Rough Music

Sylvia Freedman
King’s Head
(2007)

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Since few of us read to the end of a theatre review let me declare at the off that Sylvia Freedman’s tragicomedy, a richly textured drama with music, makes ideal Christmas entertainment for grown-ups.

Set in late Victorian England, her play depicts the early life and times of Jessie Sanders. This spirited but sweet-natured Northern girl has firmly set her sights on a career as an actress and entertainer in the metropolis. And with a lively combination of talent and sheer determination she lights a beacon of promise as a future star of the Edwardian music hall.

So too Bryony Afferson, who here makes her brilliant professional theatre debut in the role and who, like Jessie, is a super-trouper whose radiant presence and performing skills light up the stage. As Oscar Wilde once remarked, life imitates art.

In several decades of playgoing I can recall few debuts quite so deserving of that hoary old exclamation: “A star is born!” But after only four weeks of rehearsals Miss Afferson gives a portrayal of astonishing emotional depth and assurance, a pure alto voice in songs of the period, matched with expert comedy timing — plus an unexpected bonus, a teasing Ginger Rogers moment of tap-dance.

Packed with dramatic incident, the play also offers two dozen cameo roles for an eight-strong supporting cast, a true ensemble brought together under the seasoned eye and skilful direction of Paine’s Plough veteran John Adams, who has also arranged the music.

Michael Irving is strongly focused as three authority figures: an Assize judge whose decision may blight Jessie’s future; the bullying charge-hand in the toy factory where she earns money to pay her way to London; and a shrewd tavern-keeper with a music licence who gives the girl her first taste of performing in public.

Versatile Richard Syms is equally outstanding, first as Jessie’s tetchy old Dad, guzzling his supper, then as the ageing actor-laddie Monticello, giving his Othello with Jonathan Ryan as his camp fellow-traveller, playing Desdemona in a blonde wig that has seen better days.

Gifted actress Mary Jo Randle portrays Jessie’s Mam, at the end of her tether, while also delivering a deft character transformation as a cackling crone with booze-reddened cheeks in the lively tavern sequences. There are also touching contributions by Clare Fraenkel as Jessie’s sister Lizzie, and Laura-Kate Gordon as a woman passing herself off as a man in a troubled, dangerous world of ‘rough music’.

With his matinee idol good looks Richard Mark is the love interest. But the melodramatic triumph of the evening comes from Shaun Hennessy as a randy Victorian industrialist whose conscience is neatly caught by Jessie’s Mousetrap of a play — a novelettish scene that shares its thrilling climax with Hamlet’s guilty uncle cum stepfather.

A masterstroke of staging by director Adams and his designer Norman Coates turns the usually cluttered King’s Head into a spacious traverse theatre, with banks of comfortable seating on either side of the playing area.

While almost tripling the performing space this has also increased the seating capacity by twenty-five per cent, a flexible arrangement which opens up so many possibilities, and which Stephanie Sinclaire — the King’s Head’s dynamic chief executive and creative director — will surely be tempted to retain.

Reviewer: John Thaxter