Tag Archives: Arts Theatre Cambridge

Aladdin

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 4 December

It’s billed as a traditional pantomime, and to a large extent that’s precisely what Al Morley’s script and Phil Clark’s direction deliver. Sue Simmerling’s costumes look well and there’s a particularly effective turquoise and glitter combination for the walk-down.

So, what’s the twist? The answer is show-stealer Wayne Sleep as Abanazer; picked as a favourite by one of the four children brought on stage for the singalong – I think this is the first time in all my panto-going experience that the villain trumps the comics or the young hero and heroine.

Why is obvious. Swirling his magical cloak and decorating his characterisation with just the subtlest hint of high camp, Sleep punctuates his exits with capsule dance sequences before the full-scale tap production number “Putting on the Ritz”. Widow Twankey (Matt Cosby) and Wishy-Washy (Max Fulham) don’t stand a chance.

Fulham in particular engages the audience very well, especially with his ventriloquist companion Gordon (the monkey). Crosby throws off topical and political gags in proper “blink and you miss it” style and is energetic (to put it mildly) in the second-act slop scene.

Aladdin himself is played by Holly Easterbrook in proper principal boy fashion. Liza Goddard is the Empress, trying – and failing – to keep her adventurous daughter Waterlily (Suzie Mathers) confined by imperial protocol. The other immortals are Rosalind James as the Spirit of the Ring and Andy Abraham as the Genie of the Lamp.

Kevan Allen’s choreography makes the most of talented adult and juvenile ensembles with crisp footwork and groupings. Richard John is the musical director, making the most of Will Stuart’s eclectic sequence of arrangements.

Four and a half-star rating.

Aladdin runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 6 January. Performance dates and times vary: check the box office 01223 503 333 and www.cambridgeartstheatre.com for details.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Family & children's shows, Pamtomimes & other seasonal shows, Reviews 2018

Wise Children

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 20 November

Emma Rice’s new company, named for this launch production, has something of the quirkiness which one associates with her previous nest at Kneehigh. It’s a bold, multi-disciplined stage adaptation of Wise Children, Angela Carter’s last novel, and has a suitably exploited show-business background.

The kernel of the story centres on twin sisters, Dora and Nora. They are possibly the fruit of a one-night stand by actor-manager Melchior Hazard  (himself a scion of a sequence of such theatrical demigods) and a music-hall artiste. From the beginning we are made aware of the geographical and genre hierarchy of early 20th century entertainment.

Rice’s production uses Lyndie Wright’s puppets to represent these infant daughters, and later their putative cousins who may have been fathered by Melchior’s brother Peregrine. Adult Dora and Nora act as a species of chorus as the story unravels, played engagingly by Gareth Snook and Etta Murfitt.

As sub-teenagers, brought up by their grandmother Chance (Katy Owen), they are played by Bettrys Jones and Mirabelle Gremaud and later – in their stunning showgirl manifestation by Melissa James and Omari Douglas. Murfitt’s choreography fits the mood and period before us in perfect harmony with musical director Ian Ross’ pot-pourri score.

The younger Melchior is played by Ankur Bahl, who ages into Paul Hunter. Young Peregrine is Sam Archer, maturing (?) into Mike Shepherd. Patrycja Kujawska is Lady Atalanta, Melchior’s well-heeled, well-connected bride of his later years. The on-stage band is supplemented by the actors’ own instrumental as well as vocal contributions.

Yes, if you haven’t read the book, it does at first seem very complicated – a succession of music-hall sketches. Then the sheer theatricality of the presentation, like a succession of finely-executed transformation scenes draws us into its own slightly off-kilter world. Vicki Mortimer’s set and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting aid the journey enormously.

Theatre – whether minimal or elaborate, bare boards and scarce a fistful of actors or backed by a lavish budget and a cast of thousands – is designed to draw us into another world. That can be realistically represented or symbolically suggested. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. What does is its effect.

Wise Children (the company) has given itself something to live up to. That should be fun to watch.

Four and a half star rating.

Wise Children runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 24 November with matinées on 22 and 24 November.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Ballet and dance, Music Music theatre & opera, Plays, Reviews 2018

The Nightingales

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 12 November

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three and a half-star rating.

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

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

Shakespeare in Love

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 5 November

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four and a half-star rating.

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

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 16 October

This is probably Mischief Theatre’s most extravagant offering in its series of theatrical-mishap comedies to date in this new Birmingham Repertory Theatre production. The set (David Farley), quick-change costumes (Roberto Surace), lighting (David Howe) and quirky clever special effects provide part of the visual spectacle.

Split-second timing by an ensemble whose members know just how to play off each other enhances this; tour director Kirsty Patrick Ward keeps tight control. There are visual, as well as plot, nods to Hitchcock (The Birds) as well as to other heist capers  such as The italian Job and Topkapi.

Technical (Alan Bartlett) and stunt (Jami Quarrell) consultants help to keep the audience’s eyes focused and minds engaged – there’s one particular sequence in the second half which is an absolute show-stopper (though you’ll have to see the show to work out what it is).

Of the cast, with several changes from the printed programme, Julia Frith as free-spirit, go-getter Caprice makes a lively “heroine” with Eddy Westbury as her absconding criminal lover Mitch Ruscitti and Damian Lynch as her bank-manager father Mr Freeboys.

Also extremely active are Ashley Tucker as a sort of chorus to the action, David Coomber as criminal sidekick Neil Cooper, Killian Macardle as police officer Randal Shuck, Jon Trenchard as Warren Slax and George Hanniagan as the accurately-titled Everybody Else.

Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, as always for Mischief, are the writers.

Four star rating.

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 20 October with matinées on 17, 18 and 20 October. The tour also includes the Milton Keynes Theatre (20-24 November) and the Cambridge Arts Theatre (19 February-2 March). Cast details may vary.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

The Habit of Art

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 8 October

When does a poet or composer know when he has come to the end  of his powers? Is it the brain or the body which dictates the time? Does he just lay down his pen and opt for garnered laurels in a comfortable semi-retirement?

That’s the issue in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, a play within a play focusing on poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten at the end of their days. The fictional playwright has made Humphrey Carpenter (biographer of both Auden and Britten) into a framing device.

We’re in a typically chaotic rehearsal room Adrian Linford is the designer) with the stage manager standing in for the absentee director and the intense young author of Caliban’s Day increasingly paranoid about what the actors are doing with his carefully honed script.

Not only is the elderly actor playing Auden missing cues and needing endless prompts, but a couple of the younger cast members feel that they can bring more, much more, to the characters they play.

You can see why this is not one of Bennett’s most revived plays, but it rewards attention, as much as to what is unspoken as to what is actually said. Neither poet nor composer feel that their long-term partners (Kallman and Pears respectively) are as supportive as they want (or indeed, need).

The actors taking these parts, as well as the satellite cast, are equally dissatisfied in their individual ways. So Matthew Kelly’s superb Auden accepts his comfortable sinecure at Christ Church, Oxford while Fitz (the actor playing him) settles for supermarket voice-overs.

Donald, who takes the Carpenter rôle (John Wark), wants to build up his part. Auden’s rent-boy Stuart (Benjamin Chandler) feels that he also can add something to the production. Robert Mountford’s Neil, the playwright, just wants his script to be performed uncut with the emphases which he, not the director, dictates.

Trying to hold it all together are no-nonsense company stage manager Kay, to whom Veronica Roberts gives precisely the right combination of sympathy and authority and ASM George, played by Alexandra Guelff as a dogsbody with yearning to perform.

In the background until the second act is David Yelland’s Henry, playing Britten. He knows that Death in Venice will be his swan-song in many ways, a paean to vanished youth and the brightness of expectations. It’s a remarkable, unselfish performance, suggesting layers of masking as well as built-up sadness.

Director Philip Franks makes all Bennett’s tiers of make-belief and sadness credible for an audience which is not necessarily fully conversant with Auden’s or Britten’s work. You do need to concentrate, but that’s a good thing in the theatre. After all, all life’s a stage.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Habit of Art runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 13 October with matinées on 10 and 13 October. The tour also includes the Cambridge Arts Theatre (29 October-3 November) and the Palace Theatre, Westcliff (19-24 November).

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

The Height of the Storm

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 10 September

Time shifting is a well-established dramatic device. Florian Zeller’s The Height of the Storm makes it more a matter of time slipping, something which is not confined to those on the brink of what used to be called senile dementia.

André in his heyday was a towering creative personality. Now his world is confined to the book-filled house and over-growing garden he shares with his wife Madeleine. Their daughters Anne and Elise watch their father crumble, mentally if not physically.

A high-quality residential home is one solution, but the house will need to be sold to fund it. In their different ways, André, Madeleine and Anne fight shy of this option, though Elise – whose current boyfriend is an estate agent – sees things differently.

The translation is by Christopher Hampton, and director Jonathan Kent allows the text space to breathe. Anthony Ward’s design include a front gauze onto which a negative projection of skeleton twigs and branches suggests both fragility and uncertainty.

Jonathan Pryce as André gives a marvellously nuanced performance of an intellect crumbling in a body which is itself fragmenting from the charismatic lover and intellectual of the past. You can see why Madeleine has always supported him.

This wife is no cipher or shadow to a male genius, as Eileen Atkins makes clear;  Madeleine’s absences, whether temporary forays to cull herbs or otherwise, leaves a void. Atkins, even more than Pryce, is the pivot upon which the whole play depends.

Amanda Drew’s Anne and Anna Madeley’s Elise are well-contrasted studies in latent sibling rivalry; neither is completely selfish nor completely honest. The discordant quartet is joined by Lucy Cohu as a woman from André’s past and James Hillier as Elise’s lover.

There is no interval with just that gauze with its unnerving suggestion of vulnerable delicacy to indicate scene breaks. Audience chatter during the first such interlude had faded into silence by the last one. Were we all looking into our own futures? Perhaps.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Height of the Storm runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 15 September before transferring to Wyndham’s Theatre.

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

The Merchant of Venice

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 29 August

Gender-, age- and colour-blind casting is an excellent thing. In theory. In practice it can be incredibly distracting unless made logical by the drama itself. The three comedies which Brendan O’Hea has directed for Shakespeare’s Globe on Tour this summer use only eight actors, most of whom double or treble rôles.

Designer Andrew D Edwards doesn’t really clarify anything with his costumes; the set is a stark matter of two-level boarding with metal supports. The cast play and sing the Bill Barclay’s music in the course of the action and to top and tail the show.

Shylock is the dominant character in The Merchant of Venice. Sarah Finigan offers both the man’s bitterness as a Venetian second-class resident and his certainty of his own righteousness as a Jew, a family man and a money-lender. She speaks the lines admirably with a full sense of what they mean.

That is also true of Russell Layton’s Antonio, brooding as much on possible sexual frustration as for the vulnerability of his trading ships. Rhianna McGreevy as Nerissa, Steffan Cennydd as Lorenzo, the Prince of Aragon and the Doge and Jacqueline Phillips’s Portia are also good.

It’s a play which, however well you think you know it and have experienced a variety of productions, should concentrate the audience’s attention on its tangle of themes. Racial stereotyping is certainly one; whether the power which money brings is inhibiting or a force for good/evil is another.

Concentrating on this is difficult when you are distracted by a young woman playing a middle-aged man or an imbalance of age with two of the wooing couples. That androgynous costuming doesn’t help. You can parallel how plays toured in the late 16th century, but we see with 21st century eyes and listen with 21st century ears.

Simplicity of staging should allow an audience to focus directly on the play. As with all such things, simplicity is a transparent and fragile shield. What is revealed is all-important. For me, this production distracted just as much as an overly elaborate or time-shifted one.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Merchant of Venice plays in repertoire with The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 1 September. There are matinées on 30 August and 1 September.

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

Iolanthe

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 3 July

Musically, Iolanthe is one of Sullivan’s most interesting scores, with extended lyrical, dramatic and comic sequences flowing easily in symmetry with Gilbert’s topsy-turvy plot and tongue-twisting verses and dialogue.

Like most genre classics, the political undertones resonate as much in 2018 as they did in 1882. Sasha Regan’s all-male production is not a straightforward one, though extremely well-sung throughout, with Joe Henry’s Phyllis, Christopher Finn’s Iolanthe, Adam Pettit’s Tolloller and Duncan Sandilands’ Private Willis making particular impact.

During Richard Baker’s overture (the accompaniment is a piano reduction) a group of young men – think senior boarding-school students in a dormitory lark – invade the stage lit only by their torches. There’s a Narnia-type wardrobe, some step-ladders and some boxes.

The fairies turn out to be a troupe of muscular Wilis, wearing singlets, loose drawers and the occasional (upside-down) corset. Mark Smith’s choreography pays homage to Petipa’s Giselle as well as Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. The dancing is also excellent.

When to play Gilbert “straight”, accepting what is of its period,  and when to send-up what is already a parody is sometimes exceptionally difficult. So the peers’ chorus of disdain is sung with the right undertone of contempt while Willis’ political musings present “liberal” and “conservative” as  opposites not necessarily glued to any particular party.

Richard Russell Edwards’ Fairy Queen, fox-furred and hand-bagged, is a delicious characterisation, with real menace in her threats to her recalcitrant followers. Richard Carson’s Strephon is another well-judged portrait.

Potential villain of the story is the Lord Chancellor. Alastair Hill makes him younger than is traditional and brings out the deviousness of the lawyer, though I wanted more incisiveness in the patter songs, especially the Act Two nightmare. Articulation is the magic key for these numbers.

Four and a half-star rating.

Iolanthe runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre ntil 7 Juky with matinèes on 5 and 7 July. The 2018 national tour ends at the Greenwich Theatre between 23 and 28 July.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Music Music theatre & opera, Reviews 2018

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

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.

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

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.

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

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.

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

A Streetcar Named Desire

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 25 April

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four star rating.

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

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

Il tabarro and Gianni Schicchi

reviewed at the Snape Maltings on 14 April

“Opera that moves” is the ETO motto – and it was worth skipping the bar in the interval to watch the comic drama of the scene change between the two contrasted outer panels of Puccini’s original triptych.

Audiences often discount what happens behind the front curtain, this exposé of the rapid hard work involved certainly earned its final round of applause.

Neil Irish’s rust and wood setting on three levels for Il tabarro and Rory Beaton’s subdued lighting plot suit the gritty savagery of the story. Above the main action life has some hope of normality. Below it, this is only the stench of hopeless degradation.

Craig Smith’s Michele, the Seine barge owner, is a brooding presence as his suspicions of his wife’s infidelity with one of the stevedores are fuelled. His final explosion of anger in “Nulla! Silenzio” before the inevitable dénouement is well paced and phrased.

Giorgetta’s unhappiness, as much for the loss of her child as a yearning of her childhood home at Belleville and desire for Charne Rochford’s Luigi, also builds slowly and Sarah-Jane Lewis has the vocal resources to manage this.

In James Conway’s production, Rochford’s portrait of a young man raging against his lot in life yet unable to effect any immediate change to better this world rings true.

The smaller character parts are equally well cast, with Clarissa Meek’s Frugola outstanding among them. it’s a neat touch to have the young lovers played by Galina Averina and Luciano Botelho, the Lauretta and Rinuccio of Gianni Schicchi.

This also has a fin du siècle setting but suitably elaborate for the (deceased) wealthy Buoso and his horde of grasping relations. These superficial predators come over as a miscellany to delight any connoisseur’s eye.

Andrew Slater has the audience on his side from his first entrance, a no-nonsense Florentine new-comer in fresh-air contrast to the over-dressed Buoso kindred. His recounting of the penalties for will-forgery make their mark.

Timothy Dawkins-wild-haired ex-mayor and the female trio of Meek as the elderly Zita, Joanna Skillett as Nella and Emma Watkinson as La Ciesca throw the genuine passion between Lauretta and Rinuccio into proper focus.

Averina’s show-stopping “Oh! mio babbino caro” has a visual punch-line which doesn’t quite fit in, causing a false ending with applause thus in the wrong place. Michael Rosewell is the conductor for both operas; Liam Steel is the director for Gianni Schicchi.

Four and a half-star rating.

Il tabarro and Gianni Schicchi are at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 18 and 19 April and at the Norwich Theatre Royal on 5 May.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Music Music theatre & opera, Reviews 2018

The Importance of Being Earnest

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 9 April

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three and a half-star rating.

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

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

Quartet

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 3 April

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four star rating.

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

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

The Winslow Boy

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 26 March

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four star rating.

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

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018