Meet The Author!

We recently caught up with Richard Brown who has adapted the five short plays by Anton Chekhov that we will be presenting in May 2022 as Five Farces.

HDC: Richard – it’s fair to say you’re a bit of a renaissance man! Directing, acting, writing and of course chairman of Shakespeare at The George. How did you first get involved with drama & when did you start acting & directing here in Huntingdon?

RB: I was first exposed to drama at Cambridge University where I joined the Footlights Club, but not as a performer more as a film maker. My ability at acting was simply dreadful! However, afterwards, Sue Limb, now author & radio broadcaster, took pity on me and offered me a part in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and off I went into a world of over-acting from which I probably have yet to emerge. In Cambridge I acted regularly for Combined Actors (for whom I was Chairman on several occasions) and BAWDS. Roz and I then moved to Godmanchester in 2004 and I managed to grab a part in the 2005 production of Much Ado About Nothing at The George. This wonderful company has rather become my theatrical home ever since, as actor, director and Chairman. However Shakespeare is not my be-all and end-all and I have enjoyed being part of the Brampton Park Theatre Club and of course working with the Club on A Bunch of Amateurs in 2018.

Richard (left) in A Bunch Of Amateurs (2018)

HDC: Your adaptation of Chekhov’s Five Farces was originally performed at Brampton Park Theatre Club. What drew you to these plays (one of which I believe the author never finished?) and how did you go about adapting them?

RB: I was introduced to them by my father, who arranged a production of several of the farces for Combined Actors of Cambridge. They were such an enjoyable treat that they stuck in my mind as potential for another airing, achieved ten years ago for the Brampton Park Theatre Club. However, although designed as quick-witted farces, the 19th Century world of Chekhov saw comedy in a very different way to ourselves who have been brought up with the pace and rhythm of television sketches. I therefore wanted to experiment in a much less literal adaptation than the traditional ones, to use the basic themes of the sketches but freely adapt them to tune to a modern ear, brought up on Fawlty Towers, Morecambe & Wise, The Two Ronnies, etc. This allowed some bonuses for me, such as changing the sex of characters to allow a wider variety of female roles, and, yes, cheekily taking on the challenge of completing The Night Before The Trial (which Chekhov abandoned after setting up the characters). My favourite alteration has to be Swan Song, originally a slightly heavy duologue between an elderly actor and his male prompt, into a wistful aged story of unrequited love.

HDC: Do you go and see a lot of professional theatre? Is there anything from that world that you’ve found particularly inspiring for your own work?

RB: I don’t go and see as much as I should! In fact I like “making” theatre more than necessarily going to see it (when I do go, I am always angry at myself for not seeing more). Much of the stuff that should have inspired me I never saw, beginning with Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Instead I fell head over heels for his great written essay The Empty Stage, and that formed my manual for directing theatre. I think my love is finding ways to tell stories. I have quite a low boredom threshold so I always want things to be exciting and challenging. One of the great turning points for me was when the French Cultural Attaché asked us in Cambridge to celebrate the bi-centenary of the French Revolution by producing a version of a little-known French play called 1789 – a telling of the early days of the Revolution using jugglers, puppets, multiple stages and more adrenaline than you could fit into the warehouse of a theatre they used. Despite the fact that no printed script existed, we were shown a film of the original production and set to re-inventing it and re-writing it. It was a wonderful experience of unadulterated freedom of ideas to entertain which has stuck with me since. This thing about amateur and professional theatre came to a head some years ago when Shakespeare at The George joined an Open Stages experiment provided by the Royal Shakespeare Company, a way of us sharing their professional techniques and they our amateur enthusiasm. It resulted in my being able to play Shylock in a short extract from a production of The Merchant of Venice directed by Jacqueline Spencer (who, I am delighted to say, is organising & directing these Farces) at both the Swan Stage and the main stage at the RSC. The very strong conclusion of the experiment was just how similar the amateur & professional world can be.

Richard (left) as Peter Quince in SaTG’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2019)

HDC: You directed Pericles in 2017 for SaTG – a Shakespeare play that perhaps isn’t so familiar. What prompted you to choose that one?

RB: Well, in the first place, the fact that it wasn’t so familiar. I love reading plays on holiday. Either I read a few pages only or I get transported. I took Pericles to Sicily and fell in love with it. It was a rather magical telling of stories that more appropriately lie in the realm of fairy tales. It was also a play I could fiddle with! I know critics regard it as a lesser play for its language, but the audience loved the magic of it and I loved the invention it required to be produced.

joust scene from Pericles
Richard’s 2017 production of Pericles with SaTG

HDC: If you could direct one play with any group of actors, past or present, what would it be, where would you stage it and who would be in your cast??

RB: I think I might just duck this one! If I had the ideal cast in the ideal play, at the ideal location, my contribution would undoubtedly be to bugger it all up! My greatest happiness in directing has always been to work on what looks to be problematical material with a cast more full of commitment than necessarily top talent. Having said that, if Lin Manuel Miranda was stuck in Huntingdon with nothing to do, I might just try to squeeze him into some modest role… I also once acted alongside Tom Hiddleston and I would happily give it a go again.

HDC: And finally – tell us why we should book tickets for Five Farces??!

RB: Because we all desperately need cheering up! It is a perfect set of plays for just sitting back, relaxing and laughing at absurd characters in impossible situations. With the talent available both in my fellow directors and the actors performing with Huntingdon Drama Club, you really are in safe hands, so forget Omicron or the on-going adventures at Downing Street and instead indulge in this rather naughty delight.

The personalities and pitfalls of amateur dramatics…

Fear not. All amateurs are not the same,

Some Little Theatres higher standards claim

And hold with fervour nigh obsessional

That amateurs are better than professional

– Michael Green – ‘The Art of Coarse Acting’

It’s not always the case that a play’s plot is summed up by the title alone, but A Bunch of Amateurs is exactly that: the story of an amateur theatre group in their quest to stage a production of King Lear, the lead role of which has been given to a fading Hollywood star. Whilst most of the Stratford Players are thrilled to be treading the boards with a celebrity, the star in question is initially dismayed to discover that, contrary to his expectations, he has not joined the cast of a well-known professional outfit.

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s script takes a comical look at the personalities and pitfalls of amateur dramatics. As many involved in am-dram would admit, it’s easy to poke fun at the subject – both the types of individuals you come across and the mini disasters that are liable to raise their heads when you have neither the luxury of paid professionals or owning your own theatre. Whether it’s star-struck Mary fawning over her Hollywood idol, pomposity-exuding Nigel fuming over losing out on a lead role that he believes should be his by rights, or director Dorothy’s flustered attempts to keep her cast in order, the drama involved in staging a show is laid bare.

Michael Green’s book on ‘coarse acting’.

Affectionate mockery of amateur theatre is commonplace, with one of the funniest takes on the matter being Michael Green’s 1964 publication of The Art of Coarse Acting (Or How to Wreck an Amateur Dramatic Society). Green, himself an amateur performer of many years, based the title on his experiences with Northampton Drama Club and the Questors Theatre, exposing the mishaps and mistakes which the public holds as stereotypical of the field. A coarse actor, Green explains, “is an actor who can remember his lines but not the order in which they come. An amateur. One who performs in Church Halls. Often the scenery will fall down. Sometimes the Church Hall may fall down. Invariably his tights will fall down.” How to tell when we have fallen victim to the scourge of course acting? Green informs us – “one of the infallible signs that Coarse Drama is going on is the fact that the traditional roles of actor and audience are reversed. The actor is being himself while the audience are playing a part, heavily pretending to enjoy the show, struggling to laugh at unfunny jokes and so on.”

But it is inaccurate to conclude that Hislop and Newman’s play is purely a facile lampoon of amateur acting. Much of what makes the story so endearing is that, suffused amongst the laughter and ridicule, is obvious affection for am-dram and its virtues. Whatever their failings, the characters are quite sincere in both their passion for theatre and determination to keep their small but dedicated group in business. As well as drawing humour from the follies of the non-professional performing world, A Bunch of Amateurs reflects the less well-known truths of amateur dramatics; that such groups often draw enthusiastic, talented and dedicated individuals whose commitment to upholding the arts in their communities is to be admired.

Burt Reynolds in the 2008 movie A Bunch of Amateurs, with Imelda Staunton, Alistair Petrie & Derek Jacobi.

Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki summarised the importance of all art in a passage from Kusamakura. “If this best of worlds proves a hard one for you, you must simply do your best to settle in and relax as you can, and make this short life of ours, if only briefly, an easier place in which to make your home. Herein lies the poet’s true calling, the artist’s vocation. We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.”

In an age in which significant reductions have been made to public spending on the arts, the presence of amateur performers is perhaps more keenly felt than ever. While we laugh at the antics inside the drama society of Stratford-St-John, we are simultaneously reminded of the cultural blessings such outlets provide, and the hard work, vigour and diligence of all those who come together to ensure their communities can enjoy the gift of artistic exhibitions.

By Michelle Gibson (this piece will also appear in the programme for A Bunch of Amateurs)

Looking Back… 2017 in Review

In 2017 we presented three plays in three different venues – quite an achievement! The Spring production of Alfie was the last to take place at the Commemoration Hall before its closure for major refurbishment works and also went on to represent the Club (in an abridged version) at the Cambridge Drama Festival. Probably best known from its big screen incarnation starring Michael Caine, Bill Naughton’s play premiered in 1963 and pictured a London still in an austere post-war hangover and yet to explode into the vibrant, swinging 60s. Alfie became our biggest selling show on record (beating previous record holder Outside Edge by one ticket!) & drew high praise for an ‘energetic & entertaining production’ from the Festival adjudicator. The cast & crew worked incredibly hard on this production to make the many transitions between scenes & locations as seamless as possible, giving the production a slick & pacy edge – a genuine team effort. Combined with an evocative soundtrack & period wardrobe Alfie was a tragi-comic affair for our audience with a central character you either love to hate, or hate to love.

Finding an alternative venue for our following two productions was a big project for the committee. We felt it was essential to stay in Huntingdon, preferably not too far away from the Commemoration Hall so as not to inconvenience our audience too much. We also wanted to keep our excellent front of house experience in place so facilities for a bar were also a must. The Town Hall offered two spaces which lent themselves to different styles of theatre, it was close by and the dates we wanted were available. The Town Hall it was. The Assembly Room on the top floor of the building would be our venue for Shakers, the comedy by John Godber (Bouncers, Up N Under) & Jane Thornton. Vicky Spurway made her debut in the director’s chair and assembled a talented cast, half of whom were brand new members. The four actresses faced the challenge of playing multiple roles, switching instantly between the many & varied customers as well as the long-suffering waitresses of Shakers cocktail bar. The cast & crew pulled it off superbly – drawing an excellent review from our NODA rep Julie Armstrong who commented “I left the performance with a smile on my face and the 1980’s soundtrack ringing in my ears. Shakers was a fabulously fun piece of theatre!” Thanks to a grant from the Freemen’s Trust of Huntingdon we were able to light the show with a brand new portable lighting kit which has enabled us to perform in ‘non-theatre’ settings.

As soon as we reached the decision to present Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in the Town Hall’s historic Court Room for our Autumn play, we strongly suspected that we would have a commercial & critical success on our hands. And so it proved, as all five performances went on to sell out long before opening night. Under Rae Goodwin’s meticulous direction & with an exceptionally strong cast & crew on board (many making their debuts for the club), this production felt like the culmination of a lot of hard work over the last 3 or 4 years. It was bold, daring & powerful, presented within the intimate confines of a venue where the audience were just inches from the action. A glowing NODA review ended “with a wonderful and atmospheric setting, inspired use of music, great direction and an excellent cast, HDC’s The Crucible was a triumph!” Indeed, The Crucible has been nominated for Best Play at next May’s NODA district awards.

At the Donmar Warehouse for a workshop on ‘Limehouse’

As well as all the on-stage activity there was a busy social calendar in 2017, including theatre trips to see new plays – Fracked  at the Cambridge Arts and Limehouse at the Donmar Warehouse in London, where we also took part in an open workshop on the rehearsal process. We enjoyed a fabulous acting workshop with actor David Hall, where we covered aspects of movement & voice & learned a great deal. The Crucible director Rae Goodwin attended the RSC’s Big Backstage Weekend to go behind the scenes at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon & learn some tricks of the trade that we can feed into our productions.  I also attended a workshop on directing hosted by Theatre 503 Artistic Director Lisa Spirling – an opportunity to learn from a professional director, which was invaluable – lots of techniques & ideas that will find their way into our rehearsal room. And of course to cap it all off there was our fantastic Christmas Party in December. A great opportunity to let our hair down after a challenging & ultimately rewarding & satisfying year. Here’s to 2018!

Dean Laccohee (Artistic Director) 

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A mischievous day out to the theatre…

Since Mischief Theatre’s rise to prominence with The Play that Goes Wrong, the company has been soundly riding the wave of success. Two further plays – Peter Pan Goes Wrong and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery have helped cement the group of LAMDA graduates as a fixture in the current West End and dispelled any suggestion that they might have been a flash in the pan.

My first exposure to Mischief Theatre was on a club trip to see The Play that Goes Wrong in February 2015. Delighted with the non-stop hilarity, chaos and robust youthful energy, I insisted that my friend (who had at that point never been to a theatre in his life) accompany me to see it again. It might be a tad excessive to say that I pinioned his arms and frogmarched him into his seat, but ‘fan’ is abbreviated from ‘fanatic’, after all, and I’m sure my cajoling at times took on the tenor of an Evangelical preacher. (As it happens, the friend in question is glad that I got him to go.)

So I already had an idea of what to expect when I went to see The Comedy About a Bank Robbery last month. Although I anticipated a great show, I had to brush back the niggling concerns that I think we all experience when returning to the work of any kind of artist – “what if they’re not as good this time?”, etc.

Any vague doubts I might have had were groundless. The Mischief Theatre actors exploded into action with a verve that I’d been looking forward to. The play charges forward at such a frenetic pace that it can be hard to keep up with every single bit of action (part of the joy of such plays is that you’re sure to spot new things upon a second or even third viewing) but the story introduces us to a the eccentric staff of a Minnesota bank (upon which is soon to bestowed a priceless diamond) and the efforts of a jail-busting bunch of ne’er’-do-wells to execute a robbery (one of whom happens to be the daughter of the bank manager.) Also in the mix is the neighbourhood’s conman/petty thief who begins a relationship with aforementioned daughter, which leads to him being dragged into the diamond-snatching escapade.

The Comedy about a Bank Robbery is a ridiculous farce through and through, delivered with all the outrageousness that I’d seen in The Play That Goes Wrong. For me, particular scenes of note included a Fawlty Towers-esque sequence in which Sam Monaghan (impersonating Mr Freeboys) is forced to stumblingly deliver a potted history of Freeboys’ life, based upon his attempts to read the miming of Caprice. Later in the play, there are no fewer than three Freeboys (minor tongue twister there) – the real one and two impostors – whose multiple run-ins with the police officer and fellow bank staff are a source of much confusion and amusement. There is also a clever segment in which Freeboys and his lackey Warren are conversing in an office – suspended sideways on the wall, allowing the audience a bird’s-eye-view of the scene.

Performances were strong all around, but two that I especially favoured were Sean Kearns as the greedy, self-important bank manager and Tania Mathurin as Ruth Monaghan. Kearns seemed to fairly revel in his role as he barked orders at staff, butted heads with his daughter’s boyfriend and screamed and stomped his way around the stage in a verbal to-and-fro with Officer Shuck. Mathurin at first added a more low-key humorous warmth to the show, but as time stretched on, revealed her character to be just as conniving and corrupt as everybody else. Adding to the show’s charm was the interspersing of short doo-wop songs (performed by the cast) between scenes – matching the time-period of the play, which is set in 1958. Above all, just as with The Play That Goes Wrong, you knew that the cast were having the time of their lives, and their exhilaration and glee spread like a welcome virus through the audience.

If this hasn’t yet convinced you, I’ll leave the final word with theatre critic Dominic Cavendish, who failed to be impressed by Mischief Theatre’s first effort and declared The Play That Goes Wrong to be one of the “worst shows of 2014.” After reluctantly allowing them a second chance, Cavendish emerged from The Comedy About a Bank Robbery with an entirely new outlook. “This is the funniest show in town,” he raved, as though apologetic for his earlier dismissal of Mischief Theatre’s abilities. “The jokes, visual and verbal, are piled skyscraper high…there’s such youthful relish to the playing and so much surrounding theatrical invention that even the hoariest gag earns its keep.”

Glad you finally came around, Mr Cavendish – what took you so long?

By Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson

Educate or entertain?

During a recent discussion in which I expounded on the virtues of a favoured TV show, my companion retorted that it was “mindless fodder” that neither “challenged nor educated.” I accepted that his tastes were different and that particular subject ended there.

But my thoughts kept returning to his remarks. I disagreed with his assessment that the programme in question was mindless fodder, but what really struck a nerve was the implication of his attitude (one that’s not all that uncommon) to acting (and all art) in general: namely, that in order to be of any value, it needs to be educative, intellectually stimulating or carry some kind of political or social message.

There’s a particular breed of people who hold this opinion – some might call it artistic and cultural snobbery – who voice their disgust at their presumed intellectual redundancy of TV and film, who turn their noses up at the majority of Hollywood offerings because the material doesn’t stretch their minds, who even chastise other people for committing the deadly sin of enjoying what they feel is such mind-rotting guff.

To these people, I’d pitch several questions: Since when did it become a cardinal rule that ALL artistic endeavours MUST be built around some educational or social narrative? What’s wrong with pure entertainment? What about creativity for creativity’s sake?

It’s a wonderful thing when a play or a film excites the intellect, leaves the audience thinking or drives home a message. But it’s also a wonderful thing when a play or film simply gives the audience a good time. I’ve very little patience with the risible notion that if something is less worthwhile if it’s just fun.

It’s hard for me not to see these consternated critics as a monolithic movement that’s trying to suck all the joy out of the arts. The great thing about film, TV, stage plays and other art forms is the variety; there’s something for everyone. There’s intellectualism, there’s high culture, there’s politics – and there’s also good entertainment: action films for the adrenaline junkies and rip-roaring comedy for those who like to laugh.

I’ve always loved the childlike playfulness that blossoms when working on a play that’s plain good fun. Artistic expression should be diverse and pleasurable, not shoehorned into someone’s rigid sense of what has value. So the next time these stuffy killjoys splutter with indignation at your fondness for comedies or romantic flicks, remember that you’re doing your bit to uphold the ethos of creativity.

 

‘Outside Edge’

Upon learning of Bedford Drama Company’s upcoming performance of ‘Outside Edge’, it seemed only fitting that the show be added to our calendar of social events – especially as this is the play that will be rounding off our own 2016 season. So yesterday evening, a group of us piled into our cars and spent an enjoyable couple of hours watching Richard Harris’s famous comedy.

‘Outside Edge’ takes place in a single afternoon and tells the story of a cricket team’s attempts to win their game whilst dealing with the mountain of spousal issues which have all reared their heads. Team captain Roger’s seemingly ideal marriage to Miriam is gradually exposed as a sham, as he callously berates her throughout, and is ultimately forced to come clean about his infidelity. Next we have Bob, still tied to the apron strings of his ex-wife and unable to refuse her demands that he do odd jobs for her – much to his current wife Ginnie’s displeasure. Of the entire crew, it is perhaps only Maggie and Kevin that have a stable relationship – which, while tempestuous, is genuinely affectionate. Well-endowed in the physiological department, Maggie also maintains a rather ‘large’ personality, often fulfilling the role of mother as well as wife as she fusses over her beloved “Little Kev.” The cast is padded out by Dennis, a sleazy car salesman and Alex, a snobbish lawyer whose total disinterest in his timid girlfriend leads to her having a fit of hysterics.

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Not having seen the play before, I was impressed by the snappy dialogue, and amused by the misunderstandings and ridiculousness that are the necessary components of any farce. Moments such as Ginnie’s confusion at the solicitousness of Roger – led to believe that she’s in the grip of a nasty bout of flu – and the rivalries between Bob, Dennis and Alex all tie in to add to the charm of the piece. In terms of acting, I was particularly taken with the performances of Miriam, Ginnie and Maggie. Watching Miriam struggling to reign in her rage as she transforms from dutiful, organised housewife to the stressed and harassed verbal punchbag of her husband, was for me, one of the funniest threads of the play. Ginnie’s sly allusions to Roger’s unfaithfulness were also amusing, along with Maggie’s bold Cockney exterior.

Having finally seen the play for myself, I’m looking forward even more to seeing what we ourselves will do with it – and seeing as our party last night included both our upcoming director and Artistic Director, I’d imagine that they’re already turning over a few ideas in their heads. So keep us in mind come November!

By Michelle Gibson, our regular Guest Blogger 

Audition Time Again!

Laughter On The 23rd Floor

My first appearance in a club production was 2015’s performance of Neil Simon’s ‘California Suite’. Being a relative newcomer at that point – and knowing only a few members – the main factor in my deciding to audition was the choice of a Neil Simon comedy as our play. I’d initially read some of his work about ten years ago and had enjoyed it a great deal.

A long-time staple of US drama – described as towering “like a Colossus over the American Theatre” – Simon is best known for penning sharply-written comedies. Works include Barefoot in the Park, Brighton Beach Memoirs and The Odd Couple – the last of which was adapted into both a film (starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau) and a television series. The oft-repeated claim that writers “write what they know” can seem especially pertinent to Neil Simon, who almost always sets his plays in New York (his home) and whose characters are often Jewish, like himself. This tendency towards semi-autobiography does, not, however, detract from an audience’s ability to relate to his characters, who have been described as “imperfect, unheroic figures who are at heart decent human beings.”

I recently re-read Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor, a play which evinces the illustrations above. Based upon Simon’s previous role as a junior writer for a 1950s variety show, Laughter on the 23rd Floor is set amidst the first Golden Age of American television (1953) and places its focus upon the writing staff of a popular variety programme and the show’s star, Max Prince. Set almost entirely in the writers’ room, viewers are greeted to a cast of eccentric staff members whose craziness and affectionate squabbling leaves one to ponder just what goes on behind the scenes of TV-making. In addition to the larger-than-life Max Prince, characters include new writing recruit (and Simon’s alter ego) Lucas Brickman, inveterate hypochondriac Ira Stone and Russian emigrant Val Slotsky. Holding her own amongst the men is the lone female member of staff, Carol Wyman, firmly ensconced as “one of the guys”. As she observes near the end of the play, after five years of writing for the show, she’s learned to swear with the best of them.

Poster from the 1996 London production.
Poster from the 1996 London production.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor is one of those plays where the plot seems less important than the characters and their zany behaviour. The theme mostly centres on NBC’s interference in cutting the show’s time, funding and staff due to their concerns that the programme – a hit on the East Coast – will be too sophisticated for the tastes of Middle America. The story appears to be more of a vehicle for the cast to express their foibles and wackiness; the true soul of this piece comes from the interactions of the writers and their relationship with Max, who, unlike some of the other performers, is fiercely loyal to his staff.

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Michelle as Millie in our 2015 production of Simon’s “California Suite”

In an aside to the audience, Lucas remarks, “I knew then and there that if I was going to keep my job, I’d have to become as totally crazy as the rest of them.” He’s not exaggerating – in the first act alone, the characters yell and curse at one another, throw shoes out of the window and punch their fists through the wall. Underneath the wildness, however, Simon has some striking points to make about the sometimes fickle nature of television and the tendency by some executives to dumb down their content. Regular references to Joseph McCarthy and his witch hunts place the play firmly in the 1950s, but still resonate today. One gets the sense that the staff room is the writers’ haven of escape from the political backdrop of their times – a place where they can respond to the outlandishness of government and reflect it with their own manifestations of madness. As native Russian Val vociferously rails against the oppressive regime of the Soviet Union, his American friends announce their disgust at the antics of Senator McCarthy – and ultimately even their own sanctuary is invaded by the politics of television executives.

From looking again at Laughter on the 23rd Floor, I’ve come to realise why the play lingered in my mind after my first reading it as a teenager – the dominance of loveable eccentrics into which Simon has stealthily woven a thread of insidious political tension. I set down the play feeling charmed and entertained by the erratic cast, but also experiencing an underlying sense that I’d just tasted something vaguely sinister. It’s a play that makes you feel good – but also leaves the tiniest feeling of discomfort.

by our new regular guest blogger Michelle Gibson 

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