Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Fletton Railway Children

(reviewed at The Undercroft, Peterborough on 28 October)

Julie Mayhew has updated the classic E Nesbit adventure story The Railway Children from the early 20th century and Yorkshire to the Swinging Sixties and Cambridgeshire. Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter have acquired a stroppy teenage older sister, Cheryl, and the family’s enforced move is from Petersham to Peterborough.

If pre-First World War spy mania was a feature of the Edwardian period, then the 1960s saw a resurgence fuelled by the Profumo affair and the Burgess and Maclean scandal. Each of the siblings has to adjust in their different ways to the change in circumstances with their mother shielding them from any knowledge of what actually has happened to her husband and their father.

Poppy Rowley keeps the action moving with all four of her actors playing several parts as well as those of Bobbie (Lianne Harvey), Cheryl (Lily Howkins), Phyllis (Charlotte Ellen) and Peter (Lewys Taylor). Fashion-wise Howkins as Cheryl makes a good foil to Harvey’s older in understanding than in years Bobbie and Ellen’s ‘tween ages Phyllis. Taylor’s all-boy Peter is also a person in whom one can believe.

The set designed by Fiona Rigler is simple – two wooden frameworks which pivot as indoor locations change to outdoor ones. Her costumes, notably Cheryl’s booby-sox and white mini-dress and Bobbie’s Rive Gauche outfit of black jumper and leggings – very Juliette Greco – add their own dimension to the girls’ characterisation. A simple straw hat indicates their mother as they alternate in taking on the part.

You can’t quite describe this Eastern Angles production as site-specific; like any good story it has a chameleon quality. A local audience will pick up on places and areas which may be just names to outsiers. But anyone who lives in East Anglia is still experiencing the effects of Dr Beeching’s axe-swing across the region’s rail network. Plus ça change…

The Fletton Railway Children runs at The Undercroft, Serpentine Green Shopping Centre until 5 November.

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Sweeney Todd

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 27 October)

A musical thriller says the programme cover for Daniel Buckroyd’s new production of the Sondheim musical for the Mercury Theatre in Colchester and the Derby Playhouse. Sara Perks has designed a triangular set on a central revolve which adapts seamlessly to the environment of different areas of Dickensian London.

The score has been re-arranged by Michael Haslam for a five-piece band, tucked away stage left on the platform which surround the main acting area. On the official opening night, it often seemed as though sound designer Adam P McCready still needed to correct the balance between musicians and stage performers considerably. Too many lines of the opening “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” ballad were lost – and I was sitting only four rows from the stage.

Hugh Maynard’s performance in the title role takes no hostages; you can understand the man’s thirst for revenge and even the way in which he utilises his professional skills to achieve it. He also know that the part requires the audience’s sympathy to leach away as just requital is overwhelmed by an indiscriminate blood-lust. His baritone is strong, an excellent foil for Sophie-Louise Dann’s luciously lascivious Mrs Lovett.

Christina Bennington is a winsome, well-sung and acted Johanna, her lyricism counterpointing Dann’s more streewise tones. Kara Lane’s Beggar Woman leads us gently into the realisation that this raucously sluttish mendicant was once Todd’s beautiful and virtuus wife Lucy. David Durham makes much as Judge Turpin’s villainy with Julian Hoult a dulcet-toned slimily insinuating Beadle. Jack Wilcox gives Anthony strength as well as niceness and his voice is a good match with that of Bennington.

If Simon Shoren’s Signor Pirelli is another in the cast of “nasties” whih inhabits the story, Ryan Heenan, both in his Dulcamara-style snake-oil salesman introduction to Pirelli’s barbering and tooth-drawing abilities and in the subsequent portrait of a lad grateful for any casual kindness (let alone the odd p or two), comes close to stealing the show. There is strong support also from the Colchester Community Chorus.

Sweeney Todd runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 12 November with matinées on 5, 10 and 12 November.

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Beauty and the Beast

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 26 October)

Northern Ballet has launched its autumn 2016 tour of artistic director David Nixon’s Beauty and the Beast in Norwich. This being a Dixon production, although much of the choeorgraphy follows classical lines – and his company has the skills to make this appear just as it should be – the story, the characterisations of the main characters and the costumes combine folk- and fairy-tale elements with more than a passing nod to the late 20th and 21st centuries.

His choice of music is equally wide-ranging. Glaunov for the more-or-less traditional finale but also the uncompromising diatonic and dissonance of Poulenc and the musical picture-painting of Bizet, Debussy and Saint Saëns. The Northern Ballet Sinfonia under John Pryce Jones fused these elements at the service of the dance. Duncan Hayler’s mirrored sets are lit by Tim Mitchell, mostly to fine effect except when reflexions dazzled the audience and left the dancers in shadow.

Dreda Blow, on the opening night, makes a charming Beauty, lyrical in both her solos and in her pas de deux with the Beast and with the Prince and strong of foot for the leaps with which Dixon has endowed the part. Her Prince – initially a self-centred primping posturer – is Giliano Contadini, supporting Blow effortlessly in their pas de deux and acting well throughout.

La Fée Magnifique (think Carabosse en pointe) is Victoria Sibson with Hannah Bateman as her beneficent counterpart Luminaire, a Lois Fuller swirl of shimmering flowing tissues. This storyline has Alfred, an ambiguous man-servant who we see first as the Prince’s valet and then as a manipulator for both Magnifique and Luminaire. Hironao Takahashi conveyed an impression of this multi-faceted master of ceremonies with just the right touch of control.

Ashley Dixon as the Beast – the Prince transformed as a result of his selfishness – is a fine characterisation as well as an athletic one, dangerous as only a feral animal can be but always suggesting that something better underlies the savagery, if only it were allowed to come to the surface. This is most apparent in the opening scenes of the second act with Beauty. He thoroughly diserved th audience’s applause at the first night curtain calls.

Beauty and the Beast is at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 29 October with matinèes on 27 and 29 October. The production’s five-centre tour continues until 7 January.

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King Lear in New York

(reviewed at the Hostry Festival, Norwich on 25 October)

Performance can be a cruel goddess, demanding sacrifices of a high order. That’s the premise beyond Melvyn Bragg’s play, which he has compressed from its original two-act format into something altogether tauter for Stash Kirkbride’s production.

A famous actor, renowned for both stage and screen performances, is in New York to attempt what to the mature actor is the equivilent of Hamlet for a younger one. It is, however, in a multi-times-off-Broadway theatre with a cast not completely familiar with Shakespeare or his stylistic demands.

We are in the brother’s flat, not 24 hours before the first public performance. Robert (Louis Hilyer) has stage-fright (something which attacks seasoned actos more often than their doting public imagines). Alec (Peter Barrow) has to keep his brother from the bottle while coping with the demands of Jackie, a brash and bitchy television presenter (Rebecca Chapman).

Then there’s Louis’ estranged second wife Bett (Rebecca Aldred), who is also his agent. Not o mention Juliet (Nina Taylor), his daughter with a wagon-load of chips on her shoulder and a gang of drug-dealers uncomfortably close to her back. As Louis comes diasterously “off the wagon”, the likely drama of the first night is subsumed in the domestic ones.

Kirkbridge keeps the tension high, with Hilyer giving a finely controlled portrait of a man terrified by his own vulnerabilities – which include professional as well as personal ones. All three wmen are also good – Chapman with all claws on full display, Taylor offering a study in teenage confusions which rings very true and Aldred combining the hard-headed business realism with supressed desires and affections.

The setting by Matt Reeve allows for action withn the flat to take place on a platform backed by a photographic panorama and scenes otside it to be on the audience’s own level, ths drawing us into the action. Projections indicate each change of location. The still centre of all this is Barrow; Alec is a man who knows very well that he always has been in his brother’s shadow.

King Lear in New York runs at the Hostry, Norwich Cathdral until 29 October.

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The Sound of Music

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 18 October)

It must be the most popular musical of the 20th century. The Sound of Music is currently singing its way on a national tour in an intelligent new production by Martin Connor designed by Gary McCann and with musical direction by Kelvin Towse. The mountain-painted drop-curtain and flats are framed (literally) by a false proscenium with baroque flourishes, suggesting a traditional world into which the harsh realities of the late 1930s intrude uncomfortably.

It looks good and there are some excellent singing voices, notably among the nuns and most especially Jan Hartley’s Abbess. The sound balance took some time to adjust itself on the Norwich opening night, particularly affecting Lucy O’Bryne’s well-acted and thoroughly credeible Maria and Howard Samuels’s pragmatic Max. Lucy van Gasse makes Elsa nto something more than a two-dimensional potential wicked stepmother and Annie Holland’s Lisl is sweet of voice, forceful of personality and a lyrical dancer as well.

Andrew Lancel is very much an actor who can sing; because he doesn’t initially play von Trapp for instant sympathy, the character’s obvious political integrity then acts as a burnish to his dawning feelings about Maria. Bill Deamer’s choreography has its highspots in the first act duet for Kane Verrall’s embryonic Nazi Rolf and 16-going-on-17 Lisl and in the ballroom scene ländler.

The six smaller von Trapp children (Isabel Godden’s Gretl and Louis Rice’s Friedrich particularly good at the performance I saw) are as show-stopping as they should be. In many ways, this is an old-fashioned staging with a conviction in the performances and an attention to the requirements of the score missing from many more modern musicals. It asks to be taken seriously and the audience responds to that request. Which is just as it should be.

The Sound of Music runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 22 October with matinées on 20 and 22 October.

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Night Must Fall

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswih on 17 October)

Most people, if they’re honest, admit to loving a good murder mystery. But what about the perpretator? There reactions are much more mixed. Do we simply shudder at the crime itself and the (often sordid and downright mercenary) motives behind it – or do we try to get into the murderer’s skull, analyse what drove him (or her) to the deed or even feel a fellow feeling. There but by the grace of God…

Emlyn Williams’ classic exploration of the dual personality of a murderer Night Must Fall takes us on just such a journey. We know that Dan (Will Featherstone) has killed at least once before he even sets foot on the stage. We sspect who will be his next target – the irasible wealthy widow Mrs Bramson (Gwen Taylor), tyrannising over her dependent niece Olivia (Niamh McGrady), her staff and most other regular visitors.

What we learn only gradually is how Dan’s chameleon-like personality dazzles even the most sceptical of the people with whom he comes into contact. From being a teenage bell-hop at a nearby hotel, he metamorphoses before our eyes into an all-purpose handyman and then an intimate of Mrs Bramson’s home in a remote Essex village, which is surrounded by forest. it’s a measure of the strength of Featherstone’s portrait that we can follow why he attracts at the same time as why he repels.

You need equally forceful performances to keep the balance. Dan’s comes-and-goes Welsh inflection is cut across by Taylor’s thoroughly npleasant if well-spoken grande dame. McGrady gives us Olivia’s unhappiness as well as the touch of steel which makes her refuse Hubert (Alasdair Buchan)’s sincere proposal of marriage. You can also see why she is attracted to Dan, perhaps sensing that he could be the missing part of her own torn personality.

Buchan has in many ways the most difficult part in the play; a well-meaning bumbler incapable of inspiring affection either in Olivia or us, that eavesdropping fourth-wall of the bungalow. Darach O’Malley’s Inspector Belsize has the right sort of seen-it-all-before authority. Director Luke Sheppard keeps the action fast-moving, sometime at the expense of vocal clarity on the part of the smaller roles. David Woodhead’s set is correctly realistic and in period, with costumes of the mid-1930s to match.

There’s a touch of the filmic about Howard Hudson’s lighting plots; the same is true of Harry Black’s soundscape whch heightens the tension at key moments with great subtlety. Williams was of course a performer as well as a writer, and he wrote himself a role which obviously played to his strengths. Given a revival such as this by Original Theatre, the Salisbury Playhouse and Eatbourne Theatres, you can enjoy the sheer theatrical craftsmanship of it all.

Night Must Fall runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 22 October with matinées on 19 and 22 October. It can also be seen at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff between 31 October and 5 November.

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The Full Monty

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 10 October)

The front rows of the audience for this touring production seem the province of a flight of chittering chattering young women, much like the ones who spill out onto the stage in the play itself after a performance by The Chippendales. Simon Beaufoy’s script is based on the 1997 film about a group of steel workers made redundant by their factory’s closure.

Star of the show is Robert Jones’ set, showing the vandalised factory interior with its broken window panes, which transmutes seamlessly into all the other locations. The core of the drama is the relationship between Gaz (Gary Lucy), his estranged wife Mandy (Charlotte Power) and their son Nathan (played very well on the opening night by Reiss Ward). Parallel to their story is that of former foreman Gerald (Andrew Dunn), who leaves for his non-existent work daily, though not fooling wife Jean (Fiona Skinner) for long.

You can believe in both these couples, though Gaz’s former colleagues come over much more as types than people. The Job Centre and Job Club scenes work well, as does Gerald’s thwarted interview for a new job, spoiled by his former colleagues’ impromptu Punch and Judy show – which they think hilarious but which in retrospect is just plain thoughtless, if not downright cruel.

Those occupants of the front rows do get their money’s worth in the final strip-tease routine. Choreograhpyis by Ian West and lighting (very important for this show) by Tim Lutkin. The director is Jack Ryder.

The Full Monty runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich ntil 15 October with matinées on 12 and 15 October.

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Arms and the Man

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 7 October)

Like director Brigid Larmour, this is a Shavian comedy which seems not to have been in my theatre-going orbit for decades. For all that it seems to have drifted out of fashion, it’s a play well worth reviving, and Larmour does it proud with a cast that knows what it’s about and intriguing, somewhat minimalist sets by Rebecca Brower. It’s briskly paced, but the activity is never cumbersome.

Hannah Morrish’s Raina sets the tone from the opening scene with her mother Catherine (Kathryn O’Reilly) and Jill McAusland’s pert maid Louka. Enter the fugitive Captain Bluntschli, to whom Pete Ashmore gives a dash of derring-do as well as Swiss pragmatism. He and Morrish play beautifully off each other throughout. Raina, of course, thinks she is in love with the dashing cavalry officer Sergius (Assad Zaman).

This is another well thought-out performance, edging dangerously towards the over-blown but always reined in short of it. Walter van Dyk’s Major Peckoff is just the sort of patriarch that his womenfolk manipulate with ease. McAusland deepens her own characterisation in her exchanges with David Webber’s Nicola; this authoritative Black actor adds an interesting dimension to his creed of how to survive as a servant.

Music and sound is by Arun Ghosh, never obstrusive but nderpinning the setting of one of that sequence of Balkan conflicts which peppered the late 19th century. It all ends, as in a Shakespeare comedy, with a dance choreographed by Jack Murphy. The audience just has to sit back, look and listen. And enjoy the experience.

Arms and the Man runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 22 October with matinées on 8, 12, 15, 20 and 22 October.

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Much Ado About Nothing

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

Made in Colchester’s contribution to the Shakespeare quatercentenary is a production by Pia Furtado of Much Ado About Nothing. As befits a garrison town, the location has been shifted out of Italy and the period updated to somethng obviously modern, though neither of the two 20th century world wars.

So far, so good. There’s an effective opening in which, above the heavy done of transport aircraft, the returning soldiers chant Rebecca Applin’s setting of repeated “Going home”. Designer Camilla Clarke gives us an all-purpose canteen, presumably attached to Leonato (Paul Ridley)’s home. Margaret (Kirsty J Curtis) seems to be its manager with Beatrice (Danielle Flett) and Hero (Robyn Cara) offering spasmodic help. This is not peace, however, just a temporary lull in the fighting.

I’ve no quarrel with Don John, commander Don Pedro (Robert Fitch)’s rebellious half-brother, being transformed into an embittered woman by Polly Lister. But why on earth isn’t that giveaway masculine title simply changed into something like “dame”? It jars on each recurrence and detracts from Lister’s own excellent characterisation.

This is presumably a Roman Catholic (or at any rate High Church) part of the country, if the large statue of the Madonna is to be taken as something other than mere set dressing, so why have a woman minister (Emmy Stonelake) who everyone keeps on calling “he” and Friar Francis? It doesn’t make sense.

Furtado gives us an overlong disco-style party whose exhuberance somewhat smothers Don Pedro’s wooing of Hero for Claudio (Peter Bray)’s benefit. She also slices the interval midway in the church scene, thus losing rather than building the tension. The watch scenes go for nothing with Karl Haynes’s Dogberry overemphasising his malapropisms to the point where there is no humour at ll.

Jason Langley’s Benedick is well spoken and acted; Flett never quite matches, let along surpasses, him. They do manage the lethal “Kill Claudio” echange extremely well. Bray doesn’t project any of Claudio’s charm; Chris Charles’ Borachio has this n abundance and produces some of the evening’s best-spoen dialogue.

Much Ado About Nothing runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 15 October. There are matinées on 8, 13 and 15 October.

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Swan Lake

(reviewed at the Corn Exchange, King’s Lynn on 5 October)

The Russian State Ballet & Opera Theatre of Astrakhan has brought an intriguing production of Swan Lake to Britain for its autumn tour (3 October to 3 December); late winter tour dates are yet to be announced. Artistic director Konstantin Uralsky sets the story in the early 19th century, reminiscent of the “peace” social scenes of War and Peace. The first act costumes are attractive and the dancers equally so with neat footwork and elegant arms.

In this version Prince Siegried (Danil Sokolov)’s tutor is Von Rothbart (Maksim Melnikov), a black-clothed mentor gliding through the palace with a disquieting aura of menace. The swans are his private preserve, a secret magical theatre to which he inveigles the brooding, restless Siegfried – though you wouldn’t know that if you hadn’t read the programme notes. It’s much less of a mime and more of a dancing role than in other versions and well executed.

Benno is danced by Vslovod Tabachuk, whose jumps and turns provide some of the evening’s most exciting moments. Sokolov is somewhat upstaged (and out-performed) by his Mercutio-like friend throughout. The dainty pas de quatre performed as entertinment for the Queen (Anna Nikonova) is danced by Karina Manopova, Victoria Chuvyleva, Arthur Almukhametov and Bulat Gareev; the boys are less assured in their footwork, jumps and landlings than the girls.

When we reach the first lakesid scene, the corps de ballet provide the right mixture of technique and lyricism. Unfortuntaely Anastasia Turchina’s Odette is short on visual expression and personality; she dances with assured, well-finished arabesques and pointe work and Sokolov partners her throughout sympathetically. But still that vital spark and suggestion of instant, total passion proves elusive.

For Act Three we are in the middle of a costume ball with early Renaissance headdresses for the women and houppelande gowns for the male courtiers. Enter Odile (Maria Stetc) with her sidway glances and clever use of her arms to all-but mimic Odette’s own movements. She pulls off the firework fouettés and jétés so that it’s no wonder this malleable young prince is instantly besotted.

Eather than the usual ghostly apparition at a window as Odette recognises how she has been betrayed, there follows a well thought-out pas de quatre for Odette and Odile, Siegfried and Von Rothbart in which each pair shadows the other’s steps. For the final scene, the backcloth shows a sythe of a moon, stabbing down into the water which will finally envelop the lovers and their nemesis. Again, the corps de ballet shine as the real stars of the production.

Swan Lake (with several alternative casts) can also be seen at the Grove Theatre, Dunstable on 9 October, the Key Theatre, Peterborough on 14 October, the Marina Theatre, Lowestoft on 19 October, the Harlow Playhouse on 20 Octobe and the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 8 November.

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Casanova

(reviewed at the Little Theatre, Sheringham on 1 October)

Spinning Wheel Theatre is one of those enterprising ensembles which the East Anglian air seems to generate; you see similar sort of activity down in the West Country, so perhaps a certain geographical remoteness also comes into the equation. For its current short rural tour Amy Wyllie has created Casanova. That’s right, a three-actor historical drama with epic pretensions.

Wyllie’s main influence seems to be Marie Antoinette, the 2006 film by Sofia Coppola with its soundtrack mixing genuine 18th century music with a more popular – even punk – 20th century beat. It’s all pleasantly tongue-in-cheek as Joe Leat introduces us to the title character and his many shifts to create a name and a place for himself. There’s more than a touch of Candide or even Don Quixote in his eternal optimism mingled with a definite naîveté.

It’s an enjoyable performnce which lets the audience into the joke right from his first appearance. All the women in Casanova’s life (and there were a great number of them) are played by Lucy Benson-Brown with the aid of a dazzling array of quick gown and headgear changes; design is by Becca Gibbs. All the men who either help or (the majority) hinder our hero’s picaresque career come in the form of Samuel Norris.

Nick Holmes gives us a set with a painted backcloth highlighting the iconic buildings of the countries and cities which Casanova visited; in front is a bridge (the Bridge of Sighs?) and there are a couple of screen booths o act as boudoirs or carriages as the plot dictates.

It’s a romp and not to be taken too seriously though the comparatively quiet ending where Casanova finds a sort of contentment in writing his memoirs under the protection of the Prince de Ligne, visited by his first (and possibly only true) love Henriette, gives a gentle sense of quiet fulfilment. He’s come to the end of his journey, and to the end of his days. What remains is a legend.

Casanova tours mainly to community and village halls until 22 October. There are also performances at the Fisher Theatre, Bungay (6 October), the New Wolsey Theatre Studio (7 October), the John Peel Centre, Stowmarket (12 October) and the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh (21 October).

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Notturnino|Set and Reset/Reset

(reviewed at the Jerwood DanceHouse, Iswich on 30 September)

Anything you can do… That is surely the motto of the Candoco Dance Company which opened the autumn DanceEast season in Ipswich. Notturnino is an affectionate glimpse into the world of opera singers in their twilight world (think Harwood’s Quartet) encapsulated in snatches of Verdi and Puccini, especially La forza del destino and Tosca.

Choreographer Thomas Hauert took the 1984 documenary film Tosca’s Kiss as his starting point; we hear verbal as well as musical excerpts from its soundtrack, clarified for an English-speaking audience by screened subtitles. The six dancers, four of whom are physically impaired, swoop across the stage in leaps, lunges and variations on the classical attitude, emphasised by quick-change theatrical costumes by Natasa Stamatari, all vaguely 18th century in inspiration.

Shortend arms, a wheel chair and, notably, two crutches for a one-legged performer prove that disability is no barrier to virtuosity. That single leg and what almost seemed sometimes like four arms emerged from the groupings with star quality. Hauert makes no concessions in either the ensemble or solo sections to his dancers; they return the confidence full measure.

Trisha brown choreographed Set and Reset in 1983; this has been redirected by Abigail Yager as Set and Reset/Reset earlier this year. The dancers wear Celeste Dandeker-Arnold’s flowing and diaphonous grey dresses and trousers as they singly, in pairs and in larger groupings lunge, leap and spin across the stage to Laurie Anderson’s tintabulation-heavy score, suggesting a sequence of human dramas underpinning the abstraction of the moves which we are watching.

The performers are Megan Armishaw, Joel Brown, Tanja Erhart, Adam Gain, Jason Mabana and Laura Patay. Candoco tour both regionally and internationally so, if you happen to be in a place where this double-bill is being performed, take advantage of the opportunity and see it. You don’t have to make mental concessions – the work sets its own high standard – just as any other modern dance company. Rather, it’s up to the audience’s response to match that of the performers.

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