Saturday, May 28, 2011

at Shakespeare's Globe

Oranges growing from the Heavens, flowers around the stage, water features between the players and the groundlings. All suggesting sunny Messina. But there's a hint of Sicily's Arab past too, with lovely latticed screens, and fezzes for the Watch.

I wasn't much tickled by Dogberry [Paul Hunter], who seemed to be channelling the never-very-funny Jack Douglas every time he had a malapropism to flag up, though he and his fellows did have some clever slapstick moments. Hero and Claudio were a little underplayed, though Ony Uhiara had some lovely dialogue with her perplexed father [Joseph Marcell].

The chief delight of Jeremy Herrin's pacy, fresh production was the triple chemistry between Eve Best's very modern Beatrice, Charles Edwards's chatty Benedick and the packed yard. They both built a comic complicity with the audience, sharing quips and soliloquies with effortless ease. This is what marks out a great Globe actor – the ability to use the intimacy of the space and chat, informally and seemingly impromptu, with the crowd in the cockpit. Mark Rylance did it first, and memorably, for years. More recently we've seen Roger Allam's Falstaff and Miranda Raison's Anne Boleyn work the same magic, and now Best and Edwards. Dr Who and his Donna will have a hard act to follow ...
Great Baddow Proms 2011 at St Margaret's Church

There aren't many bards about these days, to sing the praises and chart the story of their own neck of the woods.
So it was great to have this year's Baddow Proms devoted in large part to Eric Withams' new cantata, Baddow Magna, a setting of Chris Wright's words, chronicling the history of this village turned suburb. Performed in the parish church by a huge choir of villagers and school-children, accompanied by the Magna Band, illustrated by historical photographs, it was fascinating and enormous fun.
The sound of the Revolting Peasants, trudging back home in defeat, the jolly-bank-holiday music for Galleywood Races, the Waltonian chords, sirens and split choirs of evacuees in the World War II sequence, the dramatic flood of 1958, all were effective evocations of times past. There were local characters too, Bertha Sandford from the shop, Porky Amos from the school, and the tragic Molly Ram [her ballad sung by Jane White], whose murder is memorialised in Molrams Lane.
The work ended with an upbeat finale - “Long may its spirit last ...”
The first half of the concert featured local musicians in works from Vivaldi to YMCA, folk, opera and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


Benjamin Britten's opera at the ENO

A lonely man returns to his old school, deserted but for the ghosts, meets his younger self, bitterly remembering being supplanted as teacher's pet by a younger boy.
Of course, it's Britten's Dream.

Christopher Alden's haunting production sometimes sits uneasily on the score, more so on the libretto. We need to read it as a palimpsest, perhaps, or like Hermia, see it “with parted eye”, taking in the two stories at once.

Innocence corrupted is a recurring theme in Britten; here it's as if Death In Venice and The Turn of the Screw have leached into this pastoral. It's the Dream meets the History Boys, with hints of “If...” for good measure.

However, when you're actually experiencing this potent re-working, the school is a strangely compelling image, mesmerising us into accepting this idiosyncratic reading.
The set, based on a real school yard, dominates, and the unnatural lighting supports the oneiric atmosphere.

Theseus, for this is the returning stranger, was Paul Whelan, awkward, haunted, looking not unlike Jennings as Britten in Habit of Art. Puck, his younger self, was a moving Jamie Manton, often close to tears, and bitter in his resentment right to the closing speech. Dominic Williams was the Changeling Boy, given much to do here, conducting the music, taking over some of Puck's tasks.
The outstanding performance of this production, though, was Iestyn Davies as jealous Oberon, the charismatic, creepy teacher. Beautifully sung, with real character and a strong presence wherever on the complex set he was placed. Both he and his music teacher Tytania [the wonderful Anna Christy] were very young – could almost have been mistaken for students. Also youthful, naturally, were the lovers, here imagined as passionate Sixth Formers – Demetrius a muddied oaf in the rugger team. Their trysts and quarrels were hard to take in this setting, though, with no wood in which to wander. But musically very impressive, especially Allan Clayton's Lysander.
The Rude Mechanicals, the only colour in this, grim, grey boyhood world, were, I think, the janitorial staff, with the “slow of study” Snug a PE teacher. Even seasoned performers like Simon Butteriss [Starveling, robbed of the plum drag role of Thisby] and Willard White [Bottom, with no ass-head of his own] struggled to find any fun in this world, shorn as it was of jollity, the magic largely replaced by misery. Where the lovers meet behind the bins, the “weed I showed thee once” is the herb of choice for sixties students, and the flowery bed is a cold, grim corner of the schoolyard.

But the effect of this “fruitless vision” was dramatic, and did often suit the score, given a superb reading by the orchestra under Leo Hussain. The schoolboys, sombre spectres filing slowly across, almost always behind the huge windows, were used effectively – the ending of Act Two was movingly powerful. The conjugation of Amo, Amas, Amat was tellingly replaced on the blackboard by Tytania's warning: Out of this wood do not desire to go ...

Opinions so far have been divided - “hateful fantasies” or “jewels from the deep”. I wonder, would this approach work for the Shakespeare play ? Would it make sense to anyone who knew nothing of the composer ? Would it do anything for a child new to the story ? And if not, does it matter ?

Dyad Productions
Cramphorn Theatre

Jim Hutchon was in the Cramphorn:

Any production with a Guy Masterson cachet is worth the trip out. He has produced a whole series of fine dramas, largely one person works. Actor Rebecca Vaughan, who we last saw in the spectacularly successful ‘Austen’s Women’, has assembled from a wide range of disparate sources, the thoughts and conversations of Elizabeth 1st, from holding her own against the intellectuals of the day, to her private prayers and her innermost doubts.
The period Rebecca has chosen is curious. Not for her the drama of Elizabeth’s younger days, mother murdered and she cast out by her father Henry VIII, imprisoned by her sister and dubbed a bastard, or the later period of her glory against the Armada and the flowering of England as a superpower. Instead, she opted for the rather boring period in between where she is a largely unproven queen with suspicious and wary subjects.
The result is a declamation of great scholarship and meticulous research, but with not much drama for the audience to get a hold of. Rebecca is clearly a consummate actor with commanding voices, and while I applaud her dedication to talk non-stop for 90 minutes, she is not a natural story teller, so the result isn’t very ‘audience friendly’. It is erudite and wide-ranging, but not, I fear, theatre.
Trinity Methodist Music and Drama

A proudly traditional Ruddigore from Trinity; it boasted some polished performances from experienced Savoyards, directed with a sure touch by Tony Brett.

And it was beautifully dressed by The Costume Store, with an old-fashioned off-the-peg set [Paul Lazell], featuring “The Witches Curse” inn stage right.

Howard Brooks looked eminently Victorian as Robin/Ruthven, as did his stage brother Nicholas Clough, who nicely caught the contrast between the double-dyed villain with the melodramatic eyebrows and his meek and mild reincarnation in Act Two. Their duet near the end of the first act was very stylishly delivered. Equally impressive was Sir Despard's other half – Sarah Thompson's Mad Margaret.

Simon Thompson turned in an impeccably hammy Old Adam, while Janet Moore gave us a beautifully studied Dame Hannah.

Rose Maybud, the nubile maiden of Rederring in thrall to etiquette, was charmingly played, and sung, by Sarah Fletcher; Adam Sullivan made an outstanding Dick Dauntless – an energetic bluejacket with a lively, lusty hornpipe.

The chorus – villagers, gentry, bridesmaids - looked impressive; they moved and sang with practised style, though the ancestors were disappointingly bloodless. A hard-working pit band gave splendid support under the direction of Anton Archer, no mean Savoyard himself.

production photograph by Val Scott

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cut to the Chase at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch
16 May 2011

We were searched as we entered the foyer. Looking for rice and loo rolls, no doubt. But they need not have worried, these Rocky Horror fans were impeccably behaved, though there were fishnets a-plenty, nerdy specs and one group with white coats and green surgical gowns. But no lighters were waved, no water pistols discharged. The stage remained clear of confetti and KitKats.

Hard to imagine now, how radically outrageous Richard O'Brien's show seemed in the seventies. These days the alternative has become mainstream, the edgy has become middle of the road. It's no longer inappropriate to ask an American high school girl about her tattoos.

So this big blast of a production was more like a familiar pantomime, with everyone waiting for their favourite routine. But it is the kind of show that the multi-tasking Cut to the Chase do best: great to see Riff Raff [Tom Jude] brandish his electric fiddle, and Brad and Janet [Mark Stanford and Sarah Scowen] on sax and trumpet. Julian Littman, the MD, also sat in the Orson Welles chair to do the narration. And Natasha Moore, in one of the best costumes, did a lovely star-spangled tap dance in the Time Warp.

All the other Hornchurch regulars slipped effortlessly into the basques, giving high-octane performances for these OTT characters. Particularly impressive were the barely recognisable Elliot Harper's toned blond Rocky, and Simon Jessop's double of the doomed biker Eddie and the mad Nazi scientist Dr Scott. And Matthew Quinn managed to be camp, decadent and homely in a memorable incarnation of Frank N Furter, enhanced by the unique trick of playing his own guitar riffs for Sweet Transvestite.

Bob Carlton's production was a constant joy, from the opening titles to the Show Band finale. I loved the masked choirboys in the wedding scene, the rolling road and the steering wheel, and the leaning perspective and spread legs of Mark Walter's inspired set.

My only concern was that, should there be any Rocky Horror Show virgins in the audience, they would lose a lot of the witty lyrics behind the pounding decibels. Not a problem for the fans and the camp followers, of course, who were one step ahead most of the way. Though there was very little banter, at least on Press Night.
Only in the megamix encore did things really take off in the stalls, as the audience finally lost their inhibitions at around the same time Frank lost his wig …

production photos by Nobby Clark

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Witham AOS at the Public Hall

A splendid silver fan backdrop stylishly suggested the opulence of the SS American, red white and blue bunting its transatlantic journey.
The silly plot of Anything Goes is eclipsed by Cole Porter's wonderful songs, skilfully handled by this strong cast. Not all the production numbers had the oomph and the energy of Blow Gabriel Blow with its nuns and its scarlet sinners, and the tap-dancing Angels – beautifully dressed – were outweighed by the more statuesque passengers. So it was left to the principals to light up the stage. Particularly successful were David Slater's Lord Evelyn, with his silly-ass accent and his rampant sword, Tom Whelan's Whitney and Stewart Adkin's gravelly Public Enemy #13 – an exemplary musical comedy performance. His “Oima” was an engaging Kath Adkins, who made the most of her Buddie Beware.
Rachel Clapp was a wonderfully watchable Reno; I loved the imaginative mime during You're The Top, just one of her great numbers. Hope Harcourt was played with poise and a nice vocal style by Corrina Wilson; her Billy was Marcus Churchill, who had an easy presence, but a tendency to holler his top notes.
I wasn't alone in finding some of the lighting uncharacteristically gloomy, and the pace and punch the show needs will doubtless pick up as the run goes on. But Cathy Court's production had some lovely touches: the seagulls and the phonograph at the start, the gauze for All Through The Night, the curtain calls which allowed everyone an individual bow, right down to Margot, who played Cheeky with canine aplomb.
The hard-working pit band produced some pleasantly authentic sounds; the Musical Director was Ed Court.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court

Stoppard's early piece - show-off fireworks and intellectual knockabout - imagines a meeting of minds in neutral Switzerland during the Great War.
This long-awaited revival, directed by Pete and Lois Jeary, sees Tristan Tzara en travesti,  James Joyce as a Limerick man on the scrounge,  cheese sandwiches and teacakes at the Consulate,  and a libidinous librarianess of Zurich.  Not to mention the Imprudence of Being ... not Ernest, the other one.

Jim Hutchon was at the opening night; this is his review for The Weekly News:

Co-directors Peter and Lois Jeary developed a strong narrative drive to bring together Tom Stoppard’s disjointed diatribe on politics, literature and modern art. In doing so they made sense of the piece and with many imaginative touches brought out much of its essential humour.

A senile diplomat Henry Carr (played by James Christie with impressive zest but not much comic timing) ‘remembers’ a vintage period in Zurich in WW1 where he befriended Lenin, James Joyce and the founder of the Dada modern art movement Tristan Tzara. Geoff Brown was suitably pompous as Lenin and Vikki Pead took on the self-important Tzara with appropriate intensity. Danny Segeth played a highly-convincing Joyce talking largely in limericks; in fact the funniest interchange of the evening was a 5-part dialogue in limericks, each finishing the others’ lines.
The text is shot through with allusions to Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and in amongst the serious ‘man talk’, there are the delightful airheads from Ernest, Gwendolen and Cecily played with aplomb by Catherine Hitchens and Catherine Bailey respectively, and a fine studied cameo from Michael Gray as Bennett the butler. There are a number of in-jokes and references to Earnest and the politics of the early 20th Century, but a knowledge of these is not necessary to get real enjoyment from the evening.

photograph of Henry Carr [James Christie] courtesy of James Sabbarton

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Little Waltham Drama Group


Elizabeth von Armin's Twenties novel about the restorative properties of the Italian sunshine has been filmed twice, and last year re-emerged as a musical.

This charming 2003 Broadway version by Matthew Barber got what may well be its UK première on the tiny Little Waltham stage last week.

Director Mags Simmonds gave it a convincing sheen of authenticity; the first act is all anticipation, in the second we escape to the wisteria and sunshine – a gorgeous backdrop by Liz Willsher - in the entertaining company of a quartet of ladies unable to resist a month in Heaven.

Susan Butler, as Lottie, the instigator of the invitations, shared her enthusiasm with the audience as well as with her contrasting counterpart, the “disappointed Madonna” poignantly played by Victoria Rossiter. Their travelling companions were brilliantly characterized by Kim Travell as the glamorous, flapperish Lady Bramble, and June Franzen as the formidable Mrs Graves, making the most of every line, every laugh in a memorable performance.

The husbands – Gordon MacSween's humourless lawyer and Brian Corrie's salacious novelist – make the journey to San Salvatore too, to be thawed by the warmth of the Riviera. The maid Costanza was a hilarious Linda Burrow; Ken Little played the doting “Tonio” whose attentions help the “grey sisters” to reveal their hidden depths.

The themes of loss, regret, revelation and reconciliation are lightly touched on, and the whole fairytale confection was a delightful divertissement for the last night of April.