Sunday, October 31, 2010

Gecko at the New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich

The world of dreams conjured by Gecko's Overcoat kept most of us enthralled for over an hour. And not a moment of naturalism.

Director Amit Lahav, who plays the humble clerk Akakki, was inspired by reading Gogol's short story to re-create the protagonist's inner world for the theatre.

The “manteau” itself, suspended stage right, is key to Akakki's happiness: as the tag-line has it, Get the coat, get the girl, change the world. “Cambia la vita”, is how he puts it. His “cappotto” appears as a vision, and, at one of the piece's several climaxes, he dances with delight before both coat and the unattainable Natalia [Natalie Ayton, in a magical performance] materialize from nowhere. In a stunning piece of stagecraft, our hero literally climbs into the coat, and joins his girl under a friendly street-lamp.

Music, movement, light and shade are the language here. Such words as we hear are stylised, rapped out and repeated. In a cosmopolitan babel, reminiscent of the circus, or of the early days of moving pictures, everyone speaks a language of his own; context provides clues, and occasional bafflement deepens the confusion of the dream.

The Overcoat has been filmed many times, there's a Russian ballet, and Marcel Marceau did a successful mime version. Very hard to convey the style that Ipswich-based Gecko bring to the tale. Kafka as re-imagined by Fellini, perhaps, but this is a unique, inventive dramatic voice, a seamless blend of skills.

Lighting [James Farncombe], music [Dave Price] sound [Dan Steele] and design [Ti Green] are all vital, and our seven performers are versatile and physically eloquent. A glockenspiel leads us into a frenzied wedding feast, all in the fevered imagination of Akkaki, thrashing in his little bed.

Esta solo ? Are you alone ? asks the voice from behind the tiny door, our hero's solitary pleasure rudely interrupted. But even in his lonely garret, he's surrounded by others, embodying the radio, the two-bar electric fire, the portrait of his parents. There were many spectacular moments and memorable images. The swarms of newspapers, the mist swirling and billowing across the stage, Rags to Riches sung in the glare of a single spotlight. But best of all was the office, strips of light on the floor, bulbs flashing, papers shuffled, stamped and filed, and Natalia the distant beloved at her pedestal desk.

And after an apotheosis of sorts, rejection and fall from grace, the clerk is led off into the light, and the glockenspiel is left to add a tinkling coda to this atmospheric piece of physical theatre.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Friday, October 29, 2010


Reform Theatre Company at the Cramphorn Theatre


Two inept petty criminals in a deserted house – a lived-in look, comfy, cream crackers behind the settee, junk mail avalanched against the front door. All it needed was the Dumb Waiter.
Mark Whiteley's clever comedy is based on a simple idea, but the crisp writing, and especially the pace and attack of these intimate exchanges, made it constantly watchable. These two likely lads are nicely contrasted – Barry Ireland, the baby-faced ex-con drinks his tea from a cup and saucer, Steph “The Earl” Ashton, his friend and mentor, from a mug. He plays with language, asking questions for “dramatic edge”, and delivering angry tirades when things, inevitably, go belly-up, and the cash in the attic turns out to be a load of old Ratners. His movie charades and his “Let Him Know” monologue were tremendous theatre.
It would be a shame to give away too much of the plot – but the hibernating, hypothermic budgie turns out to be the least of their worries, and they never get to use the QVC card or eat the Asda fare.
The play had an interesting genesis, playing in real front rooms, shops, and on the Edinburgh fringe. It started life as a 35 minute short: longer is not necessarily better, and even this excellent set was no substitute for the thrill of the site-specific.
For this tour, directed by Keith Hukin, Barry was Matthew Booth, and Steph Kivan Dene.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

M&G Concert at the Civic Theatre

A wonderful, high-profile start to the new M&G Civic Concert series. James McMillan's Oboe Concerto, premièred on this Britten Sinfonia tour, and co-commissioned by them, is dedicated to the soloist, Nicholas Daniel.
It certainly gave him a challenge, both technical and artistic. The jaunty opening, with the oboe dancing wildly, was followed by a sombre Largo, the superb string section sighing under the oboe's musings, and an intense, often ecstatic Allegro finale. Both the soloist and the orchestra played brilliantly, under McMillan's own direction, expressive but never ostentatious.
The shock of the new was followed after an interval by Mozart's familiar 40th, in a muscular but meaningful performance. An extrovert Minuet and Trio followed by a nimble closing movement, with something of the same magic between woodwind and strings we'd heard in the McMillan.
The concert opened with the Barshai reworking of Shostakovich's Eighth String Quartet; full of incident and self-reference, and featuring a ghostly waltz and an eloquent duet between Caroline Dearnley's cello and the violin of leader Thomas Gould.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

All Star Productions at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre, Walthamstow

'Follies' unplugged upstairs at the Olde Rose and Crown, Walthamstow, from the enterprising All Star Productions, who have made a speciality of Sondheim shows.
Up the narrow, winding staircase, into a space smaller than the average foyer. A piano trio is playing, and the lovely young Weissman girls are dancing decorously in their scanties.
Through the window, the twinkling lights of distant Tottenham stand in for the New York skyline.
There are huge benefits in the chamber approach to this bitter-sweet musical. I loved the reduction for piano, cello, violin and, later, flute. And not a microphone in sight. It was incredible to see the characters disintegrate at close quarters, in the raw pain of “Too Many Mornings”; the ironic saccharine optimism of “Tomorrow” gained an extra impetus in this intimate setting.
Sometimes it was hard to see the whole picture; occasionally the vocal dynamic, even unamplified, was overpowering. But I'd much sooner see this show in a space with character than, say, the soul-less revival at the Royal Festival Hall.
For me, Julie Ross's Phyllis was near definitive: resigned, but resenting her 'bargain with life', her every expression, every inflection spoke volumes. And her “Could I Leave You” was impeccably crafted. April Nicholson's flirty Carlotta gave a superb “I'm Still Here”, the wind stirring the restless trees behind her, and a not inappropriate memory loss halfway through.
As Ben, the high-flier, German-born Frank Loman was charming, witty and urbane, and handled his numbers skilfully; Mark Hutchinson, a believable oil salesman but suggesting the rage within, did a brilliant “Buddie's Blues”, with the assistance of mistress Margie, and Mrs Sally Durant Plummer, whose descent into madness was depicted with real pathos by Maggie Robson, going to pieces behind her brittle, bright mask.
The specialities were enjoyable, especially perhaps Teresa Jennings' Solange and of course Ellen Vereniks' Broadway Baby.
No room for much scenery – just a couple of treads for the grand staircase – but Tim McArthur's ingenious staging did manage some impressive production numbers, including LoveLand and the mirror routine, with a great tap line [how did that sound in the Saloon Bar downstairs, I wonder ?]. The careful hair and make-up reminded us that the Follies disbanded in 1941. Shame we couldn't have managed a follow spot, but there were countless eloquent stage pictures - “Girls Upstairs”, with the older quartet watching their younger selves tripping gaily off to Tony's, and Heidi's song an ironic commentary on love. It was shared by Rachel Dobell and, as her younger shadow in a Waltz Dream of her own, Jenny-Marie Cooper.
MD Aaron Clingham led his Palm Court players effortlessly through the Sondheim numbers, pastiche, patter and power ballad.
Two dozen or so in the cast, twice that number in the house. A real shared experience – the final walk-down came all too soon.
this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Lindisfarne at the Dixon Studio, 
the Palace Theatre Westcliff

Period furniture, several aspidistras, Lane [an unbending Simon Dunn] listening to Algernon's pianoforte practice.
An auspicious start to Lindisfarne's “Importance” in the Dixon Studio. “Style, not sincerity, is the vital thing”, as Oscar says.
The two bachelors, neither named Ernest, coped manfully with Wilde's precious language, and at least were the right age. The “ostentatiously eligible” Algernon was Nathan Spence; his friend Jack was Rory Joscelyne. They interacted well, though a crisper delivery, and better posture, might have improved their characterization.
I was impressed by Lizzie Smith's Cecily – a touch of the jolly hockey sticks and a hint of wickedness made for a memorable performance. She could also manage the accent - “little” the shibboleth here – and got most of what few laughs were going from a staid matinée audience. Her duel with Gwendoline [Kim Tobin] was very amusing; the weapons sugar tongs, cake slice and engagement rings. The overbearing Lady Bracknell, heralded by a very Wagnerian ring at the door, was Elaine Roberts. She looked and sounded like one raised in “the purple of commerce” - in Act Two she was done up like a Lemon Fancy – but she bristled effectively; I liked the way her hat's feathers trembled with indignation, her pince-nez and her use of the sal volatile before “the line is immaterial”.
Carol Hayes was a pert, almost pretty, Prism, but she was a convincing academic, thrilled by German grammar, and had some nice moments with Ian Morton's eager Chasuble.
The Gilbertian dénouement was briskly handled, and the couples joined in a decorous dance to round off the piece.

production promo video from the Lindisfarne Players 


Artisans Drama Society at Brentwood Theatre


Orwell's cautionary tale still seems painfully accurate sixty years on – even the fall of communism seems foreshadowed in this story of an idealistic workers' cooperative.
To Ian Wooldridge's adaptation, Graham Poulteney has added some more of Orwell's own words, delivered with some style by Vernon Keeble-Watson, especially when he wanders on hesitantly sketching the opening of the novella in his notebook. After that he was reading from a lectern, and sometimes amplified, both of which distanced us from the narrative. The animals too were strangely static; I would have expected at least some of them to be moved by events. The freezes, with slides of real revolution behind, were effective, and more of that kind of staging would have made for a more exciting evening. And adding undiluted Orwell shows up the less Orwellian amendments. The final sole commandment ends “... some animals are more equal than others.”, the informal abbreviation “vet” sits awkwardly with “horse-slaughterer”, Pilkington would never have said “the invite”, and there was disconcerting dissent over the pronunciation of “comrade” ...
There was some good animal characterization – Richard Spong as the raven and the dove, Nicola Stacey as an Eeyore-ish donkey.
And I liked the farewell to Boxer [Andrew Spong], nuzzled by his equine comrades.
The pigs have the meatiest roles, of course, always strutting above the lower animals. Neil Gray was a pompous Napoleon with a nice line in oratory, and Matt Jones a smooth-talking Squealer.
Shostakovich's music, the chalked commandments and Alice Stacey's artwork added to the atmosphere of this familiar fable.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Mercury Theatre Company at the Mercury Theatre Colchester


It's twenty years now since Galati's dramatisation of this Steinbeck classic hit the National Theatre's stage. Like the novel, it remains as strong as ever, and as relevant, with the little people powerless against the elements and financial institutions.

Tony Casement's epic production [three hours including the interval] is set on a boarded floor, with a revolve, with broken boards upright behind to form an arena. Dust drifts in, 'hung like fog', together with three musicians, whose contribution as actors, narrators, underscorers, and still, silent witnesses will be vital to the play.

Tim Treslove's fallen preacher is discovered on. His noble sinner, one of many religious echoes in the piece, was a memorable creation, human, yet a hero. His meeting with Tom [Gary Shelford] begins the narrative; he confesses and hears confession, and twice offers himself as a sacrifice. Shelford, too, was outstanding as the son who returns from jail to find his home abandoned, and who eventually leads his folks to a new life in California. His determination, and his deep-seated violence, were eloquently expressed in a corner-stone performance. The other central figure, who, like Tom, never loses a naïve optimism and the will to go on, was Ma, Nicky Goldie. Two moments will stay with me from her wonderful embodiment of this warm-hearted matriarch: her dumbfounded shock when she sees her son return, and her desperate strength after Grandma's death on the journey.

Among a large cast there were several familiar Company faces, and countless telling characterizations. Roger-Delves-Broughton's weary Pa, Adrian Stokes' Grandpa - “ a heller yet” - Keith Dunphy's simple-minded Noah, who cannot bring himself to leave the river, Emily Woodward's Rose of Sharon, and Ignatius Anthony as Uncle John, obsessed by sin and guilt. Christopher Staines left his place in the band to give a performance of distilled despair and bitterness as the Man Going Back.

As in last year's site-specific Depot, there was also a horde of Community Actors, who filled the stage at key dramatic moments. Like the thrilling off-stage chorus as they marched on for the first time, the teeming masses caught up in the catastrophe.
The staging was simple, but the groupings were always effective. Maybe the truck [ingeniously constructed from the Joads' furniture] travelled a little too long on the revolve, but we also had a grave, and two water scenes, the second an apocalyptic flood. The barn dance, in the relative comfort of Weedpatch, was moving, too.

Like Steinbeck's “march and symphony” novel, the play ends with a mythic, heart-stopping scene in the barn. Music, lighting, the Old Master stage picture, and of course the performances, all came together to marvellous effect, and sent us out shattered into the clear air of Colchester.

production photograph by Robert Day
this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews


Heads First Theatre Company at Brentwood Theatre


In the drab clutter of the suburban 1950s, Ercol chairs, bakelite wireless, Stevie Smith lives out her weary life.
Hugh Whitemore's 1977 play is a clever blend of biography, autobiography and of course poetry. Most of the words are Stevie's own. The first act is heavy with narrative and reminiscence, but after the interval the drama moves up a gear. The Lion Aunt is frailer, ailing, and Stevie herself more and more fixated on death.
Marjorie Dunn's production flowed smoothly, following the poet's magpie mind and the daily trivia of tax bills, teacups, junket and York ham.
She had an A-list cast to work with. Glenda Abbott gave a masterclass performance as the Palmers Green poet. She relished the set pieces – her visit to the Palace, the bulrushes, the Tintoretto – but also excelled in her exchanges with her aunt, and with her suburban suitor Freddie. He was played by Alan Thorley, who was also an interviewer and a kind of narrator; his was the voice of Not Waving But Drowning.
Margaret Corry was the Lion Aunt. Never really at home with the Hull accent, she was at her best in the later scenes, feebler and fonder, absent-minded and anxious, sleeping her life away in her favourite armchair.
It says much for this production that the unlikely, complex relationship at the heart of the piece was both moving and amusing, and by the end we felt we had shared the private life of this most secluded of poets and her unhappy muse.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Come and sing” with Trinity Methodist Drama

In the wake of last year's Pirates: The Gondoliers – staged from scratch last Saturday in a most enjoyable community singing event.
The 'Wesleyan Methodists' get a very sniffy mention in the libretto, but at Trinity, the church was transformed to welcome the Venetian Savoyards, with flags, bunting and gondola mooring posts.
Key to the success of the day were the “friendly chorus” - the ranks of contadine [almost four-and-twenty] and gondoliers began rehearsal after lunch, and after tea were joined by a hand-picked cast of principal singers. “Dance a Cachucha” used the forces well, summoning up a world of warm Italian sunshine.
Vocally, the regal quartet – Marco, Giuseppe, Tessa, Giannetta – were outstanding, as were the upstairs/downstairs couple of Luis and Casilda. Dramatically, I liked the ill-matched Duke and Duchess, and the practised urbanity of Don Alhambra.
The post-haste production was directed, with infectious enthusiasm and a firm hand, by Felicity Wright. And a genial Tim Carey presided over the “full band” - pianoforte, with tambourines and military drum for colour.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Choral Foundation Concert at Chelmsford Cathedral

The last of this year's Chelmsford Cathedral Choral Foundation concerts brought us an evening with the renowned Kings Singers, currently boasting in the ranks counter-tenor Timothy Wayne-Wright, erstwhile KEGS boy and Cathedral chorister.
A varied programme, impeccably delivered.
There was plenty of light entertainment, with a sequence of Gilbert and Sullivan, including witty and imaginative arrangements of The Pirate King and The Ghosts' High Noon. And of course some close harmony treats to finish – Danny Boy, sounding as rich and smooth as draught Guinness, and nods to Nat King Cole and Michael Bublé.
Other new music included commissions for the Queen's Jubilee in 2002 – Jocelyn Pook's Mobile set words by Andrew Motion, and featured lots of amusing effects, not least the phrase of Torrega which became the most annoying ringtone …
But the most satisfying sequences were the two Master and Pupil juxtapositions – Byrd and his teacher Tallis, and Gerald Finzi with his largely forgotten tutor, Sir Edward Bairstow.

Friday, October 15, 2010

National Theatre in the Cottesloe

“Who knows what stories lie in store?”, someone muses. Horatio, possibly. Well, most of the audience, I'd guess, since this specially commissioned work is a prequel to Shakespeare's Hamlet, with all your favourite characters in the first flush of youth. Recognisably, if improbably, teenagers.
“a terrific first introduction to Shakespeare’s anti-hero” the blurb promises – the idea being to give today's teens a way in to the tragedy – but the more you know of Osric, say, the more you'll appreciate this clumsy wooer [amusingly done by Abubakar Salim, with an elegantly cool Eve Ponsonby as his Ophelia].
Michael Lesslie's piece is largely traditional, with Tudor-ish costumes [though these youngsters are Converse-shod] and a disconcerting mixture of Shakespeare-speak and a dull modern idiom. There's a willow and a brook, and troupe of travelling players, with a player Prince [Kaffe Keating-Jungreithmayer] the very spit of young Hamlet [Calum Finlay]…
The real Prince has a great speech about the state of England, but the best of the back stories has to be the radical leftie Laertes, scheming to rid the world of privilege and tyranny. A brilliantly intense performance from a very credible Chris Levens. Two fights [Alison de Burgh], the stylish classical battle more successful than the rather careful court swordplay. These impressive young actors, all from the National Youth Theatre, were directed by Anthony Banks.
I found little subtlety in this sixty minutes' traffic of the transverse stage - “The rest is always violence,” as modern warfare thunders around us on the soundtrack – but a clever extrapolation of some very familiar characters.

Photo (Abubakar Salim and Calum Finlay) © Ludo des Cognets

Thursday, October 14, 2010

London Palladium

Can't keep the Pope waiting – let's get this show on the road.”
We happily guy the faith, mock the Pontiff. I'm not sure if this is a sign of decadence or of maturity. Whichever, Sister Act is a shining example.
Set in the gaudy, tasteless Seventies, it tells the story of a lounge singer who seeks sanctuary in a nunnery, and, in a miraculous make-over, transforms their tired choir into a guaranteed pew-filler.
Alan Menken's music is a clever pastiche of the period, and the staging, from the chiaroscuro church to the technicolor restoration job and the stylish black-and-white geometry of the the chase through the cells, was ingenuous and involving.
Crowd-pleasing performances – nothing too subtle here – from Patina Miller as the chanteuse turned novice. Ian Lavender as Monsignor Howard, and Katie Rowley Jones and Claire Greenway as character Sisters. I liked Ako Mitchell's Sweaty Eddie; shame his transformation number was so ordinary, unlike the gloriously sleazy seduction trio for the henchmen. The Nuns' Chorus brought warmth and vitality to the big breezy production numbers.
Self-regarding macho misogynist Shank was done with relish by Chris Jarman, who had one of the better accents of a mixed bunch.
MD, and fleetingly the Holy Father, was Nicholas Skilbeck.

Monday, October 11, 2010


on the site of The Rose Theatre, Bankside

for Remote Goat

I remember standing by Southwark Bridge in 1989, watching the great and the good demonstrating amongst the archaeology, protesting against the burial of the Rose beneath an office block.
Well, they succeeded to an extent. The excavation is visible, under water and membrane, beneath the faceless monolith. And increasingly is used for performance work of all kinds.
The Tempest was a worthy, traditional staging of Shakespeare's late masterpiece. The Rose, which certainly saw some of his earlier work, was rubble by the time he penned The Tempest, but it was moving nonetheless to hear his words echo round the space he would have known. And the diction was almost universally excellent – not always a given, these days, even on our greatest stages.
The Rose's makeshift performance area is broad but very shallow – a metre or two at most. At its back, an ugly modern rail separates actors, and audience, from the archaeology. But David Pearce's production uses the width effectively – the storm, a projected tornado, and the shipwreck echo from side to side, and 90 minutes later, the “rabble” are swept unceremoniously off stage right.

As the tempest abates, we are left with flotsam under foot – shoes, roses, and, bizarrely, plastic bottles. And in the rafters overhead, a still life with books and a skull ...
Robert Carretta makes an intense Prospero, appearing first as a silent cowled figure. He serves the verse very well, with a sensitive, direct delivery. No more so than in his last speech, which he laboriously writes in his book to his own dictation.
His Ariel, Damian Cooper, is an untutored boy, not especially “delicate”, but affecting in his longing to be free. I liked Suzanne Marie's melancholy Miranda, naively besotted with Thomas Thoroe's Ferdinand. And Damian Dudkiewicz was a splendidly physical Caliban, crouched like Gollum, enslaved and tormented on his own island.
Gareth Pilkington and Richard Ward worked hard doubling Alonso and Gonzalo with Trinculo and Stephano. Hard to get the laughs in this tiny auditorium, but they made an amusing pair of flat-capped cabbies, teasing Caliban with a mop and a rose.
Sound and music were well used, with Eleanor Cope and Emilia Reid the island's sirens, and Iris and Ceres in the Masque.
Now that the revels are ended over the road at the Globe, it's good to see that the smaller, older Rose is keeping live theatre going into the winter on Bankside.