Monday, March 31, 2008


Young Gen preview piece


This is not just a cabaret ...”

Chelmsford Young Generation's Dance Captain explained that the show is often done as a concert piece, showcasing those unforgettable Leiber and Stoller hits from the 50s and 60s.

Watching the kids rehearse, I could see what she meant. The numbers were there in all their innocent glory – Poison Ivy, On Broadway, Searchin', Kansas City, and Dance With Me, played wickedly for laughs. But, although there's no complex storyline, there is drama, and there are real, developed characters.

[photograph by Barrie White-Miller]

With two weeks still to go, the cast, aged from 12 to 18, is sharp and stylish. The energy is palpable, and it's obvious that these talented young people are enjoying the show.

You will too, if you can get a ticket for their week in the Cramphorn beginning on April 14. Civic Box office – 01245 606505.

People said it was too difficult for the kids. Eight part harmony, it's a tough sing.” All their hard work has clearly paid off - the show is in great shape. Impeccable singing, toe-tapping dance routines – not to mention the roller skates ...

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Colchester Theatre Group
Headgate Theatre
29 March 2008

They were never meant to take to the stage. They were certainly never meant to be seen back-to-back on the same day.
So full marks to CTG for their superb Talking Heads - the entire first series on a single Saturday.

James Potter was the token man - though his monologue is as much about his mother - slightly too young, slightly too hasty, and prone to nudging and winking, but nevertheless a funny, touching performance as a mother's boy haunted by mental illness.
Teresa Sales was affecting as Doris, with a cream cracker under her settee. The nuances were sometimes lost, and Tong Road was a distant memory, but an honest, down-to-earth performance, bringing out the frailty and the feistiness of this old lady.
Lesley, the jobbing actress, was given a bubbly, nervy edge by Louisa McDonald. Vicar's wife Susan was excellently played by Maggie Bush in Bed Among the Lentils: character and delivery just right, though occasionally she struggled with the words, and the set was over-fussy, I felt.
Sara Green was Miss Ruddock in Lady of Letters - a tour-de-force, managing to be moving and amusing, often in the same breath. Can't imagine this piece being better done; the same goes for my favourite Talking Head, Soldiering On, brilliantly performed at the Headgate by Giovanna Austin, tragic as the upper-middle-class wife whose life unravels after her husband dies - the heart-breaking sadness was all the more touching for being concealed behind a twinset and pearls and a resolutely brave face.

Colchester Theatre Group have a reputation for Alan Bennett plays - their Lady in the Van was wonderful - and I look forward to the second set of Talking Heads ...

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Cramphorn Lunchtime Concert


Soprano Jane Parker sang a varied programme to a packed and appreciative Cramphorn audience last week.

Her recital began with baroque arias, including Handel's Verdi Prati, sung with affecting simplicity, and ended with a wistful number from Meredith Wilson's The Music Man.

In between, we heard opera from Mozart and Puccini; Parker's vivacity and versatility often reminiscent of mezzo Cecilia Bartoli. From the Arno to the Tyne, with a folksong arrangement from Cantamus, and Britten's tender treatment of a French song.

Her own settings of the liturgy, including a hypnotic version of the Agnus Dei, were followed by three contrasting songs from the shows: the saccharine Sound of Music and the moving Losing My Mind, from Sondheim's Follies.

Our enjoyment was enhanced by Jane's infectiously enthusiastic introductions. Her accompanists were Sue Williams and the producer of these concerts, Jeffery Wilson. Both of them gave her sensitive and musicianly support - very impressive.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Civic Theatre

It's twenty years now since a
trio of fresh-faced Americans brought scaled-down Shakespeare to the Edinburgh Fringe.

Since then the condensed Bard has become a global brand, and three more actors, not quite so fresh-faced, but just as American [despite Simon's Kazakhstan teeshirt] brought their hilariously frantic filleted Folio to the Civic.

Though not, interestingly, under the Reduced Shakespeare Company banner ...

Ryan Ellsworth was superb as the evangleical academic in the cleverly scripted Prologue, and Glenn Conroy was brilliant as Polonius and the panicking actor at the end of part one. Simon Cole had the only snatch of straight Shakespeare, What a piece of work is a man, the applause proving he could be a real actor if the clowning gets too much.

Any resemblance between this stateside thesp and the Simon Cole who was brought up British in Broomfield and trained at the Guildhall has to be one of those Shakespearean coincidences ... Or did the reference to KEGS carry a deeper resonance ?

We had a rap Othello, combined comedies in masks, Troilus upstaged by a clockwork Godzilla, several volunteers all called Bob, and of course the big finish, Helmet Prince of Denmark.

This last play was done to death as a classroom participation exercise, then reduced to two seconds, and finally rewound. All done in the trademark energetic pantomime style audiences find so endearing. This major tour is coming to the Queens and the Mercury on its way to the Grand at Blackpool.

Friday, March 21, 2008


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court


Rattigan's well-made play is very much of its time, and Nick Gulvin wisely went for period feel in the set and the costumes.

The genteel poverty of Hester's flat was caught exactly; the corridor and the bedroom narrowed the stage to a claustrophobic prison. The dresses, even the lingerie, were authentic; Ruth Cramphorn, as Ann, looked absolutely Fifties – frock, make-up, deportment all spot on.

The play is dated now, but the central role still provides a marvellous opportunity for the actor, eagerly seized by Sara Nower in a memorable, almost definitive performance. Her descent into incoherence, and her duologues at the end, were masterly. The object of her affections was played by Ben Fraser, too young for the ex-pilot, but he suggested the heartless cad effectively, yet we could still understand what she saw in him.

Mike Gordon was outstanding as the enigmatic Miller, and Mike Nower made a sympathetic husband, the quietly-spoken, buttoned-up judge who wants to do what is right. Solid support from Dean Hempstead as Freddie's friend and confidant, David Chilvers as the young civil servant. Christine Davidson was the landlady, a nicely observed character, also absolutely in period.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Cramphorn Theatre


Hard to pigeon-hole Kinny Gardner. Trained as a dancer, studied Commedia and Kabuki, and here he is on a Thursday morning making a cat out of a dustpan for a delighted audience of children.

We began by sharing his Cinderella-themed playlist – including numbers I hoped I'd forgotten from the Ofarims and 60's superstar Mina.

Music was an important part of the show – Rossini remix, including a lovely Cat Duet – as was sign language. The pupils of Gosfield School who made up half the audience learned how to sign “Good Morning” and “audience” and even how to applaud in silence !

The show was beautifully designed in shades of grey, with bright colours for the transformation scene, and some superbly inventive ideas – the old boot and the old bag, the pram full of props, the T-shirt backdrop and the kitchen drawers. The favourite was the tiny puppet mouse, squeaking as it ran around.

This is a performer totally in command of his audience and of his material, resplendent in clown make-up and his very own glass slippers.

Krazy Kat are bringing another of their shows – Petrushka – to the Cramphorn in April. Deaf or Hearing, Young or Old, you really shouldn't miss it.


Travelling Light at the Cramphorn Theatre


What was the first live theatre you remember ? For some lucky pre-schoolers, it'll be the endlessly inventive Shadow Play, presented by Bristol-based Travelling Light Theatre Company.

Sally Cookson's creative piece used the everyday, the paraphernalia of playschool, to conjure up a magical world of movement and music that held the audience rapt for nearly an hour. At no point was the work patronising or trivial.

Kazoo, stylophone as well as accordion and electric guitar played an original score with rhythm and melody. Paper screens, like eggshells, were pierced by emerging hands and bodies. Later the paper was used for shadow work, and some breathtakingly beautiful moments with firefly-like points of light, and finally, after dreams on a floating star-cushion, the paper was a canvas for bold colourful sketches recalling the events of the drama, ice-cream, seagull, snake and all.

The silent passages were accompanied by infant questions, proving how involved this audience was. As the lights changed for daybreak after the dreams, one tiny voice greeted the actors – Gergo Danka, Ben Harrison, Remi Tawose and Stevie Thompson – with a cheerful “ Morning !”.

As one parent said, it's the shared experience in the warm, dark theatre that makes this unique – you don't get that in front of Cbeebies.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Cramphorn Theatre


Shifting Sands' publicity promises a lot, whilst leaving you wondering just what to expect.

I was not prepared to be so disappointed. Director Gerry Flanagan's background is in the art of the clown, but it was hard to discern this influence here. The acting was one-dimensional and occasionally insecure, while the writing – script by “Nottingham-based writer Andy Barrett” - was awkward and flat: “I'd have thought seeing a friend be killed is something you'd want to get off your chest.” Less than two hours, including the interval, yet it seemed so much longer.

Flynn the postman – a dead ringer for Grayson Perry – had a cheeky, ingratiating manner, Mona was a stock vamp, and Logan was menacing and violent.- the same actor was Micky, the chess nerd postman. I found it hard to believe that he was a professional actor. There was no programme. I'd like to have known a little about the performers. Where did they train ? Did they cut their teeth on Holby City ?

The audience was sparse; there were few laughs. The fantasy sequences needed a heightened reality - “A woman ruined me once ...” The script contained references that were never exploited - Mrs Danvers, for instance.

There were flashes of inspiration – the buckets at the bar, the Black Book sequence – but generally I was reminded of a student piece: pretentious, overblown and pleased with itself. The worst thing I've seen in some time.

Good job I'm not awarding their grades.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Civic Theatre


Scores of Chelmsford performers gave their time and their talents to support the Mayor's Charities – CHESS and the YMCA - in a variety bill sponsored by Essex and Suffolk Water.

The bill was topped by an unassuming Daniel de Bourg, who won the audience with an a cappella Umbrella, and an X Factor number for which he shared the stage with his tiny son Theron.

He also led the assembled forces in a fitting Finale – With A Little Help from My Friends, conducted by Simon Warne.

Warne was there to conduct the Boreham Ladies' Choir, who ended the First Act with an enjoyable set of Sondheim and spirituals, including a complex arrangement of Nobody Knows.

The Cathedral Primary School choir sang some worship songs, including the popular Jackson/Miller Let There Be Peace. The other local school involved was Boswells, who fielded their excellent Band, with its frenetic front man. Equally impressive was retro singer songwriter Robert Jerome, with big-band backing tracks and some of his own work, including Sandra's Song.

Genial compère David Hylands also introduced the Focus Youth Dance Company from essexdance, the Essex Caledonian Pipeband, and Young Gen, giving us a tantalising taste of Smokey Joe's Café, coming to the Cramphorn on April 14.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank
Shakespeare's Globe

14 March 2008

Much Ado About Nothing in a 95 minute version, without interval, playing to 10,000 students over the week.

Globe Education's production, directed by Jo Howarth, is loud and lively. And for the schools' matinees it needs to be. The uninhibited audience, sometimes reluctant attenders, sometimes well prepared, expects to be entertained and to make its contribution.
Dogberry and Co are less successful perhaps than Benedick [Bill Buckhurst] and his army, all laddishness and fatigues, kicking a ball about on the piazza before the show, shouting and shoving, just like any Friday night in Colchester.
The humour and the nuances came over better in the evening, when the kids were outnumbered by real punters - although this performance too was free of charge, and the actors could really relish the words and the unique atmosphere of the Globe.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Chelmsford Ballet Company


Sarah Woodroof's “Star Cross'd (Jazz)” was a brand new piece for this year's Chelmsford Ballet Company show. An energetic and inventive re-telling of Romeo and Juliet, it was uneven in its effect, but at its best it used its barefoot dancers in a thrillingly visceral staging.

The evening began with Les Sylphides, choreographed by Sandra Crossley; a simple setting, with very impressive work from the corps de ballet, beautiful stillness in repose and graceful pointe work. Tanya Davenport and Matthew Powell danced a brilliant pas de deux, and Bethany Pike was excellent in a spirited Waltz.

Nicolas Rombaut [English National Ballet School] and Lucy Durno gave us an exciting Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, passionate and technically very secure.

The main work was La Boutique Fantasque, choreographed by CBC's artistic director Gillian Toogood. Big, colourful scenes, and lovely dancing from the Playing Cards and the Pirates, led by Dee-dee Codner's dashing Captain. Bethany Pike and Andy Potter were the gift-wrapped Can Can dancers, John Richardson the supercilious boutiquier. The story is a thin one, even by ballet standards, but the vivacity carried the day, and the evening ended in glorious confusion as the toys took over the shop.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


OffSpringers at the Cramphorn Theatre


Dotheboys Hall - a failing school ? It looked almost over-subscribed in OffSpringers' ambitious production, its unfortunate inmates crowding the Cramphorn stage.

Sharon Scott's production looked good: the first glimpse of the gates, the back-lit classroom. The dance routines [choreographed by Maria French] were lively and imaginative – the “Stop!” number, with its momentary freezes, the joyous romp of Dotheboys Rock; even the static opening was full of visual interest.

I thought the reprise of Here I Am could have had more revolutionary fervour, but the final Believe, with our hero wandering through frozen figures, was a marvellous moment.

Sophie Walker, the eponymous orphan, had a pleasant singing voice and some fine flashes of character, while Lee Wakefield pulled off an impressive double as the two Heads. I enjoyed the comedy performances of Bethan Anderson and Naomi French as the Squeers women, and Tom Cilvert's stylish Bolder. James Raynal, an OffSpringers veteran, brought his considerable stage presence to the charismatic Nicholas, and Jason Clifford sang well as Snawley.

June Watson was the MD, wisely sitting in the front row to keep the kids in line.

On the first night some edges were rough, some opportunities were missed, but the capacity audience enjoyed an enthusiastic revival of a classic school musical.

Friday, March 07, 2008


Essex Concert Orchestra


Did you see Classical Star on BBC2 last summer ? Two of the nicest contestants – now happily engaged to be married – played a gig in Chelmsford last week with the enterprising Essex Chamber Orchestra, conducted on this occasion by Richard Brittain.

Ben MacDougall played the Flight of the Bumble Bee twice, and more interestingly, the Galway arrangement of the Rodrigo Fantasia, which caught the melancholy of the original, and also had enormous energy in the Cadenza and the Canario finale. Good support from the orchestra too, especially the woodwind. Only one movement of Mozart, but here too a solid orchestral sound.

Ben's own composition, Svalbard, included an interesting flute part, but spotlighted the violin of Jeanine Thorpe in a very listenable few minutes which would not have been out of place in Fenton's score for Life in the Freezer.

Jeanine also played Thais, and the second Beethoven Romance. Her tone was pure and cool, her assured interpretation not always matched by the orchestra.

The concert was bookended by Bach and Handel, and Ben sent us on our way with a glorious Syrinx.

The Concert Orchestra remain resolutely upbeat, but although better attended than last year's visit to the County Town, the audience was still embarrassingly small.

Thursday, March 06, 2008


Phoenix Theatre Group at Christ Church


Time to kill – it's a sort of play on words, isn't it ? These bored housewives spend coffee mornings dreaming up pranks, till one day they tire of japes and set their sights on justice, and a man gets shackled to a patio chair.

Leslie Darbon's improbable play has been popular with amateur groups for nearly thirty years, perhaps because it has four good parts for women. The actors here, though, were too old to convince as sixties swingers, robbing the drama of what little credibility it may have had.

Phoenix's pedestrian production, directed by Reg Peters, did little to convince us that it's a piece worth reviving.

Tricia Childs turned in a confident performance in the demanding role of “prosecutor” (her monologues often had us gripped). Angela Gee was the smirking atheist in the judge's robes, Helen Langley the reluctant witness, Joan Lanario gave good value as the dizzy, dotty Liz, Syd Smith was the Defence Counsel with a guilty secret, and Geoff Hadley played the accused, the suburban Lothario, struggling with leaden dialogue -”meaningless feminine emotionalism” just one example.

Pace, motivation, even characterisation, need to be applied even to this bizarre genre; it may be hard, but you need to rise above the text. Or choose a better play.

I can't remember an evening's theatre I've enjoyed less.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


Joy Ellis and friends at the Cramphorn


A very enjoyable hour in the company of young musicians from the Guildhall's Jazz Performance Masters class of 08. This was lounge jazz: smooth, creamy and warming – all that was missing, thank heavens, was the smoky atmosphere.

The band began with Herby Hancock's Dolphin Dance, then, joined by singer Helen Burnett, a varied set, starting with Delilah, a lovely wordless duet with Liam Byrne's sax. Dai Richards' bass shone in Hoagy Carmichael's Skylark – never too early in the day for a weepy ballad. Helen's most impressive vocal work was in All or Nothing At All, her rubato pulling the line around very effectively. At the piano was Joy Ellis, making a welcome return to these friendly lunchtime sessions. I couldn't work out why the piano was placed with her back to the audience, though.

The concert ended all too soon with Jobim's No More Blues. No encores as these sessions, apparently, perhaps so that skiving office workers can be back at their desks ...

You can join the regular aficionados most Wednesdays at 1 in the Cramphorn – bring your lunch, the music is free – impresario and tireless enthusiast Jeffery Wilson especially recommends Ruth Montgomery on April 9, Susie Self on May 28, and on May 14 the Irish flute of Elmear McGeown, “a frighteningly good musician”.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Middle Ground Theatre at the Civic

A lacklustre production - Wilde's polished wit very tarnished, almost tedious.
Lady Bracknell - a substitute - could only mouth the "handbag" quite a clever idea. Tony Britton can still stand - just - and point a line, though he had little character.
Good solid set, with a nice view of London, and effective music. But not a patch on the Mercury of a couple of years back, either for performance or style.

Sunday, March 02, 2008


Companies of boys at Shakespeare 's Globe

2 March 2008

As part of the Young Shakespeare season, two amateur companies of boys presented scenes from plays, written for boys, by Shakespeare's contemporaries.

Dulwich College gave us the start of Marston's Antonio and Mellida, with a large cast, directed by Matthew Edwards. Lively and full of variety.

King Edward's, Stratford, the Bard's old school, brought the notorious Dutch Courtesan, also by Marston. An amazingly assured performance, notably by Harry Davies as the courtesan.

As Michael Wood, one of several celebrities in the audience, pointed out, the Stratford company was not a children's troupe as it is normally understood. There is some debate amongst scholars about the age of the boys, but even if they were well into their teens, they would not, I think, be the strapping lads we saw here.

Nonetheless, this was a unique opportunity to see, in the intimate Bear Gardens auditorium, the modern successors of Shakespeare's "little eyasses".

Saturday, March 01, 2008


Andrew Fardell and the Waltham Singers


Andrew Fardell celebrated twenty-five years as Musical Director of the Waltham Singers last weekend. And the Singers made him a present, not of a carriage clock or cuff links, but of a new work from leading British composer Roxanna Panufnik.

So Strong Is His Love” sets words, chosen by Andrew, from Psalm 102, and was the impressive climax of a memorable concert of celebration. Panufnik had written to the strengths of the Singers, their open, sustained sound, the big choral panoply. It was a magnificent success and as Andrew said, it represented the choir's famous willingness to try everything, to work with unfamiliar music. They were accompanied by the Maggini Quartet, joint dedicatees of the piece.

The evening began with Mozart's Missa Brevis; again the choral sound was superb, especially perhaps in the final Agnus Dei. Mozart's Ave Verum is a favourite of this choir, and watching Andrew Fardell shaping a cohesive whole from so many committed individuals was a timely reminder of just how this choir achieves its remarkable sound. Roxanna Panufnik's 1996 work “Olivia” was equally successful, with the quartet providing a rhythmically rich accompaniment. The words from Tweflth Night were whispered and worried in a Tavenerish manner - very effective, though.

And as a bonus, the Magginis gave us a marvellous Mozart Quartet [K458, The Hunt], the cordial conversation of the opening leading through the easy elegance of the Menuetto and the restrained emotion of the Adagio to the insistently energetic finale.