Thursday, November 30, 2017


lunchtime concert at the Cramphorn Theatre

One of my resolutions for 2018 will be to go to more lunchtime concerts.
Jumping the gun here, for this very enjoyable selection of twentieth century music for clarinet and piano, part of the Environ Music series curated by Jeffery Wilson.
His Arioso was the encore in this programme, which had two suites by William Blezard at its heart.
The Suite Francaise included a soporific Berceuse, and a playful, punning Partie de Hocquet. Clarinettist David Chivers clearly shared the composer’s sense of humour, evidenced again in the Three Cabaret Pieces, ending with an exuberant Piece of Cake Walk.
Italian composer Alberto Tempestini’s Memories proved a charmingly lyrical piece, after the fashion of movie music, with some virtuoso passages for Mary Blanchard’s piano.
After Essex composer Alan Bullard’s laid-back Blues, the programme ended with the Concertino of Keith Amos, its three movements proudly labelled with English markings – Bright, Expressively, Rhythmically – an impressive piece of accessible chamber music, respecting Amos’s twin trinities: Melody, Harmony, Rhythm, Composer, Performer, Audience.
A manifesto not always followed in the musical circles of the second half of last century, but very much in evidence in this generous serving of lunchtime entertainment.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017


Shakespeare’s Globe at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Like last season’s Wonder Noir White Devil, this atmospheric production opens in complete darkness, and the tale of deception and surveillance is intimately lit by hand-held candles and oblique winter daylight from the Playhouse windows.
The design ingeniously suggests the spymaster’s trade, with built-in concealed filing cabinets and a round window - between the obscured musicians’ galleries – framing eavesdroppers and a lovely London diorama.
Anders Lustgarten’s new piece tells of a nation divided, with the whiff of treason mixed with the candle smoke, the threat of terror and a hostile Europe over the Channel. This is 1585, and a nervous, vindictive Queen, is forced to rely on the powers of darkness to deal with her perceived enemies.
So no shortage of contemporary resonances; we hardly need the crowd-pleasing comments about the tennis. We see the dark arts practised here not by spin doctors and civil servants but by the spymasters Cecil [Ian Redford] and, chiefly, Walsingham. Vague threats are embellished, double agents are rife, dissent spreads from the highest to the lowest in the land.
The playwright is at pains to emphasise the relevance to our own day; we have inherited, he maintains, the system of surveillance set up in sixteenth century London - “an apparatus of security which will never be dismantled”.
Aidan McArdle is Walsingham, a quietly determined man, racked by illness at the end, rising, like Mantel’s Crum, from comparatively humble origins to be the power behind the throne, emerging black-clad and menacing from the darkness. Tara Fitzgerald, a strong presence in richly ornate gowns, white-faced, is an arrogant, often earthy woman in this version of history, while the torturer Topcliffe is given an even less likely persona, semi-literate sadist combining his “interrogation” of Robert Southwell [Sam Marks] with take-away chicken and musings on the Queen’s quim. In fact Topcliffe was an educated landowner and MP, whose association with Cecil and Walsingham is not supported by any historical record.
A fine performance by Cassie Layton as Walsingham’s daughter, Frances, whose eventful life is usually confined to the footnotes of history, and might well be deemed worthy of a drama of her own ...

production photograph: Marc Brenner

Monday, November 27, 2017


Harry Christophers and The Sixteen 
at Chelmsford Cathedral

Their seventeenth Choral Pilgrimage, and once again Chelmsford is lucky enough to be on their camino.
The programme this year is a blend of Palestrina and Poulenc, two composers separated by more than 300 years, each writing in a very different musical idiom. But both creators of sacred choral music that is sublime, expressing a deep personal belief.
The bookends were both Salve Reginas – Poulenc’s tender setting to start, in a beautifully balanced, perfectly enunciated performance, and Palestrina’s renaissance masterpiece to end, performed with the polish and commitment familiar from the series of recordings devoted to this composer - “allowing Palestrina to breathe”, as Harry Christophers puts it.
It’s a fruitful combination, providing new perspectives on each of these giants of choral music. But it is the Poulenc that is the real revelation here – the “moine” and the “voyou” in Rostand’s familiar phrase. Although one of the finest things on offer was the secular “Un Soir de Neige”, written during the final Christmas of the war, it was the “moine” who was most in evidence, in the exquisite Agnus Dei [from the Mass in G of 1937], and the Four Motets from a year or so later, excitingly varied in their approach, and beautifully shaped by Christophers, with the silences given due weight.

Another imaginative pairing for the 2018 Pilgrimage – Benjamin Britten and the Tudor composer[s] William Cornish. Sacred and Profane begins its journey on March 14 in St Alban’s. At the time of writing, no sign of Chelmsford on their tour schedule ...

Friday, November 24, 2017


Chichester Festival Theatre at the Minerva

“What is truth and what is lies, what is fact and what is fable ?” ponders the Headmaster in Daniel Evans’ first play of the season, Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On.
The same philosophical puzzles are posed in his last, a new piece by James [This House] Graham.
He gets the meta-theatricals in early, as one cast member hesitates before taking the oath in court. The whole truth ? Nothing but the truth ? Is truth really in the eye of the beholder ? There is much musing on the media, the image not the message, Psy-Ops, confirmation bias, the nature of memory and the very British tendency to build someone up only to knock them down. The issues raised run much deeper than popular television.

It’s a remarkable entertainment – funny, thought-provoking, nostalgic, and, famously, interactive. We get a keypad to vote with, as well as a clipboard for the pub quiz questions posed by warm-up man Paul Bazeley.

In the more light-hearted first half, we get, as well as our pub quiz – TV themes, zodiac signs, brother to York and Wessex – a voting key pad, a potted history of the TV game show from Take Your Pick through Bullseye to Mastermind, and an introduction to the incestuous “community” of WWTBAM, including Diana Ingram, her husband Major Charles and her nerdy brother Adrian.
The narrative, and the courtroom snippets, here are skewed to the Production Company’s prosecution case, and the audience vote at the commercial break is 90/10 against the Ingrams. But after the interval, we see the “facts” from the defendants’ perspective. We’re being manipulated again, of course, but less blatantly – the shooting of family pet Buffy the cat – and there’s a wonderful speech by the Portia for the defence [Sarah Woodward]. This time, the vote clears the trio by 57 to 43 – conspiracy theorists might note that, in 20 shows, this is the fifth time these exact percentages were recorded.
It’s given a glossy production almost in the round. “Just like the telly,” with shiny black studio floor and a neon cube centre stage. The intimate family moments work well, and less naturalistically, the choreographed coughing as the couple are hounded on the tube, the talk-back whispers, the invention of the Machine, rising like Frankenstein’s monster to the sound of Handel. As the Major is coached in the closed book of popular culture, there’s a brief glimpse of Coronation Street, and several excruciating visits to a Karaoke in Daventry.
Uniformly excellent performances – Bazely is the prosecution’s QC as well as the pub quiz man, Henry Pettigrew the pathetic brother, Jay Villiers the Judge as well as ITV boss Liddiment, a witness, and an unsympathetic police officer.
Mark Meadows plays Tecwen Whittock who allegedly did most of the coughing, as well as the Major’s commanding officer - a lovely moment where they share a love of G&S “I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral, I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical” ...
Stephanie Street gives us a likeable, though quiz-fixated and determined, Diana – Gavin Spokes squirms and sweats in the hot seat, a man out of his depth and his league. And Keir Charles plays not only Tarrant, all his mannerisms magnified on the huge monitors, but, his quick changes done at the edge of the stage, all the other smiling, smarmy quiz inquisitors [no, not Michael Miles, [who now remembers him?] but Des O’Connor, who took over Take Your Pick in the 90s], even briefly Brucie on VT.
As the show’s sales pitch has it:

Is Quiz:
A) The world premiere of a new play by acclaimed writer James Graham?
B) A provocative re-examination of the conviction of Charles Ingram, ‘the coughing Major’, for cheating, following his appearance on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
C) A hilarious celebration of the great tradition of the British quiz show?
D) A razor-sharp analysis of the 21st century’s dangerous new attitude to truth and lies?

All four, of course, is the correct answer, though I might have voted for B – based on the book Bad Show: The Quiz, the Cough, the Millionaire Major – the play shines an unflattering light on the media, the police, the production company and makes a cogent case, if not for exoneration, then at least for a re-examination of this curious affair.

production photograph: Johan Persson

Wednesday, November 22, 2017



BOSSY at Brentwood Theatre


A huge challenge to fit Victor Hugo’s epic onto the tiny Brentwood stage. BOSSY, who have been here before, wisely choose to emphasise the human stories rather than the wider picture.
The barricades [anyone for tennis?] are effective, with smoke and flashing lights from the battle beyond. Good work from the student militants here, and in the stillness of Drink With Me, the ante-bellum atmosphere poignantly suggested. Huge commitment from the ensemble for At the End of the Day, and the wedding ball looked good too – lovely gowns and convincing choreography. The ending makes a real impact: the simple tableau of Valjean’s death, with the newly-weds seated in front, before the company join in one last anthem, the youngest revolutionary up aloft, desperately waving the red flag of freedom.
Props and costumes vary in their impact – the map of Paris was excellent, the red tablecloth under it somewhat too small. The gates to Valjean’s garden on the rue Plumet, as so often, prove problematical, but once they are in place, there are some fine stage pictures for the operatic quartet and trio.
An excellent cast this time out, with some fine voices, despite the relative youth of these performers. Sam Harper makes a compelling Valjean, wonderfully sung with real emotional impact – Bring Him Home predictably moving. Joe Folley is Javert; a portrait of a man obsessed, with every word carefully shaped. He even convinces us that he is staring into the abyss before his final descent into the Seine.
Katherine Dodds plays Cosette, working well with her imposing Marius [Dan Pugh]. I might have liked a less introspective Empty Chairs – the phantom faces behind, strikingly lit, should not capture all our attention. Jodie Tarrant is the tragic Fantine, giving us a well-phrased I Dreamed a Dream, though it was a shame her eyes were obscured by her hat and the lighting. A superb Eponine from Tia Stack – one of the best On My Own I’ve seen, simply staged but with 100% emotional investment. As student leader Enjolras Jamie Wilson is in fine voice, and gives a captivating depiction of youthful idealism.
Enjoyable comic relief from the Thenardiers [Rosie Griffiths as the nasty Madame, Lady Macbeth to Michael Percival’s coarse, well-sung Monsieur]. Two nice little dance numbers for them, before each is dumped to the floor.
And Sam Johnson makes a great Gavroche – more Artful Dodger than innocent Oliver – a cocky young urchin engaging with his audience and making the most of his dramatic role in the uprising, even in his violent death, left largely to the imagination.

Not the ideal venue for the musical theatre MD, but Cathy Edkins provides solid support for her young singers, mostly on keyboards, though oboe and trombone are also prominent. Les Misérables is directed by Gaynor Wilson, bringing the familiar story to life, and encouraging some fine performances from soloists and ensemble.

Monday, November 20, 2017



Chelmsford City of Culture ?
One of the strongest recommendations, surely, would be that rare thing, an amateur ballet company performing regularly to the highest of standards.
Chelmsford Ballet Company has been established in the City for almost seventy years, and for 2018, they’ll be following up their successful Alice with a classical piece, Snow Queen, from 21st to 24th of March.
We’re promised glitter, sparkle, gorgeous costumes and music by Alexander Glazunov, who arranged Chopin’s piano works for Les Sylphides.
The story is based on Hans Anderson’s fairytale, a battle between good and evil as Gerda seeks to break the cruel spell cast by the evil Snow Queen; her adventures take her on a thrilling journey north through enchanted forests, encountering fantastical beasts and a colourful band of gypsies. She must find the Snow Queen’s Palace of Ice, rescue Kay, and break the curse of Eternal Winter. This production is choreographed by CBC’s Artistic Director Annette Potter.
Tickets for Snow Queen are now on sale – book at the Civic Theatre, by phone [ 01245 606505] or online -  

photograph by Andrew Potter: Samantha Ellis as the Snow Queen

Sunday, November 19, 2017



The Waltham Singers at Chelmsford Cathedral

This is the best of me,” - words of Ruskin quoted by Elgar at the end of the manuscript. Andrew Fardell and the Waltham Singers made a strong case in support of this assessment.
It is a great work, both in its conception and in the forces required.
As in their Lenten concert earlier this year, the instrumental accompaniment was provided by Ensemble Orquesta.
From the Prelude, with its fortissimo climaxes, it was clear that Elgar’s vision of the soul’s journey to the afterlife was in safe hands.
The first entry of the choir – as the Assistants, the friends who pray with him at the last – was beautifully judged. The women [the Angelicals] sang the contemplative passages to great effect - “O Generous Love”. And the final prayers of those left behind “Spare him, Lord” were movingly done. But they could not hope to replicate the huge choral societies that Elgar had in mind, and the “sullen howl” of the Demons struggled to make much impact against the thundering brass and percussion.
Jeremy White’s bass brought gravitas to the Priest and the repeated exhortations of the Angel of the Agony. Rebecca Afonwy-Jones’s pure mezzo was perfect for the Angel; this was a truly uplifting performance – her phrasing of the Alleluia and the moving passage in which she speaks of the fleeting sight of the Almighty were wonderfully expressive. As Gerontius, Joshua Ellicott was superb, a committed, dramatic interpretation, with every word audible, his virile tenor cutting thrillingly through the chorus and the orchestra.

photograph by Martin Cuthbert

Thursday, November 16, 2017



Hutton Players at Brentwood Theatre

A charming period piece, with two juicy roles for the more mature actress, two stock characters, and two cyphers for the younger generation.
Hutton Players – directed here by Patrick Stevens – field a fine sextet. The Widdington sisters, set all a-flutter by one Andrea Marowski, the Angel, the Greek God, the Polish violinist washed up on their Cornish shore, are Kathy Smith and Lindsey Crutchett, the latter especially moving as long suppressed desires are rekindled, and sibling rivalry upsets their tranquil lives. The scene in which she finishes reading The Little Mermaid as Andrea sleeps on the floor is beautifully judged.
Ruddy cheeked, outspoken Dorcas, who enjoys making a fuss and baking, is given a lovely comic performance by June Fitzgerald, while the local doctor, widower and amateur fiddler, is confidently played by William Wells.
The “artistic visitor”, sketching the shoreline and helping Andrea launch his performing career, is Louise Bridgman – her subplot scene with Dr Mead excellently played - and the enigmatic shipwrecked Pole himself is Lewis Symes.
The set is a delight – Aunt Elizabeth’s counterpane, the azure seascape simply suggested, the pre-war wireless, inhabited by Vernon Keeble-Watson’s BBC announcer, doubtless dinner-jacketed. Only the garden gate jars – better left to the imagination, perhaps.

There is, of course, much music, including a little of Nigel Hess’s splendid score for the film. It might have been better to record the first extract especially [without piano], but the frozen, spotlit solos for Andrea are very effective. Even for the unlikely Toccata of his London début, the sisters listening in at home, dressed in their Sunday best.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017


Springers at the Cramphorn Theatre

Soho’s Old Compton Street has a chequered, sleazy history. Nowadays it’s best known for its gay bars, the Admiral Duncan, and the Prince Edward Theatre.
It provides the setting, and the opening number, for this Stiles and Drewe musical, very loosely based on the Cinderella story.
A flat brick wall, with Ian Myers and his band just visible over the top, with the Glam Amour strip club in front, and the Sit and Spin launderette trucked on and off stage centre.
The pre-show sees the street peopled with a “promiscuous pot-pourri”: cops and joggers, tourists and Mormons. There’s a hen-do, too [my second this week].
Justin Clarke’s engaging production, with choreography by Kat McKeon, has many inspired touches: the Spin number, the slomo movement for Gypsies of the Ether, the circling paparazzi vultures, the excellent chorus work in Who’s That Boy.
Some impressive performances, too. Kieran Young is the young man who goes to the [political fundraising] ball, and loses not a slipper but a smartphone – a nicely nuanced approach, and lovely vocal work, in his Glass Slippers solo, for instance.
Catherine Gregory makes the most of Sidesaddle – her rickshaw becomes the Coach – while Gareth Locke relishes the sexist Campaign Manager [a cheer from the audience when he got his just deserts] to James Prince, the personable ex-swimmer who hopes to be elected as London’s next mayor. Ben Miller catches the angst of the ambitious man who’s desperate to play it straight. His fiancée, who suffers more than anyone when it all goes wrong, is Amy Serin; she has a moving duet with Velcro, “fag hag to the West End”, Robbie’s best mate and confidante, beautifully captured by Mae Pettigrew.
Favourites with the crowd, though, as often in the panto, are the Ugly Sisters – Sophie Lines and Becky Watts. Shameless, homophobic, greedy for profit and celebrity, they light up the stage every time they appear, and certainly deserve their Fifteen Minutes big number.
A lectern narration is not the best dramatic device – even when given by Stephen Fry – and often seemed redundant in a fully staged production. The lyrics and the dialogue do not always live up to the music; Hard to Tell a witty exception.
The show was warmly received [at the Soho Theatre, round the corner on Dean Street, and no bigger than the Cramphorn] in 2012, but it has yet to break through into the mainstream. So we should be grateful to Springers for this opportunity to enjoy this edgy alternative fairy tale.

production photograph: Aaron Crowe

Monday, November 13, 2017



The Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch enters its 65th year, with the classic thriller, Rope. Running from 15 February – 3 March, Patrick Hamilton’s dark drama was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1948 and is based on a 1920’s real life case. It will be directed by the theatre’s Artistic Director Douglas Rintoul and co-produced with New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich.
And the Queen’s is partnering with Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg again to produce Diane Samuels’ heart-warming classic Kindertransport in association with Selladoor Productions. Running from 8 – 24 March, it marks the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport and 25 years since this moving modern classic was written.
Finally, disco royalty rolls into town with the glamorous regional professional premiere of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert the Musical from 27 April – 19 May. Based on the smash-hit movie, this popular cult musical is written by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott and directed by Douglas Rintoul .

Season tickets are already on sale - call the Box Office on 01708 443333 or visit


The National Theatre at the Olivier

Rory Mullarkey’s new play is an enjoyably old-fashioned affair. And not only the opening scene [it’s really a three-act play] which is done in cod-Chaucerian verse. The last third, after the interval, is set in the present day, but agreeably free of expletives.
It’s an ambitious exploration of the legend of St George, and the cross which was his symbol but now has a multitude of meanings.
He comes home to an England he remembers as an Eden, a perfect isle. “A Knight there was ...” the tale begins, as he descends through the stalls, a messianic figure in a flowing robe and his “sunrise russet” locks. But he finds England much changed, darker, more dismal, ruled by a traditional dragon.
Our hero, a naive, likeable dragon-slayer, with moments of self-doubt, moments of epic bombast, is engagingly played by John Heffernan, bringing out the quiet humour of the writing. His Dragon, very much a pantomime villain, at least in his first incarnation, is done with evident relish by Julian Beach.
We are quickly introduced to the villagers, medieval types named for their trades. As with Blackadder, they crop up again in the second part, set in the Industrial Revolution, with the Dragon in a giant capitalist top hat. And again in the 21st century, when tower blocks have obliterated the town which replaced the village.
Many fine performances, from Gawn Granger as the old man, Jason Barnett as the Crier [“Oyez...”], Joe Caffrey as Smith, Jeff Rawle as Brewer the inn-keeper. The Dragon’s henchman, or aide-de-camp, a complex character, key to the story’s development, is Richard Goulding. And the Saint’s love interest – the old man’s daughter – is given a memorable performance by Amaka Okafor. And the boy, another key character, was confidently played, when I saw it, by Reuel Guzman.
Lyndsey Turner pulls out all the stops to do justice to the epic scale of the story. The aerial battle with the triple-headed dragon is a powerful blend of narration, reaction and old-fashioned special effects as the heads crash and burn in a most spectacular fashion. Rae Smith’s design – a Ravilious landscape, with a model village/town/city built on it, and a kitchen for each era – is perfect for the piece, which seems very much at home in the spacious Olivier.
We are left to ponder what the play is about. The dragon, by the end, is no longer a foe to be challenged, but the enemy within each one of us. The England that has appropriated the noble flag is a selfish, soul-less place, hen parties and football in the pub. Elsa, now a teacher, finds herself crying on the bus.
The playwright deliberately does not set it in England, though it’s a very close match - “an island much like our own”. It’s not a state-of-the-nation play, though the programme reflects on our national identity, on heroes [and villains] and our need for stories. And this is a fairy tale, a myth – as George, completely adrift in the present day, says,“I am a legend.”
It would be unkind to reveal the ending, but it is sufficiently ambiguous to allow for optimism or despair as we wonder whether the dragon can ever be defeated.

Photograph: Johan Persson

Sunday, November 12, 2017


Writtle Singers at All Saints’ Church

Unaccompanied songs of anticipation, grief and regret in this beautifully crafted sequence of music and readings.
The Singers began with Sterndale Bennett’s 1846 setting of Marlowe’s Come Live With Me, and ended with the equally upbeat Swansea Town, by Gustav Holst.
The Thaxted composer was also represented by a polished performance of his Five Part Songs – the first, Dream Tryst, could easily have been mistaken for Sullivan [not represented this time …].
Finzi’s spare settings of Elegies by Scots poet William Drummond were followed by Maxwell Davies’s beautiful Lullabye for Lucy. Tavener’s poignant Song for Athene was superbly sung; a selection of Parry’s Songs of Farewell included Campion’s Never Weather-beaten Sail and Vaughan’s My Soul, There is a Country.
The only non-British, non-English work was Whitacre’s hauntingly beautiful Lux Aurumque.
The readings, by Martyn Richards, included Great War poems written by women – Aelfrida Tillyard’s rationing rhyme of 1916 a parody of the Marlowe – as well as Carol Ann Duffy’s Last Post, written to mark the death in 2009 of the last of the Tommies who fought in that war.
The Writtle Singers were conducted, and the pieces were introduced by Christine Gwynn, who can now look back on twenty years at the helm. The future looks bright, too, with no fewer than six new voices in the ranks this time out. This is, alas, my last review of this excellent village choir. I can look back even further to less certain times, and I look forward to hearing many more of these carefully curated concerts in All Saints’.
Their next is the always popular Carols by Candlelight on Wednesday December 13.

Last Post

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud…
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home-
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
not entering the story now
to die and die and die.
Dulce- No- Decorum- No- Pro patria mori.
You walk away.
You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)
like all your mates do too-
Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert-
and light a cigarette.
There's coffee in the square,
warm French bread
and all those thousands dead
are shaking dried mud from their hair
and queuing up for home. Freshly alive,
a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released
from History; the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.
You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.
If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
then it would.

Saturday, November 11, 2017


LipService Theatre 
at the Cramphorn Theatre
for The Reviews Hub

LipService have a dedicated following for their unique brand of literary fun – it’s good to see them bringing their tour of Mr Darcy Loses the Plot to the Cramphorn, their first visit here for some years.
It’s a two-woman band; like all their shows this spiffing spoof is written and performed by Maggie Fox – the loftier of the two, a “fine tall presence” as our Mr Darcy – and Sue Ryding. Like Thrills and Quills, their other show currently on the road, it draws its inspiration from the oeuvre of Jane Austen. But other women writers worm their way into the proceedings – Gaskell, Potter and Du Maurier inter alia – as the character of Darcy flows from the Austen pen. It transpires that he is less than happy with the way his role is developing – the dashing Mr Wickham seems to be getting all the romantic action. In a fit of frustration, seeking a more exciting storyline, he finds himself in Manderley having close encounters with Mrs Danvers (she’s just like Judith Anderson in the movie) and the mousey second Mrs de Winter.
The intimate setting is furnished with screens and ottomans adorned by quilts, contributed by a cottage industry of devoted, creative fans. There’s a multimedia element, too, with the Netherfield ballroom sequence especially effective, and a chance to relive that notorious scene by the lake. The video inserts work brilliantly, with the live action blending almost seamlessly with the version on screen. The “outdoor swimming” is especially surreal, with a Lego Darcy, homespun special effects, and our hero stranded on the beach at Manderley, before being tempted back to the Parsonage for his big scene, The Proposal. The mobile screens effect the transitions between one scene and the next. The two-dimensional Mr Bingham is a cardboard cut-out before his character is fleshed out, and much use is made of puppets and dolls to people the stage. With Wickham’s teenage groupies, for example.
Virtue is continually made of necessity – the modest means and the makeshift effects are celebrated. Jasper the dog, for instance, is much funnier than one could imagine, not to mention Bingley melting into the background, his waistcoat a perfect match for the wallpaper. Irony and in-jokes abound. We occasionally stray into the present day – the first writer we meet is modern, penning this very piece. She has a nice, if irrelevant, riff on cloud storage. Other references, while amusing, seem a little dated: Basil Brush, say, or “Man at V&A”.
But the comedy is endlessly inventive – the chamber pot, mercifully unseen, Bingley and Darcy struggling to have a convincing man-chat, a candlestick telephone ringing in a handbag. Mrs Gaskell, dark satanic mills belching smoke behind her head, uses the wicked Wickham not in North and South but in Mary Barton. Mrs Potter makes him a scarlet-clad foxy gentleman eager to make a meal of the excruciatingly upper-middle-class Jemima Puddleduck.
It’s all very silly, great fun and more than a little bonkers. It probably works best for those fortunate enough to have read all the books in question. But there’s a wonderful chemistry between these two very funny women, and their warm, generous performances leave us all feeling a little more educated, and richly entertained.