Photo: Mathew Tsang

Writer and director:  Michel Laprise

Creative director: Chantal Tremblay

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High-flying. Death-defying. Jaw dropping. The clichés abound when describing the work of Cirque du Soleil, the French-Canadian entertainment group that was founded in 1984. This “circus of the sun” resumes its regular Winter visits to London with the European premiere of the new show, Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities.

The Royal Albert Hall is celebrating its 150th Birthday and it seems likely that many of the basic stunts seen in this show pre-date it. However, Cirque du Soleil is not about the basics, it is about presentation and packaging. As expected, the show is a visual extravaganza that revels in the enormous space (most specifically the height) made available. The show and the venue are matched perfectly to each other.

In Kurios… the flimsy premise is that a seeker opens their large curio cupboard to release the world’s hidden marvels and bring them to vibrant life. The curiosities that emerge stretch our imaginations to the limits, as directors Michel Laprise and Chantal Tremblay fill the stage and above it with dazzling colour and non-stop action. Original music complements the surreal images and the whole spectacle is seasoned with generous sprinklings of visual wit

So send in the clowns, the jugglers, the acrobats, the trapeze artists, the high wire walkers, the brave and the foolish. The invitation is to sit back in amazement, but don’t try any of it at home. Even PT Barnum might have conceded that this is the greatest show were it not for the absence of elephants, tigers, etc, none of which would be acceptable to modern audiences. Compensation is offered in an invisible circus comedy sequence, during which the deafening roar of an unseen lion echoes around the Hall.

On arrival, the audience is greeted by Stéphane Roy’s labyrinthine set and even given the opportunity to walk through it. There are enough zany, garish costumes, designed by Philippe Guillotel, to inspire several series of The Masked Singer. Performers are seen clambering up a tree of precariously balanced chairs towards the old building’s dome, falling as if from the sky and swinging out above the heads of the gaping audience. Arms and legs are in positions that they really have no right to be as precisely timed acrobatic choreography provides thrills galore.

The show has its climaxes, soaring (literally and otherwise) to the heights and is seldom grounded. Served up withe customary panache.  Kurios… may not have many surprises, but it is hard to think of any disappointments.

Performancece date: 18 January 2023

On the Ropes (Park Theatre)

Posted: January 11, 2023 in Theatre

Photo: Steve Gregson

Writers: Vernon Vanriel and Dougie Blaxland

Director: Anastasia Osei-Kuffour

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The Park 200 Theatre, named to reflect its seating capacity, is expanded to accommodate many more than that number for the World Premiere of On the Ropes. Zahra Mansouri’s design transforms the space to resemble a compact sports arena, with spectators sitting on all four sides of a Boxing ring. Actors and audience are both, almost literally, on the ropes.

The play, in part a musical, is autobiographical, written by its subject, Vernon Vanriel, in collaboration with Dougie Blaxland. The story is told in 12 “rounds” and the ring becomes a metaphor for a life full of challenges and confrontations, victories and defeats. Vernon had arrived in the United Kingdom from Jamaica, aged six, as part of the Windrush generation, settling in Tottenham. He fails academically, but drifts into the Boxing world, where he thrives.

The story traces Vernon’s career through the 1970s and 80s from turning professional in small clubs to topping the bill at the Royal Albert Hall. He acquires the nickname “The Entertainer”, due to his insistence on putting on a show for his followers and takes on Boxing’s establishment to secure fair ticket pricing for his bouts. After retirement, new opponents emerge for him, combatting mental illness, Cocaine addiction and a serious heart condition. All this and his biggest fight is still to come.

There is a lot packed into a crowded first half, perhaps too much for a single drama, but director Anastasia Osei-Kuffour’s high energy production dances as if to the beat of a Reggae tune, its relentless pace  leaving little time for reflection. It is buoyed by three superb performances, the trio being on stage continuously throughout: Mensah Bediako, ageing some 50 years, is a commanding figure as Vernon, with Ashley D Gayle and and Amber James playing all the key people in his life.

The dialogue, some of it in rhyming verse, is crisp and the drama reflects Vernon’s passion for music by incorporating several classic songs of black origin – some Soul and Gospel in style, but primarily Reggae. Yes these musical interludes impede the flow of the storytelling, but the quality of the performances negates any cause for complaint.

In later life, Vernon returns to Jamaica to visit his new-born sone and finds himself barred from re-entering the United Kingdom. He is caught up in the scandal of the Home Office’s treatment of Windrush generation immigrants. Stranded and suffering many years of extreme poverty and degradation, he is sustained only by the in-born spirit of a fighter. This part of the story is depicted powerfully, but it make up a more sombre second act in which much of the production’s earlier rhythm is lost and the drama begins to feel slightly overlong.

On the Ropes tells an important true story and wraps it in a parcel of rich entertainment. Maybe the show is not entirely a knockout, but it certainly packs a heavy punch.

Performance date: 10 January 2023

Salt-Water Moon (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: January 6, 2023 in Theatre

Writer: David French

Director: Peter Kavanagh

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Arriving a little too early for St Valentine’s Day, Canadian writer David French’s 75-minute play brings a scent of romance to the January air. We are told that the play has been performed regularly in North America and elsewhere since its first staging in 1984; perhaps this is due equally to its feel-good appeal and to the fact that, with just two actors and one simple set, it is extremely easy to put on anywhere at any time.

Surprisingly, the play is receiving its United Kingdom premiere here. The setting is a remote Newfoundland coastal village in 1926. The dark shadow of the First World War still hangs over the inhabitants as Jacob, a young man who had left for Toronto a year earlier, returns to be reunited with Mary, the sweetheart whom he had abandoned without saying proper goodbyes. In Jacob’s absence, Mary has become engaged to marry another man who can offer her security and stability.

Mim Houghton’s set design, a white bench and side table on grass against a backdrop of brightly shining stars, lends a dreamy feel to director Peter Kavanagh’s  captivating production. In this idyllic spot, the one-time lovers rake over the past and the play asks will they or won’t they reconcile their differences.

Joseph Potter’s Jacob has the impish charm to counter perfectly the slightly tarnished innocence of Bryony Miller’s Mary. Their exchanges bristle with romantic innuendo to suggest an undying chemistry between them. French’s dialogue also reveals some grimmer details of Newfoundland life in the 1920s and reminds us of the losses of Canadian families from the Great War in Europe.

Its social and historical observations are interesting, but, essentially, Salt-Water Moon is a fluffy romcom, albeit one that is a bit light on the comedy. Even though its journey and its destination throw up few surprises, the play still leaves much to enjoy along the way.

Performance date: 5 January 2023

Mandela (Young Vic)

Posted: December 10, 2022 in Theatre

Photo: Helen Murray

Music and lyrics: Greg Dean Borowsky and Shaun Borowsky

Book: Laiona Michelle

Director: Schele Williams

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Re-telling one of the most told stories in modern history, Mandela is a new musical based on the life of Nelson Mandela from the early 1960s until the completion of his long walk to freedom in 1990. It is a story of love and suffering, loss and triumph, seemingly the perfect basis for a dramatic musical.

The show’s biggest asset is its extraordinary central character and its biggest liability is over-familiarity with him. There is very little that Laiona Michelle’s book can add to what we already know: Mandela emerges  as the leader of the movement resisting South Africa’s abhorrent Apartheid system and serves 27 years in prison, during which time he become the focus of worldwide opposition to the system. Williams tells it straight, chronologically, with little colouring or humour, giving the musical a solid if unexciting foundation. 

A powerful performance by Michael Luwoye shows Mandela’s transformations from home loving family man to revolutionary leader, to oppressed prisoner and, finally, to statesman. However, saintly men do not necessarily provide a rich source for gripping drama and the show struggles to find interesting dimensions to Mandela’s character. Does the book dig beneath Mandela’s wholly virtuous image to look for some shades of darkness which contrast with the goodness? Of course not.

Potentially, the more interesting Mandela is Nelson’s wife Winnie, played superbly by Danielle Flamanya. Her journey from devoted stay-at-home mother to political leader standing in for her imprisoned husband is projected strongly, but, again, she becomes a character without flaws and the controversies which would later engulf her are skimmed over in just a couple of lines.

Director Scheme Williams’ production is slick and occasionally spectacular, making full use of the large open stage with a company of more than 20. Set designer Hannah Beachler keeps things simple, with a representation of the Mandela family home appearing at intervals, while costumes designed by Fay Fullerton bring vibrant colour to the stage, augmented by Jon Clark’s very effective lighting designs.

The show opens brilliantly with songs co-written by Greg Dean Borowsky and Shaun Borowsky, drawing from traditional African rhythms and harmonies. Marvellous dance routines, choreographed by Gregory Maqoma further establishes the African setting. Similar sequences return at times throughout the show, but, at other times, the music seems more inspired by Les Misérables, suggesting that Mandela’s suffering is being compared with that of the fictional Jean Valjean. This means that, for long spells, the unique African flavour of the production is lost.

When the show taps fully into the story’s African roots, it flourishes, but, when it drifts towards the style of conventional musical theatre, it flounders. In all it is a frustrating mix of the thrilling and the bland.

Performance date: 8 December 2022

Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Writer: Bernard Shaw

Director: Paul Miller

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It comes as no surprise that Paul Miller has chosen another Bernard Shaw comedy to mark the end of his tenure as Artistic Director of Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre. In recent year’s, Miller has done more than most to confound perceptions among some modern theatregoers that the Irish-born playwright’s brand of humour with a social conscience has gone past its sell-by date. First performed in 1894, Arms and the Man mocks warfare, class, wealth and romance with equal bite and this sparkling revival makes it all feel fresh and new.

The three-act play is set during a brief 1885 war between Bulgaria and Serbia, which has Austria and Russia meddling on the sidelines. Shaw eyes Central European politics with some prescience, bearing in mind what the 20th Century and beyond would bring. With her father and fiancé away fighting for Bulgaria, Raina, girlish and excitable as played by Rebecca Collingwood, is at home with her mother Catherine (Miranda Foster) and the household servants, when a dashing young soldier breaks in through her bedroom window. He is Bluntschli (Alex Waldmann), a Swiss mercenary fighting for the Serbs, who has a passion for chocolate creams.

Raina gives refuge to her “chocolate cream soldier” and, inevitably as this is a prototype romcom, she becomes captivated by his swashbuckling charm and falls for him. Peace breaks out, due, Shaw tells us, to the sheer incompetence of both armies, and Raina’s father, Major Petkoff (Jonathan Tafler) and her fiancé, Sergius (Alex Bhat), come home. Things begin to unravel, while, in a sub-plot which brings to the fore the hypocrisy of the class system, the relationship between the two servants, rebellious Louka (Kemi Awoderu) and obsequious Nicola (Jonah Russell) also shows strains.

Costumes and furnishings from designer Simon Daw give the in-the-round staging a delightful period feel. Overall, the casting is impeccable, but, in particular, as the love rivals, Bhat’s over-the-top buffoonery and Waldmann’s calm and collected rationality contrast beautifully. While Shaw’s wit highlights the ridiculousness of love and war, Miller’s consistently buoyant production boosts the laughs quota by paying meticulous attention to the detail in every line and by adding deft visual touches.

The first two acts are quite short, with the first of two intervals between them. Surely this disruption could have been avoided by moving furniture around quickly with the audience present. However, there are no quibbles about the longer third act, which turns into a riotous romp and rounds off this splendid re-discovery of a classic.

Performance date: 23 November 2022

Baghdaddy (Royal Court Theatre)

Posted: November 25, 2022 in Theatre

Photo: Helen Murray

Writer: Jasmine Naziha Jones

Director: Milli Bhatia

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The audience waiting for Baghdaddy to start is left to work out why British wartime songs would be relevant to a play that is ostensibly about Iraq. The lights go down as Flanagan and Allen’s Underneath the Arches plays loudly and we see an Iraqi man with his daughter in 1991, eating burgers on steps in front of giant golden arches; the images gel together perfectly. Ironically, Iraqis are seen absorbing western culture just as the owners of that culture are bombing their homeland into oblivion.

This clarity comes early in Jasmine Naziha Jones’ debut play, but, sadly, it is rarely equalled in the two hours or so that follow. In turns, the play becomes a comedy, a tragedy, a history lesson, a pantomime and, briefly, a musical, crying out for a solid structure to hold it all together. The writer’s decision to abandon conventional narrative forms is a bold one, but the result is a show that is often baffling.

The girl is Darlee, played by the writer herself, who is eight years old in 1991. Born in Britain, all she has known is British life and she has little patience with her Dad (Philip Arditti) who had moved to the United Kingdom as a student in 1980. His obsession with Iraqi history, culture and modern events is of little interest to Darlee. The play charts her growing awareness of the importance of blood ties in establishing self identity.

Souad Faress, Hayat Kamille and Noof Ousellam make up the company to five as we are presented with a surreal montage of life in Britain and Iraq, seen through Darlee’s eyes. At this point, the play is at its strongest when it hits the level of pantomime, but a sequence going back to Dad’s arrival in Britain becomes a comedy of culture clashes to which the audience responds with gales of laughter. The new arrival grapples with strange food and language barriers, wondering if a newsagent is in a similar profession to that of 007. With reports of the Iran/Iraq War flowing daily, Dad’s concerns for the family from which he is separated never diminish.

Designer Moi Tran’s imposing set, stone steps leading up to more arches which reflects classic Middle Eastern architecture, give director Milli Bhatia’s production a grandeur which may not be best suited to a play that is more often intimate than epic.

The second act fast forwards to 2003 when Darlee is a young woman and Iraq is under bombardment yet again. The comedy which had redeemed much of what went before is now missing. Eventually, Darlee turns to address the audience directly and, for the first time, the play becomes overtly political. The speech comes across as a long, stern lecture and it suggests that the writer could have run out of options for expressing her ideas in the form of drama

Following on, Dad is left alone on an empty stage to render his own soliloquy, this one in rhyming verse. Beautifully written and spoken though this passage is, it further exemplifies the stylistic muddle which bedevils the entire play.

Performance date: 24 November 2022

Writer and director: Eliana

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A hit at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Eliana Ostro’s 70-minute one act comedy is revived as half of the first of the Park Theatre’s Make Mine a Double offerings, comprising new(ish), short(ish) plays. It explores the absurdities of 21st Century dating and the obstacles which lie in the way to achieving emotional fulfilment. 

Fluorescent lighting surrounds the studio space and loud dance music plays. We enter a pulsating, youthful venue where we meet W (Annie Davison) and M (Rufus Love), both out clubbing with their mates. Each has been dumped recently by partners and their self confidence is low, but both spring to life to The Killers’ Mr Brightside and their frantic dancing brings them to the notice of each other.

What follows is completely predictable, but Ostro introduces the clever device of allowing the characters to speak not only to each other, but also to the audience directly. Amusingly, their inept chat-up lines are often the exact opposite of what they truly think or what they mean to say. The writer exposes the falsehoods underlying modern mating rituals ruthlessly, laying bare the common insecurities and genuine aspirations of 20-something singles.

Davison and Love synchronise their performances beautifully, injecting pace and energy into a familiar story. Peer pressure is a key factor distorting the natural development of the couple’s relationship and the writer brings in many (perhaps too many) other characters, all played by the same two actors, to demonstrate this

This revival feels slightly overlong, occasionally getting diverted off course by more secondary characters than the play’s structure is designed to carry. Otherwise, this is a breezy, lightweight romp in which  the laughs flow freely and the comedy rarely misses a beat.

Performance date: 16 November 2022

Photo: Danny Kaan

Writer: Deli Segal

Director: Kayla Feldman

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A “welcome home” atmosphere is prevalent at the Park Theatre before Pickle get underway. Deli Segal’s hour-long one woman show had a successful run here in the Spring of 2022 and it now returns like an old friend to form half of a double bill with the umbrella title Make Mine a Double.

Segal plays Ari, a 30-year-old single Jewish woman who still lives in Finchley with her parents. The play is a natural magnet for members of North London’s Jewish communities. Others might benefit from a glossary of terms before getting fully to grips with it, but its core theme of embracing modern life while feeling held back by family, faith and heritage should resonate widely.

Ari works as a journalist, mingling with work colleagues and old school friends, all of whom express surprise on discovering that she is Jewish. She dates gentile men, while her family tries to set her up with “a nice Jewish boy”. Ari comes across as something between passive and aggressive, more exasperated than angry. She mocks with gentle humour both the conflicting forces in her life, listening to an admonishing voice in her head whenever she strays too far from her roots.

The character’s struggles to reconcile the two worlds which she straddles form the basis of this amiable comedy, performed with confidence by its writer. Under the direction of Kayla Feldman, Segal’s bounce and timing gives the play the feel of a slick stand-up routine. She begins with a witty whinge about the drawbacks of her character’s cultural roots and ends with a sweet and tangy celebration of belonging and being different.

Performance date: 16 November 2022

Blackout Songs (Hampstead Theatre)

Posted: November 12, 2022 in Theatre

Photo: Robert Day

Writer: Joe White

Director: Guy Jones

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A young woman announces that she lives by two rules: “stay single and drink doubles”. She encapsulating key themes of Blackout Songs, Joe White’s devastating study of love and alcoholism. The woman, known simply as “Her”, bumps into “Him” at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and the play then tracks the rollercoaster ride of their relationship.

Wright enters the heads of his characters as they engage with each other and with the distorting force of alcohol. He takes us into a misty world of momentary bliss and faulty memory, where reality makes occasional appearances as if a grim intruder. The two people connect emotionally, drift apart, meet again having half forgotten previous encounters, reconnect and so on. It is a stuttering relationship of growing affection and mutual dependancy, matched by the couple’s joint on-off reliance on  the demon drink.

He is an aspiring artist and she shows potential as a poet. The play  pulls no punches in making clear that heavy drinking leads to despair and destruction, but it also understands that it can bring temporary joy, a refuge from life’s troubles and a stimulus to artistic talents. The writer uses insight and wit to find the characters’ inner turmoil as they embrace and then repel each other, while battling to come to terms with  the lure of the bottle.

An intense two-hander such as this can only succeed if the level of the acting rises to the level of the writing. Bravely, Alex Austin and Rebecca Humphries dispense with the stereotypical outward signs of drunkenness; there is no slurred speech and no staggered walking, which could have provided cheap laughs, but would also have drawn attention away from the play’s focus on the characters’ inner experiences and emotions.

Austin resembles Rodney in Only Fools and Horses, a bemused innocent navigating his way through a dangerous terrain. Humphries exudes the false confidence of a woman who has been drinking heavily from the age of 12, hanging around male dominated bars. Together, their chemistry is spellbinding and the physicality of their performances adds a visceral dimension to White’s razor sharp dialogue.

The large, square stage is used to exciting effect in director Guy Jones’ highly animated yet still intimate production. At the end, a Champagne toast to the whole creative team feels appropriate. Well, maybe not.

Performance date: 11 November 2022.

Noor (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: November 10, 2022 in Theatre

Photo: Ikin Yum

Writer: Azma Dar

Director: Poonam Brah

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The return of war to modern day Europe adds a chilling dimension to Azma Dar’s new play, which gives an account of living in a city that is occupied by enemy forces. Set during World War II, the play tells the true story of the heroism and sacrifice of a young woman who was later to be awarded the George Cross.

Noor Inayat Khan, in her late 20s at the start of the War, is of Indian/American parentage. She was born in Moscow and grew up mostly near Paris. Having joined the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, she is recruited in 1943 to join the Special Operations Executive. In peacetime, she was a writer of children’s books, but, notwithstanding her relative inexperience, she is sent on a highly dangerous mission to work as a radio operator in Paris, sending back vital information about German activities.

Noor’s vulnerability and selfless determination are brought out beautifully in Annice Boparai’s compelling performance. Her story is framed by the post-war interrogation of German officer Kieffer by Noor’s senior officer Vera Atkins, who, we are told, is of Hungarian Jewish descent. The complexities of nationalities and loyalties are emphasised by the writer. As Kieffer, Chris Porter manages to avoid most of the clichés associated with such characters and make him seem almost human, while Caroline Faber shows all sides of the ruthless, compassionate and slightly ambiguous Atkins.

Laurence Saunders and Ellie Turner appear as characters encountered by Noor in Paris, where she has just a few minutes to transmit messages before radio signal are detected and traced back by the Germans. At first glance, the play should be, in part at least, a gripping suspense thriller, but Dar’s decision to frame the narrative as she does reveals the story’s outcome at the beginning, thereby lessening the suspense and robbing scenes of potential thrills.

Director Poonam Brah sets her production on a long traverse stage, but makes little effective use of it. When characters converse from opposite ends, the visual experience for the audience is comparable to that of watching a tennis match, but, more significantly, the staging does nothing to inject tension into the drama.

The writer packs the play with detail, not all of it wholly relevant to the core story, but she achieves the worthy objective of generating wider awareness of an important contribution to the allies’ war effort. However, the story’s potential for forming the basis of an exciting work of theatre is not fully realised.

Performance date: 9 November 2022