Monday, May 30, 2016


Passion in Practice at The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Not a diary in the modern sense. A business day-book, perhaps. And this entertainment does not confine itself to the commercial jottings of the great theatre manager, proprietor of the Rose and the Fortune.
We meet his son-in-law, Edward Alleyn the actor, writing home to Joan while he is away touring with Lord Strange's Men. Peter Street, theatre builder, Moll Cutpurse, roaring girl, Simon Forman, medic and astrologer. All brought to life in their own words, spoken, as far as we can guess, in their own accent.
But centre stage, in a bravura performance, is the man himself, celebrated this year along with his acquaintance, and rival, W.S. “the other feller”. In Will Sutton's wickedly enjoyable characterization, we see him shelling out for a new script – from £3 – and for “Street's dinner and mine” - from 6d; he enthusiastically promotes bear-baiting, and is keen to make money however he can. But he's far from the illiterate rogue of popular imagination, and despite the stress, is a keen man of the theatre. And, almost certainly, once owned the land on which we sit.
Much of this all-too-brief candlelit concoction is improvised, and the word-of-mouth evidence is fleshed out and explained by the uniquely fascinating team of David and Ben Crystal.

Like last week's Faustus, it would certainly bear repeating in the even more appropriate, if less atmospheric, arena of Henslowe's own Rose, just yards away from the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Sunday, May 29, 2016



Made in Colchester at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester

for The Reviews Hub

“Quite amusing. A bit dated.”
Soundbite in the rush to the bar after Act Two. Possibly the same gentleman who was gently snoring during the quieter Deauville scenes. I hope he stayed (awake) to see stuffy, "I'm glad I'm normal", Prynne kissed unexpectedly on the lips ...
Despite its eighty-six years, “dated” is one criticism that hardly applies to Private Lives, especially in this lively, stylish production by Esther Richardson. She brings a freshness and a physical energy to the characters, especially the women. Olivia Onyehara's elegant Sybil, for instance, is speechless with delight as she emerges onto the balcony at the top of the show. And speechless with rage and frustration in the Paris flat at the start of Act Three. The fights are very imaginatively staged: a lovely silence before the food starts to fly, and a perfect pillow fight before the shadows on the door announce the arrival of the abandoned other halves and the interval. The cream leather sofa in the appartement is creatively used. The re-united lovers spectate from it in the final moments, before packing (their shadows on the frosted glass of the bedroom door) and escaping with one last incredulous look from the doorway.
Mandy and Elly, “idiotic schoolchildren”, are beautifully done by  Krissi Bohn, a meticulously well-spoken Amanda in some superb fashion-plate frocks (”a beautiful advertisement for something”), and Pete Ashmore, slightly less clipped and acid than some Elyots, occasionally losing diction in moments of rage, but a very credible character even today. Their scenes together are magic – the hotel orchestra signals a wonderful change of mood at the end of Act One, where the “round the world” exchange is charged with barely repressed emotion.
Robin Kingsland makes a convincing, staid Victor, “the pompous ass” whom Amanda has just unwisely wed. His blustery sparring with Elyot especially memorable.
Mercury favourite Christine Absalom makes a meal of two quite inconsequential moments as Louise, the maid, mining every carat of comedy gold from her head-cold, her brioche and her tea-trolley. Rewarded with an old-fashioned round on her exit.
Sara Perks has designed a stunning multi-level Paris flat, with baby grand, double bed and bear-skin rug. It's concealed for the first act by diaphanous drapes suggesting the Deauville hotel – seagulls and lapping waves, lacking only a hint of ozone ruffling the organza.
A few deft cuts – the rodent Tiller Girls amongst the casualties – keep the action moving in this sparkling, hugely enjoyable revival of Coward's ageless comedy of manners.

production photograph by Robert Day

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at The Old Court Theatre

Take me to the distant past; I want to go back...” Everything Everything. Pre-show music for our hero, perhaps, a rock-star rake who ends up wondering how he fetched up here – in debt and in disgrace, too famous to live a normal life.
Fame as Faustian pact, rock god losing it; they're not exactly original ideas, and this play, a 2014 work from Simon [Curious Incident] Stephens sometimes loses its way. But it's given a bold, in-yer-face outing by CTW, on a thrust stage, dramatically lit, with a suggestion of an arena rig behind the action. White noise, not rock music, links the many scenes.
Paul, fronting a 200-gig tour with crowds of 50,000, is not a sympathetic character, with his mood swings and his ocular cocaine habit. Insecure, lacking any inhibition, he comes across as repellent, cruel, soul-less and egocentric. We never hear him sing, and look in vain for the charisma that attracts his fans. He's given a typically gripping performance by James Christie: his confession to his old friend and musical partner Johnny [Tom Tull, in a nicely grounded performance] is painful to watch – especially so close-up – as he begins to crack under the pressure. Effective duologues with David his agent and his impecunious father, and a demanding tour-de-force, though perhaps too articulate for this offensive, foul-mouthed bully.
Laura Bradley shines as the star-struck mathematician Jenny who finally turns on her hero. Jennifer Burchett is excellent as the tragic Marnie, as well as Marnie's mum and Nicola the groupie. Jade Flack makes the most of the expat interviewer and other characters, including one of the Babylon whores whose surreal interrogation of the singer is perhaps an early sign of his breakdown. Echoed in Act Two by the aggressive questioning in the nick.
Ian Willingham paints an impressive gallery of characters: the agent, Paul's old dad, the maecenas who likes Halliday …

Birdland is directed for CTW by Ian Willingham and Danny Segeth.


Passion in Practice at The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse


Marlowe's mighty line rang new-minted around the candlelit Playhouse, in an eloquent, pocket-sized production by Passion in Practice.
A candle burns on Faustus' simple table, a bowl, a bottle at the front of the stage. And books scattered everywhere. The action begins with Marlowe himself, perhaps, in the person of the learned doctor, composing the “thousand ships” piece [cf Shakespeare in Love] before scrumpling the parchment and throwing it to the floor. Later, with a couple of quills, it makes an improvised dragon, a typically inventive touch. Helen's face is confined to a flimsy postcard, just like the prospects of Paris, Naples and the rest, seen from the soaring creature's back.
Aslam Husain makes a human, often humorous, “man that in his studio sits”, without losing any of the intensity. At the end, he vows to burn his books, and walks upstage to hell with a quiet, determined acceptance of his fate. The pact with the devil is brilliantly done.
Emma Pallant – a super Beatrice on tour a couple of years ago – is an equally intense Mephistophilis - “Why this is hell ...” chillingly done. A very youthful Lucifer from Alex Boxall, and Jennifer Jackson completing the cast. They are also, inter alia, Valdes and Cornelius, and, tellingly, the students in the final scene.
Improvised music helps the ambience, and the Original Pronunciation [Ben and David Crystal] brings extra energy to the relentless rhythm of the lines.

Saturday, May 21, 2016


Writtle Cards at the Village Hall

Another appointment at Miss Truvy's Louisiana beauty shop, nicely tricked out in Writtle Cards' production, with a credible logo, beauty paraphernalia courtesy of Mack Hairdressers, and pink gingham tabards for the entire staff: Deb Sparshott's charming proprietress, a performance oozing period style, and new girl Annelle [Leila Francis] who loses her way and finds religion.
The Southern drawl was mostly very convincing, at least to a Limey ear; most successful were Truvy herself, and Louise Burtenshaw's sassy Shelby – one of the best I've seen, taking us with her on her emotional journey from her “blush and bashful” wedding through her rite of passage crop to her final exit.
She's absent, of course, from the closing scene – black clad, accessorized in pink – in which her distraught mother M'Lynn [a lovely performance from Sharon Goodwin] makes a heart-breaking big speech, movingly supported by the listening faces of the four ladies in the salon.
The one-liners are largely in the safe hands of Jean Speller's grumpy Ouiser and Paulette Harris's superb smart-mouthed recipe queen Clairee, resplendent in her Victoria-plum velours, harvesting the laughs with a knowing glance and a nifty inflection.
Slim Whitman and Jimmy Dean on Shelby's transistor radio, and Patsy Cline's That Wonderful Someone for the Chinquapin baptists. Steel Magnolias was produced by Daniel Curley, with Liz Curley in the director's chair.

Thursday, May 19, 2016


Horizons Performing Company at the Brentwood Theatre


Lorca's Spain is light years away from 21st century Havering. A bold choice, then, for these drama students, and an impressive attempt at a classic of European theatre.

Julia Stallard's production is pared-back, and very stylish. Black drapes, black costumes, with an occasional, eye-catching splash of colour – the bowl of fruit, the wool, the scarlet shawls. The young actors have learnt the power of stillness, of significant pauses. There is an inner strength in Leah Rowlands' Mother, for example. Words are weighed, souls searched.

It's the poetical text that presents the biggest challenge here – not sure whose translation this is; not, I think, the Tanya Ronder or the Ted Hughes. Sometimes passions have more shrillness than strength. Sam Fava's Leonardo seems the most comfortable with the spoken word – a fine, intense performance. Sophie Honeywell gives a lively characterization, now shy, now feisty, of the young bride who leaves her new husband [Ben Antoniades] to ride off with her lover. A strong presence from Jessica Ravate as La Criada, the servant who tells the Bride of Leonardo's attentions. Good work too from Callum Cresswell as the Father of the Bride, and Rebecca Lawrence, stepping in to the role of Leonardo’s reserved, poised wife at just eight days' notice. Louisa Collins-Farrow plays her mother, as well as one of the Greek chorus Woodcutters.

The later scenes leave naturalism behind, with Moon [Gvidas Milinkis] and Beggarwoman [Lucy Mason] witnesses to the distant tragedy. It's the stage pictures, often imaginatively lit, which stay in the mind – the blood red moon, the bearers and the biers, the double portrait with gifts – and the contrasts: closeness amid the decorous distance, like the two profiles in a rare moment of intimacy, or spontaneity, such as the girls' greeting, amid the solemn formality.

Sunday, May 15, 2016


Heady Conduct Theatre at The Rose Playhouse, Bankside


Stripped-down Shakespeare, shorn of background and the bigger picture, but telling the moral fable clearly and accessibly.
The stage itself is uncluttered, with just a wooden chest for the borrowed habit. But above, devotional pictures lit by real candles, and, across the water, one of the best shoreline scenes I've seen in this unique performance space – Amy Harris and co-director Rebecca Rogers the designers. Reflecting the religiose imagery, we see Mariana's marriage and the bed-trick in dumb-show, and more substantial dialogue scenes too. Not a word lost, either; the switch from close-up to distant shore impressively handled, enhanced by excellent soundscape and music [Jack Sugden].
Much is lost, of course. It's still not dark when we emerge into Bankside – 90 minutes exactly. Pompey and Overdone amongst the casualties, partly compensated by a comedy [uncanonical] prologue, some business with an unsuspecting whore in the front row, and paper flags to wave for the Duke's return.
Engaging performances from six young players, including director Simon Rodda as the loose-tongued Lucio. Matthew Darcy is Vincentio, eavesdropping from the audience, and particularly effective in the closing scenes where he calls the shots; Luke de Belder the confused, miserable Claudio. Gemma Clough plays the prison provost, the nun Francisca as well as the wronged Mariana. Blake Kubena is “hard Angelo”. His soliloquies are natural, involving, even if, perhaps because of pruning, the melting of moral rectitude is not fully explored. His scenes with Rebecca Rogers' earnest, virtuous novice Isabella are compelling, vocally and physically. “Who will believe thee, Isabel?”, he snarls – the refrain of the abuser over the centuries.
The approach to the text is contemporary and fresh – non-verbal communication very twenty-first century. Verbal, too, on occasion - “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” the cynical response to Angelo's apology.

Comedy and accessibility to the fore in this successful, succinct short Measure.

photos: Heady Conduct Theatre

Friday, May 13, 2016


New Venture Players at the Brentwood Theatre


Steve Gooch's documentary play – first staged over forty years ago at the Half Moon Theatre – takes a realistic look at the lives of women deported to Australia in the early 1800s.
It's a strong premise for drama – think Our Country's Good – with six very different women confined below decks in a cramped cell. Foul air, foul language and brutal floggings.
As Nance [Lin Pollitt] caustically remarks: “... marvellous, the pairin' off in 'ere. There's Madam Lesbos and the late Prime Minister in one corner, Elizabeth Fry an' the vomitin' soldier in the other, an' I'm stuck with labourin' 'Ercules here. 'Oo shuffled this pack?
Sometimes the historical detail impedes the dramatic impact, but there are some violent clashes, and just enough development to keep the audience interested. And the central image is clear – women exploited by the corrupt men above them.
Neatly underlined by the excellent setting, the captain's quarters aloft, and Cell 17 in the hold [there are over one hundred women on board – three of them will never see land again]. Effective lighting, with oil lamps overhead. And convincing character studies from the company, including Pollitt's potato-stealing radical, and Sara Thompson's fiery, brash Charlotte.
Sophie Howlett brings a tender pathos to Pitty, clutching her rag doll, protected by Laura Fava's intense Madge. Hilary Andrews plays Win, “matron” of the cell; Lorna Fassenfelt is the sea-sick Sarah, who develops a touching relationship with the boy Tommy [Danny Hemmings].
Two ruthless, grasping men, both convincingly played here, make life difficult for the convicts: Barry Howlett's brutal Sarge and Melvyn Freake's callous Captain, refusing to take on fresh supplies at Cape Town because it would dent his profits.
These women – petty criminals, prostitutes, political agitators - find strength and support in their enforced companionship. They've a kettle for a brew-up in their quarters, a library and a surgeon [Tim Murphy] on board. And at the end, fashioning sun hats from pillow-cases, they walk down the gang-plank singing, with something approaching optimism.

Vernon Keeble-Watson's impressively imaginative production opens a window onto a barbaric, shameful episode in our not-too-distant past. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016



Trinity Methodist Music and Drama at the Civic Theatre


A real treat to have an actor/musician in the title role. Carrie Penn is a frequent presence in Eric Smart's heart-warming production: a silent witness on the side of the stage, perched on the milk cart, or reaching out a comforting hand to Tevye,

Another delight was the chorus: a real sense of the peasant community here, in the Sabbath Prayer, in Sunrise, Sunset, and, after a shaky start, in Lo Chaim.
Though the scene changes were bridged by music cues, they were all done under cover of darkness, and things generally seemed a little slow on opening night.

Plenty of good performances from the principals. David Slater, fighting “a stinking cold”, gave a larger-than-life Tevye, a good father, a good neighbour, talking with his God, chary of his wife Golde [Catherine Gregory]. His three elder daughters were all splendidly sung – and acted – by Beth Elam as Tzeitel, Emily Delves as Hodel – Far from the Home I Love wonderfully performed – and Nicola Myers as the bookish Chava.
Aaron Crowe was an engaging, eager Motel the Tailor, William Micklewright was Perchik, the stranger in a strange land, and Adam Pomozow brought a touch of authenticity to Fyedka, the gentile whom Chava loves.
And a lovely comedy cameo from Pat Hollingsworth as Yente the Matchmaker. Not to mention the sterling work from Shandel, Fruma-Sarah, the Butcher, the Bookseller, the Innkeeper and the Beggar.
But it's the ensembles that will stay in the mind, from Tradition to Anatevka and the emotional company encore at the end.
Julie Slater was the choreographer, Gerald Hindes the Musical Director, with an impressive band in the Civic pit, including two trumpets, an accordion and a mandolin.

photographs by Val Scott

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Tomorrow's Talent at The Queen's Theatre Hornchurch

James Graham – whose This House won huge acclaim a few years ago – has written an intense drama for NT Connections. This is Wootton Bassett, famous for the repatriation processions which brought our boys back in coffins from the Middle East.
Today, students of Wootton Bassett School should be saluting Charlie, one of their own, another casualty of the Iraq war. Head Boy, hero, idol, Danny Zuko in the high school musical. But they are locked in their classroom, abandoned by a supply teacher at the end of her tether.
The tensions mount, beliefs are questioned, secrets revealed as the live feed is projected from Graeme's [Matthew Hockley] laptop. It's a powerful piece, if lacking in subtlety. Written for a cast of 14, where perhaps ten would have made for a tighter drama.
Directors Gavin Wilkinson and Amy Trigg shape the scene skilfully; the fears, the friendships and the dangerously volatile atmosphere are reflected in the groupings and the stage pictures.
Excellent performances all round: Kelly, outspoken and self-assured, is played by Holly Hosler-White. Academic, pedantic Jonathon by Samuel Wolstenholme. Selfish [supply and demand] Russell is convincingly portrayed by Christopher Tierney, Lucy, breaking her silence to trigger the dramatic dénouement, by Hannah Gurling.
A tremendous performance from Dominic Short as Leo, spray cans and baseball bat in his school bag, who's revealed as a racist, homophobic bully. His confrontations with Amid, the only Muslim in the school [Paul French], are electric. And just before we hear the key turn in the lock of the classroom door, he stands centre stage, reaching out to Charlie's coffin on the screen, as Spencer [Scott Olley], who's spent the entire time with his face to the wall, reads more history from Wikipedia, hesitantly praising Great Britain for standing up to the Axis bullies.
No easy answers in this Citizenship class. The students are forced to confront their tribal beliefs, to question the politics that has sacrificed the lives behind the “repats”.

This evening at the Queen's – partner theatre for the National Theatre's Connections500 – also featured Felsted Theatre Company, directed by Lauren Macey, in Stacey Gregg's I'm Spilling My Heart Out Here, which, like her Perve of 2011, deals with the loss of innocence. “What happened to childhood? - The internet.”

Monday, May 09, 2016


at Shakespeare's Globe


Shakespeare's text cut and “improved”. Extraneous songs and dances making for a long evening.
No, not Emma Rice's “Wonder” Dream but Purcell's “Restoration Spectacular” The Fairy Queen, first staged in London more than 300 years ago. Nothing new under the watery moon.
Very much a calling-card production from Rice, taking the helm at Shakespeare's Globe following two decades from Rylance and Dromgoole.
A lacy metal forest outside the building. “WONDER” in lights over one of the merchandise carts. And inside, huge white balloons fill the sky, and semi-transparent green tree-trunks hang down into the yard.
Over the doors, two tech desks, signalling another departure: amplification and lighting effects. Of course, as is often argued, Shakespeare would have used them had they been available. But they weren't, and he didn't. And certainly not in this space, designed for a very different style.
Rock the Ground” - a quote from Act Four – in neon at the back of the stage. A lengthy, uncanonical, but very funny prologue introduces the Globe Stewards who will become the rude mechanicals. Rita Quince and her crew, with Health and Safety Officer Nick Bottom the only man.
We're a long way from Warwickshire. In a weird Grexit, Athens is expunged, and the woods given a local habitation and a name – London, Bankside, Hoxton. Hipsters weeds are the lovers' choice: no longer two of each kind, since one of the couples is gay.
The feel is of an Indian wedding – Tanika Gupta the dramaturg here – and sitar music underscores much of the action. The songs – sometimes settings of Shakespeare's verse – range wider, with George Formby and David Bowie sharing the bill.
The rough magic of the Fairies is energetic, with much choreography. They are Tudor-clad, but it is dressing-up, since Katy Owen's engagingly nimble Puck has flashing trainers and a day-glo water pistol, and Zubin Varla's menacing Oberon swigs from a plastic bottle of cheap cider.
Lots of laughs, though not all of them are Shakespeare's doing. Mixed fortunes for the text - “you ugly bitch” is not a modern equivalent of Lysander's cruel but witty put-down. Meow-Meow's Titania delivers the nine-men's-morris speech movingly; Ankur Bahl's Helenus has a lovely soliloquy in the first scene.
The Pyramus and Thisbe sequence benefits from being trimmed, and is very amusingly done by the mechanicals with Rita Quince at the keyboard.
But as “Jill will have Jack / No looking back” is warbled as the play closes, it suddenly seems a “long age of three hours”.

I'm not sure I'm one of the “purists” and “traditionalists” whose reservations many reviews have airily dismissed. I've seen, and loved, some radical Dreams in my time: lesbian lovers, a boarding school, early Hollywood. But I found it hard to warm to this lively, loud staging, full of tricks and ideas, which seems to be aimed especially at people who don't really get Shakespeare. Of whom, unless she has been seriously misrepresented by the media, Emma Rice is one. Meant, surely, as a celebration of this place, in this anniversary year, it comes across as apologetic and patronising: you'll like this play better if we sugar the pill with gimmicks and jokes. Let's hope that the new audiences it brings in will stay for what looks like a varied season, finishing with a revival of last year's Merchant of Venice.

Thursday, May 05, 2016


Leigh Operatic and Dramatic Society at the Palace Theatre Westcliff

The Essex première for Made in Dagenham, the Musical. And haven't LODS done the county proud! High production values, from the design to the orchestra to the professional-looking programme.
It's the uplifting tale of the archetypal Essex girls who take on the might of Ford America and the MCPs of the TUC to win their battle for equal pay. Following in the footsteps of Billy Elliot and The Full Monty, it's an unsubtle, manipulative show, redeemed by Richard Bean's engaging book and Richard Thomas's witty lyrics. And here, by an energetic, polished production on the Palace stage.
Helen Sharpe gets some wonderful performances from a strong cast, especially of course the women of the sewing machine room at Ford's.
Laura Hurrell is a wonderful Rita O'Grady, the strong, if initially reluctant, spokeswoman for the group. We see her domestic life almost wrecked by the strike; Hurrell manages to convince both as an ordinary working-class woman and a heroine of the industrial relations struggle for equality. Not to mention selling some of the best numbers in David Arnold's patchy score. Amongst the other broad-brush characters are Kathy Ward's inarticulate Clare [her “Wossname” number is a delight] and Emma Elliot's dolly bird Sandra. Sarah Gallucci brings pathos as well as personality to union convenor Connie, and Jo Whitnell is excellent value as big Beryl, potty-mouthed and incorrigibly outspoken.
Anthony Bristoe is a sympathetically conflicted husband, a New Man in the making, perhaps.
The men have to do a good deal of doubling in this show, so Monty, the Union Man, is convincingly done by Simon Sharpe, who's also the gross club comic Chubby Chuff. Barry Jones has three roles, including a slightly camp Harold Wilson, superb in his number with the trio of Civil Servants. Hard-hearted, hard-nosed US boss Tooley is powerfully played by Lewis Sheldrake, who's also the boy Barry, target of some fruity banter from the women. And Peter Brown works hard in multiple roles, including Latin teacher Mr Buckton, part of a plot device which brings together Rita and Zoe Berry's Lisa, middle-class feminist wife of Ford UK boss Hopkins [Neil Lands]. It involves a protest against corporal punishment in school. Unthinkable now, of course. If only equality had been so thoroughly won.
1968, year of revolution, is compellingly recalled. In the musical idiom of some of the better numbers - “This Is What We Want” for example - and in the settings – the Social Club and the Berni Inn.
Paul Ward's set is minimal – impressive sewing machines, less impressive Cortina – I liked the way the O'Grady's home was set before the overture: kitchen sink, ironing board, lunchbox, Weetabix. Outstanding digital graphics by Andrew Seal – the orange domestic décor, the Dagenham plant – make the many changes of scene simple and dynamic.
Stunning staging of some of the big numbers - choreography by Michelle Taylor – the title song, and the rousing anthems that end each act: Everybody Out and Stand Up.
Rachael Plunkett is the Musical Director, and she's part of the great pit band under the baton of Stuart Woolner.


at the Phoenix Theatre


A national tour on the road, and at the Phoenix on Charing Cross Road another change of cast.
No disappointments here, though; the show seems just as fresh as it did in Chichester. The drunken brawl, Luck Be A Lady, and a brilliant transition from hanging noose to Havanah and Carlos Acosta's showy choreography.
An excellently pairing of Samantha Spiro, consistently entertaining as Miss Adelaide, a priceless Dietrich-inspired débutante, and Broadway veteran Richard Kind as good old reliable Nathan. A fine Nicely Nicely from Gavin Spokes, a Savoy cast survivor. The lovers are Siubhan Harrison's severely pious Miss Sarah and Oliver Tompsett's superbly sung Sky.
Good to see the splendid Jason Pennycooke as Benny Southstreet – his title number with Spokes eliciting a well-deserved Bravo! from the back of the stalls.

Sunday, May 01, 2016


Vamos Theatre at the Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford

for The Reviews Hub

Masks are a very ancient theatrical tradition. Today, that tradition is kept alive by Vamos “the UK's leading full mask theatre company”.
This bittersweet tale of the permissive society, social stigma and a love-child lost is brilliantly brought to life by four performers and many more masks.
The scenery – designer Carl Davies - is skewed, fun and bright – not unlike the show itself, which despite the tragic theme retains a lightness of touch and a veneer of nostalgia which helps to sugar the pill.
Susan, child of the 60s – Georgie Girl and Shout! on the soundtrack – reads Lady C, gets her hair bobbed and her clothes Quant-ified, drags boyfriend Dennis away from the World Cup to make clumsy love in the light-box bedroom. Their baby is given up for adoption, on her dad's insistence, it would seem. He offers her a Beatles LP by way of compensation. Young Dennis would love to be a father, but Susan has walked out of his life, her contact with her daughter Lisa is limited to letters and birthday cards, never sent. Ingeniously, and movingly, the action is framed and fleshed out by Susan's funeral, and the reunion of Lisa and her grandfather.
There are some terrific set-pieces: the three women in the hairdressers, the three students at the typing school, the three mothers in the labour ward. The use of body language is impressive. It is amazing how much can be conveyed without words, or facial expression. Although, weirdly, the features of Russell Dean's wide-eyed masks do seem to alter according to our expectations of the characters' moods – exasperated or affectionate, imploring or severe.
The audience does have to do some of the work, of course. Interestingly, the teenage girls in the row in front struggled a little with the form - “It's not the same without speech...” and felt the need to explain the plot to each other, in discreet whispers, as it developed.
Rachael Savage's piece is an unusual approach to a largely forgotten piece of social history – a period well within living memory when many young women lost their babies to adoption simply because they were born out of wedlock.
It is beautifully, sensitively brought to life by the four actors: Richard J. Fletcher, Marissa Gunter, Sarah Hawkins and Angela Laverick. The original music by Janie Armour, and the vintage sounds of Donizetti and the Swinging Sixties, together with the décor and fashions of the age, set it firmly in period. Mask means that much more doubling can be done, and it also means that the work is equally accessible to speakers of any language, and to deaf and hearing audiences alike.


The Original Theatre Company and the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester
for The Reviews Hub

Social class is at the heart of much British comedy. Ayckbourn, in particular, is master of the awkwardness, the inferiority complex, the snobbishness and the culture clash.
Torben Betts' play mines much the same seams. A bourgeois couple have downsized, thanks to the recession, from London to the terra incognita of the North. He's a redundant civil servant; she's a Buddhist, Marxist artist. Seeking to integrate into their new milieu, they invite a couple of neighbours round for drinks. She's a perma-tanned dental receptionist; he's a pot-bellied postman. And the scene is set for excruciating misunderstandings and increasingly heated exchanges of views. As, for instance, when anti-Blair Emily attacks the politicians who risk the lives of “misguided, ignorant” troops in foreign wars, only to find that Alan and Dawn are patriots, 110% behind our boys, not least because they have a personal link to the conflict. Or when Alan seeks Emily's expert view of his paintings.
They're stereotypes, of course, but beneath the clichés lie substantial back-stories, and it is these which will drive the second act into darker, more tragic territory.
Two events occur almost as soon as they arrive. A confessional moment sees them confused in a gloriously awful misunderstanding, beautifully handled in the writing, and in the performance here.
And this is the turning point, when deeper feelings come to the surface and the personal, and political, divide widens between the middle class, who will survive despite everything, and the “real people” whose lives are destroyed.
A fine quartet give rock solid, pin sharp performances.
Graeme Brookes is the boorish, boring Alan. He makes him a sympathetic character, despite his many faults. His great loves are his paintings, his cat Vince [for HMS Invincible, hence the play's title] and his glamorous wife Dawn [Kerry Bennett]. All of them taken from him by the new couple next door. Oliver, cricketer and civil servant is played by Alastair Whatley as a wet liberal who cannot share the socialist passions of his “highly strung” partner, beautifully characterized by Emily Bowker.
Christopher Harper's production skilfully suggests these two couples who speak without listening, whose relationships have become tired. The groupings for the many confrontations are brilliantly appropriate. The scenes, some of them quite short, are linked with patriotic airs, from Pomp and Circumstance to Sailing By. The audience are drawn in to these troubled lives, moving from knowing laughter to total involvement.
Victoria Spearing's convincing, lived-in design is introduced by a little model train, travelling through tiny wooden towns on the apron before coming to rest amongst the other toys, to be tidied away before the guests arrive.