Review: The Girl with the Reindeer Knitting Pattern – a Dick Barton Adventure

B Hoodlum (Clive Elkington) and A Hoodlum (Luke Burton) discuss their master plan. Photos by Savannah Photographic

If there is ever a time for all out silliness on stage it is most certainly the festive season.

And we’re not talking pantomime with its slapstick chuckles and ‘he’s behind you’ chants, instead it’s the madcap world of special agent Dick Barton.

The Studio Company has well and truly put its own stamp on Dick Barton, the special agent who was the eponymous hero of a radio series in the late 40s and early 50s, and come up with a lively production, filled with plenty of festive fun.

Dick (Quiller Rees) and Snowy (Gordon Coe) are in a tricky situation while Jock (Adrian Tang) tries to appease Klaus (David Rhodes)

Our heroic trio, Dick (Quiller Rees), Jock (Adrian Tang) and Snowy, played with fantastic expression by Gordon Coe, smell something fishy about a new restaurant and set off to investigate.

The restaurant owner, Klaus Holland, performed with a fantastically silly Nordic accent by David Rhodes, is clearly up to no good, but why does he have so many Christmas puddings and why do Santa (Luke Burton) and his elf (Clive Elkington) appear to be delivering them?

The plot is fun and frivolous and the cast go full throttle, running around the stage and keeping a great energy throughout. The jokes came thick and fast, with few gags eliciting some actual groans from the audience. But while some jokes got a titter from the sold-out crowd, including a few moments of amusing word-play, the laugh-out-loud jokes we would expect from the comedy-detective genre were missing. A few easy innuendo jokes fell flat and perhaps a bolder delivery would gather more giggles.

There were times when the production dipped a toe into the all-out ridiculous – a brief, unexplained arrival in France, a Russel Brand-esque drunk host with more hair than face and an octopus being thrown at someone during a dark chase scene – but it wasn’t consistent. If director David Wembridge was brave enough to tip the scales closer to the surreal there’s potential for a really wacky, hilarious production.

The brilliant ice cream ladies

But despite being held back a little, there is plenty to entertain. An impromptu dance sequence worked wonderfully, two ice-cream ladies made a fantastic cameo, and there was enough Christmas spirit to power Santa’s sleigh.

Although it may not have you belly laughing throughout, Dick Barton’s adventure will certainly bring you plenty of festive cheer.

The Girl with the Reindeer Knitting Pattern – A Dick Barton Adventure is at South Hill Park until Saturday, 17 December. To book visit www.southhilllpark.org.uk.

I was invited to review the production so my ticket was complimentary but all views are my own.

Buttons spills the beans on Cinderella at South Hill Park

There is frost on the ground, twinkling lights are decorating the town and we get to open our advent calendars this week –  Christmas is officially on its way!

And with Christmas comes the wonderful, silly, magical, hilarious, outrageous and fun event that is panto! This year South Hill Park will be waving a magic wand and bringing Cinderella to the stage and it sounds like it’s going to be a spectacular production (as always!).

Each year South Hill Park offers a heart-warming production for the whole family, and this year will be no exception with an original score and script promising something truly unique.

But don’t take my word for it! We caught up with Buttons (known to his pals as Kristian Cunningham) who told us why you should check out the show this winter.

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Hi Buttons, thanks very much for doing our Q&A!

First things first, how are you finding life at South Hill Park and are you looking forward to spending the festive season here?

HELLO! I’m really really enjoying my time at South Hill Park, the surroundings are beautiful and green and it gives me plenty of room to go zooming around on my hover board! I can’t wait to spend the next few months here and getting to see more and meet all the boys and girls.

What can people expect from panto at South Hill Park this year?

A whole lot of fun! There’s this really funny guy in it.. he’s about 5ft 7, dark curly hair, best friends with Cinderella, high squeaky voice.. name begins with ‘B’ and ends in ‘uttons’ – if that’s not a good enough excuse to come see it, I don’t know what is!

What’s your favourite thing about Christmas?

Games on Christmas Day! And fairy lights? I love fairy lights! Oh and also festive spirit and happiness that everyone feels.

Have you done your Christmas shopping yet, and can you tell us what you’ve bought for Cinderella (we promise not to tell her!)?

I’ve not even given it one thought as of yet! My birthday is 14th November so I refuse to give Christmas presents a thought until that’s out the way! However I know exactly what I’m getting Cinders.. firstly I’m gonna buy her a giant button for her to carry round to remind her of me! Then I’m going to buy her a nice warm woolly coat for our winter walks around south hill park!

If you had one message for the folks of Berkshire about why they should come and see Cinderella at South Hill Park, what would it be?

Because I’m in it? KIDDING! Because it’s got some great original music, the set is incredible, and our cast and children are extremely talented and light up that stage. You do not want to miss out on the fun! Or my entrance.. I’ve been working very hard! See you there and can’t wait to meet all the boys and girls!

Cinderella is at South Hill Park in Bracknell from Wednesday, 30 November to Tuesday, 3 January. To book visit www.southhillpark.org.uk.

Review: High Society at The Mill at Sonning

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Bethan Nash is sensational as Tracy Lord. All photos by Craig Sugden
Bethan Nash is sensational as Tracy Lord. All photos by Craig Sugden

Musicals at The Mill have not been a common occurrence in recent years but after High Society it’s likely audiences will be begging the theatre’s programming director for more.

Dripping in glamour and with a sensational score performed as if it were in the West End, The Mill’s revival of High Society is an all-out musical spectacular.

Cole Porter’s 1956 musical, which was based on the play The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry, revolves around the upcoming wedding of wealthy socialite Tracy Lord (Bethan Nash). As the Lord family prepare for the wedding in their glamorous Oyster Bay home, a few unexpected visitors arrive in the form of Tracy’s ex-husband Dexter Haven (Andrew Alexander) and reporters from Spy magazine who have some dirt to dish on Tracy’s father, and are looking to write an expose on her wedding in return for keeping quiet.

As the champagne starts flowing and things get rather out of hand, Tracy has three men vying for her affections and she must decide who it is she truly wants to be with.

Tracy (Bethan Nash) gets ready for her wedding day
Tracy (Bethan Nash) gets ready for her wedding day

It took more than 40 years for Cole Porter’s film to be translated to the stage, and seeing the glitzy spectacle at The Mill it would seem those are 40 years of missed opportunity. The musical is a visual treat with its simple but stylish set, designed by Ryan Laight, allowing the stunning costumes, and band, to take prominence. Costume designer Natalie Titchener has created a wardrobe which oozes glamour with its silks and sparkles, and the cast wear it well, with Tracy floating across the stage, looking every bit the screen siren.

The band are present on stage throughout, split with pianist on a high platform on one side, and multi-instrumentalists on the other and it’s a marvel to see how quickly they switch instruments throughout the show.

Director Joseph Pitcher has chosen to accentuate the glamour of the Lord family at every moment, with bottles and flutes of champagne pretty much a constant prop on stage, but Pitcher doesn’t make us envy the Lords. Instead we are part of their fun, and we get just as carried away with the fabulous party sequence, where the wedding party let their hair down the night before the nuptials.

Uncle Willie (David Delve) let's lose after a few gins too many
Uncle Willie (David Delve) lets loose after a few gins too many

Tracy is no spoilt brat and Nash makes us warm to her as we see her inner struggle between heart and head. Her vocal performance is nothing short of perfect, with a gorgeous tone to each number and she shares a fantastic vintage quality with Andrew Alexander as Dexter, with both harking back to Porter’s 1956 original score.

Casting is superb throughout – David Delve is hilarious as the drunken Uncle Willie, while Kirsty Ingram also brings in plenty of giggles as cheeky little sister Dinah Lord, despite it being a little difficult to place her intended age. Gemma Maclean is glamorous and heartfelt as reporter Liz Imbrie, showcasing a wonderful depth to her character in her number He’s a Right Guy.

The Mill couldn’t have picked a better production for its festive offering and with plenty of glitz, a bucket load of fun (and champagne!) and a love story at its heart, it’s the ideal way to round up the year.

High Society is at The Mill at Sonning until 14 January. To book visit www.millatsonning.com.

I was invited to press night so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.

Review: Writefest at Progress Theatre

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Kate (Lauren Gilbert) and Katie (Bethan Perkins) try to deal with the effects of religious dogma in How Do I Love Thee. Photos by Martin Noble
Katie (Bethan Perkins) and Kate (Lauren Gilbert) try to deal with the effects of religious dogma in How Do I Love Thee. All photos by Martin Noble.

Progress Theatre is well-known for unearthing top local acting talent but that skill also extends to the hidden gems of the writing world too.

Writefest, which is now in its 11th year, is the theatre’s annual celebration of new writing, and 2016 is a real rainbow of entertainment, with witty comedies sitting neatly next to powerful drama.

Organising the running order of seven original and different short plays is no easy task, let alone sorting the director and crew for each, and wading through all the entries in the first place, but producers Heather Noble and Christine Moran have curated a spectacular evening with seven memorable pieces. Compared by warm host Stuart McCubbin, who peppers the show with funny little poems while set changes take place, Writefest 2016 is a showcase not to be missed.

The Cutting Man by Matthew Wilkie

A man (Biffi Bear) deals with his grief in a rather unusual way in The Cutting Man
A man (Biffo Bear) deals with his grief in a rather unusual way in The Cutting Man

An understated and powerful exploration of grief, The Cutting Man, follows a man (Biffo Bear) in a library who has an unusual hobby of cutting words from books. As he whispers to us from the dim-lit room, with the librarian (Paula Montie) just out of earshot, we discover the reason behind his strange obsession. A delicate little piece, The Cutting Man has a careful, and well-thought out pace, gradually unravelling the man’s story, not to shock but to make us understand and sympathise with him. Word play is used cleverly here too with the last line of various books interweaving throughout the story. A strong opener with a captivating performance by Biffo Bear.

Knock Knock by Marie French

Sammy (Dan Brown) and Joe (Jack Gunner) travel to their new life in the back of a lorry in Knock Knock.
Sammy (Dan Brown) and Joe (Jack Gunner) travel to their new life in the back of a lorry in Knock Knock.

Why are the English men in the truck? Where are they going? And why are there two Russian girls next door? Knock Knock follows two pairs of friends, Sammy (Dan Brown) and Joe (Jack Gunner) and Katya (Nanette Naude) and Etty (Stephanie Gunner) as they travel in the back of a fish lorry on their way to a new life. Given the current political climate it’s almost impossible not to think of Trump, his immigration policies and the terrifying prospect of his wall, as the group hold their breath, waiting to cross the border into an unnamed country. The cramped, frightened atmosphere is created skillfully with the use of sound and light – unseen guards walk around the outside and torches illuminate each side. But where will they end up? It is the unanswered questions which make this an enthralling story.

Water Torture by Michael Sharp

Beryl (Paula Montie) recounts the events that led her to prison in Water Torture.
Beryl (Paula Montie) recounts the events that led her to prison in Water Torture.

It might seem like the perfect backdrop for a comedy – an elderly lady in a flowery top, incarcerated for fighting with her neighbours over a garden statue – but Water Torture is far from a frivolous comedy about life in Middle England. When her neighbours of 35 years buy a water fountain, Beryl (Paula Montie) and her husband are driven mad by the constant water works. But there’s more to it than just a dislike for the sound of running water. With her husband reliving some painful memories, Beryl sets about fixing the situation. Paula Montie is superb in this one hander, letting Beryl drip her story out gradually until it reaches a tidal crescendo. Sharp’s balance of humour, (and there are plenty of laughs to be had), and something much more sinister, is spot on.

Hamlet’s Essence by Eva Marchetti

The cast of Hamlet ponder Ophelia's early death in Hamlet's Essence.
The cast of Hamlet ponder Ophelia’s early death in Hamlet’s Essence.

In today’s time-poor society has anyone really got the spare hours to watch a whole Shakespeare play? That’s the question posed by Eva Marchetti in Hamlet’s Essence, where a new avant garde theatre group aims to stage a reduced version of Hamlet. With an Ophelia (Nanette Naude) who is desperate to leave early, and a Hamlet (Jack Gunner) who only really wants to give his To Be or Not To Be speech, it’s a hilarious take on one of the Bard’s most famous works. Director Laura Mills has really run with the silliness of the piece and it works, from Ophelia rolling her eyes and telling Hamlet to hurry up, to the slapstick moments of actors sliding themselves off stage when they’ve been killed. Performed by a cast who seemed to be having as much fun on stage as the audience are from their seats, it’s an insiders joke for those who regularly see or perform Shakespeare, and a fun comedy for those new to the Bard’s, sometimes lengthy, productions.

How Do I love Thee by Liz Carroll

Kate (Lauren Gilbert) and Katie (Bethan Perkins) try to deal with their life as their mother Grace (Jane Gibson) looks on
Katie (Bethan Perkins) and Kate (Lauren Gilbert) try to deal with their life as their mother Grace (Jane Gibson) looks on

The stand-out show of this year’s Writefest, How Do I Love Thee, is a gut-wrenching piece of drama, written by Progress Theatre stalwart Liz Carroll, and performed by an exceptional cast. Exploring the dangerous effects of religious dogma, the play tells the story of Kate (Lauren Gilbert), who has been brought up in an extremely religious household. Now at university she has created a new life, but it is one which conflicts with her upbringing . The internal conflict she feels is manifested on stage in the figure of her younger self Katie (Bethan Perkins), and the frightening figure of her father (Paul Gallantry). Gilbert, Perkins and Gallantry are sensational at portraying Kate’s inner fears and demons, while she is watched by her indoctrinated mother (Jane Gibson), Rosie from university (Stephanie Gunner) and her therapist (Patrick Selvanathan). A story of mental illness, vulnerability, indoctrination and ultimately love, How Do I Love Thee is a play you won’t forget in a hurry, and it might just be Carroll’s best piece of writing to date.

Home (A Loan Too) by Jonathan Skinner

Estate Agent Barry (Andy Camichel) shows prospective buyer Ruth (Karolina Michalowicz) around a rather cosy flat in Home (A Loan Too)
Estate Agent Barry (Andy Camichel) shows prospective buyer Ruth (Karolina Michalowicz) around a rather cosy flat in Home (A Loan Too)

Any 20 or 30 something trying to get even a toe on the housing ladder should see Home (A Loan Too). A hilarious and accurately depressing piece of social commentary, the play sees Estate Agent Barry (Andy Camichel) and prospective buyer Ruth (Karoina Michalowicz) taking a tour of an apartment. Barry is all about the sale, causing much laughter as he describes the cramped living area as cosy and leans Ruth outside the window so she can see the river ‘glimpse’ rather than view. In a town where house prices are extortionate, like many others across the South East, this little funny vignette will undoubtedly cause a knowing smile for plenty of audience members.

Mixed Reception by Emma Wyverne

A gardener (Terry McKay) talks television viewers through a few tips for their shrubs in Mixed Reception
A gardener (Terry McKay) talks television viewers through a few tips for their shrubs in Mixed Reception

Ending the programme on a high, Mixed Reception is a witty whirlwind through the television channels. A cookery class, religious sermon, gardening programme, childcare show and the news are all on stage before us, but with a dodgy reception we keep switching from show to show – to hilarious effect. As the childcare host tells us about snow white and the seven… we switch to the news to hear of the…seven Argentinian cocaine smugglers. With fantastic wordplay, Mixed Reception is a thoroughly enjoyable little skit, and for the most part the cast lived up to the challenge of making sure they hit their cues for a seamless broadcast. A lively end to a sensational night of theatre.

The 11th annual Writefest is at Progress Theatre in The Mount, Reading until Saturday, 19 November. To book visit www.progresstheatre.co.uk.

I was invited to review Writefest so my ticket was complimentary but all views are my own.

Review: Chess the Musical by the East Berkshire Operatic Society

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The championship finals in full swing
The championship finals in full swing

The slow, strategic world of chess may seem like an unlikely setting for a musical but the East Berkshire Operatic Society’s (EBOS) latest production shows it is much more than a monochrome backdrop.

With a sizeable cast bursting out songs on the stage and twirling through fantastic dance numbers in unison, this is a world which is full on technicolor.

Set in the Cold War era, Chess, which was written by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus from Abba with lyrics by Tim Rice, follows an American Grandmaster and his Russian opponent, as they prepare to battle it out in the world chess championships. With a tense political landscape behind them, and a woman who develops a relationship with both, not all thoughts are just on the game at hand.

The arrival of the championships in Bangkok was marked with a dazzling dance sequence
The arrival of the championships in Bangkok was marked with a dazzling dance sequence

EBOS has gone all out with Chess, bringing a huge amount of energy and hard work to the production. The set is eye-catching and effective, with a giant chess board on the floor and black and white pieces dotted around the stage. Screens and projections are used cleverly throughout, bringing a hint of the modern to this ancient game.

The cast set the bar high from the flag waving opening of Merano and retained their lively spirit throughout, dancing and singing their way from one number to the next with barely a breath in between.

Choreographer Sophie Horrox has done a fantastic job, both in the more simple full cast numbers, and a stunning, intricate piece of ballet used to represent one of the chess matches, which was performed enchantingly by Mette Isaksen and Courtney Fleming.

A stunning ballet sequence was used to represent the chess match
A stunning ballet sequence was used to represent the chess match

The final match was also represented by a ingenious human chess game, where each dancer moved in the steps of a chess piece on the board while the match took place behind them. The sheer skill required to make sure each piece moves in turn is admirable and there is a real delight in the parallel of strategy required by a choreographer and a chess champion.

While the plot of Chess feels weak at times, with relationships coming and going far too quickly for example, it is a spectacle to enjoy regardless. Daniel Strong as Anatoly, and Kelly Gates as Florence made a fantastic duo with both giving strong performances throughout. Daniel’s final number in the first act, Anthem, showcased a truly remarkable vocal talent which would be more than at home in the West End.

Kelly Gates as Florence and Danieol Strong as Anatoly
Kelly Gates as Florence and Danieol Strong as Anatoly

Some other solos could do with a bit of fine tuning, although each performed with a commendable passion, and at times it felt a little as if the singers were having to compete with the band in an effort to be heard. A few tweaks to the sound might not go a miss, but it certainly didn’t detract from an enjoyable performance.

Chess might not have a reputation for being the most action-packed past time but an evening with EBOS will certainly keep you entertained.

Chess the Musical is at South Hill Park until Saturday, 5 November. To book visit www.southhillpark.org.uk.

I was invited to review Chess so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.

Review: Dracula at Progress Theatre

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The sisters get ready to pounce on their victim, Harker. Photos by Aidan Moran
The sisters get ready to pounce on their victim Jonathan Harker. Photos by Aidan Moran

When a story is as well known as Dracula it falls to those in the arts to give new life to the well-trodden tale.

Theatre makers and film directors have sunk their teeth into Bram Stoker’s work almost continually since its release in 1897, creating a huge portfolio of vampire stories which draw on the novel’s themes in many different ways.

Writer and director Dan Clarke continues the trend for different readings with Progress Theatre’s latest production, in which he places the novel’s women front and centre – quite literally from the moment the play opens with flashing lights illuminating a trio of ghastly vampire sisters.

But it is unclear what Clarke’s intention is of bringing Stoker’s female characters to the fore. Is it to cast light on the silent Gothic woman – often reduced to a weak, helpless victim – or to have some fun with the other Gothic woman, the predator?

Only two male actors appear in the piece, Matt Urwin as a pale and insipid Jonathan Harker, and Ian Blecher, who almost veers into a caricature with his Van Helsing. Both are almost inconsequential, much like the weak Gothic woman, acting as a support to the other characters around them.

Matt Urwin as Jonathan Harker and Ian Belcher as Abraham Van Helsing. Photos by Aidan Moran.
Matt Urwin as Jonathan Harker and Ian Belcher as Abraham Van Helsing. Photos by Aidan Moran.

And so it is left to each of the vampire sisters to double up as one of Lucy’s male suitors, but the purpose of it is unclear. This is not a feminist reading, quite clearly shown in the way every woman in the play is reduced, rather depressingly, to nothing more than a product of her sexual desire. Even the conservative Mina (Megan Turnell) falls foul of her insatiable sexual appetite when she immediately turns to Dracula to relieve her carnal desires after finding out her husband is impotent.

Sexuality and vampires have long gone hand in hand, Twilight made an entire franchise out of it, but here it feels gratuitous. The thrill of Dracula is its subtlety, the threat of the sisters sinking their fangs into Harker but not quite getting there, and the slow build up of the Count seeping into normal society.

But there is no subtlety here. A bed literally stands centre stage, with the vampire sisters stripping off their jackets and hats – markers of their male roles – and disappearing behind a curtain to devour their next victim. If there was any doubt in their intention, a saucy wink as they disappear behind it clears it up quickly.

The sisters: Neve Murray, Rebecca Douglas and Belinda Duffy
The sisters: Neve Murray, Rebecca Douglas and Belinda Duffy

Perhaps then it is the predator we are faced with, but there is no depth to it. We have no background story for the sisters, we only see their bloodlust and desire, and it makes for a gory but uninspiring view.

Of course it is nearly Halloween, and the production’s ghostly theatrics are fun for this time of year. The sisters, played by Belinda Duffy, Neve Murray and Rebecca Douglas, have some fantastically freaky nuances, and all create a strong contrast between their bloodthirsty vampires and male suitors.

There are also playful scares when characters appear suddenly, an eerie soundtrack, and bucket loads of blood, but it all feels a bit hammy. Things also veer into the all out ridiculous with a monstrous battle in Dracula’s crypt, but it seems as if it’s all part of the fun by that point.

It may well be confused in its intention, and adds little to the genre, but for a silly Halloween scarefest it fits the bill.

Dracula is at Progress Theatre in The Mount in Reading until Saturday 29 October. To book visit www.progresstheatre.co.uk

I was invited to review Dracula so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.

Review: Blithe Spirit at The Mill at Sonning

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Madame Arcarti (Elizabeth Power) begins the seance
Madame Arcarti (Elizabeth Power) begins the seance

With a recent UK Theatre Award under its belt for the South East’s most welcoming theatre, The Mill at Sonning, is riding high and its latest production will certainly sustain that momentum.

Noel Coward’s oft-performed comedy Blithe Spirit is a delicious, witty piece of theatre, and The Mill has created a fun, pacey production, with a few nerve jangling surprises to boot.

The play follows socialite Charles Condomine who invites the medium Madame Arcarti (Elizabeth Power) to his house to conduct a seance. Little does she know, it’s all in a bid to research his new book, a novel about a homicidal medium, and his wife Ruth and dinner guests, find much amusement in the mad old medium.

But when the lights start to flicker and the table begins to rise from the floor, something disastrous happens – Charles somehow manages to summon his deceased ex-wive Elvira.

And it turns out ex-wives are just as much of a pest when dead as they are alive.

The superb Finty Williams as the deceased Elvira
The superb Finty Williams as the deceased Elvira

Finty Williams is a sensation as the sassy, mischievous Elvira. Lounging on the sofa like a cat, she pouts and preens, reminding Charles exactly what he’s been missing for the last seven years. Her razor sharp comments about his current wife Ruth (Phillipa Peak) are hilarious and she acts as the perfect antithesis to the (mostly) composed, stylish, and very much alive Ruth.

Her sarcastic attempts at moving vases and ‘behaving like a ghost’ are also very funny, and she has a playful glint in her eye as she begins her games of manipulation on Charles.

Charles (Darrell Brockis) is the only one who can see Elvira, and the word play that ensues is hilarious, as the husband fires insults at his first wife, only for them to be picked up by his second. There are also some great comedic moments from Janine Leigh as nice-but-dim maid Edith, who becomes increasingly spooked by the strange goings on around her.

Hilarious maid Edith (Janine Leigh) serves tea to Charles (Darrell Brockis) and Ruth (Phillipa Peak)
Hilarious maid Edith (Janine Leigh) serves tea to Charles (Darrell Brockis) and Ruth (Phillipa Peak)

Although first seen in the West End in 1941, and performed by countless amateur and professional outfits since then, The Mill manages to add a few of its own flourishes to the piece. Dimmed lighting is used throughout the seance scenes to create an air of nervous excitement, and there are a few staging tricks – some similar to those used in previous productions at The Mill – which are fun and frivolous. Costumer Designer Natalie Titchener has also done a great job at characterising the ghosts, with Elvira’s sunglasses being a particular stroke of genius.

At times the production feels a little safe, Madame Arcati in particular brings us quite a familiar version of the traditional madwoman – all waving arms and murmuring – but it is when The Mill breaks out of its comfort zone, and surprises us with something a bit edgier, that it really stands out.

This is a production which has tried to be playful, and it is all the better for it, but with an extra dose of eccentricity it could easily have its audiences howling with laughter.

Blithe Spirit is at The Mill at Sonning in Sonning until 19 November. To book visit www.millatsonning.com. Tickets include a two-course meal plus tea and coffee.

I was invited to press night so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.

Review: Frankenstein by Blackeyed Theatre at South Hill Park

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Max Gallager as Henry, Ben Warwick as Victor Frankenstein and Lara Cowin as Elizabeth

How does a man make a monster?

It is a question which floated into Mary Shelley’s mind in a dream and one which has subsequently plagued directors and film makers who have tried to bring her monster to life.

Staying firmly away from the lightening-bolt cliches of Hollywood – thank goodness – Blackeyed Theatre has created a unique and captivating creature.

Based on the Bunraku figures of Japanese puppet theatre, Blackeyed’s monster is a construction of aluminium framework and foam body parts which puppet maker Yvonne Stone has cleverly crafted into a sinewy monstrosity, which bends at its joints and drops its jaw to howl in fear or ferocity.

Manned by three members of the cast, who jump in and out of the main narrative to manoeuvre him, Frankenstein’s monster is an eerie, ungainly creation, who talks us through his story with his slow drawl, voiced fantastically by Louis Labovitch. While Frankenstein himself dominates the first half of the piece, with his story feeling a little slow at times, the second half is given over the monster, and it is here the pace quickens, with a ferocious excitement as man and monster come head to head.

But while we have a clear visual cue of the monstrosity, Blackeyed Theatre has also remained faithful to Shelley’s magnificent description of the creature – his waxy skin and lustrous black hair – and Frankenstein’s wild-eyed voicing of it is as powerful as the creature before us.

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Ben Warwick as Victor Frankenstein with his creature

Ben Warwick as Victor Frankenstein is a sensation. Arriving disheveled and broken on the ship of explorer Robert Walton (Ashley Sean-Cook), he tells his tale as a warning. But as the story switches back to his thirst for knowledge, and his moment of creation, we see his ambition. His eyes flash with excitement as he digs through the graveyard to fulfil his experiment, and there lies one of Shelley’s greatest questions – is Frankenstein a genius, or a maniac?

Writer John Ginman peppers the language of the piece with signs of darkness and devilish undertones from very early on, nudging us towards the novel’s rich tapestry of themes. There is nature, captured by deep looks into the distance and flashes of lightening, versus nurture, seen in the warmth bestowed on Frankenstein by his friend Henry (Max Gallagher) and his companion Elizabeth (Lara Cowin).

There is science, which we see and hear through the tinkering and clanging of his cleverly constructed instrument cabinet, versus religion, which is stark when Walton bellows ‘if you can control nature, you are God!’.

The cabinet is not the only piece of ingenuity in the staging. Victoria Spearing has designed a versatile set, with Walton’s ship morphing into various locations. Ropes become power cables in the laboratory, and sails become curtains in the bridal bedroom. With a very active smoke machine, and a powerful, and at times heart-quickening, score composed by Ron McAllister, it makes for a tremendously atmospheric production.

Undoubtedly Blackeyed Theatre’s fantastic monster will be the talking point of this piece, as he has been in every take on Frankenstein in popular culture, but there subtleties of language and theatrics which really make this stand out as a masterful retelling of the classic Gothic novel.

Frankenstein is at South Hill Park until Saturday, 24 September. To book visit www.southhillpark.org.uk.

I was invited to review the show so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.

What is it like to be a burlesque performer?

It’s glamorous and glitzy and about much, much more than just taking your clothes off.

Burlesque is sassy and witty, it can tell a story, it can make you laugh and it’s a powerful art form which celebrates the female body.

I’ve seen a few burlesque acts, including the fabulous former Alternative Queen of Reading, Dame Le Raine, who is a sensational performer, and every time I’ve loved the theatricality and style of it all.

And if you’ve never seen a burlesque performance, now’s your chance. Blues and Burlesque is coming to the Cellar Bar at South Hill Park in Bracknell on Saturday 24 September after sell out shows in Edinburgh, Perth and Brighton. A mix of music, cabaret and burlesque, it sounds like a fabulous night.

But rather than me trying to explain what you can expect, I’m going to hand over to critically acclaimed burlesque chanteuse (what a glam title!) Lady Beau Peep, who tells us how she got into burlesque and how getting on stage can be both liberating, and nerve-wracking.

Blues and burlesque brings music and cabaret together

What can people expect from Blues and Burlesque?

It is a live, cabaret performance charting the gritty mid-life crisis of former Dexys Midnight Runners pianist Pete Saunders accompanied by his dirty martini swilling mistress, burlesque chanteuse Lady Beau Peep.  The songs are original soulful blues written by Pete and explain the lives of these two characters with hilarious and touching results. The burlesque is provided from tantalising teasing stylish burlesque dancer Felicity Furore who epitomises the same sassy confidence which characterises the evening. If you’re looking for a great combination of music and laughs, reviewer Oliver Lugg is clear; this show of feistiness and fun is a sure-fire way to get it.

How did you get into burlesque?

After drama school I did fringe theatre and musicals, then I formed a cabaret duo with my singing teacher and we did quite well on the London cabaret circuit. I then became a singer on the cruise ships for a couple of years. When I came back to London burlesque was just starting to make a resurgence and I thought rather than just be a singer I would mix elements of burlesque into my act and Lady Beau Peep was born. Burlesque actually means taking a literary, dramatic or musical work and intending to cause laughter which I do with my act as well as well as wear the beautiful costumes. I love interacting with the audience as well as making people laugh and the burlesque art form is perfect for this.

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What does it feel like being on stage as a burlesque performer?

When I first started I was learning my burlesque craft so I was little nervous. Many years ago I worked in a burlesque troupe and and we focused on the essence of burlesque, comedy, music and satire although for the finale we did a striptease. I found this both liberating and nerve-wracking however it got to a point where I no longer enjoyed that part and I found it was not necessary for my act.

What would you say to people who think burlesque is just about taking your kit off?

Striptease is only a tiny part of the art from that is burlesque but of course it gets the most attention in the media as it raises eyebrows particularly in England where it is considered risqué! I am a burlesque singer but I do not take my clothes off. Burlesque has been around in England since the 1830’s and was more musically oriented, the first striptease did not happen until a hundred years later. A great burlesque dancer will turn “taking your kit off” into a theatrical performance. They are often trained dancers with incredible costumes and the show usually incorporates a story, satire, humour and a huge sense of fun which can be empowering to watch. Felicity Furore who features in our show is masterful at this.

Can you describe burlesque in three words?

Sassy, humorous, tantalising

Blues and Burlesque is at South Hill Park in Bracknell on Saturday, 24 September, 8pm. Suitable for 18+ only. Tickets are £12, £11 concessions. To book visit www.southhillpark.org.uk.

Review: The Long and The Short and The Tall at Progress Theatre

fourstars

The company of soldiers in their hut in the jungle. Photo by Mandy King.
The company of soldiers in their hut in the jungle. Photo by Mandy King.

Conveying the magnitude of war on stage is a huge task but Progress Theatre has created a fantastically atmospheric production in their version of Willis Hall’s The Long and The Short and The Tall.

Set in British Malaya in the middle of World War II, the play centres around a group of British soldiers who come across a small, abandoned cabin in the jungle. While the soldiers rest and wait for the best time to head back to base camp, an Japanese soldier arrives, and the men find themselves confronted with fresh horrors.

Set designers Tony Travis and Matt Tully (the latter also doubles as director), have created a brilliant piece of staging with the entire space take up by the inside of the wooden-panelled hut – complete with cobwebs, cargo boxes and strong lighting which makes it feel dense and hot, as it should.

All we can see of the outside is through two windows, framed by foliage, but through masterful story-telling we come to believe in a whole jungle beyond the door, with the Japanese army inching ever closer. The tension and pace of the piece is superb – the crackling radio is used to particularly great effect – and director Tully gradually builds the fear of what lies beyond the hut, but also what the men find themselves confronted with inside.

The men hide, ready to capture the Japanese soldier. Photos by Mandy King.
The men hide, ready to capture the Japanese soldier. Photos by Mandy King.

Hall creates a powerful image of the war, with this small company of men reflecting the helplessness, fear, chaos and confusion. We are reminded that these fighting machines with their knives and guns have families at home, but so too does the Japanese prisoner who pulls photographs of a wife and children from his wallet.

The exploration of humanity, shown in the soldiers’ increasingly panicked behaviour towards their prisoner is heartbreaking, and Kevin Copping gives a remarkable transformation as Private ‘Bammo’ Bamforth. An arrogant, smart-talking, loud-mouth in the first half, Bammo becomes an unlikely point of hope in the second.

Each soldier has his own motivations, his own fears and morals, and the cast capture the individuality of each man in the company well. Peter Cook as Sergeant Mitchem is a strong and convincing leader, but really as lost as any of his men, while the rage in Corporal Edward Johnstone (Craig Daniels), is alarming, surely not just a product of war?

Bammo steps in to protect the Japanese soldier. Photos by Mandy King.
Bammo steps in to protect the Japanese soldier. Photos by Mandy King.

Macleish (Dylan Yates) and Taff (Brett Davis), are perhaps a little stereotypical in their Scottish/Welsh traits, but at the same time Hall makes a point on the universality of war, and while Macleish brings a brooding sense of duty, Evans’ has such friendly, optimistic expressions, you both warm to and pity him.

Smith (Daniel Brown) and Whitaker (Josh Boden) make up the rest of the company, both trying to get by but inevitably trapped in the midst of this unthinkable war.

Their prisoner, played by the brilliant Adrian Tang whose fearful expressions make us wince in solidarity, holds a mirror up to their own situation – each as helpless as another.

While the grim reality of war is vivid, there are plenty of light moments in the banter the men share. And it is exactly that humour and playfulness which warms us to the men, and makes the potential danger beyond the hut so much more horrific.

The Long and The Short and The Tall is at Progress Theatre until Saturday, 17 September. To book visit www.progresstheatre.co.uk.

I was invited to review the show so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.