Sunday, June 28, 2015


Writtle Cards at the Village Hall

Elizabeth von Arnim's charming novel was a popular success in the 20s – this stage version by Matthew Barber made something of a Broadway hit some eighty years later.
It's a sentimental piece, in which four ladies from the capital's middle classes, united by a longing for wisteria and sunshine, find both, and themselves, in San Salvatore.
There are nine scenes before the interval, four after. Barber suggests that the actors, or costumed servants, should manage the props. Difficult to achieve, but otherwise, as here, even an efficient stage crew will slow the action and lose the flow. He also suggests that the sea and the gardens should be imagined out behind the audience, presumably leaving warm stone-work and wisteria as a back-drop. Pete Goodwin's design effectively replaces the dull black and brown of London with a riot of colour for the Genoese coast, earning a round of applause for the big reveal after the interval. And the incessant sound of English rain is replaced by continental railways as Italy approaches.
Two very different ladies plot their escape. Jodee Goodwin's Pollyanna Lotty and Leila Francis's “disappointed Madonna” Rose, nicely contrasted in Nick Caton's production. A much more dramatic contrast between the other two women, who answer the advertisement to share the cost of the castello. “Donna Carolina”, Lady Bramble, is an elegant butterfly, played with some style and fabulous frocks by Shelley Goodwin, and the redoubtable Mrs Graves, delightfully done by Liz Curley, as she sheds her hat, her stick and her inhibitions in the Italian sunshine.
The owner of the villa is Chris Rogerson, Costanza the volatile maid, Sharon Goodwin.
The menfolk who eventually join the ladies in Liguria are Arnott, alias Florian Ayres, writer of “romantic biography” [Jeremy Pruce] and Wilton, a scene-stealing Daniel Curley, plucking his nasal hair and only just preserving his dignity with a bath towel. And his Italian, at least, was meant to sound mangled …
Some fine performances here, with Lotty's character sympathetically developed. But the middle-class metropolitan milieu sometimes proved elusive, and on opening night there was some insecurity in lines and names.
The ever-resourceful refreshment team had come up with Paradiso Punch this time, limoncello the secret ingredient.

Sunday, June 21, 2015


Waltham Singers at Great Waltham Church

Not for the first time, a world première for the Waltham Singers. For the 2015 summer concert they'd chosen A Sense of Place for their theme, and commissioned Jeffery Wilson to write a work in which the Singers could be joined by the Fibre Optics choir from New Hall School, both directed by Andrew Fardell.
Songs of Home” proved an enjoyably accessible collection, with pictorial Haikus and Essex folk embraced within the ancient Offices of the Old Religion, the children's voices leading the way. Good to hear a fresh setting of Bushes and Briars, first collected in Ingrave by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and a “Ballad of Politics” of the same Edwardian vintage, penned by Charles Benham in the authentic accent of rural Essex.
The youngsters brought us another local composer, Armstrong Gibbs, with a lively setting of Five Eyes by Walter de la Mare.
And they gave a commendably crisp account of London Bells, the central setting in Bob Chilcott's Songs and Cries of London Town, which also featured a lovely lilting Flower of Cities All.
From further afield, Peter Maxwell Davies' Kestrel Road, with words from the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown, a joint commission of ten years ago. Good to have the words recited as well as sung; this evocative sequence was perhaps the piece mostly firmly rooted in its location – kirk and croft, school and smithy, manse and mill. Excellently sung, too, especially the challenging slow movement Windfall.
And to start, Elgar's tunefully Romantic Songs of the Bavarian Highlands – beautifully controlled clarity in False Love, and a lilting piano part in Lullaby.
The two accompanists – Laurence Lyndon-Jones and Weston Jennings – probably clocked up the most Air Miles, with duet Dances from Hungary and the Ukraine, Brahms and Dvorak.
A refreshingly eclectic summer offering, performed with the enthusiasm and attention to detail that make this choir so reliably impressive.


Saturday, June 20, 2015


Hutton Players at the Brentwood Theatre

Ray Cooney is the king of low farce, a genre that seems very dated these days. But, like the equally improbable Restoration Comedy, given a strong cast and determined direction it can still give an audience a jolly good evening out.
And so it proves on the Brentwood stage, with June Fitzgerald's pacy production zipping through the preposterous plot with breathtaking audacity. It's the usual tottering edifice of lies and deception erected to conceal old-fashioned infidelity with a nubile secretary.
The solid company is led by William Wells as the amusingly named Richard Willey, a junior minister – or PM's lapdog - in John Major's government. An absolute master of the style, with voice, timing and double-takes honed and polished to perfection. His sidekick – the hapless PPS George Pigden – is in the equally safe hands of Gary Ball; their work together is satisfyingly assured: the business with the mysterious stiff – a private dick, it turns out, played by Justin Cartledge – is priceless.
Romy Brooks looks and sounds convincing as the seductive socialist totty, Ben Martins rages as her jealous husband. A nice understated performance from Richard Spong as the obliging bell-hop in the Westminster Hotel, in whose snazzy suite, with its dodgy sash window, the action takes place.
Not without a few technical hitches, though the window itself, punctuating the quick-fire dialogue, behaved well. Not sure about leaving the 90s for “the present” - as usual mobile phones are the stumbling block – and the British Museum hasn't had a Reading Room since 1997.
But a fine revival of a classic of its kind, complete with dropped trousers and saucy glimpses of bare buttocks – never ask me whose …

Thursday, June 18, 2015


Chelmsford Junior Music Festival

I still clearly recall my first schools' choir festival. Conducted by the formidable Dr WH Swinburne, with local celebrity, Gielgud's first Juliet, Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies the guest of honour.
Nearly sixty years ago, now. Hard to tell at this distance, but I don't think we had as much fun as this year's Civic massed choirs, and I'm sure we weren't nearly as entertaining.
The Civic was packed for four nights with proud parents and restless siblings. And the stage was packed with 150 or so youngsters, from six schools on the night I looked in, with 27 schools taking part over the four nights of the Festival.
They trooped on to Heigh Ho from Snow White, and show tunes made up most of the programme. A finger-snapping Singin' in the Rain was followed by a beautifully disciplined Over The Rainbow. Grease, Dirty Dancing – hand-jive was as dirty as it got – and, most impressively, The Rhythm of Life from Sweet Charity.
After the obligatory thank-yous, everyone took to their feet for an arm-waving encore of Fame.
The core work this year was The Return of the Glass Slipper; not a sequel, but a mini-musical with narrators. Mostly forgettable in the company of Disney, Bart and the rest, but a nice Calypso This Generation and a Spanish I'm Lovely.
No interval, but two breathers for the singers, with charming novelty numbers by an eleven-year-old trombonist, and accompanist Danielle Harding-Smith joining MD Natalie Thurlow at the piano.
Natalie's infectious enthusiasm and solid direction were key factors in the success of the evening. All 150 pairs of eyes were on her, as she guided them through the changes of tempo and key, and some brilliant dramatic pauses.
A real pleasure to see these youngsters experience the thrill of singing together, and the contagious joy of performance.

photograph: Val Scott

Friday, June 12, 2015


Blackmore Players at the Village Hall
for Sardines

Blackmore on splendid Fifties form for this classic tale of the alien avocado invader.
It's a cult show, and comes encrusted with traditions worthy of D'Oyly Carte. The Players pay homage to most of them, but manage to keep the show fresh and immediate.
The audience is immersed in the action from the off, with hobos and hookers and all the noisy denizens of Skid Row roaming the auditorium in search of a trick to turn or a bench for the night. And we are all immersed in the show, too, with a traverse acting area [impressively paved]. Especially effective for the nightmare dentist sequence, with Rob Lewis-Jones's wonderfully terrifying semi-sadist entering through green smoke and terrorising poor Seymour right under our noses. It's a risky strategy, particularly for a musical with everyone miked up, but the only down-side was an audible buzz under some dialogue.
This is a rural community group, with strictly local talent, performing in a multi-purpose village hall [with one of the most keenly priced theatre bars in the land]. But no compromises are made, in a great example of what can be achieved with inspiring, clear-sighted direction [Bill Edwards in the hot seat for this one, with choreography by Denise Jackson]. There's no pit, of course, but a great little band in the corner, with MD Shirley Parrott at the keyboard.
The cast is impressively strong. Craig Stevens makes a nicely nervous Seymour, with his geeky specs and baseball cap – superb singer, too. His Audrey is Lisa Rawlings; vocally assured, carefully characterized. It's a pity she gives most of her big number sitting on the stoop, invisible to almost all the audience.
Audrey II – the star of the show, really, with its multicoloured warts and gore-stained maw – is excellently voiced by Bill Edwards himself, with the expressive flora [uncredited] manipulated by John Hughes.
Mushnik, gravel-toned and fundamentally jolly despite everything, is engagingly played by Simon Haskell, who also provides the portentous voice in the prologue.
The three backing singers – Ronnette, Chiffon, Crystal – are authentically sung by Gail Hughes, Sandra Trott and Amy Pudney, with stunning show dresses for the finale; perhaps they could have been a little more engaged with the plot emotionally, though.
Memorable cameos from many others, including Charley Magee's Bernstein and Martin Herford's Skip Snip, and a big bold chorus of all ages and abilities.

Lots of detail to admire, even to those of us who are very familiar with the show. A nice new clock after renovation, with Mushnik's favourite fedora still hanging underneath. A nice brickwork scene curtain; I longed to see an actor walk across with it – much more dramatic. And a brilliantly helpful glossary in the programme, with useful reminders of Vitalis, Lucille Ball and Hedy Lamarr ...

production photograph - Kira Louise Photography