Tag Archives: Stevenage Gordon Craig Theatre

Strictly Murder
reviewed in Basildon on 10 May

It’s April 1939. We’re in a farmhouse deep in Provence. Hitler’s rantings and British peace-or-war ditherings can surely have no impact on the lives of English artist and part-time grape-harvester Peter Meredith or his girl-friend Suzy. Josef, who has strayed into their lives as a derelict from the previous conflict and who dosses down in their outbuildings, may have a different reaction.

This 2008 thriller by the late Brain Clemens ratchets up the suspense quite cleverly. Peter (Gary Turner) has no good reason to give Suzy (Lara Lemon) why they don’t marry. As the radio keeps them abreast of what’s happening so rapidly in the wider world, Peter’s suddenly condenses with the arrival of Ross (Brian Capron), a former detective (or is he?), whose cheery manner hides what could turn out to be a lethal purpose.

Clemens’ son Samuel is the director and knows how to paper over cracks in plausibility. He’s aided by Alex Marker’s excellent set and David North’s lighting which reminds us that this farmhouse is dependent on a somewhat tempremental generator. The performances are all good, with Andrew Fettes’ Josef both pathetic and menacing as the war clouds gather and people have to decide where their loyalties lie.

The second act introduces us to Ross’ identical-twin brother – they are well characterised and subtly differentiated by Capron, who rather walks off with the acting laurels. Corinne Wicks is Miriam Miller, another person who is not what she originally appears to be. Suzy, pregnant with Peter’s child, also holds attention as portrayed by Lemon.

Turner has in many ways the most difficult role; it is hard to warm to Peter even before aspects of his past spill out. But it all holds together with conviction during the performance. And that, after all, is the essence of drama.

Three and a half-star rating.

Strictly Murder can be seen at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 23 and 24 May, the Gordon Craig Theatre between 5 and 7 June, the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 8 and 10 June, the Marina Theatre, Lowestoft on 16 and 17 June, the Grove Theatre, Dunstable on 10 and 11 July and the Key Theatre, Peterborough on 10 and 11 September.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2017

Rapunzel: The Musical
reviewed in Stevenage on 14 April

The Gordon Craig Theatre’s artistic director Catherine Lomax has found a winning streak with both revivals of favourite musicals and the premiering of new ones. Rapunzel has a book and lyrics by Lomax, score by the show’s musical director Phil Dennis and choreography by Khiley Williams; all are listed for book, music and lyrics. The imaginative lighting is by Pete Kramer.

Flexible and effective settings – including the tower where our heroine is imprisoned – are uncredited but costume designer Lisa Hickey has produced a colourful medieval-style array for the principals, the ensemble and the children’s chorus. Karl (Mike Holoway) in “The precious gift of you” and his wife Sophia (Auriol Hatcher) in “Life’s sweetest thing” both have strong voices and act convincingly, though the level of miking overwhelmed the articulation for their main numbers.

Musically it’s a strong score, with the characters clearly identified in their solos and ful-throated ensemble numbers (shades of the man-hunt in Peter Grimes are there in “Find her!” which closes the first act). The book is a literate one, perhaps a little too much so for the youngest audience members, so that we are easily caught up in the plight of the childless couple.

Cameron Leigh’s Gothel, the witch-like woman who strikes her bargain for 16-year old Rapunzel with Karl, is not a straightforward villainess; she longs for a child just as deeply as Sophia and makes this clear in “The love I’m owed”. The puppet woodpecker Viktor, handled and voiced by James Donovan, acts as a commentator on her machinations as well as imprisoned Rapunzel’s only real friend.

That is, until Prince Freddie (Glenn Adamson) chances upon the tower. Both his father King Constanine) and grandmother Queen Ida (Sharon Eckman) want to him to marry royally. As befits a folk-tale hero, Freddie (egged on by his servant and frind Benedict (Ryan Owen) want real love with a real girl and not any of the eligible brides paraded for his selection.

The difficulty with this particular story is that we don’t meet its heroine as a young woman until the day comes for Gothel to claim her fee. Samantha Noel looks pretty and sings “Gilded cage” very well, but her plight fades into insignificance when the fully three-dimensional Gothel, Sophia and Karl take centre-stage.

Four-star rating.

Rapunzel coninues at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Steveange until 17 April with matinée and early evening performances on 15, 16 and 17 April. It returns for a short run between 27 and 30 July.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Reviews 2017

Swan Lake

(reviewed at the Corn Exchange, King’s Lynn on 5 October)

The Russian State Ballet & Opera Theatre of Astrakhan has brought an intriguing production of Swan Lake to Britain for its autumn tour (3 October to 3 December); late winter tour dates are yet to be announced. Artistic director Konstantin Uralsky sets the story in the early 19th century, reminiscent of the “peace” social scenes of War and Peace. The first act costumes are attractive and the dancers equally so with neat footwork and elegant arms.

In this version Prince Siegried (Danil Sokolov)’s tutor is Von Rothbart (Maksim Melnikov), a black-clothed mentor gliding through the palace with a disquieting aura of menace. The swans are his private preserve, a secret magical theatre to which he inveigles the brooding, restless Siegfried – though you wouldn’t know that if you hadn’t read the programme notes. It’s much less of a mime and more of a dancing role than in other versions and well executed.

Benno is danced by Vslovod Tabachuk, whose jumps and turns provide some of the evening’s most exciting moments. Sokolov is somewhat upstaged (and out-performed) by his Mercutio-like friend throughout. The dainty pas de quatre performed as entertinment for the Queen (Anna Nikonova) is danced by Karina Manopova, Victoria Chuvyleva, Arthur Almukhametov and Bulat Gareev; the boys are less assured in their footwork, jumps and landlings than the girls.

When we reach the first lakesid scene, the corps de ballet provide the right mixture of technique and lyricism. Unfortuntaely Anastasia Turchina’s Odette is short on visual expression and personality; she dances with assured, well-finished arabesques and pointe work and Sokolov partners her throughout sympathetically. But still that vital spark and suggestion of instant, total passion proves elusive.

For Act Three we are in the middle of a costume ball with early Renaissance headdresses for the women and houppelande gowns for the male courtiers. Enter Odile (Maria Stetc) with her sidway glances and clever use of her arms to all-but mimic Odette’s own movements. She pulls off the firework fouettés and jétés so that it’s no wonder this malleable young prince is instantly besotted.

Eather than the usual ghostly apparition at a window as Odette recognises how she has been betrayed, there follows a well thought-out pas de quatre for Odette and Odile, Siegfried and Von Rothbart in which each pair shadows the other’s steps. For the final scene, the backcloth shows a sythe of a moon, stabbing down into the water which will finally envelop the lovers and their nemesis. Again, the corps de ballet shine as the real stars of the production.

Swan Lake (with several alternative casts) can also be seen at the Grove Theatre, Dunstable on 9 October, the Key Theatre, Peterborough on 14 October, the Marina Theatre, Lowestoft on 19 October, the Harlow Playhouse on 20 Octobe and the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 8 November.

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Filed under Ballet & dance, Reviews 2016

Carmen

(reviewed at the Harlow Playhouse on 9 September)

The Russian State Opera & Ballet Theatre of Komi has a new production of Bizet’s ever-popular Carmen for its autumn UK tour. Artistic director Ilya Mozhaysky sets the action around the 1920s and offers us a kind of danced dumb-show during the second half of the overture, prefiguring the menace and violence associated with its recurrent “death theme”.

Yuri Samodurov’s painted back-drops and flats have a nightmare surreal quality eachoing this. Act One is mainly whte-clad, from the soldiers’ uniforms to the shifts worn by the girls of the cigarette factory. Only Carmen herself flaunts a scarlet shawl. For the second act (Lillas Pastia’s louche tavern) red wih black accents prdominates. Black and a shrouding grey underlines the encounters in the mountain pass while the final scene flames scarlet with coal black.

The dancing is exellent (no choreographer is credited in the programme) and there is lively interplay among the chorus members in the crowd scenes. Of the principals, Evgenia Gudkova is a sultry Carmen with a strong chest register and secure top notes. Dimitrii Demidchik is a somewhat unsubtle (and therefore unsympathetic) Don José who hits all the right notes but with little sense of shading.

Michaela in Olga Georgieva’s interpretation is a far cry from the blonde-plaitd milkshop of many roductions. Yes, she’s naïve, a village girl out of her comfort zone in both Seville and the bandit-affected mountain pass. But Georgieva offers us the steel backbone which allows her to negotiate these perils and fulfil her mission each time.

As Frasquita and Mercédès, Anastasia Podzigun and Elena Lodigina make the most of the card trio in the penultimate scene. Nikolay Efremov is a somewhat under-powered Escamillo; the smaller male rôles are well diferentiated. There are always production teething troubles at the start of a tour, but Nelli Svatova’s lighting design left too many faces in shadow when singing downstage. The necessary surtitles need proof-reading.

Carmen is at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 10 September, the Princes Theatre, Clacton on 11 September and The Cresset, Peterborough on 13 September. Other tour dates include the Alban Arena, St Albans on 5 October, the Towngate Theatre, Basildon on 6 October and the Watford Colossem on 8 October.

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Filed under Music & music theatre, Opera, Reviews 2016

Singin’ in the Rain

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 18 August)

Theatrical cliché number one – the show must go on!. And go on it did for Catherine Lomax’s summer in-house production, even though Simon Anthony suffered a foot injury during a particularly energetic dance routine as Cosmo Brown, necessitating an extended interval, roughly where one would have occured in a (now old-fashioned) two-interval production.

Craig Armstrong, who had been playing the two smaller roles of Sid Philips and the diction cach, had played the part previously and took over script-in-hand for the rest of the performance. Overall it’s a lavish production, complete with rainfall for the title number and finale, which moves slickly from scene to scene (there are 21 of them).

The script follows the Betty Comden and Adolph Green screen-play with Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed’s songs, most familiar to most of us from the Gene Kelly film. Khiley Williams’ choreography has th right 1920s influences – this is a story which centres on the Hollywood change from silent to sound films – and she has deised some good production numbers as well as the iconic “singin’ in the rain”.

Central to the story is stage actress Kathy, who is invested by Katie Warsop with just the right mix of steel-backbone determination and disarming femininity. She also dances extremely well and has the voice to match. As script-writer Don Mike Denman is perhaps a better dancer and actor than he is a singer, but his engaging ersonality makes up for this.

Screech-voiced Lina, the glittering Hollywood star with a temperment to match and completely non-existent vocal charm, is brought to full theatrical life by Cameron Leigh. Lomax’s production has a clever use of film which both sets the period and reminds us of the double artificiality of the whole set-up. Chris Keen is in charge of the (unseen) orchestra and the lighting design by Pete Kramer adds to the illusion.

Singin’ in the Rain runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 27 August. There are matinée peformances on 20, 25 and 27 August.

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Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016

Ireland’s Call

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 9 March)

This new touring production is both a story about Irish emigration in the mid-20th century and a showcase for traditional Irish dancing, an increasingly popular genre. The story by Ross Mills, Ged Graham and Trevor Payne focuses on a young man Sean Dempsey (Mike Burr) and his childhood sweetheart Cora McGowen (Shauna Barry).

Sean sees no furture for himself at home, so migrates first to London and then to New York. Here he joins the Police Department and saves enough money for Cora’s passage, but she is torn between her family obligations and her love for him. Eventually she decides to stay in Ireland and, somewhat on the rebound, he marries his captain’s daughter Ekeanor (also plyed by Barry).

Linking the different times and places is the narrator (Graham), first as the parish priest, then as a Cricklewood fixer and finally as the NYPD chief (all three men are brothers). All three principal come at their roles with sincerity, though Graham does tend to milk his, especially in the second half. Mills directs and the excellent choreographer is Lianne Stubbs.

You can’t fault to precision of the dancing ensemble with exceptionally neat footwork throughout and some spectacular leaps and jumps from Burr and the other male dancers. Jarrod Loughlin’s historical and topographical projections provide the background and take the place of scenery though Mike Stevens’ complex lighting design fell prey to a technological fault at the performance I saw.

It’s fair to say that the audience loved every minute of it, but there are longeurs; no doubt the show will tighten up as the tour progrsses (this goes on until May). Certainly the extended clap-along after the finale could be cut – not everyone wants to stand up and wave their arms about for what seemed like a quarter of an hour when cars, buses and trains await the journey home.

Ireland’s Call is at The Cresset, Peterborough (11 March), Cliffs Pavilion, Southend (26 March), Theatre Royal, Norwich (27 March), Prince’s Theatre, Claction (2 April), Regent Theatre, Ipswich (9 April), Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch (25 April), Mercury Theatre, Colchester (26 April), The Grove, Dunstable (28 April) and Civic Theatre, Chelmsford (2 May).

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Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016

The Sleeping Beauty

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 4 December 2015)

There are a number of commercial producers of pantomimes; not all of them have the production values of Eastbourne-based Chris Jordan. This year sees The Sleeping Beauty trapped by the vengeful Carabosse in Stevenage. The sets and costumes (Shelley Claridge) are colourful and there’s some excellent choreography by Philip Joel.

We begin with Fairy Fortywinks (Nicola Bryan) confronting the much more powerful Carabosse (Wendi Peters), an immortal with grievances. Lots of them.King Clarence (Paul Bentley) is missing his late wife and seeking a suitable prince to marry his daughter Belle (Daniella Piper). She doesn’t take kindly to being cosseted either by her father or by Nellie Night Nurse ((Paul Laidlaw).

Laidlaw is an experienced Dame, of the cuddly rather than abrasive variety. Son Chester (Aidan O’Neill) is the Court Jester and, of course, secretly in love with Belle. That doesn’t make Prince Valiant (Gregor Stewart)’s task any easier as he goes in search of a suitable bride. The “Love me” duet is an attractive number.

Carabosse has a team of helpers, and very nasty they are too. There’s an attractive duet for Belle and Valiant before the spectacular final to the first act. In Act Two we have Nellie’s famous strip-tease as well as a time machine (not a million miles from Dr Who’s police-box) to take everyone forward a hundred years.

The Sleeping Beauty runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 24 January.

There’s a dragon in the ghost scene, which makes a nice change, and at least one spectacular exit through the orchestra pit – James Cleeve’s domain. Innovations are carefully blended with the expected traditional – such as the kitchen scene. And Fairy Fortywinks may keep on dropping off at crucial moments – but she has a winning way with her trumpet.

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Filed under Pantomimes & seasonal shows, Reviews 2015

Moonlight & Magnolias

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 21 October)

Ron Hutchinson’s play is a comedy – not to say farce – on the outside which wraps itself around some serious issues. Ostensibly it’s about the making of the film Gone With the Wind, more precisely about the fractured start to what became one of the greatest box-office successes of all time.

We’re in the Hollywood office of David O Selznick (Mark Little), the studio boss who has fired both the director and the script-writer. To replace the one, he hauls Victor Fleming (Richard Burnip) off The Wizard of Oz. His new choice for dramatist is Ben Hecht (Derek Howard), who hasn’t even read Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 book.

Money is leaching out of Selznick’s coffers as an expensive crew and even more expensive cast wait to resume filming. Somehow in five days a scenario needs to be produced for Fleming to work out scenes and camera angles and a script developed for the actors to learn. Hecht is more than reluctant to be involved.

Selznick’s solution is a radical one. He locks himself and the other two men in his office; Hecht has to make the script from the frantic and compressed rôle-playing by Selznick and Fleming. That’s where the fun really begins, though Hecht never lets us forget what is happening to the Jewish population in Europe as Hitler lurches towards war.

He sees the situation of Negroes in the ante bellum Deep South as providing a parallel. It’s a clever performance by Howard, never grasping at the audience’s understanding of his problems and principles but letting them seep across into our consciousness. Burnip has rather drawn the short straw in this threesome but makes his quieter mark just the same.

Catherine Lomax’s production whisks everything along as the stage gradually becomes strewn with peanuts, banana-skins and page after page of rejected copy. Popping in and out of the action is Alexis Caley as Miss Poppenghul, Selznick’s dutiful but put-upon secretary. it’s a neat character study.

But the performance which dominates is that of Little. His timing is impeccable as, from his centre-stage desk with its bank of telephones, Selznick commands, cajoles, threatens and ultimately oh-so-subtly bribes. Alistair Rivers’ set is excellent and Chris Janes orchestrates the fight scenes with just the right blend of realism and stage convention. It seems a pity that this production only has a limited season at its home theatre.

Moonlight & Magnolias runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 24 October.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015

Sister Act

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 20 August)

Twice-yearly musicals with a broad appeal have become something of a trademark for Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre’s artistic manager Catherine Lomax. This August she has chosen Sister Act, the fast-paced stage musical based on the film of the same name.

it’s star is indubitably Michelle Chantelle Hopewell who plays Deloris, so badly entangled with the gangland club owner Curtis (Trevor A Toussaint) that her former classmate, would-be suitor and police officer Eddie (Darren Charles) needs to tuck her away in a convent to save her life.

Curtis may have pooh-poohed her musical talents, but the Mother Superior (Pippa Winslow) finds herself letting them take hold on her less than perfect choir of nuns. To say that Deloris spices up the plainchant is an understatement – and she sets quite a number of cats loose amid the habited pigeons while she’s about it.

Jade Davies plays the postulant Mary Robert, a young woman suddenly unsure of her true vocation. That Mgr O’Hara (Arthur Bostrom) is all set to sell the nuns’ church for secular development simply adds to Mother Superior’s woes. Both Winslow and Roberts have strong voices and personalities which make their individual dilemmas credible in secular terms.

The costumes – no designer is credited – look good, especially the show-girl feathers and sequins and the white and silver glitter of the nuns as they perform for the Pope in the final scene. The settings, whether in the club, the police station, the church or within the convent, are clever and hold up the action as little as possible.

In the pit, musical director Chris Keen has a 12-piece ensemble. The slick choreography is by Khiley Williams. But, above all, it’s Hopewell’s evening, dominating from her first appearance – an untidy blend of naïveté and stroppiness – through her attempts to accommodate herself to being where and what she doesn’t want to be through to her final recognition not just of her own but of other people’s self-worth.

Sister Act runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 29 August.

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Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2015

Charlotte’s Web
(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 15 April)

The Stevenage theatre’s artistic director Catherine Lomax has been building up an impressive portfolio of in-house productions over the pa few years. The latest is a new staging of the Joseph Robinette and Charles Strouse’s musical version of the well-loved children’s story Charlotte’s Web by EB White, first published in 1952.

Set in White’s Maine, this is the story of a piglet who escapes slaughter, thanks to the feisty Fern, and is sent to be reared at the nearby Zukerman farm. There he makes the acquaintance of an assortment of farm animals, including an exceptionally greedy and know-all rat called Templeton (well, when did you last see a rat on stage cast as other than a devious specimen?) and the generous and intelligent spider called Charlotte (who lives in the same barn).

It is Charlotte, spinning ever more intricate webs, who saves Wilbur from the knife, much to Fern’s delight – though less so in the case of her stroppy brother Avery, their parents the Arables and the Zukerman household. White deals subtly but firmly with the sacrifice which Charlotte’s labours and her need to provide the next generation of spiders will exact.

The staging is very good with a succession of farm sets and some eye-catching costumes for the animals (Lisa Hickey), notably the geese (with goslings), the sheep (fleecy lambs by their side), great-coated Templeton and Charlotte’s bustled black with pendulous legs and extra eyes perched on her head like an aviatrix’s goggles. The country ‘n’ western-derived score is tuneful, if not memorable, and Khiley Williams has provided some energetic choreography for it.

Cameron Leigh’s Charlotte is a clever portrayal and well-sung as well as acted. Will Breckin’s Wilbur is as perky as such a prize porker ought to be with the forceful Harriet Payne as his human advocate and Matthew Collyer as a Templeton who has a distinct whiff of Animal Farm in his deviousness. Ed Court is quite funny as the Zuckermans’ clumsy farmhard Lurvy and Alistair Higgins stomps around as the archetypical teenage grump.

The five-piece band is led by Phil Dennis, and sounded at time a little under-powered. At the opening performance, Luke Hyde’s sound team hadn’t quite got the balance right, so that the opening numbers and verbal exchanges were over-miked while Leigh’s final scene and song seem to fade rather more than the spider’s own fragility at that point really warrented.

Charlotte’s Web runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 19 April.

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Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2015