Category Archives: Reviews 2018

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

Teechers

reviewed at the Norwich Playhouse on 6 February

The debate about education has long deep roots; they probably stretch back to the first lessons which passed on wisdom of various kinds from the experienced to their juniors.

John Godber’s 1987 play within a play Teechers is therefore as relevant to 2017 as at any previous time and, regrettably, likely to be so for the future. Adrian McDougall’s production for Blackeyed Theatre is energetic and admirably suited to school-age members of the audience.

Those of us with academics of various sorts in the family have heard this debate many times, and I have seen several previous productions. This one is loud and suitably brash with the three performers bringing clarity to the teenagers and adults they portray.

Scott Jenkins’ choreography is precision-sharp as three tables and chairs all-but take on a life of their own as scene intercuts with scene. Rosalind Seal obviously relishes the part of Mrs Parry, the head of a school in special measures who has taken care to send her children to a much grander establishment.

Then there’s Nicole Black as a collection of pupils with rampant hormones, and at least one teacher also in need of a mate. Between Seal and Black’s gallery of characterisations one understands why their view of the future is so bleak that they want to blot it out with the present.

A drama teacher fresh out of college Jeff Nixon is the lamb thrown to the wolf-packs of Whitehall High School. Jake Adley shows us how his ideals gradually blunt until he eventually accepts the superior post offered by the well-equipped, properly-funded dedicated-staff prospect offered by nearby St  George’s School.

So, what place have the arts in the average school curriculum when the emphasis is weighted towards “core” subjects and a school’s prosperity rests on its examination results in those subjects? If you’re reading this review of a dramatised debate about education, then I’m probably preaching to the converted.

The question remains, how do we convert the non-believers? School parties tends to be on the side of the arts already. Perhaps whole tranches of heads, administrators, school governors and funders at national, regional and local levels could be bussed in to Teechers – and then examined on the play and its messages…

Four star rating.

Teechers is at the Norwich Playhouse also on 7 February and then on national tour until 29 March including the Stantonbury Theatre, Milton Keynes (19-20 February, the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (26-28 February), the Key Theatre, Peterborough (5 March), the Towngate Theatre, Basildon (8-9 March), the Mumford Theatre, Cambridge (12-13 March) and the Broadway Theatre, Letchworth (14 March)

 

 

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Pressure

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 5 February

D-Day – 6 June 1944 – is one of those dates branded into the national consciousness. David Haig’s play Pressure takes a lesser-known aspect of the event, but arguably the most crucial. it concerns the accurate forecasting of the weather between 4 and 6 June.

As in all good conflict dramas, there are balanced opposing sides. General Eisenhower, as Allied Supreme Commander, had the responsibility for timing the Normandy invasion force with maximum effect and minimal life loss.

He relied on the forecasting skills of Colonel Irving P Krick, who had also worked for Hollywood, most notably with the timing of some of the most spectacular scenes in Gone With the Wind. The British specialist was Dr James Stagg. a dour Scots meteorologist with Group Captain status.

Krick, with his Clark Gable moustache, comes over as plausible, if pig-headed in Philip Cairns portrait of the man. One of the strengths of John Dove’s production is the way that Haig’s characterisation of Stagg never plays directly for our liking, let alone understanding, until the man’s innate integrity draws us into sympathy. Almost in spite of ourselves.

The fourth important character is the Irish driver and assistant Kay Summersby. Laura Rogers shows us a woman at war on more than one front. Her relationship with Eisenhower is something of a pipedream; she has been trailed in the wake of greatness, but that – as Rogers suggests – is a path with no defined ending.

All the drama – political, military, professional and personal – comes to a head in the second act when strain and both physical and mental fatigue allow the human sides of the three main characters to emerge. It’s superbly paced, notably by Malcolm Sinclair’s portrait of Eisenhower but also as Stagg clings on to his one certainty.

That’s his belief that there will be a ferocious storm in the Channel on the original D-Day date. As his wife goes into labour, we watch the cost of duty threaten to swamp his human need to be with his wife (her previous labour had also been difficult).

The past, in LP Hartley’s phrase, may be a foreign country where they do things differently. The skill of Haig’s play and Dove staging of it as that we, the audience, can step into that vanished world and for a time feel ourselves truly part of it.

Five star rating.

Pressure runs at the Cambridge Arts theatre until 10 February at the start of a national tour which continues to 24 March.

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Birdsong

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 1 February

A largely re-cast revival of Rachel Wagstaff’s revised stage version of Sebastian Faulks’ novel has just started a national tour. it’s the fourth , and we’re told, the final one. Tim Treloar returns in dominant form as Jack Firebrace, the First World War sapper recruited from his peacetime job as a tunneller for London’s underground network expansion.

Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters’ production uses Victoria Spearing’s two-level, multi-location set to take us from the grim reality of trench warfare along the Somme in 1916 to the apparently idyllic world of prewar Amiens. Only apparently – for industrialist René Azaire is a dictator alike to his children and his wife.

Madeleine Knight is Isabelle, the abused trophy wife who captures the heart of Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay), who is sent to Amiens by his guardian to learn about mechanical innovations in 1910 and who finds himself six years later newly commissioned and on the front line.

The worlds of Firebrace and his fellow Tommies and that of the learning-on-the-job officers who command them are both distant and close. Wraysford has lost Isabelle and Firebrace knows from his wife’s letters that their only son John is in hospital with diphtheria, a near death-sentence in those days before antibiotics. They clash before each man recognises part of himself in the other.

It is subtly staged as flashbacks illuminate the grim confined present. James Findlay’s violin and melodeon playing shadows the action as the miscellany of characters step momentarily out of the underground doom to reveal fragments of their past life and personalities.

Treloar and Kay dominate and are thoroughly convincing. Knight’s Isabelle is overly subdued, in contrast to her precocious daughter Lisette (Olivia Bernstone); she may be the nominal heroine of the story but seems reluctant to step fully into its limelight. Women of all the combatant countries at home suffered, and this Faulks emphasises. But it was their menfolk who paid an even heavier price for what we now know was a short-lived peace.

Four star rating.

Birdsong runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 3 February with matinées on 1 and 3 February. The tour also includes the Cambridge Arts Theatre between 14 and 19 May.

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Sunset Boulevard

reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 29 January

This tour of Nikolai Foster’s Curve production of what is arguably the darkest of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals has the advantage of a script and lyrics from Don Black and Christopher Hampton which combine the important merits of fitting the characters as well as the story and its situations.

It is based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film about a former star of the silent screen who cannot come to terms with an industry where the visual element shares – and often yields – importance with spoken dialogue. Ria Jones gives a convincing performance as Norma Desmond, mewed up with her memories in the decaying splendour of her mansion on Sunset Boulevard like Dickens’ Miss Havisham.

Jones has the stage presence as well as the vocal strength to make us understand why Norma as turned in (and on) herself. Her equally formidable co-stars are Adam Pearce as Max von Meyerling, the factotum who we learn is so much more, and Danny Mac as the penniless hack script-writer who lets himself be sucked into their twilight world.

Around these three a 12-strong ensemble peoples the stage with characters as colourful as the studio world they inhabit at so many levels. Molly Lynch has the voice and personality for Betty, the girl who wants to write screenplays and who offers Joe a possible route back into the studios.

Adrian Kirk conducts a 12-person orchestra, reinforcing this as something much nearer to one of those diva-led 19th century operas which (with the right cast and production) still command our attention. The design team – Colin Richmond (set and costumes), Ben Cracknell (lighting) and Douglas O’Connell (video and projection) – swirl us through the different locations with the aid of staircases and the shimmer rather than the concrete of furnishings.

“In my end is my beginning” is a motto attributed to Mary Queen of Scots. This bitter-sweet tragedy has the same trajectory. Unlike so many straight films given the staged musical treatment, this one works from its first notes through a succession of arias and choral set pieces to its savage climax. What’ more, the audience knows it.

Four and a half-star rating.

Sunset Boulevard runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 3 February wth matinées on 31 January and 3 February. I also plays at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich between 5 and 10 March.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & opera, Reviews 2018

Cirque Enchantment

reviewed at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon on 26 January

This show really does live up to its title. There have been a number of spectaculars around over the past few years, some of which seem over-loaded with symbolism and even pretentious. This one has a framing device – a young girl reading a fantasy story and singing “Over the rainbow”. Here dream adventure takes her to a strange world which mingles pleasure with pain.

Dreams have a habit of flowing into nightmares just before waking. So there arer elements of Alice’s adventures down the rabbit-hole as well as through the (violently splintered) looking-glass. The beings she meets include a dominatrix singer, spangled-masked, who is both mentor and adversity.

Apart from the succession of orthodox circus skills our girl-dreamer encounters as she negotiates her way through what you could regard as an allegory of growing-up, Cirque Enchantment’s strength lies in the costuming and lighting. From the opening silver and white sequence, colurs mutate through the rainbow with sequins, feathers and flowing drapes of shimmering fabric cleverly lit to fill the stage without crowding it.

There are aerial displays, juggling, some magical work with hoops, juggling on and off a unicycle and bars which all succeed in a natural flow and contribute to the story lne. I can’t give you the names of individual performers or designers, as the company doesn’t offer programmes with this information. That’s a pity, as it’s a company which deserves an informed audience.

Four and a half-star rating.

Cirque Enchantment plays at the Hertford Theatre on 27 January, at the Lighthouse Theatre, Kettering on 16 February, the Marina Theatre, Lowestoft on 23 February and the Grove Theatre, Dunstable on 25 February.

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Filed under Circus & physical theatre, Reviews 2018