Category Archives: Reviews 2018

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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Filed under Music Music theatre & opera, Plays, Reviews 2018

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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Awful Auntie

reviewed at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich on 19 September

Ghost legend? Morality tale? Horror story? All and any of these for a young audience? It was to be David Walliams’ Awful Auntie. The title character really does live up to her name as she tries to take over the ancestral home from its rightful owner.

Neal Foster’s stage adaptation doesn’t try to simplify the issues involved. Young Lady Stella Saxby wakes from an induced coma to find her parents dead and her father’s sister Alberta trying just a little too obviously to obtain the deeds to the family estate – we’re in the 1930s, by the way.

Doors creak, Alberta’s tame Bavarian owl Wagner menaces, there’s an elderly butler Gibbon straight out of Dracula and a 19th century chimney-sweep materialises in the coal store.

Set and costume designer Jacqueline Trousdale, sound designer Nick Sagar, special effects designer Scott Penrose and puppet maker Sue Dacre make sure that we’re caught up in the drama.

The setting is basically four towers which revolve to display various locations and their rabbit-warren of secrets. Visually it makes the actors work pretty hard to make their own impact, especially when Wagner ((Roberta Bellekom) and an enormously long (and lazy) dog are concerned.

Georgina Leonidas makes a sparkish heroine, every bit as obstinate as Richard James’ ferocity as Aunt Alberta. Harry Sutherland dodders engagingly as Gibbon, and Ashley Cousins’ Soot offers a sense of what his short life must have been like, passed from an orphanage to an inhumane master.

Touring shows, such as this Birmingham Stage Company one, have to adapt rapidly to the acoustics of the theatres they visit. For my taste, on the opening night in Ipswich, the actors were over-miked  almost to the point of distortion.

This is a pity, because it’s one of those shows which give pleasure in many ways to the older members of the audience as well as to the youngsters.

Four star rating.

Awful Auntie runs at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich until 23 September with matinées on 22 and 23 September. It also plays at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 8 and 10 November.

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My Mother Said I Never Should

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 17 September

History repeats itself – but always adds a twist, a different dimension. So Charlotte Keatley’s 1987 play about the mothers and daughters of one family over four generations has its own reverberations in 2018. Not to mention the 30 years in between.

Bek Palmer’s design for Michael Cabot’s new London Classic Theatre production emphasises the wasteground – that bombed-out corner of a not-yet reinvented Manchester which serves as a playground for the young and an ever-visible reminder of young hopes never realised.

It’s an ingenious device and transforms with great simplicity into the houses and gardens which the four women occupy between 1940 and 1987. A husband with a good job, a house and children were top of the wish-list in those days before the 1960s blew it all apart.

Doris (Carole Dance) and Margaret (Connie Walker) tread the conventional route. Jackie (Kathryn Ritchie) and Rosie (Felicity Houlbrooke) take different tracks, but only because there is always the fall-back safety net which the traditional provides.

Walker and Dance are both excellent as the two women who have expected more than life was ever really going to offer them, but are learning that the hard way. Ritchie’s Jackie and Houlbrooke’s Rosie are both free spirits yet as earthbound as kites which need the right sort of wind to become airborne.

Four star rating.

My Mother Said I Never Should runs as the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, with a matinée on 19 September, until 20 September. it can also be seen at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 30 and 31 October and at the Key Theatre, Peterborough between 1 and 3 November.

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Once

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre. Ipswich on 11 September

There are advantages to not being a film fan; one comes to the current stream of stage adaptations without preconceptions. So Once, in Edna Walsh’s version with the music and lyrics of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, has to stand on its own merits.

Peter Rowe’s production at the New Wolsey Theatre is a shared one with Hornchurch’s Queen’s Theatre. Libby Watson, who often works at the Queen’s, has devised a setting which combines realism (Dublin pubs, work places and shared homes) with fantasy.

Another Queen’s regular, Mark Dymock, and projection designer Peter Hazelwood complement her setting. These characters are people partly trapped by the endless plodding of everyday existence – but who still have aspirations. And dreams.

The hero is simply called the Guy, as in Everyman. Daniel Healy makes him likeable, as he works in his father’s shop and struggles to make his way as a composer-performer with his guitar and help-hindrance from his mates.

When he encounters the Girl (Emma Lucia), a Czech national trying to balance life and responsibilities in both her own country and this new (to her) one, their attraction is mutual. She has a job in a music shop, and also composes.

So you think you know where this is all going? Wrong, very wrong. it’s a story in some way out of time, like a medieval morality play or a legend with even older, deep roots. That visual sense of fantasy in the designs is not there just to engage our eyes.

Francesca Jaynes is the choreographer, creating both Irish and Czech folk-dance inspired set pieces. Musical director Ben Goddard makes the most of the most effective numbers – the Girl’s own solos at the piano, the Dubliners’ a capella anthem, the women’s voices trio and what one might define a the Boy’s prize song.

The Girl is the quiet pivot for what happens – and might happen, later. Lucia gives her a luminous quality and a gentle stillness which is never mere inactivity. Rachel Dawson and Kate Robson-Stuart also make a lasting impression. Susannah van den Berg, Sean Kingsley and Samuel Martin also give good performances.

Four star rating.

Once continues at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 22 September with matinées on 12, 15, 19 and 22 September. It transfers to the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch between 3 and 20 October with matinées on 4, 6, 11, 13 and 20 October.

 

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The Height of the Storm

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 10 September

Time shifting is a well-established dramatic device. Florian Zeller’s The Height of the Storm makes it more a matter of time slipping, something which is not confined to those on the brink of what used to be called senile dementia.

André in his heyday was a towering creative personality. Now his world is confined to the book-filled house and over-growing garden he shares with his wife Madeleine. Their daughters Anne and Elise watch their father crumble, mentally if not physically.

A high-quality residential home is one solution, but the house will need to be sold to fund it. In their different ways, André, Madeleine and Anne fight shy of this option, though Elise – whose current boyfriend is an estate agent – sees things differently.

The translation is by Christopher Hampton, and director Jonathan Kent allows the text space to breathe. Anthony Ward’s design include a front gauze onto which a negative projection of skeleton twigs and branches suggests both fragility and uncertainty.

Jonathan Pryce as André gives a marvellously nuanced performance of an intellect crumbling in a body which is itself fragmenting from the charismatic lover and intellectual of the past. You can see why Madeleine has always supported him.

This wife is no cipher or shadow to a male genius, as Eileen Atkins makes clear;  Madeleine’s absences, whether temporary forays to cull herbs or otherwise, leaves a void. Atkins, even more than Pryce, is the pivot upon which the whole play depends.

Amanda Drew’s Anne and Anna Madeley’s Elise are well-contrasted studies in latent sibling rivalry; neither is completely selfish nor completely honest. The discordant quartet is joined by Lucy Cohu as a woman from André’s past and James Hillier as Elise’s lover.

There is no interval with just that gauze with its unnerving suggestion of vulnerable delicacy to indicate scene breaks. Audience chatter during the first such interlude had faded into silence by the last one. Were we all looking into our own futures? Perhaps.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Height of the Storm runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 15 September before transferring to Wyndham’s Theatre.

 

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Madagascar: A Musical Adventure

reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 3 September

“Be careful what you wish for…” runs the wise old saying. This musical stage adaptation of the animated film Madagascar directed by Kirk Jameson is a visual treat while gently sounding a hot of ecological and sociological messages.

As lion Alex (Matt Terry, zebra Marty (Antoine Murray-Straughan, hippopotamus Gloria (Timmika Ramsay and giraffe Melman (Jamie Lee-Morgan) discover when they make their initial escape from New York’s Central Park Zoo, human-beings react differently towards wild animals on display and when on the loose.

Duly sedated and crated up, they find themselves on Madagascar, where food doesn’t just deliver itself and there is a distinct animal pecking-order. This is headed by ring-tailed lemur King Julian (Jo Parsons), who makes up in ferocity for his diminutive size.

The dancing is very good and suitably athletic – Fabian Aloise is the choreographer. Tom Rogers’ designs for the animal costumes and puppets, and his simple but effective crate-based settings, suggest the different species and locations with a clarity which leaves room for the audience’s imagination to elaborate.

Mischievous monkeys and platoon-regimented penguins manoeuvre their own ways to security, whether within the confines of a zoo or returned to their native habitat. It’s one of those shows aimed at children which adults can also appreciate. Proper family entertainment.

Four star rating.

Madagascar: A Musical Adventure runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 8 September with matinées on 4 and 8 September. It is also at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich between 16 and 18 October.

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Abigail’s Party

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

This new co-production between the Queen’s Theatre (now with a major renovation project in hand), Derby Theatre, Wiltshire Creative and le Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg slides Mike Leigh’s iconic 1970s drama east of London.

Director Douglas Rintoul is well served by designer Lee Newby as we enter the new-build home of estate agent Laurence (Christopher Staines) and his former beautician wife Beverly (Melanie Gutteridge). Her main evening drinks party guest is newcomer nurse Angela (Amy Downham) the not-so-trophy wife of former footballer Tony (Liam Bergin).

Also invited are middle-age, middle-class divorcée Susan (Susie Emmett) whose teenage daughter is holding the eponymous party. It’s a recipe for disaster amid the cheesy-pineapple sticks, nuts, olives and far too many gins’n’tonics. Disasters duly occur.

The hallmark of a theatre classic play is that it speaks as strongly to audiences who may not have been born when it premiered as to those like myself who saw the original production at the Hampstead Theatre. It does require a cast which can live up to it.

Gutteridge’s Beverly radiates bleached and toned blonde selfishness, happy to play off Bergin’s laconic Tony against an increasingly frustrated Laurence. She dominates the action, as Leigh intends. Staines builds the husband who can never satisfy his wife’s material demands into a figure of near-tragic proportion.

Poor Susan is the fish-out-of-water in this particular bowl; Emmett makes her increasing physical and mental discomfort subtly apparent while Downham witters away, apparently willing to be a foil for Beverly’s cattily “helpful” comments on her appearance.

Rintoul keeps the action at a brisk pace, while allowing us to appreciate the basic absurdity of Leigh’s characters. None of them are merely two-dimensional stereotypes, for all that they are each rooted in a particular trench of class and finding shovelling a way out of it difficult.

Four and a half-star rating.

Abigail’s Party runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 22 September with matinées on 6, 8, 13, 15, 20 and 22 September. A companion piece, Abi by Atiha Sen Gupta, plays between 4 and 22 September at 9.30pm on 4, 5, 8, 14, 20 and 22 September, at 4.30pm on 6 and 15 September and 5.30pm on 19 September.

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Oklahoma!

reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 30 August

Few musicals of the 1940s have stood the test of time with repeated revivals. Oklahoma! by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II passes with flying colours. Catherine Lomax directs this new Gordon Craig Theatre production which treats it as the musical play – rather than operetta or musical comedy – intended.

Her musical director Rob Scott takes his 15-piece orchestra through the score with panache, from the brisk overture through the mock-solemnity of “Poor Jud is dead” to the lyricism of “People will say we’re in love” and “Oh, what a beautiful morning!”.  The large cast act, sing and dance (choreography is by Khiley Williams and Philip Joel) with skill and energy.

Carrie Sutton makes an attractive Laurey, the girl who finds herself with one suitor too many. Lisa Bridge’s Ado Annie is engaging and has a memorable laugh which is part irritated cockerel and part aggravated hyena. Jeremy Batt leads the male dancers as Will Parker, sort-of-rivaled by Joe Leather’s pedler Ali Hakim.

There are also good portraits from Alice Redmond as Aunt Eller and Ian McLarnon as Ado Annie’s father. Joshua Gannon has a strong if not subtle voice and his Curly is very credible. Villain of the piece is Jud Fry and Connor Ewing makes the most of both his brutality and the sense of isolation which fuels it.

No designer is credited for the costumes or the set which transforms between four locations in the course of the action. it works very well, as does Peter Kramer’s lighting. For my taste, sound designer Luke Hyde has overdone the use of mics diminishing the graduation of sound as the story unfolds.

Four star rating.

Oklahomo! runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 8 September with matinées on 1, 6 and 8 September.

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The Merchant of Venice

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 29 August

Gender-, age- and colour-blind casting is an excellent thing. In theory. In practice it can be incredibly distracting unless made logical by the drama itself. The three comedies which Brendan O’Hea has directed for Shakespeare’s Globe on Tour this summer use only eight actors, most of whom double or treble rôles.

Designer Andrew D Edwards doesn’t really clarify anything with his costumes; the set is a stark matter of two-level boarding with metal supports. The cast play and sing the Bill Barclay’s music in the course of the action and to top and tail the show.

Shylock is the dominant character in The Merchant of Venice. Sarah Finigan offers both the man’s bitterness as a Venetian second-class resident and his certainty of his own righteousness as a Jew, a family man and a money-lender. She speaks the lines admirably with a full sense of what they mean.

That is also true of Russell Layton’s Antonio, brooding as much on possible sexual frustration as for the vulnerability of his trading ships. Rhianna McGreevy as Nerissa, Steffan Cennydd as Lorenzo, the Prince of Aragon and the Doge and Jacqueline Phillips’s Portia are also good.

It’s a play which, however well you think you know it and have experienced a variety of productions, should concentrate the audience’s attention on its tangle of themes. Racial stereotyping is certainly one; whether the power which money brings is inhibiting or a force for good/evil is another.

Concentrating on this is difficult when you are distracted by a young woman playing a middle-aged man or an imbalance of age with two of the wooing couples. That androgynous costuming doesn’t help. You can parallel how plays toured in the late 16th century, but we see with 21st century eyes and listen with 21st century ears.

Simplicity of staging should allow an audience to focus directly on the play. As with all such things, simplicity is a transparent and fragile shield. What is revealed is all-important. For me, this production distracted just as much as an overly elaborate or time-shifted one.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Merchant of Venice plays in repertoire with The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 1 September. There are matinées on 30 August and 1 September.

 

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Goodnight Mister Tom

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 28 August

David Wood’s stage version of the book by Michelle Magorian, in Karen Simpson’s production percolates the music of the Second World War as a counterpoint to the story of on small boy’s evacuation from London to the countryside.

William Beech (Jasmine Briggs) is not a happy child. His embittered mother has twisted her stark religion and personal frustrations into a strap with which – quite literally – she lambasts her son. His bruises are both external and internal.

Billeted on elderly widower Tom Oakley (Roy Hudd), his life begins to change around. Initially the sport of his new schoolmates (he can neither read nor write, but can draw), he slowly becomes integrated into village life and in the process makes friends.

Chief among these proves to be another evacuee. Zach (William Ennew). Zach is a thorough-going extrovert with parents who are both professional actors. There is also Tom Oakley’s dog Sammy, a life-size border collie puppet very well operated by Julia Cave.

The incidental music is directed by Pat Whymark and very well sung and played by the Theatre Royal’s Young Company. Hudd makes a thoroughly enjoyable Oakley, mourning his long-dead wife and their baby son with quiet dignity, and completely credible in the way his relationship with William develops.

As Mrs Beech, Sarah-Louise Young is unrelenting in her portrait of a woman who is her own worst enemy. The first half drags just a little bit, but picks up pace after the interval. Alison Heffernan’s set whisks us from London to the countryside; its splintered wooden planks suggest both rural weatherboard cottages, the bleakness of Mrs Beech’s home and the aftermath of the Blitz.

Four star rating.

Goodnight Mister Tom runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 8 November. There are matinées on 29 August, 2 and 8 September.

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An Officer and a Gentleman

reviewed at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich on 27 August

We all have dreams, and nightmares. Sometimes they come true. The stage musical version of the 1982 film  has a book by Douglas Day Stewart and Sharleen Cooper Cohen with songs from the original orchestrated by Tom Marshall directed by Michael Riley.

This touring production by Nikolai Foster originated at the Curve in Leicester. It has a flexible set – ladders, some furniture – by Michael Taylor and relies mainly on Ben Cracknell’s lighting and Douglas O’Connell’s video to take us between the naval training facility and the paper factory where the main characters work.

For a 2018 audience, one of the most interesting of these is Casey (Keisha Atwell), the girl who breaks one type of glass ceiling with her determination to become a naval navigator. Both Paula (Emma Williams) and Lynette (Jessica Daley) are equally frustrated by their monotonous work with no chance of real promotion.

They have different escape routes, though. Atwell shows Casey’s dogged determination, which wins her the respect of her fellow trainees and even of the hard-bitten sergeant Foley (Ray Shell), who drives his latest recruits to  breaking point.

In the case of Sid (Ian McIntosh), the strain is exacerbated by his romance with Lynette, prepared to go a step too far to secure a future. Both Daley and Williams have strong voices as well as making both the contrast and the similarities in the two girls clear.

Jonny Fines’ Zack is another troubled soul who joins up to escape both the no-end gangland culture sucking him in and the bitterness of his former petty officer father Byron (an excellent cameo by Darren Bennett),

You can’t have a musical without movement. In this instance it’s Kate Prince’s choreography which provides both the energy of the different dance venues in which out young people find themselves and the athleticism as well as precision of the military drills and exercises – not to mention the fights.

This variation on An Officer and a Gentleman has visual style, talent and integrity. I’m not so sure about its heart. That, for me at any rate, remained slightly two-dimensional.

Three and a half-star rating.

An Officer and a Gentleman runs at the regent Theatre, Ipswich until 1 September with matinée performances on 30 August and 1 September.

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Miss Saigon

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 17 August

This touring production of the Boublil and Schönberg musical Miss Saigon is a spectacular affair. So much so that the story – a transposition of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly to the frenetic conclusion of the Vietnam conflict – can seem lost in the precision of the choreography and the kaleidoscope of effects.

Sooha Kim is moving as the girl adrift in 1975 Saigon who falls in love with an American soldier Chris (Ashley Gilmour) and finds herself trapped by an émigré nightmare in Bangkok from which there is only one exit.

Dominating the action is the night-club boss with his fingers in a whole mess of very sticky pies known as the Engineer. Christian Rey Marbella swashbuckles his way into the audience’s attention; he provides a classic example of the villain who steals the show.

Two characters with more principles, albeit radically differing ones, are Chris’s comrade John (Ryan O’Gorman) and revolutionary Thuy (Gerald Santos). Elana Martin’s Ellen, Chris’ American wife, has a strong personality as well as a good voice.

Miss Saigon is through-composed and the score is well supported by a fifteen-piece orchestra directed by Matthew J Loughran. “It’s all done with smoke and mirrors” runs the adage, but in Laurence Connor’s production, the special effects and lighting make the saying come true.

Five star rating.

Miss Saigon runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 15 September with matinées on 18, 22, 25 and 29 August and 1, 5, 8, 12 and 15 September as part of a national tour.

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Fiddler on the Roof

reviewed at the Frinton Greensward Tent on 14 August

A blue and red striped circus tent pitched on Frinton’s iconic Greensward makes an ideal place in which to stage a musical which sets impermanence against traditions.it is an indoor space which protects from but never can quite blocks out the world outside.

Edward Max’s production  of Fiddler on the Roof puts an unusual spin on Aleichem’s Tevye stories about the Jewish community of Anatevka in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century.

He reverses the idea of a story about small people helplessly manipulated by the puppet-masters of Heaven and the Tsarist régime and makes the destruction-minded official Russian authorities into actual puppets. The dead grandmother and wife of the dream sequence are also rod puppets.

The musical director for the fifteen-strong cast – most of whom also play musical instruments and have strong singing voices – is Michael Webborn with Darius Thompson as the eponymous fiddler.

Beth Colley’s setting of jagged wooden struts suggests the isolated rural location while Neil Gordon’s costume designs employ an earth-coloured palette, with the exception of matchmaker Yente (Claire Greenway)’s black bombazine.

The lighting design of Adam Carree takes us from day to night, winter to summer with a particularly effective shadow play for the candle-lit Sabbath supper. If the puppet design is down to Colley, then whoever taught the various cast members to manipulate them also deserves proper credit.

Dougal Lee’s Tevye dominates the story, as he should. His almost fanatical sense of tradition balances with an equally powerful sense of God’s omnipotence; there are times when you want to shake modernity into the man, but you can’t help admiring his stubbornness.

Golde, Tevye’s wife adds her own dose of practicality; their lives are after all subject to whims and decrees from far-off St Petersburg. Laurel Dougall gives us a proper sense of this as she comes to terms with the very different aspirations of her three older daughters.

Eleanor Toms as Teitzel, who prefers tailor Motel (Laurie Denman) to wealthy widower Lazar (Stephen John Davies), is the first to fly what is becoming a constrictive nest. Second daughter Hodel (Leah Penston) is happy to join Perchik (Ifan Gwilym-Jones) in his political radicalism, even if theat means exile to Siberia.

Sister Chava (Rebecca Ferrin) makes the most disruptive choice of the three – gentile revolutionary Fyedfka (Rob Gathercole).All three pairs cope well with their musical numbers and also convey a real sense of what are sometimes conflicting feelings.

Choreographer Gabriella Bird has a real sense of folk and country dance and these numbers go with a proper swing and exuberance. Overall it’s a production which would not disgrace a larger stage and a lavishly-funded company. In the interests of clarity, though, I would suggest modifying those over-heavy Jewish and Russian accents.

Four and a half-star rating.

Fiddler on the Roof runs at the Frinton Greensward Tent until 19 August with matinées on 16 and 19 August.

 

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Perfect Nonsense

reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 13 August

The Goodale Brothers’ PG Wodehouse confection based on the Jeeves and Wooster characters is an ideal choice for Suffolk Summer Theatres. It is a light-hearted whirl of seaside candyfloss; its audience has to do nothing more strenuous than enjoy its daftness.

Mark Sterling’s production has a clever set by Tory Cobb which emphasises the cartoonish characters and plot. Its folding screens keeps the action moving from various town and country houses to the shops and rural roads of 1928 England.

There are three actors of whom Rick Savery (Jeeves) and Morgan Thrift (fellow butler Seppings) take on the dozen other characters our dim-witted hero Bertie Wooster (Tom Girvin) encounters.

Girvin is the fall-guy in this tale of a cow-creamer, a thwarted love affair and the intervention of various forces of the law. He radiates just the right level of gormless good-nature.

If Savery’s succession of bullies – including one who would stand in for Giant Blunderbus in any production of Jack and the Beanstalk – is hilarious, they are topped by Thrift’s unflappable Jeeves, simpering Madeline and short-sighted Gussie.

The summer weather may have resumed its traditional mix of sunshine and showers but there are indoor treats on offer along the Suffolk coast.

Four star rating.

Perfect Nonsense runs at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 18 August with early evening performances also on 16 and 18 July. It transfers to the Southwold Arts Centre between 20 August and 1 September with matinées on 21 and 28 August and additional early evening performances on 23, 25, 30 August and 1 September. There are no Friday performances n Southwold.

 

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Love Virtually

reviewed at the Frinton Summer Theatre on 7 August

How do you carry on a 21st century love affair? Romantic entanglements used to be fuelled by the exchange of letters. Nowadays it seems all to be an electronic business.

That’s the theme of Daniel Glattauer’s two e-epistolary novels Love Virtually and The Seventh Wave.They have been translated by Katherina Bielenberg and Jamie Bulloch and become an international hit.

Eileen Horne’s stage adaptation for two live actors, a variety of projections, many costume changes Neil Gordon) and the ubiquitous smartphones and laptops keeps the “will she? won’t he?” keeps the tension taut. This is the UK première.

Emma/Emmi has a devoted older husband Bernard and two stepchildren. Leo has one of those digital jobs which seem to have proliferated at the same time as technological wizardry. He as a sister and an on-off girlfriend.

It all begins when Emma (Annabel Wright) grows increasingly frustrated with her attempts to cancel a magazine subscription. Leo (Oliver Le Sueur) is the recipient of her mounting anger. Somehow this then becomes a more friendly exchange.

If you think you can see where all this is heading – think again. It’s a very European take on a story, for all the transposed London setting. Beth Colley’s designs work splendidly; there is a proper sense of distance even though the McGrigor Hall stage is a narrow one.

Wright is very good as Emma/Emmi, with her life unravelling online as well as on the ground. Le Sueur is a trifle too subdued, not to say inaudible, as Leo. Director Clive Brill has a Skype-style cameo as Bernard which emphasises that reality hurts.

Four and a half-star rating.

Love Virtually runs at the Frinton Summer Theatre until 11 August with a matinée on 11 August.

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