Image Credit: As ever, a very big thank you to Lionel Elliott and The Chameleons for supplying the pictures.
There can’t be many plays which manage to be entertaining and reveal all you need to know about Shakespeare’s King Lear at the same time but A Bunch of Amateurs managed this beautifully.
Ben Williams’ review shows what a great play this is and, if you love a laugh AND Shakespeare, it is the play for you. (It was a film, starring Burt Reynolds, but for a play about a play, the stage is the best place for it).
To have a funny play revolving around a Shakespeare tragedy takes some doing. You need to be careful about “acting about acting” (as indeed is true for writers writing about writing). It can become self conscious and makes it easier to disrupt the audience’s (or readers’) ability to willingly suspend disbelief. That willingness to suspend disbelief is crucial for fiction to work.
A Bunch of Amateurs avoids the traps and has everyone hoping somehow the unlikely combination of a fading Hollywood star taking part in an amateur production of King Lear to save a local theatre will work.
A Bunch of Amateurs was written by Ian Hislop, of Private Eye, and Nick Newman. The two have worked together many times, most notably on Spitting Image, which ran on Sunday nights on ITV. The programme mentions Ian Hislop as being known for writing for Harry Enfield and Chums and being on Have I Got News for You, but I remember him from Radio 4’s The News Quiz, when Alan Coren of Punch magazine was the other team captain.
So on to the play as after all that is the thing and I’ll start with the characters.
Dorothy Nettle (played by Marilyn Dunbar) –
Director of the Stratford Player desperately trying to save their theatre. Getting in a big star to ensure they get the sponsorship to stage the play AND to bring in the punters seems like a great idea… Has no idea what she’s letting herself in for when Jefferson Steel arrives. However, it soon becomes clear who is the boss. It isn’t him.
Mary Plunkett (played by Jan Bradshaw) –
Equally keen to save the theatre, she runs the local B&B where Jefferson Steel is staying. She’s a big fan of Jefferson (and has taken more than a shine to him) despite confusing him with everyone from Sean Connery to Bruce Willis. This does not endear her to Jefferson (who wears the kind of hat beloved by Indiana Jones).
Nigel Dewberry (played by Geoff Dodsworth) –
The local solicitor, a keen amateur actor, and wanted to play King Lear. Is not happy about some American coming in to take the role. If only he could take over… maybe the opportunity will arise.
Denis Dobbins (Wayne Bradshaw) –
Becomes Jefferson Steel’s “entourage” (yes, of one!) who does his best to supply Jefferson’s “contract requirements”. Denis’s idea of a suitable limo didn’t match up with what Jefferson would consider suitable! Later when there is a bust up with Jefferson, said limo, a mobility chair, is taken back by Denis in disgust. (Not sure Jefferson would’ve missed it but never mind).
Jefferson Steel (Nick Coleman) –
Fading American action man star, Jefferson is keen to reboot his career by playing Shakespeare in Stratford after all his agent has told him. How is he to know there is more than one Stratford in the UK and he would be working with “amateurs” and NOT the RSC? His language on finding out makes his feelings crystal clear – and he is less than impressed with said agent. Oh the trials… and then he finds not everybody thinks of much as him as he does of himself! Can things get worse? You bet! Someone will burst that ego… I’m from London originally and thought the Stratford Jefferson had gone to would be the one in the East End where my gran used to shop but no… There are more Stratfords in the country than I’d realised! So what chance had “some American” (to quote Nigel) of knowing that?
Lauren Bell (Kayleigh Fagence) –
Her husband, Colin, is behind the local beer company who are the sponsors. Without that sponsorship, the theatre will close. It is vital to keep Lauren happy. She has the gift of walking in to see how things are going as Jefferson is forgetting his lines or is arguing with Dorothy and/or NIgel, though Dorothy would probably curse her luck and Lauren’s timing.
Jessica Steel (Lisa Dunbar) –
Knows King Lear having studied the play at High School and is blunt about her father’s failings. Jefferson was supposed to pick her up at the airport but forgot (and not for the first time). Jessica wants to take part in the play, Jefferson doesn’t want her to, but Dorothy enlists Jessica to be cue reader.
You’ll have a good idea of the story from the above. The humour is based on culture conflicts (UK-American. For one, Jefferson cannot believe Mary Plunkett’s B&B cannot provide him with a personal trainer. Jefferson’s list of demands stuns the Stratford Players though later he does get the pool table he asked for – a miniature one!). Also the clashes between father and daughter reflect the clashes in King Lear. Beautifully done in terms of writing and acting.
The performances were excellent. I loved the play. There were too many laugh out loud moments to count which is always a good sign. The trick of having a story within a story as there is here is both stories must be strong enough to intrigue the audience into wanting to find out how it all ends. Here, I wanted to find out did Jefferson perform the play? Was he brought down to size a bit? Did the Stratford Players save their theatre? Would things be put right when it was discovered the story in the local rag about the affair between Lauren and Jefferson was nonsense? More on that in a moment…
I laughed when Jefferson felt Shakespeare was ”too wordy” and called for rewrites! The big star’s ego was punctured (albeit not for long) when he realised the other actors clearly know King Lear and he equally clearly does not. His rivalry is with Nigel Dewberry. You knew when the two appeared on stage together, the sparks would fly and sure enough they did.
The one person to feel sorry for is Dorothy Nettle. She must deal with Jefferson’s attitude and his refusal to do the play (and make him change his mind as it is the only hope she has to save their theatre). She must tackle Nigel too, especially later when the anonymous tip off to the local rag about Jefferson having an affair with Lauren is easily traced back to him.
The affair is nonsense. Jefferson injured his back in trying to pick Dorothy up as she played Cordelia and Lauren is an ex-physio. The farce element came in when Mary sees Lauren massaging Jefferson. She doesn’t see Lauren is massaging his leg! All she sees is Lauren kneeling besides Jefferson, who is urging her to keep doing what she is doing and….draw your own conclusions! Mary did…
On next seeig him, Mary leaves the set livid with Jefferson (and formally dumps her role). Colin doesn’t believe Lauren’s protestations of innocence and it looks as if disaster will hit everyone. No sponsorship – no play – theatre closed – and a divorce for Lauren. Jessica also doesn’t believe her father was innocent and she storms off, planning to return to the States.
By this time, Jefferson has learned his lines and wants to do the play! He has his own King Lear moment when he is abandoned by everyone as they all think he was guilty. (The fact he’d boasted earlier about needing a “lock on his pants to keep the women out” didn’t help his case). But for once Jefferson isn’t acting – he is aggrieved and cannot see a way out. Nobody believes him, the play is “off”, the theatre is doomed, his comeback moment will be a humiliating failure, and Jessica has gone. And it looks as if his agent has ditched him. Jefferson storms off with a bottle (it didn’t look like fruit juice in there).
Lauren comes to the rescue by telling Dorothy what really happened, the pair soon realise it must’ve been Nigel who tipped the newspaper off. Jefferson is found and Nigel is made to ring the newspaper to (a) say the story was false and (b) for them to avoid legal action, they must contribute a significant sum to the Stratford Players. So all is well. The play goes on. The theatre is saved. The newspaper money will be enough!
The end comes with us seeing how the Stratford Players performed a section of King Lear, the audience love it, and they come off stage, knowing they’ve got a hit on their hands. Jefferson offers everyone celebratory chocolates. During the play Jefferson had taken a swipe at Jessica for being allergic to this, allergic to that, yet at the end of the play when she is ill because she’d eaten a chocolate which sent her into anaphylactic shock, he is consumed with guilt and is desperate she doesn’t die. Very much a mirror of the scene where King Lear is cradling the body of his dead daughter, Cordelia, except in A Bunch of Amateurs, there is a happy ending. Jefferson, being more of a hero than any of his screen roles portrayed, remembers Jessica’s Epipen and the day, and Jessica, are saved.
If there is a theme behind A Bunch of Amateurs, it is one of redemption. Jefferson discovers he does love the theatre, Jessica is surprised her father can act (!), and when, happily the Stratford Players are saved and their production is a hit, so much so Dorothy is asked by the Royal Shakespeare Company to take it to the real Stratford, Jefferson rejects the role he’s been offered in the USA (as a result of the publicity for his King Lear) to stay with the theatre, at least for the time being.
I adore parallel stories (as indeed did Shakespeare) and A Bunch of Amateurs is a great example. In between scenes, quotes from King Lear were given by various cast members. I also like the way Jefferson realises he will need to work harder than he has ever done to learn these lines but he does it. He also comes to appreciate how committed the “amateurs” are and the play really is the thing. Even those changing the set were part of the humour when part of the set fell “accidentally on purpose”.
As for the Stratford Players’ performance of King Lear, that was great, and does encourage you to want to find out more about one of Shakespeare’s finest works. (My thought is only Hamlet is more tragic).
A Bunch of Amateurs is a very funny play, excellently performed by the Chameleons, and when a lady won a signed picture of Jefferson in the interval during their charity raffle, a huge cheer went up from the audience. Jefferson would be pleased!
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.