Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Back to the National for a second look at War Horse, based on Morpurgo's novel.

Some tweaking since last year – the French girl is no longer a puppet, the naïve hand-held ombres chinoises have been replaced by more sophisticated projection, and Major Nicholls no longer reappears as a “ghost”, but the breathtakingly lifelike Joey and Topthorn are as good as ever, and John Tams 's music is in the excellent hands of folk singerTim van Eyken .

The human cast struggle to match the impact of the equine performers. But Patrick O'Kane as the “good German” Muller was outstanding, Bronagh Gallagher was a convincing wife and mother, and Kit Harington had some moving moments as the boy Albert. Not forgetting, of course, Finn Caldwell's scene-stealing goose.

This superb production, directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, combining a huge cast with masterly lighting and brilliant music, remains a worthy successor to His Dark Materials and Coram Boy. A South Bank sell-out for two seasons, it transfers at the end of March to the New London in Drury Lane.

Before the New Year's Eve matinee, early revellers danced in the Lyttleton foyer to Los Mareados playing Piazzolla.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Stondon Singers at Blackmore


In the atmospheric setting of the Priory Church in Blackmore, the Stondon Singers began their Celebration with a 16th century German Resonet in Laudibus. By Leonhard Paminger, a composer unknown to me, and many others, I guess. Turns out he was Austrian, Protestant and a friend of Luther.

This rare gem is typical of the Stondons' style. Their carefully constructed programme – Anticipation, Nativity, Visitors to the Stable – was a satisfying mix of old and new, familiar and less familiar. So a robustly scored gallery carol from Dorset followed a brand new setting – by the Singers' founding-father Frank Webb – of The Ox He Openeth Wide The Door.

This excellent choir goes back 40 years, and they specialize in older repertoire, notably “local boy” William Byrd, who was represented here in a Vigilate and and the Magi's Vidimus Stellam.

King's Men Ord and Willcocks, Pearsall's In Dulci Jubilo, Mathias' Sir Christemas: these were the familiar pieces, and of course there were congregational carols for us all to sing.

Guest conductor, getting the very best from his singers, was Stephen Lloyd, who introduced the music with an engaging blend of erudition and mischief, and the organist was Stephen King, who gave us an impressive romantic Fantasia on Veni Emmanuel, the carol we had just sung ...

Saturday, December 20, 2008


Eastern Angles Christmas Show

Recession-busting drama at the Sir John Mills this year, with no less than five for the price of one.

On lonely Hadesworth station, four travellers and the sinister station master are stranded. They decide to tell their spooky stories to pass the night ...

Tracy Elster, Simon Nock, Nicholas Agnew and Louise Shuttleworth in The Haunted Commode at the Sir John Mills Theatre, IpswichPhoto: Mike Kwasniak

Julian Herries' 2008 offering is well up to the high standard set in previous years, with another set of catchy songs from Pat Whymark. Endlessly inventive – the funny names, the twists of the plot – with the gleeful double entendres, the breakneck pace and the lightning changes, and the use of effective minimal detail – just the carriage door, just the handlebars, just a few horses from the carousel. And the faultlessly structured storyline, character and in-jokes. The creepy cannibals twins were especially memorable. Come to think of it, this is the third show this Christmas where children were killed for food - Hansel und Gretel, Saint Nicolas and now Lavinia's story ...

Hard to isolate elements for particular praise, but the palm-tree business was comedy perfection, and Ankh-er-Saweh's dog managed to sustain a routine well past its best-before date and into the audience sing-along.

With a wicked glint in his eye, Julian led an enthusiastic cast of five, playing Lord Floppington, Tootes and Gunter Lunchfarter, to silly name just three. Louise Shuttleworth was Madame Chambourcy, Tracy Elster Lady Wetsam-Daly, Nicholas Agnew Sister Bridget [and the dog] and Simon Nock Mr Crackers the children's entertainer/escaped lunatic. And, in the unique spirit of Eastern Angles, everyone pitched in to play an instrument – coconuts and triangle obbligato – shift the props and work the audience. Pure theatrical magic, playing in Ipswich and Woodbridge till January 24th.


at Chelmsford Cathedral


A varied selection box of musical delights raised money for the Mayor's charities just before Christmas.

BBC Essex star Dave Monk kept the programme moving, and managed to bridge some pretty wide cultural gulfs. For instance, Philip Cashian's contemporary piece Landscape, was followed by Kay Starr's unforgettable The Man With The Bag.

Sasha Valeri Millwood – the Cashian pianist – also gave us Bach and Chopin, as well as two finger-breaking virtuoso pieces: a Kabalevsky prelude and Fireworks from Debussy. Another award-winning young musician, Sophie Biebuyck, used her bright, warm soprano to excellent effect in extracts from The Messiah, and closed the concert with a simple but effective arrangement of Stille Nacht, backed by the very impressive chamber choir Bra-vissima.

Conducted by Julia Wilson-James, these dozen ladies started the evening with Frosty the Snowman, and ended the first half with the last two numbers from Britten's Ceremony of Carols, disappearing out to the vestry in candlelit procession.

We also heard about the Christmas Truce of 1914, and Conrad's Christmas Guest. Tricia Etherton's Theatretrain – who sang The Man with the Bag – had several more upbeat festive numbers for us; then, just before the mince pies and mulled wine, provided by event sponsors Cosmopolitan and Russell's Restaurant, everyone joined in one last chorus - We Wish You a Merry Christmas. I'll drink to that !

Monday, December 15, 2008


Royal Opera House

14 December 2008

Hand jive and high fives – these seemed a very contemporary pair of kids, even more than the costume and set would suggest. The DDR sprang to mind, though the father remains an artisan, even if his brooms were clearly not traditional, and his shopping from Spar pointed to a contemporary, almost affluent, society.

This new production, by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, ditched much of the magic for the grotesque, the kitsch and the glitzy. The dream sequence, with its traumeichhörnchenengel creatures, was strangely effective though, with the Sandman’s sandwich the longed-for gift.

The children were excellently sung by Kirschlager and Damrau, with plenty of lively characterization, and the Witch was a welcome appearance by Anja Silja, whose scary soprano probably didn’t need gimmicks like the boobs and the Zimmer frame – and why wasn’t that turned to barley-sugar, I wonder ?

Another legend as the Father, Thomas Allen in good voice, even when drunk and frisky on the bed with Elizabeth Connell as a depressed Mother.

The music, under the loving baton of Colin Davis, survived this wayward, cheap-looking makeover unscathed, though it still puzzles me why the notes, and indeed the words, are sacrosanct, but directors feel the need to impose their world-view on the audience, many of them in this case youngsters seeing their first ever opera. It's no secret that E H wrote the earliest version of this opera to entertain his own children. And yet the directors are on record as saying that this is not entertainment, and it is not for children, but about them ...

also posted to the ROH facebook page

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Chelmsford Singers in the 



It's sixty years since Britten wrote Saint Nicolas for the Centenary of Lancing College. Though it is Christmassy in name only, this festive season has seen even more performances than usual, notably at the Barbican, and at Lancing itself.

Peter Nardone encouraged a decimated choir – the ship was seriously under-manned – through a splendid performance, with tenor Ben Cooper sincere and calm as the Bishop of Myra, and Alexander Palotai as the young Nicholas and one of the pickled boys, whose entry was a high point of this inherently dramatic work. The chorus were especially effective in the Birth of Nicholas, and in the storm. Britten wrote in his performing note that the conductor must be cool-headed and should turn to the audience to conduct them in the two hymns” and our participation made the experience even more moving.

Finzi's “Christmas Scene”, In Terra Pax, is less often heard, but this too is a powerfully reflective work, framing Luke's worshipping shepherds with verses by Robert Bridges, who stands back, alone on a glorious Christmas Eve, bathed in the joy of a celebratory crowd of which he will never be part. Isabella Gage was the Angel, and baritone Martin Oxenham the poet.

Martin made a key contribution to the last work, too, Vaughan Williams' popular Fantasia on Christmas Carols. Lusty singing from the choir, and some superb work from a chamber orchestra led by Sarah Sew – a quintessential RVW string sound.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop 

at The Old Court


A Christmas coup for CTW – the amateur première of the stage version of that black and white classic comedy.

A challenge, too, of course, to lay the ghosts of Price and Guinness, and shoe-horn the action into a small space. It was a challenge met with style and enthusiasm by Christine Davidson, Robin Winder and their team.

The set was ingenious and practical, with a screen at the back – a nod to the story's celluloid origins, perhaps – which doubled as a lightbox, magically conjuring up a funeral procession or a boating party with the smallest of forces.

There was some excellent staging – the hunting “accident”, the Boer War maquette – and the auditorium made a useful third acting area. Blackouts are hard to achieve, and it might have been wiser to go for little bit of atmosphere lighting for the scene changes, given that we're going to see them anyway.

A triumph too for Jim Crozier, who managed to create all the different D'Ascoyne victims, often with just a line or two of dialogue: the banker paterfamilias, the bluff Ethelred, the shrill Agatha, and, with more than a drop of Guinness, the rector.

Dean Hempstead was the cold, calculating Mazzini. He held the stage well, but he might have been encouraged to bring out more fully the drama and the humour of his role, the Dr Johnson running gag, for instance, or his half-joking “confession”, or the final twist with the missing memoirs. His two loves were Sibella, a sensuous Ruth Cramphorn, and the refined Edith, an understated Sara Nower. Loads of lovely cameos, from Winder's thwarted hangman to David Chilvers' snobbish young fogey. Always on hand with a change of jacket and a knowing glance was Hoskins, the gentleman's gentleman played to perfection by Andy Perrin.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008



Chelmsford Cathedral


As they have for the past five years, the Waltham Singers led the singing for this sell-out Christmas Concert.

Their generosity brings several key benefits: the congregation singing is boosted, the descants are thrilling, and the choral offerings are of a predictably high standard.

Andrew Fardell's inspirational conducting brought a spiritual strength to Luis de Victoria's Renaissance masterpiece O Magnum Mysterium. And, most effectively, a spare, brightly delineated For Unto Us A Child Is Born from Handel's Messiah, with an upliftingly emphatic “Wonderful!”. Berlioz Shepherds' Farewell was warmly sung, with sensitive accompaniment from the Cathedral's Assistant Master of the Music, Tom Wilkinson.

The reading included both scriptural and secular. A A Milne's advice on giving Christmas gifts, Dylan Thomas's haunted, gas lit Christmas in Wales, and an appropriate lesson in charitable giving from motivational guru Tom Krause, read by Angela Lodge from BBC Essex. Our local radio station is a great supporter of Macmillan, and if you didn't manage to get a ticket for this popular concert, you can hear it broadcast on Christmas Eve, with a repeat on Christmas Day.

Sunday, December 07, 2008


Trinity Methodist Drama and Music Fellowship


Christmas carols being sung by a choir” - Mel Tormé's seasonal standard was just one of the enjoyable surprises at this traditional festive offering from Trinity.

Most fun was had with Rapping Paper, Ben Parry's ingenious and demanding look at Christmas presents – the packed audience worked almost as hard as the choir to make the words fit.

And there was a secular carol, too, The Very Best Time of the Year, by John Rutter, whose work will feature in most of this year's carol concerts. The same could be said of David Willcocks, whose arrangements Trinity used for the familiar carols in which the audience shared.

Paul Edwards' No Small Wonder is a new carol, already very popular with choirs around the world, given a touchingly sincere performance here by the choir, conducted by Susannah Edom.

Adam Sullivan, a former Trinity performer now at the Guildhall, was the baritone soloist in Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on Christmas Carols. A vigorous yet precise sound, especially from the gentlemen.

The other major work was Brother Heinrich's Christmas, also by Rutter. This little Cantata, narrated with consummate charm by Ken Rolf, tells the improbable story of a monk who befriends the monastery donkey and goes on to compose In Dulci Jubilo. With instrumental support from oboe and bassoon, it proved a highlight of the afternoon.

The choir was accompanied by Keith Byatt at the organ, and Simon Harvey at the piano.

Saturday, December 06, 2008


Brentwood Theatre Company


Roald Dahl's classic tale of farmers and foxes was always a favourite in our family, and it has lost none of its appeal over the years.

Director Vernon Keeble-Watson gave us a lively, colourful show on three levels, with lots of doors, and lots of digging. The audience, on two sides, were variously rabbits, badgers, moles and weasels. Us weasels being rather feeble at joining in the recurring Digging Song – the moles, inevitably, going at it with most gusto. MD John Trent Wallace's original music added another layer to David Wood's clever adaptation; I particularly liked the Deep in the Ground ballad, sensitively sung by Deborah Luery and Katie-Elizabeth Allgood.

The narrator was Kira Olivier's furry frump of a Badger, who had some great moments with the scene-stealing Doris [Katie-Anna Whiting] – the Gert and Daisy of Foxes' Wood. The farmers' trio was suitably obnoxious but not at all scary, and the Fox himself was earnestly and energetically played by Stephen Gunshon in his professional début.

There was some lovely detail – Bunce's knee patches, Baby Fox's Teach Yourself Acting – and some awesome effects – the tractor apocalypse and the food stores.

A lovely Christmas show which managed to be original as well as traditional. We even had a Cider sing-along, though we hardly needed the words ...

Thursday, December 04, 2008


King Edward VI School Chelmsford


Gustav Holst's charming, folksy St Paul's Suite was dedicated to his gifted pupils at St Paul's Girls' School, so it was an appropriate choice for KEGS Chamber Ensemble. Conducted by Tim Lissimore, they gave it an energetic, exciting performance, with superb solo work from leader Vincent Morris.

Philip Lane was a schoolteacher, too, and his Celebration Overture was the first of three works from the Senior Orchestra. The most enjoyable was Dukas' ever-popular Sorcerer's Apprentice, with its hard-working bassoons, but the most impressive was Delius' Walk to the Paradise Garden – cool woodwinds against shimmering strings, and some stirring climaxes.

The Wind Band, led by Rosemary Harvey, began with a jaunty, jazzy version of Vaughan Williams' Sea Songs, before letting their hair right down with Mancini, Mission Impossible [tightly played under the baton of Director of Music Tim Worrall], and the hard-to-avoid Hairspray. A very professional sound from this huge ensemble.

The training ensembles gave us a wide range of genres too, with Offenbach's Can Can from the Junior Orchestra, led by Brian Chan; their pizzicato was heard to great effect in Rustic Dance. And KEGS Strings, rehearsed and conducted by students, contributed Abdelazer, Adiemus, and, most successfully, Wallace and Gromit.

In a couple of hours we heard music-making of a range and a standard which many specialist schools would envy. Not through initiatives or special funding, but thanks to tireless enthusiasm, inspirational teaching and leadership, and enlightened parental support. Long may it continue.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


Prizewinners' Concert at CHS


Forty-eight years on, the Chelmsford Competitive Festival of Music and Drama continues to attract entries from all over the county and beyond.

What a broad church it is ! This year's 600+ entries included performers of all ages from beginners to advanced, from solos to ensembles to big production numbers. And all kinds of music, poetry, prose and drama.

The range was demonstrated at the Prizewinners' Concert: even the first item – the impressively disciplined Sandon School Chamber Choir – brought music from the Middle Ages to Fifties America: Gaudete to Goodnight Sweetheart.

Jostling for space in this annual showcase of the Festival's best were James McCallum's soprano sax, Sam Marlow's guitar, and Mendelssohn's Mosquito, brilliantly played, from memory, by 9-year-old Andrew Liddell on violin.

Dramatically, the ages ranged from Aidan and Oliver, who's just turned nine, to the students of Rickstones New Academy, with their inventive Muppetree mime.

Top of the bill were Stardust Dance Academy, with a familiar few minutes of Annie.

The presentations were made by Nicole Chapman, Headteacher of Chelmsford County High School. As she remarked, the performing arts develop qualities and skills for life, and both performers and audience can find their lives enhanced.