Monthly Archives: October 2018

Macbeth

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 30 October

It’s the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies and, on the surface, perhaps the most straightforward. A successful, loyal general is seduced by prophecies and egged on by an ambitious wife. He kills his king, takes the throne, disposes of those who might threaten him – and then unravels into death.

Macbeth was written at a dark time, as the newly-crowned James I eased himself onto Elizabeth’s throne and the Gunpowder Plot proved just one of the challenges to the crown. Rufus Norris’ production for the National Theatre presents us with a world where small countries’ conflicts can spillage dangerously.

Designer Rae Smit depicts this as a dark grey causeway with its paving flaking. Poles, suggesting those gallows-trees familiar from Callot engravings, support flutters of crow-torn rags. The witches (Elizabeth Chan, Evelyn Roberts and Olivia Sweeney) writhe up these as they contemplate the evil past and to come.

Sparse rooms suggest castles and dug-outs where comfort takes second place to security. Paul Pyant’s lighting adds to the sense of embattled menace. Only briefly, in the scene with Lady Macduff (Lisa Zahra), her son and her cousin Ross (Rachel Sanders) does a suggestion of normal domesticity appears briefly.

Kirsty Besterman’s Lady Macbeth is the dominant performance, radiating a dangerous level of tightly repressed frustration on many levels. Michael Nardone as Macbeth almost matches her, but not quite manages it. There’s an excellent Banquo by Patrick Robinson, suggesting the inner ease which Macbeth has probably never experienced.

The sleep-walking scene, with Reuben Johnson’s doctor and Sweeney’s gentlewoman petrified by what they see and hear is magnificently played. Tom Mannion’s Duncan, swathed by costume designer Moritz Junge in eye-blasting scarlet (Macbeth’s assumption of the regal colour appears far more tentative) is impressive.

Shakespeare wrote for a time and a place. His universal appeal over four centuries later shows that this transforms into many cultures, languages and eras. Ambition, and the illnesses which attend it, have no boundary of place or time. We watch in horror – but also with recognition. A play for all seasons.

Four and a half-star rating.

Macbeth runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 3 November with matinées on 1 and 3 November.

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Fame

reviewed at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich on 29 October

Fame is a dangerous as well as elusive will-o’-the-wisp. What does the word really signify? Pre-eminence or notoriety? The pinnacle of achievement or merely its distorted shadow?

Wrapped in a dance-musical about aspiring students at an 1980s performing arts academy in New York, this is the story of young people with hopes and dreams all too aware that most of them are training only to be unemployed.

This new touring production is fast-moving with spirited direction and choreography by Nick Winston. The young cast radiate commitment and create thoroughly believable characterisations as we focus on personal and professional dilemmas.

On the surface Carmen (Stephanie Rojas) has everything going for her. She a talented lyricist as well as performer, but becomes hooked on drugs to enhance her performance.

Budding composer Schlomo (Simon Anthony), lovelorn Serena (Molly McGuire), show-off Joe (Albey Brookes) and chip-on-shoulder Tyrone (Jamal Kane Crawford) are all excellent, as are Hayley Johnston’s Mabel and Keith Jack’s career-dedicated Nick.

Mica Paris as Miss Sherman, a disciplinarian who really does care that her students will have a future and Katie Warsop as dance instructress Miss Bell are the main adults with whom we engage.

Ultimately, this is a show which relies on its younger performers for its impact. They don’t let us down.

Four star rating.

Fame runs at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich until 3 November with matinées on 31 October and 3 November. It is also at the Milton Keynes Theatre between 24 and 29 June as part of an extended national tour.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & opera, Reviews 2018

The Boy in the Lighthouse

reviewed at the Hostry Festival, Norwich on 24 October

Lighthouses are beacons of safety. They are positioned to warn of submerged hazards and the tumultuous seas which crash over them. Refuges – but perhaps in some ways they are also prisons.

This year’s Hostry Festival organisers, the PBSK Partnership in association with the University of East Anglia and Booja Booja, have commissioned an immersive piece of movement theatre from Total Ensemble Theatre Company and Rebecca Chapman.

With the audience on all four sides of the acting area, sounds, lighting and storm-seas colours for the simple costumes focus our concentration on the drama. The title character, played by Hugh Darrah,  is a solitary teenager, who cannot remember a time when the lighthouse was not his restricting shelter.

On the disused pier which abuts it a solitary semi-automaton fortune-teller (Aamer Raza) also seeks identity answers. As does an old mariner (Peter Barrow) nursing the remains of his pet crow (Lexi Watson-Samuels). But the sea is cruel, and its currents do not always follow human intentions.

The boy’s quest leads him to hot, war-torn countries where answers need to be pieced out of fragments. The fortune-teller also will gain the knowledge – and the peace – which he craves. It is very suitable that the myths of the sea and the distant lands to which it leads are here drawn from many cultures.

Four star rating

The Boy in the Lighthouse runs at the Hostry, Norwich Cathedral until 27 October.

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Filed under Ballet and dance, Circus & physical theatre, Reviews 2018

Beauty and the Beast

reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Complex on 22 October

Ballet Theatre UK has developed an important niche – bringing classical ballet with fresh choreographic and production values to smaller venues. These are not cut-down versions of the repertoire classics but full-scale dance-dramas in their own right.

Take the latest production, Christopher Moore’s Beauty and the Beast. It’s a familiar story which we know best in its 18th century French origin or through Christmas pantomimes. As with so many well-love “fairy tales”, it also echoes classical myths.

Costume designers Daniel Hope and Val Plant use a Fragonard-derived palette for Beauty and her greedy sisters, while the Beast, the Enchantress and their entourages are burnished in bronze and gold. Martyn Plant’s set is simple – screens consisting of rose-entwined coils of  silver, like the decoration of a Book of Hours.

A chair or a chest are the sole items of furniture and do not distract from the dancing. Moore’s choreography gives his cast opportunities to shine. The dancers respond with neat, precise footwork and jumps as well as the discipline needed to create floor patterns – not that easy to maintain given the variety of venue stages.

Some of the lifts in the performance which I saw looked awkward, and not every tour en l’air finished as cleanly as intended. The story allows for dance-classic and realistic mime with the Enchantress (Ana Caroline Feerer) every bit as imperious as Giselle‘s Myrtha and the Father allocated a pas de seul as well as acting and ensemble opportunities.

As the heroine, Erin Flaherty displays a good technique and conveys the range of emotions demanded by this principled girl, from her hero-worship of and dependence on her Father through her acceptance of the responsibilities forced on her through the theft of the Beast’s rose.

Ben Crossley Pritchard makes the Beast into a truly tormented soul, with his dual royal and animal instincts constantly warring within him. He is a supportive partner with a flair for solo scenes. The pre-recorded choice of music, drawn largely from Dvořák’s suites, fits the story admirably.

This year (2018) Ballet Theatre UK is celebrating ten years of performance. Its young dancers continue to show commitment and a sense of style. They are also cultivating the art of drawing audience’s into the world of classical ballet, with the display never outweighing the art.

Four star rating

Beauty and the Beast tours nationally until 10 February 2019, including the Grove Theatre, Dunstable (28 October), the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (19-21 November, the Towngate Theatre, Basildon (13 January) and the Broadway Theatre, Peterborough (2 February).

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Silence

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester on 17 October

Wars, especially global ones, throw up a lot of wreckage. This includes human wastage, bilateral damage as the bland phrase has it. Small fry entangled in this horror sequence tends to be overlooked.

Nicola Werenowska’s new play Silence, a co-production with Salisbury Playhouse’s Wiltshire Creative  and Liverpool’s Unity Theatre, explores three generations of Polish-origin women and their contrasted ways of dealing with life’s traumas.

Both German and Russian occupations of the country, itself something of a political football since the Middle Ages, caused immense suffering and forcible displacement.

Maria, the grandmother of this story, has largely kept silence about the depths of her personal agonies first in Poland and later in Siberia. Her daughter Ewa has a rocky marriage in Reading and Anna, her daughter, is a typical young woman of the early 21st century.

Director Jo Newman and her designer Baśka Wesolowka balance the complexity of the stories and characters’ revelations with a taut simplicity. Scenery consists of three grey chairs backed by grey screens. Costume changes are kept to a minimum, simply reflecting different times and places.

The three actresses – Tina Gray as Maria, Kate Spiro as Ewa and Maria Louis as Anna – all inhabit their rôles from the heart out; they make these women’s contrasted dilemmas and their equally different ways of coping with them moving as well as credible.

Four star rating.

Silence runs at the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester until 20 October. There are matinée or early evening performances on 18, 19 and 20 October. The tour continues until 17 November including the Norwich Arts Centre (23 October) and the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich (5 November).

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 16 October

This is probably Mischief Theatre’s most extravagant offering in its series of theatrical-mishap comedies to date in this new Birmingham Repertory Theatre production. The set (David Farley), quick-change costumes (Roberto Surace), lighting (David Howe) and quirky clever special effects provide part of the visual spectacle.

Split-second timing by an ensemble whose members know just how to play off each other enhances this; tour director Kirsty Patrick Ward keeps tight control. There are visual, as well as plot, nods to Hitchcock (The Birds) as well as to other heist capers  such as The italian Job and Topkapi.

Technical (Alan Bartlett) and stunt (Jami Quarrell) consultants help to keep the audience’s eyes focused and minds engaged – there’s one particular sequence in the second half which is an absolute show-stopper (though you’ll have to see the show to work out what it is).

Of the cast, with several changes from the printed programme, Julia Frith as free-spirit, go-getter Caprice makes a lively “heroine” with Eddy Westbury as her absconding criminal lover Mitch Ruscitti and Damian Lynch as her bank-manager father Mr Freeboys.

Also extremely active are Ashley Tucker as a sort of chorus to the action, David Coomber as criminal sidekick Neil Cooper, Killian Macardle as police officer Randal Shuck, Jon Trenchard as Warren Slax and George Hanniagan as the accurately-titled Everybody Else.

Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, as always for Mischief, are the writers.

Four star rating.

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 20 October with matinées on 17, 18 and 20 October. The tour also includes the Milton Keynes Theatre (20-24 November) and the Cambridge Arts Theatre (19 February-2 March). Cast details may vary.

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The Mariner

reviewed at the Headgate Theatre, Colchester on 12 October

Samuel Taylor Coleridge is probably as much remembered by the general public today for his troubled life and opium addiction as for his verse and association with Wordsworth’s circle.

Of his poetry, the most likely to be known is The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a chilling timeless sea-farers’ tale cast in a deliberately antique format. Pat Whymark’s new play, into which she weaves her own and Emily Bennett’s music, sets The Rime into a biographical narrative.

Richard Lounds makes Coleridge into a slightly cherubic, perpetually juvenile figure, forever wanting more from life and relationships than is feasible. He is understandable, even when being irritating. Eloise Kay, who has an excellent singing voice, plays his long-suffering wife Sarah.

From the beginning of their marriage, Coleridge seems to have seen their partnership as one in which he made all the rules. Sarah was supposed to rear their children, keep house without a regular income, act as his inspiration – and follow him up to the Lakes as a full member of Wordsworth’s coterie.

The opposite sort of woman is personified by Bennett’s Mrs Bainbridge, Coleridge’s non-nonsense London landlady and Wordsworth’s devoted, free-spirited sister Dorothy. Coleridge’s equally-addicted friend Thomas De Quincey, himself engaged in a love-hate relationship with Wordsworth’s circle, is sharply personified by Anthony Pinnick.

Whymark presents this chronicle in a series of exchanges between Coleridge, Mrs Bainbridge, Sarah, De Quincey, the Wordsworth siblings and finally with the doctors who offer to manage his addiction.

The thread upon which this string of faceted beads is strung is The Rime itself. Julian Harries’ recitation is glossed by Coleridge’s own prose annotations; between them they make the familiar, often parodied poem as chilling as its author intended.

Four star rating.

The Mariner is at the Headgate Theatre, Colchester on 13 October with a matinée performance. The tour continues until 11 November and includes the Jubilee Centre, Mildenhall (15 October), the John Peel Centre, Stowmarket (17-18 October), Zinc Arts, Chipping Ongar (19 October), Southwold Arts Centre (24 October), the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh (25 October), the Corn Hall, Diss (26 October), the Seckford Theatre, Woodbridge (2 November), the Cut Arts Centre, Halesworth (6 November) and the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich (7-9 November).

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Filed under Music Music theatre & opera, Plays, Reviews 2018

The Habit of Art

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 8 October

When does a poet or composer know when he has come to the end  of his powers? Is it the brain or the body which dictates the time? Does he just lay down his pen and opt for garnered laurels in a comfortable semi-retirement?

That’s the issue in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, a play within a play focusing on poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten at the end of their days. The fictional playwright has made Humphrey Carpenter (biographer of both Auden and Britten) into a framing device.

We’re in a typically chaotic rehearsal room Adrian Linford is the designer) with the stage manager standing in for the absentee director and the intense young author of Caliban’s Day increasingly paranoid about what the actors are doing with his carefully honed script.

Not only is the elderly actor playing Auden missing cues and needing endless prompts, but a couple of the younger cast members feel that they can bring more, much more, to the characters they play.

You can see why this is not one of Bennett’s most revived plays, but it rewards attention, as much as to what is unspoken as to what is actually said. Neither poet nor composer feel that their long-term partners (Kallman and Pears respectively) are as supportive as they want (or indeed, need).

The actors taking these parts, as well as the satellite cast, are equally dissatisfied in their individual ways. So Matthew Kelly’s superb Auden accepts his comfortable sinecure at Christ Church, Oxford while Fitz (the actor playing him) settles for supermarket voice-overs.

Donald, who takes the Carpenter rôle (John Wark), wants to build up his part. Auden’s rent-boy Stuart (Benjamin Chandler) feels that he also can add something to the production. Robert Mountford’s Neil, the playwright, just wants his script to be performed uncut with the emphases which he, not the director, dictates.

Trying to hold it all together are no-nonsense company stage manager Kay, to whom Veronica Roberts gives precisely the right combination of sympathy and authority and ASM George, played by Alexandra Guelff as a dogsbody with yearning to perform.

In the background until the second act is David Yelland’s Henry, playing Britten. He knows that Death in Venice will be his swan-song in many ways, a paean to vanished youth and the brightness of expectations. It’s a remarkable, unselfish performance, suggesting layers of masking as well as built-up sadness.

Director Philip Franks makes all Bennett’s tiers of make-belief and sadness credible for an audience which is not necessarily fully conversant with Auden’s or Britten’s work. You do need to concentrate, but that’s a good thing in the theatre. After all, all life’s a stage.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Habit of Art runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 13 October with matinées on 10 and 13 October. The tour also includes the Cambridge Arts Theatre (29 October-3 November) and the Palace Theatre, Westcliff (19-24 November).

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