Category Archives: Music Music theatre & opera

Wise Children

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 20 November

Emma Rice’s new company, named for this launch production, has something of the quirkiness which one associates with her previous nest at Kneehigh. It’s a bold, multi-disciplined stage adaptation of Wise Children, Angela Carter’s last novel, and has a suitably exploited show-business background.

The kernel of the story centres on twin sisters, Dora and Nora. They are possibly the fruit of a one-night stand by actor-manager Melchior Hazard  (himself a scion of a sequence of such theatrical demigods) and a music-hall artiste. From the beginning we are made aware of the geographical and genre hierarchy of early 20th century entertainment.

Rice’s production uses Lyndie Wright’s puppets to represent these infant daughters, and later their putative cousins who may have been fathered by Melchior’s brother Peregrine. Adult Dora and Nora act as a species of chorus as the story unravels, played engagingly by Gareth Snook and Etta Murfitt.

As sub-teenagers, brought up by their grandmother Chance (Katy Owen), they are played by Bettrys Jones and Mirabelle Gremaud and later – in their stunning showgirl manifestation by Melissa James and Omari Douglas. Murfitt’s choreography fits the mood and period before us in perfect harmony with musical director Ian Ross’ pot-pourri score.

The younger Melchior is played by Ankur Bahl, who ages into Paul Hunter. Young Peregrine is Sam Archer, maturing (?) into Mike Shepherd. Patrycja Kujawska is Lady Atalanta, Melchior’s well-heeled, well-connected bride of his later years. The on-stage band is supplemented by the actors’ own instrumental as well as vocal contributions.

Yes, if you haven’t read the book, it does at first seem very complicated – a succession of music-hall sketches. Then the sheer theatricality of the presentation, like a succession of finely-executed transformation scenes draws us into its own slightly off-kilter world. Vicki Mortimer’s set and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting aid the journey enormously.

Theatre – whether minimal or elaborate, bare boards and scarce a fistful of actors or backed by a lavish budget and a cast of thousands – is designed to draw us into another world. That can be realistically represented or symbolically suggested. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. What does is its effect.

Wise Children (the company) has given itself something to live up to. That should be fun to watch.

Four and a half star rating.

Wise Children runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 24 November with matinées on 22 and 24 November.

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Filed under Ballet and dance, Music Music theatre & opera, Plays, Reviews 2018

Cendrillon

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 14 November

Some folk- and fairy-tale characters have the images of our first encounters with them so firmly fixed in our minds that it is difficult to imagine them otherwise. In Britain, generations of pantomime productions have further reinforced this glue.

Operatically speaking, Rossini’s 1817 Cenerentola with its philosopher-tutor as the deus ex machina, has been permitted to enter the charmed world of this acceptance. Now the Glyndebourne Tour suggests that Massenet’s 1889 Cendrillon attempts to prise the gates wider open.

If you’ve never seen the opera before, which is almost certainly true of most of us in this country, Fiona Shaw’s production creates something of a bewildering introduction. Set designer Jon Bausor makes the staging a matter of deceptive mirrors (not always helped by Anna Watson’s lighting).

Massenet was a supreme master of lush lyricism – the audible equivalent of art nouveau. The sound swirls around us, both from the orchestra pit under Duncan Ward and the large cast on stage. At times the action (including Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes) is overly distracting.

Lucette, the Cinderella of the title, was sung at the Norwich first night by understudy Jennifer Witton, who thoroughly deserved her curtain applause. Another stand-out performance is that of Caroline Wettergreen as the glinting grey-furred Fairy, tossing off her vocalise in steely Queen of the Night fashion.

Pandolfe is Lucette’s loving but basically ineffectual father, and William Dazeley conveys both aspects of the man, especially in his Act Four scenes with his daughter. A battle-axe guaranteed to slice fierce and hard sums up Agnes Zwierko’s stepmother Mme de la Haltière; she sings as well as she acts.

Librettist Henri Cain and Massenet makes the Prince a breeches role; Eléonore Pancrazi takes us effortlessly into his rôle-seeking teenage world where the boundaries between everyday reality (even for royalty) and scarce-perceived yearning extend yet crumble.

The chorus and the dancers blend seamlessly together, thanks to Sarah Fahie’s inventive choreography. Massenet’s skill is in wrapping a diaphanous web of sound around us. I’m not sure that we also need its mirrored reflexion.

Four star rating.

Cendrillon has another performance at the Norwich Theatre Royal on 17 November and is also at the Milton Keynes Theatre on 28 November and 1 December. It plays in repertoire with La traviata (Norwich on 16 November, Milton Keynes on 27 and 30 November).

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Fame

reviewed at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich on 29 October

Fame is a dangerous as well as elusive will-o’-the-wisp. What does the word really signify? Pre-eminence or notoriety? The pinnacle of achievement or merely its distorted shadow?

Wrapped in a dance-musical about aspiring students at an 1980s performing arts academy in New York, this is the story of young people with hopes and dreams all too aware that most of them are training only to be unemployed.

This new touring production is fast-moving with spirited direction and choreography by Nick Winston. The young cast radiate commitment and create thoroughly believable characterisations as we focus on personal and professional dilemmas.

On the surface Carmen (Stephanie Rojas) has everything going for her. She a talented lyricist as well as performer, but becomes hooked on drugs to enhance her performance.

Budding composer Schlomo (Simon Anthony), lovelorn Serena (Molly McGuire), show-off Joe (Albey Brookes) and chip-on-shoulder Tyrone (Jamal Kane Crawford) are all excellent, as are Hayley Johnston’s Mabel and Keith Jack’s career-dedicated Nick.

Mica Paris as Miss Sherman, a disciplinarian who really does care that her students will have a future and Katie Warsop as dance instructress Miss Bell are the main adults with whom we engage.

Ultimately, this is a show which relies on its younger performers for its impact. They don’t let us down.

Four star rating.

Fame runs at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich until 3 November with matinées on 31 October and 3 November. It is also at the Milton Keynes Theatre between 24 and 29 June as part of an extended national tour.

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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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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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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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Filed under Family & children's shows, Music Music theatre & opera, Reviews 2018

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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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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Polstead

reviewed at the James Hehir Plaza, Ipswich Waterfront on 13 July

Mysteries are multi-faceted affairs. They involve more than the obvious who? why? where? when? questions. Suffolk’s most notorious one is probably that of the murder of Maria Marten by William Corder in 1827.

Most stage versions – and they started as soon as Corder was hanged in 1828 – focus on the melodramatic aspects of the crime. Beth Flintoff’s take on the story is different.

The murder is almost incidental as she focuses on the village itself with all its graduations of social and financial status for local families. This is a rural England much nearer to that of Fielding and Smollett than that of Austen or Allingham.

Parish councils might grumble at the cst of maintaining children born out-of-wedlock but, in an age without contraception, birth was the likely result of regular sexual intercourse. The gentry and the church might disapprove, but farmers needed sons to work the land with them.

So we meet the women villagers of Polstead. A couple have obtained work at “the big house”; most have a back-breaking and soul-destroying régime of domestic chores and field-work. The annual Cherry Fair apart, theirs is a monotonous existence. So girls will be girls, just as boys will act as men can (and do).

Hal Chambers’ direction uses a cast of six actresses to put Polstead before us. Verity Quinn sets a timbered structure at either end of the acting area while two of Maria’s known lovers are subtly played by Bethan Nash and Lucy Grattan – William Corder doesn’t actually appear. Roxanne Palmer’s Phoebe is also a good characterisation.

As Maria, Elizabeth Crarer shows us a girl with ambitions as well as affections while Sarah Goddard as Ann Marten demonstrates the real understanding which develops between Maria and her young stepmother. Lydia Bakelmun glides effortlessly between Lady Cooke (Matthews’ sister) and disgruntled Sarah.

Music haunts this staging, composed by Luke Potter to suggest the timelessness of folk rhythms. Rebecca Randall’s movement sequences flow between the formally choreographed and mimetic. This is a tale of a real place and time far more than just another one of violent death and retribution.

Four star rating.

Polstead continues at the James Hehir Plaza, Ipswich Waterfront until 15 July with matinée performances on 14 and 15 July. It plays also at The Undercroft, Serpentine Green, Peterborough (18-21 July), Manor Farm Barn, Semer (26-28 July) and Debach Airfield, Clopton, Woodbridge (31 July-5 August).

 

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Iolanthe

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 3 July

Musically, Iolanthe is one of Sullivan’s most interesting scores, with extended lyrical, dramatic and comic sequences flowing easily in symmetry with Gilbert’s topsy-turvy plot and tongue-twisting verses and dialogue.

Like most genre classics, the political undertones resonate as much in 2018 as they did in 1882. Sasha Regan’s all-male production is not a straightforward one, though extremely well-sung throughout, with Joe Henry’s Phyllis, Christopher Finn’s Iolanthe, Adam Pettit’s Tolloller and Duncan Sandilands’ Private Willis making particular impact.

During Richard Baker’s overture (the accompaniment is a piano reduction) a group of young men – think senior boarding-school students in a dormitory lark – invade the stage lit only by their torches. There’s a Narnia-type wardrobe, some step-ladders and some boxes.

The fairies turn out to be a troupe of muscular Wilis, wearing singlets, loose drawers and the occasional (upside-down) corset. Mark Smith’s choreography pays homage to Petipa’s Giselle as well as Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. The dancing is also excellent.

When to play Gilbert “straight”, accepting what is of its period,  and when to send-up what is already a parody is sometimes exceptionally difficult. So the peers’ chorus of disdain is sung with the right undertone of contempt while Willis’ political musings present “liberal” and “conservative” as  opposites not necessarily glued to any particular party.

Richard Russell Edwards’ Fairy Queen, fox-furred and hand-bagged, is a delicious characterisation, with real menace in her threats to her recalcitrant followers. Richard Carson’s Strephon is another well-judged portrait.

Potential villain of the story is the Lord Chancellor. Alastair Hill makes him younger than is traditional and brings out the deviousness of the lawyer, though I wanted more incisiveness in the patter songs, especially the Act Two nightmare. Articulation is the magic key for these numbers.

Four and a half-star rating.

Iolanthe runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre ntil 7 Juky with matinèes on 5 and 7 July. The 2018 national tour ends at the Greenwich Theatre between 23 and 28 July.

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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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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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Sleeping Beauty

reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 29 March

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

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

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

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

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

Four and a half-star rating.

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

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The Jungle Book

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 20 March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four and a half-star rating.

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

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Teddy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four star rating.

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

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