooge. As well as developing the characterisation of Fan, there is also more emphasis than usual on Scrooge’s childhood, particularly his relationship with his father, who was cruel and drove the family into debt. We also see more of Scrooge’s relationship with his first love, Belle.

Rhys Ifans is a fantastic Scrooge, and his transformation from bitter and angry to forgiving and caring is very moving at times, particularly during a scene where he sees his younger self sat on his coffin. His delight when he awakes on Christmas morning is wonderfully atmospheric when he involves the audience in transferring and collecting the food to take to the Cratchits’ house.

The use of music throughout the production is fantastic, showing that the ‘carol’ element of the title is often forgotten. There is a small group of musicians and the actors sing, but the most effective music comes from the handbells used by the entire cast, particularly at the end.

A magical production that has captured the spirit of Christmas. Wonderful!

The Cherry Orchard – Sherman Theatre

The Cherry Orchard at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff was not a traditional production using Chekhov’s words, but rather a reimagining by Gary Owen who had updated the script and moved the setting to Pembrokeshire in 1982, at the beginning of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership and just before the Falklands War. This was my first time seeing The Cherry Orchard, so I cannot make any comparisons with the original writing.

Bloumfield, a large country house, is in financial trouble and is in danger of repossession. The family have reconvened at the house to try and work out what the future holds for the house and for them. Denise Black was fantastic as the lead character, Rainey the mother, and was very intense. There were no weak links in the rest of the cast with regards to performances, and I particularly liked Alexandria Riley as Dottie the housekeeper. I did feel however that Morfydd Clarke’s accent stood out as being much posher than the rest of her family which didn’t really gel, and I thought that Richard Mylan’s character as a socialist questioning class inequality could have been developed further.

This production emphasised how the ghosts of the pasts can affect people, and how different individuals deal with grief. The class difference was evident when Dottie explains that when her father died she just had to carry on, while Rainey began to drink herself to a stupor. Despite these heavy themes, the play was full of witty dialogue and the evening sped by. Very glad to have seen it.

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery – Criterion Theatre

Having loved both of Mischief Theatre’s previous productions, The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong, I was very excited to catch their newest show. This was immediately different to its predecessors, as rather than watching Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society performing, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is a more traditional farce.

Set in the United States, it is the story of a diamond heist, which is being kept at the Minneapolis City Bank. As you’d expect from a farce, there was plenty of slapstick comedy but there was also lots of clever wordplay. It was fast paced, silly and brilliant.

The Wipers Times – Cardiff New Theatre

The Wipers Times by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman is based on the incredible true story of a group of officers who found a printing press in the ruins of a bombed building in Ypres during the First World War. Captain Roberts (James Dutton) and Lieutenant Pearson (George Kemp) decided to staring printing a satirical newspaper for the troops called The Wipers Times, the name coming from the mispronunciation of ‘Ypres’ by British soldiers. It was hugely successful and managed to run for two years despite the horrors of the war and disapproval from higher ranks.

Inspired by the real newspaper (Ian Hislop joked in the post-show talk that 99% of the script was from the original papers!) the play is very funny, and includes songs in the style of music hall renditions, poems, adverts and sketches. A lot of the cast played several characters and were brilliant and full of energy. It is natural that a lot of literature about the war emphasises the terror, and rightly so, but as Hislop said after the performance The Wipers Times truly showed what soldiers thought and felt during the battles, as many of the war poems which are so well known today were actually written after the war.

The most important result of Hislop and Newman’s discovery of The Wipers Times must be that they managed to secure obituaries for Roberts and Pearson in The Times. However, this play is also a fantastic tribute to their creation, and is very uplifting.

North by Northwest – Theatre Royal Bath

Based on the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, North by Northwest is a playful, clever and funny adaptation.

Roger Thornhill (Jonathan Watton), a successful advertising executive, is abducted by thugs who believe that he is a man called George Kaplan. What follows is a cat and mouse game which includes spies, and chases over Mount Rushmore and through corn fields by a plane.

What made this production so clever was the stage effects. On both sides of the stage there were tables with miniature models and a camera. Members of the company, fully visible to the audience, would move the models and the images were projected on the back of the stage. This was how the plane chase and Mount Rushmore were shown, and it was extremely clever and very funny.

I haven’t seen the original film so I cannot compare, but this was a thrilling and hugely enjoyable production with a charismatic leading actor. It deserves to transfer to the West End.