Sunday, June 28, 2015


Writtle Cards at the Village Hall

Elizabeth von Arnim's charming novel was a popular success in the 20s – this stage version by Matthew Barber made something of a Broadway hit some eighty years later.
It's a sentimental piece, in which four ladies from the capital's middle classes, united by a longing for wisteria and sunshine, find both, and themselves, in San Salvatore.
There are nine scenes before the interval, four after. Barber suggests that the actors, or costumed servants, should manage the props. Difficult to achieve, but otherwise, as here, even an efficient stage crew will slow the action and lose the flow. He also suggests that the sea and the gardens should be imagined out behind the audience, presumably leaving warm stone-work and wisteria as a back-drop. Pete Goodwin's design effectively replaces the dull black and brown of London with a riot of colour for the Genoese coast, earning a round of applause for the big reveal after the interval. And the incessant sound of English rain is replaced by continental railways as Italy approaches.
Two very different ladies plot their escape. Jodee Goodwin's Pollyanna Lotty and Leila Francis's “disappointed Madonna” Rose, nicely contrasted in Nick Caton's production. A much more dramatic contrast between the other two women, who answer the advertisement to share the cost of the castello. “Donna Carolina”, Lady Bramble, is an elegant butterfly, played with some style and fabulous frocks by Shelley Goodwin, and the redoubtable Mrs Graves, delightfully done by Liz Curley, as she sheds her hat, her stick and her inhibitions in the Italian sunshine.
The owner of the villa is Chris Rogerson, Costanza the volatile maid, Sharon Goodwin.
The menfolk who eventually join the ladies in Liguria are Arnott, alias Florian Ayres, writer of “romantic biography” [Jeremy Pruce] and Wilton, a scene-stealing Daniel Curley, plucking his nasal hair and only just preserving his dignity with a bath towel. And his Italian, at least, was meant to sound mangled …
Some fine performances here, with Lotty's character sympathetically developed. But the middle-class metropolitan milieu sometimes proved elusive, and on opening night there was some insecurity in lines and names.
The ever-resourceful refreshment team had come up with Paradiso Punch this time, limoncello the secret ingredient.

Sunday, June 21, 2015


Waltham Singers at Great Waltham Church

Not for the first time, a world première for the Waltham Singers. For the 2015 summer concert they'd chosen A Sense of Place for their theme, and commissioned Jeffery Wilson to write a work in which the Singers could be joined by the Fibre Optics choir from New Hall School, both directed by Andrew Fardell.
Songs of Home” proved an enjoyably accessible collection, with pictorial Haikus and Essex folk embraced within the ancient Offices of the Old Religion, the children's voices leading the way. Good to hear a fresh setting of Bushes and Briars, first collected in Ingrave by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and a “Ballad of Politics” of the same Edwardian vintage, penned by Charles Benham in the authentic accent of rural Essex.
The youngsters brought us another local composer, Armstrong Gibbs, with a lively setting of Five Eyes by Walter de la Mare.
And they gave a commendably crisp account of London Bells, the central setting in Bob Chilcott's Songs and Cries of London Town, which also featured a lovely lilting Flower of Cities All.
From further afield, Peter Maxwell Davies' Kestrel Road, with words from the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown, a joint commission of ten years ago. Good to have the words recited as well as sung; this evocative sequence was perhaps the piece mostly firmly rooted in its location – kirk and croft, school and smithy, manse and mill. Excellently sung, too, especially the challenging slow movement Windfall.
And to start, Elgar's tunefully Romantic Songs of the Bavarian Highlands – beautifully controlled clarity in False Love, and a lilting piano part in Lullaby.
The two accompanists – Laurence Lyndon-Jones and Weston Jennings – probably clocked up the most Air Miles, with duet Dances from Hungary and the Ukraine, Brahms and Dvorak.
A refreshingly eclectic summer offering, performed with the enthusiasm and attention to detail that make this choir so reliably impressive.


Saturday, June 20, 2015


Hutton Players at the Brentwood Theatre

Ray Cooney is the king of low farce, a genre that seems very dated these days. But, like the equally improbable Restoration Comedy, given a strong cast and determined direction it can still give an audience a jolly good evening out.
And so it proves on the Brentwood stage, with June Fitzgerald's pacy production zipping through the preposterous plot with breathtaking audacity. It's the usual tottering edifice of lies and deception erected to conceal old-fashioned infidelity with a nubile secretary.
The solid company is led by William Wells as the amusingly named Richard Willey, a junior minister – or PM's lapdog - in John Major's government. An absolute master of the style, with voice, timing and double-takes honed and polished to perfection. His sidekick – the hapless PPS George Pigden – is in the equally safe hands of Gary Ball; their work together is satisfyingly assured: the business with the mysterious stiff – a private dick, it turns out, played by Justin Cartledge – is priceless.
Romy Brooks looks and sounds convincing as the seductive socialist totty, Ben Martins rages as her jealous husband. A nice understated performance from Richard Spong as the obliging bell-hop in the Westminster Hotel, in whose snazzy suite, with its dodgy sash window, the action takes place.
Not without a few technical hitches, though the window itself, punctuating the quick-fire dialogue, behaved well. Not sure about leaving the 90s for “the present” - as usual mobile phones are the stumbling block – and the British Museum hasn't had a Reading Room since 1997.
But a fine revival of a classic of its kind, complete with dropped trousers and saucy glimpses of bare buttocks – never ask me whose …

Thursday, June 18, 2015


Chelmsford Junior Music Festival

I still clearly recall my first schools' choir festival. Conducted by the formidable Dr WH Swinburne, with local celebrity, Gielgud's first Juliet, Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies the guest of honour.
Nearly sixty years ago, now. Hard to tell at this distance, but I don't think we had as much fun as this year's Civic massed choirs, and I'm sure we weren't nearly as entertaining.
The Civic was packed for four nights with proud parents and restless siblings. And the stage was packed with 150 or so youngsters, from six schools on the night I looked in, with 27 schools taking part over the four nights of the Festival.
They trooped on to Heigh Ho from Snow White, and show tunes made up most of the programme. A finger-snapping Singin' in the Rain was followed by a beautifully disciplined Over The Rainbow. Grease, Dirty Dancing – hand-jive was as dirty as it got – and, most impressively, The Rhythm of Life from Sweet Charity.
After the obligatory thank-yous, everyone took to their feet for an arm-waving encore of Fame.
The core work this year was The Return of the Glass Slipper; not a sequel, but a mini-musical with narrators. Mostly forgettable in the company of Disney, Bart and the rest, but a nice Calypso This Generation and a Spanish I'm Lovely.
No interval, but two breathers for the singers, with charming novelty numbers by an eleven-year-old trombonist, and accompanist Danielle Harding-Smith joining MD Natalie Thurlow at the piano.
Natalie's infectious enthusiasm and solid direction were key factors in the success of the evening. All 150 pairs of eyes were on her, as she guided them through the changes of tempo and key, and some brilliant dramatic pauses.
A real pleasure to see these youngsters experience the thrill of singing together, and the contagious joy of performance.

photograph: Val Scott

Friday, June 12, 2015


Blackmore Players at the Village Hall
for Sardines

Blackmore on splendid Fifties form for this classic tale of the alien avocado invader.
It's a cult show, and comes encrusted with traditions worthy of D'Oyly Carte. The Players pay homage to most of them, but manage to keep the show fresh and immediate.
The audience is immersed in the action from the off, with hobos and hookers and all the noisy denizens of Skid Row roaming the auditorium in search of a trick to turn or a bench for the night. And we are all immersed in the show, too, with a traverse acting area [impressively paved]. Especially effective for the nightmare dentist sequence, with Rob Lewis-Jones's wonderfully terrifying semi-sadist entering through green smoke and terrorising poor Seymour right under our noses. It's a risky strategy, particularly for a musical with everyone miked up, but the only down-side was an audible buzz under some dialogue.
This is a rural community group, with strictly local talent, performing in a multi-purpose village hall [with one of the most keenly priced theatre bars in the land]. But no compromises are made, in a great example of what can be achieved with inspiring, clear-sighted direction [Bill Edwards in the hot seat for this one, with choreography by Denise Jackson]. There's no pit, of course, but a great little band in the corner, with MD Shirley Parrott at the keyboard.
The cast is impressively strong. Craig Stevens makes a nicely nervous Seymour, with his geeky specs and baseball cap – superb singer, too. His Audrey is Lisa Rawlings; vocally assured, carefully characterized. It's a pity she gives most of her big number sitting on the stoop, invisible to almost all the audience.
Audrey II – the star of the show, really, with its multicoloured warts and gore-stained maw – is excellently voiced by Bill Edwards himself, with the expressive flora [uncredited] manipulated by John Hughes.
Mushnik, gravel-toned and fundamentally jolly despite everything, is engagingly played by Simon Haskell, who also provides the portentous voice in the prologue.
The three backing singers – Ronnette, Chiffon, Crystal – are authentically sung by Gail Hughes, Sandra Trott and Amy Pudney, with stunning show dresses for the finale; perhaps they could have been a little more engaged with the plot emotionally, though.
Memorable cameos from many others, including Charley Magee's Bernstein and Martin Herford's Skip Snip, and a big bold chorus of all ages and abilities.

Lots of detail to admire, even to those of us who are very familiar with the show. A nice new clock after renovation, with Mushnik's favourite fedora still hanging underneath. A nice brickwork scene curtain; I longed to see an actor walk across with it – much more dramatic. And a brilliantly helpful glossary in the programme, with useful reminders of Vitalis, Lucille Ball and Hedy Lamarr ...

production photograph - Kira Louise Photography

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


Springers at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford

Verdi rewritten for the millennium by John and Rice. Embraced by Broadway, but still unseen in the West End, while Giuseppe's original still packs the Albert Hall.
Like Billy Elliott and Lion King, it relies on an existing success. But here the new version adds little, bringing only bathos and banality to the “timeless love story”.
A splendid start to Springers' ambitious staging, with 1920s ladies in cloche hats wandering amongst museum vitrines, including the life-size statue of Amneris, who steps out of her glass case to start the story.
Gary Jarvis's production is at its best in the set pieces, like the Nile laundry, or the witty spa number with its elegant fashion parade, or the torches for the patriotic Act One finale.
The chorus – Egyptian guards and Nubian slaves, all women – is effectively used and strikingly costumed. Ian Myers leads his singers confidently through the various genres – gospel, reggae and the rest.
Amyserin Leslie is a funny, forceful Amneris, Kieran Young a nicely characterized slave boy. In the title role, Lex Phillips makes an excellent advocate for Elton's pop ballad tunes; her youthful, ripped Rameses is done with some style and a strong vocal presence by Ben Wilton.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015


Havering College at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch

A stunning showcase for Havering College's performing arts faculty, with dozens of talented students taking over the Hornchurch stage and their friends, families and supporters filling the auditorium.
So much inventive work to enjoy, performed with professional polish by these enthusiastic young people.
Sousa with tutus in Stars and Stripes, a classy hybrid Tuxedo Junction, a sinister, stylish Thriller.
Classical ballet – an impressive Sleeping Beauty with lifts and disciplined corps de ballet. Sophisticated show dancing in the opening number, Burn the Floor, a blink-and-you-miss-it literal interpretation of Movies were Movies, and terrific tap in Cabin Pressure, where Karen Hardy followed hard on the heels of Catch Me If You Can.
Vocal delights, too – Tosca, a confident jazz idiom in Every Time We Say Goodbye, and, a rare treat, Judy Garland's delicious Carnegie Hall, with tutor Simon Gray tongue-in-cheek at the concert grand.

Friday, June 05, 2015


at the Mercury Theatre Colchester

This cult musical is a cultivar of the 1960 Corman film; from modest origins off-Broadway, it has grown into a major industry, with community groups drawn to its catchy tunes and off-the-wall story. Specialist plantsmen supply the various Audrey IIs, from dwarf to magnifolia.

You'd wait a long time to see a more perfect specimen than this joint production with the Mercury's Wiltshire twin, the Salisbury Playhouse, the work of its Artistic Director Gareth Machin.

Everything about it feels absolutely right. James Button's fantastic design, inspired in part by the street photography of Vivian Maier turns Skid Row into a three-storey slum, with Richard Reeday's band on the first floor above the shop. The subway rumbles beneath, while a corrugated curtain flies out to reveal the eponymous shop, which begins as a fly-blown failure and blossoms into Mishkin and Son.

The staging is full of ingenious ideas: the snapper and the hooker, the two clocks, the four phones, the bins, the magazines, the newspaper with the total eclipse on its front page and the faded poster for Attack of the Puppet People, another cult schlock horror classic. The costumes are clever too, embracing the “cheap and tasteless outfits” of the 1950s: the skirt of roses, the leopard-skin sling.

The excellent vocal trio – a grungy Greek chorus – branch out from “worthless ragamuffins” to plant-costumed backing group and botanical operatives taking the cuttings which will propagate this strange and unusual plant world-wide.

Crystal, Chiffon and Ronette - Gbemisola Ikumelo, Karis Jack, Carole Stennett – are a key part of this production, their numbers superbly choreographed by Nick Winston. They pop up in the gutter, on the balcony, out of the drains to tempt Seymour in Suppertime.
She's played by Frances McNamee, with a great vocal presence and a winningly vulnerable look in her Fay Wray nightgown.
Simeon Truby makes a wonderful Mushnik, and Jez Unwin is not only the rebel dentist in leather, with his quiff and 'tache, a glorious hybrid of Elvis and Vincent Price, but also, in quick succession, Bernstein, Martin, and the wife of the editor of Time Magazine. Ben Stott is an exquisite Seymour: slight, speccy, his every movement speaking volumes.

The three carnivorous plants are impressive, too, voiced by Leon Craig and animated by Andrew London. Tapping its feet to the Senior and Junior Schtick, grabbing its prey, turning its head knowingly, belching when Seymour finally succumbs.

The whole show feels almost operatic [in a good way], with the cast squeezing every last drop out of Ashman's book and Menken's music.

I half expected the height of the set to be used to make Audrey II tower like a beanstalk – instead, in a much more effective finale, singing clones appear on the upper levels and, as in the 1982 original, suckers drop down over the audience, threatening to devour all these enthusiastic young theatre-goers bathed in a ghastly leafy-green light ...

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Thursday, June 04, 2015


Theatre at Baddow at the Village Hall

Puck and the fairies are frequently female; Dawn French was a wonderful Bottom a few years back. But a quartet of lesbian lovers – “Jill shall have Jill” - is surely a first, just one of the fresh ideas in Jim Crozier's updated Dream.
No such liberalism in the Athenian trade guilds, though, where the rude mechanicals – a plumber and a brickie now in their ranks – are all blokes. The patriarchal society that allows Peter Nerreter's fine Egeus to invoke the “law strictly provided”, even in equal marriage, shows no sign of softening.
Modern dress all round, with colourful Romany-themed garb for the fairy denizens of the Athenian wood. Modern music too, with a nice original score from Owain Jones, and Daft Punk for the boom-box bergamasque.
The hard-working cast includes Barry Taylor's compelling, stylish Oberon, Diane Johnston 's Titania enthusiastically lusting after Bob Ryall's Bottom, with his lecherous bray. Natalie Patuzzo makes an entertaining teenage Puck, high-fiving the audience and radiating mischief. Liam Mayle stands out in the theatricals – an amusingly thespian Thisbe. Nicholas Milenkovic makes a poised, polished Philostrate.
The lovers are never an easy call, and there is little fun in their misadventures here – some strong performances, though, with good verse speaking from Mabel Odonkor's Lysanda in particular.

Moonshine's back-pack dog, Flute's smartphone, the disco dancing, the factory hooter and the car horn, the moody fairies and the torn leggings – all evidence of a fertile imagination and a desire to please a 21st century audience. But pointless pauses and lacklustre delivery tend to impede “the passion of loud laughter” in this otherwise interesting and entertaining Dream.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015


Chichester Festival Theatre

Hot on the heels of The Rehearsal next door, another Jeremy Sams show, with another family pile shrouded at the start, and another outbreak of amateur theatricals amongst the aristocracy.
This time it's his new book [with Robert Hudson] for A Damsel In Distress, the wickedly pleasurable cocktail of Wodehouse and Gershwin, based on the Hollywood hit of 1937.
The action switches between the Savoy Theatre and the Marshmortons' Gloucestershire seat. Kicking off withe a formulaic but hugely enjoyable Things Are Looking Up: tap line, upright pian, backstage busy-ness and frocks on rails.
Kitty in the City is the show; its author, George [Richard Fleeshman], seeks a purpose in life, and finds it in the shape of Summer Strallen's Maud, on the run from her formidable aunt [Isla Blair, excellent].

The plot is thin and silly, but is carried triumphantly by a string of memorable Gershwin numbers – Stiff Upper Lip, with more tap dancing, one of the best – and uniformly impeccalbe performances. Desmond Barritt as Keggs, the lugubrious butler, given to quoting the Bard, Nicholas Farrell superb as the Lord of the Manor whose love for his pigs and his roses is eventually shared by Billie [Sally Ann Triplett]. And, stealing the scene in a patisserie extravaganza, David Roberts' delectable French chef.


Cut to the Chase at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch

This shameless cult musical is nearly a quarter of a century old now; the story it recycles has its origins in medieval Germany.
But it's set very firmly in the suburban 1970s, with music all the way from Donna Summer to Johnny Rotten. More tongue-in-cheek campery, wit and wisdom than your average juke box musical, given a storming performance by Cut to the Chase, the Queen's own company – heavily augmented for the occasion.
No fewer than twelve actor/musicians, led, as is customary, by an outrageous drag queen. In the wonderful home-made-in-Hornchurch tradition of the Queen's, they've come up with Lady Felicia, dear friend and distant cousin of Hornchurch favourite Fred Broom. More grab-a-granny than disco diva, she does time the carry-on comedy wickedly well, sells a series of sassy songs, and comes on in an impressive collection of flamboyant frocks, reflecting the genre of the musical numbers: a country music momma, the Iron Lady, a naughty nun in a Sister Act moment for the wedding.
Everyone else gets to dress up, too, with more changes than cruise ship chorus boys, from the beige polyester of domesticity to glam rock, ballroom, punk and lounge. One spectacular quick change – from supermarket to sequinned ball gowns – deserved its round of stunned applause.
Our Faustian hero is Joe Soap, the excellent Matthew Quinn, who handles the styles and the story with confident ease. He's tempted by Felicia's Lucy Fur [no subtlety tonight] to leave his ballroom partner and fiancée [Sarah Mahony] for the sinful charms of Miss Hot Stuff herself [Hollie Cassar]. Straight out of university, Cameron Jones makes a suave and slightly creepy narrator, mouthpiece for Satan, the “dark puppet-master”. Between the five of them, they carry most of the numbers, backed by a superb ensemble quartet, including choreographer Valentina Dolci, guitar, bass and drums. The keyboards and, memorably, a saxophone solo, are played by whoever happens to be available – really virtuosic versatility.
The tunes are a nostalgia-fest for the older audience – Nobody Does It Better, My Way [Sid Vicious version], Stand By Your Man, Wuthering Heights and Welcome Home. The title number, too, of course, and dozens more, including a clever TESCO parody of the old Ottowan hit DISCO. And culminating in that empty anthem We Are The Champions.
All done with a polished professionalism - “Jimmy Filth”'s God Save The Queen is preceded by a totally tasteless Peters and Lee [Jones and Felicia] and followed by three chaps in tuxes backing Miss Hot Stuff channelling Carly Simon. This kind of gentle send-up will only work if, as here, it's rooted in affection and secure performance technique.
As ever, the gorgeous costumes and the scarlet and black set [banks of speakers and dazzling lights] are all done in house.

The show is directed by Matt Devitt with Julian Littman looking after the music – Queen's regulars both – and manages to combine a high-energy clap-along night out with a morality musical cabaret. A potent mix, deservedly cheered to the rafters by the audience on opening night.

production photo: Mark Sepple

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews