Saturday, April 30, 2011

Basildon Ballet Company
Brentwood Theatre

In an ambitious first venture on the Brentwood Theatre stage, Michelle's Brown's inclusive Basildon Ballet Company presented a full-length narrative piece based on the Wizard of Oz.

Her choreography was simple but strong, giving all of her dancers a chance to showcase their skills. I wonder, though, about the wisdom of focusing on the classical ballet – not the most forgiving of genres – when the subject matter might lend itself to something more modern. And many of the sequences were a little long, tiring the dancers and exhausting the ideas.

The demanding role of Dorothy was taken by Colleen Palmer, who brought poise and energy to the part; the other principals included Vicki Glover's Glinda [she also danced Aunt Em], Stacey Barham's Wicked Witch, and the colourful trio of Nisha Vyas's Lion [who had the most characterful choreography], Chloe Hookins' dapper Tinlady and Victoria McAllister's lively Scarecrow. Her costume was wonderful - I also liked Dorothy's frock: gingham over ballet frills, and ruby slippers of course.

The younger dancers were given plenty to do – three pas de deux for the Munchkins. But while they were focused and confident with their dances, their stage discipline was less good when they were simply required to sit and watch.

The music, arranged by Marcus Brown, was a mix of gems from the classical repertoire, Arlen's tunes, plus some wittily eclectic choices: Elton John, Keep Young and Beautiful, Anyone Who Had A Heart for the Tin Man, and for the Scarecrow, Neil Richardson's Approaching Menace, better known as the Mastermind Theme !

No credits for any of the composers in the programme, unfortunately. More significantly, there was nothing about the background to this obviously keen young company, which seems to aim to bring classical ballet to all – although there were no male dancers this time out. This unambitiously assumes that the entire audience will be made up of family and friends ...

My colleague Mary Redman was at the opening night ...

Eight years ago Michelle Brown, a Basildon dance school proprietor and choreographer for this show, was inspired by a television documentary programme showing a ballet company consisting of people of all ages, all abilities, all experiences or none.
A year ago she set up Basildon Ballet Company and this year the results were shown to the public at Brentwood Theatre. In reality, due to lack of knowledge of how to publicise a show and how to compose a programme, the audience consisted almost entirely of friends and relations. It also meant that those of us unfamiliar with the company were at a loss to understand its background without asking for clarification.
But, all power to their feet and the entire company's bravery.
To an experienced dance eye, yes there were some absolute beginners involved who had never appeared on stage before and I really at times wondered what on earth was going on. After a talk with Michelle all became clear.
I agree with every thing Michael Gray has written particularly as to the length of the ballet and the complicated story that had developed. The young Munchkins were a particularly lively bunch but a far more firm directorial touch was needed to put an end to the dreadfully long gaps between scenes and to train dancers to keep their attention on the action. You can't simply do your bit then switch off your character and simply observe what's happening.
Costumes must have cost a fortune and had a certain Basildon style to them, even Dorothy's pointe shoes were glamorous in red glitter.
I'd love to see this group again next year when they've all had an opportunity to research things further by going to see as many other groups as possible such as Chelmsford Ballet Company (still going strong since the 1940s).
In the mean time, keep up the good work and practice all you can.
Eastern Angles
Brentwood Theatre

Off the lonely Suffolk coast 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.

Andrew Holland's Up Out o' the Sea, directed, with his usual sure touch for the intangible, by Eastern Angles' Artistic Director Ivan Cutting, deals with those Eastern Angles stock-in-trade themes of origins, ghosts and time-slips.

A company of five bring some 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 was Mike Aherne, who managed to make the grumpy old fisherman both believable and sympathetic.

Lisa-Marie Hoctor played two linked characters, both immature, both young mothers; 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 was excellent as the Librarian, by no means a stock character, despite her stereotype hair and cardigan.

The setting was evocative, 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.

The show is touring the region until 4 June – Essex dates include Margaretting, Brightlingsea and Coggeshall.

This is an edited and updated version of my review for The Public Reviews. Pleased to see the traverse staging made to work so well on the Brentwood stage.

photo by Mike Kwasniak

Monday, April 25, 2011


Surely a centenarian by now. The unnamed Headmaster, whose retirement in 1968 is the peg for Alan Bennett's rag-bag vaudeville history of Britain in the Twentieth Century, Forty Years On, is confined to the Albion Nursing Home, alone with a television set and an uncaring carer.
These bleak bookends to what is already a play within a play were the invention of Stephen Picton, who directed this welcome revival for the Maddermarket, and also played a brilliant Tempest, the role Bennett wrote for himself when young.
All his turns were realised with wit and panache – the Wildean Lady Dundown, Beerbohm, the Confirmation Class. John Hare, as the Headmaster, caught the frustration, the nostalgia and the rueful regret in a performance redolent of the great Gielgud, creator of the role. Though I would have enjoyed it more had he managed to stick a little closer to the text.
James McGary played Franklin, the new Head, with some nice character work in the Buchan pastiche and the basement of Claridges. Versatile support from Etta Geras's Matron [Nanny Gibbins, Primrose Hill] and Mel Sessions's Miss Nisbit, Nursie to Hugh and Moggie.

The dozen or so schoolboys were denied much of their fun [the Rugby Song, Sybilline Quarrell, the treble duets], and were often shunted off into the balconies, but did contribute some telling tableaux – the Edwardian tennis, the old Queen, and the leads at Kimber transformed to the trenches of the Somme. Lovely cameos from Oscar Schmidt-Hansen's Wigglesworth, Nathan Ross's Foster and Findlay Norton's Treadgold, with his name proudly, if anachronistically, displayed on his rugger shirt. And they were given some key passages of narrative. I was impressed with the second 'cheiromant' reader, and the first speaker in the extended Envoi, the final sequence which caught exactly Bennett's ambivalent intentions.
Elsewhere, especially at the end of the run, I might have expected a more seamless, pacier presentation. And I could be endlessly picky about detail: Lawrence lived at Clouds Hill, Connolly ran Horizon magazine, Binyon wrote “grow not old” ... Production values were generally high, though, - the uniforms, the milk bottles, the props basket - with effective choices of music [Vaughan Williams, Forget-me-not Lane], creative use of slides and shadows, and a panelled set just right for the school on the Downs, bedecked with bunting and the garlands of memory.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The National Theatre in the Olivier

Over-produced,” I muttered when I saw the NT Live relay of Frankenstein. I was thinking of the rain, the boat, the train, I suppose.
This week in the Olivier it was an entirely different experience. The vastness of the open stage kept everything in perspective, and though it remains true that it could be staged much more simply, Danny Boyle's production [and of course Nick Dear's take on Mary Shelley's story] was a memorable experience.
The great bell, the pod, or cocoon, from which Johnny Lee Miller's Creature is born [Shelley is vague on this...] and the dense canopy of vintage electric light-bulbs, almost organic in effect, were all brilliant pieces of stagecraft. As was the train, with its twin shadows.
The two central performances [famously alternated, like Olivier and Gielgud as Romeo and Mercutio] were searingly strong. Miller discovering his naked body, and later his voice, Benedict Cumberbatch realising what he has done, and the inevitable consequences of playing God. A second hearing revealed richness in the text, and potent echoes of literature, theology and political philosophy. Paradise Lost, of course, and original sin, with the “Monster” tasting Satan's bile. But also shades of Prospero in Karl Johnson's wonderful de Lacey – exiled from his library, but permitted to keep his books. The Creature his Caliban - “you taught me how to curse ...”
You and I, we are one,” Frankenstein realises, alone with his creation in the waste of frost and snow. Now it is the Creator who assumes the foetal position, as the tragedy reaches, not an ending, but a conclusion of sorts. Though ironically, it is Frankenstein Senior [a towering performance from George Harris] who asks “What have I brought into the world ?”

the complete KJV at Shakespeare's Globe

The Word is God, according to Shakespeare's Globe, who have themed their 2011 season [loosely] around the 400th birthday of the King James Bible.
In fact, there was a foretaste last year, with the smash hit Anne Boleyn [a new play from Howard Brenton], which is returning for a longer run this year.
And to kick things off officially, an ambitious recital of the whole sacred text, using a company of twenty actors [an eclectic band, including some Globe 'stars'] and a system known as Recorded Delivery, which enables the performers to recite with an iPhone instead of clutching a book.
Palm Sunday saw a good house, even at 10 in the morning, for Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy; the marathon reaches Revelation on the evening of Easter Monday.
Directed by Jacqueline Somerville, it proved an absorbing, often moving insight into words both familiar and unfamiliar – the brisk pace, and the variety of voices and approaches to the text shone new light onto the words of King James's committee of translators.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Cut to the Chase at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch
19 April 2011
till April 30

Back in the Saddle Again ! The old Gene Autry number heralds this rollicking re-working of Shakespeare. It's from Cut to the Chase, Hornchurch's blissfully talented resident repertory company of actor musicians.
But this is not really a musical in the sense that their 'Anything Goes' Twelfth Night was – the characters in the Shrew don't burst into song; instead, the old cowboy canon made famous by Autry and Roy Rogers – Silver Haired Daddy, Wedding Bells, Band of Gold - is used to comment on the action, and to give us in the audience a breather from the bard in broad American brogue. An evocative walking bass, a pair of coconut shells, and here they are, in eyepatch, false beard and Davey Crockett raccoon hat, with another fond memory of those days when men were men and women were grateful.
And that's an excellent reason for transplanting Padua to the Wild West. No-one expects these cowboys to espouse women's rights, so Kate's awkward submission is placed in a safe, familiar context.
It's enormous fun, too, of course, in Bob Carlton's inspired adaptation. We start in a local fleapit, with forthcoming attractions plus Pearl and Dean. Stock characters populate the little Texas town, with its Main Street lovingly recreated in Norman Coates's design. Biondello is a lazy Mexican, hilariously done by Greg Last, Jared Ashe's Gremio is the undertaker, Simon Jessop's Baptista is the bartender. Tom Jude's Tranio was a joy – back on the fiddle again – with an accent you could cut with a knife.
Queen's favourite Natasha Moore has two improbable roles: Hortensio's merry Widow [a burlesque dancer in this version] and a redskin Indian boy Grumio.
Elliot Harper, in a barnstorming and really quite Shakespearean performance, even in his pink combinations, makes the most of Petruchio, the loner who rides into town and tames Claire Storey's Calamity Kate; her demure sister Bianca was anything but bland in Sarah Scowen's attractive characterization.
The two hours fly by, with loads of inventive moments, from the arrival of the stage coach to the ride off into the sunset. I liked the nod to Blazing Saddles, the drunken bridegroom, the teepee honeymoon, the saloon bar crowd spilling out onto the verandah to watch the wooing.
Willy the Kid” looking on from his Wanted poster on the jailhouse wall, is surely used by now to later hands “improving” his early comedy. There've been sequels, an opera, countless films both silent and musical, television from Heston to Cleese, and of course Kiss Me Kate. But this Spaghetti Western re-vamp is a witty, worthy addition to the list, and a pretty painless way into the world of Shakespeare. “Being a winner, God give you good night !”

photo by Nobby Clark

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Monday, April 18, 2011

Chelmsford Young Generation at the Cramphorn Theatre

The simple spirituality of Whistle Down The Wind seems closer to the Middle Ages than to our cynical, secular times. CYGAMS' moving production caught the era nicely, with attention to set-dressing detail, and some near-perfect performances.

Chiefly from the children, the “disciples” who trustingly accept a fugitive as their Saviour. Kathryn Peacock as Cathy, Monique Crisell as her sister Nan and Jack Toland as their cheeky little brother, all convinced us that they were raised in 50s Lancashire, and found a focused emotional energy that made their strange story unbelievably poignant. All the village children were well, and individually, characterized – a special mention to Jackson Buckler's wacky David Edwards.

The youngsters playing the grown-ups had a harder task, perhaps. I liked Sophie Walker's unworldly Miss Lodge, Alex Hilton's unchristian vicar and Sam Toland's bluff Dad. The enigmatic Man, who has the near impossible job of suggesting both Murderer and Messiah, was Luke Higgins, whose haunted, hurt look was just right – he shared the role with Bart Lambert.

The music, by Richard Taylor, makes huge demands on the young singers, but significantly enhances the mood of mystery and suspense. Excellently sung here by principals and chorus, with the score reduced to a couple of keyboards.

The ingenious set, though hard to shift, successfully suggested the spartan farm, and the ending – empty tomb rather than ignominious arrest – was effectively managed. I admired the clever programme design, too.

Whistle Down The Wind was directed by Ray Jeffery, with Bryan Cass the Musical Director.

Photograph by Christopher Yorke-Edwards
Brentwood Shakespeare Company at the Brentwood Theatre

A clearly delivered, tightly plotted Hamlet from Brentwood Shakespeare, with Lionel Bishop's almost aggressively brooding Prince at its centre. The clouds still hung over him; only his livelier mania after the interval brought relief from resentful sorrow. But it was a beautifully spoken, thoughtful interpretation – like Alan Ablewhite's prolix Polonius, he made effective use of asides to draw us into the intrigue.

A strong cast brought a wealth of experience to their roles. Sydney Hill's Claudius could easily have walked in from one of Wolfit's tours: a rich, old-school interpretation. By contrast, Beth Smith's earnest blue-stocking Ophelia was moving in her madness, all mud and feathers. The Gravediggers, who survived the cuts better than most, were brilliantly done by Ablewhite [again] and the inimitable Brian Terry. Rosencrantz worked surprisingly well as a woman, thanks to Hayley Joanne Bacon's feisty performance. And Alec Clements' apprentice Osric was very promising.

The staging was confident and dramatically meaningful from the first revelation of the red hangings to the final 'resurrection'. I was less sure about the colour-coded “timeless” costumes – to me they smacked of 1950s science fiction.

But Glenda Abbott's polished, fast-paced production successfully brought Shakespeare's finest tragedy to vivid life, pleasing both Bardolators and beginners.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Mercury Theatre Company at the Mercury Theatre Colchester
until April 30

The Mercury continue their exploration of the Miller canon with this powerful 1950s drama set in the poor immigrant community huddled round the “gullet of New York”.

Men of Sicilian stock struggle to survive; illegal immigrants are lodged in already crowded apartments. They live in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, and its verses are illuminated as part of Michael Vale's inspired set design. From the perspective of the bridge, their world is insignificant, but the playwright, and his lawyer Chorus, take us into their world, with its links to an ancient past, and its grubby tragedies.

We see the stage stripped back to black. Black girders, black chainlink fencing, and a string of domestic interiors – chintz, leatherette, lampshades with tassels. Neighbours go about their lives, their interest occasionally stirred by an argument, a song; they finally emerge when the cops drag the cousins away.

Roger Delves-Broughton was our guide; modest, not without humour, he waits for the tragedy to unfold, powerless to intervene.

Eddie Carbone, longshoreman, who never expected a destiny, was played with palpable intensity by Tim Treslove. He is a possessive guardian to his wife's niece – their quiet lives are troubled by the arrival of the boys from Sicily: macho, hard-working Marco [Lucian Dodero], and Rodolpho, blond, musical, and “not right” in Eddie's eyes. A touching performance by Pete Ashmore, as he wooed the young Catherine, given a truthful, moving characterization by Ella Vale. Gina Isaac was Eddie's wife, down-trodden and frustrated.
Ten actors peopled the apartments and the streets, in a defiantly perfectionist move which is typical of the Mercury's production values.

Janice Dunn's impeccable production successfully evoked the passionate, fast-talking world of these immigrants with their roots in the Mediterranean. The atmospheres, the tensions were almost unbearable at times, and she made the most of the set-pieces like the dancing, the boxing, the messy arrest, the show of strength that ends Act One.

The ending, when it comes, is as powerful as anything in Shakespeare, and leaves us pondering the timeless emotions, the human frailty that cost Carbone his life.

photograph by Robert Day

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Thursday, April 07, 2011

John Buchan adapted by Patrick Barlow
at the Criterion Theatre, Piccadilly Circus

A cheeky false proscenium, in this bijou theatre, for the tiny boxes where the heroic Hannay gets the girl and saves the day.
Rufus Wright was the stiff-upper-lip, snobbery-with-violence protagonist, and the hundred or more other characters were played by Laura Rogers [most of the women, all of the love interest] and Sean Kearns and Dermot Canavan.

The original plot was present, and mostly correct, though it has to compete for space in this 90 minute romp with nods to Hitchcock, physical comedy routines and good wholesome fun. The genius of the show was that none of this was particularly complex, or difficult even, but it's done at breakneck pace with amazing confidence and chutzpah. There's wind, snow and fog, there's a lovely little train, there's a Tommy Cooper hat routine, the two-sided character, even the cliché four-chair car !

Good use of music too – for Hannay's romantic stirrings, Coronation Scot for the train, even the Palladium theme.

It's all very tongue-in-cheek, never afraid to poke fun at itself, and altogether a deliciously entertaining evening in the West End. And it's now in its fifth year, and this is the seventh quartet to take the Flying Scotsman over the Forth Bridge ...

Opera della Luna at the Civic Theatre

Opera della Luna have taken Gilbert's comic opera and fast-forwarded it to the 1970s, where its themes of free love and mind-altering substances feel very much at home.
We are at a garden fête, inside an impressive marquee. Before the overture is finished, we've had handbells and unrequited love, neatly symbolised by the vicar's panama hat.
The “pale young curate” in question was Philip Cox, by no means ancient enough, but very amusing, especially in his drug-fuelled infatuation with Alexis in Act Two.
Alexis was played as a groovy swinger – flared jeans, purple velvet, droopy moustache – by Oliver White, who managed his tenor arias with some style, too, even when hand-jiving, disco dancing and cavorting with his intended, Abigail Iveson's Aline.
The Sorcerer himself was Richard Gauntlett, and Mrs Partlett, mother of the rustic maiden Constance [nicely sung by Claire Watkins] was a hilarious Graham Hoadly.
Another Opera della Luna regular, Ian Belsey, was the funny old buffer Sir Marmaduke; Sylvia Clarke as his beloved had just the kind of rich, deep tone these roles demand.
The Ploverleigh Village Band was conducted by Artistic Director Jeff Clarke, who was also responsible for this inspired revival. The music was treated with respect, but not reverence, and the inventive staging and polished comic performances made for a disgracefully enjoyable evening.
at the Cramphorn Theatre

Bull-necked, jack-booted, Hermann Goering stands before us, a defiant, arrogant, thug. But also an honest airman, a heroic Siegfried, a lover of the theatre. A believer in power through truth; a loyal supported of Hitler from the earliest days.

It is his last night; he is about to cheat the hangman, win one last victory and finally find a kind of peace.

Ross Gurney-Randall's mesmerising performance switches from his bare cell to the Nuremburg courtroom, using verbatim extracts from the trial, with Goering answering the disembodied voice of prosecutor Jackson.

No German accent, no uniform, no scenery, no clever effects. Just the man, refusing to excuse or apologise, talking to us without pretence; the magic here is in the words [written by Gurney-Randall with Andrew Bailey and the director, Guy Masterson]. The most poetical passages were for the worst atrocities – the violence of the beer hall massacre, the searing images from the death camps – Himmler's baby, according to Goering's testimony.

This is no mere history lesson, though we do follow Hitler's right-hand man through the rise of Nazism to its defeat. Tomorrow belongs to his child Edda, he says, And as we live that tomorrow with her, we must never forget how easy it is for men like Hermann to persuade and pervert.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Trestle Unmasked
Trestle Theatre Company
at the Mercury Studio, Colchester

Oscar Wilde's short story – a spoilt Spanish princess breaks the heart of a simple child – is reworked by Trestle into a rich, mythic experience, full of the magic that only theatre can work.

It takes its inspiration, and much of its design, from the Velasquez painting of Las Meninas. Our storyteller, black clad like a stern tutor, is wandering through the auditorium as we enter, making sporadic small-talk with the gathering listeners. “The longer the name, the more status you have ...”, a sentiment with which Wilde would certainly concur.

The mirror and the fan dominate Jean Chan's evocative design, based around a fragment of a richly ornamented picture frame. The fans will become flowers, butterflies, the horns of a bull … The detail achieves deep significance: the pearl, the rose. This is collaborative play-making. We fashion flowers from tissue paper, trumpet the arrival of the Infanta, two children dance, one removes yards of the dead Queen's innards as part of a gruesome disquisition on the art of the embalmer. But mostly it is Georgina Roberts' energetically enchanting performance which makes this such a memorable hour. She assumes every character, from the delicate, charming Princess to the pathetic mis-shapen boy who is plucked from the forest to make her laugh on her twelfth birthday. She becomes courtiers, gypsies, a French funambulist – his moustaches made from more fans – the bullfighter and the bull.

Music, light and sleight-of-hand are used to keep the momentum moving, and as we approach the dark dénouement – the moral lesson of Wilde's tale – delight and wonder are replaced by regret and despair. A kaleidoscope of marvellous moments remain in the memory long after we emerge into the spring sunshine. The ape heralded by a sudden banana, the philosophical lizards, the distorting mirror, the sundial and the snake.

This heady blend of story-telling and physical theatre, directed by Emily Gray, is a passionate piece, and deserved a larger audience than Colchester could manage. Its message is just as important for today's children [and grown-ups] as it was when Wilde wrote it, or when Velasquez painting his Infanta.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Friday, April 01, 2011

Matthew Bourne's ballet
New Adventures at the Theatre Royal, Norwich

Imposing front cloth with London in the Blitz, and a huge close-up of Cinderella's right glass slipper. Vera Lynn on the sound-track; not ousting Prokofiev, surely … No, here's the familiar ballet score, in glorious surround sound, just one of a number of respectful references to the movies.
At the end, after the curtain calls, showers of VE day confetti, and jiving Pennsylvania 6500 for a slow fade back to the slipper and St Paul's.

In between, a ballet which managed to be both innovative and traditional. This is a grey 1940s austerity world, with a dowdy Cinders and her vampish sisters. Even the flowing ball gowns are grey silk. Matthew Bourne's re-interpretation has many brilliant ideas, many of them realised thanks to Lez Brotherston's wonderful designs. The Embankment scene, the sidecar ride to the Ball after a glorious “Can't black out the moon” waltz sequence, the station tea room, with the clock a reminder of the last midnight, the wheel-chair-bound Father staring into the fire, the knees-up to what is usually Ugly Sisters music, and most impressive of all, the direct hit on the Café de Paris.

Although pure balleticism is not what this show is about, their was some fine dancing from a large company: Harry the Pilot [the Prince of this fairytale], who has most of the work to do, was Sam Archer, his Cinderella, looking as glamorous as Grace Kelly, was danced by Kerry Biggin, Madelaine Brennan played a Joan Crawford evil stepmother, and the Angel, our silver-haired Fairy Godfather, a lithely athletic Christopher Marney.