Sunday, December 31, 2017




Lots of retrospectives, with critics picking their favourite treats of the year gone by.
I’ve not done too well in 2017, to judge by the Guardian’s choices – several lists, including this democratic selection. Just Emma Rice’s lovely Romantics Anonymous, and the National’s superb Follies. And of course I was not invited to either.
But this, my last year in the reviewer’s seat, has provided many delights, from the obscure and unlooked-for to old favourites.
Musically, an outstanding year for the Waltham Singers. With Music for Lent and Gerontius in the Cathedral. Of many other concerts, the inspired Devil’s Violin lingers in the memory, and on the Civic stage, Chelmsford Ballet Company’s Alice proved a remarkable achievement, followed by another stunning Ballet Central show.
Many marvellous musicals, I’m pleased to say: Forbidden Planet at Witham, Hot Mikado at Brentwood, Miss Saigon at school. The most inventive Shakespeare ? The fairground Dream at the Rose Playhouse.
Strong showings from Colchester Mercury, with a “definitive” Spamalot as well as the Peter Pan summer show, and from our own CTW, who staged a superb Casa Valentina and a “near faultless” One Day When We WereYoung.



Essex Youth Orchestra with Essex Youth Chamber Choir
Rotary Club of Chelmer Bridge 
at Chelmsford Cathedral

The EYO has been celebrating its 60th anniversary, and this great concert enabled us to share in the festivities.
Rotary have been promoting these New Year concerts for some years – not always seasonal Strauss, though I recall one memorable evening with John Georgiadis. This year they were joined by the Essex Youth Chamber Choir, another branch of Essex Music.
Simon Warne’s excellently disciplined choir gave us Howard Goodall’s 23rd Psalm – aka The Vicar of Dibley – Bob Chilcott’s Give Me The Strength, from his Life Cycle cantata, and an arrangement of a traditional spiritual, Standing in the Need of Prayer.
They combined with the orchestra for Vivaldi’s Gloria: a very impressive performance, conducted by Robin Browning. He managed to achieve an excellent balance, despite having a small choir, of largely untrained, sometimes immature voices, behind sizeable instrumental forces. A spirited interpretation, too – lively strings in the opening Gloria – with fine solo work from the players, oboe and cello, for example, and from the singers: three sopranos for the Domine Deus, and Kerensa Newcombe for the later movements, returning after the Qui Sedes to pick up her trumpet for the triumphant ending.
A pity we were not given a little more help in the programme – not necessarily text and translations, but at least a list of the movements.
No such problem with everyone’s favourite Christmas ballet, The Nutcracker. Robin Browning talked us through the extracts, from the Christmas Eve party to the Waltz of the Snowflakes, from the Land of Sweets and its colourful divertissements to the heart-on-sleeve Pas de Deux. A real treat to hear the music at such close quarters, with the wordless chorus behind the violins, Tchaikovsky given a welcome freshness by these young players. As Browning pointed out, what is a bread-and-butter warhorse to the ROH pit band is a new discovery for these youngsters, playing it for the first time.

It was preceded by Witches, a curtain raiser written by Caroline Penn, the EYO’s leader. Her very own hexentanz, with exciting brass and thrilling percussion.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017


Hutton & Shenfield Choral Society at the Brentwood Centre

Steeped in tradition and Christmas spirit, this musical treat heralds the start of the festivities for many.
Accompanied by the excellent Aurelian Symphony Orchestra, the choir gave us Rutter, of course: his Angels’ Carol, with Lynne Creasey’s harp, and the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol, with Ann Miller’s piccolo. Plus a toe-tapping I Saw Three Ships, and a splendid choral Jingle Bells. Carols for the audience, too, beginning, as custom dictates, with Once in Royal, and ending with Hark the Herald. They were conducted with infectious enthusiasm by Tim Hooper.
Guests included Santa Claus, descending through the audience to reward the children who’d just sung Away in a Manger. The choir from St Thomas of Canterbury, directed by Anna Dunn, with Tim Smith at the keyboard, singing some lovely, less familiar, Christmas songs, including Gonna Catch That Santa, complete with harmonies and hand movements. The children joined the adults for an arrangement of Calypso Carol, commissioned last year for the Society’s 50th anniversary.
Chelmsford Ballet Company revived some favourite moments from this year’s Civic production, Alice's Adventures – flocks of flamingos, packs of playing cards, Tweedles Dum and Dee, all dancing to Carl Davis’s score played live – and, as a foretaste of next year’s Snow Queen perhaps, Ice Maidens.

Graham Padden was the narrator for Philip Lane’s setting of The Night Before Christmas, and also for the highlight of the evening, a witty setting by Edward Watson of John Julius Norwich’s hilarious Twelve Days of Christmas. Hissing geese from the choir, swans from Paul Lockyer’s cello, drummers of course, but, thankfully no bagpipes, the chanter melody provided by the violin of Aurelian’s leader, Philippa Barton.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017


Stondon Singers at the Priory Church of St Laurence


This year’s concert of carols – a cherished advent tradition for many – was a fine blend of familiar favourites and fresh discoveries.

A score of offerings, including four congregational carols. Beginning with the much-loved We Will Rock You, and ending with a setting of Tennyson by the Finnish composer Jussi Chydenius.
The central work was Cecilia McDowall’s Christmas Cantata, A Winter’s Night, a sequence of five contrasting seasonal pieces, with plenty of work for the organ, played by Michael Frith. The instrument also featured in an assertive modern arrangement of We Three Kings.
The choir produced a precise, balanced sound, with good support from the lower voices. Amongst many other festive pleasures, we enjoyed the Song of the Nuns of Chester, of which the manuscript survives from the fifteenth century – an excellent choice for this medieval church. A rare performance of Imogen Holst’s Out of Your Sleep, two charming, melodic pieces by Alan Bullard and Pierre Villette [an excellent performance of his Hymne a la Vierge] and The Truth Sent from Above for divided choir by the Singers’ conductor, Christopher Tinker. A setting moving in its simplicity, redolent of the ancient world of plainchant and the folk tradition from which the words spring.

Voices In The Mist
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The time draws near the birth of Christ:
The moon is hid; the night is still;
The Christmas bells from hill to hill
Answer each other in the mist.

Four voices of four hamlets round,
From far and near, on mead and moor,
Swell out and fail, as if a door
Were shut between me and the sound:

Each voice four changes on the wind,
That now dilate, and now decrease,
Peace and goodwill, goodwill and peace,
Peace and goodwill, to all mankind.

Monday, December 18, 2017


Chichester Youth Theatre at Chichester Festival Theatre

No compromises in this year’s Youth Theatre offering. The deeper themes and complex emotions are fearlessly explored. And all the professional support – music, design, choreography and more – that makes Chichester musicals so special is devoted to the service of these talented young performers.
This is a poignant re-imagining of the fairy tale – scripted by Anna Ledwich, with songs by Richard Taylor. As the lyrics say in the final scene, “not at all at all what we expected”.
The core story is framed, and shaped, by evacuees, leaving London for the Sussex countryside, and billeted in a creepy old country house. Sinister rumblings, an off-limits South Wing, a strict housekeeper all make the displaced youngsters nervous – they devise a scenario, which they share with newcomers, and with us, the audience. And a game of hide and seek leads us in to some dark places and the fairytale proper.
The two title characters are superbly imagined, and confidently portrayed. Beauty [Mia Cunningham-Stockdale] is named less for her looks than for her virtue; she’s a feisty horticulturalist, the Cordelia who rejects a ball-gown for a gold lamé trouser suit. And eventually saves the Beast with a wonderful love duet.
He’s played by Hal Darling, inside an amazing exoskeleton puppet, magnifying his every move as his voice is manipulated. He’s genuinely scary but believably human, powerful but vulnerable.
There are many other memorable characters – Mr Villeneuve [George Bailey], tea merchant and Beauty’s father, his ugly-sister daughters and his dim twittish sons, Winston the pack-horse puppet, Dot D’Otter the messenger, Kiki the outrageously camp stylist [Crispin Glancy], Reg the Racoon. Not forgetting the refugee children themselves, who carry much of the narrative.
The show is packed with magic and marvellous stagecraft – big production numbers like the feast and the London sequence, and a wonderful library with avian volumes flapping overhead. Exemplary ensemble work, with every performer given a distinct character.
Beauty and the Beast is directed by Dale Rooks, with designer Simon Higlett, costume designer Ryan Dawson Laight, movement director Lizzi Gee and puppetry specialist Nick Barnes. How fortunate these youngsters are to gain experience in this professional environment, and how lucky Chichester is to have such a fantastic Christmas show … pantos, after all, are two-a-penny …

many of the roles are double-cast – the names here are those appearing on Press Night

production photograph: Pete Jones

Sunday, December 17, 2017


Patricia Routledge and Piers Lane 
at the Minerva, Chichester Festival Theatre

As another memorable Chichester season ends, we are reminded of the opening show – 40 Years On. Like that show, which includes a specific reference to “lunchtime concerts in the National Gallery”, this exquisite entertainment includes Chamberlain’s broadcast, and a cheiromant giving a surprising reading on the eve of war.

It’s the simplest of formats, devised back in 2009 by Nigel Hess, great-nephew of Dame Myra Hess, the concert pianist whose wartime concerts, now the stuff of legend, did so much for the morale of Londoners in the darkest days of the Blitz.

Faced with the “cultural blackout” after the declaration of war in 1939 – theatre organist Sandy McPherson the only live musical offering on the BBC - she used her contacts and her steely determination to ensure that there would be music every day in the octagonal room. The concerts lasted throughout the war; many musicians performed, all for a flat rate token fee. Hess was helped by Kenneth Clark, the National Gallery’s Director, and by countless volunteers, such as her friend Joyce Grenfell, glimpsed spreading cottage cheese “like one possessed”.

In Patricia Routledge’s compelling performance, Hess emerges as a strong woman, but modest, with a gentle sense of humour. She’s joined on the stage by Piers Lane. Seated, like Dame Myra, at a Steinway, he intersperses the recollections with some of the music those wartime audiences might have heard - Beethoven, Brahms, with a surprise crescendo to cover the whine of a doodlebug, Chopin, her trademark Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring.
And on a screen behind the performers, a glimpse of those original audiences – a weary civil servant, eyes closed, his attaché case in the aisle beside him, and a young woman, seated on the floor, hair pinned up, cheap print frock. Was she, we wonder, one of the thousands who wandered into the Gallery by chance, to have a love of chamber music kindled that would last a lifetime ? “Never,” wrote Clark, “had people seemed so transformed by music.”

Wednesday, December 13, 2017



at Brentwood Theatre


The much-loved C S Lewis classic is not easy to bring off on stage.
This American version from the 80s, book by Jules Tasca, music by Thomas Tierney with lyrics by Ted Drachman, is a full-blown musical with some pleasant tunes for all – captures the excitement of the Pevensies’ adventure, and even manages a brief Blitz frame.
There’s magic, too, in Ray Howes' warm-hearted production, with the White Stag [Emma White, also a spirited Mrs Beaver] dancing with fairy dust for the Overture. The land of Narnia is suggested by an impressive Gothic-inspired set, though the wardrobe seems somewhat understated.
A company of eight young actors bring the characters to life with infectious enthusiasm. Connor Kelly is an excellent Edmund, completely convincing as the boy who’s seduced by the White Queen’s promise of Turkish Delight. His sisters are Elize Layton’s Lucy and Katie Lawrence’s Susan – their singing in Field of Flowers is a musical highlight. Tom Brooks doubles delightfully as the brave Peter and the bearded dwarf who drags the White Queen’s chariot around. She’s played, with a touch of the Demon King, by Lydia Shaw, beautifully attired and made up. Aslan, the Lion who heads the forces of Good, is Philip McParland, who’s also the wise professor. His characterization is not helped by his head-dress, which sits awkwardly atop his mane and his own face. Noblest in profile, it must be a disappointment for a generation raised on Cats and The Lion King. Guido Garcia Lueches is a wonderful Mr Tumnus as well as Mr Beaver.
There are plenty of musical numbers – Andy Prideaux the MD - some more appropriate than others. No problem with a jolly knees-up for the Beavers, but it seems inappropriate to trivialise torture and martyrdom with “Murder Today”.

The opening number - “Doors and Windows” - sets out some fine sentiments about what the Prof calls “the architecture of possibilities”. Not easy language, or ideas, for the audience from Margaretting Church of England Primary School. But they seemed rapt by the story, unfamiliar to many of them I’m sure, of Good driving out Evil, the children lost now found, Springtime melting Narnia’s perpetual winter and the world made right again ...

"Aslan Returns" artwork by Jonathan Barry


The Crick Crack Club at the British Museum

The Ramayana is a vast, sprawling epic, which has come down to us in many forms. Largely through oral traditions.
So it is a good choice for storytelling specialists the Crick Crack Club; their presentation is much abbreviated, and wholly absorbing.
We’re promised a battle between good and evil, truth and illusion.
The tangled chain of tales is told by Emily Hennessey, with Sheema Mukherjee providing not only a wonderfully evocative musical soundscape, but also a rapt listener, and vocal support at key moments in the drama.
Hennessey, a performer steeped in the legend and lore of India, draws us in to the world of gods and avatars, as she follows the legend of Rama and Sita through time and across continents. “There was once a man and a woman,” she begins, “And they longed for children ...” But gods Brahma and Vishnu warn that the stars cannot be re-aligned; only Shiva, the destroyer, holds out hope, but warns that there will be consequences …
And at the end of the two-hour tale our storyteller reminds us that in our own world it’s not always easy to distinguish gods from demons, truth from illusion.
Will there be loads of special effects?” wondered one of the many children in the audience. Of course ! – the very best kind, Cerebrally Generated Images, conjured by the story-teller’s art, of sea monsters, air-borne chariots, a golden deer, Shiva’s marvellous palace, the flying monkey Hanuman, ta mricaulous blue arrow, the paradise isle of Lanka, the ten-headed Ravana, the cosmic battle between monkeys and demons.

The Crick Crack Club return to the British Museum on February 11, this time with “Greek myths unleashed”.

Sunday, December 10, 2017


Eastern Angles at The Sir John Mills Theatre

Another helping of seasonal jollity and surreal fun, this time from the pen of Harry Long. Not a spoof on the original, he insists. Perhaps an hommage.
Just as hilarious, and still recognizable, but with a very different feel, not least because the string quartet has now become a troupe of luvvies, putting on their Oscar Wilde as a front for some serious house-breaking. And, unlike their predecessors in the Ealing comedy, these jailbirds are really talented musicians.
Sean Turner’s set is one of the best we’ve seen at this address, with a staircase, and a perilously small upper floor for the little old lady’s easy chair. The upright piano doubles as the counter at the local nick, where weary coppers listen to Mrs Blaine’s imaginative accounts of wrongdoing on Ipswich’s “glorious boulevard”.
She’s wonderfully created by Emma Barclay, who thanks to some smart quick changes and a life-size cardboard alter ego, is also Cow Crusher, the brains of the gang. Todd Heppenstall is a menacing Left Eye, Alex Prescot the stage-struck Smithy – a touch of tap for his Chorus Line moment – as well as Mr Overlock, theatrical costumier. The depressing pessimist Kim, who finally finds love and a crystal chandelier, is played by Keshini Misha, and the strangely named Scar Feet – One Round in the original – is the excellent Daniel Copeland, last seen here, with Long, in Holy Mackerel.
Dominic Conway’s music includes On the Run, for the five convicts, the title number [“too charming to blame”], and a Les Miz tribute – One Job More – as they prepare for their last heist.
Veteran of the barricades Michael Ball is the subject of an often saucy running gag, Binkie’s friend Gladys makes a last minute cameo appearance on lead guitar, Michael Fish the pet penguin descends in his cage from the flies. There’s an inspired use of Lapsang Souchong, a very nice effect with vintage footlights and some stage curtains, and, as an Act Two warm-up, a chance for the capacity crowd to have their moment of fame in some innovative digital audience participation.
Not perhaps the finest “Yeasty Mangles” vintage, but in Laura Keefe’s fast-paced production, a warming feel-good tipple, enhanced of course by the traditional hot punch and mince pies in the interval.

From Gatacre Road the show travels to Woodbridge in January, and is finally re-located to Orton Brimbles for its Peterborough run.

production photograph: Mike Kwasniak

Saturday, December 09, 2017


CTW at The Old Court Theatre
Shakespeare’s problem comedy – a star vehicle for the fat rascal - seems to cry out for music; there’s a long roster of adaptations from Salieri to Sullivan, Verdi to Vaughan Williams. And only a few years ago the RSC did a musical version, not too successfully.
Peter Jeary’s take is a very different kettle of pickle herring. A juke box musical, with songs of the sixties to provide interludes and insights into plot and character.
The idea was prompted by the Whitehall farce, a genre both apposite and ripe for parody.
It all works disgracefully well, despite some challenges in the execution. Not hard to imagine this being suggested for a professional company of actor/musicians.
CTW fields a strong cast, who generally cope well with the sometimes conflicting demands of Shakespeare and the Sixties songbook.
Stock characters, many of them, from David Johnson’s Robertson Hare vicar to Bruce Thomson’s hilarious Gallic Caius. Sarah Bell – a char with hoover and drooping ciggie – is a fine Mistress Quickly. A lovely, dense Slender – parka and Brummagem – from Alexander Bloom; the young lovers are Charlotte Norburn and James Fletcher. But it’s old lust rather than young love centre stage here, with Dave Hawkes’ lubricious Falstaff, sporting some outrageous 60s military clobber, clumsily courting the two married ladies of the title. They are excellently done by Nikita Eve and Rachel Curran. Musically secure, with a real chemistry between them, they are particularly successful in letting Shakespeare speak, and making sure the Bard gets the laughs he’s written. Their husbands are Simon Hirst, giving a nice period performance as Page, and Tom Tull as the jealous Ford, making the most of his numbers, including a powerful Delilah.
Some songs work better than others. Ring of Fire fits perfectly for the fancy-dress fairies in the forest finale, with “marvellous night for a moondance” to set the scene. An ironic Look of Love opens the second half, Presley’s Suspicion is ingeniously staged, with three smoking lovers seducing Ford’s wife behind his back. And was that Wimoweh for the wives’ “confession” in dumb-show – brilliant !
The music - all of it live - is done by Nick Mayes – who also plays Slender’s servant Peter Simple. Some issues with balance between backing and vocals, and between dialogue and songs, meant that the unplugged pieces worked rather better in the context of the play.
The costumes and the set both very evocative of the period, though the set – split by a strange black hole in the centre – finds it hard to melt into the background.
Despite some dumbing down and desperate double entendres, this is a very enjoyable take on Shakespeare, all done in two hours. By the sing-along Everlasting Love line-up the audience will include some new converts to CTW and, we hope, to Shakespearean comedy.

Monday, December 04, 2017


One from the Heart at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford

A portentous start, with Richard Strauss, a star cloth and a flying mirror, but One from the Heart soon get into their panto stride in a show, directed by Kerris Peeling, that’s packed with comedy routines and high octane musical numbers.
The USP this year is The Man in the Mirror – not Michael Jackson, but Louie Westwood’s silver-suited camp dynamo, combining the role of narrator and Good Fairy – with the pyrotechnics to prove it. A very engaging performance, his That’s The Way I Like It catch phrase (courtesy of KC and the Sunshine Band) quickly getting the young audience on side. He proves a decent song and dance man, too, in his opening number, Live in Living Color from Catch Me If You Can.
He’s backed by four lithe chorus boys, students from Laine Theatre Arts and Bird College. An ensemble of eight in all, including three local dance students, who pop up to contribute some excellent steps – choreography by Chris Whittaker – behind practically every number: Someone in the Crowd from La La Land, Wake Me Up, Cut to the Feeling from Ballerina, Nothing Holding Me Back, and another triumph for the Man in the Mirror, now sporting a rainbow hat, Sweet Charity’s If My Friends Could See Me Now. Though musical theatre buffs will point out that although “food” might make more sense than “chow”, it doesn’t actually rhyme …
Some choices seem more relevant to the plot than others: Holding Out for a Hero works well in context, with a cheeky nod to Les Miz at the end.
Useful to have these extra bodies to fill the wide Civic stage, not to mention the “seven fun-sized helpers”, the synonymous dwarfs excellently done by the Green Team of local boys and girls on Press Night. “Ho Hi, we cry,” they sing, in an impudent gesture to Disney. Because there are only six actors to cover the characters; no king, no attendant for the hunky Prince Henry (Dominic Sibanda, another fine dancer).
Abigail Carter Simpson is a lively Snow White in her “classic black bob” and puff sleeves, Dickie Wood an energetic comedian as a streetwise Muddles, silly son to Andrew Fettes’ Nurse Nellie. A rather shouty dame, perhaps – the decibel level high on both sides of the footlights, but brilliant in the demanding comedy routines. The wicked Queen Grizelda is done with a touch of the Valkyries by Jenny-Ann Topham.
Simon Aylin’s script is patchy – a few desultory topical gags, and a puzzling reference to Dukes, which as Chelmsford clubbers will know, has been closed for five years. But he does include some lovely panto favourites. The man-scoffing skeletons from the ghost routine let loose in the auditorium, a super tongue-twister based on the Prince’s homeland of Asfaria, the echoing wishing well, the classic quick-fire Three Houses nonsense, and two novelty numbers, The Music Man, with gestures, before the wedding, and an energetic Twelve Days, giving the crew time to set the cottage, and finishing with another favourite, the wicked super-soaker water cannon to drench the punters.
James Doughty’s pit band gives superb support to all those punchy numbers – even Agadoo, once voted the worst song of all time …
The big finish has fresh frocks for all, five treads for the walk-down, and a smashing megamix finale for the whole company. Leaving the audience happily exhausted by another enjoyable Civic panto.