(reviewed at the Norwich Playhouse on 24 November)
Julia Donaldson’s children’s stories are now established favourites on the stage as well as in print. Lydia Monks is the illustrator for What the Ladybird Heard and has been involved in Bek Palmer’s designs for the tour which is now in its second year. Graham Hubbard is the director and the catchy, folk idiom tunes are by Jon Fiber and Andy Shaw – of the aptly named Jollygoodtunes.
The audience comes into the auditorium to be faced with a toytown farm set – thatched farmhouse, cowshed, various outbuildings and a pond in front of a gate leading to the hilly landscape beyond. Emma Carroll is our storyteller and farmgirl Lily, introducing us to the characters with her Pied Piper-like flute.
Rosamund Hine makes a credible Farmer with Edward Way as farmhand Eddie and Matt Jopling as the slightly dim Raymond. Way and Jopling also play the burglars Hefty Hugh and Lanky Len whose attempt to steal the prize-winning cow is foiled by the ladybird of the title, a bright red spotted light which materialises at various places.
The cow and two cream-loving cats are conventional puppets, though the various farmyard animals are brought to life through an ingenious amalgamation of implements – the sheep is a fleece draped over a wheelbarrow, the horse is a bicycle and rake, the dog is a broom and so on. Very imaginative and I suspect that parents are likely to find domestic objects put to strange uses when the children return home.
What the Ladybird Heard runs at the Norwich Playhouse until 4 December.
(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 24 November)
Productions of The Nutcracker cam be a little like a fancy bun – when you’ve savoured the fondant icing and the glacé cherries, you’r3 left with what can be a boring sponge cake; lots of action followed by a formality of divertissements. Northern Ballet with David Nixon’s staging avoids most of the traps.
There’s a lot going on in the first act, some of it being quite unusual in its emphases. The transition to the snow fairyland and thence to the second act and its array of set-piece dances is less fractured than can be the case through having Clara (Rachael Gillespie), dancing on full point, and her Nutcracker Prince (Ashley Dixon) as young people just awakening to romantic love. Sister Louise (Lucia Solari) and her suitor James (Javier Torres) are just that bit older and more sexually aware.
We’re in late Regency London at the house of Mr and Mrs Edwards (Sean Bates and Hannah Bateman). Also in residence are his doddery parents (Pippa Moore and Filippo DiVilio). When Uncle Drossmeyer (Matthew Topliss) arrives, he is a much younger, more flamboyant character than we’re accustomed to seeing – nearer to a stage magician than a sinister neighbour. Clara and Louise’s obstreperous brother Frederick (Matthew Koon) and his school-friends have a distinct ability to wreck any would-be polite social gathering.
Out of an elaborate oversized box Drossmeyer produces his French dolls (straight from the Sevrès factory) and a loose-limbed lanky Chinese one, like a stringless puppet in Sebastian Loe’s performance. The Mouse King looms out of an enormous hole in the skirting-board, far more fully realised in Isaac Lee-Baker’s characterisation as a full-blown villain, one of the “enter stage left” variety. Solari and Torres are the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, both showing controlled footwork as well as a partnership affinity in the lifts and jumps.
Nixon’s choreography blends the familiarly classical with neat demi-charactère sequences which show off his young dancers’ strengths as well as having audience appeal. Set designer Charles Cusick Smith blends the realistic with the disproportionate characteristic of dream locations. John Pryce-Jones conducts the Northern Ballet Sinfonia with respect to Tchaikovsky’s score (the orchestral reduction is by John Longstaff) and sympathy for the dancers.
The Nutcracker (casts may differ) is at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 28 November.
(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 18 November)
Mozart’s first adult success in Vienna was also one of the highlights of this year’s Glyndebourne Festival. David McVicar’s production directed for this autumn’s Glyndebourne Tour by Ian Rutherford gives us a far more complete version of the spoken text than is usual nowadays; one effect is to bring Pasha Selim (Franck Saurel) centre stage.
SeLim is, of course, a spoken role. Saurel displays all the character facets of this complex personality, a convert to Islam as much through circumstances as through initial intention. There’s an erotic tension to his scenes with Ana Maria Labin’s marvellously sung Konstanze – she negotiates “Martern aller Arten” flawlessly – which suggests that her relationship with Tibor Szappanos will never quite resume its old pattern.
Szappanos sings Belmonte’s arias impeccably, but one cannot help feeling that he is the most nebulous character of the story. Osmin is a gift of a part for any singer who can act as well as encompass the deepest notes of the part, notably in “Solche hergelaufne Laffen”, and Clive Bayley does it superbly. Rebecca Nelsen’s Blonde is a servant-girl with attitude and a way with kitchen paraphenalia (fresh eggs included) which wouldn’t disgrace any pantomime slop-scene.
Her Pedrillo is James Kryshak offering a lilting “In Mohrrenland” in the foiled abduction scene and holding his own in the frught exchanges with Osmin. Vicki Mortimer’s set glides effortlessly through a deft arrangement of lattice-screens; Selim’s harem is populated by an interesting selection of women, all under the watchful gaze of Daniel Vernan’s overseer. The conductor is Christoph Altstaedt.
“Die Entführung aus dem Serail” is also at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 21 November.
(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 17 November)
It’s a classic comedy story, as old as love and lust – not to mention greed – themselves. Impecunious young man wants to marry an equally badly-off young widow. His uncle threatens to disinherit him. A friend steps in to remedy the situation. Between this beginning and (sort of) conclusion there’s a vast open space for composer, librettist, stage director and designer to fill.
Marianne Clément (who staged the 2011 Glyndebourne production) and Paul Higgins (responsible for the Glyndebourne Tour revival) add some twists to the apparently simple tale. They’re abetted by designer Julia Hansen to present us with a circular red-curtained setting within which revolves three distinct personal spaces flexible enough to allow for a few more abstract ones.
Flitting between them all is John Brancy’s well-sung and acted Dr Malatesta. One feels that he would be struck off any professional medical register; there’s a tinge of Offenbach’s Dr Miracle in the way he steps from one room setting to the next. Not to mention his relationship with Eliana Pretorian’s sexy minx of a Norina, engagingly sung but leaving one wondering how quickly she will tire of Tuomas Katajala’s puppy-dog Ernesto.
There’s a slightly anachronistic air to the costumes – lots of Boucher and Fragonard erotic references but also a hint of classic 19th century French farce and even a whiff of Sofia Coppela’s 1988 Marie Antoinette. With all this engaging the eye, it would be easy to relegate Donizetti’s lilting score to the background, but the cast, the bewigged, powdered and white-silk clad chorus and the orchestra under Duncan Ward pull us back into a due sense of proportion.
José Fardilha takes the title role with true buffo style; his one-breath patter songs – including the Act III Scene I duet with Malatesta – deserve their applause. it’s a merit of this production that we oh-so-slightly care about the plights in which Don Pasquale and Ernesto find themselves rather than being mere disinterested spectators of something which, however memorable the music and accomplished the singers, is so far removed from real life. Let alone its pains and penalties.
Don Pasquale is also at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 19 November.
(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester on 9 November)
We live in a conflicted world and time – though there’s nothing new or unusual about that. What perhaps is new is that we are being made aware of the mental as well as physical toll which combat levies on its participants. Not to mention on their friends and families and on (often innocent) bystanders.
Sandi Toksvig’s play Bully Boy confronts us with two soldiers. Oscar (Andrew French) is a wheelchair-confined major, investigating Eddie (Josh Collins) on behalf of the military police. A complaint has been made by Afghan villagers; it appears that a young boy was deliberately thrown into a well.
Close friends and comrades died as the effect of an improvised explosive device; Eddie is the sole surviver of the group, the Bully Boys. Bully, of course, has two distinct meanings – a jolly, dashing fellow is one. The other denotes someone who preys on weaker people. It is up to Oscar to establish just which one is significant in this context.
Dan Shearer’s production in the refurbished Mercury Studio Theatre has the audience steeply banked overlooking a wide but shallow acting area. Designer James Cotterill frames the action with dun-coloured fencing; both actors wear sand-camouflage combat gear. Rebecca Applin’s eerie music and Steve Mayo’s atmospheric soundscape drift across the action.
Of the two performers, it is Collins as the sparky, perky Eddie who has perhaps the easier task. he makes it apparent from the start that this is a façade, a mask which has become second nature; what is behind it is too raw for exposure. The British “stiff upper lip” propensity can conceal irremediable damage.
French plays a more complicated character; war hero (from the Falklands campaign), seeker after truth or a man in retreat from himself and his own past? He shows us someone for whom a desk-job and a wheelchair are no true compensation for what he has forfeited. In his own way, he too is engaged in a fight to survive.
Bully Boy runs at the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester until 21 November.
(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 2 November)
You know what they say – third time lucky! That’s certainly true of the third dance drama starring award-winning and television stars Flavia Cacace and Vincent Simone. The Last Tango has a strong, deceptively simple plot and showcases a range of 1930s dances, not just the tango variations for which Cacace and Simone are renowned.
Into an attic-room crammed with discarded bits of furniture – including a piano much in need of some TLC – as well as boxes and suitcases crammed full of memorabilia crawls old George. His son and daughter call to him from below from time to time, worried for him as each item brings back memories. Teddy Kempner has the audience on his side from the beginning as he unfolds his life for us on the stage below.
We see him first as a young man (Simone) chatting up and then dating a girl he fancies (Cacace). There follows a beach party and a whole range of social encounters offering the other dancers the opportunity to display their considerable dance skills in Karen Bruce’s inventive choreography. The well-designed costumes (Vicky Gill) range from the carefree early 30s to wartime and post-war.
Cacane herself has a razor-bright sharpness to her foot work, a lithe body, gamine hairstyle and a graceful extension. Simone partners her securely and acts the part of the carefree youth changed by combat and later maturing into an acceptance of loss with conviction. Singers Rebecca Lisewski and Matthew Gent underline the passage of time under the musical direction of Steve Geere. The overture, incidentally, sounded over-amplified at the first Norwich performance.
The Last Tango runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 7 November and is also at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend between 26 and 30 January.
(reviewed at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 3 November)
The Leslie Darbon stage version of Agatha Christie’ was first produced in 1977, some 20 years after the novel had been published. It’s an interesting choice for the Middle Ground Theatre Company, but Michael Lunney’s production goes it proud.
We are in the extended drawing-room of a large village house. It’s owned by Leticia Blacklock (Diane Fletcher) and is currently shared with her somewhat doddery friend Dora Bunner (Sarah Thomas) and two young cousins, Julia (Rachel Bright) and Patrick (Patrick Neyman) Simmons.
Other neighbours and friends who drop in include Miss Marple (Cara Chase, replacing an indisposed Judy Cornwell at the performance I saw), Mrs Swettenham (Julia Bevan) and her son Edmund (Dean Smith). Plunging in and out of the action is housekeeper Mitzi (Lydia Piechowiak), a political refugee with more than the usual complement of chips on her thin shoulders.
Lunney has coaxed a good sense of period manners and attitudes from his cast; there’s no sense of artificiality in the all-important exposition scenes. Tom Butcher’s Inspector Craddock and Jog Maher’s Sergeant Mellors fit seamlessly into this ambiance. As Phillipa Haymes, Alicia Ambrose-Bayly also convinces.
You probably already know the plot, which has its full measure of twists before the dénouement. Fletcher is very effective as the chatelain with so many secrets locked up behind her gracious exterior. Chase’s Miss Marple is an interesting study; her village wise woman persona taking precedence over the nosy busy-body angle so often purveyed.
A Murder Is Announced runs at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford until 7 November.