A Bunch of Amateurs refers ironically of course to a society of English amateur thesps played by professional luvvies into which is plunged a fish-out-of-water over-the-hill American screen star to play Shakespeare’s Lear (is there any other?), played by fish-out-of-water over-the-hill American screen star Burt Reynolds (now 78!), he of the gleaming teeth and easy charm, plus a string of forgettable tongue-in-cheek action movies from the 70s and 80s such as Smokey and the Bandit.
Before I go any further, I have more than the usual quota of declarations. First among these is my long history of amateur dramatics and am therefore harsh on the many myths about amateur companies, notably that they are invariably amateurish and incapable of hitting the standards set by the pros. Second is that I’ve always avoided Bert Reynolds movies for exactly the reasons punters avoid his character’s movies in this movie – and while he might be sending himself up here he remains an actor I would under most circumstances go out of my way to ignore. Finally, since my sister lives in a Suffolk village not dissimilar to the Suffolk village depicted here there are further stereotypes ripe for the milking and which few films do much to dispell.
This movie does contain a fair few of said cliches of village life and village people (though thankfully not the Village People, something different altogether), the amateur stage and conceited movie stars, plus a fairly formulaic view of theatre-production-within-a-movie plots where the show invariably does march on and triumphs against adversity (see also ), but director Andy Cadiff, scriptwriters Nick Newman, John Ross, Ian Hislop and Jonathan Gershfield, and their willing band of merry men and women contrive to make this a likeable and funny view, for which you can forgive a great deal. In fact the plot mirrors that of Lear closely, not least the eventual rapprochement with the much loved but estranged daughter, who naturally ends up playing Cordelia to his Lear.
It’s not just Reynolds sending himself up either – Derek Jacobi, fine English acting knight with a list of Shakespearean credentials as long as Olivier’s arm, is permitted to go way over the top as solicitor Nigel aka an especially jealous and vituperative Earl of Kent who thinks he should be King and is possessed both of the ego and inflated sense of self-worth, if not the talent, to be worthy of a pro.
But it is Samantha Bond‘s Dorothy who holds thing together, literally and metaphorically, as director and all-purpose dogsbody, which certainly accords with my recollections of directing for the amateur stage. Bond (formally Bond‘s Moneypenny) is a warm and likeable presence as well as a skilled and generous actor, all of which qualities make her a perfect fit for the role, and, coincidentally, her additional stage presence in the shape of the Fool. The company includes other notable talents masquerading as yokels, especially Imelda Staunton‘s B&B-owning sycophant, which gushing turns to loathing from the common habit of putting together 2 and 2 to make 22.
But what of Reynolds, he of the towering ego? I suspect the real life screen star, unlike his fictional counterpart, took seconds to take the part, possibly because comedy is his real genre and yet it is the closest he is ever likely to come to playing Lear on stage. He certainly talks a good game, though whether he could carry off the madness of the king at full length I will leave to your imagination. Suffice it to say that for every Spacey who makes the transition very many stars of screen turn tail and run from sheer stage fright. “I’m terrified,” says Jefferson to his director on first night, while looking ready for a social with the darts team.
Truth be told, screen acting is entirely different technique and when you screw up there is always another take. No second chances with a love audience so being afraid is a totally natural urge – though short of jumping out of planes I always found being on the live stage areal adrenalin buzz – and that’s why I do it. When the amateurs say they do it to get them out of the house, they do have a point too, but for a pro there is much at stake and very much to go wrong. Reynolds’ character is in the last chance saloon – though I suspect Reynolds can still count on his reputation getting him halfway decent parts.
Actually, whisper it but Reynolds hams it up beautifully – by which I mean that he does what this particular role demands and he does it pretty well. The hamming up bit is playing the caricature of himself as a conceited oaf, but it’s a pretty decent showing for an actor not used to the demands of village life in Suffolk. Hollywood has nothing of the challenges facing an actor in rural England.
Irritations? A few but not many. Among them is Dorothy telling Jefferson to learn the lot rather than the “rewrite” with a happy ending he proposes. Fact is that no production of Shakespeare ever consists of the full unexpurgated script. Cuts are applied to remove minor subplots and fanciful dialogue, all the better to focus audience attention and keep production length manageable 2-3 hours maybe, but not 4. Clarity and boredom prevention are key. Minor point but worth making. In fact, allow for artistic licence and you’re left with a good effort with a decent script and enjoyable performances, better than many of similar ilk.
PS. If you don’t think amateur companies can act, try my production of The Rivals, May 2017 at Kelvedon Institute!