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Jan 21st

The Small Hours at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

January is not the best time for theatre. Post-Christmas, people may have to budget. Then, of course, it’s either too wet or too cold to contemplate going out in the evening.

So it was good to discover that Rehearsal for Murder, last week’s production at the Theatre Royal Windsor, not only sold out but is being brought back at the end of the month for those who missed it - or, indeed, want to see it again.

Such was the popularity of this murder mystery that, late in the day, the powers that be fitted in another play of the same genre, The Small Hours, by that most prolific of writers, Francis Durbridge.

Best known for his Paul Temple series, which began in 1938 and which I still listen to on BBC Radio 4Extra with the same fondness people have for Brief Encounter, Durbridge’s whodunnits are chock-full of red herrings - and surprises - and The Small Hours doesn’t disappoint.

Some members of the cast are well-used to coppers and criminals. Graham Cole, who plays Chief Inspector George Westwood, and Mark Wingett (millionaire Oliver Radford) are both easily recognisable from the TV series The Bill, and they each play their roles with gravitas.

Since his days as Robbie Jackson in EastEnders, Dean Gaffney has also played his fair share of murder mysteries, as well as appearing in The Bill, and in this production he plays a character so edgy that you are bound to think he is up to something. Is this one of Durbridge’s red herrings? You can only find out be going to see it! The writer is sure to keep you guessing throughout the play, though just before the interval an intruder at the hotel belonging to Carl Houston - played diligently by Simon Dutton - is identified. I think it would have created even more suspense if the audience had been kept waiting until the after the break before being named.

Despite having only fairly small parts, some actors of note add their expertise to the production. Deborah Grant, still memorable for her role in A Bouquet of Barbed Wire, which brought fame for Windsor regular Susan Penhaligon, is efficient as Houston’s PA, and we warm to Georgina Leonidas, Katie Bell in several of the Harry Potter films, as the long-suffering as the wife of philandering chef (Mark Curry). That only leaves Carol Royle as Vanessa Houston, still beautiful as the trophy wife.

With chilling music from James Wickens, The Small Hours is a fun night out for those of us who like to be kept guessing.

The Small Hours continues at the Theatre Royal Windsor until January 30

Box Office: 01753 853 888

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

Jan 17th

The Long Road South at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington

By Clare Brotherwood

 

The King’s Head may be London’s oldest surviving pub theatre but its reputation for fostering new talent is legend.

So much so that it attracts the great and the good such as the latest actors to tread its boards, Imogen Stubbs and Michael Brandon.

Being in the company of such stellar performers is a treat in itself, but to be one of just 110 audience members confined in a tiny space is a real coup for any theatregoer. The close proximity of the actors and the quality of their performances draw us in as if we are actually part of the plot. We see every muscle twitch, we feel every emotion, we laugh when it’s funny and draw back in horror when it’s not.

The Long Road South was originally part of the Hopefull Theatre Festival, produced by the So-and-So Arts Club in 2014, when it was nominated for an Off West End Best Play Award, with Michael Brandon being nominated for Best Actor.

Directed by Sarah Berger, founder of the club, writer Paul Minx has based his play on the African-American who helped raised him, and shows the way the lives of both black and white were set to change during the American Civil Rights movement of 1965.

It takes place in the Indiana home of the Price family. Their domestic workers, Andre and Grace, prepare to head South to join the civil rights marches but each family member is determined they should stay.

Central to the plot is Andre, on the surface a gentle, God-fearing man who helps his employers’ teenage daughter with her Bible studies. But like every one of the characters he has a dark side, and Cornelius Macarthy plays all facets of this man’s personality in a beautifully executed performance. In complete contrast, Grace is out-spoken and angry, and Krissi Bohn brings great passion to the role.

From the start Lydea Perkins shines brightly as the Price’s teenage daughter, Ivy. This is someone to watch! With a fresh, all-American girl-next-door naivety, she gives a spirited performance, from her plain-speaking to her loyalty to her friend Andre, and her childlike insecurities shown in her subsequent reaction to rejection.

This strong cast is headed by Imogen Stubbs who, as Ivy’s alcoholic mother, is a sad  specimen of life, and at such close quarters made me embarrassed and wanting to look away as I would on seeing a drunk in the street - so realistic is her performance.

Michael Brandon doesn’t make an entrance until well into the play but his volatile presence as husband, father and employer more than makes up for his lack of time on stage.

Such excellent performances are, though vital to the play, only secondary to the story itself. At the beginning we find ourselves laughing easily and wholeheartedly at what would now be regarded as racism, but as the play progresses we see just how racism affects the

lives of communities. It is a lesson we are still learning.

The Long Road South is certainly a journey worth taking and like every journey is a satisfying experience.

 The Long Road South is at the King’s Head Theatre until January 30.  Image courtesy of King's Kead Theatre.

Box office: 0207 226 8561

www.kingsheadtheatre.com

Jan 13th

Rehearsal for Murder at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

 

When I discovered that Agatha Christie had been sidelined for ‘classic thrillers’, I was disappointed.

The Queen of Crime is a difficult act to follow and producer Bill Kenwright’s Agatha Christie Theatre Company has sold over two million tickets during its 10-year tenure.

But Kenwright’s new Classic Thriller Theatre Company, which made its debut at Windsor’s Theatre Royal this week, couldn’t have got off to a better start.

Rehearsal for Murder, written by Richard Levinson and William Link, the men behind Columbo and Murder She Wrote, is a tremendously satisfying mystery chock full of my favourite things: It is set in a theatre - tick; it features a wonderful assortment of characters - tick; it has a good balance of humorous and hair-raising moments - tick. But most of all it is a cracking good yarn full of surprises, a complex plot through which director Roy Marsden skillfully guides his cast.

The action takes place in 1989 and opens in a West End theatre where, a year to the day, Alex Dennison’s latest play had opened to mixed reviews. A few hours later the leading lady and Dennison’s bride-to-be, movie star Monica Welles, had fallen to her death - but was it suicide or murder?

As Dennison and Welles, Rehearsal for Murder brings together again Robert Daws and Amy Robbins, who both starred in eight series of The Royal on ITV. Daws is almost frightening in his character’s passion to get to the truth. His emotion is palpable, especially in the closing scene, but, sadly, Robbins lacks the bearing of a movie star.

Susan Penhaligon undoubtedly steals the show as the affected producer Bella Lamb, closely followed by Robert Duncan as leading luvvie David Mathews. Lucy Dixon does a good job of reinventing herself from northern mouse to acerbic vamp in her role as young actress Karen Daniels, and Holly Ellis adds freshness in her almost comic performance as Dennison’s new and inexperienced assistant Sally.

This play within a play is fascinating stuff. On opening night it did drag a little in the first act but, nevertheless, it continued to sweep me along to I knew not where until the very end. But as they say on Through the Keyhole, the clues are there!

Well worth seeing.

 

Rehearsal for Murder is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until January 16.

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

Box office: 01753 853888

 

It then tours:

Jan 25-30: Malvern Theatre

Feb 2-6: Cardiff New Theatre

Feb 8-13: Richmond Theatre

Feb 15-20: Regent Theatre Stoke

Feb 22-27: Aylesbury Waterside Theatre

Mar 21-26: Kings Theatre, Edinburgh

Dec 6th

Dick Whittington and His Cat at Wilton’s Music Hall

By Clare Brotherwood

What better place for music hall and panto aficionado Roy Hudd to stage his latest feast of festive fun than in an original Victorian music hall.

Situated down an alley 15 minutes walk from Tower Hill tube station, Wilton’s began life around 1690 as four houses and an ale house for wealthy sea captains and merchants. During the 1800s a concert room and auditorium were added, and in September this year a three-year £4 million project to repair the original buildings was completed.

It’s a unique space, with a cavernous, galleried auditorium surrounded by a labyrinth of rooms bursting with character and atmosphere. It’s like stepping back in time. Nothing fancy; the whole place hasn’t been refurbished, just restored.

But that’s enough of that. Though the venue is a star in itself, Roy Hudd’s self penned version of the classic London tale is everything you’d expect from this multi-talented showbusiness veteran - and more.

It’s bursting with music hall songs, Cockney rhyming slang and nursery rhymes pertinent to old London - there’s even a musical number featuring the spoons! And, of course, the comedy is second to none, from topical jokes to downright, side-splitting silliness, especially from lovable Idle Jack, played with great innocence by Simon Burbage. I love the campness of Ian Parkin as shopkeeper William Widl (not, it’s not a misprint!) and the acrobatic prowess of Steven Hardcastle as Tommy the Cat. But Gareth Davies takes some beating as the rockin’ Ronaldo Ratface - a man of so many voices. His talent for mimicry knows no bounds.

After 57 years of treading the boards, tackling everything from Shakespeare to farce, West End musicals to Coronation Street, performing solo shows about his beloved music hall to presenting Radio’s longest running comedy show, The News Huddlines, at the age of 79 Roy makes his debut as Dame, and he takes to it like a duck to water. He’s a cheeky chappie - sorry, chappess! - flirting with the good looking boys on stage, eyes wide and a devilish grin, and joining in complicated routines, song and dance with all the enthusiasm and energy of someone half his age, though in the finale I caught him gazing as if in awe at his young cast. And deservedly so. Every member of the cast does a sterling job, under the experienced eye of director Debbie Flitcroft, otherwise known as Mrs Roy Hudd. The whole production gallops along at a cracking pace and certainly does justice to the hallowed walls of Wilton’s Music Hall.

Dick Whittington and His Cat is at Wilton’s Music Hall until 31 December.

Box office: 02077022789

www.wiltons.org.uk

Dec 6th

One Snowy Night at Norden Farm Centre for the Arts, Maidenhead

By Clare Brotherwood

I know I’m always extolling children’s theatre and declaring my admiration for the puppeteers and performers who travel the country injecting magic into the lives of little children. Well, here I go again!

Short and simple are two main ingredients to keep little ones engaged, so I am amazed at just how much substance there is to Slot Machine’s production of Nick Butterworth’s world-famous tale of Percy, the animal-loving park keeper while keeping it short and simple.

Essentially a heartwarming story about animals coming in out of the snow to snuggle down in the park keeper’s bed, One Snowy Night is 55 minutes packed with original music and songs, dance, comedy and puppetry, with underlying messages to enjoy the simple things in life, like parkland, and to be kind to your friends. My little companions (aged three and five) were transfixed!

TV, film and West End actor Clive Hayward exudes kindness and enthusiasm as the cheerful park keeper, but it is Rebecca Killick (who has toured extensively in War Horse) and Will Guppy who bring most of the animals to life, giving each of them a personality of their own - from the posh badger to the excitable ducks, the Welsh fox and the Scottish mice, often working more than one puppet at a time. Though imaginative and slick, Amelia Pimlott’s set is not huge, so things could easily become chaotic. However, the emphasis is on teamwork and, under the direction of Nicola Blackwell, Fiona Creese and Nick Tigg, this tightly orchestrated show passes off with military precision without losing its sense of fun.

One Snowy Night continues at Norden Farm Centre for the Arts, Maidenhead until December 27. Box office: 01628 788997

www.nordenfarm.org

 

Nov 27th

Stepping Out at The Mill at Sonning

By Clare Brotherwood

I love tap dancing, and as a failed tap dancer (so unco-ordinated am I I don’t think I got beyond two or three classes!) Richard Harris’s feel good classic is one of my favourite shows.

Of course, those taking part really do have to be able to tap dance, though on opening night I thought I saw some real looks of relief at the end of the glittering finale!

What is probably even harder is being able to dance but making it look as if you can’t, which The Mill’s entire company does with aplomb, and not a few twisted limbs.

But Stepping Out is not just about a tap dancing class. Under Sally Hughes’ tight and sympathetic direction, as the night goes on we learn something of the lives of the dance students and why the class is so important to them.

They all have their demons and in this ensemble piece every single performer brings his or her character to life, making us roar with laughter at their idiosyncrasies and bringing a tear with the eye as their stories unfold.

I can’t single anyone out. I love them all: Michelle Morris is sassy and extrovert as the joker Maxine; Elizabeth Elvin wonderfully irritating as the bossy, organising Vera; Janine Leigh as the gum-chewing chav gives us the most laughs, and Belinda Carroll has us all on her side as Dorothy, who wants to please everyone. Yvonne Newman is a big, warm bundle of love as Rose, who unexpectedly steals one scene with a beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace, while our hearts go out to Andy (Angela Sims) and Geoffrey (Richard Gibson), both of whom are so uptight you think they are going to break - rabbit in the headlights comes to mind! And adding some calmness and normality is Lynne, played with great sensitivity by Ruth Pownall.

Elizabeth Power as pianist Mrs Fraser is certainly a force to be reckoned with - her withering looks and put downs almost rival the queen of withering looks and put downs, Dame Maggie Smith!

Last but certainly not least, Amber Edlin is so believable as teacher Mavis that I really felt like I was observing a real dance class. Local to East Berkshire, how she appears to teach tap dancing with such skill and confidence is beyond me, and still act.

The Mill at Sonning is a unique experience. Past winner of the most welcoming theatre, it includes dinner in the price of your ticket, and with turkey and all the trimmings on offer, you couldn’t do much better than celebrate the festive season there.

 

Stepping Out is at The Mill at Sonning until January 16.

Box Office: 0118 969 8000

www.millatsonning,com

Oct 19th

Erth’s Dinosaur Zoo at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

I have tremendous respect for puppeteers. They make inanimate objects come alive. Just look at the affect War Horse has on its audiences.

Now I’m in love with baby dinosaurs. Don’t ask me their names, but in the foyer after this show I found myself stroking one!

The babies were just the right size for younger members of the audience. The show is said to be for all ages from the age of three, but my five-year-old companion was scared, even though he’d seen the show before, clamping his hands over his ears when the bigger dinosaurs roared.

I put this down, in part, to zoo keeper Shaun Morton’s presentation. His gung ho attitude, encouraging young volunteers to befriend the dinosaurs and then whipping them away at the last minute, declaring, ‘I didn’t think you’d do it!’ while his colleague shook his head in amazement, may have been exciting for older children but I did see a couple of younger ones in tears while my little friend was huddling under my armpit.

Having said that, it is down to the skills of puppeteers Jeremy Hancock, Rhys Jennings, Rafe Young and Sophie McBean, not to mention designer Steve Howarth, that the models are so realistic. Shaun’s commentary, though delivered at a rate of Aussie knots, is informative and, for the most part, fun, but it is the puppets, or rather, the puppeteers, who are the real stars of this show.

Erth’s Dinosaur Zoo continues touring:

Oct 25-26: Croydon Concert Hall

Oct 27-28: Chelmsford Civic Theatre

Oct 30-Nov 1: The Lowry Salford

Nov 3-4: St George’s Hall Bradford

Nov 6-7: Lighthouse Poole

Nov 8-9: St David’s Hall Cardiff

Nov 10-11: Princes Theatre Clacton

Nov 13-14: The Stables Milton Keynes

Nov 15: Theatre Royal Bath

www.dinosaurzoolive.com

Oct 15th

In The Heights at King’s Cross Theatre

By Clare Brotherwood

 

In The Heights is the West Side Story of the 21st century.

Already the winner of multiple awards including three Tonys, it is vibrant, energetic and uplifting, but instead of gangland rivalry, Quiara Alegria Hudes’ story goes deeper, into the lives of struggling Hispanics and how they strive for more.

It still has the sort of music which made West Side Story so memorable, but Lin-Manuel Miranda’s includes rap and there’s breakdancing as well as dynamic dance routines for today’s young audiences, including one scene where the dancers are all holding mobile phone to their ears and another where phones light the space during a blackout. Add to this gritty family feuds and, of course, young love, and you have a well-rounded, entertaining show.

The King’s Cross Theatre’s unique space is ideal, with Usnavi’s bodego at one end of the stage and, at the other, Daniela’s beauty salon and the Rosarios’ cab office.

With the performers in the middle, separating the auditorium (or Platforms 1 and 2), it makes for an intimacy you wouldn’t normally find in a theatre of almost 1,000 seats.

The cast is strong, particularly the soloists, from Vas Constanti’s operatic voice as slushi seller Piragua to the soaring voices of Lily Frazer as Nina and Jade Ewen as Vanessa. Sam MacKay is particularly popular with the audience as Usnavi and David Bedella adds gravitas as the cab office owner.

 

In The Heights continues until January 3, 2016.

Box Office: 0844 871 7604

www.intheheightslondon.com

Oct 5th

Miss Dietrich Regrets at Cumberland Lodge, Windsor Great Park

By Clare Brotherwood

Gail Louw’s remarkable account of Marlene Dietrich’s last days is heart rending in so many ways. It presents one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars as a sad, scared, lonely old woman, and her daughter as confused, abused, angry but still caring. Its inclusion in the Windsor Festival also marked the final performance of a show which had been produced and directed by Tony Milner, who died this summer.

He can rest in peace knowing that it will always be greatly lauded.

Marlene Dietrich spent the last 11 years of her life in bed, relying increasingly on her daughter Maria. In this play their relationship is explored in a poignant and revealing two-hander set in and around a large, untidy bed - which makes Tracey Emin’s (questionable) work of art look almost neat - from which Dietrich conducts her life.

Elizabeth Counsell, with unkempt hair and smudged make-up, and wearing only a nightdress, is magnificent in the title role; it can’t be easy delivering lines while sitting in a bed, legs outstretched for almost two hours, but with apparent ease she trips from Dietrich’s deep throaty growl to the lisping, childlike voice she uses on the phone when warding off prospective visitors. In addition, her authentic renderings of Dietrich’s most famous songs also single her out as a masterful impersonator.

Louw’s play not only gives us an insight into the private life of a great actress, however. Liberally sprinkled with fascinating tales of Dietrich and her many lovers, in Counsell’s skilful hands we see how cruel old age can be, especially for someone who had lived such a glamorous life and who was famous for her ‘eternal youthfulness’. It is especially sad when Maria tries to entice the increasingly reclusive star into a nursing home, telling her how she would be looked after. Dietrich can only think that she would not be looked after but looked at.

Beside her manipulative, alcoholic but vulnerable mother, Maria appears strong and grounded. But during the play we hear of her life as the daughter of a promiscuous bisexual whose parenting seemed to be an afterthought. And yet, Moira Brooker not only convinces us of her anger, hurt and frustration but also of her passion and warmth.

Sep 26th

Nell Gwynn at Shakespeare’s Globe

By Clare Brotherwood

Jessica Swale’s new play, which has already won an award, is a delight for any theatregoer.

For not only does it have Gugu Mbatha-Raw leading a stellar cast as a ground-breaking actress, but it is also largely set in a theatre company, with all that fascinatingly entails, or at the court of a King of England who was doing all he could to revive the theatre. God bless him!

As with every Globe production, Nell Gwynn is sumptuously dressed and beautifully choreographed (by Charlotte Broom), with sublime music (this time composed by Nigel Hess) played under the direction of Emily Baines.

And although the king’s mistress ultimately acted at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, director Christopher Luscombe uses the Globe’s unique space to advantage, with hecklers among the groundlings setting the scene.

It is from the audience that Mbatha-Raw makes her entrance as Nell Gwynn, selling her oranges and starting a lively repartee with the actors on stage, an aspect of her personality which later attracts Charles II.

Mbatha-Raw, who won the 2014 BIFA Award for Best Actress for her lead role in the film Belle, will be memorable for this portrayal: bright, vivacious, quick, witty, and totally at home whether it’s singing, dancing or acting, she shines as a real life Cinderella.

But hers is not the only compelling performance. Amanda Lawrence was cheered at one point the night I was there for her comic portrayal of Nell’s dresser and confidante Nancy, while Sarah Woodward, who, as both Queen Catherine and Nell’s wayward mother, plays little more than cameo roles but steals her scenes. As Old Ma Gwynn she makes The Lady in the Van appear quite bland while, as the queen, she strikes fear into the entire theatre - if she ever wanted to, she could do panto for life playing the villain!

David Rintoul also sends shivers down the spin as the king’s advisor, but empathy must be felt for Edward Kynaston who, until the arrival of Nell, had always played the women’s parts. In the hands of Greg Haiste he is waspish, jealous and neurotic and yet he inspires sympathy.

As with all Restoration comedy - for that is what this is - this play is a rollicking good romp. It also charts the beginning of ‘actor-esses’ and how an orange seller from Cheapside uses her femininity and quick wit to become Charles II’s mistress. Once that happens her time with him until his death is dismissed in an instant.

 

Nell Gwynn has now transferred to the Apollo Theatre with Gemma Arterton in the title role. Booking until April 30.

http://www.londontheatres.co.uk/#venue/apollo-theatre