Tag Archives: Neal Foster

Awful Auntie

reviewed at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich on 19 September

Ghost legend? Morality tale? Horror story? All and any of these for a young audience? It was to be David Walliams’ Awful Auntie. The title character really does live up to her name as she tries to take over the ancestral home from its rightful owner.

Neal Foster’s stage adaptation doesn’t try to simplify the issues involved. Young Lady Stella Saxby wakes from an induced coma to find her parents dead and her father’s sister Alberta trying just a little too obviously to obtain the deeds to the family estate – we’re in the 1930s, by the way.

Doors creak, Alberta’s tame Bavarian owl Wagner menaces, there’s an elderly butler Gibbon straight out of Dracula and a 19th century chimney-sweep materialises in the coal store.

Set and costume designer Jacqueline Trousdale, sound designer Nick Sagar, special effects designer Scott Penrose and puppet maker Sue Dacre make sure that we’re caught up in the drama.

The setting is basically four towers which revolve to display various locations and their rabbit-warren of secrets. Visually it makes the actors work pretty hard to make their own impact, especially when Wagner ((Roberta Bellekom) and an enormously long (and lazy) dog are concerned.

Georgina Leonidas makes a sparkish heroine, every bit as obstinate as Richard James’ ferocity as Aunt Alberta. Harry Sutherland dodders engagingly as Gibbon, and Ashley Cousins’ Soot offers a sense of what his short life must have been like, passed from an orphanage to an inhumane master.

Touring shows, such as this Birmingham Stage Company one, have to adapt rapidly to the acoustics of the theatres they visit. For my taste, on the opening night in Ipswich, the actors were over-miked  almost to the point of distortion.

This is a pity, because it’s one of those shows which give pleasure in many ways to the older members of the audience as well as to the youngsters.

Four star rating.

Awful Auntie runs at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich until 23 September with matinées on 22 and 23 September. It also plays at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 8 and 10 November.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Reviews 2018

Horrible Christmas

(reviewed at the Corn Exchange, Cambridge on 14 December 2015)

So you thought that Christmas had always been a festival of jollity and good will, did you? Wrong. Terry Deary, the Birmingham Stage Company and Derby Theatre knock a number of fallacies on their collective heads with Horrible Christmas., a seasonal addition to the Horrible Histories series.

We begin with a stage dominated by a Christmas tree with presents heaped at its foot. The young daughter of the house cannot stop herself from opening the wrapped boxes,in spite of her parents’ strictures. One of them reveals a book; “Books aren’t proper presents” this very 21st century miss declares.

Lurking in the background is Sydney Clause (Andrew Vincent), the antithesis of Santa Claus, that plump red-robed white-bearded figure so familiar to us. Deary and his Horrible Histories have perfected the delicate art of injecting information into unreceptive brains – and making it stick. So we learn that the red clothes are of recent origin and that the legendary Green Man was probably his forerunner.

But when did Christmas as we know really begin? Answer – Charles Dickens and “A Christmas Carol” in 1843. We slither back in time to the Cromwellian interregnum with an uptight Mrs Cromwell demolishing all the pagan and papist connotations of 25 December. Cue “We are the Puritans”, sung with Oliver Cromwell, his son Richard and daughter Elizabeth, all well under control by their wife and mother.

Jollity is (sort of) restored with Charles II but rigour rears its head when we go back to Henry VIII and his fifth wife Katherine Howard. “I’m wicked, I’m nasty” sings the king with soon-to-be-beheaded Katherine agreeing. This Henry is definitely from the Sid James mould. The real St Nicholas, bishop of Myra early in the fourth century, gives a dowry to a poor girl.

And so to the beginning of the story of gifts. Gold (for power), frankincense (for worship) and the myrrh of funeral rites are offered at a manger in Bethlehem. Sydney Clause, his abetting reindeer Rudolph and his sparky adversaries Shirley Holmes and Zoe Watson return to their proper spheres. The presents under the Christmas tree are now miraculously all intact.

It’s directed by Neal Foster and well designed by Jacqueline Trousdale. Matthew Scott is the composer and the extremely hard-working cast is Jo Mousley, Erika Poole, Caroline Rogers, Katy Withers, Martin Atkinson, Christopher Chilton, Jim Low and Andrew Vincent.

Horrible Christmas runs at the Corn Exchange, Cambridge until 9 January.

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Filed under Pantomimes & seasonal shows, Reviews 2015

Incredible Invaders

(reviewed at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 20 October)


Horrible Histories, in print, on television or – best of all – live on stage throw a particularly well-disguised punch at their public. You learn something while enjoying the experience. Take Incredible Invaders, for instance.

England from 56BC to that final lethal invasion of AD1066 covers a lot of ground, both literally and metaphorically. Linking it all is an outspoken British girl called Mavis (Hannah Boyce) who has the audience immediately on her side as her potential sacrifice by the Druids is interrupted by the Roman army (well, just two soldiers) – but who can afford a cast of thousands these days?

Neal Foster has written the scripts as well as directing the fast-moving action. But it’s the work of set, costume and screen image designer Jacqueline Trousdale that really takes centre stage. The projections give us a three-dimension set even before the second half intervention of the Whizzbang Bogglevision sequences.

After the Romans (in retrospect probably the best of the invaders) and the suitably wild revolt by Boudicca (Laura Dalgleish) come the Saxons with some particularly nasty execution practices (Foster doesn’t veer away from these). Ashley Bowden and Charlie Buckland stand in for Hengest and Horsa as the fragmented Britannia succumbs to a different sort of brute strength.

The Vikings, those Norsemen who also colonised Normandy, arrive in their longboats, one of which has a marvellous, slightly camp talking figurehead. King Alfred (Bowden) now takes centre stage with his possibly mythical cake-burning (Arthur has already been dismissed as mere legend). We may think of him as a good and just ruler but Foster makes clear that late 9th century justice had its own savageries.

And so to the Normans and the Battle of Hastings, flowing in Bogglevision straight out of the Bayeux Tapestry. Adults in the mid-week audience may have thought that their attendance was something of a chore. My impression is that they revelled in it all just as much as the children did.

Incredible Invaders plays in repertory with Groovy Greeks at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford until 20 October and at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 27 and 31 October.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Reviews 2015