Sunday, January 30, 2011

Getting Involved: A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde at the Greenwich Playhouse

The Galleon Theatre Company's successful revival of A Woman of No Importance owed much to the nature of the venue. The Greenwich Playhouse's 80- seat studio encouraged a much-needed intimacy and engagement with the issues of Oscar Wilde's darkest and, arguably, weakest play.

There's a wide quality gap between The Importance of Being Earnest and Wilde's other plays, and I was grateful that director Bruce Jamieson's light touch moved this along with appropriate briskness. The play suffers from the same muddled-logic deficiency as An Ideal Husband, (blogged Nov 10th, 2010, still showing at the Vaudeville theatre) where a dishonest politician hero is let off the hook.

Almost all the first half consists of aristos lounging around at Lady Hunstanton's country house, making witty remarks about marriage and society, punctuated by escorting one another into afternoon tea and dinner. The aphorisms are of high quality, including the famous description of fox-hunters as :'the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable'. Eleanor Wdowski's 1920's-feel costumes were interesting,and the actors excellent, but they didn't make make up for the play's static nature. Because the theme, the plight of an unmarried woman in high-class society, is altogether darker, the more amusing lines are not integrated with the action, as in Wilde's masterpiece.

The plot concerns a a middle aged diplomat called Lord Illingworth who has offered a secretarial post to a poor bank clerk, Gerald Arbuthnot. Just before the interval, when the young man's mother, Mrs Arbuthnot, arrives, Gerald is revealed to be Lord Illingworth's illegitimate son. His mother changed her name after being deserted by her dandified seducer. She makes it plain it would be very disloyal of Gerald to take up the job. The second half of the play depicts the various confrontations about what's to be done. Gerald falls in love with a pretty young house guest, the focus of a subplot, which further implicates the vile seducer and underscores the harshness of attitudes to women at the time.

The intimacy of the 80-seater studio allows a proximity that encourages involvement. I restrained myself from joining in the conversations of the first act, but couldn't help giving a sympathetic smile to the fallen woman, played with martyred dignity by Mary Lincoln. After all, at the height of her torment she was only three feet away and looking straight at me!

You can vote for The Offies, the best off-West-end production of the past year

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Dinosaurs at Crystal Palace Park

When we were about to move south, I was surprised that it took my husband three days to find a rented flat in London; even more surprised that it was somewhere I'd never heard of.

As my knowledge of London geography was based on CND marches to Trafalgar Square in the early 60s, I wasn't prepared for Penge. I soon learned the latter was a by-word for South London dinginess and the subject of much media mockery.

I joined a local drama group and later went to Goldsmiths, only ten minutes by train to New Cross. At the height of the hippy era, it was an exciting place to be.

Best of all, we lived round the corner from Crystal Palace Park. Apart from something called a 'One O'clock Club', a kind of big shed with toys, where mothers with toddlers gathered on wet afternoon, it had a flamingo pond, a children's zoo and a lake area with monsters.

Nowadays a Sunday visit to Penge usually means lunch at the the Moon and Stars, which used to be a cinema, but on the first sunny Sunday afternoon for weeks a side-visit to the dinosaurs seemed in order.

Installed as an adjunct to the Crystal Palace, home to the Great Exhibition of 1851, the giant lizards were set up in 1854, not very accurate replicas of the prehistoric monsters, but at the time state-of-the-art. A big dinner was held in the bottom part of the biggest one and speeches made by local and national dignitaries before the top half was attached.

I notice they've cut back the vegetation so more of the creatures are visible and there's been quite a bit of tourist development, with notices round a 'trail' and better amenities, such as a big cafe nearby and a car park.

It's a shame so much of the park was neglected over the years - being situated at the wrong end of Bromley borough didn't help - but in the fading light of a winter afternoon it does recreate a quite magical sense of a primeval landscape. Much better than Jurassic Park , in my opinion.

You can download an audiotrail on your mobile to listen to when you visit

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear at the Old Vic

Feydeau's influence on English sitcom was beautifully illustrated when happy chance brought us home from A Flea in Her Ear to an episode of Fawlty Towers on TV. It was the one where Basil skips in and out of bedrooms in the eponymous hotel, trying to catch out a young musician he suspects (rightly) of hiding a girl in his room. A middle aged psychiatrist and his wife, and a nubile blonde in a bright green T-shirt who occupy adjoining rooms become involved, as the rock star gets the better of Basil and Basil dodges an increasingly exasperated Sybil. Like the play we'd just seen it all depends on miscommunication and split-second timing, doors opening, people appearing then disappearing and the invention of impromptu alibis -such as Basil's 'testing' surfaces for damp, even when he's inside a wardrobe or peering through a window. As the psychiatrist remarks, 'Enough material for a whole case conference'.

Evasions and misunderstandings surrounding illicit sex are exactly what made Feydeau's farces so popular in Paris in the 1920s and which barred them from 'No Sex please, we're British' stages until 1968 and the lifting of the Lord Chamberlain's ban on risque drama.

In Paris, the elegant Raymonde Chandebise confides to her best friend Lucienne that her husband, an otherwise hidebound insurance agent, is being unfaithful. She suspects him of conducting liaisons at the infamous Coq D'or, a high-class brothel. Lucienne agrees to make a clandestine assignation by letter, so the truth can be uncovered.

Somehow, the whole household, including friends and servants, become involved in an increasingly tangled plot which plays out at the Coq D'Or. It doesn't help that the brothel bellboy is a dead ringer for Mr Chandebise, who goes along out of curiosity. Poche the bellboy happens to be a masochist and his employer an ex-military sadist who obliges by kicking him round the room whenever they meet. To add to the high jinks, Lucienne's husband is an insanely jealous Spaniard and another customer is a Prussian who thinks every woman he meets is a prostitute sent to attend to him.

Mayhem on this scale requires skilled direction and spit-second timing, here marvellously achieved by Richard Eyres and his team. It was a disappointment that Tom Hollander was unwell on the night we attended, but Greg Baldock was convincing in the demanding roles of Chandebise and Poche. As in Shakepeare's identical twins comedies, much of the humour not only depends on mistaken identity but in this case one character following almost on the heels of the other. Over-the-top playing by beautifully coordinated Freddie Fox made the most of the thankless role of a young man with a speech impediment and William Findley was funny as the fiery pistol-waving Spaniard, although comic foreigners and disability as comedy date the play to some extent.

The costumes were well-designed considering the number of quick changes and rapid movements required. The brothel entrance hall and stairway was a masterpiece of mock Art-Nouveau, all elongated trunks and tendrils, suggestive of a gilded swamp. The programme was excellent, including a history of the Belle Epoque era and a pocket biography of Feydeau and farce as well as an article on sorely-missed John Mortimer, whose translation of the play was presented in the National Theatre in 1966.

I wouldn't recommend seat L26 in the stalls at the Old Vic when you're sitting behind a man who looks like Father Ted with a fuzzier haircut. Some of the early speeches were lost on me, only partly because of the quick-fire delivery, which takes a little getting used to. My companion and I agreed that if we get another chance to see this very marvellous play we'll be very happy to go along a second time.