Category Archives: Plays

Mischief Movie Night

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 19 June

Success has its flip side, and it’s very easy to access that. Improvisation can be hugely theatrically rewarding, as Adam Meggido’s Showstopper! productions demonstrate. Meggido is the consultant on Mischief Theatre’s successor to The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong.

Even with an ensemble used to working together, this is dangerous territory. Scripts can’t really an anchor-point for Mischief Movie Night, which relies on a sequence of cobbled-together to “improvise” a film based on the audience’s suggestions. “Plants” among us try to steer the whole thing, not always successfully.

We end up with a murder mystery set in a municipal baths. Corpses soon proliferate, as do nods in the direction of disaster movies and classics such as Psycho. Songs and dance also play their part. It’s all great fun, but at times you can see too much of the struggle behind the mirth.

After the interval we’re in easier territory – the tryout for an evening of magic. Needless to say, the self-proclaimed mind mangler makes a hash of his act, with the aid of audience volunteers. There’s also a girl in a box enacting a variety of creation myths while managing not to be sawn in half.

This part worked much better for me than the movie-manufacturing act. I felt that the performers were much more in control of their material so able to draw the audience into the joke more subtly. After all, a joke is only funny if evenly shared.

Three and a half-star rating.

Mischief Movie Night continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 23 June with matinées on 21 and 23 June.

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The Case of the Frightened Lady

reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 18 June

Edgar Wallace’s 1931 play was an early example of those which have an investigative policeman at the heart of the action. His Chief Superintendent Tanner, as Gray O’Brien makes clear from his first entrance, is not a man to be trifled with.

His assistant Detective Sergeant Totti (Oliver Phelps in his stage début) is no mere sidekick but an active contributor to unravelling the murderous mess in which they become involved.

It all begins with a fancy-dress party at the home of the autocratic dowager Lady Lebanon (Deborah Grant). Her son (Ben Nealon) may have inherited the centuries-old title and the heavily restored family seat, but balks at settling down to responsibility.

That includes marrying his attractive but impoverished cousin Isla Crane (April Pearson), the title character. He is also at odds with most of his mother’s staff. They, to put it mildly, are an odd bunch.

Gilder (Glenn Carter), butler Kelver (Philip Lowrie) and housekeeper Mrs Tilling (Rosie Thomson) have their own spiky variations on one-upmanship. Denis Lill’s Dr Amersham is not quite the genial friendly practitioner initial impressions might suggest.

So it goes on in violence. Adapter Antony Lampard and director Roy Marsden keep the action flowing with scenes of activity intercut with personal verbal exchanges. The trouble is that we in the audience are so busy following the plot that we end up thoroughly bemused.

The transitions are akin to those in a novel or even a film. Lighting designer Chris Davey uses subtle shifts of light to indicate them but even so doesn’t really clarify anything. It’s all of its inter-war period but tries too hard for 21st century relevance.

Costume changes proliferate, with some neat touches to indicate status and seniority. Wallace knew his craft and perhaps it should simply have been taken as he wrote it. You can’t fault the actors; everyone takes it at proper face value. But it just doesn’t work.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Case of the Frightened Lady continues at the Palace Theatre Westcliff until 23 June with matinées on 21 and 23 June. It is also at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds between 30 July and 4 August.

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Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em

reviewed at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich on 12 June

The popular television series of this title written by Raymond Allen ran during the 1970s, and it’s in this era that writer and director Guy Unsworth has set his new comedy.

As you may recall, accident-prone Frank Spencer manages to be sacked by a whole series of employers while his cack-handed attempts at home improvements constitute a separate recipe for disaster.

The role is a gift for any flexibly-limbed comedian, and Joe Pasquale takes full advantage of every opportunity. Around such a stealing performance, the supporting cast needs to work very hard to take a proper share of the limelight.

Sarah Earnshaw’s Betty, Frank’s long-suffering wife, manages to be something of a scene-stealer, from her opening exchange with parish priest Father O’Hara (David Shaw-Parker) through to the final dénouement.

Then there’s Betty’s mother, Mrs Fisher (Susie Blake), who has shed her husband to take up with bank manager Mr Worthington (Moray Treadwell); she’s a sultry battle-axe of a throughly recognisable kind.

Among Frank’s less likely get-rich-quick schemes is to develop his “magic” act to the extent that the BBC comes calling. I won’t spoil the plot turns for you; but simply say that nothing is quite what it seems…

Chris Kiely plays the policeman who eventually descends on the mayhem, as well as the BBC cameraman; Treadwell has a nice cameo as his boss Mr Luscombe.

Arguably the real stars of the show (Pasquale’s performance aside) are designer Simon Higlett and those under-sung heroes, the stage management team.

Lights flash and flicker, music centres blast out, kitchen appliances blow up, staircase banisters tumble while legs detach themselves from chairs and sofa on cue. It’s all great fun, whether you remember the original or come fresh to it all.

Four star rating.

Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em runs at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich until 16 June with matinées on 12 and 16 June. It can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich (9-14 July) and the Palace Theatre, Westcliff (24-28 July).

 

 

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Whisky Galore

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 6 June

Compton Mackenzie’s novel about the 1941 foundering of a ship which was bound for the USA with a cargo of prime whisky is probably best known in its 1949 Ealing film comedy version Whisky Galore. Philip Goulding’s stage adaptation adds its own twist.

We therefore find ourselves watching not just a play with the 26 characters all played by seven actors but one being staged by the Pallas Players, an all-woman troupe based on the Osiris Players.

The scene, as visualised by director Kevin Shaw and designer Patrick Connellan, is a co-operative hall in 1955, occupied by a flexible set of packing-cases which transform into rostra, hillocks, cars and anything required. The cast wears buff-coloured breeches and stockings, topped by a colourful array of bonnets, coats, kilts, shawls, skirts.

Behind is a map of the two Outer Hebridean islands Great and Little Todday where the action of Whisky Galore takes place. They’re clannish sorts of places, in more ways than one, with a distinctly cavalier attitude to incomers, such as the Waggetts.

Waggett is a pompous know-all, overly immersed in his command of the Home Guard. The leftward-leaning schoolmaster, Dr Maclaren and the priest Fr Macalister have all however been assimilated without overt mockery.

Two young couples find that the path to matrimony is not necessarily a smooth one. George Campbell is kept firmly under her thumb by his dour widowed mother, who refuses to meet his beloved Catriona Macleod.

Her sister Peggy is also being wooed, by serviceman Fred Odd, who has just come home on leave. Their shopkeeper father Duncan is also something of a martinet. All these diverse characters offer opportunities to the cast, which they seize upon.

Christine Mackie’s Mrs Campbell is the stand-out performance, closely followed by Isabel Ford’s Waggett and Lila Clements’ George. The gender-swapping throughout is as thoroughly credible as that I remember from the real Osiris Players.

It’s all affectionate without a whiff of send-up, but the action does take some time to pick up momentum. Too much so, especially during the first half. Clever touches, such as the visible gramophone for sound effects and the rolling hills, don’t really fill this gap.

Three and a half-star rating.

Whisky Galore continues at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 9 Jun with a matinée on 9 June.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 5 June

Deconstructed Shakespeare. There’s been a lot of it about, possibly as a reaction to the bardolatry of the quatercentenary. From the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith and Filter Theatre comes Sean Holmes’ addition to this new canon.

How much you enjoy this Midsummer Night’s Dream overall, I suspect, is largely up to your appetite for transposed stand-up comedy and popular cult-figure spoofing  leavened with elements of the traditional pantomime.

There’s a band (music by Chris Branch and Tom Haines), modern costuming and a set which suggests a dilapidated rehearsal-room (Hyemi Shin). Not to mention “audience interchange”, both planted and spontaneous.

Some of the glosses on the central story work very well. Bombastic Theseus has his mirror image in Oberon’s unsuccessful attempts to be Superman. Dogmatic Egeus (here Hermia’s mother rather than her father) transforms into an occasionally fallible stage-management Puck.

Bottom (that “audience plant” I mentioned) transforms into an ass straight out of  Apuleius’ Metamorphoses by sound and gesture rather than an animal mask. Hippolyta, so buttoned-up as Theseus’ bridal trophy, transforms into a sex-hungry diva as Titania.

The close girlish affection between Hermia and Helena dissolves credibly into bitchy squabbling and carpenter Peter Quince, bossy impressario for the craftsmen, is a natural double of the compère who greets us then gravitates automatically to any available microphone.

As performers, you cannot fault the cast, including the versatile musicians. They all throw themselves (frequently quite literally) into everything required of them. The sense of undergraduate spontaneity carries absolute conviction. It works on its own terms, but on a “love it or hate it” basis.

Three and a half-star rating.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 9 June with matinées on 7 and 9 June.

 

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Europe After The Rain

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester on 31 May

On the beach… beached up. Either way this is an emotive phrase. it balances the good, even the thoroughly enjoyable, against a sense of desolation, of being abandoned.

That is presumably why director Cara Nolan and designer Amelia Jane Hankin have set Oliver Bennett’s first full-length play – which won the theatre’s 2017 playwriting prize –  on a sand-strewn surface with minimal furniture and a background which suggests taut fishing lines or the bars of a lobster pot.

At the start, this space is inhabited by three people. Will (James Alexandrou) seems to be its proprietor. Marta (Natasha Kafka) and her mother Yana (Anna Koval) have joined him; it transpires that they are Ukrainian refugees.

The time is the future, perhaps not-so-distant. Ukraine has been re-invaded by Russia. Populist (for which read right-wing) governments are everywhere taking power. Even in Britain, if the election we understand to be currently underway so dictates.

Enter Max (Simon Haines), a free-spirited, free-wheeling sort of man. His arrival is the trigger for personal, as well as political, revelations. There are crescendos of violence, very well spaced by the cast, but little sense of plot development running parallel to the personal.

Kafka’s Marta, using electronic media as a substitute for human interaction, is a recognisable type. So is Koval’s Yana, one of life’s born survivors.

The men are more formulaic, though Alexandrou shows us Will’s suppressed volcano of frustration, one for which he can find no verbal vocabulary. Haines’ Max is in many ways Yana’s masculine counterpart, though he lacks her innate integrity.

It all holds attention while it is being acted out before us. The compressed format, though it sustains tension, might perhaps not be diminished if expanded by another half-hour or so. That would allow for more background for both the characters and their political world.

Three and a half-star rating.

Europe After The Rain runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 9 June with evening performances on 2-9 June, an early evening performance on 1 June and matinées on 2, 7 and 9 June.

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The Be All and End All

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 23 May

May used to be a month of celebration. Nowadays it is the month of examinations – those make-or-break tests upon which depend young people’s futures, not to mention their parents’ hopes.

That’s the searing theme of Jonathan Lewis’ new play, in which he leads the four-strong cast as junior Cabinet Minister Mark. He and his publisher wife Charlotte (Imogen Stubbs), in remission from cancer, have ambitions for their son Tom (Mstt Whitchurch) which have Cambridge as a vital stepping stone.

Their trouble is that Tom, a typical teenage bundle of energies and personal aspirations, would rather prefer to work in the arts. Caught up with her own desires, both personal and professional, is Tom’s girlfriend Frida (Robyn Cara). Resolutions prove to be costly affairs, in which more than money and morality are involved.

Director Damian Cruden ratchets up the tension as a series of confrontations builds to a climax. It’s very intense, and Natasha Bertram’s stylish set abets this; these are adults who live in high-profile goldfish bowls, which is not necessarily where the younger generation finds a comfortable environment.

Whitchurch’s performance is central to the York Theatre Royal’s production success with the audience. Most of us have come across someone like that in our family or personal circle. Cara’s is a much more ambiguous character, bringing out a degree of social – as well as financial – insecurity.

One’s heart goes out to Charlotte in Stubbs’ portrait of a career woman who knows she is living on borrowed time. Faced with her pair of strong-minded men, she gives us a woman being shredded emotionally as well as physically.

Mark is another multifaceted personality, with his carapace of success vulnerable to both Parliamentary and personal pressures laid bare. Lewis shows us just how unpleasant, ruthless and selfish such a person can be.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Be All and End All runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 26 May with matinées  on 24 and 26 May.

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Love From a Stranger

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 22 May

“Beware an enemy bearing gifts” warned the Trojan. Agatha Christie and Frank Vosper’s psychological thriller Love From a Stranger might be summed up as: beware charismatic men with a camera offering an intriguing past and a rose-tinted future.

Cecily (Helen Bradbury) is letting her London flat as she prepares to marry Michael (Justin Avoth) on his return from a lengthy duty-stint in the Sudan. Her garrulous aunt Louise (Nicola Sanderson) is all for this sensible match. Cecily’s best friend and flat-mate Mavis (Alice Haig) is more ambivalent.

Enter a prospective tenant, newly arrived from North America – Bruce (Sam Frenchum). Cecily is swept off her feet (literally) with the inevitable consequences. However, Act Two – which sees the newly weds in a Sussex cottage – doesn’t go according to plan, or to the audience’s expectations.

Not for nothing has Christie been dubbed the queen of suspense. Lucy Bailey’s direction paces it accordingly, with Mike Britton’s shifting sets, Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and Richard Hammarton’s soundscape emphasising the instability of the relationships we see being played out.

The cast is very good throughout. Frenchum has the right blend of superficial charm, a projection of mystery and the scarcely-subdued ferocity which underpins it for Bruce. As Michael, Avoth makes what could be simply a caricature of a certain type of buttoned-up Englishman into a real human being who suffers.

Bradbury’s Cecily is another fine study of a woman conditioned to follow convention who then apparently acts upon impulse. We probably have the equivalent of Sanderson’s Aunt Lou-Lou, alternating as a figure of fun and a downright nuisance, in our family circle.

Mavis, in Haig’s portrayal, comes across as a career girl who knows that life doesn’t always shower long-term windfalls. Molly Logan provides an amusing sketch of Ethel, the daughter of gardener Hodgson (Gareth Williams) who comes to work at Philomel Cottage (remember, there’s more to that myth than a nightingale).

A doctor is often a key ingredient in a Christie plot cauldron. Crispin Redman here fulfils the role. And how does the cauldron mixture pour out? Ah, that may not be quite what you were expecting…

Four star rating

Love From a Stranger runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 26 May with matinées on 24 and 26 May.

 

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Hard Times

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 16 May

Northern Broadsides have a winning way with their adaptations of now classic plays and novels. The latest is Deborah McAndrew’s version of Dickens’ Hard Times.

The 1854 original was an indictment of the soulless factory system which blighted so much of recently industrialised England, the less-than-caring entrepreneurs it produced and the mind-numbing routines of rote-learning education and repetitive work.

Into Coketown, dominated by self-made factory owner and banker Josiah Bounderby (a magnificent performance by Howard Chadwick which deservedly takes centre stage), comes Mr Sleary (Paul Barnhill)’s Circus. It’s arrival is particularly resented by retired wholesaler Thomas Gradgrind (Andrew Price).

Price gives a well thought-out characterisation of the man who has founded a school and educated his two children in the service of pure utilitarianism. In their different ways, both young Tom (Perry Moore) and Louisa (Vanessa Schofield) rebel.

The catalyst comes when young Cecilia Jupe, pet name Sissy (Suzanne Ahmet) is sent to the school by her clown father. Ahmet captures Sissy’s dilemmas, torn between the apparent freedom of the circus – which itself requires discipline but carries insecurity – and the stability offered by the Gradgrind household.

Any Dickens story has a supporting cast of grotesques and devious-doers. Here we meet ailing Mrs Gradgrind (Claire Storey), fallen-on-hard-times Mrs Sparsit, Bounderby’s housekeeper (Victoria Brazier) and Mrs Pegler (Storey again), all of whom want more from the men of their acquaintance than they receive.

On the make in very different ways are bored society man Mr Harthouse and snooping bank employee Bitzer (a fine double by Darren Kuppan). Virtue is personified by mill-hand Stephen Blackpool (Anthony Hunt) and his platonic love Rachael (Brazier).

Louisa is lusted after by Bounderby as well as Harthouse, and Schofield gives us a portrait of a young woman stifled between duty and a scarcely comprehended yearning for a wider life – of the mind if not the body.  As Moore shows, Tom is oblivious to anything but his own selfish wants, including alcohol and money.

Conrad Nelson’s direction is fast-moving and his score evokes the place and the period; the musical director is Rebekah Hughes. Designer Dawn Allsopp seconds them with a set which allows seamless movement between locations, well lit by Mark Howland.

There are a couple of stage adaptations of Dickens’ novels currently on tour. If you can only see one – then go for Hard Times. This version brings characters which may b unfamiliar, even formulaic to full three-dimensional life. After all, Dickens wrote a paon to the power of imagination as well as a cracking good story.

Four and a half-star rating.

Hard Times continues at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 19 May with matinées on 17 and 19 May.

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Put Out the Lights

reviewed at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich on 10 May

How far are you prepared to go for your beliefs? It’s as pertinent a question for the 21st century as it was for the early modern period and (then as Now) has an international dimension.

Joanna Carrick’s new history play, the second of a trilogy, centres on three people living just north of Ipswich and begins when Thomas Cromwell was Henry VIII’s Secretary of State and forwarding the dismantling of shrines and religious houses.

We first meet Alice, Alexander and Edward as children. She’s a farmer’s daughter, Edward Driver is a farmer’s son in Grundisburgh and Alexander Gooch is apprenticed to a Woodbridge weaver. All three are literate to some degree and Alexander has access to the Bible in English and to Protestant tracts.

Edward is more inclined to the old Catholic ways; his mother had a particular devotion to the shrine of Our Lady of Grace on Ipswich’s Lady Lane which has just been demolished. We encounter them again as young adults.

Time has deprived Alice of both father and mother and she is struggling to make the family farm survive by herself. Alexander has become more of a religious fanatic as he crosses regularly to Flanders, bringing back a much more fundamental sense of faith.

Marriage to Edward eases one of Alice’s problems. But her increasing attraction to Alexander’s faith, perhaps subconsciously fuelled by a latent attraction, draws her away from Edward’s much more conformist stance.

The young Alice, Alexander and Edward are very well played by Red Rose Chain’s youth theatre – Ellie Allison, Charlie Drake and Ted Newborn. Their adult incarnations are led by Isabel Della-Porta.

She lays bare for us the spiritual journey of a woman prepared to burn rather than submit to Mary I’s attempt to wrest the country back to rigorous Catholicism. Oliver Cudbill radiates Alexander’s fervour with all its charisma and sense of absolute righteousness.

Ricky Oakley’s Edward is a finely detailed study of a man who can understand that reform is needed but would so much prefer to live his life as is most traditional and comfortable. The barn set suggests this sense of timelessness.

The Ipswich Martyrs went to the stake with Protestant prayers; Edward, heartbroken at his wife’s faith, tries to exorcise it with the Ave Maria.

Four and a half-star rating.

Put Out the Lights runs at the Red Rose Chain’s Avenue Theatre, Ipswich until 27 May. There are matinée performances on 12, 13, 19, 20, 26 and 27 May.

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Neighbourhood Watch

reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 9 May

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” – the proverb sums up one of Ayckbourn’s darkest comedies Neighbourhood Watch.  It has been revived in a new production by Catherine Lomax which builds slowly to a dénouement not completely foreshadowed in the prologue.

The climax even so is not necessarily what the audience might expect from the epilogue. Both are spoken  by Catherine McDonough’s Hilda Massie, the devout spinster sister who moved with her sibling to the Bluebell Hill Development some months earlier in search of tranquility and pleasant neighbours.

Martin (Ben Eagle) and Hilda have invited these neighbours to their housewarming, but the guests soon make it clear that this apparent Eden is menaced by a “sink” estate close by.

Most vociferous are retired security man Rod Trusser (Paul Lavers) and former local newspaper contributor Dorothy Doggett (Sarah Simpkins), a woman with a nose for scandalous gossip.

Brash Luther Bradley (Richie Daysh) and his abused (verbally and physically) wife Magda (Elsie Fallon) soon make their presence felt. The Jenners – Amy and Gareth – have a very odd relationship. He is an engineer with an interest of medieval forms of punishment. She is a free spirit and somewhat promiscuous.

Victoria Fitz-Gerald and Adam Storey make the most of these characters as we watch the real personalities emerge from their initial appearances. Egged on by Trusser, Martin starts a Neighbourhood Watch scheme which rapidly segues into downright vigilantism.

Faith and  (a perhaps natural) authortativeness are the keynotes of Martin’s character; Eagle shows us that the man is not simply a study in sharp contrasts but a potentially rounded human being mis-shaped over the years into a partial caricature of what might, and should, have been.

Ayckbourn has made Magda into one of his little white-mouse wives familiar from other of hs comedies with bite. Fallon paces this very well as the women close ranks to succour her. McDonough’s Hilda is a type we have probably all encountered at same point; she shares a sense of worthiness – not to say, downright obstinacy – with her brother.

Four star rating.

Neighbourhood Watch runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 12 may with matinées on 10 and 12 May.

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Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 8 May

In one way, David Edgar’s revised version of the Robert L Stevenson novella strips the story back to its essentials. In another, he plumps it out with the addition of extraneous characters. Other adaptations have given us a fiancée, her father and a faithful friend. This one presents a widowed sister and her two children.

Kate Saxon’s production also has a street singer, wandering high on a gantry above the main acting level in Simon Higlett’s evocative set. Rosie Abrahams with Richard Hammarton’s haunting minor-key take on folk music acts as a type of chorus to the main action.

Nineteenth century London was dark, indoors and out with Thames mists vying with coal-fire induced fogs. Mark Jonathn’s lighting gives us a proper sense of this. Jekyll’s own home is ruled by Poole, his man-servant, to whom Sam Cox gives a suitably forbidding air of authority.

We meet Jekyll (Paul Daniels) as he visits his feminist-leaning sister Katherine (Polly Frame) in the country. She is trying to sort out their late father’s possessions, including books, an antique mirror and a portrait. He is reluctant to clutter his own life, with its experiments, further.

Back in London, Jekyll’s closest friends are revealed as Dr Lanyon (Ben Jones), who feels that mankind’s ills are best cured through social reform, and the more conservative older Utterson (Robin Kingsland). Jekyll, of course, sees the answer as a scientific one, and so proceeds to experiment on himself.

We know how the alter ego these experiments produce – the mentally warped and degenerate Mr Hyde –  wreak havoc on London’s fog-wreathed streets. Utterson is a near-victim, a MP is another and so is Katherine’s servant Annie (Grace Hogg-Robinson) who has taken “refuge” in Jekyll’s house.

All the performances are good, with Daniels outstanding as Jekyll/Hyde, using his vocal range and commanding presence to effect the changes between the two. The story may indeed turn on medical experimentation, with all its potential for evil as well as good.

But there’s also a sense of Manichaeist  and Calvinist inevitability – the sense of light and darkness, of the elect and the rejected – as well as centuries-old superstitions about reflecting the human face which are probably even older. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is meant to trouble as well as thrill us. Here it succeeds.

Four star rating.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 12 May with matinées on 10 and 12 May.

 

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Our Blue Heaven

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 6 May

If you’re an older Ipswich resident with an interest in football, then 6 May 1978 is probably a date etched indelibly into your consciousness. That, for the rest of us, is the day on which Ipswich Town Football Club won the FA Cup at Wembley Stadium.

Obsessions, whether with sport, music or anything else, are very odd things. They have the ability to obscure, even blot out, everything else. Based on actual recollections of the Final and the matches leading up to it from individual fans, Peter Rowe has constructed the stories of three interlocking families.

The central one is the Coombes family. Father Paul (James Daffern) is out on strike, so money is tight and the main breadwinner is his nurse wife Sheila (Sarah Whittuck). Teenage daughter Sue (Anna Kitching) is supportive of her father – and even more so of Ipswich Town. Older daughter Mel (Josie Dunn) is about to get married to Scott (Joe Leat).

He’s the son of better-off Brain Tillotson (Jon House) and his wife Eileen (Nicola Bryan). Then there are the Traynors – football-obsessed Smudger (Dale Mathurin) and his heavily pregnant wife Ange (Katia Sartini), who is under the care of Sheila Coombes. Smudger – whose enthusiasm is enjoyably put before us by Mathurin – has ideas about both the timing of the birth and the names to bestow on the baby.

Peter Peverley plays the inspirational and charismatic team manager Bobby Robson, linking the club’s progress towards that ultimate goal. The other stand-out performance is that of teenage Kitching, a girl trying to balance all manner of conflicting emotions with a slowly maturing sense of responsibility. Actions do have consequences, as she discovers at an away-game against Millwall.

Designer Amy Jane Cook gives us a minimalised setting with Dan de Cruz’s four-piece band on a platform at the rear of the stage. Musically, it’s all very loud, though the a cappella rendition of “Abide with me” in the Wembley sequence has a magical effect.

Rather than attempting a realistic reconstruction of the series of home and away games, choreographer Tom Hobden has created a slow-motion stylised succession of movement pieces, ably performed by the community chorus wearing neutral black and white strips.

Four star rating.

Our Blue Heaven runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 26 May with matinées on 9, 10, 12, 16, 14, 19, 23 and 26 May.

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A Streetcar Named Desire

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 25 April

English Touring Theatre (ETO) has chosen Tennessee Williams’ 1947 tragedy as one of its 25th anniversary productions. Director Chelsea Walker has updated the action to 2018 – I’m not sure that the 70-year time leap quite succeeds.

It allows for integrated casting and the casual violence, both physical and mental, dealt out by most of its male characters to the women who (theoretically) they care about is regrettably still with us, But the central character, Blanche Dubois (Kelly Gough) is surely more a person of her time than ours.

Gough gives us all Blanche’s posturing and mood swings as well as the diverse personalities which she inhabits, from the white-clad Louisiana plantation mistress who apparently finds to impossible to accept the way in which her sister Stella (Amber James) is living to the schoolmarm taking a sabbatical to the nymphomanic.

No-one in this New Orleans apartment block lives in  isolation. Stella’s husband Stanley Kowalski (Patrick Knowles) keeps open house for his men friends while their women grab every opportunity to take what fresh air the neighbourhood offers.

Nicole Agada, Maria Louis, Will Bliss and Joe Manjón in these rôles twine above and around the main action like a species of demented Greek chorus. that classic theatre sense of the inevitability of disaster is fostered by Giles Thomas’ subtly persistent soundscape and Georgia Lowe’s minimalist pillared set.

The acting throughout is extremely good; I wish I could say the same for the diction. The opening scenes are taken at a pace which surely leaves the audience desperately trying to catch up, so that at time we seem to be watching rather than listening.

Knowles’ violently masculine Stanley is well contrasted with Dexter Flanders’ Mitch, the mild-mannered well-spoken member of Stanley’s poker quartet. Mitch is the proverbial quiet man who sees no reason to throw his weight around.

There is real tragedy in his exchange with Blanche when he wants her to meet his terminally ill mother (a proposal of marriage coming ever closer) only to be stonewalled by Blanche’s congenital inability to tell the simple truth. She has told him about the trauma of her failed marriage, but is this the whole truth?

Four star rating.

A Streetcar Named Desire runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 28 April with a matinée on 28 April.  The tour includes the Cambridge Arts Theatre between 1 and 5 May.

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Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 24 April

In-Sook Chappell adaptation of the novel Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse is a multi-layered affair. That’s entirely appropriate, for this story of four generations of a Chinese family plays with time.

It begins with Helen (Siu-See Hung), an English-born and -educated lawyer, arriving in Hong Kong, the island her grandmother left just after the Second World War for a new life, sponsored by her home-returning employers. She soon feels she is the proverbial fish out of water.

Trying to make sense of her past and to meld it with her present and an array of possible futures, she is guided through her family’s past by a sort of avatar of her grandmother Lily (Tina Chiang). It’s a story bedevilled by feckless men and the collision of several cultures.

You need at first to concentrate hard in order to immerse yourself in the time-shifted nuances, then the logic – and at times the dreadful inevitability – of the drama sinks in. Food is the unifying factor.

I’m surprised the audience don’t rush onto the stage as the delicious smells from Helen/Lily’s cooker at the opening of the second act pervade the theatre. Those who have lived in poverty or under enemy occupation do tend to fixate on eating.

Jennifer Tang’s direction within Amelia Jane Hankin’s stepped set balances the dramatic levels. Matthew Leonhart plays the two men who think they have power over their wives while Andy Kettu provides contrasted studies of a go-getting young Japanese financier and a brutal Japanese soldier.

Two English women alter the course of Lily’s life – Miss Price and Mrs Woodman. Both are well contrasted by Ruth Gibson. Minhee Yeo and Rina Takasaki complete the cast. Elena Pena’s soundscape reminds us that China is not a silent society.

Four star rating.

Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok continues at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 25 April. It is also at the Key Theatre, Peterborough  between 1 and 2 May and at the Palace Theatre, Watford from 16 to 19 May as part of a national tour which continues until 2 June.

 

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The Importance of Being Earnest

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 9 April

Wilde’s most popular comedy went through several changes before its 1895 première. The principal one was compressing four into three acts, though two characters seem also to have been eliminated – a gardener called Moulton and another person called Grimsby.

Moulton has re-emerged in Alastair Whatley’s production for the Original Theatre Company, but here as a parlour-maid, a non-speaking rôle for Judith Rae, who seems to be employed both by Thomas Howe’s Algernon Moncrieff and Peter Sandys-Clarke’s Jack Worthing.

Designer Gabrielle Slade has conjured a fretwork set of art nouveau curves against which the costume palette uses mainly browns and an eye-catching turquoise. Howes sports two outfits, which I’m afraid put me in mind of Mr Toad, in green. Neither man seems to possess formal town clothes for the Act One tea-party.

Comedy, even farce – which this is not for all its cascades of wisecracks and ludicrous situations – needs a featherweight touch if we are really to feel inside the joke and not just experiencing it at a remove. Everyone on stage comes over as trying just a bit too hard.

Hannah Louise Howell’s Gwendolyn is the most sophisticated of débutantes; her expressions as she follows her mother’s exchanges with Algy and Jack are an object lesson in reaction. Louise Coulthard’s Cecily suggests just the right amount of steel to dilute her apparent wholesome winsomeness.

Playing Miss Prism as a flask-swigging gorgon does Susan Penhaligon no favours while Simon Shackleton’s doubling of Lane and Merriman fails to differentiate between the two trusted retainers. Geoff Aymer’s Canon Chasuble doesn’t really fit comfortably into the second and third acts.

It’s only fair that most of the audience seemed to love it, laughing heartily at Algy’s insatiable appetite and Jack’s increasingly frantic to keep control of his rickety raft of contradictory situations. Gwen Taylor’s swoops to the forefront as Lady Bracknell, one with rather more of a sense of humour than is sometimes allowed, and the ability not to stumble over the “handbag” tripwire.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Importance of Being Earnest continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 14 April with matinées on  12 and 14 April.

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Quartet

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 3 April

“If only youth knew, if only age could…” It’s as true in 2018 as 500 years ago. In many ways it sums up Peter Rowe’s touring production of Ronald Harwood’s “Quartet”, the story of four once-famous opera singers living their last years (until shunted off into specialist care) in a retirement home for retired musicians.

Three are reasonably long-term residents. Reginald Paget (Jeff Rawle) is an embittered tenor, who once itched to sing Wagner but whose career confined him to the 19th century Italian repertoire. Baritone Wilfred Bond (Paul Nicholas had been viewed as a plausible successor-rival to Gobbi.

Mezzo-soprano Cecily Robson – “Cissie” – played by Wendi Peters teeters on the brink of Alzheimer’s, much to the concern of the two men who recognise that their NSP motto (no self-pity) cannot stretch to the home’s requirement that residents must basically be able to lead independent lives.

They squabble, Bond fantasises about sexual adventures past but not present or future and look forward to the performance all are required to give on 10 October to celebrate Verdi’s birthday. Then new resident Jean Horton (Sue Holderness) arrives. She was a much-lauded soprano who quit at what seemed to be the height of her powers – and fame.

Rowe’s direction paints all this with a broad brush which at times has the peculiar effect of distancing the four characters from our understanding, and so our sympathies. Rawle’s real pain at now being forced to rub shoulders on a daily basis with his ex-wife does come over clearly but some of the humour still seems forced rather than natural.

Peters dodders amusingly enough as Cissie while Holderness radiates the crumbling arrogance of the diva clinging onto past glories. Nicholas is successful in showing us a performer able to step occasionally outside the personality he once inhabited to accept the realities of what is now and (inevitably) will have to be.

There’s an excellent set by Phil R Daniels and Charles Cusick-Smith which gives the impression that the comforts afforded by the home are superficial rather than actual. The costumes donned by the quartet for the Verdi have an air of something salvaged from one of those cash-strapped touring companies I remember from the 1950s.

Broad brush-strokes may account for the awkwardness of the karaoke-style performance of the Rigoletto quartet with which the play ends. I don’t recall audience titters from either the 1999 London première or the 2010 tour which in Rowe’s production swamp the actual music. But memory is a fallible thing, especially as one grows older.

Four star rating.

Quartet runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre as part of a national tour until 7 April with matinées on 5 and 7 April.

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Our Country’s Good

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 30 March

Ramps on the Moon is a collaboration between six national producing theatres and the Graeae Theatre Company, which is a pioneering company for disabled artists. Both Graeae and the New Wolsey Theatre have been forerunners in this movement for a number of years.

The latest touring production is of Our Country’s Good, the play by Timberlake Wertenbaker which she based on Thomas Keneally’s novel about the 18th century convict deportation settlement in Australia The Playmaker. It concerns a young officer’s staging of Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer with a cast made up from the pickpockets, thieves and drabs.

If the convicts at first seem without hope, the Marines and soldiers who guard them have also found themselves beached up in an inhospitable terrain. Animosities on both sides flare as we watch Lieutenant Clark (Tim Pritchett) try to weld his cast into cohesion, and fall in love while doing so.

Director Fiona Buffini has integrated sign language and surtitles with the action to mirror the dialogue. It makes for a busy production, rather too much so when one is aware of three screens with the dialogue as well as constant signing by nearly all the cast and, of course, the actual spoken words and naturalistic action.

This multi-tasking on the part of the audience as well as the cast makes concentration difficult at times. There are some excellent performances, notably as guilt-haunted Harry Brewer by Garry Robson and Fergus Rattigan as the hangman Freeman, nicknamed “Ketch”.

Kieron Jecchinis is Arthur Phillip, the Governor whose vision includes redemption as well as punishment, an attitude which Colin Connor’s Major Ross finds both alien and misguided. Fifi Garfield plays Dabby, the oldest of the convict women while Emily Rose Salter’s Duckling, the girl acquired by Brewer, is also effective.

Mary Brenham is the young woman Clark casts as the play-within-a-play’s heroine Silvia and to whom he becomes attracted and Sapphire Joy suggests all her fragility as well as willingness to learn. Gbemisola Ikumelo’s Liz Morden is loud-mouthed and pugnacious, always ready to make a point with actions rather than words.

The set by Neil Murray, largely decking planks backed by the bushes and shrubs which  those early settlers must have found so strange, works well and allows for quick scene changes. Jon Nicholls’ soundtrack suggests the eerie noises of the outback and the sea so barrenly licking at the sandy shoreline.

Three and a half-star rating.

Our Country’s Good runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 7 April with matinées on 4 and 7 April.

 

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The Winslow Boy

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 26 March

Acting, preaching and speaking in Parliament or a court of law all require charismatic practitioners if they are to have their intended effect. Rachel Kavanaugh’s production of The Winslow Boy makes this point very clearly, reinforced by Michael Taylor’s deceptively realistic set.

Rattigan based his play on an actual event, the theft of a five-shilling postal order by a teenage Osborne naval cadet and his expulsion as a result. The drama centres on the aftermath, as Ronnie’s family is (more or less) prepared to sacrifice all the comforts and status of its Edwardian life to clear his name.

Most productions make the barrister who accepts the Winslow brief as the dominant character. Timothy Watson’s Robert Morton certainly commands from his first entrance and crucial examination of Ronnie, but Aden Gillett’s Arthur, the irascible and increasingly physically incapacitated father, challenges him for the pre-eminence.

Both portraits are fully fleshed, allowing us to see the vulnerabilities as well as the strengths of each man. It’s fine acting, but it does put Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s Catherine, the suffragette daughter who sees that her stance must automatically negate her engagement to an Army lieutenant, into perhaps a more subordinate category than Rattigan may have intended.

Other rôles are nicely characterised, though the excellent actor Geff Francis is miscast as the lawyer Desmond Curry. Misha Butler as the younger son facing what could be the ruin of his future and Theo Bamber as the student brother whose enjoyment of Oxford’s social life is scuppering his chances of graduating suggest that they are two sides of a family coin.

Tessa Peake-Jones is suitably warm as Grace Winslow with Soo Drouet’s Violet as cuddly if stereotyped as servants almost always are in the well-made plays of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Alistair David has devised some authentic-looking dances to evoke the early jazz-age. I do think though that Taylor could have found something just a little more dashing for Catherine’s much-lauded hat.

Four star rating.

The Winslow Boy continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 31 March with matinées on 29 and 31 March.

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Guesthouse

reviewed at the Assembly Rooms, Dedham on 16 March

There’s a very interesting play embedded in the current version of Nicola Werenowska’s Guesthouse. It will take some further excavation, and the use of a very sharp scalpel, to disinter it.

East Anglia’s seaside towns are among those in the coastal areas of England affected by holiday-habit changes. Many find themselves unable to compensate economically with alternative employment and development prospects.

The guesthouse of the title is in Clacton. It’s owned by Val (Amanda Bellamy), who ran it in the town’s heyday with her late husband. Now she is recovering from a fall and wants to sell the house.

Her needy daughter Lisa (Clare Humphrey) – who has made quite a mess of her life so far – and Lisa’s daughter Chloe (Eleanor Jackson) – who has been brought up by her grandmother and is equally demanding in a different way – see the logic but aren’t prepared to act on it.

Tony Casement’s production drags out the first act, the one which is most in need of that scalpel, within a simplified domestic setting by Anna Kelsey. Chris Howcraft’s projections take us outside and into the past as well as the present but don’t quite make their intended effect.

You can sympathise with Val, who has done her best to swim with her personal tides of change. Bellamy delivers her soliloquies to engage the audience with the character’s history.

Lisa is a different matter. She’s not quite done with the past, as Humphrey makes clear, but has no stamina for the present, let along the future. Jackson’s Chloe is a spiky sort of young woman; she’s a possible survivor albeit a damaged one.

Touring any play to the variety of venues lined by for this spring Eastern Angles production presents its own set of problems. Audiences in one place may not – unless they find the characters and situations particularly engrossing –really enter into the playwright’s vision.

In its present form Guesthouse seems both a dramatised documentary and a family saga. The two strands may yet come properly together, but the scalpel needs to come into play before they knit together as they should.

Three and a half-star rating.

Guesthouse tours until 26 May. Venues include Southwold Arts Centre (22 March), the Seagull Theatre, Lowestoft (23 March), Rattlesden Pavilion (24 March), West Cliff Theatre, Clacton (27 March), St George’s Theatre, Great Yarmouth (6 April), Haverhill Arts Centre (10 April), Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford (17 April), Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh (20 April), Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich (23-28 April), the Little Theatre, Sheringham (2 May), Diss Corn Hall (3 May), The Place, Bedford (9 May), Woodbridge Community Hall (16-17 May), The Undercroft, Peterborough (24 May) and The Cut, Halesworth (25 May).

 

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