Monday, January 31, 2011


national tour co-produced by the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Theatre Royal Bath
2011 cast at the Chichester Festival Theatre


Didn't he look like Trimlett from behind ?”

All these characters, staff and boys, could stir schoolday memories in the audience, I'm sure, whether from “the distance enchanted” or the day before yesterday.
For me, it was a poignantly vulnerable Irwin [Ben Lambert] and Scripps [Harry Waller], the earnest, myopic boy with the awkward arms, who plays the piano, addresses the audience and later “writes it all down” …
Philip Franks, Chichester stalwart, was fleshy and flamboyant as Hector, but not perhaps “the big man” the boys might remember; his cry of frustration and pain was strangely lacking in emotional power.
Penelope Beaumont made a believable Mrs Lintott, and I liked Thomas Wheatley's Gradgrind Headmaster – the cynical geographer from Hull played with exquisite irony here by an historian from Corpus !
George Banks had a nice swagger as Dakin – his duologue with Irwin one of several duets at a distance which worked wonderfully on the Chichester thrust. It was all the more powerful when he finally did reach out to him.
Rob Delaney, moving as the impossible-to-cast Posner, often caught the pathos of this lost boy, but lacked the slight frame and child-like fragility the role cries out for.
And Christopher Keegan's Timms, clowning or spoofing the movies, had considerable presence, though I can't foresee a Cordenian comedy future for him. I see from the programme that he's played a John C Reilly lookalike – in a few years he could pass for Bernard Manning, if there's any demand.
The set pieces worked well in Luscombe's version, trimmed for length and lightness. Shame to lose the knock at the door, or the Seven Veils, though, and the famous French maison de passe was needlessly orgiastic, almost as if the boys were somehow sending up the incident in retrospect. Brief Encounter was spot on, however.
The music, whether pumped out over the speakers or bashed out on the battered upright, was as evocative as ever. I'd not recalled the hymn referenced in the heavy bass of the next transition, or Burgon's Nunc Dimittis, recalling another school, another Schoolboy.
Bennett's greatest hit is a strange mélange of periods. The students always seem very 21st century to me, perhaps because of the youthful enthusiasm successive casts have brought to the characters. The ethos of the school embraces exhibitions, scholarships and league tables. The furniture, in Janet Bird's simple, revolving design, reflected this confusion, as did the schoolboys' eclectic schoolbags …

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Galleywood Theatre Group at the Church of St Michael and All Angels

A world première Panto, and the first I've seen in a church [though our medieval forebears would have thought nothing of bawdy knockabout drama in the aisles]
St Michael and All Angels were joint sponsors of The Snow Queen, together with Naked Flame Candles. Mr Simm's Olde Sweet Shoppe benefited from prominent product placement too – confectionery was central to the show, with the Dame [a lively Beverley Eary] in a natty Allsorts apron presiding over her Kingdom of Sweets.
Another experienced performer was Annette Michaels as the evil title character, cackling away in her green gloves and green wig. An unusual character for pantomime was “sophisticated and slightly foreign” René, played with some style and a wonderful accent by Paula Rayner. Stevie Gill and Caroline Fernandez worked hard as Ig and Lou, with two duets and lots of banter.
But there was promising work from the youngsters, too, with a neat chorus ensemble [The Candyman]. And if the young lovers [Charlie Kinsman and Harri-Nicole Kinsman] struggled to put over the dialogue in this unfriendly acoustic, their singing was attractive [a nice Lion King duet].
Debbi Flack directed, with Jo Cocklin in charge of the music.
This is the first major production from a new group – their next venture, appropriately enough, will be The Vicar of Dibley in April.

Brentwood Operatic Society at the Brentwood Theatre


Another movie, another stage musical. Later this year we've “Ghost” to look forward to, but meanwhile a less iconic rom-com brought enthusiastic crowds to Brentwood Theatre.

The show, like the film, looks back to the 80s, when cell phones and CD players were cutting edge, and embryonic boy bands like these made money by playing at wedding receptions.
As the eponymous Robbie, Tom Eason looked the part in his 80s wig; his attempts at using his art to reflect his life were amusing – struggling to find rhymes for 'awesome' – but unfortunately the heat-and-serve songs penned by one Matthew Sklar with Chad Beguelin were little better: cheesy key-changes in pale pastiches of half-forgotten power ballads and pop anthems. Instead of classics from Wham and Musical Youth.

But Amy Clayton's production compensated for a feeble, formulaic piece with a zippy, brash style, boasting some excellent performances: Ian Southgate as the Wall Street whizz kid [“It's All About The Green”], Lisa Harris as Robbie's liberated Gran, Julie Salter very watchable as she made the most of the mother of the bride, Justin Cartledge as [Boy] George, Carolyn Kirkpatrick as the heartless Linda, and especially Rachel Wood as Holly; she got closest to the wise-cracking wit of the original. Julia, the waitress who dumps the trader and finds her wedding singer, was engagingly done by Sarah Miles – her distant duet with Robbie was a rare highlight.

The choreography was energetic, often witty – the waitresses especially. MD Robert Miles got some great sounds from his hidden band, and the atmosphere was often electric. It was just a pity that the music was so ordinary, the book so banal. Bring on Guys and Dolls, I say …
Little Waltham Drama Group at the Memorial Hall

As the Group embarks on its 40th year, they've revisited the first panto they ever did, the classic Cinderella.
Many things have changed – keyboards, lasers – but three members of that original show were involved again this time, and of course the plot and many of the jokes are untouched by progress.
Susan Butler's fun-packed production succeeded not because of the music – though we did appropriately reference Mr Cinders and La Cage Aux Folles – or because of the book. Many of the best laughs came from the busload of Buttons fans in the cheap seats at the back. And from the spontaneous script embroidery which ensued. Inveterate ad-libber Richard Butler met his match this year in Gordon MacSween, [more than a touch of Dame Maggie about that one] a spicy Masala to his dodgy Tikka – tandoori puns were a feature. Another welcome newcomer was Karen Allen, who played a sweet Cinderella, coping coolly with the improvisation around her. Her thigh-slapping Prince, in modest fishnet, was Salley Abrey, Karen Wray was the mentor Fairy Godmother, and Jenny Broadway was a dragon of a Baroness. More classic panto turns from stalwarts Gill Haysham as a daffy apprentice Fairy, Brian Corrie as a doddery Dandini, Ken Little as a brilliantly bashful Buttons, and Glyn Jones as Baron Hardup.
Nothing impoverished about the production though, with the costumes especially stunning. If the transformation scene had to happen out of sight in the car park, we did at least have before and after pumpkins in pride of place either side of the proscenium.
Musical Director was Chrissy Gould – the show's greatest hits were the Uglies' Duet Nobody Does It Like Me, and an impressive piece of  “follow that!”, the timeless Moon River.

photograph: Peter Travell

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


at the Courtyard Theatre, Hoxton


Guy Burgess, the finest Cambridge undergraduate of his generation, is visited in his squalid Moscow flat by a woman with whom he shares memories of home.
No, not Alan Bennett's Englishman Abroad, but a new biographical play by John Morrison, best known perhaps for his spoof School Yarn about one Anthony Blair. The same metaphor surfaces here, Burgess the idler to Maclean's swot, though, from my two-rouble seat in the stalls, the Music Hall imagery was stronger, the irrepressible Guy starring in Confessions of a Cheeky Chappie, belting out Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty.
His mysterious visitor, the bright young Russian schoolteacher bringing him soup and cake, was very much a dramatic device at first - “So what happened next ?”, “Which year are we in now ?” though her love of all things English and her text-book idioms did add interest. But at the end of Burgess's tale she insists that he [and we, perforce] should hear her story too. It's a strong coda, the frozen corpses in the river one of the most memorable images in a wordy piece. Margarita Nazarenko's complex Julia was a great foil for Gareth Pilkington's florid, politically naive traitor; we felt for her as her tragic story unfolded, when she became the victim of a final act of treachery.
Excellent work among the supporting characters, too: Rich Keeble's Maclean, Richard Holt's Philby, Charles Church a splendid Driberg, Robin West as Guy's best friend and drinking partner Goronwy Rees, and especially Jacob Trenerry's aristocratic Blunt, swanning in with a Poussin under his arm.
Morrison has done his research – he was with Reuter's Moscow office, and knew Maclean. I hope Burgess really was due to umpire a cricket match just before he died; I hope Tom Driberg really brought him a borrowed bat and marmalade from Sainsbury's; I hope there really were pointless seminars on The English Way of Life for agents Pushkin and Dostoevsky. Their cultural tennis, complete with bowler hats, was a comic highlight; the often witty dialogue deserved more laughs than the sparse Thursday night audience could provide, I felt.
Production values were high, with convincing costumes, G&S LPs by the radiogram, Music Hall Memories vocal selections …
A Morning With Guy Burgess was directed by Dimitry Devdariani, originally from Georgia. The production, with its shadowy KGB agents and its oppressive atmosphere, made the most of a script which did not always convince dramatically – it's a pity that Morrison's “concert party” did not draw a bigger crowd to the Courtyard, just round the corner from the celebrated Hoxton Music Hall.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


M&G Concert at the Civic Theatre


The second concert of this M&G season saw cellist Paul Watkins, elevated on a central dais, directing the ECO in Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations, and, naturally, playing the demanding solo part. It's a lot to ask – much tougher than directing from the violin or the harpsichord – but after a slightly shaky start, we heard a performance of integrity, wit and charm, with eloquent solo playing in the third and sixth variations especially, and engaging social chatter in the scampering Allegro Vivo Finale.
The strings [leader Stephanie Gonley] were on splendid form in the Butterworth, too, but the real meat of the evening was the two pieces of early Beethoven bookending the programme.
With his energetic showmanship, Watkins got the First Symphony off to an impressive start, and there was an intriguing edge to the Menuetto, before the sparkling Finale sent us home with a spring in our step.
The Prometheus Overture is well known – its dramatic opening chords particularly striking here – the Ballet Music less often heard. A shame we could not have had it all, or at least a few more movements; I would happily have sacrificed the token Englishman to make room for more Beethoven. The orchestra's playing had a lightness of touch combined with a steely strength, and there was fine work from Helen Tunstall's harp – rare in Beethoven – and the cello [Susan Monks] representing Apollo in the myth.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Lunchtime concerts at Chelmsford Cathedral and the Cramphorn Theatre


Inversion” - flute/organ duo Ruth Stockdale and Robert Smith – started this year's Cathedral Lunchtime Series with a fascinating programme of duets, many in their own arrangements, such as the lovely Meditation by Harold “Bleak Midwinter” Darke, and the flamboyant Saint-Saens Fantaisie which ended the recital. I also very much enjoyed Weisgarber's Fantasia on a theme of Vaughan Williams.
Our schools are well represented in the Fridays up to Easter – Brentwood, Forest, Plume, as well as the Cathedral School – and there's a visit from the Chelmsford Male Voice Choir in March, too.

The Cramphorn Wednesday concerts are also back, with their host and impresario kicking things off with a session featuring his saxes and clarinet, and the piano of his sparring partner Peter Marshall. They eased us gently, and cheerfully, into the New Year with Jelly Roll Morton, and after some unexpected Haydn, medleys of Blues and Dixieland.
But the tune running through my head for the rest of the afternoon was I Wish I Knew, familiar as the theme for Barry Norman's Film Night, penned by jazz legend Billy Taylor, who died last month.
Many more reeds to follow over the next couple of months, including the Darkwood Clarinet Quartet, plus Amy Thompson's flute, and pianist John Human taking us from Bach to Basie.