Oh What A Lovely War: Nov 2014

Review by Gill Lambourn

As I’m sure most of you know this is one of my all time favourites and I was so pleased to find you’d had pretty much full houses and that so many members were involved in one way or another. I knew all FOH people and the whole cast with one exception, plus two of the musicians so still felt much at home.

The absolute stars of the production were the sound and lighting teams who did an absolutely brilliant job throughout. Effects were superb and timing as far as I could tell faultless, so well done all. They so enhanced the whole production and all those on stage should be so appreciative of how much added quality their efforts gave to the show.

The band was similarly good and I could tell how much your MD had helped and supported you all to produce a standard of singing, not just from the musically gifted but the entire cast. The result was certainly one of if not the best all round vocal performance I’ve heard from Shepperton Players. I enjoyed their playing very much although on occasion they did overwhelm the vocals – not any of the soloists but when the whole cast sang together un-mic’d and I have to say for me even though there were some advantages I think I would still opt for simply piano, base and drums to accompany this show. Purely a personal opinion and not a criticism of their playing.

The set was interesting and appropriate and ensured that relevant characters and scenes were well placed and easily visible to the whole audience. The space under the platforms that allowed sandbags and other smaller items to be stored on stage made for slick scene changing whilst still looking of the period when stored away. I liked the two looped red curtains that fitted on the rails I’m afraid I can’t remember exactly when used, but Emma and Carol will know what I mean. And I can’t move on without reference to the bunting that became less and less smart and celebratory and time went by! Nice one Carol.

The opening was fun although I felt maybe the band could have played a more of the music before the cast started to arrive as for me the waving seemed to go on a for rather longer than the cast were able to hold my interest just by wandering and waving – a minor criticism probably due to my butterfly level of focus! But it set the scene and the overture was lively.

This was a real ensemble piece with every single member of the cast more than earning their share of the applause by the end. The opening circus scene presents the director with a difficult challenge to get the whole thing started. No matter how you stage it the actual story of which country did what, why and to whom to hasten the declaration of war is complex and although I have now been involved in three productions, seen the film and several stage productions I have to admit to being no more certain than I was before. It is necessary but the various national anthems and music do little to help. Emma did her best to make it interesting and it kept moving but in the end it remains for me very much a necessary evil to be got through before the fun can begin.

The spy scene was well handled with very good accents from Alastair and Anne whilst Katharine gave us a spirited reprise of her role as the street vendor caught in the middle. In fact I must say that the accents throughout were really good. The business men scene is a notoriously difficult one but in this production was interesting, convincing and had plenty of movement. Well done. Emma you were fortunate in having Mr Ross on hand with his fluent French and Richard Fordyce to provide the most convincing Scottish gillie I’ve seen. The Irish team were very believable and Keith and Howard also contributed in the accent department so congrats to all on that front.

Kathryn Hocking did a great job with the movement. Fortunately this show depends as much or more on the acting and singing ability of the cast that their virtuosity in the dance department and having, as many of you will remember, spent twelve long weeks attempting to get marching and other simple moves done in time and on the right feet I much appreciated her work and success on the choreography. Everyone looked as though they knew what they were doing and where they were going and whilst when they marched around I would have wished for heads to be turned more out front in order to project the vocals and draw us into the scene, in general I felt everything worked well. It was lovely too to have a convincing ballet dancer even though again no one has ever managed to make me understand exactly what Joan Littlewood’s workshop company really had in mind when they included her! Kathryn is delightful on stage and demonstrated a clear tuneful voice in her solo Hitchy Koo which she performed beautifully. I was slightly disappointed that she hadn’t involved Alex more in the movement of the number as I believe he is capable of performing steps and it would have been nice to see them dance together more. I suspect that truth told Kathryn had little time left for her own number after getting everything else done.

I seem to have got a long way without a mention of the Steve Inglis the only newcomer for me. He did a good job as the compere. The opening is a little thankless for him with a slot to fill with bad jokes but he did it well and has a nice presence and decent projection. I could hear every word clearly. I have no idea if the accent is his usual one or adopted for the role but it worked in the context of a slightly average (not your performances but as the show is intended) end of the pier entertainment company. Hopefully he will stay around for future productions.

In the straight acting roles mention must be made of Derek Stringer who did a great job as Haig and also had a delightful turn as the sergeant major. Always a fun scene he and Emma found a novel way of getting it over. An actor must really know the dialogue well to use it in this way and it really was well done and funny. Anne Wheeldon produced her usual quality performance as Pankhurst although I felt she needed a few additional or less polite hecklers against whom to rail for the scene to really grab me. I was also slightly concerned about the very small box she had to stand on – It slightly distracted me hoping she wouldn’t fall off. Maybe she’d have been better using the slightly larger if lower long side of it. Too late now and all was well so a pointless worry! Robert too was his usual reliable self being convincing in all his cameos and was always in the right place at the right time making sure all went well. I mention these three but there were no weak links on the acting front so please if I haven’t mentioned you specifically know that you did a good job. Howard In particular I know must have been hard pressed as he also appeared in the festival production I believe but in addition to making me smile by achieving the difficult task of occasionally marching using the same arm and leg instead of opposite, he also had some lovely bits, the summit scene involving Keith was one that springs to mind as nicely staged and played by all concerned.

Having said earlier that vocally you did really well I must make reference to some items especially. Alex Alderson has a beautiful voice and her rendition of Keep the Home Fires Burning was just divine, her voiced soared above the rest throughout. The only one time I’d wished it was less wonderful was during the church service scene where she effortlessly and I’m sure unknowingly, almost drowned out the massed voices of the soldiers. From a purely musical viewpoint this doesn’t matter at all but since at this point their lyrics provide the real meat of the scene it was a pity. I was reliably informed that this had not happened in any other performance so don’t worry Alex just keep singing the way you do.

The soldiers unaccompanied singing was real goose pimple stuff congrats that scene was a real highlight of atmosphere, lighting and song – terrific. The singing off stage was always of good volume although I felt Gassed Last Night and Wizzbang could perhaps have got nearer to the whispered quality of vocals that provide the absolute spine chilling quality I’d have liked. It’s difficult and maybe Emma and Colin didn’t ask for that but I’d have liked it. Peter did well with Silent Night so well known it’s hard to do convincingly within the scene but you did. Infact the Christmas Eve dugout is one of the best scenes and was well handled. Perhaps cue bites could have been a tad quicker the night I saw it but a minor detail.

Whilst on the subject of the dug out Cookhouse was very well delivered by Alastair. I would have liked a smidge more jollity from him, I know war’s a serious game but I looked in vain for his smile in this show and he has a nice a nice smile. It was good to see Alex Blackie another ex RYT member strutting his stuff here and he brought some much needed youth to the male side of the ensemble. He and Richard were just right in not wanting to be a soldier and his Dirty Rotten Tunic worked well too. It’s was a shame that for many and various reasons Emma lost out on the services of many young actors, at least we can be thankful their reasons for absence were less serious than they would have been in 1914 and I am certainly not suggesting the cast she had fell short in any way but the piece is so much more poignant when the youthful age of the combatants is at the forefront.

The women on the other hand were a young and attractive bunch. Beautiful Belinda Doyle gave us an intelligent and saucy rendition of Kibosh. You need a brain and good diction to put this over well and she has both. Lovely presence and great charm. We also had a nice duet from Belinda and Alastair in Roses of Picardy well performed by both although there was good connection with the audience I’d have liked more between the two of them I think. It was just a little two separate people rather than a loving couple.

Emma Heaton is always good value on stage she has wonderful facial expressions and got everything out of all her cameos with a wonderful rollicking performance of Sister Suzie, with good helpers too! I’m waiting for Shepperton Players to give her a role that will really allow her to demonstrate what a terrific actress she is – find one please.

Props were well found and well used. I know Pauline goes to a lot of trouble and provided exactly what was required in this as in every show. Costumes too were many and various and I felt looked really good. As someone who is for the most part unobservant, I do always notice costumes that haven’t been either put on with quite the care they might have been, or appear not to have been ironed by their wearers and the ballroom scene gave me occasion to notice both things. I know the pierrot tops were bulky but a little judicious adjusting could have worked wonders and some of the skirts looked to me as though they’d had a hard week or could have done with an iron. Also at various times in the production men had belts that looked as though they’d been slung on in the dark. This may well have been so, as I suspect there were plenty of quick changes done backstage or in no time but…The wardrobe ladies aren’t there to be your servants and just a few seconds, a glance in the mirror or a minute spent checking your costume before the show really is worthwhile. It’s something that is “amateur” I’m afraid. Sort it!

But enough of that, I had a wonderful evening. You kept me interested and gave your best in every discipline acting, singing and movement so a really good production and well up to the standard expected. I can’t end without saying a huge well done to Emma. I will gloss over the reasons why this has been even more challenging she anticipated but she has triumphed over all and I am so pleased. I know you all and especially the committee and Steve Lewis in particular have been hugely supportive but to see her on stage singing the song she’s been waiting so long to sing, with a sparkle in her eye and a spring in her step was for me the highlight of the evening. Great show, see you all next time.

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