The Greville Players at the Three Horseshoes
This wonderful old-fashioned pub, with its glorious garden, was the setting for an enjoyable evening's entertainment on the topic of growing old.
First, two monologues by Ned Hopkins. “Ted”, a sentimental story with a twist of the sort you used to be able to sell to women's magazines, with Rodney Foster as a retirement home resident who keeps his secrets in a trunk. And “Maggy”, a much more engaging piece about a prim Scottish widow who ventures into Jenner's looking for Heather Honey and finds more than she expected. Beautifully played by Jenny Francis; although we do meet Drummond Braithwaite, “glorious nut sundae” Tino is more successfully left to the imagination …
After the interval [home-made cakes and Saffron Ale] we had an opened-out version of Joyce Grenfell's classic A Terrible Worrier [the one about the rabbit], performed with impeccable comic timing by Rita Vango. And finally, to the obvious delight of the audience [all of us chuckling away in recognition], a delicious selection box of one-liners, aphorisms and inbox memes, delivered from the dayroom of the Dr Watson Retirement Holme, punctuated by tea, physical jerks and Renée & Renato, and all put together by the director [and “Vera”] Jan Ford.
Friday, July 29, 2011
Shakespeare's Globe at Corpus Christi, Cambridge
We know that Hamlet toured to a Cambridge college in Shakespeare's own day. It was usual for the text to shrink as the players moved further from the capital and the playwright – European tours sometimes gave little more than comic highlights and dumbshows.
Dominic Dromgoole's production – a brisk three hours including interval – includes more of the quartos than usual, and it was good to hear some less familiar moments – Polonius packing Reynaldo off to Paris, for instance. Not to mention the clown's catchphrases ... And the ambience of the Master's garden in Corpus, pigeons calling, distant revellers in Silver Street, St Botolph's tower in the background, was wonderfully timeless. This play especially is full of references to strolling players, and this background is emphasised by the start – the song “A-begging I will go” and the actors wandering on, changing into costume. 'Two planks and a passion' is evoked, too.
Just eight actors [who also play the music] for all these characters – the Mousetrap is particularly brilliantly imagined – only the Prince himself escapes doubling duty.
Polonius apart [an excellently wordy – and occasionally amnesiac – John Bett, who was also the Gravedigger], they all took the text at a gallop, but with no lack of clarity - “trippingly on the tongue” indeed. Amanda Hadingue's Gertrude was hard to hear at times, but I loved Jade Anouka's feisty, fun-loving Ophelia – and she was great as the Player Apprentice who's “nearer heaven”.
Simon Armstrong was Claudius [and of course the Ghost and the Player King].
In the title role, Joshua McGuire was constantly on the move, and often very witty - I thought I caught a flash of Frankie Howerd at one point. But there was little sense that this young student's "noble mind" was tackling some of the greatest themes in theatre.
Ripon next for this fit-up, then Buxton, Worcester and eventually Helsingør, better known to us as Elsinore …
Thursday, July 28, 2011
Duke of York's Theatre
Taking a break from its UK tour, this critically acclaimed 2007 Journey's End has set up its dug-out in the Duke of York's for the summer.
Kitchener on the safety curtain, Vaughan Williams for the incoming, but then just the rumble of guns for the scene changes, and Jonathan Fensom's cramped, candlelit set as background to this classic exploration of heroism and the desperate domesticity of life in the trenches.
Grindley's flawless production has many strengths. Not least an exploration of the text that allows full weight to what is not said, could never be expressed. The eyes averted, the awkward pause were just as eloquent as Sherriff's undeniably superb dialogue. Dominic Mafham's avuncular Osborne, for instance, recalling life at home, finds a raw nostalgic nerve caught as he mentions his wife. The cheery Trotter [Christian Patterson] lets his merry mask slip just for a moment.
And the lighting, impressively replicating the candles' flickering glow, made the low-ceilinged makeshift living room, with camp beds and a dining table jostling for space, look like an Old Master, especially at key moments – like the first meeting between raw recruit Raleigh [Graham Butler] and his schoolboy hero [James Norton] – where a strong stage picture was held just long enough to have a little more emotional impact.
There are no star names here, just an excellent ensemble, who brilliantly suggest the camaraderie and the conflicts of enforced proximity, with the horrors of war just yards away up the dug-out steps. Food and drink [rustled up by Tony Turner's drily stoical Private Mason – a distant ancestor of the beloved Baldrick] are a key theme, giving comfort and a structure to life on the front line, as well as making a desperately needed distraction from the tragic inevitability of death in action.
All the performances were superb. As the boy straight from school, “keen” to join his hero Stanhope, Butler was achingly naïve and vulnerable; his return from a suicidal raid on the enemy trenches was shockingly powerful; he realises at last that war is not rugger or cricket, and Denis is no longer the captain of games he worshipped only three years ago back at school.
Norton's subtly characterized Stanhope, drinking too much to liven up the dull routine, and as we realise in his heart-to-heart with Hibbert [Simon Harrison] to ward off the demons of doubt and despair that threaten to impair his effectiveness as a leader of men, veered unnervingly from affability to rage as the whisky kicked in. His rages were frighteningly intense, but his moments of introspection were tellingly done, too, such as his explaining to Osborne how he could see through the wall of their dug-out to the mud and the worms.
We know the play, we know the history of 1918. So the end is inevitable. But Grindley has one more stroke of genius in reserve. After hurried arrangements for lunch on their return, the men with whom we have shared a couple of hours of banter and soul-baring, go over the top, and we're out with Stanhope into the deafening hell of the guns, to find a peace of a kind in the company of those men unnumbered whose name liveth for evermore ...this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews
Jim Hutchon was at the Village Hall
Director Daniel Curley’s version of this Victorian melodrama relies on a sense of carefully contrived claustrophobia for its mood. A destitute gentlewoman marries for security but, unhappy at home, is seduced by a charming cad and decamps with him. Deserted and again destitute, she returns to her marital home in the guise of a servant. It is not a bundle of laughs; the genre has been so parodied over the years that it was never going to be a tear-jerker, but it still needs a real sense of the gentry brought low for its effect.
The gentlewoman, Laura Bennett, didn’t get into character much, so her spiralling downfall wasn’t too effective. The baddies always have it best in these pieces, and a spiteful sister in law – played convincingly by Liz Curley, and an equally unsympathetic cousin – Josephine Curley, did a lot to point up the lady’s misery. The cad was Ben Fraser who sleazed his way throughout with unctuous oiliness. The boring, safe husband was Andy Millward, who had impeccable timing in his delivery.
The set was unimaginative – a well-decorated provincial drawing room which doubled unconvincingly as the Boulogne sea front and public gardens in Grenoble, but the style of the production was shot through with imaginative touches, good use of period music and stylised tableaux which added strength to the plotlines.
And despite an, at times, almost inaudible delivery, Laura Bennett deserves my undying admiration for delivering the line - “Gone, and never called me mother!” without missing a beat.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at The Old Court
Patrick Marber's intense four-hander is impressively played in this high-octane production directed by Joe Kennedy.
The shorter story
No love, no glory
No hero in her sky
No love, no glory
No hero in her sky
It's a high profile piece – National Theatre, must-see movie – so most people will know it's an unblinking look at painfully untidy relationships, a challenging, edgy La Ronde de nos jours. Often too close for comfort.
Hunky dermatologist Larry [Philip Hart] meets Dan and Alice in A&E, and from then on the manipulative, selfish stories unfold and interweave, in a narrative deliberately disorientating.
The ensemble is well balanced and impressively at home in this naturalistic style. Except that it's not really natural at all. Lack of restraint is seen as a sign of maturity, but these are the chats, the fights, the soul-searchings we would have if we were only more articulate, if only we'd thought of it at the time …
It's a lot to ask; the other characters are a stripper, a portrait photographer, and a writer stuck in the “Siberia of journalism, the obits page”. I was most impressed by Leanne Johnson's Alice, embodying “the moronic beauty of youth”, seemingly confident in her own charisma, but just as vulnerable, and just as vicious, as the others. Harry Sabbarton is the writer whose book “borrows” her life, excellent in his proposal of marriage, and on opening night we saw Anna played by Vikki Pead. She inhabited the specialist in “sad strangers” with a cocky assurance, but was often very funny, as in the wonderful “baggage” image, pinning down a key difference between the sexes:
"This is what we’re dealing with; we arrive with our baggage and for a while they’re brilliant, they’re baggage handlers. We say, ‘Where’s your baggage?’ They deny all knowledge of it. They’re in love, they have none. Then just as you’re relaxing, a great big juggernaut arrives … with their baggage. It got held up. The greatest myth men have about women is that we overpack."
The show runs till August the 6th – in that closing performance, and three others, the role of Anna will be played by Kelly McGibney, in what I am told is completely different version of the play ...
Thursday, July 14, 2011
The Essex Symphony Orchestra’s summer concert launched an exceptional talent onto the music scene. This was the 25yr old composer Andrew Hall whose new work, Marconi Echoes, was debuted to great appreciation by the knowledgeable audience at Christ Church.
Conceived as an almost unprecedented collaboration with the composer, orchestra and conductor Jonathan Tilbrook over a year of development, the piece is exclusive to the ESO, and takes as its theme the place Chelmsford has in the history of radio and electronics. It is a bright, optimistic piece of five movements bookended by the echoes and very clever variations on the first song to be broadcast on radio – Dame Nellie Melba’s rendition of ‘No Place like Home’ -for the first and last movements.
The orchestra had been completely re-arranged in a complex and unfamiliar reseating so that each of the three intervening movements, featuring different sections of the orchestra could be employed in colourful and abstract tone poems depicting first, Marconi’s ‘electric light moment’ for the invention of radio complete with the hiss and crackle of the cat’s whisker, then the explosion of electronic technology which it presaged, and finally, the width of networking that it spawned, through the computer age and even the Facebook generation.
The collaboration between composer, orchestra and conductor was midwifed by the Adopt-a-Composer scheme of the Performing Rights Society Foundation, and there will be another chance for audiences to hear the work, as it was recorded by Radio 3 for broadcast later in the year.
To Stondon Massey, for the annual concert commemorating the life and music of William Byrd. The Stondon Singers, under the exacting direction of Christopher Tinker, first gave us a suitably upbeat Sing Joyfully with a nice echo effect for “blow the trumpet”; Byrd’s contribution also included three Alleluias, and, from his secular pen, This Sweet and Merry Month, and a lively dance for Amaryllis which bounced beautifully along to follow the interval Pimms and pretzels.
There was Tallis, Sheppard and Stravinsky, and a second Sacrum Convivium from the modern British composer Gabriel Jackson – beautifully crafted in a sumptuous style with more than a hint of Whitacre and the French Romantics.
Tomas Luis de Victoria was featured too, in a performance of a mass from 1592 notable for the richly woven colours of the Kyrie. Victoria shares his 400th birthday this year with the King James Bible, and that work was celebrated with an impressive new piece from Michael Aves. “A Vision of the Word” was a challenge which the choir met with their customary diligence and enthusiasm; the harmonies of “Alpha and Omega” and the closing exhortation to “Write!” especially thrilling.
The concert ended with two helpings of Imogen Holst – The Twelve Kindly Months, and a dramatic arrangement of Gypsy Davy.
Shenfield Operatic Society at the Brentwood Theatre
Lots of débuts in this very enjoyable trip to Titipu, not least Rick McGeouch's as director. His Mikado was a pleasingly traditional take on G&S, with superb set design, striking oriental costumes and inventively used fans. The strangely configured stage was brilliantly used; the Act One finale was especially well choreographed [Annette Harris]. But he did allow himself a few modern modifications: I liked the King's Speech spoof; I was less sure about the trashing of Tit Willow.
He did have a fantastic cast to work with. Stuart Brown's comic Koko, his roots in the rag trade still showing, gave a performance to treasure in the Lytton part. His Little List, entirely updated, even-handedly included both Waitrose and The Only Way Is Essex.
Simon Cook's light tenor was well suited to Nanki-Poo, and he proved a fine actor, too. His Yum Yum was Louise Stuckey, in her first leading role for Shenfield – she has a lovely soprano, and was entirely convincing as a graduate of a ladies' seminary. Her two giggling companions were Hannah Matthews-Jones as a perky Peep-Bo and Lauren Ramshaw as Pitti-Sing, very effective in the ensembles.
Nina Jarram [a G&S virgin] made a wonderful Katisha – touching at times, but mostly a terrifying predator.
Neil Sturgess was a well-characterized Lord High Everything Else, and Boot Banes a revelation as the Emperor – an imposing figure with a memorably mirthless laugh. [I'd no idea his armoury included the Savoy Canon.]
Adrian Ure was the MD [his first time with Shenfield, too], heading up an unusual reduction for woodwind and piano.
Saturday, July 09, 2011
THE TURN OF THE SCREW
at London’s Little Opera House at the King’s Head Theatre
Britten's claustrophobic treatment of Henry James would seem ideally suited to the tiny stage at Islington's King's Head.
Edward Dick's tightly focused production used a bare stage, two chairs and a gauze to conjure up the great house at Bly.
The projected images [Richard Bleasdale] added little to the atmosphere, but I liked the prologue, with David Menezes pacing around Katie Bird's damaged Governess with his case-notes in his hand, and at the last revealed as a psychiatrist, with the sinister Miss Jessel his nurse.
Modern dress is hard to square with the story – children are thankfully no longer entrusted to governesses – and this wicked world of mystery and imagination almost demands a period setting. I could put up with Quint's leather jacket, or Miles's trainers, but Mrs Grose [impressively sung by Laura Casey] I could not stomach as an overgrown teen from the Little Britain gallery of grotesques. Hair in bunches, Hug Me shirt, pigging sweets and swigging cola, she looked like the kind of babysitter you'd be wise to keep well away from your children. She was unnecessarily close to the new governess, too, I thought. And in general there was too much physical intimacy. The dark undercurrents, subtly suggested by Britten's score, are best kept under – we can surmise an unhealthy relationship between Quint and Jessel without seeing them enjoy a quickie on an uncomfortable wooden chair.
Musically there was much to admire, not least Musical Director David Eaton's heroic efforts at the piano, playing a fiendish reduction with sympathetic passion and superb technique. The children [Samuel Woof and Eleanor Burke on press night] were excellent at suggesting drowned innocence; Flora was beautifully sung, while Miles caught the subtle expression and meaningful glances that give his character its enigmatic allure. Menezes was a brooding, haunted Quint, using a broad dynamic range to develop an intense persona. Catrine Kirkman was a striking Jessel, dark, Gothic and a powerful presence. But the discovery of the evening was Katie Bird's Governess. Her fine acting drew us into her disturbing world, and her voice was outstanding, even in this strong young cast, rich and nuanced, with eloquent phrasing and excellent diction.
This was my first visit to what now bills itself as London's Little Opera House. The benches are not the most comfortable; the room quickly became stuffy. But to see opera this close, at this standard, is a rare treat – what an inspired idea, giving young singers a chance to shine, and audiences an operatic evening out at pocket-money prices.this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews