Category Archives: Family & children’s shows

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

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

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

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

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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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

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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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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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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