Archive for November, 2015

Howard-Barker-Double-Bill-724x1024This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Howard Barker was never destined to be the darling of Shaftesbury Avenue, but his work gives a bold and distinctive voice to British theatre. Robyn Winfield-Smith here brings together two of Barker’s one-act plays, both dealing with male-female conflicts. They embrace harsh beauty and cruel irony, demonstrating fully the writer’s power to captivate and shock. The Arcola’s smaller studio, with exposed brick walls and black dust scattered on the floor, has the look of a coal cellar, but the appearance is consigned to memory once the first play, The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo, begins. The space is plunged into complete darkness, interrupted very occasionally by brief bursts of light from the stage area. Howling winds can be heard throughout and the audience is provided with headphones through which to listen to the voices. The play concerns the marriage of centenarian Isonzo (voiced by Nicholas Le Provost) to 17-year-old Tenna (Emily Loomes). Both are blind. They probe, test and taunt each other in a discourse that often has the feel of an epic poem in blank verse. Barker challenges conventional perceptions based on age and appearance, playing upon the audience’s inevitable discomfort at this unlikely match. Winfield-Smith’s decision to get the audience to share in the characters’ sensory deprivation distracts from the play as often as it focusses attention on the text. The two voices are heard from left then right, near then far and stage directions need to be whispered in our ears. In effect, this production consists of little more than listening to a recording, albeit beautifully spoken, in darkness and what we expect in a theatre is more of a live performance. Judith: A Parting from the Body gets a conventional staging. Holofernes (Liam Smith) is an army general, boastful of his control over life and death and of his attraction to women. He is visited in his bedroom on the night before a battle by the widow Judith (Catherine Cusack) and her much too talkative servant (Kristin Hutchinson). Barker’s play is a meditation on love and death, truth and lies, heroism and treachery, exploring the links that connect them all. Cusack is particularly striking as the volatile and unpredictable Judith, switching instantly between helpless vulnerability and ruthless determination. Smith has an arrogant swagger as the general and Hutchinson finds humour in the barely suppressed insolence of the servant. Stark and unsettling, this double bill provides a powerful antidote to the festive fare currently being offered elsewhere.

Performance date: 27 November 2015



We can’t say we weren’t warned. As best I remember it (I have tried hard to expunge it from the memory altogether), Wallace Shawn’s play The Designated Mourner, performed in this same theatre (then the Cottesloe) in 1996, consisted of several distinguished theatrical figures sitting in a line and talking directly to the audience. That set expectations for this new work, getting its World Premier, pretty low, but it still fails to live up to them. The opening sets the tone, with an anonymous figure strolling on stage as if to tell us to turn off our mobile phones and then launching into a turgid scene-setting monologue. Anyone in the audience who has stayed awake then sees various other figures emerge from darkness, apparently theatricals gathered to remember a play that had flopped ten years earlier. We are told that we are in an age when people no longer go to the theatre, so some time in the future we presume, possibly after a period during which theatres had been swamped with Shawn’s plays. It is a dystopian future in which actors and television personalities are targeted and terminated once they have passed the peak of their popularity. A satire on the modern culture of quickly disposable celebrities, Shawn has the germ of a good idea for a play – that is a real play in which things actually happen to the characters on stage and not this one in which other people just stand around talking about them. Talk, talk and then more talk is all we get in Ian Rickson’s static production. Shawn himself appears as a targeted old ham, showing facial bruises from a narrow escape; thankfully, these bruises are just make up and not the consequences of an adverse audience reaction to the performance on the previous evening. Other accomplished actors, deploying a variety of American and English accents, appear, but it is better to leave them nameless out of respect. The National has had a brilliant year in the Dorfman, but all good things come to an end.

Performance date: 24 November 2015


Don’t call the police! No flashing, just a small gem of a show that should not need a gimmick title to sell it. A musical first seen in New York in 1985 – book and lyrics Jerry Colker, music Michael Rupert – the show follows the ups and downs of of a comedy trio through the club circuit of the 1980s, a hit American television sitcom and eventual movie stardom, battered and bruised as commercial pressures trespass into their art form. Simon Haines has a confident swagger as Ted, a club MC who is already cringing before his punchline is delivered. He recruits “angry” Phil (Benedict Hastings), a novice to stand-up and expectant father who is desperate for some cash. Ted’s buddy Kenny, a wacky comic who is battling chronic depression, makes up the trio and Guy Woolf is particularly touching in showing the thin line between humour and insanity. The simplest of formats – three performers, five musicians, comedy sketches and songs of the sort that could have just fallen short for a big Broadway musical. It adds up to a consistently entertaining couple of hour, performed with real panache. It does not take too many people to fill the Finborough, but this show deserves to pack them in every night.

Performance date: 24 November 2015

The Homecoming**** (Trafalgar Studios)

Posted: November 24, 2015 in Theatre

the homecomingThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Explaining the link between plays chosen for his recent seasons at Trafalgar Studios, Jamie Lloyd stated that they all question what it is to be British. He now brings his company back to the same theatre with a 50th Anniversary revival of Harold Pinter’s masterpiece, The Homecoming, a biting, dark comedy that rattles the foundations of the institution at the very heart of British life – the family. Lloyd’s production is charged with nervous energy, but takes meticulous care to perfect every inflection and emphasis loaded into Pinter’s dialogue. The setting is the living room of a working class London home, presented in Soutra Gilmour’s design as an open sided box, with its entrance/exit door set apart at the rear. The centrepiece of the room is an armchair, more a throne, normally occupied by the patriarch, Max (Ron Cook), a belligerent widower who spits out abuse at his family as if compensating for age having diminished his physical prowess. His brother Sam is a boastful chauffeur who “never married” and Keith Allen’s mincing, limp-wristed performance leaves no room for doubt as to why this would have been so. Max’s son Lenny is a chip off the old block, John Simm making him a sinister and menacing figure. He looks like a city executive, but is, in fact, a pimp, casually throwing accounts of violence and even rape into conversations. Younger son Joey is a dim-witted boxer, given a formidable physical presence by John Macmillan. The four men live together, sparring verbally with each other to sharpen their masculinity. The homecoming is that of oldest son Teddy (Gary Kemp assuming an upper class accent), a doctor of philosophy back from six years in the United States. His quiet acquiescence to the malign grip of his kin signifies that, in reality, he has never travelled very far from home. He brings with him Ruth, the wife that he married, unknown to the family, in London prior to his departure. The family greets her as a “whore”, which we learn may not be far from the truth, as Pinter continues to scrape away the household’s thin veneer of respectability. The arrival of this newcomer gives Pinter the opportunity to explore feminist themes relating to family life, by countering the men’s assumption that a woman’s roles must be limited to cooking, cleaning and bestowing sexual favours. Gemma Chan’s Ruth has the steel to upset the balance of power between genders; her calm exterior resembles that of a prim governess, but it masks a calculating mind and a manipulative disposition. She may be outnumbered five to one, but she is set on becoming queen bee in this hive. It is remarkable that hardly anything of significance in the play feels dated after the passing of half a century. Pinter’s subversive humour is typically enigmatic, at its most subtle when seemingly most crude, most unsettling when generating most hilarity. In painting this portrait of dysfunction, he is questioning whether families are held together by affection or just by habit. He is also telling us that, however far we journey, in some way, we all come home eventually to our familial roots. A chilling message indeed when the home is one such as this.

Performance date: 21 November 2015


Faustaff** (Cockpit Theatre)

Posted: November 20, 2015 in Theatre

Faustaff Rehearsals 2This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Being presented simultaneously in London and Mexico City and given the alternative title The Mockery of the Soul, Mexican writer Diego Sosa’s 90-minute one-act play is a modern take on the Faust story. The “aff” tagged onto the title is claimed to relate to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, but there is no obvious reference to the mischievous Knight in the play itself. Gily Jacoby (Lesley Lightfoot) is a writer who sells her soul to achieve success and save her ailing father. An impish manifestation of the Devil (Eddie Chamberlin) works with her to develop plots that grow ever more macabre and she becomes obsessed with the thin line between fiction and fact. Is art imitating life or life imitating art? Maybe Gily has been given powers of clairvoyance to write about horrific real events that have yet to happen. Jonson Wilkinson appears as Gily’s caring editor, concerned by her erratic behaviour, and also as the sinister killer in enactments of her stories, whose relationship with his fiancé (Alessia Gatti) is forecast to come to a bloody end. The prevailing tone is of a surreal and sinister melodrama, but two comic policemen (Bernard O’Sullivan and Charles Timson) bring a strain of absurdist humour that feels incongruous. In examining the travails of a writer, Sosa’s piece could be considered introspective, the non-linear narrative jumping backwards and forwards in time and between fact and fiction. Gily’s nervous unease as her torment edges towards madness is brought out very effectively in Lightfoot’s performance. If some of Sosa’s dialogue sounds stilted, it may be due to translation difficulties, but, more significantly, Mexican director Rodrigo Johnson’s production, performed in the round on a darkened stage, has not yet acquired the polish and flow that it needs. Partly as a result of this, the various elements in a potentially intriguing work do not always hold together and the play baffles as often as it beguiles.

Performance date: 19 November 2015


Waste** (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Posted: November 20, 2015 in Theatre

WASTEThe National Theatre has scored well with revivals of plays by Harley Granville Barker, most notably The Madras House and The Voysey Inheritance. This fascinating 1907 play has similar potential, centring on the political classes of that era and attempts to progress a bill to disestablish the Church from the State, a move that would still be controversial in modern, multi-faith Britain. The chief advocate of the bill is Henry Trebell (a fine performance by Charles Edwards), who damages his personal reputation by impregnating Amy O’Connell (Olivia Williams), flirtatious wife of an Irish Catholic (Paul Hickey). The acting is flawless, Sylvester Le Touzel being particularly moving as Trebell’s devoted sister. Granville Barker constructs the scenes superbly, giving an absorbing account of how public affairs and private lives are woven together by a prurient and judgemental society and how potentially great figures can go to waste because of matters of relative insignificance. The relevance of these themes to modern life is obvious and this is a play that I would happily see again and again, but not in this wayward production, directed by Roger Michell. The play’s themes may be timeless, but its specific details relate to the Edwardian era; the costumes are right for that era, but Hildegard Bechtler’s set designs are emphatically not. Yes, some of the images are stunning, moving white, grey and black screens form geometrical shapes between scenes and Trebell’s minimalist London house takes the breath away on first sight, but these images belong to another play, perhaps a Pinter. A play that draws its strength from subtle characterisations and detailed plotting needs intimacy with the audience and deserves better than to be performed in what looks like the lobby of a soulless ultra-modern hotel, with the actors appearing as if specks on a vast blank canvass. They are dressed as Edwardians, but surrounded by furniture that could have come from IKEA. Some sympathy must be accorded to Michell for having to contend with the notorious problems of the Lyttelton – the wide stage has never suited personal dramas, but, more significantly here, the dreadful acoustics make key words and sentences inaudible and Michell compounds the problem at one point by having an actor speak her lines while sitting with her back to the audience. A play should be able to explain itself to an audience, but, on this occasion, digesting a synopsis beforehand is strongly recommended. Waste could be a great play, but its title says everything about this production.

Performance date: 18 November 2015

Spincycle**+ (Theatre N16)

Posted: November 17, 2015 in Theatre

Steve Thompson's SpincycleThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

In an age when advertisers seem to believe that an old man sitting alone on the Moon is the best image to persuade us to spend our hard-earned cash in a certain department store, no account of the world of spin would seem likely to stretch credibility too far. This revival of Steve Thompson’s 2003 play is, probably more than was intended, a reminder of how things were a dozen or so years ago. Thompson has risen to prominence scripting hit television shows (Doctor Who, Sherlock, etc), but this play draws from his early experiences as an intern with an advertising agency. It is a world of men sporting designer stubble and women squeezed into figure- hugging business suits. The audience here is made to feel as if observing a series of business meetings, so basic is the staging with no more than very plain tables and chairs. Rachel (Abbiegale Duncan) is the new recruit from whose perspective we observe an agency that includes amongst the products that it is selling skin cream, butter, a theatre company and the Conservative party. Jane (Anneli Page) is the hard-nosed boss, Peta (Abi McLoughlin) is her unswervingly loyal PA, Miles (Gregory A Smith) is a gay account manager and Piers (Ash Merat) is a womanising media consultant. Yes, there are a few stereotypes among the characters. The collective ethos is “no ties, no affiliations, no loyalties…” to which could be added no morals and no principles. Thompson presents us with a superficial bunch of cynics and never really tries to delve under their skin to discover what, apart from avarice, makes them tick. The dialogue, some of it in rhyming verse, is sharp and delivered slickly by the eight-strong company in Stephen Oswald’s fluid production. Today all of these characters would be glued to their smart phones, but the absence of such accessories is not the only feature to date the play. What may once have seemed like insight now comes across as hindsight, particularly when Thompson takes the play off at a tangent to give us his angle on political spin. Telling us that no politician since Margaret Thatcher has been driven by conviction and that spin is the new political ideology, Thompson’s arguments seem a little naive, but perhaps his points were less obvious in 2003 than they are more than a decade further on. He is right of course and he could have added that many believe that even Thatcher’s first election victory owed more to Saatchi & Saatchi than to the lady herself. Long gone are the days when Spincycle could only have been a play about a washing machine.

Performance date: 16 November 2015


Sparks***+ (Old Red Lion Theatre)

Posted: November 16, 2015 in Theatre

sparksThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

After a 12-year absence, Jess turns up in pouring rain at her younger sister’s flat, carrying a goldfish bowl in her hands and a rucksack packed with alcoholic refreshments on her back. It is time for sparks to fly. Simon Longman’s play is is an exploration of loneliness in different guises. Jess (played at this performance by Sophie Steer) is a wanderer, roaming from east to west across the country, unable to settle anywhere. Her sister Sarah (Sally Hodgkiss) is rooted in their native West Midlands, with few friends and little life outside her sparsely-furnished flat. The two actors are playing these roles alternately. The awkwardness of the estranged sisters’ reunion is realised beautifully in Longman’s quirky dialogue. Sarah is at first rendered speechless, while Jess fills in all the silences as if struck by an attack of verbal diarrhoea, spouting nonsensical trivia almost non-stop. Gradually, alcohol removes inhibitions and the deep insecurities of the characters are revealed. Running for 95 minutes this is, in essence, a brisk one-act play, but Clive Judd’s production is performed with an interval, which causes the drama to lose some momentum. Early on, each sister downs a full bottle of what passes for wine in one go, a considerable feat by both actors, and, if the interval has been inserted as a kindness to them, perhaps it can be forgiven. The performances are strong, bringing out the absurdist humour in Longman’s script and capturing the underlying pathos of the two sisters. They are opposites who are both bound together and torn apart by blood ties and sisterly affection. It will be interesting to see if the dynamics in the sisters’ relationship change significantly when the actors’ roles are reversed. Bright, patterned wallpaper around Jemima Robinson’s set gives the flat the feel of a children’s play room, but the furnishings – a single armchair and stacks of up-turned cardboard boxes – reflect the emptiness of its inhabitant’s life; slats in Venetian blinds come to look like prison bars, confining Sarah to a world in which Jess could never be comfortable. Consistently amusing, yet underpinned by a feeling of melancholy, Longman’s play shows how holes in peoples’ lives can be filled temporarily by meaningless conversation and it builds to a moving and surprising climax. This is an engaging new work by a highly promising young writer.

Performance date: 12 November 2015



harlequinadeTerence Rattigan’s Harlequinade is an awkward play to stage – too short to represent value for money in a large theatre, too big a cast to be viable on the fringe. A few years ago, the National solved the problem by doubling it up with The Browning Version, a play with a central role that could have suited Kenneth Branagh. Here Branagh spurns that opportunity and tags on Rattigan’s 20-minute monologue All On Her Own as the evening’s opener for the first production in his season at the Garrick. Together, the plays run for 100 minutes without an interval, hardly the best value at West End Prices. Delivering the monologue, Zoë Wanamaker is, predictably, magnificent, dressed in a cocktail dress and clutching a full wine glass, she laments the passing of the husband that she never valued properly during his lifetime. Wanamaker re-appears for the main course as Dame Maud, most senior member of a theatre company run by old style actor/manager Arthur Gosport (Branagh), the type who would play Romeo one night and Lear the next. In modern theatre, the only actor remotely resembling Gosport could be Branagh himself, which is, presumably, the big joke. Rattigan’s humorous observations of the theatre he knew, 70 years or so ago, are often delightful and always amusing. Gosport and his leading lady and wife (or maybe not) Edna Selby (Miranda Raison) live for the theatre and are either oblivious to or disdainful of the inconveniences of normal life. Many of the company also appear in The Winter’s Tale, running in repertory, meaning that there is an impressive array of talent on display, with Branagh and Rob Ashford directing the two productions. Bubbling along nicely, this is not a production to set the world on fire, but it is good lightweight fun.

Performance date: 11 November 2015

Husbands-And-Sons-posterThree households lying side-by-side in a Nottinghamshire mining village in 1911 form the setting for this inspired adaptation of three DH Lawrence plays – The Daughter-in-LawThe Widowing of Mrs Holroyd and A Collier’s Friday Night. The walls of the houses are invisible and the plays run together, scenes alternating, with characters from each meeting in the street. The performance is in the round (well oblong), with the audience changing ends at the interval so as to become more closely involved in different dramas. Ben Power is the adaptor and, unsurprisingly when something as imaginative as this appears at the National, the director is Marianne Elliot. The plays work together brilliantly, painting a unique picture of a struggling community, bound by codes of loyalty and morality that, in many ways, seem strange in the modern world. The title is misleading; “Wives and Mothers” would have been more apt, as this is a matriarchal society held together by the fortitude of its women, the men being workhorses who are weak-willed and often drunk. In a company of over 20, Anne-Marie Duff is the star name, giving a wonderful performance as Lizzie Holroyd, protecting her young son from her husband (Martin Marquez), a violent drunkard, and being drawn by the attentions of a younger electrician (Philip McGinley). Louise Brearley is a revelation as Minnie, daughter-in-law in the Gascoigne home, determined to make her marriage to the errant Luther (Joe Armstrong) work in spite of opposition from his domineering mother (Susan Brown). In A Collier’s… another mother (Julia Ford) relegates her husband to insignificance and smothers her student son (Johnny Gibbon). The production runs for three hours, but we want it to be six. Unquestionably one of the year’s best.

Performance date: 9 November 2015