Thursday, May 25, 2017


Theatre at Baddow at the Parish Hall

This was Dennis Potter's favourite of his plays. Famously, it was kept off the BBC for years, and this theatrical version was made to get it in front of an audience.
Forty years later, it still has the power to shock and offend. The callous abuse, and the nationalistic bigotry, still all too recognisable in our society today.
It is not often staged, so we should be doubly impressed that this enterprising group have selected it, and presented it so well.
The setting is the 70s – brown wallpaper – convincingly furnished, even if the lighting could more subtly have suggested the darkness of these blighted lives: “We live in the shadows...” says Tom.
John Mabey's thoughtful production benefits from a strong quartet of players. Jean Speller is Amy, weariness and distress etched on her face as she smooths the moth-eaten knitted throw. She still clings to the hope that her severely disabled daughter [a convincing performance from Vicky Wright in a very challenging role] will one day come back to them. Her husband – Bob Ryall – is sceptical. Drawn to the fascist National Front, he speaks tellingly of a dog in the distance, and of his nightmare of impotent paralysis. He is convinced that the ingratiating stranger who invades their private lives is “up to something”.
In Andy Poole's chilling performance, "Martin" has the air of a doorstep evangelist, with his easy charm and oleaginous smile. As often with Potter, religious references abound. There's a “whiff of sulphur” - the brimstone of the title – about this helpful saint, who offers a smitten Amy “all the kingdoms of the earth”. Luke 4:5.
The production has many telling moments: in the Glenfiddich-fuelled final scene the two men talk their fascist talk literally over Amy's head. Martin's reaction speaks volumes as Tom longs to go back to the way things were. The mealy-mouthed prayer is done in a stylised spotlight, and Potter would surely have loved the shocking “seduction”, choreographed to the folle farandole of Piaf's La Foule.
The ending, genuinely shocking, raises more questions about the events which precede the play, and the cathartic role of the malevolent Martin.
It's possible to imagine a funnier take on the play, or a more nuanced Good Samaritan. But this is an impressive production of Potter's savage parable, just as provocatively offensive as it was back in the more innocent Seventies.

Image: Barry Taylor

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


Talking Scarlet at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford


Jean Sablon on the soundtrack speaks the period and the setting in a way that the décor – a generic rustic cottage – fails to do, despite some evocative detail.
The lighting too, while often effective, could enhance the mood better – the kitchen seems overlit from the front.
But the company do a fine job with Brian Clemens' period thriller, from the first appearance of the huge hunting rifle through the door to the final declaration of war, with a surreal swastika and a deluge of poppies.
Lara Lemon is Suzy, the only character who is just what she seems – living the Provençal idyll with the moody “Peter” [Gary Turner], agricultural labourer and Sunday painter. The other woman – much less convincingly written, is Chief Inspector Miller, played in elegant trousers by Corrinne Wicks. Andrew Fettes is the amnesiac Josef, from the hovel next door. And Brian Capron is outstanding as Ross – subtly altering the character between the acts. The Chateau Latour scene with Turner is brilliantly done – a tour de force of twists and turns. Not all the scenes grip us as much, and there's a good deal of sign-posting, with clues and hints thickly scattered. Peter, for instance, is rarely without a scary kitchen knife in his hand.
The piece is directed by the playwright's son, Samuel Clemens, best known perhaps as a film maker, and he has the action underscored like a movie, with impressive music composed by Edward Patrick White.
Not a packed house, alas, perhaps punters were deterred by the title, which suggests a much less interesting drama. But those who missed this intriguing piece in Chelmsford can catch it at the Mercury in Colchester, or the Palace in Westcliff.

Sunday, May 21, 2017


London Classic Theatre at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester

Missed this at the start of its run back in February – now just managed to catch it on the last day of this national tour up the road in Colchester.

The imposing set is a warmly wooden study just off the Finchley Road. The action begins shortly before the Second World War. Sigmund Freud, refugee from Austria, is asleep in an armchair. He is close to death. Kindly Doctor Yahuda [Moray Treadwell] will ease his passing, warning of possible hallucinatory side-effects. Freud seems to regret some of his earlier pronouncements on hysteria, and an evening spent watching Rookery Nook. Salvador Dali – and this much is true – visits, and notes the doctor's bicycle, with hot-water-bottle and snail attached.
From these strange elements, Terry Johnson makes a crazy farce and a serious play about the perils of psychoanalysis; in Michael Cabot's impressive production, surrealism and feminism battle it out as scanties are shed and trousers dropped. It's a brilliant combination, demanding much of its audience and of its actors.
At the Mercury matinée, I felt the actors did better than the audience, though the farce and the quips were well received. John Dorney's Dali was superb – physically expressive, throwing his head back to make his resemblance to the artist even more striking. Ged McKenna made a thoughtful Freud, with a gentle Austrian accent. Language something of a problem, perhaps. Yahuda, a fellow Jew [berating Sigmund for doubting Moses' ethnic credentials] was historically widely travelled, but here has no accent. Nor has the mysterious Jessica, who comes in from Freud's rainy garden, claiming to be his “anima”. Dali, who actually had no German, or English, speaks with a Spanish accent straight from the cod caricature Manuel manual.
Summer Strallen, as Jessica, moved skilfully between her various roles – the discussion of Seduction Theory in Act Two was especially well handled.
The ending – a last gasp for surrealism – featured all sorts of strange events; the lobster telephone made a brief appearance, before Freud settled back to sleep in his armchair again, and there was another urgent tap on the french windows.
The piece is textually very rich, the ideas both timeless and – child abuse, recovered “memories” - startlingly contemporary. All credit to London Classic Theatre for taking this modern classic out on the road, from Yeovil to Aberdare, from Malvern to the Mercury.

Friday, May 19, 2017


Ad Hoc Players at Brentwood Theatre

Ad Hoc Players chalk up twenty years in 2017, and this quirky comedy, written for them by Eddie Coleman, was one of the first they brought to Brentwood Theatre.
So this revival is a celebration, with veterans joining the playwright in a warmly receptive audience for the opening night.
The play centres on Martin [Liam Mannix], whose love for his new-found girlfriend, “Miss Gorgeous Adorable” Carol, baffles his friends and family. “A man, a midget or a transsexual” they could have accepted, but this ??? Their reactions, and ours, vary uneasily from mockery – sexist banter and tasteless joshing – to sympathy. Most successful in the former is Andrew Spong with assured comic timing as work-mate Jason, and in the latter Candy Lillywhite-Taylor as sister Alison, who vows to follow her brother to the edge, and in the final scene, as the story comes full circle, prepares to introduce her own controversial lover to family and friends …
Hilary Martin is the formidable mother who dares to say that the emperor is naked, and there's a nice cameo from Paul Ganney as the shrink who sees Martin's predilection as his ticket to psychiatric fame and fortune.

Ayckbourn it's not, or Orton, though the play has moments of both. Wendi Sheard directs, as she did in 2000; the set is impressive, with a fitted kitchen, two lounges and a dinner table set for six. There are some neat comedy moments – the rugby tackle, Martin Wilderspin's Dave appearing from behind the sofa. The characters step into the spotlight to share their thoughts – Ganney has some of the best of these monologues, including one with Martin's hands tightening around his throat. There's a tender heart-to-heart in the deserted street, leading us to hope that Alison and Jason might find happiness together. And so they do, but not quite as we might have expected.

Thursday, May 18, 2017


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court

Nick Payne's two-hander allows us to eavesdrop on three brief encounters between Leonard and Violet, spanning six decades. Beginning in 1942 – an illicit night in the Hotel Regina before he goes unwillingly off to war – then 21 years later – a painfully awkward meeting in a Bath park – and finally in the 21st century – in Leonard's lonely Luton home.
These are carefully drawn characters, ordinary people leading lives superficially banal but with emotional hinterlands they struggle to express. Laura Bradley and Lewis Schaefer give performances of exceptional subtlety and understated sentiment. They wisely avoid caricature as they age; Violet's chatter about washing machines and Wimpy Bars places her in the 60s in middle age, while Leonard's restless hands and lips movingly suggest the ailing octogenarian.
Ria Milton's production is near flawless, with sound and light, music [Isaac Dunn the talented cocktail pianist] and staging combining to excellent effect. The only criticism, the sight-lines, especially when the actors were sitting on the bed/bench/sofa.
And there's a bonus – a seamless prologue, with chorus dressed for the 40s, giving us a mixture of the tragically appropriate When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone by Galway Kinnell and some Shakespeare sonnets, Leonard's wartime gift to Violet. Some of the most effective being those audaciously delivered by two or three actors: Sonnet 36 as a duo or Sonnet 106 a la Andrews Sisters.
A wordless epilogue, too – the chorus leaves the stage, the audience leaves the auditorium, while Leonard and Violet linger with the book of sonnets and a lifetime not shared …

Production photograph: Tom Tull

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


at the Civic Theatre

an updated version here, for The Reviews Hub, at Colchester Mercury

For this, his inaugural tour as Artistic Director, Christopher Marney has put together a stunning varied programme: a two-hour showcase for the emerging talent of the Central School of Ballet.
Thirty young dancers, seven presentations, book-ended by two fresh looks at familiar repertoire. The last, and the longest, was Matthew Bourne's Highland Fling, first seen in 1994. It's a typically tongue-in-cheek take on La Sylphide, keeping the gist of the original story, and the Scottish setting, but giving it a make-over for the Trainspotting generation. So as well as the silver birch backcloth, the setting includes an old armchair and some dustbins down stage left. The Sylphs sport little angel wings, James a kilt. Plenty of fun in the glade, with young James eager to join the corps, until suddenly the mood changes as his beloved's wings are clipped. Beautifully danced, and imaginatively staged, with athletic work from Adam Davies, and a moving performance from Brittanie Dillon as the Lead Sylph.
Jenna Lee's Romeo and Juliet – the Ballroom scene – uses Prokofiev's score in an original, eloquent narrative. Amy McEntee's Juliet is shy and apprehensive with Paris and has some lovely moments with her two friends. The Montague boys do some spectacular showing-off. There is romance of course, but frustration too, with the dancers forming barriers between Juliet and her Romeo [Craig McFarlane] And then a brief expression of innocent joy before the tragedy we know is to come.
A stylish glimpse of La Bayadere, with scarves, an impressive pas de deux, and a traditional tableau to finish.
In more contemporary work, we see fluent avian grace in Liam Scarlett's Indigo Children, edgy urban graffiti in Sleepless, choreographed by Malgorzata Dzierzon with music by Philip Feeney, played live, and Christopher Bruce's enigmatic Mya, danced to Arvo Part – three cocooned figures moving in witty, wistful shapes and patterns.
And a memorable look at the Castle Dracula scene from the ballet created in 1996 by Michael Pink and Christopher Gable, with an original pastiche score by Philip Feeney. Haunted by succubi, Alvaro Olmedo has a strong, erotically charged duet with Matthew Morrell's magnetic, hypnotic Count.
As ever, a wonderful display of burgeoning dance talent, and an excellent sampler of what ballet can do. If you missed it at the Civic, it's at the Mercury in Colchester in June, and at the Kenneth More in Ilford in July.

production photograph: Bill Cooper


at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester

A warmly enthusiastic reception on Press Night for this stunning revival. Tony Kushner's musical, initially commissioned by San Francisco Opera, is an opera in all but name, almost entirely sung through, with just a little underscored dialogue and sprechgesang.
Following its New York première, it had a successful production at the National Theatre in 2006. A decade later, it's certainly due another outing. That NT never transferred; this one could well follow a long line of Chichester musicals into the West End.
On the same day we stood and cheered in the Minerva, confederate statues were being removed, not without protest, in Louisiana. Just such a statue, in that very state, greeted us as we walked in, only to disappear before the action begins. Exactly why, and how, gradually becomes clear as the plot unfolds.
The story succeeds on both the personal and the political level. Caroline is the African-American maid, toiling in the humid heat of a Louisiana basement - “sixteen feet down”. She's employed by a dysfunctional Jewish family, a reserved clarinet-playing father, and his second wife, neither a bassoonist nor a smoker, unlike his dead first wife, mother to the lonely little boy Noah [based loosely on Kushner's own childhood].
This is a very polished revival, with a long stair-case to emphasise the divide between the family and their slave. The costumes are striking, too, for the Radio – three Supremish singers – the Washing Machine, all over bubbles, and the red hot Dryer, who doubles as the Bus - “the orphan ship of state”.
All the performances are superb, led by Sharon D Clarke's powerful Caroline, her nobility and heroic resignation cracking only very rarely, as when she “speaks her hate to a child”. Her great arias are breathtakingly done – Lot's Wife a show-stopping performance. Her daughter, one of the agents of change in this subtly developed story, is a fierce rebel teen, compellingly played by Abiona Omonua. And the young Noah is unbelievably well done by Charlie Gallacher – one of two children to share the role. Because, like all the company, he has a deeply explored character, some complicated choreography and a tricky score to master.
The show, deftly directed by Michel Longhurst, manages to explore epic themes – change is slow to come to this forgotten corner of Lousiana – and the intricate dynamics of the two families. Nigel Lilley, and a splendid pit band above the stage, make the most of Jeanine Tesori's evocative, varied and very melodious score.
Memorable moments galore, including the Act One finale, a wonderful dance fantasy from the four children and the Moon flying overhead. Dollar bills rain down on the stage – change is in the air, we feel, the money Noah “accidentally” leaves in his pants' pocket a symbol of the old patronising relationship between the Gellmans and the Thibodeaux.
production photograph: Marc Brenner

Wednesday, May 10, 2017


Trinity Methodist Music and Drama at the Civic Theatre

The curtain-raiser – always the fate of this early G&S collaboration – is Trial by Jury, a welcome revival of Tony Brett's charmingly fantastical production first seen at Trinity in 2015. Good to see Wayne Carpenter moonlighting as the errant Prince, playing opposite Emily Delves' sweetly sung Cinders.
Pinafore is equally inventive and off the wall. The British warship, moored at Portsmouth Point, becomes a spacecraft in a galaxy far, far away, not unlike the Enterprise, or Captain Tempest's D'Illyria probe. But Sullivan's music survives intact, and, some cheeky tweaks apart, it's the look rather than the lyrics that is radically altered, with the crew clad in silver and scarlet space suits, and the Sisters, Cousins and Aunts elegant in fantasy frocks and wigs.
Tony Brett has assembled an impressive cast, led by soprano Jenny Haxell, who languishes with style and lilac locks as Josephine, and sings the part beautifully – her Act Two soliloquy particularly enjoyable. Her Ralph is Ashley Thompson, who despite his futuristic tinfoil space-suit is an old-fashioned light tenor. Patrick O'Brien, who plays the learned judge before the interval, excels again as a leering Dick Deadeye. Janet Moore makes a lovely Buttercup, here relinquishing her bumboat for a tea-trolley stocked with Pringles. Her palm-reading duet with Howard Brooks' Captain Corcoran is splendidly done.
In the most stunning costume, Brett himself plays Sir Joseph Porter, Ruler of the Galaxy, preening and pompous but not above a bit of fancy footwork in the amusing Why and Wherefore trio. Strangely reluctant to be paired off with his cousin Hebe, Emma Byatt imposing in tight black leather.
Not much ambitious choreography elsewhere, and a deal of standing around singing. But a fresh sideways look at a Savoy favourite, accompanied by a sizeable pit orchestra, comparable to Sullivan's own, conducted by Trinity's Musical Director Gerald Hindes. 
In an old Savoyard jest, I recall, some wag would enquire “Who's playing Celerity tonight?” The answer for this week at least, is Pat Hollingworth.

production photograph: Val Scott


Brentwood Operatic Society at Brentwood Theatre


The 2014 musical-of-the-movie has naturally been very popular locally, and now this Cortina Estate of a show has been shoe-horned into the Mini Clubman Brentwood Theatre for a sell-out run.
The large cast fills the uncluttered stage to excellent effect – the opening sequence, with its crescendo of radio news and the whole company walking across, is typical of the inventive approach taken by director Sarah Barton. Scene changes are [almost always] smoothed by musical bridges and muted blues. The upper level is sparingly but tellingly used.
No passengers on this production line – every performer gives total commitment to the inspiring true-ish story of the struggle for equal pay.
Juliet Thomas gives a movingly sincere portrait of the housewife thrust into the political limelight; she combines a strong stage presence with convincing insecurity and inner turmoil. Martin Harris is her Eddie, torn between his love for Rita and his loyalty to the lads on the shop floor. “I'm sorry I love you” is especially effective.
A host of colourful characters. Lisa Harris gives a subtle, and very moving, Connie, wedded to the Labour Party, whose spirit reaches out to inspire Rita at the TUC. The tongue-tied Clare is sympathetically sketched by Sian Prideaux; the potty-mouthed Beryl by Mandi Threadgold-Smith. Kerry Cooke gives a wonderfully committed Cass, and Clare Markey makes the most of the warmly drawn Barbara Castle.
Her Prime Minister – nicely done by Jon Keeler – is merely a figure of fun, and, perhaps not surprisingly, the men do come off rather worse in Richard Bean's witty book, from Graham Greenaway's sadistic schoolmaster to Bob Southgate's Trumpesque Tooley.
Jamie Fudge and Allister Smith, especially, relish multiple roles, including, respectively, the offensive club comic and the camp Hubble from Personnel.
And not forgetting the O'Grady kids, Sam Johnson and Sophie Cooke, both giving fine, full-on performances, and both playing the whole run !
Ensemble work is powerful and highly polished; not only the Stand Up finale, but Wossname, with Clare and the chorus, and the Everybody Out number that ends Act One, with the lads roped in and dragged up for Scouse solidarity. The vocal attack, in Storm Clouds, for instance, is exemplary – Andy Prideaux the MD, leading the band somewhere in the back office. Difficult to achieve a perfect balance in these circumstances, and on an otherwise faultless first night, some of the lyrics, and the dialogue, were hard to hear.
It's a powerful piece, perhaps even more relevant today than when I first saw it … incompetent PM, randy, misogynist Yank on the loose … given a memorable outing by these Essex boys and girls.

production photograph by Claire Collinson

Saturday, May 06, 2017


LODS at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff


On the day the Palace announce the Duke of Edinburgh's retirement from public life, LODS take us back 70 years to the Royal Wedding that began it all.
Based on the Alan Bennett film A Private Function, it's the tale of meat rationing, dodgy dealing and a clandestine pig, named Betty after the young Princess, which is to be slaughtered for a pork dinner in honour of the happy couple.
It's a charming production, directed with a playful sense of period by Sallie Warrington, who has a fine company at her disposal here.
Led by Michael James as a likeable chiropodist, his gentle personality radiating to all corners of the auditorium – he's an accomplished song and dance man, too. His Lady Macbeth of a wife, all ruthless ambition [the Scottish play is referenced quite frequently] is stunningly done by Joanne Halliday, superbly selling her big numbers: the Primrose Ballroom sequence, for instance, beautifully choreographed, with a lovely vocal trio supporting Halliday's assured voice.
Plenty of memorable character work for the rest of the cast to get their teeth into: Helen Sharpe relishes every batty moment as Mother Dear, Andy Stone is the stammering pig-fancier Allardyce [two more LODS regulars, Simon Sharpe and Peter Brown, are his corrupt fellow councillors] and Andrew Seal, in leather trench-coat and tooth-brush moustache, brings a touch of melodrama to the villain of the piece, Wormold from the Ministry. A special mention for the porcine star of the show, the sow herself. She's an endearing puppet, convincingly manipulated by her land-girl handler, Sara Hickling.
It's a strong ensemble show, with beautifully staged production numbers – the Nobody sequence, with showgirls sporting top hats, tails and canes, Another Little Victory with union flags, the hilarious extended Pig, No Pig scene, or the more thoughtful Magic Fingers, with three housewives suffering the aftermath of war. The dénouement is done with another sustained sequence, the Finale Ultimo where everyone confesses their part in the plot.
The setting [Paul Ward and Kevin Ward] is brilliantly simple: a toy-town cut-out Shepardsford, with the Chilvers' parlour folding out. Smoke from the chimneys, too. The vet's motor-car, ingeniously suggested in the tableau that ends Act One, becomes a lovely little model for the pig-napping that starts the second half.
The music – by George Stiles, to lyrics by Anthony Drewe – is catchy without being memorable [Stiles is no Sondheim]; but it's well served here by a first-rate pit band, conducted by Stuart Woolner. The Musical Director is Rachael Plunkett.


and the Case of the Pink Belle

The College Players at Brentwood Theatre


Holy potato skins ! It's the fourth in the Roxy Krasner franchise, bringing its unique brand of surreal silliness to Brentwood Theatre.
It's well over three years since their last outing, but all the familiar elements are in place: the trademark half-moon window, with excellent projections, including an introductory montage to set the scene.
The characters, too – Darren Matthews' fast-talking “Smokey” Joe Pirelli, and his faithful Girl Friday Roxy [Lindsay Hollingsworth]. They almost get to tie the knot this time, thwarted at the last moment by Victor the scammer vicar, played by William Wells, who also gets to hone his German accent as the character with the cleverest moniker – Herr Helmut Mullerlicht.
The Salmon Sisters are back, too – inimitably played by June Fitzgerald and Elaine Laight. This time we find them bravely piloting a bomber and gamely posing as strippers. The crude, lewd Limelight Larry [Paul Sparrowham on fearless form] and the equally dim English Gwen [Hannah James] are central to the plot, and cosmopolitan colour is added by Claire Hilder, Romy Brooks and Elliott Porte.
Bob O'Brien is the NYPD's finest, especially hilarious when carried insensible from the stag party …
An A-list cast, with award-winning actors like Gary Ball lucky to get a chance to walk on and shift scenery.
No chance of spoilers here, since the comically convoluted plot defies summary. The Pink Belle of the title is both a plane and a chanteuse, there are model aircraft, dinosaurs, dances both tap and fan, cherrystones – balls to Hamburg – and a humanitarian, vegetarian Sagittarian. But no giraffe, librarian, meteorologist, or cartographer. Close, but no cigar. Actually, there is a cigar, clutched in Larry's sweaty fist.
Hard not to be caught up in the daft twists and turns of this tale of battleships and flying fortresses. A sterner critic might have wished for a firmer hand, perhaps wielding a pair of scissors. Some of the gags were laboured, sometimes the manic pace was allowed to flag.
But an impressive, original comedy, produced and directed for the College Players by Nick Wilkes.

Will there be a fifth wheel on this tireless trilogy ? Roxy seems to think so; close encounters in the Nevada desert are promised in The Case of the Alien Invasion. Watch this space ...

Thursday, May 04, 2017


at Shakespeare's Globe

Jessica Swale's feisty, feminist [and great fun] historical romp is back at Shakespeare's Globe for a dozen performances. As director Christopher Luscombe puts it, a lap of honour at the end of its national tour.
It's great fit for this inclusive space – the musicians' gallery becomes Charles II's Royal Box – the period instruments move aside to the Lords' Rooms. Around the stage left pillar there's purple upholstery for the Court, stage right the humbler backstage trappings of the playhouse.
Almost a complete change of cast since it last appeared here in the autumn of 2015. Nell is now played by Laura Pitt-Pulford, a sharp, worldly-wise young woman, human and likeable, climbing eagerly from orange seller to leading lady to royal mistress – her King is sympathetically played by Ben Righton, giving a fine comic performance in the style of a much younger Simon Callow. Kynaston, one of the last surviving boy actors, whose raison d'être is threatened by the royal innovation of “actoresses”, is brilliantly done by Esh Alladi, flouncing, flashing his eyes, ignominiously reduced to the rank of spear carrier. Michael Cochrane makes a cynical, scheming courtier, and Nicholas Bishop is the playwright Dryden, forever struggling with deadlines and the demands of Clive Hayward's Killigrew, the incompetent manager of Drury Lane.

Nigel Hess's music, the songs and the dances, the wit, the bawdy and the amusing anachronisms all conspire to give us a very entertaining couple of hours, whilst gently exploring some more serious themes – ambition, power, poverty, and the place of women in the performing arts.


at the Apollo Theatre

Ending its transfer run in the Edwardian Louis XIV Apollo, Patrick Marber's slick, stylish revival – which originated in the Menier Chocolate Factory - of Stoppard's 1974 intellectual hit is set in Great War Zurich.
The drama unfolds in the unreliable memory of the ageing Henry Carr, a minor official in the British Embassy. He was a real person, and he did live in Switzerland at, more or less, the same time as Lenin, Joyce and Tzara, the three unlikely contemporaries.
“Through the courts with James Joyce” is one possible title for Carr's memoirs, and Tim Hatley's impressive set is as much a court-room as it is a public library. The forestage is strewn with discarded pages. RUHE BITTE hangs as an admonition over the action, replaced in Act Two by SILENCE.
“It may be nonsense, but at least it's clever nonsense.” Just about sums it up. As an audience, we picked up well on the often obscure literary, political and philosophical references [though the “yes/nos of yesteryear” fell on stony ground]. And we could all enjoy the music – Mr Dooley, with Forbes Masson's Lenin on the lute, and the afternoon tea duet, with Peter McDonald's Joyce on guitar.
All the actors give excellent performances: Freddie Fox is a flamboyant, egotistical Dadaist, while Clare Foster shines as the librarian Cecily, giving a virtuosic simultaneous translation of the Russian of Mr and Mrs Lenin, and sparring in a Wildean war of words with Gwendolen [Amy Morgan]. And Tom Hollander makes a wonderfully engaging Carr, wandering on, rambling on in a battered boater like the older Betjeman. And, in the twinkling of an eye, the years fall away and he's the fashionable dandy, obsessed with the sartorial. A memorable performance, which almost, but not quite, drove John Wood's definitive Carr from my mind.


Chichester Festival Theatre


For his first show as Artistic Director at Chichester, Daniel Evans has chosen to revive Alan Bennett's Forty Years On, his first West End success back in 1968.
It is an impressive revival, done with loving respect for the original, but opening the piece out for the Chichester stage. The set, by Lez Brotherston no less, is dominated by a huge organ – too mighty for this modest school, perhaps – flanked by war memorial boards which double as screens for the brilliantly devised video support.
The most wonderful aspect of a largely successful revival is the chorus of schoolboys – in they troop, belting out the Old Hundredth [“Him serve with fear”, please!] to take their places for the School Play – Speak for England, Arthur. And play an essential role in the proceedings which follow: singing rugby songs, being a standard lamp, playing the Lost Generation when young. They drift back after the interval, chatting and handing round the ginger nuts. They act out the deaths of famous men and women; they become framed portraits of British Monarchs - an orange here, an arrow there.
If these young players were the most effective performers of the production, then, sadly the oldest, Richard Wilson as the retiring Headmaster of the Old School, was the least effective. He had the character to a T, but not the text. He read everything he possibly could, though even there we had stumblings and hesitations. “Slipshod,” as he might say. My favourite fluff the surreal substitution of “goldsmith” for “blacksmith”. Countless others: copula for cupola, continual for compulsory [games], accessible for acceptable. And elsewhere there were prompts and pauses which did serious harm to the flow of some scenes. Wisely perhaps, his lantern lecture on T E Lawrence was entrusted instead to his successor at the helm, Franklin, played with an easy style by Alan Cox. Jenny Galloway is Matron [playing Moggie in the wartime story, and a terrific inebriated Nanny Gibbins], Lucy Briers Miss Nisbitt. The youngest member of staff, Mr Tempest, is brilliantly done by Danny Lee Winter, playing many parts, including Max Beerbohm and the Wildean Lady Dundown, with more than a hint of Dame Maggie Smith.
Equally impressive are the young actors who play the senior boys – especially Joe Idris-Roberts as the Lectern Reader; full marks to Voice and Dialogue Coach Charmian Hoare for making them sound so authentically in period.
The original musical ideas are expanded and developed [MD Tom Brady]; some of the choruses recall the numbers that punctuate The History Boys. There are handbells for the New Year, and a cheeky tap dance - a Chichester speciality - for Little Sir Echo. "The Breed", done as a motion picture with an underscore.
The bloodied, bruised, anarchic rugger boys actually look as if they've just left the field; the ending of Act One is superbly realised, with photographs of the doomed youth of the Great War appearing on the stage right war memorial as their names are highlighted opposite, and the troops pour from the trapdoor to people the stage with the glorious dead.