Monday, April 28, 2008


Sinfonia Viva at the Civic Theatre


Any excuse to dress up in bandanas and eye-patches, let their hair down and make Jim-Lad noises. And that's just the band ...

The youngsters in the audience looked the part too, with at least one parrot on the shoulder.

Alasdair Molloy, who arranged most of the music, was a great host, encouraging us to participate and explaining the pieces.

Not only Klaus Bedelt's music for Pirates of the Caribbean, but Yellow Submarine, Sailing By and Never on Sunday.

I enjoyed the cross-cut Tritsch-Tratsch Polka, with all the instruments highlighted, Thunder and Lightning done as a concerto for cymbals and bass drum, and the Seafaring Specials, tunes to guess as the instrumentalists filed in after the interval – I think that was Jaws on the double bass ...

The kids who'd done the linked schools workshop led the community singing of Jamaican Rumba, and we ended with Tom Bowling on the cello, and an action-packed Hornpipe.

This brilliant concert, sponsored by M&G, was a superb introduction to the totally unstuffy world of great music. Can't wait for next year's themed concert – Dr Who, maybe ?


Little Baddow Drama


Just months after Stevenson's tale first hit the bookshops, work had begun on a stage version. This was not that play. Nor was it the David Edgar version for the RSC.

Leonard H Caddy's fascinating but flawed play emphasises the social, scientific and sexual aspects of the classic story, and veers between social comedy and melodrama.

John Peregrine's painstaking production had all the virtues for which Little Baddow is famous. A beautifully dressed set, with the laboratory and the street spilling out into the auditorium, excellent use of music, careful costuming. And, of course, blue-chip acting from the repertory company, with the welcome addition of guest star Robert Bastian as the doomed doctor and his awful antagonist. In a slightly mannered but always mesmeric performance, he suggested the transformation without make-up or trickery – a modulation of the voice, a twitch of the eyebrow, and the “mysterious and evil” Edward Hyde was there before us.

As in Greek tragedy, much of the action is narrated. Lanyon's letter becomes an affecting monologue, faultlessly delivered by Ken Rolf. His niece, Jekyll's intended and an awful snob, was Lindsay Lloyd, and the trustworthy Utterson Paul Randall.

Gill Peregrine was the other woman, Kenton Church gave a polished performance as the butler, with believable backstairs support from Barbara Newton [a collectable character cameo]and Sarah Trippett-Jones, excellent as the orphan girl preyed upon by both sides of the compound personality.

Despite its spine-chilling moments, this tried hard to be a play of ideas – nature vs nurture, neuroscience, the other spirit that lies underneath ... Interesting, and well put over by the actors, but not really dramatic in any meaningful sense. A long evening, then, but rewarding and thought-provoking. And the Saturday-night audience loved it, screeching and whooping as if they were at Jerry Springer – now there's a thought: “Hyde in the closet – I dumped my fiancée for sex on the other side of the tracks ...”


Chelmsford Gang Show, Civic Theatre


photo from the 2007 Gang Show

Inspired by the success of last year's Golden Show, the team of five, heaed by Producer Terry Simister, fielded a huge gang, filling the Civic Stage with [mostly] young people.

And if the military precision of yesteryear was nowhere in evidence, it was replaced by enthusiasm and some impressive concepts.

Cities, for instance, looked very good, and boasted some worthwhile songs, including a tricky Sondheim solo. The Sound of Music medley could only benefit from the inclusion of two engaging pantomime animals, and the School's Out sequence survived on sheer numbers alone.

The nineteen-strong mini-gang gave us a bizarre tale of skulduggery and tiddlywinks: too long, but it did have an excellent Sherlock Holmes with his “lemon entry” puns, and a rare revival of The Laughing Policeman. More nostalgia with some less familiar Ralph Reader numbers, the obligatory cross-dressing in I Feel Like A Woman, and creaky sketches, though I liked the laconic yokels reading the Weekly News ...

Recorded music may be a permanent feature now, but I much prefer live performance, like the Take That anthems, beginning with a nice sibling duo.

If the Gang would like to improve one thing before next year [auditions this September] I might suggest learning to breathe ...

Friday, April 25, 2008


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop


This is 1987. LP covers on the walls, polaroids in the foyer.

In a bog-standard comp somewhere north of Watford, idealistic drama teacher Geoff Nixon inspires the kids, irks his colleagues and infuriates the caretaker.

As tradition demands, CTW's lively production, directed by Jenny Almond and Catherine Kenton, uses just three actors – the leavers putting on a final show – but fills the stage [and the auditorium in this free-ranging production] with a host of characters and caricatures.

So the laddish Salty [Adam Hitchin] was also Nixon and notorious handful Oggy Moxon; Gail [Sarah Bell] was a lost child, the pathetic Miss Withams, who has a doctorate but no discipline, and the nubile Miss Prime, [P.E.]. Jane Fielding was the booming Mrs Perry, producing her fifth Mikado, as well as Oggy on occasions, and the bitter tartar Basford.

Oggy in the car, Mrs Perry's curtain speech, the school disco, the brief encounter with the people from the posh school up the road, were all marvellously effective.

We might have liked a little more pace, more emphasis on the asides, but the quick changes of voice and body language, the physical style, the poignant low-key ending were all very impressive. And the issues in the play – funding, parental choice, the status of teachers – are still as relevant as they were twenty years ago, the last time there was a national strike in the profession ...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Witham Amateur Operatic Society


My first taste of Follies was in Portobello, thirty years ago. Its UK première, I believe. An American student company on the Edinburgh Fringe, working in a vast, dusty auditorium.

That kind of atmosphere helps the mood of the piece, of course, as it did at Witham, where the stucco pros. arch and the seen-it-all back wall neatly framed Sondheim's bitter-sweet exploration of nostalgia and relationships grown old and cold.

I knew from the first number that it was going to be a rich experience. Roscoe's glorious voice welcoming those Beautiful Girls as they made their entrance down the grand staircase. Nikki Mundell-Poole's production stressed the contrast of past and present, naivety and cynicism, helped by the age difference of the principal characters and their youthful ghosts. Lighting and costume had an important role here, too, I felt.

Again and again there was a pang as we saw the chasm between now and then – Vincent and Vanessa's Strictly Ballroom moment, with very young shadows in white, Heidi's One More Kiss, a pure kitsch duet with her younger self, and even the curtain calls, where the simple turn for the four principals gave us one last remembrance of things past.

Those four central roles were all excellently cast and played. Buddy, amusing in frantic Groucho/Jolson mode for Buddy's Blues, but also very moving in the beautifully phrased Hey Margie sequence with the dummy. Sally, still and poignant for her exquisitely sung Losing My Mind, Ben, vocally very secure throughout, and nicely relaxed in his cynical character, notably in The Road You Didn't Take. And Phyllis, giving everything in Could I Leave You.

There are hit numbers for others of the Golden Girls, too, as they come together one last time to “stumble through a song or two”, and Hattie made the most of her Broadway Baby, Carlotta of I'm Still Here. How lucky of Witham to have all this showbiz experience to cast ...

The young showgirls looked great, the choral singing was impressive, though I was less sure about the off-stage chorus. There were one or two places where the pace dropped a little on the first night, and the band had the odd rough edge. But MD Jill Parkin worked wonders keeping everyone together: this is a very tricky score. And there were many marvellous musical moments, like the bass clarinet for Still Here, and the production number Mirror Mirror.

The emotional impact of the piece was helped by the intimacy of the the venue, and the relatively subtle amplification – the Royal Festival Hall revival did nothing for me, despite the presence of Henry Goodman.

But, like that Portobello premiere, this polished, passionate production will remain with me, as Witham left us with one last image, a lone phantom showgirl under the working lights in the deserted Weismann Theatre.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


Little Waltham Drama Group


Long after his hits with Plaza Suite and California Suite, Neil Simon checked back in to the hotel genre with London Suite, four short pieces which all unfold in an upmarket hotel overlooking Hyde Park.

Directed by Mags Simmonds and John Richardson, Little Waltham's welcome revival was entertaining from start to finish, with plots and characters as varied as the guests.

Ken Little played a successful novelist who doesn't understand money, quietly menacing as he confronts his envious accountant, portrayed with a nice sense of weary resignation by Glyn Jones.

Why can't I meet someone like you again ?” a shattering moment of revelation from Karen Wray, absolutely convincing as the successful actress whose bisexual ex from Mykonos [Mike Lee] turns up looking for money. Nicola Ayris was nicely understated as her efficient PA.

The most successful piece was Going Home, perhaps because both Simon and actress Linda Burrow were working within their own idiom. She was superb as the garrulous shopaholic who has a memorable date with a Scotsman, hilarious as she related the gory details to her daughter [Susan Walker, giving a nicely complementary performance, natural and generous].

Burrow also contributed a telling cameo as the brisk Mrs Sitgood in the last play, a deliciously comic tale of back trouble, Cup Final tickets and Captain Jack Starling, starring that master farceur Richard Butler, with Sue Joyce as his unsympathetic wide, Andy Walker as a believable porter, and Bill Murphy as the bluff doctor.


Writtle Cards


Two professors take their wives away to a remote cottage for a weekend of fishing and philosophy.

The Epicurean is concerned that the Stoic has lost his zest for life. Imagine what dramas Frayn or Stoppard could make out of this crisis.

But we got Canadian playwright Peter Colley and that bastard genre, the comedy thriller.

In this version, the hideaway is still deep in the Canadian wilderness, but the academics are from Oxford. It's asking a lot of an amateur actor to convince as an intellectual heavyweight, and none of the four really felt as if they were inhabiting their character. The writing partly to blame, I guess.

Boot Banes gave a nicely timed, relaxed comic performance as a Bellamy-style professor, more of a bar-stool philosopher really, with Nick Caton as his younger, more successful nemesis. Nick's was a well-crafted interpretation, with plenty of variety, impressive in the set-pieces like Harlen's homecoming.

Jean Speller was the hippy-ish herbalist, and Clare Williams the scary Dora, who forgets her medication, turns to murder, and impersonates the Grim Reaper in the dramatic dénouement.

Ectoplasm, an Emmaus moment, Kubler-Ross's five stages of dying, plus a sprinkling of famous thinkers, failed to add up to a plausible plot, but there were two great shocks in a tautly paced two hours – an impressive début from director Laura Bennett.

Another nice début from Michael Pruce as the Canadian Mounted boy in blue. I tended to concur with his verdict on this curious quartet: “ You deserve each other !”

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Young Gen at the Cramphorn


[photograph by Barrie White-Miller]

The set oozes style, a fantastic Fifties diner with a juke box, two trash cans, and the band at the back, under the neon sign of Smokey Joe's.

Jeremy Tustin's sure-footed production of this unique show did not disappoint. Number after number leapt to life on this tiny stage – Young Blood, Searchin', Fools Fall in Love, this last faultlessly delivered by Constance Lawton, and poignantly reprised in Act Two. Jessica Broad gave several memorable performances, including two masterclasses: teaching Bart Lambert to Shimmy and learning how to be evil from Rhiannon Heap.

Rhiannon was powerful in Don Juan, and Bart delivered a knockout Jailhouse Rock.

Joe Toland, who spent much of the show on the floor, used his gift for comedy in Shopping for Clothes, and D W Washburn, but he also shone in the oft-recorded I Who Have Nothing, shaping the emotions of the song with sensitivity.

But this was very much a company show. The raw energy of Rock & Roll, the multi-tasking girls in I'm A Woman, the wide-eyed innocents in Little Egypt, with Kevin Jarvis, the constant interaction in Loving You [ably fronted by Sam Pridige], Sam Toland and everyone in the finale Stand By Me. The dancing was sharp and amusing, stopping just short of pastiche. The diction was excellent [we were hearing some of these lyrics clearly for the first time ever !]. And those evocative harmonies were very impressively recreated. A couple of weeks ago, back at Meteor Way, I was impressed with the style of the production, and if I'm honest, the unamplified voices with just the piano had a simple charm slightly lost in the glitz and gloss of the Cramphorn and its powerful sound system. The MD was Bryan Cass, his five-piece band featuring Rob Downing's evocative sax.

Young Gen are celebrating 40 years on stage, and what better show than this superbly performed feast of affectionately parodied musical nostalgia. “Just thought I'd take one more look / And recall when we were all / In the neighborhood ..”

When I did take another look, on Saturday afternoon, I found the show as lively and polished as ever, though one or two voices were showing signs of strain. The sound was more immediate from the front of the auditorium, which I preferred. I've made one or two additions and amendments to the review, but congratulations to all - we look forward to moving from the Neighborhood to 42nd Street...

Saturday, April 12, 2008


at the Civic


At the start of his media career, Gervase Phinn finds himself seated between Miss Read and James Herriott. Which neatly defines his niche in the cosy world of fictionalised autobiography.

Dr Phinn is working on his latest memoir – early childhood in Rotherham - and he shares moments from those days, swimming, as he says, in an ocean of language, his dad reciting the Lion and Albert and The Green Eye of the Yellow God. He has a rich store of anecdotes, some of them as colourfully embroidered as the fanciest of waistcoats, from his 38 years in the education trade. He is excellent at timing a punchline, and impersonating a character – Tracy and Benedict, the foreman at Mother's Pride, the cast of countless Nativity plays.

Names feature strongly – he was grateful to be baptised Gervase – Adrian Wall and Dwayne Pipe just two of the genuine monikers on the class register.

It's ten years now since this superb raconteur was launched onto the showbiz treadmill [by Esther Rantzen], and clearly the lure of the greasepaint is very strong – he gives talks about spelling on cruise ships, signs his CDs in the bar after the show, even bookends his gig with Ken Dodd-style warbling.

But his unique blend of nostalgia and farce, sentiment and Seneca, certainly makes an enjoyable evening, and, I'm told, could have filled the Civic twice over.

Friday, April 11, 2008


Civic Theatre


Eleven pieces in an hour and a half, showcasing the excitingly varied repertoire of the Central School's graduate company in this its 25th year.

They began with the almost austere classicism of David Nixon's Steps to Bach, danced to the Double Violin Concerto, with commendable coordination between the two couples. And ended with the live music of Philip Feeney for Sara Matthews' evocative Silver Light on Water.

In between, there were chunks of Tchaikovsky, crowd pleasers all, including the streetwise but more than slightly silly Cygnets of Matthew Bourne's famous all-male version of Swan Lake, and a beautifully costumed - but otherwise unsatisfying - Waltz of the Flowers, featuring Narissa Course, and two men in evening dress, Daniel Smith and Shenfield dancer Ruan Crighton, who'll join the Slovakian National Ballet in September.

Modern work was impressive in its variety: a revival of a moving pas de deux from Christopher Gable's Cinderella, jazz dance in Do You Want To, featuring Elizabeth Peach as the lady in red, a beautifully stylised Capriol Suite, which, like Warlock's music, was a modern take on ancient dance forms, and Sophie Allen dancing a poignant Pity of War piece to Samuel Barber and the poetry of Wilfred Owen, again choreographed by Sara Matthews, Assistant Director at the Central School.

Futility by Wilfred Owen

Move him into the sun -
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds -
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, - still warm, - too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
- O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?