Monthly Archives: March 2018

Sleeping Beauty

reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 29 March

Reminding young people, and their elders, that there’s more to a traditional tale than its Disney version is an excellent idea. The sequence of spring musicals devised by Catherine Lomax shows just what can be done if you strip away any pantomime and animation elements.

This Sleeping Beauty is the joint creation of Lomax (direction), Phil Dennis (musical direction) and Khiley Williams (choreography). Connor Norris’ permanent set is medieval with soaring gothic arches and flambeau-bearing towers.

Lisa Hickey’s costumes contrast period realism for the court and townspeople with flower fantasy for the immortals. The good fairies represent spring flowers – Natalie Harman’s Tulip has a jolly-hockey-sticks personality, Francesca French’s Primrose is more sedate while Rebecca Gilhooley’s Bluebell (akin to the Lilac Fairy familiar from the ballet) is quietly authoritative.

In opposition stands Ellen Vereneiks’ withering Narcissus, the Carabosse of this musical. All four have strong voices, easily coping with Dennis’ mixture of bravura singing and close harmony. Abigayle Honeywill’s Beauty, Oliver Stanley as King Favian and Glenn Anderson as Prince Rowan make the most of their individual and concerted numbers.

This production is due to be seen in Chesterfield, Middlesbrough and Skegness when the short Stevenage run closes. This is the sort of small-scale but stylish staging of new work which deserves a wider audience; that in turn means that more attention (which includes money) can be alloted to casting and overall production values.

Four and a half-star rating.

Sleeping Beauty plays matinée and late afternoon/early evening performances until 2 April at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Music Music theatre & opera, Reviews 2018

The Winslow Boy

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 26 March

Acting, preaching and speaking in Parliament or a court of law all require charismatic practitioners if they are to have their intended effect. Rachel Kavanaugh’s production of The Winslow Boy makes this point very clearly, reinforced by Michael Taylor’s deceptively realistic set.

Rattigan based his play on an actual event, the theft of a five-shilling postal order by a teenage Osborne naval cadet and his expulsion as a result. The drama centres on the aftermath, as Ronnie’s family is (more or less) prepared to sacrifice all the comforts and status of its Edwardian life to clear his name.

Most productions make the barrister who accepts the Winslow brief as the dominant character. Timothy Watson’s Robert Morton certainly commands from his first entrance and crucial examination of Ronnie, but Aden Gillett’s Arthur, the irascible and increasingly physically incapacitated father, challenges him for the pre-eminence.

Both portraits are fully fleshed, allowing us to see the vulnerabilities as well as the strengths of each man. It’s fine acting, but it does put Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s Catherine, the suffragette daughter who sees that her stance must automatically negate her engagement to an Army lieutenant, into perhaps a more subordinate category than Rattigan may have intended.

Other rôles are nicely characterised, though the excellent actor Geff Francis is miscast as the lawyer Desmond Curry. Misha Butler as the younger son facing what could be the ruin of his future and Theo Bamber as the student brother whose enjoyment of Oxford’s social life is scuppering his chances of graduating suggest that they are two sides of a family coin.

Tessa Peake-Jones is suitably warm as Grace Winslow with Soo Drouet’s Violet as cuddly if stereotyped as servants almost always are in the well-made plays of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Alistair David has devised some authentic-looking dances to evoke the early jazz-age. I do think though that Taylor could have found something just a little more dashing for Catherine’s much-lauded hat.

Four star rating.

The Winslow Boy continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 31 March with matinées on 29 and 31 March.

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The Jungle Book

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 20 March

Stories, whether set in the past or in fantasy setting, inevitably reflect the culture in which they are written. Kipling nowadays is seen as the laureate of the Raj, a view which (while perfectly legitimate from a 2018 perspective) can overshadow his real and deep understanding of India, both social and natural.

We’ve become accustomed therefore to prettied-up, emasculated versions of the Jungle Book stories. The Children’s Touring Partnership’s new production is certainly of our time and place, but – for me, at any rate – it captures most of the essence of the original.

This is a musical version, scripted by Jessica Swale with an original score by Joe Stilgoe. Max Webster’s direction sets his cast on a revolve with a scaffolding set by Peter McKintosh (who also designed the costumes) and choreography by Lizzi Gee which exploits both the pack and the solo nature of wild animals.

A succession of puppets by Nick Barnes ranges from the simplicity of those representing the child Mowgli  and the kite Chil to the glistening coils (lots of them) of the python Kaa (Rachel Dawson). Central to the story is Mowgli, feral in more than one way, who Keziah Joseph fully brings to life (and our sympathetic understanding).

Lloyd Gorman’s Shere Khan is a commanding villain with the height and presence to command his scenes as well as the jungle denizens; he also has a very good singing voice. His opposite number is Dyfrig Morris’ Balloo, a sloth bear with just a touch of Paddington and Winnie the Pooh – not to mention the pantomime comic.

As the wolf-pack leader Akela, Tripti Tripuraneni radiates the right sort of authority as in the different way does Deborah Oyelade’s Bagheera with a panther-like disregard for slower creatures. Most of the cast take on other roles, including the dangerously mischievous Bandar-Log tribe of monkeys.

Costumes, movements and Charles Balfour’s lighting remind us that we are in an Indian jungle butting onto human villages, villages whose relations with the water-holes and vegetation around them both nurture and threaten. It’s probably not a show for very young children, but it is one to provoke thought.

After all, that’s what story-telling has been doing for millenia.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Jungle Book continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 24 March with matinées on 22 and 24 March. The tour also includes the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 10 and 14 April.

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Guesthouse

reviewed at the Assembly Rooms, Dedham on 16 March

There’s a very interesting play embedded in the current version of Nicola Werenowska’s Guesthouse. It will take some further excavation, and the use of a very sharp scalpel, to disinter it.

East Anglia’s seaside towns are among those in the coastal areas of England affected by holiday-habit changes. Many find themselves unable to compensate economically with alternative employment and development prospects.

The guesthouse of the title is in Clacton. It’s owned by Val (Amanda Bellamy), who ran it in the town’s heyday with her late husband. Now she is recovering from a fall and wants to sell the house.

Her needy daughter Lisa (Clare Humphrey) – who has made quite a mess of her life so far – and Lisa’s daughter Chloe (Eleanor Jackson) – who has been brought up by her grandmother and is equally demanding in a different way – see the logic but aren’t prepared to act on it.

Tony Casement’s production drags out the first act, the one which is most in need of that scalpel, within a simplified domestic setting by Anna Kelsey. Chris Howcraft’s projections take us outside and into the past as well as the present but don’t quite make their intended effect.

You can sympathise with Val, who has done her best to swim with her personal tides of change. Bellamy delivers her soliloquies to engage the audience with the character’s history.

Lisa is a different matter. She’s not quite done with the past, as Humphrey makes clear, but has no stamina for the present, let along the future. Jackson’s Chloe is a spiky sort of young woman; she’s a possible survivor albeit a damaged one.

Touring any play to the variety of venues lined by for this spring Eastern Angles production presents its own set of problems. Audiences in one place may not – unless they find the characters and situations particularly engrossing –really enter into the playwright’s vision.

In its present form Guesthouse seems both a dramatised documentary and a family saga. The two strands may yet come properly together, but the scalpel needs to come into play before they knit together as they should.

Three and a half-star rating.

Guesthouse tours until 26 May. Venues include Southwold Arts Centre (22 March), the Seagull Theatre, Lowestoft (23 March), Rattlesden Pavilion (24 March), West Cliff Theatre, Clacton (27 March), St George’s Theatre, Great Yarmouth (6 April), Haverhill Arts Centre (10 April), Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford (17 April), Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh (20 April), Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich (23-28 April), the Little Theatre, Sheringham (2 May), Diss Corn Hall (3 May), The Place, Bedford (9 May), Woodbridge Community Hall (16-17 May), The Undercroft, Peterborough (24 May) and The Cut, Halesworth (25 May).

 

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This House

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 13 March

How is it done? That’s an intriguing question for most people, whether the subject is cookery or politics, plays or cookery. James Graham’s play is based on and in the House of Commons between 1974 and 1979.

It shows us in fictionalised form what happens when Governments with small or no absolute majorities have leaders who fail to keep tight control of the slippery and fluid situations.

We hear about these Prime Ministers (actual or ambitiously waiting) but we are watching the backroom-boys (and occasional girl) of the Whips’ offices as they manipulate Members to achieve those all-important knife-edge majority votes.

Jeremy Herrin and Jonathan O’Boyle’s production emphasises the bear-garden aspect and associated callousness which underpin contentious votes. Acting as chorus is the Speaker (Miles Richardson in Act One, Orlando Wells in Act Two).

Designer Rae Smith uses various on-stage levels as well as the auditorium to draw us into the action. A rock band adds to the surreal effect, but the production’s impact has to rely on the main characters.

Giles Cooper is the eager new recruit to the Tory whips’ office, run with a certain degree of cynicism by old-school William Chubb and businessman Matthew Pidgeon. But it is with the Labour whips, frantically shoring up increasingly wafer-thin majorities, that the real drama lies.

Chief Whip Tony Turner and his energetic deputy Martin Marquez both give fully fleshed characterisations of men who never forget who put them into Parliament – and why. James Gaddas and David Hounslow give fine support while Natalie Grady shows us a young woman developing both confidence and authority.

There are a succession of well-defined cameos and vignettes to remind us that politics at this level is a matter of priority juggling both within the House and outside it.Does a vote count for more than a life?

As befits a play and production of Chichester Festival Theatre, Headlong and National Theatre provenance, it is an object lesson in ensemble. One which has its audience as keyed up with tension as the drama onstage.

Four and a half-star rating.

This House runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 17 March with matinées on 15 and 17 March. it can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 8 and 12 May.

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Kindertransport

reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 10 March

History is a plant with deep roots; it is impossible to eradicate it. Diane Samuels’ play Kindertransport made a deep impression on me when I saw it 25 years ago and this new production by Anne Simon, though very different, is also effective.

It’s an apparently simple story. Helga (Catherine Janke), a Jewish mother in Hamburg sends her daughter away just before 1939 blankets Europe in war’s lethal fog. The journey itself with its restrictions and policing guards is shown as frightening and Eva (Leila Schaus)’s arrival in England to be taken in by Lil (Jenny Lee) is also shown from the child’s point of view.

Haunting the action is the legend of the rat-catcher of Hamelin who led away all the town’s children in the 13th century, a much less benevolent figure than the pied piper of the sanitised version. Simon and designer Marie-Luce Theis conjure this nightmare figure (Matthew Brown) as a predatory mass of humps and tatters prowling around the periphery of the action.

This takes place on a central stage, basically the lumber room of the house now shared by Evelyn (Suzan Sylvester) and her about-to-leave-home daughter Faith (Hannah Bristow).  Faith is in two minds as to whether to go – though the house is already on the market – or to stay, which her mother finds both tiresome and unsettling.

Faith then starts looking into trunks and boxes, and the past suddenly enters the foreground. The three generations of women – Lil, Evelyn and Faith – each have to confront and come to terms with the past, the present and likely futures.

The performances are excellent with the contrasting facets of each woman’s characters sparking into focus as the drama unfolds. We’ve all been a frightened child and an adult doing the best that is possible in particular circumstances. Many of us have also been required to make life-changing decisions, often at very short notice.

For this production, the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch has joined with les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg in association with Selladoor Productions. The international tour reminds us that world changes have their own repeat cycle. Those refugee children of 80 years ago have their counterparts today.

Four and a half-star rating.

Kindertransport runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 24 March with matinées on 15, 17, 22 and 24 March. It can also be seen at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 17 and 21 April.

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Great Expectations

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 6 March

Plays and novels both tell us stories, though in different ways. The crucial thing for any adapter of a novel as a play is to be faithful to the sense of the source. S/he can use the novel’s dialogue to reinforce authenticity, but what to do with extended passages of description and lengthy recounting of events passed?

Ken Bentley’s version of Dickens’ Great Expectations for Tilted Wig in Sophie Boyce-Couzens production captures the atmosphere very well – with considerable aid from designers James Turner (set and costumes), and Richard Williamson (lighting). Ollie King’s music is appropriate and atmospheric.

Where adaptation and theatricality let the audience down are just those narrative passages; some seem interminable. The cast of eight, all with two exceptions playing several rôles, does its best to give them variety, but cannot help that overall feeling of sag.

Séan Aydon makes a credible Pip, giving us all the lad’s rough edges as he fumbles his way through to apparent fortune and maturity. Nichola McAuliffe’s Miss Haversham is a scintillation of white tatters, combining the pathos of the jilted woman’s dementia with an aura of sinister manipulation.

Two of the nicest people to whom Dickens and Bentley introduce us are blacksmith Joe Gargery and lawyer’s clerk Wemmick. Edward Ferrow does them proud. Both Eliza Collings’ Biddy and James Camp’s Herbert Pocket offer well-rounded portraits of simple goodness and honesty.

Daniel Goode’s Magwich is a properly frightening creation as is James Dinsmore’s Jaggers. Isla Carter doubles Molly, the murderess who Jaggers assists to cheat the gallows and Estella, that dangerous star flaring so brightly in both Pip’s and Miss Haversham’s colliding worlds.

Perhaps too many of us know Great Expectations too well; it has been dramatised and filmed many times. Dickens was persuaded to change the ending, potentially to satisfy his readers who would have originally read the novel in weekly installments. I’m not sure that these second thoughts were better ones; Bentley missed a trick here.

Four star rating.

Great Expectations runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St edmunds until 10 March with matinées on 7 and 10 March. The national tour includes the Palace Theatre, Westcliff between 19 and 24 March.

 

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The Turn of the Screw

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 1 March

Tim Luscombe’s adaptation of Henry James’ ghost mystery novella attempts to leave the questions it poses open to whatever interpretation each member of its audience chooses to place on the characters and situations.

Director Daniel Buckroyd is thus handed a difficult task, for any staging is by its very nature a matter of definition. What we see are flesh-and-blood actors, however insubstantial or even perverse the psychology of the characters they portray.

Sara Perks’ setting offers a sequence of arches stretching back to mirror the theatre’st own proscenium. Within these there are minimal furnishings – a table, chairs, a rocking-horse, a hat-stand. Across the back, projections and Matt Leventhall’s lighting take us outside the house at Bly.

Central to the action and never off-stage is Carli Norris as the Governess. We meet her first in middle-age, apparently being interviewed by Mrs Conray (Annabel Smith) for a new post. But it her first engagement, at Bly, about which she is most pressingly questioned. Why is revealed by the disclosure that Mrs Conray is the adult Flora.

That gives Smith the opportunity, which she takes, to show us the assured matron secure in society as well as the dissatisfied girl on the cusp of womanhood. Michael Hanratty plays the man-about-town who employs the Governess, turning her head with his attentions to her as a woman while off-loading responsibility.

Hanratty also plays Miles, the young boy with an angelic face who may – or may not – have been expelled from school for good reasons. He gives us another well-contrasted dual portrait. Housekeeper Mrs Grose is played by Maggie McCarthy as a woman who does her best but ultimately has limited authority.

Always in the background – literally so in this production – are the two dead former employees, the governess Miss Jessel and the valet Peter Quint. We see them mainly as shadows, ambiguously credited in the programme as Jen Holt and Tom Macqueen. Understudy here is a word which can be taken many ways.

It all holds together as a piece of theatre, but it’s one which never quite delivers as much as it promises thus leaving a sense of dissatisfaction. Or should that be seen as unfulfilment?

Three and a half-star rating.

The Turn of the Screw runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 10 March with matinées on 3, 8 and 10 March. It is then on national tour until 26 May.

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