Mark Shenton must been wearing a turban and fingering his crystal ball when he wrote in his Stage blog on Monday “I always say there is no true objectivity in reviewing; we inevitably bring who we are to what we write and it is sometimes (though we try to make adjustments for personal circumstances) dictated by just how we are feeling that day. You’re not always in the mood for Chekhovian or Ibsenite misery.” Indeed.
Poor Mr Ibsen didn’t really stand much of a chance coming the night after the Whingers had been so overly-entertained at the Hackney Empire’s Golden Years of Variety.
As Andrew had mused “If only all theatre could be like this; I’d be there every night”.
What was not to like? Roy Hudd, Melvyn Hayes, Tony Hatch on the old joanna with his ‘Downtown’ and ‘Messing About on the River’ by way of his Crossroads/Neighbours/Emmerdale themes, Barry Cryer, Sharon D Clarke, Paul Zerdin’s brilliant vent act, Clive Rowe and a stage crammed with pantomime Dames, Rick Wakeman playing nursery rhymes in the style of classical composers (and Les Dawson), the hilarious – it’s a live thing, trust us on this – Joe Pasquale, 89 year-old bird song impersonating legend Ronnie Ronalde and plate-spinners Andy Van Buren and Allyson to name but a few. Yes, plate-spinning! Now that’s what we call entertainment.
An impossible act (or acts) to beat. But then again Brian Friel’s version of Hedda Gabler does come out of its corner fighting by fielding four oft-WEW-trumpeted actors: Anne Reid, Adrian Scarborough, Fennella Woolgar plus Miss Sheridan Smith delivering her Hedda. Heck even Time Out is jumping on the Whingers’ bandwagon suggesting she might be a future dame. Listen up Time Out, GET OFF OF OUR LAND!
Happily (for us) director Anna Mackmin has realised that serious theatre needn’t be dull. We remember very little these days but certainly don’t remember HG being this funny. And much of the humour comes in the form of Hedda herself. More polite society might describe Smith’s Hedda as capricious. We’d say she’s a bit of a bitch and a fully-formed manipulative cow; a Norwegian Tracy Barlow in a bustle.
Hedda’s returned from an long honeymoon having married the solid, eager-to-please yet totally unsuitable academic Tesman (Scarborough). To offset ennui she proceeds to meddle in the lives of those around her, especially Tesman’s academic rival Løvborg (Daniel Lapaine) and an old school acquaintance Thea Elvsted (Woolgar). Don’t come along for a happy ending (but do come along for a satisfying one).
Reid’s endearingly millinery-titillated Aunt Ju Ju helped us hop on board very quickly. Smith wrings out laughs and after the interval real tears (from her not us) as events spiral out of even her control. We particularly enjoyed her obsessive stares at Løvborg’s plot-significant manuscript.
Sadly the Whingers didn’t see the cigarette lighter being proferred by a stage hand through the back of the wood burning stove’s opening; though one of the significantly younger and more gimlet-eyed of Whingers’ party did and even Andrew’s ears twitched at the click of the Zippo. Wonderful.
Darrell D’Silva plays his Judge Brack Whinger-pleasingly large and Scarborough’s slipper-obsessed Tesman twitters to good effect though he’s saddled with an unfortunate scene when believing Hedda to be pregnant morphs into Carousel‘s Billy Bigelow speculating on the sex and name of the child. Tesman stops dangerously short of bursting into a chorus of “My boy Bill..”.
What doesn’t make sense is why Hedda married Tesman in the first place. They seem about as likely to last as Geri Halliwell and Russell Brand (who imagined that wouldn’t work out?) and as physically mismatched as The Krankies. Hedda’s explanation of why she married Tesman doesn’t quite ring true. But then suspension of disbelief is required to believe much of this over-wrought melodrama. No fault of Mackmin or the cast who do what they can to convince us. Contentiously we blame Ibsen because let’s face it Hedda Gabler is a ludicrous and bonkers play
It may come with one of the most famous endings of a play ever but if you don’t already know we’re not here to spoil it. But at least it happens on stage and will wake you up if you’ve drifted off listening to all those words. It’s a tad too long but that’s presumably a theatrical allusion to the queue for the Old Vic’s powder rooms.
Perhaps not up there with plate-spinning (what is?) but at least a Hedda designed to entertain. Can’t complain about that.