Tuesday, September 29, 2009

at the Brentwood Theatre


Edward Wellman, who presents the Monday classical music show on Phoenix, was master of ceremonies and accompanist for this, their first ever Young Classical Musician competition.

The nine finalists we heard made up a varied and entertaining programme.

There were three pianists, playing a barely adequate instrument: Sasha Millwood, who gave us a spectacular sequence of Chopin and Rachmaninov, William Church, who followed a poised Bach Prelude and Fugue with a solemn Brahms romance. The youngest pianist, Jack Angell, was in many ways the most engaging, with his brief set of a Bach menuet, a Carnival Elephant and a cheeky Top Cat.

Sam Hayday, cornet, played one of those showy variations brass players love, while the overall winner on the night, flautist Sarah Woollatt, from the Ursuline School, played a movement from Reineke's Undine.

Even Classic FM don't play musical theatre, but for some reason all the vocalists sang numbers written with a big voice and a microphone in mind. By far the most successful was Rosie Bloom, confidently delivering a number from Phantom.

A great strength of the evening was the panel of judges
– Michael Frith, Benjamin Grosvenor and Philippa Penkett, who gave instant feedback and advice to the young competitors. Breathe, don't be afraid to ham it up, and wear a dress that covers your trembling knees …

Friday, September 25, 2009


George Dillon at the Cramphorn


Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, favourite of the Virgin Queen, resident of Hedingham castle. And author of the plays and poems usually attributed to Shakespeare.

Or so many of his fans, following the eminent John Thomas Looney, would have us believe.

In this fascinating one man show, George Dillon has de Vere come back from the dead to tell his history, pointing up the parallels with the Prince of Denmark, but without explicitly making any claims.

The audience are to “sit in judgement”, it seems, as Edward, like Faustus with “one bare hour to live”, travels in his “mind's eye” from Castle Hedingham to Cecil House, from Venice to Verona to Illyria. He paraphrases Hamlet, colourfully insults Sir Philip Sidney on the tennis court, and twice meets the Stratford simpleton who is fit only to hold his horses.
We meet Lord Burghley, Arthur Golding, the pope in Rome, George the clown, as well as the Virgin Queen and the 16th Earl, his father, whose death unhinged the boy.

A clever conceit, compellingly delivered, with Dillon's clear diction encompassing bleeding chunks of the canon, cod Shakespeare and modern asides. The anachronisms were effective - I was less happy about the solecisms - maybe a script editor ? The piece was directed by Denise Evans, with music by Charlotte Glasson.

It may not make Oxfordians of us all, but we may well wonder, with Bernardo, “Is not this something more than fantasy !”.

“O God! What a wounded name, Things standing thus unknown, I leave behind me! In this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, To tell my story!”

Hamlet / Edward de Vere

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


College Players at Brentwood Theatre


Kate Atkinson's first novel transfers remarkably well to the stage: the story of Ruby Lennox and her dysfunctional extended family makes an absorbing drama in Bryony Lavery's adaptation, which was impressively staged at Brentwood by the College Players.

Ruby – too clever for her own good – is guided by her therapist as she revisits her colourful past. Emma Feeney gave a beautifully observed performance in the role – funny, and deeply moving in places, she held the narrative together as it leaped the generations and travelled from Whitby [paradise with Auntie Doreen] to Scotland [hell with the Ropers] via the Trenches and the lost property cupboard of the afterlife.

There were many more fine performances in a very large cast – Dawn Cooke's blowsy Bunty, and Lindsay Hollingsworth's Grandma Nell, ageing 50 years in an instant.

Lauren Bracewell's wondrous production had many memorable, moving moments. The ghosts of York crowding the stage, with the tiny lost sister weaving through them, the layers of memory in the shoeless shoe box, the expressionist fire and the climax on the ice. Music and lighting were effectively used to enhance the drama, set against a palimpsest of peeling wallpaper and family photographs.

programme design: James Feeney

Monday, September 21, 2009

Vienna by Candlelight

The Locrian Ensemble
Civic Theatre 19th September

Jim Hutchon was in the stalls ...

The Locrian Ensemble transported us from a damp Chelmsford Saturday into the lush Imperial world of Vienna, complete with powdered wigs and tights set in a classical statuary backdrop. But the light-heartedness of the setting, or the jokey anecdotes, fooled no-one, this is a group that is serious about its music and its expression.
The Ensemble comes together for these ‘Vienna by Candlelight’ concerts, although all the members are sought after soloists in their own right. They are led by Rita Manning, formerly leader of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Orchestra, who was able to breathe unexpected vibrancy into such pot-boilers as Lehar’s Gypsy Fiddles. Founder and principal raconteur of the Ensemble is cellist Justin Pearson who is also artistic director of the Nationl Symphony Orchestra.
The music was a varied selection of quite easy listening, mainly by Mozart, Strauss, Vivaldi and Lehar, although all were performed with a freshness and vivacity which belied their clichéd status. Guest soprano ‘the pocket diva’ Annette Wardell took on three solos with clarity and a warmth of expression, including the fiendish Queen of the Night’s aria from the Magic Flute. Other guest soloists included the very talented Irish harpist Jean Kelly and short sequences from a pair of dance champions, Shaun Christie and Emma Munbodhowa, who performed, of course, immaculate waltzes, as well as rhumba and cha cha.
Audience participation was a short lollipop which included burst paper bags to emulate the cannons in a truncated '1812' and an encouragement from the soprano to join in ‘Vilia Oh Vilia’.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Essex Chamber Orchestra at Christ Church


ECHO was born in 1979, to give musicians from EYO performing opportunities as they turned 21.

Thirty years on, it still boasts many of those youngsters, as well as many others who live or work in the county.

For this anniversary concert, they chose three popular pieces.

First, Weber's overture to Der Freischutz, with its dramatic strings, and of course the huntsmen's horns.

John Mills, who played the Britten concerto with the orchestra last year, was back as soloist in the more familiar Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. It was a forthright, fluent performance, with a gripping cadenza in the opening Allegro. Later, a little of the detail was lost in the general enthusiasm [or was it the acoustic ?] but this was an impressive, engaging performance by any standards.

After the interval, Saint-Saens great Organ Symphony, with the might and muscle of the orchestra matched by Simon Harvey at the Christ Church Organ. A driven, urgent performance; we were concerned that there might not be enough energy left for the final pages, but Colin Touchin and his considerable forces had strength in reserve, and we were certainly not disappointed.

ECHO were led by Suzanne Loze, with Timothy Carey and Alison Eales at the piano.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Chelmsford Cathedral
Choral Foundation Concert


The gentle Walking Tune made a theatrical introduction to the “simple, joyous” world of Percy Grainger. First, Peter Nardone unseen on the offstage piano, then Tom Wilkinson took up the tune, and narrator Kit Hesketh-Harvey strolled on in a vaguely pre-Raphaelite ensemble.

And we were off on a selective tour of Grainger's life and his work, “dished up” for four hands or two. Handel in the Strand, of course, Shepherd's Hey from his “song-seeking” period, Country Gardens, but also some less familiar, less showy works, like the Bridal Lullaby written in 1916 for the marriage of his lost love Karen Holten.

The “gaiety and exuberance” of Grainger's music was well expressed by the two musicians: Molly on the Shore, with its frenetic finale, the whistling to accompany Bonnie Doon, the Immovable Doh, with the one note in the top part played by Nardone with consummate style and a little help from Mr Hesketh-Harvey [who presumably would have included The Widow's Party March in his Percy picks].

Percy Grainger is remembered now for his “tremendous trifles”, and although he made a fortune from piano arrangements and his own performances, he remained sceptical about the “box full of hammers and strings”. But this entertaining presentation gave us a rounded picture of the man and his music – from the charming Eastern Intermezzo to the nostalgic Colonial Song, written in 1911 at outset of his composing career.

Kit and the Widow's Party March

Monday, September 14, 2009


The Maldon Heritage Play 2009


In the shadow of the old tower of St Peter's Church, which now houses the nationally renowned Maldon Millennium Embroidery, Alison Woollard's play – the tenth and last in the series, looked briefly back at some of the colourful characters from the history of Maldon and its environs.

Held together by the ladies stitching the history, the lively drama covered Mystery Plays [Noah, his wife, and a recalcitrant dove], Thomas Plume's pioneering lending library [and his workhouse], the leper hospital of St Giles, its herb garden, the healing properties of Maldon Salt Water, Beeleigh Abbey, loaves and fishes, poetry disseminated by balloon, transport facilitated by water, and of course the Pirates!

“To hell with History” the cry went up. But when history is as much fun as this, it's worth retelling for as long as St Peter's casts its shadow and the salt retains its savour …

The Heritage play was directed by Vicky Tropman, with Stuart Pegler in charge of the music.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


Civic Theatre


When was the golden age of Variety ? Harry Champion, Florrie Forde, Max Miller, the wartime Windmill, Sunday Night at the London Palladium ? Certainly not the age of X-factor and I'm a Celebrity, when it survives only at the end of the pier, and once a year for the Royals.
We prefer our singers and our stand-ups straight, milk chocolate or plain, hard centres or soft, rarely an assortment.

So it was a tonic to see a variety bill in front of the silver retro curtains on the Civic stage.

A shaky start, though, with a hesitant warm-up from comedian Otiz Cannelloni, tooled up with his spoon, his magic pencil, his balloon and his flatulence cards.

The three acts he introduced were all talented women who've been around a bit, and each in her way was a treat.

Barbara Nice [“Barbara as in Streisand, Nice as in the biscuits”] hails from Stockport, and is a fan of coach travel and charity shops. Imagine a Liz Smith tribute done by Paul O'Grady if you haven't had the pleasure. A well-sustained character comic of the old school, with a winning blend of folk wisdom and philosophy. And I admired the way she got the audience by the scruff of its neck and got us all on her side.

Chanteuse Barb Jungr [another scion of Stockport, spookily enough] has been compared to Nina Simone and Peggy Lee, but her devoted fan base would be quick to point out that she is a unique talent. With the excellent Simon Wallace at the piano, she gave us Bob Dylan and Marc Cohn, and ended all too soon with a potent version of Neil Diamond's Red Red Wine. She'll be back at the Civic in the new year, with her own show based on her New York residency.

Top of the bill was Hattie Hayridge [Holly off of Red Dwarf]. I loved her darkly surreal stream of consciousness – Canvey Island, Top Shop, seedless grapes, footless tights and bags for life – but the audience wasn't sure. Maybe they wanted more Jungr, or Barbara Nice's Robbie Williams cover. But I guess that's Variety …

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Kinetix Theatre at the Civic


“Bringing theatre back to the masses”, Kinetix Theatre combined circus, combat and crime thriller in forty-five minutes of tricks, tumbles, twists and surprises.

The Ringmaster lies lifeless in the sawdust. But who dunnit ?
Was it Boris the clown, with a water pistol and Fluffy the lion ? Or singing, dancing strongman Samson, who finally inherits her mantle and brings a touch of camp to the Big Top ?

The talented troupe vault, fight, sing and dance towards the truth of the matter, as Samson draws on his Meerschaum and solves the mystery.

Six energetic young performers [alumni of East 15 Acting School] worked hard at the tumbling, the swordplay and the comedy, though the show wasn't always sure where it was going, or why. This kind of crossover is notoriously difficult to bring off - gymnasts and theatre buffs share few criteria in common. The Entry of the Gladiators, played at the top of the show, the archetypal circus tune, reminded me of the inimitable Theatre du Soleil, bringing circus to the French Revolution at the Roundhouse ["1789" 1971].

After the interval, team tee shirts replaced the circus costumes for a demonstration of their skills, a chance for the audience to try the trampette, after coach Brad Wendes vaulted effortlessly over a dozen stooges, and Lewis Peploe shared some of the secrets of stage combat.


Bill Bradley, guitar


We had no programmes, no enthusiastic intro. And Bill Bradley had forgotten his sheet music. But his love of the guitar, and his memory, guaranteed a delightful hour, the first of this season's Cramphorn lunchtimes.

He began with a John Williams arrangement of Bach's Third Cello Suite, with his familiar Bourrée. It was an intense but gentle performance, as he caressed the melodies from the strings.

Quieter still was the René Lacote guitar, 1820, Paris, inlaid with jet and ivory, which he used for a Bach Waltz.

Despite the beard and the cider bottle, Bradley is not a folk song collector, but his own English Suite [obviously influenced by J S Bach] incorporates many traditional nautical melodies: a skiff in a storm, a calm idyll, then rain and the sun setting over the island of Fand.

The set ended with jazz – a tribute to Ellington “who wrote music that for many people became the sound of love.”

The regular Wednesday sessions continue weekly into January, including return visits by Cramphorn favourites like Kay Usher, Saxology and Susie Self.

Sunday, September 06, 2009


Ian Fricker Productions
at Colchester Mercury


Covering Frankie Valli [Silence is Golden] one day, and the next to the BBC's Paris Studios [in Lower Regent Street] for Round the Horne. Life for a musician in the 60s was not all Mersey sound. MOR ruled much of the airwaves, and even the Goon Show had its musical interludes.

So it was great to hear live music in Richard Bacon's staged revival of a comedy classic, and the actors will have to forgive me if I enthuse about the musicians first.

"Not the Fraser Hayes Four" perfectly resurrected the close harmony quartet who interrupted the surreal comedy every week. They must
have seemed corny and cheesy even then, and it was wonderful to see them in all their oleaginous glory. I specially enjoyed Paper Moon, with its half-hearted basketball hand gestures.

On stage throughout, for cues and bridges, are the eight piece Horn Blowers, featuring a comedy trombone, inventive percussion and two trumpeters who look as if they've bunked off from their Convent School. At the piano, and guitarist for Rambling Sid, was Duncan Walsh Atkins.

The matinée idol on Thursday was definitely Robin Sebastian's delicious Kenneth Williams – Chou en Ginsberg, Gruntfuttock, Jules, all given in pitch-perfect hommage, flaring nostrils and all. Equally impressive was Sally Grace's Marsden, a long list of familiar characters including a spot-on Jean Metcalfe. Michael Shaw made the most of the Bill Pertwee roles, though Seamus Android has not aged well, and David Delve was most successful as ageing juvenile Binkie Huckaback and the unnamed character with the ill-fitting false teeth – down in the scripts simply as “Dentures”.

Straight[ish] foils to these grotesques were Jonathan Rigby as Horne, “bald head and deep, fruity voice”, and a brilliant Stephen Boswell as the archetypal announcer Douglas Smith.

Given that the music was live, I was surprised that the sound effects were all recorded. And, while we're on the SFX script, the pips in the Sixties were all the same length: one tenth of a second ...

Here's the original of one of the sketches they revived:

and here's the original Horn Blowers playing the show out

Friday, September 04, 2009


Tom Wilkinson, organ


Tom Wilkinson moved up to St Andrews this summer, after a year as Assistant Director of Music at Chelmsford Cathedral.

Good to welcome him back so soon, with an attractive programme beautifully interpreted.

He began with the young Couperin, including a delicate Dialogue sur la Voix Humaine, followed by a plaintive Récit from Couperin's contemporary, Nicolas de Grigny.

After a Bach Prelude and Fugue, we heard the familiar Albinoni Adagio, sounding very majestic on the full organ at the end. Just as rousing was Guilmand's March on a Theme of Handel which ended this short recital.

Hearing this magnificent Mander so expressively played, in this acoustic, reminds us that the organ places the audience at the virtual heart of the instrument.

The next Cathedral Lunchtime is on the 18th, with Tim Smith at the piano; other highlights from the Autumn Season include a Salvation Army band in October and the Forest School in November.

Tom Wilkinson can be heard again at the Cathedral on September 15, when he joins Director of Music Peter Nardone and Kit Hesketh-Harvey in a tribute to Percy Grainger.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


Live Music at the Griffin


Not an easy time for pubs. So good on the Griffin in Danbury for offering not just a beer festival and a hog roast for the Bank Holiday weekend, but an Extravaganza of live music too.

The Sunday, for instance, featured renowned jazz piano man Ray Ward and his trio, and later, The Lady and The Tramp – Robert Bastian and Nicole Casey.

Three high-octane sets, using a tiny space somewhere between the restaurant and the beer tent. Mostly numbers that take well to being belted out: a sassy duet version of the Rodgers and Hart song that gave them their name, Bjork's It's Oh So Quiet with Gaggia obbligato, and big diva numbers like Rain on My Parade and I Who Have Nothing. My favourites I think were the New York medley from Robert and a Spanish You Don't Have To Say You Love Me from Nicole. Less successful was the insensitive disco remix of Lloyd Webber's Memory.

These two seasoned and intuitive performers worked well together: Robert sells his songs, works the room and ad libs his patter, and Nicole has an incredible voice, classically trained, with a warm, easy tone. I'd love to hear her sing jazz or operetta. Though it was fun to see them interact with waiters, punters and passers-by, they deserve a more attentive audience, which would give them a chance to develop a more reflective side to their repertoire.

The Griffin has already booked them for another gig in October;
we've not heard the last of the Tramp and the Lady …