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Mad Cow ReviewerReviews

Here are some reviews of our previous productions.

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Review - The Hollow

Amateur theatre has (often unfairly) got a bad name for itself. Productions of murder mysteries are particularly dangerous territory, perhaps not as risky as watching a vicar in his 60's have a bash at Algernon Moncrieff (not like that), but a bad murder mystery is a special kind of theatrical hell. Mad Cow Productions most recent outing, however, is no such hell, it isn't even a cause for concern, its got pace, is well staged, subtly acted and above all is a fun night out. Anyone lucky enough to have caught the show on it’s mostly sold out run this week will have been sure to enjoy.

The setup is classic; a glamorous Hollywood star's arrival in a small village has set tongues wagging, a country estate has changed hands, lovers and ex-lovers, friends and foes are gathered at the home of Sir Henry Angkatell for a weekend escape of eating, drinking, reminiscing and pistol practise. What could possibly go wrong...?

Luckily for the audience it's not the production. Curtain up and the set looks great, a classic English drawing room, birdsong gently drifts through an open French window and immediately places you at ease. More touches of a subtle and intelligent design keep coming. Whether it is the lightning whose flashes and thunder follow the correct timing and order of things, or a ringing phone that actually stops ringing when it's picked up. Right from the get go you know creaking doors refusing to close or a wobbly living room wall are not going to be distracting from the drama tonight, leaving the actors and direction in charge.

Agatha Christie deliberately employs cliché and stereotype; the jilted lover, the loyal butler etc. as dramatic shorthand, as a writer it allows her to more quickly play with the suspicions of readers or viewers and quickly establish context and character. Whilst this can help the narrative pace, and the speed with which the audience is drawn into the story it often encourages actors and directors to only find the obvious. The cast of The Hollow though do a great job of avoiding playing just the stereotypes, finding some nice nuance in characters that could all too easily end up being two-dimensional. Edward Angkatell (Jezz Mann) is a lovable chinny chap who feels life and love has rather passed him bye, and Mann finds some nice pathos in what could have been a broad-brush Tim nice but Dim type. John Christow (Ben Gluck) is established as disliked by some before he has even arrived on stage but Gluck does well to make him sympathetically abrasive rather than just rubbing the audience up the wrong way. Simultaneously the focus of scorn and affection it is a performance that makes you see why he might be charming and enticing to some and rather detestable to others.

Lady Angkatell (Barbara Vesty) is the grand old dame of the house, slightly loony; Vesty keeps the play moving with comic touches throughout, and never lets the drama get too onerous. Sir Henry Angkatell (Andrew Murray) is her slightly brow beaten husband, on hand to act as interpreter to her fanciful ramblings, and bring a grounded class to proceedings as a whole. Murray’s performance is again subtle offering the base from which so much of the drama is built. Three women entwined by their various affections are the heart of the play. Gerda (Heidi Brown) is the wife of John Christow, we hear early on that she is perhaps a little vacant, and maybe she is but Brown gives a few hints at something else beneath that exterior to keep the audience guessing as to her true self. Henrietta Angkatell (Emma Hedges) is perhaps the most interesting of all, a sculptor Hedges imbues the character with mystery and emotion, her glances and movement leave you asking what she really feels and not because of any help from what is a solid but unexceptional script. Veronica Craye (Lucie Johnson) the aforementioned movie star does, unsurprisingly make a grand entrance and Johnson plays it just right giving her the air of a woman used to being ogled and respected in equal measure in any room in which she happens to arrive.

Midge (Emma Leigh) unlike the rest of the women has affections for another man.  They have grown up together and shared so much, too much for him to notice the way she looks at him, though many around her see it just fine. To look longingly at somebody is a subtle thing, but Leigh manages it all night and creates one of the most emotional moments of the night when she asks her beau to look at her and see not the girl he grew up with but the woman she has become.

The second act, as it so often does, sees the arrival of the Inspector (Robert Hinton). Hinton plays the inspector as an every-man, 
logical and caring, he too resists the temptation to play the stereotype and injects a different energy to the house. This inspector is someone from outside the world of the aristocrats and society types present, it is alien and fascinating to him. The Inspector finds another outsider in the form of the Butler (Stuart Main), the butler is obviously more at home around this company, but he is not one of them. Main captures this well, he arrives, serves, folds, cleans and vanishes, but he moves differently to them and is the link to the downstairs help. More texture too comes from the Inspector’s assistant Sergeant Penny (Christopher Twyford) and Doris (Rachael Holbrook) the maid. Both with broader vowels that give away their backgrounds both actors provide a different attitude again to the rest of the players, building a more layered world than the drawing room drama setting so often can.

Speaking of the Drawing room drama, that setting can so often present the director with problems; how do they keep the cast moving rather than just sitting in chairs as you might naturally in a drawing room and more importantly how do you keep them moving without it looking as if they have been directed to do so? The lightness of touch on display in overcoming those issues here is commendable. Cigarettes and drinking play a key role (think upper class Abigail’s Party) in being the devices that keep the characters moving, but the almost constant motion of the actors never seems to be just driven by reaching for another scotch rather it comes from and simultaneously creates an uneasy energy derived from the stories being played out between the players. It is also worth noting the deaths that take place on stage are well choreographed, they don’t illicit laughter from the audience and they build the tension rather than puncture it, this is not an easy feat.

There are moments where some actors threaten to leave behind their good work in subtly creating interesting characters in favour of more obvious and ultimately less rewarding over the top performances, but those moments tend to be short lived. This is good news as the whole team from Director to props, actors to sound have created a product of quality and to fall back on easy cliché would do everyone involved a great disservice. 

Edward McLean