Wednesday, February 29, 2012


National Theatre
at the Lyttleton Theatre


Nicholas Wright's play is a saccharine fairy-tale; it magically imagines the birth of cinema in a shtetl in Eastern Europe [not far from Anatevka, one might suppose]. All the archetypes are in place – the interfering producer [Antony Sher genial in a beard, his broken English reminding us, as The Artist does, that early cinema had no need of words], critics, zoom, dramatic montage, and the travelling shot which gives the play its name.

A childish, innocent fantasy, which involves improbable coincidences, an infant Heifitz, a sudden impulse to take the express train at dawn, destination Hollywood. "Absurdly shmaltzy". All the more disconcerting, then, when we suddenly have an unwanted pregnancy, and an angry-young-man kitchen-sink moment in the middle of Act Two.

A beautiful set – wide and shallow – which ingeniously becomes a studio lot in a promising device which is not fully developed. And everything one would expect of a Hytner show, save only the quality of the text itself. Loads of performances to match the great Sher – Damien Molony as young cineaste Motl, with Paul Jesson moving as his older self, rebranded as Maurice Montgomery. Lauren O'Neil was excellent as his Trilby, the silent movie star he leaves behind in the shtetl.

Some nice use of film footage, too, whether the early documentary stuff or the later feature film, its plot collectively brainstormed in one of the play's stronger scenes. But this cheesy melodrama could hardly be more far-fetched than Wright's play: an unlikely tribute to the birth of the movies and the diaspora that provided their creative force.

from my seat at the back of the stalls, opening Act II

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester

Ayckbourn's dark, tragical farce continues to draw audiences to its uneasy social comedy.

The Mercury's in-house production sets the action firmly in the 70s – an incredibly evocative Foxton set, almost palatial ["now we know where the money's going..."], tastefully done out in orange and brown, with a bar area, a kitchen beyond, and even the back garden beyond that. It's a home that Mike Leigh's estate agent Laurence [Abigail's Party] would have loved to sell, and with which he and Beverly would feel very comfortable.

Not that there's much comfort in this tea party. Colin, the guest of honour, has lost his fiancée in a drowning accident, and five people, none of whom seem very fond of him, invite him over from a sense of duty.

The irony of the piece is that Colin's happiness, despite his loss, is the obverse of their marital difficulties, the familiar Ayckbourn cocktail of infidelity and lack of understanding.

At first, some of the characters seem less "right" than the lounge and the music. But as the excellent ensemble work brings out their hidden failings and frustrations, we get to know them better, and come to accept the readings the actors give.

No qualms at all about Ben Livingstone's Colin. He catches to perfection the social, and physical, awkwardness of the man, his annoying sincerity and his desperate worship of the late Carol. And he remains, to the last, impervious to the emotional maelstrom to which he brings his fond memories and his albums of snaps. Equally impressive is Gina Isaac's Marge: nervy, uptight, outraged, dispensing TLC over the phone to her overweight valetudinarian Gordon [another absent friend], mopping up the spills, her body language painfully well observed.

Our hosts, owners of the spider plant and the hock glasses, are played by Ignatius Anthony as the awful Paul – moustache, track suit, a bully and a bastard. He is particularly strong in his final breakdown. A nice unravelling, too, from Amanda Haberland as his wife Diana: the cream jug moment, of course, but also her Mountie speech, which manages to be moving, heart-rendingly sad, and funny at the same time.

David Tarkenter's John, restless, with an aversion to any mention of death, nervously scoffing sandwiches, and Clare Humphrey's knowing Evelyn, complete a very strong cast.

Gari Jones's production is outstanding in its handling of the numbing awkwardness of the situation – the players rigid with mortification, or moving clumsily in a pussyfooting ballet of embarrassment. Sometimes he has his characters shouting and pointing lines where British suburban understatement might be more appropriate, but the silences are poignantly eloquent, and tiny moments of social observation [like the arguing over 20p] are wonderfully done.

And Seasons in the Sun – a hit the very same year as Ayckbourn's play, if I recall – is an inspired choice for the final tableau of despair before the curtain call.

production photo: Robert Day

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Sunday, February 26, 2012


National Theatre
at the Olivier Theatre


Goldsmith's classic comedy is given a glorious revival in Jamie Lloyd's assured production at the Olivier. In a superb, solid setting [Designer, Mark Thompson] lit by candles and firelight, the Mistakes of a Night unfold faultlessly and hilariously.
The pace is helped by lively, wordless music sung by a large ensemble of servants, and by the Olivier stage, which has the Inn and the Hardcastle House as two sides of the coin, and both vanishing in a wonderful moment to reveal the misty, wooded garden.
Duped and deluded, Marlow and Hastings arrive at the rustic house. Harry Hadden-Paton is physically impressive as Marlow, tongue-tied with his intended, but something of an animal with the "barmaid" [Katherine Kelly]. John Heffernan's Hastings is awkward, soft-hearted and constantly funny as he woos his Constance [Cush Jumbo], succeeding only with the connivance of David Fynn's amiable, free-spirited Lumpkin. He was also very touching in his moment of "disappointment and despair".

The Hardcastles are uproariously done by Steve Pemberton and Sophie Thompson; Mrs H is superb as she apes what she supposes London speech. Like everyone else in a marvellous cast, they are encouraged to mug their asides, push their gags to the back of the circle. "This is over-acting, young gentleman," says Hardcastle to his prospective son-in-law, and it's hard not to agree. But jolly good fun, an endlessly entertaining production which remains true to the original while catering to modern tastes in comedy.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


So It Goes at the Etcetera Theatre, Camden Town

Desdemona [Emily Swatton] sleeps in her wedding sheets, motionless on the black floor. No sooner does she stir than the Moor has his hands around her throat; she struggles a little, and is still once more.
Brabantio's dream, no doubt, for though this Othello is heavily cut, we must surely see all the workings of jealousy.

Director Douglas Baker imagines Venice in a vaguely Victorian world, with rapiers, a hip flask, a couple of modest medals on Othello's chest.
The style is bold, almost guignol at times, though the soliloquies, in this tiny space, are very effective, allowing an almost televisual intimacy, with the smallest facial expression finding telling eloquence.
Andy Seaman's Moor is not as rough, not as exotic, as some, very much a perfect gentleman until maddened by jealous rage. But he did find some delightful subtleties in the monster. His Iago [an impressive Philip Nightingale] was a shifty, sinister figure, a subtle villain superbly suggested in voice and manner. Their first “green-eyed monster” scene was excellently done. And the valiant Cassio, Fergal Philips, with his dashing good looks and practised swash-buckling, did a wonderful drunk scene. Other striking moments were the erotically-charged handing over of the fatal napkin, and poor Barbary's song as Emilia [Adriana Maestranzi] gently helps Desdemona undress for her bed. And then we're back to the nightmare where we came in, and the piece ends with “It is too late – put out the light, and then put out the light.”

No programme or cast list of any kind was provided, so one wondered which of these fine actors would appear in Messina after the interval. In the event, just one, Paul Norton making a pair of wronged fathers with a down-to-earth Leonato.

This much abridged Much Ado was set in the 40s, perhaps, opening with the girls sitting in the sunshine, shelling peas. Zoe Thomas-Webb gave us a fast-paced, warm production, often moving in its insights into the characters.
Our Beatrice [Eva Lea] was young, flirty, her exchanges with Benedick almost teenage banter. It was noticeable that she couldn't take her eyes off him the moment he came back from the wars. He proved a sensible Benedick, playing the reluctant lover with a light touch. The cast of nine included Sophie Marlowe's icy, elegant Julia [standing in for Don John], Michael Cusick's dapper Claudio and a lovely Margaret [Amy Butterworth], willing a happy ending, but racked with guilt, too, almost confessing her wrongdoing to Benedick [which, had she done so, might have shortened the play still further]. As it was, we missed the coda where Don John's capture is reported, just as in Othello we were spared the bloodletting and the revenge which follows Desdemona's murder. And I'm sure no-one missed Dogberry and company, some of the unfunniest comic turns in the canon, and that's saying something. We did have a splendid double gulling [Benedick behind his Picturegoer Film Weekly, Beatrice behind a washing line], and there were many deft touches in this piece too – "Kill Claudio" half smothered in an embrace, a cheeky look back from Leonato as he sets up Hero's second wedding [Sarah Barker the slandered virgin], contrasting with his inability to look back at her when he drags her off in shame after her public humiliation.

Both pieces exhibited admirable clarity of text, and a realistic staging which went straight to the heart and the soul of the drama. Etcetera Theatre is a modest black box, not very soundproof, over the Oxford Arms on busy Camden High Street. But, as Shakespeare knew, there can be a profitable symbiosis between pub landlord and players in search of a stage. And I'm sure he would have been impressed to see such a successful double bill, scarce more than two hours' traffic the pair !

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews


M&G Concert at the Civic Theatre

The Docklands Sinfonia is one of the UK's youngest orchestras: founded less than three years ago, it has players with an average age of 24.
Last Sunday they came to the Civic for the first time, bringing a very accessible programme of British music from the last century.
At the dramatic heart of the evening, Jeffery Wilson's Timpani Concerto of 1978. Virtuosic, melodic, even choreographic, it was given an animated performance by Scott Wilson and the Sinfonia, under the zestful direction of Spencer Down.
We began just upstream from the Sinfonia's Limehouse home, in the London painted by Eric Coates: Covent Garden, Westminster, and Knightsbridge, played very much as I imagine Coates the conductor would have liked it – brisk and broad-brushed.
Before the interval, Delius's romantic stroll to the pub, and after it, Elgar's Enigma Variations. A more generous acoustic would have lent a bloom to the strings, but it was good to hear the detail in, for instance, the skittering violins and the timpani, the energetic Fifth Variation, and the mighty Ninth. And the final Variation [the composer himself] was given a superbly judged closing chord.
We even had time for a very British lollipop – Fritz Spiegel's Radio Four Theme.

LIFE x 3

LIFE x 3
Full Circle at the Cramphorn Theatre

Yazmina Reza's elegantly structured piece imagines an awkward social situation in three lights. It's not purely domestic, though in the English version this aspect seems to work most happily, but also professional, academic and romantic. A bedtime apple in counterpoint with astrophysics.
Like three variations on a theme, the versions develop different sub-themes, showing how a small change can make a big difference. The dressing-gown is retained or removed, Monday's lunch is off or on, Henri's career is advanced or doomed, six-year-old Arnaud is a monster or a prodigy.
An ambitious undertaking for Full Circle, and not only because of the risk of jumping the rails. These four actors have to convince us that they are real people, all three times, and high-powered French intellectuals to boot. I particularly rated Julia Curle's Inez, the wife of the insufferably arrogant and patronizing Hubert [Christopher Poke]. Worrying about her laddered stocking, expounding on the role of Man in the Cosmos, sharing her views on childcare, all her moods were capably portrayed, in various stages of inebriation, her awful husband's flirting/infidelity leaving her unaware/wounded according to the version.
Hubert is matched for cynicism and self-assurance by Henri's wife Sonia, played here with a nicely superior smile by Lucy Lawson. Though I have to say she didn't persuade me that she was a successful lawyer, any more than Henri [Dave Hyett] persuaded me that he was a rising astrophysicist. But he was excellent in the Ayckbourn territory of social and domestic discomfort [the "suburban whingeing" of the text ?], with well-timed dialogue. His lugubrious depressive moods were tellingly suggested, too.
Sancerre-fuelled insults, crap food, with bile sloshing around and a wind of madness blowing through a symmetrically stylish flat. Andrew Lindfield's production used the space well, the placing of the characters a significant factor in these enigmatic variations.
Many critics feel that Christopher Hampton is the stronger partner in these English versions. Reza is often quoted as finding them too funny. The core problem here, I suggest, is one of culture and language. I find that Hampton's idea of Englishing a text is to pepper it with profanities, and otherwise let the literal translation [which I assume he works from] stand. But these people are still French, still live in Montparnasse and work in French academia. And I would want the language to reflect that. "To be served" is not the same as "being waited on". "English" often means "British", and "size" is not the same as "stature". But I did like the Disney "Fox and Hound". No music in the flat save for this mini-cassette in Arnaud's bedroom, helpfully quoted at the curtain call:
Life's a happy game
You could clown around forever
Neither one of you sees
your natural boundaries
Life's one happy game

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Eastern Angles
at The William Loveless Hall, Wivenhoe


Still standing, resolutely confronting the invader from the East, pill boxes all across East Anglia. But facing the wrong way, it turned out, when the barge-borne Nazi invasion finally came from the Southern ports.
At least that's the alternative future graphically portrayed in Ivan Cutting's new play for Eastern Angles, now embarked on its region-wide tour.

Private Resistance tells the story of the Auxiliary Units, small bands of local men [and boys] who would harass the foe from within, slowing the advance of Operation Sealion, keeping Britain fighting while we waited for the Yanks to finish off Pacific business and ride to our rescue.

Civilians, meanwhile, were exhorted to Keep Calm and Carry On, by a poster now ubiquitous. But there were two other slogans, also printed against the possibility of invasion, of which "Freedom Is In Peril, Defend It With All Your Might" is used in Fabrice Serafino's ingenious set design.

This very British guerilla warfare, and the stresses of the Home Front, are cleverly combined in the story of an unconventional extended family. Young Wilf [Fred Lancaster], keen on cricket and cycling, motherless, his father at the front, lives with his aunt [Frances Marshall] whose doctor husband is a POW. Her brother-in-law [Matt Addis] will be the commander of the Unit, and recruits the local gamekeeper [Phil Pritchard]. The war brings two outsiders to the village – Prue [Bishanyia Vincent] a young ATS girl, and Alan, a freedom fighter from up north [Pritchard again] who will galvanize sleepy Suffolk for the May uprising of 1943.
The narrative cleverly combines history with conjecture – the cattle trucks from Manchester to Harwich, the Government in Canadian exile, a Vichy independence for Scotland. And details add authenticity – the John Bull printing outfit, the vintage cricket bat, the crystal set. The costumes, too, had a period precision – the schoolboy, the Land Girl, the revolutionary.

Naomi Jones's engaging production tracks the developing characters as the calendar pages turn, with some wonderfully moving moments – the two women giggling at their first encounter, and much later dancing the Beguine. And the pacy panic as uniforms are burnt, the BBC goes off the air [later to re-surface as Free BBC in Manchester], and church bells toll the invasion. Perhaps most effective of all, the six characters recalling their last moments, with evocative word pictures of wheat fields and the wide Suffolk sky.
But as the characters observe, it's often looks rather than words that convey our feelings, and it's not always Jerry, it's sometimes us – heartlessly handing over refugees, for instance. But who's to say how we might have acted, in this alternative England, with the enemy at our door.

This gripping drama is an ideal vehicle for sharing a little-known chapter of our history, Churchill's underground units which were never spoken of, even fifty years later. Not many of those resistance fighters, who stood ready in 1940, survive now; soon the few remaining Operational Bases and the pill boxes will be the only witnesses to this very secret war.

production photograph by Mike Kwasniak


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop
at The Old Court

A stylish post-script to the Rattigan centenary season, Mike Nower's Man and Boy was one of the most consistently accomplished productions I've seen on this stage.
The split set – boldly imagined and skilfully realised – had real stairs down to the basement, allowing us to glimpse film noir shadows of the characters as they arrive and leave.
Memorable stage pictures, too. The troubled Basil [James Christie] sitting in the window, and the opening moment, with Carol [Amanda Drury] en déshabillé in his bed.
Both of these young actors gave pitch-perfect performances. Christie's eloquent features, his body language, brought out the agony of the Boy who cannot help worshipping his father, despite everything, crumpling as he ties his tie, sobbing with his back to us. And Drury's young American, elegant but vulnerable, sounded superbly convincing.
Not all the accents were as assured as hers, but all the performances were thoughtful and intelligent, and the actors worked wonderfully well together, in a tawdry tragedy, a web of intrigue involving finance and family, deviancy and death. David Hawkes was Gregor, the mogul "mystery man of Europe", effortlessly dominating the stage, but perhaps most effective as he sees the chickens coming home to roost. His "Crown Prince" henchman was a genial, menacing Robin Winder. Herries, as played by Terry Cole, seemed more of a Harvard jock than a pink-faced pederast with literary leanings; his hysterical young accountant was played for all he was worth by Tony Ellis – a textbook character exploration. And Catherine Kenton brilliantly suggested the complexities of the secretary turned Countess.
All the interactions were masterfully explored – not least the various farewells which close this compelling drama.


Billericay Operatic Society
at Brentwood Theatre

Sixteen hours, and a crazy back-stage drama is played out on a state-of-the-art train. That's 'On The Twentieth Century', Comden and Green's warm and witty look back at the Thirties, with Cy Coleman's music recalling everything from operetta to the silent movies. [MD for this show was Derrick Thompson.]
A very enjoyable performance of a rarely-seen show in the tiny Brentwood space, the train represented by newsreel clips and two ingenious, if not especially glamorous, trucks.
Wayne Carpenter's production used the large cast to excellent effect, in the duets, quartets and ensembles that drive the implausible plot forward. Every single performer radiated energy and enthusiasm, for instance in "Together", eagerly anticipating sharing a journey with a superstar. Other stand-out numbers were the Indian Love Call pastiche, the infectious title song, the stylish Legacy and the OTT Veronique, allegedly Lily's first hit [and fairly blatantly ripped off from Brel's Madeleine of 1962].
Carpenter himself was the Little Corporal, the impresario whose career is on the line, and the girl he plucks from the Bronx to be Lily Garland was Fiona Whittaker, bringing her impressive vocal skills to a demanding role. Staunch support from his henchmen, Trevor Lowman and Matthew Carpenter, in the face of enemies Bruce Granit [Brian Plumb], the "two-bit ham hock" who's Lily's leading man, and upstart rival Max Jacobs [an amusingly youthful Simon Johnson]. And Gail Carpenter made the most of the religious maniac, urging everyone to "Repent" and gaily stickering the audience.


Elouise at the Civic Theatre

A value-lines Little Voice ? Elouise herself is down-to-earth about her talents: "I sing very loudly in an array of fabulous frocks...". And very well, too, delivering the best of the divas [Judy, Donna, Barbra …] with power and enthusiasm.
The arrangements [MD Steve Anderson] were lush, if sometimes overblown, making the Little Belter sound underpowered. The stage show, with three musicians and four very versatile dancers, was sometimes over the top, camp or kitsch, though I liked the dressing-room introduction, lightbulbs round the mirror, with its photo of Garland.
The chat fell somewhat flat, scripted and stilted reminiscence from this bubbly, giggly chanteuse. We saw her home movies, heard about her career path through cruise ships and Abba Tribute Bands, but mostly it was about the icons and their anthems – Tainted Love, Over the Rainbow, Live and Let Die, and as an encore, Don't Rain on My Parade, with top hats and gold lamé. All given 101% by everyone on stage, for this, the first date in a national tour.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


at Witham Public Hall


Grease and Glee, Fame and Footloose. These are the young people's shows, celebrating joie de vivre with a string of energetic routines.
Footloose, though scarcely a masterpiece, was a canny choice for WOW, and from the opening number it was clear that they had mastered the genre. The crisp, snappy choreography, highlighting groups and individuals, and the sheer power of their movements was exhilarating to watch.
The plot – pitting the world of Mark Twain against the world of Kurt Vonnegut – is paper-thin, but it was well served by some fine dramatic performances and excellent enunciation in the lyrics.
Notably from Jake Davis as Ren, with his easy stage presence, fluent movement and pleasant voice. His final scene with Steve Patient's Pastor, where they share their sense of loss, was movingly done.
But plenty of outstanding work right down the cast list: Josh Reid's dim little Willard, ably partnered by Zoe Rogers as his long-suffering girl, Matilda Bourne as Ariel, torn between her father and her friends, Michael Stewart as the bad-ass Chuck.
It was the ensembles, though, large and small, which really made this show – the hats in the air, the cowboy boots, the cheerleaders, the improvised percussion, the roller-skates – all full of inventive fun. "Mama Says", set in the junk yard, especially enjoyable, I thought.
The lighting [Nigel Northfield], the costumes and the minimalist set all played an important part, too.
Like many musical film spin-offs, the show does suffer from frequent changes of scene. Efficient as they were, the pace and the energy were still too often allowed to drain away in silence.
Fortunately, the stamina of these talented young performers survives, and the protracted finale, with its party frocks, tuxes and customised calls, was just as thrilling as the opening two and a half hours before.
Footloose was directed by Nikki Mundell-Poole, with Gemma Gray; Peter Snell was the excellent MD.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Ian Fricker at the Mercury Theatre Colchester
for The Public Reviews

The playwright present at rehearsal ? Never an easy decision, as Bennett shows us in The Habit of Art.

In this, Coward's farewell to the stage, we have young Bryan Snow [a distant, more commercial cousin of Roland Maule in Present Laughter] constantly involved in casting disputes and endless re-writes. Very nicely done by Bob Saul, who delivered the saccharine closing speech with commendable sincerity.

Star Quality attempts to analyse the state of British theatre; Christopher Luscombe put it together some years ago from Coward's unperformed script and an earlier short story with the same title.
It's set in the 50s, though the feel is more late 60s, when the drawing room was giving way to the kitchen sink, and the glamour of the West End was threatened by Directors' Theatre at the Royal Court and the Old Vic.

Whichever, it might as well be Garrick's Drury Lane, so far is it removed from thespian life today. Almost all the men wear ties to rehearsal, and everyone smokes all the time. Adrian Linford's clever design captures the period well, with an especially awful stage set for the play, Dark Heritage. And one of the strengths of Joe Harmston's direction was the way the rehearsal stage was seamlessly used for all the settings – the cosy trattoria, the flowery bower of the star dressing room, the cottage in Kent. The sound plot was effective too [Matthew Bugg], in the time lapses, for instance, as the read-through and the rewrites are elided. The script is full of names, dropped or flagged up, and in-jokes, and some amusing period pastiche.

Not a particularly original bunch, these characters. The seen-it-all dresser [Gay Soper, underused here], the solid actor with amnesia ["I knew it backwards in the bath this morning..." Keith Myers], the "competent" superannuated soubrette, sacked after Manchester, [Sarah Berger] and the ruthless big-headed director, presumably written with the Master himself in mind [Daniel Casey]. Most interesting, I thought, was his Graeme Payn, the waspish personal assistant played with subtlety and style by Anthony Houghton, his suede shoes a sure sign of deviant decadence.

Not forgetting, of course, the ageing leading lady, flattered into accepting the role, insecure despite the accolades and the applause. Gertie Lawrence, one assumes, so a big ask, and only fitfully embodied [in her "in the dark, alone" big speech, notably] by Liza Goddard, elegant even in her most difficult moments.

The show begins and ends with that most evocative of settings, a dark, empty stage. And after the curtain calls, the reconciliation, the eulogy to star quality itself, Goddard's Miss Barrie is left to switch off the working light.

video with the cast from the start of the tour ...

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Sunday, February 12, 2012


The Phoenix Theatre Company
Christchurch Hall, Chelmsford


Mary Redman was in the audience ...

Can it really be six years since I saw a Phoenix production? The attrition rate has been high with many of their former prize fighting thespians having transferred their loyalties elsewhere in the amateur world; although a joint Dream is promised for the summer.
Under their former name of Moulsham Lodge Amateur Dramatic Society they built up a reputation for the weird and wonderful with some stirring Grand-Guignol productions, so they should have been at home with WW Jacobs's tale of horror and a “macabre comedy” by Mary Neild.
The enormously wide stage and even bigger hall at Christchurch doesn't make life easy when your play is set in the living room of an old cottage on the outskirts of Fulham in the early 1900s. From the projection point of view it leaves your characters talking into a void rather than intimately to each other and occasionally your audience left out. This got better when they all huddled round the fire to hear the increasingly drunken tale of Geoff Hadley's excellent Sergeant-Major Morris. The incredulous White Family gradually realised that the paw might work to their advantage, despite its habit of wreaking vengeance on those who dared to make a wish with it.
Syd Smith's father was cautious but Richard Langley's Herbert, a youth much endowed with a magnificent head of hair contrary to the customs of the times, had no such qualms. The result of egging his father on was a fortune laced with tragedy, thus breaking his mother Julie Lissamore's heart. Les Leeds made an appropriately spectral bearer of doom-laden news
The performance as a whole felt a bit quiet. Then I realised it was the second night of the run which is when unwary actors give in to a sense of thank goodness the first night is over and give rather subdued performances when they really need to give it some welly. To conquer that immense stage, a false exterior to the cottage would have brought the sides in and the cast forward, thus increasing the intimacy between cast and audience. Oh, and in the days of coal fires and poverty we didn't leave interior doors open in our houses – “Were you born in a barn?” being the usual sarcastic comment.
All was sweetness and light and Come Into The Garden Maud at the start of The Horrible Thing when the cast gave us a much more out front production. This very short play gave its cast plenty of opportunity to have fun with their genteel characters Miss Violet Throstle (Helen Langley); and Miss Rose Throstle (Angela Gee's vision of blonde loveliness with red roses running riot all over her dress plus decorated wellies); the horror story-addicted char Mrs Honeybun (Joan Lanario) and sensible travelling hairdresser Marlena Honeybun (Leila Francis) respectively.
Of course it all turned out to be a scarecrow causing a storm in a bone china tea cup but it was an amusing treat for the audience.
Tricia Childs directed both plays. Now there's a Titania for youthe dramatic, beautiful looks combined with dramatic experience.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


Early Doors
at Brentwood Theatre

The set is stylish and bold – white furniture, chequered floor, opaque plastic screens, nurses' station dominating from centre stage – and this Psychiatric Institution is peopled with the angry, the inadequate and the introverted.
The cast of assorted "loonies" was the great strength of Amy Clayton's production for Early Doors. Their characterization was impressively sustained, meticulously observed. Restless, short-fused Cheswick [Paul Sparrowham], halting, immature Billy [Gary Ball] fussy, delusional Martini [Martin Harris], tense, destructive Scanlon [Andy Gilett] all excellently done, as was William Wells' blustering Brit, who is deposed by the newcomer, but finally gets to wear his rebellious hat.
Justin Cartledge was the legendary McMurphy; not as charismatic or as boisterous as some, but an affable, reasonable guy, feigning psychosis for his own ends, a telling contrast with the tics and traumas of the institutionalised inmates. His dialogue with Ray Johnson's touchingly portrayed Chief, and their final moments together, were high points of the evening, quieter counterpoints to the big set-pieces like the football match and the party.
The Big Nurse, appalled by all McMurphy stands for, was Julie Salter, efficient, chilly and implacable. Of the other staff, I was struck in particular by Vernon Keeble Watson's vicious Aide.
A confident, polished ensemble piece, enhanced by video inserts for the ECT sequence, and by carefully chosen tracks from The Four Tops, Bowie, The Stones ...

Friday, February 10, 2012


Writtle Cards
at Writtle Village Hall

For their hundredth production, Writtle chose Tennessee Williams' moody memory play, first staged in 1944.
A tough call, recreating the steamy world of St Louis just a stone's throw from Writtle's frozen duckpond, but Writtle Cards' production [directed by Laura Bennett and produced by Nick Caton] worked hard to establish atmosphere, with Tom's opening monologue, evocatively delivered by Caton, with the black stage [which really needed a more ambitious lighting plot] and with the soundtrack: the worn-out phonograph records on Laura's Victrola, The Swan and other animals, and cheap music from the Paradise Dance Hall across the street.
Two other devices added much to our appreciation of the piece: the "magic mirror" on the wall [though it should really have been bigger] and the key words ['legends'], revealed Brecht-style on costumes and furnishings. Not everything worked, but the production was full of real originality and inspiration.
Paulette Harris was a very convincing Amanda, the faded Southern Belle who is over-fond of her shy, disabled daughter [Megan Hill, in a touchingly simple performance]. Harris caught the martyred expression, the resignation, the tristesse, to perfection. She had the accent nailed too. Only occasional insecurity with the words prevented this from being a truly outstanding interpretation.
Ben Fraser's "scrubbed and polished" Gentleman Caller was a nice foil for Caton's tragic Tom, trapped in the stifling apartment and the dead-end warehouse, until he finally walks out, with "and so goodbye" on his valise.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012


Theatre at Baddow
at the Parish Hall

Legend has it that Sorkin's tightly plotted play was sketched on serviettes while he was behind the bar in Broadway's Palace Theatre. La Cage Aux Folles, since you ask.
A story of smart-witted lawyers and single-minded Marines, A Few Good Men poses many challenges, not least the inevitable comparison with the 1992 movie.
Patrick Willis got some cracking performances from his TAB cast. Dawson and Downey [Bruce Thomson and Matt Nobbs] are two teenagers charged with murdering a fellow Marine. Tyro naval lawyer [junior grade] Daniel Kaffee, with his "fast-food, slick-ass" manner, is to handle the defence. Ben Salmon's performance was spot on. Gum-chewing, cynical, timing his quick-fire repartee to perfection, he was well matched by Kelly McGibney's Galloway, eager to make an impression and find a loophole, upbeat and perky until a courtroom faux pas shatters her fragile confidence. And by John Mabey's Weinberg, one of the few likeable characters, with a nice feel for the desperate humour.
Their opponents across Jim Crozier's courtroom were Paul Winter's McKendrick, a shouty, Christian Lieutenant, and Jesse Powis's arrogant Jessup, a very strong performance, short on light and shade perhaps, but frighteningly believable. His climactic defeat at Kaffee's hands was one of the best moments I've seen on the amateur stage for some time. No weaknesses in this large cast, but space only to mention Beth Crozier's doctor, brow-beaten by Jessup, and Roger Saddington as smiling Jack Ross, the voice of reason.
Not an easy play to stage, switching between courtroom and offices, role-play and reality; sometimes the pace and realism came at the expense of clarity, and some of the uniforms would have merited a Code Red, but nonetheless a remarkable achievement for this ambitious group.