Connecting professional and amateur theatre in Newbury, West Berkshire and beyond

Propeller - Henry V and The Winter's Tale

On tour 2012.

Review from The Times.

Shakespeare served with extra testosterone

Four stars
Although they’ve been going since 1997, I’ve managed to miss out on Edward Hall’s all-male Shakespeare company Propeller until now. Oh, those wasted years! Having just come out of their scintillating new Henry V, which is touring with a fine revival of their production of The Winter’s Tale from 2005, I’ve decided never to miss another Propeller show again.

Their approach revolves around a balance of clarity and speed, physicality and playfulness, served up by an ensemble who offer up the sense of joint ownership that is more often talked about than actually seen. Their Henry V starts with a Pogues’ song (London Calling, Chanson d’Amour and others will follow) before the cast share between them the chorus’s lines for Shakespeare’s “O, for a muse of fire” prologue. And as they move around Michael Pavelka’s military-gymnasium set in their combats and vests, the air buzzes with a testosterone far more persuasive than mere actorly swagger.

You’ll see more inspiringly and kingly Henrys than Dugald Bruce-Lockhart. But his quiet determination is a decision, not an accident, and it chimes with a democratic approach that lets us see calmness amid turmoil and vice versa in palaces and on war fields. Tony Bell offers commanding comic turns in both plays (Fluellen, Autolycus) and Karl Davies is a relishable Katherine, mangling her words hilariously as she practises her English.

But generally it’s the story that’s the star. Hall finds a stylish yet visceral solution to the perennial problem of making stage violence work: soldiers hit punchbags with baseball bats and we fill in the gap between the sound and the result for ourselves. Set pieces, such as a landing craft suggested by two tabletops, offer a flavour of Saving Private Ryan, yet never overwhelm the cast’s vigorous yet undeclamatory verse. The heart soars and time flies.

The Winter’s Tale is more a game of two halves, but that’s the play for you. The first half is austere to a fault, as Robert Hands’s Leontes jealously rages in the elegantly bland decor of Pavelka’s brushed-metal set, giving off thematically appropriate blurred and distorted reflections of the characters, while Richard Dempsey’s demure Hermione and the corporately clogged courtiers fail to make him see reason.

But Hall is playing a long game here. As the winter in Sicilia moves into spring in Bohemia, the show thaws a treat. The cast dress up as sheep, play as a pop band (the Bleatles) and turn it all into a revel. Hall unifies his approaches — the pop-cultural references, the songs, the physicality — to make comedy and tragedy dance together in an affecting ending.

Whether you love Shakespeare or fear Shakespeare, these shows can speak to you. They are thrillingly fresh collisions of the contemporary and the classical.

DOMINIC MAXWELL

Review from The Sunday Times.

Four stars
Edward Hall comes up shining with this odd pairing of Shakespeare plays, performed by his crack all-male Propeller ensemble. In Henry V, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s king doesn’t waste any time unleashing his balaclava-clad, stompy-booted army on France. His soldiers exude the sort of machismo incubated on football terraces after cracking open a crate of tinnies. The French don’t know what’s hit them (most likely, a baseball bat or an axe). Hall marshals the men’s blood-spattered, dogged advance with swagger and blasts of London Calling. Bruce-Lockhart’s brusque, sometimes droll Henry is a thinking jock. By the end, his singlet is sweat-soaked, his biceps are streaked with mud, Die Hard fashion, and you feel you’ve been fed through the remorseless mangle of war. Next to this, The Winter’s Tale could seem a pallid thing, but Hall’s crisp staging, played out under a huge waning moon, brings out the play’s latent desolation and neatly sidesteps slush. The first half, in which King Leontes’s suspicious mind causes him to cast off his pregnant wife, is dark-shadowed (Richard Dempsey’s sharp-witted Hermione is such a treasure, anyone might covet her). The Bohemian spring scenes really are springy: think a festival with trippy-hippie colours, a barmy Glasto vibe and roaming herds of sheep. Chief reveller is Tony Bell’s rogue Autolycus, an ageing, knicker-pilfering rock god in tight leather trousers, whose rendition of Single Ladies will have you hooting. And when Leontes is reunited with his wife, the production clasps your heart as it should.

MAXIE SZALWINSKA

Review of the Watermill productions

Henry V

From Newbury Theatre.

The English army march on stage in battle fatigues, singing, then mutate into the Chorus with its apology for the inadequacies of a stage to represent the action: “can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?” And once again, on the Watermill’s tiny stage we see that, with an imaginative director, the answer is yes.

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s Henry (looking uncannily like today’s Prince Harry) is at first uncertain about the war with France as the clergy try to persuade him but takes on the mantle of warrior-king with increasing confidence after the army arrives in France. Henry has to balance ruthlessness and compassion, the common touch and the authoritative leader. This comes to a head before Agincourt; the troops are demoralised and outnumbered, Harry himself is beset with doubt and guilt but goes among his men giving them a pat on the back – literally a little touch of Harry in the night. This was a sympathetic and likeable Henry, at ease with and respected by nobles and commoners alike.

The battle scenes – especially Harfleur – are spectacular and loud. In fact the whole play is quite loud and shouty, perhaps losing some of the subtleties, but in line with the gung-ho aggressiveness of the troops; after a chorus of London Calling, Nym (Finn Hanlon) appears in barmy-army England shirt and punk hairdo. Although Bardolph gets executed on stage, the violence is generally vicarious with a big punch-bag taking the brunt of it; a device introduced by Propeller eleven years ago in Rose Rage.

It’s not all serious – there’s humour running through it including the double act between Karl Davies’ coquettish Kate and Alice (a prim Chris Myles, otherwise appearing as a ‘Monty’s double’ version of Essex), and Fluellen’s enormous leek.

As well as a selection of songs and tunes from the soldiers, including a teasing snatch of the ’Allo ’Allo theme, we also got the army in full voice in the bar during the interval.

As always, it’s an enthralling production from Edward Hall and Propeller.

PAUL SHAVE

From the British Theatre Guide and Newbury Weekly News.

Propeller Theatre returns to Newbury with a testosterone-charged, all-male cast production of Henry V.

The Watermill is certainly their ‘spiritual home’, having started their fledgling career over 15 years ago with the encouragement of the then theatre director the late Jill Fraser. Propeller has gone on to become a highly successful international touring company visiting such countries as China, USA and Australia.

So it was exciting to see them return to their roots and this high energy, physical production is a triumph. From the moment the audience entered the foyer, Balaclava-clad soldiers in battle fatigues were menacingly milling around.

Director Edward Hall’s thrilling production is as much to do with the common soldiers as with royalty. These foot soldiers are our chorus, urging us to use our imaginations to create the armies, horses, castles and battlefields. They use unaccompanied battle songs and religious psalms to great effect and play a variety of musical instruments with utter confidence, even entertaining the audience in the interval.

Michael Pavelka’s stark design, consisting of an unembellished moving metal tower and simple props, creates both a tense and war-torn atmosphere and the royal palaces.

Douglas Bruce-Lockhart is excellent as the fiery, powerful Henry leading his men from the front as he sets off to cross the channel to conquer the French at Agincourt. John Dougall is the fittingly majestic King of France, humbled in his defeat.

The horrors of the war are juxtaposed with some humorous touches. The bathroom scene in which Karl Davies as Katherine, the French Princess, is shaving her legs in the bath whilst trying to learn the English names for parts of the body from her maid Alice (Chris Myles) is hilarious.

Tony Bell as the Welsh Captain Fluellen is a loyal and pragmatic soldier encouraging his men into battle. There are strong performances from the beer-swilling squaddies Nym (Finn Hanlon), Bardolph (Gary Shelford) and Pistol (Vince Leigh).

The battle scenes are full of energy and attack with convincing sound effects by David Gregory and dramatic lighting by Ben Ormerod.

This is an electrifying, dynamic production filled with verve and vitality performed by a highly talented cast. Fight for a ticket; it’s unmissable.

ROBIN STRAPP

There's a review in the Oxford Times ("an inspiring, lump-in-throat, two-and-a-half hours of energetic theatre").

The Winter's Tale

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Bohemian rhapsody

Tony Bell's ageing rock star relieves the intensity of The Winter's Tale

Propeller: The Winter's Tale, at The Watermill, Bagnor, from Monday, April 16 to Saturday, April 21

The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's most difficult plays to perform and perhaps not the best of his canon of work but in Edward Hall's all male Propeller company's impressive production the cast bring a vibrancy to this tale of jealousy, paranoia and a kingdom torn apart by misconceptions and false assumptions.

Robert Hands is splendid as the demented Leontes, King of Sicilia, who wrongly accuses his heavily pregnant wife Hermione of having committed adultery with his friend the King of Bohemia, Polixenes (Nicholas Asbury).

Robert Dempsey is arresting as Hermione, calm and serene in the face of Leontes' violent adversity and the poignant trial scene is heart-rending. She gives birth to a daughter who is banished to Bohemia and forced to survive on her own but she is found by a shepherd (John Dougal) and is raised as his daughter.

Ben Allen, wearing striped pyjamas, gives a wistful performance as the king's son, who is always in the background, watching the action and telling parts of the story with a model boat and a teddy bear, and creates a fine Princess Perdita.

The gloom and dark intensity of act one is in complete contrast with the hippy '60s setting in Bohemia with a 'Bleatles' rock band and accompanying backing group of sheep - the cast wearing Arran jumpers and belting out songs with utter conviction, tremendous fun.

Bare-chested Tony Bell, clad in black leather trousers, gives a tour-de-force performance as Autolycus, played here as an ageing rock star, with some hilarious ad-libs as he involves the audience. He is supported in his act by the innocent and simple young shepherd (Karl Davis).

Vince Leigh is striking as Paulina and there is strong support from Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Antigonus and Chris Myles as Camillo.

All the frivolity at the beginning of act two is brought to a moving climax when we return to Sicilia and a chastened Leontes unveils the statue of Hermione that magically lives.

Innovatively directed by Edward Hall, with an uncluttered simple silver design by Michael Pavelka, Propeller once again have produced a spirited and beguiling production.

ROBIN STRAPP

From Newbury Theatre.

The Winter’s Tale is a strange play. The first half is full of doom and gloom. Leontes, King of Sicilia, misinterprets his pregnant wife Hermione’s friendliness with his mate Polixenes, King of Bohemia, and completely loses the plot. His wife ends up in prison and his son dies. He sends to the Oracle at Delphi for advice, but the answer comes back that Leontes has got it all wrong. As if this wasn’t bad enough, his wife dies and he rejects his new-born daughter Perdita, ordering her to be abandoned in a remote place. In the process of doing this, one of Leontes’ courtiers gets eaten by a bear.

Wow. There’s not much to redeem Leontes in this, and Robert Hands is irredeemably nasty and angry, contrasting nicely with Hermione – movingly and sensitively portrayed by Richard Dempsey. Chris Myles, as Leontes’ trusted advisor Camillo, hops off to Bohemia while the going is good, leaving only Paulina – a feisty performance from Vince Leigh – to stand up to the king.

In the second half, Propeller hit us with the humour and music they do so well. There’s a full-on band with electric guitars and sheep chorus ('The Bleatles' – groan) to which Tony Bell, inimitably seedy and dissolute as Autolycus, adds bare-chested solo singing, throwing ladies’ underwear at the audience like a reverse Tom Jones. We’ve fast forwarded 16 years to Bohemia where Perdita (Ben Allen) has been brought up by a shepherd and is in love with the wayward Florizel, son and heir of Polixenes (Nicholas Asbury), giving him the chance to do the angry bit.

Florizel and Perdita return to Sicilia to find Leontes repentant but still being bossed around by Paulina. And so on to the weird statue scene at the end, always difficult to do effectively. It’s tempting to think that Shakespeare was working to a tight deadline and had a few too many the night before he wrote this bit. It’s a contrived happy ending, but Propeller give an edge to this by leaving Leontes pensive and troubled with the ghost of his dead son.

What Propeller do so well in all their productions, apart from making them fun, is to make them understandable. Despite the breakneck speed of delivery, so much thought has been put into bringing out the meaning of the text, in both expression and body language. Shakespeare is often difficult and sometimes turgid; never with Propeller.

PAUL SHAVE

There's a review in the Marlborough People ("exciting performance... the acting is superb and the cast make Shakespeare look effortless").