Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Cemetery Club, Little Waltham Drama Group, Memorial Hall, Little Waltham, Chelmsford

This American comedy by Ivan Menchell is set in a very particular section of US society - a cluster of three Jewish widows named Ida, Lucille and Doris, plus the local butcher and widower, Sam.
It was fascinating to see just how these ordinary women with individual quirks and beliefs grieve for their husbands who've gone before them, during both their daily lives and their monthly visits to the graves.
It wouldn't surprise me if the women's caustic, often hilarious, comments about men (including their lost husbands) appealed more to the female audience members. But at the same time there were many male guffaws whenever marriage in general was the topic of conversation.
Also under discussion was the lack of available live men to take an interest in our widows.
American in origin Linda Burrows was, I think, probably the most at home in the production warmly and sensitively directed by Mags Simmonds. Maybe the words were easier for her to learn being in a familiar style but she was very secure on her lines. Her confident performance underlined her character's down-to-earth nature.
Her guests and long term friends included Vicky Weavers' flirtatious airhead Lucille who main aim in life was to get a bargain, any bargain, preferably made of second hand mink at what she thought were bargain basement prices. Her disappointment when her friends knew exactly how much the "bargains" were truly worth, made for some hilarious reactions.
Helen Langley's Doris was the one still stuck in four years of mourning for her husband and as yet unable to understand the need to move onwards.
At the cemetery they encountered Brian Corrie's hardworking Sam. Only too ready to move on.
Events do move on, however, as les girls, by now dressed in unflattering matching frocks, act a bridesmaids for a mutual friend who is on her umpteenth marriage. Sam, having shown an interest in Lucille, turns up with a triumphant and younger love interest, Mildred. Played by Sally Lever with her claws out for a devastated Lucille.
Our heroines get plastered and the subsequent hangovers tell their own tales.
This lovely, warm production benefited greatly from Mags's set including the cosy little retirement apartment contrasting with the cold looking cemetery which had appropriate gravestones and pebbles. Making full use of the apron stage with Liz Willsher's good use of perspective of the iron gates and Autumn trees fading away into the distance, all underlined 
by Walter Huston gravel-voiced original version of Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weil's haunting September Song.
Somebody with excellent lung power acted at the whistling kettle. Kim Travell choreographed the cha cha cha. Viv Abrey and her team costumed the cast appropriately  for each character.
Yet, delightful, enjoyable and entertaining as it was, the production would have been even better with more security on words for some, because the voice of the prompt was heard just a bit too often.
Mary Redman
Next show: A Musical Evening in Two Halves July 16-18 2015 Bookings:

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Elephant Man, Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch

Having seen Bernard Pomerance's highly powerful play twenty years ago in a thoughtful, strongly acted amateur production I was looking forward enormously to finding out how Director Simon Jessop would handle it in today's society.
It's also a fact that if a group, whether amateur or professional, chooses a play that is very well written, with characters which suit the available cast then success is certain to follow. In view of the two most recent productions at the Queen's having flaws which left casts struggling to convince us that they could inhabit their characters, it's a genuine pleasure to say that this was an enormous success of great sensitivity which both emotionally moved and informed us.
Walking into the theatre the astonishing, massive and skeletal set towered into the lighting rigs, reminiscent of both a circus tent with its draped curtains at the back and circular stage within a stage. Set and costume designer Mark Walters had created five different levels of acting spaces. Meanwhile a figure draped in cloth from head to toe lurked at the shadows at the back.
Matthew Eagland's lighting design used differing levels of chiaroscura shadows to great effect, underlining the power of the drama unfolding on stage. Musical Director Steven Markwick's score incorporated his own original music which went from speaker to speaker until it collapsed into Nik Dudley's dramatic soundscape even incorporated rhythms created with chains.
Mark Walters' basic cast costumes were evening trousers and shirts with added pieces of clothing plus Victorian chorus girl-style sexy outfits for the Pinheads and tailored business suits for the professional male characters. Brechtian announcements were displayed on the stage side for each scene while Dan Crews video projections and other visual effects were used as necessary.
In fact all the technical effects combined so seamlessly with the images and actions on stage that these aspects were truly right.
For some of the cast who had struggled with characterisation in Boeing! Boeing! this must have seemed like bliss to be able to slip into really believable characters that fitted them like gloves.
Tom Cornish, portraying the title character "John" Merrick, perfectly captured the anguish of the sensitive soul whose body governed everything he did. This was due to Proteus Syndrome causing parts of his anatomy to grow out of all proportion and made some people fear him. Until they got to know him that is.
Fred Broom also inhabited completely the compassionate Dr Frederick Treves who rescued Merrick. With the help of Stuart Organ's dignified Carr Gomm, administrator of the London Hospital, gave him a home where he was visited by high society dignitaries such as Joanna Hickman's Mrs Kendal; Megan Leigh Mason's Duchess and Princess; and Ellie Rose Boswell's Countess.
This helped Merrick put behind him the degrading years of touring Europe in a steampunk freak show with Ellie and Megan's two weird Pinheads and James Earl Adair's ruthless proprietor.
This production (not suitable for young children) must surely be one of the Queen's most outstanding shows and I was so pleased and delighted to see them all working at full power.
Runs to May 9 2015
Mary Redman  

Monday, 6 April 2015

Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny, The Royal Opera, The Royal Opera House, Odeon Live Cinema, Chelmsford

Thanks to the wonders of modern digital technology and having waited many decades to experience this rarely performed opera by Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weil I found myself sitting in the dark of my local cinema to see a cinema relay transmitted live from London.
This transmission very nearly didn't happen after a massive fire and electrical breakdown in London's Kingsway, a short step away from the Opera House meant that their patrons had no refreshments other than water. Meaning we were the luxury end of the market that evening.
One thing struck me watching this vicious morality tale of the effects of greed and in particular listening to Weil's music how it was influenced by Prokofiev and then on down just what an effect it in turn has had on succeeding generations of 20th and 21st Century composers. At the moment Steven Sondheim's Sweeney Todd is on stage at the Coliseum just around the corner from the ROH, in a concert version. 
As a teenager, simply to hear the astonishing opening chords of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet I was hooked for life. Yes, there were many melodies in his work but come down to Weil whose effect on me was again instantaneous in songs such as Surabaya Johnny and you cannot relax into comforting melody. So then on down to Sondheim whose truncated melodies in By The Sea or A Little Priest try never to let you go.  Weil just lets you sink into the first few bars of The Alabama Song - Show Me The Way To The Next Whiskey Bar and you are off into discords and deliberately chosen clashes of harmony.
But still days after experiencing all of them I'm either humming them still or I can hear them in my head. Enough of the musical discursion. 
Back to Mahagonny. Jeremy Sams did the English translation, which I approved of since I wanted to know every word and phrase. Mark Wrigglesworth conducted the massive orchestra. The exaggerated costumes designed by Christina Cunningham were witty and beautifully made. Lighting design by Bruno Poet underlined the constant changes of plot, place and weather.
Es Devlin's imaginative, colourful, erotic set designs were based on a transport truck. She (an Olivier winner 2015) was able to revolve it and by using its curtain walls to their maximum, framed what Director John Fulljames described as a mini stage within a stage.This and the use of video and sharp choreography enabled him to force us to concentrate on the mindbending actions of the plot.
The superb casting included Anne Sofie Von Otter as the Widow Leocadia Begbick whose performance and singing were an icy portrait in sound and acting of a woman determined to rule her two fellow caricature criminals. Peter Hoare's excellent Fatty in his pin stripe suit and Willard White's Trinity Moses. This unholy trio set out to create a city where everything was allowed.
Among the unfortunates they encountered and exploited were Christine Rice's superb Jenny, beautifully sung and full of sadness; Kurt Streit's eyecatching Jimmy Mcintyre, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts' Jack O'Brien and Darren Jeffery's Bank-Account Bill were high rollers intent on enjoying themselves using the proceeds of their hard work in Alaska.
Nobody succeeded in their nefarious intents and it was all introduced by the handsome and wittily cynical Paterson Joseph.
Mary Redman
April 6 2015

Saturday, 4 April 2015

It Could Be Any One Of Us, The New Venture Players, Brentwood Theatre, Essex

Alan Ayckbourn's 1980s "comedy thriller" is set in a rotting country pile where the only person in the family with any money is composer Mortimer Chalke. The programme even has a couple of pages devoted to the score of his latest work Parametric Revelations. Plus his "explanation" of what the work is about. Sample quote "My new piece mirrors life in all its manifestations. It is based around the parameters of the 12-tone system; as the parameters continue to combine, collide, reverse and shift...". Having seen the production of this play that was unknown to me, I should think it was a pretty good description of the plot.
Formerly the Timothy White and Taylor's Young Composer of the Year 1966, Mortimer the melodramatic musician played by David Pitchford, having inherited all of his parent's money and estate despite having other siblings, rules the house with a rod of temperamental iron.
Directed by Joan Scarsbrook-Bird, the action takes place on a very solid set occupying the whole width of the theatre's acting area. Well furnished with old furniture and knickknacks, it was comfy with lots of lamps. 
Opening with Mortimer "playing" his piano work with loads of those agonised expressions many people think all pianists use when performing in public. Boredom reigns among his listening, quarrelsome relations. Apart from bolshie teenager Amy played effectively by Candy Lillywhite-Taylor complete with headphones. Headphones? In 1983? Mind you she did do some very useful crying later on.
Mortimer's brother Brinton, an angry artist played by Barry Howlett, who's absolutely at loggerheads with him; they rowed continually about repairs to the house and Mortimer's meanness with money.
Also involved in the mayhem were Janet Oliver as Jocelyn a would-be writer, James Biddles as Norris a claims investigator who fancies himself as a detective yet is unable to solve a crime and Vikki Luck as Wendy, a face from the past.  
Misunderstandings galore, some accidental, some deliberate including the attempted murder could have done with more pace and energy instead of patchiness
It puzzled me that in a play with so much emphasis on music why the director didn't use music to cover the sometimes rather lengthy scene changes, but the sound effects especially of the thunder were great.
It did strike me that maybe this play was Ayckbourn's idea of a theatrical joke.
Mary Redman
4 April 2015 

The Ladykillers, Latchingdon Arts and Drama Society, The Tractor Shed Theatre, London Hayes Farm, Latchingdon

As genial Joe Gargery writes to Pip in Great Expectations, "What larx" would sum up completely this classic Ealing Comedy of 1955 in my opinion. Originally starring a cast including the sombre Herbert Lom, it took us inside an incompetent criminal gang foiled by a very old but shrewd lady and her parrot.
In this production directed by Carole Hart, General Gordon the obstreperous parrot was never seen but thanks to Jacob Tonbridge made his voice heard on cue, on many occasions.
The set was astonishing as it so often is with LADS. Multilayered and stuffed to the rafters with old bricabrac, it included landlady Mrs Wiberforce's apartment complete with sink, cooker, sofa and entrance door on the ground floor, with stairs leading up to the small but perfectly formed bedsitter including a shower room on the first floor. This is where all the criminal plotting took place under the guise of posing as a rehearsing string quartet with music thanks to a Dansette record player. The set even revolved when someone went out of the window so we could see the roof outside.
This version was created  for the stage by Graham Linehan from the original film script by the very gifted William Rose, whose film successes included the wonderful Genevieve, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner and It's A Mad, Mad World and many others.
The script included some gems from the past which modern, younger audiences would just not understand - "Press Button A" on a public telephone was obligatory once you had been connected which then allowed you to speak.
The action started with the friendly but a bit dim local copper played by David Hudson checking on Joan Cooper's marvellous creation of the landlady. Dignified, beautifully spoken and fiercely sure of herself and what she thought was right.
Into her life came the oligeanaceous "Professor" Marcus with his scarf trailing even further than a Doctor Who. Daniel Tonbridge appeared at ease on stage in this role in which his character was the brains of the outfit and knew exactly the answers their landlady required. Until things began to fall apart that is.
His handpicked gang consisted of some of the London underworld's most prized specimens but action was their forte, rather than thinking. Robin Warnes was ideal as Major Courtney whose stutter didn't help him. He was the victim of the running joke with the portrait on the wall constantly changing position. This was just one of the small visual jokes that enlivened the production.
Harry Robinson the Teddy Boy was a very effective and assured performance from Adam Hart. Keith Spence was the rough, tough One Round Lawson. Whether that was one round of drinks or one round of bullets was left to the imagination.  Alan Elkins's Louis Harvey gave us his mad Romanian accent.
The criminals plan was to steal a large sum of money and drop it out of the bedsit window onto a goods train going North situated as the house was over the mainline railway out of London. Into their plotting came a visit from Gill Bridle's Mrs Tromleyton and her troupe of Friends costumed eccentrically by Cath Lang and Judy Embling. Played with gusto by Cathy Hallam, Mandi Tickner, Angela Gardner, Sharon Lindsell, and Chris Bird.
All in all it was a well thought out production with excellent picking up of sound cues, even train smoke coming through the window. Period detail was spot on which was an added delight. The sheer idiocy of the plot included the line "being fooled by art is one of the pleasures of the middle classes" after the quartet conducted by the Professor had entertained the visiting ladies.
Although it could have done with more pace and plenty more projection for audibility, for me it was an evening of pure nostalgia, glee and giggles.
Mary Redman
April 4 2015