Monday, August 31, 2015


at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch


Can't get to see Sherlock's Sweet Prince ? Here's Hornchurch's home-grown Johnny Hamlet in a real-deal rock-and-roll re-working of Shakespeare. And while Cumberbatch has only Nat King Cole on his phonograph, the Queen's offers a whole juke-box full of familiar sounds from the Fifties, raucously filling the gap between skiffle and the Mersey beat.
Bob Eaton's audaciously imagined version transfers the action to England in the monochrome 1950s – a very atmospheric opening scene – variously in Denmark Street [London's Tin Pan Alley], a grim Clacton holiday camp, and the Elsinor Ballroom. The hits of the day are re-packaged as clever pastiche. And we have a lovely happy ending, the duel scuppered by a flick-knife comb, in which Gertie and Claud [Antony Reed], Hamlet and Ophelia, not to mention those lovely boys Larry and [Waltzer] Horace [Daniel Healey], all face a bright harmonious future.
Matt Devitt's classy production gives the rather patchy piece a tremendous world première, in a stark set by Rodney Ford – Escher battlements in silhouette, on closer inspection a skeletal street-scene façade. The music, under Ben Goddard, is superbly realised, with the actor-musicians impressively recreating the styles and the sounds of sixty years ago. The Ghost on washboard, Hamlet's uncle on muted trumpet, sax duos from his mother and his girl, and so on.
The most successful numbers, perhaps, are the social comment songs: Smoke Gets Everywhere, and the Great Pretenders, evoking an age when everyone smoked, and “queers” – including the helpfully named Stephen Spender – stayed firmly in the closet. Elsewhere the lyrics, like the cod blank verse, are often lame and clunky, or perhaps deliberately naff: “I'll never forget tonight / You gave us a helluva fright.” “My mind is out of joint and that's a fact / I'll be a nutter by the second act.” And the Ghost Train number is ill-conceived and embarrassingly staged.
Excellent performances largely paper over the cracks though, not least Cameron Jones's energetic Hamlet – his Elvis number, All Mucked Up [bowdlerised until the very last repeat] is brilliantly done. The Ghost of Hamlet's Father is done with relish by Fred Broom. He has a lot to do here, appearing, as in Britten's Death in Venice [Ben another unlikely name check], in various disguises, waiter, Butlin's redcoat ... Stephen Markwick, often heard here as MD, shows comic potential as the stick-in-the-mud Henry Polonius.
Outstanding work from the two women: Sarah Mahony's Gertie delivers a superb Love and Understanding, and newcomer Lucy Wells is a striking Ophelia with a Jayne Mansfield figure. It is Ophelia who has the suicidal thoughts here, her Freudian ocean dream explored in the nicely conceived Sea of Troubles. Her Heartbreak Hotel [A Camp Called Misery], duetting with Jones, is strongly characterized, too. Another new face, Tom Sowinski, is the posh music student Larry, who finds freedom with Waltzer in the streets of Soho.
Roll Over Beethoven is the latest in a fine Hornchurch tradition of fun, populist re-workings of the Shakespeare canon. And, whether or not you're familiar with the five-act original, it provides an enjoyable trip back to the era of Johnny Remember Me, culminating in a brilliant rock-style Beethoven's Ninth, with Broom as the toe-tapping statue of Ludwig Van.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Thursday, August 20, 2015


Proms Chamber Music at the Cadogan Hall


Even in Sloane Square, Monday lunchtime is not the ideal slot for sophisticated cabaret, but if anyone could bring it off it would be Richard Sisson, pianist, composer and for many years the Widow.
He was the curator and host of this delightful tribute to Stephen Sondheim on his 85th birthday, and brought a wonderfully diverse team of talents to the Cadogan Hall stage.
Here's Jamie Parker, in his second Proms appearance this season, trying to stay calm as he tinkles Sisson's ivories, and seducing Kitty Whately Into The Woods. They're together again on the intimate chaise longue in Barcelona, and for Too Many Mornings. Even a little ironic hoofing in Rain on the Roof, also from Follies.
Anthony Brown played two contrasting sax solos – By the Sea and Send in the Clowns from A Little Night Music. Sian Phillips, a memorable Madame Armfeldt twenty years ago, revived those sepia memories in a moving evocation.
After the whole company joined in Sunday [in the Park with George], there was a lovely encore: Goodbye for Now from the movie Reds.
And those of us in the hall heard Richard Sisson and presenter Petroc Trelawny giving us some scraps from the Instructions to the Audience from Frogs, which also featured in the Sondheim Prom of 2010 …

As for applause, please,
When there's a pause, please,
Although we welcome praise,
The echo sometimes lasts for days…

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


Made in Colchester at the Mercury Theatre Colchester

Trina Bramman's beautifully realised set has the giant peach stone at its core, and around it the Big Apple, suggested by trees made of lamp posts and street signs. Television screens are put out with the rubbish; an accordion lies waiting by the trash-can.

The classic Roald Dahl story is brought to vibrant life in Matthew Cullum's production for Made in Colchester, following the growing trend for children's shows at the height of summer. Bright orange t-shirts for the front of house, merchandise including butterfly wands, and in the programme, entomological notes and a scrummy recipe for Mississippi Magic Peach Cobbler.

Seven actor/musicians play all the parts, introduced by Barbara Hockaday's enthusiastic tour guide. James Le Lacheur makes a gangly, nerdy James, knobbly knees and woolly hat. The insect inhabitants of the Central Park house are Kate Adams' ladybird [trumpet], Pete Ashmore's grasshopper [violin], Josie Dunn's scary Miss Spider – best dressed of the insects – [clarinet], Matthew Rutherford's gloomy earthworm [bass] and Dale Superville's centipede, tiny shoes suspended from his coat [guitar]. The two last also play the grotesque Aunts, Sponge and Spiker.
The music [MD Richard Reeday] is sophisticated – Dale's food number a highlight, together with the mournful euphonium solo.

And the two hour show is full of bright ideas – puppetry [tiny versions of the characters to give a sense of place and scale, a voracious seagull], vox pops and reportage beamed to those same trash tvs, an underwater ballet, a duel with pots and pans [the ladybird on sound effects duty], a huge sail for the sea, umbrellas for sharks, a mirror ball storm. The story ends with a ticker-tape welcome to New York, after the audience has helped James to save the day once more by blowing the air-borne peach to a safe landing.

Wow!” said the small child in the row behind as James's parents were eaten by a rampaging rhino. “What happened ?” was a frequent question, as well as “When can I go inside [the giant peach stone] ?”. Not possible, alas, although the children are invited down after the curtain call to inspect that splendid set at close quarters.

Not as noisily in-your-face as a panto, the show may be a little too complicated for the tinier members of the audience, especially if they're unfamiliar with the original 1961 novel. But Dahl's winning blend of magic, macabre and fantasy is well served in David Wood's inventive adaptation – an ideal treat for an August afternoon.

production photograph by Robert Day

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Wednesday, August 12, 2015


Chichester Festival Theatre at the Minerva

The audience walks through onto the parquet, and into another world. A stylish family home in the Kent countryside. Through the panoramic bay window, we glimpse barbed wire amongst the ripening Ravilious corn.
William Dudley's superb set design is the arena for family tragedy, as the Great War, long over, pours its corrosive legacy over Simon Chandler's cold, self-centred patriarch, his wife and his four children.
One of Somerset Maugham's greatest plays, it has not aged well. This is Priestley country, chickens coming home to roost, dark secrets and hidden desires. And the heavy irony at the close could have been Coward.
But Howard Davies and his wonderful cast make it seem a masterpiece. The text is fleshed out with a look, a pause, an inflection. The distant sound of the road, the railway and an aeroplane underline the remoteness of this backwater.
Stunningly good performances all round, especially from Stella Gonet as the mother, ready to leave the “rowdy” post-war party, from Yolanda Kettle as the youngest daughter, escaping by allowing herself to be seduced by the tweedy mature charms of Anthony Calf's Wilfred, and from Justine Mitchell as the tragic Eva, desperate to rescue Nick Fletcher's war hero, reduced to penury as his petrol station fails.
A perfect production of a timely anti-war piece, moving even in its most melodramatic moments.

Production photograph of Yolanda Kettle by Richard Hubert Smith


Chichester Festival Theatre

The familiar overture – all the best tunes back to back – is not an ideal preparation for the patchy, often dark, narrative.
The story is a true one, at least in outline. Slightly grumpy maker of unpretentious two-reelers makes a comedy star of the girl from the deli. She leaves him, citing artistic differences, then returns, before dying tragically young. The ending here is re-written – she lives on in celluloid form – but it's still pretty bleak.
Fortunately, Jonathan Church and his team [MD Robert Scott and choreographer Stephen Mear] package the show so attractively, and their cast is so strong, that the flaws and the rough edges are almost imperceptible. Appropriately, the action is often played against a backdrop of moving pictures; there's a nice rail-car scene with perspective vanishing point.
Michael Ball brings a welcome warmth to Mack Sennett, though this is not a likeable man, despite his burning desire to make the world laugh; he brings his inimitable vocal technique to the big numbers. We see him first as a broken, bankrupt old man; in flashback we see his struggle to bring slapstick to the silent screen, and his chemistry with Rebecca LaChance's lovely Mabel Normand.
Strong support from the company, including Jack Edwards' Fatty [Arbuckle] and Anna-Jane Casey's charismatic hoofer Lottie. The showy production number, Tap Your Troubles Away, and the fantastic Keystone Cops sequence, though neither of them central to the story, both lend a big-stage sparkle to a flawed but fascinating musical homage to the early days of Hollywood.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015



The National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company
at the Harrogate International Centre

The opening production of the 22nd Festival – three weeks of G&S from companies large and small from far and near.
Not, alas, in Matcham's Royal Hall, or in the equally delightful Harrogate Theatre, but in the comfortable, capacious but irredeemably corporate Harrogate International Centre.
The production, directed by John Savournin, was Gilbert and Sullivan as it used to be, before polymaths and auteurs were let loose on it. Traditional, predictable, enjoyable. The most amusing thing, perhaps, was the cheeky knees-up for Regular Royal Queen.
A simple, “modern” set, an excellent orchestra [MD David Steadman], a lively, smallish chorus, and some impressive soloists: Claire Lees a brilliantly sung Giannetta, an impassioned Pair of Sparkling Eyes from Robin Bailey's Marco.
The character roles were played with assured style by Sylvia Clarke as the domineering Duchess, Richard Gauntlett as her hen-pecked little Duke, and Bruce Graham as Don Alhambra – a lubricious Grand Inquisitor done up in a cardinal's costume [think George Melly as Thomas Wolsey], nothing like an undertaker at all, it has to be said, but great fun and a serious presence vocally.