Monday, 22 June 2015

The Importance of Being Earnest, Guildonian Players, The Little Theatre, Harold Wood, Hornchurch

Oscar Wilde's play which he subtitled "A trivial comedy for serious people" is a gem which can be polished intricately to a lapidary marvel as far as production values go, or it can equally be simply set as a solitaire to be admired as a piece of work perfectly capable of shining in its own right.
This observation comes from many years of seeing different directorial approaches and, rather like Shakespeare, Wilde is capable of withstanding most approaches. I've seen it done with ornate furnishings and top notch set and costumes, or as an utterly simple stripped-to-the-bone Beardsley-style production. Both worked.
Here in the pleasant Saturday afternoon matinee surroundings of the Little Theatre, even if the weather outside wasn't cooperating, we could relax and enjoy director Chrissie O'Connor's middle ground production. 
Middle ground in that although there were no unnecessary flourishes in set or costuming, her production was full of extremely well thought out details which were a constant delight throughout the play.
Starting with the joy of Mr Tom Hind at the pianoforte entertaining us before curtain up, during the interval and at the end of the show with his Music Hall songs and brass band tunes such as Daisy, Daisy and other delights like I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside, that we all hummed along to with glee. While the play itself was introduced to the tune of The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo. 
Iain Attiwell was a perfectly suave, skilled and excellent Manservant Lane, (even if his hair would have benefited from a tidy up trim) his smooth movements a treat as he served his master the somewhat flighty Algernon Moncrieff. Tim Tilbury created Algy as a young man utterly devoted to a life of personal pleasure with no real thought for tomorrow. Matt Jones as his friend John Worthing was totally at ease and elegant in his formal morning dress, while using his expressive voice and face to advantage.
Margaret Corry's presence as Lady Bracknell preceded her on to the stage. A vision in lavender and lace she took naturally to being the object of everyone's attention as she laid down the Bracknell law on every subject of conversation that came up, either from her own or other people's opinions. The hall, however, is large so her voice was at times fighting a losing battle with it.
As the Honourable Gwendolen Fairfax Charlotte Jones was a smart young woman determined not to do what her mother ordered but, as has been observed elsewhere, was probably destined to turn into her formidable parent at a later stage. Louise McMorrin's  delightfully bright, sweet young lady Cecily, entirely driven by "romantic" vibrations from books and her own notions, was a charmer.
In the engine house of this comedy Catherine Attiwell's sturdy Miss Prism not only minded her own ps and qs, but also those of her charge, and fluttered nicely at Mark Godfrey's extremely tall Canon Chasuble. His splendid emphasis on literary allusions alternately rising to a peak and then falling to a whisper in true oratorical style.
Then, of course, there was Merrieman, the butler at the country residence, in the shape of Vernon Keeble-Watson tottering on stage as though he might not make it; appearing in the last stages of decrepitude and increasing irritability.
Delightful surprises included the appearance of John Worthing's perfect, surprise entrance at the end of Act 2 in the full panoply of heaviest Victorian mourning including black bordered handkerchief, to the piano accompaniment of Where Shall We Be In A Hundred Years From Now? Which brought the house down.
Yet more delight from something I always love - choreographed scene changing. Instead of going to black, taking ages to change scenery and actors having to work up again to previous levels of tensions, lights were dimmed but the stage management crew of Ed Shearer's team of Peter Farenden and Martin Tilbury were choreographed and costumed as house movers of the period who moved in, took off unneeded items and changed town to country so smoothly to piano accompaniment. Every time this earned them enthusiastic, well deserved applause.
In Chrissie's pretty traditional production set in 1910, scenery and set dressing were relatively simple, but had some good touches such as the Beardsley-style screen, the Gustave Klimt-style painting, and other indications of decadence including the bust wearing a black fedora with a red ribbon band, set at a rakish angle.
Costuming was good, influenced by The Dressing Up Box, although some corseting wouldn't have gone amiss. Even though I know it adds to the cost but period costumes don't hang or look right without this. John Gadd's wigs were excellent.
All in all, yet another triumph for the Guildonians and for Chrissie O'Connor in this enjoyable production. I so enjoyed the attention to detail, even the tiniest things.
Mary Redman
June 22 2015   

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Dance Fusion, Havering College of Further and Higher Education, The Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch

This "Celebration Dance Showcase of New Talent and Student Achievement" was an absolute cracker. If we could only bottle the youthful high energy shown on stage there might be a cure for what ails those of us of a rather more than somewhat older generation.
About 70 performers aged from 16 to 23 were backed by their fellow students acting as stage managers. And what stage managers!  A grand piano carefully yet rapidly moved on or off stage without fuss every time needed was totally impressive.
Performers they ranged from A-Level equivalent (Level 3) to second year degree students and even when an experienced eye could tell that they were relative newcomers to various techniques, they still showed poise, dedication and confidence.
For instance, it was an amazing experience to witness a young soprano soloist coping with the demanding high notes of the classical opera aria Visse d'arte, alone on the huge stage, apart from the expert accompaniment of pianist Simon Gray. Equally matched by the demands on the en pointe ballet dancers.
The show opened with Burn The Floor, followed by Mash Up, then a complete change of technique for the classical ballet of Sleeping Beauty.
Among the truly outstanding performances were contemporary dance The Fallen choreographed by Melissa Weir, danced by her and Lee Howard; Elaine O'Connor's ingeniously reworked Thriller with the Year 2 Musical Theatre students; also by Elaine the sheer romanticism of Isn't It A Lovely Day by HNC Dance and Musical Theatre students; and the exuberance of the 1950s Big Band American Cabin Pressure from Level 4&5 Tap choreographed by Sarah Woodroof that ended Act 1.
We came back to the fun of three female dancers en pointe and one male dancer in a 1930s style Tuxedo Junction referencing Gene Kelly's muscular style in a melange of bebop and classical. Arabian Nights was a whirl of colour harking back to this year's drama presentation of Scheherazade and her stories of  A Thousand Nights and One Night. Yet more O'Connor choreography from Year 2 Musical Theatre's version of Mack and Mabel's celebratory anthem If Movies Were Movies which contrasted with Tina Turner's meaty Nutbush from the Level 3 Jazz dancers.
Brass bravado arrived courtesy of the invigorating Sousa march Stars and Stripes by Level 4 Ballet performers followed by Broadway Jazz from Level 4 Jazz.
Particularly unusual and of great interest was HNC Dance with Sandra Broxton's choreography performing to contemporary composer Gavin Bryars' Out Of Zaleski's Gazebo. This piece makes what is normally considered rare use of the Tuba's sonorous tones. Also totally impressive was the grown up composure and control of her warm voice by the performer of Ella Fitzgerald's Every Time We Say Goodbye accompanied by Simon Gray. This was a truly mature performance.
Having missed a couple of year's productions what really struck me were the colours, glamour, glitter and sheer numbers of costumes on stage this year, often in matching sets for large teams. Knowing as I do the struggle that staff went through to achieve impressive results on less than a shoestring in the past, this sock-it-to-them costuming was wonderful to see. Especially in the light of ongoing financial cuts.
More power to both students and staff elbows in the future!
Mary Redman
June 16 2015

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theatre at Baddow,Parish Hall, Great Baddow, Chelmsford

Shakespeare is justifiably considered to be a genius towering over all other playwrights: his work being timeless and unlikely to suffer serious damage by being mucked about by others. There is, however, something else other than the word "unlikely" to be considered. Is it being done simply for the sake of it? Or because you can't cast it otherwise? If you are going to dabble with his words and plots be sure the changes all fit seamlessly, are justifiable, and that you know precisely what you are doing.
If you can't cast it - don't do it; and that applies to any play. 
The premise behind TAB's production was to make this play accessible to modern young people using gender-blind casting to accentuate just how much modern society is changing as, and how, we live. in so doing it raised some intellectual and emotional questions in my response to this experiment.
If, however, the first change is your motive you risk cutting your youthful audience off from such serendipitious delights as a bellows mender. How then are they to relish their history and Shakespeare's gift for precise language: "Oh Bottom! Thou art translated!"
This is not just pedantry. I have witnessed at first hand how a fractious, over-excited teenage audience at the Barbican was silenced immediately into rapt attention as the curtain went up on the famous production with Alex Jennings as Oberon. With it's gaudy purple and pink upturned umbrella bower and the large electric lightbulbs scattered through the heavens, it was a joy to behold. 
If the second change is your motive then why not carry it out in its entirety? That is by swapping: Oberon and Titania; Theseus and Hippolyta; even Egeus?  Plus doubling of the chief Fairies and leading mortals would have eased your casting problems. Even Brook's acrobatic Dream and Bogdanov's controversial Romeo and Juliet with motorbike gang worked because care had been taken. Closer to home at KEGS Jon Vaughan's open air Dream production with Puck changed into a bat, worked wonderfully because sunset time coincided as the bat descended the buildings upside down.
It will also add to your challenges if you try to both direct and act at the same time. In this production Director Jim Crozier chose modern dress which led to some moments of confusion at the start as his Theseus and Fabienne Hanley's Hippolyta appeared in very dressed down and nonaristocratic fashion.The Lovers in their relatively casual Primark-style clothes also looked unlike the children of extreme privilege. Peter Nerreter's Egeus in his smart tailored suit was spot on.
Nicholas Milenkovic was an elegant Philostrate, observing events. Ruth Carden, Andrea Dalton, Mabel Odonkor and Nikita Eve were the lovers Hermia, Demetria, Lysanda and Helena quarreling in lively fashion until the ultimate solution of their difficulties. Barry Taylor was a noisy Oberon constantly moving in circles, who needing to find his inner stillness. Natalie Patuzzo's Puck was eager and appeared to almost worship her master, yet somehow missed the magic of the role. Diane Johnston's Titania was a beautiful, flighty, naughty creature, utterly enamoured of Bob Ryall's sturdy portrait of the leading actor of the Rude Mechanicals complete with a fine donkey's head.
The "amateur dramatic team" consisted of Roger Saddington's Peter Quince directing the play within a play, plus Liam Mayle's highly effective Flute who enjoyed himself enormously as the melodramatic heroine Thisbe; David Saddington's Starveling whose reactive facial expressions were worth their weight in gold; Malcolm Johnston's Snout; and Wylie Queenan's Snug. 
The Fairies were a marvel - very different and entertaining. From Donna Stevenson, Angie Budd's Peaseblossom, Sarah Dodsworth's Cobweb, Sheila Talbot's Moth to Leonie Parker's Mustardseed they were a surly, mutinous tribe. So much so that you never quite knew what they would get up to next. 
Going back to the question of costume brings us to the final scene. This was a magnificent spectacle with gorgeous evening frocks and suits which easily and appropriately suited  a ducal level of society. Apart from one short elasticated dress threatening to cause a wardrobe malfunction of its own.
Scenery was mostly very basic but when the interior of the forest was revealed with its skeletal painted trees plus Titania's netting bower it came together and worked really well thanks to David Saddington's team. As did the final scene.
More attention to verse speaking and care for Shakespeare's words would have been useful in the area of audibility. While the usual TAB problem of shoes clattering across the wooden floor raised its ugly head again.
It was good to hear original music created by Owain Jones, but the master stroke came with the joke of setting the final Bergamasque to Up All Night.
Definitely interesting to experience this experimental production, but in the final analysis for me it was like the infamous parson's egg - good in parts.
Mary Redman
June 8 2015