Sunday, August 28, 2016



at the Public Hall, Witham


Twenty years ago, as a spin-off from WAOS's Oliver, the Witham Operatic Workshop was born. Their first show, in 1996, was Joseph; their latest, last February, Half A Sixpence.
And in a memorable occasion in the Public Hall, alumni, newbies, fans and families, and the many adult creatives and organizers who have encouraged the youngsters over the years, came together to celebrate their [almost] coming of age in an emotional anniversary concert produced by Graham Green.
Director Rhianna Howard gave us a very varied selection box – remarkably slick, given the circumstances – of musicals both popular and obscure. She joined Faith Rogers for Smash!, from the Marilyn Monroe musical Bombshell. There was an impressive dance number by the Chicago girls, immediately followed by the Bad Guys from Bugsy … “with all the talent we had ...”
Among the stand-out solos: Rosie Goddard singing and acting Andrew Lippa, Elizabetb Johnson giving us Lerner and Loewe. A great tap routine to I Got Rhythm, and as an appetiser for Ben Elton's juke-box We Will Rock You, a crowd-pleasing in-joke by the Backstage Crew [the Gang Show collides with Queen]. Shrek, Avenue Q, Jekyll and Hyde, and of course the timeless classics, Can't Stop the Beat [on these boards in 2012] and One Day More [2009].
The Musical Director was Thomas Duchan; his pit band treated us to wonderfully wide-ranging medleys of musical-theatre melodies, ingeniously arranged by Phil Toms, for the Overture and the Entr'acte - Summer Nights [2014] segue into Our House [2015].

Good to hear Broadway flop Bonnie and Clyde revived; next February another new-ish musical, created in 2009 for Youth Music Theatre UK, James Bourne's Son of Dork show Loserville.

Thursday, August 25, 2016


Antic Disposition
at Gray's Inn Hall

The Reviews Hub

Sir Francis Walsingham, Good Queen Bess's Spymaster, was not amused. Sitting (for his portrait) in the back of the audience, he stared impassively at the frantic antics of the farceurs charging around the ancient hall. The very space, in fact, where Shakespeare's briefest play was first performed, by “a company of base and common fellows” back in 1594.
The rest of the capacity crowd, though, enjoyed this fast-paced and physical musical version of the Comedy of Errors, drawing its inspiration from the 1959 classic Some Like It Hot.
Not the first time it's been given the song and dance treatment, of course, notably in Stratford some forty years ago, and on Broadway before the war.
This new version, directed by Ben Horslen and John Riseboro, with Nick Barstow in charge of the music, is energetically done by a fine team of actor/musicians. The setting is the Bay of Ephesus Hotel in the 20s, with the movable door to “The Phoenix Suite” the only piece of scenery.
Its mafioso owner, Solinus, is deliciously played by Philip Mansfield, who also gives us the hopeless cabaret “conjurer” Doctor Pinch. The hotel's manager – Antipholus of Ephesus – and his bell-hop servant Dromio are the fine comedy duo of Alex Hooper and Keith Higinbotham, their banter during the warm-up a hint of delights to come. It seemed as if Higinbotham's performance would be hard for his twin to match, but Andrew Venning steps smartly up to the mark with his brilliant kitchen wench stand-up routine.
A good pairing too, of Ellie Ann Lowe's long-suffering Adriana and her bespectacled sister Giovanna Ryan, though when things get really lively the shrieking tends to blur the words. Louise Templeton (ukulele) is the nun Emilia, as well as Pinch's glamorous assistant, and the Marilyn Monroe role (the Courtesan of the original) is beautifully taken by Susie Broadbent, singing – how could she not – I Wanna Be Loved By You.
The other Antipholus twin, amusingly confused by his reception in Ephesus, is William de Coverly, and Paul Sloss brings a touch of bling to his camp goldsmith Angelo. Paul Croft has the long exposition as old Egeon – also the smartly uniformed Officer - and Scott Brookes is “Joey Merchant”, Solinus' sinister side-kick.
And they all make up an impressive jazz band, with the sax obbligato in Through With Love a particular highlight. But before the two Dromios touchingly walk off sideways through the doorway and the band take their calls to a final reprise of Running Wild, we have a crazy chase, the hotel changing magically to the chapel, and even a fleeting moment with two men cross-dressed in coats and cloche hats ...

production image: Scott Rylander


Mercury Young Company
at St Martin's Church, Colchester

A memorable Shakespeare from the Mercury Young Company.
The tragedy of the star-crossed lovers is well suited to these teenage actors, and considerably enhanced by a high-concept production in an historic setting.
These walls were old when Shakespeare penned his play; St Martin's was already standing when those two noble households squabbled in Lombardy. Beneath the lively feet of the players, do real families lie in long-forgotten vaults?
The action begins on Capel's Monument, with lilies and the statue of pure gold. Above the heads of the lovers, a cascade of folio pages hangs suspended. There is music – three band stations around the church – and movement, with running, dancing and fighting all around us. We, the groundlings, must move from one acting area to the next, gently propelled by the company. And there are many striking stage pictures – couples casually draped in window recesses, in the chancel, where we do not venture, Juliet is several times silhouetted against the East Window as she is dressed for the ball by her nurse, or scolded by her father. The warring factions, moving apart as the Prologue ends, confront each other across the Nave. Romeo lingers on the monument as Juliet watches him depart … “...thou look'st pale...” Stained glass dapples the ancient wall with colour. There is downlight through the hanging pages, uplight through grilles, smoke too – no doubt it all looks very different in the “mask of night”.
So the emphasis in Filiz Ozcan's, inspired, imaginative staging is not always on the text. The music – MD Matt Marks – has many company members turning their hand to the multiplicity of instruments. There's an accordion, a triangle, a harp for mourning, and percussion sticks for the fighting – very effectively done with wooden “fiddlesticks”, and tiny red petals for the blood.
Despite the acoustic (the sung words are largely lost), the verse is clearly delivered, with excellent performances from many in the large cast. Ivy Dillon is a convincingly naïve Juliet, the dashing Peregrine Maturin-Baird gives a superbly assured Romeo. Freya Leslie makes a bold Mercutio, Alfie Lawrence a fine Tybalt, shrugging off his tunic as he leaves the stage – the costumes cleverly blend ancient and modern. Tom Campe impresses as an eloquent Paris. The smaller parts, too, are often tellingly done: Flavia Ferretti's Balthasar, say, or Sophie Chivers' Ghostly Father, dropping his herbs in astonishment, or Jess Cuthbert's lovely Nurse, amply rewarded for her pains by a generous Romeo.

Production image: Robert Day

Thursday, August 11, 2016



Shakespeare's Globe and the Bolshoi Ballet


Two Shrews on the same day, with little in common save [some] characters and the bare bones of the plot.
The Globe's new production, set in Ireland one hundred years ago, the time of the Easter Rising, seeks to add emancipation to the mix. Stylish costumes in subdued tones; the company's shoes, untenanted, face upstage at the start – they are discarded again before the jig at the end.
Caroline Byrne's production paints a grimly patriarchal world – her Kate – a strong Aoife Duffin - begins as a rough fighter, but ends broken and bowed by Edward MacLian's rudesby Petruchio. The all-Irish cast includes many impressive performances, not least the lively servants – all played by women, including Helen Norton as a lugubrious Grumio, and superb comedy from Imogen Doel and Molly Logan, capturing to perfection the mischievous charm of the boy apprentices. Amy Conroy has a nice double as the Tailor, and the Widow, given a signficant presence throughout the piece.
An Irish band provides an atmospheric underscore.
This is an uncompromising, often darkly violent production, which is a timely reminder that the themes beneath the comedy are still sadly relevant here and now.
A very different Katherine in Jean Christophe Maillot's ballet for the Bolshoi, though she does suffer a wintry journey and a hard bed. But she is subjugated, or seduced, in that same bed, with an agitated Grumio [Georgy Gusev] adjusting the wayward sheets.
Set to a tuneful assortment of Shostakovich – Tahiti Trot for the wedding feast – Maillot's choreography is witty and slick. Impeccably danced by Bolshoi stars Ekaterina Krysanova and Vladislav Lantratov as the Shrew and her tamer, with his shaggy mane and overcoat. Olga Smirnova is a gauche, demure Bianca, with Semyon Chudin as her lover Lucentio – they have a delightful Gadfly pas-de-deux in Act One.

The design, by Ernest Pignon-Ernest – stark, geometric and white, save for Bianca's blue and Kate's green – could well have been done in Shostakovich's lifetime, rather than just two years ago. Another stylish touch is the enigmatic prologue in which the Housekeeper [!?] teasingly trades heels for pointe shoes, warming up as the large orchestra – xylophones and saxes – is tuning up.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016


CTW at the Old Court Theatre

Though it premièred at the Royal Court, Herr Kolpert is a German play [by David Gieselmann, uncredited in the programme]. Which poses problems for the translator [David Tushingham, similarly overlooked]. Do we stick with the Germans, or shift the whole thing to England – Lavenham gets a surprising name-check – on the assumption that Germans are the same as the English apart from the language. Yasmin Reza's work suffers from this dilemma – the solution often seems to be more expletives, and Tushingham tends to go the same way.
Richard Dawes' boldly Absurdist production solves it neatly – the characters are so stylised that we don't worry about nationality, or whether this is a convincing German architect or an English chaos researcher. What tends to get lost, though, is the unsettling suspicion that manic homicidal violence lies dormant under the most normal of outward appearances. But it makes for great entertainment, with plenty of what the director calls “impact”.
His five actors step confidently up to the mark. Tony Ellis is the waspish Ralf, Kelly McGibney his voluptuous lady in red – both deliver their monologues with style. The “entertainment” for their evening in is to be her co-worker Edith – a wonderfully nervy, mousy character from Jennifer Burchett – and her angry architect partner Tom Tull, “a little forthright, sometimes”, a study in furious thunder. And let's not forget the Scottish Pizza Girl – a perfect gum-chewing cameo from Ellie Uragallo.
And what of Kolpert himself, the lift-hopping lothario from Accounts ? Well, that would be giving the game away. But things turn darker once the take-away tiramisu hits the fan, with a gob-smacking guignol dénouement.
Decency? I don't know what that is,” says Edith as this worm begins to turn. Shades of Orton, I thought, one of many dramatic echoes in the piece: Albee, Hitchcock, Tarantino, even Ayckbourn.
Fine performances and imaginative staging make this a dazzling outing for an obscure one-acter, with an eclectic sound-track, a quirky set [brolly and truncheon on the walls] dramatic lighting and a lovely Hawaiian themed curtain call.

production image: Barry Taylor



Chichester Festival Theatre at the Olivier, National Theatre


These three early plays, performed in repertory last year in Chichester, transfer triumphantly to the even vaster arena of the Olivier.
David Hare's brilliant adaptations – Platonov (1880), Ivanov (1887), The Seagull (1897) are directed by Jonathan Kent, whose excellent Gypsy also travelled up from Sussex last year.
This was the first of the all-day Chekhov-fests.
On variations of the original watery set, some breathtaking performances, notably James McArdle, who takes two major roles. He's Platonov, the charismatic “misogyny on wheels“, who can't help attracting women – not unlike Ayckbourn's librarian Norman. A virtuousic performance, with impeccable comic timing. Hamlet is referenced in all three plays, and McArdle handles the soliloquies skilfully, as do many of his fellow performers. He's also Doctor Lvov in Ivanov, forever sanctimoniously pointing out the flaws in the title character – played here by Geoffrey Streatfield, Sam West being committed to the Coward tour.
Most of the other Chichester actors are in place, including Olivia Vinall, outstanding as Sasha and as Nina to Joshua James's Konstantin, fervent evangelist for the “new theatre” in The Seagull. His old-school diva of a mother is inimitably brought to life by Anna Chancellor. Nina Sosanya is Anna Petrovna for Platonov and, touchingly, Ivanov's Jewish wife.
Just the lake and the horizon” - the setting for Konstantin's drama and for ours - wonderfully atmospheric, with interiors rising from the decking.
It rains through the last act of the Seagull. Otherwise, the oppressive heat is a leitmotiv, as is the unfortunate availability of vodka and firearms.
A deserved transfer for this illuminating collection, showing just how Chekhov honed his dramatic art.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016


A New Wolsey Ipswich / Queen's Hornchurch co-production
at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch
for The Reviews Hub

Vintage Fords flock to Hornchurch for the opening of this major revival of the 2014 musical. It's based on the film of a few years earlier, which embroiders the story of the Dagenham machinists' 1968 strike.
Inside the packed auditorium, some of those original activists, as well as a contingent from the New Wolsey Theatre, less than an hour up the A12 by souped-up Cortina. For this is a co-production, transferring to Suffolk after its three weeks on Billet Lane.
As Douglas Rintoul, the Queen's new artistic director says, it's a wonder it took them so long. Both are innovative, energetic producing houses at the heart of their community. His production of this proudly British musical boasts a huge cast of actor/musicians; the story moves smoothly through the upsets and setbacks – emotional and domestic, political and personal – which precede the triumphant TUC climax.
A functional grey industrial set (Hayley Grindle) opens up to reveal the musicians – the men accompany the women's scenes, and vice versa – and to admit the River Plant (so many sewing machines), the Berni Inn and the Hospital. It's all stripped back and simple: props are handed on, the breakfast teapot is popped back in the factory locker, one scene is overlaid on another.
A host of strong, stylish performances. Rita, the fictional “trouble-maker” at the heart of the story, is played with affecting honesty by Daniella Bowen, her man, his mindless masculinity threatened by Rita's new-found political voice, is convincingly done by Alex Tomkins – their duet is touchingly played, and beautifully sung.
But it's the broad-brush comedy characters that make this musical so much fun, and have the best of Richard Bean's uneven script.
Angela Bain gives great value as the pugnacious, potty-mouthed Beryl, Hornchurch regular Sarah Scowen (trumpet) is the lexically-challenged Clare, Wendy Morgan plays Connie, the veteran union official who inspires our Rita to take on the TUC. Her lost love Monty, torn between his members and management, nicely suggested by Anthony Hunt.
Clare Machin is a superb Barbara Castle, the fiery-haired minister whose sympathy for the women's cause is vital in achieving their goals. Her Prime Minister – an even more pantomime Harold Wilson, clueless with his pipe, his Gannex and his old-fashioned sexism – is played with gusto by Graham Kent, who also manages two more character roles: the sadistic Latin master and, stand-up sexism personified, Chubby Chuff. Tooley, the villainous Voice of America – with more than a touch of Trump – is given a bold, brash performance by Jeffrey Harmer. Greg from Personnel, a misogynist in a blue suit, is Daniel Carter-Hope; the middle-class management man and his feisty wife are Jamie Noar and Loren O'Dair. And there's a priceless backing trio of Aides and Ford men: Thomas Sutcliffe, Joey Hickman and Steve Simmonds.
Ben Goddard is the MD, keeping his ever-changing forces together from the keyboard in the wings – an excellent sound, especially when they come together as a big band, with nice period touches, like the accordion or the snatch of Hammond for the Social Club.
As political theatre goes, this is more Billy Elliot than Bertold Brecht. It sometimes feels contrived and manipulative. But it is an entertaining, heart-warming reminder of an important battle in the struggle for women's rights, even if, as the excellent programme reminds us, the war is still not won.

Monday, August 01, 2016


at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch

The London Musical” is a great choice for the Queen's 2016 Community Show.
It's lively, it's a crowd-pleaser, and, like most of the company, and the audience, and indeed Madness themselves, it has its roots just down the road in NW1.
The Community Musical has a long tradition at the Queen's. Every other year, a performing company is formed from scratch, to work with professional creatives – the aim is to get local people involved in the vibrant life of their local playhouse. This year's cast numbers more than fifty, and includes people of all ages from East London and Essex as well as Havering.
Directed by Ros Philips, they fill the stage with school kids and convicts, bringing Las Vegas and Camden Market to life on the huge Queen's stage. James Watson's versatile set features a semi-transparent terrace for Casey Street, with spinning black/white doors for the crucial choices. The familiar numbers are in the safe hands of Andrew Linham's superb band, proudly wearing red sparkly bowlers, with pit prop bric-a-brac spilling over into their house, too.
But on opening night there were issues with balance, meaning that dialogue and lyrics were lost; they are helpful, even to those of us who know the show well, to keep the ingeniously plotted narrative on course.
Every member of the company makes a unique contribution to the success of Our House, from the diminutive denim dancers to Joe's Dad – Paul Robinson an imposing figure in his ghostly suit. Joe Watch makes a convincingly confused school-leaver; Becky Smith is Sarah, the girl he almost loses. Fine character work from the vacuous Angie and Billie (Hayley Sanderson and Lauren Sanders), and their male counterparts, “gormless prats” Emmo and Lewis (Oliver Barry-Brook and Conor Dye). A lovely warm performance from Kerry Lawson as Kath – her big number is a musical highlight. Forces of darkness include Jenson Grech's slimeball Reecey and Mandy Lyes' forbidding Pressman.
Plenty of energy in the big ensembles, though the choreography tends to be static, and some excellent staging: Camden Market, the Nightboat to Cairo with the puppet lovers, and the grey stripes of the prison contrasting with the rose-tinted dream overhead.
A rapturous reception from the first-night fans, cheers and applause sustained through the megamix curtain calls. But disco dazzle and Mexican waves are no substitute for real emotional engagement with the characters and their moral dilemmas, only occasionally achieved in this ambitious community venture.

image: Mark Sepple