BritishTheatre

Published on

October 18, 2016

REVIEW: Wonderful Town, Ye Olde Rose and Crowne Pub Theatre ✭✭✭✭

By

julianeaves

Book tickets for Wonderful Town at Ye Old Rose And Crowne

Wonderful Town

Ye Olde Rose And Crowne Pub Theatre

14 October 2016

When Tim McArthur and Aaron Clingham started up this pub theatre eight years ago, I wonder how many people realised that it would quickly become one of the places to go to discover great new talent, terrific shows that don't get seen much on the regular circuit and have a splendid experience in the theatre. Well, they have just done it again with this bracingly fresh and fascinating production of the 1953 follow-up to 'On The Town', and last night a capacity audience gathered to see the results.

McArthur, directing here with the brilliant relative newcomer to the Assistant role (and well-known performer in this theatre), Jamie Birkett, opens out the playing space to a rooming square, with seating on three sides. Licensing rules mean you can either have a full orchestra for this show or do it with single piano: there isn't room in this intimate venue for the full band, so we have Clingham to one side with a modest upright. This then informs other production decisions: with the consistency and coherence for which the theatre has become renowned, the design then takes up this stripped-back, scaled-down principle, and gives us an almost empty space, elevated in places with cut out rostra resembling the rectilinear outlines of New York City; the back wall is plastered with a collage of newspaper scraps - the whole story is about people from the papers, wanting to write in or be written about in the papers - and newsprint finds its way onto the props, the single window-frame.

The cast, however, is given beautifully coordinated costumes reflecting the monochrome hues of the black-and-white photography or sepia tones of print imagery, admonished with the occasional bright masthead red flash. It's a delicious look contrived by Ben Hathaway, and everything is lit with simple discretion by Sky Bembury. There are multiple changes of location, but the illumination - whether natural or ambient - always seems to belong to that setting in a profoundly realistic sense, except for a very last moment romantic flourish, that will catch your breath. The performance style, however, is much more complex.

The show's acting style is the result of the many creative influences that go together to make up its fabric. The original autobiographical short stories by Ruth McKenney appeared in The New Yorker in the late 1930s. These were then adapted into a play, 'My Sister Eileen', by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, in 1940: the playwriting team next adapted their version of the work for the musical's book, where things became even more complicated with the arrival of the musical's composer, Leonard Bernstein, and his dual lyricists, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Most people today, though, if they know it all, remember the subsequent 1955 movie, which was based on the original play, which itself had also been filmed a decade before.

This is very New York. A constant hurly-burly of influences and crossed paths, with the players packed into the smallest space possible - a lot of it in a pokey souterrain apartment intermittently shaken by earthquake-sized rumbles from passing EL trains, and sparking off each other in surprisingly creative ways. And that, really, much more than the wafer-thin storyline, is what the show is about, and it is what this production gives us handsomely.

Lizzie Wofford plays the main 'authorial' voice in the show, Ruth: a smart, talented, ambitious woman, coming in 1935 to the economic, cultural and social capital of the Americas with her sister Eileen, the winsome Francesca Benton-Stage. Once the initial thrill is over, they encounter a parade of challenges, many of them infused with old-fashioned sexism, from admirers Baker (Aneurin Pasco), Frank (Hugo Joss Catton), and Chick Clark (Ashley Holman), a crazy Italian restaurateur (Joe Goldie), smoothie Valentin (Jon R Harrison), the local hooker whose apartment they have inherited - along with visits from her previous clientele - Violet (Leah Pinney), and their would-be artist landlord in Greenwich Village, Appopolous (Nik Chiappetta) . There is little support from girlfriend Helen (Francesca Pim) and her terrifying mother, Mrs Wade (Laurel Dougall), or the interruptions by Kitty Whitelaw's Delivery Kid (complete with awesome Charlotte Greenwood-style high-kicks), or the ensemble players Lucie Horsfall and Anna Middlemass.

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Half-way through the first act, things seem a little dispirited: a pot-luck 'dinner party' is a disaster, and the girls become down-hearted. But then, we realise that indeed something strange is happening: there is another factor in the mix, one we hardly noticed was going to have any effect (and indeed is often overlooked by critics). Helen has acquired a boyfriend, the scantily attired footballer Wreck (Simon Burr), who is as innocent about his masculinity, and as carelessly accepting of it, as the other guys are tied up in knots with anxieties and tensions. His number, 'Pass the Football', is - in fact - the little-acknowledged turning point in the show, from which moment things start to turn in the girls' favour. It is the spirit of 'battling through' all difficulties that actually gives them the wherewithal to forge ahead and overcome the problems that life in the city throws up. Cleverly, Wreck's function is symbolic, rather than directly influential: Ruth and Eileen make their own discoveries for themselves, but the changes that are a-coming are signalled by this proto-New Man, who unperturbedly hangs around an apartment lived in by a pair of single women, wearing nothing but singlet and shorts, contentedly ironing pleats in their dresses. Another of this type crops up in the second act, with the wonderful assemblage of Irish cabbies, of whom Jack Keane's Lonigan turns out to be an especially attractive representative.

We've already noted how light and apparently inconsequential the plot is, and we've observed how that it is just a way of getting from one interesting idea to the next, and it is the ideas themselves that elevate this entertainment into an unusual new area. For instance, in the centre of Act 1, the supply of songs dries up for quite a while, and we spend a long time getting to know the characters well. We recognise just how like us they are, despite the removal in time and place; we are led to discover, for ourselves, how much in common we have with their psyches, their motivations, their feelings and hopes. Gradually, the sisters from Ohio strike out more for themselves, accepting everything with intelligent grace and wit. When Ruth finally gets something to turn out well, she cannot hold back a release of emotion: Baker, who has done her a good turn, and in our eyes has strengthened and grown, asks, 'Is anything the matter?' Ruth replies, 'No. I just have an allergy... to good news.'

Book tickets for Wonderful Town at Ye Old Rose And Crowne

This same light touch infuses the witty, buoyant script and keeps us fully on the side of the Mid-Westerners, willing them through to ultimate success. The script is very urbane, cultured and high-comedy: this presents challenges, too, in terms of delivery, timing, phrasing, the use of gesture and movement, and so on. The repertory theatre of Ye Olde Rose and Crowne, however, has set itself the wonderful task of being a place where younger or less experienced talent can hone its skills and craft in demanding repertoire. And giving physical expression to all that liveliness is the wonderful choreography of new arrival in town himself, Ian Pyle. Having learnt his trade in Durham, Pyle makes each number strongly characterised, with its own look and manner: in his hands, the great set-pieces, in particular, have never looked better: 'Swing' (which includes a kind of proto-spoken-word-performance-art) and effusive 'The Wrong-Note Rag', especially, in the second half will stay with you with their spine-tingling excitement long after you have left the theatre.

And all this can be had just with a tube journey to Walthamstow and a modestly priced ticket. So, it has to be said, in these sometimes rather grim days, we need to remind ourselves that London, just as in New York in this tale of country folk in the big city, is a wonderful town.

Until October 22

BOOK TICKETS TO WONDERFUL TOWN

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The British Theatre website has been established to celebrate the rich and diverse theatrical culture of the United Kingdom.  Our ethos revolves around encouraging and nurturing the performing arts in all its forms. The spirit of theatre is very much alive and the British Theatre website is at the forefront of delivering news and information to audiences and enthusiasts everywhere. Our team of theatre journalists and reviewers are working hard to cover productions and news.


We are constantly developing the site and are always open to receiving feedback from our readers. Join our mailing list to be kept informed of all the latest news that is of interest to you..

ABOUT BRITISHTHEATRE

BritishTheatre.com
Opening Night Media Ltd
3rd Floor, 80 St. Martin’s Lane
Covent Garden
London WC2N 4AA

The British Theatre website has been established to celebrate the rich and diverse theatrical culture of the United Kingdom.  Our ethos revolves around encouraging and nurturing the performing arts in all its forms. The spirit of theatre is very much alive and the British Theatre website is at the forefront of delivering news and information to audiences and enthusiasts everywhere. Our team of theatre journalists and reviewers are working hard to cover productions and news.


We are constantly developing the site and are always open to receiving feedback from our readers. Join our mailing list to be kept informed of all the latest news that is of interest to you..