Friday, March 24, 2017


Chelmsford Ballet Company at the Civic Theatre

Lewis Carroll's fantasy begs to be given the dance treatment. Recently we've seen Christopher Wheeldon's hit show for the Royal Ballet, and before that there was the English National Ballet's version, with music arranged by Carl Davis.
Annette Potter has taken this hooked-on-Tchaikovsky score, but otherwise this beautiful ballet is all her own work. And full of colourful detail and imaginative, inventive ideas.
Not least the ingenious prologue, set in a park, where, in the waking world, we meet the characters who will be transformed in Alice's fevered dreams. In Hatter's café, [muffins and sorbets], the proprietor wields his huge red tea-pot – he'll be the Mad Hatter. A tail-coated white-faced mime [a businessman, according to the cast list] is running late, but filches carrots from a street trader – he'll be back as the White Rabbit. A sleepy urchin curls up on a bench – the Dormouse. And Alice and her sister give a glimpse of the impressive dancing to come.
A stunning digital animation takes Alice down the rabbit hole, to grow and shrink, back-stroke through the pool of tears and organize the caucus race.
This is a ballet crammed with memorable characters: Andrew Potter's mercurial, mischievous Mad Hatter, Isabelle Fellows' delightful Dormouse, an evil Queen from Samantha Ellis, and great character dancing from Megan Roberts and Alice Brecknell as the Tweedle twins. Darci Willsher makes a very human Alice, often sad, frequently frustrated; her dancing is enchanting – there are no extended romantic pas-de-deux here, but she does have some lovely moments with her White Rabbit [a riveting Andrei Teodor Iliescu], who loyally supports her through her trials.
There is plenty to please the fan of classical dance: the six Tears, the Bluebells and the Roses in the Garden of Living Flowers, and in the courtroom scene, a traditional sequence of divertissements featuring all the characters Alice meets on her progress through Wonderland and the Looking-Glass World. And plenty of scope for the corps de ballet to shine: schoolgirls, playing cards, hedgehogs and flamingos, not to mention the many-legged shimmering caterpillar, fronted by a sinuous Lucy Abbott.

All these fantastical flora and fauna need costumes, of course, and the clever, stylish designs [Ann Starling] make a huge contribution to the success of this ambitious new ballet.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017



Billericay Operatic Society at Brentwood Theatre

Meredith Willson's old-fashioned family musical comedy is given an enjoyably old-fashioned family production by Billericay Operatic.
Directed and produced by Wayne Carpenter, who modestly takes his place as the assorted Iowans oompah up and down the Brentwood stage. He's very watchable as the charismatic shyster “Professor” Harold Hill – confidently talking the talk, eyeing up the folk of River City from front stage, enjoying a great vaudeville duet with Matthew Carpenter as his old mate Marcellus, flirting suavely with his Librarian Marian – an excellent performance from Anna Green, even if it's hard to see her as an old maid …
A lively Tommy from Harry Reeves, Tia Warboys is the Mayor's daughter who's his love interest. Mayor - “watch your phraseology” - Shinn is strongly played by Mark Clements, with Jane Granby as his pretentious wife Eulalie. And there's a very promising performance from young James Nash as the 10-year-old problem child Winthrop, matching the Professor in panache and stage presence.
Well done, lads !” whispers one of the ensemble as they troop off after the hugely challenging railroad number that opens the show. Well done, indeed, damn near faultlessly delivered, and nicely staged with luggage, newspapers, hats and loud check suits.
The ensemble work maintains this high standard; gossiping ladies, kids, townsfolk, and a very polished Barbershop quartet, delivering numbers like Lida Rose with just enough tongue in cheek. Shipoopi is an impressive production number, and the finale – the triumph of the “think system” - is suitably spectacular.
It is a long show, and a little dated in places. The scene changes, in varying degrees of darkness, are swiftly done, but none-the-less cause the action to drag, especially in the dénouement.
But it's a great evening out, a reminder of how good the old shows can still be. The music is in the capable hands of Gerald Hindes; his little band, hiding stage left, includes trombonist Mark Vokes – one man doing the work of seventy-six ...

Sunday, March 19, 2017


Waltham Singers at King Edward VI School Chelmsford

Fauré's wondrous Requiem was the climax of this concert of music for the Lenten Period. Despite the secular surroundings, this was one of the most enthralling performances I've heard of this familiar work, with superb solos from baritone Adam Maxey and treble Angus Benton, and beautiful choral singing – the O Domine in the Offertory, the sensitively shaped Requiem Aeternam in the Agnus Dei and the diminuendo at the end of In Paradisum. In a performance close to what the composer himself might have known, the Singers were accompanied by Ensemble OrQuesta – two horns, harp and strings, with an eloquent solo violin for the Sanctus.
Laurence Lyndon-Jones at the organ accompanied the works in the first part, which included Allegri's Miserere, in a new version by Harry Christophers which aims to trace the evolution of the work from its simple origins to the form we know today. Some spectacular ornamentation from Choir II, in the furthest reaches of the balcony. Two Essex composers were featured: William Byrd with a setting of the Ash Wednesday motet Emendemus in Melius, and Alan Bullard with a new piece, the Penitential Psalms, based around the Ubi Caritas for Maundy Thursday. Impressively sung under the exacting direction of Andrew Fardell: dramatic lower voices for De Profundis, a telling repetition for “in generationem” and a sensitively sustained Amen at the close.

This work was commissioned by the Waltham Singers, using a bequest from my predecessor on the Chelmsford Weekly News, Peter Andrews. It will be heard again later this month in Belgium, as part of the choir's tour of Bruges and beyond.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017



Offspringers at the Cramphorn Theatre

Shakespeare 4 Kidz has been sugar-coating the Bard for years, and their shows have become increasingly popular with youth groups like Offspringers.
As recent Dreams go, Sarah Dodsworth's production is agreeably traditional in tone. Pretty fairies, Athenian columns, stylish white trees. Excellent costumes, and some striking stage pictures: the back-lit bubbles, the top-lit quartet with the fairies thronging round their feet. The band – in a bower of their own – accompanies the Disney-ish songs [MD Kate Gowen]. The plot – arranged marriage and all – survives more or less intact, and the Indian Boy [Dominic Bushell] is given a whole production number for his back-story. Some of the “rhymes from yesterday” are preserved too, and the original verse for the scene and the song for Bluebell [Charlotte Golden] and Rose Gowen's pert Puck is one of the best moments.
A huge cast – some of them very small sprites – includes the Tipsy Bacchanals and the [thrice] three Muses, and some very promising performances. Ore Kane is an imposing Duke Theseus, Jack Funnell a mischievous Lysander, with Charlotte Podd his Hermia. The mechanicals, with their “tacky play”, all give splendidly engaging performances – Matt Scott is the wittiest weaver in town, Max Eagle a bossy Quince, with Esther Hemmings a lovely Lion, Abbie Gansbuehler the tinker, Amy Smethurst the tailor and James Birchmore doing some serious breast-imbruing as Thisbe.
Lively movement, impressive ensemble work, and a shared sense of fun for this, the most accessible of Shakepeare's comedies. Very much enjoyed by the first- night audience. But, if the work is to appeal to a public beyond friends and family, every one of these enthusiastic actors needs to remember the importance of concentration and staying in character.

Sunday, March 05, 2017


Essex Symphony Orchestra at Christ Church

Popular Tchaikovsky to bookend this concert. Marche Slave as an overture, with its solemn start and dramatic tunes. Brass and percussion, of course, but also some jaunty woodwind, flutes and double basses centre stage,
And to finish, his Fourth Symphony. Some splendid sounds from the ESO, led by Philippa Barton and conducted by Tom Hammond. Horns, cantabile strings and delicate clarinet and flute in the first movement; in the third, playful joie de vivre underpinned by the pizzicato strings. And a white-knuckle ride through the vigorous Finale, with percussion thrillingly prominent.

In the concerto slot, a rare chance to hear Schumann's Konzertstuck for Four Horns and Orchestra. Written to show off the valve horn – new technology back in 1849 – it is a test of the virtuosity, and endurance, of the soloists. Placed to the left of the platform, Fiona Russell, Jeremy Garside, Laure Valiquette-Talbot and Jonathan Handley achieve a bright, clearly-defined sound. The orchestra respond superbly, with, in the central Romanze, the sweep of the strings echoing the lyrical lines of the horns.

Friday, March 03, 2017


CAODS at the Civic Theatre

Forget the feeble plot and the cardboard characters. It's those classic Cole Porter evergreens that keep us coming back to the decks of the SS American.
Ray Jeffery's colourful production fills the Civic stage with a credible cruise-ship demographic – a lovely sequence of tableau vignettes for the Overture – while up on the bridge the band [MD Bryan Cass] plays on, oblivious to the shipboard shenanigans going on below.
Some excellent casting for the comedy character roles: Kieran Bacon a charming, cheerful hoodlum, with Jill Gordon as his moll, Kevin Abrey a terrific upper-class twit – monocle and plus-fours – Helen Hart a formidable Mrs Evangeline “call me mother” Harcourt, with David Slater a larger-than-life Wall Street banker.
The principals are led by Robyn Gowers' cynical chanteuse Reno, making the most of all those memorable numbers, well supported by her glamorous Angels. Tom Harper brings an easy charm, and impressive song and dance skills, to Billy Crocker and his many OTT disguises, while Katie Doran makes a notable CAODS début as heiress Hope Harcourt.
Plenty of show-stopping production numbers [Claire Carr the choreographer] – a great group photo for the anthem that opens Act Two, the sure-fire tap routine for the title number, a stunning Gabriel, and, since this is the 1962 version, some rarer delights, including Let's Step Out [from Fifty Million Frenchman] – which might have been improved by a few more chorus boys – and Heaven Hop, nicely dressed in summer frocks. The company sports splendid costumes throughout; with the carefully styled wigs, they lend polish and pizazz to this very enjoyable escapist musical.