Last night I went to watch Shakespeare Schools Festival’s performance night at my local theatre. Now in its fifteenth year, the festival was designed to enable 8 to 18 year olds to have their very own grown-up drama experience in the form of performing a Shakespeare play on a full-size theatre stage in front of a paying audience. Participating schools get to choose their play and are sent the script for a pared down version which can be performed in about 30 minutes. They are given a couple of sessions with professional actors who will help them give their best performance, and plenty of support with technical stuff, marketing and publicity. At the theatre on performance night, the actors get dressing rooms just like they were pro’s, they get a great introduction from the MC, and they are given a very positive critique at the end (also in front of the audience). This is all great; the concept is good, the organisation is thorough and the children come away feeling they have really achieved great things – which they have. They have gained valuable experience, their confidence is boosted and they are inspired to go on to bigger and better things.
We had four plays to watch; three I enjoyed, but then there was The Taming of the Shrew. I’d never seen the play, or read the script, but this is what I gathered from the condensed version enacted last night….
A man has two daughters that he wants to marry off. The youngest is a sweetie and has no end of suitors, but the eldest has a caustic tongue and is rather nasty. The boyfriend of the youngest knows that he and his love won’t be able to wed until the eldest sister is, so he persuades some dopey chap, P, to take her on. P forces the elder sister to marry him, beating her senseless until she stops speaking for herself and allows him to, quite literally, walk all over her. The younger sister marries her chosen one, who turns out to be loaded, and the girls’ father feels very smug.
This play is called a comedy and was acted out by a very young cast of boys and girls who looked to be aged 11 to 15. About fifty per cent of the audience was from the same age group. There was plenty of choreographed “beating” where the boys knocked the girls to the ground, lifted their heads up by the hair, cast them down again and gave them a few backhanders. One scene very artily used a back-lit screen to make one particularly savage beating by P into a shadow play (this was singled out for praise by the MC). I was most disturbed that this was what passed for an appropriate subject for a children’s play. There was no trigger warning, no rationalization, no attempt to make clear that this behaviour is wrong. It was presented as a perfectly reasonable way to deal with a sharp-tongued wife, a wife who would doubtless be thankful for being shown the error of her ways, no matter the method.
I think this play should not have been included in the Shakespeare Schools Festival, or it should have had a rewrite to let the “shrew” have her comeuppance in a non-violent way. Children already see too much violence in films and on television; some also see it in their family homes. Last night the violence was carried out by their peers on their peers, by their brothers on their sisters, and it was in the name of entertainment and it was laughed about. This was a production devised and directed by a teacher, someone who should be safeguarding our children. The Taming of the Shrew was ugly, upsetting and wholly inappropriate.
The second six individual portraits by Alan Bennett, the master of the monologue
I’ve had these two cassettes on a loop in my car for a few weeks. Listening to them only once just wasn’t enough. They have now been replaced by a collection of short stories by Kate Atkinson, so it’s high time the Talking Heads got a bit of a review. This is a darker set of tales than the first collection, and often quite disturbing.
The first, Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet, brings us Miss Fozzard, a sales assistant at a department store, and of course her feet. When her chiropodist announces his retirement, Miss Fozzard is introduced to Mr Dunderdale who seems more than happy to take on her pre fungal infection and extinct verucca. Miss Fozzard is quite taken with his charming manner, and finds herself visiting more and more frequently. At the same time, her brother, having suffered a stroke, has moved in with her and they employ a young female Australian carer, Miss Molloy, to help him get back on his feet. Brother Bernard seems to thrive under the care of Miss Molloy, until she disappears along with the contents of his bank account, sending him spiralling downwards into another health crisis. Meanwhile Mr Dunderdale is gradually introducing Miss Fozzard to a variety of new therapies but now he becomes the recipient and Miss Fozzard’s feet take on a power of their own. This is a very funny monologue, performed by the wonderful Patricia Routledge. I love Miss Fozzard’s enthusiasm for something new. She’s doing her own thing and enjoying Mr Dunderdale’s attentions and his sherry. I think she knows deep down that he’s getting off on her feet, but maintains her innocent demeanour in a hilarious fashion.
Next up is The Hand of God performedby Eileen Atkins. Celia, a snobbish antiques dealer who believes herself to be cleverer than her fellow traders, attempts to wheedle her way into a dying woman’s home in order to get her hands on the numerous valuable antiques inside. Her plan backfires somewhat when a niece appears and puts the entire house clearance in the hands of a large auction house. Celia is insulted when the niece offers her a small box of bric a brac – a token of thanks for the “kindness” she had shown her late aunt. Soon Celia unwittingly falls for a customer’s con trick, all the while believing that she has made an unbelievably good profit on a quirky item from the deceased’s box of oddments – a sketch of a finger in a small wooden frame. The picture soon appears in the media with the amazing story of its discovery in a “junk shop” and its true worth of millions. It turns out that Celia has let a Michaelangelo slip through her fingers. So Celia’s comeuppance is almost complete; the final cherry (tomato) on the cake comes in the form of her new line of homemade chutneys, something she poured scorn on in her opening dialogue.
The sole male voice in the collection belongs to Wilfred, played by David Haig. Playing Sandwiches paints a portrait of a previously convicted paedophile with a string of jobs behind him, all of which would bring him within close proximity of children. Wilfred is unable to provide his latest employer with corroborative evidence of his work history and comes under increasing pressure to expose his false identity. Eventually it all becomes too much for him to contain, with catastrophic results. This track was very unpleasant and uncomfortable listening. Wilfred doesn’t really see that his behaviour is wrong because it feels so right to him; he blames his victims for causing their own abuse and is definitely a perpetrator in need of re-education.
Before I had even got rid of the bad taste in my mouth, it was on to the next story, The Outside Dog, performed by Julie Walters. This is scary listening indeed and the monologue which caused me most despair. Marjory keeps a tight rein on the maintenance of her showroom-clean house. Her husband cleans off all traces of his work at the local slaughterhouse before he gains entry to the home, and his noisy dog, Tina, is not allowed indoors at all. It starts to dawn on Marjory that her husband and a local serial killer of women, as yet uncaught, are one and the same. When he is arrested and held on remand, the only way that Marjory can maintain any sort of control over things is to continue with her strict and obsessive cleaning routine. It is during the fumigation of the dog’s kennel that she discovers the evidence that puts her husband’s guilt beyond doubt, but before she is able to do anything about it, she hears that the trial is over and the verdict is not guilty. Marjory’s world falls apart as her husband returns, almost gloating about his freedom, and soon asserts his total dominance by allowing the dog to enter the house.
Nights in the Gardens of Spain performed by Penelope Wilton introduces us to Rosemary and the beautiful, tender relationship she shares with her former neighbour, Mrs McCorquodale, after the latter is imprisoned for killing her husband. Rosemary leads a lonely life with a husband who seems to care only for his own ambition to live in Marbella and play golf every day. The trial brings to light the full extent of her new friend’s cruel and brutal treatment at the hands of her late husband, sometimes with accomplices. The two women become firm friends, but when Mrs McC tragically dies of cancer, Rosemary feels she has only one course open to her; to follow her husband to a new life in Marbella, even though she surely knows that he is one of the men who colluded in the abuse of her beloved friend. Me wailing “NO-O-O-O!” at the tape player wasn’t going to change anything.
The final story of the collection is another heartbreaker. Waiting for the Telegram, performed by Thora Hird, is set in a care home where a confused Violet is told by staff that she would soon be receiving a telegram from the Queen (for her 100th birthday). This brings back painful memories for Violet; memories of the war years when a telegram boy would always be bearing tragic news of a lost husband or son. One of the nurses at the home, Francis, gains Violet’s trust and they become friends, but Francis dies of AIDS and Violet is again reminded of the scourge which took away so many young men from her life – the war. She recalls nothing of her married life and doesn’t recognise her son when he comes to visit, but her memories of her relationship with a young soldier during the war are vivid still. She is haunted by her belief that she let him down, and devastated that the fateful telegram arrived before she could make amends. Thora Hird’s performance is immense and so incredibly moving that I was reduced to tears.
Talking Heads 2 is a masterpiece. Every phrase and comment is so brilliantly conceived, so perfectly delivered. From laughing out loud moments at the beginning, stomach-churning fear and repulsion in the middle and despair and tears towards the end, this collection will bring out a lifetime of emotions in 3 hours and 20 minutes. Miss Fozzard, Celia and Wilfred, Marjory, Rosemary and haunted Violet feel like my own neighbours. I look for them as I’m on my day to day errands and imagine that any one of the people I pass in the street could have a monologue of their own. Every life should make space for some talking heads.
Discovering Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads First broadcast on BBC Radio 4, these six monologues, written by Alan Bennett in 1987 and published as Talking Heads, were recorded in 1991. I came across this set, on cassette tapes, on a colleague’s desk the other day and borrowed them. You may have noticed that I am coming rather late to the party, but as I was in the Far East for the best part of the 90s (bar 1999 actually) the Talking Heads phenomenon missed me completely. Then after I returned to England, I missed them on TV too as it’s difficult to find time to view your favourite shows when two small people are demanding all your attention. So there has been a Talking Heads-shaped hole in my cultural consciousness for some time. Luckily (depending on your point of view) I drive a rather elderly car from 2001 which, while lacking the mod cons of new technologies such as electric windows and CD player, does have a fully-functioning cassette player. One of the bonuses of having such an antiquated sound-system in my car is that my two children, now in their late teens, can sing along to a host of old classics by the likes of Johnnie Cash, Roy Orbison and Steel Pulse and many others from the 50s to the 80s which I recorded on tape years and years ago and played relentlessly on family trips. Another, of course, is that I have had the opportunity to listen to this wonderful collection of spoken words while I’m driving around. Alan Bennett first featured in the public psyche in 1960 as one quarter of a team that wrote and performed the legendary comedy revue, Beyond the Fringe, which played in the West End for two years before going to Broadway in 1962. The other three writers were Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller. Since then he has written many very successful plays; probably the best-known of his works include An Englishman Abroad, The Madness of King George III (subsequently an Oscar-winning film) and Talking Heads.The monologues are performed by a handful of Britain’s leading actresses, including Patricia Routledge, the late Anna Massey and Julie Walters, along with Bennett himself. The characters are those that can be found in any town; not necessarily anyone you will have noticed, but regular people each with their own vulnerabilities and self-delusions. In A Chip in the Sugar, Graham lives with his widowed mother, quite happy being her treasured son, companion and carer until an old flame re-enters her life and threatens to spoil everything. In A Lady of Letters, Irene finds dissatisfaction wherever she looks and makes sure to voice her gripes on her Basildon Bond paper, until she eventually finds happiness in the most unlikely circumstance. In Bed Among the Lentils, Susan plays the wife of the parish vicar faultlessly, or so it seems, until a slip in the vestry under the influence of the communion wine forces her to confess her alcoholicism. In Soldiering On, Muriel’s life is drastically changed for the poorer following the death of her husband, but she starts to find joy in things she had never before appreciated. In Her Big Chance, aspiring actress, Lesley, kids herself that she is on the path to a serious acting career. In A Cream Cracker Under the Settee, the late Thora Hird, probably the most iconic of all the Talking Heads, gives us Doris whose obsessive cleaning has caused several tragedies in her life, the latest of which will almost certainly be her last. The stories are full of bittersweet ironies and sadness, but also a lot of humour. I laughed out loud many times, especially at Graham’s descriptions of his mother’s “fancy man”, and vicar’s wife Susan’s cutting sarcasm. Bennett’s observations are frighteningly accurate; all the worst traits of small-mindedness are collected here for our horror and delight. I am left wanting more, and happily the second six monologues are published as Talking Heads 2. I wonder if they are still available on cassette tape…………
Stand-up comedy is not what I normally go to see at my local theatre, but when I saw that Mark Steel was coming to do a show it was a no-brainer. This is a comedian who occasionally appears on well-known comedy panel shows on the TV, such as Never Mind The Buzzcocks and Have I Got News For You, but not so often that I’ve become weary of seeing his face. For me, he’s best known for the weekly column he writes for The Independent newspaper; invariably his opinion with a socialist slant on whatever grabs his attention that week. Recently, of course, it’s been the death of Margaret Thatcher and the funeral of same. Looking past the overblown sentimentality of most of the media coverage we’ve been force-fed, Mark has that rare knack of seeing the truth and absurdity in our society and even making us laugh at it.
Mark’s latest tour, “Mark Steel’s In Town”, is a two month long trip around 18 towns of England, but is only the most recent stint in a project that has been ongoing since 2009, when it was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4. So far, Mark has included nearly 50 towns on his itinerary; from Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands to Penzance in West Cornwall; from Merthyr Tydfil to Norwich; from Gateshead to Ottery St. Mary. Each show is centred around the town he’s currently in, but also gives hilarious insights into life in other parts of the land. Each town is celebrated for its history, landmarks, notoriety, citizens, quirks and local pride.
Last night in Barnstaple, Mark came prepared with research he has gathered from Twitter, the local newspaper, books, online sources and interactions with the locals on the day of the show. The audience was also encouraged to participate and give their perspectives on life in the town. Just as a snapshot, Barnstaple’s particular points of interest included househunting with The Jackson Five and an amorous encounter with an ambulance!
Mark is a brilliant and extremely funny storyteller, with a large repertoire of regional accents, among them Devon, The Black Country, Welsh, Geordie, Scouse, Manc, Scottish, Yorkshire, Home Counties and his native Kent.
With just the right amount of swearing and profanity and even a snippet of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, this was two and a half hours of hilarious show which I would recommend to anyone with an open mind and a conscience.
British Company Shakespeare4Kidz was founded in the mid-1990s and since 1997 has been bringing Shakespeare’s works to the masses in both the UK and beyond in a style that is accessible to all, especially children. The texts are re-worked by Julian Chenery and Matt Gimblett, a partnership that has flourished over two whole decades. The language is brought up to date, and songs are added to reinforce the story-telling, then the show goes on tour playing daytime shows to school groups as well as evening performances ideal for whole families to enjoy. About 9 years ago I joined a group of children from my local primary school as a parent helper and saw Romeo and Juliet which I remember being an absolute hoot (until the serious stuff near the end); the Montagues were all in Hawaiian shirts and chinos and the Capulets were styled as 1940s gangsters and their molls. The ten and eleven year olds we took were transfixed.
Yesterday I was lucky enough to see this theatre company in action for a second time. This time they were performing The Tempest, Shakespeare’s final play, and I was in the company of 120 twelve and thirteen year olds who were slightly tougher to impress. I, however, absolutely loved it. From the opening number in which Prospero wielded his magic staff to make the sea boil and sailors were tossed around on the ship’s deck, it was a fast-moving and totally engrossing tale, full of magic, revenge, humour and romance. The songs were especially wonderful and stuck in my head for the rest of the day. There were plenty of laughs at the drunken antics of Trinculo, jester at the court of the King of Milan, Stephano, the King’s butler, and Caliban.
For those who don’t know the story here is an extremely potted version:-
Prospero and his daughter have been living on a deserted island for twelve years since several dubious characters deposed him as Duke of Milan and he fled to escape the coup. Apart from those two, there is one other human on the island, the bad-mannered and foul-tempered Caliban who serves as a slave. When Prospero hears that the men who cheated him out of his position are all aboard a ship in the vicinity, he conjures up a violent storm with the help of a friendly spirit, Ariel. The men from the ensuing shipwreck are washed up on the shores of Prospero’s island and, through the wonder of magic, and the mischief-making of Ariel, all are made to atone for the wrongs they have committed. All except for Ferdinand, Prince of Milan, who was only a child at the time of the coup and who falls in love with Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. No-one is hurt; no-one is killed; it all ends very amicably. Even Caliban apologises for being a monstrous bugbear.
Shakespeare4Kidz has toured with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Macbeth, Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet as well as the current The Tempest. They run workshops for children, supply resources to teachers and make play packs to enable schools to put on their very own productions of S4K plays. Their productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth are available on DVD from the website. and this year a feature film of S4K’s Romeo and Juliet is in production.
“Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.” Caliban
Since 1986 this small company has been delighting audiences nationwide with its unpretentious but beautifully danced performances. The Landmark Theatre in Ilfracombe has been on their tour for some years now and I have just been to see them for the fourth year running. Previous shows I’ve seen are “Romeo and Juliet”, “The Lady of the Lake” and “Beauty and the Beast”. The sets are always very simple which is good I think, as the audience is not distracted from the dance by a lot of wobbly scene boards or drops. There are just eleven dancers, six women and five men, so no mass of “corps de ballet” dancers all looking identical; also the theatre is quite small, so the audience can feel almost part of the show.
Anyway, tonight’s show was “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Three Little Pigs” which seemed a bit odd when I saw it in the programme. Quirkier still was the statement that the ballet was based on Roald Dahl’s rhymes. If you are not familiar with Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, they are nursery tales you thought you knew inside out and back to front but given a twist for the hilarious better. The traditional Red Riding Hood is a little bit dreamy as she wanders through the woods losing track of time, and completely delusional as she mistakes the big, bad wolf for her dear old grandmother. Roald Dahl’s heroine, however, is a feisty feminist who packs a pistol in her underwear and is not afraid to use it. Wolfy may have fooled Grandma but he ends up as a beautiful wolfskin coat for young Ms Hood.
The Three Little Pigs build their houses from straw, twigs and bricks as you would expect, and Mr. Wolf has some success blowing down two of them. However, he resorts to dynamite to destroy the third house, not realising that clever piggy number three has made a surreptitious phone call to a certain Ms Hood who duly turns up and dispatches Mr. Big Bad in the same manner as his Grandma-bothering kinswolf. Unfortunately for Piggy, Ms Hood is not quite satisfied with her two lovely fur coats and develops an overwhelming desire for a pigskin travelling bag too!
With the occasional foray into flamenco, paso doblé and jazz dance, and a brilliant soundtrack by Paul Patterson, this was ballet at its engaging and enjoyable best. The mostly very young audience was captivated and entertained from beginning to end and showed it with an extended and raucous applause. I’m pretty sure the dancers had a ball too.
Great entertainment from The King’s Will and Jack Dean
I spotted the ad for the show way back in the summer, bought my ticket and waited patiently. Yesterday it was finally the day; the day I’d been so excited about; The King’s Will were performing at my local theatre. Billed as “electrifying drum and bass, soulful singing and powerful poetry” it sounded like an essential performance. I love a bit of poetry, though my own efforts at writing leave a lot to be desired, and it’s been over a year since I saw any performed live; that was the legendary John Cooper Clarke who appeared at the George Hotel in South Molton in a great, great show. Yes, there is more to North Devon than surfing, folks!
Due to some last minute hitches, the performance space was changed to the bar area, where a glossy grand piano stood, but this added to the intimate atmosphere.
A small but very friendly and enthusiastic crowd was gathering and there was a palpable buzz of anticipation in the air. First up was Jack Dean, a local lad, very young but immensely talented. He gave a twenty minute performance of hip hop poetry which had us all in stitches, interspersed with the odd singalong. We were transported from the schoolroom to the psychoanalyst’s couch with several other interludes, punctuated with plenty of laughter. It was a brilliant and hugely confident piece which showed off Jack’s acting skills as well as his rhyming. This is definitely someone to look out for in the future. Here’s a link to his website where you can see some video clips and more.
After a short break it was time for The King’s Will. We were to have the acoustic show which would be Musa (The Fool) who is the poet and the voice, and Giles (The Vassal) the pianist. After spending the previous half hour in the audience and giving probably the most vocal support of us all to Jack Dean, these two tall and very charismatic men took their places behind mic and piano and gave us a performance of great passion, power, insight and a healthy serving of humour. Giles’ wonderful and lyrical playing was the perfect foil to Musa’s vocals which ranged from a softly melodic delivery to an almost Shakespearean monologue, with all the furious power of a King Lear. Musa told us how he’d worked in the city as a lawyer for some years, and had one day decided it was all wrong and chucked it in to be a poet. The opening number “Pig City” is about the moral degeneration of our society; a rather dark and sinister nursery rhyme depicting the often obscured murkier side of life in the digital age. Other poems were about Musa’s experience of civil war in Uganda, his country of birth, family betrayal, his younger sister and memories of his father. The lyrics were often of a very personal nature and I for one felt privileged to have been allowed to share in this very emotional out-pouring.
Click on this link for an interview with The Kings Will by Lisa Jenkins, and this link to the group’s website.
I bought a CD for £5 at the end of the evening. Entitled “Acoustic” it includes most of the set from the show:-
3.Human After All
Tracks can be downloaded from the website (click on link above).