Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

An unfortunate illness prevented these reviews from being published contemporaneously but the performances merited these productions being remembered and documented so . . .

Stated for the record

Pozzo, Estragon and Vladimir

Harry Benfield as Pozzo between Sam Woodyatt as Estragon, left, and Peter Borsada as Vladimir in the wait for Godot Pictures of Waiting for Godot: Adam Woodyatt

Waiting for Godot – The Bridge House Theatre

Privates on Parade – The Loft Theatre

EARLIER in the autumn season, I was treated to one of the most riveting stage performances by young performers I have encountered in years. A tiresome illness prevented me reporting on it then, but I feel it should certainly not be overlooked.

The idea seemed verging on the crazy. To put on stage two actors scarcely turning 18 in the lead roles and a duo not much older – plus one younger – taking the other three, in Samuel Beckett’s weird, teasing, puzzling, bizarre, delicious and endlessly disconcerting small-cast play, Waiting for Godot might seem like going over the top.

The number of lines that the prime characters – Vladimir and Estragon, both tramps, teetering between fleeting optimism and deep-seated pessimism– have to master is positively daunting. The psychological range, the command of awkward stance and gesture, the nervous tics, fretting and fannying around these two characters have to deploy almost incessantly would pose a challenge for a young Olivier.

Assay Waiting for Godot at your own risk. Yet two young actors, Sam Woodyatt and Peter Borsada, dived into this quick-fire play and made the pair of main characters – hopeless, inept, swaying between surges of ludicrous optimism and almost equally pointless pessimism – their own. Both are tragic. Woodyatt is bossy, vulgar, dependent and very funny indeed: a jewel of an actor. Empathetic, unpredictable, Borsada is a model of how to make a stage come alive.

With minimal set – a rough bench, an uneven tree almost as forlorn as the two characters – and a modicum of light, this poignant duo moped, hugged, cavorted, pirouetted, posed, sidled, interrogated and interacted with a flair that showed they both have the talent of actors twice their age.  

The Bridge House Theatre’s stage, with its useful semi-apron, became a kind of No Man’s Land. Into this, the only other characters who intrude – carefully balanced in each act with exposition and recapitulation – are the if anything more crazed Pozzo, pieced together by a not much older actor, Harry Benfield; and his unfortunate servant, more like victim, the inappropriately named Lucky (Christian Leith). 

I may see a better Waiting for Godot on the professional stage, but it will be some time before I do. These young actors all have theatrical aspirations. Each deserve to make it.

Clad in rags of what might be First or Second World War khaki, and anything else he happened to pick up from the sordid playground they inhabit, Borsada made of the leaky Vladimir something as illogically and unpredictably gauche as Beckett’s text permits. He sees things his companion misses; analyses them; then makes bizarre, laughable faux pas   

Sam Woodyatt (Estragon)., Lucky and Peter Borsada (Vladimir)

Everything about Anil Singh Matoo’s staging – he is a former Warwick pupil - worked: it was highly intelligent, perceptively moved, full of shrewd touches, paced with masterful silences, laden with awesome detail.  Borsada and Woodyatt – whose father, Adam, incidentally, himself an eye-catching young actor at their age, plays Ian Beale, a survivor of the original cast of Eastenders – seemed to keep up a constant counterpoint of awkward moves, twitchiness, fitfulness, nervous energy fused with nervous exhaustion.

Sam Woodyatt as Estragon and Peter Borsada  as Vladimir take a grip on he unfortunately named Lucky played by Bailey Fear

Woodyatt, a compulsive obsessive fixated on pulling his boots, or a boot, on and off, shuffling around unlaced, rolled up khaki trouser legs at a kind of permanent half mast, hands invariably clenched like a gnarled hornbeam when not fiddling with tunic buttons or munching a carrot, also created a counterpoint of mood: a fabulous split personality. Thus endlessly opinionated (‘People are bloody ignorant apes’), bullying, bossy, genuinely amazed or ironic (‘I find this really interesting’), he hobbles round looking (deliberately) like a Great War veteran: we know that not a few of those really did find themselves to be Estragons, alienated in an alien post-war world.

But it is Woodyatt’s jerky, know-it-all Estragon, for all his bravado, who is the first to show terror, to cower, to seek refuge in his tree-bench, to chatter nervously in his beautifully sustained (presumably) northern Irish accent. ‘Perhaps we’ll go to the Pyrenees; oi’ve always wanted to walk in the Pyrenees’. He is a wonderful cowerer, a hunched little figure who suddenly seems diminutive; the cheeky chappie easily deflated, reduced to a nervebag. Believable, not exaggerated: a real performance to treasure.

By contrast, Borsada’s Vladimir proved in many ways the emotionally stronger force: fumbling with fly-buttons, humiliated by his imperious prostate, loping around with a practised clumsiness, missing the point, yet instantly available to reassure and to comfort ‘Gogo’, he achieves a vast amount from minimal as much as exaggerated move and gesture, agitated, pouting, shivering, musing (as Beckett’s play in effect does) on ‘words, words . . .’.When he takes off on his own – a lope or a potter around stage – he holds you mesmerised. Borsada is an actor with the range of someone thrice his age. ‘How time flies when one has fun’, he says, and the genuine childish pleasure is touching: as in a hilarious scene where they play a childlike game with hats. Again, the accent, if less definite than Woodyatt’s, is fabulously sustained.

But with both these actors, it is their ability to retain and deliver vast swathes of text with such assurance, or with such cleverly controlled, half-stuttering hesitation, that impresses. There are times with Waiting for Godot, and especially with this beautifully polished performance, when the lines come out almost like comic Shakespeare. The pair’s ability to hoist the text up to this kind of level, to beef up the parts, to make it all memorable, left one in awe and admiration. School actors my foot: these were pros.

It is Borsada, too, who takes the lead in empathising with Lucky, Pozzo’s almost willing victim and deferential bag-bearer; and with Pozzo himself. ‘Can’t you see he’s remembering a time when he was happy?’ Bailey Fear’s Lucky is a small masterpiece in himself: tugging, yielding, collapsing, waiting for godotobeying dog-like, striving to reveal an independent identity but seemingly lacking one. At the end of his leash, Fear makes Lucky positively ache. The pain is in the body, in the head, in the entire being. And yet the counterpoise between acquiescence and distress seemed exactly as Becket must have intended it. I have seen Jack McGowran play this role, alongside Alfred Lynch’s Estragon and Nicol Williamson’s Vladimir. Everything about Fear’s patience and restraint suggested a performance just as fine.

The wait goes on for Estragon and as Vladimir

I was pretty struck by the performance of The Boy, a kind of Strindbergian apparition who acts as go-betwixt. Christian Leith was directed by Matoo to play the part absolutely straight, yet he brought to it much more. The quality of the voice, the appending of the word ‘sir’ to his answers, lifting the tramps on to a kind of unexpected pedestal, and the respectful ‘Mr. Godot says’; the timing of his answers; the silences. This added to the feeling of an Ariel-like apparition, but something much greater too. A small walk-on part became a central part of the (non-)unfolding.

Harry Benfield offered up a Pozzo who swayed, gradually, from naked bravado to serious self-doubt, guilt (about everything bar Lucky) and hand-wringing frustration. Benfield’s timing, and clarity of delivery, were a big plus for this production. The blockings – Pozzo-Lucky, Vladimir-Estragon, and various interminglings, several times brilliant, were well served by some strongly differentiated lighting, including effective shadows. ‘I really ought to be getting moving to observe my schedule’ is the understatement of the evening: Pozzo is if anything shorter of things to do, less imaginative in inventing them, than the other two. Pozzo has assorted soliloquies, by turns assertive (‘I must have left it at the manor’) and wan, and Benfield made of each a first class job. You don’t always associate Pozzo, a public school bully, with pathos, but we got it here: ‘I am blind’; ‘for I have suffered, no doubt about that’. The almost pathetic falsetto of his first exit catches perfectly the emptiness of his boasts.

But it is the fretful, fidgeting, grumbling Estragon and the piddle-obsessed, rubber-faced Vladimir who hold this show together so brilliantly. It’s a case of old heads on young shoulders. If Woodyatt has the edge, its by a small margin. Of one thing I’m certain - I won’t find a smarter pair of young actors in a long while.

Borsada had earlier appeared in the Loft Theatre, Leamington’s amateur staging of Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade, directed by Steve Smith. Set in postwar Malaya, where rebellion is in the offing, it’s a splendid stagepiece, through which hilarious campery and a strange feel of haunting run concomitantly.

There is always the feeling that something can go badly wrong, a bit like in South Pacific, not least because the way in which in and out of brassiere, powder and sequins or made up in white clown face Michael Barker plays the key queeny officer character, Terri, whose bravado is laced so skilfully, by actor and director, with a poignancy and a sadness too.

Barker with Smith’s direction can alternate the masks of comedy and tragedy sensationally. All the men are wrenched from their natural habitat. The way Terri manages toprivates on parade lure them into an alternative lifestyle (‘all fucking first names here’) underlines their need for normality, even if in this case things are stood on their head.

In some respects, it’s the oldies who imprint themselves on this show: Mike Crawshaw’s amiable Brummie Sergeant-Major, Reg (‘Regina’); or Phil Reynolds’ precise, formal Major, not a million miles from General Melchett, but who knows the ropes and grasps the dangers.

Phil Reynolds as the major with privates restored to a state of virtual decency

Richard Copperwaite, one of the Loft’s newest acquisitions, is strong as the corporal, as is Benjamin Wellicome (Scripps, the devout musician in The Loft’s The History Boys, and Eric here), while of the youngsters Borsada and George Heynes and perhaps especially Connor Bailey as Charlie, the youthful Lance-Corporal, offer beautifully turned performances and the most exquisite array of buttocks – and more – viewed on a Midland stage for some time: privates on parade, to put it mildly. 

But then the Loft, and certainly Director Steve Smith, don’t do things by halves. On the jungle’s edge, the camperies and profanities abound, all hilariously delivered: ‘Drop that expensive-looking handbag’; ‘I don’t think I’ve ever met any homosexuals’: ‘Well you will here, this is the Queen’s men.’ ‘No funny business in the ablutions’. ‘John Thomas’. ‘Wants to see you with your discharge in your hand.’ ‘Ich liebe dick’. There’s a masturbation sequence complete with enamorata’s photo to set alongside Wedekind’s Spring Awakening

The singing was a joy, partly because the tessitura of the songs was so perfect – Alex Thompson (as opposed to Wellicome) supplying the keyboard and musical know-how as well as turning in another youngster in khaki: ‘Come, I want you to lead me a dance. Why can’t you give our rhythm a chance?’ – Borsada one of several natural singers in this brilliantly cast ensemble.

Part of the first half is focused on the issue of security, and intelligence and while this is only a matter of stores getting nicked – could this be the Chinese/Malay servants, led by an increasingly sinister but never very safe-looking Jon Foulds (Chang)? – it creates a consgtant jittery underlay. You always suspect something’s brewing, and in the end, they will be right at the heart of things when the balloon goes up. 

Roderic Dunnett


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