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First Night - Theatre, Music and Comedy Reviews

Peter Pan, The Alban Arena, 12 December 2010

The Alban Arena was packed. As the audience waited for the start of Peter Pan, it was icy December outside, but inside an awfully big adventure to Neverland was to come.

We know we are in safe hands from the moment Lindsay Harding, playing Wendy, opens the show. There is a fine balance of music, dancing, jokes, drama, and old-fashioned panto fun. As Smee, Ben Roddy holds the action together with charm and Christmas cracker one-liners, and the night-time scene in the Darling household is effectively set.

As Wendy and her brothers fly away from their London home with the impishly boyish Peter Pan, their adventures with the Lost Boys, Red Indians, mermaids, Pirates and of course Captain Hook are set to begin. There are barnstorming musical numbers, including crowd-pleasing Abba and Queen favourites, excellent dancing, choregraphed by Loveday Chamberlain, and cute references to EastEnders and Strictly Come Dancing, and even blatant (and successful) attempts to impress the St Albans audience with derogatory references to Luton and Hemel Hempstead.

The two central characters are very well cast. Larry Lamb is tremendous as Captain Hook. He works the crowd well, oozes malignant charm, and proves a real hit as the pantomime villain. Katy Ashworth as Peter Pan is energetic, likeable, charismatic and sings well, handling the delicate issues surrounding his refusal to grow up and his need for maternal love with sensitivity.

It is the deft use of pathos that marks the production out. There is definite but subtle melancholy as Wendy realises her mother loves her and is waiting for her, epitomised by the refrain: "The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is how to love and be loved in return".

Enough theatre criticism. Last word to our two young charges. Their favourite parts were “the bit with the mermaids” and “the part where we saved Tinkerbell.” But these were just two highlights amongst many. This was a fun-filled, festive adventure of an evening. 

Verdict: Ace of Herts (5 out of 5)

Peter Pan is at the Alban Arena until 2 Jan 2011

Armstrong & Miller, Alban Arena, 20 November 2010

If you’re not the parent of a tweeny, or if you don’t like middle of the road music or dance, it’s probably only the comedy line-up that would bring you to The Alban Arena. Among the many top comic names, Armstrong and Miller are arguably the most celebrated to stop in as part of their national tour.

It’s their two most recognised characters who open the show, the two World War II airmen, parachuting into the Arena. It’s always tricky to explain comedy but the twist in this sketch is that the airmen speak with 1940’s Queen’s English accents, but their language is... like, that of young chavs? Many of the favourites from the series make an appearance: the pair of musicians whose songs are unexpectedly crude, the TV historian who inevitably destroys a ‘quite literally priceless’ piece of antiquity, the husband who returns home early but fails to realise despite blatant evidence that his wife is having an affair with his boss and best friend, and the regency dancers whose flirtation becomes extremely explicit.

The most successful sketches involved audience participation: including the pair of female organic stallholders who instigate a food fight, the dentist whose outrageous conversation can’t be stopped by his patient, and Jim whose wife has jilted him on their wedding day. Arguably the best sketch was that of the apologising children’s TV presenters, who have ‘let down’ their audience and have to explain in age-appropriate language their exceedingly adult late-night capers, much of which have clearly made the press.

There were only a few spots that didn’t quite hit the target: the neanderthal song about language development was difficult to follow, the vampires appearing at a get fit session slowed the pace, and the odd shoehorning in of local references to please the St Albans audience was a little lame. Armstrong and Miller are fine comic actors, and one wonders whether, especially with a live audience, they have played the show a little safe – could they push the subject matters a little more, or demonstrate the broad range of their talents with some darker or more challenging material?

Nevertheless, they do offer an excellent evening’s entertainment. The pace never slackens, and they are consummate performers. And in any case, this reviewer is glad to be anonymous, just in case Armstrong’s character may pretend to be friendly, and then turn to his intercom and utter “KILL HIM!”

Verdict: King of Herts (4 out of 5)

Breakfast With Emma, Rosemary Branch Theatre, Maltings Arts Theatre, 17 Nov 2010

Breakfast With Emma, by Fay Weldon, is based on the novel Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert, and the play's narrative structure is centred round the breakfast table of Emma and Charles Bovary, on a single morning, presumably in the mid-19th Century. Emma is initially clearly an unhappy woman, restless and trapped in a 'small dull dusty village in a flat landscape' and irritated by her 'old stick' of a husband whose oafish behaviour, thoughtless disregard for his wife, and lack of passion become increasingly apparent.

But there is much more to her unease than that, as her infidelities (all played with oily charisma by Jason Eddy) and spendthrift nature in the grip of her passions threaten to bring her to suicide. Helen Millar is well cast as Emma, inhabiting the role, and captures her delusion sensitively, while James Burton plays the difficult part of Charles Bovary intelligently, staying just on the pitiable side of unpleasant, a struggling doctor who understands bodies, 'but not hearts or minds.'

While Helen Tennison's direction and Sally Ferguson's lighting lend the production an atmosphere that is at times haunting, and at others dreamlike, it is James Perkins' set design that is a real triumph. Emma's unravelling is told through a series of flashbacks, and characters are spirited in and out of the room from the unlikeliest of places –including a trunk, a dresser, and a fireplace. The tableaus that result – in particular a country fair, a ball and a memorable night in Paris – are evoked with humour, invention and excellent movement.

There were some technical issues on the night, however, which included a late start and a long interval, the start of which needed to be announced from the audience by a member of the crew while the actors remained, somewhat awkwardly it seemed, on stage. Nevertheless, it was a strong production – well acted, impressively told, and at times genuinely moving.

Verdict: Queen of Herts (3 out of 5)

Our House - Watford Palace Theatre, 8 November 2010

Our House, performed with gusto by Cassio OS, is an award-winning musical based on the songs of Madness. Joe Casey has turned 16, and to impress his new girlfriend he breaks into a new development. As the police arrive he is faced with a choice – run away or stay and face the music. This 'sliding doors' moment is central to plot as from this point onwards, Joe's subsequent years are played out in parallel, literally in black and white costume. Is Joe destined to make the same mistakes as his absent father, and turn to the tempting 'lion's den' of crime? Is it a 'Simple Equation' of wrong versus right?

Many of the best Madness songs focus on memories of growing up and coming of age, and so fit comfortably into the narrative structure. The ensemble cast have tremendous fun, performing the schoolyard song 'Baggy Trousers' in particular with verve and enthusiasm, and the music is played well by Martin Smith's band. Matt Fowler plays the central role extremely capably, despite arguably being a little old for it, combining charisma and self-pity with strong vocals. His duet with Saoirse Brewer as Sarah – 'It Must Be Love' – is one of the highlights of the second act.

Joe's Dad, returning to observe the events with horror, and narrate proceedings, is played with an almost ghostly presence by Adrian Barrett, while Julie Lilley is both believable and tuneful as Joe's mother. The central cast is strongly supported: Jenny Emanuel and Emma Barry are just trashy enough as Sarah's friends, and Paul Egan's Reecey is a charming smiling villain, while Sam Gaines and Gareth Lewis perform well as Joe's mates, the rendition of 'My Girl' down the pub working particularly effectively.

There were some small technical issues involving microphones, sliding doors, and the occasional pause in the flow, but the audience didn't mind, and the cast were clearly enjoying themselves. The highlight of the ensemble performances was the rendition of 'Wings of a Dove' as a post-Vegas wedding celebration, while the more evocative 'The Sun and The Rain' was carried off with great aplomb. Judging by the audience reaction, the smiles on the faces of the cast at the end and the tunes ringing in our ears on the way home, 'Our House' can be considered a success.

Verdict: Queen of Herts (3 out of 5)

The Colours of Kenny Roach by Rebecca Russell - Tidemark Theatre, Abbey Theatre, 23 June, 2010

Kenny Roach is a highly talented artist beset by a serious alcohol addiction that threatens both his work and his marriage in this new play by Rebecca Russell.

John Stenhouse as Kenny is highly believable, fleetingly charismatic, but increasingly angry, paranoid, threatening, jealous and delusional as his alcoholism takes hold. 'What is Art?' asks Kenny in the first of his art lectures with which the play opens, and for him it is clearly a baring of the soul, leaving him railing against uncomprehending critics ('I know I'm good, but I have to wait til they see it too') and the art world, but in particular his long-suffering wife.

Rebecca Russell elicits the audience's sympathy as Lisa, and her monologues are particularly moving, but the play itself is largely unrelenting, punctuated only by the occasional humorous note in Kenny's lectures and the excellent art of Clare McInnerny and Alice Moloney, cleverly built in to the set through multimedia projection. Lisa's role is a thankless one, dramatically, as she almost becomes a narrator, explaining Kenny's artistic insecurity, her collusion with his façade, and his ability to enter a 'private world' of drink. The music of The Smiths hardly lightens the tone either.

Clearly the story is an important one, and the play tackles ambitious and difficult themes as Kenny's drinking turns him into the two-headed monster in his wife Lisa's painting. The banal, repetitive, cyclical marital arguments that the addiction provokes ('it's just a few drinks with the lads... I can handle it') are laid bare, and violence - and the threat of it - are never far from the surface. Arguably, however, Kenny is not initially likeable enough in the first instance to hold the audience's affection, and the importance of his art is not fully revealed, which makes his moral descent and the loss of his muse harder to sympathise with. All in all, the dialogue is well written and well performed, and the play is capably directed with an even pace - affecting, tragic and occasionally inspiring.

Verdict - Queen of Herts (3 out of 5)

The Blockheads and The Boomtown Rats - Alban Arena, 11 June 2010

'Oi, oi!' shouted The Blockheads. 'Oi, oi!' responded St Albans, somewhat embarrassed, but relatively enthusiastically.

Following on from a steady Boomtown Rats support act, The Blockheads rocked, or, perhaps more accurately, jazz-funked the Alban Arena. Theirs was a barnstorming set, combining much loved old favourites with more recent compositions, proving that they are very much a living entity rather than a blast from the past.

Norman Watt-Roy's slapping, melodic basslines come to the fore in 'What a Waste' and 'Inbetweenies', while Chaz Jankel and Mick Gallagher's creative keyboard playing and Dylan Howe's rock-solid drumming complete as tight and talented a rhythm section as you'll find anywhere.

Gilad Atzmon skulks around the sidelines like a menacing bouncer but is then transformed when he plays his saxophone, even two at once at one point, and his semi-improvised interaction with lead guitarist John Turnbull is particularly inventive. On lead vocals, Derek the Draw lurks behind his CND shades looking like a cross between Phil Daniels and Albert Steptoe, entertains the crowd between songs, builds numerous references to St Albans into the already fine lyrics, and plays a tough role – replacing the irreplaceable – with charisma and panache. And the encore of 'Sweet Gene Vincent', 'Reasons To Be Cheerful', and 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick' had the Arena bouncing in its seats, with a few dancing in the aisles – not bad for a St Albans' music crowd on World Cup night.

Verdict: King of Herts (4 out of 5)

Desert Boy by Mojisola Adebayo - Nitro and the Albany, Watford Palace Theatre, 3 June 2010

With five actors taking on a swirling, epic musical tale spanning three centuries and four continents, in 46 overlapping scenes, 'Desert Boy' is certainly ambitious in both theme and scale.

Soldier Boy lies alone on modern day Deptford beach, possibly dying, with a knife in his stomach. He finds that the life of a complete stranger – Desert Man – flashes before his eyes, and not just his own. The metaphorical sands of time work hard: from 21st century south London beach to 18th century African desert and back. Emmanuel Idowu is highly charismatic in the central role of Soldier Boy. About to turn 16 and born on the day Stephen Lawrence was murdered, he has fallen in with the wrong crowd. Idowu delivers the tale of his young life in rhyming couplets quite beautifully, at times hauntingly elegiac, frequently moving, and always supported by the ensemble cast's well co-ordinated movement.

Femi Ogunbajo's Desert Man takes Soldier Boy and the audience back to his own story, beginning in Mali, taking in slavery in the cotton plantations in America's Deep South, briefly to England, and then to Australia – first a slave, then a convict. While initially speaking in truisms, Desert Boy turns out to have a story strongly linked with Soldier Boy. Both involve abandonment by fathers of mothers and their young children, both lives explore the ideas of victims becoming criminals, of people sold as property, and both characters are caught on the cusp of manhood. Both stories are a mixture of redemption song and rite of passage.

The music is equally ambitious, with wide-ranging influences including African, Negro spiritual, with a little Bob Marley on the way. At times it is quite beautiful, particularly Elexi Walker's song as the abandoned slave girl, Jenny, and the recurring theme of crossing the Niger.

At times the relentless pace of the play is hard work for the cast, on stage all the time, and equally for the audience – 100 minutes without an interval. Desert Boy almost tips into earnestness but emerges with refreshing candour, genuine humour and real film-like quality. It is worth the effort – for in any case "the question is more important than the answer".

Verdict: Queen of Herts (3 out of 5)

Counting the Ways by Edward Albee - Face Front Inclusive Theatre, Trestle Arts Base, 21 May 2010

As suggested by its title, derived from the Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem, Counting the Ways is a play about love, in this case the tired love between a couple who have been together for many years. You sense there might be trouble when the simple question, 'Do you love me?' causes anxiety and insecurity in them both, even when the answer is a casual 'Of course'.

Face Front Inclusive Theatre has presented Counting the Ways as accessibly as possible. Audio-described and performed in parallel in sign language but as an integral part of the action, the play is indeed a multi-sensory experience. Albee's work is often linked to that of Beckett and the company are clearly at home with the absurdist, physical theatre elements of much of the action. Ilan Dwek and Jean St Clair as 'He' and 'She' excel in this regard, at times displaying a delightful chemistry together. Wayne 'Pickles' Norman deftly flits in and out of the action as the audio-describer, his 'interior monologue' asides often dream-like and at times hilarious. The many layers of accessibility are not always simultaneous, and this leads to moments of delight and comedy.

On a bright, slightly surreal set, beautifully designed by Jo Paul, the married couple are also well played by Jon French and Catrin Menna. Despite the games they play to spice things up a little, their love has wilted, rather like the roses with which they play 'She loves me, she loves me not'. They have imperceptibly 'passed through' their love for each other, rather than it dying, to the extent that they're not entirely sure how many children they have or how exactly they've ended up sleeping in separate beds. At least they're not in separate rooms.

Perhaps the slight drawback is that the play is somewhat insubstantial. It asks some interesting questions but doesn't pursue them, and its metaphors are laboured through repetition – in particular the wilting of the flowers. The cast take time out to introduce themselves warmly to the audience, and there is an excellently played cameo about social etiquette, but these tableaus come across rather as fillers, and the play as a whole, at around an hour long, is more of a delicious hors d'oeuvre, arguably leaving the audience impressed but slightly hungry for more.

Verdict: Queen of Herts (3 out of 5)

Knife Edge by Mark Whiteley - Hard Graft Theatre, Maltings Arts Theatre, 6 May 2010

Knife Edge by Mark Whiteley is a thought-provoking piece of theatre. Brian Shelton, sensitively played by Howard Chadwick, is "just a normal bloke" whose son was stabbed to death months earlier. He believes he knows who did it, and has challenged him to a "duel to the death". The audience is almost literally involved, addressed by the cast as attendees of the community meeting he has organised, and at which Brian hopes to flush out the killer.

Whiteley's play is an interesting study of a family beset by grief, guilt, and in particular anger. Brian rails against the local community ("solidarity and all that"), the press, the police, and the 'killer', but is also racked with guilt, and apparently unable to communicate with his wife and daughter.

John Elkington excels as the be-cardiganed, local reporter, whose job is to be impartial, to "sit and watch". He is reluctantly drawn into the centre of the action – his bloody nose literal as well as metaphorical. Whiteley subtly asks questions about the role of the press – at best campaigning, in this instance on knife crime, but at worst happy to betray principles and become a player in the action in order to get an exclusive.

Adam Sunderland's direction is strong – the play is taut, well-paced, and laced with beautifully judged moments of black comedy. But it is the rawness of his wife Jane's (Jill Myers) hurt, anger and anxiety, and Brian's dramatic confrontation with the initially cocky young 'lieutenant', Danny, a role in which Nicky Bell is all too believable, that become the central drivers of the play.

Fittingly for a play with such dark themes, the drama is bookended by music from the man in black, Johnny Cash. Knife Edge packs a powerful, compelling, angry and emotional punch.

Verdict: King of Herts (4 out of 5)

Sweet Panic by Stephen Poliakoff - Company of Ten, Abbey Theatre, 23 April 2010

Billed as a "compelling, provocative drama", Poliakoff's 1996 play is an ambitious piece for the Company to take on, but they pull it off.

Lisa White holds the stage well as Clare, the successful child psychologist, who is forced to reappraise her career and her relationships by the play's events, her hard, professional exterior becoming increasingly brittle throughout. Her 'impersonations' of her clients are particularly vivid, treading the delicate line between humour and gravity as the audience begins to realise how damaged some of them are.

The catalyst of much of the action, however, is the mother of one of Clare's clients, Mrs Revel, excellently played by Danielle Cohen. Cohen's portrayal of Mrs Revel's personal vendetta against the psychologist at times shimmers with genuine malice, while still managing to retain the audience's sympathies. Is she a mad stalker or particularly prescient and self-aware, or indeed both?

The London landmark models that Clare receives from her troubled client Jess, a central but unseen character, begin to pepper the stage, also cleverly used by Director Stephen Cunningham for the play's external scenes. Beautifully produced by Angharad Pugh-Jones, they, like the events of the play, are intriguing, amusing, and at times disturbing. The Cityscape becomes a key backdrop, representing the passage of time, as well as the "gleaze", the glitter and sleaze that sullies the world.

White and Cohen are well supported, by John Stenhouse in particular as Martin, Clare's "deeply convenient" partner, a charming academic whose professional interest in the London bus contrasts starkly with Clare's professional concerns. Daniel Arnold performs well as returning client Richard, at times maybe a little stilted, but for the most part as if born for the role.

There were genuine frissons in the packed audience, who are asked to consider genuinely interesting questions. To what extent is professionalism a mask? If adults are this troubled, what hope for their children? In this context the final words, Oasis lyrics sung repeatedly through a tape recording by Jess, are particularly haunting.

"Maybe, you're gonna be the one that saves me"

Verdict: King of Herts (4 out of 5)

Reviews by 'Herts Critic' – a freelance arts reporter for allaboutstalbans.com

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