Tuesday, October 25, 2011

AN OLD BELIEF Stondon Singers

Stondon Singers at St Laurence Blackmore

From the Fifteenth Century to A Child of Our Time, the Stondon Singers guided us through some of the finest sacred choral music.

The austere, rhythmically intricate Dufay, the richer sounds of Gabrieli, the eloquent harmonies of Lassus, the sublime cadences of Lotti's Crucifixus, traced the development of music to the Renaissance and beyond.

The Gabrieli was accompanied by Brentwood Brass – the final Alleluia of O Magnum Mysterium was especially effective – and they also gave us some purely instrumental interludes, including William Byrd's March for the Earl of Oxford, as well as Handel and Eleanor Rigby.

The Singers, directed by Chrisopher Tinker, jumped forward after the interval to Parry, the Songs of Farewell, including the meditation on death which gave the evening its title, two Elgar Part Songs, and finally the five Tippett Spirituals, featuring some superb step-out soloists from the choir.

I felt that the singers were perhaps more comfortable, more relaxed in the familiar harmonies of the twentieth century, but the structure of the programme gave us a valuable insight into the development of the sounds which have echoed through places of worship over six centuries.

There is an old belief
That on some solemn shore,
Beyond the sphere of grief,
Dear friends shall meet once more.

Beyond the sphere of Time and Sin,
and Fate’s control,
Serene in changeless prime
of body and of soul.

That creed I fain would keep,
That hope I’ll ne’er forgo:
Eternal be the sleep
If not to waken so.


Stephen Moriaty at Christ Church

Glen Berger's fascinating, multi-layered monologue follows a rather dull Dutch librarian as he sets off in pursuit of a mystery borrower, his battered Baedeker returned 113 years late.

With slides and a flip chart, he details his quest [“not riveting but interesting”] to track down the man who left a laundry ticket in the book, just one of dozens of neatly labelled clues.

It soon becomes clear that “A.” is Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, condemned to stay on his feet until Our Lord returns to the earth. And equally obvious that the Librarian will wander with him, obsessively determined to meet the mystery man and claim his fine on the overdue guide book.

In Stephen Moriaty's impressive performance, our Dutchman with his date stamp and his “twisty mystery” is humourless and cold at first, but as the character develops, he seems a confused and forgetful sleuth, as his words become more confessional and confidential.

This production, directed by Audrey Cooke, was not helped by the formal staging in Christ Church. I longed for a more intimate encounter with this intriguing character, for the lecture to become a shared experience.

Monday, October 24, 2011


The National Theatre in the Olivier

Drove past St Paul's 99% occupation camp on the way to the National. The placards and the protesters on the Olivier stage seemed very topical, as did the breaking news references to riots and recession.

Dramatist in residence Mike Bartlett – his Earthquakes in London very effective in the Cottesloe's claustrophobic night-club – took on the vast spaces of the big house in a state-of-the-nation play which wasn't afraid to talk religion, politics and philosophy at its audience. In fact, many of the themes, and not a few characters, were foreshadowed in Earthquakes.

This time we have, amongst an eclectic bunch of Londoners, a Dawkins figure [author of “Fairytale God”] a conservative PM [an elegant Geraldine James, reasonable but sententious] and a Messianic young man [Trystan Gravelle] who starts his ministry on an upturned bucket and finds his disciples through YouTube.

Bartlett has a good sense of the zeitgeist, and a good ear for the language of every day life – Katie Brayben's Shannon one of several excellent characterizations.

The heavier themes – evil, [Ruby is “not a good child” and meets an awful end in a chilling but incongruous moment] Armageddon, Apocalypse – are sometimes hard to take, though, and whereas I was hoping for twists and reversals after the interval, the piece just got wordier and more didactic.

When John deserts his followers and they lose their cohesion, we are left with a strong sense of the “individual voices” they have once more become - “he's left us all to work it out for ourselves, “ says the cynical soldier at the close.

Thea Sharrock's production boasts some excellent design ideas [Tom Scott] – like the black cubes: a tiny one for Stephen's non-existent God, a larger one suspended above the stage for the in-coming, and a huge one for the first act, at one point stunningly peopled with the figures “in other people's dreams”, which opened up with steps and ladders for the second act.

But the piece does not need the vast stage to work – television would do just as good a job. Genuinely theatrical moments, like the quartet of voices arguing about Iran, were rare.

Two elderly Americans at the interval.
Him: “We're leaving.”
Her: “Are you not enjoying it - I thought it was very good ...”

Worth going along – certainly on the Travelex £12 deal – to make up your own mind.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


M&G Concert at the Civic Theatre

Opening the new M&G concert season, a welcome return for the Britten Sinfonia, regular visitors here over their nineteen year history. They brought us a programme less interesting than the one they chose to open their subscription series this month in Cambridge, Norwich and London, but nonetheless varied and satisfying. Performed with the usual passion and flair.

All our chamber music suffers in the concert hall from the inappropriateness of the space,” Gustav Mahler told a journalist. So he re-worked some of his favourite quartets for full orchestra. One such arrangement, of Schubert's Death and the Maiden, was only recently unearthed, and it formed the centrepiece of Sunday's concert.

An intense reading, with the inexorable elemental forces well suggested in the finale, and the emphatic sonorities of the Andante showing Mahler's hand most clearly.

A definite chamber music feel to the rest of the programme, too. A sparkling, tightly focused Mozart Divertimento to start, and Vivaldi's Four Seasons coming up fresh, under Thomas Gould's inspirational direction. His interpretation of the solo violin part had an exciting freedom of expression, encouraging his virtuoso colleagues to live their roles, sweltering or shivering in the Italian countryside.

This is programme music par excellence, and it would have been nice to have enough light to read the helpful notes. And though we appreciate our interval drink, the sounds of their preparation and disposal can easily ruin a pianissimo passage ...


Chichester Festival Theatre


I thought the 30s setting might be a problem. Pointless, gratuitous, self-indulgent.

In the event, it mattered very little. And it did give the design people [Anthony Ward] some great opportunities to create a fantasy of the grimy, grubby corners London of the inter-war years, cracked tiles, broken windows, metal shutters and grilles. And the people, too, the menial downtrodden Londoners in their offices, in the asylum and Mrs Lovett's popular pie shop with its gaudy neon sign.

Adam Pearce first to appear, first to sing, typically detailed character work from a cast impressively strong in depth. Peter Polycarpou was excellent as the Beadle, as was Gillian Kirkpatrick as the Beggar Woman.

But the standing ovations, inevitably, were for Ball and Staunton, both seasoned musical theatre stars, and both incredibly good in Sondheim's blood-soaked melodrama. Ball, with his brooding presence and golden voice, and Staunton's precise comedy timing, worked like magic, and brought out all the pathos and the humour of this dark revenge drama.

There's much talk of a transfer to town, a second hit for Chichester this season. I'm not sure that the circular metal walkway over the thrust would work, but this dream casting could surely not be improved.

Sunday, October 16, 2011




 at the New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich


Migrants, economic and otherwise, asylum seekers, exiles and refugees. These are the invisible ones, not always on society's margins, but part of its fabric, essential but unseen.

Croatian dramatist Tena Štivičić has devised a thoughtful, and thought-provoking, play which seeks to give a voice to those who are on the move, fuzzy and faceless behind the translucent screen at the back of the stage. The set, designed by Hayley Grindle, was anonymous and impersonal – glass [operating] table and orange institutional chairs.

The bones of the play are strong, its structure powerful. But sometimes it felt as if there were too much flesh on the bones, and the momentum was lost.

The action [choreographed by Darren Johnston] was often dreamlike, as the seven actors changed the scene - the transformation of the kitchen table especially effective. The working title for an early incarnation was “In a Dream Dreamt by Another”.

Many of the migrants' stories were mythic fairy tales: the golden goose, the magic talking gherkin that leads to the vault. And it's in this Vault – a sleazy club – that the two worlds, “Fortress Europe” and the “Others” fatally coincide.

The final hot and cold confrontation between Felix – a believably pathetic Jon Foster – and Lara [Anna Elijasz] was a striking piece of theatre, although it could usefully be trimmed a little more. Other memorable moments were the phone call home, and the amusing contretemps with the notorious US immigration service, both excellently done by Gracy Goldman. Krystian Godlewski was outstanding as the carpenter/window-cleaner/storyteller.

Transport is an international company, and the variety of voices added a raw authenticity, if sometimes at the expense of clarity and fluency.

The two-hour loose-knit narrative included many meaningful details and juxtapositions. Lara seeks to integrate, and to make a home, by snapping up cast-offs from her employers, Anton by avidly observing life on the other side of the glass he's cleaning. The bedsit fridge is filled with gherkins, none of them quite like those back home.

There is no resolution, no closure here. Some migrants succeed, others, like Bridgitta Roy's tragic Sera, are fated to fail. We leave Anton in a coma, Felix facing a jail sentence. Lara, though, is confident. “The wind won't blow her away. Her life will have a meaning.”

This flawed but important piece, directed by Douglas Rintoul, and co-produced with the New Wolsey Theatre, sets off from Ipswich for a national tour, including a trip over to Luxembourg.

Invisible Trailer from Transport on Vimeo.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews


Theatre at Baddow

Based on a story by Thomas Hardy, Frank Harvey's play is a powerful melodrama. Its best characters are rounded and psychologically intriguing, and though the plot development contains few surprises – no shortage of signposts in this part of Wiltshire – we are kept enthralled till the final curtain.

Claire Lloyd is impressive as Edith, trapped in a loveless, childless marriage to a blinkered brewery owner [Jesse Powis]. She has taken under her wing a childhood friend from the lower orders [a wonderfully convincing Vicky Wright] and finds herself writing, ostensibly on her behalf, ardent love letters to the man she met at the fair – Bruce Thompson's ambitious young barrister. Well, it's a fair bet there'll be tears on the day of the wedding – but her gentleman friend does the decent thing and, we assume, they all live miserably ever after.

Mike Nower's production tellingly dissects the relationships and the motives of this Victorian household, which is further complicated by Edith's spinster sister-in-law [a splendidly starchy Sara Nower]. The letter-writing scenes are skilfully crafted, and the final showdown is suitably dramatic.

The cramped but well-dressed set, the superb costumes [Edith's navy and white frock especially caught the eye] give a good sense of place and period; only the language occasionally jars - “OK” not an expression often heard in nineteenth-century Salisbury …

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Civic Theatre,
8th October 2011

Jim Hutchon was in the stalls at the Civic ...

Kathryn Tickell is a folk singer. She is also a highly entertaining and persuasive ambassador for a fast disappearing way of life ? the bleak, unforgiving existence of a Northumbrian hill farmer. And she uses her very real talents with the Northumbrian pipes, along with authentic snippets from interviews, to evoke past days and people from these parts.

In a show shot through with stunning music, she is helped by an equally talented group of musicians, Julian Sutton, Patsy Reid, Hannah Rickard and Kit Haigh, and also by her father Mike, a snowy haired guru in an armchair who is a class act, bringing the voices of his past to life. The atmosphere had the full house clapping, stamping and joining in the choruses.

I would personally have preferred to hear this in a country pub, sat nursing a pint by a log fire. The music was mainly fast and furious, showing off the virtuoso technical skills of the players, though I would have liked to hear more of the pipes in their slow, haunting, evocative, mood. Perhaps some backdrops too, sepia prints of lonely stone cottages with a shepherd and a dog and such, rather than the tasteful curtain backdrop they used.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Ian Dickens Productions at the Civic THeatre

Peter Gordon's affectionate spoof – part of his popular Pratt trilogy – sets out its stall in the title. Much more farce than thriller, with plot twists galore, it mercilessly pokes fun at a classic genre.
This time we're in the dark days of the Battle of Britain, with land-girls, an enemy alien, and the country house reduced to taking in paying guests in the West Wing.
The first “fatal murder” bumps off Constable Atkins, and brings the bumbling Inspector Pratt [David Callister, making the most of his malapropisms and slick slapstick] and his sidekick, the capable Constable Thompkins [Christoper Elderwood] to the house, closely followed by Ingrid Evans' meddlesome Miss Maypole. These performances are laugh-aloud fun, as are Katy Manning's very Welsh medium Blodwen, Nicola Week's upper-crust land-girl and Richard Gibson's “Stiffy” Allwright, a Baderesque fighter pilot shot down in the drink.
Big name Leslie Grantham does a nice job in what is really a cameo – the lubricious gigolo Garibaldi.
Though of course not all of these characters are what they seem ...
It's a time-honoured tradition to have everyone stand around while the loose ends are tied up, but 20 minutes was beyond a joke, I felt, especially for such an improbable dénouement.
Death By Fatal Murder was directed by Ian Dickens.

Monday, October 10, 2011


Phoenix Theatre Group at Christ Church

Jim Hutchon was in the Hall at Christ Church

Director Chris Wright's treatment of this complex, funny and stylish comedy murder thriller is to keep the throttle pressed firmly to the metal from line one. He kept the speed and pressure up as the actors were allowed to develop really very convincing characters. The improbable murder plot had innumerable twists and turns which were dealt with by a talented cast with a lot of comic potential between them.

Andy Millward keeps up an almost Noel Coward repartee as a novelist and critic planning to do away with his estranged adulterous wife, while she, Tricia Childs, giving as good as she gets, plans a similar fate for him. Both seek the help of an hilariously confused Syd Smith as his publisher and her lover. Steve Holding dark brooding looks lighten up considerably with impressive comic talents as the fluent-talking neighbour who is not what he seems, and boy friend of the secretary, Jean Speller, who has her own agenda.

In this Christie meets Coward amalgam, nothing and nobody are what they seem, but, after a while any weaknesses in the plot are swallowed up in growing laughter. There were occasional dead spots in the narrative drive, but the Friday night audience left with a sense of a really entertaining night of fun.

Saturday, October 08, 2011


MAYAKOVSKY: The Slanting Rain

Salida Productions and The Mercury Theatre Company
Vladimir Mayakovsky was a poet and playwright prominent in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, an eccentric, wayward spirit who finally shot himself in 1930.
The Mercury Theatre Company have collaborated in this innovative staging with Salida Productions – they worked together on Romeo and Juliet in 2010.
The studio is set up like the back room of a pub on open mic night. Beer-stained tables huddled round a dais. But onto the stage walks not a truculent, potty-mouthed alternative comedian, but a truculent, potty-mouthed Futurist poet. It feels like stand-up, with the house lights left on, and plenty of interaction with the audience, picking on punters and humiliating the man with the mobile. There's even an undercurrent of wry humour.
Ed Hughes' performance is a masterpiece of fire and physicality. In a Leninist three-piece suit, pens in breast pocket, he berates lyricism, the past, Pushkin, and especially critics. The poet of the people, he writes and performs for the factory and the shipyard. He's used to slapping faces and kicking bollocks; he prefers the rotten apples and broken bottles to the cotton wool reception he gets chez Gorki.
Andrew Rattenbury's hour-long monologue draws heavily on the poems, although, perhaps intentionally, it was not always clear when the tirade ended and the verse began. There were hints of tenderness, too, tears of love lost and loneliness making a telling contrast with the anger and the aggression.
The stark staging was effective, with chalk scrawled on the wall, and the poet's trademark yellow coat standing out against the black brickwork.
Was this how it was when the real Mayakovsky stood up in front of the five thousand ? We'll never know, but the piece, urging outcry and confusion, was a powerful reminder of a seminal figure in Soviet culture.

I want to be understood by my country, nothing more.
but if I fail to be understood –
what then?,
I shall pass through my native land
at an angle, in vain,
like a shower
of slanting rain.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Wednesday, October 05, 2011


Cut to the Chase at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch

1984. The Robins [Hull Kingston Rovers] won the Championship / Premiership double, and John Godber's Up'n'Under took to the Hull Truck stage for the first time.
It tells the story of a hopeless pub Sevens team who are pitted against the formidable Cobblers Arms. Thanks to their self-appointed manager Arthur, who has a fortune riding on the result, and their ballsy trainer Hazel, they go into the final with a sporting chance …
Godber is a great favourite at the Queen's, and resident company Cut to the Chase and Artistic Director Bob Carlton have come up with a fresh take on this well-loved fable, performed in their unique style, against a simple but striking set – stars, screen, locker room and turf.
I'll admit I have seen the all-important game itself done more excitingly [the six actors have to play both sides], but the use of a shadow screen was effective. And there were many really funny sequences, especially the routine in Hazel's gym which ends the first half. The gum shield moment, Phil's hot-water-bottle dream, the work-place confrontations, and the wonderful curtain call, were memorable too. Music – almost all done a cappella by the cast – was brilliantly incorporated into the action.
And the cod-Shakespearean choruses to this history worked very well.
Many familiar faces [and thankfully less familiar backsides] on view in this line-up. Jared Ashe, as the bewildered butcher Frank, delivered the prologue and a good few of the laughs, Tom Jude was Steve as well as the slippery rival manager Reg, Mark Stanford the keen young teacher, and Callum Hughes a fresh-faced apprentice.
Simon Jessop was a believable Arthur, making this erstwhile hot-head a rounded character rather than simply a figure of fun. And Karen Fisher-Pollard more than held her own against the “tissue-paper gladiators” - her scene with Arthur one of the tenderer, subtler moments.
But appropriately, this was all about team-work, and the pace and the pitch-perfect performances made for a very entertaining 90 minutes on “the playing fields of Castleford”. And the audience went home very enthusiastic: “I'm so gonna buy a ticket and see that again,” said one lad as we left – far too young to have even heard of Eddie Waring ...

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Sunday, October 02, 2011


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court

How to make Gogol's classic satirical farce work for our times ? Bungs and backhanders are no less prevalent than they were in19th century Russia, I'd guess, but the characters are very much of their era.

The Young Vic this year chose a traditional take, involving the audience in the cartoon world of small town politics. Danny Segeth, for CTW, took a more radical line. A cast of young comedy actors, a black box, a version [after Alistair Beaton] which moves everything to today's UK, and a generous dollop of physical theatre.

How successful this approach is will depend on how amusing you find the performances, and whether you can accept a world with emails but no phones, where the Mayor actually runs the “nasty little town”, vodka and madeira are the tipples of choice and fresh salmon is delivered to the hotel restaurant.

Gold star for effort to Ian Eagleton, whose Director of Education was a mass of tics and grimaces, speechless with nerves. Joe Kennedy was a greasy, greedy Mayor, and there were two nice double acts, from John Mabey and Anna Rogers as the gossips, and from Fabienne Hanley and Leanna Johnson as the Mayor's grotesque wife and daughter – think Ugly Sisters. As the mystery inspector, James Christie used his comic presence to excellent effect – his drunk scene was masterly – and he was well supported by Gemma Robinson as his valet [in this version a slightly superfluous “friend”].

Especially at the start, a more manic pace would have suited the style, but there were lovely sequences, such as the planning of the inspections, and Khelly trousering “loans” from a queue of frightened officials. The movement work was directed by Catherine Hitchins: I liked the final sequence [“Regret”] which forced us to reflect on the human failings behind the farce.

production photo: James Sabbarton


Eastern Angles in Peterborough

Plenty of drama on the streets of Peterborough – as I enjoy a pre-show drink at the Draper's Arms, a group of young Asian men is intimidated by a lone man in a football shirt. The barman moves him on, politely but firmly.
Greg Lyons' play – part of Platform Peterborough - 2011 starts on the city's streets, and it's noticeable that almost all the scenes are set in the open air.
A young couple are searching for the symbol of the crossed keys [part of the city's arms] set in concrete bricks near a very ordinary road junction. Hussein supervised the original work, but the years have faded the cheap coloured bricks. The drama, in just over thirty minutes, takes a serious look at difference, at culture, at the sacred, and at the healing effect of time. The two lovers struggle to keep their relationship alive in the face of the hostility of Shahruk's family. Michael, a straight-talking Irishman, also an incomer to the city, inadvertently brings about resolution of a kind, at no little cost to himself.
All three characters are explored and developed in Kate Budgen's clear, straightforward production. We get to know them surprisingly well in just half an hour. Shahruk, movingly played by Mariam Haque, is clearly afraid of what her uncle might do if she marries the wrong man. Forced to “disappear” to university, forever changing her phone to avoid detection, she finds the secrecy and the subterfuge an intolerable burden. Even when she qualifies as an architect, and enjoys a Cornish honeymoon, she is still unsure about a relationship that cuts her off from her family. John Bosco's Hussein, loving, caring, but constantly tested, is a really likeable character, whether crossing swords with Michael, or flirting with Shahruk. And Aidan Dooley is magnificent as the spiritually knowledgeable paving layer [“poking a stick in an ant's nest of cultural confusion” one of his many memorable turns of phrase] – his speech on the Sacred, delivered while opening his Thermos flask, was superbly crafted.
The setting is of necessity very basic: three sections of the kind of fencing they put up round road works. Looks really effective under the rood screen of St John's church. There are some telling images – her niqab teamed with a “Gorgeous” designer bag.
I was fortunate to see the piece twice. In the generous space of St John's – where the kneeler in front of me has the same red and yellow symbol – I found the drama less intimate, but more meaningful, than in the back room of the Brewery Tap, just ten minutes away from the those worn and faded bricks …

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews