Wednesday, December 31, 2014

LOOKING BACK AT 2014











A time of farewells at the arts desk.
Jon Richards”, Peter Andrews and Jim Hutchon, who all influenced me at various stages in my critical career, died within a few months of each other this past year. They leave an enormous legacy of support, both practical and literary, for the local arts scene.

Looking back at my own pieces this year, I've selected a score of events, to which I was invited, either as blogger, arts correspondent for the Chelmsford Weekly News, or contributor to Sardines, Remote Goat or The Public Reviews.

To some extent this choice is yours too. My blog is interactive. You can leave comments – they'll be posted quicker if you don't remain anonymous – you can click to say how far you agree, or you can affect the star rating - *****KO, ****A-OK, ***OK, **so-so, *no-no - just by clicking on the stars !
So these are the shows that still, at the year's end, keep their 5-star rating.

Pantomimes at the Mercury Colchester [very much back on form this year] and the Queen's Hornchurch, whose Return to the Forbidden Planet was a hugely enjoyable farewell from Artistic Director Bob Carlton. Their stylish Gatsby and their hilarious Lend Me A Tenor also made the cut.
Kytes' Speaking In Tongues at BrentwoodTheatre all the more impressive for coming as a surprise; Sister Act and Tommy, both at the Palace Westcliff, more predictable hits, perhaps.

On a much smaller scale, BlackEyedTheatre's Dracula in January, Forbidden Broadway in the West End, Patience from Charles Court Opera, The Mikado from Opera della Luna. Outstanding local performers in Chelmsford Ballet Company and in ten-year-old Tomorrow's Talent, both going spectacularly from strength to strength. Musically, the Northern Chamber Orchestra at the Civic, and splendid choral events from the Writtle Singers, the Waltham Singers, and the Chelmsford Singers et al in the Cathedral.

And, of many commemorations of the outbreak of the Great War, Merry It Was To Laugh There, a poignant perfection from a small local tour which I was lucky enough to see twice.

title picture: CBC's Nutcracker

Sunday, December 21, 2014

JOY TO THE WORLD

JOY TO THE WORLD
Chelmsford Singers at St John the Baptist Danbury
20.12.2014

Making his first visit to the Church on the Hill, James Davy proved a genial host for this seasonal mix of old and new.
Beginning with a spectacular setting of Joy to the World from the choir, sounding fresh and enthusiastic in the charming, if slightly chilly, church. Other choral highlights were a crisply sung Sir Christemas, Sund's tender Newborn Child [sung in the original Swedish] and the timeless simplicity of Davy's own arrangement of There Is No Rose, an English carol almost as ancient as this medieval building.
The pews were packed; the congregational singing was impressive, too, joining the choir in a suitably schmaltzy version of White Christmas, and John Rutter's imaginative I Saw Three Ships, with tuneful whistling from the assembled gentlemen Josephs.
Weston Jennings, accompanying on piano and organ, gave us a Baroque Pastorale solo, and there were readings from Dylan Thomas and Robert Bridges, whose Christmas Eve 1913 seemed especially appropriate for this country church.

The old words came to me
by the riches of time
Mellow’d and transfigured
as I stood on the hill
Heark’ning in the aspect
of th’ eternal silence.


Friday, December 19, 2014

HENRY IV PART ONE

HENRY IV PART ONE
RSC Understudy run at the Barbican
18.12.2014
08.01.2015

Greg Doran's agreeably traditional Henry IV comes to the Barbican after its Stratford run; and this is a chance for the unsung understudies to take centre stage.
It's an opportunity they grasp eagerly, with both hands, and with some spectacular doubling. Robert Gilbert is a no-nonsense Hotspur as well as a lisping Rakehell, Elliot Barnes-Worrell [pictured here in his regular role] an endearing Ned Poins as well as Mortimer. And Leigh Quinn, who normally goes on merely as “Traveller”, gets to play the two wives – speaking and singing in Welsh – and the two boys, potboy Francis and Peto, the young Eastcheap lad sucking his liquorice stick. She is wonderfully watchable in all four guises.
Wearing the Obelix trousers as the “melancholy lion” Falstaff is Joshua Reynolds, who's usually his old mate Bardolph.
In an ironic twist of fate, the King himself is played, as usual, by Jasper Britton, his understudy being injured.
The production, redirected for this cast by Owen Horsley, is enjoyable without being particularly illuminating – there's a nice running gag about Quickly's “husband”, the weary procession of pressed men is a memorable image, and the “lofty instruments of war” are well suggested by a surround-sound experience – musical score by Paul Englishby.

In Part Two, Quinn is still very much to the fore, playing Peto and Falstaff's Page [scoffing a bag of nuts this time] as well as Lady Percy and the Groom in the last scene, spreading “More Rushes!” for the [somewhat depleted] royal pomp, Falstaff's sad undoing. She is also left alone on stage at the very end, in place of the epilogue, possibly a premonition of the fate of the boys and the luggage at Agincourt just a couple of years down the line …

The real Mistress Quickly [Paola Dionisotti] is on duty in Eastcheap [despite what the cast sheet claimed], and Elliot Barnes-Worrell is back again as Poins. Joshua Richards is the ageing fat knight - “blasted with antiquity” - excellent, with Jim Hooper's lovely Justice Shallow, in the elegiac Chimes at Midnight scene.
Simon Thorp is the ailing Henry IV this time, very good on the amnesia and the apoplexy, though Jasper Britton still gets to walk on, notably as a green-faced Mouldy, one of the Gloucestershire recruits, who all enjoyed themselves hugely on this understudy matinée.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

CHRISTMAS AT BLACKMORE

CHRISTMAS AT BLACKMORE

The Stondon Singers at the Priory Church

16.12.2014



A delicate Christmas pot-pourri from this exceptional chamber choir, directed by Christopher Tinker.
The centrepiece was In Terra Pax, in which Gerald Finzi encases words from Matthew's Gospel in a poem by Robert Bridges, placing the Bible story in an English countryside setting. Beautifully sung here, with the significant solos – the Poet and the Angel - impressively handled by Mark Ellis and Michelle Arthur. And Michael Frith at the organ valiantly deputizing for the orchestra.
A similar theme in Peter Warlock's Bethlehem Down, which, like Jesus Christ The Apple Tree, featured exquisitely modulated pianissimo passages.
Tinker's own setting of I Saw A Maiden was tenderly phrased, and the folk-inspired Scots Nativity by Colchester composer Alan Bullard had a movingly eloquent simplicity.
There was a new Holly and the Ivy from Matthew Owens, and a different In Dulci Jubilo, “a multi-layered cake”, with a high soprano line the frosting on top.

We had several chances to raise our voices, from Advent hymn to Adeste Fideles, and the evening was bookended by Es Ist Ein Ros' – first in the Praetorius original, then in a magical, mystical arrangement by Jan Sandstrom, its beautifully sustained notes floating up to the ancient rafters.

Monday, December 15, 2014

DANNY THE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD

DANNY THE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD
Brentwood Theatre Company at Brentwood Theatre
13.12.2014

A very different kind of magic from last year – no music, no dancing, but a low-key bedtime story, moving and uplifting, which in David Wood's faithful adaptation captures the love and loyalty at the heart of Dahl's 1975 original.
It's a tale of poachers and pheasants, rich and poor, with plenty of food for thought as well as excitement and suspense.
Against David Zelly's cheerful cardboard cut-out design – the caravan and the cars play a key role here – Danny and his Dad take on the squire and his gamekeepers, sharing the secret ways of taking gamebirds: the horse-hair stopper, the sticky hat, and the boy's own invention, the sleeping beauty.
An enthusiastic cast of seven is headed by Jackson Pentland's gentle father and Porl Matthews' convincing Danny – their relationship is compellingly portrayed in several intimate scenes, Danny's adolescent frustration and fearlessness against his Dad's worldly-wise affection for his only son.
Both the doctor and the taxi driver are women in this version [Abi Taylor Jones and Joelle Campbell] – good strong performances, though I'm not sure why the doctor and the vicar's wife [Elka Lee-Green] speak like country bumpkins.
The villains include Allen Watts' gamekeeper Rabbetts – he also plays the kindly village copper – and Lee White's hilarious Hazell, working the audience in traditional melodramatic fashion, with a sneer, a glance, a flick of his jacket. His apoplexy at the sabotage of his shooting party is a highlight of the show, as is the involvement of the audience as his honorary beaters.

Ray Howes' heart-warming production is the ideal antidote to the deafening delights of the panto; an enchanting escape into a lost world of childhood.

production image: Carmel Jane Photography

Friday, December 12, 2014

BLACKADDER'S CHRISTMAS CAROL

BLACKADDER'S CHRISTMAS CAROL
CTW at the Old Court Theatre Chelmsford
11.12.2014

Here's the Old Court Blackadder company reunited one last time – packing the theatre every night and raising funds for J's Hospice.
A merry Christmas jape, with the story of Ebenezer's conversion wrapped around the Amy and Amiability episode from series three.
Dean Hempstead directs a cast of curious characters, from the obese orphans to the low-rent sci-fi denizens of Queen Asphyxia's court, introducing several new faces to this stage – notably Georgina Whittaker as Queenie and Natalie Davies as Millicent – and one old face in a new guise: Terry Cramphorn as the Beadle and the effete Duke of Cheapside.
Kevin Stemp relishes the chance to revive his Prince Regent and his [Tudor] Melchett, Christine Davidson plays the grasping Mrs Scratchit, Robin Winder is the wailing Caledonian Ghost [and bluff industrialist Hardwood], and the incomparable duo of David Chilvers and Mark Preston give us various Blackadders [superbly delivered with immaculate timing] and the eternally downtrodden Baldrick, forever at the mercy of “the horridest man in the world”.


Scene changes are always going to present a challenge – Mozart, parlour music and Silent Night are rolled out to cover; especially successful was the virtue-of-necessity carol just before the delayed dénouement.
Flying squirrels, mulled wine by the hearth in the foyer, two convivial intervals and a double helping of classic comedy make this an ideal panto alternative for the run-up to Christmas. Totally sold out; but might be worth turning up early in the hope of the odd return ...

Thursday, December 11, 2014

THE MYSTERY OF ST FINNIGAN'S ELBOW


THE MYSTERY OF ST FINNIGAN'S ELBOW
Eastern Angles at the Sir John Mills Theatre Ipswich
10.12.2014


Multiple mysteries, in fact, in this seasonal school-story confection by the famed team of Pat Whymark and Julian Harries, writers and directors.

Who is the real gardener here, and who the secret agent [from MFI5] ? Does anyone else remember the Ovaltineys ? Which is the character who is talked about a lot but never appears ? Could it be twin sister Lulu ? The ancient Sister Montezuma, confined by old age to the school tuck shop ? Brother Cadmium, sleuth monk ? Mrs Fenrir, the lupine dinner lady [a nod to this summer's Ragnarok] ? Or Scarcity Muttford, flapper and fascist ?
And who filched St Finnigan's elbow, the sacred relic with miraculous powers ?

The cast of five cope magnificently with the convoluted plot, changing costumes in a trice, providing instrumental accompaniment to the songs. Samuel Martin, as Billy and Sister Judith, even has a protracted fight with himself at the play's climax.
Greg Wagland, Eastern Angles Christmas favourite, has a ball as a sinister Rear Admiral, Cardinal Pecorino on his trusty Lambrusco, and school bully Lydia Bumolé. Oh, and Mr Cowell the music teacher.
Such celebrity name-checks are a running gag – Sister Usain Bolt [Suffolk lass Alice Mottram, impressively playing grotesques as well as schoolgirls] is the school's PE mistress, and all sorts of famous gels are dotted through the assembly hall.
Newcomer Joe Leat is excellent as an Irish Reverend Mother and Mr Facsimile the shifty Latin Master, and Alicia, our plucky heroine aged 15¾ is played by Francesca Gosling with a winning mix of feistiness and foolishness.

This catholic school for girls is a hot-bed of crime; this ripping yarn is a potent blend of Daisy Pulls It Off and Father Ted. There are tasty treats a-plenty along the way – the School Goose [is that a euphemism ?] and the cuddly moles, the hectic chase, the secret roulette table, the sea monster, the bearded bust of the saint, the stationery envy and the wrestling nuns.
And those wonderfully off-the-wall songs - “I'll be there to bully you”, “Isn't it grand” with fiddle and penny whistle, and the romantic “Alicia”, sax, violin and chorus of goose and moles.

It's all a wizard way to enjoy some festive fun; gold stars for silliness all round !

production photograph: Mike Kwasniak

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

CINDERELLA

CINDERELLA
Made in Colchester at the Mercury Theatre
08.12.2014

The Mercury panto manifesto promises laughs for all ages, audience participation and much more. It could have added a fairytale made in Colchester: the tableau curtain has Jumbo, the Castle and the Italianate campanile of the Town Hall in silhouette, and the script, adapted by Fine Time Fontayne from a version done for the Lyric Hammersmith, includes loads of local references: Buttons from Brightlingsea, Dandini the Dedham Dandy, Fairy Fingringhoe.
And the names are echoed in the auditorium, with primary schools from Finchingfield, Tollesbury, Tendring packing the seats.
This Cinderella is refreshingly traditional in its approach - “you shall go to the ball!” - but with witty bits slipped in: “hemlock and fizz, no cherry” is the Wicked Stepmother's tipple, and Celine Dion's song becomes All By Mice Elf …
The playlist is mostly familiar, but with some unexpected treats and some original music by MD Richard Reeday. I liked the Sondheimlich “Unexpected” for Cinderella and her Prince, and Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm for the ghost routine – nicely done, this, with a twist at the end.
A great cast who know the panto ropes. Familiar faces back in harness this year are Dale Superville working his socks off as Buttons, and Ignatius Anthony and Tim Freeman as the deliciously immature D'Arcy sisters – the three of them showing their expertise in a messy routine involving indistinguishable slap and soup.
Sarah Moss is unusually convincing as Cinders, both in her skivvy's rags and in her beautiful ball-gown. Her Prince, Simon Pontin, looked the part, too, and kept doggedly in character even in numbers like The Best Song Ever.
Dandini is played, Essex-style, by Laura Curnick, who is also the Fairy Godmother, and Basienka Blake gives a memorable Evilla, a sexily sadistic stepmother with “a hornet's nest where her heart should be”, superb vocal characterization and a ballgown to rival Princess Crystal's.
There's a junior chorus – no cute tots here, but assured, talented young performers – who play mice, guests and debs.
The all-important transformation lacks impact, perhaps, though the ballet and the paper horse are effective.
Daniel Buckroyd's production maintains a brisk pace, never over-doing the routines, always looking for a chance for a throwaway gag for the grown-ups amongst the slapstick and the shouting.
And Juliet Shillingford's designs are elegantly simple – a massive dungeon kitchen with its smoky stove, and a ballroom dominated by a strikingly ornate clock.

production photograph: Pamela Raith

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
The Rock'n'Roll Panto at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

02.12.2014



Peter Rowe's latest Rock'n'Roll panto, directed by Rob Salmon, takes the Beauty and the Beast fairytale, with its generous slug of Cinderella, and serves with generous measures of great music.
All performed by ten phenomenally talented actor-musicians.
That's the Wolsey tradition, as are live sound effects from the keyboard, the punning show-and-tell props, and the cuddly animals augmenting the chorus.
It's great to see the colourful characters creep back on to take their place on the band-stand – the Good Fairy on sax, the Dame on guitar – but when you promote the pit to the stage, there's not a lot of space left for scenery. We have to use our imaginations for the scary forest and the Castle of the Beast, though Barney George's all-purpose art deco design is a masterpiece of restrained elegance.
Much of the action, including the amazing flying chicken, takes place on Mucky Manor farm. And the jokes are sometimes none too clean; Bessie Bigbreaths, Eamonn Fleming's down-to-earth Dame, sets the tone, in a cheeky performance which recalls the golden age of the Crazy Gang. Sporting farmyard chic, a provocative “pulling dress” and a wedding outfit for the walk-down including a halo of peacock's feathers. [Beauty's dad, the Baron Hardup figure, is Sir Peacock Beauregarde, played by Daniel Carter-Hope.]
Not a weak performance amongst these panto pro's: Dan de Cruz not only did the Prince/Beast double – perhaps too beastly crude for the “kind and generous” monster – but also two completely different messengers, one of whom had the excellent “Generally Hospitable” joke …
Esther Biddle makes a lovely, maternal Godmother, and handles the verse-speaking impeccably, the Ugly Sisters [very stylish, with their nearly-labels designer bags] are Sarah Mahony and Nicola Bryan, and poor little Beauty is Lucy Wells in a girlish dress; even for the wedding she only gets a slightly more flattering outfit.
Broker's Men, with loads of physical comedy, are Ben Goffe and Adam Langstaff, and Desperate Dan is engagingly done by Matt Jopling.
Those great old songs are key to the show's success of course: Let Me Entertain You [Robbie, not Gypsy] for the Beast's pyrotechnic finale to Act One, impressively styled by De Cruz, Perfect, with Fairy sax solo, When Will I See You Again, belted out by Bessie in the style of a club vocalist, and the O'Jays' Love Train for the carefully choreographed encore.
Quickfire gags, audience participation, with Andrew from row D relishing his fifteen seconds of fame, Jekyll and Hyde moments and a tip-top playlist make for hugely enjoyable panto fun. It even manages to be true, in its fashion, to the eighteenth century original, with the evil fairy, the merchant and the magic mirror ...




this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Sunday, December 07, 2014

PETER PAN

PETER PAN

One From The Heart at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford

07.12.2014




The Third Writtle Brownies loved every minute; I've rarely heard such a unanimously noisy audience as the one which greeted this Peter Pan, directed for One From The Heart by Nik Ashton.
Not really a panto – no cross-dressing [even Peter is a boy these days] and no wedding for the walkdown. But a cracking Christmas show nonetheless, with the most successful moments those that were most traditional: the three gorillas in the ghost routine, the Twelve Days nonsense song, the polystyrene rocks that put an end to the evil Hook.
Raucously lively performances from a hardworking cast: Jonathan Stewart as Hook and [briefly] Mr Darling, Katie Brennan doubling as Mrs Darling and a remarkably sassy Tinkerbell, Samuel Parker as a boyband Peter Pan. Competing for the audience's favours were Kerris Peeling's Eliza, aka Tiger Lily and the Cabin Boy, and Neal Wright's larger-than-life Smee, the erstwhile Lost Boy who longs to be a pop star …
There's excellent work from the chorus [students at Laine Theatre Arts] – Hook's cissy crew, and his saucy lovelies – with neat choreography to a string of chart hits. And from the children, Lost Boys, John and Michael – two teams of local talent.
And of course flying through the nursery window, and the dying Tink saved by the power of faith …

and for The Public Reviews


Another Christmas family show from One From The Heart for Chelmsford's Civic. This time writer Simon Aylin turns to Barrie's timeless Peter Pan, popular on stage since 1904.
His lively new version, dumbed down a little for us “TOWIE rabble”, still has most of the familiar elements: flying, the Lost Boys, Nana the canine nursemaid.

The scene curtain has impressive projections of pirate ship and storm, and the designs are colourful: the nursery looks like something out of a toy catalogue; pop-up storybooks are referenced too. The rooftop gauze for the flight to Neverland is especially effective.

There's no Dame here, of course, but no fewer than three characters compete for the audience's noisy affections: Eliza [Kerris Peeling] acts as narrator, and also tags along with the action as parlourmaid, Tiger Lily and a cabin boy. Tinker Bell, played by Katie Brennan as a very feisty, thoroughly modern young woman. And cuddly Smee [Neal Wright], definitely favourite with the kids, with his naughty words and his X-Factor moment.
Samuel Parker makes a dashing Peter, with his shock of red hair, fancy footwork and stylish swordplay; Eve Crawford plays his Wendy, spitefully dismissed as “frumpy” by Tink.
Jonathan Stewart is Mr Darling and Hook, both slightly under-played, given the frenetic tone of Nik Ashton's production.
There's a small chorus, all students from Laine Theatre Arts, and two teams of local children, who give good value in the Lost Boys number, and also play John and Michael.
The musical numbers, slickly staged but not always relevant or clearly sung, are pop hits in the main, a notable exception being Dream A Little Dream, beautifully styled by Mrs Darling [Brennan again] as a lullaby to her children in the nursery [MD is Tom Curran].
There's a good deal of padding in the two hour show, including crew training with mops, and an unexplained football sequence. The parts that work best are those which are firmly within the panto tradition: the crazy Twelve Days of Christmas [“Five Toilet Rolls”] with water pistols but alas no sweets tossed into the stalls, the birthday shout-out and the gorilla chase around the auditorium.
The capacity crowd were vocal in their appreciation of this fast and furious bit of seasonal fun, from the “Hello Chelmsford” warm-up to the party mix curtain call.


Saturday, December 06, 2014

TREASURE ISLAND

TREASURE ISLAND
National Theatre at the Olivier Theatre
03.12.2014

Robert Louis Stevenson gets equal credit for the National's new Christmas entertainment. Perhaps unfairly, since Bryony Lavery's adaptation starts within hailing distance of the original “story for boys”, but then drifts further and further into murky waters of its own, with Long John Silver getting poetic justice, and the pirate crew clobbered with polystyrene weapons.

Young Hawkins is female, here, “because girls need adventures too”, which actually works well in Patsy Ferran's likeable, human take on the role. But this could have been a fine opportunity for a young actor; instead we have Ben Gunn – Joshua James, who makes an impressive Caliban entrance – as a pretentious teenager, and Long John Silver, given a smart prosthetic leg, entrusted to Arthur Darvill. His stint at Shakespeare's Globe did nothing to convince me that his natural home is on our bigger stages, and his Sea Cook is never more than lightly menacing, mildly evil.
Director Polly Findlay gets some good performances from amongst her large cast – Helena Lymery's Livesey, Gillian Hanna's unlettered Grandma, Angela de Castro's colourful Israel Hands, and Tim Samuels' enjoyable Grey, the Mr Cellophane of the crew, who spots the albatross but is always overlooked, never noticed …

The huge set – wood henge, the ribs protecting the heart – transforms into the Hispaniola, whose fitting-out and rigging is stunningly done.

The language is often authentic-sounding, with clever, witty touches. But it's not always clear whether we're taking the tale seriously or sending it up. Probably needs to be more panto, or less. And the story demands to be more tautly written; there's too much sitting around for a proper adventure yarn.
I have seen much better versions, with much more limited resources. Dare I suggest that a hard-working cast of eight, and the imagination of the young audience, would be a better recipe for success than spectacle and a cast of dozens.
I saw a preview performance, and no doubt the pace will pick up, the scenery will behave, and the swashbuckling become more thrilling as the run continues, which it does into April 2015 ...



THE FARNDALE CHRISTMAS CAROL

THE FARNDALE CHRISTMAS CAROL
Trinity Methodist Music and Drama
05.12.2014

How we laughed …
Felicity's snowman would keep falling over, Mrs Reece had so much to do she forgot Tiny Tim's crutch, and poor accident-prone Mercedes, plastered and cast as Cratchit, tried gamely to brew tea for Scrooge.
Yes, the ladies had chosen Chekhov's Christmas Carol for our entertainment this year, played out against a rather splendid back cloth of The Pool of London. A major panic, caused by tailbacks in Basildon, led to an urgent appeal for a miserly old skinflint to read in for Ebenezer. I rather fancied the confident approach of the minister in the front row, but Thelma swept in in the nick of time to save the day. No such reprieve for Alfred, coaxed into a frock for the closing scene, his lines handily pasted onto wine-glass and handbag. He even got to favour us briefly with his little ukulele.
Once again Gordon was pressed into service, not only as handyman and dogsbody, but playing a handful of demanding roles, including Mrs Cratchit and the spectre of Jacob Marley, dressed only in ghostly combinations, as we called a onesie back in the days of Dickens.
I shall long cherish the duo of Gordon and Felicity as Christmas Present, and the toe-tapping duet to end Act One. Scrooge as a musical comedy – the very idea ! Mrs Dawson did wonders with the cottage upright, and apart from some sticky moments with a girlie mag, it was all good clean fun. And why don't more groups offer their audience blankets to keep out the chill … 

The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society appeared by arrangement with Trinity Methodist Music and Drama – Natalie Hawkes, Alison O'Malley, Emma Byatt, David Ehren, Helen Wilson, Terrie Latimer and Val Scott, directed by Tony Brett.

production photo by Val Scott