Saturday, February 28, 2009

lunchtime in Chelmsford Cathedral

Early Spring sunshine, a packed Cathedral, and a "formidable" programme from Forest School's chamber musicians.
After a brisk, up-beat Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, an impressive Haydn Missa Brevis. These remarkable young musicians achieved a pleasing liturgical sound, which occasionally touched the sublime, in particular in the Amen of the Gloria, and the Benedictus from soloist Emma Lewis.
The String Quartet were just off to Chetham's for a national workshop weekend, and shared with us their prepared piece, the Toreador's Prayer by 20th century Spanish composer Turina.
And to finish, a full sound and some promising soloists in the Bach Double Violin Concerto.

Friday, February 27, 2009


CAODS at the Civic Theatre


This “new” Broadway re-working is now nearly thirty years old. It belongs with the flamboyant musicals of the eighties, and as such still has the power to set the stage alight.

Purists would concede that little has changed – a couple of numbers inserted from other Savoy operas, and a few extra routines. Gilbert's jokes survive better than Sullivan's music, put through the Broadway blender and synthesised into submission.

Ray Jeffery's lively production made the most of the big numbers, the Act I finale, for instance, or the silliest policemen I ever saw. The reprise of Catlike Tread was also very effectively done. Only occasionally did I feel that swordplay and shouting were doing duty for style, or decibels for diction. Crystal clear always were Patrick Tucker's Major General, and Jonathan Davis in the swashbuckling Tim Curry role of Pirate King.

Thomas Harper was a likeable, hip-swivelling romantic lead, with Christie Hooper in the vocally demanding role of Mabel, his beloved. Splendid character work from Patrick Gallagher as the Police Sergeant, and Jenny Hockley as the spurned Ruth – though she did get to join the pirate ranks later on. Both pirates and police were equal opportunities employers, and the chorus boys and girls were kept busy with loads of imaginative and amusing business.

The Musical Director was John Trent Wallace.

Photography by Christopher Yorke-Edwards

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Classical Xtra at the Cramphorn


Flautist Eimear McGeown was born in Northern Ireland, as was the composer of her first piece, Hamilton Harty's elegiac, energetic “In Ireland”, which finished with a joyful jig.

The talented and versatile musician showed her classical credentials with a Fauré test piece and a favourite Bach Sonata.

But most of this recital was devoted to traditional forms and new music, including the première of a Romance by Jeffery Wilson, butterfly flute darting around above the wind-stirred foliage of the piano accompaniment [Aleksander Szram].

Canadian composer Katherine Hoover evoked the wide open spaces in her Kokopeli, influenced by Native American music, and ending with a dying diminuendo, beautifully controlled. Ian Clarke's Hypnosis was predictably soporific, with a minimalist piano part, while his ingenious Great Train Race was an exhilarating exploration of the instrument. The Sonata by French pianist/composer Mel Bonis was a varied, constantly engaging piece, with a delicate accompaniment.

Eimear's Irish flute featured in the gentle Give Me Your Hand, and some toe-tapping reels, whilst her two whistles [one in D, one in B flat] were used for a couple of slip jigs and Mahoney's Reel.

The audience rightly demanded more from these two charismatic musicians, and we were rewarded with Phil Coulter's sentimental Home Away from Home.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Dan and Jeff at the Cramphorn


Buccaneers swarmed over the whole building last Sunday. The Civic had CAODS' Broadway Pirates in for their technical run, while on the smaller stage the big screen Caribbean pirates with Dan and Jeff.

Fond memories of the Potted Potter last year [all seven book in seventy minutes] meant that expectations were high. And despite the early hour and the thin house, it was more of the same madcap fun, with parrots, eye-patches and peg-legs, not to mention Calico Jack Rackham and his two-timing lady pirates. Wicked as-libs, wacky repartee and wild improvisations kept all the ages in the audience awake and amused, and that was before we were dragooned into making like seagulls, sea-dogs and Captain Ahab [“Thar she blows!”].

Black Beard, Sir Francis Drake, Long John Silver all trod the boards [or walked the plank] as historical fact mingled with romantic fiction.

Jack Sparrow was on board too, as earnest Jeff and disruptive Dan took us through the movie trilogy in five minutes And they crammed into their matinee hour a pirate rap, the Spanish Armadageddon [we threw cannon balls, they threw chocolate doubloons], a quick-fire Treasure Island and a glorious Pirate Karaoke Megamix Finale.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Writtle Cards


Wagers were laid in the interval. Who “fixed the brake pipes” ["cut", not "mended"] and caused a fatal accident ? We knew it couldn't be the mysterious, menacing visitor, played by Nick Caton in an effectively sustained performance. Perhaps not the only way to play this enigmatic stalker [he's described as “very friendly”], but powerfully done, with commendable stillness and control.

Could it be Paula, confused by the multiple motives and endless mind games [Sarah Wilson] ? Instead of showing Frank the satisfyingly solid door, she mixes him a drink, encourages him to smoke, and only after he's downed three generous vodkas does she make up her mind to call the police. Or hubby James [Lee Barnes, with some scary shouting], pianist daughter Susan [Laura Bennett] ?

The victim, Paula's not-so-secret lover, was Neil Smith, who had two reactions, awkward and rabbit-in-the-headlights.

The capacity house for this Derek Benfield thriller from the early 80s, directed by Michele Moody, was asked to believe that these characters, talking too much and drinking too much, inhabited the 21st century. But this was an age before GCSEs and, more crucially, before mobile phones. The final twist was clever, but a long time coming. The tension might have built better with a tab curtain, and a tighter grasp of the words.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Middle Ground at the Civic

Josef Locke on the wireless and a superb period set [designed by director Michael Lunney] set the mood for Billy Liar, the story of a lad whose fantasies are his way of breaking free from his stifling family. Even the curtain music sounded like the sig tune from a sitcom.

There was no weak link in the cast, either, with Chris Hannon as Billy Fisher, with mobile features and a hint of Bean, a touch of McGowan. The unforgettable Barbara, eating orange and keeping Billy at bay, was Lauren Drummond. Lovely character work from Sally Sanders as the batty old granny, fussing about her tablets and sharing her woes with the sideboard cupboard. The Fisher parents were Helen Fraser [Barbara in the classic film version] and Dicken Ashworth. Their two-hander after her mother's demise was touchingly done.

But like much of the piece [arguments and rows aside] it did seem very slow-paced. This was the start of a longish tour, so maybe the pace will be tightened. I'd be looking to take 15 minutes off, guys. And, though I liked the snap reactions, with lighting and sound to indicate young Billy's inner world [machine-gunning his girlfriend, lobbing a grenade at his gran] there is a law of diminishing returns here, as the same effect slows the action a second time.

Still, an enjoyable reminder of a classic piece, still thankfully quite often revived. See Middle Ground at Westcliff, Greenwich, Eastbourne, Ipswich and many other touring dates till 6 June.

Monday, February 16, 2009


WOW at the Public Hall Witham

Hugo's historical epic is too big for most stages, but WOW managed to tell his timeless story with passion and clarity. I particularly appreciated the precise diction of the whole cast. We heard words that are blurred even in the Queen's, even on the CD.

The familiar Bayard engraving stared out at us from the front cloth, then, against a charcoal sketch, the actors formed a series of stage pictures, letting Schönberg's operatic score work its magic. Nigel Northfield's lighting created some striking atmospheres.
And there were some very accomplished singer/actors among the large cast. Tom Ashby's solemn Bishop [he was later a student revolutionary], Zoe Rogers as Cosette, with a splendid Marius in Jake Davis. The Thenardiers, always a popular turn, were sharply characterized by Amy Trigg and Samuel Marks [in a frightful ginger wig!] Gavroche, the child who dies a hero's death, was a lively characterization by Elliott Elder. Faith Rogers was assured and affecting as Fantine, especially in Come to Me, her duet with Valjean, and in her return in spirit as he dies. Callum McKenzie was a strong Enjolras, and Sam Carlyle a touching Eponine.
Thomas Holland, slight of build and of voice, nevertheless made a memorable Valjean. Bitter at the beginning, his nobility shone through in later scenes, and he shaped his numbers with confidence and real empathy. His nemesis Javert was Thomas Clarke, whose strong voice and considerable stage presence made the most of “Stars” and his Seine suicide.
Perhaps inevitably, the choreography was limited; most of the effects were static. Amongst the most successful moments were the Montreuil ensemble, and the menacing barricade, lit from behind. “Empty Chairs”, with the ghosts of the fallen, was also very moving.
WOW, and their Artistic Director/MD Jill Parkin [assisted by David Slater], should be very proud of their Les Mis Lite. Even on the first night the production had power and polish, and the audience rightly cheered it to the Public Hall rafters.
production photos by Graham Batt

Saturday, February 14, 2009


National Theatre at the Olivier


I first saw this unique blend of music and theatre in 1977, when the limitations of the Festival Hall made it much more of a concert performance than it is in Tom Morris's imaginative staging.

Stoppard has said that the two elements are necessary to each other. Though his collaboration with Previn apparently consisted of his handing the script over with a cheery “Your turn, André !”

The strength of this new production are the involvement – sometimes very intimate involvement – of the young musicians of the Southbank Sinfoni, under Simon Over, and the three central performances of Toby Jones as the crazy Ivanov, Joseph Millson as the gaunt, haunted dissident Ivanov, and Dan Stevens as the Doctor who plays the fiddle.

Opinions were divided about Bryony Hannah's Sacha – a moving, well-observed characterization, but still a mature woman where, as I think Stoppard was trying to say tactfully, we needed an unsophisticated, clear-sighted child.

Dated ? Certainly the music would be done differently thirty years on, but the jokes are still fresh and funny, and the human rights issues still sadly relevant, and not funny at all.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


New Venture Players at the Brentwood Theatre

Hans' House is almost empty. Sparsely furnished. Room for the songs, speeches and snapshots from his distant past. A corner of Germany in a Peterborough semi.

Lin Pollitt's original and affecting play is based around a writing-case. The letters, medals and documents it contained inspired her to piece together an ordinary life, closer than we might think, since, had he lived, Hans would only be in his 80s today.

He was lucky to survive the war, of course. One of the strongest scenes in the play contrasted the cynical dictation of a standard letter with the grief of the mother reading the news of her son's death. A moving characterization from Linda Beeney, matched by Paul Ganney's cold, distant Teutonic father.

Maggie, the author's alter ego, was Laura Fava; the play ends with a wonderfully touching confrontation, as her fascination with the soldier in the writing case [Bob Etheridge as an old man] finally makes him real for her.

The young Hans, Will Fox, had a particularly believable scene with a kindly Tennessee prison guard, faultlessly played by Vernon Keeble-Watson.

The author/director [who also had five other credits in the beautifully designed programme] achieved a thought-provoking blend of research and invention. Most telling of the latter, the turning point when Hans sees his first love [Sara Thompson] disown him as she is herded away with other Jews. His disillusionment provokes him, not to resistance, but to join the SS, in search of Blood and Honour as D-Day dawns.

A remarkable piece of theatre, by no means without its flaws, but just the kind of history/drama that Eastern Angles specialize in, and, in New Venture's painstaking production, with something of the atmosphere and power of the professionals' house style.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


at the Civic

As we celebrate Darwin's 200th birthday, the distinctive figure of Jonathan Miller ambles onto the Civic stage. His trade-mark corduroy trousers fold themselves into a stylish chair, and he's off on two hours of reminiscence and reflection.

He should have been at the Coliseum, where his Boheme was playing its third performance. One of 65 operas he's directed over the last 40 years, [he's on his fifth Traviata, in upstate NY] and one which he is “rather proud of”. Not all the critics were as enthusiastic, “imprinted” with cliché and tradition, it seems, as in the fable of the geese and the waste-paper basket.

He should have been a doctor, like his father before him. And indeed, did qualify, and was set for a career as a neurologist, when an “unforeseen accident” [Beyond the Fringe] and a series of unsolicited invitations lured him into the theatre, and sapped his moral fibre. Roger Norrington was conducting for his first opera.

As you get older, you get better, Miller maintains. His aim as an opera director is to eliminate cliché, and achieve reality on stage. He wants people to say, as T H Huxley did on reading The Origin of Species, “How stupid not to have thought of that !”. His mother was a novelist and biographer, and from her, as well as his father, he learnt to perceive and value the negligible details of human life, the overlooked and the disregarded. Like Chekhov, he seeks to make the forgettable memorable. At least, with medical training, you get the death scenes right – most deaths are very un-dramatic. Mimi dies, in his production at least, unnoticed except by Puccini's score.

A fascinating and free-ranging dialogue with the audience takes us from My Fair Lady to Mendel, from the Matthew Passion to Marks and Spencer.

His trenchant views on religion go largely unchallenged, as he traces the history of disbelief from Democritus through d'Holbach to Dennett. Intelligence is a relatively recent development, so it makes little sense to posit an intelligent designer. Religious belief is “fatuous” [with “inconceivable” a favourite epithet]. Dawkins' Climbing Mount Improbable a much better book than The God Delusion. Belief never figured in his mental development. Even the term Atheist seems unnecessary; he would never think of describing himself “ahexist” because he didn't believe in witches.

He remembers with warm gratitude a science teacher at his school, Oliver Sacks and sea urchins amongst his memories.

He is entertainingly disparaging about bankers' bonuses, sensationalist television, “ghastly musicals and frightful comedies”. But he has good things to say about Jack Dee, Chekhov and grumpy old Michael Hordern. He is asked about reality on television. He likes Outnumbered, and recalls the unadorned pieces to camera perfected by AJP Taylor. What modern authors does he like ? Iain McEwen, Philip Roth. Why does he hate musicals ? Not all of them – Lady in the Dark is singled out for praise, Les Mis for opprobrium. And there are operas he can't stand; Trovatore, for one, is better listened too than seen on stage.

He loves originality and modernism [not post-modernism, that's drivel]; the developments of 1905-1915 [except in Britain] make the Renaissance look trivial.

He doesn't really miss medicine, because he never really left it, but he does sometime regret not doing National Service, with its opportunities for gossipy memoirs ...

And what does he do in his spare time ? Stares out of the window, wondering what he should be doing next.

What he is doing next is an exhibition about the photographic antecedents of Futurism.

Friday, February 06, 2009


JR was at Chelmsford Cathedral

Since its renovation I had never been lucky enough to hear the cathedral organ. And where better to hear an organ 
in all its glory ?

Robert Smith, Director of Music at Eastcheap's St Mary-at-Hill and Assistant Director of Music at St Michael, Cornhill had chosen a contrasting programme to show off both organ and his mastery of it.

To query where 45 minutes went merely reflects what an excellent selection of music we were offered, by composers from the 18th century through to modern day. Naji Hakim's 'Ses traits sont des traits de feu' would not have been out of place as atmospheric theme music to a Harry Potter film. This was followed by Frank Bridge's 'Three Pieces' which showed off the organ to its fullest extent. 

There can be very few people who are unfamilar with the Widor Toccata, used so often at weddings. As 'Grand Finale' to the concert we were treated to two pieces from his Symphony no 6 in G Minor, no less impressive in its grandeur. In places the adagio reminded me of waves on a beach, where the sound ebbed and then flowed back to full volume. The Finale was a raise-the-roof piece that left everyone pleased that they had braved the cold and a none-too-warm cathedral.

Should ever you see that Robert Smith is giving a recital then you should beg, borrow or steal a ticket - a true artist at the organ keyboard.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

at the Civic


The unthinking man's Ian McMillan, Shuttleworth is a myth in his own lifetime; the minotaur mask was soon tossed aside in favour of his Sheffield stamping ground, and the familiar cares of Northern life.

This rambling show is a string of favourite numbers, linked by often surreal musings, couched in cliché and platitude. I loved the little riffs on junk mail, daytime television, waste bins and the loner in the interval foyer.

His confectionery gripes were lovely too, but surely a spoiler for the Mars of Slough/Mutiny Over The Bounty number included in his back catalogue round-up which ended the evening: Eggs and Gammon, Pigeons in Flight, and, how could he not, I can't Go Back to Savoury Now.

This is an entertainer whose natural home is the scout hut or the working men's club. He was supported, off stage and on video, by Dave Tordoff, the concreter from Goole, his agent Ken Worthington, and of course Darren and Plonker.

Live support was provided by another obsessive failure, Newcastle-under-Lyme's foremost rock musicologist Brian Appleton; his Morrissey spoof My Turn to be Poorly was especially well received.

No more touring for this man and his tinny synth now till 2010, when Graham Fellows is planning a big event to celebrate twenty-five years of Shuttleworth's Northern nonsense.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Phoenix Theatre Company at Christ Church


The essential thing for a tie is style.”

And for Wilde, too. Daniel Curley's impressive production of A Woman of No Importance began with an empty stage, peopled first with chairs, then with stares, as the cast peered at one another in a striking tableau.

The first part of the play is all words, with the witty aphorisms leavening the introduction of the characters and their milieu. The social commentary/melodrama comes to the boil after the interval. It's a tough blend to bring off, but Phoenix scored some notable successes, in the Act III climax, for instance, or the resolution in Act IV.

Paulette Harris gave a strong performance in the title role; different from other women, expressing her deep hurt with stillness and sincere emotion. Quite unlike the society ladies whose company she has avoided: Lady Caroline [a splendid Liz Curley] or the flirty Mrs Allonby [Tricia Childs] or the mousey Lady Stutfield, a well-judged cameo from Faye Armstrong, picking up what few laughs were to be had from the first night audience.

The thoroughly bad Lord Illingworth, surrounded by sycophantic laughter, was Geoff Hadley, and his illegitimate son, the object of his desire, according to some commentators, was a dapper Louise Curley. Her sister Josephine played the Puritan, whose straight state-side talking cut through the hypocrisy of the British aristocracy.

A very promising start to this, Phoenix's Golden Anniversary year.

Sunday, February 01, 2009


M&G Concert at the Civic, Chelmsford


The Britten Sinfonia, always a highlight of the M&G season, surpassed themselves this time with a programme they'd called The Lyrical Oboe.

The instrument in question was in the hands of Nicholas Daniel, who generously gave us no fewer than three concertos.

Vivaldi first, with its “trillion notes” and darkly dramatic, middle movement. Then, just before the interval, the dreamy, autumnal Vaughan Williams. Written for Leon Goossens, it's a demanding piece, but one Daniel has made his own – it was the work he played almost thirty years ago when he won the BBC Young Musician. We marvelled again at his breath control, the blend of intimacy and distance, and the pianissimo melodic line hovering in thin air. Magical.

To end the concert, the oboe was joined by the violin of the Sinfonia's co-leader Thomas Gould for Bach's Concerto BWV 1060. Flawless phrasing, especially in the Adagio, and an easy empathy between these two superb musicians, made this a sublime climax to the evening.

Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, and Shostakovich's Two Pieces for String Octet, with the Scherzo line chasing round the semi-circle, completed a typical varied Britten Sinfonia offer.

photograph of Thomas Gould by Sussie Ahlburg




Monteverdi's Vespers of 1601, a sort of showreel for his mastery of musical styles, eventually secured him a good job in Venice.

Chelmsford Cathedral is not San Marco, but its friendly acoustic and intimate architecture proved a splendid setting for a powerful performance.

The impressive forces of the University of Essex Choir, directed by Richard Cooke, produced a balanced, confident sound, with plenty of strength in the Alleluias of the opening movement, dramatic effects for the Day of Wrath, and a sure-footed account of the complex Laudate Pueri. And, almost two hours after the first downstroke, there was still plenty of energy left for the climactic Gloria.

Another key element was the London Handel Orchestra, which has the baroque expertise needed for the often brilliantly ornate instrumental passages, notably the Sancta Maria. Their authentic instruments were the focus of considerable attention in the interval, too.

And the soloists were all outstandingly good. Tenor Nathan Vale, clearly a name to watch, was superb in the Nigra Sum, and duetted impressively with Mark Wilde in the Audi Coelum. Sensuous words from the Song of Solomon were given a sparkling performance by sopranos Julia Doyle and Kirsty Hopkins.

The choir, now in its fifth decade, performs regularly in Colchester and at the Maltings in Snape. Chelmsford music lovers must be hoping that this well supported event will encourage further visits to the County Town.