The Weatherman (Park Theatre)

Posted: August 23, 2019 in Uncategorized

Writer: Eugene O’Hare      Director: Alice Hamilton

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

My review can currently be seen at: http://www.thereviewshub.com/the-weatherman-park-theatre-london/ and will appear here from 26 August.

Performance date: 21 August 2019

Book and lyrics: Lynn Ahrens      Music: Stephen Flaherty      Director and choreographer: Lee Proud

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Continuing The British Theatre Academy’s 2019 Summer Season, Once On This Island is a revival of a short musical which was seen on Broadway in 1990 and in the West End in 1994, the latter production winning the Olivier Award for Best New Musical.

The show is based on My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl, a 1985 novel by Rosa Guy, telling a mystical tale that has strong echoes of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. The story is infused with the flavour of its Caribbean island setting, with local superstitions and folklore intervening along the way.

A little girl, Ti Moune (Kassidy Taylor at this performance), is orphaned in a storm and adopted by the peasants Euralie (Marie-Anna Caufour) and Tonton (Andre Beswick).

Having grown up, Ti Moune is played by Chrissie Bhima, who gives a terrific star performance. It is now her turn to become a rescuer and, when she finds the young upper class Frenchman, Daniel (Sam Tutty), injured in a car crash, she nurses him back to health. After his family has reclaimed Daniel, Ti Moune pursues him across mountains to the far side of the island only to find man-made barriers standing in her way. The social divisions in the story are about class and director Lee Proud takes care to make sure that they are not seen to be about race.

Proud, a vastly experienced choreographer, packs the traverse stage with movement and colour, sometimes using the entire company of 19. Atmospheric lighting, designed by Andrew Exeter, and Simon Wells’ flamboyant costumes help to transport us to a tropical paradise and the overflowing exuberance of the performers does the rest. The show is virtually sung through, Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics telling the story concisely and clearly. Stephen Flaherty’s easy listening, melodic score combines calypso influenced numbers with power ballads, all sung and played beautifully under the musical direction of Chris Ma.

Running at around 85 minutes without an interval, the show is just short enough to ensure that it runs out of neither story not musical variety, not to mention energy. It brings a brief splash of tropical sunshine into our lives.

Performance date: 14 August 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

River in the Sky (Hope Theatre)

Posted: August 12, 2019 in Theatre

Writer and director: Peter Taylor

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Peter Taylor’s riveting 70-minute one-act play, River in the Sky, was seen briefly at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre in London just a few months ago. Its quick return for a longer run here is richly deserved.

Taylor explores how a couple, both devastated by the loss of their child, find ways to come to terms with their grief by creating worlds of wild fantasy. We first meet Ellie (Lindsey Cross) and Jack (Howard Horner) when they are planning the size of their family, settling on the number one. We then learn that, after an earlier miscarriage, their one child has died in infancy. Immediately after the funeral, Ellie disappears to a dilapidated caravan on a rugged coast, seeing no one, apart from visits by Jack to bring her supplies of Earl Grey tea and custard creams.

We know that Ellie is a writer, but, otherwise, Taylor gives us only scant back stories for the couple, leaving it to his capable actors to flesh out the characters. There is little to distract from the assured writing and the acting in Taylor’s in-the-round staging and deliberately understated performances from Cross and Horner convey the depth of individual and joint suffering. Ellie and Jack find their own way of coping, embarking on flights of Game of Thrones style fantasy to divert their minds from reality and give themselves time to heal. 

Ferocious monsters, flying cars, roaring winds and turbulent seas feature in the stories which Ellie and Jack relate to themselves, each other and their dead child. They become the heroes, saving their limbs from the jaws of hungry carnivores and slaying dragons, as they act out their brave deeds. The tales feel less like metaphors for the cruelty of real life than examples of the wild fantasy worlds in which we all may seek refuge when life becomes too hard to bear.

The play has progression, taking the couple on a journey from deep depression, alienation and attribution of blame to a common understanding which shines a beacon of hope. The journey is marked out by subtle changes in writing style and performances which suggest the potency of fantasy as a cathartic force. The couple’s method of dealing with grief may not necessarily find approval from psychologists, but we feel that it gives them the strength to move on.

Performance date: 8 August 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Writer: JM Barrie      Director: Sally Cookson

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Say it quietly but London theatre seems to be booming. 2019 has seen a string of brand new venues announced, which include two Troubadours – this one at White City houses separate 1,200-seat and 800-seat spaces, while a sister theatre at Wembley Park is a single 2,000-seater. These are ambitious projects, but, to launch them, tried and tested family shows that bear the brand of the National Theatre (War Horse will be at Wembley Park) look like solid choices.

Sally Cookson’s revival of Peter Pan, a co-production with Bristol Old Vic, was seen at the National’s Olivier Theatre over the 2016/17 Christmas season. The larger space here is purely functional, with none of the ornate decor associated with the West End, but the awfully big adventures of the boy who refuses to grow up bring all the glitter that is needed.

It is often forgotten that, before the pantos, the ice shows, the films and the book, Peter Pan was a play, written by JM Barrie in 1904 for the theatre. Cookson takes extravagant  licence with the original and in twisting common interpretations. Until quite recently, the eponymous hero would have been played by an actor who is female and petite, but John Pfumojena’s hyperactive Peter is neither. Similarly, Captain Hook would have been male and bewhiskered, but, clearly, Kelly Price, attired in a frilly purple skirt, is also neither. And then there is Shiv Rabheru’s craggy, crabby Tinkerbell, an anti-fairy if ever one existed. 

It takes time for the show to take flight. The opening scene is made even duller than usual, played out in front of a dark curtain. Mr and Mrs Darling head off for a night on the town and, dismissing worries about what might fly in (or out of) the bedroom window, they tuck in their offspring. Would the pre-teen children of an affluent Edwardian household really have slept three in a double bed? Daisy Maywood is a delightful tomboyish Wendy who leads her younger brothers (Ammar Duffus and Alistair Toovey) through the window and on to Neverland in pursuit of Peter.

Once the curtain drops to reveal Michael Vale’s bright, open design, the new theatre also shows its colours, facilitating Peter’s flight to the very back of the expansive auditorium. Neverland appears like a cross between a ‘60s hippy commune and a scene from The Rocky Horror Show. Amid all the frolics, Cookson makes no attempt to suppress the darker themes that swim beneath the surface of Barrie’s writing like the huge crocodile that is realised here by Toby Olié’s puppetry. Price makes Hook a truly tormented soul and she doubles as the warm matriarch of the Darling family, adding a fresh layer to the Freudian subtexts.

One drawback with Cookson’s non-stop avalanche of inventiveness is that it tends to create diversions that obscure the main thrust of the narrative. Most adults know the story inside out, but some children at the press performance seemed to have problems figuring out what was going on. However, thrilling action, swashbuckling fights and breathtaking flights prove irresistible and Benji Bower’s excellent score, played by a rock band, turns the second half into a near-musical.

The ageless appeal of Peter Pan relies not only on fantasy and spectacle, which this production delivers in abundance, but also on the manner in which the story connects with common experience. Cookson’s eccentric revival never loses sight of Barrie’s affirmation that real life, even though it includes growing old, must be better than Neverland.

Performance date: 27 July 2019

Photo: Steve Tanner

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Devisor: Phil Young      Director: PJ Stanley

⭐️⭐️

Phil Young, a one-time associate of Mike Leigh, devised the short play Crystal Clear in 1982 using improvisation techniques. It is hard to see why White Deer Theatre has opted to to revive such a stilted piece now, although not seeing is what it is all about.

The Old Red Lion Theatre has a cosier than usual feel, carpeted and with cushioned seating along all four walls. The whole play takes place in the cluttered flat of Richard (Gareth Kennerley), a picture dealer who is blind in one eye and suffers from type one diabetes. However, Richard’s luck at the beginning of the play is not all bad, as he has not one, but two girlfriends. 

The first to appear is Thomasina (Gillian Dean, whose own sight is severely impaired), a blind woman who needs to be guided around the flat to avoid tripping over the futon and various items, such as a tool box and Richard’s underpants, lying around on the floor. Voices of actors are heard describing movement on behalf of the visually impaired and this gives PJ Stanley’s production an air of worthiness, drawing good will from an audience which roots for the play to become better. It never does so.

Girlfriend number two is the belligerent Jane (Rakhee Sharma) who demands more of Richard’s time and gets furious when she finds an open copy of Penthouse lying around the flat. Suddenly, Richard is struck completely blind while bidding for a painting, causing his life and both relationships to go on a downward spiral. How will he remember where in his flat he has left his cigarettes or how much Scotch is left in the bottle?

In telling us what it is like to lose one’s sight, the play goes no further than stating the obvious and its conclusions are desperately depressing. The production has the forethought to provide an audio commentary for the benefit of the visually impaired, but maybe they would have appreciated notes of optimism and positivity in the play far more.

The actors, most notably Kennerley, perform their roles with intensity, but, repeatedly, they are defeated by some truly dreadful dialogue. Ultimately, it has to be acknowledged that it is not enough for a production to have worthy intentions if the play that it showcases is as dull and lacking credibility as this.

Performance date: 25 July 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Blues in the Night (Kiln Theatre)

Posted: July 27, 2019 in Theatre

Creator and original director: Sheldon Epps      Director: Susie McKenna

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Not seen in London for 30 years, Sheldon Epps’ anthology of a couple of dozen or so blues songs, some very familiar, many not, gets a sizzling makeover that should lead to someone penning “The Why So Long? Blues”. Denied any running narrative and given only vaguely drawn characters, this revival relies for its success on its sense of time and place, four stellar leading performances and the enduring appeal of songs by Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer and others.

The setting is a run-down New Orleans hotel, the rooms of which inspire Four Walls (and One Dirty Window) Blues. The Lady (Sharon D Clarke) runs the joint, showing maternal devotion to guests, The Woman (Debbie Kurup) and The Girl (Gemma Sutton), but disdain towards The Man (Clive Rowe). The Lady sits in her square room, puffing on cigarettes, while the two females sit in their rooms, also marked as squares, on the opposite side of the stage. There is a feeling of isolation, but also of community.

Robert Jones’ set design makes full use of the Kiln’s deep stage, scattering it with art deco lamps, and Neil Austin’s wonderfully evocative lighting transports us to a place where free-flowing Bourbon can drown an abundance of sorrows. In the hotel lobby, musical director Mark Dickman’s five piece band, plays virtually non-stop. There is no time for spoken words when there are blues to be sung.

“I ain’t gettin’ older, I’m gettin’ better” Clarke declares, hearing no dissent from the audience. The 2019 Olivier Award winner for Caroline, or Change is fitting in this production between Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic and its West End Transfer. Does this phenomenally talented performer ever take a holiday? Hopefully not!

The great skill in Epps’ creation, realised beautifully in Susie McKenna’s revival, is seen in how a compilation of songs about heartbreak, abandonment, loneliness, despair and so on is turned into a feel good entertainment. As performed here, the songs are laments only in part; more importantly, they become celebrations of the resilience of the human spirit. Injections of comedy also contribute greatly, as typified by the lighthearted bickering between The Lady and The Man. As one of Rowe’s ovations is dying down, Clarke growls “I can’t stand it!” adding resentfully “but he sure can sing”.

Running through August, Blues in the Night guarantees a scorching Summer for this part of north west London. The word “blues” has something to do with depression, a condition for which this joyous show is the perfect antidote.

Performance date: 24 July 2019

Photo: Matt Humphrey

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Games for Lovers (The Vaults)

Posted: July 19, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Ryan Craig       Director: Anthony Banks

⭐️⭐️💫

Poking fun at the mating rituals of the British is an age old pursuit, picked up on by Ryan Craig in this new comedy, which, if nothing else, demonstrates that very little changes over the years. The play devotes itself more to re-working familiar situations than to finding modern perspectives and, coming from a writer who has an impressive record of recent successes, it proves to be a disappointment.

Designer Simon Scullion decorates the traverse stage with geometric shapes in garish colours, giving Anthony Banks’ production a jazzy feel, but not altogether a modern one. We enter a world where twenty somethings make passing references to Tinder and the like, but where snappy chat-up lines at the bar are a great deal more prevalent than anything on Snapchat. Could this be this be 2019 or, perhaps, 1979?

The self-proclaimed master of chat-up techniques is inept Lothario, Darren (aka “Juan”), played with a jaunty swagger by Billy Postlethwaite. He is a dating dinosaur, the sort of man who, 40 years ago, would have been wearing medallions on chains around his neck. Darren sublets a room in his flat to the timid Martha (Evanna Lynch), who is infatuated with a doctor at the hospital where she works. Only rating her a six-and-a-half, Darren takes her in, calculating that her presence in his home will prove less tempting to him than an eight or a nine.

Martha’s friend from school days is PE teacher Logan (Calum Callaghan), who also happens to be friends with Darren and a student of his in the art of chat-up. Logan’s new girlfriend, Jenny (Tessie Orange-Turner) is a website designer with a tendency to get too close to her clients. She is the most modern of the four characters. Her relationship with Logan is threatened by an unsatisfactory love life, which leads to role-playing in which she becomes a Belarusian whore.

At its best, Banks’ production has energy and a dash of wit and, at its worst, it has neither. There is a very slight narrative thread running through, but the show plays out like a series of independent, short comedy sketches of varying quality and what emerges is a quartet of thinly-drawn characters who are going through the motions of coupling for no better reason than it is what they believe they are supposed to do. Romance and emotional connections play virtually no part.

Predictable though it is, much of what goes on is mildly amusing, but the play’s overriding problem is that too little of what is has to say is new.

Performance date: 17 July 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com