Category Archives: Plays

The Ladykillers of Humber Doucy Lane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four and a half-star rating.

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

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

People, Places & Things

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 21 November

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four and a half-star rating.

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

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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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Filed under Family & children's shows, Plays, Reviews 2017

Hedda Gabler

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 7 November

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four star rating.

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

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Driving Miss Daisy

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 6 November

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

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

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

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

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

Four and a half-star rating.

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

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Up ‘n’ Under

reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 1 November

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

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

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

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

Four star rating.

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

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The Invisible Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four star rating.

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

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Plays, Reviews 2017

How the Other Half Loves

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 30 October

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four and a half-star rating.

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

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All Wrapped Up in Westwood

reviewed at The Undercroft, Peterborough on 29 October

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

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

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

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

Three and a half-star rating.

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

 

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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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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Plays, Reviews 2017

The Eagle Has Two Heads

reviewed at the Hostry Festival, Norwich on 25 October

This rare Cocteau revival uses the classic Ronald Duncan translation, first heard in London in 1948, four years after the play’s Paris première. Duncan was a literate playwright, poet and librettist, whether translating, adapting or creating afresh; perhaps he is due for a revival.

Stash Kirkbride has staged it in an arena format, which is admirably suited to a drama (here a melodrama in both senses of the word with Ivan McCready’s cello accompaniment) which is basically a sequence of gladiatorial confrontations. The stage is furnished only with tables and chairs.

Cocteau’s use of characteristics from two well-known monarchs of the previous century whose lives created their own fantasies, rendered some of these concrete and met untimely ends – the Empress Elisabeth of Austria and King Ludwig of Bavaria , both scions of the Wittelsbach dynasty – adds its own veiled dimension to the story.

The first act has as its centrepiece the Queen (Tracey Catchpole)’s lengthy tirade (in the proper French sense of the term) justifying her abrogation of responsibility in favour of building castles after the assassination of her husband to her own would-be killer.

He’s a young, anarchist poet, Stanislas (Adam Edwards), whose pen nane is Azrael, the Muslim angel of death. Edwards has a chance to make his own tirade in the second act, and takes it.  Another confrontation is between Lucy Monaghan as Edith de Berg, the Queen’s lady (and government spy) and Christopher Neal’s Duke of Willenstein, the royal equerry.

But the evening is dominated by Catchpole, who displays the right sort of inbred arrogance which in part gives the character such interest. One can believe that she was devoted, in her own fashion, to her husband and that his assassination triggered her strange combination of building mania and veiled seclusion.

Her two meetings with Peter Barrow’s Chief of Police, a slightly cuddlier version of Sardou’s Scarpia but just as dangerous in his ruthless attempts to command the kingdom as he thinks both proper and necessary have the necessary bite, just as her relationship with Stanislaus emphasises how both of them (to paraphrase) are in love with needless death.

Tawa Groombridge makes the Queen’s servant Toni, who communicates with her mistress by sign language and is barely tolerated by her more aristocratic superiors , into a silent symbol of a place and time which has outlived itself. Amanda Greenaway’s costumes for the Queen are eye-catching in colour and material, but I feel a trim riding-habit would have suited the third act better than breeches and hacking jacket.

Part of the irony is that the first production of Cocteau’s play took place in 1944, when Paris was liberated from the dual tentacles of the Nazi occupation and the Vichy régime. But Cocteau always did spin his own, uniquely personal weave of fantasy laced with irony.

Four star rating.

The Eagles Has Two Heads runs at The Hostry, Norwich Cathdral until 29 October.

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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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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 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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