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Oct 12th

Steven Berkoff's Lunch and The Bow of Ulysses at the Trafalgar Studios

By Clare Brotherwood

The end of the pier show, Steven Berkoff’s double bill is not. These two short plays may be set on a pier, with a backdrop of the sea and sounds of a funfair and even donkeys braying (do they even still have donkey rides on beaches these days?) in the background, but there is nothing superficial about Lunch and The Bow of Ulysses.

In true Berkoff style the dialogue and the style of acting punches you in the face, and in the intimate space that is the Trafalgar Studios it is almost explosive.

Certainly, at times, Man’s character seems too big for the small space, and the energy that Shaun Dooley (currently in TV’s DCI Banks) puts into his performance made me glad I wasn’t sitting in the front row! Nigel Harman may be memorable as an actor in EastEnders and Downton Abbey, but he is now certainly making his mark as a director. He delivers, with a freshness, what Berkoff is about.

Lunch was written in 1983 and shows what happens when Man and Woman first meet, on a pier during their lunch break.

The exaggerated mannerisms, so typical of Berkoff, and Man’s awkwardness as he tries to chat up Woman, cause much amusement, and should be at odds with the beautiful, poetic dialogue. Instead, we gape in wonder as Dooley chews every word, savouring them or violently spitting them out.

Woman is the complete opposite - quietly leading Man on with very little expression, and Emily Bruni is beautifully controlled.

There are scenes which are uncomfortable to watch, and our perception of the characters change, but the exchange between them is sometimes electrifying.

The Bow of Ulysses was written in 2002 and is a sequel to Lunch. Now we find Man and Woman 20 years on and with an unhappy marriage behind them, blaming each other for their own inadequacies, soured and disappointed. It’s painful to watch, the only relief being that Woman’s delivery is so deadpan and cutting we can’t help but laugh. But is it a nervous laugh you make when you see how true to life - your life - it is.

Berkoff, in the capable hands of Harman, Dooley and Bruni, certainly hits home!

 

Steven Berkoff’s Lunch and The Bow of Ulysses is at the Trafalgar Studios until November 5

www.atgtickets.com

Oct 8th

Confessional at the Southwark Playhouse

By Clare Brotherwood

 

To be honest, the situation in which I found myself last night was one I would go to any lengths to avoid.

I was sitting in a dingy pub watching all hell break loose as a bunch of low life screamed and shouted at each other, at times becoming violent. I didn’t feel comfortable; I didn’t know which of my fellow drinkers would kick off next. But, sadly, it is all too common a part of life in the 21st century.

Only, I wasn’t in a real pub, the ‘low life’ were actors, and the play they were performing was written in 1970, originally set in the 50s, and written by none other than Tennessee Williams. Nevertheless, it is bang up-to-date, with a drunken, mini-skirted woman tottering about on high heels, and with sex, racism and homophobia in the mix.

The fact that it feels so real is down to some first class acting, the imagination of director Jack Silver and the vision of theatre company Tramp.

The only thing that isn’t real is that the carpet isn’t sticky!

It isn’t so much curtain up as opening time as the audience is allowed to drift into what is essentially a pub. You buy your drink, find a table and start socialising.

You have no idea what is going to happen. You are not given a programme until you leave so you don’t know who are the actors and who are the punters - which makes it all the more believable. And even though I’m telling you something of what to expect you still won’t know what’s going to happen. For although the words may be the same no one peformance is. The actors are allowed to make it up as they go along. They don’t even decide in advance whether they are going to laugh or cry - which makes this production even more of a masterpiece.

I don’t want to give away too much about the actors for fear of identifying them for future audiences, but Holby City fans can’t fail to notice Rob Ostlere who played Arthur Digby until his death from cancer earlier this year. In Confessional he plays a grubby looking, beer swilling chef with a propensity to belch, but that characterisation doesn’t sit as easily on him as does the rather timid man who wants to keep out of the way of trouble.

I can’t write an appreciation of this play, however, without mentioning Lizzie Stanton who plays Leona, a beautician who lives in a trailer, and who gets increasingly drunk and emotional as the 95-minute production goes on. From the quake in her voice as she begins to lose control to her hysterical screaming, the intensity of her feelings is hard to bear - and then she has us feeling sorry for her as she cries over the death of her younger brother. A true tour de force.

But while this is a platform for some superb acting, imaginatively presented, the fact that it appears so real is also its downfall. It’s an assault on the senses, and way too much like the reality of life we all try to avoid.

 

Confessional is at the Southwark Playhouse until October 29

 

Box Office: 020 7407 0234

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Oct 4th

The Woman in Black at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

You would think that, after seeing The Woman in Black four times (three times when I was working for a newspaper and once when I took a friend to London for a birthday treat) I’d sit nonchanlantly through my latest visit, laughing at the reactions of the other audience members.

But such is the magic of this show that it still surprises me and the delicious tingling down my spine went all the way to my feet.

First timers do, of course, react differently, especially young audiences who have flocked to see Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s story since it was made into a film in 2012 (which, I have to say, wasn’t anywhere as good as the stage version). It’s good to see a theatre full of youngsters, and they are ideal fodder for such a tale. Their gasps and screams must be wonderful feedback for the performers on stage.

For those who have been living on the moon and don’t know the story, so he ‘can sleep at night’, retired solicitor Arthur Kipps hires an actor to help him tell the terrible story of a ghost who haunts Eel Marsh House, which stands alone at the end of NIne Lives Causeway in a remote part of Britain. When the owner dies, Kipps, then a young man, is sent to the house to sort out her affairs, and what follows is a tale of terror and tragedy.

With the help of Kipps, The Actor tells his story, but this turns out to have several layers, with the action flitting from story to stage in an instant, but at times becoming alarmingly entwined.

It is extraordinary that two men acting out a ghost story in ‘an empty theatre’ with just a suggestion of a set can hold the imagination of theatregoers for a whole evening, let alone for a 27-year run in London’s West End. And even more extraordinary is the fact that, from the outset, it has been directed by the same man. But Robin Herford keeps it fresh and helps it grow by changing the cast every nine months.

With his latest team he certainly has another winner.

Both David Acton and Matthew Spencer are expressive actors, making it easy for their audiences to imagine the various locations and even a dog. Acton is especially versatile as Kipps, growing from a timid, frightened old man to a passionate performer who helps to act out his story by playing a multitude of characters.

Since I first saw the play it has become even more horrifying. Thanks to the sound team’s effects you can’t get away from blood curdling screams - and more, but there are moments of extreme quiet as the tension builds, and, thankfully, some lighter moments so the audience can relax - but not for long! Of course, the lighting and Michael Holt’s special effects all add to what is a rollercoaster of an evening - and that’s without The Woman in Black!

 

The Woman in Black is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until Oct 8

Box Office: 01753 853888

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

 

It then tours:

Oct 10-15: Royal Derngate, Northampton

Oct 18-22:Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent

Oct 24-29: West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Nov 1-5: Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

Nov 7-12: Everyman & Playhouse, Liverpool

Nov 14-19: Northcott Theatre, Exeter

Nov 21-26: Theatre Royal, Bath

Nov 29-Dec 3: Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury

Jan 9-14: Palace Theatre, Westcliff-on-Sea

Jan 17-21: King’s Theatre, Glasgow

Jan 23-28: Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

Jan 30-Feb 4: Curve, Leicester

Feb 6-11: Courtyard, Hereford

Feb 13-18: His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen

Feb 20-25: Theatre Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham

Feb 27-Mar 4: Princess Theatre, Torquay

Mar 6-11: Grand Opera House, Belfast

Mar 13-18: Gaiety Theatre, Dublin

Mar 20-25: The Lowry, Salford

Mar 27-Apr 1: New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth

Apr 3-8: Churchill Theatre, Bromley

Apr 10-15: New Victoria Theatre, Woking

Apr 17-22: Theatre Royal, Norwich

Apr 24-29: Theatre Royal, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

May 1-6: Eden Court Theatre, Inverness

May 8-13: Cast, Doncaster

May 22-27: Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton

June 5-10: New Theatre, Cardiff

 

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