Category Archives: Plays

Present Laughter

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre Cambridge on 25 July)

One of Noël Coward’s greatest strengths as a writer was his ability to recognise his self-created image for the theatrical construction that it was. Of all the plays he wrote and starred in during the 30s and 40s, Present Laughter most epitomises this. Stephen Unwin’s new production for the Theatre Royal Bath is heading for the West End – and you can see why.

Designer Simon Higlett gives us a marvellously cluttered living-room set with a spiral staircase corkscrewing its way up to the landing dominated by a flattering portrait of ageing matinée idol Garry Essendine (Samuel West). The women’s costumes have just the right period appearance, from Liz Essendine Rebecca Johnson)’s halo hat to Joanna Lyppiatt (Zoe Boyle)’s slinky velvet evening-dress in malevolent dark green.

If West is the star of the show, with a nice line in self-admiration balanced with a sense of his own perpetual posturing, the female actors all make their mark. Phyllis Logan is the crisp secretary Monica Reed, a woman who has seen it all before and who has no intention of playing up to her boss’s moods and tantrums. Johnson’s cool and collected Liz is offset by Boyle’s Joanna, a ruthless predator in pursuit of her own pleasure; her extended second-act exchange with Garry is beautifully paced.

Patrick Walshe McBride is extremely funny as the clumsy would-be playwright fixated on the theatre of the future as the theatre of ideas. Theatre investor Henry Lypiatt and producer Morris Dixon provide Toby Longworth and Jason Morell with contrasting opportunities which they seize readily.

As starry-eyed debutante Daphne Stillington, Daisy Boulton begins the play as a mass of girlish illusions which have let her down by the end of the second act. Theatre and real life always seem to be on a collision course.

Present Laughter runs at the Arts Theatre Cambridge until 30 July with matinées on 28 and 30 July.

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Murder By The Book

(reviewed at Suffolk Summer Theatres, Southwold on 19 July)

Writing is a solitary occupation; it can lead to depression and self-denigration. On the other hand, it has been known to develop into megalomania. The thriller by Duncan Greenwood and Robert King has as its central character a successful thriller writer whose lucrative part-time supplement to his earnings comes from writing vitriolic reviews of his competitors’ novels.

His secretary goes along with all this; his even-wealthier actress and somewhat libidinous wife has had enough. Divorce has been mentioned, but this has financial implications. It’s all a neat set-up for role-playing of many sorts, though Phil Clark’s fast-paced production never manages to make the characters anything other than pasteboard puppets.

Leyla Holley plays Imogen, a woman whose histrionics spill over from stage to drawing-room. Costume designer Miri Birch places us firmly in the Mary Quant/Biba era. Amy Christina Murray makes a pert Christine with Joe Leat as the exceptionally nosy next-door neighbour whose “Hurray Henry” façade is not quite what it seems.

Selwyn Piper, the concocter of mysteries at the centre of the drama, is Simon Stanhope with Clive Flint as his publisher John Douglas. They all take it as seriously as this sort of comedy-thriller requires, but – for me at any rate – it never quite jells. Perhaps you should blame the weather.

Murder by the Book runs at the Southwold Summer Theatre until 30 July and transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 2 and 6 August.

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Dial ‘M’ For Murder

(reviewed at the Frinton Summer Theatre on 12 July)

Some of the audience know the plot before the play even starts. Perhaps from its original television production, other staged presentations or the famous film version. As with any classic, there are always those who come fresh to it, without preconceptions or memories.

The trick is to make it all fresh for those who are renewing acquaintance with an old friend and both comprehensible and engaging for those who are are newcomers to the plot. Frederick Knott’s Dial ‘M’ For Murder has been given a stylish production by Mike Harris, strongly aided by designer Florence Hazard, for the opening of the 77th Frinton Summer Theatre season.

Scarlet and grey is the colour palette, reflecting both underhand doings and the moral ambiguity of the main characters. The set is symbolic, rather than realistic, with Jacob Dyer’s sound design reminiscent of a film score and all the ambient noises associated with it. Costumes suggest the 1950s and early 60s.

Izabella Urbanowitz flames as Sheila, wealthy wife of former tennis star Tony (Cary Crankson). Julian Mack plays her former lover writer Max; it is made clear that neither man is really a success in his chosen profession. Sam Donnelly oozes sleaze as decaying army officer Lesgate and Kieron Jecchinis makes a dapper, no-nonsense Inspectot Hubbard.

The McGrigor Hall is not large and has good acoustics, so the dialogue of the initial scenes wee enunciated too loudly, though this calmed down as the evening progressed. The stylised set, just hinting at the all-important staircase outside the Wendices’ flat and the other rooms inside it, is matched by a minimal use of props and some intriguing lighting effects by Pip Thurlow.

Thrillers on stage are usually given a naturalistic treatment. This approach by Harris, Hazard, Dyer and Thurlow works well and, by making the audience use its own imagination to bolster that of the creative team, proves a thoroughly successful approach to a classic which can sometimes seem to be an ageing warhorse.

Dial ‘M’ For Murder runs at the Frinton Summer Theatre until 16 July. The season of six contrasted plays continues until 28 August.

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Don’t Dress for Dinner

(reviewed at Southwold Summer Theatre on 6 July)

The Robin Hawdon adaptation of the modern French farce by Marc Camoletti proved to be a popular start to this year’s season of productions by Suffolk Summer Theatres. A last-minute substitution in the key role of Bernard due to illness aaw Darrell Brockis performing script-in-hand but still making the part his own.

Director Ron Aldridge and the season’s designer Maurice Rubens provide the necessary number of doors required by this fast-moving genre. Miri Birch’s costumes are clever, with a degree of satiny slink for Claire Jeater as Bernard’s wife Jacqueline (as set on an extra-marital affair as her husband) and a witty maid-to-mistress outfit for Imogen Slaughter as cook extraordinaire Suzette.

Slaughter provides one of the funniest characterisations of the evening, provoking a well-deserved exit round of applause. Michael Shaw bumbles engagingly as Robert, Bernard’s bachelor friend who arrives for a country-house weekend with possibilities – and finds himself overwhelmed by them.

The two men also sport an interesting collection of shirts and nightwear as three women on the warpath (poor Melissa Clements as Suzanne is something of a patsy in all this) find new uses for soda siphons and velouté sauce. I suspect that some momentary sags in the frenetic goings-on will be ironed out during the course of the run. As it stands, Brockis deserves a curtain-call all to himself.

Don’t Dress for Dinner runs at the Southwold Summer Theatre until 16 July and transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 21 and 30 July.

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Lady Anna: All At Sea

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

Craig Baxter’s play interweaves the plot of one of Trollope’s lesser-known novels Lady Anna with the sea journey from Liverpool to Australia which he and his wife undertook to visit their sheep-farming son. Colin Blunenau’s production has a cast of seven who play both the fictional and real-life characters; Libby Watson’s minimal setting cleverly gives us both worlds.

This production was initially staged for London’s Park Theatre; Cambridge Arts Theatre is not perhaps an ideal venue for it offering too much division between the audience and the players. But it is the sort of accessible intellectual joke which does draw the audience in, particularly in the second half. The performances are uniformly good.

Rhiannon Handy is Anna Lovel, who has inherited a fortune (though not necessarily a title) if the father who acknowledged her as his daughter was indeed married to her mother (Maggie O’Brien). The title (not not the money) has gone to young Frederick Lovel (Adam Scott-Rowley), whose aunt and clergyman uncle dither between thoroughly disliking – not to say distrusting Anna and her mother and egging him on to propose the marriage which will secure the money.

These two schemers are played by Julie Teal and Edward Halsted to fine effect. In opposition stand the skilled craftsmen Daniel Thwaite (Simon Robinson) and his father Thomas (Jonathan Keeble). Thwaite senior had helped the countess financially and morally when she is penniless; the two children have grown into teenage lovers – which is just the sort of liaison across the class divide which will imperil the status of all the Lovels.

On the voyage to Australia, Trollope (Keeble) and his dictatorial wife Rose (O’Brien) are concerned over the progress of his shipboard-scribed new novel Lady Anna. Rose argues with her maid Isabella ((Handy) while Trollope contends with sceptical and bored fellow male passengers. In the novel, a couple of lawyers (of distinctly Dickensian hue) become embroiled – a nice contrast in approach by Halsted and Keeble.

Frederick’s originally pragmatic, not to say mercenary, approach to the prospect of marriage with a hitherto unknown girl cousin mutates into something stronger – and transforms him in the process. Scott-Rowley convinces with his lightly-sketched yet in-depth portrait of a privileged young man’s growth into maturity. O’Brien’s granite-faced, iron-corroded souled countess is given a well nuanced counterpart in Handy’s Anna, a girl who has principles with the moral fibre to back them up.

It all makes one want to read the novel – and a biography of Trollope as well.

Lady Anna: All At Sea runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 2 July with matinées on 30 June and 2 July.

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We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea

(reviewed at the Hugh House, Bentwater on 24 June)

Ivan Cutting has revamped his production of some two or three years ago for this new outing of Nick Wood’s stage adaptation of the Arthur Ransome story. The former jet-engine testing facility at the disused (or rather, re-used) RAF Bentwater airfield is a favourite Eastern Angles venue, though designer Rosie Alabaster has chosen to use only a fraction of the cavernous space.

The cast of four – Rosalind Steele as Susan (the eldest of the siblings), Joel Sams as her older brother John, Matilda Howe as family baby Titty and Christopher Buckley as th in-between brother Roger – also play respectively the naval officer father, his wife and the children’s mother, the Dutch pilot and Jim, whose uncle’s boat is the terrain for the adventure.

A partly realistic boat deck with its galley and bunk-bed accommodation is the main element of Alabaster’s set. Paschal McGuire’s animations on stretched white sails at either end of the acting area (they also box in the audience) suggest the turbulence and congestion of the North Sea once the four find themselves offshore. Stuart Brindle’s sound design incorporates a hint of Shostakovitch (top marks for not using Britten’s Peter Grimes‘ sea interludes) as well as the sounds of the sea.

Because the cast play it with utter conviction, they catch the audience’s imagination and make it work in tune with their own mime and gestures. Imagination is a far more effective painter than fake realism in many theatrical instances as Cutting’s production proves. You don’t need to be a sailor yourself to understand the pleasures as well as the pains of messing about in boats. I suspect that we shall see this production again.

We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea runs as the Hush House, Bentwater until 9 July with matinées on 25, 26 and 29 June, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 9 July. It then transfers to Neme Park, Peterborough between 13 and 17 July.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 21 June)

Which week of the year is ideal for opening a new production of what is arguably Shakespeare’s most performed play? For Trevor Nunn’s return to his home town of Ipswich with the one Shakespeare play which u to now he has not been commissioned to direct, the summer solstice is the obvious choice.

Nunn and his designer Libby Watson have set the action in British-ruled India during the 1930s. The contrast in cultural values adds weight to Egeus (Sam Dastor)’s ferocity of purpose as far as his daughter Hermia (Neerja Naik)’s marriage is concerned. Demetrius (Assad Zaman) is his choice; she prefers Lysander (Harry Lister Smith).

If Duke Theseus (Matt Rawle – doubling the role of Oberon) supports Egeus, his war-won bride Hippolyta (Fiona Hampton – who also plays Titania) is not so sure. But she is at this point powerless to intervene and it is Hermia’s friend Helena (Imogen Daines), fruitlessly attempting to wash away her unrequited love for Demetrius with alcolhol, who precipitates the confusion which will ensue when the elpoping lovers are pursued by Demetrius and he himself by Helena.

Once we’re in the forest, Esh Alladi’s lithely malevolent Puck is the master of woodland ceremonies, indeed a spirit of no common sort. This is where Sarvar Sabri’s score really underlines that this is a spirit realm into which humans trespass under under licence; the musicians are led by Suhail Yusuf Khan. Costumes for the sprites are shredded and faintly fluorescent; those for Titania and Puck more blindingly so.

None of the woodland creatures, led by Michelle Bishop (who doubles as Theseus’ up-tight personal assistant Phyllis) are ever still. Arms wave and undulate constantly, as though the thinnest, finest tendrils were stirred by a forest breeze. Sonia Sabri is the choeographer, devising a mixture of western courtly ballroom, Kathak and Indian folk-dance styles to great effect.

The mechanicals suggest a community of street traders hawking their own crafts from their initial appearance. You feel that their fee if their play is performed for Theseus’ wedding is genuinely important. Harmage Singh Kalirai’s Quince is a marvellously homespun philosopher, just about managing to keep Kulvinder Ghir’s know-all Bottom in check (would you really buy a rug or length of cloth from this man)?

Deven Modha’s Flute makes his sari-clad Thisbe into a gentle foil to Ghir’s Pyramus in the play scene. All six newly weds join in the exuberant dance which heralds the arrival of the immortals to bless the nuptials. When Puck invites the audience’s applause, it’s no wonder that the response is enthusiastic.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at the New Wolsey Theatre until 9 July with matinées on 22, 25, 28 June, 2, 5 and 6 July.

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King Lear

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 20 June)

This Max Webster Royal & Derngate production of Shakespeare’s tragedy emphasises its bleakness. Designer Adrian Linford presents us with a bare stage, backed by a greying wall, a window-piece which barely illuminates the world outside and is as much a restriction as an egress.

The play begins with Cordelia (Beth Cooke), waiting her moment to shine. A chandelier is lowered, a throne materialises – and the court bustles in. The costumes are timeless ones, which means that guns and duelling pistols supplement knives and short swords. Yu either accept this blurring, or you don’t. It’s up to you.

Dominating the play is Michael Pennington, not yielding an inch as either the absolute monarch, or the abdicated one – feeling himself for the first time not to be in command of anyone. Or anything. He times Lear’s decay into dementia so subtly that one is scarcely conscious of when irritation with the king’s arbitraryways melts into compassion for the man.

All the other characters, given a central performance of this strength, are satellites. Tom McGovern’s no-nonsense Kent metamorphoses well from the blunt senior army officer into the equally outspoken but infinitely more relaxed man of the people. Joshua Elliott’s Fool is an intriguing mixture of acute wisdom and apparently pointless nonsense. He’s the dark side of the glass to Gavin Fowler’s poor Tom as the fugitive Edgar desperately seeks to claw a future from his bleak prospects.

If Cooke’s Cordelia comes across as a spirited as well as principled princess, Catherine Bailey’s domineering Goneril an Sally Scott’s deceptively uxorious and motherly Regan offer contrasting essays in unpleasant ambition. Shane Attwooll’s Cornwall at first seems to have the edge on Adrian Irvine’s more contained Albany, but this is shown to be yet another layer in the interlocking web of deception.

Scott Karim’s Edmund is a plausible villain, though his initial soliloquy seemed to portray a cavalier approach to the verse. As his father the Earl of Gloucester, Pip Donaghy gives a somewhat muted performance, so that his terrible torture by Cornwall for his temerity in scouring his king is a piece f stagecraft rather than something to horrify us.

King Lear continues at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 25 June with matinées on 23 and 25 June..

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After Miss Julie

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 13 June)

Patrick Marber’s play title could be read in two ways. It’s a version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie with the location and period changed to England just after the Second World War. So, in the sense that’s it’s a variation on a theme, it is indeed “after”. It is also “after” in the sense that we learn more about the possible future for the two characters other than the titular one than the original allows.

Marber is well served by his designer (Colin Richmond), choreographer (Alastair Marriott) and sound designers (Max and Ben Ringham). We are in the white-tiled basement kitchen of a large country house. The realm above is indicated by an upper stage on which we can see Miss Julie (Helen George) and her father’s chauffeur-cum-valet John (Richard Flood) dancing and from which later the estate workers’ celebration of Labour’s election victory takes on something of the peasant warning rumbles of the 1789 French revolution.

The kitchen is also the domain of Christine (Amy Cudden) who one senses is almost the last of the prewar house staff. In Marber’s script and Anthony Banks’ production, Christine becomes a much more important character and Cudden gives full weight and rounded representation this approach demands. Flood is also impressive as a young man who has built on his wartime service experiences as well as what he has picked up during his work for the landowner. Banked fires always threatening to break through.

But any production, any version of Miss Julie stands or falls by Julie herself. George is magnificent in the role, a spoilt child twisting into an equally spoilt but fr more dangerous womanhood, knowing too much of her own mind and body but without even a glimmer of the maturity – let alone morality – which should underpin it. George uses her eyes to fine effect; we are drawn into her world by their gaze as though led by some mythical enchantress. Spells can be broken, but they can break their victims just as surely as their perpetrators.

After Miss Julie runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 18 June with mainées on 16 and 18 June.

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Educating Rita

(reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford on 7 June)

The test of a modern classic is that it is as significant for today’s audience as it was when first staged. Willy Russell’s Educating Rita was first produced in 1980 but its two characters – the drink-drowning failed poet turned red-brick university lecturer and his feisty hairdresser Open University student – seem completely contemporary.

Gailie Pollock directs this new Contexture production with a realistic set by Amanda Stekly and Tom Cliff at its Rhodes Arts Centre home base. Greg Patmore plays Frank, who really doesn’t want this extra-curricular activity wished on him by a combination of the university authorities and Julia, his increasingly disillusioned partner. He balances the infuriating and the admirable aspects of the character with great subtlety.

She may prefer to be called Rita, but her birth name was the less tempestuous Susan. Gracie Hughes bursts into Frank’s study in a whirlwind of tumbling hair and pointing fingers, prowling around his books and pictures as though determined to make this (to her) strange environment her own. She swirls Rita’s Liverpudlian gabble (which does occasionally tip into gobble) at her reluctant tutor as though it was one of the hair-colour mixes she concocts at work.

Gradually the balance of power shifts through a sequence of short scenes, the passage of time indicated by Paul Burgess’ lighting. It is only after the interval that just how far it has altered becomes truly apparent. Rita/Susan has discovered a new way of life, a fresh circle of friends and a different career path. Frank’s future will follow a different route. Parallel lines have bent to come together, then straightened to diverge once more.

Educating Rita runs at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford until 12 June with matinées on 9, 11 and 12 June.

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The Unhappy Medium

(reviewed at the Stutton Community Centre on 4 June)

The year is 1926, with the General Strike at its zenith. The memories of the world war which ended a mere eight years previously are still very much alive; some even festering. The desire to know certainties about deceased loved ones – including their after-life – is rampant. Fine pickings for spiritualists and mediums, at any rate in theory.

Many of these believed, as did their clients, that they did have special powers and insight. Many also were charlatans, mere performers. It is with one such that we are confronted in Common Ground’s latest tour. The Unhappy Medium is a three-hander, both in the acting and the creation. The script is by Pat Whymark (who also directs), Julian Harries and Patrick Marlowe.

Central to the story is Montague Faulke (Harries), the by-blow of a landed aristocrat who desperately wants the family’s recognition; some of its wealth would also be welcome. His colleague and, we learn, his lover as well as general fixe and dogsbody is an East End Jew of socialist tendencies, Aubrey Solomon (Marlowe). An appointment is booked by a journalist posing as a genuine seeker for contact with the spirit world.

But Morton McLean (Dick Mainwaring), hounded by an editor greedy for front-page headline, is himself a split personality with more on his mind than exposing deceptions and protecting the vulnerable. it’s a farcical comedy in which we are never quite sure whether the role-playing is more sincere than the characters are prepared to admit. Even to themselves.

All three performers go at it with gusto. Harries turns in an over-the-top portrait of a man out of his time and place. Mainwaring is extremely funny as mcLean, especially when his research requires him to do woman’s clothing and attach himself to a cumbersome recording machine. It is Marlowe though who walks away with the show, giving us the eternal cheeky-chappy Cockney as well as the man of principles shouldering an enormous chip.

The Unhappy Medium tours community and arts centres in East Anglia until 9 July, including the John Peel Centre, Stowmarket (16 June), The Cut, Halesworth (25 June) and the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich (7-9 July).

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The Preston Bill

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

Andy Smith is the writer and performer for this story about a very ordinary man called Bill who lived almost his entire life from 1935 to 2015 in Preston, Lancashire. It’s a verse narrative, which sounds absolutely right for this particular history of Everyman. Smith’s only props are a chair and a ukulele.

We follow Bill’s life from school to factory-floor through National Service and marriage to Edith. They fail to have a family but compensate by their mutual affection, through what would have been called “self-improvement” and for Bill a developing role as a union representative. Made redundant, he finds part-time work before finally retiring.

Edith dies, but he knows that life has to go on. So he studies, takes an Open University degree and lives on until the health problems inherited from his initial working conditions finally crumble him away. A very ordinary life indeed, but one to which Smith gives richness which we – the audience – are allowed to taste and to savour.

The Preston Bill played at the Pulse 2016 Festival towards the end of a national tour. Pulse 2016 continues at various Ipswich venues until 4 June.

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Private Lives

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 25 May)

Noël Coward’s 1930 comedy Private Lives is deceptively simple. The plot – a divorced couple finding themselves honeymooning with new spouses at the same hotel rekindle both their passion and the causes for the break-up – calls for the two main characters to dominate the stage, notably in the second act, while the subsidiary pair need to establish themselves just a forcibly but without tipping the balance.

In the event, Esther Richardson’s new production as part of the 2016 Made in Colchester season slightly perverts this. That’s because Krissi Bohn’s bright and brittle Amanda has the perfect foil in Olivia onyehara’s steely fluff of a Sybil. It’s easy to visualise this Amanda as the fast-set darling, sparkling in drawing-rooms and cocktail bars. Sara Perks has given her costumes which are right for the period and which subtly reflect the photographs of Gertrude Lawrence (who created the role).

Sybil wears pink – soft, pleated and tending towards the feathery. From Onyehara’s first entrance, preening as though a society photographer was lurking on the balcony, she gives an impression that this kitten has teeth as well as claws. That’s something which Robin Kingsland’s Victor discovers as they set off in pursuit of their errant mates.

Kingsland puts great sincerity into his Paris exchange with Amanda; this is one of those moments when both author and director lift the veil of frivolity to suggest that these are real people, who can feel real hurt. Pete Ashmore’s Elyot has a touch of petulance about him, whih slips dangerously near to being camp; those 40 minutes in Act Two when Amanda and Elyot are fired with all their previous feelings with each other never quite sustained themselves.

The maid for Amanda’s Paris flat is one of those cough-and-a-spit parts which provide the right actress with a chance to steal the show. Christine Absalom, a Mercury audience favourite, does just that in the third act, earning herself several rounds of applause. Adam P McCready’s sound design and original score (which incorporates snatches of Coward’s own music) adds to the atmosphere.

Private Lives runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 4 June with matinées on 26 and 28 May, 2 and 4 June.

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The Tempest

(reviewed at the Hippodrome, Great Yarmouth on 12 May)

The early 20th century Hippodrome Circus building just west of Great Yarmouth’s seafront offers opportunities for 21st century spectacle in a production of what is arguably Shakespeare’s last complete play which reflects the early 17th century masque tradition. Director William Galinsky takes full advantage of the space.

Visually, you can’t fault this production designed by Laura Hopkins. Two semi-circular beds of mudflats with a causeway running between them, as at Mersea Island down the coast, aerial acrobats (Lost in Translation Circus), swimmers, strange hooded sea monsters in human form, rain and floods – what more could you ask for? Well, clarity of speech would be helpful; too many cast members at the performance I saw seemed to be suffering from an epidemic of the mumbles.

As Miranda, Pi Laborde Noguez is the principal offender. Tony Guilfoyl’s Prospero is mostly audible, and credible in his portrayal of a man who slowly comes to abrogate the consuming bitterness which has enveloped him since he was ast adrift from his duchy. Jane Leaney is a string Ariel, alternatively swathed in magenta and black and suggesting that, once free, she might well be Prospero’s proper mate.

Ferdinand in Freddy Carter’s interpretation has a good balance between teenage naïveté and a growing awareness that tasks are worth accomplishing properly, not a bad philosophy for a future king. Graeme McKnight makes no attempt to play Caliban for sympathy; this son of Sycorax is truly his mother’s offspring. Ravi Aujla gives Alonso a dignity which at times seems at odd with his previous support for Oliver Senton’s usurping Antonio. Antonio’s mirror-image is of course Adam Burton’s power-hungry Sebastian.

Colin Hurley’s Stephano is an almost-lovable rogue Stephano with John McCarthy as his side-kick (literally) Trinculo. Elder staesman Gonzalo is given a gentle characterisation by Christopher Saul; this is a man who knows that you can do as much good by stealth as with the fanfare of trumpets. When the banquet of sugar subtleties floats towards the shipwrecked nobles, it is he alone who can lie back and enjoy the fruits.

The Tempest continues at the Hippodrome, Great Yarmouth until 21 May with matinées on 14 and 21 May. It is part of this year’s Norfolk & Norwich Festival.

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Richard III

(reviewed at the Avenu Theatre, Ipswich on 10 May)

The Red Rose Chain is an Ipswich-based company which likes to provide an unusual slant for its productions. Take the most recent example, Joanna Carrick’s version of Shakespeare’s Richard III. She has a cast of just four actors with Lawrence Russell taking the title role and all the other parts played by Edward Day, Rachael McCormick and Kirsty Thorpe.

Carrick and David Newborn have set it in the immediate post-World War II years. Russell is on stage almost throughout the action, initially listening to his crackling wireless, leafing through a newspaper and contemplating his pin-board studded with photographs of those who must manipulate or die to ensure his translation from Duke of Gloucester to the throne. Hunchbacked and stiff-legged, he is a sartorial mismatch of checks and stripes.

It’s a mesmerising performance, ablaze with cackles as he admires his own dexterity and invites us to share his glee. A Richard in the comic vein rather than one to strike shivers down the spine. Unless, that is, you’re one of his victims. Torpe is two of these – Lady Anne and the initially conniving Buckingham – giving two well contrasted portraits of recognisable human beings.

Edward IV’s widow Elizabeth and the ultimately avenging Richmond are both played by Day. His Elizabeth is properly commanding; the Act IV Scene IV wooing scene in which Richard, just after the murder of her sons, proposes to marry her daughter turns out to be one of the production’s high points. McCormick doesn’t make quite enough of Clarence’s dream in Act I Scene IV but rants to good effect as Queen Margaret and the Duchess of York.

Keeping the running time, including the interval, down to a little under two hours has meant the elimination of a number of characters, including Hastings, the Woodville clan and Lord Stanley (whose last-minute intervention at Bosworth sealed the historic Richard’s fate). This does make the story much easier to follow for non-historians. Whether the two interpolated songs by Leon Sheppard contribute much is more of a moot point.

Richard III runs at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich until 4 June with matinées on 14 and 21 May and 4 June.

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Travels With My Aunt

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 5 May)

Giles Havergal’s stage version of the Graham Greene novella has a cast of four, each of whom at various times plays Henry Pulling and his maternal aunt (or is she?) Augusta. This new Creative Cow production is directed with immaculate precision by Amanda Knott with an angular bar setting to match (ART), slick lighting changes from Douglas Morgan and some evocative sound by Matt Early.

All four actors – Richard Earl, Jack Hulland, David Partridge and Katherine Senior – wear impeccable business suite with just hat or sunglasses change to indicate the hand-over of character or where we are in Henry and Augusta’s increasingly picaresque (not to say suspect) wanderings. This is ensemble playing with some stand-out moments.

Hulland’s Aunt Augusta is deliciously over-the-top while Partridge excels as factotum Wordsworth and wild-child Tooley. Earl has his moment as ruthless Colonel Hakim and equally hard-hearted Mr Visconti. Senior makes much of the ingénue Yolanda, teenage daughter of yet another of the devious police chiefs with whom the travellers tangle.

Travels With My Aunt can also be seen at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 6 and 11 June.

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Lotty’s War

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 3 May)

It’s a very strange sensation to sit in the audience and have some of the indelible moments of one’s own childhood flash up during the play to mark the passage of six years. The six years in question are those of Nazi Germany’s occupation of the Channel Islands. Giuliano Crispini’s Lotty’s War takes place in Guernsey; I was in Jersey, but the Occupation of both islands ran on parallel lines.

Crispini has based his drama on a true story, told in a diary found among papers in St Peter Port’s Priaulx Library archives. On stage we first encounter teenage Charlotte Hervé, known as Lotty (Victoria Emslie) and her friend Ben de Carteret (Matt Ruttle). France has fallen to the German army and Luftwaffe bombers are circling the harbour. Lotty’s father is down on the quayside, overseeing the dispatch of tomatoes to England.

Somehow the British High Command had neglected to announce that the Channel Islands were a demilitarised zone. So the open tomato lorries (which must have looked like munitions trucks from the air) were bombed, with loss of life – including Lotty’s father. She had had her chance to evacuate earlier; now it is too late. Then General Rolf Bernberg (Ian Reddington) arrives to requisition the farmhouse.

Lotty can either leave her home or stay on as the officer’s housekeeper. She stays, and we see the relationship develop from mutual mistrust to something deeper than friendship. Ben on the other hand has no time for passive patriotism; he advocates full-blown resistance. As the Occupation bites deeper – curfews, wirelesses and cars banned, the V-sign campaign, rationing and ID cards, medical shortages, the 1944 Red Cross food parcels – all three are affected. Attitudes harden. There is not going to be a happy ending.

Directors Bruce Guthrie, Carla Kingham and James McAndrew cannot disguise the episodic nature of the script (the short scenes suggest that this might work better as a television or film treatment) and designer Victoria Spearing shows this by the rapid costumes changes for Emslie. Emslie allows us to see the stressed journey to a kind of adulthood which Lotty undertakes.

Reddington conveys the tight-buttoned formality of the career soldier with his Dresden-domiciled family in danger from Allied bombing raids steering a difficult course between duty and despair. Ruttle works hard to make Ben three-dimensional, but the impression remains that this is a type of angry young man, rather than a teenager maturing into a freedom fighter for whom the end will always justify the means.

Lotty’s War runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 7 May with a matinée on 7 May. It can also be seen at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff between 20 and 25 June and at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds between 27 June and 2 July.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 26 April)

Erica Whyman’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which alighted at Norwich’s Theatre Royal this week as part of its five-month national tour, is part of the Shakespeare quatercentenary celebrations. At each venue, adult amateur actors play the mechanicals (here they are members of Norwich’s own The Common Lot) and children from a local school (Sprowston Community High School) make up the fairy train.

So far, so slightly unusual. Designer Tom Piper takes it all further with a set suggesting the aftermath of Second World War damage and the actors wearing clothes which evoke the 1940s. Interestingly, Oberon’s entourage are actor-musicians (Sam Kenyon is the composer of the sparsely evocative score) led by Tarek Merchant.

In Theseus (Sam Bedford)’s court, Peter Hamilton Dyer stands out as a military Egeus whose desire to force his daughter Hermia ((mercy Ojelade) into marriage with Chris Nyak’s self-satisfied and posturing Demetrius growls with menace. Nyak’s performance is one of the production’s gems, well contrasted by Jack Holden’s softer-keyed Lysander. An equally spiky relationship is that of Laura Harding’s Hippolyta with Bedford.

Laura Riseborough’s Helena looks right for the girl thrown over by Demerius, but – and the women of the cast with two major exceptions are mostly guilty – I had no sense that she really understood what her lines actually meant. That’s not something of which Ayesha Dharker’s sinuous Titania can be accused. Nor Lucy Ellison’s cabaret turn as Puck, all mischief with just a hint of actual wickedness underpinning her relationship with the audience.

Oberons come mainly in two guises; light and dark. Chu Omambala tips slightly towards the dark side – there is malice in his trick on Titania if not in his intervention on behalf of love-lorn Helena. The Common Lot has a Bottom in Owen Evans who practically steals the show from the professionals, though deliciously upstaged in the closing sequence of the play scene by Dan Fridd’s Flute.

Anyone who has ever attempted to direct a student or amateur play will sympathise with Amelia Hursey’s Quince, faced with a leading man who knows better than anyone else what’s needed – and tht he’s the man for the job. Charles Balfour’s lighting, a simple plot for the Athens scenes and subtle shifts of colour and shapes for the woodland interlude with a sunset glow suggesting both an all-encompassing night and the aftermath of devastation.

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The Silver Gym

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 18 April)

Nichola McAuliffe’s new comedy The Silver Gym premiered at Hornchurch’s Queen’s Theatre is in the tradition exemplified by Richard Harris’ Stepping Out of 1984. We meet a disparate group of women signing up for the gym which former soldier Stella (played by McAuliffe) is setting up in a near-derelict building in an equally ramshackle part of town.

Stella has ploughed all her savings into the venture; at first one wonders why on earth she should do it. Her new clients are nigab-masked Assieh (Susan Aderin), Jewish former pole-dancer Lysette (Kim Ismay), overweight Cerise (Pauline Daniels) and Violet (Suzanne Bygrave) and that token man Franklyn (Peter Straker), a street trader of fruit and vegetables. His laid-back performance almost runs away with the show

She also has a secretary Doucette (Houmi Miura), Rather more interested in doing her manicure than actually working. Into this mix add Casey (Carol Sloman), an upper middle-class wife with an agenda of her own. It’s all directed with considerable fire by Glen Walford within a realistic setting by Amy Yardley which works well until the final intended show-stopper sequence.

The individual performances are all very good; we can sometimes feel during our encounter with these slightly oddball people that we might might encounter them on the street in everyday life. McAuliffe has done her best to show us human beings, well aided by her cast, director and in the initial design. But ultimately they are types. Not quite two-dimensional, but never fully three-dimensional either.

The Silver Gym runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 7 May with matinée performances on 21 and 30 April.

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Clybourne Park

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 13 April)

Bruce Norris’ 2010 play picks up the closing scenes of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun with its Black Younger family about to move to Clybourne Park, a White suburb of Chicago.

Norris’ acerbic tragi-comedy has two stories, one set in 1959 and the other in 2009. Daniel Buckroyd’s new touring production for Colchester’s Mercury Theatre has the packing cases which became so prominent in A Raisin in the Sun lurking on the fringes of Jonathan Fensom’s set.

Only these are for the move of Russ (mark Womack) and Bev (Rebecca Manley); They are the couple who have sold to the Youngers, following a family tragedy. Carl (Ben Deery), having failed to deter the Youngers from their move is now desperate to prevent Russ and Bev – who may be ignorant of the skin colour of the new owners of their house – from completing the sale.

What concerns Carl is a mixture of in-bred racism coupled with a desire to maintain the status quo and to prevent the (as he sees it) inevitable meltdown in value of the whole Clybourne Park development. Deery controls Carl’s increasingly paranoid diatribes as he corrals William Troughten’s church minister Jim and his own pregnant deaf wife Betsry (Rebecca Oldfield) into half-hearted support.

Manley’s portrait of a wife and mother whose whole existence has been thrown out of kilter is equally three-dimensional. Her relationship with her Black maid Francine (Gloria Onitiri) is a brittle one; she values the help but ignores the person. Onitari gives us an apparently quiet, pliable woman with a rich life – a husband Albert (Woie Sawyerr) who excels in a skilled job and three children.

Russ and Bev’s tragedy is revealed slowly, and not fully until the second act. In this Lena (Onitiri) is concerned that the would-be purchasers of her house are proposing radical changes, practically a re-build. Womack’s bitterly authoritative Russ (a man who thinks, feels and suffers) is now transformed into Dan, the sort of workman you probably would be better off not employing.

The dénouement takes us into another dimension, removed from the reaism of everything which has gone before. By this time the audience is thoroughly gripped by the several dramas which have played out before it. This is an ending which was there from the beginning, but we needed to tease it out for ourselves.

Clybourne Park runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 23 April with matinées on 16, 21 and 23 April. The national tour runs until 28 May and includes the Arts Theatre, Cambridge (9-14 May).

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