Tag Archives: Ring Of Truth

English Eccentrics: an Operatic Entertainment (Malcolm Williamson)


Libretto: Geoffrey Dunn, based on the book by Edith Sitwell



WAAPA classical, vocal and music students



Roundhouse Theatre, WAAPA

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Few English writers have been as astute and convincing in writing about eccentricity as the remarkable Edith Sitwell whose own oddness certainly qualified her for the role.


Perhaps because she herself lived so improbable a life, her chronicles of absurd behaviour have the ring of truth.  And Australian-born Malcolm Williamson, clearly inspired by Sitwell’s catalogue of the bizarre behaviour of others, wrote a score that splendidly complements Geoffrey Dunn’s libretto based on the Sitwell book..


In a work such as this, the text is pivotal to an appreciation of the opera. Absolute clarity of pronunciation is crucial in a libretto beautifully constructed to introduce the opera-goer to an extraordinary pageant of very strange people who range from the engagingly daft to the barking mad.


The work unfolds with impressively smooth momentum.  On this point, the production scored impressively; there was about the performance a fluency, indeed buoyancy, which made experiencing this work so agreeable. And deployment of often large numbers of performers onstage at any one time – with players descending a staircase here or processing or recessing between  stage and foyer  there –  made this production a fascinating way to pass an afternoon.


But diction was often unclear – and in a work such as this where distinct articulation  of words is of pivotal importance, this was an irritating, indeed maddening, drawback. Perhaps this could have been avoided by flashing the texts onto screens at opposite sides of the stage as is often done when operas are sung in foreign languages.


Some of the singers, though, sang with impressively clear diction, not least Paul-Anthony Keightly as Philip Thicknesse. This was a delight, with Keightly producing a stream of mellow, finely pitched sound with every word as clearly stated  as one could ever have wished it to be. Matthew Reardon’s diction, too, was beyond reproach – and Elena Perroni was a delightfully over-the-top Princess Caraboo. Clint Strindberg did well as Beau Brummell. But the diction of a vocal quartet, rather like a Greek chorus with crazy hairdos, needed much greater clarity.


Bobbi-Jo’s costume designs were a delight. Eleanor Garnett’s lighting design was consistently effective.


David Wickham presided over events  from the piano,  coaxing splendid responses from his forces and negotiating the often cruelly demanding piano part with unassuming virtuosity.  A small instrumental ensemble was much on its mettle, not least Chris Dragon (clarinet) and Hannah Gladstones (bassios pianooon).





The History Boys (Alan Bennett)

Hackett Hall, Floreat

Beverley Jackson-Hooper (director)

A Playlovers production

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Since Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays was published in 1857, British school life, especially, but not exclusively, boarding school life, has spawned an avalanche of plays and novels ranging from the hugely influential Fifth Form at St Dominics by Talbot Baines Reed to Chris Edmunds’ riveting Before I Get Old. And Enid Blyton made a fortune writing twee novels about life in girls’ boarding schools.


The History Boys is meatier fare by far, with sexual undercurrents that would have been unthinkable in the works of Baines Reed and Blyton. Allan Bennett’s play is a distinguished contribution to the genre.


Hector, played by Tom Rees, is, on the surface, a teacher who grips his students’ attention by his quirky and not ineffective instruction methods – and his pillion-perching students’ genitals while roaring across town on a motorbike. The imagination boggles at the contortions that would have been needed to accomplish this curious feat.


Hector’s fate is sealed after this deplorable sex-on-a-bike activity is observed by the headmaster’s wife while peering through a shop window. There’s understated artistry on the part of Rees; his characterisation of the loquacious paedophile teacher was entirely convincing. So, too, was Kenneth Gasmier’s clipped-speech portrayal of Armstrong, the headmaster, coming across as a pompous, self-important windbag obsessed with the need for his students to gain enough credit to get into uni, preferably one of  “The Two”. Near play’s end, his clumsy dismissal of the paedophile Hector had the ring of truth.


Jordan Sibley was particularly credible as Irwin. With unfailingly clear diction, he came across as a rather repressed young school master so ashamed of having graduated from one of England’s lesser universities that he pretends to have been at one of “The Two”. When challenged on this point by one of the students, his pathetic attempt at covering up his lie was the stuff of fine theatre. His timidity and vacillation are no less apparent towards play’s end when he turns down a sexual favour offered by the bold and crass Dakin, played by Christian Dalton.


Irwin accepts a pillion ride from Hector. There’s an accident. Hector is killed but the young schoolmaster is sentenced to a living death in a wheel chair. Sibley was most impressive here, conveying a sense of quiet dignity in the face of a ruined future.


Beverley Lawrence was a polished Dorothy Lintott, a worldweary teacher who has seen it all. Bitterly, rhetorically she rails at the sadly few professional opportunities for women historians. Samuel Moscou was an altogether credible Rudge, the refreshingly straight-talking class jock, who, to Armstrong’s near-euphoric surprise, also gets his ticket to an Oxbridge future. Tim Burrows as Posner was convincing as a young man uncertain of his sexuality.


There’s no real weak link in the cast as a whole. It is only in a brief dance sequence that some of the boys seemed selfconscious and awkward.



Set designs by Cassandra Fletcher and lighting by John Woolrych did much to enhance and advance the changing moods of the play.


Some Kind of Beautiful


James Brookes (director)

Downstairs at the Maj

His Majesty’s Theatre

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Until I attended a performance of Some Kind of Beautiful, I had thought of its author Belinda Dunbar exclusively in terms of her role as deputy general manager of His Majesty’s Theatre, a busy and efficient person in arts administration.


On a Saturday evening performance at Downstairs at the Maj, I encountered a very different incarnation of Dunbar: playwright.


Some Kind of Beautiful is a slice of life that has about it a refreshing sense of reality. Nothing jars in Act 1; its repartee had the ring of truth. It could all well have happened.


It’s not a scene of unalloyed domestic bliss. Initially, we hear Kate (Julia Jenkins) in a monologue mulling over what’s recently transpired. Paul, her partner, much loved, adored even, has succumbed to a particularly nasty cancer. She’s young, rather inexperienced and clearly devastated by the passing of an adored, fulfilling partner years her senior. The household, in the process of being dismantled, is a clutter of half-filled packing cartons – books, ornaments, a miscellany of domestic detritus.


Her meditation is abruptly and unexpectedly interrupted by the arrival of two women one of whom delivers a brutally frank revelation. Paul was still legally married to her at the time of his death, after an illness through which Kate had nursed him lovingly. As Barbara (Helen Searle) brings Kate cruelly up to date, speaking of some aspects of Paul that reveal him as a not entirely attractive person, we find that he hadn’t bothered, hadn’t cared – or simply ‘forgot’- to tell Kate about his married state.


He’d never bothered to dissolve the marriage formally and – a thoughtless man – he’d never updated a will drawn up years earlier in which the prime beneficiary is his charmless wife. And although they haven’t had anything to do with one another for years, the will is no less valid than on the day it was drawn up. Of course, there’s nothing in it for Kate who only came on the scene much later.


Bitterness and withering anger are widow Barbara’s close companions through most of Act 1.  Flinty, insensitive and full of anger, she holds forth with an unending stream of vindictiveness and like some beer-fuelled youth with a souped-up car, goes roaring through the lives of others causing terrible damage to innocent bystanders on the way.


In the midst of all this, her daughter, Destiny (Maree Cole), wise beyond her years – and certainly more rational and considerate than her incandescently angry mother – tries to ameliorate the bitterness of her hate. Sensing the injustice towards Julia, Maree tries to reason with her mother to give Julia (who is an innocent party) a break.


A secret, carefully kept for years, emerges with the force of a cyclone. Paul may have fathered Destiny but Barbara is not her biological mother but the offspring of another woman casually impregnated by Paul who, for all his attractiveness to women, is an arch-poep, an uber-idiot who probably thought as deeply about the consequences of his tomcat behaviour as having another tinny (probably paid for by someone else).


There are no weak links in this cast; each makes a thoroughly worthwhile contribution to the performance, no less so than in Act 2 where the writing tends to discursiveness and the narrative line, so sure and logical in Act 1, weakens.


Invisible to the audience behind his sheet music on the grand piano positioned to a corner on the stage, Tim Cunniffe is a discreet presence; the songs he has written for the actors fit seamlessly into the action. There is no jarring effect at all.