Tuesday, January 26, 2010


at the New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich


A wok 'n' [spring] roll panto ?

Great ! But can we afford it ?
Well, we'd need a Twankey, of course. Aladdin himself, Abenazar, Genie of the Lamp, Wishee and Washee, the Beijing broker's men … [ only one ? doubling pantomime dragon with Aladdin ] A rocking band, backing singers …

If you've been amongst the happy punters at the Wolsey, you'll know how the riddle was solved.

Recession panto par excellence, with a multi-talented company of ten scarcely ever off stage.

Like the People's Republic of China, this was a democratic show.

Francesca Loren's agile monkey, for example, also played sax, trombone and an impressive trumpet in the old Orbison number [shades on, everyone] In Dreams.

And Julian Harries' disgraceful Dame also played keyboard – the ingenious live sound effects were also done on the synth.

Shirley Darroch's Genie had some of the best vocal moments. The most effective number dramatically was Close to You, with an outrageous vocal quartet in the wings.

Just occasionally I might have wished for more panto [there were few routines, and no laundry] and less music. But director Peter Rowe, who co-wrote this piece back last century, and MD Ben Goddard kept the forces mobilized from warm-up to instrumental encore. And Foxton's set, cleverly changing from street to palace, with lanterns, dragons and an old joke all of its own, was superb.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court


Close cousin to Willy Russell's Rita, Liverpool housewife and mother Shirley feels frustration at her “unused life”.

Wistful, witty and wilful, her character was wonderfully well drawn by Debbie Miles, in a performance that was confident and charismatic. She chatted happily to the white walls, and to us, through the invisible fourth wall.

I loved the way she brought the supporting cast to life – who needs Tom Conti ? - Marjorie Majors, Head Girl turned call-girl, her feckless man Joe, her feminist friend Jane.

We chuckled with her as she aired her forthright thoughts on sex, men and growing up. Felt for her when she had a little weep at the kitchen table. And shared her mixed emotions when, right at the end, Joe failed to recognise the new Shirley:
I used to be The Mother. I used to be The Wife. But now I'm Shirley Valentine again. Would you like to join me for a drink?

Jim Hutchon was at the opening night for the Chelmsford Weekly News:

Willy Russell’s monologue about a serial, taken-for-granted Liverpudlian door-mat who kicks over the traces for a life of Greek sun, sea and sex is one of the most demanding roles in English theatre. Debbie Miles stepped up to the mark and produced a beautifully modulated performance, full of wit and style, delivered at machine gun pace. Possessed of a real sense of comic timing, she inhabited the character and spelled out the regret of a lost youth with a heady mixture of ironic humour and philosophical pathos.
In her lonely life, Shirley’s favourite confidante is her kitchen wall, though some of the sense of these intimate exchanges between the wall, which becomes the listener, and the audience, which becomes the eavesdropper, was lost in this production. Director Steve Holding opted for a straightforward delivery to the audience as his main way of getting the story told, though I would have preferred a bit more movement about the stage.
Following a lucky chance, Shirley takes the opportunity of a holiday in Greece, where she is liberated by the complete change from her hum-drum existence. I felt that more of a change in tone, an increased lightness in delivery perhaps, could have marked the change between the Liverpudlian and Greek existences, though.
The set was commendably bare: blank walls and a kitchen table to start with, and a sun lounger to finish, although I found the rather pointless projected backdrops – especially the kitchen scene - irritating and distracting. All in all, this was a production well up to CTW’s exacting standards, as attested by the happy, predominantly female, near full house that exited the theatre.

Barb Jungr at the Civic Theatre


Barb Jungr, singer-songwriter, and her accompanist/arranger/producer Simon Wallace brought this new collection to a warmly appreciative Civic last Saturday.

It's a kind of New American Songbook, taking standards from the Age of Rock & Roll and giving them a radically different reading. Best exemplified by Neil Diamond's I'm A Believer, beautifully sung in a plaintive yet powerful re-imagining. And Todd Rundgren's I Saw the Light, for which she reserved her sweetest tones.

Other men she loves included Bob Dylan [You Ain't Goin' Nowhere], Paul Simon [My Little Town] and Levi Stubbs [This Old Heart of Mine]. If, as Jungr claims, our tastes are driven by the music we danced to when we were young, then that would explain why Motown, sounding superb even without the strings and the brass, figures so large in her repertoire.

The other rationale was the inevitable decline from young love to pain and ageing. Down to the River [Bruce Springsteen], the existential Once in a Lifetime [David Byrne and Brian Eno] and Can't Get Used to Losing You [Andy Williams].

She left us with Wichita Lineman [Glenn Campbell].

Classic songs, sung with real heart and soul. Jungr is raconteuse as well as chanteuse – she could have been chatting in a Rochdale laundrette - and I relished her sighting of Micky Dolenz in the fruiterers, and the chapter of accidents that resulted in the tour CD not being available till next month.

You can download a track from it, free, here

Here's a number by another of the men she loves, Leonard Cohen


Guy Masterson at the Cramphorn Theatre


One man, many characters. Biochemist turned actor Guy Masterson began with just a taste of Under Milk Wood, the solo show he brought here last year.

Then he was off exploring the rest of the oeuvre, mining the rich vein of Dylan Thomas's poetry and prose.

Beginning with “a slap of sea and a tickle of sand”, that glorious evocation of seasides past in Holiday Memory. Masterson peopled the beach with assorted families, plus a beautifully observed glum donkey. Spitting, snarling, slinking and sliding cats in the snow, with even more aunts, uncles and scampering kids in A Child's Christmas in Wales, which ended this superb performance all too soon.

Between these two solid bookends, a collection of poems, including Masterson's favourite, Fern Hill, the tragic Lament, and Thomas's musing on his work, In My Craft or Sullen Art.

Other delights were a third story, the hilarious but touching Visit to Grandpa's, and in a moment's breather between poems, a brilliant re-creation of the poet himself reading, and the famous Richard Burton First Voice.

And it was Under Milk Wood which provided a coda, a kind of benison:
Eli Jenkins' sunset poem.

Every morning when I wake,
Dear Lord, a little prayer I make,
O please to keep Thy lovely eye
On all poor creatures born to die

And every evening at sun-down
I ask a blessing on the town,
For whether we last the night or no
I'm sure is always touch-and-go.

We are not wholly bad or good
Who live our lives under Milk Wood,
And Thou, I know, wilt be the first
To see our best side, not our worst.

O let us see another day!
Bless us all this night, I pray,
And to the sun we all will bow
And say, good-bye--but just for now!

Hear Guy Masterson's Fern Hill
and Dylan Thomas's My Craft ...

Little Waltham Drama


Who on earth thought the Modern Prometheus would make a good panto ? At least two versions have been playing this season; this one, by prolific panto peddler David Swan, is showing its age – it's a while since Blockbusters was declared too tedious even for daytime television.

A panto too far, perhaps, coinciding with sweeping cast changes at Little Waltham. Fortunately, many of the traditional elements survived the revolution: the scenic side-pieces – two Bavarian castles, one with spooky bats' eyes -, the walkabout with sweeties, Colin the drummer. There were even one or two local jokes. Those old standbys the striptease and the shadow operation were both revived, though neither was as effective as they might have been.

Margaret Surrey's production boasted a bright opener, with good character work from the Pumpernickels, Viv Abbey and Brian Corrie. Three other performers got close to the glory days: Zoe Pearson as Agnes, the knicker nicker, one of a lovely lively group of St Trinians gels, Mags Simmonds as the wonderfully named Granula [Dracula's Gran, geddit?], and John Richardson as the colourful Crackpot, whose delivery made even the lamest lines amusing. If that energy could be harnessed by his infernal machine …

Heather France was the principal boy, Prince Ludwig – presumably before he went crazy and built all those castles – and Gareth Blanks, love-child of Roy Hudd and Amy Winehouse, was the Dame who tried to keep the schoolgirls in line.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Brentwood Operatic at the Brentwood Theatre


If you're going for the Full Monty, where the heck do you stick your radio mic ?

To find out, you'd have to be part of the enthusiastic audience at the Brentwood Theatre for a very impressive production of David Yazbek's musical.

I have some reservations about the show. Like Whistle Down The Wind, the film has been uprooted and relocated to a brasher, brassier US setting. But I have none about Amy Clayton's slick staging.

Scarcely a weak link in the cast. The six steel workers who strip were led by a great double act from Justin Cartledge as likeable loser Jerry, and Martin Harris as his Homer Simpson sidekick. Real chemistry between these two players, who both seemed incredibly comfortable in their roles. Hitler turned hoofer, Bob Southgate was the foreman Harold who dare not tell his high-maintenance wife he's on the scrap heap. They were joined along the way by suicidal mother's boy Malcolm – a beautifully judged character from Ian Southgate – Ethan [a very watchable Ben Martins] and Ray Johnson's warm, cuddly Horse.

The womenfolk have less to do – lots of squealing and screaming – but there was strong support from Sarah Miles and Sarah O'Sullivan as long-suffering wives.

Terrific cameos from Julie Salter as the seen-it-all, eight-times-wed piano player, Lionel Bishop as the real deal honed-and-toned pin-up, and Max Tanner, totally convincing as the young son who keeps Jerry focused on the prize.

Robert Miles was in charge of the music. The unseen band had just the right edge, and though there's barely a tune in the tricky score, there were many witty numbers: the Losers' Duet, the Barber Shop moment in The Goods, a tender lullaby for Jerry, and a lovely Latin number for Vicki [ Louise Byrne ].

Full marks to the sextet for the Let It Go climax – only a trick of the light robbed the girls of the Full Monty !


Roger Lloyd Parry at the Cramphorn


This pair of M R James stories completes Nunkie Theatre Company's ghostly trilogy. Art Historian extraordinaire Roger Lloyd Parry has said that this will be his last such tour - “at least in this lifetime”.

We shall miss him. The format is simple – the bookish study of a garrulous academic, lit only by a few candles. A vague shape behind the armchair, only a coatstand, surely. And with the candlelight come shadows, just as deep and mysterious as those in the Provost's room in King's where these stories were first told.

Aldeburgh – thinly disguised as Seaburgh – is the setting for the title story, in which a young archaeologist foolishly braves the guardians of the ancient crowns of Anglia. The climax, with mist, Martello Tower and skeletal footprints was chilling indeed.

In “Lost Hearts”, the mood is menacing and melancholy. A country house, not unlike Henry James's Bly, two ghostly children, ancient black magic, and the various characters all cleverly suggested by the story-teller's art. I was sorry we didn't have the smell of the incense, though.

Lloyd Parry's skill lies in drawing us affably into this world of apparitions, making M R James's words sound new-minted in the warm Christmas Eve candlelight.


Lunchtime concert at Chelmsford Cathedral


A snow cancellation meant that this was the first concert of the popular Cathedral Friday season.

Lynne Creasey and her harp are a familiar sight in mid-Essex musical circles; she was joined this time by flautist Kerry Bassil.

They began with a happy Haydn Serenade, then via Bach and Mozart to the salon, the natural home of this pleasing pairing.

The lighter pieces included Gossek's cheeky Gavotte, variations on Greensleeves, the perennial Wild Rose, and, my favourite of the set, the charming Pathetico from Berthemieu's Cinq Nuances.

Lynne also squeezed in two solos, a Prelude by the French harpist Marcel Tournier, and a lush, lazily flowing Moon River.

More chamber music later in the season, with the Coggeshall Baroque Trio – next week, the superb Brentwood School Big Band, followed in February by Forest School, and in March by St Cedd's.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


English National Ballet at the Coliseum


A succession of wintry landscapes, crowds of Eastern Europeans looking by turns stoical and ecstatic, few seats to be had. And that's just the train journey up to town …

This was the 50th performance of Michael Corder's sumptuous take on the Andersen fairytale, with Prokofiev's music brilliantly adapted to fit by Julian Philips.

Considering that this is essentially a touring show, it looked wonderful, at least in the realms of winter. Snow, shards of ice, mirrors, the Snow Queen's throne somewhere between Narnia and Titania's bower. A large company provided some pleasing set pieces, especially in the third act.

Some impressive solo work, too, notably from the diminutive Crystal Costa, who made much of the peasant girl Gerda, who rescues Kay [Yat-Sen Chang] from the Queen's evil clutches; a highlight of this revival was her dream-ballet in Act Two, in which she is swept away in the arms of two Nijinskys, white and red Rose Spectres. The title role was danced by Sarah McIlroy, a glamorous, seductive villain. Dmitri Gruzdyev, the dance double for Nureyev in the BBC's recent Margot, was a fluent, athletic Gipsy Boy.

For all its Russian feel, there was little truly spectacular choreography, and, for a family show, rather too much graceful but gratuitous dancing. Nonetheless, a fitting old-fashioned treat for this Siberian winter, when even the Coliseum audience had snow on their boots …

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Stephen Daldry's iconic production at Wyndham's Theatre


It's seventeen years since Daldry's breathtaking rethink changed the way we saw Priestley's drawing-room Morality Play for ever. Its impact is still just as strong, as it nears the end of yet another spell in the West End.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it is a filmic concept, opening out the middle-class interior to a hostile wasteland, using a crowd of supernumeraries, and a stirring score [by Stephen Warbeck].

Principals as well as extras are meticulously directed by Daldry, who came back to tweak this transfer. But the actors manage to find their own individuality, nonetheless. Nicholas Woodeson is a fast-talking Inspector, ratcheting up the tension as he smiles and snarls at his victims, coaxing and cajoling them into confessing their culpability.

Equally impressive were Sandra Duncan's grande dame Sybil – her downfall all the more telling for her haughty froideur – and Marianne Oldham as her daughter, torn between hedonism and compassion. Robin Whiting as the heavy-
drinking son and heir, gave a performance that was beautifully judged emotionally, and physically absolutely convincing.

And I must mention Elizabeth Ross's wonderful Edna, a bridge between the two worlds, emphasising the universality of the piece. She must bring the age range on stage up to something approaching eighty years – children roam the bomb site, gaze in awe at the Birling house on stilts, and act as Curtain Raiser and Hat Stand for a benign Inspector Goole.

Friday, January 08, 2010

[reviewed for The Public Reviews]

Ruby in the Dust

Leicester Square Theatre


Deep in the basement – beneath Notre Dame de France, appropriately - a dusty crypt has been created. Feathers and leafmould litter the floor. “A pigsty”, exclaims Salome as she enters the darkened space.

There's a melancholy accordeon playing in a corner. On the stairs, a fortune-teller is a clue that the circus is in town, a razzmatazz rival to the production of Everyman that Dante Du Pre has brought to this remote country town.

Reza de Wet's play was originally written in Afrikaans, and set in her native South Africa. Linnie Reedman's spare but powerful production, for the enterprising Ruby in the Dust theatre company, has removed some of the African references, though one is still reminded that this is how Afrikaans theatre began, on the dusty road with fit-up tours.

The fictional company, “servants of a sacred art”, is run by Dante and his wife Salome, with stage-struck youngsters whom his charisma has drawn in along the way. Innocence and experience.

And that contrast was evident in the acting company, too. Rowan Schlosberg was a dark, brooding Abel, the Hamlet and the Everyman, though nothing hinted that he would be even adequate in those roles. His Lenie, destined to end like Ophelia in a willow brook, was Kate Colebrook, in a tender, moving performance, especially when she obsessively imagines leaving town by the morning train. Actor musician Christopher Dingli was a significant presence as the idealist Antoine. The two veteran thesps – Sir and Her Ladyship if you like – were in the safe hands of Tim Woodward and Susannah York. They both had superb monologues in Act Two, and their stormy relationship was one of the strengths of the piece. York's lament for her lost frocks, her faith in her faded photograph, were wonderful moments.

De Wet writes another great female role for Anna, the enigmatic Lady Bountiful who comes out of the darkness, seeking to supplant Lenie in the company and in Abel's affections. Lynne Miller caught the mood exactly, and her calm but sinister presence cast a chill over the crypt.

The play, heavy with significance and symbolism, does not always translate well, and the performances sometimes lacked polish. But this revival, which began before Christmas in a less intimate crypt, was an absorbing exploration of the mystery of the drama and the heartless world of the theatre.

this review first appeared on The Public Reviews

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


Eastern Angles at the Sir John Mills, Ipswich


A thousand ukuleles at the Proms, Jane Austen in Ipswich. Audience participation Odes to Joy are obviously in vogue.

Mansfield Park and Ride – the title explained and exploited in the script – is the 22nd Eastern Angles Christmas show, but the first from the new creative pairing of Brendan Murray [words] and Richard Taylor [music].

Maybe not as gleefully manic as some previous shows, but bigger on local jokes, and even more self-referential. I liked the way Sophie Steer's earnest Lizzie stepped out of character to complain about the poor production values, and I loved the increasingly desperate ruses to get one of the versatile cast to the piano stool for the next song. The show was directed by Eastern Angles' Artistic Director Ivan Cutting, who knows how to keep this sort of nonsense on the boil, and the ingenious wordplay, the groan-worthy gags and the silly singalong meant that the audience needed to be almost as well-trained as the hardworking actor/musicians.

Gatacre Road stalwart Greg Wagland had great fun as the Revd Weakly, Lady Kitty and the dastardly Mr Daly. Vera Chok was Lizzie, Fanny and a believable beggar, while William Belchambers [there's a moniker Jane Austen would have been proud of] pulled off the unlikely double of Lottie, the butchest of the Bonnet girls, and the dishy, dripping wet Captain Knightly.

Sally-Ann Burnett had some of the funniest moments as Mrs Bonnet and Herr Beethoven, whose music was raided for some clever songs.

And how lovely to applaud the drudge Betsy, played by Latchingdon leading light Penny Lamport, now with Newcastle's InterACT ensemble.

2010 will be a big year for Eastern Angles, putting funding crises behind them and expanding their Peterborough operation, as well as a new regional tour and one of their once-a-decade site-specific pieces, Bentwater Roads.