Sunday, June 25, 2017


Sea-Change Theatre at the Rose Playhouse

Shakespeare probably saw his Tempest over the river at Blackfriars. He'd be bewildered to find it performed 400 years later on the sparse remains of The Rose, already dark by the time the play was penned.
He'd be intrigued by this beautifully simple staging, directed by Ray Malone and designed by Lu Firth. Ropes, crates, and a distant prospect of the very Romantic storm, which we view, with Miranda, from afar.
Sea-change, a women-only company, seeks to “invert the Elizabethan convention of male-only performances”. Their name is taken from Act I – one of Shakespeare's many coinings – and this was their inaugural production, first seen on Lesvos last year.
The cross-gendering works well, for the most part. Many of the male characters, names unchanged, become women. Others remain resolutely masculine – the clowns, the Neapolitan nobles, striking in their beards, black doublets and red sashes. No chance of meeting Claribel, but we do get to see Sycorax [Lottie Vallis] – a strong female role – conjured by Ariel in a very effective scene.
American actor Marianne Hyatt makes an imposing Prospero, the poetry beautifully delivered [though it's a shame that Our Revels was both misplaced and misremembered]. Her daughter is played by Lakshmi Khabrani, in an impassioned, and often passionate, reading. Kimberley Jarvis is a compelling Ferdinand; Lucianne Regan an angelic Ariel, in a long white robe which seems to sap some of the fun and the energy from an otherwise delightful interpretation. A strong Caliban from Rosie Jones, giving The Isle is Full of Noises to just one auditor in the front row, and a great Laurel and Hardy double-act from Vix Dillon and Gerry Bell as Stephano and Trinculo, the drunken butler – skin-head and England shirt … 

Sue Frumin, who wrote this version, makes several appearances as Myrtle, the mudlark peddling relics from the river. A good idea to root the production in the place, but like the hand-held projector, it didn't really work in practice.

The publicity might lead us to expect a more radical re-working, rather than this magical, captivating 90-minute Tempest, which though it has its own agenda, manages to respect the text, the place and the audience. Let's leave the really radical to the rival house across the way … 

Friday, June 23, 2017


The Chelmsford Junior Music Festival 2017
at the Civic Theatre

When I was their age … we would gather behind the old air raid shelter and sing. Not the hymns and folk songs which were the Primary School staple, but hits from the shows – My Fair Lady had just opened at Drury Lane.
It was lovely to be reminded of those innocent days by this impressive performance – the last day of this year's festival.
Over the week, 26 schools and over 1000 children have sung their hearts out on the Civic stage – the show opened enchantingly, with seven soloists to start, then the 200+ chorus revealed as the curtain rose.
Disney was well represented – A Star is Born from Hercules, but there was also Matilda, Bugsy Malone, Wicked and Rent – Seasons of Love that opening number.
As tradition demands, there was also a cantata. Debbie Campbell's Emerald Crown reminds us of the threat to the rain forest – lots of opportunity for movement as well as singing – Wild Cat Queen of the Jungle a stand-out number.
Natalie Thurlow was the inspirational Musical Director, her charisma winning over children and parents alike. Guest artistes were a promising young trombonist and Kayleigh McEvoy, singing Puccini and I Love A Piano, a charming early Irving Berlin.


at the Dominion Theatre

After successful runs in America [and Paris] this new musical is now settled in to the lovely 1920s Dominion for the rest of the year at least.
It's based, of course, on the classic 1951 film. But given that the director/choreographer is Christopher Wheeldon, it's no surprise that the focus is squarely on the dance. The performers are mostly dancers first, singers second. But it is a very close second – Royal Ballet's Leanne Cope, who dances superbly in the Leslie Caron role of Lise, is a confident, pure-toned singer. She's partnered in this matinĂ©e by Max Westwell, relishing the chance to slip into Robert Fairchild's dancing shoes as Jerry. And he does so brilliantly, a youthful, energetic GI. The other two “musketeers” are the cabaret chanteur Henri [Haydn Oakley] and grumpy war-wounded artist Adam [David Seadon-Young]. They join towards the end in a poignant They Can't Take That Away From Me, one of several major changes from movie to musical. Nice to see Jane Asher on stage, giving a nice character study as the mother from the haute bourgeoisie, who eventually drops the icy mask and joins in the dance.
Wheeldon has transformed the basic plot, though the characters all survive, more or less true to the original. Lise is now an aspiring ballerina, Milo [Zoe Rainey] is the ballet company's benefactor, Adam writes their scores, and Jerry – eventually – is retained as designer for the sets and costumes. And so, instead of the dream sequence, we see this performance - from backstage initially – danced in full to the Gershwin piece that gives the show its name.
Right from the stunning opening, the post-war setting is stressed; occupation, and collaboration, a very recent memory for the Parisians, just as the fighting is for the Americans. But this added depth is counterbalanced by the escapist dancing, and the glorious Gershwin score – not only the original numbers, but a generous injection of songs from earlier works: Beginners' Luck, Fidgety Feet … In the pit, with his white tie and cream telephone, the debonair MD John Rigby.
And the final ingredient is Bob Crowley's set design. Jerry's sketches are spectacularly brought to life, in a heady combination of moving flats – manoeuvred with balletic precision by dancers – and animated projection. Stunning. One of the most striking numbers is Henri's hesitant cabaret act – Stairway to Paradise. A lot rides on making an impression – “think Radio City” the advice – and suddenly there's an old-fashioned production number, worthy of MGM; there's even a kick line, but, alas, no actual staircase ...

Wednesday, June 21, 2017



Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at The Old Court

Moira Buffini's entertaining conceit lets us eavesdrop – a fly on the fourth wall – as Liz talks with Maggie. They met weekly over tea for eleven years.
Of course, “no notes were taken”, so this is all “crass surmise” and speculation, but it does give a unique insight into the politics of the Thatcher years, as well as fabulous opportunities for the actors.
Director Lynne Foster fields a top team of six actors. Mrs T and HMQ have two each – like the Bennett twins in Lady in the Van – allowing for amusing meta-theatrical exchanges. The Thatchers especially are given to bickering. The men are relegated to minions, with two jobbing actors taking on a huge variety of walk-ons, from Hezza to the Gipper. They are impressively done by Mark Preston – Kenneth Kaunda and a convincing Nancy – and Kevin Stemp – Gerry Adams and both consorts. Preston's role provides political balance, reminding the younger audience member about the importance of, say, the miners' strike or Greenham Common.
Where did she get that accent ?”, muses her Maj. Vocally, all four women are unnervingly accurate – Maggie's breathy sincerity, Liz's thin patrician. They are intended to be a younger and an older incarnation, I think, though it was not always apparent in this casting. Debbie Miles begins with an entirely convincing speech; Andrea Dalton is frighteningly forceful. Jane Smith is excellent as the grumpy, frumpy Queen, riffling through the Royal Ascot guide kindly provided by today's Times. And Laura Hill engagingly plays the somewhat younger – in her fifties – monarch when her hair was still resolutely dyed Chocolate Kiss.
There are occasional dips in energy – musing on jam, faffing with trolleys in black-out – but generally the pace is good, our attention captured by these six excellent performances.
I can remember when the Lord Chamberlain's Office strictly vetoed any stage depiction of the reigning monarch. Now of course the Queen is ubiquitous on the boards, from A Question of Attribution to The Audience. Buffini's piece is a welcome addition – not just a history lesson, and not simply knockabout satire. Both the Monarch and her eighth Prime Minister are often sympathetically portrayed; the Brighton Bombing and the death of Mountbatten genuinely moving moments.


A Made in Colchester Production
at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester

for The Reviews Hub

This is the sequel to Morpurgo's phenomenal War Horse. It's a very different animal – a couple of actors, a costumed musician, and, centre stage “an old green Fordson”, the tractor which turns out to be at the heart of this story. But it succeeds on its own terms, since, as in War Horse, the author's skill as a story-teller carries the narrative, and keeps the audience enthralled.
This ingenious adaptation is by Daniel Buckroyd, now the Mercury's Artistic Director, and it was first seen here in 2012. This new production, directed by C P Hallam, has been touring local schools, with just one weekend on the Mercury main stage.
The two actors take the roles of Grandpa, who's actually the son of Albert from the earlier piece, and his grandson, who as a young child played at farming seated on the ancient tractor, and eventually takes over the farm. The relationship between the two is beautifully drawn – teasing, encouraging, and, in the play, unselfconsciously sharing all the other roles, including the Corporal, as the adult Albert is known in the village, the grandmother Maisie, and rival farmer Harry Medlicott. 
The old man loves to remember, and loves to tell his stories. But illness and idleness have left him illiterate, and after his wife dies, he persuades the boy to teach him his letters. As a reward, his grandson gets £100 and a story, ten pages of painstakingly pencilled capital letters.
This story of the ploughing match, pitting horses against horse-power, is the thrilling climax of the piece. The staging is simple, stripped-back. The two horses are step-ladders, the cockerel a rubber glove, Medlicott's paunch the cushion from the tractor's seat. Ru Hamilton's music underpins the action beautifully – flute for the flight of the swallow, harp for midnight Christmas Eve – the old ballad Dives and Lazarus effectively quoted here and elsewhere. And for the competition on Candlelight Field, a cello, joined by a bucket for a drum, the jingle of the harness and percussion on the Fordson.
The two actors – Danny Childs as the boy, Gary Mackay as the old man – draw us in to the story, and seem to relish bringing the scenes to life. Nothing is over-stated. We use our imaginations as they use theirs – they talk of horses, and we see them. The old man speaks of death, as he recalls his father's terrible trauma in the trenches. The boy, who pulled the cornsacks off the old tractor at the back of the barn all those years ago, returns to the farm after college, and finally restores the Fordson, which triumphantly bursts into life as this lovely sixty-minute show ends.
It's good to be reminded of the power of words to carry a story; the magic of theatre does not have to rely on technical wizardry and special effects.

production photograph: Robert Day