Monthly Archives: September 2015

Hetty Feather

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 29 September)

How do you create something which appeals to all age groups, from nursery school through to great-grand parents? One good starting point is to take a well-loved book and then work live theatre’s own very special magic on it. That’s what happens in the Emma Reeves’ stage version of Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather, now on a second major UK tour.

Director Sally Cookson and designer Katie Sykes set it in a circus. Not the slick, balletic modern version but a tinsel tawdry one typical of the late 19th century. Foundling Hetty (Phoebe Thomas) has red hair, a vivid imagination and an enormous amount of indignation as she seeks to establish her own proper identity and reclaim the comfort and nurture of a real family. The last one seems to offer itself when she’s taken in by baby farmer Peg (Sarah Goddard).

But Peg has to return her foundlings to the Hospital once they reached an age when they can be taught and sent out as servants (the girls) or cannon fodder (the boys). Hetty and Saul (Nik Howden), her special friend among her “brothers”, sneak into a circus where bareback rider Madame Adeline ((Nikki Warwick) is the star attraction and whose red hair prompts Hetty to decide that this must surely be her real mother.

She isn’t, of course. Hetty’s “picturing” has led her, not for the first time, down the wrong track entirely. it’s all beautifully and sincerely conveyed by Thomas – the feistiest of heroines and guaranteed to win masculine as well as feminine hearts – and Goddard, who doubles the other mother figure of Ida. Warwick comes into her own in the second act and there’s an abrasive sketch of Matron Bottomly by Matt Costain. Mark Kane plays Gideon, partially crippled and vindictive with it.

The circus skills flow naturally between this talented cast; the prancing circus ponies and long-trunked elephant are particularly enjoyable. musicians Seamus H Carey and Luke Potter – instrumentalists and commentators in the clown-Deburau tradition – provide the accompaniment (the composer-arranger is Benji Bower). The folk song “Over the hills and far away” haunts the story. It’s partly a metaphor for Hetty’s longings but also an invitation to the audience to loose its own imagination fo two hours. Or even for a little bit longer.

Hetty Feather run at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 3 October and can also be seen at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend between 23 and 25 October.

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Flare Path

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 28 September)

Getting the on-stage nuances right for any historical period is a triple effort, shared between director (Justin Audibert in this case), designer (Hayley Grindle) and – above all – the cast. Rattigan’s 1942 drama Flare Path takes place in the lounge of a hotel near an airfield, from which bomber and fighter pilots take off for their nightly flights over Germany. It’s a mission from which far too many will never return.

The officers and senior crew members use it as a sort of club, an alternative to the cramped messes and briefing-rooms of the station. Wives also take up residence, both short- and long-term, to snatch a few precious days with their menfolk. Enter a film star, predatory cockerel in this hen-roost, though with his intentions aimed purely at one particular resident.

This is where the production lets itself down somewhat. Leon Ockenden fails to radiate the tinsel-town alpha male glamour of Peter Kyle – think Clark Gable or Errol Flynn – of the expatriate leading man who is seeing his studio’s reliance on his box-office drawing powers fading rapidly. The girl he wants is actress Patricia Warren (Olivia Hallinan), with whom he has had a passionate on-off affair and who is now married to Fl Teddy Graham (Alastair Whatley, the artistic director of production company Original Theatre).

Whatley makes much of his second-act admission to the terrible effect which the bombing raids are having on him, both for the physical danger he encounters and through the regular loss of men who have become more than usually close comrades. I was less convinced by Hallinan’s posturing; one never quite believed in the character as an actress or in her obvious appeal to two such very different men.

The smaller rôles are well taken, notably by Siobhan O’Kelly as Doris, the barmaid now married to a Polish count who lost his original family to the Nazis and is, understandably, focussed on revenge. Simon Darwen’s Sgt Miller, Philip Franks’ Sq Ldr Swanson and Adam Best’s Count Skriczevinsky are also well-rounded portraits of people as well as of types.

Hayley Grindle’s costumes look right for the clothes and uniforms of the period and her sts is an effective blend of naturalism and symbolism. The central acting area gives us the by now slightly battered lounge, backed by an enormous red-curtained window and with a realistic fire in the footlights-level hearth. But this isn’t a box set, such as Rattigan would have envisaged for the original prodction. Instead it’s flanked by a suggestion of twisted, blackened metal and a bare-branched tree. Dominic Bilkey’s soundscape is almost frighteningly three-dimensional as the aircraft take off – but don’t always land successfully.

Flare Path continues at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 3 October. It also plays at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 19 and 24 October and at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff from 16 to 21 November.

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Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern

(reviewed on 25 September – preview)

The 1712 trial of an elderly widow living in the Hertfordshire village of Walkern is often seen as England’s last witchcraft trial. It’s not, but the story – as told in Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play premièred at the Palace Theatre Watford before a national tour lasting into 2016 – remains a gripping one.

Lenkiewicz has taken a dramatist’s licence with her characters, though her fictional Rev Samuel Crane is just as fanatical and unpleasant as the real-life Rev Francis Bragge and mixed-up teenager Ann Thorn is as disturbed as her factual counterpart Anne. Designer James Button uses a suitably earth-colour palette, while director Ria Parry uses the flexibility of the settings to keep the story swirling as it should do.

We join the story just after Ann (Hannah Hutch) has seen her own mother hanged for witchcraft. the women of the village are sympathetic enough, but the older ones feel vulnerable. Ann is to be taken into the household of a bishop Francis Hutchinson (David Acton), suffering an enforced sabbatical from his Irish diocese, who is himself viewed with suspicion by the locals. This is acerbated by his housekeeper Kemi Martha (Cat Simmons) being a nubile negress.

If Hutchinson is the voice of enlightened Christianity, Crane (Tim Delap) is from the Matthew Hopkins mould; he is determined to root out witchcraft, country beliefs and pastimes. He has already successfully prosecuted Eleanor Thorn, now his sights are set on Jane Wenham (Amanda Bellamy) – who has already suffered interrogation under torture when accused some years earlier.

Jane is understandably bitter, trapped as she is in a backwoods rural location where her solitude, the leg which has never healed after the torture and her hard-learned skills with herbs is as feared as used by her neighbours. She finds Ann troubling as the girl veers from ingratiating herself where she sees a possible advantage and almost hysterical despair; this is very well portrayed by Hutch.

The most sympathetic characters, other than Hutchinson and itinerant farm labourer Fergal (Andrew Macklin), are the local inn-keeper Widow Higgins (Rachel Sanders) and Kemi. Sanders also doubles Bridget Hurst, a baby-farmer whose daughter Effie’s drowning sparks the full fury of the witch-hunt. Simmons plays an intriguing character, both caring for and resentful of her complex relationship with Hutchinson, whose hummed and softly sung settings of Donne poems (Max Pappenheim is the composer) act as a sort of Greek chorus for the action.

I suspect that most theatre-goers will find it difficult not to draw parallels with Miller’s The Crucible, also a play about suspected witchcraft and the savage hysteria it generates. Lenkiewicz’s play is perhaps more strident in its characterisation of the accused and the accusers, and there is a distinct 21st century air to it. But all writers of historical drama filter the past through their own contemporary lens. In some ways 1712 is distant. In others, it’s chipping away at our own sense of perhaps too complacent 2015 security.

Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern plays at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 3 October and then tours Essex and Suffolk until 17 October. It also visits the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (21-24 October), the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool (27-31 October), the Tobacco Factory, Bristol (3-7 November), the Salisbury Playhouse (10-14 November) and the Arcola Theatre, London (5-30 January).

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Waiting for Godot

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmuns on 22 September)

Director Michael Cabot takes us through Beckett’s most performed play at a brisk rate which emphasises the comedic aspects while remaining respectful to the text. I seem to remember Peter Hall’s original London production as taking a far more reverential approach. This one works, thanks in large part to a set design by Bek Palmer which engages our eyes while five excellent actors engross our ears.

Andy Grange’s lighting complements the shimmering black floor-cloth, suggestive of some primeval swamp or morass. it’s studded with light stepping-stones, like so many giant and bleached lily-pads. The all-important tree where Vladimir (Peter Cadden) and Estragon (Richard Heap) wait for their appointment with the mysterious Godot is a grey columnar affair, dangling its thick tangle of roots at their eye-level. Dull mirrors and other similarly suspended trees form its bakground.

As the two men wrangle, Vladimir pontificates and Estragon grumbles, they’re joined by Pozzo (Jonathn Ashley) and his slave-servant Lucky (Michael Keane). Pozzo blusters in true ringmaster fashion, cracking his whip and demonstrating his top-hatted authority over lesser mortals. The boy(s) who announce at the end of the acts that Godot won’t in fact be coming until the next day are played by Sonja Zobel.

The joshing between the two main characters is beautifully defined by Heap and Cadden; their timing is impeccable and they use the constant switches in their relationship between mutual support and cross-patch irritation to win and keep the audiences sympathy. Keane comes into his own with Lucky’s incomprehensible tirade at the end of the first act, deservedly an applause-reaping scene. This production shows the unsubsidised London Classic Theatre at the top of its form.

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Steel Magnolias

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 21 September)

Woman may be a delicate blossom, like the white flowers for which Robert Harling named his 1987 play, but women are infinitely less fragile, hence the second word in the title Steel Magnolias. We are in small-town Louisiana in the south of the USA, specifically in a hair-dressing salon. Its proprietor is Truvvy (Sarah Mahony) and she’s just taken on a new-to-town assistant Annelle (Lucy Wells) – a born-again Christian.

The clientle is a faithfull one, using the salon as a neutral meeting-ground, rather like a club. There’s a former mayor’s wealthy widow Clairee (Tina Gray), the slightly eccentric dog-loving Ouiser (Gillian Cally) and mother and daughter M’Lynn (Claire Storey) and Shelby (Gemma Salter).

Shelby is about to be married; she’s also a diabetic. In her mother’s view, the two do not go together, as we see during the course of the drama which coves two-and-a-half years in four scenes. Director Liz Marsh and designers Dinah England (set and costumes) and Chris Howcroft (lighting) take us to the time and place and through the seasons with considerable style and dialect coach Richard Ryder has done sterling work.

The trouble is that those soft Southern inflections are not easily projected into the auditorium. So, though all the performances are very good in themselves, Storey’s long speech in the fourth scene didn’t really come across with all its painful recollection until its peroration.

Which is a pity as by this point we are thoroughly engaged in the human tragedy as well as with the personal crises of various types with which the characters are involved and which they manage to resolve collectively and with considerable finesse through a policy of give and take.

Steel Magnolias runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 10 October.

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The 2015 Norfolk Arts Awards

In its fifth year, the Norfolk Arts Awards attracts both sponsorship and public interest, demonstrated by over 6,500 votes being cast in the three categories of the Eastern Daily Press People’s Choice Awards. The gala presentation event at the Maddermarket Theatre on 19 September marks the start of this year’s Hostry Festival (19 to 31 October), the fruitful brainchild of Peter Barrow and Stash Kirkbride, which is based around Norwich Cathedral.

For each award, three individuals or organisations are short-listed and have their chance to explain their operations through a short film. This year the Theatre Award goes to Sewell Barn Theatre, a new community arts venue on the northern outskirts of the city. The runners-up are the RSC production of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, which had visited the Theatre Royal last autumn and the Cromer Pier shows at the Pavilion Theatre, a seaside tradition going back to the beginning of the 20th century.

The Dr Frank Bates Musical Theatre and Dance Award, commemorating a long-serving cathedral organist, goes to the Norwich Arts Centre which was a category winner in 2014 and also picks up the People’s Choice Award for smaller scale venues, organisations and projects in competition with Frozen Light Theatre and the Diss Corn Hall. Break Charity’s GoGo project (dragons were the 2015 theme) is the winner, with the Norfolk & Norwich Festival and the Norwich Theatre Royal the runners-up. GoGoDragons also scoops the Lifetime Contribution to the Arts Award.

Individual artists receiving due recognition are Matt Reeve, one of the GoGoDragons designers, in the Eastern Daily Press People’s Choice, Grace Leeder who wins the Peter Barrow bursary to facilitate her ambition to attend drama college and Caroline Flack for her work outside as well as within the county; she wins the new Norfolk Icon Award. Brewery Adnams, which sponsor and supports festivals and theatre in Suffolk and Norfolk wins the Business and the Arts Award; the 20-year old Norwich Print Fair gains the Hy Kurzner Arts Entrepreneur Award.

The Music Award goes to the Norwich Philharmonic Society and the Broadcast and Press Award to BBC Voices, a media workshop and production unit based in the city’s BBC studios. The Fashion and Costume Design is won by theatre designer and costume designer Kirsteen Wythe for, among other work, that for the Theatre Royal and the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. The Visual Arts Award goes to Toni Lawon and Sweet Arts with its projects for vulnerable women.

Education and community work is also recognised with Marcus Patteson of Sistema in competition with The Garage in Norwich, run by Darren Grace, and the two Access to Music centres catering for over 300 young people under the aegis of Ian Johnson. Mascot Media – husband and wife team of Alan and Marion Marshall – wins the Jarrold New Writing Award with the multi-artist The Artful Hare. Norwich City Council’s Team Norwich and Rebecca Chapman’s Total Ensemble theatre company win the Outstanding Contribution to the Arts in Norfolk Awards.

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Dickens Abridged

(reviewed at the Westacre Theatre, West Acre on 18 September)

A spin-off from the original Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) company, is on the road with Adam Long’s take on Charles Dickens. It encompasses in 90 minutes the novelist’s fast literary output as well as his somewhat disjointed life. It’s fair to describe Dickens Abridged as a musical, though Long’s clever use of projections might also quality it as a multi-media experience.

Whatever its artistic category, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable romp through mid-19th century fiction. With the aid of a guitar apiece, quick costume (and gender) changes and a nice balance of fact with comedic elaboration, the four-strong cast take us from Dickens’ own fraught childhood, through marriage, success, 10-strong fatherhood to his late romance with the actress Ellen Ternan and the physical crumbling partly occasioned by his dramatic recounting of Nancy’s murder from Oliver Twist.

Some of the novels are dismissed in four-line jingles while others are afforded a slightly more extended – if still elliptical – treatment. Great Expectations (you’ve never seen Miss Haversham’s immolation staged quite like this), A Tale of Two Cities with an applauded guillotine scene and a romp through A Christmas Carol which had Cratchit and Scrooge as overcome by laughter (aka corpsing) as the audience.

An apocryphal encounter at Dickens’ graveside between Ternan and the discarded Catherine Dickens née Hogarth works very well to demonstrate that Dickens the writer may be a national treasure but Dickens the man was of more tarnished metal. The projections include photographs and engravings as well as story-boards to fix our attention and remind us of the realities of 19th century London.

Martin Sarreal makes Catherine sympathetic as well as revelling in Agnes Wickfield’s virginal simplicity, such a contrast to Matthew Hendrickson’s lapdog-clutching Dora (Hendrickson is also Miss Haversham). Matt Bateman plays Dickens, as well as some of his creations and Andrew Gallo takes on many of the male fictional characters derived from Dickens’ own story as well as from his fertile imagination.

Dickens Abridged runs at the Westacre Theatre until 20 September. It can also be seen at the Arts Centre, Hatfield University (19 October) and at the Mumford Theatre, Cambridge (20 October), Harlow Playhouse (21 October), The Cut, Halesworth (22 October) The Norwich Playhouse (2-3 November), the Hertford Theatre (6 November), the Arts Centre, Hemel Hempstead (24-25 November) and the Maltings, Ely (28 November) as part of a national tour.

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The Father

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

Who suffers the most when a once-active – both physically and intellectually – person is afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease? Is it the actual sufferer? Or the family? Is it those outside the immediate family circle who care for the patient? That’s the framework for Florian Zeller’s 2014 play Le père, now translated by Christopher Hampton as The Father and premièred at the Cambridge Arts theatre before transferring to the West End.

The central character is André, a widower who lives alone; one daughter Anne, who still lives in Paris but hopes to move to London with the new man in her life, does everything she can to help him maintain both his dignity and independence. The other daughter Elise, the recipient of a disproportionate degree of affection, is reportedly abroad, though we learn gradually that she died in a accident many years previously.

What Zeller is concerned for us the audience to understand and accept as an active part of this particular theatre-going experience is the dislocation of time and place which is a by-product of Alzheimer’s. We need to concentrate as the sequence of scenes introduces Anne, carer Laura, a medical assessor and Anne former husband.

Director James Macdonald keeps the action moving at a brisk pace; the whole staging is double-framed – first of all by Guy Hoare’s border of white lights which boxes in the acting area of set designer Miriam Buether. Sound designer Christopher Shutt uses the precision of baroque keyboard sonatas broken without warning or regularity by a scratch or needle slip.

Central to it all is André himself. It’s a difficult rôle for any actor as we feel both sympathy for and irritation with the character as he unwittingly comes close to wrecking his daughter’s life. Kenneth Cranham gives a towering performance of a once-strong man crumbling into hostile and destructive senility; his curtain-call ovation is well deserved.

Claire Skinner is Anne, the daughter who is naturally so reluctant to consign her father to a nursing-home, for all the strain which his care is putting on her relationships at home and at work. You believe in her utterly and reach out in sympathetic understanding.

Then there’s Pierre, the husband she is/has discarded. Nicholas Gleaves doesn’t soften his harshness to wards the father-in-law he sees as partly responsible for the end of his marriage. The scene in which he slaps André’s face hits home as it should; we condemn the blow but understand why it happens.

Kirsty Oswald makes Laura as bubbly as she should be; André likens her to Elise, to whom he refers in brutal comparison with Anne at regular intervals. The end of the play, which is both a resolution for a situation grown impossible, is intensely moving. Anyone who has ever known an Alzheimer’s sufferer as the disease inexorably accelerates will know the helplessness of even the closest and most sympathetic bystander. There, but for the grace of God…

The Father runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 26 September.

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So Here We Are

(reviewed at the HighTide Festival, Aldeburgh on 12 September)

There’s a lot to look at as well as to hear in Steven Atkinson’s production of So Here We Are, a new play by Luke Norris. As it starts, we meet four young amateur footballers, mainly perched on top of dockside containers, as they begin to take in that their friend Frankie (whose funeral they have just attended) is truly dead. They drink lager and josh each other, but still find it hard to accept what has happened.

Mourning is a strange phenomenon anyway. They are eventually joined by Frankie’s partner Kirsty clutching black balloons for them to launch as a tribute and an element of closure. But can that ever be achieved, especially by the young whose first brush with mortality this is?

Then we are in flashback mode. Lily Arnold’s container set opens to display disco lights and we meet Frankie himself (Daniel Kendrick) who has grasped the trappings of football success rather too early. His exchanges with Kirsty foreshadow what we know will happen, but are punctuated by his friends’ well-meaning interventions as well as by Isobel Waller-Bridge’s ear-blistering score and sound.

Sound is something of a problem throughout, in fact; for much of the first half it’s as though we were on a seawall with a rough tide rampaging over a pebble beach. Ciáron Owens, Dorian Jerome Simpson, Mark Weinmann and Sam Melvin all convey the inarticulate nature of young male bonding, even when you have to guess at what they’re saying between the expletives.

So Here We Are runs in repertoire at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 20 September.

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Brenda

(reviewed at the HighTide Festival, Aldeburgh on 12 September)

We are told by director Caitlin McLeod that this new play by E V Crowe, about a woman stressed to the point of mental fragility, takes place on the fault line between theatre and reality. That’s a perfectly legitimate concept, when it works. For me it definitely did not.

There’s a lot of wordless standing around for Alison O”Donnell as Brenda in the Parish Church Hall at the beginning of the play. Silence and lengthy pauses can be excellent drama when initiated by a master; here they seem merely irritating. I wanted to care what was going to happen to this sad young woman, but couldn’t manage it.

Brenda is joined by Robert (Jack Tarlton), who one presumes he’s her husband. He wants to help her, basically by forcing her to acknowledge that she is indeed a person called Brenda through the use of a microphone. Is this in fact cruelty for its own sake, an element of revenge or truly an attempt at therapy?

Designer James Turner makes a great play of a bank of electronic amplification and a snake’s nest of microphone leads, uncoiling and writhing across the floor like so many vipers. Snake venom, of course, has medicinal uses as well as lethal properties; we are left uncertain whether Brenda’s need to be outside is an escape attempt or merely a provocation to Robert.

Brenda runs in repertoire in the Aldeburgh Parish Hall until 19 September.

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Harrogate

(reviewed at the HighTide Festival, Aldeburgh on 12 September)

The second première in this year’s HighTide Festival is a two-hander for three characters by Al Smith. The audience is ranged either side of a long raised platform which designer Tom Piper has floored in pristine white, echoes by the two chairs and kitchen unit which are the only other furnishings.

Nick Sidi is Him, a father and divorced husband obsessed by girls’ virginal mid-teen status. He met his former wife when she was a schoolgirl; now his daughter is the same age. He worries about her to a point which we feel as the play progresses is beyond reason or logic.

He is concerned that her friend Carly is leading her astray, that she wears make-up and scent, that she buys shoes and a mobile phone to suit her own taste rather than his. Above all, that her mother is setting her the wrong example with her new partner Gary and above all that she now has an older boyfriend Adam.

His obsession is such that he follows her when she and Carly go away for the weekend, only of course they separate and she and Adam spend Valentine’s Day together in Harrogate, ending up in a double bed in a guest-house. When he confronts his wife (both women are played by Sarah Ridgeway) he seeks to transform her into an unhealthy mix of her own teenage self and her daughter.

It is a mark of director Richard Twyman’s skill as well as of Smith’s writing that we are never completely repelled by the male character’s dangerous obsession, a perverse Lolita complex as Him at one point admits. Nick Sidi takes us inside this ultimately sad man’s soul and lays it bare as on an operating table.

That table is where Ridgeway as the wife and mother spends her working life. As a surgeon, she knows that you cannot force time to stand still, much less run backwards. It’s a beautifully rounded performance, matched by her deceptively simple characterisation of the daughter, who is learning about life’s duplicity in a fashion as skewed as her father’s obsessions.

Harrogate runs in repertoire at the Pumphouse, Aldeburgh until 20 September.

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Lampedusa

(reviewed at the HighTide Festival, Aldeburgh on 12 September)

This new play by Anders Lustgarten is a searing indictment of two contemporary evils, one national and the other international. It is a piece for two voices, one that of Stefano, a Sicilian fisherman whose work has degenerated from catching fish to feed people to pulling the bodies of dead migrants from the Mediterranean – that sea around whose shores western civilisation first took root.

The other character is Denise, who works for a pay-day loan company collecting overdue repayments. In its way, it is equally soul-destroying, but she has an invalid mother to support (much as the DWP would like to declare her fit for work, and thus save paying disability benefits). Anyway, her employers reckon that a woman has a better chance of success in collecting money than a man.

Because the writing is strong and committed, I kept on feeling – in spite of Steven Atkinson’s production and the excellent performances by Steven Elder (Stefano) and Louise Mai Newberry (Denise) – that this would work much better on radio without the visual distractions furnished by a theatre-in-the-round production.

At the end, both characters are offered a glimpse of hope – Stefano through finding alive the wife of a distraught migrant, Denise through the kindness of a Portuguese woman client. But Lustgarten makes us aware that these are mere firefly glimmers in an increasingly dark world. We are never far from decay, even on the seashore.

Lampedusa continues in repertoire at the HighTide Dome until 19 September.

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Sweet Charity

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 8 September)

Happy endings don’t always occur, even in fairy tales. At one level the musical Sweet Charity by Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields, Neil Simon and Bob Fosse is a variation on the Cinderella myth. it is also a wry study of the way in which a woman can be her own worst enemy, something which Peter Rowe’s radical new production for the New Wolsey Theatre emphasises.

The Ipswich theatre is one of those which specialise in actor-musicians, as opposed to using a more conventional pit orchestra. Musical director Greg Last has some good instrumentalists in the acting-singing-dancing performers who keep to the sides of Libby Watson’s deceptively simply framing set when not occupying centre stage.

It is Katie Birtill in the title role of dance-hall hostess Charity Valentine who really dominates. She has the kookiness of the small-town girl who is hopelessly adrift both in New York and in her relationships with the various men she repeatedly views ‘from the off” as The One – only to be let down each time.

The first of these is Charlie, who steal her cash and lets her half-drown in the Central Park lake. Her encounter with film star Vittorio Vidal (Jeffrey Harmer) leaves her less bruised. Harmer has a very good voice as well as the right sort of flamboyant personality; his ballad number is deservedly applauded.

Just before the interval, Charity meets Oscar (James Haggie), an introverted youngish man with acute claustrophobia – just one of his multiple hang-ups. But he’s no Price Charming, not even a Frog Prince. it’s a tribute to Haggie’s performance that the character (as opposed to the performer) was roundly booed at the first night curtain calls.

Choreographer Francesca Jaynes has devised some good routines for Charity’s fellow hostesses – Katia Sartini, Sophie Byrne, Nicola Bryan, Giovanna Ryan, Elisa Boyd and Lindsay Goodhand – as they await their customers and then have to entice them to dance and the stylised movement for the various New Yorkers work very well.

Perhaps, though Rowe uses the space and cast cleverly throughout, the fault in the production lies in the show being tuneful enough but without real stick-in-the-memory show-stopper numbers, “Big spender” and “The rhythm of life” apart. It’s all properly slick with some nice visual touches and good performances, especially that of Birtill, but the only heart in which you can believe is that of Charity herself. And that’s pretty bruised by the end of the evening.

Sweet Charity runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 26 September.

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Jeeves & Wooster: Perfect Nonsense

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 2 September

The title sums up this confection to perfection – it’s a piece of fluff as light as any soufflé whipped up by Anatol, master chef of Bertie Wooster’s battleship of an aunt, but there’s been a great deal of hard work and skill in its making. David Goodale is the tour director for this post-West End promenade through the regions with the design team of Alice Power (set and costumes), James Farncombe (lighting) and Ben and Max Ringham (music and sound) working their own particular blend of magic.

Matthew Carter is ou hero – if you can call him that. Much of the fun of the evening comes from Joseph Chance’s imperturbable and erudite Jeeves and Robert Goodale’s doddering Seppings. Both actors take on a bewilderingly hilarious variety of roles, both male and female, as Bertie tries to help a fellow Drones member to revive his faltering engagement and retrieve a Georgian silver cow-creamer coveted by both his uncle and an irascible JP.

The fiancée in question just happens to be the JP’s daughter; one of those apparently delicate flapper flowers who knows just what she wants and how to get it – as does her cousin Stephanie.Those multitudinous costume and set changes whisk along in a clever faux-naïf fashion, as though Bertie and his chums were indulging in a spurt of country house or varsity am dram. it’s just what you need to take your mind off the weather.

Jeeves & Wooster: Perfect Nonsense
runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 5 September and also plays at the New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich from 13 to 17 October and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 30 October and 1 November.

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September Tide

(reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 26 August)

Daphne du Maurier is a writer whose name fills theatres – as well as emptying bookshop shelves. September Tide is set in the uncertain period following the Second World War when young men were liable for National Service, alcohol and certain foodstuffs were in short supply if not still rationed and England was having to accustom itself to a world which might look backwards with nostalgia but could never be quite what it used to be.

We are in Cornwall where Stella, a widow with grown-up children but still immensely attractive and charismatic, is eagerly awaiting a visit from her newly-married, London-based daughter Cherry. Cherry is a free spirit – something which she may have inherited from her mother, if not from her late sailor father – and you could describe her relationship with her new painter husband Evan as semi-detached.

If you know anything about du Maurier’s own life story, including her near-obsession with Cornwall, you can detect autobiographical elements as this three-cornered drama unfolds. The revised script is by Mark Rayment and Phil Clark’s production located it firmly in its period with no attempt to whittle away the moral issues propounded or their solution. The resolution is perhaps for us in the 21st century an overly romantic one, but attitudes to many things have changed over the past 50 or 60 years.

Eliza McClelland makes an appealing heroine as Stella, matched by Chris Clarkson’s domineering Evan a man as selfish as only those who are certain of their own genius can be. Light relief is provided by Jill Freud as Mrs Tucket, the indispensable “help”, and to a lesser extent by Michael Shaw as Robert, who hopes that Stella will one day agree to marry him.

Then there’s Rosanna Miles as Cherry, so insouciant on the surface but actually as uncertain about what the future holds as her elders – not to mention her hard-drinking husband. Too many of her lines, which are vital to the plot, seem to be thrown away – but that could just be the Jubilee Hall acoustics. Her younger brother, home on sick-leave from the Navy with a broken foot, is played by Harry Emerson.

September Tide runs at the Summer Theatre, Southwold until 12 September.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015