REVIEW: A Bunch of Amateurs

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A Bunch of Amateurs cast members Jane Grafton (Mary Plunkett), Stacey Warner (Lauren Bell), Rachel Alcock (Dorothy Nettles), Vanessa Gravestock (Jessica Steele) and Nick Bate (Dennis Dobbins) borrowing a mobility scooter from Active Mobility for their production. Photo: Mark Williamson

A Bunch of Amateurs, Second Thoughts at The Bear Pit Theatre, 24th February

So these are the opening lines of this light-hearted comedy written by Spitting Image and Private Eye writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman:

“This humble theatre is a portal, a door to a world of imagination that can transport us from our humdrum existence and allow us to take part in the greatest stories ever told. And this door is about to be closed. The council has withdrawn its grant and unless we can raise £50,000 it is going to sell the building to be turned into executive homes… I implore you, I beg you to take this last chance to save our theatre. If not, the community will not just lose its theatre. It will lose its soul.”

Sounds familiar, eh? I suggest that, with the announced closing of our own ArtsHouse, there has never been a more poignant and telling production of A Bunch of Amateurs.

Luckily this Second Thoughts’ production, directed by Nic Walsh, more than ably renders this with heart, soul and a lot of wit.

It tells the story of washed-up Hollywood star Jefferson Steel who thinks he is in Stratford-upon-Avon to play King Lear at the RSC. In reality he has been deceived by his agent and is in Stratford, Suffolk, playing the tragic king for a local amateur dramatic company so they can save their local theatre space. Expecting a suite at a fancy hotel, the actor finds himself lodging in a bed and breakfast. Steel’s arrogance and pretensions barely allow him to conform to such indignities as rehearsing Shakespeare in a barn. But, among the enthusiastic locals, he slowly comes to rethink some of his assumptions and look at life in a whole new way.

This production zipped along with tight direction, and a cast well-suited to their roles. Pete Cubitt as the initially obnoxious Steel was every inch the middle-aged Hollywood has-been driven to the edge by his circumstance; natural comedian Jane Grafton is perfect as the B&B landlady with a girlish crush on Steel; Brian Emeney plays the luvvie Nigel Dewbury with total aplomb; Nick Bate’s dim handyman Denis is brilliantly conjured; Lauren Bell as sponsor’s wife and wannabe actress is also well done; Rachel Alcock as director Dorothy gives a solid performance as the sanest of the cast; and young actress Vanessa Gravestock plays Steel’s despairing daughter Jessica with spot-on believability.

The production was a tremendous laugh, undercut with a terrific tenderness as fictionalised ‘Stratford Players’ put on their Lear. In so many ways it captures the love and spirit involved in the best amateur performances, and makes a poignant case for subsidising the arts in all its many guises.