We were lucky to have two reviews for our recent joint production with Manor Players for this play.
Review by Geoff Buckingham
To take on an Agatha Christie play takes courage. Although her legendary writing skills are likely to put bums on seats, the owners of those bums are likely to have very high expectations. And , on the hottest day of the year so far, could Riverside Players meet those expectations and cope with the exhaustive dialogue , in their second performance of the day, without wilting? I am happy to say that the answer was a resounding ‘Yes’!
It was a privilege to be in the audience, and how nice beforehand, to enter Riverside and see that great stalwart David Young back, and carrying out the vital task of Box Office. Emerging into the auditorium we were greeted with a splendid stage set, and the entertainment commenced even before the play started, as the suitably dated announcements of James Ford-Bannister reminded us that mobile phones were not invented during the period that the play was based upon.
The initial dialogue was gentle but the audience soon became gripped as the storyline developed , and sub-plots of infidelity , envy, rivalry, family tensions and insecurities gradually absorbed us. And, much to our delight, there were even a few sprinklings of humour, both in dialogue and actions, to help lighten the intensity.
Agatha Christie’s mastery of suspense and surprise shone throughout. And that is a testament to the skill of the cast, crew and director, for nothing less than a very high standard was required to deliver this lengthy and challenging piece and to keep the audience enthralled on a very hot evening.
The mood lighting, music of the era, sound effects, furniture and props were excellent , and the cast used them so well, and naturally. I never realised we had so many pipe and cigarette smokers and pistol users in Sunbury!. And a special word for those costumes. Immaculate!
Now for the cast. At this point in a review it is customary for some cast members to feel a bit of trepidation. I know, because I have been there! Well, you can all relax. No matter how hard I try, I simply cannot find any notable failings. It was superbly cast.
Sally Penman gave a very watchable and absorbing performance as the arty, but scheming Henrietta Angkatell. I particularly liked her breakdown! Peter Smith, is a real doyen of our local Arts scene, and stepped up to the plate(at very short notice I believe) to deliver a fine performance as Sir Henry Angkatell. I liked the way he artfully conveyed his loving tolerance of his quirky wife, Lady Angkatell! And she was played by Anne Wheeldon. What can I say about Anne? Well, I had better be careful as she has a habit these days of coming across dead bodies , and always seems to be thoroughly enjoying it! She beautifully conveyed the role and her character’s excitement at having a corpse in her living room, and the thrill of attending her very first inquest was a joy to behold. I also loved the endearing way she popped a sweet into her husband’s mouth!
This was the first time I had seen Shayla Ash on stage. And I hope it is the first of many. Her portrayal of Midge Harvey was enjoyable, very professional and sparking .Clearly, this young lady is destined for great things. Robert Johnson must, surely, have been born to be a butler?! His Gudgeon was absolutely perfect. One of his very best performances, and he brought just the right degree of servitude yet pomposity to colour his character. And didn’t he wear those white gloves well?! If ever Downton Abbey need a new Mr Carson, they need look no further than Robert!. His maid, Doris, was absolutely delightfully played by Emma Heaton. A great example of how a cameo role can brighten up a dramatic piece. And, in Emma’s case, she used her great skills of expression and reactions to bring more humour than even Agatha Christie could have dreamed of.
Nick Hampshire took on what I consider to be the very difficult role of the anguished Edward Angkatell. It requires special talents to make an audience feel such anguish and Nick delivered this with great sincerity and aplomb.
Another tough role was that of Gerda Cristow and , again, we had another of our younger talents, Saara-Sofia Paakko, step up to the plate, and deliver a very convincing performance of the seemingly slow-witted wife who turns out to be not as simple and innocent as we thought. A great bit of hysterics at the end, that jolted the audience. Another fine performance from this young lady who is proving such a versatile asset to the local drama scene. Her husband, John Cristow, was played with great polish by Alastair Ross. So convincing was he as the successful but self-centred , condescending , multi-philandering doctor that my guest commented “ He was so real that he must, surely, be a right bastard in real life?!”. No finer compliment can be paid than that! ( but I did put her right afterwards)
Then we had one of his many lovers ( I really don’t know how Alastair manages to keep up his strength in this hot weather) in film star Veronica Craye, played with great relish by Sarah Boyle. Sarah burst onto the stage in her first entrance, and grabbed our attention with a dazzling portrayal from then on. A formidable performance from a formidable performer.
My research revealed that Agatha Christie originally had Hercule Poirot as the detective , in her novel of ‘The Hollow’, written in 1946. But, surprisingly, she did not like that character, and replaced him with Inspector Colquhoun in the subsequent Stage Play , written in 1951. Agatha, you made a great decision! For that gave us the chance to see Matt Markham’s masterful rendering of a the avuncular yet adroit Inspector who helps resolve the crime, albeit he plays his part in adding to the casualty count. The lesson here is ‘Never accept a drink from Matt Markham!’ Seriously, though, a most skillful and adept performance from one of our newer members who just seems to go from strength to strength. He was joined in his quest by newcomer Mike Gates. It is never easy performing in a role that does not have much dialogue, but Mike performed admirably as this dutiful, but bright, young Detective Sergeant Penny . One must never underestimate the importance of such a role, as he proved the perfect colleague for Inspector Colquhoun, and ultimately helped resolve the mystery. I look forward to seeing more of Mike in the future.
So, that is the cast. But a special word for those whom we did not see. James Ford-Bannister as Stage Manager, who also amused us with his announcements. And Jo Stockbridge the Prompt. I did not notice any prompting in the performance, but I feel sure Jo played a vital role in that! The reason is that Jo is so dedicated that she gives the cast the benefit of her prompting from many weeks beforehand. This, when coupled with a cast who clearly worked so hard on learning their considerable amount of lines, helped ensure a really good production and seamless continuity .
I doff my cap also to the unselfish work of the rest of the team who did so much behind the scenes , and in many hours of preparation, to make this a fulfilling experience for cast and audience alike. A lovely touch during the interval seeing Ron Millinger resplendent in bow tie as he poured out the teas too!
I have left the most important people until last. Caroline Button , the director, assisted by Sophie Hellicar. They not only cast the play superbly but also worked wonders with this very challenging piece . A great performance does not happen by accident, even when you have a very talented cast. A huge amount of planning and guidance is required, especially with numerous exits , entrances and swathes of slick yet emotional dialogue. They created a triumph for Riverside Players and an event for which our local drama scene must be rightly proud of.
I will leave you with this thought:
The first performance of this stage play, in 1951, received the following critique from The Times “ An Ingenious entertainment, but no very high polish on the performance of the actors”
Well, in 2019 at The Riverside Arts Centre in Sunbury, the bar was raised and I reckon if that Times critic had been there he would have said “ An ingenious entertainment PLUS a very high polish on the performance of the actors”
Well done Riverside Players!
I hadn’t expected to be reviewing this production but was asked at the last minute – no problem as I already had my ticket bought and was set to make my usual trip up the A3 to visit you all. As ever I felt immediately welcome seeing first David on the box office and then Eric, both being friendly and efficient – A quick look at the post board where I still somehow expect to see a something addressed to me even after all this time and then into the auditorium to find a comfy seat and a set that looked lovely and very correct for the period as was the opening music. All in all a great start to the afternoon.
I had wondered who had taken over the part of Sir Henry as I knew Stephen had had to withdraw from the production. Peter Smith was a more than competent replacement and anyone other than me would not have known he had only three short weeks to get it together. Whilst he may not have Stephen’s voice and suitably clipped BBC accent he nevertheless was well suited to the part and gave a nice reliable performance.
I have now seen Shayla Ash several times and she always gives a performance with plenty of energy and creates a believable character. She didn’t disappoint as the girl suffering unrequited love. It was really good to see the return of several friends whose faces have been sadly missing from the Riverside stage for too long. Sally Penman carried off the role of the arty sculptor with great period dash and aplomb and Alastair Ross was perfect as the intelligent and philandering Doctor Cristow. Their romantic scene was convincing. I have just two complaints firstly that with his murder we lost Alastair’s acting ability far too soon and secondly that amongst some really good and accurate costumes he had neither a tie ‘nor a cravat. A country house party – no tie? I think not!! A very rare slip from Chantal perhaps there was a reason I didn’t know.
Emma Heaton an actress and person close to my heart. I cast her in her first leading role s Alice in Wonderland way back in youth theatre history and have never ceased to be impressed with her performances. This was not a role that stretched her at all, but she enjoyed her delightful cameo moment in the light when it came – it would be great to see Emma playing something really challenging, but her comic timing was just right and she made something worthwhile of a very ordinary part. Emma’s partner in the below stairs world was Robert Johnson who gave us a butler of real Jeeves proportions. His diction was perfect and his subservient but all knowing and intelligent right-hand man was great fun. Nice one Robert.
Nick Hampshire another actor whom I cast in his first role at Riverside when he was a young, incredibly energetic but naturally talented boy of eleven! He is far too handsome to play the stodgy, boring Edward – but he did his best to subdue his natural vitality and athleticism in the role. I hope to see him play something offering more scope to his undoubted ability next time. It was a shame that he and Shayla were short changed by both the writer and the director in their proposal scene but they got all they could from what they were given. Why in the middle of an intimate and important moment did Shayla move away and sit on a box meaning Nick had to squat on his haunches to propose. She’s waited for years for him to notice her, there’s no way she’d move away the first time her was about to kiss her….leaving them close and intimate and letting her simply collapse down after the shock proposal onto the armchair immediately where she was standing would have been perfectly natural and given them a much better basis for their emotions.
This is a play with far better roles for women than men. Sally and Shayla had fun with theirs but the character at the centre of the play was definitely Anne Wheeldon’s Lady Angkatell and she certainly had a ball with it giving a delicious performance as the outwardly eccentric and slightly batty lady of the manor who beneath the exterior is a devious and conniving plotter. (shades of Miss Marple) She was a joy to watch throughout. Well done Anne.
There were two more interesting women – perhaps Christie found it more difficult to create interesting and convincing men – her only really memorable male creation being Poirot a man of quite feminine traits – her other men are for the most part either suave bad lots of rather dim and dull – just my opinion but one that holds good in this piece at any rate. Saara-Sofia gave a nice performance as Gerda – the part suited her. Having decided that the culprit was probably Sal’s character as she was the only one with no red herring activity it was quite a nice twist that the initial and most likely suspect turned out to be the right one. The final woman in the piece the Hollywood star with British upbringing, a frequently used idea and not just by Agatha. From what I’ve seen of Sarah Boyle previously she has what the part requires in looks and delivery so I was slightly disappointed this time. It’s a difficult balance to give a very big performance but not false and somehow she didn’t quite pull it off for me. For her first entrance which should be a big event she given a very low key sidle on that no film start would go along with. Director give her the start she deserves to make impact. The relationship with John lacked the sexual tension needed to make me believe in the mad one night stand and her unquestioning belief that both she and John would drop everything to be together. The dated dialogue both between her and Alastair and between her and Peter didn’t help. It was far from a bad performance but should have been a real stunner of a cameo and it wasn’t. Such is life – better luck next time. I will say though that your accent was lovely – very cut glass!
The long arm of the law was well portrayed by Matt Markham and Mike Gates. Matt gave us a thoughtful inspector and nicely underplayed the slightly unrealistic speed and accuracy with which he knew exactly what was going on. As his side kick Mike could have being simply the small part person but he made a nice character and never dropped out of it. I don’t think I’ve seen him before (apologies if I have and forgot) but hope to see him again he shows potential. A nice pairing they did a good job.
A few random comments – I am always irritated by the way people handle flowers on stage and it happened again here – please people when you next arrange real flowers note how you handle them – in my experience it’s never by holding the bloom. I don’t want to know they’re just plastic!! –Also this time the poor things didn’t even get given any water in the vase!
The smoking – I’m not sure it worked for me – I understand the problems and I realise that in this period it was popular. The cigarette cases looked good and the business of getting them out looks elegant but I think since here only appeared to be one occasion when it was mentioned in the dialogue it would have been easy to cut it out. I find it irritating when lighters have no flame and cigarettes light time (rarely happened) also silly that cigarettes that haven’t reduced at all in length are apparently discarded and stubbed out. Vaping cigarettes even without the vape can be charged and will at least light up red at the ends even if they also remain full length. I hate being fogged out with herbal smoke as much as the next person….the cast handled the business with naturalness but I think probably better without them them overall.
I’ve already mentioned costume and I would in particular say I loved Sally’s pink and red outfit and I loved the programme artwork too, different and atmospheric. Furniture was good – personally I never plae sofas straight on, angling them saves people being stuck behind and offers ease of movement and more attractive stage pictures. But my only niggle was the DSR armchair which was too near the wall. Several cast had to squeeze behind it and I could see no reason why it couldn’t have been a few inches further out. Or if it had to be so close to the wall then let people move in front of it – no one squeezes through a little gap if not necessary and it’s not as if the actors were oversized in anyway.
Sound was fine if undemanding and the general lighting was perfectly good with no black spots. However, I really disliked the sudden darkness and flashing lights during Alastair’s demise. This is a naturalistic piece why plunge us into a pitch black scene with lightning flashing!! I understand this was to cover Alastair’s stagger from the windows down onto the sofa – We didn’t need that either. It was an ugly and unnecessary move – if you know he’s going to die by the French windows don’t put your sofa right in front of them – If you want him to die on the sofa then place it at an angle where he can collapse onto it easily – either of these is perfectly possible on the Riverside stage without compromising the entrances and exits to other parts of the house and garden. Let him die in daylight – have the big dénouement moment of everyone finding Gerda with the gun. Then a good blackout with the two policemen having their scene downstage on one side so that other actors can exit quickly and easily on the other side of the stage unnoticed. Perhaps this was John being bored with no lighting cues – who knows – but it made the murder into a Victorian Gothic melodrama that almost made me laugh. Sorry.
Overall this production was “over moved” I felt either that the director had tried to include every mover as per the script regardless of the fact that she had a different set, different furniture placing and different actors; or she just hated anyone being still for more than two or three lines. I realised chatting to the cast that this was the person who directed the play about theMP with which I had the same problem. Movement should support the writing and the acting not be inserted for the sake of it. It causes a distraction when used too much and if the plot and dialogue are decent they will hold the audience without needing constant motion. Watch people moving – we rarely if ever take the long route to our destination – the nearest and easiest is the way we choose and if we’re in close or important conversation we absolutely don’t move away willy-nilly. I’m sorry to be critical and of course it’s just my opinion but please let the plot and the characters do the work and please, please, don’t get tied to the stage directions.
Anyway, enough said. It was an enjoyable performance and I think Sophie is owed a huge thank you for the effort she made to get so many long absent actors back on the stage, it was worth it Soph they did you proud. You have a lot of talent there, do your best to find plays that will challenge and excite them and us. So many fantastic plays out there and your terrific group of actors of all ages gives the potential to do great productions. I look forward to seeing them. Despite the cuts I was assured had been made The Hollow is overlong. It manages to hold the interest despite this but I was pleased I’d attended the matinee. As a vehicle to demonstrate what can be achieved when the two Riverside groups pool resources it made an excellent start, I have long believed that one cohesive group has to be the future there and together you can mount really admirable productions. Well done all round. PS – nice to see Doris doing the coffee – maybe back on stage next time?
And finally – if any of you have the time or the energy to come and review my work – you’ve just missed Hangmen my most recent directing outing but I do have the lead part in Arundel Players festival production We Happy Few by Imogen Stubbs – performances Saturday 17th – Saturday 24th August inclusive. No matinee I’m afraid. Tickets on ticketsource!! A chance to return the compliment or get your revenge either is fine by me, I’ll just go home and admire my dozens of acting and directing awards!! Seriously though – it’s just one person’s opinion and I am your humble critic and long term supporter. Gill