Wednesday, December 17, 2014



The Stondon Singers at the Priory Church


A delicate Christmas pot-pourri from this exceptional chamber choir, directed by Christopher Tinker.
The centrepiece was In Terra Pax, in which Gerald Finzi encases words from Matthew's Gospel in a poem by Robert Bridges, placing the Bible story in an English countryside setting. Beautifully sung here, with the significant solos – the Poet and the Angel - impressively handled by Mark Ellis and Michelle Arthur. And Michael Frith at the organ valiantly deputizing for the orchestra.
A similar theme in Peter Warlock's Bethlehem Down, which, like Jesus Christ The Apple Tree, featured exquisitely modulated pianissimo passages.
Tinker's own setting of I Saw A Maiden was tenderly phrased, and the folk-inspired Scots Nativity by Colchester composer Alan Bullard had a movingly eloquent simplicity.
There was a new Holly and the Ivy from Matthew Owens, and a different In Dulci Jubilo, “a multi-layered cake”, with a high soprano line the frosting on top.

We had several chances to raise our voices, from Advent hymn to Adeste Fideles, and the evening was bookended by Es Ist Ein Ros' – first in the Praetorius original, then in a magical, mystical arrangement by Jan Sandstrom, its beautifully sustained notes floating up to the ancient rafters.

Monday, December 15, 2014


Brentwood Theatre Company at Brentwood Theatre

A very different kind of magic from last year – no music, no dancing, but a low-key bedtime story, moving and uplifting, which in David Wood's faithful adaptation captures the love and loyalty at the heart of Dahl's 1975 original.
It's a tale of poachers and pheasants, rich and poor, with plenty of food for thought as well as excitement and suspense.
Against David Zelly's cheerful cardboard cut-out design – the caravan and the cars play a key role here – Danny and his Dad take on the squire and his gamekeepers, sharing the secret ways of taking gamebirds: the horse-hair stopper, the sticky hat, and the boy's own invention, the sleeping beauty.
An enthusiastic cast of seven is headed by Jackson Pentland's gentle father and Porl Matthews' convincing Danny – their relationship is compellingly portrayed in several intimate scenes, Danny's adolescent frustration and fearlessness against his Dad's worldly-wise affection for his only son.
Both the doctor and the taxi driver are women in this version [Abi Taylor Jones and Joelle Campbell] – good strong performances, though I'm not sure why the doctor and the vicar's wife [Elka Lee-Green] speak like country bumpkins.
The villains include Allen Watts' gamekeeper Rabbetts – he also plays the kindly village copper – and Lee White's hilarious Hazell, working the audience in traditional melodramatic fashion, with a sneer, a glance, a flick of his jacket. His apoplexy at the sabotage of his shooting party is a highlight of the show, as is the involvement of the audience as his honorary beaters.

Ray Howes' heart-warming production is the ideal antidote to the deafening delights of the panto; an enchanting escape into a lost world of childhood.

production image: Carmel Jane Photography

Friday, December 12, 2014


CTW at the Old Court Theatre Chelmsford

Here's the Old Court Blackadder company reunited one last time – packing the theatre every night and raising funds for J's Hospice.
A merry Christmas jape, with the story of Ebenezer's conversion wrapped around the Amy and Amiability episode from series three.
Dean Hempstead directs a cast of curious characters, from the obese orphans to the low-rent sci-fi denizens of Queen Asphyxia's court, introducing several new faces to this stage – notably Georgina Whittaker as Queenie and Natalie Davies as Millicent – and one old face in a new guise: Terry Cramphorn as the Beadle and the effete Duke of Cheapside.
Kevin Stemp relishes the chance to revive his Prince Regent and his [Tudor] Melchett, Christine Davidson plays the grasping Mrs Scratchit, Robin Winder is the wailing Caledonian Ghost [and bluff industrialist Hardwood], and the incomparable duo of David Chilvers and Mark Preston give us various Blackadders [superbly delivered with immaculate timing] and the eternally downtrodden Baldrick, forever at the mercy of “the horridest man in the world”.

Scene changes are always going to present a challenge – Mozart, parlour music and Silent Night are rolled out to cover; especially successful was the virtue-of-necessity carol just before the delayed dĂ©nouement.
Flying squirrels, mulled wine by the hearth in the foyer, two convivial intervals and a double helping of classic comedy make this an ideal panto alternative for the run-up to Christmas. Totally sold out; but might be worth turning up early in the hope of the odd return ...

Thursday, December 11, 2014


Eastern Angles at the Sir John Mills Theatre Ipswich

Multiple mysteries, in fact, in this seasonal school-story confection by the famed team of Pat Whymark and Julian Harries, writers and directors.

Who is the real gardener here, and who the secret agent [from MFI5] ? Does anyone else remember the Ovaltineys ? Which is the character who is talked about a lot but never appears ? Could it be twin sister Lulu ? The ancient Sister Montezuma, confined by old age to the school tuck shop ? Brother Cadmium, sleuth monk ? Mrs Fenrir, the lupine dinner lady [a nod to this summer's Ragnarok] ? Or Scarcity Muttford, flapper and fascist ?
And who filched St Finnigan's elbow, the sacred relic with miraculous powers ?

The cast of five cope magnificently with the convoluted plot, changing costumes in a trice, providing instrumental accompaniment to the songs. Samuel Martin, as Billy and Sister Judith, even has a protracted fight with himself at the play's climax.
Greg Wagland, Eastern Angles Christmas favourite, has a ball as a sinister Rear Admiral, Cardinal Pecorino on his trusty Lambrusco, and school bully Lydia Bumolé. Oh, and Mr Cowell the music teacher.
Such celebrity name-checks are a running gag – Sister Usain Bolt [Suffolk lass Alice Mottram, impressively playing grotesques as well as schoolgirls] is the school's PE mistress, and all sorts of famous gels are dotted through the assembly hall.
Newcomer Joe Leat is excellent as an Irish Reverend Mother and Mr Facsimile the shifty Latin Master, and Alicia, our plucky heroine aged 15¾ is played by Francesca Gosling with a winning mix of feistiness and foolishness.

This catholic school for girls is a hot-bed of crime; this ripping yarn is a potent blend of Daisy Pulls It Off and Father Ted. There are tasty treats a-plenty along the way – the School Goose [is that a euphemism ?] and the cuddly moles, the hectic chase, the secret roulette table, the sea monster, the bearded bust of the saint, the stationery envy and the wrestling nuns.
And those wonderfully off-the-wall songs - “I'll be there to bully you”, “Isn't it grand” with fiddle and penny whistle, and the romantic “Alicia”, sax, violin and chorus of goose and moles.

It's all a wizard way to enjoy some festive fun; gold stars for silliness all round !

production photograph: Mike Kwasniak

Tuesday, December 09, 2014


Made in Colchester at the Mercury Theatre

The Mercury panto manifesto promises laughs for all ages, audience participation and much more. It could have added a fairytale made in Colchester: the tableau curtain has Jumbo, the Castle and the Italianate campanile of the Town Hall in silhouette, and the script, adapted by Fine Time Fontayne from a version done for the Lyric Hammersmith, includes loads of local references: Buttons from Brightlingsea, Dandini the Dedham Dandy, Fairy Fingringhoe.
And the names are echoed in the auditorium, with primary schools from Finchingfield, Tollesbury, Tendring packing the seats.
This Cinderella is refreshingly traditional in its approach - “you shall go to the ball!” - but with witty bits slipped in: “hemlock and fizz, no cherry” is the Wicked Stepmother's tipple, and Celine Dion's song becomes All By Mice Elf …
The playlist is mostly familiar, but with some unexpected treats and some original music by MD Richard Reeday. I liked the Sondheimlich “Unexpected” for Cinderella and her Prince, and Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm for the ghost routine – nicely done, this, with a twist at the end.
A great cast who know the panto ropes. Familiar faces back in harness this year are Dale Superville working his socks off as Buttons, and Ignatius Anthony and Tim Freeman as the deliciously immature D'Arcy sisters – the three of them showing their expertise in a messy routine involving indistinguishable slap and soup.
Sarah Moss is unusually convincing as Cinders, both in her skivvy's rags and in her beautiful ball-gown. Her Prince, Simon Pontin, looked the part, too, and kept doggedly in character even in numbers like The Best Song Ever.
Dandini is played, Essex-style, by Laura Curnick, who is also the Fairy Godmother, and Basienka Blake gives a memorable Evilla, a sexily sadistic stepmother with “a hornet's nest where her heart should be”, superb vocal characterization and a ballgown to rival Princess Crystal's.
There's a junior chorus – no cute tots here, but assured, talented young performers – who play mice, guests and debs.
The all-important transformation lacks impact, perhaps, though the ballet and the paper horse are effective.
Daniel Buckroyd's production maintains a brisk pace, never over-doing the routines, always looking for a chance for a throwaway gag for the grown-ups amongst the slapstick and the shouting.
And Juliet Shillingford's designs are elegantly simple – a massive dungeon kitchen with its smoky stove, and a ballroom dominated by a strikingly ornate clock.

production photograph: Pamela Raith