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May 4th

A Handful of Stars at Theatre503, Battersea

By Clare Brotherwood

A Handful of Stars - Keith Duffy

Boy band fans could well faint at the sight of Keith Duffy in this revival of Billy Roche’s 1988 play.

But it would have nothing to do with him being a Boyzone star.

For Duffy has chosen to make his London stage debut in a gritty Irish play set in a rundown pool hall in Wexford where shotgun weddings are outnumbered only by random acts of violence.

In the intimate confines of the award-winning Theatre503, with testosterone exuding from the stage, audience members feel like they are part of the action, so real do the characters come across.

Duffy, who made his acting debut as barman Ciaran in Coronation Street 12 years ago, plays a boxer who, although a bit of a lad with the ladies, nonetheless tries to calm down the raging hormones of one particular teenage tearaway. His part isn’t the biggest but he plays it with authority and conviction, and has great stage presence.

Making the most impact is Ciaran Owens as said tearaway, Jimmy Brady, whose violent temper is the core of the play. Sitting so near the stage you can see the anger in his eyes - which makes him at times too close for comfort as he picks on his victims.

In stark contrast, Brian Fenton, who recently took part in the West End production of The Cripple of Inishmaan, is perfect as Jimmy’s sidekick, a shy, rather gauche boy.

There’s excellent support from the rest of the cast: veteran actor Michael O’Hagan gives a heavyweight performance as the elderly, characterful caretaker of the pool hall; Colm Gormley gets right under the skin of the big-mouth Conway; Maureen O’Connell, making her professional debut as Jimmy’s girlfriend Linda, is at times both fiery and submissive, while Michael O’Connor as the wily detective sent shivers down my spine.

A Handful of Stars is tightly directed by Theatre503’s joint artistic director Paul Robinson and makes rivetting entertainment.

A Handful of Stars continues at Theatre503 until May 24.

Box office: 020 7978 7040

www.theatre503.com
May 1st

The Seagull at Norden Farm Centre for the Arts, Maidenhead

By Clare Brotherwood

Even though Chekhov thought of his plays as comedies, to me Russian drama is all about angst and misery, played out in the middle of nowhere.

The SeagullThat was before I saw Shifting Sands Theatre’s The Seagull - featuring a cast of unhappy characters. This company has a reputation for presenting fresh, playful reworkings of classic text and their production of The Seagull is like Noises Off on speed! Although they stick to some of Chekhov’s text, their interpretation, involving four Chekhov fanatics preparing to put on The Seagull while dealing with their own problems, is imaginative and original, and enthusiastically mixes clowning and pathos with warm humour, helped by a collection of madcap props.

The five-strong and very hardworking cast, under director Gerry Flanagan, play a multitude of characters, sometimes with just the addition of a beard or a hat, but the audience don’t get away with doing nothing. In Maidenhead they were called upon to play a lake every time it was mentioned, and gamely made swishing noises as they used their hands to make waves.

For me, Chekhov will never be the same again.

Shifting Sands Theatre continues its national tour of The Seagull:

May 1: West End Centre, Aldershot
May 2: Borough Theatre, Abergavenny
May 3: Cuddington Village Hall, Cheshire
May 6: Create Theatre, Mansfield
May 7: Courtyard Theatre, Hereford
May 8: Cranbrook School, Kent
May 9: Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford

Apr 17th

Last of the Duty Free at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

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Call me a snob, but I’ve always preferred Barcelona to Benidorm and the Northern mountains of Mallorca to Magaluf, so TV series about holidaymakers in the Costas have never interested me.

Obviously, I’m in the minority. Between 1984 and 1986, audiences of 12 million were watching a sitcom, written by the BAFTA award-winning Eric Chappell (Rising Damp, Only When I Laugh), about a working class man and an upper-middle class woman who fall in love in Spain while on holiday with their respective spouses.

Thirty years on and three of the original cast began an extensive national tour this week of a spin-off of the series, Last of the Duty Free.

If duty hadn’t called I would have gone to see it anyway. Keith Barron was one of the most memorable actors on television when I was growing up. He was in so many series, playing gritty Yorkshire characters. Now here he is doing more of the same and it’s a privilege to see him in the flesh; it’s unbelievable to think he’ll be celebrating his 80th birthday while on tour, but he is still looking good, and totally believable (and fanciable) as David, the object of the lovely Linda’s affections. It is only when he pretends - and he does have to pretend! - to be old and infirm that you can picture him in, say, 20 years time!

Also wearing well, looking nowhere near her 75 years, is award-winning actress Gwen Taylor, reprising her role as Barron’s wife Amy. A bit of a shrew, Taylor also shows her as a caring wife and her lively performance and comic timing makes her character’s lack of humour all the more funny.

For the final ‘original’, Neil Stacey, time seems to have stood still if photos from the series of Duty Free are anything to go by, and as Robert, Linda’s husband, he is both naive and menacing, while Carol Royle, as Linda, provides the glamour, looking at least 20 years younger than she is.

As is to be expected, The Last of The Duty Free is set in the same hotel where, 20 years before, David and Linda fell in love. The two are now meeting secretly for a lovers’ tryst, but when Amy and Robert arrive unexpectedly, the fun begins, with all sorts of lies and misunderstandings adding to the mix, not helped by newlyweds Jeremy (Keith Barron’s son James) and Clare (Maxine Gregory).

Despite its setting in the Costas, The Last of the Duty Free isn’t tacky at all! In fact, quite the opposite. Julie Godfrey’s set is tasteful (and makes me want to get on a plane) and, through gentle humour, the marriages of all three couples, are explored, from discovering to discovery and having discovered.


Last of the Duty Free is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until April 26 and then tours:

May 5-10: Hall for Cornwall, Truro

May 12-17: Theatre Royal, Bath

May 19-24: Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent

May 27-31: Churchill Theatre, Bromley

June 2-7: King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

June 9-14: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

June 16-21: Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield

June 23-28: Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne

July 7-12: Theatre Royal, Glasgow

July 14-19: Arts Theatre, Cambridge

July 21-26: Malvern Theatre, Malvern

July 28-August 2: Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes

August 18-23: New Victoria Theatre, Woking

September 1-6: Theatre Royal, Brighton


Box office: 01753 853888

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk
Apr 11th

One Night Stanshall: Sir Henry at Rawlinson End at Bloomsbury Theatre

By Clare Brotherwood

Mad Bonzo Dogs and Englishmen don’t only go out in the midday sun!

Sir Henry at Rawlinson End

At the Bloomsbury Theatre this week an asylum of crazy men got together in memory of the most eccentric of them all, Vivian Stanshall, co-founder of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band (remember the 1968 hit I’m the Urban Spaceman - produced under a pseudonym by Paul McCartney?) - and left us all mad for more.

Although Sir Henry at Rawlinson End has been recorded in vinyl and was made into a film, this was the first time I’d come across this mighty tome of prose and poetry. But judging by the theatre full of familiar followers it is obviously a cult - and lauded by the the high and mighty, no less.

Among those on stage was rock star Rick Wakeman (introduced as ‘an ancient artefact’), taking time out from his Journey to the Centre of the Earth tour to shamble onto the stage with the other founding member of Bonzo Dog, writer and musician Neil Innes. And this was the point when I knew anything goes, for both men wore ladies’ wide brimmed hats as they sat down to play together on the one piano while describing themselves as a suburban street.

It is no surprise that Innes has worked with Monty Python. This show, augmented by a clutch of versatile musicians (draped in cobwebs, with one playing a hosepipe!), is very Pythonesque, mixed with a bit of Richard Stilgoe. And when Mike Livesley, the larger than life entertainer (think Brian Blessed) behind the mayhem, launched into the myriad of characters who inhabited Sir Henry’s life, it was pure Blandings.

Livesley, who originally hit upon the idea of the show after percussionist Jonny Hase introduced him to the Rawlinson End LP, is the consummate storyteller, playing no end of characters with verve and a good helping of facial gymnastics. His delivery is a comic masterpiece.

Ending the show with some of Vivian Stanshall’s favourite songs, he wasn’t joking when he said he was sending us out into the street with our toes tapping and our heads banging.
Apr 2nd

Tom A Story of Tom Jones at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

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I never was one to throw my knickers at Tom Jones (for the youngsters who don’t know, that’s what girls used to do at his concerts in the sixties and seventies), but it would be a sad state of affairs if a show about a singer, put on by a theatre company from the Land of Song, wasn’t worth seeing.

I was right to go. theatr na nOg’s story of the early days of the silver-haired judge on BBC’s The Voice is as gritty as the coal from South Wales, but nicely balanced with comedic performances and some cracking good music.

Charting the time from when childhood sweethearts Tommy Woodward and Melinda Trenchard married and became parents at the age of 16, to Jones’ first hit with It’s Not Unusual in 1965, it is narrated by Phylip Harries who, like the rest of the cast, shows great versatility by doubling up on the baritone sax as well as playing several cameo roles.

Between them, writer Mike James and director Geinor Styles capture the struggle Tom Jones - as fellow Welshman and manager Gordon Mills christened him – had to get to the top, and the unconditional support and love of his wife, despite his little dalliances. I doubt he would be where he is today without her.

This is more a story than a tribute so, apart from a nod to Tom Jones with a curly wig, it doesn’t matter so much that Kit Orton in the title role looks more like Michael Ball than Jones. And while he can really rock and roll and swivel those hips, he doesn’t sound too much like him – until the final medley of Jones’ hits, when he reveals an uncanny resemblance and really does become a ‘sex bomb’ and turned me into a fan!

Throughout the show he is backed by a fabulous foursome of musicians – who alone are well worth the price of your ticket, while Elin Phillips as Linda is memorable for her convincing portrayal of a love-struck wife and mother.

Tom: A Story of Tom Jones is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until 5 April, and then continues touring:

April 8-12: Gwyn Hall, Neath

April 23-May 3: New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

www.thear-nanog.co.uk

 

Mar 22nd

Enchanted April at The Mill at Sonning

By Clare Brotherwood
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Matthew Barber won an award for Outstanding New American Play in 2003 for his adaptation of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s 1922 novel, Enchanted April, and yet I’ve never heard of it. This is a great shame as the story of two women who rent an Italian castle is, under the direction of Sally Hughes, absolutely enchanting and worth staging for many reasons.

Unhappily married Lotty impulsively answers an advert in The Times to rent the castle, ropes in Rose, an equally oppressed and hitherto unknown member of the Hampstead Women’s Club, and together they take on two more strangers - a high-minded elderly widow and a young socialite – to share their month-long escape from the British weather, the aftermath of the First World War, and their husbands.

It is a life-changing experience for them all and, hopefully for their audiences, as they each blossom, along with the wisteria for which the castle is famous.

The Mill at Sonning is renowned for its wonderful sets, courtesy usually of designer Eileen Diss, but on this occasion you are greeted with a completely bare stage; just a marbled floor and backdrop enhanced by a couple of tables and chairs – plain and lifeless just like the characters, except for Lotty, whose enthusiasm for sun and freedom starts everyone off on their journey.

The play begins quietly and slowly with almost poetic prose, but as the characters blossom so does the set and, in the second act, it is completely transformed into the terrace of the Italian castle complete with shuttered windows, stone archways and the famous wisteria. I was so pleased I stayed in the auditorium during the interval to see just how hard the stage crew worked to create such a metamorphosis. They deserve due credit.

Enchanted April has a stellar cast: as Lotty Sarah Edwardson portrays her spirit and optimisim perfectly; Melanie Gutteridge as Rose makes the biggest transformation, while Francesca Bailey’s Lady Caroline Bramble is a lost, almost ethereal, young socialite. When it comes to the final member of the quartet, I felt we were in the presence of royalty.

Hildegard Neil (whose husband Brian Blessed was in the opening night audience) just has to give one withering look to have us all quaking in our seats and she played the role of the domineering Mrs Graves to perfection.

Christopher Leveaux graduated only last year and already he has starred in two productions for The Michael Grandage Company. Now he is playing the owner of a castle, with charm and exuberance, ably abetted on the Italian front by Anna-Maria Everett, whose perfectly portrayed Italian mamma-type maid Costanza, had us chortling.

Completing this talented cast are Jai Armstrong as Rose’s Bohemian husband and Martyn Stanbridge, very much a stuffed shirt as Lotty’s solicitor other half.

The Cast of Enchanted April

As flowers begin to blossom and the sun begins to shine, this is the perfect time of year for Enchanted April – such a lovely, heart-warming story that I am now going to rent the Oscar nominated film version, made in 1992 and starring Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson and Josie Lawrence.

Enchanted April continues at The Mill at Sonning until May 17.

Box office: 0118 969 8000

www.millatsonning.com
Mar 20th

Liza Liza Liza at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

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Liza Minnelli’s colourful life is a gift for any playwright.

Judy Garland’s daughter is one of Hollywood’s living legends but, inevitably, she has had to live her turbulent life in the spotlight, battling publically her own and her mother’s depression, drinking and drug-taking, while her four marriages and divorces, and her physical ill-health, continue to make the headlines.

In the hands of many playwrights, her story (to date!) could well be sensationalised, as in the tabloids she hates so much.

But in the hands of award-winning Richard Harris, you just know she is safe: not safe as in bland, mark you, but in the knowledge that the man in whose film, Stepping Out, she starred, will have been meticulous in his research before presenting it to the public in a beautifully written work which is entertaining, profoundly moving, and real.

Harris says he has not invented anything, merely dramatized it, while Liza herself is quoted as saying, ‘We’re going to have some songs, some dance, some facts and, who knows, maybe some fiction.’

Staged just once before, its week-long run at Windsor just doesn’t seem to have caught the town’s imagination – which is a travesty. This is a quality show, and though the cast may not be household names their performances as Liza at key stages in her life are spot on.

On a set which features a bit of glitz and a huge Z, which no doubt highlights the song ‘Liza with a Z’, her story is re-enacted by newcomer Laura Jane Cook, Sabrina Carter (One Man Two Guvnors, The 39 Steps, Oliver! and Wicked) and Felicity Duncan (EastEnders, Holby City, Mamma Mia, Fiddler on the Roof).

Liza Liza Liza (Laura Jane Cook, Sabrina Carter and Felicity Duncan)

The production opens with Duncan as the older Liza, no longer slim and walking with a stick, but with a big, ballsy personality. She begins Liza’s story and is then joined by Cook as the young Liza and, later, by Carter as the Liza at the height of her career as Sally Bowles in Cabaret.

With musical accompaniment by Neil MacDonald and the help of family photographs displayed on top of the baby grand, the three Lizas interact with each other, recounting memories as they remembered them during the times they represented, and sometimes squabbling like sisters. It really works, even though Carter is so much taller than the other two!

For me, Duncan was the most believable Liza, capturing her spirit as well as her physical appearance, but then Carter and Cook each add something special to their roles.

Carter is also memorable as Judy Garland – portrayed for much of the first act, sitting at a mirror at the back of the stage with her back to the audience, putting on make-up, and adding to the dialogue with great poignancy.

There are the inevitable song and dance numbers like Chicago and New York New York, but though show stoppers on their own, the dialogue and its execution were so compelling that I hardly noticed them.

Harris says that although he sent copies of his script to Liza’s people, he doesn’t know whether she’s seen it. But, like him, I would be very surprised if she didn’t recognise it for exactly what it is -

Liza Liza Liza is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until March 22 and then goes to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford from March 25-29.

Box office: 01753 853888
www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

Mar 14th

Richard and Adam in Concert at the Cadogan Hall

By Clare Brotherwood

This week I went to a marvellous family party. Mum and dad were there, their two boys, the grandparents… Dad did a turn and Nan was singing along and having a ball - as always!

And therein lies a clue.

Richard and Adam in Concert

For Nan, Lorna Slack, is nearly as famous as her talented grandsons, known simply as Richard and Adam. But while she is famous for her exuberance, the boys are famous for their glorious voices, honed with the help of online Pavarotti masterclasses.

The brothers, from North Wales, were finalists in last summer’s Britain’s Got Talent, and, this week, they rounded off their first UK tour at London’s prestigious Cadogan Hall with a mesmerising medley of ballads and classical songs.

From the moment 20-year-old baritone Adam Johnson launched into This Is The Moment his Nan was not the only one in ecstasy. My skin tingled. When his 23-year-old brother, tenor Richard joined in, the experience was complete; with a wide range, from soft to downright powerful, these boys certainly have a God-given gift. The way they complement each other and harmonise is heavenly.

There is a lot to like about these two, apart from their voices. At the risk of sounding my age it is nice to see youngsters so well turned out - well-cut hair, smart suits, collar and tie and shiny shoes. They looked as if they’d made an effort. And I loved the way they looked a little in awe. Richard, especially, had an almost beatific look as he smiled broadly from time to time as if not quite believing where he was.

Nevertheless, although they may be young (in my eyes) and just starting out on what will most certainly be a great career, their presentation, patter and singing was very much grown up - and professional, even if it was like a family party! In fact, that made the concert extra special. There was a lot of banter between them and Nan - who in the second half had moved down to the front row, and when they brought on their dad, Paul, to join them in a moving rendition of Bring Him Home you could hear a pin drop. It was plain to see where they get their voices from!

A surprise performance from X-Factor’s Rhidyan was not the only welcome addition to the show. Eighteen-year-old Charlotte Jaconelli who, with Jonathan Antoine, reached the finals of Britain’s Got Talent in 2012 as classical duo Jonathan and Charlotte, was a revelation, looking and sounding stunning and with a (surprisingly, seeing as she sings so magnificently) cheeky ‘Essex-girl’ rapport which made me want to adopt her. Her’s was another real grown-up performance!
Feb 28th

Ghost Stories at the Arts Theatre

By Clare Brotherwood

Philip Whitchurch in Ghost Stories Photographer Dan Wooller (2).jpg

When I was 18 and working on my first newspaper, some friends and I were taken on a ghost hunt to a stone circle in the Cumbrian fells. It was so scary that, for the following week, I had to sleep with all the lights on.

Beforehand, we had been in a pub talking about how, in films, people like us started off the evening laughing it off but then ending up dead or mad.

Such was the build up to Ghost Stories that I was just as frightened. The press release warned that, as it contains moments of severe shock and tension, the show is unsuitable for anyone under the age of 15, while those of a nervous disposition are strongly advised to think very seriously before attending. Coupled with that was the fact that the hit show has been restaged and reimagined by Andy Nyman, co-creator and director of Derren Brown’s television and stage shows, and The League of Gentlemen’s master of macabre, Jeremy Dyson.

Among the celebrities attending the press night were Jonathan Ross, Sophie Ellis Bexter, Jill Halfpenny, and Davina McCall, who was proving she is plucky not just as a fundraising heroine (she swam, walked, ran and cycled 500 miles for Sport Relief). She had already seen the show, and when I asked her if she was up for this after her gruelling fundraising ordeal she replied: “Not really. I’ll probably use as many calories watching this.”

On the train into London I kept telling myself nothing could happen to me, that it was just a theatrical experience, but it was certainly an assault on the senses: sight, sound - and smell!!

That’s all I can say. Creators Nyman and Dyson describe Ghost Stories as ‘a modern experience you have to see ‘spoiler-free’’ and ask that all who see it keep the show’s plot and secrets to themselves… so that’s why I’ve been filling space with memories of my teenage years and who was in the audience!

If I’m allowed to say one thing - I did spend part of the show with my hands over my ears, but I didn’t need to leave the lights on!

Box office: 020 7836 8463

www.ghoststoriestheshow.co.uk
Feb 26th

The Play That Goes Wrong at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

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During a lifetime of theatre-going I have seen some very funny plays. But I don’t ever remember laughing until I cried!

My face is still aching after watching what must be one of the funniest plays ever performed - and it’s all down to a trio of graduates from LAMDA who wrote it, and their fellow performers who began life as an improvised comedy group.

Award-winning Mischief Theatre may have been going for only a few years but its daring stunts,superb comic timing and sheer silliness is the stuff of legends, rather like Michael Green’s The Art of Course Acting, which I still remember Ealing’s Questors Theatre doing in the sixties.

The plot is centred around a mythical amdram society which attempts to put on a 1920s murder mystery, The Murder of Haversham Hall. But lack of expertise both on and off stage means the entire production is a flop - literally! To list everything that goes wrong would take me ages - and give the game away - it has to be seen to be believed. Writers Henry Shields (who plays Chris and Inspector Carter), Jonathan Sayer (the company director who plays Dennis/Perkins), and Henry Lewis (the company’s artistic director/Robert/Thomas Colleymoore) certainly manage to pack a lot of hilarious material into the two hour show, and together with their co-performers Greg Tannahill, Charlie Russell, Dave Hearn, Lotti Maddox and Rob Falconer present a tour de force from beginning to end. There is so much in this play to commend but I took home with me Max’s (Dave Hearn) silly grin every time he realises he is centre stage (whether or not he should be!) and stage manager Annie’s (Lotti Maddox) ‘caught in the headlights’ expression when she first realises she’s on stage. Congratulations too, to director Mark Bell for keeping together what must be a nightmare of a show to perform, and designer Nigel Hook for his extraordinary set.

This is a company that is going places!


The Play That Goes Wrong is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until March 1 and then continues touring:

March 10-15: King’s Theatre, Glasgow

March 17-22: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

March 24-29: Theatre Royal, Nottingham

April 8-12: Theatre Royal, York

April 22-26: Malvern Theatres

April 29-May 3: Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton

May 6-10: Rose Theatre, Kingston

May 12-17: Royal & Derngate, Northampton

May 19-24: Arts Theatre, Cambridge

May 27-31 Theatre Royal, Bath

June 17-21 Civic Theatre, Darlington

Box office: 01753 853888

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

www.theplaythatgoeswrong.com