Posts Tagged ‘Mercury Theatre Colchester’

I love seeing Pimlico Opera’s work in prisons because the rehabilitative power is palpable and the effect uplifting. This is my second visit to women’s prison HMP Bronzefield, the last for Hairspray just before the first lockdown. It was meant to be for Little Shop of Horrors, but the Ministry of Justice decided a show about a man-eating plant featuring a sado-masochistic dentist was unsuitable. Betty Blue Eyes was the substitute, a show about local authority corruption and the theft of a pig, with more than a hint of bestiality. Good to see at least one government department fully focused on protecting the citizens of this fine country.

I loved Stiles & Drewe’s adaptation of Alan Bennett’s film A Private Function when it first hit the West End in 2011, I saw the first revival in Colchester three years later and saw it again at Mountview, also just before lockdown. Set in 1947 in a northern town, with rationing still in place, the dodgy local councillors are breeding an unlicensed pig for the royal wedding banquet, whilst they are scuppering Gilbert Chilvers’ attempt to lease a unit on The Parade for his chiropody practice, but his wife Joyce is having none of it. They steal the pig, now named Betty, in revenge, The trouble is, Chilvers and one of the councillors are rather fond of Betty.

Even though it’s a substitute, it’s in many ways a good choice of show, not least because it affords parts for 18 prisoners in addition to the 6 professionals. Charlotte Fleming is outstanding as Joyce, in a hugely impressive professional debut. There are some excellent performances from the prisoners too, some of whom you only realise reside here if you read the programme. Ashley Jacobs’ band of professional musicians play the score extremely well, and the production values are excellent. This is director Sasha Regan’s debut in prison and she does a great job.

If you are in any doubt of the positive impact these initiatives have, Bronzefield’s Deputy Director Vicky Robinson’s passionate and moving curtain call speech will dispel them. She also lays out little known facts about prisoner numbers, typical crimes and sentences and possible outcomes. The co-operation and determination of both the institution and their creative partners is obvious and deserves our support, but it’s also a great show and a lot of fun.

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Best New Play – The Lehman Trilogy*, The Inheritance* & Sweat*

I find it impossible to choose between these three extraordinary evenings (well, afternoon and evening in the case of the The Inheritance) but they were in very good company with a dozen other new plays in contention. Also at the NT, Home, I’m Darling* and Nine Night* were great, and also at the Young Vic The Convert* became a late addition in December. At the Bush, both Misty and An Adventure impressed (though I saw the former when it transferred to Trafalgar Studios).The remaining London contenders were The Humans at Hampstead Theatre, Pressure at the Park Theatre, Things I Know To Be True at the Lyric Hammersmith and The Wipers Times at the Arts, though these last two weren’t new to London, just me. The Edinburgh Fringe added two, Class* and Ulster American*, both Irish, both at the Traverse and both heading to London, so look out for them. The eight starred are either still running or coming back in 2019, so be sure to catch them if you haven’t seen them already.

Best New Musical – Hamilton*

It opened right at the end of 2017, but I didn’t see it until January 2018 (and again in December 2018). It certainly lives up to the hype and is unquestionably ground-breaking in the same way West Side Story was sixty years before. It was a good year for new musicals, though 40% of my shortlist were out-of-town, headed by Flowers For Mrs Harris at Chichester, with Pieces of String in Colchester, Miss Littlewood in Stratford and Sting’s The Last Ship mooring briefly in Northampton. Back in London, the Young Vic continued to shine with Fun Home and Twelfth Night and the NT imported Hadestown*. Tina* proved to be in the premiere league of juke-box musicals and SIX* was a breath of fresh air at the Arts. Only four are still running, or coming back.

Best Play Revival – The York Realist and Summer and Smoke*

Another category where I can’t split the top two. The former a gem at the Donmar and the latter shining just as brightly at the Almeida. I didn’t see the Old Vic’s glorious A Christmas Carol* until January, so that was a contender too, along with The Daughter-in-Law* at the Arcola and The Lieutenant of Inishmore in the West End. Then there were four cracking Shakespeare’s – The Bridge Theatre’s promenade Julius Caesar, the RSC’s Hamlet with Paapa Essiedu visiting Hackney Empire, Ian McKellen’s King Lear transfer from Chichester, and the NT’s Anthony & Cleopatra* with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okenedo. Another four still running / coming back.

Best Musical Revival – Company*

The leanest category this year, with Marianne Elliott’s revival of Sondheim’s Company exceeding expectations; I shall be back at the last night. Chichester brought yet more joy with Me & My Girl and right at the end of the year, the Mill at Sonning came up trumps for the third year running with a great favourite of mine, Guys & Dolls* Finally, The Rink at Southwark Playhouse, the only contender this year from the usually more prolific fringe. Two to catch if you haven’t already.

Theatre of the Year – The Young Vic

Though five of my thirty-seven contenders were at the NT, The Young Vic shone even more brightly with four, all new works. Only four originated in the West End, which further emphasises how crucial the subsidised sector and the regions are. You can still see half of them, but some close soon, so get booking!

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This is a musical theatre debut by Gus Gowland, who is responsible for the book, music and lyrics. I can’t think of a more auspicious British musical premiere since Howard Goodall’s The Hired Man over thirty years ago.

It’s a very cleverly structured piece which takes you a short while to unravel, juxtaposing a contemporary gay relationship with a wartime one, where one party is the grandson of another. Newly married Edward is conscripted and at the war front fellow serviceman Tom offers to teach him to dance so that he can sweep his wife Anna off her feet on his return home. A seemingly hopeless relationship soon develops.

Many years later, at Edward’s funeral, we meet his only daughter Jane, who disapproves of her son (Edward’s grandson) Ed’s homosexuality and boyfriend Harry. Ed’s younger sister thinks it’s normal, even cool – a change in just one generation. A stranger, Rose, arrives with a box of memories, we learn she is Tom’s sister and the story is pieced together and we understand the significance of the title.

The score is lovely, with delicate solos and duets and more rousing ensemble pieces like Standing in the Shadows, which sees all four men across time in unison and melodies return and interweave. Perhaps because he wrote both, the book and lyrics are seamless, jointly propelling the story. There’s an organic flow between scenes in a very fluid staging by Ryan McBryde, with a cleverly effective design from newcomer Fin Redshaw. Paul Herbert’s ensemble of piano, cello and reeds makes a beautiful, delicate accompaniment.

It’s strongly cast, with Craig Mather & Joel Harper-Jackson as wartime lovers Edward and Tom and Andy Coxon & Gary Wood as contemporary Ed & Harry. Carol Starks brilliantly conveys the cold, emotionless Jane literally in the middle of it all, with Ella Dunlop excellent as Ed’s feisty sister Gemma. I very much liked Lauren Hall, who has to switch from doting newlywed to heartbroken wife, and there’s a lovely cameo from Marilynn Cutts as the older Rose.

I can’t believe for one minute that this premiere production in Colchester will be its last. Gold stars to the Mercury, Perfect Pitch and TBO Productions for developing it.

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This packs a lot into less than two hours – a lot of experiences, a lot of punch and a lot of emotion. Developed as rehabilitation & therapy for injured servicemen and women, it is now a fully fledged work charting their experiences from enlistment to post-war return that stands alone as powerful theatre.

Writer Owen Sheers developed the play from interviews with soldiers returned from Afghanistan and Iraq. It covers their stories from when and why they first signed up through training to posting, experiences at the front, injury, hospitalisation and rehabilitation. It presents these people’s real lives with objectivity and without sentimentality. You never feel you are being lectured or having opinions forced upon you. The experiences speak for themselves and you are left to consider them for what they are.

The cast, half professional actors and half forces personnel, both ‘retired’ and serving, are uniformly excellent. Cassidy Little, a serving Royal Marine in the central performance of Charlie F has such charisma, presence and confidence that he blew me away. Stephen Rayne’s staging wastes no time, telling these stories effectively but succinctly. There’s even original music by the great Jason Carr, but it was the use of Anthony & the Johnsons Hope There’s Someone that moved me most. Please don’t think it must be earnest and worthy, because it’s not – it’s entertaining and often funny whilst at the same time illuminating.

This is important theatre that will hopefully come into London for a run longer than one day after it ends it’s current tour. I couldn’t make the Richmond or Bromley dates so I went to Colchester to see it and was very glad I did. Catch it in Truro or Manchester or keep your fingers crossed for more.

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