Saturday, July 29, 2017


Shakespeare's Telling Tales at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Michael Morpurgo's short story about musicians who survived the concentration camps of the Holocaust comes to the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, with the master story-teller in person reading the role of Paolo Levi, who shares his memories over the mint tea, and Alison Reid covering the cub reporter and a host of other characters.
This unique presentation is made really special by the presence of four music stands, each with candles, for string quartet The Storyteller's Ensemble, who punctuate the narrative with appropriate musical offerings. They are fronted by the outstanding violinist Daniel Pioro, playing the music that made the fictional fiddler a household name. - “the most famous musician on the planet”.
So there's spirited, witty Vivaldi for Venice, Bach for Benjamin Horowitz the veteran busker, a seductive Czardas, Lascia ch'io pianga, and plenty of Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for the Camp, and, as a finale, a concerto movement representing Levi's 60th Birthday Concert on the South Bank, with a heartfelt cadenza from Pioro. And not to forget the Quartettsatz for Scissors, conducted with a comb, an early memory of the barber's shop behind the Accademia.
A perfect blend of words and music, made more memorable by the candle-light and the wonderful acoustic. It deserves a longer, better publicised run – the 2018/2019 Winter Season, perhaps.

image: one of Michael Foreman's illustrations for the original book

Wednesday, July 26, 2017


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop
at the Old Court


Harvey Fierstein. Kinky Boots, Cage aux Folles, and, surely his finest hour, Torch Song Trilogy, memorably done on this stage back in 2001.
Casa Valentina is a newer piece, though it does revisit those favourite Fierstein themes. Based on the legendary Casa Susanna, it takes us back to the days – the early Sixties – when cross-dressing was still a crime in many US states, and a weekend retreat resort in the Catskills was a dream come true for these “self-made women”. The dream turns to nightmare after the interval, when politics takes over from prosthetics, and callow newbie “Miranda” [an excellent Jesse James Lamb] flees back to the closet.
Rebecca Segeth's production has an evocative period set, on two levels, carefully lit [Jack Hathaway]. And a very strong cast, beautifully turned out in their femme frocks.
Colin Smith is “Valentina”, facing the uncertain future of his guest-house, supported by his wife, the only GG [genuine girl] in residence. This play is the story of their marriage, too, and the final moments are almost unbearably poignant: George sheds his masculine skin to the Everlys' Let It Be Me, as Rita [touchingly played by Rachel Curren] stands confused and alone on the stage above him.
There is much fun and silliness too – the Wildean contributions of the outrageous “Bessie” [Dave Hawkes], and the Sugar Time routine, where the faces of the wallflowers tell their own story: there's Terry Cramphorn's veteran Theodore, who once found refuge in gay bars, listening to Ian Willingham's Michael, who invited the new boy, and whose put-down of “Charlotte” is one of several powerful monologues in the piece - “Bessie”'s uncharacteristically melancholy musings on his marriage are another.
The darker ending is down largely to Barry Taylor's “Charlotte”, a determined activist who will stop at nothing to sign Valentina's guests up to her Sorority. The scene between Taylor and Peter Jeary's Judge (Jeary stepping into “Amy”'s size 10s at a week's notice) is a dramatic masterpiece, and sets the tone for the end of the play, where an icy appearance by the Judge's unsympathetic daughter [Catherine Kenton] reminds us of just how different attitudes were half a century ago.

A superb production of a fascinating piece – a fine note on which to end a successful season for CTW.

image: guests at the original Casa Susanna

Monday, July 24, 2017


Essex Dance Theatre
at the Civic Theatre

What EDT do best is to bring accessible, affordable dance training of the highest standard to the county, as they have done consistently since they took their first steps in 1975.
This year's Civic showcase was as impressive as ever, with an even more significant contribution from the young men of the company. Much of the choreography – we saw thirty numbers – is “home-grown”, like the finale to part one, by Zinzile Tshuma: exemplary discipline and amazing physicality in a piece danced to Sia's Move Your Body - “your body's poetry ...”.
Nikki O'Hara's Revolt, at the top of the show, gave us sinuous, serpentine ensemble, as did Jacob Holme's classically-inspired Stabat Martyr, danced to Pergolesi.
The same choreographer's crowd-pleaser to Bruno Mars' 24K Magic was followed by a lovely unaccompanied Change in Me vocal from Georgia Clements while the huge cast put on their knee-protectors for the traditional Knowledge [Adrian Allsop].
Amongst many other pleasures, a deliciously retro Mack the Knife [Paul Cowcher], David Nurse's eloquent Cello Suite to JS Bach, Ryan Heseltine's school-yard piece to Tom Misch's Watch Me Dance, and that lovely Astaire number Dancin' Man, choreographed by Kim Bradshaw, an old-fashioned show routine that the dancers looked to be enjoying as much as we did, as they left their soft-shoe footprints on the sands of time …

Sunday, July 23, 2017


Chichester Festival Theatre

This is a show that celebrates tradition – it's the opening number, and the setting is a Jewish community in which culture and religion are the cornerstones of the life of poverty lived out in rural Russia.
So Daniel Evans is wise to embrace the traditional in his staging. The costumes, the dances emphasise the Jewish roots of these villagers, whose lives are overturned not only by revolutionary progress, but by the pogroms which will send them on their travels – the fortunate to the US, the less so to Warsaw. There's even a small Klezmer band for the inevitable Jewish wedding.
Lez Brotherston's striking design uses an empty stage, peopled from the back by the displaced and the dispossessed, with their suitcases, symbols of their search for a home, which become the bar, or the stove, the tables and the chairs.
The ensemble pieces are superbly done – three families at sabbath prayers, the rumour-mill scene, the wedding and its violent end, and most impressive of all, the nightmare sequence with the noisy ghost of Fruma-Sarah [Laura Tebbutt] swooping over the bed as the fires of hell surround the stage. The detail is often delightful, too; in Miracle of Miracles, for instance, the Red Sea is parted, manna falls from heaven. The final tableau has Anatevka's refugees standing behind a curtain of rain, on which are projected newsreel images of persecutions yet to come. A profoundly moving, though not over-stated, reminder that intolerance and insecurity remain real threats to many communities.
The loquacious milkman Tevye and his wife Golde are the big names here. Omid Djalili makes a very likeable Tevye, confidently appealing to his Maker and to the audience. Tracy-Ann Oberman brings a no-nonsence Jewish matriarch convincingly, and affectingly, to life – the gestures, the body language all perfectly observed. They're neither of them great singers, and numbers like Sunrise, Sunset suffer a little for it.
The younger generation, on the other hand, are superb musical theatre vocalists – Matchmaker, Matchmaker excellently done – though, perhaps deliberately, the three girls are much less ethnically defined. Emma Kingston's Hodel is very strong, as is Rose Shalloo's bookworm Chava, who defies tradition and family ties by eloping with a Russian soldier.
Louis Maskell stands out as the radical teacher Perchik, bringing a breath of revolution to the shtetel.
This is perhaps the classic, definitive Fiddler, harnessing state of the art staging to recreate a lost world suspended somewhere between history and nostalgia.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

FAME The Musical

The Musical
Tomorrow's Talent
at the Civic Theatre

This is the 1988 musical of the 1980 movie. Those early Performing Arts alumni will be proud, or pushy, parents now. And this class of 2017 don't always seem quite at home in this Eighties world, where diversity and dyslexia are novel ideas. As these youngsters will be well aware, this institution resembles real arts education in the same way Lerner's Camelot does Britain in the sixth century.
But it's an enjoyable bit of summer escapism, and it gives Tomorrow's Talent a chance to show off what it does best – gifted youngsters, professional standards, and loads of crisp, energetic choreography.
The capacity crowd on opening night saw the spartan staging – the iconic logo centre stage – gradually populated by the kids, and the staff too – with director Gavin Wilkinson donning a natty cardigan to play drama teacher Myers. The show's MD is Mark Sellar, his fictional equivalent Sheinkopf played by Joshua Butcher, who's also the Assistant Choreographer.
Ruthless auditions, fervent prayers, and then the new intake must knuckle down to Hard Work. These fictional young hopefuls certainly score straight As for “attitude”, though their mentality might sometimes seem more at home in junior high.
There are many standout performances: Samuel Wolstenholme's Nick – Peanut Butter kid and Stanislavski disciple – setting the bar high with I Want to Make Magic, imaginatively backed, like several other numbers, by dancers. His shy Serena was touchingly done by Hannah Gurling on the first night. Christopher Tierney made the most of extrovert, X-rated Joe Vegas, and Daisy Greenwood gave a strong performance as outgoing, ultimately tragic Carmen Diaz. The enigmatic dancer Iris was engagingly portrayed by Katherine Maahs, and Becky Hunt gave a fine, funny character study as Mabel, the dancer who's too fond of food.
Street dancer and mouthy rebel Tyrone was given a compelling performance by Paul French, his dance moves and his stage presence both outstanding.
The role of spinster English teacher Esther Sherman is a tough call for a young actor, but Lauren Bullock came into her own with the moving These Are My Children, a hymn to the teaching profession.
But this is as much about the ensemble as the principals, and the big numbers were all stylishly done, from the opening auditions, through the title number, featuring the next generation on the upper level, to the beautifully conceived curtain calls, with Carmen resurrected atop the yellow cab.

production photograph by Louise Freeland

Sunday, July 16, 2017


Chichester Festival Theatre at the Minerva


What has happened to us?”, the siblings ruefully wonder.
They're stuck in confused, reclusive routine, existing among the clutter of a lifetime in their childhood home, their parents dead. The sister seems to dominate, mothering her brother, feeding him on the fish prepared for Charlie Brown their elusive cat. He takes refuge in his headphones.
Deborah Bruce's new play – inspired by a couple she observed in an art gallery café – manages to be amusing and uplifting as well as deeply sad.
Daniel and Peppy's lives are turned around by a predictable incident, which makes a crime scene of their squalid home, searched by sinister officers in blue overalls. But just as things seem at their most desperate, there comes salvation and a new start of sorts.
Jeremy Herrin's production is perfectly judged. The design [Max Jones] is magnificent, with a stunning scene change just before the interval.
The dramatic structure is powerfully precise. Symbols are tellingly deployed. We see the kitchen tap run free once more, the child's smashed Harry Potter mug [magic destroyed] is restored, the walnut spice cake is baked at last, as Daniel realises that it's nice outside, and that there are other buses he could take. Peppy bangs on Charlie Brown's dish one last time, his name heading a roll-call of the dead.
The two main characters are compelling brought to life by Daniel Ryan as the big, childlike, uncoordinated brother and Samantha Spiro as his fussy, birdlike sister. The other characters drift in and out – and we occasionally move next door to a kitchen that couldn't be more different. There is some doubling – Philip Wright is both the awful, cheery Gareth, who tries to buy the Angelis family home for a fraction of its worth, and the helpful husband of the lovely support worker Karen [Michelle Greenidge]. And perhaps there could have been more – I can envisage a production in which two actors play all the other roles. Except of course for “the next-door child”.
This pivotal character, the eight-year-old Ben, superbly played by Rudi Millard, is in some ways a miniature of Daniel, innocently impressed by his feats of memory, seeking the attention and affection lacking at home.
His mother - “no smoke without fire” - who turns out to have tragedies of her own – is Mary Stockley; the detective who tries to coax incriminating confidences from Ben and Daniel is Matt Sutton.
Like their real-life inspiration, these two strange characters, and their intriguing past lives, tend to linger in the memory. Like the playwright, we realise how little we know of other people we meet, and hope against hope that, against all odds, redemption and a happy ending may still be possible.

Peppy's mother's Walnut Spice Cake 
[with thanks and apologies to Carol, who made it]

This is a lovely cake that smells like winter - warm walnuts and spices like allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg. Buttermilk ensures that the cake is wonderfully moist. If you don't have buttermilk, use 1 tablespoon (15ml) of lemon juice or vinegar and 210ml of skimmed milk in place of the 225ml of buttermilk.

Serves: 14

60g finely chopped walnuts
285g cake flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
150g butter
300g dark brown soft sugar
2 eggs
225g buttermilk

Prep:15min › Cook:50min › Extra time:10min cooling › Ready in:1hr15min

Preheat oven to 180 C / Gas 4. Grease a 23cm tube cake tin and dust with flour.
Sift together cake flour, bicarbonate of soda, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and salt. Cream the butter. Blend in dark brown soft sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs.
Stir dry ingredients into creamed mixture alternately with buttermilk. Blend in the finely chopped walnuts.

Spoon cake mixture gently into the prepared tin. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until cake springs back when you touch it lightly. Cool in tin for about 10 minutes. Put on cake rack to cool completely. Sprinkle icing sugar over cake before serving, if desired.

Saturday, July 15, 2017


Chichester Community Theatre at New Park Studio

A tiny unregarded gem from the complete works of Graham Greene, immaculately performed in a small room, the last date of its pop-up run which has also included the public library and Pallant House.
It shows, in twenty minutes, the rehearsal process, with an old-school director and a naive young actor. His interpretation in a new play – new for 1981 – is giving cause for concern. His co-stars are Dear Johnnie and Dear Ralph, whom I remember as a lovely double-act back in the 70s. In this play – by Frederick Privett, famous for his pauses – he briefly attracts the attentions of Cruickshank/Sir John, between the window cleaner and the French acrobat. His lines are restricted to the monosyllables of the title. Cleverly, this is true of Greene's drama also …
Excellent performances from Steve Wallace – panama hat, hip flask – as the director [a mammoth of a role, despite the brevity of the piece] and Matthew Hughes-Short as the keen but bemused actor.
An unexpected treat – free of charge, too – part of the Festival of Chichester 2017.

Sunday, July 09, 2017


Chichester Festival Theatre at the Minerva

Edna O'Brien's novel, notoriously banned in 1960s Ireland, is now re-shaped by its author into this beautiful drama, getting its UK premiere this year on the Minerva stage.
It's touching tale of innocence lost, in the repressed societyof Ireland in the 50s.
Lisa Blair's production brings those times, those places to life on a sloping, cobbled stage.

The two girls grow up in a rural community, largely untouched by progress, and are educated by nuns, ditto. Grace Molony as Kate and Genevieve Hulme-Beaman as her bosom friend Baba are both excellent, capturing the two country girls at many points along their journey from the sticks to the big city, from cross-strap sandals to scarlet shoes, from naïve, flighty school girls to older, wiser young women.

Colm Gormley is Kate's drunken and abusive father, Malachi, is frighteningly believeable, club in hand, frustrated that he cannot tame his daughter as he breaks his horses.

Jade Yourell gives a moving performance as te young postulant, Sister Mary – some touchingly tender moments, hinting at more than they express, with her star pupil Kate.
She has another enigmatic relationship, much darker and much more dangerous, with Valéry Schatz's Mr Gentleman, the suave but slightly sleazy older man.

The cast play multiple roles – the German landlady and her hen-pecked husband stand out – and Keshini Misha makes an exotic Spanish lady – rebranded Singing Woman in the cast list.

The setting is simple but highly evocative: the quayside suggested by two ropes, the hotel room by a lampshade. And since this is Chichester, there's real Irish rain, too.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017



The Stondon Singers
at Stondon Parish Church

The Stondon Singers were formed back in the 60s, initially to bring the choral works of William Byrd home to Stondon Massey.
This was their 50th Anniversary Concert – Byrd died on July 4 1623 – and it took as its theme the influence of Italy, specifically Venice, on music in Tudor England.
So, in his 450th anniversary year, we had a four-part Mass by Monteverdi, meticulously phrased, especially in the Gloria, with a sublimely subtle ending in Dona Nobis Pacem.
A couple of his small-scale Madrigals, too, and, more obvious imports, some spirited Ferrabosco from Musica Transalpina, a collection of Italian works translated for the English market. And, as David Schacht's informative introduction reminded us, there were more tangible imports, too: flat-packed instruments for London luthiers to assemble.
A lively Gabrieli motet for eight voices, the text tossed around from part to part, and beautifully sung Willaert – a Flemish import to San Marco.
Byrd himself was represented by Tribue Domine, from Cantiones Sacrae – showcasing English music for the European market – and after Gibbons' exquisite Silver Swan, Although the Heathen, Byrd's short but showy part-song from a collection published in 1588.
The Stondon Singers were directed, with exemplary attention to detail, by Christopher Tinker.

Sunday, July 02, 2017



The Chelmsford Singers
at Chelmsford Cathedral

A glorious celebration for the Singers' ninetieth, with a programme of three dramatic show-stoppers.
Borodin provided the bold opener, with the Polovtsian Dances – a first for the Singers, we think. No actual dancing, but a welcome opportunity to enjoy the choral writing, often omitted in concert performance. The men have the macho posturing, leaving the lovely tune to the women's voices.
Britten's St Nicolas was the centre-piece, the popular cantata giving all the vocal forces a chance to shine, under the hortatory baton of Musical Director James Davy. Only the audience, perhaps, failed to rise to the challenge of the congregational hymns. A splendid Nicolas from tenor Paul Smy – a spine-tingling moment when the boy [sung by chorister Nicholas Harding-Smith] becomes the man, and a touching final movement in which the choir's Nunc Dimittis is blended with the saint's acceptance of death. The Cathedral boys were present at the ordination, and the girls made excellent contributions in the storm and in the episode of the Pickled Boys. The accompaniment, with lovely string sounds in the Nicolas from Prison movement, was by the Chelmsford Sinfonietta, led by Robert Atchison.
This memorable evening ended with Orff's cod-medieval Carmina Burana, in the 1956 version for percussion and two pianos [Robert Elms and Helen Crayford, both brilliant] which lets the choir take centre stage. Despite the composer's intentions, and all the show-off effects, there is less drama here than in the Britten, but this was a hugely enjoyable performance – the Singers gave us sublime simplicity in the Springtime, and rustic energy On the Green.
Three superb soloists: Smy again as the unfortunate roasting swan, a sublime In Trutina and a spectacularly abandoned Dulcissime from Elizabeth Roberts, singing from memory, and baritone Colin Baldy, bearing the brunt of the solos. In the Tavern – a men-only zone – he gave us a crisply articulated confession, and a bibulous abbot. Later, in the Court of Love, after a marvellously risqué number from the men of the Cathedral Choir, he led the Cathedral Boys from east to west – the abbot and his acolytes, maybe – in Totus Floreo.
And through the open North Door, unbidden birdsong from the churchyard paid tribute to the music, and to the Singers as they enter their tenth decade.

pictures from the post-concert gathering in the Chapter House