Frazer Flintham’s new play ‘The Throne’ has all the hallmarks of a vintage Alan Ayckbourn farce …except the majority of the characters are working class pubbers, rather than middle class clubbers. In fact the whole play takes place in the Coach and Horses, in the Staffordshire village of Etheldale (or Armitage in real life). “Nothing much changes round here”, say the locals – and it’s not clear if they are grumbling or grateful.
One of the regulars, Cliff (despondently played by David Nellist), works for the local toilet bowl manufacturers ‘Shanks’. He’s been 25 years on the job and frankly he can’t be arsed to go to the celebratory dinner. (Flintham’s script is pretty merciless with South Staffordshire’s ceramic heritage, so I don’t see why I can’t be).
But things do change when a lost flame walks in, amorously pursued by the arrogant, chancer Gordon. Suddenly there is pomposity to be pricked – and farces are rather good at that. In a set-up reminiscent of boy scouts creating a cod corn circle, a humiliation is planned.
The fun is in the fall of gullible Gordon, whose uncontrolled ego leads his demise to be pod-cast to the world. He’s played with the air of a gushing TV celeb by Adam Morris, who also just happens to portray Michael Wood in the previous play ‘Unearthed’. I presume this is a totally unplanned coincidence …but it’s fun to speculate.
Spoiling the rest of the plot – and its connection to The Hoard – would be criminal, but yes, digging is involved; with both a sharp shovel and some well-honed witticisms.
Several classic characters are assembled here. Davis Crellin’s balletic pub landlord is a man so desperate for a mate he’s web-cam dating a lady pig farmer in Aberystwyth… the long distance advantage being he doesn’t have to buy her a drink. Whilst Elizabeth Elvin’s wine–fuelled man hunter is a barstool comic crisis, who employs another of Ayckbourn’s crafty theatrical devices of talking endlessly about a character we never get to see.
There is a great deal to amuse. It’s a jolly, rapidly-moving romp, with more twists than the Hoard’s folded gold.
In ‘Larksong’, author Chris Bush has a good go at explaining how and why The Staffordshire Hoard was hidden in the first place. It’s a bit like Poirot being presented with the solution to a crime and having to work backwards to reveal what the crime actually was. Indeed, we come in at the final throes of the action – and are then flashbacked through Dark Age events.
War is in the air (which appears to have been a permanent state of affairs back then) and the sword smith Mole (Johnson Willis) is preparing a golden-hilted weapon for the King.
His clan are storytellers who share their tales as if they are well-loved jokes. (Go on! Tell us the one about the swan in the swamp!) But, tragically, big stories all need a battle before the end…and the tellers are decidedly war weary.
The play tends to get lost in its own complications…compiled as if a loose-leaf storybook had been dropped in a breeze. But there are magic moments. I loved the way the Saxon tribe try to picture the life style of the departed Romans from their derelict relics; their mosaics and aquifers. They view the Romans with the same uncertain awe as we, today, view the remnants of megalithic man. What exactly were they up to? Surely they knew something we don’t?
Once more, the festival-wide theme of the burden of ownership of gold hangs heavily over the characters. How do you keep it safe?
Well, Chris Bush certainly comes up with a flash of transportation genius to solve that problem, involving two puppet sheep exquisitely manipulated by Paula James and Suzanne Ahmet. It’s an unlikely device, but most imaginative.
The lark that sings in ‘Larksong’ is Crystal Condie, whose powerfully soulful voice fills the theatre with yearning. As the gold is stolen, she sings of a thieving magpie. It’s a soaring moment, which rises above some of the more tortuous practicalities of Mr. Bush’s imagined heist.
For me, these two plays have the edge over the previous pair; but I would advise you to see ‘Unearthed’ first.
Photo credit : Andrew Billington
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