from-ibiza-to-the-norfolk-broadsMy review can currently be seen at: and will appear here from 24 October.

Performance date: 20 October 2016


Ragtime***** (Charing Cross Theatre)

Posted: October 20, 2016 in Theatre

ragtime-webback_showcaseimageEL Doctrow’s sprawling 1975 novel Ragtime has a title that begs for it to be adapted into a musical, but the case for the work itself, an extraordinary amalgam of fact and fiction, was less clear. Until now. This show, a multiple Tony Award winner in 1998, has failed to make much of an impression over here previously, making it just the kind of sick patient that director Thom Southerland loves giving the kiss of life to, usually at Southwark Playhouse. Moving now to a subterranean venue that has for so long struggled to find an identity, he not only revives a great musical, but he also makes the theatre itself surface as an overnight star, a halfway house between fringe and West End.

Terence McNally’s skilful adaptation allows Southerland to create what resembles a giant mosaic of America at the very beginning of the 20th Century. Still bearing the scars of civil war, it is seen as a nation starting to look outward to the rest of the world, but at odds with itself as it embarks on a journey that would lead to it becoming the dominant global power. It was to be a century of opportunity, hope, discovery and conflict, a century that would see the motion picture industry blossom and the Broadway musical emerge alongside it as the greatest new art form. It is all here.

If the scope seems too vast, it helps that a single opening song can replace dozens of pages in the novel devoted to establishing characters and setting scenes. Lynn Ahrens’ precise lyrics rarely stray far from their primary purpose, which is to tell stories. Doctrow’s original work often feels fragmented, jumping almost randomly between characters and storylines, but McNally has consigned several characters to the peripheries and Southerland merges one scene into the next seamlessly, aided by music. A two-level set, with mobile units that incorporate steps, is becoming the director’s trademark, but it has never been used to better effect than in the design by Tom Rogers and Toots Butcher, which helps the show to flow. Howard Hudson’s lighting shows off both the sets and Jonathan Lipman’s period costumes to brilliant effect.

Southerland mixes musicians with actors in the ensemble and playing small roles, the integration giving the feeling that music is very much part of the age  Illusionist Harry Houdini (Christopher Dickens) carries his piano accordion and glamorous theatre star Evelyn Nesbitt (Joanna Hickman) is a cellist. Other figures from real life – anarchist Emma Goldman (Valerie Cutko), car maker Henry Ford (Tom Giles), banker JP Morgan (Anthony Cable) and African American community leader Booker T Washington (Nolan Frederick) – appear fleetingly as they touch the lives of Doctrow’s fictional characters.

The show begins by telling the stories of three separate families who gradually become entwined with each other. Coalhouse Walker (Ako Mitchell) is a black pianist who fathers a child with Sarah (Jennifer Saayeng), abandons her and then repents. “Father” (Earl Carpenter) is an adventurer who departs on a polar expedition and “Mother” (Anita Louise Combe), left at home, gives refuge to Sarah and her baby. Tateh (Gary Tushaw) is a widower, an immigrant arriving from Latvia with a young daughter that he struggles to feed until he seizes at opportunities and becomes a pioneer in the movies. The characters go into a crucible to form a narrative driven by the racial injustices and social tensions that beset America at that time and still today.

Stephen Flaherty’s score includes influences not only of Scott Joplin-style rags, but also other American music such as gospel, country and blues. Yes there may be too many soaring anthems in the final stages, but, by then, the show has conjured up so much magic that most will not complain. The singing, particularly by Mitchell, Saayemg and Combe is superb, so strong in fact that it has given the Evening Standard critic a headache (poor thing!). This sublime production often comes so close to perfection that it is difficult to suppress tears of joy.

Performance date: 19 October 2016

moby_dick_mainMy review can currently be seen at: and will appear here from 22 October.

Performance date: 18 October 2016


one-night-in-miamiA meeting between four men that took place more than half a century ago and an imagined discussion about social change are hardly the most thrilling starting points for a play. No plot. apart from that given by history, no dramatic incidents, just talk and argument (plus a couple of songs), which makes it remarkable that writer Kemp Powers has managed to craft such an absorbing 90-minutes of theatre.

Robert Jones’ set design incorporates touches of Art Deco to establish the location of the hotel room in which the meeting takes place. The time is February 1964, just after Cassius Clay has beaten Sonny Liston to become World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. Clay, played by Sope Dirusu with little of the swagger associated with the public persona, is seen as naive and impressionable, under the influence of Malcolm X, as he prepares to announce the following day that he is converting to Islam and changing his name to Mohammed Ali. Fellow sportsman, American football star Jim Brown (David Ajala) finds it easy to resist pressure to make a similar conversion on the grounds that it would mean foregoing the pleasures of his grandma’s pork chops.

The core of the play is the clash of ideals between Malcolm X (Francois Battiste) and singer/songwriter Sam Cooke (Arinzé Kene), the former pushing for militant action to advance American civil rights, the latter preferring slow change to a system that is seeing him coming out on top by making records that reach white audiences and selling songs to the likes of the Rolling Stones. The argument is revolution versus evolution. Cooke entertains the group with a performance of the innocuous You Send Me, but faces taunts that it has taken a white man (Bob Dylan) to write the first great song for Black Americans, Blowing in the Wind (repeated tributes to Dylan in the play feel particularly apt in the week when he has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature). Cooke’s hurt is visible in Kene’s expression and his retaliation, a preview performance, sung a cappella, of A Change is Gonna Come is stunning; this should have ended the play with an exclamation mark and it is rather a pity that it continues for a few more minutes to reach anticlimax.

Neither Malcolm X nor Cooke was destined to survive another full year after this meeting, the suggestion being made that Malcolm X was more a prisoner of the Nation of Islam movement than a free revolutionary leader and that his life was under threat long before his assassination. Kene stands out among four superb performances in Kwame Kwel-Armah.s solid production. The play leaves open the question of which of the two approaches to change history has proven to be right. Notwithstanding the presence of a black President in the White House, sickening news and statistics still coming out of American cities indicate that, sadly, the answer could be neither.

Performance date: 14 October 2016

A Man of Good Hope**** (Young Vic)

Posted: October 14, 2016 in Theatre

a-man-of-good-hopeThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

When politicians and the media talk about migration, it is usually in terms of numbers, but this new work by South Africa’s Isango Ensemble reminds us that those numbers are made up of individuals. It tells the story of one boy/man’s 20-year odyssey across a troubled terrain in search of a better tomorrow.

In 1991, at the age of eight, Asad Abdullah, from a proud Somali family, looks on as his mother is shot dead. The orphan’s journey begins, traversing post-colonial Africa, a continent crippled by conflicts of all kinds, eventually meeting Jonny Steinberg in Cape Town in 2011. The show is adapted from Steinberg’s book of Asad’s true story,

When Mandisi Dyantyis opens the show dancing centre stage while conducting musicians placed either side of him, we are given clear notice that orthodoxy will play little part in what follows. The music he conducts is a thrilling fusion of styles, traditional African sounds, rhythms and melodies blending with European opera. Perhaps it should not work, but it does and the only complaint about the music is that there is not enough of it. Exciting movement and choral singing provide an exhilarating spectacle that cannot be matched by rather static spoken scenes.

The precocious boy Asad (played at this performance by Phielo Makitle) grows into a resourceful youth (Zoleka Mpotsha), a budding entrepreneur (Luvo Tamba) and, finally, the embittered man (Ayanda Tikolo), looking older than his 28 years, who meets Steinberg. White hats pass between the four actors like batons. Asad’s journey takes him through Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The doors of admission to America are slammed in his face cruelly and he sees South Africa as the new land of opportunity. He grapples with languages, finds a wife (Busisiwe Ngejane), fathers a child and survives on the strength of his ingenuity.

Directed by Mark Dornford-May, the thrust stage is frequently awash with colour and shaking with vibrant energy, but the show does not quite overcome a problem common to most “road” stories in that it is episodic. New characters emerge regularly, only to disappear before we have got to know them, leaving Asad as the one character to be fleshed out fully. The creators’ political agenda is in plain view; they describe a South Africa in which the promises of Nelson Mandela have all been broken by his successors, where lawlessness and corruption are rife and where different forms of racism have survived the demise of Apartheid.

The journey ends with Asad disillusioned and ready to abandon Africa, making the show’s title seem entirely ironic. Yet, conversely, the originality and vitality that run through its veins are uplifting enough to leave a feeling that hope for the future may not be so badly misplaced.

Performance date: 13 October 2016


travestiesThere are two Tom Stoppards. One works within a disciplined framework – examples being The Real ThingHapgood, and the screenplays – where his writing gives richness and depth to characters and stories. This is the other Stoppard – undisciplined, self-indulgent, intellectual and absurdist. The play dates back to 1974, not long after the success of Jumpers, written in similar style. It centres (roughly) around the recollections of Henry Carr (Tom Hollander), an official with the British Consulate in Zurich in 1917, a time when others finding a Swiss haven in the middle of war-torn Europe included James Joyce (Peter McDonald), Tristan Tzara (Freddie Fox) and Lenin (Forbes Masson), who was, of course, keeping an eye on revolting developments in his homeland.

Familiar Stoppard themes, including espionage, English eccentricity and Eastern European politics, go into the melting pot and director Patrick Marber makes the concoction sizzle, with flair and invention, adding the odd (very odd!} song and dance to the mix. Mockery of other writers abounds, with a performance of modified scenes from Wilde’s The Importance of Being Algernon {or is it the other one?) included. Hollander is magnificent and the entire ensemble (Clare Foster, Amy Morgan, Sarah Quist and Tim Wallers are the others) performs with gusto. They are entitled to congratulate themselves both for conquering the verbal gymnastics and remembering their complex lines. In all the play is witty but uneven, sometimes hilarious, sometimes too clever by half and it all starts to melt away from the memory within five minutes of leaving the theatre.

Performance date: 11 October 2016

straught-to-the-heartThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

There is more than enough good theatre around in London these days to satisfy enthusiasts every evening of the week, so what about popping along to Leicester Square for an additional lunchtime fix? Ken Jarorowski’s trilogy of short plays consisting of seven warm and wise monologues will make the excursion well worthwhile.

The three stories in Pulse are linked by themes of father/child relationships and connect to doctors. Charles (Alistair Brown) was stillborn, but saved by his father, who refused to accept a doctor’s hasty verdict. Now, as an adult, father and son avoid each other, Charles fearing coming out as gay to a manly Royal Marine who preaches in church at weekends. Ron (Daniel Simpson) fears for his young son, who is being bullied at school by the son of a doctor and he teaches him how to be a boxer with unforeseen consequences. Diane (Nadia Shash) has sacrificed her life to care for her father since her mother left the family when she was 11 and now she is told that his degenerating heart condition could mean that the end is near.

One to the Head One to the Heart is the darkest of the three plays. Aaron (Simpson) and Beth (Shash) are an American married couple who, having combatted infertility problems, now have a severely disabled daughter. They each tell their stories – he is a tough guy who has fought his way up to become a college professor; she is a former nurse who has never done anything bad in her life, but senses that this must change. This moving little play is marked by deeply satisfying touches of irony.

The Truth Tellers is lighter, introducing us to Annie (Shash) and Larry (Brown) both single and passing their prime. They go reluctantly to a club one evening and fall upon each other (literally) but they fill their conversation with dishonesties which threaten to undermine their developing mutual attraction. He is a bookkeeper who pretends to be a CEO, she is an office clerk pretending to be a hedge fund manager. Annie has been advised “every nice guy in the world is either gay, taken or weird” and now, as both tell lies to each other and the truth to the audience, she just hopes that Larry is weird.

Director Alex Dmitriev cuts back the staging in a bare studio space to absolute basics – up to three actors standing on stage, with spotlights picking them out when it is their turn to speak. The plays represent exemplary, concise short storytelling and they are performed to perfection. Running at around 65 minutes overall, the plays may not fit perfectly into a lunch hour, but they are well worth a late return to work. And perhaps it would be wise to add on another five minutes to dab away a tear or two.

Performance date: 11 October 2016