Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Shakespeare's Globe

Not a real trilogy, of course, but this pruned and fast-paced sequence makes a fascinating tale of wars, rivalries and rebellions, the Wars of the Roses seen through the young Shakespeare's eyes.
Each play is set against two metal towers – worthy scaffolds, with a wooden throne and dais between. Against the frons scenae of Shakespeare's Globe the effect is somewhat lost – we should be seeing them towering over the battlefields at Towton or Tewkesbury – but they are effectively used to add height and excitement, and even to augment the already deafening percussion which underscores the fight scenes.
This is not a small company, but almost everyone plays many parts and dies a thousand deaths. And, as in The Dresser, everyone is roped in to beat the drum: rebellious Jack Cade cheek by jowl with his king.
Roger Evans' Cade, and his lookalike Suffolk, are splendidly brought to life, crowd-pleasing and rabble-rousing. Also outstanding are Brendan O'Hea [last season's Fluellen] as York, and later an outrageously effete pantomime King of France, and Simon Harrison as the crookback Gloucester, prowling and sneering like Sher without the crutches.
Beatriz Romilly's Pucelle – fierce and impulsive – seems very much at home in this macho world; in Part Two she is a regal Eleanor; in Part Three an aloof Lady Grey. Mary Doherty, whose lovely voice accompanies the funeral procession of the victor of Agincourt, becomes in Part Two the powerful Queen Margaret.
The succession of coups and slaughters comes over as somewhat crude, with all the nobles little better than gangsters or despots. But there are tender moments, too, many of them from Graham Butler's bookish, unworldly Henry. He sits reading while the action goes on around him, he dreams, on his molehill, of life as a simple shepherd. And after all the double-dealing and deception of Part Three, and its bloody battles, he meets his death in the Tower, at the hands of Richard. In a chilling moment, the assassin struggles to free himself from under the corpse of his butchered king, who, in his dying breath, imagines bloodshed yet to come:
for much more slaughter after this. /
O God forgiue my sinnes, and pardon thee.

This is early, unsophisticated stuff, with frequent borrowings, and more than a whiff of the mystery play. More than once we need a lesson on the complex genealogy of the royal line. But this enterprising, and exciting, version is a welcome look at the history, both national and literary, which leads us to Richard III and Bosworth Field.


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court

Tommy Murphy's play is drawn from the cult memoir by Timothy Conigrave, who becomes the central character in this tragedy.
Not so much Romeo and Juliet – the school play in the opening scenes – as Greek tragedy: we know how the piece will end, and catharsis is a key driver.
Tim, played here by Patrick Willis, is an outgoing young man, who eventually escapes to Sydney and drama school. The love of his life, much more reserved, sporty rather than arty [the title is taken from Aussie rules football] is Jacob Burtenshaw. They make a nicely contrasting couple, though this unflinching look at their relationship is as much about physicality as it is about romance, and it does inevitably favour look-at-me Tim at the expense of the possibly more interesting, but introverted, John. How does he cope with the jocks at school ? Or with his awful father [John Mabey], arguing about who gets what in the will ? How did he become a chiropractor ?
Tonio Ellis, in his first directorial outing, uses a hard-working supporting cast, changing wigs, and gender, to people this shared life. The scene, the sluts, the one-night-stands, the New Romantics, the clinic.
There is much sadness, of course – John's searingly emotional walk into the light, the ending set to Colleen McMahon's Beautiful Boy – but there's lots of fun, too – the awkward GaySoc meeting ["… there is some crossover with the drama society …"] the profanity-rich sleepover [" … come on, Biscuit ! …"]
Set mostly in the round – telling the parents very effective at close quarters; maybe the hotel scene would have worked better on the floor, too – there are some touching monologues, and an effective nightmare sequence.
A very ambitious début. This is not an easy play either for actors or for the audience. It's very much to the credit of CTW that they have revived it, though I did sometimes find myself sympathising with whichever character it was who said "You don't have to tell me everything …".

Jim Hutchon was at the first night for Chelmsford Weekly News:

Holding the Man’ is a multi-layered play based on the author’s own life, which is long on emotion and short on stagecraft. It was an ambitious task for new director Tonio Ellis to take on, and was possibly a step too far. The director has to make this intractable play work, and I feel this was too loose, and with too few dramatic highlights to draw the audience in. Setting it ‘in the round’ and having most of the action on stage was a pain in the neck (literally).

The play is the author Tim’s emotional response to the death through AIDS of his long time companion John, touching en-route Tim (played by Patrick Willis) and John’s (Jacob Burtenshaw) teenage reaction to their sexuality, and their progress through life. There was little sense of time or place throughout the play, and with a lot of mumbled dialogue, it became progressively more difficult to follow. (Though the Aussie accents were immaculate throughout).

There were some lovely imaginative cameos. The shuffling off of John’s mortal coil was handled with real dexterity. And a vicious sideswipe at reactionary parent values when John’s father tries to ‘divvy up’ his son’s belongings at his deathbed.

Mr Ellis will go further, and I look forward to his future productions.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Greville Theatre Club at the Three Horseshoes

An agreeably nostalgic evening in the garden of the Three Horseshoes, with poems, spoofs and sketches performed by those talented actors from the Greville, directed by Jan Ford.
She also compiled this "pot-pourri" – something borrowed, something blue – which included literary giants from Jane Austen to Pam Ayres.
A strong start from Carrie Craig as a loquacious lady who gushes over a hapless passer-by [Steve Bradley] whom she takes to be her childhood sweetheart.
Some of the acts were weaker, whiskerier, than that, though it's always nice to be reminded of Gert and Daisy [a beautifully timed Joan and Joyce from Jan Ford and Diana Bradley] or those Hornographic picturehouse parodies ["Dropping Them Over Dover" – a stiff-upper-lip wartime saga with Carol Parradine and Adam Thompson]. We even had an all too brief glimpse of Kitty's Slot, the Victoria Wood/Pat Routledge monologue revived here by Pam Hemming.
Parradine and Thompson also played in Deaf Sentence, moments from the David Lodge novel, very deftly adapted. He sported a villainous moustache to play the cock-sure Corder in what must be the millionth pastiche of Maria Marten, nicely staged. Still almost virgin territory for the parodist, Fifty Shades was re-imagined in gruesomely geriatric guise, and the evening ended with a Carry On Austen travesty, set in Netherparts Hall, complete with candelabra, with Nicholas Blackwell's oleaginous Collins amongst the plucky players.

Monday, July 29, 2013


Firebirds at Brentwood Theatre

Christopher Columbus ! An unknown group, a little known "Broadway Musical" and it's a sell-out success in Brentwood's friendly little theatre.
"Six generations have read this story … this one will sing it !" So ran the original Broadway blurb. Alas, there's not one memorable number in the show – all the music is pleasantly familiar, though, and the underscores help the show maintain its emotional momentum.
Firebirds, which grew out of Cathy Edkins' singing groups, have done an excellent job, with some fine young voices – and one or two more experienced singers – in the major roles.
Rachel Watson is Jo, the feisty aspiring writer. She brings enthusiasm, zest and presence to this demanding role – her "Astonishing" at the end of Act Two is a triumph. Excellent support from the other March girls, especially Tara-Divina Gulrajani's tragic Beth, and from Cathy Edkins' loving Marmee.
A strong cast also includes Liz Gibson's formidable Aunt March [impressively sung], Allen Clark's Mr Lawrence – a catchy duet with Beth – Seb Mayo's slightly strange grandson, and Alec Stevens as the shy Bhaer, with a soft accent and a strong baritone in his big number.
The blood and guts melodramas are brilliantly recreated against an ambitious multiple setting which features a fireplace, a piano and of course the attic where it all began …
Little Women is directed by Liz Gibson and Allen Clark, with Musical Direction by Natalie Thurlow. We look forward to their next foray into Musical Theatre !

Sunday, July 21, 2013


Essex Dance Theatre at the Civic Theatre

This end-of-year showcase began with the seniors in the team tee-shirt, and ended, as it must, with The Knowledge in kneepads, and a splendid set of curtain calls from a hugely talented company.
There was Lindy Hop, smiles and jive and Olly Murs, there was tap – Hit Me With A Hot Note – boogie, a lovely close-couple duo; there was even ballet. Though this did feel like tokenism, accompanied by a rehearsal piano, but beautifully danced by Rheanne Sun Wai.
Most of the work was exuberant, athletic and inventive.
From thirty pieces, space only to mention David Nurse's stylish response to Ella's At Last, with its knowing close, Jacob Holme's Black and Gold for the senior boys, and the deafening, dynamic car crash end to the first half, choreographed by Nikki O'Hara.
Claudia McKells reprised her A-level piece, an expressive interpretation of This Bitter Earth, which she performed in St Paul's Covent Garden at the memorial service for Phrosso Pfister, a longtime inspirational friend of EDT. And James, breathless at the end of an exhausting sequence, and without a monitor, gave us a rousing Jekyll and Hyde moment just before the finale.


Tomorrow's Talent at the Civic Theatre


It's not every group that has the vision, or the resources, to stage Miss Saigon. Tomorrow's Talent, directed as a labour of love by Gavin Wilkinson, with Emma Tapley, have got things right on every level. The music, with accomplished young singers [MD Mark Sellar] and a strong pit band [including that vital saxophone] conducted by Patrick Tucker. The casting, with amazing performances from all the principals. And the staging, with Dreamland, the Embassy compound and much more wheeled seamlessly on and lit to often stunning effect. The closing of Act One is a masterpiece of stagecraft – red flags processing beyond a blue doorway, stunning acrobatics - as is the helicopter, despite the lack of airspace above the Civic stage. This is a company of 85, and the huge choruses are thrillingly effective, in Bui Doi, say, or the grim-faced masses in The Morning of the Dragon. The cynical show-stopper, American Dream, is brilliantly presented, with glitter-curtain, star-spangled blonde chorines and wholesome citizens of the Land of the Free.
Time and again I find myself mentally applauding a heart-stopping moment: those flags, that helicopter, the Chinese lantern backdrop, the lighting of the shrine scene, the bar-girls huddling in wide-screen format [for Movie in My Mind], leaving the GIs dancing with thin air, the unlikely family walking upstage to freedom, the iconic angry sun, the final tragic tableau, the fall of Saigon, with the desperate refugees waving their pathetic letters, and the ballet of the barricades allowing us to see the wire fences from every aspect.
Excellent work from every single performer – from the chorus member giving 100% to Bui Doi to the talented leads who bring maturity and experience, as well as youthful enthusiasm, to these demanding roles.
Bart Lambert is an impassioned Chris [Pinkerton for Butterfly collectors] – relaxed and natural on stage, but packing a hefty emotional punch in his Why God soliloquy.
His friend, later an impressive President of the charitable foundation, is Ollie Fox. Jessica Moore is stunning as Gigi, the seen-it-all stripper who is the original Miss Saigon, and James Murphy is Kim's blinkered betrothed, making a great impact as the ghostly guilt-figure in Act II.
What a luxury to be able to double-cast so many of the characters – and a testament to the ability of the company's aspiring actors. I was privileged to see both casts.
In the plum role of The Engineer, Andrew Steel makes the most of this sleazy survivor, who speaks Uncle Ho but thinks Uncle Sam, making him bitter and manipulative, and giving a goose-bumps virtuoso performance of American Dream. Joshua Butcher skilfully uses his voice and his body language to suggest the half-French Vietnamese, and seems a little more vulnerable, and more likeable. Every bit as effective in the big number, too.
Kim, the innocent victim of war, is superbly sung by Alice Masters, a totally convincing 17-year-old who is also able to nail the considerable emotional depth of the character. Laura Messin too – her insight into the tragic world of the "new princess" was incredible, hurt and angry at events beyond her control.
Ellen, Chris's American wife, is wonderfully done by Zoe Rogers – her vocal ability outstanding even in this exalted company – sharing the role with the excellent Emma Bennett, who successfully suggests the conflicting emotions in this tragic triangle.
In a tearful final curtain, those actors leaving for some of the country's leading drama schools were urged to return for a tenth anniversary reunion production. Tiny Tam [beautifully disciplined work from Jonah Miller/Joseph Papalie] would be old enough to take a lead, then. And what of those determined, ambitious drama students ? Will they be on a cruise ship in the Far East, or like Wilkinson, working in the war-torn West End ? Watch this space.


Caroline Adomeit-Gadd and Timothy Carey at KEGS

A balmy July evening, and a delightfully varied programme of music for violin and piano, with Caroline Adomeit-Gadd and Timothy Carey.
At its heart, Richard Strauss's Sonata, written when he was in his twenties and falling in love with Pauline, who six decades later would inspire the Four Last Songs.
Technically demanding, it is heart-on-sleeve stuff, the kind of music that the term Romantic might have been invented for. The charmingly melodic Andante Cantabile is really high-class salon music; the Finale is outspoken, and occasionally playful. An exciting outing for a work too rarely programmed.
At one extreme, Scarlatti and Couperin, at the other the kind of repertoire that Max Jaffa once played at the Spa in Scarborough. The tone was set after the interval, with Caroline serenading the punters in a Summertime stroll through the audience. Piazzolla, ideally suited to this sultry evening, Suk, Rodrigo, with the fiddle aping the cor anglais, and virtuosic variations from Sarasate. Her unique performance style gave us wordless song, dance, and impressively percussive footwork for the Irish Jig.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


Royal Albert Hall

450 voices, plus the BBC Symphony Orchestra under its brand new Chief Conductor Sakari Oramo, and seasoned soloists Sally Matthews and Roderick Williams.
All brought together in an impressive opening performance of Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony. The choirs, including the Proms Youth Choir, filled the hall magnificently, the crash of the waves and the wide seascape captured in a wall of sound. The two soloists, while they sometimes struggled to bring the text to the four corners of the auditorium, duetted enchantingly in the intimacy of The Explorers.

More marine music in the first half, with Britten's Sea Interludes given some delicate textures, though the Storm seemed underpowered in the vastness.
The traditional new work was Julian Anderson's tiny tone poem Harmony, a setting for orchestra and chorus of words by Richard Jefferies. No fanfares or spectacle – in fact we saw Oramo move his baton, the violins tickle their strings, before we could hear anything at all – it worked much better on radio and television.
A predictably delectable treat was Stephen Hough's witty and intelligent interpretation of the Paganini Variations, not once but twice, the second time re-imagined by Lutoslawski, whose centenary, like Britten's, is generously marked this season.

Monday, July 15, 2013


Shakespeare's Globe

An upright, natural trumpet stands alone on the stage. Samuel Adamson's brand new play starts with a eulogy to this "natural" instrument, which provides an aural and a thematic link to the various playlets and snatches of opera which make up the entertainment.
We are in the 1690s, the flowering of the Baroque, in "noisily Protestant" England. The action switches from the Royal Court – Charlotte Mills as Queen Mary and Joshua James as the tragic, doomed Prince William – to the river and its boatmen – to the world of the theatre. Larger than life actor/manager Betterton [Pip Donaghy] and the penny-pinching theatre owner Christopher Rich [Jason Baughan]. Of course we know little more about the theatrical life of the age than we do about Shakespeare's world, but this genial company certainly have fun guessing. Visually, it has the look of The Beggar's Opera, a generation later.
Much of the best writing comes in the monologues – a priceless waterman from Sam Cox, reminiscing about the famous fares he's ferried across the Thames, and about the Jacobean golden age, when "every day three trumpet calls from the theatres on the Bankside, then songs would float over the thatch and roll across the water and make my work sweet", Jessie Buckley's Arabella, and James Garnon's cutpurse critic – "English Opera – there's an oxymoron". Garnon has another more sombre soliloquy as the Husband whose wife has just lost another daughter in childbirth, as Queen Mary lies dying. Her funeral music never better deployed.

And it is the music which is the chief glory of Dominic Dromgoole's lavish production. The English Concert, on their little musicians' dais stage right, William Purefoy, and Miss Buckley, who proves a more than decent singer. And of course Alison Balsom, who had the original idea, apparently, effortlessly coaxing sweet sounds from that natural trumpet – Purcell [Sound the Trumpet duetting with Purefoy's alto], and Handel's Eternal Source of Light Divine. Plus generous helping's of The Faerie Queen, prompting some clever borrowing of Shakespeare's Dream in the dialogue.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


Writtle Singers at the Parish Church

This seriously enjoyable summer concert took its title from a sequence by Edinburgh composer Tom Cunningham to verses by Alexander McCall Smith. Philosophical musings on Ghirlandaio and Bruegel surrounded whimsical Waldteufelry for the one Scots painting, Raeburn's Skating Minister.
As ever, the evening was carefully curated round this theme, with work by the Writtle Art Group on display in the church. So we heard depictions of birds, dogs and flowers – Britten's Five Flower Songs, and Flora from an earlier East Anglian composer, John Wilbye.
Boats featured too: Debussy En Bateau, and, to conclude, Cecilia McDowall's intriguing Shipping Forecast, preceded by, what else, Binge's soothing Sailing By.
This versatile chamber choir relished the challenge of barking like Cerberus, babbling for Babel, and putting on speed to navigate the coastal waters off Newfoundland. The voices blended superbly in favourites like The Silver Swan and The Blue Bird, and, especially in the Cunningham, their enunciation enabled us to enjoy the poetry as well as the music.
The choir's director, Christine Gwynn, joined accompanist Caroline Finlay at the piano for a couple of Bizet children's games, and for a few of Francaix's interpretations of Renoir portraits of children, angelic, impressionistic little girls, but also a readily recognizable painful piano practice.


Essex Dance Theatre at Brentwood Theatre

On the hottest day of the year, a professionally structured year-end presentation from this excellent community dance group.
The opening number set the standard: a sophisticated All That Jazz [Kim Bradshaw] from the seniors, immaculately costumed in black, with elegant gloves. The frocks were a key element in the show, from the baby dinosaurs to the floaty skirts for Down By The River, Jane Ben-Aderet's lovely barefoot interpretation of the Neil Young classic. Sparkly bowlers for Barnum [a lively production number from the Junior Performing Group], flying helmets for Those Magnificent Men, and lovely houris/temple maidens for Nicole Carman's energetic Bollywood routine, one of several good things to come out of this year's Easter course.
Plenty of tap, none of it predictable: Jennifer Lopez Latin tap, kooky Oz tap, Ellington tap. And ballet, too, including a stylish Shall We Dance from the Juniors, Peer Gynt, and La Fille Mal Gardée; no clogs alas, and no Widow. No boys at all, in fact, in this otherwise inclusive company.

Two special treats – choreography from the students, notably Anjali Jayasekera's busy take on Regina Spektor, and several numbers from ex-EDT, now dance graduate, Rhiannon Munson-Hobbs, whose fast, fun Hair, inspired by a yakkety-saxy Amanda Lepore track, filled the stage with chairs and Holy Chic tee-shirts. A brilliant number. And it was Rhiannon's "One", a sure-fire, kick-line showstopper, which brought this superb showcase to an end.

Friday, July 12, 2013


Playhouse Theatre

"Such a generous performer – brilliant to play against. He's spontaneous, and unpredictable, but in a good way!"
That's no less a knight than Sir Lancelot, aka Kit Orton, talking about the inimitable Joe Pasquale, who's enjoying a run as King Arthur in the Monty Python rip-off musical at the Playhouse this month.
And Joe is a happy man, too. "I'd say it's the highlight of my career. Just saying Eric's words – comedy by numbers really – you're stone bonkers guaranteed to get the laughs. We've got people falling about every night. And that's not me, it's not even Bonnie [Langford, a showstoppingly theatrical Lady of the Lake/Guinevere], it's the wonderful script. Believe me, if I could stay, I would …"
But it's a busy life for Pasquale – a stand-up tour, then Ha Ha Holmes, before panto in Wolverhampton. But I wouldn't be surprised to see him back in the Spamalot family. Where everyone seems to be enjoying what is clearly fun, as well as a punishingly demanding two hours. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime job – doesn't feel like work !" Orton again, who joined the show in 2010 and has worked his way up. "It's such a giggle. We've done it thousands of times, but it changes with every audience. People say 'My husband dragged me along, but I loved it, never stopped laughing …'"
So what has Joe Pasquale brought to the Round Table ? Well, there does seem to be a deal more giggling and corpsing [never forced or contrived, Lancelot assures me] and King Arthur is done with an unassuming sense of fun and mild bewilderment, as if he can't quite believe he's found himself in Days of Old. The audience, needless to say, loves every minute. As the excellent Rob Delaney reminds us in what is for my money the best song in the show – You Won't Succeed – it helps to have a star.
And this summer Hugh Bonneville, Barbara Windsor, Larry Lamb, Bradley Walsh, Simon Callow and Christopher Biggins will all be appearing, in video segments, in the role of God, normally done by the show's creator Eric Idle, to raise money for charity. Some lesser mortals have also been treading the Playhouse boards in the rather more modest role of Sir Not Appearing. And, having reviewed the show in June, I was thrilled to join their ranks on July 11 – my experiences here

Sunday, July 07, 2013


New Venture Players in Fairkytes, Hornchurch

In one of the most audacious stagings I've ever seen in the non-professional sector, New Venture take us right inside the hypocritical world of fin-de-siècle Vienna, rubbing shoulders with the deceiving and the deceived - a never-ending circle of desire.
Arthur Schnitzler knew his play could never be staged; he would surely have approved the startling, sometimes disturbing intimacy of this version – eight actors guide us from one scene to the next in the round dance of casual sexual encounters, played out in the Georgian rooms of Fairkytes.
As director Sara Thompson points out, the thing about a circle is that you can start anywhere, and you will always end up where you first began. So I find myself first in the company of a young wife [Victoria Abery], in the matrimonial bedroom, reading Stendhal On Love, and later reliving her honeymoon and "revisiting Venice" with her boring, brilliantined husband [Matthew Jones]. And ends with her in a love nest with Alfred [Craig Whitney], and Stendhal again.
On the way round, we look in on a cottage in the country, a bordello, a writer's studio and a chambre séparée. In each, the audience is formed of two groups of voyeurs, one invited by him, the other by her. Each group will be party to knowledge denied the other. Occasionally we hear distant quarrels and climaxes from other scenes. We witness love made on a Persian rug, up against a wall, atop a fire escape, behind a bush. These erotic encounters are brief, and, especially for the woman, deeply unsatisfying. The tinkling bell tells us it's time to move on, and all the while the sound of Strauss to carry us round the corridors.
Madame Lise [Lisa Matthews] is our lubricious hostess; the anteroom to her "Audience House" has chilled wine, erotic prints and a sound-track of Wiener Bonbons. [The real, edible bonbons will have to wait till that last encounter …].
All eight actors seem to cope magnificently with the challenges – chatting to their charges, asking for help, improvising ["I had that Renoir the other day," muses Léocadia] to ensure smooth transitions. Every one of them gave an excellent performance, assured even in these intimate surroundings. Special mention for Darren Matthews' study in literary lasciviousness as the poet/pianist/playwright, Neil Gray's bewhiskered Count and Lin Pollitt as the exotically accented actress.

This superbly realised production, and its inspired concept, are a triumph of theatricality and psychological insight. The audience is entertained, but also involved in the seductive structure: like the inevitable infections for which the play is often seen as a metaphor, we are transmitted from one partner to the next, in a never-ending round of bodily pleasure – shallow, shameful, superficial. Just as relevant in our enlightened society as it was in the buttoned-up world of Freud, Klimt and Mahler.

Saturday, July 06, 2013


DOT Productions at Brentwood Theatre

Oscar Wilde's first big hit – A Play About A Good Woman - cleverly blends comedy and drama in equal measure, with melodrama and satire on social mores into the bargain.
Greg Whitehead, for DOT Productions, has chosen to present it as a sort of rom-com/sitcom/soap, which means that a deal of the style is sacrificed to accessibility.
There is much to enjoy, however, especially the ingenious use of a cappella wordless song as overture and punctuation. The trio at the start of Act III speaks volumes, and the East Enders underscore at the end of that act is another neat touch.
Many of the characters are amusing, or affecting, occasionally both, with some excellent diction. Rebecca Ayres makes a vulnerable, wronged Lady Windermere, "behind the age" despite her tender years – her proposal scene with Samuel Perren's Darlington is touchingly done. A company of six players doubles and trebles with some skill: Perren is also the musical-comedy Aussie Mr Hopper. Joanne Seymour has two major roles, the indiscreet Duchess of Berwick and the mysterious Mrs Erlynn. Martin Prest, as the uncomprehending Windermere, tends to overplay the grimaces and the bluster, but has a strong presence and a clearly-drawn character.
The setting is necessarily simple – this tour will visit gardens and barns as well as theatres – the costumes a colourful gallimaufry of styles and periods.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013


The Stondon Singers in Stondon Massey Church

This year's concert featured an early Tudor mass setting by Byrd's teacher John Sheppard – the Western Wind, based on a popular song, whose choral textures are often distilled to solo voices, for example in the Crucifixus and the Benedictus. Sung with lucidity and precision by the Stondons, conducted by Christopher Tinker. Just as enjoyable was the lollipop which closed the evening: Richard Genée's Insalata Italiana, an amusing parody of opera, using the gamut of Italian score markings, from piano to piu mosso, fronted by the impressive bass of Mark Ellis.

But the main theme of the programme was the influence on Byrd of another foreigner, the madrigalist and secret agent Alfonso Ferrabosco. So, helped by a brief talk by Richard Turbet, we could play compare and contrast, and spot the difference, for example with two very different settings of Susanna Fair, and two strikingly similar songs called The Nightingale.
And to end the first half, a collector's item, long misattributed, O Praise Our Lord. A lively piece, which, like the opening Laudibus in Sanctis, enumerates the instruments of praise, like "the gladsome sound of silver bells", before sinking back into a restful Amen.
As is traditional, we take refreshment amongst the gravestones. Somewhere in this remote churchyard William Byrd is buried, and may feel the footfall of those faithful few who still value his music and his witness.

Monday, July 01, 2013


Illyria in Marks Hall Gardens

On this "hot midsummer night", the five actors of Illyria set up their red pageant stage in the leafy grounds of Marks Hall Estate for Shakespeare's ever-popular pastoral comedy..
Just five for the score or more characters of As You Like It ? They certainly "prove busy actors" – We see Celia as Old Adam before we meet her for real; her Rosalind as an Igor-esque Dennis. There's much fun to be had with this quick-change mayhem, and with some of the comedy ideas that enliven this production – the sheep, the shearing and the "surgery". But it's slow to get started, and the characters struggle to establish themselves. The luvvie Jaques – Jakes in this text – was an exception [though his big speech failed to impress]; so was the pantomime Audrey, who dashed through the audience at the end of the interval in search of chocolate brownies.
The latter part of the play was much livelier, with a wailing love quartet, plenty of slapstick and the "springtime" Lover and His Lass.
But this was a three hour production – too long for the open air – and we had to wait 45 minutes before we had any music, and another 2 hours before the fiddle made its appearance. 50 minutes before anyone's buskins touched the grass. And Orlando's poems never went anywhere near any of the real live trees surrounding the action.
The masque, with Hymen perched high above the happy couples, worked well, and the raucous finale sent us all home happy.
This was my second al fresco As You Like It this month, and again the weather was perfect. Unaccountably I missed The Lord Chamberlain's Men at Hylands in the rain ...