[Theatre by the Lake, Keswick]

A stormy night in a candlelit house in the middle of nowhere; it sounds like the setting for a gothic horror novel. But Jez Butterworth’s The Winterling is firmly grounded in reality – even if it is a warped and troublesome reality. 

PRESS Winterling
~ Liam Smith (West) and Alan Suri (Wally); photo by Keith Pattison ~

The Winterling is a homage to Harold Pinter: throughout the play, the characters struggle for the upper hand, and Jez Pike’s production brings out the tension and fear of the unknown so typical of Pinter. The play is also darkly humorous, and Butterworth’s quirky and halting dialogue was handled superbly by all of the cast.

Particularly impressive was one exchange between West (Liam Smith) and Patsy (Henry Devas), as they quizzed one another on the history of an ancient fort. Watching the two men challenge each other’s knowledge was like watching a young stag challenge the alpha male; the tension in the theatre was palpable.

Alan Suri’s Wally formed the third side of this power triangle. Although Suri perhaps handled Butterworth’s halting dialogue least successfully, he nevertheless created an initially vulnerable yet ultimately imposing figure as he fought for his superiority within the group.

In a parallel triangle, where West, Draycott and Lue quite literally claimed their space, the tension seemed lessened. Although not without a certain hardness, Draycott (James Duke) elicited both laughter and pity, while Jennifer English’s Lue seemed so real, I wanted to reach out and help her realise the dream towards which she strives throughout the play.

However, the star role was taken by Maura Guthrie’s sound design. From the outset, Guthrie’s soundscape gave the sense of total immersion in the world and style of the play. As fighter planes roar and thunder overhead during the blackouts, the tone for the play is set: this is a vulnerable space, one where anything could happen and the characters’ destinies are not entirely within their own hands. It is a place for fear, and for the sudden impact of the unexpected.

If drama is conflict, then Theatre by the Lake’s production of The Winterling is a tense and darkly funny drama.

[Theatre by the Lake, Keswick]

A house in the country. A pretty but distressed girl running from her angry German stepfather. A rumour-mongering woman with a downtrodden husband. A vicious cat, and two slightly hapless cousins waiting for something interesting to happen.

Let chaos ensue…

Rookery Nook
~ Matthew Vaughan, Chris Hannon & Bryn Holding: photo by Keith Pattison ~

 

From the moment we saw the stage, Martin Johns’ set created the tone for the rest of the play: large, respectable, and plenty of doors for hiding places and near misses.

Despite a slightly slow start, Ian Forrest’s stylised production of Ben Travers’ Rookery Nook lived up to expectations. Much of the joy in a farce comes from dramatic irony (knowing something the characters are yet to discover), and this was dealt with superbly by all of the cast.

However, and the scenes of comical violence were less convincing. At times when no action or revelation were occurring, the pacing sometimes felt baggy, as though the play was treading water until the next moment of hilarity. During those hilarious moments, though, we frequently found ourselves laughing out loud, and losing ourselves in the conceit of the play.

The central pairing of conspiratorial cousins Clive and Gerald Popkiss (Bryn Holding and Matthew Vaughan) provided a strong backbone for the play, as they sought to help beautiful ingénue Rhoda (Cate Cammack). Cammack’s initial entrance provided a breath of fresh air for the drama, and it was at this point that the first act really took off.

Chris Hannon’s physical comedy as the downtrodden Harold Twine was well maintained, as his wife (Katie Hayes) sought to unravel the mischief, helped judgmental housekeeper Mrs Leverett (Laura Cox) with her slightly questionable accent.

A special mention needs to be made for Katie Norris’ portrayal of floozy Poppy Dickey; although only on stage for a short time, she provided fun and laughter, and ‘flags for the lifeboats’ became the quote of the night!

Overall, Rookery Nook was an enjoyable evening out, and we came away smiling. Some of the dialogue could have been tighter and the action slicker, but this is something that I’m sure will improve as the performance run continues, and the production becomes the crisp, funny farce that it has the potential to be.

Stephen MacDonald’s Not About Heroes is a play about poetry. It is also a play about pity. It is, of course, a play about war. But above all, it is a play about the strong friendship between two men: Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

 

~ Philip Labey and Mark Addis in Not About Heroes ~
~ Philip Labey and Mark Addis in Not About Heroes ~

In the Theatre by the Lake’s current production, directed by Jez Pike, Owen and Sassoon are thoughtfully portrayed, not only as the great poets we recognise today, but as people, with their own fears, hopes and doubts.

Both cast members (Philip Labey as Wilfred Owen and Matt Addis as Siegfried Sassoon) portrayed this human aspect beautifully, and did a superb job of carrying the play. Their more humorous moments brought a vitality to what is essentially a very wordy play, while the inevitable tragic ending caused more than one set of tears in the audience.

As Sassoon battled against his inner turmoil, Addis’ speech at times became almost uncomfortably loud in the intimate space of the Studio Theatre, leaving Labey’s Owen like a startled deer in the brazen headlights of the older poet. Labey’s timidity during the characters’ first meeting was something any writer or creative writing student will identify with, but it was incredibly moving to watch him grow in confidence into the man that Owen was destined never to fully become.

This inevitable pathos is echoed by the simplicity of Martin Johns’ set. The backdrop of dead trees is an ever-present reminder of the war, while the carpet of Craiglockhart hospital on one side of the stage fragments into the blasted mud of the Front on the other.

There were occasions where the play shifted into an overly stylised version of itself (the opening, for example), but fortunately these moments were few and fleeting, and quickly gave way to the real meat of the production: the intimacy between the two poets.

‘The poetry is in the pity,’ reads Owen from his Preface. In Jez Pike’s production, not only poetry and pity, but drama as well, are in the chemistry between the play’s two impressive actors.

Adapting a well-loved childhood classic is always a risk, but in the case of Theatre by the Lake’s Christmas production of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, the risk pays off. Helen Edmundson’s script, directed by Stefan Escreet, brings the novel to life for a new generation, while not losing the magical and nostalgic feel of the book.

~ Caroline Hallam, Nadia Morgan, Rosalind Steele and Joel Sams: photo by Keith Pattison ~
~ Caroline Hallam, Nadia Morgan, Rosalind Steele and Joel Sams: photo by Keith Pattison ~

There was a wonderful moment at the start of the show, when there were audible intakes of breath from the audience as the lights went down. Excitement was running high – and it carried on running high for the rest of the evening, for both children and adults alike

For me, one of the most beautiful things about this production was that it reminded me what a play fundamentally is: play. And Theatre by the Lake’s Swallows and Amazons is all about playing.

Designer Martin Johns’ revolving set comprises a huge pile of wardrobes, suitcases and chests of drawers, all of which became the island. The props were similarly created from everyday objects: a parrot from a feather duster; a baby from hot water bottles; birds from garden shears; the Swallow from an upturned table. This creation of the extraordinary from the everyday exercised my imagination, inviting me to play along with the characters. While Theatre by the Lake steers clear of pantomimes, Swallows and Amazons drew me in with a childlike conspiracy of believing, making me feel far more involved in the story than I could have done from just shouting ‘He’s behind you’.

This sense of involvement is aided by the sense of space created by Andrew Lindsay’s superb lighting, and of course by the fabulously versatile actors, who not only play out the story’s various characters, but also sing and dance to Neil Hannon’s lively, catchy songs, and accompany on various musical instruments; I’m sure I wasn’t the only one surprised when only nine people took the curtain call at the end.

All in all, I found Swallows and Amazons a fun and joyous evening out: a performance not just for children, but for the child in all of us.