Archive for February, 2016

Quick Catch-up

Posted: February 23, 2016 in Theatre

I’ve fallen a bit behind in the last week and am now going to get some Winter sunshine, so here’s a quick catch-up on shows I’ve seen.

cleansed_picture__gallery_imageCleansed** (National Theatre, Dorfman)

Writer: Sarah Kane; Director: Katie Mitchell

Groundbreaking in its day (1998) and still shocking, the late Sarah Kane’s plotless play is a stark, vivid, harrowing, relentless and surreal montage of victims and abusers. Staged impressively and acted with total commitment by a cast of seven, the production presents many challenges to an audience and, sadly, I was not up to meeting them.

Performance date: 22 February 2016



Claire-Martin-Joe-Stilgoe-by-Kenny-McCracken-Wesleyan_1922-1Just the Two of Us**** (St James Theatre)

Performers: Claire Martin & Joe Stilgoe

Mellow jazz for a Sunday evening. Just perfect!

Performance date: 21 February 2016




the encounterThe Encounter**** (Barbican Theatre)

Director/Performer: Simon McBurney

Endlessly inventive, but overlong telling of an engrossing story of jungle survival.

Performance date: 21 February 2016


Pianist-of-Willesden-Lane.8788The Pianist of Willesden Lane**** (St James Theatre)

Adaptor/Director Hershey Felder

Performer: Mona Golabek

Beautiful piano music soothes the pain of a true story of wartime tragedy.

Performance date: 13 February 2016

Four Play***+ (Theatre 503)

Posted: February 20, 2016 in Theatre

Four PlayThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

To be faithful or not to be faithful? This is the question that has troubled characters created by many writers over the years. Does monogamy come naturally to the human race? Is it possible to maintain a loving relationship while, at the same time, having dalliances with others? Jake Brunger’s new one-act comedy takes a very modern look at these age old dilemmas. Pete is a high-flyer with an accountancy firm, wearing designer clothes and enjoying a good lifestyle with his partner of seven-and-a-half years, Rafe. The couple talk of adopting children and getting a dog and they plan a wedding at which the music will by Enya (definitely not Kylie). However, they are bored with monogamy and wonder what it would be like to have the excitement of just one fling. With this in mind, they proposition the handsome, gym-toned Michael to indulge each of them in turn, notwithstanding the fact that Michael is himself in a relationship with Andrew. The opening exchanges produce a sparkling comedy of embarrassment as Cai Brigden’s nervous and fussy Rafe skirts around delicate issues with Michael, while Pete (Michael Gilbert) sits as a silent, and apparently reluctant onlooker. However, it emerges that Pete is the driving force behind setting up the arrangement. Michael agrees to go along with the idea and what follows serves as a warning to be careful what we wish for. In later scenes, Brunger changes emphasis, toning down the comedy and bringing the secondary couple to the fore. Michael James’ wounded Andrew becomes the play’s beating heart, giving it emotional depth when it risks descent into shallow farce. Rating himself a six on the good looks scale that makes his partner a ten, he is touchingly self- deprecating and resilient in refusing to be left on the sidelines by the errant threesome. The vulnerability of the seemingly casual and confident Michael is brought out beautifully by Peter Hannah, cringing with feelings of disgust at where his carnal instincts lead him. The bond between Michael and Andrew is always believable and Brunger makes us think that this couple have reached a point where they can make the compromises necessary for them to stay together. The two couples mirror each other with Rafe, like Andrew, seeking domestic bliss and Pete, like Michael, being torn, scared by the thought of monogamy and tempted to roam. The final outcome is staged very effectively in Jonathan O’Boyle’s sharp production. Cecilia Carey’s minimalist design with a backdrop suggesting a chic cocktail bar emphasises that the play and its characters are outwardly modern, even though there is little new in the themes. That said, Brunger’s take on the crucial conundrum of human relationships proves to be lively and refreshing.

Performance date: 19 February 2016

Photo: Richard Lakos



Uncle Vanya**** (Almeida Theatre)

Posted: February 18, 2016 in Theatre


Following his major success with Oresteia at the Almeida last Spring, Robert Icke returns as adaptor and director for a radical re-imagining of Anton Chekhov’s sorrowful comedy of resignation and despair, performed over three hours 20 minutes (including three intervals). In modern dress and Anglicised to the point that Vanya becomes John, the metaphors in the original for a dying Russian social order are all but lost, leaving a mellow reflection on themes that resonate universally – unrequited love, missed opportunities, lives wasted and people standing still while changes swirl all around, the latter emphasised by Hildegard Bechtler’s majestic open-sided set being on a constant revolve. The audience has the feeling of being onlookers through windows into a troubled home and, when characters descend into the audience, it is to confide in us their private feelings or to share bemusement at what is going on inside. Aesthetically, the design (complemented by exquisite lighting by Jackie Shemesh) is stunning, but there are practical problems. The revolve means that part of the drama is obscured from parts of the audience, in turn, by large pillars on the set. Furthermore, the contrasts of volume, the actors speaking softly when relaxed and loudly when tense, are very effective in heightening the drama, but there are audibility issues, particularly when actors are facing away. These are minor quibbles, but they matter during slow-paced Acts I and II, when an overriding theme is the characters’ boredom. It may be inevitable that boredom conveyed on stage will transmit itself to an audience and, notwithstanding a delightful late night revel that turns into an unexpected yet timely tribute to David Bowie, getting through to the second interval becomes something of a test of endurance. However,  the effort is repaid with rich dividends by a third act of searing brilliance in which cards are laid on the table, souls are bared and emotions are unleashed. Paul Rhys’ dishevelled, ramshackle and ultimately broken Uncle John now becomes a sparkling gem, matched by Tobias Menzies’ level-headed but still tormented Doctor, Jessica Brown Findlay’s distraught Sonya (Sofia) and Vanessa Kirby’s Elena (Helena), flirtatious, but trapped like a caged bird. Building to a chilling conclusion, Icke’s unique interpretation of this classic is marred only slightly by flaws in its execution, but lingers in the mind nonetheless as a haunting experience.

Performance date: 17 February 2016

Hand To God** (Vaudeville Theatre)

Posted: February 16, 2016 in Theatre


In New York last Autumn, I stumbled across the theatre where this new play by Robert Askins was appearing. Emblazoned boldly across the hoardings, with a hint of triumphalism possibly similar to that of the Normans in 1065, were the words “Closing due to transfer to London’s WEST END”. New Yorkers certainly revere British theatre, so perhaps they are entitled to take pride in the export of homegrown material to us, or, more cynically, perhaps they are entitled to have a good laugh at having been able to dump an enormous pile of excrement on us. Anyway, here it is – the love child of Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, heir to the traditions of unsubtle, vulgar gross-out American comedy, except that its parents’ primary features of wit, warmth and music have somewhere gone missing. The bulk of the play takes place in a church hall, made to look like a play school in Beowulf Boritt’s set. We find an unusual congregation, the God-fearing members of which converse with each other in expletives and look for guidance from the Kama Sutra more than the Bible. Unusual also is that a puppet group has prominence over the traditional choir. The group is run by the recently widowed Margery (Janie Dee), aided by her son Jason (Hogwarts alumnus Harry Melling), demure Jessica (Jemima Rooper) and randy teenager Timothy (Kevin Mains). The troubled Jason, shy and grieving for a father who died from over-eating, slips his left hand into a sock puppet, gives it the name Tyrone and develops a demonic alter ego that lets rip into everyone and everything. The central joke, a ventriloquist’s dummy that has a life of its own, dates back to music hall or earlier, so can it still be funny? Well, yes, intermittently it is and, in a second act set piece (no spoilers here), it is hysterical. Melling makes little effort to suppress lip movement, but his deadpan expressions as the timid Jason contrast beautifully with the manic appendage to his left hand and he handles the technical challenge of playing two opposite characters, sometimes in the same breath, admirably. The rest of the play, concerning a bizarre lust triangle between Margery, Timothy and the Pastor (Neil Pearson) is just horrible and it is embarrassing to see actors as accomplished as Dee and Pearson involved in it. As Moritz Von Stuelpnager’s production features an entirely British cast, it is hard to see why closure on Broadway was necessary but, if the closure was in fact for other reasons, this would give far more credit to American theatre than anything in the play itself.

Performance date: 14 February 2016

Orphans****+ (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: February 13, 2016 in Theatre

orphansw300h250This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Some plays refuse to fit into pigeon holes. American writer Lyle Kessler’s multiple award winner, first staged in 1983, defies expectations at all turns, taking in sickening violence, brutal bullying, incarceration and racism and leaving the audience laughing until it hurts. What about calling it the funniest tragedy in town? The success of Paul Tomlinson’s revival owes much to an astonishing performance by Chris Pybus as Philip, the younger of grown orphaned brothers living in their parents’ house in Philadelphia. A prisoner in his own home, denied the education for which he craves, he leaps around like a cat, pops his head around corners and from behind furniture and dribbles like a baby when spoon fed bouillabaisse. This young actor sometimes has the look of a new Stan Laurel, his gift for physical comedy being matched by his command of the pathos that is needed to underpin all great clowning. Phillip’s joy as he looks outside his “prison” window, clutching at a street map that he believes is showing him his position in the universe, tears at the heartstrings. Alexander Neal also impresses greatly as older brother Treat, the provider for the family who goes out scavenging while regarding Philip as if a domestic pet, kept indoors by deceit and brute force. Treat’s outbursts of rage are terrifying and even when he is subdued and vulnerable, violence is simmering only just beneath the surface. We are left in no doubt that the fraternal relationship is built on mutual dependency, but the equilibrium is upset by the arrival of Harold, a gangster on the run from Chicago who is kidnapped for ransom by Treat. Mitchell Mullen’s Harold is both a kindly uncle and a ruthless thug. He sets his sights on taming Treat and releasing Philip, using a combination of hugs and gifts, Treat receives designer suits and Philip yellow loafers; he just manages to squeeze his feet into them and then beams as if he is Cinderella winning her Prince. The play’s unorthodoxy keeps us on our toes, but it is the fascinating detail in Kessler’s writing that is most absorbing. He merges American popular culture with an absurdist vision, creating a surreal world in which Errol Flynn, The Price is Right and Hellman’s mayonnaise are jumbled together. Yet his key themes are rooted firmly in reality – the right of all human beings to freedom and education, the need of all human beings for kinship and affection. There is often mayhem in the play, but Tomlinson keeps it well controlled and stages the comedy sequences with aplomb. The re-enactment of a reported incident on a bus involving Treat, with Philip standing in as a rude passenger, is an absolute riot. The production takes a little time to find its stride and its ending feels overcooked, but what lies between is crisp and assured, the rapid shifts in tone being judged to perfection. Orphans has had top class productions on Broadway, in the West End and across the World, but it seems a fair bet that this small revival on the London fringe could stand proudly alongside any of them.

Performance date: 12 February 2016



Round the Horne**** (Museum of Comedy)

Posted: February 12, 2016 in Theatre

Round the HorneThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

How bona to vada it’s back! In the mid-1960s, 16 million people would gather around their wireless sets (radios to youngsters) every Sunday lunchtime to listen to Round the Horne, a half hour comedy sketch show compered by Kenneth Horne and featuring Betty Marsden, Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams. The language of Polari sounded to most like nonsense, but it had been part of the gay subculture of the period and the show used it extensively, along with double entendres and innuendo, to disguise risqué topics. Audiences may have laughed because the words sounded weird or because they had an inkling of their real meaning, but, apart from the few who were outraged, they all laughed. For this stage version, Tim Ashley has taken original scripts by Barry Took and Marty Feldman and compiled them to make two lengthened episodes, performed as if in a 60s BBC studio, complete with a sound effects man (Conrad Segal) sitting in a corner. The show is now embarking on a 50th Anniversary (of the radio version) tour. For anyone not aware of the radio show, the best description could be a sound only equivalent to Little Britain, with familiar characters, catchphrases and variations on the same situations cropping up every week. The outrageous “folk” singer Rambling Syd Rumpo, the dirty old man J Peasemold Gruntfuttock (both Williams) and the ageing actors Dame Celia Molestrangler and Binkie Huckaback (Marsden and Paddick) all became household names and all can be seen here. Particularly daring in its day was the depiction of the unmistakably gay couple Julian (Paddick) and “my friend” Sandy (Williams). Times have changed and these characters are now just over-familiar stereotypes, but, in most other respects, the scripts remain as sharp and, yes, naughty as ever. Laugh-a-line gags and clever wordplay give them a timeless quality and they remain irresistibly funny. The often asked question is “how on Earth could they get away with it?” Modern theatre audiences seeing The Book of Mormon ask the same question and the answer in both cases is the same – when it is so obvious that there is no intention to offend anyone, no offence can be taken. The actors here show a lightness of touch that emphasises that the comedy is mischievous, but never malevolent. With one obvious exception, the radio performers were not prominent in visual media, so the actors here do not need to look like them. The important thing is that they all capture the essence of the originals. Julian Howard McDowell is Horne, the perennial straight (in all ways) man throwing in wry asides. Eve Winters and Jonathan Hansler are flamboyant and versatile as Marsden and Paddick and Nick Wymer perfects his BBC English as the pushy announcer Douglas Smith. Williams remains an iconic figure from radio, television and films, giving Colin Elmer the most difficult job in playing him. There is little physical resemblance, but he replicates the mannerisms, facial gestures and, most importantly, the voice brilliantly. He often gets the audience laughing before he has even reached the microphone. The show’s current home is in the Cooper (Tommy not Henry) Room at the Comedy Museum, where memorabilia from Britain’s comedy heritage is on permanent display. Round the Horne is an important part of that heritage, but this show proves that it is far more than a dormant exhibit. There is plenty of life in it and, although under-50s may wonder what a “thrupenny bit” is, young and old should still find it hilarious.

Performance date: 11 February 2016


Road Show**** (Union Theatre)

Posted: February 11, 2016 in Theatre

road showThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Having had its UK premiere at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2011, Stephen Sondheim’s last (to date) major show has moved no more than half a mile down the road for its revival, the first production to originate in this country. As with Assassins, a previous collaboration between Sondheim and writer John Weidman, Road Show digs deep into the American psyche for its inspiration. At the show’s heart lie the conflicts between dreams and reality, idealism and big business, decency and crookedness. These conflicts are embodied in two brothers who are opposites pulling in different directions to reach the same goals. The Sondheim/Weidman team tackle their themes wittily, showing us that, if the American Dream is ever reached, it will have become tarnished on the road towards it. Based on real-life characters, the story begins as the 19th century gives way to the 20th. Papa Meisner (Steve Watts) is dying and he urges his sons Addison (Howard Jenkins) and Wilson (Andre Refig) to take up his legacy. He sings It’s in Your Hands Now as he sets them off on the road to find the riches that the land of opportunities has in store. The road takes the artistic Addison to Alaska, Hawaii and Guatemala and the ruthless Wilson to bars, gambling dens and a loveless marriage to a rich widow. Their ultimate destination is Florida, where the brothers make their fortune establishing the city of Boca Raton, designed by Addison who has become a talented architect. They join up with with Hollis (Joshua LeClair), a rich kid with ambitions to set up a colony for artists. Florida is transformed, but it is Hollis who sees the corruption that underpins the dream, as profits are made from deceits driven by Wilson, to which Addison has become a knowing accomplice. In many senses, there is too much to see on the road that the show takes, leaving too little time for the characters or situations to develop fully. Phil Willmott’s production does not really solve this problem, nor does it present us with brothers with whom it is particularly easy to empathise. However, as with all Sondheim’s work, there are times when the show takes flight thanks to the quality of its songs and Willmott exploits such sequences to full advantage. Ranging from rousing show tunes to soft laments and taking in a little country, Sondheim provides a rich and distinctive score, here performed with the accompaniment of a three piece band under the direction of Richard Baker. Irony abounds in the lyrics and is used cleverly in Willmott’s production. Mama Meisner (Cathryn Sherman) praises the feckless Wilson, the son that she never sees, with Isn’t He Something. “Look at him glide” she sings while, on another part of the stage, Wilson dances alone and oblivious to everyone. Sondheim’s unique gift for capturing a universal truth in a single spine-tingling phrase and underscoring it with the perfect melody remains undiminished and is in evidence throughout. The musical highlight comes when the company celebrates the birth of modern Florida with You, intercutting with Addison and Hollis who are expressing their growing affection for each other. The song then merges into the haunting love ballad The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened, the only gay duet in the Sondheim canon. Road Show has a troubled history, it is uneven and it is never likely to take a place alongside Sondheim’s greatest works. Nonetheless, this revival is welcome for bringing out many of its fine qualities and spreading messages that need to be heard. When Sondheim tells us “there’s a road straight ahead, a century beginning”, neat touches in Willmott’s production emphasise that the opportunities and pitfalls of which he is writing are those of the 21st century just as much as the one before it.

Performance date 10 February 2016


Rabbit Hole*** (Hampstead Theatre)

Posted: February 10, 2016 in Theatre

rabbit hole

David Lindsay-Abaire’s feel for the pain of ordinary American families facing adversity was evident in Good People, a big hit for Hampstead Theatre a couple of years back. Then the adversity was unemployment; in this play, a Pulitzer Prize winner written earlier, it is bereavement. Although the ladies have a tendency to release their frustration by socking it to anyone who annoys them, none of them is quite the force of nature of the character depicted in Imelda Staunton’s barnstorming performance in Good People. Perhaps things would have been different had Allison Steadman taken the role of Nat (now played by Penny Downie), as originally planned, but, if so, it would not have fitted into Edward Hall’s measured, low-key production that leaves Hampstead audiences not getting quite what they may have expected. Becca (Claire Skinner) and Howie (Tom Goodman-Hill) have lost their 4-year-old son in an accident several months before, long enough ago for the wailing laments to have stopped, but well into the period when getting on with “normal” life is underway. Early light exchanges between Becca and her pregnant sister Izzy (Georgina Rich) hint that there is an elephant in the room, but the writer’s slow reveal technique keeps us waiting to find out what it is and to get to the point of the play. Becca wants to hide all reminders of her child, Howie wants to surround himself with memories; their different ways of grieving is becoming a wedge that is prising them apart. The sisters’ mother, Nat, has herself lost a son and had her own way of coping. Ashley Martin-Davis’ set of the couple’s house has distinct rooms into which Becca and Howie take refuge away from each other and the living room on the thrust part of the stage is enveloped by an audience that is allowed to eavesdrop on their private mourning. The production is at its best when understated, as in the deeply touching scene in which the college boy Jason (Sean Delaney), who had been involved in the accident,  confesses his (probably unfounded) feelings of guilt to Becca. So, no fireworks here. This is a truthful, gentle play telling us that there are no right or wrong ways to handle grief, only different ways.

Performance date: 9 February 2016

Weald***+ (Finborough Theatre)

Posted: February 5, 2016 in Theatre
David Crellin (Sam), Dan Parr (Jim). Snuffbox Theatre Company presents Weald by Daniel Foxsmith at the Finborough Theatre. Director: Bryony Shanahan. Lighting: Seth Rook Williams. Photo (c) Alex Brenner, credit mandatory.

Photo (c) Alex Brenner

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

The role of men in a world in which the gender balance has shifted and pressures of life have increased is the underlying theme of Daniel Foxsmith’s new one-act play, taking the perspectives of two generations. The play’s rural setting represents a simpler lifestyle that allows basic priorities to be brought into clearer focus. Jim returns from London to the remote livery yard that he left as a teenager six years earlier. He needs a job from its owner Samuel, but, much more than that, he needs to re- establish the bond that existed between them, as he combats depression and searches for a sense of purpose in his life. He needs to find his “home”. The first third of this two-hander is taken up with cross-generational taunting that sounds tired and over familiar. At this stage, director Bryony Shanahan needs to harness Dan Parr’s high energy as Jim, a very youthful 25-year-old, to give some zest to her production. But first Jim opens out and then Samuel to give the play a fresh momentum and two superb performances carry it along from there, movingly and with ease. Jim is buckling under the challenges of adulthood, seeking refuge in his past life. He feels the strong pulls of continuity and legacy and agonises over whether he should yield to them or resist, seeing Samuel as a substitute father who is, seemingly, a pillar of stability and wisdom. However, David Crellin’s world-weary Samuel is facing his own crises. He has a keen interest in military history, a penchant for quoting Shakespeare, Marlowe and Oliver Cromwell and he reflects on the simple lives of the horses in his care, where the burdens of responsibilities, choices and regrets play no part. On a thrust stage, Christopher Hone’s wooden set gives pride of place to a darts board, a prized symbol of masculinity. The production is lit beautifully by Seth Rook Williams, giving a melancholic feel to moments of tenderness and sharpness to simulated activity with the horses and to dramatic clashes. Gentle and low-key for the most part, the play gains harshness and fire as it reaches its climax, Foxsmith’s writing having become increasingly thoughtful and perceptive. Jim looks to Samuel for guidance, but we are left with a sense that it is just as much he young, moving forwards and making discoveries, who are leading the old.

Performance date: 4 February 2016


Rolling Stone-101_thumb

Religious zealots are on the loose in Uganda again, but all similarities with The Book of Mormon end there. Chris Urch’s second play (I reviewed his first, Land of Our Fathers, here in September 2013) is an account of a community turning in on itself in pursuit of an unstoppable witch hunt and, as such, it invites comparisons with Arthur Miller’s masterpiece The Crucible. It is far from shamed by such comparisons, revealing itself to be a work of astonishing assurance, a blistering indictment of bigotry and hypocrisy. Urch concerns himself less with the doomed romance between the young Ugandan man Dembe (Fiston Barek) and the visiting Irish doctor Sam (Julian Moore-Cook) than with explaining a society in which prejudice becomes rooted and with showing how fascist movements grow in the fertile soil of distorted interpretations of a religion. Dembe’s older brother Joe (Sule Rimi) is a new Pastor, made to preach fiery homophobic rhetoric to reinforce his own tenuous position; his torn loyalties and those of his sister Naome (Faith Alabi) are heartbreaking. The touch paper is lit by their self-righteous neighbour (Jo Martin), a linchpin of the church whose own daughter (Faith Omoli) has already been struck dumb following a trauma caused by her zealotry. Urch’s writing is angry and occasionally brutal, as in Joe’s sermon, but also tender and compassionate, most notably when Dembe gives his interpretation of love to his sister. The flirtation between Dembe and Sam is playful, funny and moving – the innocent African who underestimates the power of reprisals that he faces meeting the more worldly European who overlooks the fact that Western liberal attitudes now stand for nothing. Ellen McDougall’s production, which comes from the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, turns the Orange Tree’s in-the-round stage into a caldron – a square platform lies at the centre and copies of The Rolling Stone “newspaper”, emblazoned with the banner headline “Hang ’em High”, lie scattered around to emphasise the extent of the forces conspiring to persecute Dembe and others who do not fit into Uganda’s “God-fearing” society. The acting is exemplary, but Barek, holding centre stage almost throughout, is truly outstanding, love-struck and terror-stuck with equal conviction. This is a production to savour and remember.

Performance date: 3 February 2016