Monday, March 30, 2015


M&G Concert at the Civic Theatre

First time at the Civic for the Philharmonia, in a wonderful programme which introduced Chelmsford music-lovers to the amazing Zsolt-Tihamer Visontay, the Phil's dynamic young concert-master.
He brought with him two helpings of Mozart. The Divertimento for Strings, with the solemn Andante shifted to middle movement, framed by the energetic, expressive Allegros. And, with the addition of one or two winds, the 17th Symphony, written when the young Amadeus was just sixteen. A lively tempo, and a great rhythmic pulse in the Andante.
JS Bach's Violin Concerto, with Visontay as the soloist, was a revelation. A performance of warmth and charm, seeming to share the joy of discovery with the audience, bringing a real freshness to these familiar notes.
Strauss's Metamorphosen - “a Study for 23 Solo Strings” - was superbly interpreted. The theatre's dry acoustic meant that each of the threads in this rich tapestry of sound was distinctly audible, but able to blend into the flowing harmonic shifts and poignant melodies. And a beautifully controlled dying breath at the end. A truly memorable half hour of glorious music, with Visontay leading by example in superb ensemble playing.

Here, for interest, is the very different septet version, from the Hampstead Festival in 2013, with Visontay leading, and on cello, Guy Johnston, who will be playing the Haydn Concerto in the last M&G of this season, on May 3.

Sunday, March 29, 2015


Chelmsford Singers at Chelmsford Cathedral

Seventy years ago, the Allies, Canadians in the forefront, were busy liberating the Netherlands. In a matter of weeks, the war in Europe would be over.
This timely concert commemorates the end of WWII, with a masterly sequence, beginning with Richard Tanner's setting of Desmond Tutu's Prayer for Peace. More of an affirmation, in truth, with powerful singing from the choir, and a moving diminuendo at its close.
The accompanying musicians – Tim Carey, piano, Joy Farrall, clarinet, David Juritz, violin, and Adrian Bradbury, cello, played five movements from Messiaen's extraordinary Quartet for the End of Time, written and performed in a German PoW camp. Farrall exploited the clarinet's versatile voice impressively in The Abyss of the Birds; Carey and Bradbury gave a wonderful account of the mesmeric Homage to the Eternity of Jesus. It would have been good to hear the whole work, especially in the context of this “meditation”, as the Dean called it, which concluded with Annelies, by James Whitbourn.
It is a tuneful musical setting of words from Anne Frank's diary, haunting and heartfelt without ever being sentimental - a unique opportunity to share the experience of this most intimate writing with the musicians, the choir and the audience in the Cathedral. The composer's palette encompasses sounds and symbols from life in the Amsterdam annex, moments of Music Hall, Bach and plainchant, with clarinet and violin giving a Jewish colour to much of the scoring. Nicola Howard, soprano, gave an operatic – in the best sense – reading of her sequences, bringing the character to life, lifting the notes off the stave. The choir, under the empowering baton of James Davy, gave an expressive account of the many different moods and emotions: the determined trudge of We're Jews in Chains, the optimism of the spring awakening, and the passion of the Kyrie, a plea for mercy between Anne's nightmares – the dread of discovery, bitter sadness for the loss of friends.

Friday, March 27, 2015


New Venture Players at Brentwood Theatre

Comedy thriller” - two words of foreboding. “Alan Ayckbourn” - two words of promise.
But this rare flop from the playwright of Middle England disappoints on both counts. A few good laughs, one or two chilling moments. Otherwise a run-of-the-mill play, not pointed enough to be a proper spoof, not cleverly enough plotted to be a classic country house murder mystery.
New Venture Players, directed by Joan Scarsbrook-Bird made a good fist of it. An excellent box set, often difficult to achieve at this address, with a stout wooden door and fine furnishings.
And a reliable roster of character actors: David Pitchford strong as the frustrated fruitcake of a composer, Barry Howlett as his petulant brother the painter, James Biddles as the clueless detective, Janet Oliver as his long-suffering wife. And a perfect characterization of a stroppy teenager from Candy Lillywhite-Taylor: her conversation with her mother – in another Ayckbourn register altogether – was one of the better moments. Vikki Luck was the down-to-earth outsider, the object of the family's murderous intentions.
We heard the prompter too often; slow cues hampered the pace. And, since music was such an integral part of the piece, it might have been nice to have some to cover the long, dark scene changes.

But it was good to see New Venture tackle a [deservedly?] forgotten Ayckbourn, which has defeated even the best professionals on Scarborough's home turf...

Thursday, March 26, 2015



LADS at The Tractor Shed


As LADS opened their Ealing comedy, there were Ladykillers on the box, too. Turned out to be female pest control experts …
As fans of the 50s film will know, the vermin here are a pseudo string quartet who plan a heist from a room rented to them by an innocent little old lady.
LADS' production, produced and directed by Carole Hart, boasts a splendid set, with chez Wilberforce spaciously suggested, and a spare room – a little cramped, even for chamber music – which revolves impressively to reveal the roof outside the window.
This ingenious version by Graham Linehan [a recent success in the West End] is packed with gags, often physical, and a colourful cast of characters.  There's steam from the passing trains, a lethally long scarf, the criminals tumbling from the cupboard.
The brains behind the gang, “Professor” Marcus – the Alec Guinness role – is played with fine comic style by Daniel Tonbridge. His motley crew are Robin Warnes as geriatric cross-dresser and con-man Major Courtney, Keith Spencer unfailingly amusing as the slow-witted ex-boxer Mr Lawson - his demise particularly impressive, Alan Elkins as the vicious Louie, and Adam Hart excellent as the pill-popping teddy-boy.
Mrs Wilberforce, landlady to the mob and police time-waster, is played by Joan Cooper, convincingly clueless, in a wig that is terrible even by am-dram standards.
The fun could have been a little faster, with a touch more confidence in some performances, but nonetheless a laudable attempt at a challenging theatrical style. It's all “rather fantastical” [as David Hudson's weary copper has it] but most enjoyable – an affectionate tribute to a much-loved movie.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


National Theatre at the Dorfman


A family gathers in the parental home for Christmas, bearing gifts and grudges, mince pies variously filo-based and gluten-free. Plus a new card game: Bedlam! For age 6 and upwards – “starts out simple but rapidly descends into chaos”.
Yes, this is right up Ayckbourn Avenue – intended neither as criticism nor as congratulation. Yet Sam Holcroft's piece is edgier, with some bolder strokes.
The McGuffin here – so beloved of the Scarborough Master – is that the entire action is ludic. The floor of the Dorfman is marked out as for a board game, or basketball, and at either end, scoreboards await.
Matt [Miles Jupp] arrives, with his up-for-it actress girlfriend [Maggie Service]. His brother [Stephen Mangan] is already here, with his wife Sheena [Claudie Blakley] and their teenage daughter. It is apparent that Matt is more at ease with Sheena, Adam more suited to Carrie. And at this point the domestic comedy is enlivened by the first of the rules: MATT:MUST:SIT TO TELL A LIE. The rules proliferate, with added riders, then game-show-style scores, until the boards are flashing as the Christmas meal, like the game of cards, achieves a sublime, and ridiculous, anarchy.
It would be unkind to include too many spoilers here, but the mood turns much darker after the sit-com introduction, largely due to the characters, at first unseen, of the paterfamilias, on parole from hospital for the day, and Emma the chronically fatigued daughter.
Much of this is very funny indeed, with some reliable targets – therapy, family rivalries, infidelity and social awkwardness. Marianne Elliott gets the most out of her cast of consummate comic actors. Jupp, successful but unhappy lawyer, star, in his younger days, of fourteen amateur musicals. Mangan, failed cricketer, now banished to a Travelodge by his insufferable wife. Service's Carrie is a hilarious if ultimately tragic study of a compulsive performer – MUST:STAND UP:AND JIG AROUND: TO TELL A JOKE:UNTIL SHE GETS A LAUGH. Deborah Findlay is wonderful as Edith, the awful mother – her rules involve Cillit-Bang and Solpadeine – with telling contributions in smaller roles from John Rogan and Daisy Waterstone. Who have no rules
It is perhaps inevitable that the Rules conceit – also a metaphor for our coping strategies, and vicious point-scoring – has diminishing returns. And, once the winner – more irony - is declared there are several places where the play could have ended, but didn't. Not that the low-key final pages, with their muted farewells, were less than effective. “One day we'll probably look back on all this and laugh!” “No, actually. I don't think we will.”
The last production of the Hytner years – very enjoyable on many levels – and well suited to the refurbished Dorfman. Not for the first time we were pleased we were looking down onto the playing area from the gods.