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Feb 24th

Various children's shows

By Clare Brotherwood

As I’ve said before, children’s entertainers are often overlooked. And yet children’s theatre is the most important part of the industry. Do it right and you’ve got them for life. Do it wrong and you may never get them on board.

With this in mind, I took myself off to some children’s shows during half term to see just what is on offer for, hopefully, our next generation of audiences, performers, directors and technicians.

My local arts centre, Norden Farm Centre for the Arts in Maidenhead, was buzzing. There was something on all day every day, from storytelling in a gypsy caravan-style tent complete with floor cushions, to family friendly movies and arts and crafts sessions.

But it was the children’s shows I wanted to see, and I was not disappointed. While many may think there is not much to entertaining little ones, nothing could be further from the truth. The shows may look simple but it takes a lot of skill to keep young minds engaged for 50 minutes, and today’s entertainers come with skill in abundance.

 

Real Fairy Story

Image credit: Andy Sapey courtesy of Ripstop Theatre

First off was Zannie Fraser who, in 1998, formed her own theatre company, Ripstop Theatre, which went on to be the first British company to perform at the International Shadow Theatre Festival in Germany in 2003.

Inspired by the Collingley Fairies, supposedly photographed in 1917, Zannie’s show, A Real Fairy Story, really is magical – to the point where a fairy levitates under a piece of cloth and words disappear from a book.

As Miss Amelia Buttersnap, a fairy expert who has never seen a fairy, Zannie incorporates all sorts of paraphernalia to hunt down fairies and photograph them – and when someone sends her a captured fairy she transforms it into exquisite scenes of shadow puppetry.

Andy Lawrence is an imposing figure with his white pointed beard and love of hats, but he takes children’s entertainment to another dimension with a myriad of puppets and sublime storytelling.

Andy trained and worked as a theatrical costume designer but now, under the title of the Theatre of Widdershins, he uses his skills to create imaginative, innovative shows and workshops which leave his audiences wide-eyed and open-mouthed.

The Magic Porridge Pot

Image courtesy of Widdershins Theatre and
Norden Farm Centre for the Arts

The Magic Porridge Pot and Other Tasty Tales comes in three parts. Scenery pops out of boxes like Russian dolls and animals, including a giraffe, unfurl from buckets, porridge threatens to flood the home of Granny Grimpickle and her lifelike dog Podge, stone soup is served and a gingerbread man runs wild. Together with original music, jokes for parents/grandparents and Andy’s unique personality, this three-course show is a veritable feast.

Finally, I made the journey to the Lyric Hammersmith to see the Blunderbus Theatre Company or, rather, gifted young actor Ben Sbuttoni.

Blunderbus was also set up in 1998 and has such a good reputation that when it was touring in Malaysia recently two storytellers made a special trip from Indonesia just to see the show. Their shows are bright, colourful, and involve the young members of their audiences with slapstick and squirting of water.

But it was Ben I wanted to see. Expressive, outgoing, but with a wide-eyed innocence and a cheeky grin, he is a natural performer and a great favourite with children. Together with his co-star Simon Sanchez, he had the audience in fits of giggles as they told the story of Dotty the Dragon.

Dotty The Dragon

Image courtesy of Blunderbus

Judging by the sell-out shows last week and the happy, excited children leaving each venue, it looks like children’s theatre is thriving – and long may that be!

 

www.ripstoptheatre.com

www.widdershins.co.uk

www.blunderbus.co.uk

www.nordenfarm.org

www.lyric.co.uk

Feb 12th

Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter On Air at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

 

A steam train chugged into Windsor this week to promote the Theatre Royal’s latest production. But such extravagant publicity is unnecessary. You only have to speak to any member of the opening night audience to discover that this is a ‘must see’ show.

From Jenny Seagrove’s first emotionally charged words this is a heart breaking portrayal of a wife and mother who falls in love with a man she meets in a railway station refreshment room - or rather her portrayal of an actress playing that woman for a radio version of the iconic movie starring Celia Johnson.

Seagrove is perfect for the role - with her classic English rose looks and slightly tremulous, cultivated voice her performance is beautifully executed. Though she is reading from a script she totally brings to life the role of a woman recounting her affair to her affable husband. She is so convincing that very little imagination is needed to visualise the railway station and the clandestine meetings, even though all we are faced with is a group of actors reading from scripts into a microphone.

Seagrove isn’t the only star of the show. As her character’s lover, Martin Shaw exudes sex appeal though, of course, as this takes place in the 1940s, only in the nicest, most gentlemanly way. The chemistry between the two actors is palpable, and their characters’ guilt and despair brought a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye.

Thank goodness, therefore, for the lovely Roy Marsden, who must also be thanked for his sympathetic direction. As the station porter he brings some much needed humour to the plot, relishing in his down-to-earth, cheeky, flirtatious role. He and Sara Crowe as the gossipy refreshment room manageress deliver Coward’s famous wit like a comedy double act.

The Theatre Royal did a similar production last year, during which three of Agatha Christie’s radio plays were acted out as in the 1930s. I described it as ‘most original and unusual… classy, nostalgic… and with a huge novelty factor’. The same goes for this production. And no radio play would be complete without the foley artist (who makes the sound effects). On this occasion it is Jared Ashe, who delights us with his popping of champagne corks, tinkling of teacups, and banging a door or climbing a staircase, both of which are so small they wouldn’t be out of place in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Performances apart, Brief Encounter is refreshingly decent, a virtue we seem to see less and less of in today’s world.

 

Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter On Air continues at the Theatre Royal Windsor until February 21.

Box Office: 01753 853888

www.theatreroylwindsor.co.uk

Jan 29th

Twelve Angry Men at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood


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Tom Conti Picture courtesy of Theatre Royal Windsor

During five years as a full-time Crown Court reporter I don’t think I ever felt as engaged in a case as I did during the first night of Bill Kenwright’s touring production of Twelve Angry Men.

I’d always wondered what it would be like in the jury room, but nothing prepared me for the highly charged drama which followed. Tom Conti, voted the most popular actor in the West End in the last 25 years, may have been responsible for the full house, but his beautifully understated performance is only one of many gems in this extraordinary production. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe this thrilling piece of theatre.

Set on a stifling hot day in 1950s New York, 12 men are locked in a room to decide the fate of a 16-year-old on trial for the murder of his father. Not much to get excited about, you may think, especially as it begins with almost bar room banter as the 12 exchange niceties. But under Christopher Haydon’s direction it is a rumbling volcano of emotions and prejudices which go on to erupt into frightening and ugly scenes.

So real did it seem and so involved did I become with the characters that I found myself nodding in agreement when different points were made, and so engrossed was I in what was going on that I never once saw the table (around which the men sat) move, though it kept turning 360 degrees!

Michael Pavelka’s set and Mark Howett’s lighting do much to create the oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere: the dusty windows are open, the fan doesn’t work and a storm is brewing. When it breaks, thunder crashes and rain pours down the windows, mirroring the mood of different jurors. It’s breathtaking.

Despite Tom Conti’s star billing, every actor stands out - even the guard, played by Jon Carver, if only because he has to sit doing nothing for more than two hours!

Among the major roles, however, I wonder Denis Lill doesn’t have a heart attack as the apoplectic Jurer 10, whose volatile outbursts had me shaking in my shoes, while Andrew Lancel is unrecognisable as the former Corrie killer Frank Foster, this time putting in a striking performance as a knuckle-headed country boy who, despite his attitude, had me in tears with his heart rending finale.

Conti, on the other hand, stands out as the one quiet, contemplative and compassionate juror who sets the ball rolling when, in the beginning, he is the only one of the 12 to vote not guilty.

This is strong stuff, and Reginald Rose is to be applauded once again for his worthy script which addresses serious social issues as prevalent today as they were in the 1950s.

Twelve Angry Men continues at the Theatre Royal Windsor until Feb 7.

Box office: 01753 853888

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

It then tours:

Feb 9-14: The Belgrade Theatre Coventry

Feb 17-21 Feb New Theatre Cardiff

Feb 23-28: Kings Theatre Edinburgh

Mar 2-7: Everyman Theatre Cheltenham

Mar 9-14: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre Guildford

Mar 16-21:  Bord Gais Theatre Dublin

Mar 23-28:  The Lowry Lyric Theatre Salford

Mar 30-Apr 4: Theatre Royal Bath

Apr 6-11: Grand Theatre Leeds

Apr 13-18: Grand Opera Theatre York

Apr 20-25: Venue Cymru Llandudno

Apr 27-May 2: Richmond Theatre Richmond

May 11-16:  Palace Theatre Southend

May 18-23: Grand Theatre Wolverhampton

June 1-6: Queen's Theatre Barnstaple

June 8-13: Ashcroft Theatre Croydon

June 15-20: Theatre Royal Newcastle

June 22-27: Theatre Royal Glasgow

www.kenwright.com

 

Jan 15th

And Then There Were None at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

Queen of Crime Dame Agatha Christie was born 125 years ago this year. So what better way to celebrate than with The Agatha Christie Theatre Company, which began a grand tour of her most popular and best-selling murder mystery, And Then There Were None, at Windsor this week?

The company is itself celebrating a milestone. It is 10 years since Agatha Christie’s estate gave producer Bill Kenwright exclusive rights to tour her original stage plays under the banner of The Agatha Christie Theatre Company, and some of our most esteemed actors have starred in them: Tom Conti, Robert Powell, Martin Shaw, Liza Goddard, Jenny Seagrove…

This production is no exception. Paul Nicholas, ably abetted by Dalziel and Pascoe’s Colin Buchanan, former Emmerdale stars Verity Rushworth and Frazer Hines, and Company regulars Susan Penhaligon, Mark Curry and Ben Nealon, are among the cast.

Filmed many times in various settings, this production has been taken back to the time it was written, in the 1930s, and is, therefore, a period piece, with Simon Scullion’s wonderful art deco set and costumes by Roberto Surace to match.

But elegance and sophistication are only on the surface. Stranded on an island with no means of communication or escape, the 10 guests of an elusive millionaire have their dark secrets exposed before each of them - bar one! – is murdered.

The opening scene is a great way of introducing the characters as they arrive for, what they think is, a weekend house party. And there are some surprises. Paul Nicholas is gaunt, grey-haired and slightly sinister as an elderly high court judge, not at all the twinkling charmer he usually is. And I can never get over how Susan Penhaligon, whom I remember in the original series of Bouquet of Barbed Wire, now seems to specialise in playing matrons. As Emily Brent she certainly gives Dame Edith Evans’ Lady Bracknell a run for her money, but her expertise at playing old is so depressing – there are only three days between hers and my birthdays! That aside, this first scene felt long and drawn out, and it was only when the murders began that I became more engaged. The claustrophobic feeling of being trapped also didn’t always come across, though Verity Rushworth as the millionaire’s secretary can certainly do hysterical!

It was only the opening night, however, and I’m sure distinguished director Joe Harmston will have the production up to speed by now. Meanwhile, it is great fun wondering who is going to die next and how, and I also found myself staring at the mantelpiece where ’10 little soldier boys’ are lined up under the nursery rhyme which heralds each murderous deed. For as one person died then one of the soldier boys disappeared, but only once did I think I saw an actor surreptitiously pocket one.

And Then There Were None is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until January 24

Box Office: 01753 853888

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

It will then tour:

Jan 26-31: Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

Feb 2-7: Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton

Feb 16-21: Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Feb 23-28: Regent Theatre, Stoke

Mar 2-7: Pomegranate, Chesterfield

Mar 9-14: Congress Theatre, Eastbourne

Mar 16-21: Festival Theatre, Malvern

Mar 17-23: Churchill Theatre, Bromley

Mar 30-Apr 4: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Apr 7-11: Clywd Theatr Cymru, Mold

Apr 13-18: Theatre Royal, Bath

Apr 20-25: Grand Theatre, Blackpool

May 26-30: Richmond Theatre

June 1-6: The Woodville, Gravesend

June 8-13: The Hawth Theatre, Crawley

June 22-27 Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon

Jun 30-Jul 4: New Theatre, Cardiff

Jul 13-17: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Jul 2-25: Milton Keynes Theatre

Jul 27-Aug 1: Theatre Royal, Newcastle

Aug 17-22: Leeds Grand

Dec 11th

Beauty and the Beast at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood


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Steven Blakeley, Kevin Cruise, Michael Winsor and Georgina Leonidas

The Theatre Royal Windsor has always been famous for its traditional pantomimes.

Back in the day they used to be written by the gracious and much missed actress, the late Mary Kerridge, and didn’t need to rely on big names to draw the crowds, sticking with regulars like Joe Brown and Bryan Burdon.

Then there were a few years when they weren’t so good – until ex-Heartbeat’s PC Geoff Younger and now Windsor’s regular Dame, Steven Blakeley, came on the scene as writer three years ago, and Martin Cabble, otherwise known as Britain’s Got Talent’s Kevin Cruise, became creative consultant.

Now Windsor’s panto really rocks, and even more so this year with the not so well known Beauty and the Beast. When the curtain went up to MD Lindsey Miller’s pulsating music the audience was raring to go – so much so that when former lead singer with the Three Degrees’, Sheila Ferguson, made her entrance as the wicked enchantress Maleficent, she couldn’t be heard for enthusiastic boos.

But this sassy lady from Philadelphia wasn’t standing any nonsense. “Ah, shut up,” she snarled, instantly earning her place as the nasty villain, especially when joined by her alarmingly realistic dancing wolves.
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Sheila Ferguson

Maleficent is the one who changes the local prince into a beast and his manservant into…. Basil Brush, and the introduction of the talking fox into the story really works. After over 50 years, children still love his naughtiness while accompanying adults warm to his cheeky, irreverent charm.

It is Rhydian as the Prince, however, who really blows me away. Without wanting to insult The X Factor, I’d never have thought such a good voice would come from that series. He’s magnificent, and not just as a singer. As the Beast with a heart he brought tears to my eyes, and I was fascinated by the breathy way he delivered his lines, rather like Darth Vader!
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Rhydian

This production, which runs at a fantastic pace under the director of Roger Redfarn, is certainly strong on vocals this year, what with Rhydian, and Sheila Ferguson who, since topping the charts 17 times in the seventies, has made a name in musical theatre. Thankfully, she was given the chance to belt out some wonderful numbers including When Will I See You Gain (soon, I hope!).

Since Steven and Kevin came on board, however, it is the comedy that really shines. With his orange tan, dazzling white smile and OTT camp humour I’m afraid I dismissed Kevin Cruise when he was on BGT, but now I can’t wait to see him perform. He really is a master craftsman of what he does and I look forward to seeing some of his own Moon on a Stick productions and hearing about the Cabaret Academy he is launching - in my home town no less! He can work an audience like nobody else. When he was throwing giant inflatable footballs into the audience the roar that came up would have beaten any crowd at Wembley. I defy anyone to resist his enthusiasm, charm and playfulness, and one of the highlights of this show is the way he is always bursting into song.

Steven Blakeley as the Dame has also become a firm favourite. He just so fits the role, and the company’s own version of the 12 Days of Christmas, with articles flying about the auditorium, had everyone helpless with laughter, while my four-year-old friend Oscar is still going round singing ‘five toilet rolls’!

With Harry Potter star Georgina Leonidas as Belle, Carry On’s Sally Geeson as Fairy Beneficent, singer, actor and voice-ever artist Michael Winsor as Bell’s wistful father Maurice, and Postman Pat, there is plenty to enjoy.

Windsor’s version of Beauty and the Beast is Boom Booming marvellous!!
Pictures courtesy of the Theatre Royal Windsor 

Beauty and the Beast is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until January 11.

Box office: 01753 853888 www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

Dec 1st

Kipper’s Snowy Day at Norden Farm Centre for the Arts, Maidenhead

By Clare Brotherwood

For national press_Luminous Photography Kipper the Dog-1044.jpg

Photo: Luminous Photography
We all know that the best shows aren’t always to be found in the biggest theatres. Arts centres and fringe theatres around the country produce some real gems, with real stars.

Such is the case at Maidenhead’s arts centre where two of the puppeteers appearing in this year’s Christmas show are, in fact, stars of the West End production of War Horse.

Mikey Brett, who shadows Kipper the dog in this production by Slot Machine, has been puppeteer for both Joey and Topthorn in the National Theatre production. While Robin Guiver, although a puppeteer and movement director who, along with Mikey worked as a movement artist on the film Gravity, played Geordie in the original West End cast.

In this stage version of Mick Inkpen’s classic children tale, however, there are not so many parts for them to move around. Kipper and his friends’ faces are inaminate objects but, although I found that a shame, it didn’t spoil the pleasure of my four-year-old fellow reviewer Oscar, who beamed all the way through the 50-minute show. Certainly Mikey, Robin and their co-star Amy Tweed bring Kipper and friends to life for their young audiences, in spite of nothing more to help set the scene than a snowy hill and a huge blank page on which scribbles and drawings appear.

But it is the clean, fresh simplicity of the set which emphasises the snow and the space in which Kipper delights. Just enough props like presents and a Christmas tree, together with lighting and original music, add atmosphere and colour. 

The songs were developed through workshops with local schoolchildren and express the excitement of Christmas Eve and playing in snow, perfectly reflecting the action in a show which proves that Brett and Guiver are not only superb puppeteers but also accomplished actors, singers and dancers.

There is, however, a lack of audience participation, which could well have been introduced when Kipper has to choose between a snowman and a star for the top of his Christmas tree.

But Oscar is full of praise. “Kipper is the best thing ever and if you go there you will love it,” he says.

Kipper's Snowy Day is at Norden Farm Centre for the Arts, Maidenhead until  Dec 28. Box Office: 01628 788997. www.nordenfarm.org

 

Nov 19th

Our Country’s Good at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

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Today I am jubilant! I spent last evening in a theatre full of young people watching an extraordinary play which extols the virtues of… theatre.

There can be no better way of attracting new audiences than this production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play, based on the true story of convicts staging George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer in Australia in 1788.

Co-produced by Out of Joint and the Octagon Theatre Bolton, it is directed by Out of Joint’s artistic director Max Stafford-Clark, who commissioned the play for the Royal Court Theatre 25 years ago after reading Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker.

You can tell this production has been put together with the care and love Stafford-Clark must have for his ‘baby’. He’s nurtured it well, and his theatre company gives it the respect this modern classic deserves.

What hits the audience immediately is Tim Shortall’s simple but stunning staging: set against an ever-changing skyscape with backcloths rigged up as sails, the action takes place on a large raft in front of which is the outline of the Sydney coastline looking as if it were a beach meeting the sea. The effect is more than augmented by Johanna Town’s atmospheric lighting and Katy Morison’s sound effects.

The cast first appear as in a tableau, but the stillness is quickly shattered by the off-stage flogging of a convict, his perpetrator running backwards and forwards with bloodied hands – for this is at times graphic, with violence, sex and offensive language playing a large part.

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Pictures by courtesy of the Theatre Royal Windsor

But it is Captain Arthur Phillip’s liberal treatment of the convicts which is the kernel of the story. The First Governor of New South Wales, who sees theatre as ‘an expression of civilisation’, assigns the sensitive Lieutenant Ralph Clark to direct the convicts and, by treating them as human beings, we see astonishing transformations, not only among the prisoners who work through their petty differences and jealousies, but also the officers. As the programme notes state: ‘In 1988 the play and the production were hailed as a celebration of the humanising force of theatre… Just as Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony was a paean of appreciation of the NHS, so this is of the theatre’.

Most of the cast members play multiple parts (and genders) and, to be honest, the women playing the convicts are the stronger characters and performers, though Simon Darwen is memorable for his entertaining role as East End pickpocket John Wisehammer rather than that of Captain Phillip. As Liz Morden, who is about to be hanged for theft, Kathryn O’Reilly spits venom (oh, yes, a lot of spitting actually goes on!). With scowling face she positively fizzes with aggression and attitude. Victoria Gee, on the other hand, is likeable but loud and coarse as Dabby Bryant, while acting completely transforms the mouse-like Mary Brenham, as played by Jessica Tomchak.

Nathan Ives-Moiba shows the weaker side to an officer as Ralph Clark and, among the other officers, Sam Graham as Harry Brewer is a colourful character.

Our Country’s Good is an important piece of theatre. Based on true facts, it shows how people can forget their own misfortunes through acting while the rest of us can sit back and wonder at the magical powers of storytelling.

Our Country’s Good is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until Nov 22.

Box Office: 01753 853888

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

Nov 13th

Vienna Festival Ballet in Swan Lake at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

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Like all little girls of my era I wanted to be a ballerina, and spent hours reading stories about them and drawing tutus and ballet shoes.

Half a decade later the magic is still there, and it is thanks to small companies like the Vienna Festival Ballet that classical favourites such as Giselle, Coppelia and The Nutcracker can be seen by a wide audience everywhere.

The company, founded by Austrian dancer and artistic director Peter Mallek in 1980, tours for seven months of the year with a repertoire of six ballets.

Their latest offering at Windsor is probably the greatest and most popular of all ballets, combining a good story with Tchaikovsky’s spellbinding music, but on the Theatre Royal’s small stage the love story which is overshadowed by the evil Baron Rothbart becomes an almost intimate experience.

It’s a pity the programme doesn’t give the names of the leading dancers as I would like to mention in particular the flamboyant and highly entertaining jester and the prima ballerina who dances the part of the Queen of the Swans. She has an almost ethereal presence and her pas de deux with Prince Siegfried is exquisite.
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The corps de ballet also portray the swans seamlessly, but in the palace scenes were, on the night I saw them, a little untidy and not always in time.

However, the overall experience was enchanting, if not a little spoiled by a fellow reviewer sitting in front of me taking notes on her (bright) tablet.

I know we live in a technological age, and I embrace it – to a certain extent. But the theatre is one place where we should be allowed to be transported into another world, and while the hard working young members of the Vienna Festival Ballet were giving their all, I found it distracting and disrespectful that someone should be using a tablet and then, obviously having made enough notes, left at the interval.

Vienna Festival Ballet’s production of Swan Lake continues at the Theatre Royal Windsor until Nov 15.

Box Office: 01753 853888

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

www.viennafestivalballet.com

Oct 28th

But First This: A Musical Homage to Radio 4 at The Watermill West Berkshire Playhouse

By Clare Brotherwood

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I was so relieved to hear the Radio 4 pips this morning because, in radio announcer Kathy Clugston’s scintillating new musical, Selina Badminton, the new controller of Britain’s flagship station, reduces their number, as well as axing Woman’s Hour.

Believe me, the Today programme will never be the same again as Kathy takes us behind the scenes in a somewhat fictionalised studio setting where John Humphrys, forever looking pleased with himself, starts the first of a few cheeky numbers by singing the weather forecast, news reader Anna complains about people with long names, while kindly, dishevelled Jim Naughtie moans the demise of Woman’s Hour before going off to hunt down the missing Greenwich Time Signal pips.

You don’t have to be a Radio 4 aficionado to enjoy this production. Anyone who appreciates a cleverly written and very funny script, superbly acted by a versatile and charismatic cast, will be hugely entertained, but knowing the in jokes and the programmes whose titles pepper the dialogue makes it even more enjoyable. The audience at last night’s press night were obviously fans, becoming almost part of the show.

The evening didn’t start well. When I looked down onto the huge car park which was the M4 and knew I had to endure a 70-mile round trip to the theatre, I thought that even a musical based on my constant daytime companion couldn’t be worth the hassle.

It was!

From start to finish I was often aware of how broadly I was smiling, when I wasn’t whooping and laughing out (very) loudly. This is the funniest play I have seen since The Play That Goes Wrong, which I saw long before it went into the West End - where this production certainly belongs.

As Selina, Louise Plowright has huge presence, seeming almost like Cruella Deville as she relishes in her evil character. She is every bit as scary as the head of the pronunciation department; this time appearing like a black coated Dracula. How she must enjoy playing those parts.
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As John Humphrys, Michael Fenton Stevens also looks as if he is having a ball – unlike the real John Humphrys! And yet he manages to capture him so well that I had to tell myself he wasn’t the real thing.
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Having met Jim Naughtie I am able to confirm that Jonathan Dryden Taylor’s genial portrayal too, is spot on, while Helena Blackman as the news reader and Neil Ditt as the weather forecaster provide strong support and, like the rest of the cast, show their versatility when playing countless other characters. There are also off-stage cameo roles played by announcer Alice Arnold and Radio 1 DJ Scott Mills, whose original Edinburgh Festival show gave Kathy the idea for But First This.

Among those who appear on Radio 4 is Libby Purves, who happened to be in the audience last night, reviewing for her website theatrecat.com. She too is mentioned in the show, along with ‘appearances’ from Nicholas Parsons, Kirsty Young and Stephen Fry, and was delighted about it. She told me the announcers have such a great sense of humour but always have to keep it hidden, never showing it in their voices, so not only is But First This is celebration of Radio 4 but an explosion of hidden humour.

There are so many highlights: the three men singing how Woman’s Hour will make you one hell of a man; scenes from The Archers spoken as if by characters from Tennessee Williams’ novels, while concerns over Jim’s death as he rows in a storm from Lundy (Kirsty Young’s desert island) across the Bristol Channel looking for the missing pips reduced me to tears, only to find myself laughing again as the others tell Jim: ‘We thought you were dead!’ His reply: ‘Really? In a comedy?’

I hope Radio 4 never dies, and that But First This also has a long and happy life!

But First This: A Musical Homage to Radio 4 continues at The Watermill West Berkshire Playhouse until November 8.

Box office: 01635 46044 www.watermill.org.uk

Oct 9th

A Party to Murder at The Mill at Sonning

By Clare Brotherwood

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Credit: Craig Sugden

I like nothing better than to have a really good laugh. I also like to be scared out of my wits.

And this comedy thriller by Marcia Kash and Doug Hughes delivers both - in spades. It’s an absolute delight from beginning to end, and I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially on Hallowe’en.

Set in a lone house on an island in the North American lakes, where writer Charles Prince has invited six people for a Hallowe’en murder mystery party, there are enough bodies, blood and things that go bump in the night, as well as secret passages and the obligatory thunder and lightning, to make this fast moving full-on entertainment go with a bang.

The 18th century mill lends itself to hosting an eerie spine chiller and audiences are given a taste of what is to come during their pre-performance dinner when the restaurant’s lights are dimmed and a ghostly voice can be heard.

That is all I am going to tell you, however, as to give away just a smidgen of the plot would spoil every delicious moment of surprise - and, believe me, there are plenty of them. They come thick and fast, delivered with great gusto by a stellar cast under the direction of Ian Masters.

As always, the Mill’s set is worthy of mention, an on this occasion Michael Holt should be particularly congratulated for creating a secret passage.

A Party to Murder is at The Mill at Sonning until November 22

Box Office: 0118 969 8000

www.millatsonning.com