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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 ...

Saturday, 25 February 2012

March in the Cotswolds

When I go to heaven, or wherever they send me, I shall thank those folks in charge for a number of things. I shall thank them for flowers, whisky, close friends, cheese in all its infinite varieties, Sunsets and Sidmouth. And my wife, of course, and my sprawling family in Leicestershire. All so important. But I shall also thank them for four days in March. It means little in the great scheme of things, who really cares if one four legged animal can beat another, but horseracing has always been a glorious irrelevancy. And Prestbury Park, Cheltenham in the Cotswolds, is the most glorious of them all. I love theatre, it is an abiding passion, but I love horseracing more. I once shocked my wife when, asked to choose between the two, I opted for the horses. My logic was that I could combine both loves. Theatre is theatre. Horseracing is both. Drama and tragedy and, occasionally, a swagger to the payout window.

And Cheltenham in March is the top of this particular tree by miles. It is Christmas and Easter, National Theatre and Oscars, Olympics and Cup finals. All rolled into one. Twenty seven races over four days and all of the cream of racing are there. Big owners and trainers dream of riches, the small fry just shake their heads in disbelief at merely having a horse considered talented enough to run on that (cliché) hallowed turf. To have a small stable nag good enough to grace Cheltenham in March is a bit like having Giggleswick Town in the last sixteen of the FA Cup. You probably ain’t going to win but, by God, it will be fun. And that tantalising fun arrived, for me, today. My annual posh and expensive book which analyses the best of those twenty seven races in depth. If the clever minds which dissect the respective merits of Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle contenders were in banks or the treasury I reckon that this afflicted country would be in a better shape. Well, maybe no. But it would be a lot more fun.

I used to go every year. Mainly because of my job but, in retirement, for the unalloyed pleasure. These days I prefer to spend the morning pouring over the form and chatting to my brother. Decisions made I trot off to the bookies and then curl up with Channel Four. I get everything. Stimulation, social interaction, healthy walks, and financial calculation. And pure theatre. I can’t understand why HMG don’t make it compulsory. It ticks all the oldie boxes in our fight against senile dementia. Must be the numerous fags and alcohol, not too much of the latter, which links political with incorrect. Can’t have pensioners enjoying themselves. They should be worrying about their rubbish bins and sundry wars.

I have always been of the view that life is so much more bearable if you can switch off and bury yourself in what might win the 3.30 at Kempton Park. Cheltenham, in March, is that prosaic activity writ large. It gets so much publicity it is almost respectable. The big boys look nailed on this year given the lack of new kids on the block. Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle, Sizing Europe in the Queen Mother, Big Bucks in the World Hurdle, and Long Run in the Gold Cup. The accumulator is about 20/1 if you fancy a punt. Oscar Whisky might give BB a race in the World Hurdle, Big Zeb is a place for the QM, and Kauto Star, twice a winner, will evoke many tears if he gets the biggest one on Friday. But, bar falls, little else will match them.

Being greedy I have backed Wierd Al at 20/1 for the Gold Cup on Friday and not ready to dismiss Minsk in the Triumph on the same day. Might be a backable price. But win or lose, and the numerous handicaps wait my studying, I shall love it. I pay my ticket and get four days of fantastic theatre. And unlike visits to Stratford or the Barbican I sometimes get my money back. That never happens in the West End, even with the biggest turkeys. Horses are not actors. They occasionally pay the gas bill. The long march starts here.

Cheltenham National Hunt Festival - Tues 13th Mar to Fri 16th Mar (Channel Four)

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Wheathampstead Dramatic Society - Time of My Life (Review)


I tell you, its bloody hard writing a blog about Wheathampstead’s latest. Trouble is, outline too much and you finishing up thinking it would be simpler to post a copy of the script. I have tried three times so far and it would be a damn sight easier nailing blancmange to the wall. (You can tell I am stymied when I start swearing). So let’s cut to the chase. Ayckbourn. Alan. 1990’s play. So-so. Somewhere between Relatively Speaking (super) and Henceforward (pooper). Restaurant, birthday dinner, dysfunctional family, nutty waiters. Lots. Three acting areas. Central one, all takes place in the present. Side ones, number one son propels his life forward and number two son propels his life backwards. Comic. Sad. Episodic. Got it. If not, buy the script. I’m going back to the blancmange.

Director Julie Field created a nice ambience for this dull, suburban, restaurant somewhere in the unspecified north. Clever use of subdued music suggested a much better party going on elsewhere. Hardly surprising. The one onstage carried enough emotional baggage to sink half a dozen cruise ships. The central area, pay attention, is in the here and now and Laura’s birthday party is winding down. When the kids and their partners have gone she and her businessman husband linger with late night brandies and some dubiously foreign muck served up by one of Jonathan Field’s splendid waiters. Think this one was the boss. In vino veritas and there was a lot of that here. Laura hates number one son (Glyn), wants to smack his wife in the mouth, and adores number two son (Adam). For good measure she hates grandchildren unless they are on TV and confesses to bonking her husband’s dead brother. He wasn’t dead at the time, it was many years before, but you get my drift. Too much exposition was an inherent weakness of this play but it did not detract from Jan Westgarth’s splendid portrayal of the bitter Laura. This was a woman who wanted to kick life in the balls. Her scenes would have had greater punch if husband Gerry (Len Skilton) had been a little less ponderous and deliberate but this actress was always watchable. I reckon I have seen her onstage before. If not, it is my loss.

Interleaved with all this was the forward life of despised number one son Glyn and his neurotic wife Stephanie (sad scenes) and the backwards life of loved and wayward Adam and his weird, hairdresser, girlfriend Maureen (comic scenes). All a bit formulaic with a suggestion that Ayckbourn was writing to order for the sea paddler tourists of Scarborough but rich in dramatic possibilities. Simon Chivers' Glyn, a selfish bastard, played with a straight bat which would have benefited from a little light and shade but his performance was always watchable. As his wife Stephanie, moving from pregnancy to separation and then divorce, Karen Prior struggled. She impressed in a lovely scene when a bemused waiter plied her distraught character with sundry sweet courses but overall her delivery of lines was flat and unimaginative. She could learn from Sara Payne’s comic performance as the second son’s gauche girlfriend. Her Maureen was simply wonderful. Outrageous hair, socially unacceptable accent and costumes, and a bemused innocence which enchanted throughout. Telling us that her bookshelves only contained three books merely confirmed what we already knew. Steve Leadbetter’s unconventional  Adam was a good foil without ever matching the freshness that Miss Payne brought to her lines.

But overall it was an interesting evening. The weakness of the play was that in this Essa de Calvi restaurant, narrative and conflict mainly slept in separate beds. The brandy fuelled dad is dead, killed in a car crash after the party, and ma is collecting dogs and other unseemly habits. So we are told. Personally I prefer to wallow in my Ayckbourn characters verbally beating the hell out of each other as I discover the truth of their relationships in realistic strife. Time of My Life has a much more restricting format and needs consummate playing from all on stage. Wheathampstead almost got there with spot on performances from Jan Westgarth and Sara Payne, and Jonathan Field’s dexterous playing of a variety of odd ball waiters. He linked the scenes with skilful aplomb. It just needed a smidgeon of stronger support. Bit like that metaphorical blancmange on my wall.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Time of My Life - Wheathampstead Dramatic Society

A restaurant birthday dinner for the wife of a successful local businessman is the setting for Alan Ayckbourn’s early 1990’s play on middle class angst. But in such territory things are never as they seem. Life unfolds both backwards and forwards as sons and partners conduct their own private dramas, both comic and sad, on separate tables. Not vintage Ayckbourn and an uneven cast meant the piece never totally gelled on this first night. But interesting all the same and containing some very good performances. Jan Westgarth turns in a feisty portrayal as birthday wife Laura and Jonathan Field creates a first class multitude of odd ball waiters. Director Julie Field creates the right ambience in a play rich in exposition but a little short on dramatic conflict. But worth seeing. Not least for Sara Payne’s beautifully crafted comic girlfriend. Her unsophisticated Maureen is a joy.

Full review to follow

Runs to Saturday 18th February – Memorial Hall, Marford Road, Wheathampstead. 8.00pm

Sunday, 12 February 2012

News, Views, and Statistics

I have had this blog going now for over six months and have posted twenty five pieces. No wonder the garden is a mess. Most have been on specific local plays and musicals I have seen but a couple of mavericks have found their way on here. Mainly horseracing and that enticing Cheltenham, but even Radio Three has not been immune to me sticking my oar in when a Sunday play has taken my fancy. I suppose I just like blogging. But now comes a confession. I also like statistics. Earned my money at it, pouring over numbers for many years. Something has to pay for the ever rising gas bills and the wife’s little extravagances on food and soap powder. Me, I only buy whisky and fags. The rest gets wasted. But to continue the confession. Statistics, figures and numbers, turn me on. Big time. Mainly with the gee gees, horses for the uninitiated, but even the RPI and psephology can get me excited. The latter term is the study of electoral results. Used to read loads of books on them. I must be a sad git.
But winding back to that confession, the only one you are getting here, I have been fascinated by the hits and page views on this little bit of local theatrical life. I have now passed through the 2000 barrier which works out at over 300 a month. See, I am at it already. Amazing, seeing as an earlier blog I tried got three hits in as many months. My first piece on that was on the proposed closure of my local post office. It had been going for 127 years but modern politicians are adept at destroying everything we hold dear. Didn’t set the world alight. In fact it never provided enough of a flame to light one of my fags. But post a piece on your view of someone’s stage cavorting and, hey, you have a blog that folks read. They may love, or hate, or don’t care about what you say. But they read it and I, see reference to sad git, am delighted. So get ready for the statistics. From June to January. From Still Life to A little Night Music. They are all here and some of you will read it. That’s what I and my statistics rely on.
At the time of writing my hits stand at 2061. Okay, doesn’t mean to say anything was read but it expresses the interest. Using page views as a guide Empire Arts Les Miserables leads the field by a comfortable margin. About one in four, 23% to be precise, hone in on that one. It is all those techno savvy kids playing on their pads or whatever turns them on. Bet they have never heard of psepohology. Honourable runners up are Dunstable Rep’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (12%), ACT’s Still Life (11%), and Stage One’s Aladdin (10%). All of these productions got glowing reviews from me so the message must be that slag it and nobody wants to know. Can’t say as I blame them. I only ever read horserace reviews when the nag I have backed has romped in at a juicy price. If it ran or jumped like an iron legged drain I have no wish to relive the agony. Actors and horses, or horse backers, have a lot in common. Except for the number of legs.

Griffin’s Steel Magnolias, that one a tad surprising seeing as it is an historical piece, Luton Light’s A Little Night Music, and Radio Three’s The Lost Sioux of Salford, also figure in the top six or seven. The other eighteen or so, including a couple of iffy reviews, make up the remainder. Off to Wheathampstead Players Time of my Life next week. Alan Ayckbourn. Comedy wrapped in serrated knives. So I am told. Give it a good review and it might get in my top ten. No chance otherwise. That lot down the road can blank you with style. So my statistics say.

Wheathampstead Players – Time of My Life – Thurs–Sat 16th-18th February 2012 at 8.00pm. (Wheathampstead Memorial Hall – Marford Road).

Monday, 6 February 2012

Luton Light - A Little Night Music

Little Theatre, Dunstable.

Those of you following this blog, and there must be a few sad souls seeing as I have had over 1,700 hits since I started it, will know that theatre is intermingled with horseracing. The photo is a clue. (Albertas Run is the pretty one). Those same few will also probably know, if not here is a reminder, that I have set up the self appointed Dunstable Rep Handicap Theatre Stakes. Originally intended to be the six runners from the Rep season I have decided to amend the rules (what rules?) and include visiting productions. If the Epsom Derby can allow late supplements then so can I. Besides it will make my annual review in July much more interesting.

So ACT’s Still Life and Luton Light’s A Little Night Music both get a saddlecloth and whatever is the theatrical equivalent of blinkers or cheek pieces. They are in strong company with dazzling performances in Plaza Suite, a superb lead and inventive direction in A Christmas Carol, and a riveting Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But I never did like an easy life and, besides, you can bet each way on an eight runner field. So Luton Lighters reading the following, Remember as Sondheim might say, you are now in a race. The only difference is, unlike Cheltenham, I decide who wins.

The first thing to say is that Mathew Orr pulled it out of the bag last week. I might have had a few issues with the staging but overall his A Little Night Music oozed class. Stephen Sondheim is a bit of a marmite composer but I definitely fall into the category of adoring much of his haunting music and clever lyrics. This one, Company, and the first half of Sunday in the Park with George knock spots off that Lloyd-Webber kid. It feeds into the mind and heart in a way that the simple tunes of Andy never do. In my opinion. We are in musical Marmite country. Based on a film by Ingmar Bergman, for those who don’t know him he makes Ibsen and Strindberg seem lightweight, A Little Night Music tells the tale of old and young romantic love and wraps it in a smidgeon of Scandinavian farce.

A lawyer and a Count love, or at least desire, an ageing actress. The lawyer’s angst ridden son loves his teenage and frigid stepmother, the Countess is romantically frustrated and the lawyer’s maid, showing them all how it is done, seems to be sexually active with everyone she falls over. In scenes wrapped by the ageing actresses’ mother and daughter we get the scenic Smiles of Bergman’s Summer Night. It could be heavy, but the performances and that music, framed by a superb quintet of chorus singers, made this an engaging evening of local theatre.

Richard Cowling (the lawyer) has a voice so sweet and clear you could lick it to the last drop and still have room for the lollipop stick. He sang beautifully throughout, especially his ‘You Must Meet My Wife’, and his pompous persona struck exactly the right acting note. Karen Nicol could not match him in the singing stakes but her Desiree Armfeldt was every inch the actress whose best years were behind her. All the time she was on stage you had the feeling that this was a woman who expected all to fall at her feet. Actresses are like that. So I am told. And in a superb acting performance that almost stole the show Caroline Fitch beautifully created the lawyer’s silly and inadequate teenage wife. Miss Fitch suffered a bit on the singing stakes, not many can compete with Mr Cowling, but her characterisation of the sexually naive Anne Egerman was a joy.
Elsewhere we got a beautifully crafted aristocratic matriarch from Rona Cracknell, an intense and complex lawyer’s son from Daniel Quirke and, in a performance which in a lesser production would have scored all the brownie points, a superbly sexual maid from Kate Brennan. If her Petra’s flashing eyes were not enough we had an amazing ‘The Miller’s Son’ song to cap a delightful portrayal. And they batted long in this production. Emma Storey’s Countess, sweet as it was, may have lacked acerbity and Ellie Reay’s actress daughter, nicely played, struck me as little more than a feed for her Grandmother’s important plot points amongst the cards. But Aaron Prior’s straight backed Count entered and performed with just the right level of absurdity. And all combined magnificently for their invitations to ‘A Weekend in the Country’. This mixture of narrative drive and sumptuous music, actors sharp as buttons, absolutely zinged.

I did say I had a few staging issues. Lee Freeman’s orchestra occasionally drowned out the weaker singers and, on a simple but clever set, the bed was wheeled out more times than was good for it. But overall this was a very good production. Beautiful music, strong performances, classy costumes. And I don’t usually notice the latter. Unless it’s cheek pieces. Night Waltz and Remember still haunt me. Luton Light’s A Little Night Music is a serious horse in a less than serious race. But it will add to the fun.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Aladdin - Stage One - St Andrew's Young Musical Theatre Company

I have loved live theatre as long as I can remember, and that’s a lot more than sixty years, but confess to never being a big fan of pantomime. The traditional kiddies’ introduction to the stage escaped me. My folks took me to Murder in the Red Barn when I was about seven or eight and Maria Marten beats Snow White and Cinderella any day. So in my reviewing days I steered clear of most of the ‘Oh no its not’ type of entertainment. Unless you have a little one in tow the pleasure can be a bit thin. But I used to make an exception for Terry Mills’ Stage One productions for St Andrews. That was because he turned the premise on its head. And still does. In his pantomimes the kiddies (average age ten and a bit) are on stage and it is the adults who sit in the stalls and squirm with delight and wonder. I am all in favour of tomorrow’s performers being encouraged today in a concept rich in the charm and innocence that the modern media is bent on destroying.
Strictly speaking the latest presentation wasn’t vintage Stage One. But when you take forty youngsters of variable talent there will always be an element of luck. Any fool can tell you they need packaging with lots of colour and business and jolly songs to cover narrative that even the best of this age will struggle with. This Aladdin had all that in parts, led by a splendid Widow Twankey from Ciara McDermott, it just did not have enough to rank it with their Robin Hood or Jack and the Beanstalk of reviewing memory. But it did not lessen the enjoyment one iota. From Widow Twankey’s Laundry to the Emperor’s Royal Palace Gardens the highly disciplined cast gave their all for Mr Mills. And neither he nor I can ask for more than that.
I have nothing but praise for Ciara McDermott’s highly accomplished Dame. In outrageous dress, and with equally outrageous lipstick, this young lady gave comedic oomph to every scene she was in. Her acknowledgement of pace and timing showed a maturity well beyond her years. An undoubted star of the future. She was well matched by the splendid evil persona of the beautifully costumed Rebecca Edwards’ Empress. With a dragon of a voice and eyes flashing venom, no one would want to meet this theatrical vixen on a dark night, she relished her part. And I and the audience relished her performance. Against these two standards of pantomime the straight and decent Aladdin can have a hard time of it. He wants his lamp and his Princess and neither of them are a recipe for the traditional laughs or boos. Alice Hayden played him impeccably with a clear and pleasing voice and a pair of legs that would entice any Princess. What more can you ask of a principal boy.
Keiran Newport and Ciaran Barragry threw everything into their ‘evening all’ PC’s Ping and Pong, Master Newport was particularly impressive, and they and the demented camel of Amy and Lucy Farrar were constant comic highlights. I particularly enjoyed the ‘Emperor’s men’ song where they regularly bashed each other over the heads. Critics are into that sort of thing. And in a large cast I give honourable mentions to Ciara Shadlow’s Omo, Kyle O’Hara’s villainous Abanaza, and Diarmaid Sam’s tiny Mustapha. Some others are worthy of mention but these three particularly registered. Master O’Hara clearly knows a villain when he sees one and he milked the boos with aplomb.
The costumes were magnificently colourful, the moustaches even better, and Hernando’s Hideaway Cave a realistic highlight to end act one. I loved the spooky effects of the baubles, bangles, and beads song and would have liked a few of those when the genies were summoned from sundry rings and lamps. A lone clash of cymbals short changed us in the magic. The familiar and easy on the ear songs culminated in the colourful ending of a song of the world from Walt Disney. Diana Baxter (Musical Director) and David Pryor (Lighting Director) combined to great effect in this. Only down point was a supposedly knowledgeable critic asking the director where it came from. I suppose I should get out more.
But even with the threat of snow it was well worth attending this matinee performance. It’s the 26th time that Terry Mills has done it. Started in 1986. I still think they, whoever they are, should give him an MBE at the least. Lots of less deserving folks get one. But perhaps the pressure needs to come from a higher place. And talking of such places there was a poignant piece on the back of Stage One’s programme. In the last twelve months they have lost two of their stalwarts. Uncles they called them. I knew them both. Roger Newman, who regularly played the drums, and Peter Clarke who seemed to do everything. Two of the people who give life, and theatre, its meaning. The kiddies on stage, except for a few, will not know who they are. But they are passing on the baton. And they would not want a better memorial. Such is theatre. Such is life.
I received an e-mail from Terry Mills, Director, Stage 1. Posted here for info as, like me, he has difficulty pressing the right comment buttons. We ain't all Di Newmans!

"Thank you Roy. And thanks for the flattery! 26 years of Children’s pantomimes has only been possible with (and would have been quite impossible without!) the invaluable help the many Aunts & Uncles to the Company who give so freely of their time and talent – particularly those who work with me week in week out throughout the year."

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Aladdin, Night Music, and All Weather Racing.

Interesting weekend and the main topic of conversation is snow. Judged by the queues in Waitrose I wasn't the only one stocking up on fags and whisky and the non essential five a day. The weather in February can scupper all one's best plans. Knocked out most of my beloved racing. Lingfield on plastic, or whatever, is no substitute for the jumping stars at Sandown. But I suffer and dream of Cheltenham in March. If the snow scuppers that one, I shall spit. Do it enough and it might help.

The snow, not the spit, might yet play havoc with the last flings of two shows I took in this week. If the audiences get there, it is no guarantee that the casts will. But whether they do or not, look forward to incisive and penetrating reviews next week. Failing that, pop in to this blog. A Little Night Music (Luton Light) lived up to most of its early promise and Aladdin (Stage 1 with its 26th children's pantomime) impressed for the enthusiasm of forty youngsters with an average age of ten and a half. Ciara McDermott (almost an unseemly oldie at twelve) was an outstanding Widow Twankey and Rebecca Edwards an unnervingly evil Empress. I wasn't blind to its faults but when your main notes are about the fun you got from PC's Ping and Pong and a demented camel you know you ain't reviewing Ibsen.

So, if the snow held off, the Saturday night audiences were in for two different types of treats. And if it didn't I can guess that at least one cast wouldn't care. Looking at some of the more mischevious at Luton Light it might even be two. Toboggans and reviews to follow.

A Little Night Music - Luton Light - Dunstable Little Theatre (31st Jan - 4th Feb)

Aladdin - Stage 1 - Stopsley School (3rd -4th Feb)

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

A Little Night Music - Luton Light

Stephen Sondheim’s ‘A Little Night Music’ is deep romantic drama heavily laced with elements of farce and that wonderful music that makes it, for me, a piece of compelling theatre. More a play with music as opposed to a musical, no dancing chorus here, which might explain why not many turned up on the first night of Luton Light’s run at Dunstable’s Little Theatre. Hopefully things will get better as the week progresses because Mathew Orr’s production contains some cracking performances. Richard Cowling leads and sings like an angel and Kate Brennan steals every scene she is in as an earthy maid. A bit slow on this first night and Lee Freeman’s orchestra occasionally overshadowed the singers but they will sort that out. I hope they do because backed by a superb quintet of a chorus this show, simply staged, has the makings of being a bit special.

Runs To Saturday 4th February 7.45pm (Saturday Matinee 3.00pm) – Little Theatre, High Street, Dunstable.