Monthly Archives: September 2017

Deathtrap

reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 27 September

Envy is a prime reason for murder, at least on the stage. What gives Ira Levin’s Deathtrap the edge over many other thrillers is the particular context – a successful playwright who has apparently lost his winning streak and an eager young dramatist to may just have discovered his.

This new Salisbury Playhouse production directed by Adam Penford has its audience in its grip from the opening clap of sound (Ben and Max Ringham) which is guaranteed to put us all in full listening mode.

Morgan Large’s set has its own surprises as well are faced by Paul Bradley’s deceptively teddy-bear Sidney Bruhl and his understandably spiky wife Myra (Jessie Wallace).

Fresh-faced Clifford Anderson is soon on the scene, happy to listen to advice, though not necessarily to embrace it. The other two characters are émigrée  mystic Helga ten Dorp, with whom Beverley Klein has a great deal of over-the-top fun, and stuck-in-a-rut lawyer Porter Melgrim (Julien Ball).

As Sidney remarks in his first lines, a new play with one set, two acts, five characters and a fresh plot cannot help but be a success. What Penford and his cast bring out is some sense of the creative process where the goal is somehow just a revision or elision away, but never yet quite there.

That sense of something somehow missing is what keeps an audience focussed in its own quest for the elusive.

Four and a half-star rating.

Deathtrap continues at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 30 September with matinées on 28 and 30 September. It can also be seen at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 30 October and 4 November.

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The Little Mermaid

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 26 September

What is the worst  thing which can happen to a dancer? Or to a singer? Surely it’s to lose the faculty which is the whole centre of her being, literally her raison d’être. Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale gives the voice and movement to his little mermaid, who willingly gives them up for a life on dry land and the human man with whom she  is infatuated.

David Nixon’s new Northern Ballet creation takes the story, which is one with an unhappy ending rather than “and then they lived happily ever after”, and sets it somewhere sea-girt – his costumes suggest the Scottish Highland coast or even Greece as well as a slight Japanese influence. Lifts are either two-person to display the Fortuny pleats of the mermaids’ tails or one-person for the dry-land, human dress sequences.

Cliff-like structures are moved by the cast to take us from the ocean depths to dry land as the story switches from one location to another. Sally Beamish’s score is one with Celtic resonances, notably for Adair and his sailor friends, and uses Stephanie Irvine’s vocalise at crucial moments.

The cast I saw is dominated by Abigail Prudames’ heart-rending Marilla, the little mermaid herself. She is a fine actress as well as a graceful lyrical dancer and her beach scene as she realises that she is now dumb and that every movement of the legs and feet which have replaced her water-cleaving tail is one of excruciating agony is almost painful to watch.

Growing up is notoriously a painful business, and this is as much a fable about maturity and its obligations as well as its rights as it is about any species of fish out of its own water. Joseph Taylor as Adair suggests the young man who has dreams but perhaps not much imagination; there is a nice contrast between the inventive fluidity of his pas de deux with Marilla and the convention of the later one with Dreda Blow’s Dana.

Every fairytale needs both a villain and a faithful friend for the protagonist. Matthew Topliss’ Lyr is a mollusc-dark Lyr, lord of the sea and determined to keep its denizen in order. Kevin Poeung makes the prancing seahorse Dillion the most wholly likeable character of all, ending both acts centre stage but now doubly bereft.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Little Mermaid runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 30 September with matinées on 28 and 30 September. The national tour continues until 17 December.

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The Pirates of Penzance

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 15 September

 

This autumn’s tour by the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company ends at Norwich’s Theatre Royal. Vivian Coates’ new production of The Pirates of Penzance marries the traditional G&S style of staging with something new. His set designer is Paul Lazell who provides scenery pieces to the left and right of the stage with an illustrated open book as the centrepiece. Janet Morris’ costumes give us crinolines for the girls and vaguely 18th century for the pirate crew.

Sullivan’s score flows briskly throughout; this is an operetta with considerably more music than spoken dialogue. The orchestra under Andrew Nicklin sounded a trifle scratchy in the overture but settled down once the curtain had risen and the audience tendency to sing along had subsided (well, this is a quasi-traditional production after all).

Star of the show was undoubtably Emma Walsh’s Mabel, playing the minx with a sense of her own value and tossing off the coloratura passages with an interpolated tribute to bel canto cabalette which earned knowing chuckles for its subtlety. Her Frederic was Anthony Flaum, not the most subtle of tenors though a convincing actor.

Richard Gauntlett is an audience favourite and is moreover playing on his home turf. The “Model of a very modern major-general” patter song came over well as did this peacetime soldier’s ability to turn most situations to his own advantage. Balancing him was Toby Stafford-Allen’s flamboyant Pirate King, very well sung as well as suggesting why this particular band of sea robbers  is so very unsuccessful.

Both the flock of daughters and the pirate crew provided well-detailed character sketches and the white-faced policemen, led by Simon Wilding’s Sergeant, as always all-but brought the house down. Mae Haydorn’s Ruth is refreshingly less of a harridan than as sometimes portrayed and sung with great musicality.

Three and a half-star rating.

The season consludes with matinée and evening performances of HMS Pinafore on 16 September.

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The Weir

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 14 September

History is a patchwork of remembrance and imagination. Oral history and storytelling are also both factual and dream-weaving. The strength of Conor McPherson’s play The Weir is that it balances the two strands into one dramatic reality.

We’re in a small bar by the side of an Irish lake, which in the past has had a weir constructed to make use of the water to create electricity. The bar is a home-from-home for Jack (Sean Murray) and Jim (John O’Dowd), local middle-aged bachelors – nice country girls don’t and men don’t marry the ones who do.

Their current subject of conversation is Valerie (Natalie Radmall-Quirke), the English woman who is renting a house from Finbar (Louis Dempsey). Finbar brings her into the br, hoping to profit by introducing her to some “local colour”, and the men oblige first with spooky tales and then with equally troubling reminiscences.

Valerie must be the first woman to break into this male enclave, Christmas celebrations excepted. Slowly they start treating her as a sort of honorary man, and she returns the compliment of their storytelling with that of her own real-life tragedy.

Sensitively directed by Adele Thomas, this collaborative production between the Mercury Theatre and English Touring Theatre benefits from a set by Madeleine Girling which combines realism with a sense of displacement. Richard Hammarton’s score and sound design adds to the atmosphere and the sense of both the power and the impermanence of water, as does the lighting by Lee Curran and Dara Hoban.

The performances measure up both as character studies and as people. Radmall-Quirke is excellent as the woman who slots into this strange earthly masculine yet faery world and Dempsey has the right sort of wallet-flashing brashness. Sam O’Mahony plays Brendan, the youngish bar owner, a man who has settled down with his alloted fate.

O’Dowd gives a sympathetic portrait of a quiet, largely unemployed man who needs to keep an eye on how he spends his pennies while Murray’s apparently outgoing and contented Jack reveals his own sense of might-have-been wrapped in a shroud of all-for-the-best.

it builds slowly – the bar habitués have basically only time to spend, so they spin that out in their familiar fashions. Valerie is the catalyst who releases those pasts – actual and mythological – with something of the force of lightning.

Five star rating.

The Weir continues at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 16 September with a matinée on 16 September. The national tour continues until 25 November and resumes in 2018 with performances at the Cambridge Arts Theatre between 6 and 10 March.

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The Ladykillers

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 13 September

It by no means detracts from the excellent performances by the animated cast members to say that the runaway star of Graham Linehan’s stage version of the Ealing Studios 1955 hit The Ladykillers is Foxton’s set.

This is the beautifully detailed exterior (we are still mired in postwar scarred buildings with make-do interiors) of Mrs Wilberforce’s house in the noisy shadow of St Pancras railway station, complete with working signals and billowing clouds of steam.

Mrs Wilberforce (Ann Penfold) and Constable Macdonald (Marcus Houden) are solving what she thinks is a refugee Nazi problem and he knows is simply the local newsagent who has a strong North Country accent. It isn’t the first time he has had to correct her imagination. Her next visitor, hoping to rent the room she has advertised to let, is Professor Marcus (Steven Elliott).

Swathed in a serpentine college scarf (which provides a running joke throughout the play) he is, of course, the mastermind behind a planned bullion heist. His brain may have worked it out to the last detail and split second, but that’s to discount his motley crew of accomplices.

They include Graham Seed’s Major Courtney, a self-proclaimed war hero with a penchant for women’s clothes; this is a cleverly nuanced performance which shows the pain behind the necessary pretense of thorough-going masculinity. Then there’s Cockney spiv and wideboy Harry (Sam Lupton), who’s not as bright as he thinks he is.

Brain-damaged former boxer One-Round is played by Damien Williams as everybody’s stooge while Louis Harvey is that thoroughly nasty piece of flick-knife violence Louis Harvey. Director Peter Rowe keeps the action fast-moving while lighting designer Alexandra Stafford and composer-sound designer Rebecca Applin make notable contributions.

This is a co-production between the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch and the Salisbury Playhouse. I suspect it will be just as enthusiastically received in the other venues as by the Ipswich audience. We all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Five star rating.

The Ladykillers runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 30 September with matinées on 16, 19, 20, 23, 27 and 30 September. It transfers to the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch between 3 and 17 October.

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Private Lives

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 12 September

Coward’s Private Lives is a deceptively simple play to stage, as director Michael Cabot acknowledges in his programme notes for London Classic Theatre’s new production. His designer Frankie Bradshaw has provided two sets which emphasise this.

The characters are caught in a sort of no-man’s-land, poised between two world wars. Their society is no longer that of the Bright Young Things of the 20s but it still has its own rules and restrictions as well as the dual concept of male and female sexuality.

Amanda is the character who perhaps recognises this most clearly; a double divorce will isolate her in a fashion which neither of her husbands is likely to experience. Sybil is the eternal, cosseted ingénue who only at the end of the play perhaps – and it’s a big perhaps – has a glimmering that standing up for yourself needs to start at the first step into adult society rather than at the church door.

One might say that all this subtext is communicated in spite of some of the actors, not through them. Helen Keeley looks and acts Amanda to the last flick of an eyelash but she speaks Coward’s staccato dialogue with a machine-gun delivery which reduces much of it to the spoken equivalent of one of WS Gilbert’s patter songs – “this particularly rapid unintelligible patter isn’t generally heard …”

Her Elyot is Jack Hardwick, who has the well-tailored measure of his part, as does Kieran Buckeridge’s buttoned-up Victor as he tries to cope first with a wife who’s just not on his wavelength and then with Sybil at her own point of no return.

Olivia Beardsley’s pastel, marcel-waved portrait of this secondary female role has its strengths as well as its sillinesses. Rachael Holmes-Brown plays the maid Louise, making her into less of a caricature than some I have seen lately. But it would all be so much better if three acts hadn’t been crammed into two hours, including the interval, and the dialogue allowed to breathe.

 

Four star rating.

Private Lives is at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 16 September with matinées on 13 and 16 September as part of a national tour to 25 November including Harlow Playhouse (19-21 October, the Alban Arena, St Albans (24-25 October), the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford (26-28 October) and the Key Theatre, Peterborough (13-15 November).

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Tosca

reviewed at the Harlow Playhouse on 6 September

This new production of Puccini’s Tosca from the Russian State Opera & Ballet Theatre of Astrakhan which is on a nationwide tour of the UK until 13 October is directed by Konstantin Balakin and designed by Elena Vershinina. They have kept the Italian setting but pushed the time forward to the crumbling of Mussolini’s dictatorship.

Between them they keep the action taut and musical director Valerii Voronin sweeps his orchestra and soloists along at the same pace. Vershinina’s set has all the clutter of an Italian Catholic church of the period while Scarpia’s office is a Big Brother nightmare of vertiginous filing drawers and secret cubbyholes which can reveal a drinks cabinet or window into the queen’s Farnese Palace apartments – or serve as the door into a torture chamber.

“A shabby little shocker” sniffed Joseph Kerman in the 1950s; we in western Europe might see it as being in the British melodrama and the French grand guignol tradition. What carries a modern audience into the depth of the story is primarily Puccini’s score but also the ferocious combat between the three main characters.

In Andrey Puzhalin the company has a Scarpia who bears comparison with the best I have heard – and although comparisons, as Dogberry affirms, “are odorous”, my benchmark for the rôle is Gobbi. A vulpine predator barely constricted by his office (in both sense of the word), his onslaught on Tosca from the cathedral scene to the end of the second act is unrelenting – but finely phrased throughout.

Elena Razguliaeva in the title part matches Puzhalin, from her coquettish jealousy over Cavaradossi’s painting of the Magdalene in the first act, through her mental torture culminating in Scarpia’s murder and a finely sung “Vissi d’arte”, to the roller-coaster of emotions for the final act.

Her Cavaradossi at the performance which I saw is Mikhail Makarov, a full-voiced tenor who sounded a trifle rough at the beginning but worked through to an affecting lyricism for his farewell to life in “E lucevan le stelle”. Two of the smaller parts also stand out as well-sung and well-acted – Ivan Michailov’s Spoletta and Oleksandr Malyshko’s fresh-faced yet hardened Sciarrone.

Could I please persuade the company to employ a proof-reader – there are ludicrous mistakes in both the programme and the surtitles – and also supply a type-written cast list for the evening’s performance. Little things, I know, but they do add to an audience’s enjoyment as well as that delicious activity known as talent-spotting.

Four star rating.

Tosca also plays at the Princes Theatre, Clacton-on-Sea on 10 September, the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 11 September, the Marina Theatre, Lowestoft on 19 September and the Alban Arena, St Albans on 20 September.

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Shirley Valentine

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 5 September

Writing a play about women is one thing. Getting inside a woman’s psyche, mind and soul – her all-roundedness – is quite another. Willy Russell is one of the few playwright’s who accomplishes this feat, as the 2017 autumn touring revival of Shirley Valentine makes clear.

Jodie Prenger carries this story of the middle-aged housewife talking to herself and to a glass (or two) of wine while she prepares her husband’s evening meal. There have been few highlights in her marriage, and these are more likely to revolve around her children and the other women in her circle than her husband.

So she seizes the opportunity offered by her friend Grce to share a two-weeks Greek holiday – and to hell with responsibilities. Director Glen Walford, who commissioned the first production of the play, knows it inside out and has brought a woman’s intuition to its realisation.

Amy Yardley’s largely representational first-act set is tansformed into the cerulean skies and sea of a Greek island with dark rocks and crags. They suggest the headless remains of giant maternal goddess statues, all welcoming lap and enfolding embrace.

Prenger herself merits her standing ovation at the curtain-call. Shirley’s repressed personality bubbles over as she comes to her holiday-trip decision and finds its price-paid acceptance when she is finally in a place she can feel is a real home, not just someone else’s stomping ground.

My one niggle is that, for those audience members unaccustomed to the Merseyside area accent, not all the first-act dialogue is easy to follow – you miss the punch lines trying to work out wht was said in the preceding sentence. There were times when I yearned for surtitles…

Four and a half-star rating.

Shirley Valentine runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 9 September with matinées on 7 and 9 September.

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The Producers

reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 31 August

Catherine Lomax’s summer musical at the Gordon Craig Theatre stands comparison with many a more expensively lavish touring production – in fact, it deserves a tour of its own. The Producers, that in-joke about how to stay out of the bankruptcy courts as a Broadway impressario, is a bold choice for a small regional theatre.

The settings and drop-curtain scenes follow each other slickly, aided by Pete Cramer and Al Rivers’ lighting and enhanced by Lisa Hickey’s clever costuming. from the opening number – bridging the gap between the first and closing nights of Max Bialystock’s latest production – a musical skit on Hamlet called Funny Boy – Khiley Williams and Philip Joel’s choreography sparkles.

Pail Easom as Max dominates the show throughout; we may wince at his exploitation of elderly female “angels” and shameless manipulation of everyone with whom he comes into contact, but we can’t help rooting for him. Even when he and the  hapless accountant Leo Bloom (Ryan Owen) he has recruited launch that farrago called Springtime for Hitler to lose rather than to make money.

Owen makes an excellent foil to Easom, as does Oliver Stanley as the unrepentant Nazi with his cages of storm-trooper-drilled pigeons (a set designer is not credited in the programme) but s/he and the stage crew deserve plaudits of their own. Ali Bastian as sultry Swedish bombshell Ulla looks and sounds charming but rather pales into the background of the character studies around her.

These include Daniel Page as the campest of cross-dressing directors, Joel as his other-half and their coterie of flamboyant thespian homosexuals (Joseph Connor, James Donovan and Adam Shorey) and one butch lesbian (Catherine Millsom) (remember that this all takes place in 1959).

Sound balance (Luke Hyde) is excellent with Phil Dennis’ orchestra allowed to make its musical points whle never swamping the actors’ words. The ensemble comprises ten young performers just launching their professional careers who display impressive talents in song, acting and dance.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Producers runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 9 September with matinées on 2, 7 and 9 September.

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