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Reviews of Arsenic & Old Lace

The November production of the classic comedy Arsenic & Old Lace at the Phoenix Theatre, performed by the resident amateur group the Phoenix Theatre Company, was very well received and played to full houses. Set in a quiet neighborhood of Brooklyn in the early 1940s live two old ladies – Abby and Martha Brewster. Underneath their air of respectability lies a dark secret. Twelve bodies in the cellar! These are their gentlemen, single elderly men who are given a glass of elderberry wine laced with a cocktail of poisons to help them on their way.

The Brewsters were played to perfection by Suzanne Hill and Jane Bovell who brought their vast range of acting talents to their roles. Orchestrating the disposal of bodies in the cellar was Teddy Brewster who thinks himself to be Teddy Roosevelt. This was a cameo role played with extreme enthusiasm by Les Davis. Some sanity does exist in the Brewster family in the form of Mortimer a sometime theatre critic played by Tony Hearn making a welcome return to the Phoenix. Tony has good stage presence and a range of facial expressions that can reflect an extreme range of emotions. The look of incredulousness on his face as he discovers the bodies in the window seat was a treat.

The play takes a menacing turn at the entry of long-lost cousin Jonathan Brewster. Jonathan is a gangster who has his identity protected by frequent face lifts carried out by his side kick the german Dr Einstein. The portrayal of Jonathan by Gareth Wigg as a very nasty piece of work was the highlight of the play. Shaven-headed with a couple of operating scars and eyes that pierced through the audience, Gareth commanded the stage. His measured delivery and menacing threats cowered Dr Einstein into submission to his deadly plans. Performed with a stoop and a spot-on accent Tim Betts had a lovely time as Dr Einstein.

Where there are villains there are also cops and quite a lot of them! On came some of the dumbest officers you are likely to see, played by Nigel Patrick (again returning to the Phoenix), Sam Callen and Tom Lee-Hynes overseen by Lieutenant Rooney played by Jacky Bedford, another nice cameo. I was pleased to see Gordon Brigg on stage as one of the Brewster ladies potential victims. Gordon is a vastly experienced actor and director. Brian Jackson makes an entrance towards the end of the play as Mr Witherspoon, the director of a home for the mentally ill, and being single, elderly and unattached – he is last to be seen holding up a glass of elderflower wine! The play opens with the Rev Dr Harper played by Roger Williams and we are soon introduced to his daughter Elaine played by Zoe Hutton. Zoe has come into the senior ranks as a product of the Phoenix Youth Theatre and has a promising acting career ahead of her. It is a joy to watch her face reacting to every changing situation on stage.

If there is to be any criticism of David Pollard’s direction, then it has to be the inability to see all the actors when a large cast is on stage. If an actor is on stage then they must not be masked. Difficult with a large cast I know. For me the set was a slight disappointment. I appreciate how much effort goes into staging a play, particularly in a tight space such as at the Phoenix, but the set lacked character and didn’t suggest a room occupied over many years by a couple of old ladies. There should have been more clutter and memorabilia in my view. I also felt the overhead blue light which outlined the tops of the actors heads quite distracting, a point made by others sitting near me. Should Jonathan’s photo be in colour?

Overall an excellent production with great performances that delighted the audiences.

Rachel Divine

*****

I was almost not looking forward to attending this production, as it is one of my all-time favourite films. In addition to its being a film it was a Broadway play, so I was anticipating a different interpretation to my much-loved film. I needn’t have worried, as the Phoenix Theatre Company kept it very true to the version I know and love so well.

The set was absolutely amazing, with every door and window used as working entrances; the furniture was of the period and the props were the icing on the cake. Although the set remains the same throughout the play, this did not stop the additional props used emphasising every stage of the day. The costumes were fabulous, and the three lady’s outfits were gorgeous. The stairs leading to the upper landing were good. However, I did feel that if the door had opened the other way around it would have allowed it to be slammed better, thus giving more credence to Teddy’s battle cry.

Suzanne Hill and Jane Bovell, as sisters Abby and Martha Brewster, were brilliant and their accents strong throughout. They portrayed in equal amounts, their innocence and eccentricity with great comic timing. The part of Mortimer Brewster was played by Tony Hearn and although I felt he wasn’t trying to be Cary Grant, he did use some of his mannerisms. His affection for his two elderly Aunts was nicely done and his interaction with his brother Jonathan and his girlfriend Elaine nicely paced and humorous.

Gareth Wigg was a very menacing Jonathan Brewster and his scary face worked very well. Les Davis as Teddy Brewster, the even more eccentric brother, was true to the original character and his use of the word ‘bully’ and ‘charge’ were very funny. Zoe Hutton, though not as mature as the original film version of Elaine Harper did well. Tim Betts was exceptional as Dr Einstein; he was so like Peter Lorre it was uncanny. Not only with his mannerisms but his voice; it was amazing.

There was great support from all the other cast members, the police officers in particular did very well; Tom Lee-Hynes, as Officer O’Hara, played this with the right amount of complete incompetence; it’s a lovely part.

Most of the cast had really good American accents, which they managed to maintain throughout the play which is not easy, so well done to you for the attention to detail. This was a well-directed production; the full use of the ‘stage’ and the fluidity of movement from everyone kept the audience’s attention focussed throughout. This was another great production from Phoenix Theatre Company which I thoroughly enjoyed, thank you.

Louise Hickey (NODA)

Wendy & Peter Pan (Phoenix Youth Theatre)

For years one of the highlights of the London pantomime season has been ‘Peter Pan’. This week’s production by Phoenix Youth Theatre was far more challenging. In taking on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version the company’s director, Sarah O’Neill, raised the bar for her young cast. Far removed from panto it is more a fantasy drama, presenting challenges in staging; from the children’s bedroom to Neverland and the pirate ship. As with previous PYT productions creative sound effects helped to establish changes of mood and location. The flying sequences were brilliantly achieved by clever lighting through the theatre’s newly acquired gauze. Huge challenges for the backstage team but clever costuming also contributed, as in Peter’s first appearance trying to find his shadow, (black from head to toe, mirroring Peter’s every movement); from the Edwardian elegance of the parents to the flamboyant swashbuckling style of a superb Captain Hook played by Dan Canham.

The show belonged to Sarah’s young cast. They delivered their lines with faultless assurance and I must mention a few. Lucy Roberts, such an accomplished young actress playing the mother, Mrs. Darling, a role she took on at less than four weeks notice, then switching character to double as Tiger Lily. The fairy Tink, an hilarious characterisation by Lily Hampson, straight out of Coronation Street! The audience loved her. Is Lily from the Forest? – hard to believe; Rochdale for me! Peter Pan superbly played by Eben Harris. Eben has everything, pace, agility, stage persona, clear diction. Eben simply was Peter Pan.

The scenes when the cast of pirates and ‘lost boys’ filled the stage was suberbly managed. And so we come to the final scenes. The reconciliation of Mr and Mrs Darling played with such maturity by Lucy Roberts and Ollie O’Neill; and the touching reunion between Wendy (The delightful Maggie Hearne who also took on the role at four week’s notice!) and her mother with Peter hovering wistful and unseen beyond the window. The audience applauded and cheered; two curtain calls were demanded. In the foyer as they left some of the audience were seen weeping, so emotional was the climax. ‘A wonderful show’ they said. Phoenix Youth Theatre continues to go from strength to strength.

Brian Jackson

Review of “Their Greatest Hits” (Phoenix Theatre Singers)

 

If you didn’t manage to buy a ticket for the Phoenix Singers latest concert ‘Their Greatest Hits,’ then you missed a treat.

The programme began with the full company singing Judy Garlands’ hit, ‘That’s Entertainment’ and that’s just what the Singers provided us with for the rest of the evening. It was a delight to be cajoled by a new Master of Ceremonies, Di Hughes, who was informative, amusing and set the tone for the performance.

The full company performed exceptionally well, especially when singing without the words in front of them! I particularly liked the Ladies’ Chorus rendition of the highlights from Chicago. Their black cocktail dresses were stunning and the movement and singing was enhanced by them. The men, on the other hand, were completely bowled over by the ‘Pretty Woman’ who appeared in their midst! The Bohemian Rhapsody is particularly difficult to sing without copies and the Company performed it magnificently.

The overall impression of the evening was one of colour, enthusiasm and vitality. I must, however, mention some of the soloists. Kevin Passey’s Al Jolson’s medley had us all joining in with him and his empathy with the audience was excellent. ‘Elvis’ seems to get better with every performance! Michelle’s acting skills came into play with her rendition of Barbra Streisand’s ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ and the strength of Sandy’s glorious voice was evident when she sang ‘At Last’. Mary always does justice to Ella Fitzgerald’s works and ‘My Funny Valentine’ was no exception.

However, I think the highlight of the evening for me was Gareth Wigg’s ‘Nessun Dorma’. Fittingly, this week is the tenth anniversary of Pavarotti’s death and had he heard Gareth singing ‘his’ song he would have been proud of him.

None of the concert could succeed without the indefatigable playing of talented Richard Watson. He really is a star who works so hard for the Singers and they would be lost without him.

Finally, a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s entertainment where Mary and her Singers are to be congratulated once again.

Judith Landau

Review of Ruddigore

Ruddigore
The Phoenix Theatre
Director: Brian Jackson
Musical Director: Mary Brigg
Choreographer: Lizzie Nicholson
Venue: The Phoenix Theatre

For such a small theatre (64 seats in total) this was a gigantic success. The comical antics of Director, Brian Jackson, during the overture was a really nice touch. As much as I love G&S overtures, for those not so accustomed can find them a little on the long side and so to have Brian coming and going throughout was very clever. As too was situating the accompanist and prompt on stage throughout, sitting in their own little booth which was very much in keeping with the set. It was amazing how quickly you forgot that they were there as the cast kept the audience captivated throughout. The brilliant use of the space available was amazing and never looked cramped. I particularly liked the costumes that looked so authentic, but were quite simple in design.

Ruddigore has some of the nicest music and is one of the funniest G&S operettas; and the cast certainly did it justice. The strength and purity of sound from the ladies chorus in their opening number set the tone for the evening. Their timing was great too, especially every time they burst into ‘Hail the Bridesmaid, Hail the Bride’ which was very funny.

Every one of the principle characters had lovely singing voices, which sadly is not always the case. Michelle Cooper playing Rose really understood her character and brought just the right amount of humour to the role especially when referring to her book of etiquette, not to mention her fickleness when choosing a suitable husband. Michelle has a good strong voice with a comfortable range. Andrew Doyle reminded me very much of the modern adaptations of G&S that were recorded in the 1970’s, when the principles took a more relaxed approach; but I really liked his style. Andrew and Michelle’s duet was truly touching. Richard Dauntless played by Gareth Wigg, is the likable ladies’ man in the show and Gareth did this really well. He is a definitive tenor with a nice tone and can reach the high notes with ease. He also can do a mean horn pipe. Roger Williams was the roguish Baronet who gave a good impression of this character and also has a lovely voice. Jane Bovell had a semi comedy role in the shape of Dame Hannah and would be a great poker player as she kept a perfect straight face. Her duet with Nigel Hughes as Sir Roderick, ‘The Great Oak Tree’ was beautiful. As for Sandy MacNiell, wow! I think she may be the best Mad Margaret that I have seen in amateur productions. Her portrayal was so good that you could almost feel her fragility of mind. It almost felt wrong to laugh at the Basingstoke reference as it was her safety valve but she was so good and gave a wonderful portrayal of this unusual character and her solo was sung with such pathos.

The ghost scene was nicely done and I thought the use of projection screens ingenious. The supporting cast of Di Hughes, Jackie Bedford, Nigel Hughes, Gordon Brigg and the remaining ensemble made this a terrific evening’s entertainment, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Thank you.

Louise Hickey (NODA)

Review of Christmas with the Phoenix Theatre Singers

The Phoenix Theatre Singers concerts never disappoint, a truism is borne out by the fact that all three nights were completely sold out in advance. And this year some new voices were on display. The concert opened with the traditional promise that ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’, moving smoothly through seasonal songs, skits, a panto and some notable performances. Throughout it all the audience laughed, cheered and applauded in a party atmosphere made all the more pertinent by the presence of Musical Director Mary Brigg, nine days after a hip replacement sitting alongside the choir to sing with them. We need not have worried for the Singers were in the safe hands of conductor Angela Williams. And so the music was delivered with nuances of pace, light and shade and from the first item onward, smiles and excellent diction.

The first of the night’s solos was Graham Nicholson’s beautifully sensitive ‘Scarlet Ribbons’. That was followed shortly afterwards by the first ‘new voice’, young soprano Ellie Rigs in a delightful duet of ‘Walking in the Air’ with Jacky Bedford. The second half showed off the versatility of accompanist Richard Watson who deserted the keyboard to deliver a hilarious take-off of Peter Cook, teaming up with Gareth Wigg in a ‘Pete and Dud’ sketch largely of their own devising. And then another ‘new voice’, contralto Amber Prosser-Jones who enchanted us all with a song simply entitled ‘Believe.’

Two major Christmas classics were included in the programme; John Tavener’s ‘Carol of the Lamb’ in the first half and Adolphe Adam’s ‘O Holy Night’, both awaited with anticipation but it was ‘The Carol of the Lamb’ which took the evening’s honours as the carefully constructed disharmonies, supported by a strong bass line made us tingle.

The evening was compered by Gordon Brigg (who had plundered various boxes of Christmas crackers and other comic sources to keep the humour flowing; I shall now view Black Forest Gateau in a different light!). And so to the end where our involvement was triggered by participation in Noddy Holder’s ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ followed by Christmas carols. Once again, a good time was had by all.

Nicholas Malbre

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