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Posts Tagged ‘Helen Edmundson’

I haven’t read Andrea Levy’s book, but I did see the TV adaptation ten years ago. Now Helen Edmundson has adapted it for the stage where she had her greatest triumph with Coram Boy.

It starts in Jamaica when young Hortense is sent to live with relatives, and we glimpse her childhood with her god-fearing adopted parents and her cousin Michael, who becomes a playmate and close friend. We move to wartime London and meet our other protagonist, cheery cockney Queenie. The rest of the first half moves between Queenie’s story, Jamaicans in London joining the forces and Hortense back in Jamaica, now grown up. I thought this first half was overlong and structurally weak. It lacked cohesion and clarity, though it ended brilliantly as we see people boarding the now infamous Empire Windrush, bound for the UK.

The second half opens as Hortense arrives in London six months after her husband Gilbert, who came on the Windrush, shocked by the conditions in the boarding house Queenie now runs after her husband Bernard’s failure to return from the war and her father-in-law’s death. This shorter second half is absolutely brilliant as we see what these immigrants have to put up with and the trials and tribulations facing Queenie before, when and after Bernard returns. This second half, though, covers less than a year. It’s very uncomfortable listening to the racism of the post-war period.

Small intimate scenes sometimes seem lost on that vast stage, but it’s used to great effect when the whole cast of over 40 populate it and when Jon Driscoll’s brilliant giant projections shrink it. Director Rufus Norris marshals his cast well, with excellent movement by Coral Messam. There’s superb incidental music from Benjamin Kwasi Burrell. It’s a fine ensemble with particularly good performances by Leah Harvey and Aisling Loftus as Hortense and Queenie respectively. If only the first half had been tighter and shorter.

The warmth of the reception was a striking contrast with the period racism on show. We have come a long way, even if the journey’s not over and may never be.

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Eleven years ago I went to see a 17th century play by a Mexican nun as part of the RSC’s Spanish Golden Age season and here I am now seeing a play about that very nun, and a jolly good play it is too.

Based on the life of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Helen Edmundson’s play is set at a fascinating time in New Spain (Mexico). The Spanish colonists rule through their Viceroy, but the Roman Catholic church wields as much power in the land through its resident Archbishop. The convents are somewhat more liberal than you might expect, with nuns able to write secular works and employ servants amongst other things. There’s a delicate and complex power balance between Madrid, the Viceroy, the Archbishop and the indigenous people.

A new, more zealous Archbishop arrives and starts to disrupt this balance, questioning Sister Juana’s right to write plays and poetry (even those written in honour of his arrival) and her close friendship with the court, both of which have been tolerated or even encouraged by the local clergy who have ‘gone native’ after many years there. The response starts with book burning as Sister Juana’s confessor, Father Antonio, does the Archbishop’s bidding and the more Machiavellian Bishop Santa Cruz, bitter at having been passed over for promotion, plays a more duplicitous role. There is also an important sub-plot involving the relationship between Sister Juana’s niece Angelica and a member of the court.

It’s an extremely well written play, anchored in a clearly well researched real life but, by necessity I suspect, extrapolated from there. It has great pace in Jonathan Dove’s production, and is often surprisingly funny, without in any way disrespecting its subject. Michael Taylor’s clever but simple design creates a realistic convent with some wrought iron framing, a couple of crests and a lot of books. There’s a trio of musicians led by MD Phil Hopkins playing William Lyons evocative music.

It’s a long way from 1960’s Dagenham to 1760’s Mexico City but Naomi Frederick follows her role in Made in Dagenham with another outstanding characterisation as Sister Juana. Anthony Howell is excellent as the dodgy Bishop, with soliloquies to the audience telling us what he’s really up to. Sophia Nomvete and Gwyneth Keyworth add a delightful light touch as loyal servant Juanita and niece Angelica, and Phil Whitchurch has great presence as the inquisitorial Archbishop.

This new production comes only three years after its RSC première in Stratford. I never saw that so I can make no comparison, but I thoroughly enjoyed this. It seems very much at home at the Globe and it was lovely to see the captivated faces and to hear the whooping, sighs and laughter of the groundlings, particularly young and largely female on this occasion.

Another fine new play at Shakespeare’s Globe.

 

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Six days in and we already have the first treat of 2012, back at the Vaudeville where Potted Panto, the last treat of 2011, was. This Bristol Old Vic production by Tom Morris is about as far as you can get from the big show values of Shrek & Matilda and the traditionality that is panto. The Walker children go off on their own by boat to an island in the lake to play. Here they fight the pirates of the Blackett sisters, who they eventually become real chums with. Even the adults, Walker mother and Blackett uncle are caught up in this imaginary world of play.

Arthur Ransom’s early 20th century story is adapted well by Helen Edmundson and given a somewhat appropriate homespun production on a simple stage where the props are assembled from everyday objects (the parrot is a tri-colour feather duster and pliers!) and the sound effects created live on stage. There’s a charming score from Neil Hannon (aka The Divine Comedy) played by on-stage musicians doubling up as actors in what has now become a familiar style. The children are played by adults.

It takes a while for your imagination to engage and your inner child to emerge, but by the end you really wish you could go back to that den in the bushes with your bestest friend and play. For it is imagination that is the essence of this show, and it completely captures what happens (well, used to happen) when children occupy themselves for hours on end in worlds they create in their heads. 32-year old actor Stewart Wright really is youngest brother Roger, those ribbons waving are a lake and the feather duster and pliers that talk really is a parrot. There is a beautiful sequence at the end where the audience join in with the ‘play’ to assist the boats on their journey.

Richard Holt, Katie Moore, Akita Henry and Stewart Walker are terrific as the Walker children, with great chemistry between them. Celia Adams and Sophie Walker are lovely as the Blackett sisters. Seven other actors play all other roles, every instrument, sing and create the sound effects. They look like they’re having as much fun as you are and it’s all very infectious.

It was the quietest family audience I’ve been in for some time, which might have something to do with their ages and backgrounds, but in my opinion has more to do with the fact that they, like me, were lost in this imaginary world, oblivious to all around them. I remember the moment when 1100 people gasped in the Olivier Theatre as a puppet horse was about to be shot, and you get the same feeling here – theatre really is magic.

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