Thursday, April 28, 2016


Theatre at Baddow in the Parish Hall

Two new plays, both excellent of their kind, given polished productions by Theatre at Baddow this week.

Mike Bartlett's Bull is a relentless hour of bullying and paranoia. Office politics in a corridor with a water-cooler. Pinterish in its unpleasantness, it's an uneasy listen. You long for a twist, a turning point. Worm, tables, whatever. Never comes. Roger Saddington's Thomas just sits and weeps under the final acid onslaught from Ruth Westbrook's icy Isobel.
There's much talk of truth and falsehood. The harassment, the torment, the naked nastiness recall the worst excesses of the playground – several times referenced in the script - “we're not at school”.
It's Thomas's worst nightmare – losing his job, access to his son Harry – and maybe this is the key to the piece. We all want to hit Isobel – Thomas tries repeatedly, but, as in a dream, his fist never connects. He knocks himself out in the end. Isobel finds no sympathy, leaves the teetotal loser his single malt leaving gift. “When you wake up, a drink may be just what you need ...”
Four superb performances in Jim Crozier's confident production – the pauses, the looks, all spot on.
Saddington is a sympathetic underdog, maybe too much so – should we perhaps suspect that he “brings it on himself” ? Terry Cramphorn is a smug, unfeeling CEO. And Patrick Willis is outstanding as Team Leader Tony, a master of merciless banter, glued to his smartphone, casually sticking the knife in, rocking in his chair.
Bull. Bullshit, Bullying, and the Bullfight, with its carefully choreographed, pitiless picadors.
Followed here not by Bartlett's Cock, for which it was originally the companion piece, but by a much jollier affair - Tom Basden's Party.
More childish banter here, but much more amusing, while still keeping a satirical eye on matters social and political. Lots of argy-bargy over language. Joanna Lowe directs a well-cast company: five clueless twenty-somethings meet in Jared's mum's shed to thrash out policies for their new anti-capitalist party. Jared – a lovely, earnest performance from Kieran Low – takes charge, Naneen Lane's dim Phoebe takes the minutes. Nathan, in sandals and cycle-clips, the only one in employment, is played with precisely the right keen bewilderment by Nathan Lowe, and Vicky Wright is excellent as the sulky Mel. Roger Saddington – the only actor allowed to do both shows – is Jones, roused to fury by lack of coffee. David Saddington pops in briefly as the mysterious Short Coat.
It's like a long comedy sketch, really, but consistently funny, even if these characters are no more believable as adults than the awful suits in Bull.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016



Witham Amateur Operatic Society at the Public Hall


There've been some pretty rum Pirates since copyright expired back in the 60s. All-male, Papp on Broadway, The Parson's Pirates [my favourite, from Opera della Luna]. And earlier this month a splendid Steampunk version at Brentwood.
WAOS went for the Australian version, with some modern tweaks, especially in the chorus numbers, some added business and topical asides, plus a lively megamix finale.
All the messing about did little for me. It seemed designed for a different company, a different audience. The “orphan” joke was made even less funny by being interrupted, General Stanley's character was not improved by what the Pirate King called his “flowers out the jacksie” moment. And the Fabulettes [Stanley's daughters] were allowed to upstage Mabel's aria, and encouraged to flirt outrageously with Frederick, in direct contradiction of the libretto.
But a cracking pace and many enjoyable performances produced an entertaining evening of alternative G&S.
Mabel was excellently sung by Jessica Edom-Carey, well matched by the equally youthful Frederick of Thomas Pleasant. Their wonderful Act Two duet is still echoing in my memory. Tom Whelan's staunchly traditional Major-General took his patter song at a brisk pace, well sustained until the lame encore. David Slater made a flamboyant Pirate King in his burgundy trousers; Anne Wilson was a superb Scots Ruth, the piratical maid-of-all work. And Stewart Adkins excelled as the Sergeant of Police – an interpretation which was hilarious both vocally and physically – at the head of his cleverly choreographed coppers. The Foeman number was the best thing in the show.
Fine ensemble work from the pirates too, and from the whole company in the Ode to Poetry, mercifully unimproved. The Fabulettes – a sexy sextet of smokers in beehive hairdos, led by Emma Loring's Chardonnay – enjoyed some nice harmony work.
The design could have been Pixar, with the towering cliffs of books, and the costumes were bright and stylish – lots of butch kilts for the Pirates.
Thomas Duchan directed – he was in the pit, too, playing an unsubtle keyboard reduction. The excellent soloists not always best served by generous decibels from the sound system.
WAODS gave the show their all; a big, bold, irreverent take on a favourite Savoy Opera. But my advice to other societies would be save your money, stick to the original, or be like Brentwood, or Trinity, and steer your own course.

publicity shot: Nick Griffin

Monday, April 25, 2016


the tour returns to Shakespeare's Globe

The Hamlet company are back home after two years on the road. Since they set off for Amsterdam in 2014, they've given 295 performances in 206 venues. The final four shows see them on the Globe's stage.
I've already written twice about this production – though in earlier incarnations.
It's survived the vicissitudes of touring very well. The flight cases now form the set – though the two planks are still in evidence, and The Mousetrap is even more stylised. The “sour beer” sequence works wonderfully here.
For this first show back, Matthew Romain gave his Hamlet, engaging the audience throughout. Brilliant support from the hard-working, role-doubling company: Amanda Wilkin's Horatio, Rawiri Paratene's prim, prating Polonius [and earthy gravedigger], Jennifer Long's Ophelia.
A rapturous reception from a packed Globe – these four shows long since sold out – beginning as soon as Tom Lawrence stepped forward to do his speech of welcome.
We look forward to Dominic Dromgoole's book of the tour. A documentary, too, maybe.

production photograph:Helena Miscioscia

Sunday, April 24, 2016


Brentwood Shakespeare Company 
at Brentwood Theatre

In fair Verona … Liz Calnan's Prologue exemplified three great strengths of this production.
Beautiful costumes, clarity of text and “two hours' traffick of the stage”.
Truth to tell, not quite everyone in the large cast was quite so well dressed, or spoke so clearly or intelligently. Two hours' traffick was achieved, thanks to deft editing.
More time might have been saved, perhaps, with cues picked up more deftly, and scenes dovetailed more snugly. Shakespeare wasn't able to have a blackout between scenes, and I always think he works best when you can't get a cigarette paper between the street and the bedchamber, say.
But these are small quibbles; June Fitzgerald' s production used the Brentwood stage effectively, with three doorways, and a clever balcony-cum-bedchamber. Plenty of room for the excellent sword-play, too.
Some fine performances: the star-cross'd lovers played by Ben Sylvester, a sympathetic Romeo making the verse sound powerful and natural, and Lisa Nunn as a child-like, innocent, impatient Juliet.
Richard Spong brought passion and insight to Mercutio, Matt Hudson made a compelling Benvolio, and there was a lovely, merry Nurse from Julia Stallard.
The death of Tybalt [Gareth Locke], and Paris's violent end [a fiery Andrew Spong] were both very effectively staged.
And the tragic dénouement had a wonderfully lit setting for Capel's monument – the shrouded Juliet in semblance of death, soon to be united on the tomb with her Romeo.



The Basildon-based Thalians are on tour in May with 'The Hothouse,'
or 'The challenge of Pinter in the basement or the upstairs room of a pub' 
or 'Anywhere we can perform that doesn't entail re-mortgaging our houses.' 
The play is set in a state-run sanatorium where the patients are possibly political dissidents although, as with most Pinter plays, times and places are vague and the usual menacing comedy lurks in the language like a dark stalker. What is clear is that the unchecked state power is corrupt and that a casual inhumanity makes for a searing comic indictment of institutional bureaucracy with all its power struggles or as Simon Russell Beale put it, "the madness of self-contained community." 

I saw Russell Beale in a similarly intimate production three years ago.
The Thalians hope to be presenting a highly entertaining and thought provoking play for a wider audience with an entrance fee as affordable and as darkly rich as a box of Black Magic - on special offer!

Dates in May are 

Thursday 5th and Friday 6th at The Swan, Horndon - on - the - Hill.
Thursday 12th and Friday 13th at Saks Bar, Southend.
Tuesday 17th and Wednesday 18th at The Ship, Old Leigh.

Starting at 8 pm

Tickets are £5 and you can book by phoning 01268 417854

Friday, April 22, 2016



Tall Stories at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford


“Wave at the mouse!” - a reassuring warm-up before we venture into the deep dark wood with the Gruffalo's Child, star of Julia Donaldson much-loved sequel.
This hour-long adaptation, with songs and dances as well as scary adventures, is a lovely introduction to theatre for the pre-school generation, directed for Tall Stories by Olivia Jacobs. Much is left to the imagination – the mouse's long, strong tale, for instance – and the story is framed in a bedtime comfort zone, with Duncan MacInnes's Gruffalo cuddling his look-alike daughter, played with child-like charm by Sophie Alice. The Mouse is strongly characterized by Catriona Mackenzie. MacInnes also gets to play all the predators – great quick-change fun – the sinuous snake, the owl in his cardigan, the fox in his sequinned tail-coat.
The songs are catchy in a timeless, PlaySchool style – Stick With Me [for the Stick Man], I Could Sell the Sunshine [for the spivvy Fox] and Big Bad Mouse especially memorable – and there are movements for everyone to join in.
A simple flexible setting [Isla Shaw] with stylised, friendly trees, a huge paper moon and a shadow mouse make this charming show visually interesting too.
Plenty of merchandise, of course, but at least there was a free souvenir programme, with a picture to take home and colour in ...

Thursday, April 21, 2016



Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court Theatre


It's thirty years since the world heard with horror of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster.
The first journalist on the spot was Vladimir Gubaryev, Science Editor of Pravda. Asked to write a literary response for a magazine, he chose drama as his genre.

The resulting piece, delivered months after the event, achieved instant fame both in Russia and abroad. But it now lies largely forgotten: this was a rare opportunity to see it on stage.

Wordy, didactic and strangely lacking in drama, it presents unique challenges to the director bold enough to tackle it. In this case the intrepid Dave Hawkes, with Laura Hill. The writing is relentlessly realistic, but, wisely, the surreal elements have been played up in this production: the frantic, sinister activity under blue light, for example, and especially the outstanding tour-de-force of Andy Poole as Bessmertny [Mr Immortal] the sole patient of the Nuclear Medicine Clinic before the accident “imprisoned here as a guinea pig”.
The large cast of victims and medical staff includes Louise Hart as the Physicist, who courageously completes her research before the radiation sickness kills her, Jesse Powis as the General, blustering as the finger of blame is pointed at him, Rhiannon Thorn as the surgeon who finally cracks under the pressure, and Barry Taylor as the man with [obsolete] geiger counter, racked with guilt at misreading the disaster.
Public service announcements, music and video footage are welcome relief from the eye-witness accounts and the fact-heavy dialogue – the Investigator's interviews seem to go on forever. The set is excellent, a curved wall of curtained cubicles, recalling a health spa or sanatorium, and it is used to good dramatic effect [with a hatch for “Krolik”] not least in the curtain call.
Olivier-nominated back in '87, this is a remarkable document of a momentous event, enterprisingly revived by the CTW company. It's just a shame it's not a better play.

Sunday, April 17, 2016


Made in Colchester at the Colchester Mercury Theatre
for The Reviews Hub

Bruce Norris's thought-provoking piece is a companion to the 1959 classic A Raisin in the Sun. Back then, Lorraine Hansbury drew on her own experience to tell the story of the sale of a house in a Chicago suburb. Norris sets his “parallel play” in that very house. Its two acts explore what might have happened off stage in 1959, and, after the interval, half a century later.
Those fifty years have seen a huge shift in the ways society interacts; old prejudices are rejected, old resentments still simmer. The two acts, seven actors playing two sets of neighbours, and the changing house itself, bring hidden feelings to the fore in a sharply observed reflection on human weakness, guilt and hypocrisy. The issues remain racially charged; the reluctance to admit it persists down the years.

Daniel Buckroyd's beautifully crafted production uses a superb cast to form real characters out of what might have been stereotypes; the performances stay just the right side of caricature.

In the first act, we meet the white couple who've sold the house to the black Youngers. They move on Monday. Mark Womack's Russ seems a quiet, affably jocular guy, reading National Geographic, eating up Neapolitan ice-cream from the ice-box. Bev, his wife, sensitively played by Rebecca Manley, offers an unwanted chafing dish – the first of the play's symbols - to her black help, Francine [Gloria Onitiri]. Crass clergyman Jim [a cringingly accurate portrait by William Troughton] tries to help the couple cope with the upheaval and the lingering grief that blights their lives. Ghastly Rotarian Karl [Ben Deery] steers the discussion into increasingly troubled waters, dragging Francine and her husband Albert [Wole Sawyerr] into the murky depths: tambourines, lutefisk and skiing Negroes.
“Let's suppose the tables were turned...” says Karl. And that's just what we see in the second act. The black family now call the shots, defending the memories and the heritage that the area holds for them. Plus ça change … Kevin, comfortably man-spreading, and Lena, seated higher than the others in this awkward, increasingly “confrontational” meeting, argue persuasively against the pleas of Steve and Lindsey [Karl and his wife from 1959] who wish to raze and rebuild. Planning jargon gives way to offensive jokes. Steve proves just as insensitive as Karl; his wife [Rebecca Oldfield], deaf in the first act, pregnant throughout, is touchingly desperate.
Jonathan Fensom's set captures precisely the old-fashioned house – the windows especially eloquent – and its empty ghost. The dialogue, too, is convincingly in period, though I fancy we had problems instead of issues back then. The two halves, almost mirror images, are carefully linked: the geographical arguments, the gloves, Mr Wheeler from the grocery store, “You can't live in a principle.” Only the trunk fails to convince, either as a prop – far too clean to have lain fifty years under the crepe myrtle – or as a symbol in the chilling coda.

There is plenty to laugh at in this bitter satire, which comes garlanded with Oliviers, Tonys and a Pulitzer prize, but we chuckle uneasily as hidden depths are revealed, hypocrisy and repression brought into the open.

production photograph: Robert Day


Southend Operatic and Dramatic Society at the Palace Theatre Westcliff


for Sardines

Always a pleasure to welcome back to the stage Mrs Dolly Levi, née Gallagher, meddler and matchmaker, especially in the lovely old Palace Theatre.
A commanding presence in the title role from Suzanne Walters, in a succession of arresting outfits. She belts out the big numbers, but finds time for a little tenderness, too. In the title song she has a staircase to descend, of course, possibly the steepest, narrowest steps I've seen, but she is equally effective alone against the lovely sepia streetscape in Before the Parade Passes By – the understated procession itself materialising magically in the background.
One of the last of the great old-fashioned musicals, it's given an old-fashioned production by Jonny Buxton, making his début as director with SODS. Sometimes a little slow, sometimes a little static [the waiters' galop more of a canter, though most impressively done], with the occasional hiatus, it is nonetheless crammed with great performances from a talented company. La Walters apart, the most successful at engaging a lethargic matinée audience are Les Cannon as grumpy old Vandergelder and Rachael Farrow as the milliner's assistant Minnie. She's the one who pairs up with young Barnaby Tucker – a bright, breezy performance from Ewan Dunlop, looking as if he's just stepped out of a Norman Rockwell illustration.
Lots of matches made in this feel-good plot: Widow Molloy – an elegant Emma Tout, giving us a beautiful Ribbons Down My Back – with Nick Bright's charming Cornelius, and struggling artist Ambrose [the excellent Declan Wright] with Ermengarde, Horace's lachrymose niece [Sacha Jonas].
Nice comedy turns from Keeley Wickham as the frightful Ernestina Money [“Her mother was a Cash, you know.”] and Ian Scoging as Rudolph, maître d' at the Harmonia Gardens, drilling his waiters with a shrill whistle and ringing up an invisible curtain on the action.
The production has some stylish moments: the parasols against the black cloth, the It Takes A Woman trio from Horace and the boys, the Dancing sequence – choreography by Cassie Estall and Becki Wendes. I liked the way Dolly remains on stage [tucking in to her turkey] as the scene changes around her, and Horace does something similar as he makes the journey back to Yonkers without moving from the spot.
Jerry Herman's famous score – Put on Your Sunday Clothes, It Only Takes a Moment and the rest – is in the capable hands of MD Elizabeth Dunlop; there's a very polished pit band hidden beneath the stage.
A believable turn-of-the-century setting, broad Broadway comedy and a succession of toe-tapping tunes make for a delightful, if undemanding, outing for this classic of the genre.

Saturday, April 16, 2016


at the Civic Theatre


The Civic was packed for the annual visit of Central Ballet School's touring arm.
As usual, they'd brought a wealth of new talent in an eclectic artistic offering.

Seven pieces, beginning with Christopher Gable's Celebration. Classical – tights and tiaras - but relaxed in tone, it was a stylistic sampler exploring the fluid relationships between the four men and four women. With a score by their Music Director Philip Feeney, who was at the piano for most of tonight's ballets. Resident costume designer Richard Gellar was responsible for these and almost all the other costumes.
Leanne King's Insinuare was a much more complex, more confrontational duo, danced with energy and intelligence by Prima Tharathep and Jacopo Butelli. A huge contrast with the Paquita Pas de Trois which followed: Mai Ito performed with precision, but it was Mark Samoras who impressed, with a versatile approach, engaging the audience in this, and in the final work, Christopher Marney's War Letters, extracts of which I saw in town back in 2014. Set to a selection of Shostakovich, with a leavening of Glenn Miller for the dance hall number, it features heroes and heart-ache, a conga line, wounded soldier, a spectacular quartet of male dancers and celebration for VE day. The most moving moments are the The Heavy Coat, inspired by Vicky Feaver's poem [read on the soundtrack by Carol Been] and the final tableau, in which the company turns and looks out to the sunlit uplands of a world at peace.

Chelmsford Ballet Company member Jasmine Wallis [pictured with Joseph Vaughan] featured in the last piece, as well as in the Gable, and in Linda Moran's Elan Vital, a showcase for eight girls in dusty pink, danced to the music of Gustav Holst – upbeat, as its title suggests, with a hint of callisthenics.

Production photographs © Bill Cooper

Friday, April 15, 2016



Brentwood Operatic Society at the Brentwood Theatre


Steam-punk Pirates ? Whatever next !
We weren't sure what to expect, but Alli Smith's take on G&S turned out to be enormous fun, the familiar operetta constantly undermined by unexpected twists and off-the-wall inventiveness.
A stripped-back stage, and a single piano. The singing all unplugged. A distinct dearth of even light operatic voices – the honourable exception being Marcia Alderson's pretty-in-pink Mabel, who not only gave the pirate apprentice a run for his money but also handled her coloratura with stylish ease.
But the performances were assured and amusing, from Sarah Mayes' desperate Ruth to Dean Mobley's Samuel – a great creation, this, think Smike/Baldrick with an eye-patch.
Alastair McIlwraith was an imposing Pirate King, Ian Southgate an amazing Slave of Duty, Depp wig and designer stubble, bumping and grinding while giving full value to the comedy and the melody.
A round of applause for the Union Jack tunic of Martin Harris's Major-General [a onesie for his Act Two night attire]. A hilarious characterization, including an accelerando patter song with some new rhymes for old.
The “alarming costumes” were great-coats and goggles for the Pirates, brightly coloured bustiers and taffeta for the “Sisters” [cousins and aunts too, like that infernal nonsense Pinafore] and for the robotic Force something reminiscent of Blake's 7 but with light sabres.
For we are in 2157, and poor Frederick will not come of age until 2220. Queen Victoria is long forgotten, the monarch serenaded in the finale is presumably the great-grand-daughter of George VII …
The Musical Director was Patrick Tucker, with Adrian Ure at the piano.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016



Chelmsford Young Generation at the Cramphorn Theatre


Not an easy ride, Into the Woods. Dark themes [blindness, child sacrifice, sterility] and a tricky, intricate score. The cleverly interwoven fairy stories are cosily familiar, but Sondheim's twist is often harsh and cruel.
But Chelmsford's Young Gen are always up for a challenge, and their intimate Cramphorn production, directed by Jimmy Hooper, brings freshness and vitality to the show.
A triple challenge, in fact. The actors have to bring audibility, clarity and humanity to their roles, and that's before they tackle the intricate rhythms and tangled tunes. Not all the boxes are ticked all the time. The random proverbs have only mixed success. But the overall effect is polished and exuberant, with some cleverly choreographed production numbers, filling the very limited stage space with dancing princes, aides, ugly sisters, goodies, baddies and in-betweens. The music is very well served; Bryan Cass the MD joined in his tiny sylvan nook by Richard and Phil Langstone.
A big cast, with strength in depth, and many memorable performances. The cut-glass narrator is the excellent Sam Wolstenholme, smoking jacket and quizzical eyebrow. The baker and his wife, around whom the fairy-tale quest revolves, are done with experienced aplomb by Jack Martyn and Eve French. Outstanding work from Jessica Higgins as Red Riding Hood, bringing a cheeky characterization to the role, and enjoying a pas de deux with Jack Toland's lairy Wolf. And from Katie Salter as the Witch; her Last Midnight superbly crafted. Paul French makes a nerdy, nice-but-dim Jack, of beanstalk fame. The Agony brothers, Princes to Phoebe Walsh's tuneful Rapunzel and Lois Chapman's assured Cinderella, are engagingly guyed by Matt Barnes and Jack Harlock. 
Good to have a human Lyre [Virginia Hampson] and a properly characterized Milky White [bovine resignation from Millie Parsons], actors for the birds and the trees, and even the Baker's table [uncredited, as far as I can see, but surely a shoo-in for best supporting role].
The set is impressive, with a useful upper level and a prominent spiral staircase, converted by brollies into a beanstalk for the giant-killer. Well used too: the exemplary Your Fault ensemble followed by the quartet looking aloft at the Witch for her big solo. Another striking ensemble for No One Is Alone, Sondheim's philosophical summing-up: Witches can be right,/ Giants can be good./ You decide what's right,/ You decide what's good.

photograph: Barrie White-Miller

Tuesday, April 12, 2016



at the Civic Theatre


As its name suggests, not just a tribute show, but a stage biog of the legendary duo from Queens.
The two actors who play the leads – at this performance we saw Gregory Clarke and Joe Sterling - tell the story of Paul and Art, from their earliest rock'n'roll incarnation as Tom and Jerry through the albums to the parting of the ways and their separate solo careers, with the Central Park reunion saved for the big finish. Bridge Over Troubled Water, and last of all, The Boxer. Vocal styles, microphone technique and even body language are uncannily recreated, with excellent support from the onstage band of Adam Smith, keyboards and lead guitar, Leon Camfield, bass, and Josh Powell, drums. Though occasionally lyrics – I Am A Rock - are lost to intrusive percussion. The staging is simple – this is a tour of one-night-stands – but projected images and videos serve as a reminder of the originals and the era in which they performed. Strawberry Fair, for instance, is counterpointed with images of the Vietnam War.
Even that memorable night in Central Park is thirty-five years ago now, and the Sound of Silence has just chalked up its half-century. It would be nice to think that a new generation might discover these singer-songwriters through this show, with its generous serving of timeless classics authentically performed with style and passion.


Wolf-Sister Productions at The Rose Playhouse, Bankside

The merry war waged between Beatrice and Benedick is played out as the men march back from a real war to Messina. Last year we had Edward Bennett coming home to Charlecote's military hospital after The Great War, and this year Douglas Rintoul's début in Hornchurch celebrated VE Day in an English country house.

It's the 40s option on Bankside, too, in Alex Pearson's delightful, deft 90-minute version. Morse code, aircraft, machine guns on the sound track as we walk in to see a stepladder, bunting and uniformed figures far across the water.

Churchill reminds us of the foe's unconditional surrender, Harry Boyd's Messenger reassures us that the losses were few “and none of name”. Kit Smith's kindly Leonato first mentions the “skirmish of wit” at the heart of this clever comedy.

The sparring, the gulling and the war-like wooing are enjoyably done by Rhiannon Sommers' bomber-jacketed Beatrice and Adam Elliott's boyish Benedick.

His eyes are expressive, his business as he eavesdrops is inventive, working his way along the back row of the audience. “Love me? Why?” is touching in its simplicity. “The world must be peopled!” has him suggestively tucking in his shirt.
Her eavesdropping is done at cricket-pitch distance, across the water, which also serves well for the chamber window and the funeral procession with sparklers for torches. Sommers gives a Beatrice of infinite variety, from the still small voice which admits “I love you” to the barbed quips and the urgent “Kill Claudio”.

The other couple are Genie Kaminski's warm, charming Hero and Clark Alexander's intense Scottish Claudio.

The wedding is well staged. Claudio's rejection of Hero is brilliantly underplayed at first – the rejected ring drops on the Rose's floor-boards – and it's hard to tell whether he's in earnest or no. Only later comes the incontinent violence.

The reduction brings some bonuses: Benedick composing his funeral sentences as a soliloquy, Dogberry's watch much pared, with the actors thinly disguised with duffel coats. The costumes are evocative of the period, the stylish uniforms have a dash of Ruritania in the detail.

Excellent music [Robert Hazle], some recorded, like the brilliant revellers number – nine dancers hoofing it on this tiny stage, surely a first [Ian Hathway the choreographer] – some live, like the lovely Sigh No More with guitar and clarinet.

production photograph: Robert Piwko


at the Theatre Royal Haymarket


This early Ayckbourn – first seen as the Sixties staggered to an end - has all the hallmarks of his greatest work. It remains popular with amateur groups.
But it is wonderful to see a bench-mark production like Alan Strachan's Haymarket revival. Like all the plays of Ayckbourn's golden age, it combines clever technical trickery with comedy of manners. In this case, we are looking at social class, and, suggested by the other meaning of “other half”, marital infidelity.
Two couples from very different strata, the upper-middle Fosters, and the working/lower-middle Phillipses. We see them both at the start of the day. And we see them both at once, since Julie Godfrey's massive set incorporates elements of these two very different décors, and the action ingeniously overlaps.
There is a third couple, unwittingly roped in as alibi for the adulterous flings. As in the best farce, a small indiscretion, a little white lie, forms the unstable foundation of a towering mess of deception and misunderstanding.
The key scene – the one everyone remembers – is the dinner parties; one in each house, on consecutive nights, but played out simultaneously in a truly hilarious set piece, beautifully timed here, especially by the swivelling Featherstones, awkwardly caught up in the web of deceit.
Nicholas Le Prevost, unfailingly funny as obtuse Frank Foster, vague and prone to taking the wrong end of the stick, while his icy wife is nicely done by Jenny Seagrove – a couple who are clearly the prototypes for the elderly Ernest and Delia in Bedroom Farce. Tamzin Outhwaite is the feisty Teresa Phillips, writing unpublished letters to the Guardian, Jason Merrells ss her slob of a husband.  But the most priceless couple – closest to caricature, too - are the Featherstones, “Pinky and Perky”, who foreshadow the Hopcrofts in Absurd Person Singular. Gillian Wright, awkwardness personified, and Matthew Cottle, a buttoned-up old fogey before his time.

The sextet on stage here is pretty near perfect, and the production is polished and perfectly paced. Nice act curtain too, with 60s graphic design [CND, radiogram, clock] and some appropriate tunes: The Other Man's Grass, Suspicious Minds …

We've not seen a new Ayckbourn in the West End for a decade or more. So thanks to good old Bill Kenwright, who toured this piece back in the 70s and brought it into town for a 1988 revival, for reminding us again of the genius at his classic best.

photograph: Alastair Muir



Shakespeare's Globe at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse


Whether or not this is the Bard's farewell to the stage, it makes an ideal envoi to mark the end of Dominic Dromgoole's ten years at the helm of Shakespeare's Globe.

In the candlelit intimacy of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, there's room for the story to unfold on many levels. The opening storm itself gives a triple whammy. A model vessel against a hand-held wooden ocean, then a riotous pitching deck, the mariners and their passengers threatening to spill over into the audience. And finally the echoes of the voices of the drowning calling down from the galleries, for all the world like Captain Cat's shipmates in Llareggub.

There's plenty of knockabout fun from the clowns Dominic Rowan and Trevor Fox, supplementing Shakespeare's text with quick-fire adlibs. Some of the Globe's best comic actors bring wry humour to lesser roles too, notably Christopher Logan as Sebastian. Fisayo Akinade is a fine, proud Caliban.

Tim McMullan's Prospero is grave, with a rich voice matched in gravitas by Joseph Marcel's Gonzago. Not heard the poetry delivered so beautifully since Gielgud. He bids farewell to Caliban and to Ariel, the earthly and the ethereal aspects of his art, as he prepares to break his staff and drown his book.
Pippa Nixon is his Ariel [like the mariners, everywhere and nowhere in the magical candlelight] moving curiously through the mortals and along the parapet separating pit from gallery. And his Miranda, Pheobe Price, is a credible teenager, marvelling at the brave new world of men, including Dharmesh Patel's excellent Ferdinand.
A very enjoyable chamber Tempest, fun and fantastical by turns, with all the hallmarks of Dromgoole's robust approach to his hero Shakespeare, honouring the text while entertaining the playgoers.

Photograph: Marc Brenner

Wednesday, April 06, 2016


Shakespeare's Globe at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse


One of the four “late romances” staged in the Indoor Jacobean Playhouse this winter – Dominic Dromgoole's farewell to Shakespeare's Globe.
A sad tale's best for winter, Mamilius reminds us, and there is sorrow in Michael Longhurst's sumptuous production, but there's passion and humour too, and a warm glow to match the candlelight.
The space is exploited to the maximum – actors and musicians all over the stage and spilling into the auditorium. Garlands for the shearing, bright light for Bohemia, but stygian gloom for Leontes' court and the marauding bear.
Insanely jealous Leontes is played by John Light, his obsessive rage melting into grief and regret. Rachel Stirling is his Hermione, coolly regal with flashes of wit and passion. Tia Bannon makes an excellent Perdita – on both sides of the 16 year interval [nicely narrated by Sam Cox's ancient shepherd], and Niamh Cusack is a feisty Paulina.
James Garnon, a regular on the Globe stages, extracts every ounce of humour from Autolycus, with what sounds like a banjolele in his hand. The music is a constant presence, Simon Slater the composer, with a versatile band in the gallery, led by Stephen Bentley-Klein on violin.