Category Archives: Reviews 2018

Awful Auntie

reviewed at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich on 19 September

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four star rating.

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

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Reviews 2018

My Mother Said I Never Should

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four star rating.

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

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Once

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre. Ipswich on 11 September

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four star rating.

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

 

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Filed under Music Music theatre & opera, Reviews 2018

The Height of the Storm

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 10 September

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four and a half-star rating.

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

 

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Madagascar: A Musical Adventure

reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 3 September

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

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

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

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

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

Four star rating.

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

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

Abigail’s Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four and a half-star rating.

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

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Oklahoma!

reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 30 August

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

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

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

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

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

Four star rating.

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

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The Merchant of Venice

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 29 August

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three and a half-star rating.

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

 

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Goodnight Mister Tom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four star rating.

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

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An Officer and a Gentleman

reviewed at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich on 27 August

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three and a half-star rating.

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

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Miss Saigon

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 17 August

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

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

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

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

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

Five star rating.

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

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Fiddler on the Roof

reviewed at the Frinton Greensward Tent on 14 August

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four and a half-star rating.

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

 

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Perfect Nonsense

reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 13 August

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four star rating.

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

 

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Love Virtually

reviewed at the Frinton Summer Theatre on 7 August

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four and a half-star rating.

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

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Much Ado About Nothing

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.

 

 

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Babe, the Sheep-Pig

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.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Reviews 2018

Funny Money

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 30 July

We’ve probably all done it at some time, haven’t we?. Picked up someone else’s coat, umbrella or bag in mistake for one’s own. Much farce is rooted in some such trivial occurrence going horrendously wrong.

Ray Cooney’s classic Funny Money, first staged in 1994, takes this situation to its natural, thoroughly illogical conclusion. Henry Perkins (Darrell Brockis) arrives home for his birthday dinner with a briefcase, outwardly the same as the one he went to the office with that morning.

Only it’s not.

This one doesn’t contain a half-eaten sandwich and left-over paperwork. it has over a million pounds in used notes. Wife Jean (Harriett Hare) is bemused. Best friends Betty (Claire Jeater) and Vic Johnson (Michael Shaw) are bemused.

Add two very different detectives to the mix (Charlotte Peak as Slater and Lee Hunter as Davenport) – not to mention a taxi-cab driver (Clive Flint) and a much-compressed passer-by (Richard Blaine) – and misunderstandings whirl ever faster.

Andy Powrie’s production keeps the pace frenetic but with split-second timing where it matters (in farce timing is the key to success). Brockis has a superbly deadpan semi-gormless expression as events spiral completely out of Henry’s control.

Harassed beyond her comprehension, it’s no wonder that Hare’s Jean heads for the gin-bottle. Shaw and Jeater act as perfect foils as Peak’s upright policewoman (who needs a body to be identified) contrasts with Hunter’s easily-corrupted officer.

Flint has fun with Bill, popping in at regular intervals to remark that the fare-meter is running overtime and wondering just who (and how many) are going to Heathrow for the Barcelona flight (or will it be Adelaide?).

Four and a half-star rating.

Funny Money runs at the Southwold Arts Centre until 18 August. There are no Friday or Sunday performances but matinées on 31 July, 7 and 14 August and early evening performances on 2, 4, 9, 11. 16 and 18 July. It transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 21 August and 1 September. There are early evening performances on 23, 25, 30 August and 1 September.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

A Daughter’s A Daughter

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 23 July

Mother love. It’s unconditional, isn’t it? Daughterly devotion. That’s reciprocal, isn’t it? Agatha Christie’s play, set in the aftermath of the Second World War, is based on her original novel and cuts through layers of family gloss to reveal some very stark bones.

Sarah (Rosanna Miles) has just returned from war duties to her widowed mother’s London flat. She expects that nothing will have changed in four years – but it has. Ann (Naomi Evans) has found a new man, pleasant thoroughly dependable Richard (Rick Savery).

To say that Sarah resents him is to put it mildly (and politely, which of course she doesn’t do). She has a suitor herself, post-demob footloose Jerry (Tom Girvin), but all she wants is to have her mother exclusively to herself. Her godmother Laura (Tess Wojtczak) and housekeeper Edith (Laura Cox) can see how wrong this all is but can change nothing.

Some years later, and Sarah has made a disastrous marriage, to man-about-town Lawrence (Morgan Thrift. Richard has found a new life in the countryside with Doris (India Rushton-Dray). Mother and daughter are still together, but the cracks in their relationship are now more than surface ones.

The dialogue is intense and Evans has a tendency to take some of it too fast. Overall Phil Clark’s production, thanks to Tory Cobb’s set and Miri Birch’s costume sequences for Ann and Sarah – shades of those old West End productions with their programme notes that “couturier X… has designed Miss Y….’s wardrobe – have a good sense of period.

It’s a woman’s play, as far as dramatic tension goes. Miles strikes a fine balance in showing us both the selfishness and vulnerability of Sarah, and Cox is more than just a Cockney maid familiar from plays and films of the 1930s and 40s. All three men are slightly colourless in comparison, which is only to be expected.

Perhaps we are now sufficiently removed from those post-war years to put them and their people into proper perspective. I think Christie wrote this story from her heart, drawing on personal pains. Fashions change. Society changes. People don’t.

Four star rating.

A Daughter’s A Daughter runs at the Southwold Arts Centre until 28 Juy with a matinée on 24 July, early evening performances on 26 and 28 July and no performances on 27 July. It transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 31 July and 11 August and returns to the Southwold Arts Centre from 3 to 15 September.

 

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

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

Body Language

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 11 July

Modern surgery is a miracle of science. But science can prove fallible and miracles display a flip side. Ayckbourn’s 1990 satirical comedy is set in one of those well-appointed and attractively-staffed clinics in the countryside which cater for the physical problems of the wealthy and famous.

The newest patient is model Angie Dell. Her money-eyed manager Ronnie Weston can’t wait for her to resume her lucrative career. Visiting the clinic is controversial East European surgeon Hravic Zyergefoovc with his prefered assistant Freya. The clinic’s director, and a former student of Hravic, is Benjamin Cooper.

Where the famous go, these days there follows the media. Radio journalist Jo Knapton wants a couple of interviews; not-quite-successful photographer Derek Short is after that killer glamour shot which should make both his reputation and his fortune. Fading pop star Mal Bennet wants his now-estranged Angie back.

That’s just the first scene. By the second and Act Two, Hravic has performed his miracle operation – with just one unfortunate consequence. Ron Aldridge’s direction keeps the action flowing as briskly as any scalpel and Tory Cobb’s two-level set allows that action free play.

The cast go to it with a will. Clive Flint has a field day with Hravic as does Richard Blaine with Mal. Neither Ronnie nor Derek are particularly nice characters, as Darrell Brockis and Lee Hunter make plain. Claire Jeater pulls out all the stops as Freya while Michael Shaw is suitably  suave as Benjamin.

But the centre of it all is the relationship between Angie and Jo. Charlotte Peak’s Angie has just the right combination of vulnerability and determination for someone faced with a flimsy and brief career which is basically run by other people.

As Jo, Harriett Hare radiates firstly the slightly bored attitude of someone dispatched on yet another routine assignment and later as a woman confronting very personal demons and daemons. Yes, it’s hilariously funny in parts. But it’s also something thought-provoking and slightly scary.

Four star rating.

Body Language runs at the Southwold Arts Centre until 21 July with matinées on 14, 17, 19 and 21 July (there is no performance on 20 July). It transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh for the week 24-28 July.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018