Saturday, August 19, 2017



National Youth Music Theatre 
at The Other Palace


George is a freely fictionalised Seurat, the pointillist painter who died young and unappreciated in 1891.
Sondheim and Lapine's 1984 musical shows him at work, principally on Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte. His sketches, much enlarged, sit on easels and form the only set.
The characters – all sorts and conditions – are brought to life and given a backstory, as George tries to capture the casual chaos of a suburban park – on an island in the middle of the river.
White, a blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole, through design, composition, tension, balance, light and harmony."
In a slightly forced coda, we fast-forward to the present – well, 1984, with some lovely fashions – in which George's great grandson, also an artist, unveils an installation paying tribute to the original painting, and later takes it to the now deserted island, where he meets the ghost of Dot, the painter's model and muse, as the blank canvas is gradually peopled by the figures from the past.
Hannah Chissick's evocative production uses the moving easels very effectively – they are internally lit for the C20 “Chromolume” installation – and the lighting, as it must, helps to paint the pictures.
A fantastic cast, none older than 21, copes brilliantly with the subtle characterization and the very tricky Sondheim score. Especially effective musical moments are the pointillist underscore for “Colour and Light”, and the choral ensembles for the tableaux. Musical Director Alex Aitken conducts a chamber ensemble from the keyboard, above and behind the action.
Thomas Josling makes a compelling George, splendidly bearded, moving in his soliloquies, dealing with his detractors and, in the opening sequence, trying to persuade his Dot to pose properly.
She's sung beautifully by Laura Barnard, who also brings a frail sincerity to the elderly Marie [Dot's daughter and ex Floradora girl] in New York, reading the great man's biography from cue cards.
Among the other colourful characters – the two Celestes and their soldier beaux, the rude bathing boys, the American tourists – Lucy Carter stands out as the Nurse to Eloise Kenny-Ryder's Old Lady, as does Matt Pettifor's truculent Boatman, with his eye-patch and his dog, also done as a canvas sketch. Adam Johnson gives an assured, and very amusing, performance as rival artist and caustic critic Jules, while Thomas Mullan brings an engaging warmth to Louis the Baker, Dot's eventual husband.

This very welcome Sondheim revival is just one of four NYMT shows this summer. It deserves a much longer run than this, but we can be sure that at least some of these talented young performers will be back, gracing the musical theatre scene in years to come.

Sunday, August 13, 2017



Unfolds Theatre at the Rose Playhouse

for Remote Goat

A Dream to add to the pantheon, to join the “bathroom accessories” and the “30s Hollywood”, both from Shakespeare's Globe.
The theme this time is fairground. It works perfectly in this space, renowned for its chamber Shakespeare in an immersive style.
Roll up, roll up ...” from the foyer, where you're encouraged to pin the tail on the donkey's bottom, to the intimate performance area, [Sullivan's hymn on the calliope], where there's inflatable hoopla and a card trick in which Verona meets Athens.
Once the main event gets underway, the gimmicks are reined in, with little details – the candyfloss, the inflatable dainty ducks, the goldfish-in-a-bag lanthorn – to bring us back to Dreamland, the name picked out in fairy lights over the water.
Alex Pearson, who has years of experience of bringing the Bard to life within these walls, gives us a lively, physical and very entertaining Dream. The grouping is perfectly planned, the rehearsal sequence wickedly observed. The mischief in the wood is lively and often very funny, the boys wrestling on the forest floor as the girls spar verbally. Theseus and Hippolyta dance cheek to cheek, the lovers sleep on the further shore, which does seem a little less involving after the proximity of the Mechanicals and Titania's bower.
A cast of eight, with much doubling. Not just the obvious Titania/Hippolyta [Cindy-Jane Armbruster] and Theseus/Oberon [beautifully spoken by Ian Hathway], but Robert Hazle, impressive both as an aggrieved Egeus and a fussy Quince, Rhiannon Sommers as Hermia, eloping with her luggage, and a shy Snug, hiding behind her buoyancy-aid Lion. Nick Oliver is a compelling, lustful Lysander, casual in a tee-shirt, as well as Starveling, Clark Alexander Demetrius, formal in a collar and tie, as well as a hilarious Thisby. His Pyramus – their death scene endlessly inventive – is Sydney Aldridge, pulling off the tricky double of Helena, comfort eating when the course of true love runs less than smooth, and Nicky Bottom, done as a sulky teen diva, slurping a slushy, chomping on a carrot as she recalls her dream. A triumph in the role, the most memorable female Bottom since Dawn French's wartime Dream of 2001. Equally engaging is Elinor Machen-Fortune's Puck; she's also an officious Philostrate, introducing the interlude and the Bergamasque jig, before coming back as Robin Goodfellow to bid us goodnight.
The audience is frequently drawn in to the action – as confidants, and, in the case of front-row Ricky, to play a very convincing Wall.

With his new company Unfolds Theatre, producer Pepe Pryke has brought to Shakespeare's Bankside an enchanting summer show for all the family – “swift as a shadow, short as any dream...” 


Mercury Theatre, Colchester

A magical, enchanting Peter Pan to follow James and the Giant Peach and Wind in the Willows onto the Mercury stage in the long vacation slot.
Not just another attempt at the increasingly popular summertime panto, but an adaptation, by Daniel Buckroyd and Matthew Cullum (who also shared directing duties), which manages to seem fresh and child-friendly while still respecting J M Barrie's original.
The nursery furniture is shrouded in dust-sheets as we arrive. Simon Kenny's set is uncluttered and inventive, shape-shifting to the Neverland island and the deck of the pirate ship. Drawers pull out to form beds, the crocodile is suggested by a pair of headlamp eyes before making its spectacular final appearance.
The story – quite complex for the youngest minds – is bookended by a prologue and an epilogue in which the actors tell the story in the time-honoured Nicholas Nickleby style. Their boisterous play foreshadows adventures to come (except perhaps for the farting teddy-bear).They are musicians too, and apart from Wendy (Charlotte Mafham) and Peter, play multiple roles. This doubling is very slickly done – the performers rarely leave the stage altogether – and is often part of the entertainment; the Lost Boys are picked off one by one only to re-enter moments later to swell the pirate band. Particularly impressive character work from James Peake as Nana, a convincing canine in fur coat and flying helmet, as well as Cecco the pirate and the know-it-all Slightly Soiled, and Alicia McKenzie as a feisty fairy Tinkerbell and a peg-leg pirate Jukes.
Peter himself is played by Emilio Iannucci, a winning blend of innocence and bravado, and Pete Ashmore, a familiar face on the Mercury stage, takes on the traditional pairing of Mr Darling and Captain Hook. Not your average old Etonian, maybe, despite his dying words, but he handles his cod-Shakespeare convincingly.
I do believe in fairies,” whispered one little girl in our row, in a moment of unprompted empathy. The production is aimed squarely at children, as is only right, though there were subtleties to satisfy the most jaded adult palate, and the ingenious costume and scene changes help to maintain our interest. All the magic is that special theatrical kind, where our imagination is willingly co-opted to do half the work. Tinkerbell dances as a light on the end of a long wand; Curly's kite is attached to a stick. And, though there's no Kirby, no Foy, the flying sequences are thrillingly done in the simplest way possible.
It is very pleasing to see several editions of the book on offer amongst the crocodile merchandise. And of course, as Barrie intended, the production will benefit the beleaguered Great Ormond Street Hospital.
The sad and the sinister are not neglected: Peter's unwillingness to be touched, or the “tragedy” of the ending, in which Wendy's daughter assumes her role as mother to Peter and the Lost Boys.
Richard Reeday's music underpins the action – there are few big numbers – and it's fun to see the flute, the tuba and two violins shared amongst the colourful characters.
The final tableau sees Peter framed in the window, still looking out beyond the stars to the Neverland, before the braver children in the audience are allowed to explore the nursery for themselves, try out the beds and peek into the delightful dolls' house where Peter's shadow was hidden.

production photograph: Robert Day

Saturday, July 29, 2017


Shakespeare's Telling Tales at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Michael Morpurgo's short story about musicians who survived the concentration camps of the Holocaust comes to the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, with the master story-teller in person reading the role of Paolo Levi, who shares his memories over the mint tea, and Alison Reid covering the cub reporter and a host of other characters.
This unique presentation is made really special by the presence of four music stands, each with candles, for string quartet The Storyteller's Ensemble, who punctuate the narrative with appropriate musical offerings. They are fronted by the outstanding violinist Daniel Pioro, playing the music that made the fictional fiddler a household name. - “the most famous musician on the planet”.
So there's spirited, witty Vivaldi for Venice, Bach for Benjamin Horowitz the veteran busker, a seductive Czardas, Lascia ch'io pianga, and plenty of Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for the Camp, and, as a finale, a concerto movement representing Levi's 60th Birthday Concert on the South Bank, with a heartfelt cadenza from Pioro. And not to forget the Quartettsatz for Scissors, conducted with a comb, an early memory of the barber's shop behind the Accademia.
A perfect blend of words and music, made more memorable by the candle-light and the wonderful acoustic. It deserves a longer, better publicised run – the 2018/2019 Winter Season, perhaps.

image: one of Michael Foreman's illustrations for the original book

Wednesday, July 26, 2017


Chelmsford Theatre Workshop
at the Old Court


Harvey Fierstein. Kinky Boots, Cage aux Folles, and, surely his finest hour, Torch Song Trilogy, memorably done on this stage back in 2001.
Casa Valentina is a newer piece, though it does revisit those favourite Fierstein themes. Based on the legendary Casa Susanna, it takes us back to the days – the early Sixties – when cross-dressing was still a crime in many US states, and a weekend retreat resort in the Catskills was a dream come true for these “self-made women”. The dream turns to nightmare after the interval, when politics takes over from prosthetics, and callow newbie “Miranda” [an excellent Jesse James Lamb] flees back to the closet.
Rebecca Segeth's production has an evocative period set, on two levels, carefully lit [Jack Hathaway]. And a very strong cast, beautifully turned out in their femme frocks.
Colin Smith is “Valentina”, facing the uncertain future of his guest-house, supported by his wife, the only GG [genuine girl] in residence. This play is the story of their marriage, too, and the final moments are almost unbearably poignant: George sheds his masculine skin to the Everlys' Let It Be Me, as Rita [touchingly played by Rachel Curren] stands confused and alone on the stage above him.
There is much fun and silliness too – the Wildean contributions of the outrageous “Bessie” [Dave Hawkes], and the Sugar Time routine, where the faces of the wallflowers tell their own story: there's Terry Cramphorn's veteran Theodore, who once found refuge in gay bars, listening to Ian Willingham's Michael, who invited the new boy, and whose put-down of “Charlotte” is one of several powerful monologues in the piece - “Bessie”'s uncharacteristically melancholy musings on his marriage are another.
The darker ending is down largely to Barry Taylor's “Charlotte”, a determined activist who will stop at nothing to sign Valentina's guests up to her Sorority. The scene between Taylor and Peter Jeary's Judge (Jeary stepping into “Amy”'s size 10s at a week's notice) is a dramatic masterpiece, and sets the tone for the end of the play, where an icy appearance by the Judge's unsympathetic daughter [Catherine Kenton] reminds us of just how different attitudes were half a century ago.

A superb production of a fascinating piece – a fine note on which to end a successful season for CTW.

image: guests at the original Casa Susanna