Monday, October 26, 2015


Marlborough Dramatic Club at Brentwood School

Fifty years after the poet T S Eliot died, the Marlborough have revived this fascinating piece by Michael Hastings, tracing the tragic story of his disastrous marriage to Vivienne Haig-Wood.
There are two dozen separate scenes, and Vernon Keeble-Watson's production does not entirely overcome the loss of impetus that implies. The use of music at the start is inspired, but alas not sustained through the many black-outs and scene changes.
None-the-less, it is a polished production, with superb period costumes, and a stunning central performance from Sara Thompson as Viv, the spirited governess who sets her cap at the poet from St Louis; her body, though, is prey to many infirmities, and her mind “goes into unreason”. Thompson carefully delineates her decline as the decades pass; a moving and entirely credible depiction.
Her Tom is Tim Murphy, who suggests the social and sexual ineptitude of the very private poet who spends much of his honeymoon alone under Eastbourne pier. Though I had imagined a more desiccated, more patrician character.
The sadly mismatched pair are surrounded by some excellent supporting actors. Shealagh White as Viv's despairing mother, brave face and refined tone. Craig Whitney – oddly reminiscent of Eliot facially – plays her affable but obtuse brother, and Vikki Luck is Louise, the girl from the pharmacy who remains loyally at the sick woman's side and also carries some of the narration.
There are many marvellous moments: Viv's larky, flaky approach to life and love – Gert and Daisy, Ethel Le Neve, chocolate – the soliloquy in St Peter's Church, the “ace” [offstage] party of decadence and dropped names from the literary set, the whoopee cushions. Some scenes are very short – a table is brought on for a bridge game lasting seconds, a splendid plate camera for a hasty portrait.

An intriguing exploration of the private life of a great artist, but chiefly an unflinching study of “moral insanity”, class conflict and the breakdown of a marriage. Hardly anything, though, is said about her claims to be the poet's muse, catalyst for the disillusion and despair of the Waste Land...



Brentwood Operatic Society at the Brentwood Theatre


A stylish Wiz at Brentwood, with excellent ensemble and some impressive principals.
This “supersoul” reworking of the Wizard of Oz is forty years old now, but still seems fresh and daring.
Amy Clayton's production begins with an old-fashioned scene cloth and a clothes line. But as the tornado snatches Dorothy [Rachel Lane] from her Kansas home, things become much more interesting. The Twister Sisters ballet introduces the colourful Munchkins [shiny plastic bowlers] and Addapearle [Lauren Tidbury].
Joining her as she eases on down the road are a splendid trio: David Gillett's daffy Scarecrow, Martin Harris's dapper Tinman, and Allister Smith's big old pussycat, with his bouffant mane and his personal stylists. All off to meet the Wiz himself [a nuanced Justin Cartledge] and to liquidate the Wicked Witch of the West [an enjoyably unsubtle Nina Jarram].
Backing their adventures is an ever-changing chorus in varying shades of green – flappers and farm girls, showgirls and demons, cheeky crows and sensual poppies. Some fine work in smaller roles: Jamie Fudge's Gatekeeper, Ben Martins' Monkey. Accents and attitudes are authentic; the pace of the dialogue, though, sometimes seems slow.
This is above all a company show. The chorus choreography is superb; He's The Wiz, for instance, is an unalloyed joy to watch. The revelation of the glamorous throne room is stunning. Only occasionally does the tiny stage seem cramped, the action confused.
Darren Matthews directs his unseen band from the keyboard, conjuring something of the urban African-American idiom from his provincial British company.

Friday, October 23, 2015



at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff


Screen to stage is a much tougher transition than stage to screen. In the case of this classic weepie, the technical challenges are considerable, and the score, though serviceable, is never going to match the spectre of Unchained Melody, attractively referenced and recycled in the show.
LODS have done wonders with the staging. What look like king-size bedsheets, with phone-pictures of Sam and Molly growing up, fly out to reveal the apartment, with its “statement” fridge. There's much use of back-projection – busy monochrome New York, with smudged shades of passers-by, a wonderful Brooklyn streetscape. The supernatural is slickly done, too – walking through the door, shape-shifting, out-of-body deaths. Particularly impressive are the ghost in the subway sequence, and the Blithe Spirit moment with the poltergeist in Carl's office.
Musically, they do what they can with some pretty anodyne pop numbers – backing chorus and dancers to match. Most successful are the proper trios, dramatically significant, like the Act One finale, Molly's moving With You, and the rappy Focus from the Subway Ghost. Are You A Believer is a nice Gospel number from Oda Mae and her acolytes, but simply serves to slow the action.
Director Peter Brown has a fine cast to work with. Stuart Woolner and Jenny Peoples make believable lovers, with superb stage presence and a confident approach to the score. Outstanding character work from Lawrence Harp as the angry, paranoid Subway Ghost, and from Helen Sharpe as the “storefront psychic”, whose quirky character does much to cut through the sentimentality, a memorable “closing the account” routine a comedy highlight. Lewis Sheldrake is the treacherous Carl, Neil Lands the nasty Lopez.
The ensemble – commuters, tourists in Oda Mae's fantasy – are kept busy with stylised choreography by Gemma Cohen. But the show would work just as well as a chamber piece, without the production number padding. Though the umbrellas at the end of the first act and the rain at the start of the second make for good continuity. The closing scene, with Sam, invisible at first, finally re-united with Molly, and sharing one last dance, thanks to the medium, is touchingly done. I liked Carl being dragged down to hell like Don Giovanni, and the curtain call, with the lovers left alone together at the end.
Excellent work from the orchestra – Paul Day the Musical Director – soulful strings underscoring the emotional moments, bright guitars and reeds elsewhere.
In the West End, the projections were accused of upstaging the passion. The balance in the Palace seems about right, though a better score [and lyrics] would help make a more worthy musical of this iconic celluloid fantasy.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


Birmingham Stage Company at the Civic Theatre


Just how groovy were the Ancient Greeks ?
Well, we learned that their architecture was brightly coloured, their gods fiercely competitive, but their Olympics a tad underwhelming.
Four brilliant actors, a lively soundtrack and digital back-projection led us through the history and the heroes, with the main themes cleverly presented in the style of our favourite tv shows, all written and directed by Neal Foster.
Taking a cue from Homer, the Trojans also featured Marge as Helen of Troy, Bart as Achilles and so on. Slaves were sold on the shopping channel, the philosophers gathered in the Big Brother kitchen – Archimedes in the bathroom, Pythagoras with pi embroidered round his hem, Socrates evicted to drink hemlock. Hippocrates starred in Casualty, with a guest appearance from young Stanley, whose earwax and snot were tested by tasting. [Not really, Mum.]
The BGT gods rather outstayed their welcome, though Zeus's Thunderball and Lightning number was one of the best things in Matthew Scott's score.

As in Terry Deary's books, there were loads of facts crammed in amongst the jokes about Boris, bums and bodily functions. And the Civic was packed with primary schools who screamed at the 3D spiders, voted Athena top god and sang along happily with Hannah Boyce, Ashley Bowden, Laura Dalgleish and Charlie Buckland.


at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

At the end of a long and varied season, an end-of-term treat: a crowd-pleasing love-song to the playhouse.
Eleanor Gwynn, as every schoolboy used to know, sold oranges to the punters before being talent-spotted, first by the management, then by the monarch.
Jessica Swale's play sticks closely to the biography, apart from the upbeat ending. Christopher Luscombe brings a joyous exuberance to the story. Nell the performer is the focus here, one of the first women to appear on the Restoration stage. She's played with bright-eyed effervescence by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Leading man Charles Hart [Jay Taylor] coaches her, David Sturzaker's Charles II is smitten.
There is a whole host of supporting characters, all delightfully larger than life. Sarah Woodward gets two of them – a hysterical Queen Catherine and Nell's drunken madam of a mother, puffing on her pipe and pinching a pint from the groundlings. Graham Butler is John Dryden, Greg Haiste is superb as the affronted Kynaston – one of the last surviving lady boys of the English theatre, the star of Stage Beauty. And Amanda Lawrence steals all her scenes as Nan, the dresser. Coaxed onto the boards, she keeps us in stitches as she misses her entrances, and stands rooted on her exit, pursued at this final performance, by a stray pigeon.
The scene is set backstage, with fly-lines and weights, a few scene flats and a suggestion of a dressing room stage right. The musicians' gallery is transformed into King Charles's royal box. The structure harks back to the Restoration, with Angus Imrie making a mess of the prologue. And, yes, there's a real spaniel, too.
A joy to watch, and a heart-warming story with plenty of proto-feminist jests and jibes. One of the Globe's best offering this season, it began last year back at LAMDA, and surely deserves a longer life.

 Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Friday, October 16, 2015


Little Theatre Company
at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff
Photo: © GP Photography

Children will listen,” sings the Witch in the finale of Sondheim's twisted fairy-tale. And, at the Thursday matinée, the stalls are full of listening children, drawn by the Disney movie perhaps.
Their attention is skilfully held by an accomplished company; the production looks and sounds impressively professional.
The set starts out as a triptych on trucks, disappearing to reveal a deep wood – cut cloths and two-dimensional trees that look very at home on these hundred-year-old boards. But it's left to sound and lighting to create most of the magic – the Giantess's demise, the Witch's transformation. The scene in Granny's cottage is appealingly if underwhelmingly done in shadow-play.
Sondheim's tricky score makes huge demands on the singers – without exception they rise to the challenge, and manage to make rounded characters from the story-book figures.
Sarah Pettican is a superb Witch, with and without her hooked nose and chin; she has great presence and a real understanding of the idiom. The two Princes – straight out of Viennese operetta – are a constant delight, too, guying the dialogue just enough, and relishing the Agony. Chris Lidgard is suitor to Rapunzel [Hannah Allwright]; Louisa Strachan's excellent Cinderella is wooed by Simon Bristoe, who also makes the most of the big, bad, sexy Wolf.
The boy Jack - “sunny but vague” - is played by Tobias Smith; his mother a lovely warm characterization from Carla Cater. Sally Lightfoot juggles three roles, including an endearing Granny and a formidable, if faceless, Giantess. And an outstanding Little Red Ridinghood – though not especially “pink and plump” - from Rebecca Perry-Gamble.
The Baker and his Wife – whose longing for a child is the motor for the convoluted plot – are played to perfection by Jamie Redgate and Victoria Tewes – her “Moments in the Woods” is one of many musical highlights.
The genial, suited Narrator, and the melodramatic Mystery Man in beard and tatters, are, maybe meaningfully, doubled by Julian Cottee.
In part two – an ironical happy-ever-after – the story is less Disney, more Grimm. There's infidelity, forgiveness, a morass of moral issues. The Baker's Wife's lusty romps behind a handy tree providing much-needed light relief for the Upper Juniors in the audience.
But some of the best operatic moments are kept for this second act: the “Your Fault” quintet and the “No One Is Alone” quartet both impeccably done.
Rachael Plunkett is Musical Director, with Clare Penfold conducting a fine pit orchestra.
So much to enjoy in Dave Lobley's carefully crafted production of a piece that seems to offer more every time I see it. The bird mobile on the end of a fishing rod, with a careless stage hand on the other end, the country dancing at the close, the Uglies in their undies, the radio-controlled Hen, the Cow on wheels. And there must be a mention for the splendid programme booklet, with excellently atmospheric photographs by Jeff Hooker.

Friday, October 09, 2015


As the nights start to draw in, the Queen’s Hornchurch resident company presents the chilling thriller Don’t Look Now, playing from 23 October – 14 November.

The Daphne du Maurier short story - and the better-known film - tell the story of John and Laura Baxter who travel to Venice, hoping to save their troubled marriage after the loss of their young daughter, Christine. Amidst the romance of the city, they start to come to terms with their tragedy and it seems a new chapter is beginning.

But then, strange things start to happen… The couple meet a pair of elderly ‘psychic’ sisters who claim to be able to see Christine and urgently warn them to leave the city. And just who is the mysterious figure in red? Don’t miss this tragic, haunting drama – full of twists, turns and brimming with chills and thrills…

Don’t Look Now was originally published in 1971 as part of Not After Midnight – du Maurier’s collection of short stories with supernatural themes. The hard-hitting, controversial film adaptation is now hailed a modern classic. Starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, it famously featured what was considered at the time to be an outrageously explicit love-making scene.

It presents huge challenges in the staging. But this production is directed by Simon Jessop, the Queen’s acclaimed Associate Director known for his audacious work and inventive style of theatre-making – to help tell the story, he’ll use a wonderful blend of live performance, film projections, inventive light design and a fantastically atmospheric score. Audiences and critics hugely admired his most recent Hornchurch productions – The Elephant Man in April and last spring’s The Great Gatsby, which was nominated for an Off West End Award.

Joining the cast will be two stars of The Elephant Man - Tom Cornish, playing John Baxter, and the very much respected Queen’s stalwart Stuart Organ (also known of course for his many years playing Mr Robson in TV’s Grange Hill). This production also features Gilian Cally and Tina Gray, stars of the Queen’s current play Steel Magnolias, as well as much-loved company regulars Callum Hughes and Sam Pay, who audiences will recognise from their numerous Hornchurch roles.

The Queen’s is delighted to welcome two enormously talented actresses – Charlotte Powell, playing Laura Baxter, who has worked with a multitude of theatre companies across the UK, and Karen Anderson, whose hugely impressive film credits include appearances on smash hits such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Maleficent.

Set and costume design is by Norman Coates, musical direction by Steven Markwick, lighting design by Mark Dymock and vocal coaching by Mary Viscomi.

Thursday, October 08, 2015



Melabeau Productions at Brentwood Theatre


Sondheim's Into The Woods is such a great choice for a youth group. It's a wonderful show by a master at the height of his game, with loads of wonderful roles.
Sondheim's Into The Woods is not such a great choice for a youth group. It presents huge challenges both dramatically and musically, and is not easy for the audience, either.
Melabeau fielded a very young cast, who successfully managed the style of the piece, with some very promising performances. Lots of dance, with corps-de-ballet trees, a great tap duet from the Wolf [Ellie Mead] and Shayley Robinson's “excited and scared” Little Red Riding Hood. Another impressive duet from the Principal Boy Princes Courtney-Lee Collins and Abigail Bliss.
Alfie Aves had superb presence as young Jack, Ella Catterick made a lovely operatic Rapunzel. The Baker and his wife, whose quest is the heart of the story, were confidently done by Clarke Peek-Pullum and Rosie Griffiths. Outstanding in the ensemble, for all sorts of reasons, Jimmy Fordham-Reed's Little Boy Blue, with his sparkly jazz shoes.
The production looked good, with inventive costumes [Cinderella, for instance] and a stunning reveal as the black tabs opened on a haunted forest with slender trees in front of a spooky back-drop.
Intonation was an issue for some of the young vocalists, and standing still is a skill worth learning. The narrator, Sophie Neal, had a huge task, not only talking us through the complex plot, but also trying to keep the momentum and the excitement alive.
Into The Woods was produced for Melabeau by Nick Campbell, and directed by Elaine Spires with musical direction by Julie Barker.

image by Czech photographer Janek Sedlar

Wednesday, October 07, 2015


Chichester Festival Theatre

Three early Chekhovs presented by a hard-working ensemble at Chichester.
The relatively well-known Seagull preceded by the first, Platonov, and Ivanov, from 1887.
Not the Stoppard version, but the earlier translation by David Hare – sometimes stilted [“It wasn't at my wish.” ?], and not as radical as one might expect.
But very well served in Jonathan Kent's stylish production. Tom Pye's set is atmospheric – a real stream, with weeds, bare-branched trees, grass growing in the cracks of the paving. Impressively transformed into the Lebedev's drawing room, card games, smoking and gossip. And Ivanov's “tap-room” study, with sketches and maps on the walls.
Sam West's Ivanov is already poring over his accounts by the light of an oil lamp as we arrive: he's a caring, ambitious young man, who tries to do things differently, to take risks, but is beset by problems of all kinds.
Nina Sosanya and Olivia Vinall both excellent as the women in his life: the Jewish wife, playing the cello [echoed in Jonathan Dove's evocative score] and dying of TB, and the young innocent whose infatuation with Ivanov brings about the tragic dénouement, as the cello is heard one last time and the wall disappears to reveal the suicide's recumbent form.
A glorious gallery of characters surround them – the satirical portraits of local celebrity: Brian Pettifer's tedious card-player, Peter Egan's Callow-ish Count, big, bearded and bombastic.
Jonathan Coy – a Chichester regular – is the harassed council chairman, Des McAleer outstanding as the estate manager, and James McArdle gets under the skin of the “honest” young doctor who constantly criticises Ivanov, threatening to expose his alleged intentions.
Not forgetting Mark Penfold, making the most of the ancient retainer Gavrila.
This is not Chekhov at the height of his game. Sometimes the symbolism – the fireworks, the owl's screech – seems overwrought.
But it's revealed as a fine drama, nonetheless, in Kent's passionate production, set in its dramatic context in this “Birth of a Genius” trilogy.

before curtain-up from my seat in the front row ...

Monday, October 05, 2015


Edward's Boys at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Ford's final dramatic work was performed in 1638 at the Cockpit Theatre.
For years, scholars have struggled to imagine what that performance might have been like. Their imaginations will be hugely helped by this revival, by the boys of Shakespeare's old school in Stratford, in the candle-lit space of the Sam Wanamaker, a theatre very similar to the Cockpit off Drury Lane.
Perry Mills gets remarkably mature performances from his young actors. Finlay Hatch is a confident Auria, the Genoese nobleman whose departure to fight the Turkish foe sets the complex plots in motion. His friend, the faithful Aurelio, is James Williams. Little Adurni [Pascal Vogiaridis], tempted to seduce Auria's abandoned Spinella, is perhaps the most clearly spoken; Dominic Howden makes a pleasingly fey Futelli, while Dan Power and George Ellingham wring every ounce out of the comedy Spaniard and Dutchman, suitors to the lisping Amoretta [Ben Clarke].
It's the “girls” who have the toughest job, of course. And provide the most fascinating insight into how Elizabethan, Jacobean – and here Caroline – playwrights may have seen their female characters come to life. An amazingly talented cohort here: Joe Pocknell's poised Spinella, Charlie Waters as her kid sister Castanna, and an incredibly accomplished Levidolce from Jack Hawkins.
The production, though necessarily simple and uncluttered, does have some inspired moments – the picture-frame prison, the glee, and the heart-stopping fermata before the weddings and the epilogue.
Epilogue and prologue both mix 21st century and period costume [not to mention school uniform], and the present day, in the shape of students seated on the stage, is intriguingly woven into the action.

A rare chance to see this Ford – rarer still to see it in something approaching the form it would have taken when acted by “both their Majesties' servants at the private house in Drury Lane” ...


Mercury Theatre Colchester, Brian Eastman and Christabel Albery at the Mercury Theatre Colchester

for The Reviews Hub

Another brand-new classic musical comedy, this time wedding the songs of Irving Berlin to the much-loved British Lion film from the 50s.
The “matchmaker” here is Thom Southerland, co-writer and director of this seriously charming piece of escapism.
The central plot and the main characters survive; sympathetic tweaks bring the story closer to the world of Top Hat and Blue Skies.
Encouraging signs from the glorious set [David Woodhead] evoking the rococo flea pit with its sweeping staircase – the wonky proscenium curtain flies out and the railway bridge flies in for the opening scene in the pub. And from the overture, arranged for cinema organ, though not alas rising from the depths.
There is an upright piano, though, for Liza Goddard's lovely Mrs Fazackalee, duetting wonderfully with Leo Andrew's Simon before the fatal yard of ale carries him off, leaving the Spensers to inherit the Bijou Kinema …
They are played, in fine period style, by Laura Pitt-Pulford and Haydn Oakley [star of Betty Blue Eyes here last year]. Brian Capron is Quill, the Peter Sellers role, big-hearted behind the boozy, belligerent exterior. Callow commissionaire Tom is played by Sam O'Rourke, blessed with a fittingly Fifties face, and remaining perfectly in character even in his fantastic, fancy-footwork Fred Astaire routine with Christina Bennington's Marlene, whose vaudeville talents help save the Bijou from the wrecking ball. When stage fright strikes, junior partner Carter [Matthew Crowe – clearly a song and dance man from his first entrance] steps in with a priceless “female impersonator” version of They Love Me [from Mr President].
Villains of the piece, owners of the rival Grand, are Philip Rham and Ricky Butt, mistress of the one-line put-down.
A sparkling script, with snappy choreography from Lee Proud, and all the conventions of the genre scrupulously observed – we have follow spots, a tap routine, a novelty number [Shaking the Blues Away for the deep-clean makeover, with mops, brooms, feather dusters and carpet beaters] big anthems either side of the intermission, and a chorus line curtain call to a final reprise of Blue Skies.
The musical numbers, an astute mix of the familiar and the forgotten [like When Winter Comes from the Sonja Henie vehicle Second Fiddle], fit snugly into the narrative, often interwoven with the dialogue. The dolls' house buildings, first seen from the Paddington-Sloughborough train, make an effective distant back-drop, and concealed behind it, the pit orchestra [no actor-musicians here] under MD Mark Aspinall.
The whole show is polished to perfection, an effervescent cocktail of film and musical comedy, Bijou and Berlin, a perfect night out for anyone who appreciates a good story and a toe-tapping tune.

Image: Alastair Muir

Thursday, October 01, 2015


Theatre at Baddow

I was only aware of one stage version – a 39-Steps-style spoof of a few years back – so was intrigued to see how American playwright Tim Kelly handled this most popular of the Sherlock Holmes novels back in the 70s.
Turns out to be Conan Doyle as re-imagined by Agatha Christie. Wisely, the hound himself is audio only, the moor glimpsed by lightning flashes through the french doors. The action is confined to the sitting room of Baskerville Hall, dominated by a huge portrait of the ill-fated Sir Hugo.
The familiar characters [less Lestrade] come in and out, leaving clues and question-marks behind them. There are six scenes, most of them ending with a melodramatic curtain line and mysterious music.
Dave Hawkes' hyperactive Holmes – crawling under the desk, jabbing at the forehead of Bob Ryall's dapper Doctor Watson – is an impressive “calculating machine”, excitedly piecing together the evidence. And of course he's kitted out with hand lens, deerstalker, inverness and calabash.
Very encouraging to see such good work from the younger cast members: Laura Bradley as the elegant “Miss” Stapleton, Jade Flack as Mrs Lyons, and Bruce Thomson as Sir Henry, resplendent in plus fours.

The plot, devoid of the atmospheric Great Grimpen Mire, sometimes seems preposterous, but the lighting [gas lamps fading convincingly] and the lively pace of John Mabey's production keep the spirit of the original serial alive.