Lady Anna: All At Sea

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 28 June)

Craig Baxter’s play interweaves the plot of one of Trollope’s lesser-known novels Lady Anna with the sea journey from Liverpool to Australia which he and his wife undertook to visit their sheep-farming son. Colin Blunenau’s production has a cast of seven who play both the fictional and real-life characters; Libby Watson’s minimal setting cleverly gives us both worlds.

This production was initially staged for London’s Park Theatre; Cambridge Arts Theatre is not perhaps an ideal venue for it offering too much division between the audience and the players. But it is the sort of accessible intellectual joke which does draw the audience in, particularly in the second half. The performances are uniformly good.

Rhiannon Handy is Anna Lovel, who has inherited a fortune (though not necessarily a title) if the father who acknowledged her as his daughter was indeed married to her mother (Maggie O’Brien). The title (not not the money) has gone to young Frederick Lovel (Adam Scott-Rowley), whose aunt and clergyman uncle dither between thoroughly disliking – not to say distrusting Anna and her mother and egging him on to propose the marriage which will secure the money.

These two schemers are played by Julie Teal and Edward Halsted to fine effect. In opposition stand the skilled craftsmen Daniel Thwaite (Simon Robinson) and his father Thomas (Jonathan Keeble). Thwaite senior had helped the countess financially and morally when she is penniless; the two children have grown into teenage lovers – which is just the sort of liaison across the class divide which will imperil the status of all the Lovels.

On the voyage to Australia, Trollope (Keeble) and his dictatorial wife Rose (O’Brien) are concerned over the progress of his shipboard-scribed new novel Lady Anna. Rose argues with her maid Isabella ((Handy) while Trollope contends with sceptical and bored fellow male passengers. In the novel, a couple of lawyers (of distinctly Dickensian hue) become embroiled – a nice contrast in approach by Halsted and Keeble.

Frederick’s originally pragmatic, not to say mercenary, approach to the prospect of marriage with a hitherto unknown girl cousin mutates into something stronger – and transforms him in the process. Scott-Rowley convinces with his lightly-sketched yet in-depth portrait of a privileged young man’s growth into maturity. O’Brien’s granite-faced, iron-corroded souled countess is given a well nuanced counterpart in Handy’s Anna, a girl who has principles with the moral fibre to back them up.

It all makes one want to read the novel – and a biography of Trollope as well.

Lady Anna: All At Sea runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 2 July with matinées on 30 June and 2 July.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

Chicago

(reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 27 June)

The touring version of the Fred Abb-John Kander-Bob Fosse musical comes over as fresh now as when it was first produced. The formal setting – the ten-person band facing the audience from steeply raked seats literally framed in gold, costumes basically in variations of black and a clever use of lighting – distances the audience from the 1920s story of women who kill and then (mostly) wriggle away from the gallows while at the same time involving it in their histories.

In Southend the opening night of the run brought understudy Lindsey Tierney to the central role of Roxy. She has a strong voice and is a good actress as well as dancer; that also holds true for Sophie Carmen-Jones as her prison mirror-image Velma. Frances Dee also holds attention as the girl who fails to convince a jury, and duly pays the penalty. Payment of any kind (except in cash or favours) is not within the remit of Sam Bailey’s prison dominatrix Matron “Mama” Morton.

Among the male characters, Neil Ditt’s Amos, Roxy’s credulous and ultimately hard-done by husband, stands out as someone towards whom one cannot help but feel both sympathy and exasperation. The fast-thinking, smooth-talking lawyer Billy Flynn (John Patridge) grabs his moments, notably in “All I care about” and “Razzle dazzle”, though his histrionics have strong competition from musical director Ben Atkinson. AD Richardson has the creepily androgynous part of Mary Sunshine; an operatic training shines through “A little bit of good”.

Chicago runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 2 July with matinées on 29 June and 2 July. It can also be seen (with cast changes) at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 31 October and 5 November.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016

We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea

(reviewed at the Hugh House, Bentwater on 24 June)

Ivan Cutting has revamped his production of some two or three years ago for this new outing of Nick Wood’s stage adaptation of the Arthur Ransome story. The former jet-engine testing facility at the disused (or rather, re-used) RAF Bentwater airfield is a favourite Eastern Angles venue, though designer Rosie Alabaster has chosen to use only a fraction of the cavernous space.

The cast of four – Rosalind Steele as Susan (the eldest of the siblings), Joel Sams as her older brother John, Matilda Howe as family baby Titty and Christopher Buckley as th in-between brother Roger – also play respectively the naval officer father, his wife and the children’s mother, the Dutch pilot and Jim, whose uncle’s boat is the terrain for the adventure.

A partly realistic boat deck with its galley and bunk-bed accommodation is the main element of Alabaster’s set. Paschal McGuire’s animations on stretched white sails at either end of the acting area (they also box in the audience) suggest the turbulence and congestion of the North Sea once the four find themselves offshore. Stuart Brindle’s sound design incorporates a hint of Shostakovitch (top marks for not using Britten’s Peter Grimes‘ sea interludes) as well as the sounds of the sea.

Because the cast play it with utter conviction, they catch the audience’s imagination and make it work in tune with their own mime and gestures. Imagination is a far more effective painter than fake realism in many theatrical instances as Cutting’s production proves. You don’t need to be a sailor yourself to understand the pleasures as well as the pains of messing about in boats. I suspect that we shall see this production again.

We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea runs as the Hush House, Bentwater until 9 July with matinées on 25, 26 and 29 June, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 9 July. It then transfers to Neme Park, Peterborough between 13 and 17 July.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 21 June)

Which week of the year is ideal for opening a new production of what is arguably Shakespeare’s most performed play? For Trevor Nunn’s return to his home town of Ipswich with the one Shakespeare play which u to now he has not been commissioned to direct, the summer solstice is the obvious choice.

Nunn and his designer Libby Watson have set the action in British-ruled India during the 1930s. The contrast in cultural values adds weight to Egeus (Sam Dastor)’s ferocity of purpose as far as his daughter Hermia (Neerja Naik)’s marriage is concerned. Demetrius (Assad Zaman) is his choice; she prefers Lysander (Harry Lister Smith).

If Duke Theseus (Matt Rawle – doubling the role of Oberon) supports Egeus, his war-won bride Hippolyta (Fiona Hampton – who also plays Titania) is not so sure. But she is at this point powerless to intervene and it is Hermia’s friend Helena (Imogen Daines), fruitlessly attempting to wash away her unrequited love for Demetrius with alcolhol, who precipitates the confusion which will ensue when the elpoping lovers are pursued by Demetrius and he himself by Helena.

Once we’re in the forest, Esh Alladi’s lithely malevolent Puck is the master of woodland ceremonies, indeed a spirit of no common sort. This is where Sarvar Sabri’s score really underlines that this is a spirit realm into which humans trespass under under licence; the musicians are led by Suhail Yusuf Khan. Costumes for the sprites are shredded and faintly fluorescent; those for Titania and Puck more blindingly so.

None of the woodland creatures, led by Michelle Bishop (who doubles as Theseus’ up-tight personal assistant Phyllis) are ever still. Arms wave and undulate constantly, as though the thinnest, finest tendrils were stirred by a forest breeze. Sonia Sabri is the choeographer, devising a mixture of western courtly ballroom, Kathak and Indian folk-dance styles to great effect.

The mechanicals suggest a community of street traders hawking their own crafts from their initial appearance. You feel that their fee if their play is performed for Theseus’ wedding is genuinely important. Harmage Singh Kalirai’s Quince is a marvellously homespun philosopher, just about managing to keep Kulvinder Ghir’s know-all Bottom in check (would you really buy a rug or length of cloth from this man)?

Deven Modha’s Flute makes his sari-clad Thisbe into a gentle foil to Ghir’s Pyramus in the play scene. All six newly weds join in the exuberant dance which heralds the arrival of the immortals to bless the nuptials. When Puck invites the audience’s applause, it’s no wonder that the response is enthusiastic.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at the New Wolsey Theatre until 9 July with matinées on 22, 25, 28 June, 2, 5 and 6 July.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

How To Enjoy Opera
by
John Snelson

John Snelson is the head of publishing and interpretation at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. He is therefore fully aware that opera-goers – whether regular or occasional – bring different attitudes to the works they have booked to experience.

Nowadays performers’ training encompasses far more than the ability to sing what the composer and librettist have written. They need to interpret each role in a manner which enhances its impact while staying true to the creators’ intentions and balancing this with the demands of the stage director, who may very well be primarily a man or woman of the spoken theatre, television or the cinema.

So this isn’t a beginner’s guide, listing operas by title or composer; there are many of these available. Nor is it a discography. Rather Snelson divides his main 212 pages into ten sections, grouping his subjects by voice types,duets, chorus and other ensembles and so on.

Nor does his range stop short with Berg and Britten. He gives as careful an analysis to the operas of Adams, Adès, Birtwistle and Turnage as to those of Mozart, Verdi or Wagner. Opera may be an international art form, but the point is well made that what is a rarity or British ears may well be completely familiar to opera-goers in other countries.

The changing role of the orchestra and its instruments, as well as the attitudes which different audiences have brought to performance is properly emphasised. Ballets in 19th century grand opera are often omitted in modern performance; here they are analysised and their role explained. I also liked the section on how actual historical events have been treated, so often due to censorship. But then, opera i a timeless art.

How To Enjoy Opera is published by Oberon Books at £12.99.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Reviews 2016

King Lear

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 20 June)

This Max Webster Royal & Derngate production of Shakespeare’s tragedy emphasises its bleakness. Designer Adrian Linford presents us with a bare stage, backed by a greying wall, a window-piece which barely illuminates the world outside and is as much a restriction as an egress.

The play begins with Cordelia (Beth Cooke), waiting her moment to shine. A chandelier is lowered, a throne materialises – and the court bustles in. The costumes are timeless ones, which means that guns and duelling pistols supplement knives and short swords. Yu either accept this blurring, or you don’t. It’s up to you.

Dominating the play is Michael Pennington, not yielding an inch as either the absolute monarch, or the abdicated one – feeling himself for the first time not to be in command of anyone. Or anything. He times Lear’s decay into dementia so subtly that one is scarcely conscious of when irritation with the king’s arbitraryways melts into compassion for the man.

All the other characters, given a central performance of this strength, are satellites. Tom McGovern’s no-nonsense Kent metamorphoses well from the blunt senior army officer into the equally outspoken but infinitely more relaxed man of the people. Joshua Elliott’s Fool is an intriguing mixture of acute wisdom and apparently pointless nonsense. He’s the dark side of the glass to Gavin Fowler’s poor Tom as the fugitive Edgar desperately seeks to claw a future from his bleak prospects.

If Cooke’s Cordelia comes across as a spirited as well as principled princess, Catherine Bailey’s domineering Goneril an Sally Scott’s deceptively uxorious and motherly Regan offer contrasting essays in unpleasant ambition. Shane Attwooll’s Cornwall at first seems to have the edge on Adrian Irvine’s more contained Albany, but this is shown to be yet another layer in the interlocking web of deception.

Scott Karim’s Edmund is a plausible villain, though his initial soliloquy seemed to portray a cavalier approach to the verse. As his father the Earl of Gloucester, Pip Donaghy gives a somewhat muted performance, so that his terrible torture by Cornwall for his temerity in scouring his king is a piece f stagecraft rather than something to horrify us.

King Lear continues at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 25 June with matinées on 23 and 25 June..

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

After Miss Julie

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 13 June)

Patrick Marber’s play title could be read in two ways. It’s a version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie with the location and period changed to England just after the Second World War. So, in the sense that’s it’s a variation on a theme, it is indeed “after”. It is also “after” in the sense that we learn more about the possible future for the two characters other than the titular one than the original allows.

Marber is well served by his designer (Colin Richmond), choreographer (Alastair Marriott) and sound designers (Max and Ben Ringham). We are in the white-tiled basement kitchen of a large country house. The realm above is indicated by an upper stage on which we can see Miss Julie (Helen George) and her father’s chauffeur-cum-valet John (Richard Flood) dancing and from which later the estate workers’ celebration of Labour’s election victory takes on something of the peasant warning rumbles of the 1789 French revolution.

The kitchen is also the domain of Christine (Amy Cudden) who one senses is almost the last of the prewar house staff. In Marber’s script and Anthony Banks’ production, Christine becomes a much more important character and Cudden gives full weight and rounded representation this approach demands. Flood is also impressive as a young man who has built on his wartime service experiences as well as what he has picked up during his work for the landowner. Banked fires always threatening to break through.

But any production, any version of Miss Julie stands or falls by Julie herself. George is magnificent in the role, a spoilt child twisting into an equally spoilt but fr more dangerous womanhood, knowing too much of her own mind and body but without even a glimmer of the maturity – let alone morality – which should underpin it. George uses her eyes to fine effect; we are drawn into her world by their gaze as though led by some mythical enchantress. Spells can be broken, but they can break their victims just as surely as their perpetrators.

After Miss Julie runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 18 June with mainées on 16 and 18 June.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

Educating Rita

(reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford on 7 June)

The test of a modern classic is that it is as significant for today’s audience as it was when first staged. Willy Russell’s Educating Rita was first produced in 1980 but its two characters – the drink-drowning failed poet turned red-brick university lecturer and his feisty hairdresser Open University student – seem completely contemporary.

Gailie Pollock directs this new Contexture production with a realistic set by Amanda Stekly and Tom Cliff at its Rhodes Arts Centre home base. Greg Patmore plays Frank, who really doesn’t want this extra-curricular activity wished on him by a combination of the university authorities and Julia, his increasingly disillusioned partner. He balances the infuriating and the admirable aspects of the character with great subtlety.

She may prefer to be called Rita, but her birth name was the less tempestuous Susan. Gracie Hughes bursts into Frank’s study in a whirlwind of tumbling hair and pointing fingers, prowling around his books and pictures as though determined to make this (to her) strange environment her own. She swirls Rita’s Liverpudlian gabble (which does occasionally tip into gobble) at her reluctant tutor as though it was one of the hair-colour mixes she concocts at work.

Gradually the balance of power shifts through a sequence of short scenes, the passage of time indicated by Paul Burgess’ lighting. It is only after the interval that just how far it has altered becomes truly apparent. Rita/Susan has discovered a new way of life, a fresh circle of friends and a different career path. Frank’s future will follow a different route. Parallel lines have bent to come together, then straightened to diverge once more.

Educating Rita runs at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford until 12 June with matinées on 9, 11 and 12 June.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

The Unhappy Medium

(reviewed at the Stutton Community Centre on 4 June)

The year is 1926, with the General Strike at its zenith. The memories of the world war which ended a mere eight years previously are still very much alive; some even festering. The desire to know certainties about deceased loved ones – including their after-life – is rampant. Fine pickings for spiritualists and mediums, at any rate in theory.

Many of these believed, as did their clients, that they did have special powers and insight. Many also were charlatans, mere performers. It is with one such that we are confronted in Common Ground’s latest tour. The Unhappy Medium is a three-hander, both in the acting and the creation. The script is by Pat Whymark (who also directs), Julian Harries and Patrick Marlowe.

Central to the story is Montague Faulke (Harries), the by-blow of a landed aristocrat who desperately wants the family’s recognition; some of its wealth would also be welcome. His colleague and, we learn, his lover as well as general fixe and dogsbody is an East End Jew of socialist tendencies, Aubrey Solomon (Marlowe). An appointment is booked by a journalist posing as a genuine seeker for contact with the spirit world.

But Morton McLean (Dick Mainwaring), hounded by an editor greedy for front-page headline, is himself a split personality with more on his mind than exposing deceptions and protecting the vulnerable. it’s a farcical comedy in which we are never quite sure whether the role-playing is more sincere than the characters are prepared to admit. Even to themselves.

All three performers go at it with gusto. Harries turns in an over-the-top portrait of a man out of his time and place. Mainwaring is extremely funny as mcLean, especially when his research requires him to do woman’s clothing and attach himself to a cumbersome recording machine. It is Marlowe though who walks away with the show, giving us the eternal cheeky-chappy Cockney as well as the man of principles shouldering an enormous chip.

The Unhappy Medium tours community and arts centres in East Anglia until 9 July, including the John Peel Centre, Stowmarket (16 June), The Cut, Halesworth (25 June) and the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich (7-9 July).

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

The Romford Rose

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 31 May)

There are some shows when one simply accepts that the sound is going to be amplified but the words aren’t so important that it matters whether they are distinguishable or not. The Romford Rose, a new collaboration between writer Chris Bond and composer Jo Collins, isn’t one of these. It’s basically through composed, and Bond is a writer who uses words very precisely to tell the story.

Basically it’s a family four-hander about teenage daughter Rose (obsessed with Dolly Parton in particular and country-and-western music in general), her semi-criminal father Frank (obsessed unhealthily with his daughter), her mother Yvonne (the recipient of too many years of domestic violence) and Harry (a young soldier who Rose meets at the lavish birthday party thrown for her by her father) and with whom she starts a Romeo and Juliet romance.

No man is ever going to be good enough for his daughter as far as Frank is concerned. Sam Pay plays the heavy, besotted and violent father with frightening conviction. Nicky Croydon shows us the desperate vulnerability of Yvonne, with the social mask increasingly unable to find the bruises, as well as the sequinned manifesto of Rose’s idolised singer.

Harry is an interesting part, on the outside an apparently relaxed and self-assured squaddie, but one whose has already experienced dark moments in service which are going to colour – or will that be, stain? – his whole life. Wade Lewin gives us both sides of this complexity and is a sympathetic partner to Sarah Day’ Rose in the dance and other duet sequences. Choreographer Rachel Yates gives Day some energetic routines, using steps, lifts and jumps which fuse classical ballet with modern and line dance moves.

You do feel for this teenager, living with as much comfort as a doting and well-to-do father can provide, but now old enough to want a life which she can regulate for herself. Day offers us a rounded portrait of a girl who is beginning to recognise that other people have fantasy lives which aren’t necessarily as straightforward and harmless as hers.

Collins directs the six-piece country-and-western band with several of its members playing acting roles – Jennifer Douglas, Liz Kitchen, Howard James Martin and Iain Whitmore (the two former mainly as twittering party guests and the latter pair as a couple of heavies you really wouldn’t want to come across in a dark alley. BJ Cole is the pedal steel guitar maestro. Bond acts as his own director; the designer is Ellen Cairns.

The Romford Rose continues at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 18 June with matinées on 2 and 11 June.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016

The Preston Bill

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 26 May)

Andy Smith is the writer and performer for this story about a very ordinary man called Bill who lived almost his entire life from 1935 to 2015 in Preston, Lancashire. It’s a verse narrative, which sounds absolutely right for this particular history of Everyman. Smith’s only props are a chair and a ukulele.

We follow Bill’s life from school to factory-floor through National Service and marriage to Edith. They fail to have a family but compensate by their mutual affection, through what would have been called “self-improvement” and for Bill a developing role as a union representative. Made redundant, he finds part-time work before finally retiring.

Edith dies, but he knows that life has to go on. So he studies, takes an Open University degree and lives on until the health problems inherited from his initial working conditions finally crumble him away. A very ordinary life indeed, but one to which Smith gives richness which we – the audience – are allowed to taste and to savour.

The Preston Bill played at the Pulse 2016 Festival towards the end of a national tour. Pulse 2016 continues at various Ipswich venues until 4 June.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

Mmm Hmmm

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 26 May)

This year’s Pulse Festival had an excellent start with the Bristol-based trio of Verity Standen, Ellie Showering and Jannah Warlow. Mmm Hmmm makes full use of flexible and trained voices a cappella as it begins with a harmony of hums with the three performers spotlit in the first of James Mackenzie’s rectamgular pools of light. Hunched forward so that we see only the russet, linden green and indigo draped costumes, it’s as though scavenging birds were indulging in a dawn chorus.

When the performers stand upright, they intersperse the hummed music with stamps, hand claps and body slaps, moving from one light pool to another for each interlude. Words are added, with a quick-fire and crisp delivery that must be the envy of any operatic singer faced with a patter song. There’s an edge to the words, but it is the music which dominates. Those fluid sack-like costumes (Harriet de Winton)also have a role to play.

Standen is the composer as well as director and performer. Her co-performers are more than just on-stage colleagues; hers is not just a piece of song theatre. but an invitation to experience the trivialities as well as the more serious side of life. It has been said of opera that people sing what cannot be adequately expressed by word alone. Mmm Hmmm does that.

Mmm Hmmm opened the 2016 Pulse Festival which runs in Ipswich at various venues until 4 June.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016

Private Lives

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 25 May)

Noël Coward’s 1930 comedy Private Lives is deceptively simple. The plot – a divorced couple finding themselves honeymooning with new spouses at the same hotel rekindle both their passion and the causes for the break-up – calls for the two main characters to dominate the stage, notably in the second act, while the subsidiary pair need to establish themselves just a forcibly but without tipping the balance.

In the event, Esther Richardson’s new production as part of the 2016 Made in Colchester season slightly perverts this. That’s because Krissi Bohn’s bright and brittle Amanda has the perfect foil in Olivia onyehara’s steely fluff of a Sybil. It’s easy to visualise this Amanda as the fast-set darling, sparkling in drawing-rooms and cocktail bars. Sara Perks has given her costumes which are right for the period and which subtly reflect the photographs of Gertrude Lawrence (who created the role).

Sybil wears pink – soft, pleated and tending towards the feathery. From Onyehara’s first entrance, preening as though a society photographer was lurking on the balcony, she gives an impression that this kitten has teeth as well as claws. That’s something which Robin Kingsland’s Victor discovers as they set off in pursuit of their errant mates.

Kingsland puts great sincerity into his Paris exchange with Amanda; this is one of those moments when both author and director lift the veil of frivolity to suggest that these are real people, who can feel real hurt. Pete Ashmore’s Elyot has a touch of petulance about him, whih slips dangerously near to being camp; those 40 minutes in Act Two when Amanda and Elyot are fired with all their previous feelings with each other never quite sustained themselves.

The maid for Amanda’s Paris flat is one of those cough-and-a-spit parts which provide the right actress with a chance to steal the show. Christine Absalom, a Mercury audience favourite, does just that in the third act, earning herself several rounds of applause. Adam P McCready’s sound design and original score (which incorporates snatches of Coward’s own music) adds to the atmosphere.

Private Lives runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 4 June with matinées on 26 and 28 May, 2 and 4 June.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

White Nights

(reviewed at the Adnams Spiegeltent, Chapelfields, Norwich on 21 May)

White Nights is described as a circus cabaret by Race Horse Company which is presenting it. It’s an apt description for the ambiance suggests that of a nightclub with a glittering songstress presenter (Sophia Urista) inviting the audience to sing and clap along in the interludes between the actual circus acts.

Because the seating for that audience is on a non-raked floor and the stage itself is only slightly elevated, a lot of the acts which involve floor work are invisible to all but the front rows. This applies particularly to Iona Kewney whose wild acrobatics at times suggest some sort of ritual sacrificial dance. A gravity-defying Chinese pole routine is the opening number an sets the marker for what follows.

The three men in the troupe – Petri Tuominen, Rauli Kosonen and Kalle Lehto – have very different styles and skills. Some of the routines, notably those on the teeterboard combine comedy with precision skills – you have to be able to do something to near-perfection if you’re going to send it up. A nude man balancing a globe-like ball slips on a shirt and loose trousers to suggest a Pierrot fascinated by the dark side of the moon.

White Nights is part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival continues until 29 May.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Circus & physical theatre, Reviews 2016

Sans Objet

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal Norwich on 17 May)

To say that Aurélien Bory’s Sans Objet is a mesmerising as well as technically brilliant piece of theatre scarcely does it justice. Purposeless it is most certainly is not. As the stage slowly lightens we are confronted by an enormous mass a black plastic which turns and rises as though the earth’s landmass was breaking out of the seas.

This reveals our two, neatly business-suited performers Olivier Alena and Olivier Boyer, who unveil the most extraordinary robot with a lethally flexible arm. It is as though Kafka and Orwell had commissioned a Duchamp creation. Partly it can seem an hommage to Audrey (of Little Shop of Horrors fame), at first almost playful, then savagely devouring. Tristan Baudoin is the programmer and operator, fully deserving the audience’s applause at the curtain calls.

Before the stage is once more enveloped in the black sheeting, Alenda and Boyer dance and play, perform acrobatics and indulge in a half-fun, half-danger sequence of movements with the creation’s robotic arm. The sheeting then becomes the background for a dazzling light display until a door opens in it to reveal the two men with black heads. Have they been annealed in the depths of the robot? Or is it that they have recovered humanity once more? Make up your own mind.

Sans Objet is part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival 2016.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Circus & physical theatre, Reviews 2016

The Tempest

(reviewed at the Hippodrome, Great Yarmouth on 12 May)

The early 20th century Hippodrome Circus building just west of Great Yarmouth’s seafront offers opportunities for 21st century spectacle in a production of what is arguably Shakespeare’s last complete play which reflects the early 17th century masque tradition. Director William Galinsky takes full advantage of the space.

Visually, you can’t fault this production designed by Laura Hopkins. Two semi-circular beds of mudflats with a causeway running between them, as at Mersea Island down the coast, aerial acrobats (Lost in Translation Circus), swimmers, strange hooded sea monsters in human form, rain and floods – what more could you ask for? Well, clarity of speech would be helpful; too many cast members at the performance I saw seemed to be suffering from an epidemic of the mumbles.

As Miranda, Pi Laborde Noguez is the principal offender. Tony Guilfoyl’s Prospero is mostly audible, and credible in his portrayal of a man who slowly comes to abrogate the consuming bitterness which has enveloped him since he was ast adrift from his duchy. Jane Leaney is a string Ariel, alternatively swathed in magenta and black and suggesting that, once free, she might well be Prospero’s proper mate.

Ferdinand in Freddy Carter’s interpretation has a good balance between teenage naïveté and a growing awareness that tasks are worth accomplishing properly, not a bad philosophy for a future king. Graeme McKnight makes no attempt to play Caliban for sympathy; this son of Sycorax is truly his mother’s offspring. Ravi Aujla gives Alonso a dignity which at times seems at odd with his previous support for Oliver Senton’s usurping Antonio. Antonio’s mirror-image is of course Adam Burton’s power-hungry Sebastian.

Colin Hurley’s Stephano is an almost-lovable rogue Stephano with John McCarthy as his side-kick (literally) Trinculo. Elder staesman Gonzalo is given a gentle characterisation by Christopher Saul; this is a man who knows that you can do as much good by stealth as with the fanfare of trumpets. When the banquet of sugar subtleties floats towards the shipwrecked nobles, it is he alone who can lie back and enjoy the fruits.

The Tempest continues at the Hippodrome, Great Yarmouth until 21 May with matinées on 14 and 21 May. It is part of this year’s Norfolk & Norwich Festival.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

Richard III

(reviewed at the Avenu Theatre, Ipswich on 10 May)

The Red Rose Chain is an Ipswich-based company which likes to provide an unusual slant for its productions. Take the most recent example, Joanna Carrick’s version of Shakespeare’s Richard III. She has a cast of just four actors with Lawrence Russell taking the title role and all the other parts played by Edward Day, Rachael McCormick and Kirsty Thorpe.

Carrick and David Newborn have set it in the immediate post-World War II years. Russell is on stage almost throughout the action, initially listening to his crackling wireless, leafing through a newspaper and contemplating his pin-board studded with photographs of those who must manipulate or die to ensure his translation from Duke of Gloucester to the throne. Hunchbacked and stiff-legged, he is a sartorial mismatch of checks and stripes.

It’s a mesmerising performance, ablaze with cackles as he admires his own dexterity and invites us to share his glee. A Richard in the comic vein rather than one to strike shivers down the spine. Unless, that is, you’re one of his victims. Torpe is two of these – Lady Anne and the initially conniving Buckingham – giving two well contrasted portraits of recognisable human beings.

Edward IV’s widow Elizabeth and the ultimately avenging Richmond are both played by Day. His Elizabeth is properly commanding; the Act IV Scene IV wooing scene in which Richard, just after the murder of her sons, proposes to marry her daughter turns out to be one of the production’s high points. McCormick doesn’t make quite enough of Clarence’s dream in Act I Scene IV but rants to good effect as Queen Margaret and the Duchess of York.

Keeping the running time, including the interval, down to a little under two hours has meant the elimination of a number of characters, including Hastings, the Woodville clan and Lord Stanley (whose last-minute intervention at Bosworth sealed the historic Richard’s fate). This does make the story much easier to follow for non-historians. Whether the two interpolated songs by Leon Sheppard contribute much is more of a moot point.

Richard III runs at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich until 4 June with matinées on 14 and 21 May and 4 June.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

Travels With My Aunt

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 5 May)

Giles Havergal’s stage version of the Graham Greene novella has a cast of four, each of whom at various times plays Henry Pulling and his maternal aunt (or is she?) Augusta. This new Creative Cow production is directed with immaculate precision by Amanda Knott with an angular bar setting to match (ART), slick lighting changes from Douglas Morgan and some evocative sound by Matt Early.

All four actors – Richard Earl, Jack Hulland, David Partridge and Katherine Senior – wear impeccable business suite with just hat or sunglasses change to indicate the hand-over of character or where we are in Henry and Augusta’s increasingly picaresque (not to say suspect) wanderings. This is ensemble playing with some stand-out moments.

Hulland’s Aunt Augusta is deliciously over-the-top while Partridge excels as factotum Wordsworth and wild-child Tooley. Earl has his moment as ruthless Colonel Hakim and equally hard-hearted Mr Visconti. Senior makes much of the ingénue Yolanda, teenage daughter of yet another of the devious police chiefs with whom the travellers tangle.

Travels With My Aunt can also be seen at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 6 and 11 June.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

Lotty’s War

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 3 May)

It’s a very strange sensation to sit in the audience and have some of the indelible moments of one’s own childhood flash up during the play to mark the passage of six years. The six years in question are those of Nazi Germany’s occupation of the Channel Islands. Giuliano Crispini’s Lotty’s War takes place in Guernsey; I was in Jersey, but the Occupation of both islands ran on parallel lines.

Crispini has based his drama on a true story, told in a diary found among papers in St Peter Port’s Priaulx Library archives. On stage we first encounter teenage Charlotte Hervé, known as Lotty (Victoria Emslie) and her friend Ben de Carteret (Matt Ruttle). France has fallen to the German army and Luftwaffe bombers are circling the harbour. Lotty’s father is down on the quayside, overseeing the dispatch of tomatoes to England.

Somehow the British High Command had neglected to announce that the Channel Islands were a demilitarised zone. So the open tomato lorries (which must have looked like munitions trucks from the air) were bombed, with loss of life – including Lotty’s father. She had had her chance to evacuate earlier; now it is too late. Then General Rolf Bernberg (Ian Reddington) arrives to requisition the farmhouse.

Lotty can either leave her home or stay on as the officer’s housekeeper. She stays, and we see the relationship develop from mutual mistrust to something deeper than friendship. Ben on the other hand has no time for passive patriotism; he advocates full-blown resistance. As the Occupation bites deeper – curfews, wirelesses and cars banned, the V-sign campaign, rationing and ID cards, medical shortages, the 1944 Red Cross food parcels – all three are affected. Attitudes harden. There is not going to be a happy ending.

Directors Bruce Guthrie, Carla Kingham and James McAndrew cannot disguise the episodic nature of the script (the short scenes suggest that this might work better as a television or film treatment) and designer Victoria Spearing shows this by the rapid costumes changes for Emslie. Emslie allows us to see the stressed journey to a kind of adulthood which Lotty undertakes.

Reddington conveys the tight-buttoned formality of the career soldier with his Dresden-domiciled family in danger from Allied bombing raids steering a difficult course between duty and despair. Ruttle works hard to make Ben three-dimensional, but the impression remains that this is a type of angry young man, rather than a teenager maturing into a freedom fighter for whom the end will always justify the means.

Lotty’s War runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 7 May with a matinée on 7 May. It can also be seen at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff between 20 and 25 June and at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds between 27 June and 2 July.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

Laila

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 27 April)

It is said that there are only five basic plots from which to construct a story. Young love thwarted by a combination of family, political and cultural pressures is surely one of these. In the West, we probably think of those star-crossed lovers Juliet and Romeo. In the East, there is the story of Laila and Qays.

Laila, the new musical from Rifco in association with the Palace Theatre, Watford and the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch has a fusion score by Sumeet Chopra, played under the direction of Benjamin Holder, lyrics by Dougal Irvine and a script by Pravesh Kumar. Choreography is by Cressida Carré, and is also a fusion of Indian classical and western modern steps and gestures.

The stry begins today, with a young British Asian girl Laila (Mona Goodwin) refusing her father(Ravin J Ganatra)’s injunction to marry the man he (but not she) has selected with due regard to that dangerously nebulous concept of honour. Then we step back several hundred years to a kingdom ruled by a man who has fought his way to his crown and now has a crown prince waiting impatiently for his turn.

Qays (Reece Babia), his father (Surrinder ‘Shin’Singh Parwana) and his cousin are the dispossessed previous ruling family; they are concerned that Qays’ passion for Laila will bring further destruction to them. But love will find a way – particularly young love seeing only black and white, and never the grey nuances so apparent to their elders.

The designer of the sparse set with its billowing drapes transforming from palace pillars to wind-scorched desert to ferocious flood is Libby Watson. There’s a shadow puppet sequence by Matthew Robins which is effective but needs a little more subtlety of manipulation (hands too visible) and atmospheric lighting designs by Philip Gladwell.

Goodwin, Bahia, Parwana and Ganatra are all effective in making their characters live and there’s a nice study of Laila’s maid by Sheena Patel. Sufi singer Asif Raza dominates some of the musical nubers; for my ears, the whole thing is somewhat over-miked, but that seems normal for musicals of all genres nowadays.

Laila runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Watford until 30 April with a matinée on 30 April. It also plays at the Arts Theatre Cambridge (9-14 May) and the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch (17-21 May).

Leave a Comment

Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016