Monthly Archives: August 2016

The Old Country

(reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 23 August)

Like Shakespeare, Alan Bennett has written several of what might be defined as “problem plays”. In Bennett’s case, one of the most intriguing of these is The Old Country, which I first saw in 1977, when the actual events and characters here depicted through fictional characters, were more of immediate concern that they seem in 2016.

We’re on the verandah of a small house in the depths of the country, just the sort of place to which you can imagine any senior Civil Servant wishing to retire. Hilary (James Morley) and his wife Bron (Barbara Horne) are expecting a visit from her sister Veronica (Imogen Slaughter) and her diplomat husband Duff (Michael Shaw); they haven’t seen the couple since Duff achieved his knighthood.

Hilary and Bron do have neighbours – Olga (Melissa Clements), who is somewhat mixed-up to put it at its most simple, and her husband Eric (Bob Dobson), on the face of it just a happy-go-lucky sort of chap. But where exactly is this place in the country? and why is it, its occupants and their visitors under such surveeliance?

Bennett uses the gradual relevations of both personal and national aspects to the different characters to allow for some complex discussion about motivations, treachery and patriotism, pasts to be revealed and those which so desperately need to be concealed. People, Bennett seems to insist, have flexible loyalties, fluid as changes in international situations and issues.

What Hilary wants is, in spite of the speeches which Morley delivers with great conviction, as nebulous as any other artificial construct. Shaw and Dobson make much of their revelatory encounter in the second act while Horne gives a rounded portrait of a wife who sticks by her man, but isn’t afriad to point out where he falls short of her deserts.

Veronica is a slightly spiky personality, and no-one does stylish spikiness more accurately than Slaughter. Olga is in many ways the most difficult of the characters to pin down; her past not simply permeates what and who she is now but underlies Hilary’s shockingly crude summing-up – one of those moments in the drama when you realise that sympathy can perhaps be wrongly placed. Clements epitomises the small fry as victim.

The Old Country runs at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 27 August and transfers to Southwold Summer Theatre between 29 August and 10 September.

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Singin’ in the Rain

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 18 August)

Theatrical cliché number one – the show must go on!. And go on it did for Catherine Lomax’s summer in-house production, even though Simon Anthony suffered a foot injury during a particularly energetic dance routine as Cosmo Brown, necessitating an extended interval, roughly where one would have occured in a (now old-fashioned) two-interval production.

Craig Armstrong, who had been playing the two smaller roles of Sid Philips and the diction cach, had played the part previously and took over script-in-hand for the rest of the performance. Overall it’s a lavish production, complete with rainfall for the title number and finale, which moves slickly from scene to scene (there are 21 of them).

The script follows the Betty Comden and Adolph Green screen-play with Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed’s songs, most familiar to most of us from the Gene Kelly film. Khiley Williams’ choreography has th right 1920s influences – this is a story which centres on the Hollywood change from silent to sound films – and she has deised some good production numbers as well as the iconic “singin’ in the rain”.

Central to the story is stage actress Kathy, who is invested by Katie Warsop with just the right mix of steel-backbone determination and disarming femininity. She also dances extremely well and has the voice to match. As script-writer Don Mike Denman is perhaps a better dancer and actor than he is a singer, but his engaging ersonality makes up for this.

Screech-voiced Lina, the glittering Hollywood star with a temperment to match and completely non-existent vocal charm, is brought to full theatrical life by Cameron Leigh. Lomax’s production has a clever use of film which both sets the period and reminds us of the double artificiality of the whole set-up. Chris Keen is in charge of the (unseen) orchestra and the lighting design by Pete Kramer adds to the illusion.

Singin’ in the Rain runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 27 August. There are matinée peformances on 20, 25 and 27 August.

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Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016

The Shakespeare Revue

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 10 August)

This new and updated version of the 1994 RSC production is directed by one of its original devisers Michael McKee. It should by rights be packing out the Cambridge Arts Theatre; the audience at the performance I saw was properly enthusiastic though not particularly numerous.

There are five performers with musical director controlling them from the piano. Anna Stolli has a voice which copes with the coloratura of “The heroine the opera house forgot” (mainly Verdi) and dances Nicola Keen’s sometimes elaborate choreography nimbly. Lizzie Bea contrasts well and puts over her solo sketches with style as well as humour.

Jordan Lee Davies, Alex Morgan and Alex Scott Fairley dance, sing and make the audience share their enjoyment of the wide-ranging variations on the Shakespeare theme from “The man who speaks in anagrams” through “Giving notes” to the curtain speech for Sir in The Dresser.

“Brush up your Shakespeare” is performed as a quintet and there are references to the current battle for the US presidency to make sure that we leave the theatre knowing that Shakespeare is indeed a playwright and poet for all time. After all, you can only make stylishly agreeable fun of someone or something universally recognised as completely secure in his or its eminence.

The Shakespeare Revue continues at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 20 August.

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Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016

The Glenn Miller Story

(reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 9 August)

This latest Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson musical is a starring vehicle for Tommy Steele as much as for its titular hero. Designer Mark Bailey offers us an aircraft-hanger set, with a flexibility to keep the scene sequences moving smoothly, and some simple but attractive and apposite costumes, especially for the six members of the singing an dancing chorus.

It begins with the hanger doors opening to reveal Steele (cue the first of the evening’s burst of audience applause). If the show had continued with him as a narrator/commentator and a younger actor taking the part of Miller, Steele’s age and appearance would not have required such an immediate suspension of belief. It also would obviate that slight feeling of discomfort with the early scenes with Abigail Jaye as Helen.

Jaye has a good voice, strong as well as lyrical as she demonstrates in “Moonlight serenade” and “At last”. Ashley Knight makes an engaging no-nonsense Chummy MacGregor. The chorus – Zoe Nicole Adkin, Michael Anthony, Sibhan Diffin, Jessica Ellen, Jordan Oliver and Alex Tranter – perform Bill Deamer’s 40s-based choreography with great style.

The musical director is Richard Morris with an 11-piece ensemble joined on occasin by Robert Pearce (who plays Colonel Chambers), Mike Lloyd (Cy Shribman), Chris Bone (who is also the film director) and Harry Myers (who plays Mark Minton). Steele’s personality carries him through the show, though he is vocally subdued until the finale encores, where he really comes to life basically being Tommy Steele and not the shadow of Glenn Miller.

The Glenn Miller Story runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 13 August.

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Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016

The 39 Steps

(reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 9 August)

This new production for Suffolk Summer Theatres has been devised and directed by Mark Sterling from the Patrick Barlow tongue-in-cheek version of the John Buchan novel brought memorably to the screen by Alfred Hitchcock.

Though it may seem like a whole sequence of “based on…”, this staging does add a further dimension, with its introductory sequence from the film, multiple use of projections and some Hitcockian hommages – the music-hall is MacGuffin’s and the moorland chase has a pair of hobby-horse planes with their pilots plotting north by north-west courses.

The four main actors – Clive Flint, Joe Leat, Amy Christina Murray and Simon Stanhope – are supplemented by ASMs Kitty Dunham and Laurence Leonard who not only move the triangular pillars and furniture but join enthusiastically in the second act’s highland reel. They fully deserve their appearance at the curtain call.

Stanhope is our dashing hero Richard Hannay who, finding himself in London at a loose end, goes to the music-hall and thereby secures himself a perilously adventurous future. Murray whisks on and off a sequence of wigs and accents as the femme fatale whose appearance in Hannay’s flat triggers off the whole story, the feisty but not unflappable Pamela, the susceptible crofter’s wife and others.

“Others” sums up the multi-faceted Flint and Leat perfectly. Flint manages, with swift headgwear, coat and skirt changes, a positive galaxy of characters from Mr Memory and the crofter to railway officials, policemen, landladies and one of the duo of rain-coated, slouch-hatted, dark-glasses spies. Leat’s Professor Jordan provides a hilarious sub-Hitlerian tirade and one half of a Flanagen & Allen turn.

The 39 Steps continues at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 13 August, transfers to the Southwold Summer Theatre between 15 and 27 August and to the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from 6 to 10 September.

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Wind in the Willows

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 6 August)

This new Made in Colchester production by Matthew Cullum uses the Willis Hall stage adaptation of the Kenneth Grahame children’s stories with a new score and lyrics by Rebecca Applin, the Mercury’s resident composer. The cast play the different brass, string and percussion instruments in actor-musician mode.

It’s imaginatively designed in a non-naturalistic fashion by Katie Sykes; the minor animal characters have furry vaguely rabbit-like headpieces but Ratty, Mole and Badger wear, as it were, lay dress. So Sam Pay’s Mole is kitted our in a boiler-suit, Pete Ashmore’s Water-rat has appropriate river edge-wading gear and Kate Adams’ truculent Badger has a properly old-fashioned schoolmarm look.

Dale Superville’s posturing and flamboyant Toad bucks this trend, nattily attired in cutaway coat. Superville is a gifted mime as well as an audience favourite, cascading onto the stage at his first entrance in a positive tsunami of personality. His web-suggestive fingers alone make Badger’s withering put-down description of him as a “backsliding amphibian” really strike home. It’s a joyous performance which appeals to the would-be maverick in most of us, whatever our age group.

Toad’s great rival is the Wild Wooder, to whom Christopher Hogben allows a fine sense of untrammelled malevolence (weasels don’t feature in this version). There are chases, entrances and exits through the auditorium, but these are carefully spaced and the children who join the cast on-stage at the end are greeted in character and each allowed a dance routine of their choice.

It’s overall a magical introduction to theatre and one which really exercises a young imagination to see the natural world in several dimensions. Akin in many ways to our own, with hierarchies and territories. But it remains a wild place, somewhere apart. Things are done very differently there.

Wind in the Willows runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester (early evening) until 21 August. There are no Friday or Monday performances but matinées on 11, 13, 14, 18,20 and 21 August.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Reviews 2016

Cash on Delivery

(reviewed at the Southwold Summer Theatre on 1 August)

It may have been premièred 20 years ago, but a lot of Michael Cooney’s farce Cash on Delivery slides easily enough into 2016 attitudes. The central character is Eric Swan (Darrell Brockis), who is actually unemployed but desperate to keep this from his working wife Linda (Claire Jeater). She does have concerns about her husband, but they’re not financial ones.

The Swans have a lodger, layabout non-earning Norman (Bob Dobson), who has somehow managed to acquire a fiancée Brenda (Melissa Clements); they plan to get married at the weekend. There’s also Uncle George (James Morley), who is neck-deep in dodgy deals – not to mention Eric’s pyramid of social benefit fraud schemes, which is about to topple over.

The catalyst for all this is DWP inspector Mr Jenkins (Richard Bates), a man who does things by the book. In his case, the book is dictated by the formidable Ms Cowper (Erin Geraghty), not a boss to tangle with. Eric having claimed that one of his multitude of claimant persona has died, this has also brought bereavement counsellor Sally Chessington (Imogen Slaughter) to the house.

Slaughter gives a delicious portrayal of just the sort of slithery sympathy-oozing apparatchik no-one in real grief would want within a hundred miles. Brockis builds up the tension and the comedy skilfully as Eric’s complex of fraud nears collapse, matched by Dobson’s wide-eyed attempts to disentangle himself which simply result in him being drawn ever deeper into the proliferating deceptions.

Then there’s unctuous undertaker Mr Forbright (Paul Hegarty) and bemused psychologist Dr Chapman (Michael Shaw). The main furnishings of 344 Chilton Road, Mile End in Andy Powrie’s production designed by Maurice Rubens are a man-sized chest (almost an actor in its own right) and a number of doors to be slammed, locked, flung wide open at the most inopportune moments.

Cash on Delivery runs at the Southwold Summer Theatre until 13 August and transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 16 and 20 August.

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The Tempest

(reviewed at the Theatre in the Forest, Jimmy’s Farm, Wherstead on 29 July)

“Ramshackle” and “shenanigans” are two words mentioned in the programme for Joanna Carrick’s production of The Tempest, this summer’s Shakespeare from the Red Rose Chain at the Theatre in the Forest.

They are apt, for the cast of five appear much more at home with the rough’n’tumble of the jester and the butler than with the poetry and multi-levels of treachery, betrayal and redemption which underpin the story of Prospero, his usurping brother and the equally disfunctional royal family of Naples.

So Edward Day – who plays Prospero and Sebastien, the Milanese dukes – comes to life as clown-masked and wigged Trinculo; Prospero’s great speeches somehow seem to take second place. Rachael McCormick doubles Miranda (a typically stroppy teenager) and the pedantic but honourable councillor Gonzalo. Lawrence Russell is a boyish Ferdinand, the crown-ambitious Antonio and a literally knockabout Stephano.

This is a play, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the spirit and the mortal worlds meld. Kirsty Thorpe’s Caliban not only provides some of the production’s most intelligent speaking but makes Alonso’s grief at the apparent loss of both his daughter (to marriage) and his son (presumed drowned) credible. Jack Parker is an Ariel with an underpinning of Puck as he seeks to earn his freedom.

Carrick’s production makes much use of water, quite a lot of which finds its way among the audience; if you prefer to remain dry, don’t book for the foremost block of seats stage right. David Newborn and Carrick have created a set in sea shades peopled with oil drums and overhung by an enormous sail.

Costumes for the shipwrecked contingent run variations on hot orange; island dwellers sport greens and more sea-blue. Laura Norman’s soundscape has live additions from the farm donkeys, beautifully on cue at “The isle is full of noises”. McCormick is also the choreographer.

The Tempest continues at the Theatre in the Forest until 28 August with matinées on 6, 13, 20 and 27 August.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016