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2016 Productions:-

Nightmare - directed by Ben Maples

This show is typical of the suspense genre and was played with laudable conviction by all concerned.   Many red herrings plot strands were introduced, and were played for all they were worth.  I admit the drawing-room thriller is not my favourite genre, but there was plenty to keep me entertained.
Front of House
The Church Hall in New London Road, once found, is a bright, spacious and pleasant hall, with raised stage making this drawing room piece very accessible to the audience.    The FOH staff were very welcoming and friendly, and went out of their way to be helpful. It was good to see the formality of dress shirt and bowtie.  All help was offered and given, Sarah Wilson even giving me a lift to the station after the show. Thank you.
The poster was beautifully sinister and atmospheric. The concise programme told us everything that it needed to, and further details of the cast were attractively displayed in the hall, and made interesting pre-show or interval reading.
As a stranger to the venue, I must say that it was not easy to find.  I had looked up the address and at a map before coming, but the entrance to the hall was by no means obvious, and a poster on the gate to indicate that I was in the right place, and maybe arrows to indicate the rear entrance would have been helpful.
The splendid box set was evenly and well lit, with time of day and weather tellingly conveyed by the bright exterior view of the moors for daytime, turning gloomy for the rainy scene, and with full on lighting flashes for the storm.  Cosy internal lamps and a fire for the evening scene made it seem homely and gave us a change of atmosphere. The lighting skilfully added to the atmosphere and changing moods throughout.
This department was kept very busy throughout the show, with frequent telephone bells, cars coming and going, radio, rain and thunder.  While the recordings themselves were most effective, there was some mis-timing of cues.  The torrential rain at the beginning of Scene 2 started up very suddenly and a little late, some telephone ringing was missed altogether (well done cast for pretending it had rung, and carrying on accordingly) and to my mind, some of the cars departed unrealistically early, almost as soon as the person going to drive them had stepped out through the main door.  Maybe the sound operator did not having a clear view of the stage?
Both the torrential rain and the radio were a tad too loud to be comfortable with dialogue going on beneath, when it should have been over them.  The thunder was well timed to go with the lightning flashes at a realistic interval after they had happened.
The pre-show music was not specific to the 1980s, but served well as background.  You might consider covering short scene breaks with suitable music in future as it allows the audience to relax and make comments to each other, and can be used to set mood, maybe giving tension?
Set and Staging
The naturalistic box set which the play requires was well built, painted and decorated.   You gave a feeling of spaciousness and made good use of the full width of the stage.  Like many a local stage, the lack of depth presented a blocking challenge, and the perennial sofa and coffee table combination, beloved of so many writers of drawing room comedies and thrillers of a certain era, gave you a problem with keeping movement flowing naturally.  Thank goodness you didn't also have the usual drinks table behind the sofa too!  The cast kept in character well, and you avoided too much straight line acting.  You found ways of negotiating the sofa while not blocking each other, but sometimes I longed for a couple of armchairs so that people could have moved between them up to the door.  I realise, however that a sofa was required for the end of Scene 1 and also suited several intimate conversations.
I can understand why you turned the front door into a french window, as it allowed more light and a vista of the moors which made the whole feel more spacious.  I did keep finding myself wondering, though, why all visitors arrived through the garden and in via what gave the impression of being the back door.  I invented a whole scenario in my head about a path to the back gate of the garden being more accessible than the front door, but because I got involved in this, I think I missed some of the plot.  I think this is why logic on stage matters - logic of plot as well as logic of set layout and of the movement of people - because lack of logic can distract an audience.
Furniture was well chosen and I believed that Marion would have lived there - maybe with some items inherited, and some chosen, and with things cheerful and neat.  The set dressing was excellent, and Carol Danaher has a a good eye for detail.  Key props, grocery box, trays of cups and saucers, doctor's bag, and the all-important headscarf, were all well chosen.
Costumes and Make-up
The costumes suited the characters and period very well.  Katherine's attractive but practical clothes contrasted nicely with the look of Laura when she first arrived.  Quite rightly we could not place her and her more fashion-conscious look, plus that wig (attractive but clearly a wig), gave us the right signals that something was amiss.
Raymond's leather jacket and slicked back hair gave him a suitably menacing look.  I liked the comfortable but slightly opulent look of Marion's purple velvet dressing gown.  Doctor Thorne was suitably professional in his suit, but with a light coloured tie somehow hinting at the less serious character beneath.
I should have liked to have seen a bit more blood on Michael's arm given the doctor's comment about the wound being "almost down to the bone", although I do appreciate it is tricky stuff to have about a set and costumes.
This play felt very long.   As I have indicated, this form of "suspense play" is not to my taste, as the dialogue is necessarily there to set up a convoluted scenario, to complicate it further, to lay a trail of red herrings and then to surprise at the end, while purporting to be  naturalistic in style.  The characters only exist to serve this purpose, rather than to give any insight into human lives and behaviour, and the dialogue is therefore accordingly pedestrian.  The lively moments are those which provide tension - Raymond's character supplied many of these, as did those moments of growing unease when we realised the the doctor was not all he seemed, and when we looked for clues in Laura's behaviour to who exactly she was and what she was doing there.
Having stated my position on the play, nevertheless the cast provided us with a set of rounded characters despite the limitations placed upon them by the text.   They managed to create some consistent likeable (and hatable!) characters and played them to the hilt keeping our interest in their fate.  The more dramatic moments were well and intensely played.
Doris Meacham - Esther Miles
Doris begins the play, and has to come on and establish something about herself and the scenario before she says a word.  Esther made an admirable start to the play, establishing that she is a regular and welcomed visitor in the house, busying herself with the delivery of vegetables.  Her speech at the start was a little too fast, and some of the initial scene-setting dialogue with Katherine on the sofa was lost.   Esther did make Doris a refreshing character to see each time she appeared, giving needed background plot information .  She brought a breath of colourful and friendly fresh air into the otherwise claustrophobic atmosphere building in the house.
Katherine Willis - Jo Fosker
Katherine is the character with whom the audience are invited to sympathise and to see the events of the play through her eyes.  She gets to ask all the key questions, and to comment on events and people.  Her relationship with her brother Michael came across believably, and her rather smothering concern for him was understandable in the circumstances.  Friendly and warm to all, her responsibilities and unease build up slowly, and her outburst at the end of the play came as disturbing contrast, and was excellently played for all it was worth.  Well done.
Dr Andrew Thorne - Bruce Thompson
Bruce played the doctor as a likeable, attractive character at the start, Katherine's trust of him convinces us to take him at face value, but even early on his rather too familiar attitude to Marion's house rang small alarm bells, and then slowly and subtly he dropped small clues that he might not be all the he seemed.  This edgy performance kept us guessing and built the tension throughout.  His concern for Laura was just enough to lead us to wrong assumptions about their relationship, and then there he was, straight-forward and reliable at the end - subtly and believably played..
Michael Willis - Tim Dale-Davies
Hats off to Tim for pulling off a very difficult task - Michael is largely silent for most of the play, and other people talk for and over him and sometimes to him in rather a controlling way, on account of his disability.  What this is is not spelled out, but he has difficulty with speech, takes everything at face value and relies on his sister for everything, while aware in himself the he is not a child and doesn't want to be treated like one.  All this was well played by Tim's body language and expressions, and I thought he hit exactly the right note - not overplayed..  His outburst to Laura was heart-rending and rang true, while his silence throughout was as expressive as many words.
Raymond Shapley
What a splendid devil-may care villain young Raymond was!.  Liam O'Connor was in good command of the stage from his first appearance, and swaggered into the room with a proprietorial air, so that we knew at once that he was arrogant and up to no good.  His body language, edginess and attempts to ingratiate himself with everyone he met until he knew whether they would be useful to him or not built a very believable manipulative villain.  His certainty of what he wants and what he feels he deserves although despicable, comes as a breath of fresh air after the cover-ups which all the other characters are engaged in.  I did feel very sorry for him the end when we learned his fate though.   His aunt's hatred for him was rather shocking and explained his massive grudge against the world. A great "love to hate" portrayal.
Marion Bishop
Angela managed the very clever trick of making us like Marion and care about her from the start, even though most of her given dialogue was quite moaning and negative.  Angela seemed able to make her warm and sympathetic.  This was a bonus when her character turns out to be so ruthless at the end - it meant this was truly unexpected. It also meant that we were concerned for her welfare when surrounded by a rather self-serving set of characters. Angela played the gradual decline in health truthfully and convinced us that she had nothing to lose by the end, making her final acts understandable.
Laura Vinnecombe - Jade Flack
Jade gave an intriguing and engaging performance throughout, keeping her focus as Laura, and as Laura playing the part of nurse, and keeping us guessing.  I was lured into believing that she and the doctor were lovers, but with hindsight that was never played, just subtly hinted at.  Jade gave Laura's nurse character a warm personality - her concern for Michael when it is clear that he is obsessed with her came across well, and she was attentive enough to Marion to keep the nurse act credible.  Her death scene was built subtly and gradually enough to be very believable.  Well done.
Radio announcer - Syd Smith
Heard but not seen, Syd's announcer was spot on. Clear, detached with a pleasant voice, and just the right BBC inflection for the time.
First staged 29 years ago, the setting of the play presents decisions for the director.  Do you bring it up to date, or play it as late 1980s?  I think that Ben Maples made the right decision in keeping the piece set in the eighties, as otherwise you run into all the questions about why people don't use their mobile phones etc.  It is, rightly, a period piece. 
It is tricky to balance naturalism with pointing up to the audience needed information, and misinformation.  The first scene between Doris and Katherine is very wordy, and a lot of what they discuss is quite pedestrian gossip, but they needed to hang onto the things the audience really needs to know - there is basic information about Marion, her wealth, living alone etc. which needs delivering.  The conversation was largely static on the sofa, and Doris and Katherine were facing each other, not being given any opportunity to "share" with the audience.  At times a tighter pace (not the same thing as rushing your lines) would have moved things along
I have mentioned above the difficulties which the shape of the acting space and required furniture presented in blocking.  Where there was opportunity for movement (Raymond's predatory prowling around the room for instance, and Laura and Andrew's brief plotting scene) things came to life. 
I was carried through this series of improbable situations by a colourful and engaging set of character performances which brought the story to life.  The group had created a warm welcoming atmosphere and their commitment to their performance and consideration of their audience was evident.
Thank you for inviting me to share this experience."
     Sheila Foster-North Essex Theatre Guild