Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Preston Bill

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 26 May)

Andy Smith is the writer and performer for this story about a very ordinary man called Bill who lived almost his entire life from 1935 to 2015 in Preston, Lancashire. It’s a verse narrative, which sounds absolutely right for this particular history of Everyman. Smith’s only props are a chair and a ukulele.

We follow Bill’s life from school to factory-floor through National Service and marriage to Edith. They fail to have a family but compensate by their mutual affection, through what would have been called “self-improvement” and for Bill a developing role as a union representative. Made redundant, he finds part-time work before finally retiring.

Edith dies, but he knows that life has to go on. So he studies, takes an Open University degree and lives on until the health problems inherited from his initial working conditions finally crumble him away. A very ordinary life indeed, but one to which Smith gives richness which we – the audience – are allowed to taste and to savour.

The Preston Bill played at the Pulse 2016 Festival towards the end of a national tour. Pulse 2016 continues at various Ipswich venues until 4 June.

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Mmm Hmmm

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 26 May)

This year’s Pulse Festival had an excellent start with the Bristol-based trio of Verity Standen, Ellie Showering and Jannah Warlow. Mmm Hmmm makes full use of flexible and trained voices a cappella as it begins with a harmony of hums with the three performers spotlit in the first of James Mackenzie’s rectamgular pools of light. Hunched forward so that we see only the russet, linden green and indigo draped costumes, it’s as though scavenging birds were indulging in a dawn chorus.

When the performers stand upright, they intersperse the hummed music with stamps, hand claps and body slaps, moving from one light pool to another for each interlude. Words are added, with a quick-fire and crisp delivery that must be the envy of any operatic singer faced with a patter song. There’s an edge to the words, but it is the music which dominates. Those fluid sack-like costumes (Harriet de Winton)also have a role to play.

Standen is the composer as well as director and performer. Her co-performers are more than just on-stage colleagues; hers is not just a piece of song theatre. but an invitation to experience the trivialities as well as the more serious side of life. It has been said of opera that people sing what cannot be adequately expressed by word alone. Mmm Hmmm does that.

Mmm Hmmm opened the 2016 Pulse Festival which runs in Ipswich at various venues until 4 June.

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Private Lives

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

Noël Coward’s 1930 comedy Private Lives is deceptively simple. The plot – a divorced couple finding themselves honeymooning with new spouses at the same hotel rekindle both their passion and the causes for the break-up – calls for the two main characters to dominate the stage, notably in the second act, while the subsidiary pair need to establish themselves just a forcibly but without tipping the balance.

In the event, Esther Richardson’s new production as part of the 2016 Made in Colchester season slightly perverts this. That’s because Krissi Bohn’s bright and brittle Amanda has the perfect foil in Olivia onyehara’s steely fluff of a Sybil. It’s easy to visualise this Amanda as the fast-set darling, sparkling in drawing-rooms and cocktail bars. Sara Perks has given her costumes which are right for the period and which subtly reflect the photographs of Gertrude Lawrence (who created the role).

Sybil wears pink – soft, pleated and tending towards the feathery. From Onyehara’s first entrance, preening as though a society photographer was lurking on the balcony, she gives an impression that this kitten has teeth as well as claws. That’s something which Robin Kingsland’s Victor discovers as they set off in pursuit of their errant mates.

Kingsland puts great sincerity into his Paris exchange with Amanda; this is one of those moments when both author and director lift the veil of frivolity to suggest that these are real people, who can feel real hurt. Pete Ashmore’s Elyot has a touch of petulance about him, whih slips dangerously near to being camp; those 40 minutes in Act Two when Amanda and Elyot are fired with all their previous feelings with each other never quite sustained themselves.

The maid for Amanda’s Paris flat is one of those cough-and-a-spit parts which provide the right actress with a chance to steal the show. Christine Absalom, a Mercury audience favourite, does just that in the third act, earning herself several rounds of applause. Adam P McCready’s sound design and original score (which incorporates snatches of Coward’s own music) adds to the atmosphere.

Private Lives runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 4 June with matinées on 26 and 28 May, 2 and 4 June.

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White Nights

(reviewed at the Adnams Spiegeltent, Chapelfields, Norwich on 21 May)

White Nights is described as a circus cabaret by Race Horse Company which is presenting it. It’s an apt description for the ambiance suggests that of a nightclub with a glittering songstress presenter (Sophia Urista) inviting the audience to sing and clap along in the interludes between the actual circus acts.

Because the seating for that audience is on a non-raked floor and the stage itself is only slightly elevated, a lot of the acts which involve floor work are invisible to all but the front rows. This applies particularly to Iona Kewney whose wild acrobatics at times suggest some sort of ritual sacrificial dance. A gravity-defying Chinese pole routine is the opening number an sets the marker for what follows.

The three men in the troupe – Petri Tuominen, Rauli Kosonen and Kalle Lehto – have very different styles and skills. Some of the routines, notably those on the teeterboard combine comedy with precision skills – you have to be able to do something to near-perfection if you’re going to send it up. A nude man balancing a globe-like ball slips on a shirt and loose trousers to suggest a Pierrot fascinated by the dark side of the moon.

White Nights is part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival continues until 29 May.

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Sans Objet

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal Norwich on 17 May)

To say that Aurélien Bory’s Sans Objet is a mesmerising as well as technically brilliant piece of theatre scarcely does it justice. Purposeless it is most certainly is not. As the stage slowly lightens we are confronted by an enormous mass a black plastic which turns and rises as though the earth’s landmass was breaking out of the seas.

This reveals our two, neatly business-suited performers Olivier Alena and Olivier Boyer, who unveil the most extraordinary robot with a lethally flexible arm. It is as though Kafka and Orwell had commissioned a Duchamp creation. Partly it can seem an hommage to Audrey (of Little Shop of Horrors fame), at first almost playful, then savagely devouring. Tristan Baudoin is the programmer and operator, fully deserving the audience’s applause at the curtain calls.

Before the stage is once more enveloped in the black sheeting, Alenda and Boyer dance and play, perform acrobatics and indulge in a half-fun, half-danger sequence of movements with the creation’s robotic arm. The sheeting then becomes the background for a dazzling light display until a door opens in it to reveal the two men with black heads. Have they been annealed in the depths of the robot? Or is it that they have recovered humanity once more? Make up your own mind.

Sans Objet is part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival 2016.

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The Tempest

(reviewed at the Hippodrome, Great Yarmouth on 12 May)

The early 20th century Hippodrome Circus building just west of Great Yarmouth’s seafront offers opportunities for 21st century spectacle in a production of what is arguably Shakespeare’s last complete play which reflects the early 17th century masque tradition. Director William Galinsky takes full advantage of the space.

Visually, you can’t fault this production designed by Laura Hopkins. Two semi-circular beds of mudflats with a causeway running between them, as at Mersea Island down the coast, aerial acrobats (Lost in Translation Circus), swimmers, strange hooded sea monsters in human form, rain and floods – what more could you ask for? Well, clarity of speech would be helpful; too many cast members at the performance I saw seemed to be suffering from an epidemic of the mumbles.

As Miranda, Pi Laborde Noguez is the principal offender. Tony Guilfoyl’s Prospero is mostly audible, and credible in his portrayal of a man who slowly comes to abrogate the consuming bitterness which has enveloped him since he was ast adrift from his duchy. Jane Leaney is a string Ariel, alternatively swathed in magenta and black and suggesting that, once free, she might well be Prospero’s proper mate.

Ferdinand in Freddy Carter’s interpretation has a good balance between teenage naïveté and a growing awareness that tasks are worth accomplishing properly, not a bad philosophy for a future king. Graeme McKnight makes no attempt to play Caliban for sympathy; this son of Sycorax is truly his mother’s offspring. Ravi Aujla gives Alonso a dignity which at times seems at odd with his previous support for Oliver Senton’s usurping Antonio. Antonio’s mirror-image is of course Adam Burton’s power-hungry Sebastian.

Colin Hurley’s Stephano is an almost-lovable rogue Stephano with John McCarthy as his side-kick (literally) Trinculo. Elder staesman Gonzalo is given a gentle characterisation by Christopher Saul; this is a man who knows that you can do as much good by stealth as with the fanfare of trumpets. When the banquet of sugar subtleties floats towards the shipwrecked nobles, it is he alone who can lie back and enjoy the fruits.

The Tempest continues at the Hippodrome, Great Yarmouth until 21 May with matinées on 14 and 21 May. It is part of this year’s Norfolk & Norwich Festival.

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Richard III

(reviewed at the Avenu Theatre, Ipswich on 10 May)

The Red Rose Chain is an Ipswich-based company which likes to provide an unusual slant for its productions. Take the most recent example, Joanna Carrick’s version of Shakespeare’s Richard III. She has a cast of just four actors with Lawrence Russell taking the title role and all the other parts played by Edward Day, Rachael McCormick and Kirsty Thorpe.

Carrick and David Newborn have set it in the immediate post-World War II years. Russell is on stage almost throughout the action, initially listening to his crackling wireless, leafing through a newspaper and contemplating his pin-board studded with photographs of those who must manipulate or die to ensure his translation from Duke of Gloucester to the throne. Hunchbacked and stiff-legged, he is a sartorial mismatch of checks and stripes.

It’s a mesmerising performance, ablaze with cackles as he admires his own dexterity and invites us to share his glee. A Richard in the comic vein rather than one to strike shivers down the spine. Unless, that is, you’re one of his victims. Torpe is two of these – Lady Anne and the initially conniving Buckingham – giving two well contrasted portraits of recognisable human beings.

Edward IV’s widow Elizabeth and the ultimately avenging Richmond are both played by Day. His Elizabeth is properly commanding; the Act IV Scene IV wooing scene in which Richard, just after the murder of her sons, proposes to marry her daughter turns out to be one of the production’s high points. McCormick doesn’t make quite enough of Clarence’s dream in Act I Scene IV but rants to good effect as Queen Margaret and the Duchess of York.

Keeping the running time, including the interval, down to a little under two hours has meant the elimination of a number of characters, including Hastings, the Woodville clan and Lord Stanley (whose last-minute intervention at Bosworth sealed the historic Richard’s fate). This does make the story much easier to follow for non-historians. Whether the two interpolated songs by Leon Sheppard contribute much is more of a moot point.

Richard III runs at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich until 4 June with matinées on 14 and 21 May and 4 June.

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Travels With My Aunt

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 5 May)

Giles Havergal’s stage version of the Graham Greene novella has a cast of four, each of whom at various times plays Henry Pulling and his maternal aunt (or is she?) Augusta. This new Creative Cow production is directed with immaculate precision by Amanda Knott with an angular bar setting to match (ART), slick lighting changes from Douglas Morgan and some evocative sound by Matt Early.

All four actors – Richard Earl, Jack Hulland, David Partridge and Katherine Senior – wear impeccable business suite with just hat or sunglasses change to indicate the hand-over of character or where we are in Henry and Augusta’s increasingly picaresque (not to say suspect) wanderings. This is ensemble playing with some stand-out moments.

Hulland’s Aunt Augusta is deliciously over-the-top while Partridge excels as factotum Wordsworth and wild-child Tooley. Earl has his moment as ruthless Colonel Hakim and equally hard-hearted Mr Visconti. Senior makes much of the ingénue Yolanda, teenage daughter of yet another of the devious police chiefs with whom the travellers tangle.

Travels With My Aunt can also be seen at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 6 and 11 June.

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Lotty’s War

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 3 May)

It’s a very strange sensation to sit in the audience and have some of the indelible moments of one’s own childhood flash up during the play to mark the passage of six years. The six years in question are those of Nazi Germany’s occupation of the Channel Islands. Giuliano Crispini’s Lotty’s War takes place in Guernsey; I was in Jersey, but the Occupation of both islands ran on parallel lines.

Crispini has based his drama on a true story, told in a diary found among papers in St Peter Port’s Priaulx Library archives. On stage we first encounter teenage Charlotte Hervé, known as Lotty (Victoria Emslie) and her friend Ben de Carteret (Matt Ruttle). France has fallen to the German army and Luftwaffe bombers are circling the harbour. Lotty’s father is down on the quayside, overseeing the dispatch of tomatoes to England.

Somehow the British High Command had neglected to announce that the Channel Islands were a demilitarised zone. So the open tomato lorries (which must have looked like munitions trucks from the air) were bombed, with loss of life – including Lotty’s father. She had had her chance to evacuate earlier; now it is too late. Then General Rolf Bernberg (Ian Reddington) arrives to requisition the farmhouse.

Lotty can either leave her home or stay on as the officer’s housekeeper. She stays, and we see the relationship develop from mutual mistrust to something deeper than friendship. Ben on the other hand has no time for passive patriotism; he advocates full-blown resistance. As the Occupation bites deeper – curfews, wirelesses and cars banned, the V-sign campaign, rationing and ID cards, medical shortages, the 1944 Red Cross food parcels – all three are affected. Attitudes harden. There is not going to be a happy ending.

Directors Bruce Guthrie, Carla Kingham and James McAndrew cannot disguise the episodic nature of the script (the short scenes suggest that this might work better as a television or film treatment) and designer Victoria Spearing shows this by the rapid costumes changes for Emslie. Emslie allows us to see the stressed journey to a kind of adulthood which Lotty undertakes.

Reddington conveys the tight-buttoned formality of the career soldier with his Dresden-domiciled family in danger from Allied bombing raids steering a difficult course between duty and despair. Ruttle works hard to make Ben three-dimensional, but the impression remains that this is a type of angry young man, rather than a teenager maturing into a freedom fighter for whom the end will always justify the means.

Lotty’s War runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 7 May with a matinée on 7 May. It can also be seen at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff between 20 and 25 June and at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds between 27 June and 2 July.

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