Monday, April 30, 2012


Chelmsford Young Generation
at the Cramphorn Theatre

This charming, often witty, Stiles and Drewe musical retells the slight moral tale of The Ugly Duckling.

Jeremy Tustin's economical production, with Bryan Cass as MD, made the most of the intimacy of the Cramphorn, and coaxed fine performances from his actors, right down to the tiny brood of just-hatched ducklings.

We are introduced to the duck pond and its denizens by Drake, well sung by a personable Sam Toland; his missus, a no-nonsense Northern Ida, was superbly characterized by Sophie Walker, the only member of the cast really to bring her role to fully believable life. That's not to say there weren't other very polished performances, from Bart Lambert, say, as Ugly, the Just William victim who turns into a very suave swan indeed, or Luke Higgins' predatory tomcat. I also liked the domesticated duo of Jade Flack and Alice Masters, Harry Brown's Barnacles and James Bantock's Greylag.

Some lovely production numbers – everyone an amphibian in Warts and All, an airborne squadron for Wild Goose Chase – loving design [the ducks on the living room wall] and costumes imaginative and not too literal made for a lively, colourful entertainment, which was also a valuable lesson in living with difference.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


The Stondon Singers
at St Laurence, Blackmore

Shakespeare's getting an extra boost from the Games this year, and for his birthday, the Stondon Singers presented a garland of song settings and sonnets, based around Vaughan Williams's Serenade to Music.

This much-loved tribute to Henry Wood was given here in a choral arrangement, though we did hear brief solos from within the choir, and Michael Frith's organ accompaniment was remarkably effective.

The Singers' conductor, Christopher Tinker, contributed three songs written especially for this occasion, including a witty but demanding "Sigh No More", a plaintive "summer's lease" and a haunting recollection of "wild thyme" to end. Other groups of three from Essex composer Armstrong Gibbs and Vaughan Williams again, the choir showing their mettle in his Three Shakespeare Songs, written as a test piece for a national competition.

This very enjoyable concert began with Purcell's Faerie Queen, and ended with George Shearing's delicious jazz settings, including the familiar Lover and His Lass from As You Like It.

We also heard spoken sonnets – three from the Bard, and one from our Poet Laureate: Anne Hathaway's thoughts on that second-best bed.

The bed we loved in was a spinning world
of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas
where we would dive for pearls. My lover's words
were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses
on these lips; my body now a softer rhyme
to his, now echo, assonance; his touch
a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.
Some nights, I dreamed he'd written me, the bed
a page beneath his writer's hands. Romance
and drama played by touch, by scent, by taste.
In the other bed, the best, our guests dozed on,
dribbling their prose. My living laughing love -
I hold him in the casket of my widow's head
as he held me upon that next best bed.


Rosemary Branch Theatre
at the Civic, Chelmsford

Helen Tennison's production is admirably stylish, with ecru drapes and muted beige and off-white frocks, and striking use of picture frames to focus our attention [designer Ellan Parry].
This two-hour version – first done for the much-missed SNAP – by Roger Parsley and Andy Graham focuses on the love lives of the Dashwood girls, losing much of the context and many of the characters along the way.

We're left with a largely frivolous rom-com, though fortunately the director's skill, and some fine performances, keep us entertained from funeral to weddings.
James Burton worked hard in the double role of boring Brandon and awkward Edward, and was endearing and amusing in both. The cad Willoughby, somewhat underpowered here, was Jason Eddy.
The monstrous Aunt Jennings – a gift of a role – was skilfully done by Lainey Shaw, with just the right blend of grotesque and generosity. The surviving Miss Steele, was nicely portrayed by Francesca Wilding, using her bonnet to excellent effect.
Emma Fenney's Elinor engaged our sympathy, but Bobbi O'Callaghan was too brash as her flighty sister, too loud [as her aunt might point out, it is not done to be heard in the street …].

But much pleasure was to be had from the linen line, the original music by Benedict Davies, and masterly stage effects like Marianne's fevered dream, her embracing the elements and falling into Willoughby's arms, and Edward's delicious discomfiture on finding his beloved en tête-à-tête with his betrothed.

Saturday, April 28, 2012



The New Wolsey Young Company

at the Wolsey Theatre Studio, Ipswich


Since winning the Booker in 2003, Pierre's dark comedy has been adapted at least twice as a theatre piece. This is the version done by Tanya Ronder for the Young Vic in 2007. Another challenging piece for Ipswich's enterprising young company – fourteen actors [age range 16 to 21], all of them involved in the music which is an integral part of the show.

Director Rob Salmon points out that gun massacres will always be topical, but this week's trial in Oslo reminds us that they are not confined to the USA – the play is set in the ironically named Texan town of Martirio. The central character, described by one critic as "Holden Caulfield on Ritalin" is thirteen in the novel.
Here, Joe Reed plays him 16 going on 17, an angry, aggresive presence, his name in lights behind the action, helpless as he finds himself framed for the High School Massacre and more.

The show begins with Jesus Navarro, the Mexican boy who flips and shoots his classmates, singing his theme song – Patsy Cline's Crazy. It's a powerful moment, and his shade is often present, bloody but unbowed, a merry spirit in Mexico, a tragic figure on Death Row, perched on the tech desk for the trial of his friend. Excellent, intense work from Jack Tricker.

Aidan Napier is the tv man, immoral and menacing, a well sustained, creepy performance. Television, reality and otherwise, is a constant in this redneck Jerry Springer world: Lally presents to camera, the lyrics of the Country Music are flashed up on the screen, which could usefully, and realistically, have been twice the size.

The young cast certainly enjoyed some of the more grotesque characters, with impressive performances from Steve Withers as, among others, an advocate with a shaky grasp of English and a Pastor, and from Jack Brett as the randy shrink Dr Goossens and Lally's blind mother.

Armonie Melville was strong as Taylor, the wasted girl who frames Vernon, and Keisha Banya brought his confused, needy Mom to frightening life.

The staging – the johns, the chairs on wheels – was ingenious, and the show was crackling with energy, with a wacky, cartoonish style which suited the story. A little more light and shade, a little less indistinct shouting, would have helped the audience follow the plot, especially in the wordy second act.

But the overall effect was infectiously enjoyable, the broad satire, the foul-mouthed fights, the moral message, the music and the manic acting adding up to a good night out for anyone, theatre-buffs or first-timers, fans of DBC Pierre or not ...

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



Nicholas Collett Productions in association with perf@ect

at the New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich


Donington and Duxford, Bentwaters and Martlesham, random reminiscences in the bar before this fascinating one-man show. The Spitfires that Peter flew were based on the south coast, of course, and later at "Biggin-on-the-Bump".

This is his story, the memories equally random as he sits in his Eastbourne retirement home: wings on his armchair, his walking stick his joystick, the breakfast table his battlefield, with bread-and-butter bombs and a sauce-bottle Spitfire.

Nicholas Collett's finest hour includes not only history, but one man's life, with its triumphs and its tragedies. An introduction from a Frank Capra film, his first ever flight ["Sentimental Journey" on the soundtrack], his morning routine as a boy on the base, and now, turned eighty, in Silver Birches. He talks to the kids at St Oswald's Primary, and to the grand-daughter he never saw growing up. A host of ghosts people his memories: Alice, WAAF girl and wife, Alan Hart the Aussie private investigator, a pipe-puffing CO straight out of central casting, a bluntly honest oncologist. He's perceptive about Goering's great mistakes, and graphically conveys the reality of what it was like in that freezing cold cockpit, how it felt to bale out of a stricken plane.

He has created, in this understated but deeply felt performance, a memorable character. By no means a stock type – son of Skipton, straight-talking and movingly frank about fighting and killing for freedom. As he says at the start, this was not really a battle, but an act of defiance, and without that act of defiance, "where would you be now ?".

Good to see youngsters in the audience amongst the Spitfire buffs and those old enough to remember the dark days of the 1940s. One of the most telling effects was when remembrance merged into a memorial roll call of the friends who died in the Battle of Britain, young men whose lives were lost in the fight for freedom.
Peter's life, far from perfect, a success in trade, a failure as a father, living alone for 27 years, must stand for all the rest. And we can't help willing him to succeed as he takes one last flight across the world to Adelaide, in search of Amelia, his runaway daughter.

This is a developing piece – it has not always been a solo flight, for example – and it might be good to see a little more documentary footage, hear a little more music. And to explore some of the other characters, like Dorota his Polish care assistant.

But however it shapes up later in its travels, it is bound to remain an important piece of social history, and a privileged window into one pilot's private life.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews



The Mercury Theatre Company and Nottingham Playhouse Company

at the Mercury, Colchester


"The apple don't fall far from the tree." This apple has been living in London, far from her agricultural Norfolk roots, with Ronnie, a young Jewish socialist.
Wesker's play, the heart of his 1950s trilogy, sees her back with her complacent family, waiting to introduce Ronnie to the clan.

Like Russell's Rita, Beatie is a mouthpiece for the playwright's views on working class culture, freedom and self-discovery.

More than half a century on, in these days of cultural relativism, we might see most of these battles as lost, but the play remains a powerful exploration of the family, a simple story skilfully told.

And all credit to Natasha Rickman for making Beatie's famous closing speech much more than a diatribe, a passionate awakening to her true potential as the child who escapes her background, leaving the rural backwater to embrace Art in the big city.

The play is largely about finding a voice of one's own – language building Bridges, conveying Ideas; the Norfolk dialect then an important part of the writing. Varying degrees of authenticity here, with Rickman again having the hardest job, blending Ronnie's rhetoric [a chair for a soapbox] with her obvious local idiom ["she don't change"] as she parrots word for word her family's familiar tales.

Gina Isaac is excellent as a bleak sister, shocked at Beatie's casual talk of love in the afternoon, with Tim Treslove as the good old Norfolk boy her husband. Roger Delves-Broughton, touchingly taciturn, gives a memorable performance as Poppy, the Paterfamilias of the Bryants, puffing away on his pipe, and the third countryman is Adrian Stokes's superb character study of the neighbour, Stan Man, cheerful even as old age catches up with him, too exhausted to speak.
Beatie's mother, struggling to comprehend her daughter's message, enjoying a laugh and a bit of third-rate music, is beautifully done by Linda Broughton; we sense the wordless struggle beneath the habit of years [the buses pass by on the road behind us] as well as enjoying her comic moments.

Jane Linz Roberts's striking set – two kitchens [with sinks] and a parlour, and stylised Norfolk landscape behind – helps the tangible sense of the past, though this is no sentimental nostalgic journey, and evokes a real spirit of place. Andrew Breakwell's lovingly crafted production, compassionate and sympathetic, is not afraid of slow burns and silences: particularly haunting are the end of Act One, with the call of the owl and encroaching dark, the liberating Bizet, and the awkward family gathering, ill-matched chairs hugging the walls, the tick of the clock and the chink of cups accentuating the mute incomprehension which precedes Beatie's big speech.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Friday, April 27, 2012


WAOS at the Public Hall Witham

We begin with a Runyonesque street scene, the stage crammed with all human life, low life especially. Dolls, cops, gamblers, gawpers and the token drunk, Jeff Babbs a constant inebriated presence throughout the show.

The scene changes were difficult on this small stage, but we had a nice Hot Box [with audience profiles] as well as both sides of the Save-a-Soul Mission.

Many lovely performances: Corrina Wilson's coy, vulnerable but steel-willed Sarah, very impressive vocally. An old-fashioned "light opera" voice – a tradition under threat now that actors have taken over in musicals – an approach appropriately shared by her Arvide, Nicholas Clough, with a touchingly beautiful rendition of More I Cannot Wish You, and by her Masterson, Gareth Gwyn-Jones, their tones blending splendidly in duet. The MD for the show was Geoff Osborne.

Delicious comedy leavening from Deborah Anderson as Miss Adelaide, with her nasal tones and her huge box of Kleenex, and from Stewart Adkins as Nicely-Nicely – a little lithe, despite his addiction to Mindy's nosh, but lighting up the stage with his confident, larger-than-life presence.

Jacqui Tear's production was confident too, from that busy opening through to the spectacular title song finale. I loved the retro burlesque routines from the excellent Hot Box Girls [Lindsay Bonsor the choreographer], and the famous Rocking The Boat managed to be static and dynamic at the same time – very clever.

It's 90 years since WAOS first ventured onto the hallowed boards of the Public Hall, and this is their third production of this Broadway Classic. On this showing they can move towards their century safe in the knowledge that good old-fashioned entertainment, done with this kind of skill and style, will always find an appreciative audience.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Cut to the Chase at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch

Venice and Belmont are given an exotic makeover in the Queen's stylish Merchant, with delicious little domes, and the starry "floor of heaven" overhead.

Glen Walford's take on the show is billed as New Romantic early 80s; in practice this sometimes looks bizarre, with the boys looking like something from The Student Prince, and Portia and her maid coming on like nymphets from Carry On Cleo.

Fortunately Will Shakespeare's words are accorded true respect: the cast, without exception, speak the verse clearly and meaningfully, and the tale of "lovers and loan sharks" is passionately and pacily told.

Cut to the Chase are famed for their versatility, and the music [Carol Sloman's score, featuring snippets from Death in Venice, and Donna Summer's Hot Stuff as the jig at the end] was played and sung by the actors, Nerissa on violin, Shylock on guitar and so on.

Matt Devitt's genial Shylock effortlessly elicited sympathy in an impressive performance, with old-fashioned soliloquies and beautifully crafted set-pieces. He made Stuart Organ's hard-man Antonio seem unreasonable by contrast. Josie Taylor [keyboard], new to the Queen's, made a lovely Portia, young, funny but pleasingly direct as Balthazar, her Mercy speech stripped to the basics.

Two Queen's regulars made excellent contributions to a strong production: Simon Jessop was a merry fool as Gobbo, with his clowning and his air-guitar, and Natasha Moore was predictably engaging as the "beautiful pagan".

Flaming torches, carnival masks, spherical caskets containing the three heads – Damien Hirst skull, ventriloquist's "blinking idiot" and a cameo of Portia – and a gorgeous set [Rodney Ford] made this a visually as well as dramatically satisfying Shakespeare.

production photo: Nobby Clark

Friday, April 20, 2012


M&G Concert
at the Civic Theatre

The last of this season's M&G Civic concerts featured the Welsh harpist Catrin Finch, in a memorable performance of Mozart's Concerto for Flute and Harp, backed by the European Union Chamber Orchestra, directed from the violin by Jerome Akoka.
Both Catrin and her "partner in crime", flautist Fiona Slominska, were prominently placed at the front of the small chamber ensemble, giving a fresh impetus to the familiar slow movement, and dynamism to the uplifting Finale.
The harp stayed in place after the interval, for a stunning Danses sacrée et profane by Debussy, the interpretation helped by some positive phrasing from the strings.
The evening opened with Handel's first Water Music Suite, with a beautiful oboe solo in the Adagio, and agility and charm in the fleet-footed Allegro.
To end, Haydn's Symphony No. 64, played briskly, but with an expressive Largo, and elegance of expression as well as energy in the closing Presto.


Beyond the Rainbow
at Brentwood Theatre

The wallpaper screams Seventies, there's an unused rotisserie in the kitchen, and in the lounge, five neighbours making clumsy conversation.

Mike Leigh's classic Abigail's Party was lovingly recreated by Beyond The Rainbow – a sell-out success for this charity gig by a brand new group.

Rachel Adams directed and produced; she still found time to give us a text-book Beverly, with the cloying bitchiness, the social pretensions and of course that dress.
As Angie, the gauche nurse, Stephanie Lodge gave a convincingly nuanced performance, with a grating laugh and a touching eagerness to please. She's already regretting her marriage to ex-footballer Tony, a terse presence from James Taylor. Estate Agent Laurence, his restlessness and his high colour presaging his demise, was Maxi Tilyard. The token normal person, exiled from her home by the teenage Abigail and her unsuitable friends, was Lauren Goodwin's Sue.

One weakness of an enjoyable production was the sightlines – deep sofas and a shallow rake meant that much of the dialogue was in audio only, and Angie's heroic efforts with the dying Laurence were left entirely to our imagination. A particular strength was the carefully crafted interchange between characters – Ange and Bev's cosmetic duologue, for instance.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Harry Christophers and The Sixteen at St Alban's

The second stopping place on their 2012 Choral Pilgrimage – the tomb of Saint Alban, first English Martyr.

Their music this year is from Flanders, with works from Lassus and Josquin, and from Brumel, whose "Earthquake Mass" was the revelation of the evening.  Set for twelve voices, its bold effects rival the wow factor of Tallis's much more famous Spem in Alium.
Needless to say, the singers of The Sixteen [up to twenty fielded in this year's pilgrimage] gave it a superb outing – alas, only the Gloria and the Sanctus – sublime phrasing which filled the ancient nave.

Lassus, who championed Brumel in his time, provided some sublime effects of his own, notably in the expressive chromaticism of the Timor et Tremor.

picture taken from my seat in the South Aisle

Ivan Hewett was there for The Telegraph

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Eastern Angles at Brentwood Theatre

"Keep Calm and Carry On" – hard to miss these days, but intended for the darker days of a Nazi invasion, together with "Freedom Is In Peril, Defend It With All Your Might" used in Fabrice Serafino's ingenious set design. And in a memorable coup de theatre, a light box shows us the resistance bunker, the brutal truth behind the slogan.
This is very British guerilla warfare; its struggles, and the stresses of the Home Front, are cleverly combined in the story of an unconventional extended family. Young Wilf [Fred Lancaster], keen on cricket and cycling, motherless, his father at the front, lives with his aunt [Frances Marshall] whose doctor husband is a POW. Her brother-in-law [Matt Addis] will be the Resistance commander, and he recruits the local gamekeeper [Phil Pritchard]. The war brings two outsiders to the village – Prue [Bishanyia Vincent] a young ATS girl, and Alan, a freedom fighter from up north [Pritchard again] who will galvanize sleepy Suffolk for the May uprising of 1943.
Ivan Cutting's narrative cleverly combines fact with conjecture, delivering a chilling alternative history alongside the six human stories.
Naomi Jones's engaging production tracks their developing characters as the calendar pages turn, with some wonderfully moving scenes - most effectively when they recall their last moments, with evocative word pictures of firing squad, hospital ward, wheat fields and the wide Suffolk sky.
production photo: Mike Kwasniak



Cambridge Devised Theatre at the Headgate Theatre Colchester


It's that Shakespearean shape-shifter Robin Goodfellow we see first, making a very Puckish entrance, upstaging a nervous Ellen Terry. She is preparing her first one-woman show, an illustrated lecture on The Women of Shakespeare, and she will spend the next hour frantically annotating the notes on her lectern, fretting that the memory is not yet in the body, but only in the head, agonising over the title.

Meanwhile our merry wanderer, her number one fan, will assume a dozen other roles – father, lover, critic, parrot – as we follow her life and career from the age of six, through the Lyceum years to her present American tour.

The show, devised by the actors from a script by Ros Connelly, is full of clever devices. The Victorian venticelli, "slanderous tongues" for the stalls-bar gossip, and the disembodied voices, such as that great Man of Letters Bernard Shaw, coming on like a surprise guest on This Is Your Life. A huge cast of supporting characters vie for our attention, her leading men and her lovers – Godwin, Watts, Reade, Irving, little Teddy who grows up to be Edward Gordon Craig.

Alan Mooney was a magical presence as the voice of them all; changing character in a moment. I liked his adoring echo – of the Desdemona speech, for instance - and the all-too-brief snatch of the "deliberate" Henry Irving style, and the Dresserly glimpse backstage. His Common Man Stage Manager was perhaps the least successful of his voices, but a useful extension of his "auditor" role.

Helen Cartwright was entirely convincing both as innocent girl and as grande dame. Her voice was wonderfully rich, and her thoughtful Terry interpretations of the great roles was fascinating to hear. She wore a striking gown – Miss Terry was so fond of her frocks – which recalled many of the roles for which she became famous, the first actress, we're told, to treat Ophelia, Portia, Lady M and the rest as real women.

It's a lot to pack in to 70 minutes: the incredibly colourful private life, the stage career, her thoughts on Shakespeare's heroines. We were left wishing for more [and granted it in a post-show talk-out] – perhaps a companion piece focusing solely on those American lectures.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Monday, April 09, 2012



Talawa Theatre Company and West Yorkshire Playhouse

at the New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich


I've vivid memories of an all-women version some years ago, but this I think is the first time in the UK that five black actors have inhabited Beckett's bleak barren landscape. "Inspiring prospects," one of the tramps says as the houselights go up. There is a laugh, but he'd have to look hard to see many Black faces out there in the audience. Much the same last week in Winchester, I'd guess. However.

Vladimir and Estragon are everyman [or woman] of coursewe are all trapped in this nihilistic Groundhog world with its lone tree by the roadside. And in this lively, assertive version by Talawa, with the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the deeper significances shine through, the brisk pace never too rushed for a cosmic insight or two, the theological hard on the heels of the urological.

Our two clowns are engagingly played by Patrick RobinsonGogo in a waistcoatand Jeffery KissonDidi in tie and handkerchief [not matching]. Their musical idiom suits the poetry nicely, and the hint of dialect makes rare sense of "calm - the English say cawm", and as well as the hat-trick slapstick there are moments of infinite tenderness, like the lullaby in Act Two.

An elegantly proud Pozzo from Cornell S John, very much at home with his fob-watch, his monocle and his meerschaum, making his Fall in Act Two all the more tragic. He has some lovely business with his vaporizer, and an inspired moment for "the same is true of the laugh". His ironically named menial, Lucky, is brilliantly played by the intriguingly named Guy Burgess: very much an articulate intellectual, this, despite the farting dance that makes him look like a deflating balloon.

Like Estragon, I've been better entertained. The simple setting, and the careful lighting [Chris Davey] are effective without being gimmicky, but the dialogue might usefully have a little more light and shade, depth as well as dynamic.

Beckett would certainly have found this crisp, clear production, a swan song at West Yorkshire for director Ian Brown, insufficiently tedious. ["This is becoming really insignifcant." "Not enough."] But I enjoyed the warmth of the vocal sunshine and the sparky relationship between this odd couple and their bizarre visitors. Appropriate that it should end its month on the road in Holy Week, if you buy the theory that the Limbo in which these two men wait is Easter Saturday ...

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews