Rapunzel: The Musical
reviewed in Stevenage on 14 April

The Gordon Craig Theatre’s artistic director Catherine Lomax has found a winning streak with both revivals of favourite musicals and the premiering of new ones. Rapunzel has a book and lyrics by Lomax, score by the show’s musical director Phil Dennis and choreography by Khiley Williams; all are listed for book, music and lyrics. The imaginative lighting is by Pete Kramer.

Flexible and effective settings – including the tower where our heroine is imprisoned – are uncredited but costume designer Lisa Hickey has produced a colourful medieval-style array for the principals, the ensemble and the children’s chorus. Karl (Mike Holoway) in “The precious gift of you” and his wife Sophia (Auriol Hatcher) in “Life’s sweetest thing” both have strong voices and act convincingly, though the level of miking overwhelmed the articulation for their main numbers.

Musically it’s a strong score, with the characters clearly identified in their solos and ful-throated ensemble numbers (shades of the man-hunt in Peter Grimes are there in “Find her!” which closes the first act). The book is a literate one, perhaps a little too much so for the youngest audience members, so that we are easily caught up in the plight of the childless couple.

Cameron Leigh’s Gothel, the witch-like woman who strikes her bargain for 16-year old Rapunzel with Karl, is not a straightforward villainess; she longs for a child just as deeply as Sophia and makes this clear in “The love I’m owed”. The puppet woodpecker Viktor, handled and voiced by James Donovan, acts as a commentator on her machinations as well as imprisoned Rapunzel’s only real friend.

That is, until Prince Freddie (Glenn Adamson) chances upon the tower. Both his father King Constanine) and grandmother Queen Ida (Sharon Eckman) want to him to marry royally. As befits a folk-tale hero, Freddie (egged on by his servant and frind Benedict (Ryan Owen) want real love with a real girl and not any of the eligible brides paraded for his selection.

The difficulty with this particular story is that we don’t meet its heroine as a young woman until the day comes for Gothel to claim her fee. Samantha Noel looks pretty and sings “Gilded cage” very well, but her plight fades into insignificance when the fully three-dimensional Gothel, Sophia and Karl take centre-stage.

Four-star rating.

Rapunzel coninues at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Steveange until 17 April with matinée and early evening performances on 15, 16 and 17 April. It returns for a short run between 27 and 30 July.

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The Who’s Tommy
reviewed in Ipswich on 6 April

Ramps on the Moon is a six-year regional theatre project dedicated to integrating disabled performers and audiences with mainstream-calibre productions. Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre and its strategic partner Graeae have spearheaded the initiative. The Who’s Tommy is an object lesson in how this can be achieved.

A cast of 22 performers take all the roles, sing, whirl through Mark Smith’s choreography and play the almost through-composed instrumental score under the direction of Robert Hyman. Director Kerry Michael makes good use of Neil Irish’s flexible metallic set and lighting designer Arnim Friess makes the projections, floor light patterns and spotlightng of key incidents as much an important part of the staging as the action itself.

Central to the story is Tommy himself (William Grint) who is voiced by Matthew Jacobs-Morgan and Julian Capolei. Born after the reported death in action (the story begins in 1941) of Captin Walke (Max Runham), he encounters his father first in a traumatic confrontation between his mother Nora and new stepfather Frank (Alim Jayda). Apparently deaf, dumb and blind he is easy prey for playground bully Cousin Henry (Lukas Aleamder) and thoroughly nasty wheeler-dealer Uncle Ernie (Garry Robson). The unpleasant nuances of the latter’s “Fiddling” are cleverly conveyed.

Within Tommy’s mind, his lost father becomes guide and leader – almost as though they were 20th century eqivilents of Hamlet and his father’s mentoring ghost. Nora’s dilemmas are well mimed by Donna Mullings and sung by Shekinah McFarlane. Sign language, mime and movemen throughout are clarified by projected surtitles, which make following the nuances of the story much easier for all audience members.

Almost on Tommy’s wavelength is wheelchair-bound vicar’s daughter Sally (Amy Trigg), though her over-proective parents (Stacey Ghent and Anthony Snowden) precipitate her ultimate disillusion. Peter Straker is a true scene-stealer as the Acid Queen, a gypsy with much more than fortune-telling up her sleeve, bringing the house down with both her numbers, the second one added for this production.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Who’s Tommy continues at the New Wolsey Theate, Ipswich until 15 April with matinées on 12 and 15 April. It then tours nationally until 1 July, including the Nottingham Playhouse between 19 and 29 April.

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I Capture the Castle
reviewed in Watford on 5 April

Novelists present us with persons, places and situations which our imaginations decorate at our individual pleasures. Dramatists do much of that work for us, and composers of music theatre further colour our attitudes to the story presented. It’s all even trickier when it comes to a favourite book first read when one was a very young adult.

So writer Teresa Howard and composer Stephen Edis have given themselves a problem with Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. I don’t think they’ve solved it. The score is pleasant enough with its touches of Weill and popular 1930s composers, but it’s not one to send you out of the theatre with its tunes lodged firmly in your head. The successive repeats of Cassandra’s opening number act merely as punctuation points.

Both the best musical sequences occur in the second half. One is “Only men” in which New York socialite Mrs Cotton (Julia St John) and her photographer sister Leda (Shona White) make their attitude to the other sex clear. The other is the solo, morphing into a duet, for James Mortmain (Ben Watson) and his second wife Topaz (Suzanne Ahmet) in which his writer’s block and need for a muse are shown to be uncomfortably entwined.

Brigid Larmour’s direction keeps the action mainly in the delapidated castle rented by the Mortmains with seaside excursions to Southwold and culminating in a trip to London’s West End. Shona Morris is the movement director making full use of Ti Green’s precipitous set of staircases and towers. Neil, the wealthy American who now owns the castle, and his brother Simon are particularly well characterised by Luke Dale and Theo Boyce respectively.

As Cassandra (Lowri Izzard)’s older sister Rose, Kate Batter has the more difficult – because less sympathetic – role. Isaac Stanmore as Stephen, the shy boy-of-all-trades who finds himself an artist’s model en route to a Hollywood career, makes his calf-love sncere. But the star of the evening is undoubtedly Izzard as the teenage diarist who records the sheer daftness of her family and will so obviously become a far better writer than her one-novel father.

Three star rating.

I Capture the Castle runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 22 April with matinées on 6, 8, 11, 13, 15, 18, 20 and 22 April. It is a co-production with the Octagon Theatre, Bolton to which it transfers between 26 April and 6 May.

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Casanova
reviewed in Norwich on 4 April

Northern Ballet has never been afraid to present those facets of drama which are not usually fully explored in traditional ballet scenarios. Its latest première is based on Ian Kelly’s biography of Casanova and choreographed by Kenneth Tindall with an original score by Kerry Muzzey, probably best known as composer for film and television.

How you view Giacomo Casanova, the defrocked Venetian priest who fell foul of the Inquisition, led an amormously ramshackle life in various European courts and ended as a count’s librarian in Bohemia, probably depends on which dramatised adaptations of his life and loves (with the emohasis on the latter) you’ve encountered. Between them, Kelly and Tindall have scraped away some of this clutter to suggest a far more intellectual man of the Enlightenment than usually confronts us.

Touring ballet productions tend to simplify the scenic aspects and rely on costuming and lighting. Christopher Oram uses a succssion of moveable black and gilt ribbed panels (pillars or bookcases?) with an ornate baroque picture-frame lowering above. His costume palette concentrates on a complete range of greys, from almost-white to near-black. Reds, purple, gold and blue are reserved for the principal characters.

Alatair West’s lighting pours purple onto the early Venetian scenes and whitens as Casanova’s travels take him to Louis XV’s Paris. Nathan Fifield conducts Muzzey’s score which is often stridently brassy as the brass and timpani weigh in. It suits the story very well and complemens Tindall’s choreography.

This makes much use of lunging steps for the men balanced by equally forceful arm movements. These characterise the Inquisitors in particular. Casanova’s female sequence of lovers at times echo this with their extended arabesques en pointe and in the lifts. Many of these are athletic but not always graceful; the pas de deux with Dreda Blow’s Bellino doesn’t really suggest the love inherent in it.

Giulano Contadini in the title role fully deserves the acclamation awarded it at the curtain call. He acts as well as dances the part, from musical seminarian to disillused philosopher. it’s a rounded portrait of a real man. Of the other roles, Hannh Bateman as the husband-abused Henriette, Victoria Sibson as mme de Pompadour, Javier Torres as Senator Bragadin, Mlindi Kulashe as the Chief Inquisitor and Sean Bates as Cardinal de Bernis are also three-dimensional characterisations.

Four and a half-star rating.

Casanova continues at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 8 April with matinées on 6 and 8 April. it can also be seen at the Milton Keynes Theatre between 19 and 22 April.

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La Strada
reviewed in Cambridge on 28 March

This touring production based on the iconic Fellini film of 1954 has been devised by its performers with direction by Sally Cookson and writer Mike Akers. It is a Belgrade Theatre (Coventry) piece which takes advantage of the circus skills of the cast. So it could be defined as physical theatre; in practice, it’s more theatre of physicality.

La Strada tells the story of a village girl in post-war Italy, sold (as her older sister has been) to a travelling showman to act as his assistant. Naïve Gelsomina (Audrey Brisson) doesn’t want to leave home – she’d far rather listen to the waves – but her mother has four other children to feed, no husband and scant chances of earning a living.

The showman Zampanò is played by Stuart Goodwin. He lives for the moment, is quick to quarrel and quite happy to travel Italy on his motor-bike truck earning something at each stop – and spending it almost immediately. Goodwin has the measure of this unpleasant survivor.

While Gelsomina picks up some tricks of the barker’s trade, she becomes entranced by the collective world of the circus and in particular by Il Matto (its fool or clown). Bart Soroczynski blends skill with just the right amount of other-worldly feyness to make us see why Gelsomina finds him at one level the sort of kindred spirit for whom she was (perhaps unconsciously) waiting – and why he infuriates Zampanò to the point of murder.

The level of ensemble playing – mime, acrobatics, acting and music – is impressive. Matt Costain, Fabrizio Matteini, Sofie Lybäck, Niv Patel, Niccolò Curradi and Tatiana Santini are the players with instrumentalists Luke Potter, TJ Holmes and Tim Dalling. Benji Bower’s score works well as do the settings and costumes of Katie Sykes.

But the focus of the whole story is Gelsomina. Brisson gives full weight to the simple-mindedness which so irritates some of those with whom she’s in contact. But she also shows us the core of the girl, vulnerable in a land and society forced into selfishness by the needs of its time. it’s a finely balanced portrait.

Four star rating.

La Strada continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 8 April with matinées on 30 March, 1, 6 and 8 April.

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Abigail’s Party
reviewed in Norwich on 27 March

Mike Leigh’s play about the residents of a suburban London enclave is now 40 years old. Each revival brings a new and appreciative audience as well as returning admirers, ths proving that this particular social satire is one for all decades and all generations.

We may not want to acknowledge it aloud, but most of us can number at least a couple of Leigh’s characters in our aquaintance. Which is not bad going when you realise that there are only five people on stage, plus of course the offstage teenaged Abigail, who is throwing her increasingly boisterous parent-free party a few doors away.

Queen bee and lynch-pin of the whole affair is Beverly, a wife so mesmerised by her own two-dimensional façade that other people only exist to reflect her appearance, her tastes in music, home décor and social entertaining. Amanda Abbington has the measure of the part; from the moment we glimpse her arranging the room for her drinks party through the windows of Janet Bird’s dolls’ house set, Abbington presents the whole woman.

Dressed in a totally unsuitable white pleated dress, constantly slithering off one shoulder, Beverly makes a god job of upstaging first new neighbour Angela (Charlotte Mills), a nurse whose slightly too-girlish dress only accentuates her comfortable plumpness. Ciarán Owens is Frank, the disenchanted former footballer now computer operator who is natural prey for Beverly.

Both Rose Keegan as middle-class divorcée Susan, doing her best to bring up Abigail and Jeremy with some support from her architect ex-husband, suggests the woman who would love to put Beverly back in her proper place but is too polite to force the issue. when she does do so it is completely ineffectual.

You can see why Ben Caplan’s work-obsessed estate agent Laurence might find in Susan a more congenial spirit than in wife Beverly, though even he tries too hard and too obviously to clamber onto her guarded wavelength. Caplan times Laurence’s develpment as the evning wears on very subtly, from “heard it all before” mild irritation to the downright irascibility as the play reaches its climax.

Sarah Esdaile is the director for this Theatre Royal Bath Productions tour. Bird’s co-designers are Mic Pool (sound, which is very cleverly graduated as the evening wears on) and Paul Pyant (lighting). Blending deliberate articiality with the right degree of realism is a harder visual and audible task than an audience might imagine. I suspect that Abigail will be still throwing her party forty years from now. This production certainly doesn’t impede that progress.

Four and a half-star rating.

Abigail’s Party
runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 1 April with matinées on 29 March and 1 April. It can also be seen at the Cambridge Arts Theatre between 10 and 15 April.

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The Importance of Being Earnest
reviewed Ipswich 24 March

Red Rose Chain’s spring production is a new one by artistic director Joanna Carrick of Oscar Wilde’s best-known comedy. Carrick has provided a framing induction(?) which involves the 1960s descendants of Wilde’s 1890s characters clearing out the old family country home – now too big and too expensive to maintain. Quite frankly, this adds nothing but an extra gloss of artificiality to the play proper, but I suppose such things are in fashion.

This is a theatre-in-the-round staging, which place a special load on the actors, especially when they’re required to engage directly with the audience. The design eam – Carrick, David Newborn, Jack Heydon and Leo George – circulate the prologue, the main play and the epilogue – around a couple of packing-cases, a chaise longue, a tea-trolley and a tin-toned upright piano.

Joanna Sawyer is the musical director and choreographer, and she keeps her cast on the move, notably in the case of Lawrence Russell’s whirlwind Jack (he also plays Chasuble and Frank in the framing scenes). Laurence Pears contrasts lankily as Algernon and a simpering Miss Prism. The men’s quick changes of costume, especially in scenes where both the characters they play are on-stage simultaneously, is a delight to watch.

Of the women, we first meet Sawyer as Frnk’s trendy fiancée, all Carnaby Street mini-skirt and high-boots – not to mention wielding an oversize demonstration banner with theories to match. Her Cecily has a similar sparkle, manipulating her young-girl flounced skirt to devasting effect as far as Algy is concerned. Leonie Spilsbury is the slightly repressed Eloise and the confident débutante Gwendolyn; one has a horrid feeling that she might indeed end up as her mother’s true daughter.

Butlers Merriman (a misnomer if ever there was one) and Lane are doubled by Antony Carrick. At the end, Lane’s nostalgia has something of the dying fall impact of Firs from The Cherry Orchard. Joanna Carrick’s Lady Bracknell tries too hard to make us “get the point”; by this stage in his career, Wilde knew precisely how to let a line work with its hearers, without over-pointing by the actor. Those bare arms for a society matron in daytime clothes also jar.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Importance of Being Earnest continues at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich until 9 April.

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The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart
reviewed 23 March

Folk traditions – especially verse, dance and music – can sometimes seem like a fly caught in amber, museum pieces rather than something alive and evolving. That’s the argument at the heart of David Greig’s Borders-set musical play currently being toured to arts and community centres in East Anglia. There are pefomances in more conventional theatre settings – such as the Quay Theatre in Sudbury (where I saw it) – but Hal Chambers’ production really needs a more informal, in-the-round ambiance.

A cast of four, all of whom sing and play a variety of instruments very well, take all the parts. Prudencia herself (Hannah Howie) is a somewhat up-tight academic concerned to keep Border minstrelsy in its historical place; Walter Scott is her guide for this and in fact a great deal of the dialogue is couched in his metrical narrative rhythmns. Her opposite in attitude is Colin (Robin Hemmings) with his laid-back personality and modernising mission.

Then there’s Nick (Simon Donaldson). Yes, you guessed right – He’s more than just a collector of old books and rare artefacts. Haunting the transition between this world and something more winter-solstice sinister is Elspeth Turner, whose child-puppet sequence is truly eerie. Chambers is a puppet specialist, and it shows superbly here.

Eastern Angles is to congratulated on looking outside its home territory for some of its productions. However, not everything works out of its original territory (Holy Mackerel! a year or so ago is one instance). I found much of the accented dialogue difficult to follow; again, this may partly be due to the venue. Designer Bek Palmer aided by musical director and puppeteer Arran Glass conjure up lecture halls, snow-dredged exteriors, sessions in wayside pubs and book-lined libraries as though by magic.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart tours until 27 May.

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Nell Gwynn
reviewed in Cambridge on 21 March

A historical play – just like a historical novel – is not necessarily a straightforward documentary. The historian has to stick to the known facts, and be prepared to answer for any assumptions to his or her peers. The novelist is controlled by a far looser rein, and the dramatist is given even greater licence.

So Jessica Swale’s version of the life of arguably the most famous actress of the 17th century, Nell Gwynn, never lets the (perilously few) known facts get in the way of a thoroughly theatrical romp. It makes for an enagaging evening’s entertainment, augmented in Christopher Luscombe’s English Touring Theatre production by the Globe Theatre-style set and costume designs of Hugh Durrant and by Nigel Hess’ pastiche score.

This is very well performed by both cast and instrumentalists Emily Banes, Sharon Lindo, Arngeir Hauksson and Nicholas Perry. Charlotte Broom is the choreographer, keeping the stage a-swirl with stamps and turns. There are a number of entrances from the auditorium with the occasional circle and box level interjection; I suspect these work better in playhouse-type theatres than in a less flexible one such as the Cambridge Arts.

Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Nell is a delight, giving the back-street orange-seller turned actress and then king’s mistress real personality as her enthusiasms bubble with scant regard for the status of those at whom she aims them. Her two Charles are Ben Righton as Charles II and Sam Marks as leading-man Charles Hart. Frantically striving to keep everything (and everyone) on the right path are Michael Cochrane as Lord Arlington and Clive Heyward as King’s Company manager Killigrew.

The human-being behind the stereotype is particularly apparent in some of Righton’s exchanges with Pitt-Pulford, in Esh Alladi’s portrait of the rapidly becoming redundant player of women’s parts Edward Kynaston and in the short sequence when Joanne Howarth’s flamboyantly strident Catherine of Braganza suddenly kneels to the king and hushes the house with her echo of Catherine of Aragon’s Blackfriars plea to Henry VIII.

This is history with its own validity, because in two hours has necessarily to concentrate and condense both characters and action while keeping the audience attentive from first to last, simply and basically by entertaining it. You do go away at the end with a certain spring in your step – and that’s probably as good an accolade as any.

Four and a half-star rating.

Nell Gwynn continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 25 March with matinées on 23 and 25 March.

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Getting Dressed
reviewed in Ipswich on 18 March

The stage is dark. Then a bare foot intrudes through a slit in the backing curtain, followed by another at a completely different height. Then yet a third, also apparently disembodied. Hands in a similar fashion follow and finally faces peer out of the gloom at the audience. By now even the most restless child is intrigued.

Suddenly the black floor-cloth and vertical drapes vanish, to reveal a white floor and a translucent backing. Not to mention the three main performers – Ellen Slatkin, Darragh Butterworth and Keir Patrick. heaps of brightly coloured clothes materialise and the dancers strip to their underwear to grab and wear whatever takes their fancy, regardless of sex or shape.

Rosie Heafford’s choreography is athletic, not to say acrobatic at times, with hints of Asian and Middle Eastern dance forms as the costume changes dictate. Hats and headgear of various kinds make their appearance, spilt onto the stage by a quasi-puppeteer figure, as do scarves which can be a stole, a blindfold, a sarong or a veil. The performers turn and stretch, leap and pivot toJames Marples’ and Amir Shoenfeld’s pleasantly atonal score.

Subtle lighting effects by Ben Pacey keep the eye engaged and there is enough humour generated by the sequences of apparently random quick changes to keep a young audience focussed on both the action and Verity Quinn’s plethora of costumes. At just under one hour, this Second Hand Dance production is an ideal length for a show without words and its target audience.

I had the distinct impression that wardrobes would be raided, just as soon as everyone had returned home…

Four star rating.

Getting Dressed continues at the Ipswich Jerwood DanceHouse until 20 March and can also be seen at the Cambridge Junction on 6 April.

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Noël & Gertie
reviewed in Basildon on 8 March

Sheridan Morley’s own definition of his Noël Coward compilation was “an entertainment”. It draws on a variety of material from Coward’s plays, sketches, lyrics and autobiography to tell the story of the loving – if occasionally acerbic – professional and personal relationship between Gertrude Lawrence and himself.

Matthew Townshend’s production is based on the one he staged at Frinton’s summer theatre three years ago. With Helen Power as Lawrence and Ben Stocks as Coward, we are taken back to the developing worlds of 1920s and 30s theatre, including music-hall, revues and musical comedies as well as the plays which are probably Coward’s most lasting legacy.

Both Power and Stock are experienced solo performers. She has a good, sweet voice ideal for “Parisian pierrot” and “I’ll see you again”. She dances imogen Fraser’s choreography well, while he knows how to put over a one-liner as well as sustaining dialogue and giving a stand-alone number such as “Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington” the proper cumulative bite.

The set by Martin Robinson adapts easily between the stars’ dressing-room and the variety of different stages on which they played. Stage managers Alyssa Tuck and Ashleigh German double as dressers and scene shifters as required by the flow of the narrative.

Still Life, one of the Tonight at 8.30 playlets is best known now through its filmed adaptation as Brief Encounter. It makes an impact with the excerpt given in this production, as does part of the opening scene of Private Lives and the famous Red Peppers sketch with its squabbling husband and wife team whose variety act is no longer as crisp and funny as it once was.

For me, the weak link in the programme is pianist Jonathan Lee, who’s much too loud and attacks the music without the throw-away insouciance which is the hallmark of Coward’s compositions. The Towngate Theatre is perhaps not the ideal venue in which to stage Morley’s entertainment, which may have led to a degree of over-compensation in sound management.

Noël & Gertie can also be seen at the Spa Pavilion, Felixstowe on 24-25 March, the Brookside Theatre, Romford on 7 April, the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 11 and 12 April and the Key Theatre, Peterborough on 3 and 4 May as part of a national tour which extends to 13 May.

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Silver Lining
reviewed in Cambridge on 7 March

There’s an extra frisson to being definitely on the wrong side of 70 when it comes to conteplating how one’s last days, moths or even years might be spent. Silver Lining, Sandi Toksvig’s play in English Touring Theatre’s spring repertoire in association with Kngston’s Rose Theatre, addresses this head-on.

We’re in an old-people’s home on the Kent coast. Outside a gale rages (code-named Vera) and the sea threatens to flood the area. Houses have been evacuated, but somehow this care-home (to use the current euphemism) has been omitted by over-worked officials.

Marooned on the first floor are first four then five long-term residents. Not to mention a temporary care assistant who’s just there for the money. You expect to discove details of these elderly characters’ past lives and the effect these have had on their present static situation. This Toksvig gives us, but somehow neither the comedy or the pathos inherent in the predicament in which the old ladies find themselves rings true.

Rebecca Gatword’s production is remarkably busy, considering that wheel-chairs and walking-sticks abound, and the designers – Michael Taylor (set), Mark Doubleday (lighting) and Mic Pool (sound) – also keep our eyes engaged. as, to a certain extent, does the excellent cast.

It is led by Sheila Reid as the trendiest of the inmates, Joanna Monro as June (with more moral hang-ups than she has year), Maggie McCarthy as down-to-earth May, Amanda Walker as a resident defined only by the “St Michael” label inside her dressing-gown and Rachel Davies as fluttery Maureen.

Making an impact in her professional stage début is Heziah Joseph as Hope, the carer from Croydon who isn’t quite sure what she wants from life but knows that this isn’t how she wants it to go. Theo Toksvig-Stewart is another newcomer, playing Jed who might best be described as an opportunist.

Yes, it’s clever and beautifully acted. Yes, the staging is equally inventive. But no, I watched the production with admiration for the various skills so beautifully utilised but never felt engaged with it. “There, but for the grace of God…” should have been edging towards the front of my understanding. Somehow it never happened.

Three-and-a-half star rating.

Silver Lining is on a national tour until 8 April, including the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 14 and 18 March. Performances at the Cambridge Arts Theatre continue until 11 March with matinées on 9 and 11 March

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Bang Bang
reviewed in Colchester on 3 March

Classic French farce, especially the plays of Georges Feydeau, aren’t easy to translate into English. The words aren’t the problem; rendering Parisian life during the belle époque for a 21st century audience is the difficulty. Take Bang Bang, John Cleese’s version of the little-known Monsieur Chasse!.

The first act establishes the situation. Duchotel (Oliver Cotton) has told his wife Leontine (Caroline Langrishe) that he’s off on yet another hunting trip with his old friend Cassagne (Peter Bourke). When another friend, Dr Moricet (Richard Earl), throws doubt on the nature of her husband’s quarry, Leontine decides that what’s sauce for the gander is definitely sauce for her particular goose.

Act Two takes place in a most peculiar lodging house run by a déclassée countess (Sarah Crowden). Designer David Shields and director Nicky Henson effect a deservedly-applauded scene change before our eyes, as set pieces swivel and furniture is transformed to an infectious waltz (mainly by Sophie Cotton), accompanied by the violin-playing maid Babette (Jess Murphy).

The trouble is that our willing suspension of belief – that sine non quo of all theatre – keeps on being pulled up short by phrases, expletives and even the occasional gesture which destroy our illusion of a vanished past and its society. You certainly can’t blame the cast for this. The actors’ timing is exemplary throughout.

Langrishe swoops and swirls through Leontine’s emotional and moral crises with the precision of an excessively elegant battle-axe. Earl’s Moricet, a physician with seduction on his mind rather than medicine, counterpoints her precisely. Cotton’s increasingly frantic attempts to achieve his aims ar balanced by the efforts of Simon Hepworth’s police inspector to frustrate them.

Also pursuing his own agenda is Duchotel’s nephew Gontran, a born flaneur in Robert Neumark Jones’ portrayal. Bourke has a telling appearance as he arrives in the third act to keep an appointment which is definitely not one of the ones mentioned so far. It’s all fast, furious (in a nice way) and thoroughly farcical. But somehow I feel that Feydeau has been short-changed.

Four star rating.

Bang Bang continues at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 11 March with matinées on 9 and 11 March.

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Worst Wedding Ever
reviewed in Ipswich on 2 March

Weddings last for a few hours, usually involve a great many people and can cost a great deal more than a brand-new car. Marriages are something different, a compact of commitment between two indivduals. The drama of a wedding is a cumulative effect. The drama of a marriage is much more slow-burning.

Originally premiered at the Salisbury Playhouse three years ago, Chris Chibnall’s Worst Wedding Ever has been updated and is now given in a new production by Gareth Machin, the first fruit of a new partnership between the Playhouse, Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre and the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch. Rachel and Scott know what they want – a simple registry office ceremony with just a pub lunch for a few close friends and family.

After all, money will be tight until he finishes his teacher-training and there’s the mortgage on a flat to take into account. But Liz, Rachel’s mother, has other ideas; they involve wedding lists, a lavish church ceremony, a sit-down meal in a marquee, top-of-the-range photography and – of course – a gasp-eliciting wedding dress.

As with any comedy which threatens to tip over into farce (or perhaps even into tragedy), we meet membes of a somewhat disfunctional family. Julia Hills as Liz, the micro-managing mother in question, dominates the action, well contrasted with her husband Mel, to whom Derek Frood imparts a distinctly laid-back quality. Nav Sidhu’s Scott is a young man with principles – and he’s sticking to them.

Elisabeth Hopper’s Rachel is another credible character, knowing what she wants n her heart of hearts, but concerned not to wreck her family in the process. Wrecker in chief is her elder sister Alison (Elizabeth Cadwallader), going through a messy divorce process with Mike (Lloyd Gorman), and matter aren’t helped by Kiernan Hill’s Graeme, a vicar too trendy for anyone’s good. Then Andy (Ben Callon), the son of the family drifts in…

The garden set by James Button has its own surprises, with musicians materialising from some unusual places, not to mention a selection of projections. Machin keeps the action fast and suitably furious, though the script could perhaps be better for a little trimming. There’s a superb coup de théåtre towards the end with a repercussion with is equally unexpected.

Four and a half-star rating.

Worst Wedding Ever continues at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 11 March with matinées on 8 and 11 March. It then transfers to the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch between 15 March and 1 April.

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Mamma Mia!

There are a lot of them about at the moment. What one might define as “catalogue musicals”, based on the work of one or other particular song-writing group or band. The story might be the biography of that ensemble, or it might be harnassed to a completely new senario.

That’s the case with Mamma Mia!, a musical which uses the lyrics and music of ABBA and has now been with us for the better part of two decades. Most people probably know it from the film version of 2008; this touring production by the orginal director Phyllida Lloyd has a simple, pared-down set by Mark Thompson cleverly lit by Howard Harrison.

We ae faced by two stories, one mirroring the other in many respects. Lucy May Barker’s Sophie is about to be married to Phillip Ryan’s Sky. She’s the daughter of a single mother Donna (Helen Hobson) and, as she confides to her friends Ali (Fia Houston-Hamilton) and Lisa (Blaise Colangelo), wants her father to walk her down the aisle. The problem is that he could be one of three different men.

There’s British banker Harry (Jamie Hogarth), US architect Sam (Alex Bourne” and Australian explorer and writer Bill (Chrisopher Hollis). Unknown to her mother and to her fiancé, she has invited all three to the wedding, hoping thereby to solve the mystery. The differences between their personalities is well brought out right from their initial, slightly bewildered, exchanges.

Donna has invited two close women friends; all three were the Donna and the Dynamos group. Tanya (Emma Clifford” is a wealthy divorcée, svelte and sharp-tongued. Rosie (Gillian Hardie) is plumply happy-go-lucky, man-free but not necessarily happy with it. Richard Weedon’s’s musical direction is enthusiastic, as is Anthony Van Laast’s choreography – this gives athletic as well as humorous opportunities to the boys of the ensemble.

You can’t have a modern musical without microphones, and the trick is to keep the balance between clarity of words and their underlining accompaniments. On the official opening night of this latest tour, that took some time to establish itself, so that Barker’s “I have a dream” lost some of its impact first time round. “Money! Money! Money” and “Under attack” worked much better.

Four star rating.

Mamma Mia! continues at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 25 March with matinées on 2, 4, 7, 9, 11, 16, 18, 21, 23 and 25 March.

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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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