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Sidmouth Manor Pavilion Theatre - An Inspector Calls (with James Pellow)

Folks who know me very well often say, kindly I think, that I should get out more. I’m a grumpy old sod at the best of times and in the ...

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Les Miserables - Empire Theatre Arts

Queensbury West Theatre,
August 27th 2011

Les Miserables is one of those musical blockbusters which must constantly irk and mystify hostile and snotty theatre critics of yesteryear. They almost unanimously slagged it off as a load of pretentious, pop opera, rubbish which did little justice to Victor Hugo’s sprawling masterpiece. Twenty five years on and it is still giving out the old two fingers all over the world. The public loved it in 1985 and they still do. And it is easy to see why. The main characters are richly and simply drawn. The condensed narrative is surprisingly easy to follow. And the through composed music has a lyricism which is both heavenly and stimulating. In short, it knocks spots off most other modern musicals. If Boublil and Schonberg’s genius wasn’t fully recognised all those years ago, it certainly is now. Wherever it plays Les Mis and its barricades continues to pack them in.
But if the show is virtually gilt edged as an audience draw, it stills needs careful packaging and theatrical punch to make it the experience it deserves to be. Especially so if you are doing it as a summer school project in two weeks and involving sixty plus performers from ten to late teens. I am not sure whether directors Lucy O’Hare and Ashley Mead need certifying or canonising, but in Dunstable last week they proved that anything, given commitment and talent, is possible. However you look at it Empire Theatre Arts gave us an awesome production. The bare black stage and the copious use of atmospheric smoke effects allowed for seamless scene changes, and Fred Rayment’s superlative use of lighting did the rest. Easy really when you know how. I may have quibbled slightly at the over reliance on that smoke in act one, but in the revolutionary act two it really came into its own. Never more so than at the ghostly disappearance of the magnificent, essential, barricade. Dressed with the dead and dying and brilliantly lit by Mr Rayment you just gasped at the perfect theatricality.
Given such astute packaging this show would have been an unqualified hit even if the individual performers had only been so-so. I mean, sixty youngsters. There are bound to be a few who drag it down. But whether by luck or sheer genius the two directors put together a team without a single weak link anywhere on the stage and firmly placed this production in the ‘magnificent’ category. Acting was truthful and sincere, ensemble playing was clever and disciplined, and much of the singing lifted and stirred this ageing, cynical, heart. A lot of credit for the latter must go to Graham Thomson’s sensitive and skilled musical direction, including evocative keyboards, but those in charge need the ones who strut the stage. And Miss O’Hare and Mr Mead combined the talents so well I am seriously thinking of taking up stamp collecting or fly fishing. I left thinking I couldn’t do that. Not in two weeks. Not ever.
With such a show you probably don’t receive any thanks for singling out any individual performer. You can’t mention them all and those neglected may feel they had less to offer. It ain't true folks. From the boy who constantly got slapped on his innocent head to the raucous lovely ladies of the night, all played their part. But of the main players Stuart Grey impressed for the maturity of his fugitive Valjean and Ollie Slade for the commanding presence of the nasty, but ultimately troubled, Javert. Katherine Knight touched the heart for the sincerity of the doomed Fantine and Tara Patterson and John Douglas were the superbly grotesque Thenardiers. I cannot pay Mr Douglas’s portrayal any higher accolade than that his brilliantly costumed scoundrel landlord invoked memories of Alun Armstrong. If he doesn’t think that is praise he should look him up. Imogen Gurney as Little Cosette and Katie Ross as the elder version both acted and sang with exceptional beauty, and James Clark and Jahale Juredini Mcleod showed in a multitude of roles the depth of this large cast.
Much of the action takes place against the background of a student uprising in 1832, hence those barricades that everyone knows so well, and Cameron Hay’s portrayal of revolutionary leader Enjolras particularly impressed. His character does not have any of the individual focus that much of the narrative allows (wot! no girlfriend) and he can easily get lost in all the action. But Mr Hay acted his part beautifully and died even better. His barricade sprawl is to be savoured by those who like such things. His companion in student arms, Jamie Pritchard as Marius, turned in a beautifully crafted performance and was well matched by the enchanting acting and singing of Pari Shahmir’s thwarted Eponine. Her ‘On My Own’ was exceptionally fine and one of my numerous highlights.
So I name you all these characters and don’t spell out a plot which has more strands to it than Agatha Christie at her convoluted best. Suffice to say it is all to do with the fugitive Valjean and the folks he gets involved with on his travels. Including a liberal helping of riots to give Les Mis a topical ring which, in truth, is always with us. But I quite like this sort of rioting from our youngsters. I may be old but I can engage with the young, especially when they are as talented as Empire Theatre Arts. I wonder what those pipe sucking, slippered and ageing theatre critics think in their old folk’s home. ‘Les Miserables? Won’t run for more than week.’ The world, over twenty five years, and Lucy O’Hare and Ashley Mead over three nights in Dunstable, have proved them spectacularly wrong. Magnificent. Haven’t I said that somewhere?

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Empire Theatre Arts - Les Miserables (Schools Edition)

Magnificent. Two directors, two weeks rehearsal, and sixty or more kids from ten to late teens belting out this wonderful musical. A standing ovation from a packed house on the night I went and well deserved. How Lucy O'Hare and Ashley Mead did it I have no idea, but this was definitely the positive side of youthful rioting. In a cast full of super performances Ollie Slade's Javert, John Douglas's Thenardier and Pari Shahmir's Eponine took my highest honours. But there was class throughout, all wrapped in beautiful music, imaginative staging and terrific lighting. My head ached in appreciation. If you saw it you will agree with me. If you missed it you will regret it. As I said, magnificent.

Queensbury Hall, Dunstable.
August 25th - 27th

Full review to follow.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Dunstable Rep - Season 2011/2012

One of the highlights of my reviewing days for the Luton News was following that classy lot at the Little Theatre in Dunstable. From Rebecca to Home and beyond they gave me an enormous amount of theatrical pleasure. With directors such as Alistair Brown, Alan Goss, Peter Carter-Brown and the late and much missed Robin Hadcroft and Mona Norris, they turned out style by the bucketload. Okay, they occasionally threw in the odd turkey but that just added to the fun. But those mentioned, and a few more, regularly combined with a stream of first rate performers to set the standard by which I judged most other local companies. At their best only St Albans Company of Ten came anywhere near them on the local scene. Which, on the basis that you are allowed to chastise those you love, I occasionally stuck in my unwelcome hostile oar. I always want the Rep to be good.
Those sentiments apply in spades to the new season. Having directed one of their last season plays (I humbly declare an unseemly interest) I have seen their set up from the other side. Believe me it is a heady roller coaster ride but one rich in professionalism. They put on plays quicker than some of us change our underwear. And from September 2011 to July 2012 they are churning out six film related stage offerings. From Neil Simon's Plaza Suite to John Buchan's Thirty Nine Steps they are doing everything celluloid. They won't have the immortal Robert Donat (google him) but I am sure they will line up a list of directors and performers who will bring their own special slant to an interesting season.I will stick my interfering neck out and say that I reckon that audiences are in for a treat with this imaginative sextet.  And being a keen racing man I intend to set up the 'Dunstable Rep Film Season Handicap Hurdle' with a prize for the best.
But it will be a handicap, so trainers and jockeys are all important. Some actors will carry more weight than others. Literally in some cases. I shall therefore sneak into their season launch party to assess the likely form and then talk to my local Ladbrokes. Purely in the interest of theatre. Even I can get better than 15/8 on one of those Browns. Roy Hall

Plaza Suite (30/9-8/10) - Christmas Carol (25/11-3/12) - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (20/1-28/1) - Blithe Spirit (16/3-24/3) - The Talented Mr Ripley (11/5-19/5) - Thirty-Nine Steps (13/7-21/7)