Tag Archives: Arts Theatre Cambridge

Not Dead Enough
reviewed at Cambridge Arts Theatre 15 May

Red herrings in thrillers are one thing. Shaun McKenna’s latest stage adaptation of a Peter James thriller not only trails a shoal of thm acoss Sussex’s beaches but adds a whole corkscrew drawer-full of twists and turns to the plot as DS Roy Grace finds that past and present somehow elide in the latest series of murders to land on his desk.

Michael Holt’s two-level set with some atmospheric lighting by Jason Taylor and sound effects by Martin Hodgson take us from the mortury to the police station and across to nocturnal surf-battered pebbled beaches. Ian Talbot contributes what one might define as speed-directing; it’s all so fast and furious that plot and characterisation holes are simply skated over.

There are some very good performances, notably by Laura Whitmore as Cleo, in charge of the mortuary and Grace’s latest “squeeze” and by Gemma Atkins as her vulnerable assistant Sophie. Central to the action is Brian Bishop, whose wife is just one of the victims of violent death to be laid on Sophie’s mortuary table. Stephen Billington gives a deliberately “over the top” performance of this tortured personality; you can see why he provokes Bill Ward’s Grace so much.

In the police station, Grace is supported by his segeant Glenn (Michael Quartey) and PC Moy (Gemma Stroyan). At the end of the telephone is a censorious assistant chief police constable who takes a dim view of Grace’s detecting methods. Dead bodies and the nasty ways in which they meet their fates proliferate. It’s all hokum, of course, but very well presented by a cast which takes it all with just the right touch of knowing conviction.

Three and a half-star rating.

Not Dead Enough runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 20 May with matinées on 18 and 20 May.

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La Strada
reviewed in Cambridge on 28 March

This touring production based on the iconic Fellini film of 1954 has been devised by its performers with direction by Sally Cookson and writer Mike Akers. It is a Belgrade Theatre (Coventry) piece which takes advantage of the circus skills of the cast. So it could be defined as physical theatre; in practice, it’s more theatre of physicality.

La Strada tells the story of a village girl in post-war Italy, sold (as her older sister has been) to a travelling showman to act as his assistant. Naïve Gelsomina (Audrey Brisson) doesn’t want to leave home – she’d far rather listen to the waves – but her mother has four other children to feed, no husband and scant chances of earning a living.

The showman Zampanò is played by Stuart Goodwin. He lives for the moment, is quick to quarrel and quite happy to travel Italy on his motor-bike truck earning something at each stop – and spending it almost immediately. Goodwin has the measure of this unpleasant survivor.

While Gelsomina picks up some tricks of the barker’s trade, she becomes entranced by the collective world of the circus and in particular by Il Matto (its fool or clown). Bart Soroczynski blends skill with just the right amount of other-worldly feyness to make us see why Gelsomina finds him at one level the sort of kindred spirit for whom she was (perhaps unconsciously) waiting – and why he infuriates Zampanò to the point of murder.

The level of ensemble playing – mime, acrobatics, acting and music – is impressive. Matt Costain, Fabrizio Matteini, Sofie Lybäck, Niv Patel, Niccolò Curradi and Tatiana Santini are the players with instrumentalists Luke Potter, TJ Holmes and Tim Dalling. Benji Bower’s score works well as do the settings and costumes of Katie Sykes.

But the focus of the whole story is Gelsomina. Brisson gives full weight to the simple-mindedness which so irritates some of those with whom she’s in contact. But she also shows us the core of the girl, vulnerable in a land and society forced into selfishness by the needs of its time. it’s a finely balanced portrait.

Four star rating.

La Strada continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 8 April with matinées on 30 March, 1, 6 and 8 April.

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Filed under Circus and physical theatre, Reviews 2017

Abigail’s Party
reviewed in Norwich on 27 March

Mike Leigh’s play about the residents of a suburban London enclave is now 40 years old. Each revival brings a new and appreciative audience as well as returning admirers, ths proving that this particular social satire is one for all decades and all generations.

We may not want to acknowledge it aloud, but most of us can number at least a couple of Leigh’s characters in our aquaintance. Which is not bad going when you realise that there are only five people on stage, plus of course the offstage teenaged Abigail, who is throwing her increasingly boisterous parent-free party a few doors away.

Queen bee and lynch-pin of the whole affair is Beverly, a wife so mesmerised by her own two-dimensional façade that other people only exist to reflect her appearance, her tastes in music, home décor and social entertaining. Amanda Abbington has the measure of the part; from the moment we glimpse her arranging the room for her drinks party through the windows of Janet Bird’s dolls’ house set, Abbington presents the whole woman.

Dressed in a totally unsuitable white pleated dress, constantly slithering off one shoulder, Beverly makes a god job of upstaging first new neighbour Angela (Charlotte Mills), a nurse whose slightly too-girlish dress only accentuates her comfortable plumpness. Ciarán Owens is Frank, the disenchanted former footballer now computer operator who is natural prey for Beverly.

Both Rose Keegan as middle-class divorcée Susan, doing her best to bring up Abigail and Jeremy with some support from her architect ex-husband, suggests the woman who would love to put Beverly back in her proper place but is too polite to force the issue. when she does do so it is completely ineffectual.

You can see why Ben Caplan’s work-obsessed estate agent Laurence might find in Susan a more congenial spirit than in wife Beverly, though even he tries too hard and too obviously to clamber onto her guarded wavelength. Caplan times Laurence’s develpment as the evning wears on very subtly, from “heard it all before” mild irritation to the downright irascibility as the play reaches its climax.

Sarah Esdaile is the director for this Theatre Royal Bath Productions tour. Bird’s co-designers are Mic Pool (sound, which is very cleverly graduated as the evening wears on) and Paul Pyant (lighting). Blending deliberate articiality with the right degree of realism is a harder visual and audible task than an audience might imagine. I suspect that Abigail will be still throwing her party forty years from now. This production certainly doesn’t impede that progress.

Four and a half-star rating.

Abigail’s Party
runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 1 April with matinées on 29 March and 1 April. It can also be seen at the Cambridge Arts Theatre between 10 and 15 April.

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Nell Gwynn
reviewed in Cambridge on 21 March

A historical play – just like a historical novel – is not necessarily a straightforward documentary. The historian has to stick to the known facts, and be prepared to answer for any assumptions to his or her peers. The novelist is controlled by a far looser rein, and the dramatist is given even greater licence.

So Jessica Swale’s version of the life of arguably the most famous actress of the 17th century, Nell Gwynn, never lets the (perilously few) known facts get in the way of a thoroughly theatrical romp. It makes for an enagaging evening’s entertainment, augmented in Christopher Luscombe’s English Touring Theatre production by the Globe Theatre-style set and costume designs of Hugh Durrant and by Nigel Hess’ pastiche score.

This is very well performed by both cast and instrumentalists Emily Banes, Sharon Lindo, Arngeir Hauksson and Nicholas Perry. Charlotte Broom is the choreographer, keeping the stage a-swirl with stamps and turns. There are a number of entrances from the auditorium with the occasional circle and box level interjection; I suspect these work better in playhouse-type theatres than in a less flexible one such as the Cambridge Arts.

Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Nell is a delight, giving the back-street orange-seller turned actress and then king’s mistress real personality as her enthusiasms bubble with scant regard for the status of those at whom she aims them. Her two Charles are Ben Righton as Charles II and Sam Marks as leading-man Charles Hart. Frantically striving to keep everything (and everyone) on the right path are Michael Cochrane as Lord Arlington and Clive Heyward as King’s Company manager Killigrew.

The human-being behind the stereotype is particularly apparent in some of Righton’s exchanges with Pitt-Pulford, in Esh Alladi’s portrait of the rapidly becoming redundant player of women’s parts Edward Kynaston and in the short sequence when Joanne Howarth’s flamboyantly strident Catherine of Braganza suddenly kneels to the king and hushes the house with her echo of Catherine of Aragon’s Blackfriars plea to Henry VIII.

This is history with its own validity, because in two hours has necessarily to concentrate and condense both characters and action while keeping the audience attentive from first to last, simply and basically by entertaining it. You do go away at the end with a certain spring in your step – and that’s probably as good an accolade as any.

Four and a half-star rating.

Nell Gwynn continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 25 March with matinées on 23 and 25 March.

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Silver Lining
reviewed in Cambridge on 7 March

There’s an extra frisson to being definitely on the wrong side of 70 when it comes to conteplating how one’s last days, moths or even years might be spent. Silver Lining, Sandi Toksvig’s play in English Touring Theatre’s spring repertoire in association with Kngston’s Rose Theatre, addresses this head-on.

We’re in an old-people’s home on the Kent coast. Outside a gale rages (code-named Vera) and the sea threatens to flood the area. Houses have been evacuated, but somehow this care-home (to use the current euphemism) has been omitted by over-worked officials.

Marooned on the first floor are first four then five long-term residents. Not to mention a temporary care assistant who’s just there for the money. You expect to discove details of these elderly characters’ past lives and the effect these have had on their present static situation. This Toksvig gives us, but somehow neither the comedy or the pathos inherent in the predicament in which the old ladies find themselves rings true.

Rebecca Gatword’s production is remarkably busy, considering that wheel-chairs and walking-sticks abound, and the designers – Michael Taylor (set), Mark Doubleday (lighting) and Mic Pool (sound) – also keep our eyes engaged. as, to a certain extent, does the excellent cast.

It is led by Sheila Reid as the trendiest of the inmates, Joanna Monro as June (with more moral hang-ups than she has year), Maggie McCarthy as down-to-earth May, Amanda Walker as a resident defined only by the “St Michael” label inside her dressing-gown and Rachel Davies as fluttery Maureen.

Making an impact in her professional stage début is Heziah Joseph as Hope, the carer from Croydon who isn’t quite sure what she wants from life but knows that this isn’t how she wants it to go. Theo Toksvig-Stewart is another newcomer, playing Jed who might best be described as an opportunist.

Yes, it’s clever and beautifully acted. Yes, the staging is equally inventive. But no, I watched the production with admiration for the various skills so beautifully utilised but never felt engaged with it. “There, but for the grace of God…” should have been edging towards the front of my understanding. Somehow it never happened.

Three-and-a-half star rating.

Silver Lining is on a national tour until 8 April, including the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 14 and 18 March. Performances at the Cambridge Arts Theatre continue until 11 March with matinées on 9 and 11 March

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Henceforward…
reviewed in Cambridge on 22 February

There’s nearly always been a dark edge to Ayckbourn’s plays, even the most apparently fluffily light-hearted of them. Henceforward…, originally staged 30 years ago, predicates a world where creativity is both stifled and liberated by technology, where the have-nots out-number the haves and where a feral and fractured society makes its own rules. It was a nightmare vision. It’s one which is equally terrifying today.

Central to the story is Jerome, a composer. Mainly because of his creative obsessions and wholehearted embrace of the new technologies on offer, his marriage has broken down and he is denied access to his child. He is holed up in a studio-cum-living-space in a London area where the Daughters of Darkness both make the rules and enforce them. He communicates almost exclusively through a battery of electronic screens and devices.

One of these is a domestic robot, NAN 300F – a prototype which never made it into production. If he is ever to reclaim his daughter, then he needs to display a settled home environment to the social services who will determine his future access to the child (now 13 years old). So he hires Zoe, an actress from a dating agency, to act out that scenario. She arrives in his steel-boarded studio after suffering robbery and assault from the Daughters of Darkness.

These two personalities clash, react and eventually come to an understanding. The trouble is that she interprets (as a performer does) while he creates, every sound made duly recorded and then used for his “masterpiece”. When we meet estranged wife Corinna in the second act, just how much damage Jerome’s obsession has caused and is still causing is made brutally bare.

Ayckbourn has directed this touring revival with a new set by the original designer Roger Glossop. The cast is excellent – Bill Champion as Jerome, Laura Matthews as Zoe, Jacqueline King as Corinna, Jessie Hart as the mixed-up daghter Geain and Nigel Hastings as Mervyn, the official tied up (in more ways than one) with red tape. NAN 300F is well worth attention, whether grey-haired or blonde-wigged.

It doesn’t make for a comfortable evening in the theatre. It’s disturbing, as most visions of a technology-led future can be. It makes you realise why the creative artist is in so many ways a person outside the rhyme and the rut of everyday existence. The ultimate question is – do artistic ends justify the means? Ayckbourn rests his case. Make up your own mind.

Three and a-half star rating.

Henceforward… runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 25 Fbruary with matinées on 23 and 25 February.

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Gaslight
reviewed Cambridge Arts Theatre on 13 February

Torture is a chameleon. We think of it as mainly physical, but it can also be psychological, or these two facets can combine. Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight is what one would now define as a psychological thriller, with its story of three people all obsessed, though in very different ways.

The central character is young wife Bella Manningham (Kara Tointon), increasingly aware that her mother (who died lunatic in an asylum) may have left her a poisonous legacy. Her apparently concerned husband of seven years Jack (Rupert Young) has his own agenda, which may include his pert parlourmaid Nancy (Charlotte Blackledge).

Retired police sergeant Rough (Keith Allen) sees connexions to a horrific but unsolved murder several decades ago. He sees a chance to bring the case which still haunts him to its proper conclusion, but for that he needs a reliable ally.

Many of us will have seen this 1938 drama before, whether on stage (it was a repertory theatre favourite) or in one of its screen adaptations. The 2017 director has to allow his audience the chance to preen itself of seeing what is coming while maintaining the suspense and conveying theatrical conviction. In this Anthony Banks succeeds splendidly.

He’s assisted by David Woodhead’s box-set, cleverly lit by Howard Hudson, and by Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design, an eerie combination of the natural and the suggestively sinister. All the cast give committed performances with a many-nuanced and vocally inflected one by Tointon just having the edge on Allen’s apparently bluff policeman.

Blackledge’s Nancy is a study of a girl on the make, balanced by Helen Anderson’s portrait of the housekeeper Elizabeth. I think I would have liked Young to be just a trifle more the charming – as well as apparently concerned – husband in his early scenes with Tointon; it’s one nudge in the audience’s ribs too many.

If you’ve never sen Gaslight or have dismissed it as an old warhorse well passed it prime, then go to see this staging. It achieves balance – and that’s much rarer in the theatre these days than one might imagine.

Four and a half star rating

Gaslight continues at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 18 February with matinées on 15 and 18 February. The national tour continues until 18 March.

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The Winter’s Tale
reviewed in Cambridge on 31 January

Three words sum up this latest touring production from Cheek by Jowl – stylised, intelligent and stylish. Declan Donnellan’s direction with its contrasts of almost frenetic action and oases of calm is matched by Nick Ormerod’s bleak setting of a forbidding hinged white crate and near-black modern costumes.

Only Orlando James’ Leontes in his early scenes and the pastoral merrymaking of the fourth act relieve the intensity of the gloom. Nothing in James’ portrayal of the play’s anti-hero lets us forget that we’re in Sicily; it’s as though the king himself is a near-eruption volcano, desperately trying to recapture his boyhood escapades with Edward Sayer’s Polixenes and his own young son Mamillius (Tom Cawte)

Meanwhile his a wife and courth has accepted that time passes and inexorably brings change with it. It’s a marvellously well-fleshed portrait of a man one cannot either love or admire, but one who is recognisable and understandable. The weight of the feminine side of the drama is borne by Natalie Radmall-Quirke’s Hermione and Joy Richardson’s authoritative yet pragmatic Paulina.

That is, until we meet Perdita, Leontes’ discarded daughter Eleanor McLoughlin), not to mention the sympathetic old shepherd who found and reared her (Peter Moreton) and the disguised prince Florizel (Sam Woolf) who woos her. Radmall-Quirke offers us the maternal side of the queen, which spills across from her son to her husband and, to a lesser extent, to his friend. Only when her honour and her life are threatned do we see the steel concealed under the weight of her burgeoning body and her sense of responsibility for those who surround her.

The lighting by Judith Greenwood is clever; the fifth act statue scene is particularly effective. Paddy Cunneen’s music alternates with a great deal of loud noise – although the verse is articulated with a proper sense of both the words themselves and the multiple meanings behind many of the phrases, I did sometimes wonder how much travelled back further than the front rows of the stalls. But that is, perhaps, to quibble about a staging which carries conviction from beginning to end.

Four and a half star rating.

The Winter’s Tale runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 4 February with a matinée on 4 February. it can also be seen at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 14 and 18 March.

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Dick Whittington and His Cat

(reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 6 December)

Tradition – a principal boy, the story set firmly in 1375, a slop scene – meets innovation in this version by Al Morley and Matt Crosby, directed by Carole Todd and choreographed by Kevan Allen. It has a strong cast with Holly Easterbrook as a dashing and boyish Dick and Paul Nicholas as a dominating King Rat, with wider than mere mayoral ambitions.

Our harassed merchant plagued with rats is Robert Duncan as Alderman Fitzwarren. Rhiannon Porter plays his daughter Alice; it is her birthday present from her father of a necklace which is stolen from his safe. Crosby has written a starring part for himself as Sarah and his son Idlle Jack (Robert Rees) lives up to his name by collapsing every time the word “work” is mentioned.

That slop scene mentioned above is in the ship’s galley, tilting ferociously in the storm – one could feel a trifle seasick watching it!. Act One ends with a spectacular white, gold and silver production number; no set designer is credited, but Sue Simmerling’s costumes and Mike Robertson’s lighting combine to fine effect.

King Rat’s main opponent is of course Fairy Bowbells (Dawn Hope). Hope’s slinky, glittering dress mirrors her brisk personality; this is a street-wise guardian for London. That also goes for Daniel Cummins as Tommy the Car. Here we have a moggie that talks as well, as miaous – not always effectively be it said. Catman indeed!

The adult ensemble do full justice to Allen’s choreography, supplemented by a well-rehearsed troupe of panto babes; they make excellent ratlings as well as young Londoners with perhaps just a hint of Fagin’s gang about their activities. Costumes for the dance numbers make a strong impact, so there’s plenty for the senior members of the audience to enjoy as well as their juniors.

Dick Whittington and His Cat runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 8 January. Check the theatre website (cambridgeartstheatre.com) for performance times.

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Filed under Pantomimes & other seasonal shows, Reviews 2016

A Room With A View

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 7 November)

It is not just the rooms which have views in the Simon Reade stage adaptation of EM Forster’s novel: the characters all hold views on a variety of social personal and political issues. Some of these change; others are too deeply enbedded.

Young Lucy Honeychurch has the longest psychological journey to make. It is also arguably the most difficult. Lauren Coe makes her at the same time thoroughly plausible and just a touch irritating as she runs rings around most of her elders, their strictures and restrictions – not to mention their expectations.

Another excellent character study is Jeff Rawle as Mr Emerson, the self-made man wih a genuine taste for art who is more at ease with himself than the self-consciously middle-class people with whom he comes into contact. Simon Jones as Mr Beebe and David Killick as the Surrey vicar Eager also make their pompous marks.

For me, the great disappointment was Felicity Kendal as Charlotte Brtlett, Lucy’s over-fussy chaperone, so desperately determined to let down neither Lucy, her home-abiding mother (Abigail McKern) nor her own somewhat fragile social placement. Kendal goes all out to win the audience’s sympathy and is altogether too soft-spoken.

If Lucy is drawn to the slightly farouche and wild-child George Emerson, to whom Tom Morley gives the right air of unpredictablity, her socially-acceptable choice for mate is the buttoned-up Cecil Vyse; Charlie Anson decorates him with great assurance. Jack Loxton’s Freddy Honeychurch is another good portrait.

Director Adrian Noble takes us from springtime Florence to summer in Surrey at a good pace, assisted by Paul Wills’ minimally furnished set with projections to emhasise changes in location and time, dominated by flexible shuttered walls. Tim Mitchell’s lighting aids the contrast between Mediterranean sun and English dappled shade.

A Room With A View runs as the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 12 November with matinées on 9 and 12 November. It can also be seen at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 14 and 19 November.

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84 Charing Cross Road

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 5 September)

The antiquarian bookshop which provides the title for James Roose-Evans’ production of his own stage adptation is no more. The two-decade epistolary exchanges between New York client Helene Hanff and shopmanager Frank Doel also belongs to a vanished age, perhaps being more akin to those fictional letter eschanges which so many novels of the 18th and early 19th century used as their format.

It’s a gentle, mannerly adaptation, given a matching production with an excellent flexible set by Norman Coates, most of which (very properly) being the bookshop with its mountains of shelves; Hanff’s cramped bed-sitters take up only a fraction of the space. The outstanding performance, beautifully nuanced and thoroughly three-dimensional, is that of Clive Francis as Doel.

Stefanie Powers’ Hanff gives us the outline of the outsider scrambling a living as script-reader and -writer but somehow the necessary acerbic rasp is missing. Throughout, for me, her performance is too quietly spoken. We laugh at the succession of financial disasters (dentistry and apartment demolition among them) which impede Haff’s chance of visiting London, but somehow it’s at the suggestion of these, not a sense of their reality.

There are strong performances by the other cast members, notably by Rosie Jones as Cecily, who starts her own correspondence with Hanff, and Irene Rambota as Hanff’s actress friend Maxine, who visits the shop while in a play transferred from Brodway to London (with muted box-office success). Hayward B Morse plays Mr Martin, one of those shop fixtures only really appreciated when lost.

This production was premiered at the Salisbury Playhouse last year and marks a move towards reviving in-house produced drama for the Cambridge Arts Theatre. Lee Dean is the co-producer.

84 Charing Cross Road runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 17 September. There are matinées on 8, 10, 15 and 17 September.

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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

Present Laughter

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre Cambridge on 25 July)

One of Noël Coward’s greatest strengths as a writer was his ability to recognise his self-created image for the theatrical construction that it was. Of all the plays he wrote and starred in during the 30s and 40s, Present Laughter most epitomises this. Stephen Unwin’s new production for the Theatre Royal Bath is heading for the West End – and you can see why.

Designer Simon Higlett gives us a marvellously cluttered living-room set with a spiral staircase corkscrewing its way up to the landing dominated by a flattering portrait of ageing matinée idol Garry Essendine (Samuel West). The women’s costumes have just the right period appearance, from Liz Essendine Rebecca Johnson)’s halo hat to Joanna Lyppiatt (Zoe Boyle)’s slinky velvet evening-dress in malevolent dark green.

If West is the star of the show, with a nice line in self-admiration balanced with a sense of his own perpetual posturing, the female actors all make their mark. Phyllis Logan is the crisp secretary Monica Reed, a woman who has seen it all before and who has no intention of playing up to her boss’s moods and tantrums. Johnson’s cool and collected Liz is offset by Boyle’s Joanna, a ruthless predator in pursuit of her own pleasure; her extended second-act exchange with Garry is beautifully paced.

Patrick Walshe McBride is extremely funny as the clumsy would-be playwright fixated on the theatre of the future as the theatre of ideas. Theatre investor Henry Lypiatt and producer Morris Dixon provide Toby Longworth and Jason Morell with contrasting opportunities which they seize readily.

As starry-eyed debutante Daphne Stillington, Daisy Boulton begins the play as a mass of girlish illusions which have let her down by the end of the second act. Theatre and real life always seem to be on a collision course.

Present Laughter runs at the Arts Theatre Cambridge until 30 July with matinées on 28 and 30 July.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 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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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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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

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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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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Clybourne Park

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 13 April)

Bruce Norris’ 2010 play picks up the closing scenes of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun with its Black Younger family about to move to Clybourne Park, a White suburb of Chicago.

Norris’ acerbic tragi-comedy has two stories, one set in 1959 and the other in 2009. Daniel Buckroyd’s new touring production for Colchester’s Mercury Theatre has the packing cases which became so prominent in A Raisin in the Sun lurking on the fringes of Jonathan Fensom’s set.

Only these are for the move of Russ (mark Womack) and Bev (Rebecca Manley); They are the couple who have sold to the Youngers, following a family tragedy. Carl (Ben Deery), having failed to deter the Youngers from their move is now desperate to prevent Russ and Bev – who may be ignorant of the skin colour of the new owners of their house – from completing the sale.

What concerns Carl is a mixture of in-bred racism coupled with a desire to maintain the status quo and to prevent the (as he sees it) inevitable meltdown in value of the whole Clybourne Park development. Deery controls Carl’s increasingly paranoid diatribes as he corrals William Troughten’s church minister Jim and his own pregnant deaf wife Betsry (Rebecca Oldfield) into half-hearted support.

Manley’s portrait of a wife and mother whose whole existence has been thrown out of kilter is equally three-dimensional. Her relationship with her Black maid Francine (Gloria Onitiri) is a brittle one; she values the help but ignores the person. Onitari gives us an apparently quiet, pliable woman with a rich life – a husband Albert (Woie Sawyerr) who excels in a skilled job and three children.

Russ and Bev’s tragedy is revealed slowly, and not fully until the second act. In this Lena (Onitiri) is concerned that the would-be purchasers of her house are proposing radical changes, practically a re-build. Womack’s bitterly authoritative Russ (a man who thinks, feels and suffers) is now transformed into Dan, the sort of workman you probably would be better off not employing.

The dénouement takes us into another dimension, removed from the reaism of everything which has gone before. By this time the audience is thoroughly gripped by the several dramas which have played out before it. This is an ending which was there from the beginning, but we needed to tease it out for ourselves.

Clybourne Park runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 23 April with matinées on 16, 21 and 23 April. The national tour runs until 28 May and includes the Arts Theatre, Cambridge (9-14 May).

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Toast

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 29 February)

All trades have their own peculiar vocabulary. Richard Bean’s Toast, set in a Humberside bread-making factory in the 1970s, is no exception. Bean has based his wry comedy on his own early work experience. This new tour is directed by Eleanor Rhode

James Turner’s set presents us with the rest room where the under-paid men doing boring, repetitive jobs spin out their breaks as far as management allows (and quite a bit further). It’s a weekend night shift, so the bosses are elsewhere; Colin (Will Barton) who somehow manages to combine the oles of union shop steward and stand-in for director Mr Beckett is nominally in charge.

The workers are a motley bunch. There’s Cecil (Simon Greenall) whose physical and verbal banter with his colleagues has a barbed edge and Dezzie (Kieran Knowles) who knows he’s in a dead-end but also that there’s no comfortable way ut of it. Above all there’s old timer Walter (Matthew Kelly), known to the other as Nellie and definitely living on borrowed time.

A student appears – is he just a temporary pair of hands who needs to be shown what to do or is he on a fact-finding mission? Or is he ondeed a student at all? John Wark gives a nicely nuanced study of the fish out of too many different waters. But the play belongs to Kelly, in his detailed characterisation of an old man who knows that he’s a failure yet clings to the vaguest shred of hope that he can still be useful.

Sound designer Max Pappenheim has created a ground-bass of the off-stage ovens, the sound of instrusive noise to which the ear accustoms itself so that the audience, just as the bakers, only notice it when things go drastically wrong. Which they inevitably do. Twice.

Toast runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 5 March with matinées on 2 and 5 March. It also plays at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 28 March and 2 April.

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Cinderella

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 8 December 2015)

It my be one of the priciest Christmas shows on offer, but this year’s Cambridge Arts Theatre Cinderella gives you good value for your money. The script is by Al Morley and Matt Crosby and is directed by David Grindley with choreography by Kevan Allen, costume design by Sue Simmerling and musical direction by John Donovan.

The story follows the traditional path, with a strong pair of almost look-alike Principal Boys in the shape of Laura Barton’s Prince Charming and Jennifer Potts’ Dandini. Both have strong voices as well as playing with just the right source of masculine conviction; you can believe in their heir-to-the-throne and adopted-brother relationship.

Rosemary Ashe makes an engaging Fairy Godmother, a gold-glittering Edna Everage-spectacled fey on the brink of retirement, with a no-nonsense attitude to her magic and the operatically trained voice to go with it. Suzie Mathers is the sweet-voiced, pretty and gentle-natured heroine, though her kitchen-scene dismissal of the love declaration by Steven Butler’s Dandini suggests a streak of ruthlessness.

Her step-sisters are Jusin-Lee Jones (taking over from an indisposed Jonathan D Ellis) as Kim and Daniel Goode as Khloé. Jones is the tall, spiky one (with the longest legs in the business) while Goode plays the tubby would-be-beauty; both are thoroughly nasty, which is just as they should be. Butler, for my taste, never quite achieved the right degree of rapport with the audience which Buttons needs to have. Richard Earl is suitably harassed as Baron Hardup.

Both the adult dancers and the juvenile ones do justice to Allen’s choreography and look well in the colourful palette of Simmerling’s costumes. Cinderella goes to the ball in a shimmer of turquoise crinoline, riding in a coach drawn into the skies by a white winged Pegasus. The effect earned a well-deserved cheer. Magic, after all, is what a pantomime should give its audience – and this one succeeds.

Cinderella runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 17 |January.

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Filed under Pantomimes & seasonal shows, Reviews 2015