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The Barnet and District Drama Festival, a firm favourite among the London-area festivals, this year continues its presentation of a varied selection of plays across the borough. The festival is well planned and organised, always maintains a high standard of amateur productions, and has more than once included an entry which was astonishing in its ambition and quality. Happily, the festival's record of competitive entries, dating from the 60s, remains intact notwithstanding the regrettable demise of many such festivals. Adjudication dates extend from February to June, attracting a varied range of competing societies, and awarding at the festival's conclusion fourteen trophies in most aspects of theatre arts. This year's festival had its opening entry on 13 February and the last of the eight entries (matching the 2012 size of entry) will be presented on 30 May.The celebratory Awards Evening is scheduled for 14 June.

In 2014 the range of productions overall, perhaps reflecting a yearning for sunshine in dark times, was lighter than one has come to expect from this festival, with the emphasis on comedy. Starting the festival came Joe Orton's 'Loot' (1965), perhaps the best known of Orton's plays, comprising a hybrid of knockabout farce and sharp social barbs. Then, following two weeks later, the Potters Bar Theatre Company presented Ernest Thompson's 'On Golden Pond', a deceptively gentle exploration of family relationships, which had a successful Broadway productionrn 1979, has been memorably filmed, and also revived in a TV version. Third in the festival, and at the lightest end, Belmont Theatre Company had Ray Cooney's happily bigamist taxi-driver (in a sequel to 'Run for Your Wife'), facing next-generation family complications in 'Caught in the Net.' Following at the end of March came The Incognito Theatre Group with Ivan Menchell's slight but affecting piece, 'The Cemetery Club', dating from 1987, widely staged, and very successfully filmed in 1993. Unusually, Ayckbourn plays appear three times in this festival. In April, Berkhamsted Theatre Company presented 'Bedroom Farce' (1975), the early Ayckbourn which had all the signs of his developing technical wizardry as well as the darkening shadows to come. At the beginning of May The Radlett players staged the most recent of the Ayckbourn entries, his 'Neighbourhood Watch' dating from 2011. The striking exception to the generally lighrhearted tone of the festival is the classic of the theatre, Eugene O'Neill's searing account of a

dysfunctional family, 'Long Day's Journey into Night', which, now the last entry in the festival, will be staged by the Good Companions at the end of May. But, ahead of that, came the third Ayckbourn play in the festival, the ever-popular 'Chorus of Disapproval', staged by the The Garden Suburb Theatre. The. eight productions in the festival promise to deliver a high-quality sequence of theatre entertainment. The Garden Suburb Theatre dates from 1966, with the merging of two existing dramatic societies, and has its roots in the historic Hampstead Garden Suburb development, founded in 1907 . Known until 1992 as the Hampstead Garden Suburb Dramatic Society, in 2008 the society celebrated one hundred years of dramatic performances. The Garden Suburb Theatre is a prominent dramatic society in the area, holds regular auditions, and stages six productions a year in a variety of venues. In previous years the Society has staged productions in the main hall of the Henrietta Barnett School, which it shared with a number of other organisations and activities. But for the last two years it has used The Bull Theatre in Barnet. This attractive local community theatre, formerly housed above a pub, now comprises a compact and comfortable 170-seat auditorium, with seating arranged in three well-raked blocks. The stage is wide but shallow, the lighting facilities good, and the sight lines to the stage clear from all areas. In this intimate studio theatre acoustics are excellent. Wherever it stages its productions, the Garden Suburb Theatre is a regular participant in the Barnet Festival, with many festival awards to its credit, including successes with 'Educating Rita' in 2010, and 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' in2013.

For the 2014 Barnet Festival, The Garden Suburb Theatre made a challenging choice in Sir Alan Ayckbourn's 'Chorus of Disapproval' (1984). Ayckbourn remains one of Britain's most widely produced playwrights, combining (unusually) massive popular success with serious critical acclaim (Chekhov and Moliere are the classical comparisons often made). Hugely prolific, with (to date) 78 full-length plays to his credit, Ayckbourn has also directed widely, and adapted many of his plays for television (including the celebrated 'Norman Conquests' trilogy in 1973). But his work ranges from his first hit 'Relatively Speaking' in 1967, a (comparatively) straightforward piece, to the technical intricacies of, for example, 'How The Other Half loves' (1969) or, even more dazzhnglY, 'The Time Of My Life' (1992). At the same time, his tone under the comedy has darkened over the years, with more evident pain beneath the surface laughter. His plays have embraced wide social and political themes but typically focus on middle class values and lifestyle, with failing relationships (often within marriage) comically but tellingly explored.

In 'Chorus of Disapproval' the action is played on a broad canvas, Ayckbourn drawing a parallel between John Gay's 'The Beggar's

Opera' and the lives of the amateur dramatic society who are presenting it. In the course of rehearsals, two dominant themes emerge: the destructive power of innocence (in the person of the lead player, Guy); and the spread of comrption in public life (in, among others, the persons of Councillor Huntley-Pike and the unscrupulous Ian Hubbard). Confusions and infidelities, in often hilarious scenes, relieve these (often dark) underlying themes. Throughout, 'Chorus of Disapproval' closely mirrors'The Beggar's Opera', right up to the final scene in which, on different levels, both Macheath and Guy are reprieved.

The play is an ambitious choice for a festival, switching between two levels of imitated reality. Ayckbourn brilliantly blends his own plot with that of 'The Beggar's Opera', but, for a production to succeed, both the play, and the play within the play, must be believable. The requirement is for a company'feel', different and rapidly changing sets, rich costuming, versatile lighting and, above all, acting which is convincing at both levels. When these requirements are met, 'Chorus of Disapproval' can deliver an evening which packs a comic punch in scene after scene -- while also tugging at the heart-strings in a blend that, at his best, perhaps only Ayckbourn can achieve.

The complex technicalities of a work which stages a play within a play were well managed, and the production was, in its open setting, imaginative from the start. There were no tabs, and the incoming audience found themselves privy to preparations for the PALOS performance of 'The Beggar's Opera.' On a stage bare but for the single piano, against a grey backcloth, Cast in operatic rig moved to and fro chatting casually. The action then moved almost seamlessly into the final moments of an operatic performance - a highly effective opening, neatly achieved. This bare stage remained the frame in which the subsequent five scenes were created, Cast themselves moving smoothly to put in place the defining items of the different settings: counter, stools and table for the bar; settee, chair and fireplace for Dafydd's sitting room; dominating chaise longue for Fay's sitting room; matching chairs, table and coat stand for the cafe; and deck chair, table and decorative pot plants for Rebecca's garden. The set changes, made without cover in the early sequences, were subsequently managed upstage almost unnoticeably as singing downstage focused audience attention.

The six settings were economically dressed, and with sufficient well-chosen props to achieve authenticity. The opening scene had the bare ugliness of a rehearsal space; but the bar had untidy clutter, glasses, bottles and belongings believably scattered (though the colour of Dafydd's 'best pint for thirty miles' suggested it was well worth missing). There was a simple evocation of Dafydd's sitting room, with cocoa duly presented, though Daddy Doll was, for its pu{poses, undersized (and underused). There was a suggestive air to Fay's living room with its

chaise longue and erotic pictures (imagined on the fourth wa11), and the sugar-rimmed drinks glasses were exactly the right touch. For the caf6 scene, the table with its cups and cakes, and a group of matching chairs, were enough to suggest the setting, the simple nearby coat stand (with coats) adding the feel of a public place. Rebecca's garden conveyed a wealthy, almost Mediterranean air, complete with casual table, cigarette box and drinks. Even the buff envelope containing 500 pounds had an enticing verisimilitude. But the aim throughout was clearly simplicity, and a successful evocation of each setting was achieved with great economy.

With so much varied action across the wide stage, 'A Chorus of Disapproval' needs above all to be visible, and in the production all scenes were clearly lit. But it is also a play which calls for varied lighting between and within the six settings. Thus, the wide wastes of the rehearsal space need to contrast with the intimate little Llewellyn sitting room. The lighting plot did not always achieve these variations. When the settings needed space, and were spread across the stage (as with the rehearsal space, the pub setting, and Rebecca's garden), they worked well. The rehearsal area had the ugly harsh lighting of a show not yet begun, 'The Fleece' seemed appropriately roomy (and pub-dingy), and Rebecca's garden wide and sunny. But Dafydd's little sitting room, though well set up, needed isolating in its own little pool of light with close-focussed lighting eliminating the wider area. Fay's sitting room would also have profited from more intimate lighting, perhaps with a 'hot' filter, with the open stage space at stage right left in darkness. The 'little ctip joint' where Guy and Hannah met also needed more lighting variation, so that its essential tattiness emerged in darker tones, justifying Fay's comment. The lighting plot was at its best when picking out the operatic groupings downstage, or, more particularly, showing speed and versatility during the celebrated scene of the lighting rehearsal when Hannah and Guy separate. Overall, the lighting plot, though bright and clear, was surprisingly uniform for a play of this variability.

With its music integral to the show, 'A Chorus of Disapproval' does not need a curtain-warming introduction, and even interval music would seem inappropriate. But the score of 'The Beggar's Opera' is often a delight, and, though intermittent, it emerged more dominantly here than in many productions. A strong feature was the smooth merging of the lives of the PALOS members and the opera they were performing, so that, in many scenes, the two levels blended almost imperceptibly into each other. In these scenes the piano support was critical, and in its timing and unobtrusiveness, this aspect was outstanding. The singing, delivered with great commitment, showed variable pitch and tone, but the very effort and care were exactly right for the enthusiastic amateurs that made up PALOS. The action of the play often overflowed outside the

Stage, and, in these moments, whether in the wings or auditorium, sounds always added realism to the narrative (rarely has the long-suffering and unseen Raymond been so invisibly and successfully embodied)- The main achievement of the musical side of the production was the impression that PALOS had finally staged a successful production of .The Beggar's Opera' -- and created audience desire to see it.

The audience rightly previewed the differing personalities of the PALOS group in theii daily dress. Appropriately, Guy entered pale in face and figure, retaining jacket and tie almost to the end, his collar finally unbuttoned as if to match his relaxing inhibitions. The contrast was well made with Dafydd, in sweaty rugby shirts and baggy jeans, as if newly emerged from the scrum; while Hannah, still relatively shapeless at home even after her brief dressing gown appearance, had a born-again attractiveness once in love with Guy. Enid and Rebecca both had the air of genteel propriety, somehow conveying this quality into the opera itself (particularly in th; dancing sequences). Rebecca, jeweled and elegant, had assumed an almost serpentine glamour by the time of Guy's visit to her garden. There was a dressed-down, heavily-booted and clumping Bridget, finding an extraordinary contrast in the opera itself' Fay outdressed her colleagues even at rehearsals, but her revelatory costumes were the two suits, one in passion pink to seduce Guy, and the other in classy brown leather to outgun Hannah, both seemingly designed to redirect attention to a lower level. In the same way, her husband Ian' dressed almost threateningly at rehearsals in sinister black leather, seemed to reserve his casual grey suit over white tee shirt especially for wife-swapping occasions. At the piano, Mrs Ames, blond and mop- haired, ioofra as homely as a dinner lady, never making dress concessions to PALOS rehearsals. By contrast, Jarvis had by nature to outsmart the opposition, and his series of sweaters, changing like traffic lights, were cteurty designed to impress his colleagues. Among this cisual group, Ted was t.utty and correctly dressed, befitting his age and senioriiy, though he was perhaps a trifle too dinner-suit-immaculate when coming fro- hi, dinner dur.". The dress of the younger players, Linda and Ciispin, in their jeans and shirts, effortlessly caught the deliberately sloppy yet somehow still attractive, pose of the young. This was a well aifierlntiated group, in dress appropriately and often wittily chosen, to reflect and enhance the varied personalities who took the stage.

'The Beggar's Opera' period costumes were often revelatory, finding crossover features with the PALOS players. The full skirts were worn well, swished and flounced effectively, and the men strutted convincingly in boots and breeches (the head dresses of Enid and Rebecca,like fluffy pie-toppings, were memorable in themselves, and the issue of Jarvis' boots a piece of fun particularly well taken)' The costumed choral numbers had accordingly a brightness and gaiety which

contributed a kaleidoscope of colour. But a disappointment was the tendency to take the costuming too far in a G&S direction so that the stage picture was sometimes too pretty, even anodyne, for a piece which deliberately takes in the low life of the period. One missed the dirt and squalor, and the doxies and cutthroats with their devilry were not in evidence. But, if the dirt was largely missing from the stage compositions, the vividness and groupings of the PALOS Cast in full song were still a delight to see and hear.

The direction was marked by a sense of fun, musicianship, and above all imagination. The fit-up settings, arranged by Cast members as the show proceeded, gave pace and deliberate informality to the production, so that the haste and deliberate clumsiness enhanced the atmosphere. There was a firm grip on the musical interludes, the singing/dancing numbers well choreographed and integrated with the narrative. The set-piece tableaux were beautifully composed, and even the outside-rehearsal songs (such as Dafydd's 'All Through the Night' or Ted's pub rendering) grew out of character and did not seem tacked-on. The near-fight or real-fight sequences (so often pussy-footed), such as Daffyd's face-off with Crispin, the pants tussle, or (memorably) the no- holds-barred thriller between Linda and Bridget, were full-blooded and for once convincing. The scenes, whether PALOS socialising or PALOS in opera performance, carried the unmistakeable feel of a small drama group, with perhaps more enthusiasm than talent, an amateur company grappling with all the problems, setbacks and excitements of a challenging production.

The direction gave a strong emphasis to the comic element in the play.The blustering Dafydd, Guy's naivete, the self-made Jarvis, Fay's lusts, the militant Bridget, ancient unseen Dilys - all had their celebrated comic set-pieces which were, to the audience's obvious delight, endlessly mined. There were moments, however, when this production rushed the more sensitive Ayckbourn moments. Dafydd's carelessly cruel patronising of Hannah needed greater stress to explain her response to Guy's gentleness; the still moment as Guy and Hannah first realise their mutual attraction, heavy with feeling (and danger), required a longer pause; and the sequence as Dafydd pours out his heart to Guy, here played at the stage edge and potentially wrenching, needs to shift from Dafydd's customary boom to something quieter and sadder, perhaps even lachrymose (only Rebecca's tannoy announcement bringing back the suddenly contrasting laughter). The celebrated 'A11 that's happened is that a play might not happen' did not get its full, resonant weight. In the same way, the second strand running through the play, the theme of public comrption beneath the surface respectability, was perhaps underplayed. The scenes of the overtures to Guy, first Dafydd, then Ian, and finally Jarvis, needed more slimy-sinister and less knockabout, and

the uglier side of this semi-comrpt provincial trio was not fully suggested. But the pace, and continuity, were maintained throughout the play, and, on this reading, with the comic potential so fully realised, it is difficult to fault the production for not always finding Ayckbourn's gift for 'the pain behind the laughter.' This was a production where the momentum of fun and pace carried the audience with it from beginning to end.

Under this direction, an enthusiastic Cast delivered a whole clutch of rich acting performances. Perhaps the most striking feature of the acting was that the two main roles were given a reading which, though not universal, was almost totally convincing in both cases. From first entrance Guy was played bland and ineffectual, someone to be created by others, a kind of blank sheet to be written on (similar in his unsought promotions to Gogol's Hlestakov). Technically, this concept of the part was well caught in the hesitations, the nervousness, the readiness to say Yes (and the inability to say No). Thematically, it made the point of the destructive potential of innocence when the innocent who tries to please everybody can end up doing the most harm. There were some technical shortcomings in the interpretation: in particular Guy often needed more repose, enabling the audience to 'read in' rather than his attempting to project every emotion. But the performance was consistent and sustained, from careful attention to Dafydd's hectoring advice, through misunderstanding of Fay's open advances, right up to his tinal success and reprieve. This was a sensitive and intelligent realisation of the 'everyman' figure, so often found in Ayckbourn, and so much more convincing than Guy as a Northerner on the make. Also committed to a particular account of the part, there was a Dafydd who was totally committed to a hearty and bombastic reading, a non-stop purveyor of loud advice, Welsh jokes and tactless enthusiasm, played, like a PALOS Max Boyce, with blood-bursting pace. Untidy, bearded, and red-faced he delivered a bravura performance on this level, dominating the stage and, inhabiting the part with total conviction, made the lines uniquely his own. One strong feature among many was his sense of timing, suddenly racing a line, or finding the split-second pause which makes the joke. But if something was lacking from this role, it was the change of gear into the Celtic mists, when, behind the bombast, we could glimpse the sense of failure (Minehead as well as Hannah). There were moments, particularly in exchanges with Guy (more intimate than comic) and with Ted (more defeated than furious) when a quieter Dafydd could, between the laughs, have broken hearts - the genius of Ayckbourn. But, on this reading of Dafydd, it became more credible how for all its bickering, he held PALOS together, how he could represent a particular type of marital insensitivity, and how he left his stamp on all those he so noisily led.

Against this background, there was a well-conceived reading of Dafydd's wife Hannah. Initially quiet and submissive under Dafydd's patronising dominance, this Hannah visibly flow ered as Guy reawakened buried feelings. Some opportunities were missed: the daddy- doll, sorely underused, needed the hugs and caresses that had become displaced from Dafydd, and the tremulous first hints of love were glossed, needing more variation in pace. But the parting scene from Guy, and the flow of lines under the unforgiving glare of the rehearsal lights, were brilliantly taken, with the authentic Ayckbourn blend. On a studiedly lighter note, there was a Fay who brought to the play, not a sexual frisson, but a sexual tornado. With a smile like a 500w lantern, and the most infectious laugh since The Laughing Policeman, she seduced Guy with the all subtlety of a Benny Hill stand-in. In another show, if Guy had been played as a pushy Northerner, a contrast would have been needed with a slinky and sinuous Fay. But with this Guy, the concept of Fay as a cheery and uninhibited swinger, played with obvious relish, was exactly right and a delight to see. The perfornance was the more credible for the playing of her husband Ian, here presented with quiet and sinister understatement as a man more interested in backroom deals than the present company. This double face extended to his sexual predilections, and the performance, turning from sulky boredom to laddish excitement, made it entirely credible that he preferred variety to fidelity. Dilys came as a delicious spanner in his works, and his acceptance of his fate ('The light's just inside the door...'), often a throwaway line, was here a moment to remember.

One of the mainstays of the PALOS set-up was the Stage Manager, Bridget, by turns aggressive and sultry. This was one of the sparkiest performances overall, both in her bullying pub-management, and in the unexpected supercharged embrace with Crispin, a refreshingly unresffained onstage grapple (where, in a double sense, she was having a ball). Her transformation (and seeming liberation) into one of the most exuberant chorus participants, all smiles and poses as Jenny Diver, was a startling revelation. Also prominent (with well projected effort) in the chorus were the two older members, Rebecca and Enid, who, in their different ways, represented the clay from which Dafydd strove desperately to fashion fine pottery. There was a sprightly Enid, comfortably maternal as she shepherded the aimlessly wandering Ted; and a Rebecca, who, with her occasional pomposities ('We come to you as a deputation') always retained a queenly composure whatever indignities arose. Their daughter Linda, relentlessly stroppy, rude and smolderingly possessive of Crispin, was another PALOS member who was transformed once the music struck up. Both she and Crispin had the recognisably surly manner of the young, as though pleasanttness and good manners would be a betrayal of their birthright. As a bonus Crispin added a latent violence, strikingly caught in his threatened showdown with Dafydd, so that, when it failed to materialise, it was almost a disappointment.

There was a neat vignette from Jarvis, who, if looking essentially metropolitan and not quite capturing the Yorkshire bullishness, still caught the assertiveness and misplaced omniscience of the role, another piece of acting which was comfortably understated and unstrained; and when the comic opportunity arose (as with the boots) this Jarvis had the presence and timing to take full advantage. In the same way, with few lines but copious opportunities to make the visual joke, in his ancient way Ted again and again seasoned the stage picture with a different kind of fun. But he also brought the necessary occasional pathos to the role, and his mute response to Dafydd's harangue was memorable. At the heart of this pantheon of aspiring players was the figure of Mrs Ames, transgendered into an utterly dependable, kindly and compassionate figure, faultless as repetiteuse, who was finally the ideal figure to deliver Macheath's reprieve. This was a memorable Cast who entered as exuberantly into their roles as PALOS members as they did the Cast of 'The Beggar's Opera.'

In summary, the Garden Suburb Theatre delivered a rollicking production of 'Chorus of Disapproval.' It was imaginatively staged, evoking the six simple scenes using Cast members and simple props and dressing. Lighting was clear throughout, with some failure to tighten lights on the smaller scenes. Costuming, both of the members of the Company, and within the opera they were performing, were well chosen and revealing of characters. The opera scenes, with the individual songs as well as the choruses well taken, had prettiness and dash, though suggestions of low life were missing. There was firm direction, emphasizing the fun, and with good pace, if sometimes missing the underlying pathos. The Cast rose fully to the challenges of the piece, from main to smaller parts, with the two central roles firmly committed to less common but convincing interpretations. This was a high-spirited account of the play, inventive and fast-paced, hugely enjoyed by the audience and a quality entry in the Barnet Festival. M/. C E EVANS 25 May 2014

Review by C. Evans

This is a review of A Chorus of Disapproval

The original review is here: