Sunday, April 26, 2015


Little Baddow Drama Club at the Memorial Hall

Zombies, a false-bottomed handbag, a part-time pole-dancer and a falling chandelier.
None of these, alas, appeared in this whodunnit, though they did feature in the audience suggestions collected during the interval.
This is the second murder mystery Little Baddow have presented, and, as before, the action is halted at a key moment to allow the audience's imagination free rein as they confer over the sausage rolls and battenberg.
Paul Reakes' play is an unlikely tale of infidelity, in which the masked intruder [Martin Lucas] is not all he seems. Nor is Theo Spink [John Peregrine] whose home is burgled, or his vamp of a wife [Heather Lucas]. Frumpish spinster Amelia Trim [perfectly characterised by Vicky Tropman], birthday girl, holds the key to the ridiculous dénouement, thwarting the deviant designs of Theo and the poor man's Raffles …

A most entertaining format, with the “comedy-thriller” ably directed by Lindsay Lloyd.

Saturday, April 25, 2015


Little Waltham Drama Group at the Memorial Hall

September Song on the soundtrack, and for Little Waltham's trademark proscenium pictures, a vaguely impressionist pair of cemetery gates in the fall [Liz Willsher].
Mags Simmonds' enjoyable production of this favourite five-hander has heart-warming performances from the three widows, united in convivial mourning for their menfolk.
What are “the boys” doing now, they wonder as they sip their tea. Cue for a heavenly spin-off there, maybe ?
Ida, the home body in whose bijou apartment they meet, is played with emotional subtlety and throwaway comic timing by Linda Burrow. She's joined by Vicky Weavers' glamorous Lucille, in her thrift-shop mink with matching muff, and Helen Langley's Doris, still missing Abe after four years. They all have a good feel for the wise-cracking, world-weary Jewish comedy, and the pace is lively despite some interventions from prompt corner.
Witty, warm and often touchingly insightful, the show has some wonderful moments, from the broadly comic Cha Cha Cha to the subtly poignant – poor, confused Ida as she turns out the lights.
The cast is completed by Brian Corrie as Katz, the butcher who delivers, and Sally Lever as the flamboyant, flirtatious Mildred – looking as if she could give Lucille a run for her money …


Cut to the Chase at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch

for The Public Reviews

Cut to the Chase – versatile multi-talented actor/musicians - back on top form in this brilliant revival of Pomerance's powerful drama, directed by Simon Jessop, combining spectacular theatricality with intimate exchanges.
This is outstanding work by any standards. Difficult to remember, sometimes, that this is a small regional repertory company. Strong concept, marvellous music, the director's vision and amazing acting all ensure a memorable two hours in the theatre. The story is that of Joseph Merrick, whose increasing deformity makes him an object of curiosity, at first in country fairs, and later in London society.

Mark Walters' stunning set, with its sloping circle surrounded by gauze curtains and its scaffolding galleries on either side, recalls a music hall or a place of worship. We're in the world of the circus and the freak show – that “vast revolving show which never seems to end”. Footlights around the ring; suspended above, with ropes and pulleys, the tin bath and other accoutrements.

Into this arena come the Victorian characters of the drama. Treves, the physician – a scientist in an age of science - who will rescue and then befriend the Elephant Man. He's played with quiet authority, and later with moving misgivings, by Fred Broom. Carr Gomm, chairman of the London Hospital, a striking giant projected image at first, sees the welcome return to these boards of Stuart Organ, while Ross, who will exploit Merrick's appearance for profit is played with superlative style by James Earl Adair. Joanna Hickman stands out in an impressive double role – the legendary actress Madge Kendal, carefully rehearsing her greeting, and the all-important cellist.

Merrick himself, his appearance suggested first by a battered hat and sacking mask, is given a magnificent performance by Tom Cornish, who miraculously assumes the deformed shape as it is described to us. He brings out the intelligence and sensitivity of this tortured soul, especially in the more intimate scenes, with Mrs Kendal, for instance, or with Treves, tenderly sponging him down in that tin bath.

Music [Steven Markwick] plays a key role in this production, from the whirling carousel of the introduction to live accompaniment – Treves on violin amongst others – songs and found percussion on chains and metal poles.

So many heart-stopping moments: the French song as the rain pours down on Merrick and his keeper. Romeo and Juliet unravelled. The entrance of the freak show cart, chickens cooped on the roof, through light and fog in a vision worthy of Fellini. Treves' dream, in which, in shadow-play, the roles are reversed and Merrick presents his flawed saviour as a medical specimen, his own words twisted and distorted. And at the end, his model of St Philip's completed, the Elephant Man can take up his bed, offer the comfort of pillows to the souls around him, before his agonising death. Moving images play across his tortured body as we hear Gomm's account of his life, and Merrick's own poem, and light streams forth from the tiny windows of the church.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews


Middle Ground Theatre Company at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford

A mild-mannered man, just the wrong side of middle age. His modest one-bed flat in the suburbs. A police detective - “clever, clever copper” and a woman who's had some success as a writer of police dramas for the television.

Such are the ingredients for Richard Harris's intricately plotted thriller. In the tradition of Sleuth or Deathtrap, our author has his characters playing games with each other as he plays games with his audience. It's all rather self-consciously meta-theatrical, with regular references to actors and scripts. Why are whodunnits so popular ? An eye on the box office… And it's one of Dee's tv plays that provides a spur to revenge in the festering mind of the master manipulator.

There's not a lot of action. There is a lot of talking, and after the interval the stakes, the tension and the voices are raised, before the double twist in the last ten minutes: there's a satisfying feeling of closure as the curtain falls, before we realise that the final twist of the knife depends on something that could never have been known for certain, a violent reaction which plays into his devious hands … “We must always have a dramatic ending !”

The characters – not always terribly convincing – are well cast. Paul Opacic makes a great 80s television cop, rough and ready, with his raincoat and his hat. Joanna Higson is the ambitious writer who uses him for research purposes. And Robert Gwilym is a delight as dotty “Mr Stone”, with his manic little giggle and his chilling mood swings. “People don't behave like me – or only in plays.” His obsessive, meticulous plotting and scheming, his consummate theatrical deceptions are redeeming features of an otherwise uninspiring drama.

Michael Lunney's production is impressively staged. Set in 1981, when the piece was written, it boasts a lovely period set: brown furniture, brown sauce on the coffee table, and an evocative street scene backdrop. There are references to Barlow and Watt, and Dunn & Co. The characters smoke indoors. Maybe thirty years ago audiences were held by this kind of wordy cat-and-mouse – it did have a long West End run back then, with Francis Matthews the original Stone - but I'm not convinced it's worth reviving today.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Friday, April 24, 2015


National Theatre at the Lyttleton

Here we are, on St George's day, between the Magna Carta celebrations and the General Election. What better time to revisit Caryl Churchill's 1976 piece about the political aftermath of the Civil War. Poor relief, an economy on the rocks, corruption and hypocrisy in government.
This is the England of Levellers and Ranters, where, 600 years on, the ruling classes are still thought of as a foreign foe. Where all women are considered damned. Where religion, despite everything, still holds almost everyone in its thrall.
The stunning first image [Es Devlin's sumptuous design, glowingly lit by Bruno Poet] is a vast banqueting hall. The table – the size of a tennis court, it seems – groans under the weight of rich food. The nobles are sitting around it, enjoying the feast. The cloth is also the stage; the soldiers, the revolutionaries, the dispossessed, move around amongst the huge platters. It's a wonderful conceit, cleverly followed through, as the cloth is removed, then the boards torn up by the Diggers to reveal the earth of England beneath.
Churchill's play is a series of scenes, some brief, some, like the verbatim Putney debates, a little long - “we have been a great while upon this matter ...”. But these confrontations, between Cromwell with his right hand man Ireton and the soldiers and radicals, saw the forging of our parliamentary system. Orwell would have appreciated the back-tracking and the fudging. Not to mention Daniel Flynn's parson, who, like the incumbent at Bray, is keen to keep his living under the new order, as a parliament man becomes the new squire.
As the debates move wearily to a close, the leadership decides to set up a committee, and, suddenly, there they are in black and white, the Puritans at the back of the stage. After the interval, it is their turn to take their places around that broad table, scribbling away as the Diggers rip up the floor.
It's a huge cast, augmented by a community company, and it's wonderful to see them throng the stage, singing their psalms and their songs of freedom. And many excellent performances – Leo Bill's dogged Ireton, Steffan Rhodri as Sexby [and a truculent butcher refusing to sell meat to the bloated rich], Ashley McGuire as a down-trodden, hopeless vagrant, Trystan Gravelle as Briggs, and Joshua James stunningly convincing as the ranting preacher Cobbe.
In Lyndsey Turner's production, design and costume details remind us that the struggle we are witnessing is not confined to one time or one place. Nowhere more so than in a second debate, where vagrants and outcasts noisily discuss the notion of property and of God. A reminder, too, that this was originally, and in the recent Arcola revival, a chamber piece, far removed from Turner's sprawling epic theatre.
But the Lyttleton stage does allow some superb visuals; after our protagonists sketch their lives post-Restoration, turn and leave, the final scene sees one lone idealist on the empty, sodden field, as the light shines out towards us, and a flock of birds, alarmed, flies unseen over our heads.

production photograph: Marc Brenner