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09 March 2014 @ 08:47 pm
Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.  
So, thanks to seeing Propeller perform A Midsummer Night's Dream and A Comedy of Errors a couple of weeks back, I remembered that this place exists and finally got around to updating the header to this tour's cast, along with replacing the severely outdated comm icon (I think it was possibly the original Propeller icon which they haven't used for about five years now). Then, as I was in Photoshop anyway, I started making LJ icons - only to realise on icon three that LJ seems to be dying a slow, lonely death and I was probably wasting my time. Oh well. Have the ones I did do anyway:

1. 2. 3.

After a year, I'm still not happy in Adobe Photoshop Elements and LJ flailing sadly into oblivion means I'm not using it for half as much as I used to (icons, headers, graphics) so they're not up to much but it was fun to make icons again. Happy to make more if there's any demand but think those days may be long past.

Still! I saw A Midsummer Night's Dream at The Lowry in Salford on Feb 27th and Comedy of Errors on March 1st (my seventh/eighth Propeller performance, my fourth/fifth Propeller unique play) so in hope there's still life out there

First, a few caveats I guess: I went in to Dream expecting great things of this production which, combined with the fact I'd invited my mother along for a day out and was hyper-aware that she might not be enjoying herself, meant I struggled to get absorbed in the first few scenes - the entire first half really, and I'm still not sure how much of that was me and how much was the production taking time to get really going. Additionally, I'd made the error of booking a weekday matinée performance - while it meant I didn't have to stay over in Manchester for the night, it meant that it was the most convenient performance for schools to take the kids to and boy, did they take advantage of that. At least half/two thirds of the audience must've been school children and while in fairness they were every bit a polite, supportive audience while the performance was going on (unlike the kid sitting behind me in the 2006 production of Shrew who yelled "EEWWW" when Simon kissed Dugald in the second half), it meant they spent the interval running up and down the stairs and treading on our feet (no, seriously - four times without an apology) when getting past us in the row because apparently the theatre had sold me our two tickets for the centre of the second row and then sold the entire rest of that row to a school. We also didn't see any sign of a teacher until the end of the interval either when he appeared out of nowhere to sort out an argument and then vanished again.

I'm really big on Shakespeare being experienced rather than read, (I would've given my left arm to go to a Propeller performance in school because then maybe I'd have got Shakespeare a lot sooner than I did) but it did put a bit of a dent in our enjoyment of the day. In future I'll be avoiding the weekday matinées. I don't think anything could beat seeing both productions on the same day like I did last year anyway, so next tour I'll probably just suck up the cost and book a hotel for the Saturday so I can see both the plays on the Saturday.

Also, I'd booked row C thinking it was the third row but I'd forgotten The Lowry's Lyric Theatre seating starts at row B, so we were in the second row and it was too close for the height of the stage - I had a crick in my neck and headache by the end. Thankfully I was in row D for Comedy of Errors on the Saturday afternoon which was perfect, so I must remember not to book any closer than row D for next year. I wish more theatres were like Hampstead and the stage was at knee-level to the front row for the benefit of the tiny, or that they'd offer advice on the booking website re.the stage height.

So with all the varying things working against me for Dream, I really struggled to get into the first half. While the minimalist approach to the set worked well with keeping the pace moving (apart from a few props like a box Puck leaps from and Titania's giant-floorpillow-bed, there was no movement of scenery or furniture at all), I'm still not sure how I feel about the all-white 'Victorian underwear' style of the base costumes that most of the cast wore - at times it worked really well, like when the 'fairies' were swirling around pretending to have a revel because they all blended together in this alien otherworldly mass, and then at times it felt a little scruffy, like they'd all just got out of bed and forgotten to put their costumes on. I found it distracted me a little from the magical sense of the play, unlike the way Twelfth's masks added to it? It was nice how it highlighted Oberon and Titania's more elaborate outfits, but I'm still not sure if it distracted me from the action rather than becoming part of it, because I was so aware of it as old-fashioned underwear and I found that so incongruous to the magical setting.

That said though, given that there's even a discussion in Ballet Shoes from 1936 about the problems of dressing the fairies in Dream (and in Ballet Shoes they dress them in all-over mustard-coloured tights which certainly wouldn't have been an improvement) I guess it's always one of the big issues of the play; people expect fairies to have glitter and wings and flowers, but that approach wouldn't work for Propeller either and certainly wouldn't have suited this minimalist set. I'm wondering if I'll like them any better when I see Dream again in Edinburgh in April, and if I'll find them any less distracting the second time around when I'm used to them.

The white make-up everyone was wearing worked wonderfully though - even the Propeller guys I knew well sometimes blended into the crowd and you stopped trying to recognise people and just accepted the characters, while the people you did need to recognise were always signposted with extra costume touches (though for some of them the make-up was wearing off by the end which was a shame - though I wondered if it was an intentional decision not to renew it over the interval or if the busking out in the foyer meant they just didn't have time). I never wondered who anyone was even for a second, which considering that everyone was wearing the same base costume, essentially the same make-up, and half of them were playing multiple parts was pretty impressive.

Dan Wheeler had this floor-length striped skirt on as Helena and I spent at least half the time he was on stage wondering if he had lifts in his shoes to make the "And with her personage, her tall personage" joke even funnier because he looked insanely tall but he hiked the skirt up to run a few times and I think he just actually is that tall. I tweeted him after Comedy of Errors to tell him the two ladies next to me spent the entire interval trying to work out if him and Joe were twins in real life and he replied that they must've been pretty far back because Joe's at least three inches shorter than him (which I hadn't really noticed in their twin antics before), so I suspect it's a combination of him being tall and the rest of the lovers being shorter but regardless whether that and the joke about height was a factor in the casting or not, he made a spectacular Helena. As a Helen myself I've always been pretty fond of her, but I'd forgotten how vocal she is and Dan nailed her speeches (he somehow managed to make the awful "use me as your spaniel" line sympathetic rather than wince-inducing... well mostly, as much as anyone could) and had great presence for the physical comedy - in an audience full of schoolchildren, I would've thought that maybe Hermia's misery would've held more resonance but Dan got the laughs and it certainly felt like the support was all on Helena's side. I'd let the fact that I'd last seen Twelfth Night and been blown away by Joe as Viola distract me from remembering how awesome Dan was as Kate and it was lovely to watch him stalk into Helena's first scene and get hit with the realisation that 'oh yes, he's actually amazing at this and it's going to be awesome' and then it was. As funny as the Pyramus and Thisbe play was at the end (hysterical), and as much as James Tucker surprised me with a wonderfully proud, funny Titania, Dan made Helena my favourite thing.

In contrast, I'd gone in expecting to love Joseph Chance's Puck/Robin Goodfellow but from the very first moment he leaps up out of the box at the beginning, he's so anarchic and so hyperactive and wild that for a while I couldn't work out, frankly, why Oberon put up with him (or how Joe was playing him every night without collapsing of exhaustion, which frankly still baffles me). It wasn't until Oberon sends him to fetch the love-in-idleness flower and Puck responds with ridiculously-OTT enthusiasm that Darrell-as-Oberon, briefly, got this world-weary expression of "oh for godssake why can you never JUST DO WHAT I ASK YOU QUIETLY" that it dawned on me - he's meant to be ridiculously over the top, he's meant to inspire just a little bit of exhausted facepalming because he is, after all, the spirit of anarchy and Oberon puts up with him because for all that Oberon does it in a more calculated, dignified fashion, he likes playing tricks on people too - and I had this odd sense of an almost familial relationship, with Oberon in the position of a father putting up with a hyperactive child because they have to, because they love them underneath the exasperation.

Once I'd reconciled all the leaping about (and after the scene where he realises he's put the love-drug on the wrong Athenian and the way Joe played his "oh shit" reaction so well) I enjoyed the whole performance a lot more. He's getting a fair amount of supportive reaction on Twitter for it too (fairly; by the end I'd accepted that, as a performance, it's pretty spectacular and the dedication to it must be immense), so I suspect I was over-thinking the entire thing, or the hyperactivity just threw me for a loop at first. I've got to commend his dedication to staying in character too; he danced wildly around the foyer while they were all busking in the interval.

Sadly I didn't get a picture of that (I was holding my phone over the heads of flocks of schoolchildren trying to take one) but I did get one (sadly terrible quality; I really must take a proper camera next time) of them all busking (click for fullsize):

2014-02-27 14.38.19

Of the other guys, I've seen at least one review be dismissive of Will Featherstone's Hippolyta but I loved her - she doesn't get the greatest lines but he made her cheeky and hilarious through sideways looks and tone; I thought it was a great performance and it certainly got some laughs. I'm ashamed to say that I can't remember Darrell from last year but he was fabulous as Oberon - very Jareth the Goblin King, lurking stern and proud and mysterious around the stage. He was a great contrast to Joe's hyperactive Robin, and it was rewarding to watch his acting for the more subtle moments, like the reaction to Puck's cavorting.

Overall though I wasn't as wowed by Dream as I expected it be, but I still don't know how much of that was the situation and my expectations rather than the production itself. The music wasn't a standout, surprisingly - I missed having a Tony Bell or a Liam o'Brien on that front - but they certainly made me love 'Pyramus and Thisbe' which previously I've always found less interesting than the lovers and the fairies, so they're halfway there. I'm really looking forward to watching it again in Edinburgh - which I guess says a lot, because if I hadn't enjoyed it I wouldn't want to see it again so much? Seeing Twelfth Night again so soon gave me a different experience of it; I think I loved it more, even though I loved it the first time, so hopefully I'll be less - not ambivalent, that's the wrong word when I did enjoy it, but perhaps I've come to expect a certain level of investment in a Propeller performance that I didn't find in Dream on a first viewing; hopefully after a second performance I'll have a bit more warmth for it. I doubt it's going to replace Twelfth as my favourite production (I doubt anything ever will) but I think I could do better than my initial reaction.

If I was expecting great things of Dream and was disappointed, Errors was completely the opposite - I'd never read the play beyond a brief flick through when Propeller announced their tour last year, and I wasn't sure if it was going to be too farcial for me (I'm pretty bad with secondhand-embarrassment in comedy) so I went in without anything preconceived or that I particularly wanted from it. I'd had a relaxed morning in Manchester, after catching the tram to The Lowry for Dream two days before I knew where I was going and how long it took so I wasn't worried, I listened to a group of older theatre-goers on the tram being excited about The Seagull (Ben Allen's current play) and I'd gone to my seat as soon as they opened the theatre so I got to watch all the guys filtering on stage in multi-coloured football shirts to have a mini-jam session as if they didn't have an audience at all, and I don't know if it was any of those things in particular, or everything, or rather none of those things and the play was just that good, but the instant some of the guys came to sit on the edge of the stage to chat to the front row in terrible (hilariously terrible) Spanish accents I knew I was going to love this play.

From the first scene where Chris Myles gets dragged on under threat of death, it never slowed down for a second; everything was played for laughs and the fourth wall was treated more like a low fence, with audience interaction all over the place; from chatting to the front row, to warning the first few rows that "You might get wet!", to Richard Pepper as a slightly-sleazy police officer serenading a poor lady named Clara (I don't know if he intentionally misheard it as 'Tara' but it made the song even funnier) in the seat I'd been sitting in on the Thursday (! I was so glad I'd moved a row back) in a terrible Spanish accent to open the second half, and the cast repeatedly entering the stage by running (usually yelling something) from the back of the theatre through the audience, it felt like we were all part of the action - the humour was never too much or cringe-worthy, because the entire audience was invited to be in on the joke. The ad-libbing was fantastic (though I do wonder if the Harry Potter reference wasn't a distracting step too far and I'll be interested to see if it's still in there in April) and the entire cast just seemed so relaxed. At the start of the second half I think, while everyone filtered back in from the interval, some of the guys (annoyed I can't remember who now) gave Joe a guitar and seemed to be trying to teach him chords, as if they weren't on stage at all.

I do wonder if the relaxed feel was particularly noticeable for the performance I saw - it was a Saturday afternoon so everyone was there for a good time, something had happened to Dominic Gerrard so Matt Pearson had replaced him as the Duke and then was also playing the courtesan which lent some extra funny, and everyone just seemed totally on form. Next time is going to be the evening performance on a Friday night so it could have a different feel but it was so perfect the first time, I hope it doesn't. I'm in the front row for it (the Edinburgh stage looks to be a lot lower than the Lowry's and given how involved the front row is in the action I figured it was worth the gamble) so that might prove interesting.

I don't really feel like I have any detailed analysis for Comedy like I did with Dream? Maybe it's that I liked everything so much that I don't have anything to discuss, but that's probably a good thing. It's a hysterical, slick, entertaining, musical, energetic play, performed by actors who are very very good at what they do; I literally think the most Shakespeare-phobic person would enjoy it. It's not Twelfth, which still haunts me a year (or six) later, but not everything needs to be; I recommend it to anyone and can't wait to see it again.

After the play, I headed over to the Wagamamas just across the water from The Lowry, because I had a while to wait for my train and also it seemed to be a bit of a Propeller hangout last year and I was wondering if I had the nerve to get my programme signed (since when I'd flailed at Dan Wheeler last year I'd had jesse_kips for moral support). Not long after I'd sat down Matt Pearson (Starveling/Courtesan) came in and was shortly followed by Chris Myles with a few (I think) non-Propeller guys - Chris stopped to say hi to Matt before disappearing to a table at the back, but Matt was by himself by the door so I figured I'd stop by on my way out if he'd finished eating but, best laid plans, just as I was getting ready to leave Alasdair Craig (Flute/Abbess) came in and joined him, so the waitress was at their table taking his order as I left and it's not cool to interrupt so I resigned myself to a fangirling-free tour this year and left.

However, I still had ages before my train and I'd just missed a tram so instead of standing in the cold I went back to the Lowry, figuring I'd check out the shop and at least be warm. They have huge glass windows at the front with cafe tables along them in front of the shop inside, and walking past I had a double-take moment because Joseph Chance was just sitting down with a coffee at one of them.

I lurked a bit to double-check - keeping in mind I was wearing a bright orange coat so I was like the least stealth spy imaginable - and it was, and I had to hide in the shop for a few minutes to give myself a stern talking to about how much I'd regret it if I didn't before I got up the nerve to go over (I have no idea why I find the Propeller guys intimidating because so far they've been universally charming and lovely; I think I'm more worried about my tendency so stick my foot in my mouth when I'm nervous). Unsurprisingly, he was indeed charming and lovely, and didn't call security even when I confessed I'd been a Propeller stalker since 2006 - he just thanked me for the support, chatted about Girona last year, and deflected a little when I asked if he was considering coming back next year which fair enough, it was a pushy question. ;) He was very lovely and I hope I didn't come across as a crazy fangirl which let's face it, is always an issue when you actually are one.


He did briefly mention funding as an issue every year though and I'd already noticed that Coutts, who've been featured in the Propeller programmes as a prominent sponsor for the last five years, are noticeably absent this year, neither of which is reassuring. While I think the Arts Council would have to be certifiably crazy to discontinue funding to any company who can get schoolkids tweeting enthusiastic endorsements of Shakespeare complete with selfies of them watching the cast busk in the interval, it's not a good time to be in the Arts right now. That said, the list of 'Top Props' (people who've donated >£1500) in the Propeller programme this year is increasing in number, as is the list of smaller donations and it's a little comforting to think that if there is a cut to centralised funding, Propeller may be well-known enough at this point for fans to pick up the slack...even if that's a notion based entirely on a five second perusal of a programme rather than evidence. I'll certainly be watching for the new tour announcement in the summer with interest.

And maybe I should keep playing the lottery anyway, just in case.

There were a few other pleasant surprises for this year's tour - last year I felt a bit sorry for (and perplexed by) Lewis Hart because his main function seemed to be standing around looking like pretty scenery and adding backing vocals, but this year he played Snout and Balthasar (in Errors) and he was wonderful, and totally hilarious - I have no idea why he was marginalised in both plays last year, whether it was down to experience or if he was a late addition to pad out the cast, but he was great this year. 'Pyramus and Thisbe' brought down the house and he was a big part of that. Hopefully he'll get to expand on it if he's back next year.

James Tucker made up for losing Ben Allen in terms of comic genius - he was great as Titania but awesome as Adriana in Errors, histrionics and all; he owned the Errors stage any time he was on it. I still missed Ben (and have hope he'll be back at some point because he's been tweeting about missing the Propeller cast) but James was amazing.


It's quite a hefty programme this year, which is nice - I don't know if they've recycled articles from the previous Dream/Comedy tours to add in but it makes for a programme that's more articles/interviews than adverts which is always a nice surprise.


(This isn't Joseph Chance; it's Jon Trenchard who was Puck in the 2009 production, which is a bit perplexing - maybe the programmes had to be printed too early to use photos from the current production, but the later articles all feature photos of the current cast)



















I didn't scan the montages of rehearsal pictures because they're all available in better res on Propeller's Facebook page.


Other Propeller things:


The cast from last year's Twelfth/Shrew tour singing during a Shrew interval, complete with a rendition of 'Happy Birthday' to Chris Myles, Finn Hanlon flirting shamelessly with an audience, and Joseph Chance's hilarious chef's hat taking centre stage.

Twitter is definitely the greatest thing that's ever happened in terms of fourth wall destruction:
(All photos belong to the original tweeters!)


(Propeller's production of Twelfth Night from last year was nominated for Best Visiting Production at the Manchester Theatre Awards)




In terms of community activity (ha ha ha *tumbleweeds*) I'm going to Pocket Henry on Wednesday afternoon, so you may get another post sooner rather than later. I'm very interested to finally get to a Pocket production - I had a ticket to go to Pocket Merchant last autumn but that was the day I (inexplicably) fainted at work and was (less inexplicably but still frustratingly) made to go home rather than to the theatre by colleagues, so I'm still a Pocket newbie. I'm going with a friend whose studying Shakespearean actors for her MA and there's a Q&A after so it should be pretty interesting.

After that it's Edinburgh for a re-viewing of both Dream and Errors which I'm sure I'll have something to say about (there's a Q&A session after Errors which will be the first main tour Q&A I'll have managed to make in all six years of following Propeller so that'll be all new and shiny) and then alas I suspect that'll be it until (hopefully) the next tour is announced in the summer. Unless anyone feels like joining in with some more Propeller experiences, or thoughts, or anything. Is LJ dying a death? Should this move to tumblr (I hate tumblr but I also hate talking to myself so...) LJ still feels like the best format for indepth discussion and but sometimes I feel like the attention span of the internet is tl;dr to anything more than 140 characters these days (and I include myself in that; this has taken me two weeks to finish).

Any thoughts, pics, fangirling, suggestions, are all very welcome. If not, until next time so, good night unto you all.
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