Sunday, February 27, 2011

SAYF at Sandon Village Hall


Once upon a time, youth clubs did amateur theatricals along with table-tennis and trips to the sea-side.
Sandon is a proud survivor from those distant days, and this year's Ali Baba, with its seven thieves and Nativity Play ethos, had all the strengths and weaknesses we've grown used to over the years.
Too many prompts, lighting by luck, noisy scene changes. But gorgeous costumes and scenery, great musical support, and a warm community spirit [sponsored by Asda].
A large cast – the youngest just seven years old – had dependable dame Laurence Green as Fatima, and Sophie Cooper [Mustapha] relishing her one-liners and the inevitable sing-along. Some fine classical acting from Sebastian Pountney [Asbad] and an impressive double from Nicola Mori as the Prince and the evil Alsatia, half of a David-and-Goliath struggle with good feline fairy Caterina [Sarah Diwell].
Jade Cooper had a strong presence in the title role, and there were promising performances from Poppy Quy Watkins as the Sultan, Matt Diwell and Emily Flack as the scoundrels, and Maddie Warner-Lodge as a poised Princess Jasmine.
James Tovey's music included Happy Talk and Comedy Tonight, as well as Eastern panto favourites like Supermarket in Old Peking and the Old Bazaar in Cairo.
Alan P Frayn's original script is awash with ancient jokes and puns, enjoyed by players and punters alike.
Ali Baba was produced and directed by Peter Ellis.
Swansea Opera at the Civic Theatre

Swansea City Opera undertake tours that would have terrified Carl Rosa.
Last week saw them bring their Barber of Seville to Stevenage, Yeovil and Pitlochry – and to the Civic in Chelmsford.

It's a vanilla production: nicely sung, with some clever comedy moments, lovely traditional costumes, and a striking set design [by Gary McCann] which recreates Spain with cartoon etchings.

Christine Sjolander was a fittingly flirtatious Rosina. I liked the way she played her own continuo on the on-stage spinet. Her words were crystal clear – this was a new English version – though her big arias lacked vocal fire, I felt. Arthur Swan was her Almaviva/Lindoro/Alonso; he had a strong voice, and relished all three roles, though his first romantic outpouring risked running out of steam before the end.

Simon Lobelson made a stylish Figaro, rushing around on his natty red heels, and there were assured character cameos from Paul Hudson as Basilio and Artistic Director Brendan Wheatley as Bartolo – his party trick was delivering a faultless patter song with a paintbrush clamped between his teeth.

Fraser Goulding was in the pit with a chamber ensemble – a good idea to leave the overture for the scene change in the middle of the first half. But this Barber, though easy on the eye and the ear, never really aspired to much more than a routine, respectful treatment of Rossini's best-loved opera.

Friday, February 25, 2011


WOW at the Public Hall, Witham


A crisp, characterful overture, and we're into New York's Upper West Side – a stylish Futurist backdrop looming behind the concrete stairways and playgrounds.

The stage is filled with two opposing gangs, their interaction no less menacing for being energetically balletic. Both Sharks and Jets looked absolutely right – that awful 50s hair especially, though it might have been helpful to have them more distinctly differentiated, in particular for the powerful moment at the end when they unite around Tony's lifeless body.

WOW boasts some very experienced young performers, and it was good to see them respond so successfully to the challenge of this classic piece of music theatre.

Zoe Rogers was a great Maria – warm singing voice, huge emotional depth. Her Tony was Thomas Holland, whose relaxed style and winning way with the big numbers made for a very impressive performance, even if vocally he was pushing the limits of his instrument. Elliott Elder made a convincing Baby John, while Josh Read, a relative newcomer, had bags of energy, and a promising voice, as Bernardo; Anita was played by Sam Carlyle: her voice and her accent were spot on, and she was an accomplished dancer, too. Her duet with Maria was a vocal highlight of the show for me. As Riff, the feud's first victim, Jake Davis gave a memorable performance. His easy stage presence, his lithe physicality, and his effortless way with the music made for an incredible achievement for a performer of his age.
There were many enjoyable numbers – the I Feel Pretty Trio, and the inventive Krupke sextet – and plenty of eloquent stage pictures: the stylish first meeting of these star-crossed New Yorkers, their long Good Night across no-man's-land.
Sometimes we might have liked a bit more depth in the lighting – in the duel, for instance – and the climactic gunshot went for nothing. I found the curtain calls too stagily traditional – Maria was still clearly feeling the emotion of the tragic ending, as we all were, and I would have liked the calls to reflect that, as the a cappella closing chorus so movingly did.
West Side Story was directed for WOW by Angela Briley, with Natalie Wilson in charge of choreography, and Susannah Edom the Musical Director.

Headlong Theatre and the Nuffield Southampton, in association with Hull Truck at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

The Hollywood “Dream” is not a new idea. Shakespeare's Globe tour a year or two back had Quince and Bottom in the Directors' Chairs. This time, in a brilliantly sustained conceit, it's Robin P Goodfellow, mischievously manipulating the mortals in an affectionate look at the star-studded Sixties in tinsel town.

Athens is a painted backdrop, and also the name of the production company. The mechanicals, shorn of their traditional trades, are the crew, and Oberon and Titania [doubling, as so often, Theseus and Hippolyta] were gods of the silver screen, cheekily channelling the great Burton and Taylor.

Natalie Abrahami's production was crammed with clever touches – the clapper-board cranny, the child-like fairies and the Red Indian Boy, the cable wood, and especially the music – Casta Diva on the Dansette, On the Roof and A Summer Place for Titania's backstage bower. Thanks to some ingenious video, we actually saw the main title, and some revealing rushes and out-takes.

A near faultless cast of ten covered all the characters, though poor old Quince [David Shaw-Parker] had to be the voice of Wall, Moon and Lion in Pyramus and Thisbe, since Starveling [Wardrobe Assistant] and the rest were nowhere to be seen. The result was predictably hilarious, with Michael Dylan's Flute a splendid Thisbe - “How will I live ?” she ad libs, stealing Hippolyta's line from lost blockbuster “Where The Wild Thyme Blows”. Christopher Logan was a memorable Bottom, flouncing and slightly fey, with more than a hint of dark depths below the surface.

The lovers were given wonderful fights and chases, even a balcony scene – Faye Castelow especially fine as a feisty Hermia. Justin Avoth's Oberon was beautifully spoken – elsewhere the approximate accents were sometimes a distraction. Not so for Sandy Grierson's superb Puck. Perched on his chair, with notebook and pipe [lots of smoking in this show], he seemed to be planning his mischief, and his cynical, caustic comments caught the mood exactly.

There was no shortage of magic, mayhem or mirth in this two-hour comedy. Even the fairies, with their cowboy outfits, were strangely effective. But, as the commendably informative programme points out, the play is on the National Curriculum, and the half-term matinée I saw was well attended by students of all ages. And I did wonder if this imaginative interpretation, “more strange than true” perhaps, might be a tad confusing for first-time wanderers in the wood near Athens.

Photos: Keith Pattison

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Latchingdon Arts and Drama Society,
Tractor Shed Theatre, 

Mary Redman took her seat in the Tractor Shed ...

This was such a spectacularly impressive show achieved by an enormous amount of hard work on the technical level, but someone should have taken a shotgun to writer Linda Woolverton before she had the opportunity to set hand to keyboard. Her clanging Americanisms and limited United States view of France, and French fairy stories by writers such as Charles Perrault in particular, don't allow anyone with a sensitive ear for language to relax, and that's a great pity because the story is a good one.
A handsome, aristocratic but uncouth and selfish Prince (Aden Gardner) is changed into an Essex Man Beast (Jon Greaves) because he spurns an old woman's request for help. From an equally uncouth beginning Jon's performance gradually revealed how the Beast learned his lesson and changed into a sympathetic, soft hearted and heartbroken, romantic man craving love from the beautiful Belle (Aimee Hart).
Aimee herself revealed Belle's self confidence and no nonsense, direct nature backed by a promising singing voice, acting skills and assured stage presence. Dan Bavin's preening, cartoon style muscle mann suitor Gaston wasn't going to take no for an answer from Belle with his blunderbuss and his sidekick LeFou (translates as The Idiot) the bouncy Ryan Allum, provided a great deal of the unsubtle humour of the piece.
Gradually we were introduced to the magical characters of the Beast's castle from Arthur Barton's self-important Cogsworth, Alan Elkins's flashes of brilliance as Lumiere (Light), Carole Hart's fussy Mrs Potts, little Mason Chegwidden as Chip, Lani Calvert's ooh la la Babette to Jamie-Leigh Royan's showgirl and eyecatching Wardrobe.
There were great supporting performances from the various villagers while Robin Warnes had an opportunity to shine as Belle's Father Maurice, the inventor of the utterly astonishing, fully functional Rowland Emett-style car which we had all too little time and the sight lines to appreciate.
Now to the aspects that made the show so memorable on other levels. Musical Director Kris Rawlinson handled Alan Menken's delightful music with great assurance. With 17 other musicians at his command, he led from the keyboard, creating a genuine, professional musical theatre orchestra sound that swept the show along.
Kath Lang, aided by Marilyn Green, Leah Bavin and Cheryl Rawlinson, created perfect, jaw dropping costumes. From the wolves to the villagers and the castle inhabitants whose clothes reflected their characters personal qualities, there were crinolines and glamour, Belle's wonderful glittering pink meringue and Beast's elegant velvet and gold suit, all created with wit and craftsmanship. I would love to see them close up for their attention to details.
Turning to scenery and props, director/designer Peter Jones was aided by the constantly busy stage management team led by Claire Playle, the set building team led by Kevin Britchfield including Arthur Burton's set painting, and above all the technical effects team's Colin Leveridge, Cliff Barron and Frank Burgess who were responsible for the wonders such as the car, Lumière’s lighting up times, the wolves' gleaming eyes, the miniature working water mill complete with doves that moved, and much, much more. All that hard work really paid off people!
I would have appreciated better sight lines all the way through since the concrete base at the rear of the auditorium has disappeared. In such an episodic production a smoother, faster transition between scenes would have speeded up the show and created a better flow. There were too many cases of characters popping on for a few words, leaving the stage and the next few characters not being there immediately to pick up the cues. It does slow things down and it isn't just LADS who are guilty either.
All in all this was a truly spectacular production which proved that hard work in every department pays off handsomely. I hope to see it getting its highly merited mentions in award lists later this year.

Monday, February 21, 2011


The Noontide Sun at the Mercury Theatre Colchester

A distant relative of mine [well, Salford] plays double bass for one of the BBC orchestras. He's an enthusiast for his instrument, and plays jazz in his spare time. Very different from Suskind's grumpy musician, though I'm sure he'd enjoy the injokes and the whingeing.

Süskind wrote his original one-act monologue Der Kontrabass in 1980, since when it has proved enduringly popular in continental Europe.
Alone in his sound-proof room, this third-desk tutti player introduces us to his instrument. Shiny and curvaceous, it dominates the room, which is otherwise furnished with waffled, angular cardboard furniture. Its owner explains its history, its role in the orchestra, and its repertoire. Something of a joke – fifty concertos, but all by second-rate composers, frustrated bassists. A Mozart trifle. Saint-Saens' Elephant.
His other props are a bottle of white wine, and a remote control, with which he plays us extracts, including Brahms, Wagner and the best known of these obscure concertos, by Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf.
But it soon becomes personal. He bitches about the tymps, holds up the orchestra as an image of society, berates his bass, quotes Goethe on music and bemoans his lot: underpaid, stuck at the back of the stage with no hope of advancement. He gets excited, shouts, apologises.
The most memorable passages see him fantasising, satyr-like, about the unwitting object of his affections, a soprano called Sarah who is a Rhine Maiden on the stage of the opera in whose pit he scrapes a living. He will disrupt the gala, shout her name in the silence. The piece ends with his putting on his tails and leaving for work. We wonder whether his fantasy will bear fruit.

Christopher Hunter is a magnetic performer, holding together a rather rambling narrative, ably suggesting the madness of the orchestral player, and addressing the intimate studio audience directly, making us complicit in his rage and his pathos. His evocation of the Rattle Rheingold gala evening was beautifully realised.
Some striking stage pictures, too. Sitting on the arm of his chair and staring at the instrument, before caressing it as he would his beloved Sarah. And the lighting changes as he throws open the window to let the cacophony of the street flood in, or as he walks unsteadily off to the pit at the end.
It was a pity, and painfully ironic, that his sound-proof room was no match for the Big Band in the Main House upstairs. And for me, and several other members of the audience, a frustration that major traffic problems prevented us from seeing the start of this gripping performance of an important piece of theatre.
This is the first outing for a new company, The Noontide Sun, and it's a worthy revival of a gem of a piece from the 80s. It's slated for a longer run at the New End Theatre, Hampstead from April 6 to April 24.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Tangram Theatre at the Cramphorn

Full title: The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection or the Survival of [R]Evolutionary Theories in the face of Scientific and Ecclesiastical Objections: being a musical comedy about Charles Darwin [1809-1882].

Despite the beard, this Charles Darwin is a shy, fresh-faced academic, more like the Shrewsbury schoolboy than the Great Scientist he was to become.
We discover him trying to work at his cluttered desk – microscope, daguerreotype of his Emma, barnacle – distracted by Handel and latecomers.
With genial diffidence and energetic enthusiasm, he persuaded us to be finches, specimens and the general postal service. John Hinton, who wrote and performed this “musical comedy”, happily sings his greatest hit to his own guitar, juggles with spiders and confronts creationism “in the medium of metaphorical mime”. A tennis match.
A dialogue about dolphins magically managed to convince us that there were two actors here, losing the words and collapsing into comedic chaos. Genius. As was his cameo characterization of his family – his irascible father, his cousins, his uncle Josiah Wedgwood, spaced-out pot-meister – the bible-bashing captain of the Beagle, the pipe-smoking Galapagos governor, and everyone else.
And the show ended all too soon with the Descent of Man – Darwin morphing into a mischievous monkey, meddling with the Victorian paraphernalia and taking candy from the front row.
This quirky, accessible piece, directed by Daniel Goldman, clearly appealed to all the generations in the audience. It successfully kept us guessing, and laughing, as it sketched the great man's life, career and lasting importance.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Read not Dead at Shakespeare's Globe

This season of staged readings normally showcases Shakespeare's neglected contemporaries, so a refreshing change to have a British premiere by a playwright not only living but with us in the studio space.
David Davalos imagines those three Wittenberg alumni, Doctors Faustus and Luther, and freshman Hamlet, interacting in tutorial, lecture theatre and tavern; it's a witty piece, very clever [not always in a good way], with plenty of laughs amongst the theology and philosophy, not to mention knowing jokes and jibes about academia.
This performance – co-ordinated by Clive Brill – boasted the excellent Kerry Shale as a wise-cracking New Yorker Faustus, with Nicholas Murchie as a sober Luther. The Prince of Denmark was stylishly done by Alan Cox; he made the most of the often tricky poetry he was given to speak. The devil [aka Faustus] has all the best tunes here, and he led us in a rousing Che Sera finale, as Hamlet and Luther fast forward to their greatest hits. Ross Hughes provided mood music on bass clarinet and Cavaquinho, and the four women were all played by a very versatile Adjoa Andoh.
You do need to know your Hamlet and your Marlowe, and, as the piece prepares for its off-Broadway opening, there's already one study guide out there.
But it is a very enjoyable 90 minutes on all kinds of levels, and deserves to have a wider audience. Radio springs to mind, which still finds air-space for the quirky and the intellectual ...

Monday, February 14, 2011

M&G Concert at the Civic Theatre

A predominantly sunny Pastoral Symphony from Sinfonia ViVA and their youthful maestro André de Ridder. Beethoven's familiar sound pictures came up fresh as paint in this very enjoyable performance, starting with a light-footed Allegro, then leading through the gentle, easy rhythms of the brook and an athletic country dance to the sudden storm and the shepherd's song.

Written just a generation later, and clearly influenced by Beethoven, Schumann's early, incomplete Zwickau Symphony had a welcome airing to start the evening. A clean string sound , with crisp brass behind. I liked the energy at the end of the first movement, and the good-humoured Scherzo. I did feel, though, that this young man's symphony merited a lighter touch at times.

Between these two German masters, an amusingly astringent sorbet: Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite, from the ballet he wrote for Diaghilev just after the Great War [stage designs by Pablo Picasso!]. Soloists and sections are often give their own voice, as in the Serenata [violin – leader Benedict Holland - and oboe] and the showy Toccata. The Vivo just before the Finale was great fun, with the lower voices to the fore – double bass and trombone.

The last of this very successful M&G Concert Series is on March 29, with the City of London Sinfonia.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court

Families – who'd have one?”

You can't escape your destiny!”

What do you do if you're about to break your duck, and then suddenly realise you'd be happier batting for the other side ?

Carolyn Scott-Jeffs' loud and proud comedy was a hit in Edinburgh a few years back, with minor soap stars in the cast.
But it follows a much older tradition: the comedy of mistaken identities and misunderstandings. It even has its own Little Miss Malaprop. A coarser successor to Ayckbourn and Cooney.

A strong, well-bonded cast got laughs galore on the opening night, from the minute the stag night survivors crash into the garden in various states of undress and inebriation. First up is Liam, the bridegroom's camp new friend, picked up in The Jester in a drunken Damascene moment. He's the fly in the ointment, the spanner in the wedding works, and the last man confused young Stuart wants to see in his Mum's gnome-infested Birmingham backyard. Ian Eagleton was a very watchable Liam – a born farceur, his screaming queen, writhing, squirming in embarrassment was a joy, and he used his rare moments of quiet stillness effectively, too. As the groom who discovers he's gay, Danny Segeth had a very convincing hangover; his desperation in the face of his dilemma was palpable, too.
These two excellent comic actors were joined by Sarah Bell, ballsy fiancée of Stu's London-based brother [Philip Hart]. Inspired comedy turns from Rebecca Errington, the dozy bride to be in her lacy optimistic knickers, and Debbie Miles as Mum, Dusty Springfield re-drawn by Beryl Cook, and a formidable comic presence.

This is an outrageous piece, and the quality of the acting made us temporarily oblivious to the weaknesses in the plot, especially after the interval. But there are many pages of beautifully written dialogue, some welcome subtlety, and a tender moment of truth to give us some food for thought amidst the hysteria. And this production, directed with wit and style by Lynne Foster with Tonio Ellis, was a welcome revival of a splendid romp.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Early Doors Productions at the Brentwood Theatre

How daring the title seemed back then, and how quaint it sounds now, when every Hotmail household can taste forbidden fruit …

A sell-out run for this shiny new production company, boasting some of the best talent around, tackling an iconic 70s stage hit. Very much a period piece now, with its limp double entendres, on the watershed between Whitehall farce and the Permissive Society.
The omens were good – nice programme with spoof ads, a lovely set with six doors, period wallpaper samples and a serving hatch with a mind of its own. Vintage radio on the soundtrack.

But the show itself didn't quite cut it. No bad performances, several good ones, but not quite slick, pacy and polished enough to be hilarious.

Martin Harris got closest to the period style with his fussy little Mr Runnicles, a constant delight. And Julie Salter managed a nicely elegant battle-axe as mother-in-law to the lovely Frances [Rachel Lane]. Gary Ball, though competent with the mechanics of farce, was hard to credit as a sub branch- manager in the 70s, or her son, or her husband. Ray Johnson was a suave Bromhead, and Justin Cartledge relished the trio of Inspector, vanman and Needham. Though it has to be said that he was behind most of the self-indulgent corpsing we saw on Saturday night.

Two scrubbers sent round by the Scandinavian Import Company were Amy Clayton, who also directed and designed, and Sarah Miles.

Lots of good ideas – the sofa trios, the doors – and a salutary reminder of those innocent days before video, when Dubonnet and stuffed olives were sophisticated, and we sniggered at “orgy” and “virginity”, “cucumber” and “Tupperware”.

Next on Early Doors' hitlist, The 39 Steps, with the legendary Lionel Bishop added to the roster. At the Cramphorn Chelmsford in September.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Theatre at Baddow at the Parish Hall

In the days before Amazon, books were a valued commodity, fine editions especially precious.

Helene Hanff's story tells of her twenty-year transatlantic love affair with a London bookshop. TAB's enjoyable production, directed with a keen eye for detail and a strong sense of period by Helen Quigley, sets the author's dowdy brownstone apartment against the dusty bookshelves of Marks & Co. I liked the way the stacks seemed to disappear into the darkness off left, and almost all the volumes looked authentic.

Roger Saddington was Frank Doel, the “solitary soul” who signs the firm's letters. He skilfully suggested the desk-bound, buttoned-up individual who gradually warms to Helene's playful raillery. Beth Crozier's spinster wordsmith looked absolutely right, every inch the writer, and she gave an impressive performance in this huge role. The moments when she learns she is to be evicted, when she asks anxiously after the “other girls” and when she hears of Doel's death were particularly moving, but this was a colourful patchwork of moods and emotions, her letters brought to vibrant life.

Impeccable support from a strong cast, including Alan Ireland as Old Mr Martin, Diane Johnston as the glamorous actress friend, Patrick Willis as Bill Humphries, Claire Lloyd as Welsh shop-girl Megan, and Eleanor March as a very 1950s Miss Cecily.

Occasionally the pace flagged, the narrative threatened to lose its way, but the overall effect was wonderfully warm, a faithful picture of an unlikely infatuation in a world we have lost for ever. I treasure the tableau – pure Norman Rockwell – when the staff gathered to unwrap the first of many Christmas parcels from New York …
I just hope someone caught it on camera !

production photos by Helen Quigley