Monday, June 28, 2010

at the Thaxted Festival

To Thaxted Church, steeped in musical tradition, for a wonderful concert by Dutch violinist Tim Kliphuis.
He must be tired of the “second Stéphane Grappelli” label, but it's true – that easy swing to the fiddle, those familiar standards ornamented, bent and improvised around. Satin Doll, After You've Gone, a colourful Caravan. Sweet Georgia Brown, too, of course, featuring a great dialogue between the violin and the inspired bass of Len Skeet, who's played with the great Grapelli himself. And, as a nightcap, a magical Berkeley Square.
But Tim's speciality – and possibly the reason for this Thaxted gig – is his way with the classics. They get the same affectionate makeover: a witty, swing Humoreske, Grieg's Norwegian Dance and a spell-binding Debussy Clair de Lune.
With Skeet and Kliphuis on the stand were pianist David Newton, his heels on the wooden platform the only percussion, and guitarist Colin Oxley.
26 June 2010

Jim Hutchon writes:

To Chelmsford Cathedral for an inspiring evening of works from the Chelmsford Singers. This is a group that always delights, with crisp intonation and timing – the result of long hours of rehearsal under a demanding taskmaster.
Musical Director Peter Nardone conducted the choir in two Britten numbers – one of which, ‘Rejoice in the Lamb’, likened animals and musical instruments to God. The nonsense rhyme text was written by a 17thC poet in a lunatic asylum.
Two main works occupied the bulk of the evening. The first was a set of five delightful and evocative songs by Essex composer Alan Bullard, where the Choir was joined by the Chelmsford Youth Choir under the baton of Simon Warne. The second half was taken up with Purcell’s ‘Come Ye Sons of Art’, composed for the wife of William III and completed only a year before Purcell’s death. This is a complex delight to the ear, with nine sections, each employing different vocal techniques, from counter-tenors to bass.
For me, the highlight of the evening was the short, beautiful and dynamic ‘Tu es Petrus’ by the renaissance composer Palestrina, which swept us bodily from Chelmsford to the heady delights of the Seminario Romano in 16thC Rome.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Chichester Festival Theatre, Minerva

What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died ?”
Whatever you can say, you could set to music, and that's what Howard Goodall has done. You get a chamber opera, a budget Boheme with some serviceable tunes and a sad ending.
Lucky to get Chichester to stage it, with its antithesis, 42nd Street, tapping and grinning over the way in the Main House.
Rachel Kavanagh's stylish and sensitive staging is set in what looks like a classy Konditorei, with musicians on a dais at one end [seven in the band, three singers] and a black carpet square for the drama, audience on three sides.
The scene changes deserved an ovation of their own. The chamber music recital – a wry homage to Francis Lai's music for the 1970 film – became bed sheets in the love nest, an intimidating dinner table slides in from the foyer. There's a viola joke, two different kitchen islands, practical pasta preparation, with the best spaghetti duet since Lady and the Tramp. Food and music combine again just before Jenny chooses terminal care in hospital – the bad news hits us 80 minutes into the show; her last three months played out in little more than 20 minutes.
Emma Williams made a sparky Jenny, with a lovely singing voice, and Michael Xavier was her preppy lover, totally convincing, and moving at the end when he realises all he has to lose.
Hard not to weep with him as Jenny leaves us with a backward glance at her death bed; another moving moment has Jenny's long-dead Momma [Julia Worsley] consoling her across the work surface.
Good support from the contrasting Dads, too. Rob Edwards as the WASP millionaire, and the excellent Peter Polycarpou as Phil, the emotional Italian immigrant.
I liked the subtle way the wordless chorus were used in café and restaurant, and at the end, the three singers move back on the dais to join MD Stephen Ridley and his sorrowful strings.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Tomorrow's Talent at the Civic Theatre

Masquerade, this year's title song, in stylish black and white, introduced the amazing achievements of Tomorrow's Talent.
There was more Phantom from Tara Divina, a beautifully delivered Think of Me. Six of the senior girls draped themselves on Cabaret chairs to sing the Cell Block Tango from Chicago: strong stuff, though the punch lines could have been subtler, perhaps.
Not surprising to see Fame and High School Musical up there – a nicely done sequence including Pray, Hard Work and Stick to the Status Quo, but this kind of showcase can produce some strange bedfellows. So Lady Gaga's Telephone led into a random scene from Lord of the Flies [convincing performances from Jack Martyn, Jamie Papworth, Greg Bennett and George Horscraft], and then into Popular, from Wicked, impeccably sung and acted by this year's West End guest, Julie Atherton.
After the interval, hippy favourites. Frank Mills [Hair] sung with touching naivety by Laura Messin, who straightaway slotted into the chorus for Rhythm of Life. There was pure dance, like the energetic Work, and several sketches, of which the best was a painfully well observed pair of disruptive school-girls – Deanna Byron and Hazel Ellender. Amusing glimpses of the wings, too: a trio of obsessive ballerinas [Laura Baylis, Catherine Hale and Bethany Smith] – only the Marlboros missing – and five whingeing luvvies [Alex Houlton, Josh Butcher, Mark Ellis, Ana Dillie and Maisie Allen], with a guest appearance from director Gavin Wilkinson.
He also conducted the juniors for some of their numbers; I felt their finest hour was the Willy Wonka sequence, with some very promising narrators and confident holders of the Golden Ticket.
Incredible to see the Civic stage crammed with all these enthusiastic and extrovert youngsters for the final number – Michael Jackson's Wanna Be Starting Something.

show picture by Erika Patterson, video from an early rehearsal
Waltham Singers in the Parish Church

It's fifty years since the death of Armstrong Gibbs, and this enterprising programme was one of several concerts in his home county marking this anniversary.
It featured works by his teacher, Vaughan Williams [the familiar Three Shakespeare Songs] and his contemporaries Howells [Take Him Earth for Cherishing] and Parry – a wonderfully stirring Blest Pair of Sirens, with Robert Poyser getting the most out of the Waltham organ.
The same forces for Gibbs' Cantata for Passiontide, Behold The Man. Dramatic choruses, linked by narration, beginning with How Beautiful on the Mountains, and ending with a note of triumph. Conductor Andrew Fardell, and his sizeable choir, made excellent advocates for this neglected work.
Unaccompanied works included Dryden's Pleasures of Love, and Five Elizabethan Lyrics. Sleep was something of a theme – a lovely diminuendo at the end of The Cloud-Capp'd Towers, and Gibbs' “Come Sleep”, preceded by his setting of an Evening Prayer, “Before Sleep”, with a tellingly simple beginning and end. And Walter De La Mare's Five Eyes, very enjoyably rendered by the women's voices with Poyser at the piano.
He also gave us Gibbs's eight Lakeland Pictures, charming miniatures written in 1940 when World War Two took him to Westmorland.
Springers at the Civic Theatre

A visually stunning My Fair Lady from the Springers team, with some superb stage pictures.
The Ascot scene of course, with its elegance black and white, but also the picture frames for the Overture and Eliza's dream – Wouldn't It Be Luvverly - then artfully reprised for the stylish curtain calls. I liked the way we looked outwards from the church in the opening scene, and Wimpole Street was nicely depicted too, though not quite wide enough for the Civic stage.
Jacqui Tear's production had some ingenious touches, and all the big numbers were given the full treatment. Just You Wait was beautifully staged, as was I Could Have Danced All Night, sung by Springers' excellent Eliza, Olivia Gooding. Good use was made of the auditorium, too, with Doolittle memorably being carried out feet first.
Henry Higgins, the confirmed old bachelor who takes the “squashed cabbage leaf” he finds in Covent Garden and makes her a Mayfair lady, was played with a nice line in misogyny by Anver Anderson. But I was sorry his protégé Zoltan [a scene-stealing Simon Brett] was not inspired to analyse his accent …
His kinder colleague, Colonel Pickering, was Colin Shoard.
Bob Ryall was a diminutive dustman, always good for a knees-up, as in Get Me To The Church, with its lively chorus and spoons obbligato.
Frederick Loewe's classic score was in the capable hands of MD Ian Myers and his thirteen pit musicians.

production photographs by Peter Langman

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court

A Fond Kiss is nothing to do with the Ken Loach film, not much to do with the Robbie Burns song, or indeed with Simon Beattie's stage play about the poet's life. Anne-Marie di Mambro’s beautifully crafted miniature begins with Lola, in Tigger slippers and a dressing gown, watching East Enders in her crummy Glasgow flat.

It's Zed's birthday, and his mates have chipped in, found Lola's calling card in the phone box, and he's knocking on the door to claim his present. Sean Hammond gave a memorable performance, a master-class in youthful embarrassment and awkwardness. Debbie Miles was equally impressive as the whore with a heart of gold, reclining like Olympia on her leatherette settee. There were plenty of laughs, with delicious juxtaposition of the wiry Jack Sprat lad and his ample temptress, his nerves and her no-nonsense ministrations. But there was a painfully tragic moment as her thick skin is pierced by a thoughtless remark, and their tender embrace as he leaves for a real date was poignant and very moving.

The companion piece was Fiona Evans's Scarborough. Another generation gap, another birthday present, but this time it's our turn to feel awkward, thrust into voyeuristic proximity with an under-age student and a PE teacher. Their illicit weekend is dogged by feelings of guilt and jealousy – we know from the start that their two-and-a-half-day affair can never have a future. Game Over on the PSP, phone pics deleted.

David Woolford was a totally believable Daz, his teenage bravado failing to mask the little-boy tears as he faces rejection. Kelly McGibney's Lauren – her job on the line, a wedding looming – was wonderfully torn between the ecstasy of the moment and the need to get real. Great chemistry between these two actors – arguing back to back, romping, teasing, flirting and fighting.
It's the sort of play that has people talking in the interval. There are huge moral questions here, of course. Not least would it make a difference if the older partner were a man. We get plenty of chance to ponder that one, since in this version there's a reprise with the roles reversed. A rather posh Beth [Anna Jeary] speaks Daz's lines, and the PE teacher is Danny Segeth's Geordie Aiden. Partly because of the accent barrier, partly because of the deja vu, I didn't care quite as much about this relationship. And, yes, there is a difference, of course, but Evans leaves us to work it out, and although we are uncomfortably close to the action, we never get anywhere near understanding why any of those involved would want such a relationship in the first place.
The plays are sometimes done as site-specific pieces, with a dozen or so spectators crammed into a real hotel room. Would the County not play ball, I wonder ?
These two thought-provoking plays are just the sort of thing CTW does well – they were directed with considerable courage and a steady hand by Lynne Foster, assisted by Steve Holding.
Ian Dickens Productions at the Mercury Theatre Colchester

Brian Clemens [OBE in last week's Honours List] is better known for his television work – he created the Avengers and the Professionals – but this thriller from the Eighties is the classic kind of ingenious, if stagey, intrigue that aims to keep the audience guessing.
It's set on the Costa del Crime, and the converted farmhouse boasts a big chimney, with gas laid on, fire-irons, and Toledo steel artistically arranged above. Sleeping pills in the desk, a revolver in the safe. More murder weapons than Colonel Mustard's country seat …
The plot is a series of deals, deceptions and double bluffs. “Trapped, twisted and turned”, the three characters prowl like predators. Hard to analyse the plot without spoiling the fun, but the game-playing and the treachery are all to do with revenge and rough justice. It'a all “diabolically clever”, and only at the end do we see how improbable the whole house of cards actually is. The dénouement, when it comes, has to be explained, which involves the two chief conspirators telling each other the very facts and coincidences that prompted them to devise the devious scheme in the first place.
Giles Watling's production bowls along nicely, with a really pacy sequence of panic in Act Two. The scene changes involve a tab curtain and lots of guitar music, and I was unconvinced by the car bomb, the machine gun wounds and the poker.
The cast included two heartthrobs from Emmerdale, including Matt Healey reprising his role as a bad lad, in this case a “bang man” on the run from Interpol. A limited range, dramatically, with eyebrows that seemed to be worked by strings and a cocky leer as his default expression. A sense of real menace, though, when things turned nasty. Suave Christopher Villiers was very watchable as the diamond dealer who is not all he seems, with glamorous Michelle Morris as the woman we take to be his wife.
Will Suzy and Larry make it to Rio ? Will the Spanish police pin it all on the separatists ? Which bullets are blanks, which diamonds are paste ?
This is the kind of cardboard drama that lives on in church halls long after the professionals have left it for dead. But the Mercury audience enjoyed a solid, slick production from the prolific Ian Dickens stable; it's touring to Crewe next week, with Darlington and Swansea later in the summer.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Shenfield Operatic Society at Brentwood Theatre

For her directorial début with SOS Louise Byrne chose Cy Coleman's Sweet Charity, giving it a comic book feel, with publicity, programme and prologue presenting Charity's hopefully-ever-after story.
Gemma Hindley played the kookie tango palace hostess, who has to hold the stage by force of personality for much of the show. The flying finger of fate takes her from the seedy Fan-dango [run by pencil-moustached Herbie Hobbs] with its jaded girls, to the arms of a 'faded Romeo' movie star [David Pridige] and oh-so-close to wedded bliss with clumsy, caring Oscar [Bill Jaycock]. I liked what he did with the character, even if the accent and the notes were sometimes beyond him.
Kerry McGowan's ingenious choreography filled the awkward space with hoofers – the black and white Rich Man's Frug, the Rhythm of Life, the Brass Band. Set-wise, the New York skyline was effective, though it needed a deal of imagination to see the lake or the lift, and it would take more than a mirror ball to turn the flimsy set into the swish Pompeii Club.
I admired the synergy between Charity's co-workers Nickie and Helene [Gemma Nye and Katie Burchett], and I must mention the scene stealer of the evening, Manfred the gentleman's gentleman.
This is not a show that benefits from intimacy – distance would lend enchantment – and the long numbers challenged the pace and the energy of the company on the opening night. But the capacity audiences were assured of an enthusiastic and outgoing show, with the music well served by MD Ian Southgate and his backstage band.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

National Theatre

After The Dance is Rattigan’s lost masterpiece, its run cut short by the approach of World War II, just before the playwright’s writer’s block, the play excluded from his complete works.
If it’s going to be revived, there could be no better way than Thea Sharrock’s immaculately stylish production at the Lyttleton.
The first few seconds showed the quality, with the heavy curtains parting to let the daylight into the Scott-Fowlers’ London flat as the tabs opened. And the last few seconds of the curtain calls showed the width, with the actors shoulder-to-shoulder across the entire stage.
It’s an old-fashioned three-acter; the good thing about the well-made play is that you know what’s happening, and exactly who all these people are.
There were some predictable moments: Joan [Nancy Carroll] putting on a brave face, breaking down, walking out onto the fateful balcony.
The play revolves around the empty lives of ageing bright young things, the thirties set who followed the Lost Generation. They are “stinking” - not meaning rich, though they do have too much money, but drunk. They look back through a haze of alcohol to “the old days, the old parties”, where revellers really did swing naked from the chandeliers. Their speech is clipped, their dialogue bright and brittle.
Benedict Cumberbatch is David, failed historian, twelve years married to Joan. A tragic figure, partly redeemed by the dénouement. His parasitic friend, house guest and court jester was the superb Adrian Scarborough, with well-turned witticisms aplenty, but deep down a moral force for good and a wise counsel for his friends.
Their hedonism starkly contrasted with the upright Peter [John Heffernan in a beautifully judged performance, especially when he returns, a broken man] and his chaste girl-friend Helen, “fresh-faced interloper” and naively manipulative. Wonderfully well spoken in the prewar manner by Faye Castelow.
But all the parts were perfectly cast, from Lachlan Nieboer's bit of rough, through Juliet Howland's drug-fuelled aviatrix, to the redoubtable Miss Potter [Jenny Galloway].
Three aspects that made a special impact, compensating for some longueurs in the many duologues. The Avalon/Tosca music [Adrian Johnston], the spacious set [designer Hildegard Bechtler] allowing for some telling distances between the characters, and the chilling moment in the middle of Act Two, when David pours a drink and the raucous party mysteriously materialises around him.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010


Greville Theatre Club at the Barn Little Easton


William Nicholson's gripping take on history is staged on a red floor, against a white backdrop. Leaving us to admire the gorgeous costumes [Judy Lee and the Dressing Up Box] and the great characters.
This slice of the life of Henry VIII begins with processions and pomp – the King's marriage to Anne of Cleves [Lynda Shelverton]. She is naively ignorant of the facts of life, and the well-meant attempts of the ladies of the court to enlighten her were a high point of Act One. Another comic leavening in the tragic tale was the evidence of adultery given by Mrs Halls [Amanda Thompson].
But the drama revolves round the flirtatious young Katherine [Debbie Lee Thomson, suitably shameless, though not as innocent as Nicholson paints her, and not always convincing as a member of one of the first families in the land] her lover Culpeper [Adam Thompson] and her monarch.
Chris Kearney gave a superb Henry. The Laughton eyebrow, the temper and the smell of rotting meat, but also, and more tellingly, the self-pity and the soliloquies [the “God” speech particularly powerful]. His voice was compelling, especially in reflective mood, as he mourned the young prince imprisoned in his vast carcase, and imagined it freed once more at the day of resurrection. Another memorable moment saw the King, his youth restored by his love for his young bride, convince himself that she had betrayed him.
The young lovers, and Lady Rochford [beautifully done by Diana Bradley] are doomed because of the background “battle for the soul of England”. Peter Nicholson's excellent wry, wily Norfolk, and James Rawes' crafty Cranmer manipulate the King and his young bride for their own ends.
Karen Ashton's polished production had a strong cast, and a real sense of the tragedy and absurdity of Henry's history.

Sunday, June 06, 2010


Beyond Image Productions at Brentwood Theatre


It's a while since I was close to tears at lunchtime. And some years since we enjoyed professional lunchtime theatre, come to that. Three Cups, 1970s, if memory serves …
Alongside their Place Without Doors, Beyond Image brought Walking The Road to Brentwood Theatre.
The walker is Francis Ledwidge, War Poet and Road Mender. The road is variously his way home to his mother's cottage, and the track he built through rivers of Flanders mud, over the bones of the fallen of the Great War.
Dermot Bulger's moving play follows Ledwige on the journey he never made, back from the trenches to his youth and childhood in Meath. Amnesia, mustard, blackbirds all mingle in a haunting nightscape of memory.
Paul Preston Mills was a believable Ledwidge, his persuasive voice leading us into his political, poetic and private lives: unwrapping his first published volume, starting in the grocer's shop, spooning into the warm sleeping body of his brother Joe. The child, and everyone else Frank meets along the way, was played by the excellent Kiara Hawker: the arty Irish aristo, a cow, WT Daley the shopkeeper who could have been from Llareggub, she brought them all to life in the smoke and the gloom of the Brentwood stage, with the barbed wire behind and the road snaking away into the distance.
Jim Rymer's beautiful production had many superb moments – the pub urinal, the purgatory of No Man's Land, and the powerful closing moments, when Frank and his companion are joined on the road by the dead of all nations, his Meath mates and his younger self, making their way back before the dawn, as Ledwidge dreams of tasting his mother's bread once more.
A pint of Hope and Glory, an appropriate ploughman's, and a memorable 70 minutes of theatre. Beyond Image hope to be back this way again. If they are, you should make the effort to see their work – even at lunchtime.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Mercury Theatre Colchester
reviewed for The Public Reviews

Award-winning regional playwright Fraser Grace's long-awaited collaboration with Mercury Artistic Director Dee Evans is a bold gloss on the biblical King David.
We begin in a very chic Heaven, with Lucifer and Jehovah sparring, as they remember Job. Andrew Neil's world-weary God is challenged by Lucifer to put David to the test. “Leave the skin on the custard of a man's soul, and he'll always say God is good.”
The devil has one of the best parts in the play, an opportunity eagerly seized by the excellent Tony Casement. In this celestial prologue he sports a dashing black bowler hat and sips sparkly cocktails. But back on earth he appears as an initially subservient slave, gradually evolving as a kind of Baldrick figure to taunt and defy his master.
David Tarkenter's King has long outgrown his Goliath-slaying days, his beloved Jonathan, and his music, though he does favour Cusay [the Lucifer slave] with a debased Psalm. He knows he is God's chosen, and can do no wrong. Bloody massacres, Bathsheba, God will approve it all. But he is jaded, and will not go to war this year. His godless adviser [Roger Delves-Broughton] hangs himself, his personal chaplain [an urbane Ignatius Anthony as Nathan the ex-prophet] finds a personal God in the wilderness, and David longs to be cursed by Jehovah for doing the devil's work. “If God is good, then Evil must be cursed !” Tarkenter's King is a troubled soul, but with huge reserves of strength and a noble stillness which held the stage superbly.
Bathsheba – here called Bethsebe in homage to the Elizabethan playwright George Peele – was brought to vivid life by Clare Humphrey. Her encounter with David [beautifully lit] and her physical grief at the death of Uriah the heathen Hittite [Delroy Brown] were some of the strongest moments in the play. The other women were Mother God [a kind of divine PA – Christine Absalom] and David's favourite wife Abigail, a wise realist sympathetically played by Kristin Hutchinson.
This was clearly a story of desert warriors, veiled women and a cruel God. The set was monumental, a massive wall with the Sistine finger of God writ large, the height used effectively for the palace in progress and the swimming pool. At the end, perhaps redundantly, we are shown the King in modern guise, celebrating victory as Lucifer plays cards, and soldiers, with little Kileab, David's second son. God, meanwhile, has finally been rejected, and is relieved to walk away and leave David, and mankind, to their own devices.
This play has the timeless quality of Greek drama, and brings some heavy theology thrillingly onto the stage. But there is much humour and humanity, too. It certainly deserves to live on after Colchester, though it can scarcely hope for a more eloquent, epic production than this from the Mercury's own amazing company.

photograph of David Tarkenter and Clare Humphrey by Robert Day
this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Beyond Image Productions at Brentwood Theatre

A bold choice for Beyond Image – an intense, intellectual drama for half-term week. Marguerite Duras' story is based on a real murder. A woman kills her live-in cousin, and drops the dismembered corpse bit by bit from the viaduct into the goods trains below.
The stage version has just two interviews. A patiently probing interviewer [Drew McKenzie, with Freudian beard and homburg] quizzes first the husband, then the murderess, trying to see what underlies the facts, seeking the motive she cannot or will not acknowledge.
Jim Rymer's production was simply staged, subtly suggesting the provincial post-war world in which the tragedy is played out.
A risky strategy to cast relative newcomers as the mysterious couple. Chris Carroll's brief career since his year's training has been mostly in musical theatre, often with his own production company. And the wife as written is 51, with the ménage that ends in murder dragging on for twenty years. But it did bring a raw naivety to the characters, especially Bernadette Necchi's Claire – fragile, cunning, childlike, fiddling with her dress, glancing back at the garden she can never enter again.
The dialogue with the aloof, uncaring Pierre [Christopher Carroll] was often hesitant, pacing round in circles, searching for a question or an answer, with a sometimes unintentional tension between the actors. Of his wife he says: “She talks very strangely, as if she were reciting something.” But this is exactly what he does, too.
A few more pauses might have helped us appreciate the second act, though Claire is often deliberately loquacious. Pierre claims that she is “the place without doors”, “where the wind blows through and sweeps everything away”, but it could also be her garden refuge, with her concrete bench for thinking intelligent thoughts, and the English Mint that gives the original its teasing title …

photography by Minyahil Kifle-Giorgis