Monday, December 27, 2010

Danbury Players

Keeping the panto flag flying through the snow and ice, Danbury Players with their Jack and the Beanstalk, directed by James Tovey, who was also the imaginative MD.
Not a bad recipe: a fairy tale, some classic show tunes, and in the line-up a mix of experience and youthful enthusiasm.
Stuart Charlesworth donned the dame's dress this year – a genial, if fidgety, Dotty Trott, working up a good rapport with his audience. Only the one dress – times are hard in Merrydown – but a colourful one. His offspring – that wooden doll make-up must be genetic – were played by Stephanie Wright [a proper, thigh-slapping principal boy] as Idle Jack, Georgia Westley as Jill, and Jamie Haines working hard as Silly “Who touched my helmet?” Billy.
Among the more experienced thesps, a boo-able Jean Speller, Annette Michaels as Miss Muffet [yes, there was a splendid spider] and Iris Hill as a flustered fairy in a meringue frock.
A high-tech giant, Gigi, South Pacific and Life of Brian. A bemused dog in the back of the audience, along with Keith and Alan from the Ukulele Club. And as we left, the whole cast lined our exit to sing us out with We Wish You A Merry Christmas. My colleague Jim Hutchon and I would happily sing along with that …


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court

Goldman's 1966 historical soap takes liberties with history, but makes the people behind the pageantry both human and believable.
Often, they seem to have one eye on posterity – “this is 1183, we are barbarians,” Eleanor reminds us. In this “world in small” nothing is what it seems, no-one says what they mean. With their banter and their bickering, this royal pair could be Beatrice and Benedict, Elyot and Amanda, George and Martha.
They were brilliantly played in this production by CTW veterans Dave Hawkes and Christine Thomson. Hawks played Henry with a light touch which emphasised his moments of temper, the Master Bastard plotting his succession, channelling both Lear and Medea. And as his “widow”, Thomson movingly suggested the complex character of this clever woman. The moment when she was offered freedom, her meeting with Richard [an impressively intense James Christie] and the final skirmish in the dungeon were amongst many powerful scenes.
I liked Harry Sabbarton's charming, slightly giggly Phillip of France, and Ian Willingham's middle son. The pimply runt who was to become King John was Jake Reeve, and gentle Alais was given some emotional depth by Roxanne Carney.
The set was impressive – sconces, heavy brocade, an imposing door. And though there was a deal of bustling between scenes, the pace was good throughout, with sympathetic sound and lighting. The director was Mike Nower, assisted by Tom Strudwick.

production photograph by James Sabberton

Thursday, December 23, 2010



Eastern Angles at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich

Maybe the front row wasn't such a good idea. We chased the horse round the stage, wielded an inflatable hammer, as well as barking like a fox and being stung by a jellyfish. Didn't dare take out the notebook, either, so I hope I've got this about right ...
Gills Around The Green is the twelfth show that Julian Harries and Pat Whymark have penned for the cosy John Mills Theatre. Eastern Angles have given us grade 1 daftness in the past, but this has to be the weirdest and the wackiest yet.
The crazy eco-fable started bizarre – Aqua Boy vs the evil Piscator played out in his bath-tub – and got more and more surreal with every new scene.
Ready meals, plastic pollution, hunting, over-fishing and the future of the planet in general and Ipswich in particular – all these were checked along the way, in a scenario of inspired silliness.
Some ideas worked better than others – maybe this varies from audience to audience – but the costumes and the characters changed so frequently there was no chance of critical ennui. Amongst the more memorable notions: the cows – horned hats, pink udder handbags, black and white gowns – discussing the judging at the cattle show, and the Hairy Growlers [unevolved humans] with their cod-Shakespearean dialogue.
Harries himself grasped each preposterous persona with manic enthusiasm, from mad Professor Grimsby to Jasper, King of Eden. And, like his fellow actors, he gladly turned a hand to playing an impressive range of musical instruments.
He was joined on this mad journey through Thorpeness and a thousand fish jokes by Nicholas Agnew as Vernon Spratt [aka Aqua Boy], Kai Simmons as his mother and the sinister Bernard, Rose van Hooff as a Mermaid, Leda and Grimkin, and Holly Ashton as the posh Tory who's lost in the snow and foolishly falls in with Vernon.
Wonderful to see the irrepressible Mrs Giblets [canine superstar] back on the boards as a hypnotic hound.
The set looked like something left over from a 50s TV science fiction series, and the props showed all the inventive economy we've come to expect: the phone box, the fish tank, the bikes, the snow-bound car, all conjured up from next to nothing.
Helped of course, by the sell-out audience's willingness to use its fevered imagination, and the enthusiasm and energy of this talented company.

photographer - Mike Kwasniak

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Stondon Singers at the Priory Church

In this remote church a tall tree and the aroma of spiced wine speak of Christmas before the choir has sung a note.
They begin with an Advent Responsory by Palestrina, and end with that great hymn for Christmas Day, O Come All Ye Faithful. And, as tradition demands, Stille Nacht from the west end. This year they programmed Villette's Hymne à la Vierge, from 1954, and a gentle setting of Swete Was The Song, from the early 17th century.
The central work was the much-loved Fantasia on Christmas Carols of Vaughan Williams, with its tunes collected from counties all over England and its Happy New Year ending. The soloist was Matthew Butt. For me, the Singers' most successful sequence was the group of Elgar, with some impressive solos, Howells and Christopher Tinker's I Saw A Maiden. Tinker, the choir's current director, also contributed a clever arrangement of Angels From The Realms Of Glory using a brass quartet as well as the organ. Brentwood Brass, directed by Shirley Parrott, also gave us two varied sets of seasonal music, as heard on many a snowy street corner – Christmas Joy, for example, was a lovely patchwork of pieces from oratorio to Jingle Bells.
Brentwood Theatre Company

This was David Wood's earliest original play, and first saw the light forty years ago. It does seem somewhat dated now, with its ecological message and wordy dialogue.
But Ray Howes' colourful production made it an entertaining couple of hours, giving his team of eight actors plenty of chances to shine – a lovely variety of voices - and his young audience opportunities to interact with the insects and ape the Big Ones [voiced by Stephen Moyer and Anna Paquin].
Mark Middleton won us over as the sleepy glow worm, and Charley Durrant – first time at Brentwood – was a great Bumble Bee. Katie-Elizabeth Allgood – Baby Fox two years ago - was a moody, mischievous Maggot, with Jenanne Redman as her Greenfly mother. The beautiful people included Sarah Goodstone as the posh Ladybird, and Toby W Davis as the military Red Admiral.
Michael Francis was Slug, a telling contrast with Adrian Palmer's wonderful workaholic Ant.
The musical director was Ian Southgate, making the most of the varied styles. “Insecticide”, a protest song, worked well, as did Let Our Garden Grow, which could have passed for Bernstein.
The corner setting saw the tiniest audience members dwarfed by the toadstool, the plant pot and the compost heap, and the insects all wore the most gorgeous frocks [by Joy Dunn], especially stunning was Ladybird's red and black number …
King Edward VI School, Chelmsford

Camille Saint-Saens stirring Third Symphony, better known as the theme from “Babe”, was the climax of this year's Charity Concert at KEGS, raising money for the Hamelin Trust.
Not often performed by school orchestras, even more rarely with a schoolboy at the console, but this was a genuinely exciting rendition, with the mighty organ [Alex Palotai] well supported by the orchestral forces under Tim Worrall. Flute, oboe, clarinet and horn all more than merited their applause at the end.
The concert included many more favourites – Grieg's First Peer Gynt Suite, with some excellent work on woodwind, and, from the Chamber Ensemble, directed by Maggie Diffley, Holst's St Paul's Suite, with an impressive string sound and telling contributions from violinist Patrick Calver, who also led the Senior Orchestra.
We also heard, amongst a dozen other works from seven ensembles, Bizet and Boyce from the younger musicians, Grammaticus, a choir of parents directed by Clive Smith, an amazing array of trebles, plus harp, in Britten's Ceremony of Carols, and the ever-popular Wind Band, led by Sarah Woollatt, in Caravan from Sophisticated Ladies, and I Dreamed a Dream from Les Mis, with the vocals movingly sung by Eleanor Kiff.
One From The Heart at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford

A traditional family pantomime – whatever that means. No smut, no soap-stars. Custard pies and chorus boys – a dying breed these days. A mangle, good and evil right and sinister, a dame, but no principal boy – another dying breed. And plenty of well-worn wit: 1954 was quoted on stage – that was I think the year of my first trip to professional panto, and I'm not arguing.
I'd heard great things about their magic carpet, and it lived up to the hype, with Chris Carswell’s East End Aladdin, lit by the on-board light source, balancing and singing One Moment in Time as the rug pitched and swayed through the darkness.
Simon Aylin's script also deserves a gong for the most tortuous topical/local gag – rhyming Nick Clegg with Ivory Peg.
Star of the show for us was Harry Morrison's chunky Genie, giving his all in Rhythm of Life. Good work too from Nathan Guy's little boy Wishee, Natasha Jayetileke's sultry Jasmine and Michael Cantwell's Abanazer, with his “bad guy facial hair”. A gruff, gritty Dame from Richard Earl - “You can talk to me, you know, I'm not a DVD ...” - who lit up the stage as soon as he strutted on.
Lots of good music – standards, show tunes, including Good Morning Zanzibar and Mummy Mia – the orient, in this new script, stretching from “Ancient Arabia” to Egypt for an enhanced interactive ghost routine. The MD in the pit was Ben Kennedy; I enjoyed his megamix finale, encouraging the youngsters to get on down [St Anne's, Trinity Road, Scallywags and Kiddicaru were in the stalls with us], and the lifetime's worth of singalongs - from Bob the Builder to Go Compare – in one glorious medley. Not to mention a seriously silly Twelve Days of Christmas, with custard pies and rubber chickens.
Best Civic panto for a while, I'm told, and it was certainly a hit with the youngsters, who scrambled for sweets and squealed as they were squirted in the water battle. But it did lack the angle, the edge, which would have made it memorable for me ...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Mike Maran at the Cramphorn Theatre
Stark railings, a bare tree, snow. Mike Maran's unique re-telling of Dicken's seasonal classic uses all his special skills and techniques as a story-teller – repetition for one – to bring new life to the characters. Maran's naïve, slightly hesitant delivery persuades us that he is discovering the plot for the first time, before Scrooge became a by-word for miserliness and “Bah Humbug!” entered the language, and so we relive it anew with him.
In our mind's eye we see the transparent ghost, the hide-and-seek house, the barrels of oysters, and Fezziwig's warehouse filled with party guests.
A faithful dramatic adaptation – the latest in a line that began only weeks after the story appeared in print. Though after the interval, when the tree was dressed and the railings were crowned with candles, there was more music - including a song – accompanied by the silent witness to the tale, Norman Chalmers, standing in for Cratchit and one of the spectres, rattling chains, lighting candles and playing thumb piano, whistle and squeezebox.
The music was specially composed by Alison Stephens, long-time collaborator with Maran, for her mandolin. She died last October, before she could join the Christmas Carol tour; this wonderful production is dedicated to her, and is helping to raise funds for a scholarship in her memory.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Chelmsford Singers in the Cathedral


Mince pies aside, this superb concert was pleasingly free of seasonal clichés. Two of the three Handel works featured were entirely secular, and the least known, La Solitudine, had no role for the choir. Timothy Travers-Brown was the soloist, accompanied by Peter Nardone on the continuo organ and Emily Robinson on cello. His compelling alto mused on loneliness and nature in two arias separated by a brief recitative.
And it was his voice which began the evening, in the seductive word “eternal” at the start of the Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne. Behind him, the bright baroque trumpet of Paul Sharp, and the new-baptised Chelmer Baroque Ensemble, whose sensitive and spirited playing helped make this one of the most memorable Chelmsford Singers concerts of recent years. The choir was inspired, too and their positive sound in the Ode was well blended. We admired the warmth and purity of the soprano soloist in the verse about the birds, and the triumphant final stanza saw alto and trumpet gloriously re-united.
The final work was Handel's dramatic setting of Psalm 110, the Dixit Dominus. The vivid imagery and the percussive Latin verse were well served by the choir, whose vigorous approach matched the driving energy of the Ensemble, with Peter Nardone's direction carefully bringing out bright colours, the dynamics and the architecture of the choruses. Olive Simpson's beautiful soprano shone in the contemplative Tecum Principium, and the work ended with an exultant Gloria.

Writtle Singers in All Saints' Church


Celebrating Christmas and Advent this year with just one concert, but with two choirs, two readings and two organ solos from accompanist Simon Harvey.
I enjoyed his playing of the reflective Brahms, and the poem by Clive Sansom which has the Innkeeper's wife recalling the night of the Nativity.
Chelmsford Youth Choir, conducted by Tony Chew, gave us Bob Chilcott's Midwinter, a lively Baby Boy, and John Gardner's witty version of The Holly and the Ivy, supported in this last by the Writtle Singers. Resplendent in their festive waistcoats, they had a striking carol arrangement, too – Malcolm Williamson's Ding Dong Merrily.
They began with Britten's antiphonal Hymn to the Virgin, with the solo quartet in the darkness behind us. Lullay My Liking had an impressive range of solo voices, Lully Lulla an excellent soloist, and the choir, directed by Christine Gwynn, was at its intimate best in Howells' Little Door.

Monday, December 13, 2010


Tomorrow's Talent at the Cramphorn Theatre


Irish playwright Enda Walsh's one-acter puts teenage chatroom conversations under the spotlight. It starts innocently enough, feeling betrayed by Britney, brainwashed by children's books, Willy Wonka the worst.
But it soon takes a darker turn, as Jim [Sam Toland] reveals his moment of truth in a parish Passion Play. And is tempted by thoughts of suicide. This central role was played with depth and subtlety, especially in his Penguin Day soliloquy, and the final sequence when his life was saved by Laura15 and the redemptive power of Frankie Laine's Rawhide.
Jessica Moore was Laura, and Alex Houlton very believable as Jack, who was out of his depth as soon as the conversation moved away from Harry Potter; Emma Bennett's ingenuous Emily was similarly naive. The malevolent William, all innocence on the surface, was excellently done by Matthew Bonner, with Deanna Byron convincing as the other voice of depressive despair.
Director Gavin Wilkinson was asking a lot of his young actors. They sit alone in their adolescent bedrooms – facing front in cheap plastic chairs - there's no eye contact here. Online interactions, where words are power and rooms have rules, were never as vivid and personal as this, surely. “Chat”, in this context, is mainly abbreviated cliché, as stylised and shortened as a telegram or a small ad. Here we had the sentiments, but almost none of the style. I don't see that it could have worked any other way – there's not much drama in watching words scroll across a screen.
If it wasn't such a depressing story it would be quite funny,” says one of these young citizens of cyberspace. Well, yes, and perhaps I found more to smile at than the teenagers who packed the Cramphorn.
Whatever the shortcomings of the piece, it was stunningly well done by the Tomorrow's Talent sextet [with a cowboy cameo from Mark Ellis at the end] – it was good to see these performers stretched by some real contemporary drama.

in St John's, Moulsham Street


It's very cold ...” Martin Hathaway warned his young players as they tuned for this welcome visit to the County Town. This is the senior of the three jazz ensembles run by Essex Music Services, and meets monthly to rehearse. Hathaway has directed them for almost twenty years now, and [like Dudamel and the Venezuelan Sistema] he himself was once a player in their ranks.
Despite the chill, they were on top form, playing a wide variety of jazz, and spotlighting some amazing soloists.
A piece new to me was an extended work by British jazz trumpeter Henry Lowther – Bellas Knap evokes a neolithic long barrow, and featured some fine work from Rowland Seymour and Kieron Smith on flutes.
The evening was almost all “real jazz”, like the improvised Honeysuckle Rose, with Ed Parr's trombone and Nat Levine's sax adding interest. Or the genuine Ellington arrangement of Cotton Tail. The happiest moment had to be the Mingus classic Eat That Chicken, followed by Mode for Joe and more Ellington to finish, Three Cent Stomp.
Great to see Ryan Lenham back guesting on trumpet, Martin Hathaway himself on his saxophone, and, modestly adding texture midst the reeds and brass, the lone fiddle of Tristan Clapp.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

the rock ‘n’ roll panto

By Peter Rowe and Alan Ellis

The New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

Hello, Dolly!” we dutifully yelled, happy to humour the larger-than-life man in a frock.

This time it's Jack and the Beanstalk at the Wolsey in Ipswich, done in their unique rock'n'roll style, with limited forces but unlimited panache. There were beanstalks either side the theatre door, tendrils round the tea-bar, and a lovely set [Mark Walters, who also designed the costumes], with diminishing arches, folding flaps to change the scene, and most of the space for the band and the cabaret-style choreography.

No kids on stage, but muppetish livestock chorus. No sing-song, but hand-clapping, foot-stomping, toe-tapping rock classics, and a chance to bop in the aisles after the final walk-down.

A phenomenal team of ten to play all the parts, and all the instruments too. Shirley Darroch was excellent as ever as the saucy sprite, Fairy Aubergine, who told us the plot, in rhyme, at the top and the tail of the show and waved her magic leek to ensure that virtue was triumphant. Sean Kingsley was Fleshcreep, her deadly rival, whooshing up from the stage left trap, gleefully wicked, with an amazing athletic number to establish his evil credentials.

The Dame, pointing his gags with a deadly delivery and keeping up a constant commentary, was a tour-de-force from Will Kenning. He managed to bring a breezy, Pythonesque freshness to the role, whilst respecting most of the traditions. Most of his time in the spotlight came at the start; after a particularly punishing routine, he was straight over to join Fleshcreep on keyboards – he also played a mean trombone in the Giant's backing band.

That's the USP of these Wolsey shows – the actor/musicians move democratically from solo to backing, vocal to sax, at the drop of a hat, exemplified in the It Takes Two finale. Liz Singleton, in her first ever panto, [she graduated from the Guildhall this year] as Jill, with David Hunter [ex Manchester band 'Reemer'] as her Jack – duetted in front, with the other eight all on instruments behind them.
When it's done as well as this, it seems the only way to tackle panto in a recession – if it catches on there'll be pits closing all over the country...

The musical numbers were all carefully chosen, and belted out with unflagging energy [MD was Ben Goddard]. We Will Rock You for Adebayo Bolaji's glam rock Giant, and my favourite, Always Something There To Remind Me, as the Durdens bid farewell to their incontinent cow – plenty of poo jokes in this script from Alan Ellis and director Peter Rowe ! Bessie the Cow was outstanding, as was Nicola Bryan's powerhouse performance as Gemima, the Giant's tiny wife. Kenny Davies made an engaging Silly Billy Bungalow, and the posh Squire Snuffbox was a tireless Harry Myers. Jared Ashe, axe-man extraordinaire, completed a brilliant company.

The audience loved every rocking minute, the dancing beanstalk, the platform shoes, the silly wigs. Amongst the critics and the celebrities, if Dame Dolly's guest list is gospel, Javier and David all the way from Pamplona. And Michael, from Stowmarket, who foolishly chose a front row seat where he caught Kenning's eagle eye for a stooge ...

photograph: Mike Kwasniak
this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Queen's Theatre Hornchurch
Cut to the Chase company

for The Public Reviews
photograph by Nobby Clark

Fresh as the paint on old Peking, Bob Carlton's fun-packed family panto was chock-full of charm and chutzpah; even by the third performance it looked slick and secure, with all the routines well-oiled. Impressively, this is an entirely home-made, in-house production, with the actor-musicians of Cut to the Chase, children from local schools, and costumes and sets created over the year by their own wardrobe, workshop, scenic art and stage management departments.

Nicholas Pegg's brand new book [his twelfth for the Queen's] ticked all the boxes, but there was style, too, with sophisticated wordplay for those quick enough to catch it. The “sesame” substitutes just one example. Carol Sloman's music covered all the panto genres, from sloppy romance through sing-along nonsense to the Formby tribute Families Are Fun, with Wishee on his little ukulele.

No names or nonentities here, just the incredibly versatile resident company, acting, singing and playing in the pit, obviously enjoying their annual treat in pantoland. None more than classy “classical actor” Stuart Organ, relishing every syllable of the lively, literate script as Abanazer, popping up stage left in a cloud of smoke. I loved Natasha Moore as the slave of the ring, having a Barking moment before she realised where she was. Coalition cuts to thank, perhaps, that she was also a radiant Princess Jasmine. An even more demanding double whammy from Matthew Quinn, as a gleeful Vizier and a cuddly Yeti – excellent work in both. Steve Simmonds was amusing as a somewhat jaded Genie of the Lamp, and Tom Jude worked well with Quinn as the Emperor. The “infernal boy” who woos his daughter was the clean-cut Oliver Seymour-Marsh, who sang superbly I thought. Joe West worked his socks off as Wishee-Washee, encouraging the audience [who were often several steps ahead of him], throwing himself enthusiastically into all that physical stuff; his mother, hardly old enough to be widowed, surely, was company regular Simon Jessop's Twankey, with a nice line in caustic throwaways and of course some gorgeous outfits – the Willow Pattern, the washing-line titfer.

The Young Company – one of three teams of eight children – brought energy and enthusiasm to the staging, and had some of the best choreography [Donna Berlin], dressed as mini-me genies for the pyrotechnic Act One finale, and making oysters from fans, pearls from fireflies, in the Palace Garden.

And “hours of humiliation” for random punter Michael from Ilford, who made the mistake of sitting in the front row ...

Mark Walters' designs sparkled, like pages from a pop-up book; the wall of China disappearing into the distance “like the tail of a dragon”, and a lovely cave.

There were novelties – an inventive carpet ride, the messy scene featuring an animated noodle bar rather than the laundry – but this panto did not neglect tradition [Hearts and Flowers, New Lamps for Old] or the all-important routine and repetition [watering the plants]. We should not forget that these hoary old gags are cutting edge comedy for the five-year-old in the row in front … “No, I always walk like this … Suit yourself, Michael !”
Mercury Theatre Company
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
04 December 2010
for The Public Reviews

It's off the advert !” Yes, indeed – Dimples the Meerkat, second only to Churchill the dog on this year's panto circuit, transported from Siberia to Old Shalimar for the Mercury's cheerful, colourful panto, written and directed by Janice Dunn.
And judging by the audience reaction, a popular choice, upstaging many of the hard-working Mercury company.
Wishee Washee – causing chaos in the laundry – was Dale Superville, with a cheeky grin and an engaging persona. His formidable mother, Widow Twankey, was a slightly cynical Tim Treslove, who was at his best in the tribute snatches randomly dropped into the plot, and the neat Little Chu Chi Face duet with Roger Delves-Broughton's lovely bumbling Emperor.
The young lovers were Jai Vethamony – his first ever panto - as a likeable Aladdin, and Elizabeth Brown as the princess Jasmine.
It was a clever, if confusing, touch to have the shape-shifting genie of the lamp played by three actors, including the excellent Ignatius Anthony, who was also Abu, our story-teller.
Product placement puppets apart, the star of the show for us was David Tarkenter, who enjoyed his role as baddie Abanazer, and was loudly booed even in disguise.
MD Graeme Du Fresne did his best with some so-so songs and a mixed ability cast, but Charlie Morgan's choreography was a delight, with the company augmented by eight talented youngsters. The Act One finale – Don't Stop Me Now – was an especial success, with great costumes, and a flying carpet.
The whole show looked splendid, with oriental doorways, an impressive split-level cave, laundry in the foyer and glitter everywhere. And Tim had some formidable frocks, including a front-loader apron and a pvc number with designer detergent branding.
But though the pace was generally commendably slick, this Aladdin seemed uncertain how traditional it wanted to be: we had a gorgeous walk-down [after an interminable audience song] a sprinkling of topical and local references – nice to spot Jumbo among the landmarks glimpsed from the carpet ride – and a surreal hunting sequence. But loads of jokes went unnoticed by the windmill-waving audience, and many half-remembered opportunities were missed. Widdecombe the camel was under-used, there was a great red mangle, but no flat Wishee, and his “Swishy” banter was left to wither. Star Wars, and the martial arts slo-mo, left us similarly unsatisfied.
But there were plenty of happy moments: the Dragon Dance, the “Bonkers” running gag, the iPad for the birthday names, and the quick-fire intro to a perfectly timed Ghost routine.
It's behind you ! - Who ya gonna call ?”
this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews


Trinity Methodist Drama and Music Fellowship


The Advent Candle, the Advent Calendar, the Trafalgar Square tree – these Yuletide harbingers are joined by musical events all over the county.
None more enjoyable than Trinity's annual Carol Concert. This is an enthusiastic, disciplined choir who make a full, positive sound. No readings this year, but even more unusual offerings, plus of course some timeless favourites.
So we were treated to a reflective Shepherds' Farewell, a lively Jingle Bells, and, to greet us, Walton's “merry and glad” anthem What Cheer.
There was a seasonal swing to the gospel Rise Up Shepherd, and an attractive arrangement of Sleigh Ride. The novelties included a fiendish scena centred on Mrs Beeton's Pudding, a Catalan carol, a version of Deck the Hall which nodded to several other Christmas pieces, and a violent antidote to the familiar Twelve Days.
Among the solos, a wonderful Warlock from Adam Sullivan and Janet Moore's beautifully delivered Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, appropriately accompanied by Edward Montgomery's lounge piano.
The concert was conducted and compered by Felicity Wright, with Keith Byatt's “merry organ” adding weight to our audience efforts.

Friday, December 03, 2010

New Venture Players at the Brentwood Theatre

It must be ten years now since Maureen Lipman starred in her daughter's bitter-sweet piece about new life and liberation.
Fred Sampson's production caught some of the poignancy and most of the humour of the play. And it boasted several excellent character studies. Linda Beaney was Nancy, redundant and depressed, who stumbles into a “project” which involves disrobing for an art class run by ageing, cynical Philip [Gerry Finnegan]. We shared her improbable journey from inertia and pickled onions to bright optimism and a new beginning with “bloodhound” Max, nicely played by James Biddles, especially in the early “Job's Comforter” scene, and the moving, if wordy, dénouement. A lovely natural performance too from Sophie Howlett as Zelda, Philip's previous life model.
The “weird and wonderful” grotesques who make up the class were less convincing, depicted with too broad a brush, perhaps. The duologues were much more effective – Zelda and Nancy, Max and Nina, Nancy's long-suffering sister [Chris Wilkins].
Difficult to shoe-horn the National Gallery Café [terrible chairs], Philip's teaching studio and the sisters' suburban flat [a corridor, basically] onto the Brentwood stage, but there was some good lighting, especially the nude scene, and impressive sound effects [Bob Gedge].

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Jesus Christ Superstar
Springers at the Cramphorn Theatre
18th November 2010
Jim Hutchon was in the Cramphorn ...
This was Director James French’s up-beat disco version of Lloyd Webber’s biblical classic, with disco lighting, disco tempo and, most of all disco volume, all played out in front of giant screens. For the many youngsters it was clearly adrenalin-pumping and they responded enthusiastically, though more than a few of the grey power brigade leaving the theatre, looked a little shell-shocked.
But it was an innovative, imaginative staging, complete with amplified voices for the main characters (not really necessary in the Cramphorn). Opening with a stageful of boots, the cast came on in sombre mood – then the show burst into life with Simon Brett as Judas giving a high-energy performance of 'Heaven on their Minds' which set the standard.
As always with Springers, the ensemble singing was rich and impressive, though all of the principals gave full value too. Jon Newman was a young Jesus supported by a moving performance from Sharon Gardner as Mary Magdalen – especially in the complex ‘Everything’s Alright’.
Special mention has to go to an outrageously camp King Herod, played with sumptuous grace by Barry Miles complete with a set of flowered pyjamas. With a cast of more than 40, the choreography was outstanding, with smooth weaving and well drilled movements between the crowd, the Apostles and the scheming officials such as John Escott out to crucify the man.
Electric sound and thudding beats came from an electric band led by Ian Myers as MD. This was a truly stunning evening, and a brave leap in imagination for Springers.

photograph: Peter Langman

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Young Gen at the Civic Theatre

Jim Hutchon was at the Saturday matinée:

This was another near faultless production from CYGAMS, one of the most ‘professional’ amateur groups in the town, the fourth time they have revisited West Side since 1978.
Lead male, Tony, was played with an effortless voice and great presence by Sam Toland, with terrific support from his Maria, Emma Bennett –especially in their duets, such as ‘One Hand, one heart’. Bart Lambert and Henri de Lausun, as gang leaders, exuded testosterone all over each other and really gave the action muscle. It would be invidious to pick out other parts; the strength of the production is in the depth of talent they can call on, and all performed with distinction.
I felt the costumes made the actors more clean-cut grammar school than hopeless drop-outs, which jarred with the superbly run-down sets. And the choreography, by ex-Young Gen Gavin Wilkinson, though commendably high energy and with immaculate discipline, was a little stereotyped. Musical Direction was by Bryan Cass.
In a throwaway line in the programme the President Peter Smith called this group “the class of 2010”, and it is a sort of Fame Academy. These blockbuster productions are the graduation ceremony, presided over by the benevolent presence of Ray Jeffery pulling the strings. Afterwards, graduates will disperse, some to other groups, but many will never go on stage again. But they will never lose the sense of confidence and self-assurance they have gained.

Photograph by Christopher Yorke-Edwards