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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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

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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Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016

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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Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016

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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Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016

The 39 Steps

(reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 9 August)

This new production for Suffolk Summer Theatres has been devised and directed by Mark Sterling from the Patrick Barlow tongue-in-cheek version of the John Buchan novel brought memorably to the screen by Alfred Hitchcock.

Though it may seem like a whole sequence of “based on…”, this staging does add a further dimension, with its introductory sequence from the film, multiple use of projections and some Hitcockian hommages – the music-hall is MacGuffin’s and the moorland chase has a pair of hobby-horse planes with their pilots plotting north by north-west courses.

The four main actors – Clive Flint, Joe Leat, Amy Christina Murray and Simon Stanhope – are supplemented by ASMs Kitty Dunham and Laurence Leonard who not only move the triangular pillars and furniture but join enthusiastically in the second act’s highland reel. They fully deserve their appearance at the curtain call.

Stanhope is our dashing hero Richard Hannay who, finding himself in London at a loose end, goes to the music-hall and thereby secures himself a perilously adventurous future. Murray whisks on and off a sequence of wigs and accents as the femme fatale whose appearance in Hannay’s flat triggers off the whole story, the feisty but not unflappable Pamela, the susceptible crofter’s wife and others.

“Others” sums up the multi-faceted Flint and Leat perfectly. Flint manages, with swift headgwear, coat and skirt changes, a positive galaxy of characters from Mr Memory and the crofter to railway officials, policemen, landladies and one of the duo of rain-coated, slouch-hatted, dark-glasses spies. Leat’s Professor Jordan provides a hilarious sub-Hitlerian tirade and one half of a Flanagen & Allen turn.

The 39 Steps continues at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 13 August, transfers to the Southwold Summer Theatre between 15 and 27 August and to the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from 6 to 10 September.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

Wind in the Willows

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

This new Made in Colchester production by Matthew Cullum uses the Willis Hall stage adaptation of the Kenneth Grahame children’s stories with a new score and lyrics by Rebecca Applin, the Mercury’s resident composer. The cast play the different brass, string and percussion instruments in actor-musician mode.

It’s imaginatively designed in a non-naturalistic fashion by Katie Sykes; the minor animal characters have furry vaguely rabbit-like headpieces but Ratty, Mole and Badger wear, as it were, lay dress. So Sam Pay’s Mole is kitted our in a boiler-suit, Pete Ashmore’s Water-rat has appropriate river edge-wading gear and Kate Adams’ truculent Badger has a properly old-fashioned schoolmarm look.

Dale Superville’s posturing and flamboyant Toad bucks this trend, nattily attired in cutaway coat. Superville is a gifted mime as well as an audience favourite, cascading onto the stage at his first entrance in a positive tsunami of personality. His web-suggestive fingers alone make Badger’s withering put-down description of him as a “backsliding amphibian” really strike home. It’s a joyous performance which appeals to the would-be maverick in most of us, whatever our age group.

Toad’s great rival is the Wild Wooder, to whom Christopher Hogben allows a fine sense of untrammelled malevolence (weasels don’t feature in this version). There are chases, entrances and exits through the auditorium, but these are carefully spaced and the children who join the cast on-stage at the end are greeted in character and each allowed a dance routine of their choice.

It’s overall a magical introduction to theatre and one which really exercises a young imagination to see the natural world in several dimensions. Akin in many ways to our own, with hierarchies and territories. But it remains a wild place, somewhere apart. Things are done very differently there.

Wind in the Willows runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester (early evening) until 21 August. There are no Friday or Monday performances but matinées on 11, 13, 14, 18,20 and 21 August.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Reviews 2016

Cash on Delivery

(reviewed at the Southwold Summer Theatre on 1 August)

It may have been premièred 20 years ago, but a lot of Michael Cooney’s farce Cash on Delivery slides easily enough into 2016 attitudes. The central character is Eric Swan (Darrell Brockis), who is actually unemployed but desperate to keep this from his working wife Linda (Claire Jeater). She does have concerns about her husband, but they’re not financial ones.

The Swans have a lodger, layabout non-earning Norman (Bob Dobson), who has somehow managed to acquire a fiancée Brenda (Melissa Clements); they plan to get married at the weekend. There’s also Uncle George (James Morley), who is neck-deep in dodgy deals – not to mention Eric’s pyramid of social benefit fraud schemes, which is about to topple over.

The catalyst for all this is DWP inspector Mr Jenkins (Richard Bates), a man who does things by the book. In his case, the book is dictated by the formidable Ms Cowper (Erin Geraghty), not a boss to tangle with. Eric having claimed that one of his multitude of claimant persona has died, this has also brought bereavement counsellor Sally Chessington (Imogen Slaughter) to the house.

Slaughter gives a delicious portrayal of just the sort of slithery sympathy-oozing apparatchik no-one in real grief would want within a hundred miles. Brockis builds up the tension and the comedy skilfully as Eric’s complex of fraud nears collapse, matched by Dobson’s wide-eyed attempts to disentangle himself which simply result in him being drawn ever deeper into the proliferating deceptions.

Then there’s unctuous undertaker Mr Forbright (Paul Hegarty) and bemused psychologist Dr Chapman (Michael Shaw). The main furnishings of 344 Chilton Road, Mile End in Andy Powrie’s production designed by Maurice Rubens are a man-sized chest (almost an actor in its own right) and a number of doors to be slammed, locked, flung wide open at the most inopportune moments.

Cash on Delivery runs at the Southwold Summer Theatre until 13 August and transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 16 and 20 August.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

The Tempest

(reviewed at the Theatre in the Forest, Jimmy’s Farm, Wherstead on 29 July)

“Ramshackle” and “shenanigans” are two words mentioned in the programme for Joanna Carrick’s production of The Tempest, this summer’s Shakespeare from the Red Rose Chain at the Theatre in the Forest.

They are apt, for the cast of five appear much more at home with the rough’n’tumble of the jester and the butler than with the poetry and multi-levels of treachery, betrayal and redemption which underpin the story of Prospero, his usurping brother and the equally disfunctional royal family of Naples.

So Edward Day – who plays Prospero and Sebastien, the Milanese dukes – comes to life as clown-masked and wigged Trinculo; Prospero’s great speeches somehow seem to take second place. Rachael McCormick doubles Miranda (a typically stroppy teenager) and the pedantic but honourable councillor Gonzalo. Lawrence Russell is a boyish Ferdinand, the crown-ambitious Antonio and a literally knockabout Stephano.

This is a play, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the spirit and the mortal worlds meld. Kirsty Thorpe’s Caliban not only provides some of the production’s most intelligent speaking but makes Alonso’s grief at the apparent loss of both his daughter (to marriage) and his son (presumed drowned) credible. Jack Parker is an Ariel with an underpinning of Puck as he seeks to earn his freedom.

Carrick’s production makes much use of water, quite a lot of which finds its way among the audience; if you prefer to remain dry, don’t book for the foremost block of seats stage right. David Newborn and Carrick have created a set in sea shades peopled with oil drums and overhung by an enormous sail.

Costumes for the shipwrecked contingent run variations on hot orange; island dwellers sport greens and more sea-blue. Laura Norman’s soundscape has live additions from the farm donkeys, beautifully on cue at “The isle is full of noises”. McCormick is also the choreographer.

The Tempest continues at the Theatre in the Forest until 28 August with matinées on 6, 13, 20 and 27 August.

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Terra Incognita

(reviewed at the Abbey Hall Creative Space, Eye on 28 July)

Games of life and games of love have at least three things in commons – they have winners, they have losers and they present an unknown territory in which to conquer or perish. Rosamund Small ambiguous scenario for Robert Binet’s new ballet makes uncertainty as much the theme as resolution.

Abbey Hall Creative Space is a fine addition to Suffolk’s often idiosyncratic mix of theatres and arts centres, many of which have taken over redundant buildings originally erected for completely different purposes. It’s oblong and on two levels with a pleasant outside space on either side.

Binet’s Wild Space initiative, which he describes as open-source ballet, uses the venue to its full advantage. There are five dancers – Ida Praetorius and Andreas Kaas from the Royal Danish Ballet, Emma Hawes from the National Ballet of Canada, Yawmine Naghdi of the Royal Ballet and Martin ten Kortenaar from the Dutch National Ballet.

Two violinists, Clio Gould and Jonathan Morton, accompany much of the action from the upper level, which is where the audience begins its viewing. Natural as well as stage lighting complements the choreography, which is firmly based in the classical tradition with the girls en pointe and the boys partnering for lifts which bring the idiom firmly up to date.

Like the action, the story takes us to several levels of love, friendship, enmity, forgiveness and acceptance. As daylight fades, we follow the dancers utside where the story of displacement ends bare-footed on grass. Binet’s whirling swirling choreography demands much of his performers, who are all technically accomplished, but the result has a magic of its own.

Next year Wild Space will develop and reinterpret Terra Incognita in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, London and Toronto. it should be an interesting process to follow, especially with the mooted collaboration with digital platform Artery. This will involve creative spces as well as artists and performers globally.

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Filed under Ballet & dance, Reviews 2016

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

(reviewed at the Watford Colosseum on 10 February)

It’s the first of the great Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice collaborations – and it’s stood the test of time. This new tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has a fresh cast headed by X-Factor finalist Lloyd Daniels in the title role. Bill Kenwright’s production has been designed for touring by Sean Cavanagh with a double staircase taking up most of the stage, perhaps rather too much of it for the performers’ comfort.

Daniels radiates the right sort of boyish energy coupled with naiveté as Joseph and acts as well as sings his numbers. We have to wait until Act Two to encounter Matt Lapinskas’s Elvis-inspired Pharaoh, but it’s worth the wait. Also noteworthy are Henry Metcalfe (the choreographer) as patriarch Jacob and pontificating Potipher (two men alike blinkered) and Camilla Rowland (the possessor of legs which certainly make their point) as Potipher’s wife.

Rebekah Lowings as the Narrator links the scenes as well as providing some of the best singing in the show. There are stand-out cameos by Andrew Bateup as Pharaoh’s butler and Marcus Ayton as his cook, initially facing the same bleak future. Bateup also plays Reuben and Ayton is Judah. The children’s chorus in the Watford performances came from the Stagecoach schools.

This is the piece of through-composed music theatre in which Lloyd Webber relaxes and has great fun – which the audience fully shares – with different popular genres. So, as well as the rock numbers for Pharaoh, we have the country’n’western “One more angel in heaven” and the second act calypso, complete with appropriate costume accessories. “Any dream will do” is, of course the show-stopper.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat runs at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich between 2 and 6 June.

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Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2015

All My Sons

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 17 February 2015)

Arthur Miller’s first New York success has held the stage internationally for close on fifty years. All My Sons is a family tragedy on a grand scale. Its roots are in the great dramas of the classical stage, in which a flaw in the protagonist develops during the course of the action to wreck the lives of those he holds dearest.

Talawa is one of the country’s leading Black theatre companies, so at first glance one perhaps wonders why director Michael Buffong chose a play so firmly rooted in time (1947, just after the end of the Second World War when racial segregation was the unpleasant norm) and place (the residential outskirts of a mid-west industrial town).

It’s a tribute to his cast that the audience so easily accepts the characters and situations placed before it. Particularly effective because so subtly nuanced are Dona Croll as Kate Keller and Ray Shell as her husband Joe. One son, Larry, died in the war when his fighter plane crashed. The other son Chris (Leemore Marrett Jr) survived and has invited his brother’s fiancée Ann Deever (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) to visit.

As far as Kate is concerned, she still hopes that Larry will one day walk back into the house; she also presumes that Ann is also waiting. But Ann and Chris want to get married. While neighbours Sue (Andrea Davy) and Jim Bayliss (Ewen Cummins) are happy to pander to Kate’s fantasy, Anne’s lawyer brother George (Ashley Gerlach) has been visiting his father in prison.

Deever senior was Joe’s business partner, jailed in connexion with supplying faulty engine parts to the Air Force. Now he is due for release, something which it soon appears will strip away years of false assumptions. If you know the play already, you will know what happens; if you don’t, you really should see this production and find out for yourself.

There’s a stylish setting by Ellen Cairns, centring on a realistic back porch, complete with rocking chair, but surrounded by flats painted to suggest the forest onto which humans have encroached but not conquered. The lighting (Johanna Town) and soundscape (Emma Laxton) are clever but never obtrusive.

All My Sons runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 21 February. The national tour to 25 April includes the Arts Theatre, Cambridge (24-28 February), the Palace Theatre, Watford (10-14 March) and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester (14-18 April).

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015

Jefferson’s Garden

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 12 February)

Liberty is an emotive word; it’s also something of a chameleon, changing meaning and emphasis through the centuries and across the globe. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new play Jefferson’s Garden explores the concept within the context of the American Revolution. It premiers at the Palace Theatre in Watford in a production by the theatre’s artistic director Brigid Larmour and designed by James Button.

In one way this is documentary theatre with fictional characters interwoven into actual historical events. As such it is played on a bare, black-painted stage with minimal furnishings or props. The ten actors are equally drably clad; just the whisper of olive silk in the second half or the flash of a soldier’s red coat to act as a visual distraction.

The story begins with an English Quaker family half-way across the Atlantic as they seek a new life which promises freedom for them to worship as they choose. Matriarch Martha (Julia St John), shoemaker husband Daniel (Gregory Gudgeon) and slightly rebellious daughter Louisa (Anna Tierney) are joined by a German stowaway political hothead Carl Christian (William Hope).

He’s in a bad way, in more than one sense of the phrase. A young nobleman trying to foment a rebellion in one of the smaller German princely states is ill-equipped for survival in the New World when he has to flee for his life without his accustomed trappings, both material and intangible. But survive he does, marries Louisa and they have a son Christian (David Burnett) and a daughter Imogen (Tierney).

From here on the story centres on Christian. He’s expelled by the Quakers for planning to join the Patriot side of the looming conflict, even though he promises not to actually bear arms. 1776 is not a year in which non-combatants were tolerated by either side, as he is rapidly taught. Then he arrives in Virginia, meets the slave girl Susannah (Mimi Ndiweni) and some of the Founding Fathers.

It is to Jefferson (Hope) in particular that Christian feels drawn, as a type of surrogate father. Jefferson, of course, is a land- and slave-owner, a word-smith who would prefer to stay slightly in the shadows. That isn’t possible, any more than it is for Christian to resist the lure of this comfortable lifestyle or the chance of marrying into property through Betty (Carlyss Peer) or for Susannah to miss the chance of freedom offered by the Royal Ethiopian Regiment on the British side.

Although the first act is slightly over-long, the pace – perhaps because by now we’re recogising the characters as people and not just as types – quickens in the second part. All the actors carry conviction, as they swop roles and gender, with St John’s two contrasted wives and mothers, Ndiweni’s Susannah, Peer’s slave Sally morphing into Southern belle Betty, Hope’s aristocratic Jefferson and Burnett’s Christian being particularly memorable.

Jefferson’s Garden runs at the Palace Theatre Watford until 21 February.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015

Deadly Murder

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 2 February)

Deadly Murder is a thriller for three actors by the American playwright David Foley, doubling as a type of hommage to the films of Tarantino. After the sort of disco music and light show which puts us firmly in the world of the glitterarti, we are in the living-room of the Manhattan apartment which belongs to Camille (Lucy Benjamin).

Camille is a (very) wealthy widow and a designer of the sort of show-off jewellery which one might describe as bling. She also has a penchant for bedding younger, personable men. In this case it’s Billy (Tom Cornish). But Billy doesn’t just want to be paid for his services; he has a hidden agenda.

What would a woman who owns not just the penthouse but the whole apartment block do when her one-night stand refuses to accept his dismissal? She calls the security man (Sam Pay) – and this is where the plot thickens into a positive peasouper of double-and triple-crossings.

Director Simon Jessop wisely keeps the action at boiling point with just enough space for the sort of half-nervous laughter with which an engrossed audience can relieve its tension. The pace is brisk; even with an interval it’s less than two hours, which is just about right.

All three actors are excellent; our sympathies and understanding veer wildly as each new revelation presents itself. Cornish has the sort of louche sexiness which suggests an inherent morality and Benjamin matches him as the woman who takes what she wants, and comes back for the next helping.

In many ways Pay, who is a member of the Queen’s Theatre’s cut to the chase… repertory company has the most difficult role as a man who isn’t quite as clued-up as he thinks he is.

Though one might query if the whole thing wouldn’t have worked even better without the intermission… silly me! I forgot about those vital bar takings.

One of Rodney Ford’s excellent sets – all exposed brick walls, angular chrome furniture and off-white upholstery – locates us in place and time. And if anyone know how to stage a stage fight which has the audience wincing in sympathy, it’s Malcolm Ranson.

Deadly Murder runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 21 February 2015.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015

Present Laughter

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre Cambridge on 25 July)

One of Noël Coward’s greatest strengths as a writer was his ability to recognise his self-created image for the theatrical construction that it was. Of all the plays he wrote and starred in during the 30s and 40s, Present Laughter most epitomises this. Stephen Unwin’s new production for the Theatre Royal Bath is heading for the West End – and you can see why.

Designer Simon Higlett gives us a marvellously cluttered living-room set with a spiral staircase corkscrewing its way up to the landing dominated by a flattering portrait of ageing matinée idol Garry Essendine (Samuel West). The women’s costumes have just the right period appearance, from Liz Essendine Rebecca Johnson)’s halo hat to Joanna Lyppiatt (Zoe Boyle)’s slinky velvet evening-dress in malevolent dark green.

If West is the star of the show, with a nice line in self-admiration balanced with a sense of his own perpetual posturing, the female actors all make their mark. Phyllis Logan is the crisp secretary Monica Reed, a woman who has seen it all before and who has no intention of playing up to her boss’s moods and tantrums. Johnson’s cool and collected Liz is offset by Boyle’s Joanna, a ruthless predator in pursuit of her own pleasure; her extended second-act exchange with Garry is beautifully paced.

Patrick Walshe McBride is extremely funny as the clumsy would-be playwright fixated on the theatre of the future as the theatre of ideas. Theatre investor Henry Lypiatt and producer Morris Dixon provide Toby Longworth and Jason Morell with contrasting opportunities which they seize readily.

As starry-eyed debutante Daphne Stillington, Daisy Boulton begins the play as a mass of girlish illusions which have let her down by the end of the second act. Theatre and real life always seem to be on a collision course.

Present Laughter runs at the Arts Theatre Cambridge until 30 July with matinées on 28 and 30 July.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

Murder By The Book

(reviewed at Suffolk Summer Theatres, Southwold on 19 July)

Writing is a solitary occupation; it can lead to depression and self-denigration. On the other hand, it has been known to develop into megalomania. The thriller by Duncan Greenwood and Robert King has as its central character a successful thriller writer whose lucrative part-time supplement to his earnings comes from writing vitriolic reviews of his competitors’ novels.

His secretary goes along with all this; his even-wealthier actress and somewhat libidinous wife has had enough. Divorce has been mentioned, but this has financial implications. It’s all a neat set-up for role-playing of many sorts, though Phil Clark’s fast-paced production never manages to make the characters anything other than pasteboard puppets.

Leyla Holley plays Imogen, a woman whose histrionics spill over from stage to drawing-room. Costume designer Miri Birch places us firmly in the Mary Quant/Biba era. Amy Christina Murray makes a pert Christine with Joe Leat as the exceptionally nosy next-door neighbour whose “Hurray Henry” façade is not quite what it seems.

Selwyn Piper, the concocter of mysteries at the centre of the drama, is Simon Stanhope with Clive Flint as his publisher John Douglas. They all take it as seriously as this sort of comedy-thriller requires, but – for me at any rate – it never quite jells. Perhaps you should blame the weather.

Murder by the Book runs at the Southwold Summer Theatre until 30 July and transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 2 and 6 August.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

Cats

(reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 18 July)

Those felines versified by TS Eliot and magicked into stage life by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Trevor Nunn, Gillian Lynne, John Napier and Howard Eaton have migrated on a UK tour after a new London residency. This fresh production builds on the original one 35 years ago in many ways while taking a subtly different approach.

Reviewing that original production I suggested that potential theatre-goers should make their canaries sing for their supper and put the dog on own-brand food for as long as it would take to acquire the money for a ticket. Those cage birds and canines need to be on similar rations in 2016 – it’s a marvellous total theatre experience.

Lloyd Webber’s score, so eclectic in the nuances of composition and orchestration with the words for both concerted and solo numbers given proper precedence, is conducted by Tim Davies. We’ve become accustomed to through-composed scores in musicals, but the through-choreographed show puts a special burden on its performers, most of whom sing while bending, stretching, whirling and lifting in Lynne’s dance patterns.

Cats insinuate themselves in the aisles as well as on the stage; one little girl at the performance which I attended decided that these alley-cats were far removed from the docile moggie she cuddled at home. Of the large and incredibly hard-working and committed cast, Marianne Benedict’s Grizabella and Kevin Stephen-Jones’ Old Deuteronomy stand out for sheer vocal power, Sophia McAvoy’s balletic white cat, Matt Krzan’s Munkustrap, Marcquelle Ward’s Rum Tum Tugger, Shiv Rabheru’s Quaxo and Mistroffelees and Javier Cid’s Macavity are particularly noteworthy.

Ringing the auditorium with coloured globes and making us aware that we are intruders on some very soecial rituals during the overture with its pairs of cats’ eyes winking at us ll over the stage are Eaton’s lights, as much an integral part of the experience as those animal costumes, masks and make-up so far removed from the concept of the pantomime “animal skin”. It really is total theatre throughout.

Cats runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 23 July with matinées on 20 and 23 July.

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Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016

Dial ‘M’ For Murder

(reviewed at the Frinton Summer Theatre on 12 July)

Some of the audience know the plot before the play even starts. Perhaps from its original television production, other staged presentations or the famous film version. As with any classic, there are always those who come fresh to it, without preconceptions or memories.

The trick is to make it all fresh for those who are renewing acquaintance with an old friend and both comprehensible and engaging for those who are are newcomers to the plot. Frederick Knott’s Dial ‘M’ For Murder has been given a stylish production by Mike Harris, strongly aided by designer Florence Hazard, for the opening of the 77th Frinton Summer Theatre season.

Scarlet and grey is the colour palette, reflecting both underhand doings and the moral ambiguity of the main characters. The set is symbolic, rather than realistic, with Jacob Dyer’s sound design reminiscent of a film score and all the ambient noises associated with it. Costumes suggest the 1950s and early 60s.

Izabella Urbanowitz flames as Sheila, wealthy wife of former tennis star Tony (Cary Crankson). Julian Mack plays her former lover writer Max; it is made clear that neither man is really a success in his chosen profession. Sam Donnelly oozes sleaze as decaying army officer Lesgate and Kieron Jecchinis makes a dapper, no-nonsense Inspectot Hubbard.

The McGrigor Hall is not large and has good acoustics, so the dialogue of the initial scenes wee enunciated too loudly, though this calmed down as the evening progressed. The stylised set, just hinting at the all-important staircase outside the Wendices’ flat and the other rooms inside it, is matched by a minimal use of props and some intriguing lighting effects by Pip Thurlow.

Thrillers on stage are usually given a naturalistic treatment. This approach by Harris, Hazard, Dyer and Thurlow works well and, by making the audience use its own imagination to bolster that of the creative team, proves a thoroughly successful approach to a classic which can sometimes seem to be an ageing warhorse.

Dial ‘M’ For Murder runs at the Frinton Summer Theatre until 16 July. The season of six contrasted plays continues until 28 August.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

Giant

&
Antarctica

(reviewed at the Cambridge Junction on 7 July)

Did you ever, a long long time ago, write your name in a book, followed by the house name, the street, the town, the county, the country and then follow that with The World and The Universe? That seems to be the starting point for The Human Zoo Theatre Company’s Giant which uses an intriguing mixture of white-face mime, music, speech an puppetry of many kins to tell its story.

We more or less begin with a conventional-looking dolls’ house. Boy meets girl, they marry, have a son an a daughter (all very nuclear family so far) grow older, watch another generation grow, decay and die. An everyday history for ordinary people but, just as in a television soap opera, no family isn’t really one homogenised whole.

By now the young bride, who may once have had her own hopes for a starry future, is a pain-ridden matriach – but she can still dream, even as she dies. Her son holds down an office job which is rapidly becoming more than he can cope with. He wants his nephew to join him, putting aside the young man’s own desire to become an architect.

it’s often said that older people live out their frustrated ambitions through the youngest generation. Giant bears this out with great skill as well as considerable sympathy – we all have to do the best under the circumstances, whatever these may be, is the underlying message. The Human Zoo Theatre Company open the cage door to let us all mingle.

Giant is one of the productions in this year’s Hotbed Festival, celebrating new performance writing. Before it artist Chris Dobrowolski took us to Antarctica – where this conceptual artist (to assign what may be a misleading label) was attached to the British scientific expedition. It uses his own and documentary film footage as toy animals are introduced to disdainful real ones.

it’s all engaging enough, though this sort of staged autobiography tends to be a fixture at fringe theatre festivals right across the country. I may be a trifle jaded but it’s all too often a case of “see one, you’ve seen them all”. Dobrowolski is at any rate prepared to laugh at himself, which must count as a bonus.

The Hotbed Theatre Festival in association with Menagerie Theatre Company continues until 10 July at the Cambridge Junction. Giant also travels to this year’s Edinburgh Festival.

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Filed under Circus & physical theatre, Reviews 2016

Don’t Dress for Dinner

(reviewed at Southwold Summer Theatre on 6 July)

The Robin Hawdon adaptation of the modern French farce by Marc Camoletti proved to be a popular start to this year’s season of productions by Suffolk Summer Theatres. A last-minute substitution in the key role of Bernard due to illness aaw Darrell Brockis performing script-in-hand but still making the part his own.

Director Ron Aldridge and the season’s designer Maurice Rubens provide the necessary number of doors required by this fast-moving genre. Miri Birch’s costumes are clever, with a degree of satiny slink for Claire Jeater as Bernard’s wife Jacqueline (as set on an extra-marital affair as her husband) and a witty maid-to-mistress outfit for Imogen Slaughter as cook extraordinaire Suzette.

Slaughter provides one of the funniest characterisations of the evening, provoking a well-deserved exit round of applause. Michael Shaw bumbles engagingly as Robert, Bernard’s bachelor friend who arrives for a country-house weekend with possibilities – and finds himself overwhelmed by them.

The two men also sport an interesting collection of shirts and nightwear as three women on the warpath (poor Melissa Clements as Suzanne is something of a patsy in all this) find new uses for soda siphons and velouté sauce. I suspect that some momentary sags in the frenetic goings-on will be ironed out during the course of the run. As it stands, Brockis deserves a curtain-call all to himself.

Don’t Dress for Dinner runs at the Southwold Summer Theatre until 16 July and transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 21 and 30 July.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

Mary Poppins

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 1 July)

it’s almost a case of anything which cinema and CGI can do, a really imaginative live stage production can do better. The new touring production of Mary Poppins may be based on the famous Disney film, but it oozes a very special kind of magic all of its own.

Some of this is definitely due to Zizi Strallen’s stunningly good performance in the title role – there’s a healthy dose of acidity as well as sweetness in her portrait – but Bob Crowley’s set and costume designs (adapted by Rosalind Coombes and Matt Kinley) – so deceptively simple yet so complex and intricate – also play their part.

Musical director Ian Townsend makes the orchestra a distinct balancing party, aided by some strong singing voices among the principals. Grainne Renihan as the bird woman with her balad-like “Feed the birds” and Penelope Woodman’s Miss Andrew dispensing “Brimstone and treacle” in double doses stand out here.

The two young Banks children on the opening night were Georgie Hill as Jane and Jabez Cheeseman as her brother Michael. Their parents – bank clerk George and reluctantly stay-at-home wife Winifred – are also well sung and acted by Milo Twomey and Rebecca Lock. Matt Lee is an engaging Bert, a factotum who, like Mary Poppins herself, is not quite of this world.

Yves Adang leads the exceptionally strong male dance and song chorus, making the most of Matthew Bourne’s choreography, notably in the park scenes where the statues come to life. Projections (Luke Halls) and some brilliant lighting and special effects by Natasha Katz and Simon Sherriff help to transport the audience into the story’s parallel worlds.

Early 20th century London is shown to be outwardly a sombre place, with black-suited clerks and businessmen drudging away in their offices while equally dark-clothed women exercise their pet dogs and push babies in their prams for their daily constitutionals.

The brilliance of the transformation into eye-blinking colour during the first park scene is the sort of effect which lingers in the memory (and imagination)just as much as the flying effects and the clever use of house levels. The standing ovation at the end of the Norwich first night was, for once, fully justified.

Mary Poppins runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 30 July with matinées on 2, 7, 9, 14, 16, 21, 23, 28 and 30 July.

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Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016