Wednesday, July 26, 2017


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop
at the Old Court


Harvey Fierstein. Kinky Boots, Cage aux Folles, and, surely his finest hour, Torch Song Trilogy, memorably done on this stage back in 2001.
Casa Valentina is a newer piece, though it does revisit those favourite Fierstein themes. Based on the legendary Casa Susanna, it takes us back to the days – the early Sixties – when cross-dressing was still a crime in many US states, and a weekend retreat resort in the Catskills was a dream come true for these “self-made women”. The dream turns to nightmare after the interval, when politics takes over from prosthetics, and callow newbie “Miranda” [an excellent Jesse James Lamb] flees back to the closet.
Rebecca Segeth's production has an evocative period set, on two levels, carefully lit [Jack Hathaway]. And a very strong cast, beautifully turned out in their femme frocks.
Colin Smith is “Valentina”, facing the uncertain future of his guest-house, supported by his wife, the only GG [genuine girl] in residence. This play is the story of their marriage, too, and the final moments are almost unbearably poignant: George sheds his masculine skin to the Everlys' Let It Be Me, as Rita [touchingly played by Rachel Curren] stands confused and alone on the stage above him.
There is much fun and silliness too – the Wildean contributions of the outrageous “Bessie” [Dave Hawkes], and the Sugar Time routine, where the faces of the wallflowers tell their own story: there's Terry Cramphorn's veteran Theodore, who once found refuge in gay bars, listening to Ian Willingham's Michael, who invited the new boy, and whose put-down of “Charlotte” is one of several powerful monologues in the piece - “Bessie”'s uncharacteristically melancholy musings on his marriage are another.
The darker ending is down largely to Barry Taylor's “Charlotte”, a determined activist who will stop at nothing to sign Valentina's guests up to her Sorority. The scene between Taylor and Peter Jeary's Judge (Jeary stepping into “Amy”'s size 10s at a week's notice) is a dramatic masterpiece, and sets the tone for the end of the play, where an icy appearance by the Judge's unsympathetic daughter [Catherine Kenton] reminds us of just how different attitudes were half a century ago.

A superb production of a fascinating piece – a fine note on which to end a successful season for CTW.

image: guests at the original Casa Susanna

Monday, July 24, 2017


Essex Dance Theatre
at the Civic Theatre

What EDT do best is to bring accessible, affordable dance training of the highest standard to the county, as they have done consistently since they took their first steps in 1975.
This year's Civic showcase was as impressive as ever, with an even more significant contribution from the young men of the company. Much of the choreography – we saw thirty numbers – is “home-grown”, like the finale to part one, by Zinzile Tshuma: exemplary discipline and amazing physicality in a piece danced to Sia's Move Your Body - “your body's poetry ...”.
Nikki O'Hara's Revolt, at the top of the show, gave us sinuous, serpentine ensemble, as did Jacob Holme's classically-inspired Stabat Martyr, danced to Pergolesi.
The same choreographer's crowd-pleaser to Bruno Mars' 24K Magic was followed by a lovely unaccompanied Change in Me vocal from Georgia Clements while the huge cast put on their knee-protectors for the traditional Knowledge [Adrian Allsop].
Amongst many other pleasures, a deliciously retro Mack the Knife [Paul Cowcher], David Nurse's eloquent Cello Suite to JS Bach, Ryan Heseltine's school-yard piece to Tom Misch's Watch Me Dance, and that lovely Astaire number Dancin' Man, choreographed by Kim Bradshaw, an old-fashioned show routine that the dancers looked to be enjoying as much as we did, as they left their soft-shoe footprints on the sands of time …

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

FAME The Musical

The Musical
Tomorrow's Talent
at the Civic Theatre

This is the 1988 musical of the 1980 movie. Those early Performing Arts alumni will be proud, or pushy, parents now. And this class of 2017 don't always seem quite at home in this Eighties world, where diversity and dyslexia are novel ideas. As these youngsters will be well aware, this institution resembles real arts education in the same way Lerner's Camelot does Britain in the sixth century.
But it's an enjoyable bit of summer escapism, and it gives Tomorrow's Talent a chance to show off what it does best – gifted youngsters, professional standards, and loads of crisp, energetic choreography.
The capacity crowd on opening night saw the spartan staging – the iconic logo centre stage – gradually populated by the kids, and the staff too – with director Gavin Wilkinson donning a natty cardigan to play drama teacher Myers. The show's MD is Mark Sellar, his fictional equivalent Sheinkopf played by Joshua Butcher, who's also the Assistant Choreographer.
Ruthless auditions, fervent prayers, and then the new intake must knuckle down to Hard Work. These fictional young hopefuls certainly score straight As for “attitude”, though their mentality might sometimes seem more at home in junior high.
There are many standout performances: Samuel Wolstenholme's Nick – Peanut Butter kid and Stanislavski disciple – setting the bar high with I Want to Make Magic, imaginatively backed, like several other numbers, by dancers. His shy Serena was touchingly done by Hannah Gurling on the first night. Christopher Tierney made the most of extrovert, X-rated Joe Vegas, and Daisy Greenwood gave a strong performance as outgoing, ultimately tragic Carmen Diaz. The enigmatic dancer Iris was engagingly portrayed by Katherine Maahs, and Becky Hunt gave a fine, funny character study as Mabel, the dancer who's too fond of food.
Street dancer and mouthy rebel Tyrone was given a compelling performance by Paul French, his dance moves and his stage presence both outstanding.
The role of spinster English teacher Esther Sherman is a tough call for a young actor, but Lauren Bullock came into her own with the moving These Are My Children, a hymn to the teaching profession.
But this is as much about the ensemble as the principals, and the big numbers were all stylishly done, from the opening auditions, through the title number, featuring the next generation on the upper level, to the beautifully conceived curtain calls, with Carmen resurrected atop the yellow cab.

production photograph by Louise Freeland

Sunday, July 16, 2017


Chichester Festival Theatre at the Minerva


What has happened to us?”, the siblings ruefully wonder.
They're stuck in confused, reclusive routine, existing among the clutter of a lifetime in their childhood home, their parents dead. The sister seems to dominate, mothering her brother, feeding him on the fish prepared for Charlie Brown their elusive cat. He takes refuge in his headphones.
Deborah Bruce's new play – inspired by a couple she observed in an art gallery café – manages to be amusing and uplifting as well as deeply sad.
Daniel and Peppy's lives are turned around by a predictable incident, which makes a crime scene of their squalid home, searched by sinister officers in blue overalls. But just as things seem at their most desperate, there comes salvation and a new start of sorts.
Jeremy Herrin's production is perfectly judged. The design [Max Jones] is magnificent, with a stunning scene change just before the interval.
The dramatic structure is powerfully precise. Symbols are tellingly deployed. We see the kitchen tap run free once more, the child's smashed Harry Potter mug [magic destroyed] is restored, the walnut spice cake is baked at last, as Daniel realises that it's nice outside, and that there are other buses he could take. Peppy bangs on Charlie Brown's dish one last time, his name heading a roll-call of the dead.
The two main characters are compelling brought to life by Daniel Ryan as the big, childlike, uncoordinated brother and Samantha Spiro as his fussy, birdlike sister. The other characters drift in and out – and we occasionally move next door to a kitchen that couldn't be more different. There is some doubling – Philip Wright is both the awful, cheery Gareth, who tries to buy the Angelis family home for a fraction of its worth, and the helpful husband of the lovely support worker Karen [Michelle Greenidge]. And perhaps there could have been more – I can envisage a production in which two actors play all the other roles. Except of course for “the next-door child”.
This pivotal character, the eight-year-old Ben, superbly played by Rudi Millard, is in some ways a miniature of Daniel, innocently impressed by his feats of memory, seeking the attention and affection lacking at home.
His mother - “no smoke without fire” - who turns out to have tragedies of her own – is Mary Stockley; the detective who tries to coax incriminating confidences from Ben and Daniel is Matt Sutton.
Like their real-life inspiration, these two strange characters, and their intriguing past lives, tend to linger in the memory. Like the playwright, we realise how little we know of other people we meet, and hope against hope that, against all odds, redemption and a happy ending may still be possible.

Peppy's mother's Walnut Spice Cake 
[with thanks and apologies to Carol, who made it]

This is a lovely cake that smells like winter - warm walnuts and spices like allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg. Buttermilk ensures that the cake is wonderfully moist. If you don't have buttermilk, use 1 tablespoon (15ml) of lemon juice or vinegar and 210ml of skimmed milk in place of the 225ml of buttermilk.

Serves: 14

60g finely chopped walnuts
285g cake flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
150g butter
300g dark brown soft sugar
2 eggs
225g buttermilk

Prep:15min › Cook:50min › Extra time:10min cooling › Ready in:1hr15min

Preheat oven to 180 C / Gas 4. Grease a 23cm tube cake tin and dust with flour.
Sift together cake flour, bicarbonate of soda, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and salt. Cream the butter. Blend in dark brown soft sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs.
Stir dry ingredients into creamed mixture alternately with buttermilk. Blend in the finely chopped walnuts.

Spoon cake mixture gently into the prepared tin. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until cake springs back when you touch it lightly. Cool in tin for about 10 minutes. Put on cake rack to cool completely. Sprinkle icing sugar over cake before serving, if desired.

Saturday, July 15, 2017


Chichester Community Theatre at New Park Studio

A tiny unregarded gem from the complete works of Graham Greene, immaculately performed in a small room, the last date of its pop-up run which has also included the public library and Pallant House.
It shows, in twenty minutes, the rehearsal process, with an old-school director and a naive young actor. His interpretation in a new play – new for 1981 – is giving cause for concern. His co-stars are Dear Johnnie and Dear Ralph, whom I remember as a lovely double-act back in the 70s. In this play – by Frederick Privett, famous for his pauses – he briefly attracts the attentions of Cruickshank/Sir John, between the window cleaner and the French acrobat. His lines are restricted to the monosyllables of the title. Cleverly, this is true of Greene's drama also …
Excellent performances from Steve Wallace – panama hat, hip flask – as the director [a mammoth of a role, despite the brevity of the piece] and Matthew Hughes-Short as the keen but bemused actor.
An unexpected treat – free of charge, too – part of the Festival of Chichester 2017.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017



The Stondon Singers
at Stondon Parish Church

The Stondon Singers were formed back in the 60s, initially to bring the choral works of William Byrd home to Stondon Massey.
This was their 50th Anniversary Concert – Byrd died on July 4 1623 – and it took as its theme the influence of Italy, specifically Venice, on music in Tudor England.
So, in his 450th anniversary year, we had a four-part Mass by Monteverdi, meticulously phrased, especially in the Gloria, with a sublimely subtle ending in Dona Nobis Pacem.
A couple of his small-scale Madrigals, too, and, more obvious imports, some spirited Ferrabosco from Musica Transalpina, a collection of Italian works translated for the English market. And, as David Schacht's informative introduction reminded us, there were more tangible imports, too: flat-packed instruments for London luthiers to assemble.
A lively Gabrieli motet for eight voices, the text tossed around from part to part, and beautifully sung Willaert – a Flemish import to San Marco.
Byrd himself was represented by Tribue Domine, from Cantiones Sacrae – showcasing English music for the European market – and after Gibbons' exquisite Silver Swan, Although the Heathen, Byrd's short but showy part-song from a collection published in 1588.
The Stondon Singers were directed, with exemplary attention to detail, by Christopher Tinker.

Sunday, July 02, 2017



The Chelmsford Singers
at Chelmsford Cathedral

A glorious celebration for the Singers' ninetieth, with a programme of three dramatic show-stoppers.
Borodin provided the bold opener, with the Polovtsian Dances – a first for the Singers, we think. No actual dancing, but a welcome opportunity to enjoy the choral writing, often omitted in concert performance. The men have the macho posturing, leaving the lovely tune to the women's voices.
Britten's St Nicolas was the centre-piece, the popular cantata giving all the vocal forces a chance to shine, under the hortatory baton of Musical Director James Davy. Only the audience, perhaps, failed to rise to the challenge of the congregational hymns. A splendid Nicolas from tenor Paul Smy – a spine-tingling moment when the boy [sung by chorister Nicholas Harding-Smith] becomes the man, and a touching final movement in which the choir's Nunc Dimittis is blended with the saint's acceptance of death. The Cathedral boys were present at the ordination, and the girls made excellent contributions in the storm and in the episode of the Pickled Boys. The accompaniment, with lovely string sounds in the Nicolas from Prison movement, was by the Chelmsford Sinfonietta, led by Robert Atchison.
This memorable evening ended with Orff's cod-medieval Carmina Burana, in the 1956 version for percussion and two pianos [Robert Elms and Helen Crayford, both brilliant] which lets the choir take centre stage. Despite the composer's intentions, and all the show-off effects, there is less drama here than in the Britten, but this was a hugely enjoyable performance – the Singers gave us sublime simplicity in the Springtime, and rustic energy On the Green.
Three superb soloists: Smy again as the unfortunate roasting swan, a sublime In Trutina and a spectacularly abandoned Dulcissime from Elizabeth Roberts, singing from memory, and baritone Colin Baldy, bearing the brunt of the solos. In the Tavern – a men-only zone – he gave us a crisply articulated confession, and a bibulous abbot. Later, in the Court of Love, after a marvellously risqué number from the men of the Cathedral Choir, he led the Cathedral Boys from east to west – the abbot and his acolytes, maybe – in Totus Floreo.
And through the open North Door, unbidden birdsong from the churchyard paid tribute to the music, and to the Singers as they enter their tenth decade.

pictures from the post-concert gathering in the Chapter House

Friday, June 30, 2017


Romford Summer Theatre at the Rockery, Raphael's Park

This year is Romford Summer Theatre's 55th season; it's no criticism to say that this production could have graced the Rockery at any point in that impressive history.
Chrissie O'Connor gives us a traditional take on the dream – Greco-Roman frocks, Mendelssohn's music – with a strong cast and a clear, positively-paced narrative. Not to mention an infectious sense of fun. No gimmicks, but the show does boast a child – Lucas Outram playing the all-important Indian Boy – and two canine characters: an elegant hound for the hunt, and a dog for Starveling's Moonshine.
It's the Shakespearean comedy best suited to this unique theatre space, perhaps, and excellent use is made of the “brakes” in the shrubbery, dotted with little lanterns as night falls, and the trees magically lit as the fairies lurk within the wood to watch the mischief play out.
Much of it concerning the hapless quartet of lovers; good work here from the young actors – the four-way tiff, the foggy fight with Puck, the lively dialogue between the girls – Eleanor Burgess and Amy Hollingsworth – Andrew Spong's eager Lysander and Jake Portsmouth's hilarious awakening.
The Court – the Duke and his Hippolyta well spoken by Colin Richardson and Emily Catlin – is graced by two experienced character players: Vernon Keeble-Watson's grumpy Egeus and Elliott Porte's pompous Philostrate, vainly trying to spare the wedding guests the ordeal of watching a bunch of amateur actors …
Those rude mechanicals – organised, if that's the word, by Paul Hollingsworth's Quince – stars Paul Sparrowham's Bottom. His ass-head is furry; his triumph in the role of Pyramus marred by paralysing stage-fright, alleviated by a handy flagon. His increasingly inebriated performance is pure genius, slurring his lines and relieving himself against Pete Farenden's Wall. Lots of clever detail here – the beards in the props basket, Mark Griffith's Snug conning the Lion's part, though it be nothing but roaring ...
The immortals are led by excellent fairy monarchs – Lindsay Hollingsworth's stunning Titania in her star-spangled gown, and Matt Jones's regal Oberon, with a touch of Herne the Hunter, his verse-speaking exemplary in I Know A Bank, for example. Four Fairies – we see them first in the overture – their dresses, colour-coded, reminiscent of fantastical festival-goers – included Chrissie LeFranc's Moth, with some magical flute-playing, and Kathryn Waters' white-wigged Cobweb; she's also the first fairy, doing a little light gardening before being ambushed by Richard Spong's Puck. He's a very mischievous hobgoblin, got up like a faun, searching the audience for Athenians, perching for a moment in Titania's woodland bower, freezing the mechanicals in mid-rehearsal.
This is not Athens, but Havering's Edwardian Raphael Park. Lucky to have no wind, or rain, a comfortable temperature and only the occasional waterfowl and birdsong to punctuate Shakespeare's sylvan comedy. A very pleasant evening; as Theseus says, “ never anything can be amiss, When simpleness and duty tender it ...”

Sunday, June 25, 2017


Sea-Change Theatre at the Rose Playhouse

Shakespeare probably saw his Tempest over the river at Blackfriars. He'd be bewildered to find it performed 400 years later on the sparse remains of The Rose, already dark by the time the play was penned.
He'd be intrigued by this beautifully simple staging, directed by Ray Malone and designed by Lu Firth. Ropes, crates, and a distant prospect of the very Romantic storm, which we view, with Miranda, from afar.
Sea-change, a women-only company, seeks to “invert the Elizabethan convention of male-only performances”. Their name is taken from Act I – one of Shakespeare's many coinings – and this was their inaugural production, first seen on Lesvos last year.
The cross-gendering works well, for the most part. Many of the male characters, names unchanged, become women. Others remain resolutely masculine – the clowns, the Neapolitan nobles, striking in their beards, black doublets and red sashes. No chance of meeting Claribel, but we do get to see Sycorax [Lottie Vallis] – a strong female role – conjured by Ariel in a very effective scene.
American actor Marianne Hyatt makes an imposing Prospero, the poetry beautifully delivered [though it's a shame that Our Revels was both misplaced and misremembered]. Her daughter is played by Lakshmi Khabrani, in an impassioned, and often passionate, reading. Kimberley Jarvis is a compelling Ferdinand; Lucianne Regan an angelic Ariel, in a long white robe which seems to sap some of the fun and the energy from an otherwise delightful interpretation. A strong Caliban from Rosie Jones, giving The Isle is Full of Noises to just one auditor in the front row, and a great Laurel and Hardy double-act from Vix Dillon and Gerry Bell as Stephano and Trinculo, the drunken butler – skin-head and England shirt … 

Sue Frumin, who wrote this version, makes several appearances as Myrtle, the mudlark peddling relics from the river. A good idea to root the production in the place, but like the hand-held projector, it didn't really work in practice.

The publicity might lead us to expect a more radical re-working, rather than this magical, captivating 90-minute Tempest, which though it has its own agenda, manages to respect the text, the place and the audience. Let's leave the really radical to the rival house across the way … 

Friday, June 23, 2017


The Chelmsford Junior Music Festival 2017
at the Civic Theatre

When I was their age … we would gather behind the old air raid shelter and sing. Not the hymns and folk songs which were the Primary School staple, but hits from the shows – My Fair Lady had just opened at Drury Lane.
It was lovely to be reminded of those innocent days by this impressive performance – the last day of this year's festival.
Over the week, 26 schools and over 1000 children have sung their hearts out on the Civic stage – the show opened enchantingly, with seven soloists to start, then the 200+ chorus revealed as the curtain rose.
Disney was well represented – A Star is Born from Hercules, but there was also Matilda, Bugsy Malone, Wicked and Rent – Seasons of Love that opening number.
As tradition demands, there was also a cantata. Debbie Campbell's Emerald Crown reminds us of the threat to the rain forest – lots of opportunity for movement as well as singing – Wild Cat Queen of the Jungle a stand-out number.
Natalie Thurlow was the inspirational Musical Director, her charisma winning over children and parents alike. Guest artistes were a promising young trombonist and Kayleigh McEvoy, singing Puccini and I Love A Piano, a charming early Irving Berlin.


at the Dominion Theatre

After successful runs in America [and Paris] this new musical is now settled in to the lovely 1920s Dominion for the rest of the year at least.
It's based, of course, on the classic 1951 film. But given that the director/choreographer is Christopher Wheeldon, it's no surprise that the focus is squarely on the dance. The performers are mostly dancers first, singers second. But it is a very close second – Royal Ballet's Leanne Cope, who dances superbly in the Leslie Caron role of Lise, is a confident, pure-toned singer. She's partnered in this matinée by Max Westwell, relishing the chance to slip into Robert Fairchild's dancing shoes as Jerry. And he does so brilliantly, a youthful, energetic GI. The other two “musketeers” are the cabaret chanteur Henri [Haydn Oakley] and grumpy war-wounded artist Adam [David Seadon-Young]. They join towards the end in a poignant They Can't Take That Away From Me, one of several major changes from movie to musical. Nice to see Jane Asher on stage, giving a nice character study as the mother from the haute bourgeoisie, who eventually drops the icy mask and joins in the dance.
Wheeldon has transformed the basic plot, though the characters all survive, more or less true to the original. Lise is now an aspiring ballerina, Milo [Zoe Rainey] is the ballet company's benefactor, Adam writes their scores, and Jerry – eventually – is retained as designer for the sets and costumes. And so, instead of the dream sequence, we see this performance - from backstage initially – danced in full to the Gershwin piece that gives the show its name.
Right from the stunning opening, the post-war setting is stressed; occupation, and collaboration, a very recent memory for the Parisians, just as the fighting is for the Americans. But this added depth is counterbalanced by the escapist dancing, and the glorious Gershwin score – not only the original numbers, but a generous injection of songs from earlier works: Beginners' Luck, Fidgety Feet … In the pit, with his white tie and cream telephone, the debonair MD John Rigby.
And the final ingredient is Bob Crowley's set design. Jerry's sketches are spectacularly brought to life, in a heady combination of moving flats – manoeuvred with balletic precision by dancers – and animated projection. Stunning. One of the most striking numbers is Henri's hesitant cabaret act – Stairway to Paradise. A lot rides on making an impression – “think Radio City” the advice – and suddenly there's an old-fashioned production number, worthy of MGM; there's even a kick line, but, alas, no actual staircase ...