Lands (Bush Theatre)

Posted: November 10, 2018 in Theatre

Creator: Antler      Director: Jaz Woodcock-Stewart


“The script is not sacred. It’s a blueprint” we are told in the preface to the printed text for Lands. A printed text normally signals that a work is a play, so anyone thinking of describing this piece as performance art or an extended comedy sketch needs to think again. Its Creator is Antler, a Bush Theatre Associate Artist company.

As a play, it falls into the absurdist genre, in the mould of Ionesco perhaps. More specifically, the sandy-coloured set brings to mind Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, accepting that the woman here is not half-buried, rather she is trapped, bouncing up and down constantly on a child’s trampoline. Sand, in a proverbial sense, is also what the play’s two characters have their heads buried in, paying only token regard to each other and total disregard to the wider world.

Leah (Leah Brotherhead) is obsessed with a puzzle, describing the picture pieces that she is placing in it in meticulous detail. On the opposite side of the stage, Sophie (Sophie Steer) is bouncing, oblivious to anything that Leah is doing, but paying lip service to having an interest. Leah becomes irritated and asks Sophie to stop bouncing. “I CAN’T get off” Sophie screams. Does Sophie’s bounce represent an obsession or an addiction?Or is it just some nonsense that represents nothing at all? Many have asked that last question about Beckett too.

Director Jaz Woodcock-Stewart’s production really needs more pace and the script (or that part of it that is used) feels short on verbal wit. That said, the physical comedy that results from the increasingly adversarial relationship between the too protagonists is often very funny. It feels as if the cheery Leah and the solemn Sophie have only their bizarre preoccupations standing between themselves and simultaneous nervous breakdown.

The play comes closest to revealing a serious subtext when Leah rants a long list of things that she doesn’t care about, beginning with “the boy on the beach…refugees on the boats…detention centres…”. She is in fact chastising the audience for allowing life’s trivia to blur a wider vision. Planned to run for 80 minutes (it actually exceeded that by 10 minutes at the press performance), the production is much too long, but it is put together neatly, it has likeable performances and, yes, it also has bounce.

Performance date: 8 November 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Romeo and Juliet (Barbican Theatre)

Posted: November 7, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: William Shakespeare      Director: Erica Whyman


In an age of polarised views and deep social divisions, most of us will have little problem in relating to the premise that underpins William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. However, the divide that director Erica Whyman most strives to bridge in this Royal Shakespeare Company production, first seen in Stratford upon Avon, is that between old Verona and new London.

At the start, the Montagues and the Capulets are seen as rival street gangs, with hordes of threatening youths filling the stage. The excitement is fuelled by music composed by Sophie Cotton and movement directed by Ayse Tashkiran, and there follows a vivid and vigorous production in which no one ever walks around the stage if it is possible for them to run. 

Whyman builds her bridge by blending the traditional harmoniously with the innovative and finding romance and modern relevance without over-stretching to achieve either. In so doing, her version of the play retains all the key elements of classic productions, but it also shines a light on the futility of 21st Century tribalism and lays out bare the senselessness of the teenage knife crime which now plagues London and other cities.

Bally Gill is a wonderful Romeo, playing the ill-fated lover as the dreamy-eyed joker in the Montague pack and drawing every ounce of humour from the Bard’s words. He is matched by Karen Fishwick’s utterly beguiling Juliet who becomes an innocent 14-year-old with a glint of mischief in her eyes, willingly swept off her feet by Romeo’s charm. The scene in which Capulet, Juliet’s father (a ferocious Michael Hodgson) uses brutal means to insist that she marries Paris (Afolabi Alli) is harrowing, but it hits another modern chord by turning the spotlight onto domestic abuse and forced marriage.

Tom Piper’s adaptable design leaves the stage as open as possible, deploying a large hollow box, which provides an elevated level for the famous balcony scene. Romeo and Juliet spend their final moments together at the same spot, now raised above the squabbling families below them. As the play gets darker towards its conclusion, so the stage darkens and Charles Balfour’s subtle lighting design picks out the key characters.

Other gems among the performances include Ishia Bennison’s devoted Nurse, who exudes natural warmth and good humour. Andrew French is an unusually forceful Friar Laurence, at times displaying the fervour of a Baptist preacher, and Charlotte Josephine stands out as a gender-changed Mercutio, hyper-active and perpetually shadow boxing. Whyman’s production runs through the play briskly in 165 minutes (including interval) without sacrificing any of the poetry in the text and without sagging.

Of course, most of us will know beforehand that this play does not allow blissful romance to triumph over squalid reality, but, on this occasion, when the confirmation comes, it still brings tears to the eyes.

Performance date: 6 November 2018

Photo: Topher McGrillis

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

A Pupil (Park Theatre)

Posted: November 6, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Jesse Briton            Director: Jessica Daniels


Can greatness be taught? A Pupil, Jesse Briton’s new 90-minute one-act play, an all-female four-hander, poses that question, asking also whether talent can thrive without discipline and whether discipline, in turn, will suffocate talent.

Ye is a gifted violinist of Chinese origin, who is disabled and confined to a wheelchair as a result of a car crash, but it becomes clear that her severe depression is more crippling than her physical injuries. She barely makes ends meet by tutoring and Simona, the teenage daughter of a Russian billionaire, who is alienated from all around her, is brought to Ye to be prepared for entry exams for the Royal Conservatoire.

Lucy Sheen’s Ye exudes gloom and defeat, fiercely refusing all help to bring her back to a full life. She can pass down her own philosophy and teach her pupil to express her inner self through her instrument, but she recognises that this may achieve only self-fulfilment and not tangible success. The shambolic Ye is contrasted by Carolyn Backhouse’s confident Phyllida, vastly inferior to her as a violinist when they were students together, but now a prominent figure at the Conservatoire.

As Simona, Flora Spencer-Longhurst, wearing school uniform and with a long pig tail, overdoes the petulant brat act just a little, but she shows great skills with the violin, playing classical pieces and original compositions by Colin Sell. Melanie Marshall,           playing Mary, Ye’s gospel-singing, persistently interfering landlady, is delightfully comic, bringing welcome relief to what could have been a wearying drama.

Jessica Daniels’ in-the-round production is as highly-strung as any of the dozen or so violins hanging above the stage in Jessica Staton’s simple design. Briton poses intriguing questions regarding the teaching of skills in music (or indeed any other field of the arts), but, when she puts the anti-convention arguments into the mouth of a character who is mentally ill, it is sometimes difficult to decide if the case being made has real validity or is just a dramatic catalyst.

At the beginning, A Pupil looks set to turn into a drama of mutual redemption and, as such, there feels to be a threat that it could be undone by its predictability. However, the more that the play veers away from that well-trodden path, the more engaging it becomes. Perhaps trying too hard to avoid the obvious, Briton reaches an uncertain conclusion, but still this is an accomplished, if not entirely convincing, work of theatre.

Performance date: 5 November 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Honour (Park Theatre)

Posted: October 31, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Joanna Murray-Smith      Director: Paul Robinson


Honour, Australian writer Joanne Murray-Smith’s incisive study of a marriage break-up, has worn well. Its focus on gender roles perhaps comes through with greater clarity in 2018 than when it received its United Kingdom premiere at the National Theatre in 2003 and casual references in this version to blogs, bitcoins and Love Island, hardly seem needed to stress its modernity.

George (Henry Goodman) is an award-winning journalist, still admired and successful even if the decline of print media is threatening him. His wife, Honor (Imogen Stubbs) is also a talented writer, but none of her works has been published for 20 years. The play begins with them appearing to be the perfect middle-aged, middle-class couple, married for 32 years and with a daughter, Sophie (Natalie Simpson) studying at Cambridge.

The arrival of aspiring 29-year-old writer, Claudia (Katie Brayben) changes everything. She inspires George and re-awakens his passion for living, lifting him out of the tired sameness of his routine, conventional existence. He professes that he still loves Honor, but it is love without passion; he loves her as a wife, but, at this stage in his life, he feels that he does not need a wife. Honor’s life is shattered, as she is effectively traded in for a newer model

The play is about Honor and honour. Murray-Smith finds heaps of sympathy for the deserted wife, but, more to the point, she also blames her for choosing to sacrifice her own career in order to take second place behind her husband. If the writer cannot bring it upon herself to exonerate the seemingly dishonourable George, she at least helps us to understand his behaviour. When Claudia challenges him to explain why “the heart” takes precedence over tenderness, justice, loyalty and history, she asks the question which is central to the play.

Goodman’s George is an egotistical unacknowledged misogynist, a silver fox who is circling his prey and prepared to abandon his den for her. However, Brayben’s cleverly-nuanced performance makes Claudia an ambitious and uncannily self-aware modern woman, to the point of being callous, and she quickly overturns perceptions of who is hunter and who is prey. The abandoned Honor is a sad and isolated figure, but Stubbs gives her enough steel to reinforce the writer’s advocacy of female independence.

Paul Robinson’s intelligent, superbly-acted production is staged in-the-round, with a couple of rows of seating positioned at what is normally the rear of the Park 200’s stage. Liz Cooke’s design uses only an arc of overhead lights and several moveable blocks, but emotional performances more than compensate for its sterility.  All the actors seem to know the extent to which their characters are ridiculous and this brings out the acerbic wit in Murray-Smith’s writing strongly. This revival shows Honour to be a very up-to-date 15-year-old play.

Performance date: 30 October 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writers and directors: Joel and Ethan Coen


Being one for whom Joel and Ethan Coen can do no wrong (okay I may be overlooking The Ladykillers), every new film from the Brothers seems to me like a major event, but The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, already a prize winner at the Venice International Film Festival, turns out to be a major, major event. 

An anthology of six short stories set during America’s pioneering days in the second half of the 19th Century, the film looks at first to be paying homage to the traditions of the Old West. However, on closer inspection, it is not doing that at all. It is paying homage, both highly critically and deeply cynically, to Old Hollywood and its classic Westerns of the ‘30s-‘50s, now largely consigned to the dustbin of political incorrectness, but still embedded firmly in American and world culture.

At times it feels as if the Brothers are acting as tour guides, leading us around every landscape and every studio set once trodden on by John Ford. All the clichés are here too: sharp-shooting cowboys, a gun dual, a lynch mob, whisky-drenched saloons, travelling entertainers, gold prospectors, a wagon train, a stage coach. All here but spiked with savage and unexpected twists. Here also are scenes, shocking to more enlightened modern audiences, of Native Americans portrayed as marauding Red Indian savages. If these scenes prove to be controversial, we have to ask how could the Coens have highlighted the massive injustices done to a noble race by the film industry without illustrating what those injustices were.

The film’s title is also that of its first segment, a riotously funny tale of a singing gun slinger (Tim Blake Nelson), a character in the mould of Roy Rogers or Gene Autry. It is followed by Near Algodones, also jokey, in which a bungling bank robber (James Franco) finds his nemesis. Now the film gets darker with Meal Ticket, a profoundly disturbing story, told in dimly-lit scenes, of a travelling impresario (Liam Neeson) and his limbless star attraction (Harry Melling), who recites pious tomes to dwindling saloon bar audiences. This segment is the stuff of nightmares.

All Gold Canyon is lighter and marked by glorious cinematography (Bruno Delbonnel), as a prospector (Tom Waits) searches painstakingly for gold and battles to protect his find. The cinematography is also stunning in The Gal Who Got Rattled, the story of a young woman (Zoe Kazan) who, along with her brother and his noisy Jack Russell terrier named President Pierce, joins a wagon train heading for an uncertain future in Oregon. This is the longest and most engaging segment incorporating action, romance and tragedy among the contradictory elements that once filled Western movies, accompanied by a lush orchestral score by Carter Burwell, in the style of Aaron Copland.

The film’s ending is as dark as its beginning is light. The Mortal Remains could be described as a journey through Purgatory to Hell. The passengers on a stage coach which has a dead body on its roof are a lady (Tyne Daly), an Irishman (Brendan Gleeson), and Englishman (Jonjo O’Neill), a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) and a trapper (Chelcie Ross). It is a doom-laden conversation piece that remains deliberately enigmatic.

Throughout the film, human life is a cheap commodity. The Western cinema genre, which forms a key part of America’s cultural heritage is laid bare and, as a consequence, all the arguments of politicians who eschew compassion in favour of greed and champion the right to bear arms are exposed as empty. It seems as if the Coens are posing the intriguing question of whether the ailments afflicting modern America are rooted in its history or in Hollywood, which proliferated and magnified flimsy myths and legends. With all this in mind, I am now leaving this site for a couple of weeks to visit the Deep South and Tame (?) West of the USA. Wish me luck!

Photo by Mark Douet

Writer and director: David Morton


The prime functions of theatre are said to be to entertain, educate and inform and David Morton’s production of The Wider Earth, first seen in Australia, makes a fairly good stab at ticking all three boxes. The fact that the Natural History Museum has created a space in its Darwin Centre especially for the show signals a solid seal of approval in the last two categories, but how does the show fare as entertainment?

The action covers the five-year period beginning in 1831, when the 22-year-old freshly graduated Charles Darwin sets sail as the naturalist on HMS Beagle to circumnavigate the globe. Acting as a sort of pre-television Sir David Attenborough, he reports back home on the exotic life that he encounters on distant shores. Turning to adventure in preference to a career in the clergy, Darwin asks “does the world really need another miserable priest?”, little knowing that the theories which he was to develop would make many more priests miserable by overturning teachings of the Old Testament.

Bradley Foster’s Darwin is so wholesome and unswervingly earnest that some may find him irritating, but Morton’s play has no room for baddies. Our hero’s girlfriend, Emma Wedgwood (Melissa Vaughan) is, we are told, instrumental in the movement to abolish slavery while the Beagle is away and even the creatures on display seem unnaturally friendly. We wonder where the fierce carnivores and venomous snakes might be hiding and kids who enjoy being scared are likely to be disappointed.

The opening scenes are unpromising, with stilted dialogue and wooden performances giving the flavour of a dull Jane Austen adaptation. However, when the voyage gets underway, butterflies start to flutter and birds start to soar, as the puppets of Morton’s Dead Puppets Society take over. Iguanas and giant turtles stride across the stage and the set, designed by Morton and Aaron Barton, revolves constantly, evolving into a rock to be clambered over and then a ship to sail through storms, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, as nature turns on itself.

Effects are created by projections, designed by Justin Harrison, and lighting, designed by Lee Curran. We see shoals of fish, large and small, swimming and cinema-style music composed by Lior and Tony Buchen, adds drama to the land and sea images. Both the magnificence of the natural world and the thrill of discovery are captured perfectly.

In spoken scenes, the production remains pedestrian. The characters of the Beagle’s Captain,  Robert Fitzroy (Jack Parry-Jones), his second in command, John Wickham (Matt Tait), a slave taken on board, Jemmy (Marcello Cruz), Darwin’s father, Robert (Ian Houghton) and his mentor, Reverend John Henslow (Andrew Bridgmont) are all sturdy but under-developed. The play’s emphasis is always on simplistic storytelling, but Morton finds time to incorporate debates on the abomination of slavery and on the theological implications of the ideas, still at an embryonic stage, which Darwin is forming.

Aimed very clearly at younger audiences, Morton’s show is technically ingenious. It succeeds in its aim to stimulate interest in the natural world and, in so doing, it should also light up enthusiasm for the magic of live theatre. If a production is as stirring as this visually, we need to forgive it for the times when it feels a little stale dramatically.

Performance date: 11 October 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Mythic (Charing Cross Theatre)

Posted: October 9, 2018 in Theatre

Book and lyrics: Marcus Stevens      Music: Oran Eldor      Director and choreographer: Sarah O’Gleby


The good news is that, when the time comes around for looking back on the year, Mythic is unlikely to be named as the worst new musical to hit London in 2018. The bad news is that there are many times during its 90 minutes that it feels like a pretty close runner-up. Interpreting classic mythology in the style of an American High School musical, the show moves very awkwardly between Greece and Grease and only the high-spirited, tongue-in-cheek production that it gets here saves it from immediate consignment to the Underworld.

Persephone is a rebellious teenager, eager to escape the clutches of her over-protective mother, Demeter, a goddess who has incurred the displeasure of King of the Gods, Zeus. Forbidden to attend a rave party at the Acropolis in the company of Zeus’ daughter, Aphrodite, Persephone goes anyway and falls for ne-er-do-well dude, Hades. “Do you know where I can call a chariot” she asks and, then, when she should be telling her suitor to go to Hell, she realises that he lives there and she decides to follow him home.

Writer Marcus Steven relies on song lyrics to tell the story, using little spoken dialogue and he incorporates some quite clever jokes. The problem is that the whole show is so laughably preposterous that further jokes feel superfluous. Oran Eldor’s rock score, played by a six-piece band led by Music Director Chris Ma, is short on originality and the songs eventually start to feel repetitious and monotonous.

Georgie Westall’s Persephone, kitted out in a tartan miniskirt, is a bundle of energy, bringing sunshine to everywhere she goes, including Hell. “It doesn’t have to be like this” she tells Hades (Michael Mather with flame red hair and wearing Hell’s Angels gear), persuading him to suspend the torturing of innocent virgins for the day. Meanwhile, Demeter, played by Daniella Bowen, in an off-the-shoulder evening gown, as a lady with real balls, kills a cyclops in her quest to reclaim her lost daughter. Not bad for a woman in her “early thousands”.

Genevieve McCarthy’s Aphrodite is a spoiled little rich girl in a sparkling trouser suit and Tim Oxbrow’s Zeus resembles a small town American sheriff. They descend into Hell with Demeter but the show never quite descends into Greek tragedy, partly because of its short running time and partly because of director/choreographer Sarah O’Gleby’s work in making fun out of the nonsense, even when the material seems to be fighting against her.

A final thought could give encouragement to Stevens and Eldor. Stephen Sondheim sourced his 1974 flop musical The Frogs from ancient Greece and look what happened to him.

Performance date: 8 October 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: