Sunday, February 07, 2016


at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford

Trumpet legend John Wallace brought the Philharmonia Brass to the Civic for a revelatory evening of arrangements.
You'll never see so many brass players on one stage,” he assures us in his entertaining pre-concert conversation. And I can believe him, since here, sitting alongside the Phil's brass players for Brian Lynn's Fanfare for Essex, are young musicians from the Essex Youth Brass Ensemble. A great idea – and they came back after the interval under their director Steve Drury, playing a cue from the Victorian Kitchen Garden.
Two Eric Crees arrangements from the professionals, with Wallace conducting: Bach's familiar Toccata and Fugue, with a splendid palette of colours as the tune was tossed around. Though maybe a little more reverberation in the acoustic would have blended them better. And sounding like “a pit band on heat” [Wallace], the Suite from West Side Story.
To end, an astonishing arrangement by Elgar Howarth of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Amazing feats of versatility, and otherworldly sounds, from the band ranged in a wide-screen arc across the Civic stage. An off-stage trumpet for Il Vecchio Castello, rumbling drums for the ox-cart, xylophone and some unbelievable trumpet effects for the Unhatched Chicks.

Brilliant playing, from virtuosi at the top of their game. Let's hope they can be persuaded back to Chelmsford soon. When perhaps we could have a better programme booklet – this time £2 bought us two whole pages on the Philharmonia [mother-ship to this ensemble] but nothing at all on Wallace or the pieces played.


at the Rose Playhouse Bankside

Hamlet at the Rose Theatre, the Bankside playhouse built in the 1580s by Philip Henslowe, where Shakespeare, Marlowe, Johnson and Kyd were staged until the early 17th century.

When the sweet prince last trod these boards, just three years ago, we were assured that Hamlet was staged here in 1594. Whether that's true or not, there is a definite sense of historical continuity here, even in this radical re-working of Shakespeare's longest drama.

This bodes some strange eruption in our state,” warns Horatio, the first words spoken after an ominous soundscape. This is a wilfully disjointed, oneiric vision of Hamlet's world - “In that sleep of death, what dreams may come,” he muses, in his big soliloquy.

Chris Clynes is the black-clad Prince; he speaks the speeches with clarity, and occasional passion - “my mind's eye” - but never seems to have much mirth to lose; we're too used to lighter, more jocular Hamlets, perhaps. Messing with his mind in this claustrophobic space are Suzanne Marie's hysteric Ophelia, Louise Templeton's unfeeling Gertrude, and Nigel Fyfe's Claudius – an imposing presence, though not especially regal. Ross McNamara's Laertes, great-coat and rifle, brings a controlled passion to his role, and Luke Jasztal makes an engaging Horatio, especially in his closing speech, where he borrows some of Fortinbras's valediction.
Dermot Dolan's Polonius is dressed like a comic, and bears a banjo, but is singularly unamusing.
Yorick's skull makes an early, unlooked-for appearance – the Gravedigger a victim of the cuts – and returns as Ophelia's remembrances. Much of the poetry, and some of the soliloquies, are lost in this nightmare world.
The echoing excavation area is used for the ghost-watchers and much more – Hamlet's return, for instance – and there are some telling visual moments, like Ophelia's funeral procession. And Hamlet's little marionettes for the Murder of Gonzago.

The playlist is nothing if not eclectic: Goodnight Sweetheart, Mad About the Boy, Send in the Clowns, Leonard Cohen, Lonely Goatherd [for the Mousetrap], Lili Marlene [for Ophelia and Laertes sharing a bag of chips].

Director Diana Vucane's 90-minute tragedy seeks to see the play afresh through Hamlet's eyes, “focusing on the perspective of a disturbed mind, thus defying the reality-based structure of time and space, recognizing solely the inconceivable logic of a dream.” It comes across, though, as an earnest but unedifying student concept, offering only occasional insights into Shakespeare's play or Hamlet's troubled mind.

production photograph by Jana Andrejeva-Andersone

Thursday, February 04, 2016



Jubilant Productions at the Headgate Theatre, Colchester

Since the success of Merry It Was To Laugh There back in 2014, we've eagerly awaited a new chamber work from Jubilant.
After a few hiccups and false starts, Miss Bliss is getting a rehearsed reading at the Headgate next month.
Romancing Miss Bliss or ‘The Dentist’s Dilemma’ is a new original and comic look at the secret lives of those who write romance fiction, the best selling literary genre in the world.
Dentist Felicity Bliss thinks writing a romance is as easy as falling out of bed. For a bet, she enters Pomme d’Amour Press’s competition to write such a book, and wins. Her prize is to be mentored in the art of romantic fantasy fiction by a seasoned scribe and soon she discovers it’s not all satin sheets and Chardonnay. Can she write another book? Is there romance in dentistry? Will she learn to love her readers and will her mentor find some new vocabulary?

Written by playwright Anne Pearson especially for Jubilant, the play features an original ‘book-within-a-play’ style as the scenes from Felicity’s book are dramatised.

This reading features Colchester favourites Christine Absalom and Ben Livingstone, and is directed by Ignatius Anthony.

8pm on Wednesday 10 and Thursday 11 February, tickets £8 [£6 concessions]
Headgate Theatre
14 Chapel Street North

01206 366000

Monday, February 01, 2016


at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford

A trio since Jules Knight left for Holby City, this “operatic” crossover man-band continues to tour the world with their close harmonies and key changes, making U2 sound like Puccini and vice versa.
Classically trained, these singers, though their education does not seem to have included filling a modest auditorium without mega-watt amplification. Not that there's much classical music on offer here: their set started with Simon and Garfunkel [Bridge Over Treacle] and included Snow Patrol, Elvis, Sting and that other crossover charlatan Andrea Bocelli.
There was gentle banter – Adele, Saga Cruises, Il Divo and Terry Wogan in the frame – and a welcome appearance by Sandra Colston's Funky Voices, backing You Raise Me Up and Jerusalem. One man band at the keys was Martin Riley.

Simple staging – mics, monitors and a little mist- with video projections behind. Raindrops and waterfalls – maybe not the best choice for this audience demographic - the Union Flag and wild horses. They wouldn't drag me back, but the sell-out crowd waved, cheered and leapt to their feet at the end.

Sunday, January 31, 2016


King Edward VI School Chelmsford

Not a show for the faint-hearted, Les Mis. The “School Edition” not noticeably less challenging than the full-fat grown-up version.
Director James French, in his first big musical for KEGS, gets 110% from his huge company of urchins, students, convicts, topers, dancers and ladies of the night. The battle of the barricade is stunningly effective, as is the stirring climax to Act One. The choral set-pieces – Turning, At the End of the Day, Look Down – are superbly sung, and the idealistic “schoolboys” are strongly characterized individuals.
The solo voices are excellent, taking the operatic scoring in their stride, led by Joseph Clark's haunted Valjean, Isabelle George's tender Eponine and Joseph Folley's cold, clipped Javert.
Musical Director Tim Worrall keeps everything tightly together, conjuring a satisfying symphonic sound from his prominent pit orchestra.

photographs: Essex Chronicle

Richard Broadway writes for the KEGS Newsletter:

Richard Broadway became the sixth Head Master of KEGS in the year Shakespeare co-founded his Lord Chamberlain's Men. More recently, he has ghost-written appreciations of performances at his old school. This is his last.

Masques in the reign of the Virgin Queen. A Victorian pantomime with songs. Niche shows on the new stage: Smike, Jennings Goes to School, the made-in-house Midas. And more recently the big blockbusters: Oliver!, Joseph, Anything Goes.
This marvellous Les Mis must surely top them all – a huge challenge bravely undertaken and triumphantly met.

House Full notices out, and we make our way into the already crowded hall as, on the extended stage, the convicts are already wearily breaking rocks.

The catwalk encloses the impressive pit band, and is inventively used for many of the scenes, allowing smooth transitions between the big set pieces and the more intimate moments. The powerful end to Act One an outstanding example, with the soloists ranged around in front as the chorus swells on the main stage.

The principal players give confident, engaging performances. And convincing vocal accounts of the challenging Schönberg score.
Not least the youngest actors: Elliot Harding-Smith as a cocky little “top-of-the-class” Gavroche, superbly sung. And what a treat to have such a good voice [Matthew Wadey] for Castle in the Cloud instead of the cute breathiness which has become the norm.
The cast is hugely strong in depth, too, with all the young revolutionaries in the ABC café neatly differentiated, and small roles like the Bishop [Benjamin Russell], or the tipsy Grantaire [Benjamin Kinder], given full weight.
Molly Sun-Wai brings an artless innocence to the tragic Fantine, Charlotte Abbotts as the older Cosette is girlishly charming, an ideal foil for Thomas Mitty's finely nuanced law student revolutionary Marius. Eponine, the first to fall in the uprising, is beautifully sung by Isabella George – her duet with Marius – A Little Fall of Rain – exquisitely done, the trio A Heart Full of Love another musical highlight.
The terrible Thénardiers are given broad-brush characterizations by Benjamin Southern-Thomas, blatantly watering the wine under the nose of his clientèle, and fishwife Hazel Ellender as his frightful missus. Nice to see them resplendently dressed as beggars at the feast.
Harry Clark carries most of the revolutionary fervour as Enjolras, waving the red flag, rallying his doomed troops with style and a strong will.
The legendary role of Jean Valjean is superbly taken by Joseph Clark. Fighting for justice, bearing his guilt, ageing and dying, this is a compelling performance by any standards. His face-off with Javert is an electric moment on front stage. Joseph Folley plays the obsessive Inspector with exemplary precision and panache. A tall, menacing figure, his black-gloved hands firmly behind his back, he draws the eye whenever he appears. Every word is clearly enunciated; his big number – Stars – is given a kneeling climax, a bold move which seems only to accentuate the emotional heft.
Given the inevitable budgetary limitations, the staging is thrillingly effective. On countless occasions, Joseph Thorogood's set design, George Twinn's lighting and James French's groupings form a thrilling fresco – notably at the barricade. The runaway cart – often risibly lightweight – is here, with its load of luggage, a believably weighty burden for Valjean. The scene changes happen seamlessly – the drunkards clear Thénardier's tavern, for instance; the inn – well frequented by underage drinkers – is another great crowd picture, giving opportunities to the colossal chorus; their distant singing behind the final deathbed scene makes another subtle transition.
The twenty-strong pit orchestra – surrounded by the cat-walk fore-stage – produces a stunning sound, generally well balanced with the voices. [Claire Greenwood's oboe heard to touching effect.]
Les Misérables is directed by James French, with the assistance of Elizabeth Hutchinson and Henry Sainsbury; the Musical Director is Tim Worrall, with sound design by Rafee Ahmed.

This huge company, on stage, in the band and behind the scenes, have earned the indelible memories they'll have of this milestone show. And they thoroughly deserve their moment of triumph at the end of Act One, to say nothing of the rapturous roar, the double encore and the standing ovation that greets their last bow. One of the many reasons that the performing arts are so vital in education. As Victor Hugo has it: '“Le beau est aussi utile que l'utile.” Il ajouta après un silence, “Plus, peut-être.”' 'Rien n'est tel que le rêve pour engendrer l'avenir.'