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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2016

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 26 April)

Erica Whyman’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which alighted at Norwich’s Theatre Royal this week as part of its five-month national tour, is part of the Shakespeare quatercentenary celebrations. At each venue, adult amateur actors play the mechanicals (here they are members of Norwich’s own The Common Lot) and children from a local school (Sprowston Community High School) make up the fairy train.

So far, so slightly unusual. Designer Tom Piper takes it all further with a set suggesting the aftermath of Second World War damage and the actors wearing clothes which evoke the 1940s. Interestingly, Oberon’s entourage are actor-musicians (Sam Kenyon is the composer of the sparsely evocative score) led by Tarek Merchant.

In Theseus (Sam Bedford)’s court, Peter Hamilton Dyer stands out as a military Egeus whose desire to force his daughter Hermia ((mercy Ojelade) into marriage with Chris Nyak’s self-satisfied and posturing Demetrius growls with menace. Nyak’s performance is one of the production’s gems, well contrasted by Jack Holden’s softer-keyed Lysander. An equally spiky relationship is that of Laura Harding’s Hippolyta with Bedford.

Laura Riseborough’s Helena looks right for the girl thrown over by Demerius, but – and the women of the cast with two major exceptions are mostly guilty – I had no sense that she really understood what her lines actually meant. That’s not something of which Ayesha Dharker’s sinuous Titania can be accused. Nor Lucy Ellison’s cabaret turn as Puck, all mischief with just a hint of actual wickedness underpinning her relationship with the audience.

Oberons come mainly in two guises; light and dark. Chu Omambala tips slightly towards the dark side – there is malice in his trick on Titania if not in his intervention on behalf of love-lorn Helena. The Common Lot has a Bottom in Owen Evans who practically steals the show from the professionals, though deliciously upstaged in the closing sequence of the play scene by Dan Fridd’s Flute.

Anyone who has ever attempted to direct a student or amateur play will sympathise with Amelia Hursey’s Quince, faced with a leading man who knows better than anyone else what’s needed – and tht he’s the man for the job. Charles Balfour’s lighting, a simple plot for the Athens scenes and subtle shifts of colour and shapes for the woodland interlude with a sunset glow suggesting both an all-encompassing night and the aftermath of devastation.

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Swan Lake

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 19 April)

Northern Ballet has never forgotten that its original title was Northern Ballet Theatre. Artistic director David Nixon’s apprach to both the classics of the ballet repertoire and to commissioned new work uses the strength of the drama inherent in each plot just as much as the lyricism of the traditional choreography.

His casts need to act as well as dance. His new production of Swan Lake retains the outline of the Petipa and Ivanov scenario but with some very 21st century twists. Odette (Martha Leebolt at the performance I saw) is no fragile princess trapped by an evil magician.

Rather, she is in that seductive yet sinister tradition of the beautiful creature who materialises out of the water to lure a young man into her realm. From the naiads and sirens of Greek myth through those river-haunting undines and lorelei to the rusalye and the shape-shifting seal-women of Scandinavian legend – not to mention those familiar through Grimm and Andersen – they bring disaster for humans.

Idilia (Abigail Prudames) is of the earth but still vulnerable to rejection. Specifically she is of New England at the end of the 19th century. Both Anthony’s father (Hironao Takahashi) and mother (Victoria Sibson) want her to marry their son (Tobias Batley) who has grown into a personable but exceedingly troubled young man.

In childhood Anthony had seen his younger brother drown; now he haunts the lakeside where the tragedy occurred while coping with a realisation that his feelings for his best friend Simon (Nicola Gervasi) are trembling between accustomed comradeship and something much more passionate and sexual.

Horse-playing friends, with Ashley Dixon outstanding as the one who never quite pulls off the athleticism of the rest of the group, fail to involve Anthony in their sport. The choreography for the boys involves sequences of leaps and lifts, all very well executed with impeccable timing. Whirls and twirls pervade the pas de trois for Anthony, Simon and Odilia.

We revert to more familiar sequences when Anthony is once more alone at the lakeside. In the fading light Odette and her fellow “swans” emerge from the rushes and captivate Anthony. He overcomes his fear of the lake to join them, much to a returning Simon’s consternation.

At Anthony’s coming-of-age party, Odilia stands out among the preening young women in her white Parisian gown and the merrymaking culminates in another pas de trois for her with and equally entranced Simon which is both lyrical and demandingly intense.

By the third act, Odilia and Anthony have married, but he cannot escape the influence of Odette. Simon’s attempts to distract his friend simply result in a mutual and passionate embrace, which horrifies Odilia. Back at the lakeside, the dance of the four cygnets suggests embryonic vengeful Wilis as we return to the dance sequences for the swans.

Whether or not you count Anthony’s final plunge into their realm as a happy ending is a moot point. Dramatically, it all flows well enough, though the transitions from new, more contemporary choreography with the familiar 19th century one is not always seamless.

I had the impression that some audience members were slightly bemused. The Northern Ballet Sinfonia under Brett Morris made John Longstaff’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s score (with subtractions and additions) sound fresh and sympathetic to the performers on stage as well as in the pit. Dave Gillan’s designs and Peter Mumford’s clever lighting enhance the experience.

Swan Lake is at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 23 April with matinées on 21 and 23 April. It can also be seen at the Milton Keynes Theatre between 26 and 30 April.

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The Silver Gym

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 18 April)

Nichola McAuliffe’s new comedy The Silver Gym premiered at Hornchurch’s Queen’s Theatre is in the tradition exemplified by Richard Harris’ Stepping Out of 1984. We meet a disparate group of women signing up for the gym which former soldier Stella (played by McAuliffe) is setting up in a near-derelict building in an equally ramshackle part of town.

Stella has ploughed all her savings into the venture; at first one wonders why on earth she should do it. Her new clients are nigab-masked Assieh (Susan Aderin), Jewish former pole-dancer Lysette (Kim Ismay), overweight Cerise (Pauline Daniels) and Violet (Suzanne Bygrave) and that token man Franklyn (Peter Straker), a street trader of fruit and vegetables. His laid-back performance almost runs away with the show

She also has a secretary Doucette (Houmi Miura), Rather more interested in doing her manicure than actually working. Into this mix add Casey (Carol Sloman), an upper middle-class wife with an agenda of her own. It’s all directed with considerable fire by Glen Walford within a realistic setting by Amy Yardley which works well until the final intended show-stopper sequence.

The individual performances are all very good; we can sometimes feel during our encounter with these slightly oddball people that we might might encounter them on the street in everyday life. McAuliffe has done her best to show us human beings, well aided by her cast, director and in the initial design. But ultimately they are types. Not quite two-dimensional, but never fully three-dimensional either.

The Silver Gym runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 7 May with matinée performances on 21 and 30 April.

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Clybourne Park

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 13 April)

Bruce Norris’ 2010 play picks up the closing scenes of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun with its Black Younger family about to move to Clybourne Park, a White suburb of Chicago.

Norris’ acerbic tragi-comedy has two stories, one set in 1959 and the other in 2009. Daniel Buckroyd’s new touring production for Colchester’s Mercury Theatre has the packing cases which became so prominent in A Raisin in the Sun lurking on the fringes of Jonathan Fensom’s set.

Only these are for the move of Russ (mark Womack) and Bev (Rebecca Manley); They are the couple who have sold to the Youngers, following a family tragedy. Carl (Ben Deery), having failed to deter the Youngers from their move is now desperate to prevent Russ and Bev – who may be ignorant of the skin colour of the new owners of their house – from completing the sale.

What concerns Carl is a mixture of in-bred racism coupled with a desire to maintain the status quo and to prevent the (as he sees it) inevitable meltdown in value of the whole Clybourne Park development. Deery controls Carl’s increasingly paranoid diatribes as he corrals William Troughten’s church minister Jim and his own pregnant deaf wife Betsry (Rebecca Oldfield) into half-hearted support.

Manley’s portrait of a wife and mother whose whole existence has been thrown out of kilter is equally three-dimensional. Her relationship with her Black maid Francine (Gloria Onitiri) is a brittle one; she values the help but ignores the person. Onitari gives us an apparently quiet, pliable woman with a rich life – a husband Albert (Woie Sawyerr) who excels in a skilled job and three children.

Russ and Bev’s tragedy is revealed slowly, and not fully until the second act. In this Lena (Onitiri) is concerned that the would-be purchasers of her house are proposing radical changes, practically a re-build. Womack’s bitterly authoritative Russ (a man who thinks, feels and suffers) is now transformed into Dan, the sort of workman you probably would be better off not employing.

The dénouement takes us into another dimension, removed from the reaism of everything which has gone before. By this time the audience is thoroughly gripped by the several dramas which have played out before it. This is an ending which was there from the beginning, but we needed to tease it out for ourselves.

Clybourne Park runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 23 April with matinées on 16, 21 and 23 April. The national tour runs until 28 May and includes the Arts Theatre, Cambridge (9-14 May).

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Somewhere in England

(reviewed at the Brentwood Theatre on 1 April)

Polly Wiseman’s new play for Eastern Angles – Somewhere in England is touring as the company’s contribution to the Eighth in the East project – takes two GIs and two girls living in rural Suffolk to weave a story of four clashes of cultures. Joe (Nathanael Campbell) is Black and a qualified engineer, though the American Air Force sees him only as useful labour at the base.

Chester (Joshua Hayes) is a White airman, who would actually prefer to be grounded; he thinks his friendly condescension towards Joe and Londoner Land girl Viv (Georgia Brown) mrks him out as someone superior. Viv has become something of a role model, though not always in the best way, by schoolgirl Ginny (Grace Osborn).

In some ways the plot follows an obvious course, though the characterisation of the main characters (Brown, Hayes and Osborn also take on other roles) is sufficiently sharp and in-depth to disguise any predictabilities. Gai Jones directs with a simple design by Ryan Dawson Laight and costumes which allow for quick changes on and off stage.

Campbell gives a nuanced performance as a man who knows that he world is skewed to be unjust, is prepared to contest this but knows where the limit are likely to be well into his old age – if he survives that long. You can’t really warm to – let alone like – Chester and Hayes wisely doesn’t attempt to gloss the man’s brash self-regard. Viv is a girl doing her bit for the war effort, but also feeling disorientated; this Brown conveys clearly.

Osborn’s Ginny develops into a fascinating character, a 15-year old with emotions beyond her age, caught between girlish gawkiness and a burgeoning maturity with which she is, as yet, unable to cope. It’s a stage most women will probably recognise from their own teenage. Tom Fox’s sound-scape puts us in the historical period punctuated by reminders that war is not a game.

Somewhere in England is on tour to 4 June including performances at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich (25-30 April), the Haverhill Arts Centre (10 May), the Luton Hat Factory (17 May), Sheringham’s Little Theatre (25 May), the Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford (26 May) and The Cut, Halesworth (31 May).

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Invincible

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 30 March)

You know all the old contrast metaphors – chalk and cheese, oil and water, east and west. There’s also north and south, which is at the heart of Torben Betts 2014 play Invincible, how given a new production by Christopher Harper for an extended collaborative tour by the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds and the Original Theatre Company.

We’re in a rented cottage in the north of England. Emily (Emily Bowker) and Oliver (Alastair Whatley) have left London for what they imagine will be a simpler – not to say, cheaper – way of life. Oliver’s devoutly Christian mother is dying, which serves as a pretext; her greatest wish is for them to marry in church but, as Emily makes clear right from the start, that’s against her strongly-held principles.

Emily in short is one of those people so involved with chasing the motes that the actual beam (basically, her own selfishness) is completely ignored. Oliver may share most of her libertarian, organic and internationalist scruples, but is probably a fraction more reality-rooted. He knows that easing his mother’s last days has implications beyond the purely physical ones of nursing.

Their new next-door neighbours are Alan (Graeme Brookes) and his wife Dawn (Kerry Bennett). They have daughters, whose much-loved but marauding cat is another bane of Emily’s existence, and a son serving oversea in the British army. Alan in his own words is a “big flat slob”, football-obsessed, a drinker of lager out of cans and far too prone to laugh at his own jokes. it’s a delicious portrait of a type who is also a flesh-and-blood person by Brookes.

You can’t warm to Emily, not even with the burning sincerity of Bowker’s performance and can see why (in a farcical but bitter mix-up of actions and explanations) Whatley’s more gentle Oliver is drawn to Bennett’s earth-goddess Dawn. This is in many ways a farce from a classic mould, but it’s a savage one very much for our fractured 21st century.

Heidi McEvoy-Swift’s costume designs perfectly reflect the characters of their wearers while Victoria Spearing’s setting of the tattered décor of the rented cottage is briskly refurbished for the second half into Emily’s preferred Farrow & Ball London loft minimalism. it’s all foot-lighted by rows of miniature buildings and loomed over by the Angel of the North.

Invincible runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 2 April with a matinée on 2 April. It can also be seen at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich (19-23 April) and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester (28-30 April).

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Don Giovanni

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 21 March)

Time and place an seem irrelevant as far as Mozart’s Don Giovanni is concerned. The story of the lethal heart-breaker is universal, and we accept it as such. Lloyd Wood’s production for ETO sets us in a fin-de-siècle location with his designer Anna Fleischle has produced a dark grey setting with a grim exterior stairway to one side (leading to a long upper platform) and cavernous vaults below. In the fore-stage is a lit oubliette grating.

George von Bergen is a sinisterly athletic Don Giovanni, a many who exults in wreaking havoc, selfish to his core. His masterly interpretation is helped by Jeremy Sams’ wittily contemporary translation, clearly enunciated by most of the cast. Sams is a compose and theatre director and he knows how to balance constants and vowels with the melodic line.

Then there’s Matthew Stiff’s burly Leporello, much put-upon but never quite managing to break away from his master. The “catalogue aria” is beautifully sung; Stiff balances the bitter comedy of the list of Giovanni’s seductions (albeit “one hundred and three”, rather than “mille e tre”) with a beguiling smoothness which may leave Ania Jeruc’s Donna Elvira unhappy, but not we in the audience.

Jeruc has the hardest of the three female roles, a woman who wants her seducer back and knows in her heart that this will never happen. By contrast, Camilla Roberts’ Donna Anna is a tiger-cat in her pursuit of vengeance (though I did wonder why a woman who proclaims her extended mourning for her murdered father so persistently wears soft, spring-like colours).

Matching Roberts, who throws off both the legato and the decorative elements of her arias and accompanied recitatifs with precision as well as legato, is Robyn Lyn Evans as Don Ottavio, less of a dull stick than he sometimes appears and winning applause for his one, second-act aria (conductor Michael Rosewell uses the original Prague 1787 score).

The two young peasants whose nuptuals Don Giovanni so successfully manages to disrupt are a seductive Lucy Hall as Zerlina – a girl who knows how to make a double-entendre out of any phrase while singing – let alone acting – and Bradley Travis as Masetto. he is a thoroughly earth-bound clod while she has a thistle-down element.

Timothy Dawkins’ Commenadatore, emerging in formal top-hatted grandeur from what Don Giovanni (in one of Sams’ best throw-away lines) calls his tasteless monument, dominates the finale. If his first scene confrontation shows the enraged human father, the entry into the increasingly anarchic supper-room is as menacingly supernatural as one could wish.

Don Giovanni is at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 22 March, at the Snape Maltings on 8 April and at the Cambridge Arts Theatre 27-28 April.

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Filed under Opera, Reviews 2016

The History Boys

(reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford on 16 March).

If you’re an arts complex with professional actors as well as a thriving stage school attached, then Alan Bennett’s The History Boys is an ideal choice of production. As well as the adult staff members at the fictional boys’ school in the 1960s, there are the students – as mixed a bunch as you’re likely to encounter then, now or in the 1950s on which Bennett drew from his personal experiences.

Some of us were lucky enough to be taught by charismatic as well as dedicated teachers – I know that I was, though not by anyone quite as maverick as Hector. Matthew Ward makes him into less cuddly than some other actors’ characterisations; it’s as though he is deliberately courting disaster from our first glimpse of him, motorbike-revving as though he had just materialised from another planet.

Sue Last balances this with her straight-forwrd Mrs Lintott, a no-nonsense type who teaches efficiently but without ever stirring her students’ imaginations. Then there’s Jeremy Small’s Headmaster with his sights set on Oxbridge places. It’s a portrait of a man who lacks true authority.

As Irwin, parachuted in to polish the likely university candidates, Jack Downey offers a well thought-out portrait of a driven half-failure who knows what will work in certain circumstances and eventually manages to apply these lessons to his own career. Downey is flint to Ward’s fire, which is at it should be.

Jeanne Stacey’s production has a set by Douglas Heap which, with its simple foreground of school chairs and tables, keeps the action flowing. Of the boys, Joseph Vaiana’s brash Dakin, Joe Llewely’s Posner slowly coming to terms with his homosexual instincts, Will Edden’s chirpy Timms and Daniel Boulton’s bovine Rudge stand out.

The History Boys runs at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford until 19 March.

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Shadowlands

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 15 March)

Some love stories are rooted in place as well as time; they epitomise both. Take William Nicholson’s popular play Shadowlands about the relationship between Oxford academic, writer of children’s novels – such as the Narnia series – and sought-after broadcaster on religious subjects CS Lewis.

Secure in his common room circle, Lewis’ apparently calm existence was disrupted by the advent of American divorcée Joy Gresham and her Narnia-addicted son Douglas. What began as a formal acquaintance matured into affection and, after Gresham’s diagnosis with an incurable illness, love and ultimately marriage.

A church-blessed wedding between a committed Anglican and a Jewish-born, Christian convert divorcée was deemed impossible – at the time. Think about Princess Margaret’s doomed desire to marry Group-Captain Townsend and the furore this evoked, not just within political and ecclesiastical circles.

Alastair Whatley’s new production for Birdsong Productions and the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford has a flexibly realistic set by Whatley and Anne-Marie Woodley which takes us from common room to the house Lewis shares with his brother Warnie to a tea-room and a hospital. Which leaves a great deal up to the performers themselves.

As Gresham, Amanda Ryan presents a sharp-witted (not to say, sharp-tongued) single mother trying to carve out an intellectual life for herself while bringing up two boys. Post-war England seems to offer more satisfactory solutions to her financial and emotional problems than the United States. You believe in her throughout, and long for her lengthening shadows to be lifted.

Balancing this is Stephen Boxer’s quiet but steely Lewis, a man who is more open to the changing world than many of his contemporaries. The moment when he embraces Shannon Rewcroft’s bereaved Douglas as both face up to a Joy-less future is immensely moving. There’s more than one way in which a heart can break; it’s not necessarily a noisy process.

The university’s masculine, not to say misogynist, coven includes Simon Shackleton as the acidic Professor Riley, Jeffrey Harmer as the devout Reverend Harrington and Denis Lill as Warnie, a bull of a man who yet manages to fit tidily into the different Oxford environments.

Shadowlands runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 19 March wih a matinée on 19 March. It can also be seen at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge (23-28 May), the Mercury Theatre, Colchester (4-9 July) and the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (11-16 July).

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Ireland’s Call

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 9 March)

This new touring production is both a story about Irish emigration in the mid-20th century and a showcase for traditional Irish dancing, an increasingly popular genre. The story by Ross Mills, Ged Graham and Trevor Payne focuses on a young man Sean Dempsey (Mike Burr) and his childhood sweetheart Cora McGowen (Shauna Barry).

Sean sees no furture for himself at home, so migrates first to London and then to New York. Here he joins the Police Department and saves enough money for Cora’s passage, but she is torn between her family obligations and her love for him. Eventually she decides to stay in Ireland and, somewhat on the rebound, he marries his captain’s daughter Ekeanor (also plyed by Barry).

Linking the different times and places is the narrator (Graham), first as the parish priest, then as a Cricklewood fixer and finally as the NYPD chief (all three men are brothers). All three principal come at their roles with sincerity, though Graham does tend to milk his, especially in the second half. Mills directs and the excellent choreographer is Lianne Stubbs.

You can’t fault to precision of the dancing ensemble with exceptionally neat footwork throughout and some spectacular leaps and jumps from Burr and the other male dancers. Jarrod Loughlin’s historical and topographical projections provide the background and take the place of scenery though Mike Stevens’ complex lighting design fell prey to a technological fault at the performance I saw.

It’s fair to say that the audience loved every minute of it, but there are longeurs; no doubt the show will tighten up as the tour progrsses (this goes on until May). Certainly the extended clap-along after the finale could be cut – not everyone wants to stand up and wave their arms about for what seemed like a quarter of an hour when cars, buses and trains await the journey home.

Ireland’s Call is at The Cresset, Peterborough (11 March), Cliffs Pavilion, Southend (26 March), Theatre Royal, Norwich (27 March), Prince’s Theatre, Claction (2 April), Regent Theatre, Ipswich (9 April), Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch (25 April), Mercury Theatre, Colchester (26 April), The Grove, Dunstable (28 April) and Civic Theatre, Chelmsford (2 May).

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Much Ado About Nothing

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 7 March)

Expect a lot of new Shakespeare productions this year – it’s his quatercentenary. Hornchurch under its new artistic director Douglas Rintoul has been quick of the mark with what is my personal favourite of Shakespeare’s comedies – Much Ado About Nothing.

Rintoul and his designer Jean Chan have kept the Sicilian setting but opted for the end of World War II period. There are also some gender-shifts in the casting; Leonato (Mark Jax)’s broher Antonio is now his widowed sister Ursula (Eliza Hunt) and Pamela Burgess doubles Dogberry and Margaret.

What stands out in this interpretation is the characterisation of the two main characters. Thomas Padden’s Benedick and Hattie Ladbury are both outsiders in their respective milieux. One feels that he has developed his blistering wit as a fitting-in device with his fellow officers. She is a land-girl type, preferring slacks to skirts, and perhaps also concerned, as a poor relation, to prove her usefulness to her uncle and aunt.

Both catch the audience’s attention and affections from their first exchanges; we have all of us known the type and understand the vulnerability under the carapace. James Siggins’ Claudio suggests that it is Hero (Amber James)’s fortune as her father’s heir which initially attracts him. Both Liam Bergin’s Don John (all fascist black and bitter with it) and Sam Pay’s rough-hewn Borachio are excellent portraits, and there’s a good sketch of the Friar by Jamie Bradley.

But the play stands or falls by its Beatrice and Benedick. Ladbury and Padden wear these personalities with complete comfort and naturalism. I was waiting for the nervous laugh which so often follows her “Kill Claudio” and his immediate reaction “Not for the wide world”. It doesn’t happen here; just a gasp of horror has the injunction and rebuttal sink in.

Much Ado About Nothing runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 26 March with matinées on 10 and 19 March.

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Flare Path

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 2 March)

The co-production between the Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions of Terence Rattigan’s Second World War drama Flare Path has been recast for its 2016 tour. Slipping a new cast into a production designed for a different set of actors is often an illuminating process.

Justin Audibert’s staging is straightforward with a semi-realistic set and costumes by Hayley Grindle. The min plot revolves around Flight Lieutenant Graham (Daniel Fraser), his actress wife Patricia Warren (Hedydd Dylan) and her former love film star Peter Kyle (Lynden Edwards). We are in the main reception room of a hotel near the air-base where the bombers and their crews are based.

The sub-plot concerns a Polish Flying Officer Count Skriczevinsky (William Reay) who seeks vengeance on the Nazis who killed his wife and children. He has remarried, a good-hearted former barmaid called Doris (Claire Andreads); theirs is a complex relationship and whether or not it will survive the end of hostilities is left open to individual interpretation.

Edwards makes the (now fading) screen heart-throb into a man who is outwardly assured but inwardly both needy and selfish. Fraser makes much of the big, ultimately very moving scene where Graham returns from an operation and admits the strain under which this puts him to his wife. Dylan and Andreadis both bring their characters to life and there’s an abrasive cameo of the hotel proprietor Mrs Oakes by Audrey Palmer.

There is comedy as well as drama in Flare Path, mainly provided by Sergeant Miller (Jamie Hogarth) and his wife Maudie (Polly Hughes). Reay for my taste doesn’t quite fit into Skriczevinsky’s boots; he plays for laughs which seem at odds with the driven essence of the man.

Flare Path runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 5 March with a matinée on 5 March. It also plays at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester 7-12 March.

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The Last Five Years

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 1 March)

Jason Robert Brown’s one-act musical The Last Five Years could be defined as a chamber opera. It’s based on the film of the same name and tells the story of two young people – an aspiring writer Jamie Wellerstein (Chris Cowley) and an equally ambitious actress Catherine Hiatt (Katie Birtill). They meet, fall in love, marry and separate.

Catherine’s story is told backwards, from her reception of Jamie’s letter saying that he’s left her. Her opening lament with its bitter-sweet refrain of “I’m still hurting” suggests her melodic line throughout; there’s occasionally a hint of a waltz during the good times when their lives seem to run on such smooth parallel lines. The characterisation is in the two characters’ musical idioms, hers the more lyrical, his with rather more of a rhythmic rasp.

Brown knows how to write a tune and the five-piece band, perched high above and at the back of the action in James Perkins’ simple but effective multi-location set, sustains the singing actors without ever overwhelming them. Peter Rowe’s direction wisely allows for the basic simplicity of the story – so old, and always so new – to shine.

He’s lucky in his cast. Birtill shows us the fragility of Catherine’s life, as the failure of her marriage is mirrored in the collapse of her career – a sequence of failed auditions. Cowley is a whirlwind of hopes realised, but at a personal cost. His acting out of a Jewish story in front of a decorated Christmas tree is deservedly something of a show-stopper. He knows that he must leave (his part in the story runs forward, not backward), that there is an emotional price for this – and that he accepts its payment.

The Last Five Years runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 11 March with matinée performances on 2, 5 and 9 March.

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