Judi Herman Interviews…

Judi Herman is a freelance writer, broadcaster and producer, working mainly for BBC Radio, local, national and international. She specialises in making radio features on arts and entertainment, religion, education, travel and human-interest stories. Among programmes to which she contributes regularly are Radio Four’s flagship magazine programme Woman’s Hour and the World Service Heart and Soul Series. She also writes theatre reviews for the influential UK theatre website Whatsonstage.com and is a guest performing arts lecturer at Middlesex University. Judi has written several stage shows, including How the West End Was Won, a show celebrating Jewish life in the West End of London; and Stones of Kolin, a play with music, charting six hundred years of Jewish life in a small Czech town, performed in both London and Kolin in the Czech Republic. She’s also worked in Public Relations, including theatre PR, so she reckons she knows the theatre business from more sides than most! Judi lives near London with Steve, her husband of thirty seven years. They have a married son and a daughter and recently a first granddaughter – and the family is completed by a Bedlington Terrier called Bertie!

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Mermaid by Polly Teale, Shared Experience Theatre Company  Watford Palace Theatre to 16 May, Oxford Playhouse 19-23 May

Judi Herman is enchanted by a hauntingly beautiful retelling of The Little Mermaid

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Writer/Director Polly Teale and her company plunge into hidden depths of Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid that would come as a shock to Disney. This gorgeous haunting production shifts like the sea itself through themes of growing up, of taking tottering steps towards self-knowledge and first love, taking in the perils of peer pressure, especially in the age of social media, of celebrity and consumerism – and all this against a backdrop of war and terrorism too.

Shared Experience weaves a stunning tapestry of sound and stage pictures, thanks to a tight company of performers working in close harmony with Teale and her creative team, designer Tom Piper (responsible with ceramic artist Paul Cummins for the unforgettable installation of poppies at the Tower of London), lighting designer Oliver Fenwick, Composer/Sound Designer Jon Nicholls and Choreographer and Movement Director Liz Rankin.

The mysterious shifting blues of the ocean suffuse the stage and below the living space of the mortals in the story, which proves as precarious as a sea-side jetty, the graceful mermaids frolic and sing their enchanting song. Their story is woven by Blue (appealing Natalie Gavin), the aptly-named teenager who finds solace in reading when she doesn’t get invited to a part by her fair-weather mates, just because her recently-redundant Dad can’t afford the right designer trainers.

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The Little Mermaid herself is the wonderfully expressive and dainty Sarah Twomey, who along with her equally attractive sister mermaids ( Miranda Mac Letton, Amaka Okafor and Ritu Arys) seems to float in unseen water. These girls don’t need tail costumes – you think you can see their tails twisting and turning as they weave wonderful patterns together beneath that jetty. And their singing is truly as beguiling as the legendary sirens’ song, thanks to the magical music Jon Nicholls has composed for them (augmented by a chorus of local teenage girls, who get to join in workshops on the themes of the play).

There is of course a handsome prince (convincingly troubled Finn Hanlon), enchanted by the mermaids’ song and almost lost in a storm at sea on his way back from playing his part in a war against terrorism, until Blue and her finny alter ego come to the rescue. And so he falls for his translucently beautiful Little Mermaid, now as mortal and land-locked as he. She has of course paid a terrible price to the Sea Witch who grants her wish to be mortal. As readers of Hans Christian Anderson will know, she has literally lost her tongue and every step she takes with her new-found legs is like walking on knives. Her tentative waltz, supported in the arms of her prince, is heart-breakingly beautiful.

Teale gives her plight a great contemporary twist as she totters on impossibly high heels in the glare of the media spotlight once the Queen eagerly takes her on as desirable fiancée for her son. She becomes the subject of intense speculation – when will the marriage date be fixed and why does she never speak (could she even be anorexic?)? In a programme note Teale draws a clever parallel with Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, who is much photographed but little heard.

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There is tremendous support from Polly Frame, morphing effortlessly from Blue’s mother to the aptly name mermaids ‘grandmer’ and regal, pushy Queen; and from Steve North as her hen-pecked King and various other adult figures. The girls too get to play other roles – out-of-control teenagers, the hungry press pack – and the sinister Sea Witch with her writhing tentacles.

So this is a deeply satisfying show on every level, which will indeed continue to haunt me.

www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk Box Office 01923 225671

www.oxfordplayhouse.com Box Office 01865 305305

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Stop Press! Sleeping Beauty wakes in 1977 as her Prince shows a real flair for invention (and real disco flares too!)!

SLEEPING BEAUTYWatford Palace Panto 2014Credit : Sheila Burnett

You have to hand it to Andrew Pollard, writer of this year’s hugely attractive and crowd-pleasing panto at Watford Palace Theatre. He’s as inventive as his hero Prince Alexander (Obioma Ugoala – a bit of a nosh!), who has no problem keeping up with his beloved Princess Rose (pretty and petite Jill McAusland) – he simply sets the dial of his time machine 100 years in the future and turns up just in time to wakes her with a kiss – and entrance her with his florescent yellow loon pants and disco moves – eat your heart out John Travolta! The glorious 1977 set (courtesy of designer Cleo Pettitt) does look a bit like the inside of the Tardis – and the lovely kung-fu kicking Rose would be quite feisty enough to play the Doctor’s assistant if she wasn’t a royal Princess! Terence Frisch gives us another great Dame – Donna Kebab the cook in a succession of astonishing frocks. Sheena Patel’s good Fairy Fashionista and Erica Guyatt’s bad (misunderstood?) Fairy Arachnia look stunning and give good comedy!

SLEEPING BEAUTYWatford Palace Panto 2014Credit : Sheila Burnett

Well-meaning single parent King Calico (Walter van Dyk) and Darnit the cute dog (Oliver Longstaff) make up this small cast of just seven, who more than fill the stage with their great voices and plenty of fun and action. Many of them are returning to Watford and it shows in their lovely stage relationships – with each other and the enthusiastic young audience. But don’t take my word for it – listen to two young local critics, Freddie and Lily  right here!

 

Sleeping Beauty continues at Watford Palace Theatre until 27th December

Box Office:01923 225671 or online: www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk

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Peter Pan flies into Milton Keynes – here’s what Judi Herman – and two discerning young critics – make of this year’s spectacular Christmas Show

Peter Pan at Milton Keynes Theatre - Christmas 2014

It’s big, brash and often beautiful – check out the ravishing bright co-ordinating colours of the set and costumes!  In the case of  Francesca Mills’ delicious Tinker Bell small is beautiful. She and David Bedella’s dark and handsome Hook with his tossing ringlets and mellifluous voice are my personal favourites. But then there’s those breakdancing pirates (Flawless by name and by performance!) and their dance in the dark lit only by tiny bulbs they wear to outline their bodies … The family audience loves every minute of it – especially Bradley Walsh’s in yer face Smee! But that’s quite enough from me – over to two of the critics that really matter – Miles and Thea, eleven and nine years old, who flew in from Bedford! Hear what they made of the show right here!

Peter Pan continues at Milton Keynes Theatre to 11 January

Box Office: 0844 870 0887 or online:  www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes

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I’ve fallen in love with Shakespeare – all over again! A Christmas or pre-Christmas treat Shakespeare in Love at Noel Coward Theatre London – for the foreseeable future!

Shakespear in Love

‘I will have poetry in my life. And adventure. And love. Love above all.’   Still in the category of up and coming, young Will Shakespeare isn’t quite hitting his stride – at least not without a whole lot of input from the more worldly wise Christopher Marlowe, his go to mentor when he has writer’s block And then enter stage right the woman destined to change his life and his work,  Viola De Lesseps. This feisty young noblewoman may even be on course for changing working stage practice in London long before the Restoration of Charles II allowed women on stage … Of course they fall in love and of course Viola inspires Shakespeare to take up his quill again, eventually  to write Twelfth Night with its heroine named for his muse, but on this stage and in this story the blockbuster he produces is Romeo and Juliet

  Based on the Oscar-winning screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare in Love has been adapted for the stage by Lee Hall (who did the same for Billy Elliott to such electrifying effect). The production is directed by Declan Donnellan, and designed by Nick Ormerod, founders of one of most influential and exciting theatre companies of the last few decades, Cheek by Jowl. Add Neil Austin’s often beautifully painterly lighting and the ravishing stage pictures that form so fluidly are like moving Holbeins. Transfers from screen to stage are routine of late but the subject matter, competition between Elizabethan playhouses and a Shakespeare unable to produce new work, really lends itself to a theatre setting. Philip Henslowe (both magisterial and put upon Paul Chahidi), Elizabethan theatrical entrepreneur and impresario says early on “Comedy, love – and a bit with a dog. That’s what they want”. And that’s just what’s delivered on Ormerod’s set that cleverly represents the three- storey theatres of the time. Tom Bateman is both charming and romantic as an overworked and lovelorn Shakespeare and there’s a real spark between him and Lucy Owen-Briggs that was perhaps missing between Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow in the film. And in a fine cast there are lovely performances from David Oakes as Christopher Marlowe and Anna Carteret, giving Judi Dench a run for her gold florins as a deliciously dry yet still commanding Good Queen Bess.

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Lee Hall keeps most of the film dialogue and the plot involving the trials and tribulations of the entertainment industry in any age, and engineers it so it fits the physical demands of a theatre rather than film. And happily he even manages to keep the delightful cameo of the Thames waterman (Thomas Padden) boasting who he’s had in his boat, just like a latterday cabbie! What really distinguishes the play from the film, however, is Paddy Cunneen’s contemporary take on Elizabethan music, true in essence to music practices of the time. Cunneen’s music and Jane Gibson’s choreography come together to give a delightful feel of the times and to thrill the eyes and ears.

Music certainly is the food of love in this production and there can’t be many such feelgood shows on at the moment, which combine such high art, comedy, romantic love – and a dog (Spot the dog is played with by the very alert looking Barney!). The audience simply loved it the night I saw the show and clapped and cheered as the cast leapt and twirled in a thrilling Elizabethan dance at the curtain call.  This has got to be the ideal Christmas treat for all or anyone!

Judi Herman

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Shakespeare in Love is at Noel Coward Theatre London.

Box Office: 0844 482 5141 or online: https://tickets.delfontmackintosh.co.uk/index.asp?ShoID=1451&profile=IN5&Promo=R84

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Judi Herman has been to see Love Me Do by Laurence Marks and Morris Gran which is at the Watford Palace Theatre until 18th October. Please see her review of the show by clicking on Theatre Reviews at the top of this page.

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Calamity Jane which is at the Milton Keynes Theatre from 25-29th November, started its life at The Watermill, Newbury. Judi Herman reviewed it for What’sOnStage. Here’s what she thought:

Rip-roaring shenanigans, cross-dressing and a musical high in the Black Hills of Dakota

           WOS Rating:  * * * * *
Jodie Prenger in Calamity Jane
Jodie Prenger in Calamity Jane © Philip Tull

Welcome to Deadwood, outpost of the Wild West – and you’ll feel welcome from the moment you step into the Watermill, where designer Matthew Wright has created a theatre within a theatre, complete with stage and saloon bar, embracing the whole auditorium. Authentically makeshift  tin can lanterns add to the effect; and tricolour rosettes round the gallery where talented actor/musicians are regularly stationed  to play their instruments, make those seated there part of the action too.

Meet the townsfolk – they’re pretty wild too. Director Nikolai Foster has assembled a company of terrific character actor/musicians, guys with fantastic faces and equally lived-in buckskins and denims that look like they’ve seen service prospecting for gold in those Black Hills of Dakota, all presided over by Anthony Dunn’s comical saloon proprietor, Henry Miller.

After a hard day’s prospecting, there’s nothing this rowdy community wants more than an all-singing all-dancing big city star like Adelaid Adams. After all, there are precious few lasses in Deadwood and one of them dresses in male attire. Meet the aptly-named Calamity Jane. She rides shotgun on the Deadwood stage and always gets her man – and woman. But will her mission to deliver sexy showgirl Adelaid in her skimpy basque introduce a rival to turn the heads of those men, handsome soldier-boy Danny Gilmartin and tough frontiersman Wild Bill Hickock?

Jodie Prenger more than fills the buckskins of real-life, fast-shooting heroine Calamity. She creates a lovable lass, warm, impulsive and deliciously naïve, who visibly grows up as love – and jealousy – enter her life. And there’s that versatile voice, which warms the audience too, equally at home with gutsy belters like “The Deadwood Stage”, the lyrical ballad “Black Hills of Dakota” (made nicely politically correct by replacing ‘beautiful Indian country’ with ‘mountainous’) and torch song “Secret Love”.

She’s well matched physically and vocally by Phoebe Street’s wannabe singer Katie Brown, masquerading as Adelaid. Street is dainty next to the Junoesque Prenger but with a big voice duetting with her in “A Woman’s Touch”, as she takes a duster to the shabby cabin Calamity invites her to share. I’ve previously found this number too cute, but here it’s joyous tongue-in-cheek fun, cocking a snook at the idea of single ladies living together!

Tom Lister’s Wild Bill and Alex Hammond’s fine upstanding Danny are a complementary double act, replete with heartthrob machismo and in superb voice, solo or in harmony. Lister’s Bill is a match of a different kind for Prenger’s ‘Calam’ – his attractive laid back amusement at her shenanigans developing plausibly into something more.

Foster and superb choreographer Nick Winston have chosen a cast of stunning ‘triple-threats’ too, for as aficionados of Watermill musicals have come to relish, everyone can sing, dance and play, often several instruments. Take Rob Delaney. He doesn’t just play entertainer Francis Fryer (dragging up as Frances when occasion demands) – he plays virtuoso piano too. So when he falls for home-grown Deadwood beauty Susan (delightful Sioned Saunders), he duets with her on the honky-tonk piano that in its turn doubles as the stagecoach Calam rides in a stunning coup de theatre.

It’s that economy and versatility – wind instruments double as rifles – that marks this out as a really special production. The audience loved it, the man next to me sang along to Black Hills of Dakota – as we all did at the curtain call. Audiences countrywide are in for a treat and I guess Foster knows exactly how he’ll rework his production for larger houses.

 Judi Herman   (with thanks to What’sOnStage)

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Harpenden hero Eric Morecambe returns to Herts this June, in Morecambe the Play!

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Whatever the weather outside, you can find sunshine indoors – in the theatre – thanks to Bob Golding, the St Alban’s based actor celebrating the extraordinary life of Harpenden’s local hero and national treasure Eric Morecambe, 

 Tim Whitnall’s Olivier award-winning one-man play Morecambe has enjoyed huge success in London and on tour round the country and it’s got dates in the Home Counties towards the end of its current tour.

 Judi Herman went to meet Bob and his equally talented wife, Julia, who designed and built the set and props for ‘Morecambe the Play’ as it’s known, in the shed at their St Alban’s home. Listen in below to hear Bob aka Eric, including a taste of ‘Morecambe’ – Eric delighting in the celebrities he and Ernie are attracting to star in their show    

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Morecambe is at The Alban Arena on Sunday 29 June.  Box Office: 01727 844488 or online: www.alban-arena.co.uk

Book online at www.morcambetheplay.com, where you’ll also find full details of the show and all tour dates.  

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Pygmalion at Milton Keynes Theatre to 31st May and touring, Judi Herman applauds this centenary production

Pygmalion

George Bernard Shaw’s famous story of how eccentric Professor Higgins turns Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a lady is arguably his most popular play – and it was so long before it was turned into a blockbusting musical! Audiences at Milton Keynes this week and all around the country have a chance to see just why it’s always been a hit in David Grindley’s sparkling production for the play’s centenary year.

Shaw saw his comedy as a rallying call for the fight for equality, for the poor and for women. And even though it is laugh out loud funny, the irony of Eliza’s plight, when she explains bleakly exactly how and why Higgins’ experiment has left her fit for nothing now she is a lady, has a real punch, especially in Rachel Barry’s hugely intelligent and sympathetic performance. She really does deserve for this to be her breakthrough role. She makes a full-blooded flower girl with deliciously excruciating – and fairly deafening – vowel sounds. And her new cut-glass accent makes Eliza’s faux pas on her first outing as a lady equally delicious – her cry of “Not bloody likely – I’m going in a taxi!” still makes audiences hoot with laughter, though it is not with the shock it provoked on that first night in 1914. And Barry finds all the pluck and pathos in Eliza, whether she sits mute but eloquent with misery while Higgins and Pickering ignore her and congratulate themselves on their success at her launch into society, or spells out her prospects in those precise new vowels.

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Alistair McGowan starts with a special advantage for playing Henry Higgins. He actually has Higgins’ ear – earning his living as a superb mimic would fit you for making a living as a Professor of phonetics! His Higgins is equal parts nutty professor and overgrown schoolboy, equally infuriating and appealing and all shambling arms and legs, especially when he goes into a schoolboy sulk as his mother scolds him. There’s a palpable crackle between his Higgins and Barry’s Eliza, but if she had to choose between Higgins and Lewis Collier’s eager lapdog of a Freddy, she really would be between a rock and a hard place!

McGowan’s Higgins and Paul Brightwell’s genial Colonel Pickering make a great double act – a double dose of eccentricity, although Brightwell ensures the Colonel’s innate gentlemanly courtesy shines through. Rula Lenska’s Mrs Higgins is wonderfully imperious and intelligent – and that includes all the emotional intelligence her son lacks. Her Mrs Higgins could well be a budding suffragette and she has a lovely rapport with Barry’s Eliza.

Jamie Foreman (Eastenders’ Derek Branning) as Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s dustman father, makes a bracingly funny impact in both his scenes; first contentedly feckless on the cadge, out to get what he can from his daughter’s new situation, then weighed down with the cares wealth brings, the obligation, as he sees it, to fork out to others on the scrounge! Grindley’s production nicely points up the parallel with Eliza’s plight at her transformation.

And Grindley is true to Shaw’s wish for equality. Charlotte Page’s housekeeper Mrs Pearce works so well as a forthright Irishwoman and Jane Lambert, Anna O’Grady and Lewis Collier make a bid for equality for the Eynsford-Hills. They all make their mark, especially O’Grady’s excitable, impressionable Clara, who clearly exits Mrs Higgins’ at home to make an entrance elsewhere with the word bloody on the tip of her tongue! The smaller roles are so well-filled too and toppers and bowlers off to the company members who, in character, effect such smooth scene changes on Jonathan Fensom’s elegant, versatile set. It beautifully evokes period drawing room, musty study and rain-swept Covent Garden portico. With performances like these, you certainly won’t come out singing the set, but add Fensom’s stunning costumes, especially the ladies’ ensembles, and you won’t miss a note of My Fair Lady!

Judi Herman

Pygmalion continues at the Milton Keynes Theatre until 31st May.

Box Office: 0844 871 7652 or online: www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes

For details of tour dates www.pygmalionuktour.co.uk

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Northern Broadsides present An August Bank Holiday Lark by Deborah McAndrew,

Judi Herman is thrilled and moved by a truly great evening in the theatre

An August Bank Holiday Lark Feb 2014

Back in the 1980s, I had one of the most moving and thrilling experiences in a lifetime of theatre going, when The National Theatre mounted their supreme promenade performance of The Mysteries (The Nativity, The Passion and Doomsday). Last night at An August Bank Holiday Lark I felt the same excitement and exhilaration, and again I was by turns moved to tears and filled with the joy of life and a sense of community and connection.

The link between these productions is the great Barrie Rutter, Artistic Director of Northern Broadsides Theatre Company, Director of An  August Bank Holiday Lark and wonderfully filling his clogs as John Farrar, Squire of the side of clog Morris Men, local heroes of the close-knit Northern hillside cotton mill community that is the setting for this play. Rutter played both Herod and Pontius Pilate in The Mysteries, which, like this play, were firmly rooted in the traditions of the North of England, including that evocative and stirring Morris dancing and the music associated with it.

Because this is Northern Broadsides’ act of remembrance in this centenary year of the First World War, the restless young lads so admired by the village lasses are much exercised by the idea of joining up and as they see it enjoying even more admiration and comradeship, and of course widening their horizons beyond the parochial. It’s Philip Larkin who describes young men queuing up to enlist “as if it were all an August Bank Holiday Lark” and it is his poem MCMXIV (1914 in Roman numerals) that was the starting point that inspired Rutter to ask writer Deborah McAndrew (Angie Freeman in Corrie) to write a play for the World War One Centenary called An August Bank Holiday Lark.

She has filled her brief with a quite extraordinary evening of connection between actors and audience, of music joy and laughter and then a deeply moving sense of loss of young men with whom the audience too have formed a bond.

The North West Rushcart tradition, part of Wakes Week (a communal holiday time for all workers), is the background to events. The cotton mills were shut and rushes carried to be strewn on the floor of the parish church in a procession, accompanied by the music and Morris dancing used here to transport the audience to the heart of this mill village, full of ordinary, decent, hard-working people steeped in both industrial and rural traditions and a community spirit that is probably long gone.

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It’s impossible not to tap your foot and you want to actually to get to your feet and join in as the supremely talented lasses play flute, fiddle, banjo and accordion and their equally talented lads don their cogs and wield their sticks to perform intricate and exhilarating dances. They work wonderfully towards the stunning climax of dismantling the rushcart that is the centre piece of the first half dances during the interval itself (the audience stayed to watch with rapt attention).

But of course this is a play, not a dance performance. McAndrew’s vivid characters all have their stories to tell and by the interval you feel you’ve got to know the village folk, their hopes and fears and their relationships, the tensions and the loyalties. Bright and resourceful young Frank Armitage (Darren Kuppan) has fallen for pretty feisty Mary, John Farrar’s daughter (Emily Butterfield) and she for him, but perhaps rightly, he’s afraid to ask the formidable John Farrar for permission to step out with her. John Farrar sees himself as village squire as well as squire of his Morris Side and thinks no young man is good enough for his Mary. And moreover there’s a bit of a feud between the Farrar patriarch and his neighbour Alice, Frank’s mother (Elizabeth Eves), for her hens have got out and ravaged his flowerbeds.

Luckily Alice is equally formidable and this is a town where the women give as good as they get to their menfolk and the younger generation of course stand up to their parents.  The Farrar boys, Edward (Jack Quarton) and William (Ben Burman) are determined to go for soldiers whatever their widowed father says.  Millgirl Susie Hughes (Lauryn Redding) ducks and dives and dreams of marriage and deplores and dismisses any thoughts of being left on the shelf, striking a poignant note for the audience who know how many of these carefree young lasses will remain unmarried when the Great War takes so many of the young men who would have made husbands and fathers.

And there are other deftly painted characters. Edie Stapleton (Sophia Hatfield), supportive school teacher, awkward young Herbert Tweddle (Mark Thomas) charged with making the Side’s proud banner, long-suffering Alan Ramsden (Brett Lee Roberts), father of four daughters and counting, Jim Haworth (Andrew Whitehead), Bagman of the Rushcart Spinners Morris Side and, representing the older generation, Dick Shaw (Russell Richardson), Edie’s mellow grandad.

It’s McAndrew’s language, which sits so perfectly on the tongues of these fine Northern actors that brings their stories home to the audience as the bonny lads of the Spinners Side doff their floral bonnets and go forth to fight “for this village, this county, this land”. And of course there’s Conrad Nelson’s gorgeous evocative music (he’s also choreographer), together with the late Mike Waterson’s recorded voice singing his title song, making the atmosphere, stirring the senses and providing an undertow to tug at the heartstrings. It’s all played out on Lis Evans’ simple set, evoking the village and providing just the right background  for the rushes and that glorious rushcart  and especially those floral bonnets and the fine green and gold baldricks she has the nimble-fingered Susie tailor-make for each member of the side.  I should probably name check the Saddleworth Morris Men who have revived the tradition of building the annual Saddleworth Rushcart every August and re-established the local Saddleworth Morris dances, unique to their Side. Bowlers decorated with fresh flowers are their tradition too!

The second half brings home all the sorrow and pity of loss of life and limb. But it would be a shame to spoil McAndrew’s fine story, so if you want to know whether Frank and Mary make it to the altar and who survives the 1915 Gallipoli August Offensive, you’ll have to go and experience an evening which I heard other theatregoers around me saying was one of the best they’d ever had at Watford Palace Theatre

An August Bank Holiday Lark is at Watford Palace Theatre until 9 May. then Oxford Playhouse from 13-17 May

 Oxford Playhouse Theatre Box Office 01865 305305 or online: www.oxfordplayhouse.com

Tour continues until 14th June. Details can be found at: http://www.northern-broadsides.co.uk/index.php/coming-soon

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Arrivals and Departures by Alan Ayckbourn at Watford Palace Theatre – Review by Judi Herman

If you love Alan Ayckbourn for his singular ability to turn on a sixpence from farce to tragedy, then Arrivals and Departures is for you. And if you want a chance to see his work performed by his own crack Ensemble from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, directed by the man himself, then this is it!

Arrivals & Departures

An eleven-strong cast and a pair of talented children play out what begins as high farce, watching the arrivals and departures of a less than crack team of counter terrorism undercover forces disguised as diverse passengers and their friends and family meeting them at a London Railway Terminal. They’re all waiting to apprehend a suspected terrorist due on the Harrogate train in just 40 minutes’ time. There are a lot of laughs as the comically over-the-top major in charge of the operation (Bill Champion) rehearses and re-rehearses his reluctant cast.

But as I said, this is classic Ayckbourn and there is a beating heart to this story. It is in fact two interlocking stories about two people who are at first sight chalk and cheese. There’s Ez, a young woman army officer sent to mind the only witness who can identify their man, a still – uncomfortably still and outwardly calm – presence on a stage bustling with frenetic action.  She’s minding Barry the Harrogate traffic warden, who has had an altercation with the suspect and who never forgets a face. At first sight he’s a comic creation suffering from verbal diarrhoea and therefore a perfect foil to the taciturn Ez, whom he is apparently set to drive to distraction.

This though is where the play takes off into a darker hinterland. In the first act Ez (played by Elizabeth Boag with a spikiness that cleverly hints at her disguised vulnerability) has flashbacks, beautifully realised by actors playing those who people the difficult life that has made her so introverted. In the second act, you might think you are suffering from déjà vu as you recognise the same situation comedy being played out again in the arrivals hall – until that is, it is Barry’s turn to have flashbacks. And the unfolding pathos in the story of a truly good-hearted man in a bad world makes you warm to him, especially in Kim Wall’s sympathetic performance as Barry, coupled with James Powell’s touching mirroring as the younger Barry. His let down by his soon- to-be- married daughter brought tears to my eyes (perhaps because my own daughter is to be married soon herself).

It would be entirely wrong to reveal the climax of Arrivals and Departures. Suffice it to say Ez and Barry come closer than Ez at least would ever have thought possible when they arrived and you may well depart feeling wrung out emotionally.

And I should just say that Home Counties locals will be happy to hear that both Milton Keynes and Stevenage get honourable mention as stops for the Harrogate train on its journey south. There’s much talk of an “impenetrable ring of steel round Stevenage” – hang on to that thought for it plays its part in both the comedy and the tragedy.

Arrivals and Departures plays in repertory with two other productions from the Ayckbourn Ensemble, Time of My Life and Farcicals. Performances of Arrivals and Departures are on Thursday 13 March and Saturday 15 March at 7.30 and on Friday 14 March at 2.30. For more information and to book www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk or telephone 01923 225671

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A world premiere for Watford Palace Theatre this February – writer Daniel Kanaber tells Judi Herman about his bittersweet new play Shiver

Danny Kanaber - Photo

“It’s either a sad play about love or a funny play about loss”, says Daniel Kanaber, describing Shiver. Three men gather to remember Sadie, who has just died, her husband, Mordecai, a lapsed Jew, her atheist son Ben and Joshua, a trainee Orthodox Rabbi entrusted with officiating as the mourners remember her in the tradition of sitting shiva, the first seven days of mourning. When Judi Herman met up with Danny to find out more about the play, they did indeed find themselves shivering as they recorded outdoors on a wet winter’s day!

Please press this button to hear Daniel’s conversation with Judi Herman:

 

Shiver, at the Watford Palace Theatre, from  3 – 22 February.

Box Office: 01923 225671 or online:  www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk

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Robin Hood Watford

Robin Hood, Watford Palace Theatre to 28 December

If you’re looking for something a bit different from the traditional panto story, yet with all your favourite panto elements safely in place, don your Lincoln Green and head off to Watford Palace Theatre, temporarily relocated up Nottingham way according to the signposts on Cleo Pettit’s fabulous painted front cloth.

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Things get off to a great traditional start in WPT director Brigid Larmour’s pacy and imaginative production, thanks to Philip Cox’s lip-smackingly evil Sheriff of Nottingham plotting world domination. He spits out some fine rhyming couplets at an excited audience eager to hiss and boo. As we are a bit further up North, blood rhymes with Hood of course! And instead of a Good Fairy, a sort of Northern version of Mystic Meg calling herself Shirley the Soothsayer from Sheffield (feisty and fun Sheena Patel) materialises alongside the Sheriff and our story takes off in a whole new direction when the he corrals Shirley to help him search his castle for the Secret Scroll (of South Oxhey of course!), which will help him turn all he touches to gold.
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You’ll have to wait for Act 2 to find out where that storyline is going. Meanwhile we do get to meet our hero and heroine, Robin and Maid Marion, and they get to meet each other and fall in love, despite the machinations of the evil Sheriff to lure Marion into his castle and his clutches. Robert Rees is a dashing Robin, part principal boy, part Errol Flynn with a gorgeous powerful voice. Jill McAusland’s dainty Marion makes up in sweetness what she lacks in voice power and comes into her own as she sheds her medieval robes and finds her inner warrior, donning tunic and tights in the forest.
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Of course there’s an archery contest for Robin to win and bit of swash and buckle – and a couple of merry persons, waiting for Robin under the greenwood tree.  Little John has become Little Joan (sprightly Erica Guyatt) aptly named as she’s a hearty, jolly hockey sticks sort of girl, just like poet John Betjeman’s Joan Hunter Dunn. Donovan Blackwood’s Friar Tuck is as generously expansive as you could wish.
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The ‘goodies’ wouldn’t be complete without a Dame and sure enough, she takes the stage in the amply-bosomed figure of Nurse Nellie, Marion’s nanny, a terrific turn from WPT veteran Terence Frisch.
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So, as promised, all the elements are indeed in place for a traditional panto with a twist, including plenty of chances for the audience to yell out ‘behind you’ and ‘oh no it isn’t’ and a fun slapstick scene up at t’castle, where the newly-discovered Scroll gets muddled up with copious rolls of wallpaper.
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What makes this panto special is some especially fine singing not just  from Robin but also from soul brother Tuck and little Joan, and especially from  Philip Cox‘s Sherriff. His rendition of Goldfinger gets the second half off to such a fabulous start that I wondered whether scriptwriter Andrew Pollard wrote his clever plot giving him the ‘Midas touch’  just to get that number in! And I loved the harmonising a capella singing from our Merry persons disguised as mummers to try to outwit the Sheriff.
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This they do in some especially delightful floral-print costumes, just one of Cleo Pettit’s imaginative and beautifully realised costume designs. I loved Nurse Nellie’s steeple headdress and the sets are just gorgeous, in delicious bright pastels, artfully inspired by Art Nouveau, the two-storey pop-up picture book castle entwined with painted roses and decked out with a painted Christmas tree.
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There’s a whole lot of scenic artists, students on scenic art placements and costume makers credited in the programme and amazing, fantastical hats and headdresses created by milliner Claire Strickland. Their labours certainly make this show. And the crowning glory is that pop-up painted castle – where upstairs you can just glimpse the super band. Musical director/arranger Andy Ralls and his merry band, Antoine Edery on drums and percussion and Daniel Short on guitar and bass, really cook up a storm.
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Finally Erica Guyatt and Sheena Patel get an extra honourable mention for a turn as the Sheriff’s long-suffering henchpersons. They may get the worst of their fights with Robin and Co., but at least they prove that medieval Nottingham was a place of equal opportunities for women in the castle’s workplace!
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There’s no troupe of young local performers in this seasonal show, but the aah factor was more than provided for on the afternoon I saw the show by the four tiny tots who took to the stage with great panache for the audience participation song (Robin Hood riding through the glen of course), the youngest of whom was not quite three years old – aah indeed!
Judi Herman
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Robin Hood at the Watford Palace Theatre until 28 December
Box Office: 01923 225671 or online: www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk

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Sleeping Beauty, Aylesbury Waterside Theatre to 5 January
Read – and hear – all about it!

Aylesbury 2013 Sleeping Beauty

If you’re after glitz and glamour, this is definitely the panto for you! Gorgeous sets and costumes and spectacular effects – the best kept till last with a dragon every bit as scary as The Hobbit’s Smaug. But the delightful thing about this real beauty of a panto is that director David Siebert never allows the terrific talent of his cast to be overshadowed by all the spectacle and special effects.

Led by Anita Dobson as a gorgeously sexy evil fairy, revelling in every evil moment and with a huge stage presence, everyone on stage seems to be having a great time and this infectious fun just spills into the audience. And there’s some great music, singing and dancing too, courtesy of choreographer Aaron Renfree and Musical Director Mark Crossland, Musical Supervisor Steve Power, Dan Hall on bass guitar and Liam Waugh on drums.

You might have thought it would be hard to come up with a fresh version of the famous fairy story, but writer Eric Potts has done just that, crediting Princess Beauty’s kindly parents (David Whitworth’s dim-witted but lovable King and Linda Bardell’s sharper- witted, genuinely motherly Queen) with real charitable conscience as they adopt a workhouse baby to bring up alongside their daughter. Cue Andy Collins as the rumbustious baby who will grow up into the brilliantly funny Chester the Jester, the audience’s friend – but not before he and Beauty go to school together and prove to be the tiny terrors of the classroom! This is just one scene in which the juveniles from local weekend stage school The Musical Kidz Company get to play a vital part and they play all their scenes with happy – and skilful – enthusiasm. On press night it was the Blue Team, three of whom you can hear talking to me below, but I’m sure the Red team are just as smashing!

Holly Brewer is just about perfect as Beauty, a gorgeous blonde who lives up to her name, though no milksop she, as she plays up to her long suffering nurse Molly Coddle (a great, hugely audience-pleasing Dame turn from Graham Kent in a range of astonishing costumes!). And she is perfectly matched by surely one of the handsomest, blondest Princes gracing the panto stage this season, all the way from the country that gave us The Killing and Borgen – Denmark’s finest, Christian Lund! Frankie Armitage is a pretty and resourceful Lilac Fairy and joins Leslie Garcia Bowman, the appropriately named Gemma Buckingham, Ben Gillett, Naoimh Morgan and Helen Penn, to complete as sparky a set of villagers as you could hope for.

Potts has also given careful thought to the (admittedly fantasy!) mechanics of sleeping for one hundred years, and come up with some lovely solutions as to what happens to Molly Coddle and Chester – and indeed the Prince, who here gets to meet and fall in love with Beauty before she pricks her finger, only to be imprisoned by … but that would be spoiling some lovely storytelling – go see for yourself!

To hear three members of the Blue Team, their chaperone Vickie, Alison from Waterside Theatre  – and Andy Collins, aka Chester the Jester, Christian Lund aka the Prince and Holly Brewer aka Beauty herself – click here:

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Jack and the Beanstalk, Harpenden Halls to 22 December 

Read – and hear – all about it in this review  by Judi Herman

 Dame Trott (Richard Aucott) & Good Fairy (Sally James)

A fun-filled family panto is what it says on the tin and that’s exactly what you get from panto writer/director/performer Chris Law. Law himself is Simple Simon the audience’s best mate and he’s found himself a splendid team of onstage mates too. Sally James is as warm, kindly and resourceful a fairy as you could wish for – if she grants wishes that is! The evil boots of her evil oppo, Fleshcreep, the giant’s henchman, are filled with hiss and boo-worthy relish by a certain Ernie Almond.

I rather fell in love with Hayley Cutts’ slender thigh-slapping Jack, a bold lad who loves his lass, his mum – and his cow – and is prepared to risk his all to rescue them from the dastardly giant. The local lass in question is a genuinely beautiful princess, raven-haired Sophie Massie, who, as advertised, does indeed have a lovely pure singing voice.  And to fill the stage with fun, you couldn’t beat Daisy the cow (amply and expertly filled by choreographer Sarah Andrews and presumably a close relative, Roger Andrews!) and her Junoesque owner Dame Trot. Richard Aucott is a terrific and very fetching Dame, with sensationally glamorous costumes – a new one to look forward to for every entrance! Law writes himself some fine groan-inducing puns and has a good double act going with Baxter the Monkey.

To complete the ingredients for a perfect panto, add an imposing though ineffectual monarch (Andrew Willis), a fetching foursome of girl dancers (Kerri Hicks, Tamsin Nawathe, Hannah Petley and Laura Stevens) and a delightful childrens’ chorus of five. We saw team A, which included the only lad, young Isaac Barker, obviously revelling in every moment he gets to be onstage, as indeed do the rest of team A, Kaitlin Law (Daddy’s girl of course!), Chloe Nasmyth-Miller, Bridey Perryer and Madeline Roy, all of whom have wonderfully happy smiles

The Panto Band, under the direction of Steve Parker, does a great job in keeping up the pace and the mood. The eclectic choice of music includes a well-chosen treat for Sondheim fans, There Are Giants in the Sky, from his dark fairy-tale musical Into the Woods. Curiously there is no credit for design, for I rather loved the village set, with its Battenberg cake coloured pink and yellow cottages and there were plenty of oohs and aahs at the set and costume changes last night!

To hear a verdict on the show from a local family – and a chat with Fleshcreep and Dame Trot – click here: 

****

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oliver-cotton Oliver Cotton (photo: Kirill)

Oliver Cotton talks to Judi Herman about Daytona, his play about tense relationships rekindled and revisited in old age, touring the UK to 19 October with Watford Palace Theatre as its next stop (9 to 14 September)

“My father’s family has several rabbis going back in the family from Vilnius in Lithuania. They were quite frum (religious), but he wasn’t a religious man,” declares Oliver Cotton. “He was in the garment trade when I was young and he would take me to work with him at times”. We are talking about the wonderfully authentic  voice of his characters, three New York Jews, who arrived in America after surviving the Holocaust.

Although his Danish mother was not Jewish, she had to leave Germany, where she had been living in the Thirties, to come to Britain. “So our flat in Wandsworth was always filled with people from everywhere else – Russians, Germans, Hungarians, Czechs. It wasn’t a religious Jewish home but the cultural Jewish background was always very present – and the Jewish humour.  I suppose it was a Middle-European atmosphere” he continues, and then he mentions how at home he felt in the much-missed Cosmo restaurant in Finchley Road when he went to the Central School of Speech and Drama nearby, and so we bond as aficionados of the Cosmo and its comforting Middle-European delights, the schnitzels and the sauerkraut and goulash! Listening to the dialogue he writes for his characters I get the feeling he’s soaked up the nuances along with the sauerkraut. “That kind of world is very present for me. I think it’s a lingua, a culture I feel really confident in”

Cotton is a well-known actor on stage and screen. He’s played leading roles at the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the Royal Court and London’s West End, including in Pinter’s The Homecoming. And indeed he remembers with affection doing a couple of seasons at Watford Palace Theatre in 1972 – “including many plays with the great Cheryl Campbell (of Testament of Youth and Chariots of Fire fame). We were both starting out but I look back very happily on that period”.  It’s perhaps less well-known that he is also a playwright, on this showing an accomplished one.

In Daytona, his plot unravels enticingly gradually. “I was sitting by a pool in Daytona when the idea came to me” he says tantalisingly. His “what if?” involves an act of violence in this crowded family holiday resort that is the trigger for the action of the play. It would be a real spoiler to reveal more as I’d be surprised if audiences are not left gasping as this story unfolds. I’ll say only that Cotton had to work out how and why this act of violence comes about – who commits it and why. So I’ll say no more except to say that Cotton himself reveals only that it brings together two powerful Biblical themes.  “There’s Old Testament revenge and revenge with another motive which is really to do with atoning.” You could perhaps add the story of Cain and Abel to the mix, as this is a tale of two brothers and sibling rivalry.

So the title does refer to Florida’s famous Daytona Beach resort, but the action is set in New York in a Brooklyn apartment in the depths of winter. It’s 1986 and the apartment is the home of Elli and Joe, a Jewish couple in their seventies who seem pretty well suited, with a shared passion for ballroom dancing that keeps them looking trim and provides a focus for their life together now that they are both retired. maureen-lipman-harry-shearer But their comfortable existence, where competitive dancing is the biggest excitement in their lives, is about to be disturbed by the unexpected reappearance in their lives of Billy, Joe’s brother and former business partner, after an absence of thirty years.

Again it’s hard to talk about this play without giving away too much about the tense and tightly wound plot. Suffice it to say that the relationship between these three is complicated. Moreover all three are survivors of the concentration camps who have made a new life in America and the long shadow of the Holocaust means that old enemies may also reappear unexpectedly. And taking vengeance can change lives dramatically in unexpected ways.

“I don’t see it as a Holocaust play, it just happens to be that background. I don’t feel I have the right to go into it too much. Supposing someone had killed in the past and this was revenge.  I wanted it to be an almost archetypal evil. Even though we say we’re against the death penalty, I wanted to ask at what point does a human being forfeit their right to live.”

So is he saying the story came to him first and the Jewishness after? “I didn’t for a moment think ‘I’m going to write about three Jewish old people’.  The story came to me but it kind of had its own voice. I think I started writing about Elli and Joe and then it became clear to me that Elli and Joe are related to this man Billy. And that he would arrive somehow. It does sound pretentious but I really don’t know how any of this happened”.  Well, no it doesn’t sound pretentious – more disingenuous as I’m pretty sure after seeing Daytona that this man writes a mean plot with a fine so-called “pull back and reveal”.

And as for creating complex living breathing characters, it’s as if Maureen Lipman and Harry Shearer are pulling on a pair of comfy slippers. I ask if he heard their voices. “I heard very similar voices in my head. The kind of voices bickering together that I grew up with. It wasn’t difficult for me to write that stuff. I think when they read it I flatter myself they heard those voices, it wasn’t a great leap for either of them. They both know that world so intimately as people. I think they must have heard themselves”.

Lipman herself was instrumental in getting the play staged and involving Shearer. Last year Cotton appeared in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park directed by Lipman. She was seeking a vehicle for someone else entirely, and asked Cotton whether he had anything, so he mentioned this play explaining that it was unfinished. “She read it and said this is fantastic, great. Also my wife in the meantime said I don’t know why you put that play into a drawer. So I asked Maureen would you be interested in being in it. I did the work on it I thought needed doing and incorporated a couple of suggestions from Maureen”. Lipman also brokered he play’s premiere at London’s brand new Park Theatre in Finsbury Park North London and it was she who suggested it to Shearer.  “Maureen knew Harry and sent it to him and he was very keen to do it which I was delighted about. And it’s very difficult to bring Americans over but luckily Harry lives here as well as he has an English wife”.

john-bowe as Billy  John Bowe, who plays Billy, is the only non-Jewish member of the cast. He gives an extraordinarily detailed performance as “a man who obviously since childhood has had a sibling rivalry with his brother whom he has not seen for 30 years. It’s obviously a very intense and passionate thing which is why he wants to change everything”.  Billy lives in Ohio with “a rather sweet blonde gentle wife he met in Indiana”. This is the mid-West Bible belt so does this mean he has denied his Jewishness? “Billy says Ohio and Joe repeats Ohio and when we were in rehearsal, the director I think asked why does he repeat that. And Harry said “because there are no Jews in Ohio!”

I can see that storytelling is very important to Cotton, a potent reason why it’s only fair for audiences to have the chance to see Daytona without spoilers. “Storytelling is important to me,” he agrees.” I’ve always found the actual business of plotting very difficult. This story and the twists and turns in it evolved from emotional things really. The background was to do with this love affair which had been the love of both their lives that didn’t work out and the idea of two people protecting somebody else. Both Billy and Elli protect Joe”.

The image of ballroom dancing gets the play off to a flamboyant start. “Did you have a picture in your head of a couple twirling?” I ask. “I just remember thinking that would be a great way to start a play – quite theatrical. If I ever get to write the movie I could make much more of that. And then you could cut between Florida and New York in the freezing cold and the pair doing ballroom dancing in a studio somewhere. Then go down to Florida and see a man with heart problems sitting by a pool.  I think that would be interesting!” It certainly whets my appetite for seeing the movie!

Finally I ask Cotton if he sees himself continuing with both careers, acting and writing, side by side. “I’ve spent my life, earned my living for 50 years as an actor. I find it difficult to call myself a writer (I know that sounds a bit pompous – I’m an actor who writes). I haven’t yet reached a stage where I can call myself a writer. I feel I’m still finding my way as a writer, although I have done quite a bit of writing. The answer to your question is yes, I do see myself carrying on with both!” On this showing, I certainly hope he does.

(Cast Photographs: Manuel Harlan)

DAYTONA is at Watford Palace Theatre from 9th – 14th September

Box Office:  01923 225671or online: www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk

also the OXFORD PLAYHOUSE from 23rd – 28th September

Box Office: 01865 305305 or online: www.oxfordplayhouse.com

There are also dates for this tour in Malvern and Bath

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****

Henry V1 – Three Plays By William Shakespeare

Henry V1

Henry VI Three Plays By William Shakespeare Directed by Nick Bagnall Designed by Ti Green Composed by Alex Baranowski

The Globe Theatre came to Monken Common in Hertfordshire as one of the stops on their current National Tour. They have chosen to present the three plays which make up Shakespeare’s Henry VI. They create a world without ideology; a savage time, when the heroes are not kings, but formidable women, such as Joan of Arc, or rebels, such as Jack Cade.

The three plays were also being performed all in one day, not just in home counties theatres, but also on the two Wars of the Roses battlefield sites in Hertfordshire, at St Albans and Barnet. Judi Herman has seen the three plays and was lucky enough to have Frank Baldwin, Chair of the Battlefield Trust (which is based in St Albans) and a professional Battlefield Guide, as her personal guide, when she visited Monken Hadley Common, the site of the battle fought at Barnet back in 1471 – a win for Yorkist King Edward the Fourth. You can still catch this very special trio of plays at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre this week, or The Oxford Playhouse Theatre from 11th – 14th September and The Cambridge Arts Theatre from 18 – 22nd September.

Join them on the battlefield by clicking on this link: 

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The Battlefield Trust website is www.battlefieldstrust.com

This is of course also the exciting and bloodthirsty time in Britain’s history covered by the BBC Drama The White Queen!

Shakespeare’s Globe: 3 – 8 September Box Office: 0207 401 9919 or online: www.shakespearesglobe.com
Oxford Playhouse: 11 – 14 September Box Office: 01865 305305 or online: www.oxfordplayhouse.com
Cambridge Arts Theatre: 18 – 22 September Box Office: 01223 503333 or online: www.cambridgeartstheatre.purchase-tickets-online.co.uk

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Dreamboats and Petticoats returns for another hit-packed UK tour and will arrive at Milton Keynes Theatre 12 – 17 Aug Dreamboats

Mark Wynter – fresh from his celebrated run in the show at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre last winter – is set to perform classic hits Venus In Blue Jeans, Go Away Little Girl and It’s Almost Tomorrow for the first time on tour in 50 years.

      Written by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, the team behind Goodnight Sweetheart, Birds of a Feather, The New Statesman, Shine on Harvey Moon and of course, Dreamboats and Petticoat’s sequel, Save the Last Dance For Me. Judi Herman spoke to Marks and Gran and you can hear the interview by clicking on this link:

Dreamboats

Dreamboats & Petticoats at Milton Keynes Theatre from 12th – 17th August

Box Office: 0844 871 7652 or online: www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes

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A FUNNY, QUIRKY & POLITICAL COMMUNITY OPERA INVOLVING OVER 200 PERFORMERS FROM OXFORDSHIRE & BUCKINGHAMSHIRE

 Road-Rage-website-banner

The first world premiere to be presented at Garsington Opera will be Road Rage, a community opera involving over 200 amateur performers from local schools and the community, working alongside professional singers and young orchestral players from Southbank Sinfonia, for three performances only on 19 July, 7pm and 20 July, 2.30pm & 7pm.

 Richard Stilgoe (satirist and writer) and Orlando Gough (composer) have created an intricate and fun community piece for a mixed age group, with themes drawn directly from schools and community groups local to Wormsley. The piece includes challenging choruses for slaves, activists and villagers, a youth chorus of rapping red kites from schools in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, and songs for animals and trees performed by children from Stokenchurch Primary, Chalgrove Community Primary and Ibstone C of E Infant School. The three Road Rage performances will enable over 2300 people to attend the opera at Wormsley,

 Richard Stilgoe, co-writer of Starlight Express and Cats said:

One minute you are on the M40 being dive bombed by red kites; the next you are in the peace and beauty of Wormsley, surrounded by ancient trees. This contrast was the starting point in which a community stands up and sits down for what it believes in. Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire must feel it has been singled out for transport schemes – the Romans built the Icknield Way through it, the Georgians dug the Grand Union Canal, the 20th century drove the motorway through the chalk hills and the 21st century threatens HS2. 

The project has been generously supported by La Fondation Terrévent, Youth Music, PRS for Music Foundation and Arts Council England – Grants for the Arts.

 Judi Herman went to rehearsals – and first she joined members of the community cast in the queue for costume fittings. And stood by helplessly while ‘British slaves’ were mercilessly whipped by ‘Roman soldiers’ – and all of them whipped on by brilliant director Karen Gillingham, who certainly doesn’t take any prisoners!

(please use the following link for Judi’s interview) Garsington_Opera 1

Of course one of the most exciting attractions for the community cast is the chance to work alongside the professionals. Judi met opera singers Alexander Hargreaves and Peter Willcock, and watched while director Karen Gillingham put the centurions, led by Peter, through their paces.

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The characters who link the different scenes of Road Rage are the hungry red kites who hover overhead watching for food – and commenting on the action. They’re played by these beatboxing teenagers

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Road Rage is to be presented at Wormsley (near Stokenchurch) on 19th & 20th July. (For directions go to: www.garsingtonopera.org)

Tickets £10 (£5 children/ full-time students)

Box Office online: www.garsingtonopera.org or telephone 01865 361636

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Imagine Watford with Judi Herman! A chance to sample the Festival by listening to some of Judi’s favourite moments.

Imagine_Watford_322x163_519f714b184c3Please click on the following link to hear Judi at the festival:  Imagine Watford. Judi Herman

Imagine Watford is a terrific free open-air festival that takes place on the  streets of the town and it’s rapidly becoming one of the most exciting happenings on the Home Counties summer scene. Imagine Watford is in its third year now and each year it’s attracted the best of thrilling open-air theatre from all over the world. It’s billed as “a festival of extraordinary open air moments” so here’s Judi Herman’s  selection of moments from the first weekend of this ten day festival which continues daily until Sunday 30 June. Find out more at www.imaginewatford.co.uk

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Are you experienced? Judi Herman talks to John Campbell who fronts the top Jimi Hendrix tribute band, appearing at The Stables Milton Keynes this May Bank Holiday

john_campbell_4626381_n_x300John Cambell struts his stuff onstage!

“Hendrix is iconic – there’s young kids walking around with Hendrix Tee shirts on. I think he’s a bit cool too,” declares John Campbell, aka Jimi Hendrix in tribute band Are You Experienced?. “There was only one Jimi Hendrix and there only ever will be. What we do is use the songs as a framework. I try to keep my own identity.” Startlingly, Campbell delivers all this in his own Brummie accent, but he’s quick to assure me he doesn’t use that in the show! “I try to make myself a bit posh and a bit accentless but I couldn’t do the ‘Yeah Man this song is called Purple Haze!’” So it’s his tribute to Jimi he’s not impersonating him exactly.

 But the bottom line is tribute bands do need to be lookalikes and you only have to look at the photo below to see that Campbell is a Dead Ringer for the man himself! Nonetheless, he introduces the band by their proper names too, not with the monikers of The Jimi Hendrix Experience. I want to know more about the other members of the band. Campbell explains that drummer Kevin O’Grady comes from a heavy metal background. “Think Iron Maiden. And Mark Arnold the bass guitarist is a big Deep Purple fan”. When they joined Campbell, he said, ‘we’ll give it 6 months and see how it goes’. That was 17 years ago!

So how did Campbell get into this? Did someone say he was a dead ringer for Hendrix? The answer is rather more interesting! “My older brother was a drummer in (rock group) Judas Priest before they got signed, I used to bunk off school and go and roadie with them and help them when I was 15 or 16” he confesses. “I played the guitar from when I was about 12 and I got into bands like The Kinks – and The Monkees to my eternal shame! Gradually I was writing my own songs. My brother packed it in and then we did covers of bands The Kinks, Small Faces Thin Lizzy, a bit of Hendrix – you’ve got to play greatest hits of everybody. People used to come up to me and say ‘Why don’t you do more Hendrix?’ And then I thought, I’m fed up with doing covers!’” So Are You Experienced? was born all of those 17 years ago!

Of course Hendrix himself tragically died at just 27 in 1970 so is he recreating him as he was then? “There’s the odd iconic moment like Star Spangled Banner. And for people who don’t actually know Hendrix the one thing they will actually have seen is Wild Thing at Monterey Pop Festival where he burnt the guitar and smashed it up! But Jimi’s been dead 43 years now. As a tribute band it’s old hat. We try to make the show appeal to a younger audience too. We do a lot of audience participation, which Jimi didn’t, to make it accessible to new fans”. Audience participation and Jimi Hendrix? Surely the two don’t mix? I wonder what that could possibly mean. “I get the audience singing along” he admits with a grin. The Jimi Hendrix singalong! But does it work? “We’ve had kids of 11 or 9 come up to us afterwards with their parents and I always ask the dads ‘Are you a guitarist?’ and 8 out of 10 say ‘yeah I was a guitarist. I was into Hendrix and I’m teaching them!‘ Everybody’s comfortable with the music they grew up with. So that’s what we’re trying to do – for the people who’ve seen him before we’re just trying to create a bit of memory for them. But the new ones – I get a lot of people who come along on the off chance. They love the show and then I get emails to tell me ‘I went out and bought Greatest Hits’ and I think that’s fantastic.”

Are You Experienced? audio:[Midnight Lamp]

I feel it’s time to admit how I myself got into Hendrix, so I explain how my brother used to play Hendrix at full volume every morning getting dressed for school, so it was only a matter of time before All Along the Watchtower was in my blood! This Bob Dylan song so famously covered by Hendrix has just been voted the greatest rock cover of all time by listeners to UK rock station Planet Rock, which makes me wonder if Campbell has his own favourite Hendrix track. “Of course, when people ask ‘what’s my favourite track?’ I haven’t got one – there’s Castles Made of Sand, Angel, The Wind Cries Mary”.

Campbell especially admires the guitar playing he emulates so brilliantly. And not just Hendrix’s lead guitar. “His rhythm guitar playing is beautiful on for example Castles Made of Sand and The Wind Cries Mary. People ask what are the hardest Hendrix songs to play? It’s the quiet ones! He’s got a lot of melody going in his quiet numbers. He just had it all, blues, psychedelic funk, love songs”. But Campbell doesn’t just copy slavishly. “For me it’s about feeling” he says, “You play what you feel that’s what his music is all about. When Jimi was alive he himself said people copied him so well they even copied his mistakes!”
Campbell still listens to Hendrix over and over again. “There’s always something I can learn every time I put a track on.

“People ask do you never get fed up with playing Hendrix? If I got fed up with it I’d pack it in! I just love seeing people’s faces I just love trying to recreate what Jimi Hendrix did!” But he does not watch footage of Hendrix in action because, he says “You can’t help it, you’d soak it up like a sponge and I don’t want to end up being a parody. Visually the same as musically I use Jimi Hendrix as a framework for what I do. I just want everyone to go away saying ‘what a brilliant night I had a great time!’”
Are You Experienced? fronted by John Campbell, is at The Stables Wavendon on Saturday 25 May. The band is back in the Home Counties at the Camberley Theatre in Surrey on 29 June. For full details of all the band’s gigs, including dates in Oxford and at the Cambridge Rock Festival, and more samples of their great sound, visit http://www.areyou-experienced.co.uk/main.htm

Are You Experienced? (Hendrix Tribute) at The Stables, Wavendon on Saturday, 25th May

Box Office: 01908 280800 or online: www.stables.org

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Meanwhile back at The Stables, on 4 July you can see The Springfields themselves, not a tribute band but reformed now with Marina Berry (daughter of “Mr Radio” Colin Berry!). And here’s a diary date for lovers of the music of Neil Diamond – Diamond Decades, a live concert show, re-living and celebrating Neil Diamond’s great music with a full live band, and featuring “JJ” Jones as Neil Diamond, arrives at The Stables on 30 August!

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The Firework Maker’s Daughter is at Oxford Playhouse for half-term, 28th & 29th May.

The Firework-Maker's Daughter - The Opera Group, Opera North and the Royal Opera House - Hull Truck Theatre - 23rd March 2013Music by David BruceLibretto by Glyn MaxwellLila - Mary BevanHamlet - James LaingChulak - Amar MuchhalaLalchand - Wyn PencPicture: Jonathan Rose

Puppeteer Sally Todd makes sparks fly in The Firework Maker’s Daughter the brand new opera for families currently on tour with dates in Watford and Oxford. She’s been telling  Judi Herman how:

A new opera for children and families, The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, by award-winning British-American composer David Bruce and librettist Glyn Maxwell, is currently on tour, and fresh from a hugely successful fortnight in New York, it arrives at Watford Palace Theatre this week.

Based on the novel of the same title by children’s author Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials), the new opera is produced by The Opera Group and Opera North, in association with the Royal Opera House and Watford Palace Theatre.

It’s a vivid, adventurous re-telling of Pullman’s much-loved novel directed by John Fulljames, Associate Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House, and performed by a cast of five singers and two puppeteers. Set in the Far East, it tells the story of Lila (soprano Mary Bevan), a young girl who wants to be a firework-maker, like her father, even though he tells her it’s an unsuitable job for a girl. Against all the odds, Lila sets off on a quest to find the magical ingredients she needs from the terrifying Fire Fiend of Mount Merapi, with the aid of her friends, Hamlet the talking white elephant (counter-tenor James Laing) and his keeper Chulak (tenor Amar Muchhala). The opera uses a mixture of puppetry and live projection to create magical effects inspired by Indonesia’s shadow puppetry tradition.

The show is designed to excite children – and grownups – from New York to Newcastle via Watford and Oxford! And judging by the response it’s already enjoyed at its opening in Hull – and New York – it’s having the desired effect. And if it’s effects we’re talking about, the thrilling special effects in this ground-breaking production are down to Sally Todd and Steve Tiplady of Indefinite Articles Puppetry. They actually work onstage, dressed all in black, alongside the actor/singers, projecting not only the shadow puppets that play such a vital part of the story, but extraordinary special effects, including those vital fireworks. Shadow puppets may boast a pedigree going back centuries in Indonesia, but Sally and Steve use a surprising bit of rather mundane modern technology alongside them.

“We work a lot with overhead projectors” explains Sally. That may take most of us back to the classroom or the lecture theatre, but Indefinite Articles have put this old schoolroom war horse to work in a fascinating way. “We use images to project landscapes, atmospheres and effects. We particularly work with materials like oil and sand. The way we use them, they’ve become an integral part of our work.” So onstage there’s no question of hiding how they make the illusion. They actually want to share with their young audiences how they do it. “They can see how it’s being made but also what’s being made and if they can still suspend disbelief that’s the pinnacle of delight for us.”

If you’ve seen War Horse, the superb play based on another beloved book for young people by Michael Morpurgo, you’ll know that the framework of a horse with three puppeteers manipulating it from inside and out in full view of the audience can be so real that its fate moves you to tears. So prepare to be amazed at the spectacular fireworks effects created before your very eyes by puppeteers with nothing up their sleeves! “I really believe that the mechanics of the process is just as, if not more fascinating, so it’s wonderful to be able to share that with an audience. I feel it’s more generous as theatre to offer that out as well”. So Sally and Steve actually mix their materials live onstage!

Director John Fulljames and designer Dick Bird are particularly thrilled with the effects because as Sally says “This story is so much about light and fire. I’d be curious about how Philip Pullman himself responds to how we’ve responded to this beautiful story that he’s written.” In true fairy-tale fashion Sally may well get her wish granted if Pullman decides to pop in when the show reaches his home city of Oxford on 28 May – just in time for half term!

Sally goes on to explain that that although the whole idea is to offer opera to a young audience, the director was aware it might prove quite a challenge to them. “That’s why they brought us in” she goes on, “to offer a visual narrative as well. So we make shadow puppets to create the landscape or the atmosphere and then we also use masks in shadow so when the singers go into these landscapes that are shadow projections they wear shadow masks, like giant cut outs, on their heads.” With actor/singers able to enter the shadow world, that world may be life size or even larger than life, but delightfully it can also be a world in miniature when Sally and Steve create much smaller landscapes seen as if in the distance, complete with the tiny figures of Lila and her friends. Friends like Hamlet the talking white elephant, a favourite figure among Pullman’s readers. They won’t be disappointed to meet the imposing but sympathetic figure of James Laing, complete with his noble elephant mask. And when they hear his glorious counter tenor voice, they cannot but be enthralled.

All this and I haven’t even mentioned St Albans based composer David Bruce’s exciting score, played by a chamber orchestra of nine players and including the evocative sounds of the Balinese Gamelan orchestra .  “Pullman set the story in quite a nonspecific East” explains Sally, “even though Mount Merapi is definitely a real volcano in Indonesia, you can sometimes feel you are in India or China, and I think David Bruce has gone with that, so you do hear that Gamelan sound although it is very eclectic as well. Sometimes I feel it’s Eastern European as well. It’s a beautiful eclectic sound David’s put together, it’s really accessible, not just to children, but for adults as well who maybe thought they were indifferent to opera. It’s a very elemental, very moving, very beautiful piece of music that fits so well with the story.”

We talk more about that story, which should prove especially inspiring to girls in its young audience, for Lila is as brave and feisty as they come and she faces formidable odds on her journey. “That’s really exciting” agrees Sally, “she’s an incredible central character and stories where the girl is the protagonist are less common even now.”

We end as we began, talking about those special effects that Sally and Steve produce with the most mundane and unlikely technology.  “We don’t just use the overhead projectors, we use different light sources as well. We’ve got what we call ‘pan lights’ because we used to make them out of frying pans! And halogen lights, moving lights so we create moving images as well. Steve and I got very excited about capturing the story in the light – and then when you turn the lights off it’s gone it’s evaporated …”

Judi Herman

The Firework Maker’s Daughter is at Oxford Playhouse for half-term, 28th & 29th May. Box Office: 01865 305333 or online: www.oxfordplayhouse.com

For full listings follow this link: www.roh.org.uk/productions/the-firework-makers-daughter-by-john-fulljames. The opera is billed as suitable for ages eight upwards, but Sally says younger children have also been enjoying it!

2 thoughts on “Judi Herman Interviews…

  1. I’m pleased you enjoy reading my TheatreBlog Marion. I hope you will also get to see some of the shows we recommend.
    Regards….

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