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

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 …

Sunday, July 23, 2017


Chichester Festival Theatre

This is a show that celebrates tradition – it's the opening number, and the setting is a Jewish community in which culture and religion are the cornerstones of the life of poverty lived out in rural Russia.
So Daniel Evans is wise to embrace the traditional in his staging. The costumes, the dances emphasise the Jewish roots of these villagers, whose lives are overturned not only by revolutionary progress, but by the pogroms which will send them on their travels – the fortunate to the US, the less so to Warsaw. There's even a small Klezmer band for the inevitable Jewish wedding.
Lez Brotherston's striking design uses an empty stage, peopled from the back by the displaced and the dispossessed, with their suitcases, symbols of their search for a home, which become the bar, or the stove, the tables and the chairs.
The ensemble pieces are superbly done – three families at sabbath prayers, the rumour-mill scene, the wedding and its violent end, and most impressive of all, the nightmare sequence with the noisy ghost of Fruma-Sarah [Laura Tebbutt] swooping over the bed as the fires of hell surround the stage. The detail is often delightful, too; in Miracle of Miracles, for instance, the Red Sea is parted, manna falls from heaven. The final tableau has Anatevka's refugees standing behind a curtain of rain, on which are projected newsreel images of persecutions yet to come. A profoundly moving, though not over-stated, reminder that intolerance and insecurity remain real threats to many communities.
The loquacious milkman Tevye and his wife Golde are the big names here. Omid Djalili makes a very likeable Tevye, confidently appealing to his Maker and to the audience. Tracy-Ann Oberman brings a no-nonsence Jewish matriarch convincingly, and affectingly, to life – the gestures, the body language all perfectly observed. They're neither of them great singers, and numbers like Sunrise, Sunset suffer a little for it.
The younger generation, on the other hand, are superb musical theatre vocalists – Matchmaker, Matchmaker excellently done – though, perhaps deliberately, the three girls are much less ethnically defined. Emma Kingston's Hodel is very strong, as is Rose Shalloo's bookworm Chava, who defies tradition and family ties by eloping with a Russian soldier.
Louis Maskell stands out as the radical teacher Perchik, bringing a breath of revolution to the shtetel.
This is perhaps the classic, definitive Fiddler, harnessing state of the art staging to recreate a lost world suspended somewhere between history and nostalgia.

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

Sunday, July 16, 2017


Chichester Festival Theatre at the Minerva


What has happened to us?”, the siblings ruefully wonder.
They're stuck in confused, reclusive routine, existing among the clutter of a lifetime in their childhood home, their parents dead. The sister seems to dominate, mothering her brother, feeding him on the fish prepared for Charlie Brown their elusive cat. He takes refuge in his headphones.
Deborah Bruce's new play – inspired by a couple she observed in an art gallery café – manages to be amusing and uplifting as well as deeply sad.
Daniel and Peppy's lives are turned around by a predictable incident, which makes a crime scene of their squalid home, searched by sinister officers in blue overalls. But just as things seem at their most desperate, there comes salvation and a new start of sorts.
Jeremy Herrin's production is perfectly judged. The design [Max Jones] is magnificent, with a stunning scene change just before the interval.
The dramatic structure is powerfully precise. Symbols are tellingly deployed. We see the kitchen tap run free once more, the child's smashed Harry Potter mug [magic destroyed] is restored, the walnut spice cake is baked at last, as Daniel realises that it's nice outside, and that there are other buses he could take. Peppy bangs on Charlie Brown's dish one last time, his name heading a roll-call of the dead.
The two main characters are compelling brought to life by Daniel Ryan as the big, childlike, uncoordinated brother and Samantha Spiro as his fussy, birdlike sister. The other characters drift in and out – and we occasionally move next door to a kitchen that couldn't be more different. There is some doubling – Philip Wright is both the awful, cheery Gareth, who tries to buy the Angelis family home for a fraction of its worth, and the helpful husband of the lovely support worker Karen [Michelle Greenidge]. And perhaps there could have been more – I can envisage a production in which two actors play all the other roles. Except of course for “the next-door child”.
This pivotal character, the eight-year-old Ben, superbly played by Rudi Millard, is in some ways a miniature of Daniel, innocently impressed by his feats of memory, seeking the attention and affection lacking at home.
His mother - “no smoke without fire” - who turns out to have tragedies of her own – is Mary Stockley; the detective who tries to coax incriminating confidences from Ben and Daniel is Matt Sutton.
Like their real-life inspiration, these two strange characters, and their intriguing past lives, tend to linger in the memory. Like the playwright, we realise how little we know of other people we meet, and hope against hope that, against all odds, redemption and a happy ending may still be possible.

Peppy's mother's Walnut Spice Cake 
[with thanks and apologies to Carol, who made it]

This is a lovely cake that smells like winter - warm walnuts and spices like allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg. Buttermilk ensures that the cake is wonderfully moist. If you don't have buttermilk, use 1 tablespoon (15ml) of lemon juice or vinegar and 210ml of skimmed milk in place of the 225ml of buttermilk.

Serves: 14

60g finely chopped walnuts
285g cake flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
150g butter
300g dark brown soft sugar
2 eggs
225g buttermilk

Prep:15min › Cook:50min › Extra time:10min cooling › Ready in:1hr15min

Preheat oven to 180 C / Gas 4. Grease a 23cm tube cake tin and dust with flour.
Sift together cake flour, bicarbonate of soda, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and salt. Cream the butter. Blend in dark brown soft sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs.
Stir dry ingredients into creamed mixture alternately with buttermilk. Blend in the finely chopped walnuts.

Spoon cake mixture gently into the prepared tin. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until cake springs back when you touch it lightly. Cool in tin for about 10 minutes. Put on cake rack to cool completely. Sprinkle icing sugar over cake before serving, if desired.

Saturday, July 15, 2017


Chichester Community Theatre at New Park Studio

A tiny unregarded gem from the complete works of Graham Greene, immaculately performed in a small room, the last date of its pop-up run which has also included the public library and Pallant House.
It shows, in twenty minutes, the rehearsal process, with an old-school director and a naive young actor. His interpretation in a new play – new for 1981 – is giving cause for concern. His co-stars are Dear Johnnie and Dear Ralph, whom I remember as a lovely double-act back in the 70s. In this play – by Frederick Privett, famous for his pauses – he briefly attracts the attentions of Cruickshank/Sir John, between the window cleaner and the French acrobat. His lines are restricted to the monosyllables of the title. Cleverly, this is true of Greene's drama also …
Excellent performances from Steve Wallace – panama hat, hip flask – as the director [a mammoth of a role, despite the brevity of the piece] and Matthew Hughes-Short as the keen but bemused actor.
An unexpected treat – free of charge, too – part of the Festival of Chichester 2017.

Sunday, July 09, 2017


Chichester Festival Theatre at the Minerva

Edna O'Brien's novel, notoriously banned in 1960s Ireland, is now re-shaped by its author into this beautiful drama, getting its UK premiere this year on the Minerva stage.
It's touching tale of innocence lost, in the repressed societyof Ireland in the 50s.
Lisa Blair's production brings those times, those places to life on a sloping, cobbled stage.

The two girls grow up in a rural community, largely untouched by progress, and are educated by nuns, ditto. Grace Molony as Kate and Genevieve Hulme-Beaman as her bosom friend Baba are both excellent, capturing the two country girls at many points along their journey from the sticks to the big city, from cross-strap sandals to scarlet shoes, from naïve, flighty school girls to older, wiser young women.

Colm Gormley is Kate's drunken and abusive father, Malachi, is frighteningly believeable, club in hand, frustrated that he cannot tame his daughter as he breaks his horses.

Jade Yourell gives a moving performance as te young postulant, Sister Mary – some touchingly tender moments, hinting at more than they express, with her star pupil Kate.
She has another enigmatic relationship, much darker and much more dangerous, with Valéry Schatz's Mr Gentleman, the suave but slightly sleazy older man.

The cast play multiple roles – the German landlady and her hen-pecked husband stand out – and Keshini Misha makes an exotic Spanish lady – rebranded Singing Woman in the cast list.

The setting is simple but highly evocative: the quayside suggested by two ropes, the hotel room by a lampshade. And since this is Chichester, there's real Irish rain, too.

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.