Category Archives: Reviews 2018

Mischief Movie Night

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 19 June

Success has its flip side, and it’s very easy to access that. Improvisation can be hugely theatrically rewarding, as Adam Meggido’s Showstopper! productions demonstrate. Meggido is the consultant on Mischief Theatre’s successor to The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong.

Even with an ensemble used to working together, this is dangerous territory. Scripts can’t really an anchor-point for Mischief Movie Night, which relies on a sequence of cobbled-together to “improvise” a film based on the audience’s suggestions. “Plants” among us try to steer the whole thing, not always successfully.

We end up with a murder mystery set in a municipal baths. Corpses soon proliferate, as do nods in the direction of disaster movies and classics such as Psycho. Songs and dance also play their part. It’s all great fun, but at times you can see too much of the struggle behind the mirth.

After the interval we’re in easier territory – the tryout for an evening of magic. Needless to say, the self-proclaimed mind mangler makes a hash of his act, with the aid of audience volunteers. There’s also a girl in a box enacting a variety of creation myths while managing not to be sawn in half.

This part worked much better for me than the movie-manufacturing act. I felt that the performers were much more in control of their material so able to draw the audience into the joke more subtly. After all, a joke is only funny if evenly shared.

Three and a half-star rating.

Mischief Movie Night continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 23 June with matinées on 21 and 23 June.

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The Case of the Frightened Lady

reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 18 June

Edgar Wallace’s 1931 play was an early example of those which have an investigative policeman at the heart of the action. His Chief Superintendent Tanner, as Gray O’Brien makes clear from his first entrance, is not a man to be trifled with.

His assistant Detective Sergeant Totti (Oliver Phelps in his stage début) is no mere sidekick but an active contributor to unravelling the murderous mess in which they become involved.

It all begins with a fancy-dress party at the home of the autocratic dowager Lady Lebanon (Deborah Grant). Her son (Ben Nealon) may have inherited the centuries-old title and the heavily restored family seat, but balks at settling down to responsibility.

That includes marrying his attractive but impoverished cousin Isla Crane (April Pearson), the title character. He is also at odds with most of his mother’s staff. They, to put it mildly, are an odd bunch.

Gilder (Glenn Carter), butler Kelver (Philip Lowrie) and housekeeper Mrs Tilling (Rosie Thomson) have their own spiky variations on one-upmanship. Denis Lill’s Dr Amersham is not quite the genial friendly practitioner initial impressions might suggest.

So it goes on in violence. Adapter Antony Lampard and director Roy Marsden keep the action flowing with scenes of activity intercut with personal verbal exchanges. The trouble is that we in the audience are so busy following the plot that we end up thoroughly bemused.

The transitions are akin to those in a novel or even a film. Lighting designer Chris Davey uses subtle shifts of light to indicate them but even so doesn’t really clarify anything. It’s all of its inter-war period but tries too hard for 21st century relevance.

Costume changes proliferate, with some neat touches to indicate status and seniority. Wallace knew his craft and perhaps it should simply have been taken as he wrote it. You can’t fault the actors; everyone takes it at proper face value. But it just doesn’t work.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Case of the Frightened Lady continues at the Palace Theatre Westcliff until 23 June with matinées on 21 and 23 June. It is also at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds between 30 July and 4 August.

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Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em

reviewed at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich on 12 June

The popular television series of this title written by Raymond Allen ran during the 1970s, and it’s in this era that writer and director Guy Unsworth has set his new comedy.

As you may recall, accident-prone Frank Spencer manages to be sacked by a whole series of employers while his cack-handed attempts at home improvements constitute a separate recipe for disaster.

The role is a gift for any flexibly-limbed comedian, and Joe Pasquale takes full advantage of every opportunity. Around such a stealing performance, the supporting cast needs to work very hard to take a proper share of the limelight.

Sarah Earnshaw’s Betty, Frank’s long-suffering wife, manages to be something of a scene-stealer, from her opening exchange with parish priest Father O’Hara (David Shaw-Parker) through to the final dénouement.

Then there’s Betty’s mother, Mrs Fisher (Susie Blake), who has shed her husband to take up with bank manager Mr Worthington (Moray Treadwell); she’s a sultry battle-axe of a throughly recognisable kind.

Among Frank’s less likely get-rich-quick schemes is to develop his “magic” act to the extent that the BBC comes calling. I won’t spoil the plot turns for you; but simply say that nothing is quite what it seems…

Chris Kiely plays the policeman who eventually descends on the mayhem, as well as the BBC cameraman; Treadwell has a nice cameo as his boss Mr Luscombe.

Arguably the real stars of the show (Pasquale’s performance aside) are designer Simon Higlett and those under-sung heroes, the stage management team.

Lights flash and flicker, music centres blast out, kitchen appliances blow up, staircase banisters tumble while legs detach themselves from chairs and sofa on cue. It’s all great fun, whether you remember the original or come fresh to it all.

Four star rating.

Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em runs at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich until 16 June with matinées on 12 and 16 June. It can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich (9-14 July) and the Palace Theatre, Westcliff (24-28 July).

 

 

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Whisky Galore

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

Compton Mackenzie’s novel about the 1941 foundering of a ship which was bound for the USA with a cargo of prime whisky is probably best known in its 1949 Ealing film comedy version Whisky Galore. Philip Goulding’s stage adaptation adds its own twist.

We therefore find ourselves watching not just a play with the 26 characters all played by seven actors but one being staged by the Pallas Players, an all-woman troupe based on the Osiris Players.

The scene, as visualised by director Kevin Shaw and designer Patrick Connellan, is a co-operative hall in 1955, occupied by a flexible set of packing-cases which transform into rostra, hillocks, cars and anything required. The cast wears buff-coloured breeches and stockings, topped by a colourful array of bonnets, coats, kilts, shawls, skirts.

Behind is a map of the two Outer Hebridean islands Great and Little Todday where the action of Whisky Galore takes place. They’re clannish sorts of places, in more ways than one, with a distinctly cavalier attitude to incomers, such as the Waggetts.

Waggett is a pompous know-all, overly immersed in his command of the Home Guard. The leftward-leaning schoolmaster, Dr Maclaren and the priest Fr Macalister have all however been assimilated without overt mockery.

Two young couples find that the path to matrimony is not necessarily a smooth one. George Campbell is kept firmly under her thumb by his dour widowed mother, who refuses to meet his beloved Catriona Macleod.

Her sister Peggy is also being wooed, by serviceman Fred Odd, who has just come home on leave. Their shopkeeper father Duncan is also something of a martinet. All these diverse characters offer opportunities to the cast, which they seize upon.

Christine Mackie’s Mrs Campbell is the stand-out performance, closely followed by Isabel Ford’s Waggett and Lila Clements’ George. The gender-swapping throughout is as thoroughly credible as that I remember from the real Osiris Players.

It’s all affectionate without a whiff of send-up, but the action does take some time to pick up momentum. Too much so, especially during the first half. Clever touches, such as the visible gramophone for sound effects and the rolling hills, don’t really fill this gap.

Three and a half-star rating.

Whisky Galore continues at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 9 Jun with a matinée on 9 June.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 5 June

Deconstructed Shakespeare. There’s been a lot of it about, possibly as a reaction to the bardolatry of the quatercentenary. From the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith and Filter Theatre comes Sean Holmes’ addition to this new canon.

How much you enjoy this Midsummer Night’s Dream overall, I suspect, is largely up to your appetite for transposed stand-up comedy and popular cult-figure spoofing  leavened with elements of the traditional pantomime.

There’s a band (music by Chris Branch and Tom Haines), modern costuming and a set which suggests a dilapidated rehearsal-room (Hyemi Shin). Not to mention “audience interchange”, both planted and spontaneous.

Some of the glosses on the central story work very well. Bombastic Theseus has his mirror image in Oberon’s unsuccessful attempts to be Superman. Dogmatic Egeus (here Hermia’s mother rather than her father) transforms into an occasionally fallible stage-management Puck.

Bottom (that “audience plant” I mentioned) transforms into an ass straight out of  Apuleius’ Metamorphoses by sound and gesture rather than an animal mask. Hippolyta, so buttoned-up as Theseus’ bridal trophy, transforms into a sex-hungry diva as Titania.

The close girlish affection between Hermia and Helena dissolves credibly into bitchy squabbling and carpenter Peter Quince, bossy impressario for the craftsmen, is a natural double of the compère who greets us then gravitates automatically to any available microphone.

As performers, you cannot fault the cast, including the versatile musicians. They all throw themselves (frequently quite literally) into everything required of them. The sense of undergraduate spontaneity carries absolute conviction. It works on its own terms, but on a “love it or hate it” basis.

Three and a half-star rating.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 9 June with matinées on 7 and 9 June.

 

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Europe After The Rain

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester on 31 May

On the beach… beached up. Either way this is an emotive phrase. it balances the good, even the thoroughly enjoyable, against a sense of desolation, of being abandoned.

That is presumably why director Cara Nolan and designer Amelia Jane Hankin have set Oliver Bennett’s first full-length play – which won the theatre’s 2017 playwriting prize –  on a sand-strewn surface with minimal furniture and a background which suggests taut fishing lines or the bars of a lobster pot.

At the start, this space is inhabited by three people. Will (James Alexandrou) seems to be its proprietor. Marta (Natasha Kafka) and her mother Yana (Anna Koval) have joined him; it transpires that they are Ukrainian refugees.

The time is the future, perhaps not-so-distant. Ukraine has been re-invaded by Russia. Populist (for which read right-wing) governments are everywhere taking power. Even in Britain, if the election we understand to be currently underway so dictates.

Enter Max (Simon Haines), a free-spirited, free-wheeling sort of man. His arrival is the trigger for personal, as well as political, revelations. There are crescendos of violence, very well spaced by the cast, but little sense of plot development running parallel to the personal.

Kafka’s Marta, using electronic media as a substitute for human interaction, is a recognisable type. So is Koval’s Yana, one of life’s born survivors.

The men are more formulaic, though Alexandrou shows us Will’s suppressed volcano of frustration, one for which he can find no verbal vocabulary. Haines’ Max is in many ways Yana’s masculine counterpart, though he lacks her innate integrity.

It all holds attention while it is being acted out before us. The compressed format, though it sustains tension, might perhaps not be diminished if expanded by another half-hour or so. That would allow for more background for both the characters and their political world.

Three and a half-star rating.

Europe After The Rain runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 9 June with evening performances on 2-9 June, an early evening performance on 1 June and matinées on 2, 7 and 9 June.

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The Be All and End All

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 23 May

May used to be a month of celebration. Nowadays it is the month of examinations – those make-or-break tests upon which depend young people’s futures, not to mention their parents’ hopes.

That’s the searing theme of Jonathan Lewis’ new play, in which he leads the four-strong cast as junior Cabinet Minister Mark. He and his publisher wife Charlotte (Imogen Stubbs), in remission from cancer, have ambitions for their son Tom (Mstt Whitchurch) which have Cambridge as a vital stepping stone.

Their trouble is that Tom, a typical teenage bundle of energies and personal aspirations, would rather prefer to work in the arts. Caught up with her own desires, both personal and professional, is Tom’s girlfriend Frida (Robyn Cara). Resolutions prove to be costly affairs, in which more than money and morality are involved.

Director Damian Cruden ratchets up the tension as a series of confrontations builds to a climax. It’s very intense, and Natasha Bertram’s stylish set abets this; these are adults who live in high-profile goldfish bowls, which is not necessarily where the younger generation finds a comfortable environment.

Whitchurch’s performance is central to the York Theatre Royal’s production success with the audience. Most of us have come across someone like that in our family or personal circle. Cara’s is a much more ambiguous character, bringing out a degree of social – as well as financial – insecurity.

One’s heart goes out to Charlotte in Stubbs’ portrait of a career woman who knows she is living on borrowed time. Faced with her pair of strong-minded men, she gives us a woman being shredded emotionally as well as physically.

Mark is another multifaceted personality, with his carapace of success vulnerable to both Parliamentary and personal pressures laid bare. Lewis shows us just how unpleasant, ruthless and selfish such a person can be.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Be All and End All runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 26 May with matinées  on 24 and 26 May.

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Love From a Stranger

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 22 May

“Beware an enemy bearing gifts” warned the Trojan. Agatha Christie and Frank Vosper’s psychological thriller Love From a Stranger might be summed up as: beware charismatic men with a camera offering an intriguing past and a rose-tinted future.

Cecily (Helen Bradbury) is letting her London flat as she prepares to marry Michael (Justin Avoth) on his return from a lengthy duty-stint in the Sudan. Her garrulous aunt Louise (Nicola Sanderson) is all for this sensible match. Cecily’s best friend and flat-mate Mavis (Alice Haig) is more ambivalent.

Enter a prospective tenant, newly arrived from North America – Bruce (Sam Frenchum). Cecily is swept off her feet (literally) with the inevitable consequences. However, Act Two – which sees the newly weds in a Sussex cottage – doesn’t go according to plan, or to the audience’s expectations.

Not for nothing has Christie been dubbed the queen of suspense. Lucy Bailey’s direction paces it accordingly, with Mike Britton’s shifting sets, Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and Richard Hammarton’s soundscape emphasising the instability of the relationships we see being played out.

The cast is very good throughout. Frenchum has the right blend of superficial charm, a projection of mystery and the scarcely-subdued ferocity which underpins it for Bruce. As Michael, Avoth makes what could be simply a caricature of a certain type of buttoned-up Englishman into a real human being who suffers.

Bradbury’s Cecily is another fine study of a woman conditioned to follow convention who then apparently acts upon impulse. We probably have the equivalent of Sanderson’s Aunt Lou-Lou, alternating as a figure of fun and a downright nuisance, in our family circle.

Mavis, in Haig’s portrayal, comes across as a career girl who knows that life doesn’t always shower long-term windfalls. Molly Logan provides an amusing sketch of Ethel, the daughter of gardener Hodgson (Gareth Williams) who comes to work at Philomel Cottage (remember, there’s more to that myth than a nightingale).

A doctor is often a key ingredient in a Christie plot cauldron. Crispin Redman here fulfils the role. And how does the cauldron mixture pour out? Ah, that may not be quite what you were expecting…

Four star rating

Love From a Stranger runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 26 May with matinées on 24 and 26 May.

 

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Hard Times

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 16 May

Northern Broadsides have a winning way with their adaptations of now classic plays and novels. The latest is Deborah McAndrew’s version of Dickens’ Hard Times.

The 1854 original was an indictment of the soulless factory system which blighted so much of recently industrialised England, the less-than-caring entrepreneurs it produced and the mind-numbing routines of rote-learning education and repetitive work.

Into Coketown, dominated by self-made factory owner and banker Josiah Bounderby (a magnificent performance by Howard Chadwick which deservedly takes centre stage), comes Mr Sleary (Paul Barnhill)’s Circus. It’s arrival is particularly resented by retired wholesaler Thomas Gradgrind (Andrew Price).

Price gives a well thought-out characterisation of the man who has founded a school and educated his two children in the service of pure utilitarianism. In their different ways, both young Tom (Perry Moore) and Louisa (Vanessa Schofield) rebel.

The catalyst comes when young Cecilia Jupe, pet name Sissy (Suzanne Ahmet) is sent to the school by her clown father. Ahmet captures Sissy’s dilemmas, torn between the apparent freedom of the circus – which itself requires discipline but carries insecurity – and the stability offered by the Gradgrind household.

Any Dickens story has a supporting cast of grotesques and devious-doers. Here we meet ailing Mrs Gradgrind (Claire Storey), fallen-on-hard-times Mrs Sparsit, Bounderby’s housekeeper (Victoria Brazier) and Mrs Pegler (Storey again), all of whom want more from the men of their acquaintance than they receive.

On the make in very different ways are bored society man Mr Harthouse and snooping bank employee Bitzer (a fine double by Darren Kuppan). Virtue is personified by mill-hand Stephen Blackpool (Anthony Hunt) and his platonic love Rachael (Brazier).

Louisa is lusted after by Bounderby as well as Harthouse, and Schofield gives us a portrait of a young woman stifled between duty and a scarcely comprehended yearning for a wider life – of the mind if not the body.  As Moore shows, Tom is oblivious to anything but his own selfish wants, including alcohol and money.

Conrad Nelson’s direction is fast-moving and his score evokes the place and the period; the musical director is Rebekah Hughes. Designer Dawn Allsopp seconds them with a set which allows seamless movement between locations, well lit by Mark Howland.

There are a couple of stage adaptations of Dickens’ novels currently on tour. If you can only see one – then go for Hard Times. This version brings characters which may b unfamiliar, even formulaic to full three-dimensional life. After all, Dickens wrote a paon to the power of imagination as well as a cracking good story.

Four and a half-star rating.

Hard Times continues at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 19 May with matinées on 17 and 19 May.

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Put Out the Lights

reviewed at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich on 10 May

How far are you prepared to go for your beliefs? It’s as pertinent a question for the 21st century as it was for the early modern period and (then as Now) has an international dimension.

Joanna Carrick’s new history play, the second of a trilogy, centres on three people living just north of Ipswich and begins when Thomas Cromwell was Henry VIII’s Secretary of State and forwarding the dismantling of shrines and religious houses.

We first meet Alice, Alexander and Edward as children. She’s a farmer’s daughter, Edward Driver is a farmer’s son in Grundisburgh and Alexander Gooch is apprenticed to a Woodbridge weaver. All three are literate to some degree and Alexander has access to the Bible in English and to Protestant tracts.

Edward is more inclined to the old Catholic ways; his mother had a particular devotion to the shrine of Our Lady of Grace on Ipswich’s Lady Lane which has just been demolished. We encounter them again as young adults.

Time has deprived Alice of both father and mother and she is struggling to make the family farm survive by herself. Alexander has become more of a religious fanatic as he crosses regularly to Flanders, bringing back a much more fundamental sense of faith.

Marriage to Edward eases one of Alice’s problems. But her increasing attraction to Alexander’s faith, perhaps subconsciously fuelled by a latent attraction, draws her away from Edward’s much more conformist stance.

The young Alice, Alexander and Edward are very well played by Red Rose Chain’s youth theatre – Ellie Allison, Charlie Drake and Ted Newborn. Their adult incarnations are led by Isabel Della-Porta.

She lays bare for us the spiritual journey of a woman prepared to burn rather than submit to Mary I’s attempt to wrest the country back to rigorous Catholicism. Oliver Cudbill radiates Alexander’s fervour with all its charisma and sense of absolute righteousness.

Ricky Oakley’s Edward is a finely detailed study of a man who can understand that reform is needed but would so much prefer to live his life as is most traditional and comfortable. The barn set suggests this sense of timelessness.

The Ipswich Martyrs went to the stake with Protestant prayers; Edward, heartbroken at his wife’s faith, tries to exorcise it with the Ave Maria.

Four and a half-star rating.

Put Out the Lights runs at the Red Rose Chain’s Avenue Theatre, Ipswich until 27 May. There are matinée performances on 12, 13, 19, 20, 26 and 27 May.

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Neighbourhood Watch

reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 9 May

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” – the proverb sums up one of Ayckbourn’s darkest comedies Neighbourhood Watch.  It has been revived in a new production by Catherine Lomax which builds slowly to a dénouement not completely foreshadowed in the prologue.

The climax even so is not necessarily what the audience might expect from the epilogue. Both are spoken  by Catherine McDonough’s Hilda Massie, the devout spinster sister who moved with her sibling to the Bluebell Hill Development some months earlier in search of tranquility and pleasant neighbours.

Martin (Ben Eagle) and Hilda have invited these neighbours to their housewarming, but the guests soon make it clear that this apparent Eden is menaced by a “sink” estate close by.

Most vociferous are retired security man Rod Trusser (Paul Lavers) and former local newspaper contributor Dorothy Doggett (Sarah Simpkins), a woman with a nose for scandalous gossip.

Brash Luther Bradley (Richie Daysh) and his abused (verbally and physically) wife Magda (Elsie Fallon) soon make their presence felt. The Jenners – Amy and Gareth – have a very odd relationship. He is an engineer with an interest of medieval forms of punishment. She is a free spirit and somewhat promiscuous.

Victoria Fitz-Gerald and Adam Storey make the most of these characters as we watch the real personalities emerge from their initial appearances. Egged on by Trusser, Martin starts a Neighbourhood Watch scheme which rapidly segues into downright vigilantism.

Faith and  (a perhaps natural) authortativeness are the keynotes of Martin’s character; Eagle shows us that the man is not simply a study in sharp contrasts but a potentially rounded human being mis-shaped over the years into a partial caricature of what might, and should, have been.

Ayckbourn has made Magda into one of his little white-mouse wives familiar from other of hs comedies with bite. Fallon paces this very well as the women close ranks to succour her. McDonough’s Hilda is a type we have probably all encountered at same point; she shares a sense of worthiness – not to say, downright obstinacy – with her brother.

Four star rating.

Neighbourhood Watch runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 12 may with matinées on 10 and 12 May.

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Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 8 May

In one way, David Edgar’s revised version of the Robert L Stevenson novella strips the story back to its essentials. In another, he plumps it out with the addition of extraneous characters. Other adaptations have given us a fiancée, her father and a faithful friend. This one presents a widowed sister and her two children.

Kate Saxon’s production also has a street singer, wandering high on a gantry above the main acting level in Simon Higlett’s evocative set. Rosie Abrahams with Richard Hammarton’s haunting minor-key take on folk music acts as a type of chorus to the main action.

Nineteenth century London was dark, indoors and out with Thames mists vying with coal-fire induced fogs. Mark Jonathn’s lighting gives us a proper sense of this. Jekyll’s own home is ruled by Poole, his man-servant, to whom Sam Cox gives a suitably forbidding air of authority.

We meet Jekyll (Paul Daniels) as he visits his feminist-leaning sister Katherine (Polly Frame) in the country. She is trying to sort out their late father’s possessions, including books, an antique mirror and a portrait. He is reluctant to clutter his own life, with its experiments, further.

Back in London, Jekyll’s closest friends are revealed as Dr Lanyon (Ben Jones), who feels that mankind’s ills are best cured through social reform, and the more conservative older Utterson (Robin Kingsland). Jekyll, of course, sees the answer as a scientific one, and so proceeds to experiment on himself.

We know how the alter ego these experiments produce – the mentally warped and degenerate Mr Hyde –  wreak havoc on London’s fog-wreathed streets. Utterson is a near-victim, a MP is another and so is Katherine’s servant Annie (Grace Hogg-Robinson) who has taken “refuge” in Jekyll’s house.

All the performances are good, with Daniels outstanding as Jekyll/Hyde, using his vocal range and commanding presence to effect the changes between the two. The story may indeed turn on medical experimentation, with all its potential for evil as well as good.

But there’s also a sense of Manichaeist  and Calvinist inevitability – the sense of light and darkness, of the elect and the rejected – as well as centuries-old superstitions about reflecting the human face which are probably even older. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is meant to trouble as well as thrill us. Here it succeeds.

Four star rating.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 12 May with matinées on 10 and 12 May.

 

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Our Blue Heaven

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 6 May

If you’re an older Ipswich resident with an interest in football, then 6 May 1978 is probably a date etched indelibly into your consciousness. That, for the rest of us, is the day on which Ipswich Town Football Club won the FA Cup at Wembley Stadium.

Obsessions, whether with sport, music or anything else, are very odd things. They have the ability to obscure, even blot out, everything else. Based on actual recollections of the Final and the matches leading up to it from individual fans, Peter Rowe has constructed the stories of three interlocking families.

The central one is the Coombes family. Father Paul (James Daffern) is out on strike, so money is tight and the main breadwinner is his nurse wife Sheila (Sarah Whittuck). Teenage daughter Sue (Anna Kitching) is supportive of her father – and even more so of Ipswich Town. Older daughter Mel (Josie Dunn) is about to get married to Scott (Joe Leat).

He’s the son of better-off Brain Tillotson (Jon House) and his wife Eileen (Nicola Bryan). Then there are the Traynors – football-obsessed Smudger (Dale Mathurin) and his heavily pregnant wife Ange (Katia Sartini), who is under the care of Sheila Coombes. Smudger – whose enthusiasm is enjoyably put before us by Mathurin – has ideas about both the timing of the birth and the names to bestow on the baby.

Peter Peverley plays the inspirational and charismatic team manager Bobby Robson, linking the club’s progress towards that ultimate goal. The other stand-out performance is that of teenage Kitching, a girl trying to balance all manner of conflicting emotions with a slowly maturing sense of responsibility. Actions do have consequences, as she discovers at an away-game against Millwall.

Designer Amy Jane Cook gives us a minimalised setting with Dan de Cruz’s four-piece band on a platform at the rear of the stage. Musically, it’s all very loud, though the a cappella rendition of “Abide with me” in the Wembley sequence has a magical effect.

Rather than attempting a realistic reconstruction of the series of home and away games, choreographer Tom Hobden has created a slow-motion stylised succession of movement pieces, ably performed by the community chorus wearing neutral black and white strips.

Four star rating.

Our Blue Heaven runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 26 May with matinées on 9, 10, 12, 16, 14, 19, 23 and 26 May.

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Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

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

Film to stage show is a trickier combination than it sometimes appears. This is particularly true of musicals. One path to success is to stylise the settings and fully integrate the orchestral accompaniment with the action.

This is what director Douglas Rintoul and designer Joanna Scotcher have done. There’s a false proscenium suggesting corrugated tin, minimal furniture and costumes which rely heavily on black, white and red – not to mention shoals of glitter and gaudy fluff for the drag acts.

Central to the story is Bernadette (Mark Inscoe), the transsexual we meet at her partner’s funeral. Inscoe’s performance has a control that never masks the inner person; this is someone who has encountered nearly everything that life can hurl but keeps a central core of integrity.

Balancing this is Tom Giles’ Tick, the troupe leader who takes them ona cross-country trek to Alice Springs. That’s because his wife Marion (Clara Darcy) wants him to meet his young son Benji (Frankie Day) – oh yes! there is also the small matter of a gap in her casino’s entertainment programme.

The third troupe member is Adam (stage name Felicia), played by Daniel Bailey. he’s the ultimate in camp, one of nature’s stirrers who is bound to find himself in trouble – as he does soon enough in the outback. Bailey’s is one of those over-the-top bravura performances that leave you in two minds – applause wildly, or ring the character’s mischievous little neck.

Musical director Adam Gerber is not evenly served by sound designer Adam McCready; the balance on the opening night was very uneven. Michael Cuckson as Bob, the mechanic who manages to get the tour bus Priscilla back on the road (or as much of a road as there is) and stays along for the ride is an excellent portrait of a simple man with complex feelings.

Four star rating.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert continues as the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 26 May with matinées on 3, 5, 10, 12, 17, 19, 24 and 26 May.

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Pieces of String

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 27 April

Attitudes change from one generation to the next, and it’s easy to forget how recent the past can be. Gus Gowland’s musical play offers us three generations of a family whose house-clearance after the death of a grandfather opens a Pandora’s box of memories, not all of them welcome. Fin Redshaw’s multi-location set suits it very well.

Jane (Carol Starks) is the pivotal character, a woman who has grown a thick shell as she brings up her gay son Ed (Andy Coxon) and with-it teenage daughter Gemma (Ella Dunlop). She cannot tolerate Ed’s boy friend Harry (Gary Wood) and is brusque to the point of rudeness when elderly Rose (Marilyn Cutts) wanders in.

Director Ryan McBryde balances our interest skillfully between these characters. Gradually we learn that, serving in the Second World War grandfather Edward (Craig Mather) had an affair with a fellow soldier Tom (Joel Harper-Jackson). Both men are married – Edward to Anna (Lauren Hall) while Tom has a young sister Rose (Nicole Grumann).

Gowland’s score requires good singing voices, which this cast supplies, while the accompaniment by Pail Herbert, Liz Hanks and Fraiser Patterson weaves in and out of the set-piece numbers without ever overwhelming them. It’s all tuneful – a bonus nowadays – without being particularly memorable, but always fits both the action and the characters.

As the older Rose, Cutts somewhat steals the show; you’re never quite sure whether her presence is benign or mischievous. Dunlop is thoroughly credible as the teenager wanting her own spa ce and to do her own thing. Coxon and Wood also inhabit their characters; Wood’s hurt at Jane’s blatant attempts to freeze him out is chilling as well as salutary.

Both Mather and Harper-Jackson make one sympathise with their sexual and social dilemmas, Harper-Jackson’s Tom being much more open than Mather’s more hidebound Edward. The effect on their womenfolks – Rose’s discovery of the men kissing and Anna’s scarcely perceived and not articulated sense that there is something not quite right in her marriage – is not minimised.

That attitude change reflects in an audience’s reaction, though first-night audiences’ responses are notoriously difficult to assess for validity. Debates about gender, nature versus nurture and generational assumptions and misunderstandings are as old as civilisation, literature and theatre. This is a melodic addition.

Four star rating.

Pieces of String runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 5 May with a matinée on 5 May.

 

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A Streetcar Named Desire

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 25 April

English Touring Theatre (ETO) has chosen Tennessee Williams’ 1947 tragedy as one of its 25th anniversary productions. Director Chelsea Walker has updated the action to 2018 – I’m not sure that the 70-year time leap quite succeeds.

It allows for integrated casting and the casual violence, both physical and mental, dealt out by most of its male characters to the women who (theoretically) they care about is regrettably still with us, But the central character, Blanche Dubois (Kelly Gough) is surely more a person of her time than ours.

Gough gives us all Blanche’s posturing and mood swings as well as the diverse personalities which she inhabits, from the white-clad Louisiana plantation mistress who apparently finds to impossible to accept the way in which her sister Stella (Amber James) is living to the schoolmarm taking a sabbatical to the nymphomanic.

No-one in this New Orleans apartment block lives in  isolation. Stella’s husband Stanley Kowalski (Patrick Knowles) keeps open house for his men friends while their women grab every opportunity to take what fresh air the neighbourhood offers.

Nicole Agada, Maria Louis, Will Bliss and Joe Manjón in these rôles twine above and around the main action like a species of demented Greek chorus. that classic theatre sense of the inevitability of disaster is fostered by Giles Thomas’ subtly persistent soundscape and Georgia Lowe’s minimalist pillared set.

The acting throughout is extremely good; I wish I could say the same for the diction. The opening scenes are taken at a pace which surely leaves the audience desperately trying to catch up, so that at time we seem to be watching rather than listening.

Knowles’ violently masculine Stanley is well contrasted with Dexter Flanders’ Mitch, the mild-mannered well-spoken member of Stanley’s poker quartet. Mitch is the proverbial quiet man who sees no reason to throw his weight around.

There is real tragedy in his exchange with Blanche when he wants her to meet his terminally ill mother (a proposal of marriage coming ever closer) only to be stonewalled by Blanche’s congenital inability to tell the simple truth. She has told him about the trauma of her failed marriage, but is this the whole truth?

Four star rating.

A Streetcar Named Desire runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 28 April with a matinée on 28 April.  The tour includes the Cambridge Arts Theatre between 1 and 5 May.

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Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 24 April

In-Sook Chappell adaptation of the novel Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse is a multi-layered affair. That’s entirely appropriate, for this story of four generations of a Chinese family plays with time.

It begins with Helen (Siu-See Hung), an English-born and -educated lawyer, arriving in Hong Kong, the island her grandmother left just after the Second World War for a new life, sponsored by her home-returning employers. She soon feels she is the proverbial fish out of water.

Trying to make sense of her past and to meld it with her present and an array of possible futures, she is guided through her family’s past by a sort of avatar of her grandmother Lily (Tina Chiang). It’s a story bedevilled by feckless men and the collision of several cultures.

You need at first to concentrate hard in order to immerse yourself in the time-shifted nuances, then the logic – and at times the dreadful inevitability – of the drama sinks in. Food is the unifying factor.

I’m surprised the audience don’t rush onto the stage as the delicious smells from Helen/Lily’s cooker at the opening of the second act pervade the theatre. Those who have lived in poverty or under enemy occupation do tend to fixate on eating.

Jennifer Tang’s direction within Amelia Jane Hankin’s stepped set balances the dramatic levels. Matthew Leonhart plays the two men who think they have power over their wives while Andy Kettu provides contrasted studies of a go-getting young Japanese financier and a brutal Japanese soldier.

Two English women alter the course of Lily’s life – Miss Price and Mrs Woodman. Both are well contrasted by Ruth Gibson. Minhee Yeo and Rina Takasaki complete the cast. Elena Pena’s soundscape reminds us that China is not a silent society.

Four star rating.

Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok continues at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 25 April. It is also at the Key Theatre, Peterborough  between 1 and 2 May and at the Palace Theatre, Watford from 16 to 19 May as part of a national tour which continues until 2 June.

 

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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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