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22 December 2012


A Christmas Carol
Pica Productions
Writtle Village Hall
Saturday 22nd December 2012

Pica Productions bring Dicken's tale of the converted miser to life as a rehearsed reading this festive weekend, raising funds in the spirit of the season for Great Ormond Street Hospital. 

In an adaptation by Jim Crozier, a cast of seven voices narrate the famous Christmas story and portray the variety of well-known characters.  With Victorian costumes, tapestry style hangings from the script stands, Chrismassy candles, a cake stall and mulled wine with mince pies on offer, a particularly festive atmosphere was created in the already merrily decorated Village Hall. 

An entertaining, heart warming tale, told engagingly by an excellent cast, raising money for a wonderful cause - nothing could be more ideal to see in Christmas in theatrical style.

19 December 2012


The Odd Couple
Old Court Theatre, Chelmsford
Wednesday 19th December 2012
The Odd Couple explores the relationship between slobby layabout Oscar and his exacting, uptight roommate Felix.  Achieving notoriety in both a film and TV series, the characters in this play are sad and tragically recognisable, but through well developed caricature their mismatched personalities are explored in a fast-paced and witty comedy script. 
Set entirely in the flat shared by the two divorcees, the piece begins during Oscar's weekly poker night.  There were some hard-working attempts at the differentiation of the various characters round the card table, pulled off especially well by Barry Taylor as Speed, but the necessary pace of these scenes was too often missing and there were some laughs that were not as well exploited as they could have been, if not lost entirely.  This lack of pace or comic timing, though a shame, was not true of the entire piece, for as soon as the duologues began between Dave Hawkes and Kevin Stemp as Oscar and Felix respectively, all else was forgotten.  Slick, energetic and timed to perfection, this comedy partnership could not have been better executed.  The British Pigeon girls, played by Naomi Phillips and Vikki Pead, were well performed and created an ideal focus for the central pair to fail to seduce. 
A worthy production to end the year that although not complete in it's accomplishments, where it did succeed, it triumphed. 

16 December 2012


Peter Rabbit and his Friends
Brentwood Theatre
Sunday 16th December 2012

For this year's annual children's show, Brentwood Theatre have chosen the timeless tales of Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit to charm and entertain audiences away from the hubbub of the larger scale pantomimes this festive period. 

And charm it does.  Ideal for smaller children, or perhaps those too timid for the loud, brash boos and hisses of panto, the intimate staging of this seductive piece of children's theatre is perfectly suited to the studio space at Brentwood.  The beautiful set is brightly decorated and achieves more depth and levels than could be imagined in the relatively small performance area, keeping the direction varied and full of interest throughout.  The endearing musical numbers are simple and well sung, incorporating some gentle audience participation.

Performances are delicately and charismatically achieved, with a cast of six playing each of the famous characters including; Benjamin Bunny, Mrs Tittlemouse, Mrs Tiggywinkle, Jeremy Fisher, Mr and Mrs McGregor, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and of course Peter himself.  A delightful touch to have additional puppets as various other animals, incorporated excellently.  Beatrix Potter is there too, played by Deborah Lueryinteracting with her friends the animals and displaying some of the beautiful original illustrations as part of the finale. 

The first production of this scale for Vivid Musical Theatre, and a wonderful accomplishment of a show for all involved. 


Dick Whittington
One From the Heart & Chelmsford City Council
Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
Sunday 16th February 2012
The classic tale of Dick Whittington and his Cat is a much loved story told annually by Pantomimes all over the country, and with this year's production at Chelmsford it is easy to understand why.
Plenty of modern pop numbers as well as a nod or two to some current West End musicals (and even future ones - a lullaby line from the hugely inappropriate, not-for-children, Broadway smash The Book of Mormon, opening in the West End in early 2013), the songs were many but varied, and some particularly excellent choreography kept the young audience enrapt throughout.
Fast paced and well directed, there were some scenes in this traditional pantomime that particularly stood out.  Simple Simon's interruptions as the love scene's gooseberry, with Dick and Alice, were intricately directed and masterfully performed.  The usual soppy number as the lead couple fall in love at first sight inevitably loses the interest of many of the youngsters, but this year's hilarious scene set up the necessary central relationship while achieving one of the funniest sections of staging all afternoon.  Similarly original in it's approach, the slop scene was ingenious.  Sharply choreographed, the routine developed into a hilariously elaborate scene which, comically, would have been just as successful without the slop!
A particularly strong cast was needed to carry off this year's comedy and it was a delight to see - master of the Dame - Richard Earl back again, excellent as Sarah the Cook.  Sarah's son and sidekick Simple Simon was played with energy, enthusiasm and ease by the charming Lewis Barnshaw.  Dick and Alice were fresh-faced and charismatic, played by the gorgeous Craig Rhys Barlow and Abigail Rosser.  Tommy Jones, Dick's trusty cat played by Waylon Jacobs, had a smooth singing voice, feline dance moves, an engaging Caribbean accent... and his costume was an ideal distraction for the mums in the audience! 
Another excellent pantomime from One from the Heart and Chelmsford Council - the first, as we were reminded, since becoming a City - achieving an impressive level of family-friendly comedy that Dick Whittington lends itself towards.  A more sentimental approach, perhaps, for the most popular of all pantos next year - Cinderella.

28 November 2012


Driving Miss Daisy
UK Tour
Palace Theatre, Southend
28th November 2012

After a short West End run in 2011, this warm hearted play tours the UK with a new cast including Gwen Taylor as Daisy Werthan and Don Warrington as Hoke Colburn.  The success of the Academy Award winning 1989 film adaptation is widely known, and was true to the original play version, which captures the time, setting and sentiment vital to the truth of this unusual relationship.

The simple, open set pieces used in this touring production are ingeniously incorporated, creating the contained feeling of the essential vehicle without obstruction or over-suggestion, and seamlessly negotiating the swift changes of scene between the house, car and office. 

Once the ear becomes accustomed to the drawl of the Atlanta accents, performances are pitched just right.  The development of these two strong-headed independents from a reluctant employer/employee relationship into the most blossoming of friendships is the major success of the writing, and these two consummate actors perform the subtle progression with absorbing skill.

A brave but wise choice to keep the over 90 minute piece down to one act, allowing the characterisations and relationship to unravel without interruption.  A beautiful story, told captivatingly.

26 November 2012


The Bodyguard
Adelphi Theatre
Monday 26th November 2012
With the West End currently packed out with "jukebox" musicals - Mamma Mia, We Will Rock You, Jersey Boys, Let It Be, Rock of Ages, Thriller Live - it would seem there is little room to add to the array with yet more shows devised from the back catalogue of a popular artist.  However the end of 2012 sees two new shows in this genre hitting the bright lights of London without a note of new music between them, the Spice Girls' Viva Forever, and this celebration of Whitney Houston's career The Bodyguard. 
With the book based on the original film of the same name, this musical needed no thought process or imagination at all and so has hit the stage in particularly swift development time.  The designers however have not rested on their laurels, and have come up with an interesting and dramatic staging that keeps the audience gripped throughout.  Modern, slick and innovative, some scenes are genuinely captivating, with unassuming and yet breathtaking effects.
The talent on display also produce moments of surprisingly gripping theatre - with the scenes in the woods absorbing my attention until my knuckles were white with tension.  Heather Headley as Rachel Marron was beautiful, with a voice that did complete justice to the original pop diva version of each of her numbers.  Lloyd Owen's composed title character was equally charming, remaining believably professional but betraying just enough heart-melting confliction of emotion.
Neither a particular fan of the original film, nor at all a fan of Whitney Houston herself, The Bodyguard should not have impressed me.  But I actually really enjoyed it.

21 November 2012


Mother Courage and her Children
Blackeyed Theatre in association with South Hill Park
Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
Wednesday 21st November 2012
A performance full of students, Brecht's plays and practises are a core study point for A Level Drama and this touring production was a rare opportunity for these keen youngsters to experience the theory they have been studying being put into live practise. 
The abstract nature of the production however was less relevant to much of the rest of the audience, many of whom did not wait to discover what happened to Mother Courage and her trio of offspring in the second Act. 
Actors remaining on stage for costume changes, projections onto a sheet, randomly integrated songs - with so much going on, it is difficult to understand how the pace remained quite so slow throughout the evening. 
I would be interested to hear the feedback of the students in the audience.  Not a production I would rush back to myself, but hopefully an instructive evening of study as an unsubtle introduction to Brecht.

19 November 2012


Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
Monday 19th November 2012
Part circus-themed cabaret, part horror themed circus, part cabaret styled horror... The Circus of Horrors certainly provide a truly unique experience.
From the opening scene, as the various performers welcome the audience to their "freak show", it is clear that an evening of shocking entertainment is in store.  Gymnasts climb over the audience's heads towards the stage before a pair of zombie dolls spin and twirl their way through some fast-paced aerial rope and hoop acrobatics. 
We are introduced to a wide variety of skillful acts throughout the show - a sword swallower, knife thrower, high level balancer - as well as a number of gymnastic routines and some excellently chosen rock music to underscore throughout.  There are other scenes that are less skillful, included more for the "horror" than the "circus" element, but the content of which is just as memorable nonetheless.
A slick, professionally produced show that perhaps needs a taller stage to fully appreciate some of the acts.  There were sections that must have been lost by those in the balcony who, due to the layout of the stage, were unable to even see the display screens properly.  Despite that however, there was much to enjoy about this bizarre Monday evening - and plenty to talk about afterwards!

17 November 2012


Photo:  Barrie White-Miller

Les Misérables - School Edition
Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
Saturday 17th November 2012

Six years on from Young Gen's first production of this truncated edition of the longest running musical in the West End and most of their original cast have grown up and moved on, leaving a fresh generation to tackle the emotional storylines and familiar musical numbers on offer in this ever-popular show.  With six sold out performances there must have been many audience members new to CYGAMS' work, and they were not disappointed, giving an enthusiastic standing ovation at every show.

An unusual dual casting arrangement allowed for more performers to tackle the lead roles, and despite therefore learning two parts and performing them alternately, at the Saturday evening performance that I attended not a foot was put wrong.  Sam Toland's Jean Valjean was mature and confident, with his performance of the notoriously difficult "Bring Him Home" an utter triumph of his skill and dedication.  His style is always controlled and effortless, but this epic role saw his acting technique rise to match his singing as he became entirely absorbed in this complex character.  Not alone in giving his best performance to date, Bart Lambert's emotionally charged "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" also had audience members reaching for their tissues.  His sincere and heartfelt performance of the young scholar Marius achieved every moment of sensitivity in an excellent interpretation.  Henri de Lausun was masterful as the relentless Javert.  Strong and determined his characterisation was controlled and purposely expressionless which fitted the role wonderfully.  His solo of the beautiful "Stars" was sung with skill and his suicide excellently staged with authenticity and care.  Alice Masters was also superb as Fantine, beautiful and suitably meek she sang "I Dreamed a Dream" with intelligent characterisation, never allowing the now iconic popularisation of the song to detract from it's proper place as a key part of this character's story.  Sophie Walker had a difficult job playing a hugely popular role, but surpassed expectations with a fantastic portrayal of the tomboy-ish Eponine.  Loyal, honest but achingly rejected, her performance of "On My Own" followed by "Another Fall of Rain" were affectingly sung and performed with complete understanding and maturity.  Emma Bennett brought a sweet innocence to the role of Cosette, singing a difficult song with ease.  She was graceful and elegant, believably the subject of affection for both Valjean and Marius.  The Thénardiers were ideally pitched villains, with plenty of comic edge to provide the relief in a heavy plot, but also a believably illicit and cruel characterisation by Callum Crisell and Jessica Moore.  Enjolras, the leader of the student's revolution, was played as an enlivened luminary, performed with enthusiasm by Ollie Fox.  The youngest member of the named company, Jackson Buckler as little Gavroche, proves that when this inspiring older generation of consummate performers move on to their adult lives, a new layer of talent is ready and waiting to build upon the high standard for which Young Gen have become known.  Every member of the remaining ensemble supported each scene with slick reliability, ensuring that the rich theatricality was consistently maintained throughout.  

The Production team did not let these fine young performers down.  Each character's costumes, make-up and wigs were, without exception, perfectly styled, and despite a couple of very fast changes of full costume the action of the piece never once stilted.  Stage management was extremely well organised, with some large set pieces moving around the stage seamlessly.  The lighting design, using red, white and blue almost solely throughout, retained a beautifully styled consistency achieving some ideally framed solos, which even made an otherwise bare stage seem richly expressive.  Sound levels were well achieved, with even the quietest voice being heard over the excellent band, with musical direction by Bryan Cass.  

A previous attendee of CYGAMS' productions, I am used to witnessing great things and am expectant of the high performance levels that Ray Jefferies manages to achieve from all of the young people under his direction.  However in this production, the swan song for many older members as they reach their 18th birthdays, every single cast member performed with more passion, skill and professionalism than I have ever seen them accomplish.  A production that will go down in Young Gen history - an outstanding success in every possible way.  It will stay with all those audience members who were lucky enough to witness it for some time to come, but even longer for the tearful young performers who sobbed their way through their final ever Young Gen curtain call.  Best of luck for whatever your futures hold, you bunch of super stars.    


15 November 2012


Top Girls
Mercury Theatre Company
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
Thursday 15th November 2012

Caryl Churchill's abstract look at working women in society gets a fresh interpretation by the excellent Mercury Theatre Company, in a production that thought-provokingly challenges as much in theatricality as it does in content.

A wonderful revolving table circles slowly and almost continuously throughout Act 1's dinner party scene, allowing for a sociable space to be created for the various characters to enact their surreal interactions.  This ingenious design distances the audience into a suitably abstract external position, as onlookers rather than intimates.  We see a group of wonderfully characterised women, all of whom exemplify a trait of headstrong defiance, howsoever it was possible to be so within their differing individual societies.   Performances here are excellent, with individual characters skilfully portrayed, and an unusual overlapping style of delivery never detracting from the content of each woman's story.  

As we embark on Act 2 it is clear this is a play of two distinct halves, as our "everywoman" dinner party host Marlene from before the interval takes us into her life as a 1980s modern working woman.  Earlier performers take on entirely new roles as the women in her life, colleagues, family, clients, who exemplify various roles of this modern society.  Never a feminist, Marlene is simply as headstrong as the guests at her dinner party, and as she confronts her sister towards the end of the play we begin to understand her motivations better.  At first chastising her stay-at-home sibling for her lack of ambition, details are gradually revealed that explain the price of Marlene's success in a passionate and accomplished scene.

I was disappointed by the series of obvious projections bombarding us at the end, filling gaps that weren't there due to the excellent acting and intelligent staging of the rest of the play.  A challenging and stimulating evening from this excellent Colchester company.

14 November 2012


Blackadder Goes Forth
Old Court Theatre, Chelmsford
Wednesday 14th November 2012
In this climax of CTW's succession of productions bringing iconic episodes of the Blackadder TV series to the Old Court stage, we are greeted by a well decorated dug-out complete with sandbags for their interpretation of Blackadder Goes ForthSuch a celebrated and beloved programme, originally performed by some of the comic greats of television, Dean Hempstead gives himself a real Directorial challenge in achieving performances that the audience will recognise and enjoy, encouraging his actors to both interpret but also undeniably imitate the characterisations that the capacity houses will expect to see.
As per CTW's previous Blackadder productions, the title role is performed by David Chilvers.  Poker-faced and suave, he delivers the biting sarcasm, extended similes and sneering cynicism of this character with poise and clarity, achieving the nasal vocal quality of the original but perhaps requiring more of a range of facial reactions.  His disgusting yet lovable sidekick Private Baldrick is once again played by CTW veteran Mark Preston.  Gormless and innocent, his characterisation is sweet and bumbling with enough of a nod to Tony Robinson but also managing to make the part his own.  Bruce Thomson joins this cast as the hopelessly effervescent Lieutenant George.  His constant good humour, naivety and simplicity is well portrayed, and although Bruce's bouncing physicality was often fitting, a bit more stillness occasionally would have given the excitable movement more impact.  Captain Darling is taken on by Harry Sabbarton, gurning and squirming his part with delightfully sycophantic adoration and efforts at one-upmanship over Blackadder.  General Melchett is portrayed by a booming Steve Parr, playing the pompous, childish warmonger with relish.  Despite needing a straighter posture to help command a more defining stage presence, he is particularly funny during the "Major Star" episode, but there's not enough "Baaah!" throughout for me.  Among the supporting cast there is a sweet cameo from Ruth Cramphorn as Bob, a gloriously smiley portrayal of the soft Corporal Perkins from Matthew Martin and an enjoyably shouty Corporal Jones, leader of the firing squad, played by Martin Robinson.
Costumes are all excellently detailed, managing to achieve distinctive differences despite most characters clearly being in uniform throughout.  Props too are well chosen and fit the period and requirements well.  I especially liked the cardboard cricket bat, and Speckled Jim looked very good with an hilarious feathery effect as he met his sticky end.
The only element of this production that really works against the success of the comedy is the frequency of the scene changes.  As can often be the case when trying to so loyally recreate scripts written for television, the writing allows for short location-based scenes switching quickly and seamlessly from one to the next - far more difficult to achieve live on stage.  As excellent as CTW's dug-out looks, it is quite roomy for a space in which the men would have been living on top of one another, and perhaps a split stage created with lighting effects could have allowed for the variety of locations with a smoother, pacier change between them.  As it is, the well-constructed set pieces with ingenious flappy flats look great, and the stage management was organised and swift, but the laughs are still lost between the too-numerous scenes.  That said, the innovative staging of the famous finale of "Goodbyeee" is absolutely brilliant, achieving everything it should by bringing a sudden lump to the throat of the silenced audience. 
The intelligent, witty Blackadder scripts achieve a singularly insightful parody of the ludicrous truths of each of the historical periods they explore, but this final series set during WWI also manages to maintain an utter respect for the soldiers who risked and gave their lives in this horrific war.  A difficult juxtaposition to pull off, achieved with both hilarious and heart wrenching success by CTW in this worthy production.  I hope their multiple fundraising efforts have achieved as much success for The Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes

12 November 2012


Scenes from an Execution
National Theatre Production
Lyttleton Theatre, London
Monday 12th November 2012

Are art and politics able to work together?  Should art be able to be used as a tool by politicians, or should an artist only use their talent to exercise their freedom of expression?  This fascinating play explores this philosophy through the story of Galactia, a fictional female artist commissioned by the state to create a huge painting to mark the Venetian's triumph at the Battle of Lepanto.

Fiona Shaw is excellent as Galactia, intelligent, incisive, manic, passionate, she embodies the obsessive nature of an artist and convinces with the worthiness of her self belief.  Tim McInnerney is also excellent as the Venetian Doge, portrayed as artistically fervent himself, but reigning back to a politician's logic at the impact of the completed work on his society.

The huge stage at the Lyttleton is used to full effect, as imposingly large set pieces adorn the stage, moving seamlessly around to convey alternate locations.  Helping to evoke the epic nature of the commissioned work that centres the plot, the set's size still never dominates Shaw's captivating stage presence.

A production lavish in thought-provoking questions about the power of both art - in any of it's forms - and the state, in all of our lives.  Questions that will remain prevalent throughout time.

08 November 2012


Let It Be
West End Production
Prince of Wales Theatre, London
Thursday 8th November 2012

The Beatles were an undisputed pop phenomenon, and love them or hate them their music still attracts a diverse and passionate fan base.  This West End production, at the Prince of Wales for a short filler run before the Mormon's come to town next year, is a perfectly pitched tribute to the greatest and most successful boy band ever.

Split into four sections, with a costume and set change for each, we open on the humble beginnings in Liverpool, transforming with iconic styling into St Pepper, opening act two with the flower power of The Magical Mystery Tour, and closing with John in a white suit and a shoeless Paul as they bring the Abbey Road album cover to life.  Each section is designed with absolute clarity and astute attention to detail, sensitive to the fact each audience would be littered with fervent experts.

Over 20 of the band's biggest hits are included, tracking them through their 10 years together.  Excerpts of adverts and news clippings are interspersed with live streaming of the on-stage band on large screens either side of the stage, allowing for scene changes to be neatly and entertainingly covered.

Two groups of musicians share the eight performances each week, extremely talented and looking the part.  Not much call for acting as such, as the songs keep on coming, but each looks the part and portrays the mannerisms and stage prescence of their respective member of the fab four.  Playing each number live, with an array of different guitars to suit each scene, they are a very talented group of performers.

Not a musical at all but most definitely a high-budget, well-executed tribute show, this is a must-see for any Beatles fan.

06 November 2012


Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford
Tuesday 6th November 2012
From the moment the audience enter the Cramphorn auditorium this week, the "Wow!" factor is waiting to greet them.  An exuberant, imaginative and well-constructed set covers the whole stage and climbs the back wall towards the band, without ever inhibiting the relatively limited acting space.  Immediately setting the mood for this surreal musical, the programme is also wonderful with some excellent imagery throughout, thoughtfully designed to fit perfectly into the style of the show and whetting appetites with beautifully simple adverts for Springers next events.
With the mood well and truly set, there are some lovely off-stage successes elsewhere too - the lighting is suitably colourful, with a brave attempt at follow spotting in the studio-style theatre mostly well executed, and the sound levels were spot on.  As far as I could tell voices were not miked, but the excellent live band did not overpower the vocals - a difficult balance in such a small space.  There were successes with the costumes too - the birds were full of gorgeous chorus girl glamour with an excellent contrast between Gertrude and Mayzie, The Cat in the Hat looked like he had stepped straight out of the book, the General looked perfectly smart and authoritative and the colour theme for the Whos worked very well.  For me, a few of the characters looked a little unfinished - Elephant ears attached to Horton's hat, Monkey tails trailing out from the Wickersham's trousers or a Turtle shell backpack on Yertle.  Only small additions, much like the pouch on the Sour Kangaroo, that could have stepped these costumes up a notch - worth the effort for such a visual show.
Mat Smith played the iconic Cat in the Hat, cheekily creeping about the stage causing mischief and narrating us through events with humour and charm.  Young thinker JoJo was given an excellent portrayal by Aaron Crowe who remained entirely in character throughout, complete with cheesy grins and wide-eyed innocence, and sang with clarity and control.  Horton, the naively lovable elephant, was skilfully played with notable physicality and a very strong voice by Ian Pavelin.  Deborah Anderson was eminently watchable as Gertrude, with superb characterisation and a beautiful singing voice.  Melissa Smart strutted in her beautiful costume as Mayzie Labird, bringing class and glamour to the stage as well as a pretty singing voice and considered characterisation of the selfish party bird.  Natalie Petto belted her soulful number as the Sour Kangaroo and her sour pout was well maintained, although her facial expression could have gone even further into a grimace to suit the over-the-top style of this exuberant show.  Embracing the outrageous on the other hand, Barry Miles was gloriously audacious as General Genghis Khan Smitz - face contorting and eyeballs rolling continuously.
This is a deceptively difficult show to sing, and the cast coped admirably with the tricky changes in timing and pace throughout the production.  The group numbers were sung with a smooth mix of vocals, and were well choreographed so as not to make the stage seem over-full - especially during the final court scene. 
With the curtain call taken at exactly 9.30, the performance times remain accessible for families with children to attend the weeknight performances - an essential consideration with the target audience for this show.  "When can we come here again Daddy?" was the question on the lips of the cute little girl who left the theatre on her Dad's shoulders just in front of me - what higher praise can there possibly be?

05 November 2012


Hedda Gabler
Old Vic Production
The Old Vic, London
Monday 5th November 2012

A far cry from the last production in which I saw Sheridan Smith - Legally Blonde at the Savoy - Ibsen's iconic creation, a role described as the "female Hamlet", is the latest character explored by this exceptionally versatile actress.  Captivating from her first entrance, she enthrals throughout.  Shades of different character traits - a feminist, a victim of circumstance, an idealist - but overall she is a manipulative villain, set against the world, hungry for a power she can control.  Her acts are that of a madwoman, but she never portrays madness - only a dedication to a personal motive driven by her frustration - responsible for her actions, never irrational.  Complex and fascinating, Hedda is played with intelligence and a keen understanding. 

Adrian Scarborough is never upstaged however, in a wonderfully buffoonish characterisation of the soft academic husband Tesman.  Soft and weak, it is immediately clear how a headstrong young woman would become bored in such a marriage.  A sprightly and joyful performance. 

With a strong supporting cast including Anne Reid and Fenella Woolgar, the production is slick, and powerful, with a drama building throughout to a climactic final scene.

An exciting and enthralling piece of theatre, made unforgettable by Smith's stunning performance.

04 November 2012


Room on the Broom
Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
Sunday 4th November 2012

Based on the best-selling children's book by Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler, this live version of the witch and her cat aboard their increasingly busy broomstick tours the UK prior to a stint at the Lyric Theatre, London.

Opening outside of the story, with the four actors seemingly on a camping trip, the real action took time to get going and the noise levels in the auditorium began to rise as the children struggled to engage.  However, as soon as the witch and her cat arrived the show took off. 

Slick and well executed, the story was familiar and the songs were catchy and nicely woven into the story.  Some wonderfully integrated puppetry was used to depict the various additional passengers on the broom, with all four actors working multiple characters at different times. Some more opportunities for audience participation would have gone down well, and possibly a small volume increase on the microphones - especially early on when trying to capture the children's attention. 

Billed as ages 3 and up, I would suggest that only a very attentive 3 year old sitting near the front would be likely to engage sufficiently to enjoy this particular show, but the slightly older children seemed to thoroughly enjoy the experience. Easy to see why it has become a best-seller, this is a bright and energetic portrayal of a delightful story that gives children the chance to see these beloved characters come to life. 

03 November 2012


Count Magnus: Two Ghost Stories by M. R. James
Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford
Saturday 3rd November 2012

As the lights go down in the auditorium, as far down as they can, the first action we see is the lighting of the few on stage candles that are to be the only light throughout the show - and so the atmosphere is set for a chilling evening of ghostly storytelling.

Fighting at first against the barrage of sound of a local firework display, our host made himself the centre of everyone's attention immediately with his engaging style.  With only a few items of stage furniture to assist with the atmosphere - no sound effects, lighting changes or additional props - this was a show entirely reliant upon the delivery of the central narrator and upon the story he was telling. 

The utter silence in the auditorium for remarkably long periods - not even an obligatory cougher, as seems the norm during most productions - displays just how far Robert Lloyd Parry had succeeded in absorbing the almost full Cramphorn audience into his tales.  Two old-fashioned ghost stories, one either side of the interval, made for an evening that felt both spooky but also warmly familiar.

An unusual evening at the theatre, perfectly situated in the intimate space at the Cramphorn.  Highly recommended.

02 November 2012


The Only Way is Epic
Al Murray: The Pub Landlord
Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
Friday 2nd November 2012
The Only Way is Epic, so named one must assume for the hit TV series set in our home county, Al Murray's Pub Landlord hit Chelmsford this week to put the world to rights with his own brand of opinionated humour.
Front row seats guaranteed you a part in the show, as with impressive improvisational skills the Pub Landlord generated the first third of the evening on the spot, and continued to reference all he had learnt throughout the rest of the night - a feat of memory worthy of any self-respecting pub landlord. 
With much reference to the well-placed city boy along the front row who really took a bashing when the show began in it's intended direction, the bulk of the act was centred around the state of the country and the world - financially, behaviourally, morally - and thence inspiring all to go forth and fix it.
Arguably a man's comic, the largely male audience had beer-filled bladders by the end of the lengthy first half, but everyone seemed to enjoy the non-stop comedy delivered with raucous energy and a knowing twinkle.  It would be easy to dismiss this loutish character's stubborn patriotism and working beer pump prop as belonging to an incautious idiot, but Al Murray's keen intellect and creative approach to reaching his audience generates an entertaining evening of comedy for however high your brow may sit.

31 October 2012


The Hound of the Baskervilles
cut to the chase...
Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch
31st October 2012
The Queen's renowned rep company cut to the chase... have chosen a loving send-up of both the agelessly popular literary creation Sherlock Holmes, and of themselves in this creative spoof adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles
The familiar story is told by just three actors and a musician, each of whom are frantically running around, moving props and changing costumes as they portray all of the characters in the spooky tale.  Slipping in and out of character throughout, we also see moments of the actor's own supposed reactions to the production - Greg Last's fear of the scary story, Jonathan Markwood's diva-like reaction to a derogatory tweet.
Some well executed sections to bring out touches of humour - I especially enjoyed the top-speed reenactment of the whole of Act 1 at the top of Act 2.  The cast were  mostly well organised and wholly committed throughout, and the madcap comedy was well maintained while keeping remarkably close to the events in the real story.  I think anyone without a prior knowledge of the peril inflicted upon the house of Baskerville may have struggled to keep up with the intricacies of the plot, but it wouldn't have spoilt the enjoyment of the show.
Perhaps not quite as slick or impressive as some of the previous excellent cut to the chase... offerings this year, but undoubtedly entertaining silliness nonetheless.

30 October 2012


Kiss Me, Kate
Tuesday 30th October 2012

Pretty much the closest a musical theatre society is likely to come to performing Shakespeare, Kiss Me, Kate is a traditional, old-fashioned musical. Incorporating a show within a show, we open on the backstage of a Baltimore based production of The Taming of the Shrew, where old flames Fred and Lilli are playing the leads and dredging up animosity of years gone by while unintentionally reigniting their affections, reflecting the volatile relationship of their Shrew characters Petruchio and Kate.  

Fred was played with an assured confidence and relaxed ease by David Slater.  Energetic and slick, this was a reliable performance with a clear and controlled singing voice.  Lilli, his Kate, was performed by Julie Codling, full of attitude and coping very well with the huge vocal range required.  The battle of their relationship was well played, with some venomous facial expressions and believably hateful delivery.  However, Fred was more cowering under Lilli's rage than flirting, apologetic for his insensitivity rather than appealing for her love, which made it difficult to be convinced that she would run back to him at the finale.  Some more work needed in the Direction to bring out the essential subtle line drawn between the couple's love and their hate. 

The Bianca role, played by Lois Lane within the show, is taken on here by the beautiful Robyn Gowers.  Sparklingly radiant in her glamorous outfits she shone as the comedy bimbo.  Her misbehaving boyfriend Bill was played by Ollie Barrett - a wonderful dancer who moved around the stage with poise and captivating presence.  Bianca's Shrew suitors were well done by Joe Gray and Mark Ellis, with some impressively entertaining acrobatics thrown in. 

I understand any amateur society's desire to include as many members as they can in the chorus, but the stage at the Public Hall did not comfortably accommodate the large numbers of people in the group numbers.  Fewer people on stage would have allowed more room for the mostly well executed choreography, which instead became smaller and less energetic as performers danced so close together.  The sound generated from the singing of these group numbers was good however, especially the act two opener "Too Darn Hot". 

It is a shame when the hard work and dedication of the performing talent in a show is plagued by a tardy backstage.  Taking so long for a scene change that the actor must re-start a scene is unforgivable, although David Slater covered brilliantly, was entirely unfazed and the audience were generously forgiving.  The lighting could perhaps have done with better notes rather than simply a script as there were a few early blackouts, and some shaky moments of follow-spotting too.  Also some costume malfunctions along the way, but most disastrously for poor Robyn Gowers' skirt during her "Tom, Dick or Harry" number.  She carried on valiantly though, with considerate help from her three suitors, as she barely missed a step of her choreography and kept smiling broadly throughout. 

Old fashioned musical theatre, produced with some old fashioned charm.  Spotting Oklahoma! advertised as their next show does not fill me with anticipation however.  Perhaps it's time for WAOS to consider something more modern, to match the talented youth they are attracting into the society - a refreshing pace change for the members that may even attract a new audience.

29 October 2012


Seconds Out
Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford
Monday 29th October 2012
After enjoying Reform's spring visit with Nick Lane's My Favourite Summer earlier this year, this premier tour of the same author's Second's Out was eagerly anticipated. 
An almost empty set allowed for each of the various locations to be seamlessly linked through a simple move of a chair or change in lighting.  A decision integral to maintaining the pace of the performance, it worked excellently.  A varied and well executed lighting plot made for a successful distinction between each scene.
Sy, an omnipresent protagonist, was our guide through the peaks and troughs of the story.  Played by Ryan Cerenko, Sy was a likeable and recognisable character.  Recently graduated from university but working in a bar in his home town, he tirelessly maintained his immature friendship with his school friend.  Portrayed with innocent loyalty, a clear confident delivery and a charming awkwardness in his sporting prowess, this was an eminently watchable performance.  Kivan Dene's Tom blossomed from a puerile lout to a dedicated and controlled sportsman.  His sharp delivery generated much of the comedy, and his careful characterisation made for a believably dislikable rogue who became gradually easier to warm towards.  The three female characters were each portrayed by Amy Walsh.   She was straight and level headed as Sy's fiancee Vicky, with a brilliantly voiciferous release during the final Boxing match, but particularly shone as the complicated bimbo Zoe with some truly touching moments as the story developed.  David Walker was hilarious as Foster, the Boxing coach with the skeletons in his closet.  His gruff, eccentric characterisation was made all the more amusing for the constant insistance on wearing only his underwear.  As Foster's back story is revealed however, the humour was entirely set aside to make way for a positively heart wrenching performance in the climax of Act 2.
The writing is excellent, with plenty of slick, fast-paced wit - especially through Act 1 - but also a proper story which was gritty and full of realism, even within the somewhat exaggerated characters.  Reform Theatre produce this style of play with confidence and skill, and this is a production well worth catching.

27 October 2012


The Full Monty
Palace Theatre, Southend
Saturday 27th October 2012

Closely based on the original British film of the same name, David Yazbek's musical version of The Full Monty translates the action across the pond to Buffalo, NY.  Much more than a strip show, The Full Monty offers a witty and insightful script as well as a host of catchy numbers in a well-rounded full scale musical.  

This production was technically extremely slick.  The numerous scene changes that weave the plot around various locations were neatly dealt with using black backcloths and some well-designed set pieces (including a car!), unobtrusively manoeuvred by the organised crew.  Each scene was thoughtfully lit helping to differentiate the locations and, most importantly, the final blinding flash of the backlight - which is the sole protection against the performers modesty in the final second of the show - was perfectly timed.

Richard Harrison took on Jerry, the unemployed Buffalo steel worker with child maintenance debts and the entrepreneurial vision to initiate the amateur strip show.  His smooth, powerful singing voice was perfect for the challenging range of songs required by this lead role - effortless and consistent with a particularly impressive falsetto.  To pull off this part Jerry needs to be a realistic character - someone to whom the audience can relate, and with whom they can sympathise - a depth of characterisation that Richard managed to convey with confidence and charm, developing a particularly adorable relationship with son Nathan (an assured, natural Callum Yeoman).  

His best friend Dave, played by Simon Lambert, is just as complex a character with issues of his own, which needed a little more conviction to establish the emotional storyline with wife Georgie (a very likable portrayal by Kathy Clarke, with a beaming smile).  Simon delivered his comedic scenes very well however, and the chemistry built with Jerry made them convincing friends, delivering an excellent number with "Big Ass Rock".  Neil Lands played uptight ex-boss Harold, sharp suited and particularly capable in his comic delivery - if a little less convincing in his role as ballroom dance expert.  His effervescent and glamorous wife Vicki was taken on by the charismatic Danielle Jameson, who was fantastically entertaining but needed more clarity in her diction at times.  Paul Standen took on the "Big Black Man" role of the elderly Horse in a very funny portrayal.  His gorgeous, rich voice was quiveringly enjoyable and suited his song perfectly.  The geeky, closeted Malcolm was characterised by Peter Brown in an excellently pitched interpretation that placed the captivating mummy's-boy straight into the depths of the audience's heart.  Peter produced a truly tear-jerking performance at Malcolm's mother's grave with the beautiful "You Walk With Me", and there was a swell of joy through the auditorium when he and Ethan (delightfully played by the charming David Shipman) held hands to complete the number.  Jeanette, a bizarre character, inserted perhaps to help us believe in the success of the final number, was played by Helen Sharpe.  Helen was completely brilliant in her delightfully throwaway characterisation of the hilarious old timer, who despite being unashamedly shoe-horned into the plot is an integral source of comedy in the dance rehearsals.  

There is an essential realism in all of the characters that provides the basis of the show's success, and Director Sallie Warrington has led an entire company of talented members to create a well polished, thoughtfully developed production.  The action is integrated through a series of excellently delivered musical numbers, led by Musical Director Stuart Woolner who also conducted the consummate band.  

However much the plot is understood and enjoyed for it's emotional layers and witty dialogue, there is no escaping the fact that the six courageous gentlemen who take on the lead roles will have to give the audience what the majority of them came for...  Whooping, cheering and almost baying for blood by the time the final scene arrives, the excitable (mostly female) house must be an intimidating audience.  Full of confidence however, and having created a charming group of lovable characters by that point, these gents seemed to relish in the reveal.  A very entertaining production, LODS should once again be proud of their achievement.  I look forward to their interpretation of The Drowsy Chaperone next year.

25 October 2012


Terrible Tudors
Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
Thursday 25th October 2012
The Horrible Histories franchise is hugely popular in all it's various media.  Originating from an ever-growing series of books by Terry Deary, first published when I was in the age range of the target audience, there is now also a BAFTA winning TV series and this slick live stage version too.
The Tudor period is rich in all things horrible for the team to whip the children up with, starting from the fall of Richard III right through to the coronation of James I.  Packed full of facts, the children learn without even realising as they are entertained by the energetic foursome.  Fast-paced and dynamic, the performers are in complete control throughout, encouraging the children to shout and join in when required but also able to quell the frenzied excitement when the show needed to move on. 
Act 2 integrated fantastic 3D "Bogglevision" into the action.  Excellently designed, the scenes had the children squealing as items seemed to fly straight at them out of the screens.  A great way to immediately regain the energy built up before the interval.
Polished and professional this is a great introduction for children to both the designated period of history as well as to the thrills and spills of live theatre.  Superb.

23 October 2012


Fagin's Last Hour
Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford
Tuesday 23rd October 2012
As the audience enters we are met with a wretched figure asleep on the stage.  In the small square lined with piles of straw and furnished with a single wooden stool, the oppressive ambience generated before the performance begins draws us into the cell in which Fagin is being held.
Woken by the chime of the church clock, we learn that Fagin awaits the arrival of the justice bestowed upon him for his life of crime.  The hangman is due in an hour, and the terrified villain of Charles Dicken's Oliver Twist proceeds to take us through the story of his arrival in the prison cell.  The familiar tale unfolds through the eyes of "the Jew", from the arrival of young Oliver Twist, his adoption by Mr Brownlow, kidnapping and subsequent return by Nancy and brutally Bill Sykes' ultimate revenge for her betrayal. 
In this one-man show, Fagin is brought vividly and chillingly to life by James Hyland.  His costuming and make-up are pitched perfectly, depicting the social standing of this shady character with faultless attention to detail.  Through immaculately stylised movements, Hyland morphs into the other characters in the story, and with nothing but his masterful physicality and excellent vocal flexibility each of the roles takes individual shape in the enrapt minds of the audience.  Captivating to the point of inducing complete silence throughout the auditorium, Hyland is an exquisitely skilful storyteller.
The stage was lit simply, with dingy enough white spots to produce the unnerving ambience but also light enough to pick out the detail in facial expressions.  Most effective however was the fading up to total red floods during the ferocious murder of Nancy, and again at Fagin's own death.  Coupled with the simple but effective stage design, each production element complimented the performance entirely.
The Cramphorn Theatre lends itself to this style of production, and the flexible space could have easily allowed for even more intimacy to be evoked through laying out the studio in the round.  Truly engaged as the audience so utterly were however, there is nothing to fault in this immaculate production.  After the excellent A Christmas Carol - As told by Jacob Marley (Deceased) last Christmas, and Fagin's Last Hour this autumn, I very much hope another popular tale is in line for a Brother Wolf adaptation next year.