A Bunch of Amateurs, Street Theatre, Strode Theatre, Street

IAN Hislop and Nick Newman describe their play A Bunch of Amateurs as a celebration of the Am Dram genre and all who take part in it, and nowhere is this better illustrated than in Sheila Martin’s production for Street Theatre, on stage in Street until 18th March.

The story (of a threatened Suffolk company casting a failing Hollywood star as King Lear in an effort to get bums on seats) started life as a book, was translated to film by Hislop and Newman, flopped, and then was re-converted by the same duo as a stage play. It’s the perfect trajectory for the clever, funny and touching story aimed very directly at life outside the constrictions of the M25, and other big cities, too. And it’s an ideal choice in an area rich in talented and resourceful amateur dramatic societies. They might be sneered at by national critics and dissed (as the saying now goes) by urban smartarses, but they form an important part of the glue that holds small towns and villages together – as vividly demonstrated by their reactions to the global pandemic and their eager bounce-backs.

The play breaks the rules of the fourth wall – that invisible barrier that separates the actors from their audience ­– and in the Street production the ploy is taken even further, with the auditorium utilised as the paparazzi chase the fleeing star. It all starts with a chilling announcement to the audience of the Stratford Players, and we are that audience. Scenes are bookended by Shakespearean songs and quotes, cleverly chosen to move the plot along.

At its heart is Jefferson Steel, a middle-aged, much-married, Hollywood probably C-lister, and the only one of his ilk to reply to Dorothy from England’s offer of a starring role as King Lear with the Stratford Players. He, and his agent, assume that Stratford must be on Avon, home of the Bard and the RSC. But, as we know, there’s an awful lot of Stratfords in England, and this one is Stratford St John in Suffolk.

Jefferson arrives, all perma-tan and sunglasses, prepared for a luxury hotel with all the celebrity trimmings and the usual star trailer on set. But the reality is a crumbling hall, a village B and B and a bunch of amateurs. It’s easy to see the comedy potential. What’s not so evident is the possibility of real character development and some home truths about talent as the story unfolds – that’s the bit that depends on the acting.

Of course the actor playing Jefferson (here the versatile Paul Townsend) must have the blazing charisma of the terrified but still bombastic star. The Players’ stalwarts have to be more than caricatures and Street Theatre has an enviable reputation for the range and depth of its talent. Karen Trevis is Dorothy, the director of the show, most generous supporter of the Players and former trained actor. Jane Sayer returns to the Strode Theatre after her Florence Foster Jenkins barnstormer last November, here as the star-struck and confused Mary, with Ben Lovell as Nigel, the wonderfully pompous solicitor and would-be Lear, Sean Carr as the jack-of-all-trades Denis, and Eliane Morgan as Lauren, masseuse and wife of the sponsor. Sophia Wood is the talented American daughter of the star, travelling with all her allergies and recriminations.

Perhaps the cleverest bit of this production is the moment when Jefferson settles back to smoke a cigar, and Bach’s Air on a G String begins. The first note of the music has the audience laughing … I’ve never seen a better example of the effectiveness of product placement.

If you want to laugh, care about local theatre and wonder at its commitment, versatility and sheer boundless talents, go along and see this show. There are still a few tickets left.


Posted in Reviews on .