Tag Archives: Harlow Playhouse

Tosca

reviewed at the Harlow Playhouse on 6 September

This new production of Puccini’s Tosca from the Russian State Opera & Ballet Theatre of Astrakhan which is on a nationwide tour of the UK until 13 October is directed by Konstantin Balakin and designed by Elena Vershinina. They have kept the Italian setting but pushed the time forward to the crumbling of Mussolini’s dictatorship.

Between them they keep the action taut and musical director Valerii Voronin sweeps his orchestra and soloists along at the same pace. Vershinina’s set has all the clutter of an Italian Catholic church of the period while Scarpia’s office is a Big Brother nightmare of vertiginous filing drawers and secret cubbyholes which can reveal a drinks cabinet or window into the queen’s Farnese Palace apartments – or serve as the door into a torture chamber.

“A shabby little shocker” sniffed Joseph Kerman in the 1950s; we in western Europe might see it as being in the British melodrama and the French grand guignol tradition. What carries a modern audience into the depth of the story is primarily Puccini’s score but also the ferocious combat between the three main characters.

In Andrey Puzhalin the company has a Scarpia who bears comparison with the best I have heard – and although comparisons, as Dogberry affirms, “are odorous”, my benchmark for the rôle is Gobbi. A vulpine predator barely constricted by his office (in both sense of the word), his onslaught on Tosca from the cathedral scene to the end of the second act is unrelenting – but finely phrased throughout.

Elena Razguliaeva in the title part matches Puzhalin, from her coquettish jealousy over Cavaradossi’s painting of the Magdalene in the first act, through her mental torture culminating in Scarpia’s murder and a finely sung “Vissi d’arte”, to the roller-coaster of emotions for the final act.

Her Cavaradossi at the performance which I saw is Mikhail Makarov, a full-voiced tenor who sounded a trifle rough at the beginning but worked through to an affecting lyricism for his farewell to life in “E lucevan le stelle”. Two of the smaller parts also stand out as well-sung and well-acted – Ivan Michailov’s Spoletta and Oleksandr Malyshko’s fresh-faced yet hardened Sciarrone.

Could I please persuade the company to employ a proof-reader – there are ludicrous mistakes in both the programme and the surtitles – and also supply a type-written cast list for the evening’s performance. Little things, I know, but they do add to an audience’s enjoyment as well as that delicious activity known as talent-spotting.

Four star rating.

Tosca also plays at the Princes Theatre, Clacton-on-Sea on 10 September, the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 11 September, the Marina Theatre, Lowestoft on 19 September and the Alban Arena, St Albans on 20 September.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Reviews 2017

Swan Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Ballet & dance, Reviews 2016

Mother Courage and Her Children

(reviewed at the Harlow Playhouse on 28 September)

This is Contexture Theatre’s most ambition production in the three years the Bishop’s Stortford based-company has been in existence. It marks a new partnership with Harlow Playhouse and is intended to tour next year. Of all Brecht’s dramas, this 1941 epic of the Thirty Years War has its parallel in the contemporary conflict engulfing Europe; its bitter analysis of war’s effect on “the little people” is equally coruscating in David Hare’s 1995 translation.

Brecht’s characterisations of Anna, endlessly trudging with her cart full of muscellaneous goods (provenance not to be questioned), defeats his famous “alienation effect”. Mother Courage cannot help but evoke our understanding (and sympathies) and Gailie Pollock gives us the full measure of this natural survivor. She stabs at Laurence Aldridge’s score with the same intensity.

In the course of her journeying, Courage loses both her sons and her dumb daughter as she wheels and deals – not always to her benefit. Aldridge also plays the army officers’ Cook, another wheeler-dealer who will probably survive. Another of the type is camp follower Yvette, who Holly Ashton rounds out both vocally and histrionically. Stephen Cavanagh is the Swedish Army Chaplain, cowardly as well as self-serving.

Darcey James makes much of Kattrin, the girl left traumatised by an assault in childhood; her final act of defiance makes its full impact. Both her half-brothers misjudge the fluidity of battlefield fortunes – Dominic Gee Burgh’s Eilif dies from repeating the action which won him praise and then the firing quad when repeated in different circumstances. Jack Quarton’s Swiss Cheese makes a similar error, this time involving the regimental cash-box.

As suits the subject and the style, Amanda Stekly and Tom Cliff give us a bare stage with moveable screens and the cart itself indicating the changes of location. Pollock’s costumes are vaguely those of the First World War. Dave Thompson’s projections at the conclusion remind us that the world is still full of fighting with its inevitable victims. Simon Anderson’s production is suitably taut, though the sound balance for the all-important songs needs some attention.

Mother Courage and Her Children runs at the Harlow Playhouse until 1 October with a matinée on 29 September.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

Carmen

(reviewed at the Harlow Playhouse on 9 September)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Music & music theatre, Opera, Reviews 2016

Parkway Dreams

(reviewed at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich on 2 September)

Inspiration for a musical can come from some odd places, but Eastern Angles’ artistic director Ivan Cutting is probably correct when he suspects that Parkway Dreams is the first to take town planning as a theme. Newly revised and about to launch itself on a national tour, this is an altogether tauter show than in its previous incarnation.

The story revolves around the evolution of Peterborough, when the then Ministry of Town and Country Planning – seeking to solve the post-war housing crisis – latched upon the ideas of garden city movement pioneer Ebenezar Howard (unlike most theorists, Howard’s vision had actually translated into reality, in the shape of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities).

Selected for one of these overspill schemes was the ancient cathedral city of Peterborough, known to the Romans and housing the tomb of Catherine of Aragon. We follow the dispute and Council wranglings as consultant planner drew up his draft plans and gradually won support. Robert Jackson makes him a sympathetic visionary, not the easiest type of character to pull off.

A fictional human story is introduced with Jack (Matt Ray Brown) and his wife Mary (Polly Naylor). They’ve been bambed out of their London home, jobs for de-mobbed ex-servicemen are thin on the ground and they both want a better future for their son Peter. Not that new-build Peterborough is all sweetness and light, for all its grassy spaces, educational opportunities and leisure facilities. Factories, even new ones, do close and have to lay-off staff.

“The Peterborough Effect” goes the slogan and turns into the best musical number in Simon Egerton’s score. The fast-moving script is by Kenneth Emson, based on eye-witness testimony treated by him and Cutting with just the right lightness of touch. Documentary theatre this may be, but it manages to wear that pedigree with carefree aplomb. Charlie Cridlan is the designer with Robert Hazle (who has a nice sideline in politicians of various hues) is the musical director.

Parkway Dreams
runs at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich until 7 October. The tour takes in Harlow Playhouse Studio (15-16 October), Braintree Arts Theatre (17 October), Hemel Hempstead Arts Centre (20 October), the Tameside Theatre, Thurrock (21 October), the Luton Hat Factory (22 October), the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester (23-24 October) and the Weston Auditorium, Hatfield (26 October).

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Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2015

Dickens Abridged

(reviewed at the Westacre Theatre, West Acre on 18 September)

A spin-off from the original Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) company, is on the road with Adam Long’s take on Charles Dickens. It encompasses in 90 minutes the novelist’s fast literary output as well as his somewhat disjointed life. It’s fair to describe Dickens Abridged as a musical, though Long’s clever use of projections might also quality it as a multi-media experience.

Whatever its artistic category, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable romp through mid-19th century fiction. With the aid of a guitar apiece, quick costume (and gender) changes and a nice balance of fact with comedic elaboration, the four-strong cast take us from Dickens’ own fraught childhood, through marriage, success, 10-strong fatherhood to his late romance with the actress Ellen Ternan and the physical crumbling partly occasioned by his dramatic recounting of Nancy’s murder from Oliver Twist.

Some of the novels are dismissed in four-line jingles while others are afforded a slightly more extended – if still elliptical – treatment. Great Expectations (you’ve never seen Miss Haversham’s immolation staged quite like this), A Tale of Two Cities with an applauded guillotine scene and a romp through A Christmas Carol which had Cratchit and Scrooge as overcome by laughter (aka corpsing) as the audience.

An apocryphal encounter at Dickens’ graveside between Ternan and the discarded Catherine Dickens née Hogarth works very well to demonstrate that Dickens the writer may be a national treasure but Dickens the man was of more tarnished metal. The projections include photographs and engravings as well as story-boards to fix our attention and remind us of the realities of 19th century London.

Martin Sarreal makes Catherine sympathetic as well as revelling in Agnes Wickfield’s virginal simplicity, such a contrast to Matthew Hendrickson’s lapdog-clutching Dora (Hendrickson is also Miss Haversham). Matt Bateman plays Dickens, as well as some of his creations and Andrew Gallo takes on many of the male fictional characters derived from Dickens’ own story as well as from his fertile imagination.

Dickens Abridged runs at the Westacre Theatre until 20 September. It can also be seen at the Arts Centre, Hatfield University (19 October) and at the Mumford Theatre, Cambridge (20 October), Harlow Playhouse (21 October), The Cut, Halesworth (22 October) The Norwich Playhouse (2-3 November), the Hertford Theatre (6 November), the Arts Centre, Hemel Hempstead (24-25 November) and the Maltings, Ely (28 November) as part of a national tour.

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Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2015