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Review: Two Planks and a Passion

Written by Anthony Minghella

Directed by Paul Burbridge and Juliet Forster

Producer: York Theatre Royal and Riding Lights Theatre Company

Cast Includes: Michael Lambourne, Emily Pithon and Jonathan Race

Running time: 2 hr 30mins with 20 min interval

The York Theatre Royal is taken back to 1392, as Anthony Minghella’s Two Planks and a Passion revives the excitement and festivities of the York Mystery Plays.

Originating in Medieval England, the York Mystery Plays were a cycle of pageants performed mainly on wagons in a procession that retold biblical stories. Each play was designated to a specific guild, hence much rivalry ensued in an attempt by the guilds to outdo each other and prove the superiority of their trade. It is the politics of putting on the pageants that Two Planks and a Passion humorously and jocosely portrays.

As King Richard II (Jonathan Race) accompanied by his infirm wife Queen Anne (Emily Pithon) and close friend the Earl of Oxford (Michael Lambourne) announce their intention to come to York, the community rejoice whilst the feuding guilds lock horns in an attempt to create the best pageant possible. Each guild pulls out all the stops to create the perfect play. From lavish costume to exuberant set, the guilds give their all to impress the royal guests.

The hilarity of Two Planks and a Passion is derived from the blend of different comedy styles. Slapstick encounters between the King and the Mayor playing golf, ruining his lush green, is a wonderful moment. Attempts by characters to become pretentious by using French in inappropriate ways keeps the laughter flowing. Historically grounded jokes about the budget cuts made to the guilds strike a chord with today’s economy and make much of the humour highly relevant, proving that the combination of cleverly worded wit and farcical action is a successful one.

Such scenes run throughout the play and are enhanced by the vividness of the characters. From the King’s jocular nature to Oxford’s merrymaking and Anne’s love of beds (she acquires five in York), each character entertains and offers more than one dimension. Compassionate moments between the trio are interspersed between more comedic routines, accompanying each other very appropriately.

Of course, the ensemble and other characters including the Mayor, his wife, the parson and others, are played by community members, not professional actors, which is part of the pieces charm. The use of the ensemble to create set and be very much a part of the performance, really captures the vitality of medieval York society in creating the pageants.

The cast come together in a brilliantly constructed climax of Two Planks and Passion which culminates in the performance of the Mystery Plays. Almost like a film, the action cuts from one pageant to another then to the King Richard’s group and then to another guild. Despite an occasional drop of pace in this sequence, it was gripping in mixing comedy with tragedy in an overall fitting end to the play.

Some traditions fade out, and although an attempt was made by the Catholic Church to suppress the Mystery Plays in the 16thCentury, Two Planks and a Passion embodies the community spirit, politics and intricacies of putting on the pageants, in a light-hearted and entertaining show, that transports one to heart of medieval York.

(Originally published on playstosee.com)

Drama Barn Review: Red Snow

Red Snow, a musical written by James Ball and directed by himself and Hannah Higton, fervently sprinkled its presence all over the barn on its opening night, and illustrates, formidably so, that student written productions can find great success with the right head behind them.

Set in Stalinist Russia, Red Snow illustrates the effects of the Communist regime on a group of farmers. Put under pressure by staunch Stalin supporter Bolyen (Benedick Gibson) and his comrade Sergei (Matthew Lecznar) to meet the targets of the Five Year Plans, the community begin to crack. Vladimir (Adam Massingberd-Mundy) and Nina (Ruth Fitton), both members of the village, have their relationship tested under the strains, whilst Zmeya (Max Tyler), comedic bootleg potato seller, declares a love for Nina too. Bolyen’s wife Natasha (Laura Horton) feels the burden as an oppressed woman in Soviet Russia. When the village gets turned into a gulag the society is split resulting in large repercussions for the members.

Red Snow appeared to be a show where the acting and musical aspects of the show never really converged. There were fantastic vocal performances from the entire cast, who blended well together creating a wonderfully balanced array of voices. The music was beautifully composed and full of energy that ran through the show. Lecznar’s vocal performance however included his voice cracking and at one moment found himself stumbling over the words to a song.

There were some thrilling acting displays and on this point, Lecznar was certainly confident, moving through the emotions of his character perfectly, from obedience to illicit passion. Other members of the cast showed glimpses of acting splendour that became monotonous very quickly. Gibson’s disabled war veteran was menacing, vindictive and intense, but the acting was often robotic and never appeared to change gear. Likewise, Massingberd-Mundy, despite a strong vocal display, followed it up with some lacklustre acting that saw him either shouting in rage or crying in despair.

Much of the flatness in character comes from the writing. Whilst the play flowed at a very quick pace and was always moving forward, some characters were not given room to develop. The relationship between Vladimir and Nina was difficult to follow and identify with because it never had the space to explain itself and grow.

Despite this, Laura Horton was able to reconcile acting and singing to offer the whole musical package. Nowhere does she show the raunchy yet tenacious vitality of her character than in the song ‘Drink Comrades’. Slickly choreographed and poignantly sung, this was a fantastic display of Horton’s talent. To follow this up with a tender yet infuriated lament about her position as a woman in Soviet Russia, displayed her true versatility.

As the snow fell from the roof of the Barn, it settled on a truly wonderful piece of theatre that is Red Snow, which, for its shortcomings, more than makes up for it with some wonderful music, stellar voices and good moments of acting that will truly leave you entertained.

(Originally published on yorkvision.co.uk)