Friday, December 30, 2011

round-up of 2011

round-up of 2011

An excellent year, with delights and discoveries far outweighing the rough and the routine.

Good to venture further, too, discovering new venues and enthusiastic companies.

My thoughts still sometimes appear in The Chelmsford Weekly News, and on The Public Reviews and occasionally on Remote Goat. I'm particularly pleased to have been invited once or twice purely on my own account.

Inevitably, many of the memorable evenings were from groups established at the top of their profession: The Sixteen at Walsingham, Journey's End on tour, Frankenstein, One Man Two Guvnors and Grief at the National, the Rattigans at Chichester.
The Lord Chamberlain's Men, never disappointing, brought a great Dream to Hylands Park, and the other, darker Dream of this year was from ENO at the Coliseum. Two children's book with a WWII setting impressed on tour – Friend or Foe and the more familiar Goodnight Mr Tom. Wittenberg, a reading at Shakespeare's Globe, who've had a great season, was an unexpected treat, and the show I went back to see again [always a sign of excellence] was Pick Yourself Up at the Queen's Hornchurch – a new musical which proved a ready-made classic, and would not look out of place in Regent's Park or the West End.

Of the Christmas shows, the palm would have to go to this year's rock'n'roll Robin Hood at the Wolsey, though Chelmsford's Sleeping Beauty ran it a close second for sheer enjoyment and enthusiasm.

On the amateur stage, we saw a very good Company at Brentwood, an outstanding Into The Woods at Witham, and, in a varied season at the Old Court, an impressive Closer and a well-played Lion in Winter.

Do feel free to comment with your favourites from 2011 – we look forward to being delighted all over again in 2012.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


as told by Jacob Marley [deceased]
in the Cramphorn Theatre

Painfully emerging from the Chasms of the Netherworld after 175 years, Jacob Marley, Scrooge's late partner. Like Hamlet's father, he is condemned to be a ghostly bit-part in literature.
But now, in James Hyland's chilling theatrical tour-de-force, he is centre stage, putting his own spin on the familiar Christmas tale.
Dusty and decaying, laden with chains and money-bags, with just a wooden chair for company, he brings to life Charles Dickens' colourful characters. With a turn and a shrug, he becomes Fred the nephew, Bob the Clerk, Belle the beloved, the bereaved Cratchits, the portly Gentleman and even Tiny Tim. And of course Scrooge his penny-pinching profile, his gleeful enlightenment, and, for a macabre moment, his deathbed corpse.
The author's intentions were well served, one of two interpolations aside [Fat Harry the poulterer?], and it was appropriate that this version concentrated on spectres and redemption. The three apparitions were wonderfully done the dwarfish past, the towering present, the future with his clawed hand.
No second chance for Marley, alas, and he staggers off to the "incessant torture of remorse". But not before he's rejoiced in Scrooge's new-found generosity of spirit, and wished us all a Merry Christmas.
photo: Hayden Phoenix

A Christmas Carol - As told by Jacob Marley (deceased) from James Hyland on Vimeo.


at the Priory Church of St Lawrence Blackmore

Today the Christ is born Hodie Christus Natus Est bracketed this Yuletide concert, in two very different settings: the late Renaissance richness of Sweelinck and the devoutly lyrical Poulenc.

Between these two, we heard Britten and Part [the end of his Magnificat finely judged], two lively pieces by Imogen Holst, and a seasonal selection from Handel's Messiah: "For Unto Us" particularly successful in this chamber version.

The centrepiece was the glorious polyphony of Thomas Tallis Videte Miraculum. From the 20th century two new favourites: Rutter's What Sweeter Music, and Kenneth Leighton's gentle lullaby, with a beautiful soprano solo.

Michael Frith was the organist, Christopher Tinker the conductor, and we also heard a reading of Clive Sansom's moving poem The Innkeeper's Wife: "The world is a sad place, But wine and music blunt the truth of it."

Before the mulled wine and mince pies, their traditional Silent Night, sung at the back of the Priory Church, to send us out inspired into the dark lanes of Jericho.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court

Daphne du Maurier's romantic melodrama was already a period piece when it came out in the 1950s.

CTW's Christine Davidson achieved a good sense of that stifled, strait-laced Victorian sensuality in her painstaking production of Diana Morgan's stage adaptation.

An aroma of mulled wine filled the festive foyer, where the decorations included a teapot for the all-important bitter tisane. We heard evocative incidental music specially composed by Andrea Blackwood-Barnes.

Certain of the cast caught the style more successfully than others. I found the "casual generation" Sophia Charalambous [Louise] and Harry Sabbarton [Phillip] a little too contemporary, though both had impressive stage presence, and Phillip's drowning in love and descent into madness were movingly done.

Kevin Stemp was a very convincing Italian in a crucial supporting role, Richard Baylis made the most of the old retainer Seecombe, with Nick Gulvin as the level-headed lawyer.

Catherine Bailey made Rachel, Phillip's "torment", a striking, smouldering femme fatale, immediately at ease as the new chatelaine of Barton, reciting a litany of names, toying with the "infatuated, besotted" boy. Their scenes together were some of the strongest; the confrontation of Louise and Rachel, and Louise's early dialogue with Phillip were also grippingly dramatic.

The set, solid and enclosed, with a bevy of servants to deck the hall, was a stylish, telling presence in this intense psychological drama.


Chelmsford Singers in Chelmsford Cathedral

Shaffer's envious Salieri was amazed - "It seemed to me I was hearing the voice of God," he says in "Amadeus".
I was reminded of those words as Katherine Fuge's pure soprano floated over the woodwind in the sublime Et Incarnatus Est from Mozart's Great C minor Mass. From her first appearance in the Christe, it was clear that hers was a voice at one with the composer's genius, a lambent, pure tone soaring to the ceiling a memorable moment.

This was a magnificent performance, from the dramatic Kyrie to the complex counterpoint of the Benedictus. The other soprano, just as impressive as Katherine, was Julie Cooper, outstanding in the ornate Laudamus Te. The Singers, under the inspirational direction of Peter Nardone, were on exceptionally good form throughout, producing a powerful, expressive sound, in the majestic ending of the Gloria, for example.
The accompaniment was provided by the Suffolk-based Prometheus Orchestra, led by Pam Munks. Excellent, authentic-sounding tone, with splendid brass for the Sanctus. They were given a solo spot, too, an energetic Adagio and Fugue. And the evening began with Julie Cooper bringing a refreshing warm, open tone to Mozart's familiar Exsultate, Jubilate.
One of the best concerts I've heard this year, and a much appreciated Christmas gift from the Chelmsford Singers.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Open Door Opera at the King's Head Theatre Islington

This much-loved fairytale opera had very domestic origins. In recent years various regietheater interpretations have lost sight of these roots, so it is good to see the folky, child-centred focus restored in this lovely pocket version.

Valentino Monticello's Act One backcloth makes the point. Here, in picture book colours, are books on shelves, with Pinocchio and the Angels as book-ends, a roaring fire and above it a painting of the gingerbread house in the woods.

This is an intimate opera house, so we're close enough to count the stitches in Gretel's knitting. The major strength of this production is the casting and direction of the title roles. Laura Kelly's Hansel is a sulky boy, a reluctant dancer at first; Danae Eleni's domestic Gretel chides and cajoles him. The dance sequence, so often twee and tedious, is full of fun and character here. They both sing their roles beautifully, their two voices, carefully tempered to the tiny venue, blend well. And they act every second of the score – gobbling strawberries, scoffing marshmallows, licking up the cream, sharing a broomstick to fly off home at the end.

I enjoyed Ian Massa-Harris's Little Britain witch, too, creepily menacing in his cardie and specs, greedily eyeing the oven-ready lost children.

While Janet A N Fischer made a believable mother, scolding one moment, desperately praying the next, Ian Wilson-Pope seemed uncomfortable, dramatically and vocally, in the role of the drunken broom-seller.

The immortals made the most of their brief moments – Rosalind Coad's Sandman, with her gold dust and nightcap, and especially Alexandra Stevenson's hungover party-girl Dew Fairy, clutching her golden shoes – a lovely conceit.

Not every aspect of Lewis Reynolds' production was as inspired as this – like his lively new libretto, it was patchy. The food parcels were particularly unconvincing, and it would have been nice to have a scarier oven for the gingerbread – a red glow, a little smoke, a panto flash ...

And of course we miss the orchestration [and the chorus] too, though Kelvin Lim was superb at the King's Head piano.

There were a few children in the audience on Press Night – I'd like to think more Islington families would take advantage of this very accessible, over-by-bedtime show. There was plenty of magic, and not a few thrills, both musical and dramatic, to keep the youngsters amused and the grown-ups entertained.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Thursday, December 15, 2011



at the Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue


Fans of the '55 film – and they are legion – have nothing to fear.
This is not a spoof – think 39 Steps – nor is it a "remake", like the Coens ill-judged Hollywood version.

What we get is an affectionate, respectful treatment of the screenplay, with a little bit of edge and a few nuggets of comedy gold for the 21st Century. Even the music [Ben and Max Ringham] pays homage to the original.

Three elements in particular make Sean Foley's production, down here at the Gielgud after a successful run in Liverpool, one of the best things in town. The script, by Graham [Black Books] Linehan keeps much of the dialogue, but sifts and adds, tightening the pace and bringing almost all of the action indoors.
The set – Michael Taylor - is a marvellous crooked house, on several levels, none of them horizontal, with a staircase spiralling off into the flies. Its impressive revolve also hosts the Heist – birds-eye view – and the Copenhagen tunnel. In one show-stopping set-piece, a passing train sets in motion a crazy ballet of furniture and fittings. And the cast is faultless, from the bizarre Little Britain gaggle of lady visitors to the little old landlady – Marcia Warren, who's much in demand for this kind of role – and her lodger, the sinister Professor Marcus [a brilliant Peter Capaldi].
His gang of five – the string quintet – includes James Fleet as the Major, a shifty conman now also a cross-dresser, eagerly eyeing Mrs W's lilac gown, Clive Rowe as a slow-witted ex-boxer, Ben Miller as the idiomatically challenged Romanian, and Stephen Wight as Harry – popping pills and on the sharp end of much of the slapstick.

There is satire [Bankers!] and wit - "Being fooled by art is one of the primary pleasures afforded the middle class" – with plenty of farce [the blackboard, the meeting in the poky cupboard] and running gags. And those fans will welcome the Boccherini, and Marcus's endless scarf ...

image by Manuel Harlan


Common Ground Theatre Company at the Seckford Theatre Woodbridge

Common Ground's take on Pinocchio was never going to be bland or banal. Julian Harries and Pat Whymark share a fertile, fevered imagination, and this version of the Collodi classic is often surreal and frequently very silly indeed.

We begin with a Fellini-esque framing narrative, with a troupe of acrobats – the Flying Calzonis. There is a mishap during the risky Triple Whopper, young Pietro falls senseless to the sawdust, and it is his dream which takes us into the familiar story of the "pine-cone" puppet who longs to be a real boy.

Joseph Reed is a cheerfully na├»ve Pietro/Pinocchio – a lively presence on stage; his first steps as the puppet a wonderfully physical expression of joy and freedom. In his adventures, he is constantly thwarted by the Mighty Mozzarelli [a very big cheese in the village] whose megalomaniac schemes include the Pleasure Palace offering "fast food and cheap thrills". A typically OTT creation from Julian Harries, exuding evil as he strokes his fluffy little bird of prey: this Geordie Health and Safety Owl is responsible for much of the sublime silliness in the show.

The other members of the circus family – Tracy Elster's Serafina, Josh Overton's Salvatore and Stefan Atkinson's Giuseppe – take on all the other characters, notably the very irritating giant cricket, the sinister cat and the Blue Fairy, on her Enchanted Scooter.

The wordplay and festive fun will be familiar to fans of the Christmas Shows at the Sir John Mills – the chocolate thermometer, Nanny's goat jokes, the Pole Cats. Dentistry something of a theme, with Pinocchio's dad offering treatment to the dead sailors in the belly of the shark. Pat Whymark's music – and Julian's evocative accordion – are crucial to establishing mood and atmosphere, and there are some very catchy numbers, too – Eat Your Greens, and Don't Wake the Sausage Farmer for instance.

This is pocket theatre, intimate and unplugged, and in the Seckford it maybe needed to be played a bit bigger, the puns pushed more shamelessly. On the first night there were some dropped stitches, frayed edges and loose ends. But also some glorious physical work, like the trapeze and Arlecchino's dilemma. And some wonderful flights of fancy, like the insecure luvvie puppets backstage, with Pulcinella miming the tea ...

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews


The Brentwood Theatre

The unexpected opening a performer becomes Beatrix Potter before our eyes helps the rapt young audience [from Willowbrook School when I popped in] understand the magic of live theatre: magic that will let Jemima fly, Nutkin punt across to Owl Island, and Tom Kitten climb up the chimney.

Adrian Mitchell's delightful adaptation, with a lovely traditional score by Stephen McNeff, makes an accessible alternative to brasher, noisier seasonal shows. Ray Howes' lively production maximises the stage area, with a batterie de cuisine above the entrance, and woodland around the action. The costumes [Joy Dunn] are beautifully realised, with masks allowing full facial expression. Old Brown was especially impressive.

The energetic young cast struck up an immediate rapport with the audience; Katie-Elizabeth Allgood's Potter not merely a narrator, but a creator of jam roly-poly and a host of animal characters: Hannah Douglas's naive Jemima, Tim Gutteridge's seductive Foxy Gentleman, Stephen Gunshon's Squirrel, and Nick Pack's nimble Jeremy Fisher [choreography by Sarah O'Sullivan].

So much to enjoy in these four tales the wooden ducks, the chicken perched atop the summerhouse, the riddles, the animal puppets and the real dog. And not forgetting the charming songs [MD Ian Southgate] Who Likes the Rain, I Had a Cat, In Autumn Time

production photo by Carmel Jane Photography

Sunday, December 11, 2011


at Waterloo Station

Eurostar moved to swanky new St Pancras in 2007. Since then, Waterloo commuters have grumbled about tracks and platforms left abandoned and unused.

Now E Nesbit's characters – and some lovely period rolling stock – have brought the terminal to life, recreating the sights and sounds of a very different railway.

Mike Kenny's brilliant adaptation has the three Railway Children [all adults, though there are youngsters in the cast] sharing recollections of that eventful summer when they stopped a train with petticoats, rescued a runner, succoured a Russian refugee, celebrated birthdays and saw their absent father restored to them, with the help of the Old Gentleman of the 9.15. Although the pace never flagged, full respect was paid to the original text and the political and philosophical sub-themes of the novel, and the main characters all had space to establish themselves.

In Damian Cruden's production, the shared narration [reminiscent of Nick Nick at the RSC] works wonderfully, as, more surprisingly, does this unusual found space – a length of track with platform, and audience, either side. The inspired solution is to have movable cross-pieces, on the same tracks as the locomotive, coming and going through the steam, bringing on not only passengers, but parlours, coal-heaps and much more, and taking characters off into the steamy darkness.

The "Children" brought out their characters beautifully – squabbling or scared, full of initiative and youthful enthusiasm - Amy Noble's bossy Bobby, Tim Lewis's Peter and Grace Rowe's Phyll made a fantastic family, and drew us into their world of adventures with little soliloquies and wry asides.

Perks, everyone's favourite Station Master, was played with a strong sense of Yorkshire pride and a wicked sense of humour by Mark Holgate, and Stephen Beckett managed a striking double as the wronged father and the kindly, overworked local doctor.

The children's mother, stoical and determined, bravely trying to hide her distress, was movingly played, and beautifully spoken, by Pandora Clifford.

The familiar tale seemed surprisingly intimate in this vast space, and we were often reminded that, despite the thrill of the steam engine. the smoke, the thunderous rumble in the tunnel and the rest, it is our "imaginary forces" which make the drama as powerful as it is, helped by Christopher Madin's stirring score.

Thursday, December 08, 2011


at the Broadway, Barking

In Barking's pop-up Broadway, now scandalously threatened with closure, local panto for local people, but with admirable style and gloss.

The small company is augmented and enhanced by some very talented youngsters, who are given plenty to do in Karena Johnson's lively production. Singing, dancing, and for three of them, major roles and a fair share of the best lines: a crazy chase through the auditorium for the two comedy policemen, and a mischievous, eager Genie of the Ring, who even gets to share the magic carpet ride.

The kids in the audience are well served, too, lighting up the place with their glowing cutlasses. They are thrown sweets – once a given in any panto, but this is the only time I've seen it this season – and enjoy script [Marc Day] and delivery very much pitched at their level. But lots of nostalgia for the oldies: "Together", "Chuchi Face", H-A-P-P-Y for the Mummy ghost routine, not to mention loads of local references and antiquated gags.

From Ashley J's in-flight introduction it is clear that here is a panto performer who knows how to interact with his audience – he makes a very likeable Wishee-Washee [and choreographed the dance routines]. His brother Aladdin – whose Dagbad has very obvious East End roots – is Michael Sewell. The lovely Princess Jasmine is played as a strong young woman, and beautifully sung, by Roxanne Douro.

Hugh Osborne's Emperor sounds just like the Englishman abroad his name suggests, while Benedict Martin is the power-hungry Abanazer, fighting to be heard over the jeers and boos from the audience, and doing a great job with his "Evil" front cloth song.

Marcus Powell is a lovely Widow Twankey, bouncy, giggly with more than a hint of Frankie Howerd; wonderful dresses, of course, including bubble baubles and magnificent twin lamps.

While the staging is inevitably simple – the canvas cave entrance less than impressive – there are lots of lovely touches, my favourite the surreal perambulator sound of marching feet.

Phil Gostelow's music includes a great sing-along Bruno Mars Lazy Song, and a Glee finale – "Don't Stop Believin'" a handy mantra for the beleaguered Broadway to take into 2012 ...


at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester

The Mercury's lavish Christmas shows are among the brightest of the repertory pantos. This year's Beauty and the Beast, written and directed by Janice Dunn, has all the traditional Colchester elements in place. First, the superb sparkly design [Foxton]: a crazy enchanted forest, at the heart of the plot, with its gnarled branches and Magic Flute serpent. It has a green glade stage right for the Good Fairy Rosa [Josephine Warren], and a sinister lair opposite for the evil Botoxia, though she seems to pop up, unwanted, everywhere, with her amazing costume and make-up. The show still boasts some proper dancing [choregrapher Cydney Uffindell-Phillips, dance captain Daniel Tawse] and the wonderful Mercury Junior Chorus, this year disguised as super furry animals and the Toxic Monkeys. And, in the pit, genial Graeme Du Fresne and his men, with an eclectic mix of music, including the season's most unlikely segue, from Lady Gaga to Carousel and back again, in Belle and the Beast's Act Two duet.

The twist this year was the ecological re-write of the old tale, with Clare Humphrey's vile Botoxia ["nobody likes you!", one tot called out from the stalls] scheming to turn the palace into a factory, replace the forest with concrete and choke the earth with foul pollutants. The Beast, impressively sung and spoken by a lithe, fiddle-playing Pete Ashmore, turns out to be her brother, and, though he is transformed at the end, it is merely a spiritual transformation. I liked the interplay between Ashmore and his Belle [Emily Bull], a very rom-com courtship this, adding girl power to the PC ticklist.

Maybe the younger patrons would have liked more of the slapstick and the quickfire silly gags, rather than all that Green allegory. We did have David Tarkenter and Thomas Richardson as a poacher double-act [a splendid "ghost" routine, pursued by a bear], Mercury stalwart Roger-Delves Broughton as poor old Bertie, and the energetic, appealing Dale Superville, this year playing Rolo the Ranger, at his best as his alter ego superhero Pie-Man. Ably assisted by Squirrel Nutcase, a distant cousin of Basil Brush.

It was Ignatius Anthony's turn to don the frocks this year, and a splendidly butch Dame Twiggy he made, with his coop of clucking beauties. Old Mother Riley was referenced in the script, in the programme, and in the lovely little bit of an Irish Reel.

We cheered as Botoxia finally sank into the Quick Sand and the rhyming couplets rounded off another Mercury pantomime. We even sang the interminable Flower Song while everyone changed for the excellently staged wedding walk-downa regal yellow furry creation for Ignatiuswith the Monkeys changed back into the innocent village children as the forest is saved for the future.

production photo by Robert Day

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Wednesday, December 07, 2011


One From The Heart at the Civic Theatre

Michael Fentiman's Sleeping Beauty was a straight old-school panto, delivered with boundless enthusiasm by a hard-working team. We had a brassy Northern Dame, a pure, demure Princess and a dashing Prince. We had snow, roller skates and flying by Kirby's. And a proper all-singing all-dancing chorus with proper chorus boys.

Richard Peakman's choreography lent life to every number Wicked's "Keep Dancing Through" could be the slogan here. Boys from Laine Theatre Arts, girls auditioned locally. "Three camp guys and a bunch of dodgy covers" a harsh verdict on Mike Cotton's Band: even David Saville's Witch Doctor sounded good ...

All the principals went the extra mile to get the audience going. I loved Stephen Carlile's evil drag queen Carabosse, a nice foil for the Scots Fairy Fortune [Melanie Masson]. Richard Earl as Nurse Nelly and John Weldon as her daft Welsh son Muddles were good comedy value. Three bad gags and you're off ? Well, hardly, there were some ancient classics here. But the ghost routine, enhanced with four gorillas all over the auditorium, was a triumph for the traditionalists.

Plenty of pyrotechnics, loads of frocks [wipe-clean for the kitchen sequence] and endless interaction with the audience all made for an excellent Christmas show, even if us oldies might have liked some better songs and a wittier script.


Cut to the Chase at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch

Home-grown in Hornchurch and all the tastier for it, the Queen's Cinderella has the kids screaming from the off.

As they proudly point out, the show is staged by Cut to the Chase, their resident company of actor-musicians, and the sumptuous scenery and colourful costumes are all designed and made in-house. The songs, too, are specially written by MD Carol Sloman.

Always good to see repertory actors let it all hang out at Christmas time, and this show boasts two of the ugliest sisters you could imagine, in Simon Jessop's Asphyxia and Tom Jude's Euthanasia. Not surprisingly, they work wonderfully well together, and sport some gorgeous creations [Jean Roberts]: faux fur to start, and a gourmet spread for the walk-down.

Cinders herself is Queen's star Natasha Moore, delightfully coy with her "Barry" [Niall Costigan's posh Prince Charming], then radiant at the ball. Stuart Organ makes a Pickwickian Hardup, with his horseless carriage, while Mark Stanford is a popular Buttons, making the most of his catchphrase interplay with the audience.

Bob Carlton wrote the script, and directs a stylish take on the old tale, with a lovely prologue, delivered by the Fairy Godmother [Karen Fisher-Pollard] in her old lady guise and illustrated with clever silhouettes. The settings are superb, with a sparkly front cloth and a story-book village street vista. The auditorium is well used, too: the hunting of Lucy the fox, with beagles, and the search for the foot the slipper fits, with reward posters.

Act One ends of course with the transformation, a substantial coach taking flight as the upstage area opens up; Act Two starts with an ingenious Strictly spoof, giving the eight youngsters a spell in the spotlight.

No dearth of traditional [old] gags and routineseven Busy Bee is pressed into service for another generation. But there's lots that is fresh and topical"We're all in this together", ker-ching name checks for the sponsors, even a plug for the Dario Fo in Marchtheatre's not just for Christmas !

It's a fast-paced, colourful panto which doesn't take itself too seriously, and has the audience with it all the way, "corporates, creditors and critics" included, not forgetting Keith in the middle of row D ...

production image by Nobby Clark

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews