Category Archives: Reviews 2017

Sherlock Holmes and the Hooded Lance

reviewed at the Seckford Theatre, Woodbridge on 16 December

Common Ground’s creative team of Julian Harries and Pat Whymark have a good like in spoof shows, both for their own company and others. This year we are treated to a Sherlock Holmes adventure which I don’t think you’ll find in the official Conan Doyle canon. Five actors share some 18 parts between them.

Dick Mainwaring as Watson is the exception to the quick changes of costume and gender. He and Holmes (Harries) are broke in Baker Street with Mrs Hudson (Emily Bennett)’s Christmas fare receding faster than well-paid sleuthing. It’s fortuitous that Inspector Le’Opard (Joe Leat) comes calling with a problem.

The music which Whymark has composed and her dance routines are as usual well-conceived (she and Alfie Harries) accompany hese. Noteworthy are Bennett’s ballad as Miss Claypole, a department store employee stuck in a deadend job and only staying in it for the pension, the chorus numbers (which have considerable satirical bite) and Watson’s second-act lament.

Theatrical in-jokes as well as political ones flow through the dialogue; this is not really a show for small children. The ins and outs of the plot are sufficiently complex to keep the laughter coming; puppets (juggling with cats, anyone?) supplement the cast. Patrick Neyman  has the chance to switch accents as well as clothes as Mycroft and half of the store’s ownership.

Six other theatres are included in the Christmas tour, and I suspect that the whole thing will have tightened and speeded up once it is run-in. Common Ground, like many other smaller-scale regional companies, has learned that make-do-and-improvise can be a dramatic advantage as well as a drawback. This is a clever show, but somehow not quite clever enough.

Three and a half-star rating.

Sherlock Holmes and the Hooded Lance plays at the John Peel Centre, Stowmarket between 18 an 20 December, at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh from 1 to 3 January, at the Corn Hall, Diss on 5 January, and at the New Wolsey Theatre Studio, Ipswich between 8 and 13 January. Peformance times and seat availability vary, so check the company’s website: www.commongroundtc.co.uk for details.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Pantomimes & Christmas season shows, Reviews 2017

Dick Whittington

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 14 December

Chris Hannon’s script and the co-direction of Karen Simpson and David Whitney have really found the formula for a Theatre Royal pantomime. Their version of the story of Dick Whittington is replete with local touches which seem natural rather than afterthoughts and the whole show has a subtly period edge which suits this Georgian playhouse perfectly, including Julia Cave’s choreography.

We have a Principal Boy Dick (Jessica Spalis) who brings just the right teenage gawkiness to the part. Her trusty companion Tommy the cat is mimed by Corey Cross whose costume and acrobatics have elements of an hommage to Grimaldi; his excursions into the auditorium have the children competing to pet him.

Indeed a delicate whiff of Trelawny of the Wells imbues the entire production. The Fitzwarren emporium is a failing bookshop with bespectacled Alice (Tessa Kadler) as its liveliest item. Her father Francis (Nigel Lister) is ineffectual and in the shadow of his millionnaire expatriate brother Ferdnando. Winona Whittington arrives in London in search of her wayward son, rather than being the Fitzwarrens’ cook.

Chris Clarkson makes this Dame part into a real three-dimensional character, thus helping the often disparate elements of the pantomime to coalesce. Sparkly help is at hand in the shape of Sarah Lawn’s Fairy Pearl while Tom Roberts’ Sir Reginald Ratfiend twirls his tail as an alternative to moustaches with villainous effect and directs his troupe of ratlings to do their worst.

He’s the current Lord Mayor London, so has a double layer of power, and his appetite gnaws through books as well as foodstuffs. When he manages to shipwreck the Fitzwarren party however it is on Ferdnando’s paradise island (cue a u/v light sequence). Not even Nerine Skinner’s Nibbles, Ratfiend’s resourceful sidekick, can now alter the triumph of good over evil.

Dawn Allsopp is the designer for the deliberately quirky sets and costumes. The musical director is Ward Baker, tucked with Luke Petitt into a stage-left corner of the pit; a couple of toy theatre musician figures have been painted to the side of them. That’s just the sort of touch which gives this show the edge of some of its more lavish competitors.

Five star rating.

Dick Whittington continues at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 14 January. Performance dates and times vary, so check with the theatre’s website: www.theatreroyal.org for details and seat availability.

 

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Pantomimes & Christmas season shows, Reviews 2017

The Borrowers

reviewed at the Jerwood DanceHouse, Ipswich on 13 December

Mary Norton’s The Borrowers is a story of very small beings who live underneath humans and utilise all those oddments which fall through cracks in floor-boards or under the wainscoting. Not the obvious material for a dance drama, you might think, but Jane Hackett, Estela Merlos and Thomasin Gulgeç prove this wrong.

There is a cast of four, but you really need to add a fifth – Betsy Dadds superb hand-painted animations. Composer Tobias Saunders adds to the atmosphere of a world other than that which we inhabit with a score that combines defined rhythms with matching simple melodic phrases. We first see a subterranean world of pipework and cobwebs, dripped through with water leaks.

There’s the odd spider and mouse to watch before Pod (Gulgeç) rolls onto the stage with n oversized cotton-reel. He’s joined by his wife Homily (Merios) and their adventurous daughter Arrietty (Hannah Mason) who soon leads them from the safety of their underground home into the world outside.

Dadds offers us in fast succession a kitchen a scullery-cum-laundry room and the – to the Borrowers – the bewildering world outside. They have been joined by Spiller (Lewis Cooke) whose rough’n’ready approach is revealed as a façade in his duet with Mason, showing the tomboy maturing into a young woman with feelings.

The lily pond sequence with its improvised stepping-stones leads from the ones in the potting-shed and the garden. By now a foursome, we end on a meadow where thistle-down is followed by a cascade of outsized autumn leaves. It’s imagination-stirring with inventive choreography which never slips into mere display and, at the matinée I saw, held a largely primary-school aged audience spellbound.

Five star rating.

The Borrowers runs at the Jerwood DanceHouse, Ipswich until 17 December and will tour nationally next year. Performance times vary, so check with the theatre’s website www.danceeast.co.uk for availability.

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Filed under Ballet dance & mime, Family & children's shows, Reviews 2017

Jack and the Beanstalk

reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Ipswich on 10 December

This Chris Jordan pantomime is a traditional one in many ways. There’s a Principal Boy as Jack (Lisa Mathieson) and a scene-stealing Dame Trott (Paul Laidlaw). The multi-named cow (Dulcie? Clarabelle? Daisy?) deserves a programme credit in her own right and the beanstalk is sufficiently spectacular.

Cliff Parisi’s Fleshcreep rather lets it all down. He doesn’t really convince as the villain – too prone to lollop on and off stage  and Melanie Masson’s Fairy Fuschiaa too easily dominates him. Mathieson makes an attractive hero who deserves to win Victoria Farley’s Princess Jill.

Of the two main comics, Laidlaw has the audience in the palm of his hand from first entrance, and Aidan O’Neill’s Simple Simon doesn’t take long to recruit us all in his gang. Siôn Tudor Owen plays King Custard and Matt Lee-Steer doubles the Town Crier and the ferocious, ravening Giant Blunderbore.

The choreography of Ashley Glazebrook and Glen Murphy (aka Twist and Pulse) at times taxes the female dancers of the ensemble, though the men have some eye-riveting leaps and turns to compensate. James Cleeve’s band is ensconced at audience level stage left and the standard of singing throughout is good; Laidlaw’s farewell to her cow stills the house.

Three and a half-star rating.

Jack and the Beanstalk runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre until 28 January. Performance dates and times vary. Check with the theatre’s box office at :www.gordon-craig.co.uk for availability.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Music Music theatre & Opera, Pantomimes & Christmas season shows, Reviews 2017

The Elves and the Shoemaker

reviewed at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich on 9 December

“When she is good…” Red Rose Chain tends to run to the extremes of the little girl in the rhyme, but this Christmas show deserves high marks. The Grimm Brothers’ story of the elves who come to the rescue of an old shoemaker is adapted and updated by director Joanna Carrick and has an imagination-stirring set by Carrick and David Newborn.

We are in the small town of Elvedon (which does actually exist on the Suffolk-Norfolk border).  The central character is Elvira (Emma Swan), who yearns to update her father (Ryan Penny)’s outdated styles and stock, which scarcely attract a single customer.

Her best friend is Frank (Darren Latham), a baker by trade, though one much exploited by his employer Mrs Battenberg. She is also pursued by the brash, know-the-cost-of-everything son of the ruthless Esmeralda Overdrive. Between the Overdrive shopping Mall and fashionistas, Lovelace Shoes is on its last legs.

That’s until the titular elves arrive and overnight make up one of Elvira’s designs. Then the shop bell starts ringing again – and so do the tills. Penny and Latham play the elves and all the grind’em’down characters, which necessitates some very quick costume changes.

Of the “nasties”, Esmeralda and her imitation pop-star son rival Battenberg in the unpleasant stakes. Never were custard-pies more properly placed! The elves too receive their just reward in the shape of new outfits which will enable them to train as Santa Claus’ helpers.

It’s not too long for the smaller audience members and has a script which makes literate sense for the older ones. There’s a gentle bit of audience participation but that (and the custard pies apart) it’s all mercifully free and pantomime gags. As I said – top marks!

Five star rating.

The Elves and the Shoemaker runs at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich until 31 December. Performance times vary, so check with the theatre’s website:www.redrosechain.com for seat availability.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Pantomimes & Christmas season shows, Reviews 2017

The Ladykillers of Humber Doucy Lane

reviewed at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich on 8 December

Be warned! Eastern Angles’ seasonal offering changes name when it reaches Peterborough’s Key Theatre for the final week of its three-venue run. There it becomes The Ladykillers of Orton Brambles – both are areas which  actually exist in their respective cities.

But one never expects everyday logic in on of these variations on a popular literary or dramatic themes. Harry Long’s script is (very loosely) based on the Ealing Films comedy – and of course there has recently been a very successful stage version at the nearby New Wolsey Theatre. Our band of robbers, newly sprung from gaol, here masquerade as thespians rather than musicians to hilarious effect.

Dominic Conway has provided some catchy tunes for the cast of five to sing and play. Designer Sean Turner makes a small acting-area with the audience on two sides and the necessity for a bewildering number of costume changes seem as natural as Laura Keefe’s production allows.

The gang is masterminded by Todd Heppenstall as Left Eye with Emma Barclay’s Cow Crusher as his right-hand person. Barclay also doubles as Binkie Blaine, a landlady whose crush (to put it politely) on Michal Ball provides a running joke throughout.

Also involved is slow-witted Scar Feet (Daniel Copeland) and thwarted dancer Smithy; Alex Prescot’s interpretation of the menservants in the production of The Importance of Being Earnest and Keshini Misha’s Method-soaked Kim are ponted reminders of performers who drive their directors  to drink.

We also meet the policemen whose boring desk-duty is scarcely enlivend by Binkie’s regular reporting on conspiracies; she’s an up-to-date old lady, for her suspecisions are well nurtured by Facebook and Twitter.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Ladykillers of Humble Doucy Lane/of Orton Brambles runs at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipwich until 6 January. It transfers to the Seckford Theatre, Woodbridge between 9 and 20 January and (with the alternative title) to the Key Theatre Studio from 23 to 27 January. Performnce dates and times vary. Check the Eastern Angles website:www.easternagnles.co.uk for details and seat availability.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Pantomimes & Christmas season shows, Plays, Reviews 2017

Aladdin

reviewed at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon on 8 December

Home-grown pantomimes have the edge on commercial ones. Thy are tailored for a local audiences and the smaller theatres which house them add a special intimacy. Take Aladdin, Brad Pitt’s Christmas season show for Simon Fielding (who directs and plays Wishee Washee) at the Towngate.

It provides a couple of interesting variations on the story. Forget Abanazar – instead, we meet Aunty Banazar, a slightly ambiguous person as to gender once s/he travels to China. Sophie Ladds doubles the character with the Slave of the Ring in the prologue.

Again, this often downtrodden  slave isn’t what you expect. Rather she’s a single mother with a gob full of Estuary English and, like many another woman in her situation, she has perfected the art of delegation. She never answers her mistress’ summons but send her brood of children, the Ringlets, in her place.

Marianna Neofitou’s Princess Jasmin is a bright young lady, running circles around her father the Emperor (Nigel Peever). Under Matthew Reeves’ musical direction, the songs come over very well. Sam Ebenezer makes a likeable hero, though it might have been better if the script had made him Wishee’s younger (not elder) brother.

Widow Twankey is in the safe hands of Daniel Stockton, a Dame with attitude as well as a way with the audience. Visually, the ostumes lookgood and so does the well-varied choreography of Aisling Duffy and Ebony Clarke. Dominating the dance sequences from the Cave f Wonders scene onwards is Wade Lewin’s energetic Slave of the Lamp.

Flying by Foy does the magic carpet sequences proud; even the most cynical youngster in the audience didn’t fail to have been impressed, as Aladdin’s journey took him high into the auditorium over our heads.

Four and a half-star rating.

Aladdin runs at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon until 2 January. Performance dates and times vary, so check the theatre’s website www.towngatetheatre.co.uk for availability.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Music Music theatre & Opera, Pantomimes & Christmas season shows, Reviews 2017

Jack and the Beanstalk

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 5 December

One of the favourite pantomime stories bustles onto the Cambridge stage this Christmas with considerable panache. It’s written by  Matt Crosby (who plays Dame Trott) and Al Morley and directed by Carole Todd with choreography by Kevan Allen.

Costume designer Sue Simmerling has devised costumes in what might be termed “musical-comedy 18th century”. They look good, have considerable sparkle where required and come into their own for the apricot and orange coloured walk-down. Jane Marlow is the musical director.

Making a thoroughly nasty, slightly Dickensian villain is Stephen Becket as Fleshcreep; the boos start before he’s emerged fully from his stage-left green haze. Opposing him is the Fairy Beansprout of Liza Goddard and her troupe of five-a-day vegetable fairies – athlete Spinach (Tamsin January), French Ratatouille (Charlotte Blenkinsop) and slightly gormless American Princess Sweetcorn (Tiffany Wells).

Trying to ward off the Giant’s demands are the King (Tony Christie), whose thwarted efforts to break into song form a running joke, his sparky daughter Kate (Alexandra Waite-Roberts) and the Trott family. Holly Easterbrook plays Jack, who is fa too sure he can’t possibly be a hero, but has the voice and the presence to contradict that.

Daft younger brother Simon is Robert Rees, an excellent foil to Crosby’s audience-wooing Dame; their slop-scene in the ice-cream parlour which is the Trotts’ final bid to avoid losing their dairy is very funny. Of course, nothing remains for them but o sell their prized and beloved cow Daisy, a mischievious-eyed bovine who’s another scene stealer.

Four star rating.

Jack and the Beanstalk runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 7 January. Performance dates and times vary; check the theatre’s website: www.cambridgeartstheatre.com for details and seat availability.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Pantomimes & Christmas season shows, Reviews 2017

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

reviewed at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 2 December

One From The Heart has been the Civic Theatre’s pantomime partner for a number of years and always produces a traditional show. This year it’s the Grimm story of Snow White with the dwarfs who come to her aid in the forest played by extremely well-rehearsed members of the juvenile chorus.

Where Simon Aylin’s script and Kerris Peeling’s direction diverge from the usual story is by making the Man in the Mirror a major character. Louie Westwood plays him as a subtly camp pop-star, all silver lamé and high kicks, who has been enslaved by Queen Grizelda (Jenny-Ann Topham), a ferocious Brünnhilde-type swathed in black and crimson and topped with a bull-horned headdress.

Abigail Carter Simpson is a likeable heroine who deserves her prince (Dominic Sibanda), though she is a better singer than dancer. Comedy is in the hands of Andrew Fettes as Nurse Nelly – a Dame of the old school – and Dickie Wood as Muddles – an instant audience favourite. Chris Whittaker’s choreography is enjoyable to watch as performed by the eight ensemble chorus.

No designer is directly credited, but the settings are pleasantly fairy-tale bookish and the costumes, especially for the predominantly muted crimson and gold walk-down, look well. James Doughty is the musical director with the numbers arranged by Ben Kennedy.

Three and a half-star rating.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs runs at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford until 7 January. Performance dates and times vary; check the theatre website www.chelmsford.gov.uk/theatres for availability.

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 1 December

Daniel Buckroyd’s pantomime for the 2017-18 Christmas season at the Mercury Theatre  manages to avoid all the Disneyfied traps which so often make stage versions of this story pallid film clones. He tells the legend straightforwardly enough, but there are sufficient plot tricks to keep the audience fully alert.

Visually it is sumptuous with court costumes of the late Middle Ages and the Dame (Antony Stuart-Hicks), her son Muddles (Dale Superville) and the small chorus in what might best be described as theatrical late 18th century. David Shields’ settings, like his costumes, are cleverly created to catch the eye, move effortlessly from one scene to another and – through the use of a central bridge over the orchestra pit – using the forestage to its best advantage.

The immortals are Ghemisola Ikumelo as the cuddly Fairy Blossom and Carli Norris as the most slinky of evil Enchantresses. Norris revels in the audience’s instant dislike of this insinuating creature and plays it for all it’s worth. The King, Snow White’s bereaved father (James Dinsmore) doesn’t stand a chance once she has taken his late wife’s place.

Megan Bancroft’s Snow White charms the audience from her first appearance and sings as well as acts very well. it is not a prince who awakens her once she has tasted the poisoned apple but Rupert (Alex Green), the bookish younger brother of Simon Pontin’s Lord Chamberlain.

The dwarves are human-sized rod puppets, a sort of EU/UK nationality mix, and very well manipulated. Comedy is safe in the hands of Stuart-Hicks and Superville; the former’s deceptively dainty even when working the audience and the latter is a theatre favourite, for very good reason. The mirror scene where Nurse and Muddles alternate as the new Queen’s reflexion is hilarious – and not just for the quick changes required of them.

Richard Reeday s the musical director, letting the pleasant if not memorable score make its own impact, often involving Charlie Morgan’s choreography. Those forest animals – field mice, squirrels and hares –which come to Snow White’s aid once she is left in the woods are particularly well handled. The associate puppetry director is Abigail Bing.

Five star rating.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 14 January. Performance dates and times vary. Check with the theatre website www.mercurytheatre.co.uk for availability.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Music Music theatre & Opera, Pantomimes & Christmas season shows, Reviews 2017

Red Riding Hood

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 28 November

This yea’s pantomime season kicks off for East Anglia in Ipswich with a new Peter Rowe rock’n’roll show. So far, so familiar. However, over the past few years Rowe has begun using stories which – though familiar one – are not usually thought of as part of the traditional; pantomime canon.

So the Arthurian The Sword in the Stone and last year’s Sinbad the Sailor are now succeeded by Red Riding Hood, no longer a little girl but a feisty teenager called Maisy Merry (Lucy Wells). Familiar elements are there – a contrasted pair of immortals to set the plot spinning, a hissable double villain(Rob Falconer), his thoroughly incompetent henchmen Adam Longstaff and Daniel Carter Hope), a dashing prince in search of true love (Max Runham) and the Dame (Simon Nock).

This being the New Wolsey Theatre, the score by musical director Ben Goddard is packed full of rock’n’roll numbers. The mischievous puppet animals by Entify which are audience favourites make more appearance this year; Prince Florizel has a whole farmyard as well as a fox and a squirrel as his Privy Council. Barney George’s set is deceptively simple with clever use of gauzes and sliding flats as well as grave-traps and a central mobile platform.

All the cast take turns as instrumentalists behind one of these gauzes which shrouds the back half of the stage. Most of the action takes place on the forestage – when it doesn’t spill out into the auditorium. Elizabeth Rowe’s spring fairy Cherry Blossom contrasts well with James Haggie’s icicle-fingered Jack Frost and Red Riding Hood has Little Miss Moffet and Goldilocks (Lana Walker) and Bo Peep (Isobel Bates) to support her.

Singing honours go to Falconer when the dastardly Sir Jasper metamorphoses into his werewolf alter-ego. Nock is of the school of slightly raucous Dames with a distinctly masculine edge. Haggie doubles as the Prince’s aide, rewarded by his choice of village maidens by the end. Wells and Runham make a thoroughly engaging central couple; Rowe allows them much more personality than is sometimes the case with more traditional pantomime scripts.

Four star rating.

Red Riding Hood runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 27 January. Performance dates and times vary. Check with the theatre’s website www.wolseytheatre.co.uk for availability.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Music Music theatre & Opera, Pantomimes & Christmas season shows, Reviews 2017

People, Places & Things

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 21 November

The concept of a box set takes on a new definition in this collaborative project from Headlong, the National Theatre, Manchester’s HOME and Exeter’s Northcott Theatre. The proscenium arch is framed with a white rectangle, like the lip of a box. Like any such container, it can hold a variety of things.

Duncan Macmillan’s play is a no-holds-barred almost clinically forensic examination of addiction and some of the therapies which seek to address the multitude of forms which it takes. The central character is an actress called Sarah (stage name Emma), given a magnificent three-dimensional portrait by Lisa Dwyer Hogg.

She’s onstage and at the centre of the action throughout as we watch her descent into a hell of her own making and her struggles to clamber out of it. Emma/Sarah is not a sympathetic person and Dwyer Hogg’s achievement lies partly in the way in which she makes this plain.

Directors Jeremy Herrin and Holly Race Roughan surround her with a shoal of would-be helpers, some of whom – like her parents – are completely out of their depth. Matilda Ziegler plays the doctor, therapist and mother showing that even tough love may not be enough to break the cycle.

Ekow Quartey is the nurse who has seen it all before many times, but retains his humanity and desire to help. There’s an interesting double of alcoholic Paul and Sarah’s father by Trevor Fox.  Mark draws another rounded portrait of an addict who has learned to accept his weaknesses and so guards against them from Andrew Sheridan.

That white set is by Bunny Christie, lit by James Farncombe and pierced by the soundscapes of Tom Gibbons and Matthew Herbert. I suppose that these days most of us know someone who appears to be about to if not actually tripped into the addiction spectrum. That makes this drama hard-hitting; it remains a gripping piece of theatre on any level.

Four and a half-star rating.

People, Places & Things runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 25 November with matinées on 23 and 25 November.

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Il barbiere di Siviglia

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 15 November

It begins with a stylish chortle of an overture firmly controlled by conductor Ben Gernon. Ten a curtain sweep aside to drop us into mid-20th century Seville, with Joanna Parker’s set reminding us of the city’s Muslim heritage and its lingering echoes in the roles of men and women.

This touring revival of the 2016 Glyndebourne Festival production is directed by Sinéad O’Neill. It’s frothy, never takes itself too seriously and is studded both with well-sung and acted characterisations and visual treats. That cloudburst of keyboards in the Act One finale, Basilio’s novel take on a thunderclap in “La calumnia” and the deliciously sent-up serenades “Ecco, ridente” and “Se il mio nome” all work well.

Jack Swanson’s Almaviva is vocally agile and displays just a hint of the social and sexual voraciousness which is more fully revealed in the second of the Beaumarchais trilogy. Laura Verrecchia as Rosina sails through “Una voce poco fa” and her duets with Marco Filippo Romano’s testy Dr Bartolo and Tobias Greenhalgh’s likeable fixer Figaro.

Slide-slithering Basilio gives Anatoli Sivko a host of opportunities, upon which he seizes. Janis Kelly’s sneeze-prone Berta stumps her way as Rosina’s chaperone until bursting out with “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie” and ending it with a cascade of heel-taps and stamps which would do credit to any flamenco dancer.

Three masked actors, two with horned bull-visors and one with a plumed headdress reminiscent of traditional Sicilian puppets, circulate around the action, managing both to remind us that this is a traditional buffo comedy with stock characters but also that the ritualistic strikes deep chords.

I’ve always thought that Il barbiere was probably not the best opera with which to introduce the genre to pre-teens. Judging by the rapt attention and thorough-going enjoyment shown by a primary school party, that may not necessarily be the case. They certainly loved the visual aspects, but they also were engrossed by the music. Top marks all round!

Four and a half-star rating.

Il barbiere di Siviglia has a Saturday performance on 18 November. It can also be seen at the Milton Keynes Theatre in repertoire with Così fan tutte and Hamlet between 21 and 25 November.

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Around the World in 80 Days

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 14 November

A forest of furled umbrellas, topped with bowler hats. A stepped pyramid of portmanteaux and suitcases. A clock ticking relentlessly behind a jumble of station sounds. One of those 19th century maps where splodges of imperial red mottle the globe. This is the work of designer Lis Evans.

This is the background to the Stoke-on-Trent New Vic’s tour of Laura Eason’s version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. A multi-talented, multi-skilled cast of nine  whirl us through the adventures of Phineas Fogg (Andrew Pollard) and his resourceful but accident-prone valet Passepartout (Michael Hugo).

Hugo is undoubtedly the star of the show, wooing the audience and apparently endowed with more than the usual allocation of flexible joints. Pollard gives Fogg a precise combination of certainty (he’s a Victorian gentleman completely assured of his place in society) and selfless generosity, as when he and Passepartout rescue Mrs Arouda (Kirsten Foster) from her husband’s funeral pyre.

Then there’s Inspector Fix (Dennis Herdman). He’s single-mindedly in pursuit of a daring bnk robber. Not only does he grasp eagerly at the wrong end of every stick which pokes itself into his limited vision, he resorts to skullduggery on a thoroughly nasty scale. By which time, Herdman very properly enters and leaves stage left, as a villain should – and is heartily booed for his wrong-doings.

Darting in and out of multiple characterisations are the rest of the cast, demonstrating circus skills as well as mime and dance. The use of props is clever and beautifully timed. Movement director Beverley Norris Edmunds deserves equal billing with the show’s director Theresa Heskins. The soundscapes of composer James Atherton and designer James Earls-Davis are equally commendable. It all ads up to a thorough-going theatrical delight.

Five star rating.

Around the World in 80 Days continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 18 November with matinées on 16 and 18 November. The tour also includes  the North Finchley Arts Depot (29 November-3 December) and the Norwich Theatre Royal (16-20 January 2018).

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Hedda Gabler

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 7 November

Women usually find something to sympathise with in fictional woman characters. In the case of the title character of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, that’s difficult. Hedda, in Patrick Marber’s version,  stirs no empathy.

Ivo van Hove’s production abetted by Jan Versweyveld’s set and lighting is modern Scandi noir. it suggests a penthouse almost devoid of furniture and in which Hedda’s old-fashioned upright piano is so out-of-place that it becomes a doppelgänger for the woman herself. Threads of Tom Gibbons’ sounds drift through the miasma of the action.

At the performance I saw, Cate Cammack – who played the part when this National Theatre production went to the USA – was Hedda. Her movements, at times almost as disjointed as the character’s tormented inner being, occasionally seemed at odds with her gentle voice.

Annabel Bates’s Thea Elvsted contrasts well, her apparent fluffiness (which both infuriates and intrigues Hedda) underpinned by a level of determination only Adam Best’s unpleasant Judge Brack can equal. His is a man who knows only his own law.

The two men – Tesman who has taken this pretentious apartment partly to reflect his new wife’s status as the daughter of a general but mainly because he is initially sure that he will be awarded a well-paid professorship and researcher-writer Lovborg – appear almost like twins in Abhin Galeya and Richard Pyros’ characterisations.

Galeya is the eternal optimist, though a degree of uncertainty soon crumbles the façade. Pyros, the former alcoholic who is tempted to one disastrous relapse, comes over a this sort of distorted mirror image. Tesman may survive for the moment by reconstructing his friend and rival’s masterpiece, but his future looks bleak.

Tesman’s aunt Juliana is crisply delineated by Christine Kavanagh and the ever-present, no doubt ever-watchful maid Berthe becomes a brooding presence by Madlena Nedeva. It’s an effective staging, but at the end we are left in the cold of a winter without end.

Four star rating.

Hedda Gabler runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 11 November with matinées on 8, 9 and 11 November. It also tours to the Royal & Derngate Northampton (28 November-2 December) and the Milton Keynes Theatre (27 February-3 March 2018).

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Driving Miss Daisy

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 6 November

Where do our prejudices come from? nature or nurture? The question underlies Alfred Uhry’s deceptively straightforward Driving Miss Daisy which the Theatre Royal, Bath is currently touring in a 30th anniversary production.

Director Richard Beecham and designer Simon Kenny keep the three-hander on the move with clever use of a bleached-effect set, suggestive of clapboard and minmal props and furnishings. There i also highly effective music an sound by Jon Nicholls. But for all this, it all boils down in the end to the actors themselves.

Siân Phillips is Miss Daisy, the former teacher who crashes the car her businessman son Boolie (Teddy Kempner) has bought her and is now required to use a Black chauffeur Hoke (Derek Griffiths). her perforamnce is beautifully nuanced as the Jewish momma with her own prejudices begins to trust Hoke and ultimately to depend upon him.

Kempner’s study of a man who is accepted as a quasi-honorary member of WASP society, but who is perhaps too careful not to overstep the mark is also multi-faceted. Hoke has his own shoulder-load of chips and Griffiths entices us with equal skill to join him in the character’s own journey from spikey, well-concealed resentment to a mental and social place  of comparative calm.

The waltz rhythm of the old “When the ball is over” ballad permuates the action. It suggests a flavour of Tennessee Williams’ faded Southern belle Amanda, but Phillips’ Daisy learns how to baance a never-to-come-again past with the inevitibility of future’s changes. it makes for a memorable, thought-provoking evening in the theatre.

Four and a half-star rating.

Driving Miss Daisy runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 11 November with matinées on 9 and 11 November.

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Up ‘n’ Under

reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 1 November

John Godber’s early (1984) play about amateur rugby in his native Yorkshire has been revived by the Gordon Craig Theatre’s artistic director Catherine Lomax.Ben Roddy’s direction keeps the action moving while giving space to the different characters’ soliloquies, delivered straight out to the audience.

Designer Connor Norris has created an apparently sparse setting – goal posts backing moveable pieces which transform the scene between locker-room, pub, playing field and gym – which also embraces the sides of the auditorium. There are some excellent lighting effects from Dawn Meadowcroft, including shadow-puppet style silhouetted sequences.

Central to the story is Phil Stewart’s Arthur, who tries to galvanise the no-hope Wheatsheaf Arms team into something which has a chance of beating local top-boys Cobblers Arms. In this he is aided by gym instructor Hazel (Gemma Oaten), whose efficiency eventually wins the lads’ respect.

Those lads are Phil (Adam Shorey), Frank (Matt Collyer), Tony (Duncan McInnes) and Steve (Chris Aukett). Aukett also plays Cobblers Arms manager Reg, whose bet with Arthur triggers the whole plot. If Arthur’s dilemma takes entre stage, that is not to belittle the often subtle characterisations of his mis-matched team, or  Oaten’s portrait of womanly assurance.

Four star rating.

Up ‘n’ Under runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 4 November with matinées on 2 and 4 November.

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The Invisible Man

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

Some scientists are obsessed beyond reason with their research, often using the benefits that might accrue for their fellow-men as vindication. Of such are legends made, both in fact and fiction.

In the latter category one might place Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert L Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and HG Wells’ Griffin. His “scientific romances” are all rooted in technology which wouldn’t have seemed too far-fetched to their original consumers.

The Invisible Man with its late 19th century setting contrasts the academic world which is content to experiment – but only step by cautious, provable step – with the uncomprehending – and therefore less forgiving – countryside outside these ivory towers and well-equipped laboratories.

Putting this onstage requires more than a script, provided by Clem Garrity for this première production. It needs stage trickery of a high order and performances which take the serious parts of the story seriously. Ryan McBride’s production has a looming, dark set by Lily Arnold, cleverly lit by Nic Farman to allow John Bulleid’s magic to make its impact.

Rebecca Applin’s score alternates rough’n’ready street ballads with incidental music where the violins scratch away to echo the activity within Jack Griffin’s brain. Matthew Spencer’s performance in the part is a very fine one; he suggests the outsider, the loner right from the start as his driven need to prove his theories right alienate both Lucy (the girl who loves him) and his former tutor and friend Dr Kemp.

Both Eleanor Wyld, who doubles Lucy and her actress sister Amelia, and Paul McEwan as Kemp make the most of their parts. Griffin eventually rents a room in Iping, a small Sussex village, where his landlady Mrs Hall (Sophie Duval) accepts his money and his strange activities more readily than the other locals, notably Matthew Woodyatt’s Tommy and con=man thief Marvel (Phil Adèle).

It’s all clever enough in staging, sound and performance to keep the audience’s attention focussed, though the explanations of optics and the refraction of light are perhaps over-long, if necessary to the plot. And it’s perfect fair for the darker, witching months.

Four star rating.

The Invisible Man continues at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 18 November with matinées on 2 and 11 November.

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How the Other Half Loves

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 30 October

If any director knows how to bring out all the nuances in an Alan Ayckbourn play, that director is surely Alan Strachan. As anyone who remembers his productions at the Greenwich Theatre in the late 1970s and early 80s will bear fond witness.

This staging of How the Other Half Loves benefits from the split-second timing of its six-strong cast, notably in the crucial dual dinner-party scene. What also comes out strongly is the way that the three men, of such dissimilar ages and classes, employ each a different sort of violence in their relationships with their wives.

Frank Foster, the middle-aged middle-class husband, bludgeons anyone he comes into contact with by his incessant barrage of opinionated nonsense. Robert Daws has his insensitivity and self-satisfaction nailed; you can understand why Caroline Langrishe as his wife Fiona is tempted to stray, emotionally, financially and otherwise.

Newly promoted William Featherstone is uncomfortable at his new social and professional level. As Matthew Cottle makes clear, he’s really only happy when making himself useful. His poor little pink mouse of a wife Mary comes in for a regular series of wrist taps – not in themselves violent, but demeaning none the less. The moment when Mary finally finds her own personality is beautifully timed by Sara Crowe who gives throughout the best performance of the evening.

The youngest couple is Teresa and Bob Phillips. Charlie Brooks makes Teresa’s frustration with her stay-at-home-and-look-after-the-baby life which eventually flares almost out of control a natural response to Leon Ockenden’s Bob, a ruffian under his show-off skin with more than a trace of sadism in his relationship with women. Ockenden’s performance at times seems to come from a different production; he fails to bring the character alive.

Designer Julie Godfrey’s set, and her costumes, evoke the late 1960s setting admirably with a well-detailed box set which cleverly amalgamate the two-homes in furniture and furnishings as six contrasted lives parade before us. They’re not in search of an author of course, just looking for a present which offers hope for the future.

Four and a half-star rating.

How the Other Half Loves runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 4 November with matinées on 2 and 4 November. It is also at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 27 November and 2 December as part of a national tour.

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All Wrapped Up in Westwood

reviewed at The Undercroft, Peterborough on 29 October

This is the latest in Eastern Angles’ plays based on archival and spoken evidence – an example of the company’s own unique brand of drama-documentary. Freemans Catalogue Distribution Centre operated in Peterborough between 1969 and 2009 and its (largely female) employees were instrumental in initiating equal pay reforms.

Queen-pin of the story as written by Ivan Cutting is Edie (Jan Wright) who became the union’s shop steward. We also enter the lives of various of her colleagues, notably  Mandy (Kat Cushman) who tragically miscarries and Aisha (Summer Mooed) who works for Freeman having discovered that her secretarial skills are outweighed by her brown skin.

Suzanne Tuck as Kath, Rubin Carter as Liz and Michelle Scott as Susan also give good performances. Fiona Rigler has designed a suitably open and somewhat bleak set for Poppy Rowley’s production, which keeps the action on the move as the years pass, people come and go and new owners take over putting more emphasis on profitability than on personnel.

In many ways, this is a site-specific production, if you take “site” to be a place or even a city rather than an individual building or piece of open ground. Peterborough itself is an amalgam of the old and the new. Outreach ventures such as Eastern Angles’ local productions help to cement the two more firmly.

Three and a half-star rating.

All Wrapped Up in Westwood runs at The Undercroft, Serpentine Green, Peterborough until 5 November. There are matinée performances on 4 and 5 November.

 

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