Monday, February 29, 2016


Cahoots Theatre Company at the Cramphorn Theatre


In a remarkable tour-de-force, Gerard Logan uses Oscar Wilde's words to give a moving insight into the man behind the scandals and the stage hits.
De Profundis is his bitter letter to Lord Alfred Douglas. The poet's tragic infatuation with this feckless boy is the cause of his imprisonment, and yet the tone is often rueful, wounded rather than wrathful. In his bare prison cell, the mask can be removed as he mourns his lost love and stares hopelessly at a future of penury and exile.
And in that exile, he writes The Ballad of Reading Gaol, recalling in verse the last days of a fellow prisoner condemned to hang.
Logan's voice is richly expressive, his face suggesting something of the pain which lies deeper than words.

Gareth Armstrong adapts and directs this memorable evening, which brings the audience a little closer to the flawed genius of Oscar Wilde.

Sunday, February 28, 2016


Hutton Players at Brentwood Theatre

This poignant play tells the true story of Rudyard Kipling's boy John, killed in the trenches when he was still a teenager.
The poet, who pulled strings so that his myopic only son could satisfy his own patriotic urges, is accused by his wife and daughter of sending the boy to certain death.
David Haig's drama is powerful, and superbly constructed. Glenda Abbott's production underlines the dynamic of the plot; especially in the second act, the interplay between the family is skilfully crafted, as Carrie, Kipling's American wife, clutches obsessively at straws, poring over reports and interviews with comrades, and Kipling himself strives to “find the good in it”. “Was he pleased to be there ?” he asks the private from Jack's platoon who witnessed the last fatal attack.
In the first half, the changes of scene slow the action and disrupt the mood a little, but here too the dramatic structure is superb – the medical board chatting about the latest technology as Jack's defective eyesight is about to be revealed, the intruders on the lawn, the children sharing an illicit tipple, foreshadowing the whisky shared later to soften the blow of Jack's death.
The pivotal scene in the trenches is well handled, the Irish squaddies with their awful feet and their pigeon baskets against a swiftly erected dugout.
Most of the scenes take place in the “dark, depressing” drawing room of Bateman's, Kipling's Sussex home, spaciously realised on the Brentwood stage, with fine furnishings and Persian rugs.
The quality of the performances is outstanding. William Wells, who, like the playwright, bears a certain resemblance to Kipling, gives a wonderful period performance, stiff upper lip only occasionally troubled by raw passions. A pause, a turn of the head, express deeper feelings. He ages convincingly, reading stories to his family, and reciting as the play closes the poem he wrote the same year his beloved boy died. Lindsey Crutchett plays his wife, desperate to avert the fate she sees only too clearly for her son, searching desperately through eye-witness accounts long after her husband has tacitly accepted the truth. The lad himself is brilliantly played by Ben Sylvester; we share his frustration, the anguish of rejection, his longing to leave the family home behind. And his vulnerability, his pathetic youthfulness, is palpable. He is killed weeks after his eighteenth birthday.
Strong support from Eleanor Burgess as Jack's older sister, and Gary Ball as the shell-shocked soldier who brings a halting, haunting account of Jack's death into the tranquillity of the sitting room. He is persuaded to do so by an engagingly awkward friend, perfectly done by Darren Hannant. Sam Thorley and Andrew Spong join Ball in the fragile camaraderie of battle, and the top brass on the medical board are Alan Thorley and James Biddle.
A very impressive production of a timely, touching piece, directed with style and sensitivity and played to perfection by a fine acting company.

image from the programme design by Paul Sparrowham

Wednesday, February 17, 2016



The Queen's, Hornchurch, has a new Artistic Director. And for his opening show, he's chosen Shakespeare's riotous battle of the sexes, Much Ado About Nothing.
Featuring a large cast and set amid the jubilant celebrations after the Second World War, this much-loved romantic comedy will also commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Inventive staging and a sparkling jazz-filled soundtrack will add to the magic.
It’s the end of the war and Leonato throws a party for the victorious Duke and his troops. Claudio falls in love with Hero and Hero with Claudio, and nothing will keep them apart. Claudio’s friend Benedick loves Beatrice and Beatrice loves Benedick – but they won’t admit it – and nothing will bring them together. Only the devious scheming of a resentful prince forces the pair to eventually reveal their true feelings for one another.
Beatrice and Benedick are played at Billet Lane by Hattie Ladbury and Thomas Padden, whose hugely diverse credits range from the West End and Shakespeare’s Globe to innumerable roles on television and film.
Meanwhile, youthful Claudio and Hero are played by recent drama school graduates Amber James and James Siggens.
The cast’s breadth of experience includes credits at the Globe, National Theatre, Regent’s Park Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Court and in the West End. Screen work includes Dr WhoEastEndersDownton Abbey and Four Weddings and a Funeral.
They are: Liam Bergin, Rosie Barden, Jamie Bradley,Pascale Burgess, Nigel Hastings, Eliza Hunt, Mark Jax,Amber James, Hattie Ladbury, Thomas Padden, Sam Pay, James Siggens, Noel Sullivan and Sam Walters. The cast is supported by a 12-strong community chorus: Graham Bennett, Martin Hart, Mandy Lyes, Lucy Mason, Alex Raynham, Leah Rowlands, Hayley Sanderson, David Savage, Pam Shrimpton, Marie Watson and Megan Withers.
Design is by Jean Chan, musical direction by Julian Littman, lighting design by Matt Haskins, sound design by Helen Atkinson and choreography by Tim Jackson.

Much Ado About Nothing will be performed at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch from 4 – 26 March. Tickets are from £12.50 – £27. 

Call the Box Office on 01708 443333 or book online at

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


WOW! at the Public Hall Witham

Brought up on Glee and Grease, this very young company could hardly be expected to catch the spirit of this charmingly old-fashioned show – a museum piece even when it opened in the 60s – the last traditional musical to transfer from the West End to Broadway.
But I'm delighted to report that WOW's production, directed by Faith Rogers and Louise Lachance, with Ben Firth in the pit, is a lively, stylish evening.
The look is lovely – navy blue and boaters for the draper's apprentices, a vintage back-cloth for Folkestone's promenade, real Edwardian bats for the cricket match.
The dancing, too, is a delight, making the most of the restricted space – the ball, Economy, Money to Burn all inventively choreographed against Paul Lazell's simple, versatile set. And there are some real musical comedy performances in the large cast – amongst them Harry Tunningley's irrepressible Buggins and Dexter Montgomery's wonderful Chitterlow, knowing looks and extravagant thespian gestures, fond of Zola, Chekhov and Old Methuselah.
Kipps himself – the oldest apprentice in the employ of sour old Shalford [Chris Tierney] – is engagingly played by Jake Collis, with a winning Colgate smile and a nice line in self-deprecating narrative. His lost and confused soliloquy [What Should I Feel?] makes a nice contrast with the cheery chappy. The two women in his young life are Charlotte Toft's feisty Ann and Tasha Gooderham's elegant fashion-plate Helen. Too Far Above Me is a nice musical exposition of the class conflict at the heart of the H G Wells story. Amy Seymour makes a suitably unbending Mrs Walsingham, looking down on young Artie's attempts at social climbing.
The energetic ensemble – cricketers, carollers, customers and carpenters – is well deployed, with plenty of opportunities for cameos and striking stage pictures. The human staircase in particular sticks in the mind: a tiny moment, but typical of the care with which this show is crafted.

Photograph: Matilda Bourne Video: Alice Tunningley

Sunday, February 14, 2016


at the Chichester Festival Theatre

Alan Bennett's double bill from the 80s looks again at the theme of political exile [explored in The Old Country] and disguise and deception.
This solid revival – touring after this week in its Chichester home – sets both pieces against a forbidding grey stone facade, the portraits of Uncle Joe Stalin replaced in the interval by British monarchs.
Guy Burgess's Moscow flat – a tip, he freely confesses, boasts a chaise longue as well as Stendhal's desk. He entertains Coral Browne to lunch, serving a solitary tomato, playing his only 78. He drops names, is eager for any scrap of gossip. He is measured for a suit; he joins his live-in minder in a pianola and balalaika duet from The Gondoliers.
Nicholas Farrell is a splendidly shambolic Burgess; Belinda Lang a little too stridently Australian as Miss Browne. In a coda before the interval, she recalls asking Lord Harlech about other spies – the Fifth Man. “But he just smiled.”
The Fourth Man, of course, was Sir Anthony Blunt, Master of the Queen's Pictures. Played beautifully - “a cold fish” by David Robb. Farrell this time is Chubb, the investigator who tries in vain to get Blunt to name names. An affable chap from Purleigh superbly suggested in a nuanced performance, talking of art as much as of espionage. Lang is HMQ, capturing her vocal mannerisms precisely, if, again, a little too stridently.
This play is a complex, enigmatic reflection on fakes and façades – a Titian is analysed, conversations run on two levels or more. Perhaps too clever for today's audience. The Hayward Gallery gets its laugh, but the twisted quote from Auden does not. And who now remembers Arthur Marshall, Call My Bluff captain, recalled by Burgess and others as acting Redgrave off the stage in a Dadie Rylands production in twenties Cambridge.

Thursday, February 11, 2016


Jubilant Productions
at the Headgate Theatre, Colchester

Romantic fiction – top selling literary genre, staple of the mobile library – what does it mean to you ? Rose-tinted Barbara Cartland and her team of amanuenses ? A cottage industry of prolific hacks, many of them pseudonymous men ?
These tropes, and much more, in Anne Pearson's gently amusing satire, full of word-play [dentistry puns, Austen titles] and lovely pastiche: “the heart is a strange organ”, in novels like The Heart Surgeon's Secret, The Dentist's Dilemma and To The Moon And Back. The scenes in the dentist's chair are particularly cherishable: “I'll be gentle with you,” he promises. “Open wide … you seem much more relaxed this time.”
Fliss Bliss – her real name – is persuaded to enter a competition run by Pomme d'Amour Press. Her prize: mentoring support by best-selling author Olivia de la Fontaine – not his real name. Using the indispensable manual for aspiring romantic writers, The Pathway to Passion.
Along the way there are dramatized extracts from work in progress, and guest appearances by Miss Austen in drag and assorted denizens of the local library. It's fast-moving and great fun, though the writing could sometimes be a little tighter. As Mike says to Felicity: “interesting characters and witty dialogue.”
Needless to say, romance blossoms between neophyte and old pro, and a quirky finale has them jump up from Remington and Apple in a triumphant dance routine.
This is a lovely two-hander – even the gushing compère [Helen Watson] could easily be a voice-over like publisher Veronica [Patricia Byford] – and Christine Absalom and Ben Livingstone relish every moment, with perfect comic timing and tongues just far enough into the cheek …
This rehearsed reading, directed by Ignatius Anthony and produced by Jules Easlea, is, one hopes, the last stage of development before the long-awaited tour to small venues in the region.

Sunday, February 07, 2016


at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford

Trumpet legend John Wallace brought the Philharmonia Brass to the Civic for a revelatory evening of arrangements.
You'll never see so many brass players on one stage,” he assures us in his entertaining pre-concert conversation. And I can believe him, since here, sitting alongside the Phil's brass players for Brian Lynn's Fanfare for Essex, are young musicians from the Essex Youth Brass Ensemble. A great idea – and they came back after the interval under their director Steve Drury, playing a cue from the Victorian Kitchen Garden.
Two Eric Crees arrangements from the professionals, with Wallace conducting: Bach's familiar Toccata and Fugue, with a splendid palette of colours as the tune was tossed around. Though maybe a little more reverberation in the acoustic would have blended them better. And sounding like “a pit band on heat” [Wallace], the Suite from West Side Story.
To end, an astonishing arrangement by Elgar Howarth of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Amazing feats of versatility, and otherworldly sounds, from the band ranged in a wide-screen arc across the Civic stage. An off-stage trumpet for Il Vecchio Castello, rumbling drums for the ox-cart, xylophone and some unbelievable trumpet effects for the Unhatched Chicks.

Brilliant playing, from virtuosi at the top of their game. Let's hope they can be persuaded back to Chelmsford soon. When perhaps we could have a better programme booklet – this time £2 bought us two whole pages on the Philharmonia [mother-ship to this ensemble] but nothing at all on Wallace or the pieces played.


at the Rose Playhouse Bankside

Hamlet at the Rose Theatre, the Bankside playhouse built in the 1580s by Philip Henslowe, where Shakespeare, Marlowe, Johnson and Kyd were staged until the early 17th century.

When the sweet prince last trod these boards, just three years ago, we were assured that Hamlet was staged here in 1594. Whether that's true or not, there is a definite sense of historical continuity here, even in this radical re-working of Shakespeare's longest drama.

This bodes some strange eruption in our state,” warns Horatio, the first words spoken after an ominous soundscape. This is a wilfully disjointed, oneiric vision of Hamlet's world - “In that sleep of death, what dreams may come,” he muses, in his big soliloquy.

Chris Clynes is the black-clad Prince; he speaks the speeches with clarity, and occasional passion - “my mind's eye” - but never seems to have much mirth to lose; we're too used to lighter, more jocular Hamlets, perhaps. Messing with his mind in this claustrophobic space are Suzanne Marie's hysteric Ophelia, Louise Templeton's unfeeling Gertrude, and Nigel Fyfe's Claudius – an imposing presence, though not especially regal. Ross McNamara's Laertes, great-coat and rifle, brings a controlled passion to his role, and Luke Jasztal makes an engaging Horatio, especially in his closing speech, where he borrows some of Fortinbras's valediction.
Dermot Dolan's Polonius is dressed like a comic, and bears a banjo, but is singularly unamusing.
Yorick's skull makes an early, unlooked-for appearance – the Gravedigger a victim of the cuts – and returns as Ophelia's remembrances. Much of the poetry, and some of the soliloquies, are lost in this nightmare world.
The echoing excavation area is used for the ghost-watchers and much more – Hamlet's return, for instance – and there are some telling visual moments, like Ophelia's funeral procession. And Hamlet's little marionettes for the Murder of Gonzago.

The playlist is nothing if not eclectic: Goodnight Sweetheart, Mad About the Boy, Send in the Clowns, Leonard Cohen, Lonely Goatherd [for the Mousetrap], Lili Marlene [for Ophelia and Laertes sharing a bag of chips].

Director Diana Vucane's 90-minute tragedy seeks to see the play afresh through Hamlet's eyes, “focusing on the perspective of a disturbed mind, thus defying the reality-based structure of time and space, recognizing solely the inconceivable logic of a dream.” It comes across, though, as an earnest but unedifying student concept, offering only occasional insights into Shakespeare's play or Hamlet's troubled mind.

production photograph by Jana Andrejeva-Andersone

Thursday, February 04, 2016



Jubilant Productions at the Headgate Theatre, Colchester

Since the success of Merry It Was To Laugh There back in 2014, we've eagerly awaited a new chamber work from Jubilant.
After a few hiccups and false starts, Miss Bliss is getting a rehearsed reading at the Headgate next month.
Romancing Miss Bliss or ‘The Dentist’s Dilemma’ is a new original and comic look at the secret lives of those who write romance fiction, the best selling literary genre in the world.
Dentist Felicity Bliss thinks writing a romance is as easy as falling out of bed. For a bet, she enters Pomme d’Amour Press’s competition to write such a book, and wins. Her prize is to be mentored in the art of romantic fantasy fiction by a seasoned scribe and soon she discovers it’s not all satin sheets and Chardonnay. Can she write another book? Is there romance in dentistry? Will she learn to love her readers and will her mentor find some new vocabulary?

Written by playwright Anne Pearson especially for Jubilant, the play features an original ‘book-within-a-play’ style as the scenes from Felicity’s book are dramatised.

This reading features Colchester favourites Christine Absalom and Ben Livingstone, and is directed by Ignatius Anthony.

8pm on Wednesday 10 and Thursday 11 February, tickets £8 [£6 concessions]
Headgate Theatre
14 Chapel Street North

01206 366000

Monday, February 01, 2016


at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford

A trio since Jules Knight left for Holby City, this “operatic” crossover man-band continues to tour the world with their close harmonies and key changes, making U2 sound like Puccini and vice versa.
Classically trained, these singers, though their education does not seem to have included filling a modest auditorium without mega-watt amplification. Not that there's much classical music on offer here: their set started with Simon and Garfunkel [Bridge Over Treacle] and included Snow Patrol, Elvis, Sting and that other crossover charlatan Andrea Bocelli.
There was gentle banter – Adele, Saga Cruises, Il Divo and Terry Wogan in the frame – and a welcome appearance by Sandra Colston's Funky Voices, backing You Raise Me Up and Jerusalem. One man band at the keys was Martin Riley.

Simple staging – mics, monitors and a little mist- with video projections behind. Raindrops and waterfalls – maybe not the best choice for this audience demographic - the Union Flag and wild horses. They wouldn't drag me back, but the sell-out crowd waved, cheered and leapt to their feet at the end.