Review: Writefest at Progress Theatre

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Kate (Lauren Gilbert) and Katie (Bethan Perkins) try to deal with the effects of religious dogma in How Do I Love Thee. Photos by Martin Noble
Katie (Bethan Perkins) and Kate (Lauren Gilbert) try to deal with the effects of religious dogma in How Do I Love Thee. All photos by Martin Noble.

Progress Theatre is well-known for unearthing top local acting talent but that skill also extends to the hidden gems of the writing world too.

Writefest, which is now in its 11th year, is the theatre’s annual celebration of new writing, and 2016 is a real rainbow of entertainment, with witty comedies sitting neatly next to powerful drama.

Organising the running order of seven original and different short plays is no easy task, let alone sorting the director and crew for each, and wading through all the entries in the first place, but producers Heather Noble and Christine Moran have curated a spectacular evening with seven memorable pieces. Compared by warm host Stuart McCubbin, who peppers the show with funny little poems while set changes take place, Writefest 2016 is a showcase not to be missed.

The Cutting Man by Matthew Wilkie

A man (Biffi Bear) deals with his grief in a rather unusual way in The Cutting Man
A man (Biffo Bear) deals with his grief in a rather unusual way in The Cutting Man

An understated and powerful exploration of grief, The Cutting Man, follows a man (Biffo Bear) in a library who has an unusual hobby of cutting words from books. As he whispers to us from the dim-lit room, with the librarian (Paula Montie) just out of earshot, we discover the reason behind his strange obsession. A delicate little piece, The Cutting Man has a careful, and well-thought out pace, gradually unravelling the man’s story, not to shock but to make us understand and sympathise with him. Word play is used cleverly here too with the last line of various books interweaving throughout the story. A strong opener with a captivating performance by Biffo Bear.

Knock Knock by Marie French

Sammy (Dan Brown) and Joe (Jack Gunner) travel to their new life in the back of a lorry in Knock Knock.
Sammy (Dan Brown) and Joe (Jack Gunner) travel to their new life in the back of a lorry in Knock Knock.

Why are the English men in the truck? Where are they going? And why are there two Russian girls next door? Knock Knock follows two pairs of friends, Sammy (Dan Brown) and Joe (Jack Gunner) and Katya (Nanette Naude) and Etty (Stephanie Gunner) as they travel in the back of a fish lorry on their way to a new life. Given the current political climate it’s almost impossible not to think of Trump, his immigration policies and the terrifying prospect of his wall, as the group hold their breath, waiting to cross the border into an unnamed country. The cramped, frightened atmosphere is created skillfully with the use of sound and light – unseen guards walk around the outside and torches illuminate each side. But where will they end up? It is the unanswered questions which make this an enthralling story.

Water Torture by Michael Sharp

Beryl (Paula Montie) recounts the events that led her to prison in Water Torture.
Beryl (Paula Montie) recounts the events that led her to prison in Water Torture.

It might seem like the perfect backdrop for a comedy – an elderly lady in a flowery top, incarcerated for fighting with her neighbours over a garden statue – but Water Torture is far from a frivolous comedy about life in Middle England. When her neighbours of 35 years buy a water fountain, Beryl (Paula Montie) and her husband are driven mad by the constant water works. But there’s more to it than just a dislike for the sound of running water. With her husband reliving some painful memories, Beryl sets about fixing the situation. Paula Montie is superb in this one hander, letting Beryl drip her story out gradually until it reaches a tidal crescendo. Sharp’s balance of humour, (and there are plenty of laughs to be had), and something much more sinister, is spot on.

Hamlet’s Essence by Eva Marchetti

The cast of Hamlet ponder Ophelia's early death in Hamlet's Essence.
The cast of Hamlet ponder Ophelia’s early death in Hamlet’s Essence.

In today’s time-poor society has anyone really got the spare hours to watch a whole Shakespeare play? That’s the question posed by Eva Marchetti in Hamlet’s Essence, where a new avant garde theatre group aims to stage a reduced version of Hamlet. With an Ophelia (Nanette Naude) who is desperate to leave early, and a Hamlet (Jack Gunner) who only really wants to give his To Be or Not To Be speech, it’s a hilarious take on one of the Bard’s most famous works. Director Laura Mills has really run with the silliness of the piece and it works, from Ophelia rolling her eyes and telling Hamlet to hurry up, to the slapstick moments of actors sliding themselves off stage when they’ve been killed. Performed by a cast who seemed to be having as much fun on stage as the audience are from their seats, it’s an insiders joke for those who regularly see or perform Shakespeare, and a fun comedy for those new to the Bard’s, sometimes lengthy, productions.

How Do I love Thee by Liz Carroll

Kate (Lauren Gilbert) and Katie (Bethan Perkins) try to deal with their life as their mother Grace (Jane Gibson) looks on
Katie (Bethan Perkins) and Kate (Lauren Gilbert) try to deal with their life as their mother Grace (Jane Gibson) looks on

The stand-out show of this year’s Writefest, How Do I Love Thee, is a gut-wrenching piece of drama, written by Progress Theatre stalwart Liz Carroll, and performed by an exceptional cast. Exploring the dangerous effects of religious dogma, the play tells the story of Kate (Lauren Gilbert), who has been brought up in an extremely religious household. Now at university she has created a new life, but it is one which conflicts with her upbringing . The internal conflict she feels is manifested on stage in the figure of her younger self Katie (Bethan Perkins), and the frightening figure of her father (Paul Gallantry). Gilbert, Perkins and Gallantry are sensational at portraying Kate’s inner fears and demons, while she is watched by her indoctrinated mother (Jane Gibson), Rosie from university (Stephanie Gunner) and her therapist (Patrick Selvanathan). A story of mental illness, vulnerability, indoctrination and ultimately love, How Do I Love Thee is a play you won’t forget in a hurry, and it might just be Carroll’s best piece of writing to date.

Home (A Loan Too) by Jonathan Skinner

Estate Agent Barry (Andy Camichel) shows prospective buyer Ruth (Karolina Michalowicz) around a rather cosy flat in Home (A Loan Too)
Estate Agent Barry (Andy Camichel) shows prospective buyer Ruth (Karolina Michalowicz) around a rather cosy flat in Home (A Loan Too)

Any 20 or 30 something trying to get even a toe on the housing ladder should see Home (A Loan Too). A hilarious and accurately depressing piece of social commentary, the play sees Estate Agent Barry (Andy Camichel) and prospective buyer Ruth (Karoina Michalowicz) taking a tour of an apartment. Barry is all about the sale, causing much laughter as he describes the cramped living area as cosy and leans Ruth outside the window so she can see the river ‘glimpse’ rather than view. In a town where house prices are extortionate, like many others across the South East, this little funny vignette will undoubtedly cause a knowing smile for plenty of audience members.

Mixed Reception by Emma Wyverne

A gardener (Terry McKay) talks television viewers through a few tips for their shrubs in Mixed Reception
A gardener (Terry McKay) talks television viewers through a few tips for their shrubs in Mixed Reception

Ending the programme on a high, Mixed Reception is a witty whirlwind through the television channels. A cookery class, religious sermon, gardening programme, childcare show and the news are all on stage before us, but with a dodgy reception we keep switching from show to show – to hilarious effect. As the childcare host tells us about snow white and the seven… we switch to the news to hear of the…seven Argentinian cocaine smugglers. With fantastic wordplay, Mixed Reception is a thoroughly enjoyable little skit, and for the most part the cast lived up to the challenge of making sure they hit their cues for a seamless broadcast. A lively end to a sensational night of theatre.

The 11th annual Writefest is at Progress Theatre in The Mount, Reading until Saturday, 19 November. To book visit www.progresstheatre.co.uk.

I was invited to review Writefest so my ticket was complimentary but all views are my own.

Review: Dracula at Progress Theatre

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The sisters get ready to pounce on their victim, Harker. Photos by Aidan Moran
The sisters get ready to pounce on their victim Jonathan Harker. Photos by Aidan Moran

When a story is as well known as Dracula it falls to those in the arts to give new life to the well-trodden tale.

Theatre makers and film directors have sunk their teeth into Bram Stoker’s work almost continually since its release in 1897, creating a huge portfolio of vampire stories which draw on the novel’s themes in many different ways.

Writer and director Dan Clarke continues the trend for different readings with Progress Theatre’s latest production, in which he places the novel’s women front and centre – quite literally from the moment the play opens with flashing lights illuminating a trio of ghastly vampire sisters.

But it is unclear what Clarke’s intention is of bringing Stoker’s female characters to the fore. Is it to cast light on the silent Gothic woman – often reduced to a weak, helpless victim – or to have some fun with the other Gothic woman, the predator?

Only two male actors appear in the piece, Matt Urwin as a pale and insipid Jonathan Harker, and Ian Blecher, who almost veers into a caricature with his Van Helsing. Both are almost inconsequential, much like the weak Gothic woman, acting as a support to the other characters around them.

Matt Urwin as Jonathan Harker and Ian Belcher as Abraham Van Helsing. Photos by Aidan Moran.
Matt Urwin as Jonathan Harker and Ian Belcher as Abraham Van Helsing. Photos by Aidan Moran.

And so it is left to each of the vampire sisters to double up as one of Lucy’s male suitors, but the purpose of it is unclear. This is not a feminist reading, quite clearly shown in the way every woman in the play is reduced, rather depressingly, to nothing more than a product of her sexual desire. Even the conservative Mina (Megan Turnell) falls foul of her insatiable sexual appetite when she immediately turns to Dracula to relieve her carnal desires after finding out her husband is impotent.

Sexuality and vampires have long gone hand in hand, Twilight made an entire franchise out of it, but here it feels gratuitous. The thrill of Dracula is its subtlety, the threat of the sisters sinking their fangs into Harker but not quite getting there, and the slow build up of the Count seeping into normal society.

But there is no subtlety here. A bed literally stands centre stage, with the vampire sisters stripping off their jackets and hats – markers of their male roles – and disappearing behind a curtain to devour their next victim. If there was any doubt in their intention, a saucy wink as they disappear behind it clears it up quickly.

The sisters: Neve Murray, Rebecca Douglas and Belinda Duffy
The sisters: Neve Murray, Rebecca Douglas and Belinda Duffy

Perhaps then it is the predator we are faced with, but there is no depth to it. We have no background story for the sisters, we only see their bloodlust and desire, and it makes for a gory but uninspiring view.

Of course it is nearly Halloween, and the production’s ghostly theatrics are fun for this time of year. The sisters, played by Belinda Duffy, Neve Murray and Rebecca Douglas, have some fantastically freaky nuances, and all create a strong contrast between their bloodthirsty vampires and male suitors.

There are also playful scares when characters appear suddenly, an eerie soundtrack, and bucket loads of blood, but it all feels a bit hammy. Things also veer into the all out ridiculous with a monstrous battle in Dracula’s crypt, but it seems as if it’s all part of the fun by that point.

It may well be confused in its intention, and adds little to the genre, but for a silly Halloween scarefest it fits the bill.

Dracula is at Progress Theatre in The Mount in Reading until Saturday 29 October. To book visit www.progresstheatre.co.uk

I was invited to review Dracula so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.

Review: The Long and The Short and The Tall at Progress Theatre

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The company of soldiers in their hut in the jungle. Photo by Mandy King.
The company of soldiers in their hut in the jungle. Photo by Mandy King.

Conveying the magnitude of war on stage is a huge task but Progress Theatre has created a fantastically atmospheric production in their version of Willis Hall’s The Long and The Short and The Tall.

Set in British Malaya in the middle of World War II, the play centres around a group of British soldiers who come across a small, abandoned cabin in the jungle. While the soldiers rest and wait for the best time to head back to base camp, an Japanese soldier arrives, and the men find themselves confronted with fresh horrors.

Set designers Tony Travis and Matt Tully (the latter also doubles as director), have created a brilliant piece of staging with the entire space take up by the inside of the wooden-panelled hut – complete with cobwebs, cargo boxes and strong lighting which makes it feel dense and hot, as it should.

All we can see of the outside is through two windows, framed by foliage, but through masterful story-telling we come to believe in a whole jungle beyond the door, with the Japanese army inching ever closer. The tension and pace of the piece is superb – the crackling radio is used to particularly great effect – and director Tully gradually builds the fear of what lies beyond the hut, but also what the men find themselves confronted with inside.

The men hide, ready to capture the Japanese soldier. Photos by Mandy King.
The men hide, ready to capture the Japanese soldier. Photos by Mandy King.

Hall creates a powerful image of the war, with this small company of men reflecting the helplessness, fear, chaos and confusion. We are reminded that these fighting machines with their knives and guns have families at home, but so too does the Japanese prisoner who pulls photographs of a wife and children from his wallet.

The exploration of humanity, shown in the soldiers’ increasingly panicked behaviour towards their prisoner is heartbreaking, and Kevin Copping gives a remarkable transformation as Private ‘Bammo’ Bamforth. An arrogant, smart-talking, loud-mouth in the first half, Bammo becomes an unlikely point of hope in the second.

Each soldier has his own motivations, his own fears and morals, and the cast capture the individuality of each man in the company well. Peter Cook as Sergeant Mitchem is a strong and convincing leader, but really as lost as any of his men, while the rage in Corporal Edward Johnstone (Craig Daniels), is alarming, surely not just a product of war?

Bammo steps in to protect the Japanese soldier. Photos by Mandy King.
Bammo steps in to protect the Japanese soldier. Photos by Mandy King.

Macleish (Dylan Yates) and Taff (Brett Davis), are perhaps a little stereotypical in their Scottish/Welsh traits, but at the same time Hall makes a point on the universality of war, and while Macleish brings a brooding sense of duty, Evans’ has such friendly, optimistic expressions, you both warm to and pity him.

Smith (Daniel Brown) and Whitaker (Josh Boden) make up the rest of the company, both trying to get by but inevitably trapped in the midst of this unthinkable war.

Their prisoner, played by the brilliant Adrian Tang whose fearful expressions make us wince in solidarity, holds a mirror up to their own situation – each as helpless as another.

While the grim reality of war is vivid, there are plenty of light moments in the banter the men share. And it is exactly that humour and playfulness which warms us to the men, and makes the potential danger beyond the hut so much more horrific.

The Long and The Short and The Tall is at Progress Theatre until Saturday, 17 September. To book visit www.progresstheatre.co.uk.

I was invited to review the show so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Progress Theatre

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Progress Theatre

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It’s unlikely you’ll find a more fitting setting for A Midsummer Night’s Dream than Caversham Court Gardens.

Each summer Progress Theatre sets up its stage on the banks of the River Thames for Reading Open Air Shakespeare, but none of the Bard’s plays could be better suited to the setting than his tale of woodland mischief and fairy folk.

With a simple stage set up underneath a tall tree, and a glimmer of late-evening sunlight poking through the leafy canopy, the scene felt authentic – even before the fairies appeared with the billowing silk suits and painted faces.

And directors Dorothy Gilbert and Chris Moran have made full use of their space, letting the fairies roam amongst the audience, and almost giving us a 360 experience as we see our lovers coming to the stage from a distance.

midsummer

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s best known works, a tale of love and silliness, with four Athenian lovers at its centre.

All four of the lovers gave strong performances, their changing affections and heartfelt declarations all thoroughly convincing. Amy Rushent sparkled as Hermia, playing both the dreamy lover, and scorned woman wonderfully and her wrangling with Helena (Tasha Marks) brought plenty of laughs as she scowled, stomped and clawed at her rival.

Alongside the tale of our lovers we have The Mechanicals, the craftsmen who are rehearsing for a play, to be performed for the Duke of Athens, Theseus (John Gonzalez) and his bride-to-be Hippolyta (Mandhy Senewiratne). Alex McCubbin made for a fantastic Bottom, a brilliant blend of ego and idiocy, and a scene where he called upon the fairies to itch his donkey ears was particularly inspired. Julia Chapman as Queen of the Fairies, Titania, was also brilliant in her unfailing adoration of the donkey-eared buffoon.

Punctuating what felt like quite a traditional interpretation of the play, were songs and dance sequences, which offered something a little different, with a clanking, whirring soundtrack for The Mechanicals and a hint of the Orient for the fairies’ dance sequences. Progress Theatre has put its own stamp on the work, and has created a fun and lively show.

While the setting at Caversham Court looked beautiful, it did make for some sound challenges, and at times it was difficult to hear some of the cast. Julia Chapman as Titania, and Alex McCubbin as Bottom, both projected loudly and clearly, and other cast members may do well to follow their example.

But full credit must go to the entire company for carrying on with gusto, despite a pouring shower which descended for most of the first half. Of course, the entire audience pulled up their hoods, and grimaced through the rain, but the cast, truly deserving of the Shakespearean name ‘players’, held their heads high and made sure it was a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable experience for all.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at Caversham Court Gardens in Caversham from now until Saturday, 23 July. Tickets are £18, £16 concessions. To book visit www.readingopenair.com.

I was invited to press night so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.

 

Review: Suddenly Last Summer at Progress Theatre

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Taking on any of Tennessee Williams’ complex, tragic female characters is a tall order for an actress, but you never would have known it watching Progress Theatre newcomer Rebecca Douglas last night.

Stepping into the role of the fragile Catherine Holly, driven to the very edge of her sanity by the terrible things she has witnessed, Rebecca marked herself as one to watch. And not just in Reading, but far beyond too.

Speaking in a faultless South American accent she drifted on to the stage ethereally, trembling and visibly broken, despite her beautiful dress.

The scene had been set by Mrs Venable, played by Progress stalwart Liz Carroll, as she explained to the doctor (Dan Brown) that she was due to meet her niece, Catherine, who she held responsible for the death of her son Sebastian. Catherine had been in the care of an institution since Sebastian’s death with Mrs Venable desperate for her to stop telling the awful ‘untruths’ about how Sebastian died.

Dangling Sebastian’s death before the audience, Williams builds his story beautifully, and director Laura Barns set the perfect pace, gradually heightening both tension and curiosity before a terrific crescendo.

Liz Carroll was fantastic as Mrs Venable, her crisp and vengeful exterior hiding overwhelming denial, which made us both sympathise with and despise her in equal measure. The bystanders – Catherine’s mother (Alison Hill), her brother George (Alexander Hobbs), her nurse (Tara O’Connot) and Mrs Venables’ maid (Nanette Naude) – intensified the situation, their purpose as ‘carers’ seemingly foggy as they kept their own interests at hand. It was never clear quite whether they held Catherine’s best interests at heart and it drew us even further to this lonely, desperate woman, and the terrible things she has been privy to.

And as Catherine began to tell her story, that was where Rebecca really took flight, giving a gut-wrenching performance. It may only be her first step onto the Progress Theatre stage, but it will be exciting to see where this remarkable talent goes next.

Suddenly Last Summer is at Progress Theatre in The Mount, Reading, until Saturday 21 May. Tickets are £12, £10 concessions. To book visit www.progresstheatre.co.uk

I was invited to review Suddenly Last Summer so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.

The month in theatre: May

Generally theatre goes a bit quiet over the summer.

Theatre companies head off to Scotland for the Edinburgh Fringe and audiences are either away on summer holidays, or just choosing to spend their time outdoors, soaking up the sun on warm days like today.

But it doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to check out in the local area, and particularly now, before we hit peak holiday season, and while a lot of companies are doing their Edinburgh previews before heading off to the Fringe.

And that brings me nicely into the first of this month’s ones to watch…

Edinburgh Fringe-Fest – South Hill Park. Throughout May.

1972: The Future of Sex
1972: The Future of Sex

South Hill Park is pretty much the perfect place to go to get a taster of the Edinburgh Fringe. Whether you’re heading up to Scotland as an audience member in August and want to get in the spirit early, or you’d just like to catch a glimpse of exciting theatre a little closer to home, this is an ideal opportunity. Throughout May the theatre is showcasing some of the best talent which came out of last year’s Fringe. On the bill are some really intriguing and original sounding shows, like Going Viral by ARC Stockton on 11 May, James Seabright’s What Would Spock Do? on 17 May, and 1972: The Future of Sex by The Wardrobe Ensemble on 25 May.

Rebellious Acts – South Street Arts Centre. 14 May.

Rebellious Acts

Female Arts magazine is celebrating its 5th birthday – and it’s doing so in style. The online magazine aims to promote gender equality in the arts, and celebrates the talented, inspiring, and downright brilliant women in the industry. Rebellious Acts will feature rehearsed readings of short plays by female playwrights followed by Kate Saffin’s Isobel’s War, which follows a young woman who defies expectations to manage a pair of boats and 50 tons of cargo in WW2. There will also be a post-show discussion about women in theatre and Female Arts is also running two writing workshops on 13 May and 14 May, which will look at reviewing and playwriting respectively. (The playwriting session is just for women). Both workshops are free but you do need to book. Visit www.femalearts.com for all the details.

Handle with Care by Dante or Die. Lock’n’Store on the A33 Relief Road in Reading. 19-22 May.

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As a big fan of site-specific theatre, and Dante or Die theatre company, I cannot wait to see Handle with Care. Dante or Die is the company which produced the brilliant show I Do (which is returning to Reading in July too), and I’m so excited to see their latest venture. Handle with Care takes place in the corridors of Lock’n’Store in Reading, and follows a young woman, Zoe, as she gets older, looking at the objects she acquires during her life, and exploring the meanings we place on everyday items.

Shout! The Mod Musical – South Hill Park. 30th May.

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Shout! The Mod Musical sounds like a really fun production. There are some real South Hill Park stalwarts involved including Lisa Renals who was in SHP’s fantastic production of Oliver!, Sophie Spencer who was in Blood Brothers, and Brad Clapson, who is choreographer, having played the most hilarious version of the Magic Mirror in Snow White a few years ago. The show follows four women in London in the 1960s and features a get-your-dancing-shoes-on soundtrack of 60s hits like Son of a Preacher Man and You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.

Suddenly Last Summer – Progress Theatre. 16-21 May.

progressProgress Theatre knows how to do hard-hitting theatre. Take Trainspotting or Killer Joe, and you’ll get an idea of how this is a company which is not afraid of tackling challenging themes. Suddenly Last Summer follows a girl called Catharine Holly who has been the only witness to her cousin’s shocking death. Catharine is taken into a New Orleans garden to speak to a family who is eager for her to deny the terrible tale she has told. This sounds like an intriguing show, and being a big fan of Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, I’m looking forward to seeing more of his work.

Review: Stones in his Pockets at Progress Theatre

Review: Stones in his Pockets at Progress Theatre

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Chris Hoult and Owen Goode play an impressive 15 characters between them
Chris Hoult and Owen Goode in Stones in His Pockets. Photos:Richard Brown

The first thing to note about Stones in His Pockets is the sheer logistical nightmare it must be to stage.

Two actors play all 15 characters, switching from one to the next with barely a breath in between.

There’s little in the way of costume to help, just a hat here or a pair of imaginary high-heels there, so it’s all down to the two actors to drive the piece forward.

And it’s no surprise therefore that director John Goodman has chosen two experienced Progress talents to lead the charge.

Chris Hoult and Owen Goode work through their menagerie of roles marvellously, moving from one to the next at pace.

Their principle characters, Charlie Conlon and Jake Quinn, are two Irishmen who enrol as extras when a big-budget Hollywood movie comes to film in their village.

With a flirtatious movie star at its centre, who sets her sights on Jake, and a money-hungry studio behind it, will the production help the villagers live out their American dreams, or will it destroy the things they hold dear?

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Chris makes a hilarious switch from nice but dim Irish man Charlie to larger-than-life American actress Caroline Giovanni, with enough coquettish smiles to make Monroe proud.

For the most part each character is well defined – a stoop and cap marks old Irishman Mickey, and tottering heels and walkie talkie define a production assistant brilliantly – but a few could be made more of, like the vocal coach who appears only briefly, and Jock the gruff security guard. A few accents could also be tighter, but it’s a minor gripe when there is so much to juggle.

Set in County Kerry, the piece captures the feel of rural Irish life wonderfully, from field to pub, with just a sparse smattering of props and set.

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And there are plenty of laughs to be had throughout, particularly as Caroline makes her moves on Jake, and through a wonderful Irish dancing scene.

Goodman makes a bold change of pace in the second half, drawing out some of the heavier themes of the play and making us look at this American invasion through darker glasses.

Stones in his Pockets is ultimately a piece which impresses through its logistics, entertains through its humour and leaves a lasting impression with its sentiment.

Stones in his Pockets is at Progress Theatre until Saturday, 16 April. Tickets are £12. Visit www.progresstheatre.co.uk

I was invited to press night so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.

Review: Steel Magnolias at Progress Theatre

Review: Steel Magnolias at Progress Theatre

Threeandahalf

Annelle (Leanne Osborne) and Truvy (Chris Moran) work their magic on M'Lynn (Liz Paulo) and Shelby (Samantha Bessant)
Annelle (Leanne Osborne) and Truvy (Chris Moran) work their magic on M’Lynn (Liz Paulo) and Shelby (Samantha Bessant). Photos by Aidan Moran.

Female friendship is a powerful thing and art has always been obsessed by it.

Whether in the ‘girl power’ explosion of the 90s, Lena Dunham’s Girls todayor Robert Harling’s 1987 play Steel Magnolias, that unshakeable bond has remained a source of intrigue, and often of humour.

Inspired by the true story of Harling’s sister Susan, Steel Magnolias explores the friendship of six women living in South America. Brought together at the hair salon of Truvy Jones (where better to gossip than the hairdressers?), they share their excited highs – love, weddings, babies – and their tragic lows.

It is a story both brimming with vitality, and underlined with pathos, and it is a balance Progress Theatre director Aidan Moran strikes just right.

When I saw the show it was in dress rehearsal stage, so a little rough around the edges, but if this is what it is like unpolished, audiences on opening night are in for a treat. There are South American accents which could do with a little sharpening, but it’s easily forgiveable among a cast who put so much into their performances.

Chris Moran as Truvy is warm and welcoming, comforting the women who walk into her salon and almost taking a step back to allow their stories to shine.

Friendships blossom in Truvy's salon
Friendships blossom in Truvy’s salon

Truvy’s salon is also in need of a mention before we go any further. Director Aidan has doubled up as set designer and it is a fantastic, working creation, with products lined on shelves, swivel chairs and two layers of staging. The sheer feat of fixing curlers and working hair into a up do, while keeping pace with lines, is to be applauded, and both Chris and Leanne Obsborne as Annelle, pull it off spectacularly.

Annelle is the new girl in town, trying to escape a difficult past. As the two young women in the story, we see her and Shelby (Samantha Bessant) side by side, similar lives moving in different ways. Both actresses are enjoyable to watch, their youthful optimism a wonderful contrast to the curmudgeonly Ouiser (Linda Bostock).

This is a story which shows women and friendship across all ages, and Carole Hewitt also brings a wonderful wit as widower Clairee, although it would be nice to see a bit more sparring between Ouiser and Clairee. There is gentle teasing allowed by the script but more friendly elbow jabs and cheeky expressions could take the humour to the next level.

Shelby (Samantha Bessant) with her mother M'Lynn (Liz Paulo)
Shelby (Samantha Bessant) with her mother M’Lynn (Liz Paulo)

Liz Paulo as M’Lynn, completes the set of six, and she brings the most heart-wrenching scene of the piece. While the second act doesn’t hold back on the difficult subjects, for it to really make us reach for the tissues, the relationships of those women need to be dialled up a little. They are each others’ confidants and comforters, and that love needs to be a little more bold.

Having seen a dress rehearsal, I am in no doubt that as these actresses spend more time on stage together, and wear in the shoes of their characters, those friendship will cement further. And with that bond at its heart, Steel Magnolias will be even more heart-warming than it already is.

Steel Magnolias is at Progress Theatre from Monday, 15 February to, Saturday, 20 February. To book visit www.progresstheatre.co.uk.

I was invited to see Steel Magnolias so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.

Review: Bronte at Progress Theatre

Review: Bronte at Progress Theatre

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(Back Row) Cara Broadhurst, Nichola Scofield and Marie French. (Front) Clare Bray and Dean Lamb. Photos by Richard Brown.
(Back) Cara Broadhurst, Nichola Scofield and Marie French. (Front) Clare Bray and Dean Lamb. Photos by Richard Brown.

With poverty, death and heartbreak, the lives of the Bronte sisters are every bit as fascinating and tumultuous as the characters in their famous novels.

And it is the skill at which writer Polly Teale blends these two worlds – the fiction and reality – which make Bronte such a compelling watch.

Telling the story of the Bronte sisters, living in a Yorkshire village with their father and brother, and their attempts to write and be published, the piece creates a powerful snapshot of how their acclaimed works came to be.

Incidents in their lives are subtly mirrored in their stories, and a spectre wonders in and out of scenes, connecting the cold, rural, Yorkshire moors, with the ethereal escapism of their imaginations.

Progress newcomer Clare Bray is sensational as the ghostly Mrs Rochester/Cathy figure, cackling manically and floating in with a stream of feathers, to create this dream-like, haunting figure.

Nichola Schofield, Cara Broadhurst and Marie French as the Bronte sisters
Nichola Schofield, Cara Broadhurst and Marie French as the Bronte sisters

Cara Broadhurst (Charlotte), Nicola Schofield (Emily) and Marie French (as the lesser known Bronte sister Anne), make a strong trio as the poor but determined writers. And writers they were, rather than wives or mothers, which is what made their place in 19th century England so unique.

The darker elements of their lives are introduced gently, with hints of rivalry and disapproval between the sisters offered subtly, in contrast to their brother Branwell whose downfall into alcoholism and debt is loud and distressing. Dean Lamb is fantastic as the troubled brother, his passions wild and dramatic, again allowing us to guess at how he played his part in the inspiration for his sisters’ characters.

Director Steph Weller secured the rights to perform Bronte for free after successfully entering Nick Hern’s Plays to Perform competition, and every detail appears to have been carefully considered as a consequence.

Marie French, Cara Broadhurst, Dean Lamb and Nicola Schofield
Marie French, Cara Broadhurst, Dean Lamb and Nicola Schofield

Costume and staging is wonderful, creating a real sense of the cold, harsh life on the moors, and there is clever physical representation of the literary side of the sister’s life.

This is a production which is playing with technique and imagination, and it is all the better for it. The balance of fiction and reality is cleverly executed through and it provides a fascinating insight into the lives of women behind the novels.

Bronte is at Progress Theatre in the Mount, Reading, from Monday, 9 November to Saturday, 14 November. To book visit www.progresstheatre.co.uk.

I was invited to press night so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.

Review: Two-Way Mirror at Progress Theatre

Review: Two-Way Mirror at Progress Theatre

Threestars

Julia Chapman and Anthony Travis. Photo by Richard Brown
Julia Chapman and Anthony Travis. Photo by Richard Brown

It is sometimes the case that a play is made far richer by its context and that is certainly true for Two-Way Mirror.

To watch it without any knowledge of Arthur Miller’s background, and in particular his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, would be to have only half the story.

Written 20 years after her death, the pieces which make up this double bill – Elegy for a Lady and Some Kind of Love Story – are clearly influenced by the couple’s relationship.

Marilyn is everywhere on the stage, even though she is never part of the play, and Progress Theatre newcomer Julia Chapman does a sterling job at hinting of Marilyn through her soft, candyfloss voice, and her sultry, flirtatious body language.

But with such a rich context lurking behind it, it’s hard for the stories to really stand out.

Some Kind of Love Story, which tells the story of a detective visiting a prostitute who has some information on an historic case he has worked on, feels ultimately frustrating.

Characters are well developed, with Anthony Travis making a rather limp, tired detective as Tom O’Toole, enthralled by desire but determined to see his case through. Chapman is equally strong as Angela, switching persona effortlessly to create the image of a troubled woman with a secret to hide. But there lies the problem. It feels as if the dialogue goes around and around without ever really getting to the crux of Angela’s secret or the case. We learn about her history, and feel sympathy for her, but there is an ultimate frustration that things never seem to progress.

When there are moments of action, and when it feels like we’re getting somewhere, the pace picks up and there is a real burst of intrigue but the pay off never feels worth it.

Perhaps it is a frustration Miller felt about his relationship with Marilyn, which he has translated perfectly to the stage but without knowing a deeper history it’s hard to tell.

Elegy for a Lady is much more appealing. The story of a man, visiting a boutique to buy a gift for his dying mistress, who strikes up a lengthy conversation with the owner of the shop. The setting is calm, quiet, and it’s a tentative story which builds wonderfully. There is a bubbling tension running through every word and movement, and it makes for compelling viewing.

The contrast between each is powerful, and it allows for many questions about how Miller saw his relationship change over the decade they were together. But perhaps it is that real story which is more compelling than fiction here.

Two-Way Mirror is at Progress Theatre in The Mount, Reading from Monday, 21 September, to Saturday, 26 September. Tickets are £12 adults, £10 concessions. Visit www.progresstheatre.co.uk.

I was invited to press night so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.