Sunday, December 29, 2013



This is my 200th, and last, blog entry for 2013.
Not all my own reviews, and not all commissioned. But there were shows this year that didn't make it to these pages, and it's certainly true that evenings out have outnumbered evenings in …
For this top twenty list, I've stuck strictly to those offerings which I was asked to review, both amateur and professional, on my patch, which extends these days from Norwich to the London fringe [occasionally].
But it's mostly still in and around the City of Chelmsford, where 2013 saw Verdi's bicentenary marked with the Waltham Singers' memorable Requiem in the Cathedral; in the Civic, CAODS served up a stylish slice of Gershwin, and Tomorrow's Talent tackled Miss Saigon with spectacular success. In a typically eclectic season, Chelmsford Theatre Workshop excelled in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and also staged an interesting Hamlet.
In the villages, Writtle unveiled their classy Calendar Girls – one of hundreds across the country in the narrow window granted to non-professional groups – and Theatre at Baddow, in a strong year, gave us God of Carnage and a splendid Last of the Red Hot Lovers.
My musical theatre revelation of 2012 was The Drowsy Chaperone [another bite of that cherry this May from LODS]; this year it was The World Goes Round, the Kander & Ebb compendium engagingly staged by Brentwood Operatic. Another scrapbook at Brentwood was the intriguing Next! from Vivid.
Colchester Mercury, now under new management, has had a remarkably successful year, including an outstanding revival of The Hired Man, the enchanting Butterfly Lion and a two-handed tour-de-force mini-season of Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges.
Of the touring productions, Female Gothic stands out, as does the Eastern Angles' John Clare, and on a larger scale [and back on the road for 2014] the brilliantly done stage version of Birdsong.
In town, I loved Trelawny of the Wells at the Donmar, and the revival of The Barber of Seville at ENO.
Two of the most memorable theatrical events took place, entirely by coincidence, just yards apart. Opposite the Queen's Hornchurch stands Fairkytes, where New Venture Players set La Ronde in the rooms and grounds of the old house, and right next door, Langtons, whose fine gardens were the setting for As You Like It, one of four I've seen this year.
Plenty of pantos, too, of course, with Charles Court Opera's Buttons the quirkiest and the cheekiest.

photograph of the Queen's Hornchurch As You Like It by Nobby Clark

Sunday, December 22, 2013


Chelmsford Singers at Chelmsford Cathedral

The Manchester Carols is a Christmas sequence for the 21st century, written by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy with music by Sasha Johnson Manning.
And, just as at the Royal Northern six years ago, the composer was on hand to sing the soprano solos.
The twelve carols are linked by narration [Malcolm Kimmance the reader], and together they re-tell the familiar myths and legends, embroidered by the popular imagination, and often strikingly vivid – the shivering shepherds and the glamorous camels, and most poignant of all, Joseph wandering through trees, his carpenter's craftsmanship seeing their wood become cradle, coffin and cross.
The carols are bookended by The Carol Singers' Carol and the unashamedly populist Present Song – a catchy, bouncy number and, rather like The Twelve Days of Christmas [also programmed here], an eclectic list of gifts: armagnac, frankincense, cardigans ...
The music is tuneful and accessible, with colourful orchestral writing. Sung with enthusiasm by the Chelmsford Singers, directed by James Davy, and joined by the red and blue jumpers of children from the Cathedral Primary School and Our Lady Immaculate, the Chelmsford Sinfonietta [leader Rolf Wilson] and baritone Robert Garland.
He was also the soloist in a wonderful performance of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on Christmas Carols, with rich resonant sounds from the strings and robust choral singing. Plenty more seasonal goodies for the packed Cathedral to savour – Davy's Stokowskian setting of Adeste Fideles, Good King Wenceslas, Silent Night and Britten's lovely New Year Carol:
Open you the West Door, and turn the Old Year go ...”

Thursday, December 19, 2013


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court

Well it's not Private Lives. In Coward's play, the tangled quartet of lovers are vapid but witty and articulate. In Craig's, they are presumably highly intelligent [playwright, lawyer], but speak in semi-coherent soap-opera clichés.
If we are to sympathise at all, it won't be because of the writing, which hardly distinguishes between them.
But the structure is effective – the piece comes full circle, and the mutually wounding relationships are played out against one wedding and two funerals, Christmas and Valentine's Day. The setting is simple, with tiny framed photos of moments of happiness. The playlist, with U2's With Or Without You at the top, neatly reflects the angst and the agony.
And the performances, in Emma Moriaty's deft but depressing production, are plausible, often moving, occasionally very funny.
Most endearing, perhaps, Laura Bradley's management consultant, a complex character, visibly torn between love and forgiveness.
Most ironic, the writer called Wilde, who can't find the words for his plays or his relationships. A strong performance from Joe Kennedy, memorably beating himself up in the opening scene [a prologue, added since the first version of the piece] foreshadowing the rows to come.
Most transparent, Jacob Burtenshaw's “childish, weird” lawyer – his first scene with Bradley crackles with chemistry.
Most desperately insecure, the York hairdresser played by Sarah Chandler. Not as much of a class outsider as the text might suggest, but excellent in the hotel scene where the two “innocent parties” have an ill-advised tryst.
What's going to happen to us?” I'm not sure we care, to be honest. Aristotle, bizarrely cited here, suggested that couples are striving for the happiness only union can bring. These characters seem to bring most of their misery on themselves; what motivates them often remains a mystery.

But CTW, giving this fifteen-year-old drama a rare staging, do their best to make the dialogue and the character development realistic; the result is a believable, if uncomfortable, snapshot of 21st century relationships: over-verbalized, masochistic and emotional. As the Master has Amanda say, “I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives...”

Monday, December 16, 2013


Writtle Singers at All Saints' Church

Under the real candles in the real chandelier, this enterprising chamber choir brought us seasonal delights from all over the world, as well as an opportunity to join their voices in perennial favourites like Holst's Rossetti setting, In The Bleak Midwinter.
Christine Gwynn conducted a bright, positive Adam Lay Ybounden to set the mood, then gentler sounds from Norway [an exquisite setting by Ola Gjeilo of A Spotless Rose], from the Basque Country [Javier Busto's Night Songs] and from Venezuela [the lovely Nino Lindo, beautifully sung].
My favourite pairing: The Huron Carol from Canada, and the Argentine For A World Without Faith, with its clever rhythmic effects. Both using the choral forces with inspired inventiveness.
The accompanist, Edward Wellman, played Blatchly's three charming Versets on Away In A Manger, after two brave youngsters joined the Singers for the Willcocks arrangement of the familiar carol.
And Martyn Richards' readings this year included Peter Howard's poem in which an ancient shepherd reminisces …

They say I'm old, that I should give up my flock,
stay back with the women in the warm.
They say the cold is bad for me, and hiking
over hills to find a lost sheep, sitting up
all night to nurse a lamb are young men's jobs.
When I tell my story, I see glances and disbelief.
Yet none would dare deny my flock's
the best-kept in the region, my memory
still sharp as winter wind. It was a night
much like this. We huddled round the fire,
and passed a cup for warmth. I was youngest.
Now the rest are gone, so when I die
there'll be no one to remember.
Each of us heard a voice that gave commands.
(Afterwards, we couldn't recall
what words were said, but all agreed
we had been instructed to go somewhere,
for a reason we didn't understand.)
While it spoke, Winter seemed
to withdraw, and it was Spring
(though still cold, dark, and wind blowing bitterly)
When the voice stopped, we didn't like to catch
our neighbour's eye: each thought
perhaps he should keep this to himself.
But there was a burst of light, that blinded us
as sunlight does when you
come out of a dark cave into the morning.
We had no doubt then, packed up our things,
and went, without much talking,
to where we had been directed.
At length, we stood, and saw. Just for a moment
it occurred to me that it was me that had been chosen
out of the whole world. Me, to stand here
and be a witness. Not kings, or lords or the village mayor,
but me. A warmth crept up like an August breeze,
or a woollen coat, or more like long thin fingers
trying to curl round me and drag me away.
Then it was gone, and I knew my thought
had been wrong, despicable. That is why
I'll tend my sheep, welcome the bitterest nights,
tell my story to anyone with half an ear,
and one day I will have atoned.

Writtle Singers are a friendly, ambitious group of musicians who care about what they do, and are ready for any challenge. In my experience, their concerts are invariably interesting, professionally performed and great fun.
In 2014 they will be looking to expand their ranks. If you are a musician [not necessarily a singer] who might enjoy working with them, doing something a little bit different, why not give them a try. You can contact them on or look at their Facebook page

Remember, choral singing brings physical, psychological and social benefits hard to achieve by most other routes.
And it keeps dementia at bay …


Cameo Players at Hylands House

Cameo's long-established Christmas visit to Hylands House had a new look this year. A generous Selection Box of Delights included loads of new material, and musical offerings from Willow's Drum, Mark Barnard and Lyz Le Fay, whose seasonal repertoire ranged from Eartha Kitt to the Coventry Carol by way of the Kinks.
Lindsay Lloyd had put together a heart-warming collection of poems and prose looking at Christmas through the eyes of a child, as well as some pithy observations [and requests] from real kids.
There were Nativity Plays a-plenty, Mole End, Molesworth and Adrian Mole [this last] beautifully captured by Martin Lucas] Eat, Drink and Be Sick [Pam Ayres], Pooh and Piglet in the snow, Hogwarts, cracker jokes, Tolkien's letters from Father Christmas, Paddington Bear and the Five Pence Pudding and Just William's Christmas list.
American classics, too, like The Night Before Christmas and the New York Sun's Yes Virginia editorial, as well as Phyllis McGinley's clever poem about St Nicholas.
More thoughtful moments too: Vicki Tropman's reading of These Are The Greedy Days, and Lois Duncan's Christmas, Present, read by Lindsay Lloyd.

But we were sent home with a smile, thanks to Alan Titchmarsh's potted panto, narrated by Ken Rolf, with Tropman slapping thigh as Aladdin, Lloyd as Twankee, Rick Smith as the camp Genie, Lucas as part-time aerobics instructor Abanazer, and Caroline Ogden cheekily walking on as Cinders and Puss.

I saw the Ghost-of-Christmas Past
Glide by our lighted tree.
Her arms wee filled with dolls and toys,
And all were meant for me.
I sensed the rustle of her skirts.
Her blouse was trimmed with lace,
And when she turned to smile at me
She wore my mother's face.

Just as this vision slipped from sight
I heard my daughter call.
Wild footsteps clattered on the stair;
Shrill giggles filled the hall.
She burst into the gift- filled room
And squealed in glad surprise
And all the Christmases-to-come
Were mirrored in her eyes.

How swiftly fly the rainbow years,
Like splintered shafts of light,
As fragile as the gentle ghosts
Who whisper in the night.
I draw my child into my arms
And hold this moment fast
Against the time my face will be
Her Ghost-of-Christmas

Lois Duncan

Sunday, December 15, 2013


at Brentwood Theatre

Mike Kenny's clever re-working of the old tale is a family show in every sense.
Its ingenious form takes a nuclear family of four, and has them tell the story, slipping in and out of the familiar characters. Quite intelligent enough to entertain the most sophisticated of grown-ups. Quite magical enough, and comical enough, to delight the kids.
Director Joseph C Walsh uses the family's kitchen as a chameleon setting for forest and gingerbread house, and the four versatile young actors are convincing both as the modern family and the woodcutter, his wife, and his two hapless children. So Charlotte Bradford plays both mothers, as well as the Wicked Witch; Paul Tonkin is the fathers and the enormous dormouse who overcomes his fear to help defeat the evil child-snatcher. Stephen O'Riain is Hansel, easily distracted by food, and Hannah Douglas is a feisty Gretel – it is her initiative that finishes the tale, giving it that all-important jazz hands happy ending.
The catchy little numbers [Andrew Dodge] – Time for A Treat either side of the ice-cream interval, What I Really Enjoy is a Boy a splendid anthem for the Witch – have witty lyrics, and both punctuate and illustrate the narrative, making for a uniquely enjoyable blend of story-telling and musical theatre.

production photography by Carmel Jane

Saturday, December 14, 2013


BUTTONS - Another Cinderella Story
Charles Court Opera in association with The Rosemary Branch
at The Rosemary Branch Theatre, London N1

This is the 7th boutique Panto CCO have brought to the Rosemary Branch, and they couldn't have wished for a more enthusiastic audience of “boys and girls”. Crammed into the intimacy of the upper room, they cheered, booed, heckled, sang along and generally gave as good as they got.
In fact, looking around, there's only one child amongst us. But the genius of this not-so-very-alternative panto is that it appeals as much to the wide-eyed innocent as to the seen-it-all cynic.
Very much John Savournin's show, of course. He's directed his own script. Choreographed the production numbers. And plays a lovely Dame, too, butch but cheeky, with an easy rapport with his adoring audience.
Buttons” re-tells the nation's favourite panto tale with Buttons at its centre. In this version he's a cuddly Teddy Bear, hopelessly in love with Cinders, dreaming of being a real boy. He's given his big chance, not by Geppetto, but by the Fairy Godfather.
There are all sorts of other twists, too, all within the spirit of pantomime. “Into the Woods” springs unbidden to mind, and the opening is very Sondheimy – in Act Two A Little Night Music provides a catchy tune for A Party At The Palace, and Sweeney Todd is there too
Musically, it's very much a thieving magpie show. The delicate shadowplay before curtain-up is backed by Richard Strauss's Zarathustra [arranged for keyboard, percussion and voices] and Bernstein, Verdi, Thriller, Queen and Carousel are amongst many others pressed into service. Rota for the Godfather, Gunning for Poirot, Sullivan for the patter song.
A strong cast of seven includes many favourites, as well as newcomer Joanna Marie Skillett, excellent as Cinders. Matthew Kellett is Buttons/Buttocks, and Rosie Strobel has a great time strutting and posing as the wicked Prince Charming “Call me Gary...”, the evil mastermind behind the Magic Menace. Nichola Jolley is her suave Dandini, though alas they never get to swap clothes ...
Amy J Payne plays PC Pumpkin, besotted with Betty, and veteran luminary of the lyric stage Simon Masterson-Smith is the Fairy Godfather – think Brando in suspenders and a tutu.
The amiable anarchy of it all is offset by the superb singing – parody and pastiche galore, all delivered, unplugged, by some outstanding voices.
All the traditional panto joys are observed – old jokes, sweet-chucking, birthdays and song sheet. There's even a bake-off [and food fight], in which Juicy James's ambitious bear is rejected in favour of an Angel. Poor James, all the way from “West London”, is the object of Betty Swollocks's amorous attentions. But if you sit so close to the front that your knees brush the tabs …

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Thursday, December 12, 2013


Eastern Angles at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich

This year's literary Christmas tomfoolery explores the little-known Suffolk branch of Yorkshire's finest writing family, the Brontës of Haworth.
It's a clever blend of fact, fiction and fantasy, which assumes a certain familiarity with the literature. In the witty, erudite script, by Eileen Ryan and Eastern Angles Artistic Director Ivan Cutting, familiar characters rub shoulders with the authors, as the scene shifts from Dunwich to Barbados and back again. Cutting directs, with designs by Ian Teague [lovely sea-scapes] and music by Simon Egerton, who composed Parkway Dreams for the Peterborough branch earlier this year.
Is it set in Egypt ?” wondered one myopic punter, mistaking the polystyrene cliff for a Sphinx. With the ingenious economy we have come to expect from this company, something of a feature is made of the scene shifting, simple boxes, benches and arches continually reconfigured.
The music, too, is shared around, as the performers take turns at the keyboard and turn their hand to tin whistle, guitar and ukulele. This last for the legendary laughing Hovelers, who “write all their own material”.
You have to have your wits about you to pick up all the throwaway jokes and the recondite references. Peter Grimes, Dolly the Sheep, Southwold's historic Sailors' Reading Room, Fred the Shred, and that's before we start on the Brontë books or the legends of Dunwich lost to the sea.
The less well-read are not forgotten – as Wikipedia has it, In Popular Culture, there's plenty of Kate Bush, and a reminder towards the end that, somewhat incredibly even in this wild and wuthering fantasy, Cliff Richard once starred in the Tim Rice musical of Heathcliff. And I wonder what the drama students from The Academy made of the constant cross-border sniping at Colchester … ?
Slipping in and out of costume and character are Laura Corbett as Plain Jane and Sophie Reid as Mad Cathy [beautifully dressed for the part]. Harry Waller divides his time between the keyboard, Patrick [Brontë père] and Mr Rochester the coconut magnate. [Lord Smeg, the fridge magnate, one of the many one-liners I've filed away for future use, together with OMGA …]. Clare Hawes plays countless menials, as well as the late Mrs B, whose tombstone we trip over on the way to our seats. A lively ghost she makes, totes fluent in social-media-speak, obvs …
But head and shoulders above the others, Cameron Johnson's strapping Heathcliff and his unforgettable Mrs Rochester, the madwoman with the mattock in the attic, the Barbadian bride who finds fulfilment in face creams.
Adele is a doll, Edith a cuddly seabird, there's hang-gliding, a coconut-oil calypso, a hothouse from the flies, and some very witty lyrics, despite the dearth of rhymes for Brontë. Could Lorenzo da Ponte have done any better ?

production photo: Mike Kwasniak


One From The Heart at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford

This fast and furious family panto is focused on giving everyone a good night out, and especially on drawing the kids in the audience into the action.
So Simon Aylin's offering this year has Kerris Peeling as a no-nonsense Fairy Godmother – Go-Mo to her fairy-friendly chums – who enlists our aid in getting Cinders to the Ball and ensuring a happy-ever-after ending for everyone.
Suzie Chard comes on like a size twenty Sharon O, hurling ever more inventive insults at the audience in return for boos and hisses. And Lewis Barnshaw, as a delightfully bashful Buttons, plays for sympathy as well as laughs, and leads the youngsters in a familiar singalong – The Music Man, an excellent choice not often heard in panto nowadays.
The strikingly ill-matched Ugly Sisters are Neal Wright's Gusty Gail [dumpy and aggressive] and Richard Foster-King's Windy Wendy [seven foot nothing without the heels and the ostrich feathers] – constant bickering and frequent flatulence, plus some really impressive frocks and the flair to wear them well.
Sophie Camble is a svelte, demure Cinders; a strong singer and pleasingly assertive in adversity.
Tom Parsons' dishy Prince proves a fine vocalist, and his Dandini – Rhys Rice – is a great little mover in his spectacular dance routines. In fact almost everyone gets a good number to showcase their talents – as well as Adele [Someone Like You] and the inevitable but appropriate One Direction [We Danced All Night] we have a disco medley, something from The Wiz, that old chestnut Friendship and, for the brassy Baroness [and four chorus boys], Reciprocity from Chicago.
Richard Peakman's choreography is crisp and inventive, with the cast of eight boosted by energetic ensemble players from Laine Theatre Arts – It's Raining Men [for the Sisters] with oilskins and brollies for the boys. The transformation, done with stars and mirrors, is impressive, and what a treat to see real Shetland ponies pulling the coach …
Almost all the favourite panto features are in place – a ghost routine [with ghouls all around the auditorium], custard pies, water pistols, old jokes [“Nothing's that funny ...”] and a victim from the audience, Max on this occasion, who was unwise enough to sit in row B with his shorts and his woggle.
The Brentwood Beavers and the Writtle Rainbows loved every minute – possibly the loudest, most excited audience ever. They've probably bought their tickets for next year already, when the same team will be bringing Peter Pan to the Civic.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews


Made in Colchester at the Mercury Theatre

Among the C-listers and the pop charts, the cruise-ship choreography and the desperate decibels, it's a real pleasure to sit back and enjoy this charmingly original re-working of the Sleeping Beauty story, originally written by Jonathan Petherbridge for London Bubble Theatre, and directed for the Mercury by Tony Casement.
At its best when it holds its alternative nerve, as in the delightful opening, where The Old Woman [Kate Copeland] emerges from her giant portmanteau to look into the future for the childless King and Queen. Elsewhere, it feels a little apologetic, with its talk of critical exposition [“the audience needs to know what's going on”] and the Dame teaching the Fairy how to interact with the audience.
Much of the writing is witty and unusually subtle – way above the heads of the kids - the songs, many of them written for the show by Richard Reeday, the MD, are redolent of the fifties and sixties where the first half of the show is set. “If Life Were Like Ballroom” especially enjoyable. One hundred years later we're into the future [as seen from the 1950s] with robots, saucers and genetically modified Police Dogs.
No shortage of clever twists, either – the fatal needle, for example, is the stylus of a lovely period Dansette.
And it's good to see a new take on some of these familiar fairytale characters. Emma Salvo is a well-meaning trainee fairy [the staff room an excellent piece of set design] longing to get her wings, and David Ahmad is excellent as Davis, the faithful royal retainer. Superb work from Jonny Fines and his quiff as a young Prince Justin [and his distant teenage descendant Ronnie], wooing Stephanie Hockley's Princess Talia with his dance moves.
Slightly out of his/her element as a traditional dame, Neil Bromley's Nanny, with her B-Tech in Projectile Vomiting and her venerable gags. Other familiar features which don't quite fit are the baking scene, which quickly becomes gratuitous water pistol fun, and the interminable Birthday Bingo. At least we are spared inviting children up on stage to talk about what Santa will be bringing …
It's a long way from shouting “It's Behind You!” to remembering a dictionary definition of A Republic, and the audience participation is sometimes tentative. Many of the younger punters prefer the cuddly rabbits, who pop up to steal sandwiches and the all-important calculator.
Like the Noh and the Nativity play, pantomime is a sacred ritual – you mess with it at your peril. Mums and Dads, for their one taste of live theatre in the year, like to bring their kids to discover what they themselves loved as children. But if a new broom is needed, much rather this quirky, intelligently loveable hybrid than a vehicle for an X-factor songster or a second-rate soap star.

production photograph: Robert Day

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Sunday, December 08, 2013


Trinity Methodist Church, Chelmsford

This year's Advent offering from Trinity Methodist's choir included another accessible cantata by Roger Jones, this time based on the story of Simeon, from Luke's Gospel. Linked by narration, the music features a lovely duet in O Little Town of Bethlehem, and solos for Mary and the Prophetess Anna, strongly backed by a repeated “Wait” from the choir.
A generous selection of seasonal sacred music of many genres began with the medieval-influenced Now Is The Time Of Christemas, and ended in the 16th century with “Bethlehem” from Martin Guerre. In between, a couple of Rutters, the exquisite Christ Child's Lullaby, sung by alto Emma Byatt, and Margaret Rolf's setting of Rossetti's Before The Paling Of The Stars.
Time too for the audience to join in favourite carols, and to try to master a traditional round, Natus Est Immanuel, encouraged by the choir's ever-optimistic director Felicity Wright. Two readings from Ken Rolf: a jobsworth standing up for downtrodden Little Donkey, and Charles Causley's haunting Ballad of the Bread Man.
Back by popular demand this year, the choir of the Cathedral Primary School, with songs from Niki Davies's Whoops A Daisy Angel, and a very impressive quartet rendition of the much-loved Born In The Night, by Essex-born composer [and Methodist minister] Geoffrey Ainger.

Before the paling of the stars,
Before the winter morn,
Before the earliest cock crow,
Jesus Christ was born:
Born in a stable,
Cradled in a manger,
In the world his hands had made
Born a stranger.

Priest and king lay fast asleep
In Jerusalem;
Young and old lay fast asleep
In crowded Bethlehem;
Saint and angel, ox and ass,
Kept a watch together
Before the Christmas daybreak
In the winter weather.

Jesus on his mother's breast
In the stable cold,
Spotless lamb of God was he,
Shepherd of the fold:
Let us kneel with Mary maid,
With Joseph bent and hoary,
With saint and angel, ox and ass,
To hail the King of Glory.