THE main chamber of Henley Town Hall was a fitting venue for an evening of chilling storytelling.
Its oak-panelled walls and grand fireplace evoked the era of one of the country’s greatest novelists, Charles Dickens, whose ghost stories were the subject of an almost-one-man-show at this year’s Henley Fringe Festival.
Russell Kennedy, one half of the Crowd of Two Theatre Company, performed The Ghost in the Bride’s Chamber, The Trial for Murder and The Signalman over the course of an hour last Wednesday.
Dressed in period costume, Kennedy’s only prop was a glass of water, which he sipped between the three tales, while his co-star Nicola Haldene amused the audience with short poems in a comical Cockney accent.
Haldene stayed in character before and after the show, providing welcome comic relief from the spooky production.
The Ghost in the Bride’s Chamber was a sinister story within a story, with twists that kept the audience guessing throughout, while a murdered man’s spirit returned to ensure his killer’s execution in A Trial For Murder.
Kennedy made most of the audience jump when he began The Signalman by bellowing “Hello! Below there!”
The narrator of this story, a signalman, tells of a ghost that has been haunting him along a lonely stretch of the railway where he works, with each ghostly appearance preceding a tragic event.
Dickens’ ghost stories may be lesser known than his novels - David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, to name but a few - but this sold-out show paid testament to the popularity of his stories.
This entertaining adaptation sold out every night when it opened in 2007 and has enjoyed plenty of success since.
Kennedy’s performance was still and softly-spoken, yet he kept the audience spellbound as the mysteries of each tale unfolded.
One man reciting stories has the potential to become tiresome, but his clever use of facial expressions and a range of accents allowed him to transform from one character to the next, and the audience enjoyed being along for the ride.
SPAPO! What does that mean? Service, Personal Attention and Personal Ownership. That’s one of many useless acronyms to come out of Tim Firth’s very funny and poignant play, Sign Of the Times.
This is a two-hander delivered by Henley Fringe veterans FalconGrange, returning for a seventh year and without a drop in their very high standards.
Dan Creasey plays a cantankerous, critical maintenance manager - or Head Of Installations as it’s termed - trying to hold on to his dignity in a job he doesn’t really want to do.
One way of doing this is to criticise and harass a young lad on work experience, played beautifully by Adam Tucker, seemingly more concerned with his iPhone and rock band than making an impact on the world of commerce.
Together, and with sensitive direction from Redvers Lawson, they point up the madness of modern living. Both end up disappointed, with Creasey’s character frustrated in his attempts to be a writer and Tucker’s ambition subordinated to the need to conform.
What stands out through the delightful two hours at the Rugby Club is Dan Creasey’s total engagement and believability. He is simply excellent and you look forward to his every utterance.
Between them we see how idiotic life has become, with people living by acronyms to do a job they don’t understand and which serves no purpose - in this case selling electronic kit to people who don’t need it by lying and subterfuge.
That’s where SPAPO comes in: convincing the customer that they’re getting Service and Personal Attention and lying to them by saying you own an item yourself in a bid to get them to buy it.
You leave it wondering what good ever came of any office job, how did that day’s work contribute to the good of anything?
As usual, if you want to make a serious point, do it with comedy!
Sign Of the Times
Henley Rugby Club
July 21 to 26
Women of an Uncertain Age
King’s Arms Barn
July 21 to 25
WE ARE younger, so much younger, than our parents at the same age. Sixty is now no longer the last stop on the road to Oblivion but a marker for a new life-phase. But what do we do with it?
Flip Webster and Maggie Bourgein call this stage Women Of An Uncertain Age and their answer seems to be to deny the calendar and reach back to their twenties - at least the desires and motivations of their twenties.
That is the main problem with this series of sketches from the pair. They find a stereotype and flog its corpse. Even then, some of the writing is potentially funny, but it gets smothered in telegraphing the humour and not letting the audience see the joke for themselves.
Much of it is about familiar obsessions: being youthful to attract a man, remaining visible to the world, moans about declining physical health and trying to keep up with the way younger people think and speak in an age dominated by computers.
One sketch about an over-sixties group going Silver Surfing was annoying because it assumed that people of that uncertain age wouldn’t know anything about it - in fact most of us are adept and skilled in IT.
The acting was good and occasionally some gems got through - a skit on an Italian cook preparing ice cream was very funny and recalled Sophia Loren. At that time it was easily possible to believe that sexiness, like intelligence, doesn’t disappear with age.
Overall, though, this was predictable stuff and took us no further forward, except possibly to point up the ridiculousness of old people trying to look and be young.
Saturday, July 26
DEBBIE Bridge doesn’t need to prove anything. Her track record in opera and the West End are enough for anyone.
But still she has enough time to put together an impressive list of songs from the Great American Songbook to delight tiny audiences. It has the feel of a labour of love because otherwise why would such an accomplished performer be prepared to stand up in front of no more than 20 people at Lovibonds and belt out Gershwin, Copland and Bernstein?
Nevertheless she does and we are grateful. She is a natural soprano but drops down to alto on some of the songs - the full power of her operatic voice goes at those points, but not the intent or the interpretation of the material. There are other singers making a living with a microphone these days who would kill for her ability in the lower range, so nothing is really lost.
But when she’s up in the soprano register we get the full benefit of a set of lungs probably able to power spacecraft. These songs come from some of the great American musicals, including West Side Story from which her There’s A Place For Us brought a lump to this reviewer’s throat.
And she can act, really act, not a token bit of speaking as a subsidiary to her singing. It was a hot early evening at Lovibonds and Debbie was dressed in a velvet skirt. Various costume changes included coats and other uncomfortable attire. Not a word of complaint or comment was passed about the conditions.
Top professionalism from every quarter.
Dickens Ghost Stories
Henley Town Hall
Wednesday, July 23