The Wharf Theatre presents; ‘A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum’

Hahahahaha!

Seriously, though…The Wharf’s production of Sondheim’s first musical, directed by Liz Sharman, is hilarious.  Based on the farces of the Roman playwright, Plautus, it first hit Broadway in 1962.  Don’t expect high art or political correctness.  From the first number, ‘Comedy Tonight’ (‘Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone: a comedy tonight’), it’s clear that this is nothing but a fast-moving, light-hearted, old-fashioned, slightly dodgy, slapstick, pun-filled, fun-fest.

The set is beautifully painted, in authentic colours, with quirky touches.  Three doors, as is traditional with this play.  Not much space for the action, but perfect for the running about, in and out of dusty Roman windows, requirements of the show

It’s the story of how Pseudolus (Jonathon West), a slave of Rome in 200BC, buys his freedom using his knowledge of human nature, the help of hapless fellow slave Hysterium (Chris Underwood), and all other devious means at his disposal.  He lives in the house of Senex (Chris Smith) and Domina (Lesley Scholes), and their son, Hero (Tyler Bartlett), in the same hood as Erronius (John Craig), a befuddled ancient, and Lycus (John Winterton), a lascivious brothel-keeper.  The young Hero has his eye on Philia (Hayley Baxter), a young and as yet unbesmirched courtesan, and agrees that Pseudolus will have his freedom if he can get the twee couple together.  Other characters are the imperious soldier Milos Gloriosus (Nick Swift), various smiley Proteans, and (Good God, is that Miss Whiplash (Jemma Gingell)?) a trio of silent, but enthusiastic, fan wielding prostitutes.

The action gets sillier as the play progresses, and the web of lies that Pseudolus has woven begins to fall apart.  Just a bit of mare’s sweat, and it will all work out.  Maybe if we pretend she’s dead it will be fine.  Maybe if we all dress up as other people that will do the trick.  Not.  Quick song?  Go on, then.

This is a high energy show, with a lot of quick changes and movements.  I can’t fault the choreography, or the superb comic timing, but Sondheim only gets a B for the songs.  ‘Comedy Tonight’ is pretty catchy, and ‘Lovely’ is memorable, although that is partly due to Hayley Baxter (sweet voice, well-played coyness) and Chris Underwood’s interpretations.  Victoria Warren, Musical Director, played the score.  Lot of sharps and flats, apparently.  Difficult keys.

Acting awards?  Lesley Scholes (of course) as the bossy (‘carry my bust with pride’) Roman matron, Hayley Baxter and Tyler Bartlett for doing impossibly cute with straight faces, Jemma Gingell for bravery, Jonathon West for holding it all together, and the entire cast for being on it like a car bonnet whilst appearing to be having the most fun ever.

But it’s the performances of Chris Underwood, John Craig, and Nick Swift, that have me absolutely kissing myself.  The part of the camp and nervous slave Hysterium is the most challenging in the play, and Chris is awesome in the role.  His renditions of the anxiety song ‘I’m Calm’, and ‘Lovely’, are a triumph, and his drag shenanigans are a wonder to behold (clearly a career in modelling beckons).

John Craig plays the part of the doddery, partially sighted Erronius to perfection (John Craig, John Craig, he was witty, he was vague), and Nick Swift, as the arrogant soldier, dominates the stage (in a good way) with his enormous presence, booming voice, and massive wrath.

I haven’t laughed so much or so loudly in public since, well we won’t talk about that.  It was the dress rehearsal, so there was only a small audience, but everyone was in stitches from the outset, and by the end a few of us were incandescent with mirth.  ‘One of the funniest things I have ever seen at The Wharf’ (and he’s seen and been in a few) said Lewis Cowen.  ‘The funniest show I’ve ever been a part of’ (and he’s seen and been in a few too) said Chris Underwood.  I laughed till my stomach hurt, and I’m still laughing now.

When I’d recovered from the wild exhilaration of it all, and had enthused sufficiently, I had a word with Liz Sharman (well done, that woman!) about political correctness.  Liz said that she dealt with the whole prostitute thing by making the male characters seem silly in their dealings with them, and that she didn’t cut anything from the script.  I’d expected the show to be much ruder, and camper, and more along the lines of the (Ooh Matron!) Carry On films.  Undoubtedly some might find the very fact of prostitutes offensive, but apart from a bust, a whip, a fart joke and a few tacky comments, I found the humour quite polite, and the general feel of the whole thing quite…innocent.  Not much to upset your average four-year old, or your Gran.  But then it’s an American show, and I am hardly Mary Whitehouse.

And after all, these things were acceptable in the 60s.  And 70s.  And 200BCs…

I enjoyed this show so much that I’m giving it ten out of ten.

Hahahahaha!

Seriously.

© Gail Foster 28th April 2018

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White Horse Opera Spring Concert

 

White Horse Opera’s Spring Concert, at the Town Hall in Devizes; a review

*

On Friday night, I went to see White Horse Opera’s Spring Concert in the Town Hall.

White Horse Opera formed in 1990, with the aim of bringing high quality opera at affordable prices to Devizes and the surrounding area.  Since 1990 they have performed over 20 operas, including Aida, La Boheme, and Carmen, and in October they will be putting on Mozart’s intriguing opera, The Magic Flute.

One always hopes that these things are going to be good, in the full knowledge that amateur productions are seldom flawless.

I end up sat next to Andy Fawthrop.  Andy is, like myself, a cynical poet.  It could be an interesting night.

Stage set.  Grand paintings in golden frames.  Glittering chandeliers.  One pianist (Tony James), one Musical Director (Roland Melia – check out his impressive international CV), eleven sopranos, four altos, four tenors, and four basses (all dressed to kill), three quarters of an audience (more publicity next time, people), two cynical poets, and a programme of Mozart, Mendelssohn, madrigals, Stanford, Rossini, Donizetti, and little bits of Bizet.

They start with ‘Down by the Sally Gardens’.  Sweet.  Then Morley’s ‘Now is the month of Maying’.  Lively.  Then Stanford’s ‘Bluebird’, sung by Jessica Phillips.  Oh.  I look at Andy.  Andy looks at me.  A tear has sprung unexpectedly to my eye.  That’s beautiful.  So pure.  Quality.

And so it goes on.  ‘Fair Phyllis I Saw’, and ‘The Silver Swan’, and then, from The Magic Flute, a superb solo from Lisa House in ‘Love I Fear Has Gone Forever’, Charles Leeming’s deep and resounding ‘Sarastro’s Aria’, and to end the first half, Barbara Gompels, singing ‘The Queen of the Night Aria’ from The Magic Flute.

Now there’s a test of a soprano, if ever there was one.  Andy has raised an eyebrow, and I am overwhelmed by Barbara’s magnificent performance of such an intricate song.  Amazing.

By the interval Andy and I are stunned into silence. Neither of us can find anything to be cynical about.  It’s unusual, and I have to go out and have a cigarette to get over it.

The second half starts and ends with The Magic Flute, and there’s a lot of chorus action.  Stephen Grimshaw gives an expressive rendition of ‘Monostatos’ Aria’, and Barbara sings ‘Micaela’s Aria’ from Carmen (White Horse Opera are touring Carmen this year, and you can book them, you know.  Just saying).

Then it’s ‘The Chorus of Fairies’ from Midsummer’s Dream (nice wands), ‘Chorus Maria Stuarda’, ‘Chorus Santo Imen’, and Donizetti’s ‘Chorus L’Elisir d’Amore’ (bit of surreptitious jigging in the audience to this one – steady), a lot of cheerful hey-nonnying in Stanford’s ‘Sigh No More’, from Much Ado About Nothing, and then Bizet’s ‘Carmen Chorus’ (pinch me, are people actually tapping their feet?), and, finally, ‘The Magic Flute Chorus’.

I look at Andy.  Andy looks at me.  Both of us raise an eyebrow.  That was superb, and neither of us have a single bad word to say about it.  The individual performances were impressive (I’d like to give Chrissie Higgs a mention for her contribution), the whole chorus worked well together, there was a liveliness to the whole thing, and the acoustics in the Town Hall were wonderful.  Andy remarks afterwards on the quality of the pianist, and that the simple and unfussy arrangements complemented the singers perfectly.  Everyone seems to have enjoyed it, and lots of people look pleased.

On the way out, I accost a random stranger, and pester him for a quote.  ‘A lovely, relaxed, and charming evening’ he says, smiling.

It really was very good indeed.

When I was a kid my neighbours rang up my parents and politely requested that I desist practicing ‘Toreador’ on the piano.  From that point on, until White Horse Opera’s ‘Iolanthe’ last year, I have enthusiastically given opera a miss.

I think White Horse Opera may have changed my mind.

I look forward to The Magic Flute.

*

© Gail Foster 12th March 2018

Ceres

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A statue of Ceres watches over Devizes from the top of the Corn Exchange…

*

My name is Ceres, Goddess of the Corn

I stand above the Market Place and stare

With stony face, half dressed, and with a horn

Towards the North, the hill, the over there

I’ve lovely hair, but long the days have passed

When men admired the firmness of my rack

I’m old, and to be fair I can’t be arsed

Once had one’s day is never coming back

I’ve sewn my seed, been fertilised, and borne

My little birds and thrown them to the skies

Seen men come to the Market Cross to mourn

Seen marryings, and mayhem in The Vize

I’m old, but oh I see, from up on high

The secret things, the glory of the sky

*

© Gail Foster 5th January 2018

‘Last Night at The Conductor’s Arms’

The Invitation Theatre Company at The Bear, Devizes

 

 

It’s the early 1950s, and time for the very last pint to be pulled at The Conductor’s Arms.  Business ain’t what it used to be, and even the Music Hall next door is closing down.  As Albert the landlord (Ian Diddams) sits supping at the bar, he looks back over the history of his family; his grandparents’ escape from the Irish potato famine and their acquisition of the pub, meeting his wife, the birth of his children, the death of his son in the first World War, and victory in World War Two.  So many memories.  So many faces, come and gone.  So many tunes…

Oh, The Invitation Theatre Company had a good time with this one!  For one night only, sorry, three, the ballroom at The Bear became an informal and intimate old time music hall forward slash East End pub, with dancing girls, banging tunes, Pearly Kings, poignant tear jerkers, and cheese.  Lots of cheese.  A succulent smorgasbord of cheerful cheese, and the kind of sad songs that would have the stoutest customer weeping into their gin before closing time.

Devised and directed by Ally Moore and Liz Schorah, and ably compèred with alliterative acuity by Peter Nelson, ‘Last Night at The Conductor’s Arms’ was simply a good excuse to sing (‘Sing along!’ they said, so we did) all your gran’s favourites from ‘Danny Boy’ to ‘No Business Like Show Business’.

The problem with writing reviews for TITCO is that everyone is good, they get better each time they work together, the music is always spot on, and no one likes a sycophant.  But really, other than the fact that perhaps the performance space was a little small for the lively choreography, it’s hard to pick fault with this show.

So I’ll go with highlights, which, for me, were as follows; Ian Diddams’ acting.  Mel Coombs, Liz Schorah, and Viv Kyte‘s chirpy versions of ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ and ‘Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree’.  All of the men singing ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart.’ Paul Morgan singing ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’ (the ladies I met in the churchyard today particularly liked that one).  Mari Webster singing anything.  And all of the ensemble pieces.

Moments of brilliance?  The whole cast singing the heart-wrenching ‘Keep The Homes Fires Burning’, with its rich and complex harmonies (I cried, and I wasn’t the only one).  Lottie Diddams producing a couple of notes of unearthly beauty in ‘Secret Love’.  Ian Diddams again, with his heartfelt delivery of ‘Brown Boots’.  And, for which she received the most rousing cheer of the evening, Jemma Brown, hilariously channelling Hyacinth Bucket, in a performance of the musically challenging ‘I Want To Sing In Opera’ that had some of us questioning our continence.

‘Last Night at The Conductor’s Arms’ was an uplifting, moving, and endearing show; no pretence at great art, just a wild ride through the music halls of memory on a pantomime pony, with the odd pitstop for a tear.

And cheese.

And the final verdict from behind the aspidistra?

Hit me with a feather boa, that was fun.

Nine out of ten.

© Gail Foster 19th November 2017

colours of sunday

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Impressions of Sunday morning;

for Valerie, Vince, and John

*

valerie and I

call the slice of chapel light

hockney and lemon

sunshine on silver

tails of little wriggling fish

feeding the thousands

vince by the fountain

twinkling as he talks about

beetroot and the times

gold on the mustard

seeds that grow in gospel leaves

scattered on the ground

black belt lay preacher

hurling holy water on

the red fires of hell

the peace, fingers crossed

wishing my heart was as white

as the altar cloth

shades of pigeon grey

orange plastic shopping bags

taking sunday home

*

© Gail Foster 30th July 2017

In To The Woods at The Wharf

The Invitation Theatre Company’s performance of ‘In To The Woods’; a review

*

I was delighted to be invited to the dress rehearsal of TITCO’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘In To The Woods’ at The Wharf, directed by Peter Nelson.  TITCO are a quality act, and I always enjoy their shows.

I watched.  Cute.  Fun.  Some great duets.  Haha! Ian Diddams as the cow.  Woah, Jemma Brown as a bitchy witch (be afraid, be very afraid!).  Neat cape, Tracy Lawrence.  ‘Scrumptious carnality’?  Goodness me.  Love the screen device, and the sepia film.  Clever.  Nice birches.  Ooh, blood.

And then Happy Ever After.

?

As I rode off on my bike I couldn’t help but feel there was something missing.  Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

That would have been Act Two.  Thought it was a bit short.

So, Monday, opening night, and I’m back again.  Ah, there it all is.  The finishing touches have been put to the stage and it’s all pretty with birch and blossom and soft greens, with a backdrop that leads to…who knows.  And someone has clearly been working hard in the Mojo department, because TITCO are bursting with a confidence and enthusiasm that I just didn’t see on Sunday…

It’s a moral tale of good versus evil, this, set in a dark and mysterious wood where anything could happen.  It’s a mash up of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, starring Cinderella, Jack of Beanstalk Fame, Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel.  It’s a quest for a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.  If only we could find these things then the curse would be lifted and all would be well…

Be careful in the woods, and be careful what you wish for.  ‘Nice is different than good’, after all.

I’m used to TITCO being good.  One can’t enthuse enough really.  These people work together really well, and they’re all worth watching.

As far as acting goes, however, a few performances stand out for me.

Lottie Diddams plays Little Red as Violet Elizabeth, or Queenie from Blackadder, all foot-stamping and pouty, with great comic timing.  Paul Morgan as The Wolf is superbly sinister.  Jemma’s Personality Disorder Witch is terrifying.  Ian Diddams chews cud really well, the Victorian Ugly Sisters are witty, and there’s real tenderness shown in the performances of Naomi Ibbetson as Cinderella and Teresa Bray as the Baker’s Wife.

But TITCO shine brightest when they sing, and in this show it’s the duets that shine the most; The Witch and Rapunzel (Lucy Burgess), Little Red and The Wolf, and anything involving Princes (Mari Webster and Simon Hoy) in particular.  As far as ensemble songs and choreography go, well that’s all good too, and it’s impossible to fault the complex ‘Your Fault’, in which Jack (Lewis Jackson) gets to find his voice.

It’s dark in The Woods, don’t you know.  And it gets darker.  People die.  People reveal the worst and best sides of their natures.  Some of it is positively Freudian.  Just when you think it’s a Happy Ever After…it isn’t.  There be giants and stuff, really good special effects and scary bits.  And there be also, and perhaps most terrifyingly of all, randy Princes…

My award for ‘Man of the Match’ without doubt goes to Mari Webster, for her startlingly sexual thigh-slapping performance as ‘Cinderella’s Prince’ and her hilarious duets with Simon Hoy and Teresa Bray.  Whilst ‘In To The Woods’ is not a pantomime, she plays the part in classical principal boy fashion.  She’s well timed, hugely witty, great to look at, and utterly fascinating to watch.

In summary; In To The Woods, at The Wharf…

Slightly confusing, as plots go, but deliciously entertaining.

Looks cool.

Good performances all round.

Lots of laughs.

Great singing.

Mayhem.  Magnetism.  Mirth.

Moral tale?  Fairy tale?  Musical?  Not-quite-a-pantomime?

You decide.

Call it whatever you like, but don’t miss it.

It’s a fun frolic.

And it is well good.

Nicely played TITCO.

Again.

© Gail Foster 6th June 2017

PS And after this, if you’re hungry for more excellent Devizes entertainment, why there’s Devizes Arts Festival…

…and they all lived happily ever after 😊

Rivers Again

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Let there be rain on Wiltshire fields, before the ancient streams run dry…

*

I hear the sky whispering rumours of rain

Apparently there will be rivers again

Worms for the blackbirds and toads in the mud

Puddles on petals and fields in flood

Streams in the gutter, in burrow and street

Children and rabbits with little wet feet

Flashes of flame setting Ceres alight

And thunderclaps frightening pigeons in flight

The waters will fall on the morrow they say

Deep in the cracks of the dry earth of May

And farmers and flowers with tears in their eyes

Will watch as the corn and the reservoirs rise

As ever the moaners will mutter and sigh

And shake their umbrellas, and curse at the sky

*

© Gail Foster 12th May 2017