Wednesday, December 23, 2009

FOOTSBARN'S CHRISTMAS CRACKER

at Shakespeare's Globe

23.12.09


It's ten years since I was at the Globe in the depths of winter. That was for the Millennium night, with fireworks and plenty to drink.

This year, for the first time ever, there's a Christmas season in Shakespeare's wooden O. Not a panto, nor yet a full-length piece from the canon. But Footsbarn's unique blend of mayhem and melancholy. A series of moments – Macbeth charades, a mock Nativity scene with a Shakespearean Twelve Days of Christmas, a girl on a tightrope playing a plaintive violin. Not forgetting the excellent mime Nola Rae as the Fool.

Footsbarn are now located in France, and the company is creatively multi-cultural. But I felt that the overall ambience of Patrick Hayter's production was very French, harking back to the work of Le Grand Magic Circus [et ses animaux tristes]. But despite the sadness and the slow moments, the effect was jolly and entertaining, in the tradition of the Mummers and the Lord of Misrule. And the final moments looked forward to the return of the sun and the summer ...
CHRISTMAS CONCERT

The Stondon Singers

22.12.09


In the icy heart of Jericho – the lovely priory church of Saint Lawrence in Blackmore – the Stondon Singers brought us their choral Christmas celebration, sung with their customary style and skill and sensitivity.

Last year we heard the popular Sir Christemas, by Welsh composer William Mathias. This year, the entire carol sequence from which it comes: Ave Rex, its four movements by turns melodious and refreshingly effervescent.

The concert was marked by contrasts. The spiritual contemplation of Arvo Part and Maurice Duruflé, Willcocks' bright setting of Ding Dong Merrily, with the dancing organ played by Stephen King. For his solo, he chose a Canon on the tune Forest Green [O Little Town] by Andrew Carter, whose arrangement of Angelus ad Virginem was part of the closing sequence.

No Christmas is complete without a party piece, and King joined conductor Christopher Tinker in a witty piano duet loosely based on Schubert's Marche Militaire, but with bits of Beethoven and broken Toy Soldiers in there too. The “composer” was John Gardner, whose best known carol, Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day, was slotted in between the Carter and the Bleak Midwinter.

There was Byrd, of course, and his Spanish contemporary Victoria, followed by Tinker's delightful lullaby, Hush! My dear, lie still and slumber.

The Singers began and ended behind us in the West End – Palestrina and Stille Nacht, before the mulled wine and the chilly journey home.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A very happy Christmastide to you all.

Here's another helping of Plum Pudding from Gabriel Woolf and the Joyful Company of Singers ...


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See you all in 2010 - don't forget that your contributions and your comments are always welcome ...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

LES PATINEURS / TALES OF BEATRIX POTTER

Royal Ballet

17.12.09


A rink in a forest glade. Chinese lanterns. Assorted skaters preened, pirouetted and took the occasional tumble on the ice in Frederick Ashton's magical evocation of an Edwardian skating party. The finale saw snow, and left us with a single dancer, the Blue Boy, spinning in the spotlight like a doll in a snow-storm dome.

After the interval, Sir Fred's other Christmas hit, the perennially popular Tales of Beatrix Potter, with Philip Mosley as Mrs Tiggywinkle and Ryoichi Hirano as a lithe Jeremy Fisher.

A tale of two audiences, and little girls out for a Christmas treat. Flashing baubles, plastic trays of greasy chips. Bratz. Lamé boleros [and in one family, three lads in matching knickerbocker outfits] and a surreptitious satsuma. Ballet Shoes. The only point in common between this evening and last the “skating” and the ticket price. We're a long way from the classless society.

GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS

Danbury Players

19.12.09

Swarms of bees, gangs of zombie bears – it was no picnic in the woods today.

Danbury Players unusual panto did respect some of the time-honoured traditions: Pauline Chaplin's Tomtom [the Piper's son] was a cross-dressing thigh-slapper, who sang the obligatory love duet with Goldilocks [Megan Cutts]. There was an elimination number, a competitive singalong, and plenty of boos and behind you!s. Annette Michaels had considerable presence as the Dame, with Stuart Charlesworth trying hard as her dim son Ray.

Less predictably, we had a failed philosopher lumberjack [who managed to chop all the irony out of the Python anthem], a “mean and vicious” Queen Bee baddie [nicely done by Jean Speller] and some very snappy dance routines from Bam Bam Boogies.

Tyro directors Trevor Hammond and Debbi Flack included plenty of bear puns, honey humour and lumber jokes. The music, including some cleverly adapted hits, was directed by James Tovey.

After the walk-down and the curtain calls, the whole company joined in “Merry Christmas Everyone” – a sentiment that Jim Hutchon and I would happily echo.

If I might make one or two stage-craft suggestions for next year, it would be to encourage actors to stand still rather than shuffle, to have fewer scene changes, and music to cover them, and to make the dialogue as short as the songs.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND

at Riverside Ice and Leisure

16.12.09

Riverside's Alice on Ice had hordes of very talented skaters – the principals breathtakingly so at times – and superb costumes. Much of the ticket price must surely have gone on sound and lighting, both impressively inventive.

But it was only sporadically successful in any artistic sense. Don McNab's lavish production was at its best when music, choreography and character all came together, as in the opening Edwardian garden party, with its bassinets, parasols and a stylish taste of croquet to come. A neat pas-de-deux, and loads of rowing youngsters.
Other scenes, though, lacked focus: the Seaside [where the Edwardian bathing attire was better suited to the story – and the ice – than the Club Tropicana outfits], the Courtroom, and the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, despite Amber Ferguson's adorable dormouse.
Among the many scattered delights were the caterpillar, the red playing cards, the detectives and the candy-striped Cheshire Cat [Jane Faux].
Cat Clements' confident, athletic Alice was ably partnered by James Hunt as the White Rabbit. Steve Adcock was an impressively characterful Knave, with some brilliant routines, and, as the Queen, Helen Taylor successfully combined dramatic and skating skills. Choreography was by Louise Evans with Paula Austin.
Only when the whole cast assembled for the Someone Else's Dream finale did we see the scale of this annual extravaganza. Next year, Treasure Island gets the Riverside treatment.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

CANDLELIT CHRISTMAS CONCERT

Writtle Singers

13.12.09


The central work of Writtle Singers' seasonal offering this year was Saint-Saens' Christmas Oratorio. A typically adventurous choice, it is a setting of Biblical and liturgical Latin texts, with groups of soloists [including the lovely Benedictus sung by Alison Connolly and Peter Quintrell], and a charming organ accompaniment [David Sheppard], beginning with a Bach-style Prelude. Christine Gwynn encouraged her choir through this sometimes challenging work, resulting in an enjoyably atmospheric performance.

The all-French programme also included two familiar congregational carols, and a beautiful processional candlelit Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.

Earlier in the afternoon, we heard an equally enjoyable family concert, with more European works, including the Burgundian Patapan, appropriately accompanied by drum and recorders, and El Rorro, a Mexican lullaby carol which imagines the elephant and the mosquito at the manger ! Not forgetting Away in a Manger, and, almost as well known, Little Donkey, by Eric Boswell, who died earlier this month.

And an unexpected piece of 60s nostalgia, the Joy Strings' Christmas hit, Starry Night.

hear the original Joy Strings here:

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Monday, December 14, 2009

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

CTW at the Old Court

09.12.09


It was Miss Prism, over a festive hock and seltzer, who first voiced our thoughts. Algernon's a dead ringer for Oscar, natural curls and all.

One of many delights in Mark Preston's Importance, playing at the Old Court this festive season.

Some aunts are tall, as we know, and Christine Davidson's acidly aloof Lady Bracknell was excellent, especially in her moments of strong silent stillness. Kat Tokley, too, as her equally statuesque daughter, caught the stilted style nicely, an effective contrast with Stephanie Price's sunny Cecily.

The idle Jack and Algie [Dean Hempstead and Barrie Taylor] worked well together, wit and sarcasm embedded into their most trivial remarks. The proposal of marriage was very amusingly done.

The remainder of the ménage comprised a lively Prism [Helen Bence] and a splendid Chasuble [Peter Nerreter]. And below stairs, Mike Nower's urbane Lane and Ivor Jeavons' doddery Merriman, assisted by Stage Manager Emma Moriaty as an unnamed maid.

Maybe we could have had a little more pointed emphasis for the epigrams, crisper heightened RP, and a less austere Half Moon Street. But the heart of the play, and its undying appeal, were well served by this careful revival.



Jim Hutchon was at the first night for the Chelmsford Weekly News

Director Mark Preston has given Wilde’s evergreen satire on Victorian pomp a fresh coat of paint, while sticking closely to original Victorian theatre values. The freshness is due largely to a talented cast which work well together, especially the two ‘Earnests’ who kept up an effortless mild antagonism towards each other. Dean Hempstead played Jack Worthing with a clipped pomposity, which rather belied his indolent existence, while Barry Taylor, as Algernon, revelled in his pointless life but could, perhaps, have employed Wilde’s languid approach to greater effect. The pair of airheads upon which they focus their affections – the versatile Kat Tokley as Gwendolen and Stephanie Price as Cecily - both gave thoughtful and convincing performances well beyond the remits of their respective characters.
Key to the action is the formidable Lady Bracknell, played by Christine Davidson, who started off rather gently I felt, though soon hit her stride as the uncompromising monster she really is. Her ‘hand-bag’ was refreshingly understated. Plaudits too, must go to the excellent pairing of Helen Bence as the hapless governess who leaves the baby in the hand-bag, and Peter Nerreter as the epitome of the concerned but vague country vicar. For me, the pairing that really captures the essence of Wilde’s parody are the two butlers, Mike Nower as a perfectly executed Jeeves and Ivor Jevons as the crinkly old retainer.
The sets were well designed and functional with good solid doors – rare for amateur productions - and the costumes, by Bernice Cramphorn, were sumptuous and accurate. As is becoming customary for some CTW productions, ‘Earnest’ will run over two successive weeks, so can still be caught on 16th to 19th December – ideal Christmas fare!

thanks to Tonio Ellis for the photographs !

A CHRISTMAS PUDDING

The Joyful Company of Singers

St Paul's Covent Garden

10.12.09


The Joyful Company's Plum Pudding is nicely matured by now – a secret recipe of music, readings and plenty of Christmas spirit.
If you're lucky you might find the original CD, with Gabriel Woolf [and Dame Felicity Lott].
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Woolf revived many of these favourites in the lovely setting of the Actors' Church: the “plain and pastoral truths” of Vita Sackville West's festive season, U A Fanthorpe. I loved the way director Peter Broadbent wove music into the readings – Laurie Lee's Christmas in Seville, Deck the Halls for E V Lucas's wonderfully observed Christmas Decorations, and two Silent Nights: in German for the Christmas Truce and Englished for Leonard Clark looking back over a lifetime of Decembers to carol Singing in the Streets.
Plenty of musical discoveries, too [and no community singing !]. Ralph Vaughan Williams' arrangement of the Wassail Song, the première of a new piece by Malcolm Hayes, and a powerful start, Roderick Williams' O Adonai, beginning with seven sopranos, then the men's voices entering from the back of the church to truly impressive emotional effect.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

CHRISTMAS CONCERT

Chelmsford Singers

12.12.09


This exuberant evening of sacred music began with the Hallelujah Chorus. Crisply sung, with glorious trumpets, it was the Chelmsford Singers' contribution to the nationwide Sing Hallelujah project. But alas, no chance for the enthusiastic audience to join in a singalonga Handel …

The main work was Haydn's Harmoniemesse, a late work, full of the spirited optimism which is Haydn's hallmark. Peter Nardone drew an impressively rousing performance from the choir – the Qui Tollis and the closing Dona Nobis Pacem just two examples of really fine choral phrasing. The four soloists – all of exceptional quality - blended beautifully in the Agnus Dei and the Et Incarnatus Est.

The same forces shone just as brightly in the Bach Magnificat. Tim Travers-Brown, counter-tenor, was the soloist in a wonderfully lilting Esurientes, Ruth Gomme's limpid soprano took the first two solos, and Robert Rice's relaxed baritone seemed to fit the acoustic exactly, especially in the Quia Fecit with its lovely cello accompaniment. Oliver Waterer was at the organ, and the choir brought commendable energy to the choruses, particularly perhaps the Fecit Potentiam.

The excellent orchestra was led by Sarah Sew, and the conductor was Peter Nardone, who conducts the whole of the Messiah with the Cathedral Choir and top-flight soloists on the evening of Sunday 20 December.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

SLEEPING BEAUTY
[reviewed for The Public Reviews]

Cut to the Chase at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch

07.12.09

We live in straitened times. So we should not be too surprised to see a cast of seven bringing us the traditional Panto tale of Sleeping Beauty.
But Cut to the Chase, the resident company at the Queen's, made a brilliant job of it. These are not panto specialists, nor telly celebrities on their uppers, but the repertory regulars giving their all in a uniquely home-grown production.

No corners cut in other areas. The sets were splendid; a beautiful architectural castle, the title of the show spelled out in thorn branches, a narrative scene tab, and an impressive Tower Room, reached by flight after flight of stairs on a revolve. The frocks, too, were made in-house: the Dame had the best of them, as is only right. Her housecoat was half-timbered with a thatch on top, she wore a wrap-around sink of dishes for the crockery routine, and for the walk-down she sported a Wife of Bath get-up, complete with horse.

Simon Jessop was Silly Billy, engaging the noisy audience, and selecting John in row C to be a willing stooge. Crusty old King Boris was given a lively performance by Marcus Webb – I loved his Samba with the Dame – Chris MacDonnell's glorious Nanny Clutterbuck, with a wicked tongue and a chesty, raspy delivery of the Les Dawson school. Lucy Thackeray was a winsome Fairy Forget-Me-Not, but no match for Jane Milligan's imposing Carabosse. She had two triumphant numbers, and “infinite skill and centuries of experience”. Sarah Scowen sang prettily as Princess Aurora, with Elliot Harper as her strapping, thigh-slapping, kitchen-boy Tom.

Nicholas Pegg's script had some clever lines in amongst the chestnuts – Camembert and Carbonara the start of a culinary theme, perhaps, and all the original numbers were by the MD, Carol Sloman. No chart covers, X-factor hits or Michael Jackson tributes here [though Susan Boyle was name-checked] but clever songs which, though not memorable, did advance the plot and set the mood - “We're not scared” for the quest, “The Dreaded Love Song”, “Go Ahead and Laugh”.

No chorus, so not a lot of dance routines, though I did appreciate the complex choreography of the Ghost number with Carabosse, which spilled out perilously into the aisles. Helping to people the stage were three teams of eight youngsters, who also were beautifully dressed.

The house was packed with schoolkids, Brownies, and, the night I was there, Mayoral parties with chains of office glinting in the dark. Between us we banished the Wicked Fairy, sang an entirely original song, and gasped at the enormous Dragon, who saved the day and carried most of the cast on his back, high over the auditorium and the swamp of despair.

this review first appeared on


Monday, December 07, 2009

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

One From The Heart at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford

05.12.09

Fast, furious and fortissimo, this year's Civic Panto is a successful blend of the traditional and the modern.

So we have Ample Bottom village green [complete with “smiley yet strangely mute villagers”], a dynamic, down-to-earth Northern dame [Oliver Beamish], a classic ghost routine, and even rubber chickens. But also jokes about swine flu and, endlessly, bankers' bonuses and MPs' expenses – Philip Cox was the errant King. The youngsters – Ellie Baker's Jill, Richard Vincent her fresh-faced, “hopelessly romantic” Jack and Nathan Guy's tireless Silly Billy – had some lively disco classic production numbers [M People's The Hero Inside], well supported by a skilful juvenile chorus. And excellent East End villain Fleshcreep [Mark Jardine] got to do a Michael Jackson tribute. There was even a Megamix finale after the walk-down !

Daisy the Cow and the Giant were both well conceived, constructed and operated, and the whole production – written and directed by Simon Aylin – looked colourful and fresh. Ben Kennedy was in charge of the music.
CHARITY ORCHESTRAL CONCERT

King Edward VI School

03.12.09

Despite modest forces, Shostakovich's exuberant Festive Overture was a highlight of the evening. Brilliant brass and woodwind, and a sterling effort from the strings, including just four hard-working cellists.
More challenges for the Senior Orchestra, led by Sasha Millwood, in Liszt's Les Préludes, with some nice little woodwind solos, too.

The Chamber Ensemble chose Britten's Simple Symphony, written with amateurs in mind – the Sentimental Serenade was beautifully shaped, I thought. And the Junior Orchestra, led by Brian Chan, achieved a real Viennese lilt in the Thunder and Lightning Polka, and also featured, in Jerry Brubaker's Piano Concerto, aka Chopstix Variations, a mystery guest soloist: waltz, rumba, rock – he mastered all the genres and played all the right notes, presumably in the right order …

The enormous wind band – 60 plus musicians, led by Subin Lim – were impressive in Eric Whitacre's Sleep, with elegant horn playing, and achieved an authentic show-band style in a medley from Jersey Boys, the karaoke musical about The Four Seasons.

All these ensembles were conducted by KEGS Director of Music Tim Worrall.

The Chamber Choir, directed by Oliver El-Holiby and Will Waine, produced an amazingly sophisticated sound in an antiphonal Britten piece, Cole Porter, and Rutter's moving arrangement of Steal Away.
CHRISTMAS CONCERT

Trinity Methodist Drama and Music Fellowship

06.12.09



There's always a festive discovery or two at Trinity.

So this year, as well as singing the familiar Once in Royal, and Sullivan's glorious Midnight Clear, we were coaxed into joining the choir in the catchiest carol in the concert: Cantemos a Maria, from the Dominican Republic, complete with maracas and a chorus in Spanish !

The readings, by favourites Ken Rolf and Linda Percival, included the much-loved “Yes, Virginia”, Frank Muir and the Kissing Bough, and a lovely Holloway-style monologue about a foolish fairy and an irascible Yorkshire Santa.

From the choir, we heard two rousing openers – Gaudete and Torches – a Christmas Calypso, Cornelius's Three Kings, with Adam Sullivan as soloist, and an extract from Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors. The Magi also appeared in Herbert Howell's magical setting of Chesterton's Here Is The Little Door.

And before the Herald Angels, Trinity's contribution to Sing Hallelujah weekend, the Messiah in three minutes, by Peter Gritton out of G F Handel. Another discovery for me, superbly sung, and acted, by the choir.

Trinity were directed by Felicity Wright, with Richard Read at the piano and Keith Byatt at the organ.