Wednesday, July 26, 2017

CASA VALENTINA

CASA VALENTINA
Chelmsford Theatre Workshop
at the Old Court

25.07.17

Harvey Fierstein. Kinky Boots, Cage aux Folles, and, surely his finest hour, Torch Song Trilogy, memorably done on this stage back in 2001.
Casa Valentina is a newer piece, though it does revisit those favourite Fierstein themes. Based on the legendary Casa Susanna, it takes us back to the days – the early Sixties – when cross-dressing was still a crime in many US states, and a weekend retreat resort in the Catskills was a dream come true for these “self-made women”. The dream turns to nightmare after the interval, when politics takes over from prosthetics, and callow newbie “Miranda” [an excellent Jesse James Lamb] flees back to the closet.
Rebecca Segeth's production has an evocative period set, on two levels, carefully lit [Jack Hathaway]. And a very strong cast, beautifully turned out in their femme frocks.
Colin Smith is “Valentina”, facing the uncertain future of his guest-house, supported by his wife, the only GG [genuine girl] in residence. This play is the story of their marriage, too, and the final moments are almost unbearably poignant: George sheds his masculine skin to the Everlys' Let It Be Me, as Rita [touchingly played by Rachel Curren] stands confused and alone on the stage above him.
There is much fun and silliness too – the Wildean contributions of the outrageous “Bessie” [Dave Hawkes], and the Sugar Time routine, where the faces of the wallflowers tell their own story: there's Terry Cramphorn's veteran Theodore, who once found refuge in gay bars, listening to Ian Willingham's Michael, who invited the new boy, and whose put-down of “Charlotte” is one of several powerful monologues in the piece - “Bessie”'s uncharacteristically melancholy musings on his marriage are another.
The darker ending is down largely to Barry Taylor's “Charlotte”, a determined activist who will stop at nothing to sign Valentina's guests up to her Sorority. The scene between Taylor and Peter Jeary's Judge (Jeary stepping into “Amy”'s size 10s at a week's notice) is a dramatic masterpiece, and sets the tone for the end of the play, where an icy appearance by the Judge's unsympathetic daughter [Catherine Kenton] reminds us of just how different attitudes were half a century ago.

A superb production of a fascinating piece – a fine note on which to end a successful season for CTW.

image: guests at the original Casa Susanna

Monday, July 24, 2017

WHAT WE DO BEST

WHAT WE DO BEST
Essex Dance Theatre
at the Civic Theatre
23.07.17

What EDT do best is to bring accessible, affordable dance training of the highest standard to the county, as they have done consistently since they took their first steps in 1975.
This year's Civic showcase was as impressive as ever, with an even more significant contribution from the young men of the company. Much of the choreography – we saw thirty numbers – is “home-grown”, like the finale to part one, by Zinzile Tshuma: exemplary discipline and amazing physicality in a piece danced to Sia's Move Your Body - “your body's poetry ...”.
Nikki O'Hara's Revolt, at the top of the show, gave us sinuous, serpentine ensemble, as did Jacob Holme's classically-inspired Stabat Martyr, danced to Pergolesi.
The same choreographer's crowd-pleaser to Bruno Mars' 24K Magic was followed by a lovely unaccompanied Change in Me vocal from Georgia Clements while the huge cast put on their knee-protectors for the traditional Knowledge [Adrian Allsop].
Amongst many other pleasures, a deliciously retro Mack the Knife [Paul Cowcher], David Nurse's eloquent Cello Suite to JS Bach, Ryan Heseltine's school-yard piece to Tom Misch's Watch Me Dance, and that lovely Astaire number Dancin' Man, choreographed by Kim Bradshaw, an old-fashioned show routine that the dancers looked to be enjoying as much as we did, as they left their soft-shoe footprints on the sands of time …

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

FAME The Musical

FAME 
The Musical
Tomorrow's Talent
at the Civic Theatre
18.07.17

This is the 1988 musical of the 1980 movie. Those early Performing Arts alumni will be proud, or pushy, parents now. And this class of 2017 don't always seem quite at home in this Eighties world, where diversity and dyslexia are novel ideas. As these youngsters will be well aware, this institution resembles real arts education in the same way Lerner's Camelot does Britain in the sixth century.
But it's an enjoyable bit of summer escapism, and it gives Tomorrow's Talent a chance to show off what it does best – gifted youngsters, professional standards, and loads of crisp, energetic choreography.
The capacity crowd on opening night saw the spartan staging – the iconic logo centre stage – gradually populated by the kids, and the staff too – with director Gavin Wilkinson donning a natty cardigan to play drama teacher Myers. The show's MD is Mark Sellar, his fictional equivalent Sheinkopf played by Joshua Butcher, who's also the Assistant Choreographer.
Ruthless auditions, fervent prayers, and then the new intake must knuckle down to Hard Work. These fictional young hopefuls certainly score straight As for “attitude”, though their mentality might sometimes seem more at home in junior high.
There are many standout performances: Samuel Wolstenholme's Nick – Peanut Butter kid and Stanislavski disciple – setting the bar high with I Want to Make Magic, imaginatively backed, like several other numbers, by dancers. His shy Serena was touchingly done by Hannah Gurling on the first night. Christopher Tierney made the most of extrovert, X-rated Joe Vegas, and Daisy Greenwood gave a strong performance as outgoing, ultimately tragic Carmen Diaz. The enigmatic dancer Iris was engagingly portrayed by Katherine Maahs, and Becky Hunt gave a fine, funny character study as Mabel, the dancer who's too fond of food.
Street dancer and mouthy rebel Tyrone was given a compelling performance by Paul French, his dance moves and his stage presence both outstanding.
The role of spinster English teacher Esther Sherman is a tough call for a young actor, but Lauren Bullock came into her own with the moving These Are My Children, a hymn to the teaching profession.
But this is as much about the ensemble as the principals, and the big numbers were all stylishly done, from the opening auditions, through the title number, featuring the next generation on the upper level, to the beautifully conceived curtain calls, with Carmen resurrected atop the yellow cab.

production photograph by Louise Freeland

Sunday, July 16, 2017

THE HOUSE THEY GREW UP IN

THE HOUSE THEY GREW UP IN
Chichester Festival Theatre at the Minerva

15.07.2017

What has happened to us?”, the siblings ruefully wonder.
They're stuck in confused, reclusive routine, existing among the clutter of a lifetime in their childhood home, their parents dead. The sister seems to dominate, mothering her brother, feeding him on the fish prepared for Charlie Brown their elusive cat. He takes refuge in his headphones.
Deborah Bruce's new play – inspired by a couple she observed in an art gallery cafĂ© – manages to be amusing and uplifting as well as deeply sad.
Daniel and Peppy's lives are turned around by a predictable incident, which makes a crime scene of their squalid home, searched by sinister officers in blue overalls. But just as things seem at their most desperate, there comes salvation and a new start of sorts.
Jeremy Herrin's production is perfectly judged. The design [Max Jones] is magnificent, with a stunning scene change just before the interval.
The dramatic structure is powerfully precise. Symbols are tellingly deployed. We see the kitchen tap run free once more, the child's smashed Harry Potter mug [magic destroyed] is restored, the walnut spice cake is baked at last, as Daniel realises that it's nice outside, and that there are other buses he could take. Peppy bangs on Charlie Brown's dish one last time, his name heading a roll-call of the dead.
The two main characters are compelling brought to life by Daniel Ryan as the big, childlike, uncoordinated brother and Samantha Spiro as his fussy, birdlike sister. The other characters drift in and out – and we occasionally move next door to a kitchen that couldn't be more different. There is some doubling – Philip Wright is both the awful, cheery Gareth, who tries to buy the Angelis family home for a fraction of its worth, and the helpful husband of the lovely support worker Karen [Michelle Greenidge]. And perhaps there could have been more – I can envisage a production in which two actors play all the other roles. Except of course for “the next-door child”.
This pivotal character, the eight-year-old Ben, superbly played by Rudi Millard, is in some ways a miniature of Daniel, innocently impressed by his feats of memory, seeking the attention and affection lacking at home.
His mother - “no smoke without fire” - who turns out to have tragedies of her own – is Mary Stockley; the detective who tries to coax incriminating confidences from Ben and Daniel is Matt Sutton.
Like their real-life inspiration, these two strange characters, and their intriguing past lives, tend to linger in the memory. Like the playwright, we realise how little we know of other people we meet, and hope against hope that, against all odds, redemption and a happy ending may still be possible.

Peppy's mother's Walnut Spice Cake 
[with thanks and apologies to Carol, who made it]

This is a lovely cake that smells like winter - warm walnuts and spices like allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg. Buttermilk ensures that the cake is wonderfully moist. If you don't have buttermilk, use 1 tablespoon (15ml) of lemon juice or vinegar and 210ml of skimmed milk in place of the 225ml of buttermilk.

Serves: 14

60g finely chopped walnuts
285g cake flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
150g butter
300g dark brown soft sugar
2 eggs
225g buttermilk


Prep:15min › Cook:50min › Extra time:10min cooling › Ready in:1hr15min

Preheat oven to 180 C / Gas 4. Grease a 23cm tube cake tin and dust with flour.
Sift together cake flour, bicarbonate of soda, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and salt. Cream the butter. Blend in dark brown soft sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs.
Stir dry ingredients into creamed mixture alternately with buttermilk. Blend in the finely chopped walnuts.

Spoon cake mixture gently into the prepared tin. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until cake springs back when you touch it lightly. Cool in tin for about 10 minutes. Put on cake rack to cool completely. Sprinkle icing sugar over cake before serving, if desired.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

YES AND NO

YES AND NO
Chichester Community Theatre at New Park Studio
15.07.2017

A tiny unregarded gem from the complete works of Graham Greene, immaculately performed in a small room, the last date of its pop-up run which has also included the public library and Pallant House.
It shows, in twenty minutes, the rehearsal process, with an old-school director and a naive young actor. His interpretation in a new play – new for 1981 – is giving cause for concern. His co-stars are Dear Johnnie and Dear Ralph, whom I remember as a lovely double-act back in the 70s. In this play – by Frederick Privett, famous for his pauses – he briefly attracts the attentions of Cruickshank/Sir John, between the window cleaner and the French acrobat. His lines are restricted to the monosyllables of the title. Cleverly, this is true of Greene's drama also …
Excellent performances from Steve Wallace – panama hat, hip flask – as the director [a mammoth of a role, despite the brevity of the piece] and Matthew Hughes-Short as the keen but bemused actor.
An unexpected treat – free of charge, too – part of the Festival of Chichester 2017.