Category Archives: Plays

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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The Nightingales

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 12 November

What brings people together in a choir? Once they’re in it, what holds them – or drives wedges between the members? Actor-playwright William Gaminara takes a North Country village a cappella group which on the surface is united with its choir-master and shows what effect a newcomer may have.

Steven (Steven Pacey) is the choir-master in question, a musician whose own ambitions, like his life with wife Diane (Mary Stockley), are not just fading. They’re actively withering. There’s a possibility that an IVF-conceived child might revive and re-bind this relationship.

The other members of the group are thwarted thespian Connie (Sarah Earnshaw), her handyman husband Ben (Philip McGinley) and the new-to-the-area doctor Bruno (Stefan Adegbola). He’s a bright, career-focused Black man, mature enough to shrug off casual racism yet conscious of always being an outsider.

Into the village hall wanders Maggie (Ruth Jones), another newcomer and outsider. She is currently undergoing chemotherapy for suspected breast cancer and the group welcome her, feeling that the choir would itself have a positive and therapeutic effect. Her endless supply of home-made and purchased treats suggests that she’s happy to be included.

But is she? More to the point, is she really ill? And, come to that, is she telling the truth about her own family and past life? The questions push their way into the foreground while Connie pressures Steven into agreeing to enter the choir into a national competition. One she had dreams of being as celebrity. Is this a second chance?

Gaminara has written  six good parts, the sort which actors love to inhabit, but not flesh and blood people. I could perhaps believe that Diane and Bruno might have an affair, that Connie will do anything for that elusive flicker called fame, even that Maggie is either a fantasist or a sick woman (or both), but I failed.

It’s no fault of the cast, notably Pacey and Adegbola, who have a confrontation towards the end of the second act which builds into real dramatic suspense. Stockley and Earnshaw make a good contrast, and McGinley’s happy-go-lucky Ben provides genuine light relief. Jones  at times seemed to be as uncertain as Maggie herself.

Director Christopher Luscombe is well-served by Jonathan Fensom’s village-hall set and quick-change costumes. Music director Luke Bateman regales our ears with an agreeable sequence of unaccompanied song, from the devotional to the popular. These are all very pleasant decorations, but they hang on too flimsy a support.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Nightingales runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 17 November with matinées on 15 and 17 November.

 

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Season’s Greetings

reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 7 November

The time of goodwill to all? Not if you’re planning to spend Christmas with Bernard and Phyllis. Ayckbourn’s wry look at the stresses marriage and parenthood impose when a miscellany of relations comes together doubles as cautionary tale and brutal farce.

Incompetent pacifist doctor Bernard, obsessed with his dire puppet-show for the house-party’s children, starts the festivities off by being at odds with Harvey, his wife Phyllis’ bellicose ex-service uncle over violence in films.

Phyllis drinks too much. Much too much. Her brother Neville is one of those men who tinker endlessly, preferably with other people’s gadgets. His wife Belinda is simply frustrated with life and love (what there is of it).

Enduring yet another pregnancy is Pattie; Eddie her husband is a gormandising layabout more concerned with cadging a job from Richard Munday’s somewhat blinkered Neville than taking his fair share of child-rearing.

And then there’s Rachel, Pattie’s intense and somewhat odd sister. She’s invited Clive, a would-be writer on whom she’s become fixated, as her guest. When he finally appears, he becomes the catalyst for what ensues.

You get the picture. Catherine Lomax’s production keeps the action on the move with a wide set that gives us hall and stairs, the living-room and dining-room. Victoria Fitz-Gerald’s Belinda and Lewis Collier’s Clive make a good central couple.

It is the misfits in the several households who really grab our attention. Paul Lavers’ militant Harvey is suitably lethal while Adam Shorey blithers away as Bernard. Alice Redmond allows Rachel a proper measure of pathos, even while she irritates.

Natalie Harman’s wine-swigging Phyllis comes into her own with the snakes-and-ladders game as Christmas Day ends. Chris Aukett’s Eddie, devouring anything edible in sight, is another infuriating delight.

As Pattie, Naomi Slights evokes understanding; her future – like her immediate past – is a bleak one. You really don’t want to be invited to join any of these people for an extended break; one evening would probably suffice.

The compliments of the season to you, too.

Four star rating.

Season’s Greetings runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 10 November with matinées on 8 and 10 November.

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Shakespeare in Love

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 5 November

It’s a delectable piece of froth which, as is only natural with its authorial pedgree, has mixed in some solid pieces of intellectual know-how to give it crunch as well as sweetness. This stage version by Lee Hall of the Stoppard-Marc Norman film script works splendidly in its own right.

As befits a co-production originating from the Bath Theatre Royal, director Phillip Breen has assembled a large cast deliberately brought into close quarters by Max Jones’ revolving set with its balcony and steep staircase. Tudor London was an over-crowded milieu; privacy was a luxury at any level of society.

You probably know that the action begins with would-be dramatist Shakespeare (Pierro Niel-Mee) experiencing a bad attack of writer’s block. His alter-ego Marlowe (Edmund Kingsley) has no such problem. Lurking around the floorboards, playing his own games (and all sides against each other), is teenage Webster (Jazmine Wilkinson) – not a nice child.

Niel-Mee gives us a rounded portrait of a young man beset by deadlines from theatre managers who know that they want (and think the public does also) as well as bills and family responsibilities he’s endeavouring to keep at a distance.

Imogen Daines is Olivia, a merchant’s daughter about to be traded into marriage with Lord Wessex Bill Ward),  but yearning to be a actress – or should that be, actor? They make a thoroughly enjoyable hero and heroine, though it’s Olivia who in the end has to pay the heaviest price.

Swaggering the whole length of his gleaming red-clad legs is Edward Harrison’s Burbage (eventually cast most appropriately as Mercutio. Kingsley is his saturnine equivalent; their ends even echo each other.

Giles Taylor as Tilney, Master of the Queen’s Revels) doubles that increasingly frustrated functionary with the part of Olivia’s father. Rob Edwards and Ian Hughes make much of Fennyman and Henslowe respectively. Ashley Gale makes much of a stuttering player.

Also catching the eye – and the ear – are Geraldine Alexander doubling Viola/Juliet’s nurse and the imperious Elizabeth I (given an impressive entrance in the second act through the audience), Rowan Polonski’s Ned Alleyne, Ward’s Wessex and the musical score by Paddy Cunneen.

All in all, this touring production in partnership with Eleanor Lloyd is a thoroughly enjoyable antidote to the dark, dank days of late autumn and early winter.

Four and a half-star rating.

Shakespeare in Love continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 10 November as part of a national tour with matinées on 8 and 10 November.

 

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Haunting Julia

reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 3 November

How do you define a haunting? A person, a place, an occurence, a combination of these – or something even less tangible? Ayckbourn’s 1994 drama Haunting Julia threads its way around the doubtful death of a young composer-pianist

It can never be easy to find that you’ve a fully fledged genius in your family. Difficult enough for Leopold Mozart with an established musical background, or for the Du Prés. Near impossible for a run-of-the-mill North Country working-class family.

There’s pride, of course, but no real understanding or appreciation.  Julia dies while still a student and her father makes a shrine of the student-room in which she died. it attracts visitors, not all of whom have genuine informed curiosity.

Andy, now a music teacher with a career-forging wife, had been close to Julia. Her father Joe has invited him to find out if he too can hear the strange sounds and inexplicable cold which have developed. A third visitor is former janitor Ken, who may – or may not – be able to unravel the mystery.

From which you will gather that this is not straightforward Ayckbourn. Yes, there are moments of humour, not all of which are dark. There are odd, sinister happenings guaranteed to give the audience a jolt or two. By the end of the play, we know much about Julia and her circles. But not everything.

Director Lucy Pitman-Wallace controls her stage with impeccable timing, aided by Jess Curtis’ apparently straightforward set, the sounds conjured up by Paul Dodgson and Mark Dymock’s lighting. Ultimately though the weight of the play is on the three actors.

That’s four, if you count Laura Elsworthy’s voiceover. The three men are played by Sam Cox as Joe, Matthew Spencer as Andy and Clive Llewellyn as Ken. Spencer shows us a man who may once have had potential but has now settled for what he can get without too much struggling.

Cox and Llewellyn offer studies in two types of obsession. If Andy discounts any possibility of the paranormal, Ken embraces it. As he reveals more of his own place in Julia’s life, so out sympathy for and understanding of the character grows.

What personal ghosts is Joe exorcising? Cox draws out the no-nonsense side of the man then gradually overlays it with uncertainties. Is he the real villain of the piece, or is that Andy? The strength of the performances is in leaving us undecided.

“There are more things in heaven and earth…” Also, perhaps, in the space between them. Limbo? purgatory? Or even somewhere even less charted?

Four and a half-star rating.

Haunting Julia runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 17 November with matinées on 8, 10, 15 and 17 November.

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Macbeth

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 30 October

It’s the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies and, on the surface, perhaps the most straightforward. A successful, loyal general is seduced by prophecies and egged on by an ambitious wife. He kills his king, takes the throne, disposes of those who might threaten him – and then unravels into death.

Macbeth was written at a dark time, as the newly-crowned James I eased himself onto Elizabeth’s throne and the Gunpowder Plot proved just one of the challenges to the crown. Rufus Norris’ production for the National Theatre presents us with a world where small countries’ conflicts can spillage dangerously.

Designer Rae Smit depicts this as a dark grey causeway with its paving flaking. Poles, suggesting those gallows-trees familiar from Callot engravings, support flutters of crow-torn rags. The witches (Elizabeth Chan, Evelyn Roberts and Olivia Sweeney) writhe up these as they contemplate the evil past and to come.

Sparse rooms suggest castles and dug-outs where comfort takes second place to security. Paul Pyant’s lighting adds to the sense of embattled menace. Only briefly, in the scene with Lady Macduff (Lisa Zahra), her son and her cousin Ross (Rachel Sanders) does a suggestion of normal domesticity appears briefly.

Kirsty Besterman’s Lady Macbeth is the dominant performance, radiating a dangerous level of tightly repressed frustration on many levels. Michael Nardone as Macbeth almost matches her, but not quite manages it. There’s an excellent Banquo by Patrick Robinson, suggesting the inner ease which Macbeth has probably never experienced.

The sleep-walking scene, with Reuben Johnson’s doctor and Sweeney’s gentlewoman petrified by what they see and hear is magnificently played. Tom Mannion’s Duncan, swathed by costume designer Moritz Junge in eye-blasting scarlet (Macbeth’s assumption of the regal colour appears far more tentative) is impressive.

Shakespeare wrote for a time and a place. His universal appeal over four centuries later shows that this transforms into many cultures, languages and eras. Ambition, and the illnesses which attend it, have no boundary of place or time. We watch in horror – but also with recognition. A play for all seasons.

Four and a half-star rating.

Macbeth runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 3 November with matinées on 1 and 3 November.

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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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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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