Category Archives: Plays

So Here We Are

(reviewed at the HighTide Festival, Aldeburgh on 12 September)

There’s a lot to look at as well as to hear in Steven Atkinson’s production of So Here We Are, a new play by Luke Norris. As it starts, we meet four young amateur footballers, mainly perched on top of dockside containers, as they begin to take in that their friend Frankie (whose funeral they have just attended) is truly dead. They drink lager and josh each other, but still find it hard to accept what has happened.

Mourning is a strange phenomenon anyway. They are eventually joined by Frankie’s partner Kirsty clutching black balloons for them to launch as a tribute and an element of closure. But can that ever be achieved, especially by the young whose first brush with mortality this is?

Then we are in flashback mode. Lily Arnold’s container set opens to display disco lights and we meet Frankie himself (Daniel Kendrick) who has grasped the trappings of football success rather too early. His exchanges with Kirsty foreshadow what we know will happen, but are punctuated by his friends’ well-meaning interventions as well as by Isobel Waller-Bridge’s ear-blistering score and sound.

Sound is something of a problem throughout, in fact; for much of the first half it’s as though we were on a seawall with a rough tide rampaging over a pebble beach. Ciáron Owens, Dorian Jerome Simpson, Mark Weinmann and Sam Melvin all convey the inarticulate nature of young male bonding, even when you have to guess at what they’re saying between the expletives.

So Here We Are runs in repertoire at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 20 September.

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Brenda

(reviewed at the HighTide Festival, Aldeburgh on 12 September)

We are told by director Caitlin McLeod that this new play by E V Crowe, about a woman stressed to the point of mental fragility, takes place on the fault line between theatre and reality. That’s a perfectly legitimate concept, when it works. For me it definitely did not.

There’s a lot of wordless standing around for Alison O”Donnell as Brenda in the Parish Church Hall at the beginning of the play. Silence and lengthy pauses can be excellent drama when initiated by a master; here they seem merely irritating. I wanted to care what was going to happen to this sad young woman, but couldn’t manage it.

Brenda is joined by Robert (Jack Tarlton), who one presumes he’s her husband. He wants to help her, basically by forcing her to acknowledge that she is indeed a person called Brenda through the use of a microphone. Is this in fact cruelty for its own sake, an element of revenge or truly an attempt at therapy?

Designer James Turner makes a great play of a bank of electronic amplification and a snake’s nest of microphone leads, uncoiling and writhing across the floor like so many vipers. Snake venom, of course, has medicinal uses as well as lethal properties; we are left uncertain whether Brenda’s need to be outside is an escape attempt or merely a provocation to Robert.

Brenda runs in repertoire in the Aldeburgh Parish Hall until 19 September.

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Harrogate

(reviewed at the HighTide Festival, Aldeburgh on 12 September)

The second première in this year’s HighTide Festival is a two-hander for three characters by Al Smith. The audience is ranged either side of a long raised platform which designer Tom Piper has floored in pristine white, echoes by the two chairs and kitchen unit which are the only other furnishings.

Nick Sidi is Him, a father and divorced husband obsessed by girls’ virginal mid-teen status. He met his former wife when she was a schoolgirl; now his daughter is the same age. He worries about her to a point which we feel as the play progresses is beyond reason or logic.

He is concerned that her friend Carly is leading her astray, that she wears make-up and scent, that she buys shoes and a mobile phone to suit her own taste rather than his. Above all, that her mother is setting her the wrong example with her new partner Gary and above all that she now has an older boyfriend Adam.

His obsession is such that he follows her when she and Carly go away for the weekend, only of course they separate and she and Adam spend Valentine’s Day together in Harrogate, ending up in a double bed in a guest-house. When he confronts his wife (both women are played by Sarah Ridgeway) he seeks to transform her into an unhealthy mix of her own teenage self and her daughter.

It is a mark of director Richard Twyman’s skill as well as of Smith’s writing that we are never completely repelled by the male character’s dangerous obsession, a perverse Lolita complex as Him at one point admits. Nick Sidi takes us inside this ultimately sad man’s soul and lays it bare as on an operating table.

That table is where Ridgeway as the wife and mother spends her working life. As a surgeon, she knows that you cannot force time to stand still, much less run backwards. It’s a beautifully rounded performance, matched by her deceptively simple characterisation of the daughter, who is learning about life’s duplicity in a fashion as skewed as her father’s obsessions.

Harrogate runs in repertoire at the Pumphouse, Aldeburgh until 20 September.

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Lampedusa

(reviewed at the HighTide Festival, Aldeburgh on 12 September)

This new play by Anders Lustgarten is a searing indictment of two contemporary evils, one national and the other international. It is a piece for two voices, one that of Stefano, a Sicilian fisherman whose work has degenerated from catching fish to feed people to pulling the bodies of dead migrants from the Mediterranean – that sea around whose shores western civilisation first took root.

The other character is Denise, who works for a pay-day loan company collecting overdue repayments. In its way, it is equally soul-destroying, but she has an invalid mother to support (much as the DWP would like to declare her fit for work, and thus save paying disability benefits). Anyway, her employers reckon that a woman has a better chance of success in collecting money than a man.

Because the writing is strong and committed, I kept on feeling – in spite of Steven Atkinson’s production and the excellent performances by Steven Elder (Stefano) and Louise Mai Newberry (Denise) – that this would work much better on radio without the visual distractions furnished by a theatre-in-the-round production.

At the end, both characters are offered a glimpse of hope – Stefano through finding alive the wife of a distraught migrant, Denise through the kindness of a Portuguese woman client. But Lustgarten makes us aware that these are mere firefly glimmers in an increasingly dark world. We are never far from decay, even on the seashore.

Lampedusa continues in repertoire at the HighTide Dome until 19 September.

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Jeeves & Wooster: Perfect Nonsense

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 2 September

The title sums up this confection to perfection – it’s a piece of fluff as light as any soufflé whipped up by Anatol, master chef of Bertie Wooster’s battleship of an aunt, but there’s been a great deal of hard work and skill in its making. David Goodale is the tour director for this post-West End promenade through the regions with the design team of Alice Power (set and costumes), James Farncombe (lighting) and Ben and Max Ringham (music and sound) working their own particular blend of magic.

Matthew Carter is ou hero – if you can call him that. Much of the fun of the evening comes from Joseph Chance’s imperturbable and erudite Jeeves and Robert Goodale’s doddering Seppings. Both actors take on a bewilderingly hilarious variety of roles, both male and female, as Bertie tries to help a fellow Drones member to revive his faltering engagement and retrieve a Georgian silver cow-creamer coveted by both his uncle and an irascible JP.

The fiancée in question just happens to be the JP’s daughter; one of those apparently delicate flapper flowers who knows just what she wants and how to get it – as does her cousin Stephanie.Those multitudinous costume and set changes whisk along in a clever faux-naïf fashion, as though Bertie and his chums were indulging in a spurt of country house or varsity am dram. it’s just what you need to take your mind off the weather.

Jeeves & Wooster: Perfect Nonsense
runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 5 September and also plays at the New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich from 13 to 17 October and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 30 October and 1 November.

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September Tide

(reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 26 August)

Daphne du Maurier is a writer whose name fills theatres – as well as emptying bookshop shelves. September Tide is set in the uncertain period following the Second World War when young men were liable for National Service, alcohol and certain foodstuffs were in short supply if not still rationed and England was having to accustom itself to a world which might look backwards with nostalgia but could never be quite what it used to be.

We are in Cornwall where Stella, a widow with grown-up children but still immensely attractive and charismatic, is eagerly awaiting a visit from her newly-married, London-based daughter Cherry. Cherry is a free spirit – something which she may have inherited from her mother, if not from her late sailor father – and you could describe her relationship with her new painter husband Evan as semi-detached.

If you know anything about du Maurier’s own life story, including her near-obsession with Cornwall, you can detect autobiographical elements as this three-cornered drama unfolds. The revised script is by Mark Rayment and Phil Clark’s production located it firmly in its period with no attempt to whittle away the moral issues propounded or their solution. The resolution is perhaps for us in the 21st century an overly romantic one, but attitudes to many things have changed over the past 50 or 60 years.

Eliza McClelland makes an appealing heroine as Stella, matched by Chris Clarkson’s domineering Evan a man as selfish as only those who are certain of their own genius can be. Light relief is provided by Jill Freud as Mrs Tucket, the indispensable “help”, and to a lesser extent by Michael Shaw as Robert, who hopes that Stella will one day agree to marry him.

Then there’s Rosanna Miles as Cherry, so insouciant on the surface but actually as uncertain about what the future holds as her elders – not to mention her hard-drinking husband. Too many of her lines, which are vital to the plot, seem to be thrown away – but that could just be the Jubilee Hall acoustics. Her younger brother, home on sick-leave from the Navy with a broken foot, is played by Harry Emerson.

September Tide runs at the Summer Theatre, Southwold until 12 September.

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The Count of Monte Cristo

(reviewed at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich on 21 August)

Common Ground Theatre Company has found a rich seam to mine in 19th and early 20th century adventure novels. its take on The Prisoner of Zenda is now followed by The Count of Monte Cristo. By the end of Act One I was convinced that this was going to be simply Part One of a two-part sequence of adaptations – but I was wrong.

After the interval the rest of the novel rushes by in true picaresque fashion; it’s worth remembering that Dumas’ historical stories were designed for an adult readership and contain considerable contemporary political comment, not to say satire. Pat Whymark’s adaptation frames the whole thing with a meeting of an undergraduate Dumas appreciation club (cue running joke about mustard). She also directs and has provided yet another of her tuneful scores as well.

The five-strong cast works very hard portraying a vast number of different characters with multiple wig and jacket changes, not to say gender shifts. Lorna Garside and Alice Mottram share the major women’s roles (and several of the masculine ones as well). Charles Davies, Joseph Lear and Nicholas Underwood are the three male actors.

The Count of Monte Cristo tours East Anglia until 3 October and is Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate between 24 and 27 August.

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Talking Heads

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

Alan Bennett’s monologues grouped under the title Talking Heads introduces us to two very different women and a mother-fixated man. All three are set in their long-established ways; for each this rigid path leads to an almost-inevitable measure of self-destruction.

The interest lies in how the dénouement for each character we meet comes about. It has something of the inevitability of classical tragedy as we watch how a character trait, a personality flaw or just the sheer inability to accept that change does and will occur moulds each story. Yes, for the most part we can see what will happen – but Bennett has a whole hand of master-cards up his sleeve.

Sarah Esdaile’s production cannot escape the piece’s 1988 television roots, though her slightly fidgety staging keeps each person firmly in that period. Francis O’Connor’s sets, atmospherically lit by Paul Pyant, combine naturalism with a touch of distortion – just as Miss Ruddock, Doris and Graham themselves live in a world whose distortion is as much of their own making as that provided by outside events and people.

All three actors are perfectly cast, especially Siobhan Redmond as Miss Ruddock; the second part of her story is a revelation in more than one sense. Karl Theobald has the measure of Karl, teetering on the edge of infantilism as he gauges the outside world through low-level porn magazines and his distorted view of his mother and his relationship with her.

Stephanie Cole is hear-breaking as Doris, so determined to stay in her own, now loo large home and to resist any attempt to cajole her into the sort of residential care which she (most probably correctly) sees as a short cut to the cemetery. Too proud to accept or call for help in the right circumstances and at the right time, she learns that being mistress of her fate is not necessarily as empowering as it seems.

Talking Heads runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 22 August.

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The Titfield Thunderbolt

(reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 10 August)

There was a time, more than half a century ago, when East Anglia’s market towns, as well as many across the country, each had a Station Road which lived up to its name. Then Dr Beeching swung his axe… now there are still plenty of Station Roads, but no station, let alone trains, to justify their nomenclature.

The famous Ealing film comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt was scripted by TEB Clarke and has been adapted for stage presentation by Philip Goulding. This new production by Mark Sterling has a wonderfully ingenious set by Maurice Rubens – whoever said that small-scale theatres can’t do spectacular? There’s a channel running across the stage to represent the railway track behind which the waiting-room and ticket office open in doll’s house fashion to reveal a vicar’s study and a pub bar area.

Nor is a train lacking – we actually see two of these, not to mention a somewhat decrepit bus operated by wide-boy Vernon Crump (Clive Flint). His son Harry (Rikki Lawton) is sweet on the vicar’s niece Joan (Amy Christina Murray) so afflicted by the classic duty versus love tug-of-war. The Reverend Sam Weech (Harry Gostelow) has his personal cross to bear in the shape of Joan’s retrobate father, his own brother.

The Weechs’ determination to save Titfield Station is matched by local landowner Lady Edna Chesterford (Sarah Ogley); after all, it was her ancestor who ensured that his property should be served by train. Crump senior aside, and he has a whole bag of crafty tricks in his capacious pockets, assorted men from the Transport Ministry descend with briefcases stuffed full with their own particular agendas. This being a very English comedy, there are no prizes for guessing what the end will be. The fun is in watching how that happens.

As I indicated, the set and its furnishings, including projections which take us through the countryside, are the real stars. The cast members do very well to hold their own against such opposition, bearing in mind that they are types rather than fully rounded characters. It’s episodic, which is due to the original film script, for which I suspect the copyright holders might be to blame.

But it’s a breath of rose-tinted nostalgia with never a whiff of analysis about it, and none the worse for that. And there’s even a couple of song-and-dance numbers arranged by Dick Walter and choreographed by Sidi Scott called The Ferroequinologist’s Lament. I don’t know about you, but that’s definitely a word previously alien to my vocabulary.

The Titfield Thunderbolt runs at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 15 August and transfers to the Southwold Summer Theatre between 17 and 29 August.

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Bedroom Farce

(reviewed at the Little Theatre, Sheringham on 7 August)

Guest director Nicky Henson has staged Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce before. It’s a play which is obviously popular wih the Little Theatre’s audiences, whether resident or holiday-makers, and this production had us all chuckling right from the start.

We are faced by Kees Van Woerkom’s ingenious set which works miracles with the theatre’s bijou stage to show three very different bedrooms simultaneously. Each is the apparently private domain of a married couple; stage right is that of Delia (Mary Lincoln) and Ernest (Paul Lavers), about to go out for their wedding anniversary dinner. Centre stage of that of bedridden Malcolm (Rik Warren) and sprightly Jan (Melissa Clements). Stage left is the chaotic first home of Kate (Loraine Metcalfe) and Nick (Mark Oosterveen).

They are holding their house-warming, preparations for which are much interrupted, as Nick is devoted to both practical jokes and attempted DIY. Among the invited guests are Trevor (Luke Francis) and his rapidly becoming estranged wife Susannah (Maeve Smyth). He’s the cosseted son of Delia and Ernest and she’s the daughter-in-law they have never really liked.

As always with Ayckbourn, there’s genuine pain amid the laughter. Smyth takes the lion’s share of this, and one wants alternatively to shake her and condole with her. Francis gives us the sort of spoiled brat tipping over into early middle-age with whom any sensible woman would decline further acquaintance, let alone marriage. Both Metcalfe and Oosterveen spin in and out of what is obviously a relationship which will mature into responsibility – though no quite yet.

Clements’ Jan is the lynchpin of the whole thing. You can see why Delia and Ernest would have preferred Jan for their son, and why she was wise to walk away from the relationship. Warren is very funny as Malcolm, as bad an invalid as any man can be (and usually is). Licoln and Lavers embody the established couple who have reached a modus vivendi largely through discounting a good two-thirds of what the other is saying at any one time.

Bedroom Farce runs at the Little Theatre, Sheringham until 18 August and is followed by Perfect Wedding (20 to 29 August) and Private Lives (between 1 and 5 September).

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Out Of Order

(reviewed at the Southwold Summer Theatre on 5 August)

Westminster – that’s Parliament, by the way, not the Abbey – exerts a strange facination for us ordinary folk whose closest approach to its arcane mysteries is usually just through the ballot-box. We all know that odd things can go on in its corridors of power, let alone in various offices.

So Ray Cooney’s farce Out Of Order has been keeping audiences chuckling for several decades. Guest director David Harris has mounted his new production for Suffolk Summer Theatres with what one might describe as mainly the theatres’ resident repertory company – just what you need for a piece which requires ensemble playing of a high order.

The plot concerns junior Minster Richard Willey (Michael Shaw) who should be attending a critical debate, as he tells his country-living wife Gladys (Kate Middleton), but is actually holed up in the Westminster Hotel expecting an evening of unbridled sex with Jane. There is already a slight problem; Jane Worthington (Rosanna Miles) has a husband Ronnie (Rick Savery) and is secretary to the Opposition Leader.

Problem the second reveals itself in the person of a body (Harry Emerson) wedged between the balcony and the sash-window (keep an eye on that window – it plays a major if noisy role). Who can help our lovers? Probably not the hotel manager (Christopher Elderwood) or the waiter (James Morley). Instead Willey summons his PPS, the thoroughly repressed and mother-fixated George Pigden (Chris Clarkson).

Mrs Pigden’s nurse-companion Pamela (Eliza McClelland also arrives on the scene. Cooney runs every possible permutation on the ensuing situations, all with the deadly but hilarious logic which is the essence of farce. Harris stirs the mix adeptly as everyone in turn seems to find themselves either in the cupboard or the bedroom, on the balcony, in a wheel-chair (don’t ask!) and usually with or without their usual clothes. Guaranteed to raise yor spirits, whatever the weather outside the theatre.

Out Of Order runs at the Southwold Summer Theatre until 15 August and at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 18 and 22 August.

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And Then There Were None

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 4 August)

Justice’s sword has always had two sharp edges, as Agatha Christie’s novels and plays wll demonstrate. None more so perhaps than And Then There Were None – both novel and self-dramatisation – which first appeared during the Second World War, and has had a variety of titles (depending on the shifting sands of political correctness) ever since.

We are in a palatial villa on a very small island just off the English coast in that febrile period between the two wars. Simon Scullion presents us with a stunning art déco set which wouldn’t disgrace Eltham Palace for this summer tour by Bill Kenwright and the Agatha Christie Theatre Company. The production is correctly given with two intervals, by the way.

As the apparently unconnected group of eight invited guests arrive on the island, to be greeted by resident houseman Rogers, his cook wife and the host’s secretary Vera Claythorne, it soon becomes apparent that the host and hostess are detained elsewhere and that the only thing to do is to wait in apparent isolation. Director Joe Harmston takes the opening sequences sufficiently leisurely to allow appreciation of the different characters to evolve.

By Act Two, the audience has been presented with a variety of clues as the tension builds after the revelation that all the characters have caused deaths and evaded the consequences. The question is, who wields justice’s sword? – Disguised ex-policeman Blore (Gary Mavers)? Retired general MacKenzie (Eric Carte) or former officer Lombard (Ben Nealon)? Or could it be Dr Armstrong (Mark Curry) or Mr or Mrs Rogers (Frazer Hines and Judith Rae)? Surely it cannot be either devout dowager Miss Brent (Deborah Grant) or stylish secretary Claythorne (Kezia Burrows)?

As lad-about-town Marston (Tom McCarron) is the fist victim of the “Ten little soldier-boys” riddle, it’s certainly not him. Why would it be former High Court judge Sir Lawrence Wargrave (Neil Stacey)? The only person not in the frame is local fishman and ferry owner Fred Narracott (Jan Knightley). Douglas Kuhrt’s lighting comes into its own at the start of the third act as the remaining guests wait for the next death by candlelight, which is brighter than the fading trust among them.

The cast is an excellent one, radiating that brittle mixture of confidence and uncertainties which one associates with the between-wars period. I’ve seen this thriller several times before but never with the ending offered here. Much discussion went on with the packed Bury St Edmunds audience in the intervals as to who the master-mind might be. Not one of my neighbours guessed correctly – and I refused to give the game away, then as now.

And Then There Were None runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 8 August, at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 24 and 29 August and at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff from 21 to 26 September.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

(reviewed at the Theatre in the Forest, Jimmy’s Farm, Wherstead on 28 July)

As most of the action of Shakespeare’s comedy takes place in a forest, this would seem to be a logical choice for the Red Rose Chain’s third woodland production. The setting, framed by mature trees which incorporate perfectly in to human and fairy adventures, is indeed an effective one – especially when darkness allows stage lighting to play its part.

The trouble is that Joanna Carrick’s production only really takes off towards the end, when the mechanicals’ proffered burgomasque turns into a brilliantly lit, burlesque of dance devised by Rachel McCormick as a kaleidoscope of styles, from ballet and Irish through to chorus-line slickness. It’s long time to wait, though.

We are all used to a certain amount of double-casting; usually this takes the form of Theseus and Hippolyta also playing their other-world avatars Oberon and Titania. Carrick goes one better by triple-casting almost all her eight actors. There’s an amusing logic to both the by-the-book Egeus and the maverick (not to say anarchic) Puck being played by Adam Wilson and the two men who both think their talents are not sufficiently appreciated – Demetrius and Bottom – by Daniel Booroff. Both give excellent performances.

Robeet Dowdeswell radiates authority as Theseus, a man comfortably aware of his natural right to command and Oberon, the fairy kingdom ruler who gets his own way in the end. Kirsty Thorpe gives warrior queen Hippolyta a slight foreign accent and then is pleasantly feminine as the distinctly hippy Titania. I grew weary of Eleanor Cotton-Soares monotonous shouting as Hermia, though Joanna Brown’s beanpole Helena has her moments – and seizes them wholeheartedly.

The court characters are dressed by Carrick and David Newborn in black and white, while the mechanicals, as well as providing what you might call the town band, are straight out of Dad’s Army in khaki greatcoats. Once we’re in Fairyland, that turns out to be flower-power territory, all caftans and funny stockings; Puck emerges from a petal-painted beat-up Reliant Robin to take the audience by storm.

For the play scene, we are treated to bathing costumes in bright scarlet, some outlandish props and an unfortunate apparent inability to see that the comedy comes mainly from its bunch of inept actors taking themselves absolutely seriously. As I said, Act Five is a long time to wait for a play to take fire. This one proves to be something of a damp squib, and that’s a pity.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at the Theatre in the Forest until 30 August.

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Educating Rita

(reviewed at the Little Theatre, Sheringham on 21 July)

Willy Russell’s two-hander, about a hairdresser and her (reluctant) Open University tutor is deceptively simple at first glance. Rita starts off all brass and attitude; you’d think that Frank has a point in feeling that this is all a waste of her time and his. But who is educating who? And for what?

Like Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, Educating Rita explores where education as a pursuit of knowledge in its own right comes slap up against the requirement to pass examinations. Perhaps it’s because I recently saw a production of The History Boys that the parallel struck me as it hadn’t done before.

Desmond Barrit’s production is dominated by Melissa Clements’ incandescent Rita, bursting into Frank’s study in a whirl of scarlet with jingly earrings and a voice fit to split logs. Paul Lavers as Frank has to work hard to equal the balance as our sympathies veer from one character to another – and back again – as this East End butterfly learns how to escape from her cocoon.

Frank, of course, is his own worst enemy, relying on copious draughts of scotch and varying layers of female support to get through what has become a dead-end job. The sequence of short scenes is punctuated by minimal pauses indicated by lighting changes; the excellent design (as for all the plays in this summer repertory season at the Little Theatre) is by Kees Van Woerkom.

Educating Rita runs at the Little Theatre, Sheringham until 28 July. The summer weekly repertory season continues until 5 September.

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Anybody For Murder?

(reviewed at the Suffolk Summer Theatre, Southwold on 20 July)

You know that a thriller with Brian Clemens and Dennis Spooner as its writers is going to offer audiences a clever and slick couple of hours entertainment. This comedy thriller is no exception; but you do need to concentrate to keep the tangles of the plot from knotting themselves inextricably in your brain.

The plot in question involves two couples, the girl-friend of one husband and a beached-up writer of murder mysteries. Max Harrington, by his own admission a second-rate research chemist, and his wife Janet have bought a farmhouse on a minute and very remote Greek island. If they ever thought to live “the good life” there, that dream has already crumbled into dust. Just like the farm’s soil.

Neighbour and thriller writer Edgar Chambers has found inspiration as lacking as the Harrington’s farm’s fertility. Perhaps ouzo in large swigs might help. Meanwhile Max fancies getting rid of Janet in favour of the delectable Suzy Stevens. Then the Ticklewell couple materialise. Mary is vaguely related to Janet; her husband George is (to put it politely) a not very efficient lawyer.

They have brought news of a legacy, but who will get the lion’s share of the million or so dollars depends on which of the two women is the closer blood kin to the deceased. This is where everything really becomes complicated, with thrills and spills generating alternate laughs and gasps from the audience.

Director Ron Aldridge keeps it all on the move with Maurice Rubens’ set, especially the stairs, almost becoming a player in its own right. Sarah Ogley, a sort of cut-price Lady Macbeth in the making, generates much of the comedy with Harry Gostelow’s lanky, much-put-upon George her perfect foil. Rikki Lawton makes Max sufficiently personable to make his relationship with both Pamela Banks’ not-just-a-dumb-blonde Janet and Amy Christina Murray’s sexy Suzy credible.

And then there’s Clive Flint as Edgar. Edgar is a type many of us will have encountered in those places where expatriates gather. An author who is never going to make the big-time but gets by on royalties and churning out another pot-boiler whenever money for booze runs short. As far as the plot of Anybody for Murder? is concerned, he’s just slightly a red herring, but a very funny one.

I won’t spoil it for you by revealing how it all works out. Find that out for yourselves.

Anybody for Murder? runs at the Summer Theatre, Southwold until 1 August and at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 3 and 8 August.

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Labour of Love

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 17 July)

The title of the community production celebrating 50 years of the revival for the country’s last complete Regency theatre is an apposite one. The mammoth task of restoration after three decades of being used as a store by the neighbouring Greene King brewery was initiated by an enthusiastic bunch of amateurs (in all senses of the word, as a telling line in Danusia Iwaszko’s script reminds us).

Any project as large as the restoration and renovation of the Theatre Royal is bound to inspire criticism as well as goodwill and support. Director Karen Simpson wisely lets this aspect carry as much weight as the other elements – musical (Phil Gostelow), design (Rachana Jadhav) and movement (Gary Willis).

The action flows across the auditorium as well as the stage and forestage as the enthusiasm of the (mainly) amateur initiators is overtaken by the more hard-headed realists who can crunch numbers. There’s a large cast mingling community with professional actors, headed by Suzanne Simpson as Olga Ironside Wood and Geir Madland as Air Vice-Marshal Vincent.

Jordan Cooper, who has an excellent voice, is the ghostly presence of a woman – audience member? actress? perhaps even Suffolk’s own Elizabeth Inchbald? The opposition is led by Richard Stainer as Neville Blackburne. Of the musial numbers, the opening one “Bring back our theatre” with its infectious three-four rhythm is the catchiest.

It really all does live up to its title.

Labour of Love runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 25 July.

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Stranded

(reviewed at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich on 11 July)

Pat Whymark’s new one-act play for the Common Ground Theatre Company she runs with Julian Harries is a fairly raw slice of modern life gift-wrapped in salsa. The story concerns two young women fumbling their way out of teenage into an adult world unlikely to teach them moral maturity. Would it be worthwhile, anyway?

Kath is homeless, living rough on the outer London streets. Delia is heading fast in that direction. It becomes clear that Kath (comfortable middle-class background, albeit through adoption not birth) has chosen this lifestyle. Delia’s mother has died, and she’s in pursuit of the father who abandoned them when she was seven years old.

That father might be Len, compulsive gambler, wheeler-dealer, dodgy benefits claimant – you name it, he’s tried that wheeze a couple of times. In the course of an hour, we find ourselves caught up in their drama as Lorna Garside (Kath), Delia (Alice Mottram) and Harries draw us into their disfunctional worlds of survival-for-the-moment.

Both girls give performances which cleverly balance abrasive vulnerability with humour – even if that’s sometimes of the graveyard variety. Harries steps in and out of Len’s wide-boy carapace to add bite to the flamboyance. Len may think he’s the top dog. Any woman can see that he’s no such thing.

Stranded can also be seen at the Thatcher’s Arms, Mount Bures on 14 July, the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 15 July and St Mary’s church hall, Walton on 17 July.

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How the Other Half Loves

(reviewed at the Southwold Summer Theatre on 8 July)

You can never take an Ayckbourn play at its face value. How the Other Half Loves was his second major commercial success in 1070; David Harris’ production which opened this year’s Suffolk Summer Theatres season sensibly keeps the 1969 setting for this typical blend of sharp social satire, surreal elements and a wryly compassionate look at what motivates people to behave in certain ways in situations partly of their own making.

The emphasis, as Ayckbourn likes to place it, is very much on the female condition. We meet the Fosters – lady-who-lunches Fiona and company manager Frank – and the Phillips – company man-on-the-make and new mother Teresa – share Maurice Rubens simultaneous living rooms.

These characters have enough complications between them without really needing the Featherstones – country mouse Mary and Welsh new employee William. That’s when the sexual, social and work permutations really start to create their own momentum. If you know Southwold’s summer Theatre, you know that the stage is quite small, though Rubens’ ingenuity works a miracle of visual stretching.

Small is the last word you could use to describe the acting with the balance between over-the-top (OTT) and naturalism beautifully balanced. Rosanna Miles is in turns funny and pathetic as Mary, the mouse who does eventually unsheathe her well-concealed claws. Eliza McClelland flounces and pirouettes in her chiffon and high heels to hilarious effect (the costumes are by Miri Birch).

Then there’s Teresa (Terri to her husband and friends). Marriage hasn’t turned out to be the bed of roses she probably expected a year or so ago; her husband is an autocrat, her son is at the teething, sleepless and whimpering stage, so everyday chores like housework and cooking are being relegated to a secondary status. All of which Kate Middleton makes utterly credible.

Bob does not like what his fun-loving but acquiescent wife has becomes one tiny bit. As Chris Clarkson amply demonstrates, the man is selfish and a bully. Physically Bob may meet his match in Rick Savery’s Will – but in many ways each is as thoughtless and liable to jump to conclusions as the other. Thoughtless, in the other hand, is not an adjective you can apply to Michael Shaw’s Frank.

Yes, the man is so absent-minded and easy to distract that you wonder how on earth he has reached his senior professional level. But there’s a steel core under all that fluff and his tenacity both provides the comedy as he becomes helplessly involved in marital and social turmoil of which he was partly the cause. When he turns the tables… but you really ought to see for yourself how it ll works out.

How the Other Half Loves runs at the Southwold Summer Theatre until 18 July and transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh from 23 July to 1 August.

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The History Boys

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

Sell A Door Theatre Company may be only six years but there’s no mistaking its maturity. Kate Saxon’s touring production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys emphasises this. One of Libby Watson’s trademark sets both defines the timelessness of the story of a class of boys in their final term before university and indicates (through understatement) its non-real aspects.

The core of any production of this play lies as much in the casting of the eight pupils as with the four teachers with whom we, as the audience, engage. Here the stand-out performances are those of Steven Roberts as Posner, the misfit Jewish boy who uses his innate ability to camp things up as a weapon as well as a shield, Sid Sagar as quiet but brilliant Akthar and Kedar Williams-Stirling as at-ease-in-his-black-skin Daykin.

Richard Hope brings something more complicated to the key role of Hector, charismatic maverick teacher befouled by his own weaknesses as well as strengths, all too eagerly exploited both by colleagues and students. Christopher Ettridge’s apparatchik of a headmaster, so brisk in jumping on Hector’s sexual fumblings while patently seeing nothing wrong in his own advances to his secretary, contrasts beautifully.

Then there’s Irwin, the man with his own secrets who has been brought in to groom the boys for Oxbridge entrance examinations and interviews. Mark Field makes him so tight-lipped and buttoned-up that we all but squirm, while accepting that his approach may not win hearts but can ensure university (not to mention media) success. Susan Twist is the no-nonsense Mrs Lintott, who believes in facts and dates but is so much warmer than any Gradgrind.

Top marks all round.

The History Boys runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 11 July.

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Romeo & Juliet

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 30 June)

This new touring production of Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare’s Globe is a concentrated affair. Because it is a story about young people still in their teenage (their elders only make things worse, not better), the characters’ impatience is mirrored by the way in which directors Dominic Dromgoole and Tim Hoare intercut scenes in an manner more often encountered on film than on stage.

it’s extremely effective, ensuring that we’re caught up in the drama from its very beginning. Andrew D Edwards’ set is a brown-wood, rope-edged affair on two levels, against which the off-white costumes stand out. Most of the cast take on at least two characters and provide the, at times, raucous musical accompaniment (the composer is Bill Barclay).. We are in hot Verona, but it’s a timeless sort of place.

Choreographer Siân Williams and fight director Kevin McCurdy have devised some effective moments. There’s a particularly effective Mercutio by Steffan Donnelly (who also doubles the Prince) and a marvellously country wise-woman Nurse by Sarah Higgins. Matt Doherty contrasts Paris and Tybalt to considerable effect.

You can believe completely n Samuel Valentine’s Romeo as a youth on the cusp of adulthood, conscious that he owes his family and city a duty but reluctant to step up to it. Mooning over the unattainable Rosaline and larking about with his friends is so much more an apparently easier option.

Cassie Layton’s Juliet is also a credibly teenager, confiding in the audience as though to a coded diary as she comes to terms with the threat as well as the blessing of love and marriage. The older Capulets – Steven Elder and Hannah McPake – make a couple to be reckoned with, unleashing their fury at Juliet’s apparently wilful disobedience (she had, after all, earlier seemed delighted by the idea of marrying Paris) in a flailing crescendo.

Tom Kanji makes Benvolio into the butt of his friends’ japes, then gives us a somewhat rough-hewn Friar Laurence, a simple man who means well but is totally out of his depth when he tries to play God. As the humour fades with the daylight and the tragedy unfolds itself, its inevitability brings its own catharsis.

Romeo & Juliet plays at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 4 July as part of a national tour.

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