The Stratford Players, like many amateur dramatic societies, are facing economic difficulties and the impending loss of their theatre. By petitioning Hollywood agents, they hope to increase publicity, raise essential funds and continue treading the boards for years to come.
In the meantime, waning American action hero Jefferson Steel finds the idea of playing King Lear in Stratford tempting, anticipating that playing opposite the likes of Kenneth Branagh and Judy Dench will raise his profile, boost his movie career and propel him towards his domination of Hollywood. What he doesn’t realise is that his agent has set him up to play King Lear not in the Bard’s birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon, but the sleepy tiny Suffolk village of Stratford St John…
Nick Newman and Ian Hislop’s contemporary, sharp comedy depicts the best and worst sides of theatre, from diva tantrums and intensified passions, misread interactions between cast members, cynical pursuit by the gutter press, suspicions and resentment, to the “redemptive power of theatre” as individuals bond together to create something very positive while they “live the dream”.
“Why the hell do you do it?!” exclaims Steel to the Stratford Players. To which he gets the pithy reply: “It gets us out the house”. Chesil Theatre create time and again productions that go beyond merely getting their casts (and production teams) “out of the house” – and this version of A Bunch Of Amateurs is no exception. It’s not just the witty script that audiences identify with, but the way that all amateur groups will recognise the individual characters and situations within this hilarious comedy!
Director Peter Liddiard observed in his programme notes the similarities in the script to actual incidents that occurred during their rehearsal phase, the classic case of life mirroring art mimicking life, which may have added extra authenticity to the characters brought vividly to life by his talented cast.
Katie Thornton makes an impressive debut on the Chesil Theatre stage, using her previous experience to create a totally convincing Stratford Player’s director, Dorothy, easily transitioning between authoritative, focused leadership and knowing when to massage the egos of her more hypersensitive cast members, despite her being more youthful than is usual for the role of Dorothy (a couple of her character’s scripted lines brought my attention to this, not the quality of her acting). Her singing of Elizabethan music between scenes (reflecting the use of song in some of Shakespeare’s plays) is crystal clear and I would love to see what Thornton can do in a more musical production.
Stephanie Kay (Mary) and Michael Berkley (Nigel) are both perfectly cast and again make impressive Chesil Theatre debuts, like Thornton drawing on previous theatrical experience to create dynamic and credible characters. Both have superb comic timing and physicality, visually and delivering dialogue, and both exhibit the skill of performing comedy sincerely and earnestly, not forcing the comedy but letting it flow naturally.
Noel Thorpe-Tracey relishes his role as the arrogant and pretentious Hollywood ‘star’, although at times tonight the American accent slipped back into English tones, but his passion for Shakespeare shines through in his moments as King Lear and I would love to see what he can do in a full Shakespearean role.
John Wakeman (Denis) and Nicky Malliarou (Lauren) complete the Stratford Players with again excellent comic timing and dialogue delivery, while Bethany Blakemore (Jessica) is an exciting prospect for the future – she brings such spirit and vivacity to her role as Steel’s neglected daughter, a mix of rebellion, resilience and vulnerability, with a convincing American accent and stage presence.
As well as astute direction, Liddiard also makes the most of the intimate Chesil Theatre venue to literally strip the set back to the bare walls, dressed with the fixtures and fittings of a real working theatre backstage, and adding in a cleverly designed (if not entirely smooth-running!) revolving stage to change locations. The use of multimedia effects is very successful, with the lighting adding ambience to the scenes. Although on opening night there were a couple of awkwardly long gaps between scenes, the pace is generally very sharp and the audience clearly enjoyed the escapades of the Stratford Players.
I believe this hilarious show is now sold out (but do check to see if there are any spare tickets going!) – if you are lucky enough to hold a ticket to see this, you are in for a laugh-out-loud cracker of a show!
Runs until 2 February, 7:45pm each evening (4:00pm performance on Sunday 27 January)