Thursday, March 29, 2012


Miracle Play at Chelmsford Cathedral

Jim Hutchon was in the Cathedral:

It is fitting that the Cathedral at the heart of our shiny new city should, in one of its first public showings, play host to a community-wide version of the Passion plays. Director Alison Woollard has kept up this fine tradition with a motley crew of some of the City’s fine amateur actors, Christians and bewildered passers-by, all of whom threw themselves into the play with a ‘passion’.
Jakob Kerek as Jesus was particularly impressive, especially when carrying his cross - the size of a smallish articulated lorry. Escorting him were three knights –a study in cold-blooded cruelty (James French, Kenton Church and William Snagge). His Betrayer Judas (James Crozier) had an especially malevolent air and deserved his rejection when he tried to recant his sin. Blazing through the whole production was the awesome figure of Pilate, played with impressive authority and power by Simon Pothen. A John the Baptist with wheels on his heels (Tonio Ellis) had to be seen to be believed.

The Disciples and assorted onlookers periodically formed themselves in to a highly disciplined choir, led by Kathy Shiels who took on much of the specially written music for this production – composed by Chelmsford’s Patrick Appleford – and made the vaulted rafters of even this august venue ring out.

Since Alison’s last exercise in the Cathedral, we have come to expect something spectacular, and the Cross didn’t disappoint. This twenty foot construction of welded tube must have caused sleepless hours over its design, erection and safety by Tech Director Brian Greatrex and others. It was hoisted by the knights with Jesus ‘nailed’ to it, which hurled him fifteen feet into the air for the closing sequences, to genuine gasps of appreciation from the audience.

production photograph: Robert Hall

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden

Finally caught up with this ambitious new three-acter from the Royal Ballet.

Christopher Weeldon's choreography is always workmanlike, often inventive, but it's really Joby Talbot's score and the special effects and the designs that make it such an enjoyable show.

The moment when Alice opens the door and peers into the auditorium, and the disjointed Cheshire Cat, are just two of the delights, and then there are divertissements for all sorts of Tenniel-inspired characters.

The prologue, and its book-end epilogue, provide a context for the surreal, hallucinatory nonsense in between.

A late start to this midday matinée [stage crew problems] and both Pennefather and Nunez replaced [injury]. Fine performances, though from Nehemiah Kish and Beatriz Stix-Brunell as The Knave of Hearts and Alice. Barry Wordsworth in the pit.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


Planet Theatre at the Mercury Theatre Colchester

One of the first plays to be rescued from the back of Rattigan's drawer was this wartime drama, later to become Love In Idleness, a vehicle for the Lunts, who, fittingly, are name-checked in this ur-text.

Less Than Kind, a gloss on Hamlet [like Humble Boy half a century later] was apparently written for another grande dame, Gertie Lawrence, who promptly rejected it.

Sara Crowe was unwell, so for this midweek matinée her huge role was heroically undertaken by Caroline Head, who made an excellent job of the character. Those further down the ladder fitted their roles, and their costumes, rather less well.

The story, somewhat improbably, imagines a glamorous war widow enjoying life as the mistress of a colonial industrialist coopted to Winston's war cabinet. Her young son, in Canada for the duration, returns as hostilities end, now less interested in "white mice and catapults" than in anti-Fascist posturing.

James Wilby gave a relaxed performance as the Canadian "reactionary"; David Osmond was excellent as the boy, catching the period style and the teenage petulance to perfection.

Rattigan's own youthful views are reflected in Michael's dreams of a brave new world, the end of the glitterati and the fat cats.

The play's happy ending seems trite today – the mother chooses penury and her son over Park Lane and her lover. She reads The Tatler on one side of the cheap dining table in her dingy Baron's Court flat, he Labour Weekly on the other. But souls are sold for love, there is an unlikely reconciliation between Sir John and the boy, and they all three travel in the chauffeur-driven car to the Dorchester.

The setting, especially the opening with smoke and search-lights over the swanky flat, was well conceived, and the Lunts would have appreciated the entrance light on the upstage door.

This kind of Brief Encounter brittleness is easy to parody, less easy to pull off today. Adrian Brown's production for Planet Theatre was an admirable attempt at breathing life into this lost oddity.


King Edward VI School Chelmsford

Shakespeare in schools has come a long way since I was Shylock – KEGS' bright, zippy Merchant of Venice turned its back on Italy and the 16th century, taking us instead to the heady days of City Slickers in the 1980s, the period brought to ghastly life with Wham!, brick-sized mobiles and carefully chosen costumes.

I admired the energy of the young cast, and their way with the text: no liberties taken here, save for some welcome cuts.

Lewis Wood made a thoughtful Shylock right from the start, in a domestic moment with his daughter [a vivacious Martha Jenkinson], and, after some stormy exchanges, dignified at the end as he loses everything. The laddish traders were excellently done – Luke Higgins' Bassanio especially brought out the emotional depth of his character, with some exceptional verse speaking. Portia, a strong young woman and an astute lawyer, was Pippa Searle, and the Merchant himself, sad at the outset and lucky to survive the Jew's machinations, was confidently played by Bart Lambert.

James Russell's production was enlivened by music, both live and recorded, and by clever use of telephones. The opening moments were echoed in a touching coda, with Jessica now rich, but fatherless, alone on stage.

Richard Broadway wrote this for the KEGS newsletter:

James Russell and his talented young players bring us a Merchant of youthful exuberance, the wooing and the banter every bit as important as the famous Pound of Flesh.

Though the production does have a historical setting – the 1980s, with its carefree financiers, its chunky cell phones and its distinctive taste in clothes. And in the goody bag with the programme – parma violets and a mask of The Gipper ...

Two devices cement the action – the phones [mostly immobile], bringing news, announcing arrivals and enabling Antonio to plead with the Jew from his prison cell in Act III. And "the sweet power of music": not just the ghetto-blaster soundtrack to the decade [Wham!] but the polyphony of the office phones, the Dixie car horn heralding Bassanio's return, a lovely naïve setting of Fancy Bred, and, for Antonio and countless others, not a lute, but a grand piano centre stage, punctuating the verse with snatches of melody.

Shakespeare's words were in general well served, with intelligent readings and clear enunciation. Particularly impressive work from Luke Higgins as Bassanio [the letter bearing bad news a highlight of a superbly sustained characterization] and Martha Jenkinson as Jessica, Shylock's daughter, given a refreshingly upbeat interpretation here, as she elopes with her lucky Lorenzo [Max Brown]. I liked the way that she was left to end the play, with a sad recollection of her defeated father.

She begins the piece, too, in this version – God and Mammon neatly contrasted on either side of the stage.

Lots of energy from the traders, in confident performances from Ed Alston as Gratiano and Bart Lambert as Antonio, the Merchant of the title whose flesh is almost sacrificed for his special friend Bassanio. Their emotional farewell was moving without being mawkish.

The suitors who queue up in Belmont for a chance to open Portia's casket were strongly established by Hassam Ahmed as Morocco, and Tom Crowe as Aragon with his badly broken English.

Portia herself was done with nice C20 ennui by Pippa Searle; she shone en travesti in the trial scene, clearly enjoying her Mercy speech and the chance to turn the tables on the moneylender. And she was well supported by Nerissa [Ruth Tyson], amusingly gruff as her clerk.

Tom Adam was a sober presiding Duke, and Ciaran Saward did what he could with the remnants of the clown's part – Old Gobbo totally chopped in the interests of tautening the action.

Lewis Wood rose to the challenge of Shylock, berating his daughter perusing the Business Pages [useful for stage asides] and thoughtfully shaping his long speeches. I admired his modesty and dignity at the end, when he is subjected to overt Jew-baiting, and finally casts off his kippah as he leaves the stage.

Against a fairy-lit backdrop of the City [set design by HyungBinLim], KEGS gave us a slick, fast-paced "comedy", a suspenseful look, from a fresh perspective, at love, life and the risk of their loss.

production photograph - William Starr

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Chelmsford Ballet Company at the Civic Theatre

This romantic Danish ballet, with its colourful story and uncomplicated tunes, was created in 1842, and first danced by our Chelmsford company in 1988. This new version by Annette Potter, the group's artistic director, makes much of the mime of Act I, and gives all the ensembles a chance to shine.
The drama and comedy of the first act – the arrival of the fishermen, the excellently done slander sequence, the atmospheric storm, and Gennaro's anguish assuaged by prayer – made a dramatic contrast with the mysterious Blue Grotto [the Naiads in beautiful costumes], and the wedding celebrations of the Final Act, with an impressive archway upper level.
This is a company piece first of all, but we did have some excellent solo work, from Samuel Butler as an energetic fisherman, Rachel Watson as a charming Teresina and Luke Bradshaw as a proud, impassioned Gennaro. Not forgetting Giacomo and Peppo, [Bart Lambert and Sam Toland] a pair of anarchic moustachioed Broker's Men.
It's a shame more people couldn't share this Mediterranean escapism [the frocks were colourful and authentic – the splendid Act One harbour set looked more like Newquay than Naples]; it deserves to be better known. Next year sees the return of the ever-popular Coppélia, by which time the company may well be trading under the Chelmsford City Ballet logo …

Sunday, March 18, 2012


Shakespeare's Globe tour at the Arts Theatre Cambridge

A huge touring company – fruitful collaboration between English Touring Theatre and Shakespeare's Globe – begins its travels at the Arts in Cambridge.
John Dove's première production of Howard Brenton's fascinating and intriguing piece survives very successfully the transfer to what must be one of the smallest stages of the tour. The Globe setting is evoked rather than replicated, with a single tree and a tiny musician's gallery.
One of the few scenes actually to benefit from the claustrophobic intimacy this allows was the moment when Anne is arrested, and is left alone amid an uncaring court.
Jo Herbert is a magnetic Anne, charming the audience, and her Henry, with her direct, flirtatious manner. Difficult to achieve the rapport with the house when darkness makes us invisible, but she succeeds, especially in her final farewell. Survivors from 2010 included Colin Hurley's woolly Wolsey, Michael Bertenshaw's solid Cecil, and James Garnon's amazing King James. And another chance to shudder at Julius d'Silva's Cromwell, career politician and ruthless schemer. A new Villiers in Michael Camp: an impressively honest performance, though the comic timing needs a few more previews to perfect.
It was good to chat with the players beforehand [another relic of the Globe original] – we learned that Lady Celia graduated from Fitzwilliam in 1997, and that "Steamy", though daunted by the old hands who arrived word perfect at the first rehearsal, was made welcome by a friendly company, and is hoping to see the show garner some five star reviews when it plays to the national critics in Brighton …


Chelmsford Singers at Chelmsford Cathedral

An upbeat farewell to Peter Nardone from his Chelmsford Singers, featuring two of the most loved choral works from the Classical period.
First, Mozart's Solemn Vespers, opening with a confident Dixit Dominus, performed with exemplary attack and excellent internal balance, thanks in part to the men from the Cathedral Choir who augmented the tenors and basses. Spirited support, too, from the Chelmer Classical Players, led by Sarah Sexton. After the complex Laudate Pueri and its powerful Amen, one of Mozart's most sublime melodies, the Laudate Dominum, performed here by soprano Janet Coxwell.
Then Haydn's Nelson Mass, composed eighteen years later in 1798. The assertive Kyrie, with Nardone's distinctive counter-tenor joining the soloists for a bar or two, was followed by the Gloria, with some incisive contributions from tenor Julian Stocker and bass Andrew Davies. The strings especially eloquent in accompaniment here; after the stark Crucifixus, the drama and excitement of the Resurrection. Impressively solemn choral singing in the Sanctus led to a splendid Benedictus, a thrilling battle between the singers and the brass and drums.
Peter Nardone has directed the Chelmsford Singers for eight years; now he is off to Worcester [and their Festival Choral Society], and after the warm applause they paid a hearfelt tribute to the education, the inspiration and the fun he has brought them.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court Theatre

Another week, another Oedipus. No unicycles this time, out; I wasn't expecting many common points of reference between this Wednesday and last. But then along comes the Barber Adagio …

CTW's Oedipus, the Berg and Clay verse translation directed by Dean and Katherine Hempstead, is a much more traditional take, of course, despite the modern dress and the Powerpoint Chorus.
Plenty to admire in a boldly imagined staging: Steve Parr's compelling performance as a powerful King, a Socialist politician keen to be a man of the people, his limp gradually more pronounced as his life unravels, Sally Jane Ransom's tragic Jocasta, and a neat double from Karen Pemberton - Tiresias as Madame Arcati and a scene-stealing Shepherd.
The speaking of the text was patchy, but good voice work from Ben Fraser as Creon, and Sarah Chandler as the Sphinx and several other roles.
Add the tabloids, the music [More Deadlier Than The Male], the Da Vinci Code and you have a Greek tragedy for our times – just the kind of ambitious, important work CTW should be attempting.

Jim Hutchon was there for the Chelmsford Weekly News:

The husband and wife team, Dean and Kat Hempstead are to be admired for choosing this awesome Sophocles tragedy as their first joint collaboration. And there were many excellent touches in the production, which spelled out the complex detective whodunnit of murder, mayhem and incest with style and imagination.
But there were flaws too. It was dressed in modern dress, making the king and his cohorts look like mafia dons which made them unconvincing. There is no link between modern Greeks and their ancient glorious forebears.
Superb acting from Sally Ransom as the wife/mother Jocasta as realisation dawns, and an excellent cameo from Karen Pemberton as the messenger revealing Oedipus’ true origins. The King, and his brother-in-law Creon, were Steve Parr and Ben Fraser.
Apart from the costumes, the set was commendably spare, and the lights and music well chosen and effective, with good use of backdrop videos from – I think – the London riots. I did however feel the production overall lacked atmosphere and felt a little like a good rehearsal.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


OperaDella Luna at the Civic Theatre


This popular company brought their Widow, typically pragmatic and slyly inventive, to a Civic packed with their fans [aka "Lunatics"]. Last month, Limassol ...
Lehar's music is given due respect by the eight singers and the colourful band; Jeremy Sam's translation adds an acerbic freshness to a tale that can often seem saccharine and quaint.
The production, by Artistic Director Jeff Clarke, was full of clever ideas, notably here the puppets in the pavilion and the amazingly supple Grisettes in Act III – remember we're looking at a company of eight, with just two women …

Jim Hutchon joined the Lunatics in the Civic Stalls:

The Lunatics were out in force on 10th March in Chelmsford. These self-styled ‘groupies’ are followers of the glittering ensemble opera group ‘Opera della Luna’ and had gathered in a full house at the Civic for Lehar’s ‘The Merry Widow’.

After more than a hundred years in constant production around the world, it’s hard to imagine anything new can be got from this light-hearted work, but the verve, style and imagination of the group brought a freshness and sparkle to it.

An effortless Trevor Jary hit all the right notes as Count Danilo, the male lead, while his female counterpart with the voice of an angel – the eponymous widow – was Rhona McKail, employing a TOWIE accent to suit her humble origins.

The Director, Jeff Clark (who was also the MD) used his small ensemble of only eight with simple stylish backdrops to create sumptuous scenes of lavish decadence in the mythical pre-WW1 Balkan principality. The highly talented orchestra and cast brought out the drama, humour and tunes to create a whole new view of the work.

Shadow puppets in the summer house and blow-up dolls in a Can-Can are experiences which will live long in the memory.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Essex Symphony Orchestra

Essex Symphony Orchestra at Christ Church

The Storr is a spectacular rocky hill on the Isle of Skye. It was the inspiration for Matthew Taylor's symphonic poem, commissioned by the Essex Symphony Orchestra to celebrate their sixtieth anniversary.
Not an easy climb, and a challenging workout for the orchestra, led by Philippa Barton and conducted by Tom Hammond, who was the driving force behind the commission. But it was an impressive sound picture, an ever-changing panorama with lyrical passages on the flute and a vigorous closing fugue, a depiction of the vista from the peak.
Part of the raison d'etre of "Storr" was to create a companion piece to Brahms' Fourth Symphony, completing the ESO's programming of the cycle. Some very polished playing here, from the confident conversation of the strings in the opening Allegro to the bold build-up of the Finale [energico e passionato] through the sheer fun of the Scherzo, with a full, colourful orchestral palette: three basses and a contrabassoon at one extreme and a plucky triangle at the other.
The concert opened with Bach's Third Orchestral Suite: a lilting Gigue to end, after the bright resounding brass and urgent strings of the Overture.

Thursday, March 08, 2012


at the New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich

We can never know how the Ancients would have experienced Sophocles on stage. But it's a fair bet that the knockabout tragedy now touring under the Spymonkey flag is true to the original only in the broadest sense.
Yes, the age-old story is clearly told, from the curse of Laius to the blinding of Oedipus. But the telling is interlaced with physical comedy and silliness of all kinds, and knowing nods to genres and geniuses galore: Pythons, Tati, Bond movies, panto, seventies sci-fi, the National Theatre of Brent ...

Not easy to encapsulate this unique experience in a few words; impossible to explain how it manages to be both coherent and chaotic, hubristic and hilarious.

The set is simple, starkly white, with tall narrow doors in a kind of colonnade – much fun is had with costumes, headdresses and props just too wide for the aperture. Another running gag – no surprise to Wolsey regulars – has our four players struggling to find the way into the upstage wings.

They spend most of the show in "space nappies", with huge bin-like headgear. But there are Trekkie frocks, too, and the inspired "winding sheets" in the opening narrative.

The two shepherds – Lucky of Thebes and Plucky of Corinth – owe something to the Comedy of Errors. They are superbly done by Aitor Basauri, in his sheep costume and his wig/beard. Aitor also did Merope [in his native Castilian], Laius, and a dire stand-up routine, desperately hoping for some "hacklers".

Inner monolgues are a feature. Petra Massey gives us too much information, Managing Artistic Director Toby Park, in his "don't-tell-the-others" moment, bitterly regrets his wasted life, and Stephan Kreiss angrily anticipates his half-century [in Lancaster] and plans a German version of this very show [now that I would love to see ...].

Many of the routines are classic fare – the torture of Tiresias – the singing lepers [beautifully realised, incidentally] are about as edgy as it gets. The music, Samuel Barber aside, is enjoyable pastiche, with live sax and vocals over the backing track, especially the title number, redolent of those over-blown rock operas that once filled our stadiums, and the "Known You All My Life" climax of our hero's rather sweet meeting with Jocasta.

Emma [Kneehigh] Rice's production has lots of clever comedy [the cat, the ball of wool, the sack] and quick visual gags [the sacrifice put to good use as a designer bag], not forgetting the self-referential asides: never try to have a conversation with a dramatic device.

The final blinding, though, with blood cascading down and spreading across the stage, would be effective in any version.

"Nobody Does It Better" over the curtain call; certainly true of these consummate clowns, skilfully subverting one of the greatest dramas in the canon. Who on earth could find them "middle-aged and safe"?

spymonkey presents oedipussy from Patrick Schulenburg on Vimeo.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Thursday, March 01, 2012


at Chelmsford Cathedral

Mendelssohn's great biblical oratorio has always been a favourite with choirs and their audiences since its Birmingham première.
So it was a happy, if ambitious, choice for Chelmsford Cathedral's Choral Foundation – a performance from scratch with just a few hours' rehearsal.
Not the whole epic, of course, but sixty-five minutes of choruses and solos, mainly from the first part. An informal event, with a choir who turned out for the sheer joy of singing.
Well over a hundred singers turned up, and they made an impressive sound, conducted by Peter Nardone. The men, though fewer in number, particularly effective from the sides of the nave. A powerful opening chorus, the soaring lines of "Yet Doth the Lord", and an enthusiastic response to the exhortation "Call Him Louder": this Baal sequence also tested the stamina of accompanist Iain Farrington playing a demanding piano reduction.
The four soloists were treble Cameron Rosie, soprano Ruth Gomme, tenor Mark McCloskey [a superb "If With All Your Hearts"] and bass Simon Warne, bringing power and gravitas to the huge role of the prophet himself.
The next Choral Foundation event, supporting the work of the Cathedral's excellent music department, will be Crown Imperial on May 26, featuring music from the Queen's Coronation sixty years ago.


at the Civic Theatre

"Do you have a pacemaker?" ask the health-and-safety-conscious house staff. No, but I do have O-level physics, so no trouble recalling the neon-lit LIGHT, NUCLEAR, ELECTRICAL, KINETIC, POTENTIAL, HEAT, SOUND, and CHEMICAL as types of energy. Our old science teacher enjoyed a good explosion, but of course lacked the resources and the performing skills to keep us hooked for a couple of hours …
Mark and Mandy, from the Science Museum, started their spectacular show with a giant pinball chain reaction, using the amazing stage set which included a Tardis-style South Kensington portal. A golden ticket, a puff of smoke and we were off on an experience which included methane bubbles, air cannon, static electricity, frictional phonebooks, a working hovercraft and lots of "loud and dangerous" bangs.
I liked the video link to Prince Albert, though there was perhaps a little too much advertising for the Museum. Highlights of the live show were Hooke and Newton slugging it out, the tee-shirt trebuchet, the frozen flowers.
Good to hear the hordes of kids shouting out "Isaac Newton", and to see the audience so involved with the action. They were asked to write invention ideas in Albert's book, and came up with, among many others, the voice-box remote control, and the intriguing pickled-onion converter.