Monthly Archives: March 2015

Boi Boi Is Dead
(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 19 March)

What happens when a family member dies has been the starting point of plays throughout the ages. Zodwa Nyoni’s new play for Tiata Fahodzi Boi Boi Is Dead deals with the aftermath of the funeral for an African trumpet-player whose hopes of fame crumbled as surely as did his home and professional lives.

Mourning, not without a lethal dose of self-interest, has brought his brother and late-arriving not-quite-ex wife to the village where Boi Boi lived in a more lasting relationship with the woman he never quite got round to marrying (while she was bringing up his daughter as well as her own son).

When the curtain rises on Lucian Msamati’s production we are faced with a sunset back-cloth against which a trumpeter plays while the mourners solemnly process. Skeletonic poles stretch behind towards a far distant urban landscape. The settings, including black-and-white cut-outs which indicate the changes of scene are by Francisco Rodriguez-Weil, beautifully lit by Emma Chapman.

Ezzra (Andrew French) wants to take his niece Una (Debbie Korley) back with him to England; she’s not so certain. Miriam (Angela Wynter) would like things to remain as they are, though her son Petu (Joseph Adelakun), who has found himself on the wrong side of some very nasty people in the course of one of his disastrous get-rich-quick schemes, wants someone – anyone – to extricate him.

Enter the delayed widow Stella (Lynette Clarke), a would-be star with a tarnished reputation. What she wants is quite simple, in theory. That’s her daughter back where she can be manipulated to her mother’s benefit, the house in which Boi Boi and Miriam have been living and all the valuables and ready cash she can possibly grab.

The heart of the play lies in the exchanges between Stella and Miriam, characters one can understand even while enjoying their vitriolic encounters, thanks to some well-contrasted and deliberately over-the-top performances by Clarke and Wynter. The two young people trapped in their elders’ quarrels are also made sympathetic by Korley and Adelakun.

Michael Henry’s score encompasses traditional African chants as well as a more abrasive twelve-note instrumental sound. Boi Boi’s influence even after death is shown by Jack Benjamin both as the silhouetted image of the trumpeter with which we begin and the fallible, distinctly earthy man in reall life. The stylised movements choreographed by Coral Messam take us into a place with ancient roots where the certainties of the past are wilting under the force of the present. Not to mention the future.

Boi Boi Is Dead runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 28 March.

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News & Previews

Theme and variations

Sunday 15 March – Mothering Sunday to boot – saw the 37th Norfolk Schools Project performance at the Theatre Royal, Norwich. Introduced by the theatre’s chief executive Peter Wilson, Firside Junior School, Kinsale Junior School and Magdalen Gates Primary School each showcased their own devised opera based on Pucini’s La Bohème.

Not you might imagine the usual musical fodder for the under-11s. No surprises that it was the Café Momus scene which formed the core of each piece but two other motifs were very much to the fore. One was death and the ways in which survivors commemorate the departed. The other was a sense of unity, of working together.

Combined with well-known melodies from the opera itself – the love duets, the frost-bitten opening to Act Three, the death-knoll chords at the end of Act Four and the crowd bustle of Act Two – were musical sequences devised by the young performers themselves. Kinsale’s African composition (the Mimi character might well have contracted Ebola) was particularly effective.

Woven into the action of each opera were Puccini’s two heroines – Mimi and Musetta. Soprano Lynsey Docherty sang these two very different soprano roles – demeurely Victorian as sempstress Mimi and night-club glitter for Musetta. Cloaked and hooded she was a kindly, non-threatening avatar of Death itself.

The three musical directors were Charlie Caine for Firside, Will fergusson for Magdalen Gates and Mark Read for Kinsale. Stage direction was by Daniel Burgess (Firside), Rebecca Chapman (Magdalen Gates) and Bryony Moore (Kinsale). The overall creative and musical director was Howard Moody.

All the performers will attend a performance of English Touring Opera’s production of La Bohème during the week of 23 March and will be given six ticket vouchers to attend performances of their choice over the next 12 months. It will be fascinating to discover which shows they choose.

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(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 13 March)

The time and place of the action, as we’re told at the start of John Godber’s Bouncers, is the 1980s (the first professional production was in 1983) and a northern urban town.

One reason why this play has held the stage to become its author’s most popular work is that we could be at any time in the late 20th and early 21st centuries – and in any town centre late at night at the weekend. It passes the test of memorable theatre – it has something to say to everyone in whichever theatre they are sitting.

Godber’s new touring production has its four characters start by monitoring the audience and wearing immaculate evening dress. The stage is a square, dominated by the play’s fluorescent title (though we are actually at a disco-club called Mr Cinders).

That square is defined, by a floor-level ring of lights designed by Graham Kirk. The only props are four metal beer casks and the identical glitter clutch-bags carried by the actors when portraying the quarter of girls planning for and then enduring on a night out.

Robert Hudson dominates the cast as Lucky Eric, whose monologues punctuate the action and remind us that we are something more than mere spectators. Chris Hannon is joker-in-the-pack Ralph, Frazer Hammill plays the bull-in-a-china-shop Judd and Adrian Hood is Les, the quiet stirrer.

The jerky rhythmns of Godber’s verse are emphasised by the beat of the music and some extremely nifty footwork. It is a measure of the strength of the play and the subtle arguments it lays before us that the knowing appreciation of teenagers in the Bury St Edmunds audience at the performance I saw was echoed by their elders.

We’ve all been there, done that – in our imaginations if not in real life. The ability to make an audience think and then to come away from a performance perhaps just a little bit wiser then when taking its seata is a rarity. But some plays and some productions pull it off.

Bouncers runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 14 March. it can also be seen at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester from 26 to 28 March.

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Different Buttons
(reviewed at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich on 12 March)

The Red Rose Chain may not be a theatre company whose name immediately springs to your mind. Yet it’s well-established in Ipswich for its community work as well as for its professional productions. it has also run a highly successful sequence of outdoor theatre productions called the Theatre in the Forest which has now found a home, along with the rare breeds, at Jimmy (Doherty)’s Farm near Wherstead.

Based at the elegant Gippeswyk Hall, the Red Rose Chain has just opened its adjacent modern Avenue Theatre, a flexible performance space which accommodates some 100 spectators. Joanna Carricks’ Different Buttons is a piece for five actors inspired by the former St Clement’s Hospital (aka lunatic asylum) which opened in 1870 and closed in 2011. Carricks’ research has been aided by Gordon Morris who worked at St Clement’s for over 40 years.

In the play we meet characters from different periods of the asylum’s 140-year history, people whose afflictions are common to all eras, though their diagnosis and treatment have changed unrecognisably over that period. There are caring staff and violent as well as sad patients.

The wife of one businessman of the 1870s is hospitalised as insane, though we might nowadays conclude that she was suffering from post-natal depression. Sons and daughters who had just become too difficult to handle in a cramped environment or were behaving in a fashion likely to embarrass their families (such as an unmarried girl’s pregancy) were also consigned to an asylum, also as a matter of routine.

Ruth (Lucy Telleck) is a modern patient; given a self-assessment form, she completes it with increasing annoyance. Bobby (Daniel Abbott) lives in a regressive world of his own, with no real understanding from the father who visits so reluctantly. Herbert (David Newborn) lashes out at anyone who won’t pander to his delusions.

Though Nora (Rachael McCormick) has come to accept that she’s likely to be in the asylum for life, she manages to rebel just a little (the buttons of the title are the ones she deliberately mis-matches when repairing other inmates’ clothing, just as she uses white cotton for all visible seams). Pompous Zacharia is played by Tom McCarron , who also takes on doctors who try to help their patients and one of those sufferers.

The action flows across a central acting area with chairs at one end and a bed at the other. It makes for an interesting piece of documentary theatre, probably more effective for not being site-specific as I understand the first version had been. Stepping back is one of those theatrical paradoxes – it brings people closer, and therefore more sympathetic, to the action.

Different Buttons runs at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich until 28 March.

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Boeing! Boeing!
(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 9 March)

Comedy is as old as drama itself and the variation we call farce is probably its original manifestation. Farce in the UK is a well-established, well-loved genre which has developed in a peculiarly British way from Charley’s Aunt in the 1890s through the Aldwych (1930s) and the Whitehall seasons in the 1950s and 60s to Ayckbourn and Frayn in our own time.

Then there’s French farce, its sister – but not an identical twin. Many of the elements are identical – a multitude of doors revealing or concealing people (usually girls in a distinct state of undress) while at least one hapless man tries ever more frantically to control events of which he never really was the master in the first place.

Both the British and French versions rely on the actors’ split-second timing and sense of ensemble. It helps if at least the protagonist has a clown’s miming ability. Which brings me to Matt Devitt’s production of Marc Camoletti’s Boeing! Boeing! at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch.

The plot concerns a Parisian man-about-town in the early 1960s who is basking in the fly-by attentions of three air hostesses (remember that this was a time when to be an air stewardess was as high a profile job as that of model or television presenter is today). Each thinks she’s his only “fiancée” (the Beverley Cross translation is of its era), thanks to Bernard’s canny manipulation of timetables.

Enter Robert, an old school friend up from the country on business who – not unnaturally – is riveted by this boulevardier lifestyle. Fred Broom plays increasingly harassed Bernard and Tom Cornish is Robert, puppy-dog eager to be involved and whose well-meaning attempts to help only – of course – make matters worse.

Then there’s Bertha (Megan Leigh Mason), Bernard’s maid, who becomes increasingly frustrated as timetables go awry. Bridging the gap between what would have been the first two acts, she earned her round of applause. The three contrasted air hostesses are go-getting Gloria (Ellie Rose Boswell) from TWA, Lufthansa’s valkyrie Gretchen (Joanna Hickman) and spirited Gabriella of Air Italia (Sarah Mahony).

Norman Coates’ set is another excellent one with clever projections and animations before the performance to remind us of time and place. His costumes are also spot-on. What rather lets it all flag, for all the cast’s hard work, is that the production lacks both the slick lightness of classic French farce and the knowingness of the home-grown British variety.

I’ve seen other productions of Boeing! Boeing! in the last couple of years where, for me, this hasn’t been an issue. This time it was one.

Boeing! Boeing! runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 28 March.

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Deadly Murder
(reviewed at the Queens Theatre, Hornchurch on 2 February)

This 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 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.

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Jekyll & Hyde
(reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop’s Stortford on 5 March)

Robert Louis Stevenson published his novella in 1886, and it’s proved to be a fertile ground on which a plethora of plays and films have been nurtured. Jo Clifford is the latest in a long list of dramatisers to tackle its theme of two personalities in one body and the resultant havoc this can wreak with a setting in the London of 2022.

Sell A Door Theatre Company’s artistic director David Hutchinson and his designer Richard Evans present us with a metallic platformed cube, which revolves as the action unfolds. Nathan Ives-Moiba is Dr Jekyll, esteemed medical researcher and celebrity; he gives an incredibly physical performance as the self-inflated ego of Jekyll twists itself into the destructive sadist who is Hyde.

Lawyer Utterson is the friend who tries to help, though Lyle Barne makes it clear that Utterson’s concern is rooted in a thwarted physical passion for Jekyll. The third member of the cast is Rowena Lennon as the wheelchair-bound Dr Lanyon, whose contribution to research has been deftly swept under the proverbial carpet by Jekyll, assorted servants, assistants and victims. Her introduction says it all: a woman has no name, no status, is invisible.

Parallels with modern celebrity culture and cults are obvious, but not excessively obtrusive. “Doing good is so very dull” sighs Jekyll at one point; one wonders if that could indeed be at the root of so many of the instances of wrong-doing by do-gooders which are currently making the headlines.

This is not one of the comfortable, pleasurable squeal and shiver version of the story. It is a valid, highly dramatic interpretation which is very well staged and acted.

Jekyll & Hyde can be seen at the Harlow Playhouse on 12 March, the Mumford Theatre, Cambridge on 23 and 24 March, and at the Grove Theatre, Dunstable on 26 March.

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The Mist in the Mirror
(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 4 March)

Novelist Susan Hill is the queen of the Gothic mystery. The stage version of The Woman in Black is currently on a national tour – you can see it at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge between 16 and 21 March – but I think this Ian Kershaw dramatisation of The Mist in the Mirror is a far superior piece of theatre.

It’s a co-production between Oldham’s Coliseum Theatre and the imitating the dog theatre company. The cast of five take on many roles in Kevin Shaw’s staging but it is the design team – Barney George(set), Simon Wainwright (video) and Andrew Crofts (lighting) – and the four-person stage management who should really have taken bows and audience applause for their achievement.

The story concerns a young man, James Monmouth (Paul Warriner), who returns to England after spending most of his life in Africa. He has been intrigued by the exploits of a fellow-wanderer Conrad Vane and plans to write his biography. But every contact seeks to deter him while more and more the places in which he finds himself emanate sinister sounds and strange happenings.

A narrator (Jack Lord) links the sequences. It’s all played on a black stage with folding wing pieces and a few props to indicate changes of location. Those video projections I mentioned earlier provide the real scenery, both physical and mental. Sarah Eve, Caroline Harding and especially Martin Reeve are all excellent as the warning mentors; Warriner makes us believe in Monmouth, who cannot ultimately escape his destiny.

The Mist in the Mirror runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 7 March and at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds between 17 and 21 March.

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(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 3 March)

The 2013 Chichester Festival musical Barnum is off on its travels once more in the revised version by Cameron Mackintosh and Mark Bramble. It’s a feast of clever stagecraft with the acrobats entertaining the audience at close quarters before the show starts and the auditorium festooned with showground lights.

Our “hero” is the eponymous mid-19th century showman PT Barnum, a man who could give any 21st century spin-doctor a very brisk run for his money (not to mention that of any gullible punters in the vicinity). Barnum knew that what he was purveying both across America and internationally was largely humbug, but why not?

The trouble with Barnum (the show) as well as with Barnum (the man) is that, if you strip away the excellent acrobats the staircased and galleried set, and the singing voices of Linzi Hateley as Chairy (Barnum’s long-suffering wife), Landi Oshinowo (Joice Heth and the blues singer) and Mikey Jay-Heath (Tom Thumb), there is very little left.

Brian Conley is likeable enough in the title role and milks the audience (almost in pantomime dame fashion) for every laugh he can elicit. Kimberly Blake’s Jenny Lind looks lovely but produced something nearer a screech than an authentic top note at the end of “Love makes such fools of us all”.

The plot is so episodic that, if you discount the song and dance elements, what remains is scarcely a skeleton. For my money, it all seems old-fashioned in the wrong sense. an Townsend directing the on-stage band controls his forces admirably and the sound balance is good. But I for one expected more of Barnum – and it just never materialised.

Barnum runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 14 March.

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The Business of Murder
(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 2 March)

It could be argued that accomplished thriller writers are sometimes just a little too clever for their – and the audience’s – own good. Richard Harris is a good example. The Business of Murder is a three-actor, one-set play (always popular with theatre managements) with the time of the action firmly defined as the early 1980s, some 15 years after the death penalty had been abolished.

First on stage is a seen-it-all, done-it-all detective inspector called Hallett (Paul Opacic). The flat belongs to Stone (Robert Gwilym), a middle-aged shambles of a man who has asked the police to help his distraught son, a young man who has found himself on the wrong side of some particularly nasty drug dealers.

But he has apparently disappeared yet again, though he makes an abrupt call from a telephone box (this is, of course, all set in pre-mobile days). That afternoon Colin has apparently not re-appeared but a young, successful television dramatist calls (Joanna Higson as Dee). Now Stone seems to be a genial, though still flustering host; he has asked her to call at the behest of his invalid wife who is an admirer of her writing.

While Stone is out of the flat Hallett comes back and it’s soon clear that he and Dee are an item (he is already married and the father of sons). By this time we’ve grasped that not merely is nothing – and no body – what they initially appear to be but that psychological games are being played at an increasing rate and ultimately ferocious intensity.

As Stone Gwilym gives a mesmerising performance and dominates the action. Director-designer Michael Lunney of the Middle Ground Theatre Company ratchets up the tension from the start of the second scene right through to the end of the second act. He sets a hard act for his co-players to follow. Opacic has the easier role; he’s a type familiar from police dramas on and off the screen. Higson somehow doesn’t quite convey the essence of a girl who has had to work hard to establish herslf in an industry dominated by men.

The Business of Murder runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 7 March. It can also be seen at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff (9-14 March), the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford (21-25 April) and the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich (18-23 May).

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Educating Rita
(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on Friday 27 February)

Nearly everyone operates behind some sort of a façade, so much so that it seems to take over – more real than the person who seeks its shelter and, in the process, all-but obliterating what and who is behind it. That’s true of the two people we meet in Willy Russell’s 1980 Educating Rita as well as those Frank and Rita mention while he tries to coach her to examination standard in the Open University literary criticism course for which he is a reluctant tutor.

When we take our seats in the theatre we are faced with two apparently solid walls of books, interspersed with the occasional artefact. The furniture is functional, not particularly comfortable-looking and well-used. Spotlights portraits of male 19th and 20th century writers (though Charlotte Brontë hangs on the central door) suggest academe at its most dishevelled. The stage corners show the lawns outside what one presumes to be high windows.

The set is designed by Juliet Shillingford; its solidity is reinforced by David W Kidd’s clever lighting. As Frank is changed by his mouthy hairdresser student even more than he refashions her, so that solidity fades until we are left to recognise that the carapace has indeed crumbled. It’s a telling and fine effect, the visual equivalent of verbal onomatopoeia.

Director Patrick Sandford has worked with both Samantha Robinson (Rita) and Dougal Lee (Frank) before and one senses the ease with which all three have sunk themselves into their respective roles. For my taste Robinson took her first couple of scenes far too fast; her Liverpudlian accent sounded impeccable but Rita’s non-stop verbal outpourings as tties to take stock of where she is and the man in front of her take a little time to make sense to a more southern-tuned ear.

Her Pygmalion-like transformation from a housewife marking time in a go-nowhere job until the babies arrive (something which her husband wants and she most emphatically does not) into an assured young woman who thinks, believes, speaks, behaves and dresses with complete confidence in a manner she previously never for a moment contemplated is absolutely convincing.

So, in its very different way, is Lee’s portrait of an unfulfilled-promise poet in his second failing relationship making a drink-sodden mess of the university post which he increasingly resents. You feel sorry for Frank, even if the chaos which surrounds him is very much of his own making, but our support is firmly for Rita. Their intellectual game of snakes and ladders is like any one which relies on the fall of the dice; Frank’s definition of “tragedy” as opposed to something which is merely “tragic” rings truer by the end of the play than is comfortable. For him, but also for us.

Educating Rita runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 14 March.

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