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29 April 2013


Cadfael:  The Virgin in the Ice
Middle Ground Theatre Company
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
Monday 29th April 2013

An intreguing character, Cadfael is a Benedictine monk with a colourful history, who turns his hand to 12th century detective work; the Miss Marple of the 1100s.  Created by Ellis Peters in her series of 20 novels, he was immortalised on screen by Derek Jacobi in the mid 90s, and now graces the stage for the first time.

The set design is ambitious and at times beautiful, especially at the opening  with split scenes between the snowy foreground and the monastry behind being framed with a rich depth.  The snow effects used frequently throughout look effective, although the machine is distractingly noisy despite attempts to cover with a stormy sound effect.  At one point the stone table housing the dead girl was set backwards, displaying to the audience the inside of the hollow wooden box rather than the realistically decorated front panels.  This may seem minor, but at such a pivotal moment in the play when we are being introduced to the title subject and discovering her identity, the audience's attention was subconsiously drawn away from the action. 

The episodic narrative of the story does not neatly lend itself to a staged adaptation and, although when achieved the scenes did look impressive, the many changes of scene and location were slow and far too frequent.  In an involved storyline, the audience need more time with the characters to distinguish relationships and discern the plot, and the actors needed more stage time to build their characterisations and tell the story.  Instead the result was a bit perfunctory without the detail and historical colour one receives on the page.  

There were moments to enjoy, and for fans of the Cadfael series it will be interesting to see this story brought so energetically to life.  I wonder if, however, the television series was the more appropriate medium.  Without a more major adaptation of the original story, to lose the such frequent changes of location and centralise the action, a stilted stage version will not be slick enough to captivate a live audience.

26 April 2013


A One Man Protest
Made in Colchester
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
Friday 26th April 2013

The second of four productions from Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges series, the Mercury's hard working cast of two return this week with A One Man Protest after their first run of Events on a Hotel Terrace

This particular strand of the many interweaving plot lines that make up the ingenious Intimate Exchanges series follows Miles, and introduces us to his frivolous wife, as well as revisiting the four characters we saw in Events on a Hotel Terrace.  Chair of Governors Miles is a painfully recognisable character, fantastically realised by Gwynfor Jones, and Ruth Gibson is once again excellent as the flirty and fairly hateful Rowena.  

Like many of Ayckbourn's comedies there is an underlying darkness to the story, as we witness this gentle man's breakdown at the news of his wife's frequent and widespread infidelity.  Told with such intelligent, careful wit, the audience comfortably chuckles along with conscience free amusement as we watch the farcical scene unfold with Miles locked in his friend's shed, although it is clear he is suffering from a deep and debilitating 5 week bout of depression.  A fairly tragic ending too, as we see that 5 years later little of significance has really changed for Miles.

The set is extremely clever, with the nature of this series meaning that the same flexible structure will be in use throughout the various plays.  Large set pieces are set and struck smoothly, although the detail involved does not always lend itself to speed.  Worth the wait however, the results for each scene are gloriously rich in depth and detail, with some simple but perfectly fitting lighting design to give an ideally pitched switch in feeling between the changing weather and locations. 

Although this series overall doesn't quite live up to its "hilarious" billing, with few examples of laugh-out-loud jokes, it is certainly amusing and unquestionably entertaining.  The Mercury have undeniably achieved some excellently produced comic theatre that, if it doesn't leave your sides splitting, certainly does leave you with a satisfied smile and a desire to see more.  The series continues in May with A Pageant, followed by A Game of Golf in June.

24 April 2013


The Rocky Horror Show
40th Anniversary Tour
Cliffs Pavilion, Southend
Wednesday 24th April 2013

It seems incredible that this unstoppable musical can be celebrating 40 years of rocking, with its subject matter still able to shock and amuse audiences and keep them coming back again and again.  Tongues firmly in cheeks, the Rocky plot sends up old Sci-Fi B-movies with skill - recognisable even to those of us young enough not to know what a B-movie is...!

After the initial disappointment of missing this production's Frank N Furter, Oliver Thornton, due to illness, understudy Andrew Ahern did a worthy job of taking over the iconic role.  With a big voice and skillful comic timing, he worked the audience well and after a slightly shaky opening relaxed into a fabulous performance, especially in Act 2's floor show.  A daunting task to understudy a role where half the audience know all the lines better than you do!  Phillip Franks played the straight faced Narrator with style.  This midweek audience were unusually quiet so not enough opportunity was given for him to swerve from the script and further explore his comic responses, but he was well prepared for the few that were thrown his way and delivered them with aplomb.  Sam Attwater brought his smooth vocal talent and fresh faced characterisation to Brad, played with a twinkle in his eye.  His Janet was played by Roxanne Pallett with a surprisingly big singing voice and a graceful elegance.  Her complete freedom in the role and relaxed confidence on stage led her to be the only actor to corpse all evening, following a well placed line from an audience member, but also to manage to give the performance of the night. 

The set in this production was all a little too good to fit with the low-budget feel Rocky needs.  Starting particularly tackily with the cutout car and Riff Raff's face in the moon, even the stand up bed worked well, but the hunting lodge feel to the interior of Frank's house was far more grand than it needed to be.  That said, the lighting and sound effects helped tremendously to bring that B-Movie feel back to the show throughout, especially in Riff Raff and Magenta's final scene.  

Richard O'Brien's cult masterpiece is a simple work of genius.  Tunes that are catchy and memorable, an eminently quotable book, a host of larger-than-life characters, The Rocky Horror Show continues to attract new audiences every time it heads back out on tour - which is pretty much every five year anniversary.  Another great production of this timeless show well worth catching while it continues around the country.

23 April 2013


Events on a Hotel Terrace
Made in Colchester
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
Tuesday 23rd April 2013

Events on a Hotel Terrace is one of four interlinked plays from Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges series that the Mercury have chosen to produce this season, exploring the intriguing theme of how the smallest decisions can have huge consequences on our lives and the lives of those around us.  A highly unusual concept, each of the eight plays in the full series follow the same set of six characters and each have two possible endings - 16 possible variations in all, although the Mercury have selected just four this time around. Each opens in the exact same way, and the various paths are branched out based on decisions made at key moments in each scene. To smoke or not to smoke that first cigarette of the day is that innocuous first decision, common in each production and upon which all outcomes depend.

Rarely staged, I imagine, due to the overhead of time needed by everyone involved. Time given over by a theatre programmer to stage multiple full-length plays from the same series in one season; time for the audience to attend multiple performances - although each technically stands alone, the only way to really appreciate the work is to see multiple strands of this story unfold; time for just one pair of actors to understand, learn and rehearse this vast undertaking - 16 hours of dialogue in all.  The Mercury have this freedom however, and are taking the opportunity to stagger stagings of each of their four choices across the season. 

This piece concentrates mainly on Celia, the headmaster's wife, who smokes that first cigarette and is plagued by both a worrisome husband and obsessive love interest. Both cause this frantic woman frequent stresses and strains, forcing her to face difficult questions about her future.

Celia (and all other female characters, as both this play and the whole series develop) is played by a delightful Ruth Gibson, whose commanding stage presence is captivating in her various characterisations. She is ably joined by Gwynfor Jones in the male roles, who has the majority of quick changes in this show and handles them smoothly, switching many times between distinctive and enjoyable performances of each of his three characters.

An entertaining start to this series, and one that has successfully captured my imagination and curiosity - I look forward to seeing the other productions; A One Man ProtestA Pageant and A Game of Golf and discovering how these other variations unfold.

17 April 2013


The Lion, the Witch & The Wardrobe
Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford
Wednesday 17th April 2013

Following the graduation of CYGAMS' previous generation of leads last year, after their acclaimed production of Les Misérables - School Edition, this production of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe welcomes some fresh faces into the principal cast, some for their first time in a lead role.  The increasingly popular decision to dual cast gives even more children the opportunity for a lead, grouped in this production into the Winter cast for Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evening, and the Summer cast for all other performances, including the Wednesday night I attended.

The ambitious set consists of a simple backcloth for the real-world scenes, complete with iconic wardrobe, all smoothly swept aside to reveal a multi-level snow covered Narnia behind.  The few pieces of furniture for the homes of Mr Tumnus and the Beavers are well incorporated into the hollow staging, set swiftly by members of the cast.  The simple snow coverings are quick and easy to remove when the winter spell begins to lift, and the multiple heights add some interest to the staging.  With such a large chorus however, the scale of the set on the relatively small Cramphorn stage reduces the potential for depth and forces a fairly linear approach to the staging.  That said, sections such as the battle towards the end are very well achieved, with the chorus taking the opportunity to act out the dramatic, slow motion fights with relish.  Frequent use of the auditorium also helps not to crowd the stage, with entrances by the White Witch and her entourage being particularly effective.  Costumes for the Pevensies are ideal, evoking the feel of the 1950s setting, and the Witch looks both fierce and glamorous in her flowing white dress and striking make-up.  The one-piece animal suits are a bit twee, with perhaps a more personified approach - waistcoats, hats, etc - working much better as a fitting style for Narnia, as per the effect achieved with the Beavers.

Performances across the board are confident and lively, with the simple choreography being well handled by the whole cast and performed with charm and energy.  The Summer cast of Pevensies include a confident Elliott Elder as eldest brother Peter, with a clear voice and commanding stage presence, flanked by the stunningly smooth vocals of a beautiful Charlotte Broad as Susan.  Little sister Lucy was strongly acted by Emily Ford, who captured the spirit of the piece in a well pitched performance with a heart-melting smile throughout, and an exceptional Matthew Hedges was entirely compelling as wayward brother Edmund.  Highlights among the rest of the cast included Eve French as the sinister White Witch, Samuel Wolstenholme as the timid but lovable Mr Tumnus, a charming partnership from Jayden Booroff and Rebecca Clarke as Mr & Mrs Beaver and an absolute star turn from the excellent Tom Tull as Lionhearted hero Aslan.    

The Chronicles of Narnia are classics of children's literature, and the story itself will always charm.  This version however is very mediocre, with underwhelming musical numbers and a frustrating adaptation of the plot that somewhat labours the early setup of the story but rushes the climactic battle and final conclusion.  This is not the fault of the cast however, who are as charming and hard working as ever, performing with skill and commitment and achieving an entertaining result despite the questionable source material.  An exciting prospect to look forward to next for CYGAMS with one of my favourite musicals, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, in the Civic this November.

15 April 2013


The Audience
West End Premiere Production
Gielgud Theatre, London
Monday 15th April 2013

For the entire course of her over 60 year reign, Queen Elizabeth II has met on Tuesday afternoons for a 20 minute private audience with her Prime Minister, to catch her up on the political business of the week.  This new play by Peter Morgan imagines an insight into these most private of meetings, exploring the monarch's relationship with some of the 12 ministers through select moments in political history.

Chopping back and forth through time, the scene changes are imaginatively and  sometimes miraculously achieved, with the monarch moving from youth to old age in a matter of moments, at times with full costume and wig changes made directly on stage.  Morgan's writing makes many assumptions about private opinions known only to her Majesty, but the relationships shown with each of the ministers are extremely believable, and the characterisations of all of these very public figures are exceptional across the board.

Helen Mirren's tried and tested ability to look more like the Queen than the Queen is achieved once again in a performance so believable it makes one want to curtsy.  She is not alone however in delivering a fantastic depiction of a historic British character.  As Paul Ritter's unassuming John Major states that he wanted only to be ordinary at the play's opening, he is cut down with the Queen's acerbic question "In what way do you feel you have failed in that ambition?".  Ritter's performance is far from ordinary however, as he embodies the grey Tory ideally.  He develops, if not affection, certainly a mutual understanding with the monarch, especially in his scene discussing the breakdown of her eldest son's marriage to Princess Diana.  We never meet Tony Blair, although he is much mentioned by both Nathaniel Parker's Gordon Brown, touching as he opens up about his depression to the wise and experienced elderly Queen, and Rufus Wright's David Cameron, cleverly rewritten to incorporate up to the moment developments - even Thatcher's funeral, taking place only two days after this performance.  Edward Fox's slightly patronising Churchill leads a very young Queen toward the traditions set by her father, giving her the opportunity lay down her own rules quite steadfastly, although being talked down in her wish to take her new husband's name.  Haydn Gwynne has the unenviable job of performing her excellent depiction of Margaret Thatcher, shown here as resolute and hard, putting fear even into the staff and chief resident of Buckingham Palace.  It is however Richard McCabe's Harold Wilson who charms both the sell-out audience and unexpectedly the Queen herself, as this proud, working class, Labour politician becomes a clear favourite of her Majesty.  The visit to Balmoral is particularly well imagined, and the scene of his final visit to the Palace to explain the decline of his mental health brought an unanticipated tear to the eye.

An absorbing, entertaining play, full of humour as well as moments of real feeling, performed and directed with exceptional skill.  Couldn't ask for more.

14 April 2013


Jeff Wayne's musical version of
The War of the Worlds - Alive on Stage
Recorded at the O2 Arena
Cineworld, Braintree
Sunday 14th April 2013

"The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, he said..."  Filmed in December 2012 in front of a sell-out crowd at the O2 arena, Jeff Wayne conducts a 45 piece orchestra in his epic musical version of H. G. Wells' science fiction story, The War of the Worlds.
Concert style, the orchestra are key and dominate the stage, impressive in scale and quality.  In this multi-media production however the space is well used, with high quality filmed scenes on a 100ft "animation wall", live action from a small cast of players, holographic interaction with the absent narrator, and an enormous alien robot complete with heat ray.
The narrator is played by Liam Neeson, filmed as part of both the animation wall scenes and as a holographic presence on the stage, interacting with the live actors.  His delivery is grave and absorbing throughout, and although there is just too big an age gap to be a convincing other half to Jeff Wayne's daughter, he otherwise fits the role ideally.  Marti Pellow is part of the live-action cast to sing the thoughts of the narrator, his powerful singing voice a testament to his many years now in musical theatre.  The Artilleryman is performed by Ricky Wilson of the Kaiser Chiefs, with impressive acting skills throughout the descent of the character's wits, and bringing his rock toned voice to a frenzied 'Brave New World'.  Parson Nathaniel and his wife Beth are played by giants of musical theatre Jason Donovan and Kerry Ellis.  Their scene together, facing the reality of the alien invasion as the Parson's belief that the devil is responsible takes over his senses, is a particularly absorbing section with both the strength of their voices and the weight of their touching performances captivating the huge live audience. 
Filmed with delicacy of timing, camera changes were natural and never distracting, and while close ups of actors and musicians were plentiful not a moment of the many on-stage spectacles were missed.  A fantastic way to catch a show you've missed, although no real comparison to live theatre.

12 April 2013


The Long Life and Great Good Fortune of John Clare
Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford
Friday 12th April 2013
There is a long heritage of troubled minds taking comfort in the familiarity of music or literature, and in Eastern Angles new play this spring we explore the story of one such mind through the distresses of another.
In the present, psychiatrist Melody is treating patient "John" who believes he is the 19th century Northamptonshire poet John Clare.  Inspiring Melody, and indirectly her partner Rafe, to investigate more about the life and work of the real John Clare we begin to discover details about this interesting character and his tragic story.  Through slick changes of scene we switch to the early 19th century, as the same actors play Clare, his wife and his doctor.  We see Clare writing and being hailed for his poetry, but as he continues to struggle to support his family his mental health begins to suffer until he eventually takes up residence at High Beach asylum in Essex.

A cast of just three actors portray all of the characters, with minor changes of costume handled smoothly between flowing scenes and simple a set that works equally well as Clare's Northamptonshire cottage 200 years ago and the modern gardens of Melody's home and workplace.  The shed that takes up a large corner of the set stands out at first for the disproportion of its relative physical dominance on the small stage against its seemingly irrelevant purpose, however all becomes clear in the final scenes and it works with beautifully theatrical symbolism to illustrate John's story, as Melody's treatment progresses in the modern day. 

Henry Devas plays 19th century doctor Skrimshire, charismatically narrating the scenes as an outsider, allowing an informed audience to believe in the natural development of the characters in the Clare family without the need for any trite self-references.  In the modern setting he plays television writer Rafe, partner and sounding board to psychiatrist Melody, who is played with sincerity and energy by Louise Mai Newberry.  Switching seamlessly with clear characterisation into the very different character of Clare's loyal wife Patty, she is particularly moving in the scene after Clare's long walk home.  Richard Sandells is entirely captivating in an achingly authentic performance as both modern day John and his 19th century namesake.  The mental illnesses dealt with in both strands of this story are explored with care and understanding, and the direction and performance in this central role are sympathetic and absorbing.

If you have yet to see an Eastern Angles show you are missing out, as they put on some of the best small-scale work in the region.  The Long Life and Great Good Fortune of John Clare is is an example of another superb production from East Anglia's eminent touring company. 

05 April 2013


Harry's Home & The Last Red
Theatre at Baddow
The Reading Rooms, Great Baddow
Friday 5th April 2013

Theatre at Baddow's resourceful extension into the "Studio" space of the Reading Rooms hosted an exploration of new writing this weekend, with a duo of one-act premieres.  

First up was Harry's Home by Hannah Puddefoot, a piece following the effects of an Alzheimer's diagnosis on a grandfather and his family.  Harry was affectingly played by Bob Ryall in a studied performance.  Memories fading and frustrations mounting, we saw glimpses of his early degeneration through his self-centred family members and the generous understanding of his carer, Rob (Chris Piper).  He is brought home by daughter Theresa, played by Sally Ransom, a genuinely well-meaning but selfish woman whose condescension goads her father into biting back.  Also at home are adult grandchildren Laurie (Sarah Bell) and Keith (Roger Saddington), whose aloofness towards their grandfather gradually grows throughout into a protective affection.  Performances were entertaining and generally well portrayed, but all would have benefited from a faster uptake on their cues to make for a slicker feel to the piece.  

There seemed a character too many and, with an attempt at a fragment of storyline for each of them, just too much going on to do full justice to the central story of Harry's decline or the wider issue of Alzheimer's disease.  That said, director Helen Quigley did a worthy job to bring out the variation of effects of Harry's homecoming on the family, and managed to stage some of the difficult scenes in the small space to good effect.  Perhaps centralising the armchair rather than the far less consequential sofa would have framed Harry better and saved his slightly awkward turn towards the audience, but the use of lighting towards the end was effective considering the small performance space.

After the interval and a quick change of scene, Daniel Segeth's play about a former republican guerrilla in the Spanish Civil war takes the stage.  Part nostalgic memoir, part patriotic history lesson, this annual family ritual between Emilio and his daughters Eve and Penny is developed beyond a lecture to a touching recollection of previously hidden details in the past of this interesting man.  Mike Nower's interpretation of Emilio is a triumph, not just of memory in this very wordy role, but of characterisation in a careful and thorough performance.  He was ably accompanied by Laura Hill and Ruth Cramphorn as his daughters - natural and relaxed, both actresses provided solid and generous support, remaining engaged throughout and never detracting from the central performance. 

Staged very simply, the set was carefully arranged to fit the studio space without looking cramped, and by setting the table to the far side some purpose was sought for the few moves that were interspersed throughout the naturally static piece.  Emilio didn't come across as quite old enough to fit with the dates of the story compared to the modern setting (he would have to be in his 90s?).  This is no critisism of the casting choice, but had the directors sought to make the character more frail, breathless, perhaps even wheelchair bound, it would give more purpose to the daughters' moves to comfort and assist him, and more reason for them to take over sections of the familiar story.  These are small details however, as the story was compelling and well researched, directed and performed with skill and a clear passion.  The narrative arc would suit development into a full length version, that could use this script as narration and build upon some of the key episodes in Emilio's life, introducing the characters alluded to in his memories. 

Overall this was a highly entertaining night from TAB, the first time I have experienced their Studio setting.  As long as they remember to ensure that the space is the only compromise, not the quality of production, this should be a very valuable addition to their portfolio of work that could allow them to branch away from the safety of naturalistic pieces and try out something completely different.  Congratulations to this enterprising group for trying something new, and I look forward to seeing how this venture continues to develop. 


03 April 2013


The Pitmen Painters
Live Theatre Newcastle and National Theatre Tour
Wednesday 3rd April 2013
This warm, fascinating play follows the real-life tale of a group of miners from Ashington, Northumberland, who in 1934 used their Workers Educational Association class, not to learn about traditional working class subjects, but to establish an art appreciation group.  Led by Master of Painting Robert Lyon from Armstrong College, the insight and originality of the group's own artworks caught the attention of members of the art world across the country. 
Lee Hall's play captures the spirit of the group through 5 of its members, led by the inexhaustibly steadfast George Brown (Nicholas Lumley), and their lessons with teacher Robert Lyon (Louis Hilyer).  It is hard working youth Oliver Kilbourn (Phillip Correia) who becomes the centre of the story however, as he gut wrenchingly turns down an offer of artistic patronage by a rich benefactor to remain among the mining community and industry he knows, where he feels he belongs, and continue to explore his passion and talent for art as an absorbing hobby.
The various locations as the men visit local patrons, Newcastle exhibitions and London galleries, are all depicted through small changes on a simple set.  Hardboard versions of the miners' paintings frame the room throughout, turned away from the audience to begin with and gradually revealed as the characters develop.  Using projections above the heads of the actors, images of the original pitmen's work are displayed to bring life and context to the story. 
Although each character is energetically and lovingly developed, this is an ensemble piece, and the cast work together with understanding and generosity.  Individual characters are given room to shine, while a feeling of camaraderie among the group of painters is built and developed.  With humour, pathos and constant sensitivity to the original Ashington group members, this is a heartwarming, moving and extremely entertaining play.