Sunday, November 29, 2015


Writtle Cards in the Village Hall

Among this year's festive invitations: The Nutcracker on Ice, and The Sword in the Stone reworked as a rock'n'roll panto. But nothing quite so outrageous as this – fictitious – entertainment on offer in Writtle.
Times are hard for Little Grimley Amateur Dramatic Society. Their ranks are thinning, talent is in short supply and audiences seem to prefer to spend their Saturday nights in front of the box. Hence these desperate measures. A sex panto – though I think Jim Davidson got there first with his smutty Sinderella – and a monstrous mash-up of talent shows off the telly.
The first play – Last Panto in Little Grimley – sees members of the group debating, very amusingly, the way forward. Four lovely performances here: Jean Speller as the hapless Joyce, Paulette Harris as the overbearing Margaret, Daniel Curley as the “ape man” stage manager and Nick Caton, loudly booed by the audience, as the ruthless director. The wonky word-processor gag seems lame, but there were many hilarious moments, not least the very recognizable round of “diary bingo”.
There may be trouble ahead” warns Nat King Cole at the start of the second piece. Same characters, but renamed, recast and relocated to Writtle. From the subs bench we have Beth Crozier being overbearing, and new signing Marge Naylor as Joy, compelled to perform on roller skates, just like they never did in Cats. Jim Crozier is the autocratic dictator this time – a fine oratorical monologue – and, getting lots of laughs as the lad Barry, Chris Rogerson, wisely creating a character as far removed as possible from the consummate comedy of Mr Curley, whose use of a banana was a masterclass in hilarity. The choreographed scene changes work well, and I love the inflatable Tonioli on the judging panel.
Post-match stats – number of prompts – something of a hostage to fortune, perhaps, as is the cutting criticism of Simon Dupont, reviewer for another paper, who pens the kind of poisonous piece I shall write just before I retire ...
It's not Noises Off, or The Play That Goes Wrong, or even the Farndale Ladies. But it is a wickedly well observed look behind the amdram scenes, slickly directed by Liz Curley, and a great hit with the packed house in the Village Hall.

Thursday, November 26, 2015


National Theatre at the Lyttleton

A new play by Caryl Churchill. Brief, even for a one-act offering. Tripartite. First, the “funeral party for a man with an adventurous past” - drinking champagne in hospital is mentioned.
Mourners stand around awkwardly, wine-glass in hand, making small talk interspersed with intimations of their own mortality – or pithy autopsies – and recollections of the departed. Rarely is a sentence finished, but instead of a naturalistic blending or overlapping, each speaker seems to apply the brakes – a disconcerting effect.
Then a masterly monologue by the dead man – a disembodied torso in the darkness – a confusion of ideas about the [possibly overpopulated] afterlife: Chiron, Valhalla, Purgatory. A powerful performance from Patrick Godfrey. 

Then an extended image – Godfrey again, with a patient Hazel Holder – perhaps of end-of-life futility, or perhaps eternal damnation, echoing Marlowe's Faustus -  “Why this is hellnor am I out of it.”
Too much of an eternity for some, exiting early through the Lyttleton doors before the final fade to black.
Dominic Cooke's uncomplicated direction lets Churchill speak, though I'm not sure what she's getting at in this black triptych.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Mercury Theatre 
2016 Spring/Summer season

Sixty different productions in five months, including of course Made in Colchester, produced on-site. 
End of the Rainbow, starting its tour at the Mercury in February , stars Lisa Maxwell as Judy Garland , directed by Mercury Theatre Artistic Director Daniel Buckroyd. 
Then the regional première, with Buckroyd at the helm again, of Bruce Norris’s comedy drama Clybourne Park, a razor-sharp satire lifting the lid on race and real estate in a fictional Chicago neighbourhood.
Concluding the Made in Colchester Spring/Summer season, in a very different world, Noël Coward’s classic comedy Private Lives. 
Daniel Buckroyd, Artistic Director of the Mercury Theatre said:
“We’re excited to be producing three acclaimed and very different dramas at the heart of our new season – a ferocious, funny and fascinating look at the last few months of Judy Garland’s turbulent life; a delicious dark comedy about who we’re prepared to have as our neighbours, and a classic comedy of marital manners.”

The Mercury's intimate studio space is almost unrecognisable after its re-fit, and there's plenty to look forward to there -  including the National Theatre Connections Festival, and Flute Theatre's Hamlet, Who's There - a claustrophobic drama that compresses the traumatic events of the play into a single continuous night.
Daniel Buckroyd, Artistic Director of the Mercury Theatre said:
“We’re proud to be a host venue for the 21st anniversary season of the National Theatre’s Connections Festival, and to have a full programme of more intimate, adventurous and original work on offer in our newly refurbished Studio Theatre – some of the most exciting new work is now playing and being created here in Colchester.” 

And of course there are visiting productions to keep us entertained: the Flare Path tour [a WWII drama from the Birdsong stable], a Strictly spin-off with Ian Waite and Natalie Lowe, Simon Callow as Orson Welles, Tasmin Little, Mark Steel, flamenco and Anne Reid.

for more information, or to book: 
01206 573948. 

Monday, November 23, 2015



Writtle Singers at All Saints Church

The title for this concert – and the first words we heard sung – is from Ursula Vaughan William's Hymn to St Cecilia, set by Herbert Howells. The hymn seemed ideally suited to the chamber choir, as was the same composer's Like As The Hart – a beautifully balanced sound.
November 22 is St Cecilia's Day – we heard the Britten/Auden Hymn here a couple of Novembers ago – and also the date of the first performance of Howells' “Take him, Earth, for cherishing”, a piece commissioned for the memorial service for John F Kennedy, assassinated exactly twelve months earlier. A dignified, deeply felt, expression of grief and loss, confidently tackled by the a cappella choir, augmented by the organist for the evening, Jonathan Dods, who gave us an agile Dialogue by Peter Hurford, as well as Howells' Master Tallis's Testament, a series of variations which grow in complexity and intensity, brilliantly performed on this modest instrument.
For the final work director Christine Gwynn chose Norman Caplin's Missa Omnium Sanctorum, a mass, lively and reverential by turns, written for All Saints' Margaret Street, with plenty of opportunity for solos and duets.
As ever, Writtle Singers excelled in celebration of the serendipitous and the lesser known, knowledgeably introduced and convincingly performed.

photograph of All Saints' St Margaret's Street by David Nicholls

Sunday, November 22, 2015


Essex Symphony Orchestra at Christ Church Chelmsford

Second symphonic Siegfried Idyll in less than a week. Last Sunday, the BBC Concert Orchestra, and this Saturday the Essex Symphony under Tom Hammond. Lovely sound from the strings here – the winds somewhat exposed on the back row, but all blending to excellent emotional effect in the climactic moments.
Wagner wrote his intimate original for his wife's birthday; he was a great admirer of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony - “[it] carries us away with bacchanalian power through the roomy space of nature” he wrote. Performed by the ESO, leader Philippa Barton, with splendid attack and rhythmic drive. Even the Allegretto second movement – theme from The King's Speech – was infused with energy, not just a solemn dirge. The Allegro Con Brio finale, too, sustained its impetus till the last triumphant bars.
Emma Hanlan was the soloist in Nielsen's Flute Concerto. A suitably spiky, forthright approach from the orchestra, the soloist audaciously holding her own in free-flowing conversations with clarinet and other soloists – including trombone and timpani ! Her approach was teasing and enigmatic, her tone beautifully crafted throughout the range.

This was the first concert in the ESO's new season. Coming up later, Saint-Saens' Organ Symphony in Chelmsford Cathedral, and Mozart's exquisite Sinfonia Concertante next July.

Friday, November 20, 2015


London Classic Theatre at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford

These days it's not easy taking real theatre on tour. So hats off to LCT for going with Godot, on a pilgrimage from Severn to Solent by way of Kendal and Kilkenny. Lovely to see this enigmatic classic on the Civic stage, and with a good audience, too. Can't compare with stand-up or tribute acts, of course, but even so …
It's a fine production, with plenty for the expert and for the Beckett beginner.
Bek Palmer's set is somewhat perverse, but powerfully so, with the barren landscape replaced by a hall of tarnished mirrors, tree chandeliers suspended with their roots in air and driftwood stepping-stones, representing the road and the isolation of the travellers going nowhere as they wait for Godot to come.
A nicely complementary double act from Peter Cadden as the refined Didi and Richard Heap as the lugubrious ex-poet Gogo. Excellent cross talk routines, and a real rapport between these two unlikely friends.
Jonathan Ashley is the showman Pozzo, and his Lucky is the excellent Michael Keane, one of the best I've seen – credibly eleven years old, but achingly world-weary, a melancholy mime; his thinking monoogue beautifully judged.
The boy, a mirror image in each act, is Sonja Zobel, skipping across the stones in a moment of levity before the light dims.
Waiting for Godot is directed for London Classic Theatre by Michael Cabot.

Production photograph: Sheila Burnett

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


Civic Theatre Chelmsford

This was just one of 320 performances across the UK in this year's Festival.
Four local schools, each given just 30 minutes to present a Shakespeare play to a packed audience in a proper theatre.
First up, Columbus School and College with a colourful take on A Midsummer Night's Dream. Speech bubbles for key lines, and loads of music [Wicked as well as settings of Will's words] from the live band and vocalists. Infectious enthusiasm from a large cast, including a scene-stealing Oberon, and a lively Bergamasque to end.
Great Waltham Primary School brought us Twelfth Night, with helpful t-shirts naming the characters and the two excellent narrators, matching hats for the twins, and some outstanding performances, including Sir Toby with his braces and his tankard, and an arrogant little Malvolio in yellow stockings. They ended with an ensemble version of Feste's song – the clown himself a casualty of the cuts.
Junior boys from King Edward's gave a compelling, minimalist Julius Caesar, the text spoken intelligently and with exemplary clarity. An ever-present chorus reflected the moods of the mob, and there were some stunning moments of stagecraft – Speak Hands For Me, for instance, the death of Caesar with the background lounge jazz suddenly, menacingly loud. The orator Mark Anthony, Brutus and Cassius all gave impressively assured performances, and there were many promising contributions amongst the smaller parts.
Notley High School and Braintree Sixth Form tackled The Winter's Tale very successfully, with superb effects from the company – the whispering and the breaking waves – as well as some very mature central performances from, amongst many others, Camillo and the King of Bohemia.

production photograph from the 2014 Festival © SSF

Sunday, November 15, 2015



M&G Civic Concert


The BBC Concert Orchestra packed the Civic stage for a tea-time trio of great romantic works.
None more romantic than Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, famously written for his wife and performed as a birthday surprise on the stairs to her bedroom. A lusher, more robust sound from this much bigger band, with brilliant woodwind blossoms emerging from the luxuriant foliage of the strings.
Richard Strauss's Oboe Concerto is a later work, though it inhabits a similar romantic landscape. Soloist Gareth Hulse, the BBCCO's principal oboe, gave an eloquent account of this reflective, autumnal work, with a lively, nimble Allegro opening, and a mellow tone for the serene Andante.
To close, Dvorak's Eighth Symphony, in an excitingly exuberant reading. Conductor Michael Collins managed the mood swings skilfully: majestic, tranquil, turbulent, lilting, culminating in thrillingly white-knuckle final bars.
A first visit to the Civic from this most versatile of the BBC bands – let's hope it will be the first of many.


The Stondon Singers at Blackmore

Two great works from the choral repertoire, poles apart in many ways, but sharing a romantic solo at their heart.
First, Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. The accompaniment, from the organ of Michael Frith and the harp of Gwenllian Llyr, was vibrant and muscular, and seemed to inspire the choir to up their game, too, producing a refreshingly assertive, open sound. Alto soloist Oliver El-Holiby, singing without a score, gave a wonderful account of the psalm, powerful but tender, with subtle dynamics, the choir softly shading in behind.
Oliver also gave us an aria from Gluck's Orfeo, and Hurford's beautiful setting of Herrick's Litany.
The Singers, directed by Christopher Tinker, ended the first half with early Whitacre: Waternight, an uplifting, intricately woven sequence of dissonances and tone clusters, well sustained by the choir.
The final work, Fauré's movingly simple Requiem, first given in the Madeleine in Paris with rather larger, and all-male, forces, was here underpinned by organ, with the harp for the Sanctus and the choir of angels. Hosannas, and Dies Irae, made a particular impact. Mark Ellis sang the baritone part from the ranks; the treble for the Pie Jesu was a confident and pure-toned Elliott Harding-Smith.

Saturday, November 14, 2015


at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff

What did they do to you?” asks an appalled Mrs Lovett. Benjamin Barker has returned incognito from Botany Bay, and we share her concern. Les Cannon's Sweeney stares impassively from craggy, emotionless features. “His face was pale and his eye was odd ...”
He's not alone. The chorus stand in weird lighting – belting out the opening number rigidly looking straight ahead. Only their eyes turn to Sweeney.
Moments like these – the Bedlam scene is another – stand out in SODS' ambitious production of the Sondheim classic, directed by Ian Gilbert.
It's a show that asks a lot of everyone – soloists, chorus, orchestra, techies. And audience, still in their seats three hours after that opening chorale.
The score is demandingly operatic – it's often done by proper opera companies, in fact – and SODS' twenty-strong chorus, a few fluffs apart, does a remarkably professional job. Musical Direction by Elizabeth Dunlop.
Partners in crime Todd and Lovett are compellingly played by Les Cannon and Ashley-Marie Stone. His granite determination, her slatternly guile make an effective pair. His powerful Epiphany [chorus boldly placed to face upstage] is followed by the deliciously tasteless A Little Priest, both performed with flair and gruesome gusto.
Joining them in the dangerous streets of Victorian London is a fine company of singing actors: Scott Roche as the Beadle – superb at the harmonium – Declan Wright as the fresh-faced matelot, Maddy Lahna in excellent voice as his Johanna, Paul Alton mortifying the flesh as the evil Judge and Oliver Mills making a most promising SODS début as young Tobias – his Not While I'm Around with Lovett very touchingly put over, and an athletic turn in the Miracle Elixir sequence.
Occasionally we might wish for a better range, more sustained tone, but vocal shortcomings are usually made up for by the dramatic delivery, and the stunning staging.
The lofty set, with its staircases and its upper room, works well. After the interval, Mrs Lovett's new-found commercial success brings her a makeover, the signage is changed, and the new barber's chair is delivered. It looks damned awkward to manipulate, and the stunt razors don't always do as bloody a job as they might. But there are plenty of magnificent moments – Barker's wife in flashback, the Beggar Woman [Laura Mann] recognizing the room and remembering her baby girl, the pile of corpses, the bodies down the pit.
The sound design is bright, meaning that almost every word is audible, though at the expense of some light and shade. The lighting too, though brilliantly effective, could have been more subtle, with more gloomy corners to match the mood of the melodrama.
Despite one or two longueurs, this assured production is a Sweeney Todd to relish, for Sondheim's haunting score, the tale's black humour, and the brooding, burning presence of the Demon Barber.

Friday, November 13, 2015



Chelmsford Young Gen at the Civic Theatre


A stunning Sixties look – candy colours and big hair – and seriously inspired performances make this welcome revival a most entertaining evening out.
Jeremy Tustin's lively production does not overplay the social comment card - “negroes and chubby girls buy hairspray too” just about sums it up – but makes the most of the all-singing all-dancing numbers like the iconic You Can't Stop The Beat.
Not quite colour-blind casting, though we did enjoy an effervescent Paul French as Seaweed, son of the larger-than-life Afrotastic Miss Maybelle [Carmel Adekunle, outstanding in her big numbers].
A traditional Edna from Samuel Wolstenholme, stepping into Michael Ball's court shoes as the plus-size laundress. A memorable turn – his duet with Jack Toland's Wilbur, which they seem to enjoy as much as we do, that's to say hugely, is worth the ticket price alone.
Tracy Turnbull, the “pleasantly plump” teenager who takes on the prejudices of prime-time station WZZT, is given a wonderfully warm characterization by Amy Hollingsworth. There's not a weak performer anywhere on this crowded stage; the company ensemble is excellent, as are the Dynamites and the male backing group for It Takes Two, Tracy's duet with the tv heartthrob Link Larkin [Jack Martyn]. The choreography is inventively nifty – there's even a touch of tap.

Turn that racket down, I'm trying to iron in here !” yells Edna from the side of the stage. Hard not to sympathise, since the vocalists often fight a losing battle with Bryan Cass's excellent pit band. A real shame, since the lyrics carry the message behind the infectious pastiche of the music.

production photographs by Barrie White-Miller


Made in Colchester at the Mercury Studio, Colchester

for The Reviews Hub

What is the dramatist to say about war ? 
From Shakespeare to R C Sherriff, playwrights have tried to convey the reality of combat. In our own lifetime, pieces like Not About Heroes and Our Boys have looked at the psychological aftermath of conflict.
Sandi Toksvig's powerful play, first seen in 2011, explores all these areas, while also examining the shifting relationship between two very different soldiers. Both of them have their demons, dark places in their past …
All the action is set in the heat and dust of a blind courtyard. James Catterill's substantial set [in the newly re-appointed Mercury Studio] has stones seemingly raining down behind metal grilles, basic benches. And body bags.
At first it seems as if this will be a simple investigation. A civilian boy has been killed in the Middle East. The major confronts the private, interrogates him about the incident, and the involvement of his sergeant, and his mates, the self-styled Bully Boys.
Eddie is a simple squaddie, joined up at sixteen, still only twenty years old. Oscar is older, a Falklands veteran, now a wheel-chair user. Eddie is casually racist. Stamps out the life of a spider. Oscar is more complex, sensitive and intelligent.
But then Eddie saves Oscar's life when their convoy is ambushed, and Eddie's mates are killed. Four “empty boxes” flown home to grieving families.
Dan Sherer's production brings out the differences and the common ground in the lives of these two victims of war. Sharing a bench, Oscar reading his book, Eddie playing a handheld computer game. Sharing a Scotch, climbing together to the top of Pendle Hill.
We discover a little more about Oscar's background – once desperate to be a dancer, he can no longer dance, nor even hear the music. One of the young boy's mystical appearances sees Oscar pirouetting to Pagliacci. And a little more about the boy from Burnley and the roots of his anger and his guilt.
There are some strikingly surreal moments – the relationship itself is improbable, though never feels so. And Toksvig makes sure we have plenty to think about in this 90-minute piece. The Falklands conflict has lost more lives to suicide than to death in combat. The soldiers we send across the world to fight our wars are often remarkably reluctant to fire at the enemy. And those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder often struggle to find the support they so desperately need. [Eddie seems failed both by the Priory and by ECT ...]
The two actors who bring this odd couple to life in this intimate arena are Josh Collins, fresh out of RADA, who captures the latent humour of the lad from Lancashire, as well as his inarticulate frustration. Fiercely defending his mates and the maverick Sgt. Payne, losing his mind - “away with the hills” - as Oscar has lost the use of his legs. Andrew French is the Red Beret Major, a man with secrets of his own, in a beautifully moderated performance. Pouring himself an elegant glass of wine, collapsing into the dust with a howl of frustration. We get to know, and like, them both as their stories unfold and their uneasy relationship grows amid the banter and the questions. The boy, Omar, also of course a victim of the conflict, is shared between Benedict Cable and Austin Humphreys.
The solo cello underlines the loneliness; the words conjure graphic pictures: the aftermath of the ambush, the boy running along the roof of the moving train, his world of war forgotten for a fleeting moment.

production photograph by Robert Day

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


National Theatre at the Dorfman
It's easy to parody the kind of gloomy Black Country working-class angst that makes up Lawrence's three plays from a century ago.
Here, they are interwoven ingeniously by Ben Power, played out in three houses packed in to the Dorfman stage, and delineated by architect plans. This geometrical design, and the floor projections, recall other work in this space, also directed by Marianne Elliott.
The coal mine is a constant presence, with rumblings and light from beneath. Women are routinely abused by black-dusted brutes, bread is burned, crockery broken, pricey prints consigned to the fire. The design [by Bunny Christie] is wonderfully evocative, and there are countless memorable stage pictures, notably the three wives standing on the tables of the three houses as the menfolk march through to the pit.
Superb acting all round, though the dialect does prove a challenge at times. Despite the title, this is really about the womenfolk – Lawrence himself appears in the guise of bookish Ernest [Johnny Gibbon]. The action is centred around the kitchens and sculleries [with an effective mix of mime and props as fires are stoked, kettles filled, pots washed]. Anne-Marie Duff is Lizzie Holroyd, trapped in a violent marriage to alcoholic Charlie [Martin Marquez]. Louise Brealy is newly-wed Minnie, Susan Brown excellent as her meddling matriarch of a mother-in-law.

It’s risky work, handlin’ men, my lass. For when a woman builds ’er life on men, either ’usbands or sons, she builds on summat as sooner or later brings the ’ouse down crash on ’er head – yi, she does.


Nation Theatre at the Lyttleton


“I'm angry . . .just angry at the waste of a good man. Look at the work undone . .. think of it! Who is to do it! Oh . . the waste . . . !”

Thus Walter Kent [Hubert Burton], secretary to Henry Trebell, as the curtain falls on Harvey Granville Barker's Waste, famously banned by the Edwardians.
Roger Michell's revival at the National is respectful and admirably acted. But the scandal and the political intrigue feel, if not irrelevant, then a little remote, the pre-occupations of another age.
Charles Edwards gives a cool, composed Trebell. He is a career politician “in love” with his parliamentary bill, seeking, a little like Wolsey, to use church property for educational ends. Olivia Williams is excellent as Amy O'Connell, with whom he flirts under a massive moon, the only glimpse of the natural world the production affords. Their ill-fated liaison drives the personal and political tragedy. Much of the “action” however, consists of gentlemen talking, notably at the start of Act Two, gathered at a round table, the only relief a kind of musical chairs. Closest to the style Barker would recognise are Michael Elwyn as the pragmatic Prime Minister Horsham and Gerrard McArthur, sporting magnificent spats, as the Catholic grandee Cantilupe. Sylvestra Le Touzel, as Henry's sister Frances, and Lucy Robinson [pictured] as Julia Farrant, give some much needed depth of feeling to the piece.
Hildegard Bechtler's sparsely furnished set, off white walls, high gloss flooring and wooden chairs and tables, uses massive screens both horizontal and vertical as scene tabs, making the epic piece as satisfying visually as it is intellectually or emotionally.

production photograph: Johan Persson