Eager to reboot his diminishing film career, waning Hollywood star Jefferson Steele arrives in England to play King Lear at Stratford – however, this is not the Bard’s birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon, but the peaceful Suffolk village of Stratford St John, and instead of Kenneth Branagh and Dame Judi Dench, the cast are a bunch of amateurs trying to save their theatre from developers. Jefferson’s outrageous ego, conceit and unexpected self-doubt are tested to the limit by the keen am-dram performers as two acting worlds collide amongst diva tantrums, intensified passions, misread cast interactions, cynical pursuit by the gutter press, suspicions and resentment.
This is the third time within a year that I have reviewed Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s sharp, pithy comedy about the world of amateur dramatics – a very recognisable theme to all who participate in the am-dram world! Each company has brought their own unique style and charm to the amateur stage, each with their own strengths and areas to improve, and tonight the Lymington Players added to this combination. The cast clearly relished their roles and their enjoyment spread to the audience, particularly as the narrative played out. My understanding is that the ladies of the company are recent additions to the stage, and these were therefore both solid new performances and bright prospects for the future.
Sally-Anne McKenzie is absolutely charming as Dorothy, bringing an honest truth to her role as the Stratford Players’ director and a natural aptitude for comedy, actively listening and responding with credibility to the other protagonists, whether soothing the ego of the transatlantic film star, enduring the pomposity of would-be leading man, Nigel, or encouraging Steele’s young daughter, Jessica, to break free from her father’s control and spread her acting wings. Her a cappella singing of Elizabethan-style songs is delightfully melodic and shows that McKenzie has more than one string to her performing bow.
Jim Lockwood grows into his role as the bumptious Steele, with a valiant attempt at a consistent American drawl (although his English accent slips through from time to time); he would benefit from being even more overbearingly arrogant on first meeting him to really emphasise his character’s mellowing personality throughout the play, but he does show Steele’s vulnerability beneath his brash exterior, especially in regards to his daughter and his personal insecurities, that add depth to his role alongside his capacity for comedy.
Chris March shows great comic technique in both dialogue delivery and physicality as reluctant supporting actor, Nigel, as well as showing hidden depths throughout the Shakespearean vignettes. Janette Russell (Steele’s superfan, Mary) brings fiery passion to her unaccompanied singing and is clearly relishing her first time on stage, in addition to her set painting skills, while Sophie Higgs shows promise for the future as Jessica, both actresses exhibiting good comic timing.
The narrative moves along at a good pace, although a few of the scene changes are a little awkwardly long, but the vocal musical cover for some of these adds a welcome distraction from this. Arguably the most impressive aspect of this production is the extracts from King Lear, both from an acting and production perspective, but there is a great deal to enjoy comedy-wise in the Lymington Players’ rendition of Hislop and Newman’s witty script – if the definition of ‘amateur’ is “doing something for the love of it”, then look no further for the ideal example of this; just sit back and enjoy the entertainment provided by this Bunch Of Amateurs!