Wednesday, September 28, 2016



Icarus Theatre Collective at the Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford

HP Lovecraft's cult classic from the early 30s is a natural for the stage.
It's narrated in the first person by geologist William Dyer, reluctantly reliving the horrors of the past in order to dissuade others from following in his snow-tracks to the white, dead world of the Antarctic.
Other voices are quoted. In this uncomplicated adaptation they emanate from the old-fashioned wireless receiver, part of an evocative soundscape with music by Theo Holloway.
Icarus Theatre's hour-long version trims the text of some of its worst excesses, concentrating on the narrative and the mounting sense of buried horror. There's little to distract from the voice and the visions it conjures up: the shimmering medieval castles and the towering cathedrals of the ice cap, the arcane animals, the sculptures left by the Old Ones [Lovecraft's Elder Things], the giant eyeless penguins.
Dyer is played by Tim Hardy, who adapted the piece with director Max Lewendel. His compelling voice, often subdued and broken with emotion, skilfully draws the audience into the tale.
The show is impressively polished technically, with the timing of the sound and light impeccable. The setting is simple, with a lectern, a chest, a chair, a lantern and the radio, and on the floor, a pentagon of Persian rugs …

We see the terrors only in our mind's eye, but who needs CGI with such a captivating story-teller ?

Tuesday, September 27, 2016



Blackmore Players at the Village Hall

The intrepid Blackmore Players – one of the best village companies in the area – breathe new life into this old farce, penned back in '71 by Foot and Marriott, not alas credited in the programme.
The critics panned it then, but it did excellent business in the West End, and has been popular with am-drammers ever since.
It's a huge challenge, though, not least because an amateur group will lack the rehearsal time – and the audience previews – when slapstick and repartee can be honed.
And there were some slow moments at Blackmore, with the all-important doors poorly co-ordinated and actors waiting for an interruption.
But Andrew Raymond's production was great fun, boasting some excellent performances and a splendid set, with orange doors, lovely works of art, and an efficient, if bizarrely placed, serving hatch. An excellent period radio for Jupiter, but some other props failed to convince: the super-8, the “1001 Perversions” and the camp snaps, possibly due to a commendable ignorance of the ins and outs of erotica.
Matthew Pearson and Rebecca Smith were the hapless newly-weds who unwittingly get mucky books and blue films sent through the post [very retro], dressed respectively in a staid suit and a shorty negligée.
Visitors to their love-nest over the bank include his snobbish mother [a lovely character performance from Linda Raymond, even if several boroughs removed from Chelsea], his pompous boss [Keith Goody], Superintendent Paul [Ryan Stevens – is it me, or are policemen getting younger all the time ?] and two oddly assorted good-time girls [Lisa Matthews brandishing a rubber cudgel, and Ela Raymond, wielding a feather duster].
But the comedy gongs must go to Old Mr Haskell as the bank inspector with the Union Flag flying beneath his jim-jams, and Young Mr Haskell as the chief cashier – aka the Phantom Pornographer - who struggles to limit the damage the tide of Scandinavian filth might cause to the National Union Bank in this unnamed respectable Thames Valley town. Simon and Sam caught the style, both physical and vocal, to perfection, sliding sleepily down the wall, or losing the use of both feet. Sam, whose truly hilarious performance included not one but two suicidal leaps through the hatch, could happily have understudied Crawford at the Strand.

The cast thoroughly deserved the gales of laughter that greeted the better jokes, and the whoops and cheers on their tardy curtain-call.



at the Rose Playhouse, Bankside

We walk into a desert, strewn with the essentials of survival. Boxes, a camping stove. A lone prisoner, in orange overalls, lies chained under a polythene shroud.
It's Othello, whose inner turmoil – the torments of hell, maybe - make up this compelling monologue.
Marco Gambino makes a welcome return to the Rose, after performing the Italian version of this piece – La Colpa di Otello – at the ancient amphitheatre in Segesta this summer.
The words are Shakespeare's, repeated and re-purposed by director Roberto Cavosi.
Key words and phrases recur: “What dost thou think, Iago?” - handkerchief, confession, slave - “Leave me, Iago!”, “I am bound to thee forever.” Like Jekyll and Hyde, the two men seem locked in a self-destructive struggle, Othello's jealousy fuelled by his nemesis Iago. Occasionally another voice is heard: Emilia, Desdemona.

Gambino's Moor is a tortured soul – farewell the tranquil mind; he utters his thoughts in a rich Shakespearean tone with a touch of his native Sicily. There are snatches of dramatic music – Alfredo Santoloci the composer. And Othello's solitary life is punctuated with small rituals – making coffee, taking a piss, failing to light a roll-up, clumsily shaving. Sand runs through his fingers as Desdemona protests her innocence. He contemplates the green-eyed monster through a glass darkly. And finally crawls back under the polythene to lie with arms outstretched.
A powerful, poetical study of one man's conscience, making for an intensely moving hour in the company of a captive racked by guilt, grief and remorse.

Thursday, September 22, 2016


Trinity Methodist Music and Drama

Those intrepid Townswomen get their teeth into saucy French farce in their latest dramatic offering.
The hotel set boasts a Dansette and five doors, none of them working quite as it should. No French window, but a French maid called Fifi, and a cast of characters with ominously similar names.
The Farndale Ladies – and their one male member – have countless costume changes and false entrances, as they double and treble as wives, mistresses, friends, secretaries and the plumber's wife.
The confusion is complete, the plot as tangled as Minnie's knitting. So no surprise that it all got too much by the end, life imitating art; even the attentive prompt – Terrie Latimer – struggled to rescue the floundering actors.
Some priceless performances, notably Sue Bartle as Minnie [“Are we acting again?”] Robinson, physically superb as Roger, gamely struggling with the script, a last-minute substitution from wardrobe. Jenny Edler was scatty Felicity, Alison O'Malley the formidable Phoebe Reece, and Helen Wilson her sister Sylvia, cast as both Frank and Mary Carrott. Emma Byatt, an assured farceuse, also played a married couple, as well as a mistress. They all seemed adept at handling male parts, but their SM, Gordon [David Ehren], was pressed into service as a wonderfully wooden Barrett.
Much to enjoy in Tony Brett's production, from the invisible partition to the Cancan kickline finale. The surreal door sequence went very well, but the “this is my husband” routine could have been a little slicker. Many of the classic amdram pitfalls were featured: the garbled prompt, the nightmare drinks table, the wig and the moustache. And there was a memorable rendition of the Marseillaise, with spoons and washboard obbligato.
I hope that Brexit will not mean an end to their cross-channel ventures; I was sorry to have missed previous attempts, including the intriguing “Cave, girls, it's Fraulein Humperdinck”.

production photograph by Val Scott, who was also responsible for the amusingly authentic programme

Sunday, September 18, 2016



Renegades at Brentwood Theatre


Caryl Churchill's playlet from 1980 takes us into the bedroom with three couples, whose relationships are rocky, raw and toxic.
She writes two kinds of fight – one a restless, wordless desert, one a torrent of words, tumbling over one another, in the over-lapping dialogue for which she is famous, used for the first time in this early piece.
The triptych begins with the strongest element – Frank and Margaret, ten years wed, and launching late at night into the vicious war of words we imagine is not unusual.
Both actors are excellent at the rhythms of the recriminations – Sara Thompson entirely believable as the anguished, frustrated wife; Tim Murphy perhaps not quite menacing, or drunk, enough to give his wounding words full weight.
The Hammers programmes are cleared, the phone changed, and we're in another room, another bed for a different kind of dialogue of the deaf, where Richard Spong's subtly delineated Pete takes refuge in nerdy talk about movies as his depressed wife Dawn [Candy Lillywhite-Taylor] paints on scarlet lips and pathetically pleads for help.
The last scene has the immature film fan again, but this time shacking up with Margaret from scene one. But their ex's are never far away: “We talk about them a lot, say the same things over and over.” Jealousy, loneliness, unfocussed angst, a wonderfully effective emotionally-charged silence, and then the whole things fades in the middle of Pete's mansplaining Apocalypse Now.

An interesting early work, and well worth reviving, especially when it's done with this kind of artistry and attention to detail. Directed for The Renegades Theatre Co. by Lin Pollitt. Even if 50 minutes is little short for an evening's entertainment. 


Shakespeare's Globe at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse


Ending its short run in the Jacobean playhouse, John Wolfson's intriguing play is a welcome addition to the richly varied offer at this Bankside address.
In fact it began life here, years ago, as a rehearsed reading [with Sam West no less], before turning up on Radio 4.
We're promised “A Meeting of Caesar and Christ” - the Caesar in question, in AD33, is the notorious Tiberius. He's dying, and pins his hopes on an Eastern healer he's heard about. But too late – his man Pilate has already executed the miracle worker from Nazareth. If not historical, then this much is at least apocryphal. But there's no evidence that the ailing emperor ever made the journey to Judaea, or talked face to face with the risen Jesus.
Despite some uneven writing, it makes a thought-provoking play, the theology and the history leavened in Andy Jordan's simple, lively production with a good deal of humour, ranging from cerebral wit to crude anachronisms.
The Magi, now elderly but still following the Messiah whose birth they witnessed, have some of the best lines, Joseph Marcell's Caspar particularly good. Philip Cumbus owns the stage as a divinely decadent Caligula, and David Cardy is an engagingly down-to-earth astrologer.
The two men-gods at the philosophical heart of the play are Stephen Boxer's rambling, raging Tiberius, well contrasted with Samuel Collings's serene Jesus.
John the Evangelist – a strong presence from Matthew Romain is left to explain how some things are better left out of the history books...

production image: Marc Brenner

Monday, September 12, 2016



at the Anglo-European School Ingatestone


Viewers of the BBC's “All Together Now” will know how talented and keen our non-professional orchestras can be. The County's connoisseurs will be familiar with the work of the Essex Chamber Orchestra, established in 1979 to enable alumni of our youth orchestras to go on playing after the age of 21.
Now, its entry criteria are more liberal, but last weekend's concert saw many veterans from the early days, both in the orchestra and in the audience.
The programme was uplifting and hugely enjoyable: three popular works played with style by forces led by Suzanne Loze and conducted by Andrew Morley.
Tim Carey, a musician much in demand, was the soloist in Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto. Under Morley's alert, dynamic baton, the opening Allegretto was a cantabile conversation between piano and orchestra, with an expansive cadenza. The limpidly beautiful Largo was given an eloquent, expressive reading; after the jaunty Rondo, an Allegro which brought out the subtleties behind the catchy tune.
The concert began with Nielsen's Helios Overture, a piece which paints the progress of the sun across the Aegean sky. Starting with lower strings and horns, and achieving a wonderful brilliance at the zenith.
The final work was Dvorak's cheerful Eighth Symphony, played with energy and enthusiasm. A warm tone and positive phrasing in the opening Allegro, and after the naïve charms of the slow movement and the scherzo, a thrilling sprint finish.

photos [© ECHO] - the concerto in rehearsal and the packed Sunday evening audience.

Sunday, September 11, 2016



Mad Apple Collective at ACanteen

Threadneedle House, Ideas Hub, upstairs on Exchange Square [now Carluccio's loos] – Danny Segeth loves seeking out new and unusual performance spaces.
So here we are at A-Canteen, a vibrant bar-restaurant over the river from M&S, in the 21st century equivalent of the back room of the boozer. An ambient background of Friday night partying, occasional shadows passing over the frosted glass.
And, appropriately, the four short pieces on the menu all involve conversations over food and drink.
The last – winner of an open competition – is Duck Eggs, a grubby Ayckbournish comedy with a neat twist at the end. Strong characters from host couple Dav [Alex Phillips] and V [Esme Hollier], with the ill-at-ease, bickering visitors played by Stephanie Yorke-Edwards and Joe Kennedy – the latter a lovely study in uncomfortable outrage. Written by Luke Stapleton, and directed by Segeth himself.
A clever twist, too, in Ian Willingham's Intelligent Love. Directed by the playwright, it's set in a not-too-distant future of clones and robots. Engagingly performed by Ruth Westbrook, giggly and drunk, having a brief encounter with unique, freaky Jake [Ben Fraser in a witty R2D2 teeshirt, his AI-enhanced brain regurgitating the history of the Roman Empire].
Technology is at the heart of Georgina Whittaker's Swipe Right, directed by Tom Tull. Nick [Mikey McDonagh], is celebrating his birthday with Lee [David Corder, glued to his smartphone, distraught as the signal goes and his battery dips below 52%] and Cat [Jade Flack, aggressively eating Doritos]. But a Tinder match [Natalie Paluzzo] rides to the rescue with her Spiderman tattoo and a delicious birthday cake … “mostly” fruit.
Naomi Page's Choices, directed by Richard Dawes, is a much subtler, more profound piece. A middle-aged couple try to enjoy an evening out. But the meal, like their marriage, is haunted by their lost son, hit-and-run killer Pete [Mikey McDonagh]. Beautifully played by Dave Hawkes and Andrea Dalton, who inhabit their roles perfectly, making the most of the writing, which is at its best in the less articulate moments, full of pauses and unfinished thoughts.

Wherever Mad Apple go next, it's worth following them in their search for innovative theatre in unusual spaces.

Saturday, September 10, 2016



Brentwood Theatre


The auditorium was packed solid for the 20th annual Brents Awards ceremony.
Hopeful nominees – many groups taking a whole table – cheered and applauded as the winners picked their way, Oscars-style, to the stage to receive the coveted engraved glass award.
Amongst those honoured, three excellent dramas: Female Transport from New Venture Players [best design of a play] The Thrill of Love from Kytes Theatre Group [best supporting actress – Josie Bruty, best actress – Romy Brooks and best production] and My Boy Jack from The Hutton Players [best supporting actor – Ben Sylvester, best actor – William Wells]
Musical theatre successes included Shenfield Operatic's Jekyll and Hyde [best supporting actress – Kate Smith, best actor – David Pridige] and Brentwood Operatic Society's The Wiz [best musical].
Youth companies were strongly represented, with no fewer than eleven group and individual nominations, including Vivid's High School Musical, Horizons' Blood Wedding, BOSSY's 13, and sweeping the board, the memorable Into the Woods from Firebirds [best youth performance – Fleur Sumption, best design, most imaginative costume, best supporting actors - Tom Carswell and Seb Mayo, best actress – Charlotte Rayner, and, joint winners of the Mary Redman Award – Charlotte Rayner and Kate Claussen].

And, worthy winner of the Jo Stoneham 'unsung backstage hero' award, Joy Beyerman, for more than forty years unstinting service to Brentwood Operatic.

nominations in full here

photograph: Chris Cook, Brentwood Gazette

Friday, September 09, 2016



Chichester Festival Theatre


I see the London opening,” says actor/impresario Chitterlow. How perceptive. As we watch the Chichester production's last day, the cast already know that they will all transfer to the Noel Coward on October 29.
Not so hard to predict, really, given the track record of Chichester transfers. But nothing has been left to chance. This is “the new flash bang wallop musical”, the third incarnation of the original Tommy Steele vehicle. Radically, for those still mourning the Old Military Canal, the book has been given a makeover by Julian Fellowes, no less. And there are new songs a-plenty from Stiles and Drewe [Betty Blue Eyes, Travels with My Aunt].
That big number is key. Two lessons seem to have been learnt. First, you can't really follow that. So it's shifted to the Act Two finale. Second, the show needs more of the same. Big, energetic production numbers and British charm. Knees-up in the Hope and Anchor. Swinging from the chandeliers. So we have “Pick Out A Simple Tune”, “Back the Right Horse”, and, a charming seaside postcard duet for the girls - “Touch of Happiness”. But we still have “Money to Burn”, “If the Rain's Got to Fall”, and some of the quieter numbers: “Too Far Above Me”, “The One Who's Run Away”. Not to mention the title number.
The Chichester/Coward cast is led by Charlie Stemp as Kipps – a young, energetic, broadly beaming song and dance man. The two women in his life - “Up and Down the Social Scale” is another new number – are Devon-Elise Johnson as Anne and Emma Williams as Helen. Ian Bartholomew is a brilliant actor-laddie, who's also the vicar in the ensemble. More doubling from John Conroy as Mr Shalford and Foster the butler, and Gerard Carey as black sheep of the Walsingham family and, memorably, the camp photographer in that big number.
The design is based on a Victorian bandstand - “Borough of Folkestone” on the cast iron work – all blue skies and seaside with multiple revolves for smooth scene changes. And, this being Chichester, there's real wet rain at the end of Act One, and some wonderful production numbers, not least the show-stopping banjo orchestra.
Though it'll be a tall order to replicate our front row experience in the Noel Coward, formerly the Albery, still known as the New Theatre back in 1963 when Steele first played Kipps's banjo.



Kneehigh at Shakespeare's Globe

In the dark times, will there be singing?”
It's not every family show that cites Brecht in the first moments. This is Kneehigh's big-hearted adaptation of the Morpurgo story of one girl, her cat and the Second World War.
Emma Rice has brought it to the Globe, as she did with the equally enchanting Flying Lovers earlier in the season.
It sits well in the democratic space of the Wooden O, though the Globe adds little to the experience. The groundlings, as usual, get the best of it. The actors, clad in overalls, sweep the yard before the action, the excellent blues band warms up from the musician's gallery.
There is plenty of music throughout – underscoring, which is becoming a feature at Rice's Globe – telling the band to shut up for a bit raises a hearty laugh. But there's also a knees-up with banjo and beer bottles, and a haunting spiritual from a dead GI.
South Devon, 1943. Home to Lily, her cat and her family. But they are soon to be made homeless by Exercise Tiger, rehearsal manoeuvres for D-Day. Also far from home are a French schoolmistress, evacuees from London, and American troops.
It's an inventive, engaging production – the landing craft, tiny models, sail, and burn, in tin baths at the front of the stage. Tips the cat is a rag-doll puppet. Young Lily dreams of a playground face-off, complete with skipping rhymes, to settle the conflict between Hitler and Churchill.
Great performances all round, not least from Katy Owen as Lily, feistier and flirtier than in the book. Ncuti Gatwa and Nandi Bhebhe are the two black Americans, Adi and Harry, Chris Jared Lily's father, as well as the village parson and Grandad. Ewan Wardrop gives hilarious broad-brush comedy as the Lord of the Manor and the brassy mother of evacuee Barry [Adam Sopp]. And there's a memorable double from Mike Shepherd as a grumpy Grandad and Lily in later life, reunited at last with the older Adi, played by hep cat Adebayo Bolaji, who's also in charge of the music.
As in War Horse, a young person's search for a beloved animal, lost in the wider world of war, is at the heart of the story. There is a happy ending, but the tragedy and the loss of life is not sanitised. There's dignity as well as daftness in this hugely enjoyable ensemble piece.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016


Positive Entertainment 
Wilton's Music Hall
for The Reviews Hub

Alan Bennett, in The Habit of Art, imagines a meeting between ageing geniuses, once friends and collaborators, Auden and Britten.
Truth, though, is often stranger than fiction, and Zoe Lewis's fascinating new play looks back to the war years, when the poet and the composer shared a frequently squalid house on Middagh Street. Novelist Carson McCullers was another resident, plus of course Britten's partner Peter Pears (like Thomas Mann's daughter Erika, and Auden's lover Chester, sadly absent from this company). A later arrival, Gypsy Rose Lee, brought along her domestic staff, which alleviated the squalor a little, apparently.
An evocative set on three levels, echoing the faded décor of the auditorium, features, amongst the clutter, a walnut veneer grand piano and a bathtub, both used to excellent effect.
The piece begins with an unseen orchestra tuning, before young Britten conducts Dawn from the Sea Pictures. As he does so, he fields questions from his tribunal, tried as a Conscientious Objector after his return home in 1942. “Why did you spend two years in the United States?” - “To get away, sir.” Then he's deep in the bowels of the boat bringing him back, writing to Auden, remembering his time in the house: a first encounter with McCullers, dancing, drinking, playing parlour games. A bohemian enclave where everyone is “free to create, unfettered”. But then it's Pearl Harbor, the party's over. A naval officer (David Burnett), a Pinteresque blend of menace and charm, brings an official letter summoning Britten back to the UK. He's read Crabbe, and the idea for Peter Grimes is born – which is where we came in.
The quirky writing chimes well with the creative mess of Middagh Street; its poetry sometimes subtly suggests the genius at work: “You collect her lost words like jewels and put them in little frames...”.
A superb young cast, directed by Oli Rose, captures beautifully the bizarre encounters and surreal incidents, as well as the deeper emotional passages.
Ruby Bentall is outstanding as Carson, flaky, flighty and frighteningly intense; a nice contrast with the simpler, more straightforward allure of Gypsy (a compelling Sadie Frost). Though his performance is engaging, it is harder to believe in Ryan Sampson's Britten, wiggling his hips on the staircase, responding to an introduction with “Call me Benji” or “Guilty as charged”. A frequently cheerful live wire, with little hint of the repressed, shy man many people still remember. John Hollingworth's hard-drinking Auden is a mercurial, often melancholic man, sensitively portrayed: poised to jump from the roof, recalling the geniuses lost in the Great War, or joining Britten in a cabaret Funeral Blues to end Act One.
They're all long gone to the Pantheon of posterity, of course. The brownstone February house is no more, demolished soon after the war to make room for an Expressway. Wilton's Music Hall - “London's secret theatre space” - survives, though during the war there would have been nothing to tempt Britten, or Gypsy, through its shabby doors. It was then what it had been for most of the 20th century, a mission hall and soup kitchen.

production photograph: Marc Brenner

Tuesday, September 06, 2016



Coming soon to St Martin's Church – the setting last month for the Young Company's beautiful Romeo and JulietTWAS Theatre's new production of Shakespeare's sylvan comedy As You Like It.
It's set in the present day, in a travelling community, but still features a cross-dressing Rosalind, Charles the Wrestler, “All the World's a Stage” Jacques and the rest, plus live folk music.
It's playing in the Colchester church on September 29, 30 and 31, at 7:30.

Tickets just £10.