Our Man in Havana
reviewed in Ipswich on 23 May

Clive Francis’ adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana is a delight, especially when performed by four actors of the West Country-based touring ensemble Creative Cow. This is ensemble playing at its slickest, with taut direction by Amanda Knott and a deceptively simple set by Nina Raines imaginatively lit by Derek Anderson.

As vacuum-cleaner salesman James Wormold (Charles Davies) sees his life in pre-Castro Cuba dissoving around him when his wife walks out leaving him with their affectionate but oh-so-demanding daughter Milly (Isla Carter) and business in stone-floored Havana far from flourishing, his friendship with emigré German doctor Hasselbacher (James Dinsmore) seems his only worthwhile adult relationship.

Enter Hawthorne, a man from Mi5 (Dinsmore), with a financial inducement in connexion with the Cold War then raging. How can Wormold resist? Of course he doesn’t, and the bonuses flow in as he invents first a whole raft of subsidiary agents and suggests some secret weapons-launch construction (these look remarkably similar to vacuum-cleaner parts…).

With Michael Onslow as Wormold’s sevant Lopez and the local police chief Segura, who fancies Milly) – all four actors except Davies play at least seven other roles as well as narrating – the confusion and misunderstandings build to a comedic climax which partly dissolves into genuine tragedy. Carter manages her doubling of Milly and Beatrice, sent from London to try to regulate the Havana situation superbly, but the whole cast is near faultless.

Four and a half-star rating.

Our Man in Havana plays at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 27 May with matinées on 24 and 27 May. It can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmuns between 29 June and 1 July.

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Footloose
reviewed in Hornchurch on 22 May

The energy displayed by the cast of this remastered tour of the stage musical based on the 1984 film Footloose is breath-taking. The whirl of dance and movement, some of it performed while playing a brass, woodwind or stringed instrument, hardly slows down. The current vogue for all-round actors-musicians-dancers has certainly roduced some excellent performers.

In this story of a mother and teenage son, reluctantly moving ten hours’ drive south of Chicago to Bomont when her husband walks out without warning, the older characters have their lyrical moments. Reuban Gershon as Bomont’s pastor Rev. Moore and Maureen Nolan as his wife both have extremely good voices with crystal-clear intonation.

There are also two young couples – Joshua Dowen as displaced Ren, Hannah Price as the Moore’s daughter Ariel and Gareth Gates as farmboy Willard with Laura Sillett as Rusty (who rather fancies him but can’t quite make him react as she would wish) – who give very well thought-out characterisations.

Dowen is all tennage angst, Gates acts as well as sings and dances while both Price and Sillett makes us believe in these two girls. Lindsay Goodhand as Mrs McCormack, having to cope with the financial and emotional fallout from her husband’s desertion, and Connor Going as Chuck, Ariel’s dominating and abusive boyfriend also make their mark.

Matt Cole’s choreography and Sara Perks’ clever settings which allow our imaginations to fill in the physical gaps suit the show perfectly. Direction is by Racky Plews and sound (be warned: it’s loud) has been designed by Chris Whybrow.

Four-star rating.

Footloose runs as the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 27 May with matinées on 25 and 27 May. it can also be seen at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford between 14 and 17 June and at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon from 21 to 26 August as part of the 2017 national tour.

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Not Dead Enough
reviewed at Cambridge Arts Theatre 15 May

Red herrings in thrillers are one thing. Shaun McKenna’s latest stage adaptation of a Peter James thriller not only trails a shoal of thm acoss Sussex’s beaches but adds a whole corkscrew drawer-full of twists and turns to the plot as DS Roy Grace finds that past and present somehow elide in the latest series of murders to land on his desk.

Michael Holt’s two-level set with some atmospheric lighting by Jason Taylor and sound effects by Martin Hodgson take us from the mortury to the police station and across to nocturnal surf-battered pebbled beaches. Ian Talbot contributes what one might define as speed-directing; it’s all so fast and furious that plot and characterisation holes are simply skated over.

There are some very good performances, notably by Laura Whitmore as Cleo, in charge of the mortuary and Grace’s latest “squeeze” and by Gemma Atkins as her vulnerable assistant Sophie. Central to the action is Brian Bishop, whose wife is just one of the victims of violent death to be laid on Sophie’s mortuary table. Stephen Billington gives a deliberately “over the top” performance of this tortured personality; you can see why he provokes Bill Ward’s Grace so much.

In the police station, Grace is supported by his segeant Glenn (Michael Quartey) and PC Moy (Gemma Stroyan). At the end of the telephone is a censorious assistant chief police constable who takes a dim view of Grace’s detecting methods. Dead bodies and the nasty ways in which they meet their fates proliferate. It’s all hokum, of course, but very well presented by a cast which takes it all with just the right touch of knowing conviction.

Three and a half-star rating.

Not Dead Enough runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 20 May with matinées on 18 and 20 May.

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Strictly Murder
reviewed in Basildon on 10 May

It’s April 1939. We’re in a farmhouse deep in Provence. Hitler’s rantings and British peace-or-war ditherings can surely have no impact on the lives of English artist and part-time grape-harvester Peter Meredith or his girl-friend Suzy. Josef, who has strayed into their lives as a derelict from the previous conflict and who dosses down in their outbuildings, may have a different reaction.

This 2008 thriller by the late Brain Clemens ratchets up the suspense quite cleverly. Peter (Gary Turner) has no good reason to give Suzy (Lara Lemon) why they don’t marry. As the radio keeps them abreast of what’s happening so rapidly in the wider world, Peter’s suddenly condenses with the arrival of Ross (Brian Capron), a former detective (or is he?), whose cheery manner hides what could turn out to be a lethal purpose.

Clemens’ son Samuel is the director and knows how to paper over cracks in plausibility. He’s aided by Alex Marker’s excellent set and David North’s lighting which reminds us that this farmhouse is dependent on a somewhat tempremental generator. The performances are all good, with Andrew Fettes’ Josef both pathetic and menacing as the war clouds gather and people have to decide where their loyalties lie.

The second act introduces us to Ross’ identical-twin brother – they are well characterised and subtly differentiated by Capron, who rather walks off with the acting laurels. Corinne Wicks is Miriam Miller, another person who is not what she originally appears to be. Suzy, pregnant with Peter’s child, also holds attention as portrayed by Lemon.

Turner has in many ways the most difficult role; it is hard to warm to Peter even before aspects of his past spill out. But it all holds together with conviction during the performance. And that, after all, is the essence of drama.

Three and a half-star rating.

Strictly Murder can be seen at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 23 and 24 May, the Gordon Craig Theatre between 5 and 7 June, the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 8 and 10 June, the Marina Theatre, Lowestoft on 16 and 17 June, the Grove Theatre, Dunstable on 10 and 11 July and the Key Theatre, Peterborough on 10 and 11 September.

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Miss Meena & the Masala Queens
reviewed 9 May in Watford

“I am what I am” is the central theme of Harvey Virdi’s new play with integral music an dance for Rifco which premiered at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 9 May at the start of a national tour. The theme could be reckoned a controversial one regardless of the ethnic and cultural background of the characters, for its inspiration derives from the British Asian drag queen and LGBTQ communities.

Families – of many sorts – are at the heart of the story. The main character is Abdul, working name Meena (Raj Ghatak), who walked out on his Pakistani father and mother when they refused to accept either his homosexuality or his adoption of a female persona. Now he runs a club in the Midlands with self-interested help from Munni (Jamie Zubairi) and still mourns the loss to AIDs of his life partner. Into the club wander embryonic drag-act Pinky (Vedi Roy) and Preetho (Harvey Dhadda).

Then student Shaan (Nicholas Prasad) turns up. He also has left home and is something of a lost soul; he needs a father-mother figure, a career an an identity. Meena is prepared to help, remembering a bitter past, and Pinky and Preetho are willing to assist. Munni, with a tame councillor in tow (Ali Ariale doubles Kabir and Ranjeet – Meena’s conformist brother) sees possibilities. Financial as well as sexual politics come into play.

Offstage, Meena and Ranjeet’s father is dying. But Meena backs out of making the phone call which might set the father’s mind at rest until it’s too late. Unusually for plays which come into the “special pleading” category, this one has fully rounded characters, so that we can emphasise with the dilemmas which they face. Pravesh Kumar’s direction keeps the action on the move, aided by Libby Watson’s set which switches effortlessly from the tawdriness of a run-down club to the glitter and glamour of a successful one.

Composer Niraj Chag and movement diector Andy Kumar, who also designed the Indian dance costumes, keep our eyes and ears engaged with the ambiance created; Mark Dymark’s lighting, one might say, is spot-on. The first night audience embraced the concept whole-heartedly; I hope this is an omen for the rest of the tour. The main thing is that you need neither to be British Asian nor a drag-act aficionado to enjoy this show.

Four and a half-star rating.

Miss Meena & the Masala Queens runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 13 May before touring nationally until 17 June. There are matinée performances on 11 and 13 May.

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Cyrano
reviewed at Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal on 2 May

Rostand was only 30 when his best-known play Cyrano de Bergerac was staged. This Northern Broadsides version by Deborah McAndrew is called simply Cyrano and decorates the action with considerable song-and-dance, which does slightly obscure the central story. It’s not precisely a musical in Conrad Nelson’s direction (he is also the composer) but does emphasis how young the characters are, including the protagonist.

Christian Edwards tries very hard as Cyrano but for me he fails to convey the deeply multi-faceted character of the proud poet, playwright, swordsman and soldier. Pretty as she is, Sharon Singh doesn’t succeed in making Roxane into more than a shadow of the beauty who wins men’s hearts so effortlessly while maintaining her own integrity. The 13-strong cast does however throw up some three-dimensional character studies.

Notable among these are Andy Cryer’s arrogsnt de Guiche, Andrew Whitehead’s Le Bret, Paul Barnhill’s Ragueneau and Michael Hugo’s Lignière; Hugo has the best of the musical numbers. Adam Barlow, in an odd-looking wig, doesn’t convey either Christian’s boyish good-looking glamour or the character’s basic decency and courage.

Lis Evans has created a succession of reasonably accurate 17th century costumes and a flexible curtain-hung set easily adaptable to indicate the different locations of the five acts and with which lighting director Daniella Beattie plays games. The choreographer is Beverley Norris-Edmunds with fight direction by Philip d’Orléans. The Theatre Royal’s stage is something of an acoustic gem, but that 21st century disease – the mumbles – seems to have afflicted some of the cast.

Three and a half-star rating.

Cyrano runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 6 May with matinées on 3 and 6 May.

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Spamalot
reviewed at Colchester Mercury on 27 April

A musical version of the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail must have seemed slightly strange in 2004, but Eric Idle and his musical collaborator John Du Prez knew what they were doing. Now Daniel Buckroyd has dierected a new production as part of the 2017 Made in Colchester season; a tour is planned.

Eleven performers people the stage with Idle’s recorded Voice of God majestically accompanied by Michelangelo-inspired pointing finger or magisterial foot. The production designer is Sara Perks with costume supervision (there are many quick changes on and off stage) by Corinna Vincent. Carlton Edwards is the musical director for the instrumental quartet.

Most of the cast take on a whole court and army of wildly different characters. Bob Harms as King Arthur, Sarah Harlington as the Lady of the Lake and Dale Superville as Patsy – Arthur’s over-loaded page – are the exceptions. Both Harlington and Harms have well-trained singing voices which carry both notes and words effortlessly across the auditorium and cope featly with Ashley Nottingham’s choreography.

This involves a deliciously ecclectic mixture of styles from country dance to cabaret high-kicks – Sally Firth and Gleanne Purcell-Brown stand out as two showgirls – but the male members of the cast also make the most of the steps they are given. The sets are simple but very effective with imaginative lighting by David W Kidd to make some memorable stage pictures.

Daniel Cane and Matthew Pennington make the most of Sir Robin and Prince Herbert respectively. Other parts are played by Marc Akinfolarin, John Brannoch, Norton James and Simon Shorten – which is not to ignore the Killer Rabbit (think Trojan Horse in pink with floppy ears) and other puppet woodland creatures.

Perhaps a slight word of warning. Personally, I’d be disinclined to sit in row H seat 20 – and be perpared for some chase and search sequences elsewhere in the auditorium. For those of us sitting elsewhere, it proves to be an evening of fun, music and spectacle. I supect that Colchester has a winner on its stage.

Four and a half-star rating.

Spamalot runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 13 May with matinée performances on 29 and 30 April, 4, 6, 7 11 and 13 May. Check the website www.mercurytheatre.co.uk for tour details as these becomr available.

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Educating Rita
reviewed in Hornchurch on 25 April

How do you react when you’re out of your comfort zone? Some become verbose. Others might take to drink. When we meet onstage the two characters of Willy Russell’s 1980s success Educating Rita (as with the rest of us) their lives are populated with a host of people who may be physically offstage but become just as real as Rita and her reluctant Open University tutor Frank.

Ros Philips’ production brings the action forward onto a thrust stage with the audience on three sides. I’m not sure that this makes it more immediate, even with Polly Sullivan’s suitably dishevelled set. Sally Ferguson’s lighting design is either deeply symbolic or somewhat perverse; I have a feeling that, on the opening night, it was the latter.

As Frank, Ruairi Conaghan manages to keep the uaidnece’s sympathy, no mean feat when what we are watching is a past poet now a reluctant academic (“those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach”) de-constructing his own life, his partners’ and then what’s left of his second career. Frank is the sort of man interesting to talk to when sober but profoundly irritating when he’s not and indulging in yet another round of self-pity. All this Conaghan accomplishes admirably.

Danielle Flett’s Rita erupts into Frank’s study as a whirlwind of physical restlessness and verbal overspill. Flett establishes this hairdresser who wants to improve her mind with an intensity which makes most of her first act speeches too much of an accented gabble. The part requires some extremely quick costume changes as time passes and Rita grows out of her restrictive home and work life into one which broadens both her cultural and social existence.

Three and a half-star rating.

Educating Rita runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 13 May with matinées on 27 April and 6 May.

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Rapunzel: The Musical
reviewed in Stevenage on 14 April

The Gordon Craig Theatre’s artistic director Catherine Lomax has found a winning streak with both revivals of favourite musicals and the premiering of new ones. Rapunzel has a book and lyrics by Lomax, score by the show’s musical director Phil Dennis and choreography by Khiley Williams; all are listed for book, music and lyrics. The imaginative lighting is by Pete Kramer.

Flexible and effective settings – including the tower where our heroine is imprisoned – are uncredited but costume designer Lisa Hickey has produced a colourful medieval-style array for the principals, the ensemble and the children’s chorus. Karl (Mike Holoway) in “The precious gift of you” and his wife Sophia (Auriol Hatcher) in “Life’s sweetest thing” both have strong voices and act convincingly, though the level of miking overwhelmed the articulation for their main numbers.

Musically it’s a strong score, with the characters clearly identified in their solos and ful-throated ensemble numbers (shades of the man-hunt in Peter Grimes are there in “Find her!” which closes the first act). The book is a literate one, perhaps a little too much so for the youngest audience members, so that we are easily caught up in the plight of the childless couple.

Cameron Leigh’s Gothel, the witch-like woman who strikes her bargain for 16-year old Rapunzel with Karl, is not a straightforward villainess; she longs for a child just as deeply as Sophia and makes this clear in “The love I’m owed”. The puppet woodpecker Viktor, handled and voiced by James Donovan, acts as a commentator on her machinations as well as imprisoned Rapunzel’s only real friend.

That is, until Prince Freddie (Glenn Adamson) chances upon the tower. Both his father King Constanine) and grandmother Queen Ida (Sharon Eckman) want to him to marry royally. As befits a folk-tale hero, Freddie (egged on by his servant and frind Benedict (Ryan Owen) want real love with a real girl and not any of the eligible brides paraded for his selection.

The difficulty with this particular story is that we don’t meet its heroine as a young woman until the day comes for Gothel to claim her fee. Samantha Noel looks pretty and sings “Gilded cage” very well, but her plight fades into insignificance when the fully three-dimensional Gothel, Sophia and Karl take centre-stage.

Four-star rating.

Rapunzel coninues at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Steveange until 17 April with matinée and early evening performances on 15, 16 and 17 April. It returns for a short run between 27 and 30 July.

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The Who’s Tommy
reviewed in Ipswich on 6 April

Ramps on the Moon is a six-year regional theatre project dedicated to integrating disabled performers and audiences with mainstream-calibre productions. Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre and its strategic partner Graeae have spearheaded the initiative. The Who’s Tommy is an object lesson in how this can be achieved.

A cast of 22 performers take all the roles, sing, whirl through Mark Smith’s choreography and play the almost through-composed instrumental score under the direction of Robert Hyman. Director Kerry Michael makes good use of Neil Irish’s flexible metallic set and lighting designer Arnim Friess makes the projections, floor light patterns and spotlightng of key incidents as much an important part of the staging as the action itself.

Central to the story is Tommy himself (William Grint) who is voiced by Matthew Jacobs-Morgan and Julian Capolei. Born after the reported death in action (the story begins in 1941) of Captin Walke (Max Runham), he encounters his father first in a traumatic confrontation between his mother Nora and new stepfather Frank (Alim Jayda). Apparently deaf, dumb and blind he is easy prey for playground bully Cousin Henry (Lukas Aleamder) and thoroughly nasty wheeler-dealer Uncle Ernie (Garry Robson). The unpleasant nuances of the latter’s “Fiddling” are cleverly conveyed.

Within Tommy’s mind, his lost father becomes guide and leader – almost as though they were 20th century eqivilents of Hamlet and his father’s mentoring ghost. Nora’s dilemmas are well mimed by Donna Mullings and sung by Shekinah McFarlane. Sign language, mime and movemen throughout are clarified by projected surtitles, which make following the nuances of the story much easier for all audience members.

Almost on Tommy’s wavelength is wheelchair-bound vicar’s daughter Sally (Amy Trigg), though her over-proective parents (Stacey Ghent and Anthony Snowden) precipitate her ultimate disillusion. Peter Straker is a true scene-stealer as the Acid Queen, a gypsy with much more than fortune-telling up her sleeve, bringing the house down with both her numbers, the second one added for this production.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Who’s Tommy continues at the New Wolsey Theate, Ipswich until 15 April with matinées on 12 and 15 April. It then tours nationally until 1 July, including the Nottingham Playhouse between 19 and 29 April.

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I Capture the Castle
reviewed in Watford on 5 April

Novelists present us with persons, places and situations which our imaginations decorate at our individual pleasures. Dramatists do much of that work for us, and composers of music theatre further colour our attitudes to the story presented. It’s all even trickier when it comes to a favourite book first read when one was a very young adult.

So writer Teresa Howard and composer Stephen Edis have given themselves a problem with Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. I don’t think they’ve solved it. The score is pleasant enough with its touches of Weill and popular 1930s composers, but it’s not one to send you out of the theatre with its tunes lodged firmly in your head. The successive repeats of Cassandra’s opening number act merely as punctuation points.

Both the best musical sequences occur in the second half. One is “Only men” in which New York socialite Mrs Cotton (Julia St John) and her photographer sister Leda (Shona White) make their attitude to the other sex clear. The other is the solo, morphing into a duet, for James Mortmain (Ben Watson) and his second wife Topaz (Suzanne Ahmet) in which his writer’s block and need for a muse are shown to be uncomfortably entwined.

Brigid Larmour’s direction keeps the action mainly in the delapidated castle rented by the Mortmains with seaside excursions to Southwold and culminating in a trip to London’s West End. Shona Morris is the movement director making full use of Ti Green’s precipitous set of staircases and towers. Neil, the wealthy American who now owns the castle, and his brother Simon are particularly well characterised by Luke Dale and Theo Boyce respectively.

As Cassandra (Lowri Izzard)’s older sister Rose, Kate Batter has the more difficult – because less sympathetic – role. Isaac Stanmore as Stephen, the shy boy-of-all-trades who finds himself an artist’s model en route to a Hollywood career, makes his calf-love sncere. But the star of the evening is undoubtedly Izzard as the teenage diarist who records the sheer daftness of her family and will so obviously become a far better writer than her one-novel father.

Three star rating.

I Capture the Castle runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 22 April with matinées on 6, 8, 11, 13, 15, 18, 20 and 22 April. It is a co-production with the Octagon Theatre, Bolton to which it transfers between 26 April and 6 May.

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Casanova
reviewed in Norwich on 4 April

Northern Ballet has never been afraid to present those facets of drama which are not usually fully explored in traditional ballet scenarios. Its latest première is based on Ian Kelly’s biography of Casanova and choreographed by Kenneth Tindall with an original score by Kerry Muzzey, probably best known as composer for film and television.

How you view Giacomo Casanova, the defrocked Venetian priest who fell foul of the Inquisition, led an amormously ramshackle life in various European courts and ended as a count’s librarian in Bohemia, probably depends on which dramatised adaptations of his life and loves (with the emohasis on the latter) you’ve encountered. Between them, Kelly and Tindall have scraped away some of this clutter to suggest a far more intellectual man of the Enlightenment than usually confronts us.

Touring ballet productions tend to simplify the scenic aspects and rely on costuming and lighting. Christopher Oram uses a succssion of moveable black and gilt ribbed panels (pillars or bookcases?) with an ornate baroque picture-frame lowering above. His costume palette concentrates on a complete range of greys, from almost-white to near-black. Reds, purple, gold and blue are reserved for the principal characters.

Alatair West’s lighting pours purple onto the early Venetian scenes and whitens as Casanova’s travels take him to Louis XV’s Paris. Nathan Fifield conducts Muzzey’s score which is often stridently brassy as the brass and timpani weigh in. It suits the story very well and complemens Tindall’s choreography.

This makes much use of lunging steps for the men balanced by equally forceful arm movements. These characterise the Inquisitors in particular. Casanova’s female sequence of lovers at times echo this with their extended arabesques en pointe and in the lifts. Many of these are athletic but not always graceful; the pas de deux with Dreda Blow’s Bellino doesn’t really suggest the love inherent in it.

Giulano Contadini in the title role fully deserves the acclamation awarded it at the curtain call. He acts as well as dances the part, from musical seminarian to disillused philosopher. it’s a rounded portrait of a real man. Of the other roles, Hannh Bateman as the husband-abused Henriette, Victoria Sibson as mme de Pompadour, Javier Torres as Senator Bragadin, Mlindi Kulashe as the Chief Inquisitor and Sean Bates as Cardinal de Bernis are also three-dimensional characterisations.

Four and a half-star rating.

Casanova continues at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 8 April with matinées on 6 and 8 April. it can also be seen at the Milton Keynes Theatre between 19 and 22 April.

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La Strada
reviewed in Cambridge on 28 March

This touring production based on the iconic Fellini film of 1954 has been devised by its performers with direction by Sally Cookson and writer Mike Akers. It is a Belgrade Theatre (Coventry) piece which takes advantage of the circus skills of the cast. So it could be defined as physical theatre; in practice, it’s more theatre of physicality.

La Strada tells the story of a village girl in post-war Italy, sold (as her older sister has been) to a travelling showman to act as his assistant. Naïve Gelsomina (Audrey Brisson) doesn’t want to leave home – she’d far rather listen to the waves – but her mother has four other children to feed, no husband and scant chances of earning a living.

The showman Zampanò is played by Stuart Goodwin. He lives for the moment, is quick to quarrel and quite happy to travel Italy on his motor-bike truck earning something at each stop – and spending it almost immediately. Goodwin has the measure of this unpleasant survivor.

While Gelsomina picks up some tricks of the barker’s trade, she becomes entranced by the collective world of the circus and in particular by Il Matto (its fool or clown). Bart Soroczynski blends skill with just the right amount of other-worldly feyness to make us see why Gelsomina finds him at one level the sort of kindred spirit for whom she was (perhaps unconsciously) waiting – and why he infuriates Zampanò to the point of murder.

The level of ensemble playing – mime, acrobatics, acting and music – is impressive. Matt Costain, Fabrizio Matteini, Sofie Lybäck, Niv Patel, Niccolò Curradi and Tatiana Santini are the players with instrumentalists Luke Potter, TJ Holmes and Tim Dalling. Benji Bower’s score works well as do the settings and costumes of Katie Sykes.

But the focus of the whole story is Gelsomina. Brisson gives full weight to the simple-mindedness which so irritates some of those with whom she’s in contact. But she also shows us the core of the girl, vulnerable in a land and society forced into selfishness by the needs of its time. it’s a finely balanced portrait.

Four star rating.

La Strada continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 8 April with matinées on 30 March, 1, 6 and 8 April.

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Abigail’s Party
reviewed in Norwich on 27 March

Mike Leigh’s play about the residents of a suburban London enclave is now 40 years old. Each revival brings a new and appreciative audience as well as returning admirers, ths proving that this particular social satire is one for all decades and all generations.

We may not want to acknowledge it aloud, but most of us can number at least a couple of Leigh’s characters in our aquaintance. Which is not bad going when you realise that there are only five people on stage, plus of course the offstage teenaged Abigail, who is throwing her increasingly boisterous parent-free party a few doors away.

Queen bee and lynch-pin of the whole affair is Beverly, a wife so mesmerised by her own two-dimensional façade that other people only exist to reflect her appearance, her tastes in music, home décor and social entertaining. Amanda Abbington has the measure of the part; from the moment we glimpse her arranging the room for her drinks party through the windows of Janet Bird’s dolls’ house set, Abbington presents the whole woman.

Dressed in a totally unsuitable white pleated dress, constantly slithering off one shoulder, Beverly makes a god job of upstaging first new neighbour Angela (Charlotte Mills), a nurse whose slightly too-girlish dress only accentuates her comfortable plumpness. Ciarán Owens is Frank, the disenchanted former footballer now computer operator who is natural prey for Beverly.

Both Rose Keegan as middle-class divorcée Susan, doing her best to bring up Abigail and Jeremy with some support from her architect ex-husband, suggests the woman who would love to put Beverly back in her proper place but is too polite to force the issue. when she does do so it is completely ineffectual.

You can see why Ben Caplan’s work-obsessed estate agent Laurence might find in Susan a more congenial spirit than in wife Beverly, though even he tries too hard and too obviously to clamber onto her guarded wavelength. Caplan times Laurence’s develpment as the evning wears on very subtly, from “heard it all before” mild irritation to the downright irascibility as the play reaches its climax.

Sarah Esdaile is the director for this Theatre Royal Bath Productions tour. Bird’s co-designers are Mic Pool (sound, which is very cleverly graduated as the evening wears on) and Paul Pyant (lighting). Blending deliberate articiality with the right degree of realism is a harder visual and audible task than an audience might imagine. I suspect that Abigail will be still throwing her party forty years from now. This production certainly doesn’t impede that progress.

Four and a half-star rating.

Abigail’s Party
runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 1 April with matinées on 29 March and 1 April. It can also be seen at the Cambridge Arts Theatre between 10 and 15 April.

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The Importance of Being Earnest
reviewed Ipswich 24 March

Red Rose Chain’s spring production is a new one by artistic director Joanna Carrick of Oscar Wilde’s best-known comedy. Carrick has provided a framing induction(?) which involves the 1960s descendants of Wilde’s 1890s characters clearing out the old family country home – now too big and too expensive to maintain. Quite frankly, this adds nothing but an extra gloss of artificiality to the play proper, but I suppose such things are in fashion.

This is a theatre-in-the-round staging, which place a special load on the actors, especially when they’re required to engage directly with the audience. The design eam – Carrick, David Newborn, Jack Heydon and Leo George – circulate the prologue, the main play and the epilogue – around a couple of packing-cases, a chaise longue, a tea-trolley and a tin-toned upright piano.

Joanna Sawyer is the musical director and choreographer, and she keeps her cast on the move, notably in the case of Lawrence Russell’s whirlwind Jack (he also plays Chasuble and Frank in the framing scenes). Laurence Pears contrasts lankily as Algernon and a simpering Miss Prism. The men’s quick changes of costume, especially in scenes where both the characters they play are on-stage simultaneously, is a delight to watch.

Of the women, we first meet Sawyer as Frnk’s trendy fiancée, all Carnaby Street mini-skirt and high-boots – not to mention wielding an oversize demonstration banner with theories to match. Her Cecily has a similar sparkle, manipulating her young-girl flounced skirt to devasting effect as far as Algy is concerned. Leonie Spilsbury is the slightly repressed Eloise and the confident débutante Gwendolyn; one has a horrid feeling that she might indeed end up as her mother’s true daughter.

Butlers Merriman (a misnomer if ever there was one) and Lane are doubled by Antony Carrick. At the end, Lane’s nostalgia has something of the dying fall impact of Firs from The Cherry Orchard. Joanna Carrick’s Lady Bracknell tries too hard to make us “get the point”; by this stage in his career, Wilde knew precisely how to let a line work with its hearers, without over-pointing by the actor. Those bare arms for a society matron in daytime clothes also jar.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Importance of Being Earnest continues at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich until 9 April.

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The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart
reviewed 23 March

Folk traditions – especially verse, dance and music – can sometimes seem like a fly caught in amber, museum pieces rather than something alive and evolving. That’s the argument at the heart of David Greig’s Borders-set musical play currently being toured to arts and community centres in East Anglia. There are pefomances in more conventional theatre settings – such as the Quay Theatre in Sudbury (where I saw it) – but Hal Chambers’ production really needs a more informal, in-the-round ambiance.

A cast of four, all of whom sing and play a variety of instruments very well, take all the parts. Prudencia herself (Hannah Howie) is a somewhat up-tight academic concerned to keep Border minstrelsy in its historical place; Walter Scott is her guide for this and in fact a great deal of the dialogue is couched in his metrical narrative rhythmns. Her opposite in attitude is Colin (Robin Hemmings) with his laid-back personality and modernising mission.

Then there’s Nick (Simon Donaldson). Yes, you guessed right – He’s more than just a collector of old books and rare artefacts. Haunting the transition between this world and something more winter-solstice sinister is Elspeth Turner, whose child-puppet sequence is truly eerie. Chambers is a puppet specialist, and it shows superbly here.

Eastern Angles is to congratulated on looking outside its home territory for some of its productions. However, not everything works out of its original territory (Holy Mackerel! a year or so ago is one instance). I found much of the accented dialogue difficult to follow; again, this may partly be due to the venue. Designer Bek Palmer aided by musical director and puppeteer Arran Glass conjure up lecture halls, snow-dredged exteriors, sessions in wayside pubs and book-lined libraries as though by magic.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart tours until 27 May.

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Nell Gwynn
reviewed in Cambridge on 21 March

A historical play – just like a historical novel – is not necessarily a straightforward documentary. The historian has to stick to the known facts, and be prepared to answer for any assumptions to his or her peers. The novelist is controlled by a far looser rein, and the dramatist is given even greater licence.

So Jessica Swale’s version of the life of arguably the most famous actress of the 17th century, Nell Gwynn, never lets the (perilously few) known facts get in the way of a thoroughly theatrical romp. It makes for an enagaging evening’s entertainment, augmented in Christopher Luscombe’s English Touring Theatre production by the Globe Theatre-style set and costume designs of Hugh Durrant and by Nigel Hess’ pastiche score.

This is very well performed by both cast and instrumentalists Emily Banes, Sharon Lindo, Arngeir Hauksson and Nicholas Perry. Charlotte Broom is the choreographer, keeping the stage a-swirl with stamps and turns. There are a number of entrances from the auditorium with the occasional circle and box level interjection; I suspect these work better in playhouse-type theatres than in a less flexible one such as the Cambridge Arts.

Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Nell is a delight, giving the back-street orange-seller turned actress and then king’s mistress real personality as her enthusiasms bubble with scant regard for the status of those at whom she aims them. Her two Charles are Ben Righton as Charles II and Sam Marks as leading-man Charles Hart. Frantically striving to keep everything (and everyone) on the right path are Michael Cochrane as Lord Arlington and Clive Heyward as King’s Company manager Killigrew.

The human-being behind the stereotype is particularly apparent in some of Righton’s exchanges with Pitt-Pulford, in Esh Alladi’s portrait of the rapidly becoming redundant player of women’s parts Edward Kynaston and in the short sequence when Joanne Howarth’s flamboyantly strident Catherine of Braganza suddenly kneels to the king and hushes the house with her echo of Catherine of Aragon’s Blackfriars plea to Henry VIII.

This is history with its own validity, because in two hours has necessarily to concentrate and condense both characters and action while keeping the audience attentive from first to last, simply and basically by entertaining it. You do go away at the end with a certain spring in your step – and that’s probably as good an accolade as any.

Four and a half-star rating.

Nell Gwynn continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 25 March with matinées on 23 and 25 March.

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Getting Dressed
reviewed in Ipswich on 18 March

The stage is dark. Then a bare foot intrudes through a slit in the backing curtain, followed by another at a completely different height. Then yet a third, also apparently disembodied. Hands in a similar fashion follow and finally faces peer out of the gloom at the audience. By now even the most restless child is intrigued.

Suddenly the black floor-cloth and vertical drapes vanish, to reveal a white floor and a translucent backing. Not to mention the three main performers – Ellen Slatkin, Darragh Butterworth and Keir Patrick. heaps of brightly coloured clothes materialise and the dancers strip to their underwear to grab and wear whatever takes their fancy, regardless of sex or shape.

Rosie Heafford’s choreography is athletic, not to say acrobatic at times, with hints of Asian and Middle Eastern dance forms as the costume changes dictate. Hats and headgear of various kinds make their appearance, spilt onto the stage by a quasi-puppeteer figure, as do scarves which can be a stole, a blindfold, a sarong or a veil. The performers turn and stretch, leap and pivot toJames Marples’ and Amir Shoenfeld’s pleasantly atonal score.

Subtle lighting effects by Ben Pacey keep the eye engaged and there is enough humour generated by the sequences of apparently random quick changes to keep a young audience focussed on both the action and Verity Quinn’s plethora of costumes. At just under one hour, this Second Hand Dance production is an ideal length for a show without words and its target audience.

I had the distinct impression that wardrobes would be raided, just as soon as everyone had returned home…

Four star rating.

Getting Dressed continues at the Ipswich Jerwood DanceHouse until 20 March and can also be seen at the Cambridge Junction on 6 April.

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Noël & Gertie
reviewed in Basildon on 8 March

Sheridan Morley’s own definition of his Noël Coward compilation was “an entertainment”. It draws on a variety of material from Coward’s plays, sketches, lyrics and autobiography to tell the story of the loving – if occasionally acerbic – professional and personal relationship between Gertrude Lawrence and himself.

Matthew Townshend’s production is based on the one he staged at Frinton’s summer theatre three years ago. With Helen Power as Lawrence and Ben Stocks as Coward, we are taken back to the developing worlds of 1920s and 30s theatre, including music-hall, revues and musical comedies as well as the plays which are probably Coward’s most lasting legacy.

Both Power and Stock are experienced solo performers. She has a good, sweet voice ideal for “Parisian pierrot” and “I’ll see you again”. She dances imogen Fraser’s choreography well, while he knows how to put over a one-liner as well as sustaining dialogue and giving a stand-alone number such as “Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington” the proper cumulative bite.

The set by Martin Robinson adapts easily between the stars’ dressing-room and the variety of different stages on which they played. Stage managers Alyssa Tuck and Ashleigh German double as dressers and scene shifters as required by the flow of the narrative.

Still Life, one of the Tonight at 8.30 playlets is best known now through its filmed adaptation as Brief Encounter. It makes an impact with the excerpt given in this production, as does part of the opening scene of Private Lives and the famous Red Peppers sketch with its squabbling husband and wife team whose variety act is no longer as crisp and funny as it once was.

For me, the weak link in the programme is pianist Jonathan Lee, who’s much too loud and attacks the music without the throw-away insouciance which is the hallmark of Coward’s compositions. The Towngate Theatre is perhaps not the ideal venue in which to stage Morley’s entertainment, which may have led to a degree of over-compensation in sound management.

Noël & Gertie can also be seen at the Spa Pavilion, Felixstowe on 24-25 March, the Brookside Theatre, Romford on 7 April, the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 11 and 12 April and the Key Theatre, Peterborough on 3 and 4 May as part of a national tour which extends to 13 May.

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Silver Lining
reviewed in Cambridge on 7 March

There’s an extra frisson to being definitely on the wrong side of 70 when it comes to conteplating how one’s last days, moths or even years might be spent. Silver Lining, Sandi Toksvig’s play in English Touring Theatre’s spring repertoire in association with Kngston’s Rose Theatre, addresses this head-on.

We’re in an old-people’s home on the Kent coast. Outside a gale rages (code-named Vera) and the sea threatens to flood the area. Houses have been evacuated, but somehow this care-home (to use the current euphemism) has been omitted by over-worked officials.

Marooned on the first floor are first four then five long-term residents. Not to mention a temporary care assistant who’s just there for the money. You expect to discove details of these elderly characters’ past lives and the effect these have had on their present static situation. This Toksvig gives us, but somehow neither the comedy or the pathos inherent in the predicament in which the old ladies find themselves rings true.

Rebecca Gatword’s production is remarkably busy, considering that wheel-chairs and walking-sticks abound, and the designers – Michael Taylor (set), Mark Doubleday (lighting) and Mic Pool (sound) – also keep our eyes engaged. as, to a certain extent, does the excellent cast.

It is led by Sheila Reid as the trendiest of the inmates, Joanna Monro as June (with more moral hang-ups than she has year), Maggie McCarthy as down-to-earth May, Amanda Walker as a resident defined only by the “St Michael” label inside her dressing-gown and Rachel Davies as fluttery Maureen.

Making an impact in her professional stage début is Heziah Joseph as Hope, the carer from Croydon who isn’t quite sure what she wants from life but knows that this isn’t how she wants it to go. Theo Toksvig-Stewart is another newcomer, playing Jed who might best be described as an opportunist.

Yes, it’s clever and beautifully acted. Yes, the staging is equally inventive. But no, I watched the production with admiration for the various skills so beautifully utilised but never felt engaged with it. “There, but for the grace of God…” should have been edging towards the front of my understanding. Somehow it never happened.

Three-and-a-half star rating.

Silver Lining is on a national tour until 8 April, including the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 14 and 18 March. Performances at the Cambridge Arts Theatre continue until 11 March with matinées on 9 and 11 March

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