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December 10, 2010 / garyalex

Christmas Shows Reviewed

Nowadays girls flock to drama schools; but time was when the profession was regarded as not for ladies. You wouldn’t have seen a woman on the stage until the 1660s; and even then they were regarded as little more than streetwalkers. But then, as now, a girl had to use her assets; and delivering an epilogue might land a royal lover. Enter Nell Gwynne, played by Clare Fitton. In Playhouse Creatures (Black Ram Theatre, Diss Corn Hall) by April De Angelis she has all the ‘unfettered profanity’ described by Pepys. Or at least the language of a modern girls’ locker room. From Nell’s first performance, when she stands like a frozen heifer, through her meteoric rise, you begin to see what charmed the public and attracted royalty. Her contemporaries, played by Gillian Dean and Elizabeth Davidson, are as bold as brass and tough as old boots, as actresses probably were. Annie Julian, as Mrs. Betterton, has a touch of Maggie Smith. There is a real sense of history as you see her as Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth, the first time a woman would have played these roles. Penny Lamport’s Doll Common is a gem, like an old peasant who has emerged from a Breughel painting to have a moan about life in colourful language. The play, directed by Sheila Welland, highlights an important time in the rise of women’s rights.

Pantos are best appreciated at matinees, when the noise level rivals that of the Iceni attacking Colchester. There was certainly no danger of nodding off during Abigail Anderson’s production of Mother Goose at the Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmunds. Being given three different shouted responses taxed some young brains (well mine, anyway); but they all joined in with a vengeance. The sets and costumes, designed by Will Hargreaves, were like a pop-up storybook. The music, directed by Thomas Turner, was lively and apposite, with a touching rendering of You’ll Never Walk Alone. Dennis Herdman’s dame was a whirl of psychedelic energy, including a Madonna impersonation (with appropriate upholstery) and Tina Turner’s Simply the Best. Simon Nock’s villain produced storms of juvenile vituperation; and there was charming work by the young girls who played the goslings and swans. Eleanor Brown’s Gretchen, who spoke not so good ze English and had flaxen pigtails akimbo, was an easy girl to fall for. Daniel O’Brian’s script was suitable for children, while also exercising middle-aged chuckle muscles. The pantomime runs until January 16. 

On a night that would have daunted King Wenceslas, the company outnumbered the church audience at Redgrave Singers’ Christmas Concert. But, without a lesson or a carol, this concert proved to be a Christmas treat. Conductor Peter Creswell had put together a programme of sacred song, cello music, Vivaldi and Gilbert & Sullivan. You felt like singing along as Jennifer and Paul Hewes opened with the perennial favourite The Holy City.  Mr. Creswell’s own Cello Concerto was interpreted by Rebecca Walker, whose playing has developed from a fey charm to a more muscular dexterity. The choir made a joyful noise in Vivaldi’s Gloria, with soloists Alaine Weide and Jennifer Hewes almost bringing Spring to wintry Redgrave. The last gift in the stocking was a performance of Trial by Jury, described by an 1875 critic as a ‘humorous bagatelle’. This is a cartoon version of a breach-of-promise case, with a Judge who has an eye for fragrant females. In the judicial role, Tim Hall had the comic dignity of an outsized crow. Leslie Dumbell and Alaine Weide, as the defendant and plaintiff, sang with the ease of born performers. Paddy Richards directed this smile-making winter warmer.  

Burgate Singers’ Christmas Concert was another occasion on which the performers outnumbered the audience. But there were no complaints after this soul-warming concert, conducted by Alain Judd, at Diss Corn Hall. Choirs always moan about how difficult Stravinsky is. It is very Russian – jagged, monolithic, with a soaring austerity. But the Singers handled the Symphony of Psalms well. They found the note of exhortation in Ps. 39, gratitude in Ps. 40 and the mixture of trouble and sweetness in Ps.50. Honegger’s Christmas Cantata was a European Union of carols, like twiddling the radio dial and catching snatches of Stille Nacht and Il est ne le Divin Enfant. Apart from lovely singing, there was an orchestral passage with the controlled abandon of a thrilling ski run. Most satisfying was Monteverdi’s Christmas Vespers, a baroque work with all the colours of the Renaissance. It came over warm and vibrant, redolent of old master paintings and angel voices. Soloist Ruth Kerr would certainly have made the squadron over Bethlehem.

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