Thursday, October 30, 2014



Chichester Festival Theatre

Uncle Jocko, Seattle's Mr Talent, wants no mothers in the wings. A sentiment shared, years later, by a harassed stage manager in burlesque.
The pushy parent in question here is Mama Rose, whose more famous daughter was Gypsy Rose Lee, and whose story is told in what is possibly the best of the Broadway backstage musicals.
It's given a pretty near perfect performance at Chichester, maternity ward to the West End, directed by Jonathan Kent with Musical Director Nicholas Skilbeck.
The show belongs to Imelda Staunton. She's there at every turn, pushing from the wings, micro-managing her troupe, shifting scenery, driving hard bargains. When her pet protégée, and eldest daughter, turns her back on the family firm and elopes with a chorus boy, Rose crumples for a moment before ripping up the letter, rallying and re-focusing her maternal ambitions on the younger sister. And in Rose's Turn, at the end of the show, this frustrated showgirl, fortified by one last dream, holds the empty stage and basks in imagined applause.
Kevin Whately plays Herbie, with a limited range of facial expressions and a serviceable voice. Lara Pulver is wonderful as the overlooked, then over-exploited Louise [aka Gypsy Rose Lee]. There's a host of superb supporting performances, not least by the children in Mama Rose's troupe, and, one of many, Julie Legrand who has a lovely double as Electra, the stripper with illuminated assets, and the formidable PA Miss Cratchitt.
A great recreation of the dying days of vaudeville [and the threat of Burlesque], superbly designed by Anthony Ward with a moving proscenium and a proper orchestra pit for the excellent band.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at The Old Court

Cleverly placed for Halloween, this theatrical horror story successfully attracts those seeking thrills and chills in the Old Court stalls. There's spookily dim lighting in the foyer, and the auditorium is swathed in sombre gauze.
The play itself is adapted from Shirley Jackson's best-seller by F Andrew Leslie [though neither gets a credit in the programme]. Director Jacob Burtenshaw has thrown in a few twists of his own, too, sexing up the show with shocks and spectres, guignol and eerie laughter.
It's a weird story of “murder, scandal, insanity and suicide”: a “man of science”, addressed as “Doctor”, arrives at Hill House to investigate psychic phenomena, bringing three susceptible guests to help him. He begins by reading, deadpan, from his report, but soon starts talking such utter balderdash - “some houses are born bad” - that it's hard to imagine which seat of learning could have given him that PhD. Worse, his batty wife and her “friend”, headmaster of a prep school, turn up with their planchette to throw a spanner in the ghost-hunter's works.
CTW's production is redeemed by two things: excellent actors, and some really scary moments; as with last month's chiller, The Birds, it is the unseen which is most unsettling – terrifying knocking on the doors, an effective blend of live sound and recorded effects. I liked the use of torches to accentuate the darkness. The set, too, is nicely realised – the dolls, the crucifix, the doors and the oxblood leather sofa, which quite possibly has its own agent ...
Leading the cast, Joe Kennedy as Montague, and Laura Bradley giving a terrific performance as the shy, dowdy Eleanor, who is drawn into the aura of the house with tragic consequences.
Strong support from the others, notably Caroline Webb as the Housekeeper, stroking her keys with manic malevolence, Regan Tibbenham, a total contrast as the other girl in the house, and Britt Verstappen as Eleanor's spectral alter ego.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


WAODS at the Public Hall, Witham

The Sound of Music is one of the last great book musicals, and one of the best known, largely due to those post-turkey screenings of Christmases past.
Good to see the show live on stage again in the Public Hall in Witham.
Among the strengths of Eric Smart's production for WAOS are impressive choral singing [the MD is Susannah Edom] both from the nuns of Nonnberg, and from the Von Trapp family, and an excellent group of children, from Faith Rogers' lovely Liesl to Ella Bradley's tiny Gretl.
The demanding role of Maria is taken by Corrina Wilson, in a spirited, extrovert performance, with huge stage presence. Perhaps a little too knowing, a little too pert at times, but every familiar number is wonderfully sung.
A perfect performance, too, from Julie Codling as Elsa – stylish and shallow, making the most of the catchy How Can Love Survive trio with the upright Naval Captain Georg [Niels Bradley] and the amoral Max [Tom Whelan] And Janet Moore makes a marvellous Abbess, singing Climb Every Mountain with superb phrasing and real emotion.
Do-Re-Mi is imaginatively staged and energetically realised, and there's inventive choreography for Liesl and her beau Rolf [a personable Edward Tunningley] in Sixteen Going On Seventeen. We are treated to a big Viennese wedding, and an elegant soirée for Elsa.
Elsewhere, it's a swings and roundabouts show. A great stage picture for the moving final number, but a very cramped corner for the Abbess's Office. Stunning swastikas and storm-troopers for the Festival Concert scene, but the key moment where Georg's hard heart is melted by music goes for almost nothing. There's a sadly un-Alpine lakeside not only for Georg's villa, but also for Maria's beloved hillside. And those unmistakably English church bells …


Greville Theatre Club at the Barn Theatre, Little Easton

Imogen Stubbs, a much-loved actress, got a cold critical reception for her début as a playwright, despite a starry cast and a world-class director.
What a pity, since We Happy Few has much to commend it, not least its theme, which is inherently theatrical.
Unfortunately it is long, wordy, uneven and dramatically incoherent.
It tells the fascinating story of the Artemis Players – the real-life Osiris Players thinly disguised – women whose war effort is to tour Shakespeare around Britain in their “nunnery on wheels”, a 1922 Rolls. The period detail [as in Harwood's The Dresser] is evocative: hessian costumes, spirit gum and Glenn Miller. Director Jonathan Scripps and his experienced cast successfully reduce the play to manageable proportions, and produce an amusing, often touching, ensemble piece.
The powerhouse behind Artemis is the formidable Hetty Oak [Pam Hemming], secretly pining for her long-lost “darling boy” and bravely rallying her motley troops. It is she who, movingly, quotes Prospero at the end, and turns out the light as the curtain falls.
Outstanding among her rag-bag company are Carol Parradine's Flora Pelmet, the co-founder of the troupe. Her heart-rending monologue about her brother Toby is wonderfully done, though it sits awkwardly in the action. Rough-and-ready mechanic Charlie [Lynda Shelverton] has a sapphic Sarah Waters moment with Rosalind [Sonia Lindsey-Scripps], who is relentlessly quashed by her awful mother [Jan Ford] – a hard-drinking, chain-smoking faded pro – Coral Browne rather than Joan Crawford springs to mind. Ford also contributes a priceless cameo, trying out for Titus in the entertaining audition sequence. And Amanda Thompson excels as Ivy, the Brummie housemaid who's cajoled onto the Shakespearean stage.
Marcia Baldry-Bryan is Jocelyn, the stage manager, and Judy Lee is a “batty old lady” as well as a Jewish refugee in an unconvincing subplot.
The simple, versatile set is dressed with swags of colourful costume and a frieze of footwear over the lintel.
The fewer men, the greater share of honour” … There are two chaps in the cast, though: Adam Thompson as the refugee son, and Rodney Foster working hard to good comic effect in three lesser roles.

The first night audience was positive and enthusiastic – proof perhaps that, given a good play doctor, the piece could yet be the hit that Stubbs must have been hoping for.

photograph by Adrian Hoodless

Sunday, October 26, 2014



M&G Concert at the Civic Theatre

The first of this season's Civic Concerts featured two works inspired by the seasons.
First, Piazzolla's Cuatro Estanciones Porteñas – four contrasting Tango-flavoured movements depicting the seasons in Buenos Aires. Originally a piano work, this version, by Leonid Desyatnikov, brings it closer to Vivaldi, in a virtuosic violin concert. Brilliantly played by the LMP and Tasmin Little, with a lovely cantabile cello theme for Autumn from Sebastian Comberti.
Roxanna Panufnik's World Seasons borrows ideas and idioms from various musical cultures, without ever imitating. Autumn in Albania is a punchy, rhythmic dance movement, with a poignant love song following the cadenza. Tibetan Winter, complete with singing bowl [Comberti again], is hauntingly ethereal, and Indian Summer is sultry, smoky with a blazingly intense finale, redolent of the Holi Festival of Colours.

These two alternative almanachs were bookended by familiar favourites for string orchestra: Tchaikowsky's lively, lilting Serenade, directed from the leader's chair by Tasmin Little, relishing the rich sonorities of the writing, and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, with leader Simon Blendis directing. Hard to bring anything fresh to the Mozart, you might think, but this was an enjoyably crisp, brisk reading, enhanced by the clear acoustic of the Civic Theatre.