Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Back to the National for a second look at War Horse, based on Morpurgo's novel.

Some tweaking since last year – the French girl is no longer a puppet, the naïve hand-held ombres chinoises have been replaced by more sophisticated projection, and Major Nicholls no longer reappears as a “ghost”, but the breathtakingly lifelike Joey and Topthorn are as good as ever, and John Tams 's music is in the excellent hands of folk singerTim van Eyken .

The human cast struggle to match the impact of the equine performers. But Patrick O'Kane as the “good German” Muller was outstanding, Bronagh Gallagher was a convincing wife and mother, and Kit Harington had some moving moments as the boy Albert. Not forgetting, of course, Finn Caldwell's scene-stealing goose.

This superb production, directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, combining a huge cast with masterly lighting and brilliant music, remains a worthy successor to His Dark Materials and Coram Boy. A South Bank sell-out for two seasons, it transfers at the end of March to the New London in Drury Lane.

Before the New Year's Eve matinee, early revellers danced in the Lyttleton foyer to Los Mareados playing Piazzolla.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Stondon Singers at Blackmore


In the atmospheric setting of the Priory Church in Blackmore, the Stondon Singers began their Celebration with a 16th century German Resonet in Laudibus. By Leonhard Paminger, a composer unknown to me, and many others, I guess. Turns out he was Austrian, Protestant and a friend of Luther.

This rare gem is typical of the Stondons' style. Their carefully constructed programme – Anticipation, Nativity, Visitors to the Stable – was a satisfying mix of old and new, familiar and less familiar. So a robustly scored gallery carol from Dorset followed a brand new setting – by the Singers' founding-father Frank Webb – of The Ox He Openeth Wide The Door.

This excellent choir goes back 40 years, and they specialize in older repertoire, notably “local boy” William Byrd, who was represented here in a Vigilate and and the Magi's Vidimus Stellam.

King's Men Ord and Willcocks, Pearsall's In Dulci Jubilo, Mathias' Sir Christemas: these were the familiar pieces, and of course there were congregational carols for us all to sing.

Guest conductor, getting the very best from his singers, was Stephen Lloyd, who introduced the music with an engaging blend of erudition and mischief, and the organist was Stephen King, who gave us an impressive romantic Fantasia on Veni Emmanuel, the carol we had just sung ...

Saturday, December 20, 2008


Eastern Angles Christmas Show

Recession-busting drama at the Sir John Mills this year, with no less than five for the price of one.

On lonely Hadesworth station, four travellers and the sinister station master are stranded. They decide to tell their spooky stories to pass the night ...

Tracy Elster, Simon Nock, Nicholas Agnew and Louise Shuttleworth in The Haunted Commode at the Sir John Mills Theatre, IpswichPhoto: Mike Kwasniak

Julian Herries' 2008 offering is well up to the high standard set in previous years, with another set of catchy songs from Pat Whymark. Endlessly inventive – the funny names, the twists of the plot – with the gleeful double entendres, the breakneck pace and the lightning changes, and the use of effective minimal detail – just the carriage door, just the handlebars, just a few horses from the carousel. And the faultlessly structured storyline, character and in-jokes. The creepy cannibals twins were especially memorable. Come to think of it, this is the third show this Christmas where children were killed for food - Hansel und Gretel, Saint Nicolas and now Lavinia's story ...

Hard to isolate elements for particular praise, but the palm-tree business was comedy perfection, and Ankh-er-Saweh's dog managed to sustain a routine well past its best-before date and into the audience sing-along.

With a wicked glint in his eye, Julian led an enthusiastic cast of five, playing Lord Floppington, Tootes and Gunter Lunchfarter, to silly name just three. Louise Shuttleworth was Madame Chambourcy, Tracy Elster Lady Wetsam-Daly, Nicholas Agnew Sister Bridget [and the dog] and Simon Nock Mr Crackers the children's entertainer/escaped lunatic. And, in the unique spirit of Eastern Angles, everyone pitched in to play an instrument – coconuts and triangle obbligato – shift the props and work the audience. Pure theatrical magic, playing in Ipswich and Woodbridge till January 24th.


at Chelmsford Cathedral


A varied selection box of musical delights raised money for the Mayor's charities just before Christmas.

BBC Essex star Dave Monk kept the programme moving, and managed to bridge some pretty wide cultural gulfs. For instance, Philip Cashian's contemporary piece Landscape, was followed by Kay Starr's unforgettable The Man With The Bag.

Sasha Valeri Millwood – the Cashian pianist – also gave us Bach and Chopin, as well as two finger-breaking virtuoso pieces: a Kabalevsky prelude and Fireworks from Debussy. Another award-winning young musician, Sophie Biebuyck, used her bright, warm soprano to excellent effect in extracts from The Messiah, and closed the concert with a simple but effective arrangement of Stille Nacht, backed by the very impressive chamber choir Bra-vissima.

Conducted by Julia Wilson-James, these dozen ladies started the evening with Frosty the Snowman, and ended the first half with the last two numbers from Britten's Ceremony of Carols, disappearing out to the vestry in candlelit procession.

We also heard about the Christmas Truce of 1914, and Conrad's Christmas Guest. Tricia Etherton's Theatretrain – who sang The Man with the Bag – had several more upbeat festive numbers for us; then, just before the mince pies and mulled wine, provided by event sponsors Cosmopolitan and Russell's Restaurant, everyone joined in one last chorus - We Wish You a Merry Christmas. I'll drink to that !

Monday, December 15, 2008


Royal Opera House

14 December 2008

Hand jive and high fives – these seemed a very contemporary pair of kids, even more than the costume and set would suggest. The DDR sprang to mind, though the father remains an artisan, even if his brooms were clearly not traditional, and his shopping from Spar pointed to a contemporary, almost affluent, society.

This new production, by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, ditched much of the magic for the grotesque, the kitsch and the glitzy. The dream sequence, with its traumeichhörnchenengel creatures, was strangely effective though, with the Sandman’s sandwich the longed-for gift.

The children were excellently sung by Kirschlager and Damrau, with plenty of lively characterization, and the Witch was a welcome appearance by Anja Silja, whose scary soprano probably didn’t need gimmicks like the boobs and the Zimmer frame – and why wasn’t that turned to barley-sugar, I wonder ?

Another legend as the Father, Thomas Allen in good voice, even when drunk and frisky on the bed with Elizabeth Connell as a depressed Mother.

The music, under the loving baton of Colin Davis, survived this wayward, cheap-looking makeover unscathed, though it still puzzles me why the notes, and indeed the words, are sacrosanct, but directors feel the need to impose their world-view on the audience, many of them in this case youngsters seeing their first ever opera. It's no secret that E H wrote the earliest version of this opera to entertain his own children. And yet the directors are on record as saying that this is not entertainment, and it is not for children, but about them ...

also posted to the ROH facebook page

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Chelmsford Singers in the 



It's sixty years since Britten wrote Saint Nicolas for the Centenary of Lancing College. Though it is Christmassy in name only, this festive season has seen even more performances than usual, notably at the Barbican, and at Lancing itself.

Peter Nardone encouraged a decimated choir – the ship was seriously under-manned – through a splendid performance, with tenor Ben Cooper sincere and calm as the Bishop of Myra, and Alexander Palotai as the young Nicholas and one of the pickled boys, whose entry was a high point of this inherently dramatic work. The chorus were especially effective in the Birth of Nicholas, and in the storm. Britten wrote in his performing note that the conductor must be cool-headed and should turn to the audience to conduct them in the two hymns” and our participation made the experience even more moving.

Finzi's “Christmas Scene”, In Terra Pax, is less often heard, but this too is a powerfully reflective work, framing Luke's worshipping shepherds with verses by Robert Bridges, who stands back, alone on a glorious Christmas Eve, bathed in the joy of a celebratory crowd of which he will never be part. Isabella Gage was the Angel, and baritone Martin Oxenham the poet.

Martin made a key contribution to the last work, too, Vaughan Williams' popular Fantasia on Christmas Carols. Lusty singing from the choir, and some superb work from a chamber orchestra led by Sarah Sew – a quintessential RVW string sound.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop 

at The Old Court


A Christmas coup for CTW – the amateur première of the stage version of that black and white classic comedy.

A challenge, too, of course, to lay the ghosts of Price and Guinness, and shoe-horn the action into a small space. It was a challenge met with style and enthusiasm by Christine Davidson, Robin Winder and their team.

The set was ingenious and practical, with a screen at the back – a nod to the story's celluloid origins, perhaps – which doubled as a lightbox, magically conjuring up a funeral procession or a boating party with the smallest of forces.

There was some excellent staging – the hunting “accident”, the Boer War maquette – and the auditorium made a useful third acting area. Blackouts are hard to achieve, and it might have been wiser to go for little bit of atmosphere lighting for the scene changes, given that we're going to see them anyway.

A triumph too for Jim Crozier, who managed to create all the different D'Ascoyne victims, often with just a line or two of dialogue: the banker paterfamilias, the bluff Ethelred, the shrill Agatha, and, with more than a drop of Guinness, the rector.

Dean Hempstead was the cold, calculating Mazzini. He held the stage well, but he might have been encouraged to bring out more fully the drama and the humour of his role, the Dr Johnson running gag, for instance, or his half-joking “confession”, or the final twist with the missing memoirs. His two loves were Sibella, a sensuous Ruth Cramphorn, and the refined Edith, an understated Sara Nower. Loads of lovely cameos, from Winder's thwarted hangman to David Chilvers' snobbish young fogey. Always on hand with a change of jacket and a knowing glance was Hoskins, the gentleman's gentleman played to perfection by Andy Perrin.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008



Chelmsford Cathedral


As they have for the past five years, the Waltham Singers led the singing for this sell-out Christmas Concert.

Their generosity brings several key benefits: the congregation singing is boosted, the descants are thrilling, and the choral offerings are of a predictably high standard.

Andrew Fardell's inspirational conducting brought a spiritual strength to Luis de Victoria's Renaissance masterpiece O Magnum Mysterium. And, most effectively, a spare, brightly delineated For Unto Us A Child Is Born from Handel's Messiah, with an upliftingly emphatic “Wonderful!”. Berlioz Shepherds' Farewell was warmly sung, with sensitive accompaniment from the Cathedral's Assistant Master of the Music, Tom Wilkinson.

The reading included both scriptural and secular. A A Milne's advice on giving Christmas gifts, Dylan Thomas's haunted, gas lit Christmas in Wales, and an appropriate lesson in charitable giving from motivational guru Tom Krause, read by Angela Lodge from BBC Essex. Our local radio station is a great supporter of Macmillan, and if you didn't manage to get a ticket for this popular concert, you can hear it broadcast on Christmas Eve, with a repeat on Christmas Day.

Sunday, December 07, 2008


Trinity Methodist Drama and Music Fellowship


Christmas carols being sung by a choir” - Mel Tormé's seasonal standard was just one of the enjoyable surprises at this traditional festive offering from Trinity.

Most fun was had with Rapping Paper, Ben Parry's ingenious and demanding look at Christmas presents – the packed audience worked almost as hard as the choir to make the words fit.

And there was a secular carol, too, The Very Best Time of the Year, by John Rutter, whose work will feature in most of this year's carol concerts. The same could be said of David Willcocks, whose arrangements Trinity used for the familiar carols in which the audience shared.

Paul Edwards' No Small Wonder is a new carol, already very popular with choirs around the world, given a touchingly sincere performance here by the choir, conducted by Susannah Edom.

Adam Sullivan, a former Trinity performer now at the Guildhall, was the baritone soloist in Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on Christmas Carols. A vigorous yet precise sound, especially from the gentlemen.

The other major work was Brother Heinrich's Christmas, also by Rutter. This little Cantata, narrated with consummate charm by Ken Rolf, tells the improbable story of a monk who befriends the monastery donkey and goes on to compose In Dulci Jubilo. With instrumental support from oboe and bassoon, it proved a highlight of the afternoon.

The choir was accompanied by Keith Byatt at the organ, and Simon Harvey at the piano.

Saturday, December 06, 2008


Brentwood Theatre Company


Roald Dahl's classic tale of farmers and foxes was always a favourite in our family, and it has lost none of its appeal over the years.

Director Vernon Keeble-Watson gave us a lively, colourful show on three levels, with lots of doors, and lots of digging. The audience, on two sides, were variously rabbits, badgers, moles and weasels. Us weasels being rather feeble at joining in the recurring Digging Song – the moles, inevitably, going at it with most gusto. MD John Trent Wallace's original music added another layer to David Wood's clever adaptation; I particularly liked the Deep in the Ground ballad, sensitively sung by Deborah Luery and Katie-Elizabeth Allgood.

The narrator was Kira Olivier's furry frump of a Badger, who had some great moments with the scene-stealing Doris [Katie-Anna Whiting] – the Gert and Daisy of Foxes' Wood. The farmers' trio was suitably obnoxious but not at all scary, and the Fox himself was earnestly and energetically played by Stephen Gunshon in his professional début.

There was some lovely detail – Bunce's knee patches, Baby Fox's Teach Yourself Acting – and some awesome effects – the tractor apocalypse and the food stores.

A lovely Christmas show which managed to be original as well as traditional. We even had a Cider sing-along, though we hardly needed the words ...

Thursday, December 04, 2008


King Edward VI School Chelmsford


Gustav Holst's charming, folksy St Paul's Suite was dedicated to his gifted pupils at St Paul's Girls' School, so it was an appropriate choice for KEGS Chamber Ensemble. Conducted by Tim Lissimore, they gave it an energetic, exciting performance, with superb solo work from leader Vincent Morris.

Philip Lane was a schoolteacher, too, and his Celebration Overture was the first of three works from the Senior Orchestra. The most enjoyable was Dukas' ever-popular Sorcerer's Apprentice, with its hard-working bassoons, but the most impressive was Delius' Walk to the Paradise Garden – cool woodwinds against shimmering strings, and some stirring climaxes.

The Wind Band, led by Rosemary Harvey, began with a jaunty, jazzy version of Vaughan Williams' Sea Songs, before letting their hair right down with Mancini, Mission Impossible [tightly played under the baton of Director of Music Tim Worrall], and the hard-to-avoid Hairspray. A very professional sound from this huge ensemble.

The training ensembles gave us a wide range of genres too, with Offenbach's Can Can from the Junior Orchestra, led by Brian Chan; their pizzicato was heard to great effect in Rustic Dance. And KEGS Strings, rehearsed and conducted by students, contributed Abdelazer, Adiemus, and, most successfully, Wallace and Gromit.

In a couple of hours we heard music-making of a range and a standard which many specialist schools would envy. Not through initiatives or special funding, but thanks to tireless enthusiasm, inspirational teaching and leadership, and enlightened parental support. Long may it continue.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


Prizewinners' Concert at CHS


Forty-eight years on, the Chelmsford Competitive Festival of Music and Drama continues to attract entries from all over the county and beyond.

What a broad church it is ! This year's 600+ entries included performers of all ages from beginners to advanced, from solos to ensembles to big production numbers. And all kinds of music, poetry, prose and drama.

The range was demonstrated at the Prizewinners' Concert: even the first item – the impressively disciplined Sandon School Chamber Choir – brought music from the Middle Ages to Fifties America: Gaudete to Goodnight Sweetheart.

Jostling for space in this annual showcase of the Festival's best were James McCallum's soprano sax, Sam Marlow's guitar, and Mendelssohn's Mosquito, brilliantly played, from memory, by 9-year-old Andrew Liddell on violin.

Dramatically, the ages ranged from Aidan and Oliver, who's just turned nine, to the students of Rickstones New Academy, with their inventive Muppetree mime.

Top of the bill were Stardust Dance Academy, with a familiar few minutes of Annie.

The presentations were made by Nicole Chapman, Headteacher of Chelmsford County High School. As she remarked, the performing arts develop qualities and skills for life, and both performers and audience can find their lives enhanced.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


RUG Opera at the Palace Westcliff

How many times has the lovely Palace at Westcliff seen Strauss's fun-filled Fledermaus on its steeply raked stage?

This week, with RUG's determinedly decadent production, could have been the first time the Veuve Cliquot dripped onto the woodwind in the pit, the first time a well-oiled Muscle Mary poured the drinks and moved the chairs, the first time the Can Can provided the floor show.

Musically, the standard was very high. Alison McFadyen kept things moving, the orchestral players embraced the Strauss style, and the singers - principals and party guests [no mere chorus here] - were splendid.

Paul Tarrant - a dead ringer for David Cameron, I thought - was the hapless Eisenstein, with Fiona Whittaker in excellent voice as his wife Rosalinda. Alfred, the opera singer, was Kevin Smith, with his snatches from the repertoire, and there was great character work from David Phillips as a very Teutonic prison governor. His side-kick, Frosch, was played by Shane Collins. Normally a non-singing role, it was embellished here by a moment from Rose Marie - when did that last play the Palace, I wonder.

Adele, dream role, was beautifully played by Jenny Haxell, who even attempted to sing in mummerset.
The youthful dance troupe were very impressive, but generally the pace was less than lively, and the scene changes were obviously hard work.

Nonetheless, an exellent evening out, with a real sense of occasion. As always, RUG was raising money for charity: this time Fair Havens Hospice and The Lennox Children's Cancer Fund.

Monday, November 24, 2008


GDS Promotions at the Civic


Snow in the morning, but by the evening we were transported to the colourful desert of western Rajasthan. Seven turbanned musicians and a spectacularly dressed dancer performed traditional folk music to a large and appreciative audience.

Their repertoire is to be heard at festivals and feasts, and their songs are often based on poetry from the great Sufi tradition – a text by Bulesha began part two.

Instruments included the dholak, a two-headed drum, and the khartal, two pieces of wood used like castanets, which were played with superb style, almost a ballet of its own, especially in the fourth piece, written with 7 beats in the bar.

The bowed kamaicha, including some metal strings, produced some fascinating effects.

Khatu, the Kalbelia Dancer, bejewelled and lightly veiled, performed the Black Snake, accompanied appropriately by the traditional charmer's flute, the pungi, and incorporating some impressively supple tricks and some vertiginous whirling, as also in a lively song of longing, loss and lemons in the second half.

An intriguing glimpse into an ancient tradition, and very accessible to everyone. But I did sometimes wish I could understand the words of these wonderful songs ...

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Jim Hutchon was at Little Baddow ...

Map of the Heart

Little Baddow Players

21st November


This great sprawling play spans raw emotions and whole continents. On the eve of his departure for a mercy mission in the Sudan , middle-aged doctor Albie tells his wife he is leaving her for another woman.


The unlikely Lothario was John Peregrine – at his best when subsequently taken hostage in the Sudan . His wife, strongly understated by Lindsay Lloyd is left in the ensuing months to preside over the slow, quiet fracturing of her home and her heart. The mistress, a matter-of-fact Vicky Tropman, is the aid worker unable to reconcile her marriage-wrecking with her humanist ideals.


Sarah Trippett-Jones played a blinder as the huffy teenage daughter with attitude and Philip Gaudin was urbane and civilised as the shadowy, damaged house guest keen to keep things fuzzy. Michael Gray was the strong, silent ex-lover whose two key speeches were each seven words long – but delivered with energy and commendable brevity.  Paul Randall was irritatingly good as the smug Foreign Office negotiator who secured an arms-for-hostage release.


The play never lapsed into sentimentality, and striking scenes of a church and a prison cell contrasted well with the middle-class main set. Nice to see Ken Rolf back in the director’s chair, and in such cracking form.


Jim Hutchon


Friday, November 21, 2008

Jim Hutchon went to the Cramphorn ...

Noah the Musical 


20th Nov


Susan Corina’s production of this short, snappy musical was done with verve and great energy with a cast that really believed in itself. The opening scenes were played in front of a giant backdrop of the Bible – a clever device to have the story spring from its pages – which was drawn back to unveil the big boat to climax the first act.


Key participants were a genial old Noah played by Pete Spilling, whose voice occasionally struggled against Ian Myer’s boisterous band, and an excellent, tuneful performance from Catherine Gregory as Mrs Noah. Barry Miles as Baasha the scornful senior elder was strong, and Deborah Anderson, as always, gave good value for money as Stella, the ‘Deus ex machina’ – a cross between God’s messenger and the narrator who kept the pace moving along.


I felt the use of modern dress was a mistake – flowing robes would have been nice - , and the storm scene could have been more visually dramatic. But all in all, this was a happy, joyous production which sent the audience out humming the dimensions of the Ark and with which Springers can be justly pleased.


Jim Hutchon


Sunday, November 16, 2008


Swansea City Opera at the Civic


Set in North Wales, in the 20s, this version of L'Elisir d'Amore was very easy on the eye and the ear.

Gary McCann's miniature Portmeirion – dolls houses that turned into chairs and tables – was delightful, especially when the windows lit up in Act Two.

And a strong cast brought the merry music to life, helped by Fraser Goulding's frisky orchestral accompaniment, conducted in Chelmsford by Aris Nadirian. The various duets, trios and quartets sparkled along, though a little more stage direction would have added visual interest to the score.

Rebecca Ivey was a splendid Angharad – posh in pearls, comfortable in her physicality, fondling her suitor's broom. And her rich soprano was a constant joy, blending well with the lyric tenor of Gareth Huw John as her foolish admirer. His “Unwilling tear” was impeccably phrased.

Robert Davies was the Sergeant – memorably singing away whilst acting as a cushion – and Brendan Wheatley relished the role of the fast-talking quack whose elixir lubricates the plot.

Though in the end of course it's wealth, not wine, that attracts the girls. The three little flappers in the chorus were excellent in their “Secret” trio.

A witty, pretty Donizetti from this enterprising company; a worthy successor to their Daughter of the Regiment.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Young Gen at the Civic


Get out your tap shoes, Frances, it's 42nd Street !”

The backstage musical par excellence was a natural choice for Chelmsford Young Generation's fortieth anniversary. Plenty of big numbers, some juicy roles, and a chance for everyone to revel in the glitter and tinsel of musical comedy.

Rhiannon Heap was superb as the ingénue chorus girl who comes back a star; her singing was delightful, and certainly “hot stuff in the steps department”. Dorothy, whom she replaces in the lead role, was beautifully sung by Kayleigh McEvoy – their Act Two duet was simply staged but very moving. A strong performance from Kevin Jarvis as the King of Broadway: a bit of a bully at times, but he had his tender moments too. Dependable performers Joe Toland and Chris Kirwan were the Young and Healthy tenor and the Sugar Daddy, and there was lovely character work from Lois Hirrell and Bart Lambert as the Comden and Green of the company, not to mention Elissa Brown as Annie, the Ginger Rogers role.

Ray Jeffery's sure touch gave us many memorable scenes – the tableau at the end of Getting Out of Town, the Dames sequence, from relaxed chorus boys through pastiche in pink to toppers and tails, the trip to the tea room and the inventive In the Shadows. Wigs and frocks were period perfect, with countless quick changes for the kids. And there were some very tiny tap shoes up there ...

Robyn Gowers was the tap choreographer, Bryan Cass the MD, and there was some great support from the pit: the clarinet under the pep talk, the ever-present Broadway Broadwood.

It's thirteen years since Young Gen last did Harry Warren's unforgettable songs; can we look forward to another revival in 2021 ?


Environ Music Lunchtime Concert at the Cramphorn


These two affable musical chaps gave us a predictably enjoyable, and challenging, hour of music.

Bach to Blues and Bach Again gave the programme its title, and turned out to be an arrangement by Peter Marshall, wrapping the Birth of the Blues inside some smooth Johann Sebastian, with Jeffery Wilson on clarinet.

There was autumnal music too, with a poignant version of the Last Post to mark Armistice Day.

But the key theme was the recession, with upbeat titles like Blue Skies, Over the Rainbow, Get Happy, with the favoured format the 2 for 1, a medley of two tunes, including a memorable romp with Wilson at the piano and Marshall on his trusty bugle: Stardust preceded by Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams. As Jeffery reminded us, in the 30s, when the great depression hit the States, people found solace in bootleg liquor, entertainment, and those great songs that are standards still, such as Fats Waller's Ain't Misbehavin'.

Among the regular weekly Wednesday lunchtimes coming up is Whirlwind – a wind quintet – on December 17, and in the new year, Kay Usher's hot violin on January 14.

Sunday, November 09, 2008


Vaughan Williams Reflection and Remembrance at Chelmsford Cathedral.


It is fifty years since Ralph Vaughan Williams died, and ninety since the guns fell silent at the end of the Great War.

Chelmsford Cathedral marked both events with a thoughtful act of remembrance, devised by Peter Kendal, which included two excellent performances, one of a choral work, one of a song cycle.

Dona Nobis Pacem, a fervent plea for peace, was written in 1936 as the war clouds began to gather again over Europe. Peter Nardone conducted the Chelmsford Singers, the gentlemen of the Cathedral Choir, Soprano Cheryl Enever and Baritone Colin Campbell in a powerful performance. The choir evoked the inexorable rush to war in first chorus, and made the Dirge for Two Veterans almost unbearably poignant. The orchestral accompaniment was well suggested by Tom Wilkinson at the piano and James Norrey at the organ.

Colin Campbell, with Peter Nardone at the piano, gave us the Songs of Travel, Vaughan Williams' early setting of verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. Campbell's strong, persuasive baritone was well suited to these outgoing melodies, from the jaunty Vagabond to the reflective, retrospective Epilogue, discovered amongst the composer's papers after his death.

These superb soloists, together with some beautiful choral singing, made for an experience which would not have been out of place in a concert hall – the Cathedral's Music Department are to be congratulated for bringing work of this quality to the liturgy.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Gaslight at the Greville

GASLIGHT Greville Theatre Club That great Victorian thriller, Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight, is only just 70 years old. Still popular, despite a preposterous plot-line, it depends for its success on the actors' ability to breathe life into the stiff dialogue. In the Greville's elegant production, the most successful resuscitator was Steve Braham's Rough – the ex-copper who arrives like a Deus Ex Machina to save Mrs Manningham from her fate. We have to be able to share her awful suspicion that his visit was just a delusion, another symptom of her mental decline. Bella was Diana Bradley, a submissive wife, easy prey for her manipulative husband. This was a performance of great presence, and beautifully spoken. The final confrontation with Jack was truly thrilling. Cold-eyed, domineering, the evil barely concealed beneath the surface, John Richardson's Manningham was a masterly portrayal of the criminal mind, toying mercilessly with his victim. Physically convincing, too, with more than a hint of Eric Porter. Below stairs were the loyal Elizabeth [Lynda Shelverton] and Carol Parradine's pert slut Nancy. The set was impressive, well furnished, and the sound cues for the menacing hiss of the lamps were very effective. Gaslight was directed by Karen Ashton and Jan Ford, and was preceded by a convivial meal – chilli, jacket, salad and those legendary Greville puddings, including a glorious trifle.

Friday, November 07, 2008


Birmingham Stage Company at the Civic


Rewriting history to amuse children is by no means new – 1066 And All That was an earlier attempt which also transferred well to the stage.

Terry Deary's books are enormously popular with pre-teens, and as a former actor and director, he is well placed to adapt them. Two volumes are touring this year – Terrible Tudors and Vile Victorians. Like the books, the stage plays are finely judged to appeal to the target audience: somewhere between PlaySchool and Blackadder, with plenty of pure panto thrown in.

The characters were constant. Dr Dee - not clear whether this was any relation to Queen Elizabeth's Magician and former Chelmsford schoolboy John Dee – two naughty sidekicks Drab and Dross, and the Inspector from OFSTAPO, for whom we reserved some of the loudest hisses and boos.

Excitement, explosions and executions, disease and disaster, were the stuff of almost all the sketches – Battle of Bosworth, Charge of the Light Brigade, Baby Farmers and Night Soil Men, all reduced to colourful, almost cheerful cartoons.

The lively, physical acting was supported by music, my favourite the pastiche Music Hall ditty The Hole in the Elephant's Bottom, and CGI backdrops, which in the second half sent 3D effects zooming around the auditorium – The Tay Bridge disaster and bloody Mary. Yuck.

The moral was summed up in the last song – I'd Rather be Alive Today.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

David Copperfield

Mercury Theatre Colchester


Giles Havergal brought his adaptation of David Copperfield to Colchester Mercury this month.

It was an amazing experience – a large cast, with many familiar faces – and if not a lavish production, then certainly a labour of love.

Tristram Wymark was the ever-present narrator, the grown-up David, with the fresh-faced James Rowland his younger self, who did most of the acting.

The broad sweep of the narrative used the width of the stage: a few ramps, a cluster of stylised masts, and an evocative nautical backdrop. And the books, all the brown jackets of Davy's boyhood, Roderick Random and the rest; the play began with a child lost in reading.

I liked the way actors moved through the scenes, telescoping time and distance, a memory, a regret, a lost love. The groupings were eloquent: Little Emily's first hint of tragedy, the humiliation of Heep.

There was a long casualty list, of course. Traddles, Barkis, Mr Dick, Mrs Gummidge ...

But clarity was key, and many favourites were superbly drawn: Christine Absalom's Peggoty, Pete Ashmore's tortured Steerforth, Ignatius Anthony as the villains, Kate Copeland as Dora, Kerry Gooderson as the poor deluded Emily.

And a gaggle of Dickensian children, shifting the furniture, dressing the scene, and scampering happily alongside Micawber's optimistic perambulator.

A memorable, moving afternoon.


M&G Concert at the Civic Theatre


For the opening concert of the season, a popular programme, a big-name soloist and an encouraging sprinkling of young people in the near-capacity crowd.

Chloe Hanslip, child prodigy and still not long out of her teens, directed the London Mozart Players from her violin for Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Pivotal, in the centre of the semi-circle, she maintained an intimate contact with the players, painting the pictures with energy and verve. The positive opening of the Primavera, the wonderful blend of tones in the Autumn Adagio, the unusually jaunty Winter Largo, all made for a very enjoyable ride. For an encore, she joined LMP director David Juritz for the Allegro from the JS Bach Concerto for Two Violins.

Two housekeeping issues. The programme, informative as ever, had two lines of type missing, and, not for the first time, the clinking of glassware from the bar was an irritating distraction after the interval.

The concert began with two Serenades for Strings. Dvorak's – introduced with trainspotting pointers by Juritz – had an alert, conversational feel; the lively Scherzo had its tender moments too, with beautiful playing from cellist Sebastian Comberti. And to begin, the Elgar, another young man's work,
with a superb Larghetto central movement, sonorous and elegant, but also spun-silk filigree in the quieter moments.

A great start to the season, which continues in February with our very own Britten Sinfonia.

Independent Ballet Wales at the Civic


Peter Teigen; Photographer

Like Tchaikovsky, Berlioz never intended his Romeo and Juliet music for the dance.

So while this wonderful score has the advantage of being both appropriate and unfamiliar, it does mean that the structures of traditional ballet music – themes, big numbers – are often missing.

But Darius James's choreography told the story clearly and engagingly, and his young dancers brought freshness and energy to the well-worn story.

The Berlioz, and occasional medieval French hurdy-gurdy music, were used precisely, in the dramatic final moments, for example, or the Act II pas de deux against the mezzo soloist.
The tender balcony scene was effectively lit, though Romeo was often left in the dappled shade of the orchard.

Romeo was danced with a youthful passion, sometimes gauche, always honest, and Juliet's candid, open movements were absolutely right for her character. In the smaller roles, we admired the lithe Benvolio, and the neat little nurse, whose every gesture spoke volumes.

The setting was simple but striking – hangings, ladders and, later, some telling back-projection to situate the action.

An imaginative, innovative production from a very impressive company, who are also touring Under Milk Wood this year.