“Give me a child until he is 7 . . .”
I attended HADIT's latest production ready for a gentle, relaxing pre-Christmas knockabout – some laughs, a few carols. It didn't turn out that way. Like flint itself, Tim Firth's The Flint St Nativity Flint Street Nativity is hard, sharp, and some sparks were certainly created. The joys and woes of putting on a kiddies’ Nativity are highlighted in this well observed play that is funny, thought provoking and, at times, emotionally challenging.
The cast of adults portray a class of 7-year-olds all playing their parts for Mrs Horrocks, the teacher who is never seen but is ever present.
Jenny Bennett, the blue-eyed girl, always ready with her answers and over keen to please, was convincingly played by Jenni Argent. She gets the plum role of Mary of course. Jenny is supported (not really) by Ryan as Joseph (wonderfully played by Paul Archer). Unfortunately, Ryan is easily distracted and lives in his own fantasy sports world. He is dragged around from inn to inn by Jenny but he's far more interested in impressing his parents in the audience than acquiring shelter or impending fatherhood. Poor Jenny is also challenged throughout by school bully and arch manipulator Ashley (skilfully played by Jo Elliott). Intent on stealing Jenny's thunder with her alternative Jesus, Ashley's ambition knows no bounds, culminating in a sinister climax where the little Lord Jesus lays down his sweet head, which then rolls regally downstage towards the front row. A ‘heady’ yet somewhat disturbing mix of comedy and tragedy.
Other participants include Zoe (First Shepherd), the blunt talking, unfeeling farmer’s daughter, unaware of the power of words and of their consequences. There's no real malice, just unfettered, non-P.C. straight talking. A role excellently played by Jane Bramwell and well-supported by her side-kick, the almost silent Judith Coates. We were also treated to an interstellar 'other worldly' performance from Martin Chapman as Marcus, a space nut who wishes for a more authentic portrayal of the Star of Bethlehem. He is pestered throughout by the sinister Bradley (a lurking Nick Williams in Norman Bates mode). Marcus escapes his everyday troubles and gets to live out his 'far out' fantasy in a climactic scene involving an escapee from the Nature table blown up to monster proportions on the overhead projector.
The Flint Street children’s production is held together (kind of) by the over anxious Tim as narrator (movingly played by Tim Smallwood) just hoping to please and not be a disappointment, with parental difficulties at home never too far from his mind. Other moving performances were given by Fiona Johnson as the speech impaired Annie and Pushpita Mukherjee as Shamima, daughter of a go-ahead pushy mother, friends and not friends (as allegiances shift) with Jess (Cheryl Mulvey), the emotional ‘round lass’ who just yearns for acceptance. And we mustn't forget to give a nod to the ‘donkey’. How could we forget Andrew (sensitively played by Jon Haddock) the foul-mouthed kid from the special unit who doubles as counsellor and all round ‘wise ass’.
In the finale, we get to meet the parents over mulled wine and nibbles.
‘Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man’. Aristotle's words pre-date Christ but are just as poignant today. At the soirée, we get some clues as to why the kids are as they are, an insight into their values, dreams and insecurities. Are the kids to blame for their bluntness, indiscretions, lack of compassion? This is emotion in the raw – children laid bare, with no decorations, tinsel or trimmings, a tree before it is dressed to impress, a turkey plucked and stuffed but not yet cooked. Through their parents, we get a glimpse of what adulthood may hold for these young ‘luvvies’, for better or worse. The future is unknown but full of dangers, hope and possibilities.
David Garwes on keyboards competently provided the musical thread that allowed each child (and adult) to share with us their innermost thoughts and concerns.
HADIT do not shy away from difficult productions and this is another fine example of a challenging play that was well produced, well acted and well received, leaving in the air the inevitable question . . . ‘what's next?’
CARRY ON ROMPING: HADIT PERFORMS HABEAS CORPUS
They say that if you remember the 1960s, you weren’t there! In Habeas Corpus, Alan Bennett takes us back to an era of Mondrian-print mini-dresses, white boots, Bakelite phones and ‘the permissive society’.
The play focuses on womanising GP, Arthur Wicksteed (played with panache by Paul Archer) and his formidable wife, Muriel (Sheree Smallwood on good form). Muriel has the hots for the vertically challenged, insufferably arrogant Sir Percy Shorter (Nick Williams). The Wicksteeds have a spotty, hypochondriac son, Dennis (Martin Chapman). Step into the mix: posh, pregnant Felicity Rumpers (played with delicious dreaminess by Jenni Argent), who needs to marry someone to escape the wrath of her mother, Lady Rumpers (Judith Coates in Lady Bracknell mode). Felicity fixates on Dennis who, though terminally ill, is not averse to a spot of ‘rumper-tumpty’.
Wicksteed’s sister, Connie, is tired of her ironing board chest and orders a pair of mammoth mammaries by mail. These transform her from sad spinster to sex bomb – a transition well effected by Fiona Johnston. Enter Mr Shanks, who comes to check on his product, and he has his hands full in no time (Tim Smallwood: a study in blinking bewilderment).
Most of the characters seem determined to get their rocks off, even the aptly named Canon Throbbing (Jon Haddock conveying a sort of bonkers zeal). Commenting on the mayhem in cutting couplets is Mrs Swabb, cleaner, ‘behaviourist and busy-body’. In Hilda Ogden get-up, Pat Gillatt gave a strong performance with even more facial expressions than Nadiya from Bake-Off. In the middle of all the goings-on, Mr Purdue, Wicksteed’s depressive patient, is ineptly trying to kill himself – for example, attempting to gas himself in an electric oven or taking an overdose (of laxatives). Tony Evans got his teeth into this part, and was a total hoot.
Habeas Corpus includes many ingredients of farce: misunderstandings, mistakes (or should that be boobs?), partner swapping, crazy revelations (Lady Rumpers has previously had a ‘mad magenta moment’ with Sir Percy) and dropped trousers. It depends on split-second timing, sharp delivery of one-liners, and quick-fire pace. It is to the company’s credit that on the whole they kept up momentum. I liked the stripped-down set, and there was some inventive staging.
Ultimately, Bennett uses a frothy genre to explore human frailty, the tyranny of the flesh and the ever-presence of death … or, to give Mrs Swabb the last word: ‘the world is just an abattoir/ for our rotting lumps of meat.’
A Chorus of Disapproval by Alan Ayckbourn
Fans of playwright Alan Ayckbourn (and I am one) know that they can expect: stylish plotting; elements of farce including misunderstandings and confusions; sparkling dialogue and quirky characters. He shines his spotlight on the shenanigans of the middles classes: their fractured relationships, hypocrisies and self-delusions. Above all, he provides rich entertainment and -- to quote Our Cilla -- ‘a lorra, lorra laughs’. HADIT’s production of A Chorus of Disapproval did not disappoint. By the interval, I had laughed so much I ached.
The play focuses on the Pendon Amateur Light Operatic Society (PALOS). A rich seam of comedy is mined by the behaviour of the company at rehearsals. They fluff lines, walk off when they should be on and play politics with the casting. At times, more drama is going on off-stage than in their production. I counted at least four affairs and two fights! Paul Archer plays the exasperated director Dafydd ap Llewellyn. At one stage he says he wishes that his cast were professionals, as then he could sack them all.
I am sure that HADIT director Carolyn Garwes had no such thoughts. She needed a strong actor to play Dafydd to hold things together and Paul, bounding with manic energy, fulfilled that role brilliantly. I loved the idea that Dafydd’s last production, The Sound of Music, incorporated nuns on trampolines and, yes, limbs were broken. Hannah, his long-suffering, ‘all-purpose Swiss army’ wife is played with quiet desperation by Jenni Argent. Dafydd describes his wife as being like a freezer; but it only takes the arrival of shy newcomer to the company, Guy Jones, to thaw her out. Indeed the effect of Guy (played with nervous naivety by Tim Smallwood) has a similar effect on the females of the company to that of the actor playing Poldark on the female population of the UK. It is not long before he is invited round to the house of the Hubbards who, unbeknown to him, are ‘swingers’. Asked to bring a female partner, he invites a geriatric chum, much to Ian Hubbard’s horror. (Nice sleazy performance from Martin Chapman.) Meanwhile, fuelled on tequila slammers, Fay Hubbard tells Guy that she is prepared to do anything except something cruel. Misunderstanding, Guy says: ‘You mean like veal?’ Fay is played by Jo Elliott; the saucy seductress from Cider with Rosie turns voracious vamp twinkling knowingly and stating suggestively what ‘VEAL’ could stand for (Voracious Exuberant Acrobatic Lover). She sizzles so much on stage, she is almost a fire hazard. It is not long before she leads Guy by the tie to her boudoir like a calf to the slaughter. This was one of my favourite scenes. Another was where Dafydd is opening his heart to Guy about the coldness of his wife and Rebecca Huntley-Pike enters to tell him that the tannoy is switched on! (Good timing from Sheree Smallwood.)
Alan Ayckbourn successfully incorporates short scenes and songs from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, which PALOS are performing. In both plays, the characters are ‘on the make’ in more ways than one. He neatly parallels aspects of the modern plot and themes: for example, there is a lot of bribery and corruption going on about a piece of land and then Rob Willing sings in fine tenor about the dishonesty of lawyers. Linda Washbrook (Jane Bramwell) and publican’s daughter Bridget Baines (a feisty performance from Fiona Johnston) squabble over the young man in the company, Crispin Usher, mirroring the rivalry of Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit over Macheath in the 1728 musical.
Credit must be given to musical director David Garwes. HADIT is not a musical society and yet the quality of the singing was impressive. Jon Haddock (headhunted from Castleton, I believe) sang in a wonderful deep voice. There were beautiful duets between Jane Bramwell and Jenni Argent, and I enjoyed the song sung by Val Johnson, Nick Williams and Rob Willing.
I must also congratulate Christine Bell who with her marvellous costumes transformed desperate housewives into doxies and homely husbands into highwaymen. Make-up was (beauty) spot on!
During the course of rehearsals Guy graduates from the character of Crook-fingered Jack (one line only) to the star of the show, Macheath. A happy ending is imposed as Macheath avoids the noose. For the members of PALOS, things are not so clear-cut; their personal lives are in pieces.
This was an ambitious choice of play for HADIT, but they rose to the challenge. What next? I know, under Carolyn’s careful guidance, it won’t be nuns on trampolines!