Monthly Archives: June 2017

Funny Girl

reviewed in Southend on 19 June (preview)

An old theatrical cliché has the understudy taking over from the leading lady and stealing the show. Natasha J Barnes is not precisely an understudy – she alternated with Sheridan Smith during the London run of this musical version of the Fanny Brice story, and won plaudits – but the audience in Southend knows a superb performance when one is placed before it, and responded.

Barnes inhabits the role completely, both physically and psychologically. Her face becomes that of a woman who found out the hard way when still a young girl that she was never going to be pretty. So she compensated by developing her comedy talents, controlling and turning mockery into applause. I imagine that many a court jester developed the same carapace. While Barnes shows us this feisty side of Brice, she also makes the woman’s vulnerability clear.

This is particularly noticeable in her scenes with Darius Campbell’s Nick Arnstein, the suave gambler and con man who sweeps her into a marriage in which he demands freedom and she cannot give it wholeheartedly. Both sing well and make Bob Merrill’s lyrics and Jule Styne’s score an integral part of Michael Meyer’s production. There are also a very good performance from Joshua Lay as Eddie Ryan, who helps Fanny through an almost unspoken love for her.

Myra Sands, Zoë Ann Bown and Rachel Izen make a marvellous trio of New York Jewish ladies of a certain age and there a good cameos by Michael Callaghan as Mr Keeney and Nigel Barber as impressario Ziegfeld. The dancers are versatile and show off Lynne Page’s choreography as well as Matthew Wright’s quick-change costumes. Michael Pavelka’s asymmetrical set frames it all splendidly with Mark Henderson’s lighting and projections adding place and time.

Four and a half-star rating.

Funny Girl runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 24 June with matinées on 21 and 24 June. It is also at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 26 June and 1 July.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Reviews 2017

Farm Boy

reviewed in Colchester on 17 June

Daniel Buckroyd’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s Farm Boy is directed by C P Hallam for this new production about to embark on a tour of East Anglian schools. It’s the latest in the Made in Colchester Season 2017 and, as its Mercury Theatre previews show, demonstrates that small can be beautiful. What’s more, it can also fill the stage.

There are three very good performers, though Tim Brierley’s tractor is almost a fourth player. Danny Childs is the grandson torn between going to university, seeing the world and staying on the family farm. as well as a resourceful farmer’s wife and the youngster who first heard about World War 1 and its horses from his own grandfather.

Gary Mackay plays the grandfathers as well as the boastful farmer who comes a cropper (literally) in the ploughing contest. Ru Hamilton is the composer and actor-musician with a double-bass, cello and Welsh harp – not to mention the odd milk-pail called into service as percussion.

Joey, the hero of Morpurgo’s War Horse and Zoe, his stable-mate at the farm, are presented in the climatic ploughing match by two step ladders. A family audience found no difficulty in accepting this, or the sometime complex pieces of history and of human psychology which illuminate the script. Imagination is alive and well in the younger generation.

Four-and-a-half stars.

Farm Boy plays at the early evening performance at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester before its schools tour.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Reviews 2017

My Country: A Work in Progress

reviewed in Cambridge on 15 June

The title is spot-on accurate – both literally and subjectively. It also reminds us that history, (like borders) is a fluid thing, as much composed of fiction – aka myth – as fact. The dialogue is made up from what people up and down the UK have been saying, woven together by director Rufus Norris.

Seven actors put the mix of vox pop, actual events and hard statistics in front of us. Katrina Lindsay gives us a bare stage, except for a sequence of ballot boxes which double as desks and platforms as required. Presiding over it all is Penny Layden as Britannia, that personification which has become such a ubiquitous icon that who and what went into constructing it are extremely blurred.

The regions and countries, themselves often contructs, which make up the UK are played by the other performers subtly aided by Paul Knott’s clever lighting and Alan Caplen’s subtle drifts of appropriate music. There’s real despair as well as a type of fatalistic acceptance in many of the remarks quoted, forcing the audience to query not just “whither Britain now?” but Parl;iamentay democracy itself.

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The Events reviewed in Colchester on 6 June

A programme note describes David Greig, the author of this variation on one of those far-too-frequent random attacks on innocent people with which the 21st century has been too liberally endowed, as a shape-shifter. I saw The Events at the Holt Festival in 2013, closer in time to the Norwegian atrocity of 2011 which Greig has taken as his starting point.

Crucial to this Actors Touring Company co-production directed by Dan Sherer is the participation of a choir. John Browne’s score has just the right blend of church and popular rhythmn and melody for the 12 members of the Colchester Community Choir who sit either side of the stage area or intervene from behind the audience.

Designer James Cotterill presents us with a grey set which resembles the interior of some half-demolished chapel where creepers from outside have worked their way through the cracks and where exposure to the elements has powered everything with sand-dust.

The choir wears grey, choir master and accompanist Scott Gray wears grey, The Boy (we learn he’s called Gary) wears black. Only Anna O’Grady as Claire, the pastor who has lost her faith and now can only grope her way back to it as though blinded by the apparently senseless massacre she has witnessed, adds a touch of colour with her red tunic and dark-blue leggings.

She gives us a fine portrait of a woman who means well, tries to act for the best on the behalf of everybody but feels that she is drifting on a dangerous tide whose undercurrents she can’t really comprehend.

Joh Collins is magnificent as the young man who shot so many young people apparently for no better reason than that they weren’t of “our type, faith or colour”, the universal mantra of those for whom any difference constitutes a threat.

Shape-shifting of the mind – and soul – is what happens to both the protagonists of this drama which is somewhat in the style of classic Greek theatre; it doesn’t make an easy evening, though this studio space concentrates it properly. It is, however, well worth seeing.

Four star rating.

The Events continues in the Studio of the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 17 June with matinées on 8, 10, 15 and 17 June.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Plays, Reviews 2017

A Judgement in Stone
reviewed in Westcliff on 5 June

Ruth Rendell’s 1977 crime novel A Judgement in Stone is, like most of her work, a subtle in-depth exploration of what makes some people into murderers and how others react. Some thrillers translate well to the stage or film; others become blurred or somehow skew characterisation and motivation with over-simplification.

Simon Brett and Antony Lampard have written the script for this new touring production which is dircted by Roy Marsden, no slouch as far as the dramatised thriller genre is concerned. The excellent, almost dominating and realistic set is by Julie Godfrey.

There are four members of the Coverdale family in whose country house the story is set. They’re an urbane quartet – husband George (Mark Wynter) and wife Jacqueline (Rosie Thomson) who are both on their second marriages, his daughter Melinda (Jennifer Sims) and her student son Giles (Joshua Price). They have a long-term housemaid Eva Baalham (Shirley Anne Field) and a gadener-cum-handyman, the loose-fingered Rodger Meadows (Antony Costa).

As housekeeper they choose Eunice Parchman (Sophie Ward), a shuffling pent-up volcano weighed down by the proverbial shoulder chips. It’s a remarkably effective portrait of a sad, unlikeable woman whose illiteracy is only gradually revealed as th action progresses (Rendell tells us about it in the opening line of the novel). Melinda’s genuine offer to help will only rebound.

Almost rivalling Ward in the performance stakes is Deborah Grant as Joan Smith, a no-good girl turned into Bible-thumper in full blast-off revivalist mode. The story is told in flash-backs as Detective Superinendent Vetch (Andrew Lancel) and Detecive Sergeant Challoner (Ben Nealon) attempt to establish why the Coverdales were shot down while watching a telecast of Don Giovanni and who did it.

The detectives prowl on and off the stage as their enquiry progresses, or stalemates. The actual sequence of events as they unfold punctuates their investigation, which has a somewhat alienation effect, possibly intended but probably not. Wynter makes George and Sims Melinda into three-dimensional people while Price puts over the student with his mind on higher things very well.

Thomson tends to squeak rather than speak her lines. Neither detective comes over with any sense of authority until the end of the play when they home in on the murderer. Costa makes the most of his incursions into the manor-house; he is a recognisable type of the no-gooder who is always going to be a suspect – for one crime or anoher.

Three and a half-star rating.

A Judgement in Stone runs at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 10 June with matinées on 8 and 10 June.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2017

Maestro & All the Things I Lied About
Ipswich on 1 June

This year’s Pulse Festival curated by China Plate made a fascinating start with two one-person shows. Kieran Hodgson’s Maestro takes a wry look at a would-be composer (idol is Mahler, bête noire Rachmaninoff), his social and bi-sexual feelings and fumblings and the whole frustrating business of transforming from child to adult through teenage.

In theory, we should itch to give him a good shaking and tell him to take a grip of reality. In practice, we’ve all built sun-drenched sand castles out of wisful yearnings, tentative romances and might-have-been career fantasies – only to see them washed away by the rising tide of life as it is. Callum, Lucy, Ed, Cécile and Anthony as they float in and out of Kieran’s life (so far) are brought to our notice as though they peopled the stage with him.

All the Things I Lied About by Kate Bonna as altogether more acerbic. As she points out, we live in a post-truth world (though I suspect that it was ever so) where lies are the fuel for everyday intercourse in person or through electronic transmission. It’s another autobiographical show which begins with politics, Brexit and Trump and segues into her parents’ marriage, its breakdown and her gradual realisation of the truth.

Fake news is, of course, not a new phenomenon. Perhaps we asociate it in particular with politicians, but it also can be purely personal. As Bonna demonstrates how multifaceted truth can be – with the aid of audience participation and some interesting lighting effects – her wariness about total emotional commitment is laid bare before us.

Both shows were British Sign Language interpreted. The anonymous interpreter at one side of the stage deserves a festival award in her own right. Not only did she echo evry word of Bonna, she also managed to keep up with Hodgson’s ad-libs – and did it all with an air of actual enjoyment. Top marks.

Four-star rating.
The Pulse 2017 Festival continues in Ipswich until 10 June at the New Wolsey Theatre, the New Wolsey Studio, the High Street Exhibition Gallery and DanceEast’s Jerwood Dancehouse.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2017