Friday, November 29, 2013


Writtle Cards at the Village Hall

We've all been there. Watching the little angels [and the little devils] as innkeeper, shepherds, kings and the Holy Family.
So Tim Firth's cutting comedy is onto a winner straightaway, as the plentiful laughs proved on opening night.
It's not a perfect stage play [it began life on television], and the adult epilogue struggled to relight the fire, but some fine comedy performances got under the skin of the reception-class thespians, with their rivalries, insecurities and chaotic home lives. Often sung to those familiar carol tunes, replacing the words they didn't quite manage to learn.
Impossible to credit every child [all played, Five-Go-Mad style, by grown-ups], but Daniel Curley stood out as the malevolent innkeeper, Jean Speller as the lisping Andrea, Frankincense her shibboleth, Laura Bennett as bossy Virgin 1, with five stars on the “Who's Been Good?” chart, Jodee Goodwin as her catty rival, playing Gabriel – the Annunciation was superbly done – Liz Curley as a down-to-earth shepherd with brilliant comedy timing. Not to mention Dirty Pedro, and the special needs donkey, hilariously done by Chris Rogerson.
The set, with its cereal packets and its giant chair to suggest the scale, was convincing, as were the varied costumes. Class teacher Mrs Horrocks never appears, but her tambourine spoke volumes …
The Flint Street Nativity was produced for Writtle Cards by Clare Williams, and directed by Sharon Goodwin.


at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

Not exactly an austerity panto, but this Dick Whittington is set in the grey postwar world of the 1950s. Diego Pitarch's inspired design has an illuminated Mansion House tube sign, and the tiled walls of the London Underground. There's a red phone box stage right for Fairy Bowbells, and manhole covers helpfully inscribed Foul Sewer London.
The transformation from rat-infested underworld to gold-paved streets is distinctly underwhelming, and only three characters have a costume change for the walk-down.
But no corners are cut in the performance; the ten actor-musicians give their all in this, the 13th rock'n'roll pantomime to hit the Wolsey stage.
It never ceases to amaze – a dame at the drum-kit, a cat on the trumpet, and full eight-piece backing band, plus vocals, for the big solo numbers. All drawn from the same super-talented team of ten.
A J Dean, a fresh-faced, winsome Dick, sporting a cheeky smile and the obligatory spotted handkerchief, brings a very authentic rock'n'roll style to the song and dance routines. His Alice is a very energetic Nicola Hawkins; she has a wonderful way with the vocals, too, her First Cut Is The Deepest a highlight amongst the 21 musical numbers.
Hiya, saucepots !” - it's Sarah the Cook, a man-hungry dame very much in the old-fashioned mould: funny walks, mildly suggestive, easily outraged, besotted with Steve in row B. A superb performance from Sean Kingsley, who has impressive West End credentials. The other comedy star is Tim Bonser as Billy Bungalow, with just the right blend of pathos, physicality and sheer silliness [bubble pipe, rat-a-pult …].
Wolsey favourite Shirley Darroch is back as the good fairy. She has a down-to-earth Cockney delivery, and certainly knows how to sell a song - “Turn, turn”, a clever choice, is excellently delivered.
Jofre Alsina makes a pompous Alderman, and Dan de Cruz, ducking and diving as King Rat, leads an epidemic of rodents, including the Rat Pack of Punks giving their Sex Pistols tribute. CiCi Howells, who'll play Polly Peachum here next year, is a lovely, slinky Taffy the Cat.
The playlist is eclectic: real 50s classics [Tutti Frutti] jostling with Meatloaf, Mud and Bonnie Tyler. “Walking on Sunshine” works very well, as does the high-octane encore “Tiger Feet”.
Peter Rowe's script retains all the key elements of the traditional show – some lovely rhyming couplets, too – but manages to bring sophistication and freshness to it at the same time. Like the music, not everything is retro – both Boris J and George O get a name-check – and as Sarah points out, “it's not all about Dick!”. And there is an ominous sign that last year's gangnam might be this year's twerking.
There's a welcome sprinkling of the surreal – Derek the Fly, a few bars of Cats, a tumbleweed moment – and the self-referential - “Seeing stars ? Not in this panto, mate ...”. Even the sound effects – often proudly flatulent – are the object of the Dame's frustrated fury.
Not so many local jokes this year, but every reference to Dick's home town is met with a proud cheer from the packed Ipswich audience, welcoming back this uniquely enjoyable blend of panto and popular music.

production photograph: Mike Kwasniak

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews


A Chamber Musical with cabaret songs

Allegra Productions at the New Wolsey Studio, Ipswich


What better birthday celebration for Baron Britten of Aldeburgh than this irreverent musical comedy by Suffolk writer Robin Brooks ?
Despite the flippant, catch-penny title, there's plenty of food for thought to be savoured along with the birthday cake, mixed in with the silliness and the cabaret songs.
Not, alas, Ben's own cabaret songs, to Auden's verses, but workmanlike, clever little numbers from Damian Evans: “At Home in Aldeburgh”, “Pacifism” and the keynote quartet “Britten is Blessed”.
The musical oeuvre, generally, is in short supply. In one final black comedy moment, it's that Mahler Adagietto on the Lido that proves the final straw for this “silly old heart”. The finale, though, has the composer conducting his Young Person's Guide, coincidentally the closing music for Bennett's Habit of Art, which covers some of the same uneven ground.
Brooks has imagined a compelling drama, a dreamscape of the Kafka kind, where time flows in all directions and the shadow of a mysterious “tribunal” hangs over Britten's head.
So there are anachronistic pops at The Scallop, and a scathingly witty critique of Grimes on the Beach.
The Dirk Bogarde deckchair is not the only reference to Death in Venice. There's a mysterious, and very versatile, Death figure, done with some relish by Sam Dale. Like the baritone in the opera, he's a sort of ferryman, and the barber who speaks of the sickness driving people away, not from La Serenissima, but from Suffolk's “Notting Hill on Sea”.
The piece has a lovely central performance from Keith Hill as Britten. He catches exactly the boyish enthusiasm, the innocent sense of fun, the insecurities - “ping-pong and the piano: all done on the nerves” - and the relentless pursuit of youthful beauty.
The young Polish boy who embodies that beauty [excellently acted and sung by Sam Bell, alternating the role with Theo Christie] shares several key scenes with Ben – and in this play he does speak to the child – ducks and drakes, fear of the storm, swimming in the chilly North Sea, but not going in too deep, or too far …
Death apart, the characters are all drawn more or less directly from life: Pears with his college scarf [Jonathan Hansler], Miss Hudson the housekeeper [Hansler again], and Charles Mackerras with his salty Australian gossip about “The Twilight of the Sods”. David Hemmings is quoted but not named. Other characters are an amalgam – the rejected librettist with his science-fiction opera and his version of Mansfield Park, and the tragic Marcus, who hangs himself before his wedding and comes back, in cricket whites, to haunt Ben who's sleeping in the boy's old room at Mallards. One of the most affecting aspects of the drama, this, beautifully played by Joseph Reed as the boy grown too old, thrown over for a new tennis partner … As he tells us, he speaks for all Britten's boys. Joy, his mother [Gilian Cally] and Sir James his disapproving father, also represent many members of the Aldeburgh society with its ambivalent attitudes.

A brief mention for the programme, one of the cheapest and classiest in recent memory, based on the Letts schoolboy diary that Ben famously used well into his twenties.

Not everything works, not all the numbers are as sharply scored as they might be. And it would help to be up to speed on Britten and all his works. But the concept is great, and a clutch of fine performances from the cast of six makes this a uniquely affectionate tribute to this most famous son of Suffolk.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Sunday, November 24, 2013


The Hutton Players
Brentwood Theatre

Mary Redman was in the audience:

Most of Alan Ayckbourn's plays are a gold mine of opportunities for actors and directors and this black comedy view of a "family" Christmas is no exception. All the stresses and strains of people who don't see each other from one year's end to the next, the catering dilemmas, who should be kept well away from alcohol or in this case, guns.
Designer Alan Thorley came up with an impressive set with its floor plan of two living rooms and a hall with a staircase leading off one side and a kitchen on the other, plus massive Christmas tree.
Entertaining as it was this, however, led to one of the problems of this particular production - the physical distance of the audience from dialogue and action (of which there was plenty) in the hall area.
There were plenty of laughs. Especially from William Wells's enraged and outraged Howard's showpiece puppet theatre, Vernon Keeble-Watson's thoroughly nasty piece of work Uncle Harvey and Kathy Smith's outrageously drunken Phyllis. With them you knew the production was in safe hands.
The production was, however, in footballing terms a game of two halves. Some of the cast didn't realise that their distance from us at the back of the set needed more voice projection and energy so that even the front row missed lines. This contrasted with the maturer members of the cast giving it their all in voice and characterisation, and the contrast was obvious.
Gary Ball gave a nicely understated portrait of the writer guest Clive. His delicate tiptoeing scene with Amy Clayton's frustrated spinster was followed by a comic sex scene with her married sister Vikki Pead's Belinda.
Marjorie Dunn was the director.

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Little Baddow Drama at the Memorial Hall

Jim Hutchon was at the first night -

Alison Woollard’s refreshing version of A Christmas Carol took the Little Baddow Players back to basics, and stripped out much of the dross that has accumulated on this classic over the years. With a simple, soaring set – a trademark of the director – they were able to create spectacular tableaux punctuating the action.
John Peregrine’s Scrooge revelled in his badness, though his conversion from “Bah Humbug” to “Go buy a turkey” was a bit sudden. His nephew, Fred (Paul Bonnici) was persuasive. Especially convincing was Steve Holding, who speaks with his eyes, as the ‘umble Cratchit. Ken Rolf, too, every inch the jovial Victorian gentleman, shone a new light on the Fezziwig’s family dance sequence. And Jeff Green was compelling enough as Marley’s ghost to put shivers down my spine.
The children were at the heart of the production, Matthew Turner as Young Scrooge, Alex Dale-Doczy as Oscar, Lily Beer as Cratchit’s daughter and, especially, small, frail-looking Steven Turner, struggling manfully with his crutch as Tiny Tim.
The play was shot through with all the good nature of a well-organised village production, in the Ambridge tradition (but a bit more convincing). The costumes were superb, the ensemble work by the large, unwieldy cast was totally in character and, joy of joys, an actual real, live, violinist, Anton Archer, to squeeze the last dregs of melodrama out of the production.


Britten 100 at Chelmsford Cathedral

In the largest event of the worldwide celebrations of Benjamin Britten's 100th birthday, thousands of young people from Australia to the USA performed his Friday Afternoons set of songs.
Chelmsford Cathedral hosted choirs from St Cedd's School and the Cathedral Primary School, as well as its own choirs, under self-confessed “Britten nut” James Davy, the Master of the Music.
Some of the songs were performed by the choristers alone – they first performed them back in May – such as Eleanor Farjeon's Jazz Man, or Cuckoo!, beautifully phrased. For others, the three choirs joined as one – There Was A Monkey, and A Tragic Story [the Thackeray trifle about the sage and his pigtail].
The Cathedral School brought two songs celebrating Britten's love of nature, and St Cedd's contributed a jazzy setting of Now Thank We All Our God by Alexander L'Estrange, himself once a chorister …

Thursday, November 21, 2013


S.O.D.S. at the Cliffs Pavilion

for Sardines magazine

The style is set by the busy Runyonland prologue: gauze, Broadway neon, and the complex choreography of the devil's own street, peopled by tourists, showgirls, gangsters, molls, matrons and of course the marching band of the Save A Soul Mission.
All moving to Frank Loesser's classic score, played by a pit band of a dozen giving the John Wilson sound a run for its money – the conductor is Stuart Woolner, and the show's Musical Director Rachael Plunkett.
In the vast arena of the Cliffs Pavilion, Suzanne Walters' production takes a broad brush approach: lines are pointed, gags are semaphored, numbers are belted, lest the back of the gallery should miss out.
But it's a slick, professional-looking show, helped by great costumes [though I've seen better kitchen showers] and a wonderful set [by Proscenium] which flies and glides into place with well-oiled precision. The streetscene, the mission hall, the sewers, the Hot Box night-club, even Havana, are all effortlessly and stylishly magicked into existence.
Most successful at bringing charm and subtlety to his character is local lad Mike Cater as Sky Masterson; he has a glorious singing voice too [I'll Know, My Time of Day], and bags of charisma.
Heather Cooper is his Sarah Brown, the mission doll who tastes forbidden fruit and Bacardi as the result of a bet, and eventually brings her Obadiah into the fold. She puts over her numbers with panache: If I Were A Bell, and Marry the Man, duetting with Miss Adelaide, Laura Hurrell outstanding in the much more rewarding role of cabaret artiste, hypochondriac and perpetual fiancée.
Her man, Nathan Detroit is played by Les Cannon, and his fellow low-lifes – evil-looking sinners to a man - are all excellently done, from Ian Benson's Nicely Nicely to Ian Scoging's Harry the Horse with his trade-mark neigh.
Plenty of opportunities seized in the cameo department too; Liz Green's myopic Agatha, for instance, or Ian Gilbert's strong, silent [and powerfully still] Big Jule. And Dick Davies makes the most of old man Arvide's moment in the spotlight, with a beautifully sung More I Cannot Wish You.
The ensembles are spectacularly choreographed by Adam Gaskin, who also plays Rusty Charlie. Luck Be A Lady, the impressive boat to heaven, the bar-room brawl and the cheesy chorines from the Hot Box in their Cabaret bustiers.
Plenty of clever touches, too, like the blink-and-you-miss-them dreams of domestic bliss.
SODS have an enviable reputation for West-End quality musicals, witness the coach-loads turning up for this well-attended matinée.
Next time out, we swap the Hot Boxers for the Cagelles, with a rare amateur outing for Jerry Herman's La Cage Aux Folles.


a Mercury Theatre Colchester and Curve Theatre Leicester co-production
Colchester Mercury Theatre

Mags and Maureen, mother and daughter, living a life of mutual loathing in remotest Connemara. A bleak backwater, brilliantly conjured up by Juliet Shillingford's realistic set: holy images, green gloss paint and rain streaming down the panes of the casement.
Rain is the tab curtain, too, a drenching downpour twice leaving the flagstones glistening.
Wryly comic at times, uncomfortably harrowing at others, the piece, from 1996, is carefully constructed, and though some of the plotting is predictable, the final dark dénouement is memorably powerful. Most impressive, perhaps, apart from these two sharply drawn characters, is the way McDonagh catches the rhythms and the idioms of the language, the repetitions and the Donegal dialect achieving an almost poetic effect.

Michele Moran gives an amazing performance as Maureen, the beauty queen of the title, totally believable as the victim of her circumstances, her character disclosing more of its dark, dangerous depths with each new revelation. Flirting with her last chance of love, staring unflinchingly into her hand mirror, dreaming of a whore's life, brazenly trying to embarrass Mags. Nora Connolly is the mother, manipulative, pathetic, and a victim in her turn. Beautifully observed, both in the geriatric minutiae of Complan and urinary infections, and in the vile vindictiveness towards her long-suffering daughter.

Two brothers visit the house. Ray, impatient and edgy, [Andrew Macklin] and the older Pato [Stephen Hogan], who's the only person here who makes any attempt to be nice: a charmer, who offers Maureen a chance of happiness and escape. His letter monologue was a masterpiece of inarticulate eloquence.

But of course we guess that Maureen will never read these outpourings, much less walk off with him into a Boston sunset. Though we could never imagine the brutal truth, made all the more striking by symbols like the suitcase, the swing-ball and the poker which is not to be sold. And the tinny transistor, tragically too late with its Delia Murphy dedication.

Paul Kerryson's direction is done with the lightest of touches; these characters are richly enough written to speak for themselves, and this fine quartet of Irish actors are wonderfully adept at bringing an era and a culture to life.

This is the third McDonagh piece Kerryson has done in Leicester, and the second Mercury/Curve collaboration this year; a success to match that of the Hired Man. It's a fruitful arrangement which is surely the way forward for our regional producing houses.

production photograph by Pamela Raith

this piece first appeared on


Nunkie Productions at the Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford

We've forgotten the power of candlelight to chill and to enchant.

This simple, potent device is exploited by R M Lloyd Parry, whose one-man storytelling shows recreate the King's Cambridge room where M R James [to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance] first told his classic stories of the supernatural.

The simple staging, most of it in deep, eerie shadow, allows us to concentrate on the words; each story sounds fresh and spontaneous, as if we had been invited to listen to it for the first time of telling.

The Ash Tree is a creepy tale of witches and revenge, which takes place around the Suffolk country house of Castringham Hall. Lloyd Parry, candlelight glistening on his spectacles, economically suggests glimpsing the creature, finding the corpse, opening the coffin. And the counter-tenor and lute – Black Is The Colour – is an inspired choice of music to set the mood.

The second story, also set in East Anglia, is the more famous Whistle and I'll Come to You, a more subtle, far scarier affair altogether, with golf and archaeology on the Suffolk coast as a background to the terror.

A tour-de-force of the story-teller's art, and I'd certainly travel to hear him again, perhaps in a more suitably spooky setting. Hemingford Grey, maybe, or Suffolk's Otley Hall, or the Leper Chapel in Cambridge ...

photograph by Ruth Horry

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Waltham Singers at Chelmsford Cathedral

Vaughan Williams' monumental Sea Symphony is almost a cantata. The choir, like the ocean itself, is an ever-present force of nature, enriching the orchestral palette.
The text – from Whitman's Leaves of Grass – is sublime, of course, but rarely heard in its entirety. And that was certainly the case for the Waltham Singers performance, when both the impressive choral forces and the two excellent soloists were often no match for the orchestra. The Salomon Orchestra was in fine form, with brass, strings and percussion effectively painting the seascape.
The choir did have their more traditional moments – the unaccompanied “Greater than the Stars or Sun”, or the breathtaking opening to The Explorers.
Andrew Fardell's firm direction ensured a memorably eloquent, vivid reading: the brooding On the Beach at Night Alone, the dramatic end to the hymn-like The Waves, and the meticulously judged, and deeply moving envoi, “further sail ...”
Our soloists were baritone Andrew Rupp, who impressed especially in the second Sea Drift sequence, and soprano Katherine Crompton, wrapped in a black fur coat in the chilly cathedral, rising thrillingly above the marine soundscape in “all brave captains”, for instance.
Two orchestral works began the programme: Brahms Variation on a Theme by Haydn, with a fine cantabile in the Grazioso, and a solemn, triumphant Andante finale. And, appropriately, Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage, the delicate string texture of still waters giving way to wind-powered forward movement, and a safe arrival heralded by a trumpet fanfare.

Thursday, November 14, 2013


CYGAMS at the Civic Theatre

Young Gen have been dying to do Joseph for years, and now their dream has come true, with a fresh young cast selling out their five-show run at the Civic Theatre.
It's an indestructible show, and over the years [I'm the same age as Lord Lloyd-Webber] I've enjoyed seeing the show grow from a simple cantata to the big bold spectacular it is today, happily discovering each new number as it was added to the score: the cowboys, the café, the calypso.
They're all there in this version of course, together with some impressive extended dance routines.
The cast includes dozens of youngsters, and some of the youngest are the chorus whom we meet first as schoolkids exploring Egypt with their pretty young teacher [Kathryn Peacock], who has a rainbow rucksack, and a dream of her own …
They're there, in nightwear, clutching candles, with Joseph in his cell, they get to reprise Any Dream, and they're back again, in coloured teeshirts, for the happy ending.
Jeremy Tustin's production is full of inventive touches: the coloured banners, Potiphar [James Bantock] and his toffs, plus the predatory Mrs P [Eve French], the Benjamin limbo for the Calypso, the flower-power psychedelic Act One finale, the vast coat of many colours as a final flourish. The French scene, and the cod Calypso, both excellently done; only One More Angel seems lacking in pastiche style, making the energetic hoe-down less effective than it might be.
Very much an ensemble show, with the brothers [and their womenfolk] working well together in the big numbers. But I was particularly impressed with Jack Toland's Simeon in Canaan Days, and with Jayden Booroff's Joseph – a warm stage presence and superbly realised renditions of the two keynote numbers. [MD Bryan Cass.]
A real treat to see Young Gen bring their trademark enthusiasm and discipline to this iconic show at last. Their unflagging Duracell energy is sustained right through the megamix finale, when, on opening night, the packed auditorium rose in tribute to the brothers, wives, dancers, choir, King, camel and ensemble packed onto the monumental ancient Egyptian set.


Stondon Singers at Blackmore Priory Church

Music inspired by the natural world made for a pleasing programme from the Stondon Singers, conducted by Christopher Tinker.
Lively choruses from Haydn's Creation, linked by readings and including a robust Heavens Are Telling and a precisely delivered Achieved is the Glorious Work, provided a contrast with the pastel, pastoral tone of many of these settings. As did the playful Ballad of Green Broom, the last of Britten's Five Flower Songs.
Among the most enjoyable offerings were Elgar's gentle Torrents in Summer, William Hawley's evocative setting of Emily Dickinson's My River Runs to Thee, and the closing number, Stanford's much-loved Blue Bird, with Annabel Malton's pure soprano soaring above the nave.
This is a chamber choir, and they excel in the delicate madrigals, like Wilbye's miniature Flora Gave Me Fairest Flowers. But they also rose to the challenge of the Haydn, Tinker's own Memento Mori, and Eric Whitacre's unaccompanied Water Night, with its intense, richly textured harmonies.
Michael Frith, the Singers' accompanist, contributed a fine Bach Prelude and Fugue on the venerable St Laurence organ.

Monday, November 11, 2013


Springers at the Cramphorn Theatre

A far cry from Malcolm Arnold to Andrew Lloyd Webber, from Lancashire to Louisiana, where religion and innocence were both very different. But this intimate staging of Whistle Down the Wind did capture the essence of the original tale, even if we couldn't share the children's faith that their Jesus would survive the apocalyptic Christmas Bonfire.
The simple timber staging suggested barn and homestead, bold lighting took us to the tunnel and the revivalist meeting, bare feet and a fishing line effortlessly evoked the creek. The Southern drawl proved a problem; not for the first time it was the children – veterans of The Sound of Music - who mastered it best: Charlotte Golden's Brat, Matthew Scott's Poor Baby, and Katy Forkings' superb Swallow. Brilliantly cast, her slight frame so vulnerable against the bulk of The Man, her pure voice with a hint of the warm timbre of maturity.
Ian Pavelin brought honesty and huge presence to the convict Christ, struggling with his parables and his conscience; Colin Shoard gave a moving portrait of the single parent caught between his children's naivety and the lynch mob in the village.
Effective performances too from Aaron Crowe as Amos, Bethan Anderson as his Candy, and Ross Rogers as Edward, leading the cast in Cold, one of the better numbers in a patchy score. The old Lloyd Webber magic is still there, though not always well served by lacklustre lyrics.
The staging made the most of the space – the people gathering for worship at the start, the children's offerings and the adults' offensive weapons tellingly juxtaposed for the Act One finale. But when The Man was “lying low” he was invisible to most of the audience, and it was distracting to have the screens and the bike manhandled behind the action.
Whistle Down The Wind was directed by Andrew Shepherd with Fiona Lipscomb, the choreographer was Olivia Gooding, and the MD, up above the action with his excellent band, was Ian Myers.

production photo: Aaron Crowe

Sunday, November 10, 2013


Writtle Singers at the Parish Church

The Writtle Singers celebrated Britten's 100th – and the feast of St Cecilia – with a concert which paired him up with Henry Purcell, his great predecessor and artistic influence. Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts, written for the funeral of Queen Mary, made an atmospheric opening to the second half, sung unaccompanied behind the audience at the west end of the darkened church.
A Jubilate from each man – Britten's with an intricate organ part [Laurence Lyndon-Jones], Purcell's with some excellent solos from within the choir, including Gavin Oddy's authentic alto.
And two Britten Hymns – the Hymn to St Cecilia, words by W H Auden: “appear and inspire”, and the Hymn to the Virgin, the choir divided east and west.
Sharing the continuo with Lyndon-Jones was cellist Alastair Morgan, who also gave, from memory, a stylish performance of Britten's first cello suite; not easy listening, and a huge technical and interpretative challenge for the performer. Morgan brought out the colourful heart of the music, especially in the dreamy Lento and the dramatic Serenata.
This satisfying programme, sung with confident conviction under Christine Gwynn, concluded with the Choral Dances from Gloriana, an opera written sixty years ago for the Coronation.

Friday, November 08, 2013


Presented By The Original Theatre Company And Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich

Peter Shaffer's delightful double bill was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic back in 1962.
We're back in the days of Ascot water heaters and coffee bars, in a theatrical landscape before the National and the kitchen sink, when revue was fashionable, and it was not unusual to enjoy two, or more, short plays in one evening.
Alastair Whatley's revival, the first in 50 years, captures the style remarkably well.
In The Public Eye, Bob lives alone in a dingy bedsit, opera posters on the wall, a curtained alcove for a wardrobe. He's geeky, shy and he comes from Warrington. But he's met this girl at a concert, and invited her back for supper. To help him with the Mateus Rosé and the [tinned] mushroom soup he's roped in Ted from the import/export office where they work.
They're as different as biscuits and cheese. Ted is cocksure, laddish, blessed with the gift of the gab. Could be Naughton's Alfie, or Orton's Mr Sloane. So it's no surprise that when Doreen turns up in her fake fur, she's more taken with the helpmate than the host, who does himself no favours by pumping Peter Grimes over the Wharfedales.
But the Behemoth stereo has another track up its LP sleeve, and the power of Puccini almost succeeds in seducing the pair of them, as she waits coyly on the bed and he sits stroking the ocelot.
This sequence is especially well done, a potent mix of the tender and the farcical.
Rupert Hill gives a bravura, amoral Ted, and Siobhan O'Kelly is excellent as the awkward guest – body language the most eloquent here.
The meal itself, a stylised fast-forward fantasy, is another highlight, with Stephen Blakely's Bob left a gooseberry at his own feast. His character is superbly observed; we can see that he desperately wants to break free from his anorak cocoon, but in the end his courage fails him, he tacitly concedes defeat to Ted, and, heart-rendingly, gouges a scratch across Madama Butterfly.
We're encouraged to see links between the two pieces, and, in a wonderfully choreographed brown-overalled ballet, the scene is changed after the interval, before our eyes – and Blakely's – as his lonely room becomes a swish accountancy practice, and, by means of a moustache, a mac and a pork-pie hat, he is reborn as a private detective.
In The Public Eye it's Julian's cross-talk with stuffy old accountant Charles [superb work from Jasper Britton] which provides the comedy gold, though it's the relationship between Charles and his young wife – very much a child of the 60s and another stylish characterization from O'Kelly – which is at the heart of the drama.
She's a free spirit, he's jealous, and it's up to Julian to heal their marriage with a cunning plan.
Shaffer has much to say about unhappiness, frustration and fidelity, but it's the beautifully judged masterclasses in farce that make these bitter-sweet period pieces such an enjoyable trip back to Shaftesbury Avenue in the Sixties.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Thursday, November 07, 2013


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court

Is Hamlet our hero ? What, like Henry V ? Or more like Macbeth ?
Lynne and Mick Foster's uncluttered, dynamic production for Chelmsford Theatre Workshop encourages us to re-evaluate our take on the Prince of Denmark, though prior knowledge of the play, or the vast body of criticism it has attracted, is certainly not essential.
A clean, monochrome set, its three doors echoing the Renaissance stage which first saw this tragedy acted, some super costumes, and a clutch of fine Shakespearean performances make for a satisfying evening with the Bard.
Barry Taylor is the eponymous hero [or not]. A bearded , brooding figure, he has certainly “lost all [his] mirth”. He speaks the speeches with a natural, spontaneous delivery which still respects the verse. The soliloquies, very much an innovation back in 1601, are done in the round, drawing us in to Hamlet's troubled mind. This is an aggressive, angry man, unfeeling towards others, notably his mother [Beth Crozier, in a strong performance] and poor Ophelia, especially in a finely judged “nunnery” scene.
She is played, with stylish subtlety, by Sarah Bell. She has a bawdy song, an impressive mad scene. She's listening, a smile playing on her lips, to Polonius's interminable advice to Laertes [Robin Mahr, physically and vocally secure], and she's lurking, with her prayer book, throughout To Be Or Not To Be.
In a generally strong supporting company, promising first CTW outings for Tom Ford as Rosencrantz, Simon Burrell as a smooth-talking Claudius, and Christian Search as an elegant Horatio.
Jim Crozier is the angry Hamlet Senior; Robin Winder the phlegmatic, loquacious gravedigger.
The acting area, though it must have been very difficult to light, is effectively used, with many striking stage pictures: the grouping of the players, with R & G, just one example.
Not a definitive Hamlet – how could it be – and the first and last lines are amongst the many cuts. But a thoughtful interpretation, thankfully free of gimmicks and director's ego.

Laura Bennett reviewed the show for Chelmsford Weekly News;

A considered character exploration opens the CTW programme, written by co-directors Lynne and Mick Foster, analysing Hamlet's place as a literary "hero". Should we be taken in by his intelligent and profound speeches, or see past them to the terrible actions we witness him perform? An interesting take, and one that cleverly opens the way for thought-provoking direction to engage those with prior experience of this epic work, but does not clutter or confuse the story for those approaching the play for the first time.
Barry Taylor's young Prince Hamlet is given a melancholy characterisation, exploring the directors' interpretation with a particularly nasty portrayal, especially in his chilling treatment of both Ophelia and Gertrude. In a supporting ensemble cast of mixed experience there are some standout performances. Beth Crozier gives a compellingly regal interpretation of Gertrude with particularly impassioned reactions to Ophelia's tragic demise. Her new husband Claudius is played by Simon Burrell with conviction and although his posture could be more majestic his delivery is clear and engaging. Sarah Bell's Ophelia is very gentle, quietly done her descent is all the more intense for its calmness and a pin can be heard drop during her singing scene. A strong couple of cameos too by Jim Crozier as the ghostly old Hamlet, and Robin Winder as the garrulous gravedigger.
A fluent and accessible version performed smoothly with moments of quiet intensity. The hand of the directors can be felt throughout, generating interest for audiences both familiar and new to one of Shakespeare's most famous and influential plays.
a fuller version is posted on her blog ...

Tuesday, November 05, 2013


M&G Concert at the Civic Theatre

The first of this season's Civic Concerts welcomed back the City of London Sinfonia, in a timely celebration of British music, with a special focus on Benjamin Britten, whose centenary we celebrate this month.
Their principal conductor, Michael Collins, premièred Britten's Clarinet Concerto [realised by Colin Matthews] some sixteen years ago, and it was a real privilege to hear him play the mysterious elegiac slow movement in a new arrangement for small string orchestra by Joseph Phibbs.
The evening began with Britten's arrangement of a Purcell Chacony, and ended with a dramatic interpretation of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings from the Scots tenor Thomas Walker and horn player Stephen Stirling.
Collins played the piece with which he won the BBC Young Musician Competition back in '78, the Finzi Concerto: a lyrical reading of the clarinet part, contrasted with some forceful string playing.
The Sinfonia, led by David Juritz, were on sparkling form – I don't think I've ever heard the Holst St Paul's Suite played with such verve and evident enjoyment, from the muscular jig to the folk fiddle freedom of the Dargason finale.


Made in Colchester at the Mercury Theatre

Into the dingy basement office of Fernsby Market Research bursts its MD, just off the PanAm from the US, full of new ideas and stateside jargon.
This brand new musical comedy is set firmly in the 1960s, the design, the language, the pre-permissive society, bath buns and bathing costumes. The show itself seems almost like a throwback to that innocent era, its creators happily acknowledging the influence of the legendary Boulting Brothers. It's gentle satire, genially poking fun at lazy staff and gullible clients.
And a strong, hard-working ensemble of musical theatre and comedy stars do their best to breathe life into this unlikely saga of generic brands and product relaunches. Campbell's Lotion, used by generations as a cure for everything from diarrhoea to torpor, is to be rebranded as Gemini ...
Justin Edwards is the lanky, awkward Fernsby, crisp comic timing and laconic delivery squeezing every last laugh from the script. His mousy secretary, loyally carrying a torch for her hapless boss, is played by Mel Giedroyc, in a big-hearted, lovable performance. David Mounfield clearly enjoys his two caricatures – the Scottish snake-oil mogul with a dark secret, and a florid, pedantic MP, both given a lovely patter song.
Stacey Ghent and Benjamin Stratton are kept busy playing all the rest, including brown-overalled stage-hands who manhandle the lamppost, the office and the public bar in a triumph of scene shifting.
From the musical stage, we welcome Daniel Boys, who also gets two characters – Fernsby's other employee, frantically faking questionnaires in the Waggon and Horses, and Abramovitz, the hippy creative brought in for the relaunch. The excellent Julie Atherton is Campbell's unlikely American bride, entrusted with some of the best numbers – her seductive Thinly-Veiled Metaphor is one of the highlights of the score.
The onstage musicians are wonderful, recreating the jazzy sounds of the sixties from their onstage bandstand – Tom Kelly is the Musical Director.
But the inspiration is inconsistent. Not every number reaches the same sublime heights of ridiculousness as Airport Carousel; the paean of praise to the good old British pub, for example, is a huge disappointment. But the score is serviceable, with a good deal of enjoyable pastiche, and it's all delivered with commendable flair and enthusiasm.
Sara Perks' design is superb – the street and the office beneath, the pub, the truck for the band, even a Scottish baronial bedroom – and Daniel Buckroyd's direction is deft and pacy, skilfully recreating the comedy style we enjoyed before Carry On coarseness crept in.
The crazy plot comes home to roost with Mr Fernsby's new American ideas brought to bear on the political world, with a New Jerusalem of focus groups and consumer surveys. So that's who's to blame ...

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews