Category Archives: Plays

Silence

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester on 17 October

Wars, especially global ones, throw up a lot of wreckage. This includes human wastage, bilateral damage as the bland phrase has it. Small fry entangled in this horror sequence tends to be overlooked.

Nicola Werenowska’s new play Silence, a co-production with Salisbury Playhouse’s Wiltshire Creative  and Liverpool’s Unity Theatre, explores three generations of Polish-origin women and their contrasted ways of dealing with life’s traumas.

Both German and Russian occupations of the country, itself something of a political football since the Middle Ages, caused immense suffering and forcible displacement.

Maria, the grandmother of this story, has largely kept silence about the depths of her personal agonies first in Poland and later in Siberia. Her daughter Ewa has a rocky marriage in Reading and Anna, her daughter, is a typical young woman of the early 21st century.

Director Jo Newman and her designer Baśka Wesolowka balance the complexity of the stories and characters’ revelations with a taut simplicity. Scenery consists of three grey chairs backed by grey screens. Costume changes are kept to a minimum, simply reflecting different times and places.

The three actresses – Tina Gray as Maria, Kate Spiro as Ewa and Maria Louis as Anna – all inhabit their rôles from the heart out; they make these women’s contrasted dilemmas and their equally different ways of coping with them moving as well as credible.

Four star rating.

Silence runs at the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester until 20 October. There are matinée or early evening performances on 18, 19 and 20 October. The tour continues until 17 November including the Norwich Arts Centre (23 October) and the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich (5 November).

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The Comedy About a Bank Robbery

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 16 October

This is probably Mischief Theatre’s most extravagant offering in its series of theatrical-mishap comedies to date in this new Birmingham Repertory Theatre production. The set (David Farley), quick-change costumes (Roberto Surace), lighting (David Howe) and quirky clever special effects provide part of the visual spectacle.

Split-second timing by an ensemble whose members know just how to play off each other enhances this; tour director Kirsty Patrick Ward keeps tight control. There are visual, as well as plot, nods to Hitchcock (The Birds) as well as to other heist capers  such as The italian Job and Topkapi.

Technical (Alan Bartlett) and stunt (Jami Quarrell) consultants help to keep the audience’s eyes focused and minds engaged – there’s one particular sequence in the second half which is an absolute show-stopper (though you’ll have to see the show to work out what it is).

Of the cast, with several changes from the printed programme, Julia Frith as free-spirit, go-getter Caprice makes a lively “heroine” with Eddy Westbury as her absconding criminal lover Mitch Ruscitti and Damian Lynch as her bank-manager father Mr Freeboys.

Also extremely active are Ashley Tucker as a sort of chorus to the action, David Coomber as criminal sidekick Neil Cooper, Killian Macardle as police officer Randal Shuck, Jon Trenchard as Warren Slax and George Hanniagan as the accurately-titled Everybody Else.

Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, as always for Mischief, are the writers.

Four star rating.

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 20 October with matinées on 17, 18 and 20 October. The tour also includes the Milton Keynes Theatre (20-24 November) and the Cambridge Arts Theatre (19 February-2 March). Cast details may vary.

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

The Habit of Art

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 8 October

When does a poet or composer know when he has come to the end  of his powers? Is it the brain or the body which dictates the time? Does he just lay down his pen and opt for garnered laurels in a comfortable semi-retirement?

That’s the issue in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, a play within a play focusing on poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten at the end of their days. The fictional playwright has made Humphrey Carpenter (biographer of both Auden and Britten) into a framing device.

We’re in a typically chaotic rehearsal room Adrian Linford is the designer) with the stage manager standing in for the absentee director and the intense young author of Caliban’s Day increasingly paranoid about what the actors are doing with his carefully honed script.

Not only is the elderly actor playing Auden missing cues and needing endless prompts, but a couple of the younger cast members feel that they can bring more, much more, to the characters they play.

You can see why this is not one of Bennett’s most revived plays, but it rewards attention, as much as to what is unspoken as to what is actually said. Neither poet nor composer feel that their long-term partners (Kallman and Pears respectively) are as supportive as they want (or indeed, need).

The actors taking these parts, as well as the satellite cast, are equally dissatisfied in their individual ways. So Matthew Kelly’s superb Auden accepts his comfortable sinecure at Christ Church, Oxford while Fitz (the actor playing him) settles for supermarket voice-overs.

Donald, who takes the Carpenter rôle (John Wark), wants to build up his part. Auden’s rent-boy Stuart (Benjamin Chandler) feels that he also can add something to the production. Robert Mountford’s Neil, the playwright, just wants his script to be performed uncut with the emphases which he, not the director, dictates.

Trying to hold it all together are no-nonsense company stage manager Kay, to whom Veronica Roberts gives precisely the right combination of sympathy and authority and ASM George, played by Alexandra Guelff as a dogsbody with yearning to perform.

In the background until the second act is David Yelland’s Henry, playing Britten. He knows that Death in Venice will be his swan-song in many ways, a paean to vanished youth and the brightness of expectations. It’s a remarkable, unselfish performance, suggesting layers of masking as well as built-up sadness.

Director Philip Franks makes all Bennett’s tiers of make-belief and sadness credible for an audience which is not necessarily fully conversant with Auden’s or Britten’s work. You do need to concentrate, but that’s a good thing in the theatre. After all, all life’s a stage.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Habit of Art runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 13 October with matinées on 10 and 13 October. The tour also includes the Cambridge Arts Theatre (29 October-3 November) and the Palace Theatre, Westcliff (19-24 November).

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Everything Must Go!

reviewed at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich on 28 September

Eastern Angles have a track-record for shows based on personal recollections. On tour at the moment is Everything Must Go! , which collates the memories of care-home residents – for many of whom shopping was central to women’s lives – into the story of Dot and her grandson Tom.

Jon Tavener makes it into a collage of changing attitudes, in more than one sense. Dot (Rosalind Burt) is losing her short-term memory but is persuaded, with Tom (Joe Leat) as her chauffeur, to revisit the shops in which she has been for so many years an habituée – on both sides of the counter.

Except, of course, that most of them are no longer there. Her father ran an ironmongery, in which she learnt her trade, and expanded the business when an adjacent grocery shop ceased trading. Wartime austerity taught her a different sort of frugality and the benefits of trade-off.

Later, she worked at the Co-op, appreciating the power of the “divi”, and felt marginalised by the self-service concept introduced in the run-up to the supermarkets and superstores where we shop nowadays without giving much thought to their predecessors.

Yes, it’s social history – and not without bite. But it’s also thoroughly enjoyable, with Burt switching easily from prewar schoolgirl to young mother to the frailty of today. Leat offers a portrait gallery of shopmen (and shopping women) as well as suggesting a modern young man’s real affection for his grandmother.

Fiona Rigler has devised a setting which uses green boxes, a curtained arch and shop signs to whisk us from place to place and time to time. Aprons and head-scarves indicate character changes with minimal fuss.

I can’t have been the only audience member who felt a sudden twinge of nostalgia for those old shops where dockets, bills, money and change whizzed overhead to a cashier somewhere in the background. It added a dimension to the shopping experience.

Four and a half-star rating.

Everything Must Go! runs at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich until 29 September with a matinée on 29 September. It then tours to The Undercroft, Peterborough (6 October) and to the Town Hall, Maldon (13 October).

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Sherlock Holmes: The Sign Of Four

reviewed at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon on 24 September

Blackeyed Theatre has created a niche for itself with its adaptations of classic novels and novella with a twist. The story and characters are largely as the original authors intended, but the staging adds a further psychological dimension.

In this early Sherlock Holmes story Conan Doyle adds a suggestion of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone through its pivot being a theft in the days of the East India Company. As in that story, it is a girl who is the recipient of stolen jewels.

Adapter and director Nick Lane reminds us that Mary Morstan, Dr Watson and Holmes are all young people and none of them is wealthy, whatever their personal background. If you’re conditioned to the standard film and television versions of the canon, that may come as a shock.

There is a cast of six with only Luke Barton’s Holmes and Joseph Derrington’s Watson not doubling parts. Both are good, with Derrington suggesting that Watson’s war service as a doctor may have left mental as well as physical scars. Barton presents as someone whose intellectual needs too easily tip over into indulgence.

Christopher Glover contrasts the Indians of the story with the know-all Inspector Lestrade and there are two good studies of duplicity, one languid and one more lethal, by Ru Hamilton as the Sholto brothers.

Put-upon Mrs Hudson and information-seeking Mary Marston give Stephanie Rutherford opportunities which she seizes upon. Zach Lee makes the most of peg-leg Jonathan Small; the slow motion fight with Holmes works very well.

To keep the action, which includes stretches of telling past stories by one or other of the characters, on the move, set designer Victoria Spearing offers crimson bunched drapes and spiky shapes suggesting both western and oriental obelisks.

Costume changes are simple and effective; Naomi Gibbs’ palette is never garish but her clothes contrast well with the background while indicating character and social status. Claire Childs’ stage-level lighting and Tristan Parkes’ evocative score blend past and present admirably.

Four and a haf-star star rating.

The Sign Of Four is at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon on 25 September. The tour continues at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds between 4 and 6 October and at the Norwich Playhouse between 8 and 10 October.

 

 

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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Driving Miss Daisy

reviewed at the McGrigor Hall, Frinton on 10 July

We all confront prejudice sooner or later, in one form or another. How we deal with it is an individual matter. Take for example Alfred Uhry’s 1987 play Driving Miss Daisy. There are three characters with very different responses in the 25 years of the action which takes place in southern USA.

Daisy Werthan is a Jewish widow, formerly a school headmistress, set in her ways of doing things. Her son Boolie is a successful businessman, well-liked – even admired – by his associates but always conscious that he can maintain this only by appearing 100 percent true American.

Hoke Colburn, the chauffeur he hires after Daisy has crashed one car too many, has always known prejudice; after all, he’s Black. His method of dealing with it is to play the part demanded of him while balancing an inner integrity with maximising on other people’s expectations. Or lack of them.

How we react really depends on the cast. Vivienne Garnett’s production has a minimalist setting (though including a rather marvellous automobile) by Sorcha Corcoran against which the drama plays out.

Geoff Aymer’s Hoke, playing the part for the second time in Frinton, has the audience in the palms of his hands using especially his articulate eyes while gradually revealing how he deals with first Daisy’s disdain and downright mistrust and then – as age reverses their rôles – with genuine sympathetic understanding.

Age is something which most of us confronting its onslaughts try to fight off as long as possible. Anah Ruddin has the measure of Daisy as events conspire to confront her with whole swathes of inevitability; it’s a precisely nuanced performance.

Boolie is a likeable man, trying to juggle family responsibilities with professional and social ones and knowing that what he is driven to do is not necessarily the right option. Stacy Shane makes all this credible from his first lines.

This production sets a standard for the 2018 Frinton Summer Theatre season, overcoming the difficulties of a small stage and non-raked auditorium. Driving Miss Daisy is perhaps a bold choice for an opening night on the Essex coast, but theatre has always been about taking risks.

Four star rating

Driving Miss Daisy continues at the Frinton Summer Theatre until 14 July. with a matinée on 14 July. The season continues until 25 August.

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Sherlock Holmes: The Final Curtain

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 9 July

Fictional characters, providing that they’re sufficiently charismatic, can have a very prolonged afterlife. Take Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. He’s been updated throughout the 20th and 21st centuries and both he and Dr Watson have acquired adventures beyond even their creator’s imagination.

Simon Reade play uses elements of Conan Doyle’s own fascination with spiritualism – in opposition to his detective’s material-bound reliance on actualities – to create a “30 years after the Reichenbach Falls, aka The Final Problem” drama. Holmes has retired to the south coast and taken up beekeeping.

A mysterious corpse turns up on his land, and he’s intrigued by its anomalies. The stage is set for a return to Baker Street, where the flat is being used by Dr Watson as consulting rooms for his new-found speciality of psychoanalysis.

Watson is also in the midst of a series of broadcasts based on his Holmesian escapades. He has become estranged from his wife Mary after their son was killed in the 1914-18 war and she has taken up the suffrage cause to a degree bordering on fanaticism.

Director David Grindley keeps the action flowing, abetted by an extremely clever sequence of settings by Jonathan Fenson which centres on the iconic flat but otherwise uses a hypnotically perambulating curtain, subtle lighting by Jason Taylor and equally acute sound by Gregory Clarke to convey place and mood.

If Robert Powell as Sherlock Holmes walks away with the acting honours, that’s due both to his skill and personality but also to the fact that the outsider – almost maverick – elements of Holmes’ character has universal appeal. Timothy Kightley as Dr Watson competes extremely well; we all also root for the underdog.

In this story, the most difficult part is that of Mary Watson. Liza Goddard has to make what is basically an unsympathetic character even before familial and other revelations start emerging into someone we can understand. She tries very hard, but the part is not written to help any actress.

There are some neat vignettes in this frame. Roy Sampson’s Mycroft Holmes makes the most of his fraternal exchanges. The British Broadcasting Company lady charged with shepherding Dr Watson to the microphone and Miss Hudson (the new landlady) are sparklingly doubled by Anna O’Grady.

Four star rating.

Sherlock Holmes: The Final Curtain runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 14 July with matinées on 12 and 14 July.

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