Category Archives: Reviews 2015

A Christmas Carol

reviewed at Moyses Hall, Bury St Edmunds on 7 December

There ar as many different ways of staging Dickens’ seasonal story as there are twists and turns in the plot. Spinning Wheel Theatre does it with just three actors, imaginative use of puppetry and lighting effects by Becca Gibbs and director Amy Wylie’s respect for the text of the tale.

Antony Eden plays Scrooge as a man in middle-age, his revelling in the power which hoarded money and the death of his business partner Jacob Marley gives him is almost orgasmic . Alice Osmanski takes on the women’s roles and a couple of masculine ones while Samuel Norris is Scrooge’s light-hearted nephew and clerk Bob Cratchit. Scrooge’s first employer Mr Fezziwig and the Cratchit children are all neat little puppets.

The essence of the story comes from the spirits conjured up by Marley’s chain-laden ghost to emphasise to Scrooge how his greed has brought his present isolation on him and to warn of his future. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a mist of shimmering gauze with softly-lit eyes, symbolising Scrooge’s sister Fan and this lost love Belle.

A coat-hangered scarlet dressing-gown, topped with a matching fez, stands for the jollity of Christmas Present. An eyeless black shroud denotes Christmas Yet To Come when an unrepentent Scrooge is forced to face the robbery of his corpse and ill-attended burial.

Norris is on stage throughout, and gives an assured performance which allows the audience to understand as well as to dislike the man portrayed. Both Osmanski and Eden move seamlessly from one characterisation to another and carry conviction as the story unfolds.

Realism is as much a matter of the audience’s imagination – and at the Moyses Hall it faced the actors on three sides – as it is of heard words and displayed actions. This simplified but inventive staging works with Dickens and not against him, seamlessly joining the 19th with the 21 st centuries.

Four and a half-star rating.

A Christmas Carol plays at the Moyses Hall, Bury St Edmunds until 9 December and then tours village halls across East Anglia until 23 December with a performance at the John Peel Arts Centre, Stowmarket on 22 December.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Opera, Plays

Peter Pan

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Steveange on 16 December).

The trouble with staging JM Barrie’s classic children’s story at Chrstmastime can be that it either tips too far into established pantomime territory, or lacks any seasonal feeling. Chris Jordan’s version, new to East Anglia, manages to tread the tightrope with a flourish. There’s a nice London street opening, with a a medley of music-hall songs and dances, led by Paul Laidlaw who we meet again later as Mrs Smee. This also serves to introduce the Darling family with the household head (Tom Lister) displaying the arrogance which will also colour his Captain Hook.

Settings are simple but effective with attractive costumes by Shelley Claridge and very well lit by Douglas Morgan. The band – tucked away stage left in a sort of theatre-box – is led by James Cleeve. The put-upon Mrs Darling is played by Sinead Long, who later transforms into the Mermaid. That bolshie fairy Tinker Bell whirls across the stage on roller-skates; Amanda Coutts balances her resentment of Wendy credibly with her affection for Peter.

Ewan Goddard depicts him as a youth with a sense of right and wrong but no real feelings of the sort which might drag him into the human world. He and Lister play off each other cleverly, with Laura Baldwin’s Wendy nicely suggesting a girl who has to take on rather more adult responsibilities than she had bargained for. Choreographers Twist & Pulse (aka Ashley Glazebrook and Glen Muphy) contribute a pair of less than competent members of Hook’s crew. With Aidan O’Neill’s Smee they lead the comedy scenes.

Laidlaw is an audience favourite at this theatre and knows just how far he can go with the involvement of the unsuspecting man selected for Mrs Smee’s amorous attention. The crocodile is a wondrous creation, and the submerged glitter pool from which the mermaid emerges in the second act is another effective touch. The four adult members of the ensemble and the juvenile performers carry off their routines with aplomb.

Peter Pan runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 22 January. Check the theatre’s website ((gordon-craig.co.uk) for performances times.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Pantomimes & other seasonal shows, Reviews 2016

Treasure Island

(reviewed at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich on 10 December)

Red Rose Chain likes to strike out on its own path for its Christmas show; this year it’s Joanna Carrick’s adaptation of the RL Stevenson adventure classic. Carrick’s script is faithful to the story, so her three-actor production might well be a trifle too violent and noisy for very young audience members.

We begin with Gideon (Ryan Penny), a hapless cleaner for a rehearsal space. Mandy (Claire Lloyd) soon puts him right. Considerable knockabout later, we’re into the story proper, as young Jim, the blustering Squire Trelawney and the pragmatic Dr Livesey set sail from Bristol in search of Captain Flinet’s treasure.

Of course, one of their major problems is that the seemingly helpful ship’s cook Long John Silver and his shipmates are on the same quest. Lloyd, Joel Macey and Penny swap roles and “improvise” locations at a bewildering rate, though much of the detail as well as the fast-moving narrative comes across clearly.

The ad-hoc elements of the design (steel drums, packing cases table-cloths for sails and so on) add to the illusion, as do Laura Norman’s sound effects and Jimmy Grimes’ puppets – Silver’s parrot is a particular audience favourite – but don’t get too close; he might bite!). David Newborn’s lighting adds considerable to the atmosphere, which is not an easy task given that the audience sits on three side of the acting area.

Treasure Island runs at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich until 2 January (check the theatre website (redrosechain.com) for performance times).

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Pantomimes & other seasonal shows, 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

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

(reviewed at the Watford Colosseum on 10 February)

It’s the first of the great Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice collaborations – and it’s stood the test of time. This new tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has a fresh cast headed by X-Factor finalist Lloyd Daniels in the title role. Bill Kenwright’s production has been designed for touring by Sean Cavanagh with a double staircase taking up most of the stage, perhaps rather too much of it for the performers’ comfort.

Daniels radiates the right sort of boyish energy coupled with naiveté as Joseph and acts as well as sings his numbers. We have to wait until Act Two to encounter Matt Lapinskas’s Elvis-inspired Pharaoh, but it’s worth the wait. Also noteworthy are Henry Metcalfe (the choreographer) as patriarch Jacob and pontificating Potipher (two men alike blinkered) and Camilla Rowland (the possessor of legs which certainly make their point) as Potipher’s wife.

Rebekah Lowings as the Narrator links the scenes as well as providing some of the best singing in the show. There are stand-out cameos by Andrew Bateup as Pharaoh’s butler and Marcus Ayton as his cook, initially facing the same bleak future. Bateup also plays Reuben and Ayton is Judah. The children’s chorus in the Watford performances came from the Stagecoach schools.

This is the piece of through-composed music theatre in which Lloyd Webber relaxes and has great fun – which the audience fully shares – with different popular genres. So, as well as the rock numbers for Pharaoh, we have the country’n’western “One more angel in heaven” and the second act calypso, complete with appropriate costume accessories. “Any dream will do” is, of course the show-stopper.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat runs at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich between 2 and 6 June.

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Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2015

All My Sons

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 17 February 2015)

Arthur Miller’s first New York success has held the stage internationally for close on fifty years. All My Sons is a family tragedy on a grand scale. Its roots are in the great dramas of the classical stage, in which a flaw in the protagonist develops during the course of the action to wreck the lives of those he holds dearest.

Talawa is one of the country’s leading Black theatre companies, so at first glance one perhaps wonders why director Michael Buffong chose a play so firmly rooted in time (1947, just after the end of the Second World War when racial segregation was the unpleasant norm) and place (the residential outskirts of a mid-west industrial town).

It’s a tribute to his cast that the audience so easily accepts the characters and situations placed before it. Particularly effective because so subtly nuanced are Dona Croll as Kate Keller and Ray Shell as her husband Joe. One son, Larry, died in the war when his fighter plane crashed. The other son Chris (Leemore Marrett Jr) survived and has invited his brother’s fiancée Ann Deever (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) to visit.

As far as Kate is concerned, she still hopes that Larry will one day walk back into the house; she also presumes that Ann is also waiting. But Ann and Chris want to get married. While neighbours Sue (Andrea Davy) and Jim Bayliss (Ewen Cummins) are happy to pander to Kate’s fantasy, Anne’s lawyer brother George (Ashley Gerlach) has been visiting his father in prison.

Deever senior was Joe’s business partner, jailed in connexion with supplying faulty engine parts to the Air Force. Now he is due for release, something which it soon appears will strip away years of false assumptions. If you know the play already, you will know what happens; if you don’t, you really should see this production and find out for yourself.

There’s a stylish setting by Ellen Cairns, centring on a realistic back porch, complete with rocking chair, but surrounded by flats painted to suggest the forest onto which humans have encroached but not conquered. The lighting (Johanna Town) and soundscape (Emma Laxton) are clever but never obtrusive.

All My Sons runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 21 February. The national tour to 25 April includes the Arts Theatre, Cambridge (24-28 February), the Palace Theatre, Watford (10-14 March) and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester (14-18 April).

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015

Jefferson’s Garden

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 12 February)

Liberty is an emotive word; it’s also something of a chameleon, changing meaning and emphasis through the centuries and across the globe. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new play Jefferson’s Garden explores the concept within the context of the American Revolution. It premiers at the Palace Theatre in Watford in a production by the theatre’s artistic director Brigid Larmour and designed by James Button.

In one way this is documentary theatre with fictional characters interwoven into actual historical events. As such it is played on a bare, black-painted stage with minimal furnishings or props. The ten actors are equally drably clad; just the whisper of olive silk in the second half or the flash of a soldier’s red coat to act as a visual distraction.

The story begins with an English Quaker family half-way across the Atlantic as they seek a new life which promises freedom for them to worship as they choose. Matriarch Martha (Julia St John), shoemaker husband Daniel (Gregory Gudgeon) and slightly rebellious daughter Louisa (Anna Tierney) are joined by a German stowaway political hothead Carl Christian (William Hope).

He’s in a bad way, in more than one sense of the phrase. A young nobleman trying to foment a rebellion in one of the smaller German princely states is ill-equipped for survival in the New World when he has to flee for his life without his accustomed trappings, both material and intangible. But survive he does, marries Louisa and they have a son Christian (David Burnett) and a daughter Imogen (Tierney).

From here on the story centres on Christian. He’s expelled by the Quakers for planning to join the Patriot side of the looming conflict, even though he promises not to actually bear arms. 1776 is not a year in which non-combatants were tolerated by either side, as he is rapidly taught. Then he arrives in Virginia, meets the slave girl Susannah (Mimi Ndiweni) and some of the Founding Fathers.

It is to Jefferson (Hope) in particular that Christian feels drawn, as a type of surrogate father. Jefferson, of course, is a land- and slave-owner, a word-smith who would prefer to stay slightly in the shadows. That isn’t possible, any more than it is for Christian to resist the lure of this comfortable lifestyle or the chance of marrying into property through Betty (Carlyss Peer) or for Susannah to miss the chance of freedom offered by the Royal Ethiopian Regiment on the British side.

Although the first act is slightly over-long, the pace – perhaps because by now we’re recogising the characters as people and not just as types – quickens in the second part. All the actors carry conviction, as they swop roles and gender, with St John’s two contrasted wives and mothers, Ndiweni’s Susannah, Peer’s slave Sally morphing into Southern belle Betty, Hope’s aristocratic Jefferson and Burnett’s Christian being particularly memorable.

Jefferson’s Garden runs at the Palace Theatre Watford until 21 February.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015

Deadly Murder

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 2 February)

Deadly Murder is a thriller for three actors by the American playwright David Foley, doubling as a type of hommage to the films of Tarantino. After the sort of disco music and light show which puts us firmly in the world of the glitterarti, we are in the living-room of the Manhattan apartment which belongs to Camille (Lucy Benjamin).

Camille is a (very) wealthy widow and a designer of the sort of show-off jewellery which one might describe as bling. She also has a penchant for bedding younger, personable men. In this case it’s Billy (Tom Cornish). But Billy doesn’t just want to be paid for his services; he has a hidden agenda.

What would a woman who owns not just the penthouse but the whole apartment block do when her one-night stand refuses to accept his dismissal? She calls the security man (Sam Pay) – and this is where the plot thickens into a positive peasouper of double-and triple-crossings.

Director Simon Jessop wisely keeps the action at boiling point with just enough space for the sort of half-nervous laughter with which an engrossed audience can relieve its tension. The pace is brisk; even with an interval it’s less than two hours, which is just about right.

All three actors are excellent; our sympathies and understanding veer wildly as each new revelation presents itself. Cornish has the sort of louche sexiness which suggests an inherent morality and Benjamin matches him as the woman who takes what she wants, and comes back for the next helping.

In many ways Pay, who is a member of the Queen’s Theatre’s cut to the chase… repertory company has the most difficult role as a man who isn’t quite as clued-up as he thinks he is.

Though one might query if the whole thing wouldn’t have worked even better without the intermission… silly me! I forgot about those vital bar takings.

One of Rodney Ford’s excellent sets – all exposed brick walls, angular chrome furniture and off-white upholstery – locates us in place and time. And if anyone know how to stage a stage fight which has the audience wincing in sympathy, it’s Malcolm Ranson.

Deadly Murder runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 21 February 2015.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015

Invincible

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 30 March)

You know all the old contrast metaphors – chalk and cheese, oil and water, east and west. There’s also north and south, which is at the heart of Torben Betts 2014 play Invincible, how given a new production by Christopher Harper for an extended collaborative tour by the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds and the Original Theatre Company.

We’re in a rented cottage in the north of England. Emily (Emily Bowker) and Oliver (Alastair Whatley) have left London for what they imagine will be a simpler – not to say, cheaper – way of life. Oliver’s devoutly Christian mother is dying, which serves as a pretext; her greatest wish is for them to marry in church but, as Emily makes clear right from the start, that’s against her strongly-held principles.

Emily in short is one of those people so involved with chasing the motes that the actual beam (basically, her own selfishness) is completely ignored. Oliver may share most of her libertarian, organic and internationalist scruples, but is probably a fraction more reality-rooted. He knows that easing his mother’s last days has implications beyond the purely physical ones of nursing.

Their new next-door neighbours are Alan (Graeme Brookes) and his wife Dawn (Kerry Bennett). They have daughters, whose much-loved but marauding cat is another bane of Emily’s existence, and a son serving oversea in the British army. Alan in his own words is a “big flat slob”, football-obsessed, a drinker of lager out of cans and far too prone to laugh at his own jokes. it’s a delicious portrait of a type who is also a flesh-and-blood person by Brookes.

You can’t warm to Emily, not even with the burning sincerity of Bowker’s performance and can see why (in a farcical but bitter mix-up of actions and explanations) Whatley’s more gentle Oliver is drawn to Bennett’s earth-goddess Dawn. This is in many ways a farce from a classic mould, but it’s a savage one very much for our fractured 21st century.

Heidi McEvoy-Swift’s costume designs perfectly reflect the characters of their wearers while Victoria Spearing’s setting of the tattered décor of the rented cottage is briskly refurbished for the second half into Emily’s preferred Farrow & Ball London loft minimalism. it’s all foot-lighted by rows of miniature buildings and loomed over by the Angel of the North.

Invincible runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 2 April with a matinée on 2 April. It can also be seen at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich (19-23 April) and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester (28-30 April).

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015, Reviews 2016

Holy Mackerel!

(reviewed at Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich on 19 December 2016)

You expect something different from Eastern Angles’ Christmas shows – and this year’s offering certainly lives up to that expectation. The script is by Harry Long and produced in partnership with the West Country-based Shanty Theatre Company. The story (yes, there is one, and it’s based on fact) concerns what happened in 1896 when East Anglian fishing-boats muscled in on the mackerel shoals around Newlyn.

At that period, most of the Newlyn fishermen were staunch Methodists, not putting to sea between Saturday sunset and Monday dawn. The East Anglians (nicknamed “Yorkies” in Cornwall) had no such scruples and cornered the weekend market by loading their catches onto the early Monday morning train to Billingsgate market in London.

Unsurprisingly, rioting ensued which involved over 1,000 Cornish men. Long’s script homes in on just a few main characters, neatly defined for the audience by wearing their names (or those of their boats) on skirts or tarpaulins. Mags (Louise Callaghan) is our heroine, an attractive committed Methodist who falls for not-too-bright Norman (Long) who, among other educational deficiencies, has no idea of what Methodism might be.

No story to do with the sea would be complete without a thorough-going villain. Christian Edwards plays Brassy, all country-gentleman tweeds and shooting-stick; he is the owner of the boats attempting to muscle in on the Cornish mackerel harvest. Mabel Clements and David Copeland complete the cast which – Tim Bell’s production is in the full Eastern Angles tradition of 17 parts (not to mention songs, dances and instrumental accompaniments) being shared among a minimum quantity of players.

Verity Quinn has designed some interesting sets and costumes. Stu McLoughlin is the composer with Barnaby Southgate as musical director. Penny Griffin’s lighting adds to the atmosphere. It may be slightly offbeat even for an Eastern Angles Christmas show but this collaboration with a like-minded theatre company suggests that the seeds of similar productions may already be germinating.

Holy Mackerel! is at the Seckford Theatre, Woodbridge until 23 January and at the Key Theatre, Peterborough between 26 and 30 January.

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Filed under Pantomimes & seasonal shows, Reviews 2015

Snow White

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 17 December 2015)

If you’re looking for real value for your money among this year’s crop of regional pantomimes – not to mention a show which is visually and musically satisfying – then Norwich’s Snow White is the show for you. The curtain rises on a snowy landscape, complete with skaters, which is obviously not a million miles from Salzburg. The period is that faintly Ruritanian one just before the First World War.

Award-winning Kirsteen Wythe is the costume designer, using a simple dark palette based around reds, browns and black for the adult ensemble shown off against proper story-book sets. Richard Gauntlett is the writer and director and also plays Dame Dorothy Dumpling – which is probably something which by now he could do in his sleep, though this Dame is a very lively spark, nicely contrasted by Ben Langley’s Muddles.

Our heroine is Amie Hows with Jennifer Ellison as the slinkiest, most glittering of villainesses as her aunt Queen Evilynne. The pontifical voice of her magic mirror is BBC Look East‘s presenter Stewart White, not an authority to be trifled with (even when the Queen’s magic interferes with the video picture). Her unwilling accomplice and put-upon henchman Igor is strong-voiced Bruce Graham.

The catalyst is a joint one. Snow White is nearly of an age to claim the throne and has grown into a beautiful young lady. Enter the dashing Prince Frederick (David Burilin), in search of a bride and remembering the little princess with whom he once played. Of course, that doesn’t suit Evilynne at all; she fancies him all to herself. So Snow White is sent into the forest and Igor has his murderous instructions.

Igor refuses to fulfil his gory mission but leaves Snow White at the mercy of the elements. You think you know just what happens next? Think again. The sympathetic miners who take her in are brilliant rod-operated creations by Norwich’s Puppet Theatre, all individual and un-Disneyfied and very well manipulated by members of the ensemble. Bossy The Major, burping Windy and also-ran Boris are set to be audience favourites. Later on we meet T-Bone the dinosaur.

With Dee Jago’s choreography well suited to both the child and adult dancers, musical director David Carter has plundered a whole range of scores, not forgetting Sullivan, Waldteufel and Rodgers, to put the vocal talents of Burilin, Howes and Graham to the test. They pass magnificently. The special effects are a delight for both adults and children. I defy you to be bored with this Snow White.

Snow White runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 17 January.

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Filed under Pantomimes & seasonal shows, Reviews 2015

Cinderella

(reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 15 December 2015)

It’s billed as the greatest pantomime of them all, but Kathryn Rooney’s production of Cinderella for the Cliffs Pavilion in Southend ticks far too many of the wrong boxes. In its favour are the ugly sisters (David Robbins as Claudia and Martin Ramsdin as Kate). Their costumes are fantastic, their nastiness is eminently booable and Ramsdin’s false nose deserves a credit to itself.

Lauren Hall makes a petite and very charming Cinders; her Prince Charming is the strong-voiced Matthew Goodgame with Steve Lees as Dandini. Lesley Joseph, from her first entrance perched on a glittering half-moon to her relationship with Cinderella is also worth watching; you can believe in her power to make things happen. The musical numbers go with a swing with the band under Mark Aspinall.

The settings by Ian Westbrook are new for this theatre, Cinderella goes to the ball drawn by real white ponies and Elliot Nixon has devised some pretty choreography for the dancing ensemble and the children. So far, so good, but (and it’s a very big but) the story is reduced to a skeleton and the dominant (not to say domineering) presence of Brain Conley as Buttons takes over.

I was irresistibly reminded of those dire so-called pantomimes in the doldrum days of the late 60s and early 70s when a sequence of speciality acts was cobbled onto one of the traditional stories. I’m sure that Conley has an enormous following, but this extended and selfish variety turn should really have been called Buttons, not Cinderella.

Cinderella runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 10 January.

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Filed under Pantomimes & seasonal shows, Reviews 2015

Horrible Christmas

(reviewed at the Corn Exchange, Cambridge on 14 December 2015)

So you thought that Christmas had always been a festival of jollity and good will, did you? Wrong. Terry Deary, the Birmingham Stage Company and Derby Theatre knock a number of fallacies on their collective heads with Horrible Christmas., a seasonal addition to the Horrible Histories series.

We begin with a stage dominated by a Christmas tree with presents heaped at its foot. The young daughter of the house cannot stop herself from opening the wrapped boxes,in spite of her parents’ strictures. One of them reveals a book; “Books aren’t proper presents” this very 21st century miss declares.

Lurking in the background is Sydney Clause (Andrew Vincent), the antithesis of Santa Claus, that plump red-robed white-bearded figure so familiar to us. Deary and his Horrible Histories have perfected the delicate art of injecting information into unreceptive brains – and making it stick. So we learn that the red clothes are of recent origin and that the legendary Green Man was probably his forerunner.

But when did Christmas as we know really begin? Answer – Charles Dickens and “A Christmas Carol” in 1843. We slither back in time to the Cromwellian interregnum with an uptight Mrs Cromwell demolishing all the pagan and papist connotations of 25 December. Cue “We are the Puritans”, sung with Oliver Cromwell, his son Richard and daughter Elizabeth, all well under control by their wife and mother.

Jollity is (sort of) restored with Charles II but rigour rears its head when we go back to Henry VIII and his fifth wife Katherine Howard. “I’m wicked, I’m nasty” sings the king with soon-to-be-beheaded Katherine agreeing. This Henry is definitely from the Sid James mould. The real St Nicholas, bishop of Myra early in the fourth century, gives a dowry to a poor girl.

And so to the beginning of the story of gifts. Gold (for power), frankincense (for worship) and the myrrh of funeral rites are offered at a manger in Bethlehem. Sydney Clause, his abetting reindeer Rudolph and his sparky adversaries Shirley Holmes and Zoe Watson return to their proper spheres. The presents under the Christmas tree are now miraculously all intact.

It’s directed by Neal Foster and well designed by Jacqueline Trousdale. Matthew Scott is the composer and the extremely hard-working cast is Jo Mousley, Erika Poole, Caroline Rogers, Katy Withers, Martin Atkinson, Christopher Chilton, Jim Low and Andrew Vincent.

Horrible Christmas runs at the Corn Exchange, Cambridge until 9 January.

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Filed under Pantomimes & seasonal shows, Reviews 2015

Jack and the Beanstalk

(reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford on 11 December 2015)

You can trust the annual Rhodes pantomime master-minded by Phil Dale (co-script writer, co-director and surely the only bearded Dame in the business under the nom de guerre Sarah Cook to fill the wide but shallow stage and spill action across the auditorium.

It’s traditional – the Principal Boy title role is filled by Katie Miller (with a cleavage) – but also quirky with its three comics – William Eaden as Jack’s brother Silly Billy, a sort of Mickey Rooney clone, and that Laurel and Hardy duo of Wingnut (Daniel Boulton) and Spanners (Dan James).

Our villain is Baron Backhander who Duncan Rutherford plays as a particularly selfish hedge fund manager, not light years away from last year’s King Ratputin. Oh yes, and there’s a proper over-sized Giant as well (George Jack). Fairy Evangeline Rainpetal (Jeanne Stacey, who is also co-director) has to work hard on Jack’s behalf.

Georgia Collins is Jill, the object of Jack’s affections and a bright lass who has the measure of her grasping father. Central to the story is Daisy the cow (Jack and Drew Gregg step out neatly). The choreography is by Katie Barker-Dale and really shows of the young dancers. Miles Forman (sporting a fetching piano-keyed scarf) and Lee Levent are the musicians.

Act Two takes us high into the skies with the Giant’s castle veiled in mist. We meet some raucous seagulls, more or less under the control of Dr Albert Ross (Gregg, who also voices the disgruntled goose). Thanks to – or should that be n spite of? – Milky Mary’s ballooning interventions on behalf of her two sons, all of course ends as it should do.

This season’s crop of farting jokes flourishes, as do an alarming number of references to testicles. We don’t really believe that Backhander will metamorphose into Candy Man, but I always think that the test of a proper pantomime villain is that we know he is down but never quite out. Even when his nemesis is a giant-slayer.

Jack and the Beanstalk runs at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford until 2 January.

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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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Snow White & Rose Red

(reviewed at the Cambridge Junction on 10 December 2015)

The fairy and folk tales collected by the brothers Grimm in the early 19th century may form the basis for many a pantomime and children’s play but they are not always as sunny – nor are the endings always happy ones – as stage and film cartoon adaptations suggest. RashDash’s riff on the story of Snow White and her sister Rose Red makes this clear.

It’s this year’s Christmas show for family audiences at the Cambridge Junction and makes the contrast between the sisters very clear. Snow White (Helen Goalen) is the gentle and loving sibling, but a girl who can dig in her moral heels when required. Rose Red (Abbi Greenland) is altogether more tomboy, not to say downright butch, itching to get out there and do something.

The trigger for their adventures is a bear (Tom Penn) who comes calling in the course of a quest and who immediately elicits Snow White’s sympathies. The sisters encounter a very small man with a very long beard (Ed Wren), who is not as nice or as helpful as he pretends.

Presiding over it all is the snow angel (Becky Wilkie all glitter and misty grey) and there’s a good use of an over-worked fairy helper cum stage manager (Laura Page). The music is by Penn, Wren and Wilkie who preside over a battery of guitars, drums and keyboard.

In the end the bear resumes his human shape as Robert and joins his soul-mate Snow White. Shorn of that straggling facial hair, the very small man turns out to be a quite personable Graham. But Rose Re makes it clear that she prefers girls. It’s all engaging enough, though it could do with considerable cutting, notably of the first half.

Snow White & Rose Red plays at the Cambridge Juntion until 31 December.

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The Paper Dolls

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Studio, Ipswich on 9 December 2015)

This show for very young children is based on the book by Julia Donaldson illustrated by Rebecca Cobb. Adaptation and direction are by Peter Glanville with puppet and set design by Lyndie Wright. It’s a presentation by the Little Angel Theatre and Polka Theatre – both well-known for the excellence of their productions for a juvenile audience.

The presenters are Jane Crawshaw and Samantha Sutherland, both of whom know when to let the puppets tell the story and when to step forward to let the audience into a secret. The Rosie puppet is almost blank-faced, so those familiar with the book can place their own interpretations on our heroine.

As in all good stories, likeable Rosie has a very horrid brother, all macho aggressiveness and much given to destroying anything which his sister might enjoy. Their mother tries to keep the peace (all parents will recognise the tantrums), as Rosie’s family of cut-out paper dolls (Wright has designed several sizes of these) have their adventures.

These involve trying to evade the jaws first of a toy dinosaur, then of an oven-glove crocodile and finally of a tiger. A very hungry tiger which just happens to resemble Rosie’s slippers. There is also a flower garden (cue brother’s lethal scissors) with birds and a ladybird in residence.

It makes a good introduction to the theatre for its intended audience and has enough clever design elements to keep the adults interested. Donaldson is probably the country’s uncrowned queen of fiction for this age group but Rosie’s story glides off the page and onto the stage effortlessly.

The Paper Dolls is at the New Wolsey Studio, Ipswich until 2 January.

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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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Cinderella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jack and the Beanstalk

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 6 December 2015)

This year’s Theatre Royal pantomime may have a traditional story but writer Chris Hannon, director Karen Simpson and designer Rebecca Lee have given it some intriguing twists. The action is set in the 1970s, when men’s trousers were flared, girls wore miniskirts and hippy flower-power dominated. So Wendy (Leonie Spilsbury), our magical guide, is flower-wreathed and maxi-gowned.

Jack is Oliver Mawdsley, shyly in love with hot-panted Jill (Louise Olley), the daughter of Elvis-clone Duke Box; Chris Clarkson sports an enormous quiff and a glittering white outfit. Demanding money with menaces (children taken for baking in lieu) is Ghastly Gordon. Alan Mehdizadeh is certainly a chef you wouldn’t want anywhere near your own kitchen.

Under his ladle and rolling-pin is Sue Chef (Nancy Hill), who doesn’t really want to be as nasty as her boss would like. But Duke Box has no spare cash and Tina Trumpington (James Parkes), Jack’s mother, has even less. Cue the sale of Daisy the cow, a bovine with a satin-udder who captures the audience heart with her first hoof step.

Act Two sees our hero confronting David Zachary’s Giant, a marvellous contraption of swollen belly, long long arms and legs and a ridiculously small head crowned with a minute top hat. This is where we meet Dottee (Spilsbury), the Giant’s seen-it-all-before wife. Kung fu expert Jill is a better match for Gordon than Jack, let alone the other space-travelling mortals.

I failed to warm to Parkes’ Dame, a somewhat rough characterisation, though the flour scene in the Trumpington windmill is a good variant of the traditional slop scene; this windmill boasts an engaging puppet mouse, and I think the youngsters in the audience would have liked to see more of him. The rock’n’roll dance numbers (Julia Cave is the choreographer) are fast-paced and both the Act One Elvis “Megamix” and the Act Two “Cooking up the bits” (a variation on “Puttin’ on the Ritz” are stand-outs.

Jack and the Beanstalk runs at the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal until 10 January.

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Filed under Pantomimes & seasonal shows, Reviews 2015