Writer: Jacob Marx Rice

Director: Alex Howarth


With no weddings and umpteen funerals, Jacob Marx Rice’s new play certainly lives up to its title, except perhaps for the brevity of the list. It is often said that Shakespeare’s tragedies can be summed up with the words “they all die”, but Marx Rice strives to outdo Hamlet and Macbeth combined.

The play addresses how we deal with mortality, both our own and that of those around us. Grace (Vivia Font) struggles with it first when she is four years old in 1983 and her dog Buster dies. She blames her parents (Alejandro De Mesa and Kathryn Akin) for not allowing her to say goodbye. She grows and forms a close platonic friendship with Jordan (Siphiwo Mahlentle), who suffers from depression and is prone to suicide attempts. Later, she enters into a romantic partnership with Cass (Amelia Campbell), they adopt a son, Melaku (Mahlentle again) and the circle of life and death goes on.

Spanning more than eight decades of loss and renewal, the play is broken down into shortish scenes, each of which is built around the death of a person or a family pet. When every new scene begins, we ask who is for the chop this time, making the play feel repetitive and predictable. It is this lumbering structure that does more than anything else to undermine the writer’s worthy ambitions.

Marx Rice is a New Yorker and the play’s setting is Irish America. Accordingly, the actors assume American accents and it feels that the dialogue would not have sounded right if spoken in any other way. A mix of homespun philosophy and syrupy sentimentality gives the drama a distinctively American feel, its tone bringing reminders of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. At times, it is almost as if James Stewart could be about to walk in through the door.

For all its gloom, Marx Rice’s script is not bereft of humour and director Alex Howarth applies a light touch to break up the solemnity. Making imaginative use of the Finborough Theatre’s intimate space, his production is particularly notable for the committed and versatile performances of the five actors, who move between ages and emotions with great comfort.

There is no shortage of ideas in this play and often the writer expresses them beautifully. However, they need to be knocked into better shape and packaged with more precision. As the play approaches the end of its 90-minute running time, it seems fair to believe that it has not been brief enough.

Performance date: 18 May 2023


Performers: Liza Pulman and Joe Stilgoe


Liza Pulman and Joe Stilgoe began their professional partnership during lockdown, she in her kitchen and he in his garden shed. From the worst of times comes the best of times.

After the spectacle of Eurovision, there could be no greater contrast than this. No flashing lights, no dancers, no deafening noise; just two performers singing songs, every one of which is worth douze points. Most noticeable of all is the emphasis put on the songs’ lyrics, all delivered with absolute clarity, so that the work of master lyricists such as Johnny Mercer (‘not the Tory politician”) are dusted down, polished up and presented as if brand new. The melodies are not bad either.

Pulman possesses a pitch perfect musical theatre voice and Stilgoe’s nimble fingers make a single grand piano do the work of a full orchestra. Both come from show business families. She has the philosophy:  “life is too short not to sing the songs that you love” and she sharpened her comedy skills with Fascinating Aida. He could have developed his natural flair for writing and performing routines that combine music with comedy by picking up a thing or two from his famous father.

The primary source of material for this two-hour show (including interval) is the Great American Song Book, updated to include the likes of Billy Joel and Randy Newman alongside Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael and so on. Some of Stilgoe’s original songs are thrown in too, but, oddly, the duet that gives the show its title is omitted. There are cultural references which may go over the heads of anyone in the audience under 70, but, whether it comes from nostalgia or from discovery, the joy is plentiful.

Pulman’s soulful rendition of songs such as the blissfully melancholic The Folks Who Live on the Hill contrasts with Stilgoe’s comic mash-up of pieces ranging from Nellie the Elephant to Duran Duran’s Rio. However, two duets stand out; the Rodgers & Hammerstein songs People Will Say We’re in Love and If I Loved You, from different shows but saying essentially the same thing, merge together wonderfully. After that, the 1925 Henderson/Dixon classic Bye Bye Blackbird is united with the 1968 Beatles’ song Blackbird to memorable effect.

The cue is given to pack up all your cares and woe and head for wherever this couple of swells are on stage next. Summing up appropriately with a line from a Cole Porter song: “What a swell party this is!”.

Performance date: 15 May 2023

Photo: Alesandro Castellani

Writer: Gareth Farr

Director: Tess Walker


Should the pleas from one generation to “do better” be a spur for members of the following generation to strive for success or a millstone round their necks? Gareth Farr’s new one-act play poses that question. Biscuits for Breakfast is a deeply touching, yet defiantly unromantic relationship drams set in a modern day Britain in which Michelin-star restaurants stand alongside food banks.

When Paul (Ben Castle-Gibb) and Joanne (Boadicea Ricketts) first meet, their defensive walks are already built, constructed out of pride and stubbornness. What divides them is more apparent than what connects them. Persistently, Paul plays tapes of conversation between his younger self and his late father, a humble fisherman, who is urging him to make a better life for himself by developing his flair for cooking. When the play begins, Paul is a trainee hotel chef and Joanne is a cleaner in the same coastal hotel, without any clear goals in life. He conjures up delicious casseroles, while she can only offer pot noodles.

The drama cooks slowly at first. The edgy flirtation is a verbal tango and then Paul invites Joanne to his place to share a fish pie. The closure of the hotel means the loss of both jobs and of Joanne’s accommodation, so she moves in with Paul, thereby sealing the relationship just at the time when the couple’s lives are about to go into free fall.

Farr begins to paint a picture of a society in which ambitions are thwarted and ordinary working people are driven into poverty by limited job opportunities, low wages and soaring inflation. Cleverly, the writer achieves this without letting the play’s focus drift away from the central human story.

Director Tess Walker’s production on a traverse stage has energy, simplicity and intensity. The two actors are superb, conveying the shifting dynamics of their characters’ relationship through turbulent times. They make Paul and Joanne real people, in most ways unremarkable, but each of them is recognisable as “one of us”.

While Paul clings on to his father’s words and his dreams of writing a best-selling cookery book, Joanne becomes the pragmatist, realising that, if the pair can no longer feast on gourmet food, they must at least eat something. Everything about Farr’s play rings true and it should serve as a wake up call to anyone who is prone to taking comfortable lifestyles for granted..

Performance date: 11 May 2023

Photo: Ellie Kurtz

Writer: Somerset Maugham

Director: Tom Littler


They say that what goes around comes around, perhaps implying that the mistakes of one generation will, inevitably, be repeated by the next. At least Somerset Maugham seems to think so in The Circle, his 1921 play which, having all but disappeared for decades, now parades itself in front of us again.

The play is set just after the end of World War I among the wealthy upper classes in which the men pursue careers in politics for want of something else to do. Devotees of Downton Abbey should love it. In his first offering as the Orange Tree’s new Artistic Director, Tom Littler comes up with a well rounded, traditional revival which balances light comedy with melodrama deftly. However, the production faces two challenges: firstly that this is only a decent play when the comedy comes to the fore; and, secondly, that the comedy only works when one or more of the three most senior actors is on the stage.

Arnold (Peter Ashmore) and Elizabeth (Olivia Vinall) have been married for three years and their union is threatened by mutual boredom and by Elizabeth’s infatuation with the ludicrously excitable visitor, Teddy (Chirag Benedict Lobo). In steps Arnold’s father, Clive (a sprightly Clive Francis), who had been abandoned by his wife, Arnold’s mother, Lady Kitty (Jane Asher in regal mode), who also reappears after a 30-year absence in Italy. She bringing with her Hughie (Nicholas Le Provost looking thoroughly fed up), the man for whom she had left Clive. Robert Maskell hovers around as Arnold’s dutiful butler, reminding us that we are among the privileged classes.

Persistent bickering between Kitty and Hughie gives an instant clue that their three decades together may not have been entirely blissful and subsequent confessions confirm this. So, should history be allowed to repeat itself with Elizabeth’s imminent split from Arnold? Through it all, Maugham’s disdain for the institution of marriage is evident; this could have sent mild shock waves through audiences a century ago, but the play says very little of possible relevance to modern society and relationships.

Maugham’s wit may be sub-Wildean, but the impeccable timing and delivery of Asher, Francis and Le Provost take it up a level. Kitty’s shallow vanity is a marvel, while the twinkle in Clive’s eye tells us that his enforced return to bachelor status may not have been all that bad. The dithering Hughie, we are told, could have been Prime Minister had it not been for the scandal surrounding Kitty’s divorce; thinking of recent holders of that office, this does not seem so implausible.

Little in The Circle speaks to 21st Century lifestyles, but the play gives an amusing glimpse into what much of British theatre could have been like in the days before the kitchen sink revolution of the 1950s. As such, it is good inconsequential fun.

Performance date: 5 May 2923

Writer: Jack Thorne

Director: Sam Mendes


In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the title character marvels at The Player King and wonders how it can be possible for him to find the motive and the cue for passion. In this new play, Jack Thorn takes inspiration from the Bard to investigate the bridges built by actors between theatrical make-believe and real life.

The action takes place during the rehearsal period for a 1964 Broadway production of Hamlet, starring Richard Burton and directed by Sir John Gielgud, whose own performance as the Prince of Denmark had been widely regarded as one of the greatest in history. Gielgud is also to appear himself, somewhat ironically, as the Ghost. The problem is that Gielgud’s Hamlet could never be Burton’s Hamlet, so where does the latter dig to find his motive, his cue and his passion?

It does not seem like too much of a stretch for Mark Gatiss to find the passion of the inimitable Gielgud, who is perhaps better remembered now for the film cameos of his later life than for his achievements in the classics. Gatiss captures his essence effortlessly, as witticisms and gaffes roll freely from his tongue, but he sulks like a slapped puppy when a very drunk Burton mocks his acting style and the insecurities of a lonely outsider come to the fore. This is particularly notable in a deeply touching scene in which Gielgud invites a male escort (Laurence Ubong Williams) to his hotel room without being sure of the reason why he has done so. Through it all Gatiss is simply magnificent.

Johnny Flynn gives a barnstorming performance as Burton, the son of a Welsh miner whose wild streak makes him the antithesis of Gielgud. His new bride Elizabeth Taylor, the biggest movie star on the planet at that time, has ambitions to hit the stage herself as Portia. She is barred from rehearsals, but wields influence on both leading actor and director from her luxury hotel suite. Tuppence Middleton is a delight, making Taylor smart, coarse and sexy; as the Hell-raising couple, she and Flynn light sparks off each other.

Part mischievous comedy and part docu-drama, Thorne’s play is uneven in places and it shows tendencies to wander away from its central themes. However, it provides a lush setting for many jewels and the writer’s passion for the art of theatre comes through clearly. Allan Corduner as Hume Cronyn (Polonius), Janie Dee as Eileen Herlie (Gertrude), Phoebe Horn as Linda Marsh (Ophelia), Luke Norris as William Redfield (Guildenstern) and David Tarkenter as Alfred Drake (Claudius) are among those who shine brightly, if briefly.

Fewer or shorter extracts from Shakespeare could help to resolve a few pacing issues in director Sam Mendes’ slick, but overlong production. Es Devlin’s design of an extremely grand rehearsal room fills the large Lyttelton Theatre stage, which then shrinks for scenes set in hotel rooms, all made distinctive by Jon Clark’s striking lighting designs.

At the final curtain, The Motive and the Cue leaves its mark as a funny and affectionate love letter from theatre to itself.

Performance date: 2 May 2023

Retrograde (Kiln Theatre)

Posted: April 27, 2023 in Uncategorized

Photo: Marc Brenner

Writer: Ryan Calais-Cameron

Director: Amit Sharma


The image of the “Golden Age” of Hollywood has already been tarnished for many reasons and Ryan Calais-Cameron’s new one-act play exposes yet another. Retrograde centres on an episode in the 1950s, during the early career of the great black actor, Sidney Poitier. Poignantly, this World Premiere coincides with the death of Harry Belafonte, who is mentioned in the play several times as Poitier’s friend.

The drama unfolds in the office of prominent lawyer Mr Parks, made by Daniel Lapaine to look like an unscrupulous bully. He takes on the role of defender of American value and he is joined by Bobby, an ambitious screenwriter with liberal leanings (“I’m the blackest white man you know”). Bobby has a screenplay about to be produced for network television by NBC and he wants a black actor to play the leading role, choosing Poitier, who is already a friend. Parks has drawn up the contracts and they are waiting to be signed.

Ivanno Jeremiah’s Sidney is amiable, dignified and determined. He does not actually speak the words “call me MISTER Poitier”, paraphrasing the actor’s most famous line, but his manner says it silently. There is a snag. Parks’ contracts include an oath to uphold American values and a denunciation as a Communist sympathiser of the legendary actor, singer and black rights activist Paul Robeson.

The McCarthy era, rooting out allegedly un-American activities overlaps with the start of the Civil Rights movement to give the play its toxic context. Should Poitier sign the oath to further his career ambitions and avoid being blacklisted by Hollywood? Or should he stay true to his friends and his strong personal beliefs by not signing? The clash of ideals makes compelling drama.

Retrograde is an obvious must-see for film buffs, but it raises concerns that go far wider than just cinema history. At one point, during one of Parks’ right wing rants, Lapaine seems to mimic the gestures and speech tones of a recent (and possibly future) American President. This draws laughter, but it could be a reminder that paranoia and hysteria can overtake reason just as easily now as 70 years ago at the time of the McCarthy witch-hunts.

Amit Sharma’s fiery production is given a handsome look by Frankie Bradshaw’s set design of Parks’ office and, in the climactic clashes, the writing and the acting are outstanding. The play takes its time to get to the point, but, when it arrives there, the heat that it generates is intense.

Performance date: 26 April 2023


Posted: April 21, 2023 in Cinema

Writer and director: George O’Hara


“When something is burned, its particles are released into the atmosphere to last on forever”. These words resonate strongly with Sid, a novice astronomer who is soon to leave this universe and seeks ways of leaving some tiny mark of his existence.

Kindling tells Sid’s story during a brief Summer period when he is reunited with boyhood friends. He is about to celebrate the third anniversary of being told by doctors that he has up to three years to live. Written and directed by George O’Hara, the film sets out to be a celebration more than a wake, telling us to value family and friendships while we still have them.

The film also pays homage to a perhaps dying vision of rural England; green rolling hills, rustling woodlands, rippling streams and water lilies sleeping peacefully on a small pond. Captured beautifully by David Wright’s cinematography, it all seems much too idyllic, but O’Hara is reminding us that we only borrow the places that we treasure; we cannot own them forever. Likewise our friends.

As Sid, George Somner gives the film is beating heart, embodying the spirit of resilience that pushes the character forward. For him, life goes on until it doesn’t and bonds of friendship are unbreakable. The return of his four friends who have left to build lives elsewhere, sparks the idea of having a huge bonfire onto which each will throw items of personal significance. The friends, Digs (Wilson Mbomio), Dribble (Conrad Khan), Plod (Rory J Saper) and Wolfie (Kaine Zaijaz), each given distinct characteristics by O’Hara, are acted superbly and perhaps their stories deserve to be developed further.

Equally touching is Sid’s platonic friendship with Lily (played with great charm by Mia McKenna-Bruce), a young lady who is unaware of his condition and not part of the group of five. She has low self-esteem, unable to find a direction or purpose in her life. Sid’s efforts to encourage and strengthen her, perhaps hoping that a part of him will live on, illustrate the writer/director’s themes of loss and renewal.

The drama is bolstered by stirring performances from Tara Fitzgerald as Sid’s over-protective mother and Geoff Bell as a father who just wants to be a bigger part of his son’s short life. They are struggling to function as normal while grieving inside for Sid, who is still among them. Harry Brokensha’s soft rock music enriches the film’s youthful spirit and its mood of melancholy.

Kindling is at its most powerful when it is understated, but it walks a fine line between solid drama and mawkish sentimentality. When, particularly in the final third, it crosses that line, it feels forgivable because of the film’s overriding tone of positivity. Nonetheless, best advice is to watch it with a box of strong tissues to hand.

NO I.D. (Royal Court Theatre)

Posted: April 20, 2023 in Theatre

photo: Marc Brenner

Writer: Tatenda Shamiso

Director: Sean Ting-Hsuan Wang


Tatenda Shamiso is a female-to-male transgender entertainer. His story is specific, but it has elements which should resonate with any of us who has wasted hours trying to fit square pegs into round holes or hanging on in a long queue, waiting to hear a real live human being speak at the other end of a telephone helpline.

Shamiso performs his short monologue, speaking in tones of sarcasm and frustration rather than indignation. He was born in California of a Belgian father and a Zimbabwean mother and he now resides in the United Kingdom. He refers to his former self, Thandie, as if she is a girl that he once knew or a friend with whom he has lost touch. She was a shy but precocious child, the apple of her father’s eye.

Thandie’s discomfort at being moulded to conform with conventional society’s ideas of what a girl should be is described wittily and the absurd criteria applied to reach a formal diagnosis of gender dysphoria are passed over with scorn. However, the process of Thandie’s transition to become Tatenda is not the main target for attack in Shamiso’s play. Rather it is the obstacles standing in the way of establishing a new identity once the transition is complete.

Passport and driving licence details must be amended, National Health Service records need changing, His (formerly Her) Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has to be told and so on. The one-size-fits-all mentality of officialdom overwhelms Tatenda as he strives to establish an identity to open the door to the basic essentials of modern life.

Director Sean Ting-Hsuan Wang gives Shamiso the freedom of the stage to dance, sing and play keyboards. He demonstrates the stifling impact of excessive bureaucracy by showering the stage with reams of paper in anarchic style. A mildly amusing hour passes quickly and the play is never less than enlightening. 

Performance date: 19 April 2023

Snowflake (Park Theatre)

Posted: April 20, 2023 in Theatre

Photo: Jenifer Evans

Writer: Robert Boulton

Director: Michael Cottrell


With Spring well underway, snowflakes should be a rarity in London, as rare perhaps as the arrival  of a taut new thriller in modern theatre. Robert Boulton’s play takes classic elements of the genre and updates them for the internet age.

The writer himself plays Marcus, who we take to be an assassin. He is violently aggressive and boastful of his complete mastery of his trade. He barges into a hotel room accompanied by rookie Sarah, who is on her first mission. Louse Hoare makes Sarah an ambitious career woman, eager to learn from an expert, but wary of what lies ahead.The pair bring with them crates full of DIY tools, giving rise to gruesome thoughts about their intended use. The room’s occupant, Anthony, a famous writer is laid flat by Marcus before the intruders have even announced themselves.

While Anthony lies unconscious on the bed, assassin and apprentice assassin joust with each other, dancing gingerly around the purpose of their mission, but not  fully revealing it. At this stage, the characters feel one-dimensional and, rather than wondering what is going on, it seems more relevant to question whether all this has been seen before. In The Dumb Waiter perhaps? Similar layers of menace prevail, but Pinter’s piercing observations and subversive wit are notably absent.

When Anthony comes round, the play itself wakes up. Henry Davis makes the character a fallible human being, filled with real terror, his face caught in close-up and projected onto a large screen. Through his protracted agony, the play appears to be turning into a parable about trial by Twitter, but then it veers off to sprout other less clear philosophical views. In all, there are too many ideas for them all to gel together successfully. As plot twists are unveiled, the play itself risks twisting itself into knots, but it is saved by a gripping, if excessively violent finale.

Director Michael Cottrell’s compact production suits the Park Theatre’s studio space well and designer Alys Whitehead fills the space with a comfortable modern hotel room, which contrasts perfectly with the discomforting goings on inside it. Overall a high level of suspense is sustained for much of the two-hour (including interval) running time.

Snowflakes marks a promising writing debut for Boulton, but his modern thriller is a patchy affair. At times, it grips like a vice and, at other times, it melts away like a snowflake in April. However, there can be no disputing the power of its climax. Hitchcock could not have staged it better.

Performance date: 17 April 2023

Photo: Pamela Raith

Adapter: Liv Hennessy

Director: Lisa Spirling


Many young boys dream of growing up to become top footballers, so maybe the recent surge in the popularity of the women’s game could lead to young girls having the same dreams. Arguably, such goals would be far more admirable than targeting the seemingly vacuous lifestyles of many WAGs (wives and girlfriends of footballers) which were exposed brutally in the 2022 court case Vardy v Rooney, labelled by the media “The Wagatha Christies Trial”.

Liv Hennessy adapts the proceedings verbatim, compressing them into 90 minutes plus injury time, with a half-time break. In a nutshell, Coleen Rooney (wife of former England captain Wayne Rooney) began suspecting that posts on her private Instagram account were being leaked to the tabloid press and turned sleuth to uncover the culprit. When the finger pointed at Rebekah Vardy (wife of Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy), Mrs Rooney revealed her findings on social media and Mrs Vardy sued for libel.

The play offers a running commentary from two “pundits” (Halema Hussain and Nathan McMullen), but, otherwise, the words spoken are taken from the trial itself. Jonnie Broadbent and Tom Turner struggle to keep straight faces as the opposing barristers and Verna Vyas presides over proceedings solemnly as the judge, Mrs Justice Steyn. Director Lisa Spirling realises that the transcript of the trial contains enough comedy to fill an evening and, rather than overplaying the absurdity of it all, settles for an overriding lightness of tone. Fittingly, designer Polly Sullivan’s courtroom set does not look like a place where the death sentence would ever have been handed down.

So, as the two ladies parade before us in their neat designer outfits, we ask (if we care) which of them is in the right and which is in the wrong. This production is hardly neutral, highlighting how difficult it is to avoid taking sides when the characters of real life protagonists are interpreted by actors. There is not much to like about Lucy May Barker’s waspish version of Mrs Vardy, sitting in the witness box with the demeanour of a stony faced reform school headmistress. Barker is great, but her every utterance seems to be encouraging the audience to hiss and boo as they would for the away side in a fierce cup tie.

In total contrast, Laura Dos Santos presents Mrs Rooney as smart, warm, maternal and a long suffering victim of the antics of her allegedly errant husband. If the play’s audiences were asked to vote, it is very likely that they would arrive at the same verdict as that of Mrs Justice Steyn.

The media frenzy surrounding the trial speaks loudly about a modern culture driven by social media and worthless celebrity status. Ironically, a West End play about the trial adds to the frenzy as much as it criticises it. No fiction writer could invent this; it is all so utterly ridiculous that it could only possibly be true.

Performance date: 12 April 2023