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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 ...

Sunday, 26 August 2012

West Side Story - Empire Arts

Empire Arts were always going to be up against it with West Side Story. I love Les Miserables as a musical and I loved their 2011 production of it. Four stars, rave review, and a place on my personal podium at the end of the year. Even gave Lucy O’Hare and Ashley Mead my non existent ‘best directors’ medal. Follow that I said. Not possible I said. Ain’t a fan of Bernstein’s music. Sondheim’s lyrics, clever as they are, don’t match his later work. And they won’t have Natalie Wood. This sixties teenager shamefully saw the film because of her and mindlessly drooled through all the prancing of the Sharks and Jets. I didn’t get Romeo and Juliet or teenage gangs in those days but, by God, I got Natalie Wood. Her Maria is seared on my memory and every West Side Story I have seen since, and I have seen a few, carries that heavy baggage.

But this is Empire Arts and Miss Lucy O’Hare and Mr Ashley Mead. Set them a sniffy critic’s challenge and they not only have you eating your pre-conceived words, they have you spitting them out and serving them up as humble theatrical soup. In short their West Side Story at Harpenden Hall was a magical piece of energetic theatre that left you gasping. The downtown New York staging was spot on. It moved locations, from park to shop to kid’s club, in the blink of an eye. It splattered it all with awesome lighting (Fred Rayment) and magnificent Bernstein music (Graham Thomson). It had gangland Jets and Sharks dancing with professional aplomb. And amid all that youthful energy it gave us a smattering of first class performances that honed the narrative and touched the heart. A piece of theatrical class served up in two weeks of intensive summer school rehearsals. It shouldn’t be possible. That it is proves that Les Miserables and many other Empire Arts productions were no flukes. This company does what many don’t achieve in three months. I should hate them for their expertise. I have said before that I couldn’t do it. I lack the gift and the energy. But I can give them four stars. Effortlessly, from a miser who doesn’t dish those out to many. Especially to productions that don’t have Natalie Wood.

With such sure fired superb packaging any individual turn is a bit of a bonus. But class still shines even in the best collective productions. I give a large dollop of my brownie points to Bianca Baikie’s superb Maria, great emotional depth, Cameron Hay’s Riff, a strong and engaging portrayal, and Pari Shahmir’s wonderful Anita. These three stood out in a cast which included notable performances from Tony (Ollie Slade), Action (Stuart Grey), A-Rab (Jamie Pritchard), Anybodys (Ellie Reay), Bernardo (Jahale Juredini), the blonde wigged Consuelo (Nadine Turk) and a stunning and consummate Rosalia (Katherine Knight). Mr Slade, a sensitive and nicely judged Tony, suffered a bit in his singing and Mr Juredini needed to project his gang leader Bernardo a little more but all added to a sumptuous theatrical experience. Alex Wheeler made for a nice Chino, number two and thwarted beau in the Sharks, but lacked the necessary height for verisimilitude. And in this youth production depicting rebellious youth, the generational battle was generally spot on. In a large cast of energetic youngsters a clever sprinkling of authoritative adults underlined the essential truth of teenage gangland angst. (That’s the nearest you are going to get to a plot summation). A couple of Dunstable Rep stalwarts did a nice policing job and, even though unnamed, I reckon this is the first time they have been referred to as theatrical sprinklings. Should up their status at the Rep.

I said earlier that I am not a big fan of Bernstein’s aggressive American music. Doesn’t tick the boxes of someone who admits he prefers his music without the noise. I like it to touch the heart not invade the ears. But I am not stupid (discuss) and Mr Thomson and his orchestra beautifully conjured up the authentic Bernstein sound. I loved the energetic prologue, revelled in Tony and Maria’s evocative balcony scene, lapped up America and I Feel Pretty (fantastic singing from all four ladies including Sophia Turner) and thoroughly enjoyed an inventive Gee, Officer Krupke. The genius on the baton (I am beginning to think he is the best around)  and his performers on stage milked everything in those outstanding numbers. All in all a bloody good afternoon (I gave up York horseracing for this) with hardly a false note. Great orchestra, great lighting, great staging, great sound (Graham Elliott, in case he feels missed out), and great direction from O’Hare and Mead. I don't do worthy community tick boxes. Too long in the tooth. You have to earn your theatrical praise from me. Empire Arts does. They clearly rule in the summer. Wonderful. Four stars. Again. Even without Natalie Wood.
Roy Hall


Thursday, 2 August 2012

And the Winner Is................

I started this blog just over a year ago. Previous attempts (two) were singularly unsuccessful. Hits were low (none and three) and my pitiful attempts to be the next mumsnet or guido fawkes were mercifully strangled shortly after birth. Was no one interested in the closure of my local post office or the dangerously incipient spread of unsalted biscuits and crisps? Clearly not. Or not from me on cumbersome and complicated sites. I nearly gave up. But the hankering to blog was clearly there and I made a third attempt. Anton Chekhov said that theatre was his mistress (medicine was his wife) and, in a way, I suppose it is mine. Whatever my other interests, it has dogged me all my life. So why not give it a try I said. A few folks who should know better said they missed my paper reviews and, who knows, I might get a few hits to make it worthwhile. A year on and the numbers make me blink. Nearly five thousand and climbing. You actor folks may not always like or agree with what I write but at least you have a look. Having your own opinion confirmed, whether on a scintillating new local star or an oik who lost his script, is clearly much more fun than musing on unsalted biscuits.
In my first year I have stuck my oar into over twenty presentations. Not an earth shattering number but you have to pay the gas and whisky bills, the latter anyway, before forking out on theatre tickets. That’s my excuse for being a lazy sod. If I see it, I feel inclined to blog it and these days inclinations, of any ilk, come along fairly infrequently. Hasn’t stopped me seeing everything the boys and girls of Dunstable Rep and Wheathampstead Players pushed out. Their classy and cosy venues account for about half of my output. Wheathampstead have yet to hit the theatrical heights overall but in Irene Morris (Broken Glass, Losing Louis), Sara Payne (Time of my Life), and Jan Westgarth (Time of my Life), they show they have some bloody good actresses. And in Sarah Brindley (Broken Glass, Losing Louis) they have an exceptional one. I like my local lot down the B653 and I have a feeling it won’t be long before they get an overdue rave. The quality is there; just needs something extra to make it gell like it did in the past with The Winslow Boy and The Cemetery Club. Dunstable Rep sometimes have the same problem. They regularly turn out some individual crackers, most notably Joe Butcher (Plaza Suite), Angela Goss (Plaza Suite and Blithe Spirit), and Phil Baker (A Christmas Carol), in productions which failed to totally impress. But they cram a lot in at the Rep and in the ‘Film Season’ ones that did tick most of my boxes Dave Corbett (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and Justin Doherty (The Talented Mr Ripley) scored heavily for the boys and Liz Caswell (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and Jenna Ryder-Oliver (The Talented Mr Ripley) for the girls. Only my opinion of course. So do not drop bricks on my blog, unless it is one of the John Gielgud variety.
In my theatre reviewing days for The Luton News I used to give out individual gongs for my personal bests. Not fair to do that here as, unlike then, I haven’t seen everything in the local area. I intend to have some fun with my Rep Theatre Handicap Race (see below) but that is a private bit of nonsense. The rest is merely comments on my first theatre blog year. Individually I also appreciated performances from Elliott Lawrence (Still Life – ACT), Steve Peters (The Drowsy Chaperone-St Andrews), Lewis Cox (Absent Friends – Harpenden High Street Players), Jonathan Field (Time of my Life-Wheathampstead), Ciara McDermott (Aladdin –Stage One), Suzy Major (Under The Stars – Company of Ten), Dianne Pickard (Under The Stars – Company of Ten), Natalie Gordon (Still Life –ACT), Katie Brennan (A Little Night Music – Luton Light), Caroline Fitch (A Little Night Music – Luton Light), Rona Cracknell (A Little Night Music – Luton Light), Joanna Yirrel (The Drowsy Chaperone-St Andrews) and Sarah Albert (The Drowsy Chaperone-St Andrews). Collectively Les Miserables (Empire Arts) was awesome and if I had a Director’s Award I would give it to Lucy O’Hare and Ashley Mead for knitting sixty plus teenagers into a magnificent evening of total musical theatre. As it is my blog I’ll give it to them anyway. None who saw it last Autumn would complain. Except possibly Matt Flitton, Kelley Sarson, John O’Leary, and the prolific Joe Butcher who combined beautifully in a madcap 39 Steps. But there were only four of them.
And that nicely leads us on to Dunstable Rep’s 2011/12 Film Season. They had six, from Plaza Suite to The 39 Steps, and two guest productions which fitted the criteria. Alan Clarke, greedy bugger, had one of each and both Still Life and The Talented Mr Ripley were absorbing evenings of theatre. The other guest production, Matthew Orr’s A little Night Music for Luton Light, was also pure class and when you throw in Chris Lavin’s compelling Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Bekka Prideaux’s fun packed The 39 Steps you know it ain’t going to be easy to find a winner. In the end Still Life just edged out Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and those two, along with that magnificent Les Miserables, were my personal tops of a first year of royhalltheatre.blogspot.com. Twenty plus shows and all an absolute pleasure. I love horseracing, win or lose, turkeys or triumphs, and theatre is much the same. So, in true Olympic spirit.
The Winner Is:-
Gold Medal.   STILL LIFE  
(ACT Theatre Company – Dunstable Rep – July 2011)
Just shaded in the envelope were runners up:-
Silver Medal.   CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF
(Dunstable Rep – January 2012)
With an honourable mention for:-
     Bronze Medal. LES MISERABLES
    (Empire Arts – Queensbury Theatre – August 2011)

Good field, lousy critic.
Roy Hall