Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Animal Farm
Guy Masterson Productions
Cramphorn Theatre
22nd October 2009

Jim Hutchon was there for the Weekly News ...

This was a truly astonishing feat of theatre. One man, Gary Shelford, he of the super india-rubber body, was able to transform himself into any number of farm animals, and give really convincing representations of them all, from chickens to pigs to shire horses. With a few very effective sound effects, a stunning lighting scheme and a bale of hay on stage, Gary brought the full political significance of Orwell’s masterpiece to life.
The performance was full of almost balletic grace, combined with Gary’s natural story-telling ability, using Masterson’s perfectly-formed, pared down adaptation of the book. But none of the nuances were lost, the sly manipulation by the pigs, and their leader Napoleon, to position themselves in control, the cynical lies and spin brazenly broadcast, the discarding of the workers like Boxer, are all presented to replicate our world today, highlighting the genius foresight of the author.

Monday, October 26, 2009


at the Civic Theatre


That inspirational jazzman Jeffery Wilson brought the Hertfordshire Youth Jazz Ensemble to the Civic last Sunday.
They'd had little more than a day to prepare 60 minutes of superb jazz, including African influences, funk – Critical Mass, with a promising alto sax solo – and a lovely Autumn Leaves from the rhythm section, fronted by Christopher Valentine on trombone.
The main work was the UK première of Wilson's own Young Person's Guide to the Jazz Orchestra. Confidently and engagingly narrated by saxophonist Charlotte Briant, it explored the individual voices in the jazz family, from the kitchen to the tailgate trombone, in a suite interspersed with a star studded roll call of the great and good of this “crude, decadent and syncopated” world. Musically, the most memorable movements were Bubsy Blues for the saxes, the jazz waltz Four Times Three for the trombones, and the gospel inspired Calling for the full band, encouraged by Wilson's vocal, skat-ish, direction.
The young people in HYJE come from all over Hertfordshire, and range in age from 13 to 18; their achievement was impressive – as Jeffery said, they are committed and full of energy. I hope he brings them over the border again …

at Christ Church


A pleasingly full house for the ESO's Russian Repertoire.
Was it the attraction of new conductor Tom Hammond ? The populist playlist – Hall of Fame Favourites all ? Or the soloist, the impressive Simon Callaghan ?
Whichever, the audience was treated to an excellent evening, beginning with that much-loved curtain-raiser, Glinka's Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla.
The piano concerto was Rach Two. From the opening chords it was clear that Callaghan was in control of this challenging war-horse. His performance won warm acclaim from the audience and the orchestra; we were rewarded with a little Fairy Tale by Nikolai Medtner. Orchestrally, all the big effects were there, though the detail was not always as crisp as the woodwind in the Adagio. But there was real tension at the start of the closing Allegro, and soloist and orchestra [leader Philippa Barton] combined effectively in a stirring climax. I see that conductor and soloist return to the work again soon in Symphony Hall Birmingham; the band this time the British Police Symphony Orchestra – plenty of scope for wordplay there ...
The most polished orchestral playing, though, came in Tchaikovsky's great Fifth Symphony. The foreboding in the Andante, the rhythmically exciting Allegro, the rich sonorities of the big string passages in the slow movement, all came off brilliantly, and the trumpets and horns battled it out thrillingly over the swirling strings in the closing pages.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


CTW at the Old Court


Bram Stoker was keen to see his vampire saga on the stage. Not an easy task – the letters, diaries and newspaper cuttings that make up the narrative do not lend themselves to dramatic impact.

John Godber and Jane Thornton's version, done for Hull Truck in the mid-nineties, was intended as a small-scale, unscary reworking.

Danny Segeth and Dean Hempstead, in their ambitious production, used a cast of thousands and effective lighting and sound, and did not stint on the gasps and screams.

Much of the narration was in the hands of Jonathan Harker, a natural, engaging performance from Harry Sabbarton, who was also impressively haggard and haunted in Act II. The Count himself, a riveting, sinister Kevin Stemp, grows younger and more vigorous, until his final, violent demise [somewhat of an anticlimax here]. This was a confident, charismatic Dracula, complete with creepy accent. “I have dined,” he drawled, and the tiny gesture as he wiped the corner of his mouth spoke volumes.

His Dutch adversary, van Helsing, was the equally charismatic Mike Gordon, though his performance was one of several areas which could usefully have been much tighter.

Kat Tokley and Rebecca Errington were both impressive as the love interest – well spoken and elegantly dressed. Rebecca's Lucy went effortlessly from virgin to vampish vampire bride. And there were more erotic frissons from Kelly McGibney as a seductive succubus.

The other stand-out in the large cast was Steve Holding's zoophagous lunatic Renfield, a brilliantly sustained physical performance.

A great strength of this production was the use of the stage – a kind of gauze light box at the back became the castle walls, the lunatic asylum and so on. Time and again, the grouping, the stage picture, made a real impact: the letter scene, say, or the warning. Sometimes, though, we could imagine the concept, see the vision, even if the technical constraints prevented it from being fully realised. For instance, the offstage voices, effective though they were, would have been so much more so with amplification and echo added.

Jim Hutchon's review:

This was a very long play full of good, imaginative ideas and a sinister minimal set, which went some way to countering a surprisingly leaden-footed script from John Godber and Jane Thornton. Director Danny Segeth mixed in a series of effective tableaux, and there were some super scary moments. The revealing of Dracula in his casket brought goose-pimples, and unnerving screams from Rebecca Errington as Lucy helped the atmosphere no end. Supporting this was an evocative sound-scheme with occasional howls and manic laughter over an almost film-like music background.
The eponymous anti-hero was played by Kevin Stemp who stole the show with a beautifully balanced juxtaposition of menace and parody. The two ‘decent types’ bewildered by his plans were Harry Sabbarton as Harker and Nicholas Milenkovic as Holmwood. Incarcerated in the English asylum was Steve Holding as Renfield, who added convincingly to his well-established portfolio of manics, and head of the asylum was Joe Kennedy as Dr. Seward, who ably kept up the pretence that he understood what was going on.
A programme note told us that Mike Gordon had only recently come to the play, and read much of his part from the script, which was a pity, as acting the part is key to the resolution of the play, and rather damaged the narrative drive. Although she had no words to remember, a special mention goes to Kelly McGibney as the salacious vampire who embodied everything we expected to see in a production of Dracula.
There is a second run of this play on 28th -31st October.

* The role of van Helsing will be played for the rest of the run by Dean Hempstead.

Monday, October 19, 2009


The Stondon Singers at the Priory Church Blackmore


Two Requiems were at the heart of the contrasts, presented by the Stondon Singers under Christopher Tinker.

First, the richly textured Requiem Mass for Six Voices of Tomas Luis de Victoria, written four hundred years ago in the Golden Age of Polyphony. The Singers began behind us, at the West End; the voices were blended and balanced perfectly for this evocative acoustic – the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei seemed to grow organically from a single stem. The mass was followed by two extracts from the same composer's Office of the Dead, ending with the substantial Libera Me. A superbly moving sequence – it deserved a much larger audience.

Herbert Howells' Requiem, composed in 1954, and given its amateur première by this very choir, includes only two settings from the traditional mass, amongst Psalms and a final word from Revelation: I heard a voice from heaven saying … blessed are the dead which die in the Lord, for they rest from their labours. The Singers' performance of this challenging work was notable for some fine solo work, subtle harmonies and the calm resolution of the close.

After these two sombre works, the last contrast was provided by Britten's Choral Dances from Gloriana – a peal of bells for Time, serenity for Concord, and a lively Homage to the Old Queen to finish.

image by Nick Robinson


Trinity Methodist Church


Distinctly unamused, flanked by the Union Flag and the Skull and Crossbones, Queen
Victoria averted her eyes from the Cornish capers going on beneath her.

Trinity, long renowned for their G&S, had invited all comers to sing the Pirates from scratch. A chorus of over fifty, responding to the firm encouragement of MD Felicity Wright, sounded wonderful, every syllable clearly enunciated. The hymn to Poetry was one of the most potent I've heard.

A talented team of soloists made this semi-staged performance – back projection, costumes by Tony Brett - hugely enjoyable.

Doyen of the patter roles Ken Rolf was the model of a modern Major General, Janet Moore was Ruth, Michael Wilson the unhappy Police Sergeant. Adam Sullivan, steeped, despite his tender years, in the Savoyard tradition, played the Pirate King, with Emma Byatt as his fresh-faced Lieutenant. The young Frederick was Richard Rossetti, with Beverley Lockyer his excellent Mabel.

The Paignton première in 1879 was a slapdash affair, with a few random costumes and everyone clutching scores. 130 years on, Trinity were much better organised, making the most of limited rehearsal time, and transforming the church into rocky shore and ruined chapel. Simon Harvey's piano was covered in lanterns for the burglars and tankards for the pirate sherry.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Happy Jack

Reform Theatre Company, Cramphorn, 16th October 2009

Jim Hutchon was there ...

Reform Theatre’s Happy Jack follows the Company's long tradition of revisiting John Godber’s plays – especially his earlier ones. Director Keith Hukin has taken a very light and deft touch to this 1982 work, Happy Jack, an evocation of the love and respect Godber felt for his grandparents. In Reform’s best style, the set is a bare stage with a pair of kitchen chairs and two actors, Annie Sawle as Liz, the grandmother, and Roger Butcher as Jack, her husband.
Both have superb sense of timing, especially in the scenes of sharp exchange between any well-worn in couple, and Annie Sawle, especially, creates an enigmatic figure as a wife struggling under great odds and increasing ill-health. Roger Butcher,as Jack, is a typical product of unambitious northern manhood, preferring fists to solve arguments, and seemingly oblivious of any need for anyone. His candid admission of crying himself to sleep following the death of Liz is all the more poignant for this.
The play is structured round a series of pages from a non-existent biography and, revolutionary at the time, starts with the death of the grandmother and works backwards. Playing to a packed Cramphorn audience, it is part of the Jack/Liz trilogy which Godber wrote early in his career, and is Reform’s tenth anniversary production since Keith Hukin set up the company in 1998 with a production of Godber’s April in Paris.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

Mike Maran productions, Civic,
13th October 2009

Jim Hutchon had a seat in the stalls ...

Mike Maran has dusted down one of his most successful productions – Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – for a new audience and a new, extended tour. Not only dusted down, but honed and polished it, complete with new, highly evocative music and scenes of changed emphasis.
Maran is a natural story-teller, and kept the near-capacity audience on the edge of their seats as he took them through this modern Greek tragedy, telling the age-old story of a star-crossed love between a Greek girl and an enemy soldier, in the midst of war, betrayal, massacres and mistaken perceptions. Mike Maran’s sheer style carries the full weight of an epic tale of generations, accompanied by an enchanting mandolin from Alison Stephens and piano from Anne Evans, both of whom transform many of the set pieces into virtual songs.
This is live theatre at its finest, and draws out the heart of the work in a way the multi-million dollar epic film never could. In fact, the legendary author of the book Louis de Bernieres is quoted as saying, “I’d rather see your show than that film any day.”

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Heads First Theatre Company at Brentwood Theatre


Miss Schofield has been uprooted from her little backwater, ending up in the clinical anonymity of Sister Tudor's hospital ward. We never discover what ails her, though we come to realise, as she does, that she'll never visit Australia, never again wear the little fitted coat from Richard Shops.

Glenda Abbott's masterly performance, moving and acutely observed, took us on the long decline from tiny busybodying triumphs in the works canteen, through the consulting room to the operating theatre and the bed by the window. Her expression when she heard the bad news spoke volumes, and she caught exactly the melancholy dying fall of Bennett's dialogue. Ageing visibly – helped by careful lighting – she found tragedy in the get well cards, and ended her days in a wheel chair, watching the fly that has singled her out …

Her music was Ronnie Binge's Cornet Carillon, just the thing on the wireless of a Friday night.

Mr Dodsworth is more of a Middle-of-the-Road, Easy Listening man. Like Miss Schofield, he once believed himself indispensable. Now he's retired to spend more time with his budgie, and put all thoughts of Warburton's docketing system behind him. Until Miss Prothero disturbs his slumbers with news of root and branch, new-broom changes. Glenda Abbott's Peggy had much in common with her Margaret – that's there in the writing, too – but she had a sharper, meaner streak. Brian Terry's florid Arthur fussed about his sitting room, talking to Millie [the bird] and Winnie [his late wife], proud to be branching out into pottery and Cordon Bleu. The pathos at the end was palpable, as he realised his dependence on the old firm, and the “bad, boring bitch” who's stirred up the still waters of his little backwater.

This Alan Bennett double bill – A Woman of No Importance and A Visit from Miss Prothero – was directed for Heads First by Marjorie Dunn.

A Visit from Miss Prothero was originally teamed with another one-acter about the workplace, Green Forms. And for all the delights of this tour-de-force, a little more variety might have made for a better balanced evening.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Rosalind Ventris, viola


M&G Concert at the Civic Theatre


First concert of a new M&G series, and a welcome return for the EUCO and for Tasmin Little.

The violinist was joined by EUCO viola player Rosalind Ventris for the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante. For Tasmin Little, this is the greatest of Mozart's concertos, with depth and maturity in the exquisite central movement, and a lively Commedia dell'Arte Presto. Playing her Guadagnini, an almost exact contemporary of the composer, she clearly enjoyed the rapport with the band; Rosalind, still a student and clearly a remarkable talent, contributed a dark, regal tone, especially in the Adagio.

A murmur of approval met the end of the new work, Michaela Plachka's You Gave Us Quiet: a serene sequence of modal harmonies interwoven with colourful threads of melody, disappearing into the stratosphere in the last few bars.

Completing a satisfying programme were Storm und Drang from Haydn, and an early Mendelssohn String Symphony. EUCO's performance, with Matthias Wollong directing, though it did not lack poise and assurance, and had a crisp, Vivaldi feel to the Allegro Molto, was a little short on fun, and only really excelled in the beautifully scored Andante.

Thursday, October 08, 2009


Billericay Operatic at the Brentwood Theatre


It's so long since I heard Godspell that I'd forgotten the Babel of philosophers at the start. Their confusing theories, in Tebelak's creation, are replaced by the word of the Lord, a message so simple a child could understand it.

And that is the key to the show. This is a Sesame Street Testament, all primary colours and boundless enthusiasm. Sometimes, in Wayne Carpenter's energetic production, the PlaySchool parables did begin to pall. But the show was saved by the verve and vigour of the large cast, and by Stephen Schwartz's timeless songs, well reproduced by MD Derrick Thompson.

The classic numbers include big happy clappy choruses – Day by Day, Bless the Lord – as well as solos and duets, like Prepare Ye, Turn Back O Man – both brilliantly delivered here – and the catchy All for the Best, in the safe hands of the only two credited soloists, Philip Cousins and Wayne Carpenter.

Carpenter, in casual fatigues, was a strong Baptist, as well as Judas in Act 2. Cousins, in cool white, looked liked an American TV evangelist, but was a sincere singer with a very pleasing vocal style, accurately capturing the heart and soul of the show.

Good use was made of the small stage, with Paradise “to let” as a backdrop.

Tony Harrison's Mystery Play
Chelmsford Cathedral

Jim Hutchon was in the nave...

Alison Woollard’s truly epic production of Tony Harrison’s adaptation of the medieval mystery plays marks two welcome returns. The return of drama to the Cathedral since the demise of the Festival, and the return, after a 450-year interval, of the Chelmsford Cycle of mystery plays. Staged in the round with the audience on three sides surrounding the nave, Brian Greatrex’s setting was grand and imposing, and utterly in character with the fine old building housing it.
Also in character was a large cast of convincing actors who took us through key scenes from the Old Testament up to the time of the Nativity, from a spectacular Creation, with God creating the angels, then day, night and the animals, before casting out Lucifer. Adam and Eve in Paradise - then banished for succumbing to Lucifer’s temptation - give way to the tale of Cain and Abel. A giant evocation of Noah’s Ark takes centre stage, followed by the heart-rending tale of Abraham and Isaac, before Joseph has his suspicions of his wife’s fidelity allayed by the Annunciation, and Jesus is born.
Successive scenes depict the visits of the shepherds and the kings, and the paranoia of Herod, who, having murdered all the male babies around, is himself visited by death.
The language is simple and direct, and the colour and pageant of these ‘plays within the play’ must have had a truly staggering impact on illiterate medieval peasants, whose only knowledge of the Bible was the dread fire and brimstone of the priest.
Musical Director Eric Witham’s compositions, and the band and choir he created for the occasion provided an evocative accompaniment to this, one of the highlights of Chelmsford's drama this year.


Mercury Theatre Community Production

at the old Tram Shed


“I was thinking that this was someone's workplace, their weekday world ...”
The coffee-break conversation strayed a little from the themes of the production, but still included witch trials in Coggeshall and the arrival of AIDS in Chelmsford.

We were inmates for the evening of the Depot, “auditors and actors” in the Mercury company's tenth anniversary production.

Arriving at the now disused tram shed on
Magdalen Street, we have a drink in the bar [top deck of a London bus parked in the forecourt], study the rules and regulations, and don our overalls and caps. To guard against pigeon droppings, they said. But dehumanizing, too, making us faceless figurants in the drama. Waiting in a dingy yard, washing hanging over our heads, one woman, actor or audience, hard to tell in the gloomy half-light, is convinced we're queuing for the Camps.

Many of the ushers and extras are members of Colchester's diverse community. But there are familiar Mercury faces, too. Roger Delves-Broughton, Teddy Grimes to Christine Absalom's Marmalade Emma, begs for a piece of chocolate. Ignatius Anthony preaches revolution. The red-hooded figure, central to the soap-opera part of the plot, weaves through the throng, half-heartedly pursued.

Once inside the sheds, the mood is sombre, often confused. The dream-like spaces are impressive, atmospherically lit, with sound and smoke adding to the filmic effect. There are recognizable snatches of Colchester's colourful past – Jumbo, Severalls,
Tymperleys, St Helena, Honest John the Oyster Man. Our curiosity is permanently piqued – did Connie King, Music Hall artiste, really exist, really lie undiscovered under her bed for ten years after her lonely death ? Whose are all these fine revolutionary sentiments ? Who wrote “Faith is the sense of the heart as sight is the sense of the eye.” ?

Gari Jones is both author and director of Depot. The vision was memorable. The dialogue was variously wordy and clichéd, though, and despite sound reinforcement not always clear. The staging was frequently striking – design by Sara Perks – the bed in the Great East Coast Flood, the invasions of the major spaces, the line of phones, the treatment rooms in the asylum, the climax in the workhouse refectory. Only the hospital ward seemed awkward, hard to see and hear.

As we trooped out into the yard, we felt we knew the building better – offices,
passageways, inspection pit [cleverly used for the “excavation”], tramlines in the floor. And we knew Colchester better too, and thanks to the little booklet we were given as we left, we were able to answer some of those nagging questions too.
But we didn't entirely shed our uneasiness with our inmate garb …

main photograph by Mike Kwasniak ©2009

Tuesday, October 06, 2009


live on stage at the Civic Theatre


Imagine landing the part of Richard III, and then having to do it just like Olivier.

That's how it must be for the cast of Dinnerladies, a national tour which looked in at the Civic on its way from Salford to Bournemouth.

A mash-up of several episodes of the Victoria Wood sitcom, it transferred very well to the stage, thanks to a talented cast who not only managed to embody the original characters but also delivered the lines with perfect comic timing.

Delightfully dotty dialogue, harmless innuendo and simple plot lines kept the audience in stitches: Marbella was a leitmotiv, there was a lovely riff on funeral poetry, and umpteen references to body parts and private functions. And nostalgia aplenty, from "Calling All Workers" to a myriad of trade names past.

Krupa Pattani, new to the role of Anita on this opening night, was superb – a lovely dim-witted innocent – and she got some of the best laughs of the evening. Laura Sheppard was uncannily good in the role created by Wood, and Jacqueline Clarke was excellent as her mad mother, the lady in the van. Peter Brad-Leigh made the most of his minor part as frustrated diner Bob.

Two survivors off the telly – Sue Devaney, hilarious as Jane from planning, and Andrew Dunn as Catering Manager and love interest Tony Martin.

Dinnerladies was adapted and directed by David Graham for the Comedy Theatre Company.