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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

Aug 15th

Toyah, Acoustic, Up Close and Personal at Hippodrome Live

By Clare Brotherwood

She began acting at the age of 18... at the National Theatre! She has starred in the West End in Calamity Jane, in films such as Quadrophenia, and has worked with Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, George Cukor and Katharine Hepburn - who admired her bright red hair. This year alone she has made four new films.

But to a generation she is punk rock star Toyah Willcox, who made around 30 albums and won awards for best female singer with self penned hits such as Be Proud, Be Loud, Be Heard; Thunder in the Mountains; It’s a Mystery, and I Want To Be Free.

Last week she reprised these hits in the intimate surroundings of the performing space which is housed above the roulette tables of Leicester Square’s Hippodrome Casino - walking into the building was an experience in itself!

She’s also a TV presenter and only two days before I had been watching her looking for a house on the Thames. So down to earth and friendly did she appear that when the opportunity came up to see her perform live I jumped at the chance - and I’m so glad I did.

I don’t do music reviews. I know what I like but can’t tell you why, so I paid for my ticket and went along as an ordinary punter. But I was so blown away by this little powerhouse of talent that I felt I just had to let people know she is a must-see act.

Up Close and Personal is a balanced mix of words and music. Toyah bounces onto the stage declaring she’s 57 ‘so there’s plenty to talk about’ but goes straight into her first set with Good Morning Universe.

From the start I am impressed by the register of her voice and her range, which puts her into the same league as Kate Bush. She has only two accompanists, guitarists Chris Wong and Colin Hinds, but together they sound like an orchestra and, at the end of the night, the queue for her CDs (which she happily signed) is long!

What makes this night particularly special, however, is her frank, open, and often hilarious, account of her life so far, delivered with that delightful lisp of hers, and backed by videos and images of past personas. Although she still dons thigh-length boots and black leather, tonight she is blonde and almost staidly dressed, but looking at the Bowie-type make-up and plethora of hairstyles back in the day was an entertainment in itself and a definite art form.

She excels at everything she does, but what makes me admire her so much is that she’s done it in the face of adversity. Seriously dyslexic, she stormed the charts with her own songs and has written two books; she still has her own band in America and continues to show performers a third of her age how to be a rock chick, and yet she was born with club feet, one leg longer than the other and a twisted spine. She knows what it’s like to be disabled and wrote a song for the Paralympics (which ended up on a WeightWatchers ad), one line of which sums up the 5 ft little miss dynamite completely, despite the fact that she felt the need for a facelift: ‘Hey little star, you are so beautiful’.

The evening comes to an end with a standing ovation; she jokes about playing outside in the rain the following day and in the mud the next day, but adds: ‘It’s not a job. This is just Heaven’. And, as a member of her audience, I am inclined to agree.

Jul 14th

Sherlock Holmes & The Ripper Murders at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

I’m a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, from Jeremy Brett’s tortured portrayal in the eighties and nineties to Benedict Cumberbatch’s tongue-in-cheek more recent interpretation. And as a fan of horror films, my fascination of Jack the Ripper has never waned.

So Sherlock Holmes & The Ripper Murders is the perfect combination for me - and it gets better.

For it was written by Brian Clemens, most famous for creating the hugely popular TV series’ The Avengers. The Persuaders and The Professionals.

Clemens died in January this year at the age of 86, but he lives on, not only in his writing but in his sons Samuel, who plays Sherlock Holmes in this production, and George, who is the technical director. Together they also write, produce and direct films under the title The Clemens Bros.

Dad would be proud. This production is chock full of atmosphere, with special effects which will have you jumping out of your seats. Edward Patrick White’s terrifying original music and David North’s lighting add to the creepiness, though the changing backdrops are not always easy to decipher and Shaung Hu’s graphic animations don’t really work.

There is plenty for ghouls like me: in the first few minutes there’s a grisly murder, followed by the appearance of a clairvoyant, a wonderfully realistic scene in which Ewan Goddard as ‘the stranger’ has an epileptic fit, graphic graphics and insane and sinister characters.

And in true Brian Clemens tradition, it’s a damn good yarn which is not without its comic moments, especially from George Telfer as Dr Watson who resents being in the background and being taken for granted by Holmes.

Based wholly on stature, I would have liked to have seen the tall, slim, bearded Telfer as Sherlock Holmes, while Sam Clemens, though playing the part perfectly well, lacks the aloofness and tortured persona of the Holmes I’m used to seeing.

Not all of the characters are clearly defined. We don’t discover Sir William Gull, played by Andrew Paul (who is currently playing Liz’s ominous boyfriend Dan in Coronation Street - though it looks like not for long as he is now ‘on the road’), is the Queen’s physician until nearing the end of the play, and I didn’t always know which prostitute was which, but Kim Taylforth as a bustling Mrs Hudson certainly made her mark, as did Lara Lemon as clairvoyant Kate Mead, while Michael Kirk is excellent as the mysterious Netley.

All in all, under the direction of Patric Kearns, you will certainly get your money’s worth!

 

Sherlock Holmes & The Ripper Murders is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until July 18.

Box office: 01753

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

 

It then continues touring:

Jul 21-25: Malvern Theatre

Aug 3-5:  Lyceum Theatre, Crewe

Aug 6-8: Empire Theatre, Inverness

Aug 11-15: Grand Theatre, Swansea

Aug 24-26: Buxton Opera House

Sept 28-Oct 3: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Oct 6-10: Dundee Repertory Theatre

Oct 12-13: Marina Theatre, Lowestoft

Oct 15-17: Millennium Forum, Derry

Oct 21-24: Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon

Oct 26-27: Hexagon Theatre, Reading

Nov 3-7: Grand Theatre, Blackpool

www.talking-scarlet.co.uk

 

Jul 2nd

Amy’s View at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

 

 

Sadly, the popular six-week Windsor Repertory Season ends on Saturday - but it’s certainly finishing in style.

David Hare’s controversial play Amy’s View, which opened at the National Theatre in 1997 with Judi Dench, Samantha Bond and Ronald Pickup heading the cast, is no lightweight.

Though, on the surface, it charts the relationship between a mother and daughter over a 16-year period, it is packed full of social comment, so typical of the knighted playwright.

I was totally transported to the house in Pangbourne (not far from Windsor) where the first three acts take place. There is an atmosphere about David Shields’ set which makes it totally authentic - despite the fact that nothing in the room changes over 16 years.

Amy (of the title) is the daughter of famous actress, widow Esme Allen, and the play opens with Esme returning from the theatre to find Amy and her boyfriend, Dominic in the home she shares with her mother-in-law.

What transpires is most extraordinary, for Dominic, a wannabe film producer, has never been to the theatre, describing it as ‘boring’ and art as ‘snobbish’ - not what a theatre audience wants to hear, but it certainly makes them sit up and take notice.

Dominic is opinionated and subject to mood swings, and, to be perfectly honest, James Lawrence lacks the gravitas of such a character; he’s too nice. On the other hand Sarah Kempton, as Amy, is spot on as the totally besotted girlfriend who will do anything to keep Dominic, much to the dismay of her mother, played with great theatricality by Fiz Marcus.

In Act 2, Dominic has his own series on TV, a medium Esme disapproves of, but by Act 3 she is starring in a hospital series having lost all her money through investments made by her ‘companion’ Frank, a mild-mannered neighbour, played quietly and empathetically by James Pellow.

As Esme’s mother-in-law, the youthful Pearl Marsland does a grand job of playing an old woman, first as a sprightly, eccentric grandmother, then as someone who has dementia. But in the third act all she does is sit in a wheelchair with her back to the audience (maybe it isn’t Pearl!) muttering occasionally, and when the household goes to bed she is left there!

The final act is a revelation, on various levels, and director Stuart Burrows really ups the ante as Esme enjoys a comeback in the theatre. Until then, although theatrical, Fiz Marcus has been a bit one dimensional but her closing performance leaves the audience emotional and exhausted. Just why, you’ll have to see the play to find out.

Although only joining the play in the last act, Toby Cole certainly makes his mark with an energetic portrayal of an admiring fellow actor - and helps to make the final scene as spectacular as it is.

 

Amy’s View is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until July 4

Box Office: 01753 853888

www.theatreroyalwindsor.o.uk

Jun 26th

The Seagull at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

By Clare Brotherwood

 

 

 

The Seagull begins as Peter Sorin’s guests assemble for an avant-garde open air play written by Konstantin Trepliov, Sorin’s nephew and son of the famous but fading actress Irina Arkadina.

 

On the night I was there the timing was perfect. As the eager and enthusiastic Konstantin announces that the play has to begin at sunset, the sun sank behind the trees surrounding Regent’s Park’s open air stage; not the only perfect thing about this production.

 

As with all four of Anton Chekov’s great plays, The Seagull takes place on a country estate, so where better to stage it than in the middle of a park, especially with designer Jon Bausor’s imaginative set complete with lawn, shrubbery and pool.

 

Add to that a huge mirror suspended above the stage, from which rain cascades in torrents towards the end of the play, and Christopher Shutt’s terrifyingly dramatic soundscape, and this is an impressive production even before there is any mention of the excellent cast.

 

Regent’s Park commissioned award-winning playwright Torben Betts to write this new version to mark the play’s 120th anniversary and it certainly brings Chekov kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

 

The elegance of that era is still very much in evidence, thanks to the beautiful, in-house costumes, but phrases like ‘decadent claptrap’, ‘bloody tedious’ and other contemporary words I cannot mention in print, certainly brings the dialogue up-to-date, while the romantic jealousies, self-doubting and ruthless pursuit of happiness, which are at the core of the play, are so much part of modern day living.

 

While the cast includes such celebrated actors as Janie Dee, Ian Redford and Danny Webb, this is very much an ensemble piece and everyone should be congratulated, not least the hard-working servants, played by Belgian choreographer, movement artist and performer Tara O’Arquian, and Tom Greaves, whose parts require them, among other things, to garden, dust from the top of a ladder and, most impressively, swim naked in the pool!

 

The play is set on Peter Sorin’s estate and, as the ailing landowner, Ian Redford has tremendous gravitas.

 

Sabrina Bartlett, recently seen as Karen Daniel in BBC’s Poldark, as Nina, his young neighbour, is bewitching and refreshingly childlike, full of enthusiasm and energy, while in stark contrast, Lisa Diveney (Julia Masterson in Call the Midwife) as Masha, the estate manager’s daughter, does a magnificent job of playing a vodka swilling, snuff snorting (or is it cocaine?) feisty consumptive, and cruel wife to the pathetic teacher Simon Medviedenko - described as having ‘all the charisma of a stuffed corpse’ - played with great empathy by Colin Hoult.

 

Masha is not the only cruel character. Janie Dee is a real diva as ageing actress Irina Arkadina, loving the attention as she swans across the stage with her posturing young lover, writer Boris Trigorin (Alex Robertson), while hurling insults at her sensitive son, played with youthful exuberance by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s great-great-great-grandson, award-winning actor Matthew Tennyson. But the scene between mother and son after his attempted suicide is most moving and shows another, little revealed, side to Irina’s character and gives extra depth to the play, though the descent into a screaming match between the two runs the gamut of emotions.

 

Director Matthew Dunster’s powerful production is bursting with crossed lovers, raw emotions and tormented souls ending in an extraordinary final scene – a must see!

 

The Seagull continues at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until July 11.

 

Box Office: 0844 826 4242

 

Online Bookings: www.openairtheatre.com