A Bunch of Amateurs

23rd April to 4th May 2024

Ian Hislop & Nick Newman | Highbury Theatre | Directed by Laura McLaurie

Highbury Players’ latest production is a witty and warm-hearted homage to amateur theatre.

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s ‘A Bunch of Amateurs’ will be most familiar to audiences from the 2008 film starring Burt Reynolds but this is how it should be seen: in a local theatre with a cast of amateur actors playing the amateur actors. It works on so many levels and in this production, directed by Laura McLaurie, makes for an evening full of laughs and clever comedy.

Jefferson Steele is teetering on the verge of becoming a ‘Hollywood has-been’. His action hero star is fading and, in a desperate attempt to revitalise his career, he heads to England to perform the title role in a production of King Lear. He believes he’ll be treading the boards on the famous Royal Shakespeare Company stage in the Bard’s birthplace - Stratford upon Avon. But he soon discovers that there are many ‘Stratfords’ in England and finds himself alongside a ‘bunch of amateurs’ in a sleepy Suffolk village: Stratford St John is not what he is expecting.

The script focuses on Jefferson’s journey: his transformation from arrogant egotist to humble actor and loving father, cleverly mirroring Lear’s character arc in Shakespeare’s great tragedy. But it’s his growing appreciation and respect for the cast of the Stratford Players which is the heart of the story.

Rob Phillips is thoroughly convincing as the washed-up, ageing Hollywood star Jefferson. Selfishness and appalling manners are perfectly combined at the start of the play but, as rehearsals progress with more than a few forgotten lines, he shows a more vulnerable side, particularly in his troubled relationship with daughter Jessica, played with great feistiness by Amarpreet Marwaha.

Highbury stalwart Denise Phillips is in fine form again as Stratford Players director Dorothy, charged with the unenviable task of taming Jefferson’s ego and staging a production against the odds to save the theatre. She is a model of strength and restraint.

The ‘cast within a cast’ are strong across the board: Chris Lambeth’s comic timing delivers many of the evening’s laughs as dim-witted but faithful Denis; Maggie Lane is hilarious as B&B owning Jefferson superfan Mary and Pippa Oliver brings boundless energy and optimism to proceedings as marketing executive and part-time physiotherapist Lauren. Completing the motley crew, Sean Mulkeen is perfectly pompous in the role of Nigel, the self-important solicitor who believes he should be the star of the show.

It's a well-staged production of a heart-warming story and made me reflect on the value and importance of amateur theatre. Up and the down the country, hundreds of companies like the Highbury Players are staging productions every week. In doing so, they not only bring communities together in their audiences, they also offer friendship and a creative outlet to thousands of amateur actors. ‘A Bunch of Amateurs’ is a fitting tribute to amateur theatre companies everywhere: long may they continue entertaining us.

‘A Bunch of Amateurs’ is playing Highbury Theatre in Sutton Coldfield from 23rd April to 4th May 2024.