Theatre Reviews

As often as possible I persuade friends with an interest in theatre to write reviews of current shows specially for TheatreBlog. Bearing in mind that these pieces are purely one person’s opinion, I hope you enjoy reading them.

You’ll find the name of the reviewer at the bottom of each piece.

****

Cilla – The Musical is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 30th September

I was fortunate enough to be at the opening night in Milton Keynes – and it was an amazing experience! Previously after seeing very many Bill Kenright productions I thought he’s hit a high with Joe McElderry as Joseph, but Cilla – The Musical is without doubt Mr Kenrights finest so far!

The lavish sets, the music as close to the original as it is possible to be all served to create the perfect atmosphere for our visit back to those days when pop music was changing, in fact young people in general were beginning to realise that new music was theirs for the taking!

Kara Lily Hayworth is stunning as a performer and absolutely perfect in the role of Prescilla White who very soon became Cilla Black. Kara most certainly held her own alongside seasoned performers such as Andrew Lancel (a moving performance as Brian Epstein), Pauline Fleming as Big Cilla and Neil Macdonald as Cilla’s father John White (“I know about these things, I was in the Merchant Navy!”) and the night was hers!

The rest of the cast, actors and musicians all were wonderful and the sounds they re-created took those of us of a certain age straight back – it was real, there’s no doubt!

I’m sure this will sell out this week and it should move into London if all’s fair, but if you can manage to get a ticket you’re in for a theatrical treat!

Cilla – The Musical is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 30th September

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

****

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is at  Milton Keynes Theatre, until 16 September

Jess Bermudez went along to the opening night….

 Can you honestly imagine the world where no-one was capable of ever telling a lie? Christopher is a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome and because of it cannot tell a lie and he assumes that everyone he meets is the same – until he discovers that his own parents have lied to him!

This breathtaking National Theatre production is as fine a piece of theatre as you will ever see.

It is a stunning story of a boy with autism, cleverly adapted from Mark Haddon’s novel by Simon Stephens and told by a truly talented cast. Due to the wonderful direction by Marianne Elliot, movement direction by Scott Graham & Steven Hoggett, brilliant set design and special effects, we get to see and feel exactly what Christopher feels inside during (for instance) his first ever trip on his own from his home in sleepy Swindon to the hustle and bustle of London. I swear the entire audience felt his panic!

This production is an absolute “must see” so if you haven’t already got tickets, get on-line right now – and just hope you’re not too late! 

Jess Bermudez

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is at Milton Keynes Theatre until 16th September

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

****

Grease at Milton Keynes Theatre from 28th August until  2nd September.

A packed house on Monday greeted this show with huge enthusiasm. There were very many young people in the audience and it did cross my mind that they might miss many of the references back to the 1950 Rock ‘N’ Roll culture. But if they did it didn’t show! They cheered until they were hoarse, clappped and sang along to every number! There was even a lady member of the press near me singing along with the solo numbers which I found a bit off putting!

The story line was as close to the film as you could expect and the sets and costumes were sparkling, spectacular and exactly right. I particularly liked the band led by Griff Johnson surveying all from above and helping no end to set a great atmosphere even during the overture (if I dare use that word about a rock ‘n roll show!).

The choreography I wasn’t quite so sure about even though it was staged by our top lady Arlene Phillips. It was a bit stylised  and as I’m old enough to have lived through this era it seemed a little like a collection of the ‘special’ moves of the time as against normal jiving that the teenagers would have done. But this is theatre, so I assume we need spectacle more than realism.

The cast are very strong in fact a couple of them I got the feeling could easily have played the two leads off the stage! Danielle Hope as Sandy gave us as close to Olivia Newton John as we could expect and just was the teenager all the young girls in the audience wanted to be. Somehow she also managed to scrunch her fine head of dark hair into a succession of uncomfortable looking blonde wigs!

 Wanted fans will have loved Tom Parker’s debut in Musical Theatre and I expect it will have earned him lots of brownie points even though I felt he could have been stronger. Having to do a Brooklyn (?) accent made several of the cast a bit difficult to understand at times, I wondered at the time if it might be as well to compromise on the accent for a British tour?

All in all, this show truly sparkles and if you can get a ticket I’d take a bet that you’ll be dancing, cheering and clapping along with the rest at the finale! Get a ticket if you can!

Ernie Almond

Grease is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 28th August until  Saturday 2nd September.

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

****

Jayne Eyre at MK Theatre

JANE EYRE UK Tour 2017
Royal National Theatre

I was lucky enough to get a ticket for this company’s opening night of the National Theatre and the Bristol Old Vic’s adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre at Milton Keynes Theatre and these were my thoughts:

It takes companies as skillful as the National Theatre and the Bristol Old Vic to collaborate and between them dissect, strip down, rethink and then reassemble one of the world’s classic stories – and come up with another world class classic performance!

This wonderful performance is not what you might expect. It has fine music, but it’s not a musical. It has interesting choreography, but there’s precious little dance. The costumes are just right, but this is not your standard period piece.The sound effects and lighting are perfectly blended, managing to echo exactly the emotions of the various characters. The set is reminiscent of the decking at home that I’ve been meaning to rip up for ages and the half built house from 7 Brides – but it is completely believable in all its forms during the story.

You might expect the leading roles in any National Theatre production to be played to perfection – which they most certainly were by Nadia Clifford and Tim Delap – but I could see no weak link in any of this chain of players. I think special congratulations for the wonderful performance of Lynda Rooke playing two very different women Mrs Reed and Mrs Fairfax and, like the entire cast, various other roles. Likewise Paul Mundell’s characters were all wonderful, including Pilot the dog that was utterly believable without resorting to the use of any hideous furry costume!

JANE EYRE UK Tour 2017
Royal National Theatre

This was most certainly an evening not to be missed. even though I think it slightly indulgent of the director to keep the show at 3hrs 15 minutes. There were certainly scenes, beautifully played, but we did get the gist after ten minutes but they took 30 minutes over the telling.

I don’t ever profess to be an expert, I am a keen theatregoer and the above is purely my own opinion. But I’m pretty sure you’ll agree with most of it if you can get a ticket! If you know anyone that’s managed to get one – offer them a small fortune for it, you’ll thank me afterwards!

****

Due to a slight technical problem, the review for Billy Elliot can be found on the home page.

****

Shirley Valentine is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 27th March until 1st April

This brillant masterpeice by Willy Russell is witty and not without pathos. It is hilarious at times but almost every line hits home with someone in the audience! This one-woman play is different to the film because all the other characters (and there are many) come alive through the actions and voice of Shirley as she converses with her best friend – her kitchen wall.

I imagine having to learn this peice would even daunt the Dame Judys and Dame Helens of this world, but Jodie Prenger pulls off a stunning performance. Engaging with the audience from the first few seconds, she twists and turns around the kitchen whilst relaying life with husband Joe as it seems to her.

Jodie Prenger has a wonderful natural comedy timing. I loved her use of the pause, often bringing an even bigger laugh. She is so perfect in this role that you would swear Willie Russell had written it for her! Congratulations too to director Glen Walford whose work made us believe we were really there in the kitchen with Shirley, just behind the wall she so often chats to.

But the night is Jodie Prenge’s,r who made us all love and have huge sympathy for this character. Jodie makes her just so funny, so believeable and so strong with the use of her various talents and Willie Russell’s lines. In fact Jodie is so good in this that I’ve now completely forgiven her for Calamity Jane! Do please try to get to see this, I promise you’ll thank me afterwards for forcing you!

Ernie Almond

Shirley Valentine is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 27th March until 1st April

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

****

The Play That Goes Wrong at the Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 18th March.

Photo: Helen Murray

I went along early in the week and I would be less than truthful if I said all ran smoothly. The few minor technical hitches were cleverly covered up by this stellar cast led by actor/director Trevor (played by Graeme Rooney). I.m sure that with the help of a few nail, a hammer and a roll of gaffer tape all will be well by the time you see this – and see it you must if only to witness the best corpse in the business played by Jason Callender.

Ernie Almond

Photo: Helen Murray

The Play That Goes Wrong is at the Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 18th March.

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

****

La Strada at Milton Keynes Theatre (20- 25th February

After quite a run of high profile musicals at Milton Keynes it is truly refreshing to see this new theatrical version of Fellini’s masterpiece La Strada. Directors Sally Cookson and Benji Bower are to be congratulated for dreaming up this very novel way of storytelling. For their bravery too because the entire show started with the story but no actual script until the actors first met at rehearsals! The whole wonderful experience has been honed at rehearsals and probably during the run by the cast and directors. The result is a compelling story that as they say during the action was told a thousand years ago and also told today. I promise you this is very different, clever, witty and you’d be foolish to miss it!

Ernie Almond

La Strada is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 25th February (matinees on Wed & Sat)

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

****

Matthew Bourne’s THE RED SHOES is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 14th – 18th February.

I have so far seen four of Matthew Bourne’s stunning creations and I would describe at least three of those productions  as masterpieces created by a genius. The Red Shoes is most certainly in that catagory!

Even actors have difficulty portraying a play within a play without overdoing the difference between the two, but to convey that in dance so perfectly is why they needed Matthew Bourne at the helm. There ‘s plenty of comedy both subtle and – in the case of Wilson & Kepple with no Betty(?) – not so. Some parts needed to be chilling and you could feel that chill-factor sweep across the audience.

As ever with this company it was such a team effort, Sam Archer, Ashley Shaw and Dominic North the three non members of the “Ballet Lermontov” took us through the story brilliantly. (I think Dominic must have his own dressing room by now at Milton Keynes Theatre!) Liam Mower’s career just goes from strength to strength, I particularly loved the double act with Joe Walkling, fine dancing and great comedy!

All in all, if you’re a true ballet enthusiast or, like me, none too knowlegable about the genre, I can assure you of a fabulous night in the theatre with The Red Shoes. NOT TO BE MISSED!

Ernie Almond

Matthew Bourne’s THE RED SHOES is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 14th – 18th February.

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

****

Not Dead Enough at Milton Keynes Theatre until 4th February

After thoroughly enjoying The Perfect Murder and Dead Simple, both adapted for stage from the Peter James’ books, I announced on social media that I was looking forward to seeing Not Dead Enough at Milton Keynes Theatre this week. Someone messaged me back saying that this had been his favourite book and that it is a brilliant story.

Unfortunately, this adaptation from the book didn’t work quite so well onstage for me. It started well, but quickly became too easy to predict what was about to happen. Just too many obvious pointers that you could hear members of the audience whispering before the deed was done!

Having said that, Shane Richie’s performance as Detective Superintendent Roy Grace was exactly right and powerful enough to lift what was for me a fairly average performance. The set was good, split three ways between Grace’s office, the iterrogation room and the Morgue where some of the bodies had more life than one or two of the cast!

Perhaps I was in a mood that made me too hard to please, there is lots of tension, murders, bondage and intrigue so go along yourself and make your own mind up. The evening finished with the cast receiving a really enthusiastic and prolonged applause, well I can’t be right all the time!

Ernie Almond

Not Dead Enough at Milton Keynes Theatre until 4th February

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

****

Thoroughly Modern Millie, at Milton Keynes Theatre from 24-28th January

It’s Millie’s night at MKT!

Not being a particular follower of Strictly Come Dancing I wasn’t really aware of Joanne Clifton, but that certainly changed after her great performance in Thoroughly Modern Millie at Milton Keynes Theatre. As you would expect, her dancing was faultless and her singing and acting were a revalation to me! I truly felt the night was hers.

She opens the show and is onstage for almost every second of the show during which time her energy never flagged for a second! She’s done lots – Norme Jeane – The Musical, Face the Music, Burn the Floor as well as Strictly and its live tour – but I got the feeling that “A Star Was Born” in this show.

I’ve seen Michelle Collins in three shows in the last few months, always good value but I felt for her playing the part of Mrs Meers, the Sweeney Todd of the B&B trade! Swapping between an obviously false Chinese accent and an authentic American one wearing an outfit borrowed from Widow Twankey?

All in all the show has excellent choreography ( I particularly like the office full of typists at desks on wheels dancing from the knee down) some really funny moments (especially from Graham McDuff playing Millie’s boss) and lots of very fine singing. I loved “Only In New York” from Jenny Fitzpatrck as Muzzy Van Hossmere and Sam Barrett as Jimmy has a great voice – his performance was very much appreciated by the packed house.

Thoroughly Modern Millie is set in the 1920’s, but dont think for one minute that it is “dated”.  Certainly worth seeing if you can get a ticket!

Ernie Almond

Thoroughly Modern Millie is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 24-28th January

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

****

Sister Act is at MK Theatre from 26th September until 1st October

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

A scene from Sister Act @ Leicester Curve. Directed and Choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood. (Opening 30-07-16) ©Tristram Kenton 07/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

Photographs by Tristram Kenton

Alexandra Burke sparkled throughout the performance which is exactly what we’ve come to expect from her. Just as well really, because I felt she was having to carry the show rather too much. Having the cast as actor/musicians works for some things but I didn’t think it quite came off for this – e.g. whilst the murdering gang were having a secret meeting, two of the policemen were needed on the set to play backing music! The musical nuns though, now that worked a treat and was very funny.

I’ve seen Aaron Lee Lambert in several things and I’ve always been most impressed, but in my opinion he made Curtis far too nice for the murderer he was. It didn’t help of course when Deloris dreams of being a star, Curtis is one of the dancers. Deloris might well have dreamed that Curtis would be dancing at her feet, but the audience just sat and wondered why the villain was now one of the dancers!

The set was the dowdy, almost penniless church. This had to double as a bar, nightclub, prison and even Eddie’s bedroom, all done quite effectively with lighting changes and minimal props. One more lighting change would have been nice though – to brighten up the church itself when they came into money.

For all my griping, it was an enjoyable night with a fabulous finale that brought the packed house to its feet! I just think that perhaps the ladies in the cast beat the men hands down!

Ernie Almond.

Sister Act is at MK Theatre from 26th September until 1st October

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

****

Sunny Afternoon at Milton Keynes Theatre until 3rd September.

SUNNY AFTERNOON TOUR - 2 Photo Kevin Cummins

I’m of an age that I dont mind admitting that I enjoyed The Kinks’ hits the first time round! But I was not too sure what to expect as I went to the Milton Keynes Theatre to see Sunny Afternoon. I needn’t have worried as it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable evenings in the theatre this year! The whole show, set in front of a mountain of speakers (at times it sounded as if they were all working!) was technically excellent. The actors were also fine musicians and singers and the Ray Davies songs were reproduced more accurately than we as the audience had a right to expect!

There were moments in between the well known Kinks hits and a stunning drum solo by Andrew Gallo as drummer Mick Avory where the songs with Ray and his young wife played by Lisa Wright and Ray and Dave Davies that were so poignant that there were several seconds of emotional silence before the packed house applauded. We also see how tough times were for groups in those days with the managers, publishers and promoters taking huge cuts of the money.

If you like a good story, or just want to experience being at a live Kinks performance then get a ticket to see this show!

Ernie Almond

Sunny Afternoon is at Milton Keynes Theatre until 3rd September.

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

****

Noel Coward’s Present Laughter  at Milton Keynes Theatre from 11th–16th July

PresentLaughter 1

 Noel Coward’s Present Laughter is set in the 1930’s when the stars of the theatre were worshipped by their adoring public quite as much as Boy bands are by their fans today. Gary Essendine’s life is more of a Love tangle than a love triangle and leads to all sorts of complications!

The gentle humour and razor sharp wit that was the trademark of Coward is evident throughout the first half, slowly building up to scenes that might not look out of place in one of the better Whitehall farces in the second half.

Theatre Royal Bath June 2016 Dress Rehearsal Present Laughter by Noel Coward Directed by Stephen Unwin Designer Simon Higlett Lighting Designer Paul Pyant Samuel West/Garry Essendine Phyllis Logan/Monica Reed Daisy Boulton/Daphne Stillington Martin Hancock/Fred Rebecca Johnson/Liz Essedine Sally Tatum/Miss Erikson Toby Longworth/Henry Lyppiatt Zoe Boyle/Joanne Lyppiatt Jason Morell/Morris Dixon Elizabeth Holland/Lady Saltbury Patrick Walshe McBride/Ronald Maule ©NOBBY CLARK +44(0)7941-515770 +44(0)20-7274-2105 nobby@nobbyclark.co.uk

A wonderful performance by Samuel West as Gary Essendine, coping with the cutting sarcasm from his secretary Monica (beautifully played by Phyllis Logan) who has been with him for 17 years and has seen it all before! This production boasts a very strong cast playing eleven very different characters. Essendine’s luxurious apartment is the very detailed set designed by Simon Higlett all very lifelike from the skylight window to the parquet flooring. Hannah Bell is to be congratulated for choosing stunning costumes of the period that somehow didn’t look dated.

That could be said of the whole production, the humour and the predicaments that Gary Essendine finds himself in were all happening in the 1930’s and you very quickly notice that they are just as prevalent today!

A great night at the theatre and a far cry from the amplified Cacophony of sound that we are so used to with modern musicals that seem to be the staple diet of current touring theatre. Present Laughter is thoroughly recommended, get to see it at Milton Keynes Theatre if you can, it’s on its way into London but that might cost you very much more!

Ernie Almond

Noel Coward’s Present Laughter  is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 11th–16th July

Box Office: 0844 871 7652 or online: www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes (booking fees apply. Calls 7p per min, [plus your phone company’s access charge)

****

Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat  at Milton Keynes Theatre until 2nd July.

joseph

Those of us who have seen various editions of the Bill Kenwright production of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat are by now quite used to inflatable sheep that don’t (inflate that is), jokey bits that don’t quite hit the mark and the cardboard Sphinx with a sliding mouth. But this latest tour is a real sparkler! Joe McElderrry is without doubt the best Joseph I have seen including the West End Production a few years ago. His onstage presence and energy are only matched by his fine vocal performance. He is the worthy star of this show.

Lucy Kay’s singing talent is also first rate. She commands the stage well as the narrator and re-acts with the children in the cast well.

This is as good a production as you’re likely to see, perfect for the younger members of the family with a story they probably already know and can follow. The show closed with the usual standing ovation, not just from the young ones or McElderry fans, but all ages were on their feet clapping along and singing the finale routine with Joe and company.

Ernie Almond

Highly recommended, very few tickets left.

Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is at Milton Keynes Theatre until 2nd July.

Box Office: 0844 871 7677 or online: www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes

****

Rehearsal for Murder at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 25th June.

RFM_CASTx3

An excellent choice to kick off Bill Kenwright’s new Classic Thriller Theatre Company, “Rehearsal for Murder” has all the favourite Agatha Christie tricks of the trade without the dated feel that one or two of them have nowadays.

Actors performing a play within a play must find it difficult enough being the same character both acting and for real, but in this story by Richard Levinson & William Link (adapted for the stage by David Rogers) they have to cope with a play within a play within a play! I can tell you no more for fear of spoiling it for you. I do though, thoroughly recommend this murder mystery to you – and I’d bet next week’s drink allowance that you wont guess the answer before it happens!

This very strong cast are a real team and although it would be wrong to single any one out, I must say how nice it was to see Anita Harris again (as glamourous as ever) and Mark Wynter now a much in demand actor – a long cry from his “Venus in Blue Jeans” days. Congratulations too to Alex Ferns as the playwright Alex Dennison. Onstage virtually for the entire play, Alex carried this mystery well.

My only criticism might be that due to the nature of the story there needs to be a lengthy explanation from the whole cast as to what actually happened! Having said that, I’ve no idea what details you might cut!

If you’re quick, you might get a seat, if you do I know you’ll enjoy the twists and turns of this fine story!

Ernie Almond

Rehearsal for Murder is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 25th June.

Box office: 0844 8717652 or online: www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes

****

Avenue Q at Milton Keynes Theatre from 16th – 21st May

Avenue Q (dress)-215

For some reason I got the impression that the puppets used in this production were not as big as those I saw in the West End version. I’m pretty sure that they were though – there’s a whole thriving business of hiring sets of Avenue Q puppets for out of town productions. I can only assume that the actors were more animated than the puppets because I found myself watching the puppeteers more often than the puppets, this has not happened before. I still think this is the cleverest and one of the funniest musicals, but I left the theatre feeling just a bit disappointed.

Ernie Almond

Avenue Q is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 16th – 21st May

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

****

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at Milton Keynes Theatre from 4-14th  May

Like a child that gets over excited before Christmas only to find the very present they were longing for was not there, I went along to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with memories of Michael Ball and the wonderful Brian Blessed in the London production. That was possibly a mistake. I really can’t say that there was anything wrong with this production, but during the interval I remember hoping it would perk up in the second half, it didn’t. I drove home thinking the whole evening had been a bit flat.

Ernie Almond

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 4-14th  May

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

****

Hairspray at Milton Keynes Theatre from 4th – 9th April 2016

Hair Spray SETUPS-3100

I managed to get to the opening night at Milton Keynes Theatre of this wonderful production of Hairspray. Taking a musical of this scale onto the road must present enormous logistical problems, yet scenery is flown in and out so unobtrusively that you really don’t notice until you find yourself in another scene.

Along with the great music and fabulous choreography in this show, there is a very strong message of “Integration not segregation” especially as far as racism & sizeism (if there is such a word) are concerned. A very strong cast led by Claire Sweeney at her funniest as Velma Von Tussle, Matt Rixon a wonderful Edna Turnblad and Peter Duncan as her husband Wilbur.

Freya Sutton (Tracy Turnblad) in Hairspray. Credit Ellie Kurttz.jpg Freya Sutton returns to her role as Tracy Turnblad carrying the audience along with her teenage problems of image and love – and often both at the same time! The choreography is terrific, Drew McOnie managed to show a marked difference in styles of the white TV dancers and the “once a month only” black kids. I would love to have seen a little more evidence of the dreaded hair spray aerosols that those of us of a certain age still have nightmares over!

Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle Special mention must go to Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle who lit up the entire theatre every time she appeared on stage as the kindly “Mama figure” to all the kids from the ghetto. Not just her personality, but her wonderful and powerful voice earned her huge applause after each of her two solo numbers.

I was also pleased to notice several members of the ensemble had their original training at the Tring Park School for the Performing Arts.

They call this the ultimate feel-good musical and that’s exactly what you do feel on the way out from this production! The entire audience on the Monday night was on its feet long before the spectacular finale was over.

Rush and get tickets now!

Ernie Almond

Hairspray is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 4th – 9th April (Matinees on Wednesday & Saturday)

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

****

An Inspector Calls at The Milton Keynes Theatre

IMG_0664  The Milton Keynes Theatre was packed for the opening night including very many young students – but my fears of a noisy audience for this thriller were unfounded. From the opening moments the entire audience were spellbound!

The set by Ian MacNeil worked beautifully for this intriguing night of twists and turns! The quiet but firm manner in which Liam Brennan’s Inspector Goole takes complete control of the family deserves special mention, but this is most certainly an ensemble piece. You feel for each member of the family as their turn comes for a “chat” with the Inspector. J B Priestley keeps us all guessing about all manner of things, not least who, if anyone was guilty! If I used a star system, this production would get ten!

An Inspector Calls is at The Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 27th February.

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

****

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty,  Milton Keynes Theatre.

Don’t go to a Matthew Bourne production expecting a traditional evening at the ballet.  Do go expecting to be surprised and richly entertained.
Bourne’s version of Sleeping Beauty was created to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his company “New Adventures” and it’s now on tour.
The reception the audience at Milton Keynes Theatre gave to this remarkable company, underlines the impact Matthew Bourne has made since he took the gamble to explore new ways of presenting ballet in 1987.
SLEEPING BEAUTY by Bourne, , Director and Choreographer - Matthew Bourne, Designer - Lez Brotherston, Lighting - Paule Constable, New Adventures, Theatre Royal, Plymouth, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

SLEEPING BEAUTY by Bourne, , Director and Choreographer – Matthew Bourne, Designer – Lez Brotherston, Lighting – Paule Constable, New Adventures, Theatre Royal, Plymouth, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

The curse put on Princess Aurora’s family by Tom Clark’s commanding Carabosse sending the 21 year old to sleep for 100 years, ends in one of Bourne’s clever surprises. Ashley Shaw as the Princess and Dominic North as the lowly Leo, who gains her hand,were beautifully matched and Christopher Marney was an outstanding Count Lilac, guiding him through many adventures. The whole company clearly brought out every detail of this wonderful story.
 Using a large amount of Tchaikovsky’s music, this Gothic Romance had a happy ending; good triumphing over evil
A very few tickets remain.
Box Office: 0844 871 7652  or online: www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes
 Malcolm Singer.

****

Cinderella at The Royal & Derngate, Northampton

Actor, dancer, singer and television presenter John Partridge headed the cast in Cinderella at Royal & Derngate Northampton this Christmas, from Friday 11 December 2015 to Sunday 3 January 2016. John was joined by Sid Sloane from CBeebies, plus impressionist Danny Posthill and vocalist Alison Jiear, both fresh from their appearances on last year’s Britain’s Got Talent.

Cinderella launch_Sid Sloane, John Partridge, Danny Posthill_4432

Cinderella featured all of the traditional Northampton pantomime ingredients audiences have come to expect, plus Pegasus the amazing flying horse – all of which will ensured that audiences had a ball!

This production was without doubt my top one of the Christmas shows on offer in our region this year. The cast worked very hard, the sets were glorious and the flying horse effect was perfect – like chitty chitty bang bang on four legs! The current economic climate took its toll however, the producers, Qdos decided to not only cut any live orchestra (shame on them!) but we had no Baron Hardup character in this story either. This did affect the story somewhat  we didnt really get that “the family” – consisting just of Cinderella and her two sisters, were very poor at all. John Partridge was a likeable and energetic leading man with a really good singing voice. Perfect Prince Charming material! There could have been a few less Gay references as the joke wore a bit thin and how many pre rehearsed corpses should the director allow? The ugly sisters (Ben Stock & Bobby Delaney) were a joy. Both worked so well together and with the audience and their costumes were the most outrageous I’ve ever seen! This show was worth every penny of the ticket money just to witness the Ugly Sisters’ 1st entrance with their pooches! There were some complaints about the many adult innuendos, but where do you draw the line these days?

A real joy was Alison Jiear as the Fairy Godmother. A perferct choice – a very friendly (motherly even) with the most appealing personality and a truly magical voice!

So, all in all a few minus points to Qdos for allowing too much adult material through the net and for cutting back on cast and all musicians, but mainly very positive ones for the entire show! If you missed it this year – you missed a good’un!

****

Around The World IN Eighty Days at The Stables Theatre, Wavendon

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Based on Jules Verne’s famous novel and combining clowning, live music, storytelling and an international ensemble, Around the World in 80 Days takes you on a high-speed, madcap, transcontinental race against the clock. One policeman, two comrades, three cab rides, four continents, five trains, six ships and just 80 days to get back home!

This is a magical show, all the more so for the gloriously inventive simplicity with which six hugely talented performers tell the story, play the music and provide the sound effects  – and all with the simplest of props and almost no set at all. With instruments in hand, tongue in cheek and hearts in the right place they bring out all the excitement, comedy and romance in this great adventure. You’ll be just as enchanted whatever age you are from six to 106!

But don’t take my word for it – listen to 13 year-old Josh and 14-year old Sigi, who loved every minute of this lo-tech hi-energy show and get a flavour of the show and that fantastic music! Just go to the home page and look for this show, then click on the Audio Player at the foot of the article.

Judi Herman

****

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Nov. 7th. (for full show details, please go to Home page)

Can you honestly imagine the world if no-one was capable of ever telling a lie? Christopher is a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome and because of it cannot tell a lie and he assumes that everyone he meets is the same – until he discovers that his own parents have lied to him!

The Curious Incident of the Night-TimeUK TourJoshua Jenkins as Christopher Boone & Stuart Laing as ED

This breathtaking National Theatre production is as fine a piece of theatre as you will ever see.

It is stunning that this story, cleverly adapted from Mark Haddon’s novel by Simon Stephens and told by a truly talented cast, has made me understand more about autism than anything else ever has. Due to the wonderful direction by Marianne Elliot, movement direction by Scott Graham & Steven Hoggett, brilliant set design and special effects, we get to see and feel axactly what Christopher feels inside during (for instance) his first ever trip on his own from his home in sleepy Swindon to the hustle and bustle of London. I swear the entire audience felt his panic!

This production is an absolute “must see” so if you haven’t already got tickets, get on-line right now – and just hope you’re not too late! If I used a star system I’d run out of asterisks!

Ernie Almond

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Nov. 7th.

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

****

The Glenn Miller Story is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 26th until 31st October.

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There’s absolutely no doubt that Tommy Steele has still got what it takes to carry a full scale musical – and easily control a packed house at MK Theatre with just the blink of an eye!

This version of The Glenn Miller Story has been staged by Bill Kenwright purely as a vehicle for Tommy. The music of Glenn Miller is faithfully re-created by a first class 16 piece orchestra led by Andrew Corcoran, the costumes of the period are great – as are the dancers and singers wearing them. Special mention I think should go to Sarah Soetaert playing Glenn’s wife Helen Burger. With the most interesting singing voice that I could listen to again and again, Sarah supported Tommy’s Glenn perfectly.

The story could have been a little more dramatic at the end after we see Glenn Miller walk from the hangar at Twinwoods in Bedfordshire for that final fated journey to Paris.

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There is absolutely no doubt that Tommy Steele still has the “Pazaz” that made him a star all those years ago, but I was left wondering if this was quite the right show to take on at the ripe old age of 79? His voice is still exactly the same as we remember in Half a Sixpence or any of his records going right back to Rock with the Caveman, but as with many of us “over 35’s” his movements were those of someone considerably older than Glenn Miller was when he died. Don’t let my thought put you off however – this is a show that will please the Miller aficionado’s and enthral the Steele fans!

I would love to see Tommy narrating his own life story – if they could find someone brave enough to play Tommy with the man himself onstage! Tommy Steele still has such a lot to give theatre audiences – I’m just not sure that this was the perfect vehicle.

Ernie Almond

 The Glenn Miller Story is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 26th until 31st October.

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

****

English National Ballet’s stunning presentation of Romeo & Juliet is at The Milton Keynes Theatre from 22-24th October

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What a rare joy it was to see the entire orchestra pit at Milton Keynes Theatre open and in use! I have seen other dance companies using backing tracks – but certainly not the English National Ballet. People that complain about British theatre receiving subsidies should just see (let alone hear the glorious sound!) of the 62 members of the very fine English National Ballet Philharmonic who are accompanying Romeo & Juliet at Milton Keynes Theatre this week and doing the music of Prokofiev proud!

 That wonderful orchestra, along with a large cast of highly talented dancers of the English National Ballet made this an evening in the theatre that will be delightedly remembered by this week’s audiences for a very long time! Coping wonderfully with Rudolf Nureyev’s complicated choreography, we saw stunning performances from all the principal dancers, especially Isaac Hernandez (Romeo) and Erina Takahashi (Juliet) supported  by an outstanding team of Principal artists, soloists and character artists.

The show was dressed, lit and set perfectly with the use of very effective subdued colours which, I imagine, is not easy on a tour when every theatre has its own different problems and characteristics.

I was pleased to see that this huge cast of dancers was augmented by students of the English National Ballet School giving them a real experience of working professionally on a tour.

If there are any spare tickets, take my advice and beg for one if you have to!

Ernie Almond

English National Ballet’s stunning presentation of Romeo & Juliet is at The Milton Keynes Theatre from 22-24th October

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

****

Shrek poster

Even if the cast hadn’t been 1st class (They are, they’re great!) I would tell you to get to see Shrek the Musical at Milton Keynes Theatre purely for the design and production values alone! From the utterly brilliant costumes to the sets, the special effects (including a wonderful singing dragon) to the direction by Nigel Harman. Those things alone would make a fabulous night out for all the family. Don’t run away with the idea that this is just a show for children, I guarantee the adults of the family will laugh a lot, have sympathy for Shrek and enjoy the excellent 12 piece orchestra lead by Dave Rose.

I probably shouldn’t single out anyone from this talented cast, they were all just perfect, but from the moment Dean Chisnall (Shrek) opens the show he’s got the audience in the palm of his hand, he’s no mean singer either. Ryan Reid (understudy, called on to play Donkey the night we went) and Bronte Barbe (Princess Fiona) both prove that in addition to fine singing talents they each have a flair for comedy. Speaking of comedy, Gerard Carey as Lord Farquaad absolutely tears the house down with some brilliantly funny scenes! I’m now a devoted fan of his horse “Fibreglass” – the only horse I’ve seen with a reverse gear!

You might not leave the theatre singing any of the tunes – apart from I’m A Believer the Monkey’s old hit, which like in the film is used for the end credits, but you will most certainly come out with a smile on your face having had a truly magnificent theatrical experience!

Ernie Almond.

Shrek the Musical is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 18th August until 6th September

Box Office: 0844 8717652 or online: www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes

****

THE MAN CALLED MONKHOUSE is at Edinburgh Fringe, Assembly Hall, Venue 35 6th-16th, 18th-31st August

Online Box Office: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/man-called-monkhouse

then The Court Theatre (Tring) on Friday 18th September

Box Office: 07543 560478 or online: www.courttheatre.co.uk/whats_on

Having watched the first public performance of The Man Called Monkhouse I certainly got the feeling that here was a piece that is bound to grow and grow. Congratulations are due to writer actor Alex Lowe and director Bob Golding who have treated us to just a glimpse of the real Bob Monkhouse – with many of the blemishes not covered in an orange make-up!

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The look and the voice of actor Simon Cartwright are astoundingly accurate, and you’ll feel the goosebumps as you see Bob himself up on that stage. I’ve a strong sense that all that was missing was a couple of notches upwards of the Monkhouse energy and sparkle whilst he actually performed (to contrast slightly with Bob at home) but I’m equally certain this will come after a few performances at The Fringe!  Whilst I’m being really picky, I could have done without the conversation with the policeman investigating the loss of Bob’s files and substituted maybe a few moments of him  working the crowd as he did at Lakeside for instance.

Bob had tragedy in his life and quite purposely this is not dwelled upon. But how do you end a biographical piece about a man like Monkhouse when you’re only halfway through his life? With great difficulty I imagine!  Maybe one day soon Alex Lowe will pen a second act showing Bob’s bravery towards the end, continuing to make people laugh whilst at the same time dealing with prostrate cancer.

Having only seen the first ever public performance of this, I’m now sorry I cant be in Edinburgh to see every other performance and witness this fine play being honed. If you can, I promise you a piece of theatre you will remember for a very long time!

****

Agatha Christie’s “Then There Were None” is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 25th July (Matinees on Wednesday & Saturday)

Pictures by Pamela Raith Photography

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It takes a few minutes to get into this period piece, but once you do this strong cast keep you gripped all the way to the unhappy conclusion. If you like a whodunnit this is probably Agatha Christie’s most popular. An ingenious plot that really keeps you guessing until the final moments!  (Full details on Home Page)

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Then There Were None is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 25th July (Matinees on Wednesday & Saturday)

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

Ernie Almond

****

Jesus Christ Superstar at Milton Keynes Theatre, 13-18th July

I first realised that touring productions can be quite as good – sometimes better – than the original West End version when Phantom of the Opera came to Milton Keynes. Now here’s another, Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar as produced by Bill Kenwright is a theatrical experience not to be missed!

Its seems strange that Webber & Rice only wrote three musicals together because of the huge impact they’ve had. I’m sure they are both more than pleased with this current Kenwright treatment of it.

Pamela Raith

Directed by Bob Thomson and Bill Kenwright the world’s oldest story could so easily have misfired or even offended, but it did neither of those things. The sets were unobtrusive but perfectly effective, the cast gave this performance their all led by Glenn Carter (what a voice that man has!).

Pamela Raith

Tim Oxbrow took over the difficult role of Judas Iscariot for the performance I witnessed and was close to hitting the press with the old “Understudy Makes Good” headline. Rachel Adedeji was an Xfactor finalist with a beautiful voice and is now happily honing her acting skills with this show.  The entire cast are a very tight and talented team who all deserve a mention but standing out for me was Tom Gilling as King Herod and the superb voice of Cavin Cornwall as Caiaphas.

Pamela Raith

The crucifixion scene was the scene if any that might have misfired, but it was done so tastefully that it brought complete silence to the auditorium and I have to admit a lump to the throat of this cynical old atheist! Whatever your faith, or if you are not of a religious background at all, I urge you to get to see this production – the reason this is the oldest story in the world is purely because its the strongest one!

Ernie Almond

Jesus Christ Superstar is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 13-18th July

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

****

Spamalot is at the Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday June 20th.

During the interval on Monday evening, I heard a lady sum up Spamalot in one sentence:  “My sides are aching from laughing, yet it’s just a lot of utter nonsense!”

I’m sure there are still enough Monty Python fans around to pack the Milton Keynes theatre once more for this popular show even though I’m not convinced that this kind of humour isn’t just starting to date a little.

SPAMALOT_GROUPIts almost a series of sketches around the theme of King Arthur and his search for the Holy Grail and just like Monty Python, some work better than others. The very strong cast are lead by father & son team Joe Pasquale and Joe Tracini who work very well together along with Sarah Earnshaw as The Lady In The Lake who was called upon to sing in a variety of styles and proved she has a real talent for comedy.

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The Knights of the Round Table were coiffured to perfection (I’m convinced that Sir Robin (Will Hawksworth) was wearing a wig that was a Doris Day cast off!)  Tenor Richard Kent played Prince Herbert who was far more interested in running up a pair of curtains than fighting in the Crusades deserves special mention. In fact most of the cast played at least two parts, donning wigs and costumes at an alarming rate somewhere in the wings!

If you’ve never seen Spamalot before, do get along to see it – I don’t think we’ll see its like again!

Spamalot is at the Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 20th June

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

****

Dead Simple by Peter James. At The Milton Keynes Theatre until 13th June

Having really enjoyed The Perfect Murder some months ago by the same author, I looked forward to seeing the stage adaptation by Shaun McKenna of another of Peter James’ books Dead Simple – and I have to say I was not disappointed!

Michael Harrison (Jamie Lomas) & Mark Warren (Rik Makarem), friends since their school days run a very successful property developement company. Fairly recently Ashley Harper (Tina Hobley) has not only joined the company, but become Michael’s fiancé. Just a few days before the wedding a stag night stunt goes horribly wrong……..can the controversial Detective Superintendent Roy Grace (Gray O’Brien) manage to sort out the twists and turns of this his latest case?

Peter James has once again managed to combine suspense, drama and comedy in this fascinating story. It is gripping, coaxing you all the time to guess what the end result is going to be, but I imagine I was not the only person that got it completely wrong! The very strong cast are to be congratulated for very fine performances all round, but I do feel that newcomer to live theatre (though his television credits are numerous)  Josh Brown deserves special mention. He played the difficult role of a teenager with a learning disability with absolute conviction.

I must say no more for fear of spoiling the story, but I urge you to go and see Dead Simple this week at Milton Keynes Theatre. Whether you’re a fan of suspense dramas, whodunnits, crime novels – or just getting a bit fed up with musicals and want something to get you thinking I just know that you’ll enjoy this!

Ernie Almond.

Dead Simple is at Milton Keynes Theatre until 13th June.

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

****

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

****

Brian Conley in Barnum at the Milton Keynes Theatre until 16th May.

4. BARNUM company. Photo by Johan Persson

Barnum’s the name, PT Barnum, and I want to tell you that tonight, on this stage, you are going to see – bar none – every sight, wonder and miracle that name stands for!’

Whether you are a fan of Brian Conley, of musicals or even the travelling circus I think you’ll love this touring production of Barnum! The story of the ups and downs in PT Barnum’s life are told here in great style. In his time, he was thought to be the most famous man in the world – if not the most honest! Brian Conley (Barnum) is a much loved entertainer and in this I got the feeling that he empathised very much with the character. As expected, he had the audience eating out of his hand in the first few minutes using his skills as a stand-up artist and for this character they fitted in perfectly – his technical knowledge of the conjurer’s art didn’t go unnoticed either!

I felt it was a shame that since way back as far as the earlier production of this starring Michael Crawford so much has been made of the walk across the high wire for publicity purposes. It is a very difficult thing to do every night, but because we’ve come to expect it from Barnum it didn’t get the recognition it really deserves.

Once again the sound in the MK Theatre made it difficult to catch all the words (especially during the patter songs) – there are a few “dead patches” in that theatre that I wish they would sort out! But I’ve been saying that for years and nothing’s improved so far!

With Barnum himself as story teller with his wife Chairy ( lovely performance from Linzi Hateley) putting up with his many hair-brained  ideas! We are treated throughout the show with many circus skills from fire eating to juggling and high wire which are used to great effect. Some of the theatrical effects are a joy too (especially the biggest elephant in the world!) credit there to Scott Pask (Scenic designer) and Paul Wills (Costume designer).

All in all a lively, colourful show, with lots of laughter, romance, great choreography by Andrew Wright and plenty of pleasant if not spectacular music. But I’ll bet you come out having had a great time and humming Come Follow The Band!

Ernie Almond

****

The Kings Speech at Milton Keynes Theatre 5th – 9th May and the Oxford Playhouse from 11th – 16th May

I was at the first night in MK and these were my thoughts:

Well, may I be forgiven! With Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Joseph (among many others) to his name I have to admit that I was of the opinion that Jason Donovan might be just a bit of a lightweight – HOW WRONG I WAS!  Both he (as speech therapist Lionel Logue) and the superb Raymond Coulthard (King George V1) along with a  surprisingly large and highly talented cast had the packed house gripped from the first minute.

Jason Donovan (Lionel Logue), Raymond Coulthard (King George VI) Picture by Hugo Glendinning

I was particularly pleased that Raymond Coultard wasn’t tempted to overdo the King’s stammer, but it was enough to show us his embarrassment and to point up the hurt he felt from his father and really quite evil brother who taunted him for most of his younger life, calling him B-B-B-Bertie etc. The supporting cast were all excellent, especially Claire Lams as Queen Elizabeth (still the Duchess of York at the beginning of the story) and Nicholas Blane who played Churchill without slipping into some sort of caricature of the man.

Theatrical sets that have to be struck and re-assembled at a different venue each week for touring companies must be notoriously difficult to design, but designer Tom Piper is to be congratulated for this ingenious one! A curved cyclorama of wooden panels more than adequately portraying rooms in Buckingham Palace, Logue’s surgery and even Westminster Cathedral with swift and unobtrusive furniture changes being done by the cast during moments of twilight.

All in all a grand night at the theatre that tugged at the heart strings one moment then had you laughing the next. Rarely do we see standing ovations for straight plays outside the West End, but that is exactly what happened on this Tuesday evening – quite deservedly so too!

Ernie Almond

The King’s Speech is at Milton Keynes Theatre until 9th May

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

and the following week at The Oxford Playhouse (11th – 16th May)

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

****

Lord of the Dance – Dangerous Games  is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 21st – 26th April (matinees on Saturday & Sunday)

Morgan Comer as the Lord of the Dance in DANGEROUS GAMES credit Brian Doherty (2)

I was in the audience for the opening night on Tuesday and I guess all the diehard Irish Dance officianados were there too – and they loved it! Unfortunately the Lord of the Dance company management couldn’t see their way clear to sparing a programme or even a cast list for the press, so I won’t be able to name any of the dancers. But you know what’s-his-name that danced the lead (I imagine originally the Michael Flatley part) well he carried the show well and his dancing was superb! As did thingmy-bob who danced the villian and their duets were great. There was a girl singer who came on three or was it four times to slow things down a bit – managing to bring it all down to a sort of variety show. I really didn’t feel that any of her songs helped move the story(?) along at all. There were also two very fine violinists, but quite honestly as the effects and sound were already so over the top we weren’t quite sure if they were playing live or not! The same with the enhanced sound of the tapping from the dancers’ shoes, it could easily have been on a click-track in which case there was some extremely clever foot-syncing from the dancers!

The show opened with a larger than life hologram of Michael Flatley himself on the huge screen starting the proceedings. Speaking of the screen, it covered the entire back wall of the MK stage and the rostrum & steps. Some very picturesque and imaginative films are shown (in place of sets) during the whole show. Most of them were very effective and to say the least dramatic – I even loved the unicorn that repeated its movements as if on a loop tape! This technological setting was – although well made, in danger of becoming distracting, I found myself watching its various changes throughout one number from the girls!

Tom Cunningham as The Dark Lord in LORD OF THE DANCE - DANGEROUS GAMES credit Brian Doherty

Its a fact that some of the best musicals have a fairly weak story-line and this show proves the point. There’s good and there’s evil and good wins – that’s it.

I know that Mr Flatley has the ego of three men, but did we need to see all three at once in hologram form at the end? Maybe for his many fans the answer to that is yes .

All in all, a very lively, colourful futuristic production. It will truly please all Irish Dancing fans, but if you’re not really into scissor kicks and very loud tap dancing which started once or twice even before the dancers were onstage (dancing in the wings? – I bet not!) maybe you won’t get past the 15 minutes or so after the show starts before you see the first sign of actual Irish Dancing.

*** three stars – worth a look.

Lord of the Dance – Dangerous Games is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 21st – 26th April (matinees on Saturday & Sunday)

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

Ernie Almond.

P.S. The following morning I had an email from the company enclosing the details of their programme! So now I can say that on the night I saw the show the Lord of The dance was played by Morgan Comer, the Dark Lord by Tom Cunningham and the two violinists were Eimer Reilly and Valerie Gleeson.

****

The Woman in Black at Milton Keynes Theatre, 23rd – 28th March

These were my thoughts after the show on Monday 23rd March at MK Theatre:

There are always a few hitches on an opening night (the house lights left on for half of the 2nd half when we needed it to be dark and creepy) but my heart went out to the two fine actors Malcolm James (Arthur Kipps) and Matt Connor (The Actor) on Monday because every person in Herts, Beds and Bucks with bronchial problems seemed to be in the house performing a sort of Mexican Wave of coughing and spluttering during the quieter passages.

As if that weren’t enough, a party of who I assumed to be young teenage girls with no more knowledge of a serious piece of storytelling than “Mama Mia”  had obviously been told that this was a scary story – so they screamed at every opportunity, even when there was nothing to scream about!

The Woman in Black (cleverly adapted from Susan Hill’s novel by Stephen Mallatratt) is of necessity a wordy piece, beautifully performed by Malcolm James and Matt Connor although in these days of fantastic and technically brilliant special effects I found it all a little dated. The story though, is very strong and for the two actors to carry us through the two hours – amid the coughing, sneezing, screaming, and even nervous laughter during the more creepy bits without losing us, was a mammoth task and well worthy of the applause at the end of the evening.

Not that this production company would ever need my advice, but if they were to ask, I’d say keep the two actors, scrap the set, the lighting plot and the special effects and re-think them. It really needs the appearance of the title character to have more of an impact than the classic pantomime ghost sequence!

By the way, I do hope the lady that sat next to me and sniffed and sneezed her way through the entire performance has now got over her bout of double pneumonia!

The Woman in Black at Milton Keynes Theatre, 23rd – 28th March

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

****

To Kill A Mockingbird at Milton Keynes Theatre until 14th March.

To Kill A Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird at the Milton Keynes Theatre this week is a stunning presentation based on the original novel by Harper Lee. It’s message is so strong you come away thinking it should be compulsory viewing across the world! The three children in the cast are utterly captivating and the adult members play several parts each with just the use of an accent change, the swap of a cardigan or jacket – and plenty of what I can only describe as whole-body acting!

The only reason there was not a standing ovation on the first night was simply due to the fact that we were all completely spellbound!

“You don’t know a man until you’ve stepped into his shoes and walked around in them”

Ernie Almond.

If there’s a spare ticket, grab it!

To Kill A Mockingbird is at Milton Keynes Theatre until 14th March and unsurprisingly there are very few tickets left.

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

****

Edward Scissorhands at the Milton Keynes Theatre

I was most privileged to be invited to the Press Night of Edward Scissorhands at Milton Keynes Theatre. I’ve made my living as an entertainer for 45 years, I like to think I’m a reasonable actor – but dancer I ain’t! So I don’t feel qualified to comment on the technical aspect of the performance although I’m convinced it was as near to perfect as it’s possible to get on a tour. I can say can say without doubt it was hugely entertaining. The masterstroke of Matthew Bourne was brushed across every scene. The main Edwards Scissorhands’ plot being surrounded with a look at the life of all the other characters on that stage! From the geeky husband that couldn’t even control his lawnmower let alone his marriage, his wife so frustrated that she grabbed almost any man that crossed her path, to the stiff and starchy, nose-in-the-air church leaders who seemed to be at the front when any unpleasantness was taking place. As usual Matthew Bourne brings all of this to life with humour (balletic topiary and a giant poodle with hair styled by those very scissorhands) and pathos – I never thought a fictional character with one foot long blades for fingers would ever give me a lump in the throat!

The sets are stupendous and the final scene just beautiful! Go and see this production for your own sake!

Ernie Almond

Edward Scissorhands is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 17th – 21st February

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

****

Jersey Boys is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 3rd – 14th February

Jersey Boys

 I went along to see this production at the Milton Keynes Theatre, here are my thoughts…..

Jersey Boys’ management allowed the cast the Tuesday opening night to settle in, then Wednesday was press night. It was a riot from the start. The audience just loved this very accurate and affectionate look back at the life and times of The Four Seasons. All the hits were in there, sounding as close to the originals as you could ever want. Congratulations to the musicians and singers for that. The story line is stronger than you might imagine, it shows the trials and tribulations of four lads whose rapid journey from the street to international stardom was not a simple thing to cope with. Even the sets become more spectacular as they progress towards stardom!

The various characters – one in debt, one homesick, one that would rather write songs than perform them – I won’t say too much more for fear of spoiling it, but all of these things go to make a truly fabulous night at the theatre, with dozens of memories for those of us of a certain age that were around at the time of the original Sherry!  The four lead performers ARE The Four Seasons – but the RSC they ain’t!

Well worth seeing.

Ernie Almond

Jersey Boys is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 3rd – 14th February

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

****

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

SLEEPING BEAUTY Watford Palace Panto 2014 Credit : 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

 

****

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

****

Aladdin at the Gordon Craig Theatre until 25th January 2015

Aladdin-754x300

From the catchy overture, via the sparkling laser show, this is one magic carpet ride of a show that never ceases to entertain.

At 2 3/4 hours it may sound overlong, but none of the audience noticed, as this Aladdin boasts a fantastic cast, all of whom work hard to make this an excellent panto.

Abanazaar, Aladdin, StevenageShaun Williamson is great as the evil Abanazaar, with some fine singing and he is nasty but with just the right touch of niceness. Paul Laidlaw’s dame (Widow Twankey this year) is warm, motherly, with some fantastic one-liners and an array of glamorous costumes. Junix Inocian as the Emperor sings well and is an imposing figure, looking after his daughter the Princess (Cristina Hoey), who has a beautiful singing voice. Hannah Malekzad makes a striking Aladdin, and is very likeable. Aidan O’Neill as Wishee Washee got us all going with shouting when anyone went near his laundry basket, and was genuinely funny (as was Adam Shorey as PC Pong)! But the Genie (CG Fraser) steals the show – a funky, disco 70s Genie in a tight costume, gyrating and singing brilliantly – and some good comedy from him too.

The sets and costumes are stunning (lots of glitter), and it is a really enjoyable show. If I had to pick holes (and I don’t), I would say the laser sequence in the cave, whilst glorious, is a little overlong, and maybe one or two of the many songs could be cut without affecting the overall production. But a great panto, well worth a visit!

Chris Law

Aladdin is at the Gordon Craig Theatre until 25th January

Box Office: 01438 363200 or online:  www.gordon-craig.co.uk

****

A Christmas or pre-Christmas treat Shakespeare in Love at Noel Coward Theatre London – for the foreseeable future!

Shakespear in Love

Judi Herman falls in love with Shakespeare all over again!

‘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.

Shakespear in Love 2

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

Shakespear IN Love 3

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

****

The Angry Brigade by James Graham

 

Paines Plough’s touring production of The Angry Brigade is at  the  Watford Palace Theatre until 25th October

“An exciting and unsettling exploration of anarchy” says Judi Herman

Against a backdrop of Tory cuts, high unemployment and the deregulated economy of 1970s Britain, a young urban guerrilla group mobilises: the Angry Brigade. James Graham, writer of This House and Privacy hasn’t made this up – the Angry Brigade actually existed in the early ‘70s, a white, university-educated, urban guerrilla outfit responsible for bombing the homes of politicians and judges, the fashion boutique Biba and the Post Office tower.

There’s potential anarchy in the construction of this play of two halves, one showing the police attempt to capture the Angry Brigade and the other the Brigade’s attempt to evade capture. In a ‘Communiqu é’ in the text (aping the Brigade’s frequently issued communiqués!) Graham suggests that both parts could be performed simultaneously, by two separate ensembles or perhaps the two parts can have a completely different creative team, or “Perhaps just do what you like”.

James Grieve, directing for Paines Plough, opts for the more conventional format of THE BRANCH first and THE BRIGADE second. He also follows the author’s note to keep Scotland Yard as ordered as possible and the Stoke Newington squat an ‘offensive, anarchic mess’.  Once Scotland Yard realizes the bombs are not being planted by the IRA, they form a secret squad of four, led by young hotshot Smith (Felix Scott), promoted for his ability to think out of the box, to deal with this new kind of threat.

 

Graham mines the comedy implicit in formally trained Officers coming to grips with thinking like terrorists, even spilling over into Keystone Cops farce as they emulate their prey. There’s a joyous climax to the work of the Branch as they lose their inhibitions with victory in their sights. Because it’s so easy to Google the Angry Brigade, I probably don’t need to give spoiler alerts about their eventual fate, but I’d hate to give away what actually happens on stage at the end of the first half!

 

In the second half, the Angry Brigade are trying to keep themselves together and avoid capture as they fight over aims and objectives and methods. Whatever the police squad might conjecture, life as an anarchist looks like hard work and fragile Anna (Patsy Ferran), starts to long for order in her life. She’d like a steady relationship with fellow anarchist and lover John, perhaps even marriage. Actions speak louder than words when she tries to impose regular mealtimes and matching china and cutlery – serviettes even – on her fellow anarchists. It’s her longing to write home that eventually leads to their capture – today it would presumably have been an email!.

 

The physical playing style cleverly incorporates the use of filing cabinets, a toilet and desks merging with Tom Gibbons’ soundscape to create noise and chaos and even bomb explosions. Lucy Osborne’s simple design uses office furniture in both halves to conjure up scenes and moments to match and enable the fluid playing style. The Brigade’s Communiqués are projected behind above a police leads diagram reminiscent of the cream of Scandinavia Noir police drama!

 

Harry Melling, Felix Scott, Scarlett Alice Johnson and Patsy Ferran play both police and terrorists as well as seven other parts in a fine ensemble performance. Melling’s physicality in particular is like Wallace and Gromit on speed – superb stuff!   Though apart from Anna, we never really get to know who the Angry Brigade are, and exactly why they are so angry and what motivated them to become so, the parallels between 1970s Britain and the present day are unsettling. And it is an exciting, bracing – even unsettling – attempt to explore anarchy, superbly delivered by a consummate cast. It’s worth noting that even if the Brigade’s trial was the longest in history, the apparently comparatively lenient sentences might reflect the fact that unlike so many of today’s terrorists, or the IRA, they did not actively seek to take lives. And though their bombs could have caused fatalities, happily they failed to do so.

 

The Angry Brigade is at Watford Palace Theatre until 25th October

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

****

Love Me Do by Laurence Marks and Morris Gran at Watford Palace Theatre to 18th October

 Judi Herman does indeed love a love story set in the early 1960s, when it looked like nuclear war might be imminent … 

This is the latest stage play from Marks and Gran (Birds of a Feather/Shine on Harvey Moon/The New Statesman/Goodnight Sweetheart. Let’s start with that title – after their blockbusting 1950s jukebox musical Dreamboats and Petticoats and with the sequel Dreamboats and Miniskirts still touring well into 2015 (for dates to catch that one locally, see below), you might be expecting Love Me Do to be a fun story with Beatles numbers. Instead this is the love story of a mismatched American odd couple played out against the life-and-death-backdrop of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviet Union and the USA are involved in a face off that threatens nuclear war. Dorothy and Shack are stranded in London by the Crisis which just happens to coincide with the release of the Beatle’s first single – Love Me Do.

Dorothy is from Kansas of course, an all-American mom visiting London alone for a friend’s wedding. At the wedding she meets Shack, who seems to be something to do with intelligence at the US Embassy, a man hiding a deep sadness behind a flippant exterior. The unfolding Crisis reveals unexpected aspects of men and women under the pressure of potential annihilation.

Marks and Gran have a fine track record in quirky relationships. As with their last play Von Ribbentrop’s Watch, Love Me Do was also originally a radio play, originally broadcast in October 2012 on the 50th anniversary of the crisis – and of the release of that landmark single.

Canadian Sara Topham gets right inside the skin of Dorothy out of her depth in smart London society but rapidly coming to terms with the situation in which she finds herself. There’s something about her accent and body language, coming from the other side of the Pond, that really works. Robert Curtis’ Shack combines languid, world-weary charm with insider knowledge of the real dangers facing the world. If the world were to end tomorrow, what would you do today? The other eleven parts are distributed between Hugo Bolton, Peter Clements and Rosie Holden, who get to play a dizzying range of partners, newsreaders, waiters, secretaries, airline staff and more, cleverly sketching in each one with a few deft strokes.

Co-directors WPT’s Brigid Larmour and Canadian Shona Morris work wonderfully well together to build the tension of those terrifying days. Much of the action is fast-moving and non-naturalistic, and the cast have fun with precision-timed stylized business between and within scenes. They certainly make the most of every moment of the 90-minute, no-interval playing time. The style is perfectly matched by Ruari Murchison’s deceptively simple two-level set linked by two sets of sliding stairs. He quickly conjures scene after scene, starting with Kansas and moving via a Pan Am airliner, created with a couple of chairs and filing cabinets, to London hotels, Hutch’s flat, offices, a radio studio and even the famous 1960s Establishment Club, playground of the witty literati, all proving that less is more.

While the background is deadly serious, Marks and Gran never let the play get mawkish, infusing wit and humour into what could have been an over-solemn evocation of that moment when the world held its breath. And it may not be a Beatles back catalogue Fest but the found music chosen to link the scenes is especially effective at creating the right mood and sense of time and place, whether it’s from the 60s or earlier eras. Go and see it, while you still can!

Love Me Do is at Watford Palace Theatre until 18th October

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

(For tour dates for Dreamboats and Miniskirts click here http://www.kenwright.com/index.php?id=1403)

****

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.

Pygmalion_image

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

****

Round and Round the Garden, by Alan Ayckbourn at Abbey Theatre, St.Albans,  The Company of Ten’s production.

Round-Round-The-Garden-Dress-Rehearsal-3-460x460 Round and Round the Garden is set at a country house on a summer week end and with “Living Together” and “Table Manners” making up a trilogy of plays looking at the same events with the same six characters, trying to cope with each other.

The action takes place in the garden of the house where Annie spends all her time look after her invalid mother and when her brother
in law Norman books a secret week end away from it all she arranges for her brother Reg and his wife Sarah to look after mother
while she pretends she is going away alone. When Norman arrives her courage fails her.
Reg and Sarah try to encourage Tom, Annie’s ineffectual boy friend to propose to her while Sarah aims at trying to replace Annie in
Norman’s affections.  Things go from bad to worse, Norman getting drunk with Reg and eventually Norman’s wife Ruth reluctantly
arrives after  a telephone call from Sarah only to mislead Tom into thinking she has eyes for him!
But at the heart of the play is Norman. Russell Vincent turns in a wonderful performance of this well meaning but destructive man
whose whole purpose in life is to make people happy, causing chaos as he blunders through life.  I liked Claire Clegg as the frustrated
Annie whose affection for Tom isn’t likely to go any further and David Houston’s makes Tom unable to fully express his true feelings.
Rona Cracknell and Iain Pritchard as Sarah and husband Reg make the best of their marriage, both of them infuriatingly well meaning!
And this is where Ayckbourn succeeds, by showing us ourselves with all our desires, hopes and failings and as Norman cries out at the end:
“I only want to make people happy”  The Company of Ten are very fortunate to have such a fine actress as Rosemary Goodman able to stand in at very short notice to replace the unwell Anna Aitchison as Ruth; her scene with Tom being particularly memorable.
Malcolm Singer
Round and Round the Garden until Sunday 24th.May at the Abbey Theatre, St.Albans.
Box Office: 01727 857861 or online: http://www.abbeytheatre.org.uk

****

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.

ABHL Prod Shot A 217 x 159

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

Judi Herman

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

****

Tom & Viv  by Michael Hastings.   Company of Ten, Abbey Theatre, St.Albans

 TomViv_Web_Image-460x460
The Company of Ten are to be commended for their production of Michael Hastings play Tom & Viv.  Director Tim Hoyle has
drawn together a very fine cast telling of the turbulent relationship between the poet T.S.(Tom) Elliot and his wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood.
Right at the outset you suspect all will not go well as Viv flirtatiously dances with Tom. He being reserved by nature ,she being unstable, dependant on drugs to combat her pre-menstral tension.
The play is divided into scenes by Sassy Clyde whose various roles include the apothecary who provides Viv with her drugs.  We are taken from 1915 to 1947 giving us glimpses of the effect Viv’s rushed marriage has on her family, particularly her mother Rose who has to come to terms with it, but shows concern for both Viv and Tom; Lesley Gordon is outstanding.  James Douglas was just right as Viv’s brother
Maurice, a young soldier; a straight forward caring man getting drawn like a magnet into Tom and Viv’s relationship while Derek Coe
as her father Charles brings a light touch with his view that poetry is alright so long as it rhymes. But it is the performances of Mark Ozall as Tom and Lucy Crick as Viv that show us the very complex characters.  Perhaps some of Tom’s greatest poetry notably “The Waste Land” grew out of their relationship which eventually broke down to divorce.
Mark Ozall brought out Tom’s frustration striving to express himself through his poetry while Lucy Crick’s portrayal of Viv was remarkable,
every aspect of her movement, her face, her eyes, her whole body showing her tortured being, that is until the end in 1947 just before she dies when her whole being became tranquil.
There was not a weak link in  the production with imaginative use of lighting, fine costumes and a strong ensemble.
     Malcolm Singer.

****

Black Coffee by Agatha Christie at Milton Keynes Theatre until 3rd May
Black Coffee
       He’s back!  Hercule Poirot is on hand to solve the murder of Sir Claud Amory in Agatha Christie’s BLACK COFFEE.
Sir Claud has been working on creating a terrible explosive which could have far reaching effects but unfortunately the formula has been stolen from his safe.  To find the culprit, he sets a trap by switching out the lights whilst the whole household are with him in the library to give the thief a chance to return it.
In the dark Sir Claud is poisoned and dies.
Naturally everyone is under suspicion (after all, this is Agatha Christie) and at that moment Poirot arrives having been summoned earlier by Sir Claud.
That fine actor Robert Powell makes an ideal Poirot grilling everybody with his sharp brain. Could it be the son Richard who owns up to the murder or Richard’s Italian wife Lucia who also claims to be the murderer?  As with all Agatha Christie you are left continually guessing, as all the characters have a reason for wanting to be rid of Sir Claud, but Poirot sets a trap and manages to outwit the local police inspector!
This is a very wordy play but I did enjoy Liza Goddard as Sir Claud’s feisty sister Caroline and the rest of the cast did their best with Christie’s stereotype characters.
Black Coffee is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 3rd May
Box Office: 0844 871 7652 or online:  www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes

****

An Intervention by Mike Bartlett at the Watford Palace Theatre from
Wednesday 16 April – Saturday 3 May

Medium_ANINTERVENTION_PHOEBECHEONG_PAINESPLOUGHStarring Rachael Stirling and John Hollingworth

 Review by Judi Herman

I’m sure readers of this blog will correct me, but I can’t think of a famous classic comic double act that pairs a man with a woman! It’s true that a duo with the fine comedy name of Frisky and Mannish has been delighting audiences of new comedy for a few years now (indeed they are appearing at Milton Keynes International Festival on 23 July – here’s the link http://www.ifmiltonkeynes.org/festival-programme/2014/07/23/frisky-amp-mannish.html and in case you are wondering she is Frisky, he is Mannish!). But even if you count the Krankies it’s a very small field …

Yet in Mike Bartlett’s sparky, thought-provoking new play the versatile Rachael Stirling (who played Medea in Bartlett’s brilliantly updated version of the Greek tragedy at the same address to great acclaim in 2012) teams up with John Hollingworth to show that this might just be the next big thing in comedy!

Don’t get me wrong, this is a play all right, but it actually starts off staged like a comedy gig, played in front of Watford Palace Theatre’s lush new red velvets with nice warm show biz lighting (design Lucy Osborne, lighting design David Holmes).. And I should just say that in the helpful programme that includes the playtext, Bartlett points out that his pair of characters, called only A and B, could actually played by any combination of male/female of any age or ethnicity.

A and B are best friends, have been for some years, but now their relationship is strained. For B is in a relationship with a live-in lover of whom A disapproves (is s/he jealous, possessive?). And moreover, as Britain sends forces to intervene in the fighting in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, A is in the vanguard of the march to protest against the intervention, while B fails to turn up to the protest for the obvious reason that s/he applauds the intervention as the right thing for Britain to do.

Stirling and Hollingworth (it has a ring to it don’t you think!), aka A and B, are pretty well perfect foils for each other. Her out-there activist A is manic, her words tumbling out, her body language vividly expressive, while his rather more domestic (and domesticated!) B is a man of rather fewer words and at first sight apparently more studied movements. A is impulsive and apparently big-hearted, but Stirling skilfully reveals the potential, even actual lush, drinking to maintain her brittle brightness and hide her loneliness – she has no-one to go home to after her encounters with B as they become less frequent and more hostile.

Actually A could be right about B’s partner Hannah. She does sound like a bit of a party pooper, though perhaps it’s understandable that she in her turn is jealous of the time he spends with A, for as the short scenes progress, B reports that she does not want him to see A anymore.

To reveal what happens to A and B and their relationship after this revelation would make me the party pooper. Suffice it to say that Bartlett writes his funny, sometimes heart-breaking meditation on friendship and responsibility (to each other, to the state, to the rest of the world) as a finely paced and nuanced duet with his usual beautiful sense of rhythm; and in Stirling and Hollingworth, he finds a perfectly tuned and matched pair of instruments, sensitively orchestrated by director James Grieve.

This is an intimate delicate work compared to his neo-Shakespearean epic Charles III (yes it is that Charles – Bartlett projects his and our future when he gets to come to the throne) currently thrilling audiences at the Almeida Theatre and surely bound for the West End, Broadway and hopefully the large and/or small screen. But as an exploration of states of mind it is both another sort of ‘state of the nation’ play and proves what a versatile writer and thinker he is and how lucky we are.

Judi Herman

An Intervention continues at Watford Palace Theatre until 3 May,  Box Office: 01923 225671 or online: www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk

****

Robin Cousins’ ICE at The Milton Keynes Theatre from 8th – 12th April

ICE

Olympic champion and head judge on ITV’s Dancing on IceRobin Cousins has hand-picked the greatest ice skaters from around the globe to bring his incredible new production to life.

I saw this show on its opening night at Milton Keynes and if you are a lover of ice skating then you will love it! Many of the tricks we’ve come to know and love are in evidence – from the Death Spiral to the Throw Twist and the Sit Spin to the Axel Jump. Considering the small area they had to work in we were treated to some truly expert skating from this top cast of fourteen top notch skaters.

The first half of the show had me wondering when we might be treated to something truly spectacular, but this might have been because there seemed to be more fairly delicate, romantic routines from various pairs – and an extensive Aerial Act from Kate Endriulaitis & Michael Solonoski where they performed every imaginable move with a floating hula-hoop!

All changed up a couple of gears after the interval with plenty of action and more great skating from Rhythm to Swingtime and the full cast packing the small rink for the finale.

Had it been my show I think I might have been tempted to throw a ton of glitter at the set and re-costumed (can never have too many spangles & feathers for me!) and re-lit almost all of the show. (Beware of flooding flesh colour chiffon costumes with amber – they just look grubby!) but most people were there to enjoy the skating – and enjoy it they most certainly did!

Robin Cousins’ ICE at The Milton Keynes Theatre from 8th – 12th April

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

****

The Perfect Murder at The Milton Keynes Theatre from 31st March – 5th April

The Perfect Murder Tour

Les Dennis was very popular as a young TV Game Show Host and comedian, then he seemed to go out of favour for a while until his now well known appearance in “Extras” the Ricky Gervaise television series. I think many of us had difficulty accepting Les as a straight actor – although going by the programme notes of The Perfect Crime (Milton Keynes Theatre this week) he has a list of theatre credits as long as your arm!

In The Perfect Crime, adapted from the book by Peter James, Les plays Victor Smiley whose marriage to Joan (played to perfection by Claire Goose) is very tired to say the least! In fact they bicker most of the time they’re at home together. Not that Victor is home that often due to a long running association with Polish prostitute Kamila Walcak (Simona Armstrong) unbeknown to Joan of course!.

Victor decides that as soon as the time is right he’ll murder Joan and run off with Kamila…..and that’s as much as I can tell you without giving the game away!

The adaptation of Peter James’ book by Shaun McKenna is wonderfully witty – lots of very sharp comedy whilst at the same time keeping the entire audience tense, unable to fathom what intriguing twist is waiting around the corner to take the story in another direction.

Do get to see this fine cast perform The Perfect Murder – or maybe Murders?? Les Dennis and Claire Goose are just perfect as the couple living together but fed up to the back teeth with each other. I just loved Don Kirk (played by Gray O’Brien) a self-styled Jack-the-lad Cockney who, it turns out has never been nearer to Bow Bells than Tunbridge Wells! The detective that nobody fools (or do they?) is played by Steven Miller and the clairvoyant prostitute by Simona Armstrong.

Let me assure you that Les Dennis is an actor, quite able to hold his own with this strong cast!

The Perfect Murder is at The Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 5th April

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

****

 Dance Consortium presents Compagnie Käfig’s Boxe Boxe a breathtaking show fusing the noble art of boxing with dance opening their UK tour at Milton Keynes Theatre on 25th & 26th March.

CompagnieKafig_BoxeBoxe_main

Artistic Director and Choreographer of Compagnie Käfig’s Boxe Boxe,  Mourad Merzouki says he wants to “take an audience that is probably expecting boxing and hIp hop dance to a different place – somewhere surprising” – and that he certainly did!

From the moment the live string quartet accompany sixteen or so red boxing gloves as they come dancing out of a box, (they might be worms, or meercats  or as he describes them “little dolls”) we are hooked.

CompagnieKafig_BoxeBoxe_8An evening to please dance fans from every generation, we were treated to the cleverest, most athletic mixture of contemporary along side jazz, hip-hop next to classical moves, street dance with ballet, and all the time we truly believe these are boxers, not dancers! Well, its obvious, there are all the boxing moves – no wait they’re dance moves, or are they?

The Debussy String Quartet expertly provided the backing of classical music whilst propelling themselves round the stage in a highly choreographed fashion on sort of elaborate office chairs!

A night not to be missed, so much so that this was the first time I’ve ever seen those old (& young) hacks from the local press lead the standing ovation!

Get to see it if you can, its only on for one more night!   Compagnie Kafig’s Boxe Boxe is at the Milton Keynes Theatre 26th March only!

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

 

****

Fallen Angels at Milton Keynes Theatre. Review by Malcolm Singer
With Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit now playing in the West End, it was good to see a lesser known earlier play at Milton Keynes.
Fred Sterroll and Willy Banbury are off on a week ends golf leaving their wives behind.  Jane Banbury (Sara Crowe) and Julia Storrell
(Jenny Seagrove) are expecting at any time Maurice Duclos, an old flame of both of them before they were married.  As their
expectations mount they calm themselves with more and more glasses of wine until the become very drunk, falling over the
furniture and each other.
Fallen Angels - credit Darren Bell (4)Photo by Darren Bell
I have to say it’s not one of Coward’s finest plays and Roy Marsden’s direction overplays the situations, but it does have it’s moments;
Gillian McCafferty as the maid Saunders who knows everything, the return of Tim Wallers as Fred Storroll and Robin Sebastian as
Willy Banbury from their golf …Fallen Angels - credit Darren Bell (10)(Photo Darren Bell)…and at last the arrival of Philip Battley as Maurice overflowing with Gallic charm.
However the nearly full house on Tuesday had good time and so did the cast.
   Fallen Angels at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 22nd. March.
Box Office: 0844 871 7652 or online:  www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes

****

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.

Judi Herman

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

****

 TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, performed by the COMPANY of TEN, at the Abbey Theatre, St.Albans.

The Company of Ten’s choice of this early play is a bold one. Throughout there are ideas anticipating the later comedies; banishment, exchange of rings, girl dressed as boy.
Valentine and Proteus are two young chaps in love. Having arrived in Milan, Valentine falls in love with the Duke’s daughter Silvia, but so too does Proteus when he arrives some time later having exchanged rings with Julia, declaring his undying love for her. To get rid of Valentine, Proteus tells the Duke of Valentine’s planned elopement with Silvia.
The Duke however prefers the awful Turio as his future son-in-law!  Julia now turns up disguised as Sebastian and all ends well enough when Proteus and Julia are reunited in love.
Director Angela Stone skilfully unravels the plot setting the play in the 1980’s with some cleverly chosen music from the 80’s linking the scenes.
As Proteus, Lee Harris brings out his youthful feckless nature with a good feel for Shakespeare’s text, so too does Tim Pemberton as the Duke and Steph Jones as the much loved Silvia.  It’s all too easy to over play Shakespeare’s comedy and this was apparent at times with some of the other characters; but I did enjoy Andy Mills as Lance and Bart as his faithful dog Crab.
TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, at the Abbey Theatre, St.Albans until Saturday 8 March
, Box Office: 01727 857861, or online: www.abbeytheatre.org.uk

****

Wicked UK & Ireland Tour_Credit Matt Crockett_MCR_5225

Wicked, the global musical phenomenon that tells the incredible untold story of the Witches of Oz has flown in to Milton Keynes Theatre until 08 March.

The night I went along the young Wicked fans whooped and cheered and had a wonderful time. The show does have lots of humour (mainly from Glinda) fabulous costumes and some brilliant sets. Although I’m not sure that the shadowgraph version of the demise of Elphaba works too well, with one of the monkeys having to pull a curtain across the stage first, and I remember thinking when I saw the original London production that the pace of the second half drags due mainly to some interminably long songs, I notice they still seem to last a wet week!

Verdict: Some fine performances, the Wicked fans will love every second!

Ernie Almond

 

****

The return of one of most popular dance productions ever staged, Matthew Bourne’s multi award-winning hit Swan Lake is thrilling audiences at the Milton Keynes Theatre until 1st February.

The company in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

Premiering at Sadler’s Wells in 1995, Matthew Bourne’s triumphant modern re-interpretation of Swan Lake turned tradition upside down, taking the dance world by storm. Matthew Bourne blends dance, humour and spectacle with extravagant, award-winning designs by Lez Brotherston, to create a provocative and powerful Swan Lake for our times. Now firmly crowned as a modern-day classic, this iconic production is perhaps best-known for replacing the traditional female corps de ballet with a menacing male ensemble.

Matthew Bourne's SWAN LAKE. 15-12-2009

Returning to the iconic role of The Swan are two powerful leading men, Jonathan Ollivier and Chris Trenfield who have both made the role of The Swan their own. Jonathan Ollivier, a former star of Northern Ballet Theatre, was last seen as the mysterious Speight in New Adventures’ Play Without Words. Chris Trenfield recently starred as Leo in Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, he has also played leading roles in New Adventures’ Play Without Words and Nutcracker!

The challenging role of The Prince is played by Simon Williams, Sam Archer and, making his debut in the role, Liam Mower. Simon remains the only artist to have ever played both The Prince and The Swan in this production, and he will be doing the same again in this revival. He has just completed 12 years with Michael Clark Company, and also has a long history with New Adventures in Nutcracker!, The Car Man, and Matthew Bourne’s Christmas for Channel 4. Sam Archer has been a New Adventures leading man for over 10 years, creating the role of Edward Scissorhands, as well as leading roles in The Car Man, Play Without Words and Cinderella. Liam Mower, recently seen in Sleeping Beauty in his first Principal role as Count Lilac, was the original Olivier award-winning star of the West End’s Billy Elliot. He joined New Adventures in 2011, and, following Sleeping Beauty, joined this production this month.

The Queen is portrayed by three of New Adventures most popular leading ladies, Madelaine Brennan, Saranne Curtin and making her debut in this role, Michela Meazza. Madelaine Brennan was last seen in this production playing, The Girlfriend. A role that she subsequently played in the 2011 3D Film for SKY Arts. Saranne Curtin is one of the most important dancers ever to have worked with New Adventures, having created the leading roles of Lana in The Car Man, Sugar in the 2012 revival and 2013 film of Nutcracker! and Glenda in Play Without Words. She was in the original cast of Swan Lake (as The Italian Princess) and comes out of retirement to once again play The Queen, a role for which she received much praise in several UK and International tours of this production. Michela Meazza, a recent nominee for the outstanding female dancer at the National Dance Awards, will be making her debut in this role. Michela is one of New Adventures foremost dancer/actors, having created the roles of Lady H in Dorian Gray and Joyce in Edward Scissorhands as well as leading roles in Play Without Words (original cast), The Car Man, Nutcracker! and Cinderella.

The popular role of The Girlfriend is played by Anjali Mehra, Kerry Biggin and Carrie Johnson.

Making their professional debut in this production are Tom Broderick, Reece Haydn Causton and Andrew Monaghan (all from Central School of Ballet).

On the opening night at Milton Keynes Theatre the show featured Chris Trenfield as The Swan, Liam Mower as The Prince, Madelaine Brennan as The Queen and Carrie Johnson as The Girlfriend. The audience were treated to this spectacular evening of beautiful music, fabulous sets and a brilliantly talented cast with a dancing prowess matched by their first class acting from start to finish. The long standing ovation at the end of the evening proved just why Matthew Bourne’s wonderful direction fully deserves all the awards this production of the most popular ballet has already received – and those it will undoubtedly receive in the years to come!

Ernie Almond

.Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 29th January – 1st February.

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

****

The Price by Arthur Miller presented by The Company of Ten, at The Abbey Theatre (Studio) until 30th January.
The Price
The Perfect Murder TourFor some time The Company of Ten have added Sunday afternoon performances of their plays at The Abbey Theatre in St.Albans,
and judging by the full house for Arthur Miller’s play, THE PRICE, the idea is popular
Victor Franz and his wife Esther are waiting for a valuer to arrive to offer a price for the old furniture and belongings of his late father.
Victor has sacrificed his college education and reluctantly become a cop in order to look after his father while his brother, who he has not seen for 18 years, has become a rich successful surgeon.
Jewish Gregory Solomon the 89 year old valuer takes his time in offering Victor 1100 dollars when brother Walter arrives.
Director Rosemary Goodman has assembled a very strong cast  with Russell Vincent bringing out the resentfulness he feels towards his brother while in Mark Waghorn’s Walter we learn that he too has a price to pay for his success.  As Esther, Jacqui Golding finally stands by her husband having brought out the dissatisfaction of her way of life.
Central to the play is Solomon played by Martin Goodman with humour and tolerance; his offer is the only price he will accept until Walter comes up with an alternative idea.
This memorable production has a remarkable set designed by Diana Penton giving the feeling the feel of a dusty attic room crammed full with a lifetime’s furniture and belongings waiting for a price.  Another outstanding production!
Malcolm Singer
The Price is at The Abbey Theatre (Studio) until Saturday 30th January.
The Price is SOLD OUT for its entire run, to try for returns contact:
Box Office 01727 857861 or online:  http://www.abbeytheatre.org.uk

****

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

****

Dame Edna

More years ago than I care to remember – which is just as well because its rude to even hint at a lady’s age – I saw a huge flashing sign in London’s Piccadilly Circus. It was in the form of a large pair of ornate spectacles behind which one of a pair of carefully made up eyes winked at me provocatively and a moving thumb directed me, all was explained with the flashing slogan “Young Australian Girl, cheap, just round the corner” That was the beginning of my fascination for and adoration of Edna Everage, Housewife & Superstar (I’m pretty sure she hadn’t been made a Dame at that time)

Little did I think that so many glittering successes later I would be there to witness her farewell extravaganza “Eat, Pray, Laugh! Barry Humphries’ Farewell Tour” which opened the British leg of it’s world tour at The Milton Keynes Theatre last night.

photo (2)The first half belonged to Sir Les Patterson showing off his culinary skills (and his bowel problems) and informing those of us that had been hoping for a politically correct evening just where we could go! Sir Les has lost none of his “qualities” with the passing years and I would think that this tour will make him very many new fans.

bh3The deceased Sandy is a favourite of many and an aquired taste for some with his look at life – and in this case care homes, bringing a wry smile to most and was a welcome breather between Sir Les Patterson and the onslaught of Dame Edna that was to come in the second half!

dameedna3387Dame Edna Everage was greeted at the opening of the second half with such an outpouring of love from a packed house that it was really quite emotional. In fine form she set about members of the audience (“I say this with all tenderness”) with some probing questions (“Do tell us, what was that before you made it into a dress?”) family anecdotes – the high security care home that looked after her mother and the headaches involved with having a daughter like Valmay who apparently has so many body piercings these days that she tends to whistle in a strong wind! Dame Edna even found time to save the marriage of a couple in the audience that she had decided was on the rocks!

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There are one or two other surprises in the show and if you are lucky enough to obtain tickets for this week at Milton Keynes Theatre I’m certain you will end the night singing along and waving your gladdy with the best of them!

Ernie Almond

Eat, Pray, Laugh! Barry Humphries’ Farewell tour is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 26th October (with a matinee for those that dare!)

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

After that the show is heading for Cardiff and Edinburgh before coming into The London Palladium from the 13th November until 5th January.

Palladium Box Office: 0844 412 2957 or online: http://www.reallyuseful.com/theatres/london-palladium/

****

The Private Ear and The Public Eye at Milton Keynes Theatre from 7th – 12th October

Private Ear Rehearsal 024

 The new national tour of The Private Ear and The Public Eye starring Jasper Britton as Charles, Steven Blakeley in the dual roles of Bob and Julian, Rupert Hill as Ted and Siobhan O’Kelly in the dual roles of Doreen and Belinda.

What a refreshing change after some months of musicals to see a couple of good plays in one evening! Peter Shaffer had a hit with this double bill in the early sixties when it starred Kenneth Williams and Maggie Smith. Originally, Maggie Smith doubled as both Doreen in The Private Ear and Belinda in The Public Eye, in this production, Siobhan O’Kelly plays those two characters and you never question the fact that are completely different people. Steven Blakeley is wonderful as Bob, the shy loner apparently with music as his only interest and Julian, the Private Eye who sees everything. In less capable hands both of these characters might easily be over played, but Steven Blakeley delivered a masterclass both times. The plays are directed by Alastair Whatley with an obvious liking for the plays, his actors – and the characters they play even though every one of them seems to have something missing in their lives.

In spite of the first production of these plays being more than 50 years ago, they do not date. The problems the characters face will remind you of someone you know today and even lines like “a top copy and two carbons” might have brought a wry smile to those who have actually used a real typewriter, but didn’t make the script appear as though it had been dusted down from some dark archive!

Alastair Whatley says “Putting on a comedy is a serious business” well Mr Whatley, you have succeeded most certainly with these two comedies – as has your top notch cast – each one perfectly believable and seemingly enjoying both feeding and getting the laughs.

The theatre was not full on the night I went, if you haven’t got tickets yet for this week, you’d better get a move on or once word gets around you’ll be in danger of missing this little gem!

The Private Ear and The Public Eye at Milton Keynes Theatre from 7th – 12th October

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

****

Ghost the Musical at Milton Keynes Theatre until 28th September

Ghost I would love to write reams about this touring production of Ghost the Musical, but that might spoil it for anyone with tickets for the Milton Keynes Theatre. I saw the show not having seen the famous film, so I have nothing to compare it with, but let me say it was a fabulous evening in the theatre!

The curtain went up a few minutes late due to some minor technical problems during that afternoon’s matinee performance – and after seeing it I’m not surprised that touring a show this complicated gives the occasional technical headache to say the least!

From the opening seconds the sets are a spectacular mix of ever changing physical sets as we know them and some wonderful electronic effects – the like of which we’ve never seen before! Moving trains, helicopter views across the city all help the story to move smoothly from interior to exterior sets and somehow manages not to intrude in this wonderful love story of Sam and Molly.

The leading cast and the ensemble are to be congratulated on their fine performances with special mention going to Wendy Mae Brown with her hopefully award winning portrayal of Oda Mae Brown. The orchestra under the direction of David Rose were the perfect backing without becoming intrusive for the singers and some excellent choreography by Ashley Wallen who always managed to avoid moves that we’ve seen a hundred times before!

So there you are, I hope I haven’t given anything away – if you’re lucky enough to get tickets you’ll know why I couldn’t spoil the twists and turns that this story takes. I’m certain you will love this show, but remember to take at least one box of tissues, although there are some excellent lighter moments too!

Ernie Almond.

Ghost the Musical at Milton Keynes Theatre until 28th September

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

 

****

Daytona, by Oliver Cotton at Watford Palace Theatre from 9th-14th September

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The title of actor/writer Oliver Cotton’s terrific tense tale of relationships revisited does refer to Florida’s famous Daytona Beach, but though it plays a vital part in the story, the action is set in a New York 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. 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.

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.

Maureen Lipman, who plays Elli, must be one of the UK’s favourite actors, especially beloved for the dry wit she brings to her roles. And here she beautifully establishes her relationship with Joe as they josh each other about which suit he should wear for the forthcoming interstate dancing competition.  But in the play’s second half, when the three revisit their wartime and post war relationships, she gives an extraordinarily moving depth and breadth to Elli. And nowhere is she more compelling than in a gripping monologue describing a nightmarish chase across a brutal cityscape, where she is the desperate pursuer, not the pursued.

The pitch perfect casting has Simpsons star Harry Shearer as Joe, who makes his UK theatre debut here. Shearer is known for his long-running roles in The Simpsons (Mr Burns, Ned Flanders, Reverend Lovejoy and Principal Skinner amongst others), for his work on Saturday Night Live and for co-creating, co-writing and starring as Derek Smalls, the bassist in the 1984 film satirical spoof rockumentary Spinal Tap. Here he proves that less is more, for his is always a riveting presence. Cotton’s writing requires him to do a whole lot of listening, but his listening is so “active” that although he never pulls focus, he provides the still centre of the play – and yes, with his comedy pedigree he gets his share of laughs too.

Mostly he is listening to John Bowe’s Billy, who is big and untidy where Joe is small and neat, noisy and flailing where he is quiet and still. It’s a lovely contrast and Bowe seizes the opportunities in Cotton’s writing to give a tremendous bravura performance. Bowe has a huge range of performances to his credit, including film and television, theatre and musical theatre and if this performance propels him to stardom, it will be well deserved.

David Grindley’s subtle direction perfectly calibrates the tension between the three as the truth about their relationships unfolds and the effects of the action Billy has taken in Daytona Beach threatens to change all their lives forever.     It would be wrong to reveal why, and what moral choices face the three; suffice to say Daytona comes highly recommended for the writing and the performances and on the night I saw the play several members of the audience gave it a standing ovation.

Judi Herman

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

****

Carnaby Street at the Milton Keynes Theatre 3rd – 7th September.  Carnaby Street high_wycombe

If you are a fan of the hits of the sixties, then the current cast of Carnaby Street The Musical will bring them all back as they perform about 40 songs from that period with style and a great deal of accuracy.

The script though, was so contrived that you almost waited for the first line of a song to crop up in the dialogue as a cue for the cast to burst into song! Some of those great songs were given to an unusual choice of character: the outrageously camp Lily (played faultlessly by Paul Hazel) being given “Bend Me, Shape Me” – or “You’ve Got Your Troubles” sung to a pop star by his manager. But the finest example of “We’ll fit this song in or bust” came when Lily took us all right out of the story when he suddenly exclaimed (about a member of the audience) “Oh look at him! The spitting image of someone I once knew, he was the Son of a Preacher Man!” – What a perfectly smooth way to fit in Dusty’s classic song…….

If we could step into a time machine and actually go back to the sixties, I wonder just how many people would be dressed like or behave and even move like the models in the magazines of that period, – just how many Mary Quants and Twiggy’s were there in pubs clubs & coffee bars?

That was my impression during the first half of Carnaby Street, as if every character, musician and backing singer was actually based on what a few old newsreels tell us – those of us that actually lived through those days know different!  Even the sixties phrases like “Far out” and maybe “Groovy” were performed as though they were in inverted commas, but should have been as much just part of the language as “wicked ” or “sick” are these days. We had plenty of time to think about all this during the first rather slow act, made even worse by a sound engineer who either had never seen the show before, or had marked up his microphone faders in the wrong order!

Carnaby Street - Carnaby Street Promotions Ltd and The Hackney Empire - 6th April 2013cast includes Verity Rushworth and Aaron SidwellDirector - Bob ThomsonDesigner - Matthew WrightLighting - Nick Richings

To steal football commentators’ parlance, I do think this is a show of two halves. After the interval we were treated to a slick and pacey show that was really tight and a joy to watch – and the sound man had got it all sorted by then!

The musical numbers throughout were well performed and every member of the cast played a named character – led by Aaron Sidwell (Steven Beale in Eastenders) as Jack the Lad who also narrates the show. The four leading characters, the afore mentioned Jack (Aaron Sidwell) Jane (Tricia Adele-Turner), Jude (Jonny Bower) and Penny (Aimie Atkinson) all made spending a warm Summer’s night in the theatre well worthwhile. Special mention must go to Greggory Clarke playing newspaper seller (& on occasions fine guitarist) and Mark Pearce who, in my opinion got the crazy rocker Wild Thing just right when it would have been so easy to go over the top.

All in all an enjoyable night with lots of great songs from the sixties and a truly fun party finish with the entire audience on its feet! I came out wondering if my memory of the sixties with the skirts much shorter and the men’s trousers much tighter was correct or not.

Hopefully, as the tour of Carnaby Street the Musical continues we’ll be taken more into the period instead of watching people “acting” it – reminded me of the time Tommy Steele brought his version of Scrooge to Milton Keynes and the entire chorus “acted” – and even walked as cockneys!  I mean, does every cockney walk with his thumbs under his lapels?

Ernie Almond

Carnaby Street at the Milton Keynes Theatre from 3rd – 7th September

Box Office: 0844 871 3005 or online: www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes

****

Carnaby Street at the Milton Keynes Theatre 3rd – 7th September.  Carnaby Street high_wycombe Judi Herman saw the show at an earlier venue and writes…. In our family we speculate that if we ever find ourselves in later life living in a home for the elderly, when kindly young people come to entertain us, they will play us Beatles songs and other Sixties hits to get us to sing along. Joining the jolly audience at the Hackney Empire recently, all up for having a great Saturday night out that definitely included a sing-along, and realising that most of them knew all the words to the many classic sixties numbers in this juke box musical, I found myself holding that thought!

Writer/Producer Carl Leighton-Pope tells his Sixties story in the programme and living in his father’s pub in nearby Dean Street, and working five nights a week at the legendary Marquee Club, he has impeccable credentials to claim citizenship of Carnaby Street in those heady days. What he gives us is a recreation of the birth of the swinging Sixties through the eyes of Jack, a jack-the-lad indeed, intent on making it managing a band; and through the story of a pair from the Liverpudlian music scene come to make it big in the big city. And Jude the Scouse singer/guitarist makes it very big indeed, winning and almost losing his posh dolly bird as fame and fortune cloud his vision. There are nice authentic performances from Aaron Sidwell as Jack, Matthew Wycliffe as Jude, Tricia Adele-Turner as Lady Jane (inspired perhaps by the Stones song though sadly that’s not included) and Verity Rushworth as Penny Lane, the Scouse lass with the heart of gold. But it’s not really the story that matters in a delicious trip down memory lane that you’ll relish if you were there back in the day – though that’s not to say that you shouldn’t bring your children and your grandchildren to share it with you! The hits of Dusty Springfield, The Searchers, Lulu, The Animals, Spencer Davis, Petula Clark, Cilla Black, Brian Hyland and many more get in on the act. The onstage band (musical supervisor and arrangements Colin Cattle) and the actor/singers are all superb. In fact many of those actor/singers are great musicians too with top honours going to the great trio of brassy gals, playing respectively Tenor Sax and Trumpet (Cici Howells), Alto Sax and Keyboards (Lilly Howard) and Baritone Sax (Lauren Storer), as well as playing a medley of roles and modelling a fab range of sixties frocks and hot pants. If the music weren’t so great and evocative, I’d have come out singing designer Matthew Wright’s costumes and fun pop arts sets. It’s all very groovy, baby – with a great party atmosphere in a post curtain call sing-along that I trust happens every night and not just on Saturdays!

Judi Herman

Carnaby Street at the Milton Keynes Theatre from 3rd – 7th September

Box Office: 0844 871 3005 or online: www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes

****

 THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN, Noel Coward Theatre
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As Billy, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Daniel Radcliffe is made a figure of fun in this primitive Irish community set in 1934,and there’s still talk about the drowning of his parents when he was born. Any news, however trivial, is welcome and Pat Short as the self important Johnnypateenmike has plenty although not always accurate.
News that an American film company has arrived auditioning locals for filming in California, is greeted with surprise when Billy is chosen.
Sarah Greene gives a commanding and funny performance as young Helen McCormick, provoking Billy although attracted to him.
Gary Lilburn as the doctor, is frustrated by Johnny’s bed-ridden Mammy (June Watson) who’s never without a drop of the hard stuff.  Conor MacNeill as Helen’s annoying brother, Padraic Delaney as the sadistic boatman and Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hannan as the argumentative sisters, running the poorly stocked shop.
I found myself laughing with the rest of the audience at all these.
The play questions the difference between truth and fiction, leaving the audience to decide.
 Malcolm Singer.
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THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN by Martin McDonagh is at The Noel Coward Theatre until Saturday 31 August.
Box Office: 0844 482 5141 or online: http://www.michaelgrandage/company.com

****

 A MAD WORLD MY MASTERS by Thomas Middleton, presented by The Royal Shakespeare Company, at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

 Mad-World-21-2013-541x361John Hopkins as Penitent Brothel and Ellie Beaven as Mrs Littledick in A Mad World My Masters. Photo by Manuel Harlan
Soho in the 1950’s is where Sean Foley and Phil Porter have transferred Thomas Middleton’s play written in 1605, and it
highlights how greed, sex, deception, lust and all the unpleasant aspects of human nature never change.
Ian Redford shows just how corrupt wealthy Sir Bounteous Peersucker can be despite his honourable status, and it’s that wealth that Richard Goulding’s Dick Follywit is after.  Although he’s the Knight’s grand-nephew and heir,  he wants to make sue he gets the lot, the sooner the better.
Apart from this there’s not much plot. However John Hopkins fights temptation as the Puritan, Penitent Brothel in love with Ellie Beavan’s sexy Mrs.Littledick, while jealous Stephan Rhodri’s Mr.Littledick is easily deceived.
There was constant laughter from the full house audience, particularly when Richard Durden as Sir Bounteous’s ancient servant, Spunky, tottered painfully on, his badly adjusted hearing aid sounding off at as he staggered off. There were splendid performances from Sarah Ridgeway as prostitute Truly Kidman and her artful mother and pimp, Ishia Bennison.
Fast moving, funny and not for the easily offended.
A MAD WORLD MY MASTERS runs until Friday 25th. October, at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.
Box Office: 0844 800 1110 or online: http://www.rsc.org.uk

****

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon.

 Alls-Well-14-2013-541x361Charlotte Cornwell as Countess of Rossillion, Greg Hicks as King of France and David Fielder as Lord Lafeu in All’s Well That Ends Well. Photo by Ellie Kurttz
Shakespeare is up to his theatrical tricks in this outstanding production of All’s Well That Ends Well.  The demarcation line between the classes, a young woman believed to be dead, turns up right at the end and a boastful man is tormented.
All these devices crop up in other plays.
In Nancy Meckler’s production, you really feel for Joanna Horton’s Helena, a poor orphaned daughter of a worthy doctor’ in love
with Bertram.  Charlotte Cornwell movingly portrays the Countess of Rossillion who has adopted Helena and encourages her to follow her son Bertram to Paris where he is to serve the seriously ill King.
Helena restores the King with one of her father’s cures and as a reward, the King grants her any gift. Helena wishes to become Bertram’s wife.
Alex Waldmann has quickly established himself as a versatile RSC actor and as Bertram, he is so horrified at the prospect of marrying lowly Helena, that he yields to the King’s request, but dashes off to war without bedding Helena.
Greg Hicks is in fine form as the King, leaping in the air on being cured.  Jonathan Slinger as Bertram’s follower, Porolles is blindfolded and tormented for his boastful outbursts; you feel sorry for him and hate him at the same time.
Fortunately, Shakespeare sorts everything out at the end, and all’s well that ends well.
Malcolm Singer
All’s Well that Ends Well, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until Thursday 26th.August.
Box Office: 0844 800 1110 or online:  http://www.rsc.org.uk

****

BIRDSONG, at the Milton Keynes Theatre until 27th July

 Birdsong
        Coming to Rachel Wagstaff’s staging of Sebastian Faulks’s novel “Birdsong”, without having read the book, the audiences at Milton Keynes Theatre would have been very confused.
         Young Stephen Wraysford comes to Northern France before the First World War to gain experience at Rene Azaire’s factory, and falls in love with his wife Isabelle who is some years older than Stephen, then after nine months she disappears.
         The centre of the book sees Stephen an officer in the trenches in charge of men setting explosives in tunnels under the German lines, leading up to the battle of the Somme.
         After the War, Stephen is determined to find Isabelle with the help of her sister Jeanne.  However, this production doesn’t establish the characters until well into the play, frequently juxtaposing Stephen’s trench
scenes with his earlier years in a very muddled way.
         Jonathan Smith did hid best as Stephen and Sarah Jane Dunn made an acceptable Isabelle, but it was ridiculous for example to see Malcolm James one moment as her husband only to become Captain Gray and then back again as her husband all in the space of a few minutes. Tim Treloar made what he could of the veteran soldier, Jack Firebrace, but this moving and harrowing book was not well served in this disappointing version.
 Malcolm Singer
Birdsong at the Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 27th.July.
Box Office: 0844 871 3005 or online: www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes

****

The Company of Ten present Bedroom Farce, at the Abbey Theatre, St.Albans, running until 13th July

Trevor is one of those thoughtless people who can’t help upsetting just about everybody.  His wife Susannah is on the verge of a breakdown and seeks comfort from his parents who seem to have give up on him. He turns up and Kate and Malcolm’s house-warming party and in no time at all, all the guests have gone home except Jan his former girlfriend who’s left her husband nick at home in bed with a bad back. Even poor old Nick has to put up with Trevor a few hours later at about one in the morning.
As expected from Alan Ayckbourn, we can’t help laughing at the misfortunes of all eight characters, well cast in Roger Scales’
production.  Roger has also come up with an ingenious set of all three bedrooms well lit by Paul Davidson which kept the play flowing.
BEDROOM FARCE by Alan Ayckbourn at the Abbey Theatre, St.Albans until Saturday 13 July.
Box Office:  01727 857861 or online: http://www.abbeytheatre.org.uk

****

STRANGE INTERLUDE, National Theatre, London, until September
Eugene O’Neill’s female characters are often complex and infuriating, none more so than Nina in his Pulizer Prize-Winning play “Strange Interlude”.
strange_interlude_posterNina’s young husband Gordon, was killed having enlisted as a pilot at the very end of the First World War. Her close friend Charles, an author, visits Nina and her father, Professor Henry Lees at the start of the play, and O’Neill’s unusual style is quickly established.  Like all the characters, Charles, sensitively played by Charles Edwards, reveals his thoughts to the audience which are often the opposite of what he actually says.
Nina marries naive Sam Evans but is warned by his mother of insanity in the family and this might be passed on to the next generation.  In her desire for a child, she persuades her lover, Dr.Darrell to have one by him, passing it off as Sam’s. The child is named Gordon!
The play takes us forward 20 years or so as we witness the consequences.
Anne-Marie Duff powerfully plays out Nina’s selfishness with the three men and her son, Darren Pettie brings out the frustration of her lover, and Jason Watkins as the eventually successful uncomplicated, Sam.
Simon Godwin keeps this long play (originally over 5 hours, now just three and a half) moving with outstanding designs and sets by Soutra Gilmour, evoking the changing times.
Malcolm Singer
Strange Interlude, playing until September at The National Theatre.
Box Office: 020 7452 3000 or online:  http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
If you can’t get to the National Theatre but would love to experience one of the performances then you might like to know that MACBETH starring Kenneth Branagh will be screened live by the National Theatre from Manchester on 20th JULY.
For tickets at your nearest venue http://www.ntlive.com
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Screenings to venues in the Three Counties of GLORIANA
GlorianaMany of our National theatres are screening one off live performances to over 500 venues world wide giving audiences a chance to see productions that would otherwise be impossible and at very low prices.
At £15 a ticket I was able to see Britten’s opera Gloriana direct from Covent Garden in the comfortable surroundings of Aylesbury’s Waterside Theatre’s Second Space.
Richard Jones’ imaginative witty setting of a village hall playing out the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and the young Earl of Essex, and her visit to the good people of Norwich, with excellent camera work and well presented surtitles, gave me the feeling of being there at Covent Garden.
Malcolm Singer
You might also like to know about MACBETH starring Kenneth Branagh live by the National Theatre from Manchester on 20th.JULY.  For tickets at your nearest venue http://www.ntlive.com

****

CATS at Milton Keynes Theatre

.Cats

T.S.Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats would at first seem an unlikely subject for a musical, but after his partnership with Tim Rice ended in 1980, Andrew Lloyd Webber returned to his childhood love of Eliot’s poems and started setting some to music. Eliot’s widow gave him an unpublished poem about Grizabella the Glamour Cat which gave the show it’s famous song “Memory”.
Although there’s no actual story line other than Grizabella being an outcast and finally being accepted by all the cats, Lloyd Webber’s music ranges in style from Victorian music hall through 1920’s and 30’s jazz to rock and roll. The young cast in this touring version are highly versatile with a balletic approach to the dancing and there are outstanding performances from Oliver Savile as Rum Tum Tugger (looking like a young Bruce Forsyth) to Cameron Ball as the magical Macavity and Alison Beck as White Cat.
However, it’s essentially an ensemble show, but I do wish the Sound Operators would resist over amplifying a perfectly acceptable balance from a fine 9 piece band.
 CATS, At Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 6 July.
Box Office: 0844 871 7652. or online:  www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes

****

Imperial Ice Stars production of The Sleeping Beauty at the Milton Keynes Theatre until 22nd June

In 1886 the Director of the Imperial Theatres in Russia, Ivan Vsevolozhsky commissioned  Pyotr Tchaikovsky to write the music for the ballet of Sleeping Beauty. The French choreographer Marius Petipa finally gave Tchaikovsky his anticipated requirements in January 1889 and by that May the music was sketched out and the orchestrations completed two months later. The premier of the ballet was on January 15th 1890 and soon became a firm favourite with the public.

ICA119The Imperial Ice Stars are taken from the cream of Russian skating talent and perform this magical version of Sleeping Beauty perfectly and even manage – whilst still pleasing fans of the original ballet – to include stunning skating feats usually reserved for Olympic arenas!

Quite why some people look down their noses a little when a show on ice is mentioned I can’t imagine. We were treated to a spectacular ballet with the added attraction of expert skating, flying, wonderful sets and costumes (Sets designed by the creator of The Sydney Olympic Games opening Ceremony 2000 and costumes designed and made by Moscow’s famous Stanislavsky Theatre) and even fire – yes, at one point actual flames were seen to be leaping from the ice!

ICA_SL46It’s difficult to single anyone out, with fine performances from the chorus members to the lead players – although I have to say that the evil Carabosse would probably take my vote!

If you have an evening left this week I urge you to get along to the Milton Keynes Theatre to see this magical evening of spectacular theatre. The Imperial Ice Stars boast that ” Lovers of Spectacular shows, musicals, ballet and sport will be enthralled” ….. and we most certainly were!

Ernie Almond

The Imperial Ice Stars’ production of The Sleeping Beauty is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 22nd June

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

****

 Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams, Abbey Theatre, St.Albans.

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Suddenly Last Summer not only makes demands on the cast, but also the audience and Director Brian Stewart’s team measured up well.
For some years, widow Mrs Venable and her son Sebastian had spent each summer away from their New Orleans home enjoying the fashionable centres of Europe, except for last summer.  Because of Mrs Venable’s poor health, Sebastian travelled with his cousin Catherine Holly (played by Lucy Crick), only to be viciously killed leaving Catherine to return traumatised. All this we learn from Mrs Venable at the start of the play as she puts Dr Cukrowicz in the picture, demanding him to treat Catherine in return for money she intends giving him for further research.
As Mrs Venable, Margaret Metcalf most movingly conveyed the despair of this broken woman as well as the remembrance of her time in Europe with her son when they were the centre of attraction, or so she believed.
The account of Sebastian’s horrible death spills out from Catherine after the doctor has injected her with a sedative.
Having patiently listened to Mrs Venable, Andrew Margerison’s fine performance as the doctor later provides the means for Lucy Crick’s exhausting, emotional and disturbing outburst bringing the play to a shuddering close.
The whole cast brought this difficult play to life in the intimate space of the Abbey Theatre’s Studio aided by an atmospheric set by Diana Penton. I was really there in the steamy heat of Sebastian’s garden.
Malcolm Singer
Suddenly Last Summer runs until Saturday 15 June at The Abbey Theatre, St. Albans.
Box Office:  01727 857861 or online:  www.abbeytheatre.org.uk

****

DANCING AT LUGHNASA at Royal Theatre, Northampton.

Dancing at Lughnasa video

1st.August marks the beginning of harvest, known as Lughnasa in rural Ireland, and Brian Friel’s nostalgic play homes in on the Munday family near the village of Ballybeg.  We meet five un-married sisters, the youngest, 26 year old Christina has a 7 year old son Michael, who as an adult, begins the play remembering life back then in 1936.
The oldest, Kate, is the only one bringing in any money as the local school teacher and her job is under threat. Maggie runs the house and looks after the hens while Agnes and simple Rose knit gloves for an agent although a new clothing factory will soon deprive them of any future work.
Uncle Jack has returned unwell from his missionary work in Africa adding to their troubles, and if this wasn’t enough, Michael’s father turns up with empty promises.
Their lives are brightened by the newly acquired wireless and although stern sister Kate forbids them to go to the Lughnasa festival dance, they at least are able to celebrate dancing at home when the wireless is working.
Coln Gormley’s Michael is nostalgic without being sentimental and you know that Milo Twomey’s Gerry, Michael’s father is full of talk.  Christopher Soul’s Uncle Jack is loosing his memory for the right English words having spoken nothing but Swahili and become more pagan and less Catholic in Africa.
These were hard times; very little money, strict Catholic discipline forbidding Zoe Rainey’s Christina to marry having had a child out of wedlock, but despite these troubles they are able to be happy dancing.
Richard Beecham’s production is well judged enhanced by Naomi Dawson’s splendid set.
Royal Theatre, Northampton until Saturday 15 June.
Box Office: 01604 624811 or online: www.royalandderngate.co.uk

****

TITUS ANDRONICUS – RSC, Stratford upon Avon.
Revenge is central to Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus, and it’s Titus, a Roman General, who begins a chain reaction. Having conquered the Goths, he returns to Rome with his captives Tamora, the Queen of the Gaths and her three sons.  He sacrificially kills one of them in revenge for the deaths of 20 of his sons in battle.
The new Roman Emperor, Saturninus, marries Tamora and she vows revenge, while Titus’ daughter Lavinia marries Saturninus’ brother Bassianus.  He’s killed by Tamora’s two sons who then rape and mutilate Lavinia, egged on by Tamora’s lover Aaron, making it look as though Titus is responsible.
Revenge continues to the play’s gruesome end with bodies and blood everywhere.  Titus’ surviving son Lucius comes out of this as the new Emperor.
It was good to see Stephen Boxer at Stratford again in the title role and Katy Stephens as horrible Tamora, both turning in strong performances.  John Hopkins brought out moments of humour as Saturninus and Kevin Harvey was cunning and unpleasant as Aaron.
The very difficult part of Lavinia, having had her hands cut off and her tongue removed, was movingly played by young Rose Reynolds.
Despite that there are few redeeming features in this play, it makes for terrific entertainment providing you don’t mind lots of blood.  I’m sure Director Michael Fentiman enjoyed himself!
 Malcolm Singer
Continues at the Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon until Saturday 26 October. http://www.rsc.org.uk/  0844 800 1110.

***

Evita at Milton Keynes Theatre.
Evita_prod_9048The story of Maria Eva Durate from her humble beginnings to become the most powerful woman in Argentina after the Second World War, was turned by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice into the musical EVITA which ran at London’s Prince Edward Theatre for nearly 8 years.  Although it was revived for another run at the Adelphi Theatre and is now on its second national tour, it still has the ability to make a strong impact.
Of course it does require the right cast to carry it off and at Milton Keynes Madalena Alberto is absolutely convincing as Eva, the manipulative young woman who marries the powerful dictator Juan Peron, played here once again by Mark Heenehan with just the right authority.
Linking the story as a narrator, Marti Pellow as Che Guavara, warmed to his task particularly in Act 2, and there were fine cameo performances from Nic Gibney as the tango dancer who helps her move to Buenos Aires and from Sara McNicholas as Peron’s rejected
mistress.
At times the band was too loud, blotting out the soloist’s words, but the young ensemble added much to the atmosphere with energetic South American dances.  Evita is destined to live on!
Malcolm Singer
EVITA at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 1st.June.
Box Office: 0844 871 7652 or online:  www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes

***

The Company of Ten have just finished their production of Ibsen’s The Cherry Orchard which I found rather disappointing.  It’s so important to make the characters create the atmosphere of a fine aristocratic Russian family on the brink of bankruptcy having to sell the land where the cherry orchard is now in bloom and also the family home with all its memories. With just a few exceptions the cast just didn’t go deep enough to make this production convincing.

 However, after many months of building work next to the theatre a new swimming pool and leisure centre is now fully open and the site of the old pool has provided a fine approach to the theatre with plenty of well lit parking.
 Malcolm Singer

****

Children of the Sun, by Maxim Gorky, translated by Andrew Upton, at The National Theatre.
Maxim Gorky’s “Children of the Sun” set in 1905, was written in prison in that year and Andrew Upton’s new version is faithful to the original.  Geoffrey Streatfield is Protasov, a chemist at work in his laboratory in his large drab house, puzzling over the place of people and the world in the cosmos to the exclusion of almost everything
around him.  His sister Liza is in love with the local vet Boris whose sister Melaniya is besotted with Protasov.
In the middle of all this Justine Mitchell as his wife Yelena and Maggie McCarthy as Nanny, struggle to run the household and cope with the many comings and goings and frequent interruptions to Protasov’s work.
All the relationships become increasingly complicated and accusations from the townspeople that his experiments are the cause of a serious outbreak of cholera add to the mounting tension. Yelena is at her wits end as Protsov is oblivious to what’s going on around him and that although still in love with her he takes her and all her efforts
for granted.
Director Howard Davies propels the production onwards to its fatal conclusion with Bunny Christie’s design adding tremendous atmosphere.  Throughout you care for everyone, particularly Geoffrey Streatfield and Justine Mitchell with fine work from Lucy Black as the hysterical Melaniya, Emma Lowndes as the bottled up Liza and Gerald Kid adding an objective view as a family friend and artist.  You leave the theatre, reeling after its terrible conclusion.
Malcolm Singer
Children of the Sun at the National Theatre until Sunday 14 July.
Box Office: 020 7452 3000 or online: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

****

Hamlet and As You Like It, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford upon Avon Hamlet-113x149

The role of Hamlet must be the greatest challenge for an actor and before seeing Jonathan Slinger in David Farr’s production for the RSC in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, I did have my doubts about his suitability for the royal prince.
Having been murdered by his own brother Claudius, Hamlet’s ghostly father demands revenge and its this revelation that drives Hamlet onwards to a catastrophic ending.  With Greg Hicks in fine form as both the ghost and Claudius, Jonathan Slinger gradually developed this complex character, always questioning the path he should take; feigning madness to the fussy Polonius who believes this is the result of his love for his distraught daughter, Ophelia.
Tragedy is inevitable and although not the greatest Hamlet I’ve ever seen, Jonathan Slinger presents a convincing case for this bold casting.
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The same ensemble of actors offer “As You Like It” in repertory while rehearsing “All’s well that ends well”, soon to take the stage.  Pippa Nixon takes the role of Rosalind as well as playing Ophelia, and her disguise as the young man Ganymede is very convincing when she and her cousin Celia escape to the Forest of Arden to avoid Celia’s cruel uncle Duke Ferdinand. Alex Waldman is a fine Orlando having been a strong Horatio in Hamlet; he’s chosen a life away from his hateful brother Oliver and together with faithful Old Adam, sympathetically played by Luke Morris, also finds himself in the forest carving love messages to Rosalind on the trees.
Cliff Burnett is at times very moving as the banished Duke Senior, Oliver Ryan makes an extraordinary melancholy Jaques and Nicholas Tennant as the fool Touchstone, has fun both on stage and with the audience. With splendid chemistry between Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldman, director Maria Aberg takes us to the pastoral depths of the forest for 3 hours of escapism with original music by Laura Marling.
 Malcolm Singer
Performances at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, until Saturday 28 September.
Box Office: 0844 800 1110 or online: http://www.rsc.org.uk/

****

Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking at Milton Keynes Theatre from 06-11 May

Theatre Royal Bath Productions Aug 2012 Dress RehearsalRelatively Speaking by Alan AyckbournDirected by Lindsay Posner Felicity Kendal as Shelia Jonathan Coy as PhilipKara Tointon as Ginny Max Bennett as Greg©NOBBY CLARK+44(0)7941-515770+44(0)20-7924-0302nobby@nobbyclark.co.uk

I can’t think where I’ve been not to have seen this particular Ayckbourn classic before. But I’m glad the cast led by Felicity Kendal were the ones to enlighten me! Jonathan Coy as Philip whose dark secrets are in danger of being found out and Felicity Kendal as his wife Sheila who doesn’t quite understand what’s going on but accepts it never the less are quite, quite brilliant, with some comedy timing to die for! I was so pleased to discover that the art of the pause is still alive and kicking!

Do get to see this if you can, you won’t be disappointed!

Kara Tointon and Max Bennett (Ginny & Greg) are the perfect foil for each other – and for Philip & Sheila. This wonderful foursome make up the cast with of course Alan Ayckbourn at his very best!

Ernie Almond

Relatively Speaking at Milton Keynes Theatre 06-11 May

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

****

STARLIGHT EXPRESS, Milton Keynes Theatre.
Starlight Express 1
Algenon Blackwood’s original story of a young boy’s dream of trains racing across a starlit sky, gave Andrew Lloyd Webber
the idea for a unique musical.
No touring version of Starlight Express is able to recreate the original London production where the auditorium of the theatre was converted into a series of railway tracks.  So you have to accept that the races between various trains has to be considerably modified by using 3D video.  Lloyd Webber’s music is still what makes this dream-like story come alive with the title song and “A light at the end of the tunnel” providing it’s foundation.
With Kristopher Harding and Amanda Coutts providing the love interest as Rusty and Pearl and Ruthie Stephens as Dinah singing “u n c o u p l e d” showing that Lloyd Webber does have a sense of humour despite what some critics say.
It was good to have a live band directed by Tom de Keyser, but why were they so over amplified blotting out most of Richard Stilgoe’s Lyrics? Could someone from the production team do something about it.
Starlight Express is at the Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 4 May.
Box Office: 0844 871 7652 or online:   www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes

****

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal Theatre, Northampton. AMND1_Titania, Bottom and fairies 2_4956

Tuesday 23 April was Shakespeare’s 449th birthday and the Royal Theatre, Northampton celebrated with the opening night of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Knowing Director Gary Sefton’s track record there, this was unlikely to be just another run of the mill production, and so it proved.
Set in a house in Edwardian England, we in the audience needed to use our imagination to picture the woodland scenes.
A cast of eight kept the plot moving, for example the four young lovers suddenly reappear as the mechanicals rehearsing their play, requiring careful cutting by the Director to make this work.  Silas Carson was commanding as Thesaus and the magical Oberon with Joe Alessi as both the boastful Bottom and the stern Egeus, but there were occasions when a less rushed delivery of the text would have helped.
However, the misunderstandings, fun and magic enjoyed by the whole cast made this a fine birthday celebration.
 Malcolm Singer
ROYAL THEATRE, NORTHAMPTON until Saturday 11 May.
Box Office: 01604 624811 or online:  http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/

****

THE EMPRESS by Tanika Gupta, RSC and Kneehigh Theatre joint production. Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon.

 Empress-2013-2-361x541To mark her Golden Jubilee in 1887, Queen Victoria was presented with the gift of 24 year old Abdul Karin from the
Governor of North West Frontiers in India, to become her servant.
Tanika Gupta’s play “The Empress”, begins on board ship brining him to England; also travelling are English women with their young children together with their Ayah’s (nannies).  On arrival many of these young Indian girls are dismissed despite promise of continued work. One of these is 16 year old Rani, sensitively played by Anneika Rose.
While she struggles to find somewhere to live and work in this strange and dangerous part of East London, Abdul Karim rapidly
finds favour with the Queen, upsetting the Royal household when Victoria agrees that he should be more a companion than
a servant.
In Emma Rice’s production, Beatie Edney and Tony Jayawadena create a strong bond as Queen and essential friend and
Munshi (teacher),Her Majesty learning about the language and life of India where she is Empress. Continual pressure is put upon the Queen by the stern Lady Sarah (Kristin Hutchinson), making her a formidable opponent to Victoria’s relationship with her Munshi.
Rani is eventually reunited with Hari who has remained faithful to her since they first met on the ship from India.
The production flowed smoothly from the low life of London’s boarding houses to the splendour of the Court, enhanced by original music by Stu Barker as well as a very moving moment towards the end when the whole cast join in singing the hymn “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”.
“The Empress” runs until Saturday 4th.May, Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon.
 Box Office: 0844 800 1110 or online: http://www.rsc.org.uk/

****

Northern Ballet’s “The Great Gatsby”, at Milton Keynes Theatre. 16th-20th April
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Malcolm Singer was at the opening performance at Milton Keynes Theatre…..
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When I first saw Northern Ballet 25 years ago, Christopher Gable had just become their Artistic Director and he told me that his aim was to tell stories through dance. Since becoming Artistic Director 12 years ago, David Nixon has continued this idea.  His new ballet The Great Gatsby tells F.Scott Fitzgerald’s story of Jay Gatsby’s obsession to re-kindle his youthful love for Daisy, now married to Tom Buchanan.
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From his New York mansion, he is able to see Daisy’s home and he longs for her to come to him. It’s now 1926 and he has acquired notoriety and wealth through some very dodgy deals, but this enables him to throw frequent huge parties attracting celebrities and all the best New York people.
For a ballet company, these are ideal circumstances for dances and Northern Ballet turned to Sir Richard Rodney Bennett’s prolific output for a wide range compositions which reflect the ever changing scenes and moods of the story, with some wonderful jazz dances conjuring up the 1920’s.
The Great Gatsby
There are strong performances from the seven main characters, however unless you were familiar with the story, there
were times, particularly in the First Act, when the locations of the ever changing scenes were rather confusing.
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That apart, the whole company told the story with great enthusiasm through powerful descriptive dance, backed by an outstanding small pit band conducted by John Pryce-Jones, and it was fitting that the performance ended with a recording of Richard Rodney Bennett singing and playing his own “I Never Went Away”.
                Malcolm Singer

****

Carnaby Street at the Wycombe Swan Theatre Carnaby Street high_wycombe Judi Herman writes…. In our family we speculate that if we ever find ourselves in later life living in a home for the elderly, when kindly young people come to entertain us, they will play us Beatles songs and other Sixties hits to get us to sing along. Joining the jolly audience at the Hackney Empire last week, all up for having a great Saturday night out that definitely included a sing-along, and realising that most of them knew all the words to the many classic sixties numbers in this juke box musical, I found myself holding that thought! Writer/Producer Carl Leighton-Pope tells his Sixties story in the programme and living in his father’s pub in nearby Dean Street, and working five nights a week at the legendary Marquee Club, he has impeccable credentials to claim citizenship of Carnaby Street in those heady days. What he gives us is a recreation of the birth of the swinging Sixties through the eyes of Jack, a jack-the-lad indeed, intent on making it managing a band; and through the story of a pair from the Liverpudlian music scene come to make it big in the big city. And Jude the Scouse singer/guitarist makes it very big indeed, winning and almost losing his posh dolly bird as fame and fortune cloud his vision. There are nice authentic performances from Aaron Sidwell as Jack, Matthew Wycliffe as Jude, Tricia Adele-Turner as Lady Jane (inspired perhaps by the Stones song though sadly that’s not included) and Verity Rushworth as Penny Lane, the Scouse lass with the heart of gold. But it’s not really the story that matters in a delicious trip down memory lane that you’ll relish if you were there back in the day – though that’s not to say that you shouldn’t bring your children and your grandchildren to share it with you! The hits of Dusty Springfield, The Searchers, Lulu, The Animals, Spencer Davis, Petula Clark, Cilla Black, Brian Hyland and many more get in on the act. The onstage band (musical supervisor and arrangements Colin Cattle) and the actor/singers are all superb. In fact many of those actor/singers are great musicians too with top honours going to the great trio of brassy gals, playing respectively Tenor Sax and Trumpet (Cici Howells), Alto Sax and Keyboards (Lilly Howard) and Baritone Sax (Lauren Storer), as well as playing a medley of roles and modelling a fab range of sixties frocks and hot pants. If the music weren’t so great and evocative, I’d have come out singing designer Matthew Wright’s costumes and fun pop arts sets. It’s all very groovy, baby – with a great party atmosphere in a post curtain call sing-along that I trust happens every night and not just on Saturdays!

Judi Herman

Carnaby Street at the Wycombe Swan Theatre from 16th – 20th April

****

PETER and ALICE by John Logan at Noel Coward Theatre, London.
Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland are still stories which young people enjoy and older people return to with fondness.
Both are about the innocence of childhood and the inevitability of growing up, except Peter Pan never grows up.
John Logan’s new play “Peter and Alice” in Michael Grandage’s production recreates the meeting of 80 year old Alice Liddell
and the very much younger Peter Llewelyn Davies on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lewis Carroll; both of them
being the inspiration for the two stories.
Peter Davies, now a publisher, tries to persuade Alice to write her autobiography, she replies that people are only interested
in the fictional Alice and that her life is of no importance.
In a series of beautifully devised flashbacks, we see Alice as a little girl in Oxford casting a spell over Lewis Carroll and young
Peter reunited with James Barrie who became his guardian after his parents died.
After a frigid first meeting, Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw draw these two vulnerable people closer together, questioning
“when do we grow up?”
Ben Whishaw grew up in Bedfordshire, acting as a teenager in Young Bancroft Players in Hitchin.  Both he and Judi Dench
starred in John  Logan’s recent James Bond film “Sykfall”
Malcolm Singer
Peter and Alice continues at Noel Coward Theatre until the end of April.
Box Office: 0844 482 5141 or online:  http://www.michaelgrandagecompany.com/ 

****

Goodnight Mr Tom at the Aylesbury Waterside Theatre

Mr Tom 1

As people who remember the war and its evacuees are at least in their seventies now, most of the audience enjoying Goodnight Mr Tom at the Milton Keynes Theatre had to trust Angus Jackson’s skillful direction and the talented cast expertly headed by Oliver Ford Davies as Tom Oakley to show them just what WW2 was like both in London and the countryside. I’m pleased to report that right from the start, when they kicked off to the strains of Gracie Fields, they succeeded! This Chichester Festival Theatre Production isn’t without its headaches I’m sure. The action takes place at various times in Tom’s house, the railway station, his garden, the cemetary, the village hall and a house in bomb torn London. It’s thanks to the ingenious set (designed by Robert Innes Hopkins) that we manage to keep up without a hitch! The story concerns a young boy William Beech – played on the night I was there by Jamie Goldberg – who is evacuated to the home of elderly semi recluse Tom Oakley in the country village of Little Weirwold. He has obviously had a very tough time before this with his mother, a very strictly religious disciplinarian. Mr Tom (as the boy calls him) has his work cut out to bring the boy out of his shell – and not to get too attached to him in the process. All goes fairly well until William is told his mother is ill and he is to go back to see her in London…….. Special mention must go to Jamie Goldberg and Thiago Los (playing William’s friend Zach) both pupils of the Sylvia Young Theatre School. The characters they were playing were complete opposites, Zach the theatrical “show-off” and William pulling every bit of sympathy (and quite a few “Aahs”) out of the audience.  Both these young actors were excellent and are to be forgiven for not yet quite mastering the fact that “projecting” is not “shouting” With a talented cast of eighteen, many of them playing two or more characters the play works well. Thanks to puppet creator & director Toby Olie and his puppeteers, birds, butterflies and even a quite brilliant squirrell to cleverly to life! Tom’s dog “Sammy” (c/o his handler Elisa De Grey) became a real favourite with the enthusiastic audience when I saw the play recently at Milton Keynes. This is perfectly suitable for all members of the family, say 8yrs old and upwards – but be warned, you might well need a box of tissues!

Ernie Almond

Goodnight Mr Tom at the Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury 26th – 30th March Box Office: 0844 871 7627 or online: www.atgtickets/aylesbury

****

Mr.Whatnot by Alan Ayckbourn at The Royal Theatre, Northampton.

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Alan Ayckbourn’s 6th. play written in 1963 was a disaster when it opened in the West End causing him to vow never to write another
play.  It’s hardly surprising when the principal character is on stage for the whole play without speaking and the plot is very slight.  However, it’s giving audiences in Northampton a highly enjoyable night out with plenty of funny moments.
Juanma Rodriguez is a master at comic timing and as the mute Mr.Whatnot he finds himself called upon to tune the piano at
the Slingsby-Craddock’s country house innocently causing chaos reminiscent of Ayckbourn’s silent film favourites Buster
Keaton and Harold LLoyd.
On first seeing Mr.Whatnot, Antonia Kinlay’s Amanda, the daughter of the house, instantly rejects stupid boyfriend Cecil (Charles Hunt) and her father is a bit trigger-happy with his shot gun.
Add to all this a wonderful game of tennis, a crazy evening meal and tea in the garden not unlike the Mad Hatter’s, I’m sure Alan Ayckbourn who was in the audience, would have found Cal McCrystal’s production more rewarding than it’s West End first night.
Mr Whatnot is at Royal Theatre, Northampton, until Saturday 6th.April
Box Office: 01604 624811 or online: http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/

****

Fences by August Wilson at Milton Keynes Theatre.
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In Paulette Randall’s production of August Wilson’s play, Fences, we meet Troy and his family in front of his house in the Hill District of Pittsburgh surrounded by a broken down fence. In this all black cast we learn that Lenny Henry’s Troy has been a champion baseball player and that 18 years ago, he completed a 15 year prison sentence for killing a man in self defence.
He then married his much younger second wife Rose.
Fences 3
Henry depicts a strong, proud father and step-father to Lyons and Cory, at the same time fearful of the Devil reminding him to live an  honest life.  And it’s when he tells Rose that he is to be a father by another woman, that he is fully tested.
Lenny Henry and Tanya Moodie as Rose head a strong cast in a play that really gets going after the interval when relationships are under pressure and eventually fences are mended.
Malcolm Singer
“Fences” at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 23 March
Box Office: 0844 871652  or online: www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes

****

THIS HOUSE at National Theatre, London. The days of hung and minority governments are recalled in James Graham’s play “This House”, at the Olivier Theatre and Jeremy Herrin’s production is cleverly enhanced by Rae Smith’s designs taking us into the Chamber of The House of Commons and the offices of both Labour and Conservative Whips.   With a cast of 23 you really do feel you are witnessing the rocky government of Harold Wilson in 1974 coping with the miner’s strike,  then James Callagan following on and being defeated by a vote of no confidence in 1979. The cut and thrust behind the scenes was vividly caught by Phil Daniels as working class Labour Chief Whip, Bob Mellish and his deputy Walter Harrison (Reece Dinsdale) contrasted by their smart opponents, Julian Wadham as Humphrey Atkins and Charles Edwards as Jack Weatherill.  Despite their differences, there was a professional respect and friendship throughout, turning real events into splendid entertainment.

  Malcolm Singer

Continues at The Olivier Theatre, National Theatre until Thursday 16th.May Box Office:  020 7452 3000,or online: nationaltheatre.org.uk. Live screenings at 7.30 on Thursday 16th May to:- Aylesbury and Leighton Buzzard Theatres, and cinemas in High Wycombe, Luton, Milton Keynes, Bedford, Letchworth, Stevenage, Hatfield, Watford, Barnet and Northampton.

****

Surprises by Alan Ayckbourn at Palace Theatre, Watford.

Surprises
Spare part surgery and transplants enable people to live much longer today and Alan Ayckbourn,s 76th and latest play “Surprises”, pushes medical advancement to the limit.
Instead of 3 score years and 10, he presents us with people who have clocked up 6 score years and 10; but where is love and our emotions?  He suggests that these will not endure.
Set in various time zones in the future, the play and its characters are too unbelievable for their own good. For example, a 17 year old girl want’s to marry a man her 73 year old father feels is unsuitable and she must wait until her 68 year old mother returns from a 6 year trip to a distant planet for her views.
The cast do their best in Ayckbourn’s own production, but if this is a look at the future, let’s enjoy the present.
Malcolm Singer
Surprises at the Watford Palace Theatre until Saturday 9 March
 Box Office: 01923 225671 or online: www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk

****

9 to 5 The Musical at The Milton Keynes Theatre Was there ever a more welcoming venue than the Milton Keynes Theatre? Especially this week as they are having a party that started on Monday evening and runs for the entire week! You’ll be dancing in the aisles by the finale – and singing 9 to 5 all the way home! 9 to 5 The tyrannical and sexist boss of a busy office Franklyn J Hart, played with just the right amount of venom and lecherousness by Mark Moraghan gets his come-uppance by three of the workers! Violet (Jackie Clune), Doralee (the Dolly part played by Amy Lennox) and newcomer Judi (Natalie Casey) use some, shall we say unusual, methods to bring Franklyn down a peg or two! OK the story is weak (I can’t think of many other musicals with strong stories) but the show just bubbles along and, as you might expect from Dolly Parton, there’s plenty of Dolly-type songs, lots of “Yee-Har!”, a whole scene in pink – and plenty of wigs! The three girls are a formidable team in the script and in fact a formidable team period. Special mention I think should go to Jackie Clune whose powerhouse performance – she sings and dances in eight of the fourteen numbers – has you hooked from the very start. The show also stars Bonnie Langford as Roz Keith. Be prepared to see the lovely Bonnie as you’ve never seen her before! Dont miss this evening of pure fun in the theatre!

Ernie Almond

9 to 5 The Musical is at The Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 9th March Box Office: 0844 871 7652 or online: www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes

****

FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley, adapted by Patrick Sandford.  Bancroft Players, Queen Mother Theatre, Hitchin.
At the end of his troubled life, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein reflects that ” the acquirement of knowledge is a dangerous thing.”  Man’s desire to push the boundaries of science to the limit compels  Frankenstein to create a creature he finds unable to control. The wonders of the natural world were opening up at the start of the 19th. century astonishing Frankenstein as he explored the mountains of his native Austria, contrasting with the horror of his creation.
Jon Brown’s production brings out the love, hatred and revenge which inhabits both leading characters. He was well served by Peter Matthews as the tormented, guilt-ridden Frankenstein and by Greg Jones as his complex creation.
Malcolm Singer
FRANKENSTEIN presented by the Bancroft Players, is at the Queen Mother Theatre, Hitchin until Saturday 2nd March
Box Office: 01462 455166 online: www.queenmothertheatre.org.uk

****

PORT by  Simon Stephens at the LYTTELTON THEATRE, National Theatre.
Port, short for Stockport, Greater Manchester in 1988, is where Rachel aged 11 and Billy, 6 live. Their mum has had enough of violent dad and
walks out never to be seen again. It’s this and the decaying environment that drives Simon Stephen’s play on through a series of scenes over
the next 14 years.
Kate O’Flynn’s finely judged Rachel is a survivor aiming for a better way of life while Mike Noble’s Billy is easily lead astray and turns to crime.
At 21, Rachel marries Kevin who’s just as violent as her dad, both parts played by Jack Deam and what if she had married her teenage friend,
Danny; but by the time they meet up again they’re both 24 and Calum Callaghan’s honest Danny is married with a family.
Marianne Elliott’s production might have been served better in a smaller venue; the Lyttelton’s open spaces being too big for the more intimate
scenes.  However, this is a powerful, thought-provoking play.
Malcolm Singer
Port runs until Saturday 23rd MARCH. at The Lyttelton Theatre,  The National Theatre.
Box Office: 020 7452 3000 or online: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
****
A Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Mark Ravenhill,  Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford upon Avon.
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It’s 1609 in Padua in Italy. The newly invented telescope gave Galileo the chance to prove that the Earth was not the centre of the Universe and
that all heavenly bodies revolved around it.
Ian McDiarmid’s performance in the title role brings out the excitement and the frustration of Galileo defending his opinion to various factions of
the Catholic Church, because this discovery contradicts it’s doctrine and would undermine God’s authority and the Bible. Galileo’s interpretation of
the Bible was that it teaches us” how to go to heaven, and how the heavens go.”
Philip Whitchurch’s wonderful portrayal of the Jesuit Cardinal Barerin backs Galileo’s opinion until he becomes Pope.
Roxana Silbert’s production gets to the heart of these complex events which take us over a period of 30 years when Galileo submits before the
Inquisition and gives up his case.
Ian McDiarmid is on stage for most of the time and we watch him encouraging his students, pacifying is wife and daughter then finally giving way to old age.  A fine performance by Jodie  McNee as his daughter has her marriage prospects dashed and Matthew Aubrey as his pupil Andrea, feels every twist and turn of Galileo’s emotions. The whole cast is a tremendous team backed by live original music.
Malcolm Singer
A Life of Galileo is at the Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon until Saturday 30th. March.
Box Office: 0844 800 1110  or online: www.rsc.org.uk/.
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****
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The Captain of Kopenick, at The Olivier Theatre until the 4th April
. The Captain of Kopenick, by Carl Zucmayer in a new English version by Ron Hutchinson, at The Olivier Theatre, Royal National Theatre.
 Humour’s a funny business, what makes one person laugh can leave another unamused. This is the case with this very German play where a compulsive thief Wilhelm Voigt is released from many years in prison without any papers and so he has no identity.
Up to his old tricks, he is pursued by both police and the military until he finds himself leaving a fancy dress shop wearing the uniform of a Captain.  He’s now amazed that he has authority and quickly cashes in on his new found power by commanding a group of soldiers. They take over the Town Hall and demand that the safe must be emptied!
. Antony Sher does his best to keep the “plot” going as the Captain and the rest of the cast work hard, but humour isn’t always funny.
Malcolm Singer
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The Captain of Kopenick, at The Olivier Theatre until the 4th April
Box Office:  020 7452 3000.or online at www.natinaltheatre.org.uk
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****

Goodnight Mr Tom at the Milton Keynes Theatre As people who remember the war and its evacuees are at least in their seventies now, most of the audience enjoying Goodnight Mr Tom at the Milton Keynes Theatre had to trust Angus Jackson’s skillful direction and the talented cast expertly headed by Oliver Ford Davies as Tom Oakley to show them just what WW2 was like both in London and the countryside. I’m pleased to report that right from the start, when they kicked off to the strains of Gracie Fields, they succeeded! This Chichester Festival Theatre Production isn’t without its headaches I’m sure. The action takes place at various times in Tom’s house, the railway station, his garden, the cemetary, the village hall and a house in bomb torn London. It’s thanks to the ingenious set (designed by Robert Innes Hopkins) that we manage to keep up without a hitch! The story concerns a young boy William Beech – played on the night I was there by Jamie Goldberg – who is evacuated to the home of elderly semi recluse Tom Oakley in the country village of Little Weirwold. He has obviously had a very tough time before this with his mother, a very strictly religious disciplinarian. Mr Tom (as the boy calls him) has his work cut out to bring the boy out of his shell – and not to get too attached to him in the process. All goes fairly well until William is told his mother is ill and he is to go back to see her in London…….. Special mention must go to Jamie Goldberg and Thiago Los (playing William’s friend Zach) both pupils of the Sylvia Young Theatre School. The characters they were playing were complete opposites, Zach the theatrical “show-off” and William pulling every bit of sympathy (and quite a few “Aahs”) out of the audience.  Both these young actors were excellent and are to be forgiven for not yet quite mastering the fact that “projecting” is not “shouting” With a talented cast of eighteen, many of them playing two or more characters the play works well. Thanks to puppet creator & director Toby Olie and his puppeteers, birds, butterflies and even a quite brilliant squirrell to cleverly to life! Tom’s dog “Sammy” (c/o his handler Elisa De Grey) became a real favourite with the enthusiastic audience at.Milton Keynes. This is perfectly suitable for all members of the family, say 8yrs old and upwards – but be warned, you might well need a box of tissues!

Ernie Almond

Goodnight Mr Tom at the Milton Keynes Theatre 12th – 16th February Box Office: 0844 871 7652 or online: www.atgtickets/miltonkeynes *** THE WINTER’S TALE Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon.

 
     I don’t have any objection to directors altering the location of Shakespeare plays or bringing them up to date, and on the whole Lucy Bailey’s version of The Winter’s Tale was fine, but I did have a spot of bother with Act VI.
     Leading up to that, Leontes, King of Sicilia, believes his wife Hermione has become pregnant by his life-long friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia who returns home.  Hermione appears to have died giving birth and Leontes banishes her baby daughter Perdita.
     16 years later we find her having been brought up in Bohemia by an old shepherd and having fallen love with Polixenes’ son Florizel.
      However, in this production Bohemia becomes a sea-side town in Lancashire where a sheep shearing festival is taking place with a wonderfully skilful Morris Dance and Pearce Quigley’s Autolycus is picking a pocket or two.  Back in Sicilia, Paulina has created a life-like statue of her friend Hermione to the amazement of Leontes and the newly married Perdita and Florizel.
       Jo Stone-Fewings and Adam Levy give strong performances as Leontes and Polixenes and Tara Fitzgerald is a moving Hermione, particularly at her trial before imprisonment. Video effects of the sea were distracting at times and a curious rusty tower dominates the sea-side.  Although the relocation wasn’t clear to me this was otherwise a very enjoyable The Winter’s Tale.
Malcolm Singer
  Runs until Saturday 23 February at Stratford-upon-Avon, (Box Office: 0844 800 1110 or online at   http://www.rsc.org/)
then at Milton Keynes Theatre 13 to 16 March.
  Milton Keynes Box Office: 0844 871 7652. or online at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes

*** Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty,  Milton Keynes Theatre.

Don’t go to a Matthew Bourne production expecting a traditional evening at the ballet.  Do go expecting to be surprised and richly entertained.
Bourne’s version of Sleeping Beauty was created to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his company “New Adventures”, last year, and it’s now on tour.
The reception the audience at Milton Keynes Theatre gave to this remarkable company, underlines the impact Matthew Bourne has made since he took the gamble to explore new ways of presenting ballet in 1987.
The curse put on Princess Aurora’s family by Ben Bunce’s commanding Carabosse sending the 21 year old to sleep for 100 years, ends in one of Bourne’s clever surprises. Hannah Vassallo as the Princess and Dominic North as the lowly Leo, who gains her hand,were beautifully matched and Christopher Marney was an
outstanding Count Lilac, guiding him through many adventures. The whole company clearly brought out every detail of this wonderful story.
 Using a large amount of Tchaikovsky’s music, this Gothic Romance had a happy ending; good triumphing over evil
A few tickets remain. Box Office: 0844 871 7652  or online: www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes
 Malcolm Singer.

***

The Lady Killers at Milton Keynes Theatre.
In this touring production, it’s hard to forget Alec Guiness as Professor Marcus in the film The Lady Killers, masterminding a robbery of £200000 at King’s Cross Station.
Paul Bown is the suitably shifty professor having just found the right temperore accommodation for his gang in a room let by Mrs. Wilberforce.
Michele Dotrice is ideal as the little old lady making endless cups of tea for the five crooks masquerading as musicians.
Having innocently helped bring in the loot to the house with the assistance of unsuspecting Constable Macdonald, Mrs Wilberforce finds out the truth and has to be got rid of.
As with many touring productions it sagged at times with some of the cast trying too hard to be funny.
However, it gave a full house at Miltons Keynes Theatre a not too taxing night out.
Malcolm Singer

*** THE GLASS MENAGERIE by Tennessee Williams at The Queen Mother Theatre Studio,Hitchin. It was good to see a capacity audience for this autobiographical play in which Tom Wingfield, played by Craig Maddox acts as both narrator and son of obsessive Amanda.  Natalie Gordon strongly captured the mother’s overpowering ambition for her 24 year old daughter Laura to meet a “gentleman caller”, just as she believes she did before she married. Her husband later deserting her.

Tom does indeed bring home Jim from the warehouse where they work and Heather Stuckey made the desperately shy Laura
momentarily interested in him. Jude Kerswill needed to project more, particularly in this intimate scene.
Nevertheless, the director, Martyn Jolly certainly got to grips with this difficult heart-rending play.
Malcolm Singer

*** Barn Theatre, Welwyn Garden City Table Manners by Alan Ayckbourn The director Coral Walton, has assembled a very believable cast for “Table Manners“, one of three “Norman Conquest” plays set at the same house at the same time during a July weekend. Lisa White brings out the frustration of unmarried Annie, stuck for ever looking after bed-ridden mother and Rhett Keene’s aggravating brother-in-law Norman is taking her away for a couple of nights to East Grinstead. Suzie Major is Annie’s well-meaning sister-in-law Sarah, arrives with husband Reg (Mel Powell) to look after things. He’d rather be out playing golf. Popping in and out is Chris White’s gentle Tom, the vet, who’s always had a soft spot for Annie but is quite unable to tell her and Annie likes having him around; and that’s as far as it goes Norman’s plan to take Annie away is exposed and after becoming helplessly drunk on Saturday night, his furious wife Ruth, played by June Wing, turns up to take him home. After watching this lot arguing and fighting over Sunday lunch, you’re left prefering your friends to your relations. After all, you can choose your friends.

Malcolm Singer

Table Manners continues at The Barn Theatre until Saturday 26th January. Box Office: 01707 324300 (8am – 6pm) or online at www.barntheatre.co.uk *** Milton Keynes Theatre until 19th Jan. New Jersey Nights  The Milton Keynes Theatre is one of Britains No 1 venues and show after show we see top professional performers and productions that would grace any stage in the world. We have quite rightly become very proud of the place and it was adopted into the hearts of the community almost from its opening day. However, we can all feel a little “below par” occasionally and thats what this week’s offering “New Jersey Nights” is – way below. We saw the opening scene, a stylised bar, through a gauze, playing in the background was a disc from some imaginary juke box, which seemed to go on forever. Just when we’d almost given up hope of ever seeing the Four Seasons, they came on. Unfortunately, on the night I was there the lighting was so bad that we hardly noticed them arrive! In fact, during the whole show woe betide anyone that went anywhere near the front of the stage were plunged into a sort of twilight! They finally came onstage and we settled down to hear all those old hits. But, instead of bursting into their first song, one of the four, Ricky Rojas, jumped out of character and straight into a sort of pantomime routine asking the audience if they were there to have a good time! The first time we didn’t answer loudly enough, so he asked us again!  I have to say, once the boys started singing they were good, very good, each one taking it in turn to sing the falsetto parts. We were treated to faithful renditions of thirty or so Four Seasons’ hits plus a couple from “The Ronnettes” (were those girls miming??) But when they were called upon to speak we were brought bolt upright by the pure English accents of this early American  supergroup! The direction and choreography were a bit haphazard and the sets were tame even for a touring production (remember Phantom?). The worst crime of all, we didn’t really learn much about the Four Seasons, just a few hints, although the programme includes quite a comprehensive article about their life story – maybe just buy the programme? All in all, if you are a fan of the Four Seasons’ music, you’ll certainly get that and accurately sung by Jon Hawkins, Duncan Heather, Ricky Rojas and Damion Scarcella, but if its a theatrical experience you’re after, wait for the next one!

Ernie Almond

New Jersey Nights is at The Milton Keynes Theatre until 19th Jan. Box Office: 0844 871 7652 or online: www.atgtickets.com *** Royal National Theatre: Lyttelton Theatre “People” by Alan Bennett A new play by Alan Bennett is always eagerly awaited and “People” in Nicholas Hytner’s production doesn’t disappoint, giving plenty of food for thought. A large, decaying 18th century Yorkshire house is the home of elderly Dorothy Stacpoole and her companion Iris and unless lots of money is spent on it, it’s future is doomed. Dorothy will not sell the house or any of its contents while her younger sister, Archdeacon June, has Ralph Lumsden from the National Trust all lined up to take it on. In an attempt to raise money, a pornographic film company has come and gone, so Ralph’s plans for an interactive venue for people to tramp round seems to be the only way out. Frances de la Tour as Dorothy reluctantly accepts people invading her home and both she and Linda Bassett as her dotty companion, are splendid; looking as run down as their beloved home. Selina Cadell as June just manages to suppress her triuph and Nicholas le Provost’s Ralph is overjoyed in transforming the house into a modern attraction which we see happen before our eyes. I still felt sorry for Dorothy.

Malcolm Singer.

“People” by Alan Bennett is at the Royal National Theatre’s Lyttelton Theatre. Continuing until April. Box Office: 020 7452 3000 or book online: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk   *** Noel Coward Theatre, St Martins Lane, London WC2 PRIVATES ON PARADE by Peter Nichols Serious trouble started in Malaya in 1948 and found 18 year old Peter Nichols joining the Combined Services Entertainment Unit; a mixed bag of troops keeping up the moral of their comrades. Years later he turned this experience into “Privates On Parade” Joseph Timms is the naive Private Flowers, quickly learning about life. At the heart of this unit is cross-dressing Acting Captain Terri Dennis played with relish by Simon Russell Beale, performing sings as Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn and not forgetting a hilarious Carmen Miranda. Mark Lewis Jones brings out the threatening danger in Reg Drummond with his hatred of homosexuals and Angus Wright as Major General Flack gives a fine portrayal of the professional soldier down to his boots; a leader of men, lacking much of a sense of humour but with strong Christian principles. Despite the efforts of the Entertainment unit, betrayal and warfare are ever present. This is the first of Michael Grandage’s 15 month season of productions and if the other four are as good as this, they are not to be missed.

Malcolm Singer

Privates on Parade runs until Saturday 2nd March 2013. Box Office: 0844 482 5141 and we particularly recommend that you view the website: www.michaelgrandagecompany.com *** Royal Shakespeare Company, Statford-Upon-Avon The Orphan of Zhao   adapted by James Fenton This story steeped in history, directed by the RSC’s new Artistic Director Gregory Doran, presents us with the first Chinese Play ever to be translated in the West. A son born to the Princess, daughter of the Emperor, poses a threat to Joe Dixon’s terrifyingly ambitious Tu’An Gu the Emperor’s minister. He forces Zhao Dan, the Princess’s husband to kill himself and orders all male children born that month to be destroyed. The Princess’s doctor smuggles the orphan away exchanging him for his wife’s newly born son who is subsequently killed. Wei Jiang, a counsellor banishes himself to escape from Tu’An Gu. Eighteen years later, the Emperor is dying and Wei Jiang returns to prevent Tu’An Gu seizing the throne. Not knowing who he is, the orphan also returns and on meeting his mother, she acclaims him The Orphan of Zhao. There are many moving performances from Graham Turner, the doctor, Philip Whitchurch, Wei Jiang, Lucy Briggs-Owen particularly as the sad widow of 18 years and Patrick Romer a wise learned councellor. Jake Fairbrother convinced me that after the death of the Emperor, the country would be secure. It was a great pity that the night I was htere, the audience was so small to witness this moving story supported by wonderful music directed by Michael Keelan and beautiful setting by Niki Turner.

Malcolm Singer

The Orphan of Zhao runs until Thursday 28th March 2013. Box Office: 0844 800 1110 or online at: www.rsc.org.uk * Boris Godunov (adapted from Pushkin’s play by Adrian Mitchell) It’s 1598 in Moscow and Boris has become Tsar, but was he responsible for the death of the heir, Prince Dmitry? Grigory, a disaffected monk leaves his monastic life, and prompted by Patrick Romer’s compassionate priest, flees to Poland posing as the “living” Dmitry where a Princess falls in love with him. As soon as Joe Dixon sets foot on the stage as Prince Vorotynskii and story teller, you fell that with his powerful presence and commanding, he is clearly someone not to be crossed. When Boris finds out what has happened he orders the Prince to destroy the imposter. I was not too sure about Lloyd Hutchinson as Boris; director Michael Boyd makes him a comic figure which I felt weakened his character, particularly in the final scene. There was terrific chemistry between Gethin Anthony and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Grigory and the Princess and strong ensemble work from the rest of the cast.

Malcolm Singer

Boris Godunov runs until Saturday 30th March 2013 Box Office: 0844 800 1110 or online at: www.rsc.org.uk * The Mouse and his Child (adapted by Tamsin Oglesby, based on the book by Russell Hoban) The thought of actors playing children’s toy animals can be off-puttin, but in the choice of The Mouse and his Child, the RSC has come up with a delightful story of childhood innocence against the threat of evil. In a toyshop, a clockwork mouse depends on his father for security, and they are surrounded by many friends, particularly an endearing roller-scating elephant played by Carla Mendonca. Out in the world, away from the shop with its dolls’ house home, the father and son encounter many strange birds and animals, and a pack of very nasty rats and their fierce leader Manny (Michael Hodgson) There were many children in the audience when I was there and their attention was held by Paul Hudson‘s flowing direction with atmospheric music provided by Bruce O’Neil. Any doubts I might have had were dispelled by Daniel Ryan and Bettrys Jones as the mouse and his child.

Malcolm Singer

The Mouse and his Child runs until Saturday 12th January 2013 Box Office: 0844 800 1110 or online at: www.rsc.org.uk * The Magistrate by Arthur Wing Pinero         National Theatre Women are understandably careful about revealing their true age and widow Agatha Farringdon knocks 5 years off hers when she marries the unsuspecting magistrate Aeneas Posket, telling him she is 31! The trouble is she had been married for 19 years, has a son, Cis, of that age and tries to pass him off as 14! Complications abound. Agatha’s sister Charlotte has been dumped by her fiance, Captain Vale and all five of them plus a Colonel Lukyn end up at a hotel trying to avoid each other only to be arrested along with the manager for drinking after hours. Katrina Lindsay’s ingenious designs convey Pinero’s 1885 setting with director Timothy Sheader adding linking Gilbert and Sullivan type songs by Richard Stilgoe and Richard Sisson. Wonderfully funny performances from Nancy Carroll as the tormented Agatha, Joshua McGuire as her wordly 19 year old son and Jonathan Coy as blustering Colnel Lukyn, complimented John Lithgow’s splendidly bewildered magistrate

.Malcolm Singer

This ideal family entertainment continues at the Olivia Theatre until Sunday 10th February, 2013.                                               Box Office: 0207 452 3000 or online at www.nationaltheatre.org.uk where you can also find details of live screenings of the play at local theatres across the country on 17th January. * Glyndebourne Opera on Tour   Milton Keynes Theatre         Glyndebourne Opera On Tour made their annual visit to Milton Keynes Theatre this week with Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and a rare chance to see Dvorak’s Rusalka It tells the tale of a water nymph who falls in love with handsome prince and by witchcraft, turns into a mortal with tragic consequences.

A powerful production with fine singing from the principals made a strong case for this neglected opera to be better known.

  Malcolm Singer

*** “ROAD” by Jim Cartwright    Big Spirit Youth Theatre, The Queen Mother Theatre, Hitchin.     Life isn’t easy, that’s at the heart of Jim Cartwight’s new award-winning play ROAD written in1986. Only two weeks ago, this talented youth theatre performed the stage version of Dick Barton – Special Agent, and by contrast ROAD, set in a deprived part of South London, throws up a different challenge. A large cast acted out short scenes highlighting the frustrations of young people coming to terms with unemployment, broken homes and the temptaion of drink, drugs and sex.

A few of the performances revealed a lack of stage experience, speaking too fast and dropping thier voices. However, as in Dick Barton, there were some well defined confident characterizations and fine ensemble work, all linked by Brendan Lucia as Scullery, one of the road’s more likeable rogues.

                    Malcolm Singer

The Queen Mother Theatre, Hitchin. Box Office: 01462 455166 or online at www.qmt.org.uk *** “Funny Money” by Ray Cooney The Barn Theatre, Handside Lane, Welwyn Garden City. Performing farce is about as difficult as any other form of theatre. So, for the Barn Theatre, Funny Money is quite a challenge. On his way home from work, Harry has picked up the wrong briefcase and the one he arrives home with is full – of £370,000! Scared that the person who has his case will be able to trace him, he intends to emigrate with his reluctant wife Jean at once and books a taxi. But Jean has his birthday dinner ready and guests expected any minute. The arrival of not one but two policeman, a taxi driver and guests Vic & Betty, sets off a crazy sequence of explanations, not forgetting that Harry’s body has been found in the Thames! Strong performances from Lester J Adams and Helen Miller as Harry & Jean, Kevin Dinnin as a long suffering police officer and Andrew Read, the taxi driver – with a well balanced cast, helped to make Eric Chorley’s production almost believable!

Malcolm Singer

  Funny Money at The Barn Theatre, WGC until Sat 1st December. Box Office: 01707 324300 or online: www.barntheatre.co.uk   Malcolm *** “Dick Barton – Special Agent”  by Phil Willmott Big Spirit Youth Theatre, Queen Mother Theatre, Hitchin Wednesday 14th November was the 90th birthday of the BBC, so Rory Reynolds’ choice of “Dick Barton, Special Agent” for the cast of Big Spirit Youth Theatre was ideal. In the late 1940’s, over 20 million listened to the daily serial and this spoof version by Phil Willmott catches all the impossible excitement. This accomplished young cast delivered the outrageous story with style, headed by Brendan Lucia as the hero, Azza Essakhi the kilted Jock, Emily Ashbrook as the evil Marta Heartburn and the veteran Brian Seal as the nasty Baron Scareheart, all held together by the “very BBC” announcer Jenny Wall. The whole production had terrific pace with everyone playing to the audience and managing to keep straight faces.

 Malcolm Singer

For a sound clip from the show and a few words from director Rory Reynolds go to “Dick Barton is Alive & Well” on the home page of TheatreBlog.   The Queen Mother Theatre, Hitchin. Box Office: 01462 455166 or online at www.qmt.org.uk *** The RSC’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor Malcolm Singer has recently been to The Royal Shakespeare Company’s home at Stratford Upon Avon to see their new production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor”. These are his thoughts on the production: In the Royal Shakespeare Company’s modern day setting, DESMOND BARRIT is just right as fat Sir John Falstaff. Badly in need of money, he sends identical love letters to Meg Page and Alice Ford, whose husbands are rich. Having set a trap for him, Falstaff end up in the Thames in a basket of dirty washing! JOHN RAMM is the madly jealous Frank Ford and SYLVESTRA LE TOUZEL and ALEXANDRA GILBREATH are hilarious as the merry wives of Page and Ford Alice’s daughter Anne is loved by Fenton, but also by the mad sword swishing Dr Caius (BART DAVID SOROCZYNSKI) encouraged by the Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans (DAVID CHARLES) With ANITA DOBSON as the manic go-between to almost everyone, and the most amazing set, this is a production not to be missed.

Malcolm Singer

Performance at Stratford-upon-Avon on various dates until SATURDAY 12th JANUARY 2013. Box Office: 0844 800 1100 or online at www.rsc.org.uk      ***  Phantom of the Opera, at the Milton Keynes Theatre. If you’ve never seen “Phantom of the Opera”, now’s your chance. Just because its a touring production, it’s not been scaled down – it’s all there. The Paris Opera House Stage and particularly under the stage where the Phantom (Earl Carpenter) lures the young soprano Christine (Katie Hall) are realistically convincing. Laurence Connor directs a smooth fast flowing, atmospheric production with a strong ensemble cast supported by a full pit orchestra conducted by Craig Edwards. The singing throughout is excellent with new choreography from Scott Ambler. If you are lucky, there might just be a few tickets left.

Malcolm Singer

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

 

If you would like to invite Malcolm along to your production, bearing in mind that he is already very busy, then please do so through this blog using the comments facility for the time being..

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