Wednesday, May 05, 2010

On Saturday Owen and I ventured to the leafy burb that is Richmond. It's another world I tell you... especially down by the green. It makes you wonder how we ever lost the Empire.

Which was all very appropriate as we were there to see a matinee performance of Northern Stage's production of...
The show is always worth a revival so I was keen to see it as I had read good reviews of it during it's tour. Northern Stage is a producing theatre in Newcastle and this was also the first of their productions I had seen.

I also haven't visited the Richmond Theatre for quite a few years - um... 22 to be precise - and it retains it's Victorian charm and deserves more regular attendance. Again it seemed to be the right place to see this show.I had seen the show once before when the National Theatre production played the Roundhouse in 1998. The play is by a far a more poignant experience than Richard Attenborough's overblown film version but this production had some annoying factors that pulled focus from the central message.

I suspect Joan Littlewood, who created and directed the famous 1963 Theatre Workshop production at Stratford East, would have liked the spirit in which the production was mounted although it featured my musical bette-noir - yes the hated idea of actors playing instruments. The trouble with this approach was made apparent quite soon into the production - do you get the best actors for the job - or the best actors who can play an instrument?Sadly time and again one was drawn to the air of am-dram with some of the performers - the show calls for each actor to double/triple up so any inadequacy is soon clear - also for some unknown reason every attempt at a European accent met with the lines becoming incomprehensible.

There were exceptions - I liked Robert Hands, Victoria Elliott, Christopher Price, Thomas Padden and best of all, Gary Kitching as the show's MC and later a coldy detached General Haig. The original production had the show performed by a pierrot troupe which of course suggests the period - as I watched the show I thought how interesting an all-male production might be, played as if by a battalion's theatrical troupe. There was no such theme to this production, just a group of performers.

The show kept the show's device of using projected slides of Western Front photographs, contemporary propaganda posters, etc. to illustrate or counter-point what is happening on the stage as well as the idea of flashing up the progress of the war and more importantly, the total of the casualties for each battle.

The production had the inspired idea of using a News 24-style rolling news banner with - instead of a clock - 19:14, 19:15, etc. Again however this was hampered by the projections being against the brick back wall which made the moving text hard to read and digest. And yet... and yet... despite all this, I still found it a moving, poignant show. The songs - full of either clear-eyed optimism or bleak, cynical despair are a permanent memorial to the fact that the ordinary soldiers were under no illusion what there lot was and after the final news headline with the still-shocking numbers of the dead of the 1914-18 war has rolled by and the company sing the re-written version of Jerome Kern's THEY DIDN'T BELIEVE ME, it's impossible not to shed a tear...

"And when they ask us, how dangerous it was,

Oh, we'll never tell them, no, we'll never tell them
We spent our pay in some cafe,
And fought wild women night and day,
'Twas the cushiest job we ever had.

And when they ask us, and they're certainly going to ask us,
The reason why we didn't win the Croix de Guerre,
Oh, we'll never tell them, oh, we'll never tell them
There was a front, but damned if we knew where."

For all it's flaws, it's a production that finally hits home.

1 comment:

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