Howard-Barker-Double-Bill-724x1024My review can currently be seen at: and will appear here from 1 December.

Performance date: 27 November 2015



We can’t say we weren’t warned. As best I remember it (I have tried hard to expunge it from the memory altogether), Wallace Shawn’s play The Designated Mourner, performed in this same theatre (then the Cottesloe) in 1996, consisted of several distinguished theatrical figures sitting in a line and talking directly to the audience. That set expectations for this new work, getting its World Premier, pretty low, but it still fails to live up to them. The opening sets the tone, with an anonymous figure strolling on stage as if to tell us to turn off our mobile phones and then launching into a turgid scene-setting monologue. Anyone in the audience who has stayed awake then sees various other figures emerge from darkness, apparently theatricals gathered to remember a play that had flopped ten years earlier. We are told that we are in an age when people no longer go to the theatre, so some time in the future we presume, possibly after a period during which theatres had been swamped with Shawn’s plays. It is a dystopian future in which actors and television personalities are targeted and terminated once they have passed the peak of their popularity. A satire on the modern culture of quickly disposable celebrities, Shawn has the germ of a good idea for a play – that is a real play in which things actually happen to the characters on stage and not this one in which other people just stand around talking about them. Talk, talk and then more talk is all we get in Ian Rickson’s static production. Shawn himself appears as a targeted old ham, showing facial bruises from a narrow escape; thankfully, these bruises are just make up and not the consequences of an adverse audience reaction to the performance on the previous evening. Other accomplished actors, deploying a variety of American and English accents, appear, but it is better to leave them nameless out of respect. The National has had a brilliant year in the Dorfman, but all good things come to an end.


Performance date: 24 November 2015


Don’t call the police! No flashing, just a small gem of a show that should not need a gimmick title to sell it. A musical first seen in New York in 1985 – book and lyrics Jerry Colker, music Michael Rupert – the show follows the ups and downs of of a comedy trio through the club circuit of the 1980s, a hit American television sitcom and eventual movie stardom, battered and bruised as commercial pressures trespass into their art form. Simon Haines has a confident swagger as Ted, a club MC who is already cringing before his punchline is delivered. He recruits “angry” Phil (Benedict Hastings), a novice to stand-up and expectant father who is desperate for some cash. Ted’s buddy Kenny, a wacky comic who is battling chronic depression, makes up the trio and Guy Woolf is particularly touching in showing the thin line between humour and insanity. The simplest of formats – three performers, five musicians, comedy sketches and songs of the sort that could have just fallen short for a big Broadway musical. It adds up to a consistently entertaining couple of hour, performed with real panache. It does not take too many people to fill the Finborough, but this show deserves to pack them in every night.

Performance date: 24 November 2015

The Homecoming**** (Trafalgar Studios)

Posted: November 24, 2015 in Theatre

the homecomingThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Explaining the link between plays chosen for his recent seasons at Trafalgar Studios, Jamie Lloyd stated that they all question what it is to be British. He now brings his company back to the same theatre with a 50th Anniversary revival of Harold Pinter’s masterpiece, The Homecoming, a biting, dark comedy that rattles the foundations of the institution at the very heart of British life – the family. Lloyd’s production is charged with nervous energy, but takes meticulous care to perfect every inflection and emphasis loaded into Pinter’s dialogue. The setting is the living room of a working class London home, presented in Soutra Gilmour’s design as an open sided box, with its entrance/exit door set apart at the rear. The centrepiece of the room is an armchair, more a throne, normally occupied by the patriarch, Max (Ron Cook), a belligerent widower who spits out abuse at his family as if compensating for age having diminished his physical prowess. His brother Sam is a boastful chauffeur who “never married” and Keith Allen’s mincing, limp-wristed performance leaves no room for doubt as to why this would have been so. Max’s son Lenny is a chip off the old block, John Simm making him a sinister and menacing figure. He looks like a city executive, but is, in fact, a pimp, casually throwing accounts of violence and even rape into conversations. Younger son Joey is a dim-witted boxer, given a formidable physical presence by John Macmillan. The four men live together, sparring verbally with each other to sharpen their masculinity. The homecoming is that of oldest son Teddy (Gary Kemp assuming an upper class accent), a doctor of philosophy back from six years in the United States. His quiet acquiescence to the malign grip of his kin signifies that, in reality, he has never travelled very far from home. He brings with him Ruth, the wife that he married, unknown to the family, in London prior to his departure. The family greets her as a “whore”, which we learn may not be far from the truth, as Pinter continues to scrape away the household’s thin veneer of respectability. The arrival of this newcomer gives Pinter the opportunity to explore feminist themes relating to family life, by countering the men’s assumption that a woman’s roles must be limited to cooking, cleaning and bestowing sexual favours. Gemma Chan’s Ruth has the steel to upset the balance of power between genders; her calm exterior resembles that of a prim governess, but it masks a calculating mind and a manipulative disposition. She may be outnumbered five to one, but she is set on becoming queen bee in this hive. It is remarkable that hardly anything of significance in the play feels dated after the passing of half a century. Pinter’s subversive humour is typically enigmatic, at its most subtle when seemingly most crude, most unsettling when generating most hilarity. In painting this portrait of dysfunction, he is questioning whether families are held together by affection or just by habit. He is also telling us that, however far we journey, in some way, we all come home eventually to our familial roots. A chilling message indeed when the home is one such as this.

Performance date: 21 November 2015


Faustaff** (Cockpit Theatre)

Posted: November 20, 2015 in Theatre

Faustaff Rehearsals 2This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Being presented simultaneously in London and Mexico City and given the alternative title The Mockery of the Soul, Mexican writer Diego Sosa’s 90-minute one-act play is a modern take on the Faust story. The “aff” tagged onto the title is claimed to relate to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, but there is no obvious reference to the mischievous Knight in the play itself. Gily Jacoby (Lesley Lightfoot) is a writer who sells her soul to achieve success and save her ailing father. An impish manifestation of the Devil (Eddie Chamberlin) works with her to develop plots that grow ever more macabre and she becomes obsessed with the thin line between fiction and fact. Is art imitating life or life imitating art? Maybe Gily has been given powers of clairvoyance to write about horrific real events that have yet to happen. Jonson Wilkinson appears as Gily’s caring editor, concerned by her erratic behaviour, and also as the sinister killer in enactments of her stories, whose relationship with his fiancé (Alessia Gatti) is forecast to come to a bloody end. The prevailing tone is of a surreal and sinister melodrama, but two comic policemen (Bernard O’Sullivan and Charles Timson) bring a strain of absurdist humour that feels incongruous. In examining the travails of a writer, Sosa’s piece could be considered introspective, the non-linear narrative jumping backwards and forwards in time and between fact and fiction. Gily’s nervous unease as her torment edges towards madness is brought out very effectively in Lightfoot’s performance. If some of Sosa’s dialogue sounds stilted, it may be due to translation difficulties, but, more significantly, Mexican director Rodrigo Johnson’s production, performed in the round on a darkened stage, has not yet acquired the polish and flow that it needs. Partly as a result of this, the various elements in a potentially intriguing work do not always hold together and the play baffles as often as it beguiles.

Performance date: 19 November 2015


Waste** (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Posted: November 20, 2015 in Theatre

WASTEThe National Theatre has scored well with revivals of plays by Harley Granville Barker, most notably The Madras House and The Voysey Inheritance. This fascinating 1907 play has similar potential, centring on the political classes of that era and attempts to progress a bill to disestablish the Church from the State, a move that would still be controversial in modern, multi-faith Britain. The chief advocate of the bill is Henry Trebell (a fine performance by Charles Edwards), who damages his personal reputation by impregnating Amy O’Connell (Olivia Williams), flirtatious wife of an Irish Catholic (Paul Hickey). The acting is flawless, Sylvester Le Touzel being particularly moving as Trebell’s devoted sister. Granville Barker constructs the scenes superbly, giving an absorbing account of how public affairs and private lives are woven together by a prurient and judgemental society and how potentially great figures can go to waste because of matters of relative insignificance. The relevance of these themes to modern life is obvious and this is a play that I would happily see again and again, but not in this wayward production, directed by Roger Michell. The play’s themes may be timeless, but its specific details relate to the Edwardian era; the costumes are right for that era, but Hildegard Bechtler’s set designs are emphatically not. Yes, some of the images are stunning, moving white, grey and black screens form geometrical shapes between scenes and Trebell’s minimalist London house takes the breath away on first sight, but these images belong to another play, perhaps a Pinter. A play that draws its strength from subtle characterisations and detailed plotting needs intimacy with the audience and deserves better than to be performed in what looks like the lobby of a soulless ultra-modern hotel, with the actors appearing as if specks on a vast blank canvass. They are dressed as Edwardians, but surrounded by furniture that could have come from IKEA. Some sympathy must be accorded to Michell for having to contend with the notorious problems of the Lyttelton – the wide stage has never suited personal dramas, but, more significantly here, the dreadful acoustics make key words and sentences inaudible and Michell compounds the problem at one point by having an actor speak her lines while sitting with her back to the audience. A play should be able to explain itself to an audience, but, on this occasion, digesting a synopsis beforehand is strongly recommended. Waste could be a great play, but its title says everything about this production.

Performance date: 18 November 2015

Spincycle**+ (Theatre N16)

Posted: November 17, 2015 in Theatre

Steve Thompson's SpincycleThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

In an age when advertisers seem to believe that an old man sitting alone on the Moon is the best image to persuade us to spend our hard-earned cash in a certain department store, no account of the world of spin would seem likely to stretch credibility too far. This revival of Steve Thompson’s 2003 play is, probably more than was intended, a reminder of how things were a dozen or so years ago. Thompson has risen to prominence scripting hit television shows (Doctor Who, Sherlock, etc), but this play draws from his early experiences as an intern with an advertising agency. It is a world of men sporting designer stubble and women squeezed into figure- hugging business suits. The audience here is made to feel as if observing a series of business meetings, so basic is the staging with no more than very plain tables and chairs. Rachel (Abbiegale Duncan) is the new recruit from whose perspective we observe an agency that includes amongst the products that it is selling skin cream, butter, a theatre company and the Conservative party. Jane (Anneli Page) is the hard-nosed boss, Peta (Abi McLoughlin) is her unswervingly loyal PA, Miles (Gregory A Smith) is a gay account manager and Piers (Ash Merat) is a womanising media consultant. Yes, there are a few stereotypes among the characters. The collective ethos is “no ties, no affiliations, no loyalties…” to which could be added no morals and no principles. Thompson presents us with a superficial bunch of cynics and never really tries to delve under their skin to discover what, apart from avarice, makes them tick. The dialogue, some of it in rhyming verse, is sharp and delivered slickly by the eight-strong company in Stephen Oswald’s fluid production. Today all of these characters would be glued to their smart phones, but the absence of such accessories is not the only feature to date the play. What may once have seemed like insight now comes across as hindsight, particularly when Thompson takes the play off at a tangent to give us his angle on political spin. Telling us that no politician since Margaret Thatcher has been driven by conviction and that spin is the new political ideology, Thompson’s arguments seem a little naive, but perhaps his points were less obvious in 2003 than they are more than a decade further on. He is right of course and he could have added that many believe that even Thatcher’s first election victory owed more to Saatchi & Saatchi than to the lady herself. Long gone are the days when Spincycle could only have been a play about a washing machine.

Performance date: 16 November 2015