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Review of Henceforward... at Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton

Arriving at a theatre to see a play having slept four and a half hours in the previous 35 is perhaps not the best way to get the full effect of a production. However once I am in a theatre seat, most of the time I become refreshed and well awake, and this touring production of Alan Ayckbourn's Henceforward... certainly kept me with it.

Henceforward... was first performed 30 years ago and was Ayckbourn's first comedy to contain science fiction elements. It is a curious mix of a world that we are not quite at yet, with elements of Channel 4 show Humans in its personal NAN 300F, a mostly unseen world of gang rule outside where law has become tribal, and then a fascinating mention of a cheque of all things, as if they will exist in the future! It is like all takes of a future world, sometimes amusingly wrong.
Zoe (Laura Matthews), Jerome (Bill Champion) and NAN 300F
It is also classic Ayckbourn, and also like Season's Greetings which I most recently saw, quite a slow burner, with the first half creating the world and the characters before after the interval becoming a shear roller coaster of comedy as all the layers put down and unravel. This is full belly laugh material beyond the chuckles of the first half, but it is a fascinating genius of Ayckbourn that I have seen before where you find yourself at the interval not sure that you are totally thinking this is his best, but at show end, overwhelmed by just how brilliant it is.
Jerome (Bill Champion) and NAN 300F
Having said that though, you can't help but still be entertained by the happenings of the first half. Much of this comes from the antics of the nanny droid NAN 300F, built originally to look after a specific child, but tampered with by our lead Jerome (Bill Champion) to become a little more. It doesn't work very well though, and that is where much of the first act humour comes from. Also entertaining is the arrival of Zoe, escort and actress, played by Laura Matthews. She has tremendous fun, and for me perhaps a little too much, as at times I would have happily seen the over the top style of the character toned down just a notch. In the second act though, she is truly brilliant in her switched role and makes up for any gritting of teeth she may have caused me during the first half.
Zoe (Laura Matthews) and Jerome (Bill Champion)
It is safe to say that NAN 300F provides the bulk of the comedy value in Henceforward... as the world created and vaguely seen, on screens in pre-recorded sequences, is less so. The world of The Daughters of Darkness is generally lightweight and rarely proves interesting. Also the realisation of Geain (Jessie Hart), I had a bit of a problem with. In a day that we are meant to allow anyone to be what they wish to be, the comedy taken from her new persona feels often just a little cruel, although when this was written, it certainly wouldn't have been.

Jerome (Bill Champion) with Laura Matthews.
The cast are all excellent throughout, with Bill Champion leading the way with a nicely downplayed performance, often offering more from his silent stares at Zoe, that others when they are attempting to act their socks off. His tired of life demeanor adds much to the role.

Jacqueline King is wonderful value in both acts, and like Laura Matthews achieves the switch of their roles with surprising ease. The final on stage cast member Nigel Hastings brings a brilliantly irritating job worthy manner to his social services character Mervyn, and wields a great amount of the none NAN comedy.

Staging is generally excellent, although there were a few issues with the timing of the pre-recorded sequences and the departure and arrival of cast members on stage. However it generally worked fine and is very much a minor point. Another rather interesting directorial decision reared its head as a problem on the Royal stage (but may not at other venues), where Jerome stands near to the exit to the front door for quite a few long periods. I could see him from my seat, however it was absolutely obvious that the sight lines would be a problem for quite a few people in the theatre, this is a shame.
Corinna (Jacqueline King) and Jerome (Bill Champion)
So for me a greatly entertaining play, but with a few little pieces that for myself feel a little awkward. It is a surprisingly bleak world that Ayckbourn has created and there are a few quite dark jokes on offer. However whenever NAN 300F is on stage, this is also a brilliantly hilarious show, which is definitely worth catching.

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Performance reviewed: Monday 6th February, 2017 at the Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton.

Henceforward... runs at the Royal & Derngate until Saturday 11th February, 2017 
and continues its tour.

For further details visit the Royal & Derngate website at http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/

PHOTOS: Tony Bartholomew/Turnstone Media

Geain (Jessie Hart)
Jerome (Bill Champion)

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