REVIEW: Double the Funny: Brenton vs Brenton and Last Panto in Little Grimley – The Apollo Players

This double bill of one act plays by David Tristram is a good choice for a December production, appealing to people who want a break from the wall to wall tinsel but to still have a light-heated, fun evening of entertainment.

Anyone who remembers Dallas or Dynasty in the 1980’s will recognise the set-up of Brenton vs Brenton immediately – incredibly rich tycoons who compete for an employee by offering him a million dollars a week to work for them; a separated couple at each others’ throats; ridiculous storylines and even more ridiculous dialogue and outfits, all screaming money money money. The play blurb reinforces this by letting us know the play is a spoof on these soap operas.

Brenton himself , played by Garry Smith, was suitably ridiculous as the boss of a condom manufacturing company. Mark Duffus as his dutiful employee, like Garry, sustained a believable American accent throughout – not easy. In both cases however, this resulted in some of the comedy punch lines getting lost. Carol Simpson was amusingly daffy, limping around the stage as Brenton’s daughter, apparently afflicted by her parents’ acrimonious separation, while her English mother Lana, played by Anthea Weekes, sashayed around the stage and dominated proceedings. Lana’s brother was the family solicitor who was hilariously trying to represent both warring parties at the same time, and David Stradling brought out the absurdity of this really well. Maggie Cardew was a delight as Blanche de Ville, Brenton’s first wife.

The plot was, of course, totally over the top and unbelievable, and this was the crux of the issue with Brenton vs Brenton – when parodying a genre which is itself exaggerated to the point of incredulity (remember a dead Dallas character reincarnating in the shower?) the only way to go is further over the top, and Brenton vs Brenton was understated. To really capture the comedy it needed to be louder, brasher and more ridiculous. This not only applies to the otherwise talented actors, but even more to the set and costumes. The script calls for Lana’s shoulder pads to be so wide she can’t get through the door – they weren’t. In fact, the only costume piece that pointed directly to the 1980s was Blanche’s Rula Lenska-style wig. This is a shame, as the Apollo costume department has long held a reputation for accuracy and creativity. Lana’s shoulder pads however, were for me a metaphor for the play – they needed to be far bigger, sharper and over the top.

Last Panto in Little Grimley however, hit its mark perfectly from the moment Maria Wilkinson, as Joyce, climbed up the steps on to an empty stage and belted out ‘There’s No Business Like Showbusiness’ at the top of her voice….completely out of tune. Now I’ve heard Maria sing beautifully – and as the saying goes, it’s harder to deliberately do something badly than to do it well. And this was a masterclass in talented actors deliberately doing things badly. Each character had their ‘challenges’ – as well as singing, Joyce struggled hilariously with taking the minutes of the meeting of Little Grimley Amateur Dramatic Society, even with her shorthand classes and achievement of 8 words a minute….

The four remaining members of the Society are trying to put on the next show, in an attempt to keep the group going, and the play starts with a committee meeting. Dave Newton was brilliant as the company chair, Gordon, trying in vain to keep order, keep to the topic in hand, deal with the bickering and histrionics alongside writing the script for their next panto, directing it and playing the dame and the panto horse. One of my favourite moments – because it is one every member of a committee will recognise – was the attempt to find a mutually convenient time for the first rehearsal. Gordon’s frustration as he tried to deal with one member not being able to do alternate Thursdays, while another couldn’t do Tuesdays, and so on, was laugh-a-second.

Caroline Read was initially wonderfully understated as Margaret, bickering with Bernard (David Ballard) in an undertone, otherwise saying little during the meeting verbally, but lots with her facial expressions. Her real comedy talent came out when they moved on to the rehearsals and she dealt with and delivered a mis-typed script with perfect timing and the ability to extract every laugh from the situation. In this she was aided by Maria’s own face and body language as she tried to play a cat. The scene where Bernard, the technical expert, tries to cope with a series of failing stage lights was also one of the highlights – pun intended!

By the time they got to opening night, the farce crescendoed into outright chaos. I won’t say any more than that because it would spoil the fun for the audiences who will be able to see it during the rest of the run – I will just say bring your hankie because you will be crying with laughter.

Double the Funny runs at the Apollo Theatre from Tuesday 6th – Saturday 10th December at 7.30pm. Tickets are available at https://www.apollo-theatre.org.uk/two-one-act-comedies-brenton-v-brenton-by-david-tristram-and-last-panto-in-little-grimley/ or by calling 01983 210010.

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