Last production

Bartholomew Players' 40th Anniversary production, 
performed at Eynsham Village Hall from Wed 25 to Sat 28 November 2015, 
was California Suite  by Neil Simon. 

Pictures from the production can be seen in the Archives.

What the critics said

 Turning 40 is often said to trigger a mid-life crisis. The Bart Players have probably never been in such good shape, but it's interesting to note that director Deborah Lisburne Diacon is marking the group's anniversary with a bittersweet comedy centred on mini-wars of attrition, failed relationships and dreams of a new beginning. 

Four vignettes are set inside a hotel, split into two acts. Visitor from New York details the battle between a divorced couple over living arrangements for their daughter; Visitor from Philadelphia concerns a businessman hiding a drunken prostitute; Visitors from London features a neurotic actress in town for the Oscars whose husband is in the closet (not literally – beds and bathrooms are more important throughout this play). Finally, in Visitors from Chicago two couples clash after one's wife is injured playing tennis.

As with Neil Simon's Plaza Suite, there's plenty of dry wit to savour – especially in scene one, in which Hannah (Caroline Knight) and Bill (Nick Smith) exchange withering putdowns. Overacting is de rigueur as a bouffant, dishevelled Gareth Hammond pleads forgiveness from wife Millie (a feisty Claire Johnson) for his drunken fling with a comatose hooker (Ellina Mikhailova), prompting a Fawlty-esque encounter. In the third playlet, Denise Santilli and Steve Ashcroft are in top form, conveying vulnerability and tenderness as troubled couple Diana and Sidney. The arrivals from Chicago are Jewish stereotypes. Rory Phillips chews the scenery (designed by Steve Ashcroft) as the irascible Mort while Bea New is his kvetching drama queen of a wife, Beth. The strain of a long holiday with their more demure friends Stu and Gert (Joe O'Connor and Laurence Goodwin) is clearly telling – with painfully amusing results. This results in a crescendo of silliness; you may well see the occasional unforced grin on the cast's faces during the tomfoolery. Incidentally, hailing from the USA, Laurence is the dialect coach for this production and while there are a few stray twangs here and there, the Players do remarkably well.

Scenery changes involve hotel staff (Sally Firth, Judith Essery) rearranging the furniture, which slows the pace somewhat. There are nice touches to the set, such as safety posters on doors and a New York newspaper poking out of a suitcase in the opening scene. This production, with its West Coast soundtrack, is sure to provoke fond nostalgia for some … though probably not involving ladies of the night nor bust-ups over tennis..

Paul Stammers, Eynsham On-line


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In the auditorium the ‘tabs’ were already open and so the impressive set was clearly on display. A suite of a smart hotel in California - the Beverly Hills Hotel in fact – had been convincingly recreated and while waiting for the action to begin one was able to study the beautifully designed and constructed set in detail. The two rear entrance doors and the up-stage door linking the two separate rooms all functioned well and appeared to have been sturdily constructed. The ‘invisible’ wall worked very well.  The set was decorated in the style and period of the play. One room being the sitting room of the suite and the other, the bedroom. Lots of attention to detail was evident in this set. Even the ‘hallway’ which could be seen occasionally through the open rear doors looked convincing. The set looked particularly atmospheric when it was lit briefly by just a few well-placed table lamps.  Congratulations must go to Steve Ashcroft who designed the set and his hard working team who constructed it. 

This cleverly written and constructed play is actually four mini plays - each with different characters and situations - the common link being that the action always takes place (at different times) in the same hotel suite as the various guests come and go.

Caroline Knight as Hannah Warren and Nick Smith as her ex-husband William got the evening off to a lively start as the first guests we meet in Visitor from New York. Their bickering and acrimonious exchanges as they try to decide their seventeen year old daughter’s future was well captured.  Caroline’s character was well defined and we were able to see her outwardly strong and resilient character become gradually softer and more vulnerable when faced with the prospect that her daughter might actually rather prefer to live with her father in California than in New York with her.  Nick was convincing as the relaxed and more adjusted father. There was good chemistry between these characters. The diction and accents were well maintained.  Perhaps you hadn’t used the full set too often as on a few occasions you both found yourselves ‘trapped’ behind the sofa. Nick, please try to be wary of too much arm gesturing it can be very distracting.  However, here were two well-judged performances.        

The second of the quartet of plays Visitor from Philadelphia was brought hilariously to life by the excellent Gareth Hammond as Marvin Michaels and the equally talented Claire Johnson as his wife Millie - soon to be arriving from Philadelphia to join her husband for an important family occasion. Unfortunately Marvin has woken to find a ‘hooker’ in bed with him. The lengths that Marvin goes to in trying to conceal his rather embarrassing ‘guest’ from his wife were very funny. Of course this play is very well written and the humour is timeless but the comic timing of these two actors was excellent and the chemistry between them was very strong. Both displayed good diction, excellent use of the playing area and well maintained accents. 

Mention must also go to Ellina Mikhailova as the ‘hooker’ who, although having no lines, had the very difficult task of playing being ‘out cold’ and being dragged around the stage, covered up and sat on without reacting in any way  - a very noteworthy performance. 

The third drama, Visitors from London, was probably the most poignant of the four mini-plays. Diana Nichols, played convincingly by Denise Santilli, an English film actress, has arrived with her antique dealer husband Sidney, Steve Ashcroft, hoping to receive a Best Actress Oscar at the Academy Awards. Their bitter sweet relationship is soon unravelling before our eyes. There was very good chemistry between these actors.  Denise perfectly captured the vulnerable and sad fading actress with probably a life time of disappointments, in her personal and professional life, to look forward to. There was a wonderful pathos as she resigned herself to life with Sidney.  Steve was excellent as the slightly camp, though nonetheless warm and caring, Sidney.  Both gave moving and also at times amusing portrayals of these rather sad characters. Clear diction and excellent stage-craft was also much in evidence. 

The fourth and final chapter in the lives of the temporary inhabitants of the suite, Visitors from Chicago, concerned a quartet of friends, two married couples, nearing the end of their apparently not wholly successful holiday together.  Tensions are simmering as one of the wives has been injured in a double’s tennis match between the two couples and her husband blames the other husband for causing the injured ankle by unsportsmanlike play. Mort Hollender and his injured wife Beth were played by Rory Phillips and Beatrice New.   Joe O’Connor and Laurence Goodwin played Stu and Gert Franklin the other married couple.  There was great interaction between these four actors and each used the stage well. The accents were good and diction and pace was crisp. This was probably the most difficult section of the play to stage as there was quite a lot of ‘physicality’ involved. There were fights between the two men, a lot of in and out of the bathroom, limping, falling on the bed, lifting and throwing of things that could all have ended in potential theatrical disaster but these talented actors pulled it off admirably. The one slight glitch was when a towel, thrown in the bedroom went through the ‘invisible’ wall and ended up on the floor of the sitting room.  All four actors gave us excellent and believable characterisations and provided a most entertaining conclusion to the whole play.

I liked the idea of the scene changes being effected by ‘hotel staff’ suitably costumed as maids and a Bellhop and it would have worked well for me if the changes had been done either in silence or perhaps more interestingly with some suitable background music playing. The improvised dialogue (if indeed it was improvised) just didn’t sound convincing.

Director, Deborah Lisburne Diacon had assembled a talented and committed cast who gave excellent and very believable characterisations. The pace was good through-out and that all important clear diction never faltered. There were some very amusing moments and also moments of pathos which were handled with great skill. Neil Simon’s fine writing was brought vividly to life. Many congratulations to director and cast alike.  

The lighting by Graham Diacon and sound by Tony Robinson certainly enhanced and gave atmosphere to the piece and everything appeared to work right on cue on the night I attended.

Other note-worthy members of the production team included Trish Leopold who provided a vast array of authentic and appropriate looking props all of which were handled well by the cast and Lesley Robinson and Judith Essery for the wonderfully dressed set. 

Make-up and hair by Ellina Mikhailova and Sue Greenwood and assisted by Kate O’Connor was very good and looked entirely appropriate for the plays setting.

Costumes by Juliet New were also very good, fitted well and were in the style and keeping of the piece.

Steve Ashcroft must have been a very busy man in this production. Not only did he design the set and appear on stage but he also designed the interesting and informative programme. It was nice to see the usual cast biographies and photographs but there were also articles celebrating the 40th anniversary of the formation of the company to which I also add my congratulations. I liked the linking of the choice of production with your forty year milestone – and, it took me down memory lane too!

 Rob Bertwistle, NODA, London

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The set which certainly had the ‘Wow’ factor was superb and worked well. The scene changes were handled very well by the ‘hotel staff’. 

The play is a collection of four mini-plays about guests who stay in the hotel suite.

New York visitors, Hannah and William Warren (Caroline Knight & Nick Smith) are divorcees reviewing their lives since the break-up and disagreeing about where their 17 year old daughter should live; New York or California. The tension and rancour between the two was good and were believable in their in their terse exchanges. Hannah was very strong and confident against the beleaguered William and were well matched. They set the tone for the American accents which carried on well throughout.

The Philadelphia visitors saw exceptional performances as Marvin and Millie Michaels by Gareth Hammond and Claire Johnson. Marvin tries desperately to hide from his wife, the sleeping ‘Bunny’, played very effectively by Ellina Mikhailova. Marvin’s ‘one night stand’, is eventually discovered in the bed by Millie. The outcome and emotion was beautifully portrayed by Claire

The London visitors, Diana and Sidney Nichols (Denise Santilli & Steve Ashcroft,) are to attend an awards ceremony. Their trials start as they are getting ready, only to be devastated that Diana had not won and, as a result, get drunk. This compounds the differences between them. It is always difficult to play the ‘drunk’, but Denise had a fair crack at it and was very believable. Steve Ashcroft the doyen of the Bartholomew Players gave a solid performance of Sidney whose penchant for males, as well as females was revealed.

The Chicago visitors, Mort & Beth Hollander (Rory Phillips & Beatrice New), are on holiday with their friends Stu & Gert Franklin (Joe O’Connor & Laurence Goodwin). Tension grows between the couples following Beth’s ankle injury whilst playing tennis. This escalates as the acrimony continues between the two couples. There were many hilarious moments in this scene, which survived the chaos of a fight between the two men and the women being thrown onto the bed. This was reflected in excellent performances and the direction of Deborah Lisburne Diacon. Accents were particularly good in this scene.

A thoroughly enjoyable evening, which was appreciated by all, as Bartholomew Players have gone from strength to strength in their 40th year.

Nigel James, ODN Newsletter



Cast in order of appearance

 Hannah Warren Caroline Knight
 William Warren Nick Smith
 Marvin Michaels Gareth Hammond
 Millie Michaels Claire Johnson
 Bunny Ellina Mikhailova
 Sidney Nichols Steve Ashcroft
 Diana NicholsDenise Santilli
Mort HollenderRory Phillips
Beth HollenderBeatrice New
Stu FranklinJoe O'Connor
Gert FranklinLaurence Goodwin
Hotel staff Sally Firth, Judit Essery, Joe O'Connor
  
 Directed byDeborah Lisburne Diacon