Monthly Archives: November 2018

The Nutcracker

reviewed at the Norwich Theatre Royal on 21 November

It’s a popular ballet at this time of year, the story of a Christmas festivity with many layers of meaning. It’s also a ballet of two acts which is notoriously difficult to fit nto an over-arching cohesion.

Act One is all story, with dancing. Act Two can then seem like a succession of divertissements with little relationship to what has gone before. David Nixon’s Northern Ballet binds the two acts more closely than many productions.

Here Clara (Rachael Gillespie) is a teenager not much junior to her sister Louise (Minju Kang). So she dances en pointe throughout, distancing herself from the younger members of the Edwards family’s party.

The period is Regency and the place is England. That allows for uncle Drosselmeyer (Mlindi Kulashe) to conjure up an orientalist fantasy world both at the party and in the gardens beyond the clouds. Louise and her suitor  James (Javier Torres) fit into this quite logically as the Sugar-Plum fairy and her cavalier.

Some of the costumes have been redesigned for this revival; the whole production looks fresh. Dixon melds his own choreography with some of Ivanov’s original set pieces, but the joins are scarcely discernible.

Gillespie gives us a credible portrait of a girl on the cusp of womanhood, suggesting the tentativeness of that transitional state. She becomes the focus of the dance as well as the drama in Act Two, one which Kang and Torres don’t quite manage to defeat.

There’s a dash of the Lord of Misrule about Kulashe, whether displaying the animated dolls (Kyungka Kwak, Jonathan Hanks and Riku Ito) from his cabinet of curiosities or launching Clare and Ashley Dixon’s Nutcracker prince on their fantasy journey.

Kevin Poeung, Adam Ashcroft, Nina Queiroz da Silva, Gavin McCraig, Abigail Prudames, Conner Jordan-Collins, Harris Beattie and George Liang all do well with the national and character dances. There a real sense of ensemble in the corps de ballet.

Four star rating.

The Nutcracker runs at the Norwich Theatre Royal until 24 November with matinées on 22 and 24 November.

 

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Wise Children

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 20 November

Emma Rice’s new company, named for this launch production, has something of the quirkiness which one associates with her previous nest at Kneehigh. It’s a bold, multi-disciplined stage adaptation of Wise Children, Angela Carter’s last novel, and has a suitably exploited show-business background.

The kernel of the story centres on twin sisters, Dora and Nora. They are possibly the fruit of a one-night stand by actor-manager Melchior Hazard  (himself a scion of a sequence of such theatrical demigods) and a music-hall artiste. From the beginning we are made aware of the geographical and genre hierarchy of early 20th century entertainment.

Rice’s production uses Lyndie Wright’s puppets to represent these infant daughters, and later their putative cousins who may have been fathered by Melchior’s brother Peregrine. Adult Dora and Nora act as a species of chorus as the story unravels, played engagingly by Gareth Snook and Etta Murfitt.

As sub-teenagers, brought up by their grandmother Chance (Katy Owen), they are played by Bettrys Jones and Mirabelle Gremaud and later – in their stunning showgirl manifestation by Melissa James and Omari Douglas. Murfitt’s choreography fits the mood and period before us in perfect harmony with musical director Ian Ross’ pot-pourri score.

The younger Melchior is played by Ankur Bahl, who ages into Paul Hunter. Young Peregrine is Sam Archer, maturing (?) into Mike Shepherd. Patrycja Kujawska is Lady Atalanta, Melchior’s well-heeled, well-connected bride of his later years. The on-stage band is supplemented by the actors’ own instrumental as well as vocal contributions.

Yes, if you haven’t read the book, it does at first seem very complicated – a succession of music-hall sketches. Then the sheer theatricality of the presentation, like a succession of finely-executed transformation scenes draws us into its own slightly off-kilter world. Vicki Mortimer’s set and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting aid the journey enormously.

Theatre – whether minimal or elaborate, bare boards and scarce a fistful of actors or backed by a lavish budget and a cast of thousands – is designed to draw us into another world. That can be realistically represented or symbolically suggested. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. What does is its effect.

Wise Children (the company) has given itself something to live up to. That should be fun to watch.

Four and a half star rating.

Wise Children runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 24 November with matinées on 22 and 24 November.

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Cendrillon

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 14 November

Some folk- and fairy-tale characters have the images of our first encounters with them so firmly fixed in our minds that it is difficult to imagine them otherwise. In Britain, generations of pantomime productions have further reinforced this glue.

Operatically speaking, Rossini’s 1817 Cenerentola with its philosopher-tutor as the deus ex machina, has been permitted to enter the charmed world of this acceptance. Now the Glyndebourne Tour suggests that Massenet’s 1889 Cendrillon attempts to prise the gates wider open.

If you’ve never seen the opera before, which is almost certainly true of most of us in this country, Fiona Shaw’s production creates something of a bewildering introduction. Set designer Jon Bausor makes the staging a matter of deceptive mirrors (not always helped by Anna Watson’s lighting).

Massenet was a supreme master of lush lyricism – the audible equivalent of art nouveau. The sound swirls around us, both from the orchestra pit under Duncan Ward and the large cast on stage. At times the action (including Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes) is overly distracting.

Lucette, the Cinderella of the title, was sung at the Norwich first night by understudy Jennifer Witton, who thoroughly deserved her curtain applause. Another stand-out performance is that of Caroline Wettergreen as the glinting grey-furred Fairy, tossing off her vocalise in steely Queen of the Night fashion.

Pandolfe is Lucette’s loving but basically ineffectual father, and William Dazeley conveys both aspects of the man, especially in his Act Four scenes with his daughter. A battle-axe guaranteed to slice fierce and hard sums up Agnes Zwierko’s stepmother Mme de la Haltière; she sings as well as she acts.

Librettist Henri Cain and Massenet makes the Prince a breeches role; Eléonore Pancrazi takes us effortlessly into his rôle-seeking teenage world where the boundaries between everyday reality (even for royalty) and scarce-perceived yearning extend yet crumble.

The chorus and the dancers blend seamlessly together, thanks to Sarah Fahie’s inventive choreography. Massenet’s skill is in wrapping a diaphanous web of sound around us. I’m not sure that we also need its mirrored reflexion.

Four star rating.

Cendrillon has another performance at the Norwich Theatre Royal on 17 November and is also at the Milton Keynes Theatre on 28 November and 1 December. It plays in repertoire with La traviata (Norwich on 16 November, Milton Keynes on 27 and 30 November).

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The Nightingales

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 12 November

What brings people together in a choir? Once they’re in it, what holds them – or drives wedges between the members? Actor-playwright William Gaminara takes a North Country village a cappella group which on the surface is united with its choir-master and shows what effect a newcomer may have.

Steven (Steven Pacey) is the choir-master in question, a musician whose own ambitions, like his life with wife Diane (Mary Stockley), are not just fading. They’re actively withering. There’s a possibility that an IVF-conceived child might revive and re-bind this relationship.

The other members of the group are thwarted thespian Connie (Sarah Earnshaw), her handyman husband Ben (Philip McGinley) and the new-to-the-area doctor Bruno (Stefan Adegbola). He’s a bright, career-focused Black man, mature enough to shrug off casual racism yet conscious of always being an outsider.

Into the village hall wanders Maggie (Ruth Jones), another newcomer and outsider. She is currently undergoing chemotherapy for suspected breast cancer and the group welcome her, feeling that the choir would itself have a positive and therapeutic effect. Her endless supply of home-made and purchased treats suggests that she’s happy to be included.

But is she? More to the point, is she really ill? And, come to that, is she telling the truth about her own family and past life? The questions push their way into the foreground while Connie pressures Steven into agreeing to enter the choir into a national competition. One she had dreams of being as celebrity. Is this a second chance?

Gaminara has written  six good parts, the sort which actors love to inhabit, but not flesh and blood people. I could perhaps believe that Diane and Bruno might have an affair, that Connie will do anything for that elusive flicker called fame, even that Maggie is either a fantasist or a sick woman (or both), but I failed.

It’s no fault of the cast, notably Pacey and Adegbola, who have a confrontation towards the end of the second act which builds into real dramatic suspense. Stockley and Earnshaw make a good contrast, and McGinley’s happy-go-lucky Ben provides genuine light relief. Jones  at times seemed to be as uncertain as Maggie herself.

Director Christopher Luscombe is well-served by Jonathan Fensom’s village-hall set and quick-change costumes. Music director Luke Bateman regales our ears with an agreeable sequence of unaccompanied song, from the devotional to the popular. These are all very pleasant decorations, but they hang on too flimsy a support.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Nightingales runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 17 November with matinées on 15 and 17 November.

 

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Season’s Greetings

reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 7 November

The time of goodwill to all? Not if you’re planning to spend Christmas with Bernard and Phyllis. Ayckbourn’s wry look at the stresses marriage and parenthood impose when a miscellany of relations comes together doubles as cautionary tale and brutal farce.

Incompetent pacifist doctor Bernard, obsessed with his dire puppet-show for the house-party’s children, starts the festivities off by being at odds with Harvey, his wife Phyllis’ bellicose ex-service uncle over violence in films.

Phyllis drinks too much. Much too much. Her brother Neville is one of those men who tinker endlessly, preferably with other people’s gadgets. His wife Belinda is simply frustrated with life and love (what there is of it).

Enduring yet another pregnancy is Pattie; Eddie her husband is a gormandising layabout more concerned with cadging a job from Richard Munday’s somewhat blinkered Neville than taking his fair share of child-rearing.

And then there’s Rachel, Pattie’s intense and somewhat odd sister. She’s invited Clive, a would-be writer on whom she’s become fixated, as her guest. When he finally appears, he becomes the catalyst for what ensues.

You get the picture. Catherine Lomax’s production keeps the action on the move with a wide set that gives us hall and stairs, the living-room and dining-room. Victoria Fitz-Gerald’s Belinda and Lewis Collier’s Clive make a good central couple.

It is the misfits in the several households who really grab our attention. Paul Lavers’ militant Harvey is suitably lethal while Adam Shorey blithers away as Bernard. Alice Redmond allows Rachel a proper measure of pathos, even while she irritates.

Natalie Harman’s wine-swigging Phyllis comes into her own with the snakes-and-ladders game as Christmas Day ends. Chris Aukett’s Eddie, devouring anything edible in sight, is another infuriating delight.

As Pattie, Naomi Slights evokes understanding; her future – like her immediate past – is a bleak one. You really don’t want to be invited to join any of these people for an extended break; one evening would probably suffice.

The compliments of the season to you, too.

Four star rating.

Season’s Greetings runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 10 November with matinées on 8 and 10 November.

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Shakespeare in Love

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 5 November

It’s a delectable piece of froth which, as is only natural with its authorial pedgree, has mixed in some solid pieces of intellectual know-how to give it crunch as well as sweetness. This stage version by Lee Hall of the Stoppard-Marc Norman film script works splendidly in its own right.

As befits a co-production originating from the Bath Theatre Royal, director Phillip Breen has assembled a large cast deliberately brought into close quarters by Max Jones’ revolving set with its balcony and steep staircase. Tudor London was an over-crowded milieu; privacy was a luxury at any level of society.

You probably know that the action begins with would-be dramatist Shakespeare (Pierro Niel-Mee) experiencing a bad attack of writer’s block. His alter-ego Marlowe (Edmund Kingsley) has no such problem. Lurking around the floorboards, playing his own games (and all sides against each other), is teenage Webster (Jazmine Wilkinson) – not a nice child.

Niel-Mee gives us a rounded portrait of a young man beset by deadlines from theatre managers who know that they want (and think the public does also) as well as bills and family responsibilities he’s endeavouring to keep at a distance.

Imogen Daines is Olivia, a merchant’s daughter about to be traded into marriage with Lord Wessex Bill Ward),  but yearning to be a actress – or should that be, actor? They make a thoroughly enjoyable hero and heroine, though it’s Olivia who in the end has to pay the heaviest price.

Swaggering the whole length of his gleaming red-clad legs is Edward Harrison’s Burbage (eventually cast most appropriately as Mercutio. Kingsley is his saturnine equivalent; their ends even echo each other.

Giles Taylor as Tilney, Master of the Queen’s Revels) doubles that increasingly frustrated functionary with the part of Olivia’s father. Rob Edwards and Ian Hughes make much of Fennyman and Henslowe respectively. Ashley Gale makes much of a stuttering player.

Also catching the eye – and the ear – are Geraldine Alexander doubling Viola/Juliet’s nurse and the imperious Elizabeth I (given an impressive entrance in the second act through the audience), Rowan Polonski’s Ned Alleyne, Ward’s Wessex and the musical score by Paddy Cunneen.

All in all, this touring production in partnership with Eleanor Lloyd is a thoroughly enjoyable antidote to the dark, dank days of late autumn and early winter.

Four and a half-star rating.

Shakespeare in Love continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 10 November as part of a national tour with matinées on 8 and 10 November.

 

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Haunting Julia

reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 3 November

How do you define a haunting? A person, a place, an occurence, a combination of these – or something even less tangible? Ayckbourn’s 1994 drama Haunting Julia threads its way around the doubtful death of a young composer-pianist

It can never be easy to find that you’ve a fully fledged genius in your family. Difficult enough for Leopold Mozart with an established musical background, or for the Du Prés. Near impossible for a run-of-the-mill North Country working-class family.

There’s pride, of course, but no real understanding or appreciation.  Julia dies while still a student and her father makes a shrine of the student-room in which she died. it attracts visitors, not all of whom have genuine informed curiosity.

Andy, now a music teacher with a career-forging wife, had been close to Julia. Her father Joe has invited him to find out if he too can hear the strange sounds and inexplicable cold which have developed. A third visitor is former janitor Ken, who may – or may not – be able to unravel the mystery.

From which you will gather that this is not straightforward Ayckbourn. Yes, there are moments of humour, not all of which are dark. There are odd, sinister happenings guaranteed to give the audience a jolt or two. By the end of the play, we know much about Julia and her circles. But not everything.

Director Lucy Pitman-Wallace controls her stage with impeccable timing, aided by Jess Curtis’ apparently straightforward set, the sounds conjured up by Paul Dodgson and Mark Dymock’s lighting. Ultimately though the weight of the play is on the three actors.

That’s four, if you count Laura Elsworthy’s voiceover. The three men are played by Sam Cox as Joe, Matthew Spencer as Andy and Clive Llewellyn as Ken. Spencer shows us a man who may once have had potential but has now settled for what he can get without too much struggling.

Cox and Llewellyn offer studies in two types of obsession. If Andy discounts any possibility of the paranormal, Ken embraces it. As he reveals more of his own place in Julia’s life, so out sympathy for and understanding of the character grows.

What personal ghosts is Joe exorcising? Cox draws out the no-nonsense side of the man then gradually overlays it with uncertainties. Is he the real villain of the piece, or is that Andy? The strength of the performances is in leaving us undecided.

“There are more things in heaven and earth…” Also, perhaps, in the space between them. Limbo? purgatory? Or even somewhere even less charted?

Four and a half-star rating.

Haunting Julia runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 17 November with matinées on 8, 10, 15 and 17 November.

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