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27 March 2013


The Hired Man
Mercury Theatre and Curve Leicester
Wednesday 27th March 2013
Melvyn Bragg's homage to his grandfather, following the lives of a simple Cumbrian working family, may not at first seem an obvious choice for a musical.  However the rich, haunting score of this beautiful tale raises the frank story to epic proportions, with a heart-breaking result.
Set at the turn of the twentieth century young, hopeful newlyweds John and Emily escape to the fells to work the land, have their baby and start a new life together.  Their powerfully human story unfolds as they leave the land behind for the Cumbrian pits, and eventually the inevitability of war.  Bragg's book charts the choices, decisions and compromises that go on to shape the couple's lives together; uncomplicated and direct the style suits these ordinary working class characters.  The score, by Howard Goodall, gracefully echoes of tradition and folk music, creating an unmistakably English feel throughout the show.
Performances throughout this ensemble piece are impressive, with a supporting cast of talented actor-musicians playing key roles as well as their respective instruments in the on-stage band.  Jill Cardo is particularly charming as the feisty May, and Kit Orton is entirely captivating as rogue Jackson.  John is played with sincerity by David Hunter, whose openness is enchanting throughout and movingly affecting by the final scenes.  The early passions of Julie Atherton's effervescent Emily are, via the ups and downs of life's tribulations, gradually mellowed into an overwhelming love for her family, in a notably powerful, touching performance. 
Impressive though the acting quality is, it is the musical numbers that mark this production above any other I have seen at the Mercury.  Outstanding vocal performances across the board soar into the captivated audience, scored by the consummate integrated band.  Success is without exception, but Atherton is particularly glorious and Hunter effortlessly charming, with the vocal highlight being the Act 1 climax "If I Could" in which Orton also easily matches the established quality. 
The almost bare set suits the straightforward simplicity of the overall production, with the staging carefully designed to add height and spacial interest while retaining maximum performance space.  The setless nature of the production places a greater emphasis on the lighting design, which is varied and atmospheric, creating changes in tone across the various periods and locations seamlessly.  Costumes are also suitably straightforward, clearly showing corresponding classes and contrasting locations through deliberate, subtle details.
Daniel Buckroyd's first production directing for the Mercury since taking over as Artistic Director has proven his worth, and put Colchester firmly on the map as a top-quality producing house.  I cannot wait to see what he has in store for the remainder of the season.

22 March 2013


The Importance of Being Earnest
London Classic Theatre Company
Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
Friday 22nd March 2013

Wilde's time-honoured comedy is brought energetically to life by the consummate London Classic Theatre Company, visiting Chelmsford mid-way through their UK Tour.

Eminently quotable, this production proves that the piece is still as vibrant now as ever - more than 100 years since its original release.  A solid cast bring a fresh vitality to the familiar characters, with Wilde's witty dialogue delivered with impressive comic timing.  The two Earnests (Harry Livingstone as Algernon and Paul Sandys as Jack) bounce off one another with ease, and their intended sweethearts (Helen Keeley as Gwendolen and Felicity Houlbrooke as Cecily) are graceful in their indignation and work especially well together.  Carmen Rodriguez is magestic as Lady Bracknell, hilariously under playing the famous "handbag" scene in a picture of contained distaste. Richard Stamp is almost scene-stealingly funny as the pair of butlers, distinguishing entirely between the two characters and not needing dialogue to generate plenty of farcical humour.

The design of this stylish production is key with the only furniture a carefully fashioned chair per character, encircling the acting space and being strategically pushed forward when required.  Costumes are lavishly colourful, and the large roses hanging as the only backdrop add a simple elegance throughout.  A charming production of a timeless theatrical classic.       

15 March 2013


Old Court Theatre, Chelmsford
Friday 15th March 2013
First performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 2005, this intense one-act drama is simultaneously thought-provoking, argument-inducing, morality-examining, belief-questioning and doubt-inspiring.  Focusing on a 90 minute, one-off meeting between a pair of ex-lovers, it is revealed that the 29 year age gap between them, while disconcertingly significant now with Una in her late 20s and Ray his late 50s, was radically more centric to their relationship at the time - when she was 12 and he 41.    
Uncomfortable from the moment one enters the auditorium - traverse, the layout is dauntingly cavernous for an essentially two-handed piece, the ideally realised set strewn with discarded rubbish and lit with harsh, bright strip lighting - a lone worker creates atmosphere, subtly introducing us to the unnamed, ambiguous workplace setting.  Much remains ambiguous throughout, we never learn more about these two characters than they reveal to one another - we know nothing of their backgrounds, class, locations, professions - yet the remembered detail of their short time together is recalled, often in minute detail.  With no other characters and no other opinions expressed, we hear only first hand accounts - memories and their direct effects. 
Una, beautifully played by Kat Hempstead, is most damaged.  It is clear her emotional development has been affected, and the status she commands at the opening; strutting, loud, confident; is a front that gradually diminishes into flashes of the 12 year old girl; trusting, naive, vulnerable.  The demise of this early tenacity is delicately directed and gracefully acted, never allowing Una to seem too unstable or become too unsympathetic.  The nuances of emotion displayed are always extremely natural, softly flowing from one to another without becoming disjointed or unbelievable. 
Richard Baylis is utterly convincing as Ray, in an intelligent performance that carefully displays no judgement about the character.  He is never sleazy, never even unpleasant, and it is testament to the quality of performance that despite hearing some intricate details of his illegal relations it is hard not to be convinced, along with Una, by his remorseful charm and insistence that this was a one-off affair of the heart.  It is not until right at the end of the play with the appearance of the young Girl (Chloe Wiles) that doubt comes sharply back to the fore and new, even more harrowing questions begin to raise themselves about this captivating man.
Sara and Mike Nower direct with careful precision, allowing the light and shade of the weaving emotions to progress with the just the right pace and variation, ensuring the action remains captivating throughout.  Having chosen such a talented cast, their understanding of the text is clear in the deliberate control of the characters' progression and development.  A play based almost entirely around a lengthy duologue, the action is never allowed to feel static, nor do the characters wander around without purpose - the large acting space is used skilfully to reflect Ray and Una's wavering emotional intimacy through the shifts in their physical proximity. 
David Harrower's intricate writing allows the facts to be laid bare by the two characters as they see them, minus the certainty of a legal or moral presence to influence the audience's judgement.  Although exploring the societal consequences and the effects of these on the characters, the play does not define the morality of their actions, instead leaving open some difficult questions for the audience to examine.  A harrowing production, this is theatre designed to challenge rather than enjoy.  CTW have done justice to an exquisite play and a difficult subject. 

08 March 2013


A Soldier's Song
Theatre Tours International
Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford
Friday 8th March 2013

It is not new to learn that Post Traumatic Stress among those who survived the conflict in the Falklands is commonplace.  What is new, and breathtakingly harrowing, is the format in which the events that veteran Ken Lukowiak endured in his month at war are dramatically brought to gut wrenching life in this high impact production. 

Adapted and directed by Guy Masterson from Lukowiak's own critically acclaimed memoir, Lukowiak steps into the theatrical firing-line performing this one-man show himself with particular courage and conviction.  Not an actor, he is relaxed and natural on the stage, eloquent and full of clarity even in the moments of deepest emotion.  An exhausting depth to reach at each performance, his memories are honest, detailed and insightful. 

With frequent snatches of gallows humour, snippets of song and explosive sound effects, the theatricality of the piece is compelling.  It is the story however that really catches the attention of the engrossed audience through the 75 minute non-stop performance.  Taking us through a condensed history from the initial day of fighting at Goose Green through to the raising of flags at Port Stanley, the detail and reality of the stories that unfolds is both fascinating and shocking.  A piece of recent and dramatic history, brought forcefully to life.