Someone Else's Pretty Toys - directed by Chris Wright
There was quite a full audience for the Friday night performance of this three-night run. The front-of-house was efficiently organised with drinks and sweets and tea and coffee for the interval and a draw. The hall is slightly cold in atmosphere - a product of its time - and therefore it is more of a challenge for those on stage to impose the right mood themselves. 'Someone Else's Pretty Toys' was a play I did not know, but with an all women cast: A rare pleasure.
The stage in the hall is quite wide and thin. The set was quite basic. It was dominated by a back wall clad in a suitably 1960s wallpaper. The furniture had a slightly 'odds 'n' sods' quality to it: A little more sense of this being an individual's home would have been good. Also, I am not a fan of equally spaced paintings on the long back wall as dressing; groupings might have been more natural. The centrally placed sofa did rather dominate things and got in the way of blocking at times: Perhaps if it had been to one side slightly it might have offered the director more choices. But mostly the set-up served its purpose well - and I liked details like the ribbon curtain over the exit into the shop. Props were efficiently sorted - and I really liked the period detail of the packet of Senior Service cigarettes.
I did wonder why the audience seats were set quite so far back from the stage (perhaps to do with fire exits?): It did not aid sightlines and gave a feeling of being slightly detached from the stage action.
Costume and Hair
There was a good period sense in both costume and hair. A lovely array of mini-skirts and slacks, together with village-y age provided by tweed, twin sets and pearls. This was matched with some good attention to period hair styles. I wasn't quite sure why Mrs Knight was dressed in black with a fascinator, hardly dress for Sunday church, even if appropriate to the melodrama of her character.
The music choices were good: 'Teddy Bears Picnic' quite rightly got a chuckle from the audience. There was some moody entr'acte music ('Schindler's List'?) and the church bells were at a good volume and distance. However, there was a tendency for sounds to snap out rather than fade away gently. Also for them to appear/disappear a little too close to when they were mentioned in the script: Something a little more natural and unnoticeable with regard to comings and goings would have been good. There was some speaker buzzing (mobile phone interference?) that appeared a couple of times. It was rather distracting but I am not sure if anything could have been done to stop/prevent it.
Lighting was very basic; with most (all?) the light coming from one bar in the hall. This led to a rather flat general cover. I am not sure whether the hall has the potential/capacity to do more, but if it does then it would have been a boon if this had been attempted; some back lighting to provide depth, a working standard lamp etc. There was only one special - a light through the stage left window. Again I do not know if possible, but if out of the main entrance/exit door stage left there had been a lit flat rather than darkness, this always adds to things: Seeing blackness through doors and windows always reminds an audience that this is a stage.
It was a pleasure to see seven women in a play and there was good rapport between the actresses. All had a good individual presence and clear characterization and on the whole projected well from the stage. There were also some good partnerships: Mrs Faire and Nancy, Mrs Appleby and Mrs Judd. On the night I saw it words became a little rough as the play went on - which was a pity.
Mrs Faire/Angela Gee
Angela played the weary mother carrying the weight of her family history on her shoulders well. She was warm and always concerned; defending her daughters until almost the end, however idiosyncratic the behaviour. She had a hard-nosed quality, from the knocks of the past. She gave us good acting of concern and worry - and there was lots of it needed in this play! Angela's line delivery was mostly clear and well-projected, but occasionally she acted into the floor, losing volume and clarity; up and out! This is a big hall to fill.
Mrs Appleby/Sarah Wilson
Sarah had a clear and bright delivery. She gave Mrs Appleby a natural villager quality: You really did believe she had just popped in with the latest gossip. As mentioned above she formed a dynamic duo with Miss Judd. She had a lovely arch tone for her verbal swipes - but occasionally rushed her delivery, especially with regard to the humour to Miss Judd; Sarah needed to make sure that each of the comic asides in timing and emphasis landed properly.
Miss Judd/Helen Langley
Helen's Miss Judd was a delight; the bumbling virgin, a touch risqué. This was a complete portrayal in both voice and body language. She was believably eccentric and delightfully oblivious (or slow to catch on) to a lot of what was occurring around her. Together with Sarah Wilson, she provided a good injection of humour into proceedings which provided essential contrasting interludes to the play's more serious and melodramatic moments.
PC Bryant/Vikki Babar
Vikki looked every part a police constable: She held her body upright, almost military in posture. While her vocal delivery was mostly clean-cut and authoritative, there was also a cheeky knowing quality in some of her looks and occasionally the tone of her delivery. It added variety. She was also very clear in her explanation of the (rather silly) plot denouement, which was something of an achievement. Vikki had a strong stage presence that said 'look at me' whenever she was on stage - not a bad thing!
The part of Judith is a role full of potential for the actress playing it, full of swings of mood: Gemma really sank her teeth into it. She was physically often full on with lots of nervous body language and pacing the stage. But as Judith she also has to be spoilt, girlish, alluring. Gemma switched quickly between these various Judiths. She seemed to have a tendency (a not unusual one) of gesturing with her hands on each line she spoke: This is something to be avoided if possible as it becomes annoying to an audience if they tune in to it. She spoke in lovely deep tones, appropriate for the rather scary Judith. Well done!
Mrs Knight/Clare Woodward
Mrs Knight for most of the play is a cameo character in the background of things, but she comes careering to the foreground as blackmailer and drug dealer: All of which Clare relished. She had the appropriate evil glint in her eye. She needed to watch her volume/projection as these could suddenly drop, making it hard to hear her and also had a tendency to slow at the moment of explanation/drama when she needed to drive on! But all-in-all this was a fun performance: Large and dangerous, Clare's Mrs Knight relished her moment of power.
Nancy is a rather less showy role than Judith - but she is frequently there, supporting and emoting. Jo gave her a really punchy strong character with firm delivery. She had good interaction with both mother and sister and showed herself adaptable to cope with the continual changes of mood from those around her; the supportive daughter, the concerned sister: This was a strong and reliable performance.
It was good to see a play new to me and especially one that has a cast of women. While the plot creaks a little and gets rather silly towards the end - it offered good and varied meaty roles. These had been developed and on the whole the women worked well together. A little more honing of the words would have speeded the picking up of cues and aided a slightly more varied pace.
I imagine the URC Church Hall is not an easy stage to block on. Mostly the groupings worked well, but often when characters entered they came in behind other people. Getting actors out of the way for such moments or slightly rearranging the furniture might have helped. More use of sitting when one would naturally sit might have also eased things. Also I noted that Nancy got rather stuck stood by the desk for far too long.
Most production elements worked well - but a little more attention to the extra details would have reaped benefits: If the lights could have been a little more complex; the shop bell didn't always ring when logic says that it would have and Mrs Knight ran off into the shop we are told into the arms of the law - but we heard no such commotion. Considering a little more 'outside' the stage space would have added an extra polish to proceedings.
This was a rollicking whodunit murder mystery, in best 'Midsummer Murder' style. Mostly things were kept on the move and a suitable mix between breast-beating, comedy and melodrama struck. Thank you all for an enjoyable evening."
Ian Amos-North Essex Theatre Guild