Monday, October 30, 2017


Bjarte Eike and the Barokksolistene
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The sound desk is under wraps, the seats in the pit have been removed, the candles are lit. It’s acoustic party night for Bjarte Eike and his Barokksolistene, making a very welcome return to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
This is the last gig of a very ambitious tour, and the nine musicians are clearly enjoying it as much as the packed playhouse.
The project has been running for ten years now; its origin was Eike’s research into London’s music scene during the puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell. Theatres were dark, church music was banned, and the professional freelance musicians took refuge in inns and taverns, where their skills were still valued. These Alehouse Sessions aim to bring back the spirit of those pub gigs – fortunate indeed the topers who heard anything like these nine superb musicians. They’re all successful in their own fields – Eike himself is Norway’s finest baroque violinist, Hans Knut Sveen, who plays the tiny portable harmonium, has an academic career at Bergen University.
The evening is a blend of folk club and period music concert. The musicians swig bottle-ale; there’s comedy and there’s dance – the excellent Steven Player, one of two British members of the group, channelling the spirit of Will Kemp. His Four Kinds of Drunkard and his fancy footwork – including one number with bells - were highlights of the show. There was a slomo pub brawl, and much fun with the groundlings packed into the pit.
The music was eclectic – sea shanties in which the audience raised its three hundred voices to excellent effect – Raggle Taggle Gypsies, Playford’s English Dancing Master, a Swedish Lament for a Dead Barmaid, a Travel Set, including an American contribution from the Globe’s Director of Music Bill Barclay. Henry Purcell’s Timon of Athens, his Bonduca – the second time I’ve mentioned Fletcher’s obscure history play this year – with O Lead Me ending with a beautiful a cappella chorus. The matinée audience also got the same composer’s comedy No Kissing duet from The Fairy Queen.
The evening ended with a second encore, improvisations on another Playford tune, showcasing the diverse talents and influences within this amazing ensemble.
Photograph: Matthew Long

Thursday, October 26, 2017

9 TO 5

9 TO 5
at the Public Hall, Witham

A nostalgic journey back to 1979, nicely suggested in Witham by shades of brown and beige, with splendid hair and moustaches for the men, the villains in this vaguely feminist fairy tale.
This is “the Dolly Parton musical”; not a juke box selection of her greatest hits, but the play what she wrote, nearly ten years ago now, based on the 1980 film in which she starred with Jane Fonda.
She stars in this too – as a virtual presence, a one-woman Greek chorus projected behind the action – and vicariously as the Backwoods Barbie “too much make-up, too much hair”, played for WAOS by Sarah Miles. A very enjoyable performance, matched by the three other principal ladies – Matilda Bourne’s Judy, the new kid on the office block, Diana Easton’s Violet, a fine comedy presence and a polished vocalist, and Rhianna Howard’s excellent Roz, who’s besotted with the MCP boss of Consolidated, Franklin Hart Jr [Niels Bradley]. Emma Loring is the “old lush” Missy, and Dannii Carr the noble accountant who finally finds happiness with Violet.

Glitchy” was the word in the interval bar: cues missed, lines fumbled, a recalcitrant harness. The big production numbers – One of the Boys, Heart to Hart, with the chorus in the aisles – worked well, but too often the songs were left to work their magic on an empty stage.
Nikki Mundell-Poole’s production has some fine dancing, and the fantasy sequences work well. James Tovey, the Musical Director, brings some so-so numbers to life – he has a convincing show-band in the Witham pit.

Had the show been done in the 70s – when the much missed Brigadoon was still thought a good night out – we could have expected similar tired cloths and wobbly flats. But no sound system pumping out the decibels, which might have resulted in a better band/vocal balance, allowing us to hear more of Ms Parton’s lyrics.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017


Shakespeare's Globe at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

A delicious confection for Emma Rice’s swan-song to the Globe: a brand new pocket musical, given in the intimate Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Only a few token candles, but the musicians’ gallery is well used by Jim Henson’s superb ensemble.
Based on a much-loved French film, Rice’s adaptation has music and lyrics by Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond. It tells the heart-warming story of two painfully shy people, brought together by chance and chocolate.
Not everything can be translated,” our hero remarks. The play begins in French, but a glorious device – involving a taste of fine dark chocolate for everyone in the audience – switches the dialogue to English. In a range of regional accents, too, though the Allo Allo route proved impossible to resist at times.
The company of nine beautifully inhabit the characters, eccentric, lovable, charming; there is much deft doubling, notably by the superb Philip Cox as the Ghost of Jean-René’s father, the tongue-tied Pierre and a sympathetic concierge, and Gareth Snook as the suave chocolate magnate Mercier, a mumbling recluse and an outrageously operatic Madame Marini.
The chorus combine the functions of the Greek and Broadway varieties – telling the story, and giving us some lovely miniature production numbers. They are variously the employees at the Chocolaterie, and the members of the support/therapy group Les Emotifs Anonymes.
The couple – whose happy ending includes a nod to the Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, last year’s Rice musical in this space – are Carly Bawden, demure and self-effacing as Angélique, and Dominic Marsh as Jean-René, the epitome of sweaty-palmed social paralysis, seeking confidence from a course of self-help cassettes.
As we’ve come to expect, there is much under-scoring, with evocative instrumentation, and some lovely pastiche numbers – Savoir Faire, and, the best for my money, the toe-tapping Don’t Think About Love.
So much to enjoy – the excruciating scene in the restaurant, the squeaky office door, the tiny 2CV, the bonus track in the foyer during the interval. Like Angélique’s chocolates, a melt-in-the-mouth delight, an escapist treat as we wait for winter.

But the Playhouse added little other than warm intimacy – it’s to be hoped that this lovely little piece will be seen elsewhere. It would sit well in any cosy auditorium, even, dare I say, chez Menier, just around the corner ...


Royal Opera House

Marking the 25th anniversary of the choreographer's death, a unique mini-season of mixed bills, performed by five of the UK's great classical dance companies.
A very varied triptych opened with Birmingham Royal Ballet in Concerto, an abstract piece from 1966 set to Shostakovich’s second piano concerto. The opening and closing movements are precise patterns, the corps in red, ochre and yellow. The finale had the yellow team in an almost Soviet drill. The dreamy central movement has legato lines and lifts to match the lyrical pianism of Jonathan Higgins; beautifully danced by Jenna Roberts and Tyrone Singleton.
Most interesting perhaps, was Scottish Ballet's rare revival of MacMillan's original Baiser de la Fée from 1960. Like Stravinsky's music, the piece has a post-classical feel, with the choreography striving to respect the traditions of Romantic ballet – peasants, fairies, Hans Andersen – while bringing some realism to the tale of the young man kissed by a fairy when but a baby, and stolen away by her on the eve of his wedding. Andrew Peasgood brings a boyish energy to the role, with Bethany Kingsley-Garner outstanding as his betrothed, joining him in an urgent, emotional pas-de-deux, and Constance Devernay as the wickedly sensuous fairy. The moment when the two women dance around him, as four friends look on, was a dramatic highlight, as was the dying fall of the final moments, set in the bleak, cold Land Beyond Time and Place.
A crowd-pleaser to finish – Elite Syncopations, MacMillan's ragtime ballet danced to Scott Joplin and his contemporaries. A delight from Sunflower Slow Drag to Cataract Rag, with turns from all five companies, in the casual setting of a dance hall, with Robert Clark's band at the back. A witty duo from Karla Doorbar and Mathias Dingman [BRB] in The Golden Hours, four chaps from the home team in an energetic Hot-House Rag, a witty, virtuosic Friday Night from Northern Ballet's Riku Ito, a wistful and sassy solo from Precious Adams [English National Ballet] in Calliope Rag, a hilarious pas de deux from Marge Hendrick and Constant Vigier [Scottish Ballet] in the Alaskan Rag, and a stylish solo – cane and striped pants – from the Royal Ballet's Akane Takada, who joined Nicol Edmonds for a polished Bethena Concert Waltz.

production photograph: Tristram Kenton

Sunday, October 22, 2017



Brentwood Operatic Society at Brentwood Theatre

It’s a fine old story, but this musical version, by Jeffrey Lane and David Yazbek – an uneasy mix of period charm and crude, edgy humour – needs a very slick and glitzy production to make it work. And Louise Byrne successfully provides it, within the limitations of the Brentwood stage, making for a very entertaining evening.
The setting is simple and versatile, with a raised balcony under which Max Harris’s excellent little band sits, very much a part of the action.
An accomplished company, ensemble and principals alike, and some fine singing, too, making the best of some fairly forgettable numbers.
The show opens with a quartet of French maids – the action is set on the Riviera – and the chorus have a deal of fun as hotel guests, gamblers, Oklahomans and tourists.
The scoundrels of the title are Lawrence, a suave, laid-back swindler, played with a fine sense of style by Martin Harris, though it was perhaps hard to imagine him as a Man of Destiny or the stuff of female dreams. He shone in his disguise as the “Vienna sausage” - the memorable moment where he simply stands, feather poised, was a measure of his dramatic talent. The contrasting other half of this odd couple, the “gorilla en croute” Freddy, was a very physical, very funny Allister Smith. They meet their match in Kate Henderson’s Christine – the Soap Queen – a warm, sunny persona till she shows her true con-woman colours as the Jackal.
Nice work from Lisa Harris as Muriel – her What Was A Woman To Do was a musical high – and Ian Southgate as André, joining her in a lovely old-fashioned song-and-dance duet.

production photograph: Claire Collinson

Friday, October 06, 2017


Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch

Forget Alec Guinness. Forget Tom Hanks. This is an ingenious stage version of William Rose's classic Ealing comedy, penned by Graham (Father Ted) Linehan and first seen in 2011.
Despite its cinematic origins, it is at heart a good old-fashioned farce, lacking only the manic inevitability of the best of that inter-war genre.
Five career criminals take a room in a house near to King's Cross station – very handy for the “stick-up job” they're planning.
Their landlady – serial complainant and waster of police time – is fooled by their unusual “front”, a classical string quartet, but sees through their disguise when the cello case disgorges its cargo of crisp white fivers.
Peter Rowe, artistic director at the New Wolsey, Ipswich, where this revival originated, has produced a slick, well-paced show, greatly assisted by Foxton's impressive set. The house opens like a book to reveal a richly detailed interior, and the whole thing revolves – powered by stage-hands in time-honoured fashion - so that we can see the roof-tops, and the quaint animated board depicting the heist itself. The scene changes are covered by gothic organ music and the play of steam and signals to evoke the railway beyond. Composer and Sound Designer Rebecca Applin provides some very authentic-sounding incidental music, setting the mood and the period to perfection in the wordless prologue.
Rowe's cast is a little uneven. As the widowed Mrs Wilberforce, Ann Penfold gives a lovely little old lady, primly comic. Masterminding his quartet of criminals, and conducting their avant-garde performance, is Steven Elliot's plummy Professor Marcus, his trailing college scarf an amusing running gag; Graham Seed makes the most of con-man Major Courtney, battle-fatigued war hero and closet cross-dresser. Anthony Dunn never really gets the measure of violent Romanian Louis, neither the accent nor the character, but there are very satisfying turns from Sam Lupton – reminiscent of a young David Jason – as the pill-popping, nervy spiv “call me 'Arry” Robinson, and from Damian Williams, excellent as the slow-witted, ham-fisted “Mr Lawson”, looking a little like Oliver Hardy in his ill-fitting jacket.
The cast is completed by Marcus Houden as the long-suffering Constable MacDonald; he also contributes a hilarious cameo as Mrs Jane Tromleyton, figurehead of the “swarm” of elderly ladies who come to hear the performance by the bogus Boccherini lovers, mercifully curtailed by the interval. They are played by a community chorus, locally sourced for each venue.
The rickety old house, with its dodgy plumbing and faulty lights, not to mention permanent resident General Gordon, the raucous Macaw, will take to the road again at the end of the month, to be shoe-horned onto the stage of the Salisbury Playhouse, where it completes its tour.

production photograph: Mike Kwasniak

Thursday, October 05, 2017


Theatre at Baddow at the Parish Hall

Prolific, popular playwright David Tristram came up with his first comedy whodunnit “just to help out my local am-dram group”. And he's been helping amateur companies all over the world since.
I've been involved with a few in my time, but I still struggle to see the point of staging a play written specially for non-professionals. Even a village cricket team might hesitate before choosing a game which featured under-arm bowling with a tennis ball.
This “comedy thriller” is fifteen years old now; it features a playwright who is visited by his late wife's ghost. She persuades him to write a play, with not even thinly disguised portraits of their fellow actors, in order to “catch the conscience” of her murderer. Shades of Hamlet ? Yes, and copious quotation, too – the play begins with an attempted suicide and that famous soliloquy.
The multi-layered complexities and tortuous twists are well handled by an accomplished cast in Jacquie Newman's polished production. There are laughs along the way, a spine-chilling moment just before the end, and some excellent effects: the moving portrait, the poltergeist typewriter. A little more music might have helped to establish the ghostly mood, and to cover the passing of time in each act.
Roger Saddington gives a sympathetic account of the author, living alone in an attic bedsit with a closet full of gin and a drinks cabinet full of clothes. His landlord, played with style and wit by Tonio Ellis, is flamboyant Alex, who offers moral support to his lodger, and has a nice line in flouncing out of the door. Elvira to Saddington's Charles, the blithe spirit here is Claire Lloyd's elegant, ethereal Ruby. Jade Flack makes the most of the [allegedly] drab and mousy Glenda, while two terrible thespians are milked for all they're worth by Stephanie Yorke-Edwards as the surgically enhanced Frances, and Terry Cole as the bri-nylon-bewigged Hedley.
There are some very funny lines – the acronym sequence, for instance – but also some padding. The plot is convoluted, and takes some following in Act Two especially. I was confused by the absent suspect Howard.
Plenty to keep the loyal TAB audience entertained: ticking off the Shakespeare references, wondering who poisoned poor Ruby's drink, and whether the culprit will be unmasked before Old Nick claims her immortal soul ...

Monday, October 02, 2017


Chichester Festival Theatre

A rare chance to see the three parts of this classic trilogy in one day – fortunately, in this Chichester production, the plays are relatively brief, leaving plenty of time for refreshment and reflection.
Three plays, twelve scenes, one disastrous weekend. Simon Higlet’s design captures the old Vicarage and its garden – the table, the rug, a small water feature. A good sense of period, too – the play is set in the early 70s, when it was written: Woman’s Weekly, Mario Lanza on the HMV portable.
The six characters thrown together for two eventful days, are very recogniazable; they will recur in various permutations and elaborations throughout the playwrights career. Jemima Rooper is Annie, who spends her life tending to her valetudinarian mother – whom we never see – and wondering if the nice but dim vet Tom [John Hollingworth] will ever make a move.
She’s easy prey for her brother-in-law Norman, whose mission in life is to make people happy. A virtuosic, charismatic performance by a bearded Trystan Gravelle, though I struggled to see him as the weedy librarian.
His long-suffering spouse, the short-sighted Ruth is given a nicely rounded characterization by Hattie Ladbury. Brother Reg [a brilliant Jonathan Broadbent], who invents complicated board games that no-one plays, arrives with his wife Sarah to mother-sit while Annie [and Norman] has a dirty weekend in East Grinstead. Sarah is played to perfection by Sarah Hadland - fussing over Annie, a fixed, brisk smile, obsessively polishing the table.
Blanche McIntyre’s production is excellent in the set-pieces – the supper, the romps in the garden, but not at the expense of depth of characterization and social interaction. All the more eloquent for being given, in a first for Chichester, in the round, with extra seats behind the circular stage.

production photograph: Manuel Harlen