Friday, 30 October 2015

Entertaining Angels, Greville Theatre Club, The Barn Theatre, Little Easton, Great Dunmow

Despite the best efforts of The Guardian to rubbish the first production of Richard Everett's play at Chichester, I was not the only audience member in tears on first night of this Greville show. Not because it was awful but because so many of us recognised in ourselves just what he was writing about where family relationships are concerned.
It opens in a lovely rural English vicarage garden where Diana Bradley's recently widowed Grace sits and ponders life without the presence of her beloved Bardolph, believably created by Michael Gray in battered straw hat, shirt and corduroy trousers. Believably created are the right words as by some miracle Grace is able to talk to a doppelganger  of the man she was married to for umpteen years and who was faithful to the last. Or so she thinks...
For Grace is also moaning about the unwanted presence of so many people around her - fussing, and the prospective loss of her beloved house and garden, since the clergy are like farm worker - they live in tied properties.
Among those included who irritate Grace intently, there is her long lost missionary sister Ruth, with director Jan Ford playing a blinder. She has turned up from Darkest Africa with some very unexpected news. For a strange and very weird moment I thought the writer had come up with a copy cat, middle class version of Dancing at Lughnasa.
Grace's daughter Jo (played by her real life daughter Laura Bradley) is gruffly told off for fussing around her. While to add extra joy to the occasion Carol Parradine's honest new Vicar Sarah has turned up for a recce and presses all the wrong buttons for the widow, including the fact of being a woman. 
The cat is most definitely amongst these pigeons as each one of them is carrying a secret, even including the saintly Bardolph.
You may well guess what the secret is but I'm not going to reveal it to you in case you have an opportunity  to see the play in the future.
Suffice it to say that Jan Ford has carried off with great elan the theatre pitfall that traps so many unwary, and inexperienced, directors - appearing in a play that you are directing. It is one of the Mount Everest's of dramatic productions. Carefully and thoughtfully she inspire her team of actors and technicians alike.
Supported by an experienced onstage team and an equally good backstage one the enjoyment starts with the details of the set. From the trellis fence creating a further garden beyond, a very believable greenhouse created without any glass, and across the front apron of the stage a stream with real waterside plants. The garden is also full of real flowers including black-eyed Susans, geraniums and tomatoes on their plants.
The stream's watery sound track rising at the end of scenes and falling back for the action is thanks to the art of Steve Bradley and Adrian Hoodless and Lynda Shelverton did duty on the props while Richard Pickford ran the lighting.
One of Richard Everett's talents which he shares with the director is honesty especially when asking Grace and Ruth to argue and fight like cat and dog when reliving their childhood antagonisms. These were another aspect of what our audience shared too. Just who is the victim and who the saint?
The Barn Theatre has been in existence since Tudor times. More recently it was converted by Edward VII's mistress Daisy, Countess of Warwick, to "amuse my growing family".
Long may this relationship between the Greville and The Barn endure if it means we can enjoy such entertainment.
Mary Redman
October 30 2015

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Someone Else's Pretty Toys, The Phoenix Theatre Company Chelmsford, Christchurch Hall, London Road, Chelmsford

Billed as a "Drama of Mystery and Suspense" this play by Sam Bate is set in the 1960s. It would appear to have been written back then because as a result of missing curtain up by a minute. I honestly felt I had wandered back into the glorious age of Women's Institute drama with all its innocence and naivety.
So either Mr Bate (I assume this Sam is a he) wrote this some decades ago or his memory is not necessarily as trustworthy as he might hope. Both dialogue and the plot are all too obvious and signalled well ahead of revelations. Plus the writer's time scales appeared at with the casting ages as in my memory it was my mother who had danced to the Black Bottom, not my grandmother as in the script.
There were some quarrels among the costumes too with the Policewoman dressed in a modern costume although the transistor radio and telephone looked of the right vintage and there was a gorgeous black dress for one character complete with correct net petticoat.
Unusually for Phoenix, for the first time they were fielding an all female cast of seven actresses while their husbands and boyfriends looked after the front of house and interval drinks, although the director Chris Wright is male.
One thing casts need to remember about Christchurch Hall is its enormous size from back to front and side to side so that voices get so easily lost. While there is a tendency for directors to underestimate how far upstage they are placing their acting areas. In this case placing of the sofa so far back meant that the cast voices were lost if they were underprojected. 
Sarah Wilson playing Mrs Appleby has a light voice and tended to drop her voice level when talking across the stage. Of course the so far upstage sofa position didn't help her so we  missed some vital clues. The transition from Writtle Cards tiny stage and hall to Christchurch made life difficult for her too.
Jo Fosker playing Nancy was a very strong, level-headed character and full of energy as the older daughter of Mrs Faire the village shopkeeper with a secret. As Judith the depressed teenage daughter Gemma Anthony alternated between the depths of despair and elation. Angie Gee played their mother well except that she appeared strangely unmoved when it came to recounting her husband's imprisonment and the shocking events leading to his incarceration.
As it turned out it wasn't teenage pregnancy that caused Judith to swing from one extreme to another. It was blackmail and drug dealing.
The set could usefully have been made smaller which would have helped with the dropped voices and the upstage left door needed some attention as it refused to stay shut. 
Finally the curtain call was too slow. This breaks the atmosphere that the cast have built up
over the length of the play. With this production I think it was just the wrong play to choose 
for this particular cast.
Mary Redman
July 18 2015.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Out Of Order, Hutton Players, Brentwood Theatre, Brentwood

This would not be an honest review if I didn't mention that I was absolutely dreading seeing again Ray Cooney's umpteenth crude farce, which takes every opportunity to mangle an unbelievable plot. Flaunts the most unsubtle of double entendres imaginable to man (or woman). Even the names of certain characters don't escape the Cooney "magic" touch.
Having experienced it once I really had no inclination to experience it yet again, but "critique oblige" so I took a deep breath, approaching it with hope in my heart.
It was thanks to June Fitzgerald's imaginative direction, excellent ensemble work by the cast, plus the teamwork involved in the spot-on timing of a recalcitrant window refusing to obey orders, that the audience was almost constantly laughing heartily. Even I had a lot of laughs generated by the cast, not the script.
The action opened in Suite 648 of the Westminster Hotel, London within striking distance of Big Ben and the Division Lobbies, where we enjoyed a preview scene of speeded-up mime display reminiscent of a Benny Hill chase as the cast dashed around setting the scene.
Then things really got going as William Wells's thoroughly guilty, married MP set about ordering champagne and oysters for his naughty secretary Jane Worthington played by Romy Brooks. Hardly was she through one of the many doors a good farce needs, than she had disrobed into a mindbogglingly revealing, see-through outfit. This didn't leave very much to the imagination. As one gentleman remarked afterwards he felt "quite refreshed" by this sight.
The sight, however, which discombobulated our "hero" Mr Willey most was that of Justin Cartledge's dead Body stuck halfway through the aforementioned recalcitrant window. Panicking, Willey sent for his Parliamentary Private Secretary in the shape of Gary Ball's naive George Pigden. He then was tasked with body disposal, placating David Lintin's dour hotel manager, while paying off the blackmailing Waiter superbly played by Richard Spong. Richard certainly made an ongoing impact with this role.
Liz Calnan also made the most of her stereotypical non-English speaking, immigrant Maid role by constantly interrupting with simple pleasing smile, offering to make the beds.
Yet more complications followed as circumstances conspired to threaten Willey with public exposure of his marital infidelity. First the Body regained consciousness; or what passed for it, following probable Class A or alcohol intake,as he struggled to remain awake, giving Justin plenty of opportunities for hilarious physical comedy; then Ben Martins as Jane Worthington's muscular and outraged husband turned up all too keen for vengeance; followed by Lindsey Crutchett's nice Mrs Willey who just wanted to surprise her husband, whose excuse for not going home was a late Parliamentary Division and finally Susie Faulkner as a nurse. Just don't ask!
The pace got faster and more furious in this BOGOFF production, in which we had not simply one naked actor but two, both of whom very discreetly yet cheekily exited dropping towels behind them.
 One of the secrets of playing great farce (regardless of the quality of the script) is to believe utterly in what you are doing and the more serious you are about it, the funnier it becomes for the audience.
Director June Fitzgerald asked for and was blessed with this prized quality and a great ensemble spirit from her cast. This included the highly professional manner in which William Wells, blaming anything and everything but himself for his self-imposed woes, while he and Gary Ball's hopeful yet hopeless PPS  worked so easily together batting the lines back and forth at speed. A pleasure to watch. 
This approach cascaded down to Romy Brooks' secretary flaunting her body; the staggering about Body played by Justin Cartledge causing great hilarity; and so forth and so on - impeccable team work. Pace and energy just got faster and faster as the show went on.
Despite the wobbling of some of the flats and the choice of dreadful matt brown paint on doors, plus the lack of a backcloth showing the Houses of Parliament, this production was
excellent entertainment.
Guy Lee ran lighting and sound, Paul Sparrowham designed the programme but there was no mention of a stage manager. When I asked why this was so it turned out that the tech side had been affected by illness so all the cast had taken responsibility for the perfect timing of the window's performance and all other stage management needs.
By the way, if you are looking for another Ray Cooney farce try It Runs In The Family. Set in a teaching hospital a consultant finds out more than he hoped for about unexpected research results.
Mary Redman
July 3 2015 with apologies for the the delay

Monday, 22 June 2015

The Importance of Being Earnest, Guildonian Players, The Little Theatre, Harold Wood, Hornchurch

Oscar Wilde's play which he subtitled "A trivial comedy for serious people" is a gem which can be polished intricately to a lapidary marvel as far as production values go, or it can equally be simply set as a solitaire to be admired as a piece of work perfectly capable of shining in its own right.
This observation comes from many years of seeing different directorial approaches and, rather like Shakespeare, Wilde is capable of withstanding most approaches. I've seen it done with ornate furnishings and top notch set and costumes, or as an utterly simple stripped-to-the-bone Beardsley-style production. Both worked.
Here in the pleasant Saturday afternoon matinee surroundings of the Little Theatre, even if the weather outside wasn't cooperating, we could relax and enjoy director Chrissie O'Connor's middle ground production. 
Middle ground in that although there were no unnecessary flourishes in set or costuming, her production was full of extremely well thought out details which were a constant delight throughout the play.
Starting with the joy of Mr Tom Hind at the pianoforte entertaining us before curtain up, during the interval and at the end of the show with his Music Hall songs and brass band tunes such as Daisy, Daisy and other delights like I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside, that we all hummed along to with glee. While the play itself was introduced to the tune of The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo. 
Iain Attiwell was a perfectly suave, skilled and excellent Manservant Lane, (even if his hair would have benefited from a tidy up trim) his smooth movements a treat as he served his master the somewhat flighty Algernon Moncrieff. Tim Tilbury created Algy as a young man utterly devoted to a life of personal pleasure with no real thought for tomorrow. Matt Jones as his friend John Worthing was totally at ease and elegant in his formal morning dress, while using his expressive voice and face to advantage.
Margaret Corry's presence as Lady Bracknell preceded her on to the stage. A vision in lavender and lace she took naturally to being the object of everyone's attention as she laid down the Bracknell law on every subject of conversation that came up, either from her own or other people's opinions. The hall, however, is large so her voice was at times fighting a losing battle with it.
As the Honourable Gwendolen Fairfax Charlotte Jones was a smart young woman determined not to do what her mother ordered but, as has been observed elsewhere, was probably destined to turn into her formidable parent at a later stage. Louise McMorrin's  delightfully bright, sweet young lady Cecily, entirely driven by "romantic" vibrations from books and her own notions, was a charmer.
In the engine house of this comedy Catherine Attiwell's sturdy Miss Prism not only minded her own ps and qs, but also those of her charge, and fluttered nicely at Mark Godfrey's extremely tall Canon Chasuble. His splendid emphasis on literary allusions alternately rising to a peak and then falling to a whisper in true oratorical style.
Then, of course, there was Merrieman, the butler at the country residence, in the shape of Vernon Keeble-Watson tottering on stage as though he might not make it; appearing in the last stages of decrepitude and increasing irritability.
Delightful surprises included the appearance of John Worthing's perfect, surprise entrance at the end of Act 2 in the full panoply of heaviest Victorian mourning including black bordered handkerchief, to the piano accompaniment of Where Shall We Be In A Hundred Years From Now? Which brought the house down.
Yet more delight from something I always love - choreographed scene changing. Instead of going to black, taking ages to change scenery and actors having to work up again to previous levels of tensions, lights were dimmed but the stage management crew of Ed Shearer's team of Peter Farenden and Martin Tilbury were choreographed and costumed as house movers of the period who moved in, took off unneeded items and changed town to country so smoothly to piano accompaniment. Every time this earned them enthusiastic, well deserved applause.
In Chrissie's pretty traditional production set in 1910, scenery and set dressing were relatively simple, but had some good touches such as the Beardsley-style screen, the Gustave Klimt-style painting, and other indications of decadence including the bust wearing a black fedora with a red ribbon band, set at a rakish angle.
Costuming was good, influenced by The Dressing Up Box, although some corseting wouldn't have gone amiss. Even though I know it adds to the cost but period costumes don't hang or look right without this. John Gadd's wigs were excellent.
All in all, yet another triumph for the Guildonians and for Chrissie O'Connor in this enjoyable production. I so enjoyed the attention to detail, even the tiniest things.
Mary Redman
June 22 2015   

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Dance Fusion, Havering College of Further and Higher Education, The Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch

This "Celebration Dance Showcase of New Talent and Student Achievement" was an absolute cracker. If we could only bottle the youthful high energy shown on stage there might be a cure for what ails those of us of a rather more than somewhat older generation.
About 70 performers aged from 16 to 23 were backed by their fellow students acting as stage managers. And what stage managers!  A grand piano carefully yet rapidly moved on or off stage without fuss every time needed was totally impressive.
Performers they ranged from A-Level equivalent (Level 3) to second year degree students and even when an experienced eye could tell that they were relative newcomers to various techniques, they still showed poise, dedication and confidence.
For instance, it was an amazing experience to witness a young soprano soloist coping with the demanding high notes of the classical opera aria Visse d'arte, alone on the huge stage, apart from the expert accompaniment of pianist Simon Gray. Equally matched by the demands on the en pointe ballet dancers.
The show opened with Burn The Floor, followed by Mash Up, then a complete change of technique for the classical ballet of Sleeping Beauty.
Among the truly outstanding performances were contemporary dance The Fallen choreographed by Melissa Weir, danced by her and Lee Howard; Elaine O'Connor's ingeniously reworked Thriller with the Year 2 Musical Theatre students; also by Elaine the sheer romanticism of Isn't It A Lovely Day by HNC Dance and Musical Theatre students; and the exuberance of the 1950s Big Band American Cabin Pressure from Level 4&5 Tap choreographed by Sarah Woodroof that ended Act 1.
We came back to the fun of three female dancers en pointe and one male dancer in a 1930s style Tuxedo Junction referencing Gene Kelly's muscular style in a melange of bebop and classical. Arabian Nights was a whirl of colour harking back to this year's drama presentation of Scheherazade and her stories of  A Thousand Nights and One Night. Yet more O'Connor choreography from Year 2 Musical Theatre's version of Mack and Mabel's celebratory anthem If Movies Were Movies which contrasted with Tina Turner's meaty Nutbush from the Level 3 Jazz dancers.
Brass bravado arrived courtesy of the invigorating Sousa march Stars and Stripes by Level 4 Ballet performers followed by Broadway Jazz from Level 4 Jazz.
Particularly unusual and of great interest was HNC Dance with Sandra Broxton's choreography performing to contemporary composer Gavin Bryars' Out Of Zaleski's Gazebo. This piece makes what is normally considered rare use of the Tuba's sonorous tones. Also totally impressive was the grown up composure and control of her warm voice by the performer of Ella Fitzgerald's Every Time We Say Goodbye accompanied by Simon Gray. This was a truly mature performance.
Having missed a couple of year's productions what really struck me were the colours, glamour, glitter and sheer numbers of costumes on stage this year, often in matching sets for large teams. Knowing as I do the struggle that staff went through to achieve impressive results on less than a shoestring in the past, this sock-it-to-them costuming was wonderful to see. Especially in the light of ongoing financial cuts.
More power to both students and staff elbows in the future!
Mary Redman
June 16 2015

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theatre at Baddow,Parish Hall, Great Baddow, Chelmsford

Shakespeare is justifiably considered to be a genius towering over all other playwrights: his work being timeless and unlikely to suffer serious damage by being mucked about by others. There is, however, something else other than the word "unlikely" to be considered. Is it being done simply for the sake of it? Or because you can't cast it otherwise? If you are going to dabble with his words and plots be sure the changes all fit seamlessly, are justifiable, and that you know precisely what you are doing.
If you can't cast it - don't do it; and that applies to any play. 
The premise behind TAB's production was to make this play accessible to modern young people using gender-blind casting to accentuate just how much modern society is changing as, and how, we live. in so doing it raised some intellectual and emotional questions in my response to this experiment.
If, however, the first change is your motive you risk cutting your youthful audience off from such serendipitious delights as a bellows mender. How then are they to relish their history and Shakespeare's gift for precise language: "Oh Bottom! Thou art translated!"
This is not just pedantry. I have witnessed at first hand how a fractious, over-excited teenage audience at the Barbican was silenced immediately into rapt attention as the curtain went up on the famous production with Alex Jennings as Oberon. With it's gaudy purple and pink upturned umbrella bower and the large electric lightbulbs scattered through the heavens, it was a joy to behold. 
If the second change is your motive then why not carry it out in its entirety? That is by swapping: Oberon and Titania; Theseus and Hippolyta; even Egeus?  Plus doubling of the chief Fairies and leading mortals would have eased your casting problems. Even Brook's acrobatic Dream and Bogdanov's controversial Romeo and Juliet with motorbike gang worked because care had been taken. Closer to home at KEGS Jon Vaughan's open air Dream production with Puck changed into a bat, worked wonderfully because sunset time coincided as the bat descended the buildings upside down.
It will also add to your challenges if you try to both direct and act at the same time. In this production Director Jim Crozier chose modern dress which led to some moments of confusion at the start as his Theseus and Fabienne Hanley's Hippolyta appeared in very dressed down and nonaristocratic fashion.The Lovers in their relatively casual Primark-style clothes also looked unlike the children of extreme privilege. Peter Nerreter's Egeus in his smart tailored suit was spot on.
Nicholas Milenkovic was an elegant Philostrate, observing events. Ruth Carden, Andrea Dalton, Mabel Odonkor and Nikita Eve were the lovers Hermia, Demetria, Lysanda and Helena quarreling in lively fashion until the ultimate solution of their difficulties. Barry Taylor was a noisy Oberon constantly moving in circles, who needing to find his inner stillness. Natalie Patuzzo's Puck was eager and appeared to almost worship her master, yet somehow missed the magic of the role. Diane Johnston's Titania was a beautiful, flighty, naughty creature, utterly enamoured of Bob Ryall's sturdy portrait of the leading actor of the Rude Mechanicals complete with a fine donkey's head.
The "amateur dramatic team" consisted of Roger Saddington's Peter Quince directing the play within a play, plus Liam Mayle's highly effective Flute who enjoyed himself enormously as the melodramatic heroine Thisbe; David Saddington's Starveling whose reactive facial expressions were worth their weight in gold; Malcolm Johnston's Snout; and Wylie Queenan's Snug. 
The Fairies were a marvel - very different and entertaining. From Donna Stevenson, Angie Budd's Peaseblossom, Sarah Dodsworth's Cobweb, Sheila Talbot's Moth to Leonie Parker's Mustardseed they were a surly, mutinous tribe. So much so that you never quite knew what they would get up to next. 
Going back to the question of costume brings us to the final scene. This was a magnificent spectacle with gorgeous evening frocks and suits which easily and appropriately suited  a ducal level of society. Apart from one short elasticated dress threatening to cause a wardrobe malfunction of its own.
Scenery was mostly very basic but when the interior of the forest was revealed with its skeletal painted trees plus Titania's netting bower it came together and worked really well thanks to David Saddington's team. As did the final scene.
More attention to verse speaking and care for Shakespeare's words would have been useful in the area of audibility. While the usual TAB problem of shoes clattering across the wooden floor raised its ugly head again.
It was good to hear original music created by Owain Jones, but the master stroke came with the joke of setting the final Bergamasque to Up All Night.
Definitely interesting to experience this experimental production, but in the final analysis for me it was like the infamous parson's egg - good in parts.
Mary Redman
June 8 2015

Friday, 29 May 2015

Hot Stuff, Cut to the Chase, Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch

At the Queen's it was back to the 1970s: the era that high fashion forgot. As a result, I can't get through this review without mentioning the never-to-be-forgotten horrors for those of us who lived through the reality of flared trousers (male and female); tank tops (ditto); curly permanent waves (yet more ditto); ABBA; and of course - Disco music with its pounding beat rhythms and catchy tunes.
This cornucopia of familiar music and dance couldn't possibly function without recalling the classic music of the era: Saturday Night Fever; YMCA; Le Freak; Devil Gate Drive; Space Oddity; Nobody Does It Better; Bad; and I Will Survive to name only a tiny few. Artists remembered with delight include: Tina Turner in Nutbush; the amazingly original Queen; Michael Jackson; John Lennon and Imagine; Mick Jagger and his Honky Tonk Woman; and even our honorary Essex Girl Suzy Quatro. 
Costumes, created by the inhouse team gave them and Assistant Costume Designer Lydia Hardiman opportunities galore to go crazy with sparkle and bling at every change of outfit. You really have to admire just how they created so many costumes from the very economical use of expensive fabrics. As someone (possibly from the Dolly Parton school of dress design) once said "It costs a fortune to look this cheap!".
Many of the younger cast members are newbies to this theatre and to the acting profession. Yet despite problems that let to cancellation of one preview night, what we saw was a team which worked extremely hard in this technically demanding show.
Notable for their outstanding contributions were Richard O'Brien-style Narrator Cameron Jones who also revealed his devilish side; Matthew Quinn's humble local boy who longs to be a star to the dismay of his Tesco checkout girlfriend Julie, excellently played by Sarah Mahony who also had another arrow to her bow. This came especially true when her moving version of Midnight Train To Georgia earned her well-deserved audience acclaim.   The utterly uninhibited Hollie Cassar is the very naughty Miss Hot Stuff.
Presiding over the whole team is the so-called Lady Felicia as Lucy Fur whose acting pedigree is not a hundred miles away from that of Queen's regular Fred Broom. Her performance ticked off every drag queen cliche in the book including the virtually obligatory nun in spangles. It takes some chutzpah to come on stage in all the OTT costumes complete with outrageous wigs and make-up.
The simple all in red and black set with its horseshoe staircase was a very effective backdrop and Chris Howcroft must have upped the electricity bill with his staggering myriad light sources while Dan Crews sound design left our ears ringing after the show. Valentina Dolci not only appeared as an ensemble member but created the almost nonstop, high energy choreography. Musical Director of the long list of numbers was the highly musically-experienced Julian Littman.
Matt Devitt directed the show which ended Act 1 with a mini rock concert in its own right. So much so that I really wondered how they were going to follow that. Well with Tina Turner and David Bowie of course. Even Punk and safety pins appeared with giant photos of HM The Queen accompanied by Johnny Rotten's anthem and Mrs Thatcher watching hawklike as Money, That's What I Want filled the theatre.
Unfortunately, despite a standing ovation there was no getting over the fact that the show overran by at least half an hour, so hopefully Matt has been out with the hedgecutters since press night!  
Meanwhile the Cut to the Chase Company was honoured with a press night visit from its founder Bob Carlton. A happy return by an innately talented, genial person who was welcomed by scores of theatregoers.
Mary Redman
May 29 2015