A Bunch of Amateurs

1st to 4th May 2024

Ian Hislop & Nick Newman | Lichfield Garrick Theatre | Directed by Robin Lewitt

You wait for a performance of Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s clever comedy ‘A Bunch of Amateurs’ to be staged locally and then two productions come along at once. Having very recently reviewed this play at the Highbury Theatre in Sutton Coldfield, I was keen to see what a Lichfield ‘bunch of amateurs’ made of it in their hometown Garrick Theatre.

Rising to the comic challenge under the direction of Robin Lewitt, the Lichfield Players’ production delivers laugh after laugh thanks to a talented cast of amateur actors playing amateur actors very professionally!

Many will be familiar with the story from the 2008 film starring, among others, Burt Reynolds, Samantha Bond, Derek Jacobi and Imelda Staunton. As the programme notes explain, ‘A Bunch of Amateurs’ is one of the rare examples of a film later turned into a play. I agree with the writers that the theatre is its natural home: a ‘love letter’ to amateur dramatics is perfect for amateur companies and is clearly a popular choice.

Location is everything in this play: we are in a makeshift theatre, or barn, in the Suffolk village of Stratford St John. Not, as American action film star Jefferson Steel mistakenly believes, the Warwickshire town of Stratford upon Avon. Far from performing with the actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Jefferson finds himself trying to revive a flagging Hollywood career by taking on the role of Lear in a decidedly unglamorous production alongside a ‘bunch of amateurs.’

Ian Davies is convincing in the central role of the arrogant, self-important Jefferson. He looks every inch the fading film star with his mop of bleach-blond hair: we can almost see the giant chip on his shoulder. As his character softens, developing respect and appreciation for the Suffolk folk he finds himself performing with (and rekindling his relationship with his daughter), Davies brings out a likeable side to the actor and father. The writing cleverly parallels his emotional journey with that of Lear and passages from Shakespeare’s great tragedy are delivered confidently across the cast.

Amanda Munden is a wonderfully natural Dorothy, the director of the Stratford Players tasked with the monumental challenge of taming Jefferson’s ego and uniting her motley cast of amateurs. Combining strength and tenacity with warmth and cheekiness, she rises to the challenge and has us on-side from the get-go.

Phil Shaw is a delightfully pompous Nigel, many of the evening’s laughs coming from his open hostility to the brash American who has stolen what he believes should be his leading role. Niamh Mahon, flirtatiously fawning over Jefferson, combines craziness with buckets of charisma as the star-struck Mary and Hannah Lewitt is strong as marketing executive (and former physiotherapist) Lauren.

Comedy timing credit must go to Mark Skett for his performance as Denis, the overzealous Jefferson superfan and handyman whose imaginative ideas for Gloucester’s eye-gouging scene are a delight. Hannah Britnell is perfectly cast as Jefferson’s neglected daughter Jessica who, like Cordelia in ‘King Lear’, challenges her father but ultimately learns that she loves him dearly.

It all adds up to a wonderfully entertaining night in the theatre and I am left, as I was after seeing a different production last week, reflecting on the value and importance of amateur theatre. The arts play a vital role in bringing communities together, both on and off stage. ‘A Bunch of Amateurs’ is a brilliantly written love-letter to amateur dramatics: this winning production is a fitting tribute to amateur actors everywhere.

‘A Bunch of Amateurs’ is playing at the Lichfield Garrick from 1st to 4th May 2024.