Monthly Archives: May 2018

Hard Times

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 16 May

Northern Broadsides have a winning way with their adaptations of now classic plays and novels. The latest is Deborah McAndrew’s version of Dickens’ Hard Times.

The 1854 original was an indictment of the soulless factory system which blighted so much of recently industrialised England, the less-than-caring entrepreneurs it produced and the mind-numbing routines of rote-learning education and repetitive work.

Into Coketown, dominated by self-made factory owner and banker Josiah Bounderby (a magnificent performance by Howard Chadwick which deservedly takes centre stage), comes Mr Sleary (Paul Barnhill)’s Circus. It’s arrival is particularly resented by retired wholesaler Thomas Gradgrind (Andrew Price).

Price gives a well thought-out characterisation of the man who has founded a school and educated his two children in the service of pure utilitarianism. In their different ways, both young Tom (Perry Moore) and Louisa (Vanessa Schofield) rebel.

The catalyst comes when young Cecilia Jupe, pet name Sissy (Suzanne Ahmet) is sent to the school by her clown father. Ahmet captures Sissy’s dilemmas, torn between the apparent freedom of the circus – which itself requires discipline but carries insecurity – and the stability offered by the Gradgrind household.

Any Dickens story has a supporting cast of grotesques and devious-doers. Here we meet ailing Mrs Gradgrind (Claire Storey), fallen-on-hard-times Mrs Sparsit, Bounderby’s housekeeper (Victoria Brazier) and Mrs Pegler (Storey again), all of whom want more from the men of their acquaintance than they receive.

On the make in very different ways are bored society man Mr Harthouse and snooping bank employee Bitzer (a fine double by Darren Kuppan). Virtue is personified by mill-hand Stephen Blackpool (Anthony Hunt) and his platonic love Rachael (Brazier).

Louisa is lusted after by Bounderby as well as Harthouse, and Schofield gives us a portrait of a young woman stifled between duty and a scarcely comprehended yearning for a wider life – of the mind if not the body.  As Moore shows, Tom is oblivious to anything but his own selfish wants, including alcohol and money.

Conrad Nelson’s direction is fast-moving and his score evokes the place and the period; the musical director is Rebekah Hughes. Designer Dawn Allsopp seconds them with a set which allows seamless movement between locations, well lit by Mark Howland.

There are a couple of stage adaptations of Dickens’ novels currently on tour. If you can only see one – then go for Hard Times. This version brings characters which may b unfamiliar, even formulaic to full three-dimensional life. After all, Dickens wrote a paon to the power of imagination as well as a cracking good story.

Four and a half-star rating.

Hard Times continues at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 19 May with matinées on 17 and 19 May.

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Put Out the Lights

reviewed at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich on 10 May

How far are you prepared to go for your beliefs? It’s as pertinent a question for the 21st century as it was for the early modern period and (then as Now) has an international dimension.

Joanna Carrick’s new history play, the second of a trilogy, centres on three people living just north of Ipswich and begins when Thomas Cromwell was Henry VIII’s Secretary of State and forwarding the dismantling of shrines and religious houses.

We first meet Alice, Alexander and Edward as children. She’s a farmer’s daughter, Edward Driver is a farmer’s son in Grundisburgh and Alexander Gooch is apprenticed to a Woodbridge weaver. All three are literate to some degree and Alexander has access to the Bible in English and to Protestant tracts.

Edward is more inclined to the old Catholic ways; his mother had a particular devotion to the shrine of Our Lady of Grace on Ipswich’s Lady Lane which has just been demolished. We encounter them again as young adults.

Time has deprived Alice of both father and mother and she is struggling to make the family farm survive by herself. Alexander has become more of a religious fanatic as he crosses regularly to Flanders, bringing back a much more fundamental sense of faith.

Marriage to Edward eases one of Alice’s problems. But her increasing attraction to Alexander’s faith, perhaps subconsciously fuelled by a latent attraction, draws her away from Edward’s much more conformist stance.

The young Alice, Alexander and Edward are very well played by Red Rose Chain’s youth theatre – Ellie Allison, Charlie Drake and Ted Newborn. Their adult incarnations are led by Isabel Della-Porta.

She lays bare for us the spiritual journey of a woman prepared to burn rather than submit to Mary I’s attempt to wrest the country back to rigorous Catholicism. Oliver Cudbill radiates Alexander’s fervour with all its charisma and sense of absolute righteousness.

Ricky Oakley’s Edward is a finely detailed study of a man who can understand that reform is needed but would so much prefer to live his life as is most traditional and comfortable. The barn set suggests this sense of timelessness.

The Ipswich Martyrs went to the stake with Protestant prayers; Edward, heartbroken at his wife’s faith, tries to exorcise it with the Ave Maria.

Four and a half-star rating.

Put Out the Lights runs at the Red Rose Chain’s Avenue Theatre, Ipswich until 27 May. There are matinée performances on 12, 13, 19, 20, 26 and 27 May.

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Neighbourhood Watch

reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 9 May

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” – the proverb sums up one of Ayckbourn’s darkest comedies Neighbourhood Watch.  It has been revived in a new production by Catherine Lomax which builds slowly to a dénouement not completely foreshadowed in the prologue.

The climax even so is not necessarily what the audience might expect from the epilogue. Both are spoken  by Catherine McDonough’s Hilda Massie, the devout spinster sister who moved with her sibling to the Bluebell Hill Development some months earlier in search of tranquility and pleasant neighbours.

Martin (Ben Eagle) and Hilda have invited these neighbours to their housewarming, but the guests soon make it clear that this apparent Eden is menaced by a “sink” estate close by.

Most vociferous are retired security man Rod Trusser (Paul Lavers) and former local newspaper contributor Dorothy Doggett (Sarah Simpkins), a woman with a nose for scandalous gossip.

Brash Luther Bradley (Richie Daysh) and his abused (verbally and physically) wife Magda (Elsie Fallon) soon make their presence felt. The Jenners – Amy and Gareth – have a very odd relationship. He is an engineer with an interest of medieval forms of punishment. She is a free spirit and somewhat promiscuous.

Victoria Fitz-Gerald and Adam Storey make the most of these characters as we watch the real personalities emerge from their initial appearances. Egged on by Trusser, Martin starts a Neighbourhood Watch scheme which rapidly segues into downright vigilantism.

Faith and  (a perhaps natural) authortativeness are the keynotes of Martin’s character; Eagle shows us that the man is not simply a study in sharp contrasts but a potentially rounded human being mis-shaped over the years into a partial caricature of what might, and should, have been.

Ayckbourn has made Magda into one of his little white-mouse wives familiar from other of hs comedies with bite. Fallon paces this very well as the women close ranks to succour her. McDonough’s Hilda is a type we have probably all encountered at same point; she shares a sense of worthiness – not to say, downright obstinacy – with her brother.

Four star rating.

Neighbourhood Watch runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 12 may with matinées on 10 and 12 May.

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Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 8 May

In one way, David Edgar’s revised version of the Robert L Stevenson novella strips the story back to its essentials. In another, he plumps it out with the addition of extraneous characters. Other adaptations have given us a fiancée, her father and a faithful friend. This one presents a widowed sister and her two children.

Kate Saxon’s production also has a street singer, wandering high on a gantry above the main acting level in Simon Higlett’s evocative set. Rosie Abrahams with Richard Hammarton’s haunting minor-key take on folk music acts as a type of chorus to the main action.

Nineteenth century London was dark, indoors and out with Thames mists vying with coal-fire induced fogs. Mark Jonathn’s lighting gives us a proper sense of this. Jekyll’s own home is ruled by Poole, his man-servant, to whom Sam Cox gives a suitably forbidding air of authority.

We meet Jekyll (Paul Daniels) as he visits his feminist-leaning sister Katherine (Polly Frame) in the country. She is trying to sort out their late father’s possessions, including books, an antique mirror and a portrait. He is reluctant to clutter his own life, with its experiments, further.

Back in London, Jekyll’s closest friends are revealed as Dr Lanyon (Ben Jones), who feels that mankind’s ills are best cured through social reform, and the more conservative older Utterson (Robin Kingsland). Jekyll, of course, sees the answer as a scientific one, and so proceeds to experiment on himself.

We know how the alter ego these experiments produce – the mentally warped and degenerate Mr Hyde –  wreak havoc on London’s fog-wreathed streets. Utterson is a near-victim, a MP is another and so is Katherine’s servant Annie (Grace Hogg-Robinson) who has taken “refuge” in Jekyll’s house.

All the performances are good, with Daniels outstanding as Jekyll/Hyde, using his vocal range and commanding presence to effect the changes between the two. The story may indeed turn on medical experimentation, with all its potential for evil as well as good.

But there’s also a sense of Manichaeist  and Calvinist inevitability – the sense of light and darkness, of the elect and the rejected – as well as centuries-old superstitions about reflecting the human face which are probably even older. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is meant to trouble as well as thrill us. Here it succeeds.

Four star rating.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 12 May with matinées on 10 and 12 May.

 

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Our Blue Heaven

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 6 May

If you’re an older Ipswich resident with an interest in football, then 6 May 1978 is probably a date etched indelibly into your consciousness. That, for the rest of us, is the day on which Ipswich Town Football Club won the FA Cup at Wembley Stadium.

Obsessions, whether with sport, music or anything else, are very odd things. They have the ability to obscure, even blot out, everything else. Based on actual recollections of the Final and the matches leading up to it from individual fans, Peter Rowe has constructed the stories of three interlocking families.

The central one is the Coombes family. Father Paul (James Daffern) is out on strike, so money is tight and the main breadwinner is his nurse wife Sheila (Sarah Whittuck). Teenage daughter Sue (Anna Kitching) is supportive of her father – and even more so of Ipswich Town. Older daughter Mel (Josie Dunn) is about to get married to Scott (Joe Leat).

He’s the son of better-off Brain Tillotson (Jon House) and his wife Eileen (Nicola Bryan). Then there are the Traynors – football-obsessed Smudger (Dale Mathurin) and his heavily pregnant wife Ange (Katia Sartini), who is under the care of Sheila Coombes. Smudger – whose enthusiasm is enjoyably put before us by Mathurin – has ideas about both the timing of the birth and the names to bestow on the baby.

Peter Peverley plays the inspirational and charismatic team manager Bobby Robson, linking the club’s progress towards that ultimate goal. The other stand-out performance is that of teenage Kitching, a girl trying to balance all manner of conflicting emotions with a slowly maturing sense of responsibility. Actions do have consequences, as she discovers at an away-game against Millwall.

Designer Amy Jane Cook gives us a minimalised setting with Dan de Cruz’s four-piece band on a platform at the rear of the stage. Musically, it’s all very loud, though the a cappella rendition of “Abide with me” in the Wembley sequence has a magical effect.

Rather than attempting a realistic reconstruction of the series of home and away games, choreographer Tom Hobden has created a slow-motion stylised succession of movement pieces, ably performed by the community chorus wearing neutral black and white strips.

Four star rating.

Our Blue Heaven runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 26 May with matinées on 9, 10, 12, 16, 14, 19, 23 and 26 May.

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Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 1 May

Film to stage show is a trickier combination than it sometimes appears. This is particularly true of musicals. One path to success is to stylise the settings and fully integrate the orchestral accompaniment with the action.

This is what director Douglas Rintoul and designer Joanna Scotcher have done. There’s a false proscenium suggesting corrugated tin, minimal furniture and costumes which rely heavily on black, white and red – not to mention shoals of glitter and gaudy fluff for the drag acts.

Central to the story is Bernadette (Mark Inscoe), the transsexual we meet at her partner’s funeral. Inscoe’s performance has a control that never masks the inner person; this is someone who has encountered nearly everything that life can hurl but keeps a central core of integrity.

Balancing this is Tom Giles’ Tick, the troupe leader who takes them ona cross-country trek to Alice Springs. That’s because his wife Marion (Clara Darcy) wants him to meet his young son Benji (Frankie Day) – oh yes! there is also the small matter of a gap in her casino’s entertainment programme.

The third troupe member is Adam (stage name Felicia), played by Daniel Bailey. he’s the ultimate in camp, one of nature’s stirrers who is bound to find himself in trouble – as he does soon enough in the outback. Bailey’s is one of those over-the-top bravura performances that leave you in two minds – applause wildly, or ring the character’s mischievous little neck.

Musical director Adam Gerber is not evenly served by sound designer Adam McCready; the balance on the opening night was very uneven. Michael Cuckson as Bob, the mechanic who manages to get the tour bus Priscilla back on the road (or as much of a road as there is) and stays along for the ride is an excellent portrait of a simple man with complex feelings.

Four star rating.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert continues as the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 26 May with matinées on 3, 5, 10, 12, 17, 19, 24 and 26 May.

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