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Theatre review: The Quiet Little Englishman

Claire Rider gets down to a derelict Dingle cinema for Esther Wilson's drama about the little known cinema pioneer from St Helens

Published on October 21st 2008.

Theatre review: The Quiet Little Englishman

IN the days when St Helens had not just one orchestra, but many orchestras, George R Groves, a young and accomplished cornet player and Liverpool University graduate, found himself leaving it all behind. He was Hollywood bound, following in the tap dancing footsteps of his Tiller Girl fiancée.

It was 1923, the silent movie era. But George's arrival on the Warner Bros lot was to change that forever.

The Quiet Little Englishman is Esther Wilson's take on the life of Groves who landed a job developing new technology in sound. He went on to become an Oscar winning pioneer, putting real words and music to action in movies ranging from The Jazz Singer (the first ever talkie) to My Fair Lady and Woodstock. His achievements are barely known in St Helens, let alone anywhere else.

Wilson's comedy/drama is staged in the virtually derelict Park Palace cinema in the Dingle. Known by some as the Park Palace of Dreams, it opened in 1893 as the Park Palace of Varieties, a former music hall at which Charlie Chaplin once appeared. It became the Park Palace Kinomatadrome and eventually shut in 1959. The Quiet Little Englishman's producers, ZHO Visual Theatre, have ambitions to re-open the building as a working theatre and dance rehearsal space.

This production is imaginatively staged among the little remaining interior stucco work and Ionic columns, a giant horn from a wind-up gramophone serving as a visual reminder of the early concept of recorded sound. Other weird and wacky elements comprise dream scenes, a Piiro clown (actually quite brilliant) and a superfluous, albeit excellent, dance projection.

There is a superb accompanying live band including the musical impresario and composer/MD Andy Frizzell, as well as Martin Smith on trumpet.

The play itself, in parts brilliantly directed by Paula Simms, lacks form in others, although completely makes up for it with sterling set of performances from its actors, some of whom may become national treasures. It's far too long, becomes irrelevant, confusing and, in places dives off into self indulgent tangents that need to be tightened up with the art and skill of a Hollywood cutting room wizard.

But if you like a bit of self indulgence, over-the-top parodies and are willing to take a risk on a production that isn’t quite a

musical, but has some excellent numbers, dabbles in dance and multi-media projections, can stand quite a hard seat, and have a good winter coat (it's quite chilly), this production is for you!

Jane Hogarth (Pauline Hey of Hollyoaks, also in Emmerdale, Heartbeat and the mum in Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Millions), does kind of steal the show, swaying between a sexy drunken Hollywood starlet (she’s always played a great drunk) and the most heart-warming mother you ever wish to see, as Connie Davies, movie star, and as George’s mum.

Comedian and actor Terry Kilkelly, aka Terry Titter, plays a treasure of a role as a bit-part actor. Paul Duckworth is a man to watch, soon to be swept to the big time and rightly so. Last seen as the outrageous Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, at Allerton Towers, in July, Duckworth plays George Groves in an incredibly understated way.

Martin Williams, in real life a talented artist, costume designer and now mosaic artist, is the most exquisite clown while Sara Niles, from TV’s Beautiful People, is so full of soul and life, that she becomes the spirit of Al Jolson's Jazz Singer.

I never quite got the full biography of George, which I needed. The play only alluded to it, albeit with hilarity and brilliance in parts. Lucky his niece and nephew were sitting in front of me and told me to look him up at www.georgegroves.org.uk which their mother, Hilda Barrow (George’s late sister), had set-up.

With ruthless commercial editing, this could easily steal the Edinburgh Fringe and transfer. . .

The Quiet Little Englishmen, runs until 26th October, 7.45pm (no performances 20 and 21 October) at the Park Palace, 253 Mill St, L8. Take a pillow, a hip flask and a leap of faith.


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