Sunday, August 27, 2017


L.A.D.S. at The Tractor Shed

A good summer for Sondheim. Sunday in the Park with George from NYMT earlier this month, Follies at the National next week. And out at Latchingdon, my seventh Into the Woods, staged for the first and probably only time in a barn, with vintage tractors lining the stalls.

It's a popular show with amateur groups, despite the challenges presented by the staging and the score. A further challenge here was the absence of an MD to conduct – the accompaniment is karaoke style, which, to my surprise, works well, even for Sondheim. Though it has to be said that balance and acoustics conspired to rob us of some of his lovely lyrics.

The design had a charmingly naïve simplicity – trees were carried on and off, the birds were suspended from a stick, Granny's little cottage acted cleverly as a screen to spare us the worst of the Wolf's depredations. The garlands of flowers extended onto the apron, a useful acting area where the orchestra pit might have been.

Carole Hart's production combined music and movement to excellent effect, especially in Act Two, where numbers like No One Is Alone and Children Will Listen had a huge emotional impact. The Giant was well suggested by heavy footsteps and falling leaves, the beans by firecrackers. The choreography was by Aimee Hart, who also made a splendid Witch, hook-nosed before her transformation, strikingly elegant thereafter.

Many more first class performances: a lovely Baker's Wife from Carol Richardson, letting her hair down for a tumble with her Prince in the woods, her Baker Matthew Bacon, very strong in the “No More” sequence, Ben Braden's sunny Jack, Yasmin Lisa Sharp's Cinders, Freya Brown's Little Red Riding Hood [“I Know Things Now” very nicely done] and Tasha Gooderham's Rapunzel. There was a good deal of doubling – Cinderella's Prince and the Wolf, as is the custom [an impressive Adam Hart], but less usually Scarlette McSean gave us both Snow White and a particularly emaciated Milky White, and Rapunzel's Prince [Jacob Dawes] was given a Wolf of his own, plus Three Little Pigs as his prey. Notable contributions too from Daniel Tunbridge – striped blazer, panama – as the Narrator, Judi Embling as the wicked Stepmother, and Robin Warnes as a Chekhovian Mysterious Man.

A thought-provoking mix of fairytales – the Grimm and the gory never far away – the ending especially moving, with the stage peopled by the quick and the dead, a stylishly simple routine ending with everyone turning upstage, save for that one wistful “I wish”.  

Monday, August 21, 2017



The Dolphin's Back at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse


Lyly's mythological fantasy – rebadged by The Dolphin's Back as an Astrological Sex Comedy – is a perfect fit for the “painted firmament” of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
It's a fascinating piece, foreshadowing A Midsummer Night's Dream. “All is but a poet's dream,” says the Prologue [Leo Wan, later a suave Sol]. His only play written in blank verse, it was quite possibly intended for his regular playing company, Paul's Boys. Certainly there's plenty of roles for younger men, and for women, not least the central role of Pandora, the largest female part, apparently, in any play of the time.
She's played here by Bella Heesom, with Julia Sandiford as [Mother] Nature, the Creator in this myth. Pandora's four shepherd suitors, a very entertaining Keystone Cops quartet in wellies and cable knit sweaters, include Adam Cunis's antipodean Melos, and James Askill's ukulele-strumming Iphicles. Among the “envious planets” - Pandora has robbed them of their finest attributes – are Tim Frances's priapic Jove, who invites Pandora to fondle his golden sceptre and inspires her with anger, Joy Cruickshank's slinky Venus, and Ammar Duffus's Hermes, who teaches Pandora deceitful wiles.
There's a lovely Gunophilus from James Thorne – this is Pandora's love-sick minion, surely another role for a younger boy. And Cynthia, the new-fangled, moody moon, in whose orb Pandora chooses to spend eternity, sharing her fickle, feminine nature, is beautifully played by Rachel Winters.
The staging is necessarily simple, with Pandora's circular bed - “the inconstant moon” – changing colour as each Planet wreaks revenge, and doubling as a convenient cave.

James Wallace's lively production – ninety minutes of non-stop action – adds to Lyly's classical wit and word-play a winning blend of broad farce, physical high-jinks and wicked innuendo. Thus cleverly bringing a sixteenth-century rarity alive for a grateful modern audience.

Saturday, August 19, 2017



National Youth Music Theatre 
at The Other Palace


George is a freely fictionalised Seurat, the pointillist painter who died young and unappreciated in 1891.
Sondheim and Lapine's 1984 musical shows him at work, principally on Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte. His sketches, much enlarged, sit on easels and form the only set.
The characters – all sorts and conditions – are brought to life and given a backstory, as George tries to capture the casual chaos of a suburban park – on an island in the middle of the river.
White, a blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole, through design, composition, tension, balance, light and harmony."
In a slightly forced coda, we fast-forward to the present – well, 1984, with some lovely fashions – in which George's great grandson, also an artist, unveils an installation paying tribute to the original painting, and later takes it to the now deserted island, where he meets the ghost of Dot, the painter's model and muse, as the blank canvas is gradually peopled by the figures from the past.
Hannah Chissick's evocative production uses the moving easels very effectively – they are internally lit for the C20 “Chromolume” installation – and the lighting, as it must, helps to paint the pictures.
A fantastic cast, none older than 21, copes brilliantly with the subtle characterization and the very tricky Sondheim score. Especially effective musical moments are the pointillist underscore for “Colour and Light”, and the choral ensembles for the tableaux. Musical Director Alex Aitken conducts a chamber ensemble from the keyboard, above and behind the action.
Thomas Josling makes a compelling George, splendidly bearded, moving in his soliloquies, dealing with his detractors and, in the opening sequence, trying to persuade his Dot to pose properly.
She's sung beautifully by Laura Barnard, who also brings a frail sincerity to the elderly Marie [Dot's daughter and ex Floradora girl] in New York, reading the great man's biography from cue cards.
Among the other colourful characters – the two Celestes and their soldier beaux, the rude bathing boys, the American tourists – Lucy Carter stands out as the Nurse to Eloise Kenny-Ryder's Old Lady, as does Matt Pettifor's truculent Boatman, with his eye-patch and his dog, also done as a canvas sketch. Adam Johnson gives an assured, and very amusing, performance as rival artist and caustic critic Jules, while Thomas Mullan brings an engaging warmth to Louis the Baker, Dot's eventual husband.

This very welcome Sondheim revival is just one of four NYMT shows this summer. It deserves a much longer run than this, but we can be sure that at least some of these talented young performers will be back, gracing the musical theatre scene in years to come.

Friday, August 18, 2017


RSC at the Barbican Theatre

One for the purists, perhaps. Not that Emma Rice over the river has got her jazz hands on The Tempest. Greg Doran's production is pleasingly traditional, with a solid central performance from Simon Russell Beale. Even the much-vaunted technology is in keeping with the spirit of this late work, in which Shakespeare plays with stage effects and spectacle.
Only occasionally does the technical upstage the acting – in the opening storm, for example. The magical Ariel [Mark Quartley] and the underwater sequences are sublimely successful. The setting, in the ribs of the wreck, works very well, transforming into the gaudy pastoral thanks to the magic of projected digital graphics.
A strong company includes Jenny Rainsford's knowing Miranda, Simon Trinder's clown Trinculo, and Jonathan Broadbent very convincing as usurping [younger] brother to SRB.
Joe Dixon makes an impressive deformed Caliban, an amorphous monster lumbering clumsily like a beetle, repulsive yet strangely sympathetic.
Russell Beale is a magnificent Magician, beset by human frailties, leaving us at the close with a touchingly simple soliloquy, before Paul Englishby's music swells as if for the end titles.
We wouldn't wish every production to be so heavily reliant on special effects, but this Tempest – a sell-out in Stratford last year – is both an exploration of the possibilities, and a straightforward telling of the tale, suitable for novices and know-alls alike.

Sunday, August 13, 2017



Unfolds Theatre at the Rose Playhouse

for Remote Goat

A Dream to add to the pantheon, to join the “bathroom accessories” and the “30s Hollywood”, both from Shakespeare's Globe.
The theme this time is fairground. It works perfectly in this space, renowned for its chamber Shakespeare in an immersive style.
Roll up, roll up ...” from the foyer, where you're encouraged to pin the tail on the donkey's bottom, to the intimate performance area, [Sullivan's hymn on the calliope], where there's inflatable hoopla and a card trick in which Verona meets Athens.
Once the main event gets underway, the gimmicks are reined in, with little details – the candyfloss, the inflatable dainty ducks, the goldfish-in-a-bag lanthorn – to bring us back to Dreamland, the name picked out in fairy lights over the water.
Alex Pearson, who has years of experience of bringing the Bard to life within these walls, gives us a lively, physical and very entertaining Dream. The grouping is perfectly planned, the rehearsal sequence wickedly observed. The mischief in the wood is lively and often very funny, the boys wrestling on the forest floor as the girls spar verbally. Theseus and Hippolyta dance cheek to cheek, the lovers sleep on the further shore, which does seem a little less involving after the proximity of the Mechanicals and Titania's bower.
A cast of eight, with much doubling. Not just the obvious Titania/Hippolyta [Cindy-Jane Armbruster] and Theseus/Oberon [beautifully spoken by Ian Hathway], but Robert Hazle, impressive both as an aggrieved Egeus and a fussy Quince, Rhiannon Sommers as Hermia, eloping with her luggage, and a shy Snug, hiding behind her buoyancy-aid Lion. Nick Oliver is a compelling, lustful Lysander, casual in a tee-shirt, as well as Starveling, Clark Alexander Demetrius, formal in a collar and tie, as well as a hilarious Thisby. His Pyramus – their death scene endlessly inventive – is Sydney Aldridge, pulling off the tricky double of Helena, comfort eating when the course of true love runs less than smooth, and Nicky Bottom, done as a sulky teen diva, slurping a slushy, chomping on a carrot as she recalls her dream. A triumph in the role, the most memorable female Bottom since Dawn French's wartime Dream of 2001. Equally engaging is Elinor Machen-Fortune's Puck; she's also an officious Philostrate, introducing the interlude and the Bergamasque jig, before coming back as Robin Goodfellow to bid us goodnight.
The audience is frequently drawn in to the action – as confidants, and, in the case of front-row Ricky, to play a very convincing Wall.

With his new company Unfolds Theatre, producer Pepe Pryke has brought to Shakespeare's Bankside an enchanting summer show for all the family – “swift as a shadow, short as any dream...” 


Mercury Theatre, Colchester

A magical, enchanting Peter Pan to follow James and the Giant Peach and Wind in the Willows onto the Mercury stage in the long vacation slot.
Not just another attempt at the increasingly popular summertime panto, but an adaptation, by Daniel Buckroyd and Matthew Cullum (who also shared directing duties), which manages to seem fresh and child-friendly while still respecting J M Barrie's original.
The nursery furniture is shrouded in dust-sheets as we arrive. Simon Kenny's set is uncluttered and inventive, shape-shifting to the Neverland island and the deck of the pirate ship. Drawers pull out to form beds, the crocodile is suggested by a pair of headlamp eyes before making its spectacular final appearance.
The story – quite complex for the youngest minds – is bookended by a prologue and an epilogue in which the actors tell the story in the time-honoured Nicholas Nickleby style. Their boisterous play foreshadows adventures to come (except perhaps for the farting teddy-bear).They are musicians too, and apart from Wendy (Charlotte Mafham) and Peter, play multiple roles. This doubling is very slickly done – the performers rarely leave the stage altogether – and is often part of the entertainment; the Lost Boys are picked off one by one only to re-enter moments later to swell the pirate band. Particularly impressive character work from James Peake as Nana, a convincing canine in fur coat and flying helmet, as well as Cecco the pirate and the know-it-all Slightly Soiled, and Alicia McKenzie as a feisty fairy Tinkerbell and a peg-leg pirate Jukes.
Peter himself is played by Emilio Iannucci, a winning blend of innocence and bravado, and Pete Ashmore, a familiar face on the Mercury stage, takes on the traditional pairing of Mr Darling and Captain Hook. Not your average old Etonian, maybe, despite his dying words, but he handles his cod-Shakespeare convincingly.
I do believe in fairies,” whispered one little girl in our row, in a moment of unprompted empathy. The production is aimed squarely at children, as is only right, though there were subtleties to satisfy the most jaded adult palate, and the ingenious costume and scene changes help to maintain our interest. All the magic is that special theatrical kind, where our imagination is willingly co-opted to do half the work. Tinkerbell dances as a light on the end of a long wand; Curly's kite is attached to a stick. And, though there's no Kirby, no Foy, the flying sequences are thrillingly done in the simplest way possible.
It is very pleasing to see several editions of the book on offer amongst the crocodile merchandise. And of course, as Barrie intended, the production will benefit the beleaguered Great Ormond Street Hospital.
The sad and the sinister are not neglected: Peter's unwillingness to be touched, or the “tragedy” of the ending, in which Wendy's daughter assumes her role as mother to Peter and the Lost Boys.
Richard Reeday's music underpins the action – there are few big numbers – and it's fun to see the flute, the tuba and two violins shared amongst the colourful characters.
The final tableau sees Peter framed in the window, still looking out beyond the stars to the Neverland, before the braver children in the audience are allowed to explore the nursery for themselves, try out the beds and peek into the delightful dolls' house where Peter's shadow was hidden.

production photograph: Robert Day