Tag Archives: Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

Our Man in Havana
reviewed in Ipswich on 23 May

Clive Francis’ adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana is a delight, especially when performed by four actors of the West Country-based touring ensemble Creative Cow. This is ensemble playing at its slickest, with taut direction by Amanda Knott and a deceptively simple set by Nina Raines imaginatively lit by Derek Anderson.

As vacuum-cleaner salesman James Wormold (Charles Davies) sees his life in pre-Castro Cuba dissoving around him when his wife walks out leaving him with their affectionate but oh-so-demanding daughter Milly (Isla Carter) and business in stone-floored Havana far from flourishing, his friendship with emigré German doctor Hasselbacher (James Dinsmore) seems his only worthwhile adult relationship.

Enter Hawthorne, a man from Mi5 (Dinsmore), with a financial inducement in connexion with the Cold War then raging. How can Wormold resist? Of course he doesn’t, and the bonuses flow in as he invents first a whole raft of subsidiary agents and suggests some secret weapons-launch construction (these look remarkably similar to vacuum-cleaner parts…).

With Michael Onslow as Wormold’s sevant Lopez and the local police chief Segura, who fancies Milly) – all four actors except Davies play at least seven other roles as well as narrating – the confusion and misunderstandings build to a comedic climax which partly dissolves into genuine tragedy. Carter manages her doubling of Milly and Beatrice, sent from London to try to regulate the Havana situation superbly, but the whole cast is near faultless.

Four and a half-star rating.

Our Man in Havana plays at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 27 May with matinées on 24 and 27 May. It can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmuns between 29 June and 1 July.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Reviews 2017

Cyrano
reviewed at Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal on 2 May

Rostand was only 30 when his best-known play Cyrano de Bergerac was staged. This Northern Broadsides version by Deborah McAndrew is called simply Cyrano and decorates the action with considerable song-and-dance, which does slightly obscure the central story. It’s not precisely a musical in Conrad Nelson’s direction (he is also the composer) but does emphasis how young the characters are, including the protagonist.

Christian Edwards tries very hard as Cyrano but for me he fails to convey the deeply multi-faceted character of the proud poet, playwright, swordsman and soldier. Pretty as she is, Sharon Singh doesn’t succeed in making Roxane into more than a shadow of the beauty who wins men’s hearts so effortlessly while maintaining her own integrity. The 13-strong cast does however throw up some three-dimensional character studies.

Notable among these are Andy Cryer’s arrogsnt de Guiche, Andrew Whitehead’s Le Bret, Paul Barnhill’s Ragueneau and Michael Hugo’s Lignière; Hugo has the best of the musical numbers. Adam Barlow, in an odd-looking wig, doesn’t convey either Christian’s boyish good-looking glamour or the character’s basic decency and courage.

Lis Evans has created a succession of reasonably accurate 17th century costumes and a flexible curtain-hung set easily adaptable to indicate the different locations of the five acts and with which lighting director Daniella Beattie plays games. The choreographer is Beverley Norris-Edmunds with fight direction by Philip d’Orléans. The Theatre Royal’s stage is something of an acoustic gem, but that 21st century disease – the mumbles – seems to have afflicted some of the cast.

Three and a half-star rating.

Cyrano runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 6 May with matinées on 3 and 6 May.

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Northanger Abbey
reviewed at Bury St Edmunds on 3 Feb

in 2017 a teenage girl might well be fixated on manufactured “celebrity” figures as defined by social media or the latest boy-band’s lead heartthrob. Just over two hundred years ago, her thrills came through Gothic romance novels, such as Mrs Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho – full of crumbling ruins, chained skeletons in dungeons, walled-up wailing nuns and savage robber barons.

Jane Austen, herself only 23 when she began Northanger Abbey, pokes delicate fun at the genre – which she herself enjoyed reading, though rather more cynically than her heroine Catherine Morland. This eldest daughter of a loving but financially straitened gentry family is taken to Bath by her rich neighbours Mr and Mrs Allen. There she encounters her brother James, his university friend John Thorpe (and his sister Isabella) and the two childen of irascible General Tilney, Eleanor and Henry.

The Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, itself a Georgian playhouse, has built quite a reputation for stage adaptations of Austen’s novels. Directed by Karen Simpson, this Tim Luscombe adaptation again uses a small cast within Dawn Allsopp’s minimal set, so that the action flows from Bath to Northanger, from curricle travel to hilltop picnics. The first half is even so perhaps just a little too drawn-out. Eva Feiler makes a delightful heroine, deliciously gullible as she weaves her fantasies and grasps at the next excitement on offer until brought back to reality with the proverbial bump.

Neither Thorpe is a particularly pleasant person. Annabelle Terry gives us all Isabella’s selfishness, wiggling out of her engagement to James (Joseph Tweedale) when she finds that he is not due to inherit much money as though she was shrugging off an outdated chemise. Joe Parker is the self-inflated, ego-stroking oafish John. True affection and calm reason by contrast are personified by Harry Livingstone’s Henry Tilney; his is the quiet voice and unobtrusive presence which will finally resolve all to a proper conclusion.

Jonathan Hansler’s martinet of an authoritarian father (one winces for the junior officers he once commanded) lingers almost gloatingly on Catherine’s surname when he thinks she is a potential heiress; “more land!” lies behind the emphasis. There’s a touch of his steel in Emma Ballentine’s Eleanor when she herself manages to marry the man she loves (opposition fades when her bridegroom inherits a title) and pulls rank to allow Catherine a share in the nuptuals. Hilary Tones contrasts Mrs Allen and Mrs Morland quietly but effectively.

Rather than a choreographer as such, the dancing and general Regency-era deportment are by Julia Cave. Rather than a near-balletic sequence of steps, hers are dancing as performed by ordinary people, some better at it than others – just as in real life. Matt Bugg’s score occasionally suggests an ill-tuned fortepiano, again a realistic touch, but softens into something which is completely tuneful but never obtrusive.

Four star rating.

Northanger Abbey runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 11 February with matinées on 8 and 11 February. The national tour continues until 13 May and includes the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 2 and 6 May.

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ShowStopper!
reviewed on 21 Jan at Bury St Edmunds

Showstoppers have hit on a winning formula with its series of carefully crafted improvised plays and musicals. This one, with a full house at the Theatre Royal wholeheartedly entering into the spirit, proved to have the catchy title of God Help Us!.

This plot is a weird concoction marrying elements of The Young Pope, Jerry Springer: the Musical and Tom Lehrer’s Vatican Rag with the audience’s suggestions for musical styles including galley-years Verdi, Carousel, High School Musical, Oliver!, Wicked! and a couple of Lloyd Webber hits thrown in for good measure.

Basically,a man and a woman about to take religious vows find themselves in love. Could be serious stuff, but not handled this way and treading a brilliant path between could-be-one-day fantasy and actual human emotions. Not to mention sexuality.

You’d have to be devoid of humour to take offence at the situations in which Lucy Trodd as Maria, Justin Brett as her on-off suitor Marius, Andrew Pugsley as the Pope and Philip Pellew as the all-purpose Steve find themselves. Not to mention Lauren Shearing’s over-burdened Sister Clara…

Dylan Emery attempts to keep proceedings under control as a harrassed would-be producer desperately trying to sell the idea of a new blockbuster musical to Cameron Macintosh (well, who else?). Simon Scullion has devised an outline, flexible set consisting mainly of screens and benches in scarlet and black.

There’s an equally ecletic range of costumes and props by Gabriella Slade. Instrumental accompaniment is provided by Duncan Wesh Atkins at the keyboard and Alex Atty with a whole range of percussion, while the nifty choeographic consultancy comes from Donna Berlin, though I suspect that the cast know precisely what’s required for the storyline and situations.

Four star rating.

ShowStopper!: The Improvised Musical is at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 9 and 11 February and at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 18 and 19 February as part of a national tour running until 23 April.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Reviews 2017

Beauty and the Beast

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 11 December)

It’s proving to be the most popular pantomime story this Christmas. Chris Hannon has come up with yet another version of the Beauty and the Beast story for Karen Simpson’s production. We’re vaguely in the Middle Ges where the villagers are torn between half-believing the stories about a beast terrorising the old abbey gardens and working out how to exploit this as a tourist attraction.

Belle (Louise Olley) has been selected (though of course she doesn’t know it yet) by green-fingered, pink-wellie-booted Fairy Blossom (Leonie Spilsbury) to undo the curse laid on a too-selfishly preening Lord Leopold (Sebastian Hill) by the evil Elvira (Britt Lenting). All three have good voices, as does Hill, when he gets the chance.

Designs are by rebecca Lee with a fine sequence of sets and a very good costume for the beast; the mask is particularly effective. The young chorus sing and dance to fill the stage thoroughly professionally. Belle is no meek girl in Olley’s characterisation; she needs to be strong because her father is a has-been touring actor Sir Kenneth Branflakes (Martin Neely) and cake-shop proprietor Molly Muffintop (Eamonn Fleming) has her own agenda.

Fleming is a Dame very much of the no-nonsense school; he works well off the audience as does Michael Lapham as dopey Barney Muffintop. Lenting commands the stage in her numbers; musical director Ward Baker makes good use of the choice of favourite – but always appropriate to the situation numbers. Julia Cave’s choreograpy and Jake Taylor’s lighting add to the fairy-tale atmosphere. There’s good use of amplified sound at atrategic moments by Andy Hinton.

Beauty and the Beast runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury st Edmunds until 15 January. Check the theatre’s website (theatreroyal.org) for performance times.

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Filed under Pantomimes & other seasonal shows, Reviews 2016

The 39 Steps

(reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 9 August)

This new production for Suffolk Summer Theatres has been devised and directed by Mark Sterling from the Patrick Barlow tongue-in-cheek version of the John Buchan novel brought memorably to the screen by Alfred Hitchcock.

Though it may seem like a whole sequence of “based on…”, this staging does add a further dimension, with its introductory sequence from the film, multiple use of projections and some Hitcockian hommages – the music-hall is MacGuffin’s and the moorland chase has a pair of hobby-horse planes with their pilots plotting north by north-west courses.

The four main actors – Clive Flint, Joe Leat, Amy Christina Murray and Simon Stanhope – are supplemented by ASMs Kitty Dunham and Laurence Leonard who not only move the triangular pillars and furniture but join enthusiastically in the second act’s highland reel. They fully deserve their appearance at the curtain call.

Stanhope is our dashing hero Richard Hannay who, finding himself in London at a loose end, goes to the music-hall and thereby secures himself a perilously adventurous future. Murray whisks on and off a sequence of wigs and accents as the femme fatale whose appearance in Hannay’s flat triggers off the whole story, the feisty but not unflappable Pamela, the susceptible crofter’s wife and others.

“Others” sums up the multi-faceted Flint and Leat perfectly. Flint manages, with swift headgwear, coat and skirt changes, a positive galaxy of characters from Mr Memory and the crofter to railway officials, policemen, landladies and one of the duo of rain-coated, slouch-hatted, dark-glasses spies. Leat’s Professor Jordan provides a hilarious sub-Hitlerian tirade and one half of a Flanagen & Allen turn.

The 39 Steps continues at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 13 August, transfers to the Southwold Summer Theatre between 15 and 27 August and to the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from 6 to 10 September.

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Travels With My Aunt

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 5 May)

Giles Havergal’s stage version of the Graham Greene novella has a cast of four, each of whom at various times plays Henry Pulling and his maternal aunt (or is she?) Augusta. This new Creative Cow production is directed with immaculate precision by Amanda Knott with an angular bar setting to match (ART), slick lighting changes from Douglas Morgan and some evocative sound by Matt Early.

All four actors – Richard Earl, Jack Hulland, David Partridge and Katherine Senior – wear impeccable business suite with just hat or sunglasses change to indicate the hand-over of character or where we are in Henry and Augusta’s increasingly picaresque (not to say suspect) wanderings. This is ensemble playing with some stand-out moments.

Hulland’s Aunt Augusta is deliciously over-the-top while Partridge excels as factotum Wordsworth and wild-child Tooley. Earl has his moment as ruthless Colonel Hakim and equally hard-hearted Mr Visconti. Senior makes much of the ingénue Yolanda, teenage daughter of yet another of the devious police chiefs with whom the travellers tangle.

Travels With My Aunt can also be seen at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 6 and 11 June.

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Invincible

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 30 March)

You know all the old contrast metaphors – chalk and cheese, oil and water, east and west. There’s also north and south, which is at the heart of Torben Betts 2014 play Invincible, how given a new production by Christopher Harper for an extended collaborative tour by the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds and the Original Theatre Company.

We’re in a rented cottage in the north of England. Emily (Emily Bowker) and Oliver (Alastair Whatley) have left London for what they imagine will be a simpler – not to say, cheaper – way of life. Oliver’s devoutly Christian mother is dying, which serves as a pretext; her greatest wish is for them to marry in church but, as Emily makes clear right from the start, that’s against her strongly-held principles.

Emily in short is one of those people so involved with chasing the motes that the actual beam (basically, her own selfishness) is completely ignored. Oliver may share most of her libertarian, organic and internationalist scruples, but is probably a fraction more reality-rooted. He knows that easing his mother’s last days has implications beyond the purely physical ones of nursing.

Their new next-door neighbours are Alan (Graeme Brookes) and his wife Dawn (Kerry Bennett). They have daughters, whose much-loved but marauding cat is another bane of Emily’s existence, and a son serving oversea in the British army. Alan in his own words is a “big flat slob”, football-obsessed, a drinker of lager out of cans and far too prone to laugh at his own jokes. it’s a delicious portrait of a type who is also a flesh-and-blood person by Brookes.

You can’t warm to Emily, not even with the burning sincerity of Bowker’s performance and can see why (in a farcical but bitter mix-up of actions and explanations) Whatley’s more gentle Oliver is drawn to Bennett’s earth-goddess Dawn. This is in many ways a farce from a classic mould, but it’s a savage one very much for our fractured 21st century.

Heidi McEvoy-Swift’s costume designs perfectly reflect the characters of their wearers while Victoria Spearing’s setting of the tattered décor of the rented cottage is briskly refurbished for the second half into Emily’s preferred Farrow & Ball London loft minimalism. it’s all foot-lighted by rows of miniature buildings and loomed over by the Angel of the North.

Invincible runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 2 April with a matinée on 2 April. It can also be seen at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich (19-23 April) and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester (28-30 April).

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015, Reviews 2016

Flare Path

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 2 March)

The co-production between the Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions of Terence Rattigan’s Second World War drama Flare Path has been recast for its 2016 tour. Slipping a new cast into a production designed for a different set of actors is often an illuminating process.

Justin Audibert’s staging is straightforward with a semi-realistic set and costumes by Hayley Grindle. The min plot revolves around Flight Lieutenant Graham (Daniel Fraser), his actress wife Patricia Warren (Hedydd Dylan) and her former love film star Peter Kyle (Lynden Edwards). We are in the main reception room of a hotel near the air-base where the bombers and their crews are based.

The sub-plot concerns a Polish Flying Officer Count Skriczevinsky (William Reay) who seeks vengeance on the Nazis who killed his wife and children. He has remarried, a good-hearted former barmaid called Doris (Claire Andreads); theirs is a complex relationship and whether or not it will survive the end of hostilities is left open to individual interpretation.

Edwards makes the (now fading) screen heart-throb into a man who is outwardly assured but inwardly both needy and selfish. Fraser makes much of the big, ultimately very moving scene where Graham returns from an operation and admits the strain under which this puts him to his wife. Dylan and Andreadis both bring their characters to life and there’s an abrasive cameo of the hotel proprietor Mrs Oakes by Audrey Palmer.

There is comedy as well as drama in Flare Path, mainly provided by Sergeant Miller (Jamie Hogarth) and his wife Maudie (Polly Hughes). Reay for my taste doesn’t quite fit into Skriczevinsky’s boots; he plays for laughs which seem at odds with the driven essence of the man.

Flare Path runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 5 March with a matinée on 5 March. It also plays at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester 7-12 March.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

End of the Rainbow

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 18 February)

There’s some part of most of us, if we’re honest, which revels in schadenfreude – in the theatre just as much as in other forms of life. Peter Quilter’s 2011 play about Judy Garland’s last, disastrous London season has been given a new production by the Mercury Theatre’s artistic director Daniel Buckroyd which launches itself on a major national tour between 22 February and 9 July.

We’re in a luxurious hotel room booked by Garland’s new manager (and soon-to-be fifth husband) Mickey Deans. Awaiting them is her long-time accompanist Anthony Chapman. Deans needs to keep her away from drink and pills, or he can see financial disaster ahead for the booked-out Talk of the Town performances. Chapman wants her to find some balance in her future life.

Basically a three-hander, the spotlight inevitably is on the actress who plays Garland. For me, Lisa Maxwell only seemed to arrive in the part with the first cabaret appearance. It’s as though she is trying too hard to inhabit the skin rather than the soul of her character. The scenes of pill-fuelled disintegration are well done, though the heart of the play remains in the exchange with Chapman when he suggests an alternative future.

Gary Wilmot makes Chapman thoroughly credible, as the gay man who accepts that his life cannot be as open as he would perhaps prefer but has understanding and practical compassion to spare. Sam Attwater makes no attempt to ply Deans for sympathy but allows you to appreciate how a rag-bag of emotions and motivations drive him. But there never is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

End of the Rainbow runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 20 February with a Saturday matinée. It also plays at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds 31 May-4 June.

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Miss Nightingale

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 1 October)

Last year’s Peter Rowe-New Wolsey Theatre production of the wartime-set musical Miss Nightingale has been re-imagined by the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal artistic director Karen Simpson. Matthew Bugg’s story may have a singing entertainer as its title character but, as one of the numbers makes plain, it’s far more a Mr Nightingale drama.

!942 in London was a frenetic time and place. Bombs were falling, morale could easily have crumbled, refugees sought to find themselves a place of safety (both intellectually and physically) and morals were loosened, though the law was liable to come down heavily on those who transgressed – such as homosexuals.

We meet two of the three main characters in a dim street. Sir Frank (Nicholas Coutu-Langmead) picks up Polish Jew composer and songwriter George Nowodny Conor O’Kane), but the transaction is interrupted. When they next meet it is at an audition by Maggie Brown (Clara Darcy) who her boy-friend and agent Tom Fuller (Christopher Hogben) hopes to place as a star attraction in Frank’s nightclub.

O’Kane’s gives the stand-out performance and his first act number “Meine Liebe Berlin” is the best in the show. You believe in his displacement agony as he contempates the fate of his parents, academics who couldn’t believe that they were vulnerable, and the complexities of his relationships with Maggie, who achieves success as Miss Nightingale, and the ever-more devoted Frank.

Frank and George’s “Mister Nightingale” duet and the quarter which ends the first half are also very effective. I wish I could say the same for Darcy, who has the right sort of gamine spark but somehow fails to radiate the charisma such a cabaret star should surely generate. Hogden makes an effective villain as he sinks into blackmail and Bugg makes a small-scale but credible sketch of Harry, Maggie’s soldier brother. His score is played by the cast, displaying skill with a wide range of instruments

From being not particularly sympathetic through his attempts to balance his three separate worlds to his admission of two quite different but equally sincere types of affection, Coutu-Landmead grows in out understanding. The set by Carla Goodman makes the right sort of tawdry-until-lit impression and is suitably flexible as the action shifts between the various locations.

Miss Nightingale runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 3 October and then tours nationally until 20 February. It can also be seen at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon between 13 and 16 January.

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Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2015

Waiting for Godot

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmuns on 22 September)

Director Michael Cabot takes us through Beckett’s most performed play at a brisk rate which emphasises the comedic aspects while remaining respectful to the text. I seem to remember Peter Hall’s original London production as taking a far more reverential approach. This one works, thanks in large part to a set design by Bek Palmer which engages our eyes while five excellent actors engross our ears.

Andy Grange’s lighting complements the shimmering black floor-cloth, suggestive of some primeval swamp or morass. it’s studded with light stepping-stones, like so many giant and bleached lily-pads. The all-important tree where Vladimir (Peter Cadden) and Estragon (Richard Heap) wait for their appointment with the mysterious Godot is a grey columnar affair, dangling its thick tangle of roots at their eye-level. Dull mirrors and other similarly suspended trees form its bakground.

As the two men wrangle, Vladimir pontificates and Estragon grumbles, they’re joined by Pozzo (Jonathn Ashley) and his slave-servant Lucky (Michael Keane). Pozzo blusters in true ringmaster fashion, cracking his whip and demonstrating his top-hatted authority over lesser mortals. The boy(s) who announce at the end of the acts that Godot won’t in fact be coming until the next day are played by Sonja Zobel.

The joshing between the two main characters is beautifully defined by Heap and Cadden; their timing is impeccable and they use the constant switches in their relationship between mutual support and cross-patch irritation to win and keep the audiences sympathy. Keane comes into his own with Lucky’s incomprehensible tirade at the end of the first act, deservedly an applause-reaping scene. This production shows the unsubsidised London Classic Theatre at the top of its form.

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Jeeves & Wooster: Perfect Nonsense

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 2 September

The title sums up this confection to perfection – it’s a piece of fluff as light as any soufflé whipped up by Anatol, master chef of Bertie Wooster’s battleship of an aunt, but there’s been a great deal of hard work and skill in its making. David Goodale is the tour director for this post-West End promenade through the regions with the design team of Alice Power (set and costumes), James Farncombe (lighting) and Ben and Max Ringham (music and sound) working their own particular blend of magic.

Matthew Carter is ou hero – if you can call him that. Much of the fun of the evening comes from Joseph Chance’s imperturbable and erudite Jeeves and Robert Goodale’s doddering Seppings. Both actors take on a bewilderingly hilarious variety of roles, both male and female, as Bertie tries to help a fellow Drones member to revive his faltering engagement and retrieve a Georgian silver cow-creamer coveted by both his uncle and an irascible JP.

The fiancée in question just happens to be the JP’s daughter; one of those apparently delicate flapper flowers who knows just what she wants and how to get it – as does her cousin Stephanie.Those multitudinous costume and set changes whisk along in a clever faux-naïf fashion, as though Bertie and his chums were indulging in a spurt of country house or varsity am dram. it’s just what you need to take your mind off the weather.

Jeeves & Wooster: Perfect Nonsense
runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 5 September and also plays at the New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich from 13 to 17 October and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 30 October and 1 November.

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And Then There Were None

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 4 August)

Justice’s sword has always had two sharp edges, as Agatha Christie’s novels and plays wll demonstrate. None more so perhaps than And Then There Were None – both novel and self-dramatisation – which first appeared during the Second World War, and has had a variety of titles (depending on the shifting sands of political correctness) ever since.

We are in a palatial villa on a very small island just off the English coast in that febrile period between the two wars. Simon Scullion presents us with a stunning art déco set which wouldn’t disgrace Eltham Palace for this summer tour by Bill Kenwright and the Agatha Christie Theatre Company. The production is correctly given with two intervals, by the way.

As the apparently unconnected group of eight invited guests arrive on the island, to be greeted by resident houseman Rogers, his cook wife and the host’s secretary Vera Claythorne, it soon becomes apparent that the host and hostess are detained elsewhere and that the only thing to do is to wait in apparent isolation. Director Joe Harmston takes the opening sequences sufficiently leisurely to allow appreciation of the different characters to evolve.

By Act Two, the audience has been presented with a variety of clues as the tension builds after the revelation that all the characters have caused deaths and evaded the consequences. The question is, who wields justice’s sword? – Disguised ex-policeman Blore (Gary Mavers)? Retired general MacKenzie (Eric Carte) or former officer Lombard (Ben Nealon)? Or could it be Dr Armstrong (Mark Curry) or Mr or Mrs Rogers (Frazer Hines and Judith Rae)? Surely it cannot be either devout dowager Miss Brent (Deborah Grant) or stylish secretary Claythorne (Kezia Burrows)?

As lad-about-town Marston (Tom McCarron) is the fist victim of the “Ten little soldier-boys” riddle, it’s certainly not him. Why would it be former High Court judge Sir Lawrence Wargrave (Neil Stacey)? The only person not in the frame is local fishman and ferry owner Fred Narracott (Jan Knightley). Douglas Kuhrt’s lighting comes into its own at the start of the third act as the remaining guests wait for the next death by candlelight, which is brighter than the fading trust among them.

The cast is an excellent one, radiating that brittle mixture of confidence and uncertainties which one associates with the between-wars period. I’ve seen this thriller several times before but never with the ending offered here. Much discussion went on with the packed Bury St Edmunds audience in the intervals as to who the master-mind might be. Not one of my neighbours guessed correctly – and I refused to give the game away, then as now.

And Then There Were None runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 8 August, at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 24 and 29 August and at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff from 21 to 26 September.

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Labour of Love

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 17 July)

The title of the community production celebrating 50 years of the revival for the country’s last complete Regency theatre is an apposite one. The mammoth task of restoration after three decades of being used as a store by the neighbouring Greene King brewery was initiated by an enthusiastic bunch of amateurs (in all senses of the word, as a telling line in Danusia Iwaszko’s script reminds us).

Any project as large as the restoration and renovation of the Theatre Royal is bound to inspire criticism as well as goodwill and support. Director Karen Simpson wisely lets this aspect carry as much weight as the other elements – musical (Phil Gostelow), design (Rachana Jadhav) and movement (Gary Willis).

The action flows across the auditorium as well as the stage and forestage as the enthusiasm of the (mainly) amateur initiators is overtaken by the more hard-headed realists who can crunch numbers. There’s a large cast mingling community with professional actors, headed by Suzanne Simpson as Olga Ironside Wood and Geir Madland as Air Vice-Marshal Vincent.

Jordan Cooper, who has an excellent voice, is the ghostly presence of a woman – audience member? actress? perhaps even Suffolk’s own Elizabeth Inchbald? The opposition is led by Richard Stainer as Neville Blackburne. Of the musial numbers, the opening one “Bring back our theatre” with its infectious three-four rhythm is the catchiest.

It really all does live up to its title.

Labour of Love runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 25 July.

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Absent Friends

(reviewed at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 19 May)

Nobody does the tragi-comedy of the wrecking of relationships more skillfully than Alan Ayckbourn. Absent Friends, now 40 years old, offers us four such couples; however, one husband is bed-ridden at home and the other has lost his fiancée through a drowning accident. Michael Cabot’s new touring production for London Classic Theatre eschews the temptation to update it but treats it naturally, as a piece of its period which still has something to say to its audience even after a lapse of time.

Simon Kenny’s set – an affluent couple’s living-room in a house in an upwardly mobile area – displays all the most-have style of the period. It’s the home of businessman Paul (Kevin Drury) and his increasingly disenchanted wife Diana (Catherine Harvey). Colin (Ashley Cook) is a long-time member of their circle, perhaps less so now than when they were in their late teens and twenties. Diana is throwing a tea-party for Colin, now that he has so tragically lost his beloved Carole.

Except, of course, that he doesn’t really want consolation; he’s content with his memories of an untroubled, beautiful relationship (one which time had ensured would never even begin to sour). Marge (Alice Selwyn) has pampered her husband Gordon to such an extent that he is now an obese hypochondriac; her compensation is shopping. Hopeless salesman John (John Dorney), a man of perpetual motion, has acquired a wife Evelyn (Kathryn Ritchie), all monosyllabic estuary-English and laconic gum-chewing, and a baby, son Wayne.

Ayckbourn has laid these characters out on the table for examination, and Cabot performs a decisively neat dissection of them. From Dorney’s near-manic twitches and shuffles as John through the anger which is scarcely controlled in Drury’s thoroughly unpleasant Paul to the almost gormless bonhomie with which Cook invests Colin, the detailing is precise.

Diana has a couple of opportunities in which her frustrations boil over; the first is ostensibly aimed at Evelyn and the second (actions sometimes speak louder than words) at Paul. Harvey makes the most of these. One yearns to shake Marge out of her febrile complacency – she’s killing Gordon with pandering to his malaises while over-feeding him – Which is a tribute to Selwyn’s characterisation. As for Ritchie’s Evelyn… one can only say that if there is to be a survivor in their marriage, it won’t be John.

Absent Friends plays at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 20 May and at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds between 2 and 6 June as part of a national tour to 18 July.

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Macbeth
(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 14 April)

It’s a long time since I’ve heard such an intelligently-spoken version of Macbeth as Jactinder Verma’s new touring production for Tara Arts in association with Queen’s Hall Arts and Black Theatre Live. The Asian-flavoured staging, full of bear-foot stylised movement against Claudia Mayer’s stark metallic setting (adorned only with the changing portraits of Scotland’s fighting rulers) and accompanied throughout by Rax Timyr’s side-stage percussion.

The three weird sisters, all glittering saris and oiled beards, are played as hijras, India’s legally-recognised third gender community dating bak thousands of years. John Afzal, Ralph Birtwell and Deven Modha suggest a self-satisfying mischievous malevolence as they prophesy for Robert Mountford’s Macbeth and Mitesh Soni’s Banquo.

Shakespeare’s text is given in a very full version and its verse flows easily. Mountford’s Macbeth, a warrior nobleman hitherto suppressing – if indeed he ever has previously recognised – the ambitions which will leads him so inexorably to his destruction, is a marvellously full portrait. Shaheen Khan matches him as Lady Macbeth, all the more frightening because she never rants or raves at full blast; controlled menace in action.

Shalini Peiris plays Lady Macbeth’s maid, doubling as the porter (with a very funny “equivocation” monologue) and the doomed Lady Macduff. Birtwll contrasts Dauncan and the doctor while Modha takes on (with excellent contrast) the three sons – Malcolm, Fleance and Macduff’s heir. Umar Pasha is a stalwart Macduff while that thinking general Banquo comes over as quietly authoritative in Mitesh Soni’s interpretation.

Macbeth runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 18 April and at the Key Theatre, Peterborough on 28 and 29 April.

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Plays

Bouncers
(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 13 March)

The time and place of the action, as we’re told at the start of John Godber’s Bouncers, is the 1980s (the first professional production was in 1983) and a northern urban town.

One reason why this play has held the stage to become its author’s most popular work is that we could be at any time in the late 20th and early 21st centuries – and in any town centre late at night at the weekend. It passes the test of memorable theatre – it has something to say to everyone in whichever theatre they are sitting.

Godber’s new touring production has its four characters start by monitoring the audience and wearing immaculate evening dress. The stage is a square, dominated by the play’s fluorescent title (though we are actually at a disco-club called Mr Cinders).

That square is defined, by a floor-level ring of lights designed by Graham Kirk. The only props are four metal beer casks and the identical glitter clutch-bags carried by the actors when portraying the quarter of girls planning for and then enduring on a night out.

Robert Hudson dominates the cast as Lucky Eric, whose monologues punctuate the action and remind us that we are something more than mere spectators. Chris Hannon is joker-in-the-pack Ralph, Frazer Hammill plays the bull-in-a-china-shop Judd and Adrian Hood is Les, the quiet stirrer.

The jerky rhythmns of Godber’s verse are emphasised by the beat of the music and some extremely nifty footwork. It is a measure of the strength of the play and the subtle arguments it lays before us that the knowing appreciation of teenagers in the Bury St Edmunds audience at the performance I saw was echoed by their elders.

We’ve all been there, done that – in our imaginations if not in real life. The ability to make an audience think and then to come away from a performance perhaps just a little bit wiser then when taking its seata is a rarity. But some plays and some productions pull it off.

Bouncers runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 14 March. it can also be seen at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester from 26 to 28 March.

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