Sunday, May 21, 2017


London Classic Theatre at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester

Missed this at the start of its run back in February – now just managed to catch it on the last day of this national tour up the road in Colchester.

The imposing set is a warmly wooden study just off the Finchley Road. The action begins shortly before the Second World War. Sigmund Freud, refugee from Austria, is asleep in an armchair. He is close to death. Kindly Doctor Yahuda [Moray Treadwell] will ease his passing, warning of possible hallucinatory side-effects. Freud seems to regret some of his earlier pronouncements on hysteria, and an evening spent watching Rookery Nook. Salvador Dali – and this much is true – visits, and notes the doctor's bicycle, with hot-water-bottle and snail attached.
From these strange elements, Terry Johnson makes a crazy farce and a serious play about the perils of psychoanalysis; in Michael Cabot's impressive production, surrealism and feminism battle it out as scanties are shed and trousers dropped. It's a brilliant combination, demanding much of its audience and of its actors.
At the Mercury matinée, I felt the actors did better than the audience, though the farce and the quips were well received. John Dorney's Dali was superb – physically expressive, throwing his head back to make his resemblance to the artist even more striking. Ged McKenna made a thoughtful Freud, with a gentle Austrian accent. Language something of a problem, perhaps. Yahuda, a fellow Jew [berating Sigmund for doubting Moses' ethnic credentials] was historically widely travelled, but here has no accent. Nor has the mysterious Jessica, who comes in from Freud's rainy garden, claiming to be his “anima”. Dali, who actually had no German, or English, speaks with a Spanish accent straight from the cod caricature Manuel manual.
Summer Strallen, as Jessica, moved skilfully between her various roles – the discussion of Seduction Theory in Act Two was especially well handled.
The ending – a last gasp for surrealism – featured all sorts of strange events; the lobster telephone made a brief appearance, before Freud settled back to sleep in his armchair again, and there was another urgent tap on the french windows.
The piece is textually very rich, the ideas both timeless and – child abuse, recovered “memories” - startlingly contemporary. All credit to London Classic Theatre for taking this modern classic out on the road, from Yeovil to Aberdare, from Malvern to the Mercury.

Friday, May 19, 2017


Ad Hoc Players at Brentwood Theatre

Ad Hoc Players chalk up twenty years in 2017, and this quirky comedy, written for them by Eddie Coleman, was one of the first they brought to Brentwood Theatre.
So this revival is a celebration, with veterans joining the playwright in a warmly receptive audience for the opening night.
The play centres on Martin [Liam Mannix], whose love for his new-found girlfriend, “Miss Gorgeous Adorable” Carol, baffles his friends and family. “A man, a midget or a transsexual” they could have accepted, but this ??? Their reactions, and ours, vary uneasily from mockery – sexist banter and tasteless joshing – to sympathy. Most successful in the former is Andrew Spong with assured comic timing as work-mate Jason, and in the latter Candy Lillywhite-Taylor as sister Alison, who vows to follow her brother to the edge, and in the final scene, as the story comes full circle, prepares to introduce her own controversial lover to family and friends …
Hilary Martin is the formidable mother who dares to say that the emperor is naked, and there's a nice cameo from Paul Ganney as the shrink who sees Martin's predilection as his ticket to psychiatric fame and fortune.

Ayckbourn it's not, or Orton, though the play has moments of both. Wendi Sheard directs, as she did in 2000; the set is impressive, with a fitted kitchen, two lounges and a dinner table set for six. There are some neat comedy moments – the rugby tackle, Martin Wilderspin's Dave appearing from behind the sofa. The characters step into the spotlight to share their thoughts – Ganney has some of the best of these monologues, including one with Martin's hands tightening around his throat. There's a tender heart-to-heart in the deserted street, leading us to hope that Alison and Jason might find happiness together. And so they do, but not quite as we might have expected.

Thursday, May 18, 2017


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court

Nick Payne's two-hander allows us to eavesdrop on three brief encounters between Leonard and Violet, spanning six decades. Beginning in 1942 – an illicit night in the Hotel Regina before he goes unwillingly off to war – then 21 years later – a painfully awkward meeting in a Bath park – and finally in the 21st century – in Leonard's lonely Luton home.
These are carefully drawn characters, ordinary people leading lives superficially banal but with emotional hinterlands they struggle to express. Laura Bradley and Lewis Schaefer give performances of exceptional subtlety and understated sentiment. They wisely avoid caricature as they age; Violet's chatter about washing machines and Wimpy Bars places her in the 60s in middle age, while Leonard's restless hands and lips movingly suggest the ailing octogenarian.
Ria Milton's production is near flawless, with sound and light, music [Isaac Dunn the talented cocktail pianist] and staging combining to excellent effect. The only criticism, the sight-lines, especially when the actors were sitting on the bed/bench/sofa.
And there's a bonus – a seamless prologue, with chorus dressed for the 40s, giving us a mixture of the tragically appropriate When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone by Galway Kinnell and some Shakespeare sonnets, Leonard's wartime gift to Violet. Some of the most effective being those audaciously delivered by two or three actors: Sonnet 36 as a duo or Sonnet 106 a la Andrews Sisters.
A wordless epilogue, too – the chorus leaves the stage, the audience leaves the auditorium, while Leonard and Violet linger with the book of sonnets and a lifetime not shared …

Production photograph: Tom Tull

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


at the Civic Theatre

For this, his inaugural tour as Artistic Director, Christopher Marney has put together a stunning varied programme: a two-hour showcase for the emerging talent of the Central School of Ballet.
Thirty young dancers, seven presentations, book-ended by two fresh looks at familiar repertoire. The last, and the longest, was Matthew Bourne's Highland Fling, first seen in 1994. It's a typically tongue-in-cheek take on La Sylphide, keeping the gist of the original story, and the Scottish setting, but giving it a make-over for the Trainspotting generation. So as well as the silver birch backcloth, the setting includes an old armchair and some dustbins down stage left. The Sylphs sport little angel wings, James a kilt. Plenty of fun in the glade, with young James eager to join the corps, until suddenly the mood changes as his beloved's wings are clipped. Beautifully danced, and imaginatively staged, with athletic work from Adam Davies, and a moving performance from Brittanie Dillon as the Lead Sylph.
Jenna Lee's Romeo and Juliet – the Ballroom scene – uses Prokofiev's score in an original, eloquent narrative. Amy McEntee's Juliet is shy and apprehensive with Paris and has some lovely moments with her two friends. The Montague boys do some spectacular showing-off. There is romance of course, but frustration too, with the dancers forming barriers between Juliet and her Romeo [Craig McFarlane] And then a brief expression of innocent joy before the tragedy we know is to come.
A stylish glimpse of La Bayadere, with scarves, an impressive pas de deux, and a traditional tableau to finish.
In more contemporary work, we see fluent avian grace in Liam Scarlett's Indigo Children, edgy urban graffiti in Sleepless, choreographed by Malgorzata Dzierzon with music by Philip Feeney, played live, and Christopher Bruce's enigmatic Mya, danced to Arvo Part – three cocooned figures moving in witty, wistful shapes and patterns.
And a memorable look at the Castle Dracula scene from the ballet created in 1996 by Michael Pink and Christopher Gable, with an original pastiche score by Philip Feeney. Haunted by succubi, Alvaro Olmedo has a strong, erotically charged duet with Matthew Morrell's magnetic, hypnotic Count.
As ever, a wonderful display of burgeoning dance talent, and an excellent sampler of what ballet can do. If you missed it at the Civic, it's at the Mercury in Colchester in June, and at the Kenneth More in Ilford in July.

production photograph: Bill Cooper


at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester

A warmly enthusiastic reception on Press Night for this stunning revival. Tony Kushner's musical, initially commissioned by San Francisco Opera, is an opera in all but name, almost entirely sung through, with just a little underscored dialogue and sprechgesang.
Following its New York première, it had a successful production at the National Theatre in 2006. A decade later, it's certainly due another outing. That NT never transferred; this one could well follow a long line of Chichester musicals into the West End.
On the same day we stood and cheered in the Minerva, confederate statues were being removed, not without protest, in Louisiana. Just such a statue, in that very state, greeted us as we walked in, only to disappear before the action begins. Exactly why, and how, gradually becomes clear as the plot unfolds.
The story succeeds on both the personal and the political level. Caroline is the African-American maid, toiling in the humid heat of a Louisiana basement - “sixteen feet down”. She's employed by a dysfunctional Jewish family, a reserved clarinet-playing father, and his second wife, neither a bassoonist nor a smoker, unlike his dead first wife, mother to the lonely little boy Noah [based loosely on Kushner's own childhood].
This is a very polished revival, with a long stair-case to emphasise the divide between the family and their slave. The costumes are striking, too, for the Radio – three Supremish singers – the Washing Machine, all over bubbles, and the red hot Dryer, who doubles as the Bus - “the orphan ship of state”.
All the performances are superb, led by Sharon D Clarke's powerful Caroline, her nobility and heroic resignation cracking only very rarely, as when she “speaks her hate to a child”. Her great arias are breathtakingly done – Lot's Wife a show-stopping performance. Her daughter, one of the agents of change in this subtly developed story, is a fierce rebel teen, compellingly played by Abiona Omonua. And the young Noah is unbelievably well done by Charlie Gallacher – one of two children to share the role. Because, like all the company, he has a deeply explored character, some complicated choreography and a tricky score to master.
The show, deftly directed by Michel Longhurst, manages to explore epic themes – change is slow to come to this forgotten corner of Lousiana – and the intricate dynamics of the two families. Nigel Lilley, and a splendid pit band above the stage, make the most of Jeanine Tesori's evocative, varied and very melodious score.
Memorable moments galore, including the Act One finale, a wonderful dance fantasy from the four children and the Moon flying overhead. Dollar bills rain down on the stage – change is in the air, we feel, the money Noah “accidentally” leaves in his pants' pocket a symbol of the old patronising relationship between the Gellmans and the Thibodeaux.
production photograph: Marc Brenner