Category Archives: Music & music theatre

I Capture the Castle
reviewed in Watford on 5 April

Novelists present us with persons, places and situations which our imaginations decorate at our individual pleasures. Dramatists do much of that work for us, and composers of music theatre further colour our attitudes to the story presented. It’s all even trickier when it comes to a favourite book first read when one was a very young adult.

So writer Teresa Howard and composer Stephen Edis have given themselves a problem with Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. I don’t think they’ve solved it. The score is pleasant enough with its touches of Weill and popular 1930s composers, but it’s not one to send you out of the theatre with its tunes lodged firmly in your head. The successive repeats of Cassandra’s opening number act merely as punctuation points.

Both the best musical sequences occur in the second half. One is “Only men” in which New York socialite Mrs Cotton (Julia St John) and her photographer sister Leda (Shona White) make their attitude to the other sex clear. The other is the solo, morphing into a duet, for James Mortmain (Ben Watson) and his second wife Topaz (Suzanne Ahmet) in which his writer’s block and need for a muse are shown to be uncomfortably entwined.

Brigid Larmour’s direction keeps the action mainly in the delapidated castle rented by the Mortmains with seaside excursions to Southwold and culminating in a trip to London’s West End. Shona Morris is the movement director making full use of Ti Green’s precipitous set of staircases and towers. Neil, the wealthy American who now owns the castle, and his brother Simon are particularly well characterised by Luke Dale and Theo Boyce respectively.

As Cassandra (Lowri Izzard)’s older sister Rose, Kate Batter has the more difficult – because less sympathetic – role. Isaac Stanmore as Stephen, the shy boy-of-all-trades who finds himself an artist’s model en route to a Hollywood career, makes his calf-love sncere. But the star of the evening is undoubtedly Izzard as the teenage diarist who records the sheer daftness of her family and will so obviously become a far better writer than her one-novel father.

Three star rating.

I Capture the Castle runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 22 April with matinées on 6, 8, 11, 13, 15, 18, 20 and 22 April. It is a co-production with the Octagon Theatre, Bolton to which it transfers between 26 April and 6 May.

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Madama Butterfly

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 23 November)

Once you’ve seen Annilese Maskimmon’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, specially created for the Glyndebourne Tour 2016, you’re likely to find the more usual, traditional stagings lacking. Not that this one is flawless – dropping the main curtain, rather than a gauze, to cover the scene change between the two parts of the second act just doesn’t work.

At the end of the “humming chorus”, the stage darkens leaving the upright back-turned figures of Cio Cio-San (Karah Son) and her son silhouetted as they wait for dawn and Pinkerton (Matteo Lippi). It’s a memorable and heart-breaking image (for we know what will happen next morning) that is completely negated by that curtain. Not to mention that the intermezzo bridging the two scenes is then smothered by excited audience applause followed by chatter.

Son sings with passion and lyrical fluidity; she also acts superbly as the teenager trying so uselessly to make herself into an acceptable American wife. The director and her designer Nicky Shaw have updated the action to the 1950s, and set the first act in Goro (Alun Rhys-Jenkins)’s office where we experience his production line of short-term Japanese brides for US officers in full swing. The little house above Nagasaki is a neat model for display purposes – no more real than all those brisk ceremonies we witness.

Whatever the production, it’s hard to muster much sympathy for Pinkerton, though Lippi characterises his immature personality well, epitomised by his toast to his future American wife clashing with his Japanese bride’s lyrical arrival, complete with a coterie of relations. There’s an excellently sung and acted Sharpless from Francesco Verna and an equally fine portrait of Susuki by Claudia Huckle, pragmatism always warring with sympathetic understanding.

Conductor Gareth Hancock allows the score to breathe, though never to wallow. The arrival of the Bonze (Michael Druiett) and his curse on his apostate neice is a blood-chilling moment, one which hovers in the air throughout the love duet. Seeing the uneasy hybrid which is an ancient culture fitting itself into another, more modern and brash one is the dominant theme of this production. Cio Cio-San’s adoption of western dress (she wears a kimino only for her first and last appearances) and Goro’s cynical counting the day’s takings as the last ecstatic phrases of “Vieni! vieni!” fade into the night underlines the point.

Madama Butterfly is also at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 26 November.

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Filed under Music & music theatre, Opera, Reviews 2016

Don Giovanni

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal Norwich on 22 November)

This production for Glyndebourne’s 2016 tour uses the 1788 Vienna version of the score. That means, among other things, that Don Ottavio is shorn of “Il mio tesero” in the second act – a pity on many ways, as Anthony Gregory both sings and acts what is arguably the most frustrating part in the opera impeccably, giving a strong as well as lyrical account of “Dalla suo pace” in the first act.

What we do hear is the duet for Zerlina (Louise Alder) and the trussed-up Leporello (Brandon Cedei) just before the graceyard scene. Alder has a Marilyn Munro air of knowing innocence which serves her better as a Sweeney Todd in the making than it did at her slightly underpowered first entrance. Her Masetto is Bozidar Smiljanic who endows the part with the right aura of buccolic bullheadedness.

Ana Maria Labin’s Donna Anna carries off her complex arias superbly, investing them with great musicianship as well as the full force of Anna’s mental torment. That is true also of Magdalena Molendowska’s Donna Elvira; her own torment runs parallel to Anna’s but is subtly differentiated. Revival director Lloyd Wood and designer Paul Brown keep the contrast between the two women clear.

Their one meeting point, of course, is Don giovanni himself. This dras a bravura performance from Duncan Rock – “Finch’han dal vino” in particular fizzes along – but the sheer nastiness of the character’s attitude to women, those who cross him and his servant is underpinned by the suggestion of equal pleasure being taken in violence.

When Andrii Goniukov’s stentorian Commendatore arrives to exact his just vengeance, it is not just Brown’s decontructed set which makes Giovanni lose control. We are throughout in a vaguely pre-and post-Second World War Seville. Costumes, like most of the triangular set, are mainly grey and black; the exceptions are occasional accents of blood-red and the more pastel-clad wedding party.

At the beginning we see a baroque painting of Mary Magdalene, luxuriant tresses, swelling draperies and look of extasy at odds with the skull she clutches. Otherwise there are only tall, dark buildings fronting slightly sinister streets and surmounted by a moon which might have drifted in from a Lorca play or poem. If you are intrigued by how a production such as this is realised, then take yourself to Don Giovanni: Behind the Curtain which explores this in depth, focussing on the Act Two finale.

Don Giovanni can be seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 25 November. Don Giovanni: Behind the Curtain is at the Theatre Royal on 24 November.

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Sweeney Todd

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 27 October)

A musical thriller says the programme cover for Daniel Buckroyd’s new production of the Sondheim musical for the Mercury Theatre in Colchester and the Derby Playhouse. Sara Perks has designed a triangular set on a central revolve which adapts seamlessly to the environment of different areas of Dickensian London.

The score has been re-arranged by Michael Haslam for a five-piece band, tucked away stage left on the platform which surround the main acting area. On the official opening night, it often seemed as though sound designer Adam P McCready still needed to correct the balance between musicians and stage performers considerably. Too many lines of the opening “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” ballad were lost – and I was sitting only four rows from the stage.

Hugh Maynard’s performance in the title role takes no hostages; you can understand the man’s thirst for revenge and even the way in which he utilises his professional skills to achieve it. He also know that the part requires the audience’s sympathy to leach away as just requital is overwhelmed by an indiscriminate blood-lust. His baritone is strong, an excellent foil for Sophie-Louise Dann’s luciously lascivious Mrs Lovett.

Christina Bennington is a winsome, well-sung and acted Johanna, her lyricism counterpointing Dann’s more streewise tones. Kara Lane’s Beggar Woman leads us gently into the realisation that this raucously sluttish mendicant was once Todd’s beautiful and virtuus wife Lucy. David Durham makes much as Judge Turpin’s villainy with Julian Hoult a dulcet-toned slimily insinuating Beadle. Jack Wilcox gives Anthony strength as well as niceness and his voice is a good match with that of Bennington.

If Simon Shoren’s Signor Pirelli is another in the cast of “nasties” whih inhabits the story, Ryan Heenan, both in his Dulcamara-style snake-oil salesman introduction to Pirelli’s barbering and tooth-drawing abilities and in the subsequent portrait of a lad grateful for any casual kindness (let alone the odd p or two), comes close to stealing the show. There is strong support also from the Colchester Community Chorus.

Sweeney Todd runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 12 November with matinées on 5, 10 and 12 November.

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The Sound of Music

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

It must be the most popular musical of the 20th century. The Sound of Music is currently singing its way on a national tour in an intelligent new production by Martin Connor designed by Gary McCann and with musical direction by Kelvin Towse. The mountain-painted drop-curtain and flats are framed (literally) by a false proscenium with baroque flourishes, suggesting a traditional world into which the harsh realities of the late 1930s intrude uncomfortably.

It looks good and there are some excellent singing voices, notably among the nuns and most especially Jan Hartley’s Abbess. The sound balance took some time to adjust itself on the Norwich opening night, particularly affecting Lucy O’Bryne’s well-acted and thoroughly credeible Maria and Howard Samuels’s pragmatic Max. Lucy van Gasse makes Elsa nto something more than a two-dimensional potential wicked stepmother and Annie Holland’s Lisl is sweet of voice, forceful of personality and a lyrical dancer as well.

Andrew Lancel is very much an actor who can sing; because he doesn’t initially play von Trapp for instant sympathy, the character’s obvious political integrity then acts as a burnish to his dawning feelings about Maria. Bill Deamer’s choreography has its highspots in the first act duet for Kane Verrall’s embryonic Nazi Rolf and 16-going-on-17 Lisl and in the ballroom scene ländler.

The six smaller von Trapp children (Isabel Godden’s Gretl and Louis Rice’s Friedrich particularly good at the performance I saw) are as show-stopping as they should be. In many ways, this is an old-fashioned staging with a conviction in the performances and an attention to the requirements of the score missing from many more modern musicals. It asks to be taken seriously and the audience responds to that request. Which is just as it should be.

The Sound of Music runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 22 October with matinées on 20 and 22 October.

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Carmen

(reviewed at the Harlow Playhouse on 9 September)

The Russian State Opera & Ballet Theatre of Komi has a new production of Bizet’s ever-popular Carmen for its autumn UK tour. Artistic director Ilya Mozhaysky sets the action around the 1920s and offers us a kind of danced dumb-show during the second half of the overture, prefiguring the menace and violence associated with its recurrent “death theme”.

Yuri Samodurov’s painted back-drops and flats have a nightmare surreal quality eachoing this. Act One is mainly whte-clad, from the soldiers’ uniforms to the shifts worn by the girls of the cigarette factory. Only Carmen herself flaunts a scarlet shawl. For the second act (Lillas Pastia’s louche tavern) red wih black accents prdominates. Black and a shrouding grey underlines the encounters in the mountain pass while the final scene flames scarlet with coal black.

The dancing is exellent (no choreographer is credited in the programme) and there is lively interplay among the chorus members in the crowd scenes. Of the principals, Evgenia Gudkova is a sultry Carmen with a strong chest register and secure top notes. Dimitrii Demidchik is a somewhat unsubtle (and therefore unsympathetic) Don José who hits all the right notes but with little sense of shading.

Michaela in Olga Georgieva’s interpretation is a far cry from the blonde-plaitd milkshop of many roductions. Yes, she’s naïve, a village girl out of her comfort zone in both Seville and the bandit-affected mountain pass. But Georgieva offers us the steel backbone which allows her to negotiate these perils and fulfil her mission each time.

As Frasquita and Mercédès, Anastasia Podzigun and Elena Lodigina make the most of the card trio in the penultimate scene. Nikolay Efremov is a somewhat under-powered Escamillo; the smaller male rôles are well diferentiated. There are always production teething troubles at the start of a tour, but Nelli Svatova’s lighting design left too many faces in shadow when singing downstage. The necessary surtitles need proof-reading.

Carmen is at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 10 September, the Princes Theatre, Clacton on 11 September and The Cresset, Peterborough on 13 September. Other tour dates include the Alban Arena, St Albans on 5 October, the Towngate Theatre, Basildon on 6 October and the Watford Colossem on 8 October.

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Made in Dagenham

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 30 August)

This new joint production for the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch and the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich is based on the 2014 musical which in turn was based on the 2010 film. Making stage shows out of cinema favourites is rapidly becoming an industry in its own right, somewhat reversing the older trend to film successful Broadway and West End productions.

It’s an apposite theme for Hornchurch, not too far down the road from Dagenham where the women sewing machinists went on strike in 1968 for equal pay with their male colleagues (their jobs had just been downgraded) and better working conditions. The first night audience picked up the local references with glee; it will be interesting to dicover whether or not the same reactions will apply in Ipswich.

Central to Richard Bean’s book is Rita, a multi-tasking wife, mother and factory worker. Daniella Bowen hits her off perfectly; you warm to the characer as she transforms from being just one of the girls working at a boring job to help the family finances to a woman with a mind (and a voice) of her own. Richard Thomas’ lyrics are witty; David Arnold’s score comes over as a bit relentlessly strident – but Bowen copes admirably.

Alex Tomkins is Eddie, her husband who is really much more at ease joshing with his work mates than being domestically considerate. He too matures as the story progresses, but not to catch up with his wife. The large cast provide amusing sketches, caricatures and cameos of the Ford hierachy, the union bosses at local and national level and the politicians who so reluctantly have to become involved.

These include Claire Machin’s no-nonsense Barbara Castle, Graham Kent’s pipe-chewing, raincoated Harold Wilson, Angela Bain’s loud-mouth machinist (every other word an expletive), Loren O’Dair as the intellectual wife – who rebels against being a mere decoration – of the personnel manager (Jamie Noar) and Jeffrey Harmer’s show-stopping Mr Tooley, the US boss flown in to get things moving his way, a sort of Donald Trump avant le lecture.

In the late 60s and mid-70s, agit-prop theatre seemd to dominate the fringe, both in London and in other conurbations. Douglas Rintou’s production has strong elements of this, reinforced by Hayley Grindle’s bleak set which, with its minimal use of furniture, keeps the action fast-moving. Many of the cast are also instrumentalists, well co-ordinated by musical director Ben Goddard.

Made in Dagenham runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 17 September with matinées on 1, 8, 10 and 15 September. It then transfers to the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 21 September and 15 October with matinées on 22, 24 Septeber, 1, 5, 8, 1 and 15 October.

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Singin’ in the Rain

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 18 August)

Theatrical cliché number one – the show must go on!. And go on it did for Catherine Lomax’s summer in-house production, even though Simon Anthony suffered a foot injury during a particularly energetic dance routine as Cosmo Brown, necessitating an extended interval, roughly where one would have occured in a (now old-fashioned) two-interval production.

Craig Armstrong, who had been playing the two smaller roles of Sid Philips and the diction cach, had played the part previously and took over script-in-hand for the rest of the performance. Overall it’s a lavish production, complete with rainfall for the title number and finale, which moves slickly from scene to scene (there are 21 of them).

The script follows the Betty Comden and Adolph Green screen-play with Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed’s songs, most familiar to most of us from the Gene Kelly film. Khiley Williams’ choreography has th right 1920s influences – this is a story which centres on the Hollywood change from silent to sound films – and she has deised some good production numbers as well as the iconic “singin’ in the rain”.

Central to the story is stage actress Kathy, who is invested by Katie Warsop with just the right mix of steel-backbone determination and disarming femininity. She also dances extremely well and has the voice to match. As script-writer Don Mike Denman is perhaps a better dancer and actor than he is a singer, but his engaging ersonality makes up for this.

Screech-voiced Lina, the glittering Hollywood star with a temperment to match and completely non-existent vocal charm, is brought to full theatrical life by Cameron Leigh. Lomax’s production has a clever use of film which both sets the period and reminds us of the double artificiality of the whole set-up. Chris Keen is in charge of the (unseen) orchestra and the lighting design by Pete Kramer adds to the illusion.

Singin’ in the Rain runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 27 August. There are matinée peformances on 20, 25 and 27 August.

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The Shakespeare Revue

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 10 August)

This new and updated version of the 1994 RSC production is directed by one of its original devisers Michael McKee. It should by rights be packing out the Cambridge Arts Theatre; the audience at the performance I saw was properly enthusiastic though not particularly numerous.

There are five performers with musical director controlling them from the piano. Anna Stolli has a voice which copes with the coloratura of “The heroine the opera house forgot” (mainly Verdi) and dances Nicola Keen’s sometimes elaborate choreography nimbly. Lizzie Bea contrasts well and puts over her solo sketches with style as well as humour.

Jordan Lee Davies, Alex Morgan and Alex Scott Fairley dance, sing and make the audience share their enjoyment of the wide-ranging variations on the Shakespeare theme from “The man who speaks in anagrams” through “Giving notes” to the curtain speech for Sir in The Dresser.

“Brush up your Shakespeare” is performed as a quintet and there are references to the current battle for the US presidency to make sure that we leave the theatre knowing that Shakespeare is indeed a playwright and poet for all time. After all, you can only make stylishly agreeable fun of someone or something universally recognised as completely secure in his or its eminence.

The Shakespeare Revue continues at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 20 August.

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The Glenn Miller Story

(reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 9 August)

This latest Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson musical is a starring vehicle for Tommy Steele as much as for its titular hero. Designer Mark Bailey offers us an aircraft-hanger set, with a flexibility to keep the scene sequences moving smoothly, and some simple but attractive and apposite costumes, especially for the six members of the singing an dancing chorus.

It begins with the hanger doors opening to reveal Steele (cue the first of the evening’s burst of audience applause). If the show had continued with him as a narrator/commentator and a younger actor taking the part of Miller, Steele’s age and appearance would not have required such an immediate suspension of belief. It also would obviate that slight feeling of discomfort with the early scenes with Abigail Jaye as Helen.

Jaye has a good voice, strong as well as lyrical as she demonstrates in “Moonlight serenade” and “At last”. Ashley Knight makes an engaging no-nonsense Chummy MacGregor. The chorus – Zoe Nicole Adkin, Michael Anthony, Sibhan Diffin, Jessica Ellen, Jordan Oliver and Alex Tranter – perform Bill Deamer’s 40s-based choreography with great style.

The musical director is Richard Morris with an 11-piece ensemble joined on occasin by Robert Pearce (who plays Colonel Chambers), Mike Lloyd (Cy Shribman), Chris Bone (who is also the film director) and Harry Myers (who plays Mark Minton). Steele’s personality carries him through the show, though he is vocally subdued until the finale encores, where he really comes to life basically being Tommy Steele and not the shadow of Glenn Miller.

The Glenn Miller Story runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 13 August.

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Cats

(reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 18 July)

Those felines versified by TS Eliot and magicked into stage life by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Trevor Nunn, Gillian Lynne, John Napier and Howard Eaton have migrated on a UK tour after a new London residency. This fresh production builds on the original one 35 years ago in many ways while taking a subtly different approach.

Reviewing that original production I suggested that potential theatre-goers should make their canaries sing for their supper and put the dog on own-brand food for as long as it would take to acquire the money for a ticket. Those cage birds and canines need to be on similar rations in 2016 – it’s a marvellous total theatre experience.

Lloyd Webber’s score, so eclectic in the nuances of composition and orchestration with the words for both concerted and solo numbers given proper precedence, is conducted by Tim Davies. We’ve become accustomed to through-composed scores in musicals, but the through-choreographed show puts a special burden on its performers, most of whom sing while bending, stretching, whirling and lifting in Lynne’s dance patterns.

Cats insinuate themselves in the aisles as well as on the stage; one little girl at the performance which I attended decided that these alley-cats were far removed from the docile moggie she cuddled at home. Of the large and incredibly hard-working and committed cast, Marianne Benedict’s Grizabella and Kevin Stephen-Jones’ Old Deuteronomy stand out for sheer vocal power, Sophia McAvoy’s balletic white cat, Matt Krzan’s Munkustrap, Marcquelle Ward’s Rum Tum Tugger, Shiv Rabheru’s Quaxo and Mistroffelees and Javier Cid’s Macavity are particularly noteworthy.

Ringing the auditorium with coloured globes and making us aware that we are intruders on some very soecial rituals during the overture with its pairs of cats’ eyes winking at us ll over the stage are Eaton’s lights, as much an integral part of the experience as those animal costumes, masks and make-up so far removed from the concept of the pantomime “animal skin”. It really is total theatre throughout.

Cats runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 23 July with matinées on 20 and 23 July.

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Mary Poppins

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 1 July)

it’s almost a case of anything which cinema and CGI can do, a really imaginative live stage production can do better. The new touring production of Mary Poppins may be based on the famous Disney film, but it oozes a very special kind of magic all of its own.

Some of this is definitely due to Zizi Strallen’s stunningly good performance in the title role – there’s a healthy dose of acidity as well as sweetness in her portrait – but Bob Crowley’s set and costume designs (adapted by Rosalind Coombes and Matt Kinley) – so deceptively simple yet so complex and intricate – also play their part.

Musical director Ian Townsend makes the orchestra a distinct balancing party, aided by some strong singing voices among the principals. Grainne Renihan as the bird woman with her balad-like “Feed the birds” and Penelope Woodman’s Miss Andrew dispensing “Brimstone and treacle” in double doses stand out here.

The two young Banks children on the opening night were Georgie Hill as Jane and Jabez Cheeseman as her brother Michael. Their parents – bank clerk George and reluctantly stay-at-home wife Winifred – are also well sung and acted by Milo Twomey and Rebecca Lock. Matt Lee is an engaging Bert, a factotum who, like Mary Poppins herself, is not quite of this world.

Yves Adang leads the exceptionally strong male dance and song chorus, making the most of Matthew Bourne’s choreography, notably in the park scenes where the statues come to life. Projections (Luke Halls) and some brilliant lighting and special effects by Natasha Katz and Simon Sherriff help to transport the audience into the story’s parallel worlds.

Early 20th century London is shown to be outwardly a sombre place, with black-suited clerks and businessmen drudging away in their offices while equally dark-clothed women exercise their pet dogs and push babies in their prams for their daily constitutionals.

The brilliance of the transformation into eye-blinking colour during the first park scene is the sort of effect which lingers in the memory (and imagination)just as much as the flying effects and the clever use of house levels. The standing ovation at the end of the Norwich first night was, for once, fully justified.

Mary Poppins runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 30 July with matinées on 2, 7, 9, 14, 16, 21, 23, 28 and 30 July.

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Chicago

(reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 27 June)

The touring version of the Fred Abb-John Kander-Bob Fosse musical comes over as fresh now as when it was first produced. The formal setting – the ten-person band facing the audience from steeply raked seats literally framed in gold, costumes basically in variations of black and a clever use of lighting – distances the audience from the 1920s story of women who kill and then (mostly) wriggle away from the gallows while at the same time involving it in their histories.

In Southend the opening night of the run brought understudy Lindsey Tierney to the central role of Roxy. She has a strong voice and is a good actress as well as dancer; that also holds true for Sophie Carmen-Jones as her prison mirror-image Velma. Frances Dee also holds attention as the girl who fails to convince a jury, and duly pays the penalty. Payment of any kind (except in cash or favours) is not within the remit of Sam Bailey’s prison dominatrix Matron “Mama” Morton.

Among the male characters, Neil Ditt’s Amos, Roxy’s credulous and ultimately hard-done by husband, stands out as someone towards whom one cannot help but feel both sympathy and exasperation. The fast-thinking, smooth-talking lawyer Billy Flynn (John Patridge) grabs his moments, notably in “All I care about” and “Razzle dazzle”, though his histrionics have strong competition from musical director Ben Atkinson. AD Richardson has the creepily androgynous part of Mary Sunshine; an operatic training shines through “A little bit of good”.

Chicago runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 2 July with matinées on 29 June and 2 July. It can also be seen (with cast changes) at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 31 October and 5 November.

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The Romford Rose

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 31 May)

There are some shows when one simply accepts that the sound is going to be amplified but the words aren’t so important that it matters whether they are distinguishable or not. The Romford Rose, a new collaboration between writer Chris Bond and composer Jo Collins, isn’t one of these. It’s basically through composed, and Bond is a writer who uses words very precisely to tell the story.

Basically it’s a family four-hander about teenage daughter Rose (obsessed with Dolly Parton in particular and country-and-western music in general), her semi-criminal father Frank (obsessed unhealthily with his daughter), her mother Yvonne (the recipient of too many years of domestic violence) and Harry (a young soldier who Rose meets at the lavish birthday party thrown for her by her father) and with whom she starts a Romeo and Juliet romance.

No man is ever going to be good enough for his daughter as far as Frank is concerned. Sam Pay plays the heavy, besotted and violent father with frightening conviction. Nicky Croydon shows us the desperate vulnerability of Yvonne, with the social mask increasingly unable to find the bruises, as well as the sequinned manifesto of Rose’s idolised singer.

Harry is an interesting part, on the outside an apparently relaxed and self-assured squaddie, but one whose has already experienced dark moments in service which are going to colour – or will that be, stain? – his whole life. Wade Lewin gives us both sides of this complexity and is a sympathetic partner to Sarah Day’ Rose in the dance and other duet sequences. Choreographer Rachel Yates gives Day some energetic routines, using steps, lifts and jumps which fuse classical ballet with modern and line dance moves.

You do feel for this teenager, living with as much comfort as a doting and well-to-do father can provide, but now old enough to want a life which she can regulate for herself. Day offers us a rounded portrait of a girl who is beginning to recognise that other people have fantasy lives which aren’t necessarily as straightforward and harmless as hers.

Collins directs the six-piece country-and-western band with several of its members playing acting roles – Jennifer Douglas, Liz Kitchen, Howard James Martin and Iain Whitmore (the two former mainly as twittering party guests and the latter pair as a couple of heavies you really wouldn’t want to come across in a dark alley. BJ Cole is the pedal steel guitar maestro. Bond acts as his own director; the designer is Ellen Cairns.

The Romford Rose continues at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 18 June with matinées on 2 and 11 June.

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Mmm Hmmm

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 26 May)

This year’s Pulse Festival had an excellent start with the Bristol-based trio of Verity Standen, Ellie Showering and Jannah Warlow. Mmm Hmmm makes full use of flexible and trained voices a cappella as it begins with a harmony of hums with the three performers spotlit in the first of James Mackenzie’s rectamgular pools of light. Hunched forward so that we see only the russet, linden green and indigo draped costumes, it’s as though scavenging birds were indulging in a dawn chorus.

When the performers stand upright, they intersperse the hummed music with stamps, hand claps and body slaps, moving from one light pool to another for each interlude. Words are added, with a quick-fire and crisp delivery that must be the envy of any operatic singer faced with a patter song. There’s an edge to the words, but it is the music which dominates. Those fluid sack-like costumes (Harriet de Winton)also have a role to play.

Standen is the composer as well as director and performer. Her co-performers are more than just on-stage colleagues; hers is not just a piece of song theatre. but an invitation to experience the trivialities as well as the more serious side of life. It has been said of opera that people sing what cannot be adequately expressed by word alone. Mmm Hmmm does that.

Mmm Hmmm opened the 2016 Pulse Festival which runs in Ipswich at various venues until 4 June.

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Laila

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 27 April)

It is said that there are only five basic plots from which to construct a story. Young love thwarted by a combination of family, political and cultural pressures is surely one of these. In the West, we probably think of those star-crossed lovers Juliet and Romeo. In the East, there is the story of Laila and Qays.

Laila, the new musical from Rifco in association with the Palace Theatre, Watford and the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch has a fusion score by Sumeet Chopra, played under the direction of Benjamin Holder, lyrics by Dougal Irvine and a script by Pravesh Kumar. Choreography is by Cressida Carré, and is also a fusion of Indian classical and western modern steps and gestures.

The stry begins today, with a young British Asian girl Laila (Mona Goodwin) refusing her father(Ravin J Ganatra)’s injunction to marry the man he (but not she) has selected with due regard to that dangerously nebulous concept of honour. Then we step back several hundred years to a kingdom ruled by a man who has fought his way to his crown and now has a crown prince waiting impatiently for his turn.

Qays (Reece Babia), his father (Surrinder ‘Shin’Singh Parwana) and his cousin are the dispossessed previous ruling family; they are concerned that Qays’ passion for Laila will bring further destruction to them. But love will find a way – particularly young love seeing only black and white, and never the grey nuances so apparent to their elders.

The designer of the sparse set with its billowing drapes transforming from palace pillars to wind-scorched desert to ferocious flood is Libby Watson. There’s a shadow puppet sequence by Matthew Robins which is effective but needs a little more subtlety of manipulation (hands too visible) and atmospheric lighting designs by Philip Gladwell.

Goodwin, Bahia, Parwana and Ganatra are all effective in making their characters live and there’s a nice study of Laila’s maid by Sheena Patel. Sufi singer Asif Raza dominates some of the musical nubers; for my ears, the whole thing is somewhat over-miked, but that seems normal for musicals of all genres nowadays.

Laila runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Watford until 30 April with a matinée on 30 April. It also plays at the Arts Theatre Cambridge (9-14 May) and the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch (17-21 May).

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Ireland’s Call

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 9 March)

This new touring production is both a story about Irish emigration in the mid-20th century and a showcase for traditional Irish dancing, an increasingly popular genre. The story by Ross Mills, Ged Graham and Trevor Payne focuses on a young man Sean Dempsey (Mike Burr) and his childhood sweetheart Cora McGowen (Shauna Barry).

Sean sees no furture for himself at home, so migrates first to London and then to New York. Here he joins the Police Department and saves enough money for Cora’s passage, but she is torn between her family obligations and her love for him. Eventually she decides to stay in Ireland and, somewhat on the rebound, he marries his captain’s daughter Ekeanor (also plyed by Barry).

Linking the different times and places is the narrator (Graham), first as the parish priest, then as a Cricklewood fixer and finally as the NYPD chief (all three men are brothers). All three principal come at their roles with sincerity, though Graham does tend to milk his, especially in the second half. Mills directs and the excellent choreographer is Lianne Stubbs.

You can’t fault to precision of the dancing ensemble with exceptionally neat footwork throughout and some spectacular leaps and jumps from Burr and the other male dancers. Jarrod Loughlin’s historical and topographical projections provide the background and take the place of scenery though Mike Stevens’ complex lighting design fell prey to a technological fault at the performance I saw.

It’s fair to say that the audience loved every minute of it, but there are longeurs; no doubt the show will tighten up as the tour progrsses (this goes on until May). Certainly the extended clap-along after the finale could be cut – not everyone wants to stand up and wave their arms about for what seemed like a quarter of an hour when cars, buses and trains await the journey home.

Ireland’s Call is at The Cresset, Peterborough (11 March), Cliffs Pavilion, Southend (26 March), Theatre Royal, Norwich (27 March), Prince’s Theatre, Claction (2 April), Regent Theatre, Ipswich (9 April), Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch (25 April), Mercury Theatre, Colchester (26 April), The Grove, Dunstable (28 April) and Civic Theatre, Chelmsford (2 May).

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The Last Five Years

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 1 March)

Jason Robert Brown’s one-act musical The Last Five Years could be defined as a chamber opera. It’s based on the film of the same name and tells the story of two young people – an aspiring writer Jamie Wellerstein (Chris Cowley) and an equally ambitious actress Catherine Hiatt (Katie Birtill). They meet, fall in love, marry and separate.

Catherine’s story is told backwards, from her reception of Jamie’s letter saying that he’s left her. Her opening lament with its bitter-sweet refrain of “I’m still hurting” suggests her melodic line throughout; there’s occasionally a hint of a waltz during the good times when their lives seem to run on such smooth parallel lines. The characterisation is in the two characters’ musical idioms, hers the more lyrical, his with rather more of a rhythmic rasp.

Brown knows how to write a tune and the five-piece band, perched high above and at the back of the action in James Perkins’ simple but effective multi-location set, sustains the singing actors without ever overwhelming them. Peter Rowe’s direction wisely allows for the basic simplicity of the story – so old, and always so new – to shine.

He’s lucky in his cast. Birtill shows us the fragility of Catherine’s life, as the failure of her marriage is mirrored in the collapse of her career – a sequence of failed auditions. Cowley is a whirlwind of hopes realised, but at a personal cost. His acting out of a Jewish story in front of a decorated Christmas tree is deservedly something of a show-stopper. He knows that he must leave (his part in the story runs forward, not backward), that there is an emotional price for this – and that he accepts its payment.

The Last Five Years runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 11 March with matinée performances on 2, 5 and 9 March.

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Hairspray

(reviewed at the Cambridge Corn Exchange on 15 February)

This new touring production of the “feel-good” musical comes from Leicester’s Curve Theatre and is a first-rate demonstration of how really committed performances allied to deceptively simpe choreography and a reliance on fabulous costuming rather than elaborate sets can compete with anything the West End has to offer.

You probably know the story, and may even have nostalgic memories of the 1950s and 60s. Television is still in its black and white phase and Baltimore keeps its Black and White population well segregated. Must-see viewing each week is Corny Collins’ teenage dance show, dependent on its sponsors so ever mindful of the barriers which should not be crossed.

Corny, his producer Velma Von Tussle and the whole White Baltimore establishment haven’t reckoned with plump little Tracy Turnblad. It’s not the easiest of parts, but Freya Sutton (who has played it before) takes Tracy’s mix of ambition, first-love pangs and determination to do what seems right to her – regardless of the consequences – ten knows how to use the music to define and express all her conflicts.

If Sutton is rightly the star, there are some other major twinklers in this galaxy. Tony Maudsley as Edna, Tracy’s mother, never over-camps the part and is ably abetted by Peter Duncan as Wilbur Turnblad, a loving husband and father full of good ideas but short on the ability to implement them. Claire Sweeney as Velda, the show-biz mother of Amber (Lauren Strood), Brenda Edwards as Maybelle, the outspoken mother of Dex Lee’s Seaweed and Monique Young as Penny stand out in a large cast.

The girls’ costumes and wigs glitter and swirl to fill the stage with movement and colour (some of the quick-changes must be a backstage nightmare). Musicals with a message can appear badly fractured for all the authors’ and producers’ good intention. This one doesn’t bark or bluster, but its message of understanding and tolerance for surface differences is not in the least diluted by the gentle approach. You don’t usually go to a musical for a history lesson. There’s one here, but it’s an extremely palatable one.

Haispray runs at the Cambridge Corn Exchange until 20 February with matinées on 18 and 20 February. It also plays at the Theatre Royal, Norwich 29 March-2 April, at the Milton Keynes Theatre 4-9 April and at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend 16-21 May.

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Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016