Tag Archives: Made in Colchester season

Bully Boy

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester on 9 November)

We live in a conflicted world and time – though there’s nothing new or unusual about that. What perhaps is new is that we are being made aware of the mental as well as physical toll which combat levies on its participants. Not to mention on their friends and families and on (often innocent) bystanders.

Sandi Toksvig’s play Bully Boy confronts us with two soldiers. Oscar (Andrew French) is a wheelchair-confined major, investigating Eddie (Josh Collins) on behalf of the military police. A complaint has been made by Afghan villagers; it appears that a young boy was deliberately thrown into a well.

Close friends and comrades died as the effect of an improvised explosive device; Eddie is the sole surviver of the group, the Bully Boys. Bully, of course, has two distinct meanings – a jolly, dashing fellow is one. The other denotes someone who preys on weaker people. It is up to Oscar to establish just which one is significant in this context.

Dan Shearer’s production in the refurbished Mercury Studio Theatre has the audience steeply banked overlooking a wide but shallow acting area. Designer James Cotterill frames the action with dun-coloured fencing; both actors wear sand-camouflage combat gear. Rebecca Applin’s eerie music and Steve Mayo’s atmospheric soundscape drift across the action.

Of the two performers, it is Collins as the sparky, perky Eddie who has perhaps the easier task. he makes it apparent from the start that this is a façade, a mask which has become second nature; what is behind it is too raw for exposure. The British “stiff upper lip” propensity can conceal irremediable damage.

French plays a more complicated character; war hero (from the Falklands campaign), seeker after truth or a man in retreat from himself and his own past? He shows us someone for whom a desk-job and a wheelchair are no true compensation for what he has forfeited. In his own way, he too is engaged in a fight to survive.

Bully Boy runs at the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester until 21 November.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015

The Smallest Show on Earth

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 30 September)

Ah, but is it? I don’t think so. This stage version of the much-loved 1957 film has a total cast of 14 and a deceptively scaled-down set. But The Smallest Show on Earth integrates a host of Irving Berlin numbers, some ferociously energetic choreography by Lee Proud and a script and direction by Thom Southerland which captures the essence of the period without ever seeming to be a pastiche.

David Woodhead’s settings – complete with some highly ingenious location shifts, and costumes, beautifully detailed down to the seams in the stockings and skirt lengths – take us from London to provincial small-town in a fashion which mirrors the interior journey of the two main characters.

These are young husband and wife Matthew and Jean Spenser (Haydn Oakley and Laura Pitt-Pulford). He’s a would-be script-writer, she’s the rock for their relationship. The story concerns his inheritance from a dimly remembered great-uncle of the run-down Bijou Kinema, formerly a music-hall. Locally it’s usually referred to as “the fleapit”.

It is Pitt-Pulford who is the real star of the show, though she has a runner-up in the shape of Christina Bennington as Marlene Hardcastle, the thoroughly pleasant daughter of the thoroughly unpleasant Ethel and Albert Hardcastle (Ricky Butt and Philip Rham). Actually, she’s Mrs Hardcastle’s step-daughter, as this troublesome go-getter never ceases to remind everyone.

Then there’s Matthew Crow as the (very) junior solicitor Robin Carter, with twinkling toes and a delicious line in high camp and drag. The two other character parts are former silent-movie pianist, now box office “manager”, Mrs Fazackalee (Liza Goddard) and the cantankerous projectionist Percy Quill (Brian Capron). Capron grows Quill into a real human-being but, for me, there was an edge of eccentricity lacking in Goddard’s performance.

Mark Aspinall’s six-person band lurks right at the back of the stage, only to be revealed – and deservedly applauded – at the curtain-calls. The Mercury audience was genuinely enthusiastic. So, I suspect, will be audiences around the country when The Smallest Show on Earth launches itself on tour in 2016leaves Colchester for a national autumn tour.

The Smallest Show on Earth runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 10 October.

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Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2015

James and the Giant Peach

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 15 August)

Roald Dahl’s story in the David Wood adaptation is a perennial favourite with young audiences. Older children and family members can also enjoy this clever new staging by Matthew Cullum in which the design elements by Tina Bramman, the lighting by Mark Dymock and the music by Grant Olding play an equally important role.

The audience is fully involved, with chases through the auditorium, passing a huge peach-coloured beach-ball to and from the actors and responding to the string, woodwind, brass and percussion instruments adeptly handled by the cast. There is a clever use of puppetry, with a voracious seagull a clear favourite and a slightly spooky scarecrow man (who gives James the magic seeds) vying with a brace of sea-monsters for second place.

James Le Lacheur is a likeable and credibly boyish James, assisted in his escape from his horrible aunts Sponge and Spiker by insect friends. Josie Dunn is the Cossack-style Miss Spider, Dale Superville the slightly boastful Centipede and Peter Ashmore the suave fiddle-playing Grasshopper. Then there’s Kate Adams’ Miss Marple of a Ladybird, Matthew Rutherford’s lugubrious Earthworm and Barbara Hockaday as just about everyone else.

This production is one in artistic director Daniel Buckroyd’s Made in Colchester season. At a time of year when most theatres in East Anglia are occupied with more adult, even florid, fare a long run for a family-friendly show is to be welcomed. And this is a very good one.

James and the Giant Peach continues its run at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 30 August.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Reviews 2015