reviewed at the Theatre in the Forest, Wherstead on 3 August
Outdoor theatre attracts mixed-age audiences. That can prove problematic when the show in question is one of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies. The Red Rose Chain has made a specialisation of small-cast visually updated versions; Joanna Carrick’s new production is the latest.
With two global conflict anniversaries hovering in all our backgrounds, this one (like Colchester’s 2016 production) has a Second World War setting. Don Pedro, Claudio and Benedick are all fighter pilots. Leonata is a Woman’s Auxiliary Force officer.
Her daughter Hero is a nurse and her niece Beatrice is a land-girl. Of course, the men of the town’s constabulary and all Dad’s Army clones. The set by Carrick, Jack Heydon, David Newborn and Rob Young shows a camouflaged tunnel entrance, a watch-tower and a Red Cross station. Kathryn Thorogood’s costumes allow for all the required quick changes.
All six actors play two parts. Fizz Waller doubles a mercurial Beatrice with a show-stealing Dogberry. Ricky Oakley’s urbane Benedick reverses into the uncouth Conrade. Haydon’s pliable Claudio becomes an over-the-top Margaret, given to strip-tease.
Oliver Cudbill is an ecclesiastical Don Pedro and pedantic constable Verges. Captive Don John, who sets one of the play’s plot themes running, is a combat-crippled eyesore; a good contrast in characterisations with authoritarian Leonata for Claire Lloyd. Joanna Sawyer gives as much spark as possible to the abused Hero.
“I didn’t write the words” mutters Oakley’s Benedick at one point. No, Shakespeare did – but certainly not all of them in Carrick’s staging. The slapstick, music and jitterbugging both ornament and distract from the drama. But what else can you expect when even the forest birds join in on cue?
Four star rating.
Much Ado About Nothing runs at the Theatre in the Forest, Jimmy’s Farm, Wherstead until 26 August. There are matinées on 4 and 11 August.
reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 2 August
It’s not surprising that Dick King-Smith’s book The Sheep-Pig has won hearts since 1983. The eponymous hero Babe is a heart-stealer, well personified in the realistic puppet ably manipulated by Jonathan Cobb in Katie Posner’s new production of the David Wood stage adaptation for the Mercury Theatre.
You may never have been within touching proximity to a sheep or a pig until it reaches your plate, but farm animals of all kinds have parading before us from earliest childhood, in picture books, bedtime stories and television animation.
Sheep-dog trials have become a television favourite. Is it the unpredictability – so much depends on animal as well as human behaviour? Or is it that they blend a unique combination of scenic location with hard-learnt skills?
Babe’s mentor on Mr and Mrs Hoggett (Gareth Clarke and Heather Phoenix)’s farm is sheep-dog Fly (Jessica Dyas). Dyas establishes a rapport with the young audience from her first entrance as she introduces the bewildered piglet to the other animals.
These include the supercilious cat (Rachel Hammond), the blowing-his-own-trumpet cockerel (Joseph Tweedale and the strutting turkey (James Peake). Not that country life is all sunshine and fodder. it also harbours both human and animal predators.
Among the victims is old ewe Ma (Ebony Feare). The picture-book settings and animal costumes by Sara Perks work well, as does Alexandra Stafford’s lighting; the catchy score is by Richard Reeday.
There are occasions when one feels that adult audience members are there as a sort of penance. This is one of those shows which appeals on all age levels, clever enough to hold grown-up attention while subtly draping the central philosophy of courtesy as well as skill with an almost hypnotic rhythm.
Five star rating.
Babe, the Sheep-Pig runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 26 August with daytime performances.
reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 29 March
Reminding young people, and their elders, that there’s more to a traditional tale than its Disney version is an excellent idea. The sequence of spring musicals devised by Catherine Lomax shows just what can be done if you strip away any pantomime and animation elements.
This Sleeping Beauty is the joint creation of Lomax (direction), Phil Dennis (musical direction) and Khiley Williams (choreography). Connor Norris’ permanent set is medieval with soaring gothic arches and flambeau-bearing towers.
Lisa Hickey’s costumes contrast period realism for the court and townspeople with flower fantasy for the immortals. The good fairies represent spring flowers – Natalie Harman’s Tulip has a jolly-hockey-sticks personality, Francesca French’s Primrose is more sedate while Rebecca Gilhooley’s Bluebell (akin to the Lilac Fairy familiar from the ballet) is quietly authoritative.
In opposition stands Ellen Vereneiks’ withering Narcissus, the Carabosse of this musical. All four have strong voices, easily coping with Dennis’ mixture of bravura singing and close harmony. Abigayle Honeywill’s Beauty, Oliver Stanley as King Favian and Glenn Anderson as Prince Rowan make the most of their individual and concerted numbers.
This production is due to be seen in Chesterfield, Middlesbrough and Skegness when the short Stevenage run closes. This is the sort of small-scale but stylish staging of new work which deserves a wider audience; that in turn means that more attention (which includes money) can be alloted to casting and overall production values.
Four and a half-star rating.
Sleeping Beauty plays matinée and late afternoon/early evening performances until 2 April at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage.