Friday, February 28, 2014


CAODS at the Civic Theatre

A warm Friday-night crowd for The Witches of Eastwick – a rare amateur outing for Cameron Macintosh's adult musical for the millennium.
It's a long way from the Updike book that spawned the Nicholson film. A glitzy score [Dana P Rowe] and patchy lyrics [John Dempsey] were boosted in the West End by lavish settings and special effects.
Sallie Warrington's inevitably sparer staging has to rely on the talents of the cast, and, fortunately, she has three outstanding musical comedy stars to play the wisecracking witches at the heart of the show.
One by one, with the aid of a symbolic prop supplied by the Shirley Templish chorus [Abby Murphy], they are seduced by the demoniacal Darryl van Horne, in a superbly staged series of scenes. Jane, the cellist [Sarah Burton], Sukie the writer [Alison Hartley] and Alex the potter [Claire Carr] all fall for his devilish charms.
Gareth Barton has plenty of presence, and a great singing voice, as the Devil incarnate, with his medallion and his quiff. A difficult character to get into – I think I might have liked a little more charisma and a little less crude creepiness. Fortunately, and inevitably since this is a musical, he gets his come-uppance at the altar, thanks to one last prop – a voodoo doll. But not before – drum roll, glitter curtain, clapperboard – one last fling in the gospel-inspired Glory of Me.
A very strong supporting cast – David Gillet and Alice Masters as the young lovers [shame they have such a clunky duet] and Debra Sparshott outstanding as the busybody Mrs “I am Eastwick” Gabriel, a lovely character part, splendidly sung, too. And not forgetting Wylie Queenan as the “cute little guy” Fidel, the Fiend's factotum; exemplary stillness, lots of costume changes and a well-earned apotheosis at the very end.
The chorus is imaginatively used – sweeping across the stage, frozen at the opening, and impressively choreographed in the big production numbers like Dance with the Devil and, especially, Dirty Laundry.
A very polished pit orchestra, too, under the Musical Direction of Patrick Tucker.
The staging is simple – a Wizard of Oz feel to the backdrop, with the New England town where the Emerald City should be – but often clever, with screens and trucks keeping the show on the move. One interior piece fits all – variously dressed for the three seductions with music, books and fertility figures.
And, yes, there is flying – Kirby's of course.
That capacity crowd are enthusiastically appreciative at the curtain call – not so much, I guess, for the piece as for the stylish success that CAODS have made of it: an enjoyable revival of a rarity of the repertoire.

production photograph by Christopher Yorke-Edwards

Thursday, February 27, 2014


The Making of Betty Blue Eyes Exhibition at the Mercury

Ever wondered what goes in to making a mammoth musical comedy to take on a 102 date country-wide tour? Well, from Monday 3rd March you can find out when The Making of Betty Blue Eyes exhibition opens at the Mercury Theatre.

Visitors will get the chance to see exactly what happens when four of the finest regional theatres join forces to re-invent a superb West End musical.
Set in 1947 austerity Britain, Betty Blue Eyes received rave reviews when it premiered in the West End in 2011, picking up an Oliver Award nomination for Best New Musical.
Featuring exclusive behind the scenes footage and interviews with the cast and creatives, this live exhibition will change and grow over the weeks as new exhibits are introduced as the show approaches its opening night on Friday, March 14th. Visitors will get to see the intricate and sometimes bizarre details that go into staging a production of this magnitude such as 21 performers, 75 costumes, 46 pairs of shoes, 17 pairs of wellies, a porcelain foot and blue-eyed pig named Betty! 
The exhibition will open in the Mercury Theatres Digby Gallery on Monday, March 3rd and run until Saturday, April 5th. Entry is free and booking is not required.
Director of Communications Robin Fenwick said:
“We want to lift the veil on the work that goes on behind the scenes here at the Mercury. Our in-house production capabilities are among the best in the country, and this is an opportunity for us to show off everything from the construction of this show’s huge set, to the intricate stitching on the costumes.”
The show itself opens on Friday, March 14th at the Mercury Theatre before embarking on a 5 month tour across England in a new co-production between Mercury Theatre Colchester, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, Salisbury Playhouse and West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Mercury Theatre Colchester
01206 573948

Book online at:


Shakespeare's Globe at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Shall not he dance the morris too, for the credit of the Strand?
- No, sweetheart, it will be too much for the boy.”

Beaumont's lines prove cruelly prophetic for poor Matthew Needham, playing the apprentice hero of this riotous romp. His right knee knackered during the third preview, he soldiers on, first on crutches, then with a hefty support. No understudies, or stunt doubles, at this address.
And he has all the best physical stuff, fighting all comers in action that spills over into the pit and the lower gallery.

This is the second major show to road-test the Globe's new Jacobean space, and it could hardly be more different from The Duchess of Malfi.

It's an inclusive concept, radical even today, embraced in Adele Thomas's inventive, if over-extended, staging. The Citizen and his good lady turn up to hear a play – The London Merchant – but they soon tire of it, and demand an instant rewrite “in honour of the commons of the City”, starring a Grocer Errant to be played by their best young apprentice, Rafe [the unfortunate Needham].

Sharing their popcorn and their bottles of Becks, the middle-class couple are excellently done by Phil Daniels [who knows better than most how to pronounce “sweetheart”] and Pauline McLynn, dispensing advice and home remedies, and determined to have the last word in support of her young Rafe.
Enjoyable turns too from Dickon Tyrell as the pink-suited suitor Humphrey, who makes the most of his pantomime couplets [rhymes for Jasper, or Waltham, anyone ?]. Alex Waldmann and Sarah MacRae as the young lovers [given a nice duet in Nigel Hess's accessibly romantic score], and Hannah McPake as the formidable Mistress Merrythought. Merrythought himself looks superb in his red wig and his “jolly red nose”, though since he makes a point of singing at every opportunity, a stronger voice might have helped.
A special mention for the hard-working comedy duo of Tim and George [Dennis Herdman and Dean Nolan], who make the announcement at the beginning, and, as Rafe's Steward and Dwarf get involved in much of the knockabout fun.

The piece is stuffed [or padded out, as a harsher pen might put it] with song, dance, doubles entendres and slapstick. Not to mention the megamix jig finale and no fewer than four “Interludes”, originally included for wick-trimming, but here used for more dancing, banter and incursions by hawkers touting ice-cream and beer.

As the text makes clear in the first scene, despite the fancy language and the filth, this play would originally have been performed by children. And for their next bold experiment, the Globe are doing just that for Marston's The Malcontent, opening on April 3.


Palm Wine & Stout, by Segun Lee-French, is back on tour throughout the East of England from March 6th until May 24th 2014.

I saw it first time out, and now it has a new cast, and is to visit new venues.

East Anglia’s regional touring theatre company Eastern Angles are back on the road this Spring with their latest show, Palm Wine & Stout. Written by acclaimed poet and playwright Segun Lee-French, this funny and emotional play is based on the writer’s visit back to a small Nigerian village in search of his father. The story, which focuses on Taiye, a young British man on a quest to find out more about his African heritage, draws some fascinating parallels with English village life. Along the way Taiye experiences both the vibrant bustle of modern Nigerian city life and the mysterious rituals of rural African villagers. With half-brother, Femi, as his guide, Taiye’s journey becomes a challenging culture clash incorporating music, dance and host of spiritual ancestors.

Directed by Eastern Angles’ founder and Artistic Director, Ivan Cutting, the play will visit fifty East Anglian venues during March, April and May including the Sir John Mills Theatre in Ipswich and Woodbridge Community Hall. Ivan Cutting said; “This is a fantastic play. We took the show out in 2010 when it got some great feedback from critics and audiences so now we want more people to experience this heart-warming piece of theatre. It’s got some really great atmospheric music, some very funny moments and will certainly strike a chord with anyone familiar with the day-to-day eccentricities and petty politics of village life!”

This production fairly sizzled with energy and ideas”

East Anglian Daily Times

A tale of pride and tenderness, money and mourning that is
warm, sharp, funny and refreshingly challenging”

The Stage

Black British theatre has found an appealingly quirky
voice in Segun Lee-French”
Daily Telegraph

Palm Wine & Stout is sponsored by Ipswich Building Society & Greater Anglia
Box Office: 01473 211498

rehearsal photograph by Mike Kwasniak

Monday, February 24, 2014


Shakespeare's Globe at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

It was Lynne Truss who first suggested to Eileen Atkins that Ellen Terry's Lectures on Shakespeare might make a one-woman show.
Now that show comes to its spiritual home, the intimate candlelit auditorium of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, with just a table and an antique Complete Works for company.
It's a magical seventy-five minutes. Not an impersonation, but one legendary actress sharing the insights of another a hundred years on. Both of them looking back over a lifetime “not all beer and skittles”; both of them “of the old school”. There are priceless anecdotes: the tussle over Ophelia's black dress, Puck's toe broken in the floor trap – did Terry manage a double laugh in the punchline here, I wonder.
But mostly it's Shakespeare's women, introduced, discussed with a perceptive wit, and brought to life in some wonderful extracts. Here's Portia – the vaguely academic blue gown and the velvet trews particularly apposite – and the Quality of Mercy, Rosalind, the part Terry never got to play, Desdemona, who “has the courage to be unconventional”, Beatrice, Lady Macbeth a delicate little creature, with hyper-sensitive nerves”, and with those “Terry tears” that Gielgud claimed to have inherited, a superb scene where she plays both Lear and Cordelia.
Finally, a beautifully judged Ophelia [“Shakespeare's only timid character”], lunatic to her twisted finger tips, to wish us Good Night.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


WOW! at the Public Hall, Witham

Another riotous reunion for the Rydell Class of '59. And in Nikki Mundell-Poole's stylish production, the raw raunchiness of the original – over 40 years ago – is triumphantly recaptured.

Especially in the inventively staged musical numbers: the kitsch routine, dry ice and teasing combs, for Beauty School Dropout [Tim Rolph the Teen Angel], the tyres and the lights for Greased Lightning, the backscrubbers and bath robes as the kids prepare for the High School Hop. Athletic, often witty, choreography, sending up the style just enough, sharply executed by an excellent ensemble, including some impressive mini-me girls and greasers, with Callum Hoskins stepping up to do a very polished Johnny Casino.

Those familiar rock'n'roll pastiches come up very fresh – the Hand Jive, the Summer Nights – with excellent solo work from, amongst others, Hatty Gribben in Freddy My Love, Sarah Williams in Worse Things, and Ashton Reed's stunning voice in Hopelessly Devoted.

Ashton plays the virginal Sandy, who is gradually seduced by booze, cigarettes and ear-piercing to find happiness in a leather jacket and the arms of her Danny, played with a winning blend of cute and cocky by Ben Huish.

It's a shame that the energy tends to evaporate in the dark hiatuses between scenes, and the dialogue, sometimes virtually inaudible, fares less well than the score. The Pink Ladies, for instance, might have picked up a lot more laughs for their banter.

But there's a whole load of lovely character work – David Finch's creepy DJ, Jack Martyn's Doody, Alice Tunningley's cheerleader, Dan Carr's Eugene and a great comedy duo from Rhianna Howard and Mark Ellis as Jan and Roger.

Emma Firth's superb band is elevated at the back of the stage, which works very well in this show, where the music is king.

Standing room only for this sell-out run – testament to WOW!'s reputation and the pulling power of what is now a classic of musical theatre.

production shot by Steve Harris

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


Mischief Theatre Company at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford

They must be well-endowed, those Cornley Polytechnic thespians. Generously funded, to build such an imposing set, with lovely oval windows and a study perched above.

As the title implies, this piece imagines an amateur production where everything that can go wrong will do so. A relentless chain of catastrophes, minor and major, that keeps the audience continuously chuckling and chortling.

I spend a fair few evenings watching amateur drama, some of it excellent, some of it execrable, though never as hilariously horrendous as this. There are some recognizable characters – the thrusting leading lady, the nervous newcomer, the character actor who struggles with polysyllables. And some familiar fiascos, too – the looping dialogue, the wayward props, the premature entrance.

These energetic young actors [LAMDA Graduates] are on their first ever UK tour, a rare chance for us in the Sticks to enjoy a taste of the best of the Fringe, from the Red Lion to Edinburgh to the old Whitehall, and now travelling the length and breadth, finishing at the other Civic, Darlington, in June.

and for The Public Reviews

The Art of Coarse Acting meets Noises Off. Co-written by Mischief Theatre company members Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields and directed by Mark Bell, The Play That Goes Wrong introduces the "Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society" whose production of a 1920's murder mystery falls apart before our eyes.

The venture began as a fringe piece, little more than an hour long. Now, for this national tour, it's twice that length, including the interval – not necessarily an improvement. And the spoof programme, much admired at the Red Lion and the Trafalgar Studios, is nowhere to be found. Not even a cast list. Mislaid, no doubt, along with the [running gag] Duran Duran box set. And the dog.

It does remain unbelievably funny, though, reducing the house to helpless laughter. More of an extended sketch than a proper farce, it boasts an amazing technical set, and some exhaustingly physical performances, as the hapless actors drop like flies and risk serious injury in a health and safety nightmare. Props are mislaid and substituted. Fixtures and fittings take on a life of their own. A dialogue loop sees the actors wax increasingly hysterical as they struggle to break free. Whisky goes up in flames, white spirit is the unpalatable substitute. And that raised level – study with desk, chair and globe drinks cabinet – is surely asking for trouble ...

The “director” [Henry Shields], who delivers a front-cloth filler at the top of each act, also plays the Inspector, so he's on stage to see his début dreams collapsing around him. He does rueful desperation and disappointment wonderfully, in a faintly Fawlty style. Jonathan Sayer is Perkins the faithful retainer, as played by an awkwardly unconfident amateur, reading those tricky long words off his palm. The flighty young ingénue is amusingly done by Charlie Russell, replaced by an increasingly bold ASM after the first of many maiming mishaps. But the award for the best incarnation of stage fright, gauche, nervous and grinning in terror, is Dave Hearn, playing both Cecil the corpse's brother, and Arthur the Gardener.

Techies [played perfectly by actual actors, including Rob Falconer's grumpy sparks] are let loose amongst us at the incoming and the interval, while on stage we watch a relentless succession of slapstick and sight gags, performed with precision timing and real relish by an excellent ensemble.

this piece first appeared on ”The Public Reviews

Thursday, February 13, 2014


Phoenix Theatre Company at Christ Church

When AmDram Goes Wrong – it's a popular subject for the playwright, from the Rude Mechanicals via Farndale Avenue to Chorus of Disapproval. And during their eventful history, Phoenix have done them all.

World Première, by one Charles Mander, is not in the same league, but certainly had its comedy moments, with frequent knowing laughter from the audience. Wickham ADS [not to be confused with the Company on the Hill] are staging the village hall première of the latest by their “ageing producer” [Syd Smith]. Among the all too recognisable members, Jo Fosker's put-upon prompt, Sarah Wilson's ball-breaking leading lady, Geoff Hadley's randy leading man, and Angie Gee as “Bunnie”, character actress and lush. Angie takes the part by the throat, with both hands, and gives a very enjoyably OTT performance. Just what this so-so script needs.
A sad irony that the actual prompt was not entirely redundant; even more in evidence in the linked pieces by Jim Sperinck in the first half.
Major Bennington-Smythe and his memsahib [Geoff Hadley and Helen Langley] are seeking to move from their Baker Street flat, driven to despair [and drink] by their celebrated neighbour strangling the Stradivarius upstairs. They end up in the no less stressful house of Dr Jekyll …

There are some diverting Spoonerisms and Malapropisms, some remarkable transformations behind the desk, a nice cameo from Bob Ryall as Lestrade, and an accomplished performance from young Liam O'Connor as the gorilla who turns into a dashing young blade in blazer and boater.
These three inconsequential comedies are directed for Phoenix by Tricia Childs.

Monday, February 10, 2014


M&G Civic Concert at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford

This eagerly-awaited first visit from the Northern Chamber Orchestra, directed from the violin by Nicholas Ward, opened with a richly romantic pairing of Mendelssohn and Bruch, before Haydn's Hen and the September Threnody of David Ellis, former Artistic Director of the NCO.

Given its world première a year ago [in celebration of the composer's 80th birthday] the Threnody is bracketed by a string trio. The rich string sound, the striking harmonies, and the delicate grazioso movement make it a moving, meditative work.

The concert began with a charming, very classical, Mendelssohn String Symphony, with a clever alternating pizzicato in lower and upper strings, written when young Felix was only twelve.

The soloist in the much-loved Bruch Violin Concerto was Jennifer Pike, propelled to fame at that same early age by BBC Young Musician in 2002. A reduced orchestration [just six woodwind] cut through the romantic miasma, and matched Pike's robust, impassioned approach.

After Haydn's Hen – great fun in a meticulous, often muscular performance – it was back to the Romantics for a lovely bonus, the Minuet from Schubert's Fifth Symphony.

The next M&G Concert, on Sunday 2 March, features the Academy of Ancient Music in a programme of Vivaldi and Bach.

Sunday, February 09, 2014


Cut to the Chase at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch

Havana Mojitos in the bar, Cuban Sandwiches in the café, a Daiquiri recipe in the programme – a very authentic flavour of Cuba for the first Cut to the Chase show of 2014.

Graham Greene's comic masterpiece is set in 50s Havana, before Castro and the Cuban Missile Crisis. But it's a volatile place, with decadence, corruption and espionage on every street corner.

Bob Carlton's wonderfully evocative production uses a simple stage, framed by steel girders, only very partially concealed by peeling stucco and crumbling brickwork. The masterstroke of Norman Coates's design is the wooden screens, which slide smoothly to and fro to create a new scene, or to cover an entrance or an exit. Hard to describe, but a delight to watch. Andy Smart's atmospheric lighting plays a key role, too – the ceiling fan, the strip club.

The four actors have enormous fun, delivering Greene's inimitable narration, swapping characters in an instant behind those restless screens – only Sean Needham is allowed the luxury of a single role. He's our anti-hero Wormold, vacuum-cleaner salesman turned secret agent, whose greedy imagination invents a whole network of spies around him. Needham skilfully suggests the naivete and the knowingness of this hapless cold war pawn.

Token woman Alison Thea-Skot creates a glorious gallery of supporting roles, including Wormold's difficult schoolgirl daughter – a wonderful physical creation – a chain-smoking Scots secretary, a Latin mistress, an Irishman, and Beatrice, sent by London station to assist with the Havana operation, but eventually joining forces with Wormold, skipping off with him in a moment of coy choreography at the final curtain.

Sam Pay is excellent as spymaster Hawthorne, and the mysterious Dr Hasselbacher. He also finds time to give us enemy agent Carter and the voluptuous Teresa.

Sam Kordbacheh mops up all the other parts, attacking each one with evident relish: the faithful Lopez, the Reverend Mother, and suave, sinister Segura, the Chief of Police who confronts Wormold over the famous game of checkers played with Scotch and Bourbon miniatures.

Clive Francis's adaptation is witty, inventive and very funny. The fateful lunch is especially enjoyable, and the car routine merits a round of applause. But it does not entirely neglect the “other side to the joke” the victims of the game of spies. There's a chilling twist at the end of Act One, and when things turn nasty it's not only the dog who dies.

This is the kind of thing that the Queen's does superbly well. Remember Greene's Travels With My Aunt, back in 2010, also featuring Sam Pay ? This show deserves a wide audience; work of this quality is increasingly rare on the repertory stage.

production photograph by Nobby Clark

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Friday, February 07, 2014


Shakespeare's Globe and ETT at the Arts Theatre Cambridge


Howard Brenton's 2006 In Extremis – a dazzlingly entertaining blend of poetry, dialectic, sex and laughs, is on the road this Spring, re-badged as Eternal Love, and touring as another joint venture between English Touring Theatre and Shakespeare's Globe.

The love in question is the legendary affair between Peter Abelard, theologian and composer, and Eloise d'Argenteuil, a rare twelfth century example of an educated young woman.

The original Globe production is faithfully invoked for this touring, proscenium version. As Brenton pointed out in conversation before the show, they are playing by Globe rules. So minimum lighting effects, a back wall with a ghost of Notre Dame just discernible and musicians' gallery, central curtained entrance with a doorway either side. And, in John Dove's production, that fluid Shakespearean scene segue that ensures a dynamic pace.

The energetic young company canter through the familiar tale of “France's favourite lovers”, with seduction hard on the heels of the first encounter, the altar as marriage bed leading straight to the farmers' gelding, and the tragic separation telescoped in the conclusion.

Jo Herbert is a wonderfully engaging Eloise, with her powder blue dress and her indomitable spirit – like Brenton's Anne Boleyn, she is a thoroughly modern young lady. David Sturzaker is her Abelard, an earnest philosopher, but a very human lover, too. Their passion over a copy of St Jerome is very touching.

Sam Crane is a credibly simple fanatic as Bernard, but not gaunt, ascetic or complex enough in his later, political life.

A fine supporting cast, including many familiar figures from the Globe company: William Mannering and John Cummins as a great comedy duo, Edward Peel as a down-to-earth Fulbert, broken by his niece's betrayal, and Julius D'Silva as a suave, substantial Louis VI.

Some superb costumes – the bishops' sumptuous robes – and William Lyons' brilliantly evocative music – those eloquent little bells – for the wedding night, say, or the medieval jig to finish, with a touch of magic the Globe could never emulate, twinkling coloured lights adorning the fingers of the players as they take their bows.

A fascinating play of ideas, books, and human frailty, Eternal Love is on the road nationwide until April.

Photograph of the Globe's 2007 production by Stephen Vaughan

Saturday, February 01, 2014


KEGS Drama Senior production 2014


For this year's senior school showcase, Director of Drama James Russell chose two contemporary pieces – both presenting a challenge to his sixth form actors, both thought-provoking explorations of contemporary culture and society.

Enda Walsh's stylish Chatroom explores the often murky world of online interaction between teenagers. Six assorted chairs, six pencil spots, six very recognizable adolescents. The confident performers work without making any eye contact, but build a convincing, often chilling, sometimes amusing series of encounters between young people.

In Caryl Churchill's A Number, Salter, the father, is confronted by three of his sons. Only one is his natural offspring, the others appear to be clones - “a scraping of cells”. A sombre exploration of identity and the lies we live with.

The standard of acting is impressively high. Two performances, though, are outstanding; I don't expect to see better on the non-professional stage this year. Max Purkiss, as the shy, suicidal Jim in Chatroom, and in A Number, Dom Short as all three of Salter's sons – a superbly realistic reading of a very unnatural scenario.