Thursday, October 05, 2017


Theatre at Baddow at the Parish Hall

Prolific, popular playwright David Tristram came up with his first comedy whodunnit “just to help out my local am-dram group”. And he's been helping amateur companies all over the world since.
I've been involved with a few in my time, but I still struggle to see the point of staging a play written specially for non-professionals. Even a village cricket team might hesitate before choosing a game which featured under-arm bowling with a tennis ball.
This “comedy thriller” is fifteen years old now; it features a playwright who is visited by his late wife's ghost. She persuades him to write a play, with not even thinly disguised portraits of their fellow actors, in order to “catch the conscience” of her murderer. Shades of Hamlet ? Yes, and copious quotation, too – the play begins with an attempted suicide and that famous soliloquy.
The multi-layered complexities and tortuous twists are well handled by an accomplished cast in Jacquie Newman's polished production. There are laughs along the way, a spine-chilling moment just before the end, and some excellent effects: the moving portrait, the poltergeist typewriter. A little more music might have helped to establish the ghostly mood, and to cover the passing of time in each act.
Roger Saddington gives a sympathetic account of the author, living alone in an attic bedsit with a closet full of gin and a drinks cabinet full of clothes. His landlord, played with style and wit by Tonio Ellis, is flamboyant Alex, who offers moral support to his lodger, and has a nice line in flouncing out of the door. Elvira to Saddington's Charles, the blithe spirit here is Claire Lloyd's elegant, ethereal Ruby. Jade Flack makes the most of the [allegedly] drab and mousy Glenda, while two terrible thespians are milked for all they're worth by Stephanie Yorke-Edwards as the surgically enhanced Frances, and Terry Cole as the bri-nylon-bewigged Hedley.
There are some very funny lines – the acronym sequence, for instance – but also some padding. The plot is convoluted, and takes some following in Act Two especially. I was confused by the absent suspect Howard.
Plenty to keep the loyal TAB audience entertained: ticking off the Shakespeare references, wondering who poisoned poor Ruby's drink, and whether the culprit will be unmasked before Old Nick claims her immortal soul ...

Wednesday, September 27, 2017


CAODS at the Civic Theatre

for Sardines

A juke box musical par excellence, featuring an actual juke box, and music from that golden era when those Seebergs and Wurlitzers were the beating heart of youth culture.
The title number – which makes a great opener for Act Two – is just one of dozens of hits from the King's discography, generously applied to a frothy story set in the summer of '55.
Shakespeare contributes a few plot devices, a sonnet and a quote, but there's not much here to trouble the academics.
It is enormous fun, though, put across with style and infectious enthusiasm in Sallie Warrington's bold, energetic production.
A lively ensemble show, the big numbers filling the stripped-back set with jiving blue suede shoes: the love tangles nicely suggested by the Act One finale – Can't Help Falling In Love.
The wedding walk-down brings all of the couples together, even the problematic pairing of roustabout Chad – Simon Bristoe, with quiff, swivelling hips and curling lip, bringing a knowing narcissism to the role – and tomboy grease monkey Natalie, who assumes boyish attire to win her man. She's played with engaging naivety – and a great singing voice – by Tamara Anderson.
Amongst the other star-crossed couples are youngsters Dean and Lorraine, Dannii Carr and Charlotte Broad, geeky Dennis [Oli Budino] finding happiness at last with Cassie Estall's starchy Miss Sandra, who shares his love for the Bard. Excellent character work from David Slater as Natalie's widowed father and Robyn Gowers as the wisecracking, worldly Sylvia, who runs the local Honky-Tonk. And from Debra Sparshott as the killjoy Mayor, who finally finds a spectacular sense of fun, with Philip Spurgeon as her side-kick “not now” Earl.
Clare Penfold is the Musical Director, bringing those familiar numbers to vibrant life in their dramatic context. The sound favours decibels over depth, but there are some lovely melodic moments, such as the sobbing sax for Sylvia's big sing, There's Always Me.

The first night audience were on their feet for the rousing C'mon Everybody finale; by Saturday night it'll be hard to stop them invading the stage and bopping along with Chad and this cracking All Shook Up company.

production photograph: Brad Wendes

Sunday, September 24, 2017


Barefoot Opera at St Leonard's, Shoreditch

Gloomy, Palladian St Leonard's. If any artist were roaming its shadows, it should surely be Mario Cavaradossi. But here it's Marcello and his student chums, bringing bohemian Paris to vibrant life in Barefoot Opera's lovely chamber version of Puccini's earlier hit.
It's not an obvious venue for opera. Hard pews, poor sight-lines, and an ecclesiastical acoustic, in which the band and the women fared best, leaving the men to struggle to make their words clear in the muddying wash. But the space is well used dramatically in Jenny Miller's intimate new production: the nave becomes the street, the Café Momus blends into the audience, a simple scaffold gives height, with a banner backdrop which also screens the surtitles. Umbrellas provide a sense of place, and lighting; they make a wonderfully atmospheric start to Act III.
A very small chorus – and no gamins; I liked the way that actors portrayed the wind, the garret parrot and even the moon. Lesley Anne Sammons directed a tiny band from the piano – the use of the accordion [Milos Milosovic] was inspired, and seemed so right for the Latin Quarter. Another stroke of genius was to have the Musician, Shaunard [Andrew Sparling], flit between stage and pit, contributing some superb clarinet solos.
Mimi was beautifully sung by Lucy Ashton – a bright, rich soprano voice. Her “pink bonnet” aria in Act III, and the duet which followed, were musical highlights of the evening. Andrew McGowan, in red baseball cap and black lipstick, was a very modern Rodolfo. Perhaps because of the acoustic, his tenor sometimes seemed underpowered, but he had some fine moments, notably the “Addio” quartet at the end of Act III. The other couple, whose tiff provides dramatic counterpoint to Mimi's reconciliation with her poet, were the strongly sung – and colourfully characterized - Marcello of Oscar Castellino, and Kayleigh McEvoy's impressive Musetta, the scarlet party-girl who leaves Alcindoro [Tim Patrick] for Marcello. Her big number, the seductive Waltz song, was delivered in a very animated style, modelling hats, stripping on a table, kicking assiettes, and never missing a note or an inflection.
The philosopher student, Colline, [Matthew Thistleton] cut a much more traditional figure than the poet, the painter or the musician. A classic profile, and a burnished baritone for his “Vecchia zimarra”, where he bids farewell to his favourite overcoat.
This intimate production, uniquely bringing a fresh, youthful perspective to the classic opera, ends its tour in Cheltenham on October 28 – their next show, in Hastings, will be very different: Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea.


Trinity Methodist Music and Drama


Chelmsford's answer to the City Varieties, an enjoyable compendium of songs I'd last encountered as shellac on my aunt's ancient Victrola, or sheet music in the dusty depths of our old piano stool.
Here's Roses of Picardie and I Wouldn't Leave My Little Wooden Hut. And the Tin Gee-Gee, beautifully delivered by David Rayner, who also introduced us to the more familiar Polly Perkins. Two military numbers from Tom Whelan, backed by the girls for his Galloping Major, and by the Ain't Half Hot men on the Road to Mandalay.
But for the most part it was a succession of glamorous ladies, in gorgeous frocks, delivering their numbers – sometimes one verse too long - and graciously acknowledging their applause. Outstanding among them, Pat Hollingsworth bravely showing her Popsy Wopsy, and giving a stupendous I Want to Sing in Opera. And “Dame” Janet Moore with The Bells of St Mary's and, less authentically, I'll Walk Beside You.
Patsy Page, who directed the show, gave a spirited revival of a patriotic recruiting song from 1914, and our orotund chairman, Michael Wilson, who introduced each act with a winning blend of eloquence and double entendre, favoured us with a melodic rendering of Stanley Holloway's Brahn Boots.

Since this was Trinity, there were some welcome helpings of operetta – the Gendarmes' Duet, Maxim's and the Chocolate Soldier. Plus a couple of all-too-brief extracts from The Arcadians and Floradora, both hugely popular with Operatic Societies in their day. Time for a revival, perhaps ?

Thursday, September 21, 2017


Mercury Theatre, Colchester


for The Reviews Hub

“It's just people talking,” is how the playwright modestly sums up The Weir.
And so it is. But Conor McPherson's compelling chamber piece has proved popular at home and abroad over its twenty year life, picking up an Olivier for best new play along the way.
The Weir is the name of the bar where all this talking goes on. Conversations in a pub. The barman shares his day with Jack, and later with Jim. The talk turns to Valerie, a Dubliner, a new incomer to this rural village. When she shows up – with Finbar – the banter and the shared memories take on something of the supernatural, and Valerie is moved to share a tale of her own …
That spare summary ignores the richness of the writing, and the finely detailed characters of these storytellers. In Adele Thomas's atmospheric production, the listening carries equal weight with the speaking: each time a ghost story emerges from the casual conversation, the ripe banter, the faces of the listeners, so many still figures in a careful, painterly composition, add weight to the tale. The feel of the pub is largely naturalistic. Madeleine Girling's set accurately recreates this unremarkable, out-of-the-way hostelry, almost entirely devoid of character. But the lighting and the soundscape hint at a different world. And when the pub is deserted once more – the show runs for an hour and three-quarters without a break – the characters and their stories seem to linger for a moment in the stale air of the bar.
The acting is naturalistic too, even in the heightened other-worldly atmospheres of the ghost stories, and those rich Irish accents – dialect coach Hugh O'Shea – take a while to tune in to, and a few words might go missing along the way.
Sean Murray has the best role: Jack, the cantankerous curmudgeon, pouring his bottled Guinness, man-spreading like a leprechaun on his bar stool. His voice coloured by countless Silk Cut, he tells the first tale, “relishing the details”, of a house built across a Fairy Road. And several pints later, in an armchair by the turf stove, he tells the last - ”not a ghostly story” -  revealing the roots of his loneliness, a guest at the wedding of the woman he loved and lost. The two other “single fellers” are barman Brendan (Sam O'Mahony), who is denied a story to share, and Jim (a very convincing John O'Dowd), the quiet man with “more going on in there than you might think”, whose gravedigger's tale is perhaps the most spine-chilling.
Except, that is, for the story that Valerie tells. Inspired by listening to these fanciful tales of the supernatural, in which the boundaries between life and death seem blurred, she calmly reveals the all-too-real tragic events that led to her separation and her arrival in the village, seeking peace and quiet in the countryside. A heart-rending performance from Natalie Radmall-Quirke: hesitant, understated, emotionally drained beneath her sociable façade.
Her guide to the village is Louis Dempsey's Finbar, who left for Carrick to make his fortune. Married but playing the field, he stands in stark contrast to the other three, accentuated by his cream-coloured suit and his ready smile.
“We'll all be ghosts soon enough,” says Jack. And we wonder for a moment if these five, taking refuge for a while from the wuthering wind outside, are perhaps just spirits. But the bar is haunted, not by the dead, but by feelings of loss, of loneliness, of lives unfulfilled.
This production, a collaboration between The Mercury and English Touring Theatre, is by no means entirely melancholy – an earthy profanity and infectious Irish charm ensure that our evening spent in the Weir is enjoyably entertaining as well as poignantly moving.

production photograph: Marc Brenner