Wednesday, December 13, 2017



at Brentwood Theatre


The much-loved C S Lewis classic is not easy to bring off on stage.
This American version from the 80s, book by Jules Tasca, music by Thomas Tierney with lyrics by Ted Drachman, is a full-blown musical with some pleasant tunes for all – captures the excitement of the Pevensies’ adventure, and even manages a brief Blitz frame.
There’s magic, too, in Ray Howes' warm-hearted production, with the White Stag [Emma White, also a spirited Mrs Beaver] dancing with fairy dust for the Overture. The land of Narnia is suggested by an impressive Gothic-inspired set, though the wardrobe seems somewhat understated.
A company of eight young actors bring the characters to life with infectious enthusiasm. Connor Kelly is an excellent Edmund, completely convincing as the boy who’s seduced by the White Queen’s promise of Turkish Delight. His sisters are Elize Layton’s Lucy and Katie Lawrence’s Susan – their singing in Field of Flowers is a musical highlight. Tom Brooks doubles delightfully as the brave Peter and the bearded dwarf who drags the White Queen’s chariot around. She’s played, with a touch of the Demon King, by Lydia Shaw, beautifully attired and made up. Aslan, the Lion who heads the forces of Good, is Philip McParland, who’s also the wise professor. His characterization is not helped by his head-dress, which sits awkwardly atop his mane and his own face. Noblest in profile, it must be a disappointment for a generation raised on Cats and The Lion King. Guido Garcia Lueches is a wonderful Mr Tumnus as well as Mr Beaver.
There are plenty of musical numbers – Andy Prideaux the MD - some more appropriate than others. No problem with a jolly knees-up for the Beavers, but it seems inappropriate to trivialise torture and martyrdom with “Murder Today”.

The opening number - “Doors and Windows” - sets out some fine sentiments about what the Prof calls “the architecture of possibilities”. Not easy language, or ideas, for the audience from Margaretting Church of England Primary School. But they seemed rapt by the story, unfamiliar to many of them I’m sure, of Good driving out Evil, the children lost now found, Springtime melting Narnia’s perpetual winter and the world made right again ...

"Aslan Returns" artwork by Jonathan Barry


The Crick Crack Club at the British Museum

The Ramayana is a vast, sprawling epic, which has come down to us in many forms. Largely through oral traditions.
So it is a good choice for storytelling specialists the Crick Crack Club; their presentation is much abbreviated, and wholly absorbing.
We’re promised a battle between good and evil, truth and illusion.
The tangled chain of tales is told by Emily Hennessey, with Sheema Mukherjee providing not only a wonderfully evocative musical soundscape, but also a rapt listener, and vocal support at key moments in the drama.
Hennessey, a performer steeped in the legend and lore of India, draws us in to the world of gods and avatars, as she follows the legend of Rama and Sita through time and across continents. “There was once a man and a woman,” she begins, “And they longed for children ...” But gods Brahma and Vishnu warn that the stars cannot be re-aligned; only Shiva, the destroyer, holds out hope, but warns that there will be consequences …
And at the end of the two-hour tale our storyteller reminds us that in our own world it’s not always easy to distinguish gods from demons, truth from illusion.
Will there be loads of special effects?” wondered one of the many children in the audience. Of course ! – the very best kind, Cerebrally Generated Images, conjured by the story-teller’s art, of sea monsters, air-borne chariots, a golden deer, Shiva’s marvellous palace, the flying monkey Hanuman, ta mricaulous blue arrow, the paradise isle of Lanka, the ten-headed Ravana, the cosmic battle between monkeys and demons.

The Crick Crack Club return to the British Museum on February 11, this time with “Greek myths unleashed”.

Sunday, December 10, 2017


Eastern Angles at The Sir John Mills Theatre

Another helping of seasonal jollity and surreal fun, this time from the pen of Harry Long. Not a spoof on the original, he insists. Perhaps an hommage.
Just as hilarious, and still recognizable, but with a very different feel, not least because the string quartet has now become a troupe of luvvies, putting on their Oscar Wilde as a front for some serious house-breaking. And, unlike their predecessors in the Ealing comedy, these jailbirds are really talented musicians.
Sean Turner’s set is one of the best we’ve seen at this address, with a staircase, and a perilously small upper floor for the little old lady’s easy chair. The upright piano doubles as the counter at the local nick, where weary coppers listen to Mrs Blaine’s imaginative accounts of wrongdoing on Ipswich’s “glorious boulevard”.
She’s wonderfully created by Emma Barclay, who thanks to some smart quick changes and a life-size cardboard alter ego, is also Cow Crusher, the brains of the gang. Todd Heppenstall is a menacing Left Eye, Alex Prescot the stage-struck Smithy – a touch of tap for his Chorus Line moment – as well as Mr Overlock, theatrical costumier. The depressing pessimist Kim, who finally finds love and a crystal chandelier, is played by Keshini Misha, and the strangely named Scar Feet – One Round in the original – is the excellent Daniel Copeland, last seen here, with Long, in Holy Mackerel.
Dominic Conway’s music includes On the Run, for the five convicts, the title number [“too charming to blame”], and a Les Miz tribute – One Job More – as they prepare for their last heist.
Veteran of the barricades Michael Ball is the subject of an often saucy running gag, Binkie’s friend Gladys makes a last minute cameo appearance on lead guitar, Michael Fish the pet penguin descends in his cage from the flies. There’s an inspired use of Lapsang Souchong, a very nice effect with vintage footlights and some stage curtains, and, as an Act Two warm-up, a chance for the capacity crowd to have their moment of fame in some innovative digital audience participation.
Not perhaps the finest “Yeasty Mangles” vintage, but in Laura Keefe’s fast-paced production, a warming feel-good tipple, enhanced of course by the traditional hot punch and mince pies in the interval.

From Gatacre Road the show travels to Woodbridge in January, and is finally re-located to Orton Brimbles for its Peterborough run.

production photograph: Mike Kwasniak

Saturday, December 09, 2017


CTW at The Old Court Theatre
Shakespeare’s problem comedy – a star vehicle for the fat rascal - seems to cry out for music; there’s a long roster of adaptations from Salieri to Sullivan, Verdi to Vaughan Williams. And only a few years ago the RSC did a musical version, not too successfully.
Peter Jeary’s take is a very different kettle of pickle herring. A juke box musical, with songs of the sixties to provide interludes and insights into plot and character.
The idea was prompted by the Whitehall farce, a genre both apposite and ripe for parody.
It all works disgracefully well, despite some challenges in the execution. Not hard to imagine this being suggested for a professional company of actor/musicians.
CTW fields a strong cast, who generally cope well with the sometimes conflicting demands of Shakespeare and the Sixties songbook.
Stock characters, many of them, from David Johnson’s Robertson Hare vicar to Bruce Thomson’s hilarious Gallic Caius. Sarah Bell – a char with hoover and drooping ciggie – is a fine Mistress Quickly. A lovely, dense Slender – parka and Brummagem – from Alexander Bloom; the young lovers are Charlotte Norburn and James Fletcher. But it’s old lust rather than young love centre stage here, with Dave Hawkes’ lubricious Falstaff, sporting some outrageous 60s military clobber, clumsily courting the two married ladies of the title. They are excellently done by Nikita Eve and Rachel Curran. Musically secure, with a real chemistry between them, they are particularly successful in letting Shakespeare speak, and making sure the Bard gets the laughs he’s written. Their husbands are Simon Hirst, giving a nice period performance as Page, and Tom Tull as the jealous Ford, making the most of his numbers, including a powerful Delilah.
Some songs work better than others. Ring of Fire fits perfectly for the fancy-dress fairies in the forest finale, with “marvellous night for a moondance” to set the scene. An ironic Look of Love opens the second half, Presley’s Suspicion is ingeniously staged, with three smoking lovers seducing Ford’s wife behind his back. And was that Wimoweh for the wives’ “confession” in dumb-show – brilliant !
The music - all of it live - is done by Nick Mayes – who also plays Slender’s servant Peter Simple. Some issues with balance between backing and vocals, and between dialogue and songs, meant that the unplugged pieces worked rather better in the context of the play.
The costumes and the set both very evocative of the period, though the set – split by a strange black hole in the centre – finds it hard to melt into the background.
Despite some dumbing down and desperate double entendres, this is a very enjoyable take on Shakespeare, all done in two hours. By the sing-along Everlasting Love line-up the audience will include some new converts to CTW and, we hope, to Shakespearean comedy.

Monday, December 04, 2017


One from the Heart at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford

A portentous start, with Richard Strauss, a star cloth and a flying mirror, but One from the Heart soon get into their panto stride in a show, directed by Kerris Peeling, that’s packed with comedy routines and high octane musical numbers.
The USP this year is The Man in the Mirror – not Michael Jackson, but Louie Westwood’s silver-suited camp dynamo, combining the role of narrator and Good Fairy – with the pyrotechnics to prove it. A very engaging performance, his That’s The Way I Like It catch phrase (courtesy of KC and the Sunshine Band) quickly getting the young audience on side. He proves a decent song and dance man, too, in his opening number, Live in Living Color from Catch Me If You Can.
He’s backed by four lithe chorus boys, students from Laine Theatre Arts and Bird College. An ensemble of eight in all, including three local dance students, who pop up to contribute some excellent steps – choreography by Chris Whittaker – behind practically every number: Someone in the Crowd from La La Land, Wake Me Up, Cut to the Feeling from Ballerina, Nothing Holding Me Back, and another triumph for the Man in the Mirror, now sporting a rainbow hat, Sweet Charity’s If My Friends Could See Me Now. Though musical theatre buffs will point out that although “food” might make more sense than “chow”, it doesn’t actually rhyme …
Some choices seem more relevant to the plot than others: Holding Out for a Hero works well in context, with a cheeky nod to Les Miz at the end.
Useful to have these extra bodies to fill the wide Civic stage, not to mention the “seven fun-sized helpers”, the synonymous dwarfs excellently done by the Green Team of local boys and girls on Press Night. “Ho Hi, we cry,” they sing, in an impudent gesture to Disney. Because there are only six actors to cover the characters; no king, no attendant for the hunky Prince Henry (Dominic Sibanda, another fine dancer).
Abigail Carter Simpson is a lively Snow White in her “classic black bob” and puff sleeves, Dickie Wood an energetic comedian as a streetwise Muddles, silly son to Andrew Fettes’ Nurse Nellie. A rather shouty dame, perhaps – the decibel level high on both sides of the footlights, but brilliant in the demanding comedy routines. The wicked Queen Grizelda is done with a touch of the Valkyries by Jenny-Ann Topham.
Simon Aylin’s script is patchy – a few desultory topical gags, and a puzzling reference to Dukes, which as Chelmsford clubbers will know, has been closed for five years. But he does include some lovely panto favourites. The man-scoffing skeletons from the ghost routine let loose in the auditorium, a super tongue-twister based on the Prince’s homeland of Asfaria, the echoing wishing well, the classic quick-fire Three Houses nonsense, and two novelty numbers, The Music Man, with gestures, before the wedding, and an energetic Twelve Days, giving the crew time to set the cottage, and finishing with another favourite, the wicked super-soaker water cannon to drench the punters.
James Doughty’s pit band gives superb support to all those punchy numbers – even Agadoo, once voted the worst song of all time …
The big finish has fresh frocks for all, five treads for the walk-down, and a smashing megamix finale for the whole company. Leaving the audience happily exhausted by another enjoyable Civic panto.