Thursday, August 28, 2014


LADS at the Tractor Shed, Latchingdon

A broad definition of “hits”, and of “show” in this frequently entertaining miscellany. From Stratford East to the West End to Broadway and Hollywood, from music halls to vaudeville
Some Magic To Do” - from the recently-revived Pippin - makes a promising curtain-raiser, with jugglers and unicycles, and the finale, surely a first, has Spamalot segue into Hair, with happy hippies letting the sunshine in to the Tractor Shed.
Many gems and curiosities along the way: Stanley Holloway's Battle of Hastings, delivered deadpan by an E L Wisty lookalike, and Abbott and Costello's classic 50 Dollars cross-talk sketch, which will doubtless be even slicker come Saturday night, and a delightful soft-shoe Me And My Shadow.
The Great American Musical is well represented: Too Darn Hot, nicely jivey, If Momma Was Married [from Gipsy], Somewhere That's Green [from Little Shop] and an outstanding Miss Adelaide from Guys and Dolls, which just happens to be LADS' next big show in November.
Other musical highlights – Just A Bowl of Cherries [belted out like Liza], That's Life, and an amazing found-percussion sequence.
Dance numbers [ably choreographed by Vicki Bird and Aimee Hart] include Jailhouse Rock, Electricity and a brilliant Bye Bye Blackbird.
Some very tiny performers in the Somewhere Out There medley from children's movies, and, a highlight of Act One, a string of songs from the Great War, linked by original dialogue in a moving musical tribute to the fallen, produced and directed by Judi Embling.

This year's Show Hits is produced by Michelle Kuta, who directed it with Aimee Hart, assisted by Carole Hart. James Tovey is in charge of the music.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


Mercury Theatre hosts poignant performance marking the 100th anniversary of World War I
Jubilant Productions present Merry It Was To Laugh There, an evocative reflection on WWI, using poetry and diaries written during the global conflict.
Thursday 11 – Friday 12 September
Weaving together poetry, music and diaries with archive imagery and pertinent facts about the lives of the men who were fighting and the women waiting for their return, Merry It Was To Laugh There is a newly devised, moving reflection of World War I.
Performed by two actors of great experience and depth, Christine Absalom (Radio 4, The Rivals, Under Milk Wood, David Copperfield - Mercury Theatre Colchester) and Tim Freeman (Arsenic and Old Lace, Journey’s End, Of Mice and Men – Mercury Theatre), Merry It Was is a must for all lovers of poetry, students of history and those who wish to learn from the past.
A devised piece, it captures the realities of war reminding us of the universal and enduring nature of the emotions expressed whilst acknowledging the unique and unimaginable conditions and situations of that time.
Merry It Was To Laugh There moves from the poetry of the early war and the poet soldiers such as Wilfred Owen, to the words of the soldier poets such as Woodbine Willy writing Trench poetry. It draws on the diaries of a serving soldier and gives a voice to those poems written by women who were finding a new role to play in the world while their men were fighting at the Front. It is an evocative, moving, and at times funny, at times tragic, depiction of real life experiences of the war to end all wars.
I was lucky enough to see it earlier in the tour - my 5* review here.
Merry It Was To Laugh There will play at the Mercury Theatre Colchester from Thursday, September 11 until Friday, September 12  at 7:45pm. Tickets are £12.50, with concessions available.
For more information, including performance times and to purchase tickets, visit or call 01206 573948.


Local actor Terry Burns 
brings his 
one-man show to Brentwood
After a successful run at Camden’s Etcetera Theatre, local actor Terry Burns is returning to his roots to bring his one-man show ‘Plain English’ to the Audrey Longman Studio at Brentwood Theatre. Terry says ‘It’s great to be back in Essex where I first started out. Plain English is based on my own experiences teaching drama in Essex and London and it’s really exciting to be able to bring the different kinds of characters I met there to life on the stage.”
Plain English by Terry Burns
A hilarious and moving one-man show about a newly qualified teacher's first year in an inner-city school.
Plain English is a vibrant one-man play, self-penned and self-performed by local versatile character actor Terry Burns. It follows the trials and tribulations of idealistic NQT Michael England on his first year on the job as an English teacher in a struggling inner city London school.
Now, I just want to get one thing clear, I’m not here to teach you how to pass exams! I’m here to help you develop a love for learning and words and to teach you how you can be creative with words. If I can do that, the exams will take care of themselves.” Michael England

Plain English runs from Tues 16th – Fri 19th Sept at 8pm in the Audrey Longman Studio, Brentwood Theatre, 15 Shenfield Road, Brentwood CM15 8AG. Tickets £7.

Monday, August 25, 2014


Shakespeare's Globe at the Master's Garden, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Perfect weather for a Much Ado matinée in the open air. The secluded, timeless garden tucked away in the medieval heart of Cambridge makes a seemly setting for this strange mixture of romcom and tragedy.
Max Webster's inventive production uses a simple wooden stage, with a kind of ancient gazebo behind. The costumes are a promiscuous blend of modern and periods from the 50s back to the 19th century.
The cast of eight actor/musicians doubles furiously to cover [almost] all the roles. Some delicious contrasts – Robert Pickavance is an imposing Leonato and a hilarious Ursula, Chris Starkie plays a sober Don John and a splendid Scottish Dogberry [flying goggles and duck-call], and our Beatrice [Emma Pallant] plays his sidekick neighbour Verges. Joy Richardson is kept especially busy, as both partners [Borachio and Margaret] in the bedroom deception, as well as taking the lines of the absent Antonio. She's the friar, too, and shares a stolen picnic cupcake with her Conrade.
The two couples on the very unsmooth path of true love are Sam Phillips as the suave, cool Claudio with Gemma Lawrence as his girlish Hero. Simon Bubb makes a very attractive Benedick, very amusing too, despite his tender years – something of a toyboy for Pallant's beautifully observed bluestocking Beatrice. Their “merry war” works wonderfully, leading up to the final wooing – handshake, sonnets and kisses.
Loads of bright ideas – the accused are wheeled in on sack-barrows – and I liked the Seville orange motif: the boy eats an orange, Benedick hides behind a crate of them, scattered colourfully across the stage at the climax of his gulling.
We've seen a washing line in that scene before; the twist here is that the linen is sopping wet from the tub, which is gleefully emptied over the concealed Beatrice – her very own ice bucket challenge.

John Barber's music is a particular strength, from the a cappella Sigh No More to the finale, with everyone [including stage management] on an instrument – Don Pedro [Jim Kitson] on lute, Leonato on trombone ...

Saturday, August 23, 2014


Jamie Wilson Productions at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford

Three light entertainment legends on the Civic stage, as Ha Ha Hood chooses Chelmsford to launch its national tour.
Sherlock Holmes last year, Robin Hood this, as the ageing outlaw teams up with Maid Marian, Friar Tuck and Little John for madcap new adventures.
Cannon and Ball, no less, are the Merry Men, wisecracking their way through Sherwood Forest with catchphrases and ad libs galore.
Su Pollard, a genuine Nottingham lass, gets to play Maid Marian, who in this version has ended up as a nurse in colonic irrigation. Which gives some idea of the level of the humour here. [“Well, it's not Shakespeare, is it,” as Bobby Ball so rightly remarks.] She gives a cracking performance, though, bouncing through the woods and belting out her numbers.
Andy Pickering is the onstage musician, backing the actors in Fings, Peshwari Puccini and theme songs, including, of course, Together We'll Be OK and Carl Sigman's original Robin Hood song.
An unbelievably energetic Ben Langley plays our hero, exchanging banter with the old pros and the punters, and generally keeping things moving. He also wrote the show, and shifts what little scenery there is.

He'll need that energy; the show moves on to Swansea next week, and stays on the road till the middle of November !

and for The Public Reviews:

Last year, Ha Ha Holmes with Joe Pasquale. This year it's Ha Ha Hood, Prince of Leaves.
Ben Langley, proud begetter of the Ha Ha series, has some advice for the audience - “Lower your standards!”. And, we might add, turn back the clock. It's as if the last thirty years never happened, and we're back in the Eighties, when Hi-de-Hi was a highlight of the telly schedules, with Cannon and Ball over on the other side.
Hard to pigeon-hole this unsophisticated entertainment. Part variety, part sketch, part panto, with plenty for the punters to do, and a good old-fashioned warm-up to begin.
The comedy, not surprisingly, is not cutting-edge. A male ballet-dancer splits his tights. Huge exercise balls are amusingly used at the boot camp. Jokes abound about bodily functions, and women who are fat or ugly. There's a song in which Hood [Langley, who also wrote the show and shifts the scenery] accompanies himself on guitar and encourages an unspecified woman to expose her “fun-bags” - “Show Them To Me”. And it helps if you can remember what a 3½” floppy was. [“You know you're old when...”].
The plot sees Robin and Marian ten years on, after an acrimonious uncoupling – the only remnants of the Merry Men are Little John and Friar Tuck …
The music borrows shamelessly – The Stripper, Kit and the Widow, the Cannon and Ball theme song [“Together We'll Be OK”], Lionel Bart [who famously flopped with his own Robin Hood spoof] and, my favourite, a Moonlight Bay comedy medley which could have been straight out of the music halls.
The national treasures in the cast certainly know their craft, and their catch-phrases; the audience are helpless with laughter much of the time. Lines are fluffed, props fail, comedians corpse. Sometimes on purpose.
But there's a warm, innocent nostalgia in the air, and that carries the show. Bobby and Tommy, “combined age 146” seem to be enjoying it all, especially the ancient “Who's in the first house” routine, done with delightfully manic desperation.
Su Pollard proves a game old trouper, perching up a ladder with the enema tube [don't ask], belting out the curry-oke Nessun Dorma, and, of course, shouting out Hi-de-Hi to the campers …
This gruelling national tour chose Chelmsford for its opening [“Our career's on the up, Tommy...”]
Hitler and Hamlet have already had the Ha Ha treatment. After Hood, what, I wonder ? Ha Ha Harold [one in the eye for him], Ha Ha Horatio [kiss me, Ha Ha Hardy]. Time, and the tour schedules, will tell.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Friday, August 22, 2014


Mercury Young Company
at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester

As part of their commitment to the community they serve, the Mercury's creative team works with young performers, from 16 to 25 years old, to bring a performance to the main stage. The youngsters are not all on stage – the band, and the backstage team, are drawn from this pool of local talent.
Last year it was Quadrophenia, this year's it's Pink Floyd's The Wall. Roger Waters' tale of isolation and oppression has been through many transformations since the vinyl double album charted in 1979 – not least the Floyd's own mega-theatrical performances, and the Alan Parker movie of 1982.
Gari Jones's new version is tailored to the strengths of this energetic company. An effective chorus – groupies or stormtroopers – and three Pinks to support Perry Baird in the lead role, a reclusive rock star largely modelled on Waters himself.
The impressive design – Sara Perks – is spare, with many bricks missing, an upper level for the band and the “secret location”, much smoke and a gauze curtain of bricks, used to superb effect for the spectres at the top of part two - “Hey You!”.
More than a hint of the stadium in the lighting and the big numbers, but plenty of stronger, subtler ideas too, like the balletic ombres chinoises or the young schoolboy Pink in his fever downstage, connected in agony with his older self “holed up” in his eyrie.
Strong vocal work from the principals, and some excellent instrumentals from the band [MD Robert Miles]. Some of the ensemble movement work could be sharper, and the weight of numbers sometimes made the story hard to follow – not that the narrative thread is especially clear in any case; this is not Tommy.
Does anyone here remember Vera Lynn?” - almost certainly not, and, though there were obvious Floyd fans amongst the audience, this prog-rock classic must be as remote as Puccini to the young cast.

It's a demanding score, operatic and fragmented, but the quality of the performances, and Gari Jones's epic vision, makes this a striking theatrical exploration of apocalypse and youthful angst.

production photo: Robert Day

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Shakespeare's Globe on Tour

Back in the Globe before their transatlantic tour, an eight-strong company bring their warm, bold Lear to a packed, receptive audience.
It begins with a casual but cordial walk-about, as the actor/musicians exchange banter and pleasantries with the groundlings in the pit. And then we're in to the tragedy, very clearly delineated, the verse sharply and sensitively spoken.
This a pared-down, booth-stage production, the costumes and props suggesting a mid 20th century setting. But most of the text survives, in a generous running time [for a largely open-air tour] of 3 hours including the 15 minute interval.
Joseph Marcell is a lovable old Lear; his mad king is often full of vigour; he rages splendidly against the storm. And, at the end, with his dear Cordelia [Bethan Cullinane, who also plays a Fool full of character] lying dead beside him, he looks hopefully at her lips, then follows her fleeing soul up into the sky above the Globe. A tremendous moment.
Strong support from the hard-working cast – some amusing doubling – including Bill Nash as the loyal Kent, and Gwendolen Chatfield and Shanaya Rafaat as the heartless Goneril and Regan.
Alex Silverman's music – rough and ready, like the costumes and the simple setting and furniture – uses a folk idiom, squeezebox and brass, to excellent effect.

Uncluttered and straightforward, this production keeps the complexities for the heart and soul of the tragedy, in a strong, emotional reading of the text.

Sunday, August 17, 2014


Chichester Festival Theatre

What to do with Guys and Dolls ? Gritty or glitzy ? Back to Runyon's Broadway ?
Chichester have flown in the legendary Gordon Greenberg, mender of broken musicals, here directing his first Guys and Dolls.
He's gone for a simple but striking design [Peter McKintosh] and a Fifties film noir feel, established with sax, smoke and spotlight in the opening seconds.

The staging is unfussy: a stunning sunburst of broken Broadway billboards – liquor and tobacco, PanAm and peanuts, Wrigley's and Levi's, plus, less familiar in Sussex, Hire's Root Beer. And then a simple truck for the Save A Soul Mission, a news-stand and a shoe-shine for the mean streets of the devil's own city. The manhole covers become tables, Havana's palms grow up from the black shiny sidewalks.
A fine quartet of principals: Chichester favourite Peter Polycarpou an excellent Nathan Detroit, with Sophie Thompson as his Miss Adelaide. 

Clare Foster gives a wonderful Sarah, melting marvellously under the influence of dulce de leche; Jamie Parker is Sky, rat-packing his way through the numbers and bringing his distinctive charisma and charm to the “sinner heavy with sin”.
Among the energetic company, a lovely vaudeville duo from Ian Hughes as Benny, and Harry Morrison [far too slim] as Nicely Nicely, and an imposing General from Melanie La Barrie. The other big name here is Carlos Acosta,[working on the choreography with Andrew Wright] whose hand is felt in the lifts and athleticism of the crap game and the Cuban bar.

A stylish, lively production. But not, perhaps, as definitive, or breath-taking, or life-enhancing as the very best of Chichester's tributes to the American musical theatre.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


Shakespeare's Globe at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

We know precious little about the life of Thomas Tallis, the composer of [mostly] sacred music who managed to carry on working through the religious tumult of the Tudor court, serving monarchs from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I.
Which gives Jessica Swale a clean slate. On it she sketches a series of vignettes, mixing history, legend and invention in a gallop through the five decades of his working life.
So we see Henry poison a celebrated Italian castrato [William Purefoy]; the sacking of Waltham Abbey – last monastery to fall; Mrs Prest the fanatical anti-Papist; Dr Dee foretelling the reign of Elizabeth. And much else besides, all in little more than 90 minutes, including the interval.
There are many strong scenes – the fugitive priest peddling trinkets and begging for sanctuary, Tallis himself desperately drawing inspiration from birdsong. But the tone is sometimes unsure, with beautifully poetical passages brought low by pedestrian prose - “kneel down” - “stand up”. The theology and the musicology are simplistic and often anachronistic. And while there's no denying the power of the riot gear and the machine guns, Wolf Hall, or nearer to home Anne Boleyn, demonstrate that the deadly power politics of the time need no contemporary dressing up for their impact to be understood. And even the Globe's normal care of the text occasionally seems lacking – “Dante” and “prophesied” both casualties.
But three things make Adele Thomas's production at least a qualified hit. The quality of the four actors, who between them play all the parts. Brendan O'Hea as Tallis [and Dee], wonderfully compelling from his magical opening soliloquy on, Susie Trayling as all the women, Simon Harrison as Henry, the plasterer restoring the saints to glory and the fugitive priest. And Guy Amos confidently chilling as the rabidly puritan Edward VI.
The music which runs through the piece, superbly interpreted by members of The Sixteen.
And the incense-drenched candlelit chiaroscuro of the Playhouse itself, for which this is the first piece to be specially written.
As Laura Battle points out in the FT, it's not a piece that's likely to transfer, although I did think that it would work very well on the radio …

production photograph: Marc Brenner

Sunday, August 10, 2014


Mariinsky Ballet at the Royal Opera House
This generous double bill celebrates the work of George Balanchine, who began as a dancer with the Mariinsky [then the Imperial Russian Ballet] at the age of 11.
The neo-classical Apollo, to Stravinsky's string music – the orchestra here directed by Gavriel Heine – tells of the birth of Apollo, who leads the three muses up to Mount Parnassus.
A youthful team, with the British dancer Xander Parish as the god, finding his feet, like a newborn fawn, and interacting beautifully with the three muses in the Pas d'Action. His Terpsichore is the wonderful Kristina Shapran, an engaging, playful interpretation.
The Dream, Balanchine's first original full-length ballet, is a very traditional beast indeed [compared, say, with Ashton's Dream, or David Nixon's Flying Scotsman version for Northern Ballet]. It's Shakespeare as the Victorians liked it, with Mendelssohn's music, splendid costumes, fairies with diaphanous wings and lots of tiny sprites filling the stage.
But much of the Bard's magic remains, with a Tudor “Indian Boy” and a muscular, mischievous Puck from Grigory Popov, getting a well-deserved kick up the bum from Timur Askerov's impressive Oberon. The mechanicals, each with their attribute, like a saint, get a look-in too, though their “tedious brief comedy” is axed in favour of extended tights-and-tutus wedding dances for Act II, where the lovers, colour-coded midnight blue and scarlet, join immortals, nobility and the divertissement for an impeccable showcase of classical choreography. And, right at the end, back to the text, with Robin sweeping the dust behind the door at fairytime and flying off into the star-studded Midsummer Night.
The Mariinsky – more familiar to some of us as the Kirov – are widely regarded as the keepers of the flame, global ambassadors from the home of Russian ballet. A real treat to see them – the seasoned principals, the young stars and the unrivalled corps de ballet – in this tribute to Balanchine, the first time this 2012 Dream has left its homeland.

photograph of Xander Parish as Apollo: Valentin Baranovsky
view of the Dream curtain call from our perch in the gods ...

Wednesday, August 06, 2014


BBC Concert Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall
BBC Proms

The real challenge for this eagerly awaited Proms special was to draw together the many elements, linked by nothing more than a desire to commemorate the Great War a century ago.
We were reminded of the famous women of WWI, of the animals other than horses who helped the war effort, of the combatants from the colonies … Gareth Malone and his Military Wives choir were involved too, together with the youth choir Cambiata North West. There was a Turkish contribution, and a selection of Rilke settings sung, in German, by baritone Duncan Rock.
Miraculously, under the baton of David Charles Abell, the whole thing worked almost seamlessly – no introductions, no applause – and the ninety minutes flew by.
At the heart of the sequence, of course, was the War Horse Suite, arranged by Adrian Sutton from his own music for the National Theatre's original stage show. The story was wordlessly told – though the author was a real presence on stage – with beautifully choreographed movement and the two Handspring puppets, now famous in their own right. Clever use of a period handheld camera brought the action close up, projected onto tattered banners high above the stage. This began right at the beginning, where Frank Bridge's Summer provided a soundtrack to the end of Edwardian innocence, as the Military Wives filed down with army boots for the young men we'd just seen carefree on the beach.
The choir gave us Holst and Elgar Part Songs – Home They Brought Her Warrior Dead and The Snow – and the young lads of Cambiata North West sang a new work specially commissioned from Sutton – Some See Us. A strong concept – a fierce response from “humanity's guardian angels”, “the sons and daughters we may never have”. Neither the words [Jonathan James] nor the music were especially memorable, but the same could be said of the New War Hymn, written in 1914 by the founder of the Proms, Sir Henry Wood.
Only Remembered – the old hymn used as a poignant theme in War Horse – framed the sequence, sung by Tim van Eyken. And there was an upbeat encore, as we sang along with the huge cast to Tipperary.
This Prom was one of several events to mark the centenary, including a lovely sequence from Michael Morpurgo [from his anthology Only Remembered], and a brief Lights Out Ceremony after the John Tavener Late Night Prom on August 4.


The John Wilson Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall
BBC Proms

Semi-staged in name only, this was a show of West End proportions and outstanding talents. A bigger stage than My Fair Lady in 2012, and a restored version of the score, played with Wilson's trademark lush precision.
Including so many dance sequences meant that we heard loads of orchestral numbers, and saw some amazing choreography. Too Darn Hot, for instance, with Jason Pennycooke, or Tony Yazbeck's tireless “Bianca” tap routine [as Calhoun/Lucentio].
The Shrew herself was Broadway star Alexandra Silber, giving a bold, sassy performance plenty big enough to fill this vast arena. Her tamer was Ben Davis, suitably arrogant and self-regarding.
James Docherty and Michael Jibson were the “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” heavies, excellent in their menacing adoration of Miss Vanessi, with a welcome gag about “like being on the inside of a birthday cake”.
But, as ever, the biggest pit band in captivity was the real star here, with the dapper, enthusiastic Wilson relishing every note, every encore, of Porter's rich, timeless score.