Category Archives: Plays

Funny Money

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 30 July

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

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

Only it’s not.

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

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

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

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

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

Four and a half-star rating.

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

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A Daughter’s A Daughter

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 23 July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four star rating.

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

 

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Polstead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four star rating.

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

 

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Body Language

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 11 July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four star rating.

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

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Driving Miss Daisy

reviewed at the McGrigor Hall, Frinton on 10 July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four star rating

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

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Sherlock Holmes: The Final Curtain

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 9 July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four star rating.

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

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84 Charing Cross Road

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 26 June

1949 can seem like an alien time in 2015, a dingy lapse between wartime heroics and the Swinging Sixties. Yet that’s when the correspondence between New York-based struggling writer Helene Hanff and London bookshop Marks & Co began.

Hanff’s book detailing her correspondence, first with manager Frank Doel and later with other staff members which lasted until the shop closed 20 years later was published in 1970. There have been several stage, radio and film adaptations; this Cambridge Arts Theatre production uses the James Roose-Evans text and is directed by Richard Beecham.

There is also music composed and arranged by Rebecca Applin. That may pull you up short, if you come to the theatre expecting a straight-forward staging. Norman Coates’ set is conventional enough – floor to ceiling books on dark shelves with a large wireless in the foreground and Hanff’s cluttered office cum living-room to one side.

Music makes itself heard before a word is spoken. For the Londoners, this is traditional and comes from two violins, a cello, an accordion and a flute. Hanff is heralded by a jazzy saxophone. The passing of the seasons is indicated by carols and folk songs; the quasi-sombre ending is marked by the hymn “Abide with me”.

In between these interludes, the story flows as postal friendships develop and the characters find themselves caught up with each other’s lives, from Hanff’s fledgling television scripts (thanks to John Donne) through the austerities and food rationing of postwar Britain which prompt gift parcels in one direction and reciprocal gifts in return.

Leading the cast is Clive Francis as Doel, beautifully poised between business rectitude and an underlying sense of generosity Stefanie Powers is every inch the savvy, slightly abrasive New Yorker, a nice contrast with Samantha Sutherland’s gentle Cecily Farr, Doel’s assistant, who first begins to broaden the transatlantic correspondence.

Loren O’Dair contributes a well-contrasted pair of cameos as the mousey Megan Wells and US leading lady Maxine Stuart. Ultimately, the story keeps our attention through the two leading performances, and in this we are not let down. Chris Warren’s sound and Chris Davey’s lighting designs are subtle, indeed clever, but I’m not convinced that this is the definitive way to stage this script.

Four star rating.

84 Charing Cross Road runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 30 June with matinées on 28 and 30 June as part of a national tour.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

reviewed at the Gothic House, Pulham Market on 23 June

It’s the Shakespeare play which most suits outdoor performance. Stuff of Dreams’ summer tour demonstrates this very well, abetted by the Tudor surroundings of this particular venue and the lack of artificial lighting which faded Puck’s envoi out of the human realm and back into that of his spirit world.

Hayley Evenett’s Puck is a lithe creature, black and dark-green banded and a prime stirrer of dangerous mischief. It’s an intelligent as well as a likable characterisation with just the right air of menace. The rest of the cast play two roles, with Tim Lane’s Bottom giving another stand-out performance.

Lane’s songs, with his own acoustic guitar accompaniment, have a genuinely folk-song quality; “Fairy friends” and “What a night, what a revel” are real foot-tapping numbers, following out of the situations at particular points and not merely superimposed on them. Cordelia Spence’s direction allows space for our imaginations to work and is never fortuitously busy.

As Hippolyta and Titania, Neve Doyle flows across the stage, trailing a Greek-inspired white trained gown as the Amazon queen and darkly tattered as th queen of the fairies. Leighton Williams is Theseus, rather more caught up in his own pleasures than the duties of administration, and a top-hated Oberon, partly gypsy, partly gamekeeper.

Demetrius, so determined in his preferences, is easily transformed into play-maestro Quince by Tom Moran and Alex Firth-Clark makes love-sick Lysander become Flute and Thisby very naturally. Their counterparts from Katie Cary are Hermia and so Snug/the Lion and from Kiara Hawker the determined Helena and the malleable Wall.

So many productions of Shakespeare nowadays seem to be delivered by actors who either cannot understand the verse and its language or fail to convey the rhythm and sense of what they are saying to the audience. This entire production is intelligently spoken and so flows naturally. As it should do.

Four and a half-star rating.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream can also be seen at Thornham Walks, Eye on 24 June, the Locks Inn, Geldeston on 29 June, East Point Academy, Lowestoft on 30 June and Bungay Castle on 1 July.

 

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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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