Posts Tagged ‘Bill Ward’

I don’t think this rare Eugene O’Neill play has had a production here for 25 years – and that was in German, part of Thelma Holt’s international season at the NT. In fact, I don’t remember any other production in London in my theatre-going lifetime. Like The Emperor Jones, written just before it (and 20 years before Long Day’s Journey Into Night), it’s an expressionistic piece with a strong social(ist) message.

Yank (representing the working man?) is the natural leader amongst the stokers on a transatlantic liner, where the play starts. A visit by a posh girl, an industrialists daughter who seems to regard her sojourn below deck as an exciting adventure to see another species in their natural habitat, results in her insulting him – ‘a filthy beast’. When in port in NYC, Yank’s walk on 5th Avenue is just as alien for him and, with the insult ringing in his ears, he hits out, resulting in a prison spell. Here he hears of a new union which he seeks to join on release, but his unbelievability means they think he’s a spy and reject him. He heads for the zoo where attempts to communicate with a hairy ape (filthy beast) result in tragedy.

It’s nothing like his intense naturalistic dramas, and it’s not a great play, but it is fascinating if you’re interested in 20th century drama, particularly American drama, and O’Neill in particular. At Southwark Playhouse, every aspect of this production comes together to create a stunning staging – director Kate Budgen. Jean Chan’s design makes brilliant use of this atmospheric space in traverse form with a central crossing. A grill and some smoke conjours up the engine room, a pair of ropes the ship’s deck and a handful of hospital screens, rope replacing fabric, turn into seven prison cells. Crowded 5th Avenue is more crowded with each actor carrying a manequin head. Richard Howell’s lighting does much to aid these transformations, as does Tom Gibbons sound scape (the final scene, in virtual darkness, is particularly effective). The opening is also superb, as the men seem to rise as one from the bowels of the ship – this, and the rest of Lucy Cullingford’s  movement work, is outstanding.

There isn’t a fault in the casting and sometime Corrie bad boy Bill Ward is a revelation as Yank. It couldn’t be much further from his last job, Million Dollar Bash, as the only non-singing character. Here he brings huge passion and conviction to the role and the transition when he leaves his comfort zone, and his leadership position, is completely believable.

A must in my book – a fringe theatre showing how talented people can create great theatre on a shoestring. An unmissable opportunity to catch that rare species – an early 20th century play with bite.

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I’m strangely ambivalent about this show. Despite the fact rock & roll pre-dates even me, I remember the shivers of excitement when I visited Sun Studios in Memphis in 2004, thinking of the iconic recordings made in that studio. Nothing like that excitement was evident at this show, though I like the idea of it and admire the execution of it.

The show represents a moment in time when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry lee Lewis were together in the studio at a turning point. Presley had already gone to RCA, Cash and Perkins were about to defect to Columbia and Jerry Lee Lewis was newly signed by Sam Phillips, who had discovered the others who were now deserting him. They’re joined by Presley’s then girlfriend and the house band drummer and bassist. I’m not clear how much is true, but reading the programme notes and looking at the song dates, it can’t be entirely true – but what the hell, it’s an excuse to link together 22 rock & roll, country and rockabilly songs.

The performers – Robert Britton Lyons as Perkins, Derek Hagen as Cash, Ben Goddard as Lewis and Michael Malarky as Presley – are exceptional and bassist Gez Gerrard and drummer Adam Riley are a great rhythm section. Fransesca Jackson provides some of the best musical moments (Fever and I Hear You Knocking) as Dyanne. I felt sorry for Bill Ward (Corrie’s dead Charlie) as Sam Phillips, like the perennial bridesmaid lumbered with the only non musical part, but he did well in the circumstances.

When the cast freeze as a photo of the alleged event is projected, there were gasps in the audience and the final mini-concert in be-jewelled jackets with back lighting is great. On the whole though, it didn’t deliver on the excitement front, though it’s fair to say those in the audience for whom it was probably part of the soundtrack of their lives seemed to be having more fun than me – though they couldn’t be enticed to dance, despite much encouragement from the stage.

In the final analysis, its high quality tribute acts framed within the recollection of a moment in time. Not really enough to persuade you to part with £60 (I didn’t, I hasten to add) for a night in the West End.

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