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30 May 2012


The Parson's Pirates

Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
Wednesday 30th May 2012

An evening of two halves from Opera della Luna in this, their show based around an amateur production of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, to raise money for church funds.

In the first half we are introduced to the stereotypical Reverend Arthur Bender of St Michael's Under Ware (Alan Vicary).  With innuendo and word play in abundance, he gradually recruits his cast from his comedy pair of sidekicks and the plants among the audience.  The audience seemed to relish the chance to exercise their operatic talents during the panto style sing-a-long and entirely bought into the eclectic group of six amateurs readying to take on the whole cast of The Pirates of Penzance.  With vocal talents that match up to the expected high standard of Opera della Luna, all of the cast embody their assorted parishoner characters, and are individually funny and engaging while working as a small ensemble entirely seemlessly.

In Act 2 we witness their production, madcap and fast-paced, with costume changes galore. Not quite enough remains of the original characters however to maintain the level of comedy, and although admirably done, some elements strike as slightly too professional to believably be a church hall production.  All the costumes are far too good, and cover too much of the characterisation that was so ably generated through Act 1.  Perhaps Tracy should have kept her Goth style make-up, and Mr Prickett his greasy fringe?  Saying that however, there are some moments when all falls back into place - a forgotten costume change, Mr Prendergast appearing as Kate, the Policemen's song - when the silliness is renewed and chaos reigns again.

An almost cult comedy gem in Opera della Luna's repertoire, this is an evening of affectionate spoof that has to be a must see for fans of G&S.

23 May 2012


Noises Off
Old Vic Production
Wednesday 23rd May 2012

This much-loved farce has been delighting audiences, and exhausting actors, for thirty years, and has lost none of its charm along the way.  Whether mocking farce, theatrical people or theatre itself, Noises Off does so fondly and intelligently, heightening it above the usual whoops-there-go-my-trousers level of other examples of the genre.  Although, don't get me wrong, there are plenty of descending pairs of trousers too.

Opening during a sort-of dress rehearsal of a fictional farce, Act 1 introduces us to the eclectic cast and frantic crew of 'Nothing On' before it begins a National Tour.  Each character brings his own brand of theatrics to the mix, challenging their sarcastic director - hilariously played by Robert Glenister - to the brink of his control.  After the interval, now familiar with the staging, we watch a matinee performance one month into their run from a wonderfully constructed backstage view, and then from the front again with a performance near the end of their ten-week tour.

The comedy comes from the actors' incompetence in trying to avoid or cover up their frequent on-stage mistakes, while being distracted by their off-stage lives.  The casting is full of gems, but Celia Imrie steals the show from the outset with her bumbling Dotty, who develops from lust to bloodlust towards Garry, a controlled Jamie Glover using all of his lithe physicality to launch himself up a flight of stairs with his shoelaces tied together.  Janie Dee plays the motherly gossip Belinda with reliable style, and is particularly attention grabbing in the almost entirely mimed Act 2.

The precision in the direction of this piece is clear, and dexterously delivered throughout by the hardworking cast.  Act 2 is definitely the comic highlight, with the final act never quite reaching back up to the same laughter level, but concluding with the inevitable descent into chaos. 

Farce seems to be back in fashion - I have seen One Man, Two Guv'nors and The Ladykillers in the West End within the last year and What the Butler Saw has opened now too - and Noises Off lovingly pokes fun at them all.  Hilarious.

18 May 2012


Trivial Pursuits
Bardfield Players
Town Hall, Great Bardfield
Friday 18th May 2012

Various jolly show tunes, spoof posters and programme adverts, The Bardfield Players always think hard about their pre-show production elements and Trivial Pursuits was no exception.  A quick burst of Phantom and the tone was set.

It never fails to amaze me what a dramatic and detailed set is achieved on the modest Bardfield stage.  This production's was impressive once again, with a two storey house, fully decorated interior corridor, a garden gate and a large stepped garden complete with grass, flowers and soil.  All was built sturdily and dressed with immaculate attention to detail.

The action began a little stilted, with a giggle-filled game of charades that went on a bit too long, and a stuttered diatribe from Derek (Iain Graham) - who thankfully relaxed after his opening speech to blossom into one of the best performances of the night.  There is an art to being a prompt, and it is a difficult and thankless task, but a single loud prompt that gets the action moving is infinitely preferable to whispering so softly that the actor has to almost ask you to repeat it. 

A populous cast of ten for this frivolous comedy, following a fictional operatic society and the politics that arise amongst the group of luvvies.  Generally everyone did a good job with their parts, and costumes, though in places hideous, mostly suited the characters well.  Specific mention must go to Carolynne Ruffle, who was constantly hilarious as the drunk and randy Joyce, and really seemed to relish the character, and Steve Hudspith as Teddy who did an excellent job throughout, especially with his solo number at the end!

Directed by Ian Ruffle, Trivial Pursuits is a predictable and fairly shallow play, but produced to a great standard by The Bardfield Players it was a silly and enjoyable evening's entertainment.

16 May 2012


Half a Sixpence
Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
Wednesday 16th May 2012

This simple and heart-warming story follows Arthur Kipps, an orphan who inherits a surprise fortune but finds that money cannot buy him love or happiness.  It was first performed in the West End in 1963 and made a successful transfer to Broadway two years later - one of the last New York successes with London roots until Andrew Lloyd Webber hit the musicals scene in the late 70s.

The set design for this production was minimal but effective with a lovely double doorway framed by two halves of a sixpence, the only item retained throughout.  Shop desks and other items of furniture were moved on and off as needed, all of which was done smoothly.  A hat or two among the ensemble could have been more securely pinned, and Kipp's on stage costume change left him looking slightly bedraggled, but generally costumes were all well-chosen with good differentiation between the classes.  There were a few examples of some wobbly follow-spotting, which marred the effect of Kipp's storytelling flashbacks and should perhaps have been replaced by fixed spots for those moments.  However the set-less backdrop was nicely lit to colour contrast between the scenes.

The orchestra were very good, MD'd by Gerald Hindes, although were too loud over the opening number to hear the slightly cautious ensemble.  The energetic group singing in the excellent 'Flash Bang Wallop!' proved that the company could generate the gutsy sound required to fill the auditorium, but this needed to be maintained through all of the ensemble numbers.

With the show having been originally written as a vehicle for Tommy Steele, it is little wonder that the part of Arthur Kipps is in almost every scene and every musical number - a daunting role undertaken by Toby Holland.  Charming and cheeky, opening with just the right amount of shy awkwardness and developing into a confident gentleman, his performance was excellent and Toby carried the show with an easy grace and a smooth, unfaltering voice.

The supporting principals all did a good job with their various characters.  Kipps life-long love interest Ann, played by Charlotte Reed, was full of character and verve.  Wearing her emotions on her sleeve, 'I Know What I Am' was a particularly touching moment.  Sarah Fletcher took on the superior Helen Walsingham, with her brother, the speculating cad, being played by Patrick Willis.  Shopkeeper Shalford was portrayed with menace by Tony Court, and eccentric thespian Chitterlow by Tony Brett.  Both gentlemen had mastered their opposite but equally colourful characters, although both needed more pace in their delivery at times.

Cathy Court directed this beguiling production, which despite some minor challenges was a very entertaining effort by Trinity.  Above all everyone on stage was enthusiastic and seemed to be having lots of fun, which was certainly infectious for the audience.  

12 May 2012


Palace Theatre, Westcliff
Saturday 12th May 2012

After Elton John and Tim Rice's successful collaboration on The Lion King, Disney reformed the partnership to produce this musical, based on Verdi's opera.  Having run on Broadway for over 4 years, won multiple Tony Awards, and been written and composed by a pair of Brits, it is a mystery as to why Aida has never been picked up professionally in the UK.  However with the amateur rights released last year, LODS have had the opportunity to produce the Essex premiere.

Opening in a modern museum and then transporting us to ancient Egypt, the multiple sets were solid, simply designed and all fitted their scenes excellently, including some lovely lighting effects.  Costumes maintained a suggestion of the period and status of each character, but never seemed to become cumbersome or restrictive, even in some of Amneris' more elaborate dresses. 

Barring a momentary out of place bang, which admirably did not distract the performers for a moment, the quality of the sound was as befits the professional venue, with radio mics pitched perfectly for every lead character.  The music was wonderful, retaining a mostly pop style throughout but also interspersed with other eclectic influences from African to Gospel, all handled flawlessly by the gifted band - MD'd by Rachael Plunkett and conducted by Stuart Woolner.

Without exception the principal actors were perfectly cast, committed to their performances and above all exceedingly talented, directed by Sallie Warrington.  I do question the decision to perform in American accents, generally well maintained though they were.  Written by Brits and set in Egypt, seemingly the show's only connection to the US is the fact it has previously been performed there, and I cannot help but think that perhaps a professional cast recording has influenced the accent choice.

The title role was played by Sarah Woolner.  Beautiful and majestic as the captured Nubian princess, she maintained a look of stony endurance at her enslavement, but gradually betrayed just enough emotion towards her forbidden love to capture the hearts of the audience in sympathy for her tragic situation.  A deeply layered performance coupled with a delightfully controlled singing voice. 

Radames was taken on by Olly Gourley, maintaining a masculinity that can be difficult in such a sentimental plot.  His voice blended wonderfully in the duets with Aida, resulting in a stirringly rich sound.  Jenny Peoples as Amneris never allowed her character to become the light relief, but developed from a shallow fashionista to establish a self assured grandeur as the wronged Egyptian princess.  Her costuming was particularly good with numerous changes throughout, and her bright, smooth voice opened and closed the show in style.  James Lobley was a charming Mereb, Barry Jones seemed to relish the evil of Zoser and Danielle Jameson brought her sparkling soprano to Nehebka.  The chorus supported each scene with style, and there were some adventurous and well executed dance routines by both the male and female ensemble.

With quality oozing from every aspect of this production, right from the stunning programme design and throughout the show, this was just about the best production I have seen by any amateur musical group.  Well done LODS.

11 May 2012


The Merchant of Venice
Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch
Friday 11th May 2012

Shakespeare's romantic tale is full of unfortunate relevance to a modern audience.  Multiculturalism leading to racial intolerance; a warped sense of justice; a blinkered thirst for revenge; all recognisable elements of today's society, at home and abroad.  cut to the chase... however have not chosen to depress us with a dark political satire in this production, but instead focus on the upbeat love stories and a celebration of good triumphing over evil.

Although the poster suggested the style to be nearer Vegas than Venice, a particularly Venetian-looking and beautifully designed set, with a charming gazebo that doubled well as a location for the merchants to do business, a seat upon which Portia could be wooed and Antonio's dock during the final trial, was expertly realised and fitted the story and the space perfectly.  Costuming was bright but sporadic in period, with most of the gentlemen looking like they would fit in during the Napoleonic wars but Antonio donning a double-breasted suit like a Broadway gangster - some choices having to be shoehorned to fit with the stated early 1980s setting. 

Performances were clear and compelling across the board.  Josie Taylor's Portia was confident with a touch of knowing arrogance.  Each of her casket scenes were excellently staged, and her suitors equally both repellent and comically entertaining.  Matt Devitt played the merciless Shylock with unrelenting greed and touches of soliloquising sympathy in a well layered performance.

The ever impressive actor-musicians at cut to the chase... all added their musical talents to the atmospheric underscore.  Nerissa's (Kate Robson-Stuart) violin was particularly pretty, as was the flute and oboe duet between Jessica (Natasha Moore) and Lorenzo (Sam Kordbacheh).

An excellent courtroom scene built the final denouement to a climactic end and a joyous resolution between the couples.  Although not badly done I didn't understand the decision behind the 'Hot Stuff' song to conclude, but perhaps that's because I hadn't bought into the 1980s theme.  Regardless, this watchable company did a great job that I could easily have sat through again.

09 May 2012


Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
Wednesday 9th May 2012

Provocative music and a well choreographed fight scene open Icarus' dramatic version of the Scottish play, at Chelmsford for one night on their UK tour.

Performed by a cast of just seven, the actors slip swiftly in and out of roles, often with just a cursory costume change.  The costuming was traditional with an overall uniformity in style but just enough individuality to pick out the seperate characters.  Minor costume changes often happened on stage and were always executed smoothly.

The set design complimented the style of the production excellently.  Individual planks stood to create a haphazard back wall, and were also rearranged to give the staging some interesting additional levels when needed.  A large red cloth dropped to serve as a dinner table, and a single throne was positioned to hide Banquo in a neatly done transition between murder and ghostly apparition.

That said, the production was partly a case of style over substance when it comes to the lead performances.  Macbeth (Joel Gorf), although undeniably passionate and with a sizable amount of madness, was simply too shouty too often for my taste.  Lady Macbeth (Sophie Brooke) opened with more than a hint of insanity before she had even finished reading her husband's first letter, giving her little opportunity to develop through the play and resulting in her feeling rather one-dimensional.  Both also had a tendancy to rush their lines, with even the darkest and most brooding speeches speeding by in moments and thereby failing to generate enough tension towards Macbeth's final fall.

The supporting cast were extremely watchable in places. Zachary Holton as a towering King Duncan had a powerful stage presence.  Richard Hay did a charming job in his few moments as Macduff's son.  Richard Maxted was a controlled and commanding Macduff.  The three Witches (Emma Carter, Sophie Brooke and Richard Hay) embodied the weird sisters wonderfully, hissing and growling like creatures from Lord of the Rings.

Despite the hits and misses, this was a relatively rare and welcome opportunity to see some professional Shakespeare performed locally, and was overall an enjoyable one.

04 May 2012


Old Court Theatre, Chelmsford
Friday 4th May 2012

A firm favourite with audiences, this ever-popular play is performed at all levels, from professional tours to GCSE drama studios.  Written in a multi-role format, four male actors take on all of the many the characters, of both sexes, switching instantly between roles during the scenes.

Set in the 1980s, the Old Court auditorium dazzled with flashing lights and evocative disco music.  The seating set in the round leaves a tempting dance floor space, and succeeds in bringing each audience member tantalisingly close to the ensuing action.

The play opens with the four sharply suited Bouncers rapping along to a parody of Rapper's Delight, complete with simple and precisely executed dance moves perfectly pitched by choreographer Catherine Hitchins. 

Each of the four actors, Dave Hawkes as Lucky Eric, Barry Taylor as Ralph, James Christie as Les and John Mabey as Judd, were exemplary in their embodiment of their various characters.  An impressive use of different accents, facial expressions and movements created tight and specific examples of each character's individuality, flawlessly done by a cast who bounced excellently off each other.

Co-Directors Catherine Kenton and Jenny Almond did a fantastic job of retaining an eighties feel to the production, keeping it retro and tongue-in-cheek rather than dated, and maintaining an energy throughout that made the audience feel enthused without being exhausted.  Making great use of the auditorium layout the moments of audience interaction were particularly funny. 

Accomplished to the highest standard, performing to sold out houses of happy punters, CTW should be very proud of this production.

02 May 2012


Great Baddow Memorial Hall, Chelmsford
Wednesday 2nd May 2012

In celebration of their 30th anniversary year, TAB have chosen to produce an evening of one-act plays wittily entitled 4Play.  With no discernible connection between the four pieces at all, they were chosen perhaps for their diversity, and offered an overall cast of 14 different performers the opportunity to tread the boards to mark the occasion.

The entertainment began with Jimmie Chinn's In By The Half, a sentimental black comedy directed by Joanna Windley-Poole, who also played daughter Ursula, the surprise visitor.  Madam, expertly portrayed by Sara Nower despite being decades too young, is a veteran actress assisted through her eccentric advancement in years by beleaguered housemaid Doris, wonderfully characterised by Barbara Llewellyn.  A charming cameo by founder member David Saddington as the Doctor, and a sprightly performance by promising young actress Hannah Mears as acting student Sylvia, with her speech impediment wrapping its way around a series of tongue twisters, completed the cast.  A rounded and engaging plot with artfully developed characters made this a well chosen and entertaining playlet.

Helen Quigley directed the next piece, Joining the Club by David Tristram, a relationship comedy examining the moment Jenny (Helena Jeavons) is to tell her husband Tom (Gary Penman) of her newly discovered pregnancy.  A well written sketch with a particularly amusing script, which could have been played upon much more if the cast had a far surer grasp of the lines.  The appreciative audience were certainly left chuckling into the interval however, despite the periods of hesitancy, so if the cast relax through the week this should develop into a very funny end to the first half.

Supernatural drama The Edge by Steve Carley opened the second act with suspense and intrigue.  Three well cast actors; Jacob Burtenshaw as confident broker Stuart, Mike Nower as intense psychiatrist Paul, Roger Saddington as protagonist Marcus; worked hard to maintain both pace in their delivery and tension in the revelation of the story.  A little predictable perhaps - one-act doesn't allow time for the twists and turns one may expect from a full length play of this style - but the cast were committed to the story and never allowed the plot to become melodramatic.  Well directed by John Mabey, with particularly effective use of lighting in the denouement, this choice worked well to contrast to the evening's lighter pieces.

Visitors from Chicago by Neil Simon was the excerpt chosen to complete the series, taken from the film California Suite (for which the superlative Maggie Smith won her first Oscar), directed by Joe Kennedy.  Two couples have been playing tennis on their shared summer holiday and Mort (Matthew Jones) has had to bring his wife Beth (Kelly McGibney) back to their hotel room with an injured ankle, supposedly the fault of overenthusiastic game play by their friends Stu (Bruce Thomson) and his wife Bree (Joanna Gent).  Styled as a farce, there was not enough control over the choreography of each imbricating comedy element - both words and actions too often overlapped making the scene confusingly, rather than amusingly, frantic.  That said, Bruce Thomson's performance, as Stu vents his frustration in a lengthy diatribe against his friend, was an individual highlight of the night.

Overall, Theatre at Baddow have produced an enjoyable evening of entertainment, although it sometimes felt as though it had been brought together in a bit of a rush.  The high quality achieved in their last few productions is what we have come to expect, and hopefully their new branch out into "Studio Productions" in July will not allow focus to be lost for October's Deathtrap.