This review of Our Man in Havana first appeared in Offbeat News, our bi-monthly newsletter.
If you saw the 1959 British film of Graham Greene's novel Our Man in Havana, you might wonder how such a large cast would be accommodated on the stage at CoPs. Clive Francis' adaption to a stage version neatly reduced the actors required down to five. The result is that three actors are required to take on many roles involving fast changes of costume and character.
As the film was a lively spoof of currently popular espionage films, so the play adaption lent itself to the genre of farce. The challenges are immense and include the versatile set that is required with space to hide bodies; room to dance and a live band! Costumes are necessary for about sixteen characters and a considerable amount of props appropriate for scenes set in Cuba and England.
Director Jan Palmer Sayer assembled an experienced and talented creative team. With Chris Janes' set design and Jan's love of alternative acting space, the auditorium was rearranged to accommodate a thrust stage with some audience sitting along the sides and even on the stage taking part in the action. This larger acting area gave space for the cast to dance.
Our four audience members were given Panama/straw hats to wear and invited to sit on bamboo chairs around a table set with drinks whilst the bar was painted a terracotta red and bright green and placed upstage adorned with a palm tree and an old Hoover. The Cuban flag above their heads changed to the Union Jack to herald the appropriate country location and there was a desk discreetly placed against the back wall… more about that later. Ken Allford, the lighting designer, added to the Cuban atmosphere by hanging a ceiling fan whilst Julia Ryan amazed us by providing the variety of old-style vacuum cleaners that appeared throughout the action on the bar.
Some of the audience arrived early to avoid sitting on or beside the stage and were entertained by Los Habaneros with 1950s period music on guitar and cello. They were joined by the singing narrator Julia Ryan and Actor 1, Sean Scotchford, in his role as Police Chief but looking like the chief gangster, ingratiating himself with members of the audience. This pre-play action set the scene and period but to my taste it was too loud and conversation with other friends in the audience was made impossible! During the action Los Habaneros provided live backing to the action and the dance music.
Once the play started the characterisation skills of the actors came into prominence and the versatility of the set became apparent. Two doors opened beneath the bar and a gents' urinal was established. Accents were changed as often as clothes by Laurence Lowe from English to American to German, and Sean Scotchford as policeman, barman, et al. Josie Melton showed her versatility with accents and movement as Wormold's manipulative daughter then a complete contrast as Beatrice, the British Controller, as well as other bit parts. Julia Ryan was kept busy changing the set, playing a call girl, waitress and every part necessary between. Wormold (Patrick Sunners) played the proprietor/salesman of vacuum cleaners, engaging with the audience throughout with a very polished performance.
Farce demands pace, good timing, good facial expression and plenty of "business". This we enjoyed in abundance. The shock appearance of Teresa was the icing on the cake [ed: in fact this occurred in the second half]. There was an hilarious climax at the end of the first half which sent us into the foyer gasping for breath - and coffee.
The second half began at a slower pace and particular inventive elements that stood out were the colourful waistcoats and costumes generally but particularly the German uniform. The dinner scene featuring the poisoned plate of food was particularly well executed as the waiters sought to poison Wormold by changing his plate when he gave his dish away, slickly removing and replacing plates with exasperation until the dog appeared under the table. This clever piece of hand-puppetry was an intended distraction, as was its final dying dramatic throes capping the joke. Props that were noticeable - apart from the vacuum cleaners – were the miniature whisky bottles used as draught board pieces, the stuffed dogs and the authentic British blue Passport, as well as that desk which converted into a car with headlights…
The cast conveyed with practised skill the differences of each character they played and their many dances added that touch of Caribbean exoticism to the dialogue. So thank you, Director, production team, technicians and actors for a thoroughly enjoyable piece of theatre and I'm sorry for any members if you missed it!
Photographs by Steve Beeston.