Category Archives: Plays

The Prisoner of Zenda

reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 7 August

Anthony Hope added a new word to the English language in  1894 – Ruritania – with The Prisoner of Zenda. The romantic adventure novel  was quickly adapted for the stage by Edward Rose (cast of thousands) and has been filmed countless times (likewise).

Mark Sterling’s version keeps the multiple settings, from palace and cathedral to forest hunting-lodge and gloomy castle dungeon but manages it all with a cast of seven. Tory Cobb has thrown in one of Suffolk Summer Theatre’s specialities (a train sequence) for good measure. Miri Birch’s costumes work better for the women than for the men.

The story concerns the disputed monarchy of one of those turbulent Balkan states sandwiched between two fading but still powerful empires – the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman – fiercely independent, proud of its traditions but wary of its neighbours. The about-to-be-crowned king is Rudolf V; his envious illegitimate half-brother Michael wants to take his place.

A proposed marriage between Rudolf and his cousin Flavia (who herself has a claim to the throne) is a further complication, as is Michael’s mistress Antoinette du Maubin. Then there’s Rudolf’s double, a folk-melody enthusiast from England, Rudolf Rassendyll. Not to mention Michael’s dashingly sinister wheeler-dealer factotum Rupert of Hentzau.

That hard-working cast take it all as seriously as it should do. Joe Leat’s double of the wine-addicted king and the English gentleman who takes his place at the behest of loyal Colonel Sapt and Fritz von Tarlenheim is very well contrasted, the one all sodden self-pity and the other reluctantly dashing.

Rick Savery is suitably sinister as Michael, though Saul Boyer didn’t (for me on the opening night) quite strike the right note for a man who takes such pleasure and pride in manipulating others. Clive Flint’s Sapt and Tom Slatter’s Fritz are stalwart in their military attempts to keep the monarchy in place, whatever their personal feelings about the incumbant.

In this version,  Amy Christina Murray as Princess Flavia has more to do than just be the decorative object of Rassendyll’s self-sacrificing love, an updating which works in the context. Sarah Ogley’s Antoinette is also more than her dark mirror image. Richard Blaine stages an excellent couple of sword fights, though the costume department could surely have provided sheathes for them when not in use.

Noisy scene changes will presumably quieten down and be slicker (too many glimpses of the people effecting them on the opening night) as the run and its transfers progress. One query – in the last meeting between restored king and his English saviour, why does Rasendyll have dark hair when he and the king have been much lighter throughout?

Four star rating.

The Prisoner of Zenda runs at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 12 August with matinées on 10 and 12 August. It transfers to the Southwold Arts Centre between 15 and 26 August and can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from 6 to 9 September.

 

 

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Tom, Dick and Harry

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 1 August

Twelve years ago, attitudes were – if not more generous – less chauvinistically entrenched than today. Tom, Dick and Harry, co-written by master farceur Ray Cooney and his son Michael, has the attitudes to migration from conflicted European and Mediterranean countries, adoption and to the disposal of body-parts after research of that time, not of ours.

Director David Janson has wisely kept the farce to the period of its original production. The situation set up at the beginning is simple. Linda (Rosanna Miles) and Tom (Darrell Brockis) are expecting a visit from an adoption agency which will determine that their home will be a suitable environment and that they will be responsible parents.

Tom’s basic problem is dual-faceted. He and Linda are short of the cash needed to buy their rented house outright and he has one of hs layabout brothers Dick (Rikki Lawton) “renting” the top of the house. The third sibling Harry (Bob Dobson) just about holds down a job as a porter at a teaching hospital while inventing pie-in-the-sky schemes for getting rich.

Having borrowed Dick’s van for a cross-channel “booze cruise”, Dick has returned not just with contraband amounts of brandy and cigarettes but also a brace of stowaway Kosovan refugees – Katerina (Melissa Clements) and her grandfather Andreas (James Morley). All of whom, together with some purloined human remains, are littering up the house.

Mrs Potter (Claire Jeater) from the adoption agency is due any minute now. You can guess the rest, even up to the intervention of the local PC (Michael Shaw) and the intrusion of the people-smuggling capo Boris (Richard Blaine). It’s all fast and furious with the brotherly trio earning applause when miming attempts to communicate with the non-English speaking Kosovans.

Tory Cobb has kept the setting simple, with the all-important doors – you can’t have a farce without them and they keep stage management busy – and a flight of stairs behind a simple(?) sofa and armchair. Jeater has a nice line in pursed-lip affrontedness and Morley thoroughly revels in Andreas’ trumpet-playing and weakness for the bottle. But the evening belongs to Tom, Dick and Harry.

Four star rating.

Tom, Dick and Harry runs at the Southwold Arts Centre until 12 August with matinées on 3, 5, 10 and 12 August. It transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 14 and 19 August with matinées on 17 and 19 August.

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The Railway Childen

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 31 July

How do you stage a family classic novel by E Nesbit which has already been filmed both for television and cinema many times? Particularly when the show on question is a touring one and the story involves trains and railway tunnels – not to mention London and remote country locations.

If you’re Paul Jepson, Exeter’s Northcott Theatre director, you call in a designer who knows how to combine realistic stage settings with clever projections – Timothy Bird in this instance – and let Dave Simpson’s script find its own space in this turn of the 19th into 20th century story.

It works excellently, thanks to some strong performances delivered with just the right sort of conviction to make 21st century children and teenagers accept the manners and conventions of more than 100 years ago.

Millie’s Turner as Roberta (known as Bobbie) and Joy Brook as her mother, coping with her husband’s mysterious arrest, a total loss of London-based income and the necessity of living as cheaply and low-profile as possible in the countryside, are both thoroughly credible, as is Katherine Carlton has sister Phyllis. Turner is particularly good as showing a teenager on the cusp of womanhood and learning to cope with unexpected responsibilities.

As the old gentleman who acts as a kind of deus ex machina to the family, Neil Savage gives an object lesson in how to make every line tell, with the aid of miking. Younger actors, please take note. Stewart Wright as station-master Perks, Will Richards and Andrew Joshi give stalwart support. The backdrops are well-lit by Dominic Jeffrey and the train and tunnel sequences make their own applause-worthy impact.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Railway Children runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 5 August with matinées on 2 and 5 August. it can also be seen at the Derngate Theatre, Northampton between 19 and 24 September.

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Emma

reviewed at the Empire Theatre, Halstead on 22 July

Jane Austen’s novels are multi-faceted gems and not always as simple to bring to the stage as the surface story-line might initially suggest. DOT Productions, with outdoor venues as well as small theatres and arts centres to consider, have however taken a sledge-hammer approach to Emma. It doesn’t really work.

Yes, Emma is a comedy, a comedy of misunderstandings as well as of manners and delicate social nuances. What it is not is a knockabout farce, which is how Michelle Shortland’s production and Non Vaughan-Thomas’ script presents it. The idea of having Serle, the Woodhouses’ housekeeper, as narrator is a good one, but Vaughan-Thomas plays her as a cross between a doddery old retainer and a feather-duster waving maid.

The caricature of Robert Martin further muddies the balance. I know that Emma describes him as “clownish” in the novel, but this is surely meant as a description of an ordinary country-man, not a straw-chewing half-wit (even though she’s trying hard to put Harriet Smith against him as a potential suitor). Frank Churchill is a selfish young man, happy to twist situations for his own amusement, but he’s not a pop-star poseur.

As far as the (mainly doubled-up) performances are concerned, Clara Power makes an attractive Emma and Andrew Lindfield manages to play Mr Knightley straight, which is more than you can say for his Martin or Churchill. Sarita Plowman simpers her way through Harriet and Jane Fairfax; the former is surely naïve but mannerly and the latter cultured, accomplished and elegant – which is why Emma’s attitude to her is so spiky and brittle.

Leigh Stevenson is the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse, the self-esteeming Mr Elton and his matching bride of arrogance and vulgarity, Augusta. Some of the staging is clever – the fireplace reversing to become a carriage, the use of empty picture-frames and the like – but the overall impression, not helped by much of the costuming, remains that of a picture slap-dashed by a decorator’s roller rather than a miniaturist’s fine sable brush.

Three star rating.

Emma tours mainly in East Anglia but also to  Isleworth, Enfield, Abingdon,Brighton, London and Eastbourne until 27 September.

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Murder Weapon

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 20 July

A weapon is usually something concrete. It can also be animal. Brain Clemens’ last thriller plays on this, with the story of a Paul (Clive Flint) found shot by his wife Diane (Amy Christina Murray) and her friend Jessica Bligh (Sarah Ogley), the county’s chief constable, as they return after a concert.

Under arrest is Charlie Mirren (Tom Slatter), found at the scene of the crime with a gun in his hand. An open-and-shut case, thinks Inspector Fremont (Rick Savery), especially as Mirren has recently been released from prison following conviction for the murder of his wife and children. No so, maintains Bligh, as she forces her colleague to re-evaluate the whole sequence of events and the people connected to them.

For instance, there’s psychiatrist Hugo (Joe Leat) who quickly establishes a rapport with Charlie on a scheduled visit to his consulting-rooms. The gun is obviously important, but what precisely was the context in which it was fired? The tension builds nicely in Andy Powrie’s production with the professional duel between Ogley and Savery well nuanced.

The set by Tory Cobb, brown with stained-glass window details, plays an important part in the action. Slatter’s portrait of a man struggling with his and his family’s past as well as his need for emotional support in his uncertain present and future is excellent. Leat has just the right combination of professional and personal arrogance.

Murray does suffer from the current fashion to whisper rather than enunciate. Modern theatre training and television have a lot to answer for in that respect Even small theatres when filled with an audience have a different acoustic to the same auditorium under rehearsal conditions.

Three and a half-star rating.

Murder Weapon runs at the Southwold Arts Centre as part of the Suffolk Summer Theatres season until 29 July with matinées on 20, 22, 27 and 29 July. It transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 1 and 5 August.

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 18 July

Mark Haddon’s book about a teenage boy with Asperger Syndrome has been adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens. The National Theatre production by Marianne Elliott is currently on the second leg of its UK tour. Elliott may be the director, but Bunny Christie’s graph-paper design concentrated on a cube, Paule Constable’s complex lighting plot and Finn Ross’ video certainly don’t take second billing.

It’s not a comfortable story. Christopher Boone (Scott Reid), caught in a neighbour’s garden with the pitchforked body of her dog, is a central character with whom at first we struggle to find any degree of empathy, just as his parents and those around him do. If you’ve ever had anything to do with a friend or family member with autism, you will find yourself in familiar territory.

Reid’s portrait of a brilliant, logical and gifted mathematical youth trapped in a world whose lack of sequential reasoning seems so incomprehensible to him is a searing one. Siobhan (Lucianne McEvoy), one of his teachers,  comes closest to understanding his wavelength; McEvoy’s study of a woman who tries to comprehend – and to accept – is equally fine.

The other three main characters are Mrs Alexander (Debra Michaels), an elderly neighbour  who doesn’t condemn Chris out-of-hand, his uncomprehending father Ed (David Michaels) and Judy (Emma Beattie), the mother he was told had died but in fact who left her husband for a lover, Roger Shears. There is also a large ensemble.

Movement is an important part of this hypnotic production. Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett use the players in angular, often formal, groupings which echo Chris’ inner turmoil. This is a staging where what we hear – spoken dialogue apart – chimes in with the movement; Adrian Sutton’s score and Ian Dickinson’s sound design provides this. It’s akin to the incidental music familiar from films and, increasingly, television drams and documentaries.

What matters in the end is that it’s Christopher’s story, seen largely through his eyes and filtered through his off-kilter mental processes. Stand ing ovations are becoming a bit of a curtain-call cliché these days. The one for Reid (and, by inference, for the whole staging concept) was thoroughly merited.

Five star rating.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 22 July with matinées on 19 and 22 July.

 

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Jane Eyre

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 17 July

You can’t keep a good story down, especially when it’s Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This version, now on a national tour, is a co-production between the Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre, devised by the company but with a firm directorial hand provided by Sally Cookson.

Jane’s progress from a stroppy child, taken in unwillingly by her dead mother’s family and eagerly dumped into the unhealthy surroundings of Lowood School, to an independent woman who makes her own life through being true to her individual values is in any case a gripping story. It’s taken at a considerable pace.

Designers Michael Vale (set), Katie Sykes (costumes) and Aideen Malone (lighting) present us with a platformed set and a number of ladders. Ten actors play all the parts, as well as acting as a sort of Greek chorus, articulating Jane’s thoughts an fears. Nadia Clifford is a feisty Jane, crinkle-haired with eyes which glare as readily as they glance.

Melanie Marshall, clad in blood-red and with a fantastic vocal range plays Bertha Mason and provides a musical commentary spanning everything from Negro melody to Coward. The incidental music – there’s a lot of it and it sometimes drowns the dialogue – is by Benji Bower.

It’s always difficult to warm to any of the men who litter Jane’s path to self-knowledge. Paul Mundell has a well-contrasted double as authoritarian schoolmaster Brocklehurst and tail-wagging dog Pilot. Tim Delap’s Rochester is more of a typical North Country squire of the early 19th century than a much-travelled cosmopolitan.

Evelyn Miller, in a bit of gender-blind casting, is fervent missionary St John Rivers. She also plays Bessie, the one servant who takes Jane’s side in the Reed household. Hannah Bristow is consumptive Helen Burns and Rochester’s pert French ward Adèle while Lynda Rooke contrasts aunt Mrs Reed and housekeeper Mrs Fairfax.

Four and a half-star rating.

Jane Eyre runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 22 July with matinées on 19 and 22 July.

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Out of Order

reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 10 July

Farce requires two masters. One to write it. Another to direct it. For the current Out of Order tour, Ray Cooney combines the two roles, aided by a well-balanced ensemble cast and a deceptively realistic set by Rebecca Brower. Stage management also took a thoroughly deserved curtain-call bow.

The ingredients for the perfect farce include a scantily clad nubile girl (or two), a pompous personage losing his trousers, an upright citizen who should know better being caught out in flagrante, usually by his spouse (who herself may not be completely blameless, a vast number of doors – and split-second timing by a straight-faced cast.

Cooney has updated his 1990 West End success to incorporate up-to-the-minute political references. Out ant-hero is junior Cabinet Minister Richard Willey (Jeffrey Harmer) who plans to spend the night of a vote-critical debate with Jane (Susie Amy) who just happens to be the secretary to the Leader of the Opposition.

Things go awry (of course they do) and gormless, mother-ridden bachelor PPS George Pigden (Shaun Williamson) only makes them worse. The action takes place in a hotel near the House of Commons and the quartet in the suite (did I mention an apparent corpse (David Warwick) tastefully draped over the windowsill?) have to cope with a hotel manager who knows his job (Arthur Bostrom) and a waiter who knows how to rake in tips (James Holmes).

Sue Holderness as Richard’s wife Pamela, Jules Brown as Jane’s firebrand husband Ronnie and Elizabeth Elvin as Nurse Gladys (not just a pillow-smoother) complete the cast. Yes, it’s formulaic. No, it’s probably not politically correct. But it is a thoroughly enjoyable laugh-out-loud evening of light-hearted theatre with just the right hint of a bite.

Four and a half-star rating.

Out of Order runs at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 15 July with matinées on 13 and 15 July.

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Communicating Doors

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 5 July

Alan Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors is on one level a farce with sociological bite, as expected from the modern master of that genre. On another, it plays with the notion of time, much as did JB Priestley in dramas such as Time and the Conways, Dangerous Corner and An Inspector Calls.

The action takes place in suite 647 of a London hotel owned by ruthless business-man Reece (James Morley) with his equally ferocious second-in-command Julian (Michael Shaw). We begin in 2037 with the arrival of a dominatrix called Poopay (real name Pheobe) played by Melissa Clements; her attentions are in response to Reece’s last wishes.

It transpires that both Reece’s wives have met untimely ends, first Jessica (Rosanna Miles) and then Ruella (Claire Jeater). In both cases Julian appears to have been the hit-man and he has no compunction about serving Poopay in the same way. Her escape through a door into a cupboard takes her into the same suite but, at different times, in 2017 and 1997.

Mark Sterling’s production keeps up a lively pace with the audience at times hard-pressed to follow at the same speed. Tory Cobb’s set and Miri Birch’s costumes work well in this context, as does the clever use of lighting (including laser shapes to indicate time changes) and shadow-play.

The cast brings commitment and a good understanding of both Ayckbourn’s words and the characters they define. Clements offers a rounded portrait of the girl from a children’s home who grits her teeth and gets on with earning a living. Miles and Jeater differentiate the two wives and the way their personalities develop over 40 years.

Bumbling in and out of the action is hotel security-man Harold, who Bob Dobson makes likeable even as the women manipulate him. Shaw has the lion’s share of the nastiness, and relishes every nuance of it. Morley’s role is in many ways a more difficult one, but his last scene with Pheobe has real heart.

Four star rating.

Communicating Doors runs at the Southwold Arts Centre as the opening production in the Suffolk Summer Theatres season until 15 July with matinées on 8, 13 and 15 July. It transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 20 and 29 July with matinées on 22 and 29 July.

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Emma

reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 4 July

Novels and plays both tell stories. However, they often do this in different ways. In his new Jane Austen adaption for The Production Exchange, Tim Luscombe chooses to make part of the action which make up the multi-layered plot of Emma happen before our eyes (and ears) rather than to be revealed as a sequence of dénouements.

So we follow Frank Churchill (George Kemp)’s secret engagement to Jane Fairfax (Georgie Oulton) with all his convolution of subterfuge – designed to ensure his legacy from his domineering aunt – before Austen allows us to understand it. It makes him much more of the villain of the piece and allows us to sympathise with Jane’s predicament from the beginning.

Both Oulton and Kemp make the most of this; Oulton’s portrait especially comes over as that of a young woman with a conscience torn between love and financial necessity rather than as a simple feminine victim. There’s another neat study of a certain kind of womanhood in Hannah Genesius’ Mrs Elton.

Miss Bates with her disconnected vocal ramblings is made sympathetic in Kate Copeland’s brown-sparrow characterisation. Polly Misch makes the rather dippy, easily influenced Harriet an excellent foil to Bethan Nash’s Emma, the heroine who loves matchmaking and being the queen bee of her small local society. One understands why Philip Edgerley’s Mr Knightley is so exasperated as well as charmed by her.

Selfishly hypochondriac Mr Woodhouse and self-important Mr Elton make an interesting double for Nicholas Tizzard. Colin Blumenau’s production uses two levels in Libby Watson’s setting. One is a tilted circle (a wedding-ring, perhaps?) and the other is the well inside it, furnished with a table, chairs and a keyboard. Mike Cassidy’s lighting is subtle and the choreography by Claire Cassidy thoroughly applause-worthy.

Four and a half- star rating.

Emma runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 8 July with matinées on 6 and 8 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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A Judgement in Stone
reviewed in Westcliff on 5 June

Ruth Rendell’s 1977 crime novel A Judgement in Stone is, like most of her work, a subtle in-depth exploration of what makes some people into murderers and how others react. Some thrillers translate well to the stage or film; others become blurred or somehow skew characterisation and motivation with over-simplification.

Simon Brett and Antony Lampard have written the script for this new touring production which is dircted by Roy Marsden, no slouch as far as the dramatised thriller genre is concerned. The excellent, almost dominating and realistic set is by Julie Godfrey.

There are four members of the Coverdale family in whose country house the story is set. They’re an urbane quartet – husband George (Mark Wynter) and wife Jacqueline (Rosie Thomson) who are both on their second marriages, his daughter Melinda (Jennifer Sims) and her student son Giles (Joshua Price). They have a long-term housemaid Eva Baalham (Shirley Anne Field) and a gadener-cum-handyman, the loose-fingered Rodger Meadows (Antony Costa).

As housekeeper they choose Eunice Parchman (Sophie Ward), a shuffling pent-up volcano weighed down by the proverbial shoulder chips. It’s a remarkably effective portrait of a sad, unlikeable woman whose illiteracy is only gradually revealed as th action progresses (Rendell tells us about it in the opening line of the novel). Melinda’s genuine offer to help will only rebound.

Almost rivalling Ward in the performance stakes is Deborah Grant as Joan Smith, a no-good girl turned into Bible-thumper in full blast-off revivalist mode. The story is told in flash-backs as Detective Superinendent Vetch (Andrew Lancel) and Detecive Sergeant Challoner (Ben Nealon) attempt to establish why the Coverdales were shot down while watching a telecast of Don Giovanni and who did it.

The detectives prowl on and off the stage as their enquiry progresses, or stalemates. The actual sequence of events as they unfold punctuates their investigation, which has a somewhat alienation effect, possibly intended but probably not. Wynter makes George and Sims Melinda into three-dimensional people while Price puts over the student with his mind on higher things very well.

Thomson tends to squeak rather than speak her lines. Neither detective comes over with any sense of authority until the end of the play when they home in on the murderer. Costa makes the most of his incursions into the manor-house; he is a recognisable type of the no-gooder who is always going to be a suspect – for one crime or anoher.

Three and a half-star rating.

A Judgement in Stone runs at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 10 June with matinées on 8 and 10 June.

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Maestro & All the Things I Lied About
Ipswich on 1 June

This year’s Pulse Festival curated by China Plate made a fascinating start with two one-person shows. Kieran Hodgson’s Maestro takes a wry look at a would-be composer (idol is Mahler, bête noire Rachmaninoff), his social and bi-sexual feelings and fumblings and the whole frustrating business of transforming from child to adult through teenage.

In theory, we should itch to give him a good shaking and tell him to take a grip of reality. In practice, we’ve all built sun-drenched sand castles out of wisful yearnings, tentative romances and might-have-been career fantasies – only to see them washed away by the rising tide of life as it is. Callum, Lucy, Ed, Cécile and Anthony as they float in and out of Kieran’s life (so far) are brought to our notice as though they peopled the stage with him.

All the Things I Lied About by Kate Bonna as altogether more acerbic. As she points out, we live in a post-truth world (though I suspect that it was ever so) where lies are the fuel for everyday intercourse in person or through electronic transmission. It’s another autobiographical show which begins with politics, Brexit and Trump and segues into her parents’ marriage, its breakdown and her gradual realisation of the truth.

Fake news is, of course, not a new phenomenon. Perhaps we asociate it in particular with politicians, but it also can be purely personal. As Bonna demonstrates how multifaceted truth can be – with the aid of audience participation and some interesting lighting effects – her wariness about total emotional commitment is laid bare before us.

Both shows were British Sign Language interpreted. The anonymous interpreter at one side of the stage deserves a festival award in her own right. Not only did she echo evry word of Bonna, she also managed to keep up with Hodgson’s ad-libs – and did it all with an air of actual enjoyment. Top marks.

Four-star rating.
The Pulse 2017 Festival continues in Ipswich until 10 June at the New Wolsey Theatre, the New Wolsey Studio, the High Street Exhibition Gallery and DanceEast’s Jerwood Dancehouse.

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Not Dead Enough
reviewed at Cambridge Arts Theatre 15 May

Red herrings in thrillers are one thing. Shaun McKenna’s latest stage adaptation of a Peter James thriller not only trails a shoal of thm acoss Sussex’s beaches but adds a whole corkscrew drawer-full of twists and turns to the plot as DS Roy Grace finds that past and present somehow elide in the latest series of murders to land on his desk.

Michael Holt’s two-level set with some atmospheric lighting by Jason Taylor and sound effects by Martin Hodgson take us from the mortury to the police station and across to nocturnal surf-battered pebbled beaches. Ian Talbot contributes what one might define as speed-directing; it’s all so fast and furious that plot and characterisation holes are simply skated over.

There are some very good performances, notably by Laura Whitmore as Cleo, in charge of the mortuary and Grace’s latest “squeeze” and by Gemma Atkins as her vulnerable assistant Sophie. Central to the action is Brian Bishop, whose wife is just one of the victims of violent death to be laid on Sophie’s mortuary table. Stephen Billington gives a deliberately “over the top” performance of this tortured personality; you can see why he provokes Bill Ward’s Grace so much.

In the police station, Grace is supported by his segeant Glenn (Michael Quartey) and PC Moy (Gemma Stroyan). At the end of the telephone is a censorious assistant chief police constable who takes a dim view of Grace’s detecting methods. Dead bodies and the nasty ways in which they meet their fates proliferate. It’s all hokum, of course, but very well presented by a cast which takes it all with just the right touch of knowing conviction.

Three and a half-star rating.

Not Dead Enough runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 20 May with matinées on 18 and 20 May.

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Strictly Murder
reviewed in Basildon on 10 May

It’s April 1939. We’re in a farmhouse deep in Provence. Hitler’s rantings and British peace-or-war ditherings can surely have no impact on the lives of English artist and part-time grape-harvester Peter Meredith or his girl-friend Suzy. Josef, who has strayed into their lives as a derelict from the previous conflict and who dosses down in their outbuildings, may have a different reaction.

This 2008 thriller by the late Brain Clemens ratchets up the suspense quite cleverly. Peter (Gary Turner) has no good reason to give Suzy (Lara Lemon) why they don’t marry. As the radio keeps them abreast of what’s happening so rapidly in the wider world, Peter’s suddenly condenses with the arrival of Ross (Brian Capron), a former detective (or is he?), whose cheery manner hides what could turn out to be a lethal purpose.

Clemens’ son Samuel is the director and knows how to paper over cracks in plausibility. He’s aided by Alex Marker’s excellent set and David North’s lighting which reminds us that this farmhouse is dependent on a somewhat tempremental generator. The performances are all good, with Andrew Fettes’ Josef both pathetic and menacing as the war clouds gather and people have to decide where their loyalties lie.

The second act introduces us to Ross’ identical-twin brother – they are well characterised and subtly differentiated by Capron, who rather walks off with the acting laurels. Corinne Wicks is Miriam Miller, another person who is not what she originally appears to be. Suzy, pregnant with Peter’s child, also holds attention as portrayed by Lemon.

Turner has in many ways the most difficult role; it is hard to warm to Peter even before aspects of his past spill out. But it all holds together with conviction during the performance. And that, after all, is the essence of drama.

Three and a half-star rating.

Strictly Murder can be seen at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 23 and 24 May, the Gordon Craig Theatre between 5 and 7 June, the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 8 and 10 June, the Marina Theatre, Lowestoft on 16 and 17 June, the Grove Theatre, Dunstable on 10 and 11 July and the Key Theatre, Peterborough on 10 and 11 September.

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Cyrano
reviewed at Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal on 2 May

Rostand was only 30 when his best-known play Cyrano de Bergerac was staged. This Northern Broadsides version by Deborah McAndrew is called simply Cyrano and decorates the action with considerable song-and-dance, which does slightly obscure the central story. It’s not precisely a musical in Conrad Nelson’s direction (he is also the composer) but does emphasis how young the characters are, including the protagonist.

Christian Edwards tries very hard as Cyrano but for me he fails to convey the deeply multi-faceted character of the proud poet, playwright, swordsman and soldier. Pretty as she is, Sharon Singh doesn’t succeed in making Roxane into more than a shadow of the beauty who wins men’s hearts so effortlessly while maintaining her own integrity. The 13-strong cast does however throw up some three-dimensional character studies.

Notable among these are Andy Cryer’s arrogsnt de Guiche, Andrew Whitehead’s Le Bret, Paul Barnhill’s Ragueneau and Michael Hugo’s Lignière; Hugo has the best of the musical numbers. Adam Barlow, in an odd-looking wig, doesn’t convey either Christian’s boyish good-looking glamour or the character’s basic decency and courage.

Lis Evans has created a succession of reasonably accurate 17th century costumes and a flexible curtain-hung set easily adaptable to indicate the different locations of the five acts and with which lighting director Daniella Beattie plays games. The choreographer is Beverley Norris-Edmunds with fight direction by Philip d’Orléans. The Theatre Royal’s stage is something of an acoustic gem, but that 21st century disease – the mumbles – seems to have afflicted some of the cast.

Three and a half-star rating.

Cyrano runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 6 May with matinées on 3 and 6 May.

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Educating Rita
reviewed in Hornchurch on 25 April

How do you react when you’re out of your comfort zone? Some become verbose. Others might take to drink. When we meet onstage the two characters of Willy Russell’s 1980s success Educating Rita (as with the rest of us) their lives are populated with a host of people who may be physically offstage but become just as real as Rita and her reluctant Open University tutor Frank.

Ros Philips’ production brings the action forward onto a thrust stage with the audience on three sides. I’m not sure that this makes it more immediate, even with Polly Sullivan’s suitably dishevelled set. Sally Ferguson’s lighting design is either deeply symbolic or somewhat perverse; I have a feeling that, on the opening night, it was the latter.

As Frank, Ruairi Conaghan manages to keep the uaidnece’s sympathy, no mean feat when what we are watching is a past poet now a reluctant academic (“those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach”) de-constructing his own life, his partners’ and then what’s left of his second career. Frank is the sort of man interesting to talk to when sober but profoundly irritating when he’s not and indulging in yet another round of self-pity. All this Conaghan accomplishes admirably.

Danielle Flett’s Rita erupts into Frank’s study as a whirlwind of physical restlessness and verbal overspill. Flett establishes this hairdresser who wants to improve her mind with an intensity which makes most of her first act speeches too much of an accented gabble. The part requires some extremely quick costume changes as time passes and Rita grows out of her restrictive home and work life into one which broadens both her cultural and social existence.

Three and a half-star rating.

Educating Rita runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 13 May with matinées on 27 April and 6 May.

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Abigail’s Party
reviewed in Norwich on 27 March

Mike Leigh’s play about the residents of a suburban London enclave is now 40 years old. Each revival brings a new and appreciative audience as well as returning admirers, ths proving that this particular social satire is one for all decades and all generations.

We may not want to acknowledge it aloud, but most of us can number at least a couple of Leigh’s characters in our aquaintance. Which is not bad going when you realise that there are only five people on stage, plus of course the offstage teenaged Abigail, who is throwing her increasingly boisterous parent-free party a few doors away.

Queen bee and lynch-pin of the whole affair is Beverly, a wife so mesmerised by her own two-dimensional façade that other people only exist to reflect her appearance, her tastes in music, home décor and social entertaining. Amanda Abbington has the measure of the part; from the moment we glimpse her arranging the room for her drinks party through the windows of Janet Bird’s dolls’ house set, Abbington presents the whole woman.

Dressed in a totally unsuitable white pleated dress, constantly slithering off one shoulder, Beverly makes a god job of upstaging first new neighbour Angela (Charlotte Mills), a nurse whose slightly too-girlish dress only accentuates her comfortable plumpness. Ciarán Owens is Frank, the disenchanted former footballer now computer operator who is natural prey for Beverly.

Both Rose Keegan as middle-class divorcée Susan, doing her best to bring up Abigail and Jeremy with some support from her architect ex-husband, suggests the woman who would love to put Beverly back in her proper place but is too polite to force the issue. when she does do so it is completely ineffectual.

You can see why Ben Caplan’s work-obsessed estate agent Laurence might find in Susan a more congenial spirit than in wife Beverly, though even he tries too hard and too obviously to clamber onto her guarded wavelength. Caplan times Laurence’s develpment as the evning wears on very subtly, from “heard it all before” mild irritation to the downright irascibility as the play reaches its climax.

Sarah Esdaile is the director for this Theatre Royal Bath Productions tour. Bird’s co-designers are Mic Pool (sound, which is very cleverly graduated as the evening wears on) and Paul Pyant (lighting). Blending deliberate articiality with the right degree of realism is a harder visual and audible task than an audience might imagine. I suspect that Abigail will be still throwing her party forty years from now. This production certainly doesn’t impede that progress.

Four and a half-star rating.

Abigail’s Party
runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 1 April with matinées on 29 March and 1 April. It can also be seen at the Cambridge Arts Theatre between 10 and 15 April.

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The Importance of Being Earnest
reviewed Ipswich 24 March

Red Rose Chain’s spring production is a new one by artistic director Joanna Carrick of Oscar Wilde’s best-known comedy. Carrick has provided a framing induction(?) which involves the 1960s descendants of Wilde’s 1890s characters clearing out the old family country home – now too big and too expensive to maintain. Quite frankly, this adds nothing but an extra gloss of artificiality to the play proper, but I suppose such things are in fashion.

This is a theatre-in-the-round staging, which place a special load on the actors, especially when they’re required to engage directly with the audience. The design eam – Carrick, David Newborn, Jack Heydon and Leo George – circulate the prologue, the main play and the epilogue – around a couple of packing-cases, a chaise longue, a tea-trolley and a tin-toned upright piano.

Joanna Sawyer is the musical director and choreographer, and she keeps her cast on the move, notably in the case of Lawrence Russell’s whirlwind Jack (he also plays Chasuble and Frank in the framing scenes). Laurence Pears contrasts lankily as Algernon and a simpering Miss Prism. The men’s quick changes of costume, especially in scenes where both the characters they play are on-stage simultaneously, is a delight to watch.

Of the women, we first meet Sawyer as Frnk’s trendy fiancée, all Carnaby Street mini-skirt and high-boots – not to mention wielding an oversize demonstration banner with theories to match. Her Cecily has a similar sparkle, manipulating her young-girl flounced skirt to devasting effect as far as Algy is concerned. Leonie Spilsbury is the slightly repressed Eloise and the confident débutante Gwendolyn; one has a horrid feeling that she might indeed end up as her mother’s true daughter.

Butlers Merriman (a misnomer if ever there was one) and Lane are doubled by Antony Carrick. At the end, Lane’s nostalgia has something of the dying fall impact of Firs from The Cherry Orchard. Joanna Carrick’s Lady Bracknell tries too hard to make us “get the point”; by this stage in his career, Wilde knew precisely how to let a line work with its hearers, without over-pointing by the actor. Those bare arms for a society matron in daytime clothes also jar.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Importance of Being Earnest continues at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich until 9 April.

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Nell Gwynn
reviewed in Cambridge on 21 March

A historical play – just like a historical novel – is not necessarily a straightforward documentary. The historian has to stick to the known facts, and be prepared to answer for any assumptions to his or her peers. The novelist is controlled by a far looser rein, and the dramatist is given even greater licence.

So Jessica Swale’s version of the life of arguably the most famous actress of the 17th century, Nell Gwynn, never lets the (perilously few) known facts get in the way of a thoroughly theatrical romp. It makes for an enagaging evening’s entertainment, augmented in Christopher Luscombe’s English Touring Theatre production by the Globe Theatre-style set and costume designs of Hugh Durrant and by Nigel Hess’ pastiche score.

This is very well performed by both cast and instrumentalists Emily Banes, Sharon Lindo, Arngeir Hauksson and Nicholas Perry. Charlotte Broom is the choreographer, keeping the stage a-swirl with stamps and turns. There are a number of entrances from the auditorium with the occasional circle and box level interjection; I suspect these work better in playhouse-type theatres than in a less flexible one such as the Cambridge Arts.

Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Nell is a delight, giving the back-street orange-seller turned actress and then king’s mistress real personality as her enthusiasms bubble with scant regard for the status of those at whom she aims them. Her two Charles are Ben Righton as Charles II and Sam Marks as leading-man Charles Hart. Frantically striving to keep everything (and everyone) on the right path are Michael Cochrane as Lord Arlington and Clive Heyward as King’s Company manager Killigrew.

The human-being behind the stereotype is particularly apparent in some of Righton’s exchanges with Pitt-Pulford, in Esh Alladi’s portrait of the rapidly becoming redundant player of women’s parts Edward Kynaston and in the short sequence when Joanne Howarth’s flamboyantly strident Catherine of Braganza suddenly kneels to the king and hushes the house with her echo of Catherine of Aragon’s Blackfriars plea to Henry VIII.

This is history with its own validity, because in two hours has necessarily to concentrate and condense both characters and action while keeping the audience attentive from first to last, simply and basically by entertaining it. You do go away at the end with a certain spring in your step – and that’s probably as good an accolade as any.

Four and a half-star rating.

Nell Gwynn continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 25 March with matinées on 23 and 25 March.

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