Monthly Archives: October 2015

Mahler’s Conversion

(reviewed at the Hostry Festival, Norwich on 28 October)

Ronald Harwood’s 2001 play about the composer Gustav Mahler and his ambition to be the director of the Vienna State Opera (then the Vienna Court Opera – Die Oper am Ring) was not a success in the West End, in spite of having Antony Sher in the title role.

It focusses primarily on that ambition – which led to him being baptised into the Roman Catholic Church when it became painfully obvious that no Jew not prepared to deny his cultural and religious heritage would ever even be considered for the post, much less appointed to it. That is followed by the disintegration of his relationships with old friends, his mistress and his wife.

Probably the episodic nature of the script always will tell against Mahler’s Conversion ever being a run-of-the-mill commercial success. But it’s an ideal festival piece, especially for one which nestles next to Norwich Cathedral. Director Chris Bealey has staged it in the round with back-wall projections indicating the various locations and easily arranged white boxes painted with Secession-style black outlines.

Christopher Neal gives a bravura performance as Mahler, his whole being an endless turmoil of musical ideas, sexual and social impatience and, underlying it all, a desire – a need – to belong (and be seen to belong) in both this world and the next. There’s a fine exchange with the priest Fr Swider (Peter Barrow) in which the conscientious catechist is knocked back by Mahler’s desire to be baptised before receiving instruction.

The women in Mahler’s life are distilled into cross-dressing journalist Natalie Bauder Lechner (Ginny Porteous), soprano mistress Anna von Mildenburg (Rebecca Aldred) and eventually unfaithful wife Alma Schindler (Nina Taylor). His most constant, and least self-serving friend is Siegfried Lipiner (David Green). But they are all a little like minor stars in a wider galaxy. That even applies to David Newham’s Sigmund Freud in his encounter with Mahler abroad.

Mahler’s Conversion runs at the Hostry Festival, Norwich until 31 October.

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Don’t Look Now

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

What sends shivers down the spine where tales of the supernatural are concerned is often less the visualised than the imagined. We all cast our demons from different moulds. Nell Leyshon’s stage adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story Don’t Look Now is given a production by Simon Jessop which knows when to make evil concrete – as little as possible.

It is the Venetian setting designed by Norman Coates with the visual effects projected onto its bridges, water and shuttered windows by Dan Crews and the trickling soundscape devised by Andy Smart which create the atmosphere. We begin by an open grave before which grief-striken mother Laura (Charlotte Powell) stands motionless. Hymns and part of the Requiem Mass are heard while we watch the image of Laura and John’s young daughter Christine drown.

John (Tom Cornish) whisks Laura away to Venice, where they spent their honeymoon. He’s prepared to move on – after all their son John is alive, well and safe at his boarding school. As one cannot help but empaphise with Laura, to whom Powell gives sincerity in her grief and inevitable feelings of guilt (“why didn’t I…?), Cornish balances this by showing John less as unfeeling but more as something of a pragmatist.

The hotel bedroom scene where his desire to make love with his wife at first meets resistance that (perhaps) melts into acceptance, is cleverly played on two levels with the live actors and their projected images. The mutual ground which constitutes terra firma for this husband and wife is quietly crumbling. Their encounters with two strange, identically dressed elderly women (Gillian Cally as the sister with explanations, Tina Gray as her blind mystic sibling) display brutally the gulf opening for Laura and John.

You probably know what happens next. Onlookers and participants in their own parallel civic drama are the police chief (Stuart Organ) hunting a serial killer, the hotel clerk (Callum Hughes) and the restaurant proprietor (Sam Pay). A mysterious beak-masked sacristan – a commedia dell’arte character or a plague doctor? – and a diminutive red-cloaked figure (Karen Anderson) haunt this winter Venice.

Don’t Look Now runs at the Quen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until14 November.

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Lady Macbeth

(reviewed at the Hostry Festival, Norwich on 24 October)

This solo operatic cantata by Kenneth Ian Hÿtch takes the words spoken by Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s tragedy and weaves them into a tonal but uncompromisingly modern examination of a woman with ambitions who ultimately fails because she finds herself able to initiate but not to execute.

It requires a singing actress, which is what Lisa Cassidy shows herself to be, managing the coloratura and bravura passages (notably in the banqueting scene) as well as the guilt expressed in the repeated “The Thane of Fife had a wife” from the sleep-walking scene which Hÿtch sets to a quasi folk tune which haunts the listener well after the conclusion of the piece.

Pianist William Fergusson and violinist Elizabeth Marjoram accompany Cassidy as – black-robed and variously mantled and crowned (with thorn-like spikes) – she demonstrates her love for her husband (a fur-collared cloak thrown over the back of a throne-like chair) and writhes both vocally and physically in a tortured torrent of impotence; she can take no action herself.

The promotional image for Lady Macbeth is the famous Sargent painting of Ellen Terry in the rôle, robed in Byzantine splendour and holding the crown aloft. Cassidy also holds the crown but shows that Lady Macbeth’s grasp is altogether less secure. it would be interesting to see and hear Cassidy in the Verdi Macbeth opera – the 1865 revision rather than the 1847 version.

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Filed under Opera, Reviews 2015

Groovy Greeks

(reviewed at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 23 October)

The voice of the king of the gods, Zeus himself, is a fitting introduction to this latest addition to the Birmingham Stage Company’s repertoire of Horrible Histories. Appropriately enough, he’s Terry Deary, actor-author of the original series of books.

In Groovy Greeks Zeus is confronted by a modern family. There’s Mum (Laura Dalgleish), bright-as-a-button daughter Alice (Hannah Boyce) who is just as inquisitive as her Lewis Carroll namesake, somewhat know-all Dad (Charlie Buckland) and stroppy son Rob (Ashley Bowden).

They are invited (threatened? challenged?) by Zeus to enter the world of the highly competitive ancient Greeks. Troy and its ten-year siege is the appropriate beginning. Rob confuses Homer the poet with the Simpsons’ patriarch which allows for some clever cartoon-derived headgear designed, as are the projections by Jacqueline Trousdale.

The harsh, military-focussed city-state of Sparta, the Olympic Games and the rise of Athens are the next to tax our quartet’s survival skills. Slavery was a fact of everyday life in the ancient world; there’s a timely statistical reminder that it’s still prevalent today.

Horrible Histories on stage wouldn’t live up to their name without Bogglevision, as devised by Whizzbang 3D Production. The Minotaur lurks in a distorted labyrinth to claim his tribute of young human flesh. His vanquishing by Theseus is attended by some fright-inducing spiders as well as other monsters.

Both the historical encounters with the Persian empire – Leonides’ doomed but heroic defence of the Thermopylae Pass and the vital sea battle at Salamis are alive with hurled spears and rocks (I challenge you not to duck!), the foam and hiss of oar-beaten waves and the crunch of armoured prows caving in wooden triremes.

Tere’s a hilarious Britain’s Got Talentt-style contests for the audience’s favour with Aphrodite’s sexy show-girl routine easily out-voting Poseidon’s trident-waving rock star or Athena’s pop singer attempt. Our time travellers return to the present-day having learned a lot about the past and the way in which it continues to inform the present.

You see, history really can be great fun. It just takes imagination.

Groovy Greeks runs in repertoire with Incredible Invaders at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford until 24 Octover and also at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 26 and 31 October.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Reviews 2015

Moonlight & Magnolias

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 21 October)

Ron Hutchinson’s play is a comedy – not to say farce – on the outside which wraps itself around some serious issues. Ostensibly it’s about the making of the film Gone With the Wind, more precisely about the fractured start to what became one of the greatest box-office successes of all time.

We’re in the Hollywood office of David O Selznick (Mark Little), the studio boss who has fired both the director and the script-writer. To replace the one, he hauls Victor Fleming (Richard Burnip) off The Wizard of Oz. His new choice for dramatist is Ben Hecht (Derek Howard), who hasn’t even read Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 book.

Money is leaching out of Selznick’s coffers as an expensive crew and even more expensive cast wait to resume filming. Somehow in five days a scenario needs to be produced for Fleming to work out scenes and camera angles and a script developed for the actors to learn. Hecht is more than reluctant to be involved.

Selznick’s solution is a radical one. He locks himself and the other two men in his office; Hecht has to make the script from the frantic and compressed rôle-playing by Selznick and Fleming. That’s where the fun really begins, though Hecht never lets us forget what is happening to the Jewish population in Europe as Hitler lurches towards war.

He sees the situation of Negroes in the ante bellum Deep South as providing a parallel. It’s a clever performance by Howard, never grasping at the audience’s understanding of his problems and principles but letting them seep across into our consciousness. Burnip has rather drawn the short straw in this threesome but makes his quieter mark just the same.

Catherine Lomax’s production whisks everything along as the stage gradually becomes strewn with peanuts, banana-skins and page after page of rejected copy. Popping in and out of the action is Alexis Caley as Miss Poppenghul, Selznick’s dutiful but put-upon secretary. it’s a neat character study.

But the performance which dominates is that of Little. His timing is impeccable as, from his centre-stage desk with its bank of telephones, Selznick commands, cajoles, threatens and ultimately oh-so-subtly bribes. Alistair Rivers’ set is excellent and Chris Janes orchestrates the fight scenes with just the right blend of realism and stage convention. It seems a pity that this production only has a limited season at its home theatre.

Moonlight & Magnolias runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 24 October.

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Incredible Invaders


 
(reviewed at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 20 October)

 

Horrible Histories, in print, on television or – best of all – live on stage throw a particularly well-disguised punch at their public. You learn something while enjoying the experience. Take Incredible Invaders, for instance.

England from 56BC to that final lethal invasion of AD1066 covers a lot of ground, both literally and metaphorically. Linking it all is an outspoken British girl called Mavis (Hannah Boyce) who has the audience immediately on her side as her potential sacrifice by the Druids is interrupted by the Roman army (well, just two soldiers) – but who can afford a cast of thousands these days?

Neal Foster has written the scripts as well as directing the fast-moving action. But it’s the work of set, costume and screen image designer Jacqueline Trousdale that really takes centre stage. The projections give us a three-dimension set even before the second half intervention of the Whizzbang Bogglevision sequences.

After the Romans (in retrospect probably the best of the invaders) and the suitably wild revolt by Boudicca (Laura Dalgleish) come the Saxons with some particularly nasty execution practices (Foster doesn’t veer away from these). Ashley Bowden and Charlie Buckland stand in for Hengest and Horsa as the fragmented Britannia succumbs to a different sort of brute strength.

The Vikings, those Norsemen who also colonised Normandy, arrive in their longboats, one of which has a marvellous, slightly camp talking figurehead. King Alfred (Bowden) now takes centre stage with his possibly mythical cake-burning (Arthur has already been dismissed as mere legend). We may think of him as a good and just ruler but Foster makes clear that late 9th century justice had its own savageries.

And so to the Normans and the Battle of Hastings, flowing in Bogglevision straight out of the Bayeux Tapestry. Adults in the mid-week audience may have thought that their attendance was something of a chore. My impression is that they revelled in it all just as much as the children did.

Incredible Invaders plays in repertory with Groovy Greeks at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford until 20 October and at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 27 and 31 October.

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King Charles III

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 19 October)

Original verse dramas are thin on the ground when it comes to the 20th and 21st century. The iambic pentameter doesn’t necessarily echo contemporary speech fashions, though Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not For Burning managed it successfully. Now Mike Bartlett’s “future history” play King Charles III joins the select band.

This production by Rupert Goold is currently on a national tour en route to Broadway. It began life at London’s Almeida Theatre with a different cast and has been revised and updated during its 18-month life. The set by Tom Scutt – a semi-circle of brick walls bisected horizontally by a Byzantine-style frieze of royal forebears – might serve equally well for one of Shakespeare’s history plays. Elements of the plot reinforce this.

Bartlett postulates the accession to the British throne of the present Prince of Wales. There is an early clash with convention, as the new king (Robert Powell) insists on having weekly meetings not just with his dour Welsh Prime Minister Evans (Tim Treloar) but with the infinitely more pliable Leader of the Opposition Stevens (Giles Taylor).

Meanwhile his younger son Harry (Richard Glaves) is churning up the local clubs and bars, in the course of which he meets Jess (Lucy Phelps). His heir William (Ben Righton) is concerned for the future of the monarchy and comes over as increasingly dominated by his wife Kate (Jennifer Bryden), who has more than a slight whiff of Lady Macbeth in her attitude to her husband.

A key factor in Goold’s production is the vocal score by Joceyn Pook, using texts from the Catholic liturgy (“Agnus Dei and “Dies irae”) to haunting effect. There’s an actual ghost as well – Diana (Beatrice Walker), whose message (like so many from supernatural sources) is ambiguous. This is a Delphic oracle definitely not to be trusted.

Interestingly, it is Taylor and Bryden who sound most at home with the blank verse format. Powell’s performance gives us a man of principles, capable of exercising his royal perogative and of listening – but not perhaps heeding. As the next generation takes over, Charles grows in stature to become a true tragic hero (more Shakespearean echoes).

Comedy? yes, certainly as the audience response demonstrates. Tragedy? possibly, if you can define that as a man who brings about his own destruction. Reality? who knows?

King Charles III runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 24 October. It can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 14 and 19 March 2016.

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Giuseppe Verdi

by

Daniel Snowman

(published by The History Press in the “Pocket Giants” series; £6.99)

You might at first wonder what Verdi is doing in the company of national leaders such as King Alfred, Abraham Lincoln or Nelson Mandela. Jane Austen perhaps, as both were creative geniuses, but Buddha or Hannibal? The answer lies in the subtitle for the series – people who changed the world and why they matter.

There have been many biographies of the composer since his death in 1901 and, though interest in his individual operas (27, including revised versions) has fluctuated with changes in musical tastes and fashions, his place in the pantheon headed by Mozart, Puccini and Wagner has always been ensured.

Daniel Snowman’s monograph is as much concerned with the man and his epoch as with the opera themselves. Verdi was a very efficient self-publicist. Snowman is at pains to discount the “simple peasant” cloak which Verdi wore with such a flourish and he explains the national and political changes which occurred in Italy and his neighbouring countries with concision as well as accuracy.

Verdi’s relationships with his family, friends, publishers and impresarios are also made clear in a non-judgemental fashion. Not that the music is ignored, far from it. But this 125-page book prefers to set it in context – and that context has a great deal to do with power politics, whether of the opera house or regional authority variety – rather than concentrate on detailed analysis.

The bibliography guides you to some of the standard works on the operas and personalities involved if you want to know more. I suspect that you will.

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Coming Up

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 14 October)

I remember Neil D’Souza’s first play A Small Miracle from its Colchester production a few years ago. it was a quirky exploration of pilgrimage, longing and just a couple of things which cannot easily be explained away by rationality. Coming Up also deals with longings, journeys both mental and physical and quite a few inexplicable things. The title refers to an India catch-phrase signifying social mobility and the ladder of success. Ladders, as everyone who has ever played a board game knows, also have snakes.

We are in India, a time-shift country in more senses than one. The action takes place partly in present-day Mumbai, now a thriving economic hot-spot – at least, if you’re on the top of the go-getting heap. We are also, frequently at the same time, in rural Mangalore between 1938 and 1943 as well as in a narrative time limbo. Director Brigid Larmour, movement director Shona Morris and designer Rebecca Brower have eschewed naturalism for a fluidity which is neither wholly Indian nor completely Western.

D”Souza plays Alan Lobo, a middle-aged British Asian now successful in business, and ruthless with it. He’s in Mumbai to see if shifting his enterprise to the Philippines will be worthwhile; it’s all down to the bottom line. He has also taken the opportunity to visit his aunt Alice (Goldy Notay) and renew his boyhood friendship with her son Daniel (Mitesh Soni). The names tell you that this is a Christian family.

Clambering to the top in business often has to be a ruthless, single-minded affair. Alan’s casualties include his estranged father Jacob (Ravin J Ganatra as the older man, Notay as a boy), Alan’s wife Anya and his call-centre manager – and occasional mistress – Hanna (Clara Indrani). Christian India may have said that it ignored the caste system, but the Lobo family’s status as mere farm labourers automatically relegate him to the bottom of the heap, even as an altar boy scrubbing latrines rather than attending class.

The two priests of Pezar parish are the authoritarian, not to say sadistic and libidinous, Fr Mendoza (Ganatra) and the twoo-soft-for-his-own-good Fr Alvares (Soni). Ganatra takes on the part of Ghalib, Alan’s Mumbai driver. Indrani additionally plays teacher Mrs Pereira, the thoroughly unpleasant cook who torments young Jacob and a sinuous man-eating tiger who prowls through both his dreams and his reality.

It may all sound incredibly complicated, but this style of staging allows the action to flow and the changes in location to evolve without physical scene changes. A sari, androgynous shirts and loose trousers switch Indrani and Notay effortlessly between rôles and sexes; a crucifix or stole marks the priest from the layman. The acting is uniformly good and Arun Ghosh’s soundscape makes fine use of the Schubert “Ave Maria”.

Coming Up continues at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 24 October.

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Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 13 October)

Recycling is generally considered to be a good thing. There are however moments when one feels that the musical theatre is just overloading the system. I’ve lost count of the number of musicals just over the past decade which have been based on films, let alone actual stage plays or indeed novels.

The latest to come my way is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, based on a 1988 film starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin. The music and lyrics are by David Yazbek and the book by Jeffrey Lane; the original story – about conmen preying on rich women holidaying on the French Riveria – has been tweaked and updated. Yazbek’s lyrics have some clever line endings and allusions.

One of the conmen is a middle-aged smoothie Lawrence Jameson (Kevin Stephen-Jones at the performance I saw) who is well practised in his “art”. His first victim is Muriel Eubanks (Geraldine Fitzgerald), who drifts from Laurence to his factotum André Thibault (Gary Wilmot). Then along comes tyro Freddy Benson (Noel Sullivan), eager not just to learn the tricks of the trade from a master but to surpass him.

if Lawrence is happy to shake off Oklahoma heiress Jolene Oakes (Phoebe Coupe), all gun-toting and boot-stomping, both men fall for Christine Colgate (Carley Stenson). Stephen-Jones is most effective as the Viennese “doctor” Shüffhausen in one of Lawrence’s more desperate ploys to get the girl; otherwise he’s convincing enough without taking as much of the centre-stage as he should.

Sullivan somewhat over-eggs Freddy – you don’t feel that he deserves even a half-share in Christine. Stenson and Fitzgerald both come over well, though for me the most interesting and convincing performance was that of Wilmot. Jerry Mitchell’s direction and choreography are both fast-moving. Costumes are by Peter McKintosh, and some of those for the women principals and dance ensemble are very attractive. The ten-piece band is directed by Ben Van Tienen.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 17 October. It also plays at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend between 10 and 14 November.

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Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2015

Handbagged

There’s a fine line in even the best productions between portrayal and impersonation. It’s a tightrope which Moira Buffini’s comedy-satire Handbagged – currently on a national tour following its London success – treads impeccably. That’s also partly due to Indhu Rubasingham’s taut direction, the sets and costumes designed by Richard Kent.

Above all, it’s due to the six actors. Precisely what the relationship was between Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher is something at which commentators (and scriptwriters) guess but cannot confirm. Handbagged has two actresses playing each of these two strong characters, one as an older person and the other as Queen or Prime Minister in early middle-age. The conceit works perfectly.

Acting honours must go to Susie Blake as Q, who has seen so many premiers come – and go – over her reign that a woman one is a mere novelty. Blake radiates a marvellous air of controlled, slightly sceptical acceptance of the changing world around her – watch her face when other characters apparently hold centre stage. This is a woman who knows when to accept the world’s vagaries, partly through observation but also through experience.

Kate Fahy manages the look and voice for T equally well, her inability to deliver anything but thinly-disguised lectures gratingly reflected in her vocal range – note-restricted and never less than mezzo forte. There’s a pleasing air of genuine curiosity inherent in the way Emma Handy presents Liz; Sanchia McCormack gives Mags all the conviction – and lack of humour – which will give the older woman her strength. And, of course, her weakness.

The cast is completed by Asif Khan, flourishing an array of accents and stepping out as a scarlet-suited Nancy Reagan with full flouncing flourish as well as the President of Zambia, and Richard Teversham – stetson-wearing Reagan, Press secretary O’Shea, bright-buttoned Dennis Thatcher and a grumpy Prince Philip. Bit parts each of these latter may be, but they’re far from insignificant.

Whatever Khan and Teverson may say in the exchanges where they step out of character, the sum of their contribution is as great as that of their principals. Two or three hundred years ago, politicians (and the occasional royal) settled their differences with sword or pistol. In 20th or early 21st century Britain, quieter weapons are used. Their effect is just as deadly.

Handbagged runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 17 October. it can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 10 and 14 November.

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Abigail’s Party

(reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop’s Stortford on 7 October)

Mike Leigh’s searing dissection of 1977 England is now both a period piece and a play for all times, because its characters are truly people. Probably we all know go-getters, second careerists and socially ambitious neighbours. With luck, these don’t include a Beverly, in whose sitting-room the action of Abigail’s Party takes place.

Her guests for the evening include an established resident, Susan (Gailie Pollock) – whose teenage daughter is throwing the party of the title – and new neighbours nurse Angela (Natalie Caswell) and husband Tony (Matthew Bancroft). Former beautician Beverly is determined to be the queen bee in this particular hive; of course, queen bees have a lethal way with their mates.

Director Simon Anderson in this new Contexture production takes it all at a brisk pace with Tom Cliff’s extended set flanked on stage left by the pseudo-Georgian front door marked with its ominous number 13. Anderson is not afraid to put the sofa on which Angela, all girlish naïvité with a school-of-Laura-Ashley frock to match, and sensibly-clad Susan perch so uncomfortably facing the audience; we become flies on the fourth wall waiting for the inevitable to occur.

Charlotte Newton-John, sashaying around either the coffee-table or her guests in an ankle-length flame-coloured gown, her hair teased into a topknot of suspiciously bright curls, is an eye- and ear-riveting Beverly. Her “Don’t get me wrong” catch-phrase carries destruction every time she trills it. This is a performance to savour. It puts both Pollock and Caswell somewhat in the shade, however.

As monolithic and monosyllabic Tony, embarrassed by his wife’s gushing over Beverly’s taste in furnishings, Bancroft creates a realistic portrait of a man who will go his own way, regardless. Harassed estate-agent Laurence, juggling with clients’ demands and his wife’s constant commands so thinly veiled by a last-minute “please” gradually earns our sympathy as well as understanding. Stephen Cavanagh has the measure of the man as he finds something of a kindred spirit in Susan. By then, it’s all too late.

Abigail’s Party runs at the Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop’s Stortford until 13 October.

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An Inspector Calls

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

That JB Priestley’s 70-year old play An Inspector Calls is now on its 25th national tour is a tribute to director Stephen Daldry’s now iconic production of 1992. Daldry has kept a firm, occasionally revisionist, eye of these re-cast productions, and the effect is as taut and mind-provoking as first time round.

Ian MacNeil’s set – that doll’s house cage teetering at an impossible angle above rain-washed cobblestones and wartime débris, too small to house its Edwardian occupants with all their pretensions and complacency – still rivets the audience’s attention as the curtain (itself part of the action) rises. Reality has clashed with abstraction visually, just as it does in the script. The discordant sounds which punctuate the action add their own frisson.

Liam Brennan is something of an oddball Inspector Goole, though he holds one’s attention. Tim Woodward’s Arthur Birling, self-satisfaction in a starched shirt-front, and Caroline Wildi as his wife Sybil, a soft-spoken, hard-edged matron in glittering crimson are the Inspector’s first interrogatees. Matthew Douglas as Gerald Croft, whose engagement to the Birlings’ daughter Sheila is being celebrated as the play begins, takes the character away from jeune premier territory to interesting effect.

Sheila and her brother Eric contrast well in Katherine Jack and Hamish Riddle’s characterisations. Katherine Jack manages to win understanding – for Sheila’s selfishness and the girlish petulance which contributed to Eve Smith’s grim end – and final sympathy for her acceptance of that responsibility. The trouble with Hamish Riddle is that his Eric starts on too high – one might even say, hysterical – a note, so that his final outburst with its alcohol-fuelled maudlin self-pity has no platform on which to build.

An Inspector Calls is at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 10 October. It also plays at the Theatre Royal, Norwich (1-5 December) and the Milton Keynes Theatre (23-27 February).

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Parkway Dreams

(reviewed at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich on 2 September)

Inspiration for a musical can come from some odd places, but Eastern Angles’ artistic director Ivan Cutting is probably correct when he suspects that Parkway Dreams is the first to take town planning as a theme. Newly revised and about to launch itself on a national tour, this is an altogether tauter show than in its previous incarnation.

The story revolves around the evolution of Peterborough, when the then Ministry of Town and Country Planning – seeking to solve the post-war housing crisis – latched upon the ideas of garden city movement pioneer Ebenezar Howard (unlike most theorists, Howard’s vision had actually translated into reality, in the shape of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities).

Selected for one of these overspill schemes was the ancient cathedral city of Peterborough, known to the Romans and housing the tomb of Catherine of Aragon. We follow the dispute and Council wranglings as consultant planner drew up his draft plans and gradually won support. Robert Jackson makes him a sympathetic visionary, not the easiest type of character to pull off.

A fictional human story is introduced with Jack (Matt Ray Brown) and his wife Mary (Polly Naylor). They’ve been bambed out of their London home, jobs for de-mobbed ex-servicemen are thin on the ground and they both want a better future for their son Peter. Not that new-build Peterborough is all sweetness and light, for all its grassy spaces, educational opportunities and leisure facilities. Factories, even new ones, do close and have to lay-off staff.

“The Peterborough Effect” goes the slogan and turns into the best musical number in Simon Egerton’s score. The fast-moving script is by Kenneth Emson, based on eye-witness testimony treated by him and Cutting with just the right lightness of touch. Documentary theatre this may be, but it manages to wear that pedigree with carefree aplomb. Charlie Cridlan is the designer with Robert Hazle (who has a nice sideline in politicians of various hues) is the musical director.

Parkway Dreams
runs at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich until 7 October. The tour takes in Harlow Playhouse Studio (15-16 October), Braintree Arts Theatre (17 October), Hemel Hempstead Arts Centre (20 October), the Tameside Theatre, Thurrock (21 October), the Luton Hat Factory (22 October), the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester (23-24 October) and the Weston Auditorium, Hatfield (26 October).

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Miss Nightingale

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 1 October)

Last year’s Peter Rowe-New Wolsey Theatre production of the wartime-set musical Miss Nightingale has been re-imagined by the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal artistic director Karen Simpson. Matthew Bugg’s story may have a singing entertainer as its title character but, as one of the numbers makes plain, it’s far more a Mr Nightingale drama.

!942 in London was a frenetic time and place. Bombs were falling, morale could easily have crumbled, refugees sought to find themselves a place of safety (both intellectually and physically) and morals were loosened, though the law was liable to come down heavily on those who transgressed – such as homosexuals.

We meet two of the three main characters in a dim street. Sir Frank (Nicholas Coutu-Langmead) picks up Polish Jew composer and songwriter George Nowodny Conor O’Kane), but the transaction is interrupted. When they next meet it is at an audition by Maggie Brown (Clara Darcy) who her boy-friend and agent Tom Fuller (Christopher Hogben) hopes to place as a star attraction in Frank’s nightclub.

O’Kane’s gives the stand-out performance and his first act number “Meine Liebe Berlin” is the best in the show. You believe in his displacement agony as he contempates the fate of his parents, academics who couldn’t believe that they were vulnerable, and the complexities of his relationships with Maggie, who achieves success as Miss Nightingale, and the ever-more devoted Frank.

Frank and George’s “Mister Nightingale” duet and the quarter which ends the first half are also very effective. I wish I could say the same for Darcy, who has the right sort of gamine spark but somehow fails to radiate the charisma such a cabaret star should surely generate. Hogden makes an effective villain as he sinks into blackmail and Bugg makes a small-scale but credible sketch of Harry, Maggie’s soldier brother. His score is played by the cast, displaying skill with a wide range of instruments

From being not particularly sympathetic through his attempts to balance his three separate worlds to his admission of two quite different but equally sincere types of affection, Coutu-Landmead grows in out understanding. The set by Carla Goodman makes the right sort of tawdry-until-lit impression and is suitably flexible as the action shifts between the various locations.

Miss Nightingale runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 3 October and then tours nationally until 20 February. It can also be seen at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon between 13 and 16 January.

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The Smallest Show on Earth

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 30 September)

Ah, but is it? I don’t think so. This stage version of the much-loved 1957 film has a total cast of 14 and a deceptively scaled-down set. But The Smallest Show on Earth integrates a host of Irving Berlin numbers, some ferociously energetic choreography by Lee Proud and a script and direction by Thom Southerland which captures the essence of the period without ever seeming to be a pastiche.

David Woodhead’s settings – complete with some highly ingenious location shifts, and costumes, beautifully detailed down to the seams in the stockings and skirt lengths – take us from London to provincial small-town in a fashion which mirrors the interior journey of the two main characters.

These are young husband and wife Matthew and Jean Spenser (Haydn Oakley and Laura Pitt-Pulford). He’s a would-be script-writer, she’s the rock for their relationship. The story concerns his inheritance from a dimly remembered great-uncle of the run-down Bijou Kinema, formerly a music-hall. Locally it’s usually referred to as “the fleapit”.

It is Pitt-Pulford who is the real star of the show, though she has a runner-up in the shape of Christina Bennington as Marlene Hardcastle, the thoroughly pleasant daughter of the thoroughly unpleasant Ethel and Albert Hardcastle (Ricky Butt and Philip Rham). Actually, she’s Mrs Hardcastle’s step-daughter, as this troublesome go-getter never ceases to remind everyone.

Then there’s Matthew Crow as the (very) junior solicitor Robin Carter, with twinkling toes and a delicious line in high camp and drag. The two other character parts are former silent-movie pianist, now box office “manager”, Mrs Fazackalee (Liza Goddard) and the cantankerous projectionist Percy Quill (Brian Capron). Capron grows Quill into a real human-being but, for me, there was an edge of eccentricity lacking in Goddard’s performance.

Mark Aspinall’s six-person band lurks right at the back of the stage, only to be revealed – and deservedly applauded – at the curtain-calls. The Mercury audience was genuinely enthusiastic. So, I suspect, will be audiences around the country when The Smallest Show on Earth launches itself on tour in 2016leaves Colchester for a national autumn tour.

The Smallest Show on Earth runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 10 October.

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Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2015