Thursday, October 01, 2015


Theatre at Baddow

I was only aware of one stage version – a 39-Steps-style spoof of a few years back – so was intrigued to see how American playwright Tim Kelly handled this most popular of the Sherlock Holmes novels back in the 70s.
Turns out to be Conan Doyle as re-imagined by Agatha Christie. Wisely, the hound himself is audio only, the moor glimpsed by lightning flashes through the french doors. The action is confined to the sitting room of Baskerville Hall, dominated by a huge portrait of the ill-fated Sir Hugo.
The familiar characters [less Lestrade] come in and out, leaving clues and question-marks behind them. There are six scenes, most of them ending with a melodramatic curtain line and mysterious music.
Dave Hawkes' hyperactive Holmes – crawling under the desk, jabbing at the forehead of Bob Ryall's dapper Doctor Watson – is an impressive “calculating machine”, excitedly piecing together the evidence. And of course he's kitted out with hand lens, deerstalker, inverness and calabash.
Very encouraging to see such good work from the younger cast members: Laura Bradley as the elegant “Miss” Stapleton, Jade Flack as Mrs Lyons, and Bruce Thomson as Sir Henry, resplendent in plus fours.

The plot, devoid of the atmospheric Great Grimpen Mire, sometimes seems preposterous, but the lighting [gas lamps fading convincingly] and the lively pace of John Mabey's production keep the spirit of the original serial alive.

Sunday, September 27, 2015



College Players at Brentwood Theatre


Pinter's dark classic is given a very impressive outing on the intimate boards at Brentwood.
Transformed, for just three nights, into a dingy 1950s dining room. Design-wise, the gold stars [pouffe, hallstand, lloyd loom] heavily outnumber the black marks [Evening Standard, hi-viz, shopping bag].
The serving hatch frames moments. Characters hesitate in doorways. A pocket torch makes masks of terror.
William Wells' production catches to perfection the latent menace, the absurd fantasies, the sexual tension. Wells himself plays Petey the deckchair man, and he is joined by a superb cast. Especially impressive are Lindsay Hollingsworth as dowdy Meg – her early scene with Stanley setting the tone marvellously – and Bob O'Brien as McCann, affable and scary, tearing strips off the Standard, staring at the broken drum.
And Gary Ball, outstanding as troubled, mysterious Stanley, mean and malicious at the outset, a broken, voiceless marionette at the end, before the slow fade on one final treacherous memory. The surreal interrogation, just before the interval in this version, his paranoia personified.
Claire Hilder is Lulu, flirtatious at the party, resentful the morning after, and Matt Jones plays Goldberg, sharp suit and insincere smile, whose briefcase she unwisely opens.
A memorable production of an important play; a huge achievement for this enterprising company.

Friday, September 25, 2015


at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch

Robert Harling's classic tragicomedy, set in a Southern “beauty shop”, is cleverly constructed for maximum effect. Joy and despair, tears and laughter, with the one-liners, ripostes and put-downs equitably shared amongst the six ladies.

The Queen's do it proud. There's “pink plonk” for the interval, or an exclusive Pink Magnolia cocktail, and, on opening night at least, five dancers in jeans and check shirts for the wedding of Shelby and Jackson.

A superb stage design too [Dinah England], with a magnificent magnolia tree beyond the salon – see its petals fall, replaced by fairy lights as April turns to December. There's a practical pink basin, a proper hood dryer, a chicken door-stop and plastic bug blinds rippling in the breeze.

Liz Marsh's production manages the moods and keeps the pace lively. Some effective grouping, too, with the five ladies turning their curiosity onto newbie Annelle, or gathering eagerly round the baby photo. Or M'Lynn sitting quietly apart as the news of her selfless devotion to her daughter breaks. The salon falls still as Shelby's final struggle is recalled, before Clairee breaks the mood with a desperate joke.

Truvy's is as much a community support group as a hairdresser's, and the sense of strong, caring women coping with all that life throws at them is at the heart of the production.

Six excellent actors inhabit their roles: Queen's regular Sarah Mahony is Truvy, with bold eye-shadow and a restless energy, Lucy Wells her prayerful new apprentice. Shelby's warm, bubbly personality is beautifully suggested by Gemma Salter's nuanced performance; Claire Storey, as her mother, encompasses a huge emotional range, fussing and fretting at the beginning, raging at the unfairness of fate at the end. Their heart-to-heart in the gloom is the poignant turning point of the drama.
The two older ladies are nicely contrasted – Gilian Cally's wiry Ouiser, ankle socks and galoshes, and Clairee, former first lady of the town, glossily groomed, with racy red shoes. She's played to perfection by Tina Gray, who first appeared at the Queen's in 1971. Her every laugh is immaculately timed, her every word clearly audible. Elsewhere the accents – impressively authentic – and the wide stage meant that some lines were lost.
A lively, warm-hearted version of a favourite play, firmly set in “too colourful for words” 1980s Louisiana, but universal in its sympathetic portrayal of six remarkable women, sharing the good times and the bad in the humid intimacy of the beauty parlour.

photograph: Mark Sepple

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Thursday, September 24, 2015


CAODS at the Civic Theatre

A spin-off from the movie, this rather shallow show is a real crowd-pleaser. One great anthem, a silly plot, and oodles of Catholic kitsch.
CAODS give it everything they've got, and the packed houses are going home very happy. Sallie Warrington's production has pace, pizazz and some very nifty choreography. And it uses a huge cast to excellent effect, with nuns filling the wide Civic stage, decked out with some splendid scenery – the monumental Queen of Angels, the stained glass, the last supper, not to mention the police station and the night club, trucked and flown by a hard-working crew.
Plenty of scope for broad-brush characterization amongst a talented company. Stephanie Yorke-Edwards is the enthusiastic chorister Sister Mary Patrick, Jessica Broad the perplexed young postulant Sister Mary Robert. John Cox plays the priest who enthusiastically embraces the sinful world of show-biz [“The reviews are in !!”]. Curtis, the gangster boyfriend, is done with heavy menace by Jonathan Davis; on the side of the angels, Sweaty Eddy, childhood sweetheart now neighbourhood cop, is Oli Budino, slickly switching between policeman and fantasy star in his big number. And the three stooges [Ian Gilbert, David Gillett and Ben Wilton] have a ball, especially in their priceless Lady In The Long Black Dress.
Deloris, the wannabe musician around whom the plot revolves, is given a great larger-than-life characterization by Tessa Kennedy, suggesting a singer with more self-belief than talent, but making the most of the show-stoppers she's given, and showing touching loyalty to her new-found sisters.
Not much subtlety in this show, but Helen Hedin manages to make the Mother Superior a wonderfully believable character, long-suffering, with flashes of caustic wit, she represents the forces of tradition who're not convinced that soul and disco – putting the Sis in Genesis – are the way forward for the church.
The 70s musical idiom – lovingly guyed in Alan Menken's score – is excellently re-created by MD Robert Wicks and an outstanding twelve-piece band.

production photograph by Christopher Yorke-Edwards

Sunday, September 20, 2015


Vivid Theatre Productions at Brentwood Theatre

Ian Southgate pans for musical theatre gold in this fund-raiser for Brentwood Theatre, directed by Emma Jane Sweeney. Broadway and off, West End and fringe yield a fascinating haul: many of the numbers on offer will be fresh even to aficionados. Excellent singing throughout, and not a microphone to be seen.
The theme is happiness, symbolized by colourful balloons. Andrew Lippa's title song, which opens the first set, comes from the jinxed Betty Boop; it neatly leads into Pulled from The Addams Family, beautifully interpreted by Katie-Elizabeth Allgood. If I Didn't Have You – an odd couple/sunshine boys number from Monsters Inc – is impeccably done in relaxed style by Ben Martins and Bob Southgate.
Summertime has a bedtime story background, before the kids kick off the quilts to give us Naughty from Matilda.
Schadenfreude [bursting other people's balloons] from Avenue Q, then a revivalist conga from Bat Boy to end the first half.
Highlights of the second hour include Kerry Cooke's Good Times from The Little Mermaid, There, from the musical revue Closer Than Ever, with Emily Funnell giving the couple The Secret of Happiness from Daddy Long Legs. And a lovely a capella octet from Once.

It's amazing how much of this has something to say even out of its dramatic context. But the Juke Box Musicals have all the best tunes these days, and, as a spoonful of sugar to those who are waiting for something they recognize, two numbers from Carole King's Beautiful. Then, with trumpet obbligato from Becca Tofts, the joy balloons spread out into the audience and toes tap along to a couple of Disney hits.