Poppy

by

Peter Nichols

Cast & Crew
Jennie Dibley; Ali Kennedy-Smith; Dimity Raftos;
Emma Stephenson; Alison Daniels; Gary Woods;
David Kirkham ; Alison Albany; Jim Gosden;
Michele Morrison; Lindsay Walton;
Taylor Allen - Lighting
Original music composed by Monty Norman;
Hecate (Sue Waters, Marisa Newnes) - Design
Camilo Luscano - musical director; John Reeves - film director;
Roz Riley - Director; Lindsay Walton - Production manager.


Cockney groom, Jack Idle wants to marry the school teacher, Sally Forth. Sally wants to marry her guardian Dick. Dick wants to marry money. His savage, sexy mother, Lady Dodo wants to hunt any man or animal rash enough to cross her sights. Queen Victoria and the Chinese Manchu dynasty fight over trade and tradition. Drama and comedy mingle as the audience is seduced to expect the pleasures of ‘pretty girls, true love, a fairy story’ and then is eventually left to ponder that neither history, life or pantomime stories necessarily work out as expected.

Poppy at the Star of The Sea Theatre: Rollicking and riotous. Review from Sat 17th July, 2010
It’s a crafty play. Meticulously conceived with a very clear trajectory. The production makes the most of it. The set works well, steering away from the usual sombre black and scarlet. The attention to detail is great fun. The heads popping up from behind the piano. The pound notes hanging on the line. And the poppies strewn centre stage at the very end. The consistently shifting characters (those Alisons work very hard and do a great job!) fill the stage with colour and humour and movement. They move about with energy, applying their makeup behind the curtains, running through the audience and clearly enjoying themselves. Hooray for Randy (tragic!) and Cherry, the black foreign devil, Mr SFX (love that suitably intimidating reverb), Ms Pianist (sensational…should be a piano in every production!) and everyone else in between. The only let-down is the singing which at times is not as focussed as it could be.

Jack Idle is a standout, drawing us all in from the beginning, even though we don’t know what to expect…ful l marks for getting such strong audience participation! A simple pleasant chappie who can’t wait to get his hands on the delectable but unobtainable Sally. She is a school marm so of course she is school marm-ish but could there be more of a softness or wistfulness to her? he seems to have a naughty glint in her eye from the start. Perhaps it shouldn’t be there…or perhaps it should?

Dick W is full of hearty British vigour, striding around confidently with a somewhat bemused attitude to events unfolding. Are his motives pure? Does he really go into the opium trade with his eyes open? Is he just not ‘into’ Sally? Their relationship is strangely neutral except for a Madonna/Britney-style pash. Well, according to panto protocol, he is virtuous, so in this play he probably is not. Hmmm. Don’t know about that, but he’s having a whale of a time.

Queen Vic’s transformation into Miss Fortune is a telling comment from Nichols about the monarch’s basic ridiculousness and weakness. She’s well cast and in both forms is a classic fairy tale character. Obediah has that typical British aloofness bordering on disinterest, a man thoroughly immersed in the fine pursuit of business at whatever the cost with little patience for anything else. Except the marvellous Lady Dodo. Lady D is great fun (should star in her own cabaret!). A master/mistress(?) of innuendo who carries herself with suitable aplomb and remains elegantly in character throughout. Even better, she gets all the best lines.

Well done, chaps! (Wendy Lewis, playwright and theatre blogger)
Audience Review
We really enjoyed Poppy last Friday... it was great on so many levels.
Alex and I both enjoyed the double entendre / risqué humour of Lady Dodo. He’s a great actor and got the body language just right.
And then even more satisfying on an intellectual level were the many parallels to be seen in the story to the current worldwide economic and geopolitical forces at work – including of course the dreaded GFC! Also, as a history buff I found the historical depth of the story really gratifying and then to have it all wrapped up with music and song made for a totally fun and gratifying package. We haven’t enjoyed ourselves so much for ages.
We’re full of admiration not just for the cast and the writer but also to the director for presenting such an entertaining, amusing but still meaningful piece of theatre. (Helen Kelly)
This might just be director Roz Riley's most ambitious project yet. Peter Nichols' Poppy, ostensibly a musical, is daring and dangerous ground for a next-to-no-budget production company, like the industrious Factory Space. Only an incorrigible eccentric like Nichols would dare write a comedy (a panto, no less) about the opium wars in the first place. And he doesn't spare the horses in sinking his teeth into the body corporate of his own nation. It's his book and lyrics, while Monty Norman, credited with composing the James Bond theme & a fascinating, colourful character in his own right, wrote the music. Nichols, of course, wears a coat of many colours himself, having written for small and large screens, as well as stage. His vehicle is comedy, but there's no innocence in it: his business is clear, uncompromising, relentless and searing. As we enter the theatre, Jack Idle is sweeping the floor. He ventures through the fourth wall to indulge in some spontaneous repartee with the gathering audience. Jim Gosden fulfils the role with wit, warmth and charm. And noone can resist the nostalgia of interactive panto, still willingly oblivious, investing credulity like a blinkered horse (but which end?), after all these years. This, of course, is the method in Nichols' midday sun madness: to deconstruct the form; tear it limb from limb and completely asunder from its attachment to conventional, bourgeois, fairytale fantasies and bogus 'values'. He find all the ironies, hypocrisies and unconscionable immoralities hidden under the alluring rock of romance and under the guise of expedient Anglo-Saxon 'decency'. Factory Space has chosen to again utilise opaque 'drapes' (they look like hand-me-downs from a Kylie Minogue concert), onto which are projected images of a very Fu Manchu-styled emperor, voiced (somewhat bewilderingly) without corresponding caricature, by a somewhat redundant and lacklustre percussionist (or foley man), stationed very visibly at one corner of the stage. For mine, the projections complicated stage design unnecessarily and a better voiceover, utterly disembodied, was called for. The emperor is fond of doing his imperial and imperious damnedest to intimidate a young, inexperienced Queen Vic, played (not altogether convincingly) by Jennie Dibley. The table-turning spectre of this is a rude, crude and long overdue comeuppance to the Brits, all the more invigorated by the fact it's delivered by a Brit: Nichols wags a finger at the condescending racism and mercilessly self-seeking exploitation of other races by educated white folk throughout modern history, the repercussions of which still ring loudly in our ears. This would seem to be Nichols desperate, unequivocal, underlying mission and message. Dick Whittington is rendered well, by Dimity Raftos but, like numerous of the cast, her singing leaves a lot to be desired and, at times, has one reaching for noise-cancelling headphones, or cotton-wool, or something. She tends to be overshadowed by Ali Kennedy-Scott, as Sally, wide-eyed innocent turned opium addict and would-be, abandoned concubine of Idle ('though the latter is, clearly, not a singer, either). Sally tolerates and even likes Jack, but harbours an unhealthy obsession with (her legal guardian) Dick. Characteristically, Nichols doesn't hold back on the shock-horror 'morality' issues or double entendre. An entertaining turn comes from Idle's faithful nag, the aptly-named Randy, who meets an unceremonious end metaphorical of a universe of unceremonious ends for the meek, who haven't inherited the earth, as once promised. The real treat comes with the entrance of Gary Woods, as Lady Dodo, Whittington's widowed mother. This is boots-'n'-all, Carry On Priscilla, high-camp ribaldry that could've walked straight out of The Imperial Hotel in its former heyday; Woods' performance is worth the price of admission on its own. The pointedly-named Obadiah Upward, a merchant who inspires gold fever in Dick, is played with all the polished aplomb of a classic British character actor, save for a conflation of accents, by David Kirkham. Gosden, Woods & Kirkham have the sense to use their singing voices, such as they are, as conservatively as possible. If this means pulling a Rex Harrison and half-talking, so be it: it's the far lesser of two evils. Design is disparate and displeasing and I'm at a loss as to why we enjoy full view of 'the foley man', but not the heroic pianism of Emma Stephenson. Being a musical, singing can't really be fudged, notwithstanding the most valiant efforts being made, as they were. Having said as much, Riley and her highly-competent cast have extracted the potent, contentious sociopolitical themes implicit in Nichol's courageous and somewhat haphazard work, thoroughly exploiting the attendant fun elements to boot. A commendable effort. Factory Space Theatre Company Poppy by Peter Nichols Director Roz Riley
Poppy   photographed by John Reeves