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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Knight From Nowhere / The Bells
Park Theatre   Autumn 2015

This salute to the great nineteenth-century actor-manager Sir Henry Irving (the first actor ever knighted) is made up of two parts, a biography of Irving and a condensed version of one of his greatest hits, done as he might have played it. 

The writer of the first half, Andrew Shepherd, follows a standard format for bio-plays like this, finding an excuse for Irving (played by Shepherd himself) to reminisce, as the rest of the cast play various figures in his life. 

It's a simple narrative, following the stage-struck lad as, despite his puritan mother's objections, he runs off to join provincial rep companies where, by his own admission, he isn't very good. 

He slowly learns his craft so that his eventual London debut, in The Bells, is a smash hit, followed by triumphs as Hamlet, Shylock and other Shakespearean and contemporary roles. 

As writer, Andrew Shepherd tells the story clearly; as director, Lucy Foster moves the action forward smoothly; and as actor, Shepherd keeps Irving interesting and sympathetic, with strong support from (among others) Simon Blake as the listener to his tale and Angela Ferns as co-star Ellen Terry. 

What's missing from this docudrama is the one thing we come to nonfiction theatre for a sense of the personalities of the characters, even if they're imagined or invented. We see that Irving was ambitious and determined, but neither as playwright nor actor does Andrew Shepherd meet our hunger to get inside the man. 

The Bells, by Leopold Lewis, is a fine example of high Victorian melodrama, full of striking scenes and opportunities for grand capital-A Acting. 

In plot and tone it resembles Poe's short story The Tell-Tale Heart, as a seemingly successful murderer is haunted by a sound connected to his crime, in this case the jingle bells on his victim's horse and carriage. 

It's a strong story and, with some reduction in its melodramatic and stylistic excesses, could be (and probably has been) a successful TV drama today. 

The question facing director Lucy Foster and her cast was how to play it. 

She could have chosen a modern naturalistic mode, resisting the script's invitations to grand acting, or attempted a serious and respectful approximation of the nineteenth-century style, risking the danger of seeming over-the-top the way silent movie acting looks to us today, or she could have chosen parody, having fun with the quaint excesses of Grand Acting in the mode of TV's League of Gentlemen. 

Unfortunately Foster doesn't seem to have chosen, or chose All Of The Above. 

While a couple of actors give expressionless and wooden performances, another few try modern naturalistic underplaying, and others go for comically broad. 

At the play's centre Andrew Shepherd (again he's also the producer) plays Irving playing the murderer, and he does attempt to find a broad, external style that might have passed for realism 150 years ago. 

We catch glimpses in his performance of what star acting might have been like, and how it could have impressed and thrilled audiences. 

The problem is that when he's in a scene with actors underplaying in the modern style he seems excessive, and when he's with those offering parodies of Victorian acting he seems comic as well. 

Still, enough of The Bells' inherent power comes through for you to sense that if actor and director had been on the same page stylistically it could have been a real success. 

This double bill is a curiosity. You might learn some things about Henry Irving and you may never get an opportunity to see The Bells again. And that could be enough to outweigh the limitations of both halves of the evening.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Knight From Nowhere / The Bells - Park  Theatre 2015

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