john biggins
Writing credits


Scriptwriting

Night Shift

Police Series

BBC Wales

Breakfast Serials

The Battling Braithwaites

BBC Children's Television

The Impresario

Modern adaptation of Mozart Operetta

Music Theatre Wales

Jealousy Tango

Chamber Opera

Music Theatre Wales/Banff Music Theatre, Canada

Capital Gains

Play

BBC Radio Wales

Ratkan II

Continuity Sketches

Children's Channel

Congratulations

Rehearsed playreading

W. Yorks Playhouse

Fiction

A Skimpton Compendium

Seven short stories based around Faysgarth School in the 1930s

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Theatre reviews
published in Rogues & Vagabonds theatre website

Comfort Me With Apples
Hampstead Theatre, 26.10.05


Nell Leyshon's play Comfort Me With Apples makes for a frustrating evening, and continues the Hampstead Theatre's recent patchy record of uncovering new work for the stage.
Undoubtedly, Leyshon can write – with a poetic intensity that vividly recreates the musty, decomposing feel of orchard life in an autumnal Somerset, the turning apples and moribund branches symbols of a livelihood under threat and a family rotten with dark secrets. What seems to be beyond her, on this showing at least, is character development.

A determinedly misanthropic mother grieves the death of her husband, rows with her damaged son, bickers with her simple-minded brother and is incapacitated with hatred for her recently returned daughter and son's ex-girlfriend. There's more than a whiff of the stinking truth lurking, and boy does Leyshon trade on this: 'Don't, Roy', 'Leave it Linda', 'Don't go there Brenda' seem to be the catchphrases of a deeply repetitive first half where everyone's desperate to avoid confronting the past. And when all is revealed well into the second half, there's little to get excited about, and nothing we haven't seen before in countless other family sagas.

Anna Calder-Marshall does her best with Irene, a woman so devoid of redeeming features that you can't help feeling that death must have come as something of a relief to her husband. And there are fine performances elsewhere: Alan Williams excels as Len, the backward brother forever putting his foot in it, and there's a fine turn from Peter Hamilton Dyer as the tortured son Roy. Helen Schlesinger's Brenda is the writer's attempt to whip the piece into shape, and the effect of her return to the family momentarily suggests plot development, until she's given another tongue lashing by her misogynistic mum and sent on her way. Similarly Roy's unrequited love interest Linda (poignantly played by Kate Lonergan), brings a temporary breath of air to the funereal proceedings, but she's apparently already given them up as a bad lot and unsurprisingly has a new life elsewhere.

There's a fine set by Mike Britton; the earth-filled stage serves as both interior and, strewn with apples, the tortured orchard outside. And Lucy Bailey's atmospheric production is suitably morose and heavy with the incense of rural decay and superstition. But Leyshon's ponderous script takes itself far too seriously, relies too heavily for its dramatic effect on withholding information, and populates the stage with characters for whom one can have little sympathy.


Heroes
Wyndham's Theatre, 19.10.05


Gerald Sybleyras’s Heroes would fit perfectly in the Radio Four half hour afternoon slot, preferably dipped into whilst curled up in front of a roaring fire with crumpets and tea. The fact that this slight piece, translated by Tom Stoppard, is given the four star treatment at Wyndham’s Theatre says more about the paucity of decent writing in the West End than it does about the play’s merit.
Three World War One veterans hang around the gorgeous walled terrace of the sanitorium in which they have been incarcerated for some time, and discuss the joys of observing teenage girls and the possibility that their proprietor is prone to murdering the inmates. It’s 1959, and thoughts turn to escape. Indo China is briefly considered before an expedition to a nearby line of poplars is decided upon – this despite the fact that one would-be escapee is carrying an unfeasible amount of weight on a dodgy leg, another is prone to fits, and the last suffers from a severe case of agorophobia.

There are echoes of Waiting for Godot here; a longing to stave off death, and frequent references to off-stage characters. There’s also a sneaking resemblance to Yasmina Reza’s engaging and hugely successful three hander Art, coincidentally starring the perennially watchable Ken Stott in the same theatre. But Sybleyras’s play suffers by comparison. It’s undeniably whimsical, good natured, occasionally amusing, beautiful to look at (design by Robert Jones, sumptuously lit by Howard Harrison), and the performances ride Stoppard’s elegant translation with considerable guile and wit, but the script skirts the issues in favour of a rather cloying affability.


The Rat Pack Live in Las Vegas
Savoy Theatre, 20.9.05


Three lounge-suited louches trade mild insults and entertain themselves with strong drink and the odd off-colour remark: looking at Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Junior forty-odd years on, it’s a good job their song and dance routines were delicious, because their famous banter now leaves rather an unpleasant taste.

At the risk of sounding churlish, because essentially The Rat Pack Live in Las Vegas is a harmless slice of showbiz nostalgia, it’s a shame we have to be reminded of the casual racism, homophobia and sexism which passed for ‘cool’ at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in 1960. True, there’s a real sense of camaraderie between the guys – but do we really need to hear them dropping ‘jew’ gags and mincing about the stage pretending to be gay?

This slick tribute show has some fine performances, a tremendous band, fantastic songs, great suits and hilarious dancing girls with smiles fixed with toupee tape and voices as beguiling as any on stage. And on the 1000th performance we were even treated to previous cast members joining in for a celebratory finale, complete with tearful director Mitch Sebastian all but thanking his mum and dad. And though there’s an undeniable feeling of disappointment that the voices of Stephen Triffit, Mark Adams and David Hayes don’t quite match the cool cats they’re impersonating, their own renditions more than do justice to the repertoire of classics they gamely deliver.

It’s an odd experience peeking into a world so different from ours without the intervention of a playwright’s perspective – we see a live, detailed copy of a legendary floor show from 1960, warts and all. And though it’s easy to enjoy the ride when the music’s flowing, it’s less comfortable when Davis Junior’s being ordered about the stage like a mischievous coon by his dismissive white superiors. And knowing what we know about Davis’s acute sensitivity to racism, his controversial marriage to a Swedish dancer, and the various stances he took against segregation and prejudice, it might have been interesting to learn a little more about the group dynamic behind the scenes.

There are a few veiled references to the mob lurking in the wings, but essentially the show concentrates on what went on onstage at the Sands after filming had wrapped on the original Ocean’s Eleven; a group of suave buddies gate-crashing each other’s party, charming the audience with an apparently unrehearsed cabaret.

There’s an emotional restraint, especially from Triffit as Sinatra, typical of the era. Hayes’s exuberance, though, turns up the temperature, and Adams’s slurring Martin is not without the odd genuine mot d’esprit.

If you can forgive the dated badinage, The Rat Pack’s timeless songs, matchless arrangements and unassailable glamour make for an enjoyable night out.


On The Ceiling
Garrick Theatre 12.9.05


For those of a certain generation, the beauty of Monty Python was not just that it was sublimely silly and iconaclastic, but that the sketches – whether funny or not – never hung around too long.

The inhabitants of Nigel Planer’s new play at the Garrick, On The Ceiling – two journeymen fresco painters engaged by Michelangelo to prepare and paint parts of the Sistine Chapel - would not have been out of place in a Python skit or a surreal dialogue between Pete and Dud. And perhaps that’s where they more comfortably belong, for like Ron Cook’s pompous artisan Lapo, the piece has ideas above its station.

Responsible for the execution of ‘a hand, a nose, some buttocks and some toes’ in Buonarroti’s resplendent masterpiece, the pair ridicule their illustrious employer in his absence and compare notes on other celebrated masters for whom they have realised profound work. It’s an interesting take on the forgotten little men, magnificently neglected by posterity and ignored by a boss who’s elsewhere sculpting for big money.

While the subject is impeccably researched and ingeniously presented (design by Matthew Wright), the comedy is of a familiar ilk, and it’s not until well into the second half that Planer belatedly throws in a bit of character development, by which time it’s too late. Lepo, by his own estimation mean and bitter, is such an unpleasant, opinionated little turd I wanted to hurl him from the scaffolding after five minutes. His characterisation of his employer as a camp dilettante, over-praised and capricious, was momentarily funny but quickly grew tiresome and clichéd.

Ralf Little, as Lapo’s assistant Loti, fares a little better. Unencumbered by the former’s laboured wit, he grapples entertainingly with vertigo, respiratory problems and a desire to get his leg over with one of Raphael’s comely models. Little is a fine stage actor, and should enjoy a long career playing bewildered northerners, and here he’s a likeable contrast to Cook’s irascible and strangely charmless Lapo.

There’s an amiable interlude in which Lapo and Loti, ousted without remuneration by Michelangelo, take to the stage as travelling players, delivering a musical number illustrating their grievances. But the emerging message of a frustrated craftsman coming to terms with his own marginality has been detailed more skilfully by Peter Shaffer in Amadeus, and Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildernstern and Travesties chronicled the plight of those condemned to the bit parts of history with greater wit and originality. By the time we’re prompted to share in Lapo’s predicament, after he’s finally forced to acknowledge Michelangelo’s genius and resorts to impersonating the artist in the presence of the Pope, Planer has spent so long presenting him as a sour nonentity that we’re long since past caring.

Truth is, On The Ceiling delivers exactly what you’d expect – a few decent gags with a bit of luscious renaissance culture thrown in. It’s cordial and undemanding. Just don’t expect great art.


Who Killed Mr Drum?
Riverside Theatre 1.9.05


Drum magazine, the idiosyncratic, jocular voice of black South Africa in the 1950s, certainly has a story to tell. Forever mired in dispute with its proprietors over the tenor of its political coverage, the publication walked a fine line between risque sensationalism and hard-nosed political reportage. Ultimately marginalised by government censorship, Drum gave early voice to many of the country’s leading black writers, and echoed the pulsating cultural scene of Sophiatown, the settlement eventually bulldozed into oblivion by the authorities.

Who Killed Mr Drum, Fraser Grace and Sylvester Stein’s stage play, based on Stein’s memoir of the same name, (Riverside Studios) fleshes out some of the characters who populated the paper’s editorial office at the time, and mixes their fondness for strong liquor and loose women with the fervent political arguments and barrack room banter.

Taking as its starting point the mysterious and gruesome murder of the magazine’s ace reporter Henry Nxumalo (a finely-tuned performance from Wale Ojo), the play draws parallels between his death and the strangling of the publication’s campaigning voice through home-grown disillusion and government expurgation. It’s not always successful.

At over three hours in length, the script cries out for severe cutting; it spends far too long establishing character, and we’re well into the first half before being let into what the publication’s actually about. And with a plethora of quasi-African accents on show it would take Henry Higgins to decipher exactly what’s being said some of the time.

As the evening wore on, it was clear that, despite some resolute support from Stephen Billington as editor Stein, and Lucian Msamati, a sublimely centred Zeke Mphahlele, South African TV star Sello Maake Ka-Ncube had neither the wit nor the gravitas required for Can Themba, the anguished lynch-pin of the second half. With a baffling display of eye rolling and grotesquely elongated delivery, Ka-Ncube’s tragically over-wrought performance, as the maverick Shakespearean columnist, left one hoping the demon drink would finish him off sooner rather than later, and allowed for little sympathy in his tortured inter-racial romance with Lizzie Hutchinson (a pale and admirably restrained Georgina Sutcliffe).

However, there’s a delightfully inventive set by Francisco Rodriguez-Weil, and some pleasant music to alleviate the occasional tedium. Not to mention the tremendous exhibition of work by former Drum photographer Jurgen Schadeburg in the foyer. Just don’t expect to hang around too long afterwards or you’ll miss the last tube home.


What The Butler Saw
Hampstead Theatre, 21.7.05


Joe Orton was once dubbed ‘the Oscar Wilde of welfare state gentility’, and like that of his stylish and droll predecessor, his dialogue is quick-witted, subversive, sometimes opportunistically epigrammatic, and fiendishly difficult for actors. Get it right and you lift the roof with laughter. Fail, and the evening becomes a tiresome string of dated aphorisms from a playwright more keen to shock than illuminate.

In the first production of What The Butler Saw, which famously scandalised the establishment in the ‘sixties, Ralph Richardson reputedly took to rehearsing with a music stand, rooting himself firmly centre stage and declaiming the lines with considerable schutzpah, but utterly ignorant of their meaning. One can only imagine the effect of this on the production, which must have resembled some kind of grotesque recital of racy mons mots, delivered at great speed and considerable volume.

And that’s frequently been the case since.

For the most part, David Grindley’s revival of Orton’s iconoclastic farce at the Hampstead Theatre successfully clears many of the playwright’s obstacles, with performances – particularly from the more experienced performers – which suggest rare emotional depth, and render the hilariously facetious lines even funnier. And if Grindley’s job is relatively straightforward – he moves the actors around without too much trouble, and has wisely steered the design in the direction of a bog-standard boxed set – his casting is inspired.

Malcolm Sinclair, as the psychopathic pillar of the medical establishment Dr Rance, reveals every twisted thought, and manages to maintain a compelling through-line even for a character who frequently contradicts himself mid-sentence. Jonathan Coy is sublimely silly as the bitterly libidinous psychiatrist Prentice, and Belinda Lang does a great turn as his louche, nymphomaniacal wife, increasingly sozzled and incapable of holding on to any kind of reality for more than a few seconds.

Interesting, too, to measure Orton’s script against the test of time. Its structure, apart from a rather lame sub-plot involving Sir Winston Churchill’s nether regions, is robust and skilful. And it’s abundantly clear that his encyclopaedic frame of reference and ear for the side-splittingly surreal juxtaposition remains unsurpassed. Even the contemporary rape jokes just about scrape by in our age of post-modernist lad-gags.

However, compared to the Alans Bennett and Ayckbourn – both of whom have subsequently sought to further subvert the genre by adding depth of character and genuine emotion into the mix - Orton runs the risk of appearing a little heartless, his characters, in the wrong hands, often reduced to the one-dimensional. And in What The Butler Saw, the relentless wisecracks come so thick and fast, as the Rabelaisian plot gathers its dizzying momentum, audiences are often left gasping for air before giving up altogether.

Grindley’s Hampstead production avoids many of the pitfalls. If he can steer his younger performers away from the pantomimic, inject a touch more light and shade here and there, and discourage his cast from playing through the laughs, he may have a palpable hit on his hands.


This Is How It Goes
Donmar Warehouse, 2.6.05


As a detached chronicler of the weak and exploitative in the professional classes, Neil LaBute has never been shy of controversy. Having presented audiences with repellent characters without much recourse to authorial comment, he’s been accused in equal measure of over simplification and moral ambivalence. The saying goes that if you’re getting it from both sides you must be doing something right.

His latest play This Is How It Goes, at the Donmar Warehouse, adds another level of inscrutability in the form of a narrator who’s so unreliable he can’t make up his mind which scenes are real and which are figments of his imagination. Consequently, the audience is left to decipher the most plausible.

Happening upon an old school friend Belinda in the shopping mall, our stylishly scruffy narrator, if you believe him, is escaping a career in law, intending to take up as a writer. Needing somewhere to stay, he moves in with Belinda, her husband Cody - a wealthy black former athlete and local celebrity - and their two children.

A few things are certain: the marriage is on the rocks, and there’s a definite attraction between the narrator and Belinda, especially since he’s now shed the pounds which put her out of his reach at high school. There are also issues between Cody and the narrator going back a long way. Everything else in this potent three hander is pretty much up for grabs.

If the conclusion appears relatively straightforward, the route taken to it is fascinating. Scattering references to Shakespeare’s Othello and Hitchcock’s Stranger On A Train, LaBute presents us with various scenarios, each offering up a different level of deceit and racial tension. And Ben Chaplin’s narrator has that rare quality of a character waiting to be written – the jocular, educated liberal with more than a hint of the racist Midwest bigot lurking beneath. It’s an electrifyingly confusing moment when, after hurling vicious racial abuse at a black work colleague, he turns to the audience and blithely reverts to his former persona as affable storyteller. Such is the skill with which, by then, LaBute has wrong-footed his audience.

Ben Chaplin is a little too comfortable in his own skin to convince us that he’s a former high school fatty, but he excels in the hinterland between failed lawyer and wannabee writer, indulging his uncomfortable imagination.

Where previously Belinda may have been drawn as an impassive observer or helpless victim, this time LaBute creates a complex and contradictory character, fleshed out arrestingly by Megan Dodds.

Idris Elba gives Cody a terrifying physical presence. He’s also possibly manipulative, paranoid, arrogant, perceptive, violent and ruthlessly pragmatic, depending on which narrative thread you choose to accept. And Elba plays him with utter conviction throughout.

Skilfully directed, This Is How It Goes is an intriguing piece, and shines light on the insecurities and hypocrisy lurking within the comfortable middle classes - in much the same way as Pinter famously teased the weasel from the cocktail cabinet.

Whilst exploiting the ambiguities of multi-faceted characters, what’s certain for LaBute is that race is not just an issue for the mindless and overtly prejudiced, it also hovers around the articulate classes – both black and white, especially where inter-racial marriage is concerned. And I’ll go along with that.


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