Tales from Future Past

As said previously, I am working my way back through a few of the old photo collections and, now I’ve worked out this gallery lark will be publishing a selection of shots from various plays, old and new. And so, to get things rolling, a few images from the smash hit productionof last Christmas, ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). The second part will follow within the next couple of days. While we’re at it though, seeing as I’m moving wholesale onto here, here’s a copy of the review that was also published around that period:

I have to admit when I knew that an evening with the Matchbox Theatre group meant an evening of ‘community’ theatre in a church hall in West Wickham it wasn’t sounding the hottest ticket in town. My experience of this kind of drama has been lukewarm to say the least, all drawing room windows and awkward but earnest overplaying. A generalisation I know, occasionally there has been a diamond in the rough but very rare, and though I had affiliations with some of those involved I was not expecting much. Thus, as I took my seat for Jess Borgeson, Adam Long and Daniel Singer’s ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) in a hall that was three quarters full with a simple but impressive set establishing a Tudor theatre ambience I did not really know what to expect.

It seems I needn’t have worried, the tone was set within the first few moments as James Mercer, the first member of The Matchbox Sized Shakespeare Company appeared, and turned the typical Front of House manager’s speech into a cross between an airline attendant and a slightly moralistic teacher preparing us for what was to come. The tone was firmly set  with each of the key players doing  a turn, be it Kay Isom’s sensible lynchpin, Tim Pierce’s evangelical frenzy about the merits of Shakespeare (complete with collection plates) or Gill Challenger’s hilarious summary of the Bard’s life, culminating in his invasion into Poland and precipitation of World War II.

The appearance of the director, Mike Savill, amidst these proceedings seemed something of a curio, his singing and byplay with the audience a little out of place although I understand there were practical reasons behind this manifestation, largely the cast getting ready for the exhausting feat  to come. And what a feat it was. I have seen this play done before by, let’s be honest, younger actors but the more mature years collected on stage, with no offence intended, I think really added to the experience. When youngsters have to pretend to be exhausted by the frenetic pace of this work these four stagers, and yes there was a gap of years between them I will admit, were genuinely and hilariously worn out come the end of the show. And that is true testament to the effort and gusto that they put in to an evening that went at breakneck speed. Lines were delivered with verve, improvised moments added a blissful freshness and it is clear that these four enjoyed working together, as it should be with an ensemble play like this.

Highlights included a delirious Romeo & Juliet with James, Gill and Kay each having their moment in the spotlight whilst proceedings were all held together by Mr Pierce; the old crowd pleaser of an Othello rap which had an even more humorous twang to it in this pocket of middle class suburbia; a lively and energetic rugby game and the appearance of a performing dog during a reworking of Troilus and Cressida! Now that was unexpected and altogether too brief, certainly not in the original script. But I guess it was in keeping with the director’s vision of throwing everything except the kitchen sink into the production; there was always something new, always something to take proceedings into a different direction be it slightly quirky or gloriously bizarre. This play has often been likened to the works of Monty Python and that spirit of the madcap and slightly surreal was certainly on show here. I am not sure what The Matchbox’s performances are usually like, it seems from the impressive list of plays at the back of my programme that they have presented an eclectic bunch of plays from Restoration comedy to revenge tragedy to romantic farce, but I doubt that their audience has witnessed much like this over the theatre group’s thirty one years. Nonetheless, they appeared to love it. The added bonus that the cast knew a number of those watching added to the merriment and byplay, as various folk were described as (unlikely) virgins, offered a rather gruesome human head pie by cooking host Titus Andronicus or invited to dinner by an amorous  Juliet. All of this added to the recurrent, at times near continuous, laughter and sense of joie de vivre. Indeed, the first half, consisting of thirty six of the Bard’s plays and running at about an hour, seemed over in a trice.

The buzz over the interval wine (or in this case tea in the church)  is always an interesting litmus test of a play, and the excitement and enthusiasm for what had gone on before was genuinely palpable;  I had to admit I myself was very much looking forward to return for part two as soon as possible,

The second half commenced with a wholly unexpected turn from Tim which diverged considerably from the play as written, but was very much in keeping with the spirit of the evening: an audience participation piece which involved select members of the viewing public contributing to the construction of a sonnet. I understand this was the actor’s own creation and was masterminded with aplomb and great directorship. This was very much a characteristic of this actor’s turn, he clearly dominated the stage in all that he did bringing vibrancy and life even though I understand he really is a waiting list for a hip replacement; a fact he shared with the audience with grim stoicism. Performances were strong all round though, not only the energy that was brought by each of these actors but also the characterisation: Gill’s surly simpleton  was performed with enthusiasm, great comic timing and, it must be said, a mastery of the gurn which manifested in many of her asides; Kay offered  wonderful versatility and playfulness and delicious sense of the comic in a multi-noted performance – I was truly surprised when I heard later that she did not think of herself as a comic performer, her work tonight must have dispelled any doubts.; and James the youngest member of the group brought bravura and swagger and a great knowingness in his performance and inter actions with the audience. His interpretations of Romeo and Hamlet were both engaging and delivered with control and confidence. But as I have said earlier, this was an ensemble piece without any shadow of doubt and it is the sum of all these parts that made for such a splendid whole.

Credit must also go to the stage team, who even had their moment in the spotlight with an impromptu working of Gangnam Style during the play’s one set change, once again showing that this performance stopped for nothing and no one. Solid technical support with simple but effective use of lighting, sound effect and music added to the ambience in a space that I imagine would be extraordinarily difficult to light in some circumstances,  but was used well by the director Mike Savill who clearly had a vision that was fulfilled come the night. Special mention must also go to Annie Norris, the Producer and coordinator of the dozens of props that drive the play on, no mean task for a production like this.

This second half is dedicated, then, to a reworking of Shakespeare’s classic play, Hamlet, delivered with near Stoppardean brevity but suffused with the manic Pythonesque nonsense we had become accustomed to. Ghosts as socks on strings, hand puppets, pantomime villainy, Psycho themed stabbings, all contributed to developing the madcap that had characterised the first half. Of particular note, though, was the audience participation section focussed on Ophelia’s ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ response. Here was another opportunity for the actors to come into their own with sparkling improvisation and bonhomie that kept the audience effervescing throughout. Ms Challenger was particularly instrumental in keeping this ebullience at the right pitch, leading us effectively to the climactic scream delivered by an unsuspecting member of the public and she certainly gave it her all; and that was after giving a belting great scream beforehand that the players rather cruelly pooh pooh’d!

Topping off the evening once ‘the rest was silence’, was a high speed version of what we had just seen, Hamlet in just over a minute, followed by an even shorter version(!) and then the challenging Hamlet in reverse. By the time the play was drawing to a close it’d be fair to say that the actors didn’t know if they were coming or going but that didn’t matter; by this stage they needed only to walk on stage to elicit peals of laughter. They had truly won over an audience who, I had no doubt, enjoyed the two hours in the company of The Matchbox Sized Shakespeare Company. All should look on this as a triumph, I certainly think so and from the many effusive comments of the audience I know that many of them shared my opinion. I only hope it isn’t too long before these the MSSC returns to the stage again, though where they go from here I can only offer a feverish guess.

More updates in the very near future. Catch ya then.