Monthly Archives: July 2015

Educating Rita

(reviewed at the Little Theatre, Sheringham on 21 July)

Willy Russell’s two-hander, about a hairdresser and her (reluctant) Open University tutor is deceptively simple at first glance. Rita starts off all brass and attitude; you’d think that Frank has a point in feeling that this is all a waste of her time and his. But who is educating who? And for what?

Like Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, Educating Rita explores where education as a pursuit of knowledge in its own right comes slap up against the requirement to pass examinations. Perhaps it’s because I recently saw a production of The History Boys that the parallel struck me as it hadn’t done before.

Desmond Barrit’s production is dominated by Melissa Clements’ incandescent Rita, bursting into Frank’s study in a whirl of scarlet with jingly earrings and a voice fit to split logs. Paul Lavers as Frank has to work hard to equal the balance as our sympathies veer from one character to another – and back again – as this East End butterfly learns how to escape from her cocoon.

Frank, of course, is his own worst enemy, relying on copious draughts of scotch and varying layers of female support to get through what has become a dead-end job. The sequence of short scenes is punctuated by minimal pauses indicated by lighting changes; the excellent design (as for all the plays in this summer repertory season at the Little Theatre) is by Kees Van Woerkom.

Educating Rita runs at the Little Theatre, Sheringham until 28 July. The summer weekly repertory season continues until 5 September.

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Anybody For Murder?

(reviewed at the Suffolk Summer Theatre, Southwold on 20 July)

You know that a thriller with Brian Clemens and Dennis Spooner as its writers is going to offer audiences a clever and slick couple of hours entertainment. This comedy thriller is no exception; but you do need to concentrate to keep the tangles of the plot from knotting themselves inextricably in your brain.

The plot in question involves two couples, the girl-friend of one husband and a beached-up writer of murder mysteries. Max Harrington, by his own admission a second-rate research chemist, and his wife Janet have bought a farmhouse on a minute and very remote Greek island. If they ever thought to live “the good life” there, that dream has already crumbled into dust. Just like the farm’s soil.

Neighbour and thriller writer Edgar Chambers has found inspiration as lacking as the Harrington’s farm’s fertility. Perhaps ouzo in large swigs might help. Meanwhile Max fancies getting rid of Janet in favour of the delectable Suzy Stevens. Then the Ticklewell couple materialise. Mary is vaguely related to Janet; her husband George is (to put it politely) a not very efficient lawyer.

They have brought news of a legacy, but who will get the lion’s share of the million or so dollars depends on which of the two women is the closer blood kin to the deceased. This is where everything really becomes complicated, with thrills and spills generating alternate laughs and gasps from the audience.

Director Ron Aldridge keeps it all on the move with Maurice Rubens’ set, especially the stairs, almost becoming a player in its own right. Sarah Ogley, a sort of cut-price Lady Macbeth in the making, generates much of the comedy with Harry Gostelow’s lanky, much-put-upon George her perfect foil. Rikki Lawton makes Max sufficiently personable to make his relationship with both Pamela Banks’ not-just-a-dumb-blonde Janet and Amy Christina Murray’s sexy Suzy credible.

And then there’s Clive Flint as Edgar. Edgar is a type many of us will have encountered in those places where expatriates gather. An author who is never going to make the big-time but gets by on royalties and churning out another pot-boiler whenever money for booze runs short. As far as the plot of Anybody for Murder? is concerned, he’s just slightly a red herring, but a very funny one.

I won’t spoil it for you by revealing how it all works out. Find that out for yourselves.

Anybody for Murder? runs at the Summer Theatre, Southwold until 1 August and at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 3 and 8 August.

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Labour of Love

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 17 July)

The title of the community production celebrating 50 years of the revival for the country’s last complete Regency theatre is an apposite one. The mammoth task of restoration after three decades of being used as a store by the neighbouring Greene King brewery was initiated by an enthusiastic bunch of amateurs (in all senses of the word, as a telling line in Danusia Iwaszko’s script reminds us).

Any project as large as the restoration and renovation of the Theatre Royal is bound to inspire criticism as well as goodwill and support. Director Karen Simpson wisely lets this aspect carry as much weight as the other elements – musical (Phil Gostelow), design (Rachana Jadhav) and movement (Gary Willis).

The action flows across the auditorium as well as the stage and forestage as the enthusiasm of the (mainly) amateur initiators is overtaken by the more hard-headed realists who can crunch numbers. There’s a large cast mingling community with professional actors, headed by Suzanne Simpson as Olga Ironside Wood and Geir Madland as Air Vice-Marshal Vincent.

Jordan Cooper, who has an excellent voice, is the ghostly presence of a woman – audience member? actress? perhaps even Suffolk’s own Elizabeth Inchbald? The opposition is led by Richard Stainer as Neville Blackburne. Of the musial numbers, the opening one “Bring back our theatre” with its infectious three-four rhythm is the catchiest.

It really all does live up to its title.

Labour of Love runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 25 July.

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Stranded

(reviewed at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich on 11 July)

Pat Whymark’s new one-act play for the Common Ground Theatre Company she runs with Julian Harries is a fairly raw slice of modern life gift-wrapped in salsa. The story concerns two young women fumbling their way out of teenage into an adult world unlikely to teach them moral maturity. Would it be worthwhile, anyway?

Kath is homeless, living rough on the outer London streets. Delia is heading fast in that direction. It becomes clear that Kath (comfortable middle-class background, albeit through adoption not birth) has chosen this lifestyle. Delia’s mother has died, and she’s in pursuit of the father who abandoned them when she was seven years old.

That father might be Len, compulsive gambler, wheeler-dealer, dodgy benefits claimant – you name it, he’s tried that wheeze a couple of times. In the course of an hour, we find ourselves caught up in their drama as Lorna Garside (Kath), Delia (Alice Mottram) and Harries draw us into their disfunctional worlds of survival-for-the-moment.

Both girls give performances which cleverly balance abrasive vulnerability with humour – even if that’s sometimes of the graveyard variety. Harries steps in and out of Len’s wide-boy carapace to add bite to the flamboyance. Len may think he’s the top dog. Any woman can see that he’s no such thing.

Stranded can also be seen at the Thatcher’s Arms, Mount Bures on 14 July, the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 15 July and St Mary’s church hall, Walton on 17 July.

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How the Other Half Loves

(reviewed at the Southwold Summer Theatre on 8 July)

You can never take an Ayckbourn play at its face value. How the Other Half Loves was his second major commercial success in 1070; David Harris’ production which opened this year’s Suffolk Summer Theatres season sensibly keeps the 1969 setting for this typical blend of sharp social satire, surreal elements and a wryly compassionate look at what motivates people to behave in certain ways in situations partly of their own making.

The emphasis, as Ayckbourn likes to place it, is very much on the female condition. We meet the Fosters – lady-who-lunches Fiona and company manager Frank – and the Phillips – company man-on-the-make and new mother Teresa – share Maurice Rubens simultaneous living rooms.

These characters have enough complications between them without really needing the Featherstones – country mouse Mary and Welsh new employee William. That’s when the sexual, social and work permutations really start to create their own momentum. If you know Southwold’s summer Theatre, you know that the stage is quite small, though Rubens’ ingenuity works a miracle of visual stretching.

Small is the last word you could use to describe the acting with the balance between over-the-top (OTT) and naturalism beautifully balanced. Rosanna Miles is in turns funny and pathetic as Mary, the mouse who does eventually unsheathe her well-concealed claws. Eliza McClelland flounces and pirouettes in her chiffon and high heels to hilarious effect (the costumes are by Miri Birch).

Then there’s Teresa (Terri to her husband and friends). Marriage hasn’t turned out to be the bed of roses she probably expected a year or so ago; her husband is an autocrat, her son is at the teething, sleepless and whimpering stage, so everyday chores like housework and cooking are being relegated to a secondary status. All of which Kate Middleton makes utterly credible.

Bob does not like what his fun-loving but acquiescent wife has becomes one tiny bit. As Chris Clarkson amply demonstrates, the man is selfish and a bully. Physically Bob may meet his match in Rick Savery’s Will – but in many ways each is as thoughtless and liable to jump to conclusions as the other. Thoughtless, in the other hand, is not an adjective you can apply to Michael Shaw’s Frank.

Yes, the man is so absent-minded and easy to distract that you wonder how on earth he has reached his senior professional level. But there’s a steel core under all that fluff and his tenacity both provides the comedy as he becomes helplessly involved in marital and social turmoil of which he was partly the cause. When he turns the tables… but you really ought to see for yourself how it ll works out.

How the Other Half Loves runs at the Southwold Summer Theatre until 18 July and transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh from 23 July to 1 August.

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The History Boys

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 6 July)

Sell A Door Theatre Company may be only six years but there’s no mistaking its maturity. Kate Saxon’s touring production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys emphasises this. One of Libby Watson’s trademark sets both defines the timelessness of the story of a class of boys in their final term before university and indicates (through understatement) its non-real aspects.

The core of any production of this play lies as much in the casting of the eight pupils as with the four teachers with whom we, as the audience, engage. Here the stand-out performances are those of Steven Roberts as Posner, the misfit Jewish boy who uses his innate ability to camp things up as a weapon as well as a shield, Sid Sagar as quiet but brilliant Akthar and Kedar Williams-Stirling as at-ease-in-his-black-skin Daykin.

Richard Hope brings something more complicated to the key role of Hector, charismatic maverick teacher befouled by his own weaknesses as well as strengths, all too eagerly exploited both by colleagues and students. Christopher Ettridge’s apparatchik of a headmaster, so brisk in jumping on Hector’s sexual fumblings while patently seeing nothing wrong in his own advances to his secretary, contrasts beautifully.

Then there’s Irwin, the man with his own secrets who has been brought in to groom the boys for Oxbridge entrance examinations and interviews. Mark Field makes him so tight-lipped and buttoned-up that we all but squirm, while accepting that his approach may not win hearts but can ensure university (not to mention media) success. Susan Twist is the no-nonsense Mrs Lintott, who believes in facts and dates but is so much warmer than any Gradgrind.

Top marks all round.

The History Boys runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 11 July.

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Romeo & Juliet

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 30 June)

This new touring production of Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare’s Globe is a concentrated affair. Because it is a story about young people still in their teenage (their elders only make things worse, not better), the characters’ impatience is mirrored by the way in which directors Dominic Dromgoole and Tim Hoare intercut scenes in an manner more often encountered on film than on stage.

it’s extremely effective, ensuring that we’re caught up in the drama from its very beginning. Andrew D Edwards’ set is a brown-wood, rope-edged affair on two levels, against which the off-white costumes stand out. Most of the cast take on at least two characters and provide the, at times, raucous musical accompaniment (the composer is Bill Barclay).. We are in hot Verona, but it’s a timeless sort of place.

Choreographer Siân Williams and fight director Kevin McCurdy have devised some effective moments. There’s a particularly effective Mercutio by Steffan Donnelly (who also doubles the Prince) and a marvellously country wise-woman Nurse by Sarah Higgins. Matt Doherty contrasts Paris and Tybalt to considerable effect.

You can believe completely n Samuel Valentine’s Romeo as a youth on the cusp of adulthood, conscious that he owes his family and city a duty but reluctant to step up to it. Mooning over the unattainable Rosaline and larking about with his friends is so much more an apparently easier option.

Cassie Layton’s Juliet is also a credibly teenager, confiding in the audience as though to a coded diary as she comes to terms with the threat as well as the blessing of love and marriage. The older Capulets – Steven Elder and Hannah McPake – make a couple to be reckoned with, unleashing their fury at Juliet’s apparently wilful disobedience (she had, after all, earlier seemed delighted by the idea of marrying Paris) in a flailing crescendo.

Tom Kanji makes Benvolio into the butt of his friends’ japes, then gives us a somewhat rough-hewn Friar Laurence, a simple man who means well but is totally out of his depth when he tries to play God. As the humour fades with the daylight and the tragedy unfolds itself, its inevitability brings its own catharsis.

Romeo & Juliet plays at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 4 July as part of a national tour.

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Christine: The Musical

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 25 June)

It’s one of the defining photographs of the 1960s – the 20-year old Christine Keeler astride a black plywood chair. The whole murky tangle of high living and low morals, of drug-dealing, cold war espionage which n the end wrecked a Ministerial career and several lives is a familiar one, though books, stage shows and film.

There’s however something subtly different about Tony Franchi and Marion Wells’ musical take on the story. In 16 short scenes we are taken from the teenage Christine’s first foray into London nightlife to the luxury of the Cliveden estate and the traumas by the Old Bailey courtroom. Lindsay Lloyd’s direction uses projections, a minimum of furniture and some nifty choreography by Irene Lincoln to keep the story as lively as the events it unfolds for us.

What’s more, it has tunes. Real catchy tunes put over with aplomb by the 14-strong cast and six-piece stage band under John Chillingworth. “Pops” Murray’s introduction to the world of cabaret switches effortlessly between 3/4 and 2/4 time to notable effect. “Make love not war” is another near-show-stopper, as is “Vodka”, the pseudo-Russian number for Ivanov, the Soviet attaché.

Originally premièred at Colchester’s Headlong Theatre, these performances form part of the Lights Up! festival, the Mercury Theatre’s own new showcase for local dramatic and musical talent.

Lights Up! continues at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 12 July.

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