Come along to ALP’s October Club Night

Our next ALP club night will be on Monday 12 October 2015 at 8pm in the Barn, behind Abbots Langley High Street. Siobhan O’Hara will be leading a workshop on voice and text based on her recent experiences at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford.

Come and join us for an interesting and entertaining evening. Refreshments will be provided.

All ALP members are welcome, if you would like to find out more, email abbotsplayers@gmail.co.uk

If you would like to join Abbots Langley Players, we would love to hear from you.  

Contact us on the email address above.

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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.

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.

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