Tag Archives: Ipswich New Wolsey Theatre

The Who’s Tommy
reviewed in Ipswich on 6 April

Ramps on the Moon is a six-year regional theatre project dedicated to integrating disabled performers and audiences with mainstream-calibre productions. Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre and its strategic partner Graeae have spearheaded the initiative. The Who’s Tommy is an object lesson in how this can be achieved.

A cast of 22 performers take all the roles, sing, whirl through Mark Smith’s choreography and play the almost through-composed instrumental score under the direction of Robert Hyman. Director Kerry Michael makes good use of Neil Irish’s flexible metallic set and lighting designer Arnim Friess makes the projections, floor light patterns and spotlightng of key incidents as much an important part of the staging as the action itself.

Central to the story is Tommy himself (William Grint) who is voiced by Matthew Jacobs-Morgan and Julian Capolei. Born after the reported death in action (the story begins in 1941) of Captin Walke (Max Runham), he encounters his father first in a traumatic confrontation between his mother Nora and new stepfather Frank (Alim Jayda). Apparently deaf, dumb and blind he is easy prey for playground bully Cousin Henry (Lukas Aleamder) and thoroughly nasty wheeler-dealer Uncle Ernie (Garry Robson). The unpleasant nuances of the latter’s “Fiddling” are cleverly conveyed.

Within Tommy’s mind, his lost father becomes guide and leader – almost as though they were 20th century eqivilents of Hamlet and his father’s mentoring ghost. Nora’s dilemmas are well mimed by Donna Mullings and sung by Shekinah McFarlane. Sign language, mime and movemen throughout are clarified by projected surtitles, which make following the nuances of the story much easier for all audience members.

Almost on Tommy’s wavelength is wheelchair-bound vicar’s daughter Sally (Amy Trigg), though her over-proective parents (Stacey Ghent and Anthony Snowden) precipitate her ultimate disillusion. Peter Straker is a true scene-stealer as the Acid Queen, a gypsy with much more than fortune-telling up her sleeve, bringing the house down with both her numbers, the second one added for this production.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Who’s Tommy continues at the New Wolsey Theate, Ipswich until 15 April with matinées on 12 and 15 April. It then tours nationally until 1 July, including the Nottingham Playhouse between 19 and 29 April.

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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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Worst Wedding Ever
reviewed in Ipswich on 2 March

Weddings last for a few hours, usually involve a great many people and can cost a great deal more than a brand-new car. Marriages are something different, a compact of commitment between two indivduals. The drama of a wedding is a cumulative effect. The drama of a marriage is much more slow-burning.

Originally premiered at the Salisbury Playhouse three years ago, Chris Chibnall’s Worst Wedding Ever has been updated and is now given in a new production by Gareth Machin, the first fruit of a new partnership between the Playhouse, Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre and the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch. Rachel and Scott know what they want – a simple registry office ceremony with just a pub lunch for a few close friends and family.

After all, money will be tight until he finishes his teacher-training and there’s the mortgage on a flat to take into account. But Liz, Rachel’s mother, has other ideas; they involve wedding lists, a lavish church ceremony, a sit-down meal in a marquee, top-of-the-range photography and – of course – a gasp-eliciting wedding dress.

As with any comedy which threatens to tip over into farce (or perhaps even into tragedy), we meet membes of a somewhat disfunctional family. Julia Hills as Liz, the micro-managing mother in question, dominates the action, well contrasted with her husband Mel, to whom Derek Frood imparts a distinctly laid-back quality. Nav Sidhu’s Scott is a young man with principles – and he’s sticking to them.

Elisabeth Hopper’s Rachel is another credible character, knowing what she wants n her heart of hearts, but concerned not to wreck her family in the process. Wrecker in chief is her elder sister Alison (Elizabeth Cadwallader), going through a messy divorce process with Mike (Lloyd Gorman), and matter aren’t helped by Kiernan Hill’s Graeme, a vicar too trendy for anyone’s good. Then Andy (Ben Callon), the son of the family drifts in…

The garden set by James Button has its own surprises, with musicians materialising from some unusual places, not to mention a selection of projections. Machin keeps the action fast and suitably furious, though the script could perhaps be better for a little trimming. There’s a superb coup de théåtre towards the end with a repercussion with is equally unexpected.

Four and a half-star rating.

Worst Wedding Ever continues at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 11 March with matinées on 8 and 11 March. It then transfers to the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch between 15 March and 1 April.

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Northanger Abbey
reviewed at Bury St Edmunds on 3 Feb

in 2017 a teenage girl might well be fixated on manufactured “celebrity” figures as defined by social media or the latest boy-band’s lead heartthrob. Just over two hundred years ago, her thrills came through Gothic romance novels, such as Mrs Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho – full of crumbling ruins, chained skeletons in dungeons, walled-up wailing nuns and savage robber barons.

Jane Austen, herself only 23 when she began Northanger Abbey, pokes delicate fun at the genre – which she herself enjoyed reading, though rather more cynically than her heroine Catherine Morland. This eldest daughter of a loving but financially straitened gentry family is taken to Bath by her rich neighbours Mr and Mrs Allen. There she encounters her brother James, his university friend John Thorpe (and his sister Isabella) and the two childen of irascible General Tilney, Eleanor and Henry.

The Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, itself a Georgian playhouse, has built quite a reputation for stage adaptations of Austen’s novels. Directed by Karen Simpson, this Tim Luscombe adaptation again uses a small cast within Dawn Allsopp’s minimal set, so that the action flows from Bath to Northanger, from curricle travel to hilltop picnics. The first half is even so perhaps just a little too drawn-out. Eva Feiler makes a delightful heroine, deliciously gullible as she weaves her fantasies and grasps at the next excitement on offer until brought back to reality with the proverbial bump.

Neither Thorpe is a particularly pleasant person. Annabelle Terry gives us all Isabella’s selfishness, wiggling out of her engagement to James (Joseph Tweedale) when she finds that he is not due to inherit much money as though she was shrugging off an outdated chemise. Joe Parker is the self-inflated, ego-stroking oafish John. True affection and calm reason by contrast are personified by Harry Livingstone’s Henry Tilney; his is the quiet voice and unobtrusive presence which will finally resolve all to a proper conclusion.

Jonathan Hansler’s martinet of an authoritarian father (one winces for the junior officers he once commanded) lingers almost gloatingly on Catherine’s surname when he thinks she is a potential heiress; “more land!” lies behind the emphasis. There’s a touch of his steel in Emma Ballentine’s Eleanor when she herself manages to marry the man she loves (opposition fades when her bridegroom inherits a title) and pulls rank to allow Catherine a share in the nuptuals. Hilary Tones contrasts Mrs Allen and Mrs Morland quietly but effectively.

Rather than a choreographer as such, the dancing and general Regency-era deportment are by Julia Cave. Rather than a near-balletic sequence of steps, hers are dancing as performed by ordinary people, some better at it than others – just as in real life. Matt Bugg’s score occasionally suggests an ill-tuned fortepiano, again a realistic touch, but softens into something which is completely tuneful but never obtrusive.

Four star rating.

Northanger Abbey runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 11 February with matinées on 8 and 11 February. The national tour continues until 13 May and includes the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 2 and 6 May.

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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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Sinbad

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 29 November)

Trust Peter Rowe and the New Wolsey Theatre to come up with a variation on the traditional pantomime. Sinbad is a story which has somehow slipped from the 21st century repertoire, though it was popular in the 19th. Here Rowe has given it his theatre’s regular rock’n’roll treatment – with some unusual twists.

As one expects nowadays, the heroine is no languishing miss; Pricess Pearl (Daniella Piper) knows exactly what (and who) she wants – and that certainly doesn’t include her father the Caliph (Daniel Carter Hope)’s selection of wealthy magician Sinistro (Dan de Cruz) as her husband. Her put-upon handmaiden Jade (Lucy Wells) is also a lass with a mind of her own.

The trouble for both girls is that sailors are slippery creatures, none more so than Sinbad himself (Steve Rushton) and his bosun (Adam Langstaff). Running away to sea might have seemed an easy option on dry land, but once sails are set… Also on board are Sinbad’s mother Donna Souvlakia (Graham Hent) – no prizes for guessing just which foodstuffs this raucous Dame purveys!

Particularly interesting is the second comic role – Tinbad the Tailor, an erudite nod by Rowe and the excellent Rob Falconer in the direction of James Joyce. He comes close to stealing the whole show with his sly wooing of think-I-can-do-better Donna. Our story-teller is, of course, Scheherezade (Elizabeth Rowe), an engaging dea ex machina.

All three girls sing well, as does Rushton and (when he is finally allowed to let rip) de Cruz. Darragh O’leary’s choreography is of the step, shuffle, turn school, though the eyelash-fluttering dromendary (well, it makes a change from a cow) manages some nifty footwork. Puppets, as New Wolsey audiences now expect, pop up from grave-traps and gaps in the flats; the designer is Barney George.

Sinbad runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 28 January. Check the website wolseytheatre.co.uk for performance date and time details.

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Filed under Pantomimes & other seasonal shows, Reviews 2016

Pride & Prejudice

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 1 November)

It’s the most popular of all Jane Austen’s novels, and this is the second staging to find its way into East Anglia this atumn. Two Bits Classics is a touring company which does just what its title suggests – two actors taking on all the rôles in a dramatisation of a well-established novel.

Joannah Tincy has made the adaptation and also plays most of the women’s roles as well as Mr Bingley. She is partnered by Nick Underwood, who also presents a ferociously imperious Lady Catherine, giggle-prone Kitty and gently languishing Jane. Dora Schweitzer’s outline set – suggestions of chandelier-lit rooms, skewed fireplace and windows, flower-wreathed pergola – is echoed in the pale grey costumes, where a greatcoat fastened becomes a woman’s dress and the side-whisk of a petticoat revals a man’s breeches and boots.

Abigail Anderson is a director with the skills to make the nuances of early 19th century society as natural as those of our own times. I remeber with pleasure her productions of Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice at the Theatre Royal, Bry St Edmunds. This staging builds on that legacy with respect for the text combined with the ability to hold the audience’s attention for the better part of three hours.

Her two actors rise to the challenge, with Tincey switching from Elizabeth to ever-complaining Mrs Bennet with a flutter of a handkerchief, to pliable Bingley and his manipulating sister with a flutter of a fan, from man-hunting Lydia twisting and mouthing a lock of hair to no-nonsense Mrs Gardiner by the addition of an elegant stole. Underwood gives us Mr Bennet with his book and pipe, the unctuous Mr Collins with a biretta, practical Mr Gardiner by the addition of a cravat and, of course, proud and prejudiced Mr Darcy.

Pride & Prejudice runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 2 November with a matinée on 2 November. It can also be seen at thr Marina Theatre, Lowestoft between 3 and 5 November and at the Spa Pavilion, Felixstowe on 11 November.

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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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Made in Dagenham

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 30 August)

This new joint production for the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch and the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich is based on the 2014 musical which in turn was based on the 2010 film. Making stage shows out of cinema favourites is rapidly becoming an industry in its own right, somewhat reversing the older trend to film successful Broadway and West End productions.

It’s an apposite theme for Hornchurch, not too far down the road from Dagenham where the women sewing machinists went on strike in 1968 for equal pay with their male colleagues (their jobs had just been downgraded) and better working conditions. The first night audience picked up the local references with glee; it will be interesting to dicover whether or not the same reactions will apply in Ipswich.

Central to Richard Bean’s book is Rita, a multi-tasking wife, mother and factory worker. Daniella Bowen hits her off perfectly; you warm to the characer as she transforms from being just one of the girls working at a boring job to help the family finances to a woman with a mind (and a voice) of her own. Richard Thomas’ lyrics are witty; David Arnold’s score comes over as a bit relentlessly strident – but Bowen copes admirably.

Alex Tomkins is Eddie, her husband who is really much more at ease joshing with his work mates than being domestically considerate. He too matures as the story progresses, but not to catch up with his wife. The large cast provide amusing sketches, caricatures and cameos of the Ford hierachy, the union bosses at local and national level and the politicians who so reluctantly have to become involved.

These include Claire Machin’s no-nonsense Barbara Castle, Graham Kent’s pipe-chewing, raincoated Harold Wilson, Angela Bain’s loud-mouth machinist (every other word an expletive), Loren O’Dair as the intellectual wife – who rebels against being a mere decoration – of the personnel manager (Jamie Noar) and Jeffrey Harmer’s show-stopping Mr Tooley, the US boss flown in to get things moving his way, a sort of Donald Trump avant le lecture.

In the late 60s and mid-70s, agit-prop theatre seemd to dominate the fringe, both in London and in other conurbations. Douglas Rintou’s production has strong elements of this, reinforced by Hayley Grindle’s bleak set which, with its minimal use of furniture, keeps the action fast-moving. Many of the cast are also instrumentalists, well co-ordinated by musical director Ben Goddard.

Made in Dagenham runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 17 September with matinées on 1, 8, 10 and 15 September. It then transfers to the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 21 September and 15 October with matinées on 22, 24 Septeber, 1, 5, 8, 1 and 15 October.

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Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016

The Preston Bill

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 26 May)

Andy Smith is the writer and performer for this story about a very ordinary man called Bill who lived almost his entire life from 1935 to 2015 in Preston, Lancashire. It’s a verse narrative, which sounds absolutely right for this particular history of Everyman. Smith’s only props are a chair and a ukulele.

We follow Bill’s life from school to factory-floor through National Service and marriage to Edith. They fail to have a family but compensate by their mutual affection, through what would have been called “self-improvement” and for Bill a developing role as a union representative. Made redundant, he finds part-time work before finally retiring.

Edith dies, but he knows that life has to go on. So he studies, takes an Open University degree and lives on until the health problems inherited from his initial working conditions finally crumble him away. A very ordinary life indeed, but one to which Smith gives richness which we – the audience – are allowed to taste and to savour.

The Preston Bill played at the Pulse 2016 Festival towards the end of a national tour. Pulse 2016 continues at various Ipswich venues until 4 June.

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Mmm Hmmm

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 26 May)

This year’s Pulse Festival had an excellent start with the Bristol-based trio of Verity Standen, Ellie Showering and Jannah Warlow. Mmm Hmmm makes full use of flexible and trained voices a cappella as it begins with a harmony of hums with the three performers spotlit in the first of James Mackenzie’s rectamgular pools of light. Hunched forward so that we see only the russet, linden green and indigo draped costumes, it’s as though scavenging birds were indulging in a dawn chorus.

When the performers stand upright, they intersperse the hummed music with stamps, hand claps and body slaps, moving from one light pool to another for each interlude. Words are added, with a quick-fire and crisp delivery that must be the envy of any operatic singer faced with a patter song. There’s an edge to the words, but it is the music which dominates. Those fluid sack-like costumes (Harriet de Winton)also have a role to play.

Standen is the composer as well as director and performer. Her co-performers are more than just on-stage colleagues; hers is not just a piece of song theatre. but an invitation to experience the trivialities as well as the more serious side of life. It has been said of opera that people sing what cannot be adequately expressed by word alone. Mmm Hmmm does that.

Mmm Hmmm opened the 2016 Pulse Festival which runs in Ipswich at various venues until 4 June.

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Lotty’s War

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 3 May)

It’s a very strange sensation to sit in the audience and have some of the indelible moments of one’s own childhood flash up during the play to mark the passage of six years. The six years in question are those of Nazi Germany’s occupation of the Channel Islands. Giuliano Crispini’s Lotty’s War takes place in Guernsey; I was in Jersey, but the Occupation of both islands ran on parallel lines.

Crispini has based his drama on a true story, told in a diary found among papers in St Peter Port’s Priaulx Library archives. On stage we first encounter teenage Charlotte Hervé, known as Lotty (Victoria Emslie) and her friend Ben de Carteret (Matt Ruttle). France has fallen to the German army and Luftwaffe bombers are circling the harbour. Lotty’s father is down on the quayside, overseeing the dispatch of tomatoes to England.

Somehow the British High Command had neglected to announce that the Channel Islands were a demilitarised zone. So the open tomato lorries (which must have looked like munitions trucks from the air) were bombed, with loss of life – including Lotty’s father. She had had her chance to evacuate earlier; now it is too late. Then General Rolf Bernberg (Ian Reddington) arrives to requisition the farmhouse.

Lotty can either leave her home or stay on as the officer’s housekeeper. She stays, and we see the relationship develop from mutual mistrust to something deeper than friendship. Ben on the other hand has no time for passive patriotism; he advocates full-blown resistance. As the Occupation bites deeper – curfews, wirelesses and cars banned, the V-sign campaign, rationing and ID cards, medical shortages, the 1944 Red Cross food parcels – all three are affected. Attitudes harden. There is not going to be a happy ending.

Directors Bruce Guthrie, Carla Kingham and James McAndrew cannot disguise the episodic nature of the script (the short scenes suggest that this might work better as a television or film treatment) and designer Victoria Spearing shows this by the rapid costumes changes for Emslie. Emslie allows us to see the stressed journey to a kind of adulthood which Lotty undertakes.

Reddington conveys the tight-buttoned formality of the career soldier with his Dresden-domiciled family in danger from Allied bombing raids steering a difficult course between duty and despair. Ruttle works hard to make Ben three-dimensional, but the impression remains that this is a type of angry young man, rather than a teenager maturing into a freedom fighter for whom the end will always justify the means.

Lotty’s War runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 7 May with a matinée on 7 May. It can also be seen at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff between 20 and 25 June and at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds between 27 June and 2 July.

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Laila

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 27 April)

It is said that there are only five basic plots from which to construct a story. Young love thwarted by a combination of family, political and cultural pressures is surely one of these. In the West, we probably think of those star-crossed lovers Juliet and Romeo. In the East, there is the story of Laila and Qays.

Laila, the new musical from Rifco in association with the Palace Theatre, Watford and the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch has a fusion score by Sumeet Chopra, played under the direction of Benjamin Holder, lyrics by Dougal Irvine and a script by Pravesh Kumar. Choreography is by Cressida Carré, and is also a fusion of Indian classical and western modern steps and gestures.

The stry begins today, with a young British Asian girl Laila (Mona Goodwin) refusing her father(Ravin J Ganatra)’s injunction to marry the man he (but not she) has selected with due regard to that dangerously nebulous concept of honour. Then we step back several hundred years to a kingdom ruled by a man who has fought his way to his crown and now has a crown prince waiting impatiently for his turn.

Qays (Reece Babia), his father (Surrinder ‘Shin’Singh Parwana) and his cousin are the dispossessed previous ruling family; they are concerned that Qays’ passion for Laila will bring further destruction to them. But love will find a way – particularly young love seeing only black and white, and never the grey nuances so apparent to their elders.

The designer of the sparse set with its billowing drapes transforming from palace pillars to wind-scorched desert to ferocious flood is Libby Watson. There’s a shadow puppet sequence by Matthew Robins which is effective but needs a little more subtlety of manipulation (hands too visible) and atmospheric lighting designs by Philip Gladwell.

Goodwin, Bahia, Parwana and Ganatra are all effective in making their characters live and there’s a nice study of Laila’s maid by Sheena Patel. Sufi singer Asif Raza dominates some of the musical nubers; for my ears, the whole thing is somewhat over-miked, but that seems normal for musicals of all genres nowadays.

Laila runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Watford until 30 April with a matinée on 30 April. It also plays at the Arts Theatre Cambridge (9-14 May) and the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch (17-21 May).

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Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016

Shadowlands

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 15 March)

Some love stories are rooted in place as well as time; they epitomise both. Take William Nicholson’s popular play Shadowlands about the relationship between Oxford academic, writer of children’s novels – such as the Narnia series – and sought-after broadcaster on religious subjects CS Lewis.

Secure in his common room circle, Lewis’ apparently calm existence was disrupted by the advent of American divorcée Joy Gresham and her Narnia-addicted son Douglas. What began as a formal acquaintance matured into affection and, after Gresham’s diagnosis with an incurable illness, love and ultimately marriage.

A church-blessed wedding between a committed Anglican and a Jewish-born, Christian convert divorcée was deemed impossible – at the time. Think about Princess Margaret’s doomed desire to marry Group-Captain Townsend and the furore this evoked, not just within political and ecclesiastical circles.

Alastair Whatley’s new production for Birdsong Productions and the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford has a flexibly realistic set by Whatley and Anne-Marie Woodley which takes us from common room to the house Lewis shares with his brother Warnie to a tea-room and a hospital. Which leaves a great deal up to the performers themselves.

As Gresham, Amanda Ryan presents a sharp-witted (not to say, sharp-tongued) single mother trying to carve out an intellectual life for herself while bringing up two boys. Post-war England seems to offer more satisfactory solutions to her financial and emotional problems than the United States. You believe in her throughout, and long for her lengthening shadows to be lifted.

Balancing this is Stephen Boxer’s quiet but steely Lewis, a man who is more open to the changing world than many of his contemporaries. The moment when he embraces Shannon Rewcroft’s bereaved Douglas as both face up to a Joy-less future is immensely moving. There’s more than one way in which a heart can break; it’s not necessarily a noisy process.

The university’s masculine, not to say misogynist, coven includes Simon Shackleton as the acidic Professor Riley, Jeffrey Harmer as the devout Reverend Harrington and Denis Lill as Warnie, a bull of a man who yet manages to fit tidily into the different Oxford environments.

Shadowlands runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 19 March wih a matinée on 19 March. It can also be seen at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge (23-28 May), the Mercury Theatre, Colchester (4-9 July) and the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (11-16 July).

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The Last Five Years

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 1 March)

Jason Robert Brown’s one-act musical The Last Five Years could be defined as a chamber opera. It’s based on the film of the same name and tells the story of two young people – an aspiring writer Jamie Wellerstein (Chris Cowley) and an equally ambitious actress Catherine Hiatt (Katie Birtill). They meet, fall in love, marry and separate.

Catherine’s story is told backwards, from her reception of Jamie’s letter saying that he’s left her. Her opening lament with its bitter-sweet refrain of “I’m still hurting” suggests her melodic line throughout; there’s occasionally a hint of a waltz during the good times when their lives seem to run on such smooth parallel lines. The characterisation is in the two characters’ musical idioms, hers the more lyrical, his with rather more of a rhythmic rasp.

Brown knows how to write a tune and the five-piece band, perched high above and at the back of the action in James Perkins’ simple but effective multi-location set, sustains the singing actors without ever overwhelming them. Peter Rowe’s direction wisely allows for the basic simplicity of the story – so old, and always so new – to shine.

He’s lucky in his cast. Birtill shows us the fragility of Catherine’s life, as the failure of her marriage is mirrored in the collapse of her career – a sequence of failed auditions. Cowley is a whirlwind of hopes realised, but at a personal cost. His acting out of a Jewish story in front of a decorated Christmas tree is deservedly something of a show-stopper. He knows that he must leave (his part in the story runs forward, not backward), that there is an emotional price for this – and that he accepts its payment.

The Last Five Years runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 11 March with matinée performances on 2, 5 and 9 March.

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Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016

A Raisin in the Sun

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 17 February)

Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play about a Black Chicago family attempting to grope its way out of its cycle of second-class non-success has resonances for modern audiences, whatever their skin colour.Aspiration always needs a foundation.

If widowed Mrs Younger (Angela Wynter) is the lynch-pin of her family – married son, his wife, their son and student daughter – it is the daughter-in-law Ruth (Alisha Bailey) who keeps the family on track in their cramped apartment. Beneatha (Susan Wokama) is as stroppy as only a girl with frustrated ambition can be. Walter (Ashley Zhangazha) sees acquiring a liquor store as the easy path to riches and a new life.

Director Dawn Walton takes the first scenes at a brisk pace, perhaps too much so for an audience unaccustomed to the cast’s accents. Her designer, Amanda Stoodley has created a tour-friendly and realistic box set – you feel how cramped three adults, a teenage girl and a growing boy (his bed is the sofa) must find it.

There is great sincerity in the performances with Bailey in particular creating a real daughter-in-law, wife and mother more or less succeeding in keeping those around her in balance. The catalyst for the drama is the $10,000 life insurance from her late husband; spending it is something on which all Mrs Younger’s family have different ideas.

Hansberry’s ending offers a suggestion of hope, though this is just as likely to be blighted as to materialise. That new home in a hitherto all-White suburb, a new baby for Ruth and Walter, a life in medicine with her Nigerian suitor for Bneatha – will they ever materialise, or will they evaporate as Walter’s shop-owning dream has already done?

A Raisin in the Sun runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 20 February with matinées on 18 and 20 February. It plays at the Palace Theatre, Watford 8-12 March as part of its national tour.

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The Sword in the Stone

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 8 December 2015)

This year’s rock-n’roll Christmas show at the New Wolsey Theatre marks a theme departure by writer and director Peter Rowe. He’s based it on the TH White version of the Arthurian legends The Sword in the Stone which describes how a young foundling developed into King Arthur, with considerable help and tutelage by the wizard Merlin.

We meet the shy, amenable Sprout (a thoroughly engaging Sandy Grigelis) as he comes through boyhood at the castle of Sir Cedric Scuttlebutt (Daniel Carter-hope) and is bullied by Sir Cedric’s clod of a son Kay (Rob Falconer). What’s left of post-Roman Britain is being constantly invaded by barbarian hordes while the seven kingdoms into which it has fractured feud as much within themselves as against what should be a common enemy.

Sir Cedric is in charge of martial training. For the romantic side of chivalry he has engaged Bernadette Broadbottom (a masculine sort of Dam as played by Graham Kent). Also in the household is Guinevere (Lucy Wells), a young lady who takes to action as enthusiastically as to learning how to be an object of courtly desire. Magic is taught by Merlin (Sean Kingsley), whose special concern is for the Sprout, though Guinevere proves herslef to be an apt pupil.

Then there’s fellow magician Morgana Le Fay (Georgina White), gleaming in purple,wielding a magic staff to equal Merlin’s and as ambitious for her thoroughly unpleasant son Mordred (Steve Simmonds) as Sir Cedric is for his. It is the series of combats both mental and physical between these two which really hold the story together.

If you’ve been to an Ipswich pantomime before, you’ll know that the cast play all the instruments – mainly brass and amplified guitars – as well as acting and singing. The noise level is high, only slightly softening for Grigelis’ first act song and the second act duet with Wells. There were many moments when my ears ached for something quieter, and without the double amplification of throat and hand-held mikes.

As is now the custom with pantomimes, one audience member was picked on as the main butt of Kent’ attentions; a second one targeted by Falconer proved less amenable – and who could blame her? This is a gimmick which really should be moth-balled. The excellent set (much use of grave traps) is by Barney George. The dragon guarding the stolen Excalibur is very well done and the animal puppets peeping out from time to time in wood and castle are a delight. The choreography is by Darragh O’Leary.

The Sword in the Stone runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 30 January.

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Filed under Pantomimes & seasonal shows, Reviews 2015

Miss Nightingale

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 1 October)

Last year’s Peter Rowe-New Wolsey Theatre production of the wartime-set musical Miss Nightingale has been re-imagined by the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal artistic director Karen Simpson. Matthew Bugg’s story may have a singing entertainer as its title character but, as one of the numbers makes plain, it’s far more a Mr Nightingale drama.

!942 in London was a frenetic time and place. Bombs were falling, morale could easily have crumbled, refugees sought to find themselves a place of safety (both intellectually and physically) and morals were loosened, though the law was liable to come down heavily on those who transgressed – such as homosexuals.

We meet two of the three main characters in a dim street. Sir Frank (Nicholas Coutu-Langmead) picks up Polish Jew composer and songwriter George Nowodny Conor O’Kane), but the transaction is interrupted. When they next meet it is at an audition by Maggie Brown (Clara Darcy) who her boy-friend and agent Tom Fuller (Christopher Hogben) hopes to place as a star attraction in Frank’s nightclub.

O’Kane’s gives the stand-out performance and his first act number “Meine Liebe Berlin” is the best in the show. You believe in his displacement agony as he contempates the fate of his parents, academics who couldn’t believe that they were vulnerable, and the complexities of his relationships with Maggie, who achieves success as Miss Nightingale, and the ever-more devoted Frank.

Frank and George’s “Mister Nightingale” duet and the quarter which ends the first half are also very effective. I wish I could say the same for Darcy, who has the right sort of gamine spark but somehow fails to radiate the charisma such a cabaret star should surely generate. Hogden makes an effective villain as he sinks into blackmail and Bugg makes a small-scale but credible sketch of Harry, Maggie’s soldier brother. His score is played by the cast, displaying skill with a wide range of instruments

From being not particularly sympathetic through his attempts to balance his three separate worlds to his admission of two quite different but equally sincere types of affection, Coutu-Landmead grows in out understanding. The set by Carla Goodman makes the right sort of tawdry-until-lit impression and is suitably flexible as the action shifts between the various locations.

Miss Nightingale runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 3 October and then tours nationally until 20 February. It can also be seen at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon between 13 and 16 January.

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Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2015

Flare Path

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

Getting the on-stage nuances right for any historical period is a triple effort, shared between director (Justin Audibert in this case), designer (Hayley Grindle) and – above all – the cast. Rattigan’s 1942 drama Flare Path takes place in the lounge of a hotel near an airfield, from which bomber and fighter pilots take off for their nightly flights over Germany. It’s a mission from which far too many will never return.

The officers and senior crew members use it as a sort of club, an alternative to the cramped messes and briefing-rooms of the station. Wives also take up residence, both short- and long-term, to snatch a few precious days with their menfolk. Enter a film star, predatory cockerel in this hen-roost, though with his intentions aimed purely at one particular resident.

This is where the production lets itself down somewhat. Leon Ockenden fails to radiate the tinsel-town alpha male glamour of Peter Kyle – think Clark Gable or Errol Flynn – of the expatriate leading man who is seeing his studio’s reliance on his box-office drawing powers fading rapidly. The girl he wants is actress Patricia Warren (Olivia Hallinan), with whom he has had a passionate on-off affair and who is now married to Fl Teddy Graham (Alastair Whatley, the artistic director of production company Original Theatre).

Whatley makes much of his second-act admission to the terrible effect which the bombing raids are having on him, both for the physical danger he encounters and through the regular loss of men who have become more than usually close comrades. I was less convinced by Hallinan’s posturing; one never quite believed in the character as an actress or in her obvious appeal to two such very different men.

The smaller rôles are well taken, notably by Siobhan O’Kelly as Doris, the barmaid now married to a Polish count who lost his original family to the Nazis and is, understandably, focussed on revenge. Simon Darwen’s Sgt Miller, Philip Franks’ Sq Ldr Swanson and Adam Best’s Count Skriczevinsky are also well-rounded portraits of people as well as of types.

Hayley Grindle’s costumes look right for the clothes and uniforms of the period and her sts is an effective blend of naturalism and symbolism. The central acting area gives us the by now slightly battered lounge, backed by an enormous red-curtained window and with a realistic fire in the footlights-level hearth. But this isn’t a box set, such as Rattigan would have envisaged for the original prodction. Instead it’s flanked by a suggestion of twisted, blackened metal and a bare-branched tree. Dominic Bilkey’s soundscape is almost frighteningly three-dimensional as the aircraft take off – but don’t always land successfully.

Flare Path continues at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 3 October. It also plays at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 19 and 24 October and at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff from 16 to 21 November.

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Sweet Charity

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 8 September)

Happy endings don’t always occur, even in fairy tales. At one level the musical Sweet Charity by Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields, Neil Simon and Bob Fosse is a variation on the Cinderella myth. it is also a wry study of the way in which a woman can be her own worst enemy, something which Peter Rowe’s radical new production for the New Wolsey Theatre emphasises.

The Ipswich theatre is one of those which specialise in actor-musicians, as opposed to using a more conventional pit orchestra. Musical director Greg Last has some good instrumentalists in the acting-singing-dancing performers who keep to the sides of Libby Watson’s deceptively simply framing set when not occupying centre stage.

It is Katie Birtill in the title role of dance-hall hostess Charity Valentine who really dominates. She has the kookiness of the small-town girl who is hopelessly adrift both in New York and in her relationships with the various men she repeatedly views ‘from the off” as The One – only to be let down each time.

The first of these is Charlie, who steal her cash and lets her half-drown in the Central Park lake. Her encounter with film star Vittorio Vidal (Jeffrey Harmer) leaves her less bruised. Harmer has a very good voice as well as the right sort of flamboyant personality; his ballad number is deservedly applauded.

Just before the interval, Charity meets Oscar (James Haggie), an introverted youngish man with acute claustrophobia – just one of his multiple hang-ups. But he’s no Price Charming, not even a Frog Prince. it’s a tribute to Haggie’s performance that the character (as opposed to the performer) was roundly booed at the first night curtain calls.

Choreographer Francesca Jaynes has devised some good routines for Charity’s fellow hostesses – Katia Sartini, Sophie Byrne, Nicola Bryan, Giovanna Ryan, Elisa Boyd and Lindsay Goodhand – as they await their customers and then have to entice them to dance and the stylised movement for the various New Yorkers work very well.

Perhaps, though Rowe uses the space and cast cleverly throughout, the fault in the production lies in the show being tuneful enough but without real stick-in-the-memory show-stopper numbers, “Big spender” and “The rhythm of life” apart. It’s all properly slick with some nice visual touches and good performances, especially that of Birtill, but the only heart in which you can believe is that of Charity herself. And that’s pretty bruised by the end of the evening.

Sweet Charity runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 26 September.

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Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2015