Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings


Denise Phillips as Dorothy, Chris Lambeth as Denis, Sean Mulkeen as Nigel, Rob Phillips as Jefferson, and The Sun, being held by Amarpreet Marwaha as Jessica.

 Pictures: Emily White

A Bunch of Amateurs

Highbury Theatre Centre


All the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare would have it, and we are simply players upon it, some merely extras, spear carriers if you will, some stars shining in the firmament of life’s rich drama, one such as Jefferson Steel.

“Who he?” you might ask. Well, he is, or perhaps more accurately was, a Hollywood all action star, an A-lister, although he is perhaps a little further along in the alphabet these days, and all action is now more concerned with persuading legs to work again after standing up.

Not quite over the hill perhaps, but with a heck of a good view of the other side.

He has arrived to play that pinnacle of the Thespian art for the established star, Lear, and not just any old Lear, but Lear at the spiritual home of the Bard himself . . . Stratford.

Except, it's not Stratford-upon-Avon, but Stratford St John in Suffolk, a village which is only rumoured to have a horse, and instead of the RSC it is the Stratford Players, who we might describe as . . . well, a bunch of amateurs.

And not only that, but a bunch of amateurs in danger of losing their beloved barn theatre to developers and we open with Denise Phillips as Dorothy, the theatre group’s driving force and director, making a heartfelt plea for funds to save the theatre. It was an emotional appeal, so much so you half expected a bucket collection to appear.

But then it set the tone for her lovely performance as the outwardly amiable and accommodating person in charge, but always in control and who somehow always got her way.

The players themselves were a mixed bunch with ‘elf ‘n’ safety officer Denis Dobbins, with an accent from the Tipton area of Suffolk, a comedy delight in the hands, and various eyes (don’t ask) of Chris Lambeth. He was also in charge of crowd control and must have been good at it as there were never any crowds to be seen. 

three amateurs

Ham on the menu with Sean Mulken's Nigel with Maggie Lane as Mary and Chris Lambeths as Denis

Mary Plunkett, played in splendid, homely, friendly fashion by Maggie Lane, runs the village’s nearest thing to a luxury five star hotel, the Rectory B&B with its facilities down the hall and offer of fresh Nescafe at breakfast.

She is an avid fan of Jefferson and hopes his reputation as a womaniser is true – with the feeling she would be quite delighted to be . . . womanised. She has seen all his films . . . or at least a lot of films, the only problem being her confusion about the films he was actually in.

Then there is Nigel Dewbury in the shape of (raise arm in telling gesture, turn head in dramatic pose, speak with affected enunciation) Sean Mulkeen, who could well get sponsorship from Ye Olde Oak for the delightful amount of ham he brings to proceedings.

Nigel, local solicitor, sees himself as the star of any production, even the one we are watching, and his nose (dramatic pose again) is put out of joint at the arrival of Steel. He should be Lear and lets everyone know it . . . on a regular, tedious basis.

Then there is Jefferson. Public meetings to raise funds have failed to even raise any public so as a last resort the group decide to try to attract a big name, a star, to bring in publicity and sponsorship.

At the bottom of a very long list of stars and an equally long list of rejections is Jefferson Steel, who arrives, full of excitement at being recognised as a serious actor, playing Lear at the RSC. The euphoria lasts for a whole minute until reality breaks through and Steel, in the shape of Rob Phillips, reverts to form. Phillips’ American accent was a sort of hinted affair, consistent, unforced and unaffected, which worked well, but there was no hinting at his arrogant, egotistical, demanding I-am-a-star, attitude – that was full on.

His Steel was a nasty, spoiled, unpleasant and rapidly fading star, living in a past that had passed him by. Amateur dramatics and charity gigs way beneath him as he berates his agent.

But, amid all the great I am, Phillips also gives us an underlying vulnerability. He sees Lear as a pinnacle, but only by reputation, somewhat like himself. He doesn’t know the play at all and hasn’t read the script and you can almost smell the fear, his realisation that it is a part for proper actors not celebrity action film stars.

He vainly claims he doesn’t need glasses, but then can’t see to read, and his constant complaining at so many lines to learn, gives the impression that the stage, all live, with no retakes and full of long speeches, terrifies him.

dad and daughter

Amarpreet Marwaha as Jessica. showing dad Jefferson, played by Rob Phillips, how it should be done.

His life takes another hit when his reputation rises to haunt him even more when daughter Jessica arrives, another lovely performance from Amarpreet Marwaha. She has no illusions about dad.

Jefferson had agreed to look after her while his latest ex-wife remarried and went on honeymoon, but he had forgotten and being a good father seems to be another part he never bothered to learn.

Then there is Lauren Bell, played with her usual delightful flair by Pippa Olliver. Lauren is wife of the owner of the local brewery who she has persuaded to sponsor the performance of Lear and Jefferson’s flight.

Secretly she wants to be in the players - and really wants to meet Jefferson, but, before Jefferson’s interest rises too much, that is only because her mother is a big fan.

She is a physio by trade and when she is vigorously massaging Jefferson’s bad back and tight hamstrings on a bed back at the B&B (not a euphemismm by the way, if you were wondering) and was seen and heard by Mary, who got the wrong end of, well, you know what we mean, his reputation was all that was needed for the wheels of the rumour mill to turn.

It means Mary’s womanising hopes were dashed as was her friendly anything you want Mr Steel demeanour, Nigel’s chance to be the star again had arrived, and so had The Sun in star in sex romp mode.

Sponsorship vanished, Lauren and Jefferson were left pleading innocence and it all went . . .it just went.

But that can’t be the end, this is a glorious comedy after all with some wonderful moments, such as Jefferson’s demands for breakfast, or his discussion with Mary through Dorothy, or the auditions for a replacement Cordelia.

We have the Jefferson’s road to Damascus moment to come, his actually doing something for other people, then scenes from Lear and the real drama that ensues and then the speech about amateur theatre that reaches out far beyond the play and into the real world – oh, and the last word (stylised pose) from Nigel.

Anyone who has ever had anything to do with amateur dramatics knows every character, every company has them, but you don’t need to have trod the boards to enjoy a lovely comedy from Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, adapted from their 2008 film.

The set, from Malcom Robertshaw, is simple, a plain rehearsal stage, with a roll on roll off dining room, come lounge, come bedroom, and director Laura McLaurie makes clever use of the front of stage – or walk from the B&B to the theatre as it is known – which adds to the feel.

It has believable characters, even (dramatic pose) Nigel, a gentle, funny script, a fine cast and provides a wonderful evening of entertainment – and what more can you ask from a bunch of amateurs. The Stratford Players hope to remain in business to 04-05-24.

Roger Clarke


Highbury Theatre Centre 

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