by Richard Fitt
A trip to enjoy the excellent hospitality of Sharnbrook’s Mill theatre is always a delight, with high expectations of a group with a solid track record of top notch productions, very much helped by their ability to build some superb sets and rehearse unrestricted by time constraints. And not to forget the new water powered heating and ventilation system adding extra comfort to our theatre experience.
This is a play with which I am more than familiar and for which I have a particular fondness, having been in a production of it myself back in 2015. Based on the Ealing film comedy of 1955, this updated play version written in 2011 by Graham Linehan tells the story of an elderly, slightly batty widow, Mrs Wilberforce living in a somewhat eccentric house in Kings Cross who unwittingly lets out a room to a ruthless gang of armed robbers posing as a musical ensemble. They spend their time planning a heist, in which Mrs Wilberforce is then innocently embroiled. When she eventually twigs what is really going on the gang make plans to ‘despatch’ her, whilst fighting amongst themselves over who will do the deed, with comic but disastrous results for the gang themselves.
The set was a tour de force and exactly what you would expect, a quirky, slightly lopsided house with two stories and roof complete with a wonderfully authentic looking chimney and roofline. The attention to detail was sublime, with rickety staircase, suitably old fashioned wallpaper, pictures that wouldn’t hang straight and netted rear windows, one of which was stained glass allowing a suitably sinister entrance of Professor Marcus. If I wanted to be ultra nit-picking the only thing that jarred was the rather obviously modern interior style front door complete with chrome door handle, which did look slightly out of place for 1950’s Kings Cross. The design itself is uncredited in the programme, so well done to Ron Johnson, Brian Wood, David Midlane and stage manager Gerry Stafford for creating a suitably dilapidated, cobbled together house.
Lighting and sound by Alex McKenzie was of the usual flawless, high quality standard with crystal clear dialogue audible at all times even with the actors playing ten feet in the air at the back of the stage or hidden in the cupboard under the stairs. I loved the initial entrance of Professor Marcus to sinister ‘Dick Barton’ music with lighting to match followed by a silly dinky little door bell! An old trick I know, but particularly effective with this atmospheric set. My one criticism of the sound was the late timing of the trains. I think you’ll find that the bodies would have fallen on to the tracks in front of the trains rather than into the goods wagons and being on their way to Newcastle, but as this happened every time I can only assume that this was deliberate and the production team would disagree?
Virginia Pope, aided by Sue Lander gathered together a totally ‘in period’ set of costumes, defining each character perfectly, and a particular mention of the yellow dress especially made for this production by Peter Darnell, which at least to my untrained fashion eye looked spot on c. 1901. And as for Professor Marcus’ wig (sourced by Susan Moore) – brilliantly OTT!!
I’ve been commenting on Virginia Pope’s prowess in the costume department for the last couple of years and was delighted to see the lady herself was finally on stage, where it turned out she was equally at home. A lovely, measured performance and exactly what was required of the part of ‘Mrs Wilberforce’ as a slightly batty but lonely widow with only memories and a sick parrot for company.
I first saw David Midlane play ‘Professor Marcus’ at The Place in Bedford back in 2014, and when I was invited to review this show I was so hoping he was reprising the role. Copy of programme in hand I immediately checked the cast list and was delighted to find I was not to be disappointed. He just plays this part to perfection. A mixture of creepy, comic and sinister all at the same time. If I didn’t know better, I would think that Graham Linehan had David in mind when he was writing the play. A better Marcus would be hard to envisage.
Laurence Kirkwood, looking every bit the part with a suitable handlebar moustache and bowler hat, gave the cross dressing ‘Major Courtney’ a good balance of a nervous, twitchy, past his best con man, whilst actually still just about being able to carry out his part in the heist.
Ben Wood as the OCD budding Spiv, ‘Harry’ was spot on with both the accent and the mannerisms. The arrogance and innocence of youth at the same time. Guy Taylor playing the murderous, ‘Romanian’ gangster, ‘Louis’ hopped back and forth between threatening violence and being afraid of old ladies with even scarier ease, whilst Ken Wilde as the punch drunk ‘One Round’ delivered some of the best lines in the play with some aplomb.
Lester Cooke very much did justice to ‘Constable Macdonald’ patronisingly dealing with a batty old lady with a reputation for misreading things in what I think are two exceptionally well written opening and closing scenes of any comedy play.
Finally we had a whole gaggle of scary, batty old ladies led by Lesley Wood as the enthusiastic but easily fooled ‘Mrs Tromleyton!’ You wouldn’t want to be anywhere near a concert with any of them I can assure you!
This was a very good cast and they worked off each other well. Characterisation was pretty spot on and the direction by Paul Wildman was excellent. There were some superb touches. However, I don’t know if it was that infamous 2nd night thing we have all suffered from and therefore 2nd nights are not the best performances to review I know, but I did feel the pace was slightly off at times and consequently the audience failed to pick up on quite a lot of the jokes. I’m sure it will have picked up as the run went on, and it certainly didn’t ruin what was a thoroughly entertaining evening, but with a bit of extra pace it would have just put some icing on the otherwise delicious cake.
Thank you FOH Manager Dave Oliver and Chairman Douglas Pope for your usual excellent hospitality, we look forward to the premier run of ‘Cloud’ in June with keen anticipation.