Category Archives: Reviews 2018

Il tabarro and Gianni Schicchi

reviewed at the Snape Maltings on 14 April

“Opera that moves” is the ETO motto – and it was worth skipping the bar in the interval to watch the comic drama of the scene change between the two contrasted outer panels of Puccini’s original triptych.

Audiences often discount what happens behind the front curtain, this exposé of the rapid hard work involved certainly earned its final round of applause.

Neil Irish’s rust and wood setting on three levels for Il tabarro and Rory Beaton’s subdued lighting plot suit the gritty savagery of the story. Above the main action life has some hope of normality. Below it, this is only the stench of hopeless degradation.

Craig Smith’s Michele, the Seine barge owner, is a brooding presence as his suspicions of his wife’s infidelity with one of the stevedores are fuelled. His final explosion of anger in “Nulla! Silenzio” before the inevitable dénouement is well paced and phrased.

Giorgetta’s unhappiness, as much for the loss of her child as a yearning of her childhood home at Belleville and desire for Charne Rochford’s Luigi, also builds slowly and Sarah-Jane Lewis has the vocal resources to manage this.

In James Conway’s production, Rochford’s portrait of a young man raging against his lot in life yet unable to effect any immediate change to better this world rings true.

The smaller character parts are equally well cast, with Clarissa Meek’s Frugola outstanding among them. it’s a neat touch to have the young lovers played by Galina Averina and Luciano Botelho, the Lauretta and Rinuccio of Gianni Schicchi.

This also has a fin du siècle setting but suitably elaborate for the (deceased) wealthy Buoso and his horde of grasping relations. These superficial predators come over as a miscellany to delight any connoisseur’s eye.

Andrew Slater has the audience on his side from his first entrance, a no-nonsense Florentine new-comer in fresh-air contrast to the over-dressed Buoso kindred. His recounting of the penalties for will-forgery make their mark.

Timothy Dawkins-wild-haired ex-mayor and the female trio of Meek as the elderly Zita, Joanna Skillett as Nella and Emma Watkinson as La Ciesca throw the genuine passion between Lauretta and Rinuccio into proper focus.

Averina’s show-stopping “Oh! mio babbino caro” has a visual punch-line which doesn’t quite fit in, causing a false ending with applause thus in the wrong place. Michael Rosewell is the conductor for both operas; Liam Steel is the director for Gianni Schicchi.

Four and a half-star rating.

Il tabarro and Gianni Schicchi are at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 18 and 19 April and at the Norwich Theatre Royal on 5 May.

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The Marriage of Figaro

reviewed at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall on 12 April

Artifice or reality? Do we laugh at or with the characters and situations? Da Ponte’s libretto lulls us into one form of enjoyment; Mozart’s music draws us onto a different level. Blanche McIntyre’s production corkscrews us from the one to the other almost seamlessly.

Conductor Christopher Stark takes us through the overture while we watch 21st century performers gathering, assuming costumes, getting in the way of the stage-hands. Designer Neil Irish plays this in front of his turqouise-shaded setting, as flexible as an oriental screen. An armchair and a strong-box materialise. This is the convenient space the Count Almaviva has found for his valet and his bride.

Ross Ramgobin is a dark-voiced Figaro, almost virulent in his reaction to Dawid Kimberg’s designs on Rachel Redmond’s well-sung and acted Susanna, and making us believe his heartbreak and agony in “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi”.

Not helped by an unbecoming wig and matronly wrapper, Nadine Benjamin is a stately Countess; you feel from the first notes of “Porgi amor” that this Rosina has had all the life-bubbles squeezed out of her in just two years. Gaynor Keeble’s Marcellina has vitality and malice in equal measure.

The smaller character parts are also well taken. John-Colyn Gyeantey’s Don Basilio and Omar Ebrahim’s Dr Bartolo makes the most of their interjections, though Ebrahim’s “La vendetta” rather muted its patter climax.Abigail Kelly did well by Barberina’s fourth act cavatina “L’ho perduta”

Replacing an indisposed Katherine Aitken, Emma Watkinson’s Cherubino has all the gawkiness of the adolescent boy coping with an onslaught of dangerous desires. Both “Non so più” and “Voi che sapete” flow naturally and the horseplay during “Non più andrai” suggests that military life might well offer compensations.

This production uses the Jeremy Sams version of the libretto, which sits easily with the notation and has an air of 18th century style about it. A row of footlights suggest that we’re watching at one remove. But our ears tell us differently.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Marriage of Figaro is also at the Snape Maltings on 13 April and at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 17, 20 and 21 April as part of the ETO 2018 Spring tour.

 

 

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The Importance of Being Earnest

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 9 April

Wilde’s most popular comedy went through several changes before its 1895 première. The principal one was compressing four into three acts, though two characters seem also to have been eliminated – a gardener called Moulton and another person called Grimsby.

Moulton has re-emerged in Alastair Whatley’s production for the Original Theatre Company, but here as a parlour-maid, a non-speaking rôle for Judith Rae, who seems to be employed both by Thomas Howe’s Algernon Moncrieff and Peter Sandys-Clarke’s Jack Worthing.

Designer Gabrielle Slade has conjured a fretwork set of art nouveau curves against which the costume palette uses mainly browns and an eye-catching turquoise. Howes sports two outfits, which I’m afraid put me in mind of Mr Toad, in green. Neither man seems to possess formal town clothes for the Act One tea-party.

Comedy, even farce – which this is not for all its cascades of wisecracks and ludicrous situations – needs a featherweight touch if we are really to feel inside the joke and not just experiencing it at a remove. Everyone on stage comes over as trying just a bit too hard.

Hannah Louise Howell’s Gwendolyn is the most sophisticated of débutantes; her expressions as she follows her mother’s exchanges with Algy and Jack are an object lesson in reaction. Louise Coulthard’s Cecily suggests just the right amount of steel to dilute her apparent wholesome winsomeness.

Playing Miss Prism as a flask-swigging gorgon does Susan Penhaligon no favours while Simon Shackleton’s doubling of Lane and Merriman fails to differentiate between the two trusted retainers. Geoff Aymer’s Canon Chasuble doesn’t really fit comfortably into the second and third acts.

It’s only fair that most of the audience seemed to love it, laughing heartily at Algy’s insatiable appetite and Jack’s increasingly frantic to keep control of his rickety raft of contradictory situations. Gwen Taylor’s swoops to the forefront as Lady Bracknell, one with rather more of a sense of humour than is sometimes allowed, and the ability not to stumble over the “handbag” tripwire.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Importance of Being Earnest continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 14 April with matinées on  12 and 14 April.

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Quartet

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 3 April

“If only youth knew, if only age could…” It’s as true in 2018 as 500 years ago. In many ways it sums up Peter Rowe’s touring production of Ronald Harwood’s “Quartet”, the story of four once-famous opera singers living their last years (until shunted off into specialist care) in a retirement home for retired musicians.

Three are reasonably long-term residents. Reginald Paget (Jeff Rawle) is an embittered tenor, who once itched to sing Wagner but whose career confined him to the 19th century Italian repertoire. Baritone Wilfred Bond (Paul Nicholas had been viewed as a plausible successor-rival to Gobbi.

Mezzo-soprano Cecily Robson – “Cissie” – played by Wendi Peters teeters on the brink of Alzheimer’s, much to the concern of the two men who recognise that their NSP motto (no self-pity) cannot stretch to the home’s requirement that residents must basically be able to lead independent lives.

They squabble, Bond fantasises about sexual adventures past but not present or future and look forward to the performance all are required to give on 10 October to celebrate Verdi’s birthday. Then new resident Jean Horton (Sue Holderness) arrives. She was a much-lauded soprano who quit at what seemed to be the height of her powers – and fame.

Rowe’s direction paints all this with a broad brush which at times has the peculiar effect of distancing the four characters from our understanding, and so our sympathies. Rawle’s real pain at now being forced to rub shoulders on a daily basis with his ex-wife does come over clearly but some of the humour still seems forced rather than natural.

Peters dodders amusingly enough as Cissie while Holderness radiates the crumbling arrogance of the diva clinging onto past glories. Nicholas is successful in showing us a performer able to step occasionally outside the personality he once inhabited to accept the realities of what is now and (inevitably) will have to be.

There’s an excellent set by Phil R Daniels and Charles Cusick-Smith which gives the impression that the comforts afforded by the home are superficial rather than actual. The costumes donned by the quartet for the Verdi have an air of something salvaged from one of those cash-strapped touring companies I remember from the 1950s.

Broad brush-strokes may account for the awkwardness of the karaoke-style performance of the Rigoletto quartet with which the play ends. I don’t recall audience titters from either the 1999 London première or the 2010 tour which in Rowe’s production swamp the actual music. But memory is a fallible thing, especially as one grows older.

Four star rating.

Quartet runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre as part of a national tour until 7 April with matinées on 5 and 7 April.

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Our Country’s Good

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 30 March

Ramps on the Moon is a collaboration between six national producing theatres and the Graeae Theatre Company, which is a pioneering company for disabled artists. Both Graeae and the New Wolsey Theatre have been forerunners in this movement for a number of years.

The latest touring production is of Our Country’s Good, the play by Timberlake Wertenbaker which she based on Thomas Keneally’s novel about the 18th century convict deportation settlement in Australia The Playmaker. It concerns a young officer’s staging of Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer with a cast made up from the pickpockets, thieves and drabs.

If the convicts at first seem without hope, the Marines and soldiers who guard them have also found themselves beached up in an inhospitable terrain. Animosities on both sides flare as we watch Lieutenant Clark (Tim Pritchett) try to weld his cast into cohesion, and fall in love while doing so.

Director Fiona Buffini has integrated sign language and surtitles with the action to mirror the dialogue. It makes for a busy production, rather too much so when one is aware of three screens with the dialogue as well as constant signing by nearly all the cast and, of course, the actual spoken words and naturalistic action.

This multi-tasking on the part of the audience as well as the cast makes concentration difficult at times. There are some excellent performances, notably as guilt-haunted Harry Brewer by Garry Robson and Fergus Rattigan as the hangman Freeman, nicknamed “Ketch”.

Kieron Jecchinis is Arthur Phillip, the Governor whose vision includes redemption as well as punishment, an attitude which Colin Connor’s Major Ross finds both alien and misguided. Fifi Garfield plays Dabby, the oldest of the convict women while Emily Rose Salter’s Duckling, the girl acquired by Brewer, is also effective.

Mary Brenham is the young woman Clark casts as the play-within-a-play’s heroine Silvia and to whom he becomes attracted and Sapphire Joy suggests all her fragility as well as willingness to learn. Gbemisola Ikumelo’s Liz Morden is loud-mouthed and pugnacious, always ready to make a point with actions rather than words.

The set by Neil Murray, largely decking planks backed by the bushes and shrubs which  those early settlers must have found so strange, works well and allows for quick scene changes. Jon Nicholls’ soundtrack suggests the eerie noises of the outback and the sea so barrenly licking at the sandy shoreline.

Three and a half-star rating.

Our Country’s Good runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 7 April with matinées on 4 and 7 April.

 

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Sleeping Beauty

reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 29 March

Reminding young people, and their elders, that there’s more to a traditional tale than its Disney version is an excellent idea. The sequence of spring musicals devised by Catherine Lomax shows just what can be done if you strip away any pantomime and animation elements.

This Sleeping Beauty is the joint creation of Lomax (direction), Phil Dennis (musical direction) and Khiley Williams (choreography). Connor Norris’ permanent set is medieval with soaring gothic arches and flambeau-bearing towers.

Lisa Hickey’s costumes contrast period realism for the court and townspeople with flower fantasy for the immortals. The good fairies represent spring flowers – Natalie Harman’s Tulip has a jolly-hockey-sticks personality, Francesca French’s Primrose is more sedate while Rebecca Gilhooley’s Bluebell (akin to the Lilac Fairy familiar from the ballet) is quietly authoritative.

In opposition stands Ellen Vereneiks’ withering Narcissus, the Carabosse of this musical. All four have strong voices, easily coping with Dennis’ mixture of bravura singing and close harmony. Abigayle Honeywill’s Beauty, Oliver Stanley as King Favian and Glenn Anderson as Prince Rowan make the most of their individual and concerted numbers.

This production is due to be seen in Chesterfield, Middlesbrough and Skegness when the short Stevenage run closes. This is the sort of small-scale but stylish staging of new work which deserves a wider audience; that in turn means that more attention (which includes money) can be alloted to casting and overall production values.

Four and a half-star rating.

Sleeping Beauty plays matinée and late afternoon/early evening performances until 2 April at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage.

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The Winslow Boy

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 26 March

Acting, preaching and speaking in Parliament or a court of law all require charismatic practitioners if they are to have their intended effect. Rachel Kavanaugh’s production of The Winslow Boy makes this point very clearly, reinforced by Michael Taylor’s deceptively realistic set.

Rattigan based his play on an actual event, the theft of a five-shilling postal order by a teenage Osborne naval cadet and his expulsion as a result. The drama centres on the aftermath, as Ronnie’s family is (more or less) prepared to sacrifice all the comforts and status of its Edwardian life to clear his name.

Most productions make the barrister who accepts the Winslow brief as the dominant character. Timothy Watson’s Robert Morton certainly commands from his first entrance and crucial examination of Ronnie, but Aden Gillett’s Arthur, the irascible and increasingly physically incapacitated father, challenges him for the pre-eminence.

Both portraits are fully fleshed, allowing us to see the vulnerabilities as well as the strengths of each man. It’s fine acting, but it does put Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s Catherine, the suffragette daughter who sees that her stance must automatically negate her engagement to an Army lieutenant, into perhaps a more subordinate category than Rattigan may have intended.

Other rôles are nicely characterised, though the excellent actor Geff Francis is miscast as the lawyer Desmond Curry. Misha Butler as the younger son facing what could be the ruin of his future and Theo Bamber as the student brother whose enjoyment of Oxford’s social life is scuppering his chances of graduating suggest that they are two sides of a family coin.

Tessa Peake-Jones is suitably warm as Grace Winslow with Soo Drouet’s Violet as cuddly if stereotyped as servants almost always are in the well-made plays of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Alistair David has devised some authentic-looking dances to evoke the early jazz-age. I do think though that Taylor could have found something just a little more dashing for Catherine’s much-lauded hat.

Four star rating.

The Winslow Boy continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 31 March with matinées on 29 and 31 March.

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The Jungle Book

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 20 March

Stories, whether set in the past or in fantasy setting, inevitably reflect the culture in which they are written. Kipling nowadays is seen as the laureate of the Raj, a view which (while perfectly legitimate from a 2018 perspective) can overshadow his real and deep understanding of India, both social and natural.

We’ve become accustomed therefore to prettied-up, emasculated versions of the Jungle Book stories. The Children’s Touring Partnership’s new production is certainly of our time and place, but – for me, at any rate – it captures most of the essence of the original.

This is a musical version, scripted by Jessica Swale with an original score by Joe Stilgoe. Max Webster’s direction sets his cast on a revolve with a scaffolding set by Peter McKintosh (who also designed the costumes) and choreography by Lizzi Gee which exploits both the pack and the solo nature of wild animals.

A succession of puppets by Nick Barnes ranges from the simplicity of those representing the child Mowgli  and the kite Chil to the glistening coils (lots of them) of the python Kaa (Rachel Dawson). Central to the story is Mowgli, feral in more than one way, who Keziah Joseph fully brings to life (and our sympathetic understanding).

Lloyd Gorman’s Shere Khan is a commanding villain with the height and presence to command his scenes as well as the jungle denizens; he also has a very good singing voice. His opposite number is Dyfrig Morris’ Balloo, a sloth bear with just a touch of Paddington and Winnie the Pooh – not to mention the pantomime comic.

As the wolf-pack leader Akela, Tripti Tripuraneni radiates the right sort of authority as in the different way does Deborah Oyelade’s Bagheera with a panther-like disregard for slower creatures. Most of the cast take on other roles, including the dangerously mischievous Bandar-Log tribe of monkeys.

Costumes, movements and Charles Balfour’s lighting remind us that we are in an Indian jungle butting onto human villages, villages whose relations with the water-holes and vegetation around them both nurture and threaten. It’s probably not a show for very young children, but it is one to provoke thought.

After all, that’s what story-telling has been doing for millenia.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Jungle Book continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 24 March with matinées on 22 and 24 March. The tour also includes the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 10 and 14 April.

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Guesthouse

reviewed at the Assembly Rooms, Dedham on 16 March

There’s a very interesting play embedded in the current version of Nicola Werenowska’s Guesthouse. It will take some further excavation, and the use of a very sharp scalpel, to disinter it.

East Anglia’s seaside towns are among those in the coastal areas of England affected by holiday-habit changes. Many find themselves unable to compensate economically with alternative employment and development prospects.

The guesthouse of the title is in Clacton. It’s owned by Val (Amanda Bellamy), who ran it in the town’s heyday with her late husband. Now she is recovering from a fall and wants to sell the house.

Her needy daughter Lisa (Clare Humphrey) – who has made quite a mess of her life so far – and Lisa’s daughter Chloe (Eleanor Jackson) – who has been brought up by her grandmother and is equally demanding in a different way – see the logic but aren’t prepared to act on it.

Tony Casement’s production drags out the first act, the one which is most in need of that scalpel, within a simplified domestic setting by Anna Kelsey. Chris Howcraft’s projections take us outside and into the past as well as the present but don’t quite make their intended effect.

You can sympathise with Val, who has done her best to swim with her personal tides of change. Bellamy delivers her soliloquies to engage the audience with the character’s history.

Lisa is a different matter. She’s not quite done with the past, as Humphrey makes clear, but has no stamina for the present, let along the future. Jackson’s Chloe is a spiky sort of young woman; she’s a possible survivor albeit a damaged one.

Touring any play to the variety of venues lined by for this spring Eastern Angles production presents its own set of problems. Audiences in one place may not – unless they find the characters and situations particularly engrossing –really enter into the playwright’s vision.

In its present form Guesthouse seems both a dramatised documentary and a family saga. The two strands may yet come properly together, but the scalpel needs to come into play before they knit together as they should.

Three and a half-star rating.

Guesthouse tours until 26 May. Venues include Southwold Arts Centre (22 March), the Seagull Theatre, Lowestoft (23 March), Rattlesden Pavilion (24 March), West Cliff Theatre, Clacton (27 March), St George’s Theatre, Great Yarmouth (6 April), Haverhill Arts Centre (10 April), Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford (17 April), Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh (20 April), Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich (23-28 April), the Little Theatre, Sheringham (2 May), Diss Corn Hall (3 May), The Place, Bedford (9 May), Woodbridge Community Hall (16-17 May), The Undercroft, Peterborough (24 May) and The Cut, Halesworth (25 May).

 

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This House

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 13 March

How is it done? That’s an intriguing question for most people, whether the subject is cookery or politics, plays or cookery. James Graham’s play is based on and in the House of Commons between 1974 and 1979.

It shows us in fictionalised form what happens when Governments with small or no absolute majorities have leaders who fail to keep tight control of the slippery and fluid situations.

We hear about these Prime Ministers (actual or ambitiously waiting) but we are watching the backroom-boys (and occasional girl) of the Whips’ offices as they manipulate Members to achieve those all-important knife-edge majority votes.

Jeremy Herrin and Jonathan O’Boyle’s production emphasises the bear-garden aspect and associated callousness which underpin contentious votes. Acting as chorus is the Speaker (Miles Richardson in Act One, Orlando Wells in Act Two).

Designer Rae Smith uses various on-stage levels as well as the auditorium to draw us into the action. A rock band adds to the surreal effect, but the production’s impact has to rely on the main characters.

Giles Cooper is the eager new recruit to the Tory whips’ office, run with a certain degree of cynicism by old-school William Chubb and businessman Matthew Pidgeon. But it is with the Labour whips, frantically shoring up increasingly wafer-thin majorities, that the real drama lies.

Chief Whip Tony Turner and his energetic deputy Martin Marquez both give fully fleshed characterisations of men who never forget who put them into Parliament – and why. James Gaddas and David Hounslow give fine support while Natalie Grady shows us a young woman developing both confidence and authority.

There are a succession of well-defined cameos and vignettes to remind us that politics at this level is a matter of priority juggling both within the House and outside it.Does a vote count for more than a life?

As befits a play and production of Chichester Festival Theatre, Headlong and National Theatre provenance, it is an object lesson in ensemble. One which has its audience as keyed up with tension as the drama onstage.

Four and a half-star rating.

This House runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 17 March with matinées on 15 and 17 March. it can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 8 and 12 May.

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Kindertransport

reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 10 March

History is a plant with deep roots; it is impossible to eradicate it. Diane Samuels’ play Kindertransport made a deep impression on me when I saw it 25 years ago and this new production by Anne Simon, though very different, is also effective.

It’s an apparently simple story. Helga (Catherine Janke), a Jewish mother in Hamburg sends her daughter away just before 1939 blankets Europe in war’s lethal fog. The journey itself with its restrictions and policing guards is shown as frightening and Eva (Leila Schaus)’s arrival in England to be taken in by Lil (Jenny Lee) is also shown from the child’s point of view.

Haunting the action is the legend of the rat-catcher of Hamelin who led away all the town’s children in the 13th century, a much less benevolent figure than the pied piper of the sanitised version. Simon and designer Marie-Luce Theis conjure this nightmare figure (Matthew Brown) as a predatory mass of humps and tatters prowling around the periphery of the action.

This takes place on a central stage, basically the lumber room of the house now shared by Evelyn (Suzan Sylvester) and her about-to-leave-home daughter Faith (Hannah Bristow).  Faith is in two minds as to whether to go – though the house is already on the market – or to stay, which her mother finds both tiresome and unsettling.

Faith then starts looking into trunks and boxes, and the past suddenly enters the foreground. The three generations of women – Lil, Evelyn and Faith – each have to confront and come to terms with the past, the present and likely futures.

The performances are excellent with the contrasting facets of each woman’s characters sparking into focus as the drama unfolds. We’ve all been a frightened child and an adult doing the best that is possible in particular circumstances. Many of us have also been required to make life-changing decisions, often at very short notice.

For this production, the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch has joined with les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg in association with Selladoor Productions. The international tour reminds us that world changes have their own repeat cycle. Those refugee children of 80 years ago have their counterparts today.

Four and a half-star rating.

Kindertransport runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 24 March with matinées on 15, 17, 22 and 24 March. It can also be seen at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 17 and 21 April.

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Great Expectations

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 6 March

Plays and novels both tell us stories, though in different ways. The crucial thing for any adapter of a novel as a play is to be faithful to the sense of the source. S/he can use the novel’s dialogue to reinforce authenticity, but what to do with extended passages of description and lengthy recounting of events passed?

Ken Bentley’s version of Dickens’ Great Expectations for Tilted Wig in Sophie Boyce-Couzens production captures the atmosphere very well – with considerable aid from designers James Turner (set and costumes), and Richard Williamson (lighting). Ollie King’s music is appropriate and atmospheric.

Where adaptation and theatricality let the audience down are just those narrative passages; some seem interminable. The cast of eight, all with two exceptions playing several rôles, does its best to give them variety, but cannot help that overall feeling of sag.

Séan Aydon makes a credible Pip, giving us all the lad’s rough edges as he fumbles his way through to apparent fortune and maturity. Nichola McAuliffe’s Miss Haversham is a scintillation of white tatters, combining the pathos of the jilted woman’s dementia with an aura of sinister manipulation.

Two of the nicest people to whom Dickens and Bentley introduce us are blacksmith Joe Gargery and lawyer’s clerk Wemmick. Edward Ferrow does them proud. Both Eliza Collings’ Biddy and James Camp’s Herbert Pocket offer well-rounded portraits of simple goodness and honesty.

Daniel Goode’s Magwich is a properly frightening creation as is James Dinsmore’s Jaggers. Isla Carter doubles Molly, the murderess who Jaggers assists to cheat the gallows and Estella, that dangerous star flaring so brightly in both Pip’s and Miss Haversham’s colliding worlds.

Perhaps too many of us know Great Expectations too well; it has been dramatised and filmed many times. Dickens was persuaded to change the ending, potentially to satisfy his readers who would have originally read the novel in weekly installments. I’m not sure that these second thoughts were better ones; Bentley missed a trick here.

Four star rating.

Great Expectations runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St edmunds until 10 March with matinées on 7 and 10 March. The national tour includes the Palace Theatre, Westcliff between 19 and 24 March.

 

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The Turn of the Screw

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 1 March

Tim Luscombe’s adaptation of Henry James’ ghost mystery novella attempts to leave the questions it poses open to whatever interpretation each member of its audience chooses to place on the characters and situations.

Director Daniel Buckroyd is thus handed a difficult task, for any staging is by its very nature a matter of definition. What we see are flesh-and-blood actors, however insubstantial or even perverse the psychology of the characters they portray.

Sara Perks’ setting offers a sequence of arches stretching back to mirror the theatre’st own proscenium. Within these there are minimal furnishings – a table, chairs, a rocking-horse, a hat-stand. Across the back, projections and Matt Leventhall’s lighting take us outside the house at Bly.

Central to the action and never off-stage is Carli Norris as the Governess. We meet her first in middle-age, apparently being interviewed by Mrs Conray (Annabel Smith) for a new post. But it her first engagement, at Bly, about which she is most pressingly questioned. Why is revealed by the disclosure that Mrs Conray is the adult Flora.

That gives Smith the opportunity, which she takes, to show us the assured matron secure in society as well as the dissatisfied girl on the cusp of womanhood. Michael Hanratty plays the man-about-town who employs the Governess, turning her head with his attentions to her as a woman while off-loading responsibility.

Hanratty also plays Miles, the young boy with an angelic face who may – or may not – have been expelled from school for good reasons. He gives us another well-contrasted dual portrait. Housekeeper Mrs Grose is played by Maggie McCarthy as a woman who does her best but ultimately has limited authority.

Always in the background – literally so in this production – are the two dead former employees, the governess Miss Jessel and the valet Peter Quint. We see them mainly as shadows, ambiguously credited in the programme as Jen Holt and Tom Macqueen. Understudy here is a word which can be taken many ways.

It all holds together as a piece of theatre, but it’s one which never quite delivers as much as it promises thus leaving a sense of dissatisfaction. Or should that be seen as unfulfilment?

Three and a half-star rating.

The Turn of the Screw runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 10 March with matinées on 3, 8 and 10 March. It is then on national tour until 26 May.

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Cinderella

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 27 February

The essence of a fairy-tale is that it has neither time nor roots to ground it. So Matthew Bourne’s riff on Cinderella takes place not n 16th century Germany, nor early 18th century France, nor even the early 19th century of Rossini’s opera but London during the Blitz.

Bourne and Etta Murfitt keep the basic elements of the story – the daughter turned into a drudge by her father’s second wife and her children, the intervention of a quasi-supernatural force to bring her to the man who will marry her – but translates the family and the price into characters we recognise from the classic iconic films dealing with the Second World War.

Prokofiev’s score has been prerecorded and transformed into surround sound (Paul Groothuis and Brett Morris) as at the cinema. The colour palette used by Lez Brotherston (set and costumes) and by Neil Austin (lighting) and Duncan McLean (projections) is predominantly monochrome.

The cast I saw is led by Ashley Shaw as Cinderella, Liam Mower as the silver-clad Angel who guards and guides her – and will go on once the happy ending is achieved to work magic for another disconsolate soul – and Dominic North as the wounded pilot Harry.

Fine characterisations also come from Dan Wright as the foot-fetish stepbrother and Mark Samaras as his youngest brother. Madelaine Brennan’s Stepmother, drink- and man-obsessed with a protective attitude to her own brood that leads her down increasingly nasty paths, is equally eye-riveting.

Shaw, both as the drudge and the beautiful young woman has the measure of the turns and lifts Bourne gives her which echo the angularities of the score. it is a cast which acts as well as dances, well demonstrated by North, Brennan and Mower. 70-odd years ago is for most of us an era vanished into smoke. But what else is a fairy-tale, even an adult one?

Four and a half-star rating.

Cinderella continues at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 3 March with matinées on 1 and 3 March.

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Filed under Ballet and dance, Reviews 2018

Strangers on a Train

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 26 February

It’s deservedly a classic of its genre. Craig Warner’s stage adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s first crime novel is literate and dramatically at ease in its multitudinous settings. Director Anthony Banks and designers David Woodhead (sets and costumes) and Duncan McLean (video and projections) have done it proud.

That also goes for the performances, led by Chris Harper as Charles Bruno and Jack Ashton as Guy Haines. Harper has the flamboyant measure of the footloose ne’er-do-well with an over-indulgent mother (the excellent Helen Anderson) and a father who keeps him on a tight financial rein.

Ashton as the visionary architect attempting to shed an unfaithful wife in favour of marriage to Anne Faulkner (Hannah Tointon) paces the moral disintegration of a man likely to lose career and marital happiness through one moment of weakness impeccably.

The tension builds as one crime begets another. Quietly knitting together the shreds of information he has painstakingly gathered is John Middleton’s Arthur Gerard, the investigator originally retained by Bruno senior and kept on by his (now) widow.

Good cameos of Haines’ colleague and the friend who offers him a chance to build his dream white bridge in Canada come from Owen Findlay and Sandy Bachelor. It’s a story without a hero – just two anti-heroes (one of whom so desperately tries to evade the rôle) – and the people swept up in their wake.

Overall, the heroes of this production are the designers’ visual ones. Stylised reality sometimes works better than a simulacrum. This is the case with this production.

Four star rating.

Strangers on a Train runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre as part of a national tour until 3 March with matinées on 1 and 3 March.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

Gallowglass

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 20 February

Gallowglass is one of the psychological crime novels which Ruth Rendell wrote under the name of Barbara Vine. It weaves numerous threads into the web of its story. It is a tale about the effect of the past on the present and adapter Margaret May Hobbs is skillful in the way she draws us into the mystery.

We begin on one of Paddington Station’s Underground platforms. Joe Herbert, a young drifter is about to thrown himself under an incoming train but is prevented by Sandor Wincanton. He’s a young man on the graft in more ways than one, with a moneyed as well as troubled background.

The developing relationship of dependency between these two opposites is well brought out by Joe Eyre (Sandor), all black-clad educated arrogance, and Dean Smith (Joe), one of life’s malleable nonentities. Smith has the more difficult of the two rôles to sustain and gathers our sympathy as Joe is swept ever deeper into Sandor’s plans.

Central to these is former model Nina Abbott (Florence Cady). Nina is now the wife of an older wealthy East Anglian landowner, the second such match she has made. In the course of her previous marriage she had suffered a horrendous kidnapping; the fear that history might repeat itself sears both herself and her husband Ralph Apsoland (Richard Walsh).

As protection for her he hires Paul Garnett (Paul Opacic), a man who has to make a stable home for his young daughter Jessica (Eva Sayer) while sorting out the fallout from his failed marriage. Then there’s another appointee to the Apsoland staff – Colombo (Matthew Wellman) who doesn’t quite to fit in.

Sandor’s doting mother Diana is also on the periphery; Karen Drury gives her gullibility pathos in her two scenes. Joe’s foster-sister Tilley is a far more lively and brash personality; Rachael Hart gives this young woman in a camper-van a sharp edge, of the sort born from experience.

Director-designer Michael Lunney sprawls the fast-moving action through fast-changing locations with a judicious use of scenes played in front of projected backgrounds with appropriate sound effects (White Tip Media) alternating with realistic room settings split across the stage.

It does keep the action – and therefore the tension – fast-flowing but perhaps inevitably never quite allows the fullness of the characterisations to mature. For example, Cady’s Nina seems almost a shadow in her own drama and Walsh’s Ralph remains a conventional two-dimensional country toff. Opacic and Eyre break out of this mist, perhaps because their parts have more of an extended edge.

Four star rating.

Gallowglass runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 24 February with matinées on 22 and 24 February. The Middle Ground Theatre Company tour is also at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff (Southend) between 24 and 28 April.

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Teddy

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 19 February

“The world is bigger than the Walworth Road”. In 2018 it’s all too easy to forget just how distant the horizon was for the young people of 1958. The sort of trips abroad which are a regular event for so many of school age weren’t even a pipe dream.

London was still pock-marked by the Blitz bombing, the old certainties had crumbled with it but work prospects for school-leavers were largely narrow ones. Single-parent families were another war by-product with fathers never returning from active service.

Tristan Bernays and Dougal Irvine’s musical Teddy takes us into that vanished world. One in which money (mainly in the form of a parental weekly dole-out of shillings and pence) was in short supply but the Teddy Boys and their girl-friends still made the most of it.

This Watermill Theatre musical directed by Eleanor Rhode is the latest in a succession of small-scale shows to go on tour. Central to the action is the eponymous Teddy (George Parker) who preens and postures in his second-hand frock-coat and the girl he takes up with.

She’s called Josie. Molly Chesworth shows us how much the screen glitter of a Hollywood lifestyle – luxurious Cadillacs, endless sunshine, beautiful and pristine beaches – becomes an obsession, leading both her and Teddy into dangerous territory.

The two play all the parts, including the louche bully boy who can’t work out how on earth Josie could possibly not fancy his attentions. Those early rock’n’roll sounds are provided by a four-person band at stage right and become characters in their own right.

Dylan Wood is the lead singer with musical director Harrison White, Freya Parks and Andrew Gallow. Tom Jackson-Greaves’s choreography is energetic and in period, and the designers Max Dorey (set), Christopher Nairne (lighting) and Holly Rose Henshaw (costumes) add to the atmosphere.

Four star rating.

Teddy runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 24 February with matinées on 21 and 24 February. It can also be seen at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 19 and 24 March.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & opera, Reviews 2018

Rope

reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 17 February

Pride goes before a fall. Arrogance can lead to the long drop. This new production by Douglas Rintoul of Patrick Hamilton’s classic suspense drama Rope makes that very clear.

Mark Dymock’s lighting combines with the sense right from the opening sequence of the events onstage being played out in real-time combine to create an unnerving atmosphere. There are laughs generated by witty, almost akin to Wilde, dialogue as well as by some of the characterisations.

But we are never left in doubt that Bandon’s charm is precariously draped over a ruthless, immoral personality. George Kemp balances both aspects impeccably. His adversary is war-wounded Rupert Cadell, a man  left with a limp and a combat-induced sense of right and wrong.

Sam Jenkins-Shaw makes the man who is in many ways the author’s mouthpiece into something of an early 20th century equivalent of one of the 17th century’s Civil War Ironsides. He brings out that Cromwellian sense of justice as well as his impatience with the Bright Young Things living in and for the present.

They are personified in Fred Lancaster’s Raglan and Phoebe Sparrow’s Leila Arden. Lancaster brings out the innate decency of this apparently lightweight socialite while Sparrow’s portrait of a flapper also lets us see he good manners and helpfulness under the posturing.

Brandon’s weak link is his partner in crime. James Sutton’s Granillo is an excellent study in a weak man growing ever more desperate as the enormity of what he has been made to do increasingly weighs him down. There are also three well-contrasted cameo performances.

These come from Cara Chase as Lady Kentley, still ignorant mother of the victim, Nico Pimparé as the servant Sabot – his meticulous laying out of the supper is a joy to watch – and Janet Amsden as Mrs Debenham, Lady Kentley’s monosyllabic poor relation.

insidious throughout is Yvonne Gilbert’s soundscape with the muted telephone bell, the crackly wireless searched for dance music and the weather outside Brandon’s bachelor flat. Ruari Murchison has furnished this cleverly, from the up-to-date Art Deco sideboard and reproduction Renaissance chest to the Victorian chaise longue and chairs.

Four and a half-star rating.

Rope continues at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 3 March with matinées on 22, 24 February, 1 and 3 March. The co-production transfers to the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich from 7 to 17 March.

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Art

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 15 February

This new tour of Yasmina Reza’s play is directed by Ellie Jones with a starkly white set by Mark Thompson and intriguing lighting by Hugh Vanstone that suggest the timeless-placeless quality which is so cleverly brought out in Christopher Hampton’s translation.

Art is the story of three long-time friends in modern Paris whose relationship is suddenly tested when one of them, Serge (Nigel Havers), buys a contemporary painting which at first glance is simply a white canvas.

Neither fellow-professional Marc (Denis Lawson) not the third member of the trio, not-so-successful businessman Yvan (Stephen Tompkinson) can bring himself to approve.

Marc’s taste is conventional; Yvan’s appreciation of art is limited to his own father’s amateur efforts. Neither wish to offend their friend; neither can disguise that the acquisition not simply leaves him cold. Marc’s reaction is more confrontational; Yvan has his forthcoming wedding on his mind with the extended family disagreements this has brought to the surface.

It’s beautifully paced, with a snap-scond timing which never falters. Marc’s mounting frustration at being unable to convince Serge that he’s wasted his money and (what’s worse) damaged his standing with his closest friends as a result is beautifully nuanced by Lawson.

Havers communicates Serge’s equal sense of having his artistic judgement queried and belittled; urbanity can be only skin-deep in certain circumstances. Tompkinson makes the most of Yvan’s own frustration – this is not really to do with art of any kind. Rather it concerns his family tussles over the wording of the wedding invitation with his mother and stepmother battling for precedence.

His extended tirade (in the proper French sense of the word) deserves the round of applause is receives. The play’s quietly open ending is underlined by the final sequence, when the white painting, after its own adventures, is finally hung. You are left feeling that this is certainly not the end of the story.

Things swept temporarily under the carpet have a nasty habit of re-emerging at inopportune moments.

Five-star rating.

Art continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 24 February with matinées on 17, 22 and 24 February. The national tour runs until 9 June  and includes the Norwich Theatre Royal (23-28 April) and the Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton (14-19 May)

 

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

A Brave Face

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 8 February

Post Traumatic Stress is a fact of both military and civilian life. The former also impinges on the latter.

Family, friends, employers and the medical profession all attempt to deal with a person whose life has been blistered by experiences they can scarcely understand and which are outside (for the most part) their personal acquaintance.

Vamos Theatre under its founder-director Rachael Savage specialises in full-mask mime. As in classic Greek theatre, the mask both hides the identity of the actor and allows each audience member to make of the character portrayed what he or she will.

Mime makes us concentrate – there are no words to distract from what we are seeing. This full-length production does have sound, created and mixed by Janie Armour and Adrian Northover. Carl Davies’ sets and costumes with Mark Parry’s projections and Russell Dean’s masks draw it all together.

The story is simple enough. Two young men Ryan (James Greaves) and Jimmy (Sean Kempton) join the Army in 2009. Ryan’s mother (Angela Laverick) and young sister Katie (Joanna Holden) see them off on this life-changing adventure.

It takes them to Afghanistan, completely alien in culture, faith and politics to th men of their platoon. Khatera (Holden) is a young village girl, with much the same teasing attitude to Ryan as his kid sister back at home.

Then something happens in the village. Something so traumatic for Ryan that he sins his life out of all control. Discharged, he can’t settle to a job, brushes his mother and sister aside and sinks so deep into depression that the pills prescribed by an overworked doctor seem to offer the simplest way out.

Does he take it? That you have to find out for yourself. It’s important to remember that, though the theme is serious, the staging has its lighter-hearted moments. Camaraderie is understandably a support mechanism.

Most evenings show us British and Allied troops coping with strange places and even stranger customs. Atrocities do occur; it’s difficult for the lay person to place these in true context.

At the curtain call, the cast take off their masks to reveal their own faces. It is a strength of Savage’s meticulously researched production that we feel we know the person behind the mask more completely than the performer when bare-faced.

Five star rating.

A Brave Face is at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester also on 9 February. The national and international tour until 30 May includes the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich ( 23 February), the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds (23 April), Hertford Theatre (1 May), the Mumford Theatre, Cambridge (2 May), the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford (5 May), Stantonbury Theatre, Milton Keynes (11 May) and the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford (12 May).

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Filed under Circus & physical theatre, Reviews 2018