Wednesday, February 27, 2008


John Rutter at Chelmsford Cathedral


John Rutter, Britain's most successful composer of church music, was in Chelmsford Cathedral last week to conduct his Canticle of the Heavenly City, commissioned by the Dean, Peter Judd, for Iffley Parish Church. It is beautifully phrased piece, sung here by the Cathedral Choir with accompaniment from harp and two flutes.

Rutter also conducted the last work on the programme, Parry's triumphal Blest Pair of Sirens. The Cathedral Choir were joined by the Consort and the Voluntary Choir, with a full orchestra, making an impressively joyful sound.

This unique event, which included performers from all the schools involved in the Cathedral's Choral Foundation, began with the orchestra, KEGS and CCHS united, under Tim Worrall, playing the Vaughan Williams English Folk Song Suite. These young players sounded wonderful in the Cathedral acoustic, with some impressive brass playing, and especially telling woodwind solos.

Cantatrici, a chamber choir from the County High School, directed by Felicity Wright, sang two all too brief pieces, Gibbons' Silver Swan and Stanford's Blue Bird - with piano accompaniment, for some unfathomable reason.

Robert Poyser conducted the Choir in Naylor's Voc Dicentis, with Charles Palotai and Matthew Butt as soloists, and the combined forces in Schubert's Mass in G; the Gloria and the Hosannas were particularly successful. The soloists here were Tom Robson, Isabella Gage and Simon Warne.

This was a superb showcase for the talent based around our Cathedral, and it was good to see it so well attended.


Reform Theatre at the Cramphorn Theatre


Albert Nobbs has enough on his plate with retirement and cholesterol, without bereavement to worry about.

Gordon Steel's hilarious piece plays like a sitcom, with some super one-liners and recognisable characters.

In Martin Derbyshire's solid front-room set, Albie sits in his favourite chair, a touching mixture of grumpy and vulnerable. This was a memorable performance from Roger Butcher, so good in Dead Fish from the same company last year. Counting the flowers on the wallpaper, flirting, cursing, talking to the dead and, movingly, listing the things he'll never do again.

Martina Clements was his clairvoyant wife Connie, back from the dead Blithe Spirit style to help his cope with life as a widower, and Ruth Carr gave a couple of character studies as the two neighbours: Alice, with her comedy teeth and her flatulence, and Rose, an old flame whose sympathy helps Albert over the worst.

Keith Hukin directed with a sure sense of style, with Sinatra on the soundtrack and no opportunity missed to raise a laugh or tug at the heartstrings.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

JR was at the Mercury last week for The Late Edwina Black ...

definitely a period piece and not that easy to bring to believable life. The poster is emblazoned with photos of Stephen McCann (Emmerdale) and Stephen Beckett (Coronation Street) .. the very mention of the 'soaps' should have warned me in the first place. I detest this sort of 'publicity' and even though it does seem to get bums on seats I react badly to it ! Mind you, the two 'named actors' did respectable jobs but I felt they were let down on the technical front. Sound was 'muffled' with too obviously 'recorded everything' .. the doorbell sounded totally false as did the door slams. Now how difficult is it to have a door slam and a front door bell ? Then lighting was barely OK .. when it's supposed to be raining outside you shouldn't have a sunshiny effect on the 'backdrop' - this stayed the same most of the way through ! And from where I was sitting it looked as if there was a coffee pot on the garden wall - I tried desperately to see if this was a reflection of something on stage, but nope, it wasn't ! Highly puzzled by that ! Then I could see light through a join in the scsnery ! How bad is that ? On the sound effect aspect it was supposed to be raining outside and yet the sound effect was 'wind' .. there are SO MANY sound effect cds that this is an unforgivable 'error' What was really disappointing was that there were more in the audience than for the BRILLIANT 'Brief Lives' last week .. all because someone has heard of 'Emmerdale' and 'Coronation Street' and Roy Dotrice has been out of the public eye for a while !


CAODS at the Civic Theatre


Sentimental, hard-hitting and packed with tunes – Carousel is hard to beat for traditional musical theatre.

Ray Jeffery's latest production for CAODS was lovely to look at, well sung and meticulously choreographed, right from the moment the factory girls left their looms for the lure of the fairground.

Billy the barker was Stuart Woolner – “what a handsome fella he was...” physically just right, with a powerful, true voice. Not the most subtle interpreter of the role, but a magnetic actor. His Julie was Claire Carr, whose lovely voice was well used in If I Loved You; her girly duet with Carrie [Christie Booth] was a highlight of the show. Angela Broad made an excellent Nettie, carrying two of the biggest numbers, and Jonathan Davis relished his role as a relaxed, repulsive Jigger. Mr Snow, with his loud suit and louder laugh, was brilliantly played by Kevin Abrey, and there were cameos from veterans Leo McGiff and Peter Smith.

Men in gumboots, girls with brooms, a Fellini-esque finale all in white: the production was full of nice touches and effective groupings; the death of Billy, beautifully lit, with Nettie and Mrs Mullin [Caroline Escott], just one example.

A good orchestra, and confident choral singing, under MD Andrew Denyer, made this a quality evening's entertainment - polished and professional evening on this Monday night !

Saturday, February 23, 2008


Handbells at Chelmsford Cathedral


Sound in Brass are one of the leading handbell teams in the UK. Based in Springfield, they have played the Albert Hall and the Purcell Room, and made several recordings.

Last week they came to the Cathedral, appropriately raising funds for the Development Appeal, which includes restoration plans for the church bells.

A large, enthusiastic audience enjoyed a remarkably wide variety of music, beginning with their signature piece – Whistling Rufus – and culminating in a spirited tour de force, Strauss's Radetsky March.

They included just one piece written for this peculiar musical line-up; for the rest, ingenious arrangers had taken favourites and filleted them for the dozen or so players and their 128 bells. A Bach Pastorale worked well, as did a nicely swinging version of the Birth of the Blues. Simple works – Walking in the Air, the Berceuse from Fauré's Dolly Suite – proved effective; among the more ambitious attempts were Midnight in Moscow and Ketelby's evocative Persian Market, complete with cymbal !

As the Dean remarked at the end, there is a strong visual element to this art, the balletic swings of the bells all timed precisely to the beat.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Eastern Angles at the Cramphorn Theatre


Like so much of Eastern Angles' work, Kate Griffin's Cuckoo Teapot is based on careful research of one of the byways of our local history.

This time it's the Norkies – Norfolk lads of a hundred years ago who went to seek seasonal work in the Burton breweries, and brought home a fancy teapot for their Mum.

The brilliantly simple, practical set had a bike and a chair, some little cupboards, slopes and screens. Ivan Cutting's fast-paced direction kept us interested in the interaction, and the five actors caught the accents and the mood to perfection. The star-crossed lovers – an apple cleft in two - were affectingly played by Tim Bell and Bryony Harding, and the two older women, united in the loss of a child, and much more, as it turned out, were marvellously brought to life by Helen Grady and Jacqueline Redgewell: their confrontation, and later, tenderer encounters, were among the best moments in a very strong drama. Graham Howes played both the creepy shop owner and the kindly brother.

The Cramphorn was sold out for this superb piece of documentary theatre – if you missed it there, it's still touring, and comes to Margaretting Village Hall on March 28.

... where we joined a capacity crowd [70 or s0] to see the show again. Harder for us to hear, what with the accents and the acoustic, and harder for them to achieve the atmosphere with minimal lighting and obtrusive decor. But the piece still worked well, and the teapot in its little cupboard survived unbroken this time !

Monday, February 18, 2008


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court


Jean Genet's seminal play is now sixty years old. It has never had an easy ride with the critics. Too long, unhealthy, unactable.

In those grey postwar years, the dark tale of jealousy, dressing up and secret longings in garret bedrooms was shocking and daring. Nowadays it all seems very tame, and yet the frisson is still there beneath the flowery language and the evening gowns.

Keith Hiscox's brave production began promisingly. Madame's opulent bed dominates the set. Claire enters in stylish slow motion. Her sister Solange wears an irresistible combination of a black maid's uniform and yellow Marigolds. The ending, too, was effective: the shock of discovery, the blending into the curtain call.

But these moments were separated by 90 minutes – no interval, and not much variety – of difficult dialogue. Rebecca Errington was the dull, older [?] Solange, and worked hard at her character, especially in her monologue. Claire was Katherine Tokley, switching effectively from aping her mistress to teasing her sister. Emma Moriaty was a formidable Madame, oppressive and overbearing.

As Genet says in the play, it's a dangerous game. And if the risk didn't quite come off in this production, this is just the sort of edgy piece CTW should include at least once in every season.

this is the longer review I was commissioned to write for the CTW newsletter

Prostitute, poet, playwright, legionnaire and jail-bird – Jean Genet is the first author mentioned in Alan Bennett's new book The Uncommon Reader.

Genet’s second-best play – and probably his most performed – was an interesting choice by Keith Hiscox to follow last year's impressive Oleanna. Is it Absurdist ? Theatre of Cruelty ? Melodrama ? Sisters, servants, sinners – as the strapline for the film version has it.

The mood was massaged with some rather obvious French chansons as we studied the vast bedroom set. The silky satin was just right, but the gold drapes didn't really come off – neither stylised nor realistic. That's not to say what might have taken their place – on a bigger, more sophisticated stage I suppose just blackness into the distance of the wings. The furniture looked good, though both the doors were wrong for their period and the rest of the dressing. I liked the ticking clock, emphasising the fear of discovery and disgrace.

Most of the lighting was frontal, apart from the return behind the door. More depth and mystery might have been achieved with subtler effects.

I loved the slowly opening door and the whole sequence at the top of the show. We might have welcomed more of that kind of expressionist style in the body of the piece.

The dialogue is a huge stumbling block. I've no problem with the translation – not credited in the programme – though I am pretty sure that the “crowns worn” in the funeral fantasy are in fact wreaths carried. But like the work of Orton, it is not naturalistic dialogue. The challenge is to make the stilted, heightened words work. “You frittered away my frenzies”, did I hear someone say ? You can't treat that kind of writing as if it's lines from East Enders “ Calm down, yeah” being the worst example.

The erotic charge between the two sisters is hard to gauge – here we had something more akin to puppy love, which would probably not have satisfied Genet. The text points us to the shared attic bed, dreams about each other, not to mention the milkman. I might have expected these two sisters to be more tactile. The intimacy, when it came, was less believable for being so out of character. We see a woman lashed with insults to climax – shuddering with pleasure. Should this have been more erotic, more explicit ?

Katherine Tokley was Claire, seemingly the dominant sister, playing the Mistress in the first piece of play-acting. I liked the way it slowly became apparent that this was a fake: this revealed theatricality is one of the strengths of the piece. Rebecca Errington's Solange was a nicely characterised wild child, though her hair would certainly not pass muster, and seemed to get in the way. Her devotion seemed child-like and simple, rather than dark and devious. All three actresses were younger than one might imagine – these are maids who have grown old in the service of Madame, played with a strong sense of style by Emma Moriaty.

It’s often said that Genet wanted boys to play all three roles. This is sometimes done, and it does underline the major theme of play acting and pretence.

I often sit watching productions fantasising about how I could have done it so much better. But this piece defeated my imagination, I'm afraid. So all credit to Hiscox and his team for giving it a welcome staging. Maybe it needed a more radical “vision”, with theatrical style imposed over the text. More relishing of the language, rather than a naturalistic delivery.

Or let’s risk everything and bring on the boys …

Saturday, February 16, 2008


M&G Concert at the Civic


The last of this season's M&G concerts saw the welcome return of clarinettist Emma Johnson, not fronting the endangered London Mozart Players this time, but as soloist with the presumably well-subsidised European Union Chamber Orchestra.

Playing her dark-toned basset clarinet, she gave us Mozart's sublimely beautiful concerto. Johnson must have played these notes hundreds of times, but the familiar work still sounded fresh and heartfelt, especially in the eloquent, wistful slow movement, with heartbreakingly quiet bass notes, and a magic moment when the strings crept in pianissimo after the cadenza.

She was well supported by some sprightly string playing, and the performance ended with a dance-like Allegro and a whispered joke.

After a tightly controlled Adagio for Strings, we heard a spirited Symphony 29, with fire in the Finale and a nice swagger to the Andante.

The evening did not begin promisingly, though, with a merely workmanlike Haydn Symphony. Only in the Presto last movement did we get any real energy and attack, any sense of communication with the audience or with each other.

The EUCO can seem forbidding on stage, so it was good to see their two oboists serenading the capacity audience in the foyer before the concert.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


St Andrew's Youth Fellowship, Sandon


Once upon a time loads of youth clubs put on a panto. Now SAYF is one of the few survivors of this uniquely valuable tradition.

Peter Ellis has been producing them for longer than either of us would care to remember, and indeed this script, by Moira Edwards, first saw the light in 1983. The puns still raised a groan, and a new generation of kids clearly enjoyed bringing the legend to life. There was competitive community singing, music by Rodgers, Sullivan and Abba, amongst others, an Ultraviolet ballet, and lovely scenery by Adam Delf – the woodcut forest, the solid Viol Inn.

The Babes were Megan Galvin and Laura Messin, well matched and very effective in their Cosette duet, one of two raids on Les Mis. Jessica Moore and Antonia Stratton had the most striking costume as the hapless henchman to Mark Dobson's Baron. He was at his best in the 20s duet with Lydia Green's Miss Deed. Another successful duo was the Marion/Robin of Alice Delf and Rebecca Swann, singing Lionel Richie's Endless Love. Laurence Green made a jolly, portly Tuck, and Lauren Clark had lots of character charm as Fido.

The chorus worked hard, to especially good effect in Little Brown Jug and the Finale – We're All in This Together, from the unavoidable High School Musical.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


at the Civic


The world's funniest string trio turned up at the “Royal Civic Theatre” again last week, with a show even more surreal than last year's.

Footwear was a feature. Shoes were exchanged, and even stolen from the front row, to the tune of the Moonlight Sonata, arranged, like everything else, for violin, viola and cello.

The evening began with musical chairs: all three musicians managed to shift their seat from behind the potted palms to centre stage without missing a note of the Zauberflote.

And it ended, as all the best classical concerts do, with the 1812 Overture, complete with bells, pyrotechnic effects and tennis balls.

Yarlsberg” the virtuoso fiddler was joined by adequate viola player Mr Abanathie and obsessive cellist Kadifachi, aka Hogg, who swooned for the Swan, and starred in Pluck's own remake of Psycho. Fans who remember her Fever were delighted to hear her Queen of the Night and Cole Porter's appropriate lyric – Why Can't You Behave ?

We also heard, all too fleetingly, Satie, Zadok, Gloria, Lakme, Ponchielli and the Lark Ascending, and witnessed a classic tea party mime and an instrumentalist plucked from the front row to join the boys in a memorable rendering of Monti's Czardas.

Saturday, February 02, 2008


Christopher Kingsley at Danbury Parish Church


The Walker organ in St John the Baptist, Danbury, is a little over 70 years old. For the last 40 years, it has been played by Christopher Kingsley, first as Organist, latterly as Director of Music.

His celebration recital began with Purcell's familiar tune from Abdelazer, and then explored the repertoire in a varied selection of pieces. J S Bach, of course, including two contrasting Chorale Preludes and the Prelude in G, with its deceptively simple descending scales. And the less familiar John Alcock, organist at Lichfield in the 18th century.

From the rich Nineteenth Century repertoire, I especially enjoyed Franck's delightful Prelude Fugue and Variation, and a couple of bonbons from the irrepressible Parisian Lefébure-Wély.

Before a final Festal Flourish, from the unlikely pen of Gordon Jacob, we heard a Minuet in Classical Style, by Armstrong Gibbs, the composer who did so much to establish the strong choral tradition at Danbury.

No organ loft in this lovely church, so Christopher Kingsley was able easily to share his erudite but accessible thoughts on each piece, rightly described in the vote of thanks as “enlightening and enlivening”.

As well as celebrating a remarkable tenure, the recital raised funds for the Cirdan Sailing Trust.