A Month of Sundays

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 26 September)

Old age is something which comes to most of us. There are just as many ways in which we progress through it. That’s the theme of Bob Larbey’s 1986 wry comedy, now given a rare revival by Russell Bolam as part of the Queen’s Theatre’s autumn season on ageing.

We are in Cooper’s room at what is obviously a fairly up-market residential care-home in Surrey. His wife of many years is dead and their daughter, married to a somewhat dull lawyer, visits from Milton Keynes with her husband (and occasionally their son) on one Sunday a month. Hence the title.

Cooper (William Hoyland) served in the Second World War and has a slightly military approach to his physical decline. What worries him and his crony Aylott (Robin Hooper) is the possibilityof mental decline, joining what they nickname The Zombies at the care home. They play chess as one means of staving this off and indulge in escape (of the Colditz variety) scenarios.

Those dutiful monthly visits, with the travel traumas they involve, are making Cooper’s daughter Julia (Sophie Russell) even spikier than usual. Husband Peter (Gareth Clarke) is marginally (only marginally) more sympathetic. Both Russell and Clarke inhabit their characters to the full.

Rather more appreciative of the care-home inmates is nurse Wilson (Anne Leong Brophy), a professional who knows how to balance genuine affection for those she looks after with some minor hiccoughs in her own private life. Brophy’s scenes with Hoyland are genuinely moving, two real people sharing an occasional but very important (to them both) wavelength.

Mrs Baker (Connie Walker) has the task of cleaning the rooms, which she does briskly and with just a dash of envy at the space each resident occupies. I’m not sure that I’d want personlly to emply Mrs Baker, but Walker brings her to life.

The key performance is Hoyland’s, a man whose catch-phrase “mustn’t grumble” sums up a whole no-whine generation of men. Aware that the next physical indignity will most probably be a colposcopic bag, even this is turned into a joke. Hooper’s handle-bar moustached Aylott is made of softer material, but the two actors play well off each other.

A Month of Sundays runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 15 October with matinées on 29 Septeber and 8 October.

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A Party to Murder

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 19 September)

A play within a play is one thing. A double play within a play is quite something else. Marcia Kash and Douglas E Hughes’ thriller A Party to Murder, currently revived in a new touring production by Talking Scarlet, is also a double (if not treble) hommage to Agatha Christie. Confused? That’s just what the playwrights and director Patric Kearns intend you to be.

So sit up at the back of the audiorium and pay close attention. We’re in the main room of a luxurious house in the middle of a lake. Remind you of a particular Chritsie story? Except that this lake is somewhere between Canada and the United states. The year is 1988.

A group of six Christie afficiendos have met to play out a murder scenario. They have all paid to be part of the game; whoever guesses the correct suspect can choose his or her own prize, which mustn’t amount to more than the total sum in the kitty.

If you don’t know the plot – and this is certainly one stage thriller I’ve no encountered before – then I won’t spoil your suspense by taking you furher. The designer is Geoff Gilder, who gives us a room with built-in surprises; David North’s lighting is as atmospheric as Kearns’ elaborate soundscape, but that all-important secret door needs to be better able to conceal what does on behind it when it’s shut.

Ben Roddy as Charles, the organiser of this somewhat macabre party, contrasts well wih Oliver Mellor’s wheel-chaired Willy. John Hester plays businessman Elwood with Michelle Morris as his posturing model wife McKenzie. The other two women as Natasha Gray and Claire Fisher as siblings Valerie and Henrietta, who have just as many secrets to hide as everyone else on stage.

The performances are good, and the cast knows how to alternate moments of frantic verbal or physical activity with slower, quiteer ones. They all sustain their north American accents impeccably throughout.

It all engages attention while it’s happening in fron of us, but is perhaps not a play to linger in the memory and make one yearn to see what other ways of staging it there might be. Pehaps it’s no surprise that it isn’t often revived.

A Party to Murder runs at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 24 September wih matinées on 22 and 24 September. It also play at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon on 27 and 28 September.

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Dead Sheep

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 13 September)

An alternative title for Jonathan Maitland’s slice of almost-recent history might be, as he expresses it in his programme note, The Mouse That Roared. The play’s actual title is of course Dead Sheep, a reference to Dennis Healey’s comment that being attacked in the Commons by Geoffrey Howe was like being “savaged by a dead sheep”.

After a successful London season, director Ian Talbot is taking his production on a national tour until December. The plot is simple enough; it revoves around the professional relationship between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Steve Nallon) and her former Foreign Secretary, later Chancellor of the Exchequer, Howe (Paul Bradley). The third important character – who in many ways is shown as the catalyst for the dénouement – is Elspeth Howe (Carol Royle), an independent woman but also one concerned to support her husband.

The other characters are various Government advisors, MPs and assorted Ministers. Between them they provide some brilliant character studies – Graham Seed’s Ian Gow, Chrstopher Villiers’ Alan Clark and John Wark’s television interviewer stand out here. Morgan Large’s set is dominated by the Cabinet photograph, that famous one where dark-suited men are minimised by blue-clad Thatcher, the queen bee of that particular hive.

While Royle is very good as Elspeth Howe, both when she’s acting (as she herself admits) almost like Lady Macbeth screwing her husband up to the murder of Duncan and in her waspish exchanges with the Prime Minister during distinctly awkward social events at 10 Downing Street, the focus inevitably falls on the protagonist and antagonist in this 20th century variation on Greek tragedy.

As Thatcher, Nallon gives us a spot-on impersonation, from vocal mannerisms to shoe-pinching gait and the hand-shakes offered with the head vulture-looming but the torso withdrawn, but it remains an impersonation, not a portrayal. The House of Commons scene, where we see her reactions on-screen as well as facing us from the front bench, though is a marvellous piece of theatre.

Bradley has the most difficult rôle of all. He has to give us a credible picture of a man with immense abilities, great integrity and absolutely no charisma or proficiency in self-projection. He builds his portrait of Howe slowly, with meticulous detailing, so that the famouse resignation speech makes its full impact without us ever feeling that this is out of character for the man.

Dead Sheep runs at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 17 September at the start of a national tour lasting to 3 December. There are matinées on 15 and 17 September.

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Carmen

(reviewed at the Harlow Playhouse on 9 September)

The Russian State Opera & Ballet Theatre of Komi has a new production of Bizet’s ever-popular Carmen for its autumn UK tour. Artistic director Ilya Mozhaysky sets the action around the 1920s and offers us a kind of danced dumb-show during the second half of the overture, prefiguring the menace and violence associated with its recurrent “death theme”.

Yuri Samodurov’s painted back-drops and flats have a nightmare surreal quality eachoing this. Act One is mainly whte-clad, from the soldiers’ uniforms to the shifts worn by the girls of the cigarette factory. Only Carmen herself flaunts a scarlet shawl. For the second act (Lillas Pastia’s louche tavern) red wih black accents prdominates. Black and a shrouding grey underlines the encounters in the mountain pass while the final scene flames scarlet with coal black.

The dancing is exellent (no choreographer is credited in the programme) and there is lively interplay among the chorus members in the crowd scenes. Of the principals, Evgenia Gudkova is a sultry Carmen with a strong chest register and secure top notes. Dimitrii Demidchik is a somewhat unsubtle (and therefore unsympathetic) Don José who hits all the right notes but with little sense of shading.

Michaela in Olga Georgieva’s interpretation is a far cry from the blonde-plaitd milkshop of many roductions. Yes, she’s naïve, a village girl out of her comfort zone in both Seville and the bandit-affected mountain pass. But Georgieva offers us the steel backbone which allows her to negotiate these perils and fulfil her mission each time.

As Frasquita and Mercédès, Anastasia Podzigun and Elena Lodigina make the most of the card trio in the penultimate scene. Nikolay Efremov is a somewhat under-powered Escamillo; the smaller male rôles are well diferentiated. There are always production teething troubles at the start of a tour, but Nelli Svatova’s lighting design left too many faces in shadow when singing downstage. The necessary surtitles need proof-reading.

Carmen is at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 10 September, the Princes Theatre, Clacton on 11 September and The Cresset, Peterborough on 13 September. Other tour dates include the Alban Arena, St Albans on 5 October, the Towngate Theatre, Basildon on 6 October and the Watford Colossem on 8 October.

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Filed under Music & music theatre, Opera, Reviews 2016

84 Charing Cross Road

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 5 September)

The antiquarian bookshop which provides the title for James Roose-Evans’ production of his own stage adptation is no more. The two-decade epistolary exchanges between New York client Helene Hanff and shopmanager Frank Doel also belongs to a vanished age, perhaps being more akin to those fictional letter eschanges which so many novels of the 18th and early 19th century used as their format.

It’s a gentle, mannerly adaptation, given a matching production with an excellent flexible set by Norman Coates, most of which (very properly) being the bookshop with its mountains of shelves; Hanff’s cramped bed-sitters take up only a fraction of the space. The outstanding performance, beautifully nuanced and thoroughly three-dimensional, is that of Clive Francis as Doel.

Stefanie Powers’ Hanff gives us the outline of the outsider scrambling a living as script-reader and -writer but somehow the necessary acerbic rasp is missing. Throughout, for me, her performance is too quietly spoken. We laugh at the succession of financial disasters (dentistry and apartment demolition among them) which impede Haff’s chance of visiting London, but somehow it’s at the suggestion of these, not a sense of their reality.

There are strong performances by the other cast members, notably by Rosie Jones as Cecily, who starts her own correspondence with Hanff, and Irene Rambota as Hanff’s actress friend Maxine, who visits the shop while in a play transferred from Brodway to London (with muted box-office success). Hayward B Morse plays Mr Martin, one of those shop fixtures only really appreciated when lost.

This production was premiered at the Salisbury Playhouse last year and marks a move towards reviving in-house produced drama for the Cambridge Arts Theatre. Lee Dean is the co-producer.

84 Charing Cross Road runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 17 September. There are matinées on 8, 10, 15 and 17 September.

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Made in Dagenham

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 30 August)

This new joint production for the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch and the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich is based on the 2014 musical which in turn was based on the 2010 film. Making stage shows out of cinema favourites is rapidly becoming an industry in its own right, somewhat reversing the older trend to film successful Broadway and West End productions.

It’s an apposite theme for Hornchurch, not too far down the road from Dagenham where the women sewing machinists went on strike in 1968 for equal pay with their male colleagues (their jobs had just been downgraded) and better working conditions. The first night audience picked up the local references with glee; it will be interesting to dicover whether or not the same reactions will apply in Ipswich.

Central to Richard Bean’s book is Rita, a multi-tasking wife, mother and factory worker. Daniella Bowen hits her off perfectly; you warm to the characer as she transforms from being just one of the girls working at a boring job to help the family finances to a woman with a mind (and a voice) of her own. Richard Thomas’ lyrics are witty; David Arnold’s score comes over as a bit relentlessly strident – but Bowen copes admirably.

Alex Tomkins is Eddie, her husband who is really much more at ease joshing with his work mates than being domestically considerate. He too matures as the story progresses, but not to catch up with his wife. The large cast provide amusing sketches, caricatures and cameos of the Ford hierachy, the union bosses at local and national level and the politicians who so reluctantly have to become involved.

These include Claire Machin’s no-nonsense Barbara Castle, Graham Kent’s pipe-chewing, raincoated Harold Wilson, Angela Bain’s loud-mouth machinist (every other word an expletive), Loren O’Dair as the intellectual wife – who rebels against being a mere decoration – of the personnel manager (Jamie Noar) and Jeffrey Harmer’s show-stopping Mr Tooley, the US boss flown in to get things moving his way, a sort of Donald Trump avant le lecture.

In the late 60s and mid-70s, agit-prop theatre seemd to dominate the fringe, both in London and in other conurbations. Douglas Rintou’s production has strong elements of this, reinforced by Hayley Grindle’s bleak set which, with its minimal use of furniture, keeps the action fast-moving. Many of the cast are also instrumentalists, well co-ordinated by musical director Ben Goddard.

Made in Dagenham runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 17 September with matinées on 1, 8, 10 and 15 September. It then transfers to the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 21 September and 15 October with matinées on 22, 24 Septeber, 1, 5, 8, 1 and 15 October.

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The Old Country

(reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 23 August)

Like Shakespeare, Alan Bennett has written several of what might be defined as “problem plays”. In Bennett’s case, one of the most intriguing of these is The Old Country, which I first saw in 1977, when the actual events and characters here depicted through fictional characters, were more of immediate concern that they seem in 2016.

We’re on the verandah of a small house in the depths of the country, just the sort of place to which you can imagine any senior Civil Servant wishing to retire. Hilary (James Morley) and his wife Bron (Barbara Horne) are expecting a visit from her sister Veronica (Imogen Slaughter) and her diplomat husband Duff (Michael Shaw); they haven’t seen the couple since Duff achieved his knighthood.

Hilary and Bron do have neighbours – Olga (Melissa Clements), who is somewhat mixed-up to put it at its most simple, and her husband Eric (Bob Dobson), on the face of it just a happy-go-lucky sort of chap. But where exactly is this place in the country? and why is it, its occupants and their visitors under such surveeliance?

Bennett uses the gradual relevations of both personal and national aspects to the different characters to allow for some complex discussion about motivations, treachery and patriotism, pasts to be revealed and those which so desperately need to be concealed. People, Bennett seems to insist, have flexible loyalties, fluid as changes in international situations and issues.

What Hilary wants is, in spite of the speeches which Morley delivers with great conviction, as nebulous as any other artificial construct. Shaw and Dobson make much of their revelatory encounter in the second act while Horne gives a rounded portrait of a wife who sticks by her man, but isn’t afriad to point out where he falls short of her deserts.

Veronica is a slightly spiky personality, and no-one does stylish spikiness more accurately than Slaughter. Olga is in many ways the most difficult of the characters to pin down; her past not simply permeates what and who she is now but underlies Hilary’s shockingly crude summing-up – one of those moments in the drama when you realise that sympathy can perhaps be wrongly placed. Clements epitomises the small fry as victim.

The Old Country runs at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 27 August and transfers to Southwold Summer Theatre between 29 August and 10 September.

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Singin’ in the Rain

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 18 August)

Theatrical cliché number one – the show must go on!. And go on it did for Catherine Lomax’s summer in-house production, even though Simon Anthony suffered a foot injury during a particularly energetic dance routine as Cosmo Brown, necessitating an extended interval, roughly where one would have occured in a (now old-fashioned) two-interval production.

Craig Armstrong, who had been playing the two smaller roles of Sid Philips and the diction cach, had played the part previously and took over script-in-hand for the rest of the performance. Overall it’s a lavish production, complete with rainfall for the title number and finale, which moves slickly from scene to scene (there are 21 of them).

The script follows the Betty Comden and Adolph Green screen-play with Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed’s songs, most familiar to most of us from the Gene Kelly film. Khiley Williams’ choreography has th right 1920s influences – this is a story which centres on the Hollywood change from silent to sound films – and she has deised some good production numbers as well as the iconic “singin’ in the rain”.

Central to the story is stage actress Kathy, who is invested by Katie Warsop with just the right mix of steel-backbone determination and disarming femininity. She also dances extremely well and has the voice to match. As script-writer Don Mike Denman is perhaps a better dancer and actor than he is a singer, but his engaging ersonality makes up for this.

Screech-voiced Lina, the glittering Hollywood star with a temperment to match and completely non-existent vocal charm, is brought to full theatrical life by Cameron Leigh. Lomax’s production has a clever use of film which both sets the period and reminds us of the double artificiality of the whole set-up. Chris Keen is in charge of the (unseen) orchestra and the lighting design by Pete Kramer adds to the illusion.

Singin’ in the Rain runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 27 August. There are matinée peformances on 20, 25 and 27 August.

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Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016

The Shakespeare Revue

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 10 August)

This new and updated version of the 1994 RSC production is directed by one of its original devisers Michael McKee. It should by rights be packing out the Cambridge Arts Theatre; the audience at the performance I saw was properly enthusiastic though not particularly numerous.

There are five performers with musical director controlling them from the piano. Anna Stolli has a voice which copes with the coloratura of “The heroine the opera house forgot” (mainly Verdi) and dances Nicola Keen’s sometimes elaborate choreography nimbly. Lizzie Bea contrasts well and puts over her solo sketches with style as well as humour.

Jordan Lee Davies, Alex Morgan and Alex Scott Fairley dance, sing and make the audience share their enjoyment of the wide-ranging variations on the Shakespeare theme from “The man who speaks in anagrams” through “Giving notes” to the curtain speech for Sir in The Dresser.

“Brush up your Shakespeare” is performed as a quintet and there are references to the current battle for the US presidency to make sure that we leave the theatre knowing that Shakespeare is indeed a playwright and poet for all time. After all, you can only make stylishly agreeable fun of someone or something universally recognised as completely secure in his or its eminence.

The Shakespeare Revue continues at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 20 August.

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Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016

The Glenn Miller Story

(reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 9 August)

This latest Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson musical is a starring vehicle for Tommy Steele as much as for its titular hero. Designer Mark Bailey offers us an aircraft-hanger set, with a flexibility to keep the scene sequences moving smoothly, and some simple but attractive and apposite costumes, especially for the six members of the singing an dancing chorus.

It begins with the hanger doors opening to reveal Steele (cue the first of the evening’s burst of audience applause). If the show had continued with him as a narrator/commentator and a younger actor taking the part of Miller, Steele’s age and appearance would not have required such an immediate suspension of belief. It also would obviate that slight feeling of discomfort with the early scenes with Abigail Jaye as Helen.

Jaye has a good voice, strong as well as lyrical as she demonstrates in “Moonlight serenade” and “At last”. Ashley Knight makes an engaging no-nonsense Chummy MacGregor. The chorus – Zoe Nicole Adkin, Michael Anthony, Sibhan Diffin, Jessica Ellen, Jordan Oliver and Alex Tranter – perform Bill Deamer’s 40s-based choreography with great style.

The musical director is Richard Morris with an 11-piece ensemble joined on occasin by Robert Pearce (who plays Colonel Chambers), Mike Lloyd (Cy Shribman), Chris Bone (who is also the film director) and Harry Myers (who plays Mark Minton). Steele’s personality carries him through the show, though he is vocally subdued until the finale encores, where he really comes to life basically being Tommy Steele and not the shadow of Glenn Miller.

The Glenn Miller Story runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 13 August.

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The 39 Steps

(reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 9 August)

This new production for Suffolk Summer Theatres has been devised and directed by Mark Sterling from the Patrick Barlow tongue-in-cheek version of the John Buchan novel brought memorably to the screen by Alfred Hitchcock.

Though it may seem like a whole sequence of “based on…”, this staging does add a further dimension, with its introductory sequence from the film, multiple use of projections and some Hitcockian hommages – the music-hall is MacGuffin’s and the moorland chase has a pair of hobby-horse planes with their pilots plotting north by north-west courses.

The four main actors – Clive Flint, Joe Leat, Amy Christina Murray and Simon Stanhope – are supplemented by ASMs Kitty Dunham and Laurence Leonard who not only move the triangular pillars and furniture but join enthusiastically in the second act’s highland reel. They fully deserve their appearance at the curtain call.

Stanhope is our dashing hero Richard Hannay who, finding himself in London at a loose end, goes to the music-hall and thereby secures himself a perilously adventurous future. Murray whisks on and off a sequence of wigs and accents as the femme fatale whose appearance in Hannay’s flat triggers off the whole story, the feisty but not unflappable Pamela, the susceptible crofter’s wife and others.

“Others” sums up the multi-faceted Flint and Leat perfectly. Flint manages, with swift headgwear, coat and skirt changes, a positive galaxy of characters from Mr Memory and the crofter to railway officials, policemen, landladies and one of the duo of rain-coated, slouch-hatted, dark-glasses spies. Leat’s Professor Jordan provides a hilarious sub-Hitlerian tirade and one half of a Flanagen & Allen turn.

The 39 Steps continues at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 13 August, transfers to the Southwold Summer Theatre between 15 and 27 August and to the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from 6 to 10 September.

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Wind in the Willows

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

This new Made in Colchester production by Matthew Cullum uses the Willis Hall stage adaptation of the Kenneth Grahame children’s stories with a new score and lyrics by Rebecca Applin, the Mercury’s resident composer. The cast play the different brass, string and percussion instruments in actor-musician mode.

It’s imaginatively designed in a non-naturalistic fashion by Katie Sykes; the minor animal characters have furry vaguely rabbit-like headpieces but Ratty, Mole and Badger wear, as it were, lay dress. So Sam Pay’s Mole is kitted our in a boiler-suit, Pete Ashmore’s Water-rat has appropriate river edge-wading gear and Kate Adams’ truculent Badger has a properly old-fashioned schoolmarm look.

Dale Superville’s posturing and flamboyant Toad bucks this trend, nattily attired in cutaway coat. Superville is a gifted mime as well as an audience favourite, cascading onto the stage at his first entrance in a positive tsunami of personality. His web-suggestive fingers alone make Badger’s withering put-down description of him as a “backsliding amphibian” really strike home. It’s a joyous performance which appeals to the would-be maverick in most of us, whatever our age group.

Toad’s great rival is the Wild Wooder, to whom Christopher Hogben allows a fine sense of untrammelled malevolence (weasels don’t feature in this version). There are chases, entrances and exits through the auditorium, but these are carefully spaced and the children who join the cast on-stage at the end are greeted in character and each allowed a dance routine of their choice.

It’s overall a magical introduction to theatre and one which really exercises a young imagination to see the natural world in several dimensions. Akin in many ways to our own, with hierarchies and territories. But it remains a wild place, somewhere apart. Things are done very differently there.

Wind in the Willows runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester (early evening) until 21 August. There are no Friday or Monday performances but matinées on 11, 13, 14, 18,20 and 21 August.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Reviews 2016

Cash on Delivery

(reviewed at the Southwold Summer Theatre on 1 August)

It may have been premièred 20 years ago, but a lot of Michael Cooney’s farce Cash on Delivery slides easily enough into 2016 attitudes. The central character is Eric Swan (Darrell Brockis), who is actually unemployed but desperate to keep this from his working wife Linda (Claire Jeater). She does have concerns about her husband, but they’re not financial ones.

The Swans have a lodger, layabout non-earning Norman (Bob Dobson), who has somehow managed to acquire a fiancée Brenda (Melissa Clements); they plan to get married at the weekend. There’s also Uncle George (James Morley), who is neck-deep in dodgy deals – not to mention Eric’s pyramid of social benefit fraud schemes, which is about to topple over.

The catalyst for all this is DWP inspector Mr Jenkins (Richard Bates), a man who does things by the book. In his case, the book is dictated by the formidable Ms Cowper (Erin Geraghty), not a boss to tangle with. Eric having claimed that one of his multitude of claimant persona has died, this has also brought bereavement counsellor Sally Chessington (Imogen Slaughter) to the house.

Slaughter gives a delicious portrayal of just the sort of slithery sympathy-oozing apparatchik no-one in real grief would want within a hundred miles. Brockis builds up the tension and the comedy skilfully as Eric’s complex of fraud nears collapse, matched by Dobson’s wide-eyed attempts to disentangle himself which simply result in him being drawn ever deeper into the proliferating deceptions.

Then there’s unctuous undertaker Mr Forbright (Paul Hegarty) and bemused psychologist Dr Chapman (Michael Shaw). The main furnishings of 344 Chilton Road, Mile End in Andy Powrie’s production designed by Maurice Rubens are a man-sized chest (almost an actor in its own right) and a number of doors to be slammed, locked, flung wide open at the most inopportune moments.

Cash on Delivery runs at the Southwold Summer Theatre until 13 August and transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 16 and 20 August.

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The Tempest

(reviewed at the Theatre in the Forest, Jimmy’s Farm, Wherstead on 29 July)

“Ramshackle” and “shenanigans” are two words mentioned in the programme for Joanna Carrick’s production of The Tempest, this summer’s Shakespeare from the Red Rose Chain at the Theatre in the Forest.

They are apt, for the cast of five appear much more at home with the rough’n’tumble of the jester and the butler than with the poetry and multi-levels of treachery, betrayal and redemption which underpin the story of Prospero, his usurping brother and the equally disfunctional royal family of Naples.

So Edward Day – who plays Prospero and Sebastien, the Milanese dukes – comes to life as clown-masked and wigged Trinculo; Prospero’s great speeches somehow seem to take second place. Rachael McCormick doubles Miranda (a typically stroppy teenager) and the pedantic but honourable councillor Gonzalo. Lawrence Russell is a boyish Ferdinand, the crown-ambitious Antonio and a literally knockabout Stephano.

This is a play, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the spirit and the mortal worlds meld. Kirsty Thorpe’s Caliban not only provides some of the production’s most intelligent speaking but makes Alonso’s grief at the apparent loss of both his daughter (to marriage) and his son (presumed drowned) credible. Jack Parker is an Ariel with an underpinning of Puck as he seeks to earn his freedom.

Carrick’s production makes much use of water, quite a lot of which finds its way among the audience; if you prefer to remain dry, don’t book for the foremost block of seats stage right. David Newborn and Carrick have created a set in sea shades peopled with oil drums and overhung by an enormous sail.

Costumes for the shipwrecked contingent run variations on hot orange; island dwellers sport greens and more sea-blue. Laura Norman’s soundscape has live additions from the farm donkeys, beautifully on cue at “The isle is full of noises”. McCormick is also the choreographer.

The Tempest continues at the Theatre in the Forest until 28 August with matinées on 6, 13, 20 and 27 August.

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Terra Incognita

(reviewed at the Abbey Hall Creative Space, Eye on 28 July)

Games of life and games of love have at least three things in commons – they have winners, they have losers and they present an unknown territory in which to conquer or perish. Rosamund Small ambiguous scenario for Robert Binet’s new ballet makes uncertainty as much the theme as resolution.

Abbey Hall Creative Space is a fine addition to Suffolk’s often idiosyncratic mix of theatres and arts centres, many of which have taken over redundant buildings originally erected for completely different purposes. It’s oblong and on two levels with a pleasant outside space on either side.

Binet’s Wild Space initiative, which he describes as open-source ballet, uses the venue to its full advantage. There are five dancers – Ida Praetorius and Andreas Kaas from the Royal Danish Ballet, Emma Hawes from the National Ballet of Canada, Yawmine Naghdi of the Royal Ballet and Martin ten Kortenaar from the Dutch National Ballet.

Two violinists, Clio Gould and Jonathan Morton, accompany much of the action from the upper level, which is where the audience begins its viewing. Natural as well as stage lighting complements the choreography, which is firmly based in the classical tradition with the girls en pointe and the boys partnering for lifts which bring the idiom firmly up to date.

Like the action, the story takes us to several levels of love, friendship, enmity, forgiveness and acceptance. As daylight fades, we follow the dancers utside where the story of displacement ends bare-footed on grass. Binet’s whirling swirling choreography demands much of his performers, who are all technically accomplished, but the result has a magic of its own.

Next year Wild Space will develop and reinterpret Terra Incognita in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, London and Toronto. it should be an interesting process to follow, especially with the mooted collaboration with digital platform Artery. This will involve creative spces as well as artists and performers globally.

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Filed under Ballet & dance, Reviews 2016

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

(reviewed at the Watford Colosseum on 10 February)

It’s the first of the great Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice collaborations – and it’s stood the test of time. This new tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has a fresh cast headed by X-Factor finalist Lloyd Daniels in the title role. Bill Kenwright’s production has been designed for touring by Sean Cavanagh with a double staircase taking up most of the stage, perhaps rather too much of it for the performers’ comfort.

Daniels radiates the right sort of boyish energy coupled with naiveté as Joseph and acts as well as sings his numbers. We have to wait until Act Two to encounter Matt Lapinskas’s Elvis-inspired Pharaoh, but it’s worth the wait. Also noteworthy are Henry Metcalfe (the choreographer) as patriarch Jacob and pontificating Potipher (two men alike blinkered) and Camilla Rowland (the possessor of legs which certainly make their point) as Potipher’s wife.

Rebekah Lowings as the Narrator links the scenes as well as providing some of the best singing in the show. There are stand-out cameos by Andrew Bateup as Pharaoh’s butler and Marcus Ayton as his cook, initially facing the same bleak future. Bateup also plays Reuben and Ayton is Judah. The children’s chorus in the Watford performances came from the Stagecoach schools.

This is the piece of through-composed music theatre in which Lloyd Webber relaxes and has great fun – which the audience fully shares – with different popular genres. So, as well as the rock numbers for Pharaoh, we have the country’n’western “One more angel in heaven” and the second act calypso, complete with appropriate costume accessories. “Any dream will do” is, of course the show-stopper.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat runs at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich between 2 and 6 June.

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All My Sons

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 17 February 2015)

Arthur Miller’s first New York success has held the stage internationally for close on fifty years. All My Sons is a family tragedy on a grand scale. Its roots are in the great dramas of the classical stage, in which a flaw in the protagonist develops during the course of the action to wreck the lives of those he holds dearest.

Talawa is one of the country’s leading Black theatre companies, so at first glance one perhaps wonders why director Michael Buffong chose a play so firmly rooted in time (1947, just after the end of the Second World War when racial segregation was the unpleasant norm) and place (the residential outskirts of a mid-west industrial town).

It’s a tribute to his cast that the audience so easily accepts the characters and situations placed before it. Particularly effective because so subtly nuanced are Dona Croll as Kate Keller and Ray Shell as her husband Joe. One son, Larry, died in the war when his fighter plane crashed. The other son Chris (Leemore Marrett Jr) survived and has invited his brother’s fiancée Ann Deever (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) to visit.

As far as Kate is concerned, she still hopes that Larry will one day walk back into the house; she also presumes that Ann is also waiting. But Ann and Chris want to get married. While neighbours Sue (Andrea Davy) and Jim Bayliss (Ewen Cummins) are happy to pander to Kate’s fantasy, Anne’s lawyer brother George (Ashley Gerlach) has been visiting his father in prison.

Deever senior was Joe’s business partner, jailed in connexion with supplying faulty engine parts to the Air Force. Now he is due for release, something which it soon appears will strip away years of false assumptions. If you know the play already, you will know what happens; if you don’t, you really should see this production and find out for yourself.

There’s a stylish setting by Ellen Cairns, centring on a realistic back porch, complete with rocking chair, but surrounded by flats painted to suggest the forest onto which humans have encroached but not conquered. The lighting (Johanna Town) and soundscape (Emma Laxton) are clever but never obtrusive.

All My Sons runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 21 February. The national tour to 25 April includes the Arts Theatre, Cambridge (24-28 February), the Palace Theatre, Watford (10-14 March) and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester (14-18 April).

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Jefferson’s Garden

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 12 February)

Liberty is an emotive word; it’s also something of a chameleon, changing meaning and emphasis through the centuries and across the globe. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new play Jefferson’s Garden explores the concept within the context of the American Revolution. It premiers at the Palace Theatre in Watford in a production by the theatre’s artistic director Brigid Larmour and designed by James Button.

In one way this is documentary theatre with fictional characters interwoven into actual historical events. As such it is played on a bare, black-painted stage with minimal furnishings or props. The ten actors are equally drably clad; just the whisper of olive silk in the second half or the flash of a soldier’s red coat to act as a visual distraction.

The story begins with an English Quaker family half-way across the Atlantic as they seek a new life which promises freedom for them to worship as they choose. Matriarch Martha (Julia St John), shoemaker husband Daniel (Gregory Gudgeon) and slightly rebellious daughter Louisa (Anna Tierney) are joined by a German stowaway political hothead Carl Christian (William Hope).

He’s in a bad way, in more than one sense of the phrase. A young nobleman trying to foment a rebellion in one of the smaller German princely states is ill-equipped for survival in the New World when he has to flee for his life without his accustomed trappings, both material and intangible. But survive he does, marries Louisa and they have a son Christian (David Burnett) and a daughter Imogen (Tierney).

From here on the story centres on Christian. He’s expelled by the Quakers for planning to join the Patriot side of the looming conflict, even though he promises not to actually bear arms. 1776 is not a year in which non-combatants were tolerated by either side, as he is rapidly taught. Then he arrives in Virginia, meets the slave girl Susannah (Mimi Ndiweni) and some of the Founding Fathers.

It is to Jefferson (Hope) in particular that Christian feels drawn, as a type of surrogate father. Jefferson, of course, is a land- and slave-owner, a word-smith who would prefer to stay slightly in the shadows. That isn’t possible, any more than it is for Christian to resist the lure of this comfortable lifestyle or the chance of marrying into property through Betty (Carlyss Peer) or for Susannah to miss the chance of freedom offered by the Royal Ethiopian Regiment on the British side.

Although the first act is slightly over-long, the pace – perhaps because by now we’re recogising the characters as people and not just as types – quickens in the second part. All the actors carry conviction, as they swop roles and gender, with St John’s two contrasted wives and mothers, Ndiweni’s Susannah, Peer’s slave Sally morphing into Southern belle Betty, Hope’s aristocratic Jefferson and Burnett’s Christian being particularly memorable.

Jefferson’s Garden runs at the Palace Theatre Watford until 21 February.

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Deadly Murder

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 2 February)

Deadly Murder is a thriller for three actors by the American playwright David Foley, doubling as a type of hommage to the films of Tarantino. After the sort of disco music and light show which puts us firmly in the world of the glitterarti, we are in the living-room of the Manhattan apartment which belongs to Camille (Lucy Benjamin).

Camille is a (very) wealthy widow and a designer of the sort of show-off jewellery which one might describe as bling. She also has a penchant for bedding younger, personable men. In this case it’s Billy (Tom Cornish). But Billy doesn’t just want to be paid for his services; he has a hidden agenda.

What would a woman who owns not just the penthouse but the whole apartment block do when her one-night stand refuses to accept his dismissal? She calls the security man (Sam Pay) – and this is where the plot thickens into a positive peasouper of double-and triple-crossings.

Director Simon Jessop wisely keeps the action at boiling point with just enough space for the sort of half-nervous laughter with which an engrossed audience can relieve its tension. The pace is brisk; even with an interval it’s less than two hours, which is just about right.

All three actors are excellent; our sympathies and understanding veer wildly as each new revelation presents itself. Cornish has the sort of louche sexiness which suggests an inherent morality and Benjamin matches him as the woman who takes what she wants, and comes back for the next helping.

In many ways Pay, who is a member of the Queen’s Theatre’s cut to the chase… repertory company has the most difficult role as a man who isn’t quite as clued-up as he thinks he is.

Though one might query if the whole thing wouldn’t have worked even better without the intermission… silly me! I forgot about those vital bar takings.

One of Rodney Ford’s excellent sets – all exposed brick walls, angular chrome furniture and off-white upholstery – locates us in place and time. And if anyone know how to stage a stage fight which has the audience wincing in sympathy, it’s Malcolm Ranson.

Deadly Murder runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 21 February 2015.

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Present Laughter

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre Cambridge on 25 July)

One of Noël Coward’s greatest strengths as a writer was his ability to recognise his self-created image for the theatrical construction that it was. Of all the plays he wrote and starred in during the 30s and 40s, Present Laughter most epitomises this. Stephen Unwin’s new production for the Theatre Royal Bath is heading for the West End – and you can see why.

Designer Simon Higlett gives us a marvellously cluttered living-room set with a spiral staircase corkscrewing its way up to the landing dominated by a flattering portrait of ageing matinée idol Garry Essendine (Samuel West). The women’s costumes have just the right period appearance, from Liz Essendine Rebecca Johnson)’s halo hat to Joanna Lyppiatt (Zoe Boyle)’s slinky velvet evening-dress in malevolent dark green.

If West is the star of the show, with a nice line in self-admiration balanced with a sense of his own perpetual posturing, the female actors all make their mark. Phyllis Logan is the crisp secretary Monica Reed, a woman who has seen it all before and who has no intention of playing up to her boss’s moods and tantrums. Johnson’s cool and collected Liz is offset by Boyle’s Joanna, a ruthless predator in pursuit of her own pleasure; her extended second-act exchange with Garry is beautifully paced.

Patrick Walshe McBride is extremely funny as the clumsy would-be playwright fixated on the theatre of the future as the theatre of ideas. Theatre investor Henry Lypiatt and producer Morris Dixon provide Toby Longworth and Jason Morell with contrasting opportunities which they seize readily.

As starry-eyed debutante Daphne Stillington, Daisy Boulton begins the play as a mass of girlish illusions which have let her down by the end of the second act. Theatre and real life always seem to be on a collision course.

Present Laughter runs at the Arts Theatre Cambridge until 30 July with matinées on 28 and 30 July.

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