>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 25 feb 2004
>time: 8pm
>venue: dbs arts centre
>rating: **

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.

>>>>>beggars SHOULD BE choosIER

Alan Ayckbourn's A CHORUS OF DISAPPROVAL won the Olivier Award for best play back in '84. It must have been a very poor year. The plot is an improperly mixed emulsion of amateur dramatics and underhand property deals in which newcomer Guy goes from bit player to leading man simply by refusing to say no to anyone. Songs from John Gay's 'The Beggar's Opera' are randomly interspersed (I suppose they were meant to comment meaningfully on the play's action) and the end of the second act drags like a Changi Village hooker.

Of course, there are laughs - Ayckbourn is always good for a few of these - and there is a Moral Message of sorts; but, if you disregard the misplaced acclaim it received, I can't see why anyone would choose to put on this play instead of the many better ones Ayckbourn has written.

And for that matter, I suggest that Ayckbourn may be a problematic choice for The Stage Club these days even though he is a perennial favourite of the company. Here's my reasoning: Ayckbourn writes with unmistakably British inflections, and if you aren't British, chances are you just can't say his lines properly. This isn't intended to be a slight to local actors, it's just that some playwrights need their plays to be performed by their own countrymen (imagine the aural ordeal of a British cast attempting one of Kuo Pao Kun's plays). A few years back, when the Stage Club was almost entirely composed of British expats, there was no problem: the Brit actors spoke the Brit dialogue and it all sounded fine. But over the last couple of years, what appear to be a less homogenous Stage Club membership and a more inclusive casting policy have resulted in a lot more locals and non-British foreigners taking the stage and misspeaking the characteristically English plays that The Stage Club consistently chooses to produce.

Not that The Stage Club is the only company falling down on this front. Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble regularly murders foreign scripts with misplaced word stress and, what's worse, with a woefully inadequate understanding of the societies from which it culls its plays; and the overseas scripts ACTION Theatre tackles too often end up calling no place home.

But for The Stage Club, the problem is more noticeable. At least in the other companies, everyone says the lines wrong together, and so the audience quickly accepts this and moves on. But in The Stage Club, half the actors say them right and half of them don't, and the constant switching between the two groups means the audience can never forget the problem.

Perhaps The Stage Club might address this problem by choosing more linguistically universal plays, like W!ld Rice usually does. But then perhaps The Stage Club doesn't care about this irksome but admittedly rather trivial issue and perhaps I'd be wise to get over it.

>>'There can be troubling ironies when an amateur theatre company tries to satirise amateur theatre companies'

François Cornu as the protagonist, Guy, did a competent job with a poorly written part. If one were to trace Guy's actions throughout the play, it would be fair to describe him as a manipulative, underhand philanderer - but one nevertheless gets the feeling that Ayckbourn intended him to be a wide-eyed everyman caught up in affairs beyond his control. That Cornu succeeded in portraying the latter despite the script's inadequacies (even if he never sparkled) was creditable.

Philip McConnell in the role of Comedy Welshman Dafydd ap Llewellyn was very strong indeed, though I can't personally vouch for the authenticity of his accent (by the way, the character appeared to have been made Welsh just so Ayckbourn could insert sporadic rugby jokes, and because Welsh people are, you know, funnier). McConnell knows his way around an English comedy and was one of the few on stage (along with Nick Perry and Peter Lugg) who understood how finely tuned timing can amplify laughs from the lamest lines and who were able to deliver appropriately exaggerated performances without veering into pantomime.

Other actors didn't so much veer as chart a straight course into "he's behind you" territory. Deborah Berger-North as am-dram committee power broker Rebecca Huntley-Pike was playing to an auditorium several times the size of the DBS Arts Centre; and Sally Anderson as maneater Fay Hubbard may have captured the essence of her character, but she then distilled it, stuck it in a bottle and held it under everyone's noses until their eyes started to water.

Which is not to say that less is more. In a play full of bold, obvious stereotypes, Grace Wan's insipid Hannah ap Llewellyn left me wondering what type of character she was supposed to be.

Jeremy Samuel's direction was for the most part efficient and successful (and he was particularly good at keeping the focus on the leads in large-cast scenes without making the extras look superfluous). But his decision to have the pianist, Mr Ames (played by Jonathan Ang) wander on and off stage sometimes as an actor and sometimes as an accompanist was regrettable and confusing, and he really needed to work harder to inject pace into a second half that was already soggy on the page and became downright drenched in performance.

And although Derek Corke's wonderfully provincial rendering of an amateur dramatic backcloth was perfect for the "play within a play" scenes, the sets for the rest of the play looked as if the cast was still in rehearsal and hadn't got the proper furniture yet (to be fair, this is kind of the point for some scenes, but for others it kind of isn't). Allan Davidson's lights didn't help either - their lack of focus made the sets appear to sprawl over the stage; or rather, that is true only for those lights that were aimed at the stage to begin with - the majority seemed to be aimed at the first two rows of the audience.

A CHORUS OF DISAPPROVAL was not without merit and was certainly worth the low ticket price, but, as with another Stage Club production from 2002, 'The Last Coarse Acting Show', there can be troubling ironies when an amateur theatre company tries to satirise amateur theatre companies.