Thursday, January 30, 2014


Theatre at Baddow

The Parish Hall is packed for the opening night – testament to the enduring allure of E F Benson's characters, and to TAB's growing reputation in the village and beyond.
Jim Parker's nostalgic waltz to set the mood, and we're into the vanished world of 30s Tilling, with its quaint characters and genteel cattiness. Beautifully captured in Sheila Talbot's production, with stunning frocks and a nicely furnished drawing room.
Our leading ladies, Mapp and Lucia, are played by two fine actresses. Barbara Llewellyn and Beth Crozier are mistresses of the icy glance, the fixed smile and the courteous cat-fight.
The men in their little lives are Peter Nerreter's lovely gossiping Major and Terry Cole's Georgie, his performance as OTT as his toupée.
Some gems amongst the cameos, too, with Rita Vango as the gloriously named Godiva Plaistow, Sally Ransom as prim Mrs Wyse and Helen Bence as an elegant Evie Bartlett. David Saddington talks Scotch, Roger Saddington talks Italian, Alan Ireland is Wyse and Fabienne Hanley is the soul of discretion as Grosvenor the Maid.
Its seven scenes are nowhere near the four hours of Cortese's Lucrezia, but the show did seem a little long, perhaps because, on the first night, there were too many hesitations, too many hiatuses.

Excellent old-fashioned entertainment nonetheless, skilfully evoking a lost middle-class England of tableaux vivants and garden fetes, with at its comic heart a memorable cold war between two grandes dames.

Mary Redman popped over to Tilling, too ...

What a delight to return to a world where everything had its place, everyone knew their place (or thought they did) and everything was tickety boo. Until, that is, the rumbling in the dovecot heralded someone daring to step outside that place or presumed to assume leadership.
Such was the tiny world of Mapp and Lucia created by EF Benson based on his acute observation of the inhabitants of Rye during the earlier part of the 20th Century. It was turned into a gently amusing stage play by master playwright John Van Druten, of later I Am A Camera dramatic fame.
The pretentiously affected yet charming Mrs Emeline Lucas (more often known as the more Italianate Lucia) of Beth Crozier was absolutely ideal for the role. Terry Cole had a whale of a time as her companion in local skulduggery, the extremely camp Georgie whose blazers were splendidly over the top to match his manner while his wig had a life of its own.
Barbara Llewellyn took a while to settle down as Miss Elizabeth Mapp whose sharp edges and plotting almost, but not quite, defeated her rival Lucia.
Fabienne Hanley was Lucia's soul-of-discretion maid.
Master set craftsman David Saddington created the well-furnished drawing room and took on the role of the Reverend Kenneth Bartlett whose Scots accent was about as wildly misbehaved as Georgie's wig.
There was a star turn from the lovely Rita Vango as Miss Godiva Plaistow who introduced to the assembled local populace the Italian composer Cortese played with musical flourishes by Roger Saddington.
I particularly liked Sally Ransom's Mrs Susan Wyse whose disapprovingly pinched features were well-suited to this member of the village gang.
The numerous high quality frocks were mouthwateringly delicious adding well to the period atmosphere, although some of the handbags were from a later vintage.
Directed by Sheila Talbot the play, although delightful, went at a very slow pace on the sold out first night. In part due to the many costume changes and in part by line uncertainty on just too many occasions.
Next to look forward to a rarely performed Neil Simon black comedy The Dinner Party from May 7-10.


Matthew Bourne's Adventures in Motion Pictures at Sadler's Wells

Back home at the Wells before another UK tour, this stunningly original Swan Lake continues to attract balletomanes and balletophobes alike,

Using Tchaikowsky's familiar score [though not necessarily in the right order], it tells the story of a Prince escaping from his dull existence and from his overbearing Mother (Michela Meazza) into the caring embrace of the Swan [Chris Trenfield]. It begins and ends in his regal bed – dreams and nightmares never far away. The famous troupe of male swans swooping and perching on the bed one of the most indelible images of a piece strong on imagery.
There's plenty of fun, too: the old-fashioned ballet – precisely the ossified style that Bourne rejects – the nightclub, the preening teenage Cygnets, and the Prince's unsuitable girlfriend [Kerry Biggin].
In a delightful life-imitating-art felicity, the Prince is now played, with effortless charm, by Liam Mower, the original Billy Elliott in the stage show, already a Bourne regular and still only 21.

With stunning designs - Lez Brotherston – and a superb and versatile ensemble, this wild and witty piece looked very much at home at Sadler's Wells; already a classic of the contemporary dance repertoire.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court

Like Abigail and Godot, this title character never appears. A notoriously promiscuous gay man, he nonetheless affects the lives of each of his circle of friends, who gather for a flat-warming and two funerals.
John Mabey, assisted by Steve Holding Sutton, allows each actor to develop a character, in a strong, simple staging featuring a series of confessions and introspections.
Six fine performances from actors who match the diversity of the characters they take on.
Eric, the young odd job man, nicely captured by Alex Hilton [his jeans cut too low, though], seductively sharing his Walkman. Dean Hempstead, excellent in his unexpected breakdown, plays John, a sportsman run to seed, the “other widow” who would rather not have ended up with Guy's flat, or Guy's silent worship. Reg's partner is Daniel, seemingly all surface, but with telling glimpses of sincerity – Greg Whitehead [lovely to see him back on the Old Court boards]. Odd couple Bernie and Benny superbly sketched by Tony Ellis and Jesse Powis, often wickedly amusing - a boring suburbanite and a bus driver – but both unburden themselves in deeper moments. The most touching characterization, for me, is Simon Burrell's Guy. In his blush pink pullie, knitting a cover for his door sausage, everyone's confidant but no-one's lover - “the odd near miss ...” - a beautifully sustained performance.

Gary Patten's garden flat is well dressed [houseplants and LPs], though the lighting for the small hours scene at the end was oddly flat.
Kevin Elyot's play is a world away from the Seventies hedonism of The Boys in the Band or Torch Song. There is plenty of humour, some of it grim, but many tender moments on the cream leather sofa. And the shadow of AIDS hangs over all these relationships, as syphilis did in La Ronde, obliquely referenced in the text, which must surely have inspired its structure.

Monday, January 27, 2014


Royal Opera House at the Duchess Theatre


Covent Garden's Christmas treat transferred to the West End [a first, this, I think] and starring the inimitable Tony Robinson [in his first stage role in ages]. As last year down in the LinburyStudio, it is a magical production combining dance, music and narration.

The avuncular Robinson, as magician/author Kenneth Grahame, seems very much at home in his attic study, gesturing with his wand/pen as he sketches the characters.

Robinson's is an engaging performance, sharing the dream with his young audience; the final envoi is particularly moving.

All the other characters make their mark – Will Kemp is still Ratty, the boat-man, Cris Penfold's Toad is green with envy when he sees his first motor car, and there's a lovely Jailor's Daughter from Ewan Wardrop, hoofing it to folk tunes from A Shropshire Lad.

Like all of Martin Ward's evocative music, this is skilfully adapted from the oeuvre of George Butterworth, whose work is so redolent of the Edwardian world Grahame conjures up.

The poetical narration, by former Laureate Andrew Motion, is sometimes wordy, occasional clunky, but at its best – aping Auden for the train, say, or reaching out to the child in us all at the end – it is a superb gloss on a familiar much-loved story.

So let them rise again! Let time roll back 
And sunlight, not this graveyard-attic-light, 
But silken early sunlight ripple down! 
Let Mole peep from his burrow 
At the sudden brazenness, and Otter 
And the whole quick rabbit-clan! 
Let Ratty paddle into view, and let 
His river-currents play at fast and loose! 
Let Toad Hall stand there on its eminence! 
Yes let all this return! Return, and live 
As new and easy as the warming wind 
Which - listen! - strikes the willow-wands and draws 
A shower of music from their silver strings. 


at the Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford

Jim Hutchon was at the cabaret-style Cramphorn ...

An evening of Jazz with Jeffery Wilson is a rare treat, which doesn’t come round too often, as his international commitments as “Chelmsford’s resident composer” keep him fairly busy throughout the year. Known more for his commitment to the Cramphorn’s Friday jazz sessions, Jeffery’s accomplishments as a jazz saxophonist are legendary.
Playing with his well established quartet, he took us through a varied and enlightening repertoire – a cool, haunting own composition, and some stompin’ standards much appreciated by his knowledgeable audience, many of whom are regulars.
The quartet he leads is made of Peter Marshall, the pianist who is also the group’s arranger. Pete never does things the easy way. He will take off on solo passages of rare improvisation which can leave us breathless. The drummer is another old favourite, Les Cirkel, who keeps them in order with reliable rhythms and his own style of impro. Dave Jenkins plays a double base that is only half-base, electronically enhanced. The sound is authentic, nowhere near the ersatz base of a bass guitar, and is played, again, with style and imagination.
The Cramphorn is to be congratulated for setting the auditorium as a jazz club with tables. It created exactly the right atmosphere for such an evening.

Friday, January 24, 2014


BlackeyedTheatre at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford

Five accomplished actor/musicians bring atmospheric freshness to the familiar story of the vampire Count, in this pared-down touring production from Blackeyed Theatre.
Paul Kevin-Taylor, impressively inhabiting the title role, makes a striking entrance, with his long coat, his cadaverous voice and his red hair. In a master-stroke, he also gets to play vampire-hunter Van Helsing, pursuing his prey from Victorian London to Transylvania. Much more doubling elsewhere, including Will Bryant outstanding as the strait-jacketed madman Renfield and young Jonathan Harker.
The women, whose role is enhanced in John Ginman's adaptation, are sympathetically played by Katrina Gibson and Rachel Winters.
Eliot Giuralarocca brings many clever touches to his production – the silent movie “A Fugitive Seeks Shelter”, the Music Hall number – as well as some spine-chilling effects. All on a spare scaffolding set, with atmospheric lighting, a candle or two, and live music from the versatile actors – Latin chant, folk music to set scenes, Psycho fiddle for Lucy's decapitation.
Scarcely any blood, no fake fangs, but a fast-moving drama, admirably true to the spirit and the style of the original.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


Little Waltham Drama Group at the Memorial Hall

Men in tights, archery, weird sisters and Richard Lionheart – all for our delight in this colourful panto, Little Waltham's 42nd, following their proud tradition of village entertainment.
The large cast includes a healthy sprinkling of young talent, and one newcomer, Ryan Chapman as Prince John.
Verity Southwell makes an imposing thigh-slapper as Robin, Martin Final a benignly evil Sheriff, and there's a nice double act from Glyn Jones and Bill Murphy as Friar Tuck and his camp friend Little John.
Darrel Drake handles his audience confidently as [Nothing] Much the Miller's Son, Hannah Walker [last year's Alice] is an amusingly feisty Marian, and Mike Lee gives us a superb Nurse Madonna Kebab – a terrific horned headdress, great gags and a winning way with the songs, including the priceless “I'm Wishing” with Walker.
On opening night there's a band of merry men [and women] sporting feathered red Nottingham hats near the front of the audience. They're here to heckle Ken Little's Twiddle [another double act, with Karen Wray's Twoddle]. And he does not disappoint, pointing the innuendo, ad-libbing and keeping us all in stitches. Another comedy classic from Brian Corrie as Sergei of Lisbon, building relentlessly to the naughty Act One punchline.
Ian Hornby's patchy script needs a linking narrative [sung with panache by Vicky Weavers' Alana A Dale]; Little Waltham give it a gutsy, lively performance, with excellent musical accompaniment from Dave Perry at the upright, [Billy Mayerl ousted by the Drifters this year for the sweetie run] and lovely backdrops by Liz Jones [the proscenium paintings this year striking silhouettes of Robin and the castle].

Monday, January 20, 2014


International Harp Ensemble at the Civic Theatre

A forest of harps filling the Civic Stage. Based in the Home Counties, this unique ensemble includes performers of all ages and backgrounds, playing harps of all colours and sizes, and is no stranger to overseas tours and prestige gigs.
Last year they played on Songs of Praise with Britain's Got Talent prodigy Faryl Smith. And she was with them in the Civic, singing that same hymn as well as some lovely Bernstein, and, hurrah, the old Noel Gay number I Took My Harp to a Party.
The harps at this party, hosted by their bubbly, enthusiastic founder and director Luisa-Maria Cordell, gave us a wide-ranging repertoire: Black and White Rag, a Baroque Flamenco, Skyfall and Take Five, as well as classical favourites from Handel, Purcell and Pachelbel.
Of course it's not necessarily true that two dozen instruments will sound better than two, but strength of numbers was particularly effective in Pirates of the Caribbean, and my favourite, a piece of Balinese minimalism named Spice Islands.
The harp sound was enhanced by a solo cello, a double bass, and percussion, much of it provided by the players knocking and slapping on the wooden frame of their instruments.

Sunday, January 19, 2014




Let's go home now, Olivia ...”
Well it was 4.45, and Olivia and her friends had several toddlers in tow.
What with a late start and the raffle, this panto ran close to three hours, a long time for tinies, even in the comparative comfort of Braintree Arts Theatre.
But young and old who stayed to the end enjoyed an old-fashioned community pantomime from this passionate company who've just celebrated thirty years on the boards.

For this, their fourth Aladdin, they've gone back to the original story, though there are of course topical quips, anachronisms and a stereotypical Scotsman, his impenetrable accent moderated by an ingenious Jock-ometer.

This character is beautifully played by Phil Osborn, founder member of the group, who's also written and directed the show, and painted the colourful set [a lovely giant clothes horse with fluorescent washing].

His script is studded with witty touches: the baddie, masquerading as Uncle Erasmus, is Graham Abanazer, with his wife Barbara, the Genies are streetwise, the Emperor [Liam Lawless] is named Penn Kwin.

Dan Winnington is an imposing ice-cream-loving evil genius [“Wicked Abanazer to you”] - his finest hour comes with the punning prop lamps; his terms of endearment for Mrs Abanazer [Jo Speed], though varied and inventive, need selling harder. Michelle Jesse is in the Ring, the East-Endery geezer Genie of the Lamp is Graeme Aldred.

Not one but two double acts – policemen Wiff and Waff [Nycckie Lowden and Emily Smith] and the likeable Hansel-and-Gretelish Hanky and Panky of Sue Stedman and Hana Younger.

Craig Douglas makes a cheeky, laddish Widow Twanky, gloriously bejazzled in purple – his Wishee Washee is Nic Hammond.

The two young lovers are fetchingly played by Rebecca Tyler and Clare Ryan. Clare manages to be both sexily elegant and a convincingly sulky, slothful teen an ideal Principal Boy. Their Can't Buy Me Love duet, and their shared sandwich, a highlight of the show.

Loads of good musical ideas, from the bright opening chorus to the final Walk Down. The Marketplace number is excellent, although, as often, the unmiked chorus struggle to be heard over The Pitz [the three-piece band under MD Matthew Speed]. Some smart choreography, too [Emma Loring], especially the dancing finger lights.

Plenty of pyrotechnics, kiddie karaoke, hisses, boos and aahs, ice cream and cupcakes at half-time. But maybe a little too generous with the dialogue and the songs – most professional pantos are much shorter nowadays ...

Saturday, January 18, 2014



LipService at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester


Ah yes, Scandinavia. Northern Lights, Abba, Nordic Walking, Ikea, and, currently, Nordic Noir murder mysteries.

They're all here in LipService's gloriously silly “self-assembly Swedish Crime Thriller”, performed by comedy duo Sue Ryding and Maggie Fox. Just one of their dozen or more loosely literary spoofs.

Audience participation - “meaningful engagement” - is an integral part of what they do. For Desperate to be Doris local community choirs will do the backing vocals for Doris Day's greatest hits. And for Inspector Norse, we made Blue Peterish sparklers for Walpurgisnacht, made all the noises for the fireworks and attached leaves to the tree on the set.

More dedicated supporters had been hard at work knitting props and scenery for the show, including moggies, mugs, a coffee pot, and, yes, the coffee too. Not to mention road kill, body parts for the autopsy and the Aurora Borealis.

The set also boasts a lovely [remaindered] pop-up book for the scene changes, and giant knitting needles.

Against this backdrop, an unlikely story involving pop sensations Fabba, Inspector Larsson in her rustic Nordic knitwear, a toyboy in a hot tub and a pair of feckless moose, off their faces on rotten apples.

More than once I was reminded of the Goon Show, especially when crispbread did the sound effects for footsteps in the snow, a beaker of water for the voice on the phone.

A strangely innocent, constantly enjoyable show, with plenty of laughs and the odd groan. It's coming to the Civic, Chelmsford on April 3 – if you've never seen LipService – firm favourites in fringe venues all over the UK – then do yourself a favour and sample this hilarious nonsense from the frozen North.

Friday, January 10, 2014



Shakespeare's Globe in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse


Over the past twenty years, scholars, practitioners and audiences have been exploring Shakespearean staging in the Globe restored to Bankside.
Now, at last, we can begin to do the same for the pieces that were written to be performed indoors.
Not on the Globe site, back then, but at Blackfriars over the river. But this intimate space has always been a part of the New Globe Walk site, and now, as the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, it's been sumptuously fitted out for its opening season.
John Webster's dark, violent Duchess of Malfi was originally performed both “privately” at Blackfriars, and “publicly” on Bankside. In many ways it is an ideal choice to start the season.
And it is a thrillingly unique experience.
The intimate auditorium still has the aroma of new wood around it. To modern eyes it seems dark, almost gloomy, though light glints off gold leaf. The beeswax candles in the six chandeliers are lit as the drama begins; they are raised and lowered to suit the scene. Our actors also have portable candle-holders, lighting faces fitfully, focussing our attention. No green running-man emergency lights here; the opening of Act Four, with the Duchess confined to her prison, is in pitch black – very effective.
Those same modern eyes will miss finding the mind's construction in the face.
David Dawson's riveting Ferdinand is outstanding – superbly adept at using his voice and his body language to engage with the audience without seeming to strive for any effect. Rather as Mark Rylance has done in the main house next door. An intelligent, eloquent performance.
His duchess is the excellent Gemma Arterton – a wonderful Rosaline for the Globe a few years ago. She too enthrals the galleries – artfully seducing her steward [Alex Waldmann], calmly meeting her violent end.
Globe stalwart James Garnon is the other evil brother, and there's a psychologically complex, rounded performance from Sean Gilder as the cynical henchman Bosola.
Webster weaves a bloody tale of murder, corruption and revenge. But, this being the Globe, and Dominic Dromgoole, there is plenty of [mostly blackish] humour.
Excellent music, too, from the shadows of the gallery – Claire van Kampen the composer, with Tom Foster leading his band of four from the keyboard.

After the eerie jig, this first ever paying audience in the SWP went wild for the brave players who learned new techniques to bring an old masterpiece to candlelit life in this brand new space. It will be the first of many revelations, I'm sure, as the Globe embarks on its third decade.

Thursday, January 09, 2014



National Theatre at the Lyttleton


The nearest the National will get to a panto, I guess. A fairytale with magic and music, beautifully staged by Marianne Elliott.

It tells the story of two warring nations, separated by a wilderness. In each, a motherless heir to the throne. Stage left, in Sealand, solemn Prince Digby, stage right, in the kingdom of Lagobel, Althea, the Princess of the title, She is doubly light, both frivolous and weightless, afflicted both by levity and levitation, unable to weep for her mother's death,

Theatrical traditions are honoured. There is a lovely picturebook front cloth map, boards for the floor, boxes-cum-balconies either side, The prologue, shared between Althea's friend Piper and Digby's brother Llewellyn, is sumptuously illustrated in ombres chinoises back-projection.
Not all the design is as impressive; the lake at the end of Act One, where the lovers seem to drown in billows of white silk, is gorgeous. The Act Two lake, with its garish lilies and fornicating frogs, seems straight out of Disney.

There is puppetry, now a traditional too – scary monsters and soaring birds, including the beautiful Zephyrus, Digby's faithful hawk. Most memorable is the floating [not flying, she insists] which contrasts Althea's lightness with Digby's gravity. Rosalie Craig, supported by a team of acrobats as well as wires, gives an amazing performance, singing as she floats and gyrates above the stage.
Outstanding amongst the rest is Clive Rowe's King Darius, singing superbly [a fine duet with Amy Booth-Steel's Piper].

The story is a fable, muddied a little by modern concerns – Althea is both drugged and force-fed in an attempt to cure her lightness, and her happy-ever-after includes a degree in Marine Biology. The show, despite rewrites, is still far too long, especially for a young audience.

But the weakest element by far, sadly, must be the words and music of Tori Amos. The score demands much of the actors – on a par with Les Mis for its sub-operatic idiom and open-note crescendos. Alas, there is not one memorable, or even enjoyable, tune. All the numbers end up sounding much the same, and the words, when they are audible, are banal to the point of bathos. “H2O” repeatedly used for water …

It's heresy to say so, but having brought together some of the National's finest creatives to stage the show, it's a shame they couldn't get someone who understands the genre to pen the piece.

Thursday, January 02, 2014


Essex Young People's Orchestra in Chelmsford Cathedral

Home in the city of Chelmsford this New Year holiday, I took the opportunity of going to the Chelmer Bridge Rotary Club's Concert, raising money this year for the Broomfield Hospital Burns Unit.
The impressive forces of the Essex Young People's Orchestra, leader Anna Penn, tackled a generous programme: the meat was in the first half, with early Nielsen – the Symphonic Rhapsody, played with stirring orchestral sweep and some fine detail in the woodwind – and Schubert's Unfinished – confident work from the lower strings, and a pleasingly determined impetus in the second movement, encouraged by Matthew Andrews' eloquent baton.
After the interval, the lollipops – seasonal favourites kicking off with Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel Overture - “junior Wagner”, as Andrews playfully described it – and including a thrilling Montagues and Capulets from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, featuring excellent work from brass and percussion, and, in the most successful performance of the evening, the tender Berceuse and the raw, passionate Finale from Stravinsky's Firebird. A beautifully controlled performance.
Just like Barenboim in Vienna just hours earlier, they sent their audience home happy with those traditional New Year encores, the Blue Danube and the Radetsky March. An opportunity for the audience to clap along to Strauss, and for the youngsters to show off in a final up-to-speed reprise.