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Sep 30th

Blithe Spirit at The Mill at Sonning

By Clare Brotherwood

Spirits abound in The Mill at Sonning’s latest production - not least because The Mill has just won The South East Award for Most Welcoming Theatre 2016!

First night elementals may have spooked both the cast and the audience but Noel Coward’s endearing comedy continued on to conjure up some spirited performances.

Set designer Michael Holt, Matt Smee on sound, and Matthew Biss, who is responsible for the lighting, go all out to produce special effects for this evening of fun and frights which will have you both giggling and gasping.

Written by Coward in just six days in 1941, Blithe Spirit charts the course of events which occur after eccentric medium Madame Arcati accidentally summons up the deceased wife of novelist Charles Condomine.

Charles has invited Madame Arcati to dinner in order to research the occult for his latest book, but his smug scepticism, so well portrayed by Darrell Brockis, soon turns to annoyance when the ghost of his wayward first wife makes a play for him, with tragic consequences.

Madame Arcati is one of the most colourful characters on the English stage and former EastEnders’ Mrs Hewitt, Elizabeth Power, causes much mirth with her outlandish antics, and outfits provided by costume designer Natalie Titchener. Natalie also adds a nice touch by duplicating the ethereal spirits in a pair of hung pictures onto the diaphanous clothes worn by the grey ghost of Elvira.

As Elvira, Finty Williams is sultry, mischievous and childlike, even down to some impressive tantrums, but there’s a steeliness which is quite alarming. It is Phillipa Peak, as Charles’ current wife, Ruth, however, who steals the show. From starting out as strait-laced and sensible, if not a little unnerved at the prospect of a seance, she plays some spectacular scenes as her failure to cope with an unwanted guest she cannot see drags her down into moments of pure hysteria. A real tour de force.

Directed by Tam Williams at a steady pace, the cast is completed by his mother Belinda Carroll and his stepfather Michael Cochrane, and Janine Leigh, who makes the most of her part as the nervous new maid - though the sound effects of her hurrying about the house could be toned down a jot.

 

Blithe Spirit is at The Mill at Sonning until November 19.

Box Office: 0118 969 8000

www.millatsonning.com

Sep 28th

The MGM Story: The Magic of the Musicals

By Clare Brotherwood

To generations of film fans, MGM meant glitz and glitter.

Between its foundation in 1924 and its demise in the 1950s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Hollywood studios produced the biggest though not always the best musicals, launching the careers of the likes of Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.

If audiences of this show expect even a little of the glamour of MGM’s productions, however, they will be sorely disappointed.

Set on a drab, disused film set, this budget production from Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment Concerts and Szpiezak Productions Ltd is essentially a small show with big songs. There isn’t even a whimper from MGM’s famous signature lion.

But there are big performances.

West End veteran Miranda Wilford heads a hard-working, all-singing, all-dancing trio which also gives a light but informative history of one of the largest, most glamorous and revered studios ever, with some fascinating behind-the-scenes stories.

Her beautiful renditions of some of the most famous songs to come from America are faultless. James Leece, who trained at the Royal Ballet School and has worked for Matthew Bourne, also gives a fine performance - his voice has a vintage quality which suits the era, though tiredness was beginning to show towards the end of the first night show. Completing the trio, Steven Dalziel literally throws himself into his role. He’s full of enthusiasm and with his expressive face and flexible body would go far as a comedy actor.

But this is essentially a musical revue and the songs really are the stars.

Musical director Charlie Ingles and his handful of musicians take audiences down memory lane with nostalgic arrangements of such classics as That’s Entertainment, Broadway Melody, Over the Rainbow, Meet Me in St Louis, New York, New York, I Got Rhythm, Singin’ in the Rain, Make ‘Em Laugh and The Night They Invented Champagne.

This show proves that there really is No Business Like Showbusiness!

 

The MGM Story: The Magic of the Musicals is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until

Oct 1

Box Office: 01753 853888

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

Further performances:

Oct 7: Playhouse Norwich

Feb 18, 2017: Chipping Norton Theatre

Sep 25th

Imogen at Shakespeare's Globe

By Clare Brotherwood

EastEnders family The Carters have been out in force at Shakespeare’s Globe.

Actors Danny Dyer and Kellie Bright, who play publicans Mick and Linda Carter in the BBC soap, were there to support Maddy Hill, who played their on-screen daughter Nancy.

Maddy’s credits, apart from EastEnders, only amount to a handful of parts, but two of them are Shakespearian, and now there’s a third - Imogen, the title role in a ‘renamed and reclaimed’ production of Cymbeline.

Part of the Globe’s artistic director Emma Rice’s first season, Imogen couldn’t be better for attracting new, young audiences to Shakespeare.

Gang warfare, it seems, is nothing new, and director Matthew Dunster has brought this play literally kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Imogen is bang up to date with a cast clad in tracksuits, trainers and baseball caps, rapping and street dancing its way through a bloody tale of murder, revenge - and, of course, love.

Designer Jon Bausor’s set is stark and dark, the only dressings, butchers’ curtains! And there’s plenty of butchery, I can tell you! Oh, and occasional drugs and can of lager.

Fights between Imogen’s black-clad Britons and the Romans, dressed in white, who are harbouring Imogen’s banished husband Posthumus, are both balletic and realistic, with the added attraction of sometimes taking place in midair! The energetic young actors take everything in their stride. To the pounding beats of sound designer George Dennis’s atmospheric music, their performances are invigorating, and aggressive, especially Ira Mandela Siobhan’s powerful Posthumus, with added gravitas from Jonathan McGuinness as Cymbeline, king of the Britons, and Martin Marquez as Belarius, who for the last 20 years has been bringing up the king’s sons as his own.

I don’t know whether it’s politically correct to single out William Grint, one of those sons, but he and the rest of the cast should be applauded for making William’s deafness part of the action and giving this play extra depth and some humanity. I doubt many briefs include sign language!

The play is, however, Imogen’s story - of how she marries against the wishes of her father, the king, who punishes her by banishing her husband. How her husband believes her to be unfaithful and sends someone to kill her while she, dressed as a youth, searches the land to be at his side, on the way being poisoned and waking up beside an headless corpse. Always fiesty but with a soft side, as Imogen Maddy Hill shines, appearing streetwise and yet with that vulnerability which made her so popular in EastEnders. She’d certainly give The Mitchells a run for their money!

The story may be a familiar one in today’s world where drugs and street crime are sadly all too common, but there are lighter moments: Joshua Lacey causes a laugh every time he struts onto the stage as Cymbeline’s loutish, football shirt-wearing stepson, and the appearance of an illuminated greenhouse apparently growing marijuana, also causes amusement.

 

Imogen is at Shakespeare’s Globe until October 16

www.shakespearesglobe.com/imogen

Jul 8th

The Hollow at The Mill at Sonning

By Clare Brotherwood

 

Mention the name Brian Blessed and we all expect something… BIG!

And last night we had that in so many ways, even though the larger than life actor sat quietly in the back row of the auditorium.

For it is at the pretty Thameside dinner theatre that Blessed is making his directorial debut.

For a start, The Hollow stars the second biggest cast The Mill has ever accommodated. The play also lasts longer than most - not that the first night audience was complaining. But, most notably, Blessed has a big hit on his hands!

Given his personality you’d be forgiven for thinking that his production would gallop along - but no. Agatha Christie’s classic thriller is nicely paced and totally absorbing, though there are some quirky touches which has Brian Blessed written all over them and, as Lady Angkatell, the lady of the house, Blessed’s wife Hildegard Neil certainly knows how to interpret her husband’s comic side. In the midst of murder, her portrayal of the forgetful wife of a former governor in India is not only endearing but very funny.

It’s a family affair. Among the 12-strong cast is Rosalind Blessed, Neil and Blessed’s daughter who has inherited her father’s big personality, just right for the part she plays - Henrietta, a sculptress and mistress of the murder victim.

I’m not giving the game away here. The doctor, John Cristow, has many enemies, not least a Hollywood film star (and his former fiancee) who has moved into a cottage down the lane from The Hollow where Lady and Sir Angkatell (played by a distinguished Terence Wilton) are hosting a weekend house party. Given that George Clooney has moved into the village (and has visited the Mill), a knowing chuckle rippled through the audience when Sir Angkatell referred to the Hollywood film star at the end of the lane. Was that in the original script I wonder or a Blessedism!

It is, of course, a whodunnit: was it the film star, the selfish, scheming Veronica Craye, played by Leanne Rowe with a wonderful brittleness; the somewhat weak Edward (Alexander Neal), owner of the family estate, who is in love with Henrietta; shop girl Midge (played by Francesca Regis with a wholesome freshness), who is in love with Edward; the doctor’s wife, the nervy, subservient Gerda, played with great feeling by Emily Stride (daughter of the late, great Susan Sheridan); or even the butler, Gudgeon, portrayed with great aplomb and dignity but not without a little bit of wickedness by George Telfer. The only character out of the frame is the sweet maid Doris, who is eager to please everyone, and making her stage debut inthe part is Angharad Berrow who does just that with her enthusiastic performance.

The cast is completed by Jason Riddington’s tremendous, egotistical performance as John Cristow; Oliver Ashworth as the star-struck DS with an eye for the girls, and the authoritative but understanding police inspector (Noel White).

As always, the set is exquisite, this time thanks to Dinah England, and I love the nod to the early fifties in which the play is set, with old radio recordings of Happidrome, Workers Playtime and Elsie and Doris Waters.

So, well done to everyone, especially Brian Blessed. You’ve reached the peak of another Everest; in fact, the Universe is your oyster!

 

The Hollow at The Mill at Sonning continues until September 3

Box office: 0118 969 8000

www.millatsonning.com

Jul 6th

The Ladykillers at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

 

What is there not to love about The Ladykillers? Originally a 1955 Ealing Comedy starring

Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, Graham Linehan’s (creator of Father Ted) stage adaptation made its debut in 2011 with, as I remember, the set being as memorable as the cast headed by former Dr Who Peter Capaldi and the ever delightful Marcia Warren.

The Windsor Repertory Company obviously doesn’t have the funds of a West End production but it is every bit as enjoyable in its own way.

Hilary Harwood is impressive as Mrs Wilberforce, the genteel old lady who thinks she’s letting a room to the conductor of a string quartet when, in fact, he’s the leader of a gang planning a robbery. You can almost smell the lavender water as she walks stiffly about the stage, speaking in that precise way old ladies of the fifties sometimes did.

The action takes place in Mrs Wilberforce’s house which is situated over a railway tunnel at King’s Cross. Only a crooked picture gives a taste of the lopsided dwelling but its close proximity to the station is emphasised by surround sounds of steam trains even before the curtain goes up.

Every single character adds something to this quirky, farcical black comedy, even Julie Ross’s very small part as Mrs Wilberforce’s haughty friend Mrs Tromleyton.

Tom McCarron is charming as the leader of the gang; Danny Lane hilarious but endearing as the punch-drunk ex-boxer One Round; Chris Kiely terrifying as the psychopathic Romanian; Chris Casey almost lovable as the pill-popping Harry, and as Major Courtney, the closet transvestite and con-man, Russell Anthony really conned me into thinking he was an officer and a gentleman.

There is plenty of fun and games to be had in this production, not to mention a plethora of killings - look out for the knife that goes through On Round’s head. I certainly didn’t see that coming.

 

The Ladykillers continues at the Theatre Royal Windsor until July 9.

The Windsor Repertory Festival ends with Pygmalion from July 12-16

Box office: 01753 853888

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

Jun 29th

My Cousin Rachel at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

As leading lady Jessica Kent told the opening night audience, the Theatre Royal Windsor is spearheading repertory theatre, keeping rep alive - and so may it continue.

The fourth in the Windsor Repertory Festival of six plays in six weeks is still drawing in the locals as company members continue to show their versatile talents.

This week they are taking us to 19th century Cornwall where Daphne du Maurier created the story of Philip Ashley. Philip’s life drastically changes when his older cousin Ambrose, who has brought him up, travels to Florence where he meets and marries a long lost cousin - and then suddenly dies.

What follows is a mystery romance, which some say is better than Rebecca, as suspicion and rival jealousies turn everyone’s world upside down.

The play gets off to a strong start with some magnificent thunder and lightning, but on the opening night the incidental music did sometimes end too suddenly instead of fading away and the sound effects of horses hooves also came and went too suddenly and gave the riders no time to dismount and appear at the door.

The strongest performance comes from Tim McFarland as Philip who, despite wearing a costume which is too big for him, gives his all as a lively young pup who lets his heart rule his head with a childish passion.

Charlotte Haines, though a bit too quietly spoken for some ears, is perfect as the daughter of Philip’s guardian - a proper young lady but with jealousies bubbling just below the surface.

In this rather dark tale, it is the servants, Seecombe and James, who are particularly memorable, however, injecting a much needed dose of comedy. Jeremy Bennett as Seecombe, is your archetypal old retainer while Stanley Eldridge almost overdoes it as the slow-witted younger servant James.



My Cousin Rachel is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until July 2. The Windsor Repertory Festival then continues with:

July 5-9: The Ladykillers

July 12-16: Pygmalion

Box Office: 01753 853888

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

Jun 15th

Deadly Nightcap at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

 

From the buzzing audience and hearty applause at the end of the first night of their second production, it looks like the Windsor Repertory Festival is already a great success.

Part of the fun of a repertory season is getting to know the actors - which is this case is enhanced by the cast making an appearance in the foyer at the end of the evening - and trying to spot who’s who.

It’s not an easy task. Last week the actors were all singing-all dancing in the award-winning comedy One Man, Two Guvnors. This week the mood is much darker. In fact, it couldn’t be darker, what with murder, intrigue, lies and deceit in this eighties psychological thriller penned by master of mystery, Francis Durbridge.

The actors are unrecognisable from their previous roles, which is of course down to their talents and versatility. Especially so is Hannah Vesty who, last week was a mini-skirted assistant with a beehive hairdo who showed she’s a really competent hoofer. This week she has gone up in the world, reminding me of Kirsty Alsopp, playing a best friend who has her own TV cookery programme. Then there’s Cerise Hine who, last week, played her gangster brother. This week she’s a chatty housekeeper, while David Muscat, last week a gangster, is this week a caring doctor and Anton Tweedale, also a gangster last week, is now a detective.

All is not what it seems in this play of twists and turns, and to divulge any of the plot would spoil the surprises. But it’s well executed under the direction of Claire Evans, and is a hugely enjoyable not so much a whodunnit but how will he/she get away with it. Though the story certainly doesn’t end there!

 

Deadly Nightcap is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until June 18. The Windsor Repertory Festival then continues with:

June 21-25: Bedroom Farce

June 28-July 2: My Cousin Rachel

July 5-9: The Ladykillers

July 12-16: Pygmalion

Box Office: 01753 853888

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

Jun 9th

The Go-Between at the Apollo Theatre

By Clare Brotherwood

Composer Richard Taylor should be feeling very proud of himself. For when he was asked who the ideal leading actor should be for a new, musical version of LP Hartley’s much loved story of childhood innocence and betrayal, he suggested... Michael Crawford.

It was a stroke of genius, Crawford is magnificent. For the last 10 years he has been recovering from ME in New Zealand and so it was a shock to see him as the 74-year-old he now is. But his award-winning voice is still beautifully melodic and, though he is now a little stooped (or was that acting?), he gives his character a childlike innocence, played with such vulnerability and sensitivity that there won’t be a dry eye in the house.

In a recent newspaper article he said that he introduced himself to the cast with ‘I’m Michael and I’m terrified’. Last night his nerves were palpable, his hand was shaking and at one point, so was the corner of his mouth. But his delivery never waivered from perfection. His return to the stage is nothing short of a triumph.

Anyone who takes on such a project as this has a right to be nervous, especially after such a long break. It’s an extremely hard show to perform. Richard Taylor may look upon him as his hero but he hasn’t made things easy for him. It’s a chamber musical with lyrics by David Wood but not many real songs, and different harmonies but on-stage pianist Nigel Lilley’s accompaniment is poetic.

Director Roger Haines’ new version sees Leo (the go-between) discovering the diary he had written 50 years before during the three weeks of a hot summer when he stayed, as a 12-year-old, with his friend Marcus at his country pile. Cue the characters from that time who plead with him to release them. And so he relives those days when he fell in love with Marcus’s sister and acted as ‘postman’ for her and her lover, a tenant farmer on her father’s estate.

At times he looks wistfully into the middle distance, at others his pain is visible, and then he looks on lovingly as his memories are acted out before his eyes by a sterling cast which includes Fascinating Aida’s Issy Van Randwyck, majestic as Marcus’s mother; Gemma Sutton as the beautiful, playful Marian, and Stuart Ward as her lover, the macho but tender farmer Ted.

But if anything, 13-year-olds William Thompson and Archie Stevens, should share Crawford’s star billing. Archie gives a very assured performance as the snobbish Marcus. William, on the other hand, mirrors the childlike quality found in Crawford. He executes so well a feeling of bewilderment, while the way he looks at Marian with such love is quite extraordinary for one so young.


www.thegobetweenmusical.com

Jun 8th

One Man, Two Guvnors at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

A drama of a different kind took centre stage at Windsor’s Theatre Royal last night when the audience had to be evacuated because of flash flooding.

But the adverse weather conditions were nothing compared to the thunderous applause the Windsor Repertory Company would most surely have received for their spirited production of Richard Bean’s award-winning comedy One Man, Two Guvnors.

Nothing could detract from this energetic, and hilarious rendition, which got the Windsor Repertory Festival of six plays in six weeks off to a splendid start.

I’d already seen this in London’s West End and Andrew Beckett’s performance as Francis Henshall will remain in my memory just as much as James Cordon’s. Instantly loveable, this bundle of fun is a human dynamo as he throws himself about the stage, endearing himself to us as he becomes increasingly confused as to which gangster he is working for. It’s just as well his part is so physical as Henshall is obsessed with food and Beckett has to consume quite an amount during each performance!

Under Paul Taylor-Mills expert direction, the rest of the cast also come up to the mark. I especially like Jonathan Ray’s OTT performance as the theatrical Alan Dangle, and Anton Tweedale as Alfie, the 87-year-old arthritic waiter whose slow progress across the stage is a thing of wonder.

Song and dance plays a part too, with Hannah Vesty as Dolly doing a great routine. Oh, and there’s a bit of audience participation, quite apart from the flooded front stalls!

In the hands of the Windsor Repertory Company, One Man, Two Guvnors is unbridled madness and I can’t wait to see what these versatile performers come up with in the following weeks. Certainly they have a diverse programme, but then, that’s how actors learned their trade back in the day.

The Windsor Repertory Company was first created in 1938 by John Counsell,  the late owner of the Theatre Royal (his daughter actress Elizabeth Counsell was present last night) and last year, to celebrate 200 years of the Theatre Royal Windsor, weekly rep was revived to critical acclaim. Let’s hope other theatres will take its lead.

One Man, Two Guvnors is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until June 11. The Windsor Repertory Festival then continues with:

June 14-18: Deadly Nightcap

June 21-25: Bedroom Farce

June 28-July 2: Jamaica Inn

July 5-9: The Ladykillers

July 12-16: Pygmalion

Box Office: 01753 853888

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

Jun 5th

A Right Royal Knees Up at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

By Clare Brotherwood

Last night I saw Maggie Smith singing along with Pearly Kings and Queens, having earlier been dragged off stage.

Dame Maggie was only one of a galaxy of stars who gave up a Sunday evening to help raise funds for The Royal Theatrical Fund (which provides support for people of all ages who have worked in the notoriously uncertain entertainment industry) while also celebrating Her Majesty The Queen’s 90th birthday with A Right Royal Knees Up.

She wasn’t the only one to be ‘hooked’.Others who were dragged off stage included Sir Derek Jacobi, Stephanie Cole, Samantha Bond and Maureen Lipman, and all for attempting to recite Shakespeare and the like.

For this really was a ‘knees up’, with the audience singing along with Michael Ball, the industrious Oompah Brass and Brian Conley, and TRTF president Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson building up to the finale with songs from Me and My Girl.

Introduced by Robert Lindsay, and the disembodied voice of the first ever chairman of TRTF, Charles Dickens (ably spoken by compere Rob Brydon, who later did some cracking impressions of Alan Bennett and Michael Caine), the show began with a voice mail from Dame Judi Dench, extolling the virtues of turning off mobile phones. There was another voice message from Michael Palin (who said he’d gone to the wrong theatre - in Spain), while Mark Knopfler made a surprise appearance, taking over from Lindsay and Brydon’s entertaining attempts at playing guitars.

Highlights of the evening, apart from Dame Maggie’s surprise appearance which caused uproarious applause from the audience, included a moving, unaccompanied song from Imelda Staunton, joined onstage by her husband Jim Carter, a fleeting appearance by Joanna Lumley, complete with wine bottle in hand, and Janie Dee who, though dressed as Elizabeth I, sang a cheeky little number before leading the whole company in the National Anthem. And when the audience rose to their feet as one, as once audiences did, it brought a lump to my throat.

www.trtf.com