Tag Archives: Colchester Mercury Theatre

Strictly Murder
reviewed in Basildon on 10 May

It’s April 1939. We’re in a farmhouse deep in Provence. Hitler’s rantings and British peace-or-war ditherings can surely have no impact on the lives of English artist and part-time grape-harvester Peter Meredith or his girl-friend Suzy. Josef, who has strayed into their lives as a derelict from the previous conflict and who dosses down in their outbuildings, may have a different reaction.

This 2008 thriller by the late Brain Clemens ratchets up the suspense quite cleverly. Peter (Gary Turner) has no good reason to give Suzy (Lara Lemon) why they don’t marry. As the radio keeps them abreast of what’s happening so rapidly in the wider world, Peter’s suddenly condenses with the arrival of Ross (Brian Capron), a former detective (or is he?), whose cheery manner hides what could turn out to be a lethal purpose.

Clemens’ son Samuel is the director and knows how to paper over cracks in plausibility. He’s aided by Alex Marker’s excellent set and David North’s lighting which reminds us that this farmhouse is dependent on a somewhat tempremental generator. The performances are all good, with Andrew Fettes’ Josef both pathetic and menacing as the war clouds gather and people have to decide where their loyalties lie.

The second act introduces us to Ross’ identical-twin brother – they are well characterised and subtly differentiated by Capron, who rather walks off with the acting laurels. Corinne Wicks is Miriam Miller, another person who is not what she originally appears to be. Suzy, pregnant with Peter’s child, also holds attention as portrayed by Lemon.

Turner has in many ways the most difficult role; it is hard to warm to Peter even before aspects of his past spill out. But it all holds together with conviction during the performance. And that, after all, is the essence of drama.

Three and a half-star rating.

Strictly Murder can be seen at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 23 and 24 May, the Gordon Craig Theatre between 5 and 7 June, the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 8 and 10 June, the Marina Theatre, Lowestoft on 16 and 17 June, the Grove Theatre, Dunstable on 10 and 11 July and the Key Theatre, Peterborough on 10 and 11 September.

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Spamalot
reviewed at Colchester Mercury on 27 April

A musical version of the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail must have seemed slightly strange in 2004, but Eric Idle and his musical collaborator John Du Prez knew what they were doing. Now Daniel Buckroyd has dierected a new production as part of the 2017 Made in Colchester season; a tour is planned.

Eleven performers people the stage with Idle’s recorded Voice of God majestically accompanied by Michelangelo-inspired pointing finger or magisterial foot. The production designer is Sara Perks with costume supervision (there are many quick changes on and off stage) by Corinna Vincent. Carlton Edwards is the musical director for the instrumental quartet.

Most of the cast take on a whole court and army of wildly different characters. Bob Harms as King Arthur, Sarah Harlington as the Lady of the Lake and Dale Superville as Patsy – Arthur’s over-loaded page – are the exceptions. Both Harlington and Harms have well-trained singing voices which carry both notes and words effortlessly across the auditorium and cope featly with Ashley Nottingham’s choreography.

This involves a deliciously ecclectic mixture of styles from country dance to cabaret high-kicks – Sally Firth and Gleanne Purcell-Brown stand out as two showgirls – but the male members of the cast also make the most of the steps they are given. The sets are simple but very effective with imaginative lighting by David W Kidd to make some memorable stage pictures.

Daniel Cane and Matthew Pennington make the most of Sir Robin and Prince Herbert respectively. Other parts are played by Marc Akinfolarin, John Brannoch, Norton James and Simon Shorten – which is not to ignore the Killer Rabbit (think Trojan Horse in pink with floppy ears) and other puppet woodland creatures.

Perhaps a slight word of warning. Personally, I’d be disinclined to sit in row H seat 20 – and be perpared for some chase and search sequences elsewhere in the auditorium. For those of us sitting elsewhere, it proves to be an evening of fun, music and spectacle. I supect that Colchester has a winner on its stage.

Four and a half-star rating.

Spamalot runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 13 May with matinée performances on 29 and 30 April, 4, 6, 7 11 and 13 May. Check the website www.mercurytheatre.co.uk for tour details as these becomr available.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Reviews 2017

Bang Bang
reviewed in Colchester on 3 March

Classic French farce, especially the plays of Georges Feydeau, aren’t easy to translate into English. The words aren’t the problem; rendering Parisian life during the belle époque for a 21st century audience is the difficulty. Take Bang Bang, John Cleese’s version of the little-known Monsieur Chasse!.

The first act establishes the situation. Duchotel (Oliver Cotton) has told his wife Leontine (Caroline Langrishe) that he’s off on yet another hunting trip with his old friend Cassagne (Peter Bourke). When another friend, Dr Moricet (Richard Earl), throws doubt on the nature of her husband’s quarry, Leontine decides that what’s sauce for the gander is definitely sauce for her particular goose.

Act Two takes place in a most peculiar lodging house run by a déclassée countess (Sarah Crowden). Designer David Shields and director Nicky Henson effect a deservedly-applauded scene change before our eyes, as set pieces swivel and furniture is transformed to an infectious waltz (mainly by Sophie Cotton), accompanied by the violin-playing maid Babette (Jess Murphy).

The trouble is that our willing suspension of belief – that sine non quo of all theatre – keeps on being pulled up short by phrases, expletives and even the occasional gesture which destroy our illusion of a vanished past and its society. You certainly can’t blame the cast for this. The actors’ timing is exemplary throughout.

Langrishe swoops and swirls through Leontine’s emotional and moral crises with the precision of an excessively elegant battle-axe. Earl’s Moricet, a physician with seduction on his mind rather than medicine, counterpoints her precisely. Cotton’s increasingly frantic attempts to achieve his aims ar balanced by the efforts of Simon Hepworth’s police inspector to frustrate them.

Also pursuing his own agenda is Duchotel’s nephew Gontran, a born flaneur in Robert Neumark Jones’ portrayal. Bourke has a telling appearance as he arrives in the third act to keep an appointment which is definitely not one of the ones mentioned so far. It’s all fast, furious (in a nice way) and thoroughly farcical. But somehow I feel that Feydeau has been short-changed.

Four star rating.

Bang Bang continues at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 11 March with matinées on 9 and 11 March.

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Hysteria
reviewed at Chelmsford Civic on 7 February

Farce is the bright side of the tragic mask – and vice versa. Take Terry Johnson’s Hysteria, which postulates a meeting between the fathe of psychology Sigmund Freud and surreal painter and sculptor Salvador Dali. The one is Viennese old-school, formal – almost repressed, if that isn’t too much of a contradiction – coming to the end of his life with non-curable cancer, in exile, in Hampstead.

The other is as extrovert in his flamboyant lifestyle as on canvas or marble. He too is an exile, in just as many ways as Freud. Both try to shut out those aspects of the late 1930s which they knw they cannot ameliorate and which are therefore better left to simmer by themselves. But in farce, reality keeps on butting in; for Freud it is persnified by his doctor and friend Abraham Yahuda who sees all too clearly what Kristalinacht is heralding.

All good farces require doors to be locked or flung open at the author’s whim. There should also be a scantily-clad young woman and the development of a whole sequence of situations which the other characters always misunderstand. Enter Jessica, in search of a particular case notebook. The trouble for any director, here London Classic Theatre’s Michael Cabot, is that our perceptions of what are now historical characters and events have changed (I hesitate to say, matured) in the past 24 years.

There’s an excellent set by James Perkins and a real sense of ensemble playing (a prerequisite for farce) from the cast. Ged McKenna is sympathetic, as well as deliberately infuriating, as Freud while John Dorney gives a nuancedly over-the-top portrait of Dali, a many who is not alays sure that he is entirely comfortable in the persona he has created for himself.

Moray Treadwell’s Dr Yahuda comes over as a man who has made a place for himself in this strange country while being actively concerned with the fate of those less fortunate than he. Summer Strallen is a soft-voiced Jessica, which may suit the young woman’s quiet determination to achieve what she so desperately wants, however embarrassingthe situations into which that leads her. But it does put a strain on the audience’s attention, particularly in the first scene.

Three and a half-star rating

Hysteria is at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 8 Febryary and tours nationally until 20 May, including the Key Theatre, Peterborough (7-8 March) and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester (18-20 May).

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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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ShowStopper!
reviewed on 21 Jan at Bury St Edmunds

Showstoppers have hit on a winning formula with its series of carefully crafted improvised plays and musicals. This one, with a full house at the Theatre Royal wholeheartedly entering into the spirit, proved to have the catchy title of God Help Us!.

This plot is a weird concoction marrying elements of The Young Pope, Jerry Springer: the Musical and Tom Lehrer’s Vatican Rag with the audience’s suggestions for musical styles including galley-years Verdi, Carousel, High School Musical, Oliver!, Wicked! and a couple of Lloyd Webber hits thrown in for good measure.

Basically,a man and a woman about to take religious vows find themselves in love. Could be serious stuff, but not handled this way and treading a brilliant path between could-be-one-day fantasy and actual human emotions. Not to mention sexuality.

You’d have to be devoid of humour to take offence at the situations in which Lucy Trodd as Maria, Justin Brett as her on-off suitor Marius, Andrew Pugsley as the Pope and Philip Pellew as the all-purpose Steve find themselves. Not to mention Lauren Shearing’s over-burdened Sister Clara…

Dylan Emery attempts to keep proceedings under control as a harrassed would-be producer desperately trying to sell the idea of a new blockbuster musical to Cameron Macintosh (well, who else?). Simon Scullion has devised an outline, flexible set consisting mainly of screens and benches in scarlet and black.

There’s an equally ecletic range of costumes and props by Gabriella Slade. Instrumental accompaniment is provided by Duncan Wesh Atkins at the keyboard and Alex Atty with a whole range of percussion, while the nifty choeographic consultancy comes from Donna Berlin, though I suspect that the cast know precisely what’s required for the storyline and situations.

Four star rating.

ShowStopper!: The Improvised Musical is at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 9 and 11 February and at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 18 and 19 February as part of a national tour running until 23 April.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Reviews 2017

Dick Whittington

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 3 De ember)

 

The book for this year’s Mercury pantomime is by Fine Time Fontayne and the theatre’s arttistic director Daniel Buckroyd, who is also responsible for the staging. Both the sets and scene drops are by David Shields; his costumes are colourful with some marvellously over-the-top wigs for Antony Stuart-Hicks’ Sarah the Cook. Stuart-Hicks has a flirtatious way with the audeince, suggestive of high camp but always remembering the younger members of the audience.

Two theatre favourites are in the cast – Dale Superville as Idle Jack and Ignatius Anthony as Rayy King, a tycoon with a novel approach to rodent recycling and designs on the London mayoral dignity. Fairy Bow-Bells (Barbara Hockaday) needs all her magic to keep his amibitions in check. Fortunately naîve country-boy Dick (Glen Adamson) has his own aide, in the shape of Gracie Lai’s zebra-striped black-and-white Thomasina, indeed a moggie with attitude.

Grace Eccle makes a charming Alice with Richard Earl bumbling around in his spice emporium as Alderman Fitzwarren. Three hallowed gag scenes – cake-making in the kitchen, “The twelve days of Christmas” and the bench ghost – are all given a novel twist (I won’t spoil their impact by describing these – find out for yourself!) and Charlie Morgan’s choreography makes a real impact. Musical director Richard Reeday provides some sympathetic accompaniments.

Jack and the Beanstalk runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 8 January. Check the theatre website (mwrcurytheatre.co.uk) for performance times.

 

 

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Filed under Pantomimes & other seasonal shows, Reviews 2016

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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Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016

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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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

Private Lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

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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Flare Path

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 2 March)

The co-production between the Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions of Terence Rattigan’s Second World War drama Flare Path has been recast for its 2016 tour. Slipping a new cast into a production designed for a different set of actors is often an illuminating process.

Justin Audibert’s staging is straightforward with a semi-realistic set and costumes by Hayley Grindle. The min plot revolves around Flight Lieutenant Graham (Daniel Fraser), his actress wife Patricia Warren (Hedydd Dylan) and her former love film star Peter Kyle (Lynden Edwards). We are in the main reception room of a hotel near the air-base where the bombers and their crews are based.

The sub-plot concerns a Polish Flying Officer Count Skriczevinsky (William Reay) who seeks vengeance on the Nazis who killed his wife and children. He has remarried, a good-hearted former barmaid called Doris (Claire Andreads); theirs is a complex relationship and whether or not it will survive the end of hostilities is left open to individual interpretation.

Edwards makes the (now fading) screen heart-throb into a man who is outwardly assured but inwardly both needy and selfish. Fraser makes much of the big, ultimately very moving scene where Graham returns from an operation and admits the strain under which this puts him to his wife. Dylan and Andreadis both bring their characters to life and there’s an abrasive cameo of the hotel proprietor Mrs Oakes by Audrey Palmer.

There is comedy as well as drama in Flare Path, mainly provided by Sergeant Miller (Jamie Hogarth) and his wife Maudie (Polly Hughes). Reay for my taste doesn’t quite fit into Skriczevinsky’s boots; he plays for laughs which seem at odds with the driven essence of the man.

Flare Path runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 5 March with a matinée on 5 March. It also plays at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester 7-12 March.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

End of the Rainbow

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 18 February)

There’s some part of most of us, if we’re honest, which revels in schadenfreude – in the theatre just as much as in other forms of life. Peter Quilter’s 2011 play about Judy Garland’s last, disastrous London season has been given a new production by the Mercury Theatre’s artistic director Daniel Buckroyd which launches itself on a major national tour between 22 February and 9 July.

We’re in a luxurious hotel room booked by Garland’s new manager (and soon-to-be fifth husband) Mickey Deans. Awaiting them is her long-time accompanist Anthony Chapman. Deans needs to keep her away from drink and pills, or he can see financial disaster ahead for the booked-out Talk of the Town performances. Chapman wants her to find some balance in her future life.

Basically a three-hander, the spotlight inevitably is on the actress who plays Garland. For me, Lisa Maxwell only seemed to arrive in the part with the first cabaret appearance. It’s as though she is trying too hard to inhabit the skin rather than the soul of her character. The scenes of pill-fuelled disintegration are well done, though the heart of the play remains in the exchange with Chapman when he suggests an alternative future.

Gary Wilmot makes Chapman thoroughly credible, as the gay man who accepts that his life cannot be as open as he would perhaps prefer but has understanding and practical compassion to spare. Sam Attwater makes no attempt to ply Deans for sympathy but allows you to appreciate how a rag-bag of emotions and motivations drive him. But there never is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

End of the Rainbow runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 20 February with a Saturday matinée. It also plays at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds 31 May-4 June.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

Aladdin

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 5 December 2015)

The Mercury’s director Daniel Buckroyd has co-written the script for this year pantomime Aladdin with Fine Time Fontayne. Buckroyd has ensured that there are some new elements to the familiar story. For example, Abanazar (Ignatius Anthony) is a disgruntled revenge-seeking former court magician and Wishee Washee (Dale Superville) is undergoing work experience with the palace police (Laura Curnick as Pong and Simon Pontin as Ping).

Curnick and Pontin also play the beehive-headed Spirit of the Ring and a magisterial Genie of the Lamp respectively. Superville is a Mercury audience favourite and quickly has the audience on his side. Antony Stuart-Hicks makes a commanding if slightly abrasive Widow Twanky as she tries to keep dreamy apple-scrunching Aladdin (Glenn Adamson) in check. Tim Freeman is the Emperor.

As heroines go, Sarah Moss makes Princess Jasmine a girl with sirit. Once she wriggles out of the paper-bag which her father insists she wears to hide her beauty from the common folk, she sets about getting her own way in no uncertain terms and proves a far more dangerous opponent for Abanazar than Aladdin manages to be.

Musical director Richard Reeday has a nice way with tunes both familiar and unfamiliar – “Three little maids from school” is particularly enjoyable in its new context. Juliet Shillingford’s designs and Charlie Morgan’s choreography are attractive and keep the action flowing. There is a real sense of characterisation and commitment to the performances; this is a pantomime for both the youngest and the oldest theatre-goers.

Aladdin runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 10 January.

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Filed under Pantomimes & seasonal shows, Reviews 2015

Parkway Dreams

(reviewed at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich on 2 September)

Inspiration for a musical can come from some odd places, but Eastern Angles’ artistic director Ivan Cutting is probably correct when he suspects that Parkway Dreams is the first to take town planning as a theme. Newly revised and about to launch itself on a national tour, this is an altogether tauter show than in its previous incarnation.

The story revolves around the evolution of Peterborough, when the then Ministry of Town and Country Planning – seeking to solve the post-war housing crisis – latched upon the ideas of garden city movement pioneer Ebenezar Howard (unlike most theorists, Howard’s vision had actually translated into reality, in the shape of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities).

Selected for one of these overspill schemes was the ancient cathedral city of Peterborough, known to the Romans and housing the tomb of Catherine of Aragon. We follow the dispute and Council wranglings as consultant planner drew up his draft plans and gradually won support. Robert Jackson makes him a sympathetic visionary, not the easiest type of character to pull off.

A fictional human story is introduced with Jack (Matt Ray Brown) and his wife Mary (Polly Naylor). They’ve been bambed out of their London home, jobs for de-mobbed ex-servicemen are thin on the ground and they both want a better future for their son Peter. Not that new-build Peterborough is all sweetness and light, for all its grassy spaces, educational opportunities and leisure facilities. Factories, even new ones, do close and have to lay-off staff.

“The Peterborough Effect” goes the slogan and turns into the best musical number in Simon Egerton’s score. The fast-moving script is by Kenneth Emson, based on eye-witness testimony treated by him and Cutting with just the right lightness of touch. Documentary theatre this may be, but it manages to wear that pedigree with carefree aplomb. Charlie Cridlan is the designer with Robert Hazle (who has a nice sideline in politicians of various hues) is the musical director.

Parkway Dreams
runs at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich until 7 October. The tour takes in Harlow Playhouse Studio (15-16 October), Braintree Arts Theatre (17 October), Hemel Hempstead Arts Centre (20 October), the Tameside Theatre, Thurrock (21 October), the Luton Hat Factory (22 October), the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester (23-24 October) and the Weston Auditorium, Hatfield (26 October).

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Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2015

The Smallest Show on Earth

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 30 September)

Ah, but is it? I don’t think so. This stage version of the much-loved 1957 film has a total cast of 14 and a deceptively scaled-down set. But The Smallest Show on Earth integrates a host of Irving Berlin numbers, some ferociously energetic choreography by Lee Proud and a script and direction by Thom Southerland which captures the essence of the period without ever seeming to be a pastiche.

David Woodhead’s settings – complete with some highly ingenious location shifts, and costumes, beautifully detailed down to the seams in the stockings and skirt lengths – take us from London to provincial small-town in a fashion which mirrors the interior journey of the two main characters.

These are young husband and wife Matthew and Jean Spenser (Haydn Oakley and Laura Pitt-Pulford). He’s a would-be script-writer, she’s the rock for their relationship. The story concerns his inheritance from a dimly remembered great-uncle of the run-down Bijou Kinema, formerly a music-hall. Locally it’s usually referred to as “the fleapit”.

It is Pitt-Pulford who is the real star of the show, though she has a runner-up in the shape of Christina Bennington as Marlene Hardcastle, the thoroughly pleasant daughter of the thoroughly unpleasant Ethel and Albert Hardcastle (Ricky Butt and Philip Rham). Actually, she’s Mrs Hardcastle’s step-daughter, as this troublesome go-getter never ceases to remind everyone.

Then there’s Matthew Crow as the (very) junior solicitor Robin Carter, with twinkling toes and a delicious line in high camp and drag. The two other character parts are former silent-movie pianist, now box office “manager”, Mrs Fazackalee (Liza Goddard) and the cantankerous projectionist Percy Quill (Brian Capron). Capron grows Quill into a real human-being but, for me, there was an edge of eccentricity lacking in Goddard’s performance.

Mark Aspinall’s six-person band lurks right at the back of the stage, only to be revealed – and deservedly applauded – at the curtain-calls. The Mercury audience was genuinely enthusiastic. So, I suspect, will be audiences around the country when The Smallest Show on Earth launches itself on tour in 2016leaves Colchester for a national autumn tour.

The Smallest Show on Earth runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 10 October.

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James and the Giant Peach

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 15 August)

Roald Dahl’s story in the David Wood adaptation is a perennial favourite with young audiences. Older children and family members can also enjoy this clever new staging by Matthew Cullum in which the design elements by Tina Bramman, the lighting by Mark Dymock and the music by Grant Olding play an equally important role.

The audience is fully involved, with chases through the auditorium, passing a huge peach-coloured beach-ball to and from the actors and responding to the string, woodwind, brass and percussion instruments adeptly handled by the cast. There is a clever use of puppetry, with a voracious seagull a clear favourite and a slightly spooky scarecrow man (who gives James the magic seeds) vying with a brace of sea-monsters for second place.

James Le Lacheur is a likeable and credibly boyish James, assisted in his escape from his horrible aunts Sponge and Spiker by insect friends. Josie Dunn is the Cossack-style Miss Spider, Dale Superville the slightly boastful Centipede and Peter Ashmore the suave fiddle-playing Grasshopper. Then there’s Kate Adams’ Miss Marple of a Ladybird, Matthew Rutherford’s lugubrious Earthworm and Barbara Hockaday as just about everyone else.

This production is one in artistic director Daniel Buckroyd’s Made in Colchester season. At a time of year when most theatres in East Anglia are occupied with more adult, even florid, fare a long run for a family-friendly show is to be welcomed. And this is a very good one.

James and the Giant Peach continues its run at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 30 August.

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Christine: The Musical

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

It’s one of the defining photographs of the 1960s – the 20-year old Christine Keeler astride a black plywood chair. The whole murky tangle of high living and low morals, of drug-dealing, cold war espionage which n the end wrecked a Ministerial career and several lives is a familiar one, though books, stage shows and film.

There’s however something subtly different about Tony Franchi and Marion Wells’ musical take on the story. In 16 short scenes we are taken from the teenage Christine’s first foray into London nightlife to the luxury of the Cliveden estate and the traumas by the Old Bailey courtroom. Lindsay Lloyd’s direction uses projections, a minimum of furniture and some nifty choreography by Irene Lincoln to keep the story as lively as the events it unfolds for us.

What’s more, it has tunes. Real catchy tunes put over with aplomb by the 14-strong cast and six-piece stage band under John Chillingworth. “Pops” Murray’s introduction to the world of cabaret switches effortlessly between 3/4 and 2/4 time to notable effect. “Make love not war” is another near-show-stopper, as is “Vodka”, the pseudo-Russian number for Ivanov, the Soviet attaché.

Originally premièred at Colchester’s Headlong Theatre, these performances form part of the Lights Up! festival, the Mercury Theatre’s own new showcase for local dramatic and musical talent.

Lights Up! continues at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 12 July.

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Two new arts festivals

East Anglia at times seems to be bubbling over with arts festivals. No sooner as Pulse subsided in Ipswich than along comes Lights Up! at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 17 June and 12 July.

This is designed to showcase new and developed work from drama and other students as well as some of the town’s established amateur companies.Come Fly With Us opens proceedings from 17 to 20 June and is succeeded on 25 and 26 June by Christine: The Musical, Tony Franchi and Marion Wells’ take on Christine Keeler’s story; this was successfully premièred by CTM Productions a couple of years ago at Headlong Theatre.

A mixture of poetry, choral singing and instrumental music presented by the Colchester branch of the Royal British Legion pays tribute to the dead of the First World War on 27 June – Emortuus – The Fallen. The next day a cast of over 70 children and teenagers from the Theatrical Performing Arts School offer Peter Pan in the musical version by Jimmy Jewell and Nick Stimson.

21 years of the Lorraine George School of Dancing & Performing Arts is celebrated between 3 and 5 July with Summer Showtime ’15. A Mercury Studio success from last year, Stage Write’s Living With Luke, is a powerful study of a father trying to cope with an autistic son; catch it on 8 July. 9 July offers an evening of contemporary folk and blues from Laburnum Bridge with Ramon Goose and Adrian Nation.

Senior students from Theatre Fun Academy perform the new musical Milenka on 11 July. It follows the adventures of two young friends with a travelling theatre and some not-quite-ordinary marionettes. The appropriately titled End of Year Show from Stagecoach Chelmsford brings Lights Up! to a close on 12 July. Ticket prices range from £10 to £15, with concessionary discounts available.

Imagine Watford and Watford Live have, up to now, been separate celebrations for the twon. Now they have combined as The Big Festival, which runs between 20 June and 5 July. It will mix Watford Live’s promotion of local people’s artistic talent (everything from guerilla knitting – no, I haven’t come across this before either – to live music) with Imagine Watford’s kaleidoscope of international street theatre.

The Watford Colosseum is presenting Listen from 2 to 4 July. This involves music machines, sound installations and some rather surprising performances. The public are invited to play and roam as well as listen; it’s the brain-child of Graeme Leak. Care {20-21, 23-28 June) from Tangled Feet is the first of Imagine Watford’s presentations; The Strange Travel of Senyor Tonet follows (25-30 June).

Look our also for the Watford Society circus workshop on 27 June, Circus Raj and Lucas Jet Circus – both on 2 July, the aerial crane piece K@osmos by Puja! on 2 July, Citizen Squid from Puppets With Guts (3 July) and The Monotone Man (3 and 4 July), a Human Zoo Company creation. The outdoor performances are held on The Parade and the vast majority are free to watch and enjoy.

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Little Shop of Horrors

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 29 May)

“Don’t feed the plants!” warns director Gareth Machin in his introduction to this new staging of the Howard Ashman-Alan Menken musical, a shared production between the Mercury Theatre and Salisbury Playhouse. As Audrey II (made by Accord Stage Works and frighteningly well manipulated and voiced by Andrew London and Leon Craig respectively) swells to take over James Button’s set, one definitely takes the point.

It’s strongly cast as well. Ben Stott is the shy, be-spectacled flower-shop assistant Seymour who creates Audrey II, names it for his colleague (Frances McNamee), who is in an abusive relationship with leather-clad dentist Orin (Jez Unwin) and finds himself its slave – Audrey II being distinctly carnivorous.

You sympathise throughout with Stott as well as with McNamee, whose voice is admirably suited to the lyricism of her numbers, notably “Somewhere that’s green”. Unwin is thoroughly unpleasant as Orin, which is just as it should be. Simeon Truby seizes his school of Fiddler on the Roof moments, especially in “Mushnik and son” (the five-piece band is led by Richard Reeday).

There’s an effective trio of Skid Row street kids – Gbemisola Kumelo, Karis Jack and Carole Stennett – who act as a sort of chorus as the tragedy (which it fundamentally is, for all our laughter) reaches its climax. The finale, with the trio and Audrey II meal victims high above the acting area and transformed into clones, emphasises this. Game, set and match to Audrey II, I fear.

Little Shop of Horrors runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 13 June.

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