Wednesday, April 29, 2009


at the Cramphorn


We've had his Kenneth, his Frankie, and now his Noel.

David Benson sings the songs of the Master, from the familiar I'll See You Again to the sadly neglected No Good At Love, simply delivered, glass in hand, from a bar stool by the piano.

The Coward canon has been mined before, but rarely with such enthusiasm and variety – as he said, there's so much to choose from.

With the expertise and panache of Stewart Nicholls at the upright, Benson took us through the syncopated Twenties to the hooded delinquents of the Sixties, from the ever-topical Bad Times Just Around the Corner to the X-Factor Mrs Worthington.

Stewart, who's restored Sail Away in a new performing edition – from dusty shelf to stage – introduced, and took a solo in, a medley from the show, before sharing a cosy piano stool for one of my favourites, Bronxville Darby and Joan.

Discovery of the night for me was the remarkably prescient What's Going to Happen to the Children, from Noel's last show. I also loved Where Were the Songs We Sung, and the patriotic medley in the second half.

Like Coward, Benson is not a great singer, but knows how to put over a song. The Master, looking down from the great cabaret stage in the sky, might counsel more stiff upper lip, less eye-rolling camp, [whatever next - Graham Norton as Dear Ivor ?] but the feather boas, the “poofery” and the pearls were a key part of the Benson tribute, his own fans mixing with the Noel aficionados.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


LADS at the Tractor Shed


A S Byatt's new novel – The Children's Book – is at least partly based on the life of E Nesbit, whose best known work was lovingly brought to the Tractor Shed stage.

LADS' Railway Children, in an adaptation by Dave Simpson, was narrated by Perks [Dave Hudson], taking us all into his confidence and cementing the scenes together. This device worked well generally, although the Birthday Party lost some of its dramatic effect since the ungrateful Perks seemed to know in advance of the gifts to come.

Among the other grown-ups, Vickie Cumbers was the harassed Mother, Robin Warnes a dignified, benign Old Gentleman, and Gavin Rouse a strong presence as the Russian émigré.

Today, RP [“talking proper”] is as much a foreign tongue as the Russian, the French or the Yorkshire dialect. These languages were attempted with varying success. Lloyd Shankley, as a confident Peter, was by far the most convincing middle class Victorian. Jamie-Leigh Royan played big sister Bobby, with Rebecca Plummer spirited as Phyl.

Kristian Rawlinson was the eldest of the unruly Perks tribe; he had some nice coming-of-age moments. The Railway Children grow up too – one of the most touching scenes had Mother confiding in Roberta.

The size of the stage enabled some good pictures – John eavesdropping on Roberta, for instance – and some superb scenic effects. The station and Three Chimneys, intricate pieces, slid in on rails like the scenery in a toy theatre, and the most famous moment, involving landslide disaster averted by petticoats, was one of Latchingdon's best ever coups de théâtre, as the locomotive, with glowing red eye, advanced on us, shrouded in steam. The departing train at the start was impressive, too. But elsewhere more lighting would have enhanced the atmosphere – too often the actors were lit

only by spill from the front.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Taste of Honey


23rd April

Jim Hutchon was at The Old Court ...

Vince Webb and Debbie Miles’ production of Shelagh Delaney’s 50s play was a real tonic - a beautifully written drama, well acted and directed with a sure touch. Helen, the bitter whore mother with the depth of character of a cigarette paper was played convincingly by Angie Gee who combined banal observations with street wisdom – “There’s two Ws in your future – Work or Want”. The play revolves around the unmarried pregnant daughter Jo, who is a mixture of immature hopelessness and defiant hope. Emma Moriaty played the role with great depth of feeling and a well-judged balance.

The overt racism confronted in the play involves the ‘black boy’ who impregnates then deserts Jo. He was played with grace and an impeccable sense of timing by Tony Thomson. The other shibboleth was raised by the gay student Geoffrey, nicely understated by Liam Collins, who drifts in to stay, tries to impart a sense of order then drifts out again. Helen’s shallow, drunken, spiv, part-time boyfriend, who crashes his unfeeling way through the action, was played with characteristic style by Steve Holding.

The set was a triumph, a depressingly authentic run-down rented room with damp walls, over-stuffed sofa, bare light bulbs, exploding gas hob and a view over the abattoir.

Though there are funny moments, this is not a barrel of laughs. The pace was maintained throughout the very wordy drama, and the final silhouette of Jo in her window presaged a future of hope. The directors call this a piece of social history, but the inherent racism and homophobia in the text ring as true today as ever they did.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Young Gen at the Cramphorn


photo by Barrie White-Miller

It was us and them on Our Day Out. The Scouse kids versus a range of authority figures, from Les the Lollipop Man [Henri de Lausun] to the Welsh shopkeeper [Ellie Pepper], not to mention the teachers …

Bart Lambert and Sam Toland, the grand old men of this production, alternated Briggs and Colin, and on the Tuesday we saw Lois Hirrell as the caring Mrs Kay, and Leah Kirby as Susan. Bart's tense and emotional scene with a tearful Carol [an excellent Sophie Walker] was a high point of Ray Jeffery's production, with a simple but effective lighting change.

Everyone had an accent. Posh teachers, scally schoolkids. Penelope Keith, Lily Savage. The lines were delivered with style and attack. Standouts on the bus [driven by a lively Alex Elder] included Ed Alston and Alex Hilton as the older lads, Danielle Hill's Jackie, Martin Williams as Andrews, plus Alice Masters and Charlotte Broad as the ever-popular Bored Girls, though it was a shame their conversion took place in the darkness of the auditorium. Elissa Brown, as the lovelorn Linda, with a cutely comic crush on Colin, shone in the Act I paean of unrequited Liverpudlian love.

Willy Russell's blend of anarchy and sugar-coated social comment hasn't a memorable tune to its name, but the production numbers [the packed lunch Round, the revolving coach, the SloMo footie, the emotional finale] never looked less than professional, and this accessible classic gave some younger performers a chance to shine in the Progress Class.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


M&G concert at the Civic Theatre


Finnish wunderkind Pekka Kuusisto was soloist and director for a fresh, lively end to this season of M&G concerts.

In an amusing and infornative pre-concert talk - shades of Victor Borge - he told us how Sibelius got his name, how he grew up with jazz, and how many gigs he does in a year: around a hundred, or two hundred if you include playing in pubs ...

He got the City of London Sinfonia chatting cheerfully and smiling as they came onto the stage, and he shared his enjoyment with them, and us. You could compare his style and charisma to Nigel Kennedy, though of course Kuusisto's English is much better ...

The programme began with music from the Nordic lands, strongly influenced by traditional airs. A duo first, from Kuusisto and violist Stephen Tees, Brustard's playful and aggressive Capricci, followed by a sinewy account of Grieg's Holberg Suite.

Rautavaara's Suite “The Fiddlers” is based on Finnish folk tunes collected in the Eighteenth Century, and we were treated to the unvarnished originals as well, especially effective in the first piece, where the lone fiddle suddenly became two dozen players at full throttle.

Not the most gentle version,  not powdered and pretty ...” More like a fiddle band, in fact, explained Kuusisto about their version of Bach's 3rd Brandenburg. Just eleven musicians, but effective crescendos and exciting impetus throughout. Mozart's Turkish violin concerto was even quirkier, and not just in the cadenzas. But it was hugely enjoyable, and elicited the most enthusiastic audience response we've heard all season. Our reward was one more folk tune from this remarkable virtuoso, with the orchestra humming a drone in the background.

JR [lucky chap] was at the last Dudamel South Bank concert

The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra was simply wonderful ! 3 South American
pieces before the interval, all of which were very 'accessible', and then
came 'Rite of Spring' (possibly less accessible even these days, but simply
great in the concert hall) .. and then FOUR encores, including a sublime
'Nimrod' from 'Enigma Variations' !

If I tell you that there were a total of 64 violins & violas plus 16 cellos
and 14 double bass you can imagine the wonderful sound and volume. The
timpani section in 'Rite' 'bashed' their socks off !

Highlights from this concert on Classic FM, Saturday 2 May at 3pm

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Eastern Angles at the Brentwood Theatre


photos: Mike Kwasniak

Craig Taylor's Return to Akenfield revisits the fictionalised Suffolk village of Ronald Blythe's book and Peter Hall's film.

Their two voices join those of the original interviewees, their successors and the many incomers to “the Surrey of the East”.

The set would look at home in the village halls that are this show's natural home, the telegraph poles offering a vanishing perspective.

This dramatic version, touching and funny, lets the people speak, with a minimum of intervention. There is a romantic entanglement of sorts, personifying the clash of cultures: the young Pole pruning the orchard, and the young waitress in the café.

But mostly this is about characters caught in a changing landscape. The five actors were superb in their many roles. Charlotte Thompson, for instance, fretted about Kenyan peas, and, as a very credible teen, couldn't stoop to strawberry picking. Richard Earl played a bitter publican and an optimistic entrepreneur, Robert Macpherson was excellent as the Polish worker, David Redgrave got most of the old Suffolk boys, tending the churchyard and planting sweet peas, and Sally Ann Burnett was the lady vicar, the Scottish schoolteacher, and, in an almost unbearably moving moment, the mother at her son's grave.

Death, as much else, has gone out of the village. No-one lays out the corpse in the home nowadays; the names on the gravestones are no longer the names of the families living in the houses. No Post Office, no shop. In fact a certain supermarket chain gets a rough ride; its delivery van in a  confrontation with a tractor down a narrow lane a telling image.

A character remembers the thirty-six apple varieties the orchards used to grow. Did he have our Essex D'Arcy Spice ?  The Stanway Seedling ? The Maldon Wonder ?  Or the Sturmer Pippin ?

Apples symbolise much that has happened to Suffolk. A myriad of traditional varieties have been replaced by standardised , tasteless hybrids. The Suffolk dialect is being swept away in the tide of Estuary English.

The simple sloping set, with its telegraph pole perspective, catches something of the timeless Suffolk soil.

It's forty years since Blythe's book. In another forty the changes will be complete. As the cast sings in the Jolly Ploughman: What farming shall come to there's no tongue can tell …

Ivan Cutting's sensitive production tours till early June. The Cramphorn is sold out, I believe, but you could catch it at Margaretting or in the wonderful Grange Barn at Coggeshall.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Unexpected Opera at the Civic Theatre


Music teacher: "Do you like opera, Francesca?"
Francesca: "Apart from the singing, yes."

One of a plethora of musical jests on the Unexpected Opera website. One that neatly sums up my reaction to this immensely enjoyable entertainment, aimed at both “enthusiasts and first-timers”.

Well, opera buffs may well have laughed along with the rest of us, but Harriet Campbell's Una Voce was one of the few moments of purely musical pleasure.

This clever update to Fifties London was opera for people who don't really like opera, with endless [very funny] gags, asides, business and audience participation [not Figaro's Factotum tour-de-force, but “proper opera” - G&S !]

Rossini's music did not generally fare well, with some barely adequate voices accompanied by a reduction for reeds, keyboard, drums and bass.

Richard Immergluck was a baby-faced Billy Fury Figaro, with Jezz James as the Marquis; his finest moments came when he donned the habit – the other transvestite nun was a hilarious Phil Canner, making the most of his Calumny aria.

Dockson of Dick Green [never in Rossini's wildest dreams …] was brilliantly done by Tony Harris, effortlessly working the audience and stealing every scene.

The Barber of Savile Row was directed for the stage by Lynn Binstock, with Stephen Hose the MD.

Richard Morrison in The Times

Wednesday, April 08, 2009


at the Civic Theatre


With their usual flair, the young graduates of the Central School brought us eight pieces, showcasing many talents in many genres.

David Bintley's Scottish Dances, like the Malcolm Arnold music, wore their tartan slightly tongue-in-cheek, though amongst the leaps and the laughs there was a touching pas de deux. Philip Aiden's When No One Is Looking used Sondheim's music for an intriguing blend of cynicism and showbiz smiles.

As ever, there was live, bespoke music too. Philip Feeney's genius provided a score for the busy athleticism of Mikaela Polley's Ascent, and for two very different pieces, both stronger for the contrast: Christopher Gable's 5 Lullabies, all white frocks and springtime innocence, with a heart-melting tenderness at the end, and Jonzi D's Scorpiones, adding a hugely enjoyable layer of irony to that most self-absorbed of forms, street-dance. The scorpions here were Pamela Gimenez, Katarina Nordin and stylish Italian brothers Daniele and Michele Pellegrini.

The last piece was out-and-out fun: Matthew Hart's Whodunnit, set to Martinu, an inspired choice. The Cluedo characters breeze across the stage, weapons cleverly concealed, they all have an opportunity; their crimes are re-enacted, before the guilty party is revealed. Was it Professor Plum in the Billiard Room with the lead pipe ? No, actually, in the biggest cliché of them all, it was ... the Butler [Jamiel Laurence] !


Flamenco at the Cramphorn


Sweltering Andalucian atmosphere in the Cramphorn for this well-attended first visit from London-based Flamenco outfit.

The authentic musicianship made for a very enjoyable couple of hours escapism. The guitarist was Steve Homes, whose solos were a triumph of technique and style. There was also an impressive percussionist, Demi Garcia Sabat, and two chaps who stood and clapped – the all-important rhythmic Palmas.

The soul of the group sat, though we sensed he would rather be strutting his stuff, and sang in that distinctive flamenco voice – No quiero tus besos – and dictated the frenetic pace of the footwork.

The dancer – could this have been La Morenita ?- appeared in four different dresses – black, red, blue and white – and pounded the tiny stage with incredible panache. And just for the encore, she was joined briefly by the inspirational singer.

I must have been the only layman in the packed auditorium, since no attempt was made at introducing the performers or their music. Essex On Tour, whose gig this was, hope to lure Sumaya back in the autumn. Perhaps they'd consider dropping the redundant compère, and investing in an A4 sheet of information.

Iguana (bulerias)

Monday, April 06, 2009


L'Imprévu at the Cramphorn


The unexpected ? That's what this talented trio seems to promise. And they certainly deliver, with two living composers – both present in the Cramphorn, plus an amazing unknown Edwardian composer.

This was William Yeates Hurlstone, whose tuneful Trio, with its brilliant Finale, made a thrilling end to this recital.

Apart that is from the encore, a witty take on Elgar's salon music [arranged by Imprévu's clarinet, Peter Sparks].

The other two musicians – all of them Cambridge graduates – were Shelly Organ and Tim Watts, who turned out to be a couple. We learnt this because Tim's splendid Montezuma Suite was written in Costa Rica on their honeymoon. This was enjoyable mood music, with a brief butterfly sketch followed by an agile Monkey, cleverly aping the creature's gait.

Impresario Jeffery Wilson was commissioned by the trio to write Recitatives & Aria; dreamy melodic lines, not too demanding but very listenable.

We also heard from the Old Masters – Mendelssohn's Konzertstuck no. 2, with Shelly's bassoon standing in for the basset horn, and two helpings of Beethoven – the little known Duo for Clarinet and Bassoon, and to open the recital, his opus 11 Trio, with the bassoon playing the cello part. The Adagio was exquisitely played, with an air of gentle melancholy, followed by the virtuosic, jaunty Theme and Variations.

The last of the Classical Xtra evenings, on May 15, features Jane Elston on saxophone.


Sandon Players


Why did the mob choose Barabbas over Jesus ? Christine Wass's thought-provoking passiontide play suggests it might be because, as a Messiah, he was too keen on peace and love rather than violent insurrection.

Reg Peters played the Zealot leader, twenty years fighting the Romans, with Elizabeth Myddleton Evans as his other half, a pickpocket who, together with Simon [Robert Fishwick] is won over by Jesus. “He took the venom from my heart and the sword from my hand ...”

The Romans had some of the best characters, with Peter White as Pilate, and Kenton Church as the Centurion, filled with awe in the Gospel account, and played by John Wayne in

Beth Walters was convincing as his wife, Flavia, fearing the portents like in Julius Caesar. And playwright Christine Wass had the only laughs as a very Jewish Martha.

These are bit players in the great drama – the Crucifixion itself was done with effects and music [James Tovey and Becky Pardoe]- but they give us a chance to reflect, in Holy Week, on the myths of Jesus' passion. This was the Silver Jubilee production, the second of this play, and the first time in the Village Hall rather than the Parish Church. Theatre has its roots in religion, and these plays especially hark back to an ancient tradition of popular liturgical drama. Lose that link, and a spiritual dimension is lost, too.

Saturday, April 04, 2009


Artisans Drama Society at the Brentwood Theatre


Jarry's ground-breaking play began life as a schoolboy jape. Something of that naïve, out-to-shock brashness survived in Nicola Stacey's colourful production.

The backdrop, also primitive and childlike, was based on the author's own ideas, and the gleefully scatological script was tackled with some enthusiasm, particularly by Vernon Keeble-Watson as old man Ubu, and Wendi Shead as his wife.

A predominantly young cast doubled as puppeteers – like the unconvincing padding, the papier-mâché feast and the grotesque masks, the fluffy puppets – so many refugees from Avenue Q – were reminders of the ancient traditions to which this piece is heir.

There was a lovely mock battle between the mighty armies of Alice Stacey and Georgina Hayworth.

Jarry set his piece in a mythical Poland. How could he know that in the hundred years between then and now this land would be ravaged by the warfare he so savagely satirised, see communism and its overthrow, not to mention the birth of a pope …

“It's just like the silent movies !” commented one of the chatty ladies in the third row. She was referring, I think, to the lugubrious and slightly sinister Sign Changer [Graham Poulteney] always accompanied by Matt the organ grinder, whom I like to imagine as the schoolboy Alfred, smiling cynically at his creation.

Friday, April 03, 2009


National Theatre at the Olivier


An epic tale of death, duty and desecration.

Death and the King’s Horseman shows two cultures clashing in mutual incomprehension.

Soyinka’s drama was first seen, in Africa, in 1976. This is its first professional production in London.

Director Rufus Norris fills the stage with lively action – drums, dance, red sand, fire, and a brilliantly conceived flying market-place [designer Katrina Lindsay] – “the teeming market of the world”.

There was obvious delight in the telling of the tale – energy helped to make up for the plodding pace of much of the early dialogue, and the hesitant delivery of some of Soyinka’s best poetry. I liked the “animist” furniture in the colonial villa, especially the scurrying standard lamp.

Nanso Anozie was a powerful presence as Elesin, the horseman of the title, who, like the King’s dog, and his horse, must follow his late master through the narrow passage to the world of the Ancestors. Claire Benedict was the “Mother of the Market”, rallying the women in energetic protest, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith was the British-educated son and heir.

Most of the fun was had by the actors who whited up [during the prologue] to play the Brits – pure caricature at first [did Soyinka write them that way, I wonder ?] with Jenny Jules brilliant as a Celia Johnson D.O.’s wife, but gradually becoming more rounded as the conflict deepened.

The closing moments – a genuinely tragic dénouement – were very fine, and the preview audience gave the huge company a warm ovation.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Guy Masterson at the Cramphorn

The stage is empty, save for a simple wooden chair; would not look out of place in Bethesda Chapel, or beside an old Welsh dresser.

To begin at the beginning, a man in pyjamas, from the drawer marked pyjamas, stands on the chair, and for the next two hours he conjures the sights and sounds of the small Welsh town, Llareggub, in Dylan Thomas’s classic play for voices, directed for the stage by Tony Boncza.

This is pure theatre gold. Guy Masterson, never missing a beat of the richly rhythmic verse, becomes a mole, a cat, a baby, a sea-bed wreck, a flock of gulls, as well as the sixty-nine characters whose lives unfold before us.

He is a 50s travelogue, Lily Smalls in the mirror, the Cherry Owens [ the only contented couple, though he reels home drunk as a deacon and snores the night through ], PC Attila Rees, Sinbad Sailors pulling his Guinness, and Polly Garter singing as she scrubs the floor. The draper and the kissing games are priceless, too.

The lighting and the music/effects track [Matt Clifford] play their part, but it is the sheer force of Masterson’s performance that makes the show, now in its 15th year, such a triumph.

It must be exhausting for the jet-lagged actor – he needs two pints just to replace the fluid lost to the sweat of his brow – but he emerges, showered and fresh, to meet his fans and sign CDs.

"To begin at the beginning ..." from the CD