Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Aylesbury Waterside Theatre (and touring)

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I must admit, the original MGM film version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was never among my favourites of the era. That was probably because I was never particularly taken with Westerns, and back then all the singing and dancing in the world couldn’t counteract all that gingham.

Older and wiser (and less Western averse), I found the current touring production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers a delight. As an adult, there are story points that one should certainly feel dubious about: it’s basically about a group of uncultured heathen brothers who decide to abduct the women they want to marry – and whose crime is mitigated by the women collectively and conveniently falling in love with their abductors. It’s only down to the no-nonsense attitude of eldest brother Adam’s new wife Millie that the brothers have any redeeming qualities at all, as her place as a surrogate mother for the brood civilises them so that they can, in effect, rejoin society.

You could spend ages discussing the sociopolitical aspects of the story. Or, you could sit back and enjoy a riot of dance and song that can’t help but lift the spirits. Leading the cast as Millie is Helena Blackman – a friend who I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for several years, including working on Rodgers and Hammerstein in London together. Helena’s voice is perfectly suited to this era of musical, her soprano belt coming to the fore several times throughout. She also lends a calm determination to Millie, balancing the character’s independence and spirit with a genuine affection for her new husband and his unruly brothers.

In contrast, her fellow lead, Sam Attwater as Adam, has rather less opportunity for comedy or character, although he makes excellent use of what he’s given. Vocally, he has a much more contemporary vocal style – but whereas this might work against him in a staging of a 1950s musical, the stage production includes a number of additional songs which themselves feel more modern in style, and so the casting feels particularly astute.

However good Blackman and Attwater’s singing and acting, though, it will be the dancing for which audiences will remember this show. The town dance number that forms the climax of Act I in particular, which sees the Pontipee brothers compete in a game of choreographed one-upmanship with their competitors for the ladies’ hands, is that rarity in modern musical theatre: a large group number which is visually thrilling, technically daring, and yet which also manages to propel the storytelling.

With a large ensemble cast performing so well, this is the sort of show that demonstrates the virtues of touring theatre. And for a show that’s set in the Oregon winter, it brings an awful lot of sunshine to Aylesbury Vale.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Aylesbury Waterside Theatre (and touring)4Scott Matthewman2013-10-29 09:17:19I must admit, the original MGM film version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was never among my favourites of the era. That was probably because I w…

Reviewed: Strictly Confidential

Over on The Stage, I review Strictly Confidential, Craig Revel Horwood’s new stage show based on the Strictly Come Dancing brand. Personally, I found that Ian, Natalie and Artem, while all fabulously charismatic dancers, don’t work quite as well when having to deliver monologues. It’s still fun – a pastiche of Lisa Riley’s seven years as a regular on Emmerdale works well, for example – but didn’t quite satisfy me in the ways that Burn the Floor or Brendan Cole: Licence to Thrill did. Still a fun night out, though.

The 39 Steps, Aylesbury Waterside

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The 39 Steps has always been a tricky novel to dramatise. As three films and a recent TV adaptation have proved, to make it a truly suspenseful spy thriller it necessary to treat John Buchan’s as a skeleton, on which to hang the meat crafted by others’ hands.

Probably the best loved of all versions of The 39 Steps is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, starring Robert Donat. And it’s this one which forms the basis for Patrick Barlow’s stage comedy, first staged in 2005 before a new production directed by Maria Aitken transferred from the Tricycle Theatre to Piccadilly’s Criterion Theatre in September 2006, where it is still currently running.

The touring production of The 39 Steps, currently in residence until Saturday at the Waterside, is true to the Olivier and Tony Award-winning original. It has to be – Barlow’s script is deceptively precise in its comedy. It may look resolutely low-budget in the props department – trains are constructed from luggage trunks, the Forth Bridge from a couple of stepladders – but that is a deliberate part of its carefully constructed charm.

Richard Ede’s Hannay, a suavely chauvinistic 1930s bachelor-about-town, is accompanied by a cast of just three others, with Tony Bell, Gary Mackay and Charlotte Peters taking on a range of roles each. Bell and Mackay in particular must contend with frequent fast changes, playing two or three characters in the same scene with only hat, coat and voice to indicate which is which. This does lead to some frenetic slapstick moments – all of which look off-the-cuff, but (having seen the show twice in the West End) are more carefully choreographed than many a dance show.

In common with Hitchcock’s film, Barlow’s play works best when the spy story is pushed to the background and character fare can come to the fore. Indeed, the audience seemed unsure what to expect until several minutes in, as two secret agents have to bring on stage their own lamppost under which to skulk – and must run off, and back on, frequently as Hannay repeatedly returns to the window to look out on them. It’s only at this point that the intrinsic silliness is embraced by all, setting up many other visual comedy elements.

At times, the attempts to shoehorn in references to titles of other Hitchcock films are a little too laboured. Peters, a recent graduate, doesn’t yet have quite the stage presence to pull off the twin roles of femme fatale and demure love interest that the script demands of her – but this doesn’t detract too much from what is a fun evening of crafted silliness that glories in the twin absurdities of theatre and spy capers.

The 39 Steps is at Aylesbury Waterside until February 23 (see atgtickets.com/aylesbury for more details). The tour than continues until July 2013 – for dates and venues, see the official website.

The 39 Steps, Aylesbury Waterside3Scott Matthewman2013-02-19 08:50:13The 39 Steps has always been a tricky novel to dramatise. As three films and a recent TV adaptation have proved, to make it a truly suspenseful spy th…

Review: Maurice’s Jubilee, Aylesbury Waterside (and touring)

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Maurice and Helena have been married for 66 years. They have their own in-jokes, one providing the setup, the other the punchline – a familiar routine that irritates them both as much as it shows their love and devotion.

Except there’s another woman. 59 years ago, jeweller Maurice was charged with looking over the crown jewels on the night before the Coronation. A chance meeting with the princess who would the following day become queen caused him to fall in love, with a depth that overshadowed his family relationships ever since.

In 2012, Maurice is looking forward to the evening of Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee – also his 90th birthday – in the belief that the Queen will fulfil a promise made on a whim that night six decades earlier. But the cancer which is riddling his body may have other ideas.

In Nichola McAuliffe’s warm, poignant and often hilarious script, Maurice is a gentle optimist whose main (and somewhat huge) failing is to not see how his obsession with the Queen has damaged both his marriage and his relationship with his son. In Julian Glover’s hands, Maurice’s faults become endearing, even though they are outshone by the heartbreak visible in Sheila Reid’s eyes.

This is Glover’s play. His performance as the geriatric coming to terms with having just weeks to live is exemplary – and then, at the end of Act One, his extended monologue takes us back to the day he fell in love with Her Majesty. And we are there with them both, utterly convinced that he is 31 again, and Princess Elizabeth is slow dancing with him in Buckingham Palace. It’s a captivating combination of writing and delivery – and one that demonstrates that, no matter the size of the Waterside auditorium, it can contain the most intimate of moments.

McAuliffe’s Katy, the palliative care nurse who moves in to the couple’s Penge bungalow, is somewhat less of the striking, confident figure we are more used to seeing this actress portray. Instead of a shrew, we get a mouse: a lifetime of being made to believe she is inferior produces a woman who lives down to those expectations, but never lets that stop her caring for others. It’s a good performance, but by the end of the first act we are left wondering just why she won The Stage’s Best Actress award for this role at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Post-interval, though, you begin to see why, after Kay comes up with an idea that could make Maurice’s dream of tea with the Queen come true. (Not having made it up to Edinburgh last year, I have no idea how Glover – nominated for Best Actor in the same awards – did not win; there must have been some impressive competition.)

The final conversation between McAuliffe and Glover is full of the humour, warmth and pathos that characterises the entire play. The final few seconds of the play, in contrast, feel a little too quickly paced, the dialogue a little too obvious. By the end of the play, we want our goodbye to these three characters to have a little more care.

Or maybe it’s just that, thanks to Glover’s performance of McAuliffe’s script, and to our memories of those in our own families who we have lost, we are not always ready to say goodbye.

Maurice’s Jubilee is at the Aylesbury Waterside until February 2, then touring to Bath, Woking, Richmond, Brighton, Birmingham, Malvern, Bromley, Cambridge, Windsor and Oxford. For more details, www.mauricesjubilee.com or @MauricesJubilee on Twitter.

Review: Maurice’s Jubilee, Aylesbury Waterside (and touring)4Scott Matthewman2013-01-31 13:12:56Maurice and Helena have been married for 66 years. They have their own in-jokes, one providing the setup, the other the punchline – a familiar routi…

Review: Bunnies, New Diorama Theatre, London

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A play about a farmer who feels he must resort to culling whole species in order to save his livelihood could, on the face of it, be no more topical. With much discussion over whether or not to cull the badger population in an effort to stem the spread of bovine tuberculosis, and a proposed (and possibly overdue) ban on the importation of ash trees to try and prevent the spread of a disease to our own native stocks, there are issues worthy of discussion and debate aplenty here.

Kieran Lynn’s Bunnies, currently playing at the New Diorama theatre, is not that sort of play. Instead, it is a curious attempt at political satire that seems to revel in the crudity of its allegory, just as it revels in acts of violence and bad taxidermy. It is set on a farm, and there are animals involved – but Animal Farm this is not.

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Review: Bunnies, New Diorama Theatre, London2Scott Matthewman2012-10-29 08:48:30A play about a farmer who feels he must resort to culling whole species in order to save his livelihood could, on the face of it, be no more topical. …

Review: The Incredible Doctor Guttmann, Aylesbury Waterside Theatre

There can’t help but have been a sense of local pride in the Aylesbury area this summer. While the Olympic and Paralympic Games took place in the East End of London, the latter has its roots very firmly in this small town. In Stoke Mandeville Hospital to be precise, whose spinal injuries unit created the first Games for the Paralysed under the leadership of Doctor Ludwig Guttmann.

The BBC took a pass at telling the story of Guttmann and the birth of the Paralympics with Lucy Gannon’s The Best of Men (you can read a piece by Gannon about that production on the BBC Writersroom blog). Featuring a remarkable central performance by Eddie Marsan, it helped get the story of Guttmann out to a wide audience.

In contrast, Karen Simpson Productions’ telling of the story, with a script by Nicholas McInerny and directed by Charlotte Westenra, is intended to tell the story to much smaller audiences – after this weekend at the Waterside, it will tour to local communities for the next month. And while there’s an inevitable amount of overlap between the BBC’s story and this stage one, I have to admit that I found the theatrical retelling to be a far more involving and emotional take on Guttmann and his legacy.

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Review: Opera Come Strictly, Aylesbury Waterside

Opera Come Strictly, which performed at Aylesbury Waterside on Saturday evening, does at least do what it says on the tin. It is an evening of operatic arias, some of which are accompanied by ballroom dancing. And as such, it’s perfectly serviceable. The 15-piece orchestra, playing arrangements by musical director Stephen Higgins, give accomplished renditions that form a solid backbone to the evening.

There are, however, some severe shortcomings which prevent this from being as enjoyable an evening as it could be.

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Review: The King’s Speech

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Apologies for my blog silence in recent weeks/months. At fault is a combination of being busy at work, wssting too much time on Twitter, leading a rather dull and uneventful life and being too damned lazy. Will try harder in all cases.

Anyway, to kick off an attempted revival of this blog, a delayed – and very short – review of The King’s Speech, which I attended at Richmond Theatre last week in an event organised by the theatre and Twespians.

I suppose that, in a play about a man who struggles with a stammer, it’s kind of appropriate that this play consists of several short, frustrating scenes that the playwright (and the audience) has to struggle through before getting to periods of lucidity.

Or maybe it’s just that, after the unproduced play was adapted into a successful, Oscar-winning film, the producers decided to prioritise brand recognition over script quality.

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Review: The King’s Speech2Scott Matthewman2012-03-12 17:52:55Apologies for my blog silence in recent weeks/months. At fault is a combination of being busy at work, wssting too much time on Twitter, leading a rat…

Legally Blonde – The Musical, Aylesbury Waterside

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When Aylesbury’s Waterside Theatre opened in October 2010, its marketing tagline talked of “Bringing the West End to Waterside”. As it launches its second spring season, that promise is certainly being fulfilled: in May, it will play host to the Lincoln Center’s revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific that recently played at the Barbican, whose stars (including Samantha Womack, Dan Koek and Alex Fearns) will all be joining the production in Aylesbury. The season will also see Hull Truck’s production of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van and the National Theatre’s Travelling Light, starring Anthony Sher.

And it is in evidence this week, too, as the touring production of Legally Blonde – The Musical comes to town while its big West End sorority sister is still running (for now) at the Savoy Theatre. Last week, of course, the Olivier award-winning West End show posted closing notices. That must be frustrating for Aylesbury in a couple of ways: first, the show they’ve been promoting has been in the theatrical headlines because it’s not been doing well enough to stay open. Also, because there’s nothing like a closing notice to indicate the possibility of cut-price tickets for the London show. With Chiltern Railways’ annoying-but-better-than-most train service into the capital, the touring version of Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin’s musical faces stiff competition from its West End counterpart.

The good news is that, one or two patchy spots apart, it withstands the comparison well.

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Legally Blonde – The Musical, Aylesbury Waterside3Scott Matthewman2012-02-01 10:18:09When Aylesbury’s Waterside Theatre opened in October 2010, its marketing tagline talked of “Bringing the West End to Waterside”. As it launches …

Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary, Aylesbury Waterside (via the Royal Albert Hall)

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Last night I went to the Aylesbury Waterside Theatre, where the venue’s small studio area, the SecondSpace, had been converted into a big-screen cinema for a live relay of The Phantom of the Opera’s 25th anniversary gala at the Royal Albert Hall. It’s the first time I’ve been in the SecondSpace when it’s been in use as a performance area: the ingenious, adaptable design allows the seating to retract fully away into the walls and for a partition to be removed, making for a large open-plan bar area which was used for drinks receptions at the venue’s grand opening and at the gala night for last year’s pantomime.

Because of the retractible nature of the seating, I had expected that they wouldn’t be quite as comfortable as the luscious, generously proportioned seats in the main auditorium. And they’re not – but they are far better than I’d imagined, even if the fidgety old couple at the end of our row did cause the whole bank of seats to vibrate every time they shuffled around.

I wasn’t there to review the seats, though, but to see a transmission of the souvenir performance marking 25 years since The Phantom of the Opera blasted onto the West End stage (the actual anniversary is next weekend). A specially constructed set in the Albert Hall took over the whole of the choir and organ end of the auditorium. The upper level boxes were cleverly extended round to include Box Number Five, which the “Opera Ghost” demands is kept for his sole use. The main stage space saw the orchestra perched atop a series of ornate archways, with a lighting rig doubling as a faux proscenium arch that occasionally descended to show activity in the ‘fly tower’ above.

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Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary, Aylesbury Waterside (via the Royal Albert Hall)4Scott Matthewman2011-10-03 11:26:45Last night I went to the Aylesbury Waterside Theatre, where the venue’s small studio area, the SecondSpace, had been converted into a big-screen cinem…