Thursday, November 27, 2008

DIE FLEDERMAUS

RUG Opera at the Palace Westcliff
26.11.08


How many times has the lovely Palace at Westcliff seen Strauss's fun-filled Fledermaus on its steeply raked stage?

This week, with RUG's determinedly decadent production, could have been the first time the Veuve Cliquot dripped onto the woodwind in the pit, the first time a well-oiled Muscle Mary poured the drinks and moved the chairs, the first time the Can Can provided the floor show.

Musically, the standard was very high. Alison McFadyen kept things moving, the orchestral players embraced the Strauss style, and the singers - principals and party guests [no mere chorus here] - were splendid.

Paul Tarrant - a dead ringer for David Cameron, I thought - was the hapless Eisenstein, with Fiona Whittaker in excellent voice as his wife Rosalinda. Alfred, the opera singer, was Kevin Smith, with his snatches from the repertoire, and there was great character work from David Phillips as a very Teutonic prison governor. His side-kick, Frosch, was played by Shane Collins. Normally a non-singing role, it was embellished here by a moment from Rose Marie - when did that last play the Palace, I wonder.

Adele, dream role, was beautifully played by Jenny Haxell, who even attempted to sing in mummerset.
The youthful dance troupe were very impressive, but generally the pace was less than lively, and the scene changes were obviously hard work.

Nonetheless, an exellent evening out, with a real sense of occasion. As always, RUG was raising money for charity: this time Fair Havens Hospice and The Lennox Children's Cancer Fund.


Monday, November 24, 2008


MUSIC AND DANCE FROM RAJASTHAN


GDS Promotions at the Civic


23.11.08



Snow in the morning, but by the evening we were transported to the colourful desert of western Rajasthan. Seven turbanned musicians and a spectacularly dressed dancer performed traditional folk music to a large and appreciative audience.

Their repertoire is to be heard at festivals and feasts, and their songs are often based on poetry from the great Sufi tradition – a text by Bulesha began part two.

Instruments included the dholak, a two-headed drum, and the khartal, two pieces of wood used like castanets, which were played with superb style, almost a ballet of its own, especially in the fourth piece, written with 7 beats in the bar.

The bowed kamaicha, including some metal strings, produced some fascinating effects.

Khatu, the Kalbelia Dancer, bejewelled and lightly veiled, performed the Black Snake, accompanied appropriately by the traditional charmer's flute, the pungi, and incorporating some impressively supple tricks and some vertiginous whirling, as also in a lively song of longing, loss and lemons in the second half.

An intriguing glimpse into an ancient tradition, and very accessible to everyone. But I did sometimes wish I could understand the words of these wonderful songs ...

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Jim Hutchon was at Little Baddow ...


Map of the Heart


Little Baddow Players


21st November

 

This great sprawling play spans raw emotions and whole continents. On the eve of his departure for a mercy mission in the Sudan , middle-aged doctor Albie tells his wife he is leaving her for another woman.

 

The unlikely Lothario was John Peregrine – at his best when subsequently taken hostage in the Sudan . His wife, strongly understated by Lindsay Lloyd is left in the ensuing months to preside over the slow, quiet fracturing of her home and her heart. The mistress, a matter-of-fact Vicky Tropman, is the aid worker unable to reconcile her marriage-wrecking with her humanist ideals.

 

Sarah Trippett-Jones played a blinder as the huffy teenage daughter with attitude and Philip Gaudin was urbane and civilised as the shadowy, damaged house guest keen to keep things fuzzy. Michael Gray was the strong, silent ex-lover whose two key speeches were each seven words long – but delivered with energy and commendable brevity.  Paul Randall was irritatingly good as the smug Foreign Office negotiator who secured an arms-for-hostage release.

 

The play never lapsed into sentimentality, and striking scenes of a church and a prison cell contrasted well with the middle-class main set. Nice to see Ken Rolf back in the director’s chair, and in such cracking form.

 

Jim Hutchon

 

Friday, November 21, 2008

Jim Hutchon went to the Cramphorn ...


Noah the Musical 

Springers 

20th Nov

 

Susan Corina’s production of this short, snappy musical was done with verve and great energy with a cast that really believed in itself. The opening scenes were played in front of a giant backdrop of the Bible – a clever device to have the story spring from its pages – which was drawn back to unveil the big boat to climax the first act.

 

Key participants were a genial old Noah played by Pete Spilling, whose voice occasionally struggled against Ian Myer’s boisterous band, and an excellent, tuneful performance from Catherine Gregory as Mrs Noah. Barry Miles as Baasha the scornful senior elder was strong, and Deborah Anderson, as always, gave good value for money as Stella, the ‘Deus ex machina’ – a cross between God’s messenger and the narrator who kept the pace moving along.

 

I felt the use of modern dress was a mistake – flowing robes would have been nice - , and the storm scene could have been more visually dramatic. But all in all, this was a happy, joyous production which sent the audience out humming the dimensions of the Ark and with which Springers can be justly pleased.

 

Jim Hutchon

 

Sunday, November 16, 2008


THE ELIXIR OF LOVE

Swansea City Opera at the Civic

16.11.08



Set in North Wales, in the 20s, this version of L'Elisir d'Amore was very easy on the eye and the ear.

Gary McCann's miniature Portmeirion – dolls houses that turned into chairs and tables – was delightful, especially when the windows lit up in Act Two.

And a strong cast brought the merry music to life, helped by Fraser Goulding's frisky orchestral accompaniment, conducted in Chelmsford by Aris Nadirian. The various duets, trios and quartets sparkled along, though a little more stage direction would have added visual interest to the score.

Rebecca Ivey was a splendid Angharad – posh in pearls, comfortable in her physicality, fondling her suitor's broom. And her rich soprano was a constant joy, blending well with the lyric tenor of Gareth Huw John as her foolish admirer. His “Unwilling tear” was impeccably phrased.

Robert Davies was the Sergeant – memorably singing away whilst acting as a cushion – and Brendan Wheatley relished the role of the fast-talking quack whose elixir lubricates the plot.

Though in the end of course it's wealth, not wine, that attracts the girls. The three little flappers in the chorus were excellent in their “Secret” trio.

A witty, pretty Donizetti from this enterprising company; a worthy successor to their Daughter of the Regiment.



Thursday, November 13, 2008

42nd STREET

Young Gen at the Civic

13.11.08


Get out your tap shoes, Frances, it's 42nd Street !”

The backstage musical par excellence was a natural choice for Chelmsford Young Generation's fortieth anniversary. Plenty of big numbers, some juicy roles, and a chance for everyone to revel in the glitter and tinsel of musical comedy.

Rhiannon Heap was superb as the ingénue chorus girl who comes back a star; her singing was delightful, and certainly “hot stuff in the steps department”. Dorothy, whom she replaces in the lead role, was beautifully sung by Kayleigh McEvoy – their Act Two duet was simply staged but very moving. A strong performance from Kevin Jarvis as the King of Broadway: a bit of a bully at times, but he had his tender moments too. Dependable performers Joe Toland and Chris Kirwan were the Young and Healthy tenor and the Sugar Daddy, and there was lovely character work from Lois Hirrell and Bart Lambert as the Comden and Green of the company, not to mention Elissa Brown as Annie, the Ginger Rogers role.

Ray Jeffery's sure touch gave us many memorable scenes – the tableau at the end of Getting Out of Town, the Dames sequence, from relaxed chorus boys through pastiche in pink to toppers and tails, the trip to the tea room and the inventive In the Shadows. Wigs and frocks were period perfect, with countless quick changes for the kids. And there were some very tiny tap shoes up there ...

Robyn Gowers was the tap choreographer, Bryan Cass the MD, and there was some great support from the pit: the clarinet under the pep talk, the ever-present Broadway Broadwood.

It's thirteen years since Young Gen last did Harry Warren's unforgettable songs; can we look forward to another revival in 2021 ?

PETER MARSHALL AND JEFFERY WILSON


Environ Music Lunchtime Concert at the Cramphorn


12.11.08


These two affable musical chaps gave us a predictably enjoyable, and challenging, hour of music.

Bach to Blues and Bach Again gave the programme its title, and turned out to be an arrangement by Peter Marshall, wrapping the Birth of the Blues inside some smooth Johann Sebastian, with Jeffery Wilson on clarinet.

There was autumnal music too, with a poignant version of the Last Post to mark Armistice Day.

But the key theme was the recession, with upbeat titles like Blue Skies, Over the Rainbow, Get Happy, with the favoured format the 2 for 1, a medley of two tunes, including a memorable romp with Wilson at the piano and Marshall on his trusty bugle: Stardust preceded by Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams. As Jeffery reminded us, in the 30s, when the great depression hit the States, people found solace in bootleg liquor, entertainment, and those great songs that are standards still, such as Fats Waller's Ain't Misbehavin'.

Among the regular weekly Wednesday lunchtimes coming up is Whirlwind – a wind quintet – on December 17, and in the new year, Kay Usher's hot violin on January 14.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

DONA NOBIS PACEM


Vaughan Williams Reflection and Remembrance at Chelmsford Cathedral.


09.11.08


It is fifty years since Ralph Vaughan Williams died, and ninety since the guns fell silent at the end of the Great War.

Chelmsford Cathedral marked both events with a thoughtful act of remembrance, devised by Peter Kendal, which included two excellent performances, one of a choral work, one of a song cycle.

Dona Nobis Pacem, a fervent plea for peace, was written in 1936 as the war clouds began to gather again over Europe. Peter Nardone conducted the Chelmsford Singers, the gentlemen of the Cathedral Choir, Soprano Cheryl Enever and Baritone Colin Campbell in a powerful performance. The choir evoked the inexorable rush to war in first chorus, and made the Dirge for Two Veterans almost unbearably poignant. The orchestral accompaniment was well suggested by Tom Wilkinson at the piano and James Norrey at the organ.

Colin Campbell, with Peter Nardone at the piano, gave us the Songs of Travel, Vaughan Williams' early setting of verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. Campbell's strong, persuasive baritone was well suited to these outgoing melodies, from the jaunty Vagabond to the reflective, retrospective Epilogue, discovered amongst the composer's papers after his death.

These superb soloists, together with some beautiful choral singing, made for an experience which would not have been out of place in a concert hall – the Cathedral's Music Department are to be congratulated for bringing work of this quality to the liturgy.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

GASLIGHT

Greville Theatre Club




That great Victorian thriller, Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight, is only just 70 years old.
Still popular, despite a preposterous plot-line, it depends for its success on the actors' ability to breathe life into the stiff dialogue.
In the Greville's elegant production, the most successful resuscitator was Steve Braham's Rough – the ex-copper who arrives like a Deus Ex Machina to save Mrs Manningham from her fate. We have to be able to share her awful suspicion that his visit was just a delusion, another symptom of her mental decline.
Bella was Diana Bradley, a submissive wife, easy prey for her manipulative husband. This was a performance of great presence, and beautifully spoken. The final confrontation with Jack was truly thrilling.
Cold-eyed, domineering, the evil barely concealed beneath the surface, John Richardson's Manningham was a masterly portrayal of the criminal mind, toying mercilessly with his victim. Physically convincing, too, with more than a hint of Eric Porter.
Below stairs were the loyal Elizabeth [Lynda Shelverton] and Carol Parradine's pert slut Nancy.
The set was impressive, well furnished, and the sound cues for the menacing hiss of the lamps were very effective.

Gaslight was directed by Karen Ashton and Jan Ford, and was preceded by a convivial meal – chilli, jacket, salad and those legendary Greville puddings, including a glorious trifle.

Friday, November 07, 2008

HORRIBLE HISTORIES

Birmingham Stage Company at the Civic

07.11.08


Rewriting history to amuse children is by no means new – 1066 And All That was an earlier attempt which also transferred well to the stage.

Terry Deary's books are enormously popular with pre-teens, and as a former actor and director, he is well placed to adapt them. Two volumes are touring this year – Terrible Tudors and Vile Victorians. Like the books, the stage plays are finely judged to appeal to the target audience: somewhere between PlaySchool and Blackadder, with plenty of pure panto thrown in.

The characters were constant. Dr Dee - not clear whether this was any relation to Queen Elizabeth's Magician and former Chelmsford schoolboy John Dee – two naughty sidekicks Drab and Dross, and the Inspector from OFSTAPO, for whom we reserved some of the loudest hisses and boos.

Excitement, explosions and executions, disease and disaster, were the stuff of almost all the sketches – Battle of Bosworth, Charge of the Light Brigade, Baby Farmers and Night Soil Men, all reduced to colourful, almost cheerful cartoons.

The lively, physical acting was supported by music, my favourite the pastiche Music Hall ditty The Hole in the Elephant's Bottom, and CGI backdrops, which in the second half sent 3D effects zooming around the auditorium – The Tay Bridge disaster and bloody Mary. Yuck.

The moral was summed up in the last song – I'd Rather be Alive Today.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

David Copperfield

Mercury Theatre Colchester

01.11.08


Giles Havergal brought his adaptation of David Copperfield to Colchester Mercury this month.

It was an amazing experience – a large cast, with many familiar faces – and if not a lavish production, then certainly a labour of love.

Tristram Wymark was the ever-present narrator, the grown-up David, with the fresh-faced James Rowland his younger self, who did most of the acting.

The broad sweep of the narrative used the width of the stage: a few ramps, a cluster of stylised masts, and an evocative nautical backdrop. And the books, all the brown jackets of Davy's boyhood, Roderick Random and the rest; the play began with a child lost in reading.

I liked the way actors moved through the scenes, telescoping time and distance, a memory, a regret, a lost love. The groupings were eloquent: Little Emily's first hint of tragedy, the humiliation of Heep.

There was a long casualty list, of course. Traddles, Barkis, Mr Dick, Mrs Gummidge ...

But clarity was key, and many favourites were superbly drawn: Christine Absalom's Peggoty, Pete Ashmore's tortured Steerforth, Ignatius Anthony as the villains, Kate Copeland as Dora, Kerry Gooderson as the poor deluded Emily.

And a gaggle of Dickensian children, shifting the furniture, dressing the scene, and scampering happily alongside Micawber's optimistic perambulator.

A memorable, moving afternoon.


LONDON MOZART PLAYERS

M&G Concert at the Civic Theatre

02.11.08


For the opening concert of the season, a popular programme, a big-name soloist and an encouraging sprinkling of young people in the near-capacity crowd.

Chloe Hanslip, child prodigy and still not long out of her teens, directed the London Mozart Players from her violin for Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Pivotal, in the centre of the semi-circle, she maintained an intimate contact with the players, painting the pictures with energy and verve. The positive opening of the Primavera, the wonderful blend of tones in the Autumn Adagio, the unusually jaunty Winter Largo, all made for a very enjoyable ride. For an encore, she joined LMP director David Juritz for the Allegro from the JS Bach Concerto for Two Violins.

Two housekeeping issues. The programme, informative as ever, had two lines of type missing, and, not for the first time, the clinking of glassware from the bar was an irritating distraction after the interval.

The concert began with two Serenades for Strings. Dvorak's – introduced with trainspotting pointers by Juritz – had an alert, conversational feel; the lively Scherzo had its tender moments too, with beautiful playing from cellist Sebastian Comberti. And to begin, the Elgar, another young man's work,
with a superb Larghetto central movement, sonorous and elegant, but also spun-silk filigree in the quieter moments.

A great start to the season, which continues in February with our very own Britten Sinfonia.
ROMEO AND JULIET

Independent Ballet Wales at the Civic

31.10.08




Peter Teigen; Photographer




Like Tchaikovsky, Berlioz never intended his Romeo and Juliet music for the dance.

So while this wonderful score has the advantage of being both appropriate and unfamiliar, it does mean that the structures of traditional ballet music – themes, big numbers – are often missing.

But Darius James's choreography told the story clearly and engagingly, and his young dancers brought freshness and energy to the well-worn story.

The Berlioz, and occasional medieval French hurdy-gurdy music, were used precisely, in the dramatic final moments, for example, or the Act II pas de deux against the mezzo soloist.
The tender balcony scene was effectively lit, though Romeo was often left in the dappled shade of the orchard.

Romeo was danced with a youthful passion, sometimes gauche, always honest, and Juliet's candid, open movements were absolutely right for her character. In the smaller roles, we admired the lithe Benvolio, and the neat little nurse, whose every gesture spoke volumes.

The setting was simple but striking – hangings, ladders and, later, some telling back-projection to situate the action.

An imaginative, innovative production from a very impressive company, who are also touring Under Milk Wood this year.
"AT THE MOVIES"

Essex Concert Orchestra at Chelmsford County High School

01.11.08


The excellent Essex Concert Orchestra took us to the pictures this time, with an upbeat selection of Music from the Movies.

We got off to a cracking, not to say bone-crunching, start with Zimmer's Gladiator; the second half began with his equally stirring Dead Man's Chest, with great work from the three trombones and cellist Tim Handel.

John Williams was the most played composer, with Indiana Jones, Harry Potter – a lovely cartoonish, jazzy ride on the Night Bus – and the heart-rending theme from Schindler's List, sensitively played by the orchestra's leader, Jeanine Thorpe.

Brass to the fore again for Ron Goodwin, the complex Where Eagles Dare, with its precise percussion, and the pastiche Luftwaffe march – Aces High – from Battle of Britain, which won the audience vote for a well-deserved encore.

The only composer with a well-known corpus of work outside the cinema was Malcolm Arnold, whose well-known arrangement of Colonel Bogey had us whistling into the interval.

The orchestra, conducted by consummate showman Malcolm Hiscock, will be back in late April with a St George's Day concert including Holst, Vaughan Williams, and a few patriotic crowd-pleasers. Worth keeping an ear open for.
THE MIKADO

Opera della Luna at the Civic

30.10.08



What would Gilbert have thought ? Not only was Koko's little list updated to include aromatherapy and offensive radio, but the Mikado's fitting punishments were extended to financiers and graffiti artists.

Opera della Luna bring their musical magic to the Mikado this season, with a packed Civic attracted by the prospect of a bright, breezy staging of a favourite G&S.

A fine, experienced cast ensured we were not disappointed. Simon Butteriss, the finest Koko of his generation and a natural successor to Grossmith and Green, relished the freedom afforded him by his bondage trousers and his Gaultier kilt, giving an entrancing performance that was spot-on musically.

David Woloszko made a mighty Pooh-Bah, and Luna favourite Tim Walton was a likeable lover. The Three Little Maids included newcomer Emma Odell as a grotesque Katisha and the charming Yankee Yum-Yum of Pamela Hay. Ian Belsey was an imposing Mikado, as well as a dim Northern shop steward.

Stage Director Jeff Clarke also conducted the witty reduction from the keyboard. There were many excellent ideas: the Madrigal, the exhausting Trio, the Act One finale. The opening number in the sweat-shop was inspired.

Fashion was key to the concept here. And whereas previous Luna tours [orbits?] have gleefully embraced their limitations, here, beneath Gabriella Csanyi- Wills' admittedly gorgeous frocks, there was a just a very accomplished traditional Mikado, with one or two outrageous additions to liven up the libretto, which, in 1885, couldn't even name the devil ...

THE MUSIC MAN

Ingatestone Musical and Operetta Group

24.10.08



The Musical and Operetta Group at Ingatestone remains staunchly true to its traditions – G&S, Brigadoon, and this year, The Boy Friend and The Music Man.

Betty Moore's production was notable for some fine ensemble singing: the travelling salesmen and the town gossips both coped splendidly with their tricky numbers. The characterful barbershop quartet were excellent in their spoof numbers, especially Lida Rose, set against the lovely light operatic soprano of Mynne Johnson as Marian.

Allen Clark made a loveable old rogue of the con man who falls for the librarian, and Meryl Spinks was a feisty Mrs Paroo. Maurice Cole relished every syllable as the pompous mayor of River City.

This show needs young blood, too, and Ingatestone fielded some very promising talent, notably Miguel Martines de Aguino as sidekick Marcellus Washburn. His Act One duet with Hill was masterly, and he even brought zip and zing to the interminable Shipoopi.

Helene Moore's choreography was restrained but effective – I liked the deportment class and the book sequence in the library. Perhaps more could have been made of the final moments, where Winthrop comes into his own and the boys band scam becomes reality.

The real band in the pit, with the director at the helm, made a good fist of Meredith Wilson's score – a special mention for Amy Lincoln, who made one trombone do the work of seventy-six.
JACQUES BREL – RAGE TO LIVE

Anthony Cable at the Cramphorn

19.10.08


Belgian singer and poet Jacques Brel died thirty years ago this month. Would he still be touring now, in his eightieth year ? Probably not. The call of the tropics, the fear of being a has-been.

Fortunately for us, his flame lives on in Anthony Cable's moving, masterly one-man show. Fifteen songs, many of them in the original French, with pithy insights into the man's life and loves.

Michael Roulston on piano, Igor Outkine the evocative accordeon. The show written and directed by Judith Paris.

The overture, and the irritating pretence of an overheard rehearsal, were soon over, and we were into Brel's world, the stage and the songs, marvellously interpreted, sensitively translated.

Ça va, Amsterdam, Madeleine, Jacky's Song, La Valse à Mille Temps and, in a poignant finale, La Cathédrale, from Brel's last-ever album.

Perhaps too much histrionics, but the mime and the gestures were a great help in understanding the carefully crafted lyrics, and the anger, the passion were still there in every number. Cable is too handsome, too polished, and his strong, expressive voice, unamplified, is not much like the original. But there were several instances where an inflection, an intonation, sparked a memory, caught a moment, and the soul of Brel was there in the spotlight.