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Jun 18th

The Shadow of the Ghost at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

Repertory was, back in the day, the way actors learned their craft, learning their lines for the following week’s production while acting in the current one.

Nowadays, if they don’t get at least four weeks’ rehearsal they are hard done by, so I greatly admire the members of the cast of the present production at the Theatre Royal who have leapt into other roles.

Now into the second week of their five-week Classic Thriller Season, these members of the TABS Productions’ company are proving just how versatile they are by presenting a world premiere which, while it has connections with last week’s play, sees them playing completely different characters.

Last week’s opening play of the season,The Ghost Train, is a classic comedy written by Arnold Ridley, set in a haunted railway station. The Shadow of the Ghost is set in a theatre where an inept am dram society is rehearsing the said play.

Co-written by Arnold Ridley’s son, Nicholas Ridley, with Chris Ponka, it is a melting pot of suspense, spookiness and side-splitting fun, a sort of Noises Off with more than one spine-chilling twists.

Tales of a manager who hanged himself and an actor’s death on the very stage they are rehearsing, unnerve the few amateurs who have turned up for a Sunday afternoon rehearsal, and when unexplainable things begin to happen, the plot thickens.

Be sure there is a bit of everything in this play; lots of surprises, lots of laughs, more than just a touch of Agatha Christie, and some sterling performances from, among others, Andrew Ryan as Jack Taylor (entirely different in character and looks from his character last week of the idiotic Teddie Deacon) and Susan Earnshaw as the super sleuth Miss Maple!

Slow to start but building up to yet another enjoyable evening, The Shadow of the Ghost has something for everyone.

The Shadow of the Ghost is part of the Theatre Royal Windsor’s Classic Thriller Season and runs until June 21. It will be followed by:

Fatal Encounter from June 23-28

Murder Weapon from June 30-July 5

The Gentle Hook from July 7-12

Box office: 01753 853888
Jun 11th

The Ghost Train at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

Shrieks of laughter as well as horror heralded the opening of the Theatre Royal Windsor’s first ever Classic Thriller Season.

Produced in association with TABS Productions and the Theatre Royal Nottingham, chilling tales from the pens of such writers as Francis Durbridge (creator of the Paul Temple detective series) and Brian Clemens (creator of The Avengers and The Professionals), will be showing over the next five weeks.

The season starts with the comedy thriller The Ghost Train, written in 1923 by Arnold Ridley, best known as Private Godfrey in the TV series Dad’s Army.

Set in 1925 - the year it was first performed - it concerns a group of stranded passengers who are holed up in a haunted railway station overnight.

David Gilbrook’s chilling sound effects together with Alex Marshall’s atmospheric lighting and Geoff Gilder’s station waiting room all help to set the scene for a good night of all-round entertainment, with ghostly goings on working well with the comedy to relieve the tension.

It’s very much a period piece, with old-fashioned manners and a stilted way of talking, rather like in Brief Encounter, though that was to come 20 years later. The language is rather quaint, with nothing stronger than ‘duce’ and ‘beastly’ - amusing in themselves - while the actors throw themselves into their roles with more than a touch of melodrama.

Andrew Ryan and Susan Earnshaw with Edward Parris. Pic: Mike Swift

My favourite character is Teddie Deacon, a flamboyant and rather idiotic figure played with verve and enthusiasm by Andrew Ryan. Susan Earnshaw also steals a scene or two as the elderly Miss Bourne, especially when she over-indulges on the brandy; Angie Smith adds to the hysteria as the neurotic Julia Price, while Adrian Lloyd-James really makes the most of his part as the station master.

The theme continues on June 16 with The Shadow of the Ghost, co-written by Arnold Ridley’s son Nicholas, which takes place on the set of a production of The Ghost Train in a theatre somewhere in the south west of England.

I can’t wait to see it!

Meanwhile, the Theatre Royal Windsor is not only offering special price tickets but also ghost tours. I’ve been on one and, believe me, that theatre is haunted!

The Ghost Train is part of the Theatre Royal Windsor’s Classic Thriller Season and runs until June 14. It will be followed by:

The Shadow of the Ghost from June 16-21

Fatal Encounter from June 23-28

Murder Weapon from June 30-July 5

The Gentle Hook from July 7-12

Box office: 01753 853888
Jun 8th

Stone Cold Murder at The Mill at Sonning

By Clare Brotherwood


With the wind howling through the branches outside French doors, the stage is certainly set for a spooky thriller - and you won’t be disappointed.

Atmospheric from the outset, actor James Cawood’s first ever play goes beyond being a frightener with special effects, however. Taking place in a remote (aren’t they always) Lakeland hotel which is closed for the winter, it’s a meaty story with plenty of action, twists and turns, and Sue Wilson’s direction makes sure it bounds along at a cracking pace.

There are just four characters: newly wedded Olivia and Robert Chappell, who recently took over the hotel and are now hunkering down for the winter; Ramsey, a stranded climber, and Sam Stone who, along with his ex Olivia, is harbouring a deadly secret.

As Olivia, Elinor Lawless is edgy and nervous as she attempts to leave her past behind her and start a new life, while Elliot Chapman as her besotted husband is mild-mannered, though he too has his moment.

Paul Brendan as the climber definitely has an air of mystery about him, and made me feel uneasy, while I couldn’t really get my head round the fact that Nick Waring was playing a villain until I began to think of smiling assassins and psychopaths who charm their victims into their lairs, and then I was scared. But there’s a very unexpected ending which proves that all is not as it seems.

As usual, the set, designed by Tony Eden, is superb, though considering the thunder and lightning outside, the patio remains remarkably dry.

Stone Cold Murder is good entertainment and with dinner thrown in, it’s a night out worth considering.

Stone Cold Murder is at The Mill at Sonning until July 26

Box office: 0118 969 8000
May 28th

A Bunch of Amateurs at The Watermill Playhouse, Newbury

By Clare Brotherwood

A Bunch of Amateurs L to R Jackie Morrison and Mitchell Mullen. Photo Credit C Philip Tull 2014.JPG

Jackie Morrison and Mitchell Mullen. Picture: C Philip Tull

Many years ago, when Jeffrey Archer was starring in his own play The Accused, prior to being jailed for perjury, I happened to mention in my review of the first night that Ian Hislop, who had been sitting close to me, appeared to have enjoyed it. He, hitherto, mentioned my review in Private Eye (not altogether kindly). But if there were any hard feelings (which there weren’t) they would most surely have disappeared after watching the premiere of his uproarious play A Bunch of Amateurs.

Co-written with his long-term collaborator Nick Newman, A Bunch of Amateurs is a new version of the book by Jonathan Gershfield and John Ross, and 2008’s Royal Film Performance.

It’s a hoot from beginning to end and a must-see for theatre lovers. Caroline Leslie must have had great fun directing it.

Am dram group The Stratford Players enlist the help of a has-been Hollywood star to lead a production of King Lear and save their little theatre. Said star thinks he’s coming to Stratford-on-Avon and a professional company and the play charts his sometimes tempestuous relationship with a mixed bag of enthusiasts in Suffolk.

A Bunch of Amateurs takes place in a theatre not unlike the Watermill, which sets the scene perfectly and provides just the right atmosphere without even trying. And when the action moves to the film star’s bed and breakfast accommodation, designer Tom Rogers has created two rooms which cleverly unfold from the sides of the stage.

For the most part the main set is understandably basic as rehearsals (sometimes) proceed, though there is a small scene when the American gives a press conference at Heathrow and soundman Neil Starke ingeniously makes him sound like he’s speaking in a cavernous airport.

There’s a stellar cast, headed by Mitchell Mullen as the movie star Jefferson Steel, and Jackie Morrison as his director Dorothy Nettle.

Mullen exudes arrogance and egotism as the larger than life character whose insecurities are never far below the surface, while Morrison, while appearing gentle and ladylike, packs a punch when dealing with her demanding leading man. I loved it when replying to his requests for a dietician and personal trainer she exclaimed: “Eat less and walk more, Fatty!”

As the play progresses we see how the other members of the company - fawning Mary (Sarah Moyle), who is always saying the wrong thing; Denis (Damian Myerscough), a builder whose common touch wins round Jefferson; Nigel (Michael Hadley), a pompous solicitor whose arrogance and ego almost matches that of Jefferson’s, and who is far more theatrical, and Lauren (played by Emily Bowker) wife of the sponsor.

A sub-plot involving the arrival of Jefferson’s estranged and all-American daughter Jessica (Eleanor Brown), adds depth to the proceedings, as do other unexpected twists and turns... in all, a delightful and delightfully funny piece of theatre which is definitely not performed by a bunch of amateurs!

A Bunch of Amateurs is at The Watermill Playhouse, Newbury until June 28

Box office: 01635 46044
May 22nd

All Creatures Great and Small at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

As an animal lover I had my doubts about a stage version of James Herriott’s heart-warming tales as a vet in the picturesque Yorkshire Dales.

All Creatures Great and Small

But from the moment the curtain went up on Simon Scullion’s superb set, complete with panoramic view of the Dales, I knew the lack of animals wouldn’t be a problem. After all, Herriott’s tales, which he started writing at the age of 50 and which have since been made into two films and seven BBC TV series (between 1978-1990), were much more about the characters he met on his rounds and not the animals he treated.

And there are certainly plenty of characters in Simon Stallworthy’s adaptation, performed heroically by a cast of just eight.

Most of them are dour farmers and farm managers who take umbrage to the new vet, and these are played, most realistically, by Rob Maloney, Michael Palmer and, I think, Lee Latchford-Evans, the former Steps star who doubles up as Tristan Farnon and brings just enough mischievousness and gaucheness to the part of head vet Siegfried Farnon’s wayward brother. I say I think because it was hard to know at times who was playing who, so diverse were the performances. And in the programme it just said ‘other roles played by members of the company’.

Harriett Hare, who graduated from stage school just last year, also shows her versatility, not only playing the schoolgirl sister of Herriott’s future wife, but also a very young child and a good time girl.

Oliver Mellor, until recently Dr Matt Carter in Coronation Street, is believable in the title role, starting off as a shy rooky vet who is even shyer when it comes to his love life, through his dealings with grumpy farmers and the contrary Siegfried when his confidence grows, to a happy ending when he marries his love and becomes a partner in the practice.

Mark Curry, meanwhile, turns in a good performance as the somewhat erratic Siegfried, and Clare Buckfield is enchanting as the object of Herriott’s desires.

I’ve loved Susan Penhaligon ever since 1976 when she starred in A Bouquet of Barbed Wire. In fact, I remember it so well that it always astounds me when she plays older roles, especially as she’s only three days older than me! And once again she doesn’t disappoint. As the vets’ secretary Miss Harbottle, she is a straight-talking, plain Yorkshire woman, but as Mrs Pumphrey, eccentric owner of the over-indulged Pekinese Tricki Woo, she is wonderfully plummy and over the top.

Almost as much a star of the show is the set, divided into a barn and farm yard and Siegried’s house. With Douglas Kuhrt atmospheric lighting and Dan Samson’s music of yesteryear, you feel you’re right in the Yorkshire Dales.

All Creatures Great and Small continues at the Theatre Royal Windsor until May 31 and then tour:

June 2-7: Theatre Royal Brighton

June 9-14: New Theatre, Cardiff

June 16-21: Kings Theatre, Edinburgh

June 23-28:Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

June 30-July 5: Arts Theatre, Cambridge

July 7-12: Hall for Cornwall, Truro

July 14-19: Devonshire Park, Eastbourne

July 28-Aug 2: Richmond Theatre

Aug 4-9: New Victoria Theatre, Woking
May 22nd

MonologueSlam UK at the Birmingham Repertory Company

By Clare Brotherwood

During a recent visit to New York I went to a diner where the waiters are wannabe Broadway stars and sing when they are not serving their customers, hoping they may be discovered.


In the UK, however, aspiring actors, film makers, writers - and just about anyone else in the industry, don’t have to go to such lengths. They just need to apply for one of the many events organised by award-winning actors Fraser Ayres and Jimmy Akingbola under the umbrella of TriForce Promotions.

A few years ago Fraser, who also writes, directs and tutors, and Jimmy, AKA The Malick in BBC’s Holby City and Mick in BBC’s Rev, and now making a film with Dustin Hoffman, started a networking club for people in the industry to connect and make things happen. Now they not only have a monthly ‘Welcome’ social event in London but they have also created a platform for new writing, a short film festival, workshops and the MonologueSlam showcases for aspiring actors.

Held regularly in London, the Slam has also been to Los Angeles and Manchester and, last week, it made its Birmingham debut at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

As always there was a distinguished panel to judge the young hopefuls who opted for a one-minute or three-minute speech or an improvisation. This time it was the turn of actress Lorna Laidlaw (receptionist Mrs Tembe in BBC’s Doctors); Peter Lloyd, a senior producer from the BBC; Hannah Miller, head of casting at the RSC; agent Siobhan Kendall, and Tessa Walker, associate director of Birmingham Rep, to pick out the best from 22 competitors who ranged from an 11-year-old to young actors who already run their own companies.

I’ve been to one of these MonologueSlams before and it’s amazing, and invigorating, just how wildly enthusiastic and supportive the audience can be, and how diverse and well-performed the audition pieces are.

The evening, however, is no doubt inspired by Jimmy (known in the industry as Mr Nice), who began his career at the Birmingham Rep in Bill Alexander’s The Nativity in 1999.

Said Jimmy at the last MonologueSlam I went to: “These (MonologueSlams) help you as actors. You are shaping your acting skills. We can’t promise you jobs, but things happen. Basically, it’s about doing it and whatever comes after is a bonus. It’s affecting and changing people’s lives in a positive way.”

This is live theatre in the raw, and things really do happen for people who choose to go to TriForce Promotions for help.

Log on to their website for future events and auditions.
May 4th

A Handful of Stars at Theatre503, Battersea

By Clare Brotherwood

A Handful of Stars - Keith Duffy

Boy band fans could well faint at the sight of Keith Duffy in this revival of Billy Roche’s 1988 play.

But it would have nothing to do with him being a Boyzone star.

For Duffy has chosen to make his London stage debut in a gritty Irish play set in a rundown pool hall in Wexford where shotgun weddings are outnumbered only by random acts of violence.

In the intimate confines of the award-winning Theatre503, with testosterone exuding from the stage, audience members feel like they are part of the action, so real do the characters come across.

Duffy, who made his acting debut as barman Ciaran in Coronation Street 12 years ago, plays a boxer who, although a bit of a lad with the ladies, nonetheless tries to calm down the raging hormones of one particular teenage tearaway. His part isn’t the biggest but he plays it with authority and conviction, and has great stage presence.

Making the most impact is Ciaran Owens as said tearaway, Jimmy Brady, whose violent temper is the core of the play. Sitting so near the stage you can see the anger in his eyes - which makes him at times too close for comfort as he picks on his victims.

In stark contrast, Brian Fenton, who recently took part in the West End production of The Cripple of Inishmaan, is perfect as Jimmy’s sidekick, a shy, rather gauche boy.

There’s excellent support from the rest of the cast: veteran actor Michael O’Hagan gives a heavyweight performance as the elderly, characterful caretaker of the pool hall; Colm Gormley gets right under the skin of the big-mouth Conway; Maureen O’Connell, making her professional debut as Jimmy’s girlfriend Linda, is at times both fiery and submissive, while Michael O’Connor as the wily detective sent shivers down my spine.

A Handful of Stars is tightly directed by Theatre503’s joint artistic director Paul Robinson and makes rivetting entertainment.

A Handful of Stars continues at Theatre503 until May 24.

Box office: 020 7978 7040
May 1st

The Seagull at Norden Farm Centre for the Arts, Maidenhead

By Clare Brotherwood

Even though Chekhov thought of his plays as comedies, to me Russian drama is all about angst and misery, played out in the middle of nowhere.

The SeagullThat was before I saw Shifting Sands Theatre’s The Seagull - featuring a cast of unhappy characters. This company has a reputation for presenting fresh, playful reworkings of classic text and their production of The Seagull is like Noises Off on speed! Although they stick to some of Chekhov’s text, their interpretation, involving four Chekhov fanatics preparing to put on The Seagull while dealing with their own problems, is imaginative and original, and enthusiastically mixes clowning and pathos with warm humour, helped by a collection of madcap props.

The five-strong and very hardworking cast, under director Gerry Flanagan, play a multitude of characters, sometimes with just the addition of a beard or a hat, but the audience don’t get away with doing nothing. In Maidenhead they were called upon to play a lake every time it was mentioned, and gamely made swishing noises as they used their hands to make waves.

For me, Chekhov will never be the same again.

Shifting Sands Theatre continues its national tour of The Seagull:

May 1: West End Centre, Aldershot
May 2: Borough Theatre, Abergavenny
May 3: Cuddington Village Hall, Cheshire
May 6: Create Theatre, Mansfield
May 7: Courtyard Theatre, Hereford
May 8: Cranbrook School, Kent
May 9: Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford

Apr 17th

Last of the Duty Free at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

duty free.jpg

Call me a snob, but I’ve always preferred Barcelona to Benidorm and the Northern mountains of Mallorca to Magaluf, so TV series about holidaymakers in the Costas have never interested me.

Obviously, I’m in the minority. Between 1984 and 1986, audiences of 12 million were watching a sitcom, written by the BAFTA award-winning Eric Chappell (Rising Damp, Only When I Laugh), about a working class man and an upper-middle class woman who fall in love in Spain while on holiday with their respective spouses.

Thirty years on and three of the original cast began an extensive national tour this week of a spin-off of the series, Last of the Duty Free.

If duty hadn’t called I would have gone to see it anyway. Keith Barron was one of the most memorable actors on television when I was growing up. He was in so many series, playing gritty Yorkshire characters. Now here he is doing more of the same and it’s a privilege to see him in the flesh; it’s unbelievable to think he’ll be celebrating his 80th birthday while on tour, but he is still looking good, and totally believable (and fanciable) as David, the object of the lovely Linda’s affections. It is only when he pretends - and he does have to pretend! - to be old and infirm that you can picture him in, say, 20 years time!

Also wearing well, looking nowhere near her 75 years, is award-winning actress Gwen Taylor, reprising her role as Barron’s wife Amy. A bit of a shrew, Taylor also shows her as a caring wife and her lively performance and comic timing makes her character’s lack of humour all the more funny.

For the final ‘original’, Neil Stacey, time seems to have stood still if photos from the series of Duty Free are anything to go by, and as Robert, Linda’s husband, he is both naive and menacing, while Carol Royle, as Linda, provides the glamour, looking at least 20 years younger than she is.

As is to be expected, The Last of The Duty Free is set in the same hotel where, 20 years before, David and Linda fell in love. The two are now meeting secretly for a lovers’ tryst, but when Amy and Robert arrive unexpectedly, the fun begins, with all sorts of lies and misunderstandings adding to the mix, not helped by newlyweds Jeremy (Keith Barron’s son James) and Clare (Maxine Gregory).

Despite its setting in the Costas, The Last of the Duty Free isn’t tacky at all! In fact, quite the opposite. Julie Godfrey’s set is tasteful (and makes me want to get on a plane) and, through gentle humour, the marriages of all three couples, are explored, from discovering to discovery and having discovered.

Last of the Duty Free is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until April 26 and then tours:

May 5-10: Hall for Cornwall, Truro

May 12-17: Theatre Royal, Bath

May 19-24: Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent

May 27-31: Churchill Theatre, Bromley

June 2-7: King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

June 9-14: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

June 16-21: Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield

June 23-28: Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne

July 7-12: Theatre Royal, Glasgow

July 14-19: Arts Theatre, Cambridge

July 21-26: Malvern Theatre, Malvern

July 28-August 2: Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes

August 18-23: New Victoria Theatre, Woking

September 1-6: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Box office: 01753 853888
Apr 11th

One Night Stanshall: Sir Henry at Rawlinson End at Bloomsbury Theatre

By Clare Brotherwood

Mad Bonzo Dogs and Englishmen don’t only go out in the midday sun!

Sir Henry at Rawlinson End

At the Bloomsbury Theatre this week an asylum of crazy men got together in memory of the most eccentric of them all, Vivian Stanshall, co-founder of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band (remember the 1968 hit I’m the Urban Spaceman - produced under a pseudonym by Paul McCartney?) - and left us all mad for more.

Although Sir Henry at Rawlinson End has been recorded in vinyl and was made into a film, this was the first time I’d come across this mighty tome of prose and poetry. But judging by the theatre full of familiar followers it is obviously a cult - and lauded by the the high and mighty, no less.

Among those on stage was rock star Rick Wakeman (introduced as ‘an ancient artefact’), taking time out from his Journey to the Centre of the Earth tour to shamble onto the stage with the other founding member of Bonzo Dog, writer and musician Neil Innes. And this was the point when I knew anything goes, for both men wore ladies’ wide brimmed hats as they sat down to play together on the one piano while describing themselves as a suburban street.

It is no surprise that Innes has worked with Monty Python. This show, augmented by a clutch of versatile musicians (draped in cobwebs, with one playing a hosepipe!), is very Pythonesque, mixed with a bit of Richard Stilgoe. And when Mike Livesley, the larger than life entertainer (think Brian Blessed) behind the mayhem, launched into the myriad of characters who inhabited Sir Henry’s life, it was pure Blandings.

Livesley, who originally hit upon the idea of the show after percussionist Jonny Hase introduced him to the Rawlinson End LP, is the consummate storyteller, playing no end of characters with verve and a good helping of facial gymnastics. His delivery is a comic masterpiece.

Ending the show with some of Vivian Stanshall’s favourite songs, he wasn’t joking when he said he was sending us out into the street with our toes tapping and our heads banging.