Secret Invasion

Secret InvasionSecret Invasion – Tales of Eldritch Horror from the West Country

Some dear friends of mine have produced a horror anthology that I must take a moment to recommend to you.

There seems to be two aims behind this book, firstly to raise money for Mind, the mental health charity and secondly, to bring the south west of the United Kingdom to fifteen stories inspired by the weird storytelling of H P Lovecraft. Terrifying!

Follow this link to donate to Mind and find out how you can download your copy of Secret Invasion


Sister Act – Exeter Musical Society

Sister ActThere aren’t many shows that can get a matinee on their feet. The only times I’ve seen it locally have been with ‘Blood Brothers’ and ‘Sister Act‘. The Exeter Musical Society production of the show kept that up, proving there’s life in the matinee audience yet…

The tale of wannabe singer Deloris Van Cartier having to enter witness protection in a convent after seeing her gangster boyfriend kill a man is a great set up. The clash of worlds between disco and the convent is a constant source of humour as Deloris turns a choir of nuns into the next big thing, struggling to keep a low profile and putting her own life and the lives of the nuns in danger.

Kat Brooks makes a fabulous Deloris, giving a performance full of soul, energy and holding the focus of the audience whether singing alone or with a whole convent of nuns. There was plenty for Musical Director Simon Carter to get his teeth into, and the nuns don’t let him down with some lovely toe-tapping numbers including ‘Take Me To Heaven’ and ‘Sunday Morning Fever’.

The Mother Superior, played by Penny Daw, keeps a level of dignity in her convent and makes sure faith is never far from the centre of the story. ‘Here Within These Walls’ sets the scene beautifully and ‘Haven’t Got A Prayer’ went down very with the audience.

The stand out number from the first act came from James Billington as Eddie Souther, who during ‘I Could Be That Guy’ pulled off two costume changes and he was the only chap to give the nuns a vocal run for their money. Choreographer Mai-Lin Hagiwara must be delighted that the sequence worked so very effectively, but also be proud of her nuns, who moved as one throughout the show in a number of songs which have more than a dozen on stage dancing.

Come the second act, it was Molly Emmerson’s Sister Mary Robert that broke me, and the emotion of ‘The Life I Never Led’ seems to get me every time. The tone of the show changes here, quickly followed up with Kat Brooks delivering the title song, ‘Sister Act’ where you’re left wanting her to go back to the convent. As these two songs get a reprise, I hope we’re all punching the air as Sister Mary Robert stands up to Mother Superior, Mother Superior stands by Deloris, then one by one every nun steps out alongside her.

Sister Act 2Then, just when you think it can’t get any better, Joe McNulty puts in a cheerful cameo appearance as the Pope, giving the director a chance to see his delighted audience! By the time the Queen of Angels Cathedral finishes a chorus of ‘Spread the Love Around’ we’re all on our feet and the Northcott is dancing. This remains a sure sign that the production has been a triumph. Holy Smokes!

And so when I reviewed a version of Sister Act in 2012 I concluded by saying that I’ll never be a sister in any sense of the word. Time passes, and as Mary Robert sings, “I’m either a sister or nothing at all.” I’m a bloody sister and I want to go back to the convent.

Visit the Exeter Musical Society website or follow them on Facebook

Last Review from the Jolly Lion: The Man Jesus

John Challis in Jack and the Beanstalk – Theatre Royal, Plymouth


John Challis as Fleshcreep in Plymouth

My first Theatrical Who Spot of 2015 is John Challis, who has been appearing as Fleshcreep in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth this Christmas and New Year.

To many he will always be Boycie from ‘Only Fools and Horses’, but to the world of Doctor Who fans he is better known as Scorby from ‘The Seeds of Doom’, where he starred alongside Tom Baker in the 1976 adventure.


John Challis as Scorby, holding Tom Baker at gunpoint

You could tell that Challis drew much for his 2015 performance on his time in Doctor Who. For a start, both Fleshcreep and Scorby are villainous henchmen. Second fiddle to madmen with big houses and plenty of money, the characters are both mercenaries who turn a blind eye to the sanity of their paymaster.

In ‘The Seeds of Doom’ Challis had to do a fair bit of gun-wielding and tying up Sarah Jane Smith. Challis had clearly learned that neither guns nor ropes were effective in the 1970s, as for the Plymouth pantomime he carried a whip and learned that your damsel is less likely to escape if you tie her up with chains rather than rope.


The Beanstalk grows to Giant’s Kingdom…

The most striking parallel between the two is the way Challis has mastered working with ridiculous botanicals.

When you have to persuade a family audience you are a man with magic beans that might grow into a giant beanstalk that reaches into space, you have to draw on all the acting faculties at your disposal. Thankfully, Challis has the advantage, as in ‘The Seeds of Doom’ he had to steal alien seed pods that grow into a giant monster from space.

And so, what a pleasure it was to get to ‘boo’ and ‘hiss’ at John Challis in pantomime. The singing and dancing between dancers in tight costumes was not reminiscent of anything seen in his work on Doctor Who, but was still highly enjoyable. The masterful disguises Fleshcreep demonstrated were not in Scorby’s repertoire, and so I have to accept there is more to the career of Mr Challis than his days working with Tom Baker.

Still, they both had the same moustache, and I’m sure that’s all that counts.

The Man Jesus – Theatre Royal, Plymouth

The Man JesusWhen I booked my seat for ‘The Man Jesus’, I can’t claim to have been feeling particularly Jesussy. To be honest, I haven’t been very Jesussy for a number of years.

Having said that, I did have a scamper through Colm Tóibín’s ‘The Testament of Mary‘ at the start of the year. In a sense, my reaction to that novella and my reaction to ‘The Man Jesus’ are very similar, as I find myself wondering who the desired audience is for each, given that I’m pretty sure it isn’t me.

I didn’t go looking for Jesus. I went looking for Callow. I had enjoyed his ‘Being an Actor’ and wanted to see one of his one man shows. Here he takes on a number of familiar characters, from Mary to Pilate via Judas and John the Baptist. A turn of a body, a change of accent, a jacket removed, a sleeve rolled up, and he becomes a new person. It is gripping stagecraft.

The only role he doesn’t take on is Jesus, although we hear his words through the words of those who met him. And so we are taken on a journey through the gospels and we meet the man who repeatedly disappoints.

He doesn’t talk enough for his brother. He doesn’t send the right message for his cousin. He does not seize the moment where he could make the difference for his friend. He does things his way and his way makes a surprising amount of sense.

The stage contains Callow and a pile of chairs. The chairs reminded me of the end of my own church-going days. Exactly the same wooden seats were being removed to make space. Or to make the space look less like a room of empty seats.

Callow reminded me of everything I love about theatre. That you can stand, one man alone, and command a room. You can be anyone and tell any story and get a good few laughs along the way.

And so I come back to Matthew Hurt’s script and wonder who is it for? It holds back from any declarations that the man was the son of God. It doesn’t go quite as far at the Tóibín novella to set him up as a wild revolutionary, although it is the path he is walking, they do both capture a Mary who is more sympathetic a character than her son.

I can only assume that the piece is for those who enjoy performance, because at the end of the evening, I have no more wonder for Jesus the man, but was in awe of what Callow had achieved. As I come away from the theatre, I know that I loved it and could have watched Callow move from character to character all night. I also wonder if I completely missed the point. Shame on me.

Last Review from the Theatre Royal, Plymouth: Legally Blonde

Neighbourhood Watch – TOADS Theatre Company

IMG-20141005-00198The Little Theatre, Torquay,  maintains the tradition of having the most impressive sets locally for this week’s Alan Ayckbourn comedy ‘Neighbourhood Watch’. Designed by the production’s director, John Miles, the living room of brother and sister Martin and Hilda Massie is on a lovely angle that more than hints at a world beyond the boundaries of the stage.

Freshly decorated, the siblings are having a house warming that soon develops into a creation of a neighbourhood watch come middle class vigilante movement. Before long the estate is being protected by high fences, a checkpoint and internal security, which perhaps goes to show the impact new neighbours can have in a short space of time.

The stand out comedy performance comes from John Hall as Rod Trusser, who has a matter of fact way of explaining the problems of the area and how they can be resolved. His frustrations in dealing with the police is one of the highlights of the first act, as he recounts the story of a stolen hedge trimmer, whilst his efforts to protect his security team from the police in the second act are very funny indeed.

Strangely, the most likeable characters in the piece are Amy Janner, played by Amy Burton-Smith and Luther Bradley, played by Paul Duffield. Something does not sit right that the most sensible characters appear to be the promiscuous lady and the wife beater who are said to be having an affair from the outset. Yet their reactions to what goes on around them is the most normal and understandable. Amy Janner hates committees and just wants to enjoy life away from her husband, who locks himself away in the shed. Meanwhile, Luther Bradley doesn’t want all the new security measures, refuses to carry an ID card, and gets very frustrated with his new neighbours when they suggest he is violent on the strength of gossip from around the neighourhood. They become our viewpoint characters, commenting on the madness of everything that is happening.

Nichola Winstanley delivers a strong, clear performance as Hilda Massie, superficially sensible compared to her brother Martin Massie, played by David Warren, but together they build such a peculiar empire, it would be difficult to want a happy ending for either. It is flagged up from the outset that we are being told a story of how this empire collapses, and the pair get the bulk of the laughs, Winstanley for Hilda’s enjoyable scheming and Warren for Martin’s physical comedy.

There are three endings that satisfy to differing extents,  each building on the previous and ensuring that there is a good roar from the audience when the curtain comes. A long night with regular laughs.

Last review from the Little Theatre: She Stoops to Conquer 

Bazaar and Rummage – Shiphay Amateur Dramatic Society

Bazaar and Rummage - Shiphay Amateur Dramatic SocietyThe new season opened for SADS with Sue Townsend comedy, ‘Bazaar and Rummage’, directed by Linda Dilley. At £6 per ticket, they remain the cheapest amateur theatre locally. Running from Thursday 9 to Saturday 11 October 2014, this production brought the inside of a church hall to St John’s Church Hall, Torquay.

In all honesty, I love this kind of setting, as those who saw my staging of ‘Love Me Slender’ back in 2009 at the same venue will understand. It brings the audience straight into the scene, because it looks just like an extension of the room you’re sat in.

At the time I thought that it would be easier in the amdram world to find an all female cast (those good old myths about there being a shortage of men have never quite gone away), only to have two parts cast very late in the day, ladies were just as hard to find! The programme notes suggest that nothing has changed on that score, with one late addition to a pivotal role and the director having to step in for a small turn near the end.

As an audience, we are taken back to the 1980s and a self-help group for agoraphobics, who are holding a rummage sale. As each member of the group arrives, so we are reminded that you can label people, but they will never be the same, and you cannot assume that they will get on simply because of a mutual condition.

Katrina is played by Pat Bidder, in one of her funniest performances on the Shiphay stage. The character may be timid, but she makes an impression and delivers the running gag every time somebody leaves the room, “I can’t stand her, can you?” to the ever increasing delight of the audience.

Jo Matthews plays Bell-Bell, a lady who cleans her house from top to bottom daily in a battle against germs, never quite finishing the job to be able to go out into the world. Potty-mouthed Margaret is played by Pat Cook, another part that had the audience in stitches.

The group are led by Gwenda, a recovered agoraphobic played by Pat Gillies. The level of that recovery comes into question as the story progresses. Alone she has a tendency to stroke her late father’s standard lamp, and one scene is beautifully upstaged by her marching up and down at the back quietly working her way through four verses of ‘If you’re happy and you know it’. Priceless.

To bring some sanity to the room we have trainee social worker Fliss, played by Suzanne Green. It’s a tough job playing the straight role while everyone around you gets the pick of the funny lines, but the laughs she gets are well deserved.

Of course, it isn’t all laughs along the way. Each lady confronts her demons and those are some very dark areas indeed. SADS have never hidden from edgy material, and although this script may have been doing the rounds for a long time, it keeps coming back because the issues are just as relevant today. We still see people labelled and medicated before the causes of their problems are addressed.

It’s not a nice play, but it is dealt with sensitively, showing the serious moments appropriate respect before breaking the tension with some decent jokes. Uncomfortably funny.

Last review from Shiphay Amateur Dramatic Society: The Farmer’s Wife

Quartet – Bijou Theatre Productions

Quartet - Bijou Theatre ProductionsA nice piece of rebranding from Bijou Theatre Productions makes this my first review of a ‘Non-Professional Production’ – as the Palace Theatre, Paignton sees Ronald Harwood’s ‘Quartet’ staged between Wednesday 8 and Saturday 11 October 2014.

Directed by Ruth Bettesworth and picking from the best of local talent, the production team make it look like it would be hard to go wrong with what has been labelled ‘A funny yet poignant play’.

The audience is taken to a country house converted into a home for retired opera performers. Having never made their fortune in the arts, they are looked after comfortably in retirement with the support of charity, and are determined to see out their days there in comfort among friends.

There are problems along the way, as the threat of losing one’s marbles is a path to being removed from the home, the organised activities are not to the taste of every resident, the staff appear to go out of their way to make breakfast a daily disappointment, and the next new arrival may be a blast from the past one resident has been trying to forget…

‘Quartet’ reminds you of the wonderful pleasure it is to meet anyone of a certain age. You get both the joy of who they are now, and the gentle revealing of who they once were, as they gradually feel comfortable talking about the past. There is a clear message about the importance of living in the present and taking pleasure in what delights life can bring from day to day. It also makes you consider how best to demonstrate respect for your past and whether you can ever recapture the moment that you were at your best in whatever you do.

The audience are introduced to four characters who make up the Quartet. Liz Lee plays Cecily, a lady who has thrown herself into life in the home, she is part of the events committee but is protected by the other residents as she shows signs of behaviour that could see her taken away. Wilf is played by Richard Bearne, a widower who appears to revel in being suggestive at every opportunity and delivers a lot of the humour in the first half of the play.

We meet Reggie, played by Colin Baker, the quiet man who takes comfort from his routine, he is prone to outbursts, more often than not directed towards the staff. The last to make up the quartet is Reggie’s ex-wife Jean, played by Suzy Miles, a lady who is only too aware that her best days are behind her, but  will talk about how wonderful she was at every opportunity.

All four characters have layers that are uncovered to show that these old friends all have secrets, nobody is quite the persona they are trying to present, but together, as they move towards a special performance celebrate Verdi’s birthday (that’s perfectly timed for those in on the Friday night!) all will come together in the end.

If the first act introduces us to four characters that it is easy to care about, the second act takes us on an extraordinary journey. The last scene asks for such concentration of the four performers as they dress and redress, hold multiple conversations that cover a range of emotions and ready themselves for  a final performance unlike anything else you will see on stage this year.

I can understand the rebranding away from amateur. This may be a non-professional production, but it is certainly of a professional standard. Simply sublime.

Last review for Bijou Theatre Productions: Revenge


Little Shop of Horrors – Newton Abbot and District Musical Comedy Society

Little Shop of Horrors - Newton Abbot and District Musical Comedy SocietyIn my teenage years, I had something of a thing for ladies with long ginger curls. It was something of a defining moment for me then, that one evening was spent at the Babbacombe Theatre enjoying the Bonnie Langford ‘Now’ tour. Back in those heady days I knew nothing of musical theatre, but one of the many songs Bonnie sang for us that night was a little number called, ‘Somewhere That’s Green.’

When I came to see the show that song came from in 2002, I wasn’t fussed about seeing the rest of it, all I wanted to do was see Audrey sing ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ and see how it fitted into the context of the story of 1960s Skid Row Florist where one of the plants had developed a taste for human blood.

More than ten years on again, I’m putting a lot of pressure on the shoulders of Jodie Newton, playing Audrey for the Newton Abbot and District Musical Comedy Society between Monday 6 and Saturday 11 October 2014 at the Alexandra Theatre, because what I’m really saying is, to be honest, I really only bought my ticket to see you sing one song…

With a production team that includes direction from Iain Douglas, choreography by Sarah Roche and musical direction from John Amery, there was an exciting challenge of getting a large cast in and around a large prop. The chorus were at their most watchable as the Skid Row tramps and as the growing plant took up more and more of the stage, the later songs made the stage look very busy indeed.

The book doesn’t give the audience the chance to draw breath as the scene is set, the characters clearly established and the body count starts to grow. The show will never outstay its welcome as one bouncy song after another is thrown out to what was an appreciative audience.

The Ronettes are the backbone of the show (made up of Jasmin Kewell, Lucy Wyman, Charlotte Gilmartin, Paige Turner and Sarah Brown), providing vocal support throughout, mastering a range of movement and showing off a variety of costumes, they opened with energy and sustained the level to the end of the night.

Gary Castleton presented a solid Mushnik, owner of the shop, whose finest moment came in the duet ‘Mushnik and Son’, whilst Darren Parr was larger than life as Orin and was clearly having a great time with the nitrous oxide for ‘Now (It’s Just the Gas)’.

The set and the story are dominated by Audrey II, the ever-expanding plant. Ably controlled by puppeteer Marc Forward, it comes as no surprise that the prop gets applause with each new appearance. When Audrey II starts to speak, voiced by Vernon Davis, the sound booms around the auditorium, there is no doubt, an alien invasion has begun.

But the central comic characterisation comes from Robin Hewitt as Seymour and Jodie Newton as Audrey, never playing it for laughs and showing a vulnerable truth to both characters in some delightfully ridiculous situations. ‘Suddenly Seymour’ may have opened my eyes to there being more than one good song in the show!

And so we have another production from NADMCS that will receive great praise, and deservedly so. After all, it was my new favourite version of ‘Somewhere That’s Green’, just promise me you won’t tell Bonnie.

The Jolly Lion digs out his Bonnie Langford 'Now' Album...

The Jolly Lion digs out his Bonnie Langford ‘Now’ Album…

Last Review from the Jolly Lion: Educating Rita

Last Review from the Alexandra Theatre: Annie

Educating Rita – The Teignmouth Players

Educating Rita - The Teignmouth PlayersIf I am going to review the latest production from the Teignmouth Players, I am going to have to be careful. To write a few hundred words about how brilliant a production it was would make me no better than Rita and her criticism of ‘Rubyfruit Jungle’.

In my reviews of amateur theatre, I have never been striving to be a master of literary criticism. In fact, I was rarely striving for such mastery over literature in my student days. I went to ‘Educating Rita’ at the Brixham Theatre wanting one thing and came away with something different, and much more special.

You see, this blog has drifted from play reviews over the last twelve months. I have been quietly falling out of love with the amateur stage for some time, hoping that I will see something that will make me wish I was a part of the cast and get back into it all again. I have seen plenty to enjoy, but these days I’m not in a rush to get involved. So cast and crew of ‘Educating Rita’, I owe you a large thank you. But first…

Having moved from the Carlton Theatre, the Teignmouth Players have already staged this production in the United Reformed Church, Teignmouth in late September. Cheerfully, they have come on an outing to the studio space at Brixham Theatre for Thursday 2 and Saturday 4 October 2014. The studio space is perfect for ‘Educating Rita’, offering an intimacy that speaks to each member of the audience as if they were the only person present, a fly on the wall in Frank’s study at each of Rita’s tutorials.

Four great storytellers have come together here and made magic. With a Willy Russell script you know there will be great material to work with. Phil Wesley-Harkcom as Frank and Elaine Harvey as Rita make putting on a play with a cast of two look easy. Under the direction of Jackie Wesley-Harkcom you can see the outcome of a rehearsal process that will have focussed on character and chemistry and the results are captivating.

In 36 year old Open University student Rita we meet a mind hungry for everything, wanting to learn and devour anything she can to improve herself. In Frank, a man who is treading water as a tutor, has given up as a writer and is putting alcohol before romantic relationships. As they come together, so they interest each other, but the signs are there that there will be glorious friction and there is.

Any fears that the story may have badly dated are disposed of immediately as Frank enters with laptop and mobile phone. This is not a period piece, this is set now, the characters are real, the themes still resonate and our dependency on consumerism and bigger, better, speaks louder than ever. It is hard to imagine that anyone seeing this would not walk away finding something relevant to them. It is both funny and painfully touching.

…so why am I left thanking the cast and crew for this experience?

I got home and wanted to read and wanted to write and wanted to find the Rita in me. Not because I want to jump a class divide or because I want to hang out with literature students, but because I was taken back to a time before I’d ever set foot on a stage, and I was reminded of my first love. Through these characters, they spoke to me and took me somewhere I’d been before and reminded me that I can go there again. For that alone, this production was the single most inspiring piece of theatre I may ever see.

Last Review from The Teignmouth Players: When We Are Married

Last Review from the Brixham Theatre: The Darling Buds of May

Doctor Who – The Crawling Terror

Into the second of three twelfth Doctor hardbacks and I’m not sure if I’m keeping pace with the current television series or not. If Silhouette was set at the Frost Fair and The Caretaker saw Capaldi’s Doctor offer to take Clara to a Frost Fair, one might safely assume I took on that book a couple of weeks too early. In contrast, The Caretaker also saw talk of Clara’s love for Mr Pink, something that is in more of a formative stage in The Crawling Terror. Ah, let’s not worry about where it fits in, let’s see what else Mike Tucker has in store for the Jolly Lion.

time and space

Ley-line disturbance brings the TARDIS to Ringstone, 2014, a village with a vet, a pub, a church, a hall, a stone circle and a science park. There is more than a passing interest in the events of 21 March 1944 in the same village. We even get to see the planet of the Wyrresters.

who and the crew

The twelfth Doctor gets to be rude about soldiers and is given some great one-liners and a running gag about the sonic screwdriver so in-character you would swear you’d seen it on the television. He also gets to be suitably alien about death, which allows for Clara to be captured perfectly when they stumble upon the first body and she justifies his reaction whilst struggling to deal with it herself. She gets to investigate, find jeopardy and her voice is recognisable throughout. Just when you think it can’t get any better, the Doctor is inside the TARDIS standing next to a blackboard covered in chalk calculations. Every week.

The cover may depict the TARDIS in the middle of a stone circle being attacked by a spider, but don’t expect to find such a scene in the story. All three elements may play a crucial role, and it certainly sets the tone of the content, but it’s a striking image that does not become reality in this tale.

humans vs aliens

The villagers don’t stand a chance as oversized insects attack Ringstone. Of the humans, allow Gabby Nichols to lead you into one of the most horrific scenes in a Doctor Who novel – something they wouldn’t get away with on television. Meanwhile police officer Charlie Bevan and veterinary surgeon Angela Drabble allow the Doctor and Clara to separate and give us a handy viewpoint character to follow.

The villagers of Ringstone have quite a battle to keep the Wyrresters away, and they don’t do very well. In contrast the aliens are fun, sinister, and have a human to do their dirty work like all the best monsters of the Pertwee era. To assist with the Pertwee comparison, the village also gets cut off, with the army outside trying to find a way in to assist. It could be the UNIT days all over again.

love, lust and loss

There’s no love story here, there’s no time. There is only time for giant insects to attack and for the villagers to get picked off one by one until… well, let’s just say this is large scale loss, but in-keeping with 21st century Who.

style or trial?

There’s an odd technology storyline here which involves a stone circle, a bell, some aliens and the German army of the 1940s. In sounds like it should be heavy going, but the nasty insect imagery is so beautifully told that it really works. My view is that the concept may seem quite Pertwee on paper, but with the voice of Capaldi it seems fresh and familiar at the same time.

The 1944 sidestep is great fun after the intensity of the village under siege sequences. The only thing that baffled me here was the tagline “A DEADLY THREAT. A WEB OF DECEIT.” I’m not overly sure if either of these things were particularly true or relevant come the end, but still, like the cover illustration, it gives you a taste of how you should feel.

magic moments

The establishing chapters here set out a delightful threat as villager after villager gets seen off by a different insect. This threat never really goes away, and the large supporting cast of characters are always at risk.

There is a lovely sequence where Clara and Angela attempt to gain access to the Science Park. It can be heart in mouth stuff, making this a compulsive read.

Again, dodging spoilers, the resolution is completely satisfying. There is a point towards the end where the threat in two places escalates and the Doctor is forced to seek assistance from characters we have had the time to get attached to where he has not. With a 1944 storyline you know there will be a bang, but here Mike Tucker has an ending that could have come straight from a blending of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss writing, particularly with a cheerful epilogue. Not just creepy – gruesome.