Monday, July 25, 2016


Firebirds at the Brentwood Theatre


Into The Woods with Firebirds and Sondheim – an up-close and magical production on the intimate Brentwood stage.
The creative team behind last year's Secret Garden triumphantly enter the more challenging world of Sondheim's tricky tunes, witty lyrics and twisted fairy tales.
The classic quality of the show is only one of the key ingredients here. Production values are high: the costumes, the band and the set, which cleverly uses minimal detail for Cinders' hearth, Rapunzel's tower, Jack's cottage, the baker's shop, where rolls and baguettes give way in Act Two to diapers and bootees.
On opening night, an otherwise polished show was tarnished slightly by persistent problems with sound – very difficult to run the mixer desk from backstage, I imagine.
And of course the cast – excellent singing actors called for in this show. All the characters are wonderfully defined in Firebirds' strong, youthful company: the Baker's Wife [Fleur Sumption] and Little Red Riding Hood [Abbie Ward] both combine music and character to perfection. The Witch next door [Charlotte Rayner] and her adopted daughter Rapunzel [Kate Claussen] blend beautifully in duet, as do the two narcissistic Princes [Tom Carswell and Seb Mayo].
As often these days, the Narrator is a youngster [Theo Harris] – as well as an objective observer, he is also a scene-shifter, a dancer, a soloist in Ever After and a scapegoat sacrifice.
A deep, dark piece, with violent death and blindness prominent, Into The Woods is sensitively directed by Liz Gibson and Allen Clark. The Musical Director is Natalie Thurlow, and the Production Manager is Cathy Edkins who also appears as two mothers – Cinderella's from beyond the grave, and Jack's, despairing of her beanstalk boy [Jack Matthews].

Photograph: Seb Mayo's Cinderella Prince and Fleur Sumption's Baker's Wife.

Monday, July 18, 2016


at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford

Over its 40 year history, Essex Dance Theatre has continued to grow and evolve, while remaining true to its founding principles of professionalism, inclusivity and mutual support.
Their annual showcase is only the tip of their artistic iceberg – they're just back from their Devon residential – but remains an astounding achievement.
It began with the Thursday Boys – moving impressively to Pompeii and Juke Box Hero – before the two performing groups alternated one inventive, energetic routine after another, most of them choreographed in house. Both cohorts giving 100% to the challenging, dynamic dance, and both boasting an athletic, stylish group of young men.

Of the two dozen numbers, room only to mention the highly charged black and white This Is Why I Was Born, the cheeky Dr Wanna Do, Sing Sing Sing building the excitement, the school uniformed Trouble, which segued neatly into the witty Latin Trio. A stylish polka-dotted Hey Pachuco, and a superb routine to Neon Jungle's Braveheart, before The Knowledge from the whole company, closing the show as it has for the last 28 years, the calls and the triumphal descent to the stalls.

the 2015 company photographed by Patrick Anderson


Writtle Singers at All Saints' Church

Marking 400 years since Shakespeare's death, an enjoyably varied selection of choral works inspired by his words.
Beginning with a piece often heard on All Saints' aisle, Mendelssohn's Wedding March, in a witty, wordless arrangement by conductor Christine Gwynn.
More orchestral manoeuvres in Schubert's Sylvia, and plenty of opportunities to compare different settings of the same text: Come Away Death, for example, by way of Finland and New York, A Lover and His Lass from Shakespeare's time and our own – one of the Rutter Madrigals which ended the evening.
Even the Weird Sisters get a look in, their Double Double bubbling away in a dark, dramatic setting by Jaakko Mantyjarvi.
Local composers represented, too, with a richly traditional Winter Wind from Martin Taylor, and an inventive Sonnet 8 [Music to Hear] from Janet Wheeler, ending, sublimely, with a choral sigh.


Vivid Jnr at Brentwood Theatre


High School Musical – a follow-up to Honk for Vivid Jnr – is directed by Amy Newland and Emma Jane Sweeney.
This popular spin-off [writers uncredited in the programme] has a derivative, well-worn storyline which will be familiar even if you don't know the Disney original – a holiday encounter recalled back in school, a show to put on, rivalry between Thesps and Jocks, and here, Brainiacs and Skater Dudes.
It's simply staged in Brentwood, with lockers and vending machine either side. Some good choreography – the basketball moves, the animated frieze behind Start of Something New.
Despite the heat, it would have been nice to have a little more physical enthusiasm from the young cast. Too often characters seemed awkward and lost on stage. Some of the dialogue, and even the lyrics, were obscured by the underscore and the backing track.
The star-crossed lovers - “typical jock meat-eater” Troy and cerebral Gabriella were played by Harrison Hall, looking slightly worried, and Rebecca Miller, perhaps a little too glam for the Science Decathlon. They sang sweetly together, but there was little chemistry – Drama Teacher Darbus, confidently characterized by Fern Harrison, will have her work cut out with her Juliet and Romeo musical.
Jonathan Wellers was a well-spoken team coach, Charlotte Hayward held things together as the news announcer.

But it was left to the Boyd sisters, Lara and Amy, playing villains of the piece Rian and Sharpay, to teach East High about engaging with the audience, acting with the eyes and making the best of the banal. As Darbus says after their What I've Been Looking For duet, “... very polished!”

Saturday, July 16, 2016


The Essex Group
at the Public Hall, Witham

A world première at the Public Hall.
A colourful crowd-pleaser from the Essex Group ,which would fit neatly into the increasingly popular Summer Panto genre, were it not for some ripe pirate expletives.
The book, by the indefatigable Gary Sullivan, who also directed the show and starred as a Pugwash Pirate King [Horney by name], tells the unlikely story of two pirate bands, one of each gender, who begin as hated rivals but find love and gold on Paradise Island.
WS Gilbert is never far away, and is referenced and quoted more than once. Spamalot is cited as an influence, too. Ashton Moore's accomplished music, though, ranges much more widely, with many hit musicals from Lloyd Webber to Les Mis affectionately parodied.
The men and the maids are already paired up by the interval, and some of the second half seems like treading water, though the pace picks up again with a series of short, snappy scenes and a stonking finale. And the lyrics, and the book, with its verbose flights of imagery and insistent smut, are not always as polished as the music.
But luckily Sullivan has an excellent cast at his command. All the pirates and piratesses are given amusing names, and, often, comic characters to go with them. Too many to credit here, but bouquets to Sue Cawley, channelling Carol Channing in a superb performance as Corsetta Basque, to Sean Hynes as Brollie Drip, who was equally impressive in ballet, backing group and banter [and doesn't really fall down on his innuendo], and to Jackie Parry, a consummate comedienne in the role of Gertrude, the Ruth of this version, a hideous grotesque - “When Will I Ever Find A Man”, she warbles in a delicious pastiche.
The lovers – Young John Thomas and Rosie Petal - were beautifully played, and sung, by Joe Baker and Charlotte Cavedasca, while Pastor and Brioche, the two French spies, with their mangled vowels, were well done by Tom Jervis and Josh Handley, who also helped out the Pirates when they were busy.
Great choreography by Hannah Fayers – there's even a tap routine - and excellent chorus numbers: the nine man opener, and the self-referencing Act One finale particularly impressive.

Carry On meets G&S – ridiculous plot and risqué humour – and all done with shameless charm and saucy style.

Saturday, July 09, 2016


The Stondon Singers at Stondon Massey


William Byrd's celebratory Haec Dies was the curtain raiser to this anniversary concert, a fascinating collection of works, sacred and profane, by his contemporaries in Renaissance Europe.
Freedom of movement seems to have been no problem – Franco-Flemish or Scandinavian musicians migrating to find work in Italy or Spain, for instance. Such as Mogens Pederson, a Dane who met Gabrieli in Venice; we heard three of his delightful Italian madrigals.
Two settings of Vox in Rama: chromatic from Giaches de Wert, working in Spain, and exquisitely expressive from Polish composer Mikolaj Zielinski – fine singing from the Stondons under Christopher Tinker's direction. They also excelled in Byrd's Ave Verum of 1605, and in the nicely rounded sound of O Vos Omnes by one Robert Ramsey, who may have moved south from his native, independent Scotland in the retinue of his monarch in 1603.

A bonus on this glorious evening in Byrd's local church – lute music from Mike Ashley, with Annabel Malton soprano, including two contrasting pieces from another persistent Papist, master of melancholia John Dowland.

Monday, July 04, 2016


The Company
at the Weald and Downland Museum

This familiar tale seems very much at home in the medieval village at the heart of this lovely open-air museum. Upper windows, stairs, shop fronts are all pressed into service in a gripping promenade production, directed by Stephen Israel.
There are six actor-musicians, plus a community chorus. Their role is to play actors, troops etcetera, and provide a modern commentary. While it is interesting to hear their thoughts on social media and Shrek, for example, their sweary teen-speak sits uneasily with John Wells's witty literary adaptation of the Rostand original.
Stuart Goodwin is a wonderful Cyrano, all swagger and panache on the surface, but vulnerable and tender-hearted underneath it all.
Matt Devitt [late of the Queen's Hornchurch] is the Comte de Guiche, Mike Simmonds is Carbon, and the show's MD. Dashing young Christian is engagingly played by Nicholas Bendall, while Roxane, his beloved, is Roxane Stuchbury,
A great comedy creation from Michael Webber as pastry-cook poet Rageneau, hilariously interacting with his audience, ad-libbing and distributing buns.
A memorable couple of hours – beginning in beautiful July sunshine for the optimistic opening scenes, but ending, with Cyrano's sad demise in the nunnery orchard, in chill, persistent rain.


Chichester Festival Theatre at the Minerva


One hundred years ago, British troops tried in vain to sleep, huddled in trenches on the eve of the great offensive, the first day of the Somme.
We're watching a play centred on two of those men, Bradford Pals Bert Ingram and Alfred Longshaw. They survived the bloody slaughter of that day, and acquitted themselves well in the fighting that followed. But before the year was out, those two youngsters were to dread another dawn, sentenced to die by firing squad for desertion.
Their story is the starting point for Mark Hayhurst's powerful new play, which imagines backgrounds, characters and motives for the boys, and for Bert's family back home in Salford.
The two privates are beautifully portrayed: David Moorst's Alfred is a lively, funny working-class intellectual, spouting Shakespeare in his lunch break and encouraging his work-mate to be his own man, thinking and acting for himself. Tom Gill's stout-hearted Bert, though older in real life, seems the junior partner in their relationship, especially in the madcap scheme they dream up to travel away from the action disguised as Americans. Except that when the end comes, it is Bert who finds the stillness and the strength to bring comfort to Alfred, as hooded and afraid, they face the rifles of their own comrades.
The Minerva set, by Paul Wills, has a muddy trench-side filling the stage between the stately doors [of the War Graves Commission?]. The action begins with a deafening barrage as the regiment charges over the top. Jonathan Munby's staging weaves the home-front and the Somme seamlessly together, the men carrying furniture and props and mingling, so many ghosts, with the folks back in Lancashire. The polished floor-boards are soaked by the chill rain on the Western Front. Practical, pacy and deeply moving.
There are many excellent performances, including Tim Preston as the neighbour and friend who cannot bring himself to tell the truth to the Inghams, and Freddie Watkins as Conker, who finally does so, having sat with Bert in that long last night.
Amelda Brown is Bert's sorrowing mother, desperately trying to dissuade his illiterate father [a superbly defiant Phil Davis] from his plan to have the truth carved on their son's headstone.
The words that inspired the play, and uniquely amongst all those executed in the Great War reveal the manner of his dying and his father's feelings: “SHOT AT DAWN / ONE OF THE FIRST TO ENLIST / A WORTHY SON OF HIS FATHER”
The closing moments of the piece poignantly echo that inscription. The two prisoners, hooded and bound to wooden uprights, are shot as dawn breaks. Then the mood is wrenched back to the jolly party that sent Bert off to the front - “like the King of England”. A brief word of farewell with his father, who is left staring after him as he is heard singing - “pure, like a skylark” - Hail Smiling Morn. And on the old man's face, are etched the sorrow and the dogged struggle of the “eight years in limbo” which followed.

production photograph by Manuel Harlan