Monthly Archives: August 2015

Roll Over Beethoven

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 24 August)

Forget the Chuck Berry 1956 hit and even the Beatles’ 1963 version. Bob Eaton’s full-length musical called Roll Over Beethoven, now premièred at Hornchurch’s Queen’s Theatre, has snatches of Beethoven as well as a variation on Shakespeare’s Hamlet as the story line, iambic pentameters and all.

We are in a northern town in the mid-50s. Johnny Hamlet is in the middle of his National service; his school-friends Larry (Laertes) and Horace aka Waltzer (Horatio) have secured postponements – Larry through being at university and Waltzer by flourishing his homosexuality at the selection board.

One of the most interesting things about Eaton’s plot is that Eaton makes the Ghost into a malevolent downright vindictive figure. Fred Broom revels in the part as he seeks to manipulate his son towards murder. The not-quite grieving widow Gertie (Sarah Mahoney) and her new husband Claud (Antony Reed) are partners in a faltering music-shop business with Henry Polonius (Steven Markwick), whose attitude to changing tastes is mirrored in his repression of his lively 17-year old daughter Ophelia (Lucy Wells).

Wells has one of the best first-half numbers in “Seventeen” and the “Ghost train” sequence with Broom, Markwick and Wells is also effective. So is “Murder by silhouette”, when Rodney Ford’s lego-style design becomes a major actor in the sequence and Mark Dymock’s lighting complements this admirably. Matt Devitt’s direction keeps the pace going briskly while allowing breathing space between the numbers and the dialogue exchanges.

Ben Goddard is the musical director though, as usual with the cut to the chase… c company, all the cast play keyboards, strings, brass and percussion as appropriate. As in the original tragedy, it is Hamlet on whom we focus. Cameron Jones makes this mixed-up and angry young man very real as he struggles to find his own path through a tangle of lies and other people’s emotions.

Roll Over Beethoven runs at the Queen’s’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 12 September.

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The Count of Monte Cristo

(reviewed at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich on 21 August)

Common Ground Theatre Company has found a rich seam to mine in 19th and early 20th century adventure novels. its take on The Prisoner of Zenda is now followed by The Count of Monte Cristo. By the end of Act One I was convinced that this was going to be simply Part One of a two-part sequence of adaptations – but I was wrong.

After the interval the rest of the novel rushes by in true picaresque fashion; it’s worth remembering that Dumas’ historical stories were designed for an adult readership and contain considerable contemporary political comment, not to say satire. Pat Whymark’s adaptation frames the whole thing with a meeting of an undergraduate Dumas appreciation club (cue running joke about mustard). She also directs and has provided yet another of her tuneful scores as well.

The five-strong cast works very hard portraying a vast number of different characters with multiple wig and jacket changes, not to say gender shifts. Lorna Garside and Alice Mottram share the major women’s roles (and several of the masculine ones as well). Charles Davies, Joseph Lear and Nicholas Underwood are the three male actors.

The Count of Monte Cristo tours East Anglia until 3 October and is Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate between 24 and 27 August.

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Sister Act

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 20 August)

Twice-yearly musicals with a broad appeal have become something of a trademark for Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre’s artistic manager Catherine Lomax. This August she has chosen Sister Act, the fast-paced stage musical based on the film of the same name.

it’s star is indubitably Michelle Chantelle Hopewell who plays Deloris, so badly entangled with the gangland club owner Curtis (Trevor A Toussaint) that her former classmate, would-be suitor and police officer Eddie (Darren Charles) needs to tuck her away in a convent to save her life.

Curtis may have pooh-poohed her musical talents, but the Mother Superior (Pippa Winslow) finds herself letting them take hold on her less than perfect choir of nuns. To say that Deloris spices up the plainchant is an understatement – and she sets quite a number of cats loose amid the habited pigeons while she’s about it.

Jade Davies plays the postulant Mary Robert, a young woman suddenly unsure of her true vocation. That Mgr O’Hara (Arthur Bostrom) is all set to sell the nuns’ church for secular development simply adds to Mother Superior’s woes. Both Winslow and Roberts have strong voices and personalities which make their individual dilemmas credible in secular terms.

The costumes – no designer is credited – look good, especially the show-girl feathers and sequins and the white and silver glitter of the nuns as they perform for the Pope in the final scene. The settings, whether in the club, the police station, the church or within the convent, are clever and hold up the action as little as possible.

In the pit, musical director Chris Keen has a 12-piece ensemble. The slick choreography is by Khiley Williams. But, above all, it’s Hopewell’s evening, dominating from her first appearance – an untidy blend of naïveté and stroppiness – through her attempts to accommodate herself to being where and what she doesn’t want to be through to her final recognition not just of her own but of other people’s self-worth.

Sister Act runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 29 August.

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Talking Heads

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 17 August)

Alan Bennett’s monologues grouped under the title Talking Heads introduces us to two very different women and a mother-fixated man. All three are set in their long-established ways; for each this rigid path leads to an almost-inevitable measure of self-destruction.

The interest lies in how the dénouement for each character we meet comes about. It has something of the inevitability of classical tragedy as we watch how a character trait, a personality flaw or just the sheer inability to accept that change does and will occur moulds each story. Yes, for the most part we can see what will happen – but Bennett has a whole hand of master-cards up his sleeve.

Sarah Esdaile’s production cannot escape the piece’s 1988 television roots, though her slightly fidgety staging keeps each person firmly in that period. Francis O’Connor’s sets, atmospherically lit by Paul Pyant, combine naturalism with a touch of distortion – just as Miss Ruddock, Doris and Graham themselves live in a world whose distortion is as much of their own making as that provided by outside events and people.

All three actors are perfectly cast, especially Siobhan Redmond as Miss Ruddock; the second part of her story is a revelation in more than one sense. Karl Theobald has the measure of Karl, teetering on the edge of infantilism as he gauges the outside world through low-level porn magazines and his distorted view of his mother and his relationship with her.

Stephanie Cole is hear-breaking as Doris, so determined to stay in her own, now loo large home and to resist any attempt to cajole her into the sort of residential care which she (most probably correctly) sees as a short cut to the cemetery. Too proud to accept or call for help in the right circumstances and at the right time, she learns that being mistress of her fate is not necessarily as empowering as it seems.

Talking Heads runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 22 August.

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James and the Giant Peach

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 15 August)

Roald Dahl’s story in the David Wood adaptation is a perennial favourite with young audiences. Older children and family members can also enjoy this clever new staging by Matthew Cullum in which the design elements by Tina Bramman, the lighting by Mark Dymock and the music by Grant Olding play an equally important role.

The audience is fully involved, with chases through the auditorium, passing a huge peach-coloured beach-ball to and from the actors and responding to the string, woodwind, brass and percussion instruments adeptly handled by the cast. There is a clever use of puppetry, with a voracious seagull a clear favourite and a slightly spooky scarecrow man (who gives James the magic seeds) vying with a brace of sea-monsters for second place.

James Le Lacheur is a likeable and credibly boyish James, assisted in his escape from his horrible aunts Sponge and Spiker by insect friends. Josie Dunn is the Cossack-style Miss Spider, Dale Superville the slightly boastful Centipede and Peter Ashmore the suave fiddle-playing Grasshopper. Then there’s Kate Adams’ Miss Marple of a Ladybird, Matthew Rutherford’s lugubrious Earthworm and Barbara Hockaday as just about everyone else.

This production is one in artistic director Daniel Buckroyd’s Made in Colchester season. At a time of year when most theatres in East Anglia are occupied with more adult, even florid, fare a long run for a family-friendly show is to be welcomed. And this is a very good one.

James and the Giant Peach continues its run at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 30 August.

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The Titfield Thunderbolt

(reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 10 August)

There was a time, more than half a century ago, when East Anglia’s market towns, as well as many across the country, each had a Station Road which lived up to its name. Then Dr Beeching swung his axe… now there are still plenty of Station Roads, but no station, let alone trains, to justify their nomenclature.

The famous Ealing film comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt was scripted by TEB Clarke and has been adapted for stage presentation by Philip Goulding. This new production by Mark Sterling has a wonderfully ingenious set by Maurice Rubens – whoever said that small-scale theatres can’t do spectacular? There’s a channel running across the stage to represent the railway track behind which the waiting-room and ticket office open in doll’s house fashion to reveal a vicar’s study and a pub bar area.

Nor is a train lacking – we actually see two of these, not to mention a somewhat decrepit bus operated by wide-boy Vernon Crump (Clive Flint). His son Harry (Rikki Lawton) is sweet on the vicar’s niece Joan (Amy Christina Murray) so afflicted by the classic duty versus love tug-of-war. The Reverend Sam Weech (Harry Gostelow) has his personal cross to bear in the shape of Joan’s retrobate father, his own brother.

The Weechs’ determination to save Titfield Station is matched by local landowner Lady Edna Chesterford (Sarah Ogley); after all, it was her ancestor who ensured that his property should be served by train. Crump senior aside, and he has a whole bag of crafty tricks in his capacious pockets, assorted men from the Transport Ministry descend with briefcases stuffed full with their own particular agendas. This being a very English comedy, there are no prizes for guessing what the end will be. The fun is in watching how that happens.

As I indicated, the set and its furnishings, including projections which take us through the countryside, are the real stars. The cast members do very well to hold their own against such opposition, bearing in mind that they are types rather than fully rounded characters. It’s episodic, which is due to the original film script, for which I suspect the copyright holders might be to blame.

But it’s a breath of rose-tinted nostalgia with never a whiff of analysis about it, and none the worse for that. And there’s even a couple of song-and-dance numbers arranged by Dick Walter and choreographed by Sidi Scott called The Ferroequinologist’s Lament. I don’t know about you, but that’s definitely a word previously alien to my vocabulary.

The Titfield Thunderbolt runs at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 15 August and transfers to the Southwold Summer Theatre between 17 and 29 August.

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Bedroom Farce

(reviewed at the Little Theatre, Sheringham on 7 August)

Guest director Nicky Henson has staged Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce before. It’s a play which is obviously popular wih the Little Theatre’s audiences, whether resident or holiday-makers, and this production had us all chuckling right from the start.

We are faced by Kees Van Woerkom’s ingenious set which works miracles with the theatre’s bijou stage to show three very different bedrooms simultaneously. Each is the apparently private domain of a married couple; stage right is that of Delia (Mary Lincoln) and Ernest (Paul Lavers), about to go out for their wedding anniversary dinner. Centre stage of that of bedridden Malcolm (Rik Warren) and sprightly Jan (Melissa Clements). Stage left is the chaotic first home of Kate (Loraine Metcalfe) and Nick (Mark Oosterveen).

They are holding their house-warming, preparations for which are much interrupted, as Nick is devoted to both practical jokes and attempted DIY. Among the invited guests are Trevor (Luke Francis) and his rapidly becoming estranged wife Susannah (Maeve Smyth). He’s the cosseted son of Delia and Ernest and she’s the daughter-in-law they have never really liked.

As always with Ayckbourn, there’s genuine pain amid the laughter. Smyth takes the lion’s share of this, and one wants alternatively to shake her and condole with her. Francis gives us the sort of spoiled brat tipping over into early middle-age with whom any sensible woman would decline further acquaintance, let alone marriage. Both Metcalfe and Oosterveen spin in and out of what is obviously a relationship which will mature into responsibility – though no quite yet.

Clements’ Jan is the lynchpin of the whole thing. You can see why Delia and Ernest would have preferred Jan for their son, and why she was wise to walk away from the relationship. Warren is very funny as Malcolm, as bad an invalid as any man can be (and usually is). Licoln and Lavers embody the established couple who have reached a modus vivendi largely through discounting a good two-thirds of what the other is saying at any one time.

Bedroom Farce runs at the Little Theatre, Sheringham until 18 August and is followed by Perfect Wedding (20 to 29 August) and Private Lives (between 1 and 5 September).

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Out Of Order

(reviewed at the Southwold Summer Theatre on 5 August)

Westminster – that’s Parliament, by the way, not the Abbey – exerts a strange facination for us ordinary folk whose closest approach to its arcane mysteries is usually just through the ballot-box. We all know that odd things can go on in its corridors of power, let alone in various offices.

So Ray Cooney’s farce Out Of Order has been keeping audiences chuckling for several decades. Guest director David Harris has mounted his new production for Suffolk Summer Theatres with what one might describe as mainly the theatres’ resident repertory company – just what you need for a piece which requires ensemble playing of a high order.

The plot concerns junior Minster Richard Willey (Michael Shaw) who should be attending a critical debate, as he tells his country-living wife Gladys (Kate Middleton), but is actually holed up in the Westminster Hotel expecting an evening of unbridled sex with Jane. There is already a slight problem; Jane Worthington (Rosanna Miles) has a husband Ronnie (Rick Savery) and is secretary to the Opposition Leader.

Problem the second reveals itself in the person of a body (Harry Emerson) wedged between the balcony and the sash-window (keep an eye on that window – it plays a major if noisy role). Who can help our lovers? Probably not the hotel manager (Christopher Elderwood) or the waiter (James Morley). Instead Willey summons his PPS, the thoroughly repressed and mother-fixated George Pigden (Chris Clarkson).

Mrs Pigden’s nurse-companion Pamela (Eliza McClelland also arrives on the scene. Cooney runs every possible permutation on the ensuing situations, all with the deadly but hilarious logic which is the essence of farce. Harris stirs the mix adeptly as everyone in turn seems to find themselves either in the cupboard or the bedroom, on the balcony, in a wheel-chair (don’t ask!) and usually with or without their usual clothes. Guaranteed to raise yor spirits, whatever the weather outside the theatre.

Out Of Order runs at the Southwold Summer Theatre until 15 August and at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 18 and 22 August.

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And Then There Were None

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 4 August)

Justice’s sword has always had two sharp edges, as Agatha Christie’s novels and plays wll demonstrate. None more so perhaps than And Then There Were None – both novel and self-dramatisation – which first appeared during the Second World War, and has had a variety of titles (depending on the shifting sands of political correctness) ever since.

We are in a palatial villa on a very small island just off the English coast in that febrile period between the two wars. Simon Scullion presents us with a stunning art déco set which wouldn’t disgrace Eltham Palace for this summer tour by Bill Kenwright and the Agatha Christie Theatre Company. The production is correctly given with two intervals, by the way.

As the apparently unconnected group of eight invited guests arrive on the island, to be greeted by resident houseman Rogers, his cook wife and the host’s secretary Vera Claythorne, it soon becomes apparent that the host and hostess are detained elsewhere and that the only thing to do is to wait in apparent isolation. Director Joe Harmston takes the opening sequences sufficiently leisurely to allow appreciation of the different characters to evolve.

By Act Two, the audience has been presented with a variety of clues as the tension builds after the revelation that all the characters have caused deaths and evaded the consequences. The question is, who wields justice’s sword? – Disguised ex-policeman Blore (Gary Mavers)? Retired general MacKenzie (Eric Carte) or former officer Lombard (Ben Nealon)? Or could it be Dr Armstrong (Mark Curry) or Mr or Mrs Rogers (Frazer Hines and Judith Rae)? Surely it cannot be either devout dowager Miss Brent (Deborah Grant) or stylish secretary Claythorne (Kezia Burrows)?

As lad-about-town Marston (Tom McCarron) is the fist victim of the “Ten little soldier-boys” riddle, it’s certainly not him. Why would it be former High Court judge Sir Lawrence Wargrave (Neil Stacey)? The only person not in the frame is local fishman and ferry owner Fred Narracott (Jan Knightley). Douglas Kuhrt’s lighting comes into its own at the start of the third act as the remaining guests wait for the next death by candlelight, which is brighter than the fading trust among them.

The cast is an excellent one, radiating that brittle mixture of confidence and uncertainties which one associates with the between-wars period. I’ve seen this thriller several times before but never with the ending offered here. Much discussion went on with the packed Bury St Edmunds audience in the intervals as to who the master-mind might be. Not one of my neighbours guessed correctly – and I refused to give the game away, then as now.

And Then There Were None runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 8 August, at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 24 and 29 August and at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff from 21 to 26 September.

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Annie

(reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 3 August)

Little orphan Annie is not a newcomer to UK stages, though this production by Nikolai Foster for Michael Harrison and David Ian is something of a radical re-think. Yes, it’s still a razzamatazz of a musical, set in Depression-era New York with a cameo roll-on part for President Roosevelt, but Foster has injected just a touch of grit into the syrup.

Our heroine, at the performance which I saw, is Madeleine Haynes, all ginger pigtails and attitude. Balancing the sound system at the first date in a new theatre is always slightly problematic, and her words didn’t come into proper focus until the second half. The eight-piece band under George Dyer make the most of the score and there is real dymamisim in Nick Winston’s choreography, with its cheeky salute to Jerome Robbins and Gene Kelly.

Annie’s would be nemesis is the trio of Miss Hannigan (Craig Revel Horwood), her brother Rooster (Jonny Fines) and his moll Lily (Daljenga Scott). Horwood’s drag-act is as accomplished as ever, though never quite show-stopping. “Easy street” shows them at their best, that is to say worst. “Daddy” Warbucks, the billionaire who discovers that he has a heart as well as a fortune, and his secretary Grace Farrell come over as thoroughly believable people in Alex Borne’s and Holly Dale Spencer’s characterisations.

Callum McArdle is the wheel-chaired president who tries to find Annie’s parents and somehow in the process thaws Warbucks’ stalwartly Republican convictions. Colin Richmond has designed an effective all-purpose set, based on jigsaw puzzle pieces with just the odd piece of necessary furniture – a desk, orphanage beds, a table, sofa or art déco doorway – signalling a change of location.Ben Cracknell’s lighting is equally clever.

Annie runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 8 August and at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 17 and 22 August.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

(reviewed at the Theatre in the Forest, Jimmy’s Farm, Wherstead on 28 July)

As most of the action of Shakespeare’s comedy takes place in a forest, this would seem to be a logical choice for the Red Rose Chain’s third woodland production. The setting, framed by mature trees which incorporate perfectly in to human and fairy adventures, is indeed an effective one – especially when darkness allows stage lighting to play its part.

The trouble is that Joanna Carrick’s production only really takes off towards the end, when the mechanicals’ proffered burgomasque turns into a brilliantly lit, burlesque of dance devised by Rachel McCormick as a kaleidoscope of styles, from ballet and Irish through to chorus-line slickness. It’s long time to wait, though.

We are all used to a certain amount of double-casting; usually this takes the form of Theseus and Hippolyta also playing their other-world avatars Oberon and Titania. Carrick goes one better by triple-casting almost all her eight actors. There’s an amusing logic to both the by-the-book Egeus and the maverick (not to say anarchic) Puck being played by Adam Wilson and the two men who both think their talents are not sufficiently appreciated – Demetrius and Bottom – by Daniel Booroff. Both give excellent performances.

Robeet Dowdeswell radiates authority as Theseus, a man comfortably aware of his natural right to command and Oberon, the fairy kingdom ruler who gets his own way in the end. Kirsty Thorpe gives warrior queen Hippolyta a slight foreign accent and then is pleasantly feminine as the distinctly hippy Titania. I grew weary of Eleanor Cotton-Soares monotonous shouting as Hermia, though Joanna Brown’s beanpole Helena has her moments – and seizes them wholeheartedly.

The court characters are dressed by Carrick and David Newborn in black and white, while the mechanicals, as well as providing what you might call the town band, are straight out of Dad’s Army in khaki greatcoats. Once we’re in Fairyland, that turns out to be flower-power territory, all caftans and funny stockings; Puck emerges from a petal-painted beat-up Reliant Robin to take the audience by storm.

For the play scene, we are treated to bathing costumes in bright scarlet, some outlandish props and an unfortunate apparent inability to see that the comedy comes mainly from its bunch of inept actors taking themselves absolutely seriously. As I said, Act Five is a long time to wait for a play to take fire. This one proves to be something of a damp squib, and that’s a pity.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at the Theatre in the Forest until 30 August.

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