Tuesday, September 27, 2011


at the Mercury Theatre Colchester

Shakespeare's late romance is a tricky play. It plunges deep into tragedy before finding happiness and redemption. It has a bear, a living statue and several clowns. Set in Sicily and Bohemia, it manages to reference both the oracle at Delphi and the Russian Empire.
Sue Lefton's elegant and imaginative production manages most of the mood swings with aplomb, and keeps its audience gripped by the very human drama at the heart of the piece.
The setting is simple – reminiscent of “modern” Shakespeare stagings of the mid 20th century. The “watery star” - red and threatening – hangs over a staircase tower, with a white piano beneath. The Sicilian court is dressed in well-cut grey; Bohemia is rough-spun and autumnal.
The two childhood friends who are separated by jealousy are clearly still “lads” at heart, until the unfounded suspicions of Leontes [a not particularly noble Tim Treslove, who nonetheless movingly suggested the anguish of his tortured mind] drive a wedge between him and the charmer Polixines [Ignatius Anthony]. Impressive work from David Tarkenter as a wide-boy cheap-jack Autolycus, and Ben Livingstone [also the musical director] as the Old Shepherd who raises the abandoned princess as his own. But it was the women who shone here, especially in the speaking of the verse. Nadia Morgan was a defiant Hermione; her animated statue was beautifully done. And Shuna Snow made a superb Paulina, an “audacious lady” indeed, in her businesslike tailored suit.
The fresh-faced lovers were nicely brought to life by Emily Woodward and Fred Lancaster. The Community actors, now a welcome fixture in the Mercury's season, filled the stage for the rustic revels, and, sober-suited, heard the dénouement proclaimed.
The production was full of memorable, meaningful ideas. The schoolboy's spinning-top, the “fermata” for the first stirring of the green-eyed monster, the oracle brollies, the shadow bear, and Perdita's party dress echoing the swaddling clothes of sixteen summers before.
A clearly told Winter's Tale, set in a magical fairy-tale landscape of balloons and billowing silk, umbrellas and Mackintosh chairs.
production photograph: Robert Day
this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Choral Pilgrimage 2011 at Walsingham


The shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham is celebrating 950 years. New etched glass windows in the Chapel of Reconciliation tell the story of Richeldis's vision, and a series of celebratory events culminated in a visit from The Sixteen.

Harry Christophers' choir has been making choral pilgrimages for years, but few of their concerts can have been more appropriately hosted, in a building whose prime function is to receive pilgrims from all over the world.

And its wooden vault, plus the fact that no listener is more than 10 metres from the choir, meant that we were treated to a warm, immediate sound from the 18 singers, directed on this occasion by Eamonn Dougan.

The programme explored, appropriately, the Marian music of Tomás Luis de Victoria, who died four hundred years ago. It ended with the sublime Litaniae Beatae Mariae, a glorious tapestry of prayers and supplications to the Virgin.

This year's pilgrimage began in March, and ends in Brighton in November.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Oh What a Lovely War
Blackeyed Theatre at Civic

Jim Hutchon was in the trenches ...

Director Adrian McDougall’s take on this savage WW1 satire combined the inexhaustible energy of a team of five music men, with superb touches of imagination and pointed video backdrops to bring out the pointless butchery of the war to end wars.

Although all the actors are seasoned professionals, the tone of the production was almost student-like in enthusiasm and boundless talent as the players slipped easily – and with split-second timing - between the 30+ characters they portrayed. A nice imaginative touch was that as each took on the different persona, their costume stands stood as white crosses, so that, by the end of the show, the stage was littered with them.

It is, first and foremost, a musical, and each of the players performed expertly on a variety of instruments, with, generally, excellent voices. Occasionally though, some of the monologues were a bit overwhelmed by the closeness of the trumpets and saxes. The jokes were also well-timed and pointed, frequently leaving the audience feeling guilty at laughing.

This was an evening of real entertainment – a fresh coat of paint to a familiar classic - and the near full house audience left the theatre smiling and humming the memorable songs.


Chelmsford Ghost and Phantasmagoria Society in the Antiquarium
Dan Segeth and Roger Johnson

On the fringe of the Altogether Now festival, two Ghost Story fans took us on a journey from the steps of the Shire Hall, with a short pause at the porch of St Mary's, to the “Antiquarium”. Tindal Square has its shared of ghosts: here's the old Corn Exchange – on this spot when M R James was safe in King's – and a little further back the old White Hart. The mystery venue turned out to be a deserted, abandoned bookshop, not even a shadow of a shelf remaining, but eerily lit, and festooned with lost leaves – illustrations and random pages from the tales of the supernatural we were about to hear.

The three M R James stories they chose were The Rats, set in an old Suffolk inn, A School Story, a tale of Latin grammar and sympathetic ink, and, after an interval for refreshment [Judge Tindal's Tavern doing the office of Stalls Bar] Martin's Close. This last tells, not without humour, of a ghastly murder and God's revenge, as the killer is pursued by justice, in the person of Judge Jeffreys, and by the hapless victim from beyond the grave.

Mr Segeth and Mr Johnson shared the reading, their contrasting styles helping to bring life to these chilling Edwardian stories.

Monday, September 19, 2011


Shakespeare's Globe

We are so shit ...” chorus the cast of Chris Hannan's new play, a less than impressive endpiece to an otherwise successful Globe season.
They're being hard on themselves; there's some pointless shouting, but in the main they do their best with a meandering, unfocused look at celebrity, the new divine.
I would particularly single out Will Manning as New God, and Richard Clews as a “mental” down-and-out.
Some felicitous poetical lines, and great music from the band [King Porter Stomp], but not enough to transcend a script that never really settles on a style or a theme.

Friday, September 16, 2011



Mike Leigh's new play at the Cottesloe


Set in the morose, monochrome world of 1950s suburban Britain, Mike Leigh's new piece looks behind the bay window and the lace curtains, and exposes a tragically dysfunctional trio.
Dorothy [poignantly played by Lesley Manville, a regular Leigh collaborator] lost her husband Victor in the war. Now she lives out a shadow of a life with her daughter Victoria, and her brother Edwin.

The play – two hours without an interval – is made up of many short scenes, linked by Gary Yershon's mournful music for lower strings. The same sort of effect as in many of Bennett's Talking Heads. Though this is a world of Bournvita and Disprin [we were constantly reminded of the period, not only by Alison Chitty's superb design, but by references to Algeria, Sputnik, Mr Wilson and the rest] many things have not changed, it seems. Manners are not what they were, traffic is a nightmare, trains are overcrowded. And teenagers – newly invented in those days – are surly and stroppy.

But it gradually becomes clear that the malaise at the heart of this household is more deep-seated than that. Edwin retires from a life-time of ingrossing, Victoria [a chilling performance from Ruby Bentall] becomes more and more withdrawn, and Dorothy, bright and brittle at the start, is greyer and more depressed with each scene.

The tristesse and ennui are palpable. Heightened by long silences, sotto voce duets from brother and sister, recalling childhood songs and a lost harmony, and thrown into relief by the
irruptions of jollity through the front door. David Horovitch's hearty, tedious GP, and two of Dorothy's friends from the days when they were all Hello Girls together: “Garrulous Gertie” - a tour-de-force from Marion Bailey [June Whitfield cum Celia Imrie] and do-gooder Muriel [Wendy Nottingham].

The end, when it comes, is not entirely a surprise. As in Greek tragedy, it happens off stage. The cumulative effect of the pitch-perfect performances and the family's gradual decline into depression is heart-wrenching.

One thing that has changed in these last fifty years is our ability to talk about our problems. You may think that emotional incontinence, counselling, constant sharing and caring, is excessive, but how much worse is the complete inability all these characters share to discuss anything but the trite and the trivial. And that failure is at the heart of the tragedy in Mike Leigh's gentle masterpiece.

this piece was written following the first preview of the play ...

rehearsal photograph of Ruby Bentall: John Haynes

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Early Doors Productions at the Cramphorn Theatre

Patrick Barlow's ingenious stage version of the Hitchcock movie is established on the London tourist theatre scene. And now Early Doors in exile bring the whole mad-cap experience to the Cramphorn, selling out the three night run.

I think poor old Buchan would have liked Lionel Bishop's Hannay. Every inch the gentleman, a considerate, thoughtful secret agent, his political speech very much from the heart. Though he could send the story up with the best of them when he needed to – a glance, a pause, a double take. Wonderful stuff.

He had it easy, of course, just the one role. The other 150 characters were shared between Amy Clayton, who also directed, and the two Clowns, Justin Cartledge and Martin Harris. Lots of fun and physicality from them all, even if they were more comfortable in some characters than others – the Scots accents seemed to pose particular challenges.

Even with the technical limitations of this tiny space, we were treated to some splendid effects and routines – the lamp-post, the toy train, the hats trick.

It must be hard to achieve the required manic pace, energy and attack with only three nights in front of a live audience; firmer direction, and more music to cover scene changes and create atmosphere, might have lifted this enjoyable spoof from the ridiculous into the sublime.


at the New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich

Rolan Bolan, “sad-eyed son of a legendary superstar” flies to London in search of the father he never knew. Along the way he meets a colourful parade of family, friends, producers and predators, and finds closure of a sort on a pilgrimage to the sycamore shrine.
Gary Lloyd's strikingly staged production successfully recreates the experience, visual and musical, of Marc Bolan in performance. Patrick Connellan's set has 36 tv screens, a scarlet diagonal river, two stairs and a box at the back for the band. There are some superb back projection sequences – the psychedelic wooing of June in her VW, for instance – and imaginative stagings, such as the Cosmic Dancer duet. Among the more memorable moments were the head-banging Desdemona, with the blood and sparks only on the screen, alas, and the last encore, with the fans cheering on their feet as if we were still in the 70s.
George Maguire's Bolan was an amazing reincarnation. Not quite as beautiful as the original, maybe, but he caught the elfin mischief and the preening bullshitter to perfection. And of course was totally convincing musically as well.
He was strongly supported by a talented team of actor-musicians. It was a while before Craig Storrod, as Rolan, was given anything interesting to do, but he proved a pleasing singer, moving in the final pages. Gloria Jones, Rolan's mother, the driver in the fatal car crash, who finds her son's search cathartic, too, was powerfully played by Donna Hines. June Child – Mrs Bolan – was Jenna Lee-James, and there was an excellent Helen Shapiro cameo from impressive newcomer Katie Bernstein.
Despite the nostalgic touches – the Test Card, flying ducks, Davy Crockett hat – the book did not match the musical tribute. The actors were often left mouthing clichés that got us no nearer to understanding their lives and their loss. They brought considerably versatility to a gallery of stereotypes [all real people from the era] – Actor Laddie, camp impresario, gobby roadie – which were often amusing without being very plausible. John Peel, alas, was merely a disembodied voice.
The show worked best for me when the music was integrated into the narrative – London Boys, say, or the wonderful Dandy in the Underworld. Elsewhere, like many a juke-box musical before it, it simply recreates the T Rex experience for the fans. And they were certainly not short-changed: two LPs worth from the catalogue, all performed with zest and Seventies stylishness.
If you liked Bolan, you'll love this. But did we say of Amadeus, a couple of years after Bolan's tragically early demise, if you like Mozart, you'll love this ?

production photograph: Mike Kwasniak
this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Monday, September 12, 2011


Witham Music Theatre at the Public Hall

Witham Music Theatre have made something of a specialism of Sondheim's witty, wordy, intelligent entertainments.
On this showing, my only regret is that I've not seen their earlier work. An accomplished young cast made a really professional job of this tricky score, in a production, directed by Philippa Johnson, which used a simple, stylish staging to let Sondheim's moral fairy tale speak for itself.
Black and white line drawings on screens, Pienkowskiesque silhouettes for the tree, climbable hair for Rapunzel, massive specs the only evidence of the Giant.
Very much a family affair, it would seem: patriarch Lewis Marks [Philippa's husband, if I understand aright] making a fine narrator, all from memory, though sometimes not well lit. Luke Marks was a hairy, lairy Wolf, as well as Rapunzel's Prince, while Jacob was Cinderella's Prince – the pair of them duetted brilliantly in Agony, with matching boots, beards, hobby-horses and princely habiliments. Samuel was an engagingly innocent Jack, with his long auburn hair and “sunny disposition”, and Joshua was his cud-chewing Milky White, giving the best “death of a fairy-tale cow” you're likely to see on any stage.
Grace Branch was a wonderful Little Red Riding Hood, “pink and plump”, and Jennifer Branch a powerful Witch, especially after her elegant transformation. She sang her solos with passion and polish.
The Mysterious Man is a difficult role to carry off, and I wasn't entirely convinced by Matt Ashworth's white-clad joker; Zoe Rogers was excellent as Cinderella, and Thomas Holland made a touching Baker, with Matilda Bourne as his wife.
But not a weak link in this large cast - I can only imagine the work that must have gone in to bringing this challenging piece to life. The sympathetically amplified singing was superb, as was the pit band, under the Musical Direction of Hans Montanana.
I loved last year's innovative production in Regent's Park, and was prepared to make allowances for this local amateur version. Absolutely no need – just as enjoyable, and in many ways more immediate, more affecting for being home-grown and made with love.

Sunday, September 04, 2011


South Downs
Chichester Festival Theatre

Enterprisingly, Chichester have included two new plays in their Rattigan anniversary season.

Nicholas Wright's “Rattigan's Nijinksy” takes the abandoned screenplay, commissioned by the BBC, about impresario Sergei Diaghilev and his “creation” Nijinsky, and weaves through and around it his imagined back-story. Thus giving us two world premières in one. While David Hare's South Downs, written to complement The Browning Version, shows us the coming of age of a solitary child unhappily immured in a Public School in the early sixties.

Malcolm Sinclair is cornering the market in insecure inverts of genius. Hard on the heels of his buttoned-up Britten in The Habit of Art, here we see him as Rattigan, not quite so repressed, perhaps, but still aghast at being outed and labelled a queer writer. These two men both knew they were dying [they died in fact within a year of each other], both hoped their swan song would say something of the love that dared not speak its name.
Philip Frank's stylish production skilfully interweaves the two stories, helped by a versatile company which sees Jonathan Hyde triumphantly pull off the unlikely double of the flamboyant Diaghilev and the straight-talking BBC producer Cedric Messina, and Susan Tracy on glorious form as the dancer's determined widow, and Rattigan's redoubtable mother Vera. Nijinsky himself was played with passionate intensity by a diminutive Joseph Drake; this too was doubled, in a brilliant device, with the bell-hop at Claridges – a very Bennett character this – who, in a poignantly downbeat ending, shares his passion for cricket with the great writer, and companionably slips between the covers.
An agreeably surreal atmosphere is created by having dancers, party-goers and passengers invade the carpeted hush of Rattigan's hotel suite. A favourite moment – action on board the liner to Buenos Aires – when Mrs R, strolling past on the captain's arm, tartly reminds Messina - “I've been dead and buried for three years – you should know that!”

David Hare's unsettling atmospheric memoir of Lancing in the 60s is both an éducation sentimentale and an éducation spirituelle. And a largely autobiographical piece – Hare's father too was often absent at sea, Hare's Scottish mother a passionate believer in the power of education. John Blakemore, played with a wonderfully controlled emotional and intellectual depth by Alex Lawther, loses his only close friend [an equally impressive Bradley Hall] and his Anglo-Catholic faith. In a richly symbolic narrative, we watch him see the object of his worship from afar [the actress mother of his house prefect] become flesh and blood in a eucharist of Fortnum's fruit cake. His dialogues with staff - “precocity and insolence” - and with his peers, sharing confidences, milk and a clandestine cigarette, were absolutely believable. Jonathan Bailey caught the easy confidence of the “incendiary” revolutionary prefect who can't wait to escape with his air hostess from Hove, and the excellent quartet of younger boys was completed by Jack Elliott and Liam Morton [Taplow in The Browning Version]. This is the world, with its arcane rules and its love of ritual, of Anderson's “If...”, and, less seriously, Bennett's Albion House. Fifty years on it's hard to recapture, and I thought that the boys managed it rather better than the masters, though Andrew Woodall's English teacher, teaching Pope with a mixture of bullying and sarcasm, was interestingly written, and I liked the pyjama-clad confirmation class, where the chaplain who alludes meaningfully to his “thing of darkness” was nicely done by Nicholas Farrell [a movingly desiccated Crocker-Harris in the Rattigan]. Belinda Duffield, who brings the cake and teaches Blakemore what “dissembling” means, was superbly played by Anna Chancellor, who also gave us a memorably poisonous Millie Crocker-Harris. “Inconsequential” overheard on the way out over the parquet to the interval drinks. I can't agree. Yes, the ending was less powerful than the intriguing opening moments, but we were left feeling we had seen a young life changed for ever.

Two pedantic foot-notes. I was worried that the lonely boy spoke of “Mum” instead of “Mummy”, or even “Mater”, before I realised that this could well be a shibboleth for the child from a semi-detached. And in the sixties, we sang “Him serve with fear, his praise forth tell”. The mealy-mouthed amendment says much of changing attitudes to the Deity, to religion, and indeed to Masters and to education.


at the Festival Theatre Chichester

Best to forget the film – and Gene Kelly.
Singin' in the Rain works wonderfully as a stage musical about movie musicals – there's a brilliant pastiche of the classic “dancing on the aircraft wings” number. And the title song, in which Row A was gleefully inundated by a high-kicking Adam Cooper, was marvellous re-imagined by choreographer Andrew Wright.
The band – even more concealed than last year – lovingly recreated the sounds of the 20s, and there were lots of good voices in the excellent ensemble. Scarlett Strallen was deliciously sweet as Kathy, and I liked the grinning bonhomie of Daniel Crossley's comedy sidekick Cosmo.
Jonathan Church's widely acclaimed production only has till September 10 to run in the Festival Theatre; there is however talk of a West End transfer in the new year …

Friday, September 02, 2011



LADS at the Tractor Shed

How did a redundant tractor shed attract a talented company of younsters to spend their summer nights preparing a very enjoyable, and highly professional, variety show of songs [and dances] from the musical stage ?
Well, that's a story for another day. Suffice it to say that Show Hits 2011 was a fast-paced, slick sequence which never lost energy or style.
It began with a generous helping of Sister Act, with a very lively Deloris, and some impressive chorus work.
And ended with the Queen fans' juke-box musical, We Will Rock You, with familiar numbers [though not alas Bohemian Rhapsody] belted out with enthusiasm and a great rock backing.
In between we had two lovingly revived “Gerald Wiley” monologues off the box, a very stylish title number from Cabaret, and the Waltz duet from Sweeney Todd, which honesty compels me to say was the only performance where all the words were audible. Not to mention brief encounters with Rent, Wicked, Legally Blonde and Glee, and a commendably simple sequence from Glee: the a cappella ending to Say A Little Prayer was a musical highlight.
The sixteen-piece orchestra – the envy of many a West End pit these days, and maybe a tad over-powered for this acoustic and these vocal forces – was directed by the prodigiously talented Kris Rawlinson, who also managed to appear in two numbers, including Shrek in a green mask of his own making …
The younger performers – some cute Cockney tots here – got a chance to shine in a medley from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which featured a brilliant knees-up number [Ol' Bamboo] and the car itself, magnificently recreated by Frank Burgess. We're promised a period cab for Pygmalion, LADS' next show...
Show Hits 2011 was directed by Cathy Hallam, with Mandi Tickner, and choreography by Vicki Bird.


at the Mercury Theatre Colchester

As the Rhinestone Cowboy Glen Campbell prepares a UK farewell tour, country music is as popular as ever this side of the Pond. A far-flung outpost of this fan base lurks in the dingy basement of the Warbleswick Sports and Social Club, where Monday night is Line Dancing night.
That's the premise for Joe Graham's slight piece, directed by Phil Willmott, which aims to please lovers of the music and the regular theatre-going crowd.
More than a touch of Girls' Night Out, though a sad lack of boots and hats in the audience. And rarely has the label “karaoke musical” seemed more apposite, with the cast stepping up to sing to backing tracks in the lilac spotlight.
After a front cloth warm-up, we meet the gallery of clichéd sitcom characters – little old lady with flatulence and false teeth, loud Welsh gay tap-dancer, you get the picture – whose fights and feuds, loves and losses, form the flimsy plot on which to hang the songs.
Some interesting performance pedigrees at work. Faye Tozer, from Steps, is the dance teacher who finally finds happiness with dance-phobic, tongue-tied Tom [Anthony Topham]. Also from Steps, Ian H Watkins, giving a strong performance as Duncan the treacherous tap-dancer who engineers the happy ending. One of the best vocals of the show [Willie Nelson's Crazy], not surprisingly, was from Lyn Paul, whose first big hit with the New Seekers was an incredible forty years ago. Less convinced by her Cougar character, however. Lots of comedy potential in the pivotal role of Ronald, who likes to be called Clint, and takes everything a bit too seriously. But Phil Pritchard failed to make it more than a figure of fun, I felt. The best performance by far, combining just a little send-up with real acting and superb comic timing, was Shaun Williamson's Del Boy barman. His rendition of Orbison's Blue Bayou was priceless, a taste of how wryly entertaining this show could have been …
Not much actual line-dancing in evidence until the coda, when we were given a nice 42nd Street curtain line of stepping feet, and a chance to see how much of Achy Breaky Heart we could dance in the narrow aisles of the Mercury.
This is a World Première for Colchester: the show and its stars set off on an ambitious tour, bringing line-dancing comedy to Wales, Ireland and Scotland.
production photograph: Robert Day
this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews