‘Emma’ Review – BBC Radio Shropshire

Chris Eldon Lee reviews Jane Austen’s “Emma”, which he saw at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn prior to an extensive tour.

 In a very short time, Hotbuckle Theatre Company has triumphantly cornered the market in doing period dramas on a shoestring. They arrive at the loading bay, towing a small horsebox containing just enough stuff to give their imaginations full rein; two chairs, a bench, an easel, a clotheshorse…oh, and four very talented performers.

Their mentor, a Mr. Adrian Preater, will have previously distilled a 19th century novel into a perky script and the company will have engaged in a modicum of woodwork and devised enough music and stagecraft to pleasantly detain a faithful audience.

Their latest creation, a pocket presentation of Jane Austen’s 200-year-old novel “Emma”, is certain to please her fans. Indeed, the audience at Theatre Severn last night seemed to fall into two camps. There were those who knew the book (approximately 249) and those who didn’t (approximately 1). So there was much tittering as the cast brought favourite characters to life and the Austen fan club shared the jokes. I, however, felt a little disadvantaged.

‘Emma’ seems to me to be a story about slight people doing very little other than talk about other slight people. They discuss the weather, affairs, parties and ailments. What makes it attractive is that Miss Austen is so very good at summing up recognisable ‘types’ and dares to extract the urine from them. Hotbuckle’s great strength is that they do likewise; with gentility, grace and pleasant good humour.

Emily Lockwood is still the finest female to step the Severn stage. She is a natural, no nonsense actor; relaxed and commanding. Every line is laced with innuendo. Every darting glance speaks volumes. She simply ‘was’ Emma Woodhouse….the heroine Austen hoped we wouldn’t like. But it’s difficult not to.

The others whirl energetically around her. Clare Harlow is equally ideal; contributing numerous cameos ranging from a fey, schoolgirlish Harriet Smith to an insufferably boorish Mrs Elton. She is transformed merely by a shawl and vocal register.

Peter Randall plays a series of stumbling suitors with such delicate diffidence the audience didn’t know whether to laugh or mother him. And Adrian Praetor, as always, does a fine line in mithering men; from the optimistic Mr Weston to the permanently pessimistic Mr Woodhouse, ever fearful of catching his death. “Dancing…with the windows open?”

The predictable plot is still demanding, and in the second quarter of the evening necessary explanation subdued entertainment. But after the interval it only required the men to don frocks to pick up the pace.

The production is ready-prepared for small-scale touring. The lights merely come on, all the sound effects are performed live on stage and the cast shift the furniture themselves without interrupting their dialogue. There is scope for the show to be leaven with more byplay. There is a marvellous moment when a gentile lady is pursued by a trumpeting wasp. More please!

“Emma” will be available to Shropshire village halls via Arts Alive in the spring…and it will be fascinating to see how it goes with audiences who turn up to support their hall, rather than because they are devotees of Jane Austen.

Emma. Guildhall theatre, KL 25.09.15

Emma. Guildhall theatre, KL 25.09.15

BBC Radio Shropshire – ‘Persuasion’ Review by Chris Eldon Lee

Hotbuckle is the loveliest of our little theatre companies…and smart with it. They present exquisite productions of some of the nation’s favourite novels with a minimum of fuss and bother; charming full houses into romantic sighs and fits of respectable giggles….before packing everything away into a horsebox trailer, with the company’s logo stuck to the tail gate.

What comes out of the horsebox are four white flats, three period chairs, a handful of musical instruments, four very fine actors and a host of memorable caricatures.

At my second encounter with the company at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn last night, I felt a little like an endangered species. Sitting in the 250 seats were 235 women ( so just 15 men, then ) most of whom clearly knew the novel intimately. And what we got was Austen unplugged; performed with so much care and attention to detail the author herself would have been giggling too, as the team lovingly exhumed the story’s naturally arising humour. There was gentle mockery of the 18th century genre, but faithful respect for her commentary and comedy.

At the calm and collected centre of everything is Emily Lockwood, a beautifully poised, controlled actor with an excellent voice, a fine line in put downs and eyes that roll to the heavens one minute and wither you to a husk the next. She plays Ann Elliot as an eminently sentient and sensible woman who has lost the man she should love.
Her scenes with Peter Randall as the brusque, diffident Captain Wentworth – who loves her too but doesn’t have the vocabulary – are an absolute hoot of hopelessly restrained courtship. There were members of the audience who were completing Wentworth’s lines for him.

Newcomer Clare Harlow is a cheerful one-woman repertory company on her own, playing every other female part with just change of shawl or bonnet – and a complete transformation of character in a twinkling. Her mithering Mary is a delight to watch, simultaneously entertaining and irritating.

The company’s maestro Adrian Preater has the stage presence of a balding Tommy Cooper…he just has to stand there and look at the audience to get us going. His study of the socially climbing peacock, Sir Walter Elliot, is a finely judged parody. There were moments when he must have been reading both Austen’s novel and mind.

The four of them play and do everything…including a pretty fair representation of the English Channel. They come and go with the precision of a team of Maypole dancers; springing comic surprises and creating touching moments in an instant. The speed of change is all a bit breathtaking really and yet the air of 18th century grace remains. They simply know their stuff inside out and purvey it faultlessly.

I was completely captivated, again, and pathetically proud they should choose to make Shropshire their adopted abode. Which means there will be other opportunities to see them.

‘Persuasion’ is at the Severn Valley Country Park on June 19th and another Austen, ‘Emma’, premieres at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn on October 9th. And there’s a very good chance they will available to our local village halls through Arts Alive in 2016. Meanwhile they are on ambassadorial duty … taking their talents around the country and putting Shropshire squarely on the theatrical map; bless ‘em. They produce perfect theatre with seemingly no effort at all.

Successful Production as Austen comes to Downpatrick.

Do not worry, faithful Hotbucklers. A behind the scenes blog will be coming shortly – in the next couple of days, to be precise. In the meantime, have a look at this lovely review we had from The Down Recorder on our performance of Persuasion in Down Arts Centre, NI.

**

On Saturday evening, October 18, the Down Arts Centre had a full house for Hotbuckle Productions’ presentation of Persuasion by Jane Austen. The production entertained and impressed. We found ourselves believing that we were in upper class society drawing rooms of the early 19th century.

Successful theatre is all about the many aspects of production combining to create an alternative reality which the audience readily accepts. Hotbuckle Productions achieved this and more. Using white painted screens and a few dining chairs of the period, which they constantly rearranged to create different scenarios, and with minimal, but subtle costume changes, a coat here, a shawl there, and a change in voice, accent, posture and nuance, the cast of four brought us many larger than life characters which populate Austen’s Persuasion.

This was a skillful production, which also used the actors’ musical talents. Often playing oboe, concertina, spinet and mandolas, the actors created an ambience for the spoken word. But the ingenuity wasn’t just the use of the music; there were also other clever touches, such as the way they syncopated their jerky movements, while sitting in two rows of chairs, to simulate a coach ride or the use of a gently shaken bodrhan, which contained small pebbles, to create the sound of the surf for a beach scene.

Jane Austen’s work is a rich seam of satirical social commentary. The four actors brought Austen’s words to life with their talented portrayals. The story concerns the love life of Anne Elliot, the voice of reason and sense (there is always this voice somewhere in Austen’s works) and her trials and tribulations created by her vain, spendthrift father, social climbing sister Elizabeth and complaining younger married sister Mary. They, together with trusted family friend Lady Russell, combine at the outset to blight Anne’s love for young naval Captain Wentworth.

Each actor, from time to time, slipped out of character to act as story teller. The skill of each of the actors was prodigious. Emily Lockwood as Anne (and the main story teller) used nuance and understated gesture to depict Anne’s constancy in love and her well managed frustration and patient tolerance of her narrow minded family. Clare Harlow played a myriad of different characters, and with clever, but minimal, change of costume, slipped seamlessly from whining sister, to family friend, to flouncing socialite. Adrian Preater, as Sir Walter, Mary’s husband Charles and depressed Captain Benwick and Peter Randall as Captain Wentworth, cousin William Elliot (heir to the estate) and obsequious family solicitor Mr Shepard, were both outstanding in their abilities to change demeanour and voice to become totally different characters.

It was the combined talent of the four actors that brought the satirical comedic power of Austen’s writing to light. The audience were totally engrossed and their frequent laughter was a clear indication of the success of this excellent production.

I know that I keep saying it, but do persuade yourself to go along and taste the excellent fare of amazing variety that Down Arts Centre has to offer.

ASHLEY RAY, THE DOWN RECORDER

Summertime Sadness

Friends of Hotbuckle, there is no summertime sadness. Truth is, that Lana Del Rey song has been playing on repeat and I thought the alliterative nature of it would prove an interesting blog title. It is summer, but there the similarity ends. 

We are going about our business outside of Hotbuckle – and this is just a little blog post to reassure you that we will be back soon. We each have our own ways of filling up time before the shows start again – Adrian writes the script and occasionally posts funny videos on facebook, usually with a dog in it. Peter works in his family’s shop in Uxbridge. Fiona is living and working in France, where I like to imagine she eats a lot of Boursin and wears a beret (cos that’s what you do in France, right?) Emily dresses up in pretty dresses and talks to people about history, at Hampton Court Palace. She is paid to do that, she’s not just a weirdo. 

You may know already that we are welcoming the lovely Clare Harlow to our midst. We are very lucky to have her.  In the next few weeks press releases will be drawn up, programmes will be printed and costumes made (Clare and Emily have already had their fittings and are very excited about it). Bear with us, Hotbucklers. We’ll soon be hitting the ‘GO’ button. 

 

unnamed

Hotbuckle: Days of The Dark Knight Past

There are many “would you rather” or “if you were” games played on a Hotbuckle tour. My (Pete) favourite game is “would you still have employed me if…” followed by a hilarious walk, strange accent, or detailed description of a strange bodily habit.

Here is a light-hearted rendition of how a game like this might go.

IF WE WERE SUPERHEROES

The cool versions of who we are:

Ado – Magneto from X-Men

Ado does have an excellent ability to mend, fix, augment or adjust anything. Magneto’s command of all metals fits nicely into this, as does Magneto’s and Ado’s shared vision for a world where they rule a world of superhumans and make stuff out of metal.

Fiona – Miss America (Marvel Comics)

Fi lived in New York before joining Hotbuckle (she didn’t leave New York to join Hotbuckle – no one would do that) and she still is full of Americanisms. Her attitude to life is very American, and she is “socially aware” – apparently one of Miss America’s special skills. She is also handy in a fight. In fact I don’t fancy anyone’s chances against Fi in a fight.

Emily – Ghost (DC Comics)

Emily was actually haunted as a child, and so clearly she has to be Ghost. Ghost also does a lot of chatting with people rather than actual crimefighting etc.

Gemma – Catwoman

Gemma is basically catwoman because she is agile, goes running in the field while we rehearse and stops the Preater cats from killing too many nearby voles/mice/butterflies/anything else they can kill.

Andy – Captain America

Captain America is the all-American hero – and Andy is the all-British actor. Armed with silver flask and a strong sense of right and wrong, Andy and his perfect teeth will soon vanquish all evil – be it poorly designed lighting arrangements, cold showers, or latent Nazi cells.

Pete – Beast from X-Men

I have 4 A-Levels and an unnatural amount of hair. So I get to be Beast. It’s completely fair.   

The naff versions of who we are:

Ado and Pete – Dick Dastardly and Muttley

An inseparable duo, brought together by wickedness and laughter, thriving off blaming each other – Ado and Pete will drive off into the sunset, giggling, heckling, causing trouble and ultimately coming last in every race. It is clear who is who.

 Fiona – Wonder Woman

A woman who can do anything, anywhere – but, as the original Wonder Woman was, rendered totally void of her powers if tied up by a man (unbelievably totally true). Preferably a French Jewish man. Or Adrian Brody.

Gemma – Cheetara

A Thundercat, the only female one in fact, is often described as “caring” or a “voice of reason”. She has a sixth sense that tells you when danger is near. Although this isn’t particularly like Gemma, her other one was Catwoman, and the worst Thundercat is clearly a come-down from Catwoman.

Andy – Aquaman

While Aquaman is great in the water and all that, he is useless (as parodied by Family Guy) if anything happens on dry land. Andy is useless if anything happens in the cold (he is pretty good on dry land in general though).

Emily – Storm from X-Men

While Emily is generally nice, there are Moods®. When one descends, it’s like all the thunder and the lightning in the world is congregating on the one or two people (Ado and Pete) who are the centre of her ire. It’s scary.

We hope you have enjoyed this little glimpse into the tragedy of our on-the-road existence. Thank you for reading, and please, if you can, visit out indigogo campaign and donate towards Persuasion, if you want more of this nonsense!

“And now, as I close my story…”

We’ve recently come to the end of the David Copperfield tour, and although the company is already gearing up for the Persuasion tour, it marks the end of a year and a half of the five of us touring together. (Don’t worry, it’s just me that’s being left behind – a new role of fatherhood beckons; you’ll soon see the other four in a theatre near you!)

As we drew to the end of the tour my mind wandered back to my original audition. A three hour interview with Pete, Adrian and a video camera (for Fiona’s Yay or Nay vote) that left me a bit bemused at to what I may be letting myself in for. But over the last year and a half, all has become clear…

Three hours, thirty parts…

Over the duration of the longest audition I have ever been to, I performed every line of the parts I was being seen for (several times in several different ways) plus a few other parts in the script and I’m sure some made-up-on-the-spot parts too. I was exhausted and a little surprised, as you usually get a feel for an actor’s ability in the space of minutes rather than hours. But as I stepped foot into the rehearsal room, I quickly understood the need for versatility and clear distinction between each role.

If you have seen any of Hotbuckle’s recent productions you’ll know that each actor takes on many roles, sometimes changing between them in nanoseconds. Sometimes having the final line of the scene as one character and the opening line of the next scene as another. Your characters have to be distinctive, memorable and so unlike your previous incarnations that the audience don’t continue to despise the lovable Mr Micawber after they’ve just seen the same actor play the odious Mr Murdstone.

What do your friends think about you?

When I had sufficiently convinced Ado and Pete that I had a variety of accents/walks and, if all else failed, wigs up my sleeve, we had a cup of tea and chat. The one question that I didn’t know how to answer was the one above: What do you friends think about you? As I struggled to respond, it was followed up by: Would they describe you as generous or tight-fisted? Do you get on a soap-box about political issues after a pint when your friends are trying to have a relaxing drink in the pub? Do you borrow money and never give it back? Do you snore?

I could tell that these were loaded questions. I didn’t want to be too positive (I am the greatest guy you’ve ever met) or be too negative (I don’t have any friends. Please be my friends) for fear of coming across as arrogant or talk myself out of a job. I don’t remember exactly how I answered but I remember being stuck for words for a long time!

I now fully appreciate the necessity of trying to get a feel for a tour-mate before you first close the car door and spend months sharing a confined space together. Performing a show is only a small part of our time together on tour. There’s also the car, bars, hotel rooms, pubs, restaurants, taverns, cottages, sunny days on the beach and rainy days in tea rooms to enjoy each others company. Thankfully we have stumbled on a dynamic that works pretty well.

Ado (50) and Pete (24) are two peas in a ridiculously childish, toilet humoured, caricatured filled pod. Fi (undisclosable) and myself (32) are rather cultured and discerning, thank you very much. Emily (28) is… mostly asleep. At the same time, Ado and myself begrudgingly leave family behind, enjoy similar music and like to try and fix Fi’s gadgetry problems. Pete and Emily know all the telly programmes but don’t remember things like mobile phones with aerials. Fi and Emily are both girls. Ado, Pete and myself are not. Ado and Fi share a love of France, have known each other for years and wrack up many, many years of theatrical freelancing experience for Pete, Em and myself to learn from. Pete, Em and myself can exist without coffee. Ado and Fi… anyway you get the point.

Dynamics are incredibly important and thankfully the balance has been pretty well… well, balanced.

As Hotbuckle Productions goes full throttle into Persuasion, I want to wish my friends and once colleagues/roommates/carpoolers/frisby instructors/chefs/entertainers and more, much love and success on the road ahead.

Thanks for the fun. Good luck.

Andy

hb arms in air

The Sporting Life

As we did the get-in for our last performance of David Copperfield last week at the Swallow theatre in Whithorn, bathed in uncharacteristic Scottish sunlight, my colleagues were patient and kind enough to allow me to listen to my beloved Saracens losing to Northampton in the Premiership Final.

After the show, as we sat around having a glass of wine with the Swallow’s wonderful proprietor David, I reflected not only on the tour but on the similarities between being a part of a theatre company and being part of a rugby team. Obviously there are differences – it would undoubtedly be odd were I to share a shower with Fiona after a show – but it is a markedly similar experience.

You grow to recognise your teammates’ strengths and weaknesses. I know that I can set someone up to deliver a line and guarantee a laugh, that I can play around with a line to surprise someone – and I know to make extra sure to support them when I know they need support, before the show for those who feel especially nervous, and after for those who worry about how it went – in the same way I know who can I rely on to cover the inside man if the opposition break down the wing, and whose shoulder I need to stay on for when they go into contact. I also know that I, too, have my frailties and fortes – and that those are similarly observed, massaged and managed by the others in the company. The musketeerian mindset of Hotbuckle is an incredibly supportive and invigorating one – it is indeed an excellent coincidence that the company’s nomenclature rhymes with ‘swashbuckle’.

There is too, a sense of the ups and downs of a rugby season on tour. Sometimes, you feel in your bones that it’s a big game coming up – a match against your rival, or a sellout show at the York Theatre Royal. You might feel that this weekend is going to be tough – it’s pouring with rain and it’s 3 degrees, or there are only ten people in the audience and you drove for six hours to get to the theatre. Either way, the team comes together and fights hard for each other, and with the strange but human hypocrisy of the team sport, we mercilessly and uproariously deride each other in the changing rooms for hilarious and ridiculous mistakes that only moments before we were putting our bodies, dignity or pride on the line to cover for – or simply make disappear.

We have finished David Copperfield for the moment, and after a fantastic final week we are ready to knuckle down and begin working on Persuasion. There are flyers and posters to be printed, music to be learnt, websites to be designed, phonecalls and finals shows to be booked – and perhaps most importantly a script to be written. We are definitely a cohesive machine than this time last year.

And perhaps, like Saracens, next season we will win the league.

10382812_10152440570467445_2665289915470553503_n