Sunday, April 30, 2017


at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch


for the Reviews Hub

Willy Russell's classic two-hander is revised - “revitalised” according to the publicity – in this production at the Queen's.
Two things set it apart: the stage is extended into the auditorium, with audience on three sides of Frank's untidy university study. And the action has been transported from Merseyside to our own Essex, perhaps in the hope that Rita's inspiring story will find a new resonance, and enhanced relevance, for the theatre-goers of Havering and district.
In truth these are of marginal significance. There is more space to fill with the nicely designed chaos of Frank's filing system – though as so often the books on the shelves fail to convince. The two actors, though, spend much time moving around in order to vary the view. And the setting, as always, is a fantasy – an Open University student getting one-to-one tutorials in a seat of learning that is redbrick, if not older, all within easy reach of, say, Romford High Street. No chance, squire.
Ros Philip's pacy production boasts two fine performances from teacher and student. Ruairi Conaghan, scruffy, bearded, piss-artist and “British poet” neatly captures the frustration of the lecturer who's tired of the academic life. He's particularly effective in his drunken collapse, sleeping on a heap of essays, and in his more thoughtful moments. Smoking hunched over his Remington a memorable stage picture. Danielle Flett is superb as the gobby hairdresser: eager, nervous, hungry to learn everything, starting with the meaning of “assonance”. She's totally convincing in her metamorphosis to confident, articulate young woman. Her flirtatious approach to Frank is tellingly done, culminating in the stylist's seduction which ends the play. A riveting performance.
Written in 1980, this is very much a play for its time, and Hornchurch wisely resist the temptation to update as well as uproot. The short scenes are punctuated by juke-box hits: The Police, Abba, Madness, Status Quo. With folk and the Four Seasons on Frank's transistor – cultural relativism one of the underlying themes.
The main theme, of course, is the transformative power of education – in this case English Literature: Blake and Forster, Yeats and Shakespeare. As a perceptive essay in the programme points out, much has changed since Rita burst through the door into the alien world of academia. Students now incur heavy debts for what was free back then. Few now seriously consider learning for its own sake to be an engine of social mobility. And the shared assumptions that made Russell's comedy so successful for years are largely gone.
Nonetheless, this straightforward, honest production still packs a punch, and raises awkward questions about education in today's classless society, even if cathartic laughter is in short supply.

production photograph: Mark Sepple

Saturday, April 29, 2017


Young Gen at the Cramphorn Theatre

Jason Robert Brown's ground-breaking musical – now almost ten years old – was notable for casting players, and musicians, entirely from talented teenagers.
Now, in the cosy Cramphorn, our own talented youngsters give this rather uninspired show a lively, polished outing, directed by Jimmy Hooper. There's plenty of teenage humour, and all the accents are consistently convincing, too.
It's the story of young Evan who leaves New York for Indiana after his parents split up, and as he prepares for his bar mitzvah, discovers, to no-one's surprise, how awful kids can be to each other, and how hard it is to be thirteen.
He's played by Charlie Toland, very good in his final speech, and convincingly awkward and insecure, though he might have earned more sympathy by using eye contact to connect with the whole audience. Two other “losers” are excellently played by Oliver Gardner as Archie, using his life-limiting illness to manipulate his peers, and Heather Nye as the bookish Patrice – the freak – a very engaging performance, impressively sung.
Villains of the piece are bone-headed jock Brett [Matt Barnes], well supported by a terrific trio of cronies – their numbers some of the best moments of the evening. And the horrendously jealous, controlling Lucy, very effectively characterised by Hope Davis. Victim of her wiles, the wholesome cheerleader Kendra, appealingly played by Phoebe Walsh.
The huge ensemble is inventively used, from the energetic opening number, through the movie theater to the stunning “Brand New You” finale. I liked the gossip number, and the mad moment of Heidi wigs and Busby Berkeley. And I was pleased to see the Rabbis replaced by five geekish cameos for Being A Geek.
The set wisely doesn't try to bring us the gymnasium, the Dairy Queen or the girls' bathroom. Instead there are ingenious revolving panels and two staircases, all plastered with stickers and collages. And, high above the action, Bryan Cass and his musicians, driving the rock and reggae rhythms.

production photograph: Barrie White-Miller

Tuesday, April 25, 2017



WAOS at the Public Hall, Witham


Shakespeare's forgotten rock and roll masterpiece takes to the Witham stage in a production packed with energy and attack.
On an impressively high-tech set – flashing lights and giant plasma screen - the company throw themselves whole-heartedly into this irreverent mash-up of the Complete Works and high-camp hits of the 50s and 60s.
Claire Carr's production is assured in every department. Technically, the lighting is superb, with striking Close Encounters silhouettes; the monster and the air-lock [smoke and fan] are both highly effective. Video and animation are beautifully done. Musically the familiar songs are given barnstorming performances, with spectacular choreography: Who's Sorry Now – with the Swinging Space Cats – and Mr Spaceman – with silver lamé cowboy hats – among the many memorable production numbers. The pit band, conducted from the keyboard by James Tovey, provide very authentic instrumental support; special mention for the powerhouse drumming of Paul Codling. And the acting matches the camp, OTT style of the music.
Captain Tempest – the heart-throb hero – is David Everest-Ring, striking poses and selling the songs. His Navigation Officer, on this equal opportunities spaceship, is an excellent Rhianna Howard. Diana Easton makes a wonderful Gloria, with commanding stage presence and a great way with her numbers – Go Now, especially. Cookie – the simple, homespun lovesick lad - is the seriously talented Harry Tunningley: dancing, singing and verse-speaking all very accomplished. His duets with the Bosun [Emma Loring] are tremendous fun. He does however have a body double from the band to accompany his air guitar, since this is a company of dancers rather than actor-musicians. The inhabitants of the isle of D'Illyria are Stewart Adkins' mad scientist Prospero, making the most of Lear's storm, Claire Rowe's delightful Miranda, and, as the rolling Coke can Ariel, Tim Clarke, resplendent in his costume and skilled on his roller skates. A nice cameo in the Patrick Moore video role of Newsreader from Richard Cowen, who's also a member of the polished ensemble.
Hugely enjoyable from the opening Wipeout to the Great Balls of Fire finale, this is a laudably virtuosic production of a demanding musical theatre classic.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017


Things to come
Ballet Central 2017 comes to the Civic Theatre

Always eagerly awaited, Central School of Ballet's renowned graduate performing company Ballet Central will call at Chelmsford's Civic Theatre on Tuesday 16th May as part of its 2017 national tour. 

Ballet Central gives audiences across the country the chance to see the company’s young and dynamic dancers who are on the cusp of their professional careers, showcasing newly-commissioned works and celebrated masterpieces by the dance industry’s top choreographers.  

The repertoire for this year’s tour features Act 2 of Highland Fling by Matthew Bourne, Indigo Children by Royal Ballet artist-in-residence Liam Scarlett, and a new version of the ballroom scene from Romeo & Juliet by former English National Ballet’s Jenna Lee. It also includes specially created works by Christopher Bruce and Malgorzata Dzierzon, as well as excerpts from Petipa’s La Bayadere.  The tour will also feature a scene from Dracula, choreographed by Michael Pink from the original production directed by Christopher Gable in 1996.

Christopher Marney, the new Artistic Director of Ballet Central said "This year’s performance showcases the best dance theatre from current industry professionals and gives you the chance to see newly-commissioned work and refreshed classics from the world’s top choreographers. This is an opportunity to see the future stars of dance as they launch their professional careers”.

Ballet Central’s dancers not only perform but also help with technical aspects including lighting, sound, staging and wardrobe.  Another highlight of Ballet Central is the music, much of which has been created by Central’s Composer-in-Residence Philip Feeney, who also performs live on the tour.

Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on Tuesday 16th May at 7.45 pm  

Thursday, April 13, 2017


BOSSY at Brentwood Theatre

A happy, homespun Hairspray from BOSSY, in fine Sixties style, musically and wardrobe-wise.
Gaynor Wilson's production keeps the setting simple – a nice vertical bed for Tracy's awakening – while Andy Prideaux's quartet sets the musical pace, with a prominent role for that essential sax. Some impressive ensemble numbers: the mother and daughter sextet, the Council members in the title number, the joyous Can't Stop the Beat finale.
And plenty of punchy performances from an energetic cast – I saw the Thursday company. An immensely likeable Tracy from Tia Stack, pint-sized rabble rouser and would-be teenage Jezebel. She has the character to perfection, and brings energy and elan to all her numbers. Michael Percival is her mother, feisty and voluminously dressed, with Adam Ellis as her dad, the extrovert joke store manager, and Dan Pugh as her love interest, the heart-throb Link Larkin. The bigoted baddies include Ellie Lovelace's Velma – a magnetic stage presence – and her daughter Amber [Grace Frost]. A lovely, gawky Penny Pingleton from Cloe Lee, and a great glib Corny from Joe Folley.
Jeremy Lawal-Champion impresses as Seaweed, son of Motormouth Maybelle, nicely done by Tomi Bello, especially in her act two anthem, and her “big, blonde and beautiful” act one finale.
Lots of fine character work in the cast, including doubles from Will Loader as Mr Pinky and Brad, and Owen Jackson as the penitentiary official and Mr Spritzer, President of Ultra Clutch, proud sponsor of the Corny Collins TV show.

Saturday, April 08, 2017


Marlborough Dramatic Club at the Memorial Hall, Brentwood School


Michael Frayn's neat English version – Gambon its first Vanya, I believe – fits four acts into an audience-friendly couple of hours; even slicker in William Wells' production, with all the action set in the garden of Serebryakov's dacha.
The sombre mood is set before lights down – the samovar, Jean Morgan's nanna Marina knitting, Astrov reading. And at the end, the final moments of tearful optimism, as those left behind prepare to live out their wretched lives.
A compelling Vanya from Darren Hannant, his untidy idler contrasting with his smartly suited friend Dr Astrov [Gavin Leary]. Sara Thompson is the plain, unloved Sonya, her clumsy attempt at seduction one of several moving moments. The elegant Yelena, the professor's young second wife, is stylishly done by Juliette Bird. Good support from an equally stylish Margaret Corry as Vanya's mother, and Harry Morrison as the pathetic, desiccated Telegin.
This polished production has many telling moments: an impressive entrance through the audience for the “great scholar” [Keith Morgan] and his party, the carefully plotted trio that begins Act Three, the dramatic impetus sustained right through to Yelena's soliloquy, Vanya's rant, and his desperate disillusionment in a speech which he starts slumped with his back to the audience.


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court


Harvey first “appeared” on Broadway a lifetime ago, but this pooka pal has remained popular ever since, due in part to the Jimmy Stewart movie.
Now he's haunting the Old Court stage, in a gently amusing production by Jade Flack.
Elwood P Dowd, “the biggest screwball in town” and the rabbit's constant companion, is given a warmly absorbing performance by Dave Hawkes, perfectly capturing the sunny innocence of this harmless eccentric. Strong in support are Lynne Foster as his desperate sister, with some great moments of physical comedy, and Alec Clements as Sanderson, the callow, charismatic junior doctor at the sanatorium run by Dr Chumley [Jesse Powis in a memorable bow tie].
Not all the performances are quite as assured as Hawkes', but there are nice cameos from Stephanie Yorke-Edwards as Mrs Chumley, Fabienne Hanley as Aunt Ethel, and Ian Russell as the all-important cab driver.
Not many laughs on a thin Friday night, despite the sterling efforts of some experienced performers, but some excellent work in key scenes; Sanderson getting advice from Dowd, or left alone on stage with Ruth [Jade Flack].
And the scene changes from The Dowd Library to Chumley's Rest are very efficiently managed.


New Venture Players at Brentwood Theatre Chelmsford


It must be a bit like being in a tribute band, doing one of these sitcom spin-offs. Have they come to admire your performance, or to be reminded of the much-loved originals ?
They certainly pull in the punters – New Venture Players' pleasing production playing to very respectable houses.
The action takes place in the village hall and the vicarage, with a couple of jokes in the vestry and the climactic wedding in St Barnabas itself. As so often, the adaptation has lots of short scenes and set-pieces – twenty+ here – with the familiar pattern of punch-line [or not- “Let's go and have a cup of tea!” not the easiest exit line] and black-out for the scene change, accompanied by Howard Goodall's familiar psalm.
NVP have fielded an excellent cast of parishioners. All the dearly beloved “characters” are present – pedantic Frank Pickle [Melvyn Freake] taking the minutes, lusty lard-haired Farmer Hewitt [David Lintin], dim, dotty Jim Trott [Dicky P Stallard] and the toxic Mrs Cropley [Paula Harris Brett]. All given the full OTT broad farce treatment. Villain of the piece Chairman Horton is played with relish by Vernon Keeble-Watson, with Tim Murphy as his twittish son Hugo, and Lucy Mason as his prospective daughter-in-law, the cabbage-patch doll Alice. And there are a couple of appearances by some young guest stars: children of the parish and nuptial teletubbies !
The voice of reason and Christian charity amongst all the gurning grotesques is the Rev Grainger, back in the day when lady vicars were rare birds, the “babe with a bob-cut and a magnificent bosom”. She's played with wonderful warmth and perfect comic timing by Julia Stallard.
Though there are some slow patches, Joan Scarsbrook-Bird's production is a faithful recreation of a fondly remembered programme, much enjoyed by the audience, with some memorable comedy moments – chocolate for lent, the litre of gin and the kiss that lasts the whole interval ...


Middle Ground Theatre Company at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford
for The Reviews Hub

Given the title, it's no surprise that this is a courtroom drama. A strong morality play too, which began as a novel, then became a film with Paul Newman.
Now, 35 years on, it's on stage for the first time, touring the country with Middle Ground. 
The usual issues with adaptations, of course. It needs a huge cast, many of them in supporting roles. To their credit, Middle Ground is fielding a company of fifteen, a remarkable achievement for a tour of this kind. And a string of short scenes, though here the scene changes are very smoothly done, with Lynette Webster's Irish-infused music to cover. The visit to the hospital is done very tellingly in about ten seconds, with the attorney isolated by a spotlight and life-support sound effects.
This is a medical negligence case, and the background leading up to the trial is done in Act One, with varying success dramatically. David Mamet did the screenplay for Sidney Lumet, and we can only dream of what he might have done in the theatre.
Nuala Walsh brings in an emotional perspective as the victim's mother; Richard Walsh as the Bishop represents the difficult position of the Catholic Church. The awkward job of filling in the prosecution attorney's back-story is brilliantly done by director Michael Lunney as the barman, the narrative punctuated by the clink and clatter of the bar being shut down for the night. Lunney also plays Crowley, the leading anaesthetist at the heart of the “act of God” which leaves a young mother a permanent vegetable in “chronic care”.
A strong moment, too, when the accomplished defence counsel (Peter Harding) coaches his witness in a dry run of the trial.
Despite a fine performance – in her professional debut – by Cassie Bancroft, the role of Donna, the “waitress” who befriends the prosecution counsel in his favourite bar, seems less convincing, though it does provide one of several plot twists in the second act.
Almost entirely set in the court-room (though even here, a cafe table has to be brought on for a key scene), this is the stronger half dramatically. Any court is inherently dramatic, especially in the American system – the play is set in Boston in 1980.
Two opposing lawyers – one smoothly successful, the other seeking to make a come-back in “the biggest case of (his) career” -  fight it out in the convincingly solid stage set. 
Frank Galvin, the washed-up, booze-sodden ambulance chaser who takes on the hospital and the Church, is brilliantly done by Clive Mantle; we see him first, in a prologue before the lights go down, stumbling into his office, sobering up before the day's work begins. Then in the courtroom, he assumes his old professionalism and charisma in a three-piece suit. The other “name” in this company is Jack Shepherd, excellent as Frank's mentor and “guardian angel” Moe Katz. Their scenes together crackle with energy and emotional impact, a very different kind of drama from the set-pieces in the trial. 

Friday, April 07, 2017


Kayleigh McEvoy and friends at Trinity Methodist Church Chelmsford


Aptly titled Primavera, Kayleigh McEvoy's springtime recital programme was an enjoyable collection of all kinds of song.
Kayleigh, in the final year of her BMus at Guildhall, is no stranger to Trinity and the Chelmsford stage. She has a rich, remarkably mature voice, heard to great effect in Dvorak [in the original Czech] and Quilter, amongst many others. She is an engaging performer, with flirting opportunities here in Satie's Diva, and dramatic petulance in Dove's Enchanted Pig – tiara-related wedding-day tantrums – and Schubert's Die Manner sind mechant.
She was joined by two excellent fellow-students. She duetted delightfully with baritone Adam Maxey in Don Giovanni – his seductive “Andiam” her downfall – and with Matthew Hamilton Healy as her Bocelli in that crossover favourite La Preghiera.
The young men shone in solos, too – Adam in Britten's tale tall of The Crocodile, and Matthew in Cole Porter's camp fable of The Oyster.
At the piano throughout – coping splendidly with the tricky Britten and the lovely Schubert – was Joseph Cummings.
The introductions were done with the lightest of touches, brief and to the point. And the three singers joined, as we hoped they would, in an encore, I Bought Me A Cat, from Copland's Old American Songs.

picture courtesy of Val Scott

Sunday, April 02, 2017


Chelmsford Singers at St Luke's Tiptree


In the Victorian church at Tiptree, a fascinating evening of unaccompanied song settings, inspired in part by the earliest days of the Chelmsford Singers, ninety years ago.
James Davy and the Singers began with an early Weelkes madrigal, but from then on it was music from the twentieth century: folk song settings from Vaughan Williams, including a powerful Lover's Ghost, and the well-known, if unseasonal, Wassail Song. Another folk song enthusiast, who also drew inspiration from the Essex countryside, was Gustav Holst, contributing six settings, including an intricate There Was a Tree, an energetic Blacksmith and, before the rollicking sea shanty, a moving I Love My Love, with a tellingly fragmented refrain.
Huddersfield-born Robert Cockcroft, newspaperman, organist and composer, was represented by Three Yorkshire Folk Songs, culminating in a toe-tapping, nonsensical Acre of Land.
Frank Bridge's Five Part Songs set poems, including Shelley's Autumn. The same poet's Music When Soft Voices Die was beautifully sung here, as was the Tennyson's whimsical Bee.
The acoustic here is bright and supportive, ideally suited to a programme where words are important, and the interweaving of the parts needs to be clearly defined.

The choir's 90th Anniversary celebrations continue with a Gala Concert in Chelmsford Cathedral on July 1st, with two crowd-pleasers, Britten's Saint Nicolas and Orff's Carmina Burana.

Saturday, April 01, 2017


Eastern Angles at the Public Hall, Witham

Eastern Angles are venturing further afield again. Last year's Cornish excursion was something of a disappointment, but this Scottish piece is a much more satisfying entertainment.
It has all the elements of an Eastern Angles production: a small company of actor-musicians, and a story firmly rooted in the region. Which in this case is the Scottish borders. A Kelso pub hosts a folk night, with four musicians – fiddles and guitars – warming us up with Rabbie Burns. Then the lights go down, and the story-telling starts, with the four performers changing character and swapping rhyming couplets, with some deliciously ingenious rhymes. The ballad form is central here. Our heroine [Hanna Howie] is an academic, specialising in “folk studies” and “the topography of Hell” - not so much Dante as Dennis Wheatley.
There's fun to be had as she speaks at a pretentious conference. Her nemesis, Colin [Robin Hemmings] first appears on his motor-bike, brilliantly brought to life with lights, a helmet and a noisy kazoo. Then it's off to the pub, the Devil's ceilidh, a snow-bound lock-in on Midwinter Eve, an encounter with a woman [Elspeth Turner] and her children under a sodium street-lamp, and Prudencia's first meeting with Nick [Simon Donaldson] from Goodman's Field, who has a warm fire waiting for her …
After a cliff-hanging interval the darker second half is mostly a two hander, set in Nick's B&B, where Prudencia spends an eternity cataloguing his library and watching the weeds grow in the Asda car park outside. The other two actors providing the atmospheric underscore.
There is a happy ending, though; redemption in rhyme, love requited, the damsel rescued by Colin, who's been holding a torch for her all along.
David Greig's piece is certainly strange, veering from satire to suspense to sentiment. Despite the occasional longueur – the grotesque karaoke - Hal Chambers' direction keeps us enthralled: the puppet children, the dream dance, the many mutations of tug-of-war Prudencia.
The original National Theatre of Scotland production was designed to be performed in pubs. The folk club intimacy was sometimes hard to re-create in the Public Hall, despite their excellent bar and some cabaret-style tables. But the music is excellent - not just folk, but Katy Perry for the karaoke, the Devil's Kylie [“Can't Get You Out Of My Head”] for the finale.

The production tours round the region's village halls until the end of May; if I could choose, I'd probably plump for Isaac's on the Quay back in Ipswich, a genuine music venue with just the right ambience.

production photograph by Mike Kwasniak