Upton Priory

Mighty oaks from little acorns grow, and if the commitment of the cast in the first production by False Perspective is anything to go by, this tiny seedling certainly deserves to develop into a majestic tree.

Upton Priory is home-grown, with a script written by Nikki Wilson. In case we didn’t get the titular pun, it opened with the theme music from Downton Abbey, and reflected many of the characters in the latter; for example, Karen Ward channelled her inner Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Southbourne, while the daughters of the house, charmingly played by Amey Dawe and Ashleigh Barker, bore more than a passing resemblance to Lady Mary and Lady Edith.

The Earl and Countess of Southbourne want to save the crumbling west wing of their stately home by marrying their elder daughter to Hiram B Rottweiler, a Texan hot dog millionaire, but things don’t go to plan. A couple of ghosts make an appearance, as do two opera singers rejoicing in the names of Belladonna Fortevoce (Karen Ward again) and Brunhilde Nebelhorn (Anne Ponting, who also directed the show). Meanwhile, there are as many intrigues and romances among the servants downstairs as there are among the family upstairs.

The fact that the plot is as thin as a piece of tissue paper doesn’t really matter because it is primarily a vehicle for each member of the cast to perform a number; I didn’t actually keep score, but I think everyone either sang a solo or took part in a duet. Although the quality of singing naturally varied, no-one could be said to let the side down. Some of the cast seemed less experienced than others, and they will be more effective when they gain confidence and learn to belt out a song – one or two were difficult to hear over the accompanying piano (played by an indefatigable Elizabeth Sweetman).

The songs ranged from ‘A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’ via ‘The stately homes of England’ (of course) to ‘Stars’ from Les Miserables. Amey Dawe sang ‘Typically English rose’ particularly well, while Richard Haynes, who played the Texan millionaire, has a strong and pleasant tenor voice. The author, Nikki Wilson, took on a difficult song (new to me but called, I think, ‘Was that him, was that me’) and brought it off successfully.

Nikki, playing Hannah the lady’s maid, is an accomplished character actress, and there were other strong performances by Mark Ward as Parsons the butler, a suitably authoritative figure, and Richard Haynes, who has an enviably expressive face. John Petroff appeared to enjoy hamming up the part of Bumbly the footman, and we shared his enjoyment. As with the singing, one wished that some of the actors would throw their inhibitions to the winds: everything on stage has to be exaggerated, so broader smiles, bolder movements and more expansive gestures would have been welcome in some cases.

The set was simply a couple of tables and some chairs which were moved to all sorts of permutations between scenes – by the servants, of course. The costumes were excellent and looked to an untutored eye authentically 1920s. Anne Ponting’s direction was uncomplicated but effective, although no doubt she was frustrated by the few occasions when the pace dropped because cues were not picked up quickly enough.

This was theatre at a fairly basic level: no sophisticated lighting rig, no backdrop, no mikes. It would be easy to sound patronising but everyone involved genuinely did wonders under the circumstances. It will be interesting to watch False Perspective develop after this encouraging start.