Sunday, June 30, 2013


King Edward VI School, Chelmsford

Plenty of pleasant surprises in the summer concert this year – and not just the green fiddle amongst the second violins.
Iain Buchanan played his A-level practical work – Electric Counterpoint, a 1987 piece by the father of minimalism, Steve Reich. Very impressively executed, it involves a multi-tracked backing [all twelve tracks laid down by Iain] and live electric guitar. No less impressive was the other solo, a Brahms clarinet sonata from David Wringe with William Foster playing the demanding piano accompaniment – a very polished performance with eloquent pianissimo passages.
David brought his bass clarinet to the ever-popular Wind Band, which this time out played an energetic Slumdog Millionaire and a smooth Come Fly With Me, with fine work from the two trombonists amongst others. They ended with a tribute to Whitney Houston in an arrangement by Michael Brown.
Tuneful light music from the Junior String Ensemble, [eleven players plus piano] including a lovely Pennies From Heaven with an authentically Thirties piano intro.
The Junior Orchestra, led by Jonathan Belay, brought us Haydn's Surprise and Mozart's French nursery rhyme, featuring col legno and pizzicato among the variations.
Vocally, the trebles sang a very pleasing arrangement of Sting's Fields of Gold, as well as Pure Imagination, written for the 1971 Chocolate Factory film, and revived in the new West End musical which opened this week.
The Year 7 Singers, a sizeable proportion of the year group, filled the stage for a confident performance, with a splendidly open continental sound, of Vois Sur Ton Chemin, from the 1984 film Les Choristes.
The vocal ensembles, and the Junior Strings, were directed by Rebecca Chant; the Orchestra and the Wind Band by Director of Music Tim Worrall.

Richard Broadway


Essex Symphony Orchestra Summer Concert at Christ Church

A programme of 20th century British music to mark the 60th anniversary of the Queen's Coronation.
At its heart, a piece to celebrate that June day in 1953 – Malcolm Arnold's Homage to the Queen, a suite from the ballet premièred that night at Covent Garden. Not a piece I've heard before; there are evident influences, not least Walton in the pomp of the fanfares, but Arnold's genial wit shines through. Superbly played by the ESO under Tom Hammond, relishing the different styles of the four elements: brass tongues of flame, singing strings, the celeste for water, winds for the air.
The programme began with Elgar's Sea Pictures, with mezzo Marie Elliott an imposing presence. Beautifully sung, too, the poignant In Haven [words by Elgar's wife Alice], the ethereal, other-worldly Where Corals Lie, and the impassioned Swimmer.
Vaughan Williams' London Symphony ended the concert. Like the Elgar, it was played with assured style by the ESO, conjuring up the Edwardian capital in all its moods. Rich, dark string tone, with evocative, atmospheric solos from horn, cor anglais, and in the sombre Epilogue, an exquisite phrase from the violin of leader Philippa Barton before the music disappears into the dusk.


Gallery Players
at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
for Sardines Magazine

Tea and flapjack in the interval. "… like going back to your childhood, only deeper and darker …" muses the man at the next table. Can't think of a better summing up of Sondheim's Into The Woods.
Often considered a difficult piece, though popular with performers, there was something of a breakthrough in Regent's Park the other summer, when Timothy Sheader had the narrator, usually an older, wiser, character [Nicholas Parsons in the West End back in the Dark Ages], played by a small boy, taking refuge in the woods, with his dolls and his demons. So I was delighted to see Steve Wooldridge borrowing this idea, and extending it in a devised prologue with the child's little friends, playing games in the scary fairy-tale forest – what's the time, Mr Wolf …
Tom Beattie is brilliant as the boy, confidently drawing us into the action, singing along, acting out key confrontations with the aid of the plastic dolls.
But there's not one performer less than excellent in this polished show – it has a very professional feel about it, and not simply because of the Wolsey stage with its technical facilities.
Particularly impressive were Stephanie Brown as the determined, practical mother of The Lad Jack – engagingly done by Jack Brett. Molly Scurrell was Red Riding Hood, a strong character, howling like a toddler, outstanding in her loss-of-innocence number "I Know Things Now". The tormented Baker, ultimately Tom's dad in this version, was compellingly sung and played by Paul Stone – Clare Dungey was almost unbearably moving as his wife, longing for a child; her "Moments in the Wood" was one of many musical high spots. The feisty Cinderella, duetting effectively with Dungey, was Rachel Lucock. The Jedwardian princes, Tom Mayhew and Joe Leat, ridiculously posh with their lace and their fowling pieces, made the most of "Agony". And rising to the challenge of the complex Witch, Shelley Clempson, a memorable incarnation on rustic crutches, giving us a splendid Last Midnight, enhanced by strikingly atmospheric lighting [Dan Scarlett].
The whole ensemble was incredibly secure; I shall long remember the tableau at the end of Act One, with all these Grimm characters looking down on poor Tom in his lonely sleeping bag.
A constantly delightful use of detail – the post-coital cigarette, the tea-cosy hat, the leaves falling from the rafters, the washing line, "Essex Way" [home of Cinderella's TOWIE step-family], the foliage birds, the Baker's Wife's corpse trolleyed off, the bullies finally turned into piglets, not-so-little Red Riding Hood constantly stuffing her face with cakes. And the wonderful Milky White, an expressive bovine puppet, created by Dave Borthwick, who also designed the stylish woodland set.
The music was directed by Richard Healey, with his classy band high up stage left, next to the Witch's leafy lair.

Friday, June 28, 2013


Horizons and Interactions Dance Companies at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch

An amazingly impressive showcase of song and [mostly] dance from these talented, confident young performers.
Two dozen numbers, constantly surprising and delighting the vociferously appreciative audience at the Queen's.
The ensemble burst onto the stage, in sparkly scarlet and black, for Swing City, a jazzy, jivey display of boundless energy, choreographed by Sandra Broxton. Elaine O'Connor was responsible for the classical Can You/Will You Stay, danced by two couples, a lovely piece to Ella's Black Coffee, with a beautifully judged ending, and an outstanding solo for Aston Joshua to end the first half.
Jess O'Shea's The Pride Boys was a potent blend of Street Dance and Lion King, while Sarah Woodroof's Speak Easy began with traditional charleston tap routines before developing into something much darker and edgier. The same choreographer's K.O. was an incredibly inventive, highly original take on tap – two American boxers in the ring, spurred on by their armies of fans. Still can't quite believe how good this was … Joshua in one corner, Lee Howard in the other. There was Romantic ballet [Emeralds] Chorus Line [One] and Martha Graham [Arc of Light] and to finish, a stage full of painted faces for the Celebration finale.
Vocally, we heard an accomplished beat-box chorale – Mash-Up – and several confident soloists.
Havering College must be very proud of its students – this spectacular show was a superb example of work which managed to be both disciplined and spontaneous: two hours of pure pleasure.

photograph from the 2012 show

Thursday, June 27, 2013


EnglishTheatre Company at Brentwood Theatre

Mild-mannered history teacher David Jones – gauche and not a little naïve – is drawn into a mysterious world of murder and espionage, with lines, images and music all drawn from the iconic oeuvre of Alfred Joseph Hitchcock.
If you've seen Patrick Barlow's 39 Steps spoof, you'll get the B-picture, though ETC's take, written and directed by Michael Harry, is more surreal, a little edgier, and even shorter at less than 90 minutes including the interval.
Nick Potts is David – The Man Who Knew Too Much, singing Que Sera down the telephone to his confused mother – and all the other characters are played by Joshua Tobias Mills and Amy Berry. She is various femmes fatales, most of them with Tippi Hedren hair, and all beginning with C. He gets the villains, including the Boss in a plum-coloured jacket, and the grey-haired denizen of a certain motel, anagrammed Fawlty-Towers style as O Let Me Stab.
Against a featureless brick wall, the location shifts from the H&M Club to the Scotland train to the Royal Albert Hall. One nice touch is the use of placards and puppets above the parapet. Not just mannequins, but The Birds and the crop-sprayer [a lovely model, this] from North by North-West. There's a clever mimed recap, too, against sound effects – which will presumably get slicker and swifter as the show beds in.
Virtuosic accents, quirky walks, audience participation, all conspire to make a cheekily entertaining piece.
A Bit Of A Hitch, and its companion, Waiting On Shakespeare, are moving in to The Courtyard Theatre in Hoxton for the month of July.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at The Old Court

A quick PowerPoint revision of the Watergate affair, and then we're into the build-up to the turning point in the careers of these two very different men – as Tricky Dicky points out, only one of them will be able to stay in the limelight …
This is not Spitting Image – Kevin Stemp has more of a Reagan look about him, Dean Hempstead reminds me of Paul Gambaccini. But the confrontation is the important thing in Peter Morgan's play, and the details surrounding it – the idle chat before the cameras roll, the hidden handkerchief, rehearsing the questions.
The advisers watching, helpless, then exultant, and the superbly done eve-of-battle phone call. Stemp and Hempstead are ably supported by some excellent actors - most impressively, Chris Green and Peter Spelling as Reston and Zelnick.
But it is Stemp's authoritative and believable incarnation of Mr President that is the high point for me – a compelling and masterly performance.

Frost/Nixon runs at the Old Court through till Saturday 29.

Jim Hutchon was in the first night audience for the Chelmsford Weekly News: 

Staging a play about a television interview is a challenge as the lack of material leaves very little room for manoeuvre. Mark Preston’s version worked the details to advantage – Nixon’s famous Life front page had the actor’s face photoshopped in, and clear attention to detail in the meticulous preparations for the interviews.

Kevin Stemp put on a marvellous bravura performance as the slippery Nixon, blustering - statesman - cowed, and ultimately worn down by the relentless probing of Frost. Dean Hempstead’s Frost didn’t entirely inhabit his suave, quick-witted character – not helped by a script which placed him unhelpfully as the puppet of producer John Birt (Martin Robinson) and his henchmen Jim Reston Jr (a compelling Chris Green) and Bob Zelnick (Peter Spilling).

Leaden-footed at first, the action took on variation as the night wore on. Powerful arguments were wholly absorbing, and provided the main dramatic elements. As an analogy to a prize fight, there were lovely atmospheric moments when the lights narrowed, the bustle of the ‘seconds’ stilled and the contenders got down to slugging it out.

This a CTW ‘must-see’ play, it is sharp, clever and sure-footed and will go down as a milestone in the group’s long and distinguished history.

Sunday, June 23, 2013


Romford Summer Theatre in Raphael Park

Lively, unsubtle and short, Shakespeare's early farce is a good choice for the open air.
Kevin O'Connor's stylish production is set in the Roaring Twenties, with appropriate snatches of song to bridge the scenes. [Was that Jay Whidden's Louisiana as I took my seat in the Rockery ?]
A casting luxury Shakespeare must have dreamt of – the Spong brothers as the two Dromios. Their cleft-apple looks add hugely to the mirror moment at the end, the hand-clasp exit, and the ingenious scene with the two slaves either side of the "guilty doors".
Andrew and Richard had much of the physical comedy, too, well-timed and never over-played, and Dromio of Syracuse [Richard, I think] gets some of the best laughs from his riff about his kitchen-drudge "wife".
Their two twin masters, Tweedledum and Tweedledee in their boaters and Oxford bags, are Mark Griffiths and Paul Sparrowham, hilarious in his confusion, especially in the "old rope" sequence.
In fox fur, pearls and gorgeous flapper dress Natalie Sant makes an elegant, eloquent Adriana, with Lindsay Hollingsworth a nice contrast as her bookish sister.
Plenty of enjoyment to be had from the smaller roles, too: Jim Rimel telling "sad stories of his own mishap", Vernon Keeble-Watson the very model of a major-general as the Duke, Chrissie O'Connor as the devil's dam, John Lester as the wronged goldsmith, Bob Etherton as a corny stage conjurer. And Louise O'Connor is the Abbess, who engineers a happy ending as none other than Aegeon's long-lost wife, mother of the twin Antipholi.
The sylvan setting works well here; our imaginary forces can easily convince us that the Centaur, the Phoenix and the Porpentine lie just over the lake, beyond the trees …


Waltham Singers in Great Waltham Church

Celebrating their fortieth season, this concert was an impressive meeting of past and future, sacred and profane. Based largely on the music they took with them on their tour of Venice last month.
It began with a sequence of church music from Byrd to Rutter – his simple, fervent God Be In My Head. These were some of the pieces that the Singers have shared with us over the years – Bruckner's Locus Iste, for example - and included a performance of Victoria's Misa O Magnum Mysterium. Superbly balanced blend of voices in Tallis's O Nata Lux, and the splendour of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus to end.
All directed with inspirational enthusiasm and eloquent precision by Andrew Fardell, who confessed that after the interval they were straying outside their comfort zone, loosening up a little. No need to worry, since the next three numbers were all arrangements for The Kings Singers, who have proved better than anyone that letting your hair down doesn't mean letting your standards slip.
Excellent work, and hugely entertaining, especially the I'm A [High Speed] Train encore. [Though some of us might have appreciated the contrasting nostalgia of Slow Train, from the same album, I think ...] 
Guest artist for the evening was singer/pianist Claire Harper, who gave us some great jazz standards, unmediated by microphones, and then joined the Singers for a heady mix of the cool and the choral, especially in Gershwin's S'wonderful.

video of Tallis in Venice by Gwyneth's friend Helen ...

Friday, June 21, 2013


Lunchtime concert in Chelmsford Cathedral

Like the ukuleles last month, guitars don't often congregate in ensembles. Roger Montgomery's CheGO, formed in 2011, makes a very pleasant sound, well served by the Cathedral's acoustic.
Their repertoire is almost all composed or arranged by Montgomery himself with this ten-strong orchestra very much in mind.
Styles varied from the folk-inspired Peruvian Party to the gentle Summer Breeze and the toe-tapping Turkey Time. Composers included Grieg [a Waltz from the Lyric Pieces] to Lennon and McCartney [Day Tripper, with that iconic riff]. Another journey, this time through a drowsy Spanish landscape, was engagingly evoked by El Caballo.

photograph and video recording from a concert earlier this month in St John's


Ad Hoc Players at Brentwood Theatre

Tai Chi to the the tune of Jerusalem is only the start of it. Tim Firth's funny, feel-good play follows six plucky members of the W.I. as they plan, pose, and then market their alternative calendar.
Wendi Sheard's production for Ad Hoc stresses the ordinariness of these nervous but determined women, contrasted with the snootiness of their out-of-touch chairperson [Lisa Mathews].
Good sustained character work from Sharon Sims as Cora, church organist and single mum, with her Beatles T-shirt and down-to-earth emotions. And from Chloe Lewis-Brooks as the desperate golf widow who dresses like a tart, drinks like a fish and needs bigger buns …
Annie, whose husband [Paul Ganney] dies from leukaemia, sparking off the whole settee scheme, is played with sincerity by Shealagh Dennis – they share a lovely tender moment over the sunflower seeds. Her friend of 400 years, Miss October, is Pam Shrimpton, who makes a rousing speech to Council before being dazzled by the television lights and the lure of fame. Jessie, retired schoolmistress, [Debbie Shears] speaks tellingly of growing old, and even reticent Ruth [Susie Purkiss] finds the strength to see off her beautician love rival.
The sunflowers planted in May bloom, in back projection, in late summer, and al fresco Tai Chi is followed by portions of chips.

A sell-out success for Ad Hoc, and an entertaining way of raising funds for the original Calendar Girls charity, Leukaemia and LymphomaResearch.

and for Remote Goat:

Tim Firth's play of 2008 – and the calendar of 2000 – have returned to their charitable, community roots, with over 500 amateur groups fighting for a chance to perform it, raising money for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research and aiming for the Guinness Book of Records.
Ad Hoc packed the Brentwood Theatre for their version, directed by Wendi Sheard. The set combined Village Hall and a hill in the Yorkshire Dales, and the large cast clearly enjoyed telling the now familiar story of the W.I. women who bared all to buy a settee for their local cancer ward.
None more than the giggly school-friends [Shealagh Dennis and Pam Shrimpton] who between them set up the fundraising scheme and see it through to fruition. Chloe Lewis-Brooks made a lovely loud lush, bane of the Golf Club, and Sharon Sims lit up the stage with her brassy Cora.
Each of the ladies has a back-story, some hilarious lines, and carefully crafted speeches. A snappier pace, better projection and a more confident approach would have made the evening more enjoyable. And the crucial photo-shoot, while ingenious, struggled to convince, with no tripod, flash and desperately deployed reflectors. Clever use of props, though – knitting for schoolmistress Jessie [Debbie Shears], conserves for Ruth [Susie Purkiss] and barely adequate buns for Celia …
In addition to a percentage of the ticket price, there was an enterprising calendar, featuring tasteful shots of these plucky calendar girls in all their glory.

Thursday, June 20, 2013


Writtle Cards at the Village Hall

Tim Firth's play of 2008 – and the calendar of 2000 – have returned to their charitable, community roots, with over 500 amateur groups fighting for a chance to perform it, raising money for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research and aiming for the Guinness Book of Records.
It's an inspiring story, shot through with sentimentality and Yorkshire humour. Laura Bennett's sell-out production at Writtle has a top-notch cast, not only the six poseuses, but the beautician, WI officials and guests, plus of course the men – Neil Smith hilarious as the shy snapper, Daniel Curley very moving as the husband whose death sets the whole scheme in motion.
Leafing through the months, we see some of the best, and the bravest, actresses of a certain age for miles around. Paulette Harris outstanding as the forthright florist, Michele Moody as the boozy refugee from the golf club, Barbara Llewellyn as the Brodiesque retired teacher, Sharon Goodwin, the determined widow, Beth Crozier as the musical single mum and Liz Curley as the reluctant Ruth. Not forgetting Jean Speller as the gloriously snobbish branch chairman.
They're a cheeky bunch, naughtily subverting the jam and Jerusalem image with their giggly banter. And Firth's script provides one-liners and set-pieces for everyone.
This thoroughly enjoyable staging is spare and simple – the Dales on a sliding screen – with effectively stylised solutions to the death of John, the showers of fan mail, the sunflowers.
Typically for Writtle, there are sunflowers everywhere, a fund-raising stall for that original Calendar Girls charity, Victoria Sponge [not M&S] and Knapely Knee-trembler in the interval, the real W.I. in attendance. The all-important photo-shoot props include preserves from, where else, Wilkin's.
And yes, dear reader, I bought the calendar, [pictures by ParryHide Photography] which I'm pleased to see features many other company members to make up the eighteen months ...

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


The Royal Opera in the Linbury Theatre

How to make an opera out of Oscar's "trivial comedy" ?
In this, the first staged production [semi-staged, I'd have said], there are at least four strands, sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory: the words, the music, the adaptation and the direction.
It's a sell-out run for the Linbury, and the audience is quick to laugh at the wit of the original [in anticipation, on occasion, a notorious shortcoming of surtitles]. There's wit in Gerald Barry's score, too, with Auld Lang Syne variated, German song referenced several times [Lady B approves of lieder], and nice G&S capering for a reprise of "What Can I Do?". Wilful pauses, clever punctuation, and for Cecily's duet with Gwendolen, augmented percussion including those forty notorious china plates.
Would Wilde have approved ? Probably. He may well have recognised something of himself in Alan Ewing's excellent "Aunt Augusta" – florid and pin-striped. One person who would have loved it is the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, who appears as Jack Worthing in Stoppard's Travesties. The subversive nonsense would have appealed – Lane [Simon Wilding, stalking his betters] peeling a cucumber, the food fights, Algie's red sneakers spotlit as the piece opens.
Ramin Gray has decided to set this in the present day – as if the rebarbative music were not dislocation enough – so Algie is listening to the piano on his iPod, and the Army Lists are googled on everyone's smartphone.
The actors, dressed so as almost to blend in with the audience, sit in row A when they're not on.
Character work to match the brilliance of Ewing's aunt from Hilary Summers as Prism in purple, pursued by her muscular Christian Chasuble, cycle helmet and sandals [Geoffrey Dalton].
Benedict Nelson [the Barber at ENO earlier this year] is a cool Algie, especially in his Bunbury clothes, and gives a confident interpretation of the score – for example in his Cucumber Sandwiches duet with Paul Curievici's Ernest. Plenty of musical humour from the girls, too, starting their tea-time encounter on loud-hailers: Ida Falk Winland as a shrill bespectacled Cecily, Stephanie Marshall an amorous, elegant Gwendolen.
The orchestra, sharing the black raked steps of the stage with the singers, is the superb Britten Sinfonia, under Tim Murray. As well as negotiating the tricky score, they're called on to stamp and shout out dialogue. They rise to the occasion very impressively.

debris on the stage as we go into Act III - the view from our "box" at the Linbury ...

Sunday, June 16, 2013


Tomorrow's Talent at the Cramphorn Theatre

An arresting start in scarlet and black, Gangnam Style, for this year's revue, followed by denim and white for Car Wash, which featured a clever human chassis. And a rich mix of footwear, including flippers and some sparkly sneakers, for New Shoes. The youngsters are accompanied by pied pipers from the teaching team, in a seamless, polished sequence of song and dance.
There's disciplined choral singing, too, in Beauty and the Beast and When I Grow Up, from Matilda, which also furnished Revolting Children – the finale.
A generous helping of Wonka's chocolate gives the five golden ticket winners a chance to shine, with nice monologues from Violet and Charlie. A neat ensemble production line, and, from the younger students, lively green-wigged Oompah-Loompahs.
As Tomorrow's Talent prepares for its tenth year, the future looks as busy and successful as ever. Their Glee Club Team – Figure of Eight – who contributed two accomplished guest spots to the show – will be hoping to do even better in next year's CBBC finals. And next month in the Civic, an 80-strong cast will perform Miss Saigon – its Essex amateur première – and we heard a brief Bui Doi as a teaser.


Shenfield Operatic Society at Brentwood Theatre

Even by Sondheim standards, this is a challenging piece for any company, amateur or otherwise. Often operatic in its style and in the demands it makes on its singers, especially the chorus.
Louise Hunt's excellent ensemble responded magnificently, boldly navigating the reefs and rapids of the score, and always visually effective, whether as masked revellers, lunatics, bathing belles, black-backed gulls or assorted Londoners. I liked the Pirelli bounce, but standing and delivering diagonally worked well, too, as did the backward glance on the Fleet Street exit.
The show opened with pools of red [not much actual gore in this version] and a London Peculiar, as a couple of coppers start the familiar narrative.
Two principals in particular manage the tricky double of music and melodrama: Kerry Cooke is a magnificent corseted Mrs Lovett, and Louise Byrne excels in the smaller, but crucial, role of the mysterious Beggar Woman. Ian Southgate, too, was a confident Anthony, deftly delivering solos, duets and those tricky quartets, as he strives to rescue his Johanna [Lauren Ramshaw] from the clutches of the creepy Turpin [Hugh Godfrey]. Less assured vocally, but a strong dramatic presence, was David Pridige as the dark-eyed, brooding Benjamin Barker [aka Todd], driven by his desire for vengeance. Strong support from David Ward's Beadle – excellently sung and impressively acted – from Joanna Hunt as Tobias and Rick McGeough as the devious mountebank Pirelli.
The small space was very effectively used, from the dumb-show back-story to the quick and the dead returning for the final chorus. A four-sided truck – complete with antique chair and chute – was a versatile stage, even becoming the end of the pier for the By The Sea idyll.
The unseen orchestra was directed from the keyboard by Adrian Ure, who did an excellent job of bringing Sondheim's ballads, songs and snatches to life.


Chelmsford Singers at Chelmsford Cathedral

Rare summer sunshine as we arrive at the Cathedral for a programme which must be one of the most demanding the Singers have given, devoted in the main to the work of Benjamin Britten in his centenary year.
The climax was five of the Gerard Manley Hopkins settings which make up AMDG, not performed until after the composer's death. Challenging both vocally and intellectually, the poetry as dense and complex as the score. The Singers, guided confidently through the work by James Davy, gave an impressive account, culminating in the positive, powerful Soldier.
More accessible, perhaps, was the opening work, the Choral Dances from Gloriana, the peal of Time, the comfortable harmonies of Concord and the gleeful Country Girls. And the Flower Songs, the last of which, Green Broom, with the rhythmic pulse of the title passing from upper to lower voices – fiendishly difficult, but great fun.
The Agnus Dei from the War Requiem set the poetry of Wilfred Owen, movingly sung by the young tenor Richard Robbins, against the Latin Lamb of God from the choir. Robbins also gave us dramatic performances of the first Canticle and the Cradle Song for Eleanor.
Breathing space for the singers was provided by organ tributes to Victoria and Monteverdi by Britten and Tippett, whose Songs from the British Isles, including a lively Lilliburlero, opened the second half.


at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester

Like A One Man Protest back in April, this set of variations revolves around Miles, the beautifully observed character whose friendship with Toby is at the heart of this play.

He is Chair of Governors at Toby's school. Married to promiscuous Rowena, but secretly in love with Celia, Toby's wife.

Ayckbourn's genius allows him to play games with structure and storylines whilst still drawing lifelike portraits of people we know, and exploring their lives and loves, their failings and their foibles.

Directed by Robin Herford, the actor who first created Toby, Miles, Lionel, Joe and Reg thirty years ago in Scarborough and the West End, this often poignant social comedy is also a rare chance to admire the technical virtuosity of two actors who can inhabit such contrasting costumes and characters. Gwynfor Evans, especially, makes a totally believable Milesno groundsman Lionel in this oneand an insensitive, misogynistic Toby. Ruth Gibson, this time out, gets to play Celia's unconventional middle-class mother Josephine as well as the formidable golfing Governor Irene Pridworthy. We see the forthright Rowena, whose ambition was to be a nymphomaniac, too, but this strand really belongs to Celia.

It's her decision to leave the cigarettes on the table which leads us, and them, through A Visit From A Friend, with Miles awkwardly trying to discuss Toby's inadequacies as Headmaster, to Dinner On The Patio, where the white wine flows rather too freely, absent loved ones are toasted then trashed, Stendhal is invoked as the shadows close in on the Teasdales' untidy garden. A superbly judged scene.

After the interval, the golf course: a bunker, a bit of rough. Toby and Miles making their own way to the tenth hole. Both Rowena and Celia are resentful of the time these two old friends are spending together. This crucial scene ends with Rowena's attempt to seduce her own husband [who's just had his second embarrassing outburst to a much older woman]. Should he give in and go back to his serially unfaithful wife, or reject her in favour of Toby, who seems to prefer the company of chaps these days, and the golf course ?

In this version, the final churchyard scene [Easter Greetings] is somewhat bleak, with Celia grown bitter five years on, and Miles's rocky marriage with Rowena simply transferred to Brisbane. Her friends a new set of gentlemen callers, his only real friend lying under a gravestone off stage right.

Would we have preferred A Triumph Of Friendship, where the two men set up an Odd Couple home together ? Perhaps. In this exploration of chaos theory and the role of chance in our lives, it would be interesting to explore the aleatory pathways of destiny by providing a real choicethe spin of a coin, perhaps, or even an audience show of hands each night.

But this compendium has been a constant delight, and we shall miss these flawed but very human friends and neighbours, husbands and wives. There are sixteen scenes, even a couple of minor characters, left to explore. If we can't hope for second helpings next season, then perhaps a marathon reading in the studio at some point ?

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

and this is how it all began ...