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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 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.

Jul 29th

Love Me Tender at Milton Keynes Theatre

By Cameron Lowe

 

 

What a great way to start a week!

Last night’s performance of “Love Me Tender” at Milton Keynes Theatre was enough to give you a boost to last the rest of the week!

Based around Elvis Presley’s famous songs, this very humorous, happy musical featured 25 of Elvis’s back catalogue!  I could sing all the words, as I expect the rest of the audience could too.  They were cleverly woven into a story of a 1950’s, behind the times, small time American town.

The townsfolk were “All Shook Up” by the arrival of a charismatic, full of life biker stranger, who brightens up everyone’s lives.  This guitar playing Romeo, steals the heart of several young women, none more strongly than motor bike mechanic, Natalie, (superbly played by Laura Tebbutt).  The best in town!  She gets her man eventually, after posing as a male sidekick, and going through various funny adventures!

Although Mica Paris led the cast list as Sylvia, and as good as she was, others stole the show for me.

Chad, the afore mentioned gigolo, was brilliantly played by Ben Lewis.  He had everything going for him, good looks, Elvis projecting hips, good voice and well timed humour!  

His first sidekick, Jim (in love with Natalie.  An unrequited love!) played by Shaun Williamson was a perfect, soppy, intellectual, lacking in any romantic feelings man.  He tried so hard to learn from Chad, but unsuccessfully!

There was no-one in this cast who did not, dance, sing and act superbly!

The 1950’s costumes (designed by Vicky Gill) were excellent, as was the set.  It amazes me that now, in the theatre, there does not seem a need for stage hands to move the sets from one scene to another.  If it needs to be moved, and can’t be done by technology, it is done by the cast and hardly noticed by the audience.  Set designer, Morgan Large needs to be congratulated.

Lighting, by James Whiteside, too enhances the atmosphere.

Last, but not least, the choreography (Karen Bruce) was awesome, executed by a brilliant cast! 

Book tickets

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 11th

Puttin' On The Ritz - Windsor Theatre Royal and touring

By Kate Braxton

 

               
         
 

Who’s pining for ‘Strictly’ Saturdays? If so, foxtrot down to Windsor Theatre Royal tonight for a severrrrn of an evening. It’s not a 10, but it’s glitterball-loads of music, dance and thoroughly camptastic.

Puttin’ on The Ritz is swirling its way round the UK currently and Pixie Lott tangos into certain venues. She doesn’t grace the stage in Windsor, sadly, but we have three impressive performances from the Strictly couple Jared Murillo and Katya Virshilas, plus Britain’s Got Talent’s Becky O’Brien.

Puttin’ On The Ritz features music from George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. All classics, toe-tappers and from that point of view s’wonderful.

You can immediately recognise that this show started in the USA. David King, producer and director has had immense success across the globe and owns theatres in America. I felt this was designed for Vegas rather than UK suburbia. There were more sequins and glitter than Katie Price could cope with, and alas, no story. Any dance lover will drop their Beechdean ice cream, absorbed by the choreography. I may be steppin’ out of turn here, but I felt a little dizzy-sick, and it wasn’t the ice cream.

After 15 years as a conference producer I wasn’t keen on seeing projection screens flown in to advise us what the tune was in Death-by-PowerPoint on a bad night and day. Sometimes anything doesn’t go.

So…Costumes: fabulous. Choreography: strong. Experience: overwhelming. Glitter and feathers: everywhere. Music set: caters for all.

Mr Gershwin, I hope I ain’t misbehavin’ when I say the show offers incredibly colourful and suberbly executed dance to some of the best tunes ever composed, but on this occasion, not for me. Perhaps not my idea of The Ritz, but for glitz, you can’t fault it. My reviewing career on the other hand, may have just gone down the Swanee.

For anyone who has got rhythm, wants a sit-back-and-take-in music and dance spectacle, where sunglasses simply ain't necessary, anything goes at Windsor for its last night tonight and all tour dates can be viewed here.

http://www.puttinontheritztour.com/

Reviewed by Kate Braxton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 10th

September Tide at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

 

 

 

Half way through its six-week season, the Windsor Repertory Company is proving very popular.

 

It’s a mixed bag, with plays by Francis Durbridge, David Hare, Noel Coward, and Alan Ayckbourn among them. And this week’s offering is Daphne Du Maurier’s moral tale, September Tide.

 

The play, written and set in 1948, charts the relationship of Stella Martyn, a middle-aged widow, and her new son-in-law, famous artist Evan Davis, who fall in love without telling each other until the tide turns, and a turbulent September storm runs parallel with their emotions.

 

Set in designer David Shields’ authentic Cornish cottage, it is easy to be drawn into this riveting tale. Ellen Verenieks as Stella, although not my idea of a mother of two grown-up children, is caring, sensitive and lonely, and an obvious target for the self-obsessed artist, played by James Lawrence.

 

Her children are monsters. Jimmy (John Askew) on sick leave from the Navy, orders her about, while her daughter – and Evan’s wife – Cherry is selfish and spoilt, and Sarah Dungworth portrays her to a T, even to stomping around like a petulant little girl.

 

James Pellow as family friend Robert Hanson, although looking out for Stella, really is depressing, wonderfully so, while Julie Ross as Mrs Tucket, is everything a housekeeper should be.

 

I was riveted by this production, even though there were some things which weren’t quite right, and which director Max Reynolds may like to address. Having just finished a painting, which looked like oils, Evan props it up against another – surely the paint would have still been wet. And when he burns his painting of Stella he rips off a flimsy piece of paper from the frame, when you’d expect him to be painting on canvas. And why, when Stella had made her attic into Evan’s studio, was he painting in the living room? The men’s clothes didn’t match the period, either.

 

But these are minor points which didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this intriguing play.

 

September Tide is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until June 13 and is part of the Windsor Repertory Season which continues until 4 July.

 

Box Office: 01753 853888

 

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

 

May 20th

Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Theatre Royal Windsor

By Clare Brotherwood

 Peter Pan Goes Wrong

 

When three graduates from LAMDA got together to form Mischief Theatre and write The Play that Goes Wrong, I knew they were going places.

The Play That Goes Wrong has now been in London’s West End since last September, and is this year’s winner of the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, while their second production, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, is making the rounds of regional theatres including, I am delighted to say, my local theatre in Windsor.

I don’t know where to begin with my praise for this company. Writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields are comic genii and, under the direction of Adam Meggido, their actors fly (or not) through this uproariously funny play with the precision of brain surgeons and the skill and energy of Olympic athletes.

It’s a tour de force from beginning to end as amdram society Cornley Polytechnic attempts to put on a Christmas Show which, due to a booking error, is being staged in May! This follows previous shows such as Jack and the Bean (funding ran out) and Rumpelstiltskin who, following a disastrous haircut, was imprisoned in a bungalow.

There is so much to commend this production, but to go into detail would spoil the fun of being surprised by the next death defying stunt as things go disastrously wrong. Every member of the cast is brilliant and, together with the ingenious set designed by Simon Scullion, makes what must be a frighteningly difficult  piece look so easy – and so funny I thought I was going to laugh myself sick.

As I said to a doctor this morning: You should send all your patients to see this. It’s the best tonic ever! Roll on Mischief Theatre’s next production.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until May 23.

 

Box office: 01753 853888

 

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

 

It then continues touring:

May 25-30: Leicester Curve

June 1-6: Dartford Orchard Theatre

June 8-13: Swindon Wyvern Theatre

June 18-21: Leeds Grand Theatre

July 1-4: Newcastle Theatre Royal

July 6-11: Nottingham Theatre Royal

www.mischieftheatre.co.uk