Tag Archives: Palace Theatre Watford

Miss Meena & the Masala Queens
reviewed 9 May in Watford

“I am what I am” is the central theme of Harvey Virdi’s new play with integral music an dance for Rifco which premiered at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 9 May at the start of a national tour. The theme could be reckoned a controversial one regardless of the ethnic and cultural background of the characters, for its inspiration derives from the British Asian drag queen and LGBTQ communities.

Families – of many sorts – are at the heart of the story. The main character is Abdul, working name Meena (Raj Ghatak), who walked out on his Pakistani father and mother when they refused to accept either his homosexuality or his adoption of a female persona. Now he runs a club in the Midlands with self-interested help from Munni (Jamie Zubairi) and still mourns the loss to AIDs of his life partner. Into the club wander embryonic drag-act Pinky (Vedi Roy) and Preetho (Harvey Dhadda).

Then student Shaan (Nicholas Prasad) turns up. He also has left home and is something of a lost soul; he needs a father-mother figure, a career an an identity. Meena is prepared to help, remembering a bitter past, and Pinky and Preetho are willing to assist. Munni, with a tame councillor in tow (Ali Ariale doubles Kabir and Ranjeet – Meena’s conformist brother) sees possibilities. Financial as well as sexual politics come into play.

Offstage, Meena and Ranjeet’s father is dying. But Meena backs out of making the phone call which might set the father’s mind at rest until it’s too late. Unusually for plays which come into the “special pleading” category, this one has fully rounded characters, so that we can emphasise with the dilemmas which they face. Pravesh Kumar’s direction keeps the action on the move, aided by Libby Watson’s set which switches effortlessly from the tawdriness of a run-down club to the glitter and glamour of a successful one.

Composer Niraj Chag and movement diector Andy Kumar, who also designed the Indian dance costumes, keep our eyes and ears engaged with the ambiance created; Mark Dymark’s lighting, one might say, is spot-on. The first night audience embraced the concept whole-heartedly; I hope this is an omen for the rest of the tour. The main thing is that you need neither to be British Asian nor a drag-act aficionado to enjoy this show.

Four and a half-star rating.

Miss Meena & the Masala Queens runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 13 May before touring nationally until 17 June. There are matinée performances on 11 and 13 May.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Reviews 2017

Beauty and the Beast

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 8 December)

This year’s seasonal production boasts another of Andrew Pollard’s intelligently ear-engaging scripts; this time he and director Eleanor Rhode have tweaked the familiar story to produce what one might describe as pared-down panto. The format works very well, with a predominantly schools audience at the performance which I saw being thoroughly engrossed in the story’s nuances.

We’re in fin de siècle Paris. Spice merchant M Marzipan (Neil Stewart) needs to replenish his stock of sugar urgently, but he lacks the cash to do so until his ship (literally) comes home. In the meantime his younger daughter Soufflé (Jill McAusland) is spending money at luxury boutiques regardless, while his sister Amorette (Arabella Rodrigo) has her nose in a book most of the time.

Also in need of sugar is sweet-vendor Betty Bonbon (Terence Frisch) – you are going to learn quite a lot of French when she’s on stage. Frisch is an experienced Dame, one who knows just how to milk an audience, whatever its age group. Stewart plays well off him, notably in the second-act slop scene – well, you try making a sugarless cake! The point is that the majority of the characters come over as people, not just types.

Manipulating the action is the nasty Spite (Hollie Cassar), a witch of the first water who can put over a nifty tap-dance as well as her songs. Trying to counter her is Charlie Cupid (Dale Mathurin), a demi-god who would rather be an ordinary mortal. As I said, there are novel twists in this version of the story. Cursed by Spite, it’s no wonder that Robbie Smith’s Beast has grown morose and vengeful.

Cleo Petitt’s sets and costumes work well, with slightly distorted angles to the Beast/Prince’s castle and a clever black-theatre sequence when Marzipan and Bonbon find themselves at the castle, thanks to Cupid. This tytpe of staging proves that you don’t necessarily need a song-and-dance ensemble or a juvenile troupe to fill the stage. After all, theatre is magic – and when more so than at Christmas?

Beauty and the Beast runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 312 January. Check the theatre website (watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk) for performance times.

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Filed under Pantomimes & other seasonal shows, Reviews 2016

Arms and the Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

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

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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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

Poppy+George

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 16 February)

Poppy+George? It sounds like an equation with a positive outcome. Poppy-George? That sounds altogether more negative. Poppy? George? This suggests two people each going on a separate path, that might – or might not – coincide. Diane Samuels’ latest play poses more questions than it offers solutions.

It’s 1919. The war to end all wars has ground to a formal halt, though its repercussions reverberate internationally. The location is London, in a tailoring-costumier workshop run by Smith (Jacob Krichefski), an emigré Russian Jew. He caters, among others, for female impersonator Tommy Jones (Mark Rice-Oxley) and society chauffeur George Sampson ((Rebecca Oldfield).

Fresh from the north of England with a determination to forge a new and proper life for herself comes Mary Louisa Wright (Nadia Clifford), a bright lass who prefers to be called Poppy. She learns to hold her own with both Smith and Jones – but with George? Their relationship, how it blossoms and how it withers, makes the drama.

You can’t fault the acting or the production values. Rice-Oxley takes you to the heart of music-hall as well as the fall-out from service in the trenches. Oldfield makes a marvellously androgynous George, well in with his employers and ambitious to become a racing driver. Krichefski convinces as the footloose man with too many pasts who still holds to the possibilities of the future – somewhere, somehow, sometime.

Clifford makes embryonic suffragette Poppy a girl who knows that her new path will probably be a rocky one (so different from the conventionality of her home background and the lifetime of service which is all it can offer). She wants honesty, not make-believe whether of the theatrical, fashion or intimate relationship types. There will be a price to pay, however.

Designer Ruari Murchinson has raked the stage steeply and produced a variety of costumes and fabric rolls to surround the actors. Director Jennie Darnell keeps the whole thing on the move in a valiant attempt to make this a play about human beings and not just types. Composer and sound designer Gwyneth Herbert adds a haunting accompaniment which echoes both the jollity and the sentimentality of popular music of the period.

Poppy+George runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 29 February with matinées on 18, 20, 25 and 27 February.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

Dick Whittington

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 11 December 2015)

Andrew Pollard is the author of this year’s home-grown pantomime at the Palace Theatre, Watford. In one sense, this Dick Whittington is a pared-down production with a total cast of seven and a three-piece led by musical director Andy Ralls band perched high above Cleo Pettitt’s bright sets. But that doesn’t mean that we feel in the least bit short-changed.

Our hero is played by Joseph Prwen, escaping from Watford (where else?) and his domineering mum (Terence Frisch as Mrs Whittington) in search of fame and the fortune suggested by the myth of London’s gold-paved streets. London has been taken over by rats as the drop curtain makes clear. You can pick out Currant Cakey’s Globe Theatre, the down-river HP Sauce Bridge and the new National Rail Planning HQ (formerly the Tower of London).

Dick encounters a stray Tabby Cat, to whose feline features Aveta Chen’s delicate oriental face is admirably adapted. Her gestures are in keeping as she mimes, dances and rat-catches her way into Alderman Fitzwarren (Walter van Dyk)’s cheese emporium. Dick has by this time fallen head over heels with free-spending Alice Fitzwarren (Jill McAusland). No wonder Fitzwarren is running out of money as well as stock.

You don’t want to meddle with Erica Guyett’s Queen Rat. A thoroughly piratical person for whom apparently Fairy Bowbells (Arabella Rodrigo) is no match. One thing which this type of pantomime allows is a deeper development of each character than is often the case, and director Brigid Larmour allows proper space for this. So Dick changes gradually from someone to whom things happen to a person who solves problems.

Frisch plays one of those no-nonsense types of Dame, from the first lollipop lady entrance onwards. There’s more to van Dyk’s alderman and his relationship with the daughter he loves but who also irritates him than we are usually allowed to fathom. Not that the traditional gags are missing; the ghost scene involves a white rabbit (Welsh rarebit) and the song-sheet is, most appropriately, “Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner”. The silver and salmon costumes for the walk-down look gorgeous.

Dick Whittington runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 2 January.

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Filed under Pantomimes & seasonal shows, Reviews 2015

Coming Up

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 14 October)

I remember Neil D’Souza’s first play A Small Miracle from its Colchester production a few years ago. it was a quirky exploration of pilgrimage, longing and just a couple of things which cannot easily be explained away by rationality. Coming Up also deals with longings, journeys both mental and physical and quite a few inexplicable things. The title refers to an India catch-phrase signifying social mobility and the ladder of success. Ladders, as everyone who has ever played a board game knows, also have snakes.

We are in India, a time-shift country in more senses than one. The action takes place partly in present-day Mumbai, now a thriving economic hot-spot – at least, if you’re on the top of the go-getting heap. We are also, frequently at the same time, in rural Mangalore between 1938 and 1943 as well as in a narrative time limbo. Director Brigid Larmour, movement director Shona Morris and designer Rebecca Brower have eschewed naturalism for a fluidity which is neither wholly Indian nor completely Western.

D”Souza plays Alan Lobo, a middle-aged British Asian now successful in business, and ruthless with it. He’s in Mumbai to see if shifting his enterprise to the Philippines will be worthwhile; it’s all down to the bottom line. He has also taken the opportunity to visit his aunt Alice (Goldy Notay) and renew his boyhood friendship with her son Daniel (Mitesh Soni). The names tell you that this is a Christian family.

Clambering to the top in business often has to be a ruthless, single-minded affair. Alan’s casualties include his estranged father Jacob (Ravin J Ganatra as the older man, Notay as a boy), Alan’s wife Anya and his call-centre manager – and occasional mistress – Hanna (Clara Indrani). Christian India may have said that it ignored the caste system, but the Lobo family’s status as mere farm labourers automatically relegate him to the bottom of the heap, even as an altar boy scrubbing latrines rather than attending class.

The two priests of Pezar parish are the authoritarian, not to say sadistic and libidinous, Fr Mendoza (Ganatra) and the twoo-soft-for-his-own-good Fr Alvares (Soni). Ganatra takes on the part of Ghalib, Alan’s Mumbai driver. Indrani additionally plays teacher Mrs Pereira, the thoroughly unpleasant cook who torments young Jacob and a sinuous man-eating tiger who prowls through both his dreams and his reality.

It may all sound incredibly complicated, but this style of staging allows the action to flow and the changes in location to evolve without physical scene changes. A sari, androgynous shirts and loose trousers switch Indrani and Notay effortlessly between rôles and sexes; a crucifix or stole marks the priest from the layman. The acting is uniformly good and Arun Ghosh’s soundscape makes fine use of the Schubert “Ave Maria”.

Coming Up continues at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 24 October.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015

Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern

(reviewed on 25 September – preview)

The 1712 trial of an elderly widow living in the Hertfordshire village of Walkern is often seen as England’s last witchcraft trial. It’s not, but the story – as told in Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play premièred at the Palace Theatre Watford before a national tour lasting into 2016 – remains a gripping one.

Lenkiewicz has taken a dramatist’s licence with her characters, though her fictional Rev Samuel Crane is just as fanatical and unpleasant as the real-life Rev Francis Bragge and mixed-up teenager Ann Thorn is as disturbed as her factual counterpart Anne. Designer James Button uses a suitably earth-colour palette, while director Ria Parry uses the flexibility of the settings to keep the story swirling as it should do.

We join the story just after Ann (Hannah Hutch) has seen her own mother hanged for witchcraft. the women of the village are sympathetic enough, but the older ones feel vulnerable. Ann is to be taken into the household of a bishop Francis Hutchinson (David Acton), suffering an enforced sabbatical from his Irish diocese, who is himself viewed with suspicion by the locals. This is acerbated by his housekeeper Kemi Martha (Cat Simmons) being a nubile negress.

If Hutchinson is the voice of enlightened Christianity, Crane (Tim Delap) is from the Matthew Hopkins mould; he is determined to root out witchcraft, country beliefs and pastimes. He has already successfully prosecuted Eleanor Thorn, now his sights are set on Jane Wenham (Amanda Bellamy) – who has already suffered interrogation under torture when accused some years earlier.

Jane is understandably bitter, trapped as she is in a backwoods rural location where her solitude, the leg which has never healed after the torture and her hard-learned skills with herbs is as feared as used by her neighbours. She finds Ann troubling as the girl veers from ingratiating herself where she sees a possible advantage and almost hysterical despair; this is very well portrayed by Hutch.

The most sympathetic characters, other than Hutchinson and itinerant farm labourer Fergal (Andrew Macklin), are the local inn-keeper Widow Higgins (Rachel Sanders) and Kemi. Sanders also doubles Bridget Hurst, a baby-farmer whose daughter Effie’s drowning sparks the full fury of the witch-hunt. Simmons plays an intriguing character, both caring for and resentful of her complex relationship with Hutchinson, whose hummed and softly sung settings of Donne poems (Max Pappenheim is the composer) act as a sort of Greek chorus for the action.

I suspect that most theatre-goers will find it difficult not to draw parallels with Miller’s The Crucible, also a play about suspected witchcraft and the savage hysteria it generates. Lenkiewicz’s play is perhaps more strident in its characterisation of the accused and the accusers, and there is a distinct 21st century air to it. But all writers of historical drama filter the past through their own contemporary lens. In some ways 1712 is distant. In others, it’s chipping away at our own sense of perhaps too complacent 2015 security.

Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern plays at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 3 October and then tours Essex and Suffolk until 17 October. It also visits the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (21-24 October), the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool (27-31 October), the Tobacco Factory, Bristol (3-7 November), the Salisbury Playhouse (10-14 November) and the Arcola Theatre, London (5-30 January).

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015

Care

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 24 June)

We all know that the National Health Service, that cornerstone of British well-being since the end of the Second World War, is in crisis. What to do about it seems to be up to the politicians and the financiers with the views and experiences of its practitioners and patients apparently taken into rather less account.

Hence Care, the latest Tangled Feet production, which is part of Watford Big Festival and has taken over the Palace Theatre’s backstage and stage for both the show and its audience. We become waiters in a hospital’s out-patient department, sitting quietly on uncomfortable chairs until something happens.

The story itself has three main characters – research surgeon Dr Papadopoulos (Mario Christofides), staff nurse Harry (Leon Smith) and over-worked, over-stretched cleaner Rita (Fiona Watson). As their individual dramas play out amid much shifting of hospital screens and beds (the design concept is by Naomi Dawson with direction by Nathan Curry and Kat Joyce) the action takes in acrobatics and an element of surrealism.

We learn that Rita suffers from blinding headaches which no-one takes seriously until it’s too late. Harry is frustrated by staffing shortfalls and overlong shifts. Papdopoulos is increasingly involved in balancing the books (as management demands) while trying to do the best by his patients and research requirements. An outside financial consultant, wished on him by the men in grey suits rather than those in surgical overalls, simply complicates his life.

Cristina Catalina and Gemma Creasey complete the main cast with a hard-working state management team handling the aerial sequences and projections. There are some clever lighting effects by Katherine Williams but the weight of the story remains withits human protagonists. “Patients are not a commodity” states one airborne character, literally spinning herself into knots as she twists and turns on a rope. But is that true any more?

Care runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 28 June.

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Filed under Circus & physical theatre, Reviews 2015

Boi Boi Is Dead
(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 19 March)

What happens when a family member dies has been the starting point of plays throughout the ages. Zodwa Nyoni’s new play for Tiata Fahodzi Boi Boi Is Dead deals with the aftermath of the funeral for an African trumpet-player whose hopes of fame crumbled as surely as did his home and professional lives.

Mourning, not without a lethal dose of self-interest, has brought his brother and late-arriving not-quite-ex wife to the village where Boi Boi lived in a more lasting relationship with the woman he never quite got round to marrying (while she was bringing up his daughter as well as her own son).

When the curtain rises on Lucian Msamati’s production we are faced with a sunset back-cloth against which a trumpeter plays while the mourners solemnly process. Skeletonic poles stretch behind towards a far distant urban landscape. The settings, including black-and-white cut-outs which indicate the changes of scene are by Francisco Rodriguez-Weil, beautifully lit by Emma Chapman.

Ezzra (Andrew French) wants to take his niece Una (Debbie Korley) back with him to England; she’s not so certain. Miriam (Angela Wynter) would like things to remain as they are, though her son Petu (Joseph Adelakun), who has found himself on the wrong side of some very nasty people in the course of one of his disastrous get-rich-quick schemes, wants someone – anyone – to extricate him.

Enter the delayed widow Stella (Lynette Clarke), a would-be star with a tarnished reputation. What she wants is quite simple, in theory. That’s her daughter back where she can be manipulated to her mother’s benefit, the house in which Boi Boi and Miriam have been living and all the valuables and ready cash she can possibly grab.

The heart of the play lies in the exchanges between Stella and Miriam, characters one can understand even while enjoying their vitriolic encounters, thanks to some well-contrasted and deliberately over-the-top performances by Clarke and Wynter. The two young people trapped in their elders’ quarrels are also made sympathetic by Korley and Adelakun.

Michael Henry’s score encompasses traditional African chants as well as a more abrasive twelve-note instrumental sound. Boi Boi’s influence even after death is shown by Jack Benjamin both as the silhouetted image of the trumpeter with which we begin and the fallible, distinctly earthy man in reall life. The stylised movements choreographed by Coral Messam take us into a place with ancient roots where the certainties of the past are wilting under the force of the present. Not to mention the future.

Boi Boi Is Dead runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 28 March.

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