A Bunch of Amateurs, Studio Theatre, Salisbury

AMATEUR theatricals are the butt of many jokes but the best amateurs often bring a level of professionalism to their productions that stands comparison with many professional companies.

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman used this well-known fact to great comic effect in their screenplay, A Bunch of Amateurs, but despite terrific performances by Burt Reynolds and Sir Derek Jacobi, the film was not a huge success. But as a play it has become a favourite with amateur companies.

Studio Theatre is one of those amateur dramatic societies that you never think of as “amateur” – their standards are as high as their ambitions. Their choice of plays is always varied and interesting, and audiences know they will have a great night.

So expectations were justifiably high for A Bunch of Amateurs, which was directed by Anthony von Roretz. As a play, A Bunch of Amateurs is so much funnier than the film because the amateur stage is the perfect setting – the audience knows the performers, and the performers are subtly (and expertly) poking fun at themselves and the genre.

The premise is a classic misunderstanding – fading Hollywood hard man and womaniser Jefferson Steele has reached the end of his blockbuster franchise when his agent picks up a call for King Lear at Stratford. The ageing Lothario, whose (off-screen) physique is more real-life Tom Cruise than muscle-man Schwarzenegger, pitches up in Stratford SUFFOLK (not on-Avon) and finds himself in the midst of a genuine amateur drama – the Stratford Players are desperate to raise enough money to buy their barn-theatre and this is the last throw of the dice.

Jefferson (Paul Chalmers) is a man who is not used to learning lines, doesn’t take direction and has never read the play (or, we can guess) anything by Shakespeare. Dorothy, the director (Samantha Luckman), has a genuine background in theatre and knows how she wants the production to work. Nigel, country solicitor and theatrical knight –  in his dreams – (David Rhodes) knows he should be playing Lear, Dennis, stage-manager and man of many parts, including poor blinded Gloucester (Kristian Hamilton-Brain) just wants to have fun. B&B owner Mary (Sally Marshall) has a crush on Jefferson, although she does get muddled about which films he was actually in. Lauren, PR wife of the show’s brewery owning sponsor (Sophie Newton) is there to make sure everything is running smoothly. After all, what could possibly go wrong?

And into this maelstrom of superstar ego, luvvie tantrums, directorial angst and Shakespearian tragedy comes Jessica Steel (Fabia Alexander), Jefferson’s estranged daughter, sent to England by her mother, who is off on her latest honeymoon.

Anthony von Roretz’s direction was sure-footed, helped by an experienced cast, each of whom perfectly understood their character and the play-within-a-play structure. There were so many laughs that one audience member was heard to say at the interval that she wished she hadn’t put mascara on. You expect wit from Hislop and Newman, and there were plenty of one-liners as well as the am-dram insider jokes but the poignant prospect of the company losing its home also ensured there were plenty of tears too.

It’s amazing what a bunch of amateurs can do!
Fanny Charles

Pictured: Paul Chalmers as Jefferson Steele and Sophie Newton as Lauren Bell; Trinity Photography

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