Arabian Nights (Hoxton Hall)

Posted: September 20, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Nessah Muthy      Director: Daniel Winder

⭐️⭐️⭐️

My review can currently be seen at: http://www.thereviewshub.com/arabian-nights-hoxton-hall-london/ and will appear here from 23 September.

Performance date: 19 September 2018

Photograph: Ali Wright

Foxfinder (Ambassadors Theatre)

Posted: September 15, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Dawn King      Director: Rachel O’Riordan

⭐️⭐️⭐️

It is a bit like old times at the Ambassadors Theatre, the original home of The Mousetrap. Dawn King’s play, first seen at the tiny Finborough Theatre in 2011, is a creepy thriller set in an isolated part of rural England, where any knock on the door carries a threat.

This is one of the West End’s cosiest venues, but the audience can only look into the remote farmhouse set from the outside, rather than sit inside it, as at the Chelsea pub theatre. This matters, because, having established its premise, the play has very little plot and relies on atmosphere and suggested menace to build its tension. Gary McCann’s gloomy, imposing set, beautifully lit by Paul Anderson, does an excellent job to compensate. Stone stairs stretch up to the full height of the stage and a barren landscape forms an eerie backdrop.

The action takes place in a dystopian future when there is urban food rationing and England relies solely on home-grown produce. After a a no-deal Brexit perhaps? Even the weather has taken a turn for the worse and an authoritarian government keeps order and spreads fear by issuing propaganda about the dangers posed by foxes to communities and food production. In 2011, the term “fake news” had not come into common usage, so King’s themes now look rather prescient.

The mysterious death of a young son and a cat gone missing lead to suspicions that there could be foxes on the farm run by Samuel and Judith. This leads to the arrival of a government foxfinder William, a 19-year-old who had been raised in a state institution and who, it transpires, has a liking for self-flagellation. King throws us these interesting tit-bits of information about William, but she does not complete the jigsaw and misses out on opportunities to explore the psychology that underlies her story.

As William, Iwan Rheon strikes a good balance between a figure of authority and a confused boy, not allowing himself to challenge government policy, but increasingly doubting its validity. Paul Nicholls’ Samuel is a grief-stricken dad who turns into a fervent supporter of the anti-fox campaign as if he sees it as a means to release him from his pain. Heida Reed’s Judith is more rational, intent on keeping the farm, but quietly questioning the government line, encouraged by pro-fox neighbour Sarah (Bryony Hannah).

King’s writing is high on overt symbolism, but low on humour and thrills. There is neither enough depth nor warmth to any of the characters, which leads to Rachel O’Riordan’s taut production often feeling more chilly than chilling. As a political parable, the play makes its point, but, as a suspense thriller, it does not really go anywhere. Agatha Christie would never have allowed audiences to leave the Ambassadors before giving them a cracking dénouement.

Performance date: 14 September 2019

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

Misty (Trafalgar Studios)

Posted: September 14, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Arinzé Kene      Director: Omar Elerian

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Arinzé Kene’s 2017 play good dog established the writer as an astute commentator on modern urban tensions, with his narrator positioned on a balcony above a busy street, observing the comings and goings beneath him. Here, the writer gets down and dirty, rummaging around working class London as if to search for its soul. Kene himself plays the pivotal character who is a playwright named Arinzé Kene.

The production is transferring from the Bush Theatre into a West End more used to drawing room comedies and fantasy musicals and, probably, it never seen anything quite like it before. It is not so much that Kene thinks outside the box, more that he refuses to acknowledge that any box exists. It is part play in monologue form and part cabaret, featuring music, poetry, physical comedy and so on. Occasions when the show threatens to descend into anarchy or even grind to a halt simply add to the essential rawness of it all.

A dichotomy forms, showing us Kene the writer with a mission to represent life and Kene the man trying to live it. The former strives to create something real, but detractors accuse him of selling out by writing “a n****r play” or “urban safari drama s**t”. Pitching ideas to agents, he comes up against the remnants of racism that linger on in the liberal arts establishment.

Kene the man meets aggression on a night bus, copes with everyday relationship issues and gets chased by police, the latter story being related to hilarious effect with a brilliantly executed punchline. Omar Elerian’s production moves with the rhythms of Kene’s writing, expanding it with projected city images. Shiloh Coke and Adrian McLeod provide musical backing. 

Passionate and compassionate, vulnerable and aggressive, humorous and sorrowful, Kene’s moods and the tempo of his delivery change in an instant. A part-spoken torch song which builds into a tormented lament, could be followed by an angry diatribe, with Kene, metaphorically and literally, pumping up the balloon until it explodes.

Kene has the leading role, but London itself warrants equal billing. Repeatedly, it is described as a city creature, with transport routes being its veins and arteries, blood cells its people and viruses its attackers. The most significant virus is seen as gentrification or “modern day colonisation” which drives working people from the city and leaves Kene unable to get a simple cup of tea or coffee. His argument is not new, but his fervour and acerbic wit give it fresh strength.

The show is a rag bag of ideas and theatre forms which should never work but somehow does and, at around two hours (including interval) it feels too short, There are no pigeon holes into which Misty would slot, no single words or phrases that can describe it. Kene could be a force for greater understanding or a force for change, but let’s just settle for calling him a force of nature.

Performance date: 13 September 2018

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

Book, music and lyrics: Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe      Director: Andy Fickman

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

When Veronica, the 17-year-old heroine of Heathers The Musical, gets trapped in a cow field, confronted by two threatening thugs, we feel inclined to ask why she does not pick up her mobile ‘phone. But this is 1989 and we quickly realise that curses can also be blessings. At least Veronica’s school life of intolerable peer pressure and savage bullying is not being made infinitely worse by social media.

Technology aside, nothing much in school life seems to have changed in the near 30 years since the release of Heathers, the cult hit film on which this musical is based. At Westerburg High School (“home of the Rottweilers”) in deepest Ohio, good-hearted Veronica is taunted, by the three “popular” girls, all named Heather. She decides at first to ingratiate herself with their clique, but, when a new kid, brooding, damaged Jason “JD” Dean, arrives, he becomes her boyfriend and they combine to adopt a different approach. They poison the principal Heather, making it look like suicide, and embark on a killing spree to take out the other school bullies.

The show, first seen in New York, is an audacious cross between Grease and Arsenic and Old Lace, making the audience root for the killers against the bad guys, their tormentors. As in all the best black comedies, there are long spells which leave little room for raising moral questions. The fact that Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe are credited jointly with the book, music and lyrics signals a unity of purpose in the show’s creation which is confirmed when the elements are seen to knit closely together, the song lyrics propelling the story and the music underpinning it all. Andy Fickman’s inventive, fast-paced direction and Gary Lloyd’s fun-filled choreography complement their work perfectly.

Most of the actors playing the school kids may have only distant memories of being 17, but we must pass over that, because this superb company is bursting with raw energy. Carrie Hope Fletcher is dynamite as Veronica and Jamie Muscato, both romantic and sinister as JD, matches her all the way as he transforms from sociopath into psychopath. The three Heathers (Jodie Steele, T’Shan Williams and Sophie Isaacs) are as malevolent as anything in Macbeth, with their All-American male equivalents (Christopher Chung and Dominic Andersen) imposing a reign of terror and looking splendid in their matching underpants.

David Shields’ split-level set design is simple enough, but his costumes brighten up the show, made even more garish by Ben Cracknell’s lighting. Everything needs to be in the worst possible taste, including the big song and dance sequences, which are built around, for example, the reading of a suicide note and an attempted gang rape. As the show becomes more and more outrageous, it becomes more and more inspired and the interval arrives with the audience yelling for more.

The second half begins in a similarly irreverent vein with a bereaved dad (Jon Boydon) defying homophobic jibes and belting out I Love My Dead Gay Son! in the style of a Baptist preacher, supported by a rousing gospel choir. However, soon after this, the show starts to back-pedal and the bubble around the story’s warped vision bursts, punctured by conventional morality. Now JD becomes recognisable as the type of gun-wielding menace that has, in reality, plagued American communities for decades. Once such thoughts have been allowed to enter our heads, what  had been a delicious black comedy edges towards insensitivity and the still lively musical numbers feel like sugar coating for a cyanide pill.

Loss of nerve in the final quarter is, of course, a flaw inherited from the show’s source material, but this does not need to detract too much from the deadly delight of what has gone before. With several shows scheduled for closure, the West End currently needs a new smash hit musical and this could well be it.

Performance date: 10 September 2018

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

Wasted (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: September 13, 2018 in Theatre

Music: Christopher Ash      Book and lyrics: Carl Miller      Director: Adam Lenson

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

If the gentle sounds of Chopin would fit well with the novels of Jane Austen, what would suit the Brontés? Iron Maiden? The proposition is carried forward in this new musical, telling the story the Bronté siblings and setting it to a pulsating rock score which reflects the harshness of life in Victorian Yorkshire, struggles against poverty and disease and an unforgiving moorland backdrop.

There is already an established link between the Brontés and the rock world and Siobhan Athwal’s appearance playing Emily, with wild dark hair and eccentric movements, makes a reference to it that seems unlikely to be coincidental. 40 Years ago, when Kate Bush was recording Wuthering Heights, a show like this might have been developed as a concept album and, now in 2018, we could have been seeing a concert performance of that album. Perhaps director Adam Lenson had this thought in mind for his staging, the four performers, dressed in drab period costumes, all using hand-held microphones on a wooden platform with the audience on three sides of them and a four-piece band on the fourth.

Natasha Barnes gives a powerhouse performance as the gritty Charlotte, last survivor of the siblings and narrator of the story. “F*** off, I’m writing Jane Eyre” she yells at Anne, signalling her determination to succeed as a writer. Yet even she is forced to marry a lowly curate, the very thing that she would not allow the heroine of her most famous novel to do. Athwal’s Emily is a brooding, tormented genius who insists “no one must know that Emily Bronté writes anything”. Molly Lynch’s Anne is quieter and more sensible, fretting over the impossibility of finding a husband and thereby escaping the family’s parsonage home in the town of Hawarth. Their father, curate Patrick Bronté is not seen in the show.

There is comedy and pathos in Matthew Jacobs Morgan’s portrayal of Branwell, the only brother. A failure as an artist, unable to hold down a job, a drunkard and a womaniser, he has sad delusions of grandeur, likening himself to Napoleon. “Branwell Bronté had sisters; who would have known?” he proclaims, seeming to recognise the irony in the words as soon as he speaks them.

Carl Miller’s book and lyrics are more concerned with establishing and developing characters than with driving forward a strong central narrative and each song becomes the heart of an episode in the story. Christopher Ash’s throbbing hard and soft rock score demands a second hearing (bring on that concept album) and, even if some of the singing is uneven, Joe Bunker’s band does full justice to the music, with himself on keyboards, Kat Bax on bass, , Nathan Gregory on drums and Isabel Torres on guitars.

As was common in the 19th Century, the three women writers all adopted male pseudonyms. Talk of “the tyranny of patriarchal Britain” occurs repeatedly and an overlong ending emphasises the story’s feminist themes, leading into the title song which bemoans lives wasted – Branwell’s obviously, but also, implicitly, those of oppressed and undervalued women everywhere. The songs give the show a thrilling energy and even if this is not yet a fully-formed musical, it is certainly not an evening wasted.

Performance date: 12 September 2018

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

Writer: Jo Clifford      Director: Paul Miller

⭐️⭐️

Marrying the styles of restoration comedy and 1950s absurdism, Paul Miller’s revival of Jo Clifford’s Losing Venice is a curious venture that feels out of place and out of time. The play premiered at the 1985 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where, perhaps, it passed as frivolous fun, but, put under harsher scrutiny here, it comes up as fatally overblown.

Clifford picks the timeless targets of macho posturing and futile imperialism for her satire and sets the first part of the play in a shambolic dukedom during Spain’s Golden Age. The Duke’s resident poet, Quevedo (Christopher Logan) pens verse that no one ever reads or hears, while his lusty servants Pablo (Remus Brooks) and Maria (Eleanor Fanyinka) make love in the open air for lack of any inhabitable private rooms on the estate. In contrast, the Duke himself (Tim Delap) is unable to consummate his marriage to the Duchess (Florence Roberts), but then her pink wig, shaped like a chimney brush, could crush any healthy man’s libido.

Not to worry, there are other ways in which the Duke can prove his manhood. “It is peace…that underlies our ills…a woman’s invention. Peace rots the soul…” he proclaims before seeking out the King to solicit a mission of overseas conquest. Clifford’s humorous writing combines original wit with tired innuendo and flashes of lyricism. The first act may be flimsy, but it is kept afloat by some adept comedy and a vague sense of purpose.

When the Duke, Quevedo and Pablo arrive in Venice, via an encounter with pirates, at the beginning of Act II, a sinking feeling sets in and what follows becomes entirely shapeless. Clifford muddies the waters further by throwing in mystical elements, almost as if she has run out of ideas for where to take the action. Eventually, the Duke declares to an empty stage: “I have saved Venice. Doesn’t that mean something?”, thereby highlighting the irony in the title. At 90 minutes plus interval, at least the production is mercifully short.

Miller is a director who can usually be relied upon to extract strong ensemble performances and this gift provides the production with its biggest consolations. Delap’s boisterous nobleman, Logan’s prissy poet and Brooks’ put-upon manservant are all highly entertaining and David Verrey, first as the reeking Spanish King and then as the exhausted Venetian Doge, steals scenes in both acts. They are all worth better than this

Performance date: 11 September 2015

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

Dust (Trafalgar Studios)

Posted: September 8, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Milly Thomas      Director: Sara Joyce

⭐️⭐️⭐️

A report produced in August 2018 by the charity The Children’s Society found that 22% of 14-year-old girls in the United Kingdom admitted to having self-harmed. Alice in Milly Thomas’s play, a 75-minute monologue, was a little older, but her body still shows the scars from self-inflicted wounds as it lies on a slab in a morgue.

Dealing with suicide, Dust is far removed from the idea of James Stewart teetering on the brink and deciding that he has a wonderful life after all. When the play begins, there is no way back for Alice, she has already been dead for three days. In the afterlife, she looks down on the shell that she once inhabited, still obsessing over body image and she sees her father hugging her corpse with the affection that he had never shown to her when she was living.

Thomas herself plays Alice as a rebellious, outwardly assured young adult who views her impending death as an adventure as well as an escape. Almost every word is tinged with sarcasm as she looks critically at her life from the perspective of an outsider. She sees herself lying in bed in the early hours scrolling through Instagram, she drinks, takes anti-depressants and recreational drugs and partakes in meaningless sex acts. Her family is typically, rather than exceptionally, dysfunctional, but Thomas’s point is that it is the fact that there seems so little out of the ordinary about Alice is what makes her story so alarming.

As writer and performer, Thomas has to work hard to prevent the play from coming across like a Government health warning. She does this with a constant flow of gentle, occasionally morbid humour, particularly strong when Alice finds fault with her own funeral. “Think of coffins like wedding dresses” insists an insensitive, fashion-conscious aunt, image being paramount until the end and even after it. 

Thomas points to no single cause for Alice’s mental health problems, the issues emerging as jumbled from her tangled mind. Low self-esteem, peer pressure, social media, declining moral standards and lack of human warmth all come into the frame as her solitary figure is reflected in three full-length mirrors in Anna Reid’s simple set design.

Director Sara Joyce’s production has a jerky, nervous feel, underpinned by throbbing music, and Jack Weir’s stark lighting helps to project the image of a life in torment and an afterlife in solitude. The play offers little solace and, for all its humour, Dust cannot avoid being a discomforting experience.

Performance date: 6 September 2018

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

Photo: Richard Southgate