Thursday, July 29, 2010

CTW at the Old Court


Lope de Vega's classic El perro del Hortelano, cleverly Englished by David Johnston, was an Iberian blockbuster to end the season for Chelmsford Theatre Workshop. Sangria and Spanish guitar in the foyer, and a great play in the airless auditorium.
Vega was Shakespeare's contemporary, [this play dates from 1613, the year after The Tempest] and the similarities go way beyond the staging – two side doors, a wide door centre stage, arras windows and a broad arena. So we had a child long lost at sea, soliloquies and various adventures on the bumpy course of true love. And some tender, poetical moments amongst the gags and the grotesque characters.
Christine Davidson's talented cast included an agile and wily gracioso from Barry Taylor, Kat Tokely as the Countess who “desires a man beneath her”, Ruth Cramphorn as her Marcela, and Dean Hempstead as the hapless secretary with whose affections she toys.
Memorable turns, too, from Ivor Jeavons as the doddery dupe Ludovico, and Jeremy Battersby and Mark Preston as two unsuitable suitors.
Jim Hutchon was at the first night for the Chelmsford Weekly News:

Christine Davidson’s very classy production of this translated Spanish farce is an absolute gem, with intrigue, betrayal and a truly comic narrative full of twists and turns. It follows the fortunes of a 17thCentury Princess Diana – as wilful as her 20thCentury counterpart – who fancies her secretary and won’t let him free to marry his love.

Kat Tokely is the princess, and shows an extraordinary versatility in switching moods fleetingly between love, anger and haughtiness. Her secretary, Dean Hempstead, who has a quiet sense of comic timing, is equally adept at carelessly switching his affections between Marcela (Ruth Cramphorn as a confused and hurt lady-in-waiting) and the princess, who he sees as the ultimate prize.
Two of Diana’s other suitors, the super arrogant OTT Ricardo with the outrageous cod pieces (Jeremy Battersby) and the ever-funny and sad Federico (Mark Preston) were a pairing made in heaven. Key comic plaudits must go to Barry Taylor as Tristan, whom I have rarely seen in more spectacular form, ranging from the impecunious servant, to bloodthirsty assassin, to Greek trader with the improbable name of Stavros Kebabs. There are too many other excellent small cameos to mention, but the whole talented and disciplined cast never put a foot wrong.
The costumes in this feast for the eyes were immaculately produced by Tony Brett, with painstaking attention to accurate detail – even down to the most lowly of servants.
If you don’t go to see anything else this year, don’t miss this one, it is an evening to remember. It is on from 28th - 31st July. Box Office 01245 606505.

Monday, July 26, 2010

National Theatre at the Olivier


Christopher Oram's design puts us in a vaguely public space, tall, austere, classical, but just a facade, as we see from the stout wooden supports behind.
Brenton's abbreviation means no interval, and no mob either, just the power of words as classical revolutionaries are pitted against the romantic guillotine in the “blood-soaked Eden” of the Terror, the statue of Freedom not yet cast.
His text is rich, well served by Toby Stephens' dictatorial Danton and Elliot Levey's diminutive, menacing, incorruptible Robespierre. Alec Newman's ranting St Just memorable, too.
I liked the way the action froze and then jumped from the public to the domestic and back again; the final scene, with the severed heads hitting the basket at an industrial rate, is rightly celebrated, but it would be mere guignol without the merciless dissection of radicalism leading up to it.

Friday, July 16, 2010


The Lord Chamberlain's Men at Hylands House

They stole their name, and their playtexts, from Shakespeare's own troupe, but they tap into a much older tradition: the travelling players who would set up a trestle stage and perform wherever they could count on an audience.

This autumnal piece began with “Neptune's Raging Fury” and other songs of the sea, shifting straight into a busy storm, nicely suggested by three ropes and a handbell.

Not much by way of staging; a scrap of playhouse, with an alcove, a balcony and a trapdoor. Not much subtlety vocally, either, in the struggle to make the words carry over “another storm brewing”.

But the rough magick of Prospero's Island survived, thanks to the manic Ariel of Craig Gordon – no “harmless fairy” he, never still, controlling the mortals with his dark charms, his concertina and his ethereal singing. Similarly garbed, Kristian Philips made a strong Caliban. Their bearded but youthful Prospero was Matt Bannister, who bade a grumpy farewell to his powers.

The comedy was excellent, especially from William Reay's drunken Geordie Butler, with much fun with the gaberdine and the fripperies.

This no-frills, seven-man, two-hour Tempest was directed for The Chamberlain's Men by Andrew Normington.

Brentwood Operatic Society at the Brentwood Theatre

It's Seinfeld set to music”, raved the New York Times. This cult off-Broadway show is a revue, really, loosely linked sketches with songs, done in a simple chamber style. More so in the original, which has just four actors.
The theme is the thorny jungle of relationships. From first date through marriage to weary resignation. Brentwood fielded a dozen of its best singer/actors for this enjoyable show, and most of the numbers hit home - I especially enjoyed the speed-dating Justin Cartledge and Lisa Hall, the desperate parents Graham Greenaway and Jan Elliot, Gary Ball regressing into baby babble, Ruth Downie making an all-too-honest dating video, and Michael Toft settling for Stephanie Norman in the catchy I Can Live With That, with echoes of Making Whoopee.
There's no shortage of wit and wisdom, Single Man Drought and the sexless Marriage Tango spring to mind, but Sondheim it ain't, lyrically or musically; Scared Straight and Wedding Vows made a plodding climax to Act One, and I found myself longing for Not Getting Married from Company.
ILYYPNC was directed for BOS by Martyn Harrison, with Margaret Kiel overseeing the move onto the Brentwood stage. Adrian Ure, leading a hard-working trio from the piano, was Musical Director.
Michael Gray

Friday, July 09, 2010

The Stondon Singers at Stondon Massey


For their annual homage to William Byrd, in his own parish church, the Stondon Singers chose three of his sacred works, including a lustrous, polished Plorans Ploravit, and three muscular madrigals.
The instrumental group Burntwood Musique – who turned out to be a recorder consort – chose dances that Byrd wrote for his friend and fellow Catholic, William Petre, his Pavan and Galliard. These lively pieces punctuated the main work of the evening, Monteverdi's Missa in Illo Tempore, complete with its substantial Credo. It began with a bright, positive Kyrie, and included a beautifully textured Benedictus.
The sound was glorious, a balanced, harmonious whole. Though I did wonder how his music would have sounded four hundred years ago within these same walls ...
The Stondon Singers, directed by Christopher Tinker, ended with more recent music: James McMillan, and the American William Hawley, whose simple Reverie 'My River Runs to Thee' – setting words by Emily Dickinson – was a hugely effective choice for this tranquil rural setting. Then El Grillo by Josquin des Prez, and a more contemporary Spanish text, the Argentinian Tango El Ultimo Café.

Brentwood Performing Arts Group

Tim Burton's fantasy/horror/comedy does not sit well on a small stage. And despite some good ideas, some promising performances and a lot of chutzpah, BPAG's adaptation only fitfully amused or amazed. Not helped by American dialogue in Essex accents. No writing credits on the programme. Your performing licence, if you have one, will stipulate how the creators [Michael McDowell, Larry Wilson, Warren Skaaren] should be acknowledged. If you don't have one, I should have thought you risk legal action against you and the theatre.
Even in 1988, the movies could do wonders; cardboard, a wisp of smoke and a flash of strobe just don't cut it, I'm afraid. Although the illuminated model town was impressive.
Reece Learmouth was the Keaton character [Michael, not Buster] the undead “bio-exorcist” who drives the plot; Michael Gardner was a lively interior designer, and Mark Ballard was Adam Maitland, the unsuccessful ghost who brings in Beetlejuice to save his old home. These three also directed; I couldn't help thinking that a firmer, and more objective, hand might have brought some much needed discipline to the show. I liked Steven Mead's lugubrious janitor, Lloyd Williamson's hoarse Juno and Kristen Brown's sulky, suicidal teen.
The Bicycle number brought a real buzz with it – a little more music would have made the scene changes [more than 20 of them] more bearable. Also hard to bear, for this critic, are self-congratulatory speeches, flash photography in the audience and auditorium chairs on stage ...

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Eastern Angles 
at the Hush House, Bentwaters

There's an older story here, and we have a share in it.”

'Here' seems like the middle of nowhere, acres of airbase under vast Suffolk skies, the weeds and the wild flowers trying to move in since the Americans went home.

The Hush House, a found space built to test jet engines, is the site for Tony Ramsey's intriguing play, and its inspiration, too.
He imagines four historical layers, from Pagan times through the Middle Ages and the Cold War to the present day. They are porous layers, though, and ghosts, living and dead, haunt the bend in the river that was a special place to all these peoples.
The narrative revolves around Charlie, a restless, rootless nomad, brought back to Rose Cottage by a funeral and a house sale. Not a particularly likeable or easy character, played with honest intensity by Nadia Morgan.
The other actors all take roles across the Ages – so Mark Knightley is both Jez, Charlie's friend and minder, and the young Pagan Crotus who takes pottery to market in Camulodunum and “makes a wonder of a common road”. Some idea of the complexity of the resonances: Caitlin Thorburn plays Charlie as a child, Crotus's sacrificial virgin girlfriend, bathing her mutilated wrists in the stream, and a geriatric nurse, washing her hands in the same water ...
Sally Ann Burnett was her mother, and the determined widow who, a millennium on, sees the church tower built to remember her husband – one of a number of missing fathers in the piece. The church still stands in isolation just outside the perimeter fence. I loved Pamela Buchner's heartless actress, distant mother to Charlie. Peter Sowerbutts was more comfortable with the mysterious Mel than with the American Commander, while Richard Sandells was another enigmatic father figure, and the ghost of an airman's father in a video link. Projection was used effectively here, with the roof of Charlie's iconic camper van serving as one of the screens.
Daniel Copeland was excellent value in two of the most interesting roles – the pompous medieval cleric and estate agent Andrew who, in what is perhaps a thread too far, is also a detectorist and UFO buff.
Close Encounters brought occasionally to mind by the impressive tunnel, too, which is the main feature of the stage, together with some metallic trees, real water in troughs, and some more realistic bits and pieces for the cottage and the airbase.
Actors from the community – an idea that has worked well for Colchester Mercury, too – were the Watchers, Ancient Britons for whom this place had a special significance, and who have never really left it … There was a lovely moment when two girls were puzzling over the books packed up for house clearance, understanding nothing of their import or purpose.
Roger Eno's atmospheric music, and some deafening realistic jet engine sounds, helped us switch back and forth between the eras. This is a strong piece, very much in the Eastern Angles tradition, and of course could tour anywhere. Except that the spirit of place is very strong, and there was a real sense that we, together with the Watchers, were witnessing events that had marked this spot, leaving echoes for us to pick up in the Hush House, and ponder as we walked out through the hangar doors to stand for a moment beneath those same skies.

My old friend and mentor Jon Richards was at a matinée in the Hush House:

Ever been to the Roman theatre at Ephesus? You make your way past the occasional fallen stone, stand on the wide stage and look out at the semi-circle of stone seats ranged in front of you. As you look up at the furthest step you can’t help but want to declaim, fill the space with sound, with energy. The Hush House has the same effect. Walk in through those enormous sliding doors, face that maw of a tunnel and the space demands that you fill it with sound, light, the human condition. OK – it’s on the outer edges of civilisation, not the most convenient of venues to fill, but one can fully appreciate why Eastern Angles have returned to such an atmospheric site.

After a long gestation Tony Ramsay’s Bentwater Roads arrives at the Hush House in an inventive and commanding production by Ivan Cutting. Ramsay’s play envisages events that might have happened in this remote area of the kingdom (not much electricity hereabouts until the mid-sixties…) at four periods of our history: the present, the Cold War, Medieval Suffolk and pagan times. The play hangs on Charlie’s (Charlotte’s) return to Rose Cottage, the house in which she grew up with her actress mother. Mum Josephine has recently died. Charlie, trailing an orange VW camper van and boyfriend Jez, comes to claim her inheritance and move on. Except it isn’t that simple. Charlie and her mother have never understood one another. And there’s the problem of her father who she believes long dead but isn’t and much of the action is about coming to terms with that.

Echoes from the past reverberate in each of the time scales which flow very neatly and mostly convincingly into one another. There are excellent performances from nine named actors and, for the first time, a sixteen-strong chorus of volunteers who people the pagan and medieval sections of the drama. There’s some atmospheric smoke in that there tunnel, some thrilling sound effects as a jet fighter swoops through the skies, and the venue permits an actual VW van to be rolled in and its raised white roof to serve as a screen for some of the appropriately used video action.

Nadia Morgan is an affecting Charlie. One sympathises with her although many of her problems seem self-inflicted. She seems to have been singularly uninquisitive about her father as a child. When her schizophrenic father rises up from his wheelchair to confront her is a chilling moment, particularly helped by the mesmeric performance of Richard Sandells. Daniel Copeland is that rare character, a sympathetic estate agent, but is also a nicely slimy Father Tawney, cleverly out-manoeuvered by a confident Sally Ann Burnett as Mrs Middleton during the building of the local church tower – the first to be built of corraline stone.

Mark Knightley plays boyfriend Jez and catches his easy-going nature; he’s much more intense and dramatic as the most enlightened pagan Crotus who wants to remove his ladylove from the clutches of the religious mania engulfing locals during a famine. Caitlin Thorburn is that lady and brings a simple dignity to the role. I liked Peter Sowerbutts playing a no-nonsense US commanding officer and the enigmatic friend of Charlie’s Mum.

Keith Baker’s design was notable – the stylised metal trees providing an excellent backdrop to this multi-media production. Real water, a deep black tunnel, the simplest of props, imaginative lighting and an enthusiastic chorus, there was much to enjoy in this piece that must have been a very demanding production. Eastern Angles again demonstrate their willingness to go beyond what is the usual fare of many local theatres. Let’s hope that the inevitable cuts that the government is proposing fall elsewhere.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Writtle Singers Summer Concert

As exemplified by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, the best kind of choral concert these days is a journey with a destination, not just pretty aural scenery. A knowledgeable guide helps, too, making sure we don't miss anything along the way.
Christine Gwynn's Writtle Singers unfailingly provide a fascinating trip, and this summer's “exploration” was one of their finest.
The idea was to look at some of the structures, colours and textures of choral music; so as not to make the route too predictable, the programme listed the composers alphabetically. Along the way we heard polyphony in mirror image from Byrd, a cheeky alehouse round, a Latin American song with just two chords and a canary to its name, an enigmatic Ave Maria from Verdi, an intricate double canon from Purcell and two wordless numbers – Bach's Familiar Air, and Christine's own ingenious eight-part arrangement of the overture to Mozart's Marriage of Figaro to end the journey. The “words”, precisely articulated, artfully suggested the colours of the original instrumentation.
The adventure began, appropriately enough, with Sumer is Icumen In, in which we could all join.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Open Air Passion Play at Wintershall Estate

Jesus, Pilate, Melchior, Lazarus and the rest are having a year off in 2011. Wintershall's Life of Christ was devised to celebrate the Millennium, and proved so popular that it's been revived annually every since.
Technically, it's a huge undertaking. Four acting areas, the audience shepherded from one to another, near-perfect sound re-enforcement, stage manager crouched at the front of the seating area, cue-ing every entrance and every effect. And there were some superb moments, most memorable perhaps the Masacre of the Innocents, with Herod's seven horsemen galloping over the brow of the hill and bearing down on the distraught mothers to the sound of Britten's Storm at Sea.
Animals are always scene-stealers, of course, and we also had donkeys, pigeons flying free after Jesus purges the Temple,a live draught of fishes, and a whole flock of sheep, complete with dog, for the Shepherds.
The big set-pieces worked best, with hordes of colourful extras running everywhere. The feeding of the 5000, just before the all-too-short picnic break in the middle of the day, was very moving, with the audience involved in the friendliest way.
James Burke-Dunsmore, who's made something of a career of playing the Saviour, was an engaging Jesus, managing to achieve an intimate sincerity at a huge distance. Philip Street and Ashley Herman were the Evangelist storytellers. The hundreds of other actors were almost all amateurs, from Jules Robinson as a feisty Virgin to young Aaron Yates as the boy who'd remember his packed lunch.
Peter Hutley's script is unashamedly proselytising, and many of the 3000 or so in the crowd were on a Church awayday. There was a prayer tent, too, as well as the food vans and portaloos.
But it worked well as drama; largely because of the painstaking, perfectionist production: Ashley Herman directed, with Peter Hutley producing. We are promised another revival in 2012, no doubt with some tweaks and changes, but I'm sure the spirit and the spirituality of this amazing drama will survive.
Please click here to see a five minute trailer - opens in a pop-up window

Friday, July 02, 2010

King Edward VI School Chelmsford

Impressive music-making from KEGS music department under Tim Worrall and Maggie Diffley; especially as so many of those performing were younger musicians.
So the choir sang Karl Jenkin's ubiquitous Adiemus, followed by that 80s power ballad Don't Stop Believin', recently boosted by Glee.
More familiar music from the exuberant wind band – Slumdog, Family Guy, Spanish Flea and a raunchy selection from Chicago.
The Junior String Ensemble gave us the attractively descriptive Carnival Time, with its clumsy, growly Bear on a Chain and its Town Band fading into the distance.
Night music too, with Elgar and Mancini from a very promising String Quartet, whose first violin, Chris Little, also led the Junior Orchestra in some distilled classics. And a sensitive Chopin Nocturne from one of KEGS' star players, Sasha Millwood, making his last appearance at the end of his school career.
There were unmusical distractions, too, on this glorious summer evening – some parents divided their attention between their sons and Wimbledon on the iPhone, and one footballing brass player missed his entrance – as Michael Flanders might have commented : “there was the case, but the Horn itself was missing” …

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Chichester Festival Theatre


Get out your tap shoes, Francis ...”
42nd Street comes to the open Chichester stage, in an glorious production full of tinsel, glitter and slightly camp pastiche.
Where tradition had a front tab curtain raised just enough to see those dancing feet, Paul Kerryson's brilliant opening saves their shoes till last, as the dancers rise from the floor on a giant trap.
Choreography was by Andrew Wright, who made those Berkeley/Broadway dance clichés come up new minted.
The well worn plot follows the progress of chorine Peggy Sawyer [Lauren Hall] from hoofer to leading lady, replacing the injured diva Brock [the excellent Kathryn Evans], whose fading charms are cruelly sent up in In The Shadows.
Back projection, a wall of mirrors, opening occasionally to reveal the outstanding orchestra, fronted by the dapper, balletic MD Julian Kelly.
Tim Flavin, a man whose career is synonymous with the best musical theatre, was the exacting director Julian Marsh, singing a great Lullaby of Broadway, and the writers of “Pretty Lady” - the Comden and Green of this parallel universe – were engagingly played by Louise Plowright and Christopher Howell.
But it's really all about the spats, the golden tap shoes and all that fancy footwork – exhausting and exhilarating to watch.
Congratulations, kids, that was darn good ...”