Monthly Archives: June 2016

Lady Anna: All At Sea

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

Craig Baxter’s play interweaves the plot of one of Trollope’s lesser-known novels Lady Anna with the sea journey from Liverpool to Australia which he and his wife undertook to visit their sheep-farming son. Colin Blunenau’s production has a cast of seven who play both the fictional and real-life characters; Libby Watson’s minimal setting cleverly gives us both worlds.

This production was initially staged for London’s Park Theatre; Cambridge Arts Theatre is not perhaps an ideal venue for it offering too much division between the audience and the players. But it is the sort of accessible intellectual joke which does draw the audience in, particularly in the second half. The performances are uniformly good.

Rhiannon Handy is Anna Lovel, who has inherited a fortune (though not necessarily a title) if the father who acknowledged her as his daughter was indeed married to her mother (Maggie O’Brien). The title (not not the money) has gone to young Frederick Lovel (Adam Scott-Rowley), whose aunt and clergyman uncle dither between thoroughly disliking – not to say distrusting Anna and her mother and egging him on to propose the marriage which will secure the money.

These two schemers are played by Julie Teal and Edward Halsted to fine effect. In opposition stand the skilled craftsmen Daniel Thwaite (Simon Robinson) and his father Thomas (Jonathan Keeble). Thwaite senior had helped the countess financially and morally when she is penniless; the two children have grown into teenage lovers – which is just the sort of liaison across the class divide which will imperil the status of all the Lovels.

On the voyage to Australia, Trollope (Keeble) and his dictatorial wife Rose (O’Brien) are concerned over the progress of his shipboard-scribed new novel Lady Anna. Rose argues with her maid Isabella ((Handy) while Trollope contends with sceptical and bored fellow male passengers. In the novel, a couple of lawyers (of distinctly Dickensian hue) become embroiled – a nice contrast in approach by Halsted and Keeble.

Frederick’s originally pragmatic, not to say mercenary, approach to the prospect of marriage with a hitherto unknown girl cousin mutates into something stronger – and transforms him in the process. Scott-Rowley convinces with his lightly-sketched yet in-depth portrait of a privileged young man’s growth into maturity. O’Brien’s granite-faced, iron-corroded souled countess is given a well nuanced counterpart in Handy’s Anna, a girl who has principles with the moral fibre to back them up.

It all makes one want to read the novel – and a biography of Trollope as well.

Lady Anna: All At Sea runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 2 July with matinées on 30 June and 2 July.

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Chicago

(reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 27 June)

The touring version of the Fred Abb-John Kander-Bob Fosse musical comes over as fresh now as when it was first produced. The formal setting – the ten-person band facing the audience from steeply raked seats literally framed in gold, costumes basically in variations of black and a clever use of lighting – distances the audience from the 1920s story of women who kill and then (mostly) wriggle away from the gallows while at the same time involving it in their histories.

In Southend the opening night of the run brought understudy Lindsey Tierney to the central role of Roxy. She has a strong voice and is a good actress as well as dancer; that also holds true for Sophie Carmen-Jones as her prison mirror-image Velma. Frances Dee also holds attention as the girl who fails to convince a jury, and duly pays the penalty. Payment of any kind (except in cash or favours) is not within the remit of Sam Bailey’s prison dominatrix Matron “Mama” Morton.

Among the male characters, Neil Ditt’s Amos, Roxy’s credulous and ultimately hard-done by husband, stands out as someone towards whom one cannot help but feel both sympathy and exasperation. The fast-thinking, smooth-talking lawyer Billy Flynn (John Patridge) grabs his moments, notably in “All I care about” and “Razzle dazzle”, though his histrionics have strong competition from musical director Ben Atkinson. AD Richardson has the creepily androgynous part of Mary Sunshine; an operatic training shines through “A little bit of good”.

Chicago runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 2 July with matinées on 29 June and 2 July. It can also be seen (with cast changes) at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 31 October and 5 November.

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We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea

(reviewed at the Hugh House, Bentwater on 24 June)

Ivan Cutting has revamped his production of some two or three years ago for this new outing of Nick Wood’s stage adaptation of the Arthur Ransome story. The former jet-engine testing facility at the disused (or rather, re-used) RAF Bentwater airfield is a favourite Eastern Angles venue, though designer Rosie Alabaster has chosen to use only a fraction of the cavernous space.

The cast of four – Rosalind Steele as Susan (the eldest of the siblings), Joel Sams as her older brother John, Matilda Howe as family baby Titty and Christopher Buckley as th in-between brother Roger – also play respectively the naval officer father, his wife and the children’s mother, the Dutch pilot and Jim, whose uncle’s boat is the terrain for the adventure.

A partly realistic boat deck with its galley and bunk-bed accommodation is the main element of Alabaster’s set. Paschal McGuire’s animations on stretched white sails at either end of the acting area (they also box in the audience) suggest the turbulence and congestion of the North Sea once the four find themselves offshore. Stuart Brindle’s sound design incorporates a hint of Shostakovitch (top marks for not using Britten’s Peter Grimes‘ sea interludes) as well as the sounds of the sea.

Because the cast play it with utter conviction, they catch the audience’s imagination and make it work in tune with their own mime and gestures. Imagination is a far more effective painter than fake realism in many theatrical instances as Cutting’s production proves. You don’t need to be a sailor yourself to understand the pleasures as well as the pains of messing about in boats. I suspect that we shall see this production again.

We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea runs as the Hush House, Bentwater until 9 July with matinées on 25, 26 and 29 June, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 9 July. It then transfers to Neme Park, Peterborough between 13 and 17 July.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 21 June)

Which week of the year is ideal for opening a new production of what is arguably Shakespeare’s most performed play? For Trevor Nunn’s return to his home town of Ipswich with the one Shakespeare play which u to now he has not been commissioned to direct, the summer solstice is the obvious choice.

Nunn and his designer Libby Watson have set the action in British-ruled India during the 1930s. The contrast in cultural values adds weight to Egeus (Sam Dastor)’s ferocity of purpose as far as his daughter Hermia (Neerja Naik)’s marriage is concerned. Demetrius (Assad Zaman) is his choice; she prefers Lysander (Harry Lister Smith).

If Duke Theseus (Matt Rawle – doubling the role of Oberon) supports Egeus, his war-won bride Hippolyta (Fiona Hampton – who also plays Titania) is not so sure. But she is at this point powerless to intervene and it is Hermia’s friend Helena (Imogen Daines), fruitlessly attempting to wash away her unrequited love for Demetrius with alcolhol, who precipitates the confusion which will ensue when the elpoping lovers are pursued by Demetrius and he himself by Helena.

Once we’re in the forest, Esh Alladi’s lithely malevolent Puck is the master of woodland ceremonies, indeed a spirit of no common sort. This is where Sarvar Sabri’s score really underlines that this is a spirit realm into which humans trespass under under licence; the musicians are led by Suhail Yusuf Khan. Costumes for the sprites are shredded and faintly fluorescent; those for Titania and Puck more blindingly so.

None of the woodland creatures, led by Michelle Bishop (who doubles as Theseus’ up-tight personal assistant Phyllis) are ever still. Arms wave and undulate constantly, as though the thinnest, finest tendrils were stirred by a forest breeze. Sonia Sabri is the choeographer, devising a mixture of western courtly ballroom, Kathak and Indian folk-dance styles to great effect.

The mechanicals suggest a community of street traders hawking their own crafts from their initial appearance. You feel that their fee if their play is performed for Theseus’ wedding is genuinely important. Harmage Singh Kalirai’s Quince is a marvellously homespun philosopher, just about managing to keep Kulvinder Ghir’s know-all Bottom in check (would you really buy a rug or length of cloth from this man)?

Deven Modha’s Flute makes his sari-clad Thisbe into a gentle foil to Ghir’s Pyramus in the play scene. All six newly weds join in the exuberant dance which heralds the arrival of the immortals to bless the nuptials. When Puck invites the audience’s applause, it’s no wonder that the response is enthusiastic.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at the New Wolsey Theatre until 9 July with matinées on 22, 25, 28 June, 2, 5 and 6 July.

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How To Enjoy Opera
by
John Snelson

John Snelson is the head of publishing and interpretation at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. He is therefore fully aware that opera-goers – whether regular or occasional – bring different attitudes to the works they have booked to experience.

Nowadays performers’ training encompasses far more than the ability to sing what the composer and librettist have written. They need to interpret each role in a manner which enhances its impact while staying true to the creators’ intentions and balancing this with the demands of the stage director, who may very well be primarily a man or woman of the spoken theatre, television or the cinema.

So this isn’t a beginner’s guide, listing operas by title or composer; there are many of these available. Nor is it a discography. Rather Snelson divides his main 212 pages into ten sections, grouping his subjects by voice types,duets, chorus and other ensembles and so on.

Nor does his range stop short with Berg and Britten. He gives as careful an analysis to the operas of Adams, Adès, Birtwistle and Turnage as to those of Mozart, Verdi or Wagner. Opera may be an international art form, but the point is well made that what is a rarity or British ears may well be completely familiar to opera-goers in other countries.

The changing role of the orchestra and its instruments, as well as the attitudes which different audiences have brought to performance is properly emphasised. Ballets in 19th century grand opera are often omitted in modern performance; here they are analysised and their role explained. I also liked the section on how actual historical events have been treated, so often due to censorship. But then, opera i a timeless art.

How To Enjoy Opera is published by Oberon Books at £12.99.

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King Lear

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 20 June)

This Max Webster Royal & Derngate production of Shakespeare’s tragedy emphasises its bleakness. Designer Adrian Linford presents us with a bare stage, backed by a greying wall, a window-piece which barely illuminates the world outside and is as much a restriction as an egress.

The play begins with Cordelia (Beth Cooke), waiting her moment to shine. A chandelier is lowered, a throne materialises – and the court bustles in. The costumes are timeless ones, which means that guns and duelling pistols supplement knives and short swords. Yu either accept this blurring, or you don’t. It’s up to you.

Dominating the play is Michael Pennington, not yielding an inch as either the absolute monarch, or the abdicated one – feeling himself for the first time not to be in command of anyone. Or anything. He times Lear’s decay into dementia so subtly that one is scarcely conscious of when irritation with the king’s arbitraryways melts into compassion for the man.

All the other characters, given a central performance of this strength, are satellites. Tom McGovern’s no-nonsense Kent metamorphoses well from the blunt senior army officer into the equally outspoken but infinitely more relaxed man of the people. Joshua Elliott’s Fool is an intriguing mixture of acute wisdom and apparently pointless nonsense. He’s the dark side of the glass to Gavin Fowler’s poor Tom as the fugitive Edgar desperately seeks to claw a future from his bleak prospects.

If Cooke’s Cordelia comes across as a spirited as well as principled princess, Catherine Bailey’s domineering Goneril an Sally Scott’s deceptively uxorious and motherly Regan offer contrasting essays in unpleasant ambition. Shane Attwooll’s Cornwall at first seems to have the edge on Adrian Irvine’s more contained Albany, but this is shown to be yet another layer in the interlocking web of deception.

Scott Karim’s Edmund is a plausible villain, though his initial soliloquy seemed to portray a cavalier approach to the verse. As his father the Earl of Gloucester, Pip Donaghy gives a somewhat muted performance, so that his terrible torture by Cornwall for his temerity in scouring his king is a piece f stagecraft rather than something to horrify us.

King Lear continues at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 25 June with matinées on 23 and 25 June..

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After Miss Julie

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 13 June)

Patrick Marber’s play title could be read in two ways. It’s a version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie with the location and period changed to England just after the Second World War. So, in the sense that’s it’s a variation on a theme, it is indeed “after”. It is also “after” in the sense that we learn more about the possible future for the two characters other than the titular one than the original allows.

Marber is well served by his designer (Colin Richmond), choreographer (Alastair Marriott) and sound designers (Max and Ben Ringham). We are in the white-tiled basement kitchen of a large country house. The realm above is indicated by an upper stage on which we can see Miss Julie (Helen George) and her father’s chauffeur-cum-valet John (Richard Flood) dancing and from which later the estate workers’ celebration of Labour’s election victory takes on something of the peasant warning rumbles of the 1789 French revolution.

The kitchen is also the domain of Christine (Amy Cudden) who one senses is almost the last of the prewar house staff. In Marber’s script and Anthony Banks’ production, Christine becomes a much more important character and Cudden gives full weight and rounded representation this approach demands. Flood is also impressive as a young man who has built on his wartime service experiences as well as what he has picked up during his work for the landowner. Banked fires always threatening to break through.

But any production, any version of Miss Julie stands or falls by Julie herself. George is magnificent in the role, a spoilt child twisting into an equally spoilt but fr more dangerous womanhood, knowing too much of her own mind and body but without even a glimmer of the maturity – let alone morality – which should underpin it. George uses her eyes to fine effect; we are drawn into her world by their gaze as though led by some mythical enchantress. Spells can be broken, but they can break their victims just as surely as their perpetrators.

After Miss Julie runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 18 June with mainées on 16 and 18 June.

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Educating Rita

(reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford on 7 June)

The test of a modern classic is that it is as significant for today’s audience as it was when first staged. Willy Russell’s Educating Rita was first produced in 1980 but its two characters – the drink-drowning failed poet turned red-brick university lecturer and his feisty hairdresser Open University student – seem completely contemporary.

Gailie Pollock directs this new Contexture production with a realistic set by Amanda Stekly and Tom Cliff at its Rhodes Arts Centre home base. Greg Patmore plays Frank, who really doesn’t want this extra-curricular activity wished on him by a combination of the university authorities and Julia, his increasingly disillusioned partner. He balances the infuriating and the admirable aspects of the character with great subtlety.

She may prefer to be called Rita, but her birth name was the less tempestuous Susan. Gracie Hughes bursts into Frank’s study in a whirlwind of tumbling hair and pointing fingers, prowling around his books and pictures as though determined to make this (to her) strange environment her own. She swirls Rita’s Liverpudlian gabble (which does occasionally tip into gobble) at her reluctant tutor as though it was one of the hair-colour mixes she concocts at work.

Gradually the balance of power shifts through a sequence of short scenes, the passage of time indicated by Paul Burgess’ lighting. It is only after the interval that just how far it has altered becomes truly apparent. Rita/Susan has discovered a new way of life, a fresh circle of friends and a different career path. Frank’s future will follow a different route. Parallel lines have bent to come together, then straightened to diverge once more.

Educating Rita runs at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford until 12 June with matinées on 9, 11 and 12 June.

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The Unhappy Medium

(reviewed at the Stutton Community Centre on 4 June)

The year is 1926, with the General Strike at its zenith. The memories of the world war which ended a mere eight years previously are still very much alive; some even festering. The desire to know certainties about deceased loved ones – including their after-life – is rampant. Fine pickings for spiritualists and mediums, at any rate in theory.

Many of these believed, as did their clients, that they did have special powers and insight. Many also were charlatans, mere performers. It is with one such that we are confronted in Common Ground’s latest tour. The Unhappy Medium is a three-hander, both in the acting and the creation. The script is by Pat Whymark (who also directs), Julian Harries and Patrick Marlowe.

Central to the story is Montague Faulke (Harries), the by-blow of a landed aristocrat who desperately wants the family’s recognition; some of its wealth would also be welcome. His colleague and, we learn, his lover as well as general fixe and dogsbody is an East End Jew of socialist tendencies, Aubrey Solomon (Marlowe). An appointment is booked by a journalist posing as a genuine seeker for contact with the spirit world.

But Morton McLean (Dick Mainwaring), hounded by an editor greedy for front-page headline, is himself a split personality with more on his mind than exposing deceptions and protecting the vulnerable. it’s a farcical comedy in which we are never quite sure whether the role-playing is more sincere than the characters are prepared to admit. Even to themselves.

All three performers go at it with gusto. Harries turns in an over-the-top portrait of a man out of his time and place. Mainwaring is extremely funny as mcLean, especially when his research requires him to do woman’s clothing and attach himself to a cumbersome recording machine. It is Marlowe though who walks away with the show, giving us the eternal cheeky-chappy Cockney as well as the man of principles shouldering an enormous chip.

The Unhappy Medium tours community and arts centres in East Anglia until 9 July, including the John Peel Centre, Stowmarket (16 June), The Cut, Halesworth (25 June) and the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich (7-9 July).

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The Romford Rose

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 31 May)

There are some shows when one simply accepts that the sound is going to be amplified but the words aren’t so important that it matters whether they are distinguishable or not. The Romford Rose, a new collaboration between writer Chris Bond and composer Jo Collins, isn’t one of these. It’s basically through composed, and Bond is a writer who uses words very precisely to tell the story.

Basically it’s a family four-hander about teenage daughter Rose (obsessed with Dolly Parton in particular and country-and-western music in general), her semi-criminal father Frank (obsessed unhealthily with his daughter), her mother Yvonne (the recipient of too many years of domestic violence) and Harry (a young soldier who Rose meets at the lavish birthday party thrown for her by her father) and with whom she starts a Romeo and Juliet romance.

No man is ever going to be good enough for his daughter as far as Frank is concerned. Sam Pay plays the heavy, besotted and violent father with frightening conviction. Nicky Croydon shows us the desperate vulnerability of Yvonne, with the social mask increasingly unable to find the bruises, as well as the sequinned manifesto of Rose’s idolised singer.

Harry is an interesting part, on the outside an apparently relaxed and self-assured squaddie, but one whose has already experienced dark moments in service which are going to colour – or will that be, stain? – his whole life. Wade Lewin gives us both sides of this complexity and is a sympathetic partner to Sarah Day’ Rose in the dance and other duet sequences. Choreographer Rachel Yates gives Day some energetic routines, using steps, lifts and jumps which fuse classical ballet with modern and line dance moves.

You do feel for this teenager, living with as much comfort as a doting and well-to-do father can provide, but now old enough to want a life which she can regulate for herself. Day offers us a rounded portrait of a girl who is beginning to recognise that other people have fantasy lives which aren’t necessarily as straightforward and harmless as hers.

Collins directs the six-piece country-and-western band with several of its members playing acting roles – Jennifer Douglas, Liz Kitchen, Howard James Martin and Iain Whitmore (the two former mainly as twittering party guests and the latter pair as a couple of heavies you really wouldn’t want to come across in a dark alley. BJ Cole is the pedal steel guitar maestro. Bond acts as his own director; the designer is Ellen Cairns.

The Romford Rose continues at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 18 June with matinées on 2 and 11 June.

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