Sunday, September 30, 2012


CTW at the Old Court

Chelmsford Theatre Workshop is presenting the East Anglian amateur premiere of Howard Brenton's intriguing account of Henry VIII, his second wife, King James I and his bible.

Stuart Adkins reviewed it on opening night for NODA - his piece is here.

Jim Hutchon saw it for the Chelmsford Weekly News:
Director Christine Davidson has a history of debuting major productions here in East Anglia, and Anne Boleyn is no exception. Straight from its celebrated production at Shakespeare’s Globe, Howard Brenton’s masterly play thrilled audiences at the Old Court, with near Shakespearian language, sumptuous costumes and faultless performances.

This is no straight boring narrative of the ups and downs of the Tudor years though. The author plucks key incidents from a time line that covers the courtship and early marriage of Henry and Anne, but leapfrogs the generations to James I's fascination with the woman. He turns these incidents into telling vignettes of the forces that shaped the changing religious landscape of England.

Gillie Marshall as Anne, trod a highly skilful line between innocent pawn and ambitious manipulator, while Geoff Browne as Henry did a fine authoritative line as a bully with a heart. Simon Thomas as Wolsey and Chris Piper as Cromwell never failed to send shivers down my spine as they squirmed their way through dangerous changing allegiances.

I think my favourite was Peter Jeary as James, with a strangled Scots tongue, great scholarship and impish sense of humour that brought a superb sense of perspective to the whole play.

I can’t remember when I enjoyed myself more at the theatre. And, although it's playing to fullish houses, if you can get a ticket for this week’s performances, 3rd-6th October, I recommend you try. Box Office 01245 606505.

Laura Bennett was there on the same night - her thoughts are here.

production photograph: James Sabbarton


The National Theatre and Scamp Theatre
at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

One Man Two Guvnors are now moving back after their two-week holiday. Keeping the theatre alive during that time was the one man version of Michael Morpurgo's book about a young soldier shot at dawn for cowardice in 1916.

It's a story aimed at older children, and it was encouraging to see so many families filling the vast auditorium at the Haymarket. This touring show must have looked very remote from the back of the gallery, but Paul Chequer, who alternated the role with Mark Quartly [pictured], and who played in the Radio 4 adaptation earlier this year, successfully peopled the stage – bare save for a camp bed which doubled as a dug-out – with countless characters from his not-quite-eighteen years of life.

As in the novel, his monologue is punctuated by reference to Captain Wilkie's "wonderful watch" given on the field of battle to Private Thomas Peaceful's brother Charlie, who later bequeaths it to Tommo himself.

It's five past ten, and he has the whole night ahead of him. He'll refer to the watch as dawn approaches, wishing that it would stop and morning never come.

As he waits, he remembers milestones on life's road, from Sunday School to the Somme, with childhood incidents foreshadowing the Great War: his father's death the carnage of battle, the schoolyard the regimentation of the men, the yellow biplane the dogfight over the trenches.

The writing, and Chequer's unaffected delivery, evoke the lost, often bleak, world of Edwardian country childhood, with its woods, streams and puppy love, and the terrors of conflict, with rats, lice and rain. But even in Belgium there are idyllic moments, with Anna from the estaminet and birdsong when the guns fall silent.

There are many memorable character sketches – Mollie the childhood sweetheart, the jingoistic recruiting officer, simple-minded brother Joe, the vindictive Sergeant Hanley.

The end, when it comes as six o'clock strikes, is as uncompromising as the rest – a brief Miserere and, we imagine, a terse telegram home to Iddesleigh.

The music before the show – uncredited in the programme – was from Coope, Boyes and Simpson, a cappella songs from the folk idiom of the period, first heard in the concert version of the novel with Morpurgo reading extracts. A merchandise opportunity missed – would have been good to see the CD on sale alongside the programme and the playtext.

Monday, September 24, 2012


at Shakespeare's Globe
22.09.12 and 09.10.12

Can it be ten years since Mark Rylance held the Globe in thrall to his wonderful Olivia ?

No-one better understands how to play the space and work the unique crowd, and now he's back again, in the stunning black dress and Virgin Queen white face, in Tim Carroll's production with that 2002 dream team – including Claire van Kampen for the music and Jenny Tiramani for the authentic costumes.

The addition here, and the other reason for the swift sell-out of this brief end-of-season fling [before a lucrative transfer to the Apollo, together with Rylance's equally compelling Richard III] is the Malvolio of Mr Stephen Fry, making a return to the boards after 17 years away. A rich, grave steward, this. Upbraiding Sir Toby and his cakes and ale companions more in sorrow than in anger, deliciously slow on the uptake as he deciphers his Lady's letter, and cringingly forward in his wooing of the bemused object of his affections.

Many fondly remembered, lovingly polished performances are revived from that original cast – Peter Hamilton Dyer's gentle, enigmatic Feste, Paul Chahidi's pertly mischievous Maria, Liam Brennan's beautifully besotted, mellifluous Orsino. And of course Rylance's Olivia, still gliding as if on castors, still wringing every last drop of humour and emotional honesty from the Countess. The hesitations, the embarrassment, the girlish gaucheness all wonderfully tuned to the Wooden O's open-air intimacy.

This time round Globe favourite Colin Hurley is a boorish, boozy Sir Toby, with Roger Lloyd Pack a nicely pathetic Aguecheek, visibly melting and crumbling under life's vicissitudes. And an unexpected joy – the excellent James Garnon as the often neglected Fabian. The boys, too, are new of course, with Sam Barnett and Johnny Flynn as his twin "Cesario".

On opening night the capacity crowd cheered it to the roofless rafters; it's packed out every night of course. I noticed a formidable array of movie cameras the other night [including two dollies and a remote camera in the Lords' Room], so hopes run high of a DVD or maybe a cinema relay.

It runs at the Globe until October 14 [returns only], then at the Apollo until February 2013.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


Smart Productions at the Primmer Theatre, Great Baddow

A premier production and a fond farewell, this truly unique evening was an outstanding example of ambition, talent and professionalism.

Raising funds for a place at the Music Theatre Academy, Sam Toland had assembled a remarkable company of outstanding singers. The piece he chose was not an easy option – adapted from a controversial play, exploring topics taboo back in the 19th century and still edgy today. With a demanding rock score, involving a range of styles and lots of hand-held microphones.

It took some time for me to be won over to this radical approach – almost a travesty of the original Wedekind, I felt, with the period costumes and the in-your-face lyrics and brash music uneasy bedfellows. Could this unsubtle version hope to capture the power and the passion of this seminal play ?

The performers coped manfully with the clunky American reworking of the text, but it was the music, the natural idiom for most of these youngsters, that carried the emotional charge of the evening. MD Kris Rawlinson achieved some superb performances – from his band [including an excellent string section] and from the acting company. The choreography [Dominique Hammond]was often boldly imaginative.

Sophie Walker was unforgettable as the tragic Wendla, innocent and ill-prepared for the stirrings of adolescent sexuality, with Toland as her free-thinking Melchior, and Bart Lambert as his intense, angst-ridden friend. Their graveside trio was one of the strongest pieces of music theatre I've seen this year.

Among many other memorable interpretations: Laura Messin as Anna, Alice Masters as the bohemian Ilse, and Jess Moore as the abused Martha. A moving alternative awakening saw Ben Huish's Ernst, who dreamed of being a country pastor, duetting with Josh Butcher's Hanschen, though it might have been better to resist the easy laugh. Alex Hilton and Laura Bradley worked hard as all of the adults in this unhappy story.

But this was very much a company performance, with numbers like Totally Fucked and the moving, emotionally charged Purple Summer finale making a strong, lasting impact.


St John's Church, Danbury

For the third of these biennial celebrations, Festival Director Robert Atchison brought his acclaimed London Piano Trio to the Parish Church in Danbury, where the composer lies buried.

With Olga Dudnik, piano, and David Jones, cello, he chose for this year the Yorkshire Dales Trio: very English music, evocative of a landscape Gibbs knew well, Walden, with a folk-song feel to its melodic line, the mournful Whernside, and a dancing Vivace for Woodale. Beautifully crafted for this intimate combination, and played with affection and attention to detail.

They were joined by William Hawkes, viola, for Mozart's first Piano Quartet with its exuberant finale, and by Christopher Laurence, bass, for Schubert's ever-popular Piano Quintet in A. In the Variations which give it its name, the trout stream was not particularly fast-flowing, but agreeably limpid with no shortage of sparkle.

This enterprising Festival also included a church service, a lunch, and an organ recital, in which Gillian Ward Russell sashayed down the aisle for a fascinating programme of works inspired by the dance, from Susato's Mohrentanz to Rawsthorn's catchy Dance Suite, with more than a hint of the fairground. Three Sketches by Armstrong Gibbs afforded a moment or two of quiet contemplation amongst the jigs and gavottes.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Charles Court Opera at The King's Head Theatre

Charles Court Opera's compact, pocket-sized Pirates is set in a child's bedroom – rocking horse, toy box, pirate ship on the bookshelf – and a window prominent downstage left.

Enter through it, not Peter Pan, but Captain Hook, or his Pirate King lookalike, played here with a nod to Fawlty and boundless brio by John Savournin, who also directed this hugely entertaining operetta. Followed, over the course of the action, by other "mad intruders", none madder than Amy J Payne's gurning, scheming Ruth, a superbly sustained comic creation. In a less promising role, Matthew Kellett is hilarious as Samuel, especially when he masquerades as a police constable, sidekick to Simon Masterson-Smith's hangdog Sergeant.

Since this is a reduced production, that's about the size of the Force, and Major-General Stanley, like Lear, has just three daughters. Ian Jervis's take on this iconic role is traditional but totally engaging; I loved his nightshirt with the uniform braid. His three little maids are beautifully characterized, with Charlotte Baptie's Edith and Nichola Jolley's Kate the gorgeous ugly sisters to Alexandra Hutton's Cordelia, a wonderfully entrancing Mabel. Their entrance, and her big number, are creatively choreographed: the girls are constantly on the move, without missing a beat of the intricate score. I've often heard Poor Wandering One as exquisitely sung, but never seen it so well interpreted dramatically. Hutton is well matched by her Slave of Duty – Kevin Kyle's dashing Frederick, a splendid Savoyard tenor.

Vocally, the whole cast is impeccable. Oh Poetry sounds incredible as a septet, and the piano reduction for four hands is played with panache by the Eaton-Young duo, of which the MD David Eaton is half, with répétiteur James Young sharing the stool.

Savournin's production is witty and fresh, but no liberties are taken either with Gilbert or with Sullivan, though the tongue does sometimes stray towards the cheek. Indeed, the satire comes up very sharp, the Death and Glory ensemble underlined, in a touch of pure genius, by spelling out key words with alphabet blocks from the toybox – a great idea deftly executed. And how refreshing to be in a G&S audience – packed out on Press Night - where so many are clearly coming to the show for the first time: the bons mots new-minted, the paradox and the plot twists delightfully unexpected. And for all of us, the grime of years and the layers of varnish are stripped away, revealing the sparkling masterpiece beneath.

This enterprising company has already given its Pinafore and its Mikado. Plenty more fish in the Savoy Opera sea – Patience next, perhaps ?

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews


Civic Theatre

The Civic Theatre invited us all to its big birthday, hosting an Open Day which proved even more popular than they'd hoped.

An exhibition of memories – stretching back beyond these Assembly Rooms to the Regent and the Theatre Royal. Displays for shows of the decades: The Madness of George III, Doctor at Sea, The Diary of Anne Frank, Rocky Horror and of course the pantomimes … And a reminder that the very first play on this stage was the "saucy" Marriage-Go-Round.

A delicious blue birthday cake, a pavement café, with, briefly, street musicians [the inimitable D'ukes], backstage tours, workshops in singing and street dance, and a chance to remember the people who've made the Civic what it is: good to see John Newman and Daphne Palmer, whose rep company held the stage for decades, and Denis Huett, a much-loved fixture in panto, and in the early days, the face of the Box Office too.

On stage, the best of the local companies – CAODS launching their Titanic [on stage later this month] and CYGAMS flying the flag for Les Misérables, coming to the Civic in November. The ever energetic Tomorrow's Talent, Springers' All Shook Up, and most impressively, Chelmsford Ballet Company in full costume for Napoli and Beatrix Potter.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


The Seagull Rep at Braintree Arts Theatre

Sitcom's answer to the tribute bands, troupes of civil servants, dinner ladies, Slade inmates and Home Guard volunteers tour the country, performing live what fans already have on DVD at home.

And now here's that famous Torquay hotelier, out on the road for the third time, in three more classic episodes recreated by Lowestoft's enterprising Seagull Rep.

This is as ambitious as small-scale touring gets, with an impressive, and versatile, set – swing doors, kitchen, reception, dining room – fourteen actors and half of a real red Austin 1100.

The central quartet worked hard to capture the ethos of those iconic tv shows: Nick Murray Brown was Basil, with a nice line in stress, blank stares, suede shoes and manic panic. Even more true to the original was Agnes Lillis's "little nest of vipers" – hair, voice, delivery and body language all scarily accurate. A likeable, youthful Manuel from Will Isgrove, and a pert Polly from Alison Collinge.

These last were also charged with covering the inevitable scene changes: I liked Manuel's caption cards; the warm-up before the show was a good idea too, though surprisingly ineffective. There was a 70s dress competition [for the audience], of which Katie was a worthy winner in an uninspired field, and a surreal moment when Polly did a lightning sketch of the innocent Tim for a 50 pence fee.

Many of the other familiar characters, hotel regulars and casual visitors, were represented. Roger Lee was both the Major and the pickled Greek chef, and Alan Bolton scored a neat hat-trick as Mr Twitchen in Gourmet Night, one of the Germans, and, mostly amusingly, as fussy little Mr Hutchison in The Hotel Inspectors.
And Archie Jennings, touring for the first time in his young career, made the most of the brat Raymond.

These pieces are masterworks of farce. They're not going to be the same in a thinly populated multi-purpose venue as in a packed, warmed-up studio. Pace is crucial, and there were one or two soggy moments here, plus the unavoidable drag of scene changes. So each 30' episode ran about 45'.

Most successful, I thought, was the complex, and arguably deeper, Gourmet Night, despite the challenge of switching from car to kitchen to dining room. And we all loved seeing Basil finally losing it and taking it out on his defenceless motorcar.

Braintree Arts Theatre is a newish venue, with ambitious plans for the future. It's good to welcome a fresh destination on the Mid-Essex cultural map. The audience seemed delighted with their evening out; the man behind me was hoping that Open All Hours might be next for the tribute treatment. Now there's a thought – I'm pretty sure it's not been done ...

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Jim Hutchon caught up with the show at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford:
This is the company’s third foray into the world of Basil Fawlty, and I couldn’t help feeling that it was one trip too often to the well. The production wasn’t really fully adapted from TV, and the three episodes – The Hotel Inspector, The Germans and The Gourmet Evening – stuck too slavishly to the TV version to work on stage.

Nick Murray-Brown was Basil, impersonating John Cleese. He started off at full demented volume and pace and never gave the script a chance to modulate. Agnes Lillis was Sybil, who played her part with more subtlety and depth. Alison Collinge was Polly who brought a lot more to her characterisation. Best was Will Isgrove, who really got into the Manuel character and also filled the over-long unforgiving minutes of scene changes with amusing audience interactions.

Each of the episodes relied mainly on the audience’s anticipation of the climax moments – the humiliation of the guest, the goose-stepping silly walk and the thrashing of the car. None of them really met the audience's expectations and were rather damp squibs.

A lot is expected of productions as widely known as these, but I got no buzz from the outgoing audience after this production.


Cut to the Chase at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch

Bit of a boom time for Shakespeare's Tempest – featured in both Stratford opening ceremonies, and now in Hornchurch. True, there are two degrees of separation here, in the Bard's cult rock and roll musical Return to the Forbidden Planet, directed by its onlie begetter, the Queen's Theatre's Artistic Director Bob Carlton.

It's a fun show for all the family, brash and noisy, but witty and clever, too. To get the best out of it, you need a working knowledge of the Shakespeare canon, plus a record collection stretching back to Dansette days.

Who better to bring it back to the stage than the resident company of actor/musicians, Cut to the Chase, whose Moliere/Porter musical was such a success last year.

We start with a bit of mingling, checking the bags and the beer, warming up for the Polarity Reversal routine, distributing those little blue pills – the in-flight catering for the Starship Albatross. Then it's into the playlist and the iambic pentameters as we blast off into outer space to the tune of Telstar, with stylophone obbligato. The last words spoken on stage are from Henry VI part 3, just before The Byrds' Mr Spaceman. Which gives you some idea of the cultural juxtapositions going on.

Richard O'Brien is the celebrity on celluloid this time round, giving us a prologue, a recap and a Puckish epilogue. Other familiar faces, at least in Havering, are Simon Jessop's Bosun Arras, and Natasha Moore's teenage Miranda. James Earl Adair brought gravitas as well as a sense of fun to Mad Scientist Dr Prospero, Jane Milligan was outstanding as the ball-breaking Science Officer, and it was a joy to see Fredrick "Frido" Ruth reprise his role as the robotic Ariel – dancing, playing sax, roller skating – his "Who's Sorry Now" was the stand-out number for me. He also choreographed the show – the slomo weightless sequence was entertainingly ingenious.

Two newcomers in the company – Sean Needham's pipe-smoking Dan Dare figure, the dauntless Captain Tempest, and Mark Newnham's Cookie. An amazing performance this – convincing as the "simple homespun lad" who woos Miranda, but a great musician too, giving us a visceral, virtuosic guitar solo.

The beat is powered by dual drum-kits either side of the stage; MD Greg Last directed his musicians from the flight deck above the action, as well as singing and playing. But in this company, everyone is multi-talented, so we hear Prospero on tambourine for Good Vibrations, and Miranda on flute for Georgie Fame's Yeh Yeh.

Rodney Ford's design, though not without glitz, captures the B-movie feel, and the "wonderful tackiness" of the original, exemplified by the hair-dryer ray-guns.

The Hornchurch audience loved it – their rapturous ovation was rewarded with a modest megamix encore set that stayed just the right side of self-indulgent …

photo by Nobby Clark

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews


Mercury Youth Theatres at the Mercury Theatre Colchester

Adapted by Miles Malleson from Moliere's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme

Moliere's comedy-ballet was first staged when Charles II and Sun King Louis XIV were at the top of the social order on either side of the Channel. It's been popular ever since; snobbery and social climbing are as funny now as they were then.

But I'm not sure how well the plot transplants to the 21st Century. Even Miles Malleson's faithful version is sixty years old now. Do we still aspire to be persons of quality ? And would we hire experts – life coaches perhaps – to help us achieve our aspirations ? Don't the red-tops tell us that the aristos of today are more likely to aspire to partying with the plebs ? And learn Estuary English rather than elocution ?
Fascinating questions raised by the Mercury Youth Group's very enjoyable romp through the fun and the farce of Monsieur Jourdain's doltish progress towards nobility, directed by Mercury Company actor and director Adrian Stokes. The plot remains French, and Seventeeth Century, but the costumes, and Amy Yardley's impressive design [tiger skin rug, zebra chaise longue, classical columns and swagged drapes] blend the world of Versailles and the present day, as does Lilli Green's song.
The cast of twenty or more youngsters clearly had a ball putting this colourful piece together, and in amongst them are some very promising actors.

Jourdain, our hero, the part Moliere wrote for himself, is beautifully characterised by James Palmer-Higgins: an accomplished comic actor, channelling something of Corden, something of Crawford [Michael, not Joan]. Physically, vocally, just right, with a good sense of timing. His common-as-muck wife is Charlotte Kirkpatrick-Luke, always trying to bring her old man down to earth, and doing a lot of shrieking.
Ben Nash makes the most of the irascible Philosopher – excellent enunciation and a strongly grounded character; Liam Bottazzi's Tailor, gorgeously apparrelled, stands out, too, as do the fantastically dressed flunkeys [Daniel Jones and Harry John Runicles]. Sophie Pike makes a poised and elegant Marchioness, with Elliot Sargent as her Count.

The young suitor to Mary Dodds' Lucille is a very amusing Tom Tanner, matched by his serving man, William Jonas. Tom gets to pretend to be the son of the Grand High Turk in part two, with William as his interpreter, wringing every laugh possible from a wayward beard.

Pleased to see that Moliere's best joke still works, and that the wooers' quartet and the farcical finale retain their comic genius. The obligatory Turkish divertissement is certainly colourful, and gives everyone a chance to shine in glittery slippers.

An interesting choice for the Mercury's talented and intrepid youth group; their stylish performance keep us entertained with a unique blend of satire, farce, intrigue and romance.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews