Tag Archives: Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

Sherlock Holmes: The Sign Of Four

reviewed at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon on 24 September

Blackeyed Theatre has created a niche for itself with its adaptations of classic novels and novella with a twist. The story and characters are largely as the original authors intended, but the staging adds a further psychological dimension.

In this early Sherlock Holmes story Conan Doyle adds a suggestion of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone through its pivot being a theft in the days of the East India Company. As in that story, it is a girl who is the recipient of stolen jewels.

Adapter and director Nick Lane reminds us that Mary Morstan, Dr Watson and Holmes are all young people and none of them is wealthy, whatever their personal background. If you’re conditioned to the standard film and television versions of the canon, that may come as a shock.

There is a cast of six with only Luke Barton’s Holmes and Joseph Derrington’s Watson not doubling parts. Both are good, with Derrington suggesting that Watson’s war service as a doctor may have left mental as well as physical scars. Barton presents as someone whose intellectual needs too easily tip over into indulgence.

Christopher Glover contrasts the Indians of the story with the know-all Inspector Lestrade and there are two good studies of duplicity, one languid and one more lethal, by Ru Hamilton as the Sholto brothers.

Put-upon Mrs Hudson and information-seeking Mary Marston give Stephanie Rutherford opportunities which she seizes upon. Zach Lee makes the most of peg-leg Jonathan Small; the slow motion fight with Holmes works very well.

To keep the action, which includes stretches of telling past stories by one or other of the characters, on the move, set designer Victoria Spearing offers crimson bunched drapes and spiky shapes suggesting both western and oriental obelisks.

Costume changes are simple and effective; Naomi Gibbs’ palette is never garish but her clothes contrast well with the background while indicating character and social status. Claire Childs’ stage-level lighting and Tristan Parkes’ evocative score blend past and present admirably.

Four and a haf-star star rating.

The Sign Of Four is at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon on 25 September. The tour continues at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds between 4 and 6 October and at the Norwich Playhouse between 8 and 10 October.

 

 

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My Mother Said I Never Should

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 17 September

History repeats itself – but always adds a twist, a different dimension. So Charlotte Keatley’s 1987 play about the mothers and daughters of one family over four generations has its own reverberations in 2018. Not to mention the 30 years in between.

Bek Palmer’s design for Michael Cabot’s new London Classic Theatre production emphasises the wasteground – that bombed-out corner of a not-yet reinvented Manchester which serves as a playground for the young and an ever-visible reminder of young hopes never realised.

It’s an ingenious device and transforms with great simplicity into the houses and gardens which the four women occupy between 1940 and 1987. A husband with a good job, a house and children were top of the wish-list in those days before the 1960s blew it all apart.

Doris (Carole Dance) and Margaret (Connie Walker) tread the conventional route. Jackie (Kathryn Ritchie) and Rosie (Felicity Houlbrooke) take different tracks, but only because there is always the fall-back safety net which the traditional provides.

Walker and Dance are both excellent as the two women who have expected more than life was ever really going to offer them, but are learning that the hard way. Ritchie’s Jackie and Houlbrooke’s Rosie are both free spirits yet as earthbound as kites which need the right sort of wind to become airborne.

Four star rating.

My Mother Said I Never Should runs as the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, with a matinée on 19 September, until 20 September. it can also be seen at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 30 and 31 October and at the Key Theatre, Peterborough between 1 and 3 November.

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Goodnight Mister Tom

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 28 August

David Wood’s stage version of the book by Michelle Magorian, in Karen Simpson’s production percolates the music of the Second World War as a counterpoint to the story of on small boy’s evacuation from London to the countryside.

William Beech (Jasmine Briggs) is not a happy child. His embittered mother has twisted her stark religion and personal frustrations into a strap with which – quite literally – she lambasts her son. His bruises are both external and internal.

Billeted on elderly widower Tom Oakley (Roy Hudd), his life begins to change around. Initially the sport of his new schoolmates (he can neither read nor write, but can draw), he slowly becomes integrated into village life and in the process makes friends.

Chief among these proves to be another evacuee. Zach (William Ennew). Zach is a thorough-going extrovert with parents who are both professional actors. There is also Tom Oakley’s dog Sammy, a life-size border collie puppet very well operated by Julia Cave.

The incidental music is directed by Pat Whymark and very well sung and played by the Theatre Royal’s Young Company. Hudd makes a thoroughly enjoyable Oakley, mourning his long-dead wife and their baby son with quiet dignity, and completely credible in the way his relationship with William develops.

As Mrs Beech, Sarah-Louise Young is unrelenting in her portrait of a woman who is her own worst enemy. The first half drags just a little bit, but picks up pace after the interval. Alison Heffernan’s set whisks us from London to the countryside; its splintered wooden planks suggest both rural weatherboard cottages, the bleakness of Mrs Beech’s home and the aftermath of the Blitz.

Four star rating.

Goodnight Mister Tom runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 8 November. There are matinées on 29 August, 2 and 8 September.

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Whisky Galore

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 6 June

Compton Mackenzie’s novel about the 1941 foundering of a ship which was bound for the USA with a cargo of prime whisky is probably best known in its 1949 Ealing film comedy version Whisky Galore. Philip Goulding’s stage adaptation adds its own twist.

We therefore find ourselves watching not just a play with the 26 characters all played by seven actors but one being staged by the Pallas Players, an all-woman troupe based on the Osiris Players.

The scene, as visualised by director Kevin Shaw and designer Patrick Connellan, is a co-operative hall in 1955, occupied by a flexible set of packing-cases which transform into rostra, hillocks, cars and anything required. The cast wears buff-coloured breeches and stockings, topped by a colourful array of bonnets, coats, kilts, shawls, skirts.

Behind is a map of the two Outer Hebridean islands Great and Little Todday where the action of Whisky Galore takes place. They’re clannish sorts of places, in more ways than one, with a distinctly cavalier attitude to incomers, such as the Waggetts.

Waggett is a pompous know-all, overly immersed in his command of the Home Guard. The leftward-leaning schoolmaster, Dr Maclaren and the priest Fr Macalister have all however been assimilated without overt mockery.

Two young couples find that the path to matrimony is not necessarily a smooth one. George Campbell is kept firmly under her thumb by his dour widowed mother, who refuses to meet his beloved Catriona Macleod.

Her sister Peggy is also being wooed, by serviceman Fred Odd, who has just come home on leave. Their shopkeeper father Duncan is also something of a martinet. All these diverse characters offer opportunities to the cast, which they seize upon.

Christine Mackie’s Mrs Campbell is the stand-out performance, closely followed by Isabel Ford’s Waggett and Lila Clements’ George. The gender-swapping throughout is as thoroughly credible as that I remember from the real Osiris Players.

It’s all affectionate without a whiff of send-up, but the action does take some time to pick up momentum. Too much so, especially during the first half. Clever touches, such as the visible gramophone for sound effects and the rolling hills, don’t really fill this gap.

Three and a half-star rating.

Whisky Galore continues at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 9 Jun with a matinée on 9 June.

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Hard Times

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 16 May

Northern Broadsides have a winning way with their adaptations of now classic plays and novels. The latest is Deborah McAndrew’s version of Dickens’ Hard Times.

The 1854 original was an indictment of the soulless factory system which blighted so much of recently industrialised England, the less-than-caring entrepreneurs it produced and the mind-numbing routines of rote-learning education and repetitive work.

Into Coketown, dominated by self-made factory owner and banker Josiah Bounderby (a magnificent performance by Howard Chadwick which deservedly takes centre stage), comes Mr Sleary (Paul Barnhill)’s Circus. It’s arrival is particularly resented by retired wholesaler Thomas Gradgrind (Andrew Price).

Price gives a well thought-out characterisation of the man who has founded a school and educated his two children in the service of pure utilitarianism. In their different ways, both young Tom (Perry Moore) and Louisa (Vanessa Schofield) rebel.

The catalyst comes when young Cecilia Jupe, pet name Sissy (Suzanne Ahmet) is sent to the school by her clown father. Ahmet captures Sissy’s dilemmas, torn between the apparent freedom of the circus – which itself requires discipline but carries insecurity – and the stability offered by the Gradgrind household.

Any Dickens story has a supporting cast of grotesques and devious-doers. Here we meet ailing Mrs Gradgrind (Claire Storey), fallen-on-hard-times Mrs Sparsit, Bounderby’s housekeeper (Victoria Brazier) and Mrs Pegler (Storey again), all of whom want more from the men of their acquaintance than they receive.

On the make in very different ways are bored society man Mr Harthouse and snooping bank employee Bitzer (a fine double by Darren Kuppan). Virtue is personified by mill-hand Stephen Blackpool (Anthony Hunt) and his platonic love Rachael (Brazier).

Louisa is lusted after by Bounderby as well as Harthouse, and Schofield gives us a portrait of a young woman stifled between duty and a scarcely comprehended yearning for a wider life – of the mind if not the body.  As Moore shows, Tom is oblivious to anything but his own selfish wants, including alcohol and money.

Conrad Nelson’s direction is fast-moving and his score evokes the place and the period; the musical director is Rebekah Hughes. Designer Dawn Allsopp seconds them with a set which allows seamless movement between locations, well lit by Mark Howland.

There are a couple of stage adaptations of Dickens’ novels currently on tour. If you can only see one – then go for Hard Times. This version brings characters which may b unfamiliar, even formulaic to full three-dimensional life. After all, Dickens wrote a paon to the power of imagination as well as a cracking good story.

Four and a half-star rating.

Hard Times continues at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 19 May with matinées on 17 and 19 May.

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Great Expectations

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 6 March

Plays and novels both tell us stories, though in different ways. The crucial thing for any adapter of a novel as a play is to be faithful to the sense of the source. S/he can use the novel’s dialogue to reinforce authenticity, but what to do with extended passages of description and lengthy recounting of events passed?

Ken Bentley’s version of Dickens’ Great Expectations for Tilted Wig in Sophie Boyce-Couzens production captures the atmosphere very well – with considerable aid from designers James Turner (set and costumes), and Richard Williamson (lighting). Ollie King’s music is appropriate and atmospheric.

Where adaptation and theatricality let the audience down are just those narrative passages; some seem interminable. The cast of eight, all with two exceptions playing several rôles, does its best to give them variety, but cannot help that overall feeling of sag.

Séan Aydon makes a credible Pip, giving us all the lad’s rough edges as he fumbles his way through to apparent fortune and maturity. Nichola McAuliffe’s Miss Haversham is a scintillation of white tatters, combining the pathos of the jilted woman’s dementia with an aura of sinister manipulation.

Two of the nicest people to whom Dickens and Bentley introduce us are blacksmith Joe Gargery and lawyer’s clerk Wemmick. Edward Ferrow does them proud. Both Eliza Collings’ Biddy and James Camp’s Herbert Pocket offer well-rounded portraits of simple goodness and honesty.

Daniel Goode’s Magwich is a properly frightening creation as is James Dinsmore’s Jaggers. Isla Carter doubles Molly, the murderess who Jaggers assists to cheat the gallows and Estella, that dangerous star flaring so brightly in both Pip’s and Miss Haversham’s colliding worlds.

Perhaps too many of us know Great Expectations too well; it has been dramatised and filmed many times. Dickens was persuaded to change the ending, potentially to satisfy his readers who would have originally read the novel in weekly installments. I’m not sure that these second thoughts were better ones; Bentley missed a trick here.

Four star rating.

Great Expectations runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St edmunds until 10 March with matinées on 7 and 10 March. The national tour includes the Palace Theatre, Westcliff between 19 and 24 March.

 

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Teddy

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 19 February

“The world is bigger than the Walworth Road”. In 2018 it’s all too easy to forget just how distant the horizon was for the young people of 1958. The sort of trips abroad which are a regular event for so many of school age weren’t even a pipe dream.

London was still pock-marked by the Blitz bombing, the old certainties had crumbled with it but work prospects for school-leavers were largely narrow ones. Single-parent families were another war by-product with fathers never returning from active service.

Tristan Bernays and Dougal Irvine’s musical Teddy takes us into that vanished world. One in which money (mainly in the form of a parental weekly dole-out of shillings and pence) was in short supply but the Teddy Boys and their girl-friends still made the most of it.

This Watermill Theatre musical directed by Eleanor Rhode is the latest in a succession of small-scale shows to go on tour. Central to the action is the eponymous Teddy (George Parker) who preens and postures in his second-hand frock-coat and the girl he takes up with.

She’s called Josie. Molly Chesworth shows us how much the screen glitter of a Hollywood lifestyle – luxurious Cadillacs, endless sunshine, beautiful and pristine beaches – becomes an obsession, leading both her and Teddy into dangerous territory.

The two play all the parts, including the louche bully boy who can’t work out how on earth Josie could possibly not fancy his attentions. Those early rock’n’roll sounds are provided by a four-person band at stage right and become characters in their own right.

Dylan Wood is the lead singer with musical director Harrison White, Freya Parks and Andrew Gallow. Tom Jackson-Greaves’s choreography is energetic and in period, and the designers Max Dorey (set), Christopher Nairne (lighting) and Holly Rose Henshaw (costumes) add to the atmosphere.

Four star rating.

Teddy runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 24 February with matinées on 21 and 24 February. It can also be seen at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 19 and 24 March.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & opera, Reviews 2018

A Brave Face

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 8 February

Post Traumatic Stress is a fact of both military and civilian life. The former also impinges on the latter.

Family, friends, employers and the medical profession all attempt to deal with a person whose life has been blistered by experiences they can scarcely understand and which are outside (for the most part) their personal acquaintance.

Vamos Theatre under its founder-director Rachael Savage specialises in full-mask mime. As in classic Greek theatre, the mask both hides the identity of the actor and allows each audience member to make of the character portrayed what he or she will.

Mime makes us concentrate – there are no words to distract from what we are seeing. This full-length production does have sound, created and mixed by Janie Armour and Adrian Northover. Carl Davies’ sets and costumes with Mark Parry’s projections and Russell Dean’s masks draw it all together.

The story is simple enough. Two young men Ryan (James Greaves) and Jimmy (Sean Kempton) join the Army in 2009. Ryan’s mother (Angela Laverick) and young sister Katie (Joanna Holden) see them off on this life-changing adventure.

It takes them to Afghanistan, completely alien in culture, faith and politics to th men of their platoon. Khatera (Holden) is a young village girl, with much the same teasing attitude to Ryan as his kid sister back at home.

Then something happens in the village. Something so traumatic for Ryan that he sins his life out of all control. Discharged, he can’t settle to a job, brushes his mother and sister aside and sinks so deep into depression that the pills prescribed by an overworked doctor seem to offer the simplest way out.

Does he take it? That you have to find out for yourself. It’s important to remember that, though the theme is serious, the staging has its lighter-hearted moments. Camaraderie is understandably a support mechanism.

Most evenings show us British and Allied troops coping with strange places and even stranger customs. Atrocities do occur; it’s difficult for the lay person to place these in true context.

At the curtain call, the cast take off their masks to reveal their own faces. It is a strength of Savage’s meticulously researched production that we feel we know the person behind the mask more completely than the performer when bare-faced.

Five star rating.

A Brave Face is at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester also on 9 February. The national and international tour until 30 May includes the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich ( 23 February), the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds (23 April), Hertford Theatre (1 May), the Mumford Theatre, Cambridge (2 May), the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford (5 May), Stantonbury Theatre, Milton Keynes (11 May) and the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford (12 May).

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Teechers

reviewed at the Norwich Playhouse on 6 February

The debate about education has long deep roots; they probably stretch back to the first lessons which passed on wisdom of various kinds from the experienced to their juniors.

John Godber’s 1987 play within a play Teechers is therefore as relevant to 2017 as at any previous time and, regrettably, likely to be so for the future. Adrian McDougall’s production for Blackeyed Theatre is energetic and admirably suited to school-age members of the audience.

Those of us with academics of various sorts in the family have heard this debate many times, and I have seen several previous productions. This one is loud and suitably brash with the three performers bringing clarity to the teenagers and adults they portray.

Scott Jenkins’ choreography is precision-sharp as three tables and chairs all-but take on a life of their own as scene intercuts with scene. Rosalind Seal obviously relishes the part of Mrs Parry, the head of a school in special measures who has taken care to send her children to a much grander establishment.

Then there’s Nicole Black as a collection of pupils with rampant hormones, and at least one teacher also in need of a mate. Between Seal and Black’s gallery of characterisations one understands why their view of the future is so bleak that they want to blot it out with the present.

A drama teacher fresh out of college Jeff Nixon is the lamb thrown to the wolf-packs of Whitehall High School. Jake Adley shows us how his ideals gradually blunt until he eventually accepts the superior post offered by the well-equipped, properly-funded dedicated-staff prospect offered by nearby St  George’s School.

So, what place have the arts in the average school curriculum when the emphasis is weighted towards “core” subjects and a school’s prosperity rests on its examination results in those subjects? If you’re reading this review of a dramatised debate about education, then I’m probably preaching to the converted.

The question remains, how do we convert the non-believers? School parties tends to be on the side of the arts already. Perhaps whole tranches of heads, administrators, school governors and funders at national, regional and local levels could be bussed in to Teechers – and then examined on the play and its messages…

Four star rating.

Teechers is at the Norwich Playhouse also on 7 February and then on national tour until 29 March including the Stantonbury Theatre, Milton Keynes (19-20 February, the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (26-28 February), the Key Theatre, Peterborough (5 March), the Towngate Theatre, Basildon (8-9 March), the Mumford Theatre, Cambridge (12-13 March) and the Broadway Theatre, Letchworth (14 March)

 

 

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Birdsong

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 1 February

A largely re-cast revival of Rachel Wagstaff’s revised stage version of Sebastian Faulks’ novel has just started a national tour. it’s the fourth , and we’re told, the final one. Tim Treloar returns in dominant form as Jack Firebrace, the First World War sapper recruited from his peacetime job as a tunneller for London’s underground network expansion.

Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters’ production uses Victoria Spearing’s two-level, multi-location set to take us from the grim reality of trench warfare along the Somme in 1916 to the apparently idyllic world of prewar Amiens. Only apparently – for industrialist René Azaire is a dictator alike to his children and his wife.

Madeleine Knight is Isabelle, the abused trophy wife who captures the heart of Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay), who is sent to Amiens by his guardian to learn about mechanical innovations in 1910 and who finds himself six years later newly commissioned and on the front line.

The worlds of Firebrace and his fellow Tommies and that of the learning-on-the-job officers who command them are both distant and close. Wraysford has lost Isabelle and Firebrace knows from his wife’s letters that their only son John is in hospital with diphtheria, a near death-sentence in those days before antibiotics. They clash before each man recognises part of himself in the other.

It is subtly staged as flashbacks illuminate the grim confined present. James Findlay’s violin and melodeon playing shadows the action as the miscellany of characters step momentarily out of the underground doom to reveal fragments of their past life and personalities.

Treloar and Kay dominate and are thoroughly convincing. Knight’s Isabelle is overly subdued, in contrast to her precocious daughter Lisette (Olivia Bernstone); she may be the nominal heroine of the story but seems reluctant to step fully into its limelight. Women of all the combatant countries at home suffered, and this Faulks emphasises. But it was their menfolk who paid an even heavier price for what we now know was a short-lived peace.

Four star rating.

Birdsong runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 3 February with matinées on 1 and 3 February. The tour also includes the Cambridge Arts Theatre between 14 and 19 May.

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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.

 

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

The Old Curiosity Shop

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 27 October

Common Ground’s autumn production now launched on its East Anglian tour is an adaptation of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. A cast of five, all of whom sing and play musical instruments, take us through the story of Little Nell and her grandfather as they flee London and the nefarious designs of Daniel Quilp.

The adaptation is by Julian Harries and Pat Whymark (who has also composed the music which is such a major part of the production. The effect is, I would imagine, close to that produced by one of the small-scale touring companies which plied the various East Anglian circuits in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It is in some measure a ballad opera, in the style of The Beggar’s Opera or Black-Eyed Susan. Two numbers stand out – “The fair orphan maid” in the first half and “The turning of the tide” towards the end of the second act. All the cast take several roles, including drag versions of Kit Nubbles’ mother, the sadistic Miss Brass and the waxworks proprietor Mrs Jarley.

The one woman in the cast is Eloise Kay, who takes on Nell (her age updated from the original “not quite fourteen”), the downtrodden Mrs Quilp and the Brass household drudge eventually nicknamed “the marchioness”. Quilp and the mysterious Single Gentleman makes an interesting doubling, as does pliable lawyer Mr Brass and Nell’s devoted but gambling-addicted grandfather.

Harries, Joe Leat, Tristan Teller and Ivan Wilkinson there for play all the male and the afore-mentioned female ones in a production in which Whymark  takes Dickens’ story seriously as well as briskly while allowing space for character development. Notably these include Kit and Dick Swiveller. The Punch and Judy show is a delight – that’s the way to do it!

Four star rating.

The Od Curiosity Shop tours East Anglia until 25 November, including the Corn Hall, Diss (28 October), the Jubilee Centre, Mildenhall (30 October), the John Peel Centre, Stowmarket (2 November), The Cut, Halesworth (3 November), the Seckford Theatre, Woodbridge (4 November), the John Mills Theatre, Ipswich (6 and 7 November), the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (between 9 and 11 November, with a matinée on 11 November), the Headgate Theatre, Colchester (13 November), the Wingfield Barns (22 November) and the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh (24 November).

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Plays, Reviews 2017

Private Lives

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 12 September

Coward’s Private Lives is a deceptively simple play to stage, as director Michael Cabot acknowledges in his programme notes for London Classic Theatre’s new production. His designer Frankie Bradshaw has provided two sets which emphasise this.

The characters are caught in a sort of no-man’s-land, poised between two world wars. Their society is no longer that of the Bright Young Things of the 20s but it still has its own rules and restrictions as well as the dual concept of male and female sexuality.

Amanda is the character who perhaps recognises this most clearly; a double divorce will isolate her in a fashion which neither of her husbands is likely to experience. Sybil is the eternal, cosseted ingénue who only at the end of the play perhaps – and it’s a big perhaps – has a glimmering that standing up for yourself needs to start at the first step into adult society rather than at the church door.

One might say that all this subtext is communicated in spite of some of the actors, not through them. Helen Keeley looks and acts Amanda to the last flick of an eyelash but she speaks Coward’s staccato dialogue with a machine-gun delivery which reduces much of it to the spoken equivalent of one of WS Gilbert’s patter songs – “this particularly rapid unintelligible patter isn’t generally heard …”

Her Elyot is Jack Hardwick, who has the well-tailored measure of his part, as does Kieran Buckeridge’s buttoned-up Victor as he tries to cope first with a wife who’s just not on his wavelength and then with Sybil at her own point of no return.

Olivia Beardsley’s pastel, marcel-waved portrait of this secondary female role has its strengths as well as its sillinesses. Rachael Holmes-Brown plays the maid Louise, making her into less of a caricature than some I have seen lately. But it would all be so much better if three acts hadn’t been crammed into two hours, including the interval, and the dialogue allowed to breathe.

 

Four star rating.

Private Lives is at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 16 September with matinées on 13 and 16 September as part of a national tour to 25 November including Harlow Playhouse (19-21 October, the Alban Arena, St Albans (24-25 October), the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford (26-28 October) and the Key Theatre, Peterborough (13-15 November).

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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.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Music Music theatre & Opera, Reviews 2017

The Prisoner of Zenda

reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 7 August

Anthony Hope added a new word to the English language in  1894 – Ruritania – with The Prisoner of Zenda. The romantic adventure novel  was quickly adapted for the stage by Edward Rose (cast of thousands) and has been filmed countless times (likewise).

Mark Sterling’s version keeps the multiple settings, from palace and cathedral to forest hunting-lodge and gloomy castle dungeon but manages it all with a cast of seven. Tory Cobb has thrown in one of Suffolk Summer Theatre’s specialities (a train sequence) for good measure. Miri Birch’s costumes work better for the women than for the men.

The story concerns the disputed monarchy of one of those turbulent Balkan states sandwiched between two fading but still powerful empires – the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman – fiercely independent, proud of its traditions but wary of its neighbours. The about-to-be-crowned king is Rudolf V; his envious illegitimate half-brother Michael wants to take his place.

A proposed marriage between Rudolf and his cousin Flavia (who herself has a claim to the throne) is a further complication, as is Michael’s mistress Antoinette du Maubin. Then there’s Rudolf’s double, a folk-melody enthusiast from England, Rudolf Rassendyll. Not to mention Michael’s dashingly sinister wheeler-dealer factotum Rupert of Hentzau.

That hard-working cast take it all as seriously as it should do. Joe Leat’s double of the wine-addicted king and the English gentleman who takes his place at the behest of loyal Colonel Sapt and Fritz von Tarlenheim is very well contrasted, the one all sodden self-pity and the other reluctantly dashing.

Rick Savery is suitably sinister as Michael, though Saul Boyer didn’t (for me on the opening night) quite strike the right note for a man who takes such pleasure and pride in manipulating others. Clive Flint’s Sapt and Tom Slatter’s Fritz are stalwart in their military attempts to keep the monarchy in place, whatever their personal feelings about the incumbant.

In this version,  Amy Christina Murray as Princess Flavia has more to do than just be the decorative object of Rassendyll’s self-sacrificing love, an updating which works in the context. Sarah Ogley’s Antoinette is also more than her dark mirror image. Richard Blaine stages an excellent couple of sword fights, though the costume department could surely have provided sheathes for them when not in use.

Noisy scene changes will presumably quieten down and be slicker (too many glimpses of the people effecting them on the opening night) as the run and its transfers progress. One query – in the last meeting between restored king and his English saviour, why does Rasendyll have dark hair when he and the king have been much lighter throughout?

Four star rating.

The Prisoner of Zenda runs at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 12 August with matinées on 10 and 12 August. It transfers to the Southwold Arts Centre between 15 and 26 August and can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from 6 to 9 September.

 

 

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Our Man in Havana
reviewed in Ipswich on 23 May

Clive Francis’ adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana is a delight, especially when performed by four actors of the West Country-based touring ensemble Creative Cow. This is ensemble playing at its slickest, with taut direction by Amanda Knott and a deceptively simple set by Nina Raines imaginatively lit by Derek Anderson.

As vacuum-cleaner salesman James Wormold (Charles Davies) sees his life in pre-Castro Cuba dissoving around him when his wife walks out leaving him with their affectionate but oh-so-demanding daughter Milly (Isla Carter) and business in stone-floored Havana far from flourishing, his friendship with emigré German doctor Hasselbacher (James Dinsmore) seems his only worthwhile adult relationship.

Enter Hawthorne, a man from Mi5 (Dinsmore), with a financial inducement in connexion with the Cold War then raging. How can Wormold resist? Of course he doesn’t, and the bonuses flow in as he invents first a whole raft of subsidiary agents and suggests some secret weapons-launch construction (these look remarkably similar to vacuum-cleaner parts…).

With Michael Onslow as Wormold’s sevant Lopez and the local police chief Segura, who fancies Milly) – all four actors except Davies play at least seven other roles as well as narrating – the confusion and misunderstandings build to a comedic climax which partly dissolves into genuine tragedy. Carter manages her doubling of Milly and Beatrice, sent from London to try to regulate the Havana situation superbly, but the whole cast is near faultless.

Four and a half-star rating.

Our Man in Havana plays at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 27 May with matinées on 24 and 27 May. It can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmuns between 29 June and 1 July.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Reviews 2017

Cyrano
reviewed at Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal on 2 May

Rostand was only 30 when his best-known play Cyrano de Bergerac was staged. This Northern Broadsides version by Deborah McAndrew is called simply Cyrano and decorates the action with considerable song-and-dance, which does slightly obscure the central story. It’s not precisely a musical in Conrad Nelson’s direction (he is also the composer) but does emphasis how young the characters are, including the protagonist.

Christian Edwards tries very hard as Cyrano but for me he fails to convey the deeply multi-faceted character of the proud poet, playwright, swordsman and soldier. Pretty as she is, Sharon Singh doesn’t succeed in making Roxane into more than a shadow of the beauty who wins men’s hearts so effortlessly while maintaining her own integrity. The 13-strong cast does however throw up some three-dimensional character studies.

Notable among these are Andy Cryer’s arrogsnt de Guiche, Andrew Whitehead’s Le Bret, Paul Barnhill’s Ragueneau and Michael Hugo’s Lignière; Hugo has the best of the musical numbers. Adam Barlow, in an odd-looking wig, doesn’t convey either Christian’s boyish good-looking glamour or the character’s basic decency and courage.

Lis Evans has created a succession of reasonably accurate 17th century costumes and a flexible curtain-hung set easily adaptable to indicate the different locations of the five acts and with which lighting director Daniella Beattie plays games. The choreographer is Beverley Norris-Edmunds with fight direction by Philip d’Orléans. The Theatre Royal’s stage is something of an acoustic gem, but that 21st century disease – the mumbles – seems to have afflicted some of the cast.

Three and a half-star rating.

Cyrano runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 6 May with matinées on 3 and 6 May.

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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.

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ShowStopper!
reviewed on 21 Jan at Bury St Edmunds

Showstoppers have hit on a winning formula with its series of carefully crafted improvised plays and musicals. This one, with a full house at the Theatre Royal wholeheartedly entering into the spirit, proved to have the catchy title of God Help Us!.

This plot is a weird concoction marrying elements of The Young Pope, Jerry Springer: the Musical and Tom Lehrer’s Vatican Rag with the audience’s suggestions for musical styles including galley-years Verdi, Carousel, High School Musical, Oliver!, Wicked! and a couple of Lloyd Webber hits thrown in for good measure.

Basically,a man and a woman about to take religious vows find themselves in love. Could be serious stuff, but not handled this way and treading a brilliant path between could-be-one-day fantasy and actual human emotions. Not to mention sexuality.

You’d have to be devoid of humour to take offence at the situations in which Lucy Trodd as Maria, Justin Brett as her on-off suitor Marius, Andrew Pugsley as the Pope and Philip Pellew as the all-purpose Steve find themselves. Not to mention Lauren Shearing’s over-burdened Sister Clara…

Dylan Emery attempts to keep proceedings under control as a harrassed would-be producer desperately trying to sell the idea of a new blockbuster musical to Cameron Macintosh (well, who else?). Simon Scullion has devised an outline, flexible set consisting mainly of screens and benches in scarlet and black.

There’s an equally ecletic range of costumes and props by Gabriella Slade. Instrumental accompaniment is provided by Duncan Wesh Atkins at the keyboard and Alex Atty with a whole range of percussion, while the nifty choeographic consultancy comes from Donna Berlin, though I suspect that the cast know precisely what’s required for the storyline and situations.

Four star rating.

ShowStopper!: The Improvised Musical is at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 9 and 11 February and at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 18 and 19 February as part of a national tour running until 23 April.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, 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.

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Filed under Pantomimes & other seasonal shows, Reviews 2016