Claudia McKelvey as Peggy Ramsay
Ian Houghton & Mike Bartlett

My first visit to your lovely Little Theatre was probably fated from the start. I was unwell, my wife was unable to accompany me - and the play belonged to a genre which has scant appeal for me! However, a fine June evening, only three circuits of Hertford's town centre needed before finding the car-park, and a pre-show drink, combined with the delightful theatre itself, put me in a receptive frame of mind for "Theft".

I should perhaps explain my distaste for the "comedy thriller". I usually find this kind of play unsuccessful on both counts: neither funny nor thrilling. "Theft", I'm afraid, did little to convert me. The unlikely twists of plot required a superhuman suspension of disbelief, whilst the psychology of the characters was (to put it mildly) implausible. I had been full of admiration to see that the company had put on Patrick Marber's "Dealer's Choice" earlier in the season; some controversy reached the pages of OBN, obviously, but so did the impression that it had been a bold and challenging production. I can appreciate the desire to provide a broad spectrum of drama for your audiences, but I am not convinced that the kind of stuff which fills the TV schedules is particularly worthwhile.

It was, for reasons totally different from those associated with the Marber play, a challenge for the cast and the production team. Timing would have to be very slick to ensure that incredulity didn't take hold; the acting would need subtlety to give even temporary credibility to the characters. I don't think either quite worked. There were some awkward moments, one or two missed lines, and even a wrong name on the night I attended. Ian Houghton (as Trevor) seemed the most assured; he conveyed a slightly defeated anxiety which made his "hanger-on" relationship with John almost believable, although he seemed a darn sight too pleasant! Katerina Ayres (Jenny Farrington) was confident, looked gorgeous and elegant - and I simply couldn't believe she recycled her own soap. Surely, both the Farringtons should have been slightly more careworn, shabby even, in order to contrast with the apparent opulence of their "friends", the Miles.

Claudia McKelvey as Peggy Ramsay
Graham Kilner & Katerina Ayres

Maggie Nix had the second-best entrance of the evening as the sozzled Barbara; her delivery of some caustic put-downs of the Farringtons (and of her husband) was sharp and polished. She became a little too sober a little too quickly, however: a beautiful posture and measured delivery seemed to stop the lush coming out! Mike Bartlett took to heart the descriptions of John Miles having a throbbing vein and a bad temper; he had a very commanding stage presence, but his uncertainty with some lines and moves in the opening scene was not in any way masked by the volume of his voice.

The best entrance belonged to Graham Kilner, whose portly Spriggs must have been built into the tiny cupboard from which he emerged, exuding all the seedy (and gone-to-seed) charm of a Dickensian comic villain. He also had some of the best lines, from his questioning (as policeman in disguise) of the hapless Trevor, to his wheedling when captive. I don't think there was enough vocal variety to match the changing personae; too much was played in the same key, with the same bits of eye-contact with the audience which would have suited a pantomime, but which even further decreased the possibility of belief in either the character or the plot.

There was rather too much "playing to the front" throughout. The shape of the proscenium and the auditorium probably encourages this, but too often the lines were being spoken to the audience and not as dialogue. Two factors contributed, perhaps. Eric Chappell undoubtedly writes some very funny lines, and there is a temptation to flag these up rather than allow them to work. Also, I think his work is best suited to T.V. : rather static, rather self-consciously tongue-in-cheek, and (for stage actors) giving too much temptation to posture. Variety of camera shots and angles creates the illusion of movement for the T.V. audience, whereas in the theatre we depend on the actors to do all the work!

Claudia McKelvey as Peggy Ramsay
Ian Houghton, Mike Bartlett, Katerina Ayres & Maggie Nix

Lighting and sound effects worked efficiently, and the staging was generally good (with the exception of a rather unconvincing - and self-opening - door to the outside!). My quibble with the set is the opposite of the comment about the Farringtons looking too well-groomed. The "loadsamoney" of the Miles household should have been made to look just a tad more impressive: why on earth their d├ęcor should suffer the matt sludge-brown paintwork found in every am.dram. paint store, I do not know. Isn't it remarkable that every mix of every paint in all the world should turn out looking like Jenny's recycled soap, or even soup!

I hope my failure to be enthused by this production doesn't come across as elitist or snobbish, or that my dislike of the type of play has made my critique too harsh. There's space in every repertory for a good light comedy, for the well-made play, and for a range of genres. The reputation of The Company of Players has spread far and wide, however, and the talent and professionalism of the company is obvious, even in a production which doesn't push all the buttons. I do believe that a drama group with such talent and such a range ought not to be putting on "TV-light" fare, but should be rising to the very different challenges presented by good stage-writing. Next season's choices seem to offer much more opportunity!

Theft was written by Eric Chappell and directed by Keith Morbey. The production was staged at The Little Theatre in 2003.