Wednesday, April 29, 2015


Horizons Performance Company at Brentwood Theatre

Dominic Cooke's stage adaptation of the 1001 nights was an excellent choice for the young performers of Horizons, blending story-telling with acting in role.
All fourteen actors played multiple parts. Especially successful in switching between narration and depiction were Charlie Bailey, as Ali Baba and others, Luke Edmunds as greedy Kaseem, and Liam O'Connell as Sinbad and the beggar boy. Shahrazad, whose bedtime tales save countless lives, was played by Songul Gilgil, with Kavneet Padam as her attentive sister. But this was very much an ensemble show, with everyone playing a crucial part in the six stories and the big set pieces.
Julia Stallard's production, though its pace was sometimes sluggish, was full of ingenious creativity. The horsemen and the umbrellas turning to gold inside the Sesame cave, the great auk, the beautiful island, the dogs and the wedding arches. Some impressive puppetry, notably for Sinbad, and lovely ombres chinoises. And there was a magical moment near the end, when snatches of stories past travelled through the mist to the ear of the king [Joe Nutter].
Good to see Brentwood Theatre packed to support these young performing arts students, and watch them acquiring key language and movement skills in such an entertaining context.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Witham Amateur Operatic Society


Cartoon strip, black and white tv show, a popular, if not critical, success on Broadway, and the West End planned for next year.
This wonderfully weird family is busy in Essex just now, with WAOS this week, and LODS [at the Palace Westcliff] next.
The Witham show looks great, with projected backdrops and some stunning stage pictures. The living dead, the assorted ancestral Addamses from history, are pallid and wraith-like, with creative costumes in shades of beige and grey.
Against them, the harsher black and white of the present-day family, and the tasteful leisure-wear of their inlaws-to-be, the Beinekes from Ohio.
Some excellent performances in both camps. Corrina Wilson is priceless as Mrs Beineke: whining voice, powerful soprano and a spectacular “Waiting” after her chalice has been spiked. Stewart Adkins, as Gomez Addams, bears the brunt of the show, ably keeping the comedy coming and delivering some brilliant numbers; Constance Lawton his classy Morticia. The rest of the clan have varying success with the very special style this show demands – Edward Groombridge gives a splendid Grandma, and Fraser McLaughlan shows presence and polish as Pugsley. Trevor Marks has his moments as the moonstruck Fester, though the role demands a little more, perhaps.
The star-crossed lovers are engagingly portrayed by Ashton Reed and Ed Tunningley.
Nikki Mundell-Poole's energetic production is imaginatively staged – the supper-table “Full Disclosure”, jazz hands and enthusiasm from the ensemble, “Death Is Just Around The Corner”, the trees in Central Park, the “Secrets” dance routine, the chorus in “One Normal Night”.
All in the worst possible taste. The lyrics frequently sound feeble, the book is patchy, though there are some winning lines: “... makes Mary Poppins sound like Medea./I'm not getting your references./ Well quit the texting and pick up a book for once!”.
The music, though rarely memorable, is serviceable in many genres, and is well served by the company under Musical Director Geoff Osborne.
Always good to see a new musical, even if the characters are familiar. And Witham certainly pull out all the stops to sell the show. But I'm not sure I shall be queuing outside the St James's next year …

production photo courtesy of Matilda Bourne

video: Nick Griffin Film

WAOS The Addams Family Teaser #2 from Nick Griffin Film on Vimeo.

Monday, April 27, 2015


Shakespeare's Globe

A colourful picture of Cinquecento Venice by the Thames: a lively carnival with drums and masks, torches and vendible maids, squibs and a Masque of Cupid, pimping and anti-semitic violence.
Curtain-raiser to a fine production from Jonathan Munby, with the stories clearly told, the audience involved. Beautifully designed too [though it remains my view that this stage needs no set] by Mike Britton, with a bronze gauze curtain to suggest Belmont, and sumptuous frocks all round.
The performances are neatly tailored to the space, too. Daniel Lapaine's lovesick Bassanio, Dominic Mafham's grizzled, strong Antonio, feisty charm from Rachel Pickup and Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Portia and her maid, the lawyer's clerk. The first suitor, Morocco, is given great presence by Scott Karim, got up to look like the ambassador to the Virgin Queen. Naturally, the comedy is very much to the fore, with an amusing Aragon from Christopher Logan and a great turn from Stefan Adegbola as Launcelot Gobbo, actually making his quandary funny, with the help of two groundlings as Devil and Conscience. Old Gobbo, though, presumably beyond rescue, remains excised.
But there's a deep, thoughtful, careful Shylock from Jonathan Pryce, in his first Globe role; despite his meticulous business with scales, weight and knife, he elicits the sympathy of the crowd, so that the legal quibble seems a little harsh, and Gratiano's taunting petty and base. His excellent Jessica is his own daughter, Phoebe Pryce.
At the end, in contrast to the riotous opening, and instead of the traditional jig, Jessica's Jewish lament, and a solemn procession for Shylock's painful Christian Credo.

Sunday, April 26, 2015


Little Baddow Drama Club at the Memorial Hall

Zombies, a false-bottomed handbag, a part-time pole-dancer and a falling chandelier.
None of these, alas, appeared in this whodunnit, though they did feature in the audience suggestions collected during the interval.
This is the second murder mystery Little Baddow have presented, and, as before, the action is halted at a key moment to allow the audience's imagination free rein as they confer over the sausage rolls and battenberg.
Paul Reakes' play is an unlikely tale of infidelity, in which the masked intruder [Martin Lucas] is not all he seems. Nor is Theo Spink [John Peregrine] whose home is burgled, or his vamp of a wife [Heather Lucas]. Frumpish spinster Amelia Trim [perfectly characterised by Vicky Tropman], birthday girl, holds the key to the ridiculous dénouement, thwarting the deviant designs of Theo and the poor man's Raffles …

A most entertaining format, with the “comedy-thriller” ably directed by Lindsay Lloyd.

Saturday, April 25, 2015


Little Waltham Drama Group at the Memorial Hall

September Song on the soundtrack, and for Little Waltham's trademark proscenium pictures, a vaguely impressionist pair of cemetery gates in the fall [Liz Willsher].
Mags Simmonds' enjoyable production of this favourite five-hander has heart-warming performances from the three widows, united in convivial mourning for their menfolk.
What are “the boys” doing now, they wonder as they sip their tea. Cue for a heavenly spin-off there, maybe ?
Ida, the home body in whose bijou apartment they meet, is played with emotional subtlety and throwaway comic timing by Linda Burrow. She's joined by Vicky Weavers' glamorous Lucille, in her thrift-shop mink with matching muff, and Helen Langley's Doris, still missing Abe after four years. They all have a good feel for the wise-cracking, world-weary Jewish comedy, and the pace is lively despite some interventions from prompt corner.
Witty, warm and often touchingly insightful, the show has some wonderful moments, from the broadly comic Cha Cha Cha to the subtly poignant – poor, confused Ida as she turns out the lights.
The cast is completed by Brian Corrie as Katz, the butcher who delivers, and Sally Lever as the flamboyant, flirtatious Mildred – looking as if she could give Lucille a run for her money …


Cut to the Chase at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch

for The Public Reviews

Cut to the Chase – versatile multi-talented actor/musicians - back on top form in this brilliant revival of Pomerance's powerful drama, directed by Simon Jessop, combining spectacular theatricality with intimate exchanges.
This is outstanding work by any standards. Difficult to remember, sometimes, that this is a small regional repertory company. Strong concept, marvellous music, the director's vision and amazing acting all ensure a memorable two hours in the theatre. The story is that of Joseph Merrick, whose increasing deformity makes him an object of curiosity, at first in country fairs, and later in London society.

Mark Walters' stunning set, with its sloping circle surrounded by gauze curtains and its scaffolding galleries on either side, recalls a music hall or a place of worship. We're in the world of the circus and the freak show – that “vast revolving show which never seems to end”. Footlights around the ring; suspended above, with ropes and pulleys, the tin bath and other accoutrements.

Into this arena come the Victorian characters of the drama. Treves, the physician – a scientist in an age of science - who will rescue and then befriend the Elephant Man. He's played with quiet authority, and later with moving misgivings, by Fred Broom. Carr Gomm, chairman of the London Hospital, a striking giant projected image at first, sees the welcome return to these boards of Stuart Organ, while Ross, who will exploit Merrick's appearance for profit is played with superlative style by James Earl Adair. Joanna Hickman stands out in an impressive double role – the legendary actress Madge Kendal, carefully rehearsing her greeting, and the all-important cellist.

Merrick himself, his appearance suggested first by a battered hat and sacking mask, is given a magnificent performance by Tom Cornish, who miraculously assumes the deformed shape as it is described to us. He brings out the intelligence and sensitivity of this tortured soul, especially in the more intimate scenes, with Mrs Kendal, for instance, or with Treves, tenderly sponging him down in that tin bath.

Music [Steven Markwick] plays a key role in this production, from the whirling carousel of the introduction to live accompaniment – Treves on violin amongst others – songs and found percussion on chains and metal poles.

So many heart-stopping moments: the French song as the rain pours down on Merrick and his keeper. Romeo and Juliet unravelled. The entrance of the freak show cart, chickens cooped on the roof, through light and fog in a vision worthy of Fellini. Treves' dream, in which, in shadow-play, the roles are reversed and Merrick presents his flawed saviour as a medical specimen, his own words twisted and distorted. And at the end, his model of St Philip's completed, the Elephant Man can take up his bed, offer the comfort of pillows to the souls around him, before his agonising death. Moving images play across his tortured body as we hear Gomm's account of his life, and Merrick's own poem, and light streams forth from the tiny windows of the church.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews


Middle Ground Theatre Company at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford

A mild-mannered man, just the wrong side of middle age. His modest one-bed flat in the suburbs. A police detective - “clever, clever copper” and a woman who's had some success as a writer of police dramas for the television.

Such are the ingredients for Richard Harris's intricately plotted thriller. In the tradition of Sleuth or Deathtrap, our author has his characters playing games with each other as he plays games with his audience. It's all rather self-consciously meta-theatrical, with regular references to actors and scripts. Why are whodunnits so popular ? An eye on the box office… And it's one of Dee's tv plays that provides a spur to revenge in the festering mind of the master manipulator.

There's not a lot of action. There is a lot of talking, and after the interval the stakes, the tension and the voices are raised, before the double twist in the last ten minutes: there's a satisfying feeling of closure as the curtain falls, before we realise that the final twist of the knife depends on something that could never have been known for certain, a violent reaction which plays into his devious hands … “We must always have a dramatic ending !”

The characters – not always terribly convincing – are well cast. Paul Opacic makes a great 80s television cop, rough and ready, with his raincoat and his hat. Joanna Higson is the ambitious writer who uses him for research purposes. And Robert Gwilym is a delight as dotty “Mr Stone”, with his manic little giggle and his chilling mood swings. “People don't behave like me – or only in plays.” His obsessive, meticulous plotting and scheming, his consummate theatrical deceptions are redeeming features of an otherwise uninspiring drama.

Michael Lunney's production is impressively staged. Set in 1981, when the piece was written, it boasts a lovely period set: brown furniture, brown sauce on the coffee table, and an evocative street scene backdrop. There are references to Barlow and Watt, and Dunn & Co. The characters smoke indoors. Maybe thirty years ago audiences were held by this kind of wordy cat-and-mouse – it did have a long West End run back then, with Francis Matthews the original Stone - but I'm not convinced it's worth reviving today.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Friday, April 24, 2015


National Theatre at the Lyttleton

Here we are, on St George's day, between the Magna Carta celebrations and the General Election. What better time to revisit Caryl Churchill's 1976 piece about the political aftermath of the Civil War. Poor relief, an economy on the rocks, corruption and hypocrisy in government.
This is the England of Levellers and Ranters, where, 600 years on, the ruling classes are still thought of as a foreign foe. Where all women are considered damned. Where religion, despite everything, still holds almost everyone in its thrall.
The stunning first image [Es Devlin's sumptuous design, glowingly lit by Bruno Poet] is a vast banqueting hall. The table – the size of a tennis court, it seems – groans under the weight of rich food. The nobles are sitting around it, enjoying the feast. The cloth is also the stage; the soldiers, the revolutionaries, the dispossessed, move around amongst the huge platters. It's a wonderful conceit, cleverly followed through, as the cloth is removed, then the boards torn up by the Diggers to reveal the earth of England beneath.
Churchill's play is a series of scenes, some brief, some, like the verbatim Putney debates, a little long - “we have been a great while upon this matter ...”. But these confrontations, between Cromwell with his right hand man Ireton and the soldiers and radicals, saw the forging of our parliamentary system. Orwell would have appreciated the back-tracking and the fudging. Not to mention Daniel Flynn's parson, who, like the incumbent at Bray, is keen to keep his living under the new order, as a parliament man becomes the new squire.
As the debates move wearily to a close, the leadership decides to set up a committee, and, suddenly, there they are in black and white, the Puritans at the back of the stage. After the interval, it is their turn to take their places around that broad table, scribbling away as the Diggers rip up the floor.
It's a huge cast, augmented by a community company, and it's wonderful to see them throng the stage, singing their psalms and their songs of freedom. And many excellent performances – Leo Bill's dogged Ireton, Steffan Rhodri as Sexby [and a truculent butcher refusing to sell meat to the bloated rich], Ashley McGuire as a down-trodden, hopeless vagrant, Trystan Gravelle as Briggs, and Joshua James stunningly convincing as the ranting preacher Cobbe.
In Lyndsey Turner's production, design and costume details remind us that the struggle we are witnessing is not confined to one time or one place. Nowhere more so than in a second debate, where vagrants and outcasts noisily discuss the notion of property and of God. A reminder, too, that this was originally, and in the recent Arcola revival, a chamber piece, far removed from Turner's sprawling epic theatre.
But the Lyttleton stage does allow some superb visuals; after our protagonists sketch their lives post-Restoration, turn and leave, the final scene sees one lone idealist on the empty, sodden field, as the light shines out towards us, and a flock of birds, alarmed, flies unseen over our heads.

production photograph: Marc Brenner

Tuesday, April 21, 2015



Chelmsford Young Generation at the Cramphorn Theatre


No vast arena, no revolve, but, my ears and whiskers, don't Young Gen make up for it with striking designs, perfectly judged performances and a stunning sense of style.
Sallie Warrington's sure-footed production opens with cats' eyes piercing the gloom; the set is a back alley, stars and moon above, soon peopled by a magnificent clowder of cats, every movement, every gesture the embodiment of androgynous felinity.
So much complex choreography, and each moment a visual as well as a musical treat – the company watching Demeter, the first entrance of Grizabella, an ageing Marilyn moppet, the kittens tumbling on through the outlet, the garbage bagpipes and the cardboard box helmets for the Awful Battle.
The naming of cats. Every one has a deep and inscrutable name. For this blog review, I'm giving every actor a credit at the end. It's very much a company show, the ensemble full of characters and charm, with all thirty felines making a uniquely valuable contribution to the magic.
Every member of the audience will take away different memories, their own highlights.
Bustopher Jones, maybe, stoutest of cats with his spats and his fish-bone cravat. The magical Mr Mistoffeles, sequins and spangles, disappearing in a puff of smoke. Rum Tum Tugger, cavorting rock star in a leather flying jacket, the sprightly, high-spirited Skimbleshanks, star of possibly the finest production number of the night, Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer in their lovely song-and-dance duet, the frail Asparagus in his cardie, nicely contrasted with his caring companion Jellylorum. Jennyanydots in her patchwork coat. The enigmatic Quaxo, inviting everyone to the ball. Storyteller Munkustrap, with just the right voice for Eliot, Jemima, superb songstress, Demeter and Bombalurina on the trail of the missing Macavity.
And two points of stillness amidst the cavorting: Old Deuteronomy, gravitas in a long shaggy coat, and the glorious Grizabella, poignant stage presence and a magical way with Memory, the first notes sung before she turns towards her audience.
The cat costumes, and the wonderful wigs, a huge part of the show's success, were all made in-house for CYGAMS.
Musically there is excellent choral singing, as well as the many superb solos; Musical Director, doing wonders in the tiny pit with a couple of keyboards, bass and a drum kit, is the legendary Bryan Cass.

Asparagus   Alex Bloom
Bombalurina   Eve French
Bustopher Jones   Edward Bonney
Demeter   Katie Salter  / Natasha Newton
Grizabella   Alice Masters
Jellylorum   Abby Murphy
Jemima   Charlotte Broad
Jennyanydots   Maria Caulfield
Mr Mistoffelees   Charlie Toland
Mungojerrie   Harry Gardner
Munkustrap   Samuel Wolstenholme
Old Deuteronomy   Ben Wilton
Quaxo    Wylie Queenan
Rumpleteazer   Jessica Higgins
Rum Tum Tugger   Jack Toland
Skimbleshanks   Paul French
Victoria   Claire Mason

Admetus   Millie Parsons
Cassandra   Monique Crisell
Electra   Libby Escott
Etcetera   Ellie Steel
Exotica   Olivia Herbert
Sillabub   Molly Gardner
Tantomile   Holly Escott

Alexa   Olivia Khattar
Anastasia   Isabel Sidebottom
Athena   Isabel Murphy
Perdita   Virginia Hampson
Plato   Matt Hedges
Tumblebrutus    Noah Miller

production photograph by Barrie White-Miller


The new season at Chelmsford City Theatres – summer shading into autumn – offers an appetising variety of theatre, music and comedy.
A welcome two-night run of Alan Ayckbourn’s classic Absent Friends (19-20 May), as well as Samuel Beckett’s 60-year-old masterpiece Waiting For Godot later in the year (19-20 November). November will also see a week-long run of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mystery A Murder Is Announced (3-7 November). Small-scale tours in the Cramphorn Studio include Pope Head (7 May), a fascinating solo show about the life, philosophy and innermost truth of the artist Francis Bacon, and Love For Sale (15 October), a comedy with music about friendship, writing and dentistry, from Jubilant Productions, whose Merry It Was made such an impression last summer.

Ruby Wax (8 September) will be starring in a new show based on her critically acclaimed book, and we also haveJenny Éclair (2 October), Horrible Histories (20-24 October) Chas and Dave (2 June), Nights On Broadway (12 September)and Sex In Suburbia (6-7 May) to look forward to …

To find out about all the shows on at Chelmsford City Theatres and to book tickets visit or call the Box Office on 01245 606505.

Monday, April 20, 2015


Charles Court Opera at the King's Head Islington

Trial by television ? Only a matter of time before, US-style, justice as entertainment comes to British screens.
One step ahead, as usual, Charles Court Opera's Trial By Jury [Court on Camera], has a floor-manager/usher warming up the jury [that's us on the King's Head benches] and flashing signs for applause and boos.
WS Gilbert meets Jeremy Kyle, with the Plaintiff and her friend as gormless Essex girls [“Come on Ange, do the dance !”], the bone-headed “bad lot” Defendant from the Arcadian vale of Peckham. These “very strange proceedings” also feature an unexpectedly bewigged, unconventionally robed judge, who, true to Gilbert's original, rises to the top by wedding the elderly ugly daughter of a rich attorney, and solves the judicial dilemma by marrying Angelina herself.
Faultless, achingly funny performances from a cast of seven, director John Savournin as the learned judge, Matthew Kellett as the besotted Clerk of the Court, David Menezes as the yobbish Defendant, Philip Lee as Plaintiff's Council, Amy J Payne as the strident Usher. And, best of all, Catrine Kirkman as the truculent bride-to-be, visibly a little late for her white wedding, and Nichola Jolley as her bridesmaid/best mate, the current object of the Defendant's attentions.
Musically, it's superbly done – the “Nice Dilemma” septet just one example – with David Eaton at the pub upright.
Trial by Jury is preceded here by The Zoo, another one-acter from the same year [1875] but with Gilbert replaced by “Bolton Rowe”. A revelation for many of us, coming up very fresh in this lively production. Like Trial, it's set in the present day, with the absurdities all the more entertaining for being in modern dress.
The comedy more memorable than the score, perhaps, though the love duets and the “Fare Thee Well” ensemble are lovely. The Duke of Islington in disguise [Savournin] working his way through the patisserie as he courts his Eliza [Jolley], Aesculapius Carboy the splendidly named apothecary and his Laetitia [Menezes and Kirkman], both equally geeky, with matching elastoplastered specs.
And her unlikely progenitor, bullish Mr Grinder [Kellett].
As in Trial by Jury, the happy-ever-after dénouement is “managed by a job” - and a good job too !
This delectable double bill, a welcome revival, plays at the King's Head until May 10.


Banter Productions at Jermyn Street Theatre

Education, Education, Education. That's the theme, and the over-arching title, of Jonathan Lewis's new trilogy. Looking at the system through the eyes of the teachers, the parents, and first, here, the students.

Confined in exclusion between Politics and Philosophy A-level exams, they brag, they whinge, they indulge in banter that's borderline bullying. Laddishness shades into loutishness. Confidence tips over into arrogance. There's war between the sexes. Eleven eighteen-year-olds – perhaps slightly too many for the format and the venue – about to leave their “top London private school” for university.
Their personalities – and there are some very recognizable characters here – are revealed not only in the fizzing, fast-paced cross-talk but also, cleverly, in monologues. The bell goes, the others freeze as, against an appropriate music track, each gives an ironic, or cynical, or honest insight into their feelings before stepping back into the action. Jack Bass, as the troubled Aldous – he's stupidly answered the Imperial Presidency question, to the unfeeling scorn of his class-mates – has one of the best, a cheesy cinema commercial, excellently delivered. We hear the language of the Year Book, of the pimped Personal Statement.
We're shown a very mixed bunch – though they lack the diversity the script suggests – and all the performances are accurately, often passionately, observed. Perhaps not surprising, since these non-professional performers are hardly out of school themselves, and the piece was workshopped with students from several independent schools.
At opposite ends of the maturity spectrum – though both clearly very bright – are Bella [Eve Delaney] with her revision Rolodex, and AJ Lewis's gobby Zachir, his “horrible personality” not without its streetwise charm. There's the quiet JJ [Christian Hines], who's rebelled, disastrously but intelligently, in the exam room, and cool Cal [Joe Taylor]. Victims, too – Isabella Caley's Talia, and Finlay Stroud's Louis, the butt of a particularly unpleasant “revision initiation”, who finally has a melt-down over a tuna sandwich.
They should be supervised, of course. But “Gandalf” has trouble with stairs, so it's the end of Act One before Mr Preston [Joe Layton] arrives. A slightly less believable character than the kids, though their interactions with him are, at least at first, very well observed.
In Act Two there's more drama, more conflict and confrontation, as we stray into Waterloo Road territory – Jeremy Kyle is several times invoked. And there are some very implausible developments.
But the atmosphere is so tense in the pressure-cooker of the third-floor music room, and the performances are so strong, that the audience is carried along with the frenetic, carefully plotted action.
This is not The History Boys – though the trousers do come off – it's less witty, but confronts more hard truths about a system that puts so much pressure on young people at the most vulnerable stage of their lives, where education puts hurdles in place of personal fulfilment, and in which grades are a matter of life and death.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews