Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Hutton Players
Brentwood Theatre 
March 24 2011

Mary Redman was at the back of the stalls ...

Noel Coward was known as The Master for many reasons including his mastery of sparkling repartee, his use of language to define both character and class, for the craftsmanship of his plays and their sheer entertainment value. Any group that wants to recreate for us his lost world needs to pay careful attention to pace, diction, period details and above all, energy. The plays need to sparkle as they have always done.
I saw this production on opening night and by the interval at the end of Act I was ready to shoot myself. This really surprised me because many of the members of Hutton Players are of mature years to remember how things were done as far as social and table etiquette are concerned. Plus they have enormous theatrical experience.
First of all Ray Howes's set design was so disappointing, being very déclassée and looking as though it was furnished from a jumble sale. Certainly not shabby chic - if that was the intention. One has to remember that this was a country home at Cookham, not a cottage, and this set didn't scream at us that it was the comfy retreat of an enormously successful actress and equally successful writer. Plus sight lines for the sofa were so bad much of the action was missed.
As the two younger members of the ironically named Bliss household, Vicky Wright's Sorel looked extremely good but swallowed her words while both she and John Mabey's Simon lacked the necessary pointing of lines so that by contrast with the older cast members there appeared to be two different plays going on. Helen Robins as the very young ingénue Jackie was another one who looked daintily pretty but whose words were often hidden by her giggles
As the house and its Japanese Room filled with extra guests invited without prior warning by every member of the family for a “quiet weekend” the production underwent a transformation. The great change came in Acts 2 and 3 when the other characters really came into their own, perhaps after an interval team pep talk by the director Marjorie Dunn rallied the troops.
Margaret Corry's “retired” leading lady and grande dame of the theatre took to her role with relish. Clashing verbal swords with her friend Myra (Meryl Spinks in fine form and equally ready for battle), the two of them took no prisoners. Watching them in both verbal and physical action was like being in the front row while a well-matched pair of Wimbledon Ladies Finalists played a blinder of a swift power serve and volley match lightened by the occasional lengthier rally.
Observing the action and giving the ingredients an occasional stir or nudge whilst enthusiastically lapping up the resulting effects was Martin Goldstone's David Bliss, innocent as the day is long and a bit of a dog to boot.
Excellent supporting work came from Lindsey Crutchett's withered twig of a theatrical dresser now enlisted as a housekeeper and Alan Thorley's enthusiastic admirer of Sorel.
The utter, five star highlight of the evening was the exquisitely played and timed flirting scene between Judith and William Wells's boring Richard with his character's annoying attempts at a “natural” laugh. Watching his body language as he leaned further and further off centre, quite overwhelmed by Bliss, spoke volumes about his pop-eyed astonishment at being supposedly wooed by a “bedazzled” and entrancing Judith blatantly re-enacting one of her major stage successes.
Kathy Smith's faultless, hard working stage management team deserve every praise especially for the speed with which they set up the complete breakfast for eight.
The result is that whilst I wouldn't willingly want to sit through Act 1 again the rest of this production was great fun and full of goodies.

The New Wolsey Theatre, Clwyd Theatr Cymru and Salisbury Playhouse
for The Public Reviews

until April 16th
then at the Playhouse, Salisbury, 28th April - 21st May

A score of the best actor-musicians, three of the best regional producing houses, and one of the best musicals ever to come out of Broadway.
Guys and Dolls, on its way from Wales to Salisbury, is at the New Wolsey Ipswich till April 16.
It's a stunningly successful production, with due respect given to Runyon's story and Loesser's songs.
We start on a New York thoroughfare - neon signs in steep perspective to a skyscraper vanishing point – with eight hoods bearing menacing instrument cases. Six brass, two reeds, and we're into the overture, which has more incident, more characters than many shows can boast in the whole of their First Act.
What amazing characters they are, the “evil-looking sinners” especially: lovely, lived-in faces marked by careers in big-time crime. Harry the Horse, of course [Kraig Thornber], and his portly partner in crime Nicely Nicely Johnson [Gavin Spokes], never without a handy snack. Their duet in the title number was immaculately done.
Terrific versatility further down the billing: Susannah Van Den Berg, to name but one [last in Ipswich with the Spend, Spend, Spend tour, I think]. She was a General in the Salvation Army, a hoofer in The Hot Box, a hooker on the street, and did two hilarious turns as an air hostess to cover the Cuban scene change.
Oh, and she played clarinet and sax in her spare time. Many of the lesser characters made up the free-flowing band, beating the drum for Jesus or standing around like so many subway buskers.
I'd also pick out Nick Lashbrook's Brannigan, Paul Kissaun as an imposing gangster on vacation from Chicago, and Johnson Willis as the gentle Abernathy - “More I Cannot Wish You” movingly done.
The two central couples were nicely contrasted. Brilliant character comedy work from Ben Fox and Rosie Jenkins as Nathan Detroit and his Miss Adelaide, and star-crossed Sky Masterson [Robbie Scotcher, comparatively lacking in charisma] and his Sally Army Sergeant Sarah [Laura Pitt-Pulford, whose vocal style was impressive].
The big show-stoppers were delivered with style, energy and imagination. The Crap-Shooters' Ballet in the sewer, Sit Down You're Rocking The Boat, with its shipwreck simply suggested [and a wind quartet of Mission girls], and the finest Havana sequence I've ever seen, when Miss Sarah gets her first taste of paradise, and takes her first faltering steps down the primrose path …

This enterprising co-production of the much-loved Musical Fable, directed by Wolsey regular Peter Rowe, has been attracting packed houses and glowing notices as it visits each venue. See it, and you'll soon understand why.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Offspringers at the Cramphorn Theatre

The Undead, the Brides of Dracula, the trolley dollies all thronged the Cramphorn stage for the energetic opening of this ever-popular vampire musical.
It's a splendidly camp spoof – though much more innocent than Rocky Horror – and some of these young performers caught the style better than others. Among the most successful was Henry Whitington's Genghis; not as grotesquely deformed as he might have been, but constantly in OTT character. Becky Brewer as Wraith, and Alex Whitington as the Count himself, were also big, bad and bold – their hat-and-cane trio routine was a winner. Clod the Gravedigger, whoever he was, contributed a memorable mime.
On the side of the angels, I liked Ben Hitchen's earnest Professor [lovely subtle mugging] and Eve French's “sweet but vulnerable” Nadia Naïve, the Pennsylvanian teacher who brings her small charges [Loretta Bushell, Paul French, Mattie Scott]
to Transylvania on a school trip. And enthusiastic comedy relief was supplied by Kieran Young and Stephanie Quade as Hans und Gretel.
It was all good fun, with some clever ideas – the bogeys, the Red Bull, the “bridal” bed – and big production numbers – the Drinking Song, Transylvanian Airways. The climax, when the forces of evil are not quite vanquished, was confidently handled.
The Dracula Spectacula was directed by Jayne Silk, with June Watson the Musical Director.
M&G Concert at the Civic Theatre

Directed by guest leader Thomas Gould [who was here with the Britten Sinfonia last October], the City of London Sinfonia brought an unusual sequence of works for the last of this season's M&G Civic Concerts.

Two symphonies to start. An ebullient Allegro Assai led us into a nuanced performance of Haydn's 'Lamentatione', a reflective Adagio followed by a perky Minuet.
A much rarer treat from two centuries later: Philip Glass's Third Symphony, a chamber work for strings alone, and not without classical influence. Its mesmeric, subtly developed sequences were intelligently interpreted by the CLS, Gould's positive tempi bringing out what he referred to in the pre-concert talk as a suggestion of salsa … Movement Three was especially enthralling, with the lower strings setting up a pattern over which violin solos wove a marvellous melodic line.

A similar juxtaposition after the break: Barber's much more familiar Adagio for Strings, played with haunting intensity, preceding Mozart's Third Violin Concerto, given a performance of style and substance by Matthew Trusler, who achieved an easy rapport with the orchestral players. The spirit of Mozart was mostly clearly felt, perhaps, in the lilting Adagio, eloquently phrased by both soloist and Sinfonia. A dying fall at the end of the Rondeau concluded another hugely successful M&G series. Though it did make me long – vain hope, I know - for a proper concert hall in the county town, without the intrusive air conditioning or the annoying clink of cups and glasses from the bar after the interval.
Waltham Singers at Chelmsford Cathedral

Our Cathedral was crammed to overflowing to hear Andrew Fardell conduct his Waltham Singers, accompanied by “leading Baroque instrumentalists”, in a complete performance of Messiah. This much-loved work includes some of Handel's best writing, from the first tenor aria [expressively sung here by Christopher Watson] to the final Amen, beautifully contemplative at first, then splendidly celebratory, with the angels trumpeting the glory of God.

The authentic practices band made an inestimable contribution to this performance; it was clear from the opening Symphony that their tone would be pure without being austere.

Four fine soloists: Ruth Massey's alto, perhaps occasionally under-powered against chorus and orchestra, was warm-toned and eloquent, especially in a movingly compassionate He Was Despised. A nicely ornamented I Know My Redeemer Liveth from the elegant soprano of Kirsty Hopkins. Bass William Gaunt brought a richness of tone and an arresting delivery to Why Do The Nations, and to the last trumpet …

The Singers gave an impressively dramatic account of Handel's [often literally] descriptive writing - “every valley shall be exalted” - and his powerful effects in the Hallelujah Chorus and the superbly sustained Behold The Lamb and Since By Man Came Death. It's true that in a packed cathedral a little of their trademark attack was lost, but the architecture of We Like Sheep, for instance, was meticulously explored under Fardell's demanding direction.

Monday, March 28, 2011

KEGS Drama
at King Edward VI School Chelmsford

Walking-wounded, conchies, Women of Britain, Tommy and Fritz all converged on the Big Top at the End of the Pier for the songs, dances and jokes that make up Oh What A Lovely War.
James Russell's production kept most of the music, much of the dialogue from the 1963 Stratford East original, which in its turn drew on the songs of the period, and the words spoken and written by the man and woman in the street, the poor bloody infantry and the officers behind the lines.
The over-arching concept was one of the great strengths of this ambitious show. The ticket booth, the side shows [Try Your Strength, Wheel of Fortune], the band in their patriotic gazebo, and the stage itself, with its suggestion of the circus tent and its Flags of All Nations. Not to mention the biggest ticker screen, bringing ironic news of lives lost and ground gained.
The company were in Pierrot garb throughout, making the military moments strangely moving – putting on the tin helmets, for instance, at the end of the recruiting song, here featuring a septet of Sirens.
There were many strong scenes: the gas attack, the car, the bilingual rumours, the lively chorus at the top of Act Two, the French and German officers each reflecting on the hostilities, the “interpreter” farce, the Christmas truce, the platoon annihilated as the oblivious C.O. spouts his empty pep talk.
Some great individual performances, too: the slightly sinister Master of Ceremonies, the US Arms Dealer, the tap dancers in Itchy Koo, Ivor Novello's Keep The Home Fires Burning.
But it was very much an ensemble piece; all the performers on the stage all the time, which has many advantages, though it does mean there can be no effective entrances.
So no names, no pack drill for these twenty-two Pierrots. It was good to see a number of survivors from the various regime changes in KEGS Drama, too, loyal veterans of productions past.
In 1911, KEGS' Edwardian actors did Sheridan's farce “St Patrick's Day, or The Scheming Lieutenant”. Did any of those stage Irish suspect that they were to be The Lost Generation, Doomed Youth ? It was good that their successors a century on paid tribute to the Fallen, both in the programme and in a roll call behind the poignant finale.

The Oh What A Lovely War Company, directed by James Russell with Captain Worrall as Music Director, was:
Ayokunle Adekeye
Hassam Ahmed
Ed Alston
Rob Armstrong
Kieran Ballinger
Charles Bell
Tim Blore
Ricky Childs
Tom Crowe
Jamie Dent
Hannah Fry
Anna Gregory
Mary Heartshorn
Robbie Hooper
Lina Jovaisaite
Eleanor Kiff
Bart Lambert
Oluwatofunmi Onaeko
Emily Phillips
Pippa Searle
Elizabeth Staiano
David Woolford

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Chelmsford Singers in the Cathedral

Stephen Decker was in the audience, and kindly submitted this review

From the outset of this Chelmsford Singers performance of Bach’s St John Passion in Chelmsford Cathedral it was clear that our attention was going to be captured. The choir sang the opening chorus with an urgency and energy that set the stage perfectly for the drama to come.
Under the skilful direction of Peter Nardone, the passion unfolded with attention to detail which conveyed the emotion of the story with young soloists who also fully entered into the spirit of the work. The choir and soloists were supported by the excellent Chelmer Baroque Orchestra who added colour to the whole performance; in particular mention should be made of the cellist who beautifully accompanied some of the most anguished moments in music.
The whole narration was held together admirably by an outstanding singer, Benedict Hymas, as the Evangelist. His superb diction, feeling for the words and engagement with the audience kept everyone fully involved with the story.
Chelmsford Singers had clearly prepared this score well. They fully conveyed the drama and the moments of reflection with fine attention to the dynamics necessary. Overall it was a highly appropriate contribution to Lent, and made one realise how fortunate we are to have Chelmsford Cathedral as the ideal space for such a moving performance.

Stephen J. Decker

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tales of Beatrix Potter

Chelmsford Ballet Company at the Civic Theatre

The mice, pigs, squirrels and the rest are very much a festive fixture at Covent Garden nowadays, but it was the Chelmsford Ballet Company who first made the transition from celluloid to stage back in 1984.
Their latest production is lively and fresh, with expressive new animal masks specially made by Craig Denston.

All the wonderful characters are there – Peter Rabbit [Jemma Wilson] waving his looted lettuces, the strutting Fox [Leah McElrea], the school of tiny hedgehogs, the stylish Squirrel quintet, an agile Jeremy Fisher [Michaela Caldecott], the gawky pigs, with the touching courtship of Pigling Bland and the Black Berkshire [Andrew Potter and Emily Starling] interrupted by sizzling pork sausages. And Nicole Gadbury's silly Jemima Puddleduck, soaring above it all to escape a foxy fate.

There was a lovely original prelude piece, too, danced to Nigel Westlake's music for the film Miss Potter, with Demi Aldred's Beatrix finding her inspiration, and, child-like, leaving her desk to work lying on the floor. These linked pieces both choreographed by Annette Potter.

Guest choreographer Carl Parris gave us a constantly enjoyable Nightclub Express, with nippy waitresses and leggy showgirls – first in a Chorus Line-style warm-up in muted browns, then in scarlet and black for the Slaughter ballet, with Luke Bradshaw's cop torn between two high-kicking molls.
And, icing on the cake, a cracking tap routine.

Mary Redman saw the show on  the Saturday ...

After 23 years of watching them Chelmsford Ballet Company never fails to amuse or delight or entertain and impress me with the standard of dancing and the gorgeous costuming confections. Thus it was a disappointment to hear that this year's ticket sales had not been as numerous as the committee needed and the company deserved.
Carl Parris's exuberant, sexy and beguiling Nightclub Express opened the evening. For anyone who loves musical theatre there was just about every sassy step and jaw-droppingly precise sequence we could have wished for, with feathers, snazzy black and red outfits and loads of what Follies calls “those beautiful girls”. In particular, the smart black leotards and jazzy little skirts of the cocktail waitresses suited them beautifully, adding to their joyful dancing. The audience enjoyed every moment and so did the dancers. Plus it was good to see confident adult guest dancer Luke Bradshaw around whom the dancers swirled and vamped, plus a special nod to equally confident Michael Preston as the only boy in the team.
This was followed by Beatrix a short interlude or taster of the animal delights to follow. I didn't envy Demi Aldred having to dance in such a long, clingy and swirling skirt but she took this coolly in her stride.
Then came the sheer fun of Tales of Beatrix Potter under the expert and sympathetic direction of Annette Potter. All the main characters of the children's tales were there and characterised with such wit. Mrs Tittlemouse entertaining Johnny Town-Mouse accompanied by a plethora of charming little mice; a naughty Peter Rabbit; Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and her irresistibly cute Baby Hedgehogs; Jemima Puddle-Duck soaring over the head of the nasty Fox; Pigs galore especially Alexander, Aunt Pettitoes, Pigling Bland and the adorable Black Berkshire Pig; the funny Jeremy Fisher; Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb; the bossy Squirrel Nutkin and his mutinous gang; and last but not least the elegantly dainty Tabitha Twitchet.
Craig Denston was responsible for the lively and witty masks that contributed so much to the success of this part of the evening.
For me one especial delight was to see coloured pointe shoes. They do make such a difference to the look of the whole thing but it seems to have been a fashion (probably an economic one) in the whole ballet world for many years to wear pink, white or flesh. These have their place but just think of the sheer drama of Moira Shearer in her red shoes as merely one example.
So now we have Napoli to look forward to in 2012 but don't forget that Ballet Central is at the Civic on May 5 with a new ballet created by Brentwood's own Christopher Marney who dances leading characters with Matthew Bourne's company.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

a day of tales around Chelmsford town

Essex Story-telling laureate Mike Dodsworth launched his series of happenings in the Central Library. Among the stories he referenced then was the Norfolk classic The Pedlar of Swaffham. It was told again in the amazing space of the Town Sign Tepee by that celebrated teller of tales Hugh Lupton.

Between these two story spots, the Iliad outside Waterstones, and Footprints Theatre Company dressing the tree in Half Moon Square. Other events were more peripatetic: Movable Feast, John Row's Story Walks ... I loved Phil Drew's Historical Tour, which brilliantly combined stand-up, stories and anecdotal history. I admired the way he introduced other characters into his very personal story – the frog umbrellas, the Lynx effect – and then subverted the effect by arguing over the cash in hand, and tearing a strip off the hapless actress who'd been hired to do the Spontaneous Combustion.

The weather was certainly kind to the scores of al fresco performers. And, as the sun began to set, three ghostly ladies emerged from the churchyard trees round the Cathedral to tell their stories. Caroline of Brunswick, forever grateful to Judge Tindall, Elizabeth Wolton, remembering her philanthropic husband Hyem, both now at rest in one tomb, and Mrs Gepp, gossiping about Income Tax, her husband the Captain [and solicitor] and the Loyal Chelmsford Volunteers.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Oldham Coliseum Theatre and Harrogate Theatre, in association with Anvil Arts, at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester
for The Public Reviews

until March 19th
then at the Haymarket Basingstoke, March 22nd to 26th
This Northern Coward is not the Manchester in-the-round experiment, but a much more predictable staging which started life in the Coliseum Oldham, and arrived at the Mercury by way of Harrogate.
And hugely enjoyable it proved.
Beautiful period costumes, two lovely contrasting sets [Michael Holt] – the balconies of the Deauville hotel, light and Art Deco, with the kind of curtains that billow, and the plush fin-de-siècle flat in the rue Montaigne, with its grand piano, divans and cabinet phonograph. And performances that were just as stylish, directed with affection and a practised hand by Robin Herford.
Noel Coward wrote the play in less than a week, with himself in mind of course for the peach of a part that is Elyot Chase. James Simmons' Elyot had clearly been around a bit, with his co-respondent shoes, his lived-in face and his wry cynicism. He timed the bons mots to perfection, and, like his Amanda, had an elegance of gesture which suited the period. Jackie Morrison played Amanda with superb sophistication and endearing honesty – the kitten marked for tragedy. Her voice was absolutely right, and she sang the snatches of Coward wonderfully. These two actors played very well together - I loved the recognition scene, and the domestic intimacy of the pyjama-clad tête-à-tête in Act Two. Their enforced silences were very imaginatively handled, and the famous fight was painfully physical – fight director Renny Krupinski.
Their new spouses, younger, with much to learn about the ways of the world and the foibles of the idle rich, were Maeve Larkin as a pretty little Sybil, not lacking in spirit, and Christopher Naylor as a tweedy, Woosterish Victor. The exasperated domestique was nicely suggested by Tess Alshibaya.
Music is key to the piece – Coward wrote Someday I'll Find You specially for the first production – and both piano and gramophone were effectively used [MD Howard Gray]. Not so sure about the “cheap music” in Act One: it sounded more like Mantovani than the house band at the Hotel Royal. And the sound-scape had the disconcerting effect of placing the audience in the middle of the marina.
This is not exactly a ground-breaking production, but the cast are always convincing and spark off each other brilliantly, breathing new life into these familiar lines, never resorting to cliché or pastiche. The Master's brittle wit is well served in a constantly entertaining couple of hours.
this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Children's Touring Partnership at the Theatre Royal Norwich


Douglas Byng [“England's finest cabaret artiste”] came to entertain Norwich in 1941. Not of course the only Londoner uprooted to the Sticks in those unsettled, insecure times, as this marvellous adaptation [by David Wood] of Michele Magorian's novel reminds us.

William Beech is evacuated to rural Dorset, and finds himself billeted with grumpy, reclusive Tom Oakley. Each has demons to battle, and they both emerge stronger from the experience.
Oliver Ford Davies made a wonderful Mr Tom. Though maybe he softened too quickly, his simple kindness and the pain repressed deep inside were both economically suggested. And, the day I saw it, Oliver Tritton Wheeler was a perfect Will – slight, shy, nervous, his body language was always eloquent. A contrast of course with the other Londoner, Max Longmuir's extrovert Zach. Child of actor parents, he is at the centre of the amateur theatricals which, appropriately, loom large in Wood's version.
Michele Magorian started out as an actress, too, and the story was written between jobs, apparently.
I hope she appreciated the ingenious casting that gave Aoife McMahon both the awful mother and the angelic primary school teacher – the key women in Will's young life. Another nice double from Anne Kavanagh as kindly shopkeeper and chain-smoking, mannish doctor – a very recognisable period character this.
Like the novel, the play pulls no punches on the grim realities of war, which even idyllic Weirwold cannot escape. Robert Innes Hopkins' scene design uses two GWR-style posters for London and Dorset, and in an impressive revelation for a touring set, raises its platform to make the Beeches' dingy London basement flat. The costumes were very authentic looking, too. I liked the way Will's green pullover was taken from him as he left the country to be with his sick mother. And Sammy, Will's faithful four-legged friend, who, Lassie-like, leads the rescuers to the grim flat, was brought to vibrant, panting life by Laura Cubitt.

As so often, the language received less care. “There you go ...” and “hopefully” were little heard in the Forties.
And the matinée audience – seniors of Oakley's age [who remembered Virol] and schoolchildren of William's – was not the easiest. Nonetheless, a superb production, directed by Angus Jackson, of an important story.

Eastern Angles at the Town Hall, Maldon
touring until June 4th
for The Public Reviews

Off the lonely Suffolk coast, eroded by the relentless waves, a wreck has lain for thirty years. Now it is to be brought to the surface, just as a prickly journalist from London turns up in the the tight-knit local community, with her laptop and her searching questions.

That's the starting point for Andrew Holland's Up Out o' the Sea, an atmospheric piece dealing with those Eastern Angles stock-in-trade themes of origins, ghosts and time-slips.

A simple, weathered set sits across the Town Hall in Maldon, replicating the John Mills Theatre back in Ipswich. “Fresh Fish For Sale – Special Offer Herring £1.50 lb” at one end, with a suggestion of the mooring and the remote Point. At the other, the village library.

The company of five bring some pretty complex characters to life, as their stories unfold and intertwine. Rough-edged chancer Tweedie, looking for love and a way out of the dead-end, was played by Francis Woolf, who caught precisely the mixture of bravado and vulnerability. His colleague, Dolphie, the only survivor of the volunteer crew that attempted the rescue on that fatal night, was Mike Aherne, who managed to make the grumpy old fishermen both believable and sympathetic.

Lisa-Marie Hoctor played two linked characters, both immature, both young mothers; sometimes hard to grasp all her words in this less than ideal acoustic, but I loved her Emily, the mysterious girl with a touch of the devil, who dreams of passing through into glory …
Laura Harding was brilliantly convincing as the writer with secrets of her own – the picnic at the Point was movingly done, as was the “information versus emotion” dialogue with Lisa-Marie's modern Milly.
And Lisa Tramontin played the Librarian, by no means a stock character, despite her stereotype hair and cardigan. Though not all of the dialogue she was given rang true, she did provide some of the most touching moments in a play of many layers and textures. Including the key revelation, a real goosebumps realisation.

Music was powerfully used – a Bach Passion mainly – and simple but effective lighting suggested the sunshine and the showers, the night and the storm. The setting was practical and versatile - I admired the imagination that turned a door with oilskins hanging from hooks into a stretcher for the victims of the storm.

In the end, after a rescue which echoes the earlier disaster, they decide to leave the wreck where it lies – a memorial draws a line under a past event whose details are gradually revealed in this intriguing piece, directed, with his usual sure touch for the intangible, by Eastern Angles' Artistic Director Ivan Cutting.

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

Music of Light – The Writtle Singers at All Saints' Church

This satisfyingly ambitious programme was one of the Singers' best.
It began with plainsong – a form older than the building in which we were listening – with the choir processing to the four corners of the nave. Here they gave an impressive performance, from memory, of the challenging twenty-first century motet O lux beata Trinitas, a setting of words by St Ambrose.
James McMillan's Missa Brevis was the central work. Again, beautifully delivered, especially in the closing Agnus Dei, with its finely grained Miserere and its movingly humble Dona Nobis Pacem.
There was Bach, too, Brewer and Bairstow, whose I Sat Down Under His Shadow had a lovely diminuendo at the end.
Simon Harvey was at the organ – as soloist he gave Fireworks by Handel, and joined the Singers' inspirational director at the piano for a light-hearted duet from Fauré's Dolly Suite.
Secular music to finish, though in the lovely Saint-Saens Calme des Nuits it was really only the words that were secular. Not so in the delicious luminescent lollipops - On the Sunny Side of the Street and I'm Beginning to See the Light - sung with the same passion, the same precision, as the Holst, the Wood or the Rutter.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court

A week to go till Red Nose Day itself, but the Old Court is packed with fans and friends for three episodes from the penultimate series.
Director Dean Hempstead had chosen Ink and Incapability – the one about Dr Johnson's dictionary – Nob and Nobility – the one about the Scarlet Pimple – and Sense and Senility – the one with the actors and the anarchist. Had they been writing last week, Messrs Curtis and Elton might well have titled it The Prince Regent's Speech.
For we're in the Regency – the palace interior done up to match the new décor in the auditorium. Vivaldi joining Howard Goodall on the soundtrack, three marvellous Romantic poets, and best of all, the Prince George himself, a man “with all the wit and sophistication of a donkey”, obsessed with trousers, given a wonderful characterization by Kevin Stemp. I couldn't help being reminded of another idle scrounger scion of the royal line, the one who allegedly tells his 'Blackadder' to F*** Off every morning as he draws the royal curtains.
At the heart of the play, the relationship between Edmund and his sidekick, roles played again this time out by David Chilvers – not so “rubberfaced” as the original, but suaver and timing his laughs with consummate skill, and the comic genius Mark Preston.
A couple of guest appearances added to the gaiety of nations – Mike Nower as the Drury Lane thesp Keanrick, and Hempstead himself as the luddite Anarchist.
this production runs from March 15th to the 19th at The Old Court - ring 01245 606505 to check availability ...

Jim Hutchon saw the show for the Chelmsford Weekly News:
There is a feeling among the audience at the start that we have been catapulted into the strange world of television. The characters are familiar and straight from the TV series, and the actors, especially David Chilvers as Blackadder and Mark Preston as Baldrick, stay superbly in character from the opening scenes.

That said, it quickly becomes apparent that a live stage play can take liberties that a TV series can’t, and the extra dimension adds enormously to the sheer fun and enjoyment of Dean Hempstead’s masterly production.
Kevin Stemp as the peanut-brained Prince George harrumphed his deluded way through the action, and his trousers really stopped the show. Another show stopper was Tony Ellis in an evocation of the effects of poison that was pure slapstick.
It says much for CTW’s depth of talent that even minor roles played by the group’s heavyweights are given added impetus. Actors such as Steve Parr as a marvellously convincing Dr. Johnson, Mike Nower acting as an effete Restoration actor and Robin Winder as a greasy Frenchie make this a genuinely enjoyable evening.
This is CTW’s contribution to Comic Relief, where the aim is to beat their previous Blackadder’s contribution of £2,000.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Cut to the Chase at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch
07 March 2011

Make it another old-fashioned,please,” - coming right up, the first show of the new Queen's season, a gloriously enjoyable musical, giving the lie to those who moan that they don't write them like that any more.
Of course writer Stephen Wyatt has chosen his collaborators wisely – Cole Porter and Molière, though Pick Yourself Up is by Molière only in the sense that last year's hit “Forum” was by Plautus.
There are so many show-stoppers – my favourite from a thoroughbred field the Don't Fence Me In quartet – that you wonder how the plot can progress. And the 17th century stock characters are replaced by familiar stereotypes from the song-and-dance stage.
This is Bob Carlton's unique Cut to the Chase company, so the impressive dance band we hear in the overture is made up of the actors in the show, many of them familiar faces in this house.
The new boy first, though.
Greg Last plays a mean trombone and an even meaner hood – one of the two hitmen employed by Joe Hatchetface Tamales [Simon Jessop]. His partner in organised crime is the excellent Matthew Quinn [bass and guitar].
The Fred and Ginger of the Trocadero, East 47th, are Tom and Ruby [Elliot Harper and Natasha Moore] – both rising to the considerable challenge of hoofing, singing and slapstick, and both very watchable performers.
It's Tom - “terrible dancer and hopeless husband” - who becomes the reluctant shrink, donning a ridiculous false beard to effect a cure for lovelorn trumpeter Gloria [Sarah Scowen]. With a second opinion from the object of her affections, Harry [Jared Ashe, clarinet and sax].
A hit with the audience was Allison Harding's floozy Tallulah, who gave a breathtaking masterclass in musical comedy character work, proved a stylish drummer, and also spectacularly revived a couple of lesser known Cole Porters: Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love and Find Me A Primitive Man. The other revival was entrusted to Tom Jude's superbly characterized fiddle-playing maestro – The Leader of a Big-Time Band.
Rodney Ford's set – built as ever in the Queen's own workshop – caught the style exactly. The band-stand seemed to take up most of the performance area, but then, impressively, glided smoothly back on a truck, with screens sliding in to represent the street [hydrant, trash-can, lamp-post !] and Joe's mansion [lovely thirties fauna motif here].
Times are hard at the Trocadero ...” - tell us about it, we might reply. But this superb extended revival, directed by Matt Devitt with Julian Littman in charge of the music, shows no sign of recession. It never puts a foot wrong, presses all the right feel-good buttons, and makes a superb pick-me-up for these difficult days.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews