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30 October 2013


Love Story
Language Laid Bare Productions
The Jack Studio Theatre, Brockley, London
Wednesday 30th October 2013

Erich Segal's original 1970 film version of Love Story is considered one of the most romantic of all time, and with his bestselling novel released alongside and the success of the instantly recognisable song from the film, this tragic tale is a wide-reaching classic.  Stephen Clark and Howard Goodall's musical adaptation opened as part of the 2010 Chichester Festival season to critical acclaim and was succeeded by a 10 week West End run.

Language Laid Bare have revived this one act musical in a stripped back production at the modest space of The Jack Studio Theatre, directed by Joseph C Walsh.  The small space reflects the beautiful and intense intimacy of the story and the unapologetically simple staging compliments the clarity of the plot.  Some well thought out design accomplishes the potentially problematic integration of a grand piano into the set without taking over the space, breaking up into multiple tables to wheel independently around the stage.  This also gives mobility to the piano itself, with actor-musicians Ian Southgate and Jennifer Lucy Cook handling their roles as interchangeable Musical Directors and ensemble cast members with constant smoothness. 

The role of Oliver Barrett IV is performed with sincerity by Jonny Muir.  His accomplished singing voice shines and he convinces as the arrogant law student.  Although he could go further emotionally towards the tragic climax of the play, his more restrained style suggests a controlled truth and avoids any unnecessary additional sentimentality in an already tear-jerking plot.  This is an almost two handed piece and the central role of Oliver's wife Jenny is given an exemplary interpretation by Caroline Keating.  Her assured performance is entirely captivating, impressing musically as both a pianist and singer as well as engaging dramatically in a believable portrayal of the fiery Radcliffe student.  

Emotionally poignant without feeling cheesy and with utterly charming music throughout this show is a treat for musical theatre fans.  Language Laid Bare's production and The Jack Studio Theatre align to create a delicate gem worth venturing out of the West End to find.  

26 October 2013


The Opinion Makers
Made in Colchester
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
Saturday 26th October 2013

2013 has been an excellent year for the Made in Colchester team with a string of successes that have made huge strides to put the Mercury on the map as a top quality producing house - the Intimate Exchanges series, The History Boys, The Butterfly Lion and most notably the wonderful The Hired Man.  Despite a pre-show announcement that one cast member was unable to perform due to injury, on paper The Opinion Makers ticks all of the boxes to continue this accomplished series; directed by the Mercury's own Daniel Buckroyd and starring a cast of recognisable West End and comedy talents.  

Market Research in the 1960s is not the most obvious topic for a new musical, following as we do the plights of 'Fernsby Market Research' as they take on a re-branding research project for Dr Campbell's Lotion.  FMR's lazy staff fabricate their piles of questionnaire responses and simply tell their inept boss and crazed clients the result that they wish to hear.  

Justin Edwards takes on the bumbling company owner, warming into the role after a shaky start.  His reactions during the metaphor number were particularly well done making the most of the unlikely scenario.  The Great British Bake Off's Mel Giedroyc plays his fawning long-term employee with a pretty singing voice and a sincere characterisation in a funny and hard-working performance. Proven musical theatre stars Daniel Boys and Julie Atherton sing with unsurprising style and finesse, with Atherton's lullaby one of the highlights, although neither are given numbers to make true use of their talents.  

This is true of the writing throughout, with the show never living up to it's "hilarious" billing despite a hard working and talented cast.  The plot is thin to the point of tedium with the hints of surrealism never going far enough to add anything but confusion.  The musical numbers, despite being played expertly by a consummate band and sung mostly successfully by the various singing talents on stage, rarely remain in the memory and often manage to delay rather than tell the story.

There is so much potential in this group of talents who have been brought together both on and off the stage, but unfortunately it is not potential we see fulfilled in this new musical.  

12 October 2013


The Good Person of Sichuan
Made in Colchester
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
Saturday 12th October 2013
Playing in the Mercury's main house, Brecht's intriguing interpretation of what it takes to be a good person amid a corrupt society shouts it's epic theatre style over a much smaller, yet somewhat harder hitting piece, in the Mercury Studio.  Both plays are inspired by the same events, leading to an interesting and unique opportunity to compare and contrast such differing styles of text, direction and performance.
Nikolai Foster;s production brings The Good Person of Sichuan bang up to date, while also maintaining all of the epic theatre influences and intentions so key to Brecht's work.  Tanya Foster is compelling as the title character, embracing the detached nature required of her characterisation, yet also maintaining an absorbing natural stage presence throughout.  There are some strong performances too from the supporting cast, notably Jake Davies as Wang the water seller and Gary Shelford as the pilot love interest.
The intention of Brecht's work is to make the audience think about the central topic address in the play, and to strip back much of the traditional theatricality to constantly bring the audience back to the reality of the play text.  Fourth walls are broken down and actors often play multiple roles to remove any naturalism that may detract from the message being portrayed.  Foster's direction achieves these aims admirably, getting the audience contemplating their place in society and to what extent their lives can be considered "good".

09 October 2013


London Classic Theatre
Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
Wednesday 9th October 2013
Following a history of successes, including excellent productions of The Importance of Being Earnest and Equus, London Classic Theatre return to Chelmsford again this season with their taut production of Harold Pinter's Betrayal.  Directed by Michael Cabot, the slick, elegant performances are played out among Bek Palmer's stylised set.  Fragments of once inhabited locations that the characters, ghost-like, slip through and around, their lives reflected in the decrepit, broken down remnants of the walls.
Pinter's use of reverse chronology slowly reveals details of Emma's affair with Jerry, her husband Robert's best friend, with the audience first witnessing the pair two years after the break up of their liaison.  As we work backwards through the seventies we see changes in not only the fashions worn by the initially gloomy characters - brightening gradually from dreary browns and greys through to a bright red number on the almost decade younger Emma at the initiation of the relationship - but also in the fluidity of the text as Pinter's naturalistic half-finished sentences and disjointed conversation points make way for more fluid and relaxed excitement.  The timeframe allows the audience to have a constant sense of the future, and through the revelation of the past to piece together events and revel in the details - hearing the same half-remembered anecdotes repeated with varying levels of accuracy and revealing the depth of the relationships between all of the involved parties. 
Rebecca Pownall achieves a wonderful depth of character as Emma, portraying the uptight worries of the woman we see at the play's opening covered with a false mask of smiles, gradually shedding years and cares as we witness a youthful, energetic Emma in the honeymoon period of her illicit relationship.  The scene in Venice is particularly revealing, with Emma's stony faced reaction to Robert's knowledge of her affair - affectingly performed by Pete Collis - disclosing the emotional disconnection from her husband.  This is not a detachment shared by partner Jerry, whose regular references to his wife and family prove that despite his betrayal he is loyal to them at his heart.  A softer, needier character than Emma, he is given an intelligent portrayal by Steven Clarke.
Produced to the high quality for which London Classic Theatre are now known, this is a fast paced, revealing and thought-provoking production of an entertaining Pinter, which retains an exciting dramatic tension throughout.

07 October 2013


Man to Man
Made in Colchester
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
Monday 7th October 2013

The latest venture from the Made in Colchester stable this week with a double bill of productions in both the main house and the Mercury Studio.  With both pieces taking inspiration from the same remarkable tale, this inextricable link adds an exciting, dramatic layer to the Mercury's choice to stage them simultaneously.
Man to Man follows the life of German woman Ella Gericke, who upon her husband Max' death decides her only option for survival is to assume his identity and live her life as a man.  With direct and indirect comment on what it is to be a woman in a 1930s German society dominated by men, her thought-provoking story is made all the more poignant when Hitler rises to power and the reality of war looms.  Surviving against the odds through years of challenges that Ella could never have considered in the moment it took to make this utterly life changing decision, we follow this confused life for many years of conflict.  The final climax at the joy and release of the fall of the Berlin Wall is juxtaposed with the turmoil of discovering the destruction of the grave of her husband, harrowingly marked with her own name. 
This one woman play is performed by Tricia Kelly in what can only be described as a tour de force.  Her depth of understanding of this involved text is evident, as is the strong hand of director Tilly Branson.  Simply but intricately staged, changes of time and place are shown beautifully through an excellently designed lighting plot that truly makes the most of the flexible studio space.
A deeply felt, dramatically theatrical event that the Made in Colchester team are heightening through direct alignment with Brecht's The Good Person of Sichuan in the main house, which I will be visiting later this week.

04 October 2013


Little Theatre Company
Palace Theatre, Southend
Friday 4th October 2013

Hans Christian Anderson's The Ugly Duckling is a timeless fairytale told to generations of children all over the world, and in 2000 this Stiles & Drewe musical adaptation fought off The Lion King and Mamma Mia! to win the year's Olivier Award for Best New Musical. History has prevailed over the Olivier judges decision perhaps, with Disney and Abba still packing out West End houses 13 years on, but through its popularity with amateur societies Honk! continues to reach audiences.

The show follows the story of Ugly, the last-hatched son to Drake and his wife Ida. With its laudable moral of tolerance - "different is just... well... different" - repeated continuously throughout, the show is primarily aimed at youngsters although there is a speckle of humour for their parents to appreciate too.

LTC's slick production graces the Palace this week, directed with unequivocal skill by Tim Cater.  With every scene intelligently thought out, intricately framed and polished to a shine the guiding hand of this accomplished director can be felt throughout the staging. His attention to detail in drawing out rounded and developed characterisations - not only from the principals and named supporting roles but also from every individual chorus member - is absolutely key to the success of this impressive production.   Ali Graves' choreography is also well pitched to be consistently achievable by the cast while ensuring a high level of energy and variety in every number.

The set is designed to maximise performing space while also suggesting the edges of the farmyard and lake, with changes in location and the regular split scenes all achieved through the excellent lighting design.  For this show the costumes play a particularly important role in the completion of each character, and the choices made by the team at LTC are exemplary.  The various birds and other animals are suggested through careful choices of colour and material and the overall clarity of design achieved by the Creative Director with the wardrobe team is a constant delight - outstanding.

Ugly is played with innocence and sincerity by Darren Harper whose bold, smooth vocals are consistently impressive.  Darren's wonderfully expressive face and endearingly awkward posture are entirely fitting for the character and combine for an absorbing, polished performance.  Stephanie Wilson's mother duck Ida is beautifully sung and tenderly acted, playing the fussy parent with warmth and just enough sentimentality.  The Cat is an absolute peach of a character role, and Simon Bristoe seems to truly relish playing the villain of the piece.  A tricky comic number in "Play with your Food" he must be careful not to compromise the obvious quality of his voice by throwing away the lyrics, but his lithe physicality suggests a necessary feline quality and his excellent characterisation is wonderfully entertaining. 

One of the many performance highlights of this superb show must go to the fabulous quartet of duckling siblings played by Laura Harper, Gemma Carracher, Laurelle Gallimore and Jamie Redgate.  Each of these accomplished performers has entirely understood the individuality of their character and they work ideally together as an attention-grabbing chorus.  One of the joys of this musical for amateur societies is the array of smaller character parts that can be shared among the group.  Shining from among the many examples of LTC talent that can be found throughout the supporting cast is an exquisite cameo from Creative Director Bradley Green.  Squeezing every ounce of humour from his scene as Bullfrog, his comic timing is exemplary - a skill that will need to be further developed in some of his fellow members ready for the society's next venture into the riotous world of Avenue Q. 

The staging of the curtain call and final number sum up this feel-good production ideally - the cast enthusiactically portray that they are having a fantastic time, and there is no better way to leave your audience feeling just the same.  An accomplished production in every sense, both on and off stage - I look forward to seeing this talented society rise to the inevitable challenges of working with unruly puppets in their next exciting production in April.

02 October 2013


The Commitments
World Premiere
Palace Theatre, London
Wednesday 2nd October 2013

Roddy Doyle's original self-published novel of the late 1980s became a cult hit, telling the down to earth story of a group of unemployed Irish youths filling their time in the Dublin streets by creating a band.  The life-affirming tale of Jimmy Rabbitte and his ragtag group of amateur musicians captured the imagination of a society who recognised the characters and their plight all too well.  The success of the novel gave rise to a hit film in 1991 and is now being revisited as a brand new musical written by Doyle himself.

The opening flies by understandably swiftly, opening as it does without the band assembled, and after a hasty couple of scenes as the group gather the party can really get started.  Party being the operative word - this show is like on big Irish craic all the way through, hugely fun and unarguably feel-good.

This is truly an ensemble show and the members of the band work excellently together with relationships shining through.  They generate a camaraderie that is entirely infectious and reaches out to include the whole audience as part of the gang.  There is however an absolute standout individual performance from the spine-tingling Killian Donnelly as lead singer Deco.  The unpredictable ego of the group, his performance is at times hilarious, charming and touching in equal measure and his voice is total rock perfection.

A funny, entertaining, life-affirming show that leaves your toe-tapping and a smile on your face - what more can be asked for…

See below for an interview with Killian Donnelly and Denis Grindel by ...