Play it again, Sam

Tue 5th – Sat 9th November 2013

reviews

Suzanne Duffy

at 23:27 on 5th Nov 2013

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'Play It Again Sam' brought Woody Allen's Broadway play to life in the intimate Corpus Playroom. The small, domestic setting worked well as the main character Allan, a Humphrey Bogart-obsessed writer, never leaves his sitting room. Flashbacks and imagined scenarios, signaled by a change in lighting, provided variety and fleshed out the plot, although the changes, exits and entrances were sometimes clumsily handled.

The supporting cast of Allen's married friends Linda (Georgie Henley) and Dick (Paul Clarkson), his ex-wife (Kate Reid) and Bogart himself (Justin Wells) varied in acting ability. While Reid and Henley were consistently good, Clarkson had a tendency to fluff his lines which detracted somewhat from the fast-paced dialogue. Playing Humphrey Bogart is no easy task, and Wells did the best he could, but was not always convincing.

The real revelation was Matthew Fellows as Allan, the role played by Woody Allen in the 1972 film adaptation. He not only managed a brilliant imitation of Allen, from the accent to the fumbling hand gestures, but also made the role peculiarly his own. Slightly mis-managed props and dodgy scene changes were all forgotten as the audience watched Fellows bumbling his way between lady-killer and stuttering neurotic wreck. The scene where he desperately tried to take Humphrey Bogart's advice about making a move on his best friend's wife while she was two inches from him illustrated his wonderful comic timing.

A brilliant set provided a background for Allan's hyperactive imagination, with set designer Jessica Poon doing a good job of making his flat looked lived-in and cosy at the same time as it being completely chaotic. Overall the cast did a decent job of bringing an absurd and hilarious play to the Corpus stage while working within limitations. A couple more nights of the run should smooth out the difficult dialogue and technical problems and the play will be well worth a watch.

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William S Hutton

at 09:39 on 6th Nov 2013

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The problem when anyone stages a Woody Allen comedy is that it is a Woody Allen comedy. The male lead might go by the name of Alvi Singer, Isaac Davies or Miles Monroe, but with their neurotic wit and self-deprecating sense of humour it is still Woody Allen. And Allan Felix, the main character here, is no different. So the cast and crew of the Corpus Playroom’s “Play It Again, Sam” had a lot of mountains to climb, because to simply pastiche the film would be too lazy and insincere and yet to deviate too much from Allen’s style of comedy would leave the audience silent.

The challenge for any actor playing a role written and played by Woody Allen is the possibility of slipping into a stand-up impression of Woody Allen, but Matthew Fellows does not fall into this trap. The thick-rimed spectacles may be inherently Allen, but they are also inherently part of Felix’s dweebish DNA. Fellows is far and away the most consistent of the cast with wonderful comedic timing smashing the punch line like a light fist on a soft jaw-line. There is a fantastically hapless love scene where Felix gets his shirt cuff stuck in a girl’s dress zip and is dragged around the stage by the frantic would-be-love-interest who thinks he’s trying to chase her. Indeed if it were not for the smart casting of Matthew Fellows - who emphasises the jitters and nerdish nature of Allan Felix and less so his inherent Jewishness – the play would not be one to rush to.

The other great hurdle when staging “Play It Again, Sam” is casting Allan’s hard-boiled-alter-ego, Humphrey Bogart. This is simply because you can’t do Bogart unless you’ve got the real Bogey. Here, Justin Wells, delivers rather a generic caricature with the likeness of the Robert Mitchum macho-man, coupled with a James Cagney-esque bad guy aura – too much the 1920s gangster and too little the 1940s flatfoot of Huston or Hawks. Admittedly, trying to impersonate Bogart is a tall order, especially for an actor as yet untouched by middle age and heavy drinking. Moreover, it’s not as if it significantly hinders the delivery of his lines, dialogue like, “Why, you afraid to sweat?” and “I’d have slapped her round a bit first” is still met with ripples of laughter from the audience, its misogynistic bullishness jarring with Allan’s sweet hopelessness.

Linda, played by Georgie Henley, regrettably lacks the comedic timing for some of the character’s best lines, although perhaps this is an oversight by the play’s director, Peter Lunga. Henley repeatedly goes for the overtly suggestive and dramatic, as opposed to a much more fitting subtle delivery. A more nuanced direction would have undoubtedly enhanced the production.

Paul Clarkson, as Linda’s husband, Dick, also fails to hit every punch line, stumbling over many of his lines. Yet this could be down to first night jitters, something that will likely be ironed out on successive performances. Despite this problem, during much of the play’s hour and a half running time he maintains a convincing articulacy with a yuppie accent, and keeps the fluidity of his comedic presence.

A great aspect of the play is the tech team’s work with lighting which is used to great effect juxtaposing Allan’s fantasies with reality. In fact some of the play’s best, most comical moments come as the lights dim to a bluish hue. The stage’s aesthetics create a fantastic atmosphere for productions. As you arrive in the beautifully L-shaped theatre of the Corpus College Playroom you immediately become an accessory in Allan’s room: as if the film posters of 'Key Largo', 'The Big Sleep', 'To Have and Have Not', a movie magazine sprawled across a chair, or a half eaten TV-dinner were there - you become a part of the play’s fabric. The audience becomes the third and fourth wall. This intimacy works to the advantage of the set. Then the lights go down and the famous lines of 'Casablanca' resonate within the confines of the boutique theatre.

So on these quiet Cambridge nights, step out of the howling wind and get into the Corpus Playroom, because “Play It Again, Sam” will leave you whistling.

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