Monthly Archives: May 2015

Little Shop of Horrors

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 29 May)

“Don’t feed the plants!” warns director Gareth Machin in his introduction to this new staging of the Howard Ashman-Alan Menken musical, a shared production between the Mercury Theatre and Salisbury Playhouse. As Audrey II (made by Accord Stage Works and frighteningly well manipulated and voiced by Andrew London and Leon Craig respectively) swells to take over James Button’s set, one definitely takes the point.

It’s strongly cast as well. Ben Stott is the shy, be-spectacled flower-shop assistant Seymour who creates Audrey II, names it for his colleague (Frances McNamee), who is in an abusive relationship with leather-clad dentist Orin (Jez Unwin) and finds himself its slave – Audrey II being distinctly carnivorous.

You sympathise throughout with Stott as well as with McNamee, whose voice is admirably suited to the lyricism of her numbers, notably “Somewhere that’s green”. Unwin is thoroughly unpleasant as Orin, which is just as it should be. Simeon Truby seizes his school of Fiddler on the Roof moments, especially in “Mushnik and son” (the five-piece band is led by Richard Reeday).

There’s an effective trio of Skid Row street kids – Gbemisola Kumelo, Karis Jack and Carole Stennett – who act as a sort of chorus as the tragedy (which it fundamentally is, for all our laughter) reaches its climax. The finale, with the trio and Audrey II meal victims high above the acting area and transformed into clones, emphasises this. Game, set and match to Audrey II, I fear.

Little Shop of Horrors runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 13 June.

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Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2015

That is All You Need to Know

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 28 May)

Bletchley Park and its wartime code-breakers is very much in the news at the moment. The oath of secrecy taken by all the young men and women who worked there – selected for the most part because they displayed extraordinary mathematical abilities – still constrains many of the survivors. Idle Motion have created a collage of a show which switches effortlessly between then and now.

On one level That is All You Need to Know is visual theatre – projections, clever lighting, furniture which serves many purposes, rapid alternation between the stylised and the naturalistic. Paul Slater and Kate Stanley are the directors and the devisers are Chris Bone and Nicholas Pitt.

There are six performers, including Luke Barton as Alan Turing – the maverick genius of the place – and Christopher Hughes as Gordon Welchman – co-ordinator and frustrated chronicler.

Grace Chapman, Sophie Cullen and Ellie Simpson play both the young women who found themselves working on equal terms with the men and the modern activists determined that the Bletchley Park legacy should not be lost. Joel Gatehouse takes similar, dual roles.

It’s all quick-fire and slick, though never merely facile. There’s a sense of commitment to the story being told, one with pain and deep frustration and, in Turing’s own case especially, tragedy.

The sparing use of sound archive material adds to the historic exactitude of the core story. Projections have been created with Tom Savage with settings by Freda Johnson and costumes by Tash Prynne.

If That is All You Need to Know appears at the theatre space near you, then see it; at the moment the Pulse performance is the only one announced for the East Anglia region.

Pulse runs at various venues in Ipswich until 6 June.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015

Bromance

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 28 May)

Modern circus training enthuses its practitioners with more than acrobatic skills; it leads to new forms of theatre, integrating dance into the mix. Take Bromance, which opened this year’s Pulse Festival in Ipswich presented by the Barely Methodical Troupe under tha auspices of Crying Out Loud and Circus Evolution.

The three performers are Charlie Wheeller, who earns justified plaudits for his routines with the Cyr Wheel, shyly comic Beren D’Amico and the exceptionally tall Louis Gift, who radiates something of the menace of Frankenstein’s monster creation – you’re never quite sure how he will react to what he other two are weaving around him.

Two’s company, three’s none goes the saying. There’s an element of this built in as a disjointed, voice-synthesised soundtrack accompanies the three men’s initial groupings. This then gives way to a solo piano, by which time we are watching something approaching dance; in turn this gives way to the sequence of displays of full acrobatic skills.

It’s engaging and draws its audience very subtly into an appreciation of what is going on. There’s a bk story, if you want to dig for it, concerning male bonding and the competitiveness which seems to be inherent in it. The show is playful and promulgates its lesson – if indeed there is one – as lightly as possible. Eddie Kay is the director.

Pulse runs at various Ipswich venues until 6 June.

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Filed under Circus & physical theatre, Reviews 2015

Hot Stuff

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 26 May)

You could run a debate which would go on for even longer than the recent General Election campaign on precisely what the time lapse is – a decade? two? three? a half-century? – before the soft, warm glow of nostalgia settles on a period of history.

Take Hot Stuff, given a spankingly bright and brash new staging by director Matt Devitt and his team – music: julian Littmann, lighting: Chris Howcroft, costumes: Lydia Hardiman and choreography: Valentina Dolci and Karl Stevens. Maggie Norris and Paul Kerryson devised it over 25 years ago; it’s a variation on the Faust legend.

Our want-it-all, want-it-now hero is Joe (Matthew Quinn). His ambition is to be a pop star but his girl-friend Julie (Sarah Mahony) just wants to get married – and to win a ballroom dancing competition in spits of Joe’s less than enthusiastic partnering. Diabolus ex machina is Lucy Fur – the deliciously over-the-top drag artist Lady Felicia in a sequence of costumes to pit any pantomime dame to the blush.

In fact, there’s a strong pantomime element about the whole thing, including a cow who seems to have wandered in from Jack and the Beanstalk and, like that bovine, elicits our full sympathy. As with many pantomimes, one is conscious of an element of padding, often supplied through interaction with the audience.
That’s not to belittle Dolci’s dance routines, in which she leads her six ensemble members with verve and inventiveness, or Cameron Jones’ sinister narrator.

it is interesting to follow the mutation of popular music in the 70s (a political parallel is implied at several points). The melodic and harmonic ballads dissolve into something altogether more raucous as the decade progressed. Joe, of course, manages to top each trend as it assumes popularity with considerable help from his Lucy Fur-supplied girl friend Miss Hot Stuff (Hollie Cassar).

“Happiness was not in the contract” he’s told brusquely when he begins to yearn for Julie. In the meantime, Julie has made her own life emerging into flower-power and the flame of awakening feminism. Mahony, Cassar and Quinn all give good performances. I think the first-night audience would have been happy to sit through it all again. The performers must have been exhausted.

Hot Stuff runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 13 June.

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Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2015

Betrayal

(reviewed at the Cambridge Junction on 20 May)

Something billed as a polyphonic crime drama is bound to be somewhat out of the mainstream. if we had been back in the late 1960s or in the 70s, you might have felt tempted to classify it as a happening. There were a lot of these around then, usually in non-theatre venues, and the experience tended to be immersive.That holds true for this I Fagiolini production.

Betrayal retells the horrific climax to the murder of his faithless wife and her lover by the Prince of Venosa (Carlo Gesualdo) in 1590. Gesualdo had previously experimented with harmonies and polyphony in madrigal format; later he turned amost exclusively to religious music.

Shepherded into a dim, black-floored and -ceilinged space by quasi police officers, we are allowed to wander round the chalk outlines of the victims and examine, without touching anything, pin-boards and some artefacts. Then the a cappella singing from the six singers – who have been mingling with the audience – breaks in.

Each singer is partnered with a dancer; the soprano and two mezzos do not always enact the female roles; the same is true of the tenor, the baritone and the bass. John La Bouchardière’s choreography is expansive as it melds lyricism with violence (the actual killing seems to have been a messy, not to say downright sadistic, affair).

Those chalk outlines and artefacts now begin to make sense, even if you’re not familiar with the background story. We in the audience wander between the performing couples with increasing wonder at musical director Robert Hollingworth’s long-distance control of his singers, who at times are prone on the ground or active in the dance element.

In his 1976 play Music to Murder By, David Pownall wrote a drama about Gesualdo and his tortured, fractured personal, spiritual and creative life. If the title hadn’t already been used, I Fagiolini might have selected it, having rejected Guilt as too specific and somewhat misleading.

Anyone who has read any Italian history of the period, let alone watched Jacobean drama, will know that Gesualdo was not unique in his revenge, including the mutilation of his wife’s body. He is, however, unique in his compositions. Though we should never forget that Monteverdi was contemporarily working his own magic with harmony and structure.

Betrayal is at the Cambridge Junction as part of the Cambridge Early Music Festival until 24 May.

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Filed under Ballet & dance, Reviews 2015

Absent Friends

(reviewed at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 19 May)

Nobody does the tragi-comedy of the wrecking of relationships more skillfully than Alan Ayckbourn. Absent Friends, now 40 years old, offers us four such couples; however, one husband is bed-ridden at home and the other has lost his fiancée through a drowning accident. Michael Cabot’s new touring production for London Classic Theatre eschews the temptation to update it but treats it naturally, as a piece of its period which still has something to say to its audience even after a lapse of time.

Simon Kenny’s set – an affluent couple’s living-room in a house in an upwardly mobile area – displays all the most-have style of the period. It’s the home of businessman Paul (Kevin Drury) and his increasingly disenchanted wife Diana (Catherine Harvey). Colin (Ashley Cook) is a long-time member of their circle, perhaps less so now than when they were in their late teens and twenties. Diana is throwing a tea-party for Colin, now that he has so tragically lost his beloved Carole.

Except, of course, that he doesn’t really want consolation; he’s content with his memories of an untroubled, beautiful relationship (one which time had ensured would never even begin to sour). Marge (Alice Selwyn) has pampered her husband Gordon to such an extent that he is now an obese hypochondriac; her compensation is shopping. Hopeless salesman John (John Dorney), a man of perpetual motion, has acquired a wife Evelyn (Kathryn Ritchie), all monosyllabic estuary-English and laconic gum-chewing, and a baby, son Wayne.

Ayckbourn has laid these characters out on the table for examination, and Cabot performs a decisively neat dissection of them. From Dorney’s near-manic twitches and shuffles as John through the anger which is scarcely controlled in Drury’s thoroughly unpleasant Paul to the almost gormless bonhomie with which Cook invests Colin, the detailing is precise.

Diana has a couple of opportunities in which her frustrations boil over; the first is ostensibly aimed at Evelyn and the second (actions sometimes speak louder than words) at Paul. Harvey makes the most of these. One yearns to shake Marge out of her febrile complacency – she’s killing Gordon with pandering to his malaises while over-feeding him – Which is a tribute to Selwyn’s characterisation. As for Ritchie’s Evelyn… one can only say that if there is to be a survivor in their marriage, it won’t be John.

Absent Friends plays at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 20 May and at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds between 2 and 6 June as part of a national tour to 18 July.

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Jeff Koons

(reviewed at the Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Norwich as part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival 2015 on 13 May)

There’s something innately theatrical about the Jeff Koons exhibition on display is the Artist Rooms at Norwich Castle. It’s playful – “easy fun” has been one description – and contrasts a sort of conspicuous consumption shine, colour and glitter with the formality of white, totally realistic sculpture in a classical style and the type of objets trouvés (in this case vacuum cleaners and baseballs) one associates with the prints of Lichenstein and Warhol.

Unlike, for example, some of Damien Hirst’s sculptures which seem deliberately designed to unsettle the viewer, Koons invites us to frolic with him. Rococo shapes are suggested by some of the wall-hung panels, gleaming rich reds, blues, turquoise or green for all the world as though they were enormous facets of gem-stones. The famous anthropomorphic teddy-tears greet us; if you’re lucky, you may also encounter them in human form. Yet even these are not simply Disney.

Those towering urns crammed to their brims with seasonal flowers and fruits familiar from Dutch still-life paintings seem to be the inspiration for the vases of ceramic larger-than-life and twice-as-bright blooms. Again, the air of realism is misleading. But the whole of this exhibition is a double game. Yes, Koons is playing with us. But he’s also inviting us to play with him.

The Jeff Koons exhibition can be seen at the Castle Museum & Art Gallery at Norwich Castle until 6 September.

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Filed under Reviews 2015, Visual & applied arts

What Will Have Been

(reviewed at the Adnams Spiegeltent, Norwich as part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival 2015)

Circa is an Australia-based company which takes traditional circus arts and allies them to something much closer to modern dance; there is often a complex intellectual back-story to the shows. What Will Have Been pits a girl and two men against each other, yet the fluid fragile alliances between each successive pairing suggests something deeper than the more usual girl-comes-between-male-friends scenario.

It begins with some spectacular rope-work by the unnamed female performer. In some sense her avatar, a violinist, her instrument enhanced, both comments on the action and leads it with Bach’s Partita which is inter-cut with an electronic soundtrack. What is so apparently plain before our eyes and ears is by no means the whole story. It’s counterpoint as well as variations on a theme.

The male acrobats swing each other round, balance on top of each other and perform vaulting feats. Is this rivalry, or just masculine show-off and preening? Is the male bond stronger than whatever fascination the unsmiling girl exerts, or do they just circle around each other in a sort of mental and emotional cocoon? The phrase “a mystery wrapped in an enigma” would appear to fit.

There’s no disputing the technical skills and abilities of all four performers. The audience is close to them at all times. The Norfolk & Norwich Festival (now threatened with an appallingly ferocious cut to its grant-aid funding) has commissioned this new piece from Circa as one of this year’s highlights. Let us hope that it won’t be the last.

What Will Have Been plays in the Adnams Spiegeltent, Norwich until 24 May.

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Filed under Circus & physical theatre, Reviews 2015

Aladdin

(reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop’s Stortford on 14 May)

No, Christmas hasn’t suddedly arrived in the springtime. Christopher Moore’s dance version of the Arabian fable of Aladdin has been created for his own Ballet Theatre UK. We all know the story, that of a poor but carefree lad who falls for a princess, is bamboozled by a magician but finds help partly through his own unexpected resources and partly through the aid of two genii trapped respectively in a ring and a lamp.

Moore puts the story firmly in its original Levant setting – no China, no fall-about comics and definitely no widowed mother. The market-place setting for most of the early scenes is colourful, with whirling, rainbow-hued costumes for the girls and voluminous dark breeches allied to short jackets for the boys. Pivoting triangular structures indicate the changes of scene.

The choreography is suited to the abilities of the company.For the most part, the girls of the corps dance on demi-pointe, with full en-pointe reserved for the spirits until the second part – Jessica Hill is a particularly strong Slave of the Ring – and Ines Ferrira’s winsome Princess. Vincent Cabot’s smiling villain of a sorcerer swirls folds of black cloak as he grasps for domination.

David Brewer makes a likeable hero, somewhat akin to Ashton’s Colas from La fille mal gardée. It’s one of those stories where the second part requires quite a bit of padding, which we receive in the form of a sequence of duets and trios interspersed by full corps numbers.

Ballet Theatre UK is one of the few companies which genuinely try to reach places and audiences which other classical ensembles cannot or will not attempt. As an introduction to classical ballet, the majority of the company’s own creations (not to mention its versions of established repertoire pieces) usually work very well. Aladdin, however, somehow doesn’t quite pull it off.

I’m fully aware that the production of fully-illustrated programmes is an expensive operation, especially when advertising revenues for printed matter seem to be on the decline. But – especially for a new work such as Aladdin – a simple two-page A4 cast and creatives list with a plot summary could surely pay for itself. I overheard many foyer grumbles about this.

Aladdin can be seen at the Key Theatre, Peterborough on 6 June and at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 15 and 16 June

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Filed under Ballet & dance, Reviews 2015

The Deranged Marriage

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 28 April)

Rifco Arts is one of the Palace Theatre’s associate companies. If you haven’t come across its productions before, they tend to be a clever fusion between South Asian dance and dramatic traditions and Western ones. A recent success was Happy Birthday Sunita, the story of a disfunctional family (well, they do make good drama) coming to terms with the incursion of British ways of doing things and organising personal relationships, not always easily.

The Deranged Marriage by Pravesh Kumar is a story of the intended celebration of an arranged marriage between Sona (Clara Indrani) and Rishi (Aaron Virdee). Sona’s mother Hema (Veejay Kaur) is a widow; she’s torn between letting her daughter seek a career (as an artist) for herself and keeping the community’s respect through what on the surface is a highly desirable alliance.

Sona’s best friend is Jenny (Jessica Dennis). On the surface, she’s simply the “token White”, but Jenny has plans for her own future within this family. Mistress of the celebrations is pushy aunt Lata; Balvinder Sopal makes it clear that this is a woman you contradict at your peril. Then there’s cousin Kiran (Sheena Patel) in blatant search for a man. Any man. Any colour.

Video photographer Tony (Stephen Lloyd) is the Romeo to Sona’s Juliet. Shakespeare’s theme of star-crossed lovers hovers about the play from its beginning. Kumar is his own director with a eye-catching set by Libby Watson and some spectacular Indian costumes and choreography by Andy Kumar.

Asian audiences obviously will appreciate some of the in-jokes more than others, though this is truly accessible theatre whatever your personal background. It would have been helpful to those of us not completely familiar with Indian nomenclature if the programme had indicated the relationship of the different characters to each other.

Obviously, it’s democratic to list actors in alphabetical order but, for new or rarely-performed pieces, even just giving the players’ names in order of appearance would save a great deal of programme-searching when we should be concentrating on the play.

The Deranged Marriage is on national tour until 13 June.

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A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

(reviewed at the Norwich Playhouse on 13 May as par of the 2015 Norfolk & Norwich Festival)

Annie Ryan has adapted the Irish novelist Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing into a one-woman play for Aoife Duffin. It has been brought to the 2015 Norfolk & Norwich Festival by the Dublin-based physical theatre company The Corn Exchange.

It is at times a savage indictment of rural Ireland, where a daughter is valued less than a son – especially if the mother has hopes of him becoming a priest – and is expected to behave meekly, not to say subserviently.

Duffin begins in half-light(both Mel Mercier’s music and sound and Sinéad Wallace’s lighting are effective) as the girl struggles from her mother’s womb, not really wanted even before she is born. Her father has given up, anyway, and walked out of the family.

Even before she is a teenager subject to her uncle’s full sexual assault, she knows that there’s no point in saying what she thinks or believes. No-one will listen anyway. Why would they? she’s just a girl on the threshold of womanhood.

It’s a bravura performance from Duffin from start to its half-light submerged finish as the stream of consciousness script pours out in its wordy torrents. You can see why it has won awards on the festival circuit. It’s brilliant and meant to touch the heart. I’m not sure that always occurs.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing runs at the Norwich Playhouse until 16 May.

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Wolf’s Child

(reviewed at Felbrigg Hall as part of the 2015 Norfolk & Norwich Festival)

This Festival commission from Wild Works is an extraordinary piece of outdoor theatre. The story of Wolf’s Child is one as old as myth-making itself and suggests that odd love-hate, fear-acceptance relationship which two-legged mankind has probably always had with the four-legged animal kingdom. We use animals, often make pets of some of them but – however much we attempt anthropomorphism – we are not of the same species.

From fold tales rooted in the forests which once covered so much of the European mainland and islands through Perrault, Grimm and Andersen and Frazer to the modern re-tellers of these stories and many more, wolves in particular are seen as creatures hovering on the edge of domesticity imbued with something of the divine as well as the feral. This is what director Bill Mitchell has latched onto.

The audience is led on a two-hour journey through the forest as night falls through 12 stages of the story by a flock of crows who order, cajole and comment. At a building very like the Palladian façade of Felbrigg Hall itself we encounter a cross between a ladies’ seminary and a reformatory where Mother (Sue Hall) has the whip hand and her favourites. Hazel (Mae Voogd) is being demoted while Rowan (Kyla Goodey) is promoted in her place.

Rowan is sent into the forest a kill a wolf as a sort of rite-of-passage. Hazel tails here. Rowan encounters a man-best (Morgan Val Baker) and begins to realise that she is perhaps not quite as human as the girls among whom she was brought up. It’s more than mere animal instinct, even when her coupling results in Thorn (Ellie James).

The wolf pack begins to bring up Thorn, until Mother manages to secure her. But she returns to the forest in spite of the carrot-and-stick technique of the “civilisation” attempt. Tragedy ensues, but so does revenge. The crows lead us in our turn back to gravelled paths and a flood-lit house. it was all just a story…well, wasn’t it?

Music (Abbott), enhanced sound (helen Atkinson), flaring torches and blazing log fires punctuate the action of Dave McKean’s script. The large cast is effective in their larger-than-life costumes (Kate Munro and Myriddin Wannell are the main designers). It’s an occasion piece, of course and the National Trust property provides a perfect setting for it. Most myths have staying power. I’m just not completely sure about this one.

Wolf’s Child runs as Felbrigg Hall until 23 May.

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Twelve Angry Men

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 11 May)

Most of us know Reginald Rose’s now-classic play about 12 jurymen arguing the case for and against convicting a 15-year old for the murder of his abusive father through the Sydney Lumet form starring Henry Fonda of 1957. But the stage vrsion has just as illustrious a pedigree and is once more on tour in Christopher Haydon’s production.

Haydon keeps the 1950s setting and Michael Pavelka’s set evokes the physical as well as mental and emotional heat generated as what seems like an open-and-shut case is splintered by one juror’s determination to vote not guilty, because he has “reasonable doubts” a specified by the off-stage summing-up by the judge.

More than the usual racial and social prejudices of the period come tumbling out as the arguments thicken, occasionally tipping over into actual violence. From the young man who has tickets for a basket-ball game (so much more important than whether or not a teenager is sent to the electric chair) through the rough-cast red-necks to the more thoughtful older men, the tension builds as minds are changed, not always for the most obvious of reasons.

Jason Merrell leads the cast as Juror 8 whose main opponents are Robert Duncan as the obstreperous Juror 4 and Andrew Lancel’s Juror 3. Denis Lill contributes a fine character study of the outsider Juror 10, a man whose past has included being suspected and despised; Andrew Frame is the foreman of the jury.

The first couple of scenes were a bit of a blur; a case of mumble and gobble while the audience came to terms with the mid-American accents. As the arguments develop, so did the clarity of speech as well as action, so that there was a real sense of being locked in that airless juryroom as the minutes tick by and apparently solid evidence reveals its weaknesses.

Twelve Angry Men runs at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 16 May.

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The Tiger Who Came to Tea

(reviewed at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 10 May)

It’s hard to believe that David Wood’s adaptation of The Tiger Who Came to Tea has been around since 2008. The Nick Brooke-Kenny Wax production seems to have been refurbished for the current tour; children who know every syllable and every picture from Judith Kerr’s now-classic story won’t be disappointed in seeing and hearing it all in three dimensions.

Susie Caulcutt’s set and costumes are colourful, and there’s an excellent mask and full furry body for the eponymous tiger. Benjamin Wells has the height for the part and carries off the courtly bows in greeting and farewell while allowing us that frisson which such a large non-domesticated feline needs to evoke. Wells is also the somewhat dozy father, who really does need his wife (Jenanne Redman) and young daughter Sophie (Abbey Norman) to work hard if he is to get to work on time, the doddering postman and glib salesman milkman.

We all know that the incursion of milkman and postman are there just to build up to the moment when the tiger insinuates himself into the kitchen, but it’s cleverly handled and works. Wood’s music and lyrics are a catchy as ever and suit Emma Clayton’s choreography well. Norman is a delight as the little girl who loves the toy kitten which has been her uncle’s birthday gift but is also fascinated by the tiger’s incursion.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 10 and 13 May and at the Watford Colosseum 11-12 July.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Reviews 2015

Feed the Beast

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 7 May)

There’s something deeply ironic in watching a play about a fictitious British prime minister set in his Downing Street office on the evening of a real General Election. Steve Thompson’s Feed the Beast is a co-production between the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre. It’s a comedy with bite.

Our protagonist is Michael (gerald Kyd), swept into office as the new broom which will sweep clean. He intends to start as he means to go on to (as he hopes) a second term by standing by every one of his pre-election promises. He starts by firing his former deputy and continues by banning any contact (open or covert) with the media – that’s the beast of the title, of course.

At first Michael’s Chief of Staff Sally (Kacey Ainsworth) is happy with the squeaky-clean image, though realist enough to know that both print and on-line journalists can (and will) fabricate a story if one is not handed to them. Enter a real rottweiler in the pugnacious form of Scott (Shaun Mason), foul-mouthed and ferocious as he grows his apparently minimal job as Michael PR person.

While Michael’s wife (Badria Timini) and daughter (Aimée Powell) attempt with minimal success to to settle into their new goldfish-bowl existence, there’s a piranha also circling for blood, columnist Heather (Amy Marston). In the world of politics, innocence is always going to be a victim and the scapegoat.

It’s directed at a rattling pace by Peter Rowe with an effective set by Libby Watson and vividly energetic lighting effects by Simon Bond. This all shows off Kyd’s heartfelt performance; there are times when you want to shake some realism into the man – while acknowledging that he may (just may) be right to stick to his principles.

Mason is another actor who gives a larger-than-life performance. There’s a deliciously cool menace in Marston’s journalist and an eagerness well tempered by pragmatism as Ainsworth shows us the limitations of apparent power. it’s a play for its season, certainly. But a day is a long time in politics.

Feed the Beast runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 16 May.

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Noises Off

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 6 May)

Michael Frayn’s farce about a hapless theatre company struggling to do its best for the actress who has sunk her life savings into this touring production should be fool- and director-proof (even if everything which could go wrong with the technical-cum-dress rehearsal and performances of Nothing On does so). The audience should enjoy every minute as the personal and professional lives of the actors unravels before our gleeful eyes.

Only, for me at any rate, this didn’t actually happen. There’s little that can be done to lessen the disjointed feel of Frayn’s Act Three (which is always something of a let-own after the backstage shenanigans of Act Two anyway) having to be bolted on to Act Two in a one-interval only production. But the sense of frenetic mayhem allied to split-second timing just wasn’t apparent.

Farce is a cruel medium; it exposes the actors just as much as the characters they play. Louise Kempton as Poppy, the much-abused (in more senses than one) assistant stage manager and Sarah Jayne Dunn as Brooke, the eye-candy in Nothing On (who’s not as dim as she makes out to be) are funny, as are Sara Crowe and David Shelley as the nominal stars of the show, and Louis Tamone as Garry, the most energetic of juvenile leads.

Louise Jameson as Dotty, “star” as well as financial backer of the play within the play, seemed curiously under-powered at the performance which I saw. Hywel Simons also didn’t seem entirely at ease as Lloyd, the director with too many irons in his smouldering fire. Peter Ellis plays Selsdon, the old actor with a drink problem and Dan Cohen tries his best to hold set as well as cast together as the stage manager, carpenter and general dogsbody.

Noises Off runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 16 May.

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Room on the Broom

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 5 May)

Tall Stories Theatre Company does precisely what the name suggests. Currently on tour is its adaptation of the popular children’s book by Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler – Room on the Broom. For my money, any stage show which glues its very young audience to its seats for just over an hour concentrating throughout on the characters and their adventures fully justifies itself.

Olivia Jacobs is the director and Morgan Largo the designer. The puppets (of which more later) are by Yvonne Stone. Four actors are on stage (and occasionally in the auditorium) when it begins; house lights are lowered slowly as we discover that some faulty map-reading has caused four friends to spend the night in a forest clearing. It’s not exactly a case of peaceful slumbers, what with snoring and a general inability to settle down comfortably.

Is it a dream then, or even a nightmare? The two girls transform into the broomstick-riding witch (Yvette Clutterbuck) and her know-all ginger cat (Emma MacLennan), a somewhat selfish feline – but then, are they all? They set off in search of a dragon, acquiring as broom passengers the friendliest tail-wagging, slobber-jawed dog you can hope to encounter (beautifully handled by David Garrud), a green-plumaged bird (handled by Daniel Foxsmith) and an acrobatic frog with a line in grande jetée to put Nijinsky to shame (Garrud).

Various catastrophes, not to mention the dragon (Foxsmith), are met and overcome, as the ill-assorted broomstick riders learn to give as well as to take. In the end the witch earns a new, super-charged broomstick, all twinkling lights, knobs, bells and whistles. Dawn breaks, and the sleepers find themselves alone. Well, it was all a dream… wasn’t it?

Room on the Broom runs at the Arts Theatr, Cambridge until 9 May. it also plays at the Westfield Auditorium, Hatfield (4-5 July), the Palace Theatre, Westcliff (10-12 August) and the Watford Colosseum (14-15 August).

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The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 5 May)

The boundary between adult, that nebulous territory often designated as young adult and late childhood is a hazy one nowadays. The Children’s Touring Partnership is building an enviable record in productions which achieve cross-over.

Angus Jackson’s stage adaptation John Boyne’s book The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas positions itself as a fable. Behind it is the stark reality of the Holocaust with all its horrors of forced deportation and slave labour in concentration camps leading to the inevitability of the gas chamber and furnace.

That this is both a story rooted in a particular time and places, and that it is also a timeless/placeless one (as all the best fables often are) is emphasised by Robert Innes Hopkins’ set design. – a circular wooden revolve backed by a brick wall upon which a sequence of words and images is projected to indicate where we are and when. There is minimal furniture.

If you don’t know the story already, it concerns a nine-year old boy Bruno (Cameron Duncan) and the friendship he strikes up with Shmuel (Sam Peterson) when his explorations lead him to a barbed wire fence enclosing a compound. Bruno, his teenage sister Gretel (Eleanor Thorn) and their parents (Marianne Oldham and Phil Cheadle) have moved reluctantly from the comfort of Berlin to the extermination camp in Poland of which the father has been appointed commandant.

Good as the older actors are, it is Duncan and Peterson who earn the audience’s ovation. Rightly so. Bruno comes over as a somewhat naïve boy, as yet unable to distinguish when lying to wriggle out of an uncomfortable situation (and so damaging another person) can have dire consequences. Shmuel share some of his innocence, but he has also acquired knowledge derived from bitter experiences.

On the sidelines of Bruno’s life are his grandmother (Helen Anderson) whose career as a chanteuse has not led to a love for the Third Reich, let alone its murderous philosophies, and the family maid Maria (Rosie Wyatt), sharp-tongued and far-seeing. Another thoroughly thee-dimensional portrait is that of Pavel – former doctor, now a servant – by Robert Styles.

Joe Murphy’s production balances realism where necessary with symbolism and mime where that suits the action better. The movement director is Lizzi Gee who contrives a wonderful sequence in which Bruno climbs out of his bedroom window and revels in what seems to be a virgin forest, full of mysterious shapes and sounds.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 9 May and plays at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 23 and 27 May.

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