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Henry Irving Double Bill: The Knight From Nowhere and The Bells

Henry Irving Double BillIn an attempt to recreate the life and times of Sir Henry Irving (Andrew Shepherd), flickering candles were stationed in two corners of Park 90, the smaller of the two spaces in the Park Theatre. It was a tiny gesture, particularly as they were soon enough put out, as they would have been in theatres prior to electric lighting, just before the show.

The period costumes are a delight, adding authenticity to this semi-biographical account of Irving’s theatrical career. Irving’s mother, Mary (Lynsey-Anne Moffat) was a fire-and-brimstone woman, the sort of personality with inept religious convictions that, had she lived in our time, would probably consider every red traffic light the work of the devil. The irony of her desiring her son to enter the legal profession, itself not exactly corruption-proof, instead of going into acting, was utterly lost on her.

It is always darkest before dawn,” mused Irving. As the details of his development as an actor and subsequent success on the London stage continued to be revealed in The Knight From Nowhere, I wondered if decades from now, there will be similar productions, about the greatest theatrical stars of our own generation, some years after we’re all gone. Here, though, there is some sound advice provided – almost anyone who is looking to embark on an acting career, and even those already in one, would benefit from the advice Irving sought from those more experienced than he was in the early stages of his stage life.

Despite losing its way somewhat after a strong start, the play provides an almost exhausting array of acquaintances, theatre directors and fellow actors. It came across to me as an accurate portrayal of how the life of an actor who has ‘made it’ would be. The long quotes from other plays, though, make the play seem as though it is padding out to mask a thin script.

Occasionally, the lines between reality and fantasy become very blurred, to the point where it is unclear if Irving is reciting lines or continuing his life confession. (Irving appears to have reached the post-death Day of Judgement, and must satisfy criteria set down by The Clerk (Simon Blake) in order to enter paradise.)

There are some light moments when the play’s characters are indulging in melodrama. I particularly enjoyed Angela Ferns’ portrayal of Dame Ellen Terry. The Victorians seemed to like everybody to be larger-than-life, and Irving’s initial attempts at introducing a bit of subtlety were, if the reviews from those early performances are to be fully trusted (and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t) openly booed and derided by audiences. Sadly, though, there wasn’t anything new about Irving that I didn’t already know about, or what even the completely uninitiated couldn’t find in an entry for Sir Henry Irving on an online encyclopaedia.

On several occasions reference was made to The Bells, and after the interval, it was somewhat refreshing to see a narrative enacted in full – the first half was too disjointed with selected scenes from several different plays and never with much, if any, context. The Bells’ plot did not, I must admit, hold much interest for me personally.

Some long silences and bizarre narrative did not help: since when was the signing of the marriage register a bigger cause for celebration (or even a cause at all…) than a marriage itself? However, there’s nothing wrong with good old-fashioned storytelling, and The Bells accomplishes this satisfactorily enough.

I came away from this double bill of shows not having learned much more than that Sir Henry was and continues to be very much revered as a performer. The evening’s proceedings strongly suggested that so devoted was he to his stagecraft that every other aspect of his life was more or less sidelined. But he must have had some downtime at some point: we don’t even discover what he did to relax. A touching epilogue perked me up after a slightly stale rendering of The Bells, but I still felt the evening was a tad too long. The company was well-cast, though – despite my reservations about the show’s script and pace, I couldn’t pick out any weak links in the company whatsoever.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

ACS Random presents
The Knight From Nowhere / The Bells
by Andrew Shepherd/Leopold Lewis
Sir Henry Irving, greatest actor of the 19th century, arrives on stage dressed for the wrong play. Discovering he is lately deceased, Irving faces his final judgement in a whirlwind theatrical tour of his life, loves and memorable roles.

Featuring a host of characters from Hamlet, Ophelia and Shylock to Ellen Terry, Bram Stoker and George Bernard Shaw, The Knight From Nowhere is a funny, touching and vibrant tale of the champion of Shakespeare and the first actor to be knighted.

To coincide with the 110th anniversary of Irving’s death ACS Random is delighted to present an exciting new take, adapted from their acclaimed 2005 production, following on from their hugely popular Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet at Park Theatre.

As an extra festive bonus The Bells, the play that made Irving famous overnight, will also be performed as part of the evening to recreate one of the most iconic productions of the Victorian Theatre. Christmas Eve 1834 – a prosperous local mayor is haunted by a horrific murder he committed 15 years ago.

The Knight From Nowhere / The Bells
by Andrew Shepherd/Leopold Lewis
CAST:
Alethea Steven | Nelly Moore
Alexandra Parry | Annette
Andrew Shepherd | Henry Irving/Mathias
Angela Ferns | Ellen Terry
Garry Summers | Bram Stoker/Christian
John Paul Conway | George Bernard Shaw/Mesmerist/E D Davis
Lynsey-Anne Moffat | Mary Brodribb/Catherine
Richard Woolnough | Leopold Lewis/Hans
Rosemarie Lovegrove | Sozel
Rosie Frecker | Florence O’Callaghan
Simon Blake | The Clerk/President of the Court
Will Seaward | WH Chippendale/Father Walther

Lucy Foster – Director, Andrew Shepherd – ​Writer, Leopold Lewis – Writer,  Zahra Mansouri – Designer, Jo Walker – Sound Designer, Ben Cowens – Lighting Designer, Cagla Temizsoy – Technical Operator, Annie Cavanagh – Production Manager.
https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/

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