Archive for March, 2015

dissidents__gallery_imageThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

With the General Election looming, the plight of the disadvantaged, disaffected and socially disconnected features in most news bulletins every day. Therefore, Shamser Sinha’s new play, which looks closely at the so-called underclass, could hardly be more topical. Siblings Juan (Stevie Basaula) and Selena (Tania Nwachukwu) are second generation immigrants who are faced with obtaining credit to pay for their father’s funeral. He is intelligent but, having been an habitual truant from school, illiterate. Unable to find employment, he has moved into a squat. She, although difficult and argumentative, is able to hold down a job and a home. Moving from a Job Centre to a failing NHS hospital and then to the squat, the play takes its time to gain a hold and find its focus. Sinha embraces many themes – homelessness, unemployment, mental illness, physical disability, the National Health Service, Police aggression and more – whilst carefully sidestepping issues of crime and addiction. With so much going on, it is not until the later stages, when the squat and its inhabitants become central, that the play acquires real dramatic power. Beth Shouler’s production does not help to provide early clarity with the stage often too cluttered with props and actors who are struggling to establish their characters’ identities. This production, presented by Tricycle Youth Theatre shows us a multicultural society and has actors playing multiple roles, many older than themselves. Yet there are times when the production plods and it is disappointing that Shouler does not extract more energy from her 20-strong youthful cast. Amidst what is sometimes chaos, Sinha has many interesting points to make. When Juan gets a mandatory job placement in Poundland, under the charge of a manager from the David Brent school, his chances are sabotaged not by his own inability or laziness, but by his friends, indicating the existence of a negative culture which works against individual advancement. Occasionally, the play is stronger when it is semi-satirical than when being earnest. The de facto leader of the squat is an educated, articulate middle class woman whose bank account is topped up by her family; no doubt she has her eye on a career in left wing politics. The media is targeted too – Juan is put forward to be interviewed by a cynical journalist and, very cleverly, Sinha exposes how facts, people and events become distorted for public consumption. At the heart of this drama is the relationship between Juan and Selena, which comes to the fore in the moving final scenes. Selena asks Juan if he had the world in one hand, his own child in the other and had to drop one, which would he choose. In putting family first, Sinha clearly sees self empowerment as the way forward for this pair, but he is less clear on the future of the others that they will leave behind.

Performance date: 26th March 2015

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Andrew Sherdian & Matthew Tennyson Feb 2015This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Penrose and Francis gather in their Highgate home to prepare for the funeral of the man that they both call “Daddy”, bickering with each other nervously. Yet they are not brothers. Francis was taken in by the family as a gardener when he was 16 and Penrose only two and, now, 19 years later, the fraternal bonds between the pair are seemingly unbreakable. Robert Holman’s new play takes these *brothers” on a journey of mutual discovery as they tease, test and question each other to uncover past secrets that are uncomfortable for both. The play has a keen sense of how the impact of childhood incidents, major and minor, can linger throughout lives and it shows both men to be damaged – Penrose, with a privileged background, suffering from parental neglect and Francis, with lowly roots in Northumberland, being haunted by abuse and tragedy. This production gets added value from bespoke casting. Matthew Tennyson at first seems far too innocent and immature for Penrose’s 21 years and Andrew Sheridan too bruised and world weary to be only 35. However, as Holman created the two characters for these specific actors, we know that the roles are being played exactly as the writer intended and both the performances are deeply moving. The play explores the nature of love in its purest, platonic form; it shows the importance of giving and accepting care; and it delves into the value of family, conventional or otherwise. Moving from Highgate and Parliament Hill, with its panoramic urban views, to the villages and fields of rural Northumberland, Holman’s descriptive writing has a vivid feel for the locations which form part of key incidents in his characters’ lives. Robert Hastie’s production never forces the pace of the play, with soft lighting on an uncluttered wooden stage creating a reflective atmosphere to underpin the themes of loss and recovery. Music also plays a part, with classical piano pieces being played offstage (supposedly by Penrose) and both actors performing (extremely well) traditional songs. Undeniably Holman’s play is slow to unfold, wordy and a little overlong, but the work possesses rare insight and intensity which make it tug consistently at the heartstrings throughout.

Performance date: 20 March 2015

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Closer*** (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: March 20, 2015 in Theatre

Closer_Donmar_1300X400The opening scene of Patrick Marber’s play, first staged at the National Theatre in 1997, takes place in a hospital waiting room and its clinical feel sets the tone for everything that follows. The story, a menage a quatre, sees the play’s characters, three of them middle class professionals nearing middle age, navigate a minefield of relationships, driven by carnal desires whilst seeking emotional fulfilment. Marber’s vision is that one rarely, or never, leads to the other. The journey of a first viewing of Closer involves growing to dislike its characters progressively. Seeing it again relatively soon afterwards (with a Hollywood film appearing in the intervening years), the dislike is cemented in place before entering the theatre and a barrier to emotional involvement is pre-built. The famous chat room scene, fresh and startling in 1997, is now old hat, but, otherwise, the play never feels dated and this revival, directed by David Leveaux, is cold and efficient, as befits its themes. However, there is nothing here that presents the play in a new light or makes it more likeable. The characters, motivated by base instincts such as lust, jealousy and revenge, are marked by their selfishness and mendacity. In a neat touch of irony by Marber, the only one of the four to elicit any audience sympathy is the younger Alice, who works in the sex trade and lies about her past, but is shown to have the purest motives; Rachel Redford’s performance brings out all her simplicity and vulnerability. Daniel is an obituary writer and, as played by Oliver Chris, he is needy, using his boyish charm to seduce firstly Alice and then Anna, oblivious to any collateral damage. Anna (Nancy Carroll), a photographer, switches partners at a whim and Lenny (Rufus Sewell), a dermatologist, joins in the game of musical chairs, initially with bemusement, but eventually turning spiteful and manipulative. Irrational behaviour by the characters often leads to scenes becoming tedious because of their implausibility, but, to balance that, other scenes sparkle with rapier-like exchanges and cynical wisecracks. It is a curious mix, often intriguing, but never fully satisfying. Marber’s next play is to be set in the world of football; perhaps he will find more warmth there.

Performance date: 19 March 2015

Hiraeth**+ (Soho Theatre)

Posted: March 19, 2015 in Theatre

hiraethThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Tom Tones once sang of “the green green grass of home”, but, for Buddug James Jones (Bud), the grass looks greenest in the opposite direction – on the other side of the Severn Bridge in London to be exact. Being told that all people are either rocks or rivers, Bud concludes that she is a river and needs to run. Based on Bud’s account of her departure from her family home in a West Wales farming region, she performs the show along with Max Mackintosh, playing guitar and all the other characters in the story and a non-speaking David Grubb playing fiddle and drums. The three all wear patterned jumpers of a kind not likely to be seen around during London Fashion Week, but presumably they are made from the wool of Welsh sheep. Incorporating feigned amateurishness into their well practiced routines, Bud and Max tell us of a community where all objects and events are “lush” and all inhabitants (most of them named Jones) are “legend”. The pair’s performance consists of informal, humorous storytelling, mixed in with pleasant if unmemorable songs written by Mackintosh and Grubb The show’s title is a Welsh word which implies pride in ones roots and sadness for the loss of a way of life. However, the show fails to explore these themes, being more about mocking Bud’s home life and recounting her experiences in the big city. Apart from a brief bout of homesickness, Bud conveys no real sense of loss or disconnection from her heritage, which is rather a pity, because the show needs more poignancy and depth. In essence, this is a one joke show, poking gentle fun at the rural Welsh for the amusement of (possibly) sophisticated urban audiences. When the joke gets thin over the course of 65 minutes, all that is left is the cheerfulness and affability of the performers, which is not quite enough to carry the show through.

Performance date: 18 March 2015

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Antigone**** (Barbican Theatre)

Posted: March 18, 2015 in Theatre

antigoneSuch is the reputation of Belgian director Ivo van Hove, after last year’s phenomenal success at the Young Vic, that his name overshadows the play’s title on tickets for this production and the appearance of an Oscar winner in the title role is not even mentioned. There are similarities between this and A View from the Bridge – stylised, minimalist staging, solemn music playing in the background, very deliberate variations in the pace and power of the performances – but, when applied to a tragedy from ancient Greece, these techniques do not have quite the same shock effect as with relatively modern Brooklyn. Van Hove and his partner, set and lighting designer Jan Versweyweld, struggle a little in grappling with the Barbican’s unreasonably wide stage – a backing screen generally suggests a wilderness, dominated by a large central sun, and is used for silhouettes and projections (not always discernible) – but too often the actors are compressed, standing or sitting in a line on a thin, lowered strip front of stage which is furnished to suggest a modern office. It is a set-up which favours the epic more that the intimate and distances the audience rather than draws it into the drama. However, leaving aside these reservations, this modern dress production is always absorbing and often stunning. Sophokles’ play tells of the determination of Antigone (Juliette Binoche) to get a decent burial for a brother who died in combat, contrary to an edict issued by the Theban ruler Kreon (Patrick O’Kane). Waif-like and seemingly ageless, Binoche is a luminous presence and she portrays Antigone’s anguish with real passion; however the play, at least in this translation by Anne Carson, gives her very little to get her teeth into and the dominant performance is that of O’Kane. The easy option could have been to have made Kreon a vicious megalomaniac, but here we have a businessman in a designer suit who, having been thrust into a position of power, is walking the thin line between anarchy and tyranny, recognising his own mistakes but feeling unable to retract for fear of looking weak. By making Kreon a modern Everyman, the play’s relevance to 21st Century politics is brought into sharp focus. Yet, for all this production’s epic sweep, there are occasional moments of shattering intimacy – Kreon’s son Haimon (Samuel Edward-Cook), betrothed to the doomed Antigone, takes his own life, resting his head on his father’s shoulder and simply falling asleep. With strong support from Finbar Lynch, Kirsty Bushell and Kathryn Pogson, all in specific roles and as chorus, this is a pan-European effort which oozes quality. Ancient Greece still has much to say to the rest of us; it would be nice if someone could now sort out modern Greece.

Performance date: 17 March 2015

Stevie*** (Hampstead Theatre)

Posted: March 16, 2015 in Theatre

stevieMany of us have lingered for too long at the Palmers Green traffic lights on the North Circular, without ever taking much notice of the place. Hugh Whitemore’s 1977 play (the title role originally played by Hampstead’s current MP) is set entirely in that leafy North London suburb, in the home of writer/poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971). In Christopher Morahan’s handsome looking revival, Simon Higlett’s spacious set – an interior abounding with floral designs looking out through sash windows to mature trees – represents all the values of comfortable middle class living in the 1950s/60s, a haven for the eccentric spinster Smith (Zoe Wanamaker) and her beloved aunt (Lynda Baron). The living room conversation extends to nothing more profound than debating whether to have beans or carrots for dinner, but this cosy, mundane domestic setting gives Smith her secure base for observing the World. Wanamaker assumes a haunted, quizzical look, chain smoking and dogged by the slight frailty and fatigue of a woman weakened by childhood tuberculosis; occasionally quick-tempered, often under a cloud of depression, she exudes a sadness and an acceptance of mortality which indicate that her most famous line, “not waving but drowning”, relates to herself; yet still she is unable to hide her girlish glee when being feted as a celebrity or attending an audience with the Queen. This is a magnetic performance by Wanamaker. Baron too is a delight and Chris Larkin (son of another famous Smith) is equally effective as “Man”, a role combining narrator with various characters in Smith’s life. Whitemore has the luxury of being able to incorporate much of Smith’s own poetry and prose into his script, adding to its literary quality and throwing light on a complex women who worked as a secretary for a publishing firm by day and thanked them for allowing her the time to write. Surprisingly, it is claimed that every word that she wrote was published and Smith was anything but a recluse, which leads to one of the biggest problems with Whitemore’s play – that it tells only part of the story and leaves us wanting to understand Smith better by seeing how she connects with the wider World. Another related problem is that all the notable incidents in Smith’s life take place offstage and are then told to the audience, leaving the play with hardly any dramatic power. Wanamaker’s wonderful expressiveness is pure theatre, but, beyond that, this is little more than a pleasant storytelling recital – the perfect radio play.

Performance date 10 March 2015


It seems amazing that this play has rested in a drawer for more than 40 years. Its writer, Michael Hastings died in 2011 after a distinguished career as a dramatist and Southwark Playhouse deserves congratulation for rescuing a work which, if nothing more, serves as an important document of London’s working class history. In fact, it is much more. Tricia Thorns’ steadily paced, impeccably acted production is set in the work room of a Savile Row tailor between 1953 and 1955. It reminds somewhat of Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen, revived at The National a while back, in that it shows us the work ethic and working conditions of a bygone era. Alex Marker’s set is so vivid and detailed that, sitting three rows back, I half expected to be taken to task for slacking. The play’s dramatic tension arises from the conflict of old school hand stitching craftsmanship, as represented by the ageing Spijak (Andy de la Tour), and modern, quick turnaround machine stitching as advocated by Eric (Paul Rider). Each has a “kipper” (tailoress) – Sydie (Alexis Caley) is Spijak’s daughter and Iris (Abigail Thaw) dotes on Eric, who is probably gay. De la Tour’s deeply moving performance is mesmerising; a Polish Jew, Spijak stands defiantly in the path of modernisation and what he sees as diminishing standards of workmanship; he can often be found on a ledge beneath a work bench, sleeping off a hangover and he sums up his philosophy with “(the) day you start looking for happiness (is the) day you start dying…”; left alone in the work place over Christmas, he delivers a soliloquy in the form of a conversation with his dead wife, which leaves the audience in stunned silence. Spijak’s new apprentice Maurice arrives at the beginning of the play to face merciless bullying as he learns the intricate details of his craft and a quietly impressive performance by James El-Sharawy reveals his resilience and determination to master all the old skills and blend them into the changing work environment. Maurice spends his lunch hours locked in the toilet, writing a play about his experiences; he is, of course, Hastings himself. The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this superb production is that Hastings’ commitment to the craft of playwriting was as steadfast as that of Spijak to tailoring.

Performance date: 13 March 2015

WINK**** (Theatre 503)

Posted: March 13, 2015 in Theatre

WINKThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Dramas about the internet and virtual reality have been in abundance in recent times, meaning that a quick read through of a synopsis of this, Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s first full- length play, could be followed by a big yawn. Yet, happily, the play is less about the internet than the people who use it, meaning that, in one way or another, it is about most of us. Mark (Sam Clemmett) is a 16 year old schoolboy who sees in his French teacher, 27 year old John (Leon Williams), the man that he dreams of becoming, envying his fashion model good looks and his dream girlfriend. He pursues his fascination through social media and sets up a fake Facebook account to begin a dialogue with the girlfriend. However, Mark’s Facebook messages and emoticon winks are received and answered by John, who is suspicious that his girlfriend is, like himself, having an affair. The comedy of errors that follows is played out on a bare stage with just the two actors. Jamie Jackson’s production incorporates flowing movement suggesting the dreamy virtual reality to which both characters escape and making the play as interesting to look at as it is to listen to. Mark is a confused and lonely boy, feeling his way around the adult world which lies ahead. John has reached that world, but retains all the insecurities of a boy. It comes as little surprise that Clemmett, so good in Accolade recently, shows a degree of maturity to belie his years and Williams too gives a performance which does full justice to the freshness of the writing. It could have been expected that Eclair-Powell would have inherited a comedy gene and, true to form, her dialogue is peppered with very funny one- liners; however, it is the insight in her writing and the tenderness shown towards her characters which are the most memorable features of her play. The writer’s gender may allow her licence to give the characters lines about women which could have led to raised eyebrows if written by a man. Beyond that, one of the most surprising things about Eclair-Powell’s play, much of which centres on a world of machismo, is that it has no feminist angle at all; she writes simply and truthfully about two human beings who happen to be male. Low key and running for under 90 minutes, this little gem reveals a new writer full of promise.

Performance date: 12 March 2015

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Radiant Vermin**** (Soho Theatre)

Posted: March 12, 2015 in Theatre

radiant verminThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

For the second time in as many weeks, a playwright asks the question how far would someone be prepared to go to get onto the bottom rung of the housing ladder. Mike Bartlett’s Game had a couple agreeing to let the paying public take pot shots at them and now Philip Ridley, in a play first seen in Bristol last month, has another couple in a similar dilemma, entering into a sort of Faustian pact. Expecting their first child and living in a squalid slum, Ollie (Sean Michael Verey) and Jill (Gemma Whelan) encounter a Fairy Godmother figure in the shape of Miss Dee (Amanda Daniels) who claims to be representing the Government and offers them a house for free, with all removal expenses paid, on condition that they renovate it themselves. Once there, Ollie and Jill accidentally kill an intruder and discover that he turns into bright lights and, magically, the area where this happens is instantly transformed. It does not take long for the couple to realise that, by luring vagrants to the house and disposing of them, all their materialist dreams can come true – a designer kitchen, a wet room and, when “radiant vermin” appears in the front driveway, a Lamborghini. A visit from Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen would not have brought about quicker renovations and, as a result of upgrading this one property and eliminating undesirables from the neighbourhood, the whole area becomes gentrified. Exactly what the Government wants? So, consumerism outranks compassion and enough is never good enough. As their misdemeanours get worse Ollie and Jill repeatedly turn knowingly to the audience and ask “wouldn’t you?” Ridley’s direct style of comedy is a rarity these days, his play being a fantasy social satire and, fittingly, the couple’s surname is Swift. Out of necessity, the play is performed on a bare white stage, without props – not even the most lavish of productions would be able to cope with the set changes required here. Verey and Whelan play the hapless couple like a modern Frank and Betty Spencer, always bright and affable whatever they may get up to. They keep David Mercatali’s lively production bubbling even when the humour seems to be running out of ideas in the middle section. Finally, they produce ten minutes or so of dazzling comedy, playing all the guests attending an awful drinks party, catching perfectly the mannerism and inane chit-chat of a bunch of wannabe middle class social climbers. Exposing the avarice lurking behind closed doors in suburbia and lampooning Government policies towards housing and the homeless, Ridley has given us both a sharp, relevant comedy and 90 minutes of lighthearted fun.

Performance date: 11 March 2015

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time of our life

Working from the premise that we tend not to recognise the moments in life when we are truly happy as they happen, Alan Ayckbourn’s 1992 play centres on one pivotal evening for one family. Gerry (David Lucas) is hosting a Birthday party for his wife Laura (Joanna Pope) at their favourite Italian restaurant; their older son Glyn (John Pickard) comes along with Stephanie (Tansy Adair), the wife to whom he has recently returned after a brief fling, and their younger son Adam (Joe Leather) introduces to the family his new girlfriend, Maureen (Lucy Formby), a hairdresser. It seems very unlikely that any of these characters would have been truly happy during this evening of petty bickering, but the play veers off, intercutting the central scene with scenes following Glyn and Stephanie after the event and (in reverse chronological order) Adam and Maureen before it. Ayckbourn is not the first dramatist to play around with time in this way, but he uses the technique cleverly to give the audience all the insight and knowledge needed to share in his deeply cynical view of family life. We see clearly that all of these characters are putting themselves in straightjackets to conform with what the family expects and none is able to find a way to break free, until this key evening. It would be easy to view this family as matriarchal, but Ayckbourn denies that easy option by showing that Laura is an equal victim; she bears no affection for Glyn, has no interest in the grandchildren that her sons are intent on giving her and longs only to look after dogs, which Gerry forbids. Director Law Ballard’s production has six well judged performances amongst which the two “outsiders” stand out – Adair’s Stephanie is a woefully put-upon wife and mother until a moment of truth over a dessert trolley transforms her and Formby’s Maureen is gloriously awkward, wearing a different hairstyle in each scene and choosing the wrong outfit for every occasion. Also on hand to provide welcome light comedy is Adam Wittek, playing the restaurant owner and five different waiters. After a number of recent Ayckbourn revivals in large theatres which have tended to show the Scarborough bard’s work as not ageing too well, it is good to report that this one still looks good and the intimacy of the venue must be a contributing factor. A highly competent production.

Performance date: 6 March 2015