Wednesday, October 12, 2016


A Made in Colchester production
at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester
for The Reviews Hub

No hint of the romance or sunshine of Messina here. We're in the spartan canteen of a British regiment – motto Perfer et Obdura. There's a telly in the corner, a servery, tables for mess and for ping-pong.
A chorus of Homeward Bound, and Don Pedro marches his men in, to be greeted by Essex girl would-be military wives.
It's a bold concept, and Pia Furtado's production does bring some modern insights to what is often considered a romantic comedy. But the 21st century is not a perfect fit, the quick-witted banter sits uneasily amidst the non-verbal popular culture, and of course these men are career soldiers, not aristocratic adventurers. And the harsh lighting casts distracting shadows across faces in the closer confrontations.
But the mischief and the music are very much to the fore. The fancy dress party, with genuinely impenetrable disguises, and the karaoke Sigh No More, are both very successful, (composer is Rebecca Applin) even if there's a bit too much aimless cavorting to pulsing disco beats. The gulling scenes are hampered a little by a lack of camouflage in the canteen – the pleached bower for Beatrice has to be brought on in pots, and Benedick's arbour is a ledge above the servery, where he later dons a tabard and some marigolds. The plot to discredit Hero is brilliantly done, with a borrowed bridal gown in flagrante on the upper level.
After the interval – well into Act Four – things are much darker, both literally and emotionally. The grim reality of the canteen is replaced by a dreamlike shrine to the “dead” Hero. The Madonna – and the bath – have moved down from the light boxes above. The lament at the tomb is movingly sung by the whole company, and the final wedding disco affords an upbeat ending, though, given the effective changes of mood in this production, it's a shame that the party-pooping news of Don John's capture is one of the few significant cuts.
Some lovely performances on offer: Peter Bray and Robyn Cara (making her professional d├ębut) are young, ardent lovers, Polly Lister a brooding villain, though the gender switch seems awkward.  Paul Ridley brings gravitas to the older officer, and Emmy Stonelake makes the most of the impassioned Friar. Kirsty J Curtis is Hero's maid, Margaret, a typical TOWIE young lady, chewing gum and glottal stops. (Generally the text is well served, although “Yeah” for “Yea” grates.)
The hi-viz vigilantes of the Watch eschew slapstick and easy laughs, and there's a sad lack of chemistry between Danielle Flett's Beatrice and Jason Langley's Benedick, though they bring clarity and passion to the verse, and Flett does a lovely lapwing.
Some striking stage pictures in the later scenes, and the undeniable local resonance, are not quite enough to make this a memorable Much Ado.


RSC/Chichester Festival Theatre
This joyous double bill is revived here before touring to Manchester and coming into the West End.
Christopher Luscombe sets the two plays in a country house – Charlcote, a stone's throw from Stratford-on-Avon, just before and just after the Great War.
Love's Labour's Lost I reviewed in Stratford, but this time had the enormous pleasure of seeing them both on the same day.
Love's Labours Won may or may not have been an alternative title for Much Ado About Nothing. But the pairing works beautifully, especially since Edward Bennett and Lisa Dillon takes the leading couple in each play.
Like the LLL, LLW is quite heavily cut, which allows for Nigel Hess's gorgeous music [Harry Waller singing Sigh No More] and pacy progress through the complex plots.
Perhaps taking a hint from Biron's “twelve-month in a hospital”, the Big House is, at the start, commandeered for the wounded. And the war is never quite forgotten: Don John [Sam Alexander] is clearly a broken man, and poor old Dogberry [Nick Haverson, a wonderful Costard in the afternoon] is probably shell-shocked. He is left alone and weeping for a moment - “a fellow that hath had losses...”. But still manages to get more laughs than most from the clowning, especially a hilarious physical routine in the cramped prison.
Bennett has his share of pantomime too – not a dirty word, Luscombe made clear in his pre-show interview – eavesdropping on his deceivers from within the tall Christmas tree in Charlecote's imposing parlour.

Sunday, October 09, 2016


Ballet Cymru at the Civic Theatre


This enterprising Newport-based dance company is touring its award winning Romeo a Juliet round England and Wales this autumn and winter.
A young, international cast brings energy and elegance to the familiar tragedy, set to a reduction of the Prokofiev score in a recording by Sinfonia Cymru.
The design, by Georg Meyer-Wiel, uses projection to enhance the depth of the stage and add interest to the simple white shapes of bed and balcony. The costumes, too, are imaginative: monochrome menace for the Capulet gang, a dash of scarlet for Mercutio, gothic black for the Friar.
Andreamaria Battaggia makes a boyishly charming Romeo. He has many touching moments with his Juliet, Gwenllian Davies: the dawn duet, the shared intimacy of the silken sheets. She brings an awkward tension to her work with Mark Griffiths' Paris, and at the end, after a heart-rending pas-de-deux with Romeo embracing her lifeless form, she crawls over the tomb which separates them, vainly reaching for a farewell touch.
Excellent work too from Miguel Fernandes as an extrovert Mercutio, agile even in his death agony, and from company apprentice Ann Wall as a very youthful Lady Capulet, haughty on pointe.
Among the original ideas from choreographers Darius James and Amy Doughty, clogs to add percussion to the dramatic Dance of the Knights.


Chichester Festival Theatre at the Minerva

The set starts as we leave the Minerva foyer. Wood panelling, and inside “the chamber” realistic – and surprisingly comfortable green benches, ranged either side of the acting area. Not to mention the Strangers' Bar, to the left of the Speaker's Chair, which is pressed into service in the interval – 70s bar snacks, overflowing ashtrays and a nice half of Sussex Prospect.
But in James Graham's taut, desperately hilarious drama, most of the action takes place in the “engine room”, the smoke-filled offices where the Whips and their deputies keep their members in line through the turbulent, traumatic days of the Labour – and briefly Lib-Lab Pact – government of 1974-79.
The big names are mostly kept off stage - Wilson, Callaghan and Thatcherthough we do see Hezza brandish the Mace, and Norman St John Stevas fobbed off with the Arts.
For the lobby fodder, it's often a life and death struggle - Doc {Christopher Godwin] and Joe [David Hounslow] amongst those who die in office; a sobering sequence has Phil Daniels singing Bowie's Five Years as they drop one by one.
Daniels plays Bob Mellish, “token Cockney geezer”, sparring with his Tory opposite number Humphrey Atkins, played with laid-back disdain by Malcolm Sinclair. Mellish's successor is the subtler, but just as steely, Michael Cocks, played with increasing weariness by Kevin Doyle.
But the key relationship is between their two deputies, Steffan Rhodri as Walter Harrison, Nathaniel Parker as Jack Weatherill, two men who understand the need for compromise and horse-trading.
Ann Taylor, a feisty new girl in the labour office, who eventually rose, many, many years later to the rank of Chief Whip, is played by Lauren O'Neil, while Sarah Woodward plays all the other women, including wives, widows and the formidable Audrey Wise.
There's a live duo, belting out hits of the era, and changing their costume to reflect the passing years.
Huge changes in the British political scene since those politically incorrect days. And indeed since the piece was first seen at the National just four years ago ...

Photograph by Johan Persson

Monday, October 03, 2016


Shakespeare's Globe at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

This is the Globe touring production that's been delighting audiences all summer. Now it's back home, stuck slightly awkwardly in the candlelit playhouse. It's too big, bright and bold for this intimate space; it's a pity there was no slot for it in the great Globe itself.
Nonetheless, its charm, its passion and its sense of fun survive.
Set in 1966, it begins with a beige group of youngsters bopping to the hits of the day, merging seamlessly into the daft plot. The onstage band – this is a company of actor/musicians – are in a garish booth at the back of the stage. Its roof, accessed by vertical ladders, is a further acting area. Both Kate Sykes, the designer, and James Fortune, the composer, have embraced the flavour: a telling contrast between Verona, that beige backwater, and Milano, where it's at, fashion capital then as now.
Performances are excellent, the timing honed over a long tour. Guy Hughes and Dharmesh Patel are the gents in question; both give hilariously silly interpretations. The girls [Aruhan Galieva and Leah Brotherhead] have a bit more depth, especially at the tearful end with its touching lament.
Amongst the rest, doubling furiously and reaching for their instruments to form the backing band, Amber James gives us a lovely Thurio and a cheeky Lucetta. Charlotte Mills takes Launce by the throat, with musician Fred Thomas as the dog Crab. And, taking over from Adam Keast, injured in a stage fall [those ladders], T J Holmes works the audience wonderfully as the other fool, Speed.
As the Swinging Sixties declined into the safer Seventies, there was a Broadway musical based on this same comedy. Very much of its time, I recall, and not nearly so faithful, or as much fun, as this stylish summer show.