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31 May 2013


To Kill a Mockingbird
Regent's Park Open Air Theatre
Regent's Park, London
Friday 31st May 2013

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most popular American novels of all time, and continues to appear on bestseller lists - thanks in no small part to its inclusion on the national curriculum in both Britain and the US.  Studied for it's exquisite and memorable exploration of race relations in America's Deep South during the Great Depression, it is narrated through the eyes of Scout Finch - the tomboy daughter of defence attorney Atticus.  It is the innocence and honesty of the protagonist as she witnesses events that she does not fully understand, and the bravery of her quietly heroic father that makes this story stand out and makes the novel so ideal to study.

Christopher Sergel's adaptation being performed this summer at the glorious Regent's Park Open Air theatre is a captivating and accurate version of this classic of modern literature.  The design, by Jon Bausor, is extremely clever in both it's simplicity and suitability to the piece, bringing Maycomb immediately to life before our eyes while maintaining a childish distance from the gritty reality of the plot that fits ideally with Scout's narrative voice.  Under Timothy Sheader's careful direction we never lose sight of the written origin of the story, with the cast remaining on stage throughout holding various editions of the novel and acting as narrators to join the scenes by reading excerpts of the book.

Every performance from this wonderful cast is an exemplary characterisation of these familiar Maycomb residents.  Robert Sean Leonard leads as Atticus Finch, the model of integrity and modesty as he ebbs between jaded exhaustion and defiant determination that justice and the law will prevail over the prejudices of the legal system.  His performance is completely absorbing as we see, through his young daughter's eyes and a series of otherwise minor day-to-day events that build up to a life changing court scene, the revelation of her boring old father as an intelligent and courageous hero.  Our performance saw Izzy Lee as Scout, stubborn tomboy but with a level of intelligence, wit and integrity that she is just beginning discovering in herself.  This was an accomplished and enjoyable performance.  

An absolute gem of a production, my already high expectations were blown away.  A novel I must have read a dozen times, that I felt I had almost rediscovered in this fresh, creative and absorbing show.  This will take some beating not to be one of my favourite plays of the year.    

29 May 2013


Merrily We Roll Along
Menier Chocolate Factory Production
Harold Pinter Theatre, London
Wednesday 29th May 2013

Holding the record for the most 5 star reviews of any musical in West End history, Merrily We Roll Along has successfully transferred across the river from the Menier Chocolate Factory for a strictly limited 12 week run at the Harold Pinter Theatre.  A relatively small scale show in many ways, we follow a trio of dear old friends backwards through time.  

Opening in 1976 at a high flying party hosted by Franklin Shepard, best friend Mary's drunken rants and insults cause her to be asked to leave and we realise that the relationship between three old friends has gradually been falling apart.  As we track back through time we begin to understand how these friendships began to break down, and how such a bond was formed in the first place.  

Not an unusual story, to see the ideals of a group of hope-filled students dissolve as their lives take directions they don't intend.  However to see this tale in reverse - to meet the characters at their most unhappy and then via the ups and downs of their lives see them as young optimistic students at the end of the show, so full of talent and hope for the future - makes a genuinely profound statement that is both breathtakingly captivating and extremely moving.  

That isn't to say that the show is downbeat throughout, as there is much humour to be found in the excellent book and engaging score, as well as an entire company full of exceptional performances.  Sondheim is a master of the art of storytelling through music, and the numbers in this show manage to create at different moments both a depth to the characters and a light relief from the palpable sadness one cannot help but feel as more and more of the tale in unveiled.  

This is a treat of a production for musical fans who enjoy a more plot-centric show, with real and flawed characters to whom you can relate and a story that will stay with you long after the show is over.  Glorious.


The Book of Mormon
Prince of Wales Theatre, London
Wednesday 29th May 2013

After my first visit to The Book of Mormon during it's early previews I couldn't help but be tempted back for a second viewing.  If anything, this hilarious show has become even better.  Even in previews the show was immaculately slick, but now that the cast have relaxed further into it there is somehow more to enjoy.  

At this matinee performance we saw stand-by Elder Cunningham Daniel Buckley, who was completely fantastic in the role, never for a moment letting on that he doesn't perform the role day-in day-out.  A marvellously entertaining job of one of the lead characters.  

I stand by all of the superlatives in my original review.  You simply cannot help but leave this show with a smile on your face.

25 May 2013


Neville's Island
Ingatestone & Fryerning Community Club Theatre
Saturday 25th May 2013

Tim Firth is currently firmly in the heart of the amateur theatre world, with productions of his modern classic Calendar Girls being performed by amateur societies up and down the country, and indeed all over the world.  It is therefore refreshing to see that his back catalogue of work has not been forgotten, as Neville's Island offers a humorous script and challenging staging opportunities to make for a rewarding and entertaining production.

A group of middle-aged, middle-class, middle-managers on a team building exercise in the Lake District, we join Team C as they run their boat ashore on a small island in the middle of a river a mile from their hotel.  With just 4 characters, a cast of reliable leading men are required to deal with plenty of dialogue and action, including getting soaking wet, climbing a tree and smearing themselves with blood.   

All four gentlemen gave recognisable characterisations of this team of flawed colleagues, each written with a level of realism or tragedy that gives this play depth and interest over and above the witty script.  Neville, played by Tony Szalai, is level headed and accepting of responsibility, a born leader always watching over his team mates.  Played with an assured confidence and well maintained characterisation Tony also led the cast in a very relaxed performance.  Martin Reynolds took on the villain of the piece, self-centred Gordon, whose thoughtlessly acerbic comments failed to amuse his colleagues and were the source of both the comedy and tension in the script.  Despite some moments of hesitancy with lines, Martin's performance was well pitched and convincing as the selfish bachelor.  Super organised Angus was taken on by Duncan Hopgood in an intelligent performance.  As Gordon's words ate away at his initial confidence he was left an uncertain shell of himself and the descent was well directed, developing gradually as the doubts planted by Gordon blossomed and grew.  Roy Hobson was very convincing as breakdown recoveree Roy, who had found God while suffering with mental health issues after an attempted suicide, and who coped worst with Gordon's sarcastic nastiness.  Dealing with a humorous storyline with such delicately realistic undertones is a difficult task, but this character was both directed and performed with well judged sensitivity, without losing the overall comic value of the situation.

The set was sturdily built, with an impressive full-height tree, strong rocks and a tree stump used as seating, and a wet pool to be fallen into from the first moments.  The foliage upstage right was probably not needed and it would have been additionally atmospheric to attempt generating the fog mentioned throughout the script - although just a light haze rather than the impenetrable gloom described.  The music and sound effects were well chosen, although the assistance of voices in the final track could not cover that the cast were still unsure of the song.  Some excellent lighting equipment was also used to good effect to create the split scenes between the tree and the "camp", and to give the effect of the various approaching vehicles.

This was a tricky production to take on, but with a hard earned and rewarding result that was well received by an appreciative audience.  A change of tone and another suicide storyline in IFDC's next venture, Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea in November.

24 May 2013


Old Court Theatre, Chelmsford
Friday 24th May 2013

Following the resounding success of CTW's excellent production of Bouncers last year, Artistic Director Joe Kennedy has chosen to produce John Godber's all-female follow up this season.  Structured similarly to the male version, an almost bare set houses a cast of four actresses who play the waitresses at "Shakers", as well as the cocktail bar's various male and female customers.  Jaded to varying degrees by the clichés involved in selling a never ending stream of "Slow Comfortable Screws", the ladies' weary smiles and feigned politeness are coupled with a collection of witty asides and touching monologues developing a core of rounded characters.

The four attractive ladies in CTW's cast took on the challenges of the format with relish and energy.  With extended sections of choreography, a diverse range of characterisations, and individual moments of poignancy, an assorted skill set was called upon giving each of the ladies an opportunity to show their strengths.  Catherine Hitchins' acting skills were matched by her evident dancing ability, as both her choreographed and improvised movement showcased her talents and complemented her overall performance.  Both Caroline Wright and Helen Quigley shone in their emotional monologues, switching the mood of the room as they divulged their character's secrets.  Gemma Robinson proved herself an accomplished all-rounder, superbly expressive with a natural flair for comedy, she danced with skill and adapted to each character with striking contrast in an excellent, comic performance.

It is difficult not to make comparisons against Godber's original Bouncers script, and Shakers never quite lives up to the quality of the male version.  The humour is far subtler than the unrelenting, insightful, laugh-out-loud comedy written for the men, and despite some lovely moments from the tight-knit cast there were times where the slick pace started to waiver.  

Director Joe Kennedy and assistant Jacob Burtenshaw were clearly inclusive and collaborative in their approach, benefiting from the perspective and skills that the company could contribute.  The result overall achieved another entertaining and enjoyable production from CTW, who change the tone for their next show with political drama Frost/Nixon.

22 May 2013


Once the Musical
Phoenix Theatre, London
Wednesday 22nd May 2013

This simple, unassuming, beautiful Irish show has been stealing the hearts of New Yorkers during its run on Broadway, and has now come over to do the same to Londoners from its new home in the West End. A guitar playing Irish busker loses himself in his music on the streets of Dublin, when a Czech girl unexpectedly stops to compliment him.  As he reveals himself to be a vacuum cleaner repair man by day, and she reveals a need for his reparation services, so a brief but intense relationship blossoms with music solidly at its heart.

Irish music has a unique charm all of its own, and the folky feel to the acoustic score of this musical is achingly evocative of the atmospheric streets of Dublin. With the exceptionally talented actor-musician ensemble playing some fittingly Irish tunes among audience members who can venture up to the on-stage bar before the show, the scene is set from the moment one enters the auditorium. With the movement of a few chairs and tables along with the variously required instruments, the set design is simple, stripped back and thereby entirely in keeping with the quaint tone of the show.

Declan Bennett's silky smooth vocal tones are meltingly beautiful and entirely captivating from his first moment on stage. Playing the character with the perfect amount of shy self-doubt but slightly reluctant confidence in his own unassailable talent, this unassuming Irishman is convincingly attractive. Zrinka Cvitešić is witty, confident and entirely fascinating as the Czech girl who quickly enthrals him and the audience.  With a sweet vocal talent and adorable characterisation this was an enchanting performance.

Completely different to any other musical in town at the moment, this is a unique and enthralling show, with a simple yet completely heartbreaking story that absorbs the audience from the outset.  A modest production in every way even the advertising campaign has been relatively unobtrusive, but it is entirely worthy of all of the acclaim it has received to date. 

21 May 2013


High Society
National Tour
Cliffs Pavilion, Southend
Tuesday 22nd May 2013

The glitz of the rich and glamorous Lord family is depicted in fine, exuberant style in this new production of the 1950s musical, based on the play The Philadelphia Story.  As the family prepare for the wedding of eldest daughter Tracey to the sensible, boring George, neighbour and ex-husband C. K. Dexter Haven arrives his charm and wit a delight to all but the cold, hard Tracey.  Meanwhile, following a leak to the press regarding Tracey's father's involvement in an unsavoury affair, a pair of reporters arrive from Spy magazine to investigate the story while posing as wedding reporters. 

This production includes a tight, energetic ensemble who play members of the serving staff, and have the responsibility of moving around the large set pieces.  The flexibility of the set allows for the various rooms in the large Lord manor to be depicted in entirely different shapes and layouts.  Simply achieved and incorporating a stage revolve the effect was excellent and gave a grand feel to the beautiful setting.  A shame during our performance that the follow spotting did not live up to the standards set on stage as the poor execution became quite a distraction. 

There was not a weak link among the excellent cast.  Sophie Bould was gorgeous as Tracey Lord, maintaining a stony facade throughout the first half until the champagne of the wedding eve party melted her resolve.  With a sweet voice and commanding presence she was an ideal leading lady.  Michael Praed was suave and charming with a twinkle in his eye as the laid back ex-husband Dexter.  A marvellous comic turn by Teddy Kempner as Uncle Willy, chasing after Spy magazine photographer Liz Imbrie played with ideally pitched wry humour by Alex Young in an outstanding performance.  Daniel Boys was also superb as her colleague Mike Connor, with his rendition of "You're Sensational" a musical high point.  Such a shame this role only required a number and a half of him, as his performance was entirely captivating. 

As a die hard fan of the Sinatra/Crosby/Kelly movie version I could not help but miss the inclusion of the Jazz festival and the additional music that goes along with it, led by Crosby and Louis Armstrong in the film.  Significant differences also to a song as pivotal as "Well, Did you Evah!", which in the film version is an iconic duet between Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, but in this production was staged as a large ensemble number.  Not that it was poorly done, quite the opposite it was a very enjoyable piece, but the farcical ins and outs of the party took far too long at the top of the second act and could have been more succinctly portrayed. 

Well worth a visit as it continues on tour, this is a worthy production of a much loved show.

15 May 2013


A Pageant
Made in Colchester
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
Wednesday 15th May 2013

The third choice from Alan Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges series brought energetically to life under Robin Herford's direction as part of the Mercury's Made in Colchester season.  Each play stands alone, but as we get further into the series we begin to see in-jokes and character traits that enhance the comedy, which in true Ayckbourn style explores both the tragic and ridiculous elements of human situations.

In this show, we discover more of the delightful Sylvie, as we see her mature and blossom into a confident young woman.  As she seeks assistance from the spiritless Mr Teasdale to improve her learning, he is charmed by her energy and vitality and casts her as their emergency Queen of the Iceni in the local pageant.  With Lionel in charge of building the stage, and Mrs Teasdale also assuming the lead role in the pageant, much hilarity ensues.  

Some well timed performances here, as both actors must stage an unseen fight between two of the characters they portray.  Ruth Gibson is wonderful as the sparkling Sylvie, who has been somewhat secondary in the two other productions to date, but takes centre stage here.  A fun and funny characterisation, especially during the garden scene in act one, when Lionel attempts to teach her to hold herself like a lady.  Gwynfor Jones is also excellent as both Lionel, the suitor, and Toby, the teacher.  These characters, along with Ruth Gibson's Celia, have featured heavily in the series thus far, and with defined and well executed direction the regular audience members can begin to anticipate the character's responses to the various comedic situations.  

As promised, seeing each of the productions from this linked series of plays does add another level of enjoyment.  Regular characters, who you get to know and understand more over time, is an unusual scenario in the theatre that can more often be found in television.  However, you can still pick up any of these productions independently and enjoy a very entertaining evening, thanks in no small part to the excellent pair of hard working actors, a splendid set and intelligent, well pitched direction. 

I must also mention that The Mercury's Front of House staff were particularly attentive and accommodating during this captioned performance, providing excellent facilities for those who struggle to hear the show.  The captioning screens are positioned discreetly enough to not distract those who do not require them, but also very clearly for those who do.  A well organised service, making this excellent local theatre accessible for those who may otherwise struggle to enjoy live entertainment.

08 May 2013


The Drowsy Chaperone
Palace Theatre, Southend
Wednesday 8th May 2013

LODS have taken a potentially risky approach with their summer offering this year, with the relatively unknown The Drowsy Chaperone.  A show within a show, we are welcomed by an unnamed man who remains on stage throughout, narrating us through his chosen musical as it plays on his record player in the background.  Through the magic of theatre we then see his imagination come to life, as bursting through his patio doors and his extra large fridge the entire cast of The Drowsy Chaperone perform his unseen favourite.

The set is ideal in its simplicity, depicting the man's apartment complete with fireplace, kitchen and armchair, with any additional items required by The Drowsy Chaperone wheeled on within the action.  The lighting design is more theatrical, matching closer to the style of the imagined musical, but also with a lovely effect through the patio doors.  The staging of the aviatrix scene works ideally, with a clever plane effect created smoothly within the scene.  The sound is nicely done too, with a difficult transition between record player effect into live band right at the opening handled with very slick timing. 

The show is a parody of the 1920s "hammy" vaudeville style, full of glamour and over-acting, and under the able direction of Helen Sharpe the cast seem to relish in the challenges of the genre.  With a long list of principals spread throughout the show, this is a great choice to give a leading opportunity to a larger than usual number of members.  Although there is not room to mention them all individually, I will choose some highlights from a hard-working and talented ensemble cast.  

Young starlet, and the bride in The Drowsy Chaperone Janet van de Graaff, is played by the glamorous Kathy Clarke whose pretty voice and dainty moves suit the character well, especially in the exhausting "Show Off" number.  David Shipman plays her leading man and groom Robert Martin with a constant cheesy grin, handling the skates and blindfold with ease.  He also does a particularly impressive job of the tap routine alongside talented dancer Matthew Ford, who plays frantic best man George.  Dotty dowager Mrs Tottendale is characterised to ditsy perfection by an excellent Dani de Gregorio, with her butler Underling performed comically straight by a composed Paul Ward.  The title character is played with aplomb by Samantha Gourley, who staggers about the stage with a drowsy elegance, and maintains a wonderful expression while being seduced.  Her seducer Aldolpho is characterised hilariously by Andrew Seal, tongue firmly in his cheek as he struts about the stage pouting and posing at every opportunity.  An exceptional young talent too in Lily-May Byfield, whose dancing stands out amongst a very good dance ensemble, and whose powerful singing voice makes her performance as Trix particularly memorable.

The performance of the night however can only go to the fabulous "Man in Chair", Peter Brown.  Peter played this part as though it had been written for him, winning the audience over immediately with his warm characterisation and engaging style.  On stage throughout, although rarely the focus, he maintained his character constantly and by the final scene, where the performers of his beloved musical welcomed him to the stage, he had melted our hearts.  A difficult part to judge, played excellently by a talented actor.

The very antithesis of accessible, with in-jokes galore, this is a musical designed directly for musical theatre aficionados, and it may well leave those who do not consider themselves connoisseurs of the art form somewhat bemused.  However, for those of us who recognise themselves in the character of "Man in Chair", it is a warm hug of familiarity and affection.  Well done to LODS for giving this excellent musical another outing.

07 May 2013


Singin' in the Rain
Chichester Festival Production
Palace Theatre, London
Tuesday 7th May 2013

A classic of musical theatre, this new production of the iconic Gene Kelly movie is drawing to a close at the Palace Theatre after a year of soaking front rows and entertaining audiences with old fashioned glitz and Hollywood style glamour.

With almost non-stop numbers and constant high octane energy, there is much to enjoy in this vintage dance show and some excellent performances make for a memorable evening.  Jennifer Ellison is superb as ditzy leading lady Lina Lamont, Louise Bowden is charming as talented Kathy Selden and Stephane Anelli is outstanding in the comedic role of Cosmo Brown.  As it should be however, it is Adam Cooper who steals the show as Hollywood superstar Don Lockwood, with his Singin' in the Rain dance routine worth the visit alone.

Perhaps too old fashioned now to attract the audiences it needed to last longer in the enormous home of the Palace, this was nevertheless an indisputably entertaining evening. 

06 May 2013


Peter and Alice
Michael Grandage Season
Noel Coward Theatre, London
Monday 6th May 2013

Michael Grandage's season of productions at the Noel Coward theatre continues, this time with a new play by John Logan, based on the real lives of two people whose childhoods were immortalised in literature.  One-act, just 90 minutes, and a deeply engrossing tale, this is a play to challenge and to spark debate about the relationships these real children had with their adult author friends.

None other than Dame Judi Dench plays Alice Liddell Hargreaves, who as a girl was the inspiration for her friend "Mr Dodge" to write a fantastical story.  Mr Dodge is better known to the world, of course, as Lewis Carroll and the fantastical story is the timeless children's classic Alice in Wonderland.  Her fresh faced co-star is Ben Wishaw plays Peter Llewellyn Davies, the youngest of a band of brothers who between them inspired their benefactor Mr Barrie to devise Neverland and the boy who never grew up, Peter Pan. 

As the abstract plot develops we discover more about the childhood of these damaged people, their names living on through the history of fiction despite their own lives being full of reality and tragedy.  There are many similarities in the two characters, both obsessed over by the writers of their immortal stories and both having grown up with the attached fame of being the inspiration and namesakes for such loved children's icons.  As we discover more details, told with echoes of their respective characters and authors flitting ghost-like in and out of the action, we begin to understand the impact that these stories have had on their lives, far more negatively for Peter than for Alice. 

Astonishing talent, performers either end of their careers, brought together in a mesmerising and haunting production.  

03 May 2013


The Full Monty
National Tour
Cliffs Pavilion, Southend
Friday 3rd May 2013
Screen to stage adaptations are eminently popular, both with audiences who seem to flock towards live productions with which they are already familiar, and with producers who hedge less risk due to the assumed ready-made appeal.  Both groups can be nothing but thrilled by Simon Beaufoy's new adaptation of his 1997 blockbuster about a group of Sheffield ex-steelworkers who try their hand at stripping to earn some ready cash.  The piece is extremely faithful to the original screenplay, with some clever omissions and slight changes to help the action move along smoothly in it's new medium. 
The play retains all of the highs and lows, humour and pathos, that make this British story speak so clearly to its audiences; and all of this iconic moments that made the film version go down in pop-movie history.  The set is exquisitely detailed, designed to retain the action inside the abandoned steelworks for much of the time, with simple in-set changes to switch to the working men's club, job centre and Conservative club. 
Some well pitched performances too, not letting the drunken "Girls Night Out" gangs of Southend's finest put them off their pace - they must be used to it by now after months on tour - although the noisy excitement put me off somewhat and denied us much of the dialogue in the opening scene.  Kenny Doughty's Gary was a particular highlight, an energetic lovable rogue, he convinced in the poignant moments with his son but also showed spot-on comic timing.  Craig Gavey as Lomper gave a hilarious characterisation and was equally heartbreaking at times - a shame the inevitable plot omissions from the film version did not develop the hinted at relationship we saw beginning to spark with Keiran O'Brien's Guy.  Simon Rouse brought his grumpily disinclined and hoitily Conservative Gerald into our hearts, as the character develops into the group with a gradual flowering.  It is Roger Morlidge however as the wonderfully human Dave and his fabulous wife played brilliantly by Rachel Lumberg who truly steal the audience's imaginations and hearts. 
This is a feel-good piece of popular theatre that will excite the gaggles of delighted ladies who will be baying for blood by the final climactic scene.  The play is so much more than that however, and without meaning to seem pretentious I hope that disruptive audiences simply expecting a strip show steer clear, or are more swiftly dealt with by Front of House, when it reaches London's Noel Coward Theatre in February.