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Brighton Year-Round 2023

Low Down

Directed by Jacqui Freeman, this latest LLT offering sparkles in a heart-warming tribute to amateur dramatics, with a plot denouement as dizzying as a Shakespeare comedy. There’s not a weak link here. Indeed it’s to be hoped several newcomers will return.

Directed by Jacqui Freeman, Director’s Assistant Esther Egerton, Set Designer Tim Freeman, Light and Sound Design and Special Effects Trevor Morgan. Costumes Claire Chapman and the Wardrobe Team.

Stage Manager Joanne Cull/David Rankin. ASM Jessie Williams

Set Build Keith Gilbert, Specialist Construction Wayne Martin, Don Plimmer.

Production Photography Graham Carlow, Bespoke Early Music Lute Recording Michael Fields, Promotional Material Christ Bowers

Till May 20th


What’s in a name? An addition. So when in Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s A Bunch of Amateurs fading action-hero Jefferson Steel (Ray Gabbard), hero of the Hollywood Ultimate Finality franchise is sent by his agent to Stratford, at least he might be able to tell Kenneth Branagh or Dame Judi Dench a thing or three about real stars. “You guys are too hard on yourselves. Some British actors aren’t so bad.”

But Stratford St John’s? Suffolk? Directed by Jacqui Freeman, this latest LLT offering sparkles and despite the 2 hours 25 rarely drops its pacy brio.

We’re charmingly introduced to The Stratford Players in their developer-condemned barn by its director, ex-professional actor Dorothy Nettle (Charley Harris) pleading with us to help prevent the closure of this amateur theatre. You can tell it goes down well with little theatres and their audiences everywhere – some reportedly think it’s happening and murmur genuine support. But tonight no-one’s shown up, except….

Jefferson Steel dragging his ego like an extra-large suitcase and swearing death to his agent, only slowly realises what his agent’s done to him. His presence, Dorothy knows (and somehow she got to Jefferson Steel’s agent) could save them with a local brewery sponsorship deal. “pigshit nowheresville.” That’s a polite term. Never has LLT resounded to so many Fs in a night. At last not onstage.

Dorothy though, a professional whose career (as we find out in a brief aside) stalled only when she married an actor, knows a thing or three about professionalism too. Soon everyone’s giving impromptu masterclasses in what to do, or not, confronted with a bunch of  professionals, amateurs, or five…

Gabbard really is a U.S, professional, picked by Sondheim’s Hal Prince no less to work and tour in the US, till he got homesick for wife and daughter actor Amelia Gabbard, who plays onstage daughter Jessica Steel.

It’s an uncanny fit. So let me say at once the consummate Gabbard can guy Hollywood beefcakes perfectly: the strut, the absurd line “Jefferson Steel doesn’t do..” and applied as if a god was making a pronouncement of another deity. Gabbard’s trajectory is to find the humanity under the ego, and for quite a while the steel character hardly bends at all.

Resigned to acting with this ‘Bunch of Amateurs’ as he christens them, his taking the title part of King Lear was always going to seem an odd fit, till of course it shows itself the ideal one. Justas sharply Nettle’s character, paying Fool and Cordelia, as many do, is rather compromised when she proves just a little heavy (you need to be elfin-light, a nod to Sir’s pronouncement in The Dresser) there’s another Cordelia waiting in the wings, who’s played the part. And of course just as his estranged smart gifted daughter actually turns up, she reveals Steel has pronounced a fiat on her acting, least of all with him.

And there has to be Am-Dram in-fighting. Local solicitor Nigel Dewbury (Bob Murdock) thought himself a shoe-in for Lear, and he looks the part. Full of stratagems – no wonder his Malvolio and Iago were praised in the East Anglian competitions – he’s mightily put out. Murdock traverses the grump and huff of the part, and the fantastically hammy delivery of how he thinks Shakespeare should go. He knows every word, and knows them wrong. It’s a tribute to his mix of Nigel’s hammy acting and his blustery self that Murdock distinguishes them and makes them humanly credible.

Other are more easily seduced. Hapless Denis Dobbins (Chris Bowers) the Brummy electrician with his naïve buddying of the great American hero, is equally good at finding hi own voice and sense of outrage when he thinks his erstwhile hero in the wrong. Indeed, if Denis leaves you, you know you’re sunk. His piece de resistance is coming on in his mother’s old mobility motor, a tour de farce at 2mph.

But beware those seduced and scorned inadvertently. Mary Plunkett (Trish Richings) who puts Jefferson up in her B&B rectory has a passion for an actor she keeps crediting to more famous films than he appears in. Die Hard, Raiders of the Lost Ark… Richings makes a cringingly batty fan, fluttering over the washed-up actor till he almost snaps. But it’s what she thinks he’s up to with others that sets her off – and to come across him whilst wearing a sultry red Flamenco get-up (courtesy of a Spanish-themed evening) is a sight too far.

Cause of all this is what you might call Cordelia back, which has two consequences. Amelia Gabbard’s Jessica immediately bonds with Dorothy and the company, being naturally modest, talented and sharp-witted, as well as scornful. She can barely tolerate her father but she’s the right weight. Gabbard balances preppy hauteur with direct appeal warmth with others to judgement on her father, and a revealing tenderness. Just 23, Gabbard is clearly one to watch.

The other outfall is the young wife of that brewery sponsor, Lauren Bell (Emily Feist). Feist has this part to a dippy tee: the right balance between naivety and professionalism. One remembers Jenny Duvitski’s Angela in Abigail’s Party, the nurse who suddenly shows her true professionalism.

Apparently slightly dippy, oblivious to some of the atmosphere, she happens t be good with her hands, a masseur who can really work miracles. So when Mary comes across Lauren working her magic on Jefferson, she thinks Lauren’s performing a very different act. Coupled with Denis’s menacing malice, and a public storm explodes greater than the blasted heath.

Harris is consummate, another fit – a professional actor like several at Lewes she brings shrewdness, poise, humour above all warmth to the part of Dorothy. Never too much the over-enthusiastic amateur, because Dorothy really is professional, she’s immediately alert to all Jefferson’s tricks.

At one point she’s quite happy to send Jefferson off in an airplane, so to speak. Harris also shows quite why despite all this she can like Jefferson. They’re both unattached, attractive, but fight just a little like Beatrice and Benedick.

Freeman directs with rarely a sense of energy dropping. Tim Freeman’s set is neat too: a very attractive barn with walls whitewashed and interiors both homespun and rackety, there’s a clever stage-right inset shifted on portraying, mainly the B&B with table and chintzy wallpaper. Finally, th Lear set with its jewel-like paintings of blazoned backdrops is both a tribute to Am-Dram artistry and tight enough to show the amateurs have aplomb and talent. It’s a sign of LLT’s depth of expertise they can pitch exactly a superior Am-Dram production that is naturally a degree lower than LLT’s own. Trevor Morgan’s lighting and sound is called on for several effects and emergencies, but we won’t spoil them.

Or indeed the climax of that Lear performance, read by lightning as Hazlitt said of Kean till the great final scene when something unexpected happens. It’s been set up, and it’s a coup. It resolves several relationships, and – with the end –  is truly affecting. Jefferson has finally landed, it’s a heart-warming tribute to those he sees now as his equals: since he’s learned to come up to their standard.

Harris and Ray Gabbard bear the dramatic weight and development most of all, and Gabbard’s transformation is never too rapid. From hopeless ham to slightly less ham acting when words begin – he’s never learned a script, let alone Shakespeare – his apotheosis  – and that of the others – has leapt rather remarkably in the last scenes, but who cares? The actual plot denouements are as dizzying as a Shakespeare comedy. There’s not a weak link here. Indeed it’s to be hoped several newcomers will return.

The original 2008 film was panned, but the theatre version rightly triumphs because the script’s so good and Hislop’s and Newman rightly thrive in the theatre.