St. Mary’s Players: A Rise in the Market.

st maryEmerging into the balmy spring of a Hanwell evening I was astounded to hear someone who, like me, had just experienced “A Rise in the Market” by the St. Mary’s Players state that they thought it had “been a bit fruity”.

Now I’m not one to disagree but it was the surprise in the theatre goer’s voice that brought me up sharply.

The idea that the Players could somehow contain their baser instincts during the course of a play that was surely best described as a subtle cross between a Party Political Broadcast by UKIP and a Leslie Phillips tribute would never occur to anyone who has been fortunate – in the loosest sense of the word – enough to taste the esoteric and rather specialised delights of Hanwell’s finest.

Fruity? Not ‘arf!

This was farce at its finest played with pace, panache and an absence of outer garments only where the artistic integrity of the performance demanded it.

Those of us who not new to the thespian traditions of the Players soon detected the restrained and sensitive suggestions of producer/director Jenny Foxwell (no stranger to the outré herself – I still have the pictures!).

To squeeze so much fun and frolic from a cast of seven is skill indeed and La Foxwell, who is well known for her directorial brutality and a well hidden generosity of spirit, put them through their paces like Aiden O’Brien with a string of thoroughbreds. I will demur from making even passing references to whips or jumps as that would be wholly inappropriate and probably copyright.

The still calm at the centre of the hurricane was Paul Downing as Sir Clive Partridge and if ever a man was predestined to lose his trousers it was this fine actor who was playing a senior UK member of the EU Commission.

I’ve seen young Downing in all his work with the Players and I still cherish fond memories of his tweedy journalist in “When we are Married” but this performance superseded even that.

He managed to convince us that a senior EU diplomat could be a venal priapic scoundrel with the morals of a – well – a politician.

Difficult though it was to convince an audience of wide eyed innocents that such a rogue could even exist, let alone collect his exes in Euros, Paul Downing managed it and probably put back the European cause by a decade in doing so.

A fare more admirable character was given us by the St. Mary’s stalwart Mark Cosstick; playing against type as a subservient apparatchik from the British Embassy in Paris with a total lack of self confidence and of obsequious and somewhat oleaginous manner when interacting with a superior but becoming something of a brute when one lower than he in the civil service hierarchy appeared.

Mark’s character was named as Simon Prout and it was only as an increasingly horrific string of puns gathered pace through the evening that we realised why the surname was chosen.

A flavour of the horror may be suggested by the instruction for him to “..go to Brussels, Prout”. I fear it got worse.

Now when it comes to fruity the character played by Alison Simmons would have outdone the fresh food counter at Waitrose. I initially mis-read the name of her character as Astride but was only partly pacified by the realisation that it was, in fact, Astrid.

Well – at least in name.

Of all the natural shocks that flesh is heir to one of the most agonising is the entrance of Alan Browne in any Player’s production but particularly in panto.

His character – apparently named after an American cereal sold as dog food – was played down so effectively that I hardly noticed him.

Those of us who treasure the full horror of the great actor’s canon could scarce contain their amazement at the transformation.

So modest and humble was he that Mark Cosstick bullied him without mercy and gave a passable imitation of David Cameron talking down to Nick Clegg in Cabinet.

I freely admit that things got a little confusing about now.

Jackie Raynor appeared as Sir Clive Partridge’s wife and much business ensued to keep her and the fair Astrid apart as both appeared to enjoy in depth ussions of the common agricultural policy with Sir Clive and needed to be kept apart – presumable because of some recondite disagreement on the tricky subject of the Greek tobacco subsidy.

Rekha John-Cheriyan is something of a heroine to me as I was present at a recent meeting of the Rotary Club of Greenford where she was our speaker.

The subject was something about her career in national broadcasting but the effect that she had on some of the more senior Rotarians is still the stuff of Rotary legend.

She has a similar impact on audiences in W7 and although for once she was not playing the femme fatale she caused many a heart to flutter and added her energy to the chaos that was fast unfolding around us.

I cherish the occasions when David Whitestone is let out during the hours of darkness and their rarity adds to the sense of occasion.

He seldom disappoints and a rain coated and humourless Belgian whose name I first heard as Chuck Berry but who was later identified as Jacques Berri proved to be the latest manifestation of the great man’s genius.

Readers of a delicate disposition should avert their eyes and stop up their ears at this point.

Whereas I am not an absolute authority on the rite of absolution in the established church I felt strongly that there was a need for a collective confession as every character – saving the noble Prout and Kibble – was revealed to be a libertine of the most lascivious type.

Satyriasis was the order of the day and clothes were arded with the speed of abandoned morals and the most cynical and unlikely denouement ensued.

Committed and enthusiastic Europeans in the audience had their faith sorely tested and I really expected to hear a beery chuckle and see Nigel Farage enter stage right (far right) in a fug of Capstan Full Strength.

I’d love to say that all ended happily but, in a very non-EU way, unhappy compromise was reached in which certain sins were concealed and life went on to the sound of slamming bedroom doors.

One thing that we do not need a referendum to decide is the quality of the cast and the overall production of “A Rise in the Market”.

Tightly directed and acted with brio by the most professional amateur company in Northern Europe this was as much a treat for the senses as it was torture for the ribs.

The guffaws erupting from the audience told their own story and if we could park the blatant anti European propaganda this was the St. Mary’s Players at their finest in a truly memorable outing that will look good on their next pre-sentencing reports.

One of the real skills of the Players is found backstage and another superb set by Steve Douglas and abetted by John Foxwell and un-named others really added to the class of the occasion. Malcolm Smith efficiently sorted out the son et lumiere and I suspect that the hand of Ben Douglas was to be found somewhere on the lighting tower or at the mixing decks.

Steve Secombe and Geoff Mules shared the MC duties and the DJ to great effect and although I have but a passing brief experience of standing in front of a restive crowd and trying to impart knowledge I recognised a couple of pros when I saw them and if my thoughts of Steve “Slash” Secombe are always viewed through the heavy metal prism of one of his earlier – and profoundly hirsute –parts I was grateful for him abjuring the Metallica gig to be with us in Hanwell on this and so many other occasions.

Despite my limited engagement with the science of tonsorial artistry I am reliably informed that Di Roberts’ skill with the hair spray was equalled only by the craft of her maquillage.The end product certainly looked good and I am sure that Secombe and Pound would offer our gleaming pates as test beds for any syrups that she may have access to.

Sue Cosstick was as charming as ever at Front of House and my wallet seemed to fly magically towards her and to snap back to me in a considerably lightened state.

If I have a criticism, and I seldom do, it was the dreadful sense of dislocation caused by the presence of Linda Smith at the bar.

Manet would surely have leaped to his easel had he witnessed this elegance and I noticed many people making purchases that they did not want merely to engage the pulchritudinous paragon in passing badinage.

As I am not a wine drinker – having tried it once and not taken to the taste – I was even allowed to import a few cans of Export and I thought that it was so very generous of Kim Rumble to only charge me £5 corkage per tin.

However even the absence of Linda Smith as the leading lady of the Players could not spoil my evening. Although I was at times distracted by thoughts of what part Linda might have played in this farce my overall impression was of a well acted and very funny piece that may have seemed utterly chaotic on the night but which was, in fact, as taut as a bowstring and just as effective in getting the message across.

A memorable night for a delighted audience and another stunning triumph for the St. Mary’s Players – even if they are so replete with talent that one of their finest is left to languish behind the bar.

ANYTHING GOES: MARCH 2013

I did not stride towards the Questors Theatre in March with the usual spring in my step as word had reached me that the Raglan Players had just struck the set for the last time and another ornament of our local theatrical tradition had faded into darkness. Having lost the Northolt Comedy Players and several other groups over the years my heart may have been less light than usual but if there is one thing guaranteed to raise the spirits and engender a warm glow of anticipation it is the prospect of seeing the HEOS Musical Theatre and whilst  my thoughts may at first have been with Sharon Exelby and the late lamented Raglans the eternal magic of the theatre soon soothed my troubled soul and it seemed but moments until my wallet had been emptied by the ever enthusiastic raffle ticket sellers and I was shown respectfully to my place at the feet of the Mayor of Ealing and overlooking a circular stage that promised much.

First a word on the script.

Anything GoesAnything Goes is often seen as a bulletproof piece of musical theatre with a range of show stopping numbers  and the sort of singing and dancing extravaganza that gave the Jazz Age its name and brought some cheer to the dark days of the recession hit 1930s.

Having Cole Porter write the music and lyrics to a PG Wodehouse book pretty much guarantees a classy evening but if is one thing to produce a work of such potential it is another altogether to cast, produce ,direct and perform such a marvellous melange of Terpsichorean triumph and you will not be stunned to hear that HEOS did the piece proud and I cannot have been the only delighted patron to imagine the shades of Cole Porter and PG Wodehouse looking down with approval and even Ethel Merman and Bing Crosby glancing enviously earthwards and wishing that they could have been on stage with HEOS for such a success.

Set aboard the SS American and allowing ample opportunity for shipboard romance, dancing on deck and even an introduction to that grim quarter of the ship known to matelots as “the rattle” but here described as the brig.

I’m no expert but I reckon to overact so completely and to jump up and down on the script until it was scarcely recognizable takes immense skill and a lot of talent.

Anyone can under act but the House of Commons and HEOS are both blessed by some of the most florid and over-the-top performers and Anything Goes allowed this tendency full and unfettered rein.

It was great to see the fruits of John Asher’s directorial imagination and hear John Hennessy directing an excellent orchestra (although his sons in the audience seemed a little unsure as to where their dad actually was) and – of course – the stunning choreography of Dawn Wightman was worth the price of admission alone.

It may seem invidious to mention individual genius in what was a brilliantly acted and very tight ensemble piece but some people demand personal mentions and the public should also be warned about them.

Never in the long history of musical theatre can there have been such an outrageous piece of coarse camp acting as that served up in the style of a hysterical John Inman than that which Ruman Tarafdar dared to inflict upon us – and many an unhappy sailor – in his role as the Monarch of Mincing – the Purser.

Seldom has the expression “dragged up on deck” seemed more appropriate!

With wrists flapping and hips oscillating wildly it was abundantly clear that Ruman was playing the sort of chap who throws a light dart and possibly prefers his peas minted.

I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure before but it will be a long, long time before I forget this exemplar of the “Carry on Cruising” tradition. Persons of little taste will recall the appalling campery of that great Dame of the Holy Cross Players, Ian Yardley, and I can only say that Ruman was even more flagrant and outrageous than even the Queen of Kirkcaldy.

Jevan Morris is not unknown but his thunderous rendition of the Elisha Whitney role was stupendous and a tribute to his thespian skills and the eternal magic of YaleUniversity. The roaring energy that he brought to the role was awesome and the casting of ever improving Chris Yoxall as Whitney’s assistant Billy Crocker was an inspiration.

I seem to have seen Chris Y grow up in public and he is fast becoming a musical theatre star of the very highest standard.

His diction and body language have got better and better while his voice has got stronger and more expressive but I’d not previously picked up on his dancing skills.

Possibly the skilled direction of Dawn Wightman may have brought this talent to the fore but I prefer to think of Chris Yoxall as the complete actor/singer/dancer in the Gene Kelly mould.

There is a long established HEOS tradition of outrageous flirtation and although the heights of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (HEOS 2007) will never be matched as long as there is a vigilant Watch Committee in Ealing it cannot be denied that many a heart trembled as Elaine Griffin made the role of Reno Sweeney her very own – and led one of the best dancing sequences of the whole production in her stand-out “Blow Gabriel Blow”.

I’ve not seen much of her work before but I am sure that the world will not be denied this immense talent that veered from the graceful to the disgraceful with elegant effect.

Mention should be made of The Angels (Reno’s Showgirls) and although Charity, Chastity, Purity and Virtue may not have been the most appropriate of names for the pulchritudinous quartet of Christina Duffy, Aimee Finnerty , Gabby Jones and Michelle Spencer very few of the audience were distracted by nomenclature and had The First Church of Reno Sweeney been signing up converts that evening I would guess that well over half the people present would have joined on the spot – for sound theological reasons, of course.

Which brings us to Joanna Evans; who I knew in a previous life as the very naughtiest Hanwell Carnival Queen of all time.  Playing Erma, a gangster’s moll, Jo committed a smash and grab on the audience much as her criminal paramour, Moonface Martin, tended to do in his professional life. She utterly dominated the stage when she was in full flow and proved that crime might not pay but you do meet a rather classy type of lady.

Ginge Anderson won first prize in the lottery of life and played opposite Jo in the Moonface Martin role and he managed the immensely difficult tasks of not being upstaged by the glamorous Erma and acting a role within a role as a humble priest (carrying a violin case and swigging bootleg whiskey behind his breviary) and emerging as Public Enemy Number 13.

I’ve seen Ginge at work before and my high opinion soared ever further upwards as I savoured his Moonface Martin.

More please, from this really talented actor.

Mention should perhaps be made of Alan Champion who had the profound misfortune to be Captain Peacock to Ruman Tarafdar’s John Inman. Although he was actually the Captain of the “American” on the night there was a strong suggestion of a sea-going Grace Brothers about this duo – and the play was all the better for it.

Accordingly to the notoriously inaccurate programme Pam Armstrong has been delighting us for well over three decades. If this is so then she must have been the first leading lady to appear on stage while still at nursery school as one could scarce believe that such radiant elegance could have even attained a third decade – let alone shimmered on stage for that length of time.

She was as high class as ever in the role of Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt and played well off Hope Harcourt (Anna Williamson) who is famed locally for taking the Grace Kelly role in High Society and making it so much her own.

It is all but impossible to select the stand out spot of the show but an extraordinary duet between Reno and an effete flaccid fop named Lord Evelyn Oakleigh challenges for the title.

Lord Evelyn (Richard Stokes) managed to instil “The Gypsy in Me” with more blatantly suggestive innuendo than had been thought of as humanly possible.

He and Elaine Griffin brought the house down with this number and it proved yet again that to be really funny you have to be incredibly talented. Our two troubadours proved that they passed that test with flying Gypsy scarves and it was as though the ghost of Paganini had returned to earth (or mid-Atlantic) as the violins throbbed and Reno and the Lord gave it their all.

The script for Anything Goes seems to have shifted a little over the years and the role of the Rev. Henry T. Dobson, the evergreen Kevin McCarthy, appears to have shrunk slightly since I last saw the show in the West End.

Denise Murphy and Tony Lo – Rev.Dobson’s Chinese converts – appeared later in some excellently acted card sharping relating sequences but we Friends of McCarthy would have wished to have seen a little more of the maestro on this occasion.

I felt a deal of sympathy for all the sailors – especially  Chris Brookes and Pablo Pubar – as they had exhausting  dance routines to perform as well as having to allow generous leeway to the predatory Purser. Fortunately they succeeded in both areas!

The Ship’s Passengers and Crew were just too many to individually refer to but Anne Murphy’s sassy and brassy reporter was a wonderful theatrical vignette while Amanda Beardon and John Asher managed to appear as FBI agents as well as in other roles. Really well performed and while J. Edgar Hoover may not have approved the audience roared.

I may be losing it but I thought that I heard a perfectly modulated voice arise from the crew and enquire of the two gangsters (don’t ask!) if one of them was a sexual deviant.

I do hope that I misheard and that it I did not then the charming and ever pure Doreen McKeown was the victim of a vicious ventriloquist!

I’m sorry not to have been more rigorous in my review but I am a politican, not a pundit, and above all I am yet another delighted punter who has escaped the vicissitudes of a cruel world and spent an evening in the magical realm of musical theatre in the company of the every improving and staggeringly professional HEOS Musical Theatre.

I should acknowledge the immense contribution of the stage management team as well as the rude mechanicals who controlled the sound and lighting to such good effect and HEOS wouldn’t be HEOS without superb costumes and credit to Fiona MacKay for her great skill in this area.

The reality is that HEOS Musical Theatre is a team and achieves far more collectively than they could as individuals. I get the impression of good companionship and an ethos of mutual support which is a feature of the really great theatrical companies.

HEOS has done it again and I was both delighted and privileged to be present at the now definitive production of Anything Goes – which could actually be the motto of the company!