Thursday, July 31, 2014


Queen's Theatre Hornchurch

On the night of September 2, 1916, Londoners watched and cheered as a “baby-killer” - German airship bombing civilian targets – was shot down in flames by a tiny bi-plane.
That moment is thrillingly evoked in “Paper Planes”, this year's Community Musical at the Queen's Hornchurch.
This is the deal – this renowned producing house devotes its creative and technical forces to devising and staging a new work, and the people of East London and Essex – sixty of them this year, aged between 7 and 80 – bring their enthusiasm and their talent, as well as sell-out houses for the four-night run.
The packed world première was a great occasion – an aircraft of the period parked in the foyer, Birdman cocktails in the bar [vodka, schnapps and cranberry juice, since you ask] and a pub pianist who would have been very much at home in the Ten Bells.
That East End boozer is where our tale begins – told by the Guv'nor, keeping the legend alive in the very bar where our hero went in search of refreshment and female companionship.

He is William Leefe Robinson – Billy the Birdman – who wins the VC for his brave deed. In this romanticised version of his life – by Dave Ross, Gerry Sweeney, Patrick O'Sullivan and Steven Markwick – he's given love interest, “champagne and stout” class conflict and a rather good theme song, “Up Here Above The Clouds”. And a clichéd comic-book sadistic Hun [Chris Taylor].
Aerial combat is never going to be easy to stage, but the tall tower works well against the back projection, and Billy's first flight, with model houses and a lovely toy train, is superbly staged. The young Leefe Robinson [Harleigh Stenning] runs through the show, toy plane held aloft, one of several motifs which give the story its strong structure, along with the paper planes, the seagulls, the claustrophobia …
Impressive performances from the non-professional players. Tomas Martinsen-Hickman outstanding as “Leefe” - he looks and sounds absolutely right, and has an easy charisma and a great singing voice too. Rebecca Swan is his rough diamond Lilly, making the most of the lovely “Cinderella's Shoes”, Jamie Brown his brother Harold, Jane Harder his snobby mother.
Many memorable cameos, too: the Recruiting Sergeant [“Who's for glory?”], the Major, Doll from the pub, the Guv'nor who guides us through the narrative. But much of the strength of this piece is the ensemble work: the bloodied nurses, the school pals, the RFC quartet, the knees-up for Kaiser Bill. Patrick O'Sullivan's production is full of striking stage pictures and ingenious devices: the escape door, the letter duet, the German subtitles, the “hole”, the St Bee's reprise, the zeppelin itself, a really menacing presence. Even Billy's kitsch apotheosis – paper planes pointing heavenwards – suits the mood and style of the times.
William Leefe Robinson – one of the generation who went straight from school to the Great War – never lived to find happiness in peacetime. But he had his moment of glory, and, like the Queen's Theatre, found fame far beyond the borough. Born in India, educated in Oxford and Cumbria, he's nevertheless embraced as a local lad since he flew his Zeppelin-killer missions from Sutton's Farm, not a mile, as the air ace flies, from the stage door.

So his story, and this amazing show, are just the ticket for this theatre, and for this time, as we commemorate the outbreak of the war to end all wars.

production photography: Mark Sepple

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court

This is a true story about the time and the world we live in ...”

And Tennessee Williams, in this powerful one-act-play from 1958, tells it in a masterly way, with the appalling details of the martyrdom of Sebastian teased out in the hesitant testimony of a damaged girl.
Kelly McGibney's imaginative production for Chelmsford Theatre Workshop immerses us in the “well-groomed jungle” - a sensory garden indeed, with the noisy birds and the bright primary colours reflected in the furniture, the photo frames, the slim volume of poetry. And heady, sickly scents of summer to accentuate salient moments – an inspired touch.
Subtler lighting, bolder design and period costume, might have helped to draw us in to the oppressive, unhealthy atmosphere, but the central performances are strong enough to bring the drama alive. Especially Jade Flack's Catherine: vulnerable, confused and afraid, she is totally convincing as the [very] young cousin who is a horrified, helpless witness to the death of the poet – that final monologue superbly done. The poet's mother is also powerfully drawn in Barbara Llewellyn's sensitive performance: haughty, intransigent, with a hint of the Iron Lady, she is no mere monster, but a complex woman with moments of insightful introspection - “the shadows as luminous as the light” … Joe Kennedy is the young doctor, torn between his conscience and the need to fund his work.
Sally Jane Ransom stands out amongst the supporting players – accent and interpretation spot on.

A fine end to the season at the Old Court – they're back in September with another classic from the 50s, The Birds.

Mrs Venable's 30s portrait photograph by Jacob Burtenshaw

Sunday, July 27, 2014


Trinity Methodist Music and Drama

Cabaret tables on stage, a glitter curtain, and a slick evening of songs from the shows, bringing us a generous helping of musical theatre gold – Chorus Line, Les Mis, Bernstein and several Sondheims.
Some selections merely glister; it's funny how the less inspired offerings fare less well with all the stage trappings trimmed away. Laudably, it's all done unplugged, with Susannah Edom-Baker's piano the only accompaniment – something of a treat these days, when for amateurs as well as professionals the sound desk rules supreme.
And there's even a number new to my innocent ear: I'll Be Here from Adam Gwon's Ordinary Days, beautifully delivered here by Kayleigh McEvoy. Two more narrative pieces shine: Gus the Theatre Cat [McEvoy again with Ken Rolf] and Nothing [Helen Quigley]. Lots of duets, a brilliant trio [You Could Drive A Person Crazy] and a catchy quartet [Seasons of Love]. Big solos [Stars from Nigel Ward, Losing My Mind from Janet Moore, Johanna from Mick Wilson] and big choruses, Felicity Wright the conductor – “One” from A Chorus Line, the appropriate Bless Our Show from Sister Act, and, as a finale, One Wonderful Day from an early Sondheim work, Saturday Night.

Friday, July 25, 2014


Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

History plays are big business again, and no-one does them better than the Globe, which brings its own sense of history to the table.
In David Eldridge's Holy Warriors “A Fantasia on the Third Crusade and the History of Violent Struggle in the Holy Lands”, we are asked to reflect on the effect of our decisions on the future.
I will show you another past. And another future. Then, King, what will you do this time?’
The King is Richard I, Lionheart, and the context is the Third Crusade.
The two-hours' traffic is neatly divided: on a superb circular map [Jerusalem, the centre of the world] covering the boards of the stage, Saladin and his sons, Richard and his family, speak of places still torn by conflict, Gaza, Tikrit, Cyprus.
The opening is deliberately paced, but effective, with incense [again] burning in ornate censers, monks processing with chanting and candles, and a solemn sword swirling from Alexander Siddig's Saladin.
Under a superb orthodox cross [design: Mike Britton], there is history and poetry in the text, though, despite obvious debts to Shakespeare, the action is often secondary to the words, and the words are not always gripping. Some strange accents, too, and uncertainty about the pronunciation of Tancred and Outremer. And “smote” clumsily used as a present tense.
Much coming and going through the yard, rose petals as the mosque is purified, explosions and gunshots. Gorgeous costumes, and atmospheric music by Elena Langer.
From his first confrontation with the “dainty, humourless” King Philip of France [Jolyon Coy], when the drama really lifts off, it is clear that John Hopkins' Lionheart is a strong dramatic presence.
And this uneven piece is largely his story. He fails to “go upon Jerusalem”, is shot by a vengeful youth, but, in this version, thanks to his mother [Geraldine Alexander's excellent Eleanor of Aquitaine] he is able to leave Purgatory and have another go - “give me my time again” - this time in desert fatigues, in modern speech and with the trappings of twenty-first century warfare. Meanwhile, key figures in the history of the Middle East have their say, key moments are swiftly shown. 

Will he finish the job, make pilgrimage upon Jerusalem before the fighting season is over ? Or will he fall, unfulfilled, to another assassin ?
It is an inspired, if occasionally confusing, concept. And James Dacre's production has many fine moments, not least Richard's final speech in which he vows to enter The New Jerusalem as an eagle.
The hard-working cast brings us scores of characters – from the humble sappers to Napoleon, Bush and Blair [who gets an immediate laugh of recognition]. Impressive work from Sirine Saba as Berengaria, Jonathan Bonnici as Al-Afdal and Sean Murray as a clutch of cameos, including a dying pope and an eloquent Ben Gurion.
A difficult subject, but one well suited to this special space. Historians will continue to argue about the roots of conflict in the Holy Lands, but this epic drama makes a strong case for this particular turning point. George Santayana is quoted on the flyer: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Photographs © Marc Brenner

Monday, July 21, 2014


Chichester Festival Theatre

Highlight of the Shaffer season, and grand opener for the renewed main house, a spectacular, starry Amadeus.
Marble floor, crystal chandeliers, and a baroque proscenium arch at the back acting as a sort of light box for inner scenes – it looks wonderful. The performances, by comparison, sometimes seem a little underpowered, though Jonathan Church's stylish production is never less than engaging.
Rupert Everett's saturnine Salieri – dry, academic but driven by ambition – morphs brilliantly from deathbed to heyday in an instant, raven wig on, cloak off, scoffing Italian sweetmeats and moving smoothly through the impeccably realised Viennese court. And, memorably, delivering his last lines tied to a post in a strait-jacket.

Joshua McGuire is a slightly faded, puffy, powdered epicene Amadeus, with Jessie Buckley impressive as his young wife – her mad scene especially effective.
Among the huge supporting cast, Simon Jones as the Emperor, and Chichester stalwart John Standing as Orsini-Rosenberg.

A champagne aperitif to a season which will also bring us two smash-hit musicals [Guys and Dolls and Gypsy], An Ideal Husband with Pat Routledge, and 101 Dalmatians for Christmas.

Simon Higlet's set design

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