CORMAC RICHARDS – REVIEW OF THE THEATRE YEAR 2023 – PART TWO

Following a really mixed bag in the first six months, what would the second half offer?

JULY

The second offering in the Sidmouth Summer Season was BOEING-BOEING, the classic, if rather dated comedy of multiple relationships at the same time. Well directed by Rob McWhir, the cast were universally excellent with an outstanding physical performance from Mark Laverty.

This was followed in the same season by a very ambitious project – DAMSELS IN DISTRESS is a trio of plays by Alan Ayckbourn; one set utilising the same cast of actors – but all unconnected otherwise. It was a gamble to stage these plays in consecutive weeks. Did it pay off? GAMEPLAN is regarded as the least successful of the three; a slightly distasteful piece of work, but with some moments of joy. A fine cast gives it everything; Liv Koplick and Laura Mead excel as the central characters and, as he so often does, James Pellow offers up a comic gem as a cameo.

To a new theatre for me, The Ice Factory in Teignmouth to see 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD (unreviewed) a wonderful play and told really well in this tiny venue. Some lovely attention to detail, the production featured a stand out performance by Marnie Devereux as Helene Hanff.

This was followed by the second of the DAMSELS IN DISTRESS trilogy, the much better FLATSPIN with Laura Mead, once again, offering a very strong central performance with strong support throughout; Owen Landon and Dominic McChesney also stand out. A thriller element to this one but with plenty of laughs too.

FROM THIS DAY FORWARD (not reviewed) at the OSO Arts Centre in Barnes is a quirky look into the future at the institution of marriage and relationship commitment. Written with a neat wit by Nicolas Ridley the play was well acted and provided much food for thought.

Before passing onto the third of the trilogy I had the pleasure to review a concert – AN EVENING WITH MATT WALTERS – not something I do very often. Matt Walters is a young organist based in Somerset and has made a splash on social media with his mash-ups and musical interpretations. A concert at Wells Cathedral offered a chance for him to showcase his talents in public. A wonderfully mixed programme and a sublime programme in tremendous surroundings. A night to remember. Outstanding.

Back to Sidmouth for the final part of the trilogy; this time ROLEPLAY – an out and out farcical comedy. A really good play and hugely fun and entertaining to watch. The cast all excel with Owen Landon at the top of his game with James Pellow also offering another hysterical character as does Julia Main. Claire Louise Amias is the best comic ‘drunk’ on stage. The ensemble in all three plays is outstanding as is the director of all three plays – Anton Tweedale – the result is an excellent entry into the Sidmouth archives.

The month ended with the modern classic thriller THE BUSINESS OF MURDER. Tautly directed by Ellie Chadwick, this three-hander requires the cast to work incredibly well together, which they do. Stephanie Lodge and Simon Chappell make excellent foils for the more showy character of Stone, portrayed with utter glee by Dominic McChesney – a gloriously fruity performance. A really tricky play to pull off, but it works like a dream.

 

AUGUST

42nd STREET is a great show – the backstage musical par excellence – the 2017 London production was glorious beyond words – this is the tour – as seen at Theatre Royal Plymouth –  of that production. However, for various reasons it has been slimmed down and much of the impact has gone as a result. It is still good, but lacks magic. Performances are generally pretty good – with a notable leading man stumbling over lines. The music is intoxicating and stays with you for a long time afterwards.

Back to Sidmouth and the 1980s farce by Ray Cooney – RUN FOR YOUR WIFE, which has a more than passing resemblance to the aforementioned ‘Boeing Boeing’. It is full of outdated language and stereotypes, but somehow works. In the hands of director, Jonathan Hunt, it is a whirlwind of laughter and hilarity. Tom Mann is extremely impressive in the lead and there are excellent contributions from Heather Wilkins, Molly Stewart, Matthew Hartley and Jeremy Todd – and scene stealing work from Alfie French and the gloriously over the top Sam McInnerny.

The police procedural drama has started making its way on stage more often recently having been a staple of TV for many years. Peter James’ clever novels are a current favourite and Sidmouth staged one in 2022. NOT DEAD ENOUGH is extremely complex and detailed and director Jason Marc-Williams brings a clarity to the proceedings and is helped by excellent performances from Jeremy Todd, Eoin Lynch and Heather Wilkins in particular. Good fun.

Outdoor theatre is always fun and THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES is a great story to tell al fresco. In the lovely surroundings of the National Trust’s Fyne Court, British Touring Shakespeare provide great entertainment in this excellent adaptation of the Conan Doyle classic by Andrew Hobbs (who also directs) and David Hobbs. With some very funny moment and some great atmosphere the cast of just 7 play all the roles with Tom Thornhill terrific as Holmes and great support from Brendan Matthew, Paul Winterford and Georgie Murphy in particular. Huge fun.

Back to Sidmouth for Robin Hawdon’s THE MATING GAME. Despite the hard work of director Jason Moore and his cast, this was such an awful play it could not be saved. An outdated ‘sex comedy’ which is generally inappropriate and offensive these days and provides very few laughs. Not for me.

THE SPONGEBOB MUSICAL at Theatre Royal Plymouth is largely aimed at the younger end of the market, but has much to enjoy – especially visually; super fun sets and costumes are a feast and show great imagination. Lewis Cornay is impressive in the title role and there is great back up from the cast, with Tom Read Wilson stealing the show. There are a lot (too many) songs and not enough plot to sustain the length though and it suffers as a result.

 

SEPTEMBER

Jason Moore comes back strong at Sidmouth with a very excellent production of PACK OF LIES – Hugh Whitemore’s superb play about the Portland Spy Ring. An excellent set (as they have all been throughout the season and all designed by Andrew Beckett) and an incredibly talented cast lead by Bridget Lambert and Steve Blacker-Barrowman backed up by Hilary Harwood, James Pellow, Simon Chappell and Katherine Dodds. A deeply fascinating and moving production of a great play.

PAST TENTS by Seth Jones and David J Keogh ranks as one of the most unusual plays I have seen. The tiny – and very hot – Alma Pub Theatre in Bristol hosted this mix of farcical comedy, surrealism and deeply moving drama. The two writers act – alongside an off-the-wall performance by Mark Keegan – stage manage and produce the play and it is an experience to remember for a long time. Probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but this tour de force by this duo is a special theatrical experience.

The penultimate offering at Sidmouth this year was the classic Coward, PRIVATE LIVES. With a quartet (plus tiny cameo) of wonderful actors it was a joy from start to finish. On a duo of beautiful sets the warring couples played with style and panache. Andrew Beckett squeezed every ounce of Coward out of the script and plaudits to him and Claire Louise Amias, Steve Blacker-Barrowman, Holly Ashman and Charlie Bryant. Glorious!

To the Dolman Theatre in Newport to see the witty and fun three-hander version of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES; on a spare set with the cast playing multiple characters, this was good fun. This was not reviewed.

And so the curtain came down on Sidmouth for another year with the bonkers adaptation of THE 39 STEPS; a play for 4 actors which goes like the train in the story. Once again Andrew Beckett directs with pace and precision and temps the actors to just go for it. As ensemble casts go, you don’t get much better than Charlie Bryant (as Hannay), Dominic McChesney, Holly Ashman and Joshua Coley. It was hilarious, thrilling and as entertaining as you can get.

A fitting finale to a wonderful Summer Season.

Not having seen a professional production of THE KING AND I before I was thrilled when the touring production, which visited Theatre Royal Plymouth, ticked all the boxes. It is magnificent. Wonderful designs and the music sings around the theatre. Annalene Beachey is simply wonderful as Anna and Brian Rivera wonderfully impressive as the King. I was engrossed and involved and emoted. What more can you ask?

OCTOBER

The Watermill Theatre in Newbury is a theatre I have wanted to visit for some time; it was brave of them to take on the LORD OF THE RINGS which had not been a huge success in London. Careful thought had gone into the staging of this musical; part performed outside and most indoors which worked a treat. The designs were first rate as were the lighting and effects and I found the music very enjoyable indeed. I wanted to be more moved by it, but a small niggle. It was so well done and deserves the plaudits it has had.

Something completely different from Birmingham Royal Ballet was the BLACK SABBATH BALLET a unique production and one which was full of intrigue and interest. The team under Carlos Acosta really pushed the boundaries; the occasional use of voices from the rock band created a semi-documentary feel to it. Not an unqualified success, but overall hugely entertaining.

 

NOVEMBER

To The Ice Factory in Teignmouth again to see THE WYRD SISTERS, an adaptation of a Terry Pratchett novel. Never been understand Pratchett or get on with his stories, but it was well performed and fun; but this wasn’t a production I reviewed.

Being a bit of a Rossini fan it was to see CINDERELLA by English Touring Opera at Exeter Northcott Theatre I went, to kick off November. A witty translation all set in a museum, it was a delight. In the title role Esme Bronwen-Smith is quite magnificent and Joseph Doody and Edmund make a great double act as the Prince and Dandini. A joyful production.

Back to the OSO Arts Centre in Barnes to see Claire Evans’ production of HANDBAGGED, Moira Buffini’s imagined and satirical look at the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher. A slightly curious piece but it was played for all it was worth with particularly strong performances from Hilary Harwood and Polly Smith as two versions of the former Prime Minister. As ever, Claire Evans directs with a keen eye on pace and wit!

A long awaited ambition realised when I got to see THE MOUSETRAP in London at the St Martin’s Theatre where it has lived for many years. Having seen the play earlier this year, it was still fun to see it again with a different cast and in a different theatre. Although I was not there to review, it was great to see Gwithian Evans in the cast as his six months in the role of Christopher Wren came to a close. Go and see it.

Also not reviewing, back to the Dolman Theatre to see THE SHAKESPEARE REVUE – a wonderfully fun and witty look at the Bard through various writers and composers from Alan Bennett to Cole Porter. A bit hit and miss, but the hits were certainly palpable ones!

EDWARD SCISSORHANDS provided the annual treat at Theatre Royal Plymouth for fans of Matthew Bourne. Not having been on the road for some years it was a delight to see this most beautiful of stories. Bourne’s reworking of the story with the original creators of the film is the stuff of dreams. The artists from New Adventures provide a magical fairytale of a production; I was lucky to see the show twice and saw both Liam Mower and Stephen Murray in the lead role – both peerless. I adored every moment.

2:22 A GHOST STORY is a decent piece of theatre; there are so few plays of the genre about so this hits the right buttons. I saw through some of the twists and turns but I thought it was staged and acted pretty well and the writing is reasonably effective, though so much is left unexplained which is annoying! Very impressed with the set design and I think Joe Absolom stole the acting honours.

 

DECEMBER

I SHOULD BE SO LUCKY was a weak entry into the ever-growing jukebox musical catalogue – this time celebrating the music of Stock Aitkin Waterman. Frankly it was all done on a paper thin plot and with a bunch of dislikable characters. Nothing bored me more this year. Debbie Isitt has a very creative mind, but it obviously took a break when she created this ghastly affair.

The first pantomime of the year was DICK WHITTINGTON at Exeter Northcott Theatre. Not big, not full of C-listers, but it was colourful and fun and – more important than anything else – it engaged with the young members of the audience well and wasn’t too near the mark. I have heard funnier scripts and some of the routines are a bit familiar but in the main this did what it was meant to do.

Then onto Panto Number Two – SLEEPING BEAUTY at Exeter Corn Exchange was poorly scripted and far, far too long – both of which are basic mistakes. The laughs were few and far between, though the singing and dancing was decent enough. Enthusiasm cannot get you past a badly written show and this was poorly directed to. No sign of the names of those responsible. Very disappointing indeed.

And so something rather different, pantowise – 4 performers in a ballroom above a pub, with no scenery and limited resources – The Bridge Theatre Company production of JACK AND THE BEANSTALK is touring pubs and I caught it at The Bull Hotel in Bridport. Huge fun and proof that a good script and good performers can make entertainment with limited resources. Lead by the excellent dame of Brendan Matthew, this was a real pocket-sized treat.

To bring the year to an end a colourful, bright spectacle in the form of GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS at Theatre Royal Plymouth which goes to prove that if ‘acts’ are good then they can hold a show together when the script barely exists – though this one had some good gags. Slightly bonkers but with a great baddie turn from Brendan Cole and Steve Hewlett with a very good ventriloquist act, this was a great way to end the year.

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A really varied year with the usual highs and lows. I was blown away by a number of productions and bored rigid by others. But it seemed to me that regional theatre was in a decent state and the outlook for the future looks rosey!

Who might come out with the votes when the Cormac Richards Theatre Awards are announced? Keep watching this space!!

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The year in figures

55 theatre visits

45 reviewed

16 different venues

18 productions at Theatre Royal Plymouth

12 productions at Manor Pavilion Theatre Sidmouth

34 plays

11 musicals

5 dance shows

4 pantomimes

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Cormac Richards

December 2023

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