5 December 2019
On visiting The Old Library in Bodmin last year, I was captivated by an innovative and heart-warming production which offered something just that bit different, whilst illustrating what can be done when everything is in small scale – venue, budget, facilities. My return to see what Ha-Hum-Ah Theatre Company would present this year has not disappointed.
In a part of the world where professional theatre is thin on the ground, this company is a shining light and deserve any ounce of praise they receive. As Pantomime Season gets into full swing, Oh No It Isn’t! tells of two professional actors teamed up to play Ugly Sisters in a provincial theatre. In between snaps of their performance, they bitch and bark at each other in their dressing room, whilst donning a variety of garish outfits. As the night continues, the layers of each actor are removed to find out more about what is really beneath the wig and the lippy.
On the tiny stage, there has been amassed all manner of detritus; the walls are draped with old backcloths, piles of suitcases and boxes, animal heads, a wind-up gramophone, an anvil, books etc etc; a props and costume store; tatty and dusty – you could almost smell the combination of damp carpet and Leichner. Set in the midst of the chaos is a dressing table with ‘mirror’ and a rail of frocks the side. It is a wonderful piece of work.
Our two uglies arrive in the dressing room decked out in huge platform boots, blonde wigs and short skirts with exaggerated make-up – pretty dames these are not. Then within minutes they are ‘on stage’ regaling the ‘audience’ with ‘Sisters’ (the Irving Berlin classic) and the two actors have the real audience in the palm of their hands immediately. As the story continues we are on stage, where the grotesques continue to ham it up, and off stage where the failing relationship between the actors is laid bare.
With the hint of a deeper relationship between the two, the gulf between them widens as the younger performer (Mr Chancery), who more or less “fell into” the acting profession is proving more successful than the older actor (Mr Worth) who has been grinding a living for over 40 years – and he resents it. Insults fly as Mr Worth breaks down and faces an uncertain future.
The script by Luke Adamson is taut and knowing with waspish asides and hilarious insults, but it is a many layered piece of work and displays how much can be condensed into just 60 minutes. With sideswipes at theatre funding, reality tv stars, we also get to see that the life of a jobbing actor is often far from glamorous. Adamson is also commenting on the fragility of the acting profession, the relationship between men, between actors and the vulnerability that many suffer from. There is so much in the story that I wanted more – I could have sat through another hour to plumb more depths of the two characters!
James Marlowe (as Chancery) is wonderful – he gives the role full throttle, whether hurling abuse at his ‘sister’ or strutting around on stage thrusting his crotch at the audience whilst using his full gamut of facial expressions to perfect effect. John Gregor (as Worth) is equal to this in the less outrageous role – though he does have his moments. When things begin to fall apart for him, the audience are not sure whether they should still be laughing and as the clown’s fortunes fade so our heart goes out to him. The poignant end speech from Hamlet to the wig mannequin is very moving as he knows that never will he play the role he always wanted.
The two actors are perfectly matched and are excellent when the show dips into real panto and the audience is encouraged to shout out and join in – improvisation comes to the fore. An outstanding duo.
Ben Kernow has directed with pace and verve and has squeezed every ounce of humour and pathos he can from the excellent script. Directing in a tiny space is so self-limiting, but despite the clutter, there was never an awkwardness about the production. This is skilful play-making of a high order.
With great use of music and spot-on lighting the production values are of a high standard – this theatre company does not compromise on quality.
For the small, but enormously enthusiastic audience this was a theatrical gem and hidden away in Bodmin it deserves a celestial body to point people in its direction right away. Where there are huge scale productions packing them out in big theatres with, occasionally, lazy productions, it is theatre companies like Ha-Hum-Ah which are in need of support – the return for the audiences is so much more rewarding.
If I laugh this much at any full blown pantomimes this year, then I will be most surprised. As entertainment goes – with depth to it – then you will not get better than this. Rush to Bodmin before it’s too late.
CAST & CREATIVES
MR WORTH – JOHN GREGOR
MR CHANCERY – JAMES MARLOWE
WRITER – LUKE ADAMSON
DIRECTOR & PRODUCER – BEN KERNOW
SET BUILDER – GRAHAM COLE
LIGHTING – TIM HARDY