Category Archives: Plays

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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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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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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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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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Handbagged

There’s a fine line in even the best productions between portrayal and impersonation. It’s a tightrope which Moira Buffini’s comedy-satire Handbagged – currently on a national tour following its London success – treads impeccably. That’s also partly due to Indhu Rubasingham’s taut direction, the sets and costumes designed by Richard Kent.

Above all, it’s due to the six actors. Precisely what the relationship was between Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher is something at which commentators (and scriptwriters) guess but cannot confirm. Handbagged has two actresses playing each of these two strong characters, one as an older person and the other as Queen or Prime Minister in early middle-age. The conceit works perfectly.

Acting honours must go to Susie Blake as Q, who has seen so many premiers come – and go – over her reign that a woman one is a mere novelty. Blake radiates a marvellous air of controlled, slightly sceptical acceptance of the changing world around her – watch her face when other characters apparently hold centre stage. This is a woman who knows when to accept the world’s vagaries, partly through observation but also through experience.

Kate Fahy manages the look and voice for T equally well, her inability to deliver anything but thinly-disguised lectures gratingly reflected in her vocal range – note-restricted and never less than mezzo forte. There’s a pleasing air of genuine curiosity inherent in the way Emma Handy presents Liz; Sanchia McCormack gives Mags all the conviction – and lack of humour – which will give the older woman her strength. And, of course, her weakness.

The cast is completed by Asif Khan, flourishing an array of accents and stepping out as a scarlet-suited Nancy Reagan with full flouncing flourish as well as the President of Zambia, and Richard Teversham – stetson-wearing Reagan, Press secretary O’Shea, bright-buttoned Dennis Thatcher and a grumpy Prince Philip. Bit parts each of these latter may be, but they’re far from insignificant.

Whatever Khan and Teverson may say in the exchanges where they step out of character, the sum of their contribution is as great as that of their principals. Two or three hundred years ago, politicians (and the occasional royal) settled their differences with sword or pistol. In 20th or early 21st century Britain, quieter weapons are used. Their effect is just as deadly.

Handbagged runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 17 October. it can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 10 and 14 November.

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Abigail’s Party

(reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop’s Stortford on 7 October)

Mike Leigh’s searing dissection of 1977 England is now both a period piece and a play for all times, because its characters are truly people. Probably we all know go-getters, second careerists and socially ambitious neighbours. With luck, these don’t include a Beverly, in whose sitting-room the action of Abigail’s Party takes place.

Her guests for the evening include an established resident, Susan (Gailie Pollock) – whose teenage daughter is throwing the party of the title – and new neighbours nurse Angela (Natalie Caswell) and husband Tony (Matthew Bancroft). Former beautician Beverly is determined to be the queen bee in this particular hive; of course, queen bees have a lethal way with their mates.

Director Simon Anderson in this new Contexture production takes it all at a brisk pace with Tom Cliff’s extended set flanked on stage left by the pseudo-Georgian front door marked with its ominous number 13. Anderson is not afraid to put the sofa on which Angela, all girlish naïvité with a school-of-Laura-Ashley frock to match, and sensibly-clad Susan perch so uncomfortably facing the audience; we become flies on the fourth wall waiting for the inevitable to occur.

Charlotte Newton-John, sashaying around either the coffee-table or her guests in an ankle-length flame-coloured gown, her hair teased into a topknot of suspiciously bright curls, is an eye- and ear-riveting Beverly. Her “Don’t get me wrong” catch-phrase carries destruction every time she trills it. This is a performance to savour. It puts both Pollock and Caswell somewhat in the shade, however.

As monolithic and monosyllabic Tony, embarrassed by his wife’s gushing over Beverly’s taste in furnishings, Bancroft creates a realistic portrait of a man who will go his own way, regardless. Harassed estate-agent Laurence, juggling with clients’ demands and his wife’s constant commands so thinly veiled by a last-minute “please” gradually earns our sympathy as well as understanding. Stephen Cavanagh has the measure of the man as he finds something of a kindred spirit in Susan. By then, it’s all too late.

Abigail’s Party runs at the Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop’s Stortford until 13 October.

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An Inspector Calls

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 6 October)

That JB Priestley’s 70-year old play An Inspector Calls is now on its 25th national tour is a tribute to director Stephen Daldry’s now iconic production of 1992. Daldry has kept a firm, occasionally revisionist, eye of these re-cast productions, and the effect is as taut and mind-provoking as first time round.

Ian MacNeil’s set – that doll’s house cage teetering at an impossible angle above rain-washed cobblestones and wartime débris, too small to house its Edwardian occupants with all their pretensions and complacency – still rivets the audience’s attention as the curtain (itself part of the action) rises. Reality has clashed with abstraction visually, just as it does in the script. The discordant sounds which punctuate the action add their own frisson.

Liam Brennan is something of an oddball Inspector Goole, though he holds one’s attention. Tim Woodward’s Arthur Birling, self-satisfaction in a starched shirt-front, and Caroline Wildi as his wife Sybil, a soft-spoken, hard-edged matron in glittering crimson are the Inspector’s first interrogatees. Matthew Douglas as Gerald Croft, whose engagement to the Birlings’ daughter Sheila is being celebrated as the play begins, takes the character away from jeune premier territory to interesting effect.

Sheila and her brother Eric contrast well in Katherine Jack and Hamish Riddle’s characterisations. Katherine Jack manages to win understanding – for Sheila’s selfishness and the girlish petulance which contributed to Eve Smith’s grim end – and final sympathy for her acceptance of that responsibility. The trouble with Hamish Riddle is that his Eric starts on too high – one might even say, hysterical – a note, so that his final outburst with its alcohol-fuelled maudlin self-pity has no platform on which to build.

An Inspector Calls is at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 10 October. It also plays at the Theatre Royal, Norwich (1-5 December) and the Milton Keynes Theatre (23-27 February).

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Flare Path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Waiting for Godot

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmuns on 22 September)

Director Michael Cabot takes us through Beckett’s most performed play at a brisk rate which emphasises the comedic aspects while remaining respectful to the text. I seem to remember Peter Hall’s original London production as taking a far more reverential approach. This one works, thanks in large part to a set design by Bek Palmer which engages our eyes while five excellent actors engross our ears.

Andy Grange’s lighting complements the shimmering black floor-cloth, suggestive of some primeval swamp or morass. it’s studded with light stepping-stones, like so many giant and bleached lily-pads. The all-important tree where Vladimir (Peter Cadden) and Estragon (Richard Heap) wait for their appointment with the mysterious Godot is a grey columnar affair, dangling its thick tangle of roots at their eye-level. Dull mirrors and other similarly suspended trees form its bakground.

As the two men wrangle, Vladimir pontificates and Estragon grumbles, they’re joined by Pozzo (Jonathn Ashley) and his slave-servant Lucky (Michael Keane). Pozzo blusters in true ringmaster fashion, cracking his whip and demonstrating his top-hatted authority over lesser mortals. The boy(s) who announce at the end of the acts that Godot won’t in fact be coming until the next day are played by Sonja Zobel.

The joshing between the two main characters is beautifully defined by Heap and Cadden; their timing is impeccable and they use the constant switches in their relationship between mutual support and cross-patch irritation to win and keep the audiences sympathy. Keane comes into his own with Lucky’s incomprehensible tirade at the end of the first act, deservedly an applause-reaping scene. This production shows the unsubsidised London Classic Theatre at the top of its form.

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Steel Magnolias

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 21 September)

Woman may be a delicate blossom, like the white flowers for which Robert Harling named his 1987 play, but women are infinitely less fragile, hence the second word in the title Steel Magnolias. We are in small-town Louisiana in the south of the USA, specifically in a hair-dressing salon. Its proprietor is Truvvy (Sarah Mahony) and she’s just taken on a new-to-town assistant Annelle (Lucy Wells) – a born-again Christian.

The clientle is a faithfull one, using the salon as a neutral meeting-ground, rather like a club. There’s a former mayor’s wealthy widow Clairee (Tina Gray), the slightly eccentric dog-loving Ouiser (Gillian Cally) and mother and daughter M’Lynn (Claire Storey) and Shelby (Gemma Salter).

Shelby is about to be married; she’s also a diabetic. In her mother’s view, the two do not go together, as we see during the course of the drama which coves two-and-a-half years in four scenes. Director Liz Marsh and designers Dinah England (set and costumes) and Chris Howcroft (lighting) take us to the time and place and through the seasons with considerable style and dialect coach Richard Ryder has done sterling work.

The trouble is that those soft Southern inflections are not easily projected into the auditorium. So, though all the performances are very good in themselves, Storey’s long speech in the fourth scene didn’t really come across with all its painful recollection until its peroration.

Which is a pity as by this point we are thoroughly engaged in the human tragedy as well as with the personal crises of various types with which the characters are involved and which they manage to resolve collectively and with considerable finesse through a policy of give and take.

Steel Magnolias runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 10 October.

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The Father

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 17 September)

Who suffers the most when a once-active – both physically and intellectually – person is afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease? Is it the actual sufferer? Or the family? Is it those outside the immediate family circle who care for the patient? That’s the framework for Florian Zeller’s 2014 play Le père, now translated by Christopher Hampton as The Father and premièred at the Cambridge Arts theatre before transferring to the West End.

The central character is André, a widower who lives alone; one daughter Anne, who still lives in Paris but hopes to move to London with the new man in her life, does everything she can to help him maintain both his dignity and independence. The other daughter Elise, the recipient of a disproportionate degree of affection, is reportedly abroad, though we learn gradually that she died in a accident many years previously.

What Zeller is concerned for us the audience to understand and accept as an active part of this particular theatre-going experience is the dislocation of time and place which is a by-product of Alzheimer’s. We need to concentrate as the sequence of scenes introduces Anne, carer Laura, a medical assessor and Anne former husband.

Director James Macdonald keeps the action moving at a brisk pace; the whole staging is double-framed – first of all by Guy Hoare’s border of white lights which boxes in the acting area of set designer Miriam Buether. Sound designer Christopher Shutt uses the precision of baroque keyboard sonatas broken without warning or regularity by a scratch or needle slip.

Central to it all is André himself. It’s a difficult rôle for any actor as we feel both sympathy for and irritation with the character as he unwittingly comes close to wrecking his daughter’s life. Kenneth Cranham gives a towering performance of a once-strong man crumbling into hostile and destructive senility; his curtain-call ovation is well deserved.

Claire Skinner is Anne, the daughter who is naturally so reluctant to consign her father to a nursing-home, for all the strain which his care is putting on her relationships at home and at work. You believe in her utterly and reach out in sympathetic understanding.

Then there’s Pierre, the husband she is/has discarded. Nicholas Gleaves doesn’t soften his harshness to wards the father-in-law he sees as partly responsible for the end of his marriage. The scene in which he slaps André’s face hits home as it should; we condemn the blow but understand why it happens.

Kirsty Oswald makes Laura as bubbly as she should be; André likens her to Elise, to whom he refers in brutal comparison with Anne at regular intervals. The end of the play, which is both a resolution for a situation grown impossible, is intensely moving. Anyone who has ever known an Alzheimer’s sufferer as the disease inexorably accelerates will know the helplessness of even the closest and most sympathetic bystander. There, but for the grace of God…

The Father runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 26 September.

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