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Propeller drives on

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The press day for Propeller is one of the big dates of the year: on Friday, Ed Hall's dynamic all-male company unleashed their turbo-powered double threat of Henry V and The Winter's Tale in the gloriously refurbished Everyman in Cheltenham, an intimate jewel (though with 650 seats, three circles) by Frank Matcham.

Both shows were fantastic, though Henry V the more accomplished and best suited to the all action man throb of testosterone; I missed women playing Hermione and Paulina in the second, the most beautiful and heart-breaking of all the late plays, though the doubling by Ben Allen of the lost son Mamillius with the new found Perdita is a potent portent.

In between shows, most of us repaired to the Brasserie Blanc in the Queen's Hotel where Ed Hall was entertaining, at the other end of the room, the serried ranks of Arts Council and British Council bigwigs and international booking agents who underpin Propeller's progress round the country and abroad.

This week the company is at the Lowry in Salford, and they remain on the road until July, with flying visits next month to Australia and New Zealand for some late summer sunshine and festival gigs.

The action is so boisterous in Henry V, with lots of marching songs and incursions through the auditorium, you can imagine it being adapted freely to every type of venue as in the old days of fit-up companies.

The Winter's Tale, on the other hand, is scenically divided between the candlelit shiny glass box of Sicily and the wild rock concert atmosphere of Bohemia -- with Tony Bell giving a knock-out performance as an Iggy Pop-style Autolycus who snaps up underwear among his unconsidered trifles (Cheltenham roared at the sight of a bare bum, a thing I'd never expected to see in this genteel spa town -- though the clubbing went on well into the small hours around Imperial Square, where I was lodging with friends) and despatches his ballads in CD form hung on a chain around his waist.

One of the most affecting scenes in The Winter's Tale is the sight of Antigonus (played by Dugald-Bruce Lockhart as an Alan Bennett clone, having given a tight-lipped version of Henry in the first play) cradling the abandoned baby on a foreign shore after a shipwreck, shortly before he exits pursued by bear -- or, in this instance, pursued by teddy bear, manipulated by the ghost of Mamillius in pyjamas.

Anyway, that scene was more cosily previewed in real life in the Brasserie when Ed Hall meandered through the room bearing his new three-month old daughter. I suppose the critical caucus could have ripped the child from his loving grasp and pursued him en masse through the door led by a bear-like Ian Shuttleworth. But we'd all just enjoyed our haddock risotto and pork cutlets, so we didn't bother.

Back at the theatre, it was time to catch up with the Everyman's chief exec, Geoff Rowe, whom I know from his previous lives with Sheffield Theatres, the Contact in Manchester and, more recently, the Welsh National Opera.

Geoff washed up in Cheltenham five years ago and led the campaign to raise the £3.2m needed for the restoration of Matcham's magic auditorium, which had been painted over and mildly vandalised in the last refurbishment a quarter of a century ago.

You can now see the plump cherubs, the arches and the gilded boxes, the naked painted ladies and the gorgeous red marble proscenium arch, in all their considerable glory. This feast is unexpected after the modern functionalism of the foyers and bar areas, practicable if a little prosaic. But I quite like it, and my Cheltenham friends say that the coffee bar is a popular local destination even if the audience for the more grown-up matinees is often disappointing.

Except for a ten-year period from the mid-1980s, the Everyman has always operated, from its opening in 1891, as a receiving house, and Geoff books a lively mixed programme of touring companies like Propeller, Kneehigh and Out of Joint as well as Bill Kenwright tours and talks by the likes of golf guru Peter Alliss and popular poet Pam Ayres.

So unless he can persuade a company such as Propeller to have a national Press opening there, critics are unlikely to make the trip, though I'm told the homegrown panto is usually spirited and colourful.

It's the sort of theatre you'd happily sit in to watch more or less anything, so the six hours of Shakespeare seemed like a bonus. Even after fifteen years, the company, and Edward Hall, show no signs of flagging, which is remarkable enough in itself. And not for the first time I felt that, in comparison, the RSC, even at its occasional best, looks tired and, well, a little flat-footed: Propeller has all the propulsion.


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