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I have a little confession to make. When I go to the theater I can’t help but bring a few little accessories that are frowned upon in other settings, i.e. opera glasses and a fan. So imagine how thrilled I was to come across this clever late 18th century fan.

Fan, 1787-1788, London, Victoria and Albert Museum

The theater in the 18th century was not just a place where you went to see a play, it was also a place  you went to see people. And not just ordinary boring people, but a fascinating mix of peers, royals and royal mistresses. Many of these celebrated or notorious folks were subscribers – they rented a box at the theater for a season.

This particular fan was designed for celebrity-spotting at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, originally called the Queen’s Theatre. It helpfully tells its owner the names of the subscribers of different boxes. So that when you grow tired of looking at the stage, you could gawk at the famous and the fashionable.

I can see how this could be very entertaining.

Source:  Victoria and Albert Museum

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The show is just a weekend away, so panic is setting in. I’ve started having those nightmares where you’re at the play and everything goes wrong. Like you realize that all your fellow actors have turned into pineapples and you have to do their lines for them.

Our gorgeous Chemical Imbalance poster

Lauren Wilson’s play Chemical Imbalance: A Jekyll and Hyde Play is a hilarious take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr HydeThe play, unlike the original novella, pokes fun at everything starting from the concept of duel nature (Dr. Jekyll is pretty darn evil to begin with) to our idea of what Victorians were like to the evil twin trope.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde poster from the 1880s.

Working on this play was a real treat. There is slapstick, unbridled humor and an opportunity to overact and ham it up. I was playing Plodgett  the Cook. And a Scottish cook, at that. I will be issuing a formal apology to Scotland, its people and all cooks who may have been offended by my performance. As it happens, I had to do (and I use the word ‘do’ very loosely) a Scottish accent. It was more like Chekov trying to imitate Scotty while drunk (mind the Star Trek reference).

I’ve never read the original story and can’t say if the adaptation is very different. My general impression is that Victorian gothic horror is not very subtle. The narrative is often drawn-out and dull, while the individual elements are over-dramatic. Yes, I’m looking at you, Dracula. I think thta’s why most of these stories serve as perfect comedy fodder. The line between the dramatic and ridiculous is so fine that one tiny step will take you to the other side.

We tend to think of Victorians as incredibly polite and proper and I love how Wilson uses that idea for comedic effect. All the characters are trying so hard to keep up the appearance of normalcy and propriety while there is a maniac running wild and attacking dogs and policemen. In fact, the range of crimes that Mr Hyde commits is pretty silly – he kills a dog, gets a baby damp in a fountain, tramples a Christmas wreath and flattens a pigeon. He eventually works his way up to murder, but he takes a while to get there .

It’s hard to say if Wilson was trying to use this black comedy to make a point about society and our attitude towards violent crime, but in the end the maid gives a little closing speech reminding us that when Mr Hyde was caught the “world was once again  safe for the rich and dangerous for the poor” which I thought a very apt point.  And so the status quo is reestablished.

Since I’m a theater geek (please refer to the blog title), I do quite a bit of theater. I love directing, acting, even the occasional play-writing, but one of my ruling passions is costuming.

My theater group, Thespians Anonymous, is putting on Chemical Imbalance: A Jekyll and Hyde Play (two weeks ’til showtime) and yours truly was in charge of costumes. They were a delight. I’m not a huge fan of modern costumes, they look too much like everyday clothes; but historical costumes are always fun and a nice challenge. Especially when the setting is a semi-fictional Victorian England. You can go pretty mental with the concept. The whole scene is pretty macabre with dark shades and ruffles, lace and pearls.

The cast of Chemical Imbalance, Thespians Anonymous. Image by Stuart D. McQuade

The men are proper Victorian gentlemen, albeit late-Victorian pushing on Edwardian. Thank God, men’s fashion has been chnaging so very little over the decades. The older ladies are flirting with the Belle Époque, while the younger ones are ready to embrace the Gibson Girl look.

Matrons Euphronia Jekyll & Lady Throckmortonshire. Image byby Stuart D. McQuade

You can read my full post about the costumes and see more fabulous pictures HERE.

Photographs by Stuart D. McQuade.
Please do not copy or reproduce without permission. 

I’ve only seen Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) once or twice. I’ve never cared much for this play and found the film to be pretty underwhelming, but as I was looking into masquerades and carnivals in theater, this scene from the movie came to my mind. I think it captures the essence of the film and the play very well. These two people came to a fancy dress party in two of the most boring, unimaginative costumes one can come up with. Romeo could be forgiven; he’s crashing the party and one would think he came up with the costume on the fly. But this is Juliet’s home. This is her parents’ party. Surely, she could have gone out and spent a few extra bucks on something a bit more sophisticated than a pair of angel wings and a white dress.

If we’re going to look for hidden meaning, I supose the intention was to make her look incocent and pure and to make him look bold and chivelrous. Thank you for reafirming gender roles there, Mr. Luhrmann. Though, it is the lack of any creative thought on the part of these two characters that seals the fate of the film for me. They are just two very boring people. Granted, they are very young, but even as teenagers their whole world revolves around a very ill-conceived love affair. There’s not much else to them.

Ah, if only there were a cute stalker I could fall in love with

To be fair, many people love Romeo and Juliet and think it’s a wonderful play as well as the one of the greatest love stories ever told.  And the two protagonists don’t have to be quite so bland. A lot of their interactions are fun and flirty and, if done without the heavy-handed gravity or wide-eyed naivete, could add to the dramatic ending. Usually these scenes are played with so much passion as if the characters already know that they’re doomed. But wouldn’t these scenes play out so much better if  they were lighthearted and maybe even slightly silly? Wouldn’t that make their end even more terrible?

What’s more, and this has been noted before, Romeo and Juliet may not even be about these two individuals. It could be that the play is more of a commentary on petty feuds that lead to pointless loss of life. The two families can’t even remember why they are fighting, it has become a habit and their young pay a heavy price. After all, the play doesn’t end with the death of Romeo and Juliet, it ends with their two families reconciling and putting aside their differences to avoid more loss of life.

King Lear and the fool in a storm

John Gilbert, from The brothers Dalziel, by George and Edward Dalziel, London, 1901.

She Stoops to Conquer, written by Oliver Goldsmith in 1773, is currently playing in London’s National Theater. It’s a hilarious comedy of courtship and chaos directed by Jamie Lloyd, and something I recommend to anyone who needs a good laugh.

Here are some behind the scenes pictures:

The cast of She Stoops to Conquer is rehearsing the musical number

Pretty, witty Kate Hardcastle (Katherine Kelly)

Hastings (John Heffernan) is clearly channeling retro Doctor Who

Actor David Fynn is taking it easy as Tony Lumpkin

Cush Jumbo (Miss Constance Neville) is a serious young lady

Oh, Tony, don't push her away!

Director Jamie Lloyd with the concept board behind him

Tony has no love for his cousin Constance

Mr Hardcastle (Steve Pemberton) takes his place in a large leather chair

That shirt. That jacket. The combination is priceless.

Miss Kate is deep in thought

For Tony, ladies of quality are always in the background

The concept board for this play is amazing

Sophie Thompson as the loud and vulgar Mrs Hardcastle

Last week I went to see a play. At a movie theater. London’s National Theatre came up with a very high-tech way to bring their shows to a broader audience, many of whom live abroad. Their plays are broadcasted live in a number of theaters around the world. Last year I went to see their production of Frankenstein which was absolutely mind blowing!

This year I missed a few of their shows, but last Thursday managed to get a ticket to Oliver Goldsmith’s  She Stoops to Conquer. And what can I say? It was hilarious! And I don’t mean a chuckle here and there or a pleasant smile at a witticism. I mean out-loud, roaring laughter for 3 hours straight.

The story is as follows, a wealthy country gentleman Hardcastle (Steve Pemberton) wants to marry his daughter Kate (Katherine Kelly) to the son of an old friend. But because of a  practical joke played  by his stepson Tony Lumpkin (David Fynn), he is mistaken for an innkeeper and his daughter is take for a barmaid by the perspective bridegroom Marlow (Harry Hadden-Paton). This turns to be a blessing in disguise because while Marlow is incredibly shy around upper-class women, he’s quite the charmer with girls of a different sort. As Hardcastle  grows more and more incensed by the rude behavior of his prospective son-in-law, his daughter is quite taken with her confused suitor. At the same time, her cousin Constance (Cush Jumbo) is trying to claim her dowry and run away with her sweetheart Hastings (John Heffernan), as Mrs. Hardcastle (Sophie Thompson) schemes to marry her off to her son Tony. Chaos ensues.

Hastings (John Heffernan) surrounded by servants who all want to give him boots

This is definitely one of those plays that has aged well. Even though it was written in the 18th century, it feels as fresh and as funny today as it must have been two hundred years ago. Director Jamie Lloyd went for very broad humor. Every one is hamming it up to the max; there is no subtle acting in sight.

Hardcastle (Steve Pemberton) and his daughter Kate (Katherine Kelly)

Kate is a wonderful heroine – funny, saucy and resourceful.  ‘Stoops to conquer’ really defines her personality; Kate is very much a negotiator. She gives a little to get a lot both with her father and her groom. Marlow, on the other hand, makes for a wonderful neurotic (did they have neurosis in the 18th century?) hero. He’s a bumbling fool around high-class ladies, but quite the rake among the simple folk. Sophie Thompson, whom I loved in Emma, plays a wonderful Mrs. Hardcastle. She speaks in a strange bellowing accent, probably imitating what she thinks is a way a fine lady in London would speak, and has the most peculiar gestures and facial expressions. Tony Lumpkin is a lovable buffoon. But the person who really steals the show is John Heffernan as Hastings. He is sweet, devoted to his beloved, a bit dopey and naive but very kind and generous. To me he was the emotional core of the whole play; and with his almost equally dopey, though determined sweetheart Constance, in many scenes outshone the main couple.

I was really glad that they decided to go with an 18th centurylook for the play. First, because I love 18th century costumes. And second, because this play just doesn’t need to be updated. Though the theme can easily translate into a modern setting, it works just as well as a historical play.

Rich heiress Constance Neville (Cush Jumbo)

The costumes were absolutely gorgeous! Everything from powdered bouffant of Mrs Hardcastle to the richly embroidered but distressed outfit of Tony Lumpkin to the exquisite dress worn by Constance made from sari fabric and decorated with tiny bells, looked absolutely perfect. I can write more about the costumes, but I feel like they deserve their own post.

What are they doing back there?

I often get very uppity about classical plays being remade for a modern audience with excessive amount of sexual innuendos and nudity, but unlike many other productions, She Stoops to Conquer really works as a bawdy comedy probably because it was written as one. There is no shortage of cleavage on display or very suggestive gestures and poses, but they work very well and only add to the general atmosphere of confused and rowdy fun.

If you haven’t seen this play already, I highly recommend you check it out.