christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: Haverhill Arts Centre

‘O beware my lord of jealousy’

Review of Othello, East Town Park, Haverhill, 22 July 2019

Outspoken Theatre notches up another notable success with its atmospheric, emotionally-charged production of Othello. Under the watchful eye of the local ravens, East Town Park becomes alternately Venice and Cyprus for the evening, while the grisly events unfold.

In perhaps the most heart-breaking of his four major tragedies, Shakespeare throws goodness and nobility to the dogs, allowing the scheming, Mephistophelian Iago, to destroy by turns, Othello, Desdemona and Cassio and Emilia. Themes of jealousy, deception, appearance and reality are explored while the characters are steered helplessly to their fate.

Beginning in the warm glow of the early evening sunshine, the love match between Othello and Desdemona is wholly convincing and beautifully played. Emma Letcher gives an ebullient performance as Othello’s lover, bright and resilient in the face of prejudice, cruelty and confusion. She brilliantly overcomes her own father’s Brabantio bigotry, played with an neurotic, nervous energy by Ian Davison

Steve Murray’s depiction of the Moor (more Lawrence of Arabia than Lawrence Fishburne) is a character study in pride, honesty and conviction. His verse speaking is rich and clear and the force and magnetism of his personality is perfectly conveyed.

Alan Davison expertly plays Iago with a grim, gleeful defiance, winning the confidence of those around him by dint of the bludgeoning persistence of his argument and an amusing ability to be seemingly everywhere at once. Engineering the events almost like a playwright himself, we see him chip away at Othello’s belief in his wife fidelity, while like a cat with a mouse, toying with Cassio at the same time. Of course Iago is motivated by jealousy too – of Othello’s stature and natural gifts for leadership, love and friendship.

Tom Cross’ Cassio is a joy – a genial and generous piece of acting that makes the friendship between him and Othello wholly believable and particularly affecting. When he disgraces himself in a drunken brawl, we feel deeply for them both. Naturally Iago is the one who persuades Cassio to indulge, despite Cassio’s protestation: ‘I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking.’

Othello is a particularly frustrating play to watch; Shakespeare builds huge sympathy for his characters before setting them up for their fall. Each time we hear ‘honest Iago’ we feel a helpless anger and pity. As director David Hart points out in his excellent programme notes, audiences have been known to call out to the characters to warn them of the trap they are falling into. But Iago’s manipulative powers are unstoppable: ‘Beware the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on!’

The consolation of course is the fine poetry conjured by the jealously and madness as Othello believes he has lost his beloved . ‘My heart is turned to stone,’ he confesses. ‘I strike it and it hurts my hand.’  Elsewhere he looks up to an unfeeling God: ‘All my fond loves thus do I blow to heaven.’

Perhaps the performance of the night belongs to Lorraine Mason’s magnificent Emilia, the long-suffering wife of Iago and confidante of Desdemona. The realism of her anguish and dismay is breathtaking as the action plays out. In one of the play’s most affecting scenes, Emilia prepares Desdemona for bed before the murderous denouement begins. The plaintive balled Desdemona sings ‘willow, willow, willow’ is a lament for both lost love and lost lives. It’s desperately sad.

As ever with Shakespeare’s tragedies, the final act is a delicious bloodbath, expertly executed here with murders in the dark, swinging lanterns, the inevitable cries of ‘I am murdered!’ before the Venetians arrive to tie up loose ends and mourn their dead.

There are more cheerful things to do on a summer’s evening in Haverhill, but there can be few that are so rewarding and good for the soul. Bravo to Outspoken Theatre company on their ambitious and accomplished production.

Remaining performances: Thursday, 7.30pm, Stoke by Clare Lion; Saturday, Rolfe’s Farm, Wickhambrook. Tickets are available on the gate at all venues.

A world tour on six strings – Clive Carroll at Haverhill Arts Centre 29 October 2017

To Suffolk on a ghostly October night for another beguiling performance from Clive Carroll. With an eclectic selection of acoustic gems that take inspiration variously from County Clare to the Gulf of Mexico via the Arctic Circle and Argentina, we are treated to a world tour on six strings. It is all the more remarkable for the fact that most of the tunes are Clive’s own.

Endlessly curious, and as adept at classical, jazz, folk and rock, Clive is impossible to pigeonhole and all the better for it. The common thread is that everything is flawlessly played. With a virtuosic style that is somehow simultaneously flowing and precise, there is a gracefulness and humour to his playing that makes the most difficult tune accessible. Kicking off with what sounds like medieval Hendrix, he soon introduces us to an exquisite waltz inspired by Shostakovich, with an entertaining preamble as to why he appears to draw out the timing (to allow the ladies’ dresses to catch up on the ballroom floor it transpires).

The name John Renbourn crops up several times this evening, first as the inspiration to the stately Abbot’s Hymn, which suffers only from being too short. Secondly, the late guitarist is cited, along with Bert Jansch, as one of the foremost interpreters of Charlie Mingus’s Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, which is lovingly rendered by Clive tonight in all its atonal complexity. He’s also remembered as Clive’s mate and musical compatriot: on a previous performance at Haverhill Arts Centre, Clive remembers John ambling back to his dressing room for his capo, making it back only in time to play the final chord.

The vast, echoing, In the Deep, sounds like the soundtrack to a lost Western with a languid melody, redolent of heat haze rising up from desert sands. Meanwhile, the recently commissioned Scottish suite, which closes the first half evokes images of windblown heather and firelight shot through whisky tumblers. Apparently, for its premiere, it was performed by another guitarist, which seems an astonishing waste of Clive Carroll. Very sensibly Clive has now learned it himself and it’s sublimely effective.

As vocal between numbers as he is silent during them, Clive proves himself a colourful raconteur and happily allows a story to run away with itself. A detour to a tumbledown shack on the Mississippi Delta provides the evocative setting for a swampy blues, full of kick and spice. Intriguingly, he takes us to the heart of his compositional technique, demonstrating his drop tuning and multipart techniques on the brilliant Eliza’s Eyes, the nearest perhaps to a hit single in Clive’s expansive repertoire.

The evening concludes in fine style with a brilliant sequence from his album The Furthest Tree that takes its cue from the middle English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Recreating a duet with the great John Williams by accompanying a recording, he conjures a supernatural vision of a lost, mist-filled England not wholly removed from the Halloween night encroaching at the door. An understated, lyrical version of And I Love Her is the parting shot and enough to keep the ghosts at bay.

Holmes comes to Haverhill

To Haverhill’s leafy East Town Park on a balmy summer evening for The Chapterhouse Theatre Company’s splendid production of The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. As far as I could make out, this is an original play and a fine one it is too. Tightly constructed with stylish, snappy dialogue, this is close to the spirit of the original. Flocks of swifts dart through the sky and soundtrack of twittering birds makes for an evocative setting.


Holmes and Watson are summoned to a nunnery to investigate the mysterious Eye of God, an ancient talisman that has been protected within the nunnery for centuries. Holmes is acted with some aplomb, both masterful and eccentric, capturing his infuriating brilliance. (The performance is another reminder of the sizable debt Dr Who owes to Holmes and Conan Doyle). Watson is equally good, unusually robust, and less deferential than he is in the original stories. Both actors are magnificent speakers – projecting out into the trees and the families playing in the park. There is terrific chemistry between the two and the long suffering Watson’s nerves (and teeth) are tested to the limit.

The supporting cast are excellent too; the formidable head of the convent has a wholesome, matronly authority while the two novices are respectively feisty and earnest. Brother Benjamin (a beekeeper Holmes fans!) has a superb energy and holds his own against the two male leads.

There is a slight uncertainty of tone. Like the books, the play is essentially a melodrama and the company has resisted the urge to play it too broad. There are moments of mild slapstick however, which threaten to take it into more comic territory but this is by no means a send up. There are touches of horror too and the drama with its various wrong -footing diversions is expertly executed.

All the usual Holmesian tropes are in place: Sherlock appears in disguise, there’s the Webley revolver and some very natty tailoring; Holmes is pencil thin in green tweeds and wing collar. The smoking has been toned down for more enlightened times and audiences, although, amusingly, some herbal cigarettes play an unusually important part in the drama.

A light shower during the second half (cue a spray of floral umbrellas) only served to add atmosphere to this compelling production and I thoroughly enjoyed myself (abetted by a couple of bottles of Badger’s Hopping Hare beer!) The evening was topped off by winning a bottle of white wine in the half time raffle and best of all, it was Watson who sold me the winning ticket! Gloriously old fashioned, outdoor entertainment for ages 12 to 112.

Joking apart – Boo Hewerdine live at Haverhill Arts Centre

Boo Hewerdine tells a joke. In facts he tells plenty tonight (and sings one) along with a shed-load of music industry anecdotes at Haverhill Arts Centre – on the first stop on his My Name in the Brackets tour. He reveals that he took ‘between 11am and 12 noon off’ between the end of his tour with Eddie Reader and the start of his new solo outing. As one of the hardest working song writing and touring troubadours, Boo’s work ethic is beyond question.


Boo is an imposing presence. His fabulous support act, Icelandic songstress Hafdis Huld, stands a clear two feet below the mike set up for Boo and she is equally glowing about his talent – singing beautifully on their beguiling, Icelandic fairy tale ‘Wolf’ from her latest solo album, which she co-wrote with Boo. Her own songs, especially Queen Bee and Lucky are sublime.

The idea behind the latest tour is showcasing some of the songs Boo wrote for others, along with new work. These include the Eddie Reader hits ‘Dragonflies’ (they go nuts for this one in Ireland) and most famously ‘The Patience of Angels’, which is still a powerfully affecting tale of a struggling young mother and sung with urgency this evening (although possibly to get it out of the way?). The Girl Who Fell in Love with the Moon is a lovely, lilting classic, given sensitive treatment and added poignancy by the fact that co-writer Jacob Eriksen recently passed away.

His reading of My Last Cigarette, penned for K.D. Lang is masterful, showcasing his pure vocals and impressive range. He is no three chord trickster on the guitar either; his jazz chords look like a spider doing the splits and the descending chords progressions add an engaging counterpoint to his classic melodies. It’s old fashioned song-writing that sounds perfectly contemporary.

Boo’s shtick is that life has been vaguely disappointing and perhaps a little unlucky. For example, The Bible’s (Boo’s 80s outfit) big song ‘Graceland’ was released on the same day as Paul Simon’s Graceland. His trousers nearly fall down while playing live on Wogan. A meeting with Elvis Costello leads to an altercation over a cheese sandwich. His laconic, dead pan delivery is perfectly suited to these hilarious misadventures.

The song ‘Joke’ and all time classic ‘Honey Be Good’ are filled with punkish energy, perhaps propelled by talk of Mr Costello and the Sex Pistols. ‘Bible Papers’ meanwhile (nothing to do with his old band) is a lament for the Tommies who rolled their fags in the trenches with the thin pages of a Bible, made all the more impressive by rhyming ‘Deuteronomy’ with ‘they’re out to get me.’ It’s riveting stuff.

The evening is given an added edge by the fact that Boo has never performed some of the new songs live, which leads to an amusing false start and even the appearance of a crib sheet – but they are as muscular and perfectly crafted as the old; ‘Snowglobe’ is a neat trick and the nostalgic and slightly accusative ‘Amazing Robot’ is a wonder – especially with its refrain ‘Spin me, spin me, spin me.’ Heard on record, it gives the eerie impression that the CD is talking – like the bottle in Alice in Wonderland that says ‘Drink Me.’

Perhaps Boo deserved to be massive, playing stadiums and ten straight sold out nights at the O2. But then we wouldn’t have nights like this, at Haverhill Arts Centre, with candlelight flickering from the tables, humour, humility and magical song-writing bringing cheer to the rainy streets of provincial England. There’s nothing funny about that.

Thomas and his friends

To Haverhill Arts Centre to see Austrian acoustic guitar maestro Thomas Leeb. He plays in the percussive melodic style probably made most famous by Newton Faulkner, spending just as much time ill treating his guitar as playing it. His insistent, rhythmic tapping, scraping and brushing against the wooden body (his long suffering guitar also takes a bow at the end) has the effect of providing a constant tribal beat to his beguiling tunes.

This is the last night of the tour and afterwards he heads straight to Heathrow to fly home to California, but he’s in no hurry and no one is short changed. He is great fun throughout, with a gentle, off-beat sense of humour. His most well known tunes are dispensed early, including the genre defining Desert Pirate, the beautiful, harmonic YouTube smash, Akaskero and his definitive instrumental version of No Woman No Cry, which is the perfect excuse for some of his amiable shuffling about the stage in the style of the old reggae masters.

He combines a life touring the world with one of domesticity, reporting that he has now finished building his own home. He recalls two days lying on his side cleaning the gap between the walls and the floor, the tedium of which resulted in new song ‘Sideways,’ which with its pretty melody housed in a tight rhythmic structure, is anything but tedious.

He admits he is treating us as a test bed for new material, which gives an edge to the night. New song ‘Fishbowl’ is an attempt to capture the skewed world view you have when constantly travelling through different time zones. ‘I don’t care if you don’t like the title,’ he laughs when introducing the tune, ‘I do.’

His original material is consistently strong and it’s clear he is not content merely to be an interpreter. However his covers are equally arresting. A delirious delight is his arrangement of Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ full of witty runs and fills, and frantic dashes up and down the fretboard. It’s made all the more brilliant by the odd circumstances of its creation – at an airport after the ‘strangely liberating perfect storm’ of losing his coat, wallet, green card and passport in one foul swoop. It says everything about the man that this was his response to the disaster.   

He claims to be a one trick pony – envying other guitarists who can play in different styles, but it’s hard to see what he means; across the night we get Austrian and Celtic folk, acoustic speed metal and even funk, in the gloriously named ‘Grooveyard.’ His eclecticism and versatility are both key to his appeal.

A highlight among many, is his tender rendition of some Bach (he stuck a picture on Facebook as a nod to Arnie, his fellow Austrian – ‘I’ll be Bach!). The Bach piece glistens with harmonics and shows perhaps he has come full circle. He returns shortly, and no doubt in some glory, to the conservatoire in Austria where he was rejected twenty years ago.  

He says that it’s wonderful to return to Haverhill (although no doubt he says similar thing elsewhere) but we have a special claim to be a spiritual home from home. He plays two songs composed by the late Eric Roche, a resident of the town and a great friend of Thomas’ – the mind boggling Perc-U-Lator and a tender tune that I lost the name of halfway through my second beer. Composed by Eric for the birth of his son, Thomas does it full justice however, his thumb sounding a tender heartbeat throughout.        

I’ve seen him play here before but it was a privilege once again to see how he can transform a space with his questing musical spirit and the simple power of song.