Monday, 17 February 2020

The Thrill of Love by Amanda Whittington




This thought-provoking play tells the story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in England. The bare facts of her crime are presented at the very start: we see Ruth dressing, preparing to go out – with a gun in her handbag. We see her wait for and then short dead her lover, David Blakely.
By then end of the play we see the jury take just 14 minutes to find her guilty of murder. Yes, the facts point to this conclusion….but this play looks at the wider picture, through the eyes of detective Jack Gale, played with understated emotion by Martin Ward. Gale hears Ruth’s confession, but one piece of her evidence in particular jars with him – where did she get the gun and travel to Hampstead to carry our the killing? Convinced there is more to learn, Gale takes his enquiries into the world Ruth inhabits: 1950s sleazy London nightclubs where the tough-as-nails Sylvia treats him with the mixture of contempt and disdain befitting her relationship with the police.
Yet Kathryn Ward as Sylvia also skilfully manages to convey the underlying tenderness she has for Ruth and her other girls, represented by Valerie / Vicki, a good time girl who acts as a foil for Ruth. Abbi Leverton sparkles as the young woman dreaming of stardom and money…a false dream for her as well as Ruth.
The nightclub’s cleaner Doris shows us a more ‘normal’ reality as she hopes for nothing more than marriage and children, but as she befriends, and hero-worships, Ruth, even she is caught up in their world. Susan Simpson delights as Doris, managing to inject some humour to counterpoint Ruth’s story.
However, the success of the play rests mainly on the mesmerising performance of Holly Squires as Ruth, taking us from her struggles as a single mother through her own personal hell of alcoholism, abortions, miscarriages and domestic abuse that finally drove her to the murder she was convicted of.
A minimalist set and use of backdrop film and Billie Holliday music provided the atmosphere of 1950s London, and the costumes were beautifully chosen for the characters. The final question was left to us, the audience to answer: given what we learn in the play, who was really to blame for the murder of David Blakely? My advice is - see the show and draw your own conclusions.
The Thrill of Love is staged at the Apollo Theatre, Newport from Tuesday 18th – Saturday 22nd February; tickets available at https://www.apollo-theatre.org.uk/the-thrill-of-love/ Or by calling the Box Office on 01983 2010010. But hurry – seats are selling fast!

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense - The Apollo Players

‘Team Nonsense’ is the title used by Fiona Gwinnett, director of the Apollo Players’ latest show, to describe the close-knit team who once again have put on a remarkable production at the Apollo Theatre.

And what a triumph for all involved!  The play, ‘Perfect Nonsense’, is an adaptation by the Goodall brothers of a number of PG Wodehouse’s ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ novels.  The storylines will be familiar to Wodehouse fans: the stolen cow-creamer, the policeman’s helmet on Boat Race night, the dreadful Madeleine Bassett and the otherworldly Gussie Fink-Nottle – all appear in the play, and every one of the characters, including of course Bertram Wooster himself, is played by a virtuoso cast of three.  Joel Leverton, Robbie Gwinnett and Peter Harris between them moved seamlessly from role to role – in one case simultaneously, as Robbie Gwinnett played a conversation between two characters by turning first his right side, wearing a gentlemen’s tweed suit, and then his left, clad in a flowing ladies’ dress, to the audience.

Fiona Gwinnett’s use of the word ‘team’ was absolutely borne out by this production.  The Players specialise in ensemble work, and this was no exception.  The set was a masterpiece of the set-builder’s art, comprising as it did a revolve – seemingly rotated by one of the characters leaping on a bicycle – and three separate sets, painted in effective trompe-l’oeuil.  The wardrobe department as usual excelled themselves, as the actors became first one character and then another in faultless 1920s outfits, and the lighting and sound team were spot on with the multiple and complex changes of scene.

But the abiding memory taken away by all the audiences was of absolute hilarity.  We were breathless with laughter as Peter Harris, as the very elderly butler Butterfield, tottered across the stage; as Bertie Wooster got almost inextricably entangled in his braces; as Jeeves morphed into Madeleine Bassett through the judicious use of a lampshade and a pink silk scarf ... the list could go on.  Sadly the show is now over, but it was a piece of wonderful ‘nonsense’.


Robbie Gwinnett, Joel Leverton and Pete Harris in just one of their guises in ‘Perfect Nonsense’.
Photo by Paul Jennings

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Suddenly At Home by Francis Durbridge – The Apollo Players



Graham Pountney, Carol Simpson and Helen Reading in a scene from ‘Suddenly At Home’.
Photo by Paul Jennings


Audiences at the Apollo were treated to a classic Durbridge suspense-filled thriller: not so much a whodunnit, more a ‘willhegetawaywithit’ with added plot twists and surprises along the way. So I will try not to spoil any of those surprises, since the play runs until Saturday 14th September, giving you a chance to see for yourself.

Suffice it to say that Glenn Howard, a womanising charmer married to the conveniently very rich Maggie, has a somewhat devious mind. The plot against Maggie becomes evident very quickly, as we meet her friend Sheila and innocent sister Helen.

Anyone who has been involved in theatre will know that at times there is as much drama unfolding offstage as on, and this has clearly been the case for the Apollo Players who were faced with the rare problem of an actor unavoidably having to withdraw from the show – and the lead role too! Happily, the role of Glenn was filled by Graham Pountney, a familiar name on the Island, and he captures Glenn’s ability to charm everyone into either entering into the plot with him or believing he could never have carried out such a crime. If you did not know the Apollo team you might have thought having a professionally trained actor of over 40 years’ experience onstage would make the rest of the cast look like, well, amateurs – but not a bit of it! The newcomer fits seamlessly into the play and the other actors shine even brighter for it.

Chris Turvey brings out the character of Maggie, sociable and unsuspecting of her husband’s intentions, and Holly Squires as Helen skilfully enables the audience to identify with her as she, like us, gradually realises that things in the Howard household are not quite what they seem, and she struggles to understand and come to terms with what has happened.

Helen Reading portrays the complex character of Sheila perfectly: without giving too much away I can only say that as each aspect of Sheila’s character unfolds, Helen’s acting experience and talent ensures that the audience are captivated by what she might do next….

Equally skilful at showing different sides of a character is Carol Simpson as the au pair Ruth, while another character about whom we may change our mind during the play is Sam Blaine, Maggie’s ex, played with understated threat by Nick Turvey.

The cast is completed by two policemen – or are they? Certainly Inspector Appleton (Garry Smith) thinks he’s in charge of the investigation, but Remick (Mark Duffus) also has some searching questions to ask.

However, like every character in this complex thriller, they may not be exactly what they seem – and if you think you can predict the final twists in the plot, you are in for a surprise as well as an evening of great entertainment!

Suddenly At Home is staged at the Apollo Theatre, Pyle Street, Newport from Tuesday 10th – Saturday 14th September, curtain up 7.30pm. Tickets available from the website at https://www.apollo-theatre.org.uk/suddenly-at-home/ or from the Box Office on 01983 210010.
But hurry – tickets are selling fast!

Thursday, 29 August 2019

In conversation with Graham Pountney

As we are lucky enough to have professional actor Graham Pountney as a 'guest' actor in our next production, 'Suddenly At Home', we took the opportunity of asking him a few questions...

                                    Graham Pountney onstage as Glenn in 'Suddenly At Home'.

Could you tell us a bit about your acting career and links to the Island?

My parents first brought me here when I was three. Then we came every summer, my folks building their retirement home here. Now they have passed on, my sons come down too!

I have been followed for approx forty years by the County Press who reported my graduating from Bristol Old Vic drama School in the 70s. I was a regular character  in the BBC TV series Howards Way, shot in the Hamble.

Recently I brought to life two Anthony Minghella plays at the Quay Arts Minghella Theatre in June; and an evening of Alan Bennett plays the year before - I toured Richard II and Edward II to The Ventnor Fringe in 2017; and presented my solo show as Charles I in Carisbrooke Castle last year too!

Is this the first time you have acted at the Apollo Theatre? 

Not exactly - I rehearsed my audition speeches for drama school on the stage in 1973!  Otherwise, yes

Without giving too much away, can you tell us a bit about ‘Suddenly At Home’ and your character?

Glenn is a charmer ... he wants to better his life, and subtly resents his wife having more cash than him, and the way she wants to spend it and live her life.  He decides there's a way to better himself on his own terms.  The play's about him attempting to do that - but other people get in the way

What made you agree to be part of this play?

I was asked! - and I've also been discussing with the Apollo about bringing a play to the Theatre with my company next year - and it seemed a great way to get to know everyone, and enjoy entertaining audiences too.

What would you say to anyone thinking of coming to see it?

Be prepared to have your ideas changed - nothing is quite what it seems in the play, and the tension is tangible.  A great night out!


'Suddenly At Home' by Francis Durbridge is staged at the Apollo Theatre for 7 nights from Friday 6 September (not Sunday or Monday). Tickets can be obtained from our website at  https://www.apollo-theatre.org.uk/suddenly-at-home/ or by phoning our Box Office on
01983 210010

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Natural Causes by Eric Chappell – The Apollo Players

The first – but by no means only – wonderful thing I noticed about ‘Natural Causes’ was the set: the talented team at the Apollo have brought to life in every detail the book-lined study of a faded intellectual, personified in the character of Walter Bryce who, as the play begins, is very anxiously playing host to an eccentric individual named – or perhaps not – Vincent Vincent. The latter, it appears, despite his lack of education (“did I tell you I left school at the age of fourteen?”) and background, has the wherewithal to administer a potion inducing death almost immediately with no trace – the victim will appear to have died from ‘Natural Causes’.

You would expect a black comedy based on such a premise, from the pen of the writer of such hits as ‘Rising Damp’ to have twists, turns, miscommunication and plenty of laughs, and indeed the script delivers all this and more. 

But the real success of this production rests on the portrayal of each character, and the direction behind it. And director Martin Ward can feel very proud of his work and his team. Steve Reading plays Walter to perfection – nervous yet ready to go through with his dastardly plan which seems to be thwarted at every turn, somehow gaining our sympathy with his predicament. Helen Reading portrays his ‘secretary’ Angie with a Lady Macbeth level of persuasion and taunting: she at least is fully determined to get the outcome she wants.

Kathryn Ward, as Walter’s devoted wife Celia, skilfully gives us a character we simultaneously empathise with – and want to see dead, and David Carr’s Samaritan Withers is suitably fluttery in the face of possible suicide and bewildered by the confusion he encounters as he tries to prevent what Vincent tries to accomplish.

Vincent himself, played with a lovely mixture of confidence and confusion by Steve Taverner, appears to have the whole situation under control – after all, he’s ‘helped’ so many people, and there’s another client in Slough just waiting to die…..but as it turns out, he just might have to wait a bit longer. 

To say more would spoil the plot for those who come along to The Apollo next week to see the show: and I really recommend that you do  – it is staged from Tuesday 21st to Saturday 25th May inclusive, curtain up 7.30pm. Expect hilarity, confusion – and a lot of plot twists along the way, all of which make for a most entertaining evening!

Tickets are available via the Apollo website at https://www.apollo-theatre.org.uk/natural-causes/ Or can be reserved by calling 01983 210010.


Sunday, 31 March 2019

The Weir by Conor McPherson

As soon as you enter the auditorium for the Apollo Players’ latest show, you’re in for a treat: the hugely talented set design crew have surpassed themselves in reproducing a rural Irish pub. From the flickering peat stove, to the beer pulls that look as if they have produced countless pints of Guinness and lager, to the hay bales in the adjoining barn, the stage is quite literally set for an evening in Brendan’s cosy bar.

Brendan, played with understated humour by Robbie Gwinnett, is resigned to his apparent lot as host to his regulars, and we feel that we are witnessing a typical evening as grumpy Jack (Colin Ford) comes in and helps himself to a drink, complaining about the malfunctioning tap and putting his money in the till. The general banter between the two reflects local life, and they are joined by Michael Arnell’s gently spoken Jimmy, who has ‘got more going on’ in his head ‘than popular opinion would give him credit for’.

So far, so usual, until the conversation turns to a newcomer in the village – a rare event, we surmise – and a woman too, who is renting a house from Finbar, a local married man who, to his friends’ mix of scorn and jealousy, appears to be escorting her around the area.

When we meet Finbar and Valerie the dynamic changes, with the men vying for her attention by relating anecdotes which invoke the ancient spirit of old Ireland with its tales of fairy folk and the supernatural. David Vince’s Finbar dominates the pub and the stage – we learn that he has moved out of the area and returned, and both he and Valerie, played by Ginnie Orrey, have a veneer of sophistication lacked by the others. This gives rise to some humour when she throws Brendan into turmoil by asking for a glass of wine and to use the Ladies’ – the lack of female companionship in the men’s lives is thrown into sharp relief here.

It is a very difficult task to sustain a strong accent such as that of rural Ireland throughout a play, and the cast are to be congratulated on their efforts; however, these accents and the very Irish dialect words and cadences of speech did at times make the dialogue difficult to follow – I note that even professional productions of the play have made use of native Irish speakers, which reflects this difficulty.

That said, the men’s anecdotes build towards the sharply real and tragic story that Valerie has to tell, and in the final scene one is left wondering whether the younger characters’ lives will follow the empty pattern of the older men or whether there is a glimmer of hope for something more.

The Weir will be staged every evening from Tuesday 2nd April to Saturday 5th April, curtain up 7.30pm. Tickets are available from the Apollo website at https://www.apollo-theatre.org.uk/the-weir/ Or from the box office on 01983 210010.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Brontë by Polly Teale


Fiona Gwinnett, Abbi leverton and Susan Simpson as Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë- photograph by Ian Johnston LRPS

The first thing a regular Apollo visitor notices on entering the auditorium for a performance of Brontë is the stage – it’s not where it has been for over forty years! In order to enhance the intimate atmosphere of the play, director Di Evans has chosen to present it in a traverse format, necessitating a good deal of shifting around of seating and the creation of a whole new stage. A lot of work - but well worth it, because the audience do feel emotionally in touch with the lives of the characters.

Brontë is a difficult play to stage, shifting as it does between timeframes and requiring each actor to portray more than one character, some real, some fictional. Yet the production absorbed me from the start, as modern day visitors to Haworth transform into the literary family and we are plunged into the middle of their story.

Branwell, the sole male sibling, on whom rests the hopes and expectations of his father and sisters for the reputation of the family, is perfectly played by Chris Hicks, who brings out Branwell’s weaknesses, vulnerability and anger; we can sympathise with the pressure he is under yet condemn his behaviour – the scene in which he physically assaults Charlotte is particularly shocking. Teale’s commentary on Victorian views of men and women is still relevant today – Branwell has the advantages and opportunities denied to his sisters because of their gender, and he wastes them.

Peter Gale, playing a range of roles, including Patrick Brontë, with aplomb, shows true skill in convincingly portraying completely  different people and ensuring we always know who he is and how we feel about him.

The role of Charlotte, the eldest and longest surviving sister, is in the experienced hands of Fiona Gwinnett, who gives us a real insight into the turmoil of her mind: never still, never quiet, never satisfied with the domestic lot of her life. We empathise as we see her rich creativity develop as a young girl and as she matures we witness her determination to find an outlet for her writing and find a way out of the lonely life to which she is condemned.

Emily, apparently quieter and more domesticated but in reality just as frustrated with the emptiness of household chores and caring for her father, is portrayed by Abbi Leverton, who conveys perfectly the vulnerability, love of nature and innate passion that leads Emily to write as an escape from the dreariness of her life. The scene in which she is horrified by Charlotte’s ‘outing’ her as a female writer after being published under a male pseudonym is heart wrenching, as is her death.

The youngest and least known sister, Anne, is played engagingly by Susan Simpson. He anguish at being away from home as a governess and her gentle nature, often caught as peacemaker between her siblings, is powerfully acted.

The real power of the play though, highlighted by the talent and skill of the direction and acting, centres on the isolation and repression of the three sisters, which finds its outlet in the characters of their imagination; Bertha and Cathy (from Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights respectively) are superbly portrayed by Maria Wilkinson, and represent the inner passions of their characters’ creators perfectly, in words and, so often, in silent action.

Despite its setting in the real life of famous people over 150 years ago, this play still has plenty to say about the human condition and the effect of social pressure today. It is a piece which will emotionally engage you and evoke thought and discussion long after you have left the theatre.

Brontë runs from Tuesday 12 through to Saturday 16 February, curtain up 7.30pm – if you enjoy theatre which makes you think and gives you a different experience then don’t miss it!

Tickets available from the Box Office on 01983 210010 or via the website at http://www.apollo-theatre.org.uk/bronte/