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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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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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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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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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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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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..

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Filed under Circus & physical theatre, Reviews 2016