Monday, March 30, 2015


M&G Concert at the Civic Theatre

First time at the Civic for the Philharmonia, in a wonderful programme which introduced Chelmsford music-lovers to the amazing Zsolt-Tihamer Visontay, the Phil's dynamic young concert-master.
He brought with him two helpings of Mozart. The Divertimento for Strings, with the solemn Andante shifted to middle movement, framed by the energetic, expressive Allegros. And, with the addition of one or two winds, the 17th Symphony, written when the young Amadeus was just sixteen. A lively tempo, and a great rhythmic pulse in the Andante.
JS Bach's Violin Concerto, with Visontay as the soloist, was a revelation. A performance of warmth and charm, seeming to share the joy of discovery with the audience, bringing a real freshness to these familiar notes.
Strauss's Metamorphosen - “a Study for 23 Solo Strings” - was superbly interpreted. The theatre's dry acoustic meant that each of the threads in this rich tapestry of sound was distinctly audible, but able to blend into the flowing harmonic shifts and poignant melodies. And a beautifully controlled dying breath at the end. A truly memorable half hour of glorious music, with Visontay leading by example in superb ensemble playing.

Here, for interest, is the very different septet version, from the Hampstead Festival in 2013, with Visontay leading, and on cello, Guy Johnston, who will be playing the Haydn Concerto in the last M&G of this season, on May 3.

Sunday, March 29, 2015


Chelmsford Singers at Chelmsford Cathedral

Seventy years ago, the Allies, Canadians in the forefront, were busy liberating the Netherlands. In a matter of weeks, the war in Europe would be over.
This timely concert commemorates the end of WWII, with a masterly sequence, beginning with Richard Tanner's setting of Desmond Tutu's Prayer for Peace. More of an affirmation, in truth, with powerful singing from the choir, and a moving diminuendo at its close.
The accompanying musicians – Tim Carey, piano, Joy Farrall, clarinet, David Juritz, violin, and Adrian Bradbury, cello, played five movements from Messiaen's extraordinary Quartet for the End of Time, written and performed in a German PoW camp. Farrall exploited the clarinet's versatile voice impressively in The Abyss of the Birds; Carey and Bradbury gave a wonderful account of the mesmeric Homage to the Eternity of Jesus. It would have been good to hear the whole work, especially in the context of this “meditation”, as the Dean called it, which concluded with Annelies, by James Whitbourn.
It is a tuneful musical setting of words from Anne Frank's diary, haunting and heartfelt without ever being sentimental - a unique opportunity to share the experience of this most intimate writing with the musicians, the choir and the audience in the Cathedral. The composer's palette encompasses sounds and symbols from life in the Amsterdam annex, moments of Music Hall, Bach and plainchant, with clarinet and violin giving a Jewish colour to much of the scoring. Nicola Howard, soprano, gave an operatic – in the best sense – reading of her sequences, bringing the character to life, lifting the notes off the stave. The choir, under the empowering baton of James Davy, gave an expressive account of the many different moods and emotions: the determined trudge of We're Jews in Chains, the optimism of the spring awakening, and the passion of the Kyrie, a plea for mercy between Anne's nightmares – the dread of discovery, bitter sadness for the loss of friends.

Friday, March 27, 2015


New Venture Players at Brentwood Theatre

Comedy thriller” - two words of foreboding. “Alan Ayckbourn” - two words of promise.
But this rare flop from the playwright of Middle England disappoints on both counts. A few good laughs, one or two chilling moments. Otherwise a run-of-the-mill play, not pointed enough to be a proper spoof, not cleverly enough plotted to be a classic country house murder mystery.
New Venture Players, directed by Joan Scarsbrook-Bird made a good fist of it. An excellent box set, often difficult to achieve at this address, with a stout wooden door and fine furnishings.
And a reliable roster of character actors: David Pitchford strong as the frustrated fruitcake of a composer, Barry Howlett as his petulant brother the painter, James Biddles as the clueless detective, Janet Oliver as his long-suffering wife. And a perfect characterization of a stroppy teenager from Candy Lillywhite-Taylor: her conversation with her mother – in another Ayckbourn register altogether – was one of the better moments. Vikki Luck was the down-to-earth outsider, the object of the family's murderous intentions.
We heard the prompter too often; slow cues hampered the pace. And, since music was such an integral part of the piece, it might have been nice to have some to cover the long, dark scene changes.

But it was good to see New Venture tackle a [deservedly?] forgotten Ayckbourn, which has defeated even the best professionals on Scarborough's home turf...

Thursday, March 26, 2015



LADS at The Tractor Shed


As LADS opened their Ealing comedy, there were Ladykillers on the box, too. Turned out to be female pest control experts …
As fans of the 50s film will know, the vermin here are a pseudo string quartet who plan a heist from a room rented to them by an innocent little old lady.
LADS' production, produced and directed by Carole Hart, boasts a splendid set, with chez Wilberforce spaciously suggested, and a spare room – a little cramped, even for chamber music – which revolves impressively to reveal the roof outside the window.
This ingenious version by Graham Linehan [a recent success in the West End] is packed with gags, often physical, and a colourful cast of characters.  There's steam from the passing trains, a lethally long scarf, the criminals tumbling from the cupboard.
The brains behind the gang, “Professor” Marcus – the Alec Guinness role – is played with fine comic style by Daniel Tonbridge. His motley crew are Robin Warnes as geriatric cross-dresser and con-man Major Courtney, Keith Spencer unfailingly amusing as the slow-witted ex-boxer Mr Lawson - his demise particularly impressive, Alan Elkins as the vicious Louie, and Adam Hart excellent as the pill-popping teddy-boy.
Mrs Wilberforce, landlady to the mob and police time-waster, is played by Joan Cooper, convincingly clueless, in a wig that is terrible even by am-dram standards.
The fun could have been a little faster, with a touch more confidence in some performances, but nonetheless a laudable attempt at a challenging theatrical style. It's all “rather fantastical” [as David Hudson's weary copper has it] but most enjoyable – an affectionate tribute to a much-loved movie.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


National Theatre at the Dorfman


A family gathers in the parental home for Christmas, bearing gifts and grudges, mince pies variously filo-based and gluten-free. Plus a new card game: Bedlam! For age 6 and upwards – “starts out simple but rapidly descends into chaos”.
Yes, this is right up Ayckbourn Avenue – intended neither as criticism nor as congratulation. Yet Sam Holcroft's piece is edgier, with some bolder strokes.
The McGuffin here – so beloved of the Scarborough Master – is that the entire action is ludic. The floor of the Dorfman is marked out as for a board game, or basketball, and at either end, scoreboards await.
Matt [Miles Jupp] arrives, with his up-for-it actress girlfriend [Maggie Service]. His brother [Stephen Mangan] is already here, with his wife Sheena [Claudie Blakley] and their teenage daughter. It is apparent that Matt is more at ease with Sheena, Adam more suited to Carrie. And at this point the domestic comedy is enlivened by the first of the rules: MATT:MUST:SIT TO TELL A LIE. The rules proliferate, with added riders, then game-show-style scores, until the boards are flashing as the Christmas meal, like the game of cards, achieves a sublime, and ridiculous, anarchy.
It would be unkind to include too many spoilers here, but the mood turns much darker after the sit-com introduction, largely due to the characters, at first unseen, of the paterfamilias, on parole from hospital for the day, and Emma the chronically fatigued daughter.
Much of this is very funny indeed, with some reliable targets – therapy, family rivalries, infidelity and social awkwardness. Marianne Elliott gets the most out of her cast of consummate comic actors. Jupp, successful but unhappy lawyer, star, in his younger days, of fourteen amateur musicals. Mangan, failed cricketer, now banished to a Travelodge by his insufferable wife. Service's Carrie is a hilarious if ultimately tragic study of a compulsive performer – MUST:STAND UP:AND JIG AROUND: TO TELL A JOKE:UNTIL SHE GETS A LAUGH. Deborah Findlay is wonderful as Edith, the awful mother – her rules involve Cillit-Bang and Solpadeine – with telling contributions in smaller roles from John Rogan and Daisy Waterstone. Who have no rules
It is perhaps inevitable that the Rules conceit – also a metaphor for our coping strategies, and vicious point-scoring – has diminishing returns. And, once the winner – more irony - is declared there are several places where the play could have ended, but didn't. Not that the low-key final pages, with their muted farewells, were less than effective. “One day we'll probably look back on all this and laugh!” “No, actually. I don't think we will.”
The last production of the Hytner years – very enjoyable on many levels – and well suited to the refurbished Dorfman. Not for the first time we were pleased we were looking down onto the playing area from the gods.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015



Eastern Angles at the Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford


As my morning paper points out today, “no other food has had such a whirligig history as the oyster”.
Some of that history is included - “shoe-horned” the writer/director admits – into this intriguing documentary play, touring the region this spring as a result of a commission from the Pioneer Sailing Trust, based in Brightlingsea,
Ivan Cutting's piece is unashamedly didactic – there's Pearl, dressed up as a mythical goddess to bring the story of the oyster - “the naughty fruit of the sea” to primary schools, there's boatbuilding done as expressive dance, there's even a whiteboard which doubles as a screen for the wonderful wood-cut designs by renowned East Anglian artist James Dodds, who was born in Brightlingsea, and began his career as an apprentice shipwright …
The set features the tools of the trade, trestles, the curved ribs of a boat and a Heath Robinson keg for steaming the timber to shape.
Like many Eastern Angles productions, it's a rich mix. Almost to the point of being indigestible. The death of boat-building, the “restoration” of an oyster smack, the regeneration of The Slipway. And a boatload of curious characters.
At the centre of it all, Mo, short for Moses, the touchy, taciturn boat-builder whose workshop is invaded by apprentices and PR people from the Council. A compelling performance from Terence Frisch: wry humour, short temper. Kiki Kendrick is the storyteller Pearl as well as the manipulative Pamela, Hephzibah Roe the posh intern. And Jeannie Dickinson is outstanding as a one-woman quartet: a nurse, a Scots constable, Angie the apprentice, and, less convincingly, perhaps, Andrea the re-enactor PR person who “coxes for both crews”.
This oyster stew is crammed with ideas – gentrification, pollution, the loss of heritage, the youth of today, identity. Theseus' ship is referenced but not named. Names that are dropped into the mix include Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins. Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Melvyn Bragg, T S Eliot and Bob the Builder.
I might have preferred a little less content, and some meatier characterization; often these people were speaking only to convey ideas. Nonetheless, a fascinating look at a craft which has managed to hang on into the 21st century, and a brilliant way of bringing the work of the Trust to a wider East Anglian audience. Now, when's the next bus to Brightlingsea …

Brightlingsea Past and Present by James Dodds
production photograph by Mike Kwasniak

Eastern Angles are bringing Oysters back to Essex - Maldon, Margaretting, Brentwood and the boatyard in Brightlingsea itself

Friday, March 20, 2015



Infant Music Festival at Christ Church


This amazing festival is well into its second half-century. Those original infants will be approaching retirement by now …
But it shows no sign of slowing up. This year, hundreds of year 2 children from thirty schools came together in six performances, all directed by the infectiously enthusiastic Jill Parkin, with Susannah Edom-Baker at the piano.
This year's piece was The Litter Muncher, a “rubbish” musical by Niki Davies. Sharing the stage with four brightly coloured wheely bins, against a lovely backdrop by Writtle children, a host of mixed infants – from Our Lady Immaculate, Broomfield, Chancellor Park, Newland Springs and Tyrrells. They would be villagers, mayor, narrator, dancers and the Yellow Litter Muncher in this eco-fable, as well as playing recycled percussion – tin can maracas, chocolate tub drum.
Highlights in a packed half-hour were the stomp dancers with dustpans and brushes, mops and buckets, and the catchy theme song, Big Red Dustbin.

And all those proud parents and carers could take away with them, not just an important Green message, but sacks and bags for their own rubbish recycling, thanks to Chelmsford City Council, who've been working with the schools throughout this project.

photograph © Essex Chronicle

Thursday, March 19, 2015


Chelmsford Ballet Company at the Civic Theatre

A perfect pairing in this BOGOF evening of ballet. United by parasols, public costume changes, wit and good humour, the dance work Sullivan never wrote and a back-stage story Saint-Saens could never have dreamt of.
Christopher Marney's Carnival of the Animals has no cute creatures – indeed one of the best jokes is that the one four-legged friend in the story remains a disembodied bark. It's the story of a stage-struck ASM, dancing with mop and bucket [like Morecambe and Wise for The Fleet's In], whose dream of being a dancer is shared by his girl, daughter of the snobby patron of the ballet. They have a lovely Swan pas-de-deux in the park, take their first tentative steps to The Elephant, and triumph together in the Blue Danube.
Engaging performances from Stephen Quildan [a wonderful solo expressing his ambition and his joy in dancing] and Jasmine Wallis, blossoming as a Prima Ballerina, with Marion Pettet as the imperious mother, who has a nice Donkey moment with her maids.
Some superb set pieces – the Parisian park [Fossils], the Birds number in brown, and the ingenious switch to backstage view [no Black Swan bitchery here, thank goodness]. And the carnival finale, full of zest and energy, where even the dog has his day and his due in the curtain call.
Before the interval, Annette Potter's colourful Pineapple Poll, gorgeously costumed, with lovesick maidens en travesti as jolly jack tars. Imaginative ensemble work from a huge corps de ballet, including children, old salts, ship mates and gossips.
Scarlett Mann, in her first principal role with the company, makes a splendidly assured Poll, full of mischief and dancing with style and charm. Her potboy is a genial Stephen Quildan, providing energetic support as well as some poignant moments before he finally gets his girl. Captain Belaye is Andrew Potter, nimble yet dignified, whose complicated love life involves Megan McLatchie's excellent Blanche, not to mention her fussy, overbearing mother, the redoubtable Mrs Dimple [Marion Pettet].
A joyous production, full of dramatic detail and fancy footwork, culminating in a crescendo Di Ballo whirl before the final patriotic tableau.

production photograph: Amelia Potter

and for Sardines

Christopher Marney, of Matthew Bourne's New Adventures, a Patron and good friend of Chelmsford Ballet Company, has created a fresh, accessible Carnival of the Animals, the second half of their hugely enjoyable double bill at the Civic Theatre.
It's been compared to Jerome Robbins' popular “The Concert”, but it's also a strikingly original piece, taking a wryly affectionate look at the world of British ballet before the war. No animal costumes, and no carnival either, though like Saint-Saens' music, ingeniously used, together with chunks of Poulenc and Strauss, it abounds with clever pastiche and parody.
The two young dancers at its heart are a stage-hand and a society girl who end up duetting in triumph to the Blue Danube. Stephen Quildan is the stage-struck lad; we first meet him as he mops the stage, dreaming of stardom as he dances with his right foot stuck firmly in a bucket. His dancing is engagingly expressive – in his more dignified second solo, we see in his every movement the joy he finds in the dance, and his burning ambition to appear on the boards he's been mopping. And in the first pas-de-deux, set to Saint-Saens' Swan, ending with a tender parting glance, witnessed by inquisitive bushes and trees in the park, he is superbly partnered by Jasmine Wallis, now at the Central School of Ballet in London.
Many incidents, often comic, before the lively finale. There's a magical moment when the curtain falls on The Birds and we're suddenly back stage with the tired but happy dancers. Excellent work from a small ensemble here; and a delicious character role from Marion Pettet, now Chairman of the CBC, as the girl's formidable mother – a brilliant moment trying on scarves with her three maids, to the strains of Saint-Saens' braying donkeys. She has a little lap-dog, too, a well-sustained conceit, invisible to the audience, reduced to yaps and yelps on the imaginative sound-effects track, which begins back-stage with water dripping into that bucket …
A colourful curtain-raiser in Pineapple Poll, which gives every member of the company, from the youngest little girl to the most ancient mariner, a chance to shine. Annette Potter's joyful choreography, after John Cranko, leads us through the improbable tale of Poll, who dresses as a simple sailor to pursue the object of her affections on board HMS Hot Cross Bun. She is danced, with an assured, infectious charm, by 14-year-old Scarlett Mann in her first leading role with the company. Stephen Quildan is her faithful Jasper, and Andrew Potter the imposingly dapper Captain Belaye. Constant fun as Belaye's intended, Blanche [Megan McLatchie] and her fusspot mother [Marion Pettet] get caught up in the preposterous plot, and the lovesick maidens learn to walk like matelots. A trio of Mates, a gaggle of gossips, a motley crew of sea dogs all add to the fast and furious fun.

Chelmsford is fortunate to have a non-professional ballet company at all, and doubly so to have one as ambitious and aspirational as this. This entertaining, enterprising double bill made a wonderful showcase for them; we look forward to seeing how they will top it in 2016.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


OffSpringers at the Cramphorn Theatre

Those poor evacuees have found their way onto the primary curriculum – good for empathy – and often crop up on the page and the stage.
This musical play – Carl Davis and Hiawyn Oram – treads a familiar path; it is performed here with enthusiasm by a large cast of youngsters.
Though the scene changes are slow, the set is impressive – a bridge, tunnel beneath, with a huge screen for images of grimy London or leafy Darchett.
Dan Hall makes a likeable Kip, the London lad who finds himself in the country; Ellen, the girl from the Hall who befriends him, is convincingly done by Bernice Bushell. Promising work in character roles from Ethan Holmes as Poacher Jack, a philosophical Papageno, and Rose Gowen, splendid as Grace, the pert young housemaid.
There is perhaps rather too much music; numbers like Warning: Man in Uniform, with its lovely Land Girl chorus, where staging and scoring combine to excellent effect, are the exception. The “Choose Me” sequence is cleverly done, reprised by the two teachers, played with confidence by Loretta Bushell and Matt Scott. And Dan Dearmer, who gives us an unsympathetic vicar and a good German, has a nice solo in Somewhere Behind.

The Vackees was directed for OffSpringers by Sharon Scott with Jackie Bates. Callum Bates is the MD, with Ian Myers at the keyboard.

Monday, March 16, 2015


Essex Symphony Orchestra at Christ Church, Chelmsford

Shakespeare in Victorian costume made up the first half of this attractive programme.
The revelation, for many, was Sullivan's atmospheric Overture to Macbeth, written for Irving's production at the Lyceum, which boasted a pit band of 46 players, including two harpists.
A slightly larger ESO gave an excellent account of this score, which, at its opening, owes much to Mendelssohn, the ghost at this musical feast. Scurrying strings over woodwind led us delightfully to the dramatic conclusion. Stirring stuff, bracketed by two favourites: Nicolai's Merry Wives Overture, with misterioso moonlight over Windsor Forest, fairies and fireflies, before the glorious sunny theme which never appears in the opera itself. And Tchaikowsky's Romeo and Juliet – sterling work from brooding lower strings, and oboe and violas suggesting the tenderness and passion of Romeo's young love.
After the interval, Edward Elgar. Not, alas, his Falstaff, but the more familiar Enigma Variations, witty, affectionate portraits of his friends, splendidly interpreted here by the orchestra, led by Philippa Barton and conducted by Tom Hammond. Variation III had bags of character, and if the gossamer lightness of Dorabella proved elusive, the noble emotions of Nimrod were powerfully suggested, with the melody polished smooth by subtle legato.