Henceforward…
reviewed in Cambridge on 22 February

There’s nearly always been a dark edge to Ayckbourn’s plays, even the most apparently fluffily light-hearted of them. Henceforward…, originally staged 30 years ago, predicates a world where creativity is both stifled and liberated by technology, where the have-nots out-number the haves and where a feral and fractured society makes its own rules. It was a nightmare vision. It’s one which is equally terrifying today.

Central to the story is Jerome, a composer. Mainly because of his creative obsessions and wholehearted embrace of the new technologies on offer, his marriage has broken down and he is denied access to his child. He is holed up in a studio-cum-living-space in a London area where the Daughters of Darkness both make the rules and enforce them. He communicates almost exclusively through a battery of electronic screens and devices.

One of these is a domestic robot, NAN 300F – a prototype which never made it into production. If he is ever to reclaim his daughter, then he needs to display a settled home environment to the social services who will determine his future access to the child (now 13 years old). So he hires Zoe, an actress from a dating agency, to act out that scenario. She arrives in his steel-boarded studio after suffering robbery and assault from the Daughters of Darkness.

These two personalities clash, react and eventually come to an understanding. The trouble is that she interprets (as a performer does) while he creates, every sound made duly recorded and then used for his “masterpiece”. When we meet estranged wife Corinna in the second act, just how much damage Jerome’s obsession has caused and is still causing is made brutally bare.

Ayckbourn has directed this touring revival with a new set by the original designer Roger Glossop. The cast is excellent – Bill Champion as Jerome, Laura Matthews as Zoe, Jacqueline King as Corinna, Jessie Hart as the mixed-up daghter Geain and Nigel Hastings as Mervyn, the official tied up (in more ways than one) with red tape. NAN 300F is well worth attention, whether grey-haired or blonde-wigged.

It doesn’t make for a comfortable evening in the theatre. It’s disturbing, as most visions of a technology-led future can be. It makes you realise why the creative artist is in so many ways a person outside the rhyme and the rut of everyday existence. The ultimate question is – do artistic ends justify the means? Ayckbourn rests his case. Make up your own mind.

Three and a-half star rating.

Henceforward… runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 25 Fbruary with matinées on 23 and 25 February.

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The Red Shoes
reviewed in Norwich on 21 February

Seeing the Powell-Pressburger film The Red Shoes for the first time (for me that was in 1949) is, as the programme notes for this Matthew Bourne danced adaptation emphasise, something of a defining mark for anyone with an interest in ballet as well as the cinema.

Bourne keeps to the film story but adds some subtle hommage to the choreography of, among others, Fokine (Les Sylphides), Massine (Beach) and Cranko (The Lady and the Fool) in the episodes featuring the ecclectic repertoire of the déraciné company run so autocratically by Lermontov (Sam Archer).

There are nice humorous touches, notably when the soon to be supplanted prima ballerina Irina (Michela Meazza) and her posturing partner Ivan (Liam Mower) monopolise an over-worked and under-staffed stage crew in order to ensure that their follow-spots for Les Sylphides are becomingly bright and accurate.

Such characterisations are neatly pointed by all the dancers. It’s great fun picking up the in-jokes, such as the Wilson and Keppel sand dance and the music-hall girls’ abundance of slightly moulting feathers – but you lose nothing if you just take it as it unfolds.

Archer radiates the certainties of a man who has no time to waste on anything which isn’t for the good of his company and even more importantly, his vision for how it should be. So he recruits struggling composer Julius Craster (Dominic North) but reacts violently when Craster and his latest protegée Victoria Page (Ashley Shaw) fall in love.

Emotion is the enemy of art, Archer maintains; which was basically Diaghilev’s reaction to Nijinsky’s doomed marriage to Romola de Pulszky. The irony is, of course, that Lermontov is strongly attracted to Victoria. Glen Graham’s ballet-master and character dancer Grischa can foresee disaster looming; his tempter in the actual Red Shoes ballet sequence plays out both sides of the scenario.

There’s great fluidity as well as style in Bourne’s choeography, both in the ensemble dances and the mre formal pas de deux. The settings by Lez Brotherston take us effortlessly from front of stage to back-stage, from the luxury of Monte Carlo and a Mayfair salon to East End music-hall and garret lodgings – and swirl us in between through a surreal world which is neither realistic stage set nor pure abstraction.

This is a show where the lighting matters; Paule Constable achieves this superbly. The story is multi-layered and the choreography and visuals mirror this in perfect synchrony. The pre-recorded score has been arranged by Terry Davies from the film and concert music of Bernard Herrmann. It’s an evening whee a story and how it’s told balance perfectly.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Red Shoes is at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 25 February with matinées on 23 an 25 February. The national tour continues until 22 July, including Curve, Leicester between 16 and 20 May.

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The Crucible
reviewed in Hornchurch on 20 February

What is arguably Arthur Miller’s best play – and certainly it is among his most popular – is a layered affair. Ostensibly a realistic drama about the notorious 1692 witch trials in Salem, it is a searing indictment of the 1950s McCarthy-led witch-hunt for potential Communist sympathises and, by extension, any similar houding under the guise of defence of a national interest.

Because it is now judged to be a lassic, productions veer from the straightforwardly realistic to the copletely deconstructed. Douglas Rintoul, abetted by his designer Anouk Schiltz, lighting designer Chris Davy and sound designer Adrienne Quartly, goes in for a variation of the Berliner Ensemble’s alienation effect. The setting is stark, the costumes are dust-bowl drab, the soundscape is almost cinematographic and we are never allowed to forget that we are watching actors on a stage set.

They can be seen preparing for their entrnces and, once off the scene, sitting at the sides waiting for their next cue. It’s all effective enough, but there’s a fine play with interesting dialogue and characters in wheom one can believe struggling to over-ride this staging. It’s not helped by the breakneck speed at which much of the early dialogue is taken and is not always completely audible.

The performances ar good, with Eoin Slattery making John Proctor into a fallible husband, well aware that his sexual lapse with Lucy Keirl’s flame-haired Abigail may well wreck not just his marriage with Elizabeth (Victoria Yeates) but the whole balance of his rual existence. Yeates suggests that John’s betrayal still rankles deep inside Elizabeth; not only does she also have the same red hair as Abigail, but perhaps the two women are more alike than either would care to acknowledge.

Augustina Seymour is a gentle Rebecca Nurse, albeit sporting the worst-fitting wig I’ve seen for a long time, and a suitably pliable Mary Waren. Charlie Condou suggests that the well-meaning Reverend Hale is never going to be a match for Cornelius Clarke’s ferocious Reverend Paris, let alone Jonathan Tafler’s Judge Danforth; both granite pillars of the overlapping establishments. David Delve, as Giles Corey – a man who prefers to beat out his own path – also offers a well-rounded characterisation.

If you’ve seen the play before, then you can very likely extricate its heart from the production. I am a good deal less sure whether someone unfamiliar with the text will succeed. Yes, witch-hunts of one sort or anoher are an unpalatable fact of life as much now as in the historic past and, regrettably, in the future. But – Miller’s message is surely one of hope; that good will eventaully triumph over evil. Rintoul, SellaDoor Productions and Les Théàtres de la Ville de Luxembourg suggest otherwise.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Crucible continues at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch until 11 March with matinées on 23 February, 2, 9 and 11 March. The national and international tour continues to 18 June and includes the Mercury Theatre, Colchester 29 May-3 June.

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Gaslight
reviewed Cambridge Arts Theatre on 13 February

Torture is a chameleon. We think of it as mainly physical, but it can also be psychological, or these two facets can combine. Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight is what one would now define as a psychological thriller, with its story of three people all obsessed, though in very different ways.

The central character is young wife Bella Manningham (Kara Tointon), increasingly aware that her mother (who died lunatic in an asylum) may have left her a poisonous legacy. Her apparently concerned husband of seven years Jack (Rupert Young) has his own agenda, which may include his pert parlourmaid Nancy (Charlotte Blackledge).

Retired police sergeant Rough (Keith Allen) sees connexions to a horrific but unsolved murder several decades ago. He sees a chance to bring the case which still haunts him to its proper conclusion, but for that he needs a reliable ally.

Many of us will have seen this 1938 drama before, whether on stage (it was a repertory theatre favourite) or in one of its screen adaptations. The 2017 director has to allow his audience the chance to preen itself of seeing what is coming while maintaining the suspense and conveying theatrical conviction. In this Anthony Banks succeeds splendidly.

He’s assisted by David Woodhead’s box-set, cleverly lit by Howard Hudson, and by Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design, an eerie combination of the natural and the suggestively sinister. All the cast give committed performances with a many-nuanced and vocally inflected one by Tointon just having the edge on Allen’s apparently bluff policeman.

Blackledge’s Nancy is a study of a girl on the make, balanced by Helen Anderson’s portrait of the housekeeper Elizabeth. I think I would have liked Young to be just a trifle more the charming – as well as apparently concerned – husband in his early scenes with Tointon; it’s one nudge in the audience’s ribs too many.

If you’ve never sen Gaslight or have dismissed it as an old warhorse well passed it prime, then go to see this staging. It achieves balance – and that’s much rarer in the theatre these days than one might imagine.

Four and a half star rating

Gaslight continues at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 18 February with matinées on 15 and 18 February. The national tour continues until 18 March.

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Hysteria
reviewed at Chelmsford Civic on 7 February

Farce is the bright side of the tragic mask – and vice versa. Take Terry Johnson’s Hysteria, which postulates a meeting between the fathe of psychology Sigmund Freud and surreal painter and sculptor Salvador Dali. The one is Viennese old-school, formal – almost repressed, if that isn’t too much of a contradiction – coming to the end of his life with non-curable cancer, in exile, in Hampstead.

The other is as extrovert in his flamboyant lifestyle as on canvas or marble. He too is an exile, in just as many ways as Freud. Both try to shut out those aspects of the late 1930s which they knw they cannot ameliorate and which are therefore better left to simmer by themselves. But in farce, reality keeps on butting in; for Freud it is persnified by his doctor and friend Abraham Yahuda who sees all too clearly what Kristalinacht is heralding.

All good farces require doors to be locked or flung open at the author’s whim. There should also be a scantily-clad young woman and the development of a whole sequence of situations which the other characters always misunderstand. Enter Jessica, in search of a particular case notebook. The trouble for any director, here London Classic Theatre’s Michael Cabot, is that our perceptions of what are now historical characters and events have changed (I hesitate to say, matured) in the past 24 years.

There’s an excellent set by James Perkins and a real sense of ensemble playing (a prerequisite for farce) from the cast. Ged McKenna is sympathetic, as well as deliberately infuriating, as Freud while John Dorney gives a nuancedly over-the-top portrait of Dali, a many who is not alays sure that he is entirely comfortable in the persona he has created for himself.

Moray Treadwell’s Dr Yahuda comes over as a man who has made a place for himself in this strange country while being actively concerned with the fate of those less fortunate than he. Summer Strallen is a soft-voiced Jessica, which may suit the young woman’s quiet determination to achieve what she so desperately wants, however embarrassingthe situations into which that leads her. But it does put a strain on the audience’s attention, particularly in the first scene.

Three and a half-star rating

Hysteria is at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 8 Febryary and tours nationally until 20 May, including the Key Theatre, Peterborough (7-8 March) and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester (18-20 May).

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Northanger Abbey
reviewed at Bury St Edmunds on 3 Feb

in 2017 a teenage girl might well be fixated on manufactured “celebrity” figures as defined by social media or the latest boy-band’s lead heartthrob. Just over two hundred years ago, her thrills came through Gothic romance novels, such as Mrs Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho – full of crumbling ruins, chained skeletons in dungeons, walled-up wailing nuns and savage robber barons.

Jane Austen, herself only 23 when she began Northanger Abbey, pokes delicate fun at the genre – which she herself enjoyed reading, though rather more cynically than her heroine Catherine Morland. This eldest daughter of a loving but financially straitened gentry family is taken to Bath by her rich neighbours Mr and Mrs Allen. There she encounters her brother James, his university friend John Thorpe (and his sister Isabella) and the two childen of irascible General Tilney, Eleanor and Henry.

The Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, itself a Georgian playhouse, has built quite a reputation for stage adaptations of Austen’s novels. Directed by Karen Simpson, this Tim Luscombe adaptation again uses a small cast within Dawn Allsopp’s minimal set, so that the action flows from Bath to Northanger, from curricle travel to hilltop picnics. The first half is even so perhaps just a little too drawn-out. Eva Feiler makes a delightful heroine, deliciously gullible as she weaves her fantasies and grasps at the next excitement on offer until brought back to reality with the proverbial bump.

Neither Thorpe is a particularly pleasant person. Annabelle Terry gives us all Isabella’s selfishness, wiggling out of her engagement to James (Joseph Tweedale) when she finds that he is not due to inherit much money as though she was shrugging off an outdated chemise. Joe Parker is the self-inflated, ego-stroking oafish John. True affection and calm reason by contrast are personified by Harry Livingstone’s Henry Tilney; his is the quiet voice and unobtrusive presence which will finally resolve all to a proper conclusion.

Jonathan Hansler’s martinet of an authoritarian father (one winces for the junior officers he once commanded) lingers almost gloatingly on Catherine’s surname when he thinks she is a potential heiress; “more land!” lies behind the emphasis. There’s a touch of his steel in Emma Ballentine’s Eleanor when she herself manages to marry the man she loves (opposition fades when her bridegroom inherits a title) and pulls rank to allow Catherine a share in the nuptuals. Hilary Tones contrasts Mrs Allen and Mrs Morland quietly but effectively.

Rather than a choreographer as such, the dancing and general Regency-era deportment are by Julia Cave. Rather than a near-balletic sequence of steps, hers are dancing as performed by ordinary people, some better at it than others – just as in real life. Matt Bugg’s score occasionally suggests an ill-tuned fortepiano, again a realistic touch, but softens into something which is completely tuneful but never obtrusive.

Four star rating.

Northanger Abbey runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 11 February with matinées on 8 and 11 February. The national tour continues until 13 May and includes the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 2 and 6 May.

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The Winter’s Tale
reviewed in Cambridge on 31 January

Three words sum up this latest touring production from Cheek by Jowl – stylised, intelligent and stylish. Declan Donnellan’s direction with its contrasts of almost frenetic action and oases of calm is matched by Nick Ormerod’s bleak setting of a forbidding hinged white crate and near-black modern costumes.

Only Orlando James’ Leontes in his early scenes and the pastoral merrymaking of the fourth act relieve the intensity of the gloom. Nothing in James’ portrayal of the play’s anti-hero lets us forget that we’re in Sicily; it’s as though the king himself is a near-eruption volcano, desperately trying to recapture his boyhood escapades with Edward Sayer’s Polixenes and his own young son Mamillius (Tom Cawte)

Meanwhile his a wife and courth has accepted that time passes and inexorably brings change with it. It’s a marvellously well-fleshed portrait of a man one cannot either love or admire, but one who is recognisable and understandable. The weight of the feminine side of the drama is borne by Natalie Radmall-Quirke’s Hermione and Joy Richardson’s authoritative yet pragmatic Paulina.

That is, until we meet Perdita, Leontes’ discarded daughter Eleanor McLoughlin), not to mention the sympathetic old shepherd who found and reared her (Peter Moreton) and the disguised prince Florizel (Sam Woolf) who woos her. Radmall-Quirke offers us the maternal side of the queen, which spills across from her son to her husband and, to a lesser extent, to his friend. Only when her honour and her life are threatned do we see the steel concealed under the weight of her burgeoning body and her sense of responsibility for those who surround her.

The lighting by Judith Greenwood is clever; the fifth act statue scene is particularly effective. Paddy Cunneen’s music alternates with a great deal of loud noise – although the verse is articulated with a proper sense of both the words themselves and the multiple meanings behind many of the phrases, I did sometimes wonder how much travelled back further than the front rows of the stalls. But that is, perhaps, to quibble about a staging which carries conviction from beginning to end.

Four and a half star rating.

The Winter’s Tale runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 4 February with a matinée on 4 February. it can also be seen at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 14 and 18 March.

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La fille mal gardée
reviewed in Norwich on 27 January

In the UK we have become accustomed to the 1960 version by Frederick Ashton with its quirky Osbert Lancaster sets, which used mainly the Hérold score of the 1820s and 30s. The music which Pepita and Ivanov chose for their 1885 St Petersburg staging was that by Hertel, originally created for the 1864 Taglioni production in Berlin.

This story of the farm-girl Lise who hoodwinks her widowed mother Simone and her potential suitor to marry Colas, the boy she really loves, has a pretty distinguished parentage. Ironically, this pastoral idyll all first reached the footlights a mere fortnight before the fall of the Bastille; it was the creation of Dauberval and used a medley of contemporary popular songs and dances. It reached London in 1791.

The version which the Russian State Ballet of Siberia is currently touring across the UK adds choreography by Alexander Gorsky and Mark Peretokin to that of Dauberval; the score is that of the now little-known Hertel. So it has pedigree, with proper weight given to the mime narrative elements of the story (Dauberval was one of the pioneers of the ballet d’action). The mixture of choreographic styles – late 18th, early 20th and 21st centuries – though not entirely seamless.

As always, the corps de ballet makes the most of its chances, as does Dmitry Diachkov as Colas, whirling across the stage in a sequence of virtuosic displays while always remaining in character. His Lise is Elena Svinko, a dancer who does not seem to be his natural partner, and whose wrist and hand movements are not as elegant as they should be, though her pointe work is impeccable. She also missed that sense of innocent mischieviousness which should bring Lise alive.

Almost walking away with the whole show is Alexey Balva as Simone. British audiences, brought up with the pantomime dame tradition, tend to take this sort of travestie character to its heart, and the final scene’s clog-dance proved it. Denis Pogorely as dim-witted Alain and Maxim Dashidondokov as his well-to-do father complete the line-up of principals.

Balva and Diachkov apart, it is difficult to escape the feeling that the joins in choreographic styles are altogether too visible. The kermesse-like buccolic dance at the end of the first act has great liveliness, but this Rousseauesque tale of simple country life remains just a little two-dimensional. Yes, the characters are all types rather than flesh-and-blood people, but I couldn’t help but be reminded that the genesis for the story was an engraving – La reprimande.

Three and a half star rating.

La fille mal gardée can also be seen at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich on 23 February. The Russian State Ballet of Siberia tour continues with Swan Lake at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 28 January, at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 29 January and 26 February and at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich between 23 and 25 February.

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ShowStopper!
reviewed on 21 Jan at Bury St Edmunds

Showstoppers have hit on a winning formula with its series of carefully crafted improvised plays and musicals. This one, with a full house at the Theatre Royal wholeheartedly entering into the spirit, proved to have the catchy title of God Help Us!.

This plot is a weird concoction marrying elements of The Young Pope, Jerry Springer: the Musical and Tom Lehrer’s Vatican Rag with the audience’s suggestions for musical styles including galley-years Verdi, Carousel, High School Musical, Oliver!, Wicked! and a couple of Lloyd Webber hits thrown in for good measure.

Basically,a man and a woman about to take religious vows find themselves in love. Could be serious stuff, but not handled this way and treading a brilliant path between could-be-one-day fantasy and actual human emotions. Not to mention sexuality.

You’d have to be devoid of humour to take offence at the situations in which Lucy Trodd as Maria, Justin Brett as her on-off suitor Marius, Andrew Pugsley as the Pope and Philip Pellew as the all-purpose Steve find themselves. Not to mention Lauren Shearing’s over-burdened Sister Clara…

Dylan Emery attempts to keep proceedings under control as a harrassed would-be producer desperately trying to sell the idea of a new blockbuster musical to Cameron Macintosh (well, who else?). Simon Scullion has devised an outline, flexible set consisting mainly of screens and benches in scarlet and black.

There’s an equally ecletic range of costumes and props by Gabriella Slade. Instrumental accompaniment is provided by Duncan Wesh Atkins at the keyboard and Alex Atty with a whole range of percussion, while the nifty choeographic consultancy comes from Donna Berlin, though I suspect that the cast know precisely what’s required for the storyline and situations.

Four star rating.

ShowStopper!: The Improvised Musical is at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 9 and 11 February and at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 18 and 19 February as part of a national tour running until 23 April.

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La Cage aux Folles
reviewed at the Theatre Royal Norwich 17 Jan

Every show has its special audience, one to whom the story and its characters seem to speak personally. What transforms that show into one with universal appeal requires a special sort of magic. That can be provided by the writing, or the music, the design elements or the performances. You may not be able to pinpoint which of these it is (or indeed a fusion of them) but you know when you’ve experienced it.

That’s what happened on the opening night of the new tour of the Herman-Fierstein musical La Cage aux Folles in Norwich last night. It’s a visual extravaganza, this deceptively simple story of a drag-act nightclub in Saint-Tropez, thanks to designers Ben Cracknell, Gary McCann, and Richard Mawbeyand to choreographer Bill Deamer. Martin Connor’s direction keeps the action brisk when it needs to be – though the first half seems a trifle over-long, due I suspect to the telescoping of a three-act piece into two parts.

Spontaneous standing ovations – real ones I mean , not the carefully orchestrated variety – are rae in regional theatre. It was a deserved tribute to the magnificent performance by John Patridge as Albin, the trasnvestite diva in command of the stage but much less sure of his long-term relationship with Adrian Zmed’s Georges and Georges’ son – the result of a one-night stand – Jean-Michele (Dougie Carter). The peacock flock of Cagelles, with their on- and off-stage personae so lighgtly yet three-dimensionally sketched for us, also merit their plaudits.

It’s the sort of story where young, heterosexual love isn’t really to the fore. Both Carter and Alexandra Robinson as Anne, the girl Jean-Michele wants to marry and whose parents’ meeting with his own triggers the major flashpoints of the drama, do very well with words, song and dance. There are two enjoyable cameos from Marti Webb as Jacqueline (the restauretrice who saves the day, at a price) and Su Douglas as Mme Dindon, Anne’s mother – who turns out to be more of a scorpion than the worm which husband Paul F Monaghan thinks she is.

All in all, it’s got my reviewing schedule for 2017 off to a champagne start. Let’s see what else the year has to offer.

La Cage aux Folles runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 21 January with matinées on 20 and 21 January. The national tour until 26 August includes the Milton Keynes Theatre between 8 and 12 August.

Five star rating

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Peter Pan

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Steveange on 16 December).

The trouble with staging JM Barrie’s classic children’s story at Chrstmastime can be that it either tips too far into established pantomime territory, or lacks any seasonal feeling. Chris Jordan’s version, new to East Anglia, manages to tread the tightrope with a flourish. There’s a nice London street opening, with a a medley of music-hall songs and dances, led by Paul Laidlaw who we meet again later as Mrs Smee. This also serves to introduce the Darling family with the household head (Tom Lister) displaying the arrogance which will also colour his Captain Hook.

Settings are simple but effective with attractive costumes by Shelley Claridge and very well lit by Douglas Morgan. The band – tucked away stage left in a sort of theatre-box – is led by James Cleeve. The put-upon Mrs Darling is played by Sinead Long, who later transforms into the Mermaid. That bolshie fairy Tinker Bell whirls across the stage on roller-skates; Amanda Coutts balances her resentment of Wendy credibly with her affection for Peter.

Ewan Goddard depicts him as a youth with a sense of right and wrong but no real feelings of the sort which might drag him into the human world. He and Lister play off each other cleverly, with Laura Baldwin’s Wendy nicely suggesting a girl who has to take on rather more adult responsibilities than she had bargained for. Choreographers Twist & Pulse (aka Ashley Glazebrook and Glen Muphy) contribute a pair of less than competent members of Hook’s crew. With Aidan O’Neill’s Smee they lead the comedy scenes.

Laidlaw is an audience favourite at this theatre and knows just how far he can go with the involvement of the unsuspecting man selected for Mrs Smee’s amorous attention. The crocodile is a wondrous creation, and the submerged glitter pool from which the mermaid emerges in the second act is another effective touch. The four adult members of the ensemble and the juvenile performers carry off their routines with aplomb.

Peter Pan runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 22 January. Check the theatre’s website ((gordon-craig.co.uk) for performances times.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Pantomimes & other seasonal shows, Reviews 2016

Jack and the Beanstalk

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 15 December)

What can you do with a favourite pantomime story which both keeps the traditional narrative flow and yet brings it into an unusual context? Richard Gauntlett as writer, director and Dame with costume designer Kisteen Wythe and choreographer Dee Jago seem to have re-discovered the magic formula with a Jack and the Beanstalk given a country’n’western makeover. We’re in prospecting country sometime in the late 1890s.

Another twist is that the Giant is not the main villain of the piece, rather that’s his boss Phineas P Stinkworthy. As this extremely dodgy and mercenary character is played by Wayne Sleep, he really gives the good guys a run for their money, let alone their ultimate success. What’s more, Sleep not only shows that he can still do fast turns from one side of the stage to the other – he also contributes a show-stopping tap number.

Gauntlett knows just how to play Dame; Nigella Trottalot runs the eponymous cattle and chicken ranch with minimal assistance from her sons Jack (David Burilin) and Billy (Ben Langley). Langley measures up to the comedy sequences, including the ghosties and ghoulies scene and the kitchen slop scene. Burilin conveys a nice sense of Oklahoma!-style naïveté, like that musical’s hero Curly, as he does his best to be helpful while wooing Jolene (Mira Ormale), the daughter of David Gant’s Sheriff Hiccup. Their voices blend together extremely well.

Pantomime fairies come in all shapes and guises these days. Here we have saloon proprietress Dolly, who arrives air-borne and runs an establishment which patently caters for our its frequenters’ needs. Harriet Bunton lays on the glitter as well as the required brashness to good effect. led by David Carter makes a sparkling contribution to thhe song and dance numbers. It’s all enough to send one out of the theatre prepared to go out West the very next day. Top marks to all concerned.

Jack and the Beanstalk runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 15 January. Check the theatre website (theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk) for performance times.

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Pinocchio

(reviewed at the Jerwood DanceHouse, Ipswich on 14 December)

The Jasmin Vardimon Company has taken up a pre-Christmas residency at the DanceHouse for the last leg of its autumn tour. Any dance drama which can hold the attention of a schools audience for a full 90 minutes without an interval has discovered a magic formula.

In Vardimon’s case this is a clever mix of minimal spoken narration, sthletic dance movements, circus skills and a subtle dose of the surreal in the staging. Disney this is not. Rather it takes the original 19th century Italian story of the puppet-carver who, Frankenstein-like, makes a humanoid marionette that then leads a life of its owen.

We see the making process in shadow-play, then a fairy gives the gift of a heart (and so life), but Pinocchio has to learn that existence has responsibilities as well as adventure. We meet also the predatory Cat and Fox, a bunch of playground bullies who have perfected the art of exclusion from their group and a ringmaster whose smile and gentle encouragements quickly turn vicious, even sadistic.

All this is achieved with the aid of designers Guy Bar-Amotz, Chajine Yavroyan, Abigail Hammond and Jesse Collett in a seamless collaboration with Vardimon. Performers are Maria Doulgeri, Emma Farnell-Watson, Estéban Lecoq, David Lloyd, Aoi Nakamura, Uros Petronijevic, Stefania Sotiropoulou and Alexandros Stavropoulos.

The soundscape is an ecletic one, balancing the visual elements – it’s not just the individual performers and set pieces who take to the air from time to time. The donkey masks are noteworthy, as are the linked bare forearms for Pinocchio’s lying nose and the skein of apparently cut-out dolls, such as one sees in illustrations of Victorian mantelpiece Christmas decorations.

Pinocchio runs at the Jerwood DanceHouse, Ipswich until 18 December. Check the theatre’s website (danceeast.co.uk) for performance times.

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Filed under Ballet & dance, Family & children's shows, Reviews 2016

Robinson Crusoe & the Pirates of the Caribbean

(reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 13 December)

If you’re a paid-up members of the Brian Conley fan-club, you’ll probably revel in this extended cabartet act. If you’re not, then you might have probelms with this not altogether family-friendly pantomime. Yes, there is a story (when Conley allows it to intrude) and several performers who manage to hold their own.

I defy anyone to come between Davbid Robbins’ Mrs Crusoe and his/her audience. Alex Bourne’s swashbuckling villain of pirate captain Blqckheart and a woefully underused Suzy Bastone (Polly), who has a very good voice, an engaging personality and really doesn’t deserve to be Conley’s fall-guy.

The actual production values are first-rate; good special effects, lavish costumes for the ensemble and forceful choreography by Elliot Nixon. There is a proper script (Michael Harrison) and what could have been integrated direction from Kathryn Rooney. The Twins FX arte responsible for a superb Kraken which looms out over the audience towards the end of the first act. Musical direction is by David Lane and the effective set designs are by Ian Westbrook.

And of course there’s Gok Wan as the Spirit of the Ocean, all sea-shell glitter and sparkle. Wan employs a clever mixture of borderline camp with the ability to hold his own on-stage whoever is trying to “throw him”; his scenes with Conley are an object lesson in how to fight your own (stage right) corner. All in all, this is a curate’s egg of a Christmas show, one which could be thoroughly enjoyable given a title character prepared to give as well as take.

Robinson Crusoe & the Pirates of the Caribbean runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 8 January. Check the theatre’s websites (thecliffspavilion.co.uk/southendtheatres.org.uk) for performance times.

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Beauty and the Beast

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 11 December)

It’s proving to be the most popular pantomime story this Christmas. Chris Hannon has come up with yet another version of the Beauty and the Beast story for Karen Simpson’s production. We’re vaguely in the Middle Ges where the villagers are torn between half-believing the stories about a beast terrorising the old abbey gardens and working out how to exploit this as a tourist attraction.

Belle (Louise Olley) has been selected (though of course she doesn’t know it yet) by green-fingered, pink-wellie-booted Fairy Blossom (Leonie Spilsbury) to undo the curse laid on a too-selfishly preening Lord Leopold (Sebastian Hill) by the evil Elvira (Britt Lenting). All three have good voices, as does Hill, when he gets the chance.

Designs are by rebecca Lee with a fine sequence of sets and a very good costume for the beast; the mask is particularly effective. The young chorus sing and dance to fill the stage thoroughly professionally. Belle is no meek girl in Olley’s characterisation; she needs to be strong because her father is a has-been touring actor Sir Kenneth Branflakes (Martin Neely) and cake-shop proprietor Molly Muffintop (Eamonn Fleming) has her own agenda.

Fleming is a Dame very much of the no-nonsense school; he works well off the audience as does Michael Lapham as dopey Barney Muffintop. Lenting commands the stage in her numbers; musical director Ward Baker makes good use of the choice of favourite – but always appropriate to the situation numbers. Julia Cave’s choreograpy and Jake Taylor’s lighting add to the fairy-tale atmosphere. There’s good use of amplified sound at atrategic moments by Andy Hinton.

Beauty and the Beast runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury st Edmunds until 15 January. Check the theatre’s website (theatreroyal.org) for performance times.

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Treasure Island

(reviewed at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich on 10 December)

Red Rose Chain likes to strike out on its own path for its Christmas show; this year it’s Joanna Carrick’s adaptation of the RL Stevenson adventure classic. Carrick’s script is faithful to the story, so her three-actor production might well be a trifle too violent and noisy for very young audience members.

We begin with Gideon (Ryan Penny), a hapless cleaner for a rehearsal space. Mandy (Claire Lloyd) soon puts him right. Considerable knockabout later, we’re into the story proper, as young Jim, the blustering Squire Trelawney and the pragmatic Dr Livesey set sail from Bristol in search of Captain Flinet’s treasure.

Of course, one of their major problems is that the seemingly helpful ship’s cook Long John Silver and his shipmates are on the same quest. Lloyd, Joel Macey and Penny swap roles and “improvise” locations at a bewildering rate, though much of the detail as well as the fast-moving narrative comes across clearly.

The ad-hoc elements of the design (steel drums, packing cases table-cloths for sails and so on) add to the illusion, as do Laura Norman’s sound effects and Jimmy Grimes’ puppets – Silver’s parrot is a particular audience favourite – but don’t get too close; he might bite!). David Newborn’s lighting adds considerable to the atmosphere, which is not an easy task given that the audience sits on three side of the acting area.

Treasure Island runs at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich until 2 January (check the theatre website (redrosechain.com) for performance times).

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Pantomimes & other seasonal shows, Reviews 2016

3 Little Pigs

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre Studio, Ipswich on 10 December)

When children are a little too young to enjoy a full-length pantomime and might even, if this is a first encounter with live theatre, find the whole ambiance just a bit scary – what’s the alternative? There’s usually not a great deal, but the Stuff and Nonsense/Niki McCreeton version of the tale of the three little pigs and how they outwit a very hungry wolf will certainly go a considerable way to filling the gap.

The setting uses autumnal colour for the not-quite realistic trees and bushes which suggest the forest where the action happens. Katie Underhay and Peter Morton are the performers, switching so easily from onstage characterisations (Morton has great fun as the red-spectaclrd wolf) to puppet manipulation; this means that the young audience accepts the change-overs as perfectly natural.

Audience participation – hiding from the wolf and chanting the familiar repetitative rhymes with appropriate actions – fits in smoothly. This is an imagination-stretching show and I suspect that it may set the next generation of young theatre-goers in the right direction.

3 Little Pigs runs at the New Wolsey Studio Theatre, Ipswich until 3 January. Check the theatre website (wolseytheatre.co.uk or aloadofstuffandnonsense.co.uk) for performance times.

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Stoat Hall

(reviewed at the SirJohn Mills Theatre, Ipswich on 9 December)

Eastern Angles’ Christmas show is a Pat Whymark and Julian Harries confection, which means that it’s literate, tuneful and lethally clever – at times a little too much so for its own good. There’s a lot of cod as well as real Shakespeare and a whole series of riffs to do with Richard III and Henry VIII, not to mention tranches of East Anglian as well as national history, legend, might-have-beens and architecture.

That all means that I thoroughly enjoyed Stoat Hall, but perhaps partly because it tweaked some of my own interests. There’s an extremely hard-working cast of five, switching stage gender as adroitly as role, costume and set accessories. At the centre of the imbroglio is poor Sir Roger (Richard Mainwaring) who has the misfortune to have close blood ties to both the last Plantagent and the second Tudor kings.

Not to mention a crone of a grand-mother Agnes (Violet Patton-Ryder), a wilful wife and a daughter who takes after her (Geri Allen in both roles), a love-sick jester Perch (Matt Jopling) and a sinister in-house alchemist John Dee (Patrick Neyman, who also plays the second, stroppily butch daughter Hedwig). When Henry arrives on a wife-hunting mission, things start going even more wrong.

The music is suitably 16th century pastiche; the cast provide the instrumental accompaniments. Designer Richard Evans works his own particular magic with a very small acting area, ornamented by a whole series of pop-up and pop-out puppets. Not to mention an interesting variation on an autopsy. Don’t worry, no animals (two- or four-legged) were hurt during the procedure.

Stoat Hall runs at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich until 7 January. It then plays at the Seckford Theatre, Woodbridge between 10 and 21 January and at the Key Theatre Studio, Peterborough from 24 to 28 January. Check the theatre’s website (easternangles.co.uk) for performance times.

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Beauty and the Beast

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 8 December)

This year’s seasonal production boasts another of Andrew Pollard’s intelligently ear-engaging scripts; this time he and director Eleanor Rhode have tweaked the familiar story to produce what one might describe as pared-down panto. The format works very well, with a predominantly schools audience at the performance which I saw being thoroughly engrossed in the story’s nuances.

We’re in fin de siècle Paris. Spice merchant M Marzipan (Neil Stewart) needs to replenish his stock of sugar urgently, but he lacks the cash to do so until his ship (literally) comes home. In the meantime his younger daughter Soufflé (Jill McAusland) is spending money at luxury boutiques regardless, while his sister Amorette (Arabella Rodrigo) has her nose in a book most of the time.

Also in need of sugar is sweet-vendor Betty Bonbon (Terence Frisch) – you are going to learn quite a lot of French when she’s on stage. Frisch is an experienced Dame, one who knows just how to milk an audience, whatever its age group. Stewart plays well off him, notably in the second-act slop scene – well, you try making a sugarless cake! The point is that the majority of the characters come over as people, not just types.

Manipulating the action is the nasty Spite (Hollie Cassar), a witch of the first water who can put over a nifty tap-dance as well as her songs. Trying to counter her is Charlie Cupid (Dale Mathurin), a demi-god who would rather be an ordinary mortal. As I said, there are novel twists in this version of the story. Cursed by Spite, it’s no wonder that Robbie Smith’s Beast has grown morose and vengeful.

Cleo Petitt’s sets and costumes work well, with slightly distorted angles to the Beast/Prince’s castle and a clever black-theatre sequence when Marzipan and Bonbon find themselves at the castle, thanks to Cupid. This tytpe of staging proves that you don’t necessarily need a song-and-dance ensemble or a juvenile troupe to fill the stage. After all, theatre is magic – and when more so than at Christmas?

Beauty and the Beast runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 312 January. Check the theatre website (watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk) for performance times.

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Dick Whittington and His Cat

(reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 6 December)

Tradition – a principal boy, the story set firmly in 1375, a slop scene – meets innovation in this version by Al Morley and Matt Crosby, directed by Carole Todd and choreographed by Kevan Allen. It has a strong cast with Holly Easterbrook as a dashing and boyish Dick and Paul Nicholas as a dominating King Rat, with wider than mere mayoral ambitions.

Our harassed merchant plagued with rats is Robert Duncan as Alderman Fitzwarren. Rhiannon Porter plays his daughter Alice; it is her birthday present from her father of a necklace which is stolen from his safe. Crosby has written a starring part for himself as Sarah and his son Idlle Jack (Robert Rees) lives up to his name by collapsing every time the word “work” is mentioned.

That slop scene mentioned above is in the ship’s galley, tilting ferociously in the storm – one could feel a trifle seasick watching it!. Act One ends with a spectacular white, gold and silver production number; no set designer is credited, but Sue Simmerling’s costumes and Mike Robertson’s lighting combine to fine effect.

King Rat’s main opponent is of course Fairy Bowbells (Dawn Hope). Hope’s slinky, glittering dress mirrors her brisk personality; this is a street-wise guardian for London. That also goes for Daniel Cummins as Tommy the Car. Here we have a moggie that talks as well, as miaous – not always effectively be it said. Catman indeed!

The adult ensemble do full justice to Allen’s choreography, supplemented by a well-rehearsed troupe of panto babes; they make excellent ratlings as well as young Londoners with perhaps just a hint of Fagin’s gang about their activities. Costumes for the dance numbers make a strong impact, so there’s plenty for the senior members of the audience to enjoy as well as their juniors.

Dick Whittington and His Cat runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 8 January. Check the theatre website (cambridgeartstheatre.com) for performance times.

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