Friday, March 25, 2016


London Concord Singers at St Botolph's Bishopsgate

A journey through Holy Week – varied scenery, and some spectacular views along the way.
None more so than James MacMillan's Tenebrae Responsories. A long way from the more familiar Renaissance polyphony, though Gesualdo's ghost is sometimes to be heard. Written ten years ago, it is a mighty challenge to any choir, the chromatic descending phrases in particular. But the Concord Singers, under their new conductor Jessica Norton, tackled it boldly, and brought out the dramatic, descriptive strengths of the piece as well as its moving religious power. MacMillan relates the crucifixion with humming, a crisp attack for “Deus Meus” and ornamented chant, including an effective one-woman recessional from soloist Rowena Wells.
Drama, too, in Bach's Jesu, Meine Freude, in the triple defiance of the “Trotz”.
The beautifully balanced sound of the Concord Singers, with a pleasantly resonant bass section, was heard to excellent effect in Gabriel Jackson's O Sacrum Convivium, and John Tavener's much-loved The Lamb, both very simple works at heart, as Ms Norton pointed out in her enthusiastic and informative introduction.
Robert Hugill, one of the choir's tenors, contributed a contemplative setting of the Resurrexi, with a repeated Alleluia motif.
A much more joyful Hallelujah at the end of the journey: Handel's setting sounding fresh and clear in this a cappella performance – a splendid climax to a typically eclectic programme.

Monday, March 21, 2016


Eastern Angles at the Village Hall, Purleigh
for The Reviews Hub

“Somewhere in England” - that's as precise as the wartime censors will allow. But we're in Suffolk, most probably – Horham is mentioned – and this is another fascinating piece of social history acted out under East Anglian skies.
Polly Wiseman's powerful play tells of the experience of Joe Turner, a black GI who spends much of the war supporting the bomber pilots of the USAAF. He enjoys fraternising with the locals, a pint in the pub. But encounters with a woman, a girl and a prejudiced airman bring imprisonment and the threat of worse.
The drama uses seven characters – four actors – to represent a spectrum of views. It uses a simple traverse staging, a few crates, corrugated iron and bunting, to pit honesty against hatred, patriotism against freedom. At first sight, the British seem more tolerant, more liberal than the segregated US forces. 
Viv, a land girl from London with a fiancé in the Merchant Navy, is chatted up by smooth-talking Chester, a suave pilot, but falls in love with Joe, encouraged by precocious 15-year-old Ginny, a local girl hoping to join the Sixth Form of the Grammar School. Amid the tensions and the traumas of warfare, relations between these four people become hopelessly, violently entangled. The knife Viv wears in her garter, the possibility of a “mongrel” baby, the constant presence of death stoke the fires of prejudice.
In the second half, we meet a journalist for Tribune, a titled lady from the WVS who will use any means to discourage inter-racial affairs - “the only victims are the offspring...”, and the fascinating historical figure of Walter White, a man of mixed race, who, as we would say today, identified as black, and was prominent in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
But the play wears its weighty themes lightly. The writing is fast-paced and engaging, often amusing, the characters rounded and human, even “the dreadful Chester”, who eventually comes to question his motivation and realise what fear and peer pressure have driven him to.
Gari Jones's production engineers tense, powerful confrontations across the width of the stage. Ingenious dramatic shorthand has the journalist deliver the letter the same actress has just taken, as Ginny, from Joe. And he looks on from his distant cell as White peruses it. The Swing music that brings the races together punctuates the scenes. And in his darkest hours Joe's fine voice sings strongly of liberty and emancipation: “Keep your Hand on the Plow and Hold On !”
Four excellent actors give compelling performances in the intimate arena of a remote village hall – just such a hall as might have held the Saturday night hops where local girls begged gum and Hershey bars less than a lifetime ago.
Joshua Hayes is the conflicted Chester as well as the principled, determined Walter. Grace Osborn young, ambitious Ginny and the journalist, and Georgia Brown the tragic Viv and the bigoted Lady Reading. Nathanael Campbell is the modest, unassuming Joe – an engineer back home – whose experience stands for thousands of men of color who tasted freedom and equality a thousand miles from home.
In a moving coda, we're back in the Suffolk cornfield where Joe and Ginny first meet, and all her silly girlish pre-conceptions fall away in seconds.
An economical, eloquent historical drama which speaks directly to Britain today, where prejudice and mistrust persist alongside liberal multiculturalism.


M&G Concert at the Civic Theatre


A handful of orchestral favourites, played with style and enthusiasm by this excellent chamber band, directed from the leader's desk by Nicholas Ward.
After an exquisite egg-timer [Mozart's Marriage of Figaro Overture], full of light and shade, an atmospheric Cuckoo from Delius, with the clarinet evoking the mournful bird.
Martin Roscoe was the soloist in Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. He gave an assertive account of this monumental work, his massive grand piano dwarfing the orchestra, who gave a compelling account of the score, the delicate strings in the introduction to the Adagio particularly fine.
More Mozart to finish – a fresh, meticulously crafted Haffner, ending with an impressively fleet-footed Presto finale.

Before that, some early Shostakovich: an orchestral version of the Octet Prelude and Scherzo, penned long before the dead hand of Joseph Stalin stifled creativity and the avant-garde. Performed with energetic zest by the 13 strings of this splendid Manchester-based ensemble.

Sunday, March 20, 2016



Chelmsford Singers in Chelmsford Cathedral


James Davy's visionary programming of an all-Poulenc concert to mark the start of Holy Week was preceded by a talk on the composer - ”le moine ou le voyou” - by composer and author the Revd Canon Chris Chivers.
This fascinating evening culminated with a rare chance to hear a live performance of the Stabat Mater. Like much of Poulenc's religious work, it is a heady blend of the sensual and the austere. Beginning with a sombre march, reminiscent of the more emotional moments of Dialogue des Carmelites. The Singers gave an impressive account of the challenging choral writing: the emphatic Quis est homo, the celebratory Eja Mater, the urgent Inflammatus et accensus. They were joined by soprano soloist Julia Wilson-James for key moments such as the tenth movement – and soaring wonderfully over choir and orchestra in the climactic Paradisi Gloria.
The orchestra was the Chelmsford Sinfonietta, led on this occasion by Robert Atchison. They provided powerful underpinning to the other major choral work on offer, the Litanies à la Vierge noire, the timpani and the strings foreshadowing some of the effects in the Organ Concerto which followed, with soloist Oliver Brett.

This popular showpiece – moving deftly from Bach to burlesque and back again - had a plaintively eloquent string sound to start, then the orchestra bounding playfully through the Allegro Giocoso, the organ excelling in the viscerally thrilling fortissimo passages before the tranquil Largo coda, solo viola against rhythmic strings and a sustained pedal note.

Friday, March 18, 2016


Chelmsford Ballet Company at the Civic Theatre

Chelmsford Ballet Company have brought an old favourite back to the Civic Stage; Annette Potter's delightful version of the Petipa/Tchaikovsky classic fields a splendid cast, from the tiniest assistant demon to the professional soloist Florimund.
And everyone gets a chance to shine: the Fairy Assistants – acolytes bearing the gifts for Aurora – get their moment in the limelight, as well as their Fairy mistresses. Lovely little solos in the Prologue from these five, including the fluttery Songbird [Darci Willsher] and the dainty Woodland Glade [Alycia Potter].
Scarlett Mann [last year's Pineapple Poll] makes a radiant Princess. In her Rose Adage, she looks delighted to be choosing her suitor; her spirited variation is a typical teenager, showing off despite her mother's misgivings. Her Prince is Andrei Teodor Iliescu, a sympathetic partner, with some impressive fireworks in Act III.
The evil Carabosse – her arrival, like the vines and briars, a video projection – is brilliantly brought to life by an imperious Marion Pettet, sweeping in on her chariot with her black-clad entourage. In the divertissements, splendid work from Puss in Boots and The White Cat [Kieran Papworth and Amelia Wallis] and the agile Bluebird of Morgan Wren.
The costumes are stylish and colourful – maroon and gold for the corps in Act III, confectionery pastels in Act I for the Garland Waltz. This sequence, with floral hoops and posies, just one of the stunning ensembles, showing off this enterprising company at its inclusive best.


Birdsong Productions at the New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich

A beautifully crafted revival of William Nicholson's dramatization of the unlikely relationship between C S Lewis and Joy Davidman. Directed by Alistair Whatley on the impressive touring set he designed with Anne-Marie Woodley.
High windows, one of which will lead to another world, an institutional timepiece, ticking but stuck at 8:32, echoed by a mantel clock beneath, a fire in the hearth.
Jack Lewis's opening lecture uses a blackboard to excellent effect, a row of students with their backs to us. In Stephen Boxer's performance, he's dry but humorous, vocally slightly reminiscent of Nigel Hawthorne, who created the role back in 1989. As the drama unfolds, his long-locked emotional life surfaces slowly, until at last the tears flow. An honest, heart-wrenching performance, giving the text room to breathe, suggesting the unspoken thoughts and impulses behind the academic façade.
The rest of the cast is equally strong. Denis Lill is the taciturn Warnie, kindly but gruff, his only reaction to his brother's bombshell to pause a second before turning the page of his book. Amanda Ryan gives a moving American poet, feisty to the last, her pain somehow etched into her face even when she first enters.
Atheist Professor Riley is a caustic, clubbable Simon Shackleton, Ian Marr a brusque doctor, Jeffrey Harmer plays the only married man in Lewis's misogynistic coterie, the vicar who won't bend the rules to marry a divorced woman. The ceremony is eventually carried out by Richard Holliday's kindly cleric, the image, at least in profile, of Archbishop Fisher.
I understand why you can't have a boy playing Douglas on tour. Though you do lose the “child caught in the magic spell”, in Shannow Rowcroft's nuanced performance, you gain an intelligent portrayal of the uncomfortable, confused little boy sitting in the window.
'His' silver apple sequence, an inspired way of getting the hospital bed off stage, is one of many wonderful moments in a memorable production. The music – Mia Soteriou – evokes the choral tradition of the city of dreaming spires, including a surprisingly polished In Dulci Jubilo.

Thursday, March 17, 2016



OffSpringers at the Cramphorn Theatre


Hard not to love Bugsy Malone. Catchy Twenties-type tunes, cute gang violence.
Its USP of course is that hoodlums and hoofers alike are all played by children, making it a good choice for OffSpringers.
Some veterans in the large cast, but loads of novices, too, which leads to some inconsistency in style, some inaudibility. But plenty to enjoy, especially the dance routines, in splendid period costumes.
In the title role, Matt Scott has an easy, laid-back charm, leading us through the story. Rose Gowen is an excellent Blousey Brown, a strong woman holding her own amongst the gangsters; Lizzy Newsome makes an imposing Tallulah.
No boys among the “namby-pamby dancers”, but plenty of opportunities for the girls amongst the henchmen of Sam and Dan [Devran Arslan and Aaron Bell], notably Sicily Riordan's lovely Knuckles. Ore Kane is the frustrated Fred Astaire Fizzy.
Loads of talent in the smaller roles, too: Max Eagle's Lieutenant O'Dreary, Daisy Dodsworth's Lena, in a gorgeous gown, Sam Aldwinkle's priceless Marbini and many more.
The staging uses the space well – band at the back, with lovely period music stands, the bar and the bookshop to one side, leaving plenty of room for the production numbers, choreographed by Helen Arber. The Down and Outs, the dressing-room mirrors, the boxers all very effective. I liked the violin dirge for the stiffs – Tegan Beckett – and "cellist" Tiegan Crisp for a few surreal seconds disguised as a standard lamp.
And splurge galore from the opening minutes, including the best show-down shoot-out ever, with the packed audience targeted by tin-foil ribbons.

Bugsy Malone is directed for OffSpringers by Fiona Lipscomb, with Kate Gowen the MD.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016



Shifting Sands Theatre at the Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford


The space is transformed with the simplest of hangings – russet and fawn cloths strung out to suggest a desert village, perhaps. 
So something of a shock to see the scene set first in a care home, with uniformed staff dealing brusquely with an infantilized old man.
But he insists on telling his story, keeping the inevitable at bay, even if no-one is listening. And what might be this same old man, well over two hours later, passes through the forbidden door. He reminds us that every story is in fact three stories: the one we hear, the one that is spoken, and the one that we take away. Before a jolly farewell jig, and a plea to fill out the little feedback forms - “We're Arts Council funded!”
The stories we take away from this unique theatrical event are a mixture of the intriguing and the familiar, ingeniously nested tales in a tapestry of Sultans, fools, kings, princesses, a fisherwoman, a tailor and a dead parrot.
Among the most memorable, an inspired leprosy sequence, Sinbad in Eastbourne, and the story of the husband who killed his parrot, the only witness to his wife's adultery. The audience much involved in the goings-on here, and in several other collaborative moments. The last story, with the sheets and the flashlight used to excellent effect – the boat morphs into a receding wave on the shore – is one of the best.
This is not traditional story-telling. The two care workers – Merce Ribot and Patricia Rodriguez – play many parts, colourfully costumed, usually with an Arabic accent, though the chorus of Henry V and Ireland also get a look-in. The Old Man – sultan, parrot, et al – is Gerry Flanagan. The troupe's designer and technician, Louise Manifold, appears occasionally from the desk at the back – bringing a duck and bath bubbles, and a lovely song just before the interval.
The style is improvisatory and very physical. No script, one imagines, but a framework around which to act out the tales, switching from comedy to tragedy in a moment.
Sometimes it feels laboured – desperately repeating “find the other apple” does little to add to the suspense – and taking over the story with “What happened ...” can wear thin.
It would dilute Shifting Sands' trademark style if the presentation became too slick. But one man's spontaneity is another man's sloppy self-indulgence, and maybe a less incestuous eye – Flanagan, an excellent clown, with killing asides, has directed, and performed in, every one of their shows since he formed the company back in 1998 – could tighten things a little without losing any of the rough-hewn charm.

Monday, March 14, 2016


Waltham Singers at King Edward VI School

Dove, Stravinksy, Arnold.
Names not often seen headlining a choral concert.
The Jonathan Dove was a world première, commissioned by Making Music. A lovely work, accessible for choirs and their audiences, it will surely prove lastingly popular, not least because it uses forces similar to those required by Orff's old war-horse Carmina Burana, including here the superb longfordbrown piano duo and the Percussion Ensemble of London.
It tells the ancient legend of Arion, the Voice winner who is saved from drowning by a passing Dolphin. The women are the chorus, the men the “manly shanty singing” sailors, the children [New Hall's Fibre Optic Choir] are the school of dolphins. Arion himself was sung by counter-tenor Benjamin Williamson; his first swan-song an exquisite duet with the xylophone. The percussion paints pictures together with Alasdair Middleton's witty, literate verse libretto – the sacred silver bell, the prize money, the splash as Arion leaps.
This new piece sounded comfortingly traditional after the other works: Malcolm Arnold's John Clare Cantata a revelation, a dark picture of the natural cycle of the year. Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, in an arrangement – not the recently recorded Shostakovich – for two pianos. The choir, conducted by Andrew Fardell, much more prominent – outstanding in the sinewy setting of Psalm 38, and in the Slavic sound of Psalm 150, with its exciting rhythms, its great bell, and some spectacular pianism.
Pianists and percussionists were given solo spots: Michael Parsons' minimalist Rhythm Studies II, and movements from Salzedo's spectacular Concerto for Percussion.
I understand that the Dove was given a simultaneous première down in Dulwich, where they had Robin Blaze and Carmina Burana ...


Billericay Operatic Society at Brentwood Theatre

A tremendous Oliver! from Billericay Operatic. The whole stage used to excellent effect, with thirty orphans banging their bowls of gruel on the floor. Consider Yourself, too, a great success, with the street traders joining in as Fagin's den, kettle on the hob, is unobtrusively set behind.
Lots of other felicitous staging moments – the pick-pocket chain, the dramatic close to Act One, Who Will Buy, the adoring urchins at the end of I'd Do Anything. Jane Granby the choreographer.
Wayne Carpenter's ebullient production boasts some impressive performances, not least his own in the role of Fagin, long hair, goatee beard. Nancy is compellingly played by Sian Hopwood – blowsy with a big voice for the torch song, but touchingly dreaming of the domestic bliss she'll never know. MD Andy Prideaux is her leering Sykes.
A copybook cameo from Freda Timms as Old Sally, a knockabout double act from Bob Southgate and Gail Carpenter – a naughtily bawdy climax to I Shall Scream, a saturnine Sowerberry from Mark Clements with Annabel Lowman as his harridan of a wife.
Oliver and Dodger double cast: I saw Hamish Baumber as a convincingly vulnerable orphan, twice left alone and friendless, with Jack Beazley as his older, wiser mentor. Nice work from Charlie, too, uncredited in the programme.
Andy Prideaux's band, tucked away at the side, play their hearts out from the atmospheric overture to the last glorious encore.


King Edward VI School


KEGS' Spring Concert was ambitious, accessible and very enjoyable.
Kicking off with Shostakovich's flamboyant Festive Overture. For what is basically a chamber orchestra [just ten fiddles] they made a splendid noise – frisky woodwind and fortissimo brass.
Salon forces are just what you need for Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals, giving some excellent young soloists a chance to shine: clarinet cuckoo, xylophone fossils, strings for asses, double bass for the arthritic elephant. The serene swan, upstream here on the leader's violin, and the piano duet practising scales ready for their cameo in the next work, another of Saint-Saens greatest hits, the Organ Symphony, with William Foster the accomplished soloist at the console. All three orchestral showpieces conducted by Tim Worrall.
Becky Chant took the baton for Fauré's much-loved Requiem, sounding fresh and sincere, with an open tone from the trebles and some dramatic dynamics. No guest soloists here – like the harp and the organ, all members of the Grammar School community. After a beautiful O Domine – women's voices to the fore, with lower strings – the Hostias from Joseph Clark, and a powerful Libera Me from Tom Mitty. The treble soloist in the Pie Jesu was the confident, pure-toned Mark Godley. And the closing In Paradisum had a beautifully controlled, movingly sustained final “Requiem”.

Sunday, March 13, 2016


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at The Old Court

Mort is the eighth of the Pratchett oeuvre to grace the Old Court stage. Giving real playwrights like Ayckbourn and Shakespeare a run for their money.
Stephen Briggs' respectful adaptation uses narration sparingly; he shoe-horns in all the familiar characters and most of the best jokes. The tone is set before the show, with the catchy, bawdy Wizard's Staff song, attributed to Nanny Ogg.
Lynn Foster, who directs, assisted by Mark Preston and Sally Ransom, deploys her huge, richly costumed cast with skill: processions, carnival, time travel.
Robin Winder's set allows for dramatic entrances, as well as opening out to reveal a perspective view of Death's library, shelf after shelf of biographies and hourglasses.
The disc-world cast is led by Michael McDonagh as the hopeless apprentice of the title, with Richard James as his master, the cadaverous, sepulchral Grim Reaper. On the distaff side, Jennifer Burchett's gothic “I shall call you Boy” Ysabell, and Natalie Patuzzo's nubile Princess.
What laughs there are tend to go to those actors who aren't afraid to send it all up a bit – Mark Preston's Rincewind, Peter Jeary's Cutwell, Jim Crozier, outstanding as the old retainer Albert, who turns out to be none other than Alberto Malich - you know, the onlie begetter of the Unseen University. And not forgetting the scenes stolen by Robin Winder as Cyrus, a merrily myopic High Priest, and, best of all, a stoical door knocker.


London Classic Theatre at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
for The Reviews Hub

This was Pinter's second full-length play. Not a success in its day; still unsettling and confusing more than half a century on.
But it has become a classic, worthy of inclusion in London Classic Theatre's pantheon.
Michael Cabot's new production is a taut, intelligent reading of the text, respectful of the dark mood behind even the most trivial interchange. Set on a raised platform, reminiscent of a boxing ring, not perhaps seen to best advantage behind the Civic's proscenium. It's a minimalist, realistic set by Bek Palmer, with a suggestion of skeletons beneath the floorboards. A standard lamp, a hatstand, a dark oak dresser.
Sensitively timed dialogue brings out the complex, twisted relationships between these enigmatic characters. Beginning with a pause. Domestic breakfast, mind games with the sinister strangers.
A fine cast, led by Cheryl Kennedy's frustrated, fussy, flaky Meg, hinting at a more glamorous past behind the slovenly landlady in fluffy slippers and head-scarf. The belle of the ball, she recalls at the end.
The other woman who ventures within these drab walls is the cipher Lulu (Imogen Wilde), an unexplained visitor who seems to be a victim of Stanley's advances at the ghastly party of the title, and Goldberg's attentions later that night.
Gareth Bennett-Ryan is the weak, spoiled loner Stanley, cosseted by Meg (the little boy she'd much rather have, perhaps), deliberately destroyed by the manipulative Goldberg and McCann in one of the strongest scenes – Pinter's use of language as a weapon never bettered. Broken by the two intruders whose coming upsets him from the start, he ends up a catatonic wreck, his hands jerking and twitching as if he still had his toy drum, Meg's musical gift for his birthday.
Jonathan Ashley is all smooth menace as the laid-back Goldberg, with Declan Rodgers as the solid, silent McCann – muscular torso, red braces. Both strikingly still in contrast to their victim's nervous movement. Like Ben and Gus in The Dumb Waiter, they are a double act sent to do a job.
Absent from the party is Meg's old man, the lumpen deck-chair attendant Petey, seemingly uninterested in anything beyond the morning paper and his night out with the lads from the chess club. He's played with genial indifference by Ged McKenna.
The piece is an unsettling blend of sitcom and the theatres of the absurd and of cruelty. 
A more intimate space might draw us in more successfully to the banal, claustrophobic world of the seaside boarding house – if that's where we are. But this stylish production deftly lays bare the frightening forces behind the stucco façade – a welcome reminder of one of 20th century's most accomplished British works for the stage.

Saturday, March 12, 2016


at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch
for The Reviews Hub

Celebrations at the Queen's in Hornchurch. Shakespeare is celebrated, 400 after his death. A new Artistic Director is welcomed to the Billet Lane theatre, and, put out more flags, World War II is over, and Claudio and his chums come victorious home to start Much Ado About Nothing.
It's a warm, witty production, spoken with admirable clarity and acted with energy and passion.
Hattie Ladbury makes a wonderful Beatrice. She's had a good war, by the look of her when she walks on for the first time with a confident swagger in mechanic's overalls. “If I were a man ...”. Lanky, gauche at times, she excels in the war of wits with Benedick, a glance, an inflection will suffice to let us read her mind and share her thoughts. Thomas Padden's Benedick is less obviously charismatic. Balding, bearded at first, clean-shaven with civet for the wooing, he manages the marriage soliloquy with style, switching from introspection to audience engagement in a moment.
The lovers are backed by a very strong company, almost all of them new faces at the Queen's.
Mark Jax's grizzled Leonato, carousing like Sir Toby at Claudio's stag do, quite undone by grief at the shaming of his daughter Hero. She's engagingly played by Amber James, who dashes round to double the Sexton and a member of the Watch. More versatility from  Pascale Burgess: the treacherous Margaret – a lovely moment in the boudoir dreaming of gowns “laced with silver, set with pearls” - and a hilarious Warwickshire Dogberry, all silly swagger and malapropisms. The Watch work hard, in their gaberdine capes, with Verges [Jamie Bradley] acting out the briefing, but the humour of their scenes, as so often, is largely elusive.
Liam Bergin is the sinister Don John, the “canker in the hedge”, lurking and looking on, dressed in black “I cannot hide what I am ...” – Mosley, are we meant to think ? - and Sam Pay, a Billet Lane regular under the old regime, is an excellent Borachio, drunkenly sharing his secret with the front stalls, and Ursula, here upgraded to Leonato's sister, is strongly characterized by Eliza Hunt. A bluff, military Don Pedro from Nigel Hastings, and a clean-cut Tyneside Claudio from James Siggens, making a very promising professional début in this production. Worth wearing a microphone throughout for his superb Sigh No More trio, with Benedick clowning in the background. A moment to treasure.
The music generally – Julian Littman – was powerfully evocative of the period – Johnny Comes Marching Home for the opening scene, and for the dance at the close, Al Jolson's You Made Me Love You.
Good to see the involvement of a community chorus – standing at the door of the church, and of Leonato's monument, hanging the bunting, putting away the garlanded wedding chairs before the door slams and we are in the cells with the malefactor.
The setting – a country house garden, with the house and outbuildings behind, is easily and ingeniously transformed into church, vault and the rest. The central gulling scenes use the space brilliantly, hedges, stepladder, picnic rug all pressed into service, and Beatrice the lapwing popping up like a jack-in-the-box.
A big-hearted, accessible production of a favourite Shakespeare: straightforward enough to engage the newcomer, inventive enough to keep the Bard buff entertained.

production photo: Mark Sepple


at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
for The Reviews Hub

The nation's favourite Nancy, Jodie Prenger, brings her considerable vocal and dramatic talents to the classic Andrew Lloyd Webber song cycle, first developed in the late seventies, and appearing in many guises since, including the successful West End double bill Song and Dance.
Paul Foster's staging makes the show very much a drama, a series of monologues tracking British emigrant Emma as she tries to make it in the States, writing home to her mum about the men in her life and her efforts to get that elusive Green Card.
The twenty-five numbers seem to follow the playlist of the 2010 tour, though Unexpected Song is kept for the final encore in the second half of the evening.
The setting is simple: a model Manhattan skyline obscures Peter McCarthy's excellent little orchestra. In front of it, seventies furniture and props suggesting her New York apartment.
Prenger inhabits the character very convincingly – her accent switches from Manhattan to Mancunian as she writes her letters home to Mum, her costume changes reflect her switchback love life. - “Why are all affairs so unfair ?”. Her bitchy friends and her boyfriends – too old, too young, too married – are unseen but very present in a tightly clutched cushion, an empty easy chair.
Her last, tearful missive is followed by a reprise of Take That Look Off Your Face and the ultimately life-affirming Dreams Never Run On Time.
An impressively crafted hour of musical theatre, and if not all the songs are as memorable as the title number, they are all performed with style and emotional investment, Don Black's lyrics crystal clear to the last word.
How to follow Tell Me On A Sunday ?  No Wayne Sleep Variations, alas, but “more words and music” from Miss Prenger, with McCarthy at the grand piano. Secret Love to start – her last tour out of The Watermill was Calamity Jane – before “Ask Me On A Sunday”, with questions from the capacity crowd. “How do you remember all the lyrics ?” (She writes them out on a notepad.) “Will you be working with Barrowman again ?” (Nothing planned, alas.) “What got you into musical theatre ?” (Summer shows, pubs and clubs in her native Blackpool.)
Then, in a lovely gesture, she brings on Jodie Beth Meyer, who's touring with the six-foot skyscrapers and the band as Prenger's understudy, and they duet memorably in Another Suitcase, Another Hall, before the show closes with Unexpected Song.

production photograph by Tristram Kenton

Sunday, March 06, 2016


Essex Symphony Orchestra in Chelmsford Cathedral


Saint-Saens' magnificent Organ Symphony was the climax of this feast of French romanticism, relocated from Christ Church to the Cathedral for the occasion.
A robustly eloquent performance from the ESO under Tom Hammond. The expressive Poco Adagio was exquisitely played – the strings [leader Phillipa Barton] and the organ [Laurence Lyndon-Jones] blending to excellent effect. The Maestoso finale was tautly handled, with the piano duet played by two more of the Cathedral's music staff, James Davy and Rosie Vinter.
After the Overture, Berlioz's Roman Carnival, starting with a solemn procession and ending with exuberant cymbals and tambourine, we heard a rare treat. Les Nuits d'Été – Berlioz again – is a song cycle setting six poems by the composer's neighbour Gautier. They trace an arc of romantic love, from youthful exuberance through the pain of loss to new horizons.
Superbly sung here by mezzo Anna Harvey, her rich tone sitting comfortably in the Cathedral acoustic, especially perhaps in Le Spectre de la Rose. The ESO's fine accompaniment reflected the changing moods, and the final setting – L'Ile Inconnue – conjured up a powerful image of the boat sailing over the waves to the “faithful shore” of the unknown island.


CAODS at the Civic Theatre

Unaccountably more popular on this side of the Pond than in its Stateside home, Legally Blonde is a fluffy, feel-good fun show, winner of several Oliviers.
Far-fetched, even by fairy-tale standards, it follows the feisty sorority girl Elle as she charms her way into Harvard to win back her law student boyfriend. And, true to herself to the end, she forges a high-profile career in the courts using little more than feminine intuition.
It's given an energetic, infectiously enjoyable production by Sallie Warrington, with high-octane performances from a huge cast.
Keeley Denman is the dynamo Elle, owning the stage as she owns the interview room and the high court. Her snobby boyfriend is done with smooth assurance by Jacob Burtenshaw, the exact opposite of teaching assistant “Chip on my Shoulder” Emmett [David Gillett], who's on Elle's side from the start, and, to no-one's surprise, ends up proposing to her in the final scene. Great character support from Robyn Gowers as Paulette the beautician, Claire Carr as the evil preppy Vivienne and Patrick Tucker as “Blood in the Water” Callahan.. And there's a fitness queen [Becki Wendes], a hunky UPS boy [Brad Wendes], two cute dogs and an eye-catching triple whammy from Ian Gilbert... But it's the ensemble who carry the show, adding value to the vacuous numbers – the Riverdance pastiche and the jumping rope sequence [Jenny Gayner] just two of the memorable production numbers. An upbeat pit band pumps the score along nicely, under the direction of Robert Wicks.

Great to see so many youngsters – on both sides of the footlights – in the sold-out Civic for this hit Noughties musical. Just what's needed to keep this august society in the pink ...                                  


English Touring Theatre at the Arts Theatre Cambridge

Peter Whelan's period piece was written 20 years ago for the RSC. It's the very Stratford-on-Avon story of Shakespeare's eldest daughter Susanna, married to respected local physician John Hall.
She is a frustrated, modern woman – unable, despite her skill and knowledge, to practise medicine, she helps as she can with herbal cordials. She is lonely, too, her husband often away for days at a time bringing healing to the well-to-do.
Amongst the speculation, the fact that a cheeky, feckless apprentice to her husband slanders her, is brought to trial in a church court and is excommunicated.
Whelan ingeniously imagines the lives behind the legal record; the tensions of post-Reformation society are credibly explored, the characters are strongly drawn. Emma Lowndes makes Susanna a flawed human being, neither saint nor sinner, but a woman torn between loyalty to her good husband and the excitement of adultery and the new science. Matt Whitchurch is excellent as the laddish accuser, and Michael Mears makes the most of the splendidly named Barnabus Goche, vicar general, somewhere between Obadiah Slope and the Witchfinder General, suavely sliding one sheet of evidence after another from his scrip. Charlotte Wakefield plays the faithful servant, almost a family member, reminiscent of Desdemona's Emilia.
Susanna's poet/playwright father, ailing round the corner in New Place, almost appears at the end, his nameless 'condition' a possible explanation of part of the slander. His little grand-daughter Elizabeth does appear, charmingly. She will inherit New Place in time, and die childless, the last of the Shakespeare line.
The touring set [Jonathan Fensom] is wonderfully realised, a dark timber cube, opening out to reveal the marvellous garden within, and gliding off to reveal the ecclesiastic courtroom, lit from behind by its high window, bereft of its stained glass by the “Purifiers”.


Sudbury Dramatic Society at the Quay Theatre

Shadowlands tells the true, often tragic, story of the relationship between C S Lewis, the Oxbridge academic now best remembered for Narnia, and Joy Gresham, an American admirer. William Nicholson's literate script evokes wonderfully well the pleasure and the pain of this remarkable late-flowering love. The theology and the soul-searching form a rich back-drop to the unique romance of a buttoned-up, reticent Englishman in late middle age and the younger fan from New York City who sends him long letters and reads him her poetry.
Peter Drew's production moves smoothly from The Kilns, near Oxford, to a hospital ward, to Greece. The cosy “midden” of the room Jack shares with his brother Warnie is convincingly recreated stage left, with the rest of the action against black walls and drapes.
Some fine performances make for an emotional, thought-provoking evening of drama.
Lewis himself – tweeds, tie-clip and a warm, comfortable voice – is played by Neil Arbon. I'm not sure he'd cut it in the “intellectual elite” of the 50s, but he captures well the heart-searching and the anguish of the “foolish, frightened old man” as he seeks to reconcile this vale of suffering with his belief in a loving God. His key scene with the boy Douglas [an impressively confident Alex Ray – neat parting, suede shoes, comfy cardigan] is especially moving. Denis Brogan is absolutely right as the toper Warnie – double-breasted old buffer. And Heidi Bernhard-Bubb makes a poised, feisty, straight-talking poet. The awful, misogynist denizens of High Table are well suggested, particularly by Christopher Suckling as the atheist Professor Riley and Ian Pritchard-Witts as the pin-striped cleric Harrington.
Though Douglas is deprived of his Wardrobe moment, there are some telling scenes: the rain on the roof of the Register Office [and Warnie's expression as he signs his name], the grouping round the bedside for the wedding, the standard lamp, the tea-tray. The static semi-circle of academics lacks energy, perhaps, and it is a relief when Joy takes off the [superbly period] little hat that keeps her eyes in shadow.
Music is sparingly but effectively used – an eclectic playlist including Arvo Part and the sadly neglected County Durham composer John Garth.
A polished production of a compellingly moving, well-made play.