Tuesday, June 28, 2016


CTW at the Old Court

To the Old Court, there to see a play in which theatre folk did portray their own kind.
The true history of the last of the boy actors, and of the first woman to appear on stage, told in nineteen tableaux, sometimes separated by gloomy silence, sometimes happily linked by Mags Layton's lively fiddle.
Mr Hart depicted one Ned Kynaston, Green Room hermaphrodite and famed Desdemona. Excellently done, with a most impressive presence. Spurned by his lover, reduced to capering before the coarse crowd at the Cock Pit, he finds salvation in tutoring his rival [strongly played by Mrs Barnes] in the art of dying.
Two superbly stage-struck women in the persons of Pretty Witty Nell [Miss Woodgate] and seamstress Maria [Miss Dunmore]. Mr Stemp gave us his Betterton, ornament of the London stage, Mr Piper a painted, lisping Sir Charles. The Merry Monarch was pleasingly personated by Mr Tree, besotted with his Nell, both of them charmingly cross-dressed for the Court theatricals.
Sam Pepys the scribbler, inseparable from his gigantic journal, was portrayed by Mr Powis.
Pretty panelling, a stylish painted park, mock marble columns and flickering candlelight mightily maintained the illusion of stage and town; thunder and birdsong were ingeniously produced, and at the close we had a bawdy catch to encourage our applause.
I left the theatre richer by one firm, ripe orange, and wiser in the ways of Restoration nobles, ladies, bawds and thespians.

for the Chelmsford Weekly News:

A colourful company, on a superb panelled stage set, to tell the story of Edward Kynaston, the Beauty of the title. He made his name playing Shakespeare's women, until that merry monarch Charles II decreed that only actresses should take on Juliet, Cleopatra, Desdemona and the rest.
CTW field an impressive cast: Philip John Hart as the androgynous Ned, Emily Barnes as his rival Mrs Hughes, Caroline Dunsmuir as his maid Maria, Kevin Stemp as his boss Betterton, Corinne Woodgate as a pert Nell Gwynn and, as the merry monarch, Mark Tree, who was also responsible for the décor. Not to mention Samuel Pepys, George Villiers, Charles Sedley, the violinist, Mistress Revel and many more.
An entertaining romp through Restoration London, sumptuously dressed and spectacularly directed by Christine Davidson.

If you missed it at the Old Court, it's travelling to the wonderfully atmospheric Ingatestone Hall, where it plays on the 20th, 21st and 22nd of July.
Tickets from www.chelmsford.gov.uk/theatres or call the Civic Box Office on 01245 606505.

and at Ingatestone, for the Brentwood Weekly News:

Van Dycks stare down as Chelmsford Theatre Workshop move into the panelled gallery of Ingatestone Hall to tell the story of Edward Kynaston, the Beauty of the title. He made his name playing Shakespeare's women, until that merry monarch Charles II decreed that only actresses should take on Juliet, Cleopatra, Desdemona and the rest.
CTW field an impressive cast: Philip John Hart as the androgynous Ned, Emily Barnes as his rival Mrs Hughes, Caroline Dunsmuir as his stage-struck maid Maria, Kevin Stemp as his bombastic boss Betterton, Corinne Woodgate as a pert Nell Gwynn and, as the merry monarch, Mark Tree. Not to mention Samuel Pepys, George Villiers, Charles Sedley, the violinist, Mistress Revel and many more.

An ideal setting for this entertaining romp through Restoration London, sumptuously dressed and spectacularly directed by Christine Davidson.

Sunday, June 26, 2016


Eastern Angles at the Hush House

A welcome revival for this skilful, affectionate adaptation, by Nick Wood, of the Arthur Ransome novel of 1937, the seventh of the Swallows and Amazons franchise.
The staging is wonderfully inventive, endlessly evocative of the little Goblin on which the children accidentally sail to Holland. A circular stage, audience two sides, a small sail, a stern with a tiller, bigger sails either end of the traverse area, sea-chart designs on the decks, and everything stowed neatly away below: tin mugs, maps, flags, ropes, jumpers and lamps.
A combination of soundscape – the wind and the waves mixed with snatches of Shostakovich, master of film music – and atmospheric lighting conjured up the voyage in all its moods; we could almost feel the spray and the sea water.
And four young actors re-created that innocent world before the war when children could go off on adventures unaccompanied - “ all alone in our own little world with only the sound of the waves rushing by ...”
Rosalind Steele is Susan, sea-sick, but scarily efficient, longing to take the helm and prove as good as a boy. Joel Sams is John, acting skipper, reefing the mainsail, fighting fatigue and the elements to bring the cutter safely to harbour. Christopher Buckley gives an outstanding performance as Able Seaman Roger, the youngest on board, outspoken and always hungry. And Matilda Howe is Titty [not Kitty or Tatty, thank goodness], who writes up the whole adventure in her exercise book.
They all stay just leeward of Blyton-esque caricature, and everyone gets the chance to play another character. So Howe is also the Dutch pilot, Buckley the owner of the boat who unwisely goes ashore for a can of petrol, Sams is a superbly imperious Mother and Steele the naval Father – John, like Hamlet, sees a spectral parent in the dark watches of the night.
We also meet Sinbad the kitten and Billy the donkey …
It's a marvellous tale, tautly directed by Ivan Cutting. Not only a spiffing adventure, but also richly written, with tempers fraying as the sea-mist closes in.

And, of course, a natural choice for Eastern Angles, set in the local geography of the Orwell Estuary, just a few miles as the gull flies from where the Hush House sits under those wide Suffolk skies.

photograph: Mike Kwasniak



From the Baroque to McCabe, in a very varied programme.

Vivaldi's Concerto for Two Trumpets features players from the ranks, as does Mozart's Sublime Sinfonia Concertante.

John McCabe who died last year after a long illness, was one of Britain’s most accomplished composers whose music was performed and loved by audiences here, in the USA and in Europe.  His Six-Minute Symphony will be given as a prelude to Schumann's much-loved, summery Second Symphony.

Saturday 2nd July 2016 at 7.30 pm.
Christ Church, New London Road, Chelmsford

There will be a free pre-concert talk given by conductor Tom Hammond, at 6.30 p.m.


at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

This is Emma Rice's Kneehigh swansong. And, from the Bristol Old Vic, she's brought it to her new home, Shakespeare's Globe.
Sophia Clist's bold, bulky wooden structure sits slightly uneasily in the Jacobean playhouse, but the enhanced candlelight suits this atmospheric, nostalgic tale perfectly, while the intimacy of the space brings a powerful emotional heft to Daniel Jamieson's lively, wistful two-hander.
Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson play painter Marc Chagall, child-like, Chaplinesque, and his muse, and first wife, Bella Rosenfeld.
We can pack all the things we love in Vitebsk into our minds and take them with us,” she tells him, and so they do – the green cows, the rabbis, and of course their airborne alter egos travel to Petersburg, Paris, New York … The devoted Bella sees Marc brush off war, revolution, anti-semitism, fatherhood, as he focuses passionately on his work.
Past blends with present in a playful, poignant piece which resonates long after the music has faded. Ian Ross, the MD, with James Gow, provide an evocative accompaniment, as well as supernumerary support. The old Inkspots number which opens the show is reprised as an encore, suiting the narrative and the mood to perfection.
Back in the 90s, Rice played Bella, we're told. This revival, exquisitely directed, full of imaginative touches and flowing, flying movement, blends theatre and fine art in a moving memoir of the painter as a young man.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016



at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich


Stars and portents align to celebrate the Wolsey's 15th birthday year. Opening on Midsummer Night, 400 years after Shakespeare's death, this Dream brings Trevor Nunn back to his home town, where he saw his first ever Shakespeare [the Dream, of course] at the age of 12. And it means he's now directed, in his long and illustrious career, every one of the 37 plays.
We're in 1930s India, the height of the Raj, with the Duke as the Viceroy. It's a concept that fits beautifully, intellectually as well as artistically.
It makes sense of Hermia's forced marriage, for one thing. There's a wonderfully telling moment as Pyramus & Thisbe ends, and Bottom explains that the wall is down that parted their fathers.
It seems the norm now to airbrush Athens out of the text, but otherwise Shakespeare's words survive intact, if trimmed a little, and the verse is universally well spoken.
Matt Rawle and Fiona Hampton are the upper-crust couple – he sports a pith helmet for the hunt - and also of course Oberon and Titania. Sam Dastor is excellent as Egeus, the old-fashioned father of the bride, and Michelle Bishop manages a unique double as First Fairy and Phyllis [ … straight …], aide to Theseus, and the only character to change name or gender.
The colourful Fairy Band, moving expressively in the background, are children – casting which would not look out of place in Irving's Lyceum. By contrast the Indian Boy, bone of contention between the Fairy King and Queen, wears a plain white costume.
The quartet of lovers are superbly done – Neerja Naik is poor Hermia, Assad Zaman her Demetrius. Harry Lister Smith, in his wonderful cream Brideshead suit, is a very posh Lysander, and Imogen Daines is a hilarious “maypole” Helena, drinking and smoking as she's rejected. Act III scene 2 – another part of the wood, and the opening of Part Two in this production – is brilliantly choreographed, from the moment when Esh Alladi's lithe Puck and Oberon glide into hiding to Hermia's bemused exit.
The Rude Mechanicals are itinerant tradesman, each bringing the tools of his trade. The absent Weaver, for example, is represented by a bobbin of scarlet thread on a mat, possibly of his own making. Kulvinder Ghir makes a wonderful Bottom: his “dream” monologue is exemplary, his warm-up before the rehearsal a delight. Muzz Khan is a gormless Starveling, his Moon waning as Ghir's operatic Pyramus milks his big scene. And Deven Modha's Flute brings real feeling to his Thisbe, quietly out-performing the blustering Bottom.
Libby Watson's design is glorious – the gorgeous palace, the deep dark wood, the pastoral patchwork of fields suggesting Puck's flight – and splendidly lit by Mark Jonathan – Titania's bower backlit by moonlight.
We're spoilt for Dreams this year – on the BBC, at the RSC, in the Globe. This provincial wonder is probably the most important, and certainly one of the most deliciously enjoyable.

production photo by Mike Kwasniak


National Theatre at the Dorfman

Thalia, the muse of comedy, is the name playwright Theo [Sam Crane] chooses for the Greek home he acquires on the island of Skiathos, almost by accident, at the start of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s new play.
Theo's work is described as “quietly political”, Campbell's is rather more overtly so – the Aegean idyll is disturbed by an American couple, encountered by chance at the airport; the military coup of 1967 is imminent. CIA agent Harvey – a great performance from Ben Miles – is uncomfortably assertive, meddling with the lives of the two naïve Brits, his manipulative machinations masquerading as kindness and generosity. The subtext, surely, is the tendency of the US to wade in to impose its will on weaker nations, defining democracy to suits its own ends.
The four meet up again nine years later. Theo and the restless Charlotte [Pippa Nixon] have two children; Harvey has been scarred by the part he played in the overthrow of Allende. He cruelly reveals to his hosts the fate of the family whose house they bought for a song on the eve of the Generals' coup.
The action sometimes seems a little contrived. The sun sets slowly at the end of each act. But all the performances are polished and perceptive; Elizabeth McGovern, tall and slender in blue, is wonderful as June, Harvey's hard-drinking wife.
Simon Godwin's production brings out the best in Campbell's play, against Hildegard Bechtler’s hyper-realistic Skiathos setting.

Friday, June 17, 2016


LADS at The Tractor Shed, Latchingdon

Michael Frayn's backstage drama is still the best of the Show Goes Wrong genre.

And it's given a welcome revival this week in the unlikely setting of the Latchingdon Tractor Shed, a venue probably not on the OtStar Productions tour list
A complex set, with all those essential doors, many of them on a raised level; it all spins round to reveal prompt corner and the wings, and is trundled back again, in full view, for the disastrous last act. Bravo !
It's a difficult play, even for the most seasoned pros. We saw the [postponed] first night, which would be the first audience preview, weeks before opening, in the real world. So there were some hiccups and hiatuses.
Nonetheless, much to amuse, and some fine farcical performances: Daniel Tunbridge as the harassed director, and Aimee Hart as the dozy ingénue, catching the style of the Whitehall farce very impressively.
Reliable character support from David Hudson as the whisky-fuelled reprobate Selsdon, and Joan Cooper as Dotty Otley, typecast again as the cheerful char.
Adam Hart makes an athletic Garry, Moir Gunfield gives a lively, confident Belinda, with Alan Elkins her on-stage husband. The “Nothing On” company is completed by Vicci Rayner as the hard-pressed ASM, and Aaron Gardner as the jack-of-all trades Company Manager.

Carole Hart's production, a considerable achievement for a village society, has many enjoyable comedy moments, many of them physical: the tumbles, the wordless wrestling behind the scenes, and the glorious moment when Poppy drops her bombshell at the end of Act Two. “And curtain!”

production photograph: Keith Spencer

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


Springers at the Civic Theatre


For a long time I avoided this self-confessed Python rip-off. Flattery lured me to the Playhouse in the end, where I had a very enjoyable time
And great fun at the Civic, too: a bigger stage, a much bigger company, enthusiastically embracing the shamelessly bold style this unique show demands.
The audience may well come along with expectations, from the Python Grail film, or from seeing one of the many incarnations of this 2005 stage version. On opening night they went wild for the shrubbery, and lustily whistled along to the big number from Peter Spilling's put-upon horse's arse Patsy.
It was great to see a full chorus: the showgirls, in a succession of gorgeous frocks, were variously cheerleaders, minstrels, corps de ballet and much more. The chorus boys had their moments too, climaxing in the copacabana campery in Prince Herbert's chamber.
Despite some hitches, most of which we could forgive in the spirit of silliness, there were many effective bits of staging: the flag waving, the light sabre brollies, the stilts for Amy Serin's first Knight of Ni. Some perfect pastiche, too, notably The Song That Goes Like This, deliciously done by Ian Pavelin's excellent Galahad and his elegant Lady of the Lake, Olivia Pearson.
Many fine performances from the largest roles [Colin Shoard's Arthur King] to the smallest [a balletic friar, a Marceau mime]. It does help if there's a shared sense of fun, guilty pleasures being taken on both sides of the fourth wall. Certainly the case for Jay Fargeot's Lancelot, Bradley Cole's Broadway-obsessed Brave Sir Robin, and Justin Clarke's two silly voices as Tim the Enchanter and the rude Froggie sentinel. Kieran Young, who was also one of the roster of nine choreographers, got to play both Not Dead Fred and Prince Herbert, sporting the fruitiest Carmen Miranda ever.

Spamalot was directed for Springers by Barry Miles, with the MD Ian Myers in charge of a big pit band – the oompah Not Yet Dead one of many merry musical moments.

production photograph: Aaron Crowe

Tuesday, June 14, 2016



Another interesting rarity from CTW – The Compleat Female Stage Beauty [filmed in 2004 as Stage Beauty] – by American dramatist Jeffrey Hatcher. It's a witty, bawdy look at the London of Samuel Pepys and Nell Gwynn, and the radical changes that swept through the acting profession during the Restoration.

The central character, Edward Kynaston, played at the Old Court by Philip John Hart, was one of the last of the Restoration “boy actors” - young men who specialised in playing women on stage. By 1661 actors like Kynaston were playing both male and female roles (sometimes in different productions of the same play) with equal success. Kynaston was, according to Pepys, a beautiful man who made convincing women on the stage and was thus blessed with the opportunity to play many of the plum dramatic female roles of the day. He was, in essence, the compleat actor! Jeffrey Hatcher's play explores both gender and social issues with his customary frankness: not a suitable play for children.
It plays at the Old Court in Springfield Road from 28th June to 2nd July, and you can also catch it in the uniquely atmospheric setting of Ingatestone Hall on the 20th, 21st and 22nd July.
Tickets for both from www.chelmsford.gov.uk/theatres or call the Civic Box Office on 01245 606505.

Sunday, June 12, 2016


Mercurius at The Rose Playhouse, Bankside

Ben Jonson was no stranger to the Rose, but this perfect farce was written for an indoor space, and, ironically given the plot, was premièred in Oxford thanks to the plague.
It was last done on this tiny, temporary stage some three years ago.
Mercurius's riotously lively production begins with Labrinth's Earthquake, shaking the concrete rafters as Subtle and Face unpack their paraphernalia, ready to welcome a succession of the gullible to the house they've “borrowed” in the Blackfriars. Peter Wicks is the duplicitous butler, sporting an eye-patch as the captain, tongs as the alchemist's acolyte. Benjamin Garrison makes a gloriously fruity, flouncy charlatan, flopping onto his chaise longue and wrapping himself in his astrological throw. Doll Commmon, their “colleague”, as the programme coyly has it, is Beth Eyre, just as clever as the chaps at assuming a disguised persona.
Amongst the varied victims, all splendidly portrayed: Monty D'Inverno's Dapper [he was also the angry Kastril], Clark Alexander [who also plays the absent Lovewit, master of the house] as Abel Drugger, seeking to feng shui his tobacconist's shop, and Jeremy Booth's excellent Sir Epicure, eagerly seeking the philosopher's stone and relishing some of Jonson's richest, ripest language. Alec Bennie is his sceptical side-kick Surly, soon to return in Spanish guise. Some of the playwright's sharpest satire is reserved for the Puritans: Charlie Ryall's Anabaptist Ananias and Beth Eyre's splendidly named Tribulation Wholesome. Ryall also gives us Dame Pliant, the widow who weds Lovewit in the deft dénouement.
The echoing void is sparingly, but effectively used – shadowplay for the quarrel, and Mammon's imposing arrival.

Take but the cues I give you; it shall be brief enough...” Pared down to the statutory ninety minutes, Jenny Eastop's relentlessly pacy Alchemist is fast and furious fun – the tinkly little doorbell scarcely stops ringing. Just the thing to ruffle the cobwebs and rouse the glorious ghosts of the old Rose.