Category Archives: Reviews 2017

Things I Know To Be True

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 17 October

Plays usually depend on what is said and the actions natural to the dialogue. Frantic Assembly do things slightly differently. Words, yes, and intelligent, character-credible ones at that by Andrew Bovell – but also a species of physical version of onomatopoeia from co-directors Scott Graham and Geordie Brookman.

This takes the form of part-mime, part-dance where the three women in the story – mother Fran, elder daughter Pip and younger afterthought Rosie – are lifted and swirled around the stage by their menfolk, partly in control and partly passive. It all takes place on a stage with minimalist furnishings (Geoff Cobham).

Kirsty Oswald as Rosie opens the drama with a monologue explaining that her gap-year travels culminated in a romantic encounter in Berlin which has left her disillusioned and robbed.

Then we meet her over-protective parents, Fran (Cate Hamer) who works in a hospital and father Bob (John McArdle) who has retired from an assembly-line job and now tends his garden while worrying about his children.

Pip (Seline Hizli) has come to the end of her marriage. Ben (Arthur Wilson) is a salesman on the way up, and on the make. Mark (Matthew Barker) is uncomfortable in his skin, as he reveals to devastating effect on his family in the second act.

Bovell’s script is a realistic and adult one, which managed to lure a predominantly teenaged audience into complete involvement with his characters’ difficulties; perhaps there’s something of Pip, Rosie, Ben and Mark in most of us, however submerged.

It’s acted with immense conviction, which in turn communicates itself across the auditorium. So that Rosie’s painful experience of growing-up contrasts with Pip’s determination to grow into her own person, not just the roles of wife and mother.

Fran’s increasing desperation to keep her brood together and happy within her own context in turn holds the reverse side of the mirror to Bob’s ultimately futile attempts to protect his daughters and maintain his sons on what he sees as a normal, honest path. These make up the drama and its inherent heartbreak which we can all recognise.

Four and a half star rating.

Things I Know To Be True runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 21 October with matinées on 19 and 21 October.

 

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Filed under Circus and physical theatre, Plays, Reviews 2017

The Best Man

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 16 October

Politics are seldom a clean business wherever they are. Gore Vidal’s 1960 behind-the-scenes drama about an US Democratic Party convention to nominate a presidential candidate rings almost as many bells for a British audience in 2017 as it did for the American one when first staged.

Basically it’s a duel between the two main candidates, each with seconds as in the personal combat tradition. Both have display wives and devious behind-the-scenes manoeuvering campaign manager. There are also Party heavyweights, one a former President and the other a matriarch with her own power base, who are needed to endorse the front-runner – whichever he turns out to be.

Squeaky clean is the image to present to those all-important voters. Needless to say, a vast amount of energy is expended in digging up as much dirt to sling at the opposition and making it stick. Is Secretary of State William Russell subject to severe nervous breakdowns? How secure is his marriage? Does Senator Joseph Cantwell’s military past hold a story which would not merely damage but criminalise him?

Martin Shaw’s urbane Russell and his coolly elegant wife Alice (Glynis Barber) are the first couple we meet in their Philadelphia hotel suite (a design by Michael Taylor whose semi-transparent panels suggest that nothing a public figure says or does is ever completely private. His hit-man is Dick Jensen (Anthony Howell), a typical Washington (or Whitehall) apparatchik.

In contrast, Jeff Fahey’s Cantwell (a name which Sheridan would have relished) is a ramrod who still can relax in private with his blonde photo opportunity-seizing wife Mabel (Honeysuckle Weeks). the wives’  meet-the-Press scene shows Barber and Weeks as polar opposites and is very funny, particularly as is mediated by Gemma Jones’ grande dame Mrs Gamage.

Walking away with the acting prize is Jack Shepherd’s ex-President Hockstader, a man hiding a terminal disease who cannot be bamboozled into throwing his weight behind either candidate without good cause – and he has his own methods of ferreting out not just the truth but all its surroundings, past and present.

Evidence of a sort which might be Cantwell’s undoing is provided by David Tarkenter as Sheldon Marcus, a former Army officer now adrift in civilian life but determined to reveal what may – or may not – have happened in 1943. Jim Creighton’s Don Blades has to act quickly either to disprove the story or to suppress it.

Simon Evans’ direction keeps the action taut and also allows space for the characters to flourish as three-dimensional people through their speeches and other exchanges. We may be in the 1960s onstage, but the rumbles of that time are still around in our decade. And beyond it, almost certainly. Power is indeed a weapon.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Best Man continues at the Cambridge Arts theatre until 21 October with matinées on 19 and 21 October.

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Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick

reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford on 10 October

The Carry On... films and the team of actors involved with most of them in the 1960s and 70s have become embedded in the British consciousness. As with all such phenomena, myth has partly obscured fact – both for the films themselves and also for the actors.

Terry Johnson’s 1998 backstage comedy about three of the core performers and one other actress treads a fine line between impersonation and impression. The cast of this new Contexture Theatre production directed by Gailie Pollock for the most part manage this tightrope admirably, both in appearance and in sound.

As Kenneth Williams, Simon Kingsley manages the vocal and body mannerisms extremely well, having the audience on his side from the moment he steps into Sid James (Ray MacAllen)’s dilapidated former camper-van dressing-room – designed by Isobel Power Smith and giving stage management problems on the opening night.

His spiky yet underlying affectionate relationship with Chelsea Fitzgerald’s Barbara Windsor is delicately handled. Fitzgerald looks right and sounds right as the East End girl who knows which of her assets is marketable, even though she also knows that these are being exploited.

Her marriage with second-string gangster Ronnie Knight gives a twist to the plot when Eddie (Doug Shepherd), a sort of all-purpose hoodlum, intervenes. MacAllan’s Sid is another well-rounded portrait of a man who knows that time may well be running out for him without all he want – professionally, emotionally and sexually – ever remaining within his grasp.

Also involved are overworked dresser Sally (Hayley Thornton) and lissome actress Imogen Hassall Emma Denly), another performer whose aspirations were forced down a career path in which appearance mattered (as it still does) more than any dramatic talent. Both make you emphasise with their characters and their problems.

Four star rating.

Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick continues at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford until 15 October with matinées on 12, 14 and 15 October.

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Duet for One

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 9 October

“…that one talent which is death to hide lodged with me useless”. Milton was writing about his blindness, but his desperation is that of any creative or interpretive artist.

Since 1980, my own understanding, as well as that of most fellow critics and theatre- and film-goers understood that this play was based on cellist Jacqueline du Pré whose spectacular career was cut off when she developed multiple sclerosis in her mid-20s.

In a programme note for Robin Lefevre’s tour of his production for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, author Tom Kempinski denies that his violist protagonist Stephanie Abrahams is actually based on du Pré. Quite frankly, I’m not entirely convinced.

That is not to say that Lefevre’s excellent staging with its realistic set by Lez Brotherston cleverly lit by Ian Scott and with John Leonard’s never obtrusive use of sound isn’t effective. It is.

As Stephanie, Belinda Lang gives a superbly paced performance of a young woman in (quite natural) denial both of her early years and the bleakness of her present situation and lack of options for the future. On one level, this is indeed a duet for one person, her constant fiddling with hair and scarf mirroring her own insecurities.

Oliver Cotton’s Dr Feldmann provides much more than mere accompaniment and a soundboard as the psychiatrist she so unwillingly consults. Between them they people the stage with those who have affected Stephanie’s life.

These include the mother with her own frustrated musical ambitions who died young, the father intent on providing her with future security, the composer husband whose own ambitions don’t really include the care of an increasingly invalid wife.

On one level it’s a tragedy about wasted lives. But the two actors bring out the comedy in their exchanges and the ending is far more upbeat than I remember it from both the original production and subsequent revivals. As all good plays should do, this production leaves one thinking. And wondering.

Four and a half-star rating.

Duet for One continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 14 October with matinées on 12 and 14 October.

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Elton John’s Glasses

reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 5 October

Obsessions damage people. Both the one obsessed and those with whom he or she comes into contact. David Farr’s savage comedy, revived in a new production by Psyche Stott  20 years after the Palace Theatre commissioned it, has as its central character Bill (Niall Costigan), a football fanatic.

More precisely, a Watford Football Club fanatic. His life revolves around the club’s catastrophic defeat in the 1984 Cup Final at Wembley – which he attributes to a mis-shot due to the sun glinting from John’s spectacles as he rose to his feet to encourage the team.

If you have minimal interest in football, as I do, then your interest in this play has to be in the interplay of the different characters to whom Farr introduces us.

First of all there’s Dan (Leon Williams), Bill’s younger brother who turns up after an absence of some years with the two other members of his unsuccessful group – taciturn bass guitarist Shaun (Thomas Richardson) and extremely short-sighted drummer Tim (Euan Kitson).

Amy, a teenage girl who just loves a kick around, is played by Leila Ayad. The other woman’s role is that of Julie (Joanna Croll) a middle-life wife and mother who drops in on Bill each Saturday for a couple of hours’ sex. The confrontation between Amy and Julie provides the half-time coup de foudre.

Designer Ruari Murchison has provided a stark set which throws the excellence of the performances into focus. Costigan and Kitson dominate in their two very different ways and there is overall a real sense of time and place. But it remains a somewhat detached experience for all that.

Three and a half-star rating.

Elton John’s Glasses runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 21 September with matinées on 5, 7, 11, 14, 16, 18 and 21 September.

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Beautiful

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 3 October

As shows hewn out of  back catalogues go, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is much more enjoyable than most. Just launched on its post-West End tour, it juxtaposes two couples.

The main one is song composer Carole King (Bronté Barbé) and her future husband lyricist Gerry Goffin (Kane Oliver Parry). Then there’s a less intense and more wise-cracking pair – lyricist and singer Cynthia Weil (Amy Ellen Richardson) and hypochondriac composer Barry Mann (Matthew Gonsalves).

Carole’s mother Genie Klein (Carol Royle) and music publisher Donnie Kirschner (Adam Howden) act as their stimuli as the story moves from 1958 to 1971, from young beginners fighting for their first vital contracts and professional contacts to Carnegie Hall itself.

Visual impressions are no longer a mere matter of smoke and mirrors. Their place has been taken by lights and scaffolding, give or take the odd item of furniture, staircases and a couple of pianos.

Derek McLane’s sets, Alejo Vietti’s costumes and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting ensure that Marc Bruni’s production keeps on the move.

Josh Prince’s choreography also reflects the decades in question and is very well danced by the 12-person ensemble with Esme Laudat and Khalid Daley in particular making their presence felt.

As King, Barbé manages the transitions between eager schoolgirl, young wife and solo performer effectively and puts over the feelings as well as the words and notes of her numbers. Richardson makes a fine contrast. Parry and Gonsalves play far less sympathetic characters equally well.

Four star rating.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 7 October with matinées on 4, 5 and 7 October. it also plays at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend between 10 and 14 October and at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich between 17 and 21 April 2018.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Reviews 2017

Anglian Mist

reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 30 September

People, and places, are not always what they seem. Take the National Trust nature reserve at Orford Ness. Nowadays it’s home to all manner of wildlife; from the First World War to the height of the Cold War, it harboured military research and latterly Anglo-American radar development.

Time, place and people form the fabric of Tim Lane and Cordelia Spence’s Anglian Mist, Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company’s autumn tour. On one level it’s a spy story, one in which nobody is ever quite what he or she appears to be. On another, it’s a study in corrosion, personal as well as physical.

We begin with one of those over-prepared academic lectures. Matthew Barnes is Valentine Scarrow who delivers it until he is interrupted by an elderly member of his audience. Adrienne Grant plays Anna Rees and the flashback sequences which follow take us through the past history of the three main characters from the 1970s onwards.

As well as Rees and Scasrrow, this story has a third man. That is Yevgeny Markovich, Russian born and English educated. The lives first of  Rees and Markovich, then of Scarrow, entwine, separate and to a large degree strangle themselves, like some noxious but nearly non-eradicable bindweed.

it’s very well acted, particularly by Grant and Turner, in Spence’s production which slow-motions the scenes of violence and interrogation to good effect. Molly Barrett and Julia Pascoe Hook are the designers with music and sound by Lane. It’s a story stripped down to its bare bones and the look of the production reflects this.

Four star rating.

Anglian Mist tours East Anglia until 25 November including performances at the Public Hall, Beccles (4 October), the Fisher Theatre, Bungay (5 November), the Seagull Theatre, Lowestoft (14 October), at the Hostry Festival, Norwich (24 October) and the West Acre Theatre (3 November).

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Deathtrap

reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 27 September

Envy is a prime reason for murder, at least on the stage. What gives Ira Levin’s Deathtrap the edge over many other thrillers is the particular context – a successful playwright who has apparently lost his winning streak and an eager young dramatist to may just have discovered his.

This new Salisbury Playhouse production directed by Adam Penford has its audience in its grip from the opening clap of sound (Ben and Max Ringham) which is guaranteed to put us all in full listening mode.

Morgan Large’s set has its own surprises as well are faced by Paul Bradley’s deceptively teddy-bear Sidney Bruhl and his understandably spiky wife Myra (Jessie Wallace).

Fresh-faced Clifford Anderson is soon on the scene, happy to listen to advice, though not necessarily to embrace it. The other two characters are émigrée  mystic Helga ten Dorp, with whom Beverley Klein has a great deal of over-the-top fun, and stuck-in-a-rut lawyer Porter Melgrim (Julien Ball).

As Sidney remarks in his first lines, a new play with one set, two acts, five characters and a fresh plot cannot help but be a success. What Penford and his cast bring out is some sense of the creative process where the goal is somehow just a revision or elision away, but never yet quite there.

That sense of something somehow missing is what keeps an audience focussed in its own quest for the elusive.

Four and a half-star rating.

Deathtrap continues at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 30 September with matinées on 28 and 30 September. It can also be seen at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 30 October and 4 November.

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The Little Mermaid

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 26 September

What is the worst  thing which can happen to a dancer? Or to a singer? Surely it’s to lose the faculty which is the whole centre of her being, literally her raison d’être. Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale gives the voice and movement to his little mermaid, who willingly gives them up for a life on dry land and the human man with whom she  is infatuated.

David Nixon’s new Northern Ballet creation takes the story, which is one with an unhappy ending rather than “and then they lived happily ever after”, and sets it somewhere sea-girt – his costumes suggest the Scottish Highland coast or even Greece as well as a slight Japanese influence. Lifts are either two-person to display the Fortuny pleats of the mermaids’ tails or one-person for the dry-land, human dress sequences.

Cliff-like structures are moved by the cast to take us from the ocean depths to dry land as the story switches from one location to another. Sally Beamish’s score is one with Celtic resonances, notably for Adair and his sailor friends, and uses Stephanie Irvine’s vocalise at crucial moments.

The cast I saw is dominated by Abigail Prudames’ heart-rending Marilla, the little mermaid herself. She is a fine actress as well as a graceful lyrical dancer and her beach scene as she realises that she is now dumb and that every movement of the legs and feet which have replaced her water-cleaving tail is one of excruciating agony is almost painful to watch.

Growing up is notoriously a painful business, and this is as much a fable about maturity and its obligations as well as its rights as it is about any species of fish out of its own water. Joseph Taylor as Adair suggests the young man who has dreams but perhaps not much imagination; there is a nice contrast between the inventive fluidity of his pas de deux with Marilla and the convention of the later one with Dreda Blow’s Dana.

Every fairytale needs both a villain and a faithful friend for the protagonist. Matthew Topliss’ Lyr is a mollusc-dark Lyr, lord of the sea and determined to keep its denizen in order. Kevin Poeung makes the prancing seahorse Dillion the most wholly likeable character of all, ending both acts centre stage but now doubly bereft.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Little Mermaid runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 30 September with matinées on 28 and 30 September. The national tour continues until 17 December.

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Filed under Ballet dance & mime, Reviews 2017

The Pirates of Penzance

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 15 September

 

This autumn’s tour by the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company ends at Norwich’s Theatre Royal. Vivian Coates’ new production of The Pirates of Penzance marries the traditional G&S style of staging with something new. His set designer is Paul Lazell who provides scenery pieces to the left and right of the stage with an illustrated open book as the centrepiece. Janet Morris’ costumes give us crinolines for the girls and vaguely 18th century for the pirate crew.

Sullivan’s score flows briskly throughout; this is an operetta with considerably more music than spoken dialogue. The orchestra under Andrew Nicklin sounded a trifle scratchy in the overture but settled down once the curtain had risen and the audience tendency to sing along had subsided (well, this is a quasi-traditional production after all).

Star of the show was undoubtably Emma Walsh’s Mabel, playing the minx with a sense of her own value and tossing off the coloratura passages with an interpolated tribute to bel canto cabalette which earned knowing chuckles for its subtlety. Her Frederic was Anthony Flaum, not the most subtle of tenors though a convincing actor.

Richard Gauntlett is an audience favourite and is moreover playing on his home turf. The “Model of a very modern major-general” patter song came over well as did this peacetime soldier’s ability to turn most situations to his own advantage. Balancing him was Toby Stafford-Allen’s flamboyant Pirate King, very well sung as well as suggesting why this particular band of sea robbers  is so very unsuccessful.

Both the flock of daughters and the pirate crew provided well-detailed character sketches and the white-faced policemen, led by Simon Wilding’s Sergeant, as always all-but brought the house down. Mae Haydorn’s Ruth is refreshingly less of a harridan than as sometimes portrayed and sung with great musicality.

Three and a half-star rating.

The season consludes with matinée and evening performances of HMS Pinafore on 16 September.

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The Weir

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 14 September

History is a patchwork of remembrance and imagination. Oral history and storytelling are also both factual and dream-weaving. The strength of Conor McPherson’s play The Weir is that it balances the two strands into one dramatic reality.

We’re in a small bar by the side of an Irish lake, which in the past has had a weir constructed to make use of the water to create electricity. The bar is a home-from-home for Jack (Sean Murray) and Jim (John O’Dowd), local middle-aged bachelors – nice country girls don’t and men don’t marry the ones who do.

Their current subject of conversation is Valerie (Natalie Radmall-Quirke), the English woman who is renting a house from Finbar (Louis Dempsey). Finbar brings her into the br, hoping to profit by introducing her to some “local colour”, and the men oblige first with spooky tales and then with equally troubling reminiscences.

Valerie must be the first woman to break into this male enclave, Christmas celebrations excepted. Slowly they start treating her as a sort of honorary man, and she returns the compliment of their storytelling with that of her own real-life tragedy.

Sensitively directed by Adele Thomas, this collaborative production between the Mercury Theatre and English Touring Theatre benefits from a set by Madeleine Girling which combines realism with a sense of displacement. Richard Hammarton’s score and sound design adds to the atmosphere and the sense of both the power and the impermanence of water, as does the lighting by Lee Curran and Dara Hoban.

The performances measure up both as character studies and as people. Radmall-Quirke is excellent as the woman who slots into this strange earthly masculine yet faery world and Dempsey has the right sort of wallet-flashing brashness. Sam O’Mahony plays Brendan, the youngish bar owner, a man who has settled down with his alloted fate.

O’Dowd gives a sympathetic portrait of a quiet, largely unemployed man who needs to keep an eye on how he spends his pennies while Murray’s apparently outgoing and contented Jack reveals his own sense of might-have-been wrapped in a shroud of all-for-the-best.

it builds slowly – the bar habitués have basically only time to spend, so they spin that out in their familiar fashions. Valerie is the catalyst who releases those pasts – actual and mythological – with something of the force of lightning.

Five star rating.

The Weir continues at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 16 September with a matinée on 16 September. The national tour continues until 25 November and resumes in 2018 with performances at the Cambridge Arts Theatre between 6 and 10 March.

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The Ladykillers

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 13 September

It by no means detracts from the excellent performances by the animated cast members to say that the runaway star of Graham Linehan’s stage version of the Ealing Studios 1955 hit The Ladykillers is Foxton’s set.

This is the beautifully detailed exterior (we are still mired in postwar scarred buildings with make-do interiors) of Mrs Wilberforce’s house in the noisy shadow of St Pancras railway station, complete with working signals and billowing clouds of steam.

Mrs Wilberforce (Ann Penfold) and Constable Macdonald (Marcus Houden) are solving what she thinks is a refugee Nazi problem and he knows is simply the local newsagent who has a strong North Country accent. It isn’t the first time he has had to correct her imagination. Her next visitor, hoping to rent the room she has advertised to let, is Professor Marcus (Steven Elliott).

Swathed in a serpentine college scarf (which provides a running joke throughout the play) he is, of course, the mastermind behind a planned bullion heist. His brain may have worked it out to the last detail and split second, but that’s to discount his motley crew of accomplices.

They include Graham Seed’s Major Courtney, a self-proclaimed war hero with a penchant for women’s clothes; this is a cleverly nuanced performance which shows the pain behind the necessary pretense of thorough-going masculinity. Then there’s Cockney spiv and wideboy Harry (Sam Lupton), who’s not as bright as he thinks he is.

Brain-damaged former boxer One-Round is played by Damien Williams as everybody’s stooge while Louis Harvey is that thoroughly nasty piece of flick-knife violence Louis Harvey. Director Peter Rowe keeps the action fast-moving while lighting designer Alexandra Stafford and composer-sound designer Rebecca Applin make notable contributions.

This is a co-production between the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch and the Salisbury Playhouse. I suspect it will be just as enthusiastically received in the other venues as by the Ipswich audience. We all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Five star rating.

The Ladykillers runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 30 September with matinées on 16, 19, 20, 23, 27 and 30 September. It transfers to the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch between 3 and 17 October.

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Private Lives

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 12 September

Coward’s Private Lives is a deceptively simple play to stage, as director Michael Cabot acknowledges in his programme notes for London Classic Theatre’s new production. His designer Frankie Bradshaw has provided two sets which emphasise this.

The characters are caught in a sort of no-man’s-land, poised between two world wars. Their society is no longer that of the Bright Young Things of the 20s but it still has its own rules and restrictions as well as the dual concept of male and female sexuality.

Amanda is the character who perhaps recognises this most clearly; a double divorce will isolate her in a fashion which neither of her husbands is likely to experience. Sybil is the eternal, cosseted ingénue who only at the end of the play perhaps – and it’s a big perhaps – has a glimmering that standing up for yourself needs to start at the first step into adult society rather than at the church door.

One might say that all this subtext is communicated in spite of some of the actors, not through them. Helen Keeley looks and acts Amanda to the last flick of an eyelash but she speaks Coward’s staccato dialogue with a machine-gun delivery which reduces much of it to the spoken equivalent of one of WS Gilbert’s patter songs – “this particularly rapid unintelligible patter isn’t generally heard …”

Her Elyot is Jack Hardwick, who has the well-tailored measure of his part, as does Kieran Buckeridge’s buttoned-up Victor as he tries to cope first with a wife who’s just not on his wavelength and then with Sybil at her own point of no return.

Olivia Beardsley’s pastel, marcel-waved portrait of this secondary female role has its strengths as well as its sillinesses. Rachael Holmes-Brown plays the maid Louise, making her into less of a caricature than some I have seen lately. But it would all be so much better if three acts hadn’t been crammed into two hours, including the interval, and the dialogue allowed to breathe.

 

Four star rating.

Private Lives is at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 16 September with matinées on 13 and 16 September as part of a national tour to 25 November including Harlow Playhouse (19-21 October, the Alban Arena, St Albans (24-25 October), the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford (26-28 October) and the Key Theatre, Peterborough (13-15 November).

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Tosca

reviewed at the Harlow Playhouse on 6 September

This new production of Puccini’s Tosca from the Russian State Opera & Ballet Theatre of Astrakhan which is on a nationwide tour of the UK until 13 October is directed by Konstantin Balakin and designed by Elena Vershinina. They have kept the Italian setting but pushed the time forward to the crumbling of Mussolini’s dictatorship.

Between them they keep the action taut and musical director Valerii Voronin sweeps his orchestra and soloists along at the same pace. Vershinina’s set has all the clutter of an Italian Catholic church of the period while Scarpia’s office is a Big Brother nightmare of vertiginous filing drawers and secret cubbyholes which can reveal a drinks cabinet or window into the queen’s Farnese Palace apartments – or serve as the door into a torture chamber.

“A shabby little shocker” sniffed Joseph Kerman in the 1950s; we in western Europe might see it as being in the British melodrama and the French grand guignol tradition. What carries a modern audience into the depth of the story is primarily Puccini’s score but also the ferocious combat between the three main characters.

In Andrey Puzhalin the company has a Scarpia who bears comparison with the best I have heard – and although comparisons, as Dogberry affirms, “are odorous”, my benchmark for the rôle is Gobbi. A vulpine predator barely constricted by his office (in both sense of the word), his onslaught on Tosca from the cathedral scene to the end of the second act is unrelenting – but finely phrased throughout.

Elena Razguliaeva in the title part matches Puzhalin, from her coquettish jealousy over Cavaradossi’s painting of the Magdalene in the first act, through her mental torture culminating in Scarpia’s murder and a finely sung “Vissi d’arte”, to the roller-coaster of emotions for the final act.

Her Cavaradossi at the performance which I saw is Mikhail Makarov, a full-voiced tenor who sounded a trifle rough at the beginning but worked through to an affecting lyricism for his farewell to life in “E lucevan le stelle”. Two of the smaller parts also stand out as well-sung and well-acted – Ivan Michailov’s Spoletta and Oleksandr Malyshko’s fresh-faced yet hardened Sciarrone.

Could I please persuade the company to employ a proof-reader – there are ludicrous mistakes in both the programme and the surtitles – and also supply a type-written cast list for the evening’s performance. Little things, I know, but they do add to an audience’s enjoyment as well as that delicious activity known as talent-spotting.

Four star rating.

Tosca also plays at the Princes Theatre, Clacton-on-Sea on 10 September, the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 11 September, the Marina Theatre, Lowestoft on 19 September and the Alban Arena, St Albans on 20 September.

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Shirley Valentine

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 5 September

Writing a play about women is one thing. Getting inside a woman’s psyche, mind and soul – her all-roundedness – is quite another. Willy Russell is one of the few playwright’s who accomplishes this feat, as the 2017 autumn touring revival of Shirley Valentine makes clear.

Jodie Prenger carries this story of the middle-aged housewife talking to herself and to a glass (or two) of wine while she prepares her husband’s evening meal. There have been few highlights in her marriage, and these are more likely to revolve around her children and the other women in her circle than her husband.

So she seizes the opportunity offered by her friend Grce to share a two-weeks Greek holiday – and to hell with responsibilities. Director Glen Walford, who commissioned the first production of the play, knows it inside out and has brought a woman’s intuition to its realisation.

Amy Yardley’s largely representational first-act set is tansformed into the cerulean skies and sea of a Greek island with dark rocks and crags. They suggest the headless remains of giant maternal goddess statues, all welcoming lap and enfolding embrace.

Prenger herself merits her standing ovation at the curtain-call. Shirley’s repressed personality bubbles over as she comes to her holiday-trip decision and finds its price-paid acceptance when she is finally in a place she can feel is a real home, not just someone else’s stomping ground.

My one niggle is that, for those audience members unaccustomed to the Merseyside area accent, not all the first-act dialogue is easy to follow – you miss the punch lines trying to work out wht was said in the preceding sentence. There were times when I yearned for surtitles…

Four and a half-star rating.

Shirley Valentine runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 9 September with matinées on 7 and 9 September.

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The Producers

reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 31 August

Catherine Lomax’s summer musical at the Gordon Craig Theatre stands comparison with many a more expensively lavish touring production – in fact, it deserves a tour of its own. The Producers, that in-joke about how to stay out of the bankruptcy courts as a Broadway impressario, is a bold choice for a small regional theatre.

The settings and drop-curtain scenes follow each other slickly, aided by Pete Cramer and Al Rivers’ lighting and enhanced by Lisa Hickey’s clever costuming. from the opening number – bridging the gap between the first and closing nights of Max Bialystock’s latest production – a musical skit on Hamlet called Funny Boy – Khiley Williams and Philip Joel’s choreography sparkles.

Pail Easom as Max dominates the show throughout; we may wince at his exploitation of elderly female “angels” and shameless manipulation of everyone with whom he comes into contact, but we can’t help rooting for him. Even when he and the  hapless accountant Leo Bloom (Ryan Owen) he has recruited launch that farrago called Springtime for Hitler to lose rather than to make money.

Owen makes an excellent foil to Easom, as does Oliver Stanley as the unrepentant Nazi with his cages of storm-trooper-drilled pigeons (a set designer is not credited in the programme) but s/he and the stage crew deserve plaudits of their own. Ali Bastian as sultry Swedish bombshell Ulla looks and sounds charming but rather pales into the background of the character studies around her.

These include Daniel Page as the campest of cross-dressing directors, Joel as his other-half and their coterie of flamboyant thespian homosexuals (Joseph Connor, James Donovan and Adam Shorey) and one butch lesbian (Catherine Millsom) (remember that this all takes place in 1959).

Sound balance (Luke Hyde) is excellent with Phil Dennis’ orchestra allowed to make its musical points whle never swamping the actors’ words. The ensemble comprises ten young performers just launching their professional careers who display impressive talents in song, acting and dance.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Producers runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 9 September with matinées on 2, 7 and 9 September.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Reviews 2017

A Fox on the Fairway

reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 29 August

Ken Ludwig’s programme note for the UK première of his A Fox on the Fairway contains a pointed reminder to critics in its audience that farce is a matter of joy, of catharsis through laughter. It is a specific theatrical genre and has to be accepted on its own terms.

The production by Philip Wilson should, when it has fully settled in, be seen in this context. The best farce stagings give a sense of effortless ensemble work, and this hasn’t yet quite jelled – though you can’t fault the timing of the proliferating sequences of entrance and exit through swing  and terrace doors.

We are in a golf clubhouse with a well-detailed set by Colin Falconer which transform smoothly into the course itself for the final scene, which culminates in a sort of Morris dance with golf-clubs choreographed by Sally Beck Wippman. The story concerns the rivalry between a visiting team and the resident one which comes to its head with a tournament.

There’s a pair of young lovers – Louise Hindbedder (Ottilie Mackintosh) and Justin Hicks (Romayne Andrews), both club employees but with hidden fairway talents. Henry Bingham (Damien Matthews) is the harassed Quail Valley club manager with Simon Lloyd as his more-than-brash opposite number Richard “Dickie” Bell.

Also involved in the romantic and sporting confusions are divorcée Pamela Peabody (Natalie Walter) and Henry’s battle-axe of a wife Muriel (Sarah Quist), a lady who packs a mean punch. With the possible exception of “Dickie” with his repertoire of gaudy sweaters and trousers, the audience finds itself firmly rooting for the well-acted characters to find happy solutions to their problems.

Which is just what happens. of course it does. It’s great fun while it lasts – even if you don’t begin to understand the finer nuances of the game.

Four and a half-star rating.

A Fox on the Fairway runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 16 September with matinées on 31 August and 9 September.

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The Man Upstairs

reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 26 August

A Patrick Hamilton psychological thriller is always good value; the twists and turns of the plot – given good direction and acting – make it something more than just a couple of hours’ theatrical entertainment. The Man Upstairs doesn’t disappoint.

It’s the final new production in the 2017 Suffolk Summer Theatres season and is directed by Phil Clark who balances the interleaved tension and comedic moments well. Tori Cobb’s set evokes the 1954 setting admirably and Miri Birch’s costumes are properly in period.

Quiet, reclusive bachelor George Longford (James Morley) plans an evening with his beloved books as his sole company. His flat is part of a house owned by Sir Charles Waterbury (Michael Shaw) who has rigged up an ingenious communication system between their two living spaces.

That quiet evening is interrupted dramatically. First on the scene is Darrell Brockis as Cyrus Armstrong, a gimlet-eyed ex-commando on the warpath in connexion with his sister’s virtue (or lack of it). Then his mother (Barbara Horne) intervenes, then Cyrus’ brother Henry and finally the wronged maiden Brenda (Naomi Evans).

And that title? it’s a word-play of course, with Sir Charles as one of its facets. Both Morley and Horne are excellent, playing off each other during their long exchanges while we in the audience concentrate on evaluating their characters. Brockis does tend to dominate, but villains always have the best lines…

Four star rating.

The Man Upstairs runs at the Southwold Arts Centre until 9 September with matinées on 31 August, 5 and 9 September.

 

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Our Day Out

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 25 August

Willy Russell’s 1970s musical for a large cast of school-age performers and five adult professional actors may have a Liverpool and north Wales setting, but it has settled down comfortably in Suffolk, as the new Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal production makes evident.

The story concerns a class (or two) of youngsters from the sort of school which Ofsted might well rank as “failing”. They are of mixed abilities with scant interest in education but enthusiasm for exploring their burgeoning sexuality and for making mischief. Not to say, mayhem.

Directors Karen Simpson and David Whitney have coaxed some impressive performances from the Young Company members, notably from Abigail Laker as slow-learner Amy, so prone to being bullied (a quartet of hoodies makes this clear from the beginning) and wanting something different, something better which she’s unable to articulate.

Lauren Slade and Eloise Probitts as a pair of “it’s all so boring” pupils, also Robyn Painter and Jamie Musora as the two with a crush on dishy young teacher Mark McDevit (George Brockbanks) also give stand-out characterisations.

Attempting to keep order, limit the damage (literally) and ensure that the outing both begins and ends with a full complement of staff and students are McDevit’s colleagues Katie Appleby (Georgia Richardson, making her professional stage début) and Mrs Kay (Beth Tuckey).

The irascible head-teacher is Mr Briggs (James Hirst. Crag Stevenson plays the put-upon lollypop-man, the coach driver and an enraged zoo keeper who finds that some distinctly unauthorised animal liberation has been taking place. All five offer fully rounded portraits of their contrasting characters.

Musical director David Lewington keeps the songs in time and in tune. Choreographer Julia Cave stretches her young performers who respond to the challenge. Designer Heidi McEvoy-Swift has devised an ingenious set of large square boxes which are subject to arrangement as locations shift. Dave Thwaites’ lighting incorporates a clever use of projections.

Our Day Out runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 2 August with matinée performances on 26 and 30 August and 2 September.

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

The Wedding Singer

reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 15 August

Yet another stage version of a musical film is on tour this summer. This time it’s The Wedding Singer, set in the 1980s (how long ago that now seems!) and decorated with hit numbers of the period.

The story centres on Robbie Hart (Jon Robyns) who really wants to compose his own songs for his band – friends Sammy (Ashley Emerson) and George (Samuel Holmes) – but who scrapes a living by singing at weddings.

Robbie is engaged to Linda (Tara Verloop), but she jilts him (literally) at the altar and his only consolation comes from grandmother Rosie (Ruth Madoc) and waitress Julia (Cassie Compton), herself on the verge of becoming engaged to businessman Glen (Ray Quinn).

You can guess how it all pans out.

Under musical director Sean Green the numbers go with a swing, even if none of them are particularly memorable, and the choreography of director Nick Winston is excellent and very well performed. Designers Francis O’Connor (set and costumes), Ben Cracknell (lighting) and Jack Henry James (video projections) use the stage imaginatively.

Both Compton and Verloop have strong voices and personalities to match while Robyns makes as much as he can of the title character; Robbie’s a nice guy but one wonders if he’ll ever make the big time, even with Julia (and grandma)’s help. Madoc as usual steals all the scenes she’s in.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Wedding Singer runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 19 August with an early evening performance on 18 August and matinées on 16 an 19 August.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Reviews 2017