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28 September 2012


Anne Boleyn
Old Court Theatre, Chelmsford
Friday 28th September 2012

The virtue of perseverance, so ardently displayed by Anne Boleyn herself, proved doubly fruitful for Director Christine Davidson in CTW's first offering of their new season.  Firstly, she managed to secure the amateur production rights of a new play that has only just completed it's successful run at Shakespeare's Globe and subsequent national tour.  She then also convinced The Little Theatre Guild patron Sir Ian McKellen to grace their own little theatre for the first time, appearing mid-way through the first week to the delight of all involved.

The reason for this steadfast passion is clear, with such an interesting, absorbing text with which to work.  A fascinating and pivotal period of history, brought vividly to life in a script that understands both the detail of the historical content and the theatrics required to capture an audience's imagination.  By tackling the story of Anne Boleyn, one expects the involvement of certain colourful historical figures; Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell.  However it is the inventive interweaving of King James I, a figure pivotal in completing the story of the country's religious reformation, that so uniquely singles out this excellent play.

A cast of seventeen, with some doubling, look sumptuous in their beautiful costumes.  Lots of money must have been spent here, but it was certainly worthwhile to create the feel of luxurious elegance so famously associated with Henry VIII's court.  A simple but beautiful set too, opulently decorated with gold script.  The curtained central doorway was particularly good, with the opening cleared by unseen off-stage hands to avoid any ungainly struggles with bulky costumes.  This facilitated very smooth scene changes that occurred with little or no delay at all, coupled with well integrated use of the auditorium that ensured a pacy energy was maintained throughout.

Performances across the board stand up well to the demanding subject matter.  Peter Jeary brings hilarious life to "the wisest fool in Christendom", James I.  Played as a cross-dressing buffoon one minute - mincingly matched by Bruce Thomson as George Villiers - and a wise leader the next, this is an impressive interpretation.  The threatening presence of the selfish, ambitious Thomas Cromwell is played with quiet intimidation by a convincing Chris Piper.  Geoff Browne is commanding as Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey is played with wily menace by Simon Thomas, and Peter Nerreter provides a lovely cameo as William Tyndale.  Anne's sister-in-law Lady Jane Rochford is whimperingly portrayed by an excellent Kate Millner, trying hard to remain loyal.  It is however Gillie Marshall as Anne herself that sparkles in this production.  Wit, ambition, intelligence, pride, Gillie embodies the many facets of this complex historical figure and plays her with a relaxed confidence that perfectly represents the character.  She is charmingly endearing, assisted by the ghostly narration in the opening and knowing asides throughout, so by the final curtain the audience are entirely sympathetic to this ambitious, ruthless Queen. 

The Director, Cast and Crew should be immensely proud of the evident hard work that has gone into every aspect of this production.  An outstanding opening to the season at CTW's newly decorated Old Court Theatre.

25 September 2012


Titanic The Musical
Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
Tuesday 25th September 2012

Maury Yeston's musical is a relatively modern choice for CAODS to take on, and what more poignant year to perform it than this, a century since the tragedy struck.  Set mostly on board the ship itself, covering the few days from launch until the survivors board the Carpathia, this emotional musical won five Tony awards for its 1997 original Broadway production but has not yet been professionally produced in the UK.  The music is hauntingly beautiful throughout, but the book is achingly sentimental.  With dialogue full of hindsight the characters begin to feel a little contrived, despite being almost entirely based on real passengers and crew members.

CAODS have sourced the most beautiful costumes for their populous cast spanning a vast range of ages.  The crew's uniforms match one another well in colour and style, the first class passengers literally sparkle with elegance and the third class passengers look comparatively poor while displaying enough range of colour and style to create a visually interesting ensemble.  The set is fairly minimal, necessary with such a numerous cast, but it suits the piece well.  A dark metallic backdrop remains for each scene, with additional furniture to represent the various locations on board - the bridge, radio room, Grand Salon.  The addition of a central platform for the Grand Salon helps to add height, but also works well to switch in the interval for a sloping version after the ship starts to sink.

Mick Wilson leads the crew as Captain E. J. Smith in a confident performance of this heroic character.  John Sullivan as Shipbuilder Thomas Andrews, believably distraught and confused in the failure of his achievement, and Barry Hester as Chairman of the White Star line J. Bruce Ismay, demanding and arrogant, both join him in the engaging "The Blame" number in Act 2.  A consummate performance from Diana Baker as Alice, second class passenger with ambitions of grandeur whose knowledge of everyone else's business makes her a perfect narrator through the introductory opening.

It is the youth of the society however who really stand out among this cast. The Kates, played by Jill Gordon, Jess Broad and Helen Meah, are exemplary. Sparklingly pretty singing voices, relaxed delivery and even decent attempts at Irish accents make these three girls eminiently watchable. Rob James plays the charismatic stoker Fred with rough appeal and a strong voice. The performance highlight though belongs to the outstanding Dan Looney, playing the small but pivotal role of radioman Harold Bride. A lovely smooth singing voice and assured delivery make for a charming interpretation.   Most effective however is Dan's ability to remain entirely in character throughout his time on stage, whether speaking or not - certainly not a skill boasted by all of the performers in this show, and an achievement that makes his performance eye-catchingly good.

CAODS' group singing is one of their strengths, and the ensemble pieces here are particularly rousing, especially the emotive final scene.  This show has clearly affected each member of the company, as well it might when learning so much about the affecting stories of these real people.  Carefully handled with sensitivity, the society should be proud to mark the centenary of this historically tragic incident with such a touching production.

22 September 2012


Theatre Royal, Norwich
Saturday 22nd September 2012

From the first moments, as Will Young's Emcee peers through the middle of the front cloth to "Wilkommen" the audience in, it is clear he is going to be the star.  The success of his vocal performance almost goes without saying; faultlessly silky smooth throughout with a relaxed strength that makes it look so easy, he could sing the phone book.  It is his physical performing skills however that are a surprise triumph.  Grinning inanely, executing his way through some frantic choreography, his stage presence demands attention throughout in an excellent interpretation. 
Michelle Ryan looks fabulous as Kit Kat Club dancer Sally Bowles, most successful in her opener "Mein Herr" and the "Perfectly Marvellous" duet with Cliff, when being frivolous and theatrical.  She is, however, less impressive in the more emotional moments, and frankly disappoints in a flat version of "Maybe this Time".  By the title number, near the end, Sally Bowles should have the audience entirely bought in - the part doesn't even demand a wonderful voice, as long as the actress sparkles with charisma.  Ryan looks slightly uncomfortable and the song doesn't build to the glitzy climax that should convince us to "come to the Cabaret".
Among the rest of the cast, Matt Rawle plays the unconventional love interest Cliff with flair and emotion, Nicholas Tizzard is disturbingly charming as Nazi Ernst Ludwig, and Harriet Thorpe is a glamorous Fraulein Kost. 

Siân Phillips is entirely superb as landlady Fraulein Schneider, with her adorable love interest Herr Shultz played by Linal Haft.  The quiet beauty of their flowering relationship is in many ways both the highlight and subsequent tear-jerking tragedy of the whole show.  Sensitively directed and subtly performed, the storyline works wonderfully.
This was a highly sexually-charged production, with some moments bordering on the sadomasochistic, but it worked very well and was certainly hard hitting, with committed and energetic performances by a busy ensemble.  The show is full of dark plot lines beneath the initial glitz of the cabaret, with the Nazi Youth's "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" unsubtly but affectingly staged.  The final scene, by which time the Nazi's have taken over Berlin, hauntingly depicts the symbolic future for ordinary German citizens. 

Cabaret, with it's full-frontal nudity warnings and controversial storylines, will be something of a contrast for the Savoy when it replaces Soul Sister in the West End next month.  An unapologetically unsettling production - well worth seeing.

21 September 2012


Jesus Christ Superstar
The O2 Arena, London
Friday 21st September 2012
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock opera was first released as a concept album back in 1970 before a US arena tour was embarked upon, which was followed by productions in theatres on Broadway and in the West End.  It is back to the arena roots, for which ALW insists the musical was intended, that this revival takes us.
Director Laurence Connor has used influences from the Occupy London protests, with pop up tents strewn across the stage, and the London riots, with the ensemble dressed in hoodies, to style this new production.  It works superbly, with the frenetic energy generated by the numerous and excellent gang-like ensemble fitting the zealous crowd of Christ's followers. 
Imaginative use was made of the huge backing screens, not only to bring the thousands of distant audience members closer to the facial expressions of the performers, but also to add mood with images of modern social oppression, and location with depictions of a concrete block temple.  The Superstar lyric "If you'd come today, you'd have reach a whole nation/Israel in 4BC had no mass communication" was echoed too, with flashes of Twitter feeds adorning What's the Buzz?

In a crushed red velvet suit, Chris Moyles as Herod performed almost entirely to the roaming cameras as a greasy game show host offering an audience vote as to whether Jesus is "Lord or Fraud".  In a role that was clearly cast by notability rather than ability, Moyles was carried through by the excellent staging of this number and received one of the biggest cheers of the night.  Melanie Chisholm with tattoos and dreadlocks sang pretty versions of her two numbers as Mary Magdelene.  However it was away from the starry billing that the major talent could be found in the supporting cast, with West End and Broadway stage actor Alexander Hanson bringing his beautiful, smooth vocals and charismatic characterisation to a marvellous performance as Pontius Pilate. 

The ITV1 audience's choice, Ben Forster, played a brooding Jesus.  His voice was strong and rocky, and he sang with undisputed passion, although Act 2's huge Gethsemane relied more upon power than pitch.  He was convincing though in a role that, despite the hype of a TV series, was always going to play second fiddle to the genius casting of Tim Minchin as Judas.  Intelligent, strong, acted with conviction and sung with both raw energy and excellent pitch, Minchin proved himself as the man of the moment and completely stole the show.  The staging of Judas' death left a particularly harrowing impression, designed and executed to perfection.  Comedian, Composer, Singer, Actor, it seems however Tim Minchin applies his talent he manages to show everyone else how it should be done. 
Having received a "Marmite" reaction after this opening performance, with either 1 star or 4 star reviews from the major critics, I sit firmly at the positive end of opinions, despite the technical problems with the sound - unforgivable in a production at this level.  This arena version stands alone as a night of both loud, energised rock music and emotionally powerful theatre that could not be captured in quite the same way in a smaller scale venue.  Few musicals would stand up to the size of this production, but Jesus Christ Superstar feels right at home. 

20 September 2012


The Pink Panther Strikes Again
Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford
Thursday 20th September 2012
The world of Inspector Clouseau first graced cinema screens back in the 1960s and the series of films are still popular today.  This farcical, surreal style of comedy had wide appeal, and although now a little dated the silly plot lines still elicit some laugh out loud moments.
Transferal to the stage is a tricky business, with the plot requiring so many changes of location.  Dealt with here by some (slightly dusty) black flats instead of a set, and members of randomly costumed supporting cast bringing on props and items of furniture, each scene was well lit with an interesting array of effects.  Costumes were bright and mostly well fitting, with the mix of nationalities dressed in unashamedly stereotypical style.

The performance highlight was most certainly Natalie Sant's Olga, passionate and ruthless she looked and sounded perfect for this role, giving a funny and memorable interpretation.  Murderous madman Dreyfus was performed with zeal and a glint in his eye by William Wells.  Cross-dressing Jarvis was played with an almost straight-face by Martin Harris.  The pivotal role of Clouseau himself was bravely attempted by Justin Cartledge.  He spoke mostly too quickly and quietly to understand, and so unfortunately lost the humour of the exaggerated French accent with which Peter Sellers made the character so famous.  His slapstick recreation of the bumbling detective however was physically good, with an awful lot of business to perform.  The supporting cast were all enthusiastic, with a ranging success of accents on display.
EDP state an intention "to produce high quality entertainment at reasonable prices".  By charging the same rates as the professional dramas that are gracing the Cramphorn this season, more than is charged for non-musical amateur drama anywhere else in Chelmsford, my expectations were understandably high.  With no set and few props there was little for the ticket income to have been spent on, and this entertaining but undoubtedly amateur production did not offer the value for money EDP express an aim to provide.  A young society, set up in 2010, EDP still have some mountains to climb if they want to compete on value for money in Chelmsford's amateur market, let alone compete with the professional shows they rate themselves against.

19 September 2012


The Taming of the Shrew
Globe Theatre, London
Wednesday 19th September 2012
This is my second production of The Taming of the Shrew this year, after seeing it performed on an enormous bed at the RSC Theatre in February.  The overall premise still sits uncomfortably with my inner feminist, but one cannot argue with it's continued appeal - society has simply come so far the other way we can laugh at this misogynistic plot because of, rather than despite, it's contrast to our own lives. 
And laugh we did.  This production succeeds uproariously where the RSC fell short - in finding every element of silly comedy and milking it for all it is worth.  Right from the opening scene, with Christopher Sly clattering on stage from among the groundlings, it was clear this would be a pacey production, full of comedic touches.  Pearce Quigley's Grumio was particularly funny with his straight faced, laid back delivery, and my sides were almost splitting each time he kicked that ludicrous bucket (doubly so with the confusion on the faces of the European couple in front of me, who were unfamiliar with the idiom).
Katherina was played with screaming, fiery rage by Samantha Spiro, retaining comedy throughout her progression from spiteful Shrew to servantile spouse, never allowing her characterisation to become unlikeable.  Petruchio, played by Simon Paisley Day, was her match in cunning and humour.  Again, every comic element was exploited so well we barely noticed the domineering oppression to which the character subjects his reluctant wife.  A directorial triumph for both sides of this central couple to manage to retain the audience's sympathy.

Just as successful was the farcical sub-plot with Biana and her contrasting suitors.  These scenes were all frantic and funny, but particularly successful was the transformation of the hilarious Tranio, played by Jamie Beamish.  Contrasting effortlessly from the Irish servant when dressed as his master Lucentio, his characterisation stood out in this pivotal supporting role.

An hilarious comic production, produced relatively simply, but succeeding perfectly in reaching the humour of a modern audience. 


18 September 2012


Three Men in a Boat
Palace Theatre, Southend
Tuesday 18th September 2012
Jerome's timeless tale of three young friends' eventful trip along the Thames has lost none of it's humour over time.  His dry wit, careful observation and ability to locate the ridiculous in the seemingly everyday, are traits that could describe any British stand-up comedian or sitcom writer working today.  British being key - this is a very British story with a typically British sense of humour.
Craig Gilbert's adaptation and direction places the action in a well designed pub (again - what could be more British?), with the men weaving the yarn of their eventful holiday directly to the audience via an imagined relocation of a National Geographic talk.  The addition of a couple of choreographed fights, which needed to flow more smoothly rather than look like a dance to wring out the laughs, a few silly songs and some slapstick and what more could the discerning British theatre-goer need.

The three men, Alastair Whatley as J, Tom Hackney as Harris and Christopher Brandon as George, worked very well together.  Each captured the differences in his own character, as well as understanding the importance of the ensemble.  They were joined in the pub by the silent Nelly, Sue Appleby accompanying on the piano.  A slightly inexplicable additional character - she was not part of the invented conference that was the reason for us all being in the pub, nor did she serve any purpose in the telling of the story, simply acting as an on-stage MD - but her presence was integrated into a few moments of the reenacting of the various events and she offered some lovely facial expressions when reacting to the madcap antics going on around her.

The spirit of the novel was entirely honored, and once the quiet Tuesday night audience had tuned in they seemed both receptive and appreciative.  I would like to have seen this production in a smaller scale venue, which may have suited the intimacy of the piece better, but a great night of true theatrical comedy.  This exciting young production company take on Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong next year - a very different, but equally worthy subject matter.

12 September 2012


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Cottesloe Theatre, London
Wednesday 12th September 2012
Mark Haddon's best-selling novel won the Whitbread Book of the Year in 2003, and has been adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens for the intimate space at the National's Cottesloe Theatre.  With a completely sold out run and a daily queue waiting for returns, it is true to say this production has caused a buzz.
One of the major joys of the book is the unusual style and structure that results from the protagonist, Christopher Boone, telling the mystery of Wellington's death through his own eyes.  Christopher's Asperger's Syndrome gives him a unique view on the world, and it is this charm that would need to be recreated in a successful stage adaptation.  It is therefore the inclusion of teacher Siobbhan narrating excerpts from Christopher's notebook, and later suggesting that they turn his novel into a play, that so successfully structures this production and brings to the stage all of the elements of his personality without compromising the characterisation. 
In the round, with audience as close as it is possible to be without joining in, the staging is brilliant.  Intelligently designed lighting creates seamless effects that are entirely integrated with the set, plot and actors, making an essentially empty stage come to life.  The sound and music also fits well into the story, swelling the drama of the moments of synchronised movement and physical theatre, especially the excellent scenes on and around the train.  Production elements too good to need the inclusion of twee touches like live animals, prime numbered seat covers or train sets built into the walls.
Luke Treadaway completely embodies Christopher, in a fantastic performance that captivates from his first entrance.  He manages to make the character funny, charming and entirely believable, while maintaining the detached insular nature of his autism.  The rest of the cast present their individual characters sensitively to complement the central story, particularly Niamh Cusak as Christopher's teacher Siobbhan and his parents played by Paul Ritter and Nicola Walker, but all also work wonderfully as an intricate ensemble.
An excellent production, directed by Marianne Elliott (director of War Horse for the National), which retains all of the charm of the source novel, but successfully transfers it to the stage by sensitively bringing life and intimacy to the characters. 

08 September 2012


50th Birthday Open Day
Saturday 8th September 2012
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the first professional, live theatre in Chelmsford, and fitting nicely into the annual national Heritage Open Days scheme, the Civic and its younger sibling the Cramphorn opened their doors to the public for a day of theatrical celebration.
Visitors arrived in their hundreds to enjoy this free event, with entertainment on offer throughout the day to get anyone enthused. 
For the youngest theatre-goers, New London Road's innovative Just Imagine Story Centre offered a creative outlet in the Cramphorn foyer, including children's illustrations being created by Poddington Peas illustrator Colin Wyatt.  With face painting, an array of costumes to try on, and the chance to try your hand at booking your own commemorative ticket, the foyer was bustling with activity all day.  In the Cramphorn auditorium the most was made of the studio space, with seating swept aside to make way for fascinating display boards and various free workshops to get people involved in singing, dancing and musical theatre. 
Over in the Civic, the bar was constantly bedecked with delightful musical accompaniment from some of the many guests who perform at the theatre's Wednesday lunchtime concerts.  The ever popular D'Ukes performed a set on the pavement to the pleasure of many enjoying their al fresco sandwiches in the glorious September sun.  In the auditorium a plethora of local talent performed tasters from their most recent performances, including Tomorrow's Talent with excerpts from Our House and Rent, Chelmsford Young Generation Musical Society with selections from their upcoming production of Les Miserables (School Edition), Springers Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society performing numbers from All Shook Up, Chelmsford Ballet Company dancing choices from their recent Tales of Beatrix Potter and Chelmsford Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society with a preview of their forthcoming Titanic the Musical
The highlights of the day however were the hugely popular backstage tours, taking interested groups around the theatre into the usually unseen areas; the workshop, green room, dressing rooms and even on the stage itself.  Knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides imparted gems of knowledge on fully booked groups, including a detailed technical demonstration on stage from Technical Manager Andy Chafer complete with an array of lights, smoke machines and pyrotechnics.  The tours were well executed and brilliantly received and would be a welcome addition to the theatre's regular programme.
Organiser Bethany Walker and the committed team at the Civic Theatre excelled themselves with a varied, entertaining and well structured day, that showed off all the qualities of this busy receiving house.  A diverse turnout of patrons with an age range spanning many decades kindles hope for the popularity of live theatre, and a busy new season of local entertainment in Chelmsford.

07 September 2012


Calendar Girls
Palace Theatre, Westcliff
Friday 7th September 2012

This September marks the beginning of 18 months of amateur rights to Tim Firth's smash hit stage interpretation of this heart-warming tale, made internationally famous by the film version in 2003.  With over 350 amateur groups granted permission to perform in just a year and a half, we are set to be overrun with brave ladies posing behind sticky buns and in front of pianos, as the number of performances collectively breaks a Guinness world record.

LTC are a relatively large scale society, performing in the impressive venue of the Palace Theatre with high production values.  A beautiful set depicted the Knapely Village Hall ideally, whisked away to reveal the Yorkshire Dales on a lovely painted backdrop.  The vast array of props and furniture were sourced or made with skill and each fitted its purpose perfectly, with particular attention to the important set pieces framing the ladies calendar poses.  Costumes were also good, with numerous simple changes all suiting each character well and helping to depict the passage of time.  

With a younger average age than perhaps reflects most WI groups, the core cast seemed to get along excellently, and all showed great commitment to their characterisations.  The part of Chris is imperative to the telling of this inspirational story, and Sally Lightfoot did an excellent job of carrying both the energy and humour of the whole play with her performance.  Relaxed and comfortable on stage, she was a pleasure to watch.  Judy Laurence as Annie played the overshadowed best friend with generosity, allowing the pathos of her character's story to make her portrayal a perfectly pitched, quiet contrast against the fire of Chris' character.  

The rest of the group did a good job of developing the idiosyncrasies of each of the women and defining each individual personality, and all six of the leading ladies deserve much kudos for their commitment to the iconic final scene of Act One, which was staged excellently.  Some nice supporting performances too from the rest of the cast, and I am sure that Dave Lobley's Flowers of Yorkshire speech as John dampened more than a few eyes in the audience.

A great start to the inevitably saturated market of Calendar Girls productions over the next 18 months, but with such a wonderful script and raising money for such a worthy cause, surely audiences will be delighted to see this moving, captivating play over and over again.  

06 September 2012


Fawlty Towers
The Seagull Rep
Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
Thursday 6th September 2012
Another classic TV sitcom makes its way to the stage, as the hugely popular Fawlty Towers hits theatres on this UK tour.  As can be the case with sitcoms like this, there are no stage adaptations available, so it is up to the Director to interpret the scripts and tackle the issues of staging a live action version themselves.
Audiences knowledge of, and affection for, the televised cast will inevitably drive expectations for an impersonation of the iconic characters, rather than an actor's own interpretation.  Nick Murray Brown's Basil contained all of the pent up frustration and stinging sarcasm required for the part, and the thrashing of his car in "Gormet Night" was worthy of the anticipation that had built up to it after the reveal of the set piece at the interval.  Alison Collinge was a calm, sweet Polly and Will Isgrove won the audience over with his lovable Manuel.  It was Agnes Lillis' Sybil however that was an incredible impression, with every sound, gesture and move pitched absolutely right.
The element that held back this production was the decision to recreate each visual element so loyally to the studio set we all know from on screen.  Although the set was well built and looked convincing, the lengthy scene changes spoilt the flow the actors were trying to build.  Smaller, separately lit rooms that could be re-set while the action continued elsewhere, or simply more innovative covers for the changes would have helped the evening meld together.  Some truly bizarre ideas had been conceived to detract from the lengthy scene changes, including language lessons from Manuel and Polly scribbling a portrait of a gentleman in the front row, some of which actually went on longer than the change itself - a quick blackout would have worked better.
That said, The Seagull Rep have chosen three excellent episodes of this much loved show that could not fail to entertain a receptive audience of Fawlty fans.

05 September 2012


Starlight Express
Bill Kenwright Productions
Cliffs Pavillion, Southend
Wednesday 5th September 2012
Andrew Lloyd Webber seems happy for each production of this musical to be chopped and changed about, with lots of new arrangements and even whole new numbers interspersed through the familiar original score in Bill Kenwright's new tour.  With some faster, heavier beats, the removal of Ashley the smoking carriage and the update of the Rocky trucks to "Hip-Hop"per trucks, the modernisations to the show have been incorporated well.
Many of the recognisable charms remain however, with loud, bright costumes and, of course, roller skates all round.  The most obvious restriction for a touring version of Starlight is always going to be the staging of the races.  The huge scale rebuild of the auditorium in it's London home at the Apollo Victoria was arguably the most memorable part of the show's long West End run, and would be impossible to replicate in receiving venues.  The new tour has thought outside of the box for a solution however, and provides each audience member with a pair of "safety goggles" - 3D glasses to watch pre-recorded films of each race.  These, as well as some small manoeuvrable ramps to allow for some tricks, mean the skating can remain a key feature of the action.
The potential loss of impact from the downscaling of the races has been offset with some impressive technical design.  Pyrotechnics, flying, smoke machines and almost arena sized lighting effects combine to create a technical performance worthy of a stadium venue.  Particularly successful were the crossing white beams during the title song, a relatively simple but beautifully staged moment.
Performances were not upstaged however, with Kristofer Harding as Rusty particularly impressive, a sweet portrayal of Pearl by Amanda Coutts and a well pitched Country characterisation of my favourite, Dinah, by Ruthie Stephens.
The energetic, fast-paced production of this popular show is a great introduction for youngsters to musical theatre, and won't fail to hold their attention throughout.  Perhaps the replacement of "Next Time I Fall In Love" with Alastair Lloyd Webber's forgettable new song will not thrill nostalgic fans, but they cannot fail to be impressed with the production values in this incarnation for 2012. 

04 September 2012


Haunting Julia
Hall & Childs Ltd and Paul Tyrer and Jamie Clark for the Booking Office Ltd in association with Colchester Mercury Theatre
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
Tuesday 4th September 2012
Just as it is inaccurate to say that Ayckbourn's best known plays fall neatly into a "comedy" genre - in fact many have a depth of characterisation that makes them darkly tragic, while simultaneously compelling audiences to roll in the aisles - neither can Haunting Julia be labelled as simply a ghost story.  Exploring the issues of parental bereavement, childhood fame and teenage suicide, this play contains all of the layers that one might expect from Ayckbourn, contained in a chillingly spooky plot.
This first ever UK tour stars Duncan Preston as Joe Lukin, in a performance conveying the tortuous emotions felt by a father who cannot move on from the loss of his child, as well as a relatively ordinary man who struggled to understand his gifted daughter - a believable portrayal with an engaging stage presence.  Richard O'Callaghan plays visiting psychic Ken with energetic verve, but with a performance perhaps edging towards a parody of TV psychics rather than the tension building stranger the plot needs.  Never preaching, but steadfast in his beliefs, the character does provide an essential contrast against the pragmatic Andy however, portrayed by Joe McFadden.
A spacious, sturdy set on the face of it, the space becomes clogged with oppressive tension as the play slowly progresses and the lighting shifts, making it seem gradually smaller.  Some particularly well executed effects make for a taut and dramatic final climax, despite it seeming a fairly long time coming.
Although our spines were certainly tingling, thoughts were overwhelmingly left considering the issues raised by the character's lives rather than Julia's death - about which more questions are raised than answered.  The depiction of how well-meaning but misguided parental love can cause a child so much more harm than good is more frightening than any ghost story.  A thought-provoking piece, recognisably Ayckbourn but certainly unusual, it is well worth a look.

01 September 2012


War Horse
Saturday 1st September 2012
When one comes along relatively late in the day to an established show that has been playing to sell-out audiences and rave reviews, inspiring a Hollywood blockbuster film version and opening in theatres around the world, one's expectations are inevitably sky high.  What follows can sometimes be disappointment or a feeling of deflation, when a show that you would otherwise have very much enjoyed has failed to live up to your imagination.  However occasionally, no matter how soaring your expectations, a show will still knock your socks off.  This is one of those shows.

Based on the children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford and produced by the National Theatre, War Horse tells the absorbing tale of a Devonshire stable lad and his horse Joey, through the hectic years of World War Two.  A captivating and emotional story; funny, sad, touching, exciting; but with a detailed and educational undertone too, introducing trench warfare to, potentially, a first-time audience.  Fast paced and numerous scene changes demand an imaginative and engaging set, which houses everything from a Devonshire farm to a French battlefield and tank attack with true ingenuity. 

There are some lovely performances among the numerous cast.  A likable young Albert Narracott, Joey's owner, is energetically played by Jack Holden, Richard Cant plays the big hearted German Friedrich Müller with sensitivity, and Robert Horwell makes an entertaining Sergeant Thunder, among many others.

The actors' performances are secondary in this production though, to the astonishing puppetry of the horses.  South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, fully deserving of their awards both in the West End and on Broadway, have created a masterpiece of theatrical entertainment.  Joey, and later his wartime friend Topthorn, are each operated by three separate teams of masterful puppeteers who, within the first few minutes of the play, blend seamlessly into their puppets creating an amazingly lifelike depiction of full size horses.  The nuances of character brought out through the intricate movements of these puppets is entirely believable and utterly enchanting.

This really is a must see piece of theatre, and with the West End run booking a year ahead and a UK tour scheduled for 2013 too, there should be lots of opportunity to experience it.