Monthly Archives: April 2015

Dear Lupin
(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 27 April)

It’s no criticism of Michael Simkins’ stage version of the exchange of letters between racing commentator Roger Mortimer and his wayward son Charlie to say that in many ways this is comfortable theatre. You don’t have to be a parent to recognise familiar similarities and divergences; most of us have experienced these – even if unrecognised at the time – while growing up.

Mortimer senior (James Fox) had a three-part life. He was an officer in the Coldstream Guards, a PoW for most of the Second World War and one of the most esteemed of radio commentators thereafter. In between, he accommodated himself to a wife might describe as maverick, raised comparatively trouble-free daughters and a son (Jack Fox) who lived on the wild side – in more senses than one.

Philip Franks’ direction gives equal weight to the father’s often exasperated aphorisms and the son’s gleeful kicking over all the traces – social (nearly expelled from Eton), professional (managing to exist without any real employment) and sexual (a libidinous gay lifestyle culminating in a diagnosis of HIV-positive)). His designer Adrian Linford gives us a multi-purpose set to complement all this visually.

Fox senior is the actor who attracts a certain proportion of the audience. He doesn’t disappoint. It is Fox junior who really turns in the acting tour-de-force of the evening, making us understand why this young man of promise turned out the way that he did. Dear Lupin (the title refers to the equally frustrated exchange of letters in Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody). That was fiction. This is fact, as Charlie Mortimer’s publication makes clear. The letters make good reading. This dramatisation is good theatre.

Dear Lupin runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 2 May and at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 4 and 9 May.

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Avenue Q
(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 23 April)

This new staging of the US puppet show for adults has an intriguing set by Richard Evans. We are confronted by a row of brownstone houses which, quite frankly, have see better days. The skyline behind is one of skyscrapers and two surtitle boxes from time to time show video of various kinds.

The house frontages let down to reveal miniature rooms as appropriate. The storyline is simple enough. A graduate who has all the right paper qualifications and yet is still unemployed lights upon Avenue Q as somewhere comparatively inexpensive yet central to rent an apartment.

Its residents include the janitor Gary, once a child celebrity, a frustrated spinster teacher, a would-be stand-up comic, a Japanese girl (who lives with the fact that everyone thinks she’s Chinese), a porn addict, a gay who is “out”, another still “in the closet” and a whole host of hangers-on and stirrers of trouble.

Love does find a way, of course, for the three principal couples – but it takes a variety of misunderstandings and false moves to get there. It’s no criticism of the actors who play Christmas Eve (Arina Il), Gary (EtisYal Philip) and Brian (Richard Morse) to say that they are roundly upstaged by Paul Jomain’s rod-and-glove puppets and their human alter-egos – Sarah Harlington, Jessica Parker, Stephen Arden and Richard Lowe.

As my neighbours commented to me during the interval: “You don’t know whether to concentrate on the puppet or the puppeteer; they seem just to be a single person”. Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’ score is all-but through-composed and their lyrics are witty; it’s all tuneful enough but not particularly memorable. The hard-working musical director for this Sell A Door tour is Daniel Griffin. Overall direction is by Cressida Carré.

Puppets have always been able to say and do things, even under the most repressive of régimes, which would earn dire penalties for actual actors in a straightforward play. So these colourful puppets can indulge in positive orgies of inventive sex to the audience’s delight (and never a wriggle of embarrassment anywhere) or spout racist, politically incorrect and religious mockery with absolute impunity.

That’s also due to the deft manipulation by Arden and Harlington in particular, both completely at one with their characters. Harlington’s sex-bomb Lucy and uptight Kate are marvellous studies in contrast. You forget about the garish head colours and torso disproportions – they just become natural, and right for the personage being presented to us.

Avenue Q runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 25 April, at the Norwich Playhouse between 26 and 30 May, at the Watford Colosseum from 2 to 4 July and at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff between 18 and 22 August.

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Stones in His Pockets
(reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop’s Stortford on Tuesday 21 April

Marie Jones’ Irish rural tragicomedy offers a superb opportunity to its two-man cast. Between them they play tens of different parts, including a female one. The setting is a rural village, suffering the usual unemployment and boredom malaises, and currently taken over by a Hollywood film-crew.

A bodice-ripping epic is in progress, with the heiress heroine taking the part of the down-trodden peasantry thanks to their school-of-Rhett-Butler spokesman – with whom (naturally) she has fallen with love. The locals have been roped in as extras, which at first seems a well-paid way to garner a little kudos, even though the four euros a day is more likely to be spent in the pub than saved.

The main two characters are Charlie (Richard Galloway) and Jake (Stephen Cavanagh). Charlie has written a screenplay and is desperate to use the opportunity of the film to get it accepted. Jake has itchy feet; he has tried to make a success in the USA but returned home disappointed and more than slightly disgruntled.

Charlie also has a teenage cousin, a lad without hope or prospects, who drinks too much and is now into drugs. Falling for Caroline Giovanni, the star of the film, he is strong-armed out of the pub where he accosted her and, all hope gone, drowns himself (hence the play’s title). It’s a tragedy for the close-knit village, but only a time-wasting nuisance for the film crew.

Director Gailie Pollock in this new Contexture production keeps the action on the move with low-level projections to indicate location and the main stage occupied by sloping green turf and a bench by a well. The design is by Pollock and Tom Cliff and works very well. But any production of Stones in His Pockets is only as good as the multi-cast two actors, and they don’t let Pollock down.

Whether it’s the camp Ashley and his opposite number cynical Simon, the winsome Caroline flattering Jake because she wants to copy his accent (he does eventually suss this out), Caroline’s security gorilla, the old man who was an extra in a John Wayne film many years ago or the priest who has buried too many of his former pupils, it would be hard to say whether Cavanagh or Galloway walks away with the acting honours. They are both equally good.

Stones in His Pockets runs at the Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop’s Stortford until 26 April.

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The Elephant Man
(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 20 April)

Even after 38 years, the experience of reviewing Bernard Pomerance’s play about Joseph (commonly called John) Merrick is one which I’ve never completely forgotten. That production was at the Hampstead Theatre; a new staging by Simon Jessop for the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch has just started.

It’s intriguingly set within a dark-draped circular show-booth by Mark Walters, the sort of fairground venue which would have been familiar to Merrick in the late 19th century as his diseased appearance, then diagnosed as elephantiasis, was exploited for gain. Eventually he came under the care of Dr Treves at Whitechapel’s London Hospital.

Although Treves and his hospital superior Dr Gomm gave Merrick good care and a stable environment, Pomerance’s thesis suggests that exploitation (and its corollary, abuse) can develop from well-meaning as well as outwardly greedy intentions. Gomm’s publicising of Merrick’s case led to a spate of donations to the hospital for Merrick’s care and some socially prominent sponsorship.

Tom Cornish’s Merrick, as did David Schofield in 1977, uses mime and facial contortion to suggest the horror of the physical appearance rather than prosthetic make-up. It’s an intensely moving performance as the inner man – sensitive and in many ways creative – slowly emerges from its carapace. He’s matched by Fred Broom as Treves, a doctor with ambitions both medical and social and Stuart Organ’s hard-headed Gomm.

Fairground man Ross is suitably slimy (and dangerous with it) in James Earl Adair’s characterisation. This being the cut to the chase… company, Steven Markwick’s deceptively jolly score soon mutates in the hands of these actor-musicians into something altogether more discordant and sinister. Joanna Hickman is the cellist and also plays actress Margaret Kendall who undeatands Merrick’s secret longings as only a woman of many parts can. it’s a fine performance.

Ellie Ros Boswell and Megan Leigh Mason are th two fairground “beauties”, there to lure the naive audience into paying their tuppences for what were often fakes as well as freaks. I still think that the build-up to the end sits uneasily within the narrative framework, but the Passiontide parallels as Merrick faces up to the fact that he cannot live much longer and that his deepest longings will never find proper fulfilment are very moving.

This is a play which perhaps is an unusual choice for the Queen’s Theatre. But the opening night audience was a good-sized one and completely caught up in the drama – the tragic as well as the comic elements – as it proceeded. A taste now and then of vinegar or mustard always fire the appetite. What’s true for the palate is also true of the mind.

The Elephant Man runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 9 May.

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Charlotte’s Web
(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 15 April)

The Stevenage theatre’s artistic director Catherine Lomax has been building up an impressive portfolio of in-house productions over the pa few years. The latest is a new staging of the Joseph Robinette and Charles Strouse’s musical version of the well-loved children’s story Charlotte’s Web by EB White, first published in 1952.

Set in White’s Maine, this is the story of a piglet who escapes slaughter, thanks to the feisty Fern, and is sent to be reared at the nearby Zukerman farm. There he makes the acquaintance of an assortment of farm animals, including an exceptionally greedy and know-all rat called Templeton (well, when did you last see a rat on stage cast as other than a devious specimen?) and the generous and intelligent spider called Charlotte (who lives in the same barn).

It is Charlotte, spinning ever more intricate webs, who saves Wilbur from the knife, much to Fern’s delight – though less so in the case of her stroppy brother Avery, their parents the Arables and the Zukerman household. White deals subtly but firmly with the sacrifice which Charlotte’s labours and her need to provide the next generation of spiders will exact.

The staging is very good with a succession of farm sets and some eye-catching costumes for the animals (Lisa Hickey), notably the geese (with goslings), the sheep (fleecy lambs by their side), great-coated Templeton and Charlotte’s bustled black with pendulous legs and extra eyes perched on her head like an aviatrix’s goggles. The country ‘n’ western-derived score is tuneful, if not memorable, and Khiley Williams has provided some energetic choreography for it.

Cameron Leigh’s Charlotte is a clever portrayal and well-sung as well as acted. Will Breckin’s Wilbur is as perky as such a prize porker ought to be with the forceful Harriet Payne as his human advocate and Matthew Collyer as a Templeton who has a distinct whiff of Animal Farm in his deviousness. Ed Court is quite funny as the Zuckermans’ clumsy farmhard Lurvy and Alistair Higgins stomps around as the archetypical teenage grump.

The five-piece band is led by Phil Dennis, and sounded at time a little under-powered. At the opening performance, Luke Hyde’s sound team hadn’t quite got the balance right, so that the opening numbers and verbal exchanges were over-miked while Leigh’s final scene and song seem to fade rather more than the spider’s own fragility at that point really warrented.

Charlotte’s Web runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 19 April.

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Macbeth
(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 14 April)

It’s a long time since I’ve heard such an intelligently-spoken version of Macbeth as Jactinder Verma’s new touring production for Tara Arts in association with Queen’s Hall Arts and Black Theatre Live. The Asian-flavoured staging, full of bear-foot stylised movement against Claudia Mayer’s stark metallic setting (adorned only with the changing portraits of Scotland’s fighting rulers) and accompanied throughout by Rax Timyr’s side-stage percussion.

The three weird sisters, all glittering saris and oiled beards, are played as hijras, India’s legally-recognised third gender community dating bak thousands of years. John Afzal, Ralph Birtwell and Deven Modha suggest a self-satisfying mischievous malevolence as they prophesy for Robert Mountford’s Macbeth and Mitesh Soni’s Banquo.

Shakespeare’s text is given in a very full version and its verse flows easily. Mountford’s Macbeth, a warrior nobleman hitherto suppressing – if indeed he ever has previously recognised – the ambitions which will leads him so inexorably to his destruction, is a marvellously full portrait. Shaheen Khan matches him as Lady Macbeth, all the more frightening because she never rants or raves at full blast; controlled menace in action.

Shalini Peiris plays Lady Macbeth’s maid, doubling as the porter (with a very funny “equivocation” monologue) and the doomed Lady Macduff. Birtwll contrasts Dauncan and the doctor while Modha takes on (with excellent contrast) the three sons – Malcolm, Fleance and Macduff’s heir. Umar Pasha is a stalwart Macduff while that thinking general Banquo comes over as quietly authoritative in Mitesh Soni’s interpretation.

Macbeth runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 18 April and at the Key Theatre, Peterborough on 28 and 29 April.

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The Poisoners’ Pact
(reviewed at The Cut, Halesworth on 11 April)

It’s often said that poison is a woman’s weapon of choice when it comes to killing off the unwanted man, women and children in her life. The 19th century in particular seems to throw up a couple of cases in each decade, some of which are more famous than others.

I confess to not knowing anything about the case of the Burnham Market (Norfolk) poison trial of 1835 before seeing this play. In The Poisoners’ Pact, writers Tim Lane and Cordelia Spence for Stuff of Dreams theatre company have created a piece for three actresses and a musician (Lane in Spence’s production) who take us through the events which culminated in the hanging (in public) of Frances (Fanny) Billing and Catherine (Cat) Frary.

These two village wives are having affairs; the the case of Fanny, many affairs. Joanna Swan plays her as plumply seductive, all pouting lips and come-kiss-me eyes. Kiara Hawker’s Cat is an altogether more brittle, not to say, thoroughly embittered woman, skilled in herb lore by an old wise-woman Hannah Shorten (Jamie-Rose Monk) but now adding a touch of necromancy to her potions and simple spells.

Monk also plays Elizabeth Southgate, a bereaved mother who senses that there is something not quite normal in the way her baby died while in Cat’s care. All this is introduced and interleaved with catchy song and dance numbers in folk ballad style but the central story is grim enough. Plant-derived poisons failing to work on those inconvenient husbands and lovers’ wives, arsenic is added to various cups of tea, broths and stews. Oh yes, and also to dumplings.

This leads to some school of Fanny Craddock cookery demonstrations, including the notorious “here’s some I made earlier” routine. The first half is a little bit slow, but it all picks up when Mary, the wife of Peter – who is Fanny’s current lover – finally succumbs to repeated doses of arsenic. The coroner conducing the inquest is not satisfied, and Elizabeth’s persistence is querying all those deaths finally pays its grisly dividend.

In the condemned cell, Cat and Fanny finally face the reality of wht they have done and the penalty to be paid in the morning. Both Swan and Monk rise to the occasion, Hawker especially, though it is Fanny, hitherto the follower, who will support Cat as they mount the scaffold.

The Poisoners’ Pact can be seen at the Seagull Theatre, Lowstoft on 16 April, the Granary Theatre, Wells-Next-The-Sea on 17 April, the Bank at Eye (18 April), Sedgeford village hall (1 May) and St George’s Theatre, Great Yarmouth on 2 May.

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Peter Pan Goes Wrong
(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 7 April 2015)

Anyone who has ever been involved, even indirectly through a friend or family member, Knows that amateur productions – especially those of the more ambitious kind – have a terrible propensity to come adrift. This successor to The Play That Goes Wrong. one of last year’s most resounding successes, gives us more of the same.

Adam Meggido’s production of the script by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields begins a good quarter of an hour before the official start time with three overworked stage crew members from the Cornley Polytechnic Dramatic Society frantically trying to sort out last-minute hitches both back-stage and front-of-house.

These include securing wobbly seats and attempting to finalise the lighting and sound-system cues. When the curtain rises it is to reveal a set on a self-willed revolve (another recipe for disaster, brilliantly conceived by Simon Scullion) and a distinct lack of co-ordination between the show’s narrator (an increasingly tetchy Harry Kershaw), stage management and the over-ambitious special effects.

All the amateur actors have taken the art of preen to its limits.This applies especially to Leonie Hall’s Wendy (she’s had ballet classes and it determined never to let us forget it) the multi-cast Naomi Sheldon (try doubling Mrs Darling, the maid Lisa and obstreperous Tinker Bell) and our hero (Alex Bartram). he’s someone who may have mastered the art of seduction but definitely is a novice at flight.

Laurence Pears has the usual double of uptight Mr Darling (all that rage about a lost cuff-link!) and the would-be debonair Captain Hook. It won’t surprise you to hear that Hook loses his prosthesis, as well as his wig and his hat several times over. Oh yes, as well his footing when his ship fails to moor itself at the correct angle and the revolve, not to mention the flats, take on a perverse life of their own.

The cast thoroughly enjoy themselves while never failing to let us all in on the joke. Pears and Bartram are the funniest of the men, run a close second by Cornelius Booth as a bearded Michael (don’t ask!) and hapless Matt Cavendish as the lad whose family is financing the show but still finds himself relegated to the non-speaking roles of the dog and the crocodile. But all comes right (well, sort of) in the end. Great fun.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong plays at the Arts Theatre Cambridge until 12 April and at the Theatre Royal, Norwich 11 to 16 May.

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Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo / The Wild Man of the West Indies
(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 25 March)

ETO (English Touring Opera) continues its exploration of the operas of Donizetti, both those virtually unknown to a modern audience and more established repertoire pieces with this new production of an 1833 piece based on one of the tales-withn-a-tale in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. This one tells of Cardenio, a Spanish gentleman driven mad when he discovers that his wife Eleonora has had an affair with his own brother Fernando.

Escaping the home he now cannot bear to inhabit, he has been washed up on the Spanish possession of San Domingo. The plantation slaves fear him but the overseer’s daughter Marcella pities him (her father is somewhat ambiguous in his attitude). Subsequently a shipwreck leaves a battered and hardly conscious Eleonora on the shore, followed by Fernando himself.

So far the plot seems set to be a straightforward drama which might, or might not, have a happy ending. Cervantes, librettist Jacopo Ferreetti and Donizetti have conspired to give us a species of tragi-comedy, thanks to the introduction of the most three-dimensional character in the opera. This is the salve Kaidamà, brilliently portrayed by Peter Brathwaite. Kaidamà not only has some of the best tunes; he is also the timeless and instantly recognisable wheeler-dealer survivor.

With the exception of the excellent Donna Bateman as Marcella, so kind-hearted that she’s bound to find herself bypassed when Cardenio (Craig Smith) and the sweet-voiced Eleonora (Sally Silver) finally reconcile. Smith sings and acts with great intensity; so does Njabulo Madlala as Bartolomeo, torn between natural human compassion and his duty to his employer.

The week link at the performance I attended was Nicholas Sharratt’s Fernando. It’s not the most forgiving of tenor roles, let alone the most sympathetic, but I felt he was straining after his top notes at the end of his two arias.Director Iqbal Khan keeps the stage movement, notably that of the all-male chorus slave chorus, persuasive as the cast clamber up, under and around Florence de Mare’s set which suggests part of the skeleton of some enormous beached sea-monster.

Jeremy Slver conducts the ETO orchestra with respect for the score and the performers. It’s no fault by anyone on-stage or in the creative team that, for me, this genre felt slightly unnatural and as though the composer wasn’t completely at ease with it, as he had been for L’elisir d’amore (1832) which preceded it and Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) which followed.

Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo also plays at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall on 17 April and the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 27 May.

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Oysters
(reviewed at the Corn Hall, Diss on 24 March)

Every drama needs a back-story to reinforce its skeleton. The trick is to integrate the two seamlessly. In his earlier Private Resistance, author Ivan Cutting had achieved this for a story of potential resistance if the German forces had indeed taken over East Anglia during the Second World War (as they had the Channel Islands during my childhood).

In Oysters, the story of the Essex bivalve mollusc told through a modern boat-builder trying to restore/reconstruct one of the last surviving smacks from the Colne estuary, for me never really came alive. Wandering in and out of the central 21st century characters – the boat-builder, an unwilling intern, and a variety of official busybodies – is a TIE (theatre in education) performer whose explanations of the sex-life of a mollusc to her primary-school audiences do not meet the head teachers’ approval.

Cutting directs his own script; perhaps an outsider might have trimmed and tautened the story (or stories). Terence Frisch is very good as the man who has seen his whole way of life disintegrate as well as that of whole generations of his family and neighbours. Jeannie Dickinson plays the various outsiders who intervene and interfere and there’s a neat sketch of late-teenage malaise when faced with an environment never before experienced by Hephzibah Roe. Kiki Kendrick symbolises Pearl.

An actual Brightlingsea-built oyster smack of 1893, the Priscilla, is currently being restored by the Pioneer Sailing Trust at the purpose-built Harker’s Yard. Oysters is part of a strand of activities, including apprenticeships, designed to bring the Trust’s Land and Sea project to communities across East Anglia.

Oysters tours to various theatres, arts centres and community venues until 6 June.

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