Monday, July 24, 2017


Essex Dance Theatre
at the Civic Theatre

What EDT do best is to bring accessible, affordable dance training of the highest standard to the county, as they have done consistently since they took their first steps in 1975.
This year's Civic showcase was as impressive as ever, with an even more significant contribution from the young men of the company. Much of the choreography – we saw thirty numbers – is “home-grown”, like the finale to part one, by Zinzile Tshuma: exemplary discipline and amazing physicality in a piece danced to Sia's Move Your Body - “your body's poetry ...”.
Nikki O'Hara's Revolt, at the top of the show, gave us sinuous, serpentine ensemble, as did Jacob Holme's classically-inspired Stabat Martyr, danced to Pergolesi.
The same choreographer's crowd-pleaser to Bruno Mars' 24K Magic was followed by a lovely unaccompanied Change in Me vocal from Georgia Clements while the huge cast put on their knee-protectors for the traditional Knowledge [Adrian Allsop].
Amongst many other pleasures, a deliciously retro Mack the Knife [Paul Cowcher], David Nurse's eloquent Cello Suite to JS Bach, Ryan Heseltine's school-yard piece to Tom Misch's Watch Me Dance, and that lovely Astaire number Dancin' Man, choreographed by Kim Bradshaw, an old-fashioned show routine that the dancers looked to be enjoying as much as we did, as they left their soft-shoe footprints on the sands of time …

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

FAME The Musical

The Musical
Tomorrow's Talent
at the Civic Theatre

This is the 1988 musical of the 1980 movie. Those early Performing Arts alumni will be proud, or pushy, parents now. And this class of 2017 don't always seem quite at home in this Eighties world, where diversity and dyslexia are novel ideas. As these youngsters will be well aware, this institution resembles real arts education in the same way Lerner's Camelot does Britain in the sixth century.
But it's an enjoyable bit of summer escapism, and it gives Tomorrow's Talent a chance to show off what it does best – gifted youngsters, professional standards, and loads of crisp, energetic choreography.
The capacity crowd on opening night saw the spartan staging – the iconic logo centre stage – gradually populated by the kids, and the staff too – with director Gavin Wilkinson donning a natty cardigan to play drama teacher Myers. The show's MD is Mark Sellar, his fictional equivalent Sheinkopf played by Joshua Butcher, who's also the Assistant Choreographer.
Ruthless auditions, fervent prayers, and then the new intake must knuckle down to Hard Work. These fictional young hopefuls certainly score straight As for “attitude”, though their mentality might sometimes seem more at home in junior high.
There are many standout performances: Samuel Wolstenholme's Nick – Peanut Butter kid and Stanislavski disciple – setting the bar high with I Want to Make Magic, imaginatively backed, like several other numbers, by dancers. His shy Serena was touchingly done by Hannah Gurling on the first night. Christopher Tierney made the most of extrovert, X-rated Joe Vegas, and Daisy Greenwood gave a strong performance as outgoing, ultimately tragic Carmen Diaz. The enigmatic dancer Iris was engagingly portrayed by Katherine Maahs, and Becky Hunt gave a fine, funny character study as Mabel, the dancer who's too fond of food.
Street dancer and mouthy rebel Tyrone was given a compelling performance by Paul French, his dance moves and his stage presence both outstanding.
The role of spinster English teacher Esther Sherman is a tough call for a young actor, but Lauren Bullock came into her own with the moving These Are My Children, a hymn to the teaching profession.
But this is as much about the ensemble as the principals, and the big numbers were all stylishly done, from the opening auditions, through the title number, featuring the next generation on the upper level, to the beautifully conceived curtain calls, with Carmen resurrected atop the yellow cab.

production photograph by Louise Freeland

Wednesday, July 05, 2017



The Stondon Singers
at Stondon Parish Church

The Stondon Singers were formed back in the 60s, initially to bring the choral works of William Byrd home to Stondon Massey.
This was their 50th Anniversary Concert – Byrd died on July 4 1623 – and it took as its theme the influence of Italy, specifically Venice, on music in Tudor England.
So, in his 450th anniversary year, we had a four-part Mass by Monteverdi, meticulously phrased, especially in the Gloria, with a sublimely subtle ending in Dona Nobis Pacem.
A couple of his small-scale Madrigals, too, and, more obvious imports, some spirited Ferrabosco from Musica Transalpina, a collection of Italian works translated for the English market. And, as David Schacht's informative introduction reminded us, there were more tangible imports, too: flat-packed instruments for London luthiers to assemble.
A lively Gabrieli motet for eight voices, the text tossed around from part to part, and beautifully sung Willaert – a Flemish import to San Marco.
Byrd himself was represented by Tribue Domine, from Cantiones Sacrae – showcasing English music for the European market – and after Gibbons' exquisite Silver Swan, Although the Heathen, Byrd's short but showy part-song from a collection published in 1588.
The Stondon Singers were directed, with exemplary attention to detail, by Christopher Tinker.

Sunday, July 02, 2017



The Chelmsford Singers
at Chelmsford Cathedral

A glorious celebration for the Singers' ninetieth, with a programme of three dramatic show-stoppers.
Borodin provided the bold opener, with the Polovtsian Dances – a first for the Singers, we think. No actual dancing, but a welcome opportunity to enjoy the choral writing, often omitted in concert performance. The men have the macho posturing, leaving the lovely tune to the women's voices.
Britten's St Nicolas was the centre-piece, the popular cantata giving all the vocal forces a chance to shine, under the hortatory baton of Musical Director James Davy. Only the audience, perhaps, failed to rise to the challenge of the congregational hymns. A splendid Nicolas from tenor Paul Smy – a spine-tingling moment when the boy [sung by chorister Nicholas Harding-Smith] becomes the man, and a touching final movement in which the choir's Nunc Dimittis is blended with the saint's acceptance of death. The Cathedral boys were present at the ordination, and the girls made excellent contributions in the storm and in the episode of the Pickled Boys. The accompaniment, with lovely string sounds in the Nicolas from Prison movement, was by the Chelmsford Sinfonietta, led by Robert Atchison.
This memorable evening ended with Orff's cod-medieval Carmina Burana, in the 1956 version for percussion and two pianos [Robert Elms and Helen Crayford, both brilliant] which lets the choir take centre stage. Despite the composer's intentions, and all the show-off effects, there is less drama here than in the Britten, but this was a hugely enjoyable performance – the Singers gave us sublime simplicity in the Springtime, and rustic energy On the Green.
Three superb soloists: Smy again as the unfortunate roasting swan, a sublime In Trutina and a spectacularly abandoned Dulcissime from Elizabeth Roberts, singing from memory, and baritone Colin Baldy, bearing the brunt of the solos. In the Tavern – a men-only zone – he gave us a crisply articulated confession, and a bibulous abbot. Later, in the Court of Love, after a marvellously risqué number from the men of the Cathedral Choir, he led the Cathedral Boys from east to west – the abbot and his acolytes, maybe – in Totus Floreo.
And through the open North Door, unbidden birdsong from the churchyard paid tribute to the music, and to the Singers as they enter their tenth decade.

pictures from the post-concert gathering in the Chapter House

Friday, June 30, 2017


Romford Summer Theatre at the Rockery, Raphael's Park

This year is Romford Summer Theatre's 55th season; it's no criticism to say that this production could have graced the Rockery at any point in that impressive history.
Chrissie O'Connor gives us a traditional take on the dream – Greco-Roman frocks, Mendelssohn's music – with a strong cast and a clear, positively-paced narrative. Not to mention an infectious sense of fun. No gimmicks, but the show does boast a child – Lucas Outram playing the all-important Indian Boy – and two canine characters: an elegant hound for the hunt, and a dog for Starveling's Moonshine.
It's the Shakespearean comedy best suited to this unique theatre space, perhaps, and excellent use is made of the “brakes” in the shrubbery, dotted with little lanterns as night falls, and the trees magically lit as the fairies lurk within the wood to watch the mischief play out.
Much of it concerning the hapless quartet of lovers; good work here from the young actors – the four-way tiff, the foggy fight with Puck, the lively dialogue between the girls – Eleanor Burgess and Amy Hollingsworth – Andrew Spong's eager Lysander and Jake Portsmouth's hilarious awakening.
The Court – the Duke and his Hippolyta well spoken by Colin Richardson and Emily Catlin – is graced by two experienced character players: Vernon Keeble-Watson's grumpy Egeus and Elliott Porte's pompous Philostrate, vainly trying to spare the wedding guests the ordeal of watching a bunch of amateur actors …
Those rude mechanicals – organised, if that's the word, by Paul Hollingsworth's Quince – stars Paul Sparrowham's Bottom. His ass-head is furry; his triumph in the role of Pyramus marred by paralysing stage-fright, alleviated by a handy flagon. His increasingly inebriated performance is pure genius, slurring his lines and relieving himself against Pete Farenden's Wall. Lots of clever detail here – the beards in the props basket, Mark Griffith's Snug conning the Lion's part, though it be nothing but roaring ...
The immortals are led by excellent fairy monarchs – Lindsay Hollingsworth's stunning Titania in her star-spangled gown, and Matt Jones's regal Oberon, with a touch of Herne the Hunter, his verse-speaking exemplary in I Know A Bank, for example. Four Fairies – we see them first in the overture – their dresses, colour-coded, reminiscent of fantastical festival-goers – included Chrissie LeFranc's Moth, with some magical flute-playing, and Kathryn Waters' white-wigged Cobweb; she's also the first fairy, doing a little light gardening before being ambushed by Richard Spong's Puck. He's a very mischievous hobgoblin, got up like a faun, searching the audience for Athenians, perching for a moment in Titania's woodland bower, freezing the mechanicals in mid-rehearsal.
This is not Athens, but Havering's Edwardian Raphael Park. Lucky to have no wind, or rain, a comfortable temperature and only the occasional waterfowl and birdsong to punctuate Shakespeare's sylvan comedy. A very pleasant evening; as Theseus says, “ never anything can be amiss, When simpleness and duty tender it ...”

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 matinée 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



The Chelmsford Singers celebrate their 90th anniversary with a gala concert on July 1st. Sung in Chelmsford Cathedral, traditionally their principal venue, it's an ambitious, but popular, programme, with Britten, Orff and Borodin in the mix.
The Singers were formed by William Bush back in 1927 – he was their conductor until 1945, when he was succeeded by Roland Middleton, the first in a distinguished line of Cathedral Masters of the Music to hold the post; James Davy, the present incumbent, will conduct this gala concert, when the Singers will be joined by voices from the Cathedral's choirs, as well as soloists and the Chelmsford Sinfonietta.

picture shows the Chelmsford Singers on their tour to Belgium earlier this year.

Monday, June 19, 2017



Phizzical in association with Belgrade Theatre Coventry and Vivacity Key Theatre
at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch 


for The Reviews Hub

A colourful tribute to the Bollywood genre, this big-hearted show explodes onto the Hornchurch stage in a riot of song and dance, gorgeous costumes and songs from the big screen. A little bit camp, a little bit kitsch, but great uncomplicated fun from the title song to the wedding finale.

The setting is simple – stylised Himalayas for a backdrop, and a suggestion in front of Lakshman Villa, the comfortable family haveli in warm colours. There are many scenes, involving the shifting of trucks and some awkward fades to black, but the story moves along almost seamlessly.
Like many juke-box musicals, the plot is secondary to the numbers. Here we have a typical romance, borrowing cleverly from She Stoops to Conquer, in which there is conflict between the old ways and the new, India and the UK, the big city and the quiet life up-country.
Katrina (Nisha Aaliya)is an over-worked doctor in the UK. She's flying back to her roots in India for her brother's wedding. Across the aisle sits Ronny (Robby Khela), on a pilgrimage of his own. We sense, as they do, that their paths will cross again …
But Katrina's mother is anxious to fix her up with “a suitable boy”, and little brother Lucky – the Tony Lumpkin of this version, played by Anthony Sahota - has biceps to die for and issues of his own as the plot unfolds.
But it's not really about the story. Both the writing and the acting are often little more than adequate. As Katrina reminds us, Bollywood is 100% escapism, the sort of thing that movies used to do, back in the day that La La Land sought to recapture. There are fine comic performances from Sakuntala Ramanee as the match-making mother, and Rohit Gokani as the crusty whisky-drinking Colonel. Nice work, too, from the trio of house-servants, and Yanick Ghanty as Amit, the film star with the London accent.
It's all about the exuberant song and dance – Khela particularly impressive in his numbers. And what a variety there is, from the pumping bass of the opener to the almost operatic temple scene, and the traditional puppet dance up on the roof.
It would be nice to have some live music, maybe even one or two actor/musicians, but the glitzy staging and the feel-good fairy-tale will certainly please the Essex fans as it has Coventry and Doncaster – this tour takes its final bow in Peterborough at the end of August.
There's even merchandise – we could all use a Happy Happy tee-shirt, couldn't we ?

production photograph: Nicola Young

Friday, June 16, 2017


Springers at the Civic Theatre

The musical of the 80s movie is as popular as ever, with another national tour this year. But Gareth Gates' fans could surely not be more warmly enthusiastic than the audience in the Civic.
Springers give them a colourful, lively show, nicely sung, beautifully dressed, with dance delights a-plenty.
The dialogue is snappy, though the lyrics sometimes get lost in the sounds from Ian Myers' rock-combo pit band.
A quality cast make the most of the opportunities offered, from Mat Smith's sleazeball Chuck to Colin Shoard's sincere but blinkered preacher. Deborah Anderson is outstanding as his long-suffering wife, vocally assured, with a strong stage presence. The Learning to be Silent kitchen trio was one of the best things in the show.
The audience warm to Daniel Schultz's slow-witted Willard, while Alexandra Phillips shines as a superbly sung Rusty.
Jon Newman brings an easy Chicago charm to the role of Ren, the incomer who gets Bomont back on its feet, with Mae Pettigrew as a lovely rebellious Ariel in her scarlet boots. 
The staging is ambitious, with pews, burger bar and kitchen trucked on, and the lockers flown down. The railway bridge is impressive, too, beautifully lit for Almost Paradise.
And there's plenty of space for those big production numbers – the barbecue, the gym, the junkyard, and of course Holding Out for a Hero, with a trio atop the counter, a chorus of unliberated ladies and superheroes, plus a random hot-dog …
Footloose is directed for Springers by Gary Jarvis and Susan Corina, with choreography by Helen Arber.

photograph: Aaron Crowe