A Bunch of Amateurs, Frome Drama, Merlin Theatre

THE arts are being removed from school curriculums, grants for further studies are being axed, London theatres are constantly criticised for exorbitant ticket prices, pros are being precious over pronouns and diversity box-ticking is rampant.

So perhaps it’s no coincidence that the importance of amateur dramatics is ever more current, and that the brilliant Ian Hislop and Nick Newman really caught the zeitgeist when they created the charmingly relevant A Bunch of Amateurs back in 2008, as a film. The completely rewritten stage adaptation was first seen at The Watermill in 2014, and since then it has, hardly surprisingly, been a staple of the amateur stage. The latest south west production is directed by Richard Wright, making his debut at Frome Drama on the stage of the Merlin Theatre.

It’s a familiar story to us village dwellers in the region. The pub has gone, houses have been sold as second homes to city workers and the community depends on get-togethers at the village hall, where pantomimes and plays bring everyone together, as well as allowing aspiring actors to lose themselves in historic stories and comedy fantasies. But the developers have their eyes on any “brown-field site” ripe for new executive homes, and at Stratford St John in Suffolk, the writing is on the wall.

The conceit is that the impassioned director of the Stratford Players and her loyal troupe have a plan to save the hall, by engaging a Hollywood star to ensure bums on seats, so that the latest production, Shakespeare’s King Lear, won’t also be the last production. Now the interweb is a wonderful thing, and director Dorothy (a terrific and impassioned performance by Katherine Symonds-Moore) manages to contact an American agent who offers the gig to his fading action-franchised star, Jefferson Steel. What act-or could resist the chance of playing Shakespeare at Stratford?

And who knew just how many villages there are in the UK whose names include Stratford? Certainly not Mr Steel’s agent. So the much-married, recently disenfranchised star of Jack Finality 1, 2, 3 and 4, pitches up in the village, where he expects to find Judi Dench et al and instead of a limo, a star trailer and a luxury hotel finds a mobility scooter, a draughty hall and a B and B run by a rather confused action movie super-fan.

It is a delight, and the writers have had fun sending up legendary Los Angeles behaviour and the passion and commitment of English am drams.

The Frome company treats the Merlin audience to some brilliantly observed comedy. Becki Bradley’s Olivia Colemanesque Mary and James Moore’s marvellously pompous and prissy Nigel are almost upstaged by Stephen East’s multi-tasking actor, plumber and health and safely officer Dennis, finally getting his chance to be a star’s entourage. Daisy Dugmore has fun as sponsor’s wife and former masseuse Lauren, and Tabitha Bradley has a very convincing moment of high drama as Jefferson’s daughter Jessica.

The man at the centre of the show is Jefferson Steel, and Michael Hoskinson makes him more than a cardboard cutout action man, gradually exposing a frightened, insecure man under the bluster and arrogance.

A Bunch of Amateurs is huge fun for the company and the audience, just as Hislop and Newman intended. Frome did it proud.


Footnote. Exceptional choice of music, too.



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