Tag Archives: Karen Simpson

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.

 

Leave a Comment

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

Our Day Out

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 25 August

Willy Russell’s 1970s musical for a large cast of school-age performers and five adult professional actors may have a Liverpool and north Wales setting, but it has settled down comfortably in Suffolk, as the new Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal production makes evident.

The story concerns a class (or two) of youngsters from the sort of school which Ofsted might well rank as “failing”. They are of mixed abilities with scant interest in education but enthusiasm for exploring their burgeoning sexuality and for making mischief. Not to say, mayhem.

Directors Karen Simpson and David Whitney have coaxed some impressive performances from the Young Company members, notably from Abigail Laker as slow-learner Amy, so prone to being bullied (a quartet of hoodies makes this clear from the beginning) and wanting something different, something better which she’s unable to articulate.

Lauren Slade and Eloise Probitts as a pair of “it’s all so boring” pupils, also Robyn Painter and Jamie Musora as the two with a crush on dishy young teacher Mark McDevit (George Brockbanks) also give stand-out characterisations.

Attempting to keep order, limit the damage (literally) and ensure that the outing both begins and ends with a full complement of staff and students are McDevit’s colleagues Katie Appleby (Georgia Richardson, making her professional stage début) and Mrs Kay (Beth Tuckey).

The irascible head-teacher is Mr Briggs (James Hirst. Crag Stevenson plays the put-upon lollypop-man, the coach driver and an enraged zoo keeper who finds that some distinctly unauthorised animal liberation has been taking place. All five offer fully rounded portraits of their contrasting characters.

Musical director David Lewington keeps the songs in time and in tune. Choreographer Julia Cave stretches her young performers who respond to the challenge. Designer Heidi McEvoy-Swift has devised an ingenious set of large square boxes which are subject to arrangement as locations shift. Dave Thwaites’ lighting incorporates a clever use of projections.

Our Day Out runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 2 August with matinée performances on 26 and 30 August and 2 September.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Family & children's shows, Music Music theatre & Opera, 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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, 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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Pantomimes & other seasonal shows, Reviews 2016

Jack and the Beanstalk

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 6 December 2015)

This year’s Theatre Royal pantomime may have a traditional story but writer Chris Hannon, director Karen Simpson and designer Rebecca Lee have given it some intriguing twists. The action is set in the 1970s, when men’s trousers were flared, girls wore miniskirts and hippy flower-power dominated. So Wendy (Leonie Spilsbury), our magical guide, is flower-wreathed and maxi-gowned.

Jack is Oliver Mawdsley, shyly in love with hot-panted Jill (Louise Olley), the daughter of Elvis-clone Duke Box; Chris Clarkson sports an enormous quiff and a glittering white outfit. Demanding money with menaces (children taken for baking in lieu) is Ghastly Gordon. Alan Mehdizadeh is certainly a chef you wouldn’t want anywhere near your own kitchen.

Under his ladle and rolling-pin is Sue Chef (Nancy Hill), who doesn’t really want to be as nasty as her boss would like. But Duke Box has no spare cash and Tina Trumpington (James Parkes), Jack’s mother, has even less. Cue the sale of Daisy the cow, a bovine with a satin-udder who captures the audience heart with her first hoof step.

Act Two sees our hero confronting David Zachary’s Giant, a marvellous contraption of swollen belly, long long arms and legs and a ridiculously small head crowned with a minute top hat. This is where we meet Dottee (Spilsbury), the Giant’s seen-it-all-before wife. Kung fu expert Jill is a better match for Gordon than Jack, let alone the other space-travelling mortals.

I failed to warm to Parkes’ Dame, a somewhat rough characterisation, though the flour scene in the Trumpington windmill is a good variant of the traditional slop scene; this windmill boasts an engaging puppet mouse, and I think the youngsters in the audience would have liked to see more of him. The rock’n’roll dance numbers (Julia Cave is the choreographer) are fast-paced and both the Act One Elvis “Megamix” and the Act Two “Cooking up the bits” (a variation on “Puttin’ on the Ritz” are stand-outs.

Jack and the Beanstalk runs at the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal until 10 January.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Pantomimes & seasonal shows, Reviews 2015

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2015

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015