Tag Archives: Great Little Theatre Companies

Rumours (RoAm Productions in association with Madison Theatre Company) – Hen & Chickens theatre pub until 18th June

Image from offwestend.com

The London premiere of Neil Simon’s hilarious farce is a triumph. Bursting at the seams with top quality comic timing, some great acting performances and a spot on period feel make this a great way to brighten up an evening.

I have a confession – I lived two minutes away from the Hen & Chickens for six months and never went to a play there. The friend that I dragged along last night shares a wall with the back of the theatre, and can hear the clapping from her bed. She worries that sometimes when she’s getting ready to go out the audience can hear her music (and apologises if they do…). She had also never been until last night. On top of this, the theatre (which seats 54 according to Time Out London) was half empty.

Why do so many great venues, with productions bursting with talent, fail to attract full houses? Tickets were only £12/£10 – less than I’d have spent on  pints of cider had I spent that hour and forty minutes in the pub downstairs. Are people scornful of pub theatre, thinking that productions won’t be of good quality? Are they poorly marketed? The production of La Boheme that I saw down the road at the King’s Head Theatre in April was packed – and the content there (a modern take on opera) was much more esoteric than this snappy, broadly-appealing farce set in eighties Oxford. Obviously marketing budgets are tight for these small productions, the actors mostly have full time jobs to go to, and little shows don;t have the tourist appeal of West End long runners, but surely there are enough locals (or just Londoners) to fill these places each night? I am seriously puzzled about this – if anyone has any insight/answers please leave a comment below.

Anyhow, back to the play. It is a joint effort from RoAm Productions (debut) and the Madison Theatre Company. Many of the members of the cast were founders of the theatre companies, and their commitment to the show’s success showed in their performances. Neil Simon’s play provided some great material to work with – having never been produced in London before it was also certain to be fresh material to the audience. He’s a prolific playwrite, having written screenplays for Sweet Charity and Barefoot in the Park (two of my favourite films) aswell as numerous plays, for which he has been well rewarded on Broadway. See his Wikipedia entry here for more details. Rumours is a fast-paced, hilarious romp of a farce. This production has moved the action from New York to Oxford, but does not show any signs of bad fit – the atmosphere of a nice country house in eighties Britain is perfectly rendered via the costumes, language, references (my favourites were to dresses for gala charity events – “is that Save the Whale?” was a classic.) and set, not to mention the fantastic wigs on the actresses. Great touches like this and the injection-moulded telephone that will be familiar to many who managed to live through a little of the decade will bring pangs of recognition (my Dad still has that phone on his desk to this day – they don’t make them like they used to!)

The production was involving, intense and hilarious – with stand out performances from Amy Ellen Burnett (RoAm co-founder), Charlotte McClimens and Claire Lyons (Madison co-founders). The rest of the cast all did great jobs at a range of fantastically developed characters, providing yet another example of how much acting talent there is out there in London. Thank god that these little venues are peppered across the capital to give these budding thespians a place to perform, I just wish that more people would go and see them. Head down to Highbury Corner this week to see for yourself.

Rumours is on at the Hen & Chickens Pub Theatre until 18th June 2011, at 7pm Tuesdays-Saturdays with matinees at 3pm on Saturdays. Tickets can be purchased from http://www.rumourstheplay.co.uk/ or from the Hen & Chickens Pub on the junction of St Paul’s Road and Highbury Corner for half an hour before each performance.

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La Bohème – King’s Head Theatre (in rep) until May 29th

A new version of Puccini that has without doubt fulfilled OperaUpClose‘s mission to ‘bring opera to audiences who ordinarily might avoid it.’ Set in a Dalston flat and the bar of an Upper Street pub, this is certainly a welcome surprise of a production and could be the first step of this little company truly bringing opera to the masses.

This is OperaUpClose’s first production, and after picking up an Olivier for best new opera and a Whatsonstage.com award for best Off-West End production, it’s safe to say that it’s gone pretty well. After debuting in December 2010 at the Cock Tavern in Kilburn, the run lasted 6 months, transferred to the Soho Theatre and then to the King’s Head Pub Theatre as the longest continuously performed opera in history. The initial budget was only £7,000 and all participants signed up for only a share of the (hardly anticipated) profits. This is certainly an opera that has been run on passion and a prayer, which is oddly fitting for a play revolving around a bunch of penniless bohemians who we first meet burning a manuscript for warmth.

First I must make a confession. I am certainly no opera nut. I am a musicals lass through and through and have never made any real effort to see opera in the past, I was quite surprised to find that multiple casts rotate and that a full script was provided in the programme. However, as this makes me a prime candidate for OperaUpClose, I’ll not fret about it too much.

This was without doubt a fresh and relevant production. The script has been tweaked to refer to each location of the production, and the back room of the King’s Head, reminiscent of a rundown room in an old student union, with a thick layer of dust on the grand piano, seemed like an apt setting as the flat of the skint twenty-something bachelors. Being sung in English by a cast whose age reflects that of their characters has made this production youthful and accessible to a greater range of audience members. Peering around the auditorium to see a mix of pensioners and young fashionable Shoreditch-types showed just how democratic this version of opera can be.

The second act was (unexpectedly for me) performed in the bar area of the pub. These surprises and twists brought the play to life and bang up to date. It also feels like a natural interpretation of the story – huge credit must be given to Robin Norton-Hale for adapting a script first performed in 1896 to the current day so successfully that it could incorporate the word ‘chav’ without seeming at all out of place.

This is not, however, a faultless production for the have-a-go opera viewer. Audiences who do not know the story may get lost in the details of the narrative, as the diction is not the same as in traditional musicals (that’s where that script comes in handy). Also, the rotating casts that have been employed have let a mix of talents in. Most of the cast that I saw were excellent – Nicolas Dwyer as Marcello and Rosie Bell as Musetta especially stood out – yet the actor who played Rodolfo, a central character, is only credited in the programme as ‘Associate Artist’ and looked lacklustre against the rest.

It won’t have me rushing out to a major, traditional opera but has certainly taken some of the edge and fear away from the idea. Whilst I’m not ready to take the giant leap just yet, I would certainly return to one of OperaUpClose’s productions. It looks like this little company could go a long way.

La Bohème is at the King’s Head Pub Theatre (performed in rep) until May 29th.

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