Monthly Archives: April 2018

Pieces of String

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 27 April

Attitudes change from one generation to the next, and it’s easy to forget how recent the past can be. Gus Gowland’s musical play offers us three generations of a family whose house-clearance after the death of a grandfather opens a Pandora’s box of memories, not all of them welcome. Fin Redshaw’s multi-location set suits it very well.

Jane (Carol Starks) is the pivotal character, a woman who has grown a thick shell as she brings up her gay son Ed (Andy Coxon) and with-it teenage daughter Gemma (Ella Dunlop). She cannot tolerate Ed’s boy friend Harry (Gary Wood) and is brusque to the point of rudeness when elderly Rose (Marilyn Cutts) wanders in.

Director Ryan McBryde balances our interest skillfully between these characters. Gradually we learn that, serving in the Second World War grandfather Edward (Craig Mather) had an affair with a fellow soldier Tom (Joel Harper-Jackson). Both men are married – Edward to Anna (Lauren Hall) while Tom has a young sister Rose (Nicole Grumann).

Gowland’s score requires good singing voices, which this cast supplies, while the accompaniment by Pail Herbert, Liz Hanks and Fraiser Patterson weaves in and out of the set-piece numbers without ever overwhelming them. It’s all tuneful – a bonus nowadays – without being particularly memorable, but always fits both the action and the characters.

As the older Rose, Cutts somewhat steals the show; you’re never quite sure whether her presence is benign or mischievous. Dunlop is thoroughly credible as the teenager wanting her own spa ce and to do her own thing. Coxon and Wood also inhabit their characters; Wood’s hurt at Jane’s blatant attempts to freeze him out is chilling as well as salutary.

Both Mather and Harper-Jackson make one sympathise with their sexual and social dilemmas, Harper-Jackson’s Tom being much more open than Mather’s more hidebound Edward. The effect on their womenfolks – Rose’s discovery of the men kissing and Anna’s scarcely perceived and not articulated sense that there is something not quite right in her marriage – is not minimised.

That attitude change reflects in an audience’s reaction, though first-night audiences’ responses are notoriously difficult to assess for validity. Debates about gender, nature versus nurture and generational assumptions and misunderstandings are as old as civilisation, literature and theatre. This is a melodic addition.

Four star rating.

Pieces of String runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 5 May with a matinée on 5 May.

 

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A Streetcar Named Desire

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 25 April

English Touring Theatre (ETO) has chosen Tennessee Williams’ 1947 tragedy as one of its 25th anniversary productions. Director Chelsea Walker has updated the action to 2018 – I’m not sure that the 70-year time leap quite succeeds.

It allows for integrated casting and the casual violence, both physical and mental, dealt out by most of its male characters to the women who (theoretically) they care about is regrettably still with us, But the central character, Blanche Dubois (Kelly Gough) is surely more a person of her time than ours.

Gough gives us all Blanche’s posturing and mood swings as well as the diverse personalities which she inhabits, from the white-clad Louisiana plantation mistress who apparently finds to impossible to accept the way in which her sister Stella (Amber James) is living to the schoolmarm taking a sabbatical to the nymphomanic.

No-one in this New Orleans apartment block lives in  isolation. Stella’s husband Stanley Kowalski (Patrick Knowles) keeps open house for his men friends while their women grab every opportunity to take what fresh air the neighbourhood offers.

Nicole Agada, Maria Louis, Will Bliss and Joe Manjón in these rôles twine above and around the main action like a species of demented Greek chorus. that classic theatre sense of the inevitability of disaster is fostered by Giles Thomas’ subtly persistent soundscape and Georgia Lowe’s minimalist pillared set.

The acting throughout is extremely good; I wish I could say the same for the diction. The opening scenes are taken at a pace which surely leaves the audience desperately trying to catch up, so that at time we seem to be watching rather than listening.

Knowles’ violently masculine Stanley is well contrasted with Dexter Flanders’ Mitch, the mild-mannered well-spoken member of Stanley’s poker quartet. Mitch is the proverbial quiet man who sees no reason to throw his weight around.

There is real tragedy in his exchange with Blanche when he wants her to meet his terminally ill mother (a proposal of marriage coming ever closer) only to be stonewalled by Blanche’s congenital inability to tell the simple truth. She has told him about the trauma of her failed marriage, but is this the whole truth?

Four star rating.

A Streetcar Named Desire runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 28 April with a matinée on 28 April.  The tour includes the Cambridge Arts Theatre between 1 and 5 May.

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Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 24 April

In-Sook Chappell adaptation of the novel Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse is a multi-layered affair. That’s entirely appropriate, for this story of four generations of a Chinese family plays with time.

It begins with Helen (Siu-See Hung), an English-born and -educated lawyer, arriving in Hong Kong, the island her grandmother left just after the Second World War for a new life, sponsored by her home-returning employers. She soon feels she is the proverbial fish out of water.

Trying to make sense of her past and to meld it with her present and an array of possible futures, she is guided through her family’s past by a sort of avatar of her grandmother Lily (Tina Chiang). It’s a story bedevilled by feckless men and the collision of several cultures.

You need at first to concentrate hard in order to immerse yourself in the time-shifted nuances, then the logic – and at times the dreadful inevitability – of the drama sinks in. Food is the unifying factor.

I’m surprised the audience don’t rush onto the stage as the delicious smells from Helen/Lily’s cooker at the opening of the second act pervade the theatre. Those who have lived in poverty or under enemy occupation do tend to fixate on eating.

Jennifer Tang’s direction within Amelia Jane Hankin’s stepped set balances the dramatic levels. Matthew Leonhart plays the two men who think they have power over their wives while Andy Kettu provides contrasted studies of a go-getting young Japanese financier and a brutal Japanese soldier.

Two English women alter the course of Lily’s life – Miss Price and Mrs Woodman. Both are well contrasted by Ruth Gibson. Minhee Yeo and Rina Takasaki complete the cast. Elena Pena’s soundscape reminds us that China is not a silent society.

Four star rating.

Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok continues at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 25 April. It is also at the Key Theatre, Peterborough  between 1 and 2 May and at the Palace Theatre, Watford from 16 to 19 May as part of a national tour which continues until 2 June.

 

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Il tabarro and Gianni Schicchi

reviewed at the Snape Maltings on 14 April

“Opera that moves” is the ETO motto – and it was worth skipping the bar in the interval to watch the comic drama of the scene change between the two contrasted outer panels of Puccini’s original triptych.

Audiences often discount what happens behind the front curtain, this exposé of the rapid hard work involved certainly earned its final round of applause.

Neil Irish’s rust and wood setting on three levels for Il tabarro and Rory Beaton’s subdued lighting plot suit the gritty savagery of the story. Above the main action life has some hope of normality. Below it, this is only the stench of hopeless degradation.

Craig Smith’s Michele, the Seine barge owner, is a brooding presence as his suspicions of his wife’s infidelity with one of the stevedores are fuelled. His final explosion of anger in “Nulla! Silenzio” before the inevitable dénouement is well paced and phrased.

Giorgetta’s unhappiness, as much for the loss of her child as a yearning of her childhood home at Belleville and desire for Charne Rochford’s Luigi, also builds slowly and Sarah-Jane Lewis has the vocal resources to manage this.

In James Conway’s production, Rochford’s portrait of a young man raging against his lot in life yet unable to effect any immediate change to better this world rings true.

The smaller character parts are equally well cast, with Clarissa Meek’s Frugola outstanding among them. it’s a neat touch to have the young lovers played by Galina Averina and Luciano Botelho, the Lauretta and Rinuccio of Gianni Schicchi.

This also has a fin du siècle setting but suitably elaborate for the (deceased) wealthy Buoso and his horde of grasping relations. These superficial predators come over as a miscellany to delight any connoisseur’s eye.

Andrew Slater has the audience on his side from his first entrance, a no-nonsense Florentine new-comer in fresh-air contrast to the over-dressed Buoso kindred. His recounting of the penalties for will-forgery make their mark.

Timothy Dawkins-wild-haired ex-mayor and the female trio of Meek as the elderly Zita, Joanna Skillett as Nella and Emma Watkinson as La Ciesca throw the genuine passion between Lauretta and Rinuccio into proper focus.

Averina’s show-stopping “Oh! mio babbino caro” has a visual punch-line which doesn’t quite fit in, causing a false ending with applause thus in the wrong place. Michael Rosewell is the conductor for both operas; Liam Steel is the director for Gianni Schicchi.

Four and a half-star rating.

Il tabarro and Gianni Schicchi are at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 18 and 19 April and at the Norwich Theatre Royal on 5 May.

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The Marriage of Figaro

reviewed at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall on 12 April

Artifice or reality? Do we laugh at or with the characters and situations? Da Ponte’s libretto lulls us into one form of enjoyment; Mozart’s music draws us onto a different level. Blanche McIntyre’s production corkscrews us from the one to the other almost seamlessly.

Conductor Christopher Stark takes us through the overture while we watch 21st century performers gathering, assuming costumes, getting in the way of the stage-hands. Designer Neil Irish plays this in front of his turqouise-shaded setting, as flexible as an oriental screen. An armchair and a strong-box materialise. This is the convenient space the Count Almaviva has found for his valet and his bride.

Ross Ramgobin is a dark-voiced Figaro, almost virulent in his reaction to Dawid Kimberg’s designs on Rachel Redmond’s well-sung and acted Susanna, and making us believe his heartbreak and agony in “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi”.

Not helped by an unbecoming wig and matronly wrapper, Nadine Benjamin is a stately Countess; you feel from the first notes of “Porgi amor” that this Rosina has had all the life-bubbles squeezed out of her in just two years. Gaynor Keeble’s Marcellina has vitality and malice in equal measure.

The smaller character parts are also well taken. John-Colyn Gyeantey’s Don Basilio and Omar Ebrahim’s Dr Bartolo makes the most of their interjections, though Ebrahim’s “La vendetta” rather muted its patter climax.Abigail Kelly did well by Barberina’s fourth act cavatina “L’ho perduta”

Replacing an indisposed Katherine Aitken, Emma Watkinson’s Cherubino has all the gawkiness of the adolescent boy coping with an onslaught of dangerous desires. Both “Non so più” and “Voi che sapete” flow naturally and the horseplay during “Non più andrai” suggests that military life might well offer compensations.

This production uses the Jeremy Sams version of the libretto, which sits easily with the notation and has an air of 18th century style about it. A row of footlights suggest that we’re watching at one remove. But our ears tell us differently.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Marriage of Figaro is also at the Snape Maltings on 13 April and at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 17, 20 and 21 April as part of the ETO 2018 Spring tour.

 

 

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The Importance of Being Earnest

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 9 April

Wilde’s most popular comedy went through several changes before its 1895 première. The principal one was compressing four into three acts, though two characters seem also to have been eliminated – a gardener called Moulton and another person called Grimsby.

Moulton has re-emerged in Alastair Whatley’s production for the Original Theatre Company, but here as a parlour-maid, a non-speaking rôle for Judith Rae, who seems to be employed both by Thomas Howe’s Algernon Moncrieff and Peter Sandys-Clarke’s Jack Worthing.

Designer Gabrielle Slade has conjured a fretwork set of art nouveau curves against which the costume palette uses mainly browns and an eye-catching turquoise. Howes sports two outfits, which I’m afraid put me in mind of Mr Toad, in green. Neither man seems to possess formal town clothes for the Act One tea-party.

Comedy, even farce – which this is not for all its cascades of wisecracks and ludicrous situations – needs a featherweight touch if we are really to feel inside the joke and not just experiencing it at a remove. Everyone on stage comes over as trying just a bit too hard.

Hannah Louise Howell’s Gwendolyn is the most sophisticated of débutantes; her expressions as she follows her mother’s exchanges with Algy and Jack are an object lesson in reaction. Louise Coulthard’s Cecily suggests just the right amount of steel to dilute her apparent wholesome winsomeness.

Playing Miss Prism as a flask-swigging gorgon does Susan Penhaligon no favours while Simon Shackleton’s doubling of Lane and Merriman fails to differentiate between the two trusted retainers. Geoff Aymer’s Canon Chasuble doesn’t really fit comfortably into the second and third acts.

It’s only fair that most of the audience seemed to love it, laughing heartily at Algy’s insatiable appetite and Jack’s increasingly frantic to keep control of his rickety raft of contradictory situations. Gwen Taylor’s swoops to the forefront as Lady Bracknell, one with rather more of a sense of humour than is sometimes allowed, and the ability not to stumble over the “handbag” tripwire.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Importance of Being Earnest continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 14 April with matinées on  12 and 14 April.

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Quartet

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 3 April

“If only youth knew, if only age could…” It’s as true in 2018 as 500 years ago. In many ways it sums up Peter Rowe’s touring production of Ronald Harwood’s “Quartet”, the story of four once-famous opera singers living their last years (until shunted off into specialist care) in a retirement home for retired musicians.

Three are reasonably long-term residents. Reginald Paget (Jeff Rawle) is an embittered tenor, who once itched to sing Wagner but whose career confined him to the 19th century Italian repertoire. Baritone Wilfred Bond (Paul Nicholas had been viewed as a plausible successor-rival to Gobbi.

Mezzo-soprano Cecily Robson – “Cissie” – played by Wendi Peters teeters on the brink of Alzheimer’s, much to the concern of the two men who recognise that their NSP motto (no self-pity) cannot stretch to the home’s requirement that residents must basically be able to lead independent lives.

They squabble, Bond fantasises about sexual adventures past but not present or future and look forward to the performance all are required to give on 10 October to celebrate Verdi’s birthday. Then new resident Jean Horton (Sue Holderness) arrives. She was a much-lauded soprano who quit at what seemed to be the height of her powers – and fame.

Rowe’s direction paints all this with a broad brush which at times has the peculiar effect of distancing the four characters from our understanding, and so our sympathies. Rawle’s real pain at now being forced to rub shoulders on a daily basis with his ex-wife does come over clearly but some of the humour still seems forced rather than natural.

Peters dodders amusingly enough as Cissie while Holderness radiates the crumbling arrogance of the diva clinging onto past glories. Nicholas is successful in showing us a performer able to step occasionally outside the personality he once inhabited to accept the realities of what is now and (inevitably) will have to be.

There’s an excellent set by Phil R Daniels and Charles Cusick-Smith which gives the impression that the comforts afforded by the home are superficial rather than actual. The costumes donned by the quartet for the Verdi have an air of something salvaged from one of those cash-strapped touring companies I remember from the 1950s.

Broad brush-strokes may account for the awkwardness of the karaoke-style performance of the Rigoletto quartet with which the play ends. I don’t recall audience titters from either the 1999 London première or the 2010 tour which in Rowe’s production swamp the actual music. But memory is a fallible thing, especially as one grows older.

Four star rating.

Quartet runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre as part of a national tour until 7 April with matinées on 5 and 7 April.

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Our Country’s Good

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 30 March

Ramps on the Moon is a collaboration between six national producing theatres and the Graeae Theatre Company, which is a pioneering company for disabled artists. Both Graeae and the New Wolsey Theatre have been forerunners in this movement for a number of years.

The latest touring production is of Our Country’s Good, the play by Timberlake Wertenbaker which she based on Thomas Keneally’s novel about the 18th century convict deportation settlement in Australia The Playmaker. It concerns a young officer’s staging of Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer with a cast made up from the pickpockets, thieves and drabs.

If the convicts at first seem without hope, the Marines and soldiers who guard them have also found themselves beached up in an inhospitable terrain. Animosities on both sides flare as we watch Lieutenant Clark (Tim Pritchett) try to weld his cast into cohesion, and fall in love while doing so.

Director Fiona Buffini has integrated sign language and surtitles with the action to mirror the dialogue. It makes for a busy production, rather too much so when one is aware of three screens with the dialogue as well as constant signing by nearly all the cast and, of course, the actual spoken words and naturalistic action.

This multi-tasking on the part of the audience as well as the cast makes concentration difficult at times. There are some excellent performances, notably as guilt-haunted Harry Brewer by Garry Robson and Fergus Rattigan as the hangman Freeman, nicknamed “Ketch”.

Kieron Jecchinis is Arthur Phillip, the Governor whose vision includes redemption as well as punishment, an attitude which Colin Connor’s Major Ross finds both alien and misguided. Fifi Garfield plays Dabby, the oldest of the convict women while Emily Rose Salter’s Duckling, the girl acquired by Brewer, is also effective.

Mary Brenham is the young woman Clark casts as the play-within-a-play’s heroine Silvia and to whom he becomes attracted and Sapphire Joy suggests all her fragility as well as willingness to learn. Gbemisola Ikumelo’s Liz Morden is loud-mouthed and pugnacious, always ready to make a point with actions rather than words.

The set by Neil Murray, largely decking planks backed by the bushes and shrubs which  those early settlers must have found so strange, works well and allows for quick scene changes. Jon Nicholls’ soundtrack suggests the eerie noises of the outback and the sea so barrenly licking at the sandy shoreline.

Three and a half-star rating.

Our Country’s Good runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 7 April with matinées on 4 and 7 April.

 

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