Wednesday, December 21, 2016



The Stondon Singers at the Priory Church, Blackmore

The passing of another year is marked by this annual Christmas treat; as so often, the last of the carol concerts in the calendar.
The Singers, conducted by Christopher Tinker, began with the fifteenth century simplicity of Busnois' Noel, Noel, Noel, written when the Augustinian priory here was at its most prosperous, and ended with an equally simple, equally moving My Lord Has Come, written in 2010 by Durham composer Will Todd.
Loyset Pieton, of whom little is known, worked in Dijon at the start of his sixteenth century career; his O Beata Infantia was a wonderful discovery. Other highlights of a varied programme were Alan Bullard's Shepherds, Guarding Your Flocks, premièred here a year ago, Malcolm Archer's A Little Child There Is Yborn, with its haunting Alleluias, a nimble arrangement by Mark Wilberg of Ding Dong Merrily, and the sweet harmonies of Gabriel Jackson's lilting Christ-child. Michael Frith was the accompanist at the organ.
The capacity crowd got a chance to sing, too, and after a rousing O Come All Ye Faithful, the Stondon's traditional Christmas encore, an a cappella Silent Night from the west end of the nave.
As Nick Alston pointed out in his introduction, a choir is not just for Christmas, and the Stondon Singers' busy diary for 2017 includes a Marian anthology in Queen of Heaven, Evensong in St Paul's Cathedral, and the eagerly awaited William Byrd Anniversary in Stondon Massey.

William Todd - My Lord has come  from , A Christmas Eucharist from Bath Abbey, 25th December 2015. directed by Peter King



European Arts Company at the Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford

Read by Mr Charles Dickens. The Author”. Well, we can only speculate on what those hugely popular readings were like, and how close Mr John O'Connor comes to the original. Personally I have always imagined a bold, melodramatic rendition, but this is largely a question of personal taste.
A single chair, the famous reading desk, put to many and varied uses, and some vaguely Victorian screens are the simple setting; unlike Dickens, director Peter Craze is able to call on sound, and to a lesser extent lighting, to conjure up Scrooge's world.
There have been cuts [Dickens sometimes took three hours to tell the tale] – the school room and Joe's rag-and-bone shop two of the casualties – but the key scenes are all in place: The Cratchits' festive meal and Fezziwig's dance both excellently brought to life.

An enjoyable reminder of the original behind so many adaptations and parodies. And, which would have delighted the Charitable Gentlemen, a performance that emulated the original in its charitable purpose, in this case raising funds for Dr Barnado's.


The Hermes Experiment at the Cockpit Theatre, Marylebone

for The Reviews Hub

This 60 minute musical re-imagining of Shakespeare's problem play is a boldly ingenious experiment with the drama.

This year has seen many Shakespeare-inspired performances. Song recitals, of course, but also Mendelssohn, Walton, Korngold et al in concert with extracts from the canon. And it's not long since The Winter's Tale was successfully re-shaped as a full-length ballet.

This offering from The Hermes Experiment, though, stands on its own. Devised and developed during workshops at an Aldeburgh Music Residency, it seeks to re-interpret the play using musicians as an organic part of the performance. The text is ruthlessly pruned – out goes almost all of the comedy, the shepherds and the sheep, the beach and the bear. So the focus is on jealousy, joy and redemption.

As if aware that to absorb music and poetry together, but separately, is already a demand on the audience's concentration, the design is simple and subdued. The performers are all in black; their feet are bare. There are banks of flowers, and ribbons hung from the Cockpit roof suggesting a maypole or a circus tent.

The musicians begin at the back, but the harp, the bass and the clarinet move to a more prominent, integrated position for the staging of “Give me the boy” at the start of Act Two. There is movement, too, in addition to the music and the text, in a kind of chorus.

How well does all this work ?  The music and the words are subtly layered; sometimes one strand seems to move to the fore, to be supplanted by another as scene follows scene. Some of Kim Ashton's music is improvised, reacting to the verse and the events on stage. Some of it sounds more like under-score, of the kind which has been prominent at Shakespeare's Globe this season. Occasionally the actors struggle to make the text heard over the instruments. Leontes' first jealous rages, for example, which are wonderfully supported by movement and non-verbal vocalization, have to be shouted when a subtler variation in tone might be more powerful.
But the best sequences manage to be moving in a way that transcends technique. Perdita's wordless song as the snowflake petals fall and the swaddling scarf is passed to the grown girl, for example, and the whole of the closing scene, with its ethereal music and fine work between Perdita and Hermione.
The verse speaking is, for the most part, clear and intelligent. William McGeough's Sicily is strong, especially in his despair; Robert Willoughby is the object of his jealousy, and also gets some of the few laughs as one of the Gentlemen who share the news in the last act. Christopher Adams is the other Gentleman and everyone else bar Autolycus, a victim of the comedy cull.
Excellent presence from Sadie Parsons as a noble Hermione, with Louisa Hollway as a feisty, impassioned Paulina.
Héloïse Werner, co-director of The Hermes Experiment, is the soprano Perdita, her songs without words one of the chief glories of the scoring.
The music is constantly inventive – the prominent bass (Marianne Schofield) for the birth, the breast-beating, the pastoral harp (Anne Denholm). The musicians move in and out of the action, but only Florizel (clarinettist Stephen Williams) is both actor and instrumentalist.
The quartet's line-up – harp, clarinet, voice and bass – is itself very unusual, and Hermes have been assiduous in exploring repertoire and commissioning new work. This fascinating Shakespeare collaboration between Director (Nina Brazier) and Composer (Kim Ashton) is a ground-breaking, and often inspirational, blend of music, movement and text.

production photograph: Cathy Pyle

Saturday, December 17, 2016



Eastern Angles at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich


for The Reviews Hub

Toad Hall? Wolf Hall? The inspiration behind this bit of harmless fun is mostly Mantel – a Tudor rose projected onto the boards, Thomas Crudwell given a brief mention - but the Bard is in the mix too, together with Adele and Geoffrey Chaucer.
Fans of Eastern Angles' alternative Christmas entertainment will rejoice at the return of Mrs Giblets the dog, and thrice rejoice at the return of writing team Julian Harries and Pat Whymark. Pat also directs and acts as Musical Director.
The prologue owes a good deal to Shakespeare. The audience is divided into Suffolk and Norfolk – the traverse staging one of many challenges in this friendly but cramped auditorium.
“You there! Explain the plot!” The gauntlet thrown in jest to one of the cleverer, cheekier members of the audience. She can't, and there are no spoilers here, but the action begins with Sir Roger de Polfrey (excellently done by Ipswich Christmas veteran Richard Mainwaring) bemoaning the state of his stately pile – he's got damp in his front elevation, and even the king has heard word of his enormous crack. The jolly opening number has the various cowboy contractors sporting hammer, awl and ball-cock. A reluctant pretender to the throne, Roger has two daughters and a fool called Perch. There are but five actors, but the list of characters is long and eclectic: Gerald the Happy Herald, Sir John Dum-di-Dee, alchemist of choice, Agnes, ancient granny and Chaucerian, Tom Foolery,  Ant and Dec, body snatchers, Mr Softee, a further fool. A fine bestiary too, including a fox, a bluebird, a rabbit, and legendary devil dog Black Shuck. The audience stands in for the stoats, although there are stuffed stoats on the headgear of the secret society meeting in the crypt. No cuddly stoats on sale in the foyer, either, surely a merchandise opportunity missed.
Mrs Giblets, who plays Goblet the dog, surviving the vivisection table and bringing a wonderfully surreal touch to the final pages, did appear in the foyer at the end, a fond farewell to her fans and a fundraiser for Eastern Angles' Once Upon a Lifetime project.
Matt Jopling is a likeable Perch (and his rival Mr Softee), who is besotted with Sir Roger's fair daughter Rosamund (Geri Allen). The less alluring daughter, Hedwig, is played with enthusiasm, a beard, and a fine sense of the ridiculous by Patrick Neyman, who's also the Alchemist and a superb hooray Henry VIII. Violet Patton-Ryder mangles the Middle English with aplomb as Agnes, and is also the feisty Cook.
The choreography is lively and inventive on the tiny stage, and there are some splendid songs: The Fox is in the Thicket, for example, or the Unsuited duet for Rosamund and Perch, or the hilarious No Taste for Entertaining, in which Goblet shouts out foodstuffs to fit the lyrics … “there's an offal lot at steak”.
There's plenty of cod-piece humour (“What's that sticking out of your arras?”), some much-loved gags that were old when Will Somers was a boy - “Have you got quoits?” and variants, “Walk this way!” - but nothing is overplayed, the audience is involved but not humiliated, and there's an educational element, too. The collective noun for stoats is a caravan, apparently. 
As the man says - “excellent fooling, i'faith” - “just the Tudor ticket!”.

production photograph: Mike Kwasniak

Sunday, December 11, 2016



Brentwood Theatre


Bill Francoeur was a prolific writer of musicals for the youth and amateur market in the U.S.
His free and easy adaptation, with James DeVita, of Lewis Carroll might raise a purist eyebrow or two, but the children in the audience, who probably know the ball park better than the chess board, were royally entertained for the full 90 minutes.
The transatlantic twist seemed to work best when it was most radical: the Wonderland Gamesters, or a country star Humpty Dumpty [an excellent Elliot Burton, who also gave us the White Rabbit and a talking flower]. Tweedledum and Tweedledee, tiny propellers on their schoolboy caps, also captured the wacky style well [Libby Grant and Laura Hawkyard].
Sophie Farquhar was a sweetly bemused Alice, pert and assertive with her rival Queens [Katie Lawrence and Lydia Shaw]. Olivia Sewell and Scott Westoby were pawns, and between them played eight other roles, from Tiger-Lily to a Dixie Chicken – one of Dumpty's backing dancers.
Technically the production – directed by Ray Howes with set design by David Zelly – was a triumph. A chandelier, red and white chessmen, and centre stage, a superb under-lit chess board on which Alice moves towards the eighth square. Some impressive production numbers too [choreographer James Sinclair] – the aforementioned Dixie Chickens, the baseball game, the ultra-violet ballet [always a panto favourite] and the gospel choir for “You Got Responsibility” using the whole space and the mirror ball !

production photograph: Carmel Jane



CTW at the Old Court Theatre, Chelmsford


Patrick Hamilton's classic thriller relies heavily on atmosphere, both physical and psychological.
For some reason, perhaps to do with the raised stage, atmosphere seems hard to achieve at the Old Court.
But this polished production combines design, acting and directorial skills to produce a very impressive piece of theatre.
The oppressive Victorian parlour – designer Mark Tree – sets the mood, helped by sympathetic lighting, though I was not convinced by the gas lamps themselves.
The five principal roles were well cast; even the policeman looked Victorian.
Compelling performances from Sarah Bell as the young wife who's the victim of her sinister husband's mind games – a woman on the edge, tearful, desperate but strong at last as she gives the knife a final twist in the powerful dénouement. Her Manningham, all sneers and sideways glances, is chillingly done by Colin Smith; controlling and vindictive, he nonetheless eschews histrionics, rarely needing to raise his voice. The servants are nicely contrasted – Rachel Curran's kindly Elizabeth and Corinne Woodgate's flirtatious minx Nancy.
Andy Perrin is memorably compelling as “the celebrated Sergeant Rough” - a cheery soul, with a fondness for Scotch and sweet tea. We can suspect, with Bella, that he might be a dream, an angel, and yet he is reassuringly human, untangling the plot with an assured efficiency and a reassuring smile.

Like the set, the play is beautifully constructed, and Christine Davidson's production [Barry Taylor her assistant director] has many effective moments: the hurtful “theatre ticket” volte-face done at the swag curtains, the hard-hearted husband turning his back as he deftly changes the mood from fond consideration to cruel spite.

rehearsal photograph: Leanne Young

Saturday, December 10, 2016


at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch
for The Reviews Hub

“Well it's good, but it's not what I'd call traditional ...”
Soundbite from the little old lady just along the row. She has a point.
Andrew Pollard's script has more than a few novel touches. Baron Hardup has expired, leaving his wicked widow free to bully poor Cinders unchecked. Cinders herself is feisty and forceful (and in this company plays a mean trombone). Hard to imagine her knuckling under for long, and indeed she does turn on her tormentors before the happy-ever-after ending. The ugly duckling turns into a bevy of swans to pull the pumpkin coach. No riches to rags transformation, very few pyrotechnics, some witty cultural asides, and the jokes a mixture of the amusingly original and the junior school playground. And, surely a first, the panto song is that old Pat Boone favourite Quando Quando Quando.
But there's a proper staircase for the walk-down, a traditional ghost routine (done to the Ghostbusters theme), and an opening number in the village square featuring the Young Company, one of three teams of ten local children.
Martin Berry's production, a little coarse and raucous for some tastes perhaps, keeps up an energetic pace from the off, only some of the longer songs slowing the action. Most of the numbers, though, were apposite and excellently delivered by the talented company of actor-musicians, with Joshua Goodman the MD. Christina Aguilera's Words Can't Bring Me Down, for example, Dreamgirls' One Night Only or Adele's To Make You Feel My Love, with a great fiddle obbligato from Dandini.
Jonathan Charles is superb in this often thankless role – a poor Italian immigrant, reeling off a stream of Italian names, playing his violin and teaching his master the art of love before changing identities, in a very thin disguise, with Sebastian, aka Prince Charming of Chelmsford (Jamie Noar). His Cinders is played with gutsy charm by Natasha Lewis, with some outstanding vocals, too.
Buttons, the Justin Bieber of Romford, is Alex Tomkins, playing on the sympathy of the audience, and rewarded by an invitation to join the happy couple in their new life together. The Fairy Godmother, her wand a silver flute, is beautifully spoken by Etisyai Philip.
The trio of baddies – all firmly rooted in Essex – are Kylie amd Miley, ugly sisters (Carl Patrick and Simon Pontin) and the Baroness, Hornchurch regular Georgina Field squeezing every last drop of evil from her role, and proving a fine saxophonist to boot. The trombone/sax face-off one of many inspired moments in this innovative production.
Mark Walters' design is sparkly and pretty as a picture-book. His costumes range from the cygnets' feathery drawers through the elegant gowns for Cinders and the Good Fairy to the OTT creations for the Sisters: designer handbags, Christmas gift-wrap, and, cleverest of all, the cocktail dresses.
Shouting out advice, encouraging bashful Buttons, screaming out that Behind-You “meta-theatrical rubbish”, the opening night audience of “children and coffin-dodgers” loved it all, from the “sniffle-stopper” - an ingenious tissue dispenser projecting loo-rolls over the front stalls – to the giant beach balls for the megamix party finale.

production photograph: Mark Sepple

Rave reviews for Cinderella at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch from Queen's Theatre Hornchurch on Vimeo.


Made in Colchester at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester
for The Reviews Hub

Beneath the impressive 21st century gloss, and despite the Trump gags, this is a warmly traditional panto, its appeal effortlessly spanning the generations.
Director and co-writer Daniel Buckroyd has wisely re-hired many of last year's Aladdin company; they seem very much at home in the Mercury, and their banter with each other and rapport with the audience are a delight.
Dale Superville makes a perfect Idle Jack – Roger the cabin boy on the Saucy Sally, getting the kids on his side instantly; he's the ideal foil for Antony Stuart-Hicks' glamorous Merseyside Mrs Suet, alias Sarah the Cook. Tall, glamorous with ever-higher heels and coiffure, George Robey eyebrows and a tasty line in crudities, this is a classic Dame. Ignatius Anthony relishes every moment of Ratty King (“a child crying, music to my ears”), a role cleverly re-imagined as a raffish villain out to seize political power in the City of London.
Gracie Lai is an agile Thomasina the Cat – wordless, as tradition demands, but very expressive nonetheless, and superb in a mewed rendition of Memory (from Cats, in case you'd forgotten) as she hypnotises the rats in the Sultan's palace.
The fruity-toned Fitzwarren is done with some style by Richard Earl, and Barbara Hockaday pulls off an unlikely double as Fairy Bow Bells and Captain Barnacle.
Love interest in the youthful shape of “Poundland Poldark” Whittington (Glenn Adamson) and his charming Alice (Grace Eccle).
The gloss includes David Shields' wonderful set, a centre circle, the face of Big Ben projected onto it, with clockwork designs, or the houses of old London, curving around it. The Epicurean Emporium, and the pitching ship's galley are beautifully realised.
The costumes too – not only Ratty's Dickensian outfit and the Dame's eye-catching creations (bathing drawers, Essex girl beehive, and she's the only one to get a change for the actual walk-down), but the attention to detail throughout, the sparkly shoes and fezzes for the Moroccan rats, for instance.
And the timeless tradition extends to some very venerable jokes (“Avast behind!” and “All hands on deck!”, shared with the equally saucy ship at the Wolsey this year), a UV underwater ballet, a ghost routine with a rather unconvincing camel, an old-fashioned Friendship medley for Dick and his Cat, that good old campfire classic Bobbing Up and Down Like This, and a wicked Twelve Days parody featuring a huge inflatable gin bottle and celebrity chefs - “Mary Berry's cherry”.
Charlie Morgan's choreography is snappy and inventive: the talented Junior Chorus excellently employed on board ship and in the Madness rats number. Richard Reeday, who's contributed lyrics and arrangements, is the Musical Director.
One of my three wishes after last year's Aladdin was for more of the same. The Made In Colchester genies have certainly delivered, - an object lesson in how to bring fun and freshness to a winning formula.

production photograph: Pamela Raith

Thursday, December 01, 2016


at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich


All the traditional ingredients of the Wolsey's wonderful rock'n'roll offerings are there: the actor/musicians, the chorus of cute critters, the visual puns [“pulled pork”] and the sound effects.
And after last Christmas's Sword in the Stone, this year we're treated to another fresh new storyline, and some unexpected characters. Our story-teller, and good fairy, is Scheherazade [Elizabeth Rowe], who brings the three couples to her love shack for the wedding finale. Our hero is Sinbad, of course, a likeable Steve Rushton, who woos the Princess Pearl [Daniella Piper]. His rival for her hand is the evil Sinistro, played by Wolsey favourite Dan de Cruz. He gets to quote Lear for his storm scene, which also has one of the best numbers, Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water. Much of the music is from the 70s and 80s: one of the most successful is the hilariously subverted Living on a Prayer, complete with smoke machine and fan supplied by a nimble stage-hand. Possibly a thinly disguised Graham Kent, who gives us a brawny Dame Donna. His stooge, Tinbad the Tailor, was very amusing done by Rob Falconer.
Half the fun for the grown-ups in the audience is seeing everyone slickly swapping instruments: the Dame on trumpet, the three girls a great saxophone trio, and almost everyone behind the drum kit at some point. The direction – Peter Rowe, who penned the witty, naughty script – is lively and energetic. The ten-strong company seem genuinely to be having a good time – though come the end of January that might be hard to sustain – Sinbad's Saucy Sausage sails on at the Wolsey until the 28th.
production photograph: Robert Day