Category Archives: Music Music theatre & Opera

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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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 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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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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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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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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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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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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The Old Curiosity Shop

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 27 October

Common Ground’s autumn production now launched on its East Anglian tour is an adaptation of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. A cast of five, all of whom sing and play musical instruments, take us through the story of Little Nell and her grandfather as they flee London and the nefarious designs of Daniel Quilp.

The adaptation is by Julian Harries and Pat Whymark (who has also composed the music which is such a major part of the production. The effect is, I would imagine, close to that produced by one of the small-scale touring companies which plied the various East Anglian circuits in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It is in some measure a ballad opera, in the style of The Beggar’s Opera or Black-Eyed Susan. Two numbers stand out – “The fair orphan maid” in the first half and “The turning of the tide” towards the end of the second act. All the cast take several roles, including drag versions of Kit Nubbles’ mother, the sadistic Miss Brass and the waxworks proprietor Mrs Jarley.

The one woman in the cast is Eloise Kay, who takes on Nell (her age updated from the original “not quite fourteen”), the downtrodden Mrs Quilp and the Brass household drudge eventually nicknamed “the marchioness”. Quilp and the mysterious Single Gentleman makes an interesting doubling, as does pliable lawyer Mr Brass and Nell’s devoted but gambling-addicted grandfather.

Harries, Joe Leat, Tristan Teller and Ivan Wilkinson there for play all the male and the afore-mentioned female ones in a production in which Whymark  takes Dickens’ story seriously as well as briskly while allowing space for character development. Notably these include Kit and Dick Swiveller. The Punch and Judy show is a delight – that’s the way to do it!

Four star rating.

The Od Curiosity Shop tours East Anglia until 25 November, including the Corn Hall, Diss (28 October), the Jubilee Centre, Mildenhall (30 October), the John Peel Centre, Stowmarket (2 November), The Cut, Halesworth (3 November), the Seckford Theatre, Woodbridge (4 November), the John Mills Theatre, Ipswich (6 and 7 November), the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (between 9 and 11 November, with a matinée on 11 November), the Headgate Theatre, Colchester (13 November), the Wingfield Barns (22 November) and the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh (24 November).

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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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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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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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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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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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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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Funny Girl

reviewed in Southend on 19 June (preview)

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

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

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

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

Four and a half-star rating.

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

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The Events reviewed in Colchester on 6 June

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four star rating.

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

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Our Man in Havana
reviewed in Ipswich on 23 May

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

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

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

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

Four and a half-star rating.

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

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