Sunday, May 30, 2010


Ingatestone and Fryerning Dramatic Club


Miss Shepherd took refuge in Alan Bennett's driveway in 1974, just temporarily - “three months at the outside”. She died there in 1989, still in the van, still on his driveway.
Bennett chronicled her sojourn in Camden Town twice, first in a memoir, then as a play, and it was this bittersweet comedy that Ingatestone and Fryerning chose for their Spring production.
Jan Ford was a superb vagrant. Swaggering, scratching, flapping her arms, hunched in her wheelchair, sporting her trademark cap, she was totally convincing physically, and with impressive vocal variety and immaculate comic timing skilfully moved the mood of the piece from farce to tragedy in a memorable portrait of this exasperating, pathetic “soul in torment”, tragically excluded from the mansion of her music.
She was well supported by two Bennetts – Alan Thorley mostly deskbound as the Writer, and Mel Hastings as the hands-on Householder.
Among the other roles, I enjoyed Angel Beckett's non-judgemental Social Worker, and Brian Terry as the brother who had Miss Shepherd put away in Banstead.
I found the lighting strangely flat, and not all the props were as appropriate as the phone and the Olivetti, but Graham Poulteney's production had many telling touches, for example emphasising the comparisons between Mam [Jenny Godwin] and the other deluded Lady, in the Van.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

reviewed for The Public Reviews

Cut to the Chase at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch


You're acting like those dumb kids in a horror flick ...”
One of a plethora of self-referential lines in this hugely enjoyable spoof at the Queen's. It's penned by Lea, Neil and John, the legendary Heather Brothers who have a string of successful musicals to their name, notably the libidinous Lust and the Sixties show A Slice of Saturday Night.
Designer Mark Walters has gone to town on the set – the theatre is transformed with peeling wallpaper, cobwebs and rickety balconies. A storm rumbles in the background, breaking effectively with fine lightning flashes.
The multi-layered plot has a High School drama class putting on a musical about an “anonymous summer camp”, bossed around by “ineffectual adult” Mr Reynolds [Julian Littman, the MD for this show]. Eventually even the blondest among them realises that life is mirroring art, and the derelict playhouse on an island is just as spooky, just as isolated, as Camp Horror in the story. And, inevitably, the youngsters will be picked off one by one by the blood-crazed serial killer in their midst. Who is the maniac ? What are his motives ? Who gets to sing a solo before they die ?
To reveal more would spoil the fun, but the final number is entitled Twist, and there is a dénouement worthy of Christie [Agatha, not the serial killer] as well as a comedy coda to send us out with a smile on our ashen faces. Because despite the fooling, the poking fun and the parody there were real spine-chilling moments, too, mostly involving the psychic Leanne [Pam Jolley].
Bob Carlton's punchy production makes a virtue of the lack of props and costume - I particularly liked the face-at-the-window scene, the bus and the car – and we are invited, with the help of the amusing and informative programme, to tick off the clichés of the teen scream genre. The virus, the mutants, the 'gators … and of course the kids. Rich bitch, bad boy, nerd, wheelchair user, frustrated actor … The ten players, including three newcomers to the company, were all adept at pitching the performances precisely between pastiche and dramatic realism. Alex Marshall was Eddie, the techie who is the bane of the Mr Reynolds' life, and Francesca Loren gave a superb performance as Chrissie, who has to sing “I Die A Little” to save her rebel boyfriend [Oliver Seymour-Marsh] from the mysterious Stutter Cutter.
The fourteen musical numbers catch the style nicely. Some of them could have been trimmed of a chorus or two, but the most successful were easy on the ear as well as commenting wryly on the action – Fear is an aphrodisiac, Abstinence will ensure you survive the bloodbath. The Woodboro High School Song was a lovely pastiche, and my favourite was the a cappella Chilling – very witty, very clever.
The Queen's resident company – Cut to the Chase – are noted for their versatility, and all the music was played by the actors – saxes, trumpet, guitars, keyboards, drums, a cello and Kate Robson-Stuart's sexy violin.
Camp Horror is a potent brew, blending Glee, Grease and High School Musical with Scream and Scary Movie. It deserves to be another Heather Brothers hit for the Queen's, a smashing climax to their spring season string of successes.

image: Hornchurch 2010
soundtrack: Lincoln 2006

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Saturday, May 22, 2010


Writtle Cards


An entertaining couple of Cowards from Writtle Cards.
The more substantial piece – Still Life – was directed by Laura Bennett. Better known in its celluloid version – Brief Encounter – it has a clever dramatic structure. Nick Caton and Michele Moody caught the style of their two characters very well, helped by careful costuming. Their hesitant relationship was nicely contrasted with the free-and-easy station staff: Daniel Curley's saucy Stanley, Boot Banes's fruity ticket inspector and Sharon Goodwin's matronly Myrtle. I liked the set, with its girders and its vintage advertisements, and the way the passage of time was suggested by fresh flowers on the tables of the Station Buffet.

Less secure in its social setting perhaps, but constantly entertaining nonetheless, was Hazel Reilly's Fumed Oak. It starred Boot Banes, relishing the role that Coward wrote for himself: Henry Gow, the Clapham worm that turns and walks out on the three generations of women who have made his life a misery – Doris, his missus [Elaine Reynolds], his pigtailed daughter [Claire Williams] and his refined mother-in-law [Jean Speller].

Friday, May 21, 2010


in Chelmsford Cathedral


Taking time out from the examination room, sixth form students from New Hall School brought us an impressive variety of music in Chelmsford Cathedral.
The pinnacle was Beethoven's Pathétique, played by Crystle Ying; an impassioned, occasionally idiosyncratic performance of great character.
Two sopranos – Spanish student Serena Saenz Molinero had a warm, mature tone, with Pergolesi contrasted with Porgy and Bess – a rich, slow Summertime. And Kayleigh McEvoy impressive in Gluck and Fauré, a tender interpretation of Chanson d'Amour.
The concert began with a jaunty oboe piece by Dandrieu, played by Coralie Smart, who also gave us a Schumann Romance. She was accompanied, as were the singers, by Duncan Archard at the piano.
A real treat was Lara-Jayne Ellis's harp, with a showy French piece and a charming arrangement of the ever-popular folk song Water is Wide.

Friday lunchtime concerts in the Cathedral continue throughout June, then resume after the summer break on September 3.


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court


Worlds End or World's End ?
As Lynne Truss famously observed, an apostrophe can be a matter of life and death. The playwright seems to favour his title unadorned, but Ben, his central character, living in Primrose Hill, must be familiar with the well-known World's End on Camden High Street. Maybe the ambiguity is all.
Sara Nower's gripping production starts with This Year's Love on the CD player, sodium street lamps spilling down into Ben's basement flat, and a slide-show of snaps from happier days on the wall. Followed by an awkward, eloquent silence, the sighs and body language of a relationship turned sour.
Joe Kennedy was superb as the not-very-likeable Ben. He's a waster, a blocked writer, a bit of a shit. He knew that his ex [an equally strong Lois Jeary] would have to come back to collect her stuff. He's been anticipating the moment, and now he won't leave.
In the age of the iPod playlist, will this generation be the last to endure the ritual of dividing the music collection ? Kat is packing, her aggressive parcel tape punctuated by the occasional moment of tenderness, and shaky shared memories of souvlaki.
Philippa Spurr was the enigmatic “friend” who muddies the water, and Ian Willingham the suit who is everything Ben is not, and Kat's new man.
The play is a blend of naturalism and symbolism. I wasn't sure about Ben's writerly flights – the lone magpie on the leafless tree, the constant reminders of death in the opening pages. But one of the reasons this production was so powerful is that we really care about Kat, and with her we hope that Ben can really change. A really telling image was when he fell crumpled against the bare wall, stripped of her books and his memories.
Jim Hutchon saw the piece for the Chelmsford Weekly News.:

Sara Nower chose Paul Sellar's short, stark play for her directing début, and with a sense of commitment and great attention to detail turned what could have been a fairly depressing experience – a voyeur on a disintegrating relationship - into an absorbing production which drew the audience in.
This was all helped by a superb cast and enormous slabs of memorable modern dialogue which brought the characters to life. Lois Jeary was Kat, the jilter, who, while stripping the flat, expertly walked a tightrope between contempt and concern for Ben, her ex, who had failed to live up to his earlier promise. Joe Kennedy created a seriously real character as the ex, awkward, manipulative, pathetic and loving by turns, but devastated by his world ending. The new love of Kat’s life – Josh - was played with a great sense of dignity by Ian Willingham in the face of great provocation, and Kat’s loyal and feisty friend and support was Philippa Spur.
Though some laughter lines were lost, there were nice touches which gave the play flavour, like the opening sequence of snapshots of happier times, the gradual emptying of the flat to mirror the emptying hope as the play progressed and the lighter that worked in the end.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Mikado
Trinity Music & Drama
Civic Theatre
12th May 2010
Jim Hutchon was at the Civic ...
Director Eric Smart’s lavish production of the Mikado relied mostly on the strengths of the original Savoy production for its effects. And what superb effects they were. Trinity, well known for its G&S productions, pulled out all the stops to create the stunningly-dressed operetta which tells the story of a star-crossed love affair between a ‘wandering minstrel’ and the young ward of a tailor.
Adam Sullivan – Nanki-Poo - was the minstrel, a trained singer with a beautifully edged, bright tenor which rattled off the back of the auditorium. His love – Felicity Wright - used her rich, rounded tones as the perfect complement to her ‘lover’. Nicholas Clough was Lord High Everything Else, Pooh-Bah, who brought the paradoxes so beloved of Sullivan into focus with a beautifully modulated baritone and a droll delivery. Acting plaudits must go to Tony Brett, as Ko-Ko, who, with a natural comic sense and pin-sharp timing, clowned his way and really got the near-capacity audience on his side throughout the action.
As far as I could see, microphones were not used, and the orchestra under musical director Gerald Hines kept up a highly-professional accompaniment, staying in perfect balance with the voices. All in all, a real pleasure.

Monday, May 10, 2010

European Arts Company at the Civic Theatre

Frankenstein and Dracula live on in the popular imagination as spoofs, parodies and pantomimes. Character names and key moments survive, the rest changes at the whim of producer and performer.
Jonathan Kemp's playful retelling of Stevenson's story begins with the earliest stage version, by Richard Mansfield. It presents this as the crudest melodrama, and borrows that style for its own travesty, imagining Mansfield confronted by a “real” Jekyll.
The action uses the saloon bar of the Ten Bells, doubtless more at home in more intimate venues, and presses the furniture and properties into service to tell the story – the bottles behind the bar becoming the phials in Jekyll's lab, for instance.
A good notion, but we sometimes wished for a little more magic and a little less frantic manhandling. And was it necessary to adlib introductions each time ?
Entertaining performances from four hardworking actors: Arthur James as a snooty Poole, Richard Latham as the Actor Laddie, Jennifer Bryden as most of the women [not true, incidentally, that there are no women in the original - programme note], and William Hartley very watchable as the nerdy Jekyll and his swaggering alter ego, emerging like the Genie of the Lamp from the blue light and the smoke.
The reworked plot – potency potion, Whitechapel Murders, “Your tom cat is the Beast of Bloomsbury!” - tries anything for a laugh, though there is some authentic sounding dialogue, and, surprisingly, the darker, more philosophical drama re-surfaces effectively in Act Two.
A large part of the audience were students, making notes. I hope they were Theatre Studies – rich pickings in this hit and miss production – rather than English Literature, since what they saw had all the literary integrity of a Two Ronnies sketch …

Thursday, May 06, 2010

  reviewed for The Public Reviews
Mercury Theatre Colchester


“Warning – contains barrack room humour.”
A few off-colour jokes and a sprinkling of expletives is nothing to write home about in today's theatre, but rarely do you come across a show so completely suited to its format, so wonderfully hilarious.
The stage is heaped with sandbags; in the centre spot, a screen with a pair of boots and a microphone. Behind the screen, we discover, is Gunner Milligan blowing bubbles, and a trumpet, in a tin bath. And behind that, a huge “Dreaming of Colchester ” backdrop [re-worked for each tour date, no doubt], which collapses over the drummer and his kit at the end of each act. Applause too enthusiastic, apparently, according to the MC …
Matthew Devereaux's chummy officer catches just the right tone, and in this multi-talented cast also plays a mean reed, as well as giving us an enthusiastic Fuhrer impression.
Tim Carroll's production, co-written with Ben Power, rightly includes a generous helping of the music that Milligan's Boys Of Battery D played in church halls and NAAFIs whenever they could.
Spike himself played trumpet, of course, and he is brought back to anarchic life here by Sholto Morgan: insolent, acerbic, the inspiration behind all the skits and sketches that intersperse the music and the military action. And, at the end, we watch him succumbing to the depression that was to dog his life. Henderson and Brown's “The Thrill Is Gone” the theme song here.
Tony Goldsmith, the officer whose friendship sustained Spike through most of the war, was sensitively played by William Findlay. His death in action in 1943 was one of the sombre moments which gave the production its strength – watching London burn in the Blitz another - a poignant juxtaposition with the madcap foolery which would later go on to inspire the Goons.
Another such moment was the a cappella singing of O God Our Help. The show was packed with inventive business, honed and developed over long tours of duty. The troop ship for Africa, for instance, included pathos, vomiting, mime, all leading seamlessly to the Sheik of Araby with all the missing instruments supplied vocally.
And the mug of tea permanently attached to Harry Edgington [Dominic Gerrard, piano] was one of several inspired running gags that kept us chuckling. David Morley Hale [Gunner Kidgell] was the most cynical, seen-it-all soldier of the quintet – bass and guitar - I loved his contribution to the operatic variations on Tommy Trinder. This based on a poem written by the real “Duke” Edginton.
Almost the whole show was based word-for-word on Spike's account of the war – recollections of Amalfi, musings on tomato sauce and tarts, mind-reading, music and manic humour.
I'm sure Gunner Milligan would have been as delighted as the Mercury audience.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Monday, May 03, 2010

Theatre at Baddow

The impressive set [David Saddington] is unmistakably a villa on the Costa del Crime. The high walls, the wrought-iron bars on the window cleverly hint at the old lag within: Vic Parks, bank robber turned media star.
Jill Rillington [Joanna Poole] has brought have-a-go hero Douglas Beechey to meet the man who shot his girlfriend seventeen years ago. She needs a successful series [“Their paths crossed”] to save her career – and this is the first programme - a confrontation seething with envy, revenge, “hopefully hatred”.
Pauline Saddington's hugely enjoyable production boasted two memorable performances: Mike Nower as the villain-turned-hero, Essex Man with neanderthal attitudes, tan and shades, full of smiling menace, every bit as scary as a Pinter hard man. And contrasting beautifully with him – there's no real conflict here – is the mild-mannered bank clerk [“laminated chipboard”] of Kenton Church. Perfect comedy timing, as he reveals why the crew took 35 takes to film him back home in Purley, and a superb extended riff on celibacy in one of the plays many reflective moments.
Strong support from the rest of the cast, too, especially Vicky Wright as the hapless nanny from Huddersfield, who is instrumental in the improbable dénouement [ the ending was a disappointment - I was expecting some sort of twist … ] Matthew Jones was Vic's long-suffering manager, and John Mabey played the Spanish gardener, condemned like Sisyphus to carry the same stones time and time again. Vic's second wife [whatever did she see in him?] was Helen Quigley, who had her best moment when she shared her understandable frustrations with young Sharon.
In this untypical Ayckbourn [not set in England, no staging gimmick, not a mirror held up to the middle class], it's the media who are the real villains of the piece, and in the twenty or more years since it was written we've seen the cult of celebrity, and the humiliation of the meek, mushroom beyond the wildest dreams of the cynical Vic or the ruthless Rillington.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Christ Church, Chelmsford

Controversially, the BBC chose Dennis Potter to write a Play for Today about the last days of Jesus, a Passion Play for the end of the Sixties.
Now Christ Church London Road is celebrating 40 years, and presenting a stage version of the same piece.
The two dozen short scenes betray its small-screen origins; choral interludes have been added, with the choir also the crowd.
This is a down-to-earth Messiah, taking a carpenter's interest in the cross, often angry and unsure, questioning his destiny in the wilderness at the start, and on Golgotha at the end. A towering central performance from Steve Moriaty, with a startlingly direct Sermon on the Mount, “Love Your Enemies” his war cry.
There were many other interesting interpretations: Justin Oakley's Pilate was a reasonable man, clearly accustomed to command, and Phyllis Chaney made a real character out of the few lines given to his wife. Caiphas [Peter Wilkinson] was a strong presence, though he was almost upstaged by his beard; his conservative religion nicely contrasted with the fresh enthusiasm of the young Fishers of Men [Alex Houlton and Michael Archer].
Understandably, Vernon Finding's production treated the story with more reverence than Potter intended, and the pace was slow at times, not helped by the constant changes of scene.
Nonetheless, this was a worthy revival of a classic drama, and an enlightened choice by Christ Church.