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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

May 26th

Laila The Musical at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

Laila has everything you want from a musical - and more.

Pravesh Kumar’s sensitive interpretation of the age-old tale of Laila Majnu, together with memorable music and songs, a simple but stylish set and a talented cast, deserves to be in a West End theatre.

But this show has much more to offer than most musicals. Asia’s rich culture and traditions, its haunting sufi music and pulsating Bhangra beat seamlessly blend with modern day British life and its music.

That’s not all. Though the story of star-crossed lovers - 700 years older than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet but with many similarities - will bring a lump to your throat, award-winning RIFCO’s production has some hilarious moments which wouldn’t look out of place in pantomime. The scene in which some gloriously camp courtiers cavort around the stage particularly had the audience in stitches, while Laila’s cruel brother fits perfectly into the role of the out and out villain.

I don’t normally empathise with the characters in musicals. I view them very much as giving a performance. Because they are singing their stories they never seem real to me. But with Laila I became totally absorbed. In the title role, Mona Goodwin’s pure, soaring voice really touches the heartstrings, while it is easy to see why she should fall in love with Qays, played by Reece Bahia, with his boy band good looks and passionate performance.

Award-winning Surrinder ‘Shin’ Singh Parwana, one of the most prominent British Asian vocalists in the UK, exudes energy as Qays’s kindly father but later shows he is capable of much more when he transforms into the camp but cruel prince who marries Laila.

Every member of the cast and the crew have pulled together to make this a vibrant, colourful spectacle on one hand and a beautifully presented, intimate love story on the other.

 

Laila The Musical is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until May 28.

Box Office: 01753 853888

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

 

It then ends its tour:

May 31-June 4: The Lowry, Salford

www.rifcoarts.com

May 13th

It Runs in the Family at The Mill at Sonning

By Clare Brotherwood

It Runs in the Family has been tickling our funny bones since 1987 - and after the opening night performance of The Mill at Sonning’s latest production I’d say it’s still the perfect prescription for a pick me up.

 I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much. I really did laugh til I cried. We all know Ray Cooney is the master of mirth but even his scripts would be nothing without a director and actors who can deliver the goods, and Ron Aldridge and his cast went straight into their first performance with gusto, galloping along at a cracking pace and with perfect timing. It was an absolute delight and I felt privileged to be in the audience.

Set in the doctors’ common room of a London hospital, the play charts the mishaps of Dr David Mortimore who is about to give a lecture at an international conference. Enter an old flame who tells him he has an 18-year-old son desperate to meet him, but with Mortimore’s wife and the crusty chairman of the board of governors in the mix, the situation quickly descends into the usual Cooney chaos with lots of banging doors, entrances and exits, and oddball characters talking themselves into impossible situations.

At the centre of the plot as Dr Mortimore is Harry Gostelow who delivers an impassioned performance, fielding everything that is thrown at his character. But then every member of the cast gives 110 per cent and makes the most of what they have to play with, especially Nick Wilton who is outstanding as Dr Hubert Bonney - he puts so much in his performance I worry he’ll blow a gasket! Even Brian Hewlett as the wheelchair-bound Bill steals a scene or two with a part which could so easily have just been a cameo role.

It Runs in the Family is just what the doctor ordered. Miss it at your peril!

It Runs in the Family is at The Mill at Sonning until July 2.

Box Office: 0118 969 8000

www.millatsonning.com

May 10th

Jekyll and Hyde at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

When it comes to setting the scene, talkingScarlet’s production of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale couldn’t be much more basic.

Geoff Gilder’s set is simple, almost amateurish, but adaptor and director Nicholas Briggs’ original music and David North’s lighting create an atmosphere which sends shivers down your spine.

Not a lot has been spent on costumes, either, and although the cast includes some worthy actors they seem limited in what they can do. Even during the transformation scene where Jekyll turns into Hyde, Gary Turner can do nothing but scream and shout (which he does well enough to chill the blood!) until the lights go out and you see him changing places with Andrew Fettes, who plays a menacing Mr Hyde, his face usually hidden in a muffler or a mask. A second changing of places later in the play is much more fluid.

But it’s not all bad. I like the way RLS’s story of the good doctor who creates a concoction which changes him into his evil alter ego is presented. Mostly it is related by Jekyll’s lawyer, Gabriel Utterson, as he recounts his friend’s story to burly police inspector Newcomen (Ben Crowe) with the help of flashbacks. In the main, the actors seem too young for their characters but Neil Roberts as the lawyer does carry some authority.

As the production is only in the second week of a long tour, I trust it’ll soon settle down and come together. I wish it well.

 

Jekyll and Hyde is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until May 14

Box Office: 01753 853888

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

The tour then continues:

May 23-25: Playhouse Theatre, Weston Super Mare

June 8-11: Haymarket, Basingstoke

June 13-15: Lyceum Theatre, Crewe

June 23-25: Palace Theatre, Newark

July 5-9: Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne

August 9-13: Grand Theatre, Swansea

August 16-20: Buxton Opera House

August 23-27: Churchill Theatre, Bromley

September 6-10: Grand Theatre, Blackpool

September 12-13: Wyvern Theatre, Swindon

September 15-17: The Core at Corby Cube

September 18-20: Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells

September 21-23: Dundee Repertory Theatre

September 30-October 1: Marina Theatre, Lowestoft

Apr 13th

In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel

By Clare Brotherwood

In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel is a little known play by Tennessee Williams, performed only once since its premiere in 1969.

It’s plain to see why. If it had been written by another, lesser known playwright, it might have been hailed as extraordinary, but from the creator of A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof we expect fiery passion and excitement, which it lacks.

The stage is set for all of this. Fireworks should fly between Mark, an alcoholic painter and, Miriam, his promiscuous wife, but while they have their moments, Linda Marlowe as Miriam is cold and calculating and though she shows signs of vulnerability we never warm to her. David Whitworth’s Mark, on the other hand, gets all of our sympathy as he stumbles around lost in his own psychotic world.

Director and Williams’ devotee Robert Chevara is brave to take on this project. Written at a time when the playwright was depressed at the loss of his partner, his dialogue is disjointed and sentences unfinished, leaving the audience to draw its own conclusions.

The play does have its redeeming features. Set designer Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s hotel bar sweeps majestically into the auditorium, though its rake is pretty steep, and Andrew May’s daylight and scudding clouds through a huge window are convincingly realistic. Occasional splashes of paint don’t quite gel, however.

As the barman, Andrew Koji’s discomfort at Miriam’s advances is palpable, while Alan Turkington’s late entrance as Mark’s art dealer, commanded by Miriam to take Mark back to the US, brings a little normality to the stage.

In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel is at Charing Cross Theatre until May 14.

Box Office: 08444 930 650

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Mar 18th

Last of the Red Hot Lovers at The Mill at Sonning

By Clare Brotherwood

A red hot lover Barney Cashman isn’t.

It’s the end of the Swingin’ Sixties, when love was free, and Barney feels he is missing out.

Like so many of Neil Simon’s characters, the 47-year-old father of three and owner of a fish restaurant wants ‘to belong’, and so he embarks on a series of romantic trysts in his mother’s New York apartment.

But for red hot read damp squib. What follows is a poignant but hilarious series of botched attempts at love-making as the quietly spoken, fastidious Barney strives for something ‘decent and beautiful’.

As Barney, Stuart Fox is perfect. Looking guilty and out of his depth, his attempts to hide any trace of his visits to his mother’s home are hysterical, and when it comes to communicating with women, well…. you can tell he is married to his childhood sweetheart. His frustration at his ineptitude does, however, bring out his dark side which can be quite disturbing.

As his first paramour, Laura Doddington is magnificent as Elaine, a full-on, in-your-face broad who thinks nothing of cheating on her husband.

In complete contrast, Dido D’Alangurton plays Bobbi, a goofy, neurotic night club singer who has Barney smoking pot and singing pop songs, while Gloria Donna Tudd is Jeanette, his wife’s best friend, dowdy, depressed and depressing.

Under Robin Herford’s expert direction, Last of the Red Hot Lovers is a complete entertainment, but this production has a secret ingredient which I will not divulge but which only makes it even more special.

As usual, the set is exemplary, and congratulations must go to Edward Lipscomb who is making his debut at the Mill as set designer.

 

Last of the Red Hot Lovers is at The Mill at Sonning until

Box Office: 0118 969 8000

www.millatsonning.com

Jan 22nd

The Perfect Murder at The Mill at Sonning

By Clare Brotherwood

 

The murder in question may or may not be perfect, but this production certainly is.

It has all the ingredients of great entertainment in spades - side-splitting comedy, tragic pathos and spine-chilling horror.

Adapted for the stage by Shaun McKenna from the first of crime writer Peter James’ series of novels featuring detective Roy Grace, it tells the story of Victor and Joanie, for whom marriage really is murder. After 20 years, all they do is bicker and Victor wants to make a new life with his mistress Kamila while Joanie’s unrequited passion drives her into an affair with cabbie Don.

James, whose books have sold 16 million and, after last night, will have at least one more avid reader, certainly doesn’t spare his audience with niceties. Victor - and to some extent Don - is a sexist chauvinist for whom I had no sympathy, and Andrew Paul, last seen as the evil Dan Jones in Coronation Street, is perfectly cast. He gave me the shivers whether alive or dead! In the hands of Aneta Piotrowska and Sonia Saville, however, prostitute Kamila and unloved wife Joanie get all my sympathy.

As with every tragedy laughter isn’t far from the surface and there are some real belly laughs to be had, not least Don’s propensity to using rhyming slang, even though he comes from Tunbridge Wells! Adam Morris is full of himself  as the uncouth Don but he does win me over in parts.

Aneta Piotrowska is perfect as Kamila, a hooker with a heart, while Nick Lawson is suitably understated as DC Roy Grace, working on his first case.

Set in the sixties and accompanied by some well thought out songs from that era, The Perfect Murder also has chilling sound effects from Matt Smee.

Director Keith Myers and his cast have this exciting play really well balanced and, although another version of The Perfect Murder is currently touring the country, starring EastEnders favourites Shane Richie and Jessie Wallace, it is coming nowhere near Berkshire/Oxfordshire. Besides, it sits so much better in the intimate, atmospheric, and some say, haunted, Mill!

 

The Perfect Murder is at The Mill at Sonning until March 12.

Box Office: 0118 969 8000

www.millatsonning.com