Sunday, December 30, 2012

***** pick of 2012

Another busy year, with groups – from the biggest professional to the tiniest am-dram – battling to entertain us through the recession.
Some of my five-star hits were long-awaited: Kiss Me Kate at Chichester, Simon Callow doing Dickens for Christmas, CYGAMS' Les Mis revival, Mark Rylance back on the Globe stage as Olivia. But as ever, the unexpected gave the greatest pleasure – Chris Barber, sharp and witty, providing a superb two-hour set, or The Drowsy Chaperone, from Brentwood Operatic [how can I have missed this one up to now?].

Here's the full top seventeen, in date order:

Fond memories, too, of Christine at the Headgate [another pleasant surprise]. 55 Days at Hampstead and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and People, at the National.
But what did you see that I didn't – what would earn five stars from you ?

picture of Anne Boleyn tour by Robert Day

Monday, December 24, 2012


Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House

Last show of the year, 180th audience I've joined in 2012, and a special treat, the chance to catch up at last with Will Tuckett's enchanting Wind in the Willows deep under the Royal Opera House in the Linbury Studio.
Loads of very young children in the audience, and they loved it, despite very few concessions being made to tender years. There was a literate, poetical narrative [written by Andrew Motion, no less, pastoral often, but with urgent Night Mail rhythms for the exciting dénouement] and plenty of theatrical magic – butterflies on mittens, snowfall on the stalls for the carol singing, and a wardrobe which disgorged the river. And through the wardrobe, not Narnia but Toad's gypsy caravan. The police pursuit of the errant Mr Toad, in his little motor, was conducted through the crowded foyer in the interval ...
The storyteller was Kenneth Grahame himself [Anthony McGill], guiding us through the story and watching it unfold from his favourite armchair in the attic.
The music, played by a chamber ensemble, was inspired by George Butterworth, composed by Martin Ward and conducted by Tim Murray. There were songs, as well as dance, a pantomime dame for the Gaoler's Daughter, even some Morris Dance work with handkerchiefs, and all the unforgettable characters from the riverbank.
Will Kemp was a superb Ratty, pipe clenched between his teeth, nicely contrasted with Clemmie Sveass's modest, myopic Mole. Tom Woods made a wise old Badger, and Cris Penfold's Toad was an amazing creation, assuming a brilliant physical persona which exactly matched the character Grahame's created. All the creatures were much more human than animal; just a hint of make-up, a suggestion of fur. The weasels were strutting teddyboys, the stoats, and the judge, beautifully animated puppets.
The whole experience held us all – from the tiniest to the most cynical – enthralled, captivated by this Edwardian fantasy fable – "a world at once impossible and true".


Pica Productions in All Saints' Hall Springfield

That great philanthropist and social campaigner would be delighted to hear his best Christmas story performed to raise funds for Great Ormond Street.
This revival by Pica Productions of Jim Crozier's adaptation travelled to three Chelmsford villages just before the holidays, a timely reminder of some of the real truths of the festive season.

It's not a dramatization, but the narration, and the dialogue, is creatively shared between the seven actors, with a refreshing variety of voices. Not unlike Dylan Thomas's Play for Voices, Under Milk Wood.

Scrooge, the "grasping old sinner" at the centre of the story, was Richard Baylis, who sensitively suggested the waggish human being behind the Bah Humbug, and was moving in his change of heart.

Crozier himself, as well as a narrator, was a finely characterized Cratchit, Greg Whitehead played young Scrooge and his nephew – his infectious laughter a tour-de-force. Beth Crozier, Anna Jeary and Debbie Miles covered Dickens'women, from Mrs Dilber to Fan and Belle. Many plum roles, and plummiest voices, came from Roger Johnson – Marley, Fezziwig, the schoolmaster and the portly gentleman.

We enjoyed the famous moments, of course, the death of Tiny Tim was superbly done, but it was a real pleasure to meet the whole Cratchit clan, and to be reminded of the story of Ali Baba and Crusoe's parrot.


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court

A Christmas treat from CTW, James Christie and his comically gifted cast.
The Odd Couple has had a long and successful career on stage and screen – now it is becoming a period piece, and the 60s setting was nicely observed in this production, especially perhaps in the appearance of the English girls from upstairs, played with a nice sense of style, and effervescent enthusiasm, by Naomi Phillips and Vikki Pead.
The Riverside Drive apartment was convincingly recreated too, with a nice pair of louvred doors for the offstage kitchen.
The action revolves around a poker school, and there were some lovely characterizations here, notably Jesse Powis's cop, and Barry Taylor's dyspeptic Speed. Though there was impetus a-plenty in their exchanges, we did sometimes long for more rapport, a pacier overlap of dialogue.
The two writers of the title – fastidious Felix and "divorced, drunk and slobby" Oscar were played by Kevin Stemp and Dave Hawkes. Possibly the best double act to grace this stage, they both inhabited their roles with total conviction – Oscar the wisecracking kidult in his baseball cap and sneakers, Felix fragile in his pain, awkward with the Pigeon girls, humming along to Mozart as he dishes up.
The music, too, was well used; a whole ballet "Too Good to be True" developed for the big sulk that opens the final scene.


The Stondon Singers in the Priory Church

History and tradition were respected at St Laurence this year: ending with Stille Nacht to send us off into the night, and beginning with Gaudete, Ben Parry's arrangement of an ancient tune which may well have echoed round these walls when the great Priory still dominated the village.

But there was a healthy injection of new music, too. Conductor Christopher Tinker led us through Matthew Owens' very different setting of The Holly and the Ivy, Thomas Hewitt Jones' What Child Is This, with its haunting motif [Michael Frith at the organ], Will Todd's My Lord Has Come, and Bob Chilcott's lively Sussex Carol arrangement, rhythmic and harmonically interesting, the tune often in the lower voices. All performed with care and commitment, the voices of this chamber choir blending effectively in these lovely surroundings.

The reading this year, by Mavis Holmes, was Kipling's Eddi's Service [where the congregation – "such as cared to attend" – were the Ox and the Ass] looking back to an early Christmas at St Wilfrid's in remotest Sussex, a church even older than Blackmore's ancient Priory.

Eddi, priest of St. Wilfrid
   In his chapel at Manhood End,
Ordered a midnight service
   For such as cared to attend.

But the Saxons were keeping Christmas,
   And the night was stormy as well.
Nobody came to service,
   Though Eddi rang the bell.

"'Wicked weather for walking,"
   Said Eddi of Manhood End.
"But I must go on with the service
   For such as care to attend."

The altar-lamps were lighted, --
   An old marsh-donkey came,
Bold as a guest invited,
   And stared at the guttering flame.

The storm beat on at the windows,
   The water splashed on the floor,
And a wet, yoke-weary bullock
   Pushed in through the open door.

"How do I know what is greatest,
   How do I know what is least?
That is My Father's business,"
   Said Eddi, Wilfrid's priest.

"But -- three are gathered together --
   Listen to me and attend.
I bring good news, my brethren!"
   Said Eddi of Manhood End.

And he told the Ox of a Manger
   And a Stall in Bethlehem,
And he spoke to the Ass of a Rider,
   That rode to Jerusalem.

They steamed and dripped in the chancel,
   They listened and never stirred,
While, just as though they were Bishops,
   Eddi preached them The World,

Till the gale blew off on the marshes
   And the windows showed the day,
And the Ox and the Ass together
   Wheeled and clattered away.

And when the Saxons mocked him,
   Said Eddi of Manhood End,
"I dare not shut His chapel
   On such as care to attend."


Tomorrow's Talent at the Cramphorn Theatre

No straight play this year, but a stripped-back showcase of the varied talents in the group, full of fireworks and fun, with some touching moments of pathos for contrast.
We did have some sketches for light relief [directed by Emma Tapley] – Ab Fab generation gap, four posh boys, and a running gag about dumbed-down daytime TV.

A tasty menu of musical theatre, too, from Avenue Q to Matilda. Especially fine were the numbers from Les Misérables, the huddled masses economically drawn, and a beautiful On My Own from Laura Messin. Tara Divina gave a superb performance – dramatically as well as vocally perfect – of With You, from Ghost, with just a box and a picture frame for props.

Figure of Eight, now through to the final fifteen for the BBC's 2013 Comic Relief Does Glee Club, gave us a polished routine based on the popular Wilson Phillips hit Hold On.

The stage was packed with performers for the final sequence, For Now, wide-angled and confidently sung, Beyoncé's Move Your Body, and, inevitably, All I Want for Christmas. All done with that winning blend of raw energy and precision that is the trademark of Tomorrow's Talent. Musical Director was Mark Sellar, and the show was choreographed by Liz Pilgrim and Gavin Wilkinson.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


Writtle Singers in All Saints' Church

Glory and lowliness – the two themes of this beautifully presented concert – come together in Ted Hughes' powerful poem Minstrel's Song [read by Martyn Richards]. It was followed by a brief but brilliant Gloria, penned by Martin Shaw, a former organist at Writtle. A much older Gloria, by Robert Cowper, began the sequence, and a third, by Colchester composer Alan Bullard, ended it – Cantate Gloria, with its uplifting rhythmic drive.

In between, typically careful programming saw the one secular piece – Martin Taylor's Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind, with its lovely Heigh-ho ending – leading into In The Bleak Midwinter; The Barn, a poem by Elizabeth Coatsworth, heralding an attractive arrangement of Silent Night, and the sublime simplicity of Tallis's O Nata Lux contrasted with the lively complexity of an old French carol, Célébrons La Naissance.

Some wonderful sounds in the candlelight from this ambitious chamber choir, directed by Christine Gwynn with Andrew Taylor as accompanist, as well as a chance to join in some old favourites before the mulled wine and mince pies.

Minstrel's Song

I've just had an astonishing dream as I lay in the straw.
I dreamed a star fell on to the straw beside me
And lay blazing. Then when I looked up
I saw a bull come flying through a sky of fire
And on its shoulders a huge silver woman
Holding the moon. And afterward there came
A donkey flying through that same burning heaven
And on its shoulders a colossal man
Holding the sun. Suddenly I awoke
And saw a bull and a donkey kneeling in the straw,
and the great moving shadows of a man and a woman—
I say they were a man and a woman but
I dare not say what I think they were. I did not dare to look.
I ran out here into the freezing world
Because I dared not look. Inside that shed.

A star is coming this way along the road.
If I were not standing upright, this would be a dream.
A star the shape of a sword of fire, point-downward,
Is floating along the road. And now it rises.
It is shaking fire on to the roofs and the gardens.
And now it rises above the animal shed
Where I slept 'til the dream woke me. And now
The star is standing over the animal shed.
Ted Hughes (1930–1998)


Chelmsford Singers in Chelmsford Cathedral

A Christmas present from the Singers to the City, gift-wrapped in sparkling candlelight.
Spectacular it certainly was, thanks in large measure to the contribution of Westminster Brass, who gave us some splendid arrangements of seasonal favourites, from a medieval Pat-a-Pan to Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride, with party poppers obbligato.
They also played magnificent fanfares for Hark The Herald and O Come All Ye Faithful, in which the audience joined. We were also cajoled into the much more challenging Rutter arrangement of I Saw Three Ships, and then Wenceslas and The Twelve Days of Christmas.
The brass players, and percussion, were to the fore in the central work – Rutter's Gloria, with soloist soprano Beverley Lockyer, and beautiful playing from Jacob Ewens, this year's Organ Scholar. The Singers, under their new director, James Davy, gave a nuanced, energetic performance; they shone in three contrasting Peter Warlock carols, and in the gentle "wild card" – Sund's A Child Is Born, sung in the original Swedish.
A shmaltzy "White Christmas" and "A Merry Christmas" rounded off an enjoyable evening, innovative and refreshingly varied.
More innovation for Christmas 2013, when we're promised Duffy and Manning's Manchester Carols.


at Brentwood Theatre

More tales from Beatrix Potter at the Brentwood Theatre; an intimate, innocent world of talking, singing animals, where the only humans are the grumpy McGregors, little Lucie and Miss Potter herself – Deborah Luery this year, writing her stories at the side of the stage, sketching her friends, "the wild ones, the tame ones", and showing us the pictures right at the end.

The tiny acting space is cleverly extended by using upper levels to suggest the countryside; Potter's own artwork adds authenticity. The adaptation, by Adrian Mitchell with music by Stephen McNeff, manages to be sophisticated and charming whilst keeping some very young children entertained. Some of the songs, in particular, were pleasingly ambitious – I liked the Blackberries song, and Mr McGregor's number, very well sung by Andrew Nance. Mia Keadell gives three lovely characters, including a pipe-smoking Mrs McGregor, Sophie Farquar plays a couple of insects and a sleek White Cat. Jackson Pentland drags up for that "excellent clear-starcher" Mrs Tiggywinkle, and Peter himself is played with energy and panache by Nicholas Rutherford. I should also mention the various cuddly puppets [Liz Southgate] who spy on the action, offer their advice, and join in the choruses.

Peter Rabbit is directed by Ray Howes, with Ian Southgate in charge of the music. It is a Brentwood Theatre Production, co-produced by David Zelly and Vivid Musical Theatre.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at the Royal Court

Could this be Christmas yet to come? Six family members sit round the festive board, grimly sporting paper hats. Wine flows, but gloom descends before they decide to break open the box of light bulbs and screw them in. Silence, significantly, at first, then some brutal home truths. Though we suspect that not all is true, spite and dementia distorting what few facts emerge.
The wallpaper might suggest something more, or less, than realism, and when the first visitor [the mysterious Uncle Bob, Paul Ready] materialises from the wings, we know we have left Ayckbourn behind. "I thought I would just suddenly appear, so I did. I suddenly appeared."

Beaming with bonhomie, he has a message of hate and loathing from his other half, Michelle Terry's superbly played, charmingly cruel Madeleine. There are long riffs on relationships, often wittily done, Anna Calder Marshall's virtuoso taxi speech just one example. Long and difficult to remember, like Uncle Bob's second-hand vitriol. When Madeleine slips in from stage left, she too is sweetness and light to start with

They are on the way to the airport, this message is to be delivered before they leave for ever, for a new life which will be like a pane of glass"Hard. Sharp. Clear. Clean." In an unsettling epilogue, we see the two of them in a light box, presumably the Republic of the title, as bright as the house was gloomy, as Bob struggles to remember who he is and why he is there. To deliver another message, it seems, to "our citizens", prompted by the manipulative Madeleine.

In song, since this is a musical play. The end of the first part [back in the Christmas house] is marked by a kiss, the first song, and a complete change. The wallpaper, and the walls, disappear, the actors lose the details [scarf, glasses] which define their character, and sit in comfortable chairs in what could be a television studio, delivering to the audience the Five Essential Freedoms of the Individual, the central part of the play, though not conventionally dramatic. As in Crimp's earlier work, in the text none of the speeches is allocated to a particular actor. Some of the key words and ideas from part one are developed in themes and variations. Poetically, repetition and distortion help the eight voices explore their thoughts. There are lots more songs. Computer idioms are a feature. Plus, an annoying use of "plus" as a punctuating conjunction. The mood is sometimes angry [though suppressed in ironic "reasonable" acquiescence], as in "It's Nothing Political", sometimes tearful - "The Freedom to Experience Horrid Trauma". Psycho-jargon bubbles up in the later Freedoms especially. Where once we suffered in silence, we now express every innermost thought and feeling.

Pretentious ? It certainly sometimes has the feel of drama school work about it, and a heavy hint of the Absurd. But the experiencealmost two hours without a breakwas enlivened by the inventive use of language and structure, the provocative 'confessions' [murmurs of disgust from the stalls], and by the quality of the performances, and Dominic Cooke's assured direction.

Calder-Marshall gets plenty of laughs from Granny, helped by immaculate timing, and there are strong performances from Ellie Kendrick as a punkish teenager, Stuart McQuarrie as Dad, Emma Fielding as Mum and Peter Wight as Grandad, with his unreliable memory and his broken dreams"the moon was too far - he couldn't be bothered".

production photograph by Johan Persson

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews