2022 - A Collage of Comedy

A ‘Collage of Comedy’ review by Andy Witting

The Russell Players are back with a bang! 

Those of us lucky enough to catch the trio of comedy performances laid on by the Russell Players in mid-June are in no doubt that dramatics are back in Swallowfield and it is far from amateur. The whole machine worked very smoothly entertaining us with first rate acting, lovely stage sets, clever lighting and delightful refreshments. What a talented bunch we have in our midst.      

First, our senses were fed with sharp humour and witty dialogue in the diminutive but hugely creative "Romeo and Juliet's Final Half Hour". Written by the Players own Juliet Devon, who also starred in the eponymous lead role, this gem of a play asked us to suspend our Shakespearean pre-conceptions and imagine that the hero of the piece might be called "Dave". Short but perfectly formed, it presented several of Shakespeare's best known passages and, through subtle alteration and reconstruction, leads us to a hilarious alternative and zany reality.    

The scenario is a school rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet. With Deni Smale, the hard pressed drama teacher, Nikki, and Sarah Mapleston, the politically correct Head Teacher as her foils Juliet brought much mirth to the role with her deliberate mock naivety. The exaggerated exasperation of the drama teacher and the conformist shock of the Head Teacher served to highlight the humour, as did the proletarian and focused disinterest of the cleaner, Mrs Bloss, played by Lynn Wright, who is only interested in sticking to her home-bound schedule. As Romeo or, perhaps, Dave, Sheila Partington completed the cast and provided further jollity with an array of timely and appropriate facial expressions.  

Together with the dark and simple stage set Mitch Mitchell's focused direction maintained the audience's attention firmly on the cleverness of the dialogue and brought out the best of the humour. Altogether a very enjoyable eight minutes!        

The second of the trio was Café Society, a witty but somewhat more melancholic exploration of misunderstanding and the missed opportunities for love that we can experience through the inadequacy of human communication. Written by Colin Calvert and directed for the Russell Players by Chris Partridge, the play focuses on the relationships between three characters, Pauline, Patrick and Luigi. Pauline, a Scottish spinster and former teacher with a personality reminiscent of Shirley Valentine, is lunching in a local Italian restaurant that has seen better times. She has the infatuated attention, although not the service, of waiter Luigi who blames the chef for his inefficiency. Then, in walks Patrick, an apparently seriously minded but suave Oxford professor. As things progress Pauline and Patrick strike up a promising relationship which has the potential to blossom into something much more. However, misunderstandings and an incident with a wrong turn through a fire exit, conspire against them but not before Pauline and Patrick have re-enacted a poignant scene from Trevor Howard's Brief Encounter. The play finishes with a distraught Patrick returning just too late to prevent Pauline and Luigi heading off into the sunset. 

The star of the show is undoubtedly Tricia Harris as Pauline who is onstage throughout. With clarity of diction and great comic timing she was totally convincing as a women with low expectations based on experience but with an optimistic outlook that, this time, it might be different. Along with Mitch Mitchell as Patrick the pair strike up an easy relationship and, despite their initial misgivings, they find shared interests that bode well for the future. A believable on-stage chemistry exists supported by fluent acting suggesting that the pair are able to anticipate each other’s thinking. As Luigi the Italian waiter Glyn Marshall adopted a mostly convincing Italian accent and exuded the charm that one would expect in such a role. The audience is left guessing in which direction the matters of the heart will develop until the very end. Is Patrick for real or is he on the make? How is Luigi going to react if Patrick is successful in securing Pauline's affection? Will Pauline be disappointed again or is it the big one this time?

As always with the Russell Players the scenery was superb. The backdrop of the Italian restaurant was lovingly created by Chris Partridge and Juliet Devon. Bryan Partington’s lighting and sound served to develop the intimacy of the situation helped along by the food and wine that appeared during the performance. 

After an interval, during which some very tasty food was served, the final offering was The Book Club of Little Witterington, by Joan Greening. Directed by Mitch Mitchell this is set in the sitting room of Jenny, played by Sarah Mapleston. Jenny is a leading light in the village Book Club. The Club, which has a long but uninspired history, has had a stable membership but is looking for fresh blood. Into this comes Paula, a feisty Millennial East Ender, played by Juliet Devon, quite out of character with the rest of the Club membership. Reactions to Paula's arrival range from loving acceptance from Ruth, a floaty Welsh bleeding heart, brilliantly played by Lynn Wright, interested acceptance from Sarah, played by Deni Smale and obstinate rejection from the deeply conservative and change averse Belle, the role of Sheila Partington. Each of these ladies plays their stereotype with skilful observation. Sarah is a frustrated actor who wants to believe that her next leading role is just around the corner and that Paula might be able to help her to achieve it. Belle believes that nothing good will come from a new joiner who clearly shows a lack of class in her appearance and early comic interactions. Jenny is a frustrated housewife who wants to believe that her life is as good as it can be despite evidence to the contrary. Ruth just wants to believe in love and to avoid conflict. The surprise package is Paula who, despite the neo-punk attitude, turns out to be something quite different. Attitudes expressed at the outset change quite dramatically during the course of the play as revelations are cleverly revealed through the dialogue. 

That all of these actors had also performed earlier in the evening shows just how much skill and talent exists in the company. Once again, the stage set complemented the performance superbly. It really made you feel that you were in a rather stuffy little England setting where tea and crumpets prevail every afternoon; in short one which could do with a good shake up, which is what Paula provides. This aspect is also brought out through the direction which serves to emphasise the stereotypes before breaking them down with comic timing. 

Overall, one would be hard pressed to find an evening of such high comic, artistic and nutritional value on the amateur circuit. The noisy, perhaps even raucous reaction of the audience showed just how much they has enjoyed themselves. The next outing for the Russell Players will be their postponed pantomime now scheduled for this November. On the evidence of the Collage of Comedy I suggest that you book your tickets as soon as they are available. 

Romeo and Juliet's Final Half Hour by Juliet Devon

Cafe Society by Colin Calvert

The Book Club of Little Witterington by Joan Greening