Category Archives: Reviews 2017

The Prisoner of Zenda

reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 7 August

Anthony Hope added a new word to the English language in  1894 – Ruritania – with The Prisoner of Zenda. The romantic adventure novel  was quickly adapted for the stage by Edward Rose (cast of thousands) and has been filmed countless times (likewise).

Mark Sterling’s version keeps the multiple settings, from palace and cathedral to forest hunting-lodge and gloomy castle dungeon but manages it all with a cast of seven. Tory Cobb has thrown in one of Suffolk Summer Theatre’s specialities (a train sequence) for good measure. Miri Birch’s costumes work better for the women than for the men.

The story concerns the disputed monarchy of one of those turbulent Balkan states sandwiched between two fading but still powerful empires – the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman – fiercely independent, proud of its traditions but wary of its neighbours. The about-to-be-crowned king is Rudolf V; his envious illegitimate half-brother Michael wants to take his place.

A proposed marriage between Rudolf and his cousin Flavia (who herself has a claim to the throne) is a further complication, as is Michael’s mistress Antoinette du Maubin. Then there’s Rudolf’s double, a folk-melody enthusiast from England, Rudolf Rassendyll. Not to mention Michael’s dashingly sinister wheeler-dealer factotum Rupert of Hentzau.

That hard-working cast take it all as seriously as it should do. Joe Leat’s double of the wine-addicted king and the English gentleman who takes his place at the behest of loyal Colonel Sapt and Fritz von Tarlenheim is very well contrasted, the one all sodden self-pity and the other reluctantly dashing.

Rick Savery is suitably sinister as Michael, though Saul Boyer didn’t (for me on the opening night) quite strike the right note for a man who takes such pleasure and pride in manipulating others. Clive Flint’s Sapt and Tom Slatter’s Fritz are stalwart in their military attempts to keep the monarchy in place, whatever their personal feelings about the incumbant.

In this version,  Amy Christina Murray as Princess Flavia has more to do than just be the decorative object of Rassendyll’s self-sacrificing love, an updating which works in the context. Sarah Ogley’s Antoinette is also more than her dark mirror image. Richard Blaine stages an excellent couple of sword fights, though the costume department could surely have provided sheathes for them when not in use.

Noisy scene changes will presumably quieten down and be slicker (too many glimpses of the people effecting them on the opening night) as the run and its transfers progress. One query – in the last meeting between restored king and his English saviour, why does Rasendyll have dark hair when he and the king have been much lighter throughout?

Four star rating.

The Prisoner of Zenda runs at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 12 August with matinées on 10 and 12 August. It transfers to the Southwold Arts Centre between 15 and 26 August and can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from 6 to 9 September.

 

 

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Peter Pan

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 2 August

JM Barrie’s play is most often seen nowadays in a Christmas pantomime version, complete with Dame. I suspect that’s what many in the audience were expecting, especially the very youngest children. What we saw is a tactful adaptation of the script by Daniel Buckroyd and Matthew Cullum (who also co-direct) with an original score by Richard Reeday.

The settings of Simon Kenny invite you to let your imaginations work – and roam. They’re deceptively simple with items manoeuvred into place by the cast of eight or swirls furling across the stage as locations shift. There’s a clever crocodile, a bath-boat and well-sustained lifts and movement for the flying sequences.

Emilio Iannucci’s Peter has the right blend of juvenile two-dimensional attitudes, athleticism and a dangerous touch of feral quality. Charlotte Mafham as Wendy shows us the inherent motherly qualities of the teenage daughter with only younger brothers; you can see why the children invading the stage at the end of the play gravitated towards her.

Mischievous, jealous Tinker Bell, in Alicia McKenzie’s portrait, makes a good contrast with Sara Lessore’s self-controlled Tiger Lily. Pete Ashmore doubles paterfamilias Mr Darling and Captain Hook (definitely no Eton alumnus) with Katharine Moraz as his wife and pirate Smee. James Peake is a properly exuberant Nana and lost-boy Slightly.

Some of the music is pre-recorded but the cast play various instruments, including Peake with a tuba, a piano and a variety of strings and woodwind. The evocative lighting is by Mark Dymock with sound design by Christopher Bogg.

Four star rating.

Peter Pan runs with an early evening start time at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 26 August with matinées on 3, 5, 6, 9, 10, 12, 13, 16, 17, 19, 20, 23, 25 and 26 August.

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Tom, Dick and Harry

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 1 August

Twelve years ago, attitudes were – if not more generous – less chauvinistically entrenched than today. Tom, Dick and Harry, co-written by master farceur Ray Cooney and his son Michael, has the attitudes to migration from conflicted European and Mediterranean countries, adoption and to the disposal of body-parts after research of that time, not of ours.

Director David Janson has wisely kept the farce to the period of its original production. The situation set up at the beginning is simple. Linda (Rosanna Miles) and Tom (Darrell Brockis) are expecting a visit from an adoption agency which will determine that their home will be a suitable environment and that they will be responsible parents.

Tom’s basic problem is dual-faceted. He and Linda are short of the cash needed to buy their rented house outright and he has one of hs layabout brothers Dick (Rikki Lawton) “renting” the top of the house. The third sibling Harry (Bob Dobson) just about holds down a job as a porter at a teaching hospital while inventing pie-in-the-sky schemes for getting rich.

Having borrowed Dick’s van for a cross-channel “booze cruise”, Dick has returned not just with contraband amounts of brandy and cigarettes but also a brace of stowaway Kosovan refugees – Katerina (Melissa Clements) and her grandfather Andreas (James Morley). All of whom, together with some purloined human remains, are littering up the house.

Mrs Potter (Claire Jeater) from the adoption agency is due any minute now. You can guess the rest, even up to the intervention of the local PC (Michael Shaw) and the intrusion of the people-smuggling capo Boris (Richard Blaine). It’s all fast and furious with the brotherly trio earning applause when miming attempts to communicate with the non-English speaking Kosovans.

Tory Cobb has kept the setting simple, with the all-important doors – you can’t have a farce without them and they keep stage management busy – and a flight of stairs behind a simple(?) sofa and armchair. Jeater has a nice line in pursed-lip affrontedness and Morley thoroughly revels in Andreas’ trumpet-playing and weakness for the bottle. But the evening belongs to Tom, Dick and Harry.

Four star rating.

Tom, Dick and Harry runs at the Southwold Arts Centre until 12 August with matinées on 3, 5, 10 and 12 August. It transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 14 and 19 August with matinées on 17 and 19 August.

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The Railway Childen

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 31 July

How do you stage a family classic novel by E Nesbit which has already been filmed both for television and cinema many times? Particularly when the show on question is a touring one and the story involves trains and railway tunnels – not to mention London and remote country locations.

If you’re Paul Jepson, Exeter’s Northcott Theatre director, you call in a designer who knows how to combine realistic stage settings with clever projections – Timothy Bird in this instance – and let Dave Simpson’s script find its own space in this turn of the 19th into 20th century story.

It works excellently, thanks to some strong performances delivered with just the right sort of conviction to make 21st century children and teenagers accept the manners and conventions of more than 100 years ago.

Millie’s Turner as Roberta (known as Bobbie) and Joy Brook as her mother, coping with her husband’s mysterious arrest, a total loss of London-based income and the necessity of living as cheaply and low-profile as possible in the countryside, are both thoroughly credible, as is Katherine Carlton has sister Phyllis. Turner is particularly good as showing a teenager on the cusp of womanhood and learning to cope with unexpected responsibilities.

As the old gentleman who acts as a kind of deus ex machina to the family, Neil Savage gives an object lesson in how to make every line tell, with the aid of miking. Younger actors, please take note. Stewart Wright as station-master Perks, Will Richards and Andrew Joshi give stalwart support. The backdrops are well-lit by Dominic Jeffrey and the train and tunnel sequences make their own applause-worthy impact.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Railway Children runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 5 August with matinées on 2 and 5 August. it can also be seen at the Derngate Theatre, Northampton between 19 and 24 September.

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Emma

reviewed at the Empire Theatre, Halstead on 22 July

Jane Austen’s novels are multi-faceted gems and not always as simple to bring to the stage as the surface story-line might initially suggest. DOT Productions, with outdoor venues as well as small theatres and arts centres to consider, have however taken a sledge-hammer approach to Emma. It doesn’t really work.

Yes, Emma is a comedy, a comedy of misunderstandings as well as of manners and delicate social nuances. What it is not is a knockabout farce, which is how Michelle Shortland’s production and Non Vaughan-Thomas’ script presents it. The idea of having Serle, the Woodhouses’ housekeeper, as narrator is a good one, but Vaughan-Thomas plays her as a cross between a doddery old retainer and a feather-duster waving maid.

The caricature of Robert Martin further muddies the balance. I know that Emma describes him as “clownish” in the novel, but this is surely meant as a description of an ordinary country-man, not a straw-chewing half-wit (even though she’s trying hard to put Harriet Smith against him as a potential suitor). Frank Churchill is a selfish young man, happy to twist situations for his own amusement, but he’s not a pop-star poseur.

As far as the (mainly doubled-up) performances are concerned, Clara Power makes an attractive Emma and Andrew Lindfield manages to play Mr Knightley straight, which is more than you can say for his Martin or Churchill. Sarita Plowman simpers her way through Harriet and Jane Fairfax; the former is surely naïve but mannerly and the latter cultured, accomplished and elegant – which is why Emma’s attitude to her is so spiky and brittle.

Leigh Stevenson is the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse, the self-esteeming Mr Elton and his matching bride of arrogance and vulgarity, Augusta. Some of the staging is clever – the fireplace reversing to become a carriage, the use of empty picture-frames and the like – but the overall impression, not helped by much of the costuming, remains that of a picture slap-dashed by a decorator’s roller rather than a miniaturist’s fine sable brush.

Three star rating.

Emma tours mainly in East Anglia but also to  Isleworth, Enfield, Abingdon,Brighton, London and Eastbourne until 27 September.

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Murder Weapon

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 20 July

A weapon is usually something concrete. It can also be animal. Brain Clemens’ last thriller plays on this, with the story of a Paul (Clive Flint) found shot by his wife Diane (Amy Christina Murray) and her friend Jessica Bligh (Sarah Ogley), the county’s chief constable, as they return after a concert.

Under arrest is Charlie Mirren (Tom Slatter), found at the scene of the crime with a gun in his hand. An open-and-shut case, thinks Inspector Fremont (Rick Savery), especially as Mirren has recently been released from prison following conviction for the murder of his wife and children. No so, maintains Bligh, as she forces her colleague to re-evaluate the whole sequence of events and the people connected to them.

For instance, there’s psychiatrist Hugo (Joe Leat) who quickly establishes a rapport with Charlie on a scheduled visit to his consulting-rooms. The gun is obviously important, but what precisely was the context in which it was fired? The tension builds nicely in Andy Powrie’s production with the professional duel between Ogley and Savery well nuanced.

The set by Tory Cobb, brown with stained-glass window details, plays an important part in the action. Slatter’s portrait of a man struggling with his and his family’s past as well as his need for emotional support in his uncertain present and future is excellent. Leat has just the right combination of professional and personal arrogance.

Murray does suffer from the current fashion to whisper rather than enunciate. Modern theatre training and television have a lot to answer for in that respect Even small theatres when filled with an audience have a different acoustic to the same auditorium under rehearsal conditions.

Three and a half-star rating.

Murder Weapon runs at the Southwold Arts Centre as part of the Suffolk Summer Theatres season until 29 July with matinées on 20, 22, 27 and 29 July. It transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 1 and 5 August.

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 18 July

Mark Haddon’s book about a teenage boy with Asperger Syndrome has been adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens. The National Theatre production by Marianne Elliott is currently on the second leg of its UK tour. Elliott may be the director, but Bunny Christie’s graph-paper design concentrated on a cube, Paule Constable’s complex lighting plot and Finn Ross’ video certainly don’t take second billing.

It’s not a comfortable story. Christopher Boone (Scott Reid), caught in a neighbour’s garden with the pitchforked body of her dog, is a central character with whom at first we struggle to find any degree of empathy, just as his parents and those around him do. If you’ve ever had anything to do with a friend or family member with autism, you will find yourself in familiar territory.

Reid’s portrait of a brilliant, logical and gifted mathematical youth trapped in a world whose lack of sequential reasoning seems so incomprehensible to him is a searing one. Siobhan (Lucianne McEvoy), one of his teachers,  comes closest to understanding his wavelength; McEvoy’s study of a woman who tries to comprehend – and to accept – is equally fine.

The other three main characters are Mrs Alexander (Debra Michaels), an elderly neighbour  who doesn’t condemn Chris out-of-hand, his uncomprehending father Ed (David Michaels) and Judy (Emma Beattie), the mother he was told had died but in fact who left her husband for a lover, Roger Shears. There is also a large ensemble.

Movement is an important part of this hypnotic production. Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett use the players in angular, often formal, groupings which echo Chris’ inner turmoil. This is a staging where what we hear – spoken dialogue apart – chimes in with the movement; Adrian Sutton’s score and Ian Dickinson’s sound design provides this. It’s akin to the incidental music familiar from films and, increasingly, television drams and documentaries.

What matters in the end is that it’s Christopher’s story, seen largely through his eyes and filtered through his off-kilter mental processes. Stand ing ovations are becoming a bit of a curtain-call cliché these days. The one for Reid (and, by inference, for the whole staging concept) was thoroughly merited.

Five star rating.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 22 July with matinées on 19 and 22 July.

 

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Jane Eyre

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 17 July

You can’t keep a good story down, especially when it’s Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This version, now on a national tour, is a co-production between the Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre, devised by the company but with a firm directorial hand provided by Sally Cookson.

Jane’s progress from a stroppy child, taken in unwillingly by her dead mother’s family and eagerly dumped into the unhealthy surroundings of Lowood School, to an independent woman who makes her own life through being true to her individual values is in any case a gripping story. It’s taken at a considerable pace.

Designers Michael Vale (set), Katie Sykes (costumes) and Aideen Malone (lighting) present us with a platformed set and a number of ladders. Ten actors play all the parts, as well as acting as a sort of Greek chorus, articulating Jane’s thoughts an fears. Nadia Clifford is a feisty Jane, crinkle-haired with eyes which glare as readily as they glance.

Melanie Marshall, clad in blood-red and with a fantastic vocal range plays Bertha Mason and provides a musical commentary spanning everything from Negro melody to Coward. The incidental music – there’s a lot of it and it sometimes drowns the dialogue – is by Benji Bower.

It’s always difficult to warm to any of the men who litter Jane’s path to self-knowledge. Paul Mundell has a well-contrasted double as authoritarian schoolmaster Brocklehurst and tail-wagging dog Pilot. Tim Delap’s Rochester is more of a typical North Country squire of the early 19th century than a much-travelled cosmopolitan.

Evelyn Miller, in a bit of gender-blind casting, is fervent missionary St John Rivers. She also plays Bessie, the one servant who takes Jane’s side in the Reed household. Hannah Bristow is consumptive Helen Burns and Rochester’s pert French ward Adèle while Lynda Rooke contrasts aunt Mrs Reed and housekeeper Mrs Fairfax.

Four and a half-star rating.

Jane Eyre runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 22 July with matinées on 19 and 22 July.

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Out of Order

reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 10 July

Farce requires two masters. One to write it. Another to direct it. For the current Out of Order tour, Ray Cooney combines the two roles, aided by a well-balanced ensemble cast and a deceptively realistic set by Rebecca Brower. Stage management also took a thoroughly deserved curtain-call bow.

The ingredients for the perfect farce include a scantily clad nubile girl (or two), a pompous personage losing his trousers, an upright citizen who should know better being caught out in flagrante, usually by his spouse (who herself may not be completely blameless, a vast number of doors – and split-second timing by a straight-faced cast.

Cooney has updated his 1990 West End success to incorporate up-to-the-minute political references. Out ant-hero is junior Cabinet Minister Richard Willey (Jeffrey Harmer) who plans to spend the night of a vote-critical debate with Jane (Susie Amy) who just happens to be the secretary to the Leader of the Opposition.

Things go awry (of course they do) and gormless, mother-ridden bachelor PPS George Pigden (Shaun Williamson) only makes them worse. The action takes place in a hotel near the House of Commons and the quartet in the suite (did I mention an apparent corpse (David Warwick) tastefully draped over the windowsill?) have to cope with a hotel manager who knows his job (Arthur Bostrom) and a waiter who knows how to rake in tips (James Holmes).

Sue Holderness as Richard’s wife Pamela, Jules Brown as Jane’s firebrand husband Ronnie and Elizabeth Elvin as Nurse Gladys (not just a pillow-smoother) complete the cast. Yes, it’s formulaic. No, it’s probably not politically correct. But it is a thoroughly enjoyable laugh-out-loud evening of light-hearted theatre with just the right hint of a bite.

Four and a half-star rating.

Out of Order runs at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 15 July with matinées on 13 and 15 July.

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Communicating Doors

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 5 July

Alan Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors is on one level a farce with sociological bite, as expected from the modern master of that genre. On another, it plays with the notion of time, much as did JB Priestley in dramas such as Time and the Conways, Dangerous Corner and An Inspector Calls.

The action takes place in suite 647 of a London hotel owned by ruthless business-man Reece (James Morley) with his equally ferocious second-in-command Julian (Michael Shaw). We begin in 2037 with the arrival of a dominatrix called Poopay (real name Pheobe) played by Melissa Clements; her attentions are in response to Reece’s last wishes.

It transpires that both Reece’s wives have met untimely ends, first Jessica (Rosanna Miles) and then Ruella (Claire Jeater). In both cases Julian appears to have been the hit-man and he has no compunction about serving Poopay in the same way. Her escape through a door into a cupboard takes her into the same suite but, at different times, in 2017 and 1997.

Mark Sterling’s production keeps up a lively pace with the audience at times hard-pressed to follow at the same speed. Tory Cobb’s set and Miri Birch’s costumes work well in this context, as does the clever use of lighting (including laser shapes to indicate time changes) and shadow-play.

The cast brings commitment and a good understanding of both Ayckbourn’s words and the characters they define. Clements offers a rounded portrait of the girl from a children’s home who grits her teeth and gets on with earning a living. Miles and Jeater differentiate the two wives and the way their personalities develop over 40 years.

Bumbling in and out of the action is hotel security-man Harold, who Bob Dobson makes likeable even as the women manipulate him. Shaw has the lion’s share of the nastiness, and relishes every nuance of it. Morley’s role is in many ways a more difficult one, but his last scene with Pheobe has real heart.

Four star rating.

Communicating Doors runs at the Southwold Arts Centre as the opening production in the Suffolk Summer Theatres season until 15 July with matinées on 8, 13 and 15 July. It transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 20 and 29 July with matinées on 22 and 29 July.

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Emma

reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 4 July

Novels and plays both tell stories. However, they often do this in different ways. In his new Jane Austen adaption for The Production Exchange, Tim Luscombe chooses to make part of the action which make up the multi-layered plot of Emma happen before our eyes (and ears) rather than to be revealed as a sequence of dénouements.

So we follow Frank Churchill (George Kemp)’s secret engagement to Jane Fairfax (Georgie Oulton) with all his convolution of subterfuge – designed to ensure his legacy from his domineering aunt – before Austen allows us to understand it. It makes him much more of the villain of the piece and allows us to sympathise with Jane’s predicament from the beginning.

Both Oulton and Kemp make the most of this; Oulton’s portrait especially comes over as that of a young woman with a conscience torn between love and financial necessity rather than as a simple feminine victim. There’s another neat study of a certain kind of womanhood in Hannah Genesius’ Mrs Elton.

Miss Bates with her disconnected vocal ramblings is made sympathetic in Kate Copeland’s brown-sparrow characterisation. Polly Misch makes the rather dippy, easily influenced Harriet an excellent foil to Bethan Nash’s Emma, the heroine who loves matchmaking and being the queen bee of her small local society. One understands why Philip Edgerley’s Mr Knightley is so exasperated as well as charmed by her.

Selfishly hypochondriac Mr Woodhouse and self-important Mr Elton make an interesting double for Nicholas Tizzard. Colin Blumenau’s production uses two levels in Libby Watson’s setting. One is a tilted circle (a wedding-ring, perhaps?) and the other is the well inside it, furnished with a table, chairs and a keyboard. Mike Cassidy’s lighting is subtle and the choreography by Claire Cassidy thoroughly applause-worthy.

Four and a half- star rating.

Emma runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 8 July with matinées on 6 and 8 July.

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Funny Girl

reviewed in Southend on 19 June (preview)

An old theatrical cliché has the understudy taking over from the leading lady and stealing the show. Natasha J Barnes is not precisely an understudy – she alternated with Sheridan Smith during the London run of this musical version of the Fanny Brice story, and won plaudits – but the audience in Southend knows a superb performance when one is placed before it, and responded.

Barnes inhabits the role completely, both physically and psychologically. Her face becomes that of a woman who found out the hard way when still a young girl that she was never going to be pretty. So she compensated by developing her comedy talents, controlling and turning mockery into applause. I imagine that many a court jester developed the same carapace. While Barnes shows us this feisty side of Brice, she also makes the woman’s vulnerability clear.

This is particularly noticeable in her scenes with Darius Campbell’s Nick Arnstein, the suave gambler and con man who sweeps her into a marriage in which he demands freedom and she cannot give it wholeheartedly. Both sing well and make Bob Merrill’s lyrics and Jule Styne’s score an integral part of Michael Meyer’s production. There are also a very good performance from Joshua Lay as Eddie Ryan, who helps Fanny through an almost unspoken love for her.

Myra Sands, Zoë Ann Bown and Rachel Izen make a marvellous trio of New York Jewish ladies of a certain age and there a good cameos by Michael Callaghan as Mr Keeney and Nigel Barber as impressario Ziegfeld. The dancers are versatile and show off Lynne Page’s choreography as well as Matthew Wright’s quick-change costumes. Michael Pavelka’s asymmetrical set frames it all splendidly with Mark Henderson’s lighting and projections adding place and time.

Four and a half-star rating.

Funny Girl runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 24 June with matinées on 21 and 24 June. It is also at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 26 June and 1 July.

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Farm Boy

reviewed in Colchester on 17 June

Daniel Buckroyd’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s Farm Boy is directed by C P Hallam for this new production about to embark on a tour of East Anglian schools. It’s the latest in the Made in Colchester Season 2017 and, as its Mercury Theatre previews show, demonstrates that small can be beautiful. What’s more, it can also fill the stage.

There are three very good performers, though Tim Brierley’s tractor is almost a fourth player. Danny Childs is the grandson torn between going to university, seeing the world and staying on the family farm. as well as a resourceful farmer’s wife and the youngster who first heard about World War 1 and its horses from his own grandfather.

Gary Mackay plays the grandfathers as well as the boastful farmer who comes a cropper (literally) in the ploughing contest. Ru Hamilton is the composer and actor-musician with a double-bass, cello and Welsh harp – not to mention the odd milk-pail called into service as percussion.

Joey, the hero of Morpurgo’s War Horse and Zoe, his stable-mate at the farm, are presented in the climatic ploughing match by two step ladders. A family audience found no difficulty in accepting this, or the sometime complex pieces of history and of human psychology which illuminate the script. Imagination is alive and well in the younger generation.

Four-and-a-half stars.

Farm Boy plays at the early evening performance at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester before its schools tour.

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My Country: A Work in Progress

reviewed in Cambridge on 15 June

The title is spot-on accurate – both literally and subjectively. It also reminds us that history, (like borders) is a fluid thing, as much composed of fiction – aka myth – as fact. The dialogue is made up from what people up and down the UK have been saying, woven together by director Rufus Norris.

Seven actors put the mix of vox pop, actual events and hard statistics in front of us. Katrina Lindsay gives us a bare stage, except for a sequence of ballot boxes which double as desks and platforms as required. Presiding over it all is Penny Layden as Britannia, that personification which has become such a ubiquitous icon that who and what went into constructing it are extremely blurred.

The regions and countries, themselves often contructs, which make up the UK are played by the other performers subtly aided by Paul Knott’s clever lighting and Alan Caplen’s subtle drifts of appropriate music. There’s real despair as well as a type of fatalistic acceptance in many of the remarks quoted, forcing the audience to query not just “whither Britain now?” but Parl;iamentay democracy itself.

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The Events reviewed in Colchester on 6 June

A programme note describes David Greig, the author of this variation on one of those far-too-frequent random attacks on innocent people with which the 21st century has been too liberally endowed, as a shape-shifter. I saw The Events at the Holt Festival in 2013, closer in time to the Norwegian atrocity of 2011 which Greig has taken as his starting point.

Crucial to this Actors Touring Company co-production directed by Dan Sherer is the participation of a choir. John Browne’s score has just the right blend of church and popular rhythmn and melody for the 12 members of the Colchester Community Choir who sit either side of the stage area or intervene from behind the audience.

Designer James Cotterill presents us with a grey set which resembles the interior of some half-demolished chapel where creepers from outside have worked their way through the cracks and where exposure to the elements has powered everything with sand-dust.

The choir wears grey, choir master and accompanist Scott Gray wears grey, The Boy (we learn he’s called Gary) wears black. Only Anna O’Grady as Claire, the pastor who has lost her faith and now can only grope her way back to it as though blinded by the apparently senseless massacre she has witnessed, adds a touch of colour with her red tunic and dark-blue leggings.

She gives us a fine portrait of a woman who means well, tries to act for the best on the behalf of everybody but feels that she is drifting on a dangerous tide whose undercurrents she can’t really comprehend.

Joh Collins is magnificent as the young man who shot so many young people apparently for no better reason than that they weren’t of “our type, faith or colour”, the universal mantra of those for whom any difference constitutes a threat.

Shape-shifting of the mind – and soul – is what happens to both the protagonists of this drama which is somewhat in the style of classic Greek theatre; it doesn’t make an easy evening, though this studio space concentrates it properly. It is, however, well worth seeing.

Four star rating.

The Events continues in the Studio of the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 17 June with matinées on 8, 10, 15 and 17 June.

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A Judgement in Stone
reviewed in Westcliff on 5 June

Ruth Rendell’s 1977 crime novel A Judgement in Stone is, like most of her work, a subtle in-depth exploration of what makes some people into murderers and how others react. Some thrillers translate well to the stage or film; others become blurred or somehow skew characterisation and motivation with over-simplification.

Simon Brett and Antony Lampard have written the script for this new touring production which is dircted by Roy Marsden, no slouch as far as the dramatised thriller genre is concerned. The excellent, almost dominating and realistic set is by Julie Godfrey.

There are four members of the Coverdale family in whose country house the story is set. They’re an urbane quartet – husband George (Mark Wynter) and wife Jacqueline (Rosie Thomson) who are both on their second marriages, his daughter Melinda (Jennifer Sims) and her student son Giles (Joshua Price). They have a long-term housemaid Eva Baalham (Shirley Anne Field) and a gadener-cum-handyman, the loose-fingered Rodger Meadows (Antony Costa).

As housekeeper they choose Eunice Parchman (Sophie Ward), a shuffling pent-up volcano weighed down by the proverbial shoulder chips. It’s a remarkably effective portrait of a sad, unlikeable woman whose illiteracy is only gradually revealed as th action progresses (Rendell tells us about it in the opening line of the novel). Melinda’s genuine offer to help will only rebound.

Almost rivalling Ward in the performance stakes is Deborah Grant as Joan Smith, a no-good girl turned into Bible-thumper in full blast-off revivalist mode. The story is told in flash-backs as Detective Superinendent Vetch (Andrew Lancel) and Detecive Sergeant Challoner (Ben Nealon) attempt to establish why the Coverdales were shot down while watching a telecast of Don Giovanni and who did it.

The detectives prowl on and off the stage as their enquiry progresses, or stalemates. The actual sequence of events as they unfold punctuates their investigation, which has a somewhat alienation effect, possibly intended but probably not. Wynter makes George and Sims Melinda into three-dimensional people while Price puts over the student with his mind on higher things very well.

Thomson tends to squeak rather than speak her lines. Neither detective comes over with any sense of authority until the end of the play when they home in on the murderer. Costa makes the most of his incursions into the manor-house; he is a recognisable type of the no-gooder who is always going to be a suspect – for one crime or anoher.

Three and a half-star rating.

A Judgement in Stone runs at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 10 June with matinées on 8 and 10 June.

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Maestro & All the Things I Lied About
Ipswich on 1 June

This year’s Pulse Festival curated by China Plate made a fascinating start with two one-person shows. Kieran Hodgson’s Maestro takes a wry look at a would-be composer (idol is Mahler, bête noire Rachmaninoff), his social and bi-sexual feelings and fumblings and the whole frustrating business of transforming from child to adult through teenage.

In theory, we should itch to give him a good shaking and tell him to take a grip of reality. In practice, we’ve all built sun-drenched sand castles out of wisful yearnings, tentative romances and might-have-been career fantasies – only to see them washed away by the rising tide of life as it is. Callum, Lucy, Ed, Cécile and Anthony as they float in and out of Kieran’s life (so far) are brought to our notice as though they peopled the stage with him.

All the Things I Lied About by Kate Bonna as altogether more acerbic. As she points out, we live in a post-truth world (though I suspect that it was ever so) where lies are the fuel for everyday intercourse in person or through electronic transmission. It’s another autobiographical show which begins with politics, Brexit and Trump and segues into her parents’ marriage, its breakdown and her gradual realisation of the truth.

Fake news is, of course, not a new phenomenon. Perhaps we asociate it in particular with politicians, but it also can be purely personal. As Bonna demonstrates how multifaceted truth can be – with the aid of audience participation and some interesting lighting effects – her wariness about total emotional commitment is laid bare before us.

Both shows were British Sign Language interpreted. The anonymous interpreter at one side of the stage deserves a festival award in her own right. Not only did she echo evry word of Bonna, she also managed to keep up with Hodgson’s ad-libs – and did it all with an air of actual enjoyment. Top marks.

Four-star rating.
The Pulse 2017 Festival continues in Ipswich until 10 June at the New Wolsey Theatre, the New Wolsey Studio, the High Street Exhibition Gallery and DanceEast’s Jerwood Dancehouse.

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The Secret Garden
reviewed in Stowmarket on 28 May

There have been several stage adaptations of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s story The Secret Garden over the past few years, but the latest from East Anglian touring company Spinning Wheel Theatre proves that imagination on stage and its reciprocation in the audience can be just as effective as large casts and elaborate settings.

The audience is confronted by Becca Gibbs’ fragmented set, nicely suggesting both indoors and outside, a type of topy-turvy world – which is exactly what Mary Lennox finds herself in when her parents die in India and she is shipped home to an unwilling guardian, Mr Craven. Spikier than a cactus as first, Mary learns to curb her imperious attitude to those she considers mere menials – but it’s a slow process.

Four very skilled actors make up director Amy Wyllie’s cast, led by Niamh McGowan as Mary and Samual Norris as Colin, the apparently crippled and bedridden Craven heir. Alice Osmanski takes on uptight houskeeper Mrs Medlock and ebullient maid Martha as well as the old gardener Weatherstaff. Joe Leat plays Dickon, Martha’s brother who has a special affinity with wildlife, Mr Craven and his doctor brother.

A succession of puppets also play their parts, from oriental shadow-play to represent the scenes in India to a chirruping red bird and a hungrey fox. “On your imginary forces work” suggests Chorus at the beginning of King Henry V, and that’s precisely what this production does. It was a pity that the acoustics of the John Peel Centre blurred so much of the authentically-accented dialogue.

Four star rating.

The Secret Garden is on tour across East Anglia until 18 June, including the Little Theatre, Sheringham on 31 May, the Corn Hall, Diss (2 June), Southwold Arts Centre (3 June), the Fisher Theatre, Bungay (June 4) and the New Wolsey Theatre Studio, Ipswich on 17 June.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Reviews 2017

Our Man in Havana
reviewed in Ipswich on 23 May

Clive Francis’ adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana is a delight, especially when performed by four actors of the West Country-based touring ensemble Creative Cow. This is ensemble playing at its slickest, with taut direction by Amanda Knott and a deceptively simple set by Nina Raines imaginatively lit by Derek Anderson.

As vacuum-cleaner salesman James Wormold (Charles Davies) sees his life in pre-Castro Cuba dissoving around him when his wife walks out leaving him with their affectionate but oh-so-demanding daughter Milly (Isla Carter) and business in stone-floored Havana far from flourishing, his friendship with emigré German doctor Hasselbacher (James Dinsmore) seems his only worthwhile adult relationship.

Enter Hawthorne, a man from Mi5 (Dinsmore), with a financial inducement in connexion with the Cold War then raging. How can Wormold resist? Of course he doesn’t, and the bonuses flow in as he invents first a whole raft of subsidiary agents and suggests some secret weapons-launch construction (these look remarkably similar to vacuum-cleaner parts…).

With Michael Onslow as Wormold’s sevant Lopez and the local police chief Segura, who fancies Milly) – all four actors except Davies play at least seven other roles as well as narrating – the confusion and misunderstandings build to a comedic climax which partly dissolves into genuine tragedy. Carter manages her doubling of Milly and Beatrice, sent from London to try to regulate the Havana situation superbly, but the whole cast is near faultless.

Four and a half-star rating.

Our Man in Havana plays at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 27 May with matinées on 24 and 27 May. It can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmuns between 29 June and 1 July.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Reviews 2017

Footloose
reviewed in Hornchurch on 22 May

The energy displayed by the cast of this remastered tour of the stage musical based on the 1984 film Footloose is breath-taking. The whirl of dance and movement, some of it performed while playing a brass, woodwind or stringed instrument, hardly slows down. The current vogue for all-round actors-musicians-dancers has certainly roduced some excellent performers.

In this story of a mother and teenage son, reluctantly moving ten hours’ drive south of Chicago to Bomont when her husband walks out without warning, the older characters have their lyrical moments. Reuban Gershon as Bomont’s pastor Rev. Moore and Maureen Nolan as his wife both have extremely good voices with crystal-clear intonation.

There are also two young couples – Joshua Dowen as displaced Ren, Hannah Price as the Moore’s daughter Ariel and Gareth Gates as farmboy Willard with Laura Sillett as Rusty (who rather fancies him but can’t quite make him react as she would wish) – who give very well thought-out characterisations.

Dowen is all tennage angst, Gates acts as well as sings and dances while both Price and Sillett makes us believe in these two girls. Lindsay Goodhand as Mrs McCormack, having to cope with the financial and emotional fallout from her husband’s desertion, and Connor Going as Chuck, Ariel’s dominating and abusive boyfriend also make their mark.

Matt Cole’s choreography and Sara Perks’ clever settings which allow our imaginations to fill in the physical gaps suit the show perfectly. Direction is by Racky Plews and sound (be warned: it’s loud) has been designed by Chris Whybrow.

Four-star rating.

Footloose runs as the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 27 May with matinées on 25 and 27 May. it can also be seen at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford between 14 and 17 June and at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon from 21 to 26 August as part of the 2017 national tour.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Reviews 2017