Wednesday, July 29, 2015


CTW at the Old Court Theatre

An end-of-season treat at the Old Court, a raw, rough-and-ready rom-com that follows two thirty-somethings through a “legendary lost weekend” in Edinburgh.
David Greig's engaging two-hander had something of a hit at the Traverse a few years ago; this production, directed by Lynne Foster, with Caroline Blom Brown, is a welcome chance for southerners to see it.
Medium Bob [Barry Taylor], piss-artist and very-small-time crook who once dreamed of rock-star fame, chances upon Helena, a divorce lawyer [Caroline Dunsmuir]. The fast and furious drama follows them from their first drunken night together [with running commentary] to a crazy orgy of spending, a picaresque romp through the capital's streets, Cathedral steps to IKEA car-park, encountering Goth kids, Japanese bondage, dancing lobsters and the man from Oddbins. There's a Q&A, bizarre “philosophical underpinnings”, a walk-on for Elmo from Sesame Street and a name-check for Kim Wilde, landscape gardener.
This is a play with music, so the story is glossed by some quirky original songs by Gordon McIntyre, with Taylor on guitar. The lyrics are in the programme, as well as a handy map of the city centre...
Both performances are very impressive, with excellent accents - maybe the social gulf between them could have been wider, though. Dunsmuir, who spends much of the time in a bridesmaid's dress, also gets to play a bone-headed underworld boss and her own young nephew, amongst other roles. A simple black-walled setting, with the vertical bed neatly echoed by the bondage cat's cradle opposite. Breathless pursuits through the not very chase-friendly auditorium add to the fun.
A worthwhile new play, in a fine production. Let's hope Midsummer is a good omen for CTW's new season, which opens on September 15 with Arnold Ridley's Ghost Train.

Monday, July 27, 2015


Passion in Practice at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

We have little idea of what Shakespeare looked like – visually, his portrait and his plays remain a matter for conjecture. But what of the sound of the man and his words ?
Work on Original Pronunciation, much of it centred on Shakespeare's Globe and its Education arm, has been going on for some years, with the creative approach of David and Ben Crystal, father and son, philologist and actor, at the heart of it.
This wonderful pocket-sized Henry V – “a little room confining mighty men” - is their latest exploration. It begins with a nervous Prologue from Sean Garratt's Boy: actually the epilogue from Henry IV part 2, leading seamlessly into the new play. A simple staging, with silken hangings and subtle shadows, no costumes. Judiciously cut, but still almost two hours and a half, without interval, which is a bit of a trial in this venue. The intimacy of the action is stunning – almost like a film version, where the king's thoughts are shared like secrets with the audience, and even the denunciation of the traitors is powerfully low-key. The “band of brothers” speech is superbly delivered by Ben Crystal's intense King.
There's music, and much humour too, Adam Webb's Mackmorrice down in the mines, Crystal senior's Fluellen, Will Sutton's Bardolph. Much simple fun at the expense of the French, with their silly Allo Allo accents.
And the sound of the words is key to the experiment, after all. The Crystals work hard to recreate the sounds of Shakespeare's men - “our” “oar” and “o'er” are all the same, “charge” rhymes, of course, with “George”, in the mouths of the French, “horse” is indistinguishable from “arse”. It seems to me that if vowels are going to shift, then they all should, and some actors were more adept than others at leaving RP behind.
The actors read their words – Bardolph from a neat little scroll, the Boy from a notebook, but mostly from dog-eared scripts with highlighter markings.

But even without the attraction of the authentic voice of the Tudor playhouse, this would be a pleasingly compelling production, shedding new [candle-] light on a familiar text. Following this sell-out première, the show moves down the Thames to Tanner Street for more performances on August 3, 4 and 5.

Saturday, July 25, 2015



Crick Crack Club on Bankside


This Festival of Fairytales for Grown-ups and Myths for Kids opened on the rainiest day in July, in a massive “contemporary yurt” just by the Oxo Tower.

The first event features that doyen of story-tellers, Ben Haggarty, with The Blacksmith at the Bridge of Bones. It's a quintessential story of master and disciple, good and evil, supernatural skills and magical powers.
Haggarty takes us with him to a world of shape-shifting serpents, a wolf in a wheel, golden legs and silver wings, towers and eagles, and a cold, coffined bride woken with a kiss. And all brought back at the end to the river Wye, just down the road from Haggarty's Herefordshire home.
The ancient art of story-telling is in the surest, safest hands here. He uses mime – conjuring the wolf, the spider's web out of thin air - humour, repetition and surprise to hold his audience entranced for almost an hour, weaving familiar elements - seven years, the power of three [three white metals, three trials, three days] – into a compelling narrative, craftily structured for the most satisfying effect. Like children, we enjoy the familiar, love a clever twist and a happy ending.
Direct speech too – this man in black becomes the youthful hero [named Jack, naturally], his widowed mother, the eponymous smith – a mighty man indeed – and the sensual serpent queen with forked tongue.
As the rain patters on the contemporary canvas roof, Haggerty introduces his story, and warms up his audience, with a traditional Haiti welcome. His listeners are divided into teachers and sleepers, students and nuisances. All high-tech life support is banned, the phones, the pods and the pads, the tweets and the twattering. The spoken word rules, the imagination roams free, in a ritual exchange as old as mankind itself.

This pop-up extravanga continues, rain or shine, until August 2, with a fine roster of fabulatori and different tales every day.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015



The Cardinall's Musick at the Cadogan Hall


The Cadogan Hall packed for an hour of Tudor Polyphony, with the bonus of a world première, inspired by Thomas Tallis and commissioned by the Cardinall's Musick.
This was Cheryl Frances-Hoad's From the Beginning of the World, an inspired setting of an unlikely text - Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe’s On the Great Comet of 1577. It turned out to be an excellent match – Tallis would have known about the comet, and the dramatic setting included quotations, both textual and musical, from the Tudor composer. The whole piece – a challenge technically, I imagine – was performed with expressive intensity by the choir of eight under the baton of Andrew Carwood. There's a twenty-first century resonance too, - global warming, “pseudo prophets”, war, natural disasters. After the lively Peccavi sequence, we heard the voice of reason at the end before the sudden conclusion, a raw Amen.
The Tallis motets, some of them never before heard at the Proms, ranged in scale from four to forty singers. Why Fum'th in Fight, given a wider audience in RVW's Fantasia, had eight voices, and the popular Spem in Alium, of course, forty. Ranged here in two front-facing rows, a much less dramatic configuration than some. But, together with the dry acoustic of the hall, it did give a chance to discern the individual lines in a performance of scrupulous attention to detail.

Sunday, July 19, 2015


Writtle Singers at All Saints' Church

Celebrating 100 years of the Women's Institute, this concert combined music by women composers [and others] with readings charting the history of the movement and celebrating some notable local ladies.
Bessie Blount, Beryl Platt and Margaret Anstee were joined by Writtle-born soprano April Cantelo and antipodean Dame Nellie Melba, who made radio history on “Two Emma Toc Writtle”.
Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of the more feted Felix, began the programme with two songs; Lili Boulanger's Soir sur la Plaine was followed by two charming piano duets by Cécile Chaminade, played by the Singers' director Christine Gwynn and their accompanist Caroline Finlay.
Four living composers were represented – Judith Weir's Love Bade Me Welcome, a lovely Upon Your Heart from Canadian Eleanor Daley, two pieces by choral conductor Janette Ruocco: a beautifully delicate Psalm 23 and a Shakespeare setting, with solos [for Puck and Oberon ?]. Ruocco joined us in the audience, as did Cecilia McDowell whose moving motet of Remembrance, Ave Maris Stella, originally commissioned by Portsmouth Grammar School, closed the first half.
A stirring Jerusalem, a cheeky Jericho and a political anthem set to Men of Harlech. To finish, two songs about women – enjoyable arrangements of Miss Otis and The Girl from Ipanema.
Lovely settings, lovingly performed, with Writtle's usual attention to detail both in interpretation and in programming: a worthy tribute to the WI, five of whose members were on hand to read the extracts.



Tomorrow's Talent at the Civic Theatre


"selfie" from Tamara Thénardier

Taking the barricades by storm, the hundred-strong Tomorrow's Talent company in a memorable Schools' Edition Les Mis.
It's an uncluttered, polished production, directed by Gavin Wilkinson [assisted again by Emma Tapley] with admirable narrative drive and some superb stage pictures, and economical, powerful effects. The runaway cart, for example, is done with a magical combination of light, sound and chorus movement. The lighting [lighting design by Jenny Urquhart] is crucial, since scenery is necessarily minimal – gates, barricades, just one empty table, a bed for Fantine, a chair for the dying Valjean. Often the grouping of the massive forces recalls the revolution artwork of David or Delacroix.
Stage pictures like Enjolras, with his red tablecloth, facing the chorus, or the barricades manned behind the death of Eponine, or the “phantom shadows” of the fallen, match the stirring score in emotional intensity.
The ensemble work is focused and forceful – the chain gang, the lovely ladies, the topers in the Thénardiers' tavern and of course the revolutionaries marching for freedom, defending their barricade to the death.
The company includes many experienced and accomplished young performers. Even the smallest cameos – a drunken diner, Whore 1 in her pink bodice – are scene-stealingly spot-on.
Dreaming the Dream as Fantine are Anna Maria Acevedo, her eyes gleaming with hope before reality and the tigers bring her back to earth, and Lauren Bullock, a feisty Fantine, with superb vocal control.
Like Fantine, most of the parts are double, even triple, cast. Giving the versatile young performers a unique chance to live the show twice, and giving the lucky few a chance to see them tackling very different roles. Dominic Short, for instance, is a hot-headed revolutionary and a vindictive factory worker, as well as a hilariously evil Thénardier, memorably watering the wine …
Tragic Eponine, first to die for the cause, is done by Naomi Ashford – heart-breaking in On My Own – and Matilda Jackson, a credible, complex spoilt brat grown up.
Cosette – a challenging role vocally – is impressively tackled by Isabelle Casey and Alice Talbut. Her younger self – tresses recalling the Bayard illustration – by Scarlett Greaves and Polly Towers.
The street urchin Gavroche – unmasking the traitor and conducting the revolutionary chorus – is shared by Jonah Miller, cute and vulnerable, and Alexander Stuckey, knowing and cocky.
Idealistic young Marius is strongly cast – Jack Martyn with scintillating stage presence and excellent audience rapport, and Jack Harlock, a man of the people, naïve as a revolutionary, gauche as a lover, his voice at its best in an impassioned Empty Chairs.
A trio of Thénardiers, all in their different ways making the most of the coarse comedy and the colourful wedding scene: Mark Ellis and Holly Hosler-White, Chester Lawrence and Amie Whitaker, Dominic Short and Tamara Anderson.
And three superb Valjeans, too. Thomas Tull, who also brings moving gravitas to the Bishop, and opens the batting for the chain gang and for Drink With Me. A deep voice, and a credible ex-con. Mark Ellis, a rich-toned Thénardier, and a thoughtful Jean Valjean, struggling with his demons and his dilemmas, and singing superbly in Bring Him Home. And the outstanding Chester Lawrence, who also does a cheeky innkeeper and a saintly Bishop, is superb in his big numbers and as an elderly Valjean, confessing to Cosette and haunted by visions.
Two principals star in all six shows. Henri de Lausun's forceful Enjolras, great physical presence and an inspirational singer, punching the air with his rifle at the Act One curtain. And Samuel Wolstenholme as a haughty Javert, using stillness and nuanced vocal delivery to bring out the complexities of the character. His “Stars” is superbly shaped, too, though, like all of the performers on stage here, his voice is years away from its maturity.
But they have been encouraged to use technique to sell a number, which makes the production seem so flawlessly professional.
The Musical Director is Mark Sellar, who brought the same composers' Miss Saigon to this stage two years ago. And there's plenty of oomph from the pit band under the baton of Patrick Tucker.
A unique experience, seeing Victor Hugo's schoolboy revolutionaries played so convincingly by schoolboy actors, and seeing the wide Civic stage filled with children of the barricades. Thinking that this year's stirring chorus includes the performers who will take a starring role or three in years to come ...

production photograph: Louise Freeland

Friday, July 17, 2015


Little Waltham Drama Group at the Memorial Hall

Gems from the Richard Rodgers songbook this summer at Little Waltham, looking at the great man's collobaration with wordsmiths Hart and Hammerstein.
Thirty or more classics, “loosely linked” by June Franzen's narration, factoids more or less closely tied to the numbers, more or less fascinating. Rex Harrison and Noel Coward ahead of Brynner in the queue for King of Siam ! But only the nerdiest fans would care how many grandchildren the great man had …
The choral pieces were the best – laid-back in the Mike Sammes style – with nice arrangements of Blue Moon, Honey Bun [no drag dame, alas] and I Wish I Were In Love Again.
Among the duets, an engaging Getting to Know You; solos included a lovely Mr Snow.
June Newman's production was dressed in elegant monochrome for the first half, glorious technicolor for the Oklahoma-led second.
Not everyone is Ethel Merman, and sometimes the singers were swamped by the [excellent] piano and drums accompaniment. If microphones are not a possibility, then maybe cabaret-style incursions into the audience, with follow-spot, would do the trick.
Musical evenings like this should be treasured. A chance for a Pimms or two, an opportunity to hear local vocalists on the village stage, and vital funds raised for future productions: this year's panto will be The Wicked Witches of Oz.


Simon Armitage at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

In the footsteps of last year's splendid Sir Gawain. Simon Armitage now follows the legendary 'once and future king' on his travels from Carlisle to Avalon, by way of Sandwich, Soissons, Metz and Milan.
He's joined on the candle-lit stage by two actors: David Birrell who's the voice of Arthur, and Polly Frame who does almost everyone else, from Emperor to Philosopher to arch-villain Mordred. Armitage narrates laconically, and Paul Johnson plays a remarkable range of arcane musical instruments – gongs, singing bowls, pipes and drums. There's also a pair of coconut shells … a clue that tongues are in cheeks for at least some of the story.
Scholars call this anonymous 14th century text the Alliterative Morte Arthure, and Armitage's carefully crafted modern version retains that medieval device to excellent effect. There's a good deal of feasting - “extravagant cuisine” - and plenty of gory battles. Two graphic dreams, ripe for interpretation, are central to the narrative: a fight with dragon and bear, and a wood full of wolves.
The writing is richly textured, and the performance full of movement and music, both verbal and instrumental. As with Julian Glover's recent Beowulf, the combination of this Jacobean space and heroic epic fireside tales is a potent entertainment, even in these days of CGI packed action movies.

The King brought Excalibur crashing down,
shearing off cleanly the corner piece of his shield
and slashing a six-inch wound to his shoulder,
spattering his chain mail with shimmering scarlet blood.
He shuddered and shook, shrank back just a little,
but then shockingly and sharply in his shining armour
the felon struck forcefully with his fine sword,
slicing through the rib plates to our Sovereign’s side;
through hauberk and heavy armour he opened him up
with a wound to his flesh half a foot wide.


Tenebrae at the Thaxted Festival

A welcome return from Tenebrae brought this year's Festival to a memorable close.

Not only for the rain drumming on the roof in the opening Lassus, but also for sublime performances from their broad repertoire, including some of the Russian music which is at the heart of their new touring programme – even the encore was a Rachmaninov: Тебе поем from his Liturgy of St John Chrysostom.
Holst was represented on his home turf by the Ave Maria and Nunc Dimittis, we heard Tavener's popular Song for Athene, and Harris's wonderful Faire is the Heaven brought the advertised programme to a magnificent close.

Tenebrae also gave us two of their signature works, the Crucifixus of Antonio Lotti, and Allegri's incomparable Miserere. Performed, as were many of the evening's offerings, using the architecture of Thaxted's famous church to full advantage.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


Hutton and Shenfield Choral Society at Chelmsford Cathedral


The link with Nelson may be tenuous, but this “Mass for Troubled Times” has remained popular since its première in 1798.
A good choice for choral societies, too, since the part of the chorus is prominent and dramatic. This performance began with a thrilling account of the instrumental introduction, followed by the Kyrie and Gloria, with the splendid soprano of Alexandra Kidgell joining the chorus.
Bass Simon Whiteley had his finest moment in the Qui Tollis, with a beautifully shaped choral “Miserere”. The Credo section, a masterpiece of composition, was well handled; the solemnity of “sepultus est” contrasted with the excitement of the Resurrexit, sustained to the end of the movement.
The choir, and the Aurelian Ensemble [leader Bradley Winand] under Tim Hooper, began the evening with two of Handel's greatest hits: Zadok the Priest – a splendidly magnificent curtain-raiser – and the Queen of Sheba, before giving a fine account of an earlier masterpiece, Purcell's birthday ode Come Ye Sons of Art, in which the countertenors – Tim Carleston and Joseph Cryan – made an authentic contribution, and the brass and drums of the orchestra added colour and brilliance. A large chorus for this repertoire, which did not always match the crisp delivery of the soloists, but, as in the Haydn and the Handel, made a richly textured sound in the sympathetic acoustic of Chelmsford's Cathedral.

Sunday, July 12, 2015


Sell a Door Theatre Company at the Arts Theatre Cambridge

Hector's trusty Triumph hangs ominously over the Sheffield classroom in Libby Watson's touring set – flanked by two cartoonish signs: You Are Here, and Hold On Tight.
Otherwise the design is unremarkable, stackable furniture, bookshelves shading into kitchen area [for the staffroom], posters collaged over the walls and large double doors witness to the original Edwardian architecture.
The maverick English teacher may lock the doors, but passers-by can still peer in, variously shocked, amused, intrigued by the goings on.

Kate Saxon's production catches the mood of secrecy and complicity. The play itself is an uneasy mix of styles and periods, in an educational landscape where league tables and open scholarships are mentioned in the same breath, foolscap paper is still in the stationery cupboard, Porter and Piaf are on the playlist with the Eurythmics and the Smiths [“our crap”] - the stunningly appropriate “when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat” …

An excellent cast, especially the staff. Richard Hope is a believably extravagant Hector, relishing the opportunities for showing off with Shakespeare, but touching too in his moments of self-doubt.
A pompous, jobsworth Headmaster from Christopher Ettridge, a lovely Lintott from Susan Twist. We even see [rather too much of] the femme fatale Fiona [Melody Brown]. Not so sure about Mark Field's Irwin; a difficult duo to pull off, the young student teacher and the tv historian.

The boys a mixed bag – some, like David Young's “thick sod” Rudge a little mature, even from the circle. But Kedar Williams-Stirling has a compelling presence as the insolent chancer Dakin, Patrick MacNamee is totally convincing as Lockwood, and Steven Roberts, his voice, like the playwright's at that age, still with treble overtones, is a superb Posner, singing the old songs, nervously snubbing the Drummer Hodge hand of friendship, looking longingly on as Dakin lingers with Irwin …

A beautifully crafted production of a great play, with something to say to everyone, whether new bugs in the Cutlers classroom or “those returning”, as the old school hymn, has it “more faithful than before”.