Sunday, May 31, 2009


Alasdair Malloy with Sinfonia Viva

Civic Theatre


Maybe it lacked the pulling power of movie tie-ins like Harry Potter and the Pirates of the Caribbean, but this year's concert for children was packed with exotic sounds and far-flung fun and games. We even sang along with Summer Holiday !

Percussionist extraordinaire Alasdair Malloy, kilted for the first half, chatted and charmed his way into the hearts of the audience. The music began with Bizet's Farandole, done as a concerto for tabor, and ended with Offenbach's Galop; young fans invading the stage to dance along. We did the Macarena for Mozart, the hand jive for Handel.

Among the lesser known pieces in the dress-down second half were a charming Chinese folk song arrangement, featuring scene-setting solos from flute and harp, then a beautiful bassoon melody, and Adrian Johnson's evocative Outback Daybreak, with dijeridu introduction and jew's harp kangaroos.

There were visits to that increasingly attractive destination, the past: the Harry Lime theme played as in a Viennese Konditorei, with a lovely viola solo, and Puffin' Billy, used two generations ago to introduce very different Children's Favourites.

Saturday, May 30, 2009


Cameo Players / Little Baddow Drama at Hylands House


If Mr Darcy rode over from Pemberley to Hylands, he'd find another “great park with natural beauty”, and another fine house “handsomely fitted up”, the estate of Mr and Mrs Cornelius  Kortwright. And if, on a fine summer's evening last week, he'd made his dripping wet way up from the lake to the portico, he'd have found a horde of ladies, patiently waiting to be shown into the magnificent Banqueting Room. 


Cameo's sumptuous version of Pride and Prejudice, directed by Jane Kyte-Hunt, brought a large and starry cast, splendidly attired, home to Hylands. How wonderful to walk out, not into the modest garden at Longbourn, but onto the imposing Repton landscape. The tiny performance area stood, with a few props and a little imagination, for Pemberley and the Parsonage, Netherfield and the Assembly Rooms. Linked by the economical narration of Miss Austen [Nicole Casey], we enjoyed a parade of bonnets and proposals of marriage.

Lindsay Lloyd was a believable Mrs Bennet, a bustling bundle of nerves, sharing her daughters' hopes and disappointments, and trying the patience of Ken Rolf's dry, crusty Mr Bennet.


His performance was a model of selfless stagecraft, drawing the eye with a glance, a gesture, the slightest movement.

Darcy was played, with nonchalant naturalism, by Lionel Bishop – an impressive presence in all his scenes, but notably with Tracy Hammond's poisonous Caroline, and  with Sara Thompson's outstanding Lizzy. 

Sara caught the fire, the fun and the fury of her character perfectly, I thought, especially when confronting Darcy or rejecting the all-too-physical advances of the oily, boorish William Collins [Robert Bastian].

The other eligible bachelors were Kenton Church's Wickham and Danny Segeth's Bingley.

No weak link among the twenty players – especially impressive were Victoria Costa's depth of feeling as Jane, Catherine Bailey's canny Charlotte and Patricia Lee's glorious outrage as Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

The gaggle of Bennet girls was completed by the bookish, sententious Mary [Jo Poole] and the giggly teenagers Kitty [Lauren Barnes] and Lydia [Sara Triplett-Jones], resplendent in her crimson going-away gown.

The Gardiners were played with aplomb by Paul Randall and Gill Peregrine, and toiling below stairs, Barbara Newton's Hill, heralding the many callers, with Sally Lowe her silent subordinate. Annette Michaels managed two striking vignettes, as Lady Lucas and the loquacious housekeeper of Pemberley, Mrs Reynolds.

The largely female audience loved every minute, especially perhaps the feelgood denouement, with rose-petal confetti and the Bennets triumphant. I did feel, however, that sometimes inner feelings, which surface politeness should have smothered, were made overly plain, and that seated conversations lost a little through being out of sight. Though as my neighbour pointed out, the diction was so clear, the language so polished, it really mattered very little …

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Shakespeare's Globe on the road


Trimmed to little more than two hours, plus interval, eight actor/musicians and a booth stage; this is rough magic.

Director Rebecca Gatward makes virtues of necessities, with the twins identical, and doubling galore. The front door scene is a classic of farce,  the doubled dénouement is brilliantly done, and I liked the way the costumes gradually grew more Elizabethan as the evening wore on.

The predominantly young cast bring energy and enthusiasm to the piece. Miltos Yerolemou is a cheeky Dromio, making the most of the physical comedy as the servant of two masters, played by Ronan Raftery in his first outing after RADA – a fresh-faced innocent Antipholus. Dana Gartland and Sara Ridway were the seductive sisters, and I liked Cornelius Booth as an amusingly arcane Dr Pinch.

They'll need their energy for the gruelling tour – it starts in Salisbury, to finish in Cambridge in late August. Norway and Malta, too, if your travels take you that far, but not Syracuse this year, I fear.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


at the Civic, Chelmsford


You'll have to take my word for it, but I'm writing this with a little pink pencil. Part of the goody bag for the Hairspray singalong. We also had cards, a scrap of sequinned fabric, also pink, and a party popper for the big climax.

It was very much a girls' afternoon out. Ladies of all ages booed, cheered, danced and sang to the film of the musical of the 1988 film, encouraged by a pink beehived hostess, who dished out prizes to the best dressed [and a can of Ultra Clutch to the hairdo of the day]. Many of us had seen the film, or possibly Michael Ball live, more than once. “Are you experts,” she wondered, “Or really sad people ?”. She took us through our paces for Nicest Kids, Welcome To The Sixties, I Can Hear The Bells, Good Morning Baltimore, and of course Can't Stop The Beat. “Be in the moment with them,” she urged.

This bizarre blend of naughty nostalgia, gentle satire and saccharine social comment has fewer costume opportunities than Sound of Music or Rocky Horror, but the preteens and the grannies were happy to march and cheer for freedom with Tracy, Penny, Link and the rest, and still had breath to sing to the birthday girls in the audience.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court

How did you celebrate Norway's win in the Eurovision? If you had a few friends round for an ironic party, I hope it went better than Lee's, the subject of Jonathan Harvey's grim comedy. Jim Hutchon was at the Old Court ...

This is a rather 'bitty' play which starts at a gallop then fades into the remains of the day. Notionally about a group of ‘friends’ gathered for a night of watching the Eurovision Song Contest, it is really about making and breaking relationships. Director Joe Kennedy had his work cut out to make something meaningful of the play – which he did - with the sterling efforts of a dedicated and disciplined cast.

Alastair Robinson was strong and believable as the lynch pin grieving over the death of his lover Michael, while Steve Holding, as the neighbour, made his gay plays to all and sundry in a funny and touching performance. Joanna Gent and Catherine Bailey were positive and forceful as the women who got it together eventually. Ben Fraser acted the straight actor with conviction and David Woolford fooled his way through the play with some fine slapstick timing. Key to the action was the outrageously camp Robert Bastian flouncing his way through with a beautifully balanced mix of bravado and insecurity.

Though there were some lost laughter lines through gabbling, the mix of scouse and London accents held up well. The production succeeded in telling the story, though its habit of raising issues then not addressing them was irritating.


at the Civic, Chelmsford

Stones in his Pockets has been showing for ten years, now. The lights go down, we listen to the flea-pit adverts, we stare at the cinemascope row of shoes beneath the screen.
Like thousands of audiences before us, we are here to marvel at the skills of the two actors [ David Caves and Patrick Kellner on this occasion, I think - someone forgot to put the programmes in the van...] who between them bring to life the stars, the villagers, the extras and the production team shooting The Quiet Valley in County Kerry. There’s Aisling, Third Assistant Director, and Simon her superior, John the weary dialogue coach, Jock from security, Caroline the glamorous leading lady, Clem, the English director, and Old Mickey, who remembers John Ford’s Quiet Man way back in '52.
Not to mention Charlie and Jake, the two extras, each with disappointments in his past and dreams for his future.
Though there are darker themes – exploitation and the fragility of aspirations – and tragedy – the suicide of Sean the local lad which gives the piece its title – “people don’t go to the cinema to be depressed, that’s what the theatre’s for”, and what we always take away is the tour-de-force that brings all these characters to life, turn, turn, and Simon becomes Caroline, Fin becomes Brother Gerard. And they all appear at once, it seems, in the Line Dance and the curtain calls at the end, as “the extras become the stars …”

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Taking Sides / Collaboration


Ronald Harwood double bill at the Minerva, Chichester


Well, the world sort of forgave him ...” explained one Chichester playgoer to another as we filed pensively out of Taking Sides, the earlier play of Ronald Harwood's diptych on great music under the Nazi regime.

As I watched the play again in this pre-London revival, it was clear that it was really as much about Major Arnold as it was about Dr Furtwangler. The American interrogator with a background in insurance, shadowy unspecified paymasters and an agenda of his own. Is it his world we've inherited, where artistic genius does not set a man apart, where the greatest are driven by the same base motives as the rest of us ?

Arnold, at the end, sinks into the hot seat, and Furtwangler seems to have persuaded another young female admirer to join him for dinner …

Pennington is wonderful both as the tight-lipped patrician Furtwangler and the confused Grand Old Man Richard Strauss, seeking a collaborator, finding Zweig [David Horovitch, also outstanding as Arnold], and hysterically denouncing the exiled Jew's suicide, too, as Collaboration.

Kenneth Baker and actor Martin Turner were both in the Minerva matinee audience, Harwood himself in the evening. As we left, the pantechnicon already had its engine running, presumably to transfer Berlin, Salzburg, Vienna and the rest to the West End. I couldn't help wondering how the immediacy and the impact of these chamber works will survive behind the Duchess proscenium.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Festival Theatre Chichester


This is the play that gave the word “panache” to English. Anthony Burgess's three hour version starts, like Rostand's, with a knowing street-theatre scene and an audience on three sides.

Trevor Nunn's sprawling production for the Chichester thrust makes the most of this, the pastry-cook's emporium, and of course the barricades and the siege of Arras.

The verse translation was well served by the vast cast, [forty strong, I'd guess], not least Joseph Fiennes in the title role, who must have found in the wit and word play echoes of his other script-writers, Shakespeare and Stoppard. Though he is an impressive swordsman, he is especially good as the philosopher poet, “almost brother” to his Roxane, Alice Eve, nostalgically evoking their shared childhood.

This great play poses questions still relevant today. “Your lips, my soul” - Christian's body [Stephen Hagan], Cyrano's words. Must the bright also be beautiful ? Do only the brave deserve the fair ?

No tour, no transfer, apparently, for this wonderful revival, despite the critics' plaudits. You've till May 30 to catch it in Chichester. 

Friday, May 15, 2009


Greville Theatre Club at the Barn Theatre Little Easton


A “complete featherbed of false emotions” ? Well, yes. Coward's weekend with the insufferably theatrical Bliss ménage is high on bon mots, thinner on plotting. But Greville's stylish production, marking their 50th anniversary [what was the first ever show in Lady Warwick's Little Theatre, I wonder?] was a delight throughout, thanks to blue chip performances and first class production values. Hay Fever was directed by Rita Vango and produced by Judy Lee.

Did Coward choose the ironic Tea for Two as a curtain raiser [and a wicked choreographed number for the grumpy Clara, dresser to the stars and only domestic on duty, nicely played by Diana Bradley ] ? They certainly had it in the Dame Judi's revival a few years ago, but I can't help feeling Noel would have chosen one of his own opus, or tossed off a little number specially …

Judith Bliss, grande dame of the stage, always performing, was brilliantly done by Jan Ford. Arranging flowers, living Love's Whirlwind, making perfunctory introductions, it was all pitch perfect. I especially enjoyed her scene with the “diplomatist [Steve Braham]. “Smug and pompous”, her long-suffering and insufferable husband, was in the safe hands of Peter Nicholson, who looked and sounded the part to perfection. Their progeny were Laura Bradley as Sorel, perhaps more a fresh, open-air girl than she should have been, but a nicely drawn character, and Nigel Smith as Simon.

Their weekend guests included Marcia Baldry as the overpowering vamp Myra Arundel, and Philip Gordon as the sporty Sandy Tyrell – I've seen heartier types in flannels, but he was good on the awkwardness of the nervous, uncomfortable stranger. The costumes – Judy Lee and Jan Mitchell – were gorgeous, especially the sparkling Act Two evening gowns, and the stripy number for the gauche young flapper, a nice mousy performance from Lynda Shelverton.

The discerning Barn audience loved every minute – there were several old-fashioned rounds of applause – and the attention to detail was exemplary: the hats added to, and subtracted from, the hatstand by the door just one salient example.

Next event in this anniversary year is a visit from the renowned Lord Chamberlain's Men, bringing their all-male Twelfth Night to the imposing lawn by the Barn. Friday July 31.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Trinity Methodist Drama at the Civic


Another openin', another show. Beccy Ashton's production of the Cole Porter backstage classic began with bare boards, a quick tune-up from the pit, and a brilliantly planned build-up as chorus, crew and principals drifted on, adding their two-penn'orth to the Baltimore overture.

Trinity fielded a strong side of singers “entertaining and vivacious”. David Slater had the voice, the style and the presence for the leading man, Petruchio in the play, well matched by his Shrew, Janet Moore as the failed movie star making her stage come-back: they were utterly believable as the Wunderbar operetta duo. As the juveniles, Richard Rossetti was a precious Lucentio, with Alex Moore as the blonde Bianca. Derek Lee and David Ehren were the inept gangsters, still in spats for Shakespeare, deadpan vaudevillians.

In smaller roles, Matthew Lecznar was a flamboyant Gremio, seizing the chance to shine in the Act Two opener, Too Darn Hot, the other standout production number. And Adam Sullivan was a barnstorming General, his effortless baritone bringing his one number to glorious life.

Elsewhere, the ensemble work was unremarkable, and the smallish chorus struggled to match the panache of the principals. Accents were a problem for many; the cast are required to do American, then American doing Shakespearean British !

The set, from Albemarle, was superb, with flying pieces, a lovely front cloth and a truck for the adjoining dressing rooms – not quite stable enough for waltzing, though … And props: a gasp greeted the inappropriate blooms, and plastic flowerpots are poor weapons !

The excellent band, led by Trinity veteran Anton Archer, was under the baton of Musical Director Susannah Edom.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


Chelmsford Cathedral



How did they manage at Her Majesty's ? Cirrus, opening this year's Chelmsford Sinfonietta Festival, boasts three of the leading string players from The Phantom of the Opera.

They began a superb evening's chamber music with another theatre piece, the Sextet from Strauss's Capriccio. An exquisite interpretation, with a truly magical moment when Rolf Wilson's violin brought them  back into the opening melody.

Schubert's masterwork, his String Quintet in C, began with a bold, extrovert statement, before the more intimate,  conversational tone. The Adagio hung poignantly in the still air of the Cathedral; the Allegretto finale, often dance-like, with a joyful sprint to the finishing tape, was dark elsewhere, perhaps  reflecting the painful end to the composer's life.

No such tragic undercurrents in Tchaikovsky's Souvenirs de Florence, but  sunlight and blossom, romance and warmth, with a gloriously full-bodied folkish finale. [click  play below to hear the closing moments, from a Cirrus CD recorded last year ...]


O Duo

They're made of rosewood and cherry, they roll up to go in bags to go in the back of the van. And they can cope with anything from Bach to Brubeck. The marimbas were just part of the arsenal of instruments deployed by O Duo, Oliver Cox and Owen Gunnell, in a stage spectacular that was fast-paced and a delight from start [Bongo Fury] to finish [Minute Waltz, a fun-packed 85-second encore]

The Ravel and the Bach – three movements from a French Suite which showed off the dynamic range of the instruments – transferred more successfully than the Chopin, perhaps, but Take Five was brilliantly done, with Oli as three members of the quintet, Owen taking the tune on vibraphone, and three  young recruits keeping the beat.

The climax of the show was Minoru Miki's Marimba Spiritual, with shouting and plenty of sound and fury as the marimba battled it out with the drums.

These two young men are outstanding ambassadors for music and the joy it can bring. In the afternoon, they gave a workshop for 300 schoolchildren, and after the show, though they must have been exhausted, still found time to answer questions and give more children a hands-on taste of percussion.

Chelmsford Sinfonietta with Tim Carey

Mendelssohn weekend, and the last concert, sponsored by Hill and Abbott, included two of his works inspired by visits to Scotland.

The Hebrides Overture was given a taut performance, marked by sinewy grace, with impressive energy and excitement from brass and winds. A lyrical clarinet depicted the calm before the electrifying storm near the end of this deservedly popular piece.

His Third Symphony, which ended the evening, began with some cohesive string playing, before the spirited, ultimately tempestuous Allegro. The Scherzo could perhaps have been a little crisper, though there's no denying its infectious rustic vivacity. After the powerful dignity of the Adagio, the stirring, restless finale demonstrated the full power of this excellent orchestra.

Let's be honest, this is not an ensemble that plays seasons, has residencies, or tours the Far East. Though there are many friends, and friends of friends, it remains an ad hoc band. All credit then, to conductor David Gibson and to these forty consummate professionals, for producing performances worthy of any concert hall.

Tim Carey, the Artistic Director of this Festival, was the soloist in Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto. It was a precise, but never pedantic, interpretation, expressive but never dominating. He brought a lovely lyricism to the virtuosic cadenza, embracing the orchestra as it crept back in, just before the triumphant close of the first movement. A powerfully subtle Largo was followed by a fresh Rondo, with a sparkling lightness of touch matched by bright orchestral colours.

Thursday, May 07, 2009


Tarry Theatre at the Cramphorn


Flora is excited. She has dice, and a suitcase. Her past should be in the suitcase; her future may be in the dice.

She has an amazing memory for numbers, but her autism has confined her to a hospital. She is eagerly expecting a visit from her father. The fraudster, the teller of tales.

Directed by George Dillon, Jade Blue, artistic director of Tarry Theatre, gives a remarkable performance as Flora, and as the people who matter in her life. Fat Aunt Shirley, her awful mother Charlotte, her taciturn father and her gambler Grandad. I loved the way she transformed from, say, excited daughter to troubled father in the turn of a suitcase. There are weird, worrying stories, too. The broken clock, the burial, the motorbike. As Flora says, stories continue beyond our reading of them …

But the workings of chance, the interfering gods, were never really exploited dramatically. We never felt that, as an audience, we were influencing the outcome. And the final dilemma was improbable and unexplored.

The small audience found the piece interesting, the performance polished. Even if, despite the dice and the deck of cards, strangely uninvolving.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


Essex Musical Association Concert


After a hundred and three years, the Essex Musical Association rang down the curtain with Elgar's great sacred work, premièred a couple of years before the first EMA concert.

They've given it before, of course. At Chelmsford's Corn Exchange, and more than once in the evocative surroundings of Thaxted's parish church. Other venues over the decades have included KEGS, the Civic, Hoffmans's and the Cliffs Pavilion.

It was a farewell too for Keith Gurry, giving his last concert as leader of the excellent Essex Symphony Orchestra.

Robin Page conducted the massed choirs, including contingents from Ingatestone and Brentwood, and three soloists in a performance that was moving and stirring, and not simply because of the circumstances.

Julia Wilson-James sang a clear, confident Angel, with baritone James Lawrence imposing as the Priest and the Angel of the Agony. Gerontius himself was Nick Hardy, who acquitted himself well in this demanding role, especially in his creed in Part One.

The choirs were at their best when teamed with brass and percussion in the powerful full choruses, their song of praise echoing thrillingly round the architecture.

In Thaxted too early for our table at the Swan [just over the road from the church], we wandered

through the wild graveyard, listening to the last few pages of rehearsal. Spotted the baritone with iPod and score doing some last minute revision ... 

Saturday, May 02, 2009


Chelmsford Gang Show at the Civic


Based on an original idea by Ralph Reader CBE. Well, it's more than a quarter of a century since the great man died, so what would he recognize of that original idea ?

Cross dressing – part of a Beach number which also featured a nice Surfin' USA. His sketch, Cup of Coffee, largely intact save for the Bob a Job reference, and of course his songs: You're Only Young Once, the catchy There Are No Strangers Here, and It's Great to Be Young, which ended a typically perky Mini Gang sketch, The Golden Woggle, where science collided with bizarre body painting.

Ralph's greatest hit, Crest of a Wave, segued into the title song [from Hairspray] which might have amused him, I guess, though he would be amazed to see West End musicals bracketing the interval – the memorable Mamma Mia [costing most of the costume budget] and the forgettable Wicked, which did however boast some of the best singing and dancing of the evening.

Terry Simister headed a large production team, with Gwilym Morris and Stephan Nicholls in charge of the music. But there were noticeably fewer in the Gang this year, with the boys heavily outnumbered, [what would RR have made of all those girls ...] and Terry is rightly concerned for the future. As Reader wrote:”All hands aboard, boys, The ship is calling for more ...”

photo from the 2008 Show - send me one from this year, guys, and I'll change it ...

Journey’s End

Theatre at Baddow

1st May

Jim Hutchon was at the Parish Hall

Matthew Jones production of this WW1 play brings out much of the terror and boredom of trench existence. John Mabey is convincing as the whisky-sodden, exhausted Commander, keeping up spirits in the daily expectation of death. His combined blackmail and encouragement of the young malingerer Hibbert (well played by Sam Mears) highlights his own well-suppressed fears. David Saddington is the worldly-weary Colonel who breaks the bad news that they have to raid enemy lines.

Roger Saddington as Osborne is calm and steady as the avuncular, normalising influence in the rat-hole, till he dies with six of his men in the pointless raid through a suicide alley. John Kensett as a portly Trotter makes the life seem normal in his all-conquering quest for his next meal, and Harry Sabbarton as the school-leaver subaltern is superbly gung-ho till he gets it in the back. Bob Ryall depicts the batman Mason with grim humour, and Jim Crozier is an excellent lugubrious Sergeant-Major ready to “win the war” for his Captain.

The set was a triumph of a mud-hole lined with flimsy wood, shared with rats and ready to collapse at the slightest test from a whizz-bang. It did so spectacularly to close the action.

We watched the play in the company of 30 students from the Plume School who sat absorbed and silent throughout, and at the end, their outrage at the events was illuminating. Every generation should have a chance to hear anew, these horrors of war.

Jim Hutchon