Monthly Archives: February 2015

Reviews

Bouncers
(reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop’s Stortford on 26 February)

1986 seems a long time ago, nearly three decades in fact. That’s when John Godber’s Bouncers was first staged by the Hull Truck Theatre with which he was then closely associated. Like its companion piece of a year later Shakers about club waitresses, Bouncers concerns four main characters (whose players then take on many roles, including those of the opposite sex).

Anyone who has been in a town centre on a Friday or Saturday night (or watched documentary footage of the phenomenon) will recognise the set-up. Disco clubs attract a constant stream of young people whose entry to the premises is “vetted” by a squad of bouncers. Even if the punters are sober when they arrive, that seldom seems to be the case when they leave.

Phoenix Theatre School has been set up by the Rhodes Arts Complex artistic director Phil Dale. Fut of its senior students – all aiming for a career in the professional theatre – take the stage in Jeanne Stacey’s production, which has been grant-aided by the Jack Petchey Foundation. From their initial audience warm-up routine to the end of the show Daniel Boulton (Eric), Joseph Vaiana (Judd), Drew Gregg (Ralph) and Will Edden (Les) are a whirlwind of focussed activity.

The bouncers establish their personalities then morph into the sketch gallery of those with whom they are going to have to deal as a slow start to a bitterly cold evening suddenly accelerates. There are titivating girls, some pub-crawling lads and a rather more upmarket ruby-club team; all have drunk a great deal more than is good for them, let alone those who will have to clean up their various messes.

Lynch-pin of the action is bouncer Eric, spotlit for his voiced reflections on life and the way young people go about living (and spoiling) it. Boulton does very well in the part with Vaiana also making his mark. Both Gregg and Edden give committed performances; all four revel in the lightning-quick changes of mood and person. Stacey takes it all at a brisk pace with some precise as well as energetic hip-hop choreography and finely co-ordinated speech rhythms, rap-style verse included.

Bouncers also plays at the Harlow Playhouse 18 to 21 March. John Godber’s own theatre company is at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds(12-14 March) and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester (24-28 March) with his new staging of the play.

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News & previews

Contexture builds on its success in Bishop’s Stortford

Contexture Theatre is now two years old. The company’s name comes from the textile industry and means the weaving together of different fabric strands. Based at the revitalised Rhodes Arts Complex in Bishop’s Stortford, it combines work with the local community with mounting new, fully professional theatre productions.

The founders are Simon Anderson and Gailie Pollock, who are offering seasons of plays (such as last autumn’s Journey’s End) deliberately designed to make the audience aware of both the mainstream and the less obvious repertoire. Appropriately enough for the end of January, Alan Ayckbourn’s wry look at a four-day nightmare of a Christmas get-together Season’s Greetings attracted near-full houses.

In April, Contexture is staging Marie Jones’ Stones In His Pockets, that tragicomedy of a rural Irish village used as a location for a Hollywood blockbuster of the “never let actual history get in the way of a love story” genre. As with Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange and Yasmina Reza’s The God of Carnage in the initial October 2013 season, this is theatre on which you need to concentrate, not just entertainment for two hours.

Bishop’s Stortford has so far found this very much to its taste. Contexture has plans to tour its productions to similar venues as well as expanding its community-based activities. It all comes down to sustainable funding, of course. So far, the level of local support indicates that it’s something worth encouraging on a long-term basis.

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News & previews

Spring brings comedy, history and music to Hornchurch

I’ve had a soft spot for the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, even before covering the opening of the new building and the initial productions under John Cole’s direction some 40 years ago. Any theatre which is on the outskirts of London and within the commuter belt can suffer from an identity crisis as far as an audience is concerned. That’s a trend which Hornchurch prides itself on bucking.

Bob Carlton’s 17-year tenure as artistic director may have ended, but the interim team of chief executive Tom Stanbury and associate directors Matt Devitt and Simon Jessop have picked up on the success of the cut to the chase… repertory company – other than at the large-scale subsidised theatres where do you find one of these nowadays? – and programmed for spring 2015 accordingly.

Now that the opening run of Deadly Murder has ended, the mood changes completely with Devitt’s production of the now-classic Camoletti farce Boeing! Boeing! (6 to 28 March). Judging by a 2013 revival by Talking Scarlet, this vintage comedy of a Parisian bachelor juggling a trio of air hostess mistresses while coping with an unexpected house guest does indeed stand the test of time.

There follows yet again a complete change of mood and emphasis. Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, based on the life of Victorian physical misfit John Merrick, was a searing experience when I first saw it at the Hampstead Theatre in the late 1970s and the film version in atmospheric black and white reinforced that feeling. Jessop directs and it runs from 17 April to 9 May.

Maggie Norris and Paul Kerryson’s 1992 disco musical Hot Stuff brings the cut to the chase… spring season to a toe-tapping finale from 22 May to 13 June. You can also book for Fascinating Aida’s Charm Offensive (15 March), The Essence of Ireland (16 March), Splendid Productions’ version of Büchner’s Woyzeck (23 March) and Moscow Ballet La Classique’s Swan Lake (30 March).

As I said earlier, what’s on the perimeter of London can be just as rewarding as what’s in the centre of town. What’s more, it’s a great deal cheaper.

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Reviews

The Absence of War
(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 24 March)

In The Second Coming, WB Yeats wrote “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. The new touring co-production of David Hare’s 1993 play The Absence of War from Headlong, Sheffield Theatres and the Rose Theatre, Kingston reverses this dictum. The best of the politicians Hare so neatly dissects for us brims over with passionate intensity but it is the ones who manage to suppress any real convictions who succeed.

Dominating Jeremy Herrin’s production is the central performance of Labour leader George Jones by Reece Dinsdale. Jones is so full of his vision of what the Labour Party can be (once it achieves office) that he genuinely can’t see why everyone else is so concerned with making a good impression through carefully selected media opportunities and keeping to committee-agreed sound-bites at all times and in all circumstances.

What on earth can all that matter? Surely sincerity is all? Of course, the voters will recognise that, appreciate it and turn out to elect his party, won’t they? You can recognise the personal charisma which (up to a point) sweeps Jones’ closest colleagues into a defensive hedge around him. Conveying that elusive quality is one of Dinsdale’s major achievements in the role.

Jones’ ever-adaptable deputy is Malcolm Pryce. Gyuri Sarossy makes him eminently credible as the Number Two who knows he would do a better job (for which read electoral success) as Number One. Whereas Jones blithely ignores the advice of his closest advisers – Andrew Buchan (James Harkness) and Oliver Dix (Cyril Nri) – Pryce’s minder Bruce (Theo Cowan) sticks limpet-like to his boss and their mutual ambitions.

Two delicious cameos of the old Labour guard come from Helen Ryan as Vera Klein, a Fabian Society relic, and Barry McCarthy as Bryden Thomas, an old-school Labour MP. Don Gallagher doubles the eviscerating television interviewer Linus Frank and the completely colourless incumbent Prime Minister Charles Kendrick – who of course will go on to yet another electoral triumph.

Amiera Darwish is Mary Housego, Jones’ Press secretary who loses out on one level to Charlotte Lucas’ Lindsay Fontaine, a packager of promotion and publicity. Maggie McCarthy as diary secretary Gwenda Aaron radiates a mixture of acceptance that her boss will never keep to any agreed schedule and care that he won’t thereby damage either himself or the party too much.

It’s a long play though Herrin enforces a brisk pace which is aided by Mike Britton’s deceptively simple design of flown screens, minimal furniture and props as well as the ubiquitous television monitors which remind the politicians on-stage as well as us in the audience that both gaffes and triumphs are nowadays instantly and irrevocably recorded. We begin and end at the Cenotaph ceremony, a ritual apparently outside time. Only the participants change. Losers seldom are given a second chance to shine.

The Absence of War runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 28 February and can also be seen at the Palace Theatre, Watford (3-7 March) and the Arts Theatre, Cambridge (28 April-2 May)

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Reviews

Rigoletto
(reviewed at the Cresset Theatre, Peterborough on 21 February)

This new production by Boris Lagoda of Verdi’s Rigoletto for the Russian State Opera and Ballet of Komi is on one of the company’s whirlwind tours of Britain. That means that it plays in an enormous variety of performance spaces, from theatres with pits to multi-purpose venues, which can offer less than concert hall acoustics.

The Cresset is one of these. Conductor Azat Maksutov’s orchestra, the proper-size for mid-period Verdi, tended to overwhelm the singer on what is a fairly cramped stage, onto which Yuri Samodurov’s flats and set pieces fitted uncomfortably. The costuming doesn’t help; the duchy of Mantua obviously insists on a species of uniform – albeit in different colours – for its courtiers, none of whom can afford scabbards for their swords.

It is the title character, the hunchback jester who pays the price for a joke which rebounds, who excited Verdi’s interest and sympathy. Losing his wife and young children in brutally quick succession is always put forward as one reason why father-daughter relationships are at the core of som many of his operas and elicit some of the best, heart-wrenchingly beautiful music.

Dimitri Karataev seems always to be outside Rigoletto’s personality and, though the Act One, Scene Two duet with Elena Lodygina’s Gilda culminating in “Ah1 veglia, o donna” is a high point in the first half, it really takes the second act from “Cortigiani, vil razza damnata” to bring the character properly to the fore. Though why the marvellous final “Ah, ch’io taccia!” duet has been cut escapes me.

Lodygina, on the other hand, sings beautifully with even “Caro nome” being less of a diva’s show-stopper and much more the musings of a slightly naïve teenager in love for the first time. She also looks right for the part and acts it well. The serpent in this courtly Eden is, of course, its ruler. Monterone (Anatoly Izmalkov) may well curse the jester who mocks his anguish with that description but it’s Ivan Snigirev as the Duke who embodies it.

This gives an extra edge to both his big arias – “Questa o quella” and “La donna è mobile” – as well as to the Act Two, Scene One “Ella ma fu rapita!” musings. He also deftly contrasts his approach first to Gilda as the pretended student Gaultier Maldè and later to Maddalena (Tamara Savchenko) in the guise of an off-duty officer. Nikolai Giebov is a sonorous Sparafucile; he can sees how a victim could be lulled by that slight aura of bonhomie.

Rigoletto also plays at the Princes Theatre, Clacton on 1 March.

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Review

Jersey Boys
(reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 17 February)

On one level it’s an everyday story of music-making folk, one of those increasingly popular life story-based shows which give the producers an opportunity to stuff in every number in the titular star’s back catalogue. On the other, it reminds us how much popular music and those who perform it have changed between the 1950s and 2015.

The four boys from New Jersey – Frankie Valli, Bon Gaudio, Nick Massi and Tommy DeVito – who made up the Four Season phenomenon wore what would now be accounted formal stage-wear. What’s more, they could actually play their instruments properly, write catchy tunes for intelligent lyrics and captivate an audience without resource to special effects, outrageous costuming and creating mayhem on the platform.

Des Mcanuff directs this re-cast new tour of Jersey Boys which utilises Klara Zieglerova’s set of girders and walkways, minimal furniture and some clever cartoonish-Warhol-style projections to decorate scenes appropriately, Jess Goldstein’s costumes allow for a sequence of extremely quick changes, notably by the three girls in the cast – Amelia Adams-Pearce, Leanne Garretty and Sinead Long.

At the performance I saw, Valli was played by Matt Corner who conveyed Valli’s basic simplicity allied to steel determination to do things the right way, his way. His vocal range is remarkable, that almost sexless, ethereal quality one associates with the counter-tenor or young alto without ever forcing the falsetto register. Stephen Webb also makes an impression as DeVito, a lad too sharp for his own (or anyone else’s) good.

Lewis Griffiths as Massi is the quiet centre of the group, with the right, slightly detached air necessary for his role as narrator as the story moves in time and place. Tom Ferriday is Gaudio, the writer of songs. Around this core circulate a galaxy of movers and fixers, some rather less pleasant than others. Damian Buhagian, Henry Davis, Matt Gillett, Sean Kingsley, Nathaniel Morrison and Dominic Smith whirl these cameos before us as they fall due.

For my money, the first half is over-long; some of the exposition of the Four Seasons’ background seems overly detailed. We work out fairly quickly that DeVito is always going to be in trouble, simply because he’s just not up to the standard of the really big bad guys with whom he tangles. And that Gaudio just wants to write his songs and hear them while Massi is concerned to keep out of other people’s messes. Valli, of course, simply want to sing, now that he’s discovered that he can. Who can blame him?

Jersey Boys runs as the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 28 February and can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 17 and 18 July.

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Review

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
(reviewed at the Watford Colosseum on 10 February)

It’s the first of the great Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice collaborations – and it’s stood the test of time. This new tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has a fresh cast headed by X-Factor finalist Lloyd Daniels in the title role. Bill Kenwright’s production has been designed for touring by Sean Cavanagh with a double staircase taking up most of the stage, perhaps rather too much of it for the performers’ comfort.

Daniels radiates the right sort of boyish energy coupled with naiveté as Joseph and acts as well as sings his numbers. We have to wait until Act Two to encounter Matt Lapinskas’s Elvis-clone of a Pharaoh, but it’s worth the wait. Also noteworthy are Henry Metcalfe (the choreographer) as patriarch Jacob and pontificating Potipher (two men alike blinkered) and Camilla Rowland (the possessor of legs which certainly make a point) as Potipher’s wife.

Rebekah Lowings as the Narrator links the scenes as well as providing some of the best singing in the show. There are stand-out cameos by Andrew Bateup as Pharaoh’s butler and Marcus Ayton as his cook, initially facing the same bleak future. Bateup also plays Reuben and Ayton is Judah. The children’s chorus in the Watford performances cam from the Stagecoach schools.

This is the piece of through-composed music theatre in which Lloyd Webber relaxes and has great fun – which the audience fully shares – with different popular genres. So, as well as the rock numbers for Pharaoh, we have the country’n’western “One more angel in heaven” and the second act calypso, complete with appropriate costume accessories. “Any dream will do” is, of course the show-stopper.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat runs at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich between 2 and 6 June.

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Reviews

All My Sons
(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich 17 February 2015)

Arthur Miller’s first New York success has held the stage internationally for close on fifty years. All My Sons is a family tragedy on a grand scale. Its roots are in the great dramas of the classical stage, in which a flaw in the protagonist develops during the course of the action to wreck the lives of those he holds dearest.

Talawa is one of the country’s leading Black theatre companies, so at first glance one perhaps wonders why director Michael Buffong chose a play so firmly rooted in time (1947, just after the end of the Second World War when racial segregation was the unpleasant norm) and place (the residential outskirts of a mid-west industrial town).

It’s a tribute to his cast that the audience so easily accepts the characters and situations placed before it. Particularly effective because so subtly nuanced are Dona Croll as Kate Keller and Ray Shell as her husband Joe. One son, Larry, died in the war when his fighter plane crashed. The other son Chris (Leemore Marrett Jr) survived and has invited his brother’s fiancée Ann Deever (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) to visit.

As far as Kate is concerned, she still hopes that Larry will one day walk back into the house; she also presumes that Ann is also waiting. But Ann and Chris want to get married. While neighbours Sue (Andrea Davy) and Jim Bayliss (Ewen Cummins) are happy to pander to Kate’s fantasy, Anne’s lawyer brother George (Ashley Gerlach) has been visiting his father in prison.

Deever senior was Joe’s business partner, jailed in connexion with supplying faulty engine parts to the Air Force. Now he is due for release, something which it soon appears will strip away years of false assumptions. If you know the play already, you will know what happens; if you don’t, you really should see this production and find out for yourself.

There’s a stylish setting by Ellen Cairns, centring on a realistic back porch, complete with rocking chair, but surrounded by flats painted to suggest the forest onto which humans have encroached but not conquered. The lighting (Johanna Town) and soundscape (Emma Laxton) are clever but never obtrusive.

All My Sons runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 21 February. The national tour to 25 April includes the Arts Theatre, Cambridge (24-28 February), the Palace Theatre, Watford (10-14 March) and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester (14-18 April).

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Reviews

Jefferson’s Garden
(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 12 February)

Liberty is an emotive word; it’s also something of a chameleon, changing meaning and emphasis through the centuries and across the globe. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new play Jefferson’s Garden explores the concept within the context of the American Revolution. It premiers at the Palace Theatre in Watford in a production by the theatre’s artistic director Brigid Larmour and designed by James Button.

In one way this is documentary theatre with fictional characters interwoven into actual historical events. As such it is played on a bare, black-painted stage with minimal furnishings or props. The ten actors are equally drably clad; just the whisper of olive silk in the second half or the flash of a soldier’s red coat to act as a visual distraction.

The story begins with an English Quaker family half-way across the Atlantic as they seek a new life which promises freedom for them to worship as they choose. Matriarch Martha (Julia St John), shoemaker husband Daniel (Gregory Gudgeon) and slightly rebellious daughter Louisa (Anna Tierney) are joined by a German stowaway political hothead Carl Christian (William Hope).

He’s in a bad way, in more than one sense of the phrase. A young nobleman trying to foment a rebellion in one of the smaller German princely states is ill-equipped for survival in the New World when he has to flee for his life without his accustomed trappings, both material and intangible. But survive he does, marries Louisa and they have a son Christian (David Burnett) and a daughter Imogen (Tierney).

From here on the story centres on Christian. He’s expelled by the Quakers for planning to join the Patriot side of the looming conflict, even though he promises not to actually bear arms. 1776 is not a year in which non-combatants were tolerated by either side, as he is rapidly taught. Then he arrives in Virginia, meets the slave girl Susannah (Mimi Ndiweni) and some of the Founding Fathers.

It is to Jefferson (Hope) in particular that Christian feels drawn, as a type of surrogate father. Jefferson, of course, is a land- and slave-owner, a word-smith who would prefer to stay slightly in the shadows. That isn’t possible, any more than it is for Christian to resist the lure of this comfortable lifestyle or the chance of marrying into property through Betty (Carlyss Peer) or for Susannah to miss the chance of freedom offered by the Royal Ethiopian Regiment on the British side.

Although the first act is slightly over-long, the pace – perhaps because by now we’re recogising the characters as people and not just as types – quickens in the second part. All the actors carry conviction, as they swop roles and gender, with St John’s two contrasted wives and mothers, Ndiweni’s Susannah, Peer’s slave Sally morphing into Southern belle Betty, Hope’s aristocratic Jefferson and Burnett’s Christian being particularly memorable.

Jefferson’s Garden runs at the Palace Theatre Watford until 21 February.

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East Anglia is a theatre-rich region of the UK. Performing arts venues come in a magnificent array of shapes and sizes. Many are purpose-built, some are conversions – from churches, chapels and redundant town or corn halls to former maltings and other industrial buildings (not to mention at least one bank!) – and there’s also a well-established outdoor theatre tradition. Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk offer some of the last surviving seaside summer repertory seasons.

I’ve lived in Essex since the mid-1970s, initially on the fringes of the Epping Forest and, since 1990, in the north-west of the county. I’ve been fortunate enough to work as a theatre critic and arts journalist originally in London and since 1990 across East Anglia for The Stage & Television Today (TheStage.co.uk) from 1964 to 1988 and for WhatsOnStage (WhatsOnStage.com) between 2004 and 2014, latterly as regional editor first for for just East Anglia and then for the whole of south-east England, north and south of the Thames.

In between writing about all aspect of theatre, I’ve edited two applied arts magazines – Art & Antiques Weekly and Antiques & Decoration – and been arts or associate editor for a variety of weekly and monthly arts and crafts, lifestyle and tourist-orientated publications and for various regional magazines.

No national paper or website, especially those subject to frequent ownership changes and an emphasis on maximising profitability, can hope to cover everything of interest across a region, let alone the entire country.

No more can this personal website realistically expect to cover everything theatrical in East Anglia – that’s an impossibility. Especially when that region is Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.

I simply hope to highlight for you some of the more interesting professional productions to be encountered at the different theatres and arts centres. That will include plays both new and old, opera and musical theatre, dance, theatre for children and for family audiences and, of course, festivals.

As well as show and book reviews, you will find news about theatres and previews of forthcoming seasons as announced. The history of some of our theatre buildings will also be put under the spotlight from time to time, as will prominent people – both alive and long departed.

I hope you will enjoy reading this website as much as I intend to do writing it. Theatre is a living art-form, never the same two nights running. So keep an open mind and be prepared to take a gamble on the unusual. It should be a rewarding as well as an illuminating experience.

Anne Morley-Priestman

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14/02/2015 · 12:17