Tag Archives: Dawn Allsopp

Hard Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four and a half-star rating.

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

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Dick Whittington

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 14 December

Chris Hannon’s script and the co-direction of Karen Simpson and David Whitney have really found the formula for a Theatre Royal pantomime. Their version of the story of Dick Whittington is replete with local touches which seem natural rather than afterthoughts and the whole show has a subtly period edge which suits this Georgian playhouse perfectly, including Julia Cave’s choreography.

We have a Principal Boy Dick (Jessica Spalis) who brings just the right teenage gawkiness to the part. Her trusty companion Tommy the cat is mimed by Corey Cross whose costume and acrobatics have elements of an hommage to Grimaldi; his excursions into the auditorium have the children competing to pet him.

Indeed a delicate whiff of Trelawny of the Wells imbues the entire production. The Fitzwarren emporium is a failing bookshop with bespectacled Alice (Tessa Kadler) as its liveliest item. Her father Francis (Nigel Lister) is ineffectual and in the shadow of his millionnaire expatriate brother Ferdnando. Winona Whittington arrives in London in search of her wayward son, rather than being the Fitzwarrens’ cook.

Chris Clarkson makes this Dame part into a real three-dimensional character, thus helping the often disparate elements of the pantomime to coalesce. Sparkly help is at hand in the shape of Sarah Lawn’s Fairy Pearl while Tom Roberts’ Sir Reginald Ratfiend twirls his tail as an alternative to moustaches with villainous effect and directs his troupe of ratlings to do their worst.

He’s the current Lord Mayor London, so has a double layer of power, and his appetite gnaws through books as well as foodstuffs. When he manages to shipwreck the Fitzwarren party however it is on Ferdnando’s paradise island (cue a u/v light sequence). Not even Nerine Skinner’s Nibbles, Ratfiend’s resourceful sidekick, can now alter the triumph of good over evil.

Dawn Allsopp is the designer for the deliberately quirky sets and costumes. The musical director is Ward Baker, tucked with Luke Petitt into a stage-left corner of the pit; a couple of toy theatre musician figures have been painted to the side of them. That’s just the sort of touch which gives this show the edge of some of its more lavish competitors.

Five star rating.

Dick Whittington continues at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 14 January. Performance dates and times vary, so check with the theatre’s website: www.theatreroyal.org for details and seat availability.

 

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Pantomimes & Christmas season shows, Reviews 2017

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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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2017