Category Archives: Plays

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 14 November)

Forget the sanitised 1961 film with Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly and Mickey Rooney as Mr Yunioshi – this Richard Greenberg stage adaptation sticks far more closely to the nucleus of Truman Capote’s novel. It’s briskly directed by Nicolai Foster with a clever set by Matthew Wright, whose costumes allow for a number of rapid changes.

Matt Barber as struggling writer Fred, perched in an attic bedsitter carved out of a decaying brownstone mansion, gives a fine performance of a young man finding his feet in the Big City while discovering that actual jobs as well as literary patronage come with a price tag. Holly is Georgia May Foote, hurling through her lines with the same speed as the girl she portrays whisks from one potential (and wealthy) suitor to another. She singings “Moon River” charmingly.

It’s a production well endowed with character studies, sketched in with a lightning and blistering pen. Robert Calvert’s Doc, who comes to New York to retrieve his long-vanished bride, Melanie La Barrie and Katy Allen as a brace of fading poseuses, Andrew Joshi as Yunioshi and Charlie de Melo as Brazialian playboy with presidential aspirations are are excellent.

Put a live animal in any live show – play, musical, opera or ballet – and a British audience can be guaanteed to focus attention on it. Here we have the most laid-back of white longhaired cats, Bob, who takes it all in his stide or, more accurately, eye-commanding meander acoss the stage. He really should have taken a curtain-call.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s runs as the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 19 Devember with matinées on 16 and 19 November.

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A Room With A View

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 7 November)

It is not just the rooms which have views in the Simon Reade stage adaptation of EM Forster’s novel: the characters all hold views on a variety of social personal and political issues. Some of these change; others are too deeply enbedded.

Young Lucy Honeychurch has the longest psychological journey to make. It is also arguably the most difficult. Lauren Coe makes her at the same time thoroughly plausible and just a touch irritating as she runs rings around most of her elders, their strictures and restrictions – not to mention their expectations.

Another excellent character study is Jeff Rawle as Mr Emerson, the self-made man wih a genuine taste for art who is more at ease with himself than the self-consciously middle-class people with whom he comes into contact. Simon Jones as Mr Beebe and David Killick as the Surrey vicar Eager also make their pompous marks.

For me, the great disappointment was Felicity Kendal as Charlotte Brtlett, Lucy’s over-fussy chaperone, so desperately determined to let down neither Lucy, her home-abiding mother (Abigail McKern) nor her own somewhat fragile social placement. Kendal goes all out to win the audience’s sympathy and is altogether too soft-spoken.

If Lucy is drawn to the slightly farouche and wild-child George Emerson, to whom Tom Morley gives the right air of unpredictablity, her socially-acceptable choice for mate is the buttoned-up Cecil Vyse; Charlie Anson decorates him with great assurance. Jack Loxton’s Freddy Honeychurch is another good portrait.

Director Adrian Noble takes us from springtime Florence to summer in Surrey at a good pace, assisted by Paul Wills’ minimally furnished set with projections to emhasise changes in location and time, dominated by flexible shuttered walls. Tim Mitchell’s lighting aids the contrast between Mediterranean sun and English dappled shade.

A Room With A View runs as the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 12 November with matinées on 9 and 12 November. It can also be seen at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 14 and 19 November.

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Pride & Prejudice

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

It’s the most popular of all Jane Austen’s novels, and this is the second staging to find its way into East Anglia this atumn. Two Bits Classics is a touring company which does just what its title suggests – two actors taking on all the rôles in a dramatisation of a well-established novel.

Joannah Tincy has made the adaptation and also plays most of the women’s roles as well as Mr Bingley. She is partnered by Nick Underwood, who also presents a ferociously imperious Lady Catherine, giggle-prone Kitty and gently languishing Jane. Dora Schweitzer’s outline set – suggestions of chandelier-lit rooms, skewed fireplace and windows, flower-wreathed pergola – is echoed in the pale grey costumes, where a greatcoat fastened becomes a woman’s dress and the side-whisk of a petticoat revals a man’s breeches and boots.

Abigail Anderson is a director with the skills to make the nuances of early 19th century society as natural as those of our own times. I remeber with pleasure her productions of Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice at the Theatre Royal, Bry St Edmunds. This staging builds on that legacy with respect for the text combined with the ability to hold the audience’s attention for the better part of three hours.

Her two actors rise to the challenge, with Tincey switching from Elizabeth to ever-complaining Mrs Bennet with a flutter of a handkerchief, to pliable Bingley and his manipulating sister with a flutter of a fan, from man-hunting Lydia twisting and mouthing a lock of hair to no-nonsense Mrs Gardiner by the addition of an elegant stole. Underwood gives us Mr Bennet with his book and pipe, the unctuous Mr Collins with a biretta, practical Mr Gardiner by the addition of a cravat and, of course, proud and prejudiced Mr Darcy.

Pride & Prejudice runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 2 November with a matinée on 2 November. It can also be seen at thr Marina Theatre, Lowestoft between 3 and 5 November and at the Spa Pavilion, Felixstowe on 11 November.

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Partners in Crime

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

The autumn season of in-house and shared productions at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch ends with a real corker of a show, as its hero Tommy Beresford might have said. It’s a co-production with Eleanor Lloyd in association with the Watermill Theatre and is a thoroughly gorgeous piece of stage-craft and ensemble work.

Designer Tom Rogers, choreographer Nancy Kettle, consultant magician John Bulleid, lighting designer Howard Hudson and sound designer Adrienne Quartly must take proper credit. And that’s as well as director John Nicholson and writers Sarah Punshon and Johann Hari, who have made a fine piece of Twenties pastiche from Agatha Christie’s original 1922 story The Secret Adversary.

Those glitzy Hollywood films of the period between the two world wars with their wisecracking sophisticated heroines and dashing heroes are cleverly referenced in the crisp dialogue as demobbed soldier Tommy (Richard Holt) meets former Army nurse and vicar’s daughter Prudence Cowley, known as Tuppence (Naomi Sheldon), and renews their pre-war friendship.

Both are financially broke and not helped by the economic depression which will culminate in the 1926 General Strike. Revolutions in Europe, especially the Bolshevik one in Russia, led to a degree of paranoia in countries otherwise stable through military victory in 1918 – the 19th century perceived threat of anarchists lurking with bombs and fell intents was fast developing into a Reds under the bed syndrome.

This is the background as Tommy and Tuppence find themselves in a spy drama of global importance. What they, their helpers and their opponents say is what most people of this social class would have thought and said at the time – no false anachronisms here. The night-club setting with its ruched curtain which reveals a rather sinister grey-walled structure pierced by more doors than in the average French farce is a delight.

Musical director Inga Davis-Rutter sets the mood at the keyboard with the remaining members of the multi-rôle cast – Rebecca Bainbridge, Isla Carter, Philip Battley, Nigel Lister and Morgan Philpott – joining her to provide the music for the song and dance scenes. Bainbridge and Carter make the most of their contrasted female characters and come close to rivalling Sheldon in the audience’s affections.

I won’t spoil your pleasure by unmasking the villain before Tuppence and Tommy do; suffice it to say that you can choose between Lister’s Sir James, Philpott’s Mr Whittington and Battley’s Julius – and you’ll probably choose wrong. First night applause can be misleading, even artificial, but this was an audience which was enjoying itself and delighted to show its appreciation.

Partners in Crime runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 19 November with matinées on 3 and 12 November.

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The Fletton Railway Children

(reviewed at The Undercroft, Peterborough on 28 October)

Julie Mayhew has updated the classic E Nesbit adventure story The Railway Children from the early 20th century and Yorkshire to the Swinging Sixties and Cambridgeshire. Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter have acquired a stroppy teenage older sister, Cheryl, and the family’s enforced move is from Petersham to Peterborough.

If pre-First World War spy mania was a feature of the Edwardian period, then the 1960s saw a resurgence fuelled by the Profumo affair and the Burgess and Maclean scandal. Each of the siblings has to adjust in their different ways to the change in circumstances with their mother shielding them from any knowledge of what actually has happened to her husband and their father.

Poppy Rowley keeps the action moving with all four of her actors playing several parts as well as those of Bobbie (Lianne Harvey), Cheryl (Lily Howkins), Phyllis (Charlotte Ellen) and Peter (Lewys Taylor). Fashion-wise Howkins as Cheryl makes a good foil to Harvey’s older in understanding than in years Bobbie and Ellen’s ‘tween ages Phyllis. Taylor’s all-boy Peter is also a person in whom one can believe.

The set designed by Fiona Rigler is simple – two wooden frameworks which pivot as indoor locations change to outdoor ones. Her costumes, notably Cheryl’s booby-sox and white mini-dress and Bobbie’s Rive Gauche outfit of black jumper and leggings – very Juliette Greco – add their own dimension to the girls’ characterisation. A simple straw hat indicates their mother as they alternate in taking on the part.

You can’t quite describe this Eastern Angles production as site-specific; like any good story it has a chameleon quality. A local audience will pick up on places and areas which may be just names to outsiers. But anyone who lives in East Anglia is still experiencing the effects of Dr Beeching’s axe-swing across the region’s rail network. Plus ça change…

The Fletton Railway Children runs at The Undercroft, Serpentine Green Shopping Centre until 5 November.

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King Lear in New York

(reviewed at the Hostry Festival, Norwich on 25 October)

Performance can be a cruel goddess, demanding sacrifices of a high order. That’s the premise beyond Melvyn Bragg’s play, which he has compressed from its original two-act format into something altogether tauter for Stash Kirkbride’s production.

A famous actor, renowned for both stage and screen performances, is in New York to attempt what to the mature actor is the equivilent of Hamlet for a younger one. It is, however, in a multi-times-off-Broadway theatre with a cast not completely familiar with Shakespeare or his stylistic demands.

We are in the brother’s flat, not 24 hours before the first public performance. Robert (Louis Hilyer) has stage-fright (something which attacks seasoned actos more often than their doting public imagines). Alec (Peter Barrow) has to keep his brother from the bottle while coping with the demands of Jackie, a brash and bitchy television presenter (Rebecca Chapman).

Then there’s Louis’ estranged second wife Bett (Rebecca Aldred), who is also his agent. Not o mention Juliet (Nina Taylor), his daughter with a wagon-load of chips on her shoulder and a gang of drug-dealers uncomfortably close to her back. As Louis comes diasterously “off the wagon”, the likely drama of the first night is subsumed in the domestic ones.

Kirkbridge keeps the tension high, with Hilyer giving a finely controlled portrait of a man terrified by his own vulnerabilities – which include professional as well as personal ones. All three wmen are also good – Chapman with all claws on full display, Taylor offering a study in teenage confusions which rings very true and Aldred combining the hard-headed business realism with supressed desires and affections.

The setting by Matt Reeve allows for action withn the flat to take place on a platform backed by a photographic panorama and scenes otside it to be on the audience’s own level, ths drawing us into the action. Projections indicate each change of location. The still centre of all this is Barrow; Alec is a man who knows very well that he always has been in his brother’s shadow.

King Lear in New York runs at the Hostry, Norwich Cathdral until 29 October.

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Night Must Fall

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswih on 17 October)

Most people, if they’re honest, admit to loving a good murder mystery. But what about the perpretator? There reactions are much more mixed. Do we simply shudder at the crime itself and the (often sordid and downright mercenary) motives behind it – or do we try to get into the murderer’s skull, analyse what drove him (or her) to the deed or even feel a fellow feeling. There but by the grace of God…

Emlyn Williams’ classic exploration of the dual personality of a murderer Night Must Fall takes us on just such a journey. We know that Dan (Will Featherstone) has killed at least once before he even sets foot on the stage. We sspect who will be his next target – the irasible wealthy widow Mrs Bramson (Gwen Taylor), tyrannising over her dependent niece Olivia (Niamh McGrady), her staff and most other regular visitors.

What we learn only gradually is how Dan’s chameleon-like personality dazzles even the most sceptical of the people with whom he comes into contact. From being a teenage bell-hop at a nearby hotel, he metamorphoses before our eyes into an all-purpose handyman and then an intimate of Mrs Bramson’s home in a remote Essex village, which is surrounded by forest. it’s a measure of the strength of Featherstone’s portrait that we can follow why he attracts at the same time as why he repels.

You need equally forceful performances to keep the balance. Dan’s comes-and-goes Welsh inflection is cut across by Taylor’s thoroughly npleasant if well-spoken grande dame. McGrady gives us Olivia’s unhappiness as well as the touch of steel which makes her refuse Hubert (Alasdair Buchan)’s sincere proposal of marriage. You can also see why she is attracted to Dan, perhaps sensing that he could be the missing part of her own torn personality.

Buchan has in many ways the most difficult part in the play; a well-meaning bumbler incapable of inspiring affection either in Olivia or us, that eavesdropping fourth-wall of the bungalow. Darach O’Malley’s Inspector Belsize has the right sort of seen-it-all-before authority. Director Luke Sheppard keeps the action fast-moving, sometime at the expense of vocal clarity on the part of the smaller roles. David Woodhead’s set is correctly realistic and in period, with costumes of the mid-1930s to match.

There’s a touch of the filmic about Howard Hudson’s lighting plots; the same is true of Harry Black’s soundscape whch heightens the tension at key moments with great subtlety. Williams was of course a performer as well as a writer, and he wrote himself a role which obviously played to his strengths. Given a revival such as this by Original Theatre, the Salisbury Playhouse and Eatbourne Theatres, you can enjoy the sheer theatrical craftsmanship of it all.

Night Must Fall runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 22 October with matinées on 19 and 22 October. It can also be seen at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff between 31 October and 5 November.

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The Full Monty

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 10 October)

The front rows of the audience for this touring production seem the province of a flight of chittering chattering young women, much like the ones who spill out onto the stage in the play itself after a performance by The Chippendales. Simon Beaufoy’s script is based on the 1997 film about a group of steel workers made redundant by their factory’s closure.

Star of the show is Robert Jones’ set, showing the vandalised factory interior with its broken window panes, which transmutes seamlessly into all the other locations. The core of the drama is the relationship between Gaz (Gary Lucy), his estranged wife Mandy (Charlotte Power) and their son Nathan (played very well on the opening night by Reiss Ward). Parallel to their story is that of former foreman Gerald (Andrew Dunn), who leaves for his non-existent work daily, though not fooling wife Jean (Fiona Skinner) for long.

You can believe in both these couples, though Gaz’s former colleagues come over much more as types than people. The Job Centre and Job Club scenes work well, as does Gerald’s thwarted interview for a new job, spoiled by his former colleagues’ impromptu Punch and Judy show – which they think hilarious but which in retrospect is just plain thoughtless, if not downright cruel.

Those occupants of the front rows do get their money’s worth in the final strip-tease routine. Choreograhpyis by Ian West and lighting (very important for this show) by Tim Lutkin. The director is Jack Ryder.

The Full Monty runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich ntil 15 October with matinées on 12 and 15 October.

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Arms and the Man

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 7 October)

Like director Brigid Larmour, this is a Shavian comedy which seems not to have been in my theatre-going orbit for decades. For all that it seems to have drifted out of fashion, it’s a play well worth reviving, and Larmour does it proud with a cast that knows what it’s about and intriguing, somewhat minimalist sets by Rebecca Brower. It’s briskly paced, but the activity is never cumbersome.

Hannah Morrish’s Raina sets the tone from the opening scene with her mother Catherine (Kathryn O’Reilly) and Jill McAusland’s pert maid Louka. Enter the fugitive Captain Bluntschli, to whom Pete Ashmore gives a dash of derring-do as well as Swiss pragmatism. He and Morrish play beautifully off each other throughout. Raina, of course, thinks she is in love with the dashing cavalry officer Sergius (Assad Zaman).

This is another well thought-out performance, edging dangerously towards the over-blown but always reined in short of it. Walter van Dyk’s Major Peckoff is just the sort of patriarch that his womenfolk manipulate with ease. McAusland deepens her own characterisation in her exchanges with David Webber’s Nicola; this authoritative Black actor adds an interesting dimension to his creed of how to survive as a servant.

Music and sound is by Arun Ghosh, never obstrusive but nderpinning the setting of one of that sequence of Balkan conflicts which peppered the late 19th century. It all ends, as in a Shakespeare comedy, with a dance choreographed by Jack Murphy. The audience just has to sit back, look and listen. And enjoy the experience.

Arms and the Man runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 22 October with matinées on 8, 12, 15, 20 and 22 October.

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Casanova

(reviewed at the Little Theatre, Sheringham on 1 October)

Spinning Wheel Theatre is one of those enterprising ensembles which the East Anglian air seems to generate; you see similar sort of activity down in the West Country, so perhaps a certain geographical remoteness also comes into the equation. For its current short rural tour Amy Wyllie has created Casanova. That’s right, a three-actor historical drama with epic pretensions.

Wyllie’s main influence seems to be Marie Antoinette, the 2006 film by Sofia Coppola with its soundtrack mixing genuine 18th century music with a more popular – even punk – 20th century beat. It’s all pleasantly tongue-in-cheek as Joe Leat introduces us to the title character and his many shifts to create a name and a place for himself. There’s more than a touch of Candide or even Don Quixote in his eternal optimism mingled with a definite naîveté.

It’s an enjoyable performnce which lets the audience into the joke right from his first appearance. All the women in Casanova’s life (and there were a great number of them) are played by Lucy Benson-Brown with the aid of a dazzling array of quick gown and headgear changes; design is by Becca Gibbs. All the men who either help or (the majority) hinder our hero’s picaresque career come in the form of Samuel Norris.

Nick Holmes gives us a set with a painted backcloth highlighting the iconic buildings of the countries and cities which Casanova visited; in front is a bridge (the Bridge of Sighs?) and there are a couple of screen booths o act as boudoirs or carriages as the plot dictates.

It’s a romp and not to be taken too seriously though the comparatively quiet ending where Casanova finds a sort of contentment in writing his memoirs under the protection of the Prince de Ligne, visited by his first (and possibly only true) love Henriette, gives a gentle sense of quiet fulfilment. He’s come to the end of his journey, and to the end of his days. What remains is a legend.

Casanova tours mainly to community and village halls until 22 October. There are also performances at the Fisher Theatre, Bungay (6 October), the New Wolsey Theatre Studio (7 October), the John Peel Centre, Stowmarket (12 October) and the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh (21 October).

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Mother Courage and Her Children

(reviewed at the Harlow Playhouse on 28 September)

This is Contexture Theatre’s most ambition production in the three years the Bishop’s Stortford based-company has been in existence. It marks a new partnership with Harlow Playhouse and is intended to tour next year. Of all Brecht’s dramas, this 1941 epic of the Thirty Years War has its parallel in the contemporary conflict engulfing Europe; its bitter analysis of war’s effect on “the little people” is equally coruscating in David Hare’s 1995 translation.

Brecht’s characterisations of Anna, endlessly trudging with her cart full of muscellaneous goods (provenance not to be questioned), defeats his famous “alienation effect”. Mother Courage cannot help but evoke our understanding (and sympathies) and Gailie Pollock gives us the full measure of this natural survivor. She stabs at Laurence Aldridge’s score with the same intensity.

In the course of her journeying, Courage loses both her sons and her dumb daughter as she wheels and deals – not always to her benefit. Aldridge also plays the army officers’ Cook, another wheeler-dealer who will probably survive. Another of the type is camp follower Yvette, who Holly Ashton rounds out both vocally and histrionically. Stephen Cavanagh is the Swedish Army Chaplain, cowardly as well as self-serving.

Darcey James makes much of Kattrin, the girl left traumatised by an assault in childhood; her final act of defiance makes its full impact. Both her half-brothers misjudge the fluidity of battlefield fortunes – Dominic Gee Burgh’s Eilif dies from repeating the action which won him praise and then the firing quad when repeated in different circumstances. Jack Quarton’s Swiss Cheese makes a similar error, this time involving the regimental cash-box.

As suits the subject and the style, Amanda Stekly and Tom Cliff give us a bare stage with moveable screens and the cart itself indicating the changes of location. Pollock’s costumes are vaguely those of the First World War. Dave Thompson’s projections at the conclusion remind us that the world is still full of fighting with its inevitable victims. Simon Anderson’s production is suitably taut, though the sound balance for the all-important songs needs some attention.

Mother Courage and Her Children runs at the Harlow Playhouse until 1 October with a matinée on 29 September.

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Pride and Prejudice

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 27 September)

Deorah Bruce’s revival for the Regent’s Park Theatre of her original 2013 production is now on an autumn tour. The script, which weaves much of Jane Austen’s dialogue with some excellent pastiche, is the one by Simon Reade; dramatist and director keep the action fast-moving, thanks to Max Jones’ flexible, revolving set which involves Regency-style metalwork and a staircase (the more athletic cast members have their own shortcuts with this.

Costumes are by Tom Piper, and in period, though I did feel that neither Mr Bingley (Jordan Mifsúo) nor Mr Darcy (Benjamin Holloway) would have committed the solecism of wearing boots in a ballroom. Mrs Bennet ((Felicity Montagu) begins the play with what must be one of the most famous opening lines in all English-language literature and rounds it off at the end with a reprise.

The cast includes a number of professional débuts; Anna Crichlow as Kitty Bennet and Georgina Darcy), Hollie Edwin as Jane – making the eldest sister into something more than just meek and attractive – and Kirsty Rider as a waspish Caroline Bingley. Matthew Kelly is Mr Bennet (more on the cuddly than the caustic spectrum). Montagu has most of the audience on her side from the beginning.

She is however a figure of fun; Steven Meo’s Mr Collins tips over into the grotesque with his obsequeousness towards Lady Catherine (Doňa Croll) and her nephew. One does feel that Carlotte Lucas (Francesca Bailey) will end up just as much of a domestic tyrant as Lady Catherine. Daniel Abbott plays Mr Wickham, that untrustworthy smiler, well matched by Mari Izzard’s feckless Lydia.

Music and dancing were key elements of social intercourse in the Regency period. Some of this, for the keyboard, is a little too obviously pre-recorded with the sound not quite balanced; the original music is by Lillian Henley. Siân Williams has devised some neat choreography for the dances with occasional frozen-action moments to allow us to concentrate on the Elezabeth-Darcy confrontations.

Tafline Steen is a delightful Elizabeth, a girl who cares for her sister’s distress, recognises her father’s weaknesses as well as his strengths and who never quite lets her tongue run away with her opinions to breach decorum. Holloway’s Darcy has an air of Byronic brooding as wel as a in-born hauteur, so that his impassioned and ill-phrased declaration to Elizabeth really makes an impact. Reserve, just like outspokenness imposes its own limits.

Pride and Prejudice runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 1 October with matinéeson 29 September and 1 October. It transfers to the Corn Exchange, Cambridge for the week 4 to 8 October.

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A Month of Sundays

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

Old age is something which comes to most of us. There are just as many ways in which we progress through it. That’s the theme of Bob Larbey’s 1986 wry comedy, now given a rare revival by Russell Bolam as part of the Queen’s Theatre’s autumn season on ageing.

We are in Cooper’s room at what is obviously a fairly up-market residential care-home in Surrey. His wife of many years is dead and their daughter, married to a somewhat dull lawyer, visits from Milton Keynes with her husband (and occasionally their son) on one Sunday a month. Hence the title.

Cooper (William Hoyland) served in the Second World War and has a slightly military approach to his physical decline. What worries him and his crony Aylott (Robin Hooper) is the possibilityof mental decline, joining what they nickname The Zombies at the care home. They play chess as one means of staving this off and indulge in escape (of the Colditz variety) scenarios.

Those dutiful monthly visits, with the travel traumas they involve, are making Cooper’s daughter Julia (Sophie Russell) even spikier than usual. Husband Peter (Gareth Clarke) is marginally (only marginally) more sympathetic. Both Russell and Clarke inhabit their characters to the full.

Rather more appreciative of the care-home inmates is nurse Wilson (Anne Leong Brophy), a professional who knows how to balance genuine affection for those she looks after with some minor hiccoughs in her own private life. Brophy’s scenes with Hoyland are genuinely moving, two real people sharing an occasional but very important (to them both) wavelength.

Mrs Baker (Connie Walker) has the task of cleaning the rooms, which she does briskly and with just a dash of envy at the space each resident occupies. I’m not sure that I’d want personlly to emply Mrs Baker, but Walker brings her to life.

The key performance is Hoyland’s, a man whose catch-phrase “mustn’t grumble” sums up a whole no-whine generation of men. Aware that the next physical indignity will most probably be a colposcopic bag, even this is turned into a joke. Hooper’s handle-bar moustached Aylott is made of softer material, but the two actors play well off each other.

A Month of Sundays runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 15 October with matinées on 29 Septeber and 8 October.

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A Party to Murder

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 19 September)

A play within a play is one thing. A double play within a play is quite something else. Marcia Kash and Douglas E Hughes’ thriller A Party to Murder, currently revived in a new touring production by Talking Scarlet, is also a double (if not treble) hommage to Agatha Christie. Confused? That’s just what the playwrights and director Patric Kearns intend you to be.

So sit up at the back of the audiorium and pay close attention. We’re in the main room of a luxurious house in the middle of a lake. Remind you of a particular Chritsie story? Except that this lake is somewhere between Canada and the United states. The year is 1988.

A group of six Christie afficiendos have met to play out a murder scenario. They have all paid to be part of the game; whoever guesses the correct suspect can choose his or her own prize, which mustn’t amount to more than the total sum in the kitty.

If you don’t know the plot – and this is certainly one stage thriller I’ve no encountered before – then I won’t spoil your suspense by taking you furher. The designer is Geoff Gilder, who gives us a room with built-in surprises; David North’s lighting is as atmospheric as Kearns’ elaborate soundscape, but that all-important secret door needs to be better able to conceal what does on behind it when it’s shut.

Ben Roddy as Charles, the organiser of this somewhat macabre party, contrasts well wih Oliver Mellor’s wheel-chaired Willy. John Hester plays businessman Elwood with Michelle Morris as his posturing model wife McKenzie. The other two women as Natasha Gray and Claire Fisher as siblings Valerie and Henrietta, who have just as many secrets to hide as everyone else on stage.

The performances are good, and the cast knows how to alternate moments of frantic verbal or physical activity with slower, quiteer ones. They all sustain their north American accents impeccably throughout.

It all engages attention while it’s happening in fron of us, but is perhaps not a play to linger in the memory and make one yearn to see what other ways of staging it there might be. Pehaps it’s no surprise that it isn’t often revived.

A Party to Murder runs at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 24 September wih matinées on 22 and 24 September. It also play at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon on 27 and 28 September.

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Dead Sheep

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 13 September)

An alternative title for Jonathan Maitland’s slice of almost-recent history might be, as he expresses it in his programme note, The Mouse That Roared. The play’s actual title is of course Dead Sheep, a reference to Dennis Healey’s comment that being attacked in the Commons by Geoffrey Howe was like being “savaged by a dead sheep”.

After a successful London season, director Ian Talbot is taking his production on a national tour until December. The plot is simple enough; it revoves around the professional relationship between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Steve Nallon) and her former Foreign Secretary, later Chancellor of the Exchequer, Howe (Paul Bradley). The third important character – who in many ways is shown as the catalyst for the dénouement – is Elspeth Howe (Carol Royle), an independent woman but also one concerned to support her husband.

The other characters are various Government advisors, MPs and assorted Ministers. Between them they provide some brilliant character studies – Graham Seed’s Ian Gow, Chrstopher Villiers’ Alan Clark and John Wark’s television interviewer stand out here. Morgan Large’s set is dominated by the Cabinet photograph, that famous one where dark-suited men are minimised by blue-clad Thatcher, the queen bee of that particular hive.

While Royle is very good as Elspeth Howe, both when she’s acting (as she herself admits) almost like Lady Macbeth screwing her husband up to the murder of Duncan and in her waspish exchanges with the Prime Minister during distinctly awkward social events at 10 Downing Street, the focus inevitably falls on the protagonist and antagonist in this 20th century variation on Greek tragedy.

As Thatcher, Nallon gives us a spot-on impersonation, from vocal mannerisms to shoe-pinching gait and the hand-shakes offered with the head vulture-looming but the torso withdrawn, but it remains an impersonation, not a portrayal. The House of Commons scene, where we see her reactions on-screen as well as facing us from the front bench, though is a marvellous piece of theatre.

Bradley has the most difficult rôle of all. He has to give us a credible picture of a man with immense abilities, great integrity and absolutely no charisma or proficiency in self-projection. He builds his portrait of Howe slowly, with meticulous detailing, so that the famouse resignation speech makes its full impact without us ever feeling that this is out of character for the man.

Dead Sheep runs at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 17 September at the start of a national tour lasting to 3 December. There are matinées on 15 and 17 September.

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84 Charing Cross Road

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 5 September)

The antiquarian bookshop which provides the title for James Roose-Evans’ production of his own stage adptation is no more. The two-decade epistolary exchanges between New York client Helene Hanff and shopmanager Frank Doel also belongs to a vanished age, perhaps being more akin to those fictional letter eschanges which so many novels of the 18th and early 19th century used as their format.

It’s a gentle, mannerly adaptation, given a matching production with an excellent flexible set by Norman Coates, most of which (very properly) being the bookshop with its mountains of shelves; Hanff’s cramped bed-sitters take up only a fraction of the space. The outstanding performance, beautifully nuanced and thoroughly three-dimensional, is that of Clive Francis as Doel.

Stefanie Powers’ Hanff gives us the outline of the outsider scrambling a living as script-reader and -writer but somehow the necessary acerbic rasp is missing. Throughout, for me, her performance is too quietly spoken. We laugh at the succession of financial disasters (dentistry and apartment demolition among them) which impede Haff’s chance of visiting London, but somehow it’s at the suggestion of these, not a sense of their reality.

There are strong performances by the other cast members, notably by Rosie Jones as Cecily, who starts her own correspondence with Hanff, and Irene Rambota as Hanff’s actress friend Maxine, who visits the shop while in a play transferred from Brodway to London (with muted box-office success). Hayward B Morse plays Mr Martin, one of those shop fixtures only really appreciated when lost.

This production was premiered at the Salisbury Playhouse last year and marks a move towards reviving in-house produced drama for the Cambridge Arts Theatre. Lee Dean is the co-producer.

84 Charing Cross Road runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 17 September. There are matinées on 8, 10, 15 and 17 September.

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The Old Country

(reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 23 August)

Like Shakespeare, Alan Bennett has written several of what might be defined as “problem plays”. In Bennett’s case, one of the most intriguing of these is The Old Country, which I first saw in 1977, when the actual events and characters here depicted through fictional characters, were more of immediate concern that they seem in 2016.

We’re on the verandah of a small house in the depths of the country, just the sort of place to which you can imagine any senior Civil Servant wishing to retire. Hilary (James Morley) and his wife Bron (Barbara Horne) are expecting a visit from her sister Veronica (Imogen Slaughter) and her diplomat husband Duff (Michael Shaw); they haven’t seen the couple since Duff achieved his knighthood.

Hilary and Bron do have neighbours – Olga (Melissa Clements), who is somewhat mixed-up to put it at its most simple, and her husband Eric (Bob Dobson), on the face of it just a happy-go-lucky sort of chap. But where exactly is this place in the country? and why is it, its occupants and their visitors under such surveeliance?

Bennett uses the gradual relevations of both personal and national aspects to the different characters to allow for some complex discussion about motivations, treachery and patriotism, pasts to be revealed and those which so desperately need to be concealed. People, Bennett seems to insist, have flexible loyalties, fluid as changes in international situations and issues.

What Hilary wants is, in spite of the speeches which Morley delivers with great conviction, as nebulous as any other artificial construct. Shaw and Dobson make much of their revelatory encounter in the second act while Horne gives a rounded portrait of a wife who sticks by her man, but isn’t afriad to point out where he falls short of her deserts.

Veronica is a slightly spiky personality, and no-one does stylish spikiness more accurately than Slaughter. Olga is in many ways the most difficult of the characters to pin down; her past not simply permeates what and who she is now but underlies Hilary’s shockingly crude summing-up – one of those moments in the drama when you realise that sympathy can perhaps be wrongly placed. Clements epitomises the small fry as victim.

The Old Country runs at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 27 August and transfers to Southwold Summer Theatre between 29 August and 10 September.

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The 39 Steps

(reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 9 August)

This new production for Suffolk Summer Theatres has been devised and directed by Mark Sterling from the Patrick Barlow tongue-in-cheek version of the John Buchan novel brought memorably to the screen by Alfred Hitchcock.

Though it may seem like a whole sequence of “based on…”, this staging does add a further dimension, with its introductory sequence from the film, multiple use of projections and some Hitcockian hommages – the music-hall is MacGuffin’s and the moorland chase has a pair of hobby-horse planes with their pilots plotting north by north-west courses.

The four main actors – Clive Flint, Joe Leat, Amy Christina Murray and Simon Stanhope – are supplemented by ASMs Kitty Dunham and Laurence Leonard who not only move the triangular pillars and furniture but join enthusiastically in the second act’s highland reel. They fully deserve their appearance at the curtain call.

Stanhope is our dashing hero Richard Hannay who, finding himself in London at a loose end, goes to the music-hall and thereby secures himself a perilously adventurous future. Murray whisks on and off a sequence of wigs and accents as the femme fatale whose appearance in Hannay’s flat triggers off the whole story, the feisty but not unflappable Pamela, the susceptible crofter’s wife and others.

“Others” sums up the multi-faceted Flint and Leat perfectly. Flint manages, with swift headgwear, coat and skirt changes, a positive galaxy of characters from Mr Memory and the crofter to railway officials, policemen, landladies and one of the duo of rain-coated, slouch-hatted, dark-glasses spies. Leat’s Professor Jordan provides a hilarious sub-Hitlerian tirade and one half of a Flanagen & Allen turn.

The 39 Steps continues at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 13 August, transfers to the Southwold Summer Theatre between 15 and 27 August and to the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from 6 to 10 September.

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Cash on Delivery

(reviewed at the Southwold Summer Theatre on 1 August)

It may have been premièred 20 years ago, but a lot of Michael Cooney’s farce Cash on Delivery slides easily enough into 2016 attitudes. The central character is Eric Swan (Darrell Brockis), who is actually unemployed but desperate to keep this from his working wife Linda (Claire Jeater). She does have concerns about her husband, but they’re not financial ones.

The Swans have a lodger, layabout non-earning Norman (Bob Dobson), who has somehow managed to acquire a fiancée Brenda (Melissa Clements); they plan to get married at the weekend. There’s also Uncle George (James Morley), who is neck-deep in dodgy deals – not to mention Eric’s pyramid of social benefit fraud schemes, which is about to topple over.

The catalyst for all this is DWP inspector Mr Jenkins (Richard Bates), a man who does things by the book. In his case, the book is dictated by the formidable Ms Cowper (Erin Geraghty), not a boss to tangle with. Eric having claimed that one of his multitude of claimant persona has died, this has also brought bereavement counsellor Sally Chessington (Imogen Slaughter) to the house.

Slaughter gives a delicious portrayal of just the sort of slithery sympathy-oozing apparatchik no-one in real grief would want within a hundred miles. Brockis builds up the tension and the comedy skilfully as Eric’s complex of fraud nears collapse, matched by Dobson’s wide-eyed attempts to disentangle himself which simply result in him being drawn ever deeper into the proliferating deceptions.

Then there’s unctuous undertaker Mr Forbright (Paul Hegarty) and bemused psychologist Dr Chapman (Michael Shaw). The main furnishings of 344 Chilton Road, Mile End in Andy Powrie’s production designed by Maurice Rubens are a man-sized chest (almost an actor in its own right) and a number of doors to be slammed, locked, flung wide open at the most inopportune moments.

Cash on Delivery runs at the Southwold Summer Theatre until 13 August and transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 16 and 20 August.

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The Tempest

(reviewed at the Theatre in the Forest, Jimmy’s Farm, Wherstead on 29 July)

“Ramshackle” and “shenanigans” are two words mentioned in the programme for Joanna Carrick’s production of The Tempest, this summer’s Shakespeare from the Red Rose Chain at the Theatre in the Forest.

They are apt, for the cast of five appear much more at home with the rough’n’tumble of the jester and the butler than with the poetry and multi-levels of treachery, betrayal and redemption which underpin the story of Prospero, his usurping brother and the equally disfunctional royal family of Naples.

So Edward Day – who plays Prospero and Sebastien, the Milanese dukes – comes to life as clown-masked and wigged Trinculo; Prospero’s great speeches somehow seem to take second place. Rachael McCormick doubles Miranda (a typically stroppy teenager) and the pedantic but honourable councillor Gonzalo. Lawrence Russell is a boyish Ferdinand, the crown-ambitious Antonio and a literally knockabout Stephano.

This is a play, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the spirit and the mortal worlds meld. Kirsty Thorpe’s Caliban not only provides some of the production’s most intelligent speaking but makes Alonso’s grief at the apparent loss of both his daughter (to marriage) and his son (presumed drowned) credible. Jack Parker is an Ariel with an underpinning of Puck as he seeks to earn his freedom.

Carrick’s production makes much use of water, quite a lot of which finds its way among the audience; if you prefer to remain dry, don’t book for the foremost block of seats stage right. David Newborn and Carrick have created a set in sea shades peopled with oil drums and overhung by an enormous sail.

Costumes for the shipwrecked contingent run variations on hot orange; island dwellers sport greens and more sea-blue. Laura Norman’s soundscape has live additions from the farm donkeys, beautifully on cue at “The isle is full of noises”. McCormick is also the choreographer.

The Tempest continues at the Theatre in the Forest until 28 August with matinées on 6, 13, 20 and 27 August.

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