Sinbad

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 29 November)

Trust Peter Rowe and the New Wolsey Theatre to come up with a variation on the traditional pantomime. Sinbad is a story which has somehow slipped from the 21st century repertoire, though it was popular in the 19th. Here Rowe has given it his theatre’s regular rock’n’roll treatment – with some unusual twists.

As one expects nowadays, the heroine is no languishing miss; Pricess Pearl (Daniella Piper) knows exactly what (and who) she wants – and that certainly doesn’t include her father the Caliph (Daniel Carter Hope)’s selection of wealthy magician Sinistro (Dan de Cruz) as her husband. Her put-upon handmaiden Jade (Lucy Wells) is also a lass with a mind of her own.

The trouble for both girls is that sailors are slippery creatures, none more so than Sinbad himself (Steve Rushton) and his bosun (Adam Langstaff). Running away to sea might have seemed an easy option on dry land, but once sails are set… Also on board are Sinbad’s mother Donna Souvlakia (Graham Hent) – no prizes for guessing just which foodstuffs this raucous Dame purveys!

Particularly interesting is the second comic role – Tinbad the Tailor, an erudite nod by Rowe and the excellent Rob Falconer in the direction of James Joyce. He comes close to stealing the whole show with his sly wooing of think-I-can-do-better Donna. Our story-teller is, of course, Scheherezade (Elizabeth Rowe), an engaging dea ex machina.

All three girls sing well, as does Rushton and (when he is finally allowed to let rip) de Cruz. Darragh O’leary’s choreography is of the step, shuffle, turn school, though the eyelash-fluttering dromendary (well, it makes a change from a cow) manages some nifty footwork. Puppets, as New Wolsey audiences now expect, pop up from grave-traps and gaps in the flats; the designer is Barney George.

Sinbad runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 28 January. Check the website wolseytheatre.co.uk for performance date and time details.

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Filed under Pantomimes & other seasonal shows, Reviews 2016

Madama Butterfly

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 23 November)

Once you’ve seen Annilese Maskimmon’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, specially created for the Glyndebourne Tour 2016, you’re likely to find the more usual, traditional stagings lacking. Not that this one is flawless – dropping the main curtain, rather than a gauze, to cover the scene change between the two parts of the second act just doesn’t work.

At the end of the “humming chorus”, the stage darkens leaving the upright back-turned figures of Cio Cio-San (Karah Son) and her son silhouetted as they wait for dawn and Pinkerton (Matteo Lippi). It’s a memorable and heart-breaking image (for we know what will happen next morning) that is completely negated by that curtain. Not to mention that the intermezzo bridging the two scenes is then smothered by excited audience applause followed by chatter.

Son sings with passion and lyrical fluidity; she also acts superbly as the teenager trying so uselessly to make herself into an acceptable American wife. The director and her designer Nicky Shaw have updated the action to the 1950s, and set the first act in Goro (Alun Rhys-Jenkins)’s office where we experience his production line of short-term Japanese brides for US officers in full swing. The little house above Nagasaki is a neat model for display purposes – no more real than all those brisk ceremonies we witness.

Whatever the production, it’s hard to muster much sympathy for Pinkerton, though Lippi characterises his immature personality well, epitomised by his toast to his future American wife clashing with his Japanese bride’s lyrical arrival, complete with a coterie of relations. There’s an excellently sung and acted Sharpless from Francesco Verna and an equally fine portrait of Susuki by Claudia Huckle, pragmatism always warring with sympathetic understanding.

Conductor Gareth Hancock allows the score to breathe, though never to wallow. The arrival of the Bonze (Michael Druiett) and his curse on his apostate neice is a blood-chilling moment, one which hovers in the air throughout the love duet. Seeing the uneasy hybrid which is an ancient culture fitting itself into another, more modern and brash one is the dominant theme of this production. Cio Cio-San’s adoption of western dress (she wears a kimino only for her first and last appearances) and Goro’s cynical counting the day’s takings as the last ecstatic phrases of “Vieni! vieni!” fade into the night underlines the point.

Madama Butterfly is also at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 26 November.

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Filed under Music & music theatre, Opera, Reviews 2016

Don Giovanni

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal Norwich on 22 November)

This production for Glyndebourne’s 2016 tour uses the 1788 Vienna version of the score. That means, among other things, that Don Ottavio is shorn of “Il mio tesero” in the second act – a pity on many ways, as Anthony Gregory both sings and acts what is arguably the most frustrating part in the opera impeccably, giving a strong as well as lyrical account of “Dalla suo pace” in the first act.

What we do hear is the duet for Zerlina (Louise Alder) and the trussed-up Leporello (Brandon Cedei) just before the graceyard scene. Alder has a Marilyn Munro air of knowing innocence which serves her better as a Sweeney Todd in the making than it did at her slightly underpowered first entrance. Her Masetto is Bozidar Smiljanic who endows the part with the right aura of buccolic bullheadedness.

Ana Maria Labin’s Donna Anna carries off her complex arias superbly, investing them with great musicianship as well as the full force of Anna’s mental torment. That is true also of Magdalena Molendowska’s Donna Elvira; her own torment runs parallel to Anna’s but is subtly differentiated. Revival director Lloyd Wood and designer Paul Brown keep the contrast between the two women clear.

Their one meeting point, of course, is Don giovanni himself. This dras a bravura performance from Duncan Rock – “Finch’han dal vino” in particular fizzes along – but the sheer nastiness of the character’s attitude to women, those who cross him and his servant is underpinned by the suggestion of equal pleasure being taken in violence.

When Andrii Goniukov’s stentorian Commendatore arrives to exact his just vengeance, it is not just Brown’s decontructed set which makes Giovanni lose control. We are throughout in a vaguely pre-and post-Second World War Seville. Costumes, like most of the triangular set, are mainly grey and black; the exceptions are occasional accents of blood-red and the more pastel-clad wedding party.

At the beginning we see a baroque painting of Mary Magdalene, luxuriant tresses, swelling draperies and look of extasy at odds with the skull she clutches. Otherwise there are only tall, dark buildings fronting slightly sinister streets and surmounted by a moon which might have drifted in from a Lorca play or poem. If you are intrigued by how a production such as this is realised, then take yourself to Don Giovanni: Behind the Curtain which explores this in depth, focussing on the Act Two finale.

Don Giovanni can be seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 25 November. Don Giovanni: Behind the Curtain is at the Theatre Royal on 24 November.

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 14 November)

Forget the sanitised 1961 film with Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly and Mickey Rooney as Mr Yunioshi – this Richard Greenberg stage adaptation sticks far more closely to the nucleus of Truman Capote’s novel. It’s briskly directed by Nicolai Foster with a clever set by Matthew Wright, whose costumes allow for a number of rapid changes.

Matt Barber as struggling writer Fred, perched in an attic bedsitter carved out of a decaying brownstone mansion, gives a fine performance of a young man finding his feet in the Big City while discovering that actual jobs as well as literary patronage come with a price tag. Holly is Georgia May Foote, hurling through her lines with the same speed as the girl she portrays whisks from one potential (and wealthy) suitor to another. She singings “Moon River” charmingly.

It’s a production well endowed with character studies, sketched in with a lightning and blistering pen. Robert Calvert’s Doc, who comes to New York to retrieve his long-vanished bride, Melanie La Barrie and Katy Allen as a brace of fading poseuses, Andrew Joshi as Yunioshi and Charlie de Melo as Brazialian playboy with presidential aspirations are are excellent.

Put a live animal in any live show – play, musical, opera or ballet – and a British audience can be guaanteed to focus attention on it. Here we have the most laid-back of white longhaired cats, Bob, who takes it all in his stide or, more accurately, eye-commanding meander acoss the stage. He really should have taken a curtain-call.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s runs as the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 19 Devember with matinées on 16 and 19 November.

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A Room With A View

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 7 November)

It is not just the rooms which have views in the Simon Reade stage adaptation of EM Forster’s novel: the characters all hold views on a variety of social personal and political issues. Some of these change; others are too deeply enbedded.

Young Lucy Honeychurch has the longest psychological journey to make. It is also arguably the most difficult. Lauren Coe makes her at the same time thoroughly plausible and just a touch irritating as she runs rings around most of her elders, their strictures and restrictions – not to mention their expectations.

Another excellent character study is Jeff Rawle as Mr Emerson, the self-made man wih a genuine taste for art who is more at ease with himself than the self-consciously middle-class people with whom he comes into contact. Simon Jones as Mr Beebe and David Killick as the Surrey vicar Eager also make their pompous marks.

For me, the great disappointment was Felicity Kendal as Charlotte Brtlett, Lucy’s over-fussy chaperone, so desperately determined to let down neither Lucy, her home-abiding mother (Abigail McKern) nor her own somewhat fragile social placement. Kendal goes all out to win the audience’s sympathy and is altogether too soft-spoken.

If Lucy is drawn to the slightly farouche and wild-child George Emerson, to whom Tom Morley gives the right air of unpredictablity, her socially-acceptable choice for mate is the buttoned-up Cecil Vyse; Charlie Anson decorates him with great assurance. Jack Loxton’s Freddy Honeychurch is another good portrait.

Director Adrian Noble takes us from springtime Florence to summer in Surrey at a good pace, assisted by Paul Wills’ minimally furnished set with projections to emhasise changes in location and time, dominated by flexible shuttered walls. Tim Mitchell’s lighting aids the contrast between Mediterranean sun and English dappled shade.

A Room With A View runs as the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 12 November with matinées on 9 and 12 November. It can also be seen at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 14 and 19 November.

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Pride & Prejudice

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

It’s the most popular of all Jane Austen’s novels, and this is the second staging to find its way into East Anglia this atumn. Two Bits Classics is a touring company which does just what its title suggests – two actors taking on all the rôles in a dramatisation of a well-established novel.

Joannah Tincy has made the adaptation and also plays most of the women’s roles as well as Mr Bingley. She is partnered by Nick Underwood, who also presents a ferociously imperious Lady Catherine, giggle-prone Kitty and gently languishing Jane. Dora Schweitzer’s outline set – suggestions of chandelier-lit rooms, skewed fireplace and windows, flower-wreathed pergola – is echoed in the pale grey costumes, where a greatcoat fastened becomes a woman’s dress and the side-whisk of a petticoat revals a man’s breeches and boots.

Abigail Anderson is a director with the skills to make the nuances of early 19th century society as natural as those of our own times. I remeber with pleasure her productions of Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice at the Theatre Royal, Bry St Edmunds. This staging builds on that legacy with respect for the text combined with the ability to hold the audience’s attention for the better part of three hours.

Her two actors rise to the challenge, with Tincey switching from Elizabeth to ever-complaining Mrs Bennet with a flutter of a handkerchief, to pliable Bingley and his manipulating sister with a flutter of a fan, from man-hunting Lydia twisting and mouthing a lock of hair to no-nonsense Mrs Gardiner by the addition of an elegant stole. Underwood gives us Mr Bennet with his book and pipe, the unctuous Mr Collins with a biretta, practical Mr Gardiner by the addition of a cravat and, of course, proud and prejudiced Mr Darcy.

Pride & Prejudice runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 2 November with a matinée on 2 November. It can also be seen at thr Marina Theatre, Lowestoft between 3 and 5 November and at the Spa Pavilion, Felixstowe on 11 November.

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Partners in Crime

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

The autumn season of in-house and shared productions at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch ends with a real corker of a show, as its hero Tommy Beresford might have said. It’s a co-production with Eleanor Lloyd in association with the Watermill Theatre and is a thoroughly gorgeous piece of stage-craft and ensemble work.

Designer Tom Rogers, choreographer Nancy Kettle, consultant magician John Bulleid, lighting designer Howard Hudson and sound designer Adrienne Quartly must take proper credit. And that’s as well as director John Nicholson and writers Sarah Punshon and Johann Hari, who have made a fine piece of Twenties pastiche from Agatha Christie’s original 1922 story The Secret Adversary.

Those glitzy Hollywood films of the period between the two world wars with their wisecracking sophisticated heroines and dashing heroes are cleverly referenced in the crisp dialogue as demobbed soldier Tommy (Richard Holt) meets former Army nurse and vicar’s daughter Prudence Cowley, known as Tuppence (Naomi Sheldon), and renews their pre-war friendship.

Both are financially broke and not helped by the economic depression which will culminate in the 1926 General Strike. Revolutions in Europe, especially the Bolshevik one in Russia, led to a degree of paranoia in countries otherwise stable through military victory in 1918 – the 19th century perceived threat of anarchists lurking with bombs and fell intents was fast developing into a Reds under the bed syndrome.

This is the background as Tommy and Tuppence find themselves in a spy drama of global importance. What they, their helpers and their opponents say is what most people of this social class would have thought and said at the time – no false anachronisms here. The night-club setting with its ruched curtain which reveals a rather sinister grey-walled structure pierced by more doors than in the average French farce is a delight.

Musical director Inga Davis-Rutter sets the mood at the keyboard with the remaining members of the multi-rôle cast – Rebecca Bainbridge, Isla Carter, Philip Battley, Nigel Lister and Morgan Philpott – joining her to provide the music for the song and dance scenes. Bainbridge and Carter make the most of their contrasted female characters and come close to rivalling Sheldon in the audience’s affections.

I won’t spoil your pleasure by unmasking the villain before Tuppence and Tommy do; suffice it to say that you can choose between Lister’s Sir James, Philpott’s Mr Whittington and Battley’s Julius – and you’ll probably choose wrong. First night applause can be misleading, even artificial, but this was an audience which was enjoying itself and delighted to show its appreciation.

Partners in Crime runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 19 November with matinées on 3 and 12 November.

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The Fletton Railway Children

(reviewed at The Undercroft, Peterborough on 28 October)

Julie Mayhew has updated the classic E Nesbit adventure story The Railway Children from the early 20th century and Yorkshire to the Swinging Sixties and Cambridgeshire. Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter have acquired a stroppy teenage older sister, Cheryl, and the family’s enforced move is from Petersham to Peterborough.

If pre-First World War spy mania was a feature of the Edwardian period, then the 1960s saw a resurgence fuelled by the Profumo affair and the Burgess and Maclean scandal. Each of the siblings has to adjust in their different ways to the change in circumstances with their mother shielding them from any knowledge of what actually has happened to her husband and their father.

Poppy Rowley keeps the action moving with all four of her actors playing several parts as well as those of Bobbie (Lianne Harvey), Cheryl (Lily Howkins), Phyllis (Charlotte Ellen) and Peter (Lewys Taylor). Fashion-wise Howkins as Cheryl makes a good foil to Harvey’s older in understanding than in years Bobbie and Ellen’s ‘tween ages Phyllis. Taylor’s all-boy Peter is also a person in whom one can believe.

The set designed by Fiona Rigler is simple – two wooden frameworks which pivot as indoor locations change to outdoor ones. Her costumes, notably Cheryl’s booby-sox and white mini-dress and Bobbie’s Rive Gauche outfit of black jumper and leggings – very Juliette Greco – add their own dimension to the girls’ characterisation. A simple straw hat indicates their mother as they alternate in taking on the part.

You can’t quite describe this Eastern Angles production as site-specific; like any good story it has a chameleon quality. A local audience will pick up on places and areas which may be just names to outsiers. But anyone who lives in East Anglia is still experiencing the effects of Dr Beeching’s axe-swing across the region’s rail network. Plus ça change…

The Fletton Railway Children runs at The Undercroft, Serpentine Green Shopping Centre until 5 November.

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Sweeney Todd

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 27 October)

A musical thriller says the programme cover for Daniel Buckroyd’s new production of the Sondheim musical for the Mercury Theatre in Colchester and the Derby Playhouse. Sara Perks has designed a triangular set on a central revolve which adapts seamlessly to the environment of different areas of Dickensian London.

The score has been re-arranged by Michael Haslam for a five-piece band, tucked away stage left on the platform which surround the main acting area. On the official opening night, it often seemed as though sound designer Adam P McCready still needed to correct the balance between musicians and stage performers considerably. Too many lines of the opening “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” ballad were lost – and I was sitting only four rows from the stage.

Hugh Maynard’s performance in the title role takes no hostages; you can understand the man’s thirst for revenge and even the way in which he utilises his professional skills to achieve it. He also know that the part requires the audience’s sympathy to leach away as just requital is overwhelmed by an indiscriminate blood-lust. His baritone is strong, an excellent foil for Sophie-Louise Dann’s luciously lascivious Mrs Lovett.

Christina Bennington is a winsome, well-sung and acted Johanna, her lyricism counterpointing Dann’s more streewise tones. Kara Lane’s Beggar Woman leads us gently into the realisation that this raucously sluttish mendicant was once Todd’s beautiful and virtuus wife Lucy. David Durham makes much as Judge Turpin’s villainy with Julian Hoult a dulcet-toned slimily insinuating Beadle. Jack Wilcox gives Anthony strength as well as niceness and his voice is a good match with that of Bennington.

If Simon Shoren’s Signor Pirelli is another in the cast of “nasties” whih inhabits the story, Ryan Heenan, both in his Dulcamara-style snake-oil salesman introduction to Pirelli’s barbering and tooth-drawing abilities and in the subsequent portrait of a lad grateful for any casual kindness (let alone the odd p or two), comes close to stealing the show. There is strong support also from the Colchester Community Chorus.

Sweeney Todd runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 12 November with matinées on 5, 10 and 12 November.

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Beauty and the Beast

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

Northern Ballet has launched its autumn 2016 tour of artistic director David Nixon’s Beauty and the Beast in Norwich. This being a Dixon production, although much of the choeorgraphy follows classical lines – and his company has the skills to make this appear just as it should be – the story, the characterisations of the main characters and the costumes combine folk- and fairy-tale elements with more than a passing nod to the late 20th and 21st centuries.

His choice of music is equally wide-ranging. Glaunov for the more-or-less traditional finale but also the uncompromising diatonic and dissonance of Poulenc and the musical picture-painting of Bizet, Debussy and Saint Saëns. The Northern Ballet Sinfonia under John Pryce Jones fused these elements at the service of the dance. Duncan Hayler’s mirrored sets are lit by Tim Mitchell, mostly to fine effect except when reflexions dazzled the audience and left the dancers in shadow.

Dreda Blow, on the opening night, makes a charming Beauty, lyrical in both her solos and in her pas de deux with the Beast and with the Prince and strong of foot for the leaps with which Dixon has endowed the part. Her Prince – initially a self-centred primping posturer – is Giliano Contadini, supporting Blow effortlessly in their pas de deux and acting well throughout.

La Fée Magnifique (think Carabosse en pointe) is Victoria Sibson with Hannah Bateman as her beneficent counterpart Luminaire, a Lois Fuller swirl of shimmering flowing tissues. This storyline has Alfred, an ambiguous man-servant who we see first as the Prince’s valet and then as a manipulator for both Magnifique and Luminaire. Hironao Takahashi conveyed an impression of this multi-faceted master of ceremonies with just the right touch of control.

Ashley Dixon as the Beast – the Prince transformed as a result of his selfishness – is a fine characterisation as well as an athletic one, dangerous as only a feral animal can be but always suggesting that something better underlies the savagery, if only it were allowed to come to the surface. This is most apparent in the opening scenes of the second act with Beauty. He thoroughly diserved th audience’s applause at the first night curtain calls.

Beauty and the Beast is at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 29 October with matinèes on 27 and 29 October. The production’s five-centre tour continues until 7 January.

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King Lear in New York

(reviewed at the Hostry Festival, Norwich on 25 October)

Performance can be a cruel goddess, demanding sacrifices of a high order. That’s the premise beyond Melvyn Bragg’s play, which he has compressed from its original two-act format into something altogether tauter for Stash Kirkbride’s production.

A famous actor, renowned for both stage and screen performances, is in New York to attempt what to the mature actor is the equivilent of Hamlet for a younger one. It is, however, in a multi-times-off-Broadway theatre with a cast not completely familiar with Shakespeare or his stylistic demands.

We are in the brother’s flat, not 24 hours before the first public performance. Robert (Louis Hilyer) has stage-fright (something which attacks seasoned actos more often than their doting public imagines). Alec (Peter Barrow) has to keep his brother from the bottle while coping with the demands of Jackie, a brash and bitchy television presenter (Rebecca Chapman).

Then there’s Louis’ estranged second wife Bett (Rebecca Aldred), who is also his agent. Not o mention Juliet (Nina Taylor), his daughter with a wagon-load of chips on her shoulder and a gang of drug-dealers uncomfortably close to her back. As Louis comes diasterously “off the wagon”, the likely drama of the first night is subsumed in the domestic ones.

Kirkbridge keeps the tension high, with Hilyer giving a finely controlled portrait of a man terrified by his own vulnerabilities – which include professional as well as personal ones. All three wmen are also good – Chapman with all claws on full display, Taylor offering a study in teenage confusions which rings very true and Aldred combining the hard-headed business realism with supressed desires and affections.

The setting by Matt Reeve allows for action withn the flat to take place on a platform backed by a photographic panorama and scenes otside it to be on the audience’s own level, ths drawing us into the action. Projections indicate each change of location. The still centre of all this is Barrow; Alec is a man who knows very well that he always has been in his brother’s shadow.

King Lear in New York runs at the Hostry, Norwich Cathdral until 29 October.

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The Sound of Music

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 18 October)

It must be the most popular musical of the 20th century. The Sound of Music is currently singing its way on a national tour in an intelligent new production by Martin Connor designed by Gary McCann and with musical direction by Kelvin Towse. The mountain-painted drop-curtain and flats are framed (literally) by a false proscenium with baroque flourishes, suggesting a traditional world into which the harsh realities of the late 1930s intrude uncomfortably.

It looks good and there are some excellent singing voices, notably among the nuns and most especially Jan Hartley’s Abbess. The sound balance took some time to adjust itself on the Norwich opening night, particularly affecting Lucy O’Bryne’s well-acted and thoroughly credeible Maria and Howard Samuels’s pragmatic Max. Lucy van Gasse makes Elsa nto something more than a two-dimensional potential wicked stepmother and Annie Holland’s Lisl is sweet of voice, forceful of personality and a lyrical dancer as well.

Andrew Lancel is very much an actor who can sing; because he doesn’t initially play von Trapp for instant sympathy, the character’s obvious political integrity then acts as a burnish to his dawning feelings about Maria. Bill Deamer’s choreography has its highspots in the first act duet for Kane Verrall’s embryonic Nazi Rolf and 16-going-on-17 Lisl and in the ballroom scene ländler.

The six smaller von Trapp children (Isabel Godden’s Gretl and Louis Rice’s Friedrich particularly good at the performance I saw) are as show-stopping as they should be. In many ways, this is an old-fashioned staging with a conviction in the performances and an attention to the requirements of the score missing from many more modern musicals. It asks to be taken seriously and the audience responds to that request. Which is just as it should be.

The Sound of Music runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 22 October with matinées on 20 and 22 October.

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Night Must Fall

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswih on 17 October)

Most people, if they’re honest, admit to loving a good murder mystery. But what about the perpretator? There reactions are much more mixed. Do we simply shudder at the crime itself and the (often sordid and downright mercenary) motives behind it – or do we try to get into the murderer’s skull, analyse what drove him (or her) to the deed or even feel a fellow feeling. There but by the grace of God…

Emlyn Williams’ classic exploration of the dual personality of a murderer Night Must Fall takes us on just such a journey. We know that Dan (Will Featherstone) has killed at least once before he even sets foot on the stage. We sspect who will be his next target – the irasible wealthy widow Mrs Bramson (Gwen Taylor), tyrannising over her dependent niece Olivia (Niamh McGrady), her staff and most other regular visitors.

What we learn only gradually is how Dan’s chameleon-like personality dazzles even the most sceptical of the people with whom he comes into contact. From being a teenage bell-hop at a nearby hotel, he metamorphoses before our eyes into an all-purpose handyman and then an intimate of Mrs Bramson’s home in a remote Essex village, which is surrounded by forest. it’s a measure of the strength of Featherstone’s portrait that we can follow why he attracts at the same time as why he repels.

You need equally forceful performances to keep the balance. Dan’s comes-and-goes Welsh inflection is cut across by Taylor’s thoroughly npleasant if well-spoken grande dame. McGrady gives us Olivia’s unhappiness as well as the touch of steel which makes her refuse Hubert (Alasdair Buchan)’s sincere proposal of marriage. You can also see why she is attracted to Dan, perhaps sensing that he could be the missing part of her own torn personality.

Buchan has in many ways the most difficult part in the play; a well-meaning bumbler incapable of inspiring affection either in Olivia or us, that eavesdropping fourth-wall of the bungalow. Darach O’Malley’s Inspector Belsize has the right sort of seen-it-all-before authority. Director Luke Sheppard keeps the action fast-moving, sometime at the expense of vocal clarity on the part of the smaller roles. David Woodhead’s set is correctly realistic and in period, with costumes of the mid-1930s to match.

There’s a touch of the filmic about Howard Hudson’s lighting plots; the same is true of Harry Black’s soundscape whch heightens the tension at key moments with great subtlety. Williams was of course a performer as well as a writer, and he wrote himself a role which obviously played to his strengths. Given a revival such as this by Original Theatre, the Salisbury Playhouse and Eatbourne Theatres, you can enjoy the sheer theatrical craftsmanship of it all.

Night Must Fall runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 22 October with matinées on 19 and 22 October. It can also be seen at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff between 31 October and 5 November.

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The Full Monty

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 10 October)

The front rows of the audience for this touring production seem the province of a flight of chittering chattering young women, much like the ones who spill out onto the stage in the play itself after a performance by The Chippendales. Simon Beaufoy’s script is based on the 1997 film about a group of steel workers made redundant by their factory’s closure.

Star of the show is Robert Jones’ set, showing the vandalised factory interior with its broken window panes, which transmutes seamlessly into all the other locations. The core of the drama is the relationship between Gaz (Gary Lucy), his estranged wife Mandy (Charlotte Power) and their son Nathan (played very well on the opening night by Reiss Ward). Parallel to their story is that of former foreman Gerald (Andrew Dunn), who leaves for his non-existent work daily, though not fooling wife Jean (Fiona Skinner) for long.

You can believe in both these couples, though Gaz’s former colleagues come over much more as types than people. The Job Centre and Job Club scenes work well, as does Gerald’s thwarted interview for a new job, spoiled by his former colleagues’ impromptu Punch and Judy show – which they think hilarious but which in retrospect is just plain thoughtless, if not downright cruel.

Those occupants of the front rows do get their money’s worth in the final strip-tease routine. Choreograhpyis by Ian West and lighting (very important for this show) by Tim Lutkin. The director is Jack Ryder.

The Full Monty runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich ntil 15 October with matinées on 12 and 15 October.

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Arms and the Man

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 7 October)

Like director Brigid Larmour, this is a Shavian comedy which seems not to have been in my theatre-going orbit for decades. For all that it seems to have drifted out of fashion, it’s a play well worth reviving, and Larmour does it proud with a cast that knows what it’s about and intriguing, somewhat minimalist sets by Rebecca Brower. It’s briskly paced, but the activity is never cumbersome.

Hannah Morrish’s Raina sets the tone from the opening scene with her mother Catherine (Kathryn O’Reilly) and Jill McAusland’s pert maid Louka. Enter the fugitive Captain Bluntschli, to whom Pete Ashmore gives a dash of derring-do as well as Swiss pragmatism. He and Morrish play beautifully off each other throughout. Raina, of course, thinks she is in love with the dashing cavalry officer Sergius (Assad Zaman).

This is another well thought-out performance, edging dangerously towards the over-blown but always reined in short of it. Walter van Dyk’s Major Peckoff is just the sort of patriarch that his womenfolk manipulate with ease. McAusland deepens her own characterisation in her exchanges with David Webber’s Nicola; this authoritative Black actor adds an interesting dimension to his creed of how to survive as a servant.

Music and sound is by Arun Ghosh, never obstrusive but nderpinning the setting of one of that sequence of Balkan conflicts which peppered the late 19th century. It all ends, as in a Shakespeare comedy, with a dance choreographed by Jack Murphy. The audience just has to sit back, look and listen. And enjoy the experience.

Arms and the Man runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 22 October with matinées on 8, 12, 15, 20 and 22 October.

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Much Ado About Nothing

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

Made in Colchester’s contribution to the Shakespeare quatercentenary is a production by Pia Furtado of Much Ado About Nothing. As befits a garrison town, the location has been shifted out of Italy and the period updated to somethng obviously modern, though neither of the two 20th century world wars.

So far, so good. There’s an effective opening in which, above the heavy done of transport aircraft, the returning soldiers chant Rebecca Applin’s setting of repeated “Going home”. Designer Camilla Clarke gives us an all-purpose canteen, presumably attached to Leonato (Paul Ridley)’s home. Margaret (Kirsty J Curtis) seems to be its manager with Beatrice (Danielle Flett) and Hero (Robyn Cara) offering spasmodic help. This is not peace, however, just a temporary lull in the fighting.

I’ve no quarrel with Don John, commander Don Pedro (Robert Fitch)’s rebellious half-brother, being transformed into an embittered woman by Polly Lister. But why on earth isn’t that giveaway masculine title simply changed into something like “dame”? It jars on each recurrence and detracts from Lister’s own excellent characterisation.

This is presumably a Roman Catholic (or at any rate High Church) part of the country, if the large statue of the Madonna is to be taken as something other than mere set dressing, so why have a woman minister (Emmy Stonelake) who everyone keeps on calling “he” and Friar Francis? It doesn’t make sense.

Furtado gives us an overlong disco-style party whose exhuberance somewhat smothers Don Pedro’s wooing of Hero for Claudio (Peter Bray)’s benefit. She also slices the interval midway in the church scene, thus losing rather than building the tension. The watch scenes go for nothing with Karl Haynes’s Dogberry overemphasising his malapropisms to the point where there is no humour at ll.

Jason Langley’s Benedick is well spoken and acted; Flett never quite matches, let along surpasses, him. They do manage the lethal “Kill Claudio” echange extremely well. Bray doesn’t project any of Claudio’s charm; Chris Charles’ Borachio has this n abundance and produces some of the evening’s best-spoen dialogue.

Much Ado About Nothing runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 15 October. There are matinées on 8, 13 and 15 October.

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Swan Lake

(reviewed at the Corn Exchange, King’s Lynn on 5 October)

The Russian State Ballet & Opera Theatre of Astrakhan has brought an intriguing production of Swan Lake to Britain for its autumn tour (3 October to 3 December); late winter tour dates are yet to be announced. Artistic director Konstantin Uralsky sets the story in the early 19th century, reminiscent of the “peace” social scenes of War and Peace. The first act costumes are attractive and the dancers equally so with neat footwork and elegant arms.

In this version Prince Siegried (Danil Sokolov)’s tutor is Von Rothbart (Maksim Melnikov), a black-clothed mentor gliding through the palace with a disquieting aura of menace. The swans are his private preserve, a secret magical theatre to which he inveigles the brooding, restless Siegfried – though you wouldn’t know that if you hadn’t read the programme notes. It’s much less of a mime and more of a dancing role than in other versions and well executed.

Benno is danced by Vslovod Tabachuk, whose jumps and turns provide some of the evening’s most exciting moments. Sokolov is somewhat upstaged (and out-performed) by his Mercutio-like friend throughout. The dainty pas de quatre performed as entertinment for the Queen (Anna Nikonova) is danced by Karina Manopova, Victoria Chuvyleva, Arthur Almukhametov and Bulat Gareev; the boys are less assured in their footwork, jumps and landlings than the girls.

When we reach the first lakesid scene, the corps de ballet provide the right mixture of technique and lyricism. Unfortuntaely Anastasia Turchina’s Odette is short on visual expression and personality; she dances with assured, well-finished arabesques and pointe work and Sokolov partners her throughout sympathetically. But still that vital spark and suggestion of instant, total passion proves elusive.

For Act Three we are in the middle of a costume ball with early Renaissance headdresses for the women and houppelande gowns for the male courtiers. Enter Odile (Maria Stetc) with her sidway glances and clever use of her arms to all-but mimic Odette’s own movements. She pulls off the firework fouettés and jétés so that it’s no wonder this malleable young prince is instantly besotted.

Eather than the usual ghostly apparition at a window as Odette recognises how she has been betrayed, there follows a well thought-out pas de quatre for Odette and Odile, Siegfried and Von Rothbart in which each pair shadows the other’s steps. For the final scene, the backcloth shows a sythe of a moon, stabbing down into the water which will finally envelop the lovers and their nemesis. Again, the corps de ballet shine as the real stars of the production.

Swan Lake (with several alternative casts) can also be seen at the Grove Theatre, Dunstable on 9 October, the Key Theatre, Peterborough on 14 October, the Marina Theatre, Lowestoft on 19 October, the Harlow Playhouse on 20 Octobe and the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 8 November.

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Casanova

(reviewed at the Little Theatre, Sheringham on 1 October)

Spinning Wheel Theatre is one of those enterprising ensembles which the East Anglian air seems to generate; you see similar sort of activity down in the West Country, so perhaps a certain geographical remoteness also comes into the equation. For its current short rural tour Amy Wyllie has created Casanova. That’s right, a three-actor historical drama with epic pretensions.

Wyllie’s main influence seems to be Marie Antoinette, the 2006 film by Sofia Coppola with its soundtrack mixing genuine 18th century music with a more popular – even punk – 20th century beat. It’s all pleasantly tongue-in-cheek as Joe Leat introduces us to the title character and his many shifts to create a name and a place for himself. There’s more than a touch of Candide or even Don Quixote in his eternal optimism mingled with a definite naîveté.

It’s an enjoyable performnce which lets the audience into the joke right from his first appearance. All the women in Casanova’s life (and there were a great number of them) are played by Lucy Benson-Brown with the aid of a dazzling array of quick gown and headgear changes; design is by Becca Gibbs. All the men who either help or (the majority) hinder our hero’s picaresque career come in the form of Samuel Norris.

Nick Holmes gives us a set with a painted backcloth highlighting the iconic buildings of the countries and cities which Casanova visited; in front is a bridge (the Bridge of Sighs?) and there are a couple of screen booths o act as boudoirs or carriages as the plot dictates.

It’s a romp and not to be taken too seriously though the comparatively quiet ending where Casanova finds a sort of contentment in writing his memoirs under the protection of the Prince de Ligne, visited by his first (and possibly only true) love Henriette, gives a gentle sense of quiet fulfilment. He’s come to the end of his journey, and to the end of his days. What remains is a legend.

Casanova tours mainly to community and village halls until 22 October. There are also performances at the Fisher Theatre, Bungay (6 October), the New Wolsey Theatre Studio (7 October), the John Peel Centre, Stowmarket (12 October) and the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh (21 October).

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Notturnino|Set and Reset/Reset

(reviewed at the Jerwood DanceHouse, Iswich on 30 September)

Anything you can do… That is surely the motto of the Candoco Dance Company which opened the autumn DanceEast season in Ipswich. Notturnino is an affectionate glimpse into the world of opera singers in their twilight world (think Harwood’s Quartet) encapsulated in snatches of Verdi and Puccini, especially La forza del destino and Tosca.

Choreographer Thomas Hauert took the 1984 documenary film Tosca’s Kiss as his starting point; we hear verbal as well as musical excerpts from its soundtrack, clarified for an English-speaking audience by screened subtitles. The six dancers, four of whom are physically impaired, swoop across the stage in leaps, lunges and variations on the classical attitude, emphasised by quick-change theatrical costumes by Natasa Stamatari, all vaguely 18th century in inspiration.

Shortend arms, a wheel chair and, notably, two crutches for a one-legged performer prove that disability is no barrier to virtuosity. That single leg and what almost seemed sometimes like four arms emerged from the groupings with star quality. Hauert makes no concessions in either the ensemble or solo sections to his dancers; they return the confidence full measure.

Trisha brown choreographed Set and Reset in 1983; this has been redirected by Abigail Yager as Set and Reset/Reset earlier this year. The dancers wear Celeste Dandeker-Arnold’s flowing and diaphonous grey dresses and trousers as they singly, in pairs and in larger groupings lunge, leap and spin across the stage to Laurie Anderson’s tintabulation-heavy score, suggesting a sequence of human dramas underpinning the abstraction of the moves which we are watching.

The performers are Megan Armishaw, Joel Brown, Tanja Erhart, Adam Gain, Jason Mabana and Laura Patay. Candoco tour both regionally and internationally so, if you happen to be in a place where this double-bill is being performed, take advantage of the opportunity and see it. You don’t have to make mental concessions – the work sets its own high standard – just as any other modern dance company. Rather, it’s up to the audience’s response to match that of the performers.

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Mother Courage and Her Children

(reviewed at the Harlow Playhouse on 28 September)

This is Contexture Theatre’s most ambition production in the three years the Bishop’s Stortford based-company has been in existence. It marks a new partnership with Harlow Playhouse and is intended to tour next year. Of all Brecht’s dramas, this 1941 epic of the Thirty Years War has its parallel in the contemporary conflict engulfing Europe; its bitter analysis of war’s effect on “the little people” is equally coruscating in David Hare’s 1995 translation.

Brecht’s characterisations of Anna, endlessly trudging with her cart full of muscellaneous goods (provenance not to be questioned), defeats his famous “alienation effect”. Mother Courage cannot help but evoke our understanding (and sympathies) and Gailie Pollock gives us the full measure of this natural survivor. She stabs at Laurence Aldridge’s score with the same intensity.

In the course of her journeying, Courage loses both her sons and her dumb daughter as she wheels and deals – not always to her benefit. Aldridge also plays the army officers’ Cook, another wheeler-dealer who will probably survive. Another of the type is camp follower Yvette, who Holly Ashton rounds out both vocally and histrionically. Stephen Cavanagh is the Swedish Army Chaplain, cowardly as well as self-serving.

Darcey James makes much of Kattrin, the girl left traumatised by an assault in childhood; her final act of defiance makes its full impact. Both her half-brothers misjudge the fluidity of battlefield fortunes – Dominic Gee Burgh’s Eilif dies from repeating the action which won him praise and then the firing quad when repeated in different circumstances. Jack Quarton’s Swiss Cheese makes a similar error, this time involving the regimental cash-box.

As suits the subject and the style, Amanda Stekly and Tom Cliff give us a bare stage with moveable screens and the cart itself indicating the changes of location. Pollock’s costumes are vaguely those of the First World War. Dave Thompson’s projections at the conclusion remind us that the world is still full of fighting with its inevitable victims. Simon Anderson’s production is suitably taut, though the sound balance for the all-important songs needs some attention.

Mother Courage and Her Children runs at the Harlow Playhouse until 1 October with a matinée on 29 September.

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