Category Archives: Reviews 2015

Aladdin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a Comment

Filed under Pantomimes & seasonal shows, Reviews 2015

Aladdin

(reviewed at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 5 December 2015)

One From The Heart is again the producer, in association with Chelmsford City Theatre, of this year’s pantomime. It’s the ever-popular Aladdin with Liam Ross-Mills in the title role. His somewhat naïve quest for the riches which will enable him to obtain the hand of the Princess Jasmine (Gabriela Gregorian) is, of course, triggered by his encounter with Shaun Chambers’ Abanazar.

Last year’s Peter Pan is this year’s Wishee Washee – Samuel Parker. He establishes an instant rapport with the children in the audience, abetted by Tim McArthur’s Widow Twankey. Then there’s David Tarkenter as the Emperor, all bombast and fluster as he seeks to find a wealthy prince to wed his feisty daughter and restore his crumbling finances.

The immortals are Millie O’Connell as a no-nonsense Slave of the Ring and Neal Wright, a commanding presence with a voice to match, as the Genie of the Lamp. Damian Czarnecki’s choreography is bright and puts the ensemble and juvenile dancers and those youngsters playing Abanazar’s minions through their energetic paces.

In Act One, the slop scene in the laundry has acquired a couple of novel twists (and slips) while Aladdin’s magic carpet journey to Abanazar’s lair elicits a proper response of gasps as he swoops over the stage and orchestra pit. Tim Curran is the musical director; Simon Aylin both wrote the script and directed it.

Aladdin runs at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford until 3 January.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Pantomimes & seasonal shows, Reviews 2015

The Sleeping Beauty

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 4 December 2015)

There are a number of commercial producers of pantomimes; not all of them have the production values of Eastbourne-based Chris Jordan. This year sees The Sleeping Beauty trapped by the vengeful Carabosse in Stevenage. The sets and costumes (Shelley Claridge) are colourful and there’s some excellent choreography by Philip Joel.

We begin with Fairy Fortywinks (Nicola Bryan) confronting the much more powerful Carabosse (Wendi Peters), an immortal with grievances. Lots of them.King Clarence (Paul Bentley) is missing his late wife and seeking a suitable prince to marry his daughter Belle (Daniella Piper). She doesn’t take kindly to being cosseted either by her father or by Nellie Night Nurse ((Paul Laidlaw).

Laidlaw is an experienced Dame, of the cuddly rather than abrasive variety. Son Chester (Aidan O’Neill) is the Court Jester and, of course, secretly in love with Belle. That doesn’t make Prince Valiant (Gregor Stewart)’s task any easier as he goes in search of a suitable bride. The “Love me” duet is an attractive number.

Carabosse has a team of helpers, and very nasty they are too. There’s an attractive duet for Belle and Valiant before the spectacular final to the first act. In Act Two we have Nellie’s famous strip-tease as well as a time machine (not a million miles from Dr Who’s police-box) to take everyone forward a hundred years.

The Sleeping Beauty runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 24 January.

There’s a dragon in the ghost scene, which makes a nice change, and at least one spectacular exit through the orchestra pit – James Cleeve’s domain. Innovations are carefully blended with the expected traditional – such as the kitchen scene. And Fairy Fortywinks may keep on dropping off at crucial moments – but she has a winning way with her trumpet.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Pantomimes & seasonal shows, Reviews 2015

Santa Claus and the Magical Christmas Journey

(reviewed at the Watford Colosseum on 4 December 2015)

What do you do for a Christmas show if your children are just that bit too young to enjoy a traditional, full-length pantomime. The Watford Colosseum found a solution last year, and the same team is back with a follow-up show. Santa Claus and the Magical Christmas Journey takes place a year after last year’s adventure.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has been safely corralled. The trouble this time that ever-helpful bear Muffin (who tracked down Rudolph when he went missing) has been sidelined in favour of santa-nav (the voice of Russell Grant). If your sat-nav is as provoking as mine, you can guess that things aren’t going to progress smoothly for Christmas gift deliveries.

Santa (Paul Aitchison) has two helper elves. Charlie (Dan Burgess) is the inquisitive one who Kara (Hannah Nuttall) more-or-less keeps in check. The sleigh in Rebecca Stoll’s staging is a fine thing on a revolve and there are some excellent lighting and special effects (the snow is a particular favourite).

There’s a lot of opportunity for singing along and some subtle messages as well. it’s an excellent introduction to the magic of theatre and the small carpeted and gently lit studio space means that there is nothing frightening for the smallest ones. Just a touch of magic – and we all need that at Christmas.

Santa Claus and the Magical Christmas Journey is at the Watford Colosseum until 24 December.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Pantomimes & seasonal shows, Reviews 2015

Aladdin

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 4 December 2015)

It can be tricky for a theatre to decide on which traditional story is to be the basis for this year’s pantomime. One for the girls? or one for the boys? Aladdin was a favourite last year, and here it is once again winning the popularity stakes.

Matt Devit is the director for this year’s Hornchurch show with a script by Nicholas Pegg, designs by Mark Walters and original music and arrangements by Carol Sloman. This is a team which knows its audience and gives it a clever blend of twists on tradition to hold child and adult attention alike.

In a career first, Fred Broom plays Widow Twankey. He has clear ideas about how the Dame role should be played and has eye make-up which looks like a tribute to the 19th century’s favourite Dame Dan Leno as well as a nice line in outrageous frocks. Twankey also has a running “Chinese proverb says…” joke.

Starting it all off is Sam Pay’s Abanazar, as slinky and slimy a villain as you could wish to encounter in or our of his green follow-spot. That endangered species, the female Principal Boy, is represented by thigh-slapping, heel-booted Naomi Bullock. She has just the right degree of swagger which the part demands.

Rachel Nottingham doubles Princess Jasmine (not a lady to be walked over) and the Essex-girl Slave of the Ring. The Genie of the Lamp and the oh-so-obsequious Vizier are doubled by Thomas Sutcliffe. But of all the characters, it is Wishee Washee who the youngsters really take to their hearts. This year it’s Matthew Quinn’s turn to keep the audience returning his greetings and be the fall-guy at his mother’s laundry.

The Emperor is Callum Hughes – and look out for the Yeti once the snowy regions of Tibet are encountered. Dan de Cruz leads the three-piece band; the “we’re okay” number is particularly catchy and the choreography of Donna Berlin and Hannah Harris fills the stage with movement.

Aladdin runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 9 January.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Pantomimes & seasonal shows

What the Ladybird Heard

(reviewed at the Norwich Playhouse on 24 November)

Julia Donaldson’s children’s stories are now established favourites on the stage as well as in print. Lydia Monks is the illustrator for What the Ladybird Heard and has been involved in Bek Palmer’s designs for the tour which is now in its second year. Graham Hubbard is the director and the catchy, folk idiom tunes are by Jon Fiber and Andy Shaw – of the aptly named Jollygoodtunes.

The audience comes into the auditorium to be faced with a toytown farm set – thatched farmhouse, cowshed, various outbuildings and a pond in front of a gate leading to the hilly landscape beyond. Emma Carroll is our storyteller and farmgirl Lily, introducing us to the characters with her Pied Piper-like flute.

Rosamund Hine makes a credible Farmer with Edward Way as farmhand Eddie and Matt Jopling as the slightly dim Raymond. Way and Jopling also play the burglars Hefty Hugh and Lanky Len whose attempt to steal the prize-winning cow is foiled by the ladybird of the title, a bright red spotted light which materialises at various places.

The cow and two cream-loving cats are conventional puppets, though the various farmyard animals are brought to life through an ingenious amalgamation of implements – the sheep is a fleece draped over a wheelbarrow, the horse is a bicycle and rake, the dog is a broom and so on. Very imaginative and I suspect that parents are likely to find domestic objects put to strange uses when the children return home.

What the Ladybird Heard runs at the Norwich Playhouse until 4 December.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Family & children's shows, Reviews 2015

The Nutcracker

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 24 November)

Productions of The Nutcracker cam be a little like a fancy bun – when you’ve savoured the fondant icing and the glacé cherries, you’r3 left with what can be a boring sponge cake; lots of action followed by a formality of divertissements. Northern Ballet with David Nixon’s staging avoids most of the traps.

There’s a lot going on in the first act, some of it being quite unusual in its emphases. The transition to the snow fairyland and thence to the second act and its array of set-piece dances is less fractured than can be the case through having Clara (Rachael Gillespie), dancing on full point, and her Nutcracker Prince (Ashley Dixon) as young people just awakening to romantic love. Sister Louise (Lucia Solari) and her suitor James (Javier Torres) are just that bit older and more sexually aware.

We’re in late Regency London at the house of Mr and Mrs Edwards (Sean Bates and Hannah Bateman). Also in residence are his doddery parents (Pippa Moore and Filippo DiVilio). When Uncle Drossmeyer (Matthew Topliss) arrives, he is a much younger, more flamboyant character than we’re accustomed to seeing – nearer to a stage magician than a sinister neighbour. Clara and Louise’s obstreperous brother Frederick (Matthew Koon) and his school-friends have a distinct ability to wreck any would-be polite social gathering.

Out of an elaborate oversized box Drossmeyer produces his French dolls (straight from the Sevrès factory) and a loose-limbed lanky Chinese one, like a stringless puppet in Sebastian Loe’s performance. The Mouse King looms out of an enormous hole in the skirting-board, far more fully realised in Isaac Lee-Baker’s characterisation as a full-blown villain, one of the “enter stage left” variety. Solari and Torres are the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, both showing controlled footwork as well as a partnership affinity in the lifts and jumps.

Nixon’s choreography blends the familiarly classical with neat demi-charactère sequences which show off his young dancers’ strengths as well as having audience appeal. Set designer Charles Cusick Smith blends the realistic with the disproportionate characteristic of dream locations. John Pryce-Jones conducts the Northern Ballet Sinfonia with respect to Tchaikovsky’s score (the orchestral reduction is by John Longstaff) and sympathy for the dancers.

The Nutcracker (casts may differ) is at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 28 November.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Ballet & dance, Reviews 2015

Die Entführung aus dem Serail

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 18 November)

Mozart’s first adult success in Vienna was also one of the highlights of this year’s Glyndebourne Festival. David McVicar’s production directed for this autumn’s Glyndebourne Tour by Ian Rutherford gives us a far more complete version of the spoken text than is usual nowadays; one effect is to bring Pasha Selim (Franck Saurel) centre stage.

SeLim is, of course, a spoken role. Saurel displays all the character facets of this complex personality, a convert to Islam as much through circumstances as through initial intention. There’s an erotic tension to his scenes with Ana Maria Labin’s marvellously sung Konstanze – she negotiates “Martern aller Arten” flawlessly – which suggests that her relationship with Tibor Szappanos will never quite resume its old pattern.

Szappanos sings Belmonte’s arias impeccably, but one cannot help feeling that he is the most nebulous character of the story. Osmin is a gift of a part for any singer who can act as well as encompass the deepest notes of the part, notably in “Solche hergelaufne Laffen”, and Clive Bayley does it superbly. Rebecca Nelsen’s Blonde is a servant-girl with attitude and a way with kitchen paraphenalia (fresh eggs included) which wouldn’t disgrace any pantomime slop-scene.

Her Pedrillo is James Kryshak offering a lilting “In Mohrrenland” in the foiled abduction scene and holding his own in the frught exchanges with Osmin. Vicki Mortimer’s set glides effortlessly through a deft arrangement of lattice-screens; Selim’s harem is populated by an interesting selection of women, all under the watchful gaze of Daniel Vernan’s overseer. The conductor is Christoph Altstaedt.

“Die Entführung aus dem Serail” is also at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 21 November.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Opera, Reviews 2015

Don Pasquale

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 17 November)

It’s a classic comedy story, as old as love and lust – not to mention greed – themselves. Impecunious young man wants to marry an equally badly-off young widow. His uncle threatens to disinherit him. A friend steps in to remedy the situation. Between this beginning and (sort of) conclusion there’s a vast open space for composer, librettist, stage director and designer to fill.

Marianne Clément (who staged the 2011 Glyndebourne production) and Paul Higgins (responsible for the Glyndebourne Tour revival) add some twists to the apparently simple tale. They’re abetted by designer Julia Hansen to present us with a circular red-curtained setting within which revolves three distinct personal spaces flexible enough to allow for a few more abstract ones.

Flitting between them all is John Brancy’s well-sung and acted Dr Malatesta. One feels that he would be struck off any professional medical register; there’s a tinge of Offenbach’s Dr Miracle in the way he steps from one room setting to the next. Not to mention his relationship with Eliana Pretorian’s sexy minx of a Norina, engagingly sung but leaving one wondering how quickly she will tire of Tuomas Katajala’s puppy-dog Ernesto.

There’s a slightly anachronistic air to the costumes – lots of Boucher and Fragonard erotic references but also a hint of classic 19th century French farce and even a whiff of Sofia Coppela’s 1988 Marie Antoinette. With all this engaging the eye, it would be easy to relegate Donizetti’s lilting score to the background, but the cast, the bewigged, powdered and white-silk clad chorus and the orchestra under Duncan Ward pull us back into a due sense of proportion.

José Fardilha takes the title role with true buffo style; his one-breath patter songs – including the Act III Scene I duet with Malatesta – deserve their applause. it’s a merit of this production that we oh-so-slightly care about the plights in which Don Pasquale and Ernesto find themselves rather than being mere disinterested spectators of something which, however memorable the music and accomplished the singers, is so far removed from real life. Let alone its pains and penalties.

Don Pasquale is also at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 19 November.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Opera, Reviews 2015

Bully Boy

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester on 9 November)

We live in a conflicted world and time – though there’s nothing new or unusual about that. What perhaps is new is that we are being made aware of the mental as well as physical toll which combat levies on its participants. Not to mention on their friends and families and on (often innocent) bystanders.

Sandi Toksvig’s play Bully Boy confronts us with two soldiers. Oscar (Andrew French) is a wheelchair-confined major, investigating Eddie (Josh Collins) on behalf of the military police. A complaint has been made by Afghan villagers; it appears that a young boy was deliberately thrown into a well.

Close friends and comrades died as the effect of an improvised explosive device; Eddie is the sole surviver of the group, the Bully Boys. Bully, of course, has two distinct meanings – a jolly, dashing fellow is one. The other denotes someone who preys on weaker people. It is up to Oscar to establish just which one is significant in this context.

Dan Shearer’s production in the refurbished Mercury Studio Theatre has the audience steeply banked overlooking a wide but shallow acting area. Designer James Cotterill frames the action with dun-coloured fencing; both actors wear sand-camouflage combat gear. Rebecca Applin’s eerie music and Steve Mayo’s atmospheric soundscape drift across the action.

Of the two performers, it is Collins as the sparky, perky Eddie who has perhaps the easier task. he makes it apparent from the start that this is a façade, a mask which has become second nature; what is behind it is too raw for exposure. The British “stiff upper lip” propensity can conceal irremediable damage.

French plays a more complicated character; war hero (from the Falklands campaign), seeker after truth or a man in retreat from himself and his own past? He shows us someone for whom a desk-job and a wheelchair are no true compensation for what he has forfeited. In his own way, he too is engaged in a fight to survive.

Bully Boy runs at the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester until 21 November.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015

The Last Tango

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 2 November)

You know what they say – third time lucky! That’s certainly true of the third dance drama starring award-winning and television stars Flavia Cacace and Vincent Simone. The Last Tango has a strong, deceptively simple plot and showcases a range of 1930s dances, not just the tango variations for which Cacace and Simone are renowned.

Into an attic-room crammed with discarded bits of furniture – including a piano much in need of some TLC – as well as boxes and suitcases crammed full of memorabilia crawls old George. His son and daughter call to him from below from time to time, worried for him as each item brings back memories. Teddy Kempner has the audience on his side from the beginning as he unfolds his life for us on the stage below.

We see him first as a young man (Simone) chatting up and then dating a girl he fancies (Cacace). There follows a beach party and a whole range of social encounters offering the other dancers the opportunity to display their considerable dance skills in Karen Bruce’s inventive choreography. The well-designed costumes (Vicky Gill) range from the carefree early 30s to wartime and post-war.

Cacane herself has a razor-bright sharpness to her foot work, a lithe body, gamine hairstyle and a graceful extension. Simone partners her securely and acts the part of the carefree youth changed by combat and later maturing into an acceptance of loss with conviction. Singers Rebecca Lisewski and Matthew Gent underline the passage of time under the musical direction of Steve Geere. The overture, incidentally, sounded over-amplified at the first Norwich performance.

The Last Tango runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 7 November and is also at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend between 26 and 30 January.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Ballet & dance, Reviews 2015

A Murder Is Announced

(reviewed at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 3 November)

The Leslie Darbon stage version of Agatha Christie’ was first produced in 1977, some 20 years after the novel had been published. It’s an interesting choice for the Middle Ground Theatre Company, but Michael Lunney’s production goes it proud.

We are in the extended drawing-room of a large village house. It’s owned by Leticia Blacklock (Diane Fletcher) and is currently shared with her somewhat doddery friend Dora Bunner (Sarah Thomas) and two young cousins, Julia (Rachel Bright) and Patrick (Patrick Neyman) Simmons.

Other neighbours and friends who drop in include Miss Marple (Cara Chase, replacing an indisposed Judy Cornwell at the performance I saw), Mrs Swettenham (Julia Bevan) and her son Edmund (Dean Smith). Plunging in and out of the action is housekeeper Mitzi (Lydia Piechowiak), a political refugee with more than the usual complement of chips on her thin shoulders.

Lunney has coaxed a good sense of period manners and attitudes from his cast; there’s no sense of artificiality in the all-important exposition scenes. Tom Butcher’s Inspector Craddock and Jog Maher’s Sergeant Mellors fit seamlessly into this ambiance. As Phillipa Haymes, Alicia Ambrose-Bayly also convinces.

You probably already know the plot, which has its full measure of twists before the dénouement. Fletcher is very effective as the chatelain with so many secrets locked up behind her gracious exterior. Chase’s Miss Marple is an interesting study; her village wise woman persona taking precedence over the nosy busy-body angle so often purveyed.

A Murder Is Announced runs at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford until 7 November.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015

Mahler’s Conversion

(reviewed at the Hostry Festival, Norwich on 28 October)

Ronald Harwood’s 2001 play about the composer Gustav Mahler and his ambition to be the director of the Vienna State Opera (then the Vienna Court Opera – Die Oper am Ring) was not a success in the West End, in spite of having Antony Sher in the title role.

It focusses primarily on that ambition – which led to him being baptised into the Roman Catholic Church when it became painfully obvious that no Jew not prepared to deny his cultural and religious heritage would ever even be considered for the post, much less appointed to it. That is followed by the disintegration of his relationships with old friends, his mistress and his wife.

Probably the episodic nature of the script always will tell against Mahler’s Conversion ever being a run-of-the-mill commercial success. But it’s an ideal festival piece, especially for one which nestles next to Norwich Cathedral. Director Chris Bealey has staged it in the round with back-wall projections indicating the various locations and easily arranged white boxes painted with Secession-style black outlines.

Christopher Neal gives a bravura performance as Mahler, his whole being an endless turmoil of musical ideas, sexual and social impatience and, underlying it all, a desire – a need – to belong (and be seen to belong) in both this world and the next. There’s a fine exchange with the priest Fr Swider (Peter Barrow) in which the conscientious catechist is knocked back by Mahler’s desire to be baptised before receiving instruction.

The women in Mahler’s life are distilled into cross-dressing journalist Natalie Bauder Lechner (Ginny Porteous), soprano mistress Anna von Mildenburg (Rebecca Aldred) and eventually unfaithful wife Alma Schindler (Nina Taylor). His most constant, and least self-serving friend is Siegfried Lipiner (David Green). But they are all a little like minor stars in a wider galaxy. That even applies to David Newham’s Sigmund Freud in his encounter with Mahler abroad.

Mahler’s Conversion runs at the Hostry Festival, Norwich until 31 October.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015

Don’t Look Now

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 26 October)

What sends shivers down the spine where tales of the supernatural are concerned is often less the visualised than the imagined. We all cast our demons from different moulds. Nell Leyshon’s stage adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story Don’t Look Now is given a production by Simon Jessop which knows when to make evil concrete – as little as possible.

It is the Venetian setting designed by Norman Coates with the visual effects projected onto its bridges, water and shuttered windows by Dan Crews and the trickling soundscape devised by Andy Smart which create the atmosphere. We begin by an open grave before which grief-striken mother Laura (Charlotte Powell) stands motionless. Hymns and part of the Requiem Mass are heard while we watch the image of Laura and John’s young daughter Christine drown.

John (Tom Cornish) whisks Laura away to Venice, where they spent their honeymoon. He’s prepared to move on – after all their son John is alive, well and safe at his boarding school. As one cannot help but empaphise with Laura, to whom Powell gives sincerity in her grief and inevitable feelings of guilt (“why didn’t I…?), Cornish balances this by showing John less as unfeeling but more as something of a pragmatist.

The hotel bedroom scene where his desire to make love with his wife at first meets resistance that (perhaps) melts into acceptance, is cleverly played on two levels with the live actors and their projected images. The mutual ground which constitutes terra firma for this husband and wife is quietly crumbling. Their encounters with two strange, identically dressed elderly women (Gillian Cally as the sister with explanations, Tina Gray as her blind mystic sibling) display brutally the gulf opening for Laura and John.

You probably know what happens next. Onlookers and participants in their own parallel civic drama are the police chief (Stuart Organ) hunting a serial killer, the hotel clerk (Callum Hughes) and the restaurant proprietor (Sam Pay). A mysterious beak-masked sacristan – a commedia dell’arte character or a plague doctor? – and a diminutive red-cloaked figure (Karen Anderson) haunt this winter Venice.

Don’t Look Now runs at the Quen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until14 November.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015

Lady Macbeth

(reviewed at the Hostry Festival, Norwich on 24 October)

This solo operatic cantata by Kenneth Ian Hÿtch takes the words spoken by Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s tragedy and weaves them into a tonal but uncompromisingly modern examination of a woman with ambitions who ultimately fails because she finds herself able to initiate but not to execute.

It requires a singing actress, which is what Lisa Cassidy shows herself to be, managing the coloratura and bravura passages (notably in the banqueting scene) as well as the guilt expressed in the repeated “The Thane of Fife had a wife” from the sleep-walking scene which Hÿtch sets to a quasi folk tune which haunts the listener well after the conclusion of the piece.

Pianist William Fergusson and violinist Elizabeth Marjoram accompany Cassidy as – black-robed and variously mantled and crowned (with thorn-like spikes) – she demonstrates her love for her husband (a fur-collared cloak thrown over the back of a throne-like chair) and writhes both vocally and physically in a tortured torrent of impotence; she can take no action herself.

The promotional image for Lady Macbeth is the famous Sargent painting of Ellen Terry in the rôle, robed in Byzantine splendour and holding the crown aloft. Cassidy also holds the crown but shows that Lady Macbeth’s grasp is altogether less secure. it would be interesting to see and hear Cassidy in the Verdi Macbeth opera – the 1865 revision rather than the 1847 version.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Opera, Reviews 2015

Groovy Greeks

(reviewed at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 23 October)

The voice of the king of the gods, Zeus himself, is a fitting introduction to this latest addition to the Birmingham Stage Company’s repertoire of Horrible Histories. Appropriately enough, he’s Terry Deary, actor-author of the original series of books.

In Groovy Greeks Zeus is confronted by a modern family. There’s Mum (Laura Dalgleish), bright-as-a-button daughter Alice (Hannah Boyce) who is just as inquisitive as her Lewis Carroll namesake, somewhat know-all Dad (Charlie Buckland) and stroppy son Rob (Ashley Bowden).

They are invited (threatened? challenged?) by Zeus to enter the world of the highly competitive ancient Greeks. Troy and its ten-year siege is the appropriate beginning. Rob confuses Homer the poet with the Simpsons’ patriarch which allows for some clever cartoon-derived headgear designed, as are the projections by Jacqueline Trousdale.

The harsh, military-focussed city-state of Sparta, the Olympic Games and the rise of Athens are the next to tax our quartet’s survival skills. Slavery was a fact of everyday life in the ancient world; there’s a timely statistical reminder that it’s still prevalent today.

Horrible Histories on stage wouldn’t live up to their name without Bogglevision, as devised by Whizzbang 3D Production. The Minotaur lurks in a distorted labyrinth to claim his tribute of young human flesh. His vanquishing by Theseus is attended by some fright-inducing spiders as well as other monsters.

Both the historical encounters with the Persian empire – Leonides’ doomed but heroic defence of the Thermopylae Pass and the vital sea battle at Salamis are alive with hurled spears and rocks (I challenge you not to duck!), the foam and hiss of oar-beaten waves and the crunch of armoured prows caving in wooden triremes.

Tere’s a hilarious Britain’s Got Talentt-style contests for the audience’s favour with Aphrodite’s sexy show-girl routine easily out-voting Poseidon’s trident-waving rock star or Athena’s pop singer attempt. Our time travellers return to the present-day having learned a lot about the past and the way in which it continues to inform the present.

You see, history really can be great fun. It just takes imagination.

Groovy Greeks runs in repertoire with Incredible Invaders at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford until 24 Octover and also at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 26 and 31 October.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Family & children's shows, Reviews 2015

Moonlight & Magnolias

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 21 October)

Ron Hutchinson’s play is a comedy – not to say farce – on the outside which wraps itself around some serious issues. Ostensibly it’s about the making of the film Gone With the Wind, more precisely about the fractured start to what became one of the greatest box-office successes of all time.

We’re in the Hollywood office of David O Selznick (Mark Little), the studio boss who has fired both the director and the script-writer. To replace the one, he hauls Victor Fleming (Richard Burnip) off The Wizard of Oz. His new choice for dramatist is Ben Hecht (Derek Howard), who hasn’t even read Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 book.

Money is leaching out of Selznick’s coffers as an expensive crew and even more expensive cast wait to resume filming. Somehow in five days a scenario needs to be produced for Fleming to work out scenes and camera angles and a script developed for the actors to learn. Hecht is more than reluctant to be involved.

Selznick’s solution is a radical one. He locks himself and the other two men in his office; Hecht has to make the script from the frantic and compressed rôle-playing by Selznick and Fleming. That’s where the fun really begins, though Hecht never lets us forget what is happening to the Jewish population in Europe as Hitler lurches towards war.

He sees the situation of Negroes in the ante bellum Deep South as providing a parallel. It’s a clever performance by Howard, never grasping at the audience’s understanding of his problems and principles but letting them seep across into our consciousness. Burnip has rather drawn the short straw in this threesome but makes his quieter mark just the same.

Catherine Lomax’s production whisks everything along as the stage gradually becomes strewn with peanuts, banana-skins and page after page of rejected copy. Popping in and out of the action is Alexis Caley as Miss Poppenghul, Selznick’s dutiful but put-upon secretary. it’s a neat character study.

But the performance which dominates is that of Little. His timing is impeccable as, from his centre-stage desk with its bank of telephones, Selznick commands, cajoles, threatens and ultimately oh-so-subtly bribes. Alistair Rivers’ set is excellent and Chris Janes orchestrates the fight scenes with just the right blend of realism and stage convention. It seems a pity that this production only has a limited season at its home theatre.

Moonlight & Magnolias runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 24 October.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015

Incredible Invaders


 
(reviewed at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 20 October)

 

Horrible Histories, in print, on television or – best of all – live on stage throw a particularly well-disguised punch at their public. You learn something while enjoying the experience. Take Incredible Invaders, for instance.

England from 56BC to that final lethal invasion of AD1066 covers a lot of ground, both literally and metaphorically. Linking it all is an outspoken British girl called Mavis (Hannah Boyce) who has the audience immediately on her side as her potential sacrifice by the Druids is interrupted by the Roman army (well, just two soldiers) – but who can afford a cast of thousands these days?

Neal Foster has written the scripts as well as directing the fast-moving action. But it’s the work of set, costume and screen image designer Jacqueline Trousdale that really takes centre stage. The projections give us a three-dimension set even before the second half intervention of the Whizzbang Bogglevision sequences.

After the Romans (in retrospect probably the best of the invaders) and the suitably wild revolt by Boudicca (Laura Dalgleish) come the Saxons with some particularly nasty execution practices (Foster doesn’t veer away from these). Ashley Bowden and Charlie Buckland stand in for Hengest and Horsa as the fragmented Britannia succumbs to a different sort of brute strength.

The Vikings, those Norsemen who also colonised Normandy, arrive in their longboats, one of which has a marvellous, slightly camp talking figurehead. King Alfred (Bowden) now takes centre stage with his possibly mythical cake-burning (Arthur has already been dismissed as mere legend). We may think of him as a good and just ruler but Foster makes clear that late 9th century justice had its own savageries.

And so to the Normans and the Battle of Hastings, flowing in Bogglevision straight out of the Bayeux Tapestry. Adults in the mid-week audience may have thought that their attendance was something of a chore. My impression is that they revelled in it all just as much as the children did.

Incredible Invaders plays in repertory with Groovy Greeks at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford until 20 October and at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 27 and 31 October.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Family & children's shows, Reviews 2015

King Charles III

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 19 October)

Original verse dramas are thin on the ground when it comes to the 20th and 21st century. The iambic pentameter doesn’t necessarily echo contemporary speech fashions, though Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not For Burning managed it successfully. Now Mike Bartlett’s “future history” play King Charles III joins the select band.

This production by Rupert Goold is currently on a national tour en route to Broadway. It began life at London’s Almeida Theatre with a different cast and has been revised and updated during its 18-month life. The set by Tom Scutt – a semi-circle of brick walls bisected horizontally by a Byzantine-style frieze of royal forebears – might serve equally well for one of Shakespeare’s history plays. Elements of the plot reinforce this.

Bartlett postulates the accession to the British throne of the present Prince of Wales. There is an early clash with convention, as the new king (Robert Powell) insists on having weekly meetings not just with his dour Welsh Prime Minister Evans (Tim Treloar) but with the infinitely more pliable Leader of the Opposition Stevens (Giles Taylor).

Meanwhile his younger son Harry (Richard Glaves) is churning up the local clubs and bars, in the course of which he meets Jess (Lucy Phelps). His heir William (Ben Righton) is concerned for the future of the monarchy and comes over as increasingly dominated by his wife Kate (Jennifer Bryden), who has more than a slight whiff of Lady Macbeth in her attitude to her husband.

A key factor in Goold’s production is the vocal score by Joceyn Pook, using texts from the Catholic liturgy (“Agnus Dei and “Dies irae”) to haunting effect. There’s an actual ghost as well – Diana (Beatrice Walker), whose message (like so many from supernatural sources) is ambiguous. This is a Delphic oracle definitely not to be trusted.

Interestingly, it is Taylor and Bryden who sound most at home with the blank verse format. Powell’s performance gives us a man of principles, capable of exercising his royal perogative and of listening – but not perhaps heeding. As the next generation takes over, Charles grows in stature to become a true tragic hero (more Shakespearean echoes).

Comedy? yes, certainly as the audience response demonstrates. Tragedy? possibly, if you can define that as a man who brings about his own destruction. Reality? who knows?

King Charles III runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 24 October. It can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 14 and 19 March 2016.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015

Giuseppe Verdi

by

Daniel Snowman

(published by The History Press in the “Pocket Giants” series; £6.99)

You might at first wonder what Verdi is doing in the company of national leaders such as King Alfred, Abraham Lincoln or Nelson Mandela. Jane Austen perhaps, as both were creative geniuses, but Buddha or Hannibal? The answer lies in the subtitle for the series – people who changed the world and why they matter.

There have been many biographies of the composer since his death in 1901 and, though interest in his individual operas (27, including revised versions) has fluctuated with changes in musical tastes and fashions, his place in the pantheon headed by Mozart, Puccini and Wagner has always been ensured.

Daniel Snowman’s monograph is as much concerned with the man and his epoch as with the opera themselves. Verdi was a very efficient self-publicist. Snowman is at pains to discount the “simple peasant” cloak which Verdi wore with such a flourish and he explains the national and political changes which occurred in Italy and his neighbouring countries with concision as well as accuracy.

Verdi’s relationships with his family, friends, publishers and impresarios are also made clear in a non-judgemental fashion. Not that the music is ignored, far from it. But this 125-page book prefers to set it in context – and that context has a great deal to do with power politics, whether of the opera house or regional authority variety – rather than concentrate on detailed analysis.

The bibliography guides you to some of the standard works on the operas and personalities involved if you want to know more. I suspect that you will.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Reviews 2015