Tag Archives: Mercury Theatre Colchester

Private Lives

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 25 May)

Noël Coward’s 1930 comedy Private Lives is deceptively simple. The plot – a divorced couple finding themselves honeymooning with new spouses at the same hotel rekindle both their passion and the causes for the break-up – calls for the two main characters to dominate the stage, notably in the second act, while the subsidiary pair need to establish themselves just a forcibly but without tipping the balance.

In the event, Esther Richardson’s new production as part of the 2016 Made in Colchester season slightly perverts this. That’s because Krissi Bohn’s bright and brittle Amanda has the perfect foil in Olivia onyehara’s steely fluff of a Sybil. It’s easy to visualise this Amanda as the fast-set darling, sparkling in drawing-rooms and cocktail bars. Sara Perks has given her costumes which are right for the period and which subtly reflect the photographs of Gertrude Lawrence (who created the role).

Sybil wears pink – soft, pleated and tending towards the feathery. From Onyehara’s first entrance, preening as though a society photographer was lurking on the balcony, she gives an impression that this kitten has teeth as well as claws. That’s something which Robin Kingsland’s Victor discovers as they set off in pursuit of their errant mates.

Kingsland puts great sincerity into his Paris exchange with Amanda; this is one of those moments when both author and director lift the veil of frivolity to suggest that these are real people, who can feel real hurt. Pete Ashmore’s Elyot has a touch of petulance about him, whih slips dangerously near to being camp; those 40 minutes in Act Two when Amanda and Elyot are fired with all their previous feelings with each other never quite sustained themselves.

The maid for Amanda’s Paris flat is one of those cough-and-a-spit parts which provide the right actress with a chance to steal the show. Christine Absalom, a Mercury audience favourite, does just that in the third act, earning herself several rounds of applause. Adam P McCready’s sound design and original score (which incorporates snatches of Coward’s own music) adds to the atmosphere.

Private Lives runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 4 June with matinées on 26 and 28 May, 2 and 4 June.

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Clybourne Park

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 13 April)

Bruce Norris’ 2010 play picks up the closing scenes of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun with its Black Younger family about to move to Clybourne Park, a White suburb of Chicago.

Norris’ acerbic tragi-comedy has two stories, one set in 1959 and the other in 2009. Daniel Buckroyd’s new touring production for Colchester’s Mercury Theatre has the packing cases which became so prominent in A Raisin in the Sun lurking on the fringes of Jonathan Fensom’s set.

Only these are for the move of Russ (mark Womack) and Bev (Rebecca Manley); They are the couple who have sold to the Youngers, following a family tragedy. Carl (Ben Deery), having failed to deter the Youngers from their move is now desperate to prevent Russ and Bev – who may be ignorant of the skin colour of the new owners of their house – from completing the sale.

What concerns Carl is a mixture of in-bred racism coupled with a desire to maintain the status quo and to prevent the (as he sees it) inevitable meltdown in value of the whole Clybourne Park development. Deery controls Carl’s increasingly paranoid diatribes as he corrals William Troughten’s church minister Jim and his own pregnant deaf wife Betsry (Rebecca Oldfield) into half-hearted support.

Manley’s portrait of a wife and mother whose whole existence has been thrown out of kilter is equally three-dimensional. Her relationship with her Black maid Francine (Gloria Onitiri) is a brittle one; she values the help but ignores the person. Onitari gives us an apparently quiet, pliable woman with a rich life – a husband Albert (Woie Sawyerr) who excels in a skilled job and three children.

Russ and Bev’s tragedy is revealed slowly, and not fully until the second act. In this Lena (Onitiri) is concerned that the would-be purchasers of her house are proposing radical changes, practically a re-build. Womack’s bitterly authoritative Russ (a man who thinks, feels and suffers) is now transformed into Dan, the sort of workman you probably would be better off not employing.

The dénouement takes us into another dimension, removed from the reaism of everything which has gone before. By this time the audience is thoroughly gripped by the several dramas which have played out before it. This is an ending which was there from the beginning, but we needed to tease it out for ourselves.

Clybourne Park runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 23 April with matinées on 16, 21 and 23 April. The national tour runs until 28 May and includes the Arts Theatre, Cambridge (9-14 May).

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Flare Path

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 2 March)

The co-production between the Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions of Terence Rattigan’s Second World War drama Flare Path has been recast for its 2016 tour. Slipping a new cast into a production designed for a different set of actors is often an illuminating process.

Justin Audibert’s staging is straightforward with a semi-realistic set and costumes by Hayley Grindle. The min plot revolves around Flight Lieutenant Graham (Daniel Fraser), his actress wife Patricia Warren (Hedydd Dylan) and her former love film star Peter Kyle (Lynden Edwards). We are in the main reception room of a hotel near the air-base where the bombers and their crews are based.

The sub-plot concerns a Polish Flying Officer Count Skriczevinsky (William Reay) who seeks vengeance on the Nazis who killed his wife and children. He has remarried, a good-hearted former barmaid called Doris (Claire Andreads); theirs is a complex relationship and whether or not it will survive the end of hostilities is left open to individual interpretation.

Edwards makes the (now fading) screen heart-throb into a man who is outwardly assured but inwardly both needy and selfish. Fraser makes much of the big, ultimately very moving scene where Graham returns from an operation and admits the strain under which this puts him to his wife. Dylan and Andreadis both bring their characters to life and there’s an abrasive cameo of the hotel proprietor Mrs Oakes by Audrey Palmer.

There is comedy as well as drama in Flare Path, mainly provided by Sergeant Miller (Jamie Hogarth) and his wife Maudie (Polly Hughes). Reay for my taste doesn’t quite fit into Skriczevinsky’s boots; he plays for laughs which seem at odds with the driven essence of the man.

Flare Path runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 5 March with a matinée on 5 March. It also plays at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester 7-12 March.

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End of the Rainbow

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 18 February)

There’s some part of most of us, if we’re honest, which revels in schadenfreude – in the theatre just as much as in other forms of life. Peter Quilter’s 2011 play about Judy Garland’s last, disastrous London season has been given a new production by the Mercury Theatre’s artistic director Daniel Buckroyd which launches itself on a major national tour between 22 February and 9 July.

We’re in a luxurious hotel room booked by Garland’s new manager (and soon-to-be fifth husband) Mickey Deans. Awaiting them is her long-time accompanist Anthony Chapman. Deans needs to keep her away from drink and pills, or he can see financial disaster ahead for the booked-out Talk of the Town performances. Chapman wants her to find some balance in her future life.

Basically a three-hander, the spotlight inevitably is on the actress who plays Garland. For me, Lisa Maxwell only seemed to arrive in the part with the first cabaret appearance. It’s as though she is trying too hard to inhabit the skin rather than the soul of her character. The scenes of pill-fuelled disintegration are well done, though the heart of the play remains in the exchange with Chapman when he suggests an alternative future.

Gary Wilmot makes Chapman thoroughly credible, as the gay man who accepts that his life cannot be as open as he would perhaps prefer but has understanding and practical compassion to spare. Sam Attwater makes no attempt to ply Deans for sympathy but allows you to appreciate how a rag-bag of emotions and motivations drive him. But there never is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

End of the Rainbow runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 20 February with a Saturday matinée. It also plays at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds 31 May-4 June.

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Aladdin

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 5 December 2015)

The Mercury’s director Daniel Buckroyd has co-written the script for this year pantomime Aladdin with Fine Time Fontayne. Buckroyd has ensured that there are some new elements to the familiar story. For example, Abanazar (Ignatius Anthony) is a disgruntled revenge-seeking former court magician and Wishee Washee (Dale Superville) is undergoing work experience with the palace police (Laura Curnick as Pong and Simon Pontin as Ping).

Curnick and Pontin also play the beehive-headed Spirit of the Ring and a magisterial Genie of the Lamp respectively. Superville is a Mercury audience favourite and quickly has the audience on his side. Antony Stuart-Hicks makes a commanding if slightly abrasive Widow Twanky as she tries to keep dreamy apple-scrunching Aladdin (Glenn Adamson) in check. Tim Freeman is the Emperor.

As heroines go, Sarah Moss makes Princess Jasmine a girl with sirit. Once she wriggles out of the paper-bag which her father insists she wears to hide her beauty from the common folk, she sets about getting her own way in no uncertain terms and proves a far more dangerous opponent for Abanazar than Aladdin manages to be.

Musical director Richard Reeday has a nice way with tunes both familiar and unfamiliar – “Three little maids from school” is particularly enjoyable in its new context. Juliet Shillingford’s designs and Charlie Morgan’s choreography are attractive and keep the action flowing. There is a real sense of characterisation and commitment to the performances; this is a pantomime for both the youngest and the oldest theatre-goers.

Aladdin runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 10 January.

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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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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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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

Christine: The Musical

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 25 June)

It’s one of the defining photographs of the 1960s – the 20-year old Christine Keeler astride a black plywood chair. The whole murky tangle of high living and low morals, of drug-dealing, cold war espionage which n the end wrecked a Ministerial career and several lives is a familiar one, though books, stage shows and film.

There’s however something subtly different about Tony Franchi and Marion Wells’ musical take on the story. In 16 short scenes we are taken from the teenage Christine’s first foray into London nightlife to the luxury of the Cliveden estate and the traumas by the Old Bailey courtroom. Lindsay Lloyd’s direction uses projections, a minimum of furniture and some nifty choreography by Irene Lincoln to keep the story as lively as the events it unfolds for us.

What’s more, it has tunes. Real catchy tunes put over with aplomb by the 14-strong cast and six-piece stage band under John Chillingworth. “Pops” Murray’s introduction to the world of cabaret switches effortlessly between 3/4 and 2/4 time to notable effect. “Make love not war” is another near-show-stopper, as is “Vodka”, the pseudo-Russian number for Ivanov, the Soviet attaché.

Originally premièred at Colchester’s Headlong Theatre, these performances form part of the Lights Up! festival, the Mercury Theatre’s own new showcase for local dramatic and musical talent.

Lights Up! continues at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 12 July.

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Two new arts festivals

East Anglia at times seems to be bubbling over with arts festivals. No sooner as Pulse subsided in Ipswich than along comes Lights Up! at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 17 June and 12 July.

This is designed to showcase new and developed work from drama and other students as well as some of the town’s established amateur companies.Come Fly With Us opens proceedings from 17 to 20 June and is succeeded on 25 and 26 June by Christine: The Musical, Tony Franchi and Marion Wells’ take on Christine Keeler’s story; this was successfully premièred by CTM Productions a couple of years ago at Headlong Theatre.

A mixture of poetry, choral singing and instrumental music presented by the Colchester branch of the Royal British Legion pays tribute to the dead of the First World War on 27 June – Emortuus – The Fallen. The next day a cast of over 70 children and teenagers from the Theatrical Performing Arts School offer Peter Pan in the musical version by Jimmy Jewell and Nick Stimson.

21 years of the Lorraine George School of Dancing & Performing Arts is celebrated between 3 and 5 July with Summer Showtime ’15. A Mercury Studio success from last year, Stage Write’s Living With Luke, is a powerful study of a father trying to cope with an autistic son; catch it on 8 July. 9 July offers an evening of contemporary folk and blues from Laburnum Bridge with Ramon Goose and Adrian Nation.

Senior students from Theatre Fun Academy perform the new musical Milenka on 11 July. It follows the adventures of two young friends with a travelling theatre and some not-quite-ordinary marionettes. The appropriately titled End of Year Show from Stagecoach Chelmsford brings Lights Up! to a close on 12 July. Ticket prices range from £10 to £15, with concessionary discounts available.

Imagine Watford and Watford Live have, up to now, been separate celebrations for the twon. Now they have combined as The Big Festival, which runs between 20 June and 5 July. It will mix Watford Live’s promotion of local people’s artistic talent (everything from guerilla knitting – no, I haven’t come across this before either – to live music) with Imagine Watford’s kaleidoscope of international street theatre.

The Watford Colosseum is presenting Listen from 2 to 4 July. This involves music machines, sound installations and some rather surprising performances. The public are invited to play and roam as well as listen; it’s the brain-child of Graeme Leak. Care {20-21, 23-28 June) from Tangled Feet is the first of Imagine Watford’s presentations; The Strange Travel of Senyor Tonet follows (25-30 June).

Look our also for the Watford Society circus workshop on 27 June, Circus Raj and Lucas Jet Circus – both on 2 July, the aerial crane piece K@osmos by Puja! on 2 July, Citizen Squid from Puppets With Guts (3 July) and The Monotone Man (3 and 4 July), a Human Zoo Company creation. The outdoor performances are held on The Parade and the vast majority are free to watch and enjoy.

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Little Shop of Horrors

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 29 May)

“Don’t feed the plants!” warns director Gareth Machin in his introduction to this new staging of the Howard Ashman-Alan Menken musical, a shared production between the Mercury Theatre and Salisbury Playhouse. As Audrey II (made by Accord Stage Works and frighteningly well manipulated and voiced by Andrew London and Leon Craig respectively) swells to take over James Button’s set, one definitely takes the point.

It’s strongly cast as well. Ben Stott is the shy, be-spectacled flower-shop assistant Seymour who creates Audrey II, names it for his colleague (Frances McNamee), who is in an abusive relationship with leather-clad dentist Orin (Jez Unwin) and finds himself its slave – Audrey II being distinctly carnivorous.

You sympathise throughout with Stott as well as with McNamee, whose voice is admirably suited to the lyricism of her numbers, notably “Somewhere that’s green”. Unwin is thoroughly unpleasant as Orin, which is just as it should be. Simeon Truby seizes his school of Fiddler on the Roof moments, especially in “Mushnik and son” (the five-piece band is led by Richard Reeday).

There’s an effective trio of Skid Row street kids – Gbemisola Kumelo, Karis Jack and Carole Stennett – who act as a sort of chorus as the tragedy (which it fundamentally is, for all our laughter) reaches its climax. The finale, with the trio and Audrey II meal victims high above the acting area and transformed into clones, emphasises this. Game, set and match to Audrey II, I fear.

Little Shop of Horrors runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 13 June.

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