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Jun 11th

The Mousetrap

By Steve Burbridge

 

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The Mousetrap – Darlington Civic Theatre

The Queen of Crime’s most famous masterpiece has arrived in Darlington in a blaze of glory, ahead of playing to packed houses for the entire duration of its six-day run.

The Mousetrap is famous around the world for being the longest running show of any kind in the history of British theatre – with almost 25,000 performances, spanning 60 record-breaking years, and for the first time ever it is now on tour.

A stellar cast, comprising a number of former soap stars, relish the opportunity to be part of what is, quite indisputably, a national treasure. True to form, Agatha Christie assembles her characters in an isolated country manor and then (in this particular case, by means of inclement weather conditions) cuts them off from the outside world. And so the foul play begins ...

To outline the plot would be to risk revealing the best kept secret in theatre and it would be churlish to do so. Suffice to say that, as you would expect, there is intrigue, suspense, twists, turns and red herrings galore. Each and every character is reluctant to reveal much about themselves, which makes Sgt Trotter’s (Bob Saul) task an unenviable one. Having arrived at Monkswell Manor direct from investigating the murder of Maureen Lyons in London, he warns that any of the residents of the newly-opened guest house could be the next victim – and any one of them could, indeed, be the murderer!

The first act does a fine job of introducing the characters to the audience: the proprietors of Monkswell Manor, Mollie Ralston (Jemma Walker) and her husband, Giles (Bruno Langley); the eccentric, oddly-named Christopher Wren (Steven France), the acerbic ex-magistrate Mrs Boyle (Elizabeth Power); the strangely aloof Miss Casewell (Clare Wilkie); the retired Major Metcalf (Graham Seed) and the mysterious foreigner Mr Paravicini (Karl Howman), whilst also making good use of some light humour. It culminates in the brutal murder of one of the household.

The second act concentrates on the investigation of the murder and the prevention of a third (it has been deduced by now that the killer is using a famous childhood nursery rhyme as inspiration). The suspense builds nicely and the intricacy of the plot is testament to Christie’s cleverness.

Despite the fact that The Mousetrap is not widely regarded as Christie’s best piece of writing, it is a well-constructed whodunit that has stood the test of time. This particular production is well-directed and has some solid performances from a strong cast. Mention must be made of the set, too, which is spectacular and beautifully detailed – snow can be seen falling outside the windows! 

Indeed, it is a thrill and a joy to be able to enjoy such an iconic piece as The Mousetrap in the splendour of the beautiful Civic Theatre in Darlington and the two combine to make it an evening never to be forgotten.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs at Darlington until Saturday 15th June, 2013, then continues to tour until mid-2014.

To book tickets telephone 01325 486 555 or visit www.darlingtoncivic.co.uk

 

Jun 4th

The Governess

By Steve Burbridge

 

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The Governess – Darlington Civic Theatre

Patrick Hamilton’s recently rediscovered psychological thriller has been given a stylish new lease of life by Bill Kenwright and is currently undertaking a short tour, prior to a West End run.

Ethel Fry, the sinister titular Governess, takes up a position in the Drew household and proceeds to manipulate and deceive all around her. And when the Drew’s infant child vanishes, the house is thrown into further turmoil

Boasting a stellar cast, headed by Jenny Seagrove and Peter Bowles, and with beautifully authentic costumes and an excellent set that enhances the claustrophobic atmosphere of the house and the events which, subsequently, occur within it, I had high hopes for this production and really wanted to love it.

However, despite the sterling efforts of the acclaimed cast, a number of factors combined to diminish the potential of the piece. Firstly, the piece does not really sit comfortably in any one particular genre – it is a little too predictable and formulaic to be described as a psychological thriller. We know from a fairly early point that the Governess is the antagonist and that she is ‘involved’ with the master of the house and the disappearance of the infant (though in totally different ways!). Furthermore, she is nowhere near as sinister as Mrs Danvers (from Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’) or as ominously chilling as Susan Hill’s ‘Woman in Black’.

Additionally, the way in which the piece is written deprives the audience of any real sense of suspense – too much is given away too soon and the denouement can only be described as rather underwhelming.

Most of the faults associated with this production are to be apportioned to Patrick Hamilton’s writing, although I would have expected a director with credentials as impressive as Roy Marsden’s to ensure that dialogue was delivered ‘out’. Unfortunately, I lost several of Peter Bowles’ lines due to them being directed upstage whilst his back was to the audience.

On the whole, The Governess is an inoffensive production which will appeal to fans of Victorian melodramas (although Hamilton’s other creation, ‘Gaslight’, is far superior) and it is a pleasant enough way to pass an evening. However, I do feel that, in the case of this particular production, style far outweighs substance.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs at Darlington Civic Theatre until Saturday 8th June then tours to Richmond Theatre, prior to the West End.

To book, telephone 01325 486 555 or log on to www.darlingtoncivic.co.uk

 

May 22nd

Rising Damp - Darlington Civic Theatre

By Steve Burbridge

 

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Rising Damp – Darlington Civic Theatre

Whether it can be attributed to a growing appetite for nostalgia (which always seems to be the case in austere times) or a lack of confidence in producing new pieces by untried and untested new writers (which, ironically, also seems to be the case in austere times!), theatres the length and breadth of Britain have been swamped with a plethora of stage versions of our favourite television sitcoms.

Already, we have had Dad’s Army, Porridge, ’Allo, ’Allo, Last of the Summer Wine and Steptoe and Son, and each production has met with varying degrees of success. Yet, one company seems to have perfected the art of transferring well-loved comedy classics from the small screen to the stage.

The Comedy Theatre Company, headed up by Jan Hunt and David Graham, have already served-up dinnerladies and dinnerladies: Second Helpings, ensured that our social etiquette is on top form with Keeping Up Appearances, and they are currently flying to higher heights and breaking box office records with their production of Birds of a Feather (which stars all three original cast members: Pauline Quirke, Linda Robson and Lesley Joseph!). They, too, are responsible for this excellent production of Rising Damp.

The television series, which ran for twenty-eight episodes over four series, was broadcast between 1974 and 1978 and was the highest-ranking ITV sitcom on the 100 Best Sitcoms poll run in 2004 by the BBC. However, as with many sitcoms of that era (including ’Til Death Us Do Part, Love Thy Neighbour and Mind Your Language), Rising Damp has since been criticised for its racist undertones. So, how would it be received by a far more ‘politically correct’ twenty-first century audience?

In truth, the vast majority of the audience in Darlington on press night appeared to be of an age that would be able to remember the original television series, so it was more a case of living up to their expectations than reaching out to attract a new audience.

That said, this production should be praised for its many strengths. I am slightly too young to recall, with any great degree of certainty, whether the script has been modified to remove some of the more overt racist remarks. However, in a clever and pleasingly gentle manner, it managed to dispel a whole range of prejudices towards race, religion and sex.

The humour in Eric Chappell’s script is subtle enough to elicit chuckles rather than belly laughs and the direction from original TV series star Don Warrington certainly adds an authority and authenticity which works to good effect.

The cast of four (Stephen Chapman as Rigsby; Amanda Hadingue as Miss Jones; Cornelius Macarthy as Philip; Paul Morse as Alan) are a cohesive team and work hard in their respective roles and their characterisations are as near to their television counterparts  as you could hope for. It came as a huge relief that they opted to inject just the right amount of mannerisms to reflect those of the original, without descending into the depths of caricature and mimicry. Not an easy task to accomplish, but they did so with aplomb.

Add into the mix a splendid set, designed by Judy Reaves (who is also responsible for costume design), and all the components combine to provide an evening of nostalgic delight.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs at Darlington until Saturday 25 May, then continues to touring to Salford, Malvern, Norwich, Sheffield, Woking, Bradford and Richmond.

For tickets telephone 01325 486 555 or visit www.darlingtoncivic.co.uk
 

May 16th

Murder, Marple & Me - The Customs House, South Shields

By Steve Burbridge

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Murder, Marple & Me – The Customs House, South Shields

Margaret Rutherford’s performance as Miss Marple made her a true movie icon, but it nearly didn’t happen. This intriguing new play, by Philip Meeks, humorously unearths the fascinating reasons why.

Janet Prince, playing Rutherford, Agatha Christie and Miss Marple is nothing less than a one-woman wonder. Seldom have I seen a performer own a stage and single-handedly hold the attention of an entire audience for more than an hour in the way that she does. Everything about her performance is utterly compelling – from the way she inhabits each character with a complete conviction that seems effortless, to the glint in her eyes that flash frequently with dazzling intensity.

As it should be, Murder, Marple & Me is a deeply intimate production. As we witness a clash of two of Britain’s most influential women in the arts in the 1950s and 60s who staggered through a mutual distaste for each other, and a serious aversion to each other’s work, Meeks demonstrates the trademarks of his craft that have confirmed him as one of the defining playwrights of his generation.

Beautifully-written and masterfully crafted, the ebullience of Rutherford’s personality is pitched perfectly. This contrasts nicely with the demure spinster sleuth, Miss Marple, who sits on the sidelines, knitting all the while, and acting as something akin to narrator, and the clipped, cut-glass tones of the rather haughty Dame Agatha. Often moving and, at times, deeply poignant, Meeks avoids over-sentimentality by lacing the script with some wonderfully witty one-liners that have a tendency to take you completely by surprise.

Indeed, this first-class production, which is now touring having enjoyed a sell-out run at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, offers a fascinating foray into the life of a flawed, fallible woman who endured a traumatic childhood which would result in her spending periods in mental institutions and embarking upon eccentric relationships with stuffed toys.

On stage, we are drawn into the interwoven story of three intriguing, larger than life characters and, in the same way that Rutherford, Christie and Marple were a force to be reckoned with, off stage it is the talented trio made up by actress Janet Prince, writer Philip Meeks and director Stella Duffy that have created a wonderfully entertaining and truly memorable play.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs at The Customs House until Wednesday 16 May 2013, before continuing to tour until the end of June.

www.gildedballoon.co.uk

 

May 15th

Bohemian Rhapsody: The Music of Queen

By Steve Burbridge

 

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Bohemian Rhapsody: The Music of Queen – Darlington Civic Theatre

The decision to present a tribute concert based around the hits of one of the greatest super-groups of all time, Queen, is an audacious one. After all, who can mesmerise an audience like Freddie Mercury could? And who can play an electric guitar like Brian May can?

So, would Bohemian Rhapsody: The Music of Queen enable Spirit Productions to proclaim that ‘We Are The Champions’? Or would it be a case of ‘Another One Bites The Dust’?

The result was something of a mixed affair. Undoubtedly, the Queen back catalogue of hits provides a veritable cornucopia of classic anthems to be performed and despite finding themselves ‘Under Pressure’ in the first act, wherein the band often drowned out the vocals, the cast valiantly adhered to the old adage that ‘The Show Must Go On’.

Things improved as time went on and there were some impressive vocal performances from Amy Diamond, Rebecca Kelly and Kelly Ann Gower. The heavy weight of responsibility of stepping into Freddie Mercury’s shoes fell upon the shoulders of Nathan James. Whilst credit must be given to James for giving it his best shot, I felt that he lacked ‘A Kind of Magic’ that Freddie had by the bucket-load.

As with their previous production, Dancing Queen, which was at the Civic around this time last year, it is with the production values that Spirit Productions really let themselves down. The costumes were more Rocky Horror than Rock Gods, with the female performers parading around in red and black leather corsets and basques while the males donned leather trousers and waistcoats. And the sight of Giovanni Spano performing ‘I Want to Break Free’ in fishnet tights and suspenders, looking more like Frank ‘n’ Furter than Freddie, was as cringe-worthy as it was preposterous.

Executive Producer and Director David King may have had in mind ‘One Vision’ when he produced this show. Unfortunately, it is not shared by me. However, in the interests of objectivity, I must point out that the audience on press night did seem to be enjoying themselves and there was a rapturous round of applause at curtain call.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 18 May 2013.

For tickets telephone 01325 486 555 or log on to www.darlingtoncivic.co.uk

 

 

May 1st

ASCO: The Supermarket Musical

By Steve Burbridge

ASCO: The Supermarket Musical – Boulevard, Newcastle upon Tyne


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Newcastle’s very own cabaret showbar, Boulevard, played host to the world premiere of ASCO: The Supermarket Musical on Monday evening, proving that price-wars have never been such fun!

The evening was hosted by the venue’s very own Miss Rory – seven feet of sequins and feathers with an acidic tongue that could strip wallpaper with just one sigh! Nobody is safe from her caustic quips, especially when, as on this occasion, she has the BBC 3 cameras to play to. Having warmed-up (or frightened to death?) the crowd, Miss Rory progressed to introduce the main event.

The story centres around Dale (Tom Whalley) a young primary education graduate who, by sheer misfortune, finds himself working in ASDA. This was never the ‘career’ he’d hoped for and he initially despairs at his situation, struggling to comprehend the importance placed upon corporate politics and the battle between ASDA, his employers, and the branch of Tesco situated at the opposite side of a shared car park.

Tom Whalley, who also wrote the book and lyrics, demonstrates great talent as Dale, the idealistic, young would-be teacher whose life spirals into supermarket despair. His geeky, gangly physicality contrasted perfectly with a fantastic vocal prowess that raised hairs on the back of necks as each note travelled from the stage to the rear of the auditorium.

Indeed, the entire cast deserve praise for their talent, energy and enthusiasm. The musical numbers, composed by Alexander Proudlock, are belted out with unabashed gusto and are cleverly choreographed, too.

As you might expect, a supermarket is a rich breeding ground for stereotypical characters and witty one-liners. Whalley uses this as a distinct advantage. We meet Angela (Kylie Ford) and Alan (Liam Olsen) a couple who “met in 1969 at a holiday camp – it was a match made in Haven”, married and set up their own village store and post office which has since become another victim of the superstore in which they both now work; Gavin the greeter (Dan Mawston), as camp as Christmas (“I always find comfort coming in George!”) and still insisting that he is a heterosexual who just hasn’t found the right girl yet; Donna (Jessica Brady), the overweight checkout girl who develops a crush on Dale, despite the fact that he hardly knows she exists, and a whole host of other crazy characters.

Despite the fact that this comedy-musical is essentially a spoof of supermarkets, Whalley manages to pepper it with moments of genuine pathos and poignancy. He ensures that, no matter how exaggerated – or indeed caricatured – his characters are, we do care about each of them. And that’s no mean feat!

Staged as a 45 minute one-act try-out, ASCO: The Supermarket Musical certainly has the potential to be developed into a full-length production.  With more froth than an ASDA own-brand bubble-bath, more fizz than a bottle of Tesco bubbly and more mince than both stores’ butcheries combined, this is no bargain basement production. In fact, you are guaranteed to get more than you bargained for as it is sure to have you rolling in the aisles.

Steve Burbridge.

THERE ARE NO FURTHER PERFORMANCES SCHEDULED AT PRESENT. 

Apr 23rd

Testing Times at Trent House, Newcastle

By Cameron Lowe

Review by Ed Waugh

Testing TimesThe title of this excellent debut piece by Steve Burbridge has a double meaning; testing as in being tested for a sexually transmitted disease and testing as to the turbulent and difficult times for the person and his loved ones when diagnosed HIV.

Burbridge, who also directed and produced the show, conducted extensive interviews with men infected with HIV and AIDS and has created a no-holds-barred but ultimately warm and at times funny, heartfelt story about suffering, friendship and compassion.

Dominic (Christopher Strain) is the 20-something who relates how he always knew he was different. At school he was bullied for wanting to play catchy kissy but on the girls’ side and he’d fight with is sister because he wanted to play with her dolls. Tynemouth-based Strain gives a heart-rending account of being sexually abused as a teenager and his joy when he later met Chris (Collin Baxter).

Chris gives his perspective of their meeting and life together and the initially wary response of Dominic’s loving mother Brenda (Pauline Fleming).

When Dominic is diagnosed HIV we encounter the public and inner angst and fears of all three characters.

HIV is incurable and not without major physical discomfort for the sufferer but it is a treatable disease. This play is not for the faint-hearted: medical facts are related in graphic detail.

Through a series of monologues and informal interjections we witness the tumultuous but ultimately loving relationship between all three. And your heart goes out to young Dominic whose sexual transgressions are minor on a scale compared with some heterosexual men at that stage in his life but he’s been unlucky.

The upshot is that this moving, well-crafted and well-acted piece could pertain to any family with a loved one suffering from a life-threatening disease.

Ed Waugh

Testing Times is at The Trent House, Leazes Lane, Newcastle, until Saturday 27 April.  For ticket information and times contact (0191) 261 2154

Mar 20th

Cadfael: The Virgin In The Ice

By Steve Burbridge

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CADFAEL: The Virgin In The Ice – Darlington Civic Theatre

Occasionally, a production comes along which promises far more than it is able to deliver – Cadfael: The Virgin in the Ice is one such production. It is a great shame as I had high hopes that this adaptation would be a memorable one for all the right reasons. After all it is produced by Middle Ground Theatre Company, the same company who brought to the stage of Darlington’s Civic Theatre a number of high-quality productions including The Holly and the Ivy, On Golden Pond and Columbo: Prescription Murder, and it has Michael Lunney at the helm, as adapter, director and designer.

Sadly, Cadfael: The Virgin in the Ice underwhelms and disappoints on many more levels than it should. Billed as “a classic medieval murder mystery”, the production is as much a victim as any of those murdered.

It is winter 1139 and raging civil war has sent many refugees fleeing north from Worcester, among them the orphaned Yves Hugonin (Daniel Murray), his beautiful sister Ermina (Hannah Burton) and a young nun, Sister Hilaria (Jenny-May Darcy). The disappearance of the aforementioned three sees Brother Cadfael (Gareth Thomas) embark upon a dangerous quest to find them.

So, the premise is fine – it’s the execution that disappoints. It is apparent that Lunney has attempted to deliver “a stunning new production”, it’s just that his ambition seems to outweigh his abilities. For the film projections, complex sets, snow-storms, bespoke music and other unnecessary gimmicks only serve to hamper the flow of the production rather than enhance it.

The fifteen-strong cast deliver decent performances overall, save for a few unintentional comic moments involving costume malfunctions, and Gareth Thomas is believable in the title role. However, try as they might, their earnest performances are not enough to detract from the amateurishness tone of the production as a whole.

Unfortunately, this production is under-rehearsed and underwhelming and, in my opinion, was nowhere near ready to be put before an audience.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs at Darlington until Saturday 23 March 2013.

To book visit www.darlingtonarts.co.uk or telephone 01325 486 555.

Mar 8th

The Space Between Us

By Steve Burbridge

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The Space Between Us – The Customs House, South Shields

The concept of Catrina McHugh’s The Space Between Us is an intriguing one. With freak storms and flash floods still very much ingrained in the collective memory of the North East, the concept of the region being gripped by a storm of biblical proportions does not require the imagination to be stretched too far.

Three months of rain fall in one day, roads are closed, rivers are bursting their banks and the region is submerged under water. Blown from four corners of the earth, four women seek sanctuary, security and refuge.

As the drama begins, the performances are strong and the action is fast-paced. We are introduced to four very different women from contrasting cultural backgrounds: Eyshan (Ioana Tudor), a Czech Roma; Eman (Seda Yildiz), a Syrian Muslim; Zeyna (Joana Geronimo), a West African asylum seeker, and Cheyanne (Jessica Johnson), a gypsy traveller. Soon, they find themselves in a battle, not only with the rising tide and each other – but also with humanity itself.

The writing effectively and emotively conveys that each of these women is the victim of inequality, injustice and humiliation. Yet, rather than a bond being borne as a result of shared experiences, initially, the women are as discriminatory towards each other, just as society, at large, has been to them as individuals. The audience is suddenly thrust into a mix of ignorance, misunderstanding, intolerance and conflict.

Gradually, as the individual back stories of each character is revealed, layer by layer, and because the women are forced to operate as a unit in order to survive, they each find common ground which, ultimately, leads to new levels of understanding, respect and hope being reached.

The piece is produced by ‘Open Clasp’, a women’s theatre company which specialises in staging theatre from a female gaze, aimed at mixed audiences. Whilst this ethos is evident, to their credit, in the truthful portrayals of the female characters they let themselves down in their attitude towards men – or, to be more specific, they certainly do in this play, at least.

As a feminist myself, I do not dispute that women all over the world are oppressed, brutalised and even killed at the hands of men – the shocking statistics speak loudly enough for themselves. However, I do take offence that all men are lumped, collectively, together and tarred with the same brush.

Throughout the 100 minute female-only performance, I do not recall hearing a single positive reference about the male of the species. Indeed, the only representation of masculinity at all was in the form of a pair of heavy boots, the protective body armour vest of a security guard and a wallet containing a driving licence and two hundred pounds in cash. This, in my opinion, could only be construed as a metaphor for control, authority, force and objectification – an inexcusable generalisation that completely flies in the face of aiming to appeal to ‘mixed audiences’.

A couple of other issues marred my enjoyment of what would otherwise have been a thoroughly engaging and thought-provoking piece. Firstly, the lack of an interval (an hour and forty minutes is a long time to sit listening to the sound effects of rainfall without having the appropriate opportunity to take a comfort break!) and, secondly, the lack of any real resolution or denouement. It seemed to me as though McHugh had merely ran out of ideas for a conclusion and, instead, simply stopped writing.

The Space Between Us could, I am certain, evolve into the production it has the potential to be – provided that some skilful editing is undertaken and the writer/production company adopts a far less strident attitude in its approach towards men as a gender.

Steve Burbridge.

Touring the North East until 20 April 2013. For venue details and booking information visit www.openclasp.org.uk

Mar 7th

James and the Giant Peach

By Steve Burbridge

 

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James and the Giant Peach – Darlington Civic Theatre

The zany and surreal world of Roald Dahl has, once again, burst on to the stage of the Civic Theatre. Following on from the 2010 production of George’s Marvellous Medicine, the Birmingham Stage Company are now presenting a new adaptation of the classic Dahl story, James and the Giant Peach.

Dahl is an expert at making the implausible seem totally plausible – it is easy to suspend disbelief and accept that James’ parents were devoured by a rhinoceros rampaging along Regent Street, during a shopping trip to London – and, similarly, so is the BSC.

Once again, David Wood has vividly and vibrantly adapted the original Dahl novel and perfectly captured the magically grotesque qualities of the colourful characters. The performances are strong too, with Claire Greenway and Sioned Saunders making a marvellous double act as the hideous aunts, Sponge and Spiker. Holly White’s costumes splendidly aid the physical characterisation of Centipede (Chris Lindon), Earthworm (Rhys Saunders), Grasshopper (Iwan Tudor), Ladybird (Claire Greenway) and Spider (Sioned Saunders).

However, as was the case with Clark Devlin in George’s Marvellous Medicine, it is Tom Gillies’ James who drives the story and steals the show. Gillies’ boyish looks and keenly-observed mannerisms completely convinced the audience that he was a seven-year-old boy.

The imaginative use of props and puppets provides an additional focus to retain the attention of potentially wandering young minds and the set is both functional and visually impressive.

Whilst this production has a lot of plus points – not least of which is the incredibly talented cast (who also spare the company the additional expense of a band/orchestra by playing all of the instruments themselves) – it is not without flaws. In a conversation with a fellow reviewer, we both bemoaned the fact that what was happening in the wing-space was constantly on view, thus perhaps causing something of an irksome distraction and dispelling a certain amount of magic for the youngsters in the audience who were so readily willing to be totally transported into the weird and wonderful world of James and his insect friends.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 9 March 2013.

For tickets visit www.darlington.arts.co.uk or call 01325 486 555