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Jun 8th

Stone Cold Murder at The Mill at Sonning

By Clare Brotherwood

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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

www.millatsonning.com
May 29th

Pygmalion

By Louise Winter

Pygmalion

Reviewed 27th May 2014

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Touring since February the cast give the impression that they are fully confident with their roles and performances. Authentically staged with rather gorgeous sets and costumes (Jonathan Fensom) this is a rather lovely production to look at.

There are a couple of slight issues at times with the speed of the delivery by some of the cast, Eliza in the first scene and Alfred Doolittle’s speech in the second half but Shaw’s play is incredibly wordy with some lengthy monologues and perhaps it is inevitable that some of the content may be slightly unclear at times.

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Rachel Riley is sure to have quite a career ahead of her and she manages the contrasting aspects of Eliza’s character very convincingly. The shrieking and wailing at the start does grate very quickly but this is, of course, the point! She has great comic timing and is very funny, particularly in the tea party scene at Mrs Higgins’s, but also portrays Eliza’s vulnerability extremely well.

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Alistair McGowan is a fine actor. He is no stranger to the stage and the arrogant and often ignorant Henry Higgins is in safe hands here. Whilst playing up to the humour of his part he also shows the Higgins to be the overgrown public schoolboy he is, unable to show any empathy or love for another. Paul Brightwell as Colonel Pickering is a superb foil for Higgins although ultimately no less arrogant or unfeeling.

Rula Lenska fits very well as Mrs Higgins; a grand stage presence, expressing her frustration at her son’s behaviour and treatment of Eliza, she also shows a lovely tenderness and it is ultimately her to whom Eliza turns.

Jamie Foreman is fabulous as Alfred Doolittle and hilarious in his indignation of suddenly coming into money and finding himself in embroiled in the middle-classes. He has some of the funniest lines and makes the very most of them.

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You find yourself laughing at the audacity of some of the sexist, classist humour and not without a twinge of discomfort at times. The uneasiness of this means the play remains just above the genre of farce.

This is a really strong production and definitely worth the price of a ticket.

Playing Mk theatre until 31st May

See http://www.pygmalionuktour.co.uk/#!tickets/c1t44 for tour dates

Tickets from MK Theatre 0844 871 7652 atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes (booking fee applies)

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

www.watermill.org.uk
May 23rd

A Midsummer's Night Dream at Milton Keynes Theatre

By Cameron Lowe
David Nixon’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”

Review by Thia Cooper

Northern Ballet

To say that I was mesmerised by last night’s performance of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” by Northern Ballet, is an understatement! From the moment the curtain went up, to the moment it went down, I was lost in the beautiful performances and amazing working of Mendelssohn's music, intertwined by extracts from Brahms, played by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia under Nathan Fifield.
Then there was the interpretation of the original story by wonderful dancing, superb scenery, lighting and costumes.
Set in the 1940’s, the opening shows a classical ballet company rehearsing for a tour. The dancers are warming up for the final rehearsal and the personalities and emotions come to the fore, showing their various rivalries for both affection and dancing prowess in the company.
When the tour begins, the scene changes to the railway station and the Flying Scotsman to take them to their destination. Designer of the train, Duncan Hayler, has done a magnificent job. It’s surprisingly realistic and is technical wizardry of the highest standard.
I asked Mark Skipper, Chief Executive of Northern Ballet, about the logistics of moving such complicated scenery for a tour. He said they had five trailers and a good crew! I discovered he goes to every opening night and as far as I’m concerned that shows a terrific, supportive CEO. I’m sure the company appreciates that!
The dream sequence takes place on the journey and we see the fantasy dream world of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in all its glory!
Above the stage are sleeping-car bunks (I was quite nervous when I saw one of these swaying precariously with the dancers on board!), a spacecraft on its way to the moon and a huge eye.
Outstanding performances were given by Kevin Poeung (Puck, the ballet master), Javier Torres (Lysander in love with Hermia), Tobias Batley (Demetrius, also in love with Hermia), Pippa Moore (Helena, in love with Demetrius), Martha Leebolt (Hermia, in love with Lysander), Hironao Takahashi (Artistic Director, in love with Hippolyta) and Antoinette Brooks-Daw (Hippolyta, in love with Theseus).
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The romantic confusion is choreographed so very beautifully by Nixon, testing the splendid versatility of the dancers. He demands some breathtaking manoeuvres which are delivered seamlessly!
There are lots of comical instances especially when Helena literally throws herself at Demetrius and when Bottom turns into the donkey, executed very well by Darren Goldsmith.
Everything ends happily with everyone engaged to the correct person after they snap out of the dream and come back to reality.
Let yourself spend a couple of hours being transported into fairyland and go and see this production. You won’t be disappointed!!
Milton Keynes Theatre
Tue 20 May 2014 to Sat 24 May 2014
Tue - Sat 7.30pm, Thu & Sat 2.30pm
Tickets from £12 to £37.50
0844 871 7652
atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes
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.

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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

www.kenwright.com
May 15th

Fame at Milton Keynes Theatre

By Cameron Lowe
If you were expecting a version of the iconic TV series, or Oscar winning musical film of FAME, think again!!
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Last night’s new production at Milton Keynes Theatre was Fame 2014! The first surprise was the iPads, iPhones and tablets being used for receiving information. Did I really hear Katy Perry mentioned?
You follow the ups and downs of teenagers totally ‘star struck’ (97 of them chosen from 4,000 applicants for High School for Performing Arts, New York!) at a school they believe will jettison through to the dizzy heights to stardom and FAME!
Some think it will just ‘happen’ and others are prepared for hard work and Carmen Diaz (Jodie Steele) is one of those with a big ego and thinks she will succeed no matter what. Tyrone Jackson (Alex Thomas –wow! What a superb dancer, breathtaking and a lovely voice!!), on the other hand is struggling with dyslexia and can’t read. His talent should see him through, but despite the support of Miss Bell (Hermione Lynch) his dance teacher, does not graduate.
There are lots of romantic moments, but the time with Tyrone and Iris (Sasi Strallen) were, in my opinion, special. The combination of superb dancing and the background story brought a lump to my throat.
There is no let up from the excitement and dynamic choreography by Gary Lloyd. Great songs, including “I’m Gonna Live For Ever” and “I’m Gonna Learn How to Fly” and, surprise, surprise a rap from Tyrone!

The band was on view above the stage, and although a little overpowering at time, the individual musicians were multi- talented and versatile. There was a beautiful acoustic guitar solo at one point and I am disappointed the musicians were not acknowledged in the programme.
I am always fascinated by the scenery and how it works with the least amount of disruption. The two blocks of school lockers and varying heights of steps were moved by the cast, silently and fitted every scene!
Joe Vegas, played by Joseph Giacone , with great humour and panache, was the character who brought sexual innuendoes to the forefront. His portrayal had the audience laughing in appreciation.
The vocal highlight was sung by Miss Sherman, Director of PA, singing “These Are My Children”. Played by Landi Oshinowo, there was none of the West End style piercing notes of some others in the cast, but pure passion and beauty.
This is one of those shows with a ‘feel good’ factor. He update is a huge success!!
Everyone was singing and dancing with the cast in the Finale!
A great evening out and thoroughly recommended!
Tickets: £10 - £37.50
Phone: 0844 8717652
atgtickets.com.miltonkeynes
May 6th

Dance'til Dawn

By Louise Winter
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Dance 'til Dawn Reviewed 5th May 2014

************************** BRILLIANT!!!!!! **********************

What’s not to like about Vincent and Flavia? Two of the most dynamic and likeable of the Strictly Come Dancing cast with their Argentine Tango often the standout professional performances of the series.

Dance ‘til Dawn follows on from their fantastic 2010 show Midnight Tango. Set in 1940’s Hollywood it follows a starlet (Flavia) and her lover (Vincent) through the true Golden Age of Hollywood, with a bit of mayhem and murder and lots of INCREDIBLE dancing thrown in! The economically effective set (Morgan Large) and dazzling array of costumes (Vicky Gill) recreate the time impeccably. Choreography (co-choreographer Karen Bruce) and performances are, as to be expected, WORLD CLASS.

It’s gorgeously put together, romantic, very, very funny and breathtakingly dynamic at times. Flavia and Vincent are superlative dancers - lyrical, balletic, graceful and acrobatic. There is a symbiosis to them and their performances that is sublime. They are completely believeable.


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In fact, all the cast are superb and what is so particularly charming and heartening about this show is that it is clearly a co-operative piece. There is no grandstanding by the main leads, even though they are obviously centre stage most of the time. The ensemble dance company are all fantastic giving professional, tight, extremely skilled and energetic performances throughout and they all look amazing.

The two other main characters have all the lines; Teddy Kempner as the detective Tommy Dubrowski) and Abbie Osmon as bad girl Lana (a cross between Marilyn and Jessica Rabbit) deliver most of the laughs in their scenes together - they are hilarious and this is a genuinely witty show thanks to the quirky writing of Ed Curtis and the sharp, tongue-in-cheek delivery by the actors.


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Teddy Kempner as Tommy Dubrowski and Abbie Osman as Lana Clemenza

The superb band, led by Chris Egan, play a range of music from the past to the present. Nothing beats a live band, except a live band at the top of their game such as this one.

This is a delightful show, full of the joy of dance and music, and each and every member of the production is FANTASTIC!

SUPERB. BUY TICKETS NOW!!!!! Playing at MK Theatre until 10th May

Box office 08448 717652 (booking fees apply) or on-line at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes
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 30th

Agatha's Christie's 'Black Coffee', Milton Keynes Theatre

By Thia Cooper

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Robert Powell starring alongside Liza Goddard

Black Coffee is real old-fashioned theatre! It tells the story of the English country estate of Sir Claud Amory, thrown into chaos following his murder! Everyone latches onto the fact that the murderer must be involved in the theft of Amory’s mind blowing formula. In falls to Poirot to solve the mystery of course, in his unique way!

Suspicion falls on most of the characters at one time or another, and it includes all the usual Agatha Christie elements which we find familiar when the famous Belgian detective, Poirot, is involved. Donning the famous moustache must help actors to get immediately ‘in character’.

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Japp (Eric Carte), Poirot and Hastings (Robin McCallum)

My first memory of Robert Powel, is his beautiful bright blue eyes when he played Jesus of Nazareth, in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 TV film. Since then, he has become a multi award winning actor and admired throughout the industry.

Now, as Hercule Poirot, I couldn’t see the eyes from my seat, but his great portrayal of the fictional detective, lost nothing because of that! It must be a difficult job to follow in the footsteps all his famous predecessors. But he made it his own.

The stage lit up every time Liza Goddard (Caroline Amory sister) walked on! She was a joy to watch and hear. Humorous snippets were perfectly timed effortlessly. She was joined by Peak Practice’s Gary Mavers (Doctor Carelli – the most suspicious person as he was Italian) and Soldier Soldier’s Ben Nealon (Richard Amory, Sir Claud’s Son) in the cast.

Felicity Houlbrooke, as Barbara Amory gave a sparkling bright, humorous performance.

The costumes and scenery were to the usual high standard.

All in all, Black Coffee is a good enjoyable, traditional play, with superb actors (and I could hear every word!) and which I thoroughly recommend. I’d go again!

The show runs at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 3rd May
Book Tickets

Apr 24th

Tonight's the Night - MK Theatre

By Louise Winter

Tonight's the Night
Reviewed 22 April 2014

Tonight's The Night

This show, based upon the hits of Rod Stewart, written by Ben Elton and directed by Caroline Jay Rayner, is successful entirely due to the cast working extremely hard to flesh out this thin story line and weak script. It is a success in spite of these traits and I have to be honest and sorry to say that I think it is pretty poor of Ben Elton and the production team to present such an unimaginative and rehashed tale ... and why is it set in America?

We follow Stuart (Ben Heathcote), a Detroit mechanic whose shyness stops him communicating with the opposite sex and ultimately declaring his love for Mary (Jenna Lee-James). He strikes a deal with the devil (Tiffany Graves) through which he gains the soul of (you guessed it) Rod himself and after a few trials he predictably (yes, you guessed again) learns that in order to get the girl, being yourself is a better bet than trying to be someone else.

Slow to warm up, and with rather predictable and fairly uninspiring choreography and staging, the show lurches from song to song with them crow-barred into the ‘action’. The audience, clearly there because of a great fondness for Rod Stewart’s vast songbook, were also slow to warm up.

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It is ALL credit to Ben Heathcote that he had every audience member singing along and waving their arms in the air for the grand finale. He has boundless energy and is on stage practically the whole time. His voice resembles Rod’s on occasion and there are some interesting arrangements of the well known songs but he is given little character to get his teeth into.

Vocal performances throughout and by all the cast are strong but special mention must go to Jenna Lee-James and Rosie Heath who have gorgeous voices and held the audience’s attention with their beautiful, moving performances.

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Michael McKell as Stoner, a cross between Mick Jagger and Bill Nighy in Love Actually had the audience laughing out loud, again in spite of his predictable lines; full marks to him for fleshing them out.

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It’s almost impossible not to tap your feet and sing quietly along to the numerous classics here; Gasoline Alley, Stone Cold Sober, Do Ya Think I’m Sexy? Maggie May, I Don’t Want To Talk About It, You Wear It Well, Hot Legs, Stay With Me, Sailing and, of course, the title song. These are all performed by a fabulous band who are slightly hidden away on the scaffolded staging for the whole performance - Griff Johnson, Steve White, Andy Taylor-Vebel, Lael Goldberg, ALex Meadows and Matt Bayne. Top notch and given rapturous applause by the audience at the end.
So, all in all weak story and production but outstanding work by the cast and musicians and of course the songs speak for themselves.

The show is at Milton Keynes until April 26
Box office 08448 717652 (booking fees apply) or on-line at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes