The Sound of Music

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 18 October)

It must be the most popular musical of the 20th century. The Sound of Music is currently singing its way on a national tour in an intelligent new production by Martin Connor designed by Gary McCann and with musical direction by Kelvin Towse. The mountain-painted drop-curtain and flats are framed (literally) by a false proscenium with baroque flourishes, suggesting a traditional world into which the harsh realities of the late 1930s intrude uncomfortably.

It looks good and there are some excellent singing voices, notably among the nuns and most especially Jan Hartley’s Abbess. The sound balance took some time to adjust itself on the Norwich opening night, particularly affecting Lucy O’Bryne’s well-acted and thoroughly credeible Maria and Howard Samuels’s pragmatic Max. Lucy van Gasse makes Elsa nto something more than a two-dimensional potential wicked stepmother and Annie Holland’s Lisl is sweet of voice, forceful of personality and a lyrical dancer as well.

Andrew Lancel is very much an actor who can sing; because he doesn’t initially play von Trapp for instant sympathy, the character’s obvious political integrity then acts as a burnish to his dawning feelings about Maria. Bill Deamer’s choreography has its highspots in the first act duet for Kane Verrall’s embryonic Nazi Rolf and 16-going-on-17 Lisl and in the ballroom scene ländler.

The six smaller von Trapp children (Isabel Godden’s Gretl and Louis Rice’s Friedrich particularly good at the performance I saw) are as show-stopping as they should be. In many ways, this is an old-fashioned staging with a conviction in the performances and an attention to the requirements of the score missing from many more modern musicals. It asks to be taken seriously and the audience responds to that request. Which is just as it should be.

The Sound of Music runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 22 October with matinées on 20 and 22 October.

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Night Must Fall

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswih on 17 October)

Most people, if they’re honest, admit to loving a good murder mystery. But what about the perpretator? There reactions are much more mixed. Do we simply shudder at the crime itself and the (often sordid and downright mercenary) motives behind it – or do we try to get into the murderer’s skull, analyse what drove him (or her) to the deed or even feel a fellow feeling. There but by the grace of God…

Emlyn Williams’ classic exploration of the dual personality of a murderer Night Must Fall takes us on just such a journey. We know that Dan (Will Featherstone) has killed at least once before he even sets foot on the stage. We sspect who will be his next target – the irasible wealthy widow Mrs Bramson (Gwen Taylor), tyrannising over her dependent niece Olivia (Niamh McGrady), her staff and most other regular visitors.

What we learn only gradually is how Dan’s chameleon-like personality dazzles even the most sceptical of the people with whom he comes into contact. From being a teenage bell-hop at a nearby hotel, he metamorphoses before our eyes into an all-purpose handyman and then an intimate of Mrs Bramson’s home in a remote Essex village, which is surrounded by forest. it’s a measure of the strength of Featherstone’s portrait that we can follow why he attracts at the same time as why he repels.

You need equally forceful performances to keep the balance. Dan’s comes-and-goes Welsh inflection is cut across by Taylor’s thoroughly npleasant if well-spoken grande dame. McGrady gives us Olivia’s unhappiness as well as the touch of steel which makes her refuse Hubert (Alasdair Buchan)’s sincere proposal of marriage. You can also see why she is attracted to Dan, perhaps sensing that he could be the missing part of her own torn personality.

Buchan has in many ways the most difficult part in the play; a well-meaning bumbler incapable of inspiring affection either in Olivia or us, that eavesdropping fourth-wall of the bungalow. Darach O’Malley’s Inspector Belsize has the right sort of seen-it-all-before authority. Director Luke Sheppard keeps the action fast-moving, sometime at the expense of vocal clarity on the part of the smaller roles. David Woodhead’s set is correctly realistic and in period, with costumes of the mid-1930s to match.

There’s a touch of the filmic about Howard Hudson’s lighting plots; the same is true of Harry Black’s soundscape whch heightens the tension at key moments with great subtlety. Williams was of course a performer as well as a writer, and he wrote himself a role which obviously played to his strengths. Given a revival such as this by Original Theatre, the Salisbury Playhouse and Eatbourne Theatres, you can enjoy the sheer theatrical craftsmanship of it all.

Night Must Fall runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 22 October with matinées on 19 and 22 October. It can also be seen at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff between 31 October and 5 November.

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The Full Monty

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 10 October)

The front rows of the audience for this touring production seem the province of a flight of chittering chattering young women, much like the ones who spill out onto the stage in the play itself after a performance by The Chippendales. Simon Beaufoy’s script is based on the 1997 film about a group of steel workers made redundant by their factory’s closure.

Star of the show is Robert Jones’ set, showing the vandalised factory interior with its broken window panes, which transmutes seamlessly into all the other locations. The core of the drama is the relationship between Gaz (Gary Lucy), his estranged wife Mandy (Charlotte Power) and their son Nathan (played very well on the opening night by Reiss Ward). Parallel to their story is that of former foreman Gerald (Andrew Dunn), who leaves for his non-existent work daily, though not fooling wife Jean (Fiona Skinner) for long.

You can believe in both these couples, though Gaz’s former colleagues come over much more as types than people. The Job Centre and Job Club scenes work well, as does Gerald’s thwarted interview for a new job, spoiled by his former colleagues’ impromptu Punch and Judy show – which they think hilarious but which in retrospect is just plain thoughtless, if not downright cruel.

Those occupants of the front rows do get their money’s worth in the final strip-tease routine. Choreograhpyis by Ian West and lighting (very important for this show) by Tim Lutkin. The director is Jack Ryder.

The Full Monty runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich ntil 15 October with matinées on 12 and 15 October.

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Arms and the Man

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 7 October)

Like director Brigid Larmour, this is a Shavian comedy which seems not to have been in my theatre-going orbit for decades. For all that it seems to have drifted out of fashion, it’s a play well worth reviving, and Larmour does it proud with a cast that knows what it’s about and intriguing, somewhat minimalist sets by Rebecca Brower. It’s briskly paced, but the activity is never cumbersome.

Hannah Morrish’s Raina sets the tone from the opening scene with her mother Catherine (Kathryn O’Reilly) and Jill McAusland’s pert maid Louka. Enter the fugitive Captain Bluntschli, to whom Pete Ashmore gives a dash of derring-do as well as Swiss pragmatism. He and Morrish play beautifully off each other throughout. Raina, of course, thinks she is in love with the dashing cavalry officer Sergius (Assad Zaman).

This is another well thought-out performance, edging dangerously towards the over-blown but always reined in short of it. Walter van Dyk’s Major Peckoff is just the sort of patriarch that his womenfolk manipulate with ease. McAusland deepens her own characterisation in her exchanges with David Webber’s Nicola; this authoritative Black actor adds an interesting dimension to his creed of how to survive as a servant.

Music and sound is by Arun Ghosh, never obstrusive but nderpinning the setting of one of that sequence of Balkan conflicts which peppered the late 19th century. It all ends, as in a Shakespeare comedy, with a dance choreographed by Jack Murphy. The audience just has to sit back, look and listen. And enjoy the experience.

Arms and the Man runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 22 October with matinées on 8, 12, 15, 20 and 22 October.

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Much Ado About Nothing

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 6 October)

Made in Colchester’s contribution to the Shakespeare quatercentenary is a production by Pia Furtado of Much Ado About Nothing. As befits a garrison town, the location has been shifted out of Italy and the period updated to somethng obviously modern, though neither of the two 20th century world wars.

So far, so good. There’s an effective opening in which, above the heavy done of transport aircraft, the returning soldiers chant Rebecca Applin’s setting of repeated “Going home”. Designer Camilla Clarke gives us an all-purpose canteen, presumably attached to Leonato (Paul Ridley)’s home. Margaret (Kirsty J Curtis) seems to be its manager with Beatrice (Danielle Flett) and Hero (Robyn Cara) offering spasmodic help. This is not peace, however, just a temporary lull in the fighting.

I’ve no quarrel with Don John, commander Don Pedro (Robert Fitch)’s rebellious half-brother, being transformed into an embittered woman by Polly Lister. But why on earth isn’t that giveaway masculine title simply changed into something like “dame”? It jars on each recurrence and detracts from Lister’s own excellent characterisation.

This is presumably a Roman Catholic (or at any rate High Church) part of the country, if the large statue of the Madonna is to be taken as something other than mere set dressing, so why have a woman minister (Emmy Stonelake) who everyone keeps on calling “he” and Friar Francis? It doesn’t make sense.

Furtado gives us an overlong disco-style party whose exhuberance somewhat smothers Don Pedro’s wooing of Hero for Claudio (Peter Bray)’s benefit. She also slices the interval midway in the church scene, thus losing rather than building the tension. The watch scenes go for nothing with Karl Haynes’s Dogberry overemphasising his malapropisms to the point where there is no humour at ll.

Jason Langley’s Benedick is well spoken and acted; Flett never quite matches, let along surpasses, him. They do manage the lethal “Kill Claudio” echange extremely well. Bray doesn’t project any of Claudio’s charm; Chris Charles’ Borachio has this n abundance and produces some of the evening’s best-spoen dialogue.

Much Ado About Nothing runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 15 October. There are matinées on 8, 13 and 15 October.

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Swan Lake

(reviewed at the Corn Exchange, King’s Lynn on 5 October)

The Russian State Ballet & Opera Theatre of Astrakhan has brought an intriguing production of Swan Lake to Britain for its autumn tour (3 October to 3 December); late winter tour dates are yet to be announced. Artistic director Konstantin Uralsky sets the story in the early 19th century, reminiscent of the “peace” social scenes of War and Peace. The first act costumes are attractive and the dancers equally so with neat footwork and elegant arms.

In this version Prince Siegried (Danil Sokolov)’s tutor is Von Rothbart (Maksim Melnikov), a black-clothed mentor gliding through the palace with a disquieting aura of menace. The swans are his private preserve, a secret magical theatre to which he inveigles the brooding, restless Siegfried – though you wouldn’t know that if you hadn’t read the programme notes. It’s much less of a mime and more of a dancing role than in other versions and well executed.

Benno is danced by Vslovod Tabachuk, whose jumps and turns provide some of the evening’s most exciting moments. Sokolov is somewhat upstaged (and out-performed) by his Mercutio-like friend throughout. The dainty pas de quatre performed as entertinment for the Queen (Anna Nikonova) is danced by Karina Manopova, Victoria Chuvyleva, Arthur Almukhametov and Bulat Gareev; the boys are less assured in their footwork, jumps and landlings than the girls.

When we reach the first lakesid scene, the corps de ballet provide the right mixture of technique and lyricism. Unfortuntaely Anastasia Turchina’s Odette is short on visual expression and personality; she dances with assured, well-finished arabesques and pointe work and Sokolov partners her throughout sympathetically. But still that vital spark and suggestion of instant, total passion proves elusive.

For Act Three we are in the middle of a costume ball with early Renaissance headdresses for the women and houppelande gowns for the male courtiers. Enter Odile (Maria Stetc) with her sidway glances and clever use of her arms to all-but mimic Odette’s own movements. She pulls off the firework fouettés and jétés so that it’s no wonder this malleable young prince is instantly besotted.

Eather than the usual ghostly apparition at a window as Odette recognises how she has been betrayed, there follows a well thought-out pas de quatre for Odette and Odile, Siegfried and Von Rothbart in which each pair shadows the other’s steps. For the final scene, the backcloth shows a sythe of a moon, stabbing down into the water which will finally envelop the lovers and their nemesis. Again, the corps de ballet shine as the real stars of the production.

Swan Lake (with several alternative casts) can also be seen at the Grove Theatre, Dunstable on 9 October, the Key Theatre, Peterborough on 14 October, the Marina Theatre, Lowestoft on 19 October, the Harlow Playhouse on 20 Octobe and the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 8 November.

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(reviewed at the Little Theatre, Sheringham on 1 October)

Spinning Wheel Theatre is one of those enterprising ensembles which the East Anglian air seems to generate; you see similar sort of activity down in the West Country, so perhaps a certain geographical remoteness also comes into the equation. For its current short rural tour Amy Wyllie has created Casanova. That’s right, a three-actor historical drama with epic pretensions.

Wyllie’s main influence seems to be Marie Antoinette, the 2006 film by Sofia Coppola with its soundtrack mixing genuine 18th century music with a more popular – even punk – 20th century beat. It’s all pleasantly tongue-in-cheek as Joe Leat introduces us to the title character and his many shifts to create a name and a place for himself. There’s more than a touch of Candide or even Don Quixote in his eternal optimism mingled with a definite naîveté.

It’s an enjoyable performnce which lets the audience into the joke right from his first appearance. All the women in Casanova’s life (and there were a great number of them) are played by Lucy Benson-Brown with the aid of a dazzling array of quick gown and headgear changes; design is by Becca Gibbs. All the men who either help or (the majority) hinder our hero’s picaresque career come in the form of Samuel Norris.

Nick Holmes gives us a set with a painted backcloth highlighting the iconic buildings of the countries and cities which Casanova visited; in front is a bridge (the Bridge of Sighs?) and there are a couple of screen booths o act as boudoirs or carriages as the plot dictates.

It’s a romp and not to be taken too seriously though the comparatively quiet ending where Casanova finds a sort of contentment in writing his memoirs under the protection of the Prince de Ligne, visited by his first (and possibly only true) love Henriette, gives a gentle sense of quiet fulfilment. He’s come to the end of his journey, and to the end of his days. What remains is a legend.

Casanova tours mainly to community and village halls until 22 October. There are also performances at the Fisher Theatre, Bungay (6 October), the New Wolsey Theatre Studio (7 October), the John Peel Centre, Stowmarket (12 October) and the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh (21 October).

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Notturnino|Set and Reset/Reset

(reviewed at the Jerwood DanceHouse, Iswich on 30 September)

Anything you can do… That is surely the motto of the Candoco Dance Company which opened the autumn DanceEast season in Ipswich. Notturnino is an affectionate glimpse into the world of opera singers in their twilight world (think Harwood’s Quartet) encapsulated in snatches of Verdi and Puccini, especially La forza del destino and Tosca.

Choreographer Thomas Hauert took the 1984 documenary film Tosca’s Kiss as his starting point; we hear verbal as well as musical excerpts from its soundtrack, clarified for an English-speaking audience by screened subtitles. The six dancers, four of whom are physically impaired, swoop across the stage in leaps, lunges and variations on the classical attitude, emphasised by quick-change theatrical costumes by Natasa Stamatari, all vaguely 18th century in inspiration.

Shortend arms, a wheel chair and, notably, two crutches for a one-legged performer prove that disability is no barrier to virtuosity. That single leg and what almost seemed sometimes like four arms emerged from the groupings with star quality. Hauert makes no concessions in either the ensemble or solo sections to his dancers; they return the confidence full measure.

Trisha brown choreographed Set and Reset in 1983; this has been redirected by Abigail Yager as Set and Reset/Reset earlier this year. The dancers wear Celeste Dandeker-Arnold’s flowing and diaphonous grey dresses and trousers as they singly, in pairs and in larger groupings lunge, leap and spin across the stage to Laurie Anderson’s tintabulation-heavy score, suggesting a sequence of human dramas underpinning the abstraction of the moves which we are watching.

The performers are Megan Armishaw, Joel Brown, Tanja Erhart, Adam Gain, Jason Mabana and Laura Patay. Candoco tour both regionally and internationally so, if you happen to be in a place where this double-bill is being performed, take advantage of the opportunity and see it. You don’t have to make mental concessions – the work sets its own high standard – just as any other modern dance company. Rather, it’s up to the audience’s response to match that of the performers.

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Mother Courage and Her Children

(reviewed at the Harlow Playhouse on 28 September)

This is Contexture Theatre’s most ambition production in the three years the Bishop’s Stortford based-company has been in existence. It marks a new partnership with Harlow Playhouse and is intended to tour next year. Of all Brecht’s dramas, this 1941 epic of the Thirty Years War has its parallel in the contemporary conflict engulfing Europe; its bitter analysis of war’s effect on “the little people” is equally coruscating in David Hare’s 1995 translation.

Brecht’s characterisations of Anna, endlessly trudging with her cart full of muscellaneous goods (provenance not to be questioned), defeats his famous “alienation effect”. Mother Courage cannot help but evoke our understanding (and sympathies) and Gailie Pollock gives us the full measure of this natural survivor. She stabs at Laurence Aldridge’s score with the same intensity.

In the course of her journeying, Courage loses both her sons and her dumb daughter as she wheels and deals – not always to her benefit. Aldridge also plays the army officers’ Cook, another wheeler-dealer who will probably survive. Another of the type is camp follower Yvette, who Holly Ashton rounds out both vocally and histrionically. Stephen Cavanagh is the Swedish Army Chaplain, cowardly as well as self-serving.

Darcey James makes much of Kattrin, the girl left traumatised by an assault in childhood; her final act of defiance makes its full impact. Both her half-brothers misjudge the fluidity of battlefield fortunes – Dominic Gee Burgh’s Eilif dies from repeating the action which won him praise and then the firing quad when repeated in different circumstances. Jack Quarton’s Swiss Cheese makes a similar error, this time involving the regimental cash-box.

As suits the subject and the style, Amanda Stekly and Tom Cliff give us a bare stage with moveable screens and the cart itself indicating the changes of location. Pollock’s costumes are vaguely those of the First World War. Dave Thompson’s projections at the conclusion remind us that the world is still full of fighting with its inevitable victims. Simon Anderson’s production is suitably taut, though the sound balance for the all-important songs needs some attention.

Mother Courage and Her Children runs at the Harlow Playhouse until 1 October with a matinée on 29 September.

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Pride and Prejudice

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 27 September)

Deorah Bruce’s revival for the Regent’s Park Theatre of her original 2013 production is now on an autumn tour. The script, which weaves much of Jane Austen’s dialogue with some excellent pastiche, is the one by Simon Reade; dramatist and director keep the action fast-moving, thanks to Max Jones’ flexible, revolving set which involves Regency-style metalwork and a staircase (the more athletic cast members have their own shortcuts with this.

Costumes are by Tom Piper, and in period, though I did feel that neither Mr Bingley (Jordan Mifsúo) nor Mr Darcy (Benjamin Holloway) would have committed the solecism of wearing boots in a ballroom. Mrs Bennet ((Felicity Montagu) begins the play with what must be one of the most famous opening lines in all English-language literature and rounds it off at the end with a reprise.

The cast includes a number of professional débuts; Anna Crichlow as Kitty Bennet and Georgina Darcy), Hollie Edwin as Jane – making the eldest sister into something more than just meek and attractive – and Kirsty Rider as a waspish Caroline Bingley. Matthew Kelly is Mr Bennet (more on the cuddly than the caustic spectrum). Montagu has most of the audience on her side from the beginning.

She is however a figure of fun; Steven Meo’s Mr Collins tips over into the grotesque with his obsequeousness towards Lady Catherine (Doňa Croll) and her nephew. One does feel that Carlotte Lucas (Francesca Bailey) will end up just as much of a domestic tyrant as Lady Catherine. Daniel Abbott plays Mr Wickham, that untrustworthy smiler, well matched by Mari Izzard’s feckless Lydia.

Music and dancing were key elements of social intercourse in the Regency period. Some of this, for the keyboard, is a little too obviously pre-recorded with the sound not quite balanced; the original music is by Lillian Henley. Siân Williams has devised some neat choreography for the dances with occasional frozen-action moments to allow us to concentrate on the Elezabeth-Darcy confrontations.

Tafline Steen is a delightful Elizabeth, a girl who cares for her sister’s distress, recognises her father’s weaknesses as well as his strengths and who never quite lets her tongue run away with her opinions to breach decorum. Holloway’s Darcy has an air of Byronic brooding as wel as a in-born hauteur, so that his impassioned and ill-phrased declaration to Elizabeth really makes an impact. Reserve, just like outspokenness imposes its own limits.

Pride and Prejudice runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 1 October with matinéeson 29 September and 1 October. It transfers to the Corn Exchange, Cambridge for the week 4 to 8 October.

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A Month of Sundays

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 26 September)

Old age is something which comes to most of us. There are just as many ways in which we progress through it. That’s the theme of Bob Larbey’s 1986 wry comedy, now given a rare revival by Russell Bolam as part of the Queen’s Theatre’s autumn season on ageing.

We are in Cooper’s room at what is obviously a fairly up-market residential care-home in Surrey. His wife of many years is dead and their daughter, married to a somewhat dull lawyer, visits from Milton Keynes with her husband (and occasionally their son) on one Sunday a month. Hence the title.

Cooper (William Hoyland) served in the Second World War and has a slightly military approach to his physical decline. What worries him and his crony Aylott (Robin Hooper) is the possibilityof mental decline, joining what they nickname The Zombies at the care home. They play chess as one means of staving this off and indulge in escape (of the Colditz variety) scenarios.

Those dutiful monthly visits, with the travel traumas they involve, are making Cooper’s daughter Julia (Sophie Russell) even spikier than usual. Husband Peter (Gareth Clarke) is marginally (only marginally) more sympathetic. Both Russell and Clarke inhabit their characters to the full.

Rather more appreciative of the care-home inmates is nurse Wilson (Anne Leong Brophy), a professional who knows how to balance genuine affection for those she looks after with some minor hiccoughs in her own private life. Brophy’s scenes with Hoyland are genuinely moving, two real people sharing an occasional but very important (to them both) wavelength.

Mrs Baker (Connie Walker) has the task of cleaning the rooms, which she does briskly and with just a dash of envy at the space each resident occupies. I’m not sure that I’d want personlly to emply Mrs Baker, but Walker brings her to life.

The key performance is Hoyland’s, a man whose catch-phrase “mustn’t grumble” sums up a whole no-whine generation of men. Aware that the next physical indignity will most probably be a colposcopic bag, even this is turned into a joke. Hooper’s handle-bar moustached Aylott is made of softer material, but the two actors play well off each other.

A Month of Sundays runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 15 October with matinées on 29 Septeber and 8 October.

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A Party to Murder

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 19 September)

A play within a play is one thing. A double play within a play is quite something else. Marcia Kash and Douglas E Hughes’ thriller A Party to Murder, currently revived in a new touring production by Talking Scarlet, is also a double (if not treble) hommage to Agatha Christie. Confused? That’s just what the playwrights and director Patric Kearns intend you to be.

So sit up at the back of the audiorium and pay close attention. We’re in the main room of a luxurious house in the middle of a lake. Remind you of a particular Chritsie story? Except that this lake is somewhere between Canada and the United states. The year is 1988.

A group of six Christie afficiendos have met to play out a murder scenario. They have all paid to be part of the game; whoever guesses the correct suspect can choose his or her own prize, which mustn’t amount to more than the total sum in the kitty.

If you don’t know the plot – and this is certainly one stage thriller I’ve no encountered before – then I won’t spoil your suspense by taking you furher. The designer is Geoff Gilder, who gives us a room with built-in surprises; David North’s lighting is as atmospheric as Kearns’ elaborate soundscape, but that all-important secret door needs to be better able to conceal what does on behind it when it’s shut.

Ben Roddy as Charles, the organiser of this somewhat macabre party, contrasts well wih Oliver Mellor’s wheel-chaired Willy. John Hester plays businessman Elwood with Michelle Morris as his posturing model wife McKenzie. The other two women as Natasha Gray and Claire Fisher as siblings Valerie and Henrietta, who have just as many secrets to hide as everyone else on stage.

The performances are good, and the cast knows how to alternate moments of frantic verbal or physical activity with slower, quiteer ones. They all sustain their north American accents impeccably throughout.

It all engages attention while it’s happening in fron of us, but is perhaps not a play to linger in the memory and make one yearn to see what other ways of staging it there might be. Pehaps it’s no surprise that it isn’t often revived.

A Party to Murder runs at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 24 September wih matinées on 22 and 24 September. It also play at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon on 27 and 28 September.

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Dead Sheep

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 13 September)

An alternative title for Jonathan Maitland’s slice of almost-recent history might be, as he expresses it in his programme note, The Mouse That Roared. The play’s actual title is of course Dead Sheep, a reference to Dennis Healey’s comment that being attacked in the Commons by Geoffrey Howe was like being “savaged by a dead sheep”.

After a successful London season, director Ian Talbot is taking his production on a national tour until December. The plot is simple enough; it revoves around the professional relationship between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Steve Nallon) and her former Foreign Secretary, later Chancellor of the Exchequer, Howe (Paul Bradley). The third important character – who in many ways is shown as the catalyst for the dénouement – is Elspeth Howe (Carol Royle), an independent woman but also one concerned to support her husband.

The other characters are various Government advisors, MPs and assorted Ministers. Between them they provide some brilliant character studies – Graham Seed’s Ian Gow, Chrstopher Villiers’ Alan Clark and John Wark’s television interviewer stand out here. Morgan Large’s set is dominated by the Cabinet photograph, that famous one where dark-suited men are minimised by blue-clad Thatcher, the queen bee of that particular hive.

While Royle is very good as Elspeth Howe, both when she’s acting (as she herself admits) almost like Lady Macbeth screwing her husband up to the murder of Duncan and in her waspish exchanges with the Prime Minister during distinctly awkward social events at 10 Downing Street, the focus inevitably falls on the protagonist and antagonist in this 20th century variation on Greek tragedy.

As Thatcher, Nallon gives us a spot-on impersonation, from vocal mannerisms to shoe-pinching gait and the hand-shakes offered with the head vulture-looming but the torso withdrawn, but it remains an impersonation, not a portrayal. The House of Commons scene, where we see her reactions on-screen as well as facing us from the front bench, though is a marvellous piece of theatre.

Bradley has the most difficult rôle of all. He has to give us a credible picture of a man with immense abilities, great integrity and absolutely no charisma or proficiency in self-projection. He builds his portrait of Howe slowly, with meticulous detailing, so that the famouse resignation speech makes its full impact without us ever feeling that this is out of character for the man.

Dead Sheep runs at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 17 September at the start of a national tour lasting to 3 December. There are matinées on 15 and 17 September.

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(reviewed at the Harlow Playhouse on 9 September)

The Russian State Opera & Ballet Theatre of Komi has a new production of Bizet’s ever-popular Carmen for its autumn UK tour. Artistic director Ilya Mozhaysky sets the action around the 1920s and offers us a kind of danced dumb-show during the second half of the overture, prefiguring the menace and violence associated with its recurrent “death theme”.

Yuri Samodurov’s painted back-drops and flats have a nightmare surreal quality eachoing this. Act One is mainly whte-clad, from the soldiers’ uniforms to the shifts worn by the girls of the cigarette factory. Only Carmen herself flaunts a scarlet shawl. For the second act (Lillas Pastia’s louche tavern) red wih black accents prdominates. Black and a shrouding grey underlines the encounters in the mountain pass while the final scene flames scarlet with coal black.

The dancing is exellent (no choreographer is credited in the programme) and there is lively interplay among the chorus members in the crowd scenes. Of the principals, Evgenia Gudkova is a sultry Carmen with a strong chest register and secure top notes. Dimitrii Demidchik is a somewhat unsubtle (and therefore unsympathetic) Don José who hits all the right notes but with little sense of shading.

Michaela in Olga Georgieva’s interpretation is a far cry from the blonde-plaitd milkshop of many roductions. Yes, she’s naïve, a village girl out of her comfort zone in both Seville and the bandit-affected mountain pass. But Georgieva offers us the steel backbone which allows her to negotiate these perils and fulfil her mission each time.

As Frasquita and Mercédès, Anastasia Podzigun and Elena Lodigina make the most of the card trio in the penultimate scene. Nikolay Efremov is a somewhat under-powered Escamillo; the smaller male rôles are well diferentiated. There are always production teething troubles at the start of a tour, but Nelli Svatova’s lighting design left too many faces in shadow when singing downstage. The necessary surtitles need proof-reading.

Carmen is at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 10 September, the Princes Theatre, Clacton on 11 September and The Cresset, Peterborough on 13 September. Other tour dates include the Alban Arena, St Albans on 5 October, the Towngate Theatre, Basildon on 6 October and the Watford Colossem on 8 October.

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84 Charing Cross Road

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 5 September)

The antiquarian bookshop which provides the title for James Roose-Evans’ production of his own stage adptation is no more. The two-decade epistolary exchanges between New York client Helene Hanff and shopmanager Frank Doel also belongs to a vanished age, perhaps being more akin to those fictional letter eschanges which so many novels of the 18th and early 19th century used as their format.

It’s a gentle, mannerly adaptation, given a matching production with an excellent flexible set by Norman Coates, most of which (very properly) being the bookshop with its mountains of shelves; Hanff’s cramped bed-sitters take up only a fraction of the space. The outstanding performance, beautifully nuanced and thoroughly three-dimensional, is that of Clive Francis as Doel.

Stefanie Powers’ Hanff gives us the outline of the outsider scrambling a living as script-reader and -writer but somehow the necessary acerbic rasp is missing. Throughout, for me, her performance is too quietly spoken. We laugh at the succession of financial disasters (dentistry and apartment demolition among them) which impede Haff’s chance of visiting London, but somehow it’s at the suggestion of these, not a sense of their reality.

There are strong performances by the other cast members, notably by Rosie Jones as Cecily, who starts her own correspondence with Hanff, and Irene Rambota as Hanff’s actress friend Maxine, who visits the shop while in a play transferred from Brodway to London (with muted box-office success). Hayward B Morse plays Mr Martin, one of those shop fixtures only really appreciated when lost.

This production was premiered at the Salisbury Playhouse last year and marks a move towards reviving in-house produced drama for the Cambridge Arts Theatre. Lee Dean is the co-producer.

84 Charing Cross Road runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 17 September. There are matinées on 8, 10, 15 and 17 September.

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Made in Dagenham

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 30 August)

This new joint production for the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch and the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich is based on the 2014 musical which in turn was based on the 2010 film. Making stage shows out of cinema favourites is rapidly becoming an industry in its own right, somewhat reversing the older trend to film successful Broadway and West End productions.

It’s an apposite theme for Hornchurch, not too far down the road from Dagenham where the women sewing machinists went on strike in 1968 for equal pay with their male colleagues (their jobs had just been downgraded) and better working conditions. The first night audience picked up the local references with glee; it will be interesting to dicover whether or not the same reactions will apply in Ipswich.

Central to Richard Bean’s book is Rita, a multi-tasking wife, mother and factory worker. Daniella Bowen hits her off perfectly; you warm to the characer as she transforms from being just one of the girls working at a boring job to help the family finances to a woman with a mind (and a voice) of her own. Richard Thomas’ lyrics are witty; David Arnold’s score comes over as a bit relentlessly strident – but Bowen copes admirably.

Alex Tomkins is Eddie, her husband who is really much more at ease joshing with his work mates than being domestically considerate. He too matures as the story progresses, but not to catch up with his wife. The large cast provide amusing sketches, caricatures and cameos of the Ford hierachy, the union bosses at local and national level and the politicians who so reluctantly have to become involved.

These include Claire Machin’s no-nonsense Barbara Castle, Graham Kent’s pipe-chewing, raincoated Harold Wilson, Angela Bain’s loud-mouth machinist (every other word an expletive), Loren O’Dair as the intellectual wife – who rebels against being a mere decoration – of the personnel manager (Jamie Noar) and Jeffrey Harmer’s show-stopping Mr Tooley, the US boss flown in to get things moving his way, a sort of Donald Trump avant le lecture.

In the late 60s and mid-70s, agit-prop theatre seemd to dominate the fringe, both in London and in other conurbations. Douglas Rintou’s production has strong elements of this, reinforced by Hayley Grindle’s bleak set which, with its minimal use of furniture, keeps the action fast-moving. Many of the cast are also instrumentalists, well co-ordinated by musical director Ben Goddard.

Made in Dagenham runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 17 September with matinées on 1, 8, 10 and 15 September. It then transfers to the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 21 September and 15 October with matinées on 22, 24 Septeber, 1, 5, 8, 1 and 15 October.

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The Old Country

(reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 23 August)

Like Shakespeare, Alan Bennett has written several of what might be defined as “problem plays”. In Bennett’s case, one of the most intriguing of these is The Old Country, which I first saw in 1977, when the actual events and characters here depicted through fictional characters, were more of immediate concern that they seem in 2016.

We’re on the verandah of a small house in the depths of the country, just the sort of place to which you can imagine any senior Civil Servant wishing to retire. Hilary (James Morley) and his wife Bron (Barbara Horne) are expecting a visit from her sister Veronica (Imogen Slaughter) and her diplomat husband Duff (Michael Shaw); they haven’t seen the couple since Duff achieved his knighthood.

Hilary and Bron do have neighbours – Olga (Melissa Clements), who is somewhat mixed-up to put it at its most simple, and her husband Eric (Bob Dobson), on the face of it just a happy-go-lucky sort of chap. But where exactly is this place in the country? and why is it, its occupants and their visitors under such surveeliance?

Bennett uses the gradual relevations of both personal and national aspects to the different characters to allow for some complex discussion about motivations, treachery and patriotism, pasts to be revealed and those which so desperately need to be concealed. People, Bennett seems to insist, have flexible loyalties, fluid as changes in international situations and issues.

What Hilary wants is, in spite of the speeches which Morley delivers with great conviction, as nebulous as any other artificial construct. Shaw and Dobson make much of their revelatory encounter in the second act while Horne gives a rounded portrait of a wife who sticks by her man, but isn’t afriad to point out where he falls short of her deserts.

Veronica is a slightly spiky personality, and no-one does stylish spikiness more accurately than Slaughter. Olga is in many ways the most difficult of the characters to pin down; her past not simply permeates what and who she is now but underlies Hilary’s shockingly crude summing-up – one of those moments in the drama when you realise that sympathy can perhaps be wrongly placed. Clements epitomises the small fry as victim.

The Old Country runs at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 27 August and transfers to Southwold Summer Theatre between 29 August and 10 September.

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Singin’ in the Rain

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 18 August)

Theatrical cliché number one – the show must go on!. And go on it did for Catherine Lomax’s summer in-house production, even though Simon Anthony suffered a foot injury during a particularly energetic dance routine as Cosmo Brown, necessitating an extended interval, roughly where one would have occured in a (now old-fashioned) two-interval production.

Craig Armstrong, who had been playing the two smaller roles of Sid Philips and the diction cach, had played the part previously and took over script-in-hand for the rest of the performance. Overall it’s a lavish production, complete with rainfall for the title number and finale, which moves slickly from scene to scene (there are 21 of them).

The script follows the Betty Comden and Adolph Green screen-play with Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed’s songs, most familiar to most of us from the Gene Kelly film. Khiley Williams’ choreography has th right 1920s influences – this is a story which centres on the Hollywood change from silent to sound films – and she has deised some good production numbers as well as the iconic “singin’ in the rain”.

Central to the story is stage actress Kathy, who is invested by Katie Warsop with just the right mix of steel-backbone determination and disarming femininity. She also dances extremely well and has the voice to match. As script-writer Don Mike Denman is perhaps a better dancer and actor than he is a singer, but his engaging ersonality makes up for this.

Screech-voiced Lina, the glittering Hollywood star with a temperment to match and completely non-existent vocal charm, is brought to full theatrical life by Cameron Leigh. Lomax’s production has a clever use of film which both sets the period and reminds us of the double artificiality of the whole set-up. Chris Keen is in charge of the (unseen) orchestra and the lighting design by Pete Kramer adds to the illusion.

Singin’ in the Rain runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 27 August. There are matinée peformances on 20, 25 and 27 August.

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The Shakespeare Revue

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 10 August)

This new and updated version of the 1994 RSC production is directed by one of its original devisers Michael McKee. It should by rights be packing out the Cambridge Arts Theatre; the audience at the performance I saw was properly enthusiastic though not particularly numerous.

There are five performers with musical director controlling them from the piano. Anna Stolli has a voice which copes with the coloratura of “The heroine the opera house forgot” (mainly Verdi) and dances Nicola Keen’s sometimes elaborate choreography nimbly. Lizzie Bea contrasts well and puts over her solo sketches with style as well as humour.

Jordan Lee Davies, Alex Morgan and Alex Scott Fairley dance, sing and make the audience share their enjoyment of the wide-ranging variations on the Shakespeare theme from “The man who speaks in anagrams” through “Giving notes” to the curtain speech for Sir in The Dresser.

“Brush up your Shakespeare” is performed as a quintet and there are references to the current battle for the US presidency to make sure that we leave the theatre knowing that Shakespeare is indeed a playwright and poet for all time. After all, you can only make stylishly agreeable fun of someone or something universally recognised as completely secure in his or its eminence.

The Shakespeare Revue continues at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 20 August.

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The Glenn Miller Story

(reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 9 August)

This latest Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson musical is a starring vehicle for Tommy Steele as much as for its titular hero. Designer Mark Bailey offers us an aircraft-hanger set, with a flexibility to keep the scene sequences moving smoothly, and some simple but attractive and apposite costumes, especially for the six members of the singing an dancing chorus.

It begins with the hanger doors opening to reveal Steele (cue the first of the evening’s burst of audience applause). If the show had continued with him as a narrator/commentator and a younger actor taking the part of Miller, Steele’s age and appearance would not have required such an immediate suspension of belief. It also would obviate that slight feeling of discomfort with the early scenes with Abigail Jaye as Helen.

Jaye has a good voice, strong as well as lyrical as she demonstrates in “Moonlight serenade” and “At last”. Ashley Knight makes an engaging no-nonsense Chummy MacGregor. The chorus – Zoe Nicole Adkin, Michael Anthony, Sibhan Diffin, Jessica Ellen, Jordan Oliver and Alex Tranter – perform Bill Deamer’s 40s-based choreography with great style.

The musical director is Richard Morris with an 11-piece ensemble joined on occasin by Robert Pearce (who plays Colonel Chambers), Mike Lloyd (Cy Shribman), Chris Bone (who is also the film director) and Harry Myers (who plays Mark Minton). Steele’s personality carries him through the show, though he is vocally subdued until the finale encores, where he really comes to life basically being Tommy Steele and not the shadow of Glenn Miller.

The Glenn Miller Story runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 13 August.

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