Saturday, January 31, 2009


Jiangsu's classical company


The most ancient of China's theatre traditions, Kunqu is preserved in performance by many great companies. This group of six actors and five musicians is touring the county as part of the Essex-Jiangsu Festival, giving shows in schools and theatres.

At the Cramphorn, we saw five excerpts from their repertoire. Kunqu is a heady blend of speech, dance, mime and song. Nothing about it is realistic, although some of the comic characters would be recognisable in any culture.

In the first, we saw an encounter between the Rat – a petty thief, played with a wonderfully expressive face by Ji Shoaqing – and a judge disguised as a fortune-teller. Ji also played the wine seller at the Monastery Gate, opposite a martial arts monk energetically embodied by Zhao Yutao in a stylised farce which included some incredible physical feats.

Voices fluting a haunting glissando, faces painted like porcelain, flowing sleeves echoing their fluent gestures, two lovers met and parted in a charming extract from The Peony Pavilion. And there was more virtuoso acting in the final piece, from the Peach Blossom fan, in which General Shi [Ke Jun], powerless to prevent the fall of the Ming Dynasty, plunges in despair into the Yangste.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Theatre at Baddow


A group of amateurs gather to put on a play. We recognize the obsessive, fussing about moves and props, the quiet one who spectacularly loses it, the over-affectionate middle-aged woman, the ineffectual director and the bipolar luvvie, whose idea it was to stage this ridiculously ambitious Mozart opera.

The difference is that these people are in a mental hospital, and there's a pyromaniac and a junkie in the mix, too.

Australian playwright Louis Nowra has a strong, if hardly original, situation and a group of great characters. But I did get the feeling he didn't always know what to do with them. Perhaps the play reflects their lives – infidelity is always with us. And it's no surprise that their show is a qualified success, watched by the catatonic in the front stalls, the schizos at the back.

Director Lorraine Ely, who also played Cherry, set the piece in the round, which did give immediacy, though some of the less experienced players struggled to be heard. Excellent performances from Roger Saddington as the dreamer and Vince Webb as Henry, with his toy soldiers and right-wing rants. Sheila Talbot worried about reality, illusion and the froth on the coffee, and Graham Harrison made a wonderful Zac, standing up there in his lederhosen and his tattoos, playing the [Wagner] overture on his squeezebox.

All credit to TAB for showing us new work from overseas. Connoisseurs of the “let's put on the show right here in the asylum” genre should note that Marat/Sade comes to CTW in June.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Ian Dickens Productions at the Civic


Daphne Du Maurier's dark little story sits uneasily on the stage. This adaptation, by Nell Leyshon, has seventeen scenes, which means that mood, atmosphere and suspense are regularly broken by Stage Management trucking on beds, bars and altars.

Some of the most successful moments were the lighter ones, with nice character comic relief from John Banks in the restaurant, and a survivor from the old Newpalm days, Gary Taylor as a grizzled, dyspeptic Chief of Police.

Nicola Bryant did a good job with Laura, haunted, fragile and vulnerable. She got little support from Peter Amory as her sceptical husband – his theatrical CV is pretty much limited to this company, and his feelings, if any, rarely crossed the footlights. His Italian sounded good though – note to programme editors: Torcello, not Torchello; note to weird sisters: siamo, not siami.

The other big name was Shirley Ann Field, a strong presence as the sighted sister; her blind twin was an excellent Claire Vousden.

Monday, January 26, 2009


Chelmsford Civic Youth Theatre at the Cramphorn


CCYT brings together youngsters from all over the borough to learn about the skills of stage-craft. This was their first full-length production.

Arthur Miller's classic was a good choice in many ways. It is a great play, which repays repeated study. And it gives worthwhile roles to a large number of actors, of varying degress of expertise. But it treats of adult themes of hysteria and betrayal, and has a heavy 20th century subtext. And clearly simply mastering the words was a challenge for some of these performers. The set and costumes were simple, but the groupings and stage pictures were often very effective. The pace was generally good, although there was a tendency to rush the words.

The girls who feel the devil's touch were closest to the age of the actors, and there were promising performances as Abigail, and a diminutive but dramatically powerful Mary Warren. The Reverend Hale has some of the best writing, and this too was a performance of some style. The group was fortunate in having an actor of great presence as their John Proctor. Always watchable, he spoke his lines with clarity and passion, and showed a real empathy with his character. His final scene with Elizabeth, his confession and retraction, were great moments.

This is a unique group, and clearly ambitious. I look forward with interest to their next outing.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


Little Waltham Drama Group


This is Little Waltham's 37th pantomime. Village panto is an endangered species; you mess with the classic ingredients at your peril.

Thankfully, there are still the broker's men – Shout and Bawl the Heralds this year, played by Ken Little and Glyn Jones. Colin the Drummer is still in the pit, the set still features proscenium-side designs, and the UV paint shows no sign of drying up.

So how do they keep the winning formula fresh ? Well, we welcomed two talented youngsters, including Zoe Pearson as a comely Princess Rose, and a virgin Dame – Mike Lee as a beefy Ammonia Goodbody with a cheeky smile and a voice wobbling between profundo and falsetto. Richard Butler had had something of a makeover. His grubby Percy looked like a lascivious gnome, but he still managed to work the audience like the shameless old pro he is.

Gill Haysham was just as watchable as Beatrice, queen to Brian Corrie's playing-card King. And Andy Walker made a lovely Rupert the Retainer, giving us a Crocodile Rock in jump suit and medallion.

And of course there was a chance to sing-along, kick-start the time machine, and grab the sweets: aficionados will need to know that the walkabout tune was Maple Leaf Rag.

The score opened with a nice Pachelbel, but from then on it was mostly Magic of the Musicals – Gigi, Rocky Horror, Chitty, South Pacific, Chicago ...

The lively chorus, singing lustily, were strong in support, from Sweet Sixteen to Don't Stop Me Now. MD was Chrissy Gould, and the panto was directed by Susan Butler.

Friday, January 23, 2009


Brentwood Operatic at the Brentwood Theatre.


It's nice to have something to laugh at, these days ...”. This appreciative audience member could doubtless have found an echo in Ancient Rome, where Plautus wrote the comedies which inspired Sondheim.

Against a backdrop of doors, alleys and a tiny balcony, the scheming slave Pseudolus, convincingly played by Sondheim veteran Patrick Tucker, seeks freedom for himself and a buxom bride for his soppy young master Hero [ Nick Townsend ]. Other stereotypes from the Latin were the old man Senex – John Washer in a moustache more Gaulish than Roman – and his mistress Domina – a very polished performance from Clare Markey.

The louche procurer Lycus was Stewart Porter, and the ditzy Philia Sarah Barton.

How nice to have almost identical Geminae [Hazel and Gemma Pithers] in the house with a richly characterized gaggle of courtesans including the noisy Tintinabula, played by Diana Baker. Hysterium, eunuch, slave-in-chief and connoisseur of erotic ceramics – mucky pots – was brilliantly brought to life in an energetic and engaging performance by Martin Harris, nicely matched by Gareth Barton's cocky Miles Gloriosus.

Ian Southgate and his band brought out the best in Sondheim's patchy score: the cod “Lovely” and the vaudeville “Maid”.

Though the pace could sometimes have been sharper, the delivery further over the top, Jeff Barnett's production, with choreography by Sarah O'Sullivan, was an agreeable reminder of this unique musical farce.



Lunchtime concert


Brightening up a dismal Friday lunchtime, Brentwood School Big Band made one of their eagerly-awaited visits to Chelmsford Cathedral. As their fans will be aware, this very professional outfit has been around for a quarter of a century under the inspirational leadership of their founder and director David Pickthall.

Their repertoire ranges from echt big band jazz – Ellington's Don't Get Around Much Anymore, with George Baxter on baritone – through Bacharach – This Guy's In Love With You, a lovely danceband sound – film scores – Monty Norman's James Bond, with its instantly recognisable guitar figure [Ben George] – to the title track from their latest CD, Santana's “Smooth”.

A favourite of theirs, and mine, which they've been programming for decades, was Hamlisch's evocative The Way We Were.

All beautifully played, with real style underpinned by solid technique. Nowhere more so than in Artie Shaw's Clarinet Concerto, wonderfully played by Ryan Sees with Matt Birkett's pin-sharp percussion. It made a great climax to a varied set, though of course they had to play an encore, a brilliant tour of Birdland.

This, apparently, is the Big Band's favourite concert hall in the whole county, so the capacity audience can confidently look forward to a return gig next season.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Jim Hutchon was at CTW ...


Steerpike and Swelter


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop

20th January 2009


Mark Preston is to be congratulated for this imaginative and impressive production which manages to cram the extraordinary wit and absurdity of three packed novels into two hours of rich theatre.


The Tolkein-like scale of the original is here reduced to a story of greed and ambition as a scullery boy Steerpike – played with boundless athleticism by Ben Fraser – cheats, schemes and murders his way to the innermost circles of the castle. As stepping stones, he uses the pathetic twin aunts of the heir – Anna Tilmouth and Evelin Bonella. He is suspected by the retainer Flay (Simon Thomas) but manages to avoid his clutches and those of the murderous greasy cook Swelter – a key element in creating the Castle’s character and brought larger than life by Mike Gordon.


A set of eccentric retainers also help to create the castle’s character. Steve Holding’s Prunesqualor captured the unhinged adviser to perfection, and John Hunt as the ritual master Barquentine yelled his way through with an impressive range of voices. The heir to the throne is a central character, well portrayed by Paul Macklin, who questions the pointless continuance of the line. This begins with his infatuation with a hissing and spitting feral girl – the Thing – played by Kat Tokley.


Hardly a foot was put wrong by the large cast during the opening night. The set pieces were full of grandeur and, of necessity, episodic as the play fast forwarded the early years. The music, largely by John Taverner, helped to create a perfect atmosphere.

NODA's Colin Butcher had this to say:

This was a well directed piece of drama, and used every available space in this small and intimate theatre. The set was well presented and depicted, with some imagination, a large rambling castle. The cast were all strong and believable characters, and the acting abilities of this Group were well demonstrated. The piece moved with good pace and the cast moved between scenes very well, although there was, necessarily, much curtain drawing and closing with the side stage entrances. The Lighting and effects were very good and I particularly liked the back-ground music, which helped to set the various scenes. Costumes and make-up were also both well presented. I must make particular note of the two fight scenes, with ‘real’ swords, this was tackled with relish by the relevant cast members, and to great effect, not an easy thing to do without the appropriate training. One thing I have always disliked is the miming of opening doors that are not there. For me this never quite works, because the door either seems to move each time it is ‘used’ and/or it opens a different way. From an audience point of view this action is not necessary as it only serves to confuse, and its absence would not detract from the piece. Overall a very fine piece of gothic fantasy drama from this accomplished Group.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Nunkie Theatre Company at the Cramphorn


Robert Lloyd Parry is the epitome of M R James's “Cambridge man”. We discover him in his dimly lit rooms – chiaroscuro of which Caravaggio would be proud – stooped and shrouded in his wing chair. Open tomes lie tumbled at his feet. In the distance, the chapel choir sings Evensong.

But as soon as he emerges from his decongestant cure, his restless form engages us in the author's first essay in the supernatural, Canon Alberic's Scrapbook. Glasses glinting in the candlelight, he embodies the nervous sacristan and the curious Englishman, and uncannily evokes the night monsters as the candles are extinguished one by one.

This story is linked to the more famous Mezzotint – the tale of a poor engraving of an Essex Manor House which eerily plays out the tragic events leading to the death of a child, the last of the Anningley line.

Making good use of his profile and his eloquent hands, Lloyd Parry manages to involve every member of the audience in a performance which is intimate and almost improvised, though remarkably faithful to these hundred-year-old texts. And like the Professor of Morphology in the first story, we may scarcely dare to put out the light before going to sleep.

Friday, January 16, 2009


Mercury Colchester


What a tonic for our recessionary times.

Those corporate cabaret kings, jesters to the gentry, brought their 100 Not Out show to the Mercury.

Apart from a lone engineering student, foolish enough to sit in the middle of the front row, we were a mature crowd, helpless with laughter at those close-to-home targets – White Van Man, Delia and Nigella, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Mandelson, the politically incorrect Romany Caprice [The Gypsy in Me], and, in an outrageous encore, the Picker-Up. This last enjoyed, apparently, by the Duchess of Cornwall.

Kit's brilliant way with words was put to more serious use in the touching song he wrote for his daughter, which I remember from their gig at Chelmsford Cathedral a few years ago, and in a number new to me, Cabaret.

But the moments which will stick longest in the memory are Marcia from Matching Green turning over for the Widow in Der Erlkönig, the Flight of the Bumblebee performed by the Widow with a bag over his head and Kit, on the fiddle, with a net curtain over his head like a real apiarist, and of course their signature dish, the Punjabi Puccini Chicken Korma Nessun Dorma, with the Mercury masses singing happily along.

Janet Banks and Caroline Findlay

Lunchtime at the Cathedral


Paul Bazelaire's Suite Française was the discovery in this recital of Romantic music for cello and piano. Bazelaire was a cellist a hundred years ago, and made this arrangements of folk dances from all over France for his own repertoire. The Chanson d'Alsace, and the charming Berceuse were highlights for me. The Bazelaire was followed by Fauré, Après un Rêve, and in a lively finale. Dvorak's own arrangement of the Slavonic Dance in G minor.

Caroline played a reflective Rachmaninov Prelude as the centrepiece of the programme, which started with a Mendelssohn Song Without Words. Beethoven's Variations on a theme from [Handel's] Judas Macabbeus, splendidly presented by this duo, were a reminder of the earlier repertoire, from the days when the cello was not even a proper solo instrument !

Caroline and Janet are familiar faces at the Cathedral's lunchtime sessions; we hope to welcome them back in future seasons.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Lunchtime concert


I'm always pleased when I'm free on a Wednesday lunchtime. Last week I joined the enthusiastic audience in the Cramphorn for one of Jeffery Wilson's musical matinees, this time featuring the beguiling violin of Kay Usher.

Ellington was prominent amongst the composers, kicking off with I'm Beginning to See the Light, played with a fairly straight bat by Kay, with some austere piano riffs from Jeffery and bass perambulations from Eddie Johnson.

In Sentimental Mood – could have been the title of the concert – Don't Get Around Much Anymore were two other standards from the Duke. The Gershwins were there, too, with a lovely “lounge” reading of The Man I Love, and Lady Be Good, to send us out with a smile.

Exactly Like You, the old Dorothy Fields number, began with a teasing cadenza from the violin, and there was a witty piano contribution too. The Bill Evans trio was recalled by the bass player, before he played a neat jazz waltz as his party piece.

I pity the young,” Mr Wilson remarked. In particular, I think, since they will struggle to recall “our song” when they reach their twilight years. His, apparently, is Girl from Nicaragua [or something], which he played on sax during his honeymoon, and lovingly embellished on piano for us.

Friday, January 09, 2009


York Theatre Royal

The more pantos I see, the more I'm convinced that the Dame is the touchstone. Among my favourites: Cyril Fletcher, often with his other half Betty Astell, and the legendary Jack Tripp, once described by the Stage as "the John Gielgud of pantomime dames", lured out of retirement by Roy Hudd. Both had the confidence and absolute belief in the genre and their unique role in it.

The same could surely be said for Berwick Kaler, who's been climbing into the seasonal skirts for 30 years at York's lovely old Theatre Royal.

This year he was Betty in his own take on the Dick Turpin tale. “Me babbies, me bairns ....” he beamed in greeting to the capacity crowd. And we were off through a nostalgic panto trip through ancient jokes [“Have you got the scrolls ...?”] and time-honoured routines – the messy scene, with the plunge pool and the dough-based recipe, the sing-along, the UV sequence, the filmed insert. No smut, no soap stars, no desperate up-dating. Though we did have a Woolies joke, and the Congestion Charge featured in the London cloth, together with a half-timbered Houses of Parliament and wooden Eye.

Cultural references, some too local for my Southern ear, came thick and fast. Alma Cogan, Housewives' Choice, Ready Steady Cook, Eurovision. No dumbing down here. I particularly enjoyed the drag Abba act, the flames in Goth York City, the Old York, Old York, number, sung in six languages, with a trumpet obbligato from a hard-working pit player who also played sax !

Kaler, brilliant in all his scenes, with countless quick-changes and wide eloquent eyes, was joined by regular partners in crime David Leonard, thwarted again as Vermin de Vile, and Martin Barrass as the dopey sidekick. And the Waggon Wheel for the biggest gob in the house was won that Thursday by Morgan in the stalls.

Saturday, January 03, 2009


Colchester Mercury

What better way to start a new year of theatre-going than the Mercury's marvellous pantomime ? Janice Dunn's Dick Whittington and the Pi-rats of the Caribbean is the latest in a long tradition of home-grown Christmas shows, and had all their strengths in spades.

The credit crunch was duly mentioned, but there was no hint of recession about this spectacular show. The bright, witty design had moving bells stage right, and a revolving dais for Roger Delves-Broughton's King Rat. A slightly malevolent moggy stares down from the top of the arch.

Dick's London has the Gherkin as well as his galleon. There are cute kids, and even two chorus boys in the Lionel Blair tradition.

Though this Whittington never gets to be Lord Mayor, preferring a life of lotus eating on his tropical island, tradition is not lost – we get to sing the silly song, there's a ghost routine as enthusiastic as any I've seen. Youngsters hurl a hail of foam balls at the baddies, there's a host of quick cultural references, and a never-ending stream of ancient panto jokes, delivered with genuine relish by Tim Treslove's superb Sarah the Cook.

Butch, busty and cheeky, he engaged all sectors of the audience with consummate ease. Other Mercury rep regulars were Christine Absalom as Fitzie, and a hard-working pair of merchant bankers from Ignatius Anthony and David Tarkenter. Clare Humphreys was a real London Bow Bells – a fairy in the Donna Noble mould.

The principal boy did slap a thigh, but was played by a likeable Ian Kendall – his Alice was excellently sung by Roxanne Saili. Tommy the Seoul cat was a dapper Jay Lim, quick-witted and physical.

In the pit, Graham Du-Fresne seemed really happy to be guiding band and players through all sorts of music from Lionel Bart to last year's charts.

Ian Kendall (Dick Whittington) and Jay Lim (Tommy cat) Photo: Robert Day