RSC Open Stages: London, A to (almost) Z

Being part of the Open Stages project has given us the opportunity to meet a variety of amateur groups – and it’s been fascinating to see the wildly varying differences in how am-dram societies operate. However, what’s been clear throughout is that the love and respect that we all have for the theatrical arts is something we all share, regardless of how we put on our plays.

We thought we’d share with you some of the plays we’ve been fortunate enough to get out and see, so you can get a sense of the range of the Open Stages project, as well as the impressive innovation on show throughout.

So here, from A to (almost) Z, are all the Open Stages productions we’ve been lucky enough to experience over the last year and a bit.

  • Alexandra Players, performing We Happy Few

It seems strange to kick this off with a play we didn’t get to see, but Jackie and Keith Hartley from the Alexandra Players have been a couple of our very favourite people that we’ve met through Open Stages, so we’re giving them an honorary mention – especially as we’d meant to go up, but had to cancel last minute. We Happy Few, by Imogen Stubbs, is about a group of women who form a theatre company during the Second World War, and decide to tour Shakespeare’s Henry V around the country. Unlike most of the other groups (especially the ones doing original Shakespearean plays…), Alexandra benefitted from having a live author to talk to – and we learned (with some envy!) that Jackie had been in correspondence with Imogen Stubbs about their production. Out of all of the groups, Alexandra’s trials, tribulations and triumphs of putting on a successful production seemed to chime with our own experiences the most.

  • The Alternatives, performing Lear

This modern take on King Lear, set in the 1930s, saw King Lear, the fool, Kent and Edgar played by and as women, along with the three daughters retaining their female sex. Hence, King Lear becomes just Lear. The timeshift to an era of social change, where the cracks are beginning to show and the chaos and madness of war is waiting in the wings, proved relevant to the context of the play, as well as a modern audience. The Alternatives clearly portrayed the play’s central theme of Lear’s journey from power, to chaos, to redemption. It was fascinating to discover that their director, Julie Weston, lives in Edinburgh, but once every four weeks travels down to London where the cast and crew work intensively over the whole weekend, for four or five months. They gave a very high-standard performance, and we saw some lovely 1930s frocks: what more could you ask for?

  • Dulwich Players, performing The Comedy of Errors

Although we didn’t get to see this first time around, the Dulwich Players took their production up to the Dell in Stratford-upon-Avon and we decided to take a trip up to see them Shakespeare Country – it was a perfect excuse for us to visit Hall’s Croft, the setting for our very own production. Armed with posh fizzy beverages and strawberries and cream, we settled ourselves in for the outdoor production; a stripped-back version of Shakespeare’s tale, which used a sparse set – not to mention the interaction possibilities with the audience – to great effect, and to delightfully comedic ends.

  • Lindley Players, performing Arden of Faversham

Peter Bressington, the director of Lindley Players’ production, described this as “Tarantino on speed” – and who are we to disagree?! This Jacobean tragedy was brought up to date and set in a Guy Ritchie-esque Cockney gangster’s house – and the timeshift worked incredibly well. The new setting made it clear why trophy-wife Alice Arden had married her husband – and, equally, why she wanted rid – without needing to trouble with any expository dialogue. The prologue to the play, shown as a BBC News bulletin about the trial verdicts, was very clever indeed – and the show boasted some great special effects; the stabbing, in particular, was brutally realistic. Some brilliant acting and we treated ourselves to some Whitstable oysters, too: we did like to be beside the seaside.

  • Pirton Players, performing Julius Caesar

For this performance, director Anton Jungreuthmayer transformed Pirton Players’ regular haunt of the local village hall into a dystopian nightmare – think Roman Empire meets 1984 – with Julius Caesar cast as the dictator. Key quotes from each scene of the play were made into posters, beamed over the performers via video screen. The audience were set each side of the action, giving the production a slightly claustrophobic atmosphere – one where you could imagine paranoia and dissent breeding quite easily. Allegiances were easily discernible to those uninitiated to the story thanks to the creative use of coloured sashes, which were hung up on the metal fencing as each character died, giving a constant reminder of the ever-growing body count. This was the first Open Stages production we got to see, and its innovation and quality made us even more proud to be a part of the project – and slightly terrified about the standards our own production needed to meet! And we weren’t the only ones who thought so; at the first regional showcase of performances a few months back, Pirton were chosen to represent London at the national showcase at the RSC in Stratford.

  • Putney Theatre Company, performing Henry V

This was, at first glance, a more traditionally conventional staging of Henry V. However, first impressions can be deceiving, and so it proved for the Putney Theatre Company. Kim Dyas and Barney Hart-Dyke blended the traditional with the modern for this production. The period costume and staging worked well when juxtaposed with the more modern set. The choice to have the chorus as two black-clad narrators was a brilliant move, giving the sense that you were looking through a window in time, with the storytellers as your guide. All the performances were natural and believable – definitely worth the two-and-a-half-hour traffic jam we sat in in order to get to the theatre.

  • Questors, performing Macbeth

For the last year and a half, Questors has been our home away from home when it comes to am-dram, so it was great to get a chance to see the theatre at work as part of the Open Stages project. The brilliant set for this gave the tone for the entire play; a stark, uniform colour with everything at a slight tilt. It was at once recognisable, yet slightly unsettling. This was continued with the Witches, who lent the play an appropriately Gothic-style opening. The portrayal of both Macbeths’ descent into their individual forms of insanity were very well played, and ably supported by a talented cast of players.

  • Theatre in the Square, performing What She Will

This completely original production, written by director Jane Jones for Theatre in the Square, looked at Shakespeare’s life and plays through the prism of the women he knew and loved. Narrated by Ann Hathaway, and interspersed with choice female-centric snippets from Shakespearean works, this play also featured original music. It was wonderful – and unusual – to see a period piece where men were peripheral to women’s stories – as well as an inventive spin on Shakespeare’s muses and motivations. The music provided a beautiful framing for the entire performance and bridged the gap between Jacobean London and 21st-century London effortlessly. And the performances, with each actor playing multiple roles, were all distinct and really well-realised.

  • Wokingham Theatre, performing Summon Up The Blood

When we heard that Nicky Allpress was planning to condense 12-hours’ worth of Shakespeare into one two-hour play for Wokingham Theatre, we marvelled. She took on the almost Herculean endeavour of combining Henry IV, parts I and II, Henry V and Henry VI, parts I, II and II into a cohesive historical narrative that didn’t lose out on any of the entertaining aspects. And, by George (or rather, by Henry), she did it. A fantastically impressive set were more than matched by the terrific acting, and the great concept. Using journalists as narrators, allowing the plot to move along swiftly and efficiently, proved a great asset. And we loved the reframing of the plays as Henry VI looking back over his family’s history, wondering how it had all come to this.

So there we have it, a wealth of talented people making wonderful theatre – and the best thing is that not only is this only a small fraction of the Open Stages projects happening across the UK, it’s also only some of the productions happening in the London area. Proof positive, as if it were needed, that you don’t have to look too far from home to find great, inspirational theatre for a fraction of the price of a West End show.

Want to come and see an Open Stages production? ALP will be staging The Herbal Bed from 21-25 April in the grounds of St Lawrence Church, Abbots Langley (covered seating provided), as well as inside the church.

To book online, go to www.abbotslangleyplayers.ticketsource.co.uk or call the Box Office on 0844 804 5354.

In addition, on Saturday 25 April, from 2pm to 4pm, ALP are holding a “community showcase” for local groups and societies to present themselves to our community – please come along and see what our village has to offer. If you’d like to take part in the community showcase, email abbotsplayers@gmail.com.

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