Category Archives: Reviews 2018

Aladdin

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 4 December

It’s billed as a traditional pantomime, and to a large extent that’s precisely what Al Morley’s script and Phil Clark’s direction deliver. Sue Simmerling’s costumes look well and there’s a particularly effective turquoise and glitter combination for the walk-down.

So, what’s the twist? The answer is show-stealer Wayne Sleep as Abanazer; picked as a favourite by one of the four children brought on stage for the singalong – I think this is the first time in all my panto-going experience that the villain trumps the comics or the young hero and heroine.

Why is obvious. Swirling his magical cloak and decorating his characterisation with just the subtlest hint of high camp, Sleep punctuates his exits with capsule dance sequences before the full-scale tap production number “Putting on the Ritz”. Widow Twankey (Matt Cosby) and Wishy-Washy (Max Fulham) don’t stand a chance.

Fulham in particular engages the audience very well, especially with his ventriloquist companion Gordon (the monkey). Crosby throws off topical and political gags in proper “blink and you miss it” style and is energetic (to put it mildly) in the second-act slop scene.

Aladdin himself is played by Holly Easterbrook in proper principal boy fashion. Liza Goddard is the Empress, trying – and failing – to keep her adventurous daughter Waterlily (Suzie Mathers) confined by imperial protocol. The other immortals are Rosalind James as the Spirit of the Ring and Andy Abraham as the Genie of the Lamp.

Kevan Allen’s choreography makes the most of talented adult and juvenile ensembles with crisp footwork and groupings. Richard John is the musical director, making the most of Will Stuart’s eclectic sequence of arrangements.

Four and a half-star rating.

Aladdin runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 6 January. Performance dates and times vary: check the box office 01223 503 333 and www.cambridgeartstheatre.com for details.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Pamtomimes & other seasonal shows, Reviews 2018

Jack and the Beanstalk

reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 1 December

Writer Andrew Pollard and director Martin Berry, abetted by designer Richard Foxton, have worked one of the now-fashionable variations into this year’s pantomime. For most of the action, the setting is the somewhat run-down funfair operated by Frank Furter (Richard Emerson).

He’s a loud-mouthed, tartan-suited leftover from the glory days of rock’n’roll. His daughter Jill (Elizabeth Rowe) has just returned from “finishing school” – and is fly enough to know a financial sinking ship when it passes under her nose. Still clinging on (just) is ice-cream vendor Dotty Trott (John Barr).

Her amiable but not very bright or co-ordinated son Jack (James William-Pattison) has made a pet of their one remaining cow Pat (Claire Greenway). Their main trouble is that Pat refuses to be milked by either Trott. Then there’s the thoroughly nasty Hurricane (Taylor Rettke) who blows in demanding rent arrears.

A well-established Hornchurch tradition is to use actors who are also accomplished instrumentalists. Hollie Cassie is the on-stage musical director and also plays Fortuna, trapped in her booth until Jack’s innate kindness releases her. The second half takes everyone to Cloudland, reigned over by Celia Cruwys-Finnigan and Sheldon Greenland.

The latter is also the giant Big Dipper in an effective combination of monster puppet and actor. Barr is an experienced Dame, taking a wig malfunction in his-her stride. There are enough of the traditional gags, including a slop scene and the bench routine, to keep the story grounded in pantomime convention.

Three and a half-star rating.

Jack and the Beanstalk runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 6 January. Performance dates and times vary, check the box office: 01708 443 333 or www.queens-theatre.co.uk for details.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Pamtomimes & other seasonal shows

Jack and the Beanstalk

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 30 November

Daniel Buckroyd’s take on this popular pantomime theme might be described as traditional, but with twists. So Jack (Craig Mather) is a likeable but not brilliantly intelligent village lad and Princess Jill (Madeleine Leslay) is a girl who’s not afraid to step in when the men are making a mess of things.

Then there’s Day-Z (Dale Superville), the Trott family’s pet bullock. Yes, that’s right – but, given Superville’s superb comedy timing and mime skills, I suspect that he’s the one the audience really wants to take home.  The part-projected, part-manipulated Giant is a clever device of director Abigail Anderson and designer David Shields.

If Carli Norris’ Fairy Gladys is a bumbler on the side of good (she’s failed her Fairy Godmother examination yet again – a concept I seem to recall being introduced in last year’s crop of pantos), then Ignatius Anthony’s Fleshcreep is the epitome of power-hungry evil. It’s a well-balanced performance with some neat touches.

If Superville and Mather contribute much of the comedy, then Antony Stuart-Hicks’ Dotty Trott (gorgeously costumed bewigged) takes the lioness’ share. Lots of double entendres for the grown-ups, but plenty of more accessible earthy humour for the young’uns. her sidekick is Phil Sealey’s King Norbert.

Choreographer Charlie Morgan  has devised some sparkling and energetic routines, with a particularly effective one in a stratosphere peopled by robots and space-travel paraphernalia. The score devised by composer Richard Reeday under musical director Dan de Cruz mixes original with audience-familiar tunes; Callum Harrower and Harrison White occupy the pit.

Four star rating.

Jack and the Beanstalk runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 20 January. Performance dates and times vary – check the box office (01206 573 948, www.mercurytheatre.co.uk) for details.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Pamtomimes & other seasonal shows, Reviews 2018

The Nutcracker

reviewed at the Norwich Theatre Royal on 21 November

It’s a popular ballet at this time of year, the story of a Christmas festivity with many layers of meaning. It’s also a ballet of two acts which is notoriously difficult to fit nto an over-arching cohesion.

Act One is all story, with dancing. Act Two can then seem like a succession of divertissements with little relationship to what has gone before. David Nixon’s Northern Ballet binds the two acts more closely than many productions.

Here Clara (Rachael Gillespie) is a teenager not much junior to her sister Louise (Minju Kang). So she dances en pointe throughout, distancing herself from the younger members of the Edwards family’s party.

The period is Regency and the place is England. That allows for uncle Drosselmeyer (Mlindi Kulashe) to conjure up an orientalist fantasy world both at the party and in the gardens beyond the clouds. Louise and her suitor  James (Javier Torres) fit into this quite logically as the Sugar-Plum fairy and her cavalier.

Some of the costumes have been redesigned for this revival; the whole production looks fresh. Dixon melds his own choreography with some of Ivanov’s original set pieces, but the joins are scarcely discernible.

Gillespie gives us a credible portrait of a girl on the cusp of womanhood, suggesting the tentativeness of that transitional state. She becomes the focus of the dance as well as the drama in Act Two, one which Kang and Torres don’t quite manage to defeat.

There’s a dash of the Lord of Misrule about Kulashe, whether displaying the animated dolls (Kyungka Kwak, Jonathan Hanks and Riku Ito) from his cabinet of curiosities or launching Clare and Ashley Dixon’s Nutcracker prince on their fantasy journey.

Kevin Poeung, Adam Ashcroft, Nina Queiroz da Silva, Gavin McCraig, Abigail Prudames, Conner Jordan-Collins, Harris Beattie and George Liang all do well with the national and character dances. There a real sense of ensemble in the corps de ballet.

Four star rating.

The Nutcracker runs at the Norwich Theatre Royal until 24 November with matinées on 22 and 24 November.

 

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Filed under Ballet and dance, Reviews 2018

Wise Children

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 20 November

Emma Rice’s new company, named for this launch production, has something of the quirkiness which one associates with her previous nest at Kneehigh. It’s a bold, multi-disciplined stage adaptation of Wise Children, Angela Carter’s last novel, and has a suitably exploited show-business background.

The kernel of the story centres on twin sisters, Dora and Nora. They are possibly the fruit of a one-night stand by actor-manager Melchior Hazard  (himself a scion of a sequence of such theatrical demigods) and a music-hall artiste. From the beginning we are made aware of the geographical and genre hierarchy of early 20th century entertainment.

Rice’s production uses Lyndie Wright’s puppets to represent these infant daughters, and later their putative cousins who may have been fathered by Melchior’s brother Peregrine. Adult Dora and Nora act as a species of chorus as the story unravels, played engagingly by Gareth Snook and Etta Murfitt.

As sub-teenagers, brought up by their grandmother Chance (Katy Owen), they are played by Bettrys Jones and Mirabelle Gremaud and later – in their stunning showgirl manifestation by Melissa James and Omari Douglas. Murfitt’s choreography fits the mood and period before us in perfect harmony with musical director Ian Ross’ pot-pourri score.

The younger Melchior is played by Ankur Bahl, who ages into Paul Hunter. Young Peregrine is Sam Archer, maturing (?) into Mike Shepherd. Patrycja Kujawska is Lady Atalanta, Melchior’s well-heeled, well-connected bride of his later years. The on-stage band is supplemented by the actors’ own instrumental as well as vocal contributions.

Yes, if you haven’t read the book, it does at first seem very complicated – a succession of music-hall sketches. Then the sheer theatricality of the presentation, like a succession of finely-executed transformation scenes draws us into its own slightly off-kilter world. Vicki Mortimer’s set and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting aid the journey enormously.

Theatre – whether minimal or elaborate, bare boards and scarce a fistful of actors or backed by a lavish budget and a cast of thousands – is designed to draw us into another world. That can be realistically represented or symbolically suggested. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. What does is its effect.

Wise Children (the company) has given itself something to live up to. That should be fun to watch.

Four and a half star rating.

Wise Children runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 24 November with matinées on 22 and 24 November.

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Filed under Ballet and dance, Music Music theatre & opera, Plays, Reviews 2018

Cendrillon

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 14 November

Some folk- and fairy-tale characters have the images of our first encounters with them so firmly fixed in our minds that it is difficult to imagine them otherwise. In Britain, generations of pantomime productions have further reinforced this glue.

Operatically speaking, Rossini’s 1817 Cenerentola with its philosopher-tutor as the deus ex machina, has been permitted to enter the charmed world of this acceptance. Now the Glyndebourne Tour suggests that Massenet’s 1889 Cendrillon attempts to prise the gates wider open.

If you’ve never seen the opera before, which is almost certainly true of most of us in this country, Fiona Shaw’s production creates something of a bewildering introduction. Set designer Jon Bausor makes the staging a matter of deceptive mirrors (not always helped by Anna Watson’s lighting).

Massenet was a supreme master of lush lyricism – the audible equivalent of art nouveau. The sound swirls around us, both from the orchestra pit under Duncan Ward and the large cast on stage. At times the action (including Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes) is overly distracting.

Lucette, the Cinderella of the title, was sung at the Norwich first night by understudy Jennifer Witton, who thoroughly deserved her curtain applause. Another stand-out performance is that of Caroline Wettergreen as the glinting grey-furred Fairy, tossing off her vocalise in steely Queen of the Night fashion.

Pandolfe is Lucette’s loving but basically ineffectual father, and William Dazeley conveys both aspects of the man, especially in his Act Four scenes with his daughter. A battle-axe guaranteed to slice fierce and hard sums up Agnes Zwierko’s stepmother Mme de la Haltière; she sings as well as she acts.

Librettist Henri Cain and Massenet makes the Prince a breeches role; Eléonore Pancrazi takes us effortlessly into his rôle-seeking teenage world where the boundaries between everyday reality (even for royalty) and scarce-perceived yearning extend yet crumble.

The chorus and the dancers blend seamlessly together, thanks to Sarah Fahie’s inventive choreography. Massenet’s skill is in wrapping a diaphanous web of sound around us. I’m not sure that we also need its mirrored reflexion.

Four star rating.

Cendrillon has another performance at the Norwich Theatre Royal on 17 November and is also at the Milton Keynes Theatre on 28 November and 1 December. It plays in repertoire with La traviata (Norwich on 16 November, Milton Keynes on 27 and 30 November).

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The Nightingales

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 12 November

What brings people together in a choir? Once they’re in it, what holds them – or drives wedges between the members? Actor-playwright William Gaminara takes a North Country village a cappella group which on the surface is united with its choir-master and shows what effect a newcomer may have.

Steven (Steven Pacey) is the choir-master in question, a musician whose own ambitions, like his life with wife Diane (Mary Stockley), are not just fading. They’re actively withering. There’s a possibility that an IVF-conceived child might revive and re-bind this relationship.

The other members of the group are thwarted thespian Connie (Sarah Earnshaw), her handyman husband Ben (Philip McGinley) and the new-to-the-area doctor Bruno (Stefan Adegbola). He’s a bright, career-focused Black man, mature enough to shrug off casual racism yet conscious of always being an outsider.

Into the village hall wanders Maggie (Ruth Jones), another newcomer and outsider. She is currently undergoing chemotherapy for suspected breast cancer and the group welcome her, feeling that the choir would itself have a positive and therapeutic effect. Her endless supply of home-made and purchased treats suggests that she’s happy to be included.

But is she? More to the point, is she really ill? And, come to that, is she telling the truth about her own family and past life? The questions push their way into the foreground while Connie pressures Steven into agreeing to enter the choir into a national competition. One she had dreams of being as celebrity. Is this a second chance?

Gaminara has written  six good parts, the sort which actors love to inhabit, but not flesh and blood people. I could perhaps believe that Diane and Bruno might have an affair, that Connie will do anything for that elusive flicker called fame, even that Maggie is either a fantasist or a sick woman (or both), but I failed.

It’s no fault of the cast, notably Pacey and Adegbola, who have a confrontation towards the end of the second act which builds into real dramatic suspense. Stockley and Earnshaw make a good contrast, and McGinley’s happy-go-lucky Ben provides genuine light relief. Jones  at times seemed to be as uncertain as Maggie herself.

Director Christopher Luscombe is well-served by Jonathan Fensom’s village-hall set and quick-change costumes. Music director Luke Bateman regales our ears with an agreeable sequence of unaccompanied song, from the devotional to the popular. These are all very pleasant decorations, but they hang on too flimsy a support.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Nightingales runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 17 November with matinées on 15 and 17 November.

 

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Season’s Greetings

reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 7 November

The time of goodwill to all? Not if you’re planning to spend Christmas with Bernard and Phyllis. Ayckbourn’s wry look at the stresses marriage and parenthood impose when a miscellany of relations comes together doubles as cautionary tale and brutal farce.

Incompetent pacifist doctor Bernard, obsessed with his dire puppet-show for the house-party’s children, starts the festivities off by being at odds with Harvey, his wife Phyllis’ bellicose ex-service uncle over violence in films.

Phyllis drinks too much. Much too much. Her brother Neville is one of those men who tinker endlessly, preferably with other people’s gadgets. His wife Belinda is simply frustrated with life and love (what there is of it).

Enduring yet another pregnancy is Pattie; Eddie her husband is a gormandising layabout more concerned with cadging a job from Richard Munday’s somewhat blinkered Neville than taking his fair share of child-rearing.

And then there’s Rachel, Pattie’s intense and somewhat odd sister. She’s invited Clive, a would-be writer on whom she’s become fixated, as her guest. When he finally appears, he becomes the catalyst for what ensues.

You get the picture. Catherine Lomax’s production keeps the action on the move with a wide set that gives us hall and stairs, the living-room and dining-room. Victoria Fitz-Gerald’s Belinda and Lewis Collier’s Clive make a good central couple.

It is the misfits in the several households who really grab our attention. Paul Lavers’ militant Harvey is suitably lethal while Adam Shorey blithers away as Bernard. Alice Redmond allows Rachel a proper measure of pathos, even while she irritates.

Natalie Harman’s wine-swigging Phyllis comes into her own with the snakes-and-ladders game as Christmas Day ends. Chris Aukett’s Eddie, devouring anything edible in sight, is another infuriating delight.

As Pattie, Naomi Slights evokes understanding; her future – like her immediate past – is a bleak one. You really don’t want to be invited to join any of these people for an extended break; one evening would probably suffice.

The compliments of the season to you, too.

Four star rating.

Season’s Greetings runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 10 November with matinées on 8 and 10 November.

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Shakespeare in Love

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 5 November

It’s a delectable piece of froth which, as is only natural with its authorial pedgree, has mixed in some solid pieces of intellectual know-how to give it crunch as well as sweetness. This stage version by Lee Hall of the Stoppard-Marc Norman film script works splendidly in its own right.

As befits a co-production originating from the Bath Theatre Royal, director Phillip Breen has assembled a large cast deliberately brought into close quarters by Max Jones’ revolving set with its balcony and steep staircase. Tudor London was an over-crowded milieu; privacy was a luxury at any level of society.

You probably know that the action begins with would-be dramatist Shakespeare (Pierro Niel-Mee) experiencing a bad attack of writer’s block. His alter-ego Marlowe (Edmund Kingsley) has no such problem. Lurking around the floorboards, playing his own games (and all sides against each other), is teenage Webster (Jazmine Wilkinson) – not a nice child.

Niel-Mee gives us a rounded portrait of a young man beset by deadlines from theatre managers who know that they want (and think the public does also) as well as bills and family responsibilities he’s endeavouring to keep at a distance.

Imogen Daines is Olivia, a merchant’s daughter about to be traded into marriage with Lord Wessex Bill Ward),  but yearning to be a actress – or should that be, actor? They make a thoroughly enjoyable hero and heroine, though it’s Olivia who in the end has to pay the heaviest price.

Swaggering the whole length of his gleaming red-clad legs is Edward Harrison’s Burbage (eventually cast most appropriately as Mercutio. Kingsley is his saturnine equivalent; their ends even echo each other.

Giles Taylor as Tilney, Master of the Queen’s Revels) doubles that increasingly frustrated functionary with the part of Olivia’s father. Rob Edwards and Ian Hughes make much of Fennyman and Henslowe respectively. Ashley Gale makes much of a stuttering player.

Also catching the eye – and the ear – are Geraldine Alexander doubling Viola/Juliet’s nurse and the imperious Elizabeth I (given an impressive entrance in the second act through the audience), Rowan Polonski’s Ned Alleyne, Ward’s Wessex and the musical score by Paddy Cunneen.

All in all, this touring production in partnership with Eleanor Lloyd is a thoroughly enjoyable antidote to the dark, dank days of late autumn and early winter.

Four and a half-star rating.

Shakespeare in Love continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 10 November as part of a national tour with matinées on 8 and 10 November.

 

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Haunting Julia

reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 3 November

How do you define a haunting? A person, a place, an occurence, a combination of these – or something even less tangible? Ayckbourn’s 1994 drama Haunting Julia threads its way around the doubtful death of a young composer-pianist

It can never be easy to find that you’ve a fully fledged genius in your family. Difficult enough for Leopold Mozart with an established musical background, or for the Du Prés. Near impossible for a run-of-the-mill North Country working-class family.

There’s pride, of course, but no real understanding or appreciation.  Julia dies while still a student and her father makes a shrine of the student-room in which she died. it attracts visitors, not all of whom have genuine informed curiosity.

Andy, now a music teacher with a career-forging wife, had been close to Julia. Her father Joe has invited him to find out if he too can hear the strange sounds and inexplicable cold which have developed. A third visitor is former janitor Ken, who may – or may not – be able to unravel the mystery.

From which you will gather that this is not straightforward Ayckbourn. Yes, there are moments of humour, not all of which are dark. There are odd, sinister happenings guaranteed to give the audience a jolt or two. By the end of the play, we know much about Julia and her circles. But not everything.

Director Lucy Pitman-Wallace controls her stage with impeccable timing, aided by Jess Curtis’ apparently straightforward set, the sounds conjured up by Paul Dodgson and Mark Dymock’s lighting. Ultimately though the weight of the play is on the three actors.

That’s four, if you count Laura Elsworthy’s voiceover. The three men are played by Sam Cox as Joe, Matthew Spencer as Andy and Clive Llewellyn as Ken. Spencer shows us a man who may once have had potential but has now settled for what he can get without too much struggling.

Cox and Llewellyn offer studies in two types of obsession. If Andy discounts any possibility of the paranormal, Ken embraces it. As he reveals more of his own place in Julia’s life, so out sympathy for and understanding of the character grows.

What personal ghosts is Joe exorcising? Cox draws out the no-nonsense side of the man then gradually overlays it with uncertainties. Is he the real villain of the piece, or is that Andy? The strength of the performances is in leaving us undecided.

“There are more things in heaven and earth…” Also, perhaps, in the space between them. Limbo? purgatory? Or even somewhere even less charted?

Four and a half-star rating.

Haunting Julia runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 17 November with matinées on 8, 10, 15 and 17 November.

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Macbeth

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 30 October

It’s the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies and, on the surface, perhaps the most straightforward. A successful, loyal general is seduced by prophecies and egged on by an ambitious wife. He kills his king, takes the throne, disposes of those who might threaten him – and then unravels into death.

Macbeth was written at a dark time, as the newly-crowned James I eased himself onto Elizabeth’s throne and the Gunpowder Plot proved just one of the challenges to the crown. Rufus Norris’ production for the National Theatre presents us with a world where small countries’ conflicts can spillage dangerously.

Designer Rae Smit depicts this as a dark grey causeway with its paving flaking. Poles, suggesting those gallows-trees familiar from Callot engravings, support flutters of crow-torn rags. The witches (Elizabeth Chan, Evelyn Roberts and Olivia Sweeney) writhe up these as they contemplate the evil past and to come.

Sparse rooms suggest castles and dug-outs where comfort takes second place to security. Paul Pyant’s lighting adds to the sense of embattled menace. Only briefly, in the scene with Lady Macduff (Lisa Zahra), her son and her cousin Ross (Rachel Sanders) does a suggestion of normal domesticity appears briefly.

Kirsty Besterman’s Lady Macbeth is the dominant performance, radiating a dangerous level of tightly repressed frustration on many levels. Michael Nardone as Macbeth almost matches her, but not quite manages it. There’s an excellent Banquo by Patrick Robinson, suggesting the inner ease which Macbeth has probably never experienced.

The sleep-walking scene, with Reuben Johnson’s doctor and Sweeney’s gentlewoman petrified by what they see and hear is magnificently played. Tom Mannion’s Duncan, swathed by costume designer Moritz Junge in eye-blasting scarlet (Macbeth’s assumption of the regal colour appears far more tentative) is impressive.

Shakespeare wrote for a time and a place. His universal appeal over four centuries later shows that this transforms into many cultures, languages and eras. Ambition, and the illnesses which attend it, have no boundary of place or time. We watch in horror – but also with recognition. A play for all seasons.

Four and a half-star rating.

Macbeth runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 3 November with matinées on 1 and 3 November.

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Fame

reviewed at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich on 29 October

Fame is a dangerous as well as elusive will-o’-the-wisp. What does the word really signify? Pre-eminence or notoriety? The pinnacle of achievement or merely its distorted shadow?

Wrapped in a dance-musical about aspiring students at an 1980s performing arts academy in New York, this is the story of young people with hopes and dreams all too aware that most of them are training only to be unemployed.

This new touring production is fast-moving with spirited direction and choreography by Nick Winston. The young cast radiate commitment and create thoroughly believable characterisations as we focus on personal and professional dilemmas.

On the surface Carmen (Stephanie Rojas) has everything going for her. She a talented lyricist as well as performer, but becomes hooked on drugs to enhance her performance.

Budding composer Schlomo (Simon Anthony), lovelorn Serena (Molly McGuire), show-off Joe (Albey Brookes) and chip-on-shoulder Tyrone (Jamal Kane Crawford) are all excellent, as are Hayley Johnston’s Mabel and Keith Jack’s career-dedicated Nick.

Mica Paris as Miss Sherman, a disciplinarian who really does care that her students will have a future and Katie Warsop as dance instructress Miss Bell are the main adults with whom we engage.

Ultimately, this is a show which relies on its younger performers for its impact. They don’t let us down.

Four star rating.

Fame runs at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich until 3 November with matinées on 31 October and 3 November. It is also at the Milton Keynes Theatre between 24 and 29 June as part of an extended national tour.

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The Boy in the Lighthouse

reviewed at the Hostry Festival, Norwich on 24 October

Lighthouses are beacons of safety. They are positioned to warn of submerged hazards and the tumultuous seas which crash over them. Refuges – but perhaps in some ways they are also prisons.

This year’s Hostry Festival organisers, the PBSK Partnership in association with the University of East Anglia and Booja Booja, have commissioned an immersive piece of movement theatre from Total Ensemble Theatre Company and Rebecca Chapman.

With the audience on all four sides of the acting area, sounds, lighting and storm-seas colours for the simple costumes focus our concentration on the drama. The title character, played by Hugh Darrah,  is a solitary teenager, who cannot remember a time when the lighthouse was not his restricting shelter.

On the disused pier which abuts it a solitary semi-automaton fortune-teller (Aamer Raza) also seeks identity answers. As does an old mariner (Peter Barrow) nursing the remains of his pet crow (Lexi Watson-Samuels). But the sea is cruel, and its currents do not always follow human intentions.

The boy’s quest leads him to hot, war-torn countries where answers need to be pieced out of fragments. The fortune-teller also will gain the knowledge – and the peace – which he craves. It is very suitable that the myths of the sea and the distant lands to which it leads are here drawn from many cultures.

Four star rating

The Boy in the Lighthouse runs at the Hostry, Norwich Cathedral until 27 October.

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Filed under Ballet and dance, Circus & physical theatre, Reviews 2018

Beauty and the Beast

reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Complex on 22 October

Ballet Theatre UK has developed an important niche – bringing classical ballet with fresh choreographic and production values to smaller venues. These are not cut-down versions of the repertoire classics but full-scale dance-dramas in their own right.

Take the latest production, Christopher Moore’s Beauty and the Beast. It’s a familiar story which we know best in its 18th century French origin or through Christmas pantomimes. As with so many well-love “fairy tales”, it also echoes classical myths.

Costume designers Daniel Hope and Val Plant use a Fragonard-derived palette for Beauty and her greedy sisters, while the Beast, the Enchantress and their entourages are burnished in bronze and gold. Martyn Plant’s set is simple – screens consisting of rose-entwined coils of  silver, like the decoration of a Book of Hours.

A chair or a chest are the sole items of furniture and do not distract from the dancing. Moore’s choreography gives his cast opportunities to shine. The dancers respond with neat, precise footwork and jumps as well as the discipline needed to create floor patterns – not that easy to maintain given the variety of venue stages.

Some of the lifts in the performance which I saw looked awkward, and not every tour en l’air finished as cleanly as intended. The story allows for dance-classic and realistic mime with the Enchantress (Ana Caroline Feerer) every bit as imperious as Giselle‘s Myrtha and the Father allocated a pas de seul as well as acting and ensemble opportunities.

As the heroine, Erin Flaherty displays a good technique and conveys the range of emotions demanded by this principled girl, from her hero-worship of and dependence on her Father through her acceptance of the responsibilities forced on her through the theft of the Beast’s rose.

Ben Crossley Pritchard makes the Beast into a truly tormented soul, with his dual royal and animal instincts constantly warring within him. He is a supportive partner with a flair for solo scenes. The pre-recorded choice of music, drawn largely from Dvořák’s suites, fits the story admirably.

This year (2018) Ballet Theatre UK is celebrating ten years of performance. Its young dancers continue to show commitment and a sense of style. They are also cultivating the art of drawing audience’s into the world of classical ballet, with the display never outweighing the art.

Four star rating

Beauty and the Beast tours nationally until 10 February 2019, including the Grove Theatre, Dunstable (28 October), the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (19-21 November, the Towngate Theatre, Basildon (13 January) and the Broadway Theatre, Peterborough (2 February).

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Silence

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester on 17 October

Wars, especially global ones, throw up a lot of wreckage. This includes human wastage, bilateral damage as the bland phrase has it. Small fry entangled in this horror sequence tends to be overlooked.

Nicola Werenowska’s new play Silence, a co-production with Salisbury Playhouse’s Wiltshire Creative  and Liverpool’s Unity Theatre, explores three generations of Polish-origin women and their contrasted ways of dealing with life’s traumas.

Both German and Russian occupations of the country, itself something of a political football since the Middle Ages, caused immense suffering and forcible displacement.

Maria, the grandmother of this story, has largely kept silence about the depths of her personal agonies first in Poland and later in Siberia. Her daughter Ewa has a rocky marriage in Reading and Anna, her daughter, is a typical young woman of the early 21st century.

Director Jo Newman and her designer Baśka Wesolowka balance the complexity of the stories and characters’ revelations with a taut simplicity. Scenery consists of three grey chairs backed by grey screens. Costume changes are kept to a minimum, simply reflecting different times and places.

The three actresses – Tina Gray as Maria, Kate Spiro as Ewa and Maria Louis as Anna – all inhabit their rôles from the heart out; they make these women’s contrasted dilemmas and their equally different ways of coping with them moving as well as credible.

Four star rating.

Silence runs at the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester until 20 October. There are matinée or early evening performances on 18, 19 and 20 October. The tour continues until 17 November including the Norwich Arts Centre (23 October) and the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich (5 November).

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The Comedy About a Bank Robbery

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 16 October

This is probably Mischief Theatre’s most extravagant offering in its series of theatrical-mishap comedies to date in this new Birmingham Repertory Theatre production. The set (David Farley), quick-change costumes (Roberto Surace), lighting (David Howe) and quirky clever special effects provide part of the visual spectacle.

Split-second timing by an ensemble whose members know just how to play off each other enhances this; tour director Kirsty Patrick Ward keeps tight control. There are visual, as well as plot, nods to Hitchcock (The Birds) as well as to other heist capers  such as The italian Job and Topkapi.

Technical (Alan Bartlett) and stunt (Jami Quarrell) consultants help to keep the audience’s eyes focused and minds engaged – there’s one particular sequence in the second half which is an absolute show-stopper (though you’ll have to see the show to work out what it is).

Of the cast, with several changes from the printed programme, Julia Frith as free-spirit, go-getter Caprice makes a lively “heroine” with Eddy Westbury as her absconding criminal lover Mitch Ruscitti and Damian Lynch as her bank-manager father Mr Freeboys.

Also extremely active are Ashley Tucker as a sort of chorus to the action, David Coomber as criminal sidekick Neil Cooper, Killian Macardle as police officer Randal Shuck, Jon Trenchard as Warren Slax and George Hanniagan as the accurately-titled Everybody Else.

Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, as always for Mischief, are the writers.

Four star rating.

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 20 October with matinées on 17, 18 and 20 October. The tour also includes the Milton Keynes Theatre (20-24 November) and the Cambridge Arts Theatre (19 February-2 March). Cast details may vary.

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The Mariner

reviewed at the Headgate Theatre, Colchester on 12 October

Samuel Taylor Coleridge is probably as much remembered by the general public today for his troubled life and opium addiction as for his verse and association with Wordsworth’s circle.

Of his poetry, the most likely to be known is The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a chilling timeless sea-farers’ tale cast in a deliberately antique format. Pat Whymark’s new play, into which she weaves her own and Emily Bennett’s music, sets The Rime into a biographical narrative.

Richard Lounds makes Coleridge into a slightly cherubic, perpetually juvenile figure, forever wanting more from life and relationships than is feasible. He is understandable, even when being irritating. Eloise Kay, who has an excellent singing voice, plays his long-suffering wife Sarah.

From the beginning of their marriage, Coleridge seems to have seen their partnership as one in which he made all the rules. Sarah was supposed to rear their children, keep house without a regular income, act as his inspiration – and follow him up to the Lakes as a full member of Wordsworth’s coterie.

The opposite sort of woman is personified by Bennett’s Mrs Bainbridge, Coleridge’s non-nonsense London landlady and Wordsworth’s devoted, free-spirited sister Dorothy. Coleridge’s equally-addicted friend Thomas De Quincey, himself engaged in a love-hate relationship with Wordsworth’s circle, is sharply personified by Anthony Pinnick.

Whymark presents this chronicle in a series of exchanges between Coleridge, Mrs Bainbridge, Sarah, De Quincey, the Wordsworth siblings and finally with the doctors who offer to manage his addiction.

The thread upon which this string of faceted beads is strung is The Rime itself. Julian Harries’ recitation is glossed by Coleridge’s own prose annotations; between them they make the familiar, often parodied poem as chilling as its author intended.

Four star rating.

The Mariner is at the Headgate Theatre, Colchester on 13 October with a matinée performance. The tour continues until 11 November and includes the Jubilee Centre, Mildenhall (15 October), the John Peel Centre, Stowmarket (17-18 October), Zinc Arts, Chipping Ongar (19 October), Southwold Arts Centre (24 October), the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh (25 October), the Corn Hall, Diss (26 October), the Seckford Theatre, Woodbridge (2 November), the Cut Arts Centre, Halesworth (6 November) and the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich (7-9 November).

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The Habit of Art

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 8 October

When does a poet or composer know when he has come to the end  of his powers? Is it the brain or the body which dictates the time? Does he just lay down his pen and opt for garnered laurels in a comfortable semi-retirement?

That’s the issue in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, a play within a play focusing on poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten at the end of their days. The fictional playwright has made Humphrey Carpenter (biographer of both Auden and Britten) into a framing device.

We’re in a typically chaotic rehearsal room Adrian Linford is the designer) with the stage manager standing in for the absentee director and the intense young author of Caliban’s Day increasingly paranoid about what the actors are doing with his carefully honed script.

Not only is the elderly actor playing Auden missing cues and needing endless prompts, but a couple of the younger cast members feel that they can bring more, much more, to the characters they play.

You can see why this is not one of Bennett’s most revived plays, but it rewards attention, as much as to what is unspoken as to what is actually said. Neither poet nor composer feel that their long-term partners (Kallman and Pears respectively) are as supportive as they want (or indeed, need).

The actors taking these parts, as well as the satellite cast, are equally dissatisfied in their individual ways. So Matthew Kelly’s superb Auden accepts his comfortable sinecure at Christ Church, Oxford while Fitz (the actor playing him) settles for supermarket voice-overs.

Donald, who takes the Carpenter rôle (John Wark), wants to build up his part. Auden’s rent-boy Stuart (Benjamin Chandler) feels that he also can add something to the production. Robert Mountford’s Neil, the playwright, just wants his script to be performed uncut with the emphases which he, not the director, dictates.

Trying to hold it all together are no-nonsense company stage manager Kay, to whom Veronica Roberts gives precisely the right combination of sympathy and authority and ASM George, played by Alexandra Guelff as a dogsbody with yearning to perform.

In the background until the second act is David Yelland’s Henry, playing Britten. He knows that Death in Venice will be his swan-song in many ways, a paean to vanished youth and the brightness of expectations. It’s a remarkable, unselfish performance, suggesting layers of masking as well as built-up sadness.

Director Philip Franks makes all Bennett’s tiers of make-belief and sadness credible for an audience which is not necessarily fully conversant with Auden’s or Britten’s work. You do need to concentrate, but that’s a good thing in the theatre. After all, all life’s a stage.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Habit of Art runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 13 October with matinées on 10 and 13 October. The tour also includes the Cambridge Arts Theatre (29 October-3 November) and the Palace Theatre, Westcliff (19-24 November).

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Everything Must Go!

reviewed at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich on 28 September

Eastern Angles have a track-record for shows based on personal recollections. On tour at the moment is Everything Must Go! , which collates the memories of care-home residents – for many of whom shopping was central to women’s lives – into the story of Dot and her grandson Tom.

Jon Tavener makes it into a collage of changing attitudes, in more than one sense. Dot (Rosalind Burt) is losing her short-term memory but is persuaded, with Tom (Joe Leat) as her chauffeur, to revisit the shops in which she has been for so many years an habituée – on both sides of the counter.

Except, of course, that most of them are no longer there. Her father ran an ironmongery, in which she learnt her trade, and expanded the business when an adjacent grocery shop ceased trading. Wartime austerity taught her a different sort of frugality and the benefits of trade-off.

Later, she worked at the Co-op, appreciating the power of the “divi”, and felt marginalised by the self-service concept introduced in the run-up to the supermarkets and superstores where we shop nowadays without giving much thought to their predecessors.

Yes, it’s social history – and not without bite. But it’s also thoroughly enjoyable, with Burt switching easily from prewar schoolgirl to young mother to the frailty of today. Leat offers a portrait gallery of shopmen (and shopping women) as well as suggesting a modern young man’s real affection for his grandmother.

Fiona Rigler has devised a setting which uses green boxes, a curtained arch and shop signs to whisk us from place to place and time to time. Aprons and head-scarves indicate character changes with minimal fuss.

I can’t have been the only audience member who felt a sudden twinge of nostalgia for those old shops where dockets, bills, money and change whizzed overhead to a cashier somewhere in the background. It added a dimension to the shopping experience.

Four and a half-star rating.

Everything Must Go! runs at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich until 29 September with a matinée on 29 September. It then tours to The Undercroft, Peterborough (6 October) and to the Town Hall, Maldon (13 October).

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Sherlock Holmes: The Sign Of Four

reviewed at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon on 24 September

Blackeyed Theatre has created a niche for itself with its adaptations of classic novels and novella with a twist. The story and characters are largely as the original authors intended, but the staging adds a further psychological dimension.

In this early Sherlock Holmes story Conan Doyle adds a suggestion of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone through its pivot being a theft in the days of the East India Company. As in that story, it is a girl who is the recipient of stolen jewels.

Adapter and director Nick Lane reminds us that Mary Morstan, Dr Watson and Holmes are all young people and none of them is wealthy, whatever their personal background. If you’re conditioned to the standard film and television versions of the canon, that may come as a shock.

There is a cast of six with only Luke Barton’s Holmes and Joseph Derrington’s Watson not doubling parts. Both are good, with Derrington suggesting that Watson’s war service as a doctor may have left mental as well as physical scars. Barton presents as someone whose intellectual needs too easily tip over into indulgence.

Christopher Glover contrasts the Indians of the story with the know-all Inspector Lestrade and there are two good studies of duplicity, one languid and one more lethal, by Ru Hamilton as the Sholto brothers.

Put-upon Mrs Hudson and information-seeking Mary Marston give Stephanie Rutherford opportunities which she seizes upon. Zach Lee makes the most of peg-leg Jonathan Small; the slow motion fight with Holmes works very well.

To keep the action, which includes stretches of telling past stories by one or other of the characters, on the move, set designer Victoria Spearing offers crimson bunched drapes and spiky shapes suggesting both western and oriental obelisks.

Costume changes are simple and effective; Naomi Gibbs’ palette is never garish but her clothes contrast well with the background while indicating character and social status. Claire Childs’ stage-level lighting and Tristan Parkes’ evocative score blend past and present admirably.

Four and a haf-star star rating.

The Sign Of Four is at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon on 25 September. The tour continues at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds between 4 and 6 October and at the Norwich Playhouse between 8 and 10 October.

 

 

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