Play reading: And a Nightingale Sang

The second of our play readings this week was And a Nightingale Sang by C.P. Taylor.

Set in the period of the Second World War, the play takes place in a working-class household in Newcastle. The central character is Helen, a young woman known to her family as “the cripple” because of her walking difficulties. She is a practical person who serves as the play’s narrator. She lives with her mum, a devout Catholic, her dad, a former coal miner and her sister Joyce, who is younger and unsure of herself. In the extended family is Helen’s granddad, who is a part-time resident in the house.

The action unfolds over six scenes, which take place at different points at the war – from Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s announcement that the country is at war to the celebrations on VE Day. The play shows the progression of two relationships; that of Joyce and Eric, who are together when the play begins, and of Helen and Norman, who meet during the war following Norman’s posting to Newcastle, where he meets Eric.

And a Nightingale Sang was very favourably reviewed by those who were at the reading; one person went as far as to call it a “great play”. It was felt that the characters had been well-drawn, especially Helen, who the audience can see developing in confidence throughout the play. Even characters who make choices the audience may not support were considered sympathetic, such as Norman, who is sensitive and intelligent, despite making a decision that many would consider to be unpopular.

It was also felt that the play uses the setting of the Second World War well and that the terrors, fears, deprivation and loss that comes with conflict were cleverly portrayed. The use of period music was also praised; Helen’s father is a keen piano player and sings many songs of the era, which ties in to the play’s title.

Although this is a period piece, the theme of war and disruption are the backdrop to a portrait of family life and the way that people relate to each other. Those who read the play expressed the view that And a Nightingale Sang deals humanely with the problems of war and life – and manages to do it with good humour.

As ever, the conversation turned to whether this was a play that we could adequately stage. The set itself, while challenging, was thought to be probably feasible. The action takes place in several places, including a kitchen, an air raid shelter and out on the street. As with A Chorus of Disapproval, it is clear that any staging of this play would need to be well thought out.

The biggest challenge of the play is likely to be in the performance. The language and the action makes it clear that the play is set in Newcastle and it would be necessary for the actors to learn and sustain an accent that would be believable throughout the play.

What do you think? Let us know if you’ve read or seen And a Nightingale Sang and want to agree or disagree with anything written here.

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Play reading: A Chorus of Disapproval

This week, in the first of our two play readings, we tackled A Chorus of Disapproval by Alan Ayckbourn. The play was familiar to a couple of long-standing ALP members, who were involved when it was staged by the group nearly two decades ago.

A Chorus of Disapproval begins with a youngish widower, Guy Jones, joining the Pendon Amateur Light Operatic Society as they begin rehearsals for The Beggar’s Opera. The play follows Guy as he manages to progress through the cast, all the while negotiating love affairs and the internal politics of the group.

There were far more laughs had from this play reading than from the previous two Ayckbourn plays read over the last few months (Relatively Speaking and How the Other Half Loves). People enjoyed the imagery and the fact that there were lots of small parts, which made the play feel inclusive. While there are two or three bigger parts, it was felt that each actor would have a place in the play where they and their character could shine.

There was a question raised about whether an audience would get as much enjoyment out of the play as those reading the play within the ALP; the setting and some (though, we hasten to add, not all!) of the internal struggles within the group were recognisable to us and were therefore funnier as a result. However, the group came to a consensus that there is enough humour not particular to an amateur dramatics group to be accessible to a wider audience.

Although people felt it would be a great play to be involved with, a couple of difficulties did present themselves. One was the issue of the staging; several scene changes are quick and it was agreed that the play did not lend itself to the traditional box set. No complete solutions were mooted at the reading, but it is clear that any staging of A Chorus of Disapproval would have to be planned very carefully and cannily.

Another point raised was that of the singing – several tunes are included within the play, most from the group’s staging of The Beggar’s Opera. As the group is an amateur one, the singing would not have to be perfect, but someone quite rightly pointed out that it would need to be of an acceptable standard in order to keep the audience entertained. The character of Mr Ames, the piano player for Palos, was suggested as a role for the MD for the production.

Despite the difficulties in staging A Chorus of Disapproval, people were generally optimistic about the play. It seems that the humour, warmth and good pacing that Ayckbourn injected into the piece were able to overcome the difficulties putting on the play might present.

What do you think? Let us know if you’ve read or seen A Chorus of Disapproval and want to agree or disagree with anything written here.

Future play readings:

  • And a Nightingale Sang  by C.P. Taylor – Thursday 29 August, 8pm

Play reading: Female Transport

This week’s play reading was Female Transport by Steve Gooch. The play focuses on six-month journey taken by a female convict transport ship from England to Australia during the 1780s. As the play progresses, we see relationships build – and break down – between the inmates, as well as between the inmates and their jailers.

Inevitably, given the play’s subject matter and period setting, comparisons were made between Female Transport and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good. While the latter piece uses the convict’s play to drive plot, it was felt that Female Transport had a lack of plot, but that this was not necessarily to its detriment.

Instead the play focuses on people and the relationships that are built during their time at sea. This puts a real focus on characterisation, on which opinion was split. All agreed that the group all had well-defined characters, but some felt that it was difficult to warm to the women.

As the play is written in dialect, it was a challenge to read at points – it was suggested that this may have contributed to a lack of sympathy to the women, and that it would be much better received at a second reading. Others believed that the sympathy would be found in the staging, while some simply welcomed the fact that there were a number of strong female characters in the play.

The staging was an aspect of the play that was discussed at length. The possibility of performing the play in the round was raised and, while not everyone agreed with it, it provoked some lively debate. Lighting was also mentioned; the women are confined to a cell below decks, so it would be likely that any staging of the play would involve quite dingy lights – would an audience be willing to sit through that?

It was generally accepted that this was not a play that would entertain, it would be an experience. Despite this, it was favourably received, with the majority feeling it would be a worthwhile experience for our audience – and something quite different to the usual output of the ALP. It was mooted as a possible candidate for our Abbots Langley Festival of the Arts play.

What do you think? Let us know if you’ve read or seen Female Transport and want to agree or disagree with anything written here.

Future play readings:

  • A Chorus of Disapproval  by Alan Ayckbourn – Tuesday 27 August, 8pm
  • And a Nightingale Sang  by C.P. Taylor – Thursday 29 August, 8pm

Play reading: A Letter from the General

On 13 August, we met to read and discuss A Letter from the General by Maurice McLoughlin.

The play is set in the common room of a mission station in an Eastern country in 1950. The country has been taken over by a harsh and cruel communist regime and all aliens are being ejected. News has reached the mission that some nuns and priests are being shot. The mission’s children have been taken away and the remaining nuns have been ordered to leave. However, as they are harbouring a German missionary priest who had escaped capture, leaving isn’t so simple. One of the inhabitants, an elderly nun, has been writing to the general, who is the new governor of the province. He also happens to be her godson, who she looked after as a boy in an orphanage similar to the one they are currently in. The British consul and his wife arrive after shutting the embassy down – they have brought exit visas for the nuns, along with a deadline to leave by. Tension mounts when the military arrive, headed by a particularly nasty English mercenary captain determined to recapture the escaped priest, who he suspects the nuns have hidden among them.

Reactions to the reading were generally favourable and most people present enjoyed the play.

The play was well-weighted, both in terms of the size of parts and the length of scenes, most felt that the characters were all very well-rounded and interesting with diverse personalities; many characters also have their own epiphany in the storyline.

However, not all agreed with this assertion, with one person mentioning that he found the characters to be one-dimensional and stereotypical.

It was said that the tension built very well and felt real, but the play would need very careful handling in terms of characterisation. In particular, the parts of Lee (the English mercenary) and Schiller (the German priest) would have to be tempered with a great deal of skill to avoid comparison with some stereotypical characters found in many of the comedy characters seen in various war comedy television programmes.

Similarly, the interaction between the nuns is very comical at times, which is fine, but it was felt that it would need to be put across to the audience that the situation they are in is never anything but serious and frightening.

It was agreed that the play sits well in the fifties and the playing needs to reflect those times. Played as a more contemporary piece, worries were raised that it could too easily spill into silliness; it might also tempt the audience to giggle if the drama is allowed to lean towards melodrama. Concerns were voiced that the audience might end up becoming annoyed by the play if it did tip towards melodrama. All those present agreed that performing would require constraint to avoid these pitfalls actually happening.

Overall, the play was positively received, with only one person saying that they did not enjoy it.

What do you think? Let us know if you’ve read or seen A Letter from the General and want to agree or disagree with anything written here.

Future play readings:

  • Female Transport  by Steve Gooch – Tuesday 20 August, 8pm
  • A Chorus of Disapproval  by Alan Ayckbourn – Tuesday 27 August, 8pm

Play reading: Relatively Speaking

On 6 August, a small group of us convened in the Barn to read Relatively Speaking by Alan Ayckbourn. It was a new play for many of the people present, including those who were familiar with other Ayckbourn works.

The play centres around two couples: Greg and Ginny – a young, in-love pair whose relationship is marred by Greg’s suspicion that he may not be Ginny’s only paramour – and Philip and Sheila – an older couple; Sheila may have had an affair, Philip most certainly has had extra-marital relations…with Ginny. When Ginny tells Greg a lie about where she is headed that day, the result – involving both couples – is classic farce, including mistaken identities; improbable, absurd conversations and several plot twists.

The initial reaction to Relatively Speaking among those in the group who know, or have performed in, other Ayckbourn plays was that it didn’t feel like an Ayckbourn. In particular, it was felt that Relatively Speaking lacked a sinister touch that lurks in other Ayckbourn works.

It is possible that the reason for this lies in the impetus behind the play, which was, as Ayckbourn mentions in his introduction to the play, to write a piece “which would make people laugh when their seaside holidays were spoiled by the rain and they came into the theatre to get dry before trudging back to their landladies”.

Despite this, it was noted that the rhythm of the play and the characterisation were what would be expected from an Ayckbourn piece.

Laughs were had at our play reading, but the humour was sparser than expected – we had a discussion about whether this was down to the pacing, which obviously would not be quite right during an initial reading. It was clear that it would need to be performed very quickly and fast-paced, but someone brought up the point that the play seemed to start off rather slowly – this is something that had been picked up on during another Ayckbourn reading.

It was felt that this was a deliberate move on Ayckbourn’s part, giving the audience time to get to know the characters before moving the action up a gear.

Another criticism levelled at Relatively Speaking was that it was, in the main, rather predictable. Many expressed a preference for other Ayckbourn works compared to this. One member of the group went slightly further, and asked whether audiences have grown out of Ayckbourn entirely as time and sensibilities have moved on.

In his introduction to Relatively Speaking, Ayckbourn notes: “In general, the people who liked this play when it was first seen remarked that it was ‘well constructed’; those that didn’t called it old-fashioned.”

Based on the views of those at the play reading on Tuesday, it could be argued that both of those opinions of Relatively Speaking hold true on a contemporary reading.

What do you think? Let us know if you’ve read or seen Relatively Speaking and want to agree or disagree with anything written here.

Future play readings:

  • A Letter from the General  by Maurice McLoughlin – Tuesday 13 August, 8pm
  • Female Transport  by Steve Gooch – Tuesday 20 August, 8pm
  • A Chorus of Disapproval  by Alan Ayckbourn – Tuesday 27 August, 8pm

Summer play readings

We’ll be holding a series of summer play readings in the Barn over the month of August. Please feel free to come along and join in; they’re a good way to get to know the group, plus many of our productions start as a flash of inspiration during a play reading.

We will be reading:

  • Relatively Speaking  by Alan Ayckbourn – Tuesday 6 August, 8pm
  • A Letter from the General  by Maurice McLoughlin – Tuesday 13 August, 8pm
  • Female Transport  by Steve Gooch – Tuesday 20 August, 8pm
  • A Chorus of Disapproval  by Alan Ayckbourn – Tuesday 27 August, 8pm

Updates on the play readings, including what the group made of each play, will be popped up here over the next month. If you have any questions, if you want to find out more or if you can’t make it but would like to read the play and send in your thoughts, email abbotsplayers@gmail.com.