Review: The Canterbury Tales at Tower Theatre

For someone who spends a lot of time sitting on stationary trains (and almost missed the start of this show because of a public transport delay), the premise of Tower Theatre’s new production of The Canterbury Tales is all too familiar. A group of passengers stranded on a train to Canterbury West – among them a soldier (To√Īi Madja), a musician (Paul Willcocks), a librarian (Sarah Bower), a handywoman (Emily Carmichael) and a lawyer (Alistair Maydon) – are encouraged by the train guard (Alexa Wall) to turn to storytelling to pass the time, with each of them competing for the audience’s winning vote at the end of the evening.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Directed by Angharad Ormond, the resulting collection of tales is a slightly disjointed but wholly entertaining evening, alternating between comedy and tragedy, and with no shortage of topical commentary; though the tales are all based on stories written centuries ago, it doesn’t take too much of a twist to bring some of them bang up to date. Like Constance, the central character in the lawyer’s story, who’s forced to flee her home and later becomes the sole survivor of a slaughter at the hands of religious extremists; Griselda (Arabella Hornby), of the librarian’s tale, who’s trapped in an emotionally abusive marriage; or Alice (Deborah Ley), better known as the Wife of Bath, who’s been married five times but has never managed to achieve the one thing she really wants – gender equality. The production makes no secret of its political orientation in these moments, with cast members reciting key facts and headlines relating to the refugee crisis, and Alice referencing recent news from Alabama in her plea for women’s rights.

Unsurprisingly, this means that there are points in the production where things get very dark indeed, but luckily there’s also plenty of humour – much of it quite cheeky – to lighten the mood. Both the bookie (Ryan Williams) and the soldier entertain their audience with stories about two men chasing the same woman, set centuries apart but both with predictably disastrous results. The priest (Paul Graves), meanwhile, brings the evening to a cheery musical conclusion with his cautionary tale about the proud rooster Chauntecleer, who learns the dangers of falling for flattery.

Although each story only has one narrator, the production is a great example of ensemble performance, incorporating physical theatre, sign language and clowning at various points. Music also plays an important part in the show, whether it’s a cappella 60s hits, haunting folk melodies or tongue-in-cheek opera, and this adds an extra dimension to an already lively production, with strong vocals and harmonies from the whole cast and musical accompaniment provided by the multi-talented Paul Willcocks.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Parts of the show have a slightly improvised feel, and with more characters than stories I did leave wondering if a different combination of tales might be told each night – if so, this would be another clever twist (and would also keep the cast on their toes). Whether or not that’s true, though, this new take on The Canterbury Tales brings Chaucer well and truly into the 21st century, and is certainly a lot more accessible than the dry text most of us will remember studying at school. It’s great fun, slightly bonkers and well worth a visit.

The Canterbury Tales is at Tower Theatre until 20th July.

Review: The Ladykillers at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Based on William Rose’s 1955 movie, The Ladykillers was adapted for the stage by Graham Linehan in 2011. A hilariously over the top and extremely British slapstick comedy, the play’s staged with great exuberance at the Gatehouse by the always entertaining Tower Theatre Company.

The story behind The Ladykillers is almost as much fun as the plot itself, which apparently came to screenwriter William Rose in a dream; he woke up in the middle of the night and told his wife, then went back to sleep – while she got up and wrote it all down so that she could remind him in the morning.

Photo credit: David Sprecher

Mrs Wilberforce is a little old lady who lives alone with her ailing parrot, General Gordon. When she rents her upstairs room to what she thinks is a group of classical musicians, little does she know they’re actually robbers planning a heist at Kings Cross. This is quite surprising – partly because Mrs Wilberforce usually sees conspiracy theories everywhere, but also because the eccentric Professor Marcus and his gang are particularly inept criminals. The stage is set for chaos, and this production certainly delivers – even the set seemed to be in on the joke, with Mrs Wilberforce’s front door frequently swinging open of its own accord.

That little issue aside, the set is impressive; stretching the full length of the substantial stage area at the Gatehouse, it allows us to see simultaneously into Mrs Wilberforce’s front room, the upstairs room and even, briefly, on to the roof. Everything in the house is a bit lop-sided (Mrs W unfortunately suffers from subsidence), and its proximity to the nearby railway line presents various comic opportunities in both set design and storyline.

The cast have a lot of fun with their characters, all of whom are entirely ridiculous in their own way. Alison Liney leads the way as the clueless yet indomitable Mrs Wilberforce, while Ed Malcomson channels Basil Fawlty as the artist and criminal “mastermind” Professor Marcus, desperately trying to hold his plan together despite the best efforts of his incompetent colleagues. Dan Usztan’s nice but dim One Round is a delight, and there’s some enjoyable physical comedy from pill-popping Harry, played by Samuel Currie-Smith. Completing the gang of misfits are Alex T Hornby as Louis, a brooding Romanian hitman, and Michael Bettell as nervous wreck (and closet cross-dresser), the Major.

Photo credit: David Sprecher

Like most farces, many of the jokes – and the play’s ending – can be anticipated, but that doesn’t make them any less fun to watch. There are also a few enjoyable digs at artistic pretension and the British obsession with class and social appearances (which landed particularly well with the North London audience). The Ladykillers is perfect light-hearted evening entertainment, with a reminder that there’s a little good in the worst of men – though it may just turn out to be their downfall.


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Review: Much Ado About Nothing at the Bridewell Theatre

The Tower Theatre Company begins each performance with an announcement of their next production – which is usually only a week or two (if that) in the future; in addition to this week’s Much Ado About Nothing, they’ve got four more plays¬†lined up between now and mid-July.¬†Yet even with such a hectic schedule, the quality of each production¬†remains consistently high.

Perhaps it helps in this case that the Tower Theatre are no strangers to Much Ado About Nothing; in fact this is their eighth¬†production (the first was way back in 1933). On this occasion, the play is directed by Jean Carr and John Morton¬†with an Austen-esque vibe.¬†This feels rather fitting since all the romantic misunderstandings in the story wouldn’t be out of place in one of Austen’s novels – though I suspect she might have had something to say about Shakespeare’s depiction of Hero; I can’t imagine Elizabeth Bennet forgiving¬†her fianc√© quite so easily for publicly shaming and dumping her at the altar.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

The story revolves around two main plots – that of Beatrice (Sarah Evans) and Benedick (Shane Sweeney), whose constant bickering hides from nobody but themselves¬†the fact that¬†they’re madly in love, and that of Hero (Asma Mani) and Claudio (Paul Isaacs), who fall in love at first sight but whose engagement comes to a swift and unhappy end on the wedding day after Claudio’s tricked into believing she’s been unfaithful. Somehow, in true Shakespeare comedy style, everything still ends happily – thanks largely to the intervention of local constable Dogberry (John Chapman) and his nice but dim band of minions.

In a strong cast, Sarah Evans and Shane Sweeney stand out with¬†excellent comic performances as Beatrice and Benedick; taking obvious delight in their characters’ “merry war” when on stage together, they also have fun individually in the physical scenes as they dive behind screens and pillars to eavesdrop on their friends. Paul Isaacs and Asma Mani are equally well matched as the far too trusting lovers Claudio and Hero, and natural comedian John Chapman is a joy as Dogberry, whose good intentions are matched¬†only by his hilariously terrible¬†vocabulary.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Much Ado is probably one of Shakespeare’s easiest plays to follow, and this straightforward production is extremely accessible and thoroughly entertaining throughout. And if it all gets a bit ridiculous towards the end – well, we can blame Shakespeare for that.¬†The show also looks great and has¬†an infectious energy, the¬†sun-kissed Mediterranean courtyard of Leonato’s home filled with ladies in colourful gowns and gentlemen in military uniform with nothing more pressing to do than sing, dance, fall¬†in love¬†and play matchmaker for their friends. As problematic as some of the gender roles undoubtedly are, and whether or not we subscribe to the view¬†that the solution to all life’s unhappiness is to “get thee a wife”, this is at its heart¬†a feel-good play, and another excellent and highly recommended¬†production from the Tower Theatre.


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Review: The Importance of Being Earnest at the Bridewell Theatre

After a long and stressful day, the Tower Theatre Company’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest was just what the doctor ordered. This absurd little story never fails to tickle¬†me, and makes me curiously proud to be British – especially when done as well as it is here.

The story is probably familiar to most: Jack loves Gwendolen, who seems to return his affection – but only because she thinks his name is Ernest.¬†Meanwhile Gwendolen’s cousin Algernon is setting out to seduce Jack’s ward Cecily – by pretending to be his younger brother, Ernest. Inevitably, the four lovers end up in the same place, pursued by Gwendolen’s mother Lady Bracknell… and chaos, confusion and a good deal of coincidence ensue.

Photo credit: Ruth Anthony
Photo credit: Ruth Anthony

It’s¬†a play that demands to be hammed up, and everything about director Martin Mulgrew’s¬†production is wildly¬†over the top,¬†while remaining perfectly polished. It also boasts a cast who know exactly how to extract maximum laughs from¬†Oscar Wilde’s witty¬†script: Bernard Brennan’s Jack is endearingly awkward, particularly when faced with Helen McGill’s Gwendolen, who’s definitely not backward in coming forward. (The same, incidentally, could be said for Karen Walker’s Miss Prism, who doesn’t try to hide her admiration¬†for¬†local vicar¬†Dr Chasuble, played by Ian Recordon.) Imogen de Ste Croix’s Cecily is pure sweetness with just a hint of steely-eyed bunny boiler; her matter-of-fact account of how she engaged herself to the fictional Ernest three months before meeting him is a highlight. And Murray Deans almost steals the show with his thoroughly eccentric Algernon, whose sudden bursts of silent manic laughter are not so much charming as ever so slightly alarming.

I say he almost steals the show, because Рas in pretty much any production of The Importance of Being Earnest Рthe stage really belongs to the formidable Lady Bracknell, played to perfection here by Helen McCormack. Lady Bracknell gets all the best lines, and McCormack delivers them with relish and expert timing, not to mention a suitably scandalised expression at the prospect of marrying off her daughter to a man who began life in a handbag.

Photo credit: Ruth Anthony
Photo credit: Ruth Anthony

The play has three distinct acts, and Jude Chalk and Bernard Brennan’s set is simple yet effective, adapting with minimal fuss behind a curtain¬†at each of the two short intervals. Costume designer Haidee Elise has also pulled out all the stops to produce some stunning outfits, and not just for the ladies – Algy’s pinstripe blazer is quite a sight to behold.

After their week’s run in London, the Tower Theatre are taking the production to the USA. One can only imagine what Americans make of Wilde’s play, which paints an interesting picture of British high society – although having said that, I quite like the idea that they picture us¬†Brits sitting around eating¬†muffins in moments of crisis. If our friends overseas¬†enjoy the evening half as much as I did, though, they’re in for a good time. Another high quality¬†production from the Tower Theatre, The Importance of Being Earnest is hugely entertaining and quite, quite mad – just as I’m sure its writer intended.


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Review: Doctor Faustus at Theatro Technis

London’s most active amateur theatre company, The Tower Theatre, has been in business for more than 80 years – but shows no sign of getting tired. Their new production of Doctor Faustus at Theatro Technis is dramatic, intense and gripping, and while it may not have Kit Harington in his pants, at least in this version we can all keep track of what’s going on.

Doctor Faustus, or to give Christopher Marlowe’s play its full title, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, is the story of a bored German intellectual, who sells his soul to Lucifer in exchange for 24 years on Earth, the ability to use magic, and the devoted service of the demon Mephistopheles. The years pass, and Faustus becomes famous all over the world – but it’s only when his time begins to run out that he realises what a huge mistake he’s made.

Photo credit: David Sprecher
Photo credit: David Sprecher
Tower Theatre’s production, directed by Lucy Bloxham, is a relatively traditional interpretation of Marlowe’s text, featuring two central performances that wouldn’t look out of place on a professional stage. Jonathon Cooper is charmingly eccentric as Faustus, skilfully embodying every side of the character: the frustrated genius, the cocky celebrity and the terrified dead man walking. It’s hard to feel sympathy for a man who’s entirely responsible for his own downfall, but Cooper’s Faustus is just likeable enough that we can’t help hoping he’ll find a loophole as his final minutes tick away.

He’s joined by Tower Theatre veteran Robert Reeve as Mephistopheles, the demon charged with sweet-talking Faustus into giving up his soul, and then being his constant companion for 24 years until it’s time to collect on the debt. Dressed all in black, Reeve radiates a quiet authority, and it’s clear from his sly grin whenever Faustus isn’t looking who’s really in control of the situation.

The rest of the cast take on multiple roles, most memorably having a bit of fun with the seven deadly sins (in the case of Lust, played by Matt Cranfield, perhaps a bit too much fun). This and a couple of later scenes provide welcome moments of light relief in what is, let’s face it, not exactly the happiest of stories.

Photo credit: David Sprecher
Photo credit: David Sprecher
First-time director Lucy Bloxham makes effective use of the large stage area at Theatro Technis, with multiple entrances (including the one to hell, which is positioned alarmingly close to the audience) and a curtained off area behind which Lucifer himself appears to Faustus. There’s one slightly clunky set change in Act 2, which could benefit from something for the audience to look at while the furniture’s cleared away, but on the whole transitions between scenes are clean and efficient. And the clock that regularly appears to tick down the minutes until Faustus’ downfall is a nice dramatic touch, as is Adam Taylor’s lighting design, which creates a suitably hellish atmosphere throughout.

Once again, The Tower Theatre Company have made it clear that amateur doesn’t have to mean unprofessional or poor quality. Every member of the company volunteers their time and talent for the sheer love of theatre, and that passion shines through in this and every production I’ve seen. Who needs Kit Harington?


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