Sunday, January 29, 2017


Shakespeare's Globe at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

An early look at the penultimate show in this winter's Playhouse Wonder Noir season.

Annie Ryan gives this dark tragedy a duly dark production. The total blackout at the start is barely troubled by single candles as the protagonists gather. The stage, strewn with corpses at the close, seems to be stained black.
Webster's tale of hypocrisy, seduction and revenge is played out in a vaguely dystopian setting, with Jamie Vartan's stylish costumes suggesting the 19th century, as does the mechanism for the conjuror's “spectacles of glass”.  
Ryan fields a strong cast, including Garry Cooper as the Cardinal and Fergal McElherron in a clever double as Camillo and the banished Lodovico. Jamie Ballard is Brachiano, Joseph Timms [lately Sebastian and Lucentio] a laddish Flaminio, Mercy Ojelade Isabella (and Gasparo), Kate Stanley-Brennan Vittoria, and Anna Healey a strong Cornelia.
Tom Lane's music – cello, accordion, fiddle, trumpet, dulcimer – is very effective; an even fuller score would not have come amiss, perhaps.
All a far cry from the RSC's strange disco production of 2014, with its female Flaminio. And much closer to Webster's own vision, I would think, first staged, not too successfully, at the Red Bull on a dismal winter's day in 1612.
The White Devil is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until April 16.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court Theatre

The joys and sorrows of women's lives, reflected in the wardrobe mirror. This show, by sisters Nora and Delia Ephron, takes its many monologues from Ilene Beckerman's book of the same name.
Like The Vagina Monologues – done to great acclaim at this address last year – it's often staged as a celebrity reading. Not here: Sally Ransom has set the action on a catwalk; there's some fashion-show strutting, too, with music tracks to match.
But no clothes-hanger mannequins, just seven ordinary women; all of the actors successfully suggest the triumphs and the tribulations behind the boots and the purses, the skirts and the socks. And they also open up in the programme about the one garment that means most to them personally.
The confessional style works well in the monologues: the inspired “Hate my purse” soliloquy, the perfect shirt, the touching Southern fantasy, immediately followed by the searing “that's my dress!” trauma. There are ensemble numbers, too: The “Black!” sextet [all the costumes are black, too, save for the wordless three brides number], the three sisters, the changing room, the brassiere parade, the “nothing to wear” sequence. Perhaps some of them could be snappier; a greater variety of pace would help keep the audience engaged.
Stephanie Yorke-Edwards plays Gingy, the artist and author whose collection of clothes sketches became the book and then the play. She is particularly moving as the “forgotten woman” grandmother at the end, who realises that her personal thoughts were personal to other people too. Her six fellow actors play many characters, from the ungrateful teenagers to the mastectomy survivor. They are Jacquie Newman, Sally Rawlins, Leanne Young, Charlotte Norburn, Caroline Dunsmuir and Helen Quigley.

Between them they bring to life a huge variety of American women, fearlessly sharing their secrets and their love-hate relationships with the clothes in their closet.

Sunday, January 22, 2017


Blackmore Players
in Blackmore Village Hall

Back to the traditional canon for this year's panto, directed by Rosemarie Nelson with Shirley Parrott the Musical Director.
Ben Crocker's uninspired script does have one or two original touches: Edena the eco-fairy [Barbara Harrold] pitted against the pollutant villain Slimeball [James Hughes] seemed promising, but was not really developed.
All the familiar characters were included: a proper principal boy - Amy Pudney as Jack from the dairy, handling her songs with style – a beautiful princess [Sarah Tayler], and Giant Blunderbore, Chet Atkins fan, played by Alf Currey, who managed to cut an imposing figure despite not exactly towering over the mere mortals. His voice helped, although off-stage it needed more bass rumble and less megaphone.
Dame Madonna Trot was in the experienced hands of Keith Goody, sporting fistfuls of finger rings, a beauty spot and a Marge Simpson hairdo. King Bertram was Martin Herford, bringing a touch of Clive Dunn to the hapless monarch. When it comes to pantomime cows, the Animal Farm dictum “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad” has much to commend it; nonetheless, Rebecca Smith gave a lively, engaging performance, including the Happy Feet tap-dance, one of many excellent production numbers. The Cockroach rap was an inspired idea, but it would have been good to be able to hear more of the words.
No microphones here – well done – and the cast generally managed to rise above the drum-kit and the bawling babies. Two performers in particular caught the spirit of pantomime to perfection: the aforementioned James Hughes, relishing the lusty boos from the audience, giving a polished performance of laid-back villainy. And Craig Stevens superb as Simple Simon the Cowman; a nicely judged character [“Be brave, Simon!”, we shouted]. He coped magnificently with the kids from the audience, coaxed up for the front cloth number before the finale – a dying art, these days. And his delivery of the venerable “ghoulies” joke quite rightly got a round of applause. This preceded the equally venerable ghost routine, always a favourite, and vociferously enjoyed here [to the tune of Dancing Queen], though in a traditional panto I should prefer the Dame left till last to scare off the ghost.
Lots of lovely songs – Good Morning Merrymore, Glad All Over, I'm A Believer, Holiday Rock [shades of Paul Shane and the Yellowcoats] – and the chorus were well used, not least in the Country Folk running gag.
Blackmore are famous for the community vibe of their panto, and this matinée was warmly received by an enthusiastic crowd. The pace could have been a little more positive, with a tighter focus from some characters. The strobe lighting didn't really add anything, and the edges of the stage were seriously underlit. The race commentary needed much more work to be a reasonable substitute for the fall of Blunberbore, but the quintet of singing sheep over the partition was inspired – a five-baa gate, as Simple Simon might have said ...

Saturday, January 21, 2017


M&G Concert at the Civic Theatre

The City of London Sinfonia, launching their “Devil's Violin” mini-tour in Chelmsford, played a brilliant programme of folk and classical, exploring the similarities and the differences, the influences and the arrangements.
Led by violinist Alexandra Wood, they began with a toe-tapping, virtuoso La Folia sequence from Vivaldi, before introducing Dan Walsh [banjo] and Henry Webster [folk fiddle]. They played reels before we heard what Grainger did with them in Molly on the Shore; they played Bonaparte's Retreat, from the Appalachian tradition, before Copland's Hoe Down and his quirky Ukulele Serenade. An insightful and entertaining juxtaposition.
The devil headlined in Piazzolla's Romance del Diablo and Locatelli's Trillo del Diavolo, both featuring stunning violin solos from Alexandra Wood, and in the upbeat encore, The Devil Went Down To Georgia, with the folkies joining the band in a fun-filled fusion.
Millions of us heard the CLS this Christmas in the soundtrack to We're Going On A Bear Hunt – Ms Wood a featured artist – now available on Sony Classical. Would it be too much to hope for a crossover CD of The Devil's Violin ?

Friday, January 20, 2017


at the Cramphorn Theatre

An experiment in magic” is how it's billed. There is magic and mirth, pathos and philosophy in this touring two-hander by Simon Evans and David Aula.
There's a cast of thirty or so, since the punters are pressed into service to impersonate audience members from earlier incarnations of the show, in Swindon, Watford, Brighton and Battersea. It all works rather well; we, the self-deceiving audience, learn about Robert-Houdin's nine modes of magic, about forced decks, the Zorbinger table pass and the Neasden underpass. And of course about the mysterious life and disappearance of Hugo Cedar, the vanishing man of the title. Or should that be S.E. - D.A. ?
Fascinating to watch magic being deconstructed by these two skilful and charismatic performers. There's popular philosophy in there, too, and spiritualism, a back story to tug at the heart-strings, real candles and an electric piano. Not just a magic show, not just a play, certainly not history, but an engaging blend of fact, fable and fabrication.

A word of caution. When The Guardian saw the show last year, they reckoned 80 minutes. It's advertised now as 90, but actually ran over a hundred, without a break. Check the comfort of the seats, guys, before you extend it any further – you don't want people like those two in the front row walking out before your candle-snuffing climax ...

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


Little Waltham Drama Group at the Memorial Hall


A winning blend of originality and tradition for this year's Little Waltham village panto. Not so many local jokes, but still that warm, confident interplay with the supportive, up-for-it audience.
Festive favourite Richard Butler brought his trademark anarchy to the role of Squire Flinders, heading an excellent comic team which included Ken Little's dim Bobby and Gordon MacSween's lovely Scottish Dame, a wicked glint in his eye, sporting a wonderful wardrobe of fancy frocks.
Good supporting work from a double helping of duos: feeble seamen Poop and Deck [Hugh Godfrey and Julie Cole] and Skull and Bones [Kathy Jiggins and Verity Southwell], sidekicks to Ash Cobden's dashing villain Captain Spongebag Roundpants. Plus cameos from Jenni Money as Harry the Harbour Master, Brian Corrie as Honest [“no tic”] John and Martin Final as Bosun Rollicks [Rowlocks?] with his knobbly cosh.
Love interest from principal boy Zac Sparrow – a swashbuckling, thigh-slapping Tash Wootton – and Rebekah Walker's demure Moll Flinders. Karen Allen's Queen and Marea Irving's Priestess led the denizens of Discomania Island.
This being Little Waltham, there was a generous supply of disco routines from the hard-working chorus, impressively choreographed by Sue Butler and Karen Allen. A lovely undersea scene change, too, with bubbles and giant jellyfish. MD Karen Wray treated us to an eclectic play list: Barbados, Montego Bay, Otis Redding, Nelly Furtado, Michael Buble, Avenue Q, not to mention Prokofiev for the evil pirate.
And of course we had the walkabout with the sweetie baskets, a custard pie, and a nice hairy-bottomed ghost routine.
Liz Jones's backdrops included an impressive perspective for the Slack Jenny's deck;  the stage-side murals this year featured Jolly Roger, gull and parrot.

Pirates of the Panto was directed by Jenny Broadway, who last worked with Karen Wray on the 2012 Abba Ali Baba.

Sunday, January 15, 2017



Audrey Longman Studio at Brentwood Theatre

Seagulls and Beyond The Sea on the soundtrack, and two chairs on the deck.
Pamela – nicely characterized by Janet Oliver – floral print dress, white cardie – is cruising alone, relaxing after an eventful coach journey. A lovely moment when she empties everything – sun-cream, Jilly Cooper - out of her beach bag to answer her phone. Her space is soon invaded by shameless silver fox Gerald; he was on the same coach, and now he's deftly moving his chair closer, boasting about his lunch box, hoping to get his new bosom buddy interested in something more exciting than horticulture. A typically hilarious performance from Vernon Keeble-Watson, finding an infinite variety in calling Pammie's name, doing press-ups on deck, sorting out the lead in his pencil, and, in an unexpected change of mood, overcome by a melancholy loneliness in his “to be or not to be” moment.
Like Sarah Brown with her Cuban milk-shake, Pamela is inspired by an exotic cocktail to involve Gerry in an Agatha Raisin fantasy. There are other passengers on board, of course, and it would be good to see a little more of the doctor, the masseuses and the lounge singer, for instance.
Not all the sequences ring as true as the initial meeting, but there are plenty of laughs before the two singles go off together to swim with turtles by way of the on-board bingo.
Written and directed by Andrew Alton-Read, this rehearsed reading is a work in progress; it's already an enjoyably gentle observational piece, bringing two contrasting characters together to fine comic effect.

Friday, January 06, 2017


Trinity Methodist Music and Drama

A new recruit to the ranks of community panto.
Tony Brett's production turns out to be a traditional, vintage romp through the familiar story. Though the music includes Buble and Beyonce as well as Flanagan and Allen. There's a nod to the Disney show, as well. And of course a generous helping of songs from the shows: Flower Drum Song, Grease, Annie Get Your Gun, Mary Poppins and more ...
There's a great ghost, UV skeletons, a shrinking Wishee and a custard pie. Not to mention a splendid Sand Dance [Wilson Keppell and Betty style] and an impressive production number to Siegfried Line. Cultural references range from policemen on point duty to Pokemon Go.
The settings are simple, with a backcloth which looks as if it's been too often to Twanky's laundry. But the pyrotechnics look good, as do the costumes, with a magnificent walkdown outfit for the Dame.
She's nicely played by Howard Brooks, with George Robey eyebrows and a pleasant baritone. Emma Byatt makes a fine principal boy; her Princess – more fabulous frocks – beautifully sung by Charlotte Reid. Best make-up goes to Paul Osborne's evil Abanazer; Neil Tuttlebury's Emperor is a sadist to rival the Mikado, Alison O'Malley brings an attractive innocence to the mute mime So-Shi. And Alex Wilson works hard as Wishee Washee, forever afraid someone will try to pinch his Pikachu.
Sue Edwards is the MD at the keyboard, with Mark Edwards on the hi-tech drum kit.
It's back to G&S for Trinity's Civic show in May; following their inventive Pirates of 2015, we're promised a fresh look at Trial by Jury and HMS Pinafore, though Music Director Gerald Hindes assures us that Sullivan's music will be heard as the composer intended.

production photograph by Val Scott

Sunday, January 01, 2017



Three shows to review a week on average again this year; there's been so much great work, too. In this selection, I've restricted myself to those events I was invited to review which earned five stars in my increasingly generous rating system.

Musically, there were predictably fine performances from the Chelmsford Singers, the Stondons, Singers of Writtle and Waltham, including this memorable March world première.
Impressive music-making from the ESO, too, from the Essex Chamber Orchestra, and from the professional bands brought to the Civic by the wonderful M&G concert series, including welcome visits from Martin Roscoe with the Northern Chamber Orchestra and John Wallace with the Philharmonia Brass.

Dramatically, it was often the small-scale and obscure which impressed us most. St Martin's in Colchester hosted two Shakespeares; the Bard had a particularly good year, of course. A poignant WWI Henry V in Middle Temple, and, at the Wolsey, a magical
Midsummer Night's Dream – Trevor's, not Emma's … The Queen's Hornchurch had my favourite of the Much Ados this year [and another hit musical, Partners in Crime].
Over-sexed, over-paid and over here. The Yanks in East Anglia triumph twice – once in the touching Somewhere in England from Eastern Angles [whose final visit to the Hush House, We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea, also makes the top twenty], and the hilarious Handbook for American Servicemen at the Cramphorn, which has hosted some excellent fringe work this past year, including The Collector, Mountains of Madness and Vamos Theatre's Best Thing. The Civic, though, seems to struggle to attract many worthwhile tours – thank heavens for the big shows from local amateur
companies. But it was Witham's Half a Sixpence [in a year which saw a great professional re-written revival] and LODS' Spamalot which stick in the memory.
Much interesting work at the Old Court, including Gaslight, Mr Kolpert and Compleat Female Stage Beauty, and at Brentwood Theatre, notably Glenda Abbott's My Boy Jack.
Young performers continue to make their mark – amongst many other shows, the Essex Dance Theatre's summer showcase, and, back in January, a stunning Les Mis from KEGS Drama; their next, Miss Saigon, eagerly anticipated in February 2017.

Floriane Andersen as a nurse and Freddie Stewart as a wounded soldier in Antic Disposition's Henry V  
Image: Scott Rylander