Writer and director: Jack Robertson

⭐️⭐️

Describing itself in publicity as “a most lamentable comedy” and “an unofficial and unwarranted sequel” to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jack Robertson’s 60-minute comedy, Demetrius Wakes, has set itself targets to live down to. While it would be difficult to make a sequel official more than four centuries after William Shakespeare’s demise, the jury is out over whether or not anything could warrant this flimsy extension to his classic and just how lamentable (or not) it is.

Brought to the stage by MediumRare Productions, the play explores how the dreams of two modern day married couples, drawn loosely from the Bard’s originals, turn into nightmares. It touches on the not uncommon dilemma of dealing with what happens when a joyful burst of romance is taken over by the gradual onset of familiarity and boredom.

Zander (or Lysander) is given a laddish swagger by Jacob Lovesick; he is married to Mia (Hernia), played by Megan Jarvie with a hint of sluttiness. They invite to their home for a wine and cheese party Demetrius, once Mia’s admirer, and his wife Helena. Both couples are celebrating 15 years of marriage.

It occurs to Demetrius (a continuously glum Jack J Fairley) that he fell asleep 15 years earlier and his marriage to Georgia Andrews’ dull Helena must have been a terrible dream. Freeze the action and in steps a highly camp Puck (Sam Harlaut, wearing the Devil’s horns and tight-fitting hot pants) to wreak havoc all round.

What follows resembles a swingers’ gathering without the car keys. Trial pairings of Demetrius with Mia, Zander with Helena, Demetrius with Zander and Mia with Helena come and go. Poor old Puck is left out of all the fun as the four release their pent-up frustrations and spit out venom at each other.

The performances in Robertson’s production of his own play are lively, but not sufficiently so to make the quartet that he has created interesting. The writer’s core idea could have had potential, but a sense of where to take it and develop it fully is not evident and the dialogue contains too little original wit to sustain the comedy even for just an hour.

Although far from lamentable, Demetrius Wakes hitches a ride from Shakespeare and its labours to become less tedious than its main characters are eventually lost.

Performance date: 5 August 2022

Bad Jews (Arts Theatre)

Posted: July 27, 2022 in Uncategorized
Photo: xzEllie Kurttzj

Writer: Joshua Harmon

Director: Jon Pashley

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

There must be something really good about Bad Jews. Repeated appearances in the West End over a period of more than seven years indicate enduring popularity with audiences. The play, an aggressive, dark comedy by American writer Joshua Harmon, premiered in New York in 2013 before opening at the Ustinov Studios in Bath in 2014 with a production which transferred to London. 

In similar fashion to the hit musical Book of Mormon, the comedy satirises features of a religious group, pushes hard against the boundaries of good taste and, seemingly, ends up offending nobody. It is the perfect antidote to the anodyne comedies that can emerge from over-adherence to modern codes of political correctness.

Harmon gets away with it simply because his depiction of dysfunctional Jewish family life is laugh-out-loud funny for nearly all of its 90 minutes running time (no interval). Jonah and Liam are brothers, Daphna is their cousin and the three are temporarily corralled together in Jonah’s New York studio apartment in order to attend the funeral of their grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. Daphna brandishes her Jewishness like a medal of honour, Liam, who arrives with his girlfriend a day late, is more respectful towards Japanese culture than his own and Jonah just wants to be left out of the rows that inevitably ensue. 

The play’s opening scene is slow; it takes a few minutes for it to register just how much of a horror Rosie Yadid’s Daphna is; her self-righteousness and her use of tactless, acid put-downs to bulldoze over her kin are a shocking joy. She is the Jewish matriarch of countless New York comedies, albeit at least 20 years younger than those stereotypes. “Pappy” left a family heirloom and she wants it, but Liam actually has it, paving the way for total warfare. Ashley Margolis’ Liam is a picture of suppressed rage until Daphna exits to the bathroom, when he lets rip with a marathon rant, one of the play’s great set pieces. 

Another highlight follows when the ironically named Melody (Olivia Le Andersen), Liam’s demure, non-Jewish girlfriend, gives an excruciating rendition of Summertime from George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. Underlying all the hilarity, Harmon is questioning the places of faith and tradition in the modern world and showing us how the behaviour of both Daphna and Liam is equally reprehensible; she is flaunting hollow, materialistic values and he is denying his heritage, while secretly clinging to it. Poignantly, the seemingly passive Jonah (Charlie Beaven) demonstrates that there is a more dignified way to balance conflicting forces. 

For this revival, Jon Pashley takes over the director’s reins from Michael Longhurst, ensuring maximum mayhem in a minimum of space. In Richard Kent’s design for the cramped studio apartment, there is barely room for the actors to move without tripping over a makeshift bed and the conflict, often raucous, is up close and personal. It will be bad news if Bad Jews does not go on reappearing for some considerable time to come.

Performance date: 26 July 2022

Hand of God (Hope Theatre)

Posted: July 22, 2022 in Theatre

Writer: Sam Butters

Directors: Charlie Derrar and Joseph Siddle

⭐️⭐️⭐️

The legendary manager Bill Shankly famously said: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you it’s much more serious than that”. The quote springs to mind while hearing Kieron, the central figure of Same Butters’ 65-minute play Hand of God, describe how the game reaches into every corner of his daily existence.

The play, set in the heart of the Black Country, is transplanted by Tectum Theatre to this pub theatre, which is little more than a long goal kick from Arsenal’s stadium. Kieron (played by Butters himself) supports West Bromwich Albion in the professional game and plays irregularly for Blackheath Town in a local five-a-side league. In frustration, he forms a breakaway team, Dyslexia Untied, recruiting drug dealers to fill the remaining four places.

This show is no Hamilton, but it borrows from the hit musical’s trick of using hip-hop to develop a narrative. Music, described as “garage” in style is composed by Charlie O’Connor, who performs frantically as the DJ and also comes on as substitute for the first team. Co-directors Charlie Derrar and Joseph Siddle keep the production close to boiling point and also provide lyrics.

The play makes only passing references to Diego Maradonna, to whom its title alludes, but draws on the natural humour that is ingrained in football and its followers. However, Butters is at his strongest, both as writer and actor, when focussing on the serious issues of drug abuse and the strained relationship between Kieron and his father. For long periods, the pathos is suppressed, making it all the more powerful when it is finally unleashed.

Hand of God shows a genuine understanding of the role played by football in shaping otherwise ordinary lives and in strengthening cross-generational bonds. So, the critical question is whether Butters’ modest offering is sufficiently on the ball to lure audiences away from the women’s game on their television screens on sweltering July evenings. The short answer must be that it just about is.

Performance date: 21 July 2022

Photo: Johan Persson

Writers: Ed Curtis

Director: Jonathan Church

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

With Beverley Knight having gone off to a nunnery (she’s now starring in   Sister Act), The Drifters Girl sails on with new crew at the helm. Stepping in is Grammy-nominated Broadway star Felicia Boswell, who brings with her enough pizazz to make sure that West End audiences will stand by the show for quite a while longer.

Unapologetically, this is a juke box musical, packing the hits (a couple of dozen at a rough count) of The Drifters, a four-man American vocal group of the 1950s and 60s, into 140 minutes of low brow, high energy entertainment. Audiences are likely to enter the theatre already humming the show’s tunes and to leave it singing them loudly. If expectations are set no higher than that, then, from the dazzlingly-staged opening medley through to the heartwarming finale, nothing will disappoint.

Normally, shows like this tell the rags-to-riches story of a musical act catapulted to fame, but the over-familiar format is thwarted here by the fact that The Drifters is more a brand name than a fixed group of individual singers. Working from an idea by Tina Treadwell, Ed Curtis’ book turns the spotlight on the group’s ambitious and single-minded manager, Faye Treadwell and her struggles to steer the group to international success. She combats law suits, frequent changes in the group’s composition and loss, while racial and gender prejudice add some real meat to the story. Interestingly, problems encountered on a tour of the United Kingdom are seen as comparable to those in America’s Deep South.

Boswell’s gutsy performance holds it all together and she throws in a show stopping belter in each half. Child actors in rotation play Tina, to whom Faye narrates the story, but the company consists of just four others; it seems like a lot more. Adam J Bernard, Tarinn Callender, Matt Henry and Tosh Wanogho-Maud are always The Drifters, fitting in neatly with the concept that, regardless of changes in personnel, the group remains essentially the same. The four sing and dance to Karen Bruce’s choreography superbly and they also take on all the other roles (including, to much amusement, Bruce Forsyth).

Anthony Ward’s set designs make much use of fluorescent lighting, combining with Fay Fullerton’s glam costumes to give the show a glitzy feel fitting for its era, while a nine-strong orchestra, under the direction of Will Stuart, backs up with a full sound. Director Jonathan Church’s slick, fast-paced production had already become a well-oiled machine in waiting for its new star to step in and light up the West End. The Drifters Girl remains undemanding and often predictable, but it is still irresistible.

Performance date: 14 July 2022

The Lesson (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: July 2, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Skin Yum

Writer: Eugène Ionesco

Director: Max Lewendel

⭐️⭐️

Romanian-born playwright Eugène Ionesco became a darling of the French avant-garde movement in the 1950s and some of his absurdist comedies, most notably Rhinoceros, were also celebrated on this side of the Channel. The Lesson is a short one-act play dating from 1953, but what, if anything, can we learn from it today?

The big challenge for director Max Lewendel is to give the kiss of life to a dated piece which many could regard as already moribund. Using a translation by Donald Watson, he starts promisingly with a trio of excellent performances. Jerome Ngonadi is the bombastic and increasingly tyrannical Professor, charged with tutoring his 40th student of the day. Hazel Caulfield is the bouncy, over-enthusiastic Pupil who aims to sit for her doctorate in three weeks’ time and begins by struggling to learn how to count from one to ten. 

Julie Stark, playing a cross between a housekeeper and a dominatrix, interrupts the lesson from time to time with pleas for the Professor to keep his actions under control. As the Professor fails to heed the warnings and the Pupil develops a raging toothache, the lesson moves from mathematics to languages and a tussle for power develops, edging ever closer to mortal combat. 

Set designer Christopher Hone comes up with a traditional study with fittings which open out to reveal an array of blackboards. Ben Glover is credited for video design and creative captioning, using the blackboards to display imaginative graphics at all stages of the production and also, for the benefit of the hearing impaired, the play’s text. There is no shortage of invention in Lewendel’s energetic revival, but all of it combined is not enough to cover up the fact that long stretches in the middle of the play are almost unbearably turgid.

Ways of interpreting Ionesco’s intent could include seeing the play as a satire on the rigidity of formal learning, or as a dire warning against the perils of fascism. However, it may be best not to look too deeply for hidden meanings and simply accept it as an absurd load of nonsense, possibly as the writer meant it to be. Neither particularly educational nor enough fun, sitting through The Lesson most resembles serving out 80 minutes as a punishment in after school detention.

Performance date: 1 July 2022

The Fellowship (Hampstead Theatre)

Posted: June 28, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Robert Day

Writer: Roy Williams

Director: Paulette Randall

⭐️⭐️⭐️

How long does it take for an immigrant community and its new home country to adjust fully to each other? This is the key question asked by Roy Williams in The Fellowship, his newest state of the nation play, receiving its world premiere here. Sisters Marcia and Dawn are descended from the Windrush generation and the play, set in present day London, tells how their lives have followed different courses, while the bond between them has remained strong.

Having stepped in at very short notice to take the pivotal role of Dawn, Cherrelle Skeete emerges in triumph, giving a remarkably assured, almost word perfect performance. Dawn and her partner Tony (Trevor Laird) have had two sons, one of which was murdered in a racially motivated attack. Marcia (Suzette Llewellyn) is a successful barrister who has become involved in a relationship with a high-flying politician and is heading for a fall.

Dawn and Tony’s surviving son, Jermaine (Ethan Hazzard), is now involved in a relationship with a white girl, Simone (Rosie Day). Adding to the family’s woes, the sisters’ mother is upstairs dying, it is revealed that Marcia and Tony were once lovers and both Marcia and Dawn have separate brushes with the law, represented by a black officer, PC Spencer (Yasmin Mwanza). Yes, Williams packs in enough plot, some of it trivial, to fill a whole week’s episodes of Eastenders and the soap-style melodrama frequently threatens to submerge the writer’s cutting and burningly relevant social observations. 

Inserting references to infamous real life event, Williams examines the roles of heritage, identity and family in modern life. He paints a picture of a community which remains ill at ease with its adopted homeland, still harbouring suspicion and mistrust many decades after planting roots there. Marcia is said to be accepted in the corridors of power only because “they” have allowed her to be there and Dawn violently opposes her son’s romance with Simone, because she is white. Williams sees prejudice between minority and majority communities as operating in both direction, but he also expresses hope that barriers are, very gradually, being broken down.

Libby Watson’s set design seems peculiar to say the least. A curved modern staircase embraces the entire stage and a giant overhead halo (representing a much used smart speaker) is mirrored on the floor. Overall, the set resembles the interior of a chic fashion store more than the intimate family living space that it is meant to be and it adds to the muddle of a play which often feels uncertain of its direction.

Director Paulette Randall’s production is at its best when it gives life to the humour in Williams’ writing and at its worst when it substitutes excessive shouting for genuine emotion. The comedy highlight comes with a long speech by Dawn, effectively apologising for becoming immersed in “white” culture. It is delivered by Skeete with total conviction before she dances joyfully to a track by Kylie Minogue.

Part drama and part comedy, part serious social commentary and part soap opera, The Fellowship is, in close to equal measures, entertaining, enlightening and exasperating.

Performance date: 27 June 2022

Photo: Marilyn Kingwill

Writer: Lucy Kirkwood

Director: Lucy Morrison

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

If you have booked tickets to see That Is Not Who I Am, new writer Dave Davidson’s thriller about identity theft, prepare to be surprised or perhaps, disappointed. No, it is not yet another cancellation due to Covid; the reason is that neither the play nor the playwright actually exists. They are no more than a smokescreen for the real play, Lucy Kirkwood’s Rapture, a work which we are told is deemed to be so explosive that its mere existence needed to be kept under wraps.

Kirkwood showed all the instincts of an investigative journalist when sifting through video evidence from the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre to find inspiration for her 2013 hit drama, Chimerica. Here, she uses similar techniques to probe events much closer to home in the United Kingdom in revealing the story of Noah and Celeste Quilter from their first meeting on a blind date in 2011 through to a conclusion in December 2021. Spoilers will be avoided in the review which follows.

Noah is an ex-serviceman, Celeste a nurse in the National Health Service. Their dinner date is awkward, but they find chemistry and boast afterwards that they left the restaurant without paying the bill; Kirkwood quotes evidence to suggest that this version of events could be untrue. So all is not what it seems, but, more concerning, the couple sense that their innocent conversation is being overheard. They go on to move in together, marry and have a baby daughter, building a home in which they have only each other to interact with and trust. All the time, their paranoia about being listened to and watched grows.

Played by Jake Davies and Siena Kelly, Noah and Celeste are simply “two of us”, living ordinary, unremarkable lives. As such, they are completely believable and it takes interjections by Kirkwood herself, played by Priyanga Burford, as narrator to remind us that something is dreadfully amiss. Burford’s anxious tone and urgent delivery ratchet up tension as we watch the couple transform from sceptics who question the establishment, climate change, the pandemic and so on, into neo revolutionaries with almost a million followers on their You Tube channel.

Working together, the writer and director Lucy Morrison make thrilling theatre. Designer Naomi Dawson’s ingenious revolving set frames the claustrophobic world of a couple glued together, with the narrator and stage hands roaming around outside it to suggest constant intrusions on their privacy. Their minds become taken over by conspiracy theories and every conspiracy theory is seen to be part of a bigger conspiracy theory

Ironically, Kirkwood’s play is itself planting a conspiracy theory and, cleverly, she casts doubt on the conclusions which she is reaching. She invites us to trust in the thoroughness of her research, make our own decisions, mull over the implications thereof and then shudder.

Performance date: 16 June 2022

Photo: The Other Richard

Writer: Pierre Marivaux

Translator: Martin Crimp

Director: Paul Miller

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

In these days, few of us have servants and that is a blessing if judged by the conniving bunch in Pierre Marivaux’s 18th Century anti-romantic comedy, The False Servant. The French writer’s play in this translation by Martin Crimp was seen previously at the National Theatre in 2004 and director Paul Miller’s revival looks well merited.

The first servant to appear and then disappear is Frontin (Uzair Bhatti). He is despatched to Paris by his master, the Chevalier, and he recruits former acquaintance, Trivelin, a once wealthy man who has fallen on hard (and debauched) times, as his temporary replacement. Before leaving, he informs Trivelin that the Chevalier is actually a woman and also a servant, her disguise being part of a plot to stop the forthcoming marriage of heartless nobleman, Lelio (Julian Moore-Cook), to the elegant but gullible Countess (Phoebe Pryce).

Will Brown revels in the seediness of his Trivelin, his every word spiked with impudence. He alone appears as a dishevelled down-and-out, while all around him are attired in smart, modern day outfits. Lizzy Watts is a not so masculine but ruthless Chevalier, flirting with the Countess sweetly and thwarting the dastardly Lelio without mercy. Many playwrights, Shakespeare included, would allow their cross-dressing heroines to show a softer side, but Marivaux does not go there. Affairs of the heart take a distant second place to affairs of the bank balance in this play’s relentlessly cynical humour.

Silas Wyatt-Barke chips in as Arlequin, Lelio’s scheming, heavy drinking servant. During Miller’s tenure as Artistic Director of the Orange Tree Theatre, shortly coming to an end, many of his own productions have been distinguished by memorably strong ensemble playing. That happy tradition continues here. The play’s ridiculous plot may be too convoluted to follow, but the dexterous wit of Marivaux/Crimp’s dialogue enlivens it and bang-on performances carry it along at a breezy pace.

Marivaux could not have known 21st Century attitudes towards gender and relationships, but Crimp and Miller certainly do and they squeeze every drop of innuendo out of the characters’ antics. The False Servant’s promise of a couple of hours of non-stop fun is not a deception; in that respect, the play is the genuine article.

Performance date: 13 June 2022

Photo: Johan Persson

Writer: Tennessee Williams

Director: Jeremy Herrin

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Last seen in the West End as recently as 2017 at this same theatre, Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical play, The Glass Menagerie seems to have become elevated to a place alongside the writer’s better known and most frequently performed works. A study of how family ties draw in and repel, the play embraces themes that resonate widely and it includes a larger-than-life central female character who is equally as fascinating as other Williams creations, such as Maggie “the cat” and Blanche DuBois.

The play, Williams’ first success, premiered in 1944 and is set in 1930s depression era America. The Wingfields, abandoned by their patriarch 16 years earlier, have an impoverished lifestyle and Amanda, now in middle age, yearns for bygone days while still nurturing her two grown children, Laura and the younger Tom, who is forced to work in a menial job to support the family.

Director Jeremy Herrin breaks with custom by casting two actors to play Tom, a character who we take to be based on Williams himself, at different ages. Paul Hilton is the older version, narrating the play as he looks back on his family life with perhaps faltering memory, torn between feelings of relief and guilt for his escape. Tom Glynn-Carney is the rebellious Tom in his early 20s, suffocated by natural affection and his duty as the breadwinner, while finding nightly refuge in trips to the movies and longing to become a poet. This separation of the character enhances a sense of distance between past and present, without obscuring the writer’s essential point that none of us can ever break free completely from our roots.

Amy Adams is a memorable Amanda, defiantly proud and still sprightly as she dons a ball gown, saved from her glory days as a Southern belle, in readiness for the arrival of a now rare gentleman caller. “I know all about the tyranny of women” she declares and, showing no trace of malevolence, she becomes a monster, crossing the line between caring for her offspring and controlling them. Amanda refuses to let go of the past, recalling that she once attracted 17 gentleman callers in a single day, thereby demeaning her daughter who has none in any normal day. Adams brings out the strength and the sadness of a woman who is in denial about  the present and deluded about her children’s futures, specifically the prospects of marrying off crippled and introverted Laura and keeping restless Tom on his leash.

Lizzie Annis is a childlike 24-year-old Laura, her shyness reinforced by her mother’s domination. She is overwhelmed by the gentleman caller, Tom’s work friend Jim O’Connor (a smooth talking Victor Alli). Their scene together, taking place during a power failure, should be pivotal, but it feels slightly overlong and laboured in this production.

Laura’s treasured glass menagerie becomes Williams’ metaphors for family and illusion, both of them fragile and inanimate. It gains prominence in Vicki Mortimer’s set design of the Wingfield’s shabby St Louis apartment; unfortunately, the writer’s direction that a memory play should be dimly lit is at times taken a little too literally by lighting designer Paule Constable.

A reflective and melancholy piece, The Glass Menagerie has no fireworks and contains none of the salacious themes that would become a Williams trademark in his later masterpieces. Herrin’s unspectacular yet beautifully acted revival captures the play’s tone fittingly throughout and its status as a classic of American theatre remains undiminished.

Performance date: 31 May 2022

Photo: Marc Brenner

Writer: Anupama Chandrasekhar

Director: Indhu Rubasingham

⭐️⭐️⭐️

How long does it take for a real life murder to become a laughing matter? 74 years perhaps? The question arises because of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s new play about the 1948 assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, father of the Indian nation. The play surprises everyone by setting out its stall as a frivolous comedy, only moving on to grittier stuff when the action is well underway.

The assassin, Nathuram Godse (Shubham Saraf) is convicted and awaiting execution. Saraf steps forward and addresses the audience directly, picking out individual members and prowling around in the manner of a stand-up comic. “Forget the Attenborough film and Sir Ben Kingsley” he advises, adding a quiet sideways chuckle. The irreverence is irresistible and Saraf, never off stage, is terrific.

Director Indhu Rubasingham’s expansive production uses the adaptability of the Olivier stage rather than formal sets. With a company of 19, some crowd scenes are thrilling, but others are confusing. When the comedy diminishes, the production frequently loses its way. The play is presented as an epic history story on a grand scale, a concept that is not entirely consistent with the humorous writing.

Godse tells the story of how he came to commit the infamous deed, starting with his first chance encounter with Gandhi (Paul Bazely) at the age of seven. His superstitious parents believed that only their daughters survived infancy and so they raised him as a girl. This gives Saraf another opportunity to milk the comedy by donning drag. Eventually, Godse strikes out for his own freedom and champions the cause of his nation’s freedom from British Colonial rule.

The story continues with our “hero” attending school at Pune and beginning an apprenticeship as a tailor, frequently crossing paths with his eventual victim. He becomes a passionate supporter of a Hindu  India, free from Britain and, as the comedy diminishes, this is where the play’s problems begin. We are now asked to take this figure of fun seriously as a red blooded revolutionary, at odds with Gandhi’s advocacy of pacifism as a weapon of warfare, and the transition is hard to accept.

As independence draws nearer, the play goes deeper into the murky waters of Indian politics, involving Gandhi and India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru (Marc Elliott). The contentious issue is partition of Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan, rushed through by a British  government intent on what Godse describes as “a quick Brexit”. Many will already be familiar with the history (if only from having seen that Attenborough film) and the play adds little to it, but it seems that partition is the assassin’s chief grievance against Gandhi. Given the benefit of hindsight, Chandrasekhar sees a catastrophic error that would lead to genocide, human rights abuses, nuclear proliferation and decades of simmering conflict, although the writer puts the words into the mouth of the doomed Godse, for whom it is foresight.

The Father and the Assassin is a mixed bag, elevated by Saraf’s central performance. This is a personal triumph for him. He owns the stage from start to finish and makes what could have resembled a wearying dissertation on Indian political history at least bearable and frequently entertaining, even though nothing in this story is really a laughing matter.

Performance date: 19 May 2022